The Trinity: A Necessary Christology
I’ve been listening to Mark Driscoll’s 13-part Doctrine Series. In the first session Mark discusses the doctrine of the trinity. He begins by quoting Augustine, whose contention was “If you deny the trinity you lose your soul. If you try to explain it you lose your mind”. I know what he means.
Of particular interest was Driscoll’s response to the challenge that it took such a long time for the doctrine of the Trinity to develop, with the formal doctrines we use today not appearing until the 4th and 5th centuries. The inference being that the church merely decided upon (or, invented) the Trinity long after the events recorded in the New Testament.
To quote Driscoll loosely:
Some say that it seems like it took a long time for the doctrine of the trinity to develop. Well, when the whole church is suffering persecution, people are being fed to lions, they’re being run through with swords, they’re being burned alive, they’re being crucified one after another, the Pastors are being beheaded, people are running for their lives … it’s really hard to crank out a lot of Systematic Theology under those cultural conditions. You’re trying to live and teach your people, but you’re burying a lot of them also, the whole church is suffering. So it would be surprising to find a robust development of any doctrine from the first three centuries of Christianity. But once persecution died down they started clarifying some of their doctrinal beliefs, including at the Council of Nicaea in 325AD where the belief of one God, three persons was clearly articulated. And that has held ever since. The doctrine of the trinity was also laid down again at the Council of Constantinople in 381AD. Then Augustine of Hippo, spent 19 years (from 400AD to 419AD) studying the doctrine of the trinity. The result was his book ‘The Treatise on the Trinity’, which has held up for more than 1500 years. The result today being that all Christians believe in the trinity [I think Driscoll means, by definition]. Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Anglicans… all believe in the trinity. We all agree that there is one God, three persons, Father Son and Spirit.
Mark admits this does seem to beg the question, because there are some groups who are often associated with the Christian label that do not believe in the trinity. For example, neither Mormons, nor Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in the trinity, and Mormons are also polytheists. Yet some will tell you that they consider themselves to be Christian – in fact I have had discussions with such people – as if invoking the name “Jesus” is the litmus test for real Christianity.
So where do we draw the line? Is Christianity just about trusting in Jesus, or trusting in the right Jesus? Was he just a man, a prophet, was he man and God, was he only God and not a man at all, was he a man with an opportunity to become God? These all relate to ones Christology. Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Atheists, etc, all have differing Christology’s. In other words, a Trinitarian view of God is a distinct Christian doctrine. To deny the trinity is to deny a very particular attribute of God that necessarily affects ones Christology. I think it is fair to say then, if words have meaning, that to deny the trinity is to give up the right to use the label “Christian.” I’d agree with Mark’s inference, by definition no Christians are in disagreement over the trinity, because to believe otherwise is to proclaim “I am not a Christian.”
Mark later says that one of the main points of Ephesians 1 is that to the praise of God’s glorious grace, we live by the Spirit, through the Son, to the Father. Therefore, all of life for the Christian is Trinitarian.
He spends about 10 minutes on a false view of the trinity known as modalism, which is represented in the modern culture in churches like the United Pentecostal Church who go by slogans such as “Jesus Only” and in books that some Christians uncritically just lap up, like The Shack. His advice – if you haven’t read The Shack yet, don’t!
“… and Christians are freaking out, ‘we love it, it’s amazing, now we understand the trinity’. No, you don’t.”
He quotes one part of The Shack for example, where the God character – a woman named Papa – says, “I am truly human in Jesus”. Modalism says that the Father became Jesus and that the Father became the Spirit; one God masquerading in different forms. The God of the modalist is a pretender, a hypocrite. The Bible, however, teaches that the Father, Son and Spirit are distinct. The Father sent the Son. The Son – not the Father – died and rose. The Father was not born of Mary and did not die on a cross. For example, at the baptism of Jesus in Matthew 3, all three persons of the trinity are present. It’s not simply God pretending to be three different people at once!
The United Pentecostal Church and The Shack say there is no difference between the three persons of the trinity. The Bible says they are distinct. And that is the view that Christians hold, by definition.
In summary then, the church was not inventing the idea of a Trinitarian God. But instead, they were looking back on God’s revelation and making a determination about God, based on what He revealed about Himself in scripture. In other words, they were expounding on what they had discovered, not on what they had merely decided.
References & Notes:
Readers may follow the link to download the talk and check the accuracy of the paraphrase.
I can see a possible objection here and so I just want to make a distinction between (1) those who hold an informed and purposeful belief that God is not Trinitarian and deny Christ’s deity; and (2) those who are merely misinformed about God’s nature and in need of correction, perhaps due to their lack of years in the Lord and/or lack of information. For the purpose of things here, I am referring largely to the first group.