Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God.1 Corinthians 10:32
The year was 1521, and a German monk by the name of Martin Luther was on trial for heresy. It was the culmination of events that had been set into motion four years prior, when his Ninety-five Theses essentially went “viral.” Although Luther’s intent was ostensibly to foster an academic, clerical debate with regards to several theological questions, his Theses were soon translated from Latin into German and within a few months had spread across Europe.
At the heart of the matter was the issue of our justification, which Luther believed could neither be earned nor bought. Contrary to the teaching of the Church, he maintained that salvation was by “faith alone” independent of our works; moreover, he decried the sale of indulgences as a means to buy favor with God. Luther declared that salvation is not something that anyone has the ability or the authority to sell – not even the Pope – and the resulting backlash against the Roman Catholic Church became a groundswell of opposition that fueled the Protestant Reformation.
Needless to say, this put Luther directly at odds with the entire Roman Catholic hierarchy, and for three years Pope Leo X tried unsuccessfully to discredit Luther and his views. Rather than consigning Luther to the footnotes of history, though, Rome’s campaign only increased his popularity and gave him a platform to express his convictions. And so, in 1521 at the Diet of Worms, Luther was summoned to appear before the secular authorities and ordered to publicly recant. The choice before him was clear: Luther could either renounce his beliefs and live…or stand by them and die. He famously chose the latter:
“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason…I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. May God help me. Amen.”
In the wake of this declaration, Martin Luther was officially deemed a heretic and his arrest was ordered. Fortunately for Luther, though, he had friends in high places who sympathized with his crusade, offered him protection, and subsequently enabled him to continue his work for many years. As a result, the Protestant Reformation was born.
Contending for Truth
So what exactly qualifies someone as a heretic? Historically speaking the answer was fairly straightforward: if you defied or otherwise contradicted an official teaching of “The Church” you were a heretic. Seems simple enough, but this definition is really just the tip of the iceberg. Where things get complicated is that the disposition of “The Church” as well as the kind of issues it has considered heresy-worthy have changed over time.
During Christianity’s first few centuries, the governing body of “The Church” was loosely comprised of the regional bishops. They played a vital role in the formation of Christian orthodoxy, convening to articulate essential Christian doctrine and thereby speak with one voice against false teachers. That being said, since getting everyone together was no small feat, church councils were relatively rare and only called to combat those teachings that struck at the core of the Christian faith: namely the person and the deity of Christ.
Over time, though, as the power of the papacy in Rome gradually subsumed that of the individual bishoprics, “The Church” effectively became synonymous with the Pope. Consequently, the variety of issues that could get someone branded a heretic increased sharply…as did the penalties. By the time Martin Luther comes onto the scene of history, being found guilty of heresy was a capital offense that typically resulted in being burned at the stake.
Fast forward to the present day, where the designation of “heretic” now amounts to little more than an insult. The reason is once again due to the changing nature of “The Church,” which has gone from being monolithic and authoritarian to fragmented and somewhat discordant. As a result, the benchmark by which heresy has traditionally been measured is essentially non-existent today. Indeed, due to the vast array of denominations and sects that have proliferated since Luther’s day, the word heresy has virtually lost all meaning because one group’s orthodoxy is another group’s heresy. For instance:
- Protestants consider many Catholic teachings as heretical (not to mention vice versa)
- Some Pentecostal denominations are viewed as heretical by other denominations (and vice versa)
- Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and all other derivatives of Christianity are deemed to be heretical cults by Protestants and Catholics alike
- So-called “Prosperity Preachers” are often branded as heretics
Regardless of its relative severity, though, the question of heresy is just as relevant today as in times past simply because there are so many diverse and contradictory teachings. This cacophony of viewpoints not only creates confusion about what Christianity really stands for, but it virtually guarantees that false teachings are being propagated in abundance. So even though the word itself may have lost some of its gravity, the issue at the heart of every heresy is still of paramount importance: what is the truth?
