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Why are People Attracted to a Non-triune View of God?

I resonate with a lot of the concern many have with the Adventist church. I’m concerned about myself, too. I struggle against Laodiceanism. I need much more of God’s Spirit, and much less of me. I strongly believe that the main reason Jesus hasn’t come back is that His character, His goodness, is not yet fully revealed on earth. That’s something that as a church we could have already done, even before our lifetimes. But God is waiting until enough people will carry His last message (3AMs) with enough power to lighten the whole world – whether it’s us or others who do it.

I definitely don’t want to just “cover up” the errors and shortcomings of the church. If the “Trinity” doctrine is one of those errors, let’s get to the bottom of it and fix it. If it’s not, though, let’s not waste our time, energy and hopes on a false lead. From my own personal examination of the evidence, using all the tests the Bible gives, I find the evidence very much in favour of a Godhead of three Persons in the heavenly Trio.

That doesn’t mean I defend myself or the church as though we “need nothing”, as I fully recognise our poor, miserable, blind and naked state. It means I turn to other shortcomings and errors that are in need of attention. I’m committed to much prayer for the latter rain to be poured out on the earth – for us to be filled with God’s Spirit.

It can be tempting, however, to become disaffected with mainstream church leadership and culture. To externalise the cause of the malaise to a fatal flaw that just needs to be corrected in other person(s). I believe the debate about the nature of the Godhead is one such distraction.

How can we get distracted by an irrelevant issue so easily?

We all tend to get drawn into beliefs based on imperfections in our personality, our way of thinking, our values and our motivations. Confirmation bias and other cognitive biases can be difficult to overcome. Sometimes this results in believing error. Nobody has the capacity to analyse all the primary evidence for themselves to inform every belief.

This tendency also allows us to believe in things that may be true, but for the wrong reasons. For example, someone may believe that global warming is a real and present danger because they are deep greenies who fundamentally don’t like ‘big oil’ companies, not because they understand the science.

So this analysis could be equally applied to a range of beliefs – both truth and error. While the scope of this article is the belief in a non-triune God, subscription to any belief system could be taken apart similarly.

Going back to the global warming example, belief that anthropogenic global warming is a hoax tends to be prevalent among right-wing ideologues, believers in small government, and conspiracy theorists.[i]

Similarly, we can come to conclusions about health care (conventional versus alternative approaches) without knowing much of the scientific detail. While this could also be an apt analogy for beliefs about God, I’ll stick to the analogy of climate here.

Now, ideally, we’d all decide on our belief systems based on the evidence rather than on our pre-existing ideology, but we don’t all have unlimited time or access to info, so we tend to jump to conclusions, sometimes prematurely. I admit that I do that too. In fact, often I have little choice. When it comes time to vote, I don’t know all the info, so I tend to jump to conclusions based on past experiences and pre-existing ideologies. Other times I don’t have to jump to an early conclusion, but yet I still do it. We all do.

In the area of biblical beliefs, we have the promise that the Spirit will guide us into all truth. Yet my experience, and I’m sure that of many others, demonstrates that Spirit-filled Christians can have differing understandings of some peripheral biblical doctrines. I know I have changed my view on some things!

In general, Seventh-day Adventist theology is attractive to:

  • Fundamentalists
  • Literalists
  • People with an intellectual bias (in contrast to an emotional bias)
  • People drawn towards conspiracy theories.

Our SDA grand meta-narrative of the Great Controversy is the ultimate ‘conspiracy theory’. And one can only believe in it if the Bible is taken literally and understood in a systematic cognitive framework.

I’m one of those intellectually biased people. Our teachings make so much sense intellectually and are supported by so much evidence, that I just think “why don’t people get this?” I try to win an argument most of the time. But that approach is missing the point of God’s love, grace, and desire to have a personal intimate relationship with all of His creatures based on love and freedom. If it was all just about winning an argument, surely such an all-powerful “God” could quickly demonstrate to everyone what was reality. I don’t intend to ‘have a go’ at SDA beliefs as though they aren’t true. They are true. But I also need to hear what Jesus said about the Pharisees: “do what they say but not what they do.” That can equally apply to me.

