How does Israel’s ancient creedal statement impact Christian theology, particularly the doctrine of the Trinity?
The ancient confessional statement known in Hebrew as the Shema presents the essence of the Jewish religion (see part 1). The Hebrew creed’s clarion call to strict monotheism separated the ancient Israelites from their pagan neighbors of the Near East (see part 2). The Shema was also to be incorporated into the life of the believing Jew as part of their spiritual devotion to their personal God Yahweh (see part 3). As a Jewish Rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth stressed the importance of Israel’s creed but he also expanded its meaning and usage (see part 4).
Known as the watchword of Israel’s faith, the well-known passage of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 reads as follows in the New International Version of the Bible:
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.
This article discusses how the Shema impacts historic Christian theology, specifically the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
The Shema and the Trinity
The central purpose of the Shema is to proclaim the truth of monotheism (belief in only one God). Historic Christianity readily affirms this doctrinal truth since the Christian faith builds upon ancient Judaism and is clearly a monotheistic religion in its own right.
Christianity maintains a Trinitarian monotheism. The word Trinity literally means “tri-unity” or “three in one.” The one God subsists as three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Trinitarianism affirms that each person in the Godhead possesses fully and equally the one divine nature. The Trinity thus expresses a diversity of personhood within the unity of God’s being or nature.
Does the Trinitarian monotheism of Christianity conflict with the apparent strict monotheism found in the Shema? The answer is no for three reasons.
The Hebrew word for one used in the Shema, (ehad), can designate a collective unity (Genesis 1:5; 2:24; Numbers 13:23). So when the Shema proclaims God to be one it can mean a complex unity instead of a strict numerical unity. This understanding is consistent with the Christian view of “diversity within unity.”
The Hebrew word for God, elohim, is also generally found in the plural. Thus, this term can also allow for a personal diversity within God’s unity of being.
There are a number of places in the Old Testament where God is spoken of in the plural (Genesis 1:26-27; 3:22; 11:7; Isaiah 6:8). These passages also allow for God’s three-in-oneness, revealed more explicitly in the New Testament. Therefore, the historic Christian doctrine of the Trinity is compatible with the ancient monotheistic Shema. In fact, later Christian creeds built upon the truth of Israel’s creedal statement.
For more on the meaning of the Shema, see the article in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley.
For more on how creeds have impacted historic Christianity, see chapter 4 of my book Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions.
For more on the historic Christian doctrine of the Trinity, see my two books Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions and A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test.
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