Trinitarian Particularity

For years I’ve been hearing the claims that belief in the Trinity and belief in the deity of Christ are not necessary for salvation. I heard it again this morning. A number of years ago I wrote a book that I never published called The Defense of an Essential: A Believer’s Handbook for Defending the Trinity. You can find excerpts of that book here (then you’ll see why I never published it!). But in the introduction (which is not excerpted on the blog) I said the following:

I can already hear the opposition shouting, “We only need to believe in Jesus!—Not some man-made Trinity dogma!” Well, this is but a half-truth as the Bible repeatedly states that we must believe in Jesus in order to be saved (John 3:16-18, Acts 16:31, Rom. 10:9-10, etc.) but herein lies the problem of that assertion: we must believe in the Jesus of scripture for this salvation, for there is only one Jesus that can save us. This Jesus as will be proven throughout the course of this book is God incarnate, the second Person of the Holy Trinity. Reject the Trinity and you have rejected the Jesus that saves!

My point then, which remains the same today, is that there is a particular source of salvation (God, who is Trinity) and that there is no salvation outside of this particular source. One can point to passages in the NT that speak about being saved through baptism, endurance, faith, etc., but they all presuppose a particular God in whom salvation is made available (and it should be noted that every reference to salvation isn’t a reference to the same kind of salvation, but that’s a topic for another day).

It’s not just any Jesus that died on the cross and rose from the dead; it’s a particular Jesus; and while I know that it’s popular to separate the so-called historical Jesus from the so-called Christ of faith, this is not a bifurcation that the NT or the early church made. The Jesus that saves is the second person of the Trinity. The eternal Son of God who became incarnate for us and for our salvation. There’s no difference between the Jesus of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and the Jesus of the NT.

Now if the objection was simply something like saying one mustn’t have a sophisticated understanding of the doctrines of the Trinity or the deity of Christ then you’d have a point. But doctrines are particular ways of explaining particular content. The particular content of salvation is the Trinity. The resulting explanation can be as simple or as difficult as you’d like it to be, but the Trinity itself (which necessarily entails the deity of Christ) is the saving reality.



16 thoughts on “Trinitarian Particularity

  1. Nick,
    Not that I disagree with you but something doesn’t sit right with me about this argument. It’s like saying if I believe something wrong about Nick Norelli then I really don’t know him at all. If I believe something wrong about Jesus does that mean I don’t know Him? Maybe it depends on the thing I wrongly believe. I have some sympathy for people who think they know Jesus because of what they’ve read in the Bible and their experience in worship even if they don’t believe he’s part of a trinity and that God is one God and three persons and that… That stuff is not easily discerned from scripture.. Basic facts about his life and ministry are.

    So is it possible people can believe some wrong things about Jesus but they still know Him? If so what is the criteria?

  2. Perhaps part of the issue is not just believing something about Jesus, so much as getting at the very core of who Jesus is. In the OT, the people did not necessarily need to know everything about YHWH, but in order to worship him and claim Him as their God, they did need to see him as the only living God. There were some fundamentals and I think most people would say one of those key truths in the OT is that God presents himself as the only living God, and that he alone is to be worshiped. In a similar way, I’d say Jesus (and his Apostles) present Jesus as the God-man as a core tenet. To not see that is to so completely miss who he is – it is, in the motif of the OT, to worship another god, and yet claim to know YHWH. Just my thoughts.

    On another somewhat related point Nick, do you have any suggestions as to the essential nature of denying modalism. What is the “upshot” of believing Jesus is the Father versus not? Of course, I don’t believe modalism is Biblical, but I haven’t found too many good resources on the practical implications.

  3. Bryan: I think Roy has pretty much said what I would have. It depends on the kinds of things you get wrong. For example, someone might say that they know me and then describe me as having black hair. In reality I have dark brown hair. It would appear black if you don’t see the sun shine on it, but that wouldn’t mean they didn’t know me. But if someone described me as being black then that’s a clear indication that they don’t know me.

    The Jesus we read about in Scripture is both God and man. The Jesus we experience in salvation is the same. That’s the Jesus that died and rose from the dead. Not a merely human Jesus. Not a merely divine Jesus. But the God-Man; the eternal Son of God. That’s the very core of who Jesus is. Or just consider this by way of parallel: When Moses was up on Mount Sinai receiving the commandments and Israel was down below worshiping the golden calf, they called the calf the LORD and said that it brought them out of Egypt (Exod. 32:4-5), but attributing the name of the LORD and one of his identifying acts wasn’t enough to excuse them from idolatry. The calf wasn’t the one who brought them out of Egypt no matter how much they thought it was. The calf wasn’t the LORD even if they called it LORD.