So, looking specifically at the doctrine of the Godhead, it is not surprising that those groups who tend to have non-triune views tend to be at the more fundamentalist end of the spectrum[ii]:

  • Jehovah’s Witnesses
  • Mormons
  • A significant number of fringe Seventh-day Adventists

Looking at the personality profile of these groups, they tend to be quite similar to those who doubt the scientific consensus on global warming. Both global warming ‘skeptics’ and believers in a non-triune Godhead:

  • Really don’t have a coherent argument
  • Torture language and twist evidence
  • Look to questionable sources to sustain their viewpoints.

For JWs and Mormons, their belief in a non-triune Godhead has now become mainstream within their own institution. It is no longer ‘edgy’ to believe in a non-triune Godhead if you are a JW or a Mormon. But SDAs who reject belief in a triune God and global warming skeptics are both vocal minorities fighting against the institutionalised mainstream view within their spheres. Their leaders have a number of things in common. They typically:

  • Focus on isolated soundbites that look attractive but miss the big picture. [Blue text here is comparison to the climate change controversy. Don’t worry if you don’t know of some of the names or references.] Compare “it’s the sun” to “He’s the Son”. Or “scientists faked the data” to “manuscripts have been changed”. Or “temperatures haven’t increased for 17 years” to “Jesus had to depend on His Father for everything.” Or “there is no consensus” to “our pioneers did not believe in a triune God.” Sure, there are plenty of details, caveats and uncertainty. We don’t have a full, completely clear picture of the climate or of God. So that makes it easy to just focus on the bits and pieces that seem clear, and, because they are anti-establishment, justify running with those.
  • Are self-appointed arbiters of truth. Compare ‘climate audit’.
  • Are self-appointed leaders, apostles and reformers. Compare Anthony Watts.
  • Rarely listen to advice or feedback from others, especially other church leaders. Compare any number of long-repeated, oft-corrected yet persistent myths about global warming being a hoax. E.g., “it’s volcanoes”.
  • Feel that their worth is demonstrated by how many people they have listening to them. Compare Anthony Watts’ WUWT, the self-proclaimed “world’s most viewed site on global warming and climate change”.
  • Have been unable to get a following through normal channels so resort to finding an argument to start their own group. Compare the NIPCC, The Heartland Institute, etc.
  • Are party to an alternative group to have a dig at the ‘corruption’ or ‘lethargy’ in mainstream institutions. Compare the climategate email hacking controversy.
  • Are headstrong and lack patience. Compare Fred Singer, Bjorn Lomborg, Christopher Monckton, etc.
  • End up fighting among themselves and splintering off in their own groups such that there is little unity at all among those subscribing to a non-triune view of God. Compare the incongruent arguments of ‘skeptics’ ranging from “it’s not happening” to “it’s happening but it’s not caused by humans” to “it’s happening and we’re causing it but it’s not bad” to “it’s happening and we’re causing it but there’s nothing we can do about it”.
  • Are egotistical – love the limelight. Compare Christopher Monckton and Anthony Watts.
  • End up seeing their mission as cannibalising the church for followers rather than sharing the gospel with the outsiders. Compare the self-serving arguments that mitigating climate change will hurt the poor while the reality is they will be most adversely affected.
  • Typically have testy interpersonal relationships. All is well while ever they are the focal leader but things quickly turn sour when you don’t agree with them. Compare any comment thread on WUWT.
  • Appeal inconsistently to literal interpretation. Compare naive criticism of the ‘change’ from global warming to climate change.
  • Twist language to try to make it say almost the opposite of what is meant (or at least something completely different). Compare the ‘Climategate’ faux controversy, in which there was nothing significant or abnormal about any of the quote-mined emails.
  • Have a distrust of paid career experts, as though anyone who wants to devote their life to understanding truth is necessarily part of a grand conspiracy. Compare distrust of theologians to distrust of climate scientists.
  • Tend to engage in strident debate along idealogical (identity) lines, rather than being open to agree where one can reasonably do so. Compare any climate change online comment thread.
  • Tend to want to write their stuff out and publish it, even though there is nothing new. Despite glaring errors and inconsistencies they think that by doing so they are bolstering the credibility. Compare any number of self-published blog posts disputing global warming.
  • Struggle to identify and correct for confirmation bias. They tend not to be able to see challenging evidence, but latch onto anything that supports their preconceived view. Compare WUWT.
  • Isolationist, intolerant of diversity. Tend to cling to identity more than relevancy. Compare WUWT.
  • Have difficulty accepting multi-faceted and paradoxical truth. It’s easier to start a populist movement if a complex controversy is over-simplified with simple, appealing answers (that are incomplete at best). Compare WUWT.
  • Attracted to beliefs where the majority are wrong, so tend to abandon majority views even when they are in fact correct. Compare WUWT.
  • Preference for ‘the good old says’ and opposition to change. Compare those arguing against renewable energy.

