"But let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows Me . . ." (Jeremiah 9:24).
Just what is the nature of the true God of the Bible? Is God a Trinity? The Trinity is one of mainstream Christianity's most widely accepted and revered doctrines. The belief that God is three persons coexisting in one being or substance, as the doctrine is often defined, is held by millions of Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox believers alike.
The Catholic Encyclopedia calls this belief "the central doctrine of the Christian faith" (1912 edition). Yet, as we'll see, it's been a source of much confusion. Scripture clearly talks about a God who is called the Father, Jesus Christ who is called the Son of God, and a divine Holy Spirit. But how exactly does the Bible define and describe the three?
A Christian litmus test for many
The doctrine of the Trinity is considered so sacred and fundamental that many churches and religious organizations view it as a litmus test for defining who is and isn't a true Christian.
For example, author and theology professor James White writes: "We hang a person's very salvation upon the acceptance of the doctrine . . . No one dares question the Trinity for fear of being branded a 'heretic' . . . We must know, understand, and love the Trinity to be fully and completely Christian" (The Forgotten Trinity, 1998,pp. 14-15, emphasis added throughout unless otherwise noted).
The Teaching of Christ: A Catholic Catechism for Adults states: "The dogma of the Trinity is the central dogma of Catholic faith. Only with belief in it can one grasp and explicitly believe other central Christian teachings.
"It is impossible to believe explicitly in the mystery of Christ without faith in the Trinity . . . Nor could one grasp the meaning of eternal life, or of the grace that leads to it, without believing in the Trinity, for grace and eternal life are sharing in the Trinitarian life" (Donald Wuerl, Ronald Lawler, Thomas Lawler and Kris Stubna, editors, 2005, p. 150).
The book Catholicism makes it clear that the Roman church's position is that belief in the Trinity is a necessity for salvation: "Whoever will be saved: before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith. Unless he keep this Faith whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: we worship one God in Trinity" (George Brantl, editor, 1961, p. 69).
Another source explains: "The doctrine of the Trinity is the basis of our Christian faith. Because the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be fully understood, it requires the Holy Spirit to direct our minds to believe" (Randy Smith, Theological "ism"s, A Layman's Reference Guide to Selected Theological Terms, 1999, p. 90, quoted by Patrick Navas, Divine Truth or Human Tradition? 2007, p. 21).
The same source quotes yet another as stating, "You cannot be saved if you don't believe in the Trinity."
This is serious business. Tens of thousands—perhaps hundreds of thousands—of Christians have been excommunicated, persecuted and even killed over the doctrine.
Yet even as some demand that we believe in the Trinity, they admit that it's a mystery beyond understanding. Notice this startling statement from A Handbook of Christian Truth: "The mind of man cannot fully understand the mystery of the Trinity. He who has tried to understand the mystery fully will lose his mind; but he who would deny the Trinity will lose his soul" (Harold Lindsell and Charles Woodbridge, 1953, pp. 51-52).
Is such a position truly reasonable or logical? Would God really deny salvation to us because we are incapable of understanding something that even the most learned theologians admit is incomprehensible?
How can we square that with clear biblical instruction such as the apostle Paul's admonition to believers in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 (King James Version), "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good"?
Or what about 1 Peter 3:15, where the apostle Peter instructs us that we are to "always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you"? How can we reconcile that with belief in a doctrine that many theologians admit is, as The Encyclopedia Americana puts it, "beyond the grasp of human reason"? (1980, Vol. 27, "The Trinity").
Theologians admit the Trinity is incomprehensible
Many authoritative sources acknowledge the difficulty of understanding the Trinity doctrine. The German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner admits, "The dogma of the Trinity is an absolute mystery which we do not understand even after it has been revealed" (The Trinity, 1986, p. 50, emphasis in original).
Edmund Fortman, another Jesuit scholar, acknowledges: "The doctrine of the Triune God is mysterious in its origin and its content . . . It is a doctrine that revolves about a mystery that has fascinated and challenged the minds of men down the centuries . . . Today it is being challenged by many as unintelligible and irrelevant to modern man in its traditional formulation and presentation" (The Triune God: A Historical Study of the Doctrine of the Trinity, 1972, p. xxv-xxvi).
Author and theology professor Harold Brown writes: "It has proved impossible for Christians actually to understand the doctrine or to explain it in any comprehensive way. The doctrine of the Trinity . . . surpasses our human ability to understand and that must be respected as a divine mystery" (Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church, 2003, p. 128).
Theology professor James White, quoted earlier, says: "The [Trinity] doctrine is misunderstood as well as ignored. It is so misunderstood that a majority of Christians, when asked, give incorrect and at times downright heretical definitions of the Trinity" (p. 16, emphasis in original).
Theology professor Louis Berkhof states: "The Church confesses the Trinity to be a mystery beyond the comprehension of man. The Trinity is a mystery, not merely in the Biblical sense of what is a truth, which was formerly hidden but is now revealed; but in the sense that man cannot comprehend it and make it intelligible" (Systematic Theology, 1996, p. 89).
Millard Erickson, research professor of theology at Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary, says of the Trinity: "This doctrine in many ways presents strange paradoxes ... It is a widely disputed doctrine, which has provoked discussion throughout all the centuries of the church's existence. It is held by many with great vehemence and vigor. These [advocates] consider it crucial to the Christian faith.
"Yet many are unsure of the exact meaning of their belief. It was the very first doctrine dealt with systematically by the church, yet it is still one of the most misunderstood and disputed doctrines" (God in Three Persons: A Contemporary Interpretation of the Trinity, 1995,pp. 11-12).
A doctrine on which to base our faith?
These are surprising admissions about the Trinity—"an absolute mystery," "mysterious in its origin and its content," "impossible for Christians actually to understand," "unintelligible," "misunderstood," "presents strange paradoxes" and "widely disputed." Does this really sound like a doctrine on which to base our faith and salvation—especially when Paul clearly tells us in 1 Corinthians 14:33 that "God is not the author of confusion"?
If scholars, theologians and religious authorities admit that we cannot understand such a major doctrine, shouldn't that tell us something may be seriously wrong when it comes to that particular belief?
Again, how are we to understand God's nature?