Galatians 4:6 and The Trinity

Galatians 4:6 And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”

A few thoughts about this verse, not to take issue with anyone, but to say I think there’s more theology in the Bible than we sometimes think.

I agree with most Christians that the fully developed doctrine of the Trinity needed to be defined by the church because the Bible is not written in the form of sophisticated and exact theological definition.

But I don’t agree that the verse above is particularly ambiguous or that it can be interpreted reasonably or correctly with non-Trinitarian assumptions.

For starters, the verse is part of the epistle to the Galatians and that letter exists in the larger context of a classically Jewish, Biblical and emerging Christian context.

The key concepts in the verse are part of the larger Biblical conversation. If that conversation is referenced, there is no reasonable option for interpreting the verse in any way except in a way that leads to the Trinity.

When Paul writes the Galatians, the term “God” is specific to the God of the Bible revealed by Jesus. This includes the identification of Jesus with God himself, which is not a matter of interpreting texts, but a foundational fact of Jesus as understood by early Christianity. (See the work of Larry Hutardo on early Christian devotion to Jesus.) There is no “developing tradition” of Jesus’ relationship to God. There is theological clarification of an existing understanding that God had come in to Israel and the world in Jesus. The result is devotion to Jesus as God.

Galatians also exists in the Biblical understanding that the Spirit of God is God himself. There is no impersonal spirit that would be used in the sense of God pouring “the Spirit of His Son” into the hearts of believers. The Spirit of God is identified so closely with God that it would considerably odd to hear someone make the claim that “the Spirit of His Son” would be an impersonal substance or a spirit separate from God Himself.

Does this imply a fully Trinitarian view of the Spirit? It’s not the language of the creeds, but it is the language of scripture, and that language is unambiguous in this context.

Likewise, the concept of Son in early Christianity, particularly in Galatians, was clearly more than the concept of Messiah. It may not have taken on all the language of later sophisticated Trinitarianism, but the unique relation to God and action on behalf of God is central.

Notice Galatians 2:20:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

The indwelling Christ/Messiah is the Son of God, but is the one who loved and gave. The language of loving and giving is the language of John, which that Gospel traces to Jesus himself.

15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. 18 “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.

Unless we want to participate in some historical/theological gymnastics, we must say that some form of the language of Jesus recorded in John- language of the Son who is uniquely divine and the Spirit of that Son being given to disciples- is at least somewhat familiar (in some form) to Paul when he writes Galatians 4:6.

I would further argue that the action here is not only the God of the Bible manifested as Spirit and Son, but I believe the natural understanding of the passage is…

1. That this God is a unity, acting in one purpose.

2. That polytheism is not an option.

3. That Arianism cannot fairly resolve this statement without doing damage to the concept of the Spirit as uniquely coming from God and without reinterpreting both the witness of the Gospel of John and early Christian devotion along the lines of its own presuppositions.

4. That no other interpretation of Galatians 4:6 is consistent with all the context available except one God acting as three persons. While the full nature of this relationship is clarified by the full doctrine of the Trinity, I do not believe the passage, in its proper context, in any way leads the reader away from the doctrine of the Trinity.

17 thoughts on “Galatians 4:6 and The Trinity

  1. Michael…

    1) Did you not read what I said?

    2) I believe deeply in the Trinitarian God.

    3) I believe that the Trinity – the concept of God in three persons is taught in Scripture, but not necessarily as explicitly as you seem to be saying – and that’s OK.

    4) OK, enough with the numbers.

    Here’s the deal, if I have to say it again: I was reacting to a statement about a VERSE, NOT a statement about what God has revealed through a holistic reading of Scripture. So, all this talk about what Scripture obviously teaches is not necessary with me. That’s not what you originally posited when you laid that verse on the table – you laid it there by itself, as a verse that OBviously speaks about the Trinity – and, by itself, as it is stated, it does no such thing. Along with the rest of Scripture, particularly the New Testament, even more particularly the epistles, sure, we see the Trinity – duuurrrrrr. Sorry for throwing out big words there. :\

    Now – the Gospels – did Jesus, Himself, teach a lot of theology? Hmmm, do I get in trouble if I say, not really. We do actually see a lot of Judaism in the Gospels – we see Jesus as the fulfillment of Judaism, living as it’s final Prophet (more, of course, than most were seeing – God in the flesh). When He spoke, He pretty much spoke to His people, in their language, and as He spoke, He introduced the fullness of God’s Kingdom – “introduced.”

