This post has been updated since it was originally posted on May 12 ,2010
In John Wesley’s day as in ours, there was discussion as to what beliefs were considered essential for the Christian faith. As an Arminian theologian, Wesley disagreed with the opinions of many Catholics and Calvinists. However, he did not deny that many within these different camps could indeed be true Christians if they held the essential truths.
In sermon #55, Wesley starts off examining essentials noting that:
persons may be truly religious, who hold many wrong opinions.
Wesley starts off acknowledging that people can hold different opinions on religious matters and still be rightly called a “real inward Christian”. It follows from this premise that some Christians hold views that are incorrect but are still truly followers of Christ. However, Wesley denies that there are no essentials to the faith. He held that some doctrines are vital to being a Christian.
But there are some truths more important than others. It seems there are some which are of deep importance. I do not term them fundamental truths; because that is an ambiguous word: And hence there have been so many warm disputes about the number of fundamentals. But surely there are some which it nearly concerns us to know, as having a close connexion with vital religion.
One of the doctrines that was vital to get right was the Trinity (see Trinity in a nutshell for a great explantion):
And doubtless we may rank among these that contained in the words above cited: There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: And these three are one.
It should be noted up front that there are points that Wesley raises that can be disputed in this sermon, for example his arguing for the authenticity of the Comma Johanneum. That will not be dealt with in this post, but you can read more about it here. In addition I will be ignoring his “rants” against Romanists (aka Catholics) and Calvinists.
While it is highly improbable that the Comma Johanneum (1 John 5:7) is part of the original inspired letter by John, it does capture the essence of the Trinitarian belief quite well: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: And these three are one. Even without this particular verse I believe that as one examines the Scriptures one would find the following facts, though it is not my intention to defend them in this post:
- There is One God (Deut 6:4)
- The Father is God (Matt 6:9)
- The Son, Jesus Christ, is God (Heb 1:8)
- The Holy Spirit is God (Acts 5:3,4)
Acknowledging these facts is one thing, It is far more complicated to integrate them into a coherent theological definition. Wesley argues that
… all who endeavored to explain it at all, have utterly lost their way; have, above all other persons hurt the cause which they intended to promote; having only, as Job speaks, “darkened counsel by words without knowledge.” It was in an evil hour that these explainers began their fruitless work I insist upon no explication at all; no, not even on the best I ever saw; I mean, that which is given us in the creed commonly ascribed to Athanasius.
Wesley has a point. How can finite, mortal man, trapped in a material body, describe the infinite, immortal God whom is described as an invisible, non-material, Spirit (John 4:24; Colossians 1:15; 1 Timothy 1:17). Furthermore, the Trinity is an implicit doctrine. It is a truth that is built precept upon precept. Having searched the Scriptures and discovered the facts as laid out above, one will certainly find that the Scriptures do not reveal how these facts all work together.
I dare not insist upon any one’s using the word Trinity, or Person. I use them myself without any scruple, because I know of none better: But if any man has any scruple concerning them, who shall constrain him to use them? I cannot: Much less would I burn a man alive, and that with moist, green wood, for saying, Though I believe the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God; yet I scruple using the words Trinity and Persons, because I do not find those terms in the Bible.”
Nor will one find the term substance. In fact there seemed to have been debate during the Council of Nicea regarding using terms that were not found in the Scriptures when composing the creed that gave us the Trinitarian formula – One God in three distinct Persons comprised of the same substance. I recommend Schaff for those interested in details on the debate over terminology at the Council. I also recommend Athanasius’ De Decretis chapter 5 for his defense in use of the term “homousios”.
Wesley reminds us that in theology there is a difference between accepting the plain teaching of the Scriptures and understanding the complex nature of how it works:
I believe the plain fact: There is no mystery at all in this. The mystery lies in the manner of it. But of this I believe nothing at all; nor does God require it of me.
He then applies this principle to the Trinity:
To apply this to the case before us: There are three that bear record in heaven: And these three are One. I believe this fact also, (if I may use the expression,) that God is Three and One. But the manner how I do not comprehend and I do not believe it. Now in this, in the manner, lies the mystery; and so it may; I have no concern with it: It is no object of my faith: I believe just so much as God has revealed, and no more. But this, the manner, he has not revealed; therefore, I believe nothing about it. But would it not be absurd in me to deny the fact, because I do not understand the manner? That is, to reject what God has revealed, because I do not comprehend what he has not revealed.
Fair assessment – even if strongly worded. While I hold that the Nicene/Athanasian definitions are the best (and accepted as orthodox) attempt by man to describe and explain what the Scriptures present as fact, this may not be exactly right. These are man’s attempt to explain the data but the Bible does not explain how the Trinity works. However as Athanasius explained, using terms not found in the Scriptures (like Trinity, person, and substance) are useful in separating and explaining a position and contrasting that with other non-orthodox explanations including Arianism, Modalism, and Adoptionalism.
Since these are man’s best attempts to explain Biblical data (see the Trinity is like 3 in 1 shampoo for various illustrations that fall short), I agree with Wesley that a Nicene understanding of the Trinity is not required for salvation. I also agree that accepting what the Bible teaches regarding God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are essential. Rob Bowman says the same thing here
…what does the Bible tell us we need to know about the Trinity? Obviously, it does not tell us that we need to use words like Trinity or formulas like three persons in one God. These do not appear in the Bible. On the other hand, we are expected to make a faith commitment to the three persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as is evident from the injunction to make disciples by “baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19)
That leaves us with the following points to think through:
- trying to describe the Trinity is difficult and often filled with lack of understanding.
- words used to describe the Trinity are not in the Bible.
- Trinity, Person, Substance
- belief in the facts not the illustrations is what is important.
Wesley concluded with this explanation of the Trinity and why it is an essential doctrine for all Christians:
I know not how any one can be a Christian believer till he “hath,” as St. John speaks, “the witness in himself;” till “the Spirit of God witnesses with his spirit, that he is a child of God;” that is, in effect, till God the holy Ghost witnesses that God the Father has accepted him through the merits of God the Son: And, having this witness, he honours the Son, and the blessed Spirit, “even as he honours the Father.”