Why I Am a Trinitarian – and Why I Don’t Get Excited About It

Why I am a Trinitarian – and why I don’t get excited about it.

I am a Trinitarian.  It is a name given to anyone who holds to the doctrine of the Trinity.  However, it’s not a topic that I feel is something that I must champion.  It just doesn’t get me fired up as it does other Christians.

The word “Trinity” is not found in Scripture.  It is a term used by Christians to define a particular understanding or teaching that many (but not all) believe is described in the Bible.  It is a doctrine that has to do with the way in which we understand the nature of God.

Before I reveal why I am a Trinitarian, let me begin by listing the reasons that do NOT affect my reasoning.  First, I am not a Trinitarian because some long-ago church council decided that it was “orthodox.”  I respect the tradition of the church, but I don’t let the ancients do my thinking for me.  As well, I have no reason to believe that the church councils (after what is found in the book of Acts) were inspired.   Although I agree with some of the same conclusions that these councils reached, I don’t find any justifiable reason to think they were inspired councils.  For instance, some councils condemned (and saw fit for murder) any person or group who didn’t agree with them.  This is proof enough for me that they were not acting under the inspiration of God.  Being correct does not necessarily mean one is inspired.

Secondly, I am not a Trinitarian because it is a tradition that was handed to me.  Yes, I was raised in a Trinitarian church, surrounded by Trinitarian thinkers.  No doubt this has influenced my thinking.  However, I have already abandoned traditions that I grew up with when I found that they did not hold to the light of scripture.  I would have no problem abandoning Trinitarianism if I found it likewise lacking.

So, why am I a Trinitarian?  Simply put, I am a Trinitarian because I believe that the Trinity doctrine is found in the pages of Scripture.  However, the Trinity doctrine is not a “simply put” doctrine.  It can be difficult to explain because it holds together three important concepts simultaneously.  It was developed in order to explain how these ideas can be held in concert.  I would like to explain the three concepts in order to explain what Trinitarian doctrine is about.

The first of the three concepts that one should recognize is monotheism.  Even a casual reader of the Old Testament will notice that the God of the Bible-Yahweh- has made it clear that He is the ONLY God.  There are no other gods.  Belief in one God is called monotheism.  This can be contrasted with the pagan belief of “polytheism,” or the belief in many gods.  Biblical Monotheism is indisputable.  God has made it abundantly clear that He alone is God.  Therefore, as we come to the pages of the New Testament the reader should have already picked up on this central teaching.  It is the first element that the Trinity doctrine attempts to hold.

The second concept we must handle is the Deity of Jesus (Note: for the purpose of this essay, I will focus on the role of Jesus.  The role of the Holy Spirit can be understood similarly, but is not being addressed here.).

As Jesus’ ministry unfolded, it became very clear that He was no mere man.  Instead, the New Testament reveals that He is God.  His deity is evident from the earliest pages of the gospel records.  For example, in the second chapter of Mark, soon after His ministry begins, we find Jesus forgiving the sins of a paralytic (2:5).  The Jews standing nearby immediately understood the implication: who can forgive sins but God alone?

The New Testament shows Jesus forgiving sins, allowing Himself to be worshipped, and claiming a unique unity with God the Father.  These are prerogatives of the divine God.  Ultimately, He was killed by the Jews because “being a man He made himself out to be God” (Jn. 10:33).  This, therefore, becomes the second concept that we must attempt to hold: that Jesus is God.

The third and probably the most difficult concept to handle is the Nature of Jesus.  In particular, we must try to understand who Jesus is in relationship to God the Father.  In the gospels, we find Jesus often praying to God the Father, and sometimes God the Father even speaking audibly to Jesus (Mt. 3:17 & 17:5).  These conversations seem to suggest that they were different Persons.  Furthermore, Jesus often spoke about God the Father in the same way that you and I might talk about another person.  Jesus claimed that He and the Father had a loving relationship (Jn. 3:35), and that He was sent by the Father (Jn. 4:34), and would be returning to the Father (Jn. 14:28).  He said that His Father knew things that He Himself did not know (Mark 13:32).  All of these expressions might lead us to believe that Jesus and His Father were not the same person.

The dilemma should now be clear.  If God is one (monotheism), and Jesus is God, then how can Jesus and the Father be two different persons?  Doesn’t that give us two Gods?  Isn’t that polytheism?

Some have attempted to solve the problem by stripping Jesus of His deity.  If they can make Jesus something less than God, then belief in monotheism remains intact.  The nature of Jesus then can easily be understood since He is a separate being from God the Father.  Traditionally, this has been called “Arianism,” named after Arius who championed the concept in the fourth century.  Modern Jehovah’s Witnesses hold to a form of Arianism.  They claim that Jesus was a highly-exalted created angel, but not God.

Those who hold to forms of Arianism believe they have resolved the dilemma.  They preserve the fact that God is singular, and they explain how it is that Jesus can be speaking to God as if they are two persons.  However, to do this they must reinterpret much of the New Testament.  Jehovah’s Witnesses have even gone so far as to change the Bible to fit their doctrine.  The most famous example of their altering Scripture is found in John 1:1. This verse was changed in Jehovah’s Witness Bibles to preserve their tradition and keep their followers from observing that Jesus is God.

