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One of the major doctrines that critics of Mormonism say separates us from traditional or orthodox Christianity is the Trinity. And guess what? They’re right. Okay, here’s one of the biggies. This is perhaps THE biggest problem many folks have in admitting Mormons into their “Christian” club. This is despite the wise comment once made by Rich Buhler, host of the nationally syndicated Christian talk show “Table Talk” when he said,

I find it difficult to withhold Christian fellowship from another person just because his fuzzy understanding of the Trinity is different from my fuzzy understanding of it.[1]

I confess that in some respects I believe in a “different Jesus” from that of many of my dear friends who are part of the Protestant and Catholic “flavors” of Christianity. If their Jesus is one of the “three incomprehensibles yet one incomprehensible” described in some of the so-called Apostolic Creeds that define the traditional Trinity, then my Jesus is indeed different. My Jesus is firmly rooted in the New Testament, not in the creeds of the 4th and 5th centuries. So let me explain what I mean:

First of all, Mormons are not alone in our belief that the traditional “trinity” is not taught in the Bible:

Harper’s Bible Dictionary records that “the formal doctrine of the Trinity as it was defined by the great church councils of the fourth and fifth centuries is not to be found in the [New Testament].”[2]

How important is it to know the true nature of God? Many Christians are okay with accepting that the “trinity” is a “mystery”, and letting it go at that. But what did Jesus say?

“this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent”                                                                                                                                                 John 17:3

If our “life eternal” is at stake, is it okay to just leave the nature of God and Jesus a “mystery”? Not for me!

I believe in the Biblical godhead. As a Mormon I’ve been taught all my life to believe in God the Father, God the Son Jesus Christ and God the Holy Ghost. However, I must say that I do NOT believe in the man-made “trinity” that was formulated by the Hellenizers of Christianity hundreds of years after the close of the New Testament. This definition-of-God-by-councils became crystallized in the Nicene Creed (and revisions that followed it) and confused forever the persons of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. A friend of mine named Scott Giles said:

Joseph Smith’s First Vision when he saw God the Father and God the Son did more damage to the “orthodox” doctrine of the Trinity than anything else since Stephen’s vision in the New Testament.

Let’s compare the two accounts:

First here’s the testimony of Stephen:

“but he (Stephen), being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God. And said, behold I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God”  Acts. 7:55-56  31 A.D. 

And now here’s Joseph’s testimony:

When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other – “This is My Beloved Son, hear Him.” Joseph Smith History 1832 A.D.

They sound pretty similar, right? My personal belief in the Godhead is most clearly summed up in the first Article of Faith of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which reads:

We believe in God the Eternal Father, and in His son Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost. (First LDS Article of Faith)

Now that seems pretty “orthodox”, doesn’t it? Just like the New Testament Saints, Mormons believe that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. In fact, when I was baptized at the age of eight in the little LDS chapel in Columbus, Georgia, my baptism was performed “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” The same was said when I was married in the Salt Lake Temple to my beautiful bride.   That’s three persons in the Godhead, right?

And yet like the apostle Paul, we as Latter-day Saints “worship the One God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 8:6). So then why all the fuss? One God, three Persons. Don’t the LDS believe in the Trinity then, just like other Christians?

Well, not exactly… Here’s the official position (beyond what is stated above) of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

INSIDE MORMONISM

The Father has 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. Were it not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us. (Doctrine and Covenants 130:22)                                                                                             

THREE SEPARATE PERSONS – EACH IS GOD

As stated above, the Latter-day Saints believe like other Christians that there are three persons in the Godhead. Also, like other Christians, we believe that each of the three persons is equally God, and equally divine. In addition, like other Christians (although there is some confusion on this point among various faiths), we believe that God the Father is “positionally superior” to the other two members of the Godhead. Here are a couple of authoritative statements by modern apostles and prophets:

They are distinct beings, but they are one in purpose and effort. They are united as one in bringing to pass the grand, divine plan for the salvation and exaltation of the children of God. (Gordon B. Hinckley, Ensign, March 1998)

We believe these three divine persons constituting a single Godhead are united in purpose, in manner, in testimony, in mission. … 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, Ensign, Nov. 2007, p. 40)

OUTSIDE MORMONISM

Now let’s see what the critics say outside The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who delight in calling us a “non- Christian cult” because we don’t accept the exact “three-in-one” concept of the Godhead that is promulgated in the major creeds of historical Christendom. The Trinitarian formula seems to be their favorite “litmus test” to see who fits their definition of a Christian.

