Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Mormon Trinity



In contemplating the theology of the Restoration, I've enjoyed learning more about our similarities and differences with historical Christianity's concept of the Trinity. It's been an enlightening religious education! Suffice it to say, I think LDS Christians would greatly benefit from a concerted effort in thinking and teaching about the nature of God in terms that would be more understandable to non-Mormon Christians.

After all, Elder Bruce D. Porter in this recent interview made it clear that the only part of the Nicene Creed that Mormons would not agree with would be the statement that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are of "one substance".

So with that in mind, I'd like to recommend reading a recent post at Mormon Matters entitled The Mormon Trinity.

29 comments:

Eric Nielson said...

I guess I disagree with much of this and the post at Mormon Matters. It seems we are going a long way to try and Protestantize the church. It is the one trinangle in the middle that is the problem.

Why would we diliberately try and confuse the issue to try and appear more like protestents? I don't get it.

Clean Cut said...

What's confusing about the issue? Latter-day Saints believe in both the oneness and threeness of God. We believe the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are at the same time distinct from each other and also one eternal God.

This has nothing to do with trying to "appear more like protestants". It has much to do with understanding our own doctrine better.

Please elaborate on what you disagree with about the triangle in the middle...

Clark Goble said...

Eric, I think creation ex nihilo is more than enough to keep us from being Protestantized. I think though there are plenty of reasons not to see a conflict with the Trinity proper.

Jeff said...

I do not believe Jesus is God.
Well, on the other hand, I believe we are all Gods in development. But I do not worship Jesus or pray to him. This is one of the things that has led me to go inactive. If I wanted Protestant theology I would still be at a Protestant church. I abide by the commandment "You shall worship the Lord your God and serve Him only."

Clean Cut said...

Jeff, whether you realize it not, "LORD" in the Bible is translated from "Yaweh", or Jehovah. Jesus was Jehovah, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. "The Lord is God" is the same thing as saying "Jesus is God".

Clark Goble said...

Protestant theology Jeff? You mean like

"...it must needs be that the Gentiles be convinced also that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God" (2 Ne 26:12)

"And I, Jesus Christ, your Lord and your God, have spoken it. ... Behold, I, Jesus Christ, your Lord and your God, and your Redeemer, by the power of my Spirit have spoken it." (D&C 18:33,47)

"And behold, they began to pray; and they did pray unto Jesus, calling him their Lord and their God." (3 Ne 19:18)

And so on and so on.

I mean I can understand a lot of complaints, but complaining about Mormons calling Jesus God as being too Protestant just strikes me as weird. LDS scripture is far more emphatic on this point than the Bible is. (Really - do a search and you'll find more distinctions made in the NT than most LDS scripture)

Eric Nielson said...

The triangle to me implies that they are one mysterious substance. This is a big deal to me.

Eric Nielson said...

I feel I should put in a couple of links here. First is a definition of Godhead with scriptural and othere resources here

And the other is Elder Hollands talk in a recent conference on the subject here

Clean Cut said...

Thanks for responding Eric. I was really curious where you were coming from. If I were a Trinitarian, of the historical, orthodox tradition of Christianity, I would most likely interpret that Triangle as you described--"one mysterious substance". But Latter-day Saints--believers in Restored Christianity--we interpret that Triangle differently, and yet our understanding can still fit perfectly with that Trinitarian triangle.

As Elder Porter made clear, the only part of the Nicene Creed describing the Trinity that Mormons would not agree with would be the statement that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are of "one substance". Putting that major difference aside, I am genuinely intrigued that we have so many doctrinal similarities. I'm also genuinely baffled at your statement that this is some kind of a stretch to "Protestantize" the Church.

I understand that triangle above in the same terms of Alma, or Nephi--that saying "one God" or "Godhead" is virtually synonymous. "God" is more of a title than a name.

Alma 11:44: "Christ the Son, and God the Father, and the Holy Spirit, which is one Eternal God"

2nd Nephi 31:21: "This is the doctrine of Christ, and the only and true doctrine of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, which is one God, without end"

Both Mormons and Trinitarians agree that all three distinct persons are "one God". Where we disagree is on how we reconcile this simultaneous threeness and oneness.

Trinitarians would probably read those Book of Mormon verses and see further evidence that the three persons of God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Ghost are also one substance. We Mormons believe that these three distinct persons are also distict beings/substances, yet they are still one God, or Godhead. Furthermore, we even believe that God the Father and God the Son both have physical, albeit glorified, bodies. Yet, for us, they are still "one God".

