An Adumbration of the Trinity

Last month, we took a survey of the various views on how we should understand Genesis 1.26[1]Fesko, J.V. Last Things First: Unlocking Genesis 1-3 with the Chris of Eschatology. (Christian Focus Publications, 2007), pp. 40-45. Those views were (1) The heavenly court view; (2) The plural of majesty view; and (3) The Trinity view.

Of the three options, which is best?

The best option is that Genesis 1.26 is an adumbration of the Trinity. Why is this the best option? Consider the following:

The problem with the heavenly court view is with the words ‘in our image, after our likeness.’ Man was created in the image of God alone (v.27), and neither in the image of angels nor God and the angels.

This view would also imply that the heavenly court participated in the creation of man. The rest of Scripture does not state that angels or heavenly intermediaries participated in the creation.

Additionally, considering the use of the use of (Bara’) in verse 27, this verb is used only of direct creative acts by God, not other heavenly beings. God alone, therefore, is the agent of creation.

If Genesis 1.26 is a plural of majesty as Keil suggests, then why did early Jewish interpreters seek to eliminate the grammatical tension in the verse? The concept of a plural of majesty might be more a part of Keil’s context than a part of the author’s context.

Martin Luther brusquely comments: ‘It is utterly ridiculous when the Jews say that God is following the custom of princes, who, to indicate respect, speak of themselves in the plural number. The Holy Spirit is not imitating this court mannerism (to give it this name), not does Holy Scripture sanction this manner of speech.’

Hermann Gunkel also noted that the plural of majesty was first introduced by the Persians long after the composition of Genesis (see Ezra 4.18, 1 Macc. 10.19).

Options 1 and 2 (Heavenly court, Plural of majesty) may therefore be eliminated.

This leaves the third option as the strongest contender, an adumbration of OT inchoate reference to the Trinity.

It is not impossible that verse 26 is an inchoate refence to the Trinity, contra Wenham. Wenham argues that this interpretation would not be possible because it would be ‘beyond the horizon of the editor of Genesis.’

But this idea does not stand up to close scrutiny. Geneses 1.2 mentions the involvement of the Holy Spirit in creation, and Colossians 1.16-17 states that Jesus Christ also participated in the event of creation, yet Genesis mentions little to nothing about their involvement.

The author may not have been aware of Christ’s involvement, but later revelation makes it clear. He would, however, know of the Spirit’s involvement from Genesis 1.2. A similar pattern emerges in other portions of Genesis: the protoevangelium (Gen 3.15) is a reference to Christ’s victory over Satan, yet it is quite possible that the author was unaware of exactly how this would come to pass.

Moreover, the reader should not make too many assumptions regarding what the author may or may not have known.

Enoch, for example, prophesied about the second advent of Christ (Jude 14). Regardless, just because the original audience may not have understood the full implications of a passage of Scripture does not mean that is cannot have a sensus plenior.

The New Testament often sheds greater revelatory light and increase understanding of difficult Old Testament passages. Along these lines, Luther writes:

“Therefore what had previously been taught through enigmas, as it were, Christ made clear and commanded to be preached in plain language. The holy patriarchs had this knowledge through the Holy Spirit, although not with such clarity as now, when we hear mentioned in the New Testament the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

Hence, in the light of the New Testament, this seems to be the best of the three options: Genesis 1.26 is a reference to the Trinity.

Had the New Testament not thrown light upon this passage, readers of Scripture might not have fully grasped Genesis 1.26 as a reference to the Trinity. What the author or original audience actually knew, however, is beyond the reader’s grasp.

It is possible that the author was aware of the trinitarian implications of verse 26 in some rudimentary form. That the triune God makes man in his own image is significant, as man therefore reflects the unity and plurality of the Godhead. As Anthony Hoekema writes, “Human beings reflect God, who exists not as a solitary being but as a being in fellowship—a fellowship that is described at a later stage of divine revelation as that between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

This is important, not only for understanding of the nature of God, but to understand what comprised the image of the triune God in man, which we will begin to look at next time.

For Christ and the Gospel,
—Pastor Tony


1 Fesko, J.V. Last Things First: Unlocking Genesis 1-3 with the Chris of Eschatology. (Christian Focus Publications, 2007), pp. 40-45.