(Gen. 1:26) Does this passage prove the Trinity?

By James M. Rochford

In the opening chapter of the Bible, God says, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness… God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:26-27).

The name of “God” is plural, rather than singular (ʾĕlōhîm). OT authors sometimes use the singular form to refer to God (ʾĕlōah),[1] but they usually use the plural (ʾĕlōhîm). Consequently, “unless the intent is to make a point about plurality, why not just use the singular?”[2]

Furthermore, God uses plural pronouns to refer to himself (“Us… Our”), and he uses a plural verb (“make”). Yet, there is only one God who “said” (singular). Grammatically, therefore, this speaks to some sort of unity and diversity within God (c.f. Gen. 3:22; 11:7; Isa. 6:8).

Does this refer to the angelic host?[3] This view lacks plausibility. For one, angels occur nowhere in the context. Indeed, they don’t appear until two chapters later (Gen. 3:24). Commentators rightly point out that God is the sole actor in Genesis 1, being mentioned 35 times in this opening section. In fact, God is mentioned “in as many verses of the story.”[4] How odd it would be for (unmentioned!) angels to be the focus at the end of this chapter.

Second, the Bible nowhere teaches that humans are made in the image of angels, nor does it teach that angels are made in the image of God. While angels can appear as humans (Gen. 18:2), they can manifest in various different forms. The creation of humans is simply “never attributed to angels elsewhere in the Bible.”[5] Therefore, if this passage refers to it, then it is the only one.

Third, the Hebrew grammar requires that we are created in God’s image alone. In verse 27, God created humans “in his own image” (beṣalmô) and “in the image of God” (beṣelem ʾelōhîm). Consequently, the use of the singular would “rule out… that the plural refers to a heavenly court of angels, since in the immediate context man’s creation is said to be ‘in his image’ with no mention of man in the image of the angels.”[6]

Does this refer to the “plural of majesty”? In the ancient world, kings would speak of themselves in the plural from time to time. This is known as the “royal we” or the “plural of majesty.” For instance, the Queen of England was quoted as saying, “We are not amused.” Moreover, even the Quran contains the “plural of majesty” to refer to Allah (Surah 6:55, 76; 7:117, 138, etc.). In fact, it was “common to refer to the deity in the compound plural,” and even when speaking to a human owner, it was “often the rule to speak of him in such terms.”[7] For instance, David is spoken of as the “lord” (1 Kin. 1:11). English translations gloss over this, but the Hebrew uses the plural “lords” here (c.f. Isa. 1:3; 19:4).

That being the case, these are all examples of Hebrew nouns—not pronouns. In Hebrew, “pronouns are always countable plurals.” Therefore, “grammatically the ‘us’ cannot be a plural of majesty or intensification.”[8] Consequently, the plural pronouns in this section are unique for biblical Hebrew.

Finally, if the “plural of majesty” was such a clear reading of the text, why did Jewish theologians have such difficulty with these passages? (e.g. Gen. 1:26; 3:22; 11:7; Isa. 6:8) The Book of Jubilees (2nd c. BC) altered the text and omitted Genesis 3:22.[9] Philo held that this referred to the angelic host, whom he called God’s “assistants” (On the Creation of the World 24).

Where does this leave us? At the very least, Brown is surely right when he states, “While these references to God or Lord in the plural do not in any way prove Trinitarian beliefs, they are certainly in perfect harmony with everything we are trying to say here, namely, that in some way the Lord’s unity is complex.”[10] Indeed, we are inclined to hold that this is our first reference to God’s highly complex nature that consists of both unity and diversity. For more on the doctrine of the Trinity, see our earlier article, “Defending the Doctrine of the Trinity.”

[1] Deuteronomy 32:15; Psalm 18:31; 114:7; Habakkuk 3:3, etc.

[2] John Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001), 449.

[3] Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI, 2001), p.64. Gordon Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), p.28. They offer a number of exegetical arguments. First, the plural pronoun occurs later in the text (Gen. 3:22) in close proximity with the cherubim who guard the Garden (Gen. 3:24). Second, Job 38:7 states that angels were present at creation. Finally, when angels later appear in the book of Genesis, they look like humans (Gen. 18:2).

[4] Derek Kidner, Genesis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1967), p.47.

[5] Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2004), 34.

[6] John H. Sailhamer, Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1990), p.37.

[7] Michael L. Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus: Theological Objections. Vol. 2. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003), 9.

[8] Emphasis mine. Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI, 2001).

[9] Millard J. Erickson, Making Sense of the Trinity, 3 Crucial Questions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000), 32.

[10] Michael L. Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus: Theological Objections. Vol. 2. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003), 10.