As a child, I was taught that there was only one god and that it was the “God of Abraham” described in the Old Testament. Further, I was taught that any other religion was necessarily false, inspired by Satan to tempt Christians away from the truth, and to be feared or pitied. Then I was introduced to the concept of the Trinity.
Today, most Christians accept the idea that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are part of the same being–a trinity with multiple aspects. Or, as this Stanford article on the history of the Trinity puts it, “there are three fully divine persons ‘in God’. While this may be paradoxical, it is argued that this is what God has revealed to humankind through the Bible.” It wasn’t always this way. That same article cites several sources that indicate that “No theologian in the first three Christian centuries was a trinitarian in the sense of a believing that the one God is tripersonal, containing equally divine ‘persons’, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” It wasn’t until more than three hundred years after Christianity began that this idea became codified and even then it wasn’t widely accepted. So what did earlier Christians believe?
The philosopher Tertullian believed that God shared some of his essence with Jesus and the holy spirit–not diminished by the act but still distinct individuals made of the same spiritual matter.
To once again quote from that Stanford article, “…the Son isn’t the same god as the Father, though he can, because of what he’s made of, be called ‘God’. Nor is there any tripersonal God here, but only a tripersonal portion of matter – that smallest portion shared by all three. The one God is sharing a portion of his stuff with another, by causing another to exist out of it, and then this other turns around and does likewise, sharing some of this matter with a third.”
This is part of Tertullian’s defense of monotheism even though there are multiple entities that can all be called God. However, early Christianity was made up of several different theological interpretations that did not survive in significant numbers to be widely accepted today. Gnostics, for example, believed that Jesus was a creation of God but not God himself. There were a number of other Nontrinitarianist positions as well.
Okay, but doesn’t the Bible settle this? Well, not really. The concept of the Trinity is never explicitly mentioned in the Bible. The closest we get is probably John 10:30, “I and my father are one.” Even this verse has been interpreted differently over the years. Some Christians perceive this to mean that they are in total agreement or both divine or any number of other meanings that do not require a trinitarian understanding.
What about the Old Testament?
Well, the Old Testament makes it very plain that other gods are real–just inferior to Yahweh. Psalms has several passages referring to multiple gods:
- “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment” – Psalm 82:1
- “I said, ‘You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince.'” – Psalm 82:6-7
- “There is none like you among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any works like yours.” – Psalm 86:8
- “For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods.” – Psalm 96:4
Other Old Testament books refer to many gods as well:
- “..the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. Then the Lord said, ‘My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them.” – Genesis 6:2-4
- “For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord.” – Exodus 12:12
- “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?” – Exodus 15:11
- “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods, because in this affair they dealt arrogantly with the people” – Exodus 18:11
These passages definitely refer to gods or sons of god that are not part of the trinity. The most common apologetic I’ve heard to explain these passages are that these other gods are simply imagined by man and not true gods. However, that reading is difficult to apply to all of these passages. Like most biblical interpretations that contradict what modern Christians want to believe, the answer almost always comes down to faith–rather than any rational explanation.