    Roy: I agree with your first paragraph and in answer to your question, I think the upshot to Modalism, according to Modalists, is that it saves them from being tritheists. They really believe that we worship three gods. To a devoted Modalist we’re the idolators. It’s really that simple.

  4. Sorry – I meant what’s the heretical upshot? Or, put another way, “so what” if someone is a modalist? I have my thoughts on how there are practical and theological concerns but haven’t seen to many resources on this, other than of course we want to confess what Scripture actually teaches.

  5. Roy:
    Thanks for the thoughts.

    “I’d say Jesus (and his Apostles) present Jesus as the God-man as a core tenet. To not see that is to so completely miss who he is – it is, in the motif of the OT, to worship another god, and yet claim to know YHWH. Just my thoughts.”

    Is it really missing who he is to not see Jesus as the 3rd person of the Trinity especially when that never seems to be something he felt was necessary to share with people while he was here and the Apostles never actually say “Hey there was one God who existed as 3 persons, the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit” (I don’t expect them to use the word “Trinity”). Is it really missing it to believe all the uncontroversial stuff about the life and ministry of Jesus found in the Gospels but not believe the complicated ideas about his incarnation or his nature that was formulated in the early church?

  6. Nick:

    “It depends on the kinds of things you get wrong. For example, someone might say that they know me and then describe me as having black hair. In reality I have dark brown hair. It would appear black if you don’t see the sun shine on it, but that wouldn’t mean they didn’t know me. But if someone described me as being black then that’s a clear indication that they don’t know me.”

    What if they thought you were black but never actually met you in person but were basing that belief on what they’ve read on your blog and your avatar? Would they still not know you? Or what if they thought you were actually Mexican (you could be so lucky ; ) If I were talking to someone and saying “Do you know Nick Norelli” and they said “Oh yeah that Mexican dude who loves rap, UFC, video games, studying the Bible, theology, gets a bunch of books from publishers to review, is a Pentecostal, and all around good guy.” Should I assume he didn’t actually know who you were because he thought you were Mexican because of the fact you love rap music and he thinks your avatar looks Mexican? Or what if he knew you weren’t Mexican but got something about your character wrong? What if instead of saying “all around good guy” he said “He’s a tool”? Should I assume he didn’t know who I was talking about when I said Nick Norellie or that he did but was just wrong about your character?

    Sorry for spending so much time on analogies but I think they’re helpful for trying to figure out a common starting point of agreement when talking about what it means to know someone. If we can’t even agree what it means to know Nick Norelli (or know who he is) then we’re not gonna have much success when it comes to switching to what it means to know Jesus.

  7. The problem is that Nick Norelli’s Mexicanness or lack thereof is not an object of saving faith, nor is the grounds of salvation “knowing” an adequate number of facts about Jesus.

  8. Roy: Pretty much the same thing. If someone is a Modalist then they’re an idolator. Obviously that has serious ramifications (if we believe in things like sin and judgment). And let me be clear in saying that we’re talking about intentional Modalists here.

    Bryan: Yeah, that order thing is kind of a big deal. ;-)

    I think you’re touching on something very important when asking what it means to ‘know’ someone. Countless preachers (my pastor included) are fond of pointing out the difference between knowing about someone and actually knowing them. How many non-believing biblical scholars have you read who can rattle off fact after fact about Jesus while never having had a personal encounter with him? Someone who actually knows me knows that I’m not black, and thankfully, not Mexican! :-P If someone only knows me through things I’ve written on the blog then they don’t really know me. They probably know plenty about me; but they’ve fallen short of a personal encounter. Now I’d say that you actually know me because we’ve been talking to each other for years now (since 2007 if you can believe it!). We’ve had a personal encounter past just knowing facts about each other; we’ve discussed our families; things going on in our lives; interests outside of those mentioned in passing on blogs; etc. If someone who didn’t know me personally were to wrongly describe me and claim to know me then you’d be more than likely to correct them.

    I’ll tell you a quick story. My friend Dameon and my pastor knew a guy who they played football with and against (my pastor and friend went to different high schools; one played with the guy, the other played against him) who went to the NFL (I can’t remember his name at the moment). So my pastor is at a club one night and this guy kept going on and on about how he knew this NFL player. One of the guys in my pastor’s group kept insisting that he didn’t. The guy said something like, “Sure I do. He lives over here, and he dates so-and-so, and his brother is such-and-such.” The other guy kept insisting that he didn’t know the NFL player. After this persisted for a while the guy in my pastor’s group finally said, “I know you don’t know the NFL player because I’m him and I don’t know you.” Needless to say, the one guy was super-embarrassed, but the point is that just knowing a few things about a person doesn’t mean you know them.

