When we talk about Christian salvation does a belief in the Trinity really matter? Can’t we be saved just as readily if our view of God is less complicated. So why not dismiss the three-in-one confusion that comes with the Trinity and deal, instead, with an all-powerful monadic being? After all many would argue that the idea of the Trinity wasn’t even invented until the 4th century church councils. So if our goal is to get to heaven it would seem that all we really need is a God who is ultimate and who rules all things by the power of his singular will. God, after all, can determine to save anyone for any reason; and to discard others as it suits him. The Trinity just adds an unneeded layer of complexity to our discussions of God. A single ultimate deity, on the other hand, offers us a clear point of contact as each of us builds our personal case for being saved.
It’s a question that has significant reach among Christians because there is so much influence among us from the Classical Greek “unmoved mover” version of God—who is, by definition, a singular being. This influence emerged with Thomas Aquinas in the 12th century and is supported today by neo-scholastics in both Protestant and Roman Catholic circles. Aristotle’s version of God was also assimilated to the portrayal of Allah in Islamic theology. This common ground in Aristotle’s version of God now provides a basis for some dialogue between moderate Islamic leaders and Christian scholars.
As a counterpoint, however, we need to remember that in Christian circles there has always been a devotion to the Trinity as a creedal litmus in assessing who are “in” or “out”—as in the 4th century debates stirred by the Arians who treated Jesus as a semi-God. They saw him as a first-created being made by the singular “un-originated” God. Jesus was the “originated God” who then went on to create everything else on behalf of the un-originated One. So the early church councils were not efforts in inventing the Trinity but efforts to free the church from this flawed version of God.
The neo-scholastic version of God is not far removed from this Arian—and now Jehovah’s Witness—version of God in that its promoters draw a list of defining qualities from Aristotle’s creative mind and then associate those attributes with the underlying Being of the Trinity as affiliated with the Father in particular. The Son and Spirit then serve as assets or extensions of that one Being. Historically this portrayal has proven to be unconvincing and unstable (as my first paragraph suggested) with the result that many people have left the faith in favor of some form of Unitarianism or another.
Let’s return, then, to the original question: does a belief in the Trinity really matter when we speak of salvation?
The answer is an unequivocal “Yes!” The reason? Because there is no salvation to be found with a monadic God such as Aristotle promoted. And it’s also true if we have in mind the god of pantheism—an “everything that is” version of God. The God of pantheism is more a ‘nothing’ than a ‘something’ because “it” is simply a label rather than a being of any specific kind. Promoters of pantheism deify whatever is without explaining how “it” exists, moves, or has meaning: so it remains a make-believe God.
We started with considering the monadic “One” in comparison to the Christian Trinity so let’s return to that. This God is by his very nature necessarily non-relational. In saying this all we are noticing is the circularity in its description: that the “unmoved” quality of his being precludes any emotion. So there is, in fact, no logic in such a God to be linked to a creation—nor is there a meaningful account for a creation to exist.
That is, for such a God to do anything we need to presume a desire in him to see some changes brought about in “reality”. But if he is, in fact, an unmoved being, and if all power exists within his being, then there is no basis for his doing anything. By definition he must remain forever static and isolated from any other “thing” that is not himself.
Even claims that he might have an appetite for some sort of glory that a creation might provide is nonsensical because that sort of ambition fails to align with his “unmoved” state of being: glory would be utterly insignificant to such a God. And if another sort of being exists outside himself then it could only be seen as a disruptive being if it forced some form of response on the unmoved mover.
But it would make sense if a usurping angel—Satan—were to try to reconceive God by his own ambition to be “like God.” His ambition would be to treat all others—those who were created by the actual God—as his own property. In the case of this usurping God he would, in fact, need others in order to have an audience for his pretense. That is, there would need to be “others” to feed his self-absorbed ambitions.
Behind all this there stands the true God who exists relationally. He has always been a God of relationships—as the Father-and-Son God—in whom the Father is only the Father in that he has the Son; and the Son is only the Son because he has the Father as his “other”. And the Spirit is the equally significant “go-between” God, who expresses the mutual love of the Father and the Son back and forth between them.
With the recognition of love as essential to God’s being, we also need to recognize the role of desire in our own being. Desire is the motor of relationships, and it’s because the God who “is love” has made us in his image that we conceive of desires. And even the desire to create a false God is rooted in God’s relational creation. In the case of Satan his relationality is jealousy rather than love—as he now covets the power of love while despising love itself. But in the true God we discover a spreading goodness.
This is just a sketch of my reflections, and it may not make much sense to many. No worries! Here’s the bottom line: the question of salvation we started with can only be answered by recognizing that a relational God is needed in order for salvation to make any sense. So the Trinity offers this promise that while other alternative “gods” do not. And I thank God for his being a God who is both “moved” by his love for me, and who has moved me in return. May vast numbers join the movement!
It’s only been in the past decade or so of intensive Bible reading that I’ve begun to understand the significance of the Trinity…what it tells us about who God is, and what it means for our relationship with Him. Prior to that, it was just a doctrine sitting on a mental shelf in my brain. When one starts to grasp the beauty of God in His eternally Triune existence, it is heart and life transforming! Thanks, Ron, for continuing to invite others to a richer relationship with the Lord through His Word and through a deeper understanding of who He is. As an aside, I have really appreciated the resources available on the Cor Deo site (the Habakkuk study and the Delighting in God seminar). Thanks for making those available.