Classic Theism: Trinitarian Errors
"Let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me…" (Jeremiah 9:24a)
That verse captures the goal of Trinitarian theology: to know the amazing God that we worship. It is a task in which we must confess our impotence, for we are limited by both our own fallible reason and the extent of God's self-revelation. We see through a glass darkly, and though the knowledge provided about God in Scripture is sufficient to meet our spiritual needs, we will always long for more.
Our desire to know God is admirable, yet we must not mistake our own misconceptions for true knowledge. In the history of the Church, there are few things that have created such seismic upheavals as our doctrine of God, and not without good reason. Many errors have crept in, some of them crossing into the realm of heresy. Here we must acknowledge that not every way of thinking about God is valid, but only that which is true: the very Word of God confessed by the Church for centuries.
Most errors fall into one of three categories. First, they deny that God exists in Trinity or diminish the Persons to such an extent that it becomes a practical Unitarianism. Second, they either explicitly state that there are three separate Gods or stress the differences so much that they essentially demote one or more of the Persons from full deity. Third, they use overly human conceptions to explain the divine, thus attempting to recreate God in their own image. (This often leads back to one of the other categories.)
The first error is known as Modalism or Sabellianism and was condemned as a heresy by the Church Fathers. The second includes views such as Arianism, which was formally declared a heresy at the Council of Nicea. As these heresies are old and well documented, there are few within orthodox Christianity who would openly assert them. Indeed, to hold to them would place one outside the bounds of orthodoxy. However, that third category is more difficult to define, and as such it tends to flourish even among respectable Christians. The tendency to explain God in purely human terms or to bend doctrine to fit our own perceived needs is the chief Trinitarian error of our age.
There are some things about the Trinity that can be known with certainty. The God we serve has invited us to know and commune with Him, and not only with one Person of the Trinity, but all three. Nevertheless, we must keep in mind two principles that have been critical in the formulation of historic Reformed theology: the Creator/creature distinction and the sufficiency of Scripture.
By distinguishing between the Creator and the created, we acknowledge that though man is made in God’s image, he is in no way equal to Him. Man is a being with limitations and failings, possessing none of the eternal glory and perfection that exists in the Godhead. Moreover, because we believe as Scripture states that God’s ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9) and no man may see God in His glory and live (Exodus 33:20), we realize that it is not possible for human reason to comprehend God except as He has chosen to condescend to us and reveal Himself. The general knowledge we gain from observing creation may leave us without excuse (Romans 1:20), but only the special self-revelation of God allows us to truly know and have a relationship with Him. Again, the Trinity is incomprehensible except as God Himself has revealed it, and when we think about it in any other way, it is not really the Trinity we imagine but a god in our own image.
If Scripture is God’s special revelation to us, then our thinking about the Trinity must be directed by our belief in the sufficiency of the Word of God. We often speak of the sufficiency of Scripture in terms of the negative: we are not to add to God’s completed special revelation. However, believing in the sufficiency of Scripture also means accepting the whole counsel of God rather than focusing on one passage to the exclusion of others. God's Word interprets God's Word. He has not given that which we do not need, but all that He has given we most assuredly need like our daily bread. Therefore, any conception of the Trinity that purports to uphold one portion of Scripture while ignoring others is in fact a violation of Scripture and a failure to trust in its sufficiency.
It is through this principle of Scripture interpreting Scripture that we know that verses speaking of God changing His mind must agree with the statement “God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent.” (Numbers 23:19a) On a similar note, the phrase “God is the head of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:2b) must agree with the fact that the Son is “the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power,” (Hebrews 1:3) and Paul’s own assertion that “in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form…” (Colossians 2:9) In our thinking about the Trinity, we must cling to the entirety of biblical revelation. Scripture may need to be explained, but it is not to be added to with our own inventions.
We give thanks for those Christians who wrestled with the Word of God for years and came together as a united Church to formulate creeds defining the doctrine of God. The Nicene and Athanasian Creeds were eventually accepted by all orthodox Christians and serve as two of the fundamental summaries of Trinitarian theology. Let us look not to fidget spinners, comparisons to the three states of water, observations about triangles, or relationships between sinners to describe the Godhead. Let us confess with all the saints the truth that will protect us from falling into error, which was revealed by God in Scripture and handed down in our creeds and confessions.
In addition to James Dolezal’s new book, All That Is In God, I welcome readers to check out two excellent resources released by the Alliance in the past few months: Knowing the Trinity by Ryan M. McGraw and the Trinity sermon series by Liam Goligher.
Amy Mantravadi holds a B.A. in Biblical Literature from Taylor University. She is an active member of Patterson Park Church in Beavercreek, Ohio. You can read her blog at www.amymantravadi.com or follow her on Twitter @AmyMantravadi.