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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 Jesus Christ. And, in another way, he relates to us as the Holy Spirit!"

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

Gus and I had been good friends for some time. In fact, it was partially due to his tutelage that I became a Christian. And so this was a bit strange, responding to his enthusiasm with such old world severity as "heresy." Nevertheless, I knew the Trinity was the central doctrine of the faith.

So I said "Isn't that some kind of early heresy?" and I suppose we both mulled over what that might mean. Later on, a little research uncovered the following: A similar revamping of the Trinity had been offered early in the life of the Church. This theory, referred to as modalism, said the Three Persons of the Trinity were simply different "modes" of divine operation. God was actually a single Person wearing three different Hats. This handily sidestepped the difficult trinitarian concept of "three distinct Persons, one divine Nature" ­ a little too handily, in fact. Showing up some three hundred years into the life of the Church, modalism was roundly condemned as a kind of Holy Trinity "Lite."

Gus eventually put his theory on the shelf, if I recall correctly. Though he sometimes served as a Methodist youth minister, I doubt he encouraged his kids to come up with a skit on "God's Three Hats." He probably forgot the whole thing. I also tucked the conversation away on some mental shelf. And yet, as I struggled to understand the problem of "many Christians, many interpretations," the memory of that conversation began popping up.

I found myself wondering: If Gus and I were "Bible Christians" ­ if we held to the idea that one could access, with fidelity, the teachings of Christ via one's own, individual interpretation of Scripture ­ why should we have paid any attention to some old world condemnation of modalism?

"Let's face it," Gus might easily have replied that day, "Why should I listen to a bunch of Catholic bishops from a thousand years ago? What do they have to say to me? I interpret the Scriptures for myself."

I put the same question to you, dear reader. Yet, before you reject out of hand those ancient Catholic Bishops Against Modalism (CaBAM.) and tackle the intricacies of the Trinity all by your lonesome, consider this: Any search of the Bible for a formal definition of the Trinity, I found, will turn up a big fat zero. The word "Trinity" does not even appear in the Scriptures. The Trinity, I discovered, is a truth pieced together from many separate clues ­ an apostolic puzzle, so to speak.

The fact is, any believer would be hardpressed to imagine a Quiet Time during which he might formulate his own doctrine of the triune God. It just doesn't happen that way. Instead, we have a vague sense of picking up belief in the Trinity along the way. We absorbed it. One might call it a traditional understanding passed down from the Christians who came before us ­ an "official interpretation" which outweighed our own. Only after we accepted the doctrine as authoritative and final, as "what all Christians believe," did we look into the Scriptures and remark, "Yeah, I can see how that passage supports the Trinity."

That, at least, is what I discovered. Yet, given what I had been taught about the importance of private interpretation, this seemed a tad strange. When it came to Baptism, the Lord's Supper, etc., we insisted no church authority had any business influencing our own private, prayerful interpretation of Scripture. The result? Widespread disagreement regarding Baptism, the Lord's Supper, etc.

The Trinity, however, appeared to fall outside the jurisdiction of private interpretation. Until, that is, every now and then, someone actually did decide to make up his own mind about the Trinity ­ minus the influence of longheld traditional belief. The result: the weirdness of Three Persons/One Divine Nature always fell to the side in favor of a more palatable explanation.

So there was a tension at work. Part of Gus hesitated when I mentioned "heresy." He respected, even revered, the official interpretation of the Trinity handed down to us from our forefathers. Another part of Gus, however, eagerly pursued the straightforward, built-in logic of private interpretation ­ coming up with his own take on things, with what felt right to him, regardless of what came before.

Which approach would win in this tug-of-war? Which did I feel ought to win?

It had been proposed that church authority was the enemy of truth ­ that bishops and such, given the final say, had plunged Christianity into error. On the other hand, something told me that if you give private interpretation free rein, proceed to dismantle a doctrine and put it back together again, it's probably not a good thing to find some pieces left over ­ especially if past generations of Christians thought those pieces were essential.

One had to wonder if Christians once held unified perspectives on Baptism, the Lord's Supper, etc. ­ if they naturally distrusted "innovations." And then perhaps a generation came along that felt more comfortable with "taking a good hard look at what we really believe about Communion."

Was such a development a good thing ­ a casting off of monolithic, misguided church authority? Or was it a loss of faith regarding the more outrageous, supernatural aspects of the creed?