Tag Archives: doctrine

God is Love (Grounds for the Trinity)

Tertullian (c. 160-220 AD) is officially given credit for coining the term “Trinity” to refer to the triune nature of the Godhead (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).

The Biblical text, specifically the NT, references the Father, Son, and Spirit in about 120 different passages (e.g. Matt 28:18-20; Jn 14-17; Acts 2:32-33, etc.), though not all references use the three together.

While “Trinity” is not actually used in the Scripture, all orthodox Christian traditions have accepted the term as a sufficient way of describing the three-in-one relationship of God, including my own denomination, the MCUSA.

Those that don’t embrace Trinitarian theology are Unitarians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Oneness Pentecostals, Mormons, Christian Scientists, etc. According to orthodoxy, these so-called “Christian” groups are heretical (or cultic) for being anti-Trinitarian, and for other reasons related to Christology.

The Trinity Revealed by Jesus & the Apostles

I’ve heard skeptics and YouTube atheists claim that Constantine is responsible for belief in the Trinity, and for it becoming the orthodox position. Is this true?

It’s true that the Trinity was further articulated and defended by folks like Athanasius at the Council of Nicaea in the 4th century, but it was by no means an “invented” doctrine of the church. Constantine’s concern was merely for the bishops to settle the theological dispute brought on by Arianism. Yes, he did want unity in his new empire, but the imperial decision was for Christendom’s growing hold on the world, it was nothing new for Christian theology.

On the contrary, Polycarp (69-155 AD), bishop of Smyrna and disciple of the apostle John, expressed Trinitarian belief when he wrote the following:

“O Lord God almighty… I bless you and glorify you through the eternal and heavenly high priest Jesus Christ, your beloved Son, through whom be glory to you, with Him and the Holy Spirit, both now and forever” (n. 14, ed. Funk; PG 5.1040).

The ante-Nicene church fathers used Trinitarian language unambiguously in their writings. This includes Justin Martyr, Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus, and Origen. And as previously stated, it was Tertullian in the late second century that identified the communal concept of God as “Trinity” to capture his essence.

Therefore, the Nicene Creed reflects the earliest Christian confession about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, dating back to Jesus and the apostles themselves.

The Trinity as Christian Dogma

Despite the mysterious complexity of the Trinity, orthodox Christianity has considered it dogma since the very beginning. The one true God is triune. In other words, there is no room for “variance” or disagreement.

Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) once quipped, “If you try to understand the Trinity, you will lose your mind. If you deny the Trinity you will lose your soul.”

While I personally believe that folks can trip up on this doctrine and still know the salvation God offers in Jesus, I understand Augustine’s primary point to be this: The Trinity is a non-negotiable biblical truth.

In Theology for the Community of God (p.53), Stanley Grenz wrote:

“Of the various aspects of our Christian understanding of God perhaps none is as difficult to grasp as the concept of God as triune. At the same time, no dimension of the Christian confession is closer to the heart of the mystery of the God we have come to know. In fact, what sets Christianity apart from the other religious traditions is the confession that the one God is Father, Son, and Spirit. As a consequence, no teaching lies at the center of Christian theology, if not of Christian faith itself, as does the doctrine of the Trinity.”

So, Augustine is right about the Trinity being a non-negotiable element of our faith. However, I’m certain that much about the triune God can be understood, and should be understood for faith and practice. And many trusted theologians throughout church history have offered helpful insights.

The Foundation for Belief in a Triune God

One of the most logical and practical insights into the triune God begins with the universally celebrated Christian confession: “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). OK, how can we know that? More specifically, why does John believe it?

Listen to his answer: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world…” (1 Jn 4:9a NIV). John is saying that “God is love” and we can know it because Jesus has revealed God in all of his fullness!

Robert Barron, Catholic thinker and practitioner, says, “Love isn’t just something God does, it’s who God is.”  Think about that.

I believe after serious reflection, our confession that “God is love” can be recognized as the very foundation by which the apostles believed in the triune God. And from this God comes our understanding of the church in his image.

Listen to Barron explain how confessing “God is love” makes a triune God necessary and coherent for a truly liberating and practical theology.

What do you think of Barron’s explanation of God as lover (Father), the beloved (Son), and the love (Spirit) shared between them? How else does the Trinity matter for Christian belief and practice?

