Today, I want to explore three common mistakes made when thinking about the Trinity. This is a very important post because mistakes about how we formulate the trinity abound all around us. What I hope you will see is that these mistakes are not new. In fact, every error that we face concerning the Trinity today, can be traced backed through the history of the church for centuries. Learning about these mistakes in the past will help us to avoid repeating them today. So, with that said, let’s look at the first mistake made when thinking about the Trinity.
Mistake #1: Denying the Distinctive Personalities of the Son or Spirit
The first mistake we want to consider is the error of denying the distinctive personalities of the Son and the Spirit. Theologians refer to this mistake as Modalism. Modalism teaches that God does not exist as three distinct personalities, but that He sometimes reveals Himself as Father, sometimes the Son and at other times the Spirit. We might think of this mistake as turning God into someone with a split personality or as an actor taking on different personas when they play different roles.
This mistake has reared its head many times throughout the history of the church, most notably by a man named Sabellius in the third-century. While serving as a priest in Rome, Sabellius began to teach that the Trinity was not a matter of God’s actual nature but simply of his revelation. He claimed that the one true God revealed Himself as Father in creation, the Son in redemption, and the Holy Spirit in sanctification. Rather than three distinct personalities, Sabellius claimed they were merely different modes.
Some people still hold to this doctrine, but it will not fit with the Biblical teaching concerning the three persons of the Trinity. As we have already seen in the baptism of Jesus, each member of the Trinity is a distinct personality.
Mistake #2: Denying the Deity of the Son or Spirit
Whereas Sabellius and his followers did not see any distinction between the members of the Trinity, others went in the opposite direction making too great a distinction. The whole problem began in 318/319 A.D when the bishop of Alexandria, who by coincidence was also named Alexander, preached a sermon entitled “The Great Mystery of the Trinity in Unity.” Sitting in the audience was a young man named Arius, who believe that Alexander had failed to make a proper distinction between the members of the Trinity. In reaction, Arius began to claim Jesus created by God not co-eternal. Arius and his followers, claimed that Jesus was subordinate to the Father, not only in a functional sense, but also in a metaphysical sense. The New Testament is very clear that Jesus was submissive to the will of His Father in coming to earth to carry out His will. (See John 4:34, 6:38) Arius, however, took this a step farther by claiming that Jesus was also subordinate in His essence to the Father.
You might think of Arianism as swinging the pendulum too far in the opposite direction of modalism. In this mistake, the deity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit ends up being denied or at least redefined. Rather than being fully divine and coequal with God, Arius viewed Jesus a mere man raised to the level of deity but never sharing in the divine nature or essence.
Countering this argument, was a man named Athanasius, who served as a deacon in the church of Alexandria and assistant to the bishop. Athanasius, at once recognized the extreme threat Arian doctrine represented. Specifically, he saw how this teaching would undermine the doctrine of salvation. Athanasius reasoned that for Jesus to be the sacrifice for our sin, He had to be fully human. But to be perfect and sinless, He also had to be fully God. By teaching that there was a time when Jesus did not exist, Arius denied the deity of Christ, therefore, rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity while at the same time undermining the Biblical doctrine of salvation.
This line of reasoning is very important and demands our careful attention. Let’s break it down and take a closer look. Athanasius showed that if Jesus was not fully man, He could not be our representative on the cross. If He was not fully God, He could not have been the perfect sacrifice for our sin. Therefore, he understood the teaching of Arius undermined redemption. Athanasius and his supporters countered the Arians by defending the Biblical view that Jesus was of the same “essence” (homoousios) as the Father, but was a distinct personality.
This argument came to a head in 325 AD in the city of Nicaea, when the Emperor Constantine called for a meeting of the church’s bishops. That summer, 250-300 Bishops from across the empire gathered to debate and settle the issue. In the end, they adopted the position of Athanasius, which was officially formulated in the Nicene Creed. While this creed officially settled the Orthodox position on the Trinity, it did not end the controversy. Athanasius ended up being exiled several times, mostly due to the Emperor favoring one position over the other at various times. Attacks on the nature of Christ and the Trinity continued to rage in the church throughout the 4th and 5th centuries. Eventually two more heresies began to spring up within the churches – monophysitism and Nestorianism. Which brings us to the third common mistake made in understanding the Trinity.
Mistake #3: Confusing the Dual Natures of JesuS
The third common mistake made regarding the Trinity focuses on the relationship between the divine and human natures of Jesus. The Bible teaches that Jesus is both fully man and fully God (see John 1:1, 14). The challenge for Christians has always been to understand how these two natures exist in one person. Some have made the mistake going to the extreme of comingling the two natures into one new nature, this is called monophysitism. Still others have gone to the opposite extreme, viewing Jesus as actually being two persons – one divine, one human — this is called Nestorianism.
