Evangelical Questions: Wait. You Don’t Believe in the Trinity?

by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC

Mark 1:10-11 “And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him: And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

Welcome back to Come Follow Me with FAIR: Faithful Answers to New Testament Questions. I’m Jennifer Roach and today we’re looking at a popular question you might get from your Evangelical friends or family members: Why don’t you believe in the Trinity?  As you know we’re following the Come Follow Me readings in the New Testament this year and this week’s reading brings up the question in Mark 1:11 because we have Jesus being baptized, the voice of God calling down from Heaven, and the Spirit appearing in the form of a dove.  So it’s understandable that our friends get confused on this issue. Here we are reading Mark 1, but denying the Trinity. What gives?

Understanding the Question

As always we are first going to try to understand where an Evangelical is coming from with this question.  It comes up a lot, and it certainly is a big deal to them and I want to help you understand why so you can see where we have commonality, and where we can offer a unique gift to the rest of Christianity with our perspective. 

So, why is the Trinity such a big deal? But the word “trinity” is not found in the Bible, nor are the Greek or Hebrew equivalents. Most Latter-day Saints have some knowledge that this idea came from the church councils that formed the creeds, and that’s a good start. But instead of looking at this history of how the Trinity developed, I want to look at the modern understanding of it by today’s Evangelicals. (We will talk about Creeds in a later episode, but that needs a full episode all to itself.) At the heart of it, their concerns are about getting the nature of God correct. That’s a commendable thing. On that note, we want the same thing that they do.

It’s a really important question and Evangelicals will often think of this in terms of the nature of God being a foundational piece that will throw everything else off if it is gotten wrong. I attended an Evangelical Divinity School for my Masters in Divinity and one our professors was found of saying, “Every conversation is about the nature of God – it just looks like it’s about finance or fashion or pizza from the outside.” And if you’re not a person who lives in your head, maybe that’s taking it too far, but there is some truth to it. So we give them respect for caring about who God is and what He’s like. And if you have Evangelical friends who are willing to talk with you about the nature of God, well you are very lucky – what better conversation is there to have?

Today’s Evangelical Belief in the Trinity

Ironically, Evangelicals often don’t understand this issue any better than Latter-day Saints do. In 2018 two Christian ministries – Ligonier Ministries which focuses on doctrinal competence and LifeWay Publishers which is the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention – did a survey of Evangelicals to assess their understanding of the Trinity.  What they did was ask participants to affirm certain statements about the Trinity, but the trick was that each statement was an official heresy, not a true belief about the Trinity. On average they affirmed 3 out of 8 heretical statements, earning them a failing 62.5%. 

Although to be completely fair, in the past many Evangelicals would have used a handful of popular analogies to describe the nature of the Trinity such as, “It’s like water, steam, ice – all three are made of the same stuff.”  Or, “It’s like an actor who wears three different masks.”  Evangelicals themselves have mostly debunked these and gotten away from their usage, which is a good thing. Each of those analogies really better represents a rejected heresy about the Trinity than the actual concept itself. You’ll certainly still hear these analogies, but far less than in decades past. However the thinking behind them persists, as evidenced by the previously mentioned survey.

And in more thoughtful corners of the Evangelical world they’ve made a move to talking about the mystery of the Trinity, and shying away from the specifics of it. Instead of hearing, “The Trinity is like a three-leaf clover,” you are far more likely to hear, “The Trinity is a great mystery where the members of the Trinity are in perfect communion with each other because they are made from the same substance as each other, and yet they have full independence to act as themselves without that ever disrupting the unity of the group.” And I’ll be honest, when I was an Evangelical the appeal to mystery worked for me because it appeals to the Trinity as a community of whose love overflows outward to humanity. And here’s where it gets really interesting for Latter-day Saints.

Jürgen Moltmann

You may have never heard of Jürgen Moltmann, and your Evangelical friends or family members probably have never heard of him either – but their pastors absolutely have, the academics who write thoughtful books for them have, and the professors who teach in Divinity Schools absolutely have. Why is Moltmann important?

