Is an understanding of trinitarianism necessary for salvation?
We’d better hope not. Even trinitarians call it incomprehensible.
Many Christians are perhaps unaware that disagreements about the nature of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and their relationship with one another, have been ongoing since the early days of Church history. Believers during the time of the First Testament followed the one true God, and there is nothing in the writings of the First Testament that indicates God is in some sense one “Triune” Being. God is referred to by a singular pronoun thousands of times, and many agree that the few references where a plural pronoun is used when God is speaking (let us make man, let us go down, man has become as one of us, who will go for us) it is simply the use of the majestic plural pronoun being used for a majestic person, not a reference to a plurality of persons. Even trinitarians that teach God is a Triune Being acknowledge this. (For example, in an article called What is the Majestic Plural, and How is it Used in the Bible? at gotquestions.org, we read: "We carefully note that the majestic plural in the Old Testament was not meant to teach the doctrine of the Trinity. It is simply a linguistic tool that God employed to accentuate His greatness.") Some believe God could be speaking to a special council of angelic beings, but either way, the idea that these instances point to God being multiple persons in one is rejected by many. It is also true that the formulation of trinitarianism, in the sense that there is a Triune God, is not articulated in the New Testament. Trinitarianism is a doctrine that was formulated, or at least written about, probably sometime in the second century. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, in an article entitled History of Trinitarian Doctrines:
“No theologian in the first three Christian centuries was a trinitarian in the sense of believing that the one God is tripersonal, containing equally divine “persons”, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The terms we translate as “Trinity” (Latin: trinitas, Greek: trias) seem to have come into use only in the last two decades of the second century; but such usage doesn’t reflect trinitarian belief. These late second and third century authors use such terms not to refer to the one God, but rather to refer to the plurality of the one God, together with his Son (or Word) and his Spirit. They profess a “trinity”, triad or threesome, but not a triune or tripersonal God.” (See entire article here.)
I contend that there is a difference between a divine community of three (a Trinity so to speak, and in this sense I certainly believe in the Trinity, though the model is different) distinct and co-equal persons to whom the attributes of deity are ascribed, and the claim that God is somehow a Triune Being comprised of three distinct Beings. Many well-meaning Christians, when attempting to explain the Trinity, almost always acknowledge that the trinitarian formula of three persons equaling one person is incomprehensible, yet some of them will then have the audacity to say that if you do not believe their explanation, you cannot be a Christian. I certainly disagree with that assertion. As it happens so often with theologians and preachers, doctrines are concocted in an effort to answer certain theological “problems”, and without explicit scriptural declarations, people arrive at many different conclusions. This is why we read about Trinitarianism, Arianism, Modalism, Tri-theism, Subordinationism, Unitarianism, and other “isms” that are right or wrong, depending on who you ask.
We should be careful to use the language of the scriptures as best as we can and avoid being dogmatic where the scriptures are not dogmatic. I believe that a person can be a Christian and not call himself a Trinitarian, for we are not told in the Bible that an understanding of trinitarianism is the condition for salvation (see Romans 10:9-10). For example, I am not willing to say that Oneness Pentecostals are not Christians, even though I do not agree with their belief that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are simply three manifestations of the same Being, or Person. They submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and that is the condition for salvation. I believe in the distinct Personhood of God, the Son of God, and the Spirit, so I could not be considered a Unitarian or a Modalist, yet I would part with the model of trinitarianism that says there are three divine Persons that comprise one God, which in my mind results in four distinct entities rather than three anyway.
Though I affirm that people can be wrong about what the Trinity entails and be saved, I do not affirm the same for those who defiantly deny the deity of Christ. There have been many who have been saved in times past who did not hear New Testament teachings about Christ, such as the saints of the First Testament and people across the world that responded in submission to the light they had from God. See Dr. John Sanders’ explanation of inclusivism here. The point is, there is a difference between ignorance and knowing something is true yet defiantly rejecting it.
As for the problems to be found in the explanations of trinitarianism, I found this article by Ralph Allan Smith to be beneficial, as he traced Cornelius Plantinga’s view of the Trinity.
