I recently read a post on some blog about Mark T. Barclay’s anti-Trinitarian doctrine. (There are so many blogs. WordPress alone hosts over 40 million.) This piqued my curiosity, so I decided to do some research on Barclay’s view of the Trinity as well as the various doctrinal stances on the Trinity (being raised Southern Baptist, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Trinitarian. You just can’t sing the Doxology without it). I want to summarize my findings in this post. I’m also working to secure a phone interview with Barclay to directly ask him what he believes. Stay tuned for that post, if it ever pans out. But first, theology . . .
If you’re going to be any kind of pseudo-theologian on the doctrine of the Trinity, you must first understand why the doctrine is still debated and why some well-meaning Christians fall into the error of denying the Trinity. First and foremost, it must be noted that the term Trinity is not used anywhere in the Bible. The doctrine of the Trinity, or Trinitarian theology as it is also called, was developed and taught in order to explain certain “tensions” that arise in the Bible’s description of God. By “tensions” I am referring to seeming contradictions that arise from God’s description of Himself. Christianity is a strictly monotheistic religion. The God of the Bible has declared, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). The Lord God Himself said, “Is there a God beside me? yea, there is no God; I know not any” (Isaiah 44:8). The Bible clearly describes God as one God: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD:” (Deut. 6:4). A tension arises because the Bible also clearly ascribes deity to three persons: the Father (Matt. 6:26-30), the Son (Matthew 3:17, 17:5; John 1:1), and the Spirit (Acts 5:1-4). This seeming contradiction demands an answer to the following question: How can God be one, yet three? As with any sound Christian doctrine, every verse and reference pertaining to that subject must be severely considered and accounted for. The early Church fathers studied the Scriptures and developed the doctrine of the Trinity after taking into consideration all of the Scriptures on the subject, not just one or two. This doctrine explaining the triune nature of the infinite God was given a name, officially adopted, and then taught by the early Church (circa 190 AD).
For your personal edification, here some of the many Trinitarian verses from the Scriptures include:
- Genesis 1:26: Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, and in our likeness” (emphasis added, NKJV). The plural tenses reveal that God is not a singular person.
- Isaiah 9:6: For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: . . . and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor [the Holy Spirit’s job, John’s paraklete], The mighty God, The everlasting Father [God the Father], The Prince of Peace [Jesus, the Son].
- Isaiah 61:1,2: The Spirit of the Lord [Adonai] GOD [Jehovah] is upon me; because the LORD [Jehovah] hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; . . . To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD [Jehovah], and the day of vengeance of our God [Elohim]; The Trinity is involved in preaching the Gospel.
- Matthew 3:16,17: And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending upon him like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. The Trinity was present at the Lord’s baptism.
- John 14:16: And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever. The Promise of the Holy Spirit involved the mobilization of the entire Godhead. And again in John 15:26: But when the Comforter is come, whom I [Jesus] will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me: and John 16:13-15.
- Acts 10:38: How God anointed Jesus Christ of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him. Jesus Christ was the Trinity in full operation in the earth—the Son, anointed with the Spirit by the Father.
- Romans 8:27: And he that searcheth the hearts [Jesus, Rev. 2:23] knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God [the Father]. Here, the entire Trinity is at work on behalf of the saints through the act of intercession.
- Romans 15:30: Now I beseech you, brethren, for the Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, and for the love of the Spirit, that ye strive together with me in your prayers to God for me;
- 1 Corinthians 12:4-6: Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all. The Trinity is evident in the equipping, administrating, and operating of the New Testament Church.
- 2 Thessalonians 2:13: But we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth:
- 1 Peter 1:2: Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace and peace, be multiplied. Each member of the Godhead has a role to play in our lives.