D.D. Flowers, 2014.

For further study, see my article: Trinity & Incarnation: Finding a Biblical Christology Within a Trinitarian Monotheism (2011).

Suggested Reading:

  • Theology for the Community of God by Stanley Grenz (pgs. 53-95)
  • The Trinity & the Kingdom by Jürgen Moltmann
  • After Our Likeness: The Church as Image of the Trinity by Miroslav Volf
  • God in New Testament Theology by Larry Hurtado (pgs. 27-47)
  • A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology by Thomas Finger (pgs. 423-464)

On Church Doctrinal Statements

Last week I posted on Creeds & the Local Church. I’ve been giving some thought to the importance, even necessity, of a church doctrinal statement.

I’ve also been thinking about the difference(s) between dogma, doctrine, and opinion. In the pursuit of planting a church, it must be examined and discussed with others who are joining together in community.

I concluded that…

“a healthy church will continue to wrestle with dogma, doctrine, and opinion in every age and culture.”

I wanted to share a few more thoughts I’ve had in light of a couple responses to my last post on the topic.

Why We Need Doctrinal Statements

I admit that a lengthy doctrinal statement can present obstacles for folks. I know that when I see a long doctrinal statement, I honestly anticipate something that’s gonna rub me the wrong way.

I even do this when looking at schools. I almost expect that the longer the statement, the more likely we’re going to clash.

I quickly move off church websites when I see that they believe in a “rapture” pre-millenial/pre-trib theology. That’s of course because I so strongly disagree with it, and I often don’t see why it needs to be stated.

I think… “Can’t we just agree that Christ is returning?”

I think it’s different when there is a statement included that allows for differing views on the matter. It should be clear that people are welcome (and treated that way) even if they disagree with the “official” doctrine of the church. There ought to be an atmosphere of freedom.

But I want to be clear that I don’t see anything wrong with a church saying, “Here’s where we are as a local fellowship.” I would rather they be upfront about it, because it’s there whether visible in a confession or not. This is good and can please the Lord, when it’s done in grace and love.

Contrary to those that think creeds and doctrinal statements are always and only divisive, I think they are helpful for a fellowship and for those who would visit them. We mustn’t jump to such extremes just because we’ve seen examples of churches who did not hold their doctrine with grace, humility, and love. It’s reckless to respond in such a way.

A doctrinal statement captures the heart of the people, and serves as a guide for further growth into Christ.

I think it’s beneficial for visiting Christians to know where a church is in its journey. A doctrinal statement can reveal that to a certain extent. I would like to know where most of the fellowship is at in their walk. Wouldn’t you?

In reality I think it’s unhealthy not to at least hold some distinctives as a local church seeking to express the Christ they know. Where are we theologically as a fellowship? How are we seeking to manifest Christ among our culture and context? How do we feel about issues that often divide the church and the world? These are important questions that should be answered, leaving room for exploration and growth moving forward.

I believe it’s possible to plant your church’s creed, mission, and vision in certain doctrinal ideas while at the same time welcoming everyone who agrees upon the foundation—the mysterious incarnation of Christ.

I don’t think it’s a good idea to enter into any fellowship where doctrine isn’t apart of the church’s life together. That fellowship may have good intentions, but they open themselves up to problems born in the opposite extreme of dogmatism. They imagine that doctrine is inevitably against knowing Christ. They’re wrong. And they’ll be proven wrong.

So, I would say folks will (and should) find union with saints based on their basic confession of something like the Apostles Creed. But I also believe it’s healthy—even necessary—for a church to be upfront and clear about their doctrinal positions, holding them in love, grace, and humility.

It can be done, even if we’re skeptical because of our bad experiences.

What do you think? How have you seen doctrine and church distinctives serve as a healthy guide to growing in Christ? How are you and your church handling doctrinal matters?

D.D. Flowers, 2013.


Creeds & the Local Church

I’ve been doing some thinking about the difference(s) between dogma, doctrine, and opinion when it comes to the local church.

Simply put… it looks like this.

  • Dogma — Irreducible beliefs of the Christian faith. What do we say about Jesus?
  • Doctrine — Historical or traditional beliefs on a plethora of theological issues. What sets us apart?
  • Opinion — Debatable issues that you’re free to agree or disagree upon. What do you think?

