According to Deuteronomy 6:4, God is one. 3 does not equal 1. Doesn’t this immediately disprove the Trinity?
The verse referenced is known by the name of the “Shema” (because that is the word that begins this passage in the Hebrew) which is the creed of Judaism, and the Unitarian battle cry.
“Hear O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.” – Deut 6:4 (ESV)
This question, probably the most common on the lips of Unitarians, makes a couple false assumptions – assumptions which will inevitably block any attempted answer unless properly dealt with. It is those assumptions which I will seek to correct here.
1st Assumption* – Trinitarians believe in 3 Gods
I should immediately begin by noting that Trinitarians believe in 1 God, not 3. This has been emphatically noted before by me on this site, and I note it again here. The first component of the doctrine of the Trinity – our beginning point – is that there is only one God. The issue at stake between Trinitarians and Unitarians is never how many Gods there are – we agree that there is one God. The issue at stake is the nature of that oneness. But for this conversation to have any meaning we must differentiate between two terms: being and person.
Being is that which makes something what it is. Person is what makes someone who they are.
Take one tree for instance. That one tree is one tree, yes? Now, that tree has a oneness, but it is a oneness of being. Trees do not have personhood, therefore we could express the following: tree = 1 in being, 0 in person.
Now take a human. The nature of a human could be expressed: human = 1 in being, 1 in person. With me so far?
So when we say a tree is one, we are expressing the fact that it is one in being, but we could not (James Cameron aside) say that the word one also speaks of the tree’s person, because a tree = 0 persons.
On the other hand, when we say that Tom is one, we could be referring to being and person, because I am both one in being and one in person.
A tree can be one and a man can be one, yet they differ in number of persons involved in that oneness because of a difference in their fundamental natures (plant vs. animal). Therefore it is possible for a man to be one and God to be one, and yet differ in the number of persons involved in that oneness because of a difference in their fundamental natures (creation vs. Creator). Does not this logic follow?
Therefore, the question is: is God’s oneness a oneness of being and of person (as a Unitarian believes), or a oneness of being but not of person (as a Trinitarian believes)? That is, with Deut 6:4 alone in consideration, should we express God as: 1 in being, 1 in person (and be done with it) – or as 1 in being, ? in person (and allow the Scripture to answer the question of persons)?
The answer is: it is an unwarranted assumption on the part of the Unitarian to say that God’s oneness must be the same kind of oneness as that of a man. Instead of trying to tell God what He must mean when He says He is one, we must allow Him to teach us about Himself and draw our understanding of the nature of God’s oneness from His word to us, the Bible.
Food for thought: When we hear that God is one, why do we try to assume He is one in the same way as humans? Why can’t He be one in the same way as a tree – 1 in being and 0 in persons? Obviously, it is because the Scriptures provide overwhelming evidence that God is personal (which by definition requires personhood of equal to or greater than 1). He loves – impersonal things do not love, He speaks – impersonal things do not speak, etc. Therefore, the overwhelming evidence is that God is personal, even though there is no place in Scripture where God states, “I am personal,” explicitly. In the same way the Bible testifies that God is tri-personal, even though we have no verse where God states, “I am tri-personal” explicitly.
2nd Assumption – The use of the word “one” negates any understanding of uniplurality (or complex unity, if you prefer) within God.
This assumption really falters when you understand my answer to the last one, but let’s interact with it a bit anyway.
In Deuteronomy 6:4, the word “one” is the Hebrew word, “‘echad”. As a lexicon will tell you, it simply means “one” – just like our English word one. But consider this: one baseball team = at least nine persons; one marriage = two persons; one family = 2+ persons… etc. Therefore upon what basis do we say that one God must = one person? Only upon the basis of assuming that God = one person can we say this.
This is a textbook case of circular logic. One comes to the table with the ingrained assumption that 1 God = 1 person. Then, when one sees Scripture state that there is only 1 God, one says “Aha! The Trinity is disproven because there is only 1 God!”
However, if you come to the table assuming nothing about God (which, let me say, is the smart way to do this… I mean, we are talking about God here, you know?), you accept the revelation that God is one and say, “Aha! God has spoken and said that He is one. Now, instead of assuming I know exactly what the nature of His oneness is (0 persons like a tree, 1 person like a man, etc), I will continue to read and allow Him to show me.”
Bottom line, we need to be careful of a priori assumptions about the nature of God. As creatures, we rely solely on revelation to tell us what God is like – we cannot ascend to heaven to figure it out, we must rely on the creator to teach us who and what He is. To use the C.S. Lewis analogy, if Hamlet is to know anything about his creator, Shakespeare, it must be Shakespeare who takes the initiative and reveals himself. For Hamlet to make assumptions would be very dangerous indeed.
But back to the word, ‘echad. Let’s look at the Bible and see if we can learn anything about how this word tends to be used.
Example #1: Genesis 2:24 – “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one (‘echad) flesh.” (ESV)
Hmm, does this mean that the two cease to be individual persons and become one single person? Clearly not, they are ‘echad in flesh, not in person.
Example #2: Genesis 11:6 – “And the LORD said, ‘Behold, they are one (‘echad) people…’” (ESV)
The multitude gathered to build the tower of Babel was ‘echad, yet many persons.
Example #3: Exodus 24:3 – “Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the rules. And the people answered with one (‘echad) voice and said, ‘All that the LORD has spoken we will do.’” (ESV)
Are we to understand that only one person spoke? Or is it clear that a multitude of persons spoke and their voice was one in unity?
Example #4: Exodus 36:13 – “And they made fifty gold clasps and used them to fasten the two sets of curtains together so that the tabernacle was a unit (‘echad).” (NIV)
Here we have one unified tabernacle yet composed of a plurality of materials and pieces.
More examples could easily be given, but I think you see the point. This word, ‘echad, one, in no way proves Unitarianism. Nor, it should be mentioned, does it prove Trinitarianism, since there are also examples in the bible of it being used to refer to non-unipluralities. In the end, we must take this verse at face value and understand that it means that God is one, but then instead of telling God what that means, we must allow Him to tell us.
Thus, far from being the end of Trinitarianism, Deuteronomy 6:4 just establishes the first pillar of the doctrine of the Trinity – i.e. there is only one God. Any Unitarian monkey business trying to use it to disprove the Trinity only shows that he doesn’t really understand what we believe.
As a final observation, I will note that here again in this verse is another example of a triple mention of God, LORD – God – LORD. Not anything to necessarily point at as evidence of the Trinity, but the irony certainly makes this Trinitarian smile a bit.
*There is another assumption even prior to #1 above, and that is the assumption that ‘echad in this passage is best understood as meaning “one”. However, the word ‘echad can also mean “alone”, as in, “to the exclusion of all others” (which makes the understanding of this verse slightly different, not saying that God is “one” exactly but that He “alone” is God – a slight nuance). Actually, some excellent scholarship has demonstrated that in Deut 6:4 ‘echad is, in fact, meant in the sense of “alone” and not so much in the sense of “one”. However, for the sake of argument, in this response I will operate on the assumption that the best reading of ‘echad is “one”, and not “alone”.
If you would like to interact with the research suggesting that ‘echad should be read as “alone” in this passage, I recommend you start here.