Contra Mundum Essay Collection: Thomas Schirrmacher

Trinity in the Old Testament and Dialogue with Jews and Muslims

by Dr. Thomas Schirrmacher

Calvinism Today 1991

The problem

The example of Indonesia

The state philosophy of Indonesia called 'Pancasila' consists of 'five pillars', which every Indonesian has to believe in. The first pillar simply states: We believe in one God. So officially monotheism is the state religion of Indonesia. The constitution of Indonesia is specific which religions can claim to fulfill this first and basic law of Indonesia: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism and Hindu-Buddhism. For this reason all other religious groups have had to change their religious affiliations and thousands of tribal groups and villages have 'converted' to Islam or Christianity, preferring the latter, because they could keep their pigs. The largest Muslim country in the world has monotheism, not Islam, as its state religion[1]. Many evangelicals - nationals as well as missionaries - are in favour of this state philosophy and fight for it in Indonesia as well as on conferences abroad. Does it not give them at least officially freedom of religion? Does it not help to fight communism, atheism and animism? Is it not good that people know that they have to have a religion? And would the other choice - an Islamic state - be better?

Even if we were to accept this, we would have to ask, why the same evangelicals do not mention that Hindu-Buddhism is accepted as the fourth 'monotheistic' religion? Why do they not mention that most of the Muslims including the President, actually follow the Javanic Kebatinan-mysticism as their everyday religion - this probably being the main reason why they do not plead for an orthodox Islamic state[2]?

But even if we do assume that only Islam and the two Christian confessions were accepted in Indonesia, the attitude of these evangelicals reveals the confusion about monotheism and Trinity. They feel that all monotheistic religions have something in common.

The Jews: a second people of God?

While most evangelicals in Indonesia would hold that the other monotheistic religions nevertheless do not believe in the same God as they do, the picture becomes even more complicated when we turn to the Christian attitude to Jewish monotheism. Most Christians hold that the Jews believe in the right God, but that something is missing to complete their religion and bring it to the standard of Christianity. In Germany two groups fight for accepting the Jews as a second people of God, believing in the same biblical God as the Christians. So argue the liberals engaged in dialogue. The Rhenish state church synod decided that Jews do not need to become Christians to be accepted by God. On the other side the Dispensationalists - most of them belonging to some state church, while fewer belong to the brethren churches, where Dispensationalism originated - would not got so far to say that the Jews need no conversion, but still think that the Jews believe in the right God and only need a revelation of the Messiah at the end of time. They are right that Yahweh still is the God of Israel (Rom 11), but this does not automatically mean that all Jews pray to him today. Some of them even fight Christian mission work among Jews. Most of these liberals and Dispensationalists have therefore no problems to send Christian workers to Israel, although they are forbidden by the law of Israel to convert Jews. They just engage in so called social work and in dialogue and do not convert Jews. (Dispensationalists with a Calvinistic soteriology will see this differently.)

Trinity in the Old Testament

Monotheism and Trinity

The whole confusion concerns the relation of monotheism to Trinity. Ask Christians in Germany what they lose when they lose the doctrine of the Trinity. They know they will have problems to explain the role of Jesus and few of them even with the role of the Holy Spirit. But most pastors of German churches will admit that their church members are not able to explain the Trinity to an ordinary Jehovah's Witness. And the pastors themselves? Trinity at least is rarely preached about, as questionnaires have shown. Both sides are missing: The biblical foundation of Trinity and the implications of Trinity.

The German word 'Dreieinigkeit' (three-oneness, triunity) shows very well that Trinity has two enemies: the 'one' stands against polytheism, the 'three' against monistic monotheism. Polytheism will vitiate biblical faith as much as non-trinitarian monotheism.

Trinity in the New Testament

I do not want to repeat the New Testament evidence for the Trinity here. Following hermeneutical logic we simply need to prove that Father, Son and Spirit are God and that there is only one God, Creator, Judge and Saviour alike.

But there is one question regarding the biblical foundations of Trinity that brings the whole problem more into focus than any other: Is the Trinity found in the Old Testament? Is the Trinity a New Testament addition to Old Testament monotheism? Or, if we believe that the Trinity existed in Old Testament times, because the New Testament says so, was the Trinity at least a new revelation in the New Testament? Could it be that Jews or even other monotheists are in the state of Old Testament believers and just need to hear about the fulfilment of their monotheism in New Testament Trinity?

