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On the Necessity of Believing and Confessing the Trinity

18 September, 2008

I’m doing a PhD in trinitarian theology. There is a lot of complex discussion going on among scholars right now, and this has been the case for, oh, 2,000 years. This isn’t to say that everything is hopelessly convoluted or contradictory — right now I’m just talking about complexity, and most (certainly not all!) of it is legitimate complexity that tries to ask and answer legitimate questions.

Here’s what I want to get at: almost all Christians would affirm that you have to believe and confess the Trinity to be a Christian. So what does that mean? That if you’re not reading the same thing I’m reading this evening, then you aren’t really a Christian? Every so often a group has tried to overcome such a question by saying that, even though the doctrine of the Trinity is true, it’s not necessary to believe it for salvation, because average Christians can’t be expected to understand something scholars don’t even understand (or agree about!). So what gives?

Daniel Waterland, an 18th century Anglican theologian, has some wise and imminently helpful remarks on this very point. He is quite readable even today, and his remarks should humble and encourage both the learned and the unlearned alike in our common faith in God, our creator and redeemer, Father, Son and Holy Spirit:

“It has been sometimes objected, that however clear the doctrine may seem to men of parts and learning, yet certainly it cannot be so to common Christians. But why not to common Christians, as well as to others? It is as clear to them as most other high and divine things can be. It is as clear, for instance, as the divine eternity or omnipresence. Every common Christian professing Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, to be so distinct as not to be one the other, and so united as to be one God, has as clear an idea of what he says, as when he prays, “Our Father, which art in heaven”, or when he repeats after the Psalmist, “Thou art about my path, and about my bed, and spiest out all my ways”. And, I am persuaded, upon examination, he will be as able to give as good an account of the one, as he will of the other. The thing is plain and intelligible in either case, but in the general only, not as to the particular manner. Ask how three are one, and probably both catechumen and catechist will be perfectly at a nonplus: or ask, how God is in heaven, and how about our path, or our bed, and they will both be equally confounded.

But, by the way, let it here be considered, whether common Christians may not often have clearer ideas of those things, than the bolder and more inquisitive, because they are content to rest in generals, and to stop at what they understand, without darkening it afterwards by words without knowledge. The notion of eternity, for instance, is a clear enough notion to a common Christian: but to a person who perplexes himself with nice inquiries about ‘succession’, or ‘past duration’, that very first notion which in the general was clear, may become obscure, by his blending perplexities with it. The like may be said of omnipresence: the general notion of it is competently clear: but when a man has been perplexing his thoughts with curious inquiries about a ‘substantial’ or a ‘virtual presence’, about ‘extension’ or ‘non-extension’, and the like; I question whether at length he may come away with so clear or just ideas of the main thing as may be found in any common Christian….In like manner, to apply these instances to our present purpose, common Christians may sometimes better preserve the true and right general notion of the doctrine of the Trinity, than the more learned inquirers: and it is observable, what Hilary of Poitiers, an honest and knowing man of the fourth century, testifies, that the populace of that time, for the most part, kept the true and right faith in the Trinity, when their ministers, several of them, by prying too far into it, had the misfortune to lost it.

While I am treating of the case of common Christians, I cannot omit the mentioning an artifice much made use of by those who would depreciate the doctrine of the Trinity, as not clear enough to be an important article: they first enter into all the niceties and perplexities which subtle disputants have ever clogged the subject with, and then they ask, whether common Christians can be supposed to see through them. No, certainly: neither need they trouble their heads about them. It is one thing to understand the doctrine, and quite another to be masters of the controversy. It is not fair dealing with us, to pretend it necessary for every common Christian, if he believes in the Trinity, to form just conceptions of it in every minute particular: for, by the same argument, it might as well be pleaded, that they are not obliged to believe in God, nor indeed in anything. God is ‘without body, parts or passions’, according to the first article of our Church [the Church of England]. How many minute and perplexing inquiries might there not be raised upon the three particulars now mentioned! And who can assure us that common Christians may not be liable to entertain some wrong conceptions in every one of them? Must we therefore say that the general doctrine of the existence of a Deity is not clear enough to be an important doctrine, or that common Christians are not bound to receive it as a necessary article of their faith? See how far such objections would carry us.

