Why Many Christians Don’t Find the Doctrine of the Trinity Relevant

Michael Horton has a new book called Pilgrim Theology: Core Doctrines for Christian Disciples. Horton explains that the

“book is more than simply an abridgment of The Christian Faith. Instead, I have sought to write for an entirely new and wider audience. I’ve intentionally tried to make it useful for both group and individual study, and have included key terms, distinctions, and questions at the end of each chapter that are linked to words in bold font within the text. Though this book is less detailed than my longer systematic theology, it is written to serve as something of a travel guide to help you on your own journey of theological understanding, showing you the proper coordinates and important landmarks you’ll need to recognize along the way.” (14)

As I read his chapter on the Holy Trinity I very much appreciated his observation on why so many Christians today don’t find this doctrine all that relevant. I distinctly remember a number of years ago someone asking a guest speaker we had in the store why we needed to believe in the Trinity since it really had no “practical” application. Horton’s response needs to be heard.

“One of the reasons that many Christians have found little practical relevance of this doctrine for their lives is that our public worship—and therefore private piety—has become increasingly emptied of Trinitarian references. As we’ve seen, one of the reasons for the controversies and greater refinements in formulating the doctrine is that monotheistic Jews were now offering worship to Christ and the Holy Spirit as well as to the Father. In addition to the New Testament formulas for baptism and benedictions, ancient prayers and hymns planted the Trinitarian faith deep in the hearts of Christian people across many times and places. Christians throughout the ages didn’t just talk about the Trinity (which still, more often than not, happens today), but to the Father, in the Son, by the Spirit.”

Many forms of worship today, however, have dispensed with these rich resources without replacing them with equally Trinitarian elements. So now when we raise the subject in catechism or youth group (which itself is increasingly rare), many find it unfamiliar to their Christian experience thus far. To the extent that our experience is not Trinitarian, it is not properly Christian. One of my goals in this book is to explore the relevance of the Trinity not only across the whole system of Christian doctrine, but in our lives as worshipers and disciples of Jesus Christ.” (Emphasis his. 103-4)

Pilgrim Theology is from Zondervan. It is a hardcover with 512 pages and sells for $34.99.

Pilgrim Theology

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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10 Responses to Why Many Christians Don’t Find the Doctrine of the Trinity Relevant

  1. Joe Rutherford says:

    I’m curious about how Horton teaches the issue of oneness vs trinitarian doctrine. I believe the oneness who baptize in the name of Jesus Christ are correct in the baptismal name. I also believe the trinitarians are correct in their doctrine about the trinity, but have missed what Jesus said about the baptismal name. So I am a trinitarian who believes water baptism must be in the name of the Lord Jesus. This seems to put me at odds with all of christendom in the world today.

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  2. Ian Thomason says:

    Hi, Joe.

    Perhaps your position vis baptism is based on a partial understanding of what’s meant and implied by the term ‘name’? I would humbly suggest to you that such isn’t exclusively the form of address, ‘Jesus’ (see, e.g. Philippians 2:8-11). I also find it suggestive that Christians weren’t baptised into the ‘name’ of Jesus until after his resurrection and ascension.

    I would further proffer that the experience of Jesus’ own baptism at the commencement of his ministry of service was paradigmatic for subsequent Christian baptism. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit were all present; hence the Matthean baptismal formula invoking the ‘name’ (the Greek term όνομα is singular) of Father, Son and Spirit, colletively. Consequently, to be baptised in(to) the ‘name’ of Jesus involves a fully Trinitarian act; it acknowledges the perichoretic nature of the Godhead.

    Blessings,

    Ian

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  3. Roger Penney says:

    What has relevance to do with it? Relevant to what? To the petty little lives we lead here? The Eternal God has shown Himself to be a Godhead of three persons. We cannot properly or fully understand this. Well I cannot! However the very first verse of the Bible is trinitarian. “In the beginning God (plural, Elohim) he created (singular verb),” This is the Godhead acting in unity in creation. We can find passages in the Bible which show the Holy Spirit to be a Creator. The Lord Jesus is a Creator. He is the Father’s agent in Creation as well as in Redemption.
    Godhead, One God in a trinity of persons; that is the very nature of God. So how can it be irrelevant. The very idea seems blasphemous. God has given His revelation of Himself in the Bible. Christian theology, hymnology and the current pop theology of modern evangelicalism are all the small minded arrogant view of feeble Christianity more interested in having a good time in church than truly ‘prostrating themselves’ before the Most High. One day, “every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Yehovah to the glory of God the Father.” (Isa.45:23. Rom.14:11. Philipp.2:1011)

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  4. Ian Thomason says:

    Hi, Roger.