Moltmann was born in 1926 in Hamburg, Germany. As of this writing he is still alive at 96 years old. You can guess by his birth year and home country that he has saw the horrors of World War 2 and the rise of authoritarianism.  And it led him to think about the problems that happen in Christianity when we have a “hyper sovereign” view of God in the Trinity. That sentence alone has way too much to unpack for a video like this so let’s just leave it at saying he started to see the holes in the 3-in1-1-in-3 model of the Trinity. Moltmann develops an idea about the Trinity that he calls, “The Social Trinity,” which basically means he sees the Trinity as a cooperation or society of Divine persons, each separate from each other, but united to their core in purpose and will. Starting to sound familiar? 

Before you get too excited, don’t go out and sit by your mailbox waiting for an invitation for Moltmann’s baptism into our church. Ultimately what Moltmann does with that idea of the Trinity is to demonstrate the dangers of forcing unity without free will under a supreme dictator. He was born in Germany in 1926 afterall. However, what Moltmann has done is introduce the idea of a Social Trinity that sounds very similar to our concept of the Godhead. They are not identical, and if we had more time I could show you the layers of difference, but for now it is interesting to note that the conversation around the Trinity is changing. No longer will you only hear, “The Trinity is like an egg made of a yoke, the white and the shell.” The influence of Moltmann has filtered into many corners of the Evangelical world and they are having better conversations about the Trinity because of him. And it’s not just him, the theologians who come after him (and are teaching today’s pastors) like Miroslav Volf, a Croatian theologian who writes about the intersection of theology and public policy. Volf is extremely influential on pastors who have been trained in the last 20 years. Will the average pew-sitting person know his name? Probably not. But their pastor does and has likely been influenced by his ideas about the Social Trinity.

So What?

I tell you all of this about Moltmann and Volf to say that things are changing in the Evangelical conversation about the Trinity. And while they themselves are still trying to reign in heresies about the Trinity, the conversation is also opening up. Your Evangelical friend or family member is very likely to at least be introduced to the idea of the Trinity as a community of Divine beings of love whose goodness flows outward to humanity. And that’s a conversation that would be very interesting to have.

Matter Matters

The most unique contribution that our faith makes to the conversation about the nature of God is that God the Father has a body. You may have heard that statement so many times in your life that it has no meaning to you and it’s hard for you to understand the implications of God being only a Spirit. Let me draw out some meaning for you.

In the traditional conception of God the Father he is seen as a spirit who has no body. Jesus gets a human body for a time while he lives on Earth, but that is God’s only experience of what it’s like to inhabit matter. And when God is only Spirit it is easy to only relate to him in our hearts and minds, not our bodies. This is the heresy of Gnosticism where it becomes really important to think the right things with your mind, but not very important to do the right things with your body. As long as you have correct beliefs, well you can do whatever you want with your body. The Spiritual matters, the physical doesn’t. Latter-day Saint beliefs turn that on its head in a profound way when we say that God the Father has a physical body. Other corners of Christianity hint at this in various ways by saying that God inhabits the Eucharist (either symbolically as Protestants say, or literally as Catholics say) or other symbols of faith. But Latter-day Saints are not saying God symbolically inhabits matter, we are saying that He is made of matter. So if God the Father is made of matter, then simply giving intellectual assent to concepts about faith can never be enough. Our beliefs matter, but our physical acts matter too. We’ll revisit this idea in a future video when we talk about the tension between works (things you do in the physical world) and grace (which exists in the spiritual or intellectual world alone).

In Conclusion

My sense is that historically conversations between Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals has been rough when it comes to talking about the nature of God. But never before has such a good foundation been laid in Evangelicalism itself to talk about the concept of the Godhead and how we see that working. You might be very surprised to find yourself on a similar page as an Evangelical friend on this topic, and even more surprised that our unique contribution of God the Father inhabiting physical matter is intriguing and helpful.

More Come, Follow Me resources here.


Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.

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