Tying a Trinity Knot—Part 1

trinity-knotBeing 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.

(Picture here.)

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28 comments on “Tying a Trinity Knot—Part 1

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Tom, so good to see you addressing this topic.

    One hint from one blogger to another: when you have written a three-part article, spread them out over 3+ days. That way you get a couple of days off. Now get to work on your next piece! 🙂

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  2. […] Pentecostal pastor Tom Belt, and occasional comment contributor here on Eclectic Orthodoxy, has published a three-part article on the importance of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity: “Tying a Trinity Knot.” […]

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  3. Very good, Tom! The title of this post initially gave me the impression that this was about something you can do with a tie. Glad to see it’s about something much more important!

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  4. […] (of course) three parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part […]

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  5. Tom Torbeyns says:

    But the Arians had also a shared community and so do Unitarians 🙂

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    • Tom says:

      Yes, they do. And they’ll have their view of orthodox trinitarians (as being heterodox or heretical). It’s a free world, and we don’t burn heretics. So Arians and Unitarians can call themselves what they like. As for me, I can’t call those worldviews “Christian.”

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      • Tom Torbeyns says:

        But how would you biblically condemn them to hell?

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      • Tom says:

        Condemn them to hell?

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      • Tom says:

        Tom, I don’t assume that heretics go to hell. Some do. I don’t. I’m not convinced that Arius or Nestorius were automatically hell-bound due to their false theology. God knows, and I’m glad God is merciful.

        So why is “heresy” important then? Think of it this way. We could understand heresy within light of two different questions:

        (1) One question is about what the bare minimum belief requirements are to get one out of hell and into heaven. That’s what we want, right? We want outta fire and into heaven. That’s what WE are mostly interested in. In this sense the question reduces heresy to the hyper-individualistic level. And on THAT level I’d be prepared to concede that, well, simply trusting that God’s love is revealed in Christ and that God deals with the sin questions and reconciles me to himself in Christ is enough. I don’t doubt Arius and Nestorius would’ve agreed. But Christianity, the Faith, isn’t primarily about getting people out of hell and into heaven–and that leads to to the second question…

        (2) The second question doesn’t ask what’s minimally possible to get someone out of hell. It asks a much bigger, fuller and more consequential question, namely, what belief states are integral to the fulfilling of human nature? That is, instead of asking what’s minimally required to get out of hell, we now ask what all is required for our union with God in Christ? This lifts the whole issue of “heresy” out of the purely individualistic “stay out of hell” concern and locates it with universal, social-ecclesial concerns relevant to our ultimate final end in Christ.

        Whatever might be the answer to the first question (Can someone deemed a heretic go to heaven?), we need to be clear that “Christianity” has wholly to do with the second concern. Christianity is a public, corporate, social-ecclesial life lived in pursuit of oneness with God in Christ. It’s defined by its vision of human fulfillment in Christ and not just by forgiveness of sins and escaping hell fire. So the question isn’t, what’s the minimum requirement to get me out of hell. The question is, what beliefs, values, traditions, etc., are necessary and relevant to getting us as the Body of Christ into final union with God? And I think there’s MORE to the answer of the SECOND question than to the FIRST. In my view, “heresy” has to do with beliefs and practices judged incompatible with a particular answer to the second question (whatever one might think the answer to the first question is).

        I hope that helps.
        Tom

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      • Tom Torbeyns says:

        I mean like state: “this person is not saved”

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      • Tom says:

        Right. Check out my response there to you. I don’t make that claim about heretics.

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      • Tom Torbeyns says:

        Sorry… I don’t get it 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Tom says:

        The point is ‘heresy’ isn’t a verdict upon whether a person is “saved” or not. It’s a verdict about whether a particular worldview can inform and support a person’s journey to union with God in Christ within the Church. Only God knows the actual state of Arius’ heart. But the state of his theology wasn’t in question.

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      • Tom Torbeyns says:

        Oh, I see 🙂 So… according to the orthodox, could it be that Arius went to Heaven? 🙂

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      • Tom says:

        Why the interest in being in a position to render a judgment on whether or not someone “goes to heaven”?

        I don’t think the Orthodox would openly even grant that you or I are going to heaven, and I hold to all seven of the ecumenical creeds! As non-Orthodox believers, you and I are cut off from Christ since we are not charismated Orthodox believers participating in the Eucharist, the life-giving Body of Christ. I think the Orthodox grant that Catholics are truly redeemed, but not Protestants.

        I’m not Orthodox, so I don’t limit the saving work of Christ in this way.

        Tom

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      • Tom Torbeyns says:

        I see what you mean 🙂 I’ve had Orthodox tell me the Western church (Protestant and Catholic) is not saved because the people are not charismated. Then there are others who say they are also saved.

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  6. apophaticallyspeaking says:

    “I don’t think the Orthodox would openly even grant that you or I are going to heaven, and I hold to all seven of the ecumenical creeds! As non-Orthodox believers, you and I are cut off from Christ since we are not charismated Orthodox believers participating in the Eucharist, the life-giving Body of Christ. I think the Orthodox grant that Catholics are truly redeemed, but not Protestants.”

    That is a very extreme position, I have yet to run into a fellow Orthodox that holds this view. The norm is that there’s no pronouncement made about who is going to heaven/hell, or who is redeemed or not – not even of ourselves! Most Christians are received into the Orthodox church by means of Chrismation, not Baptism, recognizing thereby the validity of the sacrament obtained previously outside the Orthodox church. All this talk about who is redeemed or not is the height of hubris, and a sure thing to disqualify oneself.

