The Need to Be Discerning Regarding the Doctrine of the Trinity

Scripture calls Christians to “Test all things; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21 NKJV). This is important when we come to the doctrines of the Christians faith, since scripture warns that there are many false teachers and antichrists who have gone forth teaching false doctrine, twisting the scriptures to their own destruction (1 John 2:18-22).

In the face of so many false teachers, it is important to see every point of doctrine proven from scripture before we believe it, in order to have certainty regarding every point of doctrine, rather than merely being carried away with strange theories, mere probabilities, and false teachings.

On this subject, fourth century church father Cyril Archbishop of Jerusalem said:

“Have thou ever in thy mind this seal, which for the present has been lightly touched in my discourse, by way of summary, but shall be stated, should the Lord permit, to the best of my power with the proof from the Scriptures.  For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell thee these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures.  For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures.”

It is necessary then, to have clear demonstration form the scriptures on every point of doctrine, so that we have a sure and true knowledge of what is true.

In the Protestant tradition, this idea is greatly emphasized as part of doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Protestantism broke with the Roman Catholic church in large part over the doctrines regarding how a person is saved and brought into fellowship with God (this area of doctrine is called soteriology).

Protestants disagreed with the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on soteriology because they saw that it was contrary to what scripture teaches. They examined the Roman doctrines on the basis of scripture, and found that they contradicted them. So they instead sought to articulate what scripture teaches on soteriology as accurately as possible.

This caused a great deal of controversy. In the midst of this controversy, a great deal of work was put into how to best and most accurately articulate soteriology. Hundreds of well-known theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries expended a great deal of energy to articulate these doctrines in an extremely detailed and thorough way. To this day, as a result, many modern Protestants are still very articulate in this area of doctrine. Even those who are largely untrained in theology and doctrine are often able to articulate soteriology in some detail, and are able to distinguish between their own understanding of it and the Roman Catholic position.

The outlook of critically examining what is being said on the topic of soteriology in order to avoid accepting false teaching that cannot be proven from scripture is a common one among believing Protestants. This is in large part because the doctrinal truths regarding how a person is reconciled to God are recognized as being extremely important, and that importance leads people to take the issue seriously and not just accept anything they hear without seeing actual proof from scripture.

This attitude is largely non-existent, however, in regards to the doctrines pertaining to the Trinity. This is unfortunate because these doctrines are foundational even to soteriology itself. Rejection of them constitutes a rejection of Christianity. What is at the core of what is being dealt with in trinitarian doctrine is the very identities of the persons of God, His Son, and His Holy Spirit. Who is the God we are reconciled to and forgiven our sins by in the gospel? Who is the Lord Jesus Christ through Whom we have this salvation? Who is the Spirit Christians are sealed with? It is these questions that are ultimately at stake in trinitarian doctrine.

Christians need to strive to have an attitude that is more obedient to the scripture’s command to “test everything, and hold fast that which is good” in respects to the doctrine of the Trinity. Too often it seems like the attitude people take towards trinitarian doctrine is far different than that they have towards soteriology. Unlike soteriology, trinitarian doctrine is regarded as something esoteric and mysterious, to be accepted from trustworthy teachers without question or criticism- without discernment. This opens the door to receiving false teaching, intentional and otherwise. Just as many recognize a need to exercise careful discernment in respect to the gospel, lest they believe a false gospel, so we must also exercise discernment in respect to the doctrine of the Trinity, lest we find ourselves believing a false doctrine of the Trinity.

Just as it is not sufficient for us to believe a point of doctrine related to soteriology that a notable and respected theologian has taught without also critically examining what is being taught and making sure it can be proven from scripture, so also we need to do more than just ‘take Augustine’s word for it’ with respect to the Trinity. The fact that men like Augustine, Calvin, and Van Til have said or not said something on any point of doctrine does nothing to make that point of doctrine true or false. Even the godliest, wisest, most intelligent men err. No amount of good intentions makes it impossible to make an honest mistake, or to misunderstand something. We need to be willing to do the work of looking critically at what theologians tell us about the doctrine of the Trinity- and only accepting that which we see truly proven from the scriptures. Without a critical attitude on these doctrines, we open ourselves up to adopt all the errors and mistakes of those we learn from, in addition to all they teach correctly.

Reclaiming the Language of the Nicene Creed

The Nicene Creed, which is historically one of the most important trinitarian confessions, begins by saying “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty…”. Scripture speaks this way as well:

“This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” John 17:3 NAS

“…yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.” 1 Corinthians 8:6 NAS

But the equation of the “one God” with the person of the Father in particular is something that many modern Christians are uncomfortable with. There are actually quite a few legitimate reasons why this might be the case.

Many anti-trinitarian heresies comandeer this sort of language to try to argue against the divinity of Christ. Jews, Arians, Socinians, Muslims, and various other anti-trinitarian heresies all argue that the one God is the Father in particular in order to exclude the Son from divinity. They try to weaponize what the Nicene Creed lays out as the first article of the Christian faith, in order to deny the second.

In light of this, it is understandable that the language of “the one God being the Father” would make some people uncomfortable.

Despite this, I would argue that we must seek to reclaim the language of scripture on this matter, rather than cast it aside because if its misuse by heretics. Defining the “one God” of the Christian faith as the Father is something scripture does, and language scripture uses. Its the way that God chose to reveal these truths to us. We must seek to embrace the langauge scripture uses on this matter, while being careful at the same time to distinguish what we believe from anti-trinitarian heresies.