    “… the very first verse of the Bible is trinitarian. ‘In the beginning God (plural, Elohim) he created (singular verb),’ This is the Godhead acting in unity in creation.”

    Not necessarily. The plural אֱלֹהִים describes what is known as an ‘honorific plural’. This is the reason that ‘Elohim’ is consistently used with singular verb forms, and with adjectives and pronouns that are also singular (note, particularly the fact of ·ר֣וּחַ or ‘spirit’ in verse 2). Consequently, it isn’t necessary to interpret/infer plurality in the Godhead from Genesis 1.1.

    The Greek translation of the Pentateuch known as the Septuagint demonstrates this conclusively, in using the singular form θεὸς.

    Blessings,

    Ian

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  5. Joe Rutherford says:

    I fully agree with the trinitarian doctrine of the three (Father, Son, Spirit) being individual eternal beings who work together in perfect unity as one and only one God. My only seperation from traditional trinitarian practice is the baptismal practice. I believe water baptism should be in the name of the Lord Jesus. Jesus said the Holy Spirit would not come in His own name, but in the name of Jesus (my paraphrase). Jesus revealed the name of the Father. Jesus is the image of the invisible God. We can see the Son. We can see the name of the Son. The early Church baptised in the name of Jesus (Acts). We trinitarians do not have to depart from the trinitarian doctrine to rightly baptize. We only need to understand the common name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is Jesus. Then practice correct baptisim. The oneness need to become aware that the trinitarian doctrine about the trinity is correct. They deny the Son and the Spirit, therefore the Father also. They do baptize in the correct name. We trinitarians need to hold to the trinitarian doctrine, but we need to baptize in the name above every name, Jesus Lord. This explains the perfect harmony between matthew water baptism and acts water baptism.

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  6. Ian Thomason says:

    Hi again, Joe.

    I reckon the Gospel According to Matthew gives us a pretty clear indication that the early Church baptised believers in the name of “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”; and that they did so in direct obedience to Christ’s own command and commission (so Matthew 28:19). Again, this causes me to question if you fully understand what is implied by the term ‘name’ in its primitive Christian context?
    Next, the ‘name above every name’ that we find mentioned in Philippians 2 isn’t necessarily a reference to the human name, ‘Jesus’; but rather to the divine name, ‘Lord’ (consider the context of the Christ Hymn; ‘Jesus’ was the name given our Saviour at his incarnation, whilst ‘Lord’ was the name given him at his exultation).
    Third, you have repeatedly suggested that the ‘Oneness’ groups baptise in the ‘correct name’. By your own admission they are incorrect in their estimation of the very nature of God. Consequently, I put it to you that it matters very little what ‘name’ the ‘Oneness’ invoke over their baptismal candidates when all is said and done.
    Finally for now, my position is that should one seek to appeal to the practice of the early Church on any given issue, then one really can’t overlook the writings of the Fathers. I’m confident that if you were to do a little research, then you’ll soon discover they overwhelmingly supported, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

    Blessings,

    Ian

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  7. Roger Penney says:

    Thank you Joe for a rational account. Do you think the baptismal formula is a hard and fast matter? I was baptised (in the sea) with the trinitarian formula. I do not think it really matters. God will not say it was not valid.

