Mormons and the Trinity

This is the sort of post I’d probably have put on my philosophy blog. But since my blog is “between” right now I’ll post it here but try and make it accessible to non-philosophers. (i.e. not technical)

One thing that is often presented as the main point of difference between Mormons and ‘traditional Christians’ is the doctrine of the Trinity. It is somewhat understandable given that for more than a century Mormon thinkers have attacked the Trinity.

Might I suggest that this is incorrect?


trinityart.jpgThe main problem is that both sides in the discussion have strawman understandings of each other. Ask the average Mormon about the Trinity and they’ll describe God as a being who has multiple personality disorder. How can one person be three modes? But without giving examples of this misunderstanding let me just say that what most Mormons (and non-Mormons) describe isn’t the Trinity but modalism. And modalism is considered a heresy.

The doctrine of the Trinity accepts that there are three separate persons in the Godhead. Yet there is one unity of essence and nature in these three persons.

Now just as far too many Mormons understand the Trinity as modalism far too many non-Mormons (and even many Mormons) reduce the Mormon position to tri-theism in a strong sense. That is the idea that Mormons don’t only believe in three persons but that there is absolutely nothing in common between them beyond having common aims and values. This seems demonstrably false.

Yes one can read passages such as D&C 93 with intelligence as nothing more than information and truth as nothing more than a collection of propositions (statements that are true). I think though that this isn’t the natural reading. I’d go so far as to say that the idea God’s glory is nothing more than information to be false. If that were so how can we talk about people being overpowered by God’s glory? It must be more than just information.

Experiencing God’s glory in even part is something much different than Neo in the Matrix seeing the Matrix as a computer program. If Mormonism entails something more than what I like to call Neo’s eye view then that entails that there is more to the unity of God than just common understanding, values, or intents.

There are plenty of passages that point one in this direction. Read the first dozen verses or so of D&C 88 and say that there is nothing but information and values constituting the unity of the Godhead.

I don’t want to bore you providing prooftexts here. I just want to suggest that a mainstream LDS position is that there must be a robust unity in the Godhead that is something more than information or values. Once you accept this then you basically have the Trinity. Maybe not an identical understanding of the Trinity but you have three persons with some sort of unity in those three persons that constitutes the essence or substance of the divine.

One reason I find the whole discourse about the Trinity funny is because of notable thinker Orson Pratt’s theology. Now let me say up front I find Pratt rather naive in his philosophy here. Further Brigham Young felt Pratt was extremely wrong. However we tend to reject a lot of Young’s own thinking which he opposed to Pratt – typically instead following Pratt. So Pratt is very interesting here. I’ll get to Pratt’s “Trinitarianism” in a subsequent post.

What I want to suggest is that the main differences between Mormons and mainstream Christians consists not of the theology of the Trinity but creation ex nihilo (creation from nothing). That leads to an absolute and unbridgeable metaphysical difference between God and man. Man must be created in all senses by God whereas Mormons allow that God created man but think that man’s essence is as uncreated as God’s. There are all sorts of philosophical implications from this doctrine.

The second point of difference is our view of the Father as embodied. Now there are some Christian theologians who see the Father as embodied, although no the way Mormons do. However these guys (for instance process theologians) are often seen as out of the mainstream. Mormons, I think, see God through the prism of Christ. That is Christ is the revelation of God to us and all our theology has to be thought through the incarnation of God as the revelation of God. To me that entails that we understand God the Father through Jesus. Therefore the embodiment of God the Father flows naturally.

Obviously mainstream Christians don’t agree.

18 thoughts on “Mormons and the Trinity

  1. Thanks for this, Clark. My dilemma is how to reduce this to a sound bite every time GD or EQ turns to a trinity bashing moment. Best keep quiet, I suppose.

  2. Clark, I’m wondering if you could flesh out your argument regarding the trinity and modalism. The issue I’m having is that the Nicene Creed, the basis for all “mainstream Christianity,” seems to accept the “three people are one” description of the trinity, which is exactly what Mormons criticize. I don’t get how you can square that with the First Vision and Joseph Smith’s interpretation that all of traditional Christianity had it wrong. It was not just embodiment, it was a completely wrong view of the nature of God and the nature of the resurrection and who Christ is today.

  3. Geoff, part of generating interest and discussion is to not include everything… (grin)

    I’d say though that if something makes God God or if there’s something that enables God to ‘God’ then that is the ousia of God and is shared by Christ, the Holy Ghost and the Father. Some prominent Mormon theologians like Orson Pratt developed rather elaborate theories as to what this was. Now this was somewhat controversial at the time (the 1860′s and 1870′s) but mainly due to the different emphasis of Brigham Young upon an evolutionary anthropology as the focus of theology.

    As I said I’ll discuss Pratt in a subsequent post – hopefully tomorrow.

  4. Lief, I bring it up all the time in Church.

    I just say that there is some confusion. Modalism is the idea there is one being with three personalities. The Trinity is the idea that three persons are one God. The place where Mormons and Trinitarians disagree is over whether man is ultimately created or co-eternal with God and whether there is an unbridgeable gap between man and God.

    The Book of Mormon and D

  5. Thanks Clark. I agree with your post. It seems like the disagreement between LDS and more traditional trinitarian christians is over the sense in which the three separate persons are one God. I have heard the LDS view articulated as “social” trinitarian.

    I do not see how the First Vision is inconsistent with the traditional trinity, because, as you point out, traditional trinitarianism recognizes that there are three separate persons (not just a modalistic three manifestations of one person) in the trinity.

    Our brothers and sisters in trinitarian faith believe there are three persons, yet one God. I believe the same, although perhaps in slightly different senses.

  6. Writing about Christ’s relationship with the Father, John Calvin wrote:

    “He intended to meet the jeers of the wicked; for they might allege that the power of God did not at all belong to him, so that he could promise to his disciples that it would assuredly protect them. He therefore testifies that his affairs are so closely united to those of the Father, that the Father’s assistance will never be withheld from himself and his sheep. The ancients made a wrong use of this passage to prove that Christ is (homoousios) of the same essence with the Father. For Christ does not argue about the unity of substance, but about the agreement which he has with the Father, so that whatever is done by Christ will be confirmed by the power of his Father” (Commentary on the Gospel According to John, trans. William Pringle [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949; orig. 1847], 416).

    I’ve heard people argue that Calvin was actually a believer that the unity of the Godhead is a “unity of purpose.” Which is what most Mormons believe. But here he seems to go farther and imply that they are also one in power. An assertion that likewise does not seem at all objectionable to Mormon thought.

    Would it be accurate to say that Calvin, and much of traditional Christianity is actually tri-theist?

    If so, what the heck have we been arguing about all these years?

  7. Clark, Care to critique my thinking? I’ve thought that the question of creation ex nihilo is important because it the Mormon view depicts a God that does not create all things, and therefore does not have all power over all things (I’m afraid that my philosophy is more naive that Pratt’s). Further, Mormons believe in a Jesus that was at some point a ‘mere’ intelligence, who later became God with God the Father (with diverging opinion on when he became God). Thus, to the Mormon, matter is not created but gods are, and to mainline Christians it is just the opposite.

  8. BTW – sorry for the line break problem. There’s still a few bugs with our install of WordPress and we’re working on it.

    David, while I think Mormons definitely are social trinitarians and there’s an ongoing debate over whether Cornelius Plantinga’s social trinity is compatible with orthodox views of the trinity I don’t think we can say that social trinitarianism exhausts the Mormon view. I certainly don’t dispute the relational model of the Godhead (probably best explicated in an LDS context by Blake Ostler in his The Attributes of God.

    There is also the question of whether social trinitarianism can explain the range of mainstream theological views within Mormonism. I don’t think it can. It is too narrow, for instance, to deal with Orson Pratt’s view of God. Once you have the idea that there is ‘something’ that enables God to be God or to act as God then you have something more robust than a social unity.

    I also don’t want to assert that one must as a Mormon embrace a more robust unity of the Godhead. Clearly there have been major LDS thinkers and GAs who adopted the view that all they have in common is information and values. However my point is that a view more compatible with the Trinity is well within the mainstream of Mormon thought historically.

  9. Brian I agree completely that the main difference between Mormons and Christians of the more orthodox persuasion is creation ex nihilo and the embodiment of the Father. My belief is that both sides focus, incorrectly, on the Trinity, whereas our differences lay elsewhere.

  10. Oh, regarding Calvin I’m just not well enough read on him to know the intricacies of his thought. I feel confident in saying he asserted creation ex nihilo. I’m very sure he adopted a thoroughgoing unit of the Godhead though too. Here’s Calvin’s main statement about the Trinity.