Here is my own attempt to articulate the nature of God, the Son, and the Spirit and their relationship to each other, though my pursuit of truth is not settled and complete:
The term Godhead refers to deity, Godhood, or divine nature, and by extension divine authority. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit comprise a divine community of three distinct, co-equal, and co-eternal persons who share the attributes of deity and are one in purpose, character, mind, and authority (2 Corinthians 1:3; John 1:1; Acts 5:3-4; 1 John 5:7). Godhood is ascribed to each, though “God” as a title is mostly and especially used in the scriptures in reference to YHWH, the Father (Deuteronomy 6:4; Isaiah 45:5; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Ephesians 4:4-6; 1 Timothy 2:5).
The creation of the universe is an overflow from the relational oneness of the divine community in which the fellowship, love, and union they share with one another is extended to humanity that we might know “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost…” (2 Corinthians 13:14).
God the Father
God, Father, and LORD are his titles - YHWH is his name. God is a Spirit (John 4:24), and he is perfectly holy (1 Peter 1:15-16), just (Deuteronomy 32:4), loving (1 John 4:16), and good (Psalm 34:8), and is unchangeable in his nature and character (James 1:17). He has revealed himself in nature, as well as in the scriptures, so that we may know him (Romans 1:19-20; Deuteronomy 6:4, 1 Corinthians 8:6).
The Lord Jesus Christ
Lord and Christ are his titles - Yeshua (Hebrew), Jesus (Greek) is his name. The Lord Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Though a distinct Person from God (Ephesians 1:2,3,17; 2 Corinthians 1:3; John 3:16, etc.), he too possesses the attributes of deity and Godhood is rightly ascribed to him. In him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily (John 1:1-3; John 1:14; Colossians 2:9). He has existed eternally and he entered our humanity by being born to the Virgin Mary (Isaiah 9:6). He lived a sinless life (1 Peter 1:21-22). He died as a sin-offering on our behalf (2 Corinthians 5:21), was buried, and was resurrected three days later (1 Corinthians 15:1-8, Matthew 28). He appeared to his disciples and ascended to heaven. He is the Savior of mankind (1 Timothy 4:10). He will return to the earth to rule and reign (Acts 1:1-11). All who submit to him as Lord are given the gift of eternal life (Romans 10:9-10).
The Bible ascribes the attributes of personality and deity to the Holy Spirit (John 14:16-17; John 16:7-14; Acts 5:3-4; Acts 8:29; Acts 10:19-20; Acts 16:6; Acts 20:28, etc.). It is he who illuminates the minds of people with the truth about sin, salvation, and judgment (John 16:7-11). He influences people to submit their hearts to Christ and to walk in obedience to him (1 John 5:6; Romans 8:1; Romans 8:9; John 16:13-14).
*The crux of this discussion is the person and nature of Christ (and it follows that the discussion would apply to the Holy Spirit as well), and the people involved have different views about who Christ actually is, when he first existed, when he became equal with God, or if he is equal with God, etc. I affirm the deity of Christ, however I do not affirm that the Son of God is the same identical Person as God in the First Testament and obviously God his Father in the New Testament, though it is clear that they are intricately related and the actions of Christ are often linked to actions that were previously ascribed to God. As to the claim that the Father and the Son (with the Spirit) compose one divine substance (and thus one God), this convolutes the matter and people are willing to live with the confusion this creates, however many of us are not so willing. I affirm that they are equal in substance, but I do not affirm that they together comprise one substance (along with the Holy Spirit). Furthermore, to claim that the God of the First Testament is a Triune Person (changing it to say Triune God doesn't alter the point) is to say that the God who sent Christ into the world is also partially Christ himself. Hence, Christ would (in some way, perhaps partially) be his own Father, or sender. These are some of the arguments involved that lead to the claim that the way many describe the Trinity is incomprehensible and it is why they are not taken seriously by so many people. Ignoring the model's incoherence and calling it a mystery that just has be accepted is a nonstarter for those of us who believe God is not near as confusing as theology makes him out to be.