Scripture Twister: Common Trinitarian Heresies

James R. White
Friday, October 31st 2014
Nov/Dec 2014

The doctrine of the Trinity is the highest affirmation the Christian church professes in her teaching and worship of God. The doctrine separates the Christian faith not only from the world’s polytheistic religions, but it likewise makes her worship distinct from the other great “monotheistic” religions of Judaism and Islam. Historically, Christians have refused to fellowship with those who have denied its truth or sought to modify its claims. Many theologians have identified it as the central truth of the Christian religion, the definitional doctrine that gives form to everything else Christianity says and does.

One would expect, given the centrality of the Trinity, that your average serious believing Christian would know the Trinity well, would think about this divine truth daily, would worship in light of it, and would feel comfortable explaining it, teaching it, and defending it. But honesty forces us to admit that there is a great disconnect between what we profess in our confessions and creeds, and what we experience in our worship and our lives. Very few even of our ministers could explain, with compelling biblical reasoning and theological clarity, why the Trinity is central to the faith. Liberal Christianity, that wholly other religion, as G. Gresham Machen rightly saw it, may still print the ancient creeds in their prayer books, but the actual confession of the Trinity as a divine truth ceased among them long ago.

The Bible Tells Me So

Christians are Trinitarians because they have a firm, sure word from God in the Holy Scriptures. Those Scriptures consistently and harmoniously reveal three fundamental truths about God’s self-revelation that is focused in the coming of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. First, the absolute, foundational reality of monotheism: there is only one true, eternal God, Creator of all things. Second, the revelation of the existence of that one God in three divine persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in eternal relationship to one another. Third, the personality and equality of the divine persons: more specifically, the deity of the Son, and the personality and deity of the Holy Spirit. All Trinitarian controversies may be said to be perversions’or typically outright rejections’of one of these three biblical teachings. It was the weight of the entirety of Scripture, not individual texts in isolation, that drove the church to clearly confess her faith in the Trinity.

Let’s briefly consider five common errors regarding the Trinity, and in so doing, grow in our appreciation of this central revelation of the nature and being of the God we worship.


Often associated with dying liberal denominations (and universalism, which refers to an aberrant view of salvation), unitarianism is actually a technical theological term that, in our present context, refers to the idea that the being of God is shared by only one (unitary) person, in opposition to the idea that the being of God is shared equally and fully by three persons (Trinitarianism). In general, Judaism is unitarian, and Islam’s central theological affirmation about Allah, the concept of tawhid, is essentially a statement of unitarianism. Many confuse unitarianism with monotheism, as if the category of the being of God (there is only one) is the same as the category of person. This is probably the most common confusion in the cultic misrepresentations of the Trinity.

Unitarianism would be a logical position to hold if the Scriptures were not so clear in their affirmation of the existence of three divine persons. Unitarians are forced to either subject the persons in a specific order (such as making the Father the only truly divine person, with the Son taking a lesser role, and the Spirit, if seen as personal at all, an even lesser role; see “Subordinationism” below), or they must deny the personal distinctions completely, leading to the modalist/Sabellian error, where the three divine persons become modes of expression or manifestation (e.g., T. D. Jakes), rather than eternal, divine persons (see “Modalism” below).

Unitarianism has always led to a dry, sterile theology for the simple reason that it is unbiblical and cuts the very heart of the redemptive work of the Triune God out of the Christian faith. You cannot turn the Jesus of the Bible into anything less than the inspired Scriptures describe him: the unitarian “Jesus” always ends up as little more than a moral teacher or social campaigner, not the powerful Lord whose kingship is the heart of the Christian proclamation. In the same fashion, the work of the cross always ends up being diminished in unitarian systems, for the divine self-giving of the atonement is necessarily sacrificed when Jesus becomes less than truly God.


Many would think the second error, polytheism (the belief in many gods), is no longer a common belief in today’s world. The reality is that polytheism is alive and well, not just in the formal sense (e.g., what is taught in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons, whose theology takes polytheism to the ultimate extreme), but likewise in the less-than-informed views of many Christians who so separate the divine persons that they unintentionally enter into a functional form of polytheism.

There is surely no more fundamental affirmation of the Scriptures, taken as a divine and inspired whole, than monotheism. As the psalmist expressed it, “All the gods of the peoples are idols, but Yahweh made the heavens” (Ps. 96:5). Everything else we believe about God begins with his uniqueness, his complete “otherness,” and all of that is grounded in the truth that there is no other god: Yahweh alone made all things.

The unity of the three divine persons in sharing (fully, completely, equally) the one divine essence is necessitated by Scripture itself. Recognizing the primacy of monotheism protects us from falling into many errors, including a functional form of polytheism that afflicts many conservative churches today. This is seen especially when we nurture the idea in our devotional life of God the Father as distant, angry, and harsh, while envisioning Jesus as close, loving, and gracious. Jesus makes the Father “play nice” with us. Nothing could be a more distorted idea of the actual biblical teaching, which presents a perfect consistency between Father, Son, and Spirit in bringing about redemption, with the Father as the very fountainhead of all grace and mercy. A serious understanding of monotheism would preclude such incipient polytheism.


As noted above, one specific form of unitarianism is known as modalism. This system teaches that instead of three eternal, divine persons, the Father, Son, and Spirit are modes or manifestations of a single divine person. The United Pentecostal Church, for example, teaches that Jesus is two persons, the divine Father indwelling the created and non-divine Son, the Father then adopting the role of Spirit after the ascension of Christ. However the system is constructed, the key element is the denial that there has existed in eternity past a divine relationship between three divine persons.

Modalism strikes at the most misunderstood element of the Trinity’that of the perfect sharing of the one divine being by three coequal and coeternal persons. This element of the doctrine is most unlike our human experience, and hence it defies any kind of comparison or analogy (though man has tried mightily to construct them). We tend to import our own creaturely meaning into the words and as a result struggle at this very point. But if we adopt modalistic thinking, the Bible becomes a mishmash of contradiction and empty words. Jesus’ prayer life becomes unintelligible, John 17 incoherent, the concept of Jesus’ mediation on our behalf before the Father impossible. Yet the reality is, due to a lack of preaching and teaching on the Trinity in our churches, many unknowingly fall into a form of modalism.


Here we have the other noted form of unitarianism, which is much more readily recognized in mainstream liberal churches and in the cults. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, turn Jesus into Michael the Archangel, the greatest of the creatures of Jehovah. The list of cult groups that have demoted Jesus (and the Spirit), so as to maintain some form of unitarianism, is long.


I will admit to some level of linguistic creativity in the construction of this term, but I think it is expressive of many in conservative churches today. I expressed this years ago when I asked, at the beginning of my book on the Trinity, “When was the last time you heard someone say, ‘I love the Trinity’?” I explained the rarity of the statement in light of the fact that we do not profess passion for that which we do not understand. We know the Trinity is important, but for a variety of reasons, we find ourselves uncomfortable and confused, and hence lacking in passion for the very highest of God’s self-revelation in divine Scripture. And for believers in Jesus Christ, confuseditarianism should be the last proper description of our own faith. We should be known as a people who properly profess the Trinity to be central to our faith because we know and adore why it is central, why it is so important. May the Triune God guide his people to an ever more passionate knowledge of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Friday, October 31st 2014

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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