This is a funny way to introduce people to heresies surrounding the Trinity.
The New York Times recently ran an Opinion piece titled “I’m a Mormon, Not a Christian”. The piece has a few praise-worthy sentiments and is a fun piece of writing but seemed to me mostly just an exercise is poking everyone in the nose.
This response at Patheos summed up most of my feeilngