The greatest theological battles in the early church were fought over the nature of the Holy Trinity. There were a great many heterodox views of the Trinity propounded in the first Christian centuries, most of them stemming from Greek philosophy. Many heresies denied the perfect union of God and man in the person of Christ; some denied Christ’s divinity, while others denied His humanity. Some heresies denied that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three distinct Persons; others denied that the three Persons of the Trinity are united in a single, shared divine essence. The orthodox Christian understanding of the Trinity was formally codified at the Councils of Nicea (325), Constantinople (381), and Chalcedon (451). Those who disagreed with the orthodox position were declared to be heretics (unbelievers) and were excommunicated from the church.
History has a tendency to repeat itself, and today the evangelical church is being overrun by heterodox views of the Trinity. However, this theological development has largely happened under the radar because it has occurred in the amorphous realm of popular theology, and not (largely) as a formal denial of orthodox trinitarianism by prominent church leaders, pastors, or theologians. Popular theology holds that the Father = Jesus = the Holy Spirit. This view is known theologically as “modalism” or “Sabellianism,” and was condemned as heretical by the early church. In conversations with my friends from seminary, as well as in my own experience, we find that people in churches all over the United States commonly say in their prayers that the Father died on the cross for their sins and rose from the dead. Some will even say “Father Jesus” in their prayers and pray to the Father “in your name.” Others will pray something like “Lord, thank you for dying on the cross for us, in Jesus’ name, Amen”—a very confusing prayer which seems to imply that “Lord” is the Father and that He, not Jesus, died on the cross. Prayers like these are seldom, if ever, corrected by pastors, even if prayed in front of the congregation—an indication that pastors think this sort of doctrinal error is a big deal.
The evidence for evangelical confusion about the Trinity is not merely anecdotal: a 2016 survey found that fifty-six percent of American evangelicals believe that the Holy Spirit is a force, not a person. While that is a modalistic view, seventy percent of evangelical respondents actually affirmed that Jesus is a created being, which is the Arian heresy (not modalism). See also this 2018 survey. It is easy to see how these views arise among people who have virtually no theological or Scriptural grounding and give little or no thought to the doctrine of the Trinity. If you ask evangelical Christians “Is Jesus God?” most would say “Yes.” Then if you ask them “Is Jesus a created being?” most would say “Yes” again, because they know Jesus was born to Mary. If you ask evangelicals “Is Jesus the Father?” most would say “Yes,” because they think Jesus = God = the Father. The majority think of the Holy Spirit as a force rather than as a personal being, even if they pray to the Holy Spirit, because they never see the Holy Spirit pictured in human form. Jesus, the One pictured in human form and sung about in church, is “God” to most people, while the Father is just another word for “God,” and the Holy Spirit is God’s power or force.
Very basic teaching in the Bible and theology is all that is needed to understand that God is three Persons in one essence. (For an excellent detailed exposition of the Trinity, see this book by Dr. Imad Shehadeh.) Yet many evangelical laymen appear to have a modalistic understanding of the Trinity. Their lead pastors may be orthodox trinitarians, but do not stress this or correct false ideas. There are several reasons for the development of heterodox views of the Trinity in evangelical churches.
- Many pastors think theology is impractical, and prefer to preach on topics that their congregants will see as relevant to their day-to-day lives. Sermons and small groups at most evangelical churches are primarily applicational in their orientation, not didactic. However, since the Christian faith is defined by theological formulations of doctrine, theology is actually at the core of what the church is and of what it means to be a Christian. Most people will never learn basic Christian theology if it is not taught in church services. Some pastors openly propound the view that theology is boring and largely irrelevant. But when pastors emphasize the importance of theology and exalt knowledge of the Scriptures, their congregations also become interested in theology and begin to see its importance. Some evangelicals have gravitated toward Reformed churches in recent years because traditional Reformed churches actually teach theology (even if their theology tends to get separated from exegesis).
- Many pastors are poorly trained in theology and the Bible. Many evangelical churches do not require a seminary or Bible college degree for their pastors, nor do many ordination councils. The seminaries themselves are increasingly emphasizing counseling and “practical ministry,” with ever-decreasing requirements in theology, Bible, and biblical languages. Preaching is taught as an exercise in application. Many new pastors are primarily interested in relationships, outreach, and counseling, and do not like to read theology books, church history books, Bible commentaries, or Greek and Hebrew grammars. While there was a time when most evangelical pastors and many laymen had a keen interest in theological study, few do today.