Others have gone a different route.  Rightly, they recognize that Jesus is God and that God is one.  However, they hold that God the Father became God the Son at Jesus’ birth, and after He ascended to heaven, He took on the role of God the Holy Spirit.  In so doing, they maintain both the singularity of God and the divinity of Jesus.  However, they deny that Jesus is a separate person from God the Father.  Traditionally, this has been called “modalism.”  It is the belief that God is revealed through different “modes,” or persons, at different times.  No two or three of these modes, or persons, can exist simultaneously since they believe God is only one person revealing Himself one person at a time.

Those who espouse to modalism, or forms of it, must explain how it is that Jesus could talk with God, and why Jesus spoke about God as if He was a different person.  Sometimes they respond that when Jesus prayed, it was His “human side” that was praying to the divine side.  Or, as when the voice of God thundered in the presence of Jesus, they say that God can be everywhere at once, and can thunder His voice from heaven while He stands on the earth.

I don’t have any strenuous objections to the philosophies behind these explanations.  I suppose that they could be true.  However, there is additional Scriptural data that when added to the mix makes this position fall short.  Namely, there is strong Biblical evidence suggesting that Jesus existed as a Person along with God the Father, prior to His incarnation.  In other words, Jesus did not come into existence at His earthly birth, but had been present with God before He took on flesh.  If this is the case, then there is evidence of at least two Divine Persons who existed equally and simultaneously.  If this is true, modalism cannot be accurate.

In John 17 Jesus was praying to the Father.  In verse five, Jesus asked the Father to glorify Him “with the glory which [He] had with [God] before the world was.”  This passage tells us that Jesus was with God before creation, and that they shared a glory.  Obviously, this cannot be the “human side” of Jesus praying since his flesh could not have had a glory with God before the world was created.

But, some have suggested, maybe Jesus existed in the mind of God as a planMaybe Jesus wasn’t a person before His earthly birth, but had always existed as something God intended to do.  Perhaps Jesus existed as a prophecy that would come true?

I suppose this suggestion could possibly be true.  However, there is Scripture suggesting that Jesus existed before creation as more than just a plan.

In the second chapter of Philippians, while encouraging his readers to take on the mind of Christ, Paul recorded something interesting about Jesus.  In verse six, Paul wrote that Jesus existed (past tense) in the form of God and in that state did not “consider” equality with God something to hold on to.  In the next verse, Paul stated that Jesus emptied Himself, or literally, laid aside his privileges, to take on the form of a man.  A plan, or an idea, cannot “lay something aside.”  Plans cannot “consider” something.  Plans can’t do anything.  They are conceptual, not personal.  They cannot act like persons or do the things that persons do.  Only a mind, or a person, can “consider” something and “lay something aside.”  Yet, in this passage we read that Jesus was able to do these things before His birth.  Therefore, this evidence suggests that Jesus existed as a person prior to His incarnation.  As well, Jesus existed with God.  He was clearly more than just an idea that God had.  He was with God and He was God (Jn. 1:1).

The task of recognizing the deity of Jesus, believing that Jesus is a different person than God the Father, and remaining monotheistic is challenging.  Trinitarianism offers a possible explanation.  I say “possible” because there is no evidence suggesting that God speaks of Himself in this way.  But, I believe it is the best explanation that we have.

The Trinity doctrine attempts to hold all three of these truths in harmony, without sacrificing the reality of any of them.  To complete this task, theologians have to use words and descriptions that the Bible never uses.

Trinitarian theologians have generally described God as One Being, who consists of three equal, eternal Persons.  At first blush this may sound contradictory.  But it’s not.  If theologians had said that God is one God made up of three Gods, then we would have a contradictory statement.  Three does not equal one. But, to say that a single being may not be limited to a single person is not necessarily a contradiction.  It’s just that we don’t have any models to show how one being can be more than one person.  Yet, the concept is not in itself contradictory.

Contrary to what some opponents to Trinitarians say, we do not believe in three Gods.  We hold firmly to the truth that there is One God.  We hold firmly to the belief that Jesus is God.  And we hold to the truth that God the Father and Jesus are two equal, eternal, but different Persons.  The same thing can be said about the Person of the Holy Spirit, which is the third Person of the Trinity.

This is not easy to get your mind wrapped around.  Admittedly, it can be confusing.  And this leads me to my second point: it’s something that I don’t get too excited about.

No Biblical writer ever systematically laid out the Trinity for us to understand.  No Biblical writer ever insisted that we understand the nature of God.  Therefore, I believe that we can rightly conclude that it must not be an essential thing for believers to know.  Apparently God did not feel that we need to understand it perfectly to be a follower of Him.  Apparently God allows room for error in our grasp of this concept.  Furthermore, it is entirely possible that God has a better explanation of His nature than we have contrived.  As a result, I am a non-militant Trinitarian who is willing to lay the doctrine aside if a better explanation for the three central truths outlined above can be offered.





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