Here is a comment from Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr. President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary:

The orthodox consensus of the Christian church is defined in terms of its historic creeds and doctrinal affirmations. … the church has used these definitional doctrines as the standard for identifying true Christianity.

The Mormon doctrine of God does not correspond to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Mormonism rejects the central logic of this doctrine (one God in three eternal persons) and develops its own doctrine of God – a doctrine that bears practically no resemblance to Trinitarian theology.

Normative Christianity is defined by the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the other formulas of the doctrinal consensus.[3]

And yet this “normative Christianity” is still arguing over what the Trinity really means after almost two thousand years! Even the above-mentioned creeds have been debated and revised time after time over the centuries by one church council after another. The so-called “central logic” of the doctrine of the Trinity is not logic at all, but a blind acceptance of the fuzzy thinking by religious philosophers that originated back before medieval doctors used leeches to treat sicknesses.

THE TRINITY IS NOT FOUND IN THE BIBLE

Where does the doctrine of the “Trinity” come from, anyway? We know the word “Trinity” is not in the Bible.   It seems to have been first used in the Latin form “trinitas” by the lawyer-turned-theologian Tertullian around 211 A.D, over 100 years after the deaths of the Apostles.   The New Catholic Encyclopedia indicates that a solid Trinitarian doctrine was not “derived” and “combined” into “orthodoxy” by the whole Catholic church until at least another hundred years:

“the formulation of “one God in three Persons’ was not solidly established, certainly not fully assimilated into Christian life and its profession of faith, prior to the end of the 4th century. . . .

Among the Apostolic Fathers, there had been nothing even remotely approaching such a mentality or perspective.” [4]

Other Christian sources agree:

On the other hand, we must honestly admit that the doctrine of the Trinity did NOT form part of the early Christian-New Testament message. Certainly, it cannot be denied that not only the word “Trinity,” but even the EXPLICIT IDEA of the Trinity is absent from the apostolic witness of the faith.. The doctrine of the Trinity itself, … is NOT a Biblical Doctrine…” [5]

Some of the crucial concepts employed by these creeds, such as “substance,” “person,” and “in two natures” are postbiblical novelties. If these particular notions are essential, the doctrines of these creeds are clearly conditional, dependent on the late Hellenistic milieu.” [6]

MODALISM – AN ANCIENT HERESY

From the conversations I’ve had, it seems that a lot of Christians resolve the “mystery” of the Trinity in their own minds by falling into the old heresy of Sabellianism, also known as “Modalism” – the notion that there is really only one being called God who is manifested at different times in the “mode” of either the Father, the Son, or the Holy Ghost. Sabellius was a theologian and priest from the third century who taught that God put on three different “faces” or “masks” (Latin “personae”) to appear to mortals at times as different members of the Godhead. I’ve found that many (most?) everyday Christians who don’t understand the finer theological and philosophical arguments for the Trinitarian creeds are left with a Modalistic view of God.

A comment on one early example of this heresy was made by Hippolytus (170-235 A.D.)

“Some others are secretly introducing another doctrine, who have become disciples of one Noetus ,… He alleged that Christ was the Father Himself, and that the Father Himself was born, and suffered, and died….But the case stands not thus; for the Scriptures do not set forth the matter in this manner….the Scriptures themselves confute their senselessness, and attest the truth…The Scriptures speak what is right” [7]

WAS THE BIBLE CHANGED TO SUPPORT TRINITARIAN DOCTRINE?

In the baseball record books if you place an asterisk next to a statistic it means there is some question about it. So it is with 1 John 5:7-8 which says:

“For there are three that bear record [in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth], the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.

This verse contains some extra words (in bold and brackets above) known to Bible scholars as the “Johannine Comma” (also called the Comma Johanneum) that appear in some early printed editions of the Greek New Testament that were source material for the King James Version.

However these extra words are generally absent from the handwritten Greek manuscripts.

The well-known Biblical scholar Norman Geisler wrote:

This verse has virtually no support among the early Greek manuscripts . . . Its appearance in late Greek manuscripts is based on the fact that Erasmus was placed under ecclesiastical pressure to include it in his Greek NT of 1522, having omitted it in his two earlier editions of 1516 and 1519 because he could not find any Greek manuscripts which contained it. [8]

Theology professors Anthony and Richard Hanson explain the unwarranted addition to the text this way:

It was added by some enterprising person or persons in the ancient Church who felt that the New Testament was sadly deficient in direct witness to the kind of doctrine of the Trinity which he favoured and who determined to remedy that defect . . . It is a waste of time to attempt to read Trinitarian doctrine directly off the pages of the New Testament[9]

THE MYSTERY OF THE TRINITY SOLVED

The Mormon understanding of the “oneness” of the members of the Godhead is easily explained in the context of John chapter 17 where Jesus prayed to his Father that the twelve apostles and his other disciples be one even as he and the Father are one:

Holy Father, keep through Thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are. … Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one;                                                                                     John 17:11-23

Based on Scripture, LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley stated the solution to the Trinitarian “mystery”. I mentioned it before but it bears repeating here:

They are distinct beings, but they are one in purpose and effort. They are united as one in bringing to pass the grand, divine plan for the salvation and exaltation of the children of God. (Gordon B. Hinckley, Ensign, March 1998)

ONE IN PURPOSE

Although most non-Mormon Christians still cling to the Trinitarian creedal statements that the three members of the godhead are one in “essence” or “nature”, some of them seem to have reached an understanding through Bible study, reason and logic that the members of the godhead are “one” in purpose. This is similar to what Mormons have learned through modern prophetic revelation.

The following is from a discussion of John 10:30 which says: “I and my Father are one”. (bold emphasis is mine)

The Christian scholar J. H. Bernard, in his commentary on John, explicitly takes this position:

A unity of fellowship, of will, and of purpose between the Father and the Son is a frequent theme in the Fourth Gospel (cf. 5:18,19; 14:9,23 and 17:11,22), and it is tersely and powerfully expressed here; but to press the words so as to make them indicate identity of OUSIA, is to introduce thoughts which were not present to the theologians of the first century. [10]

Similarly, R. V. G. Tasker, in his commentary on John, says that although the orthodox church fathers cited this verse in support of the doctrine that Christ was of one substance with the Father,

“the statement seems however mainly to imply that the Father and the Son are united in will and purpose” [11]

Even John Calvin wrote:

The ancients made a wrong use of this passage (John 10:30) 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. [12]

SUMMARY

Critics of “Mormonism” continually say that the LDS belief in three separate members of the Godhead is “another gospel”, when in fact it is found explicitly taught in John’s gospel, chapter 17. It is the mystical “triune” god that is the product of “another gospel” derived by the Hellenistic philosopher/ theologians over 300 years after the time of Christ.

 

THE END

 

(This article is excerpted from Robert Starling’s new book: Really Inside Mormonism: Confessions of a Mere Latter-day Christian. It is available in both print and electronic versions on Amazon.com and soon to be in other LDS and Christian bookstores. For more information contact him at:   starlingrd@msn.com.)

ENDNOTES

[1] Recorded by the author from broadcast on radio station KBRT in Los Angeles, CA
[2] Paul F. Achtemeier, ed. (1985), 1099; emphasis added.
[3] http://www.christianity.com/home/christian living features
[4] R. L. Richard, “Trinity, Holy,” in New Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967), 14:299.
[5] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1949 pp. 205 & 236
[6] George A. Lindbeck, Professon of Historical Theology, Yale University, The Nature of Doctrine, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984, p. 92
[7] (Against the Heresy of One Noetus, 1-4, 7-9)
[8] Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, 2008, pp. 540-541
[9] Reasonable Belief: A Survey of the Christian Faith, (1980, p. 171)
[10] (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. John, International Critical Commentaries [Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1928]).
[11] (The Gospel According to St. John, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960], 136). Other commentators make similar statements.
[12] (Commentary on the Gospel According to John, trans. William Pringle [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949; orig. 1847], 416).

