Saturday, May 25, 2013

Mythbusting the Trinity

Today we celebrate the successful defense and preservation of orthodox Christianity,as articulated in that central mystery of the faith—the Holy Trinity.

There is no mistaking the central importance of the Trinity to the Christian religion. In his ten volume series on Anglican Dogmatic Theology, Professor Francis Hall observed: “The doctrine of the Trinity must occupy the central place in any sound or adequate conception of spiritual realities. It constitutes the postulate of the doctrines of the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Church, justification and salvation, and of the coming kingdom of God. If it were shown to be false, these doctrines would have to be modified beyond recognition, and Christianity would become something quite other than it actually is."

Which is to say that without the trinity, you do not have Christianity as we know it. And the importance of that is explained in the Athanasian Creed we used today: “This is the Catholic Faith, which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.”

Most of us sense the gravity of the Trinity—the importance of the dogma. But when it comes to the details, most of us feel a little lost, like the man who professed: “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible . . . the whole darn thing incomprehensible.”

I hope we can clear up at least some of the confusion today. One TV show I like is Mythbusters where a team of investigators take an urban legend and see what is really true and what is just myth. Maybe we can bust some myths and dispel some misconceptions today.

Myth #1 – All Christians believe in the Trinity. In one sense that it true. The Trinity is such a central teaching of Christianity that we may say that those who claim the name of Christian, but reject the Trinity stand outside of historic Christianity.

The Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox and all historic mainline Protestant churches affirm the doctrine of the Trinity as understood in historic Christianity. Outside of that we find Unity Church, Unitarians, Christadelphians, Christian Science, Jews for Jesus, Dawn Bible Students, Quakers, Jehovah’s Witness, Armstrong’s Church of God, Mormons, and some Pentecostals called “oneness” Pentecostals.

Myth #2 – The Trinity was invented by the Council of Nicaea. Strangely, the first ecumenical council after the New Testament era, is credited with doing all sorts of strange things, such as: censoring books from the Bible, cutting reincarnation out of Christianity, inventing traditional Christianity to replacing Gnosticism, etc. And none of these are true.

The truth is that the Council of Nicaea was called to defend the doctrine of the Trinity. The remarkable thing is that no such defense or formal creed was needed for the first 300 years of the church’s life. It was only when Arian heresy first spread that a council was called.

Myth #3 – At first, God was Father, then he was Son, now he’s Holy Spirit. This is an ancient heresy called Seballianism or “modalism.” This is the view of some Christians and churches today, such as the United Pentecostal Church, and (until recently) T.D. Jakes. In fact, (ironically) several of the personalities on the Trinity Broadcasting Network don't teach trinitarian doctrine.

Modalism was first proposed by Seballius in the 200s, who taught that the “Trinity” is actually three successive manifestations of the one true God, rather than the orthodox view of three eternal persons of one essence. For Seballius, the God of the Old Testament was the Father, later incarnated as the Son, and now indwells us as the Holy Spirit. (A modalist version of the trinity confuses the outside of the triangle at the top of the page with the inside.) Unlike Arianism, Seballianism did not create enough of a stir to call a council.

Myth #4 – It doesn’t matter if I believe God is a Trinity or not. This is perhaps the most destructive myth of all, because it is the most tempting. God has purposefully revealed himself that we can know him and enter into a saving relationship with the eternal Father by being joined to the eternal Son and enlivened and indwelt by the eternal Spirit. And our God is known both by name and by his attributes. 

As the Apostle Paul said, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Keep doing this, for by doing so, you save both yourself and those who listen to you” (1 Tm 4:16-17). Let us become so familiar with who God is and what he is like, that we instantly recognize when someone tries to pass us a counterfeit.

When we hear the persons of the Trinity described as “aspects of God,” when we hear that “the Father came down to be one of us,” or that Jesus was merely a human being, or only appeared human, or that Jesus became God, or stopped being God on the cross, or that diversity is what makes God a trinity, or that the Holy Spirit is an “it”—a thing, or that you and I are “gods-in-embryo,” then we should not pay attention to anything else they have to say. For these are the beginnings of errors, not the end. And sometimes, even words can destroy souls.

Because the Trinity matters. The Trinity is truly God and anything else is a figment of our imagination.“This is the Catholic Faith, which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.”

Let us pray.
Most glorious Trinity: Give us grace to continue steadfast in the confession of this faith, and constant in our worship of thee, O Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; who livest and reignest, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.