The Trinity, Mormonism, and the Godhead
[In this post I use the word Trinity to refer to a triune understanding of God--i.e. the conventional Christian sense, not the LDS sense.]
Related Posts: Four Important Early Christian Creeds ; Mormonism and Creeds of Christendom ; Is Mormonism Christian? ; Whom do we Worship? ; The Nature of Christ ; The First Vision ; Godhead: God or Gods?
The first Article of Faith in the (LDS) church is, “We believe in God the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.” In Joseph Smith’s first revelatory experience he saw God the Father and Jesus Christ: “I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air” (JS-History 1:17). Thus it was established early on in the church that the Father and Son were not of one essence or of the same substance. The clearest expression of this belief is this: “the Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit” (D&C 130:22). Our belief in the physicality of God’s person cannot admit a rational three-Persons-concurring-in-one-Being view of God.
Does the Book of Mormon teach a Trinitarian view of the Godhead?
One passage often quoted by anti-Mormon writers is 2 Nephi 31:21. There Nephi says, “[Christ is the only] name given under heaven whereby man can be saved in the kingdom of God. And now, behold, 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.” However, the doctrine of the church clearly states that there are three distinct persons (and not one Being) in the Godhead. One approach to resolving this is to interpret “one God” as referring to the unity that exists between them, and to their purpose. A oneness of purpose as expressed by Jesus: “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us” (John 17:21). In Genesis it reads, “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26); thus God refers to himself as “us.” In the Mormon view this supports the belief that the word “God” can refer to more than one member of the Godhead, or to the Godhead as a whole.
Nephi’s expression could also be attributed to human error. The possibility of error is admitted by Mornoi who compiled the record. “If there are faults they are the mistakes of men,” are his words from the Title Page (see also Morm. 8:17). He also agonized over the awkwardness of their written language (Ether 12:25). Hence the Book of Mormon is “the most correct of any book” (Introduction 1:6), but not “a perfect book.” So it is possible that the true meaning of “one God” was lost in translation and “one God” is the most accurate English equivalent to the original meaning.
Even without these explanations Nephi’s expression falls short of the doctrine of the Trinity which says that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God, and yet there is one God. What Nephi says, “the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost…is one God, without end,” cannot be taken as a Trinitarian exposition of the Godhead. If this passage is an accurate representation of the writer’s intention it invites the question of how the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God and yet distinct persons. (See The Godhead: God or Gods?) But such an explanation does not naturally lead to the Trinity; the Book of Mormon does not say that each is God. Since the LDS view is clear--that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are three distinct persons--such explanations are rarely pursued. In practice few Mormons are bothered by Nephi’s statement.
What is the Trinity?
[Speaking for myself, I don’t believe in the Trinity. But I shall do my best to give it fair explanation. Elder Robert S. Wood of the Seventy has emphasized the need for greater understanding. “You must first present the strongest case for the position you are opposing, one that the philosopher himself could accept,” was advice he received when he was a college student ("Instruments of the Lord’s Peace"). I intend to take this approach with the Trinity.]
The Trinity can be explained as this: there is only one God; and the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost is each God; and at the same time they are distinct persons. Its most complete early Christian expression is (probably) the Athanasian Creed:
And the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons: nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father: another of the Son: and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one: the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is: such is the Son: and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreate: the Son uncreate: and the Holy Ghost uncreate. The Father incomprehensible: the Son incomprehensible: and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible. The Father eternal: the Son eternal: and the Holy Ghost eternal… (Four Important Early Creeds)
One thing that needs to be emphasized (because this is something not understood by most Mormons) is that the doctrine of the Trinity is absolutely central to historical Christianity: Christian theologian Matthew Henry wrote “the unity of the Godhead is a fundamental principle in Christianity, and in all right religion”; the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says, “Precisely what the New Testament is, is…the religion of the Trinity”; the Catholic Encyclopedia under “The Blessed Trinity” opens with this paragraph, “The Trinity is the term employed to signify the central doctrine of the Christian religion--the truth that in the unity of the Godhead there are Three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, these Three Persons being truly distinct one from another.” The Athanasian Creed says, “And the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity”. Even the Jewish Encyclopedia under “Trinity” reads, “The fundamental dogma of Christianity; the concept of the union in one God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three infinite persons.” And, when a Protestant or Catholic says “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” he is not referring to the persons of the Godhead as much as he is referring to the Trinity that is the Godhead.
