Essay / Misc.

Who Said “The Trinity: Try to Understand It, and You’ll Lose Your Mind”?

Read Fred Sanders’s follow-up here.

Here is a saying that you run into frequently in popular books on the Trinity:

Try to Understand It
and You’ll Lose Your Mind.
Try to Deny It and You’ll LOSE YOUR SOUL!

This aphorism is usually introduced with the vague reference, “As somebody has said…” In fact, it’s one of those things that nobody ever says, but everybody always quotes as having been said by somebody else. The attribution is usually, “as one old country preacher was heard to say,” or “as my pastor used to say,” or “as my seminary professor once said.”

I think people who quote this line have a tendency to keep it in quotes, not just because they don’t know who said it, but also because they are a little bit uneasy actually affirming it on their own authority. They don’t want to take credit for it, but they also don’t want the blame.

After all, it’s basically a threat. It’s basically an admonition to stop thinking, shut up, and submit, under the ultimate penalty. I know it’s possible to use the line in the right context to deliver a truly healthy admonition. If some cocky sophist is chopologically rationalizing his way through the sacred precincts of revealed doctrine, he could stand an attitude adjustment. And such a person probably responds best to blunt statements.

I think Millard Erickson deploys the line fairly well at the very end of the section on the Trinity in his widely-used 1983 Systematic Theology: After 21 pages of biblical, historical, logical, and analogical argumentation, he concludes with a reminder that this is after all a revealed doctrine. “We do not hold the doctrine of the Trinity because it is self-evident or logically cogent. We hold it because God has revealed that this what he is like.” And then come the last words in the chapter: “As someone has said of this doctrine: Try to explain it…” etc. (p. 342 of the 1990 one-volume edition) In Millard’s use of the scare-quoted warning, it’s manifestly not an act of intellectual bullying.

Erickson has already responsibly walked his readers through all the evidence that generates the doctrine of the Trinity, explored all the things that can be known, investigated, and affirmed with confidence. He has helped to ground and cultivate the considerable information, truth, and knowledge that await students who investigate the Trinity. After that, he uses the quotation to indicate where the edges of this territory lie.

But part of what takes the aggressive edge off his warning that Erickson isn’t saying it himself, but quoting it from “someone.” He doesn’t say “Trespassers Will be Shot;” he says, “As somebody has said, ‘Trespassers Will Be Shot.'”

It’s a bit like when Augustine wrote, “Somebody once said that if you are asked what God was doing before he created time, the best answer is that he was creating the fires of hell for people who ask questions like that.” Augustine even goes on to say that you shouldn’t say that, but that one guy did.

Speaking of Augustine, this “Try to understand it and you’ll lose your mind” line is sometimes attributed to him. Roger Olson reports that Augustine is “alleged to have commented that the doctrine of the Trinity is mysterious and dangerous” because of this mind-losing or salvation-losing dilemma it puts you in (Story of Christian Theology, p. 261). Olson is too good a footnoter and primary-text hound to say any more than “alleged to have commented.” Perhaps he even sensed that Augustine is not likely to have said such a thing… except maybe as a joke, or to report what “that one guy” said.

But let me start with the earliest occurrence I have been able to document so far: It’s not patristic, not even medieval. It’s not even from the 19th century or the early fundamentalist period. I have found it no earlier than Harold Lindsell and Charles J. Woodbridge, A Handbook of Christian Truth (Westwood, NJ: F. H. Revell), 1953, pp. 51-52, where it occurs in the form:

The mind of man cannot fully understand the mystery of the Trinity. He who has tried to understand the mystery fully will lose his mind; but he who would deny the Trinity will lose his soul.

Note that Lindsell and Woodbridge don’t say “somebody has said.” They also suggest a distinction between trying to “understand the mystery fully” and simply denying the Trinity. The specification that it is “the mystery” we should not try to fathom, and the limit that we should not try do so “fully” makes a pretty big difference. I could imagine this being the original form, but a blunter vulgarization of it being the form that has caught on and been repeated as what “one old preacher” said. Wouldn’t it be remarkable if this saying could be traced to a source as recent as 1953? But my hunch, just based on its pattern of dispersal, is that it goes back further.

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