Appendix 2       THE DOCTRINE OF THE TRINITY IS NOT FOUND IN THE BIBLE

Although critics of Mormonism constantly use their “orthodox” belief in the Trinitarian creeds as a litmus test to exclude The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from their definition of a “Christian” faith, numerous Christian scholars and theologians have stated that the doctrine of the Trinity is not in found in the Bible.   Thus the believers of the Trinitarian creeds do not pass their own test of “sola scriptura”. Here are a few examples: (emphasis mine)

  • In the New Testament we do not find the doctrine of the Trinity in anything like its developed form, not even in the Pauline and Johannine theology

(Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics, James Hastings, Trinity, p 458)

  • In the immediate post New Testament period of the Apostolic Fathers no attempt was made to work out the God-Christ (Father-Son) relationship in ontological terms. By the end of the fourth century, and owing mainly to the challenge posed by various heresies, theologians went beyond the immediate testimony of the Bible and also beyond liturgical and creedal expressions of Trinitarian faith to the ontological trinity of coequal persons “within” God. The shift is from function to ontology, from the “economic trinity” (Father, Son, and Spirit in relation to us) to the “immanent” or “essential Trinity” (Father, Son, and Spirit in relation to each other).   … By the close of the fourth century the orthodox teaching was in place: God is one nature, three persons (mia ousia, treis hupostaseis).

(The Encyclopedia of Religion, Mircea Eliade, Trinity, Vol 15, p53-57)

  • Of a doctrine of the Trinity in the strict sense there is of course no sign, although the Church’s triadic formula left its mark everywhere.”

(Early Christian Doctrines, J.N.D. Kelly, p. 95)

  • The doctrine of the Triune God has had an amazing history. Convinced that this doctrine is a Christian doctrine that did and could originate only from divine revelation, I start the study from the authentic record of divine revelation that is found in the sacred writings of the Old and New Testaments. What does the Old Testament tell us of God? It tells us there is one God, a wonderful God of life and love and righteousness and power and glory and mystery, who is the creator and lord of the whole universe, who is intensely concerned with the tiny people of Israel. It tells us of His Word, Wisdom. Spirit, of the Messiah He will send, of a Son of Man and a Suffering Servant to come. But it tells us nothing explicitly or by necessary implication of a Triune God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

If we take the New Testament writers together they tell us there is only one God, the creator and lord of the universe, who is the Father of Jesus. They call Jesus the Son of God, Messiah, Lord, Savior, Word, Wisdom. They assign Him the divine functions of creation, salvation, judgment. Sometimes they call Him God explicitly. They do not speak as fully and clearly of the Holy Spirit as they do of the Son, but at times they coordinate Him with the Father and the Son and put Him on a level with them as far as divinity and personality are concerned. They give us in their writings a triadic ground plan and triadic formulas. They do not speak in abstract terms of nature, substance, person, relation, circumcision, mission, but they present in their own ways the ideas that are behind these terms. They give us no formal or formulated doctrine of the Trinity, no explicit teaching that in one God there are three co-equal divine persons. But they do give us an elemental Trinitarianism, the data from which such a formal doctrine of the Triune God may be formulated. To study the gradual transition from an unformulated Biblical witness to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to a dogmatic formulation of a doctrine of the Triune God, we look first to the Eastern Church where most of this development took place.

The Apostolic Fathers were witnesses to the Biblical data and the traditional faith rather than theologians, but they furnished useful insights into the lines along which the Church’s unconscious theology was developing. Most of them indicated quite clearly a belief in the divinity of Christ, less clearly a belief in the distinct personality and divinity of the Holy Spirit. They gave solid evidence of a belief in three pre-existent ‘beings,’ but they furnished no Trinitarian doctrine, no awareness of a Trinitarian problem.