Create No Stumbling Block
From the earliest days of Christianity, an earnest desire to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) has been the driving force behind the Church’s efforts to identify and counteract false teaching wherever it is found. To put it differently, “The Church” in every era has rightly understood its solemn responsibility to ensure that Christianity maintains its identity from one generation to the next. It is the gatekeeper for any and all ideas on what constitutes proper Christian belief and practice, with the goal of suppressing those teachings that are not in alignment with the proclamation of sacred Scripture. A daunting task to be sure, but one that – for the most part – the Church has faithfully discharged over the centuries. The obvious dilemma, as Martin Luther so boldly reminded us, is what to do when “The Church” gets it wrong.
Clearly the Roman Catholic Church would maintain that Luther is the errant party in their ongoing debate, but that is beside the point. Because regardless of who is right or wrong on any particular issue, you cannot escape the possibility that “The Church” in any age could get something wrong. Due to this potentiality (dare I say, inevitability) it would be unwise to tacitly assume that heretics are always the ones in the wrong.
Indeed, if being in opposition to the religious authorities is all it takes to be a heretic, then by definition the Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist, and Jesus Himself were the heretics of their day. And at least in these cases, the testimony of Scripture is clear about who was off the mark. So yes, Martin Luther was a heretic. That doesn’t mean he was wrong.
I labor this point for the simple fact that by virtually any standard of Christian orthodoxy both past and present, this book is tantamount to arch-heresy. It calls into question one of the most central doctrines of the Christian faith – the Trinity – and arguably strikes at the very heart of Christian belief. This is something that I do not take lightly, because over the course of history most heretics have indeed been wrong. Sometimes dangerously so! As such, to say that the track record of past heretics gives me pause is an understatement. Because deep down I know that like most heretics before me…the odds are not in my favor.
In any case, there are three fundamental questions that have been compelling me to press onward in this endeavor. The first question is arguably the same one that inspired Martin Luther to take his legendary stand on the issue of justification: has “The Church” gotten this one wrong? And the second question is simply this: does it matter? Put differently, assuming there are problems with the Trinity, do they warrant questioning a doctrine that has served the church for almost 2,000 years?
My fervent belief is that the answer to both questions is “yes,” a conclusion I reached more than twenty years ago and have been trying to repudiate ever since. The irony is that in my ongoing efforts to personally exonerate the doctrine of the Trinity, I have actually become more convinced of its flaws as well as their severity. This assessment neither presumes that I have considered all the evidence, nor does it reflect some self-assured notion that I am incapable of reaching a faulty conclusion myself; to the contrary, I continue to assume precisely the opposite on both counts.
And so, in the spirit of Martin Luther’s Theses, I put forth the following points for consideration:
- The doctrine of the Trinity is an analytical framework extrapolated from Scripture rather than a restatement of Scripture. Thus its validity is ultimately dependent upon the soundness of its core premises as well as the logical arguments used to substantiate its conclusions.
- The Trinity is a synthesis of Christian doctrine and concepts borrowed from Greek philosophical and religious systems, making it an extra-Biblical framework…by default.
- The Trinity is a doctrine that was gradually forged over a period of more than 300 years.
- While most Christians will readily proclaim that the doctrine of the Trinity is central to the Christian faith, they struggle to both comprehend and explain it.
- Any errant notions that we bring to Scripture will inevitably obscure its message and subsequently diminish our capacity to hear God’s voice as He speaks to us through His Word; truth, on the other hand, is what equips us with eyes to see and ears to hear.
The problem is that if the Trinity is indeed flawed, then a doctrine that is meant to illuminate our understanding of Scripture is actually distorting it and thereby impeding our ability to comprehend it. Perhaps more importantly, it presents an artificial, unnecessary barrier to non-Christians who may be disinclined to even consider the Christ of Christianity because of it. Think about it this way: how many people reject Christianity not because of what the Bible actually says; rather, they reject Christianity because of what Christians say that the Bible says?
As Paul points out in his letters, the essence of the Gospel is already “foolishness” and a “stumbling block” to non-Christians. Therefore, if the doctrine of the Trinity is true, then the fact that it creates additional problems for countless millions is an unfortunate but necessary consequence of faithfully proclaiming God’s Word. If, on the other hand, the doctrine is flawed, are we not adding offense by insisting upon a “truth” that is actually a product of our own ingenuity?
