Do you have to believe in the Trinity to be saved? 

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

(Click here to read Monday Musings ... the place where I discuss the thinking that went into this article.)

Question: How can you help someone who says the trinity is a secondary issue? Would you watch this video, please?  https://youtu.be/aPGQFOI2Qvc /

Answer: Let’s start with some disambiguation. First, when I combine the YouTube video you included with the way you phrased your question, I do not know which “side” you are on. I cannot tell if you think that the Trinity is a primary or a secondary issue.

But even if I knew that, I do not know what you mean by the word “secondary.” I know what I mean by it, but we cannot proceed until we normalize the data. What I mean by that is, before we can discuss any issue rationally, we must understand the same things by every word and/or phrase we use... even if just for purposes of our discussion.

Here’s what’s at issue. By “secondary,” do you mean that the Trinity is not at the top level of the things that an established Christian should subscribe to? Or by “secondary” do you mean that knowledge or affirmation of the Trinity is not necessary for a person to get saved?

Do you see the difference? I affirm the first, but I repudiate the second. This means that I agree with Seth Griffin in the video... but I don’t know whether or not I agree with you! This makes me a little uneasy... but that will not stop me from answering your question.

The first argument I will offer against a person having to understand the Trinity before they are saved is that it is not at all a reasonable requirement. I’ve been saved for 50 years — and I’ve been at this Bible-study thing pretty hard! But even I don’t understand the Trinity as I should… I mean… how can One be Three? … and there is a world of headaches behind the mere word triune!

Have you ever read the Athanasian Creed? Please do. Then ask yourself, do you think it reasonable for God to require people to know all this before they are saved? … because that’s what it does: it adds a burden to the salvific flow that is not necessary to the process. It’s good for a saved person to know about the Trinity! But a person doesn’t have to know about the Trinity to be saved.

Here’s another fun trinitarian fact: it took centuries before our spiritual forebears formulated the doctrine of the Trinity. We take our current level knowledge for granted… like all believers knew this stuff fifteen minutes after Pentecost. But Christians did not even codify the relationship between Jesus and the Father — let alone the full-on Trinity — until the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. So, do the math.

Furthermore, it is difficult to know with any certainty what the first generation of Christians knew about the Trinity… although there is one thing we can be sure of because we can check. When we read the book of Acts, we don’t see anyone teaching the Trinity, let alone holding people responsible for that knowledge while they preached the gospel or discipled those believers.

Note also that the New Testament does not teach about the Trinity directly. Evidence for it is in the New Testament... but it’s a cumulative case. I don’t think we would have such a well thought out trinitarian doctrine without the help of Natural Theology — and the Holy Spirit, of course! It took a lot of extra-biblical philosophical wrangling coupled with the Scripture to arrive at a robust Christology — let alone a Trinity! But here we stand... two millennia after Christ... proud that we have finally figured this out… sort of.

Here’s the thing: most people who claim to be Christians and belong to churches cannot articulate the doctrine of the Trinity satisfactorily. Does this mean that these people are not saved? No. That would be a stretch. Should we kick them out of our churches because they lack this knowledge? No! … and you’re probably thinking that I’m being silly.

Why then would we keep somebody from entering the Body of Christ based on not knowing material that is so difficult that seasoned Christians do not understand it… and that is not important enough for them to study it and make it part of a credible testimony? And if we insist on this knowledge, why stop at the Trinity? Why not make then explain the atonement or antilapsarianism?

So, when I use the term “secondary,” I do not mean that the doctrine is of secondary importance in a list of Christian doctrines. Just the opposite is true: it’s right near the top! What I mean is that when we focus on the salvific flow — that is, when it comes to the process of someone getting saved — this is not one of the things that it’s “necessary” for them to know.

Now, It would be a nice thing for them to know. But since that lack of knowledge doesn’t impede the essential salvific processes, knowledge of the Trinity is secondary. When you think about it, there are only a few things people “need” to know to be saved.

To be saved, a person needs to believe that God exists and that the historical person Jesus existed. He should have a sense of his own sin. He should know that God is holy... and that his sin has earned him a death sentence. He should know that because Jesus Christ was sinless, that he alone could atone for our sins. This is why God sacrificed him — not us. We must abandon self-effort and lay our sins at Jesus’ feet. If we do that, God will forgive all of our sins forever.

The person in the crosshairs of salvation doesn’t even need to know that, if repents and bows the knee to Christ, he will be regenerated — be born again by the Spirit of God! You see, all that comes afterward… so, information like that could potentially get in the way. How much more “afterward” should we introduce the academic stuff — like the perichoresis and the hypostatic union.

Here we see the wisdom in Occam’s Razor — a principle of logic that warns us not to multiply entities without necessity. When it comes to salvation, even the fact that Jesus is God — although one of the most important doctrines in Christianity — is not something a person has to know to be saved. So I ask, how much less the Trinity — which has one more person... one more entity... one more doctrine that even seasoned Christians do not understand?

Let me close with a story of the Apostle Paul at Ephesus. Here’s the text:

While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” “John’s baptism,” they replied. Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all. (Acts 19:1–7, NIV)

The Apostle Paul ran into people whom the narrative identifies as “disciples” and whom Paul identifies as those who “believed.” This means that they understood who Jesus was enough to be saved. But I’m 100% sure they did not subscribe to the Trinity… because they were not even aware that an entity called the “Holy Spirit” existed!

The Ethiopian Eunuch comes to mind here, too. He was reading Isaiah… not a hotbed of trinitarian information. Now, the text doesn’t say one way or the other if they talked about the Trinity, but when I think of Philp’s task — beginning in Isaiah and delivering the “good news” during a decidedly finite chariot ride — I doubt the Trinity came up. Yet, he believed in Jesus and was baptized… and because the Scripture went out of its way to tell us he had joy (Acts 8:39), I think he really was saved!

I pray these perspectives helped you.

 

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20210705 Do you have to believe in the Trinity to be saved?).

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