The Holy Trinity in the Old Testament
Is the doctrine of the Holy Spirit taught in the Old Testament? The following outline is essentially a summary of the first chapter of Robert Letham’s outstanding book, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship.
Only One True God
An important place to start is the uncompromising monotheism throughout the Old Testament, which is the teaching that there is only one, true God. The Old Testament “rams home” the truth of the unity of God from the opening pages of Genesis to the last words of the prophet Malachi. The LORD is God, and there is no other. This is an essential point to make, because in breathing out the Old Testament, the Lord has left absolutely no room for the idea of polytheism, or the belief in many gods.
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Deuteronomy 6:4-5
Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Who is like me? Let him proclaim it. Let him declare and set it before me, since I appointed an ancient people. Let them declare what is to come, and what will happen. Fear not, nor be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? And you are my witnesses! Is there a God besides me? There is no Rock; I know not any.” Isaiah 44:6-8
Hints of Plurality within the One True God
With the unity of God established, there are at the same time hints throughout the OT that, within this one-and-only true God, there exists a plurality. Consider these passages in which God seems to be having a conversation within Himself:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” Genesis 1:26
Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Genesis 3:22
And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” Genesis 11:6-7
Theophanies: God Appearing as a Man
There are a handful of mysterious events described in the Old Testament in which God is said to appear to men in the form of a man. As we consider the Trinity in the Old Testament, the most important of these “theophanies,” as they are called, is the encounter between God and Abraham in Genesis 18. Here, God is said to appear to Abraham, but in the form of three men. Though we may not be able to understand exactly what is taking place here, as Robert Letham says, “The point is that the one God presents Himself in a way that poses questions.” (Letham, 24)
And the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant.” Genesis 18:1-3
The “Angel of the Lord”
Consider also the numerous passages that speak of the “Angel of the Lord,” who speaks as though He is God, is addressed by others as God, and who sometimes receives the worship of God without issuing rebuke. Here are three examples:
When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the LORD. Now I have come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, “What does my lord say to his servant?” And the commander of the LORD’s army said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so. Joshua 5:13-15
Now the angel of the LORD went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” Judges 2:1-3
The angel of the LORD appeared no more to Manoah and to his wife. Then Manoah knew that he was the angel of the LORD. And Manoah said to his wife, “We shall surely die, for we have seen God.” Judges 13:21-22
The Word, Wisdom, and Spirit of God
Finally, there are numerous passages which speak of the Wisdom of God, the Word of God, and the Spirit of God. Often, the Bible speaks of the Word, Wisdom and Spirit of God not in abstract terms, but in personal language, as though they were separate persons with their own identities. Here are just a few examples:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Genesis 1:1-3
For the word of the LORD is upright, and all his work is done in faithfulness. He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the LORD. By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host. He gathers the waters of the sea as a heap; he puts the deeps in storehouses. Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him! For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm. Psalm 33:4-9
“The LORD possessed me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth, before he had made the earth with its fields, or the first of the dust of the world. When he established the heavens, I was there; when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man. Proverbs 8:22-31
But they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit; therefore he turned to be their enemy, and himself fought against them. Then he remembered the days of old, of Moses and his people. Where is he who brought them up out of the sea with the shepherds of his flock? Where is he who put in the midst of them his Holy Spirit, who caused his glorious arm to go at the right hand of Moses, who divided the waters before them to make for himself an everlasting name, who led them through the depths? Like a horse in the desert, they did not stumble. Like livestock that go down into the valley, the Spirit of the LORD gave them rest. So you led your people, to make for yourself a glorious name. Isaiah 63:10-14
Promises of the Coming Messiah
Perhaps the most famous passages that hint at plurality within the One, True God are those promises of a coming Messiah who would come to save God’s people. At times this Messiah is described in strictly human terms as a descendant of David. But at other times, as in the examples below, He is identified with God himself:
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. Micah 5:2
Does this collection of Old Testament passages present a coherent doctrine of the Trinity? No. No one reading the Old Testament by itself would be able to arrive at the fully-developed doctrine of the Trinity. This statement is no slight on the Old Testament; the Triune God presents Himself in misty fashion in the OT by design. It is not until the fullness of time that the Triune God reveals himself most fully, speaking not in shadowy figures by his prophets but fully and finally by His Son. (Heb 1:1-2 ,cf John 1:14) It is not until the Word of the Father takes on flesh and dwells among us that the doctrine of the Trinity is brought into dazzling light.
But looking back at these Old Testament passages on this side of the Empty Tomb and the day of Pentecost, we can easily see how the way God was revealing himself in the OT was preparing the hearts and minds of his people for the revelation of the Trinity in the NT. When Christ comes and reveals the Father, suddenly the questions about God’s unity and plurality that were raised by the passages above, are answered. Now, we are able to look back on all the passages in the Old Testament that speak to us about the Lord God with the knowledge that these texts are speaking about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.