“But whom do you say that I am?”

I first heard the following chestnut as a teenager. Though it is sometimes shared by miscellaneous kinds of Christians (often as a humorous but good-natured anecdote meant to show how confusing the Trinity can be), it was first introduced to me by a Mormon friend who wanted to show me that belief in the Trinity was ridiculous. It reads as follows:

“Whom do men say that I am?”

And his disciples answered and said, “Some say you are John the Baptist returned from the dead; others say Elias, or other of the old prophets.”

And Jesus answered and said, “But whom do you say that I am?”

Peter answered and said: “Thou art the Logos, existing in the Father as his rationality and then, by an act of his will, being generated, in consideration of the various functions by which God is related to his creation, but only on the fact that Scripture speaks of a Father, and a Son, and a Holy Spirit, each member of the Trinity being coequal with every other member, and each acting inseparably with and interpenetrating every other member, with only an economic subordination within God, but causing no division which would make the substance no longer simple.”

And Jesus answering said “What??

The joke was recently posted to the comments of an LDS scholar’s blog, with the scholar who runs the blog calling it, “A wonderful joke, and right on target.”

For my own part, I find nothing “wonderful” about the joke. It’s fine as a humorous bit of self-deprecation, but Mormons who use it in an attempt to make some kind of serious point about how far removed 4th century Nicene Christianity was from the faith founded by Jesus do so at their own peril. Case in point:

“Whom do men say that I am?”

And his disciples answered and said, “Some say you are John the Baptist returned from the dead; others say Elias, or other of the old prophets.”

And Jesus answered and said, “But whom do you say that I am?”

Peter answered, “Thou art the brother of Satan, and the son of the Father and his goddess wife or one of his goddess wives, we know not, who in turn is the son of his Father, who is the son of his Father, on into eternity unto an endless line of gods and their goddess wives, and thou art also the son of Mary, who didst conceive thee through carnal intercourse with the Father, being both his daughter and his wife, and thou and thy Father art white and delightsome, not bearing a skin of blackness like unto the cursed lineage of Cain and Ham, and thou art also a polygamist, as attested to in this excellent painting by Del Parson.”

And Jesus answering said “What??

Are all of these things taught and believed by Mormons today? Almost never. But of the six Mormon teachings about Jesus and the Father which my rewriting of the joke highlights, one is found in Mormon scripture, four have been expressly taught by Mormon apostles and prophets, and one has at least been heavily suggested by common LDS artwork and other teachings of LDS prophets and apostles. [1] All are intentionally wrenched from their context in order to present them in the most derisive form possible—just as the Trinity joke does with different explanations of the Trinity.

Glass house, meet stone.

———-

[1] I am not certain whether or not LDS leaders have ever expressly taught that God the Father has white skin. But they have taught that white was the skin color of the chosen and privileged lineage, and LDS artwork routinely depicts God the Father and Christ as fairly Caucasian.

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About Ms. Jack

My name is Bridget Jack Jeffries and I am a graduate student and human resources assistant living in Palatine, Illinois. I hold a BA in classics from Brigham Young University with a minor in Hebrew and I am currently pursuing my MA in American religious history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. I am a member of the Evangelical Covenant Church and a single mother of two.

49 thoughts on ““But whom do you say that I am?”

  1. “At their own peril“? Why not view both versions of the joke as wonderful and right on target? The fact that the joke can cut both ways only increases its value.

  2. Problem is that the two jokes are not really parallel.

    The Trinity version talks about what Christ is.

    The Mormon version merely talks about his circumstances.

    It would be like comparing these two statements:

    1. I am a human being

    and

    2. I am sitting in a hotel room

    The first has to do with identity – the second does not. Likewise, the Mormon rendition doesn’t have to do with intrinsic identity. In the first joke, Peter is answering the question, in the second he seems rather to be avoiding the question entirely.

  3. It is maddening when Mormons ridicule the Trinity without really engaging with it, as if saying “HAW HAW THAT’S COMPLICATED SO IT IS FALSE,” as if just saying the Trinity is incoherent over and over again, combined with a Brigham Youngish frontier no-nonsense obstinate refusal to even really grapple with it somehow actually refutes the doctrine, given that, at the same time, saying “I don’t understand how the atonement works” may as well be a Mormon shibboleth.

