I Beg To Differ

The Carson-Keller “Reflections on Confessionalism, Boundaries, and Discipline” post has been making the rounds and drawing different responses. Marc Cortez just highlighted a couple of things he appreciated about it. One of the things was that they differentiate between the relationship between the Trinity and the Gospel and whether or not an orthodox doctrine of the Trinity is necessary for salvation. In his closing paragraph Marc said:

Ignoring for a second that they actually used the word “irrefragably,” this is a great point. Doctrines like the Trinity and the Incarnation provide an essential shape and structure to the Gospel. Without them, the Gospel is undermined in critical ways. But, that doesn’t mean that someone who rejects them necessarily rejects the Gospel. It just means that they’re operating with an understanding of the Gospel that has some real weak spots. But, fortunately for us all, the standard of salvation is not how well we understand orthodox theology, as important as that might be.

I beg to differ. I think there is a difference between not having all of our theological ducks in a row and an out and out rejection of the Trinity. In theory one can be woefully ignorant of the doctrine of the Trinity while still having believed in the Trinity (i.e., God) and the Trinity-shaped Gospel (not so with the Incarnation but I’ll get to that in a minute). But if one rejects the doctrine of the Trinity then we’re dealing with something that extends beyond mere ignorance since rejection entails some idea of what it is that is being rejected. The good news isn’t that some God did something; it’s that a particular God did a particular thing. One might be ignorant of the finer details of one thing or another but they can’t have a decent understanding of them, reject them, and then still claim the benefits that come from them.

On the Incarnation the matter is much more clear cut, or so I would think. If one rejects the Incarnation then they’ve rejected the Gospel wholesale. The Incarnation is the foundation, the linchpin, the backbone, if you will, of the Gospel! Had Jesus not come in the flesh then he couldn’t have lived a sinless life, been crucified in the place of a sinful humanity, and subsequently resurrected to life. If one rejects the Incarnation then that person is an antichrist (2 John 1:7; cf. 1 John 4:2-3) and antichrist’s certainly cannot lay claim to any Gospel that saves.



17 thoughts on “I Beg To Differ

  1. I actually think we’re in general agreement, and I could have expressed myself more clearly. You seem to be reading a lot more into my use of the word “rejects” than I’d intended. I wasn’t restricting this just to people who have a pretty decent understanding of some doctrine and then choose to reject it anyway. I was just referring to someone who rejects the doctrine for any reason (which often happens for bad reasons). So, all I was trying to say is that a person who rejects such a doctrine doesn’t necessarily reject the Gospel. I’ve met people in my own churches who have a perfectly orthodox understanding of the Gospel and heretical views of the Trinity or the Incarnation. They just didn’t realize the incompatibility.

    So, I was only commenting on the lack of a necessary connection between rejecting A and rejecting B. I wasn’t trying to say that anyone who rejects A may also still accept B. Many will reject A in such a way that it’s impossible for them to accept B. But, that won’t be the case for everyone.

    And, I’d argue the same for the incarnation. Although I agree that it’s more obviously connected to the Gospel, I would not agree that it’s impossible to have a wrong view of the incarnation and still believe in the Gospel, though I think the incoherence in your theology will cause serious problems and will radically undermine the Gospel.

  2. Mark’s response came to mind as I was reading your post. What about someone who rejects the Trinity because of a misunderstanding about it or having a heretical understanding of the Trinity or even for mistakenly believing it contradicts, logic, reason, or monotheism? Yet they still believe the Gospel?

  3. Marc: Thanks for the clarification. Sorry to have read more into “rejects” than you intended.

    I’m of the opinion that the Incarnation is so cut and dry that you can’t really mess it up without messing up the entire Gospel. Either Jesus came in the flesh or he didn’t. Now when we start getting into surrounding issues like Jesus’ personal vs. ideal preexistence then there’s a little more room for fuzziness.

  4. Bryan: If someone rejects a misunderstanding of the Trinity then they haven’t rejected the Trinity, just the misunderstanding. For example, if I say that I don’t believe in the Trinity because I don’t believe in three gods, I haven’t actually rejected the Trinity, I’ve rejected tritheism. Same with rejecting all the Trinitarian heresies under the guise of the Trinity. If you reject Modalism but call it the Trinity then you haven’t really rejected the Trinity, just Modalism. So on and so forth.

    As for rejecting it because you think it contradicts logic, reason, or monotheism, isn’t that why most people who reject the Trinity reject it? You don’t get a pass for that. So I’d just go back to what I said in the post: the good news is that a particular God did a particular thing. Change the God or the thing and you’ve changed the good news. You might not reject a gospel but you’ve rejected the Gospel.

  5. Oneness Pentecostals reject the idea that the son of God became flesh. In their understanding of Jesus, the son of God, he IS flesh. Instead of receiving the Biblical evidence, they believe the eternal God dwelled in the son of God. In light of this, do they not reject the biblical evidence that it was the eternal Son of God that became flesh? If so, does this mean that they are animated by the spirit of anti-christ?

  6. Drew: I suppose they’d just say that Jesus’ divine nature (the Father) became flesh as his human nature (the Son), so while they’d deny that the eternal Son became incarnate, they’d say that the eternal deity, which is the Father, did. But they absolutely do reject the biblical evidence that the eternal Son of God became incarnate and I do believe that they are antichrists for doing so. I’m not sure that I’d use the word “animated” here since it makes me think that it would be the spirit of antichrist giving them life or something like that.

  7. Nick,
    I appreciate the post. One other thing about Modalists that I thought about when writing recently about TD Jakes, Elephant Room and the Trinity, etc. is the use of the word manifestations. Jakes, for example, states in his belief statement that, “There is one God, Creator of all things, infinitely perfect, and eternally existing in three manifestations: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

    My question is – when did God the Father manifest Himself?

