FALSE TEACHING: What are some major doctrinal errors regarding the Trinity?
Many heresies have arisen throughout the history of the church that deny the basic assertions of the doctrine of the Trinity, which are these:
- God is three persons.
- Each person is fully God.
- There is one God.1
The tendency is for either the threeness or the oneness of God to be overly stressed at the expense of the other, resulting in heretical false teaching.
The three main heresies that contradict the doctrine of the Trinity are modalism(the persons are ways God expresses himself, as in Oneness theology), Arianism(the Son is a creature and not divine, as with Jehovah’s Witnesses), and tritheism(there are three distinct gods, as in Mormonism and Hinduism).
Modalism teaches that God is successivelyFather, Son, and Holy Spirit; he is not simultaneously Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Modalism is a heresy that does not view the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three particular persons in relation but merely as three modes or manifestations of the one divine person of God. God revealed himself successively in salvation history, first as Father (creator and lawgiver), then as Son (redeemer), and finally as Spirit (sustainer and giver of grace).
For a modalist, the God of the Old Testament is the Father. In the incarnation, God was manifested in Jesus. Then, after the resurrection and ascension of Christ, God came in the mode of the Holy Spirit. However, the baptism of Jesus and Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane reveal clearly that the three persons converse with each other simultaneously.
Some Pentecostal denominations adopt a “Jesus only” formula for baptism and thus oneness theology. They affirm both that their God is one and that Jesus is fully God. But they deny that there are three divine persons. The United Pentecostal Church is the largest Oneness group in
America. They officially deny the doctrine of the Trinity, saying:
In distinction to the doctrine of the Trinity, the UPCI holds to a oneness view of God. It views the Trinitarian concept of God, that of God eternally existing as three distinctive persons, as inadequate and a departure from the consistent and emphatic biblical revelation of God being one. . . . Thus God is manifested as Father in creation and as the Father of the Son, in the Son for our redemption, and as the Holy Spirit in our regeneration.2
In other words, the Son of God is the manifestation of the Father in the flesh. The Son is not eternal, nor preexistent. Jesus is the Father and the Son: Father in his divinity and Son in his humanity. Hence, the Trinity is said to be a misunderstanding of the biblical teaching.
Admittedly, the doctrine of the Trinity is complicated. Therefore, the only way to accurately discern what a professing Christian believes about the Trinity is to talk with people directly and hear what they actually believe. We must not fall into the heritage of fundamentalism and condemn people based on secondhand reports or their associations.
Arianism was an early heretical teaching about the identity of Jesus Christ, founded primarily on the teachings of Arius. The central characteristic of Arian thought was that because God is one, Jesus could not have also been truly God. In order to deal with the scriptural testimony to the exalted status of Christ, Arius and his followers proposed that Jesus was the highest created being of God. So although Christ was fully human, he was not fully God. Arius’s teaching was condemned as heretical at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325.3
Sadly, Arianism is the official teaching of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which was founded in 1881 by Charles Taze Russell. This group teaches that there is no biblical basis for the doctrine of the Trinity. They teach that there is one solitary divine being from all eternity. This divine being is Jehovah God, the creator and preserver of the universe and all things. Jehovah’s Witnesses essentially believe what Arius taught in the third century; namely, that Christ is not God but rather God’s first created creature. Thus, Jesus is the archangel Michael, who is mentioned in the Old Testament. Neither is the Spirit divine but rather more of a cosmic force of Jehovah.
Tritheism teaches that the Trinity consists of three equal, independent, and autonomous beings, each of whom is divine. Tritheism stresses the plurality of the Godhead. Many human analogies for the Trinity actually convey tritheism instead. Examples include the erroneous analogy that the Trinity is like an egg with the three parts of yolk, white, and shell.
Additionally, Mormonism believes that the Trinity is three separate gods; the Father is an exalted man who became a god, Jesus is the first spirit-child between God the Father and his wife, and the Holy Spirit is another spirit-child of the Father and his wife. They teach that none of the three persons of the Trinity are eternal or almighty God. The Son and the Spirit are not truly equal with the Father since they are his spirit-children. There are many gods of many worlds. These three are just the gods of this world, the gods we relate to.
One theologian has refuted these three main heresies well:
The doctrine of the Trinity does not on the one hand assert that three persons are united in one person, or that three beings in one being, or that three Gods in one God (tri-theism); nor on the other hand that God merely manifests Himself in three different ways (modalism); but rather that there are three eternal [personal] distinctions in the substance of God.4
Alarmingly, every generation has some who fall into the same ruts of error that have surrounded the doctrine of the Trinity throughout the church’s history. These people are prone to question if not renounce the doctrine of the Trinity. It is important for each generation of Christians, particularly Christian leaders, to be able to lovingly and winsomely define and defend the doctrine of the Trinity because no less is at stake than the issue of who God is.
Do you believe any heresies regarding the Trinity? Is there anyone you know who believes any heresies regarding the Trinity? In addition to praying for them, is there anything you can do to help them come to believe the truth about the Trinity?