One of the more popular arguments against the Trinity from Unitarians and Oneness Pentecostals is the argument that God must not be a Trinity because of all the singular personal pronouns that are used to refer to God in the Scriptures, especially the Old Testament. Does this argument prove the Trinity false? Let’s examine it.
The form of the argument shifts a little depending on the circumstance, but it basically goes like this: Singular personal pronouns are used of singular persons. When God is called “he” and “him”, it indicates there is one person, not some other number, there. These pronouns are used thousands and thousands of times in the Scriptures of God with no indication of multiple persons in God. Since God is referred to as a single person with these pronouns, we should conclude God is only one Person and the Trinity is false.
I’m going to look at this argument from several angles to see how it fairs.
Not a Biblical Argument
Non-Trinitarians are fond of claiming that the Trinity isn’t found in Scripture. Trinitarians have corrected this misunderstanding by pointing out that the Trinity is built on simple, biblical pillars. The fact that Scripture teaches the individual truths that there is One God, that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are identified as the One God, and that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct Persons, is enough to establish the Trinity. The fact that there isn’t one passage that draws all of these things together to explain them in detail is no evidence that these truths aren’t in the Bible.
Non-Trinitarians, however, like to insist that such a passage must be in the Bible for the Trinity to be true. This insistence, however, backfires when they use an argument like the pronoun arguemnt. The question I would ask is, where does Scripture argue, or even affirm that, if a singular personal pronoun is used of God, then God must only consist of one person? Scripture never affirms this, yet it is a necessary premise the non-Trinitarian depends on. And that would be bad in itself, but it is even worse when they insist on a level of evidence for the Trinity that their own argument cannot satisfy.
The fact that the Bible generally uses a certain kind of pronoun with reference to God doesn’t prove anything about the nature of God without some indication, from the Scriptures, that such pronoun use is intended to communicate what they say it does. No such indication exists.
There Are Exceptions
Another favorite tactic of the non-Trinitarian when facing a Scriptural argument from a Trinitarian for some Trinitarian truth is to look around Scripture for a similar Scriptural construction that can be interpreted differently than the Trinitarian is interpreting the passage at hand in order to try to undermine it. I call this the word-study defense. A common example is to counter the Trinitarian argument that worship is reserved to God, and Jesus is worshiped, therefore must be God. This is countered by looking for the term that is translated “worship” in other contexts where it isn’t directed to God. I’ve addressed this type of argument before, but once again, this tactic can then be brought to bear on the personal pronoun argument, causing it to backfire again.
The fact is, there are many places where singular pronouns are used of groups of people, disproving the premise that singular pronouns must refer to a single person. I cited these texts in another article, but it is worth making reference to them again. I’ve highlighted and made note of the singular pronouns.
But you (singular), Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you (singular), the offspring of Abraham my friend
Therefore rain showers have been withheld, and the spring rain has not come. Yet you (singular) have the forehead of a woman prostitute, you (singular) refuse to be ashamed.
Then Yahweh said to me in the days of Josiah, the king, “Have you seen what apostate Israel has done? She (singular) has gone on every high hill and under every leafy tree and she (singular) has prostituted herself (singular) there.
The fact that singular pronouns are used of groups of people certainly disproves any hard linguistic rule that “singular pronouns must refer to a singular person”. This premise is simply false. So, not only is the argument from pronouns undermined, this is also an example that undermines the popular word-study defense they often use, since it can be easily employed against their own argument.
Thousands of Times…
But, they say, the singular pronoun is used “thousands of times” of God. Surely this must indicate a singular person, they say. Well, this is now a modified version of the argument. Sadly, it is at this point where you see the dishonesty of many who use this argument. Sometimes a non-Trinitarian will volunteer some version of the premise, “singular pronouns prove a singular person”. This is most of the time. If you come across someone making the pronoun argument, you might ask them if they believe this premise. Most will say they do. When you show that the Bible contains examples that flatly prove the premise wrong, the tactic is to retreat into the word count, saying that the singular is used of God “thousands of times”.
The reason this is dishonest is that, in most cases, the non-Trinitarian is perfectly aware these passages exist, but argue on the assumption that the person they are speaking with is not aware of them. Why would any honest person continue to promote an argument they know the Scriptures contradict? I can’t think of any reason that lets that person stay honest.