    One difference we might see between Mormons and mainstream Christian theologies is that Mormons primarily focus and are concerned about the persons. Outside of a few examples (such as Pratt) Mormons really haven’t concerned themselves with the question of the unity of God. Contrast this with most theological writings over the centuries in mainstream Christianity and there the ousia of God gets considerable focus. The persons far less focus (outside of debates regarding Christology)

  11. The next article of faith in our church constitution that I would like to talk about on HI4LDS is the subject of the Triune God. I will link your short post, Clark.

    This is intriguing. Are there other similar LDS links to what you are saying here?

  12. Something alluded to in the original post is that it’s quite common for many non-LDS Christians to have a misunderstanding of the doctrine of the Trinity. I don’t cease to be amazed at how many of them, when asked what the Trinity is, describe it in modalistic terms. If we’re heretics, then so are many non-Mormons!

    There are definitely some strong similarities between social trinitarianism and the LDS view. The key differences, in my view, then are over the corporeal nature of the Father and areas that get into LDS speculation, such as the origins of the Father (e.g., did He have a Father) and whether there was a Heavenly Mother needed before Jesus could become Who He is.

  13. Eric, the question is whether the issue of the embodiment of the Father is part of the doctrine of the Trinity proper.

    There are two places where I think my claims about the Trinity may fall flat and I’ll address them in an other post. (The next one will be about Pratt)

    To briefly summarize though there is the issue that the persons in the Trinity shouldn’t be understood like a human person. (See the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on person for more info) My answer is complex but I think Mormons end up expanding the notion of person for everyone due to our theology of pre-existence.

    The second is over the relations of the entities of the Trinity. That is the Father is neither begotten nor proceeds whereas the Son is begotten and the Holy Ghost proceeds. I think that while some Mormons will have trouble here others won’t.

  14. Pingback: Problems with Mormons and the Trinity : Mormon Metaphysics

  15. 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.
    -Elder Jeffrey R Holland

    A modern day Apostle of the Lord who is a special witness of Christ has rebuked the doctrine of the trinity and says it is false doctrine. Elder Bruce R McConkie says in regard to this subject, "It is my pattern and custom to simply teach and testify. I do not debate and I do not argue. If someone wants to contend to the contrary, he is just as welcome as the day is long to do so. But let us understand this. When we deal with God’s laws, when we get into the realm of spiritual things, we are dealing with the things that save souls, and at our peril we are obligated to find the truth."

    The trinity is false doctrine. We do not receive that doctrine into our hearts because it does not save. Be warned, when we receive such a stern warning and declaration of the truth from a special witness of Christ, and then we ignore that warning, then we are apostatizing from the true Church of God and sacrifice the rights, privileges and blessings so involved and given for Eternal exaltation. There is no reason to ponder that heresy, that blasphemy against God and that untrue, false doctrine.

  16. Jimmy, the problem is that Elder Holland isn’t clear what he is critiquing. As I read him saying three persons combined in one substance he appears to be presenting a modalistic view and not the actual doctrine of the Trinity which is much more complex. Further substance in the doctrine of the Trinity (meaning the ousia rather than the hypostasis) doesn’t mean substance as we tend to use the language.

    Certainly the Trinity as most Mormons understand it is false doctrine. But that’s because it is commonly misunderstood. So what is attacked is almost always a strawman. The equating of Trinity with modalism is pretty consistent in Mormon history going back to Joseph Smith. So it is fairly easy to understand why it is attacked.

    The second problem is that the Trinity is frankly difficult to understand. Even a lot of folks who have been to seminaries often present it as modalism. Until you really delve into the philosophical background of the doctrine you can’t quite get your mind wrapped around it.

    Further let me one again repeat that I’m not saying Mormons buy into the Trinity as understood in traditional Christianity. That’s because all the context to the formal statements of doctrine add in things we definitely disagree with. (Such as the doctrine of creation ex nihilo) So how a mainstream Christian theologian would interpret the doctrine as applied would be narrower than what I’m asserting here. I’m simply pointing out that the doctrine proper isn’t as incompatible with LDS thought as it first appears. And I the doctrine proper (i.e. the creedal statements) are fully compatible with LDS doctrine if not necessarily even systematic theological interpretation of Mormon doctrine. (As I said, McConkie definitely adopts a nominalistic view of God’s unity)

  17. Pingback: More Trinity : Mormon Metaphysics

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