Trinity and the Jews in Jesus' times

Before we turn to the Old Testament, let us look at the attitude of Jesus towards Jews who did not believe in him. Did He say that they still believe in the God of the Old Testament?[3]

There can be no doubt about it: rejecting Jesus meant rejecting God. Two examples from the Gospel of John may be enough evidence. In both cases the Jews tried to kill Jesus and the text gives the reason for their hatred. The first is found in John 8:37-59. The Jews state their monotheism especially in v. 41: "we have one Father, God". Jesus' answer follows immediately: "If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and came from God. I did not come of Myself, instead He send Me" (v. 42). In vv. 54-55 Jesus says: "It is My Father that honours Me, of whom you say that He is your God. Yet you have not known Him ... but I know Him". He claims that Abraham rejoiced about the days of Jesus and the that He was, before Abraham ever lived (vv. 56-58). Against the Jewish "Abraham is our father" (v. 39) Jesus claims: "you are of your father, the devil" (v. 44).

In John 5:17-47 Jesus proclaims His divine Sonship. The Jews understood that Jesus made himself "equal with God" (v. 18). Within His long statement about the relationship between Father and Son Jesus says: "He who does not honour the Son, does not honour the Father who sent Him" (v. 23). Later He states: "And you do not have His word abiding in you, because whom He sent, Him you do not believe" (v. 38). Jesus immediately connects this with their understanding of the Old Testament: "You search the Scripture, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they that testify of Me" (v. 39). And finally He brings the whole question down to Moses, the lawgiver: "Do not think that I shall accuse you to the Father; there is one who accuses you: Moses, in whom you put your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote about Me" (v. 45-46). In Luke 24:43-49 he states similarly that the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms speak about him.

Just compare the opposite example. People like Simeon, Hannah, John the Baptist or His disciples were Jews believing in the Yahweh of the Old Testament. Proof? They accepted Jesus as Messiah as soon as they met him for the first time, some of them even when he was still a baby.

The New Testament frequently states that the Old Testament taught and believed in the second person of the Trinity. John says in John 12:41 that Isaiah saw Jesus on the throne (Isa 6) and Paul believed that Jesus was with Israel in the desert (1Cor 4, 10), just to name some examples.

Trinity in the Old Testament

Now the dogma of the Trinity and of the divine and human nature of Jesus is so interwoven (see e.g. Rom 1:1-4) that proving the existence of Jesus and of the Trinity in the Old Testament is more or less the same.

The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament

Let us start with the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. The Spirit of God has several names in the New Testament. Nearly all of them come from the Old Testament. How can Christians defend the Holy Spirit as the third person of the Trinity in the New Testament and have doubts whether the Spirit in the Old Testament is a person or just the power of God? Can anyone find a difference between the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament and in the New Testament? In Old Testament and New Testament the Spirit inspires the writers of the Bible, reveals God and His message, gives life, gives the spiritual gifts and sends the Messiah together with God the Father (Isa 48:16; v. 12 proves that Jesus is speaking). When Jesus claimed that the Spirit of Yahweh is on him (Luke 4:18) he did it by quoting Isa 61:1f. The Holy Spirit is God in the Old Testament, but there is only one God in the Old Testament. You will not find a much better argument from the New Testament.

Jesus in the Old Testament

Only liberal Christians will doubt that Jesus was promised in the Old Testament. But most books on 'Jesus in the Old Testament' deal with those promises and totally neglect the 'real Jesus' in the Old Testament. Did Jesus act in the Old Testament? Was He part of what the believing Jews believed? Was He promised to act for the first time in history or was He acting in history already and only promised as the Messiah and God coming in the flesh? We have already quoted examples from the New Testament stating that Jesus was active in the Old Testament. But even Christians who accept this, often underestimate its importance. Perhaps one reason is that the personal name of the incarnate God, 'Jesus', is not used in the Old Testament, although the Hebrew equivalent 'Yeshua', meaning 'salvation', is very often used as a personal name for the Messiah, the salvation of the world (e.g. Gen 49:18; Pss 9:14, 91:14-16; Isa 12:2-3, 62:11; Hab 3:13; compare Mat 1:21; Luke 2:29-30).