Different people coming from different perspectives obviously interpret things differently. I personally enjoy engaging in conversation with other Christians about our understanding of God. I enjoy getting past the stereotypes and misrepresentations and getting at the heart of it. I'm fascinated by the delicate balance and understanding it requires to understand each other as we tend to understand ourselves. This does not happen very often. I wish it would happen more.

But more to the point, I interpret that triangle above in perfect harmony with my LDS understanding of the Godhead. At the same time, I'm grateful my understanding of the Trinity has expanded recently. I'm a little more informed about the concept now, and I no longer mistake the Trinity for Modalism. Having said that, even a correct understanding of the Trinitarian interpretation--that each distinct person of the Godhead is also one substance--this remains mysterious to me.

Clean Cut said...

By the way, that talk by Elder Holland which you provided the link to is one of my favorite all time talks:

"Our first and foremost article of faith in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.” We believe these three divine persons constituting a single Godhead are united in purpose, in manner, in testimony, in mission. We believe Them to be filled with the same godly sense of mercy and love, justice and grace, patience, forgiveness, and redemption. I think it is accurate to say we believe They are one in every significant and eternal aspect imaginable except believing Them to be three persons combined in one substance, a Trinitarian notion never set forth in the scriptures because it is not true."

-Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Only True God and Jesus Christ Whom He Hath Sent,” Ensign, Nov 2007, 40–42

Clark Goble said...

Eric, the problem is what is meant by "mysterious substance." There really isn't a fixed sense of that in most Trinitarian theology. It varies from the ousia (the substance) being Nothing to the ousia being more neoPlatonic to the ousia even being the indwelling of perfect relationships. (Social Trinitarianism although many Evangelicals don't think Social Trinitarianism is compatible with the Trinity) The point being that the unity is supposed to be a mystery and the only thing everyone agrees upon is that it isn't a substance in the sense we normally think of substances.

Now certainly in the LDS tradition there is a strong theological tradition which denies any reality to the unity of the Godhead. This tradition adopts a position that in philosophy we call nominalistic. That is the only unity is one of having similar thoughts and desires. There's nothing beyond agreement that constitutes the unity. Bruce R. McConkie is probably the most famous proponent of this position.

This is not the only tradition within Mormonism though. Consider Orson Pratt who actually had the unity of the Godhead consisting of its attributes as a spiritual fluid that fills the universe and that all divine beings are in harmony with.

There are other views within Mormonism as well, primarily adopting a more substantial unity on the basis of D&C 88.

Clark Goble said...

except believing Them to be three persons combined in one substance, a Trinitarian notion never set forth in the scriptures because it is not true.

Note that this is not what the Trinity actually teaches. It's much trickier than that.

Eric Nielson said...

I still hate the triange.

The idea that we have just this one little thing - the one substance part - in an exaggerated reduction. It is the whole issue as I see it. Either they are one substance or they are not. Adopting some goofy graven image to represent some unnecessarily confusing representation of the godhead is not only unhelpful, it is deceptive.

I would rather have a common picture of the first vision be such a representation that the symbol you are passing along.

Clark Goble said...

Just to add since I'm sure that last comment won't be convincing to many. The issue of the unity of the Trinity is called homoousia or one substance. But one has to be careful with the term "substance." These are technical theological terms here and the common usage of the English terms used to translate can seriously mislead.

Substance here is much more Platonic in it's general presentation. So one can talk about "horseness" independent of any particular horse but which is the essence all horses share. Now the Trinity doctrine isn't neoPlatonism, despite what some say. (Indeed the main important doctrine distinguishing Mormons from other Christians, creation ex nihilo, is actually a huge break with Platonism)

What historically went on is that the Platonists saw that two essences could have some common essence that they shared. Thus you might have the essences of horseness and goatness with animalness being the unity of them. (I'm obviously simplifying here) Eventually as you keep finding unities you get to the primal unity of the One.

Now what the Trinitarians did is roughly keep this idea of the One and made the next level up the persons. The persons have a more complex relationship (roughly, but not exactly, Father -> Son -> Holy Ghost). But where the Platonists would continue the Trinitarians create an absolute break. That's all that is. After that is creation with an unbrigeable gulf due to creation ex nihilo. Everything else is ontologically created by God.

So in a sense Mormons, by denying creation ex nihilo are closer to the Platonists. (Although we obviously don't necessarily adopt a Platonic metaphysics) However what we do interestingly require is that all intelligent entities being eternal and uncreated. Which ironically means that in a certain sense there must be this uncreated ousia for us. (At least if we try to translate our theology to the philosophy of late antiquity) That is we are essentially ungrounded beings.

