The Godhead: God or Gods?
In this post I will explore the LDS concept of the Godhead and God, and give a justification for our use of monotheistic language.
Related Posts: The Nature of Christ ; Whom do we Worship? ; The Trinity ; Is Mormonism Christian? ; The First Vision ; Whence God? Talking about God
Our first article of faith says, “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost” (AoF 1:1). These persons constitute the Godhead. Along with our Christian cousins we believe Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are distinct from each other. Where we differ is in how we constitute the persons of the Godhead, both individually and as God. The orthodox Godhead consists of one divine essence; the persons of the Trinity are of this essence; thus each is God. It would thus be inappropriate to think of the Godhead as a tripartite counsel: for there is only one God. In the Mormon view the Godhead is definitely tritheistic—it consist of three beings who is each a God. Joseph Smith taught,
[An] everlasting covenant was made between three personages before the organization of this earth…[they] are called God the first, the Creator; God the second, the Redeemer; and God the third, the witness or Testator. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 190)
On another occasion he said that Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, “constitute three distinct personages and three Gods” (Ibid., p. 370). Thus we sometimes talk of the Godhead as a presidency. Elder Bruce R. McConkie (Apostle; d. 1985) wrote, “Three glorified, exalted, and perfected personages comprise the Godhead or supreme presidency of the universe” (“Godhead,” Mormon Doctrine). LDS Apostle Orson Pratt (d. 1881) explained it this way,
The Godhead may be illustrated by a council, consisting of three men-all possessing equal wisdom, knowledge and truth, together with equal qualifications in every respect. Each person would be a separate distinct person or substance from the other two, and yet the three would form but one council. Each alone possesses, by supposition, the same wisdom and truth that the three united or the one council possesses. (Cited from B. H. Roberts, Seventy's Course in Theology, Vol. 5, p. 45 )
Though we believe the Godhead consists of three distinct persons, each a God, it is taken for granted that they share an intimate unity. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism (EOM) says,
Jesus’ declarations that he and the Father are “one,” and to know one is to know the other, indicate that the unity or “oneness” of the Godhead—in purpose and mind and testifying of one another—is of primary worth and seems to diminish the importance of making distinctions among its members. (“God the Father: Names and Titles”)
In researching for this post I found that General Authorities often used words like union, harmony, indwelling, oneness, and divine nature when describing the internal unity of the members of the Godhead. B. H. Roberts (General Authority; d. 1933) wrote, “This oneness is…a oneness of mind, of knowledge, of wisdom, of purpose, of will.” According to Roberts the meaning of this oneness is found in Jesus’ prayer, “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). According to Roberts, “as Jesus found the indwelling Spirit of God within himself, so he would have that same Spirit indwelling in his disciples…and in this way become of one mind, actuated by one will…this is the explanation of the mystery of the oneness both of the Godhead and of the disciples” (The Mormon Doctrine of Deity, Ch. 2).
But if the Godhead is tritheistic why do we talk about God and not Gods? Robert’s explanation represents typical Mormon thinking, but it falls short of explaining our monotheistic language. The same EOM article says, “Among Latter-day Saints, the title ‘God’ generally identifies God the Father. Occasionally, God may refer to the unified Godhead of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (cf. 2 Ne. 31:21; D&C 20:28) and at times to each member individually (AF, pp. 159-63)” (Ibid.). When we talk of God we often intended to mean the Father, or Son, or (rarely) Holy Ghost, or (very rarely) the Godhead. What the EOM omits is the fact that Mormons frequently talk of God in the sense of God-as-a-person, lacking any identifying qualification. It is purely monotheistic language. Simply pointing out that the oneness “is of primary worth” and that there is a “diminish[ed]…importance of making distinctions” does not explain enough. I once asked my LDS roommate who we worship. He quickly replied, “God.” (See Whom Do We Worship?)
So how can we speak of God when we believe there are three Gods in the Godhead? Similar language is found in the Book of Mormon. This passage from the book of Alma mentions God the Father, and then says that Father, Son, and Holy Ghost is one God. We are “arraigned before the bar of Christ the Son, and God the Father, and the Holy Spirit, which is one Eternal God” (Alma 11:44). This indicates that the Father has primacy; but also that Father, Son, and Holy Ghost constitute an Eternal God. Other passages also express unity in the Godhead. In 3 Nephi chapter 11, “the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost are one” (3 Nephi 11:27); and in 2 Nephi the doctrine of Christ is the only true doctrine “of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, which is one God” (2 Nephi 31:21). So how can we justify our monotheistic language? A passage from the book of Mosiah is illustrative. The prophet Abinadi taught that the Father and Son are “one God, yea, the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth” (Mosiah 15:4). The transition from Father and Son, to them being “one God…the Eternal Father” indicates that though separate there is divine unity. In the case of Abinadi’s statement, their unity is such that in relation to heaven and earth they are “the Eternal Father.” Their oneness is relational: In isolation there can be no unity. But their uniqueness is also relational: There is no father without a son. In a similar sense, the judgment bar consists of God the Father, Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit; and being thusly united they are designated as “one Eternal God.” And in the doctrine “of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,” thusly united they are “one God.” Their oneness is typically mentioned with qualifications of “the Father of,” “the true doctrine of,” “the bar of,” or in connection with the baptismal formula (3 Nephi 11:25-27), or bearing witness (3 Nephi 11:36; Ether 5:4), or singing praises (Mormon 7:7).