  4. Ms. Jack said:

    Mormons who use it … do so at their own peril.

    It isn’t hard to find examples of bad apologetics that involve setting a different standard for the other folks than what one sets for oneself.

    I’m reminded of an article I read recently written by an evangelical who roundly criticized the Book of Mormon, claiming that modern DNA studies as well as archaeology prove that the Book of Mormon can’t be true. Although he overstated his case (my own view is that the Book of Mormon is essentially unfalsifiable with our current state of scientific knowledge, but that’s an argument for another time), there is nothing wrong with using such science as part of an argument. However, such as argument doesn’t fly very well coming from an anti-Darwinian activist who has praised the scientific accuracy of the first three chapters of Genesis.

  5. The problem I have always had with the Trinity is that it holds itself out to be the most important truth in Christianity, yet the scriptures are ambiguous about these issues and it seems to be merely a best-fit solution cobbled together with 3rd and 4th century philosophy and conventional wisdom. The certainty and orthodoxy are what’s unnerving and silly to Mormons. Putting it into Jesus’ mouth makes it funny.

    The second joke is also funny. But most of what Mormons believe about God and theology is open for debate and discussion. . There are lots of different views in Mormonism, and thus no certain ones. Mormons can take the words out of Jesus’ mouth (unlike Trinitarians). I think Brigham Young did Mormonism a favor with his nonsense–he made it impossible for Mormons to reasonably dismiss almost any view about God.

    In the end its all funny–if offensive. There is no reference outside of what Jesus and his believers to tell us what is going on behind the scenes with Him and God. Putting these careful formulations and explicit unknowable details in Jesus’ mouth is comical. The Trinity is simply conventional wisdom, Mormonism is a collage of unconventional equally incoherent views that reject the idea that conventional wisdom can be authoritative. Trinitarians must come to terms with the idea that this doctrine is not much more than a tradition, and Mormons have to come to terms with the idea that, contrary to their opinions, their ideas about God are equally silly sounding when carefully picked apart.

  6. Sorry, I guess the jokes put the words into Peter’s mouth, not Jesus’–It might be funnier if Jesus inserted them in the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are those that understand philosophy well enough for the careful formulation Trinity to matter to them.”

  7. The Trinity is simply conventional wisdom

    I think the history of the doctrine of the Trinity’s formulation undermines this statement.

  8. It might be even funnier if Jesus responds to Peter’s response, “Bonehead. If you have seen me you have seen the Father. I and the Father are one. You crazy knucklehead.”

  9. I’m also baffled by the notion that trying to understand the nature of God is somehow irrelevant for our salvation, in light of John 17:3.

  10. “I think the history of the doctrine of the Trinity’s formulation undermines this statement.”

    I have never heard of any experimental evidence for the Trinity. It seems to fit the definition of conventional wisdom.

  11. Trinitarians must come to terms with the idea that this doctrine is not much more than a tradition

    That’s an equally regrettable statement as the one Kullervo highlighted. Not from a Mormon point of view (or for anyone who simply wants to brush the Trinity aside), but it fails to actually engage the notion, the history and the scriptural argument.

    One of the reasons Christianity has treated the Trinity so seriously is because what Christianity says about the nature of God IS the most important thing it has to say. All of its other doctrines are established by those core ideas. The same is true of Mormonism. (see “The Deep Things of God” by Fred Sanders)

    Kind of reminds me of the quip that bipartisanship means “Republicans finally coming to the same conclusion as Democrats.” If the nature of God is unimportant to Mormons, then why not come into agreement with historic Christianity on the issue of the Trinity?

  12. Seth, If you’re going to break the jokes down like that you’re both ruining the jokes and missing the point of Jack’s post.

  13. On conventional wisdom and the Trinity- I agree that the doctrine of the Trinity is critically important to Christianity and is probably the reason Christianity is what is it is today–the most popular religion on the planet. But equally, the certainty associated with the doctrine and its finality are not supportable by either the scriptural evidence, reason, or experiment. There are a lot of extremely important ideas that are this way–human rights, for example.

    Joseph Smith said something important by fully rejecting the trinity because it is “the philosophies of men mingled with scripture.” Mormons demonstrate something important by experiencing Christianity while rejecting the Trinity. I don’t think this, in itself, makes the concept of a creed and the sanctity of the Trinity any less important to most of Christianity. But I do think that it shatters the illusion that the most successful ideas are the only way to think about things.

