Trinitarian Mormons: Orson Pratt

As I promised before I wish to expand my view that the Trinity is compatible with Mormon theology by examining a Mormon theologian who, I feel, adopted a position quite in line with the Trinity. Now please note that I am not saying that the Trinity is necessarily entailed by Mormon theology. Clearly there are many Mormon thinkers who adopt positions incompatible with the Trinity proper. Nor am I saying that Mormon theology is compatible with what I’ll call mainstream ‘orthodoxy’ in Christianity. Clearly our view of an embodied Father and our rejection of creation ex nihilo is incompatible. Rather what I’m arguing is that the tradition focus on the Trinity by both sides as the point of contention is a misplaced one.

I think that ultimately the place with the largest ramifications is our rejection of creation ex nihilo.

Anyway I wish to turn to a brief discussion of some theological positions of Orson Pratt so as to highlight the possible Trinitarian reading of Mormon theology.

Orson PrattI don’t want to go through all of Orson Pratt’s theology. That’s far too complex for a blog like this and largely beside the point. Rather I wish to address some basics of the Trinity and how one can find them in Orson Pratt. (Albeit in a rather idiosyncratic form) Also please note that I do not intend to defend Orson Pratt’s theology. While he had many interesting ideas ultimately he was very philosophically na├»ve in his writings.

Let me start by briefly summarizing the Trinity. It is the idea of three persons in One God and One God in three persons. The persons are not reducible to one an other. (That is they aren’t different modes of one individual) Further the divine nature is what the three persons share. This divine nature is in some sense a robustness shared by the three which goes beyond merely behaving in a certain way. Now that may be an overly simplified definition but it’ll do for now.

Pratt’s theology was focused on the idea that there were divine attributes that exist somewhat independently of any person. His ideas were expressed in a form that seems fanciful to us. Pratt felt that what we call the Spirit (as opposed to the personage of the Holy Ghost) was a fluid that filled the universe and interpenetrated all things. Thus this Spirit was in and through all things. Further Pratt saw this fluid as free and in a sense sentient. This Spirit freely had all the attributes of godness. When any person obeyed the Spirit and reconciled themselves to it they came to have a divine nature and were One.

Thus the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost were all individual persons. Yet they were in harmony with each other and this fluid. This fluid was what enabled them to communicate with all things in the universe and also know all things in the universe. Further there was a unity such that all of them were One.

Now this ends up being the Trinity. Yes, it is cast into a very (to me) fanciful view of materialism. A view that I think is demonstrably false. And yes, nearly all Trinitarians reject materialism. So they would reject Orson Pratt’s theology. I’d just say that the doctrine of the Trinity proper never addresses whether God’s ousia (his substance or nature) is material or not. All the thinkers in Christian history since at least Augustine definitely saw the ousia in more Platonic terms. (As an immaterial substance) Further they all would have seen both the Father and the Holy Ghost as immaterial. (And would see much more of Jesus as immaterial than Mormons do) But I think those are views due to additional doctrines rather than the Trinity itself.

So if Orson Pratt can be seen to have a theology of the Trinity. Should we really say the Trinity is incompatible with Mormonism? Especially considering the influence of Orson Pratt theologically?

13 thoughts on “Trinitarian Mormons: Orson Pratt

  1. I think we should say that mainstream Christian definitions and understandings of the Trinity are incompatible with Mormonism.

    Does OP have much influence theologically? I often think of him as a bit of a nut. Has he really ahd much influence on the church? I would think BHR (as one example) and BRM (as another) had much more influence.

    Is our belief that Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father have separate bodies of flesh and bones at some level a rejection of the trinity regardless of how they are unified in purpose?

    I don’t know if you want to get into this, but I do not see how our belief in an embodied God and our rejection of creation ex nihilo is incompatible. Are you saying they are incompatible with each other, or together they are incompatible with the concept of a trinity?

  2. The main point, I think, is that Mormons tend to overemphasize the non-unity of the Godhead while some Christians overemphasize the unity.

    Most Christians I know, at least the ones without theological degrees, actually tend to see the Trinity in modalistic terms, whereas a lot of Mormon rhetoric tends to seem almost tri-theistic.

    However, as far as Orson Pratt goes, while I think this shows some sort of trinitarian unity is not incompatible with Mormon theology, it strikes me very similiar to those arguments from FAIR and others that show early church fathers like Justin Maryr or Eusebius appeared to believe in diefication or a non-unified Godhead; just because some early founders believed it, it doesn’t have a lot of relevance to current practice and belief (although Orson Pratt is a lot closer to us than Justin Martyr is to modern Christianity).