Now obviously the ousia of God is more than this which is why many Christians tend to get offended by our doctrine since to them we're trying to have it both ways. (Have a divine like ousia yet not have all the divine properties of the ousia)

The point is that thinking of the Trinity as a single substance (i.e. thing) that constitutes three persons is wrong. Ironically the figure who adopts that position closest is Orson Pratt and those people who followed his theology. (And his theology brought rebuke from Brigham Young but of course we don't follow Brigham Young's view either and arguably Pratt's still fairly influential in LDS thought)

Eric Nielson said...

Spiritual fluids and obscure Orson Pratt quotes aside, our scriptures teach that the Father ahs a body of flesh and bones, the Son also. It is nonsence to think of such eternal beings disolving into one substance or a yellow triangle.

Clean Cut said...

Eric, I admit that I'm not seeing the same confusion about the original post, nor do I see anything deceptive. But everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Of course the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three separate beings. But beyond that, we can do a better job of articulating their oneness and unity as "God" rather than putting a period after teaching about their separateness.

After all, "we believe They are one in every significant and eternal aspect imaginable except believing Them to be three persons combined in one substance".

Clean Cut said...

Clark, I fear you may be talking past me now. It's understandable since it appears we're trying to have two different conversations at the same time: How both how Latter-day Saints and Trinitarians believe in the oneness of God. But I don't see what's so tricky about what Elder Holland said.

Perhaps, to avoid any further confusion or discomfort, we can leave the speculations of both Orson Pratt and Brigham Young out of the conversation for now. :)

So let's back up and just pretend you're a Protestant and I ask you to teach me about God and explain the concept of the Triune God to me. You've said it's more complex than believing there are 3 persons in one substance. Obviously this leaves much yet to understand about how this works, but do you feel qualified to better explain, in lay mans Trinitarian terms, how three distinct persons equate to one God?

(And if any actual Trinitarians ever come across this--I welcome you to illuminate my understanding of the Triune God here as well.)

As I come to the edge of my understanding of the Triune God, I've found it hard to accept the mysteriousness of it, and I have yet to hear or read a sufficient explanation (whether from regular church-goers, or theological scholars), presumably precisely because it is a mystery. Or perhaps I do not find it sufficient to my understanding simply because I don't share the same yearning for the post-biblical councils and creeds explanation of what I feel is already self-evident in the scriptures themselves.

Nevertheless, I'm more curious about what normal, everyday Trinitarians have in their mind about the Trinity. How do they teach the concept to their children in a way that's easier to understand? How do ordinary, average Christians understand the theology of God? (Assuming they understand the Trinity correctly and not "heresies").

The last time I asked my coworker, who is Presbyterian, to explain her understanding of God to me, I was given an off-topic explanation about how "if you wanted to get a message to a bunch of ants, how would you do it?" I answered correctly: "Become an ant". She went on to explain that God became a man to get his message of salvation to us humans. I asked her: "So you believe we are a different species from God?" She couldn't really answer that.

The point is, I didn't get very far in understanding HER understanding of the Triune God, but rather only a basic belief of how God condescended to redeem us, which thing I already believe. Naturally, I don't see God and humans in compatible terms with the humans and ants (or whatever animal analogy), since I believe that we are literally of the same species of God, that Heavenly Father is literally our Father, that His Son, Jesus Christ, came to earth to redeem fallen and sinful man. "Behold the condescension of God!" (1 Nephi 11:26).

As a Latter-day Saint, I'm under no constraints to fit my "theology" into the Creator/created division that is so essential to most traditional Christians. I feel it's an even greater testament to the Atonement of Christ that he came to remove ALL divisions and separations between us and God, and to make us "at one" again with Him. Indeed, the whole point of the Atonement is to put the created (us) "at one" again with the Creator. But that would be an entirely new conversation about what it then means for us to be "one" with the Godhead, even as they are "one" amongst themselves. (see John 17)

Clark Goble said...

But I don't see what's so tricky about what Elder Holland said.

The problem is that substance is a tricky term. The way I read Elder Holland he's taking a more traditional sense of substance so such a reading is just as incorrect as the common misreading of the Trinity by Mormons as modalism.

As to explaining it, there's no way without getting into tricky philosophical language and knowing the historic context. The simple paraphrase that David brought up at FPR is probably the best you can do.