  14. That our reason has a hard time discerning the Members of the Trinity and their relationship to one another is one of the reasons that the doctrine of the Trinity was hammered out by the early Christians. And to keep in place the idea that Christ does have the authority that He claims…to forgive sins and grant new life in Himself.

    This class goes over the early heresies that denied that authority and gives background to why the Creeds were formulated to nail this Trinitarian view down to the floor.

    http://theoldadam.files.wordpress.com/2012/04/trinitarian-and-christological-controversies.mp3

    Some good stuff there.

  15. what Christianity says about the nature of God IS the most important thing it has to say.

    I actually disagree. I think what Christianity has to say about life is more important.

  16. Tradition as opposed to a belief whose weight is based on things other than general assent over a period of time such as experimental evidence, explicit confirmation by primary sources, corroboration by independent sources, etc.

    Without tradition, the Trinity is a theory, not a creed.

  17. I actually disagree. I think what Christianity has to say about life is more important.

    Great, but that’s not what Christianity thinks is the most important thing it has to say.

  18. Tradition as opposed to a belief whose weight is based on things other than general assent over a period of time such as experimental evidence, explicit confirmation by primary sources, corroboration by independent sources, etc.

    Traditions don’t just materialize out of the air. They first come into being based on something else. The weight of assent over time is in addition to the weight based on whatever the tradition was based on in the first place.

  19. right, and the Trinity is a tradition based upon another tradition.

    Great, but that’s not what Christianity thinks is the most important thing it has to say.

    I think the Trinity is better described as the most important thing Trinitarian Christians want to say about Christianity.

  20. I think the history of the doctrine of the Trinity should give anyone a respect for what Church leaders at the time were trying to do – realizing that it accomplished something monumental and important. Even if you’re a Mormon and believe in an apostasy, you must consider how pivotal it was to sew up the divinity of Jesus and unite the Church of the time. Without it, there’s likely a very watered down Christianity in America (maybe the Reformation doesn’t even happen!) and no questioning Smith boy entering a grove of trees. FWIW.

    It would also be helpful for people to realize that there were at least some political motivations at play and that the end product is extra-biblical on more than one point.

  21. Tim, can you demonstrate for me how the notion of Trinity informs the idea of Christ’s Atonement? Because to me it is the Atonement, not the Trinity that is the most crucial message of Christianity.

  22. For the record, I don’t usually let my Christian interlocutors get away with labeling this debate as being “about the Trinity.”

    It isn’t.

    It’s about homioousis.

  23. Tim, can you demonstrate for me how the notion of Trinity informs the idea of Christ’s Atonement? Because to me it is the Atonement, not the Trinity that is the most crucial message of Christianity.

    Why? Why is the atonement the most crucial message of Christianity? Where did you get that notion? Mormons think so, and Mormons say so all the time. And lots of Protestants do too (Scot McKnight characterizes this as “the soterian gospel” and points out a lot of major problems with it), but it’s not self-evident or plainly evident from the Bible, and it has not been “the most crucial message of Christianity” for all of Christian history.

    I’m not denying the importance of the Atonement by any means; please do not understand. But reducing the gospel message to the Atonement is, well, reductionist. The Bible says Jesus preached the gospel of the kingdom, but you have to look pretty hard to see Jesus spelling out the Atonement.

    I think that the central message of Christianity is that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, and in Jesus, the Kingdom of God has arrived.

    Now, when we unpack that, we come very quickly to the nature of God (the Trinity), the nature of the universe (Creation), the entry of God into the universe (the Incarnation), God’s redemptive work within the created universe (the Atonement and the Resurrection), and God’a ultimate plans for the created universe (whatever that may be), but those aren’t where the message starts.

  24. Seth, the Doctrine of the Trinity is homoousios. A non-homoousian “trinity” is no longer the Doctrine of the Trinity.

  25. Kullervo, that seems more like rhetoric-wars to me. Words are not particularly useful when stripped of their ability to convey information. Most people – even less-educated – can derive a sort of “three features” notion from the word Trinity.

    Hardly anyone – even most Christians – is going to view the word homoousios as being a part of the definition.

    Kind of like the “cult” thing.