The type of evidence that the ‘skeptics’ regard as persuasive is also interesting. Those subscribing to a non-triune view put significant weight on:

  • What the Catholics believe or what the early Adventists believed. Compare basing views on climate science on the beliefs of politicians or one’s identity group.
  • What makes me feel better about my identity, my relationship with my spouse/father and family headship. Compare basing views on climate science on what policy option sits better with my values. (I.e., back-to-front thinking in both cases.)

I could understand someone being confused about the nature of the Godhead if they didn’t believe or have access to the writings of Ellen White. But given her abundantly clear statements, it is a little bit of a stretch to see how someone can believe in Ellen White’s inspiration yet still not accept the triune nature of the Godhead. It’s a little like global warming. I can accept that someone who listens to right-wing media outlets might think that expert opinion is divided. But for someone who is more widely exposed to the evidence and issues at play, it is hard to understand how anyone could believe anything other than that anthropogenic global warming is a reality.

Genuine ‘skeptics’ regarding both the triune understanding of the Godhead, and global warming, have well-documented stories of engaging with the evidence and coming out on the side of truth. Examples:

Next time you see a leader of believers in a non-triune Godhead (noting their followers aren’t all like this), ask yourself the following questions:

  • Have they had a history of interpersonal conflict, clashes, and disputes with authority?
  • What do they believe about other things that have conspiracy theory alternative beliefs? E.g. health, global warming, vaccination, etc. Simply not adhering to mainstream ideology is not bad, but being outspoken about it can be an indicator of a character flaw.[iii]
  • When one of their conspiracy theories ends up proving mistaken, do they simply admit they were wrong or do they come back with an increasingly elaborate explanation in an attempt to keep you coming back to them for more?
  • What is the main thing that you get from them? Do they present a positive message that gives a healthy overall direction or are they malcontents picking apart the problems with everything they see around them?
  • How do they handle and tolerate dissent, advice or correction?
  • How often are they a follower or student (of another teacher) themselves or do they tend to always need to be the one with the answers?
  • How do they handle and respect authority? How long do they last in subordination to another authority?

Note that there are many honest-hearted people who end up believing in a non-triune Godhead, but these are usually surrounded by people who’ve been a helpful or positive influence in their lives who happen to also believe in a non-triune God. Despite the tendency of believers in a non-triune God (and their leaders in particular) to have the above flaws, they are often genuine Christians and helpful people.

If you’re reading this and think “how dare he malign me like that” please remember two things.

  • Firstly, I can only perceive the possible presence of flawed motivations, personality traits and self-deception because I’ve done all the same things myself. Except for the grace of God, I would be the worst of all.
  • Second, a feeling of defensiveness and self-justification is usually not the healthiest response to someone pointing out potential error. If this analysis doesn’t fit, thank God. But if it does, to even the smallest extent, then surely this is an opportunity to take it to Jesus and allow His righteousness to justify and cleanse.

[i] Note, for the purposes of this article, please just assume with me that the consensus science position on anthropogenic global warming is correct. I’m using this as an illustration, not trying to prove a point about global warming. I realise some readers will believe that global warming is a hoax, but I want you to stay with me. Whether it’s a hoax or not is not the issue here. Epistemology is.

[ii] Note that the Catholic teaching of the Godhead is also really non-triune – see “Selective Focus on Church History” heading under Systematic Misinterpretations.

[iii] I happen to not believe the mainstream view on a number of things also. But not because I like being conspiracy theorist or anti-establishment. Rather my biblical worldview is incompatible with beliefs such as evolution. And I approach lifestyle health from a slightly different angle that, on occasion, deviates from the traditional mainstream approach to health. However, mainstream medicine and lifestyle medicine are now converging rapidly!