Can a person still be a "Christian" if they don't believe in the Trinity?
I want to first break down what it means to be a Christian in the eyes of a 2016 western society. Christian (Christ-ian) typically means either “Christ-like” or “follower of Christ.” The origin of the word Cristos, which is Christ, is actually the Hebrew word Mashiach, which means Messiah. So in general the idea is “those who believe the Messiah has already come.” But for our purposes today, it’s generally meant as “follower of Christ,” so I’m going to stick with that.
So follower of Christ. What does it mean to be a follower of Christ? Basically, that’s a personal devotion matter, but I think it’s to do what Christ says and try to live as Christ did.
Christ believed in the God of Israel, as revealed in the Jewish Scriptures: the Hebrew Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament. And He made some rather interesting claims, Himself.
But to simply answer your question, can you be a follower of Christ if you don’t believe in the Trinity? I think the answer is yes, so long that you believe that Christ Himself didn’t believe in the Trinity either.
In fact, I’ll digress just a little and go a step further and say that it wasn’t necessary for our salvation for the promised Messiah to be God: in Genesis, God promised the “seed of the woman” would overcome the “seed of the serpent” and Deuteronomy 18 records “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen— just as you desired of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ And the Lord said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him.”
So there’s a great fire that represented God to the people, that they thought if they saw anymore, they’d die. And God says “you have to listen to whatever the prophet I raise up says.”
But back to the point: let’s take a moment and ask ourselves the cardinal question: did Christ Himself preach the Trinity? Or particularly of note according to your question, His own “oneness” with the Father? That’s debatable. Hang with me here.
I referenced John chapter 1, so let’s start there:
v1 - “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
The Greek/Hebrew term translated “Word” in this verse is the Greek word “logos” - which literally translates “word” or “expression.” But it says that the logos was God, and we know that God is alive, so this expression lives. Logos. Word. Expression. Capitalized because it’s in fact a proper noun. Let’s get this clear: we’re talking about an Expression that was both with God (but necessarily separate from Him) and God.
If you’re not sold on the proper noun thing I described above, verse 2 clears that up completely:
v2 - “He was with God in the beginning.”
So this is a He.
v3 - “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”
So He is instrumental in Creation, without which Creation is not possible.
v4 - “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.”
In the Hebrew translation of John 1, which many scholars believe may have existed before the common Greek, the word light can be translated as “spark.”
So the life in Him was the spark of all mankind. Interesting: it doesn’t say the spark of all life. Wonder if that’s part of how we’re in God’s “image and likeness” from Genesis.
v5 - “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
This is personal conjecture, but John wrote his gospel after the death and resurrection of Christ. I interpret this to be John’s claim that Jesus’ life, or His “spark” has not been overcome by death, but still shines amidst it, despite facing it. We’ll get to why I think John is referring to Jesus as the “Word” or “Expression” (logos) in a few verses.
v6 - “There was a man sent from God whose name was John.”
John, the gospel author, is referring to a different John - John the Baptist.
v7–8 - “He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.”
So now we’re starting to understand that the gospel claims this man (John the Baptist), who is God’s witness concerning the light, is to declare this light or spark to be someone to be believed. The light is a person to be believed.
v9 - “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.”
The light, the giver of life, the spark of the life of all mankind would enter the world.
v10 - “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.”
Again, a reminder of this light’s instrumental role in Creation.
Note: the Hebrew people did not have a concept of “the world” as being separate from “the universe.” In fact, in Aramaic, John’s native language, there is no word for “universe” separate from “world” and vice-versa. This is why many Jewish prayers are translated to English to this day addressing God as “O LORD, our God, King of the Universe.” So this verse could also mean, “He was in the universe, and though the universe was made through him, the universe did not recognize him.”
v11–13 - “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or of a husband’s will, but born of God.”
God in the Hebrew Bible calls the Hebrew People His own inheritance. His people, of all the people in the world. (Deuteronomy 14:2 says “For you are a holy people to YHWH your God, and God has chosen you to be his treasured people from all the nations that are on the face of the earth.”) He’s saying God (remember verse 1?) came to His own people, who didn’t recognize Him to whom they belonged. And He can give those who “receive Him” (modern scholars believe this to be an idiom to refer to accept His teachings as truth, and invite His presence into their lives as Lord), and to those who “believe in His name” the right (it’s still your choice!) to be born of God in a way that does not relate to any physical birth.