ERROR, BAD DOCTRINE, AND HERESY
As previously stated, Bible verses and passages like aforementioned produce a tension that must be resolved or relieved. Christians attempting to reconcile these verses have produced many different flavors of heresy and error. It is noteworthy here to make the strong distinction between heresy and error. First of all, realize that no Christian has perfect doctrine. To believe so would be foolish. We all endeavor to study, pray, and exegete the Scriptures accurately, but the Bible has a built-in spiritual governor switch: 1 Corinthians 13:9: For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. The best we can ever know is a part. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and learn it all but, according to this verse there will always be voids, gaps, and holes in our theology. So then, error can be best described as studying the Bible and coming to an erroneous conclusion—with the best of intentions. We all fall into this category. This is different from heresy. We all hold some erroneous doctrine or belief that is only loosely based on the Scriptures. This doctrine may not be a major doctrine, and it may not define our lives, but it is still inaccurate and erroneous. To that end, every preacher, if he or she were to be honest, would have to admit that they have, at some point or another, taught error. Not intentionally. Not maliciously, but just out of limited understanding and illumination of the Scriptures on that particular subject. For pastors (and I speak as a pastor) this is particularly challenging because in order for us to keep our flocks healthy, we must teach and feed the sheep from every subject in the Word. The local pastor is often more of a general practitioner than a specialist. There are bound to be errors and mistakes when attempting to specialize with such an endeavor. So then, when we fall into doctrinal error, why are we not heretics? Quite simply put: because we don’t maliciously, intentionally, and with malevolent motivations teach error to mislead the sheep and deny Jesus Christ or belittle His Word. When the local pastor or heartfelt Gospel minister preaches what is later to be revealed as error, he or she does it because, at the time, they believed it to be the true and accurate interpretation of the Scriptures. To that end, I’ve actually heard Mark T. Barclay say something to the affect, “Have I ever taught error? Sure. But when I found out it was wrong, I stopped teaching it.” I think every good preacher would share the same testimony. So then, what is heresy? Here we will define heresy as any doctrine that denies the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, diminishes His glory, and demeans His sacrifice on the cross.
The local pastor is often more of a general practitioner than a specialist.
I have done thorough research into the origins and names of the many diverse anti-Trinitarian heresies that have arisen since the Church’s inception. These heresies resulted from theologians and teachers either overemphasizing or underemphasizing the various persons of the Godhead. Each doctrinal heresy seems accurate when only one scripture is used to back its stance. However, any and all solid doctrine must be built by evaluating all scriptural evidence.
Tritheism is the doctrine that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three independent deities sharing the same substance; basically three separate gods. This view fails to recognize the “three yet one” core tenet of Trinitarian doctrine. Tritheism can be thought of as polytheism-lite.
Monarchianism is the view that Jesus was not God. This view holds that God was in Jesus just like God is in all of us, but that God was in Jesus in an especially powerful way. Thus, Jesus was God, but only because there was a lot of God in Him, just as a rock could be God if enough of God was in that rock. This is the theological stance of many progressive Christians.
Patripassiansim literally means the father suffered. This view teaches that God became His own incarnate son, suffered on the cross, died, and was resurrected. This teaching denies the Trinity.
Modalism (aka Modalistic Monarchianism, or Sabellianism)
This is the belief that God Almighty is one God and the three persons of the Bible—Father, Son, and Spirit—are just different “modes” by which God manifested or operated. Typically, it is held that God manifested as Father in the Old Testament, as the Son in the Gospels, and now as the Holy Spirit in the New Testament Epistles and Church Age. This view is also known as Sabellianism, after Sabellius, a 3rd Century theologian. He was later labeled as a heretic for his anti-Trinitarian teachings. This doctrine rejects the notion that God is three unique persons, yet one God.
Named for a third century Christian presbyter, Arius, was later dismissed as a heretic. This teaching holds that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are creations of the Father; and therefore, not divine. Arius held that the Son had a beginning because He was “begotten,” and because the New Testament describes Him as growing and learning, He could not be divine. Universalists and Jehovah’s Witnesses would technically hold Arianistic views of Christ’s divinity. Both of these groups reduce Jesus Christ from God to a created being.