    Now, I’d argue that anyone who denies that Jesus is both God and man doesn’t know him. Those who deny his deity can’t possibly have encountered him; he’d be a mere human; either dead and long gone or resurrected and confined to a single place. Those who deny his humanity obviously don’t know him either. John stresses his humanity in saying things like he became flesh (John 1:14) and was seen, heard, and touched (1 John 1:1) and that anyone who denies this has the spirit of antichrist (1 John 4:2; 2 John 7). He uses this as the foundation for fellowship (1 John 1:3). Or look at Paul for a moment. He’s out there killing Jewish Christians for their devotion to Jesus based on a few facts that he knows about the guy but after he actually encounters him his whole attitude changes. After that personal encounter Paul has no problem writing something like 1 Cor. 8-10 and you know the significance of what he says there in light of Israel’s faith in one God.

    I’d add that the Christian faith is both a historical and a living faith. I don’t see some radical leap from the NT to Nicaea or some break with the faith of the Apostles. I see the same faith proclaimed and explicated to deal with the situation of the day. I see a good basis for identifying those ‘in the know’ and those outside of it. So that’s pretty much that. hope you made it to the end of this comment! ;-)

    Esteban: So true! And the fact remains that anyone who might think I’m Mexican is clearly outside of the kingdom with no hope of getting in! :-P

  9. It is crazy to think I’ve known you that long now. In one sense it feels like I’ve actually known you longer but that’s just because so much has changed in 5 years (especially when I have a child that’s grown so much in that amount of time (a 6 year old)) that the last 5 years has felt like a long time. Good times. : )

    I see the distinction you are making between knowing about and knowing and I think it is a valid distinction and I’ll come back to that in a bit. I think my main point is that when someone refers to someone else all their beliefs about that person don’t have to be correct to be still referring to the person. It’s an issue of reference I guess and similar to the idea in philosophy of language that deals with reference, unfortunately I don’t know enough about philosophy of language to really go into it. : ) When I say Jesus and I think of the person Jesus I have a specific person I am thinking about that is informed by what I’ve read in the Bible, other books I’ve read, spiritual and natural experiences I’ve had in life that influence how I think about Jesus, etc. Maybe some of those things I think about Jesus are wrong but I don’t think it means I’m actually referring to someone else since there is only one Jesus that exists. It just means I’m wrong in some of the things I think about him, not that I am referring to a separate fictional/non-real person of my mind’s own creation.

    I guess that’s where I am sympathetic to non-Trinitarians (like Oneness Pentecostals maybe) in that I can see how they read about Jesus in the Bible, worship him as God, feel like they’ve had spiritual experiences of him during prayer or worship and I don’t they’re wrong in thinking that they are worshiping him simply because they don’t believe in the Trinity. I think they’ve gotten some things wrong about him, some major things, but not that they are worshipping some separate fictional/non-real person of their mind’s own creation. Similarly if an atheist NT scholar is talking about Jesus but they don’t believe he was God, I don’t think they are talking about someone else, some separate fictional/non-real person of their mind’s own creation just because they got that major fact about him wrong. I think they are talking about and actually referring to Jesus but they’ve gotten some things wrong about him. So if they curse this Jesus they are referring to I think they are actually cursing Jesus. I don’t think they get off the hook because they don’t believe he was divine or still alive.

    Let me ask you another question. Is it really wrong if someone ends up being a tritheist because they don’t believe in the Trinity but they worship the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as 3 separate but closely aligned gods? I’m not sure what really changes in practice and belief. I mean sure maybe it doesn’t line up with 1st century beliefs about monotheism but so what? I was wondering this after reading a couple of chapters in Thomas McCall’s “Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism?”, specifically dealing with whether Social Trinitarianism is polytheism. I mean does God, if he’s one, care if I think he’s three separate gods if I’m still worshipping all 3? Does the Father get mad that I’m also worshiping the Son if I don’t believe in the Trinity? Does he consider my worship invalid?

    Hope you also made it to the end of this comment. : )

  10. Bryan: 6 already?!! Where does the time go?!!

    I think it all goes back to what Roy said initially about the types of things we’re getting wrong. Are they peripheral things or core things? When we’re dealing with Jesus’ deity/humanity that’s as core a thing as there is.

