If I was to ask this question to a random selection of evangelical Christians, I suspect that they would overwhelmingly say that we need to believe in the Trinity to be saved.
Let me clarify that I am a Trinitarian Christian who believed that there is one God, who is the Father, Son, and Spirit, and that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. I can fully sign on to the Nicene Creed.
But I still think it is worth asking why one needs to believe in the Trinity in order to be adopted into God’s family and receive eternal life.
Jesus is Lord
I saw a discussion on this on social media. Some were saying that Trinitarian belief is necessitated by the early creed expected of all Christians: Jesus is Lord. If you reject that, you cannot be a Christian.
I agree that a Christian must affirm Jesus is Lord. But technically that does not say anything about the Holy Spirit or the relationship between the Father and the Son. The most one could argue is that it requires belief that Jesus is divine.
Even then, that is not necessarily the point of that creed. While κύριος is sometimes used for God, it is also sometimes used for humans. It is possible that it could refer to accepting Jesus as the lord over our lives rather than any specific formula for how the divine and human relate to each other within Jesus, if they do at all.
Again, I am not saying that Jesus is only a human teacher. I believe in the incarnation and I believe that high Christology for Jesus is important. It just might not be the focus of that early creed.
How Much Error is Allowed?
Now most people who do affirm Trinitarian theology is required for salvation will admit that they mean specifically that one cannot reject the Trinity. A person who readily accepts that God sent Jesus, that Jesus died for our sins, and that he was resurrected, but who dies before having the Trinity explained to them will not be condemned.
We could probably add to this first century Christians. While they would have embraced a high Christology, they probably would not have known the precise Trinitarian explanation that we know today.
But what about people who have listed to the claims about the Trinity and just do not accept it? What about people like the Arians or their modern heirs, the Jehovah’s Witnesses? What about Oneness Pentecostals?
Really this comes down to an important questions: How much theological error is allowable and still retain salvation? We all agree that some error is allowed because few of us would claim full confidence that we have every interpretation completely correct. Even within one congregation within one denomination, there is theological diversity. Are those who are wrong damned?
Theologians would classify certain doctrines as primary or secondary or tertiary. There is more room for error with the secondary or tertiary doctrines and less room in the primary doctrines. But who gets to make the decisions as to what doctrine belongs where?
There is also an assumption that God’s granting of forgiveness and adopting as children relies somewhat on our theological correctness. This is ironic as one of the primary doctrines is that salvation is based on God’s grace and not what we do.
What Does the Bible Say?
I do not find any passage in the New Testament that tells us that our salvation is dependent on how correct our theology is. Yes, the Pastoral Epistles do warn us about the danger of heretics. But even then, the focus is on how their actions are disrupting the unity of the church rather than how their errors are disqualifying them from eternal life.
I still have not answered the original question. Do you have to believe in the Trinity to be saved?
The Bible does not give us any answers to this question, because it only gives us hints about the Trinity. Nor does it tell us the exact doctrines that must be held to be saved.
Ultimately, I do not know the answer to the question. I firmly hold onto the doctrine of the Trinity. But what happens to a person who is devoted to Jesus and who tries to follow Jesus as best they can but cannot get their head around the Trinity? I know what I hope is true about their situation.
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