In a recent post, our good friend Nick Norelli underscored (quite rightly) the centrality of the Trinity to our salvation with the following words: “One need not get caught up in the esoteric matters of Trinitarian theology to explain the Trinity, but explain it we must because the Trinity is the God who saves” (emphasis mine). There I reminded him of the well-known dictum of Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky (perhaps quoting Fr Paul Florensky; Lossky’s text, or else his translator, is not entirely clear on this point): “Between the Trinity and hell there lies no other choice”1. This brief exchange came to mind a couple of days ago as I read a very able analysis of the thought of the controversial Reformation-era figure Michael Servetus that concluded thus:
“It is obvious that Servetus’ understanding of Christianity was quite unusual. Had Servetus accepted a more orthodox notion of original sin, human depravity, and captivity to evil, he would also have necessarily accepted a partially human Christ to atone for a fallen mankind. In turn, a human Christ would have necessitated some conventional concept of the Trinity to account for how the same Godhead could consist of an unseen Father, a human Christ, and a phantom Spirit. Servetus’ great departure from orthodoxy was that man did not need atonement but a divine ritual and a celestial Christ to transform man into God. Consequently, the key to Servetus’ thought was soteriological and not theological; an elevated view of man simply made the Trinity unnecessary”2.
In Servetus’ case his anti-Trinitarianism was the end result of a fatally flawed soteriology; it stands to reason, then, that the reverse is also true: anti-Trinitarianism, an effective denial of the God who saves, must result in a fatally flawed soteriology. This is why the whole structure and content of Christian theology properly so-called is, and must be, Trinitarian.
ADDENDUM (7/19/2010): Over the past few days I have had occasion to revisit Jaroslav Pelikan’s first published work, From Luther to Kierkegaard: A Study in the History of Theology (St Louis: Concordia, 1950). In his discussion of the natural theology of the last great dogmatician of the period of Lutheran orthodoxy, David Hollaz (also Hollatz or Hollatius), he notes that
[o]n the basis of several New Testament passages and of the Athanasian Creed, Hollaz concludes that “he who does not honor the Triune God is an atheist” (page 67)3.
Even if one cannot grant Hollaz’s broader arguments on natural knowledge, his conclusion here is nevertheless true. If the Most Holy Trinity is the One True God (and rest assured that this indeed is the case), then to deny the Trinity is to deny that God exists. As such, then, the anti-Trinitatian is in the end an atheist. Their atheism is not irreligious, however, but rather idolatrous, because it leads the anti-Trinitarian to replace the One True God, who has revealed himself, with a monistic god of their own making.
1 Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1976), 66.
2 Jerome Friedmann, “Michael Servetus: Advocate of Total Heresy,” in Hans-Jürgen Goertz (ed.), Profiles of Radical Reformers: Biographical Sketches from Thomas Müntzer to Paracelsus (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1982), 251-252.
3 The citation given by Pelikan in his endnote points to Hollaz’s Examen theologicum acroamaticum I, 379. In spite of my best efforts, I have been unable to locate the Latin text of this work, and thus can’t provide the quotation in the original or even verify the particulars of the translation.