Being recently asked why I would ever insist that Trinitarianism is essential to Christian faith and experience, I thought I’d like to try to describe why belief in the Trinity is not only important but is, in the end, non-negotiable.
Let me begin by saying that I don’t mean (and don’t believe any of the Fathers meant) to say that unless a person comprehends the Trinity and intentionally confesses a studied doctrine she cannot in any measure experience Christ’s salvation. One mistake some make when thinking through this is to suppose that only beliefs which are absolutely necessary to the initial experience of “getting saved” (I don’t much care for that phrase any more) should be allowed to define essential Christian belief. That is, whatever one needs to believe to enlist, to sign up, to “get in” with God in the Christian sense is all one should ever need to believe. And since—so the thinking goes—one doesn’t need to understand a doctrine of the Trinity in order to begin a life with God, belief in a Trinity isn’t necessary to Christian faith and experience.
There are a couple of problems here. The first is to think that “getting saved” (to go with that language) defines a kind of end to Christian experience, a point of “arrival” if not a “crossing” of a finish line. You’re “in”—pause—and whatever it took to get you in is all that the Church should ever consider “essential” to the articulation of its experience, identity and destiny. One reasons that since one can begin life with God through, say, trusting Christ without any conception of the Trinity, it follows that one can mature into the fullest experience and expression of human existence as God intended it without the Trinity. But does that follow? Why must successfully ending a journey, or achieving one’s telos, not require of one any more than beginning it required? Secondly, such reasoning is so individualistic (typical of Protestants and Evangelicals) that it fails to appreciate the role that shared belief and community play in defining what the Christian faith essentially is for those who wish to identify with and belong to it. The problem is that for many today, community doesn’t have a role in defining Christian faith and experience.
Sadly, these mistakes are built into Protestantism which only a sincere intention will help Evangelicals consciously avoid. Might a person begin a life with God with no comprehension of the Trinity? I certainly hope so. Might a person step into faith believing that Christian faith and experience are all about her “individual” journey? Let’s hope so, since this is pretty much where all us Protestants and Evangelicals get our start (and where a frightfully increasing number of us have parked ourselves permanently). But since one can launch out into faith in such circumstances, should the faith and beliefs that define the Church as Christ’s Body and which express its identity and destiny grounded in the identity of God not exceed those circumstances? I think not. Stay tuned.