Does the Doctrine of the Trinity Matter?

I am told that one can not be saved without accepting the doctrine of the Trinity, yet even the most capable theological minds on the planet debate over it -- not only as regards the understanding of it, but also as to whether or not it can even be derived from Scripture! Did the repentent thief on the cross know about the doctrine of the Trinity? When traditional peoples of the Pacific Islands are converted, for example, what is their perception of the doctrine of the Trinity? What about the average Christian who would seem to have little interest in the perplexing doctrinal aspects of this teaching? How important can it be if the majority of Christians have little if any knowledge of the issues which surround it? Can they really be said to believe it if they are basically ignorant concerning the biblical justification for it, as well as the many seeming contradictions in Scripture which are associated with it? Why is this teaching regarded as a fundamental truth when even the greatest Christian scholars admit to numerous technical difficulties with regard to it?
The matter is highly complex and abstract. In fact, it took the church until A.D. 451 (at the Council of Chalecedon) to finalize its formal statements most of these things issues. Even today the Eastern Orthodox Church dissents from the Roman Catholic Church and most Protestant churches regarding the nature of the economic Trinity.

Let me say very clearly that I do not believe that understanding the doctrine of the Trinity (ontological or economic) is essential for salvation. In fact, I would wager that he is a rare person who understands this doctrine upon conversion.

Nevertheless, I do think it is very important that we as Christians understand at least that there is only one God, and that he exists in three distinct persons who are not identical with each other. I also think it's important that we understand Christ to be one person with two natures. These ideas are important because they have practical implications for:
  • The way we pray -- To whom can we pray? Is it more effective to pray to the Father than to the Son? Is there more than one God?
  • The way we worship -- Who can we name as the object(s) of our worship? What truths can we proclaim in his/their praise?
  • The way we think about our relationships with each other and with God -- In our union with Christ, are we united only to a man? Only to God? Only to a god? Can we become gods too?
Moreover, our perception of issues related to the Trinity and the hypostatic union greatly influences how we read the Bible. It affects our interpretation of many passages, and therefore it affects the applications we draw from those passages. It also affects our understanding of the Bible's (and of God's) reliability because it addresses areas of seeming contradiction. Because these issues are so fundamental to Christian life, I place great importance on them.

Certainly, some of the more technical aspects of these doctrines step rather speculatively on ground only safely trod by God. But there are some fundamental aspects of these doctrines with which no Christian scholar disagrees, and which are not terribly speculative -- namely the that God exists in three persons and one essence, and that Christ is one person with two natures, being fully God and fully man. I would hope to see great tolerance for those ignorant/agnostic in these areas. A lack of understanding of these doctrines deprives one of rich opportunities for growth and worship, but it does not threaten souls. However, there can be great danger in holding to misconceived ideas about these matters. For example, those who reject the deity and/or humanity of Christ cannot be saved (John 20:30-31; 1 John 2:22; 4:2-3; 2 John 7). In this regard I differentiate rather significantly between passive ignorance and active rejection.

I suspect that while most Christians don't think about these matters much, most also assume a great number of things that depend upon these doctrines (e.g. Jesus is a sufficient and reliable savior; it is good to pray to Jesus; baptism is to be done in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit). I also suspect that most Christians know a good deal more about these doctrines than they realize. Consider a parallel in grammar: most people who speak English can't parse a sentence and its constituent parts, but they can converse quite well. They recognize good grammar even though they can't define it.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.