According to the New Testament, nobody ever saw or heard God the Father (Mat 11:27; John 1:18, 5:37, 6:46; 1Tim 6:16; 1John 4:12). But in all places where this is stated, it is stated in the same moment that Jesus is the only revelation of God. Is this only true for the New Testament? Or take the question the other way round: If no man, including Old Testament men, ever saw or heard God, who else did the Old Testament saints see and hear? From the New Testament the only answer can be that the revelation came through the Holy Spirit in Jesus Christ. Now we understand, why John says that Isaiah saw Jesus on the throne. Isaiah saw "the glory of God", one of the names of Jesus in the Old Testament (cf. John 1:14).

Until the beginning of German higher criticism the church believed for example with nearly no exception that the famous 'Angel of Yahweh' was a preincarnation revelation of God[4]. Moses saw "the Angel of Yahweh" in the burning bush (Exod 3:2), but the story goes on telling us what "Yahweh" said (Exod 3:3-22) and Moses knew that he was speaking with God. The Angel of Yahweh speaks not only in the name of Yahweh, but acts like Yahweh even accepting burnt offerings which no other angel ever would have done. He forgives sins and makes salvation and judgement dependent on him. Finally he talks to Yahweh himself while accepting the honour man give him as God. Jesus thus is Yahweh-God, but not Yahweh-Father!

In Josh meets "the commander of the army of Yahweh" (vv. 14-15). What does Joshua do? He falls on his face and has to take off his shoes like Moses. The name of this commander is better known as "Zebaoth", the "Lord of the heavenly armies". Who is the chief commander of the army of Yahweh bringing judgement to the wicked and salvation to the believers? No other than the second person of the Trinity. The Father gave judgement and salvation to the Son - not only in New Testament times but from eternity to eternity including Old Testament times.

We could go on with other names and titles of the second person of the Trinity. But if you only accept "the Glory of God", "Yeshua", "the Angel of Yahweh" and "Zebaoth" as titles and names of Jesus in the Old Testament, you already have hundreds of examples showing that Jesus was not just there, but played the major role of history, as He does in the New Testament.

The Father in the Old Testament

After finding the Spirit and the Son in the Old Testament, we ask: Is the Father acting in the Old Testament? Of course, most Christians would say. But is He only there as God in general or is He there as one of the persons of the Trinity? Is He already known as "Father" or is this a new quality or at least a new revelation in the New Testament? If we accept Jesus and the Spirit in the Old Testament, we have already accepted the Father also. Who is sending them both? To whom do they talk, if not to the father?

The Old Testament confession

We could go further into details but space does not permit me to write a complete 'theology' here. We could go on to discuss the famous "we" in the creation account (Gen 1:26), which is surely referring to God alone (see the "we" Gen 3:22) or the plural name of God "Elohim". But we only want to take a deeper look at the confession of Israel in Deut 6:4: "Hear Israel, the Lord our God is one God". Some translations say "is God alone". But the word "one" does not have this meaning[5]. (The word for "alone" is 'yachid') This confession is not mainly directed against having several gods. The word 'echad' "is a compound unity noun - that is to say, a noun which demonstrates oneness or unity, but at the same time contains several entities"[6] (see Gen 1:5, 2:24; Num 13:23; Ezra 2:64; Jer 32:38-39). In German we can translate "ist ein einiger Gott" (is a God being one). I believe that this confession is a confession against monistic monotheism! God is one consisting of several. Was this confession necessary? Was there ever a danger that Israel thought that Yahweh was two Gods? Yes. If you see them worshipping the Angel of Yahweh, the commander of Gods army, and listening to the voice out of the cloud of glory etc., it was necessary to reaffirm that this was not the result of polytheism, but of triunity.

Ethics and trinitarian monotheism versus monistic monotheism

Now let us return to the question of Jewish and Islamic monotheism. Can a monotheist believe in the God of the Bible while neglecting Jesus? No, the second and third persons of the Trinity are not just additions to God, they are God from eternity to eternity. Isn't it strange that those religions and states - Jewish and Islamic - that fight Jesus Christ the most are claimed to be half way to the biblical God, that governments that persecute Christians in the name of monotheistic religions still may be partners in fighting atheism?