(The Triune God, Edmund Fortman, p6)

  • “Question of Continuity and Elemental Trinitarianism: From what has been seen thus far, the impression could arise that the Trinitarian dogma is in the last analysis a late 4th-century invention. In a sense, this is true; but it implies an extremely strict interpretation of the key words Trinitarian and dogma. The formulation “one God in three Persons” was not solidly established, certainly not fully assimilated into Christian life and its profession of faith, prior to the end of the 4th century. But it is precisely this formulation that has first claim to the title the Trinitarian dogma. Among the Apostolic Fathers, there had been nothing even remotely approaching such a mentality or perspective; among the 2d-century Apologists, little more than a focusing of the problem as that of plurality within the unique Godhead. … From the vocabulary and grammar of the Greek original, the intention of the hagiographer to communicate singleness of essence in three distinct Persons was easily derived. … If it is clear on one side that the dogma of the Trinity in the stricter sense of the word was a late arrival, product of 3 centuries’ reflection and debate, it is just as clear on the opposite side that confession of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit-and hence an elemental Trinitarianism-went back to the period of Christian origins.

(New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1965, Trinity, p299-300)

  • THE DOGMA of the Trinity-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. … In Scripture there is as yet no single term by which the Three Divine Persons are denoted together. The word [tri’as] (of which the Latin trinitas is a translation) is first found in Theophilus of Antioch about A. D. 180. He speaks of “the Trinity of God [the Father], His Word and His Wisdom” (“Ad. Autol.”, 11, 15, P. G., VI, 1078). The term may, of course, have been in use before his time. Shortly afterwards it appears in its Latin form of trinitas in Tertullian. … it has no place in the Liberal Protestantism of today. The writers of this school contend that the doctrine of the Trinity, as professed by the Church, is not contained in the New Testament, but that it was first formulated in the second century and received final approbation in the fourth, as the result of the Arian and Macedonian controversies.

(The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1912, Vol. 15, p 47-49)

  • the greatest and most influential of the Christian Fathers, Origen, Athanasius, Basil and the Gregories, Augustine, all acknowledged that, for all the light thrown upon it in the Biblical revelation, the divine Nature remained for them a mystery transcending reason. (Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics, James Hastings, Trinity, p 461)
  • “The doctrine of the Trinity did not form part of the apostles’ preaching, as this is reported in the New Testament.”

(Encyclopedia International, Ian Henderson, University of Glasgow, 1969, page 226)

  • “The word Trinity is not found in the Bible, and, though used by Tertullian in the last decade of the 2nd century, it did not find a place formally in the theology of the Church till the 4th century.

(New Bible Dictionary, J. D. Douglas & F. F. Bruce, Trinity, p 1298)

  • It was the custom in former times for theologians to blend their own speculations and those of others with the statement of the Bible doctrine.

(McClintock and Strong: Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, vol x, Trinity, p 551-553)

  • The trinity of God is defined by the Church as the belief that in God are three persons who subsist in one nature. The belief as so defined was reached only in the 4th and 5th centuries AD and hence is not explicitly and formally a biblical belief. The trinity of persons within the unity of nature is defined in terms of “person” and “nature” which are Gk philosophical terms; actually the terms do not appear in the Bible. The trinitarian definitions arose as the result of long controversies in which these terms and others such as “essence” and “substance” were erroneously applied to God by some theologians. … (Dictionary of the Bible, John L. McKenzie, Trinity, p899)
  • The NT does not contain the developed doctrine of the Trinity.… All this underlines the point that primitive Christianity did not have an explicit doctrine of the Trinity such as was subsequently elaborated in the creeds of the early church.”

(New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Brown, Colin, 1932, God, vol 2, p84, J. Schneider)

  • “Because the Trinity is such an important part of later Christian doctrine, it is striking that the term does not appear in the New Testament. Likewise, the developed concept of three coequal partners in the Godhead found in later creedal formulations cannot be clearly detected within the confines of the canon. While there are other New Testament texts where God, Jesus, and the Spirit are referred to in the same passage (e.g., Jude 20-21), it is important to avoid reading the Trinity into places where it does not appear.

(Oxford Companion to the Bible, Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, Trinity, p 782)