Generally speaking, there are two parties involved in any legal dispute. The party who initiates the complaint is known as the plaintiff, whereas the defendant is the party who has allegedly wronged the plaintiff in some way. Moreover, since the plaintiff is asking the court to use the power of the state to force the defendant to address their grievances, the plaintiff is the one who is required to prove that their complaints against the defendant are legitimate. This principle is known as the “burden of proof,” and practically speaking this means that the defendant doesn’t have to “prove” their innocence in order to be exonerated. All the defendant has to do is demonstrate that the plaintiff has not sufficiently met the burden of proof that is required to substantiate their charges.
This concept underlies the notion that the defendant is “innocent until proven guilty,” but where things get complicated is in determining the “weight” of the plaintiff’s burden. Depending upon the nature and severity of the charges being brought before the court, the “standard of proof” which the plaintiff must attain can range from merely presenting “some credible evidence” in support of their claims, all the way up to making a case that leaves no plausible reason to believe the charges are not true. The latter is the standard of proof that must be met in criminal cases, and is referred to as proof “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
With this setting in mind, let’s consider the claim that God is in fact a Trinity, i.e. three persons existing within a singular godhead. The first thing we need to establish is who bears the burden of proof in the debate: is it those who claim that God is a Trinity, or those who say He is not? Because on one hand, if the Trinity is the “defendant,” then it would be presumed to be “innocent” of any charges that it is false; moreover, any claimants to the contrary would have to “prove” that the Trinity is indeed false. In other words, as the “defendant,” the Trinity would be assumed to be true until proven otherwise. If, on the other hand, the Trinity is actually the plaintiff, then the burden of proof would fall upon those who claim it to be true.
When you look at the history of this doctrine, the Church has certainly positioned the Trinity as the “defendant” for almost two millennia. Why do I say that? Because the Trinity has become the litmus test of orthodoxy, such that it’s veracity is never in question and anyone who dares to deny it is automatically assumed to be non-Christian by default. Hence any position that contradicts the Trinity is deemed to be heresy simply because it violates the Trinity…not necessarily because it conflicts with Scripture. This caveat is vital to grasp, since it is one thing to “have your case thrown out of court” because your claims are clearly contradicted by Scripture; it’s another thing to dismiss something as heretical just because “it’s not the Trinity.” And yet for most of the last 2,000 years, the latter condition has been the standard.
Despite the Trinity’s preferential “defendant” status, though, after almost 2,000 years of debating this doctrine its proponents have indeed assembled a mountain of circumstantial evidence to “prove” that it is true. Furthermore, they would argue that the case for the Trinity is so compelling that it demonstrates the validity of the doctrine beyond any reasonable doubt. In reality, though, it is technically not possible to “prove” the doctrine of the Trinity since the evidence for this perplexing doctrine is entirely circumstantial. In other words, since you can’t find direct, Scriptural evidence for this doctrine anywhere in the Bible, even though there is substantial “evidence” that corroborates the Trinity and apparently bolsters its legitimacy, it can never truly establish it as fact. Because just as circumstantial evidence is not considered sufficient to establish truth beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law, neither is it adequate to prove the Trinity.
The problem is that circumstantial evidence is always subject to interpretation…and there is rarely a single valid perspective. That being the case, since Scripture never explicitly provides an exposition of the meaning of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” every framework that attempts to explain it can only be viewed as a plaintiff in any debate – including the Trinity – because it necessarily bears the burden of proof. In short, whereas the Trinity is typically positioned as the “defendant” whenever its merits are questioned, in actuality the only defendant should always be Scripture.
In other words, while it’s one thing to exonerate the Trinity (or any doctrine) against alternative ideas that may…or may not…be true themselves; it’s quite another to withstand the scrutiny of actual Scripture. This is why one of the rallying cries of the reformers was “Sola Scriptura!” because they rejected extra-Biblical ideas and practices if they could be shown to be contradicted by Scripture. They rightly challenged mere tradition and decree as the basis for belief, and yet we continue to cling to this extra-Biblical doctrine whose only real defense is an appeal to tradition.
To be fair, the doctrine of the Trinity has served the Church well for almost 2,000 years, apparently vanquishing a host of heretical teachings and ideas which threatened to compromise the very essence of Christianity. So if nothing else, lacking a better alternative, it has clearly stood the test of time. Still, if the notion that God is a triune-being was clearly articulated in Scripture, then the history of this doctrine would have been much different. There would have been little point in arguing about it and spilling blood over it, since the “physical evidence” would have been both obvious and irrefutable. But since direct, Scriptural support doesn’t exist, we need to acknowledge that the Trinity is therefore just a possible explanation of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
Put differently, in lieu of Scriptural “hard evidence” that forthrightly and unambiguously declares the notion of “three persons in a Godhead” to be true, there is no basis for granting the Trinity “defendant” status when it is effectively just another plaintiff trying to make its case. Since the “smoking gun” does not exist, the highest status that the Trinity can hope to claim is therefore “plausibility,” which necessarily puts it on the same footing as every other potential explanation as to the meaning of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
Thus when you consider the significance and influence that the doctrine of the Trinity has been accorded when it comes to matters of faith and practice, we would be wise to evaluate it in the same manner that the Bereans tested Paul’s claims. They were commended as “noble” on account of their diligence and dedication when it came to searching the Scriptures in order to validate the truth of what Paul was teaching, so we should not be afraid to scrutinize and test this doctrine simply because it has been proclaimed as “truth” by the church for centuries. On the contrary, we should welcome each challenge as an opportunity to grow in our knowledge and understanding of our God as we eagerly seek to discover the truth. Because when it comes to the Trinity, not only does it collapse under its own weight when tested against the whole of Scripture, but there just may be a better answer…