This is my way of understanding our “nondescript” monotheistic language. When the Gods of the Godhead determine a course of action, it is not three separate judgments which have the same conclusion. There is only one judgment, the judgment of God (Alma 58:9; 2 Nephi 25:3; D&C 19:12-13). Though each person of the Godhead loves us with perfect love, their love is not three separate loves that happen to agree. Because of their unity it is only God’s love (1 John 4:7-8; 2 Cor. 9:7). Similarly, because of their intimate unity we can speak of the mind of God (Moses 4:6), the will of God (2 Nephi 10:24), “God who knoweth all things” (Mormon 8:17), and the work of God (D&C 8:8). The same is true for the goodness of God, the commandments of God, the mercy of God, the justice of God, the power of God, the plan of God, the anger of God, the voice of God, the gift of God, the righteousness of God, and the greatness of God—which are all scriptural phrases. Also, the church is not co-owned by the three persons of the Godhead. They preside in a unitive harmony. So we have the “church and fold of God” (2 Nephi 9:2). Because of their unity they cannot act inharmoniously. So Nephi is justified in saying, “God hath been my support” (2 Nephi 4:20). And so is Alma in saying, “O God, thou hast been merciful unto me, and heard my cries” (Alma 33:9).
Because the Godhead consists of three divine persons who act with unitive harmony we are comfortable with passages such as, “the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3); “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1-2); Jesus Christ is the “Only Begotten of the Father” (Alma 5:48) and also the “Son of God” (Matt. 16:16); in Christ the “entire fullness of God’s nature dwells bodily” (HCSB, Col. 2:9); and “For the Father himself loveth you, because ye have loved me, and have believed that I came out from God” (John 16:27).
The source of our monotheistic language is our understanding of the divine harmony that is present in the Godhead. I see our use of the word ‘God’ as a blurring of the individual natures of the persons of the Godhead focusing on their shared attributes. It is not a mere personification of common attributes or an anthropogenic description of unity. Our monotheistic language is not empty. In many ways they act as one. God may be then thought of as a strong synonym for the united Godhead. And being thusly united we may speak of God --a sort of cursive God. For example, this verse from the Doctrine and Covenants, “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God, infinite and eternal, without end” (D&C 20:28).
Some people are under the impression that we believe in a social trinity. On occasion our monotheistic language coupled with our doctrine of the Godhead seems to beg social trinitarianism. But even though our language sometimes approaches it, our theology does not. Social trinitarians argue passionately that a social trinity is not tritheistic. But in the Mormon conception the Godhead consists of three beings who is each a God, who in many ways think and act as one; the exact nature of their unity has never been made explicit, but one could say it is more like a tritheistic social trinity. Because the exact nature of their unity is unclear there is room for personal belief and a few Mormons have adopted a social trinity for their model of the Godhead God. But even so, there are differences in language. Social trinitarians would be comfortable with “there are three persons in the Godhead, each fully divine.” Whereas a Mormon would say, “there are three persons in the Godhead, each a God.” I suppose if one wanted to downplay “a God” to mean “a divine person” then our monotheistic language would be along the lines of a social trinity; I’m not sure there is a difference between being fully divine and being a God—one criticism of the social trinity is that it is tritheistic leaning. Personally, I think their unity is such that our monotheistic language is justified, but I do not adopt social trinitarianism.
There are a few parallels between the Mormon conception of the Godhead and the traditional Christian one: both consist of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; the Son is “subordinate” to the Father, and the Holy Ghost “subordinate” to the Father and Son; and they are distinct from each other. The starkest difference is that we believe there are three Gods in the Godhead. In the traditional Godhead Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are of the same substance: hence the Athanasian Creed says, “we are forbidden…to say, There are three Gods,” and emphasizes that there is “neither confounding the Persons nor dividing the Substance.” In the Mormon conception the members of the Godhead are not of the same substance: “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost…is a personage of Spirit” (D&C 130:22).
Ultimately our understanding of the unity of the Godhead is limited by the fact that describing the divine is drawn from and limited by human experience and language. Because knowledge of God is revealed—not derived—our language is heavily analogical. When it comes to comprehending the nature of God, we see “through a glass, darkly” and “know in part” (1 Cor. 13:12); we can only partially apprehend the interior life and unity of the Godhead.
 Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. has described three conditions for sound social trinitarianism:
“(1) The theory must have Father, Son, and Spirit as distinct centers of knowledge, will, love, and action. Since each of these capacities requires consciousness, it follows that, on this sort of theory, Father, Son, and Spirit would be viewed as distinct centers of consciousness or, in short, as persons in some full sense of that term. (2) Any accompanying sub-theory of divine simplicity must be modest enough to be consistent with condition (1), that is, with the real distinctness of Trinitarian persons….(3) Father, Son, and spirit must be regarded as tightly enough related to each other so as to render plausible the judgment that they constitute a particular social unit. In such social monotheism, it will be appropriate to use the designator God to refer to the whole Trinity” (“Social Trinity and Tritheism,” Trinity, incarnation, atonement: philosophical and theological essays, p. 22; italics original).
 Blake Ostler has argued that “a more adequate and consistent understanding of God in Mormon scriptures is Social Trinitarianism” (“Re-vision-ing the Mormon Concept of Deity,” Element, Vol. 1, No. 1). See also Jacob Hawken's Philosophy Blog and Mormon Metaphysics.
 I am basing this on the Westminster Confession,
In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost (Matt. 3:16-17; Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14; 1 John 5:7). The Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding: the Son is eternally begotten of the Father: the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son (John 1:14, John 1:18). (WC 2:3)