I agree with these three distinctions (leaving room for some overlap), but how do you determine what belief goes where in these categories? And is it possible for a local church (pastors & elders) to proclaim a certain view as “doctrine” but leave room for members to disagree? I think so.

One thing is for certain, this is a task for folks in community together and those who are willing to wrestle with it. That’s an invitation.

Two Ways of Dealing With It

Let me first address two common ways of dealing with these issues, and then I’ll share my working thoughts.

Group One — “Give me Jesus, not your divisive doctrine.”

Some of you know that I spent about five years meeting in homes and interacting with a network of “organic” churches. I had some great experiences. However, many of the folks I ran into sought to downplay the role of theology and creeds (statement of beliefs) for fear that it is divisive and characteristic of the beastly institutional church.

They have a point. Beliefs can be divisive. But I don’t think the answer is to avoid the need for a creed, or set Jesus against doctrine.

So, I’m saying that I know people that don’t seem to think that worrying about dogma, doctrine, and opinion really matters. In their “opinion” (catch that?), we should just wander about in nebulous fashion and refrain from any organization—church practice and theology included.

This group is imagining that there is not a systematic theology at work in the members of their group or church. It doesn’t need to be posted on a church website or posted on the wall of their meeting place, it’s alive in the hearts and minds of the saints there.

A fellowship may not discuss what they believe openly or form a statement of faith by consensus, but it’s at work among them.  Avoiding the obvious need for a creed of theology, mission, and vision will lead to a certain death. That’s if the church even gets off the ground in the first place.

You can’t escape a “theology of the people” who have decided to band together for Kingdom purposes.

Trying to do so will lead to division of another sort. Once more proving that reactionary thinking and practice is not the answer.

I suppose this groups believes that if you stay away from labels and systems of thought that there will not be any division or controversy. They must think this reflects a purer stage of the NT church.

Back when there weren’t any problems, right?

I respect the desire to not be needlessly building walls of separation between saints. I’m all for that. But I can’t espouse the idea that having a statement of belief (creed) is damaging to the church.

In fact, I believe it is healthy and necessary.

Group Two — “Let’s get back to the basics… of the 4th century.”

Then there are other folks who are rightfully fed up with sectarianism in the church but believe that we must stand firm on some basic theological truths about Christ. They believe we should only stick to the ancient creeds in our attempts to articulate the essentials of our faith.

I grew up a Southern Baptist. The SBC has a very lengthy confession (Baptist Faith & Message) dealing with just about every issue under the sun (OK, I’m exaggerating a little bit). Needless to say, I didn’t grow up reciting the Apostles or Nicene Creed. I regret that.

My wife and I attended a Methodist church for a year and we deeply benefited from the recitation of these ancient creedal statements. The recitation of creeds in worship is a healthy way of reminding everyone in attendance of what brings them together and is forming their new identity as members of the universal church.

Hear me out. I like reciting the ancient creeds, but I do think it’s important to remember that the Apostles & Nicene Creeds (4th cent) were written against their own contextual issues of heresy and debated ideas of Christology in the church from ages ago.

Let’s remember the ancient creeds and recite them together in our churches. I’m cool with that. I think there is something deeply beneficial that comes with this practice. But I submit to you that a healthy church will continue to wrestle with dogma, doctrine, and opinion in every age and culture.

The local church can do this by amending the ancient creeds to better address our 21st century issues and challenges.

It’s necessary for a church that wishes to be a relevant organism seeking to make a Kingdom impact in every culture and context. Our evolving world demands it. We must not be afraid to speak to, for, and against issues of our time. We must move forward with courage.

Finding a Third Way

If you follow this blog regularly, you know that I have intentions to plant a church in the near future. I do this with fear and trembling. It’s not gonna be easy, but I’m convinced the Lord wants it.

The church today is fragmented in many ways. And I don’t wish to add to the problem by doing more of the same. But a new church plant is gonna require some line-drawing when it comes to dogma, doctrine, and opinion.

For example, some issues of “classical” theology, especially as it relates to our view of God in Christ, need to be revisited in order to reflect a change in the 21st cent church—a church that presently finds herself forced to accept views about God which contradict the revelation of God in Christ, or leave behind belief in a good God altogether.

The church that humbly professes the better view of God in Christ is being a faithful church, not a divisive or dogmatic church.

