Essay / Theology

Trinity in Old and New Testament (Vos)

Gerhardus Vos (1862-1949), best known for his biblical theology, also wrote a systematic theology. In 1896 he brought out a Reformed Dogmatics in Dutch that is now being published in English by Logos. I was struck recently by his deft handling of the question whether the doctrine of the Trinity is revealed in the Old Testament.

The whole Dogmatics is in question-and-answer format, with the questions themselves very carefully crafted. Vos approaches this subject with the complex question, “Why must we not seek a decisive proof for the Trinity in the Old Testament?” Stated didactically, that could be unfolded as “Now students, we must not seek a decisive proof for the Trinity in the Old Testament. And why not?”

Great question, professor Vos! Why mustn’t we? Well, class, there are three good reasons:

a) Because Old Testament revelation was not finished but only preparatory. The perfect comes only at the end.

b) Under the Old Testament’s dispensation the concept of the oneness of God had to be deeply impressed upon Israel’s consciousness in the face of all polytheistic inclinations.

c) We must not imagine that the Old Testament saints were able to read in the Old Testament everything that we can read there in the light of the New. Yet, what we read in it is clearly the purpose of the Holy Spirit, for He had the Scripture of the Old Testament written not only for then but also for now.

Answer (a) deploys Vos’ strong doctrine of progressive revelation and high view of what is groundbreakingly novel in the New Testament manifestation of Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Answer (b) appeals to the background in which the Old Testament revelation took place (the polytheistic Ancient Near East). But it may also indicate the logical order of the Christian doctrine of God: De Deo Uno followed by De Deo Trino. Read from cover to cover, the Bible yields a monotheism that becomes trinitarian, not an initial threeness that becomes unified.

Answer (c) gives the Christian reader permission to find trinitarian theology in the Old Testament, without claiming that such a theology could have been read from the same texts before the advent of Christ and the Spirit. Answer (c) is the tricky one, because it attempts to do justice to the Old Testament’s character as, in the words of B. B. Warfield, “a chamber richly furnished but dimly lit.” All the trinitarian furniture was in there the whole time, but the lights weren’t on until the finished revelation (which brings us back to answer (a)).

What is some of the trinitarian theology that can be found in the Old Testament by those who read it with the advantage of its fulfillment in Christ? That is exactly the question Vos takes up next, in the form: “Which traces of the doctrine of the Trinity can we nevertheless discover in the Old Testament?” He answers with a list of nine features of the Old Testament teaching about God that contain “traces” of the Trinity:

a) The distinction between the names Elohim and Yahweh

b) The plural form of this name Elohim

c) The concept of the angel of the Lord

d) The concept of Chokma, “wisdom”

e) The concept of the Lord’s “word”

f) The doctrine of the Spirit of God in the Old Testament

g) Old Testament passages in which God speaks of Himself in the plural

h) Old Testament passages where more than one person is expressly named

i) Passages that speak of three persons

Readers eager to find traces of the Trinity in the Old Testament have, in this list, a pretty full set of instruments with which to carry out their investigations. But they should keep steadily in mind Vos’ starting point: We should not expect to find a decisive proof for the Trinity in the Old Testament, even with this equipment in hand.



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