The Trinity or the Truth?

Question
I have been scanning the net for studies which are for and against various aspects of the Doctrine of the Trinity. I have to say that the nay-sayers are not unsophisticated in their arguments. If the Trinity teaching is so widely subscribed to, how does one explain so many negative references which appear in such standard academic works as The Encyclopedia Britannica, The Encyclopedia Americana, The New Catholic Encyclopedia, etc.?
Answer
I'm afraid that you will indeed find that many academic reference works oppose the doctrine of the Trinity. This is often true because many of these reference works are written by people who are more interested in discrediting this doctrine than in supporting it (such as liberal Christians and non-Christians). At other times, you may be reading portions of works supporting the doctrine of the Trinity, but quoted by those oppose it. One can almost always quote a qualification in a way that makes it sound like it is a refutation instead of qualification.

In any case, I think I can offer a few general explanations that will apply to many of the works you encounter:

  1. It is true that the Old Testament does not in and of itself teach the doctrine of the Trinity. On the other hand, neither does it refute the doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity is based primarily on the New Testament's teaching, and is compatible with the Old Testament's teaching. This is in accordance with the way God has always given revelation -- a little bit at a time. In progressively giving us more and more revelation, God did not provide enough information for us to conclude the doctrine of the Trinity until Christ himself came and taught on earth. It was always true, but we didn't always know enough to recognize this truth.


  2. It is also true that the Bible nowhere explicitly lays out the doctrine as the church has traditionally formulated it -- but this is not a requirement for truth. In fact, often times the most basic truths are never stated explicitly because they are assumed. This seems to have been the case in the New Testament. The New Testament writers seem to have regarded the Father as God, the Son as God, and the Holy Spirit as God. They also affirmed that there is only one God, and that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are distinct from one another. It seems to me that the best explanation for this is that the writers assumed the truths expressed in the doctrine of the Trinity, and also assumed that their audiences assumed these same tenets. The doctrine of the Trinity is an attempt by subsequent readers of the Bible to summarize concisely this set assumptions seemingly exhibited by the New Testament authors. Related to this, the fact that some verses speak only of one or two members of the Trinity does not in anyway contradict the doctrine of the Trinity. One may speak of certain aspects of a thing without having to mention every aspect of it (e.g. I may introduce myself by name without at the same time relating my life story).


  3. There is much disagreement over applications of the doctrine of the Trinity, and over more specific aspects of the doctrine of the Trinity. Broad fundamental agreement exists only among those who believe the Bible to be the inspired, inerrant Word of God (a shrinking contingent these days), and even then some cultic groups who claim to value Scripture this highly reject the doctrine of the Trinity (e.g. Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses). In this regard, however, it is worth noting that all truth is disputed. The gospel itself finds even less acceptance than the doctrine of the Trinity -- huge denominations like the Roman Catholic Church reject the pure gospel of grace, teaching that justification is based partially on presonal merit. Unfortunately, disagreement and dispute are par for the course.


  4. The doctrine itself contains much mystery. It tries to say only enough to offer some general parameters, and does not even explain how to conceptualize these general parameters or the relationships between them. In many cases, individual theologians have speculated beyond the bounds of these general parameters, and wherever they have done so there have been others who have disagreed. The more specific theologians have gotten and the more they have pressed to explain the mystery, the more they have created dissention. In my opinion, the Bible itself teaches the general parameters, but does not explain any more than that. God simply has not deigned to tell us enough to solve the mystery, and we should not try to second-guess the revelation he has provided. Nevertheless, I do think that the revelation he has provided is important -- otherwise he would not have provided it. The doctrine is shrouded in mystery, but to the degree that it accurately represents Scripture, we ought to believe it and to apply it. Moreover, mystery should not put us off -- imagine how much more mystery the Old Testament saints endured than we endure. Even so, the truth for them was no different than the truth for us. Further, in every truth there are things too mysterious and wonderful for us to understand. Take for example God's love for us. Fundamentally, why does he love us? Exactly how much does he love us? There is great mystery in the fact of God's love, but it does not dissuade us from believing that his love is real. We know enough, but not all.


  5. The Bible does not use the term "Trinity" -- the term is theological shorthand developed to refer to a particular understanding of a group of doctrines. This is not really an argument against the doctrine(s) expressed by the term, but rather an objection to the term itself. Simply referring to it as "the group of doctrines that there is only one God; that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are all God; and that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are all distinct from one another" eliminates the effectiveness of this objection.


  6. Indeed, the verse most commonly quoted in defense of the doctrine of the Trinity in past years was 1 John 5:7 as represented in the Greek Received Text (that used, for example, in the King James Version). I agree that this verse is probably an interpolation not original to the text. Further, even if it were original to the text, it would not state the doctrine explicity -- it says nothing about "persons" or "essence"; it does not speak in terms of there being only "one God." The doctrine of the Trinity is not, however, dependent upon this interpolation. It can be demonstrated (in my opinion) from texts which are not disputed.


  7. That paganism also contains ideas of Trinitarianism that are earlier than the New Testament does not demonstrate that the New Testament borrowed these ideas from prior paganism. Paul teaches that false gods are really demons, and the Bible at large demonstrates mankind's propensity toward idolatry and corruption of God's truth. If God does exist in Trinity, then since the demons seek to be worshiped in God's place, it would not be unreasonable to anticipate their to wish to be worshiped in trinity. Further, if aspects of God's Trinity were evident from general revelation or from prior special revelation, it would not be surprizing for men to corrupt that revelation and turn it to pagan ways.


  8. There have been times in the church's history when Trinitarianism was a minority report, and other times when it has prevailed due to political influence. These facts, however, argue neither for or against the origin of the doctrine, nor for or against its truth. In fact, a general survey of early Christian literature indicates that after the Apostles the church suffered a great lack of theological acumen for centuries. Christians were too busy trying to stay alive to spend much time on scholarship, and no one existed who was as spiritually gifted as the Apostles, or who had been trained by Christ himself. Protestants have an advantage in this area since they do not hold to the authority of tradition. Tradition is helpful, but not a necessary link in the chain. We are free to believe what the Bible teaches, even if the church has consistently misinterpreted it. This means, by the way, that if the Bible rejects the doctrine of the Trinity, we are obligated to reject it too -- but I do not believe this to be the case.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.