Recently someone asked me, “Does one need to believe in the Trinity in order to go to heaven or be a Christian?”
I have always found questions of this nature to be somewhat difficult to answer. Now, to be clear, it is not difficult to defend the doctrine or to explain why a proper understanding of the Trinity leads to a proper evaluation of the cross. I am convinced from Scripture that when the Trinity is denied, it inevitably leads to a doctrine of “works theology” and a view of God that is not altogether worthy of our worship. I suspect that the question of whether one can still be a Christian and deny the Trinity is not really an invitation to defend doctrine. Of course, there may be reasons why a person struggles with the theology surrounding the Trinity, but in most cases, this is due to a lack of sound teaching on the subject from the pulpit. Thus, many Christians have never heard a thorough defense, teaching and explanation as to why this doctrine is essential to our faith. But the question itself, “Is it possible to be a Christian while denying an essential doctrine?” is filled with presumptions that must be unpacked.
Let’s begin by clearing out an unnecessary rabbit trail. We should all admit that there is a great deal about God and the nature of our salvation that a new believer has not grasped. Of course, they may not understand the attributes of God, the essential nature of humankind, the covenants between God and man, the two natures of Christ, justification by faith or the Trinity. They don’t know about Abraham, Moses, David and how what God did in establishing his covenant with these men led to the covenant in the blood of Christ. All they may know is that Christ died for their sins; they want to turn from their sins and turn to Christ; and they have surrendered their lives into the loving hands of the God who sent his own dear son for them. And that truly is enough.
But behind the question that is really being asked here is this: How much essential Christian doctrine can I jettison and still be safely going to heaven? It is the question of reducing faith down to a minimal level and still being able to call what is left of one’s theology “thoroughly Christian.” I find this troubling, because for the greater part of my pastoral ministry, I have ministered in communities in Canada where the majority was not Christian. In my experience, these kinds of people with no Christian background almost never look to jettison key areas of belief when they become believers– on the contrary, they seem to revel in learning theology. This is true for the Muslim who comes to Christ, or a man who has been an atheist until a dramatic encounter with the risen Lord converts him, or someone from China raised to be an atheist and yet always believing there might be a God. From what I’ve seen, these people want to learn more, they seek to grow, and readily embrace doctrine.
On the other hand, the man or woman who seeks to jettison doctrines like that of the Trinity often comes from either a Christian or semi-Christian background. In this context, experimenting with non-Christian worldviews are often novel and even contain the seductiveness of forbidden fruit. The question being asked is, “How much can I deny and still be in the faith?”
And so, this brings me back to the question: Can I deny the Trinity and still be a Christian? My response would be: “Who is asking?”