This is the first post in an occasional series that will appear on this blog, dealing with frequently asked questions (FAQ) about the doctrine of the Trinity. This series will not be providing an overview of the biblical teaching concerning the Trinity. For such an overview, please see my outline study on the Trinity, which cites about a thousand pertinent biblical references. If you have a question on the Trinity not addressed in that outline study and that you would like to see answered here, please email us with your question, and we will consider it for inclusion here. You can find our email address by visiting our ministry’s home page and clicking on “Email” in the upper right corner.

The first question I will address is perhaps one of the most popular objections to the doctrine, even though it does not address the positive evidence for the Trinity in Scripture. Here it is: If belief in the Trinity is essential for salvation, why is the doctrine not clearly or plainly set out, in so many words, in the Bible? Why does the Bible never say “God is a Trinity” or “There are three persons in the one God,” or something equally explicit as an affirmation of the doctrine? And if no such statement is there in the Bible, how can belief in the doctrine be essential for salvation?

The short answer is that it is not quite accurate to say that belief in the doctrine of the Trinity is essential for salvation. Doctrinal accuracy on any theological subject is in any case at most a litmus test or barometer of the genuineness of a person’s salvation, not a prerequisite for receiving the gift of salvation. There is no theology exam on which a person needs a passing score before God will accept that person’s trust in him for salvation. We are saved by God’s grace through faith, that is, through our trust and reliance on God’s gift of salvation in Christ (Rom. 3:21-26; Eph. 2:8-10; Tit. 3:5-8). On the other hand, deviation from the basics of sound Christian doctrine can be evidence that a person is either immature in faith (see Acts 18:25-26) or has not genuinely come into a saving faith relationship with Christ (Rom. 16:17-18). Resistance to doctrinal correction would generally be a tip-off that the latter problem is the case.

That having been said, what does the Bible tell us we need to know about the Trinity? Obviously, it does not tell us that we need to use words like Trinity or formulas like three persons in one God. These do not appear in the Bible. On the other hand, we are expected to make a faith commitment to the three persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as is evident from the injunction to make disciples by “baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). Someone who denies that the Son is a divine person or who refuses to honor the Son with religious devotion, reverence, and worship, is giving evidence that he or she has not made that faith commitment and so has not yet come to a genuine relationship with the Son. Jesus himself stated, “Unless you believe that I am [he], you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). This means, minimally, that we must accept Jesus for who he really is if we are to be assured of salvation. So, if Jesus is indeed God incarnate, as the Bible does in fact teach, then we need to know and accept this truth about his identity.

Those who are saved as Christian believers, then, will have faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as God, although they may not be able to articulate this in a doctrinal way very well at first. As they come to understand what the Bible says about this subject in conversation with the rest of the church, such believers normally will assent to the doctrine of the Trinity as the church’s historic and best articulation of the divine nature and relations of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

If a person rejects the doctrine of the Trinity, that person has cut himself off from the church. It is interesting to note that all of the major (and as far as I know all of the minor) heretical religious versions of Christianity agree on one thing: they all reject the doctrine of the Trinity. This does seem to be the crucial, decisive theological issue separating orthodox from heretical forms of Christianity. Is it possible for someone in a non-Trinitarian religious group to be saved? I suppose it is, but it isn’t recommended. Again, doctrinal error may be a sign of spiritual lostness, or of spiritual immaturity, or perhaps of some other type of problem, and we aren’t in a position to judge definitively whether other people are saved or not. Nevertheless, we have a responsibility to take a stand for the integrity of the church’s teaching, and cannot compromise on so basic a doctrine as the Trinity. We can do so with full confidence that what we are defending is biblical, because all of the essential elements of the doctrine of the Trinity are clearly taught in the Bible.

–Rob Bowman

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This entry was posted on Monday, October 6th, 2008 at 2:42 pm and is filed under theology, Trinity. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

4 comments so far

PapaJoel
 1 

Thanks Rob, very cogent post. It’s unfortunate that so many attacks against the Trinity, or criticisms of the same, stem from either misunderstanding or misprepresentation. PJ

October 6th, 2008 at 3:00 pm
jasondulle
 2 

Mr. Bowman,

As you are well aware, the Bible is not a systematic theology. There is no book explaining the doctrine of God. Instead, we are given snippets of truth here and there like pieces in a puzzle, and it is up to us to responsibly systematize those pieces together into one whole, coherent doctrine of God. As I see it, Scripture presents three general truths about God all Christians must confess:

1. There is only one God
2. The Father is referred to as (that one) God, the Son is referred to as (that one) God, and the Holy Spirit is referred to as (that one) God
3. Distinctions are made between Father, Son, and Spirit

Many attempts were made in the early centuries of the church to systematize all three of these truths. Most came up short, however, failing to incorporate one or the other of these truths. But the doctrine of the Trinity was able to systematize all three teachings in one coherent picture by affirming God to be three distinct persons subsisting in one divine essence. As a result, it became Christian orthodoxy. But is one required to adopt this model in order to be saved? What if another model was put forth that could affirm all three strands of Biblical data concerning the identity and nature of God, but did not include the notion of three persons in one essence? Never mind for the moment the question of which model would be superior in explanatory scope, and hence which model may be preferred as more closely representing who God is. Should those who adopt a non-Trinitarian model of God be considered heretical, even if they affirm all three strands of the raw Biblical data?

