What Is the Trinity – and How Important Is It?


This type of question has come up a lot recently during my jail ministry.   Apparently, it is a regular topic of discussion, and the source of a lot of questions among some of the folks there.  Also, if you’ve ever engaged with Jehovah’s Witnesses, then you’ve likely encountered these kinds of questions.

Let me begin by saying that the word “Trinity” is not found anywhere in the Bible.  No Bible author – Old or New Testament – ever used the word.  Instead, the word was coined by the early church to define a concept that they believed was contained in the Bible.  Some believe that its absence from the Bible is a real point of contention.  But, in my thinking, it isn’t wrong to find a name – or label – to identify something that we believe is taught in the Bible.   Naming something just makes it easier to discuss an issue.  I believe what is more important than the name we give something is the concept behind it.

The concept of the Trinity was initially born out of an attempt to understand who Jesus was.  As Christians studied the Scriptures, it became apparent that passages about the nature of Jesus could be divided into two major categories.  In the first category were the passages that made it clear that there was a very real distinction between Jesus, and God the Father.  For example, Jesus is often described as praying to the Father.  He is also often quoted as saying that He had been sent by the Father, to do the Father’s will.  In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed that His Father’s will be done – and not His own.  These types of passages make it clear that there is a distinction – or difference – between Jesus, and God the Father.

The second group of passages concerning Jesus’ nature are those that suggest that He is the same as God; that He is Yahweh of the Old Testament come in the flesh.  For example, there is the famous opening line of John’s Gospel, “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (emphasis mine).  Or, John, telling us in John 12, that Isaiah saw Jesus (vs. 41) when he had his vision of Yahweh (Isa. 6:1-5).  Then, there are the frequent references to Jesus being God as found in the Epistles, like Paul calling Jesus “our Great God” in Titus 2:13, or Peter using a similar phrase, “our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:1).

From the earliest times, Christians did not always agree on how to handle these two types of descriptions of Jesus (and later of the Holy Spirit).  Eventually, Christians fell into one of three types of “camps.”  In the first camp, Christians tended to emphasis the passages that made Jesus distinct from God the Father.  They wanted to preserve the idea of there being only one God, and so they saw Jesus as being someone who could not be equal to God.  These Christians were initially known as Arian (called after a man named Arius).  The Jehovah’s Witnesses currently hold a view of Jesus similar to them.  They believe Jesus is a created being, and they deny that Jesus is equal to God the Father.

The other camp of Christians tendened to emphasize the passages that saw Jesus as God, but distinct in a different way.  They saw Jesus as the God of the Old Testament, and then He was Jesus of the New Testament, and then Jesus became the Holy Spirit of the Church age.  These types of Christians hold to something that is called “Modalism.”  Today, their doctrine is seen in Apostolic Churches, who are sometimes called “Jesus-Only Churches.”

The third camp – or way of seeing the two passages of scriptures about Jesus would become known as Trinitarianism – or those who believe in the Trinity.  Trinitarianism seeks to hold both ideas of Jesus in harmony– that he is distinct from God, yet He is God.

I am a Trinitarian.  By that I mean that I believe that Jesus is God, and yet He is distinct from God the Father.  I try not to emphasize one set of Scriptures above the other, but hold them in concert with each other.

Admittedly, the Trinitarian view is hard to explain.  What makes it this way is that no author of the Bible ever tried to explain it.  For example, Paul never devoted a chapter of his writings to tell us how to see Jesus as both God and separate from God.  What we do have from the NT writers is snippets of their understanding of Jesus.  We just have to put them all together.  I believe that the Trinitarian view is the best way of understanding these passages, while holding in tact the long-held view that there is only one God.

Now the second part of the question: how important is this?  Now, this is where I may differ a bit from other Evangelicals who are also Trinitarian.

First, let me say that I think it is important to try and understand God the very best that we can.  I think God is pleased by our desire to know Him, and our pursuit of Him.  Also, I think God is pleased if we understand Him correctly, and can teach others to understand Him correctly.  What father wouldn’t want his children to know him as he really is?

But, what if we misunderstand who God is?  What if we study the Bible and come up with a different conclusion, or a different emphasis than someone else?  From what I know of Arius (who led the Arian dispute) he was a devout man who loved Jesus and sought to serve him.  Is that to be condemned?

Not long ago I had a conversation with a man who I am convinced loves Jesus, and serves Him. Yet, he draws a different conclusion than I do concerning the nature of Jesus.  In my personal opinion, he is wrong. Yet, no one would ever be able to tell the difference between his devotion to Jesus, and the typical “orthodox” church goer.  He is clearly devoted to Jesus.

Since the New Testament writers did not make belief in the Trinity an essential element to salvation, then I cannot insist on it either.  Romans 10:9-10 does NOT say, “if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus, and believe in your heart the doctrine of the Trinity, you will be saved.”  Apparently the NT writers just didn’t place Trinitarian understanding at the top of the “Most Important” list.  I know that my position puts me at odds with some Evangelicals who believe that if you do not accept the Trinity, then you cannot be a Christian. I would believe that too if it were in the Bible.  But it’s not there, and so I cannot insist on something that the Bible writers did not insist on.

Peace,

dane

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