The Key to the Trinity: Shema the Shema

We’ve looked at two texts now in which Jesus is called Lord in a way that identifies Him as Yahweh.[1] We all know there’s only one Yahweh. So if the Bible identifies not only the Father as Yahweh, but also the Son and Spirit, this would prove that the triunity doctrine is scriptural: one God in three distinct Persons.

What anti-trinitarians need, then, is a text that reduces the significance of Jesus’ being called Lord, and they have it, they think, in 1 Corinthians 8:6. After stating that there is only one God (v4), Paul goes on to identify this one God as the Father: “For us there is one God, the Father” (v6).[2] Paul does not say that the one God is the Son, nor that He is Father, Son and Spirit. No, the one God is the Father. How can you get a triune God out of that?

As if that wasn’t damaging enough to the triunity doctrine, Paul goes on to say that there is one Lord, the Lord Jesus Christ (v6b). To some this implies that “Lord” isn’t such a significant name or title for Christ after all. It must mean something less than “God,” and thus it cannot mean that Jesus is Yahweh.

But once again, a text often cited to disprove the Trinity strengthens the case for the Trinity when we look carefully at what it has to say about Christ.

Shift the Problem

In fact, the real problem is for those who deny the triunity of God. Here’s the verse in full: “Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”

In two parallel lines, this verse identifies the one God as the Father, and the one Lord as Jesus Christ. Anti-trinitarians take the first line in an exclusive way. When Paul names the one God as the Father, he’s firmly excluding the Son, they say. The Father is the one God; the Son is not.

But to be consistent, they must also do the same with the second part of the verse: the Son is the one Lord; the Father is not. The problem is that the NT elsewhere affirms that the Father is Lord,[3] and that Jesus is God.[4]

So push the problem back across the table. If anti-trinitarians insist from this text that the Father is the one God to the exclusion of the Son, they must also insist that the Son is the one Lord to the exclusion of the Father. “True, the Son is Lord,” they’ll acknowledge, “but the Father is Lord of all.” But then why shouldn’t a trinitarian do the same with the first part of the verse (“True, the Father is God, but so is the Son”)? Also, if the Son is Lord and the Father is Lord, what are we to do with the statement that there is only one Lord? Doesn’t one plus one equal two?

Shema the Shema

Deuteronomy 6:4 was the Jews’ John 3:16. They knew it backwards and forwards, reciting it daily. It is called the Shema (“Hear”) after the first word in the verse: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” Our second response is to hear echoes of this foundational text in 1 Corinthians 8:6. We need to shema the Shema.

Our text echoes the Septuagint’s Shema both in its three key words (“God,” “Lord” and “one”) and in its lack of verbs (in the Greek).[5] There can be no doubt that Paul is reworking the Shema in this statement, and what he does with it is astonishing. He takes the word “God” and glosses it as the “Father.” “Lord” – the replacement word for the name of Yahweh – he glosses as “Jesus Christ.” And retaining the word “one,” he applies it to both. “To pick out the God to whom Deut. 6:4 is referring … requires one to mention both ‘God the Father’ and ‘Jesus Christ.’”[6]

“Paul is not adding to the one God of the Shema a ‘Lord’ the Shema does not mention. He is identifying Jesus as the ‘Lord’ whom the Shema affirms to be one.”[7] In 1 Corinthians 8:6, then, “Lord” does not declare the Son’s inferiority to God but His identity as God, using language that at the same time distinguishes Him from God. The triunity of God is not a forced inference from the text but an inevitable one.

Consider the Context

Third, along comes the argument from context. Paul’s statement about one God and one Lord arises in a section of the letter devoted to the matter of idolatry (8:1-11:1). Is it permissible to eat food offered to idols (v4)? In an idol’s temple (v10)? Distinguishing true worship from idol worship, the real God from the false gods, is what these verses are all about.

Within this context, the logic of Paul’s argument gets to work. Verse 6 is in immediate contrast to verse 5: “Although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth – as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’ – yet for us there is one God … and one Lord.” Taken together, these two verses explain the statements in verse 4 that “an idol has no real existence” and that “there is no God but one.”

The implications are clear. Paul is working with two categories: false gods and the true God. There’s no third, separate category for Christ. Now, in which category does verse 6 place Jesus? It places Him, with the Father, in the category of true deity worthy of worship, opposite all wannabe gods.[8] And yet this verse remains one of the NT’s strongest affirmations of monotheism!

In With Prepositions

Finally, Paul’s prepositions confirm a trinitarian interpretation of this text. If there is only one God, then everything else must come from God, and exist through God and for God. These three prepositions become another well-known monotheistic formula, reflected in Romans 11:36. But just as he did with the Shema, Paul splits up the formula: all things exist from God the Father and for God the Father, through Christ the Lord. “God and Jesus are bound together not only by sharing the divine name … but by sharing the role as originator as well as concluder of all things.”[9]

Prepositions are precious words. They help us formulate the Bible’s teaching on God’s triunity (there are three Persons in one God). They also help us to contemplate the beauty of that triune God. Meditate on verse 11: Christ is the one through whom we exist; we are the brothers and sisters “for whom Christ died.”

[1] Rom 10:13; Php 2:5-11

[2] Scripture quotations in this article are from the ESV.

[3] Act 17:24; 1Ti 6:15; Mat 11:25; Rev 4:11

[4] Joh 1:1,18; 20:28; Rom 9:5; Titus 2:13; Heb 1:8; 2Pe 1:1

[5] David B. Capes, The Divine Christ: Paul, the Lord Jesus, and the Scriptures of Israel (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2018), 77.

[6] Wesley Hill, Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 114.

[7] Hill, 114, quoting Richard Bauckham.

[8] Hill, 115.

[9] Hill, 115.