A few days ago I wrote a short piece asking whether or not rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity is the rejection of the Gospel (see “Is rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity a rejection of the Gospel?”). Many people commented sharing a range of opinions. Most of the comments made points worth considering. Personally, I do not think that it is a rejection of the Gospel if one rejects the doctrine of the Trinity because I do not think that our understanding of orthodoxy should be equated with the saving act of God. On the Day of Judgement God will judge through Christ on the basis of what has been done for the world through Christ. God the Father has declared Christ the King of the World (see Psalm 2 for language that I think frames this quite well) and our response to that declaration (i.e. the Gospel) seems to be what the Apostles understood to be the evidence of whether or not a person had been reconciled with God. In other words it is what you do with the Son that determines how the Father will judge you through the Son.
I don’t want our understanding of orthodoxy to be convoluted with the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit brings everyone to Christ that will come to Christ and it is the Spirit who guides them into maturity. That being said, I want to clarify that I don’t think orthodoxy, heterodoxy, and heresy is completely divorced from one’s relationship to God. It could very well be a sign that something is seriously wrong. A Christian who rejects the doctrine of the Trinity knowing full well what it entails sends a concerning message to the rest of the church that their understanding of the core affirmations of our religion supersedes the catholic confession of those core affirmations. All in all, it is Christ who sits on the throne and the doctrine of the ascension provides me with the comfort that God will do what is right by all people at the end of the age. There will be no one who is condemned unjustly.
I came to Christianity through the Oneness Pentecostal movement that rejects the doctrine of the Trinity as a group. Many people I know have no idea what they are rejecting. Many people have had negative interactions with Christians in other groups and they manifest that hurt by joining themselves to a sectarian group that speaks of itself as the defenders of pure doctrine. Others have felt the Spirit and they associate that moment with the people that surround them. This is how they validate truth claims for better or worse. This would describe my family members who have remained Oneness Pentecostals. I don’t think they know what they are saying when they speak against the doctrine of the Trinity. I think they parrot what they’ve been taught.
A young man who is part of the same church as some of my family wrote me a few weeks ago asking why I affirm the doctrine of the Trinity. I asked him why he affirms the biblical canon. Neither are explicitly outlined in Scripture. He did not respond in return.
Since this was my entry into Christendom it was a struggle to understand the doctrine of the Trinity. I wrestled with it for many years. It was not until I had the opportunity to read the writings of Athanasius of Alexandria and Basil the Great that I began to understand what was being said. That is only a little over a year ago!
It is not that I think the exegesis of Scripture leads one to the doctrine of the Trinity with ease that I confess the doctrine. In some sense it may be easy to call me illogical for what I am going to write. I confess the doctrine of the Trinity because I have the presupposition that the Spirit would not let the church go astray where it matters most. I don’t think God has micromanaged the church. We have made mistakes in doctrine and practice over the years. I think that this has to do with God’s commitment from the beginning to do his work with humanity. Whether it is Adam and Eve, Abraham’s family, the nation of Israel, or the Jew-Gentile church, there has never been a time when God monopolized history. He has been sovereign, but not deterministic. This means we are allowed to make mistakes. Yet it seems to me that where it is essential that his people get it right God has done what is necessary to keep his project on course.
Let me tell you why I cannot find myself in agreement with so-called Progressive Christianity (even when I am sympathetic). It is not that I don’t struggle with the logic of the doctrine of the Trinity or the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. It is that I know I am one person who is part of one era and this prevents me from denying what the catholic church has confessed for hundreds of years across many, many lines. Yes, I know, there have been groups with differing views that aren’t “orthodox”. Yes, I know, even those who are “orthodox” disagree on the details. That being said, there is a core confession that I will continue to confess because I am not alone in this project that began in Jerusalem hundreds of years ago.
At this juncture in my life I have had time to study the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. I know that these creeds have been confessed by Orthodox and Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Presbyterians, Baptists and Pentecostals over the years. Do I confess the words of these creeds because I always understand them or because I have come to a firm confidence in what they say without having any doubts. Of course not. I confess them because I am part of the church and the church has passed them down through the ages. I don’t think the Spirit would allow us to be mislead where it matters.
Someone who helped me with this is the historian Justo L. Gonzalez. In his book The Apostle’s Creed for Today (pp. 7-9) he addresses whether ecumenical creeds must be personal creeds. He wrote the following:
“…it would be helpful to think of the creed not so much as a personal statement of faith but as a statement of what it is that makes the church be the church, and of our allegiance to the essence of the gospels and therefore to the church that proclaims it.”
He compares this to the Pledge of Allegiance of the United States of America. We may doubt some parts or interpret some parts differently, but it is a creed that says we are one nation together and this is what the nation confesses. In other words, I realize my earthly citizenship is not determined by my autonomous being but rather by my corporate identity. Likewise, I find in the creeds something similar. Whether or not I can say in a given moment that I have no reserve about the doctrine of the Virgin Birth I do not feel that it is right to proclaim that it ought to be doubted. This is not my creed to change. It is the church’s to maintain.
“Were I to write my own creed, I would probably leave out one or two phrases and add some others of my own. I might find it easier to delete the phrase about the virgin birth. And I certainly would want to add something about the social responsibility of believers, about the place of worship in the life of the church, and a number of other items. But when I recite the Apostle’s Creed I am declaring myself part of that countless multitude throughout the centuries who have found their identity in the same gospel and the same community of believers of which I am now part–a multitude which includes martyrs, saints, missionaries, and great theologians, but in the final analysis all are nothing but redeemed sinners, just as I am.”
So why I do I find myself in solidarity with Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Reformed, Baptists, and Pentecostals at the core, even when I disagree on many things–the nature of Scripture, the role of the gifts of the Spirit in the church today, the authority of Bishops? It is because it is not my creeds that center us, but the catholic creeds. Does this give me all the answers? No, but it provides me with a constitution, a beginning, a pledge, a community.
Maybe I will die and find that Progressive Christians (and the agnostics, and the atheists, and…) were correct. Maybe Jesus was just a good teacher, a prophetic man, a messianic candidate. Maybe the best thing Christianity could do for the world was the Golden Rule and the example set by the life of Jesus. If so, there is little lost. I’ll be dead. Maybe. That said, I am not confident enough in my own intelligence, and I don’t trust enough in the validity of my own doubts, to deny what the church has given to me from generations past. Where it matters I stand with them in allegiance to the Christ whom I believe told his disciples to wait for the Spirit that would lead them into all truth.