should the word ‘trinity’ appear in an english bible?

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Opponents of the doctrine of the Trinity occasionally throw up the assertion that the word ‘Trinity’ never appears in the Bible as a supposed problem for the doctrine.

The objection is, however, largely without merit. Read below the link for an assessment of this contention!

The word ‘Trinity’ is an English word (derived from Latin, but English in this form nonetheless). It is a distinctive term used to describe the Christian God which goes beyond the somewhat generic term ‘God’ by providing more specific information about the God to which it is applied. Since the Bible was not written in English, neither the term “God” nor “Trinity” actually appear anywhere in the original texts. The question is, do either of these terms adequately convey the meaning of the original in an English translation?

As an example, let’s look at the opening verse of the Bible, Genesis 1:1. Most modern English translations read something like this:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Here the translators choose the English “God” to render the Hebrew אלהים (ʾĕlōhîm). Yet there are some reasons why this might not be a perfect translation: “god” in English is a generic reference to a deity which is entirely unremarkable. Alone it could refer to any deity and ascribes no distinctive features of that deity.

The Hebrew term, by way of contrast, is morphologically exceptional: it is formally plural but used (when referring to the God of the Bible) with singular verbs. It is unusual for morphologically plural nouns to be associated with singular verbs and virtually unknown for morphologically plural nouns to have singular meaning.1 This plural/singular anomaly occurs elsewhere with reference to God as well (e.g. Gen 1:26).

This suggests that the noun אלהים (ʾĕlōhîm) is somewhat less generic than the English “God.” Now, of course, English translations capitalise the initial letter of the noun and this does serve to distinguish it from the more generic usage of ‘god’ or ‘gods’ elsewhere in the Bible. Yet it is unclear whether this distinction is an equivalent distinction to that engendered by the morphological distinctiveness of the Hebrew term. Joel S. Burnett, in his examination of the biblical use of אלהים (ʾĕlōhîm), suggests that the plural form incorporates some notion of plurality (pointing specifically to a royal entourage of some form, cf. A Reassessment of Biblical Elohim, p. 119).

So if “God” is not a perfect translation of אלהים (ʾĕlōhîm), how does the translation “Trinity” stack up? As I noted above, “Trinity” is a term in English used to describe God which includes specific information about God’s nature. As such, it could at least be considered a possible translation for אלהים (ʾĕlōhîm) in Gen 1:1. We would then read:

In the beginning the Trinity created the heavens and the earth.

What are the pros and cons of this translation (remembering that all translation is a competition between pros and cons since all translation involves some degree of compromise and interpretation)? First, pros:

  • The term is more distinctive than the generic “God” and so reflects something of the unusual nature of the Hebrew;
  • the term has a plurality in its meaning which is at least formally present in the Hebrew;
  • there is at least some theological justification for such a reading in some places in the OT (for example, Gen 1:1).

Second, cons:

  • The term ‘Trinity’ is clearly more specific than אלהים (ʾĕlōhîm), conveying rather specific information about the nature of the being presented;
  • It is a choice not reflected in the history of translation in any language;
  • The translators of the LXX used the Greek θεὸς (theos) for אלהים (ʾĕlōhîm), a term which is as generic as the English. While this doesn’t demonstrate the superiority of “God” as a translation, it indicates that it was sufficiently adequate for the NT.

We then have a choice between one term which is too generic and another which is too specific (although perhaps there’s another alternative?). However, whichever way one chooses to go in translation, it is important to remember that arguments over the absence of a particular English word in the Bible alone generally carry very little weight.

1. Recent study has revealed that morphologically plural terms for deities are applied to single deities elsewhere in the aNE. It appears, for example, in Akkadian texts, although Burnett concludes that it was “likely that the Akkadian usage was borrowed from the west and was derived ultimately from the Canaanite expression attested in the Amarna letters and eventuating both in Hebrew ʾĕlōhîm and in Phoenician ʾlm.” See A Reassessment of Biblical Elohim, p. 53.

3 thoughts on “should the word ‘trinity’ appear in an english bible?

  1. Hi Martin,
    Just found this from your link on David Ould’s post.
    Very interesting.
    The question I have is whether translating elohim as Trinity would actually obscure the role of the Father who is normally (but not exclusively) associated with Theos in the NT? (eg. Jn 8:54; 1Cor 8:6)

  2. Hi Andrew. To some extent what you say is true and is an inevitable compromise that has to be made in translating from one language to another. I would add that using “Trinity” may sacrifice some of the ambiguity in the use of אלהים (as I tried to suggest above). The other issue is that the NT uses the stock-standard word for “god” (θεος), so there’s no basis for arguing the the word “Trinity” should appear in the NT!

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