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“What Your Pastor Won’t Tell You: But I Can Because I’m Retired”

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“What Your Pastor Won’t Tell You: But I Can Because I’m Retired”

Bentley C.F. Chan


You may be shocked by the title of this article, but it didn’t come from me. That’s why I put it in quotes. The title actually comes from a book I bought a few days ago, written by Marshall Davis.

You might not have heard of Marshall Davis, but you can learn a few things about him from the book’s title, “What Your Pastor Won’t Tell You,” which suggests that Davis is or was a pastor. The subtitle, “But I Can Because I’m Retired,” indicates that he is above middle age, and more importantly that he possesses a wisdom forged by decades of church ministry.

Marshall Davis served as a Baptist pastor for 40 years, and has a doctorate from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has written 16 books. The present book, “What Your Pastor Won’t Tell You,” is a frank discussion of the things that some pastors keep in their hearts but don’t tell others. It is not a gossip book, or a tell-all book, or a payback book, but one that is marked by deep reflection, boldness, humor, respect, honesty, and intelligent free thinking.

Contrary to my expectations, Davis doesn’t deal much with church ministry except in chapter 1 (“What your pastor won’t tell you about the ministry”). On the contrary, some 60% of his book deals with Bible facts or teachings that some pastors know in their hearts to be true but are afraid to teach.

You won’t agree with all his points (I don’t), yet he will challenge you, by force of argument, to rethink your own views. And keep in mind that he doesn’t reject all the views that he challenges.

In this article, I will focus on one vexing issue raised by his book: How the church over the centuries has dealt with the question of the trinity. Davis discusses it briefly in chapter 5, “What Your Pastor Won’t Tell You About Christian Theology,” in the third part under the heading, “No One Understands the Trinity,” from which I now quote several paragraphs with minimal commentary.

“No One Understands the Trinity”

Marshall Davis, who himself is a trinitarian, begins with these words:

For Christians the concept of one God in three persons is very important, yet it is also very confusing. When you think about it, the Trinity does not make sense. No one understands it, not even your pastor.

The doctrine of the Trinity came into existence as a consequence of believing that Christ was divine. Christians believed that Jesus was divine in the same way that God the Father is divine. Yet Christians were loath to worship two Gods. It smacked of polytheism, not to mention the heresy of Marcionism. Add the Holy Spirit into the mix, and Christianity seems to worship three gods—tritheism. (That is what Muslims accuse Christians of believing.)

Davis then explains the trinitarian dilemma:

Yet there could only be one God according to the Hebrew Scriptures. “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one.” (Deuteronomy 6:4) So they were forced into the untenable position of saying that God was both three and one, even though that statement was logically self-contradictory. The Father, Christ and the Spirit were all God, and they were also one God.

Christians had painted themselves into a theological corner. After repeated attempts by theologians to resolve the problem (all declared heresy), they simply gave up and declared that the Trinity was true, even though it didn’t make sense. It is a mystery! A paradox! Actually it was just a problem they could not solve. Instead of abandoning the doctrine as untenable, they declared it to be true by fiat.

Davis goes on to say that many of the solutions proposed for the trinitarian problem are nothing more than forms of modalism:

Christians have been trying to explain it ever since. Usually their attempts fall into some form of modalism, which was con­demned as heresy by orthodox Christianity. Modalism … taught that the names of the Trinity refer to three modes or aspects of God, not distinct and coexisting persons, as in the orthodox understanding.

Davis gives an example of a bad analogy:

I have often heard ministers use the analogy of water to explain the Trinity. H₂O can be liquid, solid, or gas, depending on the temperature. Yet it is one substance … [In reality] it is modalism, in which the persons of the Trinity are different modes of God.

Davis gives a second example:

Another analogy is the relational one. The Trinity is like a man who is a father, a husband, and a son. He is a father to his children, a husband to his wife, and a son to this father. So is the Trinity! The problem is that such a God is one person playing different roles; he is not three persons. This is also a form of modalism.

Davis gives a third example:

In a well-intentioned attempt to use gender inclusive language, some pastors refer to the Trinity as “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” [corresponding to Father, Son, Spirit]. But those titles describe functions or operations. That is classic modalism.

Then a fourth example:

One of the worst Trinitarian analogies is attributed to Saint Patrick. In evangelizing the Emerald Isle, he used the shamrock as a preaching illustration. The Trinity, he is reported to have said, is a like a three-leaf clover. The three petals are the three persons of the trinity. Together they make one whole God. Unfortunately that is just an Irish form of modalism. Each of the “persons” is one third God; together they equal one whole God.

Davis then says that the Trinity has no biblical basis:

Another thing your pastor will not tell you is that the Trinity is not in the Bible. The terms Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are found in the Bible. There are even a few places where the three words (or something similar) are found together. The most famous example is the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19, where Jesus com­mands his apostles to baptize all nations “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” But nowhere is there any attempt in the Bible to define these names as three equally divine persons of one unified Godhead.

The doctrine of the Trinity, as we know it today in all its glor­ious confusion, originated in the third century by Tertullian. He was the first theologian to use the term “Trinity.” He was also the first to use the words “person” and “substance” to explain the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It has been all downhill ever since. Christianity would have been better off if [Tertullian] had just left it as a description of Christian experience instead of trying to theologize it.

A Few Thoughts

I have a few quick thoughts on Marshall Davis’ statements.

Firstly, his honesty regarding the trinity is commendable, for it takes a leap of open-mindedness for a trinitarian to admit publicly, without hesitation or ambivalence, the unbiblicalness of trinita­rianism.

Secondly, the words “What Your Pastor Won’t Tell You” are a good description of me in my trinitarian days. When I was still a trinitarian, I would not talk to people about the trinity because I was aware of the lack of biblical support for it. My perplexity reached a peak in 1981 or 1982 when I was teaching Adult Sunday School in Ottawa, Canada, as a trinitarian and a layman. I was troubled by the Bible’s silence on God’s supposedly triune nature, and the fact that there are so few Bible verses, all easily debated, that may imply the deity of Christ.

Thirdly, Marshall Davis, after saying that trinitarianism lacks logical coherence and biblical support, nonetheless proposes that we relate to the trinity by our personal encounter with the triune God without any attempt to develop a biblical formulation of the trinity. Is Davis suggesting that we adhere to a portrayal of God (as a triunity) that is not found in the Bible? If the answer is yes, wouldn’t we be compelled by the Reformation principle of sola scriptura (Scripture alone) to reject the triunity, while embracing the part that Davis got right, namely, a personal encounter with God?

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