This view holds that God is divided into three parts: Father, Son, and Spirit, and is not wholly one until the three parts, or thirds, come together. St. Patrick (of Irish fame) often used the three-leaf clover to teach the Trinity. However, upon closer inspection, his green analogy was really Partialism; each leaf of the clover being a member, but all three leaves necessary to combine and make a whole God.
It’s easy to see how many God loving, good-hearted believers fall off into one of these numerous errors. Suffice it to say; today the average Christian is quite doctrinally ignorant. Many modern churches no longer seem interested in teaching doctrine, perhaps because the modern Christian is too readily bored with it, or perhaps because many today would rather have their ears tickled. Does believing these doctrines make you a heretic? Not necessarily, but it definitely reveals either an ignorance or a deception. Does teaching any of these views make you a heretic? It depends. If a new convert is still ignorant of the Trinity and is asked to explain God, he or she will do so to the best of their ability. If their ignorance believes in Modalism, their ignorance will teach Modalism. Would anyone dare call the zealous baby Christian a heretic? No. But is Modalism heresy? Absolutely.
This gaping doctrinal hole didn’t make Apollos a heretic, it made him ignorant.
In these kinds of scenarios I’m reminded of Apollos in the book of Acts. In Acts 18 he is described as eloquent and mighty in the Scriptures. He was a disciple of Jesus Christ and “taught others about Jesus with an enthusiastic spirit and with accuracy” (NLT), yet at the same time, he only knew about John’s baptism. Apollos’ doctrinal ignorance must have been obvious from the way he ministered because when Aquila and Priscilla, a husband and wife ministry team, heard him minister, they took it upon themselves to disciple him and expound unto him “the way of God more perfectly.” The significance of Apollos’ testimony deserves to be restated: the Scriptures regarded him as 1) eloquent, 2) mighty in the scriptures, 3) enthusiastic, and 4) accurate; yet he had a gaping hole in his basic Christian doctrine—he didn’t know the baptism of Jesus. This gaping doctrinal hole didn’t make Apollos a heretic, it made him ignorant. Verse 27 tells us that after his doctrinal hole was filled, he “helped them much.” Without a doubt, even with a doctrinal hole he was helpful to the Kingdom, but he was even more helpful after he had be enlightened to the Lord’s baptism.
In my humble opinion, the Body of Christ has more ignorance running around than it does heresy. Please don’t misunderstand me; there is definitely plenty of heresy to be had. Second Peter prophesied that there would be false teachers who would bring in damnable heresies and many will follow their pernicious ways. But part of the reason heresy is so easily followed is because of the gross doctrinal ignorance that abounds. Many churches appear more interested in scratching those itching ears than teaching the doctrines of the New Testament. Perhaps, this is because teaching doctrine can be laborious, but telling everyone how awesome they are is so much more fun.
In conclusion, I spoke with a Pentecostal friend of mine recently when I realized his church was an Oneness Pentecostal, Jesus-only kind of church (read: Anti-Trinitarian). This brother is very well versed in the Scriptures and we have had numerous wonderful doctrinal debates over the years. And to be honest, I have learned a lot from him. When I approached this subject with him and rattled over several Trinity scriptures, his defense was comically simple. He said, “Well, I never claimed I was a good Pentecostal (a reference to his Oneness doctrine). Plus, I just figure the Bible says ‘And without controversy, great is the mystery of godliness.’ And if I can figure it all out, then it isn’t very great.” That’s when I realized that as well studied as this brother was; his church obviously wasn’t putting much emphasis on Oneness or Trinity-denying because he couldn’t defend it. That produced another thought: “I wonder which of the following two churches pleases God more: The church with perfect Trinitarian doctrine and understanding, but resists the Godhead when He shows up in their services, or the church that has horrible and incongruous anti-Trinitarian doctrine and understanding, yet allows all of God to show up and have His way in their services?” I must admit, after all this deeper research, I now realize I have been guilty of using ignorant and unlearned analogies in trying to explain the Trinity. Thankfully, I now know better.