    I can’t think of no better an introduction to the Orthodox church than Met. Kallistos Ware’s “The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity” http://amzn.com/014198063X

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tom says:

      Thank you Apospeaking. I appreciate the note, and I’m much happier to assume your view as the more Orthodox position over those I’ve run into who reflect the more extreme view.

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    • Tom says:

      Though…I was of the understanding that for the Orthodox, without the (four obligatory) sacraments of baptism, charism, eucharist and repentance/confession, one cannot know redemption, these sacraments being the God-given powers through which the Church participates in the divine life and proceeds to theosis. To not participate in the grace therein extended is to be cut off from grace.

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      • apophaticallyspeaking says:

        I would be interested to know your source for this. For one it is a highly attenuated and oversimplified reading of salvation, grace, sacrament, and it commits the self-same mistakes you level at Protestants in the article!

        It is not easy of course to break free from the paradigms into which we have been raised. My experience is that only through immersion within community, over time, can this be done. No better time to start to practice this but at the Feast of Feasts, the fulfillment of time, celebrated tonight at midnight.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Tom says:

        Basically it’s everywhere. I just cut a few links off the top:

        http://www.goarch.org/ourfaith/how-are-we-saved (The sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist are decisive for salvation.)

        http://www.gometropolis.org/orthodox-faith/church-and-sacraments/ (The four obligatory sacraments are necessary for the salvation of man.)

        http://www.acu.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/158539/Nicolaides_Salvation.pdf (Links salvation to the Eucharist.)

        http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english/46463.htm

        http://orthodoxpathway.blogspot.com/2015/08/the-sacraments-and-personal-salvation.html (“So also, the Eucharist is essential for salvation”; but this guy seems to be exploring Orthodox himself and isn’t an authority of any kind; but I’m just saying, this is standard view on the sacraments and salvation for every Orthodox site I visit that addresses the question at all.)

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      • apophaticallyspeaking says:

        I would be very concerned if sacrament is not necessary for salvation, or that salvation is a possibility apart from the one Church. And I would add that the Orthodox Church is that one Church. This is cut and dry.

        What is complex however is how it is that this is understood, and more difficult still what is not meant thereby. How we are related to the Church is not a binary proposition, but a matter of degree. So it does not follow that because one is in the Church she is therefore “saved” (leaving aside for the moment the difficulties associated with that notion), nor that one who is outside the Church is necessarily damned and “not saved”. All of humanity, Baptist, Buddhist or Byzantine, is related to the body of Christ in one way or another. We judge not the state of another’s heart, but we know we are called to the Pearl and must put aside every thing that keeps us from becoming His possession.

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      • Tom says:

        Thanks again Apospeaking. That the sacraments are necessary for salvation, that this salvation is possible apart from one Church, and that this one Church is the Orthodox Church is what I was basically saying. That this Church (in its sacramental, saving efficacy) embraces in degrees those who explicitly are not a part of it and don’t participate in its celebration of the sacraments is new to me. I’ve never heard this latter claim made by an Orthodox. Interesting.

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      • apophaticallyspeaking says:

        It should not be a surprise.

        It is Gospel truth that all belong to and are related to God, regardless of cognizance of such, is it not?
        Likewise it is universal Gospel truth which crosses all boundaries of creed and race that the literal seed of Abraham can be farther from God than the despised Samaritan, is it not? The startling complexities of the multivarious relations to Christ is well documented in the Gospels – it is quite pronounced, one can even call it a theme running through: tax collectors, harlots, thieves, disciples, soldiers, sick, powerful, relatives, spectators, religious, and so forth. Far from binary, their is a seemingly infinite way of being related to Christ, with lots of surprises in store, the first shall be last. It is no different now, He is alive, we belong to Him and we relate to Him and His Body regardless of creed and confession.

        I highly recommend (re) reading Met Ware’s book, in particular Chapters 12 and 16.

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      • Tom says:

        Apospeaking,

        I agree all around with the larger claims being made about the connectedness of all things in Christ. I think this means the all-present Christ meets and redeems people on various levels outside the walls of Orthodox churches as far as human hearts and minds perceive and surrender to truth at their disposal. And I say this even if I agree this redeemed way of living is embodied in its fullness as God intended within and as the Church. I won’t quibble over whether such persons ARE the Church (I think they are) as much as those who explicitly identify with and as the Church. But speaking as an outsider (for a moment, for what it’s worth), it doesn’t seem this point is clear. Some of that might be the fault of non-Orthodox not taking the time to push in close enough and long enough. But some of it I fear might be due to the Orthodox themselves.

        Tom

        Liked by 1 person

      • apophaticallyspeaking says:

        Yes, absolutely agreed on Christ meeting and redeeming people – anywhere and anytime. Creation is His, how then can we speak of walls? Of course His ekklesia has boundaries but that is by reason of its created reality, but not because He resides “in” and not “out”. The Orthodox church understands herself to be first and foremost a living organism, a community of persons, not walled-off institution, organization, hierarchy. We like to say that truth is not primarily grasped but practiced and experienced and this takes (much) time. I suppose we call that salvation.

        No doubt there’s blame – how would you suggest improvement?

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