The Trinity (it is believed) is a purely revealed doctrine; it is something human reason alone can never discover; consequently it is mysterious and can never be completely understood. The best approach one can take is to understand what it is, and understand what it isn’t. And within those confines one may pursue understanding. Finally, one must surrender one’s intellect to the incomprehensible mystery of God’s nature.
Arguments relating to the Trinity have two veins: one is to help believers more correctly understand it, and the other is to convince nonbelievers that it is correct.
The word Trinity
The words “trinity” and “triune” are used to represent the oneness of the persons who is God. But these words are not found in the Bible. The first known occurrence is from Theophilus of Antioch (circa AD 180). He writes “In like manner also the three days which were before the luminaries [the three days before the creation of the sun, moon, and stars], are types of the Trinity, of God, and His Word, and His wisdom.” (“Theophilus to Autolycus” 2:15). His word for “Trinity,” according to The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, is the Greek word trias. Theophilus does not seem to be using the word in its fully developed sense. It is also used by Origin who expresses God as being three and yet one Person: “one cannot believe in One Only God in any other way than by saying that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are the very selfsame Person.” He goes on to say “which distributes the Unity into a Trinity.” As with Theophilus, his use of the word does not exactly match the current definition. Eventually the word Trinity came into its current meaning.
The Trinity in the Old Testament
The doctrine of the Trinity is not found in the Old Testament. Though it is believed that the Old Testament is preparatory to the revelation of the Trinity of God revealed in Christ. Even so, intimations of the Trinity are present. In Genesis God says, “Let us make man in our image” (Gen. 1:26), hence there is a plurality in God. Psalm 45:7 reads, “You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; Therefore God, Your God, has anointed You With the oil of joy above Your fellows” (NASB); and “The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool” (Psalm 110:1). In the Old Testament there are four ways of referring to God: there is Elohim (usually translated as God); Jehovah (translated in all capitals as LORD); Adoni (translated as Lord); and el (translated as Lord or God). The word Elohim is in fact plural. Also, expressions like LORD God (Jehovah Elohim) and Lord God (Adoni Elohim) imply plurality in the word “God.”
It can be argued that the reason the Old Testament does not contain an explicit explanation of the Trinity is because the correct understanding of it would come later with Jesus Christ. Thus, it would not make sense to speak of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost before the birth of Jesus and before the power of the Holy Ghost was fully revealed.
Trinity in the New Testament
It can be said that, in the New Testament, the doctrine of the Trinity is everywhere assumed but nowhere explicit. The International Bible Encyclopedia says, “it has been remarked that ‘the doctrine of the Trinity is not so much heard as overheard in the statements of Scripture.’ It would be more exact to say that it is not so much inculcated as presupposed” (“Trinity,” ISBE ). The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of the Bible says, “Even in the New Testament the doctrine of the Trinity is not enunciated, though it is deduced from a collocation of passages and from the logic of their premises.” (“Trinity, Doctrine of the”). The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary says, “The NT teaching upon this subject is not given in the way of formal statement. The formal statement, however, is legitimately and necessarily deducted from the Scriptures of the NT.”
The strongest defense of the doctrine of the Trinity is the Baptismal formula: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matt. 28:19). This, coupled with the Old Testament monotheism, creates an impression of a Triune God. Further, it does not say to baptize in the names of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Nor does it say “baptize in the name of the Father, in the name of the Son, and in the name of the Holy Ghost”--as if to imply three separate persons. Neither does it say to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost--as if to designate three names for the same God. Thus God’s unity and Trinity are expressed.
The sense of the diversity and yet oneness in God is also found in 1 Corinthians 12:4-6: “Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all”--thus there is a unity in Spirit, Lord, and God. In the Gospel of John, Jesus declares “I and my Father are one” (John 10:30); “the Father is in me, and I in him” (John 10:38); and according to the Jews Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God was “making himself equal with God” (John 5:18). In 2 Corinthians 3:14 Paul says, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all. Amen.” Thus the greatest blessings of God--grace, love, and communion--are brought together with God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost. When Thomas realized that the resurrected being standing before him was Jesus he proclaimed, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). And Titus 3:4 reads, “But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared,” thus making the Saviour God. And Mark 12:32: “for there is one God; and there is none other but he.” All of these passages coupled with a belief in one God are supporting evidence for the Trinity.