    If somehow, we lost the rest of the New Testament, we wouldn’t have enough in the Gospels. They are sort of narrative, apologetic overviews of the New Way, of Him Who Is the Way. But the Holy Spirit chose to speak more about all these things to us through other men as well – expanding on the introduction – fleshing out the thoughts and concepts and Truth that Jesus began to show them, to show us.

    So, the New Testament doesn’t teach Arianism. We needn’t read the Gnostic “Gospels” to find anything. I don’t believe there was some political game being played in the Council either. There was discernment helped by the Holy Spirit, not just in some Bishops, but in the greater part of the whole Church as well. They weren’t just understanding the writ of Scripture academically. They were understanding it “charismatically.”

    So, what are we arguing about again?? Is the Trinity somehow taught in Scripture as a whole? Yes, we agree, it is. Was there some part that the living, breathing Church played in the clarification of that Truth, that doctrine? It seems we agree on this too. There may be a few ins and outs there that we’re not 100% on but hell if I can tell what they are.


  2. MOD Note:

    Since the Trinity is an essential doctrine that defines the Christian faith, I want to make it clear that any claim to be a “trinity rejecting Christian” is a non sequitor and should not be taken by anyone as an acceptable option in my conception of Christianity. I respect those with that view, but I don’t want my critics saying it’s what I accept. I don’t.

    Civil conversation on the topic is OK. But vigorous denials of the Trinity will close the thread.




  3. I’ve been a evangelical for almost all my life and a follower of Christ for almost 15 years. As the time goes by and I reflect more and more in christian theology, I’ve learned to say…

    I DONT KNOW!!!

    Not in a naive (don’t bother in understand) way, but in a sincere and humble way of knowing that God is so much more that what I can dare to define or describe.

    I’ve learned that anything that humans can do with their (fallen) intellect it’s just to speculate of the nature of a being that it’s beyond anything we can imagine.

    I’ve learned to say nothing more than what the living word of God says, and not try to explain it beyond (what I like to call) SIMPLE EXEGESIS; that is: try to understand the best I can the meaning of the original term, without the urge to start a proof-texting exercise of what I believe may be the truth.

    Sometimes the best I can do to explain some things is to learn all the views about any given subject, meditate, pray and then say: MAYBE IS LIKE…

    NT Wright said once: “Is not only possible, but highly probable that the church has distorted the real Jesus and needs to repent and rediscover his Lord”

    Stephen Colwell said: “Protestants rescued the Bible from the darkness of the papal libraries and scattered all over the planet. They have exalted the book over the highest position of worship in humanity. They’ve studied, commented, explained and twisted every single word and sentence in their original language and translations in search of any possible interpretation. The result is that christianity is chocked by theology and critics: Every reveled truth is forcefully defined and twisted to make way to the most fantastic human doctrines that men logic and taste may conceive. We have constructed a very mechanical theological system that can only be compared to the complex machinery of the Roman Catholic Church.” (I’ve translated this quote from spanish and tried very hard to remain true to each word).

    I believe that in regards of the doctrines (or speculations) about God, none has it 100% right. I believe that each doctrine has reasonable intellectual merits to try to describe God in the light of what the scriptures says. But I also believe that every doctrine (the trinitarian doctrine included) denies the consisted revealed truth of the whole Bible. Sooner or later you’ll find a dead end, and trying to force a way out will only backfire at you.

    I’ve learned every possible explanation (doctrine) on Gods nature, I’ve tried to understand it with a sincere heart. I found some of them to be a complete mistake (but I’m not the one to declare them heresy), and others just found wanting. Some of them make perfect sense in their own view, but fall apart in other contexts.

    I have developed my own understanding of what I believe the Bible teaches and give to myself the peace of mind that God won’t judge me for my theological accuracy but for loving him, knowing him (even if it is beyond my comprehension) and obeying him.