If we don’t speak up about these matters and courageously hold our ground against competing views that undermine the revelation of God in Christ… what good are we? What Gospel are we proclaiming?

There are other issues related to our culture and context that should be addressed in our creeds. We can’t afford to avoid these issues.

Some positions will need to be taken in response to culture, most others in response to misguided Christians propagating views about God and his sovereignty that don’t look like Jesus. It will require us hold positions that may not be popular, but are necessary to maintain the centrality and supremacy of Christ for authentic faith and practice.

Here’s what I’m saying… what may have been considered “opinion” or a non-essential in one generation can move into the realm of accepted doctrine worthy to be included in a church’s creed and statement of faith if it is needed in our response to bad theology and pagan culture.

The creeds of the local church should move forward in every cultural context, though never away from Christ who is eternal in the heavens.

The way forward affirms the importance of beliefs, expands on matters critical to our confession of Christ, and is willing to draw necessary lines in order to be faithful to the Kingdom.

This third way looks like Jesus Christ of Nazareth—Truth for the church and culture, saturated in love and grace for every age.

D.D. Flowers, 2013.


Organic Church Life: Doctrinal Issues

How do you treat doctrinal concerns in an organic house church? The following was initially written in response to someone inquiring about the doctrine of the Trinity.

Q: A person in your group denies the Trinity. How do you respond?

That’s a great question and one to work through slowly in prayer.

There have been situations that we have known in experience and through the stories of others who are further along in the journey. It is so very important to wait upon the Lord and seek his patient heart.

Every situation is different and I don’t believe there are uniform answers for the problems that may arise in a local ekklesia.

First, let me give a preliminary note about dealing with doctrinal differences. This question about the Trinity really calls for a careful response over handling doctrine in general.

If any person comes into the fellowship and begins sharing or teaching something that the group feels is biblically unfounded or a bit speculative, everyone should feel free to express their concern to this person in an appropriate time and manner.

In a gentle and respectful way, with the Lord’s heart, there should be an open discussion in an atmosphere of freedom.

This might be something that the entire fellowship discusses together. Depending on the person and the situation it might be something best left in discussion with the brothers only, or even the eldest among you.

However the fellowship decides to handle their own unique situation, the church should always move forward in love toward one another.

I do want to be clear about this. Everyone in your group comes from a different place. There will be theological differences.

If the nature of your association is built upon every piece of doctrine you think is important, you will see these differences as a threat.

If you’re not getting all your life from Jesus, you can count on there being division among you because of these differences.

Differences in theological opinions and biblical interpretation can be a very healthy and edifying thing. I don’t think these differences are serious concerns, unless a person is doing any of the following:

  1. challenging the biblical presentation of the person and work of Christ;
  2. relentlessly pressing their doctrinal position on others; or
  3. purposely being divisive with their theological opinions.

If you are meeting in an organic church, which means your smaller meetings are probably open, you do not have to worry about someone pulpiteering and leading everyone to the gates of hell. Everyone is encouraged to think on his or her own and intentionally enter into discussion.

We must lose the attitude of fear and distrust—where we are always suspicious of one another.

There is an elder brother I know who told me of a situation in their fellowship a few years ago. Another brother came in with a doctrinal / missional agenda and he was very adamant about it.

Eventually the brothers agreed that they would set a time aside for him to share his views that he felt so passionate about. It would then be left to the whole church to decide if they agreed with him and wanted to move in the direction he was proposing.

No matter what their decision, they agreed to hear him out and drop it after he shared. So he shared and they listened. The church expressed that they did not desire to accept his views. They lovingly rejected his beliefs which they felt moved them away from Christ and the man never came back.

At no time was frustration or anger expressed to this person. They reached a consensus and agreed with one another in the Lord.

The Lord has his own way of pruning his church that doesn’t involve a trial or hearing.

It’s unfortunate that we often don’t trust the Lord to express himself in the Body this way. In organized Christianity it is usually left to a few men to guide and “protect” the flock by meeting in secret with those who are perceived to be a threat to the spiritual life of the church.

I certainly agree that there are shepherds/elders and teachers that need to pastor. The actions of these members will be a tremendous help to the Body during this time, but we must believe that the Lord’s people are able to discern the Lord’s heart in community with each other.