  3. I am not certain about the “light of Christ” existing independently from the persons in the Godhead, but I think Pratt was really onto something. What the glory of God is, is a great mystery. When Moroni left Joseph Smith’s room, the light “gathered” to him. When was the last time you saw light “gather”?

    There is an interconnectedness that is much greater than members of the church grant the Godhead. I think I am closer to Pratt than McConkie on this one.

  4. OK, Clark, I understand your point now. Yes, it’s not really the trinity Joseph Smith had a problem with after the First Vision — it’s the idea that God is somehow a Spirit without a body. I also agree that many Church members tend to simplify this issue and say things like, “was Jesus praying to himself?” to reject the traditional view of the trinity.

    Question for you: do mainstream Christians accept the idea that Jesus and Heavenly Father are really separate beings today, separate materially but unified in spirit and purpose?

  5. [Edit: this comment appears to have been mangled in our server problems. I’ve tried to reconstruct it as be I can.]

    I think Orson Pratt had a profound influence on 20th century Mormon thought. He adopted a kind of theological absolutism which JFS and BRM carried as well as a basically nominalistic approach to the issue. His approach to materialism wasn’t followed, mainly because B. H. Roberts adopted an immaterial Cartesian mind as the explanation of intelligence. However in most other areas Pratt’s ideas were taken up by both movements in the 20th century. (JFS’ views in particular were highly influenced by OP) I’d note that Pratt’s main theological opposition was Brigham Young yet in nearly every place they disagreed 20th century thinkers followed Pratt rather than young.

    His ultimate materialistic ontology hasn’t been followed. As I said that’s partially because Roberts, Talmage and Widstoe modified it somewhat to have our basic intelligence – spirit -body trichotomy that most accept today: with intelligence being basically a disembodied Cartesian mind. I think there are problems with this view as well. I’d note that most thinkers of the last 20 years have been moving away from the Roberts view. (Noting, as Blake Ostler does, that in Nauvoo spirit and intelligence were used synonymously)

    The other problem with Pratt is he adopted whole heartedly the idea of atoms as the ultimate constituents of matter as was widely believed in the mid-19th century. Of course physics has moved quite a way beyond that. First to field theories and then to finding more basic constituents of matter and then to our current understanding of quantum theory and general relativity. So his materialism which was so key to his thinking seems quite quaint and antiquated. Likewise his idea of spiritual fluid was highly influenced by the scientific notion of an aether which was disproven first by finding the speed of light was a constant and then completely replaced by Einstein’s theory of relativity. So Pratt’s key problem was trying, in a naive way, to reconcile Mormon theology to science.

    Despite those problems I think it safe to say that the history of 20th century Mormonism is pretty much a history of the influence of Pratt’s way of conceiving Mormonism and a move away from the typical 19th century way of thinking. That’s changed somewhat the last 20 years as more early texts are read closely – especially those from Joseph’s Nauvoo. However this has led probably to more diversity of views than anything. I should also note that Pratt’s panpsychism (the idea that the substance of the universe has rudimentary sentience and can obey God) is more widespread among Mormons than I suspect many believe. It was widely discussed at BYU while I was there with no one even attributing it to Pratt as the source. (Although he was influenced by various other texts such as Moses 7) I don’t think it was help by the majority of Mormons – especially not with the number of converts we have who don’t read up on theology. But it was surprisingly widespread in the Wasatch region of the Church even if arguably it is among the most controversial of Pratt’s ideas.

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  8. Geoff B. asked: Question for you: do mainstream Christians accept the idea that Jesus and Heavenly Father are really separate beings today, separate materially but unified in spirit and purpose?

    That’s kind of a tricky question if the Heavenly Father is immaterial. Jesus, though, presumably has a body in traditional non-LDS Christian thought.

    The idea of separate beings has similarities to social trinitarianism, which some “mainstream” theologians have proposed. I’m not sure the idea itself is part of the mainstream, though.

    I think part of the problem with dealing with what “mainstream” Christians believe is that so many of them (I’m not talking about seminary graduates here) believe in a type of modalism rather than the doctrine of the Nicene creed. It’s technically a heretical view, but common nonetheless.

  9. With regards to the orthodox view of the creeds the problem is that ‘beings’ is a kind of equivocal view. Beings as typically used refers to creatures and given their adoption of creation ex nihilo they must make a distinction between creature and creator. So typically they’ll say that while humans are beings the persons of the Godhead are not. However in other contexts they’ll talk about them as beings since they are different entities with a single nature or substance.

    Social trinitarianism I believe maintains the doctrine of creation ex nihilo and thus would take a similar stance.

    As I’ve noted though Mormons believe that at least something essential to us is eternal and uncreated. So in a sense we end up moving human beings to a place where we are organized but uncreated.

    All this does highlight the problem of being careful in how we talk about all this.

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