Here’s the crux of the issue: the doctrine of the Trinity took more than three centuries to fully develop and articulate, and yet it is counted as one of the core doctrines of Christianity. In fact, some would even go so far as to call it Christianity’s defining doctrine! It has been put on par with the incarnation, the atonement, and the resurrection – essential doctrines which are explicitly found in Scripture – and subsequently become the litmus test for Christian orthodoxy. So given its significance, my contention is twofold:
- Anything deemed to be so central to Christian belief and thought had better be virtually indisputable.
- While Scripture is infallible, our apprehension of it is not; consequently, any doctrinal framework like the Trinity should not be above reproach just because it has been declared sacrosanct by the church for centuries.
Which brings me to the third and final question that has compelled me along my journey: what if there is a better answer? Granted, this question may reflect my personal desire more than actual possibility, since it very well may be the case that the Trinity is the best explanation we can hope for. After all, when you consider the scores of brilliant theologians who have wrestled with this doctrine over the centuries it seems presumptuous and even downright arrogant to question it anew. Nevertheless, it has become my settled conviction that not only can we do better, but indeed that we must.
Just the Facts…
To be clear, there must be something about this three-fold aspect of God that is important for us to grasp, otherwise it wouldn’t feature so prominently in the pages of the New Testament. Thus the real issue isn’t whether there is any merit to the notion of God’s “threeness” per se; rather, what is the three-fold designation of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” really trying to tell us? Unfortunately, the answer to that question is more complicated than you might think, if for no other reason than the doctrine of the Trinity has become virtually self-fulfilling.
The problem is that once we assume that God’s “three-person nature” is established truth, we tend to find “proof” of it everywhere we look. Quite frankly, we have been thoroughly conditioned to see the Trinity in verses where it may not be at all, not only misinterpreting those verses in light of the Trinity, but also counting them as further evidence that the Trinity is indeed true! It’s the trap of circular reasoning, whereby the conclusion we should be trying to prove actually becomes the assumption that we start with. And once that happens, it can seem as if proof of the Trinity is everywhere.
So in spite of our biases, in the pages that follow we will attempt to discern the truth behind God’s “triune” designation as we examine the testimony of several key “witnesses.” Each one will be called upon to present the facts of the case, so to speak, and the decision on whether or not those facts support the historic view of the Trinity will be up to you, the jury. These witnesses include:
- Intertestamental Secular History
This may seem like an odd witness to rely upon when it comes to theological matters, but the Bible is nothing if not a historical record. Both Old and New Testaments give us insights into the events of history from God’s perspective, which is clearly the one that matters, but there is a 400-year gap between Malachi and Matthew where the Bible is silent. So even though you may be predisposed to question the reliability of this witness, it is the best one that we have available for understanding critical events that shaped the ancient world and set the stage for the arrival of Jesus.
- Church History
Similar to the secular history that precedes the New Testament, this witness will give us key insights into the things that happened after the close of the New Testament. In particular, we will focus on some of the infamous heresies that galvanized the early Church and discover how they shaped and guided the development of the Trinity during Christianity’s first four centuries.
This may seem like an obvious choice, but it is perhaps the most challenging witness to depose. The difficulty lies not with the trustworthiness of Scripture itself, but in separating what we believe Scripture says from what it actually says. Because due to our tacit acceptance of the Trinity, it is virtually impossible to see anything else when we open the pages of the Bible.
In the end, each witness will provide various pieces to the puzzle that is “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” and our task will be to put them together – without forcing them – and assess the resulting picture. Will it clearly reveal the dogma that has been proclaimed for almost two millennia? Not only do I believe that you will find more than reasonable doubt, but that you’ll actually perceive a different picture than the one on the outside of the box…so to speak. The verdict, however, will be up to you.
So I’ll ask again: does it matter? Is it worth rocking the boat? Does prudence dictate that I personally shelve this doctrine along with eschatology, baptism, and a host of other doctrines that – while important – are nonetheless secondary matters? Or, do the ripple effects of this fundamental doctrine justify…indeed, demand…pressing on?
Were it not for the lessons from Luther’s famous stand I would likely be content to keep all of these musings to myself or the occasional intramural debate. But similar to Luther’s convictions regarding the issue of justification, I am persuaded that the doctrine of the Trinity is inherently flawed and that its shortcomings are too important to simply ignore. As such, it’s time to bring the Trinity into the light.
I hope and pray that I’m right.