    The thing with Oneness Pentecostals is that they not only believe that Jesus is God, which is a valid and true belief, but they believe he is the Father and Spirit. That’s wrong; seriously wrong; heretically wrong. A long time ago I decided to stop assessing things negatively, i.e., according to what folks don’t believe but rather to assess things according to what they do believe. Is what they believe consistent with the God experienced in salvation? Is it consistent with the witness of Scripture? I ask those types of questions. If the answer is no then I can’t figure out how to call it anything but idolatry. It’s the thing that keeps me from being a pluralist or something of the like. I’ve got something different to say about atheist scholars but I’ll save that for another time.

    As for the tritheism thing, I’d say that it is really wrong to end up being one. What changes in practice and belief is that one shifts from true worship to idolatry. Idolatry in many cases doesn’t look a whole heck of a lot different from true worship, but it’s miles apart. Twas a time when Israel sacrificed to the LORD and to Baal, or Ashteroth, or Molech. I’m sure the butchering of the animals and the burning of their flesh didn’t look any different. But they were to worship the LORD alone and love/serve him only. And that’s the issue we face as well. We’re to worship the LORD alone and him only. It just so happens that the LORD is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If those persons are separate gods then our allegiance is necessarily divided between three and I don’t see any allowance made for that in Scripture.

    Obviously I can’t answer for God past what he’s revealed in Scripture, but I think it would make him mad to worship any besides him, especially since he’s a jealous God (I can’t read Deuteronomy, Isaiah, or 1 Corinthians and not think that). Think back to the so-called Arian controversy for a minute. Arius didn’t deny that Jesus was a god or that he was worthy of worship. He simply denied that Jesus was eternal and since God was an indivisible monad Jesus had to be a created god rather than another divine person sharing the same substance. So why the whole brush up? Because that belief had serious implications for salvation as well as for church life and theology. If Jesus was one god of many then Christians would be no different than all the polytheistic pagans. Such a view denies the uniqueness that the LORD was at such great pains to express in salvation history and in Scripture.

    The thing about social trinitarianism is that its advocates all consider themselves monotheists (that’s why they appeal to strongly to perichoresis; they feel it safeguards against tritheism) and would reject any characterization as tritheists. I think social trinitarianism has serious problems, and that logically it does lead to tritheism, but it’s not the intention of any of its adherents to say, “Yes, of course we worship three gods…” It’s a way of approaching the Trinity as a problem to be solved rather than a mystery to be adored. Solving the problem usually leads to one heresy or another. Now Mormons on the other hand; they’re quite happy to say, “Yes, of course we worship three gods!” They believe the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be three separate and substantially distinct beings who are all worthy of worship, and God, as he has spoken in Scripture, will have none of that.

    So that’s that. Another long one, but it’s my blog and I’ll pontificate if I want to. ;-)

  11. Thanks guys for the comments. Thought provoking as always. I like your phrase Nick… “intentional modalists” versus what I believe are true believers who happen to be modalists unintentionally. As I’ve been teaching a Sunday School class on Christology, I realized that some members are modalists but they never knew it – they just never “thought that deeply about it”, and I think they’ve appreciated learning something they were never taught before. That’s probably fairly common in our Western churches where we just kind of refer to God in general and/or each Person in the Trinity as “Lord”, rather than F/S/HS. I will say as I’ve grown in my understanding of the Trinity, the thought of each Person has come all the more alive for me – it really invigorates faith to have a relationship with God as he is (Three Persons), and not just some nebulous monad of sorts.

  12. P.S. Nick – can you elaborate just a bit on what you are envisioning Social Trinitarianism (ST) to be, as you describe the problems with it? I doubt you would deny that the F/S/HS have true and real relationship between themselves and that they are distinct as Persons (but not separate, if you will, so as to jeopardize the one Godhead). Is the problem you envision when ST emphasizes their distinction to the detriment of their perfect unity/harmony? I have to admit I haven’t gone into these areas of Trinitarianism so far in my study b/c I’m trying to get grounded in the basics first – my mind can only handle so much at a time! Be encouraged that I’m still learning from you!

  13. Roy: It has been my experience that many sincere believers in the Trinity can’t explain their belief without coming across as modalists. I’ve encountered more than my fair share over the years and after explaining the Trinity to them most have received the correction with gladness. Some have actually been modalists though and have gotten mad at me! I’ve also found that a lot of non-liturgical Christian worship is functionally modalist. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard someone pray somethign like “Father, thank you for dying for me” or something of the like during a worship service. I cringe every time but I know the intention isn’t to actually affirm modalism so I rest assured in that.

    I’m working on a post to address the ST question. I hope to have it published sometime today but I want to try and get a book review done as well. We’ll see what happens.

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