  8. Nick,
    That’s interesting because it sounds like you’re saying in terms of salvation it would be better if you didn’t believe in the Trinity because your understanding of the Trinity was wrong than to believe in a heretical view of the Trinity, even if in both cases you misunderstood the Trinity. Is that correct?

  9. Mark: Good question. Most would take it as axiomatic that he manifested himself in the OT but plenty of NT authors saw the Son in those texts. The thing that gets me is that “manifestation” as Father makes no sense without a Son. We recognize fathers as fathers when they have children, right?

    Bryan: I don’t think that’s correct but I’m a bit confused by the way you’ve worded it. I’ll try my best to explain what it is I do believe.

    First, I believe that everyone who believes the Gospel as it is presented in Scripture, as it was preached by the apostles, etc., believes in the Trinity, even if unknowingly.

    Second, this is different from believing in the doctrine of the Trinity. One can believe in the Trinity (i.e., God) without knowing anything about causal relations (begetting, spiration) or co-inherence (perichoresis) or the ontological/metaphysical issues (like all three Persons being homoousios).

    Third, salvation, so far as I can tell, is predicated upon placing one’s faith in what the Father, Son, and Spirit have done for us—so one can be saved (initially at least) by believing in what they’ve done without knowing how to accurately explain who they are. I think most people fall into this category (I know I did).

    Fourth, to reject a caricature of the Trinity is not to reject the Trinity, even if one thinks it is. I knowingly reject Modalism knowing full well that it’s a caricature of the Trinity but someone could ignorantly reject Modalism thinking it’s an accurate depiction of the Trinity. In either case it is Modalism that has been rejected and not the Trinity. So on and so forth for all Trinitarian caricatures.

    Fifth, to reject an accurate depiction of the Trinity is much different than to simply be ignorant of the the doctrine or to reject a caricature. A knowing rejection of the Trinity or the doctrine of the Trinity affects one’s salvation because it is a rejection of the God who saves. Coincidentally, something has to substitute for the Trinity on such a rejection, and any such substitute is an idol. I don’t believe that idols can save.

    So that’s basically it in a nutshell. When I get into discussions or debates over this the question of salvation comes up quite often. People assume that I believe that one needs a detailed knowledge of the Trinity in order to be saved. I don’t believe that and I strive to make that clear. But being ignorant of something and knowingly rejecting something are different things. I try to always make that distinction.

    Also, I try to not focus on the lack of belief in the Trinity and instead focus on the positive belief in whatever it is that the non-Trinitarian believes. So, e.g., when people ask me if I think Oneness Pentecostals are lost because they don’t believe in the Trinity I try to shift the discussion to talk about the God they do believe in and then show that this is not the God we know from Scripture or experience. It’s an idol. Sure, it’s not made out of wood or stone, but it’s an idol nonetheless. And idols can’t save anyone.

    There’s much more that could be said and many more avenues that these kinds of discussions can go down but I’ll stop here.

  10. Nick:
    Sorry my comment wasn’t very clear. I literally woke up like at 2 a.m., rolled over, commented using my phone and then went back to sleep. It was weird.

    Basically, I was saying, given 2 choices:
    1. Someone rejects what they think is the doctrine of the Trinity but only because they are misinformed about it so that what they think is the doctrine of the Trinity is actually a heresy (like modalism)
    2. Someone believes in the doctrine of the Trinity but it is actually a heretical view of the Trinity that they believe in (like modalism)

    Given those 2 options it would be better for the 1st person in terms of salvation… according to what you seemed to me to be arguing for

    I read your response and I didn’t see anything that lead me to think you disagreed with this (the most relevant portion of your response being points 4 & 5).

    Related to my #2, must a person first be presented with an accurate description of the doctrine of the Trinity before they can be considered to have rejected it in favor of a heresy? If a person believes in the doctrine of the Trinity but it is actually a heresy they believe in and they haven’t yet been presented with the correct doctrine are they still condemned for beleiving in heresy or having rejected the Trinity?

    I have some more thoughts I would like to discuss with you on this but this comment is already long so I’ll leave it at that.

  11. Bryan: I think you’re related question is key for answering the initial question. Ignorance covers a multitude of sins. For example, on your second option, I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to who have professed belief in the Trinity and then explained it in a way that is best described as Modalism. It’s really a curse on Western/Latin Christianity that’s been around for centuries so I can understand it to a certain extent. But these folks really believe in the Trinity, but they can’t explain it for nothing, so what do we do with them? We explain it properly. I can honestly say that after showing the folks I’ve talked to what was wrong with their explanations the majority of them received the correction with gladness. A few railed against me but they’d be the ones who I’d classify as genuine heretics. They’d have some salvific issues from my perspective.

    The first option kinda sounds better but it doesn’t tell me enough. Before I could say anything about the salvation issue I’d need to know what they believed in place of what they rejected. For example, the Qur’an explicitly talks about rejecting the Trinity (4:171; 5:73, 116) but the way it describes the Trinity sounds more like tritheism than the Trinity. So Muslims reject a caricature—great! Now what do they believe instead? Do they ignorantly believe in the actual Trinity instead of the caricature that they reject? No, of course not. They believe in a god that is not the God of Scripture; they deny that Jesus is the Son of God; they deny that he was crucified and resurrected—they lack faith in anything that can save.

    I hope that answers your questions. And I’m ready to hear your other thoughts on the subject whenever you want to lay them on me.

  12. You definitely answered my questions and now I understand more of where you’re coming from.

    I’ll try to comment later today with some of the other things I wanted to ask you about.

  13. I ended up forgetting what I wanted to discuss with you. I think your last response was sufficient to actually answer some of the other questions I had. Maybe next time. : )

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