Monophystism comes from a compound word made from mono, meaning one, and phases, meaning nature. The basic teaching of monophysitism is that the divine and human natures of Christ were comingled to form a brand new “hybrid” nature. Eutyches, the founder of this school of thought, coined the term theanthropic (theos=god, and anthropos=man) to describe this single “divinely human” nature of Christ. Of the three mistakes this is the most common today because it is so subtle many people don’t even realize they are making it.
The basic problem with is view is that it co-mingles the divine and human nature of Jesus into one — thus making Jesus something less than truly God and something more than truly man. We might think of this in terms of what the Romans did with their Emperors when they raised them to the level of a god. Monophysitism sees Jesus as a deified man rather than the eternal Son of God, who put on human flesh. His divine nature and his human nature became fused into one new divine/human nature.
Around the same time the church was battling Eutyches and his monophysitism another false doctrine popped up. This time the leader was a named Nestorius, who taught that if Jesus had two-natures he must by necessity be two persons – thus He was a divine person and a human person coexisting in one body. Whereas the monophystites merged Jesus two natures into a single new nature, the Nestorians went too far towards the other extreme by completely separating the two.
The struggle to understand this issue comes about as the result of trying to understand apparent conflicts in the Biblical presentation of Jesus. For instance, how could Jesus be all powerful, yet at times He is presented as being weak, tired, and hungry? How could Jesus know all things, yet not know when the Second coming would occur? These and a host of other issues were the motivating factors that led Eutyches and Nestorius to develop their positions. But these extreme positions created more problems than they solved.
To resolve the problem, the Emperor Marcion called together 520 bishops to Turkish city of Chalcedon for a council. In the end, they agreed to a statement which said that Jesus was, “truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood…”
What this means is that Jesus has two natures that exist together in one person. The properties of each nature are kept and both are joined in one person. Theologians refer to this as the hypostatic union. Rather than having two personalities as Nestorius taught or a new “hybrid” nature as Eutyches taught, the two natures of Christ exist together, without any confusion, change, division, or separation. This helps to explain the contradictory statements mentioned above.
One of the fascinating places where we can see the interplay of the two natures in the personality of Christ involves His attitude towards the cross. His human will desired to avoid the cross. Therefore, in Matthew 26:39 he said, “My father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me…” But at the same time, His divine will desired to avoid being made sin (2 Cor 5:21). Ultimately, He surrendered His will to that of the of His father, which is why He said, “nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Theissen 1979, 223)
Guarding against false doctrine is an essential activity in every era of the church. The Bible teaches us that Satan is like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. He likes nothing more than to make subtle changes to cardinal doctrines, such as the Trinity. While at first these may appear to be minor, when fully grown they become destructive and corrupt the very heart of the gospel. Arius is our prime example of this process. What looked at first like a reasonable correction to an overemphasis by Alexander, resulted in one of the most effective attacks on the doctrine of salvation ever launched.
Just as Athanasius stood for the truth in his day, so must Christians today be ready to give a defense of the essential doctrines of our faith. The first step in this process is being able to articulate and explain the doctrine from Scripture. This was the goal of the first chapter in this book. If you are not able to do this, go back to that chapter and study it again and again and again. Study it as many times as necessary until make you are firmly grounded in a Biblical understanding of the doctrine and able to explain it to someone else.
Second, every believer needs to be familiar with the three mistakes we outlined in this chapter. These are certainly not the only errors that have been made concerning the Trinity, but they represent the first step in being able to recognize major departures from the Biblical doctrine. I say this for two reasons.
First, the mistakes covered in this post represent the most common mistakes made concerning the Trinity. Ninety percent of the time, if there is an error being taught about the Trinity it will fall into one of these three mistakes. So, if you can recognize these three basic problems, you are inoculated against most of, much of false teachings about the Trinity.
But they also serve a secondary purpose. Learning these three mistakes will help to refine your thinking and make it more precise. Sadly, most evangelicals are not prone to careful thought about the things we believe. Nor are we precise in the way we express them. By taking some time to see how doctrinal mistakes were made in the past we can sharpen our own thinking on the subject. Obviously, the short treatment of this subject in this post should serve as an introduction rather than as the end of your study in this area. But hopefully, this brief introduction will serve to spark a deeper level of thinking and interest in your mind.