Bible, Christianity, Philosophy, Spiritual Life

Trinity Sunday: Wesley on the Trinity

Today I taught a brief Sunday school lesson on the doctrine of the Trinity. It got me to thinking about this sermon by Wesley: On The Trinity. Here are some selections and my annotations:

Hence, we cannot but infer, that there are ten thousand mistakes which may consist with real religion; with regard to which every candid, considerate man will think and let think. But there are some truths more important than others. It seems there are some which are of deep importance. I do not term them fundamental truths; because that is an ambiguous word: And hence there have been so many warm disputes about the number of fundamentals. But surely there are some which it nearly concerns us to know, as having a close connexion with vital religion. And doubtless we may rank among these that contained in the words above cited: “There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: And these three are one.[1]

Wesley acknowledges that one may make many errors with regard to religious ideas and still be a Christian. But in this very paragraph, he does go on to say that one must still believe some version of the doctrine of the Trinity to be a Christian. The bold passage of Scripture above is a problematic textual problem, Wesley deals with this later on in the sermon, but for out purposes, it will suffice to say that the basic tenets of the doctrine of the Trinity Wesley will later explicate are contained in Scripture.

I do not mean that it is of importance to believe this or that explication of these words. I know not that any well-judging man would attempt to explain them at all. One of the best tracts which that great man, Dean Swift, ever wrote, was his Sermon upon the Trinity. Herein he shows, that all who endeavoured to explain it at all, have utterly lost their way; have, above all other persons, hurt the cause which they intended to promote; having only, as Job speaks, “darkened counsel by words without knowledge.”[2]

I agree with the essence of this. That the Bible teaches the basic tenets of the doctrine of the Trinity is a case easily made depending on what one means. But the cases for some theoretical framework of the doctrine are problematic and confusing at best.

I dare not insist upon any one’s using the word Trinity, or Person. I use them myself without any scruple, because I know of none better: But if any man has any scruple concerning them, who shall constrain him to use them? I cannot: Much less would I burn a man alive, and that with moist, green wood, for saying, “Though I believe the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God; yet I scruple using the words Trinity and Persons, because I do not find those terms in the Bible.” These are the words which merciful John Calvin cites as wrote by Servetus in a letter to himself. I would insist only on the direct words, unexplained, just as they lie in the text: “There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: And these three are one.”[3]

Wesley pulls no punches here in his criticism of Calvin burning Servetus. I agree with Wesley’s willingness to use the words Trinity and Person in expressing his understanding of the Bible’s teaching about God the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit. But I’m unwilling to insist that others grasp those concepts of assent to that terminology to call themselves or to be called Christians.

“[A]s strange as it may seem, in requiring you to believe, “there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: And these three are one;” you are not required to believe any mystery. Nay, that great and good man, Dr. Peter Browne, some time Bishop of Cork, has proved at large that the Bible does not require you to believe any mystery at all. The Bible barely requires you to believe such facts; not the manner of them. Now the mystery does not lie in the fact, but altogether in the manner.
For instance: “God said, Let there be light: And there was light.” I believe it: I believe the plain fact: There is no mystery at all in this. The mystery lies in the manner of it. But of this I believe nothing at all; nor does God require it of me.
Again: “The Word was made flesh.” I believe this fact also. There is no mystery in it; but as to the manner how he was made flesh, wherein the mystery lies, I know nothing about it; I believe nothing about it: It is no more the object of my faith, than it is of my understanding.[4]

Again, the Bible never says to believe anything about the manner in which Trinity exists, but only that Father, Son, and Spirit are divine, distinct, and one. In other words, the point is not, in any manner of speaking, to get us to figure out the manner of God’s existence in this respect, but to reveal enough of God as to inspire us to live for Christ and worship rightly.

Not that every Christian believer adverts to this; perhaps, at first, not one in twenty: But if you ask any of them a few questions, you will easily find it is implied in what he believes.[5]

Not every Christian, especially new Christians, explicitly will hold to the doctrine of the Trinity, but you can ask them questions long enough to discover that they implicitly accept the doctrine. Earlier and then later in the sermon (not quoted above) Wesley observes that some through invincible ignorance or involuntary rejection (through misunderstanding of Scripture, the doctrine, or personal confusion) who reject the basic tenets of the Trinity will still be saved. This seems reasonable. In my mind, it’s an open question as to whether or not the basic tenets of the gospel imply the Trinity so clearly that any Christian implicitly believes the doctrine. I will say that anybody who believes in God implicitly believes in the Triune God as the only God (if the doctrine of the Trinity is true). But do all who believe the gospel even know that the Holy Spirit is anything other than their own emotions due to poor instruction or that God is uncreated? I mean, the “who made God” question of the atheists confused so many genuine Christians who just had no knowledge, might many true Christians have such little knowledge of Scripture as to have no set of beliefs which imply the Trinity? I would say, “Yes.” That seems to be obvious. But that doesn’t make the doctrine less true, less essential (in terms of definitive of historic Christian orthodoxy), or less helpful for those who understand it.

References

[1] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Third Edition., vol. 6 (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 200, “Here are the arguments Wesley marshals in favor of this often excluded passage from 1 John:  “(1.) That though it is wanting in many copies, yet it is found in more; and those copies of the greatest authority:—(2.) That it is cited by a whole gain of ancient writers, from the time of St. John to that of Constantine. This argument is conclusive: For they could not have cited it, had it not then been in the sacred canon:—(3.) That we can easily account for its being, after that time, wanting in many copies, when we remember that Constantine’s successor was a zealous Arian, who used every means to promote his bad cause, to spread Arianism throughout the empire; in particular the erasing this text out of as many copies as fell into his hands.””

[2] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Third Edition., vol. 6 (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 200.

[3] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Third Edition., vol. 6 (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 200–201.

[4] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Third Edition., vol. 6 (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 204.

[5] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Third Edition., vol. 6 (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 205.

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