What’s it mean to believe in His name? I talked about that in another answer.
The next verse is the kicker…
v14 - “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
So John’s Word/Expression/Logos who was “with God and was God” in the beginning, who was instrumental in the Creation of everything, without whom nothing was made that was made, and contains within Himself the source of all human life… became flesh… thus revealing the nature of John’s choice of the word “Logos” or “Word” which in my opinion is better translated “Expression.” John’s been leading this entire chapter into this one central idea: Jesus, whom we have seen and who claims to be God’s Son, is the Living Expression OF God who came FROM God and who WAS God: the Creator Himself.
Now that’s John. What does Jesus say of this Himself - as your verse depicts Jesus’ own words concerning something that He doesn’t know.
There are many, but I will offer for the sake of brevity a single verse, Jesus’ words from John chapter 17 - a prayer that Jesus prays to the Father.
v5 - “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.”
So Jesus here is saying he existed with God before the world (or universe) existed, which kind of gives credence to what John said in chapter 1. There are many more verses. (John 8:58)
For one, Jesus would often reference Hebrew Bible / Old Testament scriptures - and God says in the Bible that He “reveals His secrets to His friends, the prophets” - showing them what He’s about to do. So what does the Hebrew Bible / the prophets have to say about who Jesus is?
First, let me provide an example of this key characteristic I find in Christ’s behavior, because its usage in the scriptures may not be immediately obvious to the casual observer.
On the cross, Jesus cried out “Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabacthani” which means, translated, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus prayed much on the cross, and made the bold claim to one of thieves, “Today, you shall be with me in paradise.” (Cool note: when early Jewish believers translated the New Testament back to Hebrew… the word “paradise” was rendered … are you ready? “Eden.”) That doesn’t sound like the attitude of a man who feels forsaken by God. So why did He cry “Lama Sabacthani”? He was here, as in other places, drawing attention to a passage of scripture. In this case, He was quoting (and drawing the attention of those around Him to) Psalm 22 - declaring it to be fulfilled. He was saying “Remember that Psalm that King David wrote? It was about today! He caught a glimpse of Me.”
So now - what does Jesus say about who He is, and why is it necessary to note Jesus’ characteristic of Hebrew Bible referencing when discussing it? It’s because of the term He chose for Himself: “Son of Man.”
When the disciples referred to Jesus, it was always in context of His relationship with God. “Son of God” occurs in the New Testament so many times, it would be difficult for me to list them all here. They called Him that, they called Him “Anointed One.” They called Him “Lord,” “Teacher,” “Son of the Highest.” But He consistently - nearly always, in fact - said “Son of Man.”
In Daniel 7:13–14, the prophet Daniel speaks of a vision:
“I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.”
Here it is! We have, in the Hebrew Bible, a “Son of Man” figure, who appears before God (Ancient of Days), to be presented before Him. To this “Son of Man” who “comes on the clouds of heaven,” there is given an everlasting dominion/kingdom that shall not pass away, glory, the service of all peoples, languages, and nations.
As a distinction: this means that all languages will serve him, all the people of the languages will serve him, and all the nations themselves as collective bodies will serve him. And it’s impossible for His dominion to pass away. But what kind of service is this?
Not just any service. The word that is translated “service” is used in an exclusive context: service due only to God alone. Highlighted by this context, it’s used in another location toward a person who is not God, and God rebukes the person for such service, declaring this “service” is due to God alone.
So how do we know Jesus was referencing this “Son of Man” when He used that term? I think Mark 14:61–62 makes that pretty clear:
“Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?’Jesus said, ‘I Am. And you will see the Son of Man seated in the place of power at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.’ ”
… which is exactly what Daniel 7 says of the son of man in the vision: clouds of heaven.
Now I want to underscore something. Being the Messiah was not blasphemous. But declaring yourself to be God… the High Priest thought that must be condemned:
Mark 14:63 “The high priest tore his clothes.” (which was a sin, by the way, for the High Priest to tear is clothes - see Leviticus 21:10, and disqualified him from being the High Priest) “‘Why do we need any more witnesses?’ he asked. ‘You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?’ They all condemned him as worthy of death.”