I believe it is the example of those shepherds that help the flock to discern the Lord’s heart if there be any confusion. You do this by meeting around Christ and the Scriptures together—prayerfully seeking the Lord’s heart on the matter and not being ruled by your emotions.

We should not be alarmed by theological differences.

Like the example I have shared above. I believe some of the members knew the Lord well enough to discern truth, and those who were unsure leaned upon the discernment of the elders who have proven themselves over time to be people of sound heart and mind.

I do think there are some beliefs that are clearly peripheral and the church should spend little to no time discussing them. However, I don’t think it’s all so cut and dry. There are plenty of spiritual and biblical insights that are truly edifying. It is not wrong to set aside time for Bible study.

The church should not run from theological inquiry and biblical discussions, but welcome them when the need arises.

The church should not mistakenly think that there is no room for deep biblical discussion. The Beareans understood the benefits of finding Christ in biblical exploration (Acts 17:11). This sort of thing can be a wonderful building project! It all depends on your center.

Jesus did not condemn the Scriptures, he rebuked those who abused it through careless interpretation and poor handling of the biblical text (John 5:39-40). Our biblical exploration should lead us to Christ. It ought to benefit us in our knowing of him and our learning to do his kingdom work.

It’s unfortunate that many folks who have received a fresh revelation of Jesus have concluded that we are no longer in need of discussions about the Scriptures. They have set Christ up against the biblical text. I’m sure that we have all seen both extremes.

We may make some mistakes in dealing with these issues, but I do believe that as long as you move forward in the love of Christ, the Lord will honor the efforts of the church.

Then there are other beliefs that we would consider essential to our faith in Christ. It is upon the essentials that we must all agree.

Q: Is the doctrine of the Trinity essential?

This may seem a bit fuzzy at times, but I do believe that there is a standard by which we judge what is essential. What we say about who Jesus is matters most. We can disagree about many things, but this one thing we must land firmly on both feet together as a church (1 John 2:22; 4:1-6).

It’s only matters of faith which are directly connected to the person and work of Christ that are essential.

Every confession in the New Testament and in the early church reflects a basic recognition of Jesus of Nazareth as the unique Son of God who was born of a virgin, crucified, buried, and raised (1 Cor. 15:3-5).

What is necessary for belief in Jesus (salvation)? I remember a professor asking this once. I remember him asking something like, “Is it necessary to believe in the virgin birth?” Likewise, we could ask if it is necessary to believe that God is Triune in nature: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

I understand that a person may genuinely come to Christ without a full theological and biblical knowledge of God in Christ. However, regardless of what they may or may not be aware of at their receiving of Jesus, they are indeed receiving the God that became a human being and was born of a virgin Mary. They are embracing Jesus (the Son) that is the second person in what was dubbed the “Trinity” by Tertullian in the third century.

What’s really crazy is the little knowledge we do have at our first confession, but the Lord saves us still. That’s the key: It’s the Lord that saves! He sees into a man’s heart. He sees what a man is truly doing with Jesus. We should not be quick to judge.

I don’t think a denial of the Trinity is necessarily a denial of Christ. It could be the case, but only the Lord knows the reasons.

I do agree that many things unravel at the decimation of the doctrine on the Trinity. It presents a lot of problems on many levels, but this still doesn’t require a frantic move to straighten that person out or form a lynch mob.

My inclination would be to go to the root and see if this person is confessing the same Spirit. What do they believe about Christ? It may just be that their ideas about the Triune God are only muddled in their understanding of the God who is three in one.

Remember, the doctrine of the Trinity may just be the most mysterious of all Christian doctrines. It’s not irrational, it’s just mysterious. It doesn’t go against reason, it simply goes beyond it. So, tread softly.

In closing, relax a little. Get to know the people in your church and learn to listen better—be teachable. Humble yourself as you recognize that nobody has arrived. Above all, love each other.

I’m willing to bet that through learning to accept one another you will discover that having theological differences will keep you on your toes. In this way you will be always growing in your faith, learning to love like Christ, and being enriched by the spiritual journey of others.

In the essentials let there be unity–in the peripherals let there be freedom–and in all things, love.

Revised and expanded from a facebook note dated April 2010.

You may also be interested in reading other posts in the Organic Church Life series: The Beginning; The Sunday Gathering; The Lord’s Supper; and Visiting an Organic Church.


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