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One fine day, as we wheeled down a tree-lined Southern highway,
Gus announced, "I figured out the Trinity!"

He proceeded to explain. "It's like this. You, Lint Hatcher, can be different things to different people. To one person, you are a brother. To another, a husband. And to another person, you could be a father."

"It's just like that with the Trinity!" he continued. "In one way, God relates to us as a Father. In another, he is the Son of God or the Christ. And, in another way, he relates to us as Spirit!"

"Hmmm," I said. "Hmmmm." Finally, I answered cautiously, "Isn't that some kind of early heresy?"

It was. I didn't know the name at the time, but the heresy was known as "modalism". It sought to explain away the difficult concept of "three distinct Persons, one God" by turning those three Persons into "modes" of divine operation. Showing up some three hundred years into the life of the Church, it was roundly condemned as a kind of Holy Trinity "Lite".

Gus eventually put his theory on the shelf, if I recall correctly. But I put the question to you, dear reader: Should he have paid any attention to some past (and thoroughly Catholic) council's ruling on modalism? Or should he have shrugged and pressed on with his exciting new theory?

Before you reject those ancient voices out of hand, consider this: the word "Trinity" does not appear in the Bible. Nor does the Bible contain a formal definition of this doctrine. The triune God is a mystery alluded to by various truths ­ a "revealed riddle".

And yet the Trinity is one of the central doctrines of the faith. In fact, as I listened to Gus's theory in the car that day, I recalled that if some group is considered a "cult" it is largely because they flat-out deny the Trinity or water it down to make it less bizarre.

That conversation never left me. Years later, I realized it pointed out an apparent exception to "private interpretation" in Bible-only churches. All of Protestantism affirms that the Trinity is central to Christianity. Yet, this doctrinal perspective did not come to us via our own "private interpretation". Instead, it came to us from tradition. First, we accepted the doctrine as having the weight of authority, then we looked into the Scripture and said, "Yeah, I can see how this passage supports this Trinity idea."

This was not the usual thing. When it came to passages on Baptism, the Lord's Supper, etc., we insisted no church authority had any business influencing our own private, prayerful interpretation of Scripture. The result? There was widespread disagreement regarding Baptism, Communion, even Salvation -- but we all agreed on the Trinity.

What did this mean? It had been proposed to me that church authority was the enemy of truth ­ that bishops and such, given the final say, had plunged Christianity into error. But was utter individualism any more trustworthy an approach? Would there come a day when Bible-only Christians scoffed at "trinitarianism" and cheerfully spread "authentic biblical modalism"?