But what of the modified argument; removing the premise, and just arguing that the sheer number of times a pronoun is (allegedly) used one way proves it must mean what they say with reference to God? Well, aside from the fact that such an argument is much weaker, it also turns out to backfire. The problem is that one cannot build any kind of coherent rule or method of interpretation from the number of times Scripture uses a word or phrase. For this argument to work, we would need a rule that says something like, “If Scripture uses a word or phrase one way more often than it uses that word or phrase another way, the way it uses it more wins.”
You can immediately see problems with this, without even getting into examples from Scripture. What does it mean to “win” in this rule? And if you don’t like that word, pick your own. It doesn’t matter what word you pick. If you are building theology on the basis of counting word occurrances at all, you run into real problems. What exactly does the higher count prove? Does it prove that when a word is used differently than the majority of the time, we should insist on the meaning it has in the majority? That would be completely silly here, since it would mean that Israel is literally one person. That is an absurd, impossible conclusion. But if it doesn’t mean that, what does it mean?
Another problem is that this is, again, an unbiblical method. No one in Scripture ever argues from the number of occurrences of any word or phrase. They consistently argue from single passage citations to make their points. They might include several passages in an argument, but never do they do a word count and claim this proves any theological point.
Still another problem is that, since this isn’t a biblical rule of interpretation, trying to make it one leads to absurd conclusions. You could easily look for anything the Scripture says in one way more than another to prove that the way it speaks less is, therefore, wrong. It really pits Scripture against Scripture. You may have heard people talk about how Jesus talks more about money than heaven, or more about hell than love. Does this mean that the teaching on money or hell supersede and override whatever He said about heaven or love? Of course not. There are multiple reasons for different word counts for different words, phrases, or topics, and not one of them is the least bit relevant to the actual meanings of any passage in Scripture.
Finally, aside from the absurdities that come from arguing from the counting of words, the argument is a double-edged sword that, if used by the non-Trinitarian, can just as easily be used by the Trinitarian to prove the Deity of Christ, putting the non-Trinitarian in the dilemma of either accepting the Trinitarian’s argumentation or rejecting his own.
For an example, Rob Bowman recently posted a book review on his blog discussing a book called “Jesus the Divine Bridegroom”. The main argument from the book is that Jesus is consistently called the Bridegroom in the New Testament, and even in Mark. In the Old Testament, almost completely without exception, the Bridegroom or Husband metaphor is used of God Himself in relation to Israel. There is no clear statement that the prophesied Messiah would take on that role. Bowman points out, as does Michael Tait, the author of the book, that Psalm 45, a kingly coronation Psalm, presents one possible, partial exception to this rule.
Now, under normal interpretive rules, we would say that this pattern in Scripture is very telling regarding the divine status of the bridegroom, but perhaps not utterly conclusive. For the non-Trinitarian, however, who insists that whatever description has the higher number of occurrences must override the one with less, the conclusion absolutely must be that the bridegroom is a divine title, since it belongs to God exclusively in the Old Testament, with only one possible, ambiguous reference applying it to the Messiah. After all, we are told, one unclear passage cannot override the many clear passages, right?
Of course, since acknowledging that Jesus being called the Bridegroom as evidence for the Trinity cannot be done by the non-Trinitarian, they will change interpretive tactics at this point and stop telling us to count words. For the non-Trinitarian, there are different sets of interpretive guidelines for handling texts they see as supportive of their position versus those that they see as a challenge to their position. This inconsistency shows, again, why this argument just doesn’t work. It is based on a double-standard. It cannot be based on any consistent interpretive method.
Doesn’t Actually Challenge the Trinity
Let’s give the benefit of the doubt to virtually everything about the argument. Singular pronouns indicate a singular person. The thousands of singular pronouns show that the author intended to be discussing a singular person every time it is used. Even allowing for all of that, this argument doesn’t actually come against the Trinity at all.
What the argument ostensibly challenges is the idea of a multipersonal God. If God is multipersonal, the text should read “they”, not “he”. This is where we see why it doesn’t challenge the Trinity. The requirement of plural pronouns is not one found in Scripture or believed by Trinitarians. It is a premise necessary for the argument to go through, yet it is rejected by those who believe in the Trinity. Trinitarians have several consistent understandings of why the pronouns are singular that are perfectly consistent with the Trinity.