This is precisely what the early church did. Although in the first few centuries of Christianity the church was faced with several heresies attacking the fundamental articles of the faith, including the divinity of Christ, hereies which often twisted and misused scripture in doing so, the early church did not reject the concepts and language of scripture that were being misused. Rather, they contended for them, and carefully distinguished what they were saying from the false teaching of the various heretical sects. This is why the Nicene Council, for example, although writing in opposition to Arianism in the defense of trinitarianism, did not shy away from saying that the “one God” is “the Father Almighty” in the very document in which they were articulating the doctrine of the Trinity. Its misuse by heretics did not stop them from embracing the doctrine that the one God is the person of the Father- instead they sought to demonstrate how this truth is compatible with the other doctrines that scripture teaches that Arianism opposed.

Modalism has Evolved

Modalism has evolved into something more difficult to fight against. Initially it made a simple claim that the one God simply manifests his person differently at different times; sometimes as Father, other times as Son, other times as Spirit. “Father”, “Son”, and “Spirit” were all held to ultimately be different names for the same person.

This is a fairly obviously false doctrine and its not a heresy that’s hard to disprove. The scriptures clearly speak of the persons of the Trinity (the Father, the Son, and the Spirit) as three distinct persons. There is such an abundance of these instances that I think it is not even necessary to cite any here. A cursory reading of the Bible makes it perfectly clear that the Father is not the Son, and the Son is not the Father, nor are they the Spirit nor is the Spirit them. They are three truly distinct persons, united in will and action, and eternally inseparable from one another; but truly distinct nonetheless.

Semi-modalism is the next variation of modalism to sweep the church and it is significantly more crafty and dangerous. It hides behind orthodox language to sound as close to orthodoxy as it possibly can. It keeps the fundamental tenet of modalism unchanged- that the one God is one person, who somehow turns out to be Father, Son, and Spirit. But instead of saying they are just modes or roles he takes at different times according to his will, they say that he permanently, or even by nature, exists as all three at the same time. This one person manages to eternally exist as three persons, according to the thinking of the semi-modalists. The next trick they pull: deny that the one person is a person.

In doing this, they sound totally orthodox. They can say that they really believe in nearly everything an orthodox trinitarian does. Do they believe in three distinct persons? Absolutely, they say. Do they hold them all to be co-essential, that is, of the same divine nature? Yes. Do they hold that all three are co-eternal and inseparable from one another? Yep. They sound nearly perfectly orthodox.

But their blasphemous error can be revealed not simply by asking what part of the truth they don’t believe, but what they add to it. They believe in three distinct persons, Father, Son, and Spirit. They say they believe in the Trinity. But they also believe that the Father, Son, and Spirit are all one person. They usually don’t use that language, because they know it sounds heretical and insane to say that the one God is one person who is three persons. But they do in truth believe that, and think of God that way.

What evidence can be seen to give this away? One of the greatest things that shows this is their persistent use of singular personal pronouns for all three persons of the Trinity as a group. If the Father, Son, and Spirit are three persons, then they are referred to, according to the rules of grammar, by the term “they”: a plural personal pronoun. This is consistent with the fact that there is a plural number of persons- namely three. But when the semi-modalist refers to the three persons together they are referred to as “he”. “He is Father, Son, and Spirit” they will say of the one God.

They will call this person by certain names. Some of old called him “God the Trinity”- clearly marking their belief that the Trinity, that group of three divine persons, is itself a single person. Today the name “triune God” is in vogue. They will speak of this “triune God” always as a person, but nearly never openly admitting that he is such. Most will openly deny it if they are questioned. But they always call this “triune God” “he” and “him”: always singular personal pronouns are used. This betrays their true belief.

A few of these heretics have been so brave to come out and openly say that they believe the Trinity is a person. Cornelius Van Til did. He was rightly criticized as being a heretic; yet many of those criticizing him have nothing to boast in as being any better than him except that they do not come out and openly say what they think, but are determined to mask their belief behind orthodox language. Their denials betray the fact that their belief is shameful. Their inconsistency is obvious. They call him a heretic for saying openly that the Trinity is a person while they themselves constantly refer to the Trinity as a person by referring to it with singular personal pronouns.

What must be looked at here is not merely verbage, although the words used certainly matter a great deal, and must be contended for. But what is actually believed must be examined. These false teachers are experts in twisting words to serve them and sounding like they are orthodox. But the substance of their belief, when you get down to it, is that the one God is a single person they can interact with, worship, glorify, and pray to, who is himself both the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The heart of their belief is not different than that of classical modalism. It has simply evolved, and its fooled so many. Don’t be one of them.

The Bible is really quite clear concerning who the one God is, and its really among the most basic doctrines of Christianity. Yet it seems that in some circles a knowledge of it is nearly lost. The one God is the Father (1 Cor 8:6, Eph 4:6). The one God is a person: He is a “He”. The error does not lie in thinking of Him and interacting with Him as a person; the problem lies in failing to recognise that person as the Father. He is the one who is the eternal Father of the Son, and the adoptive Father of all the saints. That is Who the one God is. That’s what’s missing from most people’s’ formulation of trinitarian doctrine. That’s what the semi-modalists lack that they require.

Want proof the one God is the Father, from scripture? Check out my post on that topic for explicit proof from scripture and historic testimony from the ancient Christian church. This doctrine is biblical, and was taught by the early church; see for yourself at: https://nicenefaith.wordpress.com/2017/03/08/i-believe-in-one-god-the-father-almighty/