When Christians favour dialogue with Jews, Muslims or other monotheists they only can do so because of their low view of the Trinity. One who really believes in the Trinity can never accept that Jews and Muslims somehow believe in the same God.

The low view of Trinity is also the reason why many Christians cannot see the great gulf between the God of the Bible and the God of the Jews and the Muslims.

God and communication

In the Bible everything good comes from the Trinity. Because the members of the Trinity speak to each other and Jesus is the Word, we can talk to each other. Because the persons of the Trinity do not live for themselves, but live for each other, men can be told to do the same. Because the persons of the Trinity discuss which each other, not deciding things totally alone is a biblical principle. In the Trinity, obedience exists without any force: love and law are identical. Communication, love, honouring each other and working to a goal outside of ourselves come from the Trinity. But the Trinity existed, before the world was created. So loving, talking, helping, listening and being obedient exist eternally. God does not need men to exist or to be good.

God and trust

For the Jews and the Muslims this is different. Of course God existed before the world was created. But he only can love creation. Both religions only can speak about how God deals with creation. Christians have the revelation about how God deals with himself. Therefore the Jews and Muslims only know actions of God with no proof that God cannot deal otherwise. The Bible does not only reveal what God does, but what He is from eternity to eternity. And therefore only Christianity can speak of trusting in God in the fullest sense and preach assurance of salvation. That God does never change is a message that cannot be proclaimed without Trinity. Why do Muslims still ask Allah daily that he may accept Mohammed? If even Mohammed does not know how God will deal with him in the end, who else may know it? When the direction for prayer was changed from Jerusalem to Mecca, the Koran (2,143-144) tells us, Allah told Mohammed that the old direction was wrong, but that he first told this direction to prove now, who would be obedient to the prophet[7]. Allah even lies to unbelievers to judge them[8].

The God of Islam is above all creation and has the right to change what he said and to act opposite to what he promised. The God of the Bible is above all creation too and has the right to do whatever he wants. But he cannot change and cannot lie, because he is a Trinity and he cannot change His being.

God and work

Take a last example. In the Trinity the persons work for each other. In and after the creation, God works for the creation. If He would not work for us, we could not work at all. In the Ten Commandments Gods work is the reason for our duty to work (Exod 9-11, 20). Therefore work is nothing dirty or bad. The higher you get, the more work you have to do. The mighty apostle Paul worked more than anything else () - just in opposition to the pope at the time of the reformation, whom Luther admonished to work for the church and not to be lazy with eating, drinking etc.

But if you have no Trinity, you have no God working before creation existed. The Christian attitude that more responsibility brings more work, will change into the humanistic and tyrannical attitude that low people work for high people in order that they do not need to work[9].

Implications like this are all too often neglected by Christians in favour of a cooperation of monotheistic religion. The less important the Trinity and its theological and ethical implications are to Christians, the more they will be interested in a monotheistic cooperation. So dialogue with Jews and Muslims is today possible not because those religions changed, but because of the changes among Christians who do not understand the Trinity. And this is because German higher criticism more than anyone else has vitiated theology and ethics and especially the confidence in the Old Testament.

Copyright © 1991 Dr. Thomas Shirrmacher


[1] See in detail my article "Religion ist Pflicht in Indonesien", idea-Spektrum 21.10.1981

[2] See in detail my article "Javanische Mystik", Factum 10/1987: 3-5

[3] That there were Jews who believed in Jesus and His Father as their God, is out question, but this does not prove that all Jews believed in the God of the Old Testament.

[4] See e.g. the discussion in Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenbergs Christology of the Old Testament (newly reprinted)


[6] Stanley Rosenthal, "The Tri-Unity of God in the Old Testament", The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, Collingswood, USA, 1978, p. 4-5 (especially the examples 5-6)

[7] The change took place, when Mohammed started to fight Jewish religion, see our book Mohammed: Prophet aus der Wü-ste, 2nd ed., Schwengeler Verlag, Berneck, 1986, p. 53-54

[8] ditto

[9] See the chapter on the ethics of work in my book Marxismus - Opium für das Volk?, Schwengeler Verlag, Berneck, 1990

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