My point is: the High Priest declared blasphemy on the understanding that Christ claimed that He is God when He said “Son of Man” - a person from the prophecy of Daniel who is worthy of God’s glory, an eternal kingdom, and special service from all peoples, languages, and nations that is due only to God alone.
It’s for that reason that He was crucified!
About the eternal kingdom? Isaiah had something else to say about it:
Isaiah 9:6–7 - “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.”
This is interesting because it tells us a few things:
- There is going to be born a son…
- who will maintain the government.
- He will be called Mighty God and Everlasting Father.
- The greatness of His government and peace will have no end.
- He will reign on David’s throne, upholding it with justice and righteousness from a set time - forever. (everlasting dominion - Son of Man anyone?)
- And in case you’re wondering if this prophetic utterance (including that this son is called Mighty God and Everlasting Father) is God’s will or the work of a blasphemous tyrant, He specifies: God’s own zeal will see to it that this is done.
Based on Isaiah and Daniel, it seems pretty clear from a Hebrew Bible perspective that the Messiah figure would be God Himself.
But continuing on the train of what Jesus said of Himself, the most clean-cut is John 10:30: “I and the father are one.”
Again He said in John 14:9 “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”
So Jesus clearly had the impression Himself that He was God, and the Scriptures support it in the Hebrew Bible and in the gospels.
But what of the others? Did the early church believe Christ was God?
The Apostle Paul wrote in Colossians 1:13–17, "He [God] has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist."
Then in Colossians 2:9, he wrote again: “For in him [Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.”
Paul, the Apostle, who authored nearly two thirds of the New Testament and whose opinions dictates the scriptural, dogmatic, and theological cannon to this day, certainly thought so! He said “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily in Him.” So this means He isn’t even just one third of God — this isn’t just part of God. This man is the fullness. Not even just the fullness. The WHOLE fullness. Paul is going out of His way to say “If you’re seeking God, and you find Jesus - you’ve found Him. All of Him. When you find Jesus, no part of God is missing.”
Very much a supporting idea of Christ’s claim, “I and the Father are one.”
You may be asking about the Holy Spirit. John chapter 3 actually goes on to say Christ possessed the Holy Spirit “without limit” - but that isn’t necessarily what this answer is about, so I won’t spend time there now.
So how can Jesus, as in your verse, not know “the day nor the hour”?
Rest assured, the Bible is not silent on that question - it clearly answers you!
Hebrews 2:9: “But we do see Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.”
How was He made lower “for a while”?
Philippians 2:5–8 says “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
I particularly like this one. Not only does it outright claim Jesus was equal with God, and that He was the form of God, and that He was AWARE that He was God… but it goes a step further and tells you plainly that He didn’t think any of that was important. How do we know? Because He “emptied Himself.” How could God do that? He “humbled Himself.” How long? “For a little while.”
So you have it: the Bible’s answer? He limited Himself (for after all, the only limitations on a limitless God must be self-imposed) for a specified period of time.
At least, that was the claim of every person who ever knew Him. Most of the apostles? They died for their faith in Him. 11 of the 12, church tradition tells us, died because they claimed Christ as God and the only way to eternal life. The other one, John, who wrote the gospel of John and the book of Revelation? Tradition tells us he was boiled in oil. Three times. It was considered a miracle of God that he survived any of the times, and his survival usually resulted in thousands coming to Christ. No one suffers like that for something that they do not believe with every fiber of their being. These men were convinced God walked among them - the prophesied “Emmanuel” (which by the way, means “God with us”) had come, and His name was Yeshua (Jesus) who lived in Nazareth, who called Himself the Christ, the Son of the living God.
If you have a different take on it, I don’t think that necessarily disqualifies you from being a Christian, so long as you are persuaded that the belief system of Jesus Himself, and the words He said, would also disagree with this take.
But I don’t think He would disagree, nor do I think would any person who truly considers what Christ actually said, or what He meant when He said it. (And believed Him!)
But back to a straight answer: can a person who denies that Christ is God call themselves a Christian? Sure.
… but I would tend to disagree with them. I just think it’s hard to be a “follower of Christ” if you don’t 1) know what Christ taught, 2) what it is He meant by what He taught, 3) submit your understanding to those things.