    I have to be honest…

    I found the trinitarian doctrine wanting. Why? ’cause in the same way that u can find verses that apparently support it, you can also find texts that makes it more confusing and the reasoning leads to the classic dead end answer: IT’S A MYSTERY. The worst of all is that I know trinitarians that in their attempt to figure out GOD, and shed some light upon a very arguable doctrine, have gone astray, teaching all kind of fairy tale fantasies that you don’t have to be a certified theologian to know that heresy is just not enough to describe it.

    Just for your entertainment, try to figure out some of my own questions…
    (Please don’t try to convince me, just think about them)

    1. Genesis. Elohim (seems to be a plural noun). why three? why not more or less? (start the egg hunt)

    2. Why call God a Person, isn’t it like calling a rat human? I know you may say that the word doesn’t make justice and all the Augustinian blah, blah. But any way…

    3. Exodus. I am (YHVH). The verb that is translated “I Am” is the future tense of the state of being verb and should be translated “I Will Be”. Virtually all Christian translators follow this traditional translation although some do add the proper translation in their footnotes. There is no question about the tense of the verb and, hence, its proper translation.

    The significance of the translation of this most fundamental name of God is great. If we declare that God’s name is “I Am Who I Am”, we may say that He is eternal and self existent. If we say that God’s name is “I Will Be That Which I Will Be, we must also say that He cannot be defined. Therefore, based on this great declaration of the name of God, we conclude that He cannot be defined. This is exactly what the scholars of the second through fifth centuries did. They ventured far beyond Biblical revelation and defined God to be the Mystical Holy Trinity.

    In plain english I’ve came up with my own definition: “I am who I am (I was, I am and I will be), don’t bother trying to explain it to my People Moses, just go and take them out of Egypt and I will show up to back you up. (Pardon my improper exegesis).

    4. Jesus. The visible image of God. God himself incarnated (the mystery of the godliness). Emmanuel: God with us. When Philip asked: Just show us the father… Jesus answer was… bingo!!!

    5. Revelation. The seven spirits of GOD? anyone?

    6. Isn’t it possible that the false teachers that the Apostles where warning the church from, were the former greek-philosophers-turned-to-christian-philosophers know as the church fathers. (I’m not judging their motives or the sincerity of their conversions, just their inability to think in a really orthodox way).

    7. Isn’t it possible that our copies of the new testament (willingly or unwillingly) had been tampered to say what the “owners of the true orthodoxy” want it to say. After all, we dont’ have the originals, just copies of copies of copies. I could only wonder what the original text says? (Let the “blasphemy” stoning begin…)

    8. I can keep going…

    Please don’t judge me. I’m a REAL CHRISTIAN. But I’m not a big fan of doctrinal and philosophical quarreling. Be free to discover God, he will certainly reveal himself to those that seek him. My point is not to say that the trinity is wrong or arians are right. (I don’t believe in arianism).


    So I kindly ask every time I am in the middle of this kind of debate stop butchering the body of Christ with speculat… oh sorry, I mean doctrines about God, and start loving him and his people.

    The stupidity of this kind of “theological accuracy (orthodoxy?)” reasoning is what keeps us from being a true witness to people like Bill Maher, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Atheist, Agnostics, etc.

    I’ts not easy to give everyone all the answers. But maybe that’s a good thing. Instead of just transferring a very neat explanation of God trough all the generations, why not let every generations seek God with all their hearts. If we trust God enough I assure you that he wont let his people astray from the truth.

    Sometimes we feel so sure about our orthodoxy (systematic theology) that we don’t even bother to question it and see if we shouldn’t know better.

    Have ears to hear?

    Peace and Love.


  4. Joseph,

    I hear you. I’m a chemist, and people expect us to be very smart and intellectual as well.

    To me, theology is putting into words, stuff that seems almost intuitive to me.

    I can’t really explain the Trinity, and yet I know that the three persons are unique, yet One. And I have a unique relationship with each person.


  5. Alan:

    >We can certainly read back into that verse with our present understanding of the concept of “Trinity” but it’s not explicitly there.

    I agree that the most developed definition is not there in its most developed form, but I don’t understand your sentence.

    1. What is there? Arianism? Polytheism? Judaism?

    2. Did Jesus teach, in his words as recorded in scripture, One God in three persons, or….

    3…did Jesus teach that he was not divine and the Spirit was not divine? or…

    4….are the Gospels later theological documents and not records of what Jesus believed and taught?