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  8. Joe Rutherford says:

    Hi Roger. I grew up from very early childhood in a church setting which dogmaticaly followed what you call the trinitarian baptismal formula. All of my genetic family have been baptised the same. If I were to go back to that very same church today and insist they change, I am sure they would show to me the left foot of defellowship, though they might to some extent lament in their perception of “my obvious demise”. “Ah the poor man and he comes from such a fine line of righteous folk as us”. Also and as Ian has pointed out, there are those whom he calls “the Fathers”. I assume he refers to certain persons of the 2nd-4th centruries who left behind certain writings, some of which pertain to their interpretaion of water baptism. While we are at it, let’s add to the list millions of Catholics, Protestants, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, etc. Yet not even once in my existance have I ever heard any person in this world explain rightly why Peter said, “Repent all of you and be baptised in the name of Christ Jesus….”. Not even once. Furthermore none of the alleged experts have explained this peculiar event as written in other places in Acts. The Catholics claim Peter as the first pope, yet they don’t follow the commandment issued by Peter. Others see Peter as an Apostle, yet many of them do not comply to water baptism as Peter said, though Peter was there in person when Christ gave the commandment recorded in Matt 28. Obviously Peter knew what Christ was saying and then went on to obey Christ.

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    • As I said, I do not think it matters. God is not going to count as invalid if we use the wrong formula. Christianity is not about formulas and rituals but following the Lord Jesus. Anyway if you want an explanation of why Peter said what he did at that time of Pentecost, it was because Acts is a transition between the Gospel going first to the Jews and Christianity and independant local churches.
      So in Jerusalem there were Jews and proselytes from all over the empire and beyond. Jews had to be baptised first before they could be saved. That is what Peter said. “Repent and be baptised every one of you in the Name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)
      This was not so for Samaritans in chapter 8 those had to be baptised but did not receive the Spirit of God untill they had Apostolic hands laid on them. Samaritanism was a break away sect, as it were, going back to when the kings of Assyria had put there a multi-cultural society. John Hyrcanus tried to convert them to Judaism but it was only when the Lord Jesus was there that they really converted. Phillip then asit were initiated them into the body of Christ, the church of which He is the Head.
      In Acts ten the Goyim in Cornelius’s house received the Spirit of God while Peter was yet speaking to them. They were baptised later.
      And finally John’s disciples in chapter 19 were baptised “in the Name of the Lord Jesus” Again there are people who tell us they belong to the kingdom, but do not believe in the Lord Jesus as most Christians do. So these in chapter 19 of Acts had to be baptised then Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, laid hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. (vv7).
      At the end of The Acts we find Paul in Rome with the elders of the Jews.where they discussed the matters of the Kingdom of God. They departed and Paul quoted Isaiah 6:9,10. Saying, as a summary: “This salvation of God is sent to the nations, they will hear it.” I guess Paul would have spoken Hebrew with them and would have used the word ‘shema’, hear and obey.
      After that the Gentile pattern from Acts 10 is what is happening today ever since that time when the transition from Judaism to Christianity ceased.
      These different ways of receiving the Spirit may be seen to be important if we read Romans chapter 8, verses 9. “Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His.” We also see from 2Cor. 1:22. 5:5, that having the Holy Spirit is the pledge that we are Christ’s and the Seal which He puts on us marking us out as belonging to Him. See also Eph. 1:13,14 Rom. 8:15-17.
      The varying formulae may have something to do with those who were being baptised or being exhorted to be baptised. However we are not under law but under grace and to insist on a particular formula is legalism. Let every man be convinced in his own mind.

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  9. Joe Rutherford says:

    The word “formula” might get percieved as rather impersonal when we are speaking about the word of Christ. The Apostles were acting upon the orders of the Son of God. The words of Jesus are very precise and ought not to be the object of human manipulation. Knowing exactly what the Lord Jesus said and being fully compliant to His orders is legal, however it is not legalism. To regard the words of Jesus as mere objects of our own primitive mental ability to figure out, will get us into the trouble of legalism. Legalism is simply put, a false gospel, regardless of the details of such a false gospel. The only way to avoid a false gospel is to know exactly what Jesus said and then comply. Otherwise our mind will lead us into error. By grace God offers us salvation which can not be obtained by us taking thought within our own mind. We must have His work upon us and within us in order to be saved. He sent His Son into the world to tell us what to do. Doing what Jesus said is not legalism, it is salvation.

    Some believe that water baptism is not very important. Obviously I disagree and believe it is extremely important, even vital. That is the thinking in my mind.

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