So I completely understand why some complain because it is so hard to understand. (Although once you understand Platonism it really isn't that incomprehensible)

The problem is that the typical layman Trinitarian typically get the theology wrong too. I've even met pastors or the like who ought know better who get it wrong.

Clark Goble said...

Eric: Spiritual fluids and obscure Orson Pratt quotes aside, our scriptures teach that the Father ahs a body of flesh and bones, the Son also. It is nonsence to think of such eternal beings disolving into one substance or a yellow triangle.

Note that Pratt fully accepted that the Father, Son and each of us are all separate beings with a body of flesh and bones.

Once again the main problem is that we come from a culture suffuse with modern scientific thinking and a certain conception of what "substance" means. When we read that back into earlier debates we twist the nature of those debates.

Clean Cut said...

St. Augustine’s formulation of the Trinity:

The Father is God
The Son is God
The Holy Spirit is God
The Father is not the Son
The Son is not the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is not the Father
There is only one God

Essentially this puts the graphic above into words...

Eric Nielson said...

We already do a fine job of explaining the oneness of God, and we (as a whole) do not put a period after there separateness.

The are a unified team, there are no jealousies between them, and the are perfect in their attributes - (how many kinds of perfect are there? One.)

We can explain oneness in ways other than saying - 'Look, we can make our trinity just as confusing as yours!'

Todd Wood said...

Eric, do you believe there can be a rupture in the oneness of the species of God?

Clean Cut said...

What do you mean by that, Todd?

Clark Goble said...

Eric, do you think that explanation can do justice to D&C 93 and D&C 88?

Jeff said...

CleanCut, you have said "Jesus was Jehovah, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob."

But, whether you, in turn, realize it or not, this view was not held in Mormonism until the early twentieth century. Prior to that, Jehovah was understood as the Father. Boyd Kirkland wrote an excellent article that was published in Sunstone about this evolution.

I happen to side with the older view, as did Peter and Jesus, as you can see for example, in Acts 3:13 which says "The God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, the God of our fathers, hath glorified his Son Jesus", or Mark 12:24-30, where Jesus says: "Have ye not read in the book of Moses, how in the bush God spake unto him, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living: ye therefore do greatly err." or in Moses 1:16-17 which says "for God said unto me: Thou art after the similitude of mine Only Begotten. And he also gave me commandments when he called unto me out of the burning bush, saying: Call upon God in the name of mine Only Begotten, and worship me."

I guess this makes me not classified as a Mormon, so - Sorry for speaking up, but my main point was to demonstrate this:

Different people in the Church hold different theological views, covering a large gamut from Adam-God to strict Unitarian to Trinitarian to a variety of Polytheistic beliefs, and each may be supported by various passages in the Standard Works and teachings of the modern prophets to some degree or other, and embracing a particular formulation of the Trinity can easily alienate some of these people. Are they our brothers and sisters? Should they be required or pressured to adjust their beliefs?

Jeff said...

CleanCut, I just noticed you grew up in Eugene, Oregon. I live in Roseburg, only an hour drive from there (and attend Synagogue in Eugene occasionally.) Nice to run into someone from so close to home. We now return to our regularly scheduled thread:

Eric Nielson said...

Todd:

What?

Clark:

Yes.

Trying to Stay Calm! said...

I am new here! What a great blog :)

Clean Cut said...

Jeff, I went to that link you provided. That's interesting stuff. I'm of the opinion that the more informed, the better. That's why I loved Richard Bushman's "Rough Stone Rolling". I was able to learn about historical things that aren't normally presented in a church setting, but in a more neutral, positive, but honest light. That way it didn't shake me when I heard them presented from people with a less positive perspective.

This particular "development of theology" is new to me. It might make sense to put it into the perspective, as does Bushman, that Joseph learned over time how to be a prophet. Perhaps he also didn't have a complete theological understanding in the beginning as well. Also, a friend of mine made a great point that we ought to remember that all of the apostles never grew up in the church. Many of them were preachers in other Protestant denominations and were quickly made apostles. Sometimes we might assume that the apostles had to know everything perfectly but many times this wasn't the case. So it's little wonder that a more standardized theology or doctrine would have gradually become more that way with time. Anyway, interesting stuff. Thanks for the thoughts.

And it's always fun to make a connection with a fellow Oregonian. That beautiful Oregon/Willamette Valley. The majority of my family (and my wife's family) still live there. We're looking forward to going back for the Holidays. Some of the greenest, most beautiful country in the world, in my humble opinion. :)