- Some pastors teach that the Trinity is a mystery which defies description or understanding. Some pastors simply teach that the Trinity cannot be understood or described, without ever giving the orthodox formulation of trinitarian doctrine. While there are some things about the nature of God and the holy Trinity that are beyond our understanding, God is knowable, and it is possible to communicate from Scripture the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity in a clear and understandable manner. Failure to do this will result in many people developing false ideas about God.
- Strong cultural forces are opposed to a trinitarian view of God. It is well known that politically correct chaplains and pastors refuse to pray in Jesus’ name in ecumenical settings, since Jews, Muslims, and others are offended by the assertion that Jesus is the divine Son of God. Politicians are careful to mention “God” but not “Jesus” so as to avoid offending those who do not believe in the trinitarian God revealed in Scripture. Within the church are anti-trinitarian influences from Oneness Pentecostalism, which comes partly through popular preachers associated with the Word of Faith movement. These and other cultural pressures have made many Christians hesitant to make strong statements about the Trinity. However, the points where the Christian faith is being attacked most strongly are the points which ought to be emphasized most strongly in order to prevent heresies from growing.
- Formal liturgy has been removed from most evangelical churches. There was a time when people recited and affirmed a formulation of orthodox Christian theology every time they went to church. Usually this was the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed, although some denominational creeds have also been used. In every service, prayers were read which clearly expressed a trinitarian view of God. The strongly trinitarian Doxology or Gloria Patri was sung in every service. Trinity Sunday was celebrated once a year on the church calendar, giving the pastor an opportunity for focused teaching on the nature of the Holy Trinity. These are traditions which date back to the early centuries of church history, and they reflect the stress which the early church placed on correct understanding of the Trinity as absolutely essential to the Christian faith. The wholesale removal of these traditions has resulted in many churchgoers neither knowing nor believing fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. While modern evangelical churches may wish to make small adjustments to traditional creeds in response to problems that theologians have long pointed out (such as the statement that Christ descended into hell), it is important for theology to be taught in weekly church services, and it is important to give people in the church the opportunity to make a verbal affirmation of their faith. If prayers are made spontaneously instead of read, then those who lead in prayer must be instructed in how to pray (pray to the Father in Jesus’ name), and should be encouraged to include a trinitarian doxology in their prayers.
- God the Father has been neglected. For decades, evangelical churches have increasingly neglected God the Father. Songs and preaching alike are mainly about Jesus, with a secondary focus on the Holy Spirit in worship. The Father has been forgotten. Thus, most Christians have no concept of who the Father is or what His relationship is to Jesus and the Holy Spirit. They have the idea that because Jesus is God and God is One, the Father is somehow the same as Jesus. This is not just due to a failure to teach basic theology but also to a failure to teach the Bible, since the Bible cannot be understood without distinguishing the Father from Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Contemporary Christians would be shocked to learn that Jesus was not the primary focus of the early church’s worship and prayers—God the Father was. They would be surprised to know that many or most uses of “God” in the New Testament refer specifically to God the Father. And they might become angry and argumentative if told that the Person on the throne in the book of Revelation is not Jesus, but the Father.
- Popular church music is not robustly trinitarian. Lester Ruth has noted that neither the most popular traditional hymns nor the most popular modern worship songs are robustly trinitarian. There are in fact many old hymns which clearly teach trinitarianism, and which worship God as triune. However, a list of the 70 most commonly published hymns in evangelical hymnals, as well as the 99 most popular songs on top-25 lists from CCLI shows that they both are lacking in the area of trinitarian theology. These popular hymns and songs are overwhelmingly about Jesus, with few or no references to God as triune, or to worship of God as triune. They seldom mention more than one Person of the Godhead, and usually use generic references such as “God,” “Lord,” and “King” which could be interpreted in non-trinitarian ways. Often the emphasis is on Jesus = God, an equation which is often misunderstood when there is no balance. Some modern songs even seem to express a sort of unitarianism, identifying Jesus as completely indistinct from the Father/God.
If many or most American evangelicals today hold a modalistic view of the Trinity, this gives rise to a troubling question: can someone believe in modalism and still be saved? The early church was unequivocal in affirming that modalists were not Christians. When Paul was combating anti-resurrection teaching in the Corinthian church, he wrote that “some have no knowledge of God” (1 Cor 15:34). When John was combating a teaching that denied the divine-human nature of Jesus Christ, he called those who hold this view deceivers and antichrists (2 John 7), and warned the church that to hold a false view of Jesus is to worship an idol (1 John 5:21). Today’s popular theology is amorphous and not formally defined; sometimes it is hard to tell exactly what people believe. Perhaps some people are just confused about terminology, but the reality is that many have a false view of God. The main reason why we see so many people walking away from the church in our day is that they were never saved to begin with. The preaching of the gospel must start with right theology, including and especially a right view of who God is.