But since these objections ought to have no weight at all in other parallel cases, or nearly parallel, they ought certainly to be the less regarded in respect to the doctrine of the ever blessed Trinity. Let but this doctrine have as fair usage as other Christian and important doctrines are allowed to have, and then I am persuaded there will be no more pretense left for saying, that it is not a clear doctrine, clear in the general, clear in the main thing, to any Christian whatever.

It is a horrible misrepresentation of the case, to pretend as if we taught, that “the eternal interest of every ploughman or mechanic hangs on his adjusting the sense of the terms, ‘nature’, ‘person’, ‘essence’, substance’, ‘subsistence’, ‘coequality’, ‘coessentiality’, and the like.” No; those are technical terms, most of them, proper to divines [ministers] and scholars: and not only plowmen and mechanics, but very great scholars too, lived and died in the conscientious belief of the doctrine of the Trinity, long before any of those terms came in. They are of use indeed for settling the controversy with greater accuracy among divines, who understand such terms: but the doctrine itself is clear without them, and does not need them, but stands firm and unshaken, independent of them.

Any plain man may easily conceive, that Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are properly divine, are not one the other, and yet are one God, by an intimate union; and that the Son in particular, being God and man, is one Christ. These prime verities, and whatsoever else is necessarily implied in them, may be conceived to be right; and whatsoever is contrary to them, or inconsistent with them, will of consequence be wrong. This is enough for any plain Christian to know or believe….”

  1. 19 September, 2008 11:38 am

    Hey Brannan,
    That was a refreshing read. I know exactly how you feel.I’m in a doctoral seminar this semester which is solely about different views on the Trinity — from Barth, to Rahner to Balthasar to Moltmann to Zizoulas to African Trinitarian theology…[Aaaaaaahhhhh!]
    Anyway, I fully appreciate what Waterland says. Btw, can you supply the reference in case I want to make use of it. One other thing while I’m e-talking to you, I remember you did a paper for Horton (or was it VanDrunen?)that involved Barth’s view of the analogia entis. I might want to explore that for this seminar I’m in. Can you email me what sources you found helpful on this, or whatever else that might be useful.
    Thanks bro. Talk with you more later,

  2. 19 September, 2008 1:08 pm


    Good to hear from you. Yeah, Waterland has a great air of British practicality about him; he has a lot more like this. I think something like this is approach has a lot to be said for it when teaching Sunday school, for instance, or helping seminary students to understand how — and why! — to approach laypersons in a certain way on such themes.

    This excerpt is from his ‘Importance of the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity…’, in the volume of his Works available on Google books here:,M1

    I didn’t look at Barth on the analogia entis, but on his understanding of ‘analogy’ in theological epistemology (which may or may not be helpful for you). I’ll try to find a finished version of it in my files.


  3. Benjamin P. Glaser permalink
    20 September, 2008 6:39 pm

    How does the proper understanding of Trinity affect how we accept others Baptism which obviously do not meet a proper definition?

  4. 20 September, 2008 8:31 pm

    along those lines…can we make t shirts using the new banner?

  5. Barks permalink
    20 September, 2008 11:25 pm


    Do you mean if someone is not baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Or do you mean if someone is baptized into the proper Trinitarian name, but by a church was holds to a heterodox understanding of the Trinity?

  6. 21 September, 2008 1:14 pm


    To follow up where I’m pretty sure Barks is going: as far as I know, the practice of the Church since very early times has been to accept valid Christian baptism, even as performed by groups or individuals who aren’t orthodox. The Donatist controversy (mainly in the 4th-5th centuries), for instance, revolved in large part around the validity of the sacraments as administered by what the Donatists considered were ‘apostate’ clergy. The catholics argued that it is rather God, working through the ordained ministry, who accomplishes the reality of the sacraments that he has given to the church. Therefore, if baptism is properly administered according to Christ’s institution, it is valid — God in his faithfulness is claiming this person in baptism, and (thankfully!) it doesn’t depend on the faithfulness of the group or individual performing the baptism.

    Phil: it would be pretty easy, actually, to make the banner into a t-shirt…

  7. Benjamin P. Glaser permalink
    22 September, 2008 3:14 pm

    The first question Barks, even though I think J.H. Thornwell is correct on the later.

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