First, due to the fact that the Old Testament is incomplete in its revelation, presenting types and shadows of what is revealed later, often with no indication in the Old Testament text that this is happening, we cannot assume the full meaning of anything is contained in any Old Testament text. So, if the tripersonal nature of God was to be a later revelation, there is nothing wrong with using singular pronouns to refer to the singular God, even if that God exists in a multipersonal way.
Second, there is nothing in Trinitarian theology that says that the persons cannot be considered, in some respect, to act and be regarded as one person. Unitarians like to argue that Jesus, as a representative of God, can be regarded as God and even called God. If that is true, then they should have no objection that the three Persons in the one God can be regarded as one in Scripture, even though, in another sense there certainly are more than one Person.
Third, it is also possible to consider many, if not almost all, of the singular pronouns to just refer to one or another of the Persons at any given time. Which one is referred to would not be something that needed to be revealed at the time, since the full revelation of Trinitarian truths was yet future, but with almost no exceptions, a Trinitarian could consistently say that a given text that refers to God with a singular pronoun is actually just referring to the Father, or just referring to the Son. This couldn’t be maintained absolutely for every single passage, but the non-Trinitarian using this argument doesn’t believe in having to do that anyway, since they just dismiss the minority instances where God is referred to with plural pronouns and verbs, or where groups of people are referred to with singular pronouns and verbs.
What the Trinity Is
This argument is one of many reasons not to attempt to treat any explanation of the Trinitarian pillars as a definition of the Trinity itself. Despite how bad an argument it is to take the personal pronouns to be proof against the Trinity, there is still a need to try to understand what the text is saying. The only way there is any possible challenge to the Trinity is if the Trinitarian thinks three things:
- The actual definition of the Trinity is that God is one “being” in three “persons”.
- Because of this definition, “God” is not “a person”, since God is three persons.
- The Old Testament would consistently refer to God with plural pronouns if God exists as three persons.
Now, I’m aware of no Trinitarians who agree with the third statement, as it amounts to a denial of the Trinity, when combined with the data in the text, but there are many Trinitarians who believe the first 2 statements, and have simply not thought through how they fit with the singular pronouns in the text. In many cases, when they do think about the pronoun situation, they come to the conclusion that either those pronouns are just referring to one person in the Trinity, or that, since God is unique in being a single being with more than one person sharing that being, we just don’t have pronouns to really express that reality, and singular pronouns would make more sense, especially when contrasting the One God of Israel with the many gods of their neighbors.
So there are ways of understanding why there are singular pronouns even if this is one’s definition of the Trinity, but I think there is a better way. Biblically speaking, the Trinity is just the following truths, which I will state a little differently than I have before:
- Yahweh is unique. There are no other gods like Yahweh.
- The Father is Yahweh
- The Son, Jesus, is Yahweh
- The Holy Spirit is Yahweh
- The Father is not the Son
- The Son is not the Holy Spirit
- The Holy Spirit is not the Father
- Jesus is a human being as well as being Yahweh
As I have stated before, each of these statements is supported directly by Scripture. They are not extrapolations based on how many times a pronoun is used. They are actually found in Scripture, stated in multiple ways.
Now, the question I have for the one who likes to appeal to the personal pronouns is this. Which of these statements is contradicted by the fact that God is referred to with singular personal pronouns? Individually, there is no statement above that is directly contradicted by the fact that God is referred to this way. The only way to attempt to show any difficulty or contradiction is to start putting some of these statements together, which requires adding in other explanatory statements, and attempting to show that there is a contradiction in how these statements relate to one another through the explanations.
By defining the Trinity simply in terms of the biblical data, the Trinitarian is not obligated to defend any particular Trinitarian explanation, and it is up to the non-Trinitarian to come up with one that is both agreed to by the Trinitarian and explicitly contrary to the existence of singular personal pronouns that refer to God. As we have seen, the Trinitarian is not obligated to define his beliefs in such a way as to be subject to any form of this argument, and what often happens is for the non-Trinitarian to come up with some weak straw man of a definition of the Trinity to attack, and the Trinitarian can simply reject that bad definition and redirect the conversation back to actual explicit statements about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, rather than drawing spurious conclusions from pronouns in the Old Testament.