I hope to interact with your opinion on this question by giving you mine. Personally, I don’t think the Trinitarian model of God should be the sine qua non of orthodoxy, yet alone salvation. So long as one’s doctrine of God incorporates all three strands of Biblical truth, they should be considered Christian. Otherwise we are guilty of elevating a non-biblical (as opposed to unbiblical) model of God to an authority status equal to that of Scripture. I think it would be a mistake to elevate a theological model that took believers several centuries to flesh out, to a status more important than the raw data that informed it. The Biblical data itself—not any particular theological model developed from it—ought to be the sine qua non of orthodoxy. As Millard Erickson wrote: “[The Trinity] is not clearly or explicitly taught anywhere in Scripture, yet it is widely regarded as a central doctrine, indispensable to the Christian faith. In this regard, it goes contrary to what is virtually an axiom of biblical doctrine, namely, that there is a direct correlation between the scriptural clarity of a doctrine and its cruciality to the faith and life of the church.” (God in Three Persons, 11)

If one cannot be saved by believing the three truths stated earlier, without also adopting the Trinitarian model to explain them, it seems to me that the doctrine of the Trinity—and the conceptual framework/language that goes along with it—is elevated beyond its worth, and we lose the truth-theology distinction. Ultimately, some will be designated “heretics” and “outside the church” unjustly. What are your thoughts on this?

October 17th, 2008 at 4:41 pm
 3 

Jason,

I appreciate your thoughtful reply and questions. I have already said that I don’t think that one must necessarily affirm the specific formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity to be saved. It’s hard to answer your hypothetical question about a new theological model coming along that affirms the basic biblical teachings in a different, non-Trinitarian way. If such a formulation came along, hypothetically speaking, I suppose its adherents could also be saved; that follows from what I have already said. But this is a hypothesis with no examples, at least yet. In nearly 2,000 years, no such alternative model has yet surfaced. Would you agree with me on this point?

If I’m right, in the meantime, we have no alternative model that could be viewed as legitimately or acceptably orthodox. Departure from the only known theological model that affirms all of the essential biblical teachings on the subject must, then, be considered a departure from orthodoxy.

The whole point of orthodoxy is the recognition that Christians should not divide themselves unnecessarily from one another–that they should stand together theologically as much as possible. Your line of reasoning presupposes that the burden here lies entirely on the mainstream orthodox Christian tradition to accommodate itself to innovative theologies that adopt creative alternatives to the historic orthodox model. If someone (hypothetically) comes up with such a creative alternative, the rest of us are supposed to make room for it in the church. Failure to accept the advocates of this (hypothetical) alternative model into the orthodox Christian church is supposedly a divisive act on our part. But does not the innovator bear some responsibility for the division? Isn’t he thumbing his nose at the historic church by claiming that they’ve had it wrong all these centuries and he has the right answer? (Remember, we are agreeing here that the Trinitarian model does justice to the essential biblical teachings; and we are asking about alternative models, not minor nuances or variations on the Trinitarian model.) I would suggest that the theological maverick bears at least some responsibility for the de facto division that his “I did it my way” approach to theology creates.

October 18th, 2008 at 11:34 am
jbaumberger
 4 

Hi Rob,

I don’t mean to be flip, but by “Trinity”, do you mean a perichoretic Trinity with each of the persons possessing a distinct mind (center of consciousness), will & emotions, or each of the persons equally sharing the one mind, will & emotions in the Godhead?

Secondly, doesn’t a perichoretic Trinity necessarily infer in some sense that all three persons of the Godhead are incarnate in Jesus since they are co-inherent or mutually indwell each other (interpenetrate)? Thirdly, following that same line of logic, wouldn’t this also suggest that all three persons participated in the suffering of Christ on the Cross since there is involvement by all three, at least functionally?

To be honest, I’ve been trying to get my hands around the doctrine of the Trinity for some years now, but as of yet, I still haven’t been able to explain how Jesus can be just the second person of the Godhead (God the Son) incarnate in the flesh when John 14:6-11 seems, as least on the surface, to teach that Jesus is Himself God the Father incarnate, based on the fact that He Himself said, “..the Father that dwelleth in me, He doeth the works..” ISad to say, but all of the other Scriptures commonly used by the UPCI to teach that Jesus is the Father, are, as far as I’m concerned, taken out of context, including the favorite Isaiah 9:6 & Col. 2:9-10 Scriptures.

October 21st, 2008 at 9:55 pm

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