It has been argued that though there is no formal explanation of the Trinity in the New Testament that such a belief was taken for granted among those who wrote the New Testament; and that the examples thus posed are natural expressions from true believers in the Trinity.
It is admitted that there is something incomprehensible about the Trinity, that any attempt to explain it in a layman’s sense (or any other sense) falls short of completeness. Here are two such attempts. The first is that God’s thought must have a perfect object eternally before it; and the perfect object of God’s thought can be only God Himself; if God’s image of Himself is perfect then it cannot be empty or a mere shadow; thus God has a plurality in Him. However, there is nothing in this argument to prevent infinite god-folding. Another argument is that God is love; but love cannot exist unless there is an object to love; thus if God perfectly loves then he must love Himself; if so he must have an object of love in Himself; thus there is the one who loves, the one who is loved, and the love itself--an analogue of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. However, God’s love doesn’t reproduce himself. If it did we would have another god-folding problem.
What the Trinity isn’t
There are a few things that the Trinity is not. For example the statement “John is Catholic” and “John, Paul, and Mark are Catholic.” This only means that Catholic can refer to a single person or several persons; it does not imply tri-unity. So the statements “Jesus is God,” and “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost is God” are not equivalent to the statements about John, Paul, and Mark. Along a similar vein Paul can be a husband, a student, and a mechanic all at the same time. However this is not the same as saying his three roles are the same and yet different. The doctrine of the Trinity does not make same the three persons nor does it divide their oneness. These two examples cannot aid our understanding of the Trinity--it merely serves to prevent error. Another thing the Trinity is not, is a modal view of God: the idea that there is only one God and that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three ways that God can manifest himself.
Mormons and the Trinity
Because no human expression can completely capture the doctrine of the Trinity there is no flawless expression of it--in the New Testament or anywhere else. And given that the doctrine of the Trinity is not scrutable to human reason, one can be persuaded to believe in a doctrine that is. On some level the Trinity cannot make sense. Further, there is no scripture in the Bible that says the Holy Ghost is God. Such a belief is inferred from Biblical passages and affirmed by creeds.
All of the scriptural arguments posed to favor the Trinity can also be used to favor an LDS view of the Godhead: that there is God the Father; God the Son; and God the Holy Ghost; and they are always distinct; and the words “one God” can refer to all three beings who make up the Godhead. Thus there are three beings that are gods in the Godhead. These three constitute the First Presidency or “Grand Presidency” of Heaven, with God the Father presiding. The objects of our worship are God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ; and also, in some sense, the Godhead as a whole (see Whom do we worship?). The existence of several Old Testament names for God is seen as supporting evidence for the three-persons Godhead; and the expression “I and my Father are one” expresses the same idea as when Christ said “that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us” (John 17:21). Because we believe that God the Father is an exalted man there is no difficulty in God the Father making his Son (Jesus Christ) equal to Himself.
The word Trinity is occasionally used by LDS Church leaders. In those cases it refers to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost as trinity in purpose--not triune in substance: The Apostle Charles W. Penrose said, “There is the oneness of Deity, the three in one; not as some preachers try to expound it, in the doctrines of the outside world…making them one immaterial spirit-no body, no real personage, no substance. On the contrary, they are three individuals, one in spirit, one in mind, one in intelligence, united in all things that they do, and it takes the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, to make the perfect Trinity in one, three persons and one God or Deity, one Godhead.” (Conference Report, Apr. 1921, pp. 13-14; taken from Hoyt W. Brewster, Doctrine and Covenants Encyclopedia, p. 396)
 Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, commentary on 1 Corinthians 8:4-6.
 “Trinity,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915).
 Originally the word “Catholic” referred to the Christian Church generally, not specifically to Roman Catholicism. This is how it should be understood in the Athanasian Creed.
 Strong’s Greek and Hebrew Concordance says of the word Elohim: “gods in the ordinary sense; but specifically used (in the plural thus, especially with the article) of the supreme God” (H430; parenthesis original).