    “Oh, I actually meant the word “cult” as being a heretical faction outside the Nicene tradition – read this treatise from obscure professor somebody…..”

    I don’t buy it – I think the word is much broader than the attempts of one faction to control it to mean something more narrow.

    And thanks for the reference Tim.

  26. Right. “The Trinity,” referring to the historic doctrine of Christianity, means homoousios. It’s a technical term given to a precise formulation (formulation came first, name for the formulation came second), not a formulation invented to give meaning to an undefined term.

  27. Then why are the Christians I deal with upset when they perceive I don’t believe in the “Trinity”, but utterly indifferent when they perceive that I don’t believe in homoousios?

    If things are as you say Kullervo, then the outrage should be the same for both words. But it isn’t.

    Which seems to indicate they are not one and the same and there is a crucial difference.

  28. Gregory of Nazianzus explains the importance of the Trinity for the atonement.

    “For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved.”

  29. Seth said:

    Then why are the Christians I deal with upset when they perceive I don’t believe in the “Trinity”, but utterly indifferent when they perceive that I don’t believe in homoousios? … Which seems to indicate they are not one and the same and there is a crucial difference.

    It’s probably because the Christians you deal with (who I assume are laity) don’t understand the doctrine of the Trinity and/or how it fits in with theology of nearly every Christian denomination (Mormons, Witnesses and oneness Pentecostals being the primary exceptions). By and large, “nonprofessional” Christians are ignorant of what the Trinity means beyond “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

    Seth, I agree with you on a lost of things, but I have to agree with Kullervo here. At least in American Christianity, “Trinity” is synonymous “one substance.” And that’s one reason the LDS church generally avoids the word, preferring “godhead” instead.

    For what it’s worth, two of the most well-known non-Trinitarian denominations (the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the United Pentecostal Church International) avoid the word “Trinity” as well. In fact, the UPCI prefers the term “Godhead,” even though its conception of God is far different than ours.

  30. Eric, that analysis would work if I was just throwing the words at my interlocutors with no explanation.

    This is not the case, I fully explain the concept to people who don’t know it. Once homioousis is explained, the vast majority of Christians I encounter online don’t seem to care at all that I don’t believe in it.

    Which tells me that the concept of Trinity if far broader to Christianity than this neo-Platonist philosophical term.

    I won’t hide the ball, I’m pretty sure I know what this is about.

    It’s an academic version of the “different Jesus” ploy that Protestants have been using for boundary maintenance for decades. They basically want to create the (wrong) impression that Mormons don’t view Jesus as an object of worship.

    Saying “they don’t believe in the Trinity” accomplishes this aim. It works especially nicely if you just had a seminar last Thursday about how Muslims don’t believe Jesus was the son of God. Bonus points if you can throw in a few stupid comparisons between Mormons and Muslims. It’s part of the narrative that is being maintained.

    But probe it a bit, and there really isn’t much substance to the academic nit-picking.

  31. The creeds have been used as boundary makers for millennium, not decades.

    I think Eric is spot on. I would only add that in broader American evangelicalism there is a tradition, predating Mormonism, opposed to the creeds. For them the distinction between homoousios and homoiousios is irrelevant and their understanding of the Holy Trinity use Nicaea, except maybe as a historical footnote.

    For these people the one and only uncreated God/three persons, one being/three person, one what/three who’s isn’t connected to the Arian controversy. Talking to someone from that tradition and explaining the Trinity is neo-Platonic, which it obviously isn’t because of neo-Platonism’s rejection of a personal God and creation ex nihilo, I wouldn’t be surprised if the conversation goes downhill from there.

  32. Gundeck, arguably homioousis renders God utterly impersonal and alien in the first place. But that aside, neo-Platonism cannot be reduced solely to its rejection of a personal God. That is merely one feature of neo-Platonism, but not the whole.

    Homioousis draws heavily from the neo-Platonist assumption of what “being” and “identity” and “substance” of a thing is. It is in this sense that Nicene trinitarianism is heavily neo-platonist – because it shares the same assumptions about what constitutes identity and being.

    Assumptions I reject entirely, and which are quite extra-biblical.

  33. Except that we exist because of His personal act of creating (rejected by neo-Platonism) and declaring creation good (rejected by neo-Platonism), have knowledge of God because of His personal His personal revelation (rejected by neo-Platonism), and the incarnation of the Lord Jesus (rejected by neo-Platonism).