    If 1, then we’re reading Galatians wrong. But I’m not reading Galatians wrong. Paul was stating a uniquely Jesus shaped understanding of God in that letter. (Yahweh comes to save in Jesus, Jesus pours out God’s Spirit on God’s people.)

    If 2, then I am correct.

    If 3, then we have a different Jesus than Paul is talking about in Phil 2.

    If 4, then we should go buy a copy of the gnostic Gospels and the conclusions of guys like Crossan and Funk.

    My point is that I don’t see where we have a lot of alternatives to a Trinitarian reading of scripture. It’s trinitarianism that “turns on the light” to the Old Testament according to Jesus in Luke 24 and John.

    I don’t believe the Athanasians won on a vote or an imperial decree. I think the Athanasians understood the New Testament correctly, and Galatians, being one of the first NT books, reflects that.




  6. Seriously – I’ve seen ‘variant Christianities’ used for what we old-fashioned types called “heresies”; usually in the context of the Gnostic ‘gospels’ and intimating that Irenaeus’ “Adversus haereses”, for one, somehow ‘proves’ that there were all these different understandings of Christianity out there, each perfectly valid and co-existing peacefully for the first couple of centuries, but the Evil Institutional Church crushed them in the name of power and imposing one way of believing so that it could control the masses.


  7. Paul’s writing about the Trinity are often confusing to me. He frequently uses phrases that any Sunday School teacher would correct: “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Of course we would say, “no Johnny, it’s God the Father and God the Son.” I am probably ignorant of the historical context or just dense here, but Paul’s description of the relationship between Christ and God often seems variable. Without the evolution of thought seen by the time of the Gospel of John, we would have even more divisions. And that Gospel must have been written for some of the same crowd as Paul wrote to – only now more exposed to the Message.

    Taken as a whole, the NT is full of doctrinal evolution and change on issues that apparently Christ did not clearly instruct the Apostles on: Circumcision, diet, Sabbath observance, the role of Gentiles, the communal life and belongings…. So why not expect evolution of other ideas?


  8. This is off-topic, so you’ve been warned…

    I guess I just don’t have the burning desire to get that deep into theology. It’s the primary reason I won’t go to seminary. Which, in turn, keeps me from being ordained.

    I have an engineering degree and an MBA and I want my workings with God to be at the opposite end of the spectrum, if that makes any sense. I don’t want to think, I want to feel.

    Knowing that I can interpret a piece of scripture 10 different ways just turns me off on studying scripture. Going into Bible study where the group chews on a passage for an hour… God, spare me. I get to the point where I just play devil’s advocate: “Yes, but…” “I see your point, but…” “But doesn’t it say X in this other book?” “Why?”

    I mean, do all these big words that get tossed around really matter when it comes down to faith? If we had never defined the trinity, what difference would it make to God? Does defining the trinity help us to love God more? To love our neighbor more?

    I’m a Methodist, and we’re supposed to be all intellectual, and so my attitude drives my pastor crazy. I have no doubt I could understand all this, if only I wanted to. I’d just rather pray or minister to someone who’s depressed or update the website. If I do pick up a Bible, it’s to pray over on a random passage, just as Wesley used to do.

    I do understand that all specialized fields have their own special language that people outside that field don’t understand. It’s the mark of education, and the mark of being set apart.

    Anyway, I’ll get off my soapbox — forgive me for getting on it in the first place! I just felt like venting.


  9. “There is no “developing tradition” of Jesus’ relationship to God.”


    I am so sick and tired of the “Jesus was Just Some Bloke and it was only the self-hating repressed homosexual misogynist Paul/institutional state church of three or four centuries later who cruelly oppressed the variant Christianities and squeezed all spiritual exploration into the vise of a rigid orthodoxy” school of nonsense.

    Though I have to say, Michael, I would never underestimate the ability of someone who thinks he’s re-inventing the wheel to come up with an alternative for that text in Galatians; I would not be surprised to find someone ‘explaining’ that this really means we are *all* incarnations of God because God’s spirit of sonship has been given to us, not just Jesus.


