The Trinity in the Creation Story
The Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. – Genesis 1:2
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness…” Genesis 1:26
It isn’t unusual to hear some Christian teachers claim that the Trinity is present right from the creation story of Genesis. They could point to the two texts above as their evidence. For the first, the Spirit of God, more commonly called The Holy Spirit, is explicitly referenced. For the second, why is God speaking in the plural if God is only a single person? The fact that we are created in their likeness, not his/her likeness, is proof that there are more than one person involved in the Godhead.
Neither of these claims go unchallenged, however. On the first, the main challenge is that the word translated here as “Spirit” could actually mean different things. It may be referencing “the wind of God,” as in, God calmed the chaos by blowing things into its right place through a mighty wind (think of how God used a wind to pile up the Red Sea so that the Israelites could cross). It could also be translated as “the breath of God” as it typically is later in the story when talking about God breathing life into the first human being. Or maybe it just means God’s spirit, as in part of the one person of God instead of another person that is also God.
The second is challenged by other suggestions of who God could have been talking to if not the rest of the Trinity. We know that Jews to this day do not believe in The Trinity, and we know they didn’t believe that at the time the text was written. Therefore it was either a case of God dictating it to the author who wrote it down even though he/she didn’t understand why, or it was a case of the author understanding it differently. The former stance is usually taken by conservatives and the latter by liberals.
One proposed alternative solution I remember hearing even as a child was that it was the royal plural; as in, “we are not amused.” In many later societies, royalty would speak this way because they believed that they were representative of their people. If they thought something, by extension so did their people. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to solve this question because that way of speaking was not around in this era.
More realistic is to say that God was speaking to the angels. Maybe the angels were involved in the creation in some way, or at the very least, it goes to show that angels have some of the same characteristic “image” that we have and that God has. I’ll talk about what being “the image of God” might mean in a future post.
More controversially, God was speaking to lesser gods. It is generally believed in scholarly circles that the earliest parts of the Bible were not monotheist. Instead, they were monolatrous – they worshipped one god, but they believed that the others existed. Throughout these texts of the Bible you see a lot of things along the lines of “Yahweh is better than every other God.” It wasn’t until a bit later in the Scriptural timeline that those other gods were simply removed from the story. So, maybe Yahweh as the head god was issuing this statement somewhat like a command to the lesser gods?
Does It Matter?
Now that I’ve potentially caused a crisis of faith for some, my main question is: does it matter? It is probably true that the original author was not writing about the Holy Spirit in either reference. Maybe s/he was, but it is quite possible that s/he wasn’t. To me, this is yet another text that has fallen victim to the modernist lens of biblical interpretation. Liberals will dismiss the whole argument, pointing out that it doesn’t make any sense contextually since the concept of The Trinity is still a long way off. Conservatives will argue that it is the literally true Word of God and so preserving every word exactly is what matters.
The early church, including writers of the New Testament, did not approach their sacred texts in this way, though. They routinely reinterpreted texts to be about Jesus that in context were clearly not about Jesus. Liberal scholars and conservatives alike will often scoff at when the New Testament authors do this, liberals because they think that those authors were just making it up as they go along and conservatives because they think those authors should be emphasizing the literal truth rather than how it culminates in Jesus. But the early church did understand Jesus to be the culmination of the Old Testament and interpreted texts in that way, not in our modernist way.
This does not mean that the Old Testament is flat-out wrong, as many liberals would say, but it also means that its ultimate point – according to the New Testament – was to point to Jesus, not to establish literal historic truth by the modern-era definition. The New Testament does state that Jesus was there at the creation of the world and there are a fair number of other texts both Old and New to point toward the doctrine of The Trinity. In summary, the author of Genesis 1 probably didn’t mean for it to be introducing the doctrine of The Trinity (as liberals would point out) but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valid to reinterpret that text in the light of the ultimate revelation of Jesus.