    I’m noticing the similarities.

  34. Uh huh, so you’ve found three things rejected by neo-platonism.

    So what?

    It’s still neo-platonist in the assumptions it does make the classification of things and their nature. As I already pointed out. You can keep bringing up differences till your blue in the face. But it doesn’t change the fact that Nicea made a lot of utterly Greek assumptions about the core issue of how to logically define God.

  35. I think Seth’s point is valid.

    The first joke is funny because it puts a lot of Greek philosophy in the mouth of Peter, who was clearly not a Greek, nor a philosopher.

    And the subtext of the discussion at Nicea was Greek philosophy. If it wasn’t for the conclusions of Greek philosophy regarding what God could be the creed would not have been necessary. This has caused Christianity to cling to Greek philosophy for its stable creedal foundation. Outside of Greek philosophy it makes no sense to say that an omnipresent “person” existing outside of time and history shares the same “substance” with a human being mistaken as a first-century carpenter. The term substance in this instance is part and parcel with Greek philosophy. In a way, the Trinity is the final canonization of lots of assumptions about reality made by Greek philosophy.

    Of course, as the entire subsequent history of philosophy has shown, the Greek way of viewing things was not the only plausible model.

    Mormons can’t really be faulted for essentially abandoning the Greek interpretation of the world and of God. But the lack of a stable philosophical foundation led to the multitude of competing, contradictory theories about God. Mormonism seems to show what happens to theology without worrying about explaining everything philosophically as well.

    This is why the second joke is funny, it puts a bunch of strange theories into Peter’s mouth that are clearly implausible in view of the Greek way of viewing God.

  36. You’re shifting from neo-Platonism to Greek philosophy as being the source of Nicaea, as if all of Hellenist philosophy was in one accord. Simultaneously you dismiss discontinuity between the neo-Platonic metaphysics and Nicaea insisting that these differences are irrelevant, as if rejection of core principals of a system establishes agreement. Applying your system to Mormonism we are correct in saying Mormonism is simply a sect of 19th century American Methodist restorationist revivalist evangelicalism, not a world religion.

    Looking at the Arian controversy we see the Church rejecting the platonic “theory of Forms” as a cause of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, a rejection of the Platonic creation ex deo (out of God), rejection of an eternal universe, and that is only in the first sentence of the creed.

    Did Hellenist philosophy influence the way people wrote about God, certainly. Christ was not sent by the Father by the power of the Spirit into a vacuum but, into the Roman Empire that was substantially influenced different schools of Greek Philosophy. There is a Biblical mandate to engage the world, it would have been a failure on the part of the Church to not provide a Christian response to Greek thought.

  37. Gundeck, if you make the point that the influences on Nicea were complex, what progress have you honestly made?

    You’ve shifted the target, but you’ve made the target no less vulnerable to criticism.

    Why do we even need to muck around with discussion of what the “substance” of God is in the first place? What’s the relevance?

    The same objections will be raised to Nicea, no matter what zip code you assign to it.

  38. gundek is right. If we don’t get it right (the substance of God) then we can’t be sure if He is able to do what He has promised to do.

    Then we start to trust in ourselves. Even if only a little. Make ourselves into little gods.

    Not good.

  39. “There is a Biblical mandate to engage the world, it would have been a failuare on the part of the Church to not provide a Christian response to Greek thought.”

    well, arguably the Church should update the creed, or develop new creed to address the subsequent 1700 years of philosophical discussion and scientific advancement. The Catholic Church may have made some progress on this task, but Protestants seems to have abandoned it dogmatically.

  40. Old Adam,

    The classic Mormon response is that if you don’t trust people, why do you trust the Nicaean creed, which is woven through with human philosophy?

  41. theoldadam – you’re response just reinforces my earlier conclusion that a great deal of conservative Protestant grace theology is founded primarily on fear and need for reassurance in God.

    There is no fear in love, for love casts out all fear.

    Which is why I’ve always found your morbid obsession with assurance and re-assurance to be theologically and emotionally defective.

  42. Jared,

    I agree that there should be new creeds, and there are. For example Jaroslav Pelikan’s “Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition” covers more than 200 of the most important Christian creeds. “Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries Volume 1” covers the 30 years of 1523-1552 and has 33 Confessions and Catechisms.

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