  10. A friend recently referred me to your blog and I’m rapidly developing an appreciation for the time and thought you are putting into your posts. Thank you and God bless! John


  11. Oh, I thought iMonk was responding to me. Excuse me a moment while I go extract my head from the clouds…

    But yeah, I don’t think this verse would stop Arians. In fact, I know it didn’t, because it didn’t. This verse proves that there are three persons, it doesn’t prove that all three are divine, which was the Arian’s point. For the Arians the Son and Spirit were created by the Father to be above and for creation, but they were still creatures. Therefore, they could still be sent from the Father, but still not be divine. Yes, it is semantic, but all good heresies are.

    Oh, and I don’t like Hutardo. I think his thesis completely falls apart when it is compared with the existing literary evidence from the second-century.


  12. “…not to take issue with anyone…”

    🙂 Well, not many maybe – just me?? Unless you got a bunch of other e-mails like mine today.

    “I agree with most Christians that the fully developed doctrine of the Trinity needed to be defined by the church because the Bible is not written in the form of sophisticated and exact theological definition.”

    OK, well, that’s what I was saying, basically. And what I was objecting to was referring to a verse, and that verse in particular as carrying the weight of a proof for the Trinity. I still think it doesn’t. Now, if you want to pull in a holistic reading of Scripture with all it’s both implicit and explicit statements (and “non-statements”) about such things, OK maybe so. But again, I was talking about a verse, as you seemed to have been.

    – A little bit of my rambling e-mail –
    It’s talking to us, calling us “sons” – talking about God sending “the Spirit of his Son” into our hearts. To read that “raw” I’m not sure we totally know what that means. It could, even straight face value, just mean God is giving us the attitude of sons, making our hearts like the heart of His Son – so that we call Him “Abba! Father!” It doesn’t identify the Spirit as a “person” at all. And the fact the “the Son” is mentioned doesn’t define what it means to be “God’s Son” – we were just called that ourselves in the same verse, so it doesn’t jump out and necessarily say that the Son Paul is talking about is also God.

    We can certainly read back into that verse with our present understanding of the concept of “Trinity” but it’s not explicitly there

    I wasn’t trying to develop or explain some complex theology in a few lines – but neither is that verse. I agree – the Church needed to say some defining things about it, pulling things together and making it clear. When the Church did this as it met in Council, it didn’t create the Trinity – it wasn’t making something up – it was pulling possible partial cover off of Truth already there – and already in Scripture, albeit mostly implicit. I would never argue that “the Trinity is not in Scripture” – at least the underlying concept of God’s nature as three-in-one – but I would say that it’s not super clear in this verse, or in many others, standing alone.

    Hey – we both believe in the Trinitarian God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That’s where the coat hangs right there. Peace.


  13. Joseph:

    a) Christian theology wouldn’t consider that there could be a ‘God’ separate to the Trinity, creating a possible quadrinity out of his will. The Trinity is God.

    b) The doctrine of the Trinity was developed largely by Eastern Christians on the basis of a Middle Eastern text.

    c) The Trinity is not scientific concept, it expresses the mystical perception of a unity in God in all the ways that we meet him and the persons who reveal God’s nature. Arianism, which Trinitarianism was designed to refute, is a rationalistic, scientific conception of God.


  14. Well on the surface, if the trinity was never formally defined at the Council of Nicea and the 1st Council of Constantinople, we wouldn’t have the Nicene Creed. 🙂


  15. I am also curious just why it was needed.

    God can do anything he wants and could create a quadrinity or a quintinity if it served His purposes. Maybe He has, and we’re just missing it.

    It’s only man who has the urge to subdivide him, specifically Western man with our drive to categorize and quantify and everything.

    Applying the scientific method to God and to Scripture might lead to truth or it might not. He’s beyond all that; beyond any human understanding.


  16. …the fully developed doctrine of the Trinity needed to be defined by the church because the Bible is not written in the form of sophisticated and exact theological definition.

    Really? NEEDED?

    While I pretty much completely agree with your analysis, I’m not so sure that the definition of the Trinity by the Church has really cleared anything up. Further, I wonder if it had the unintended consequence (or maybe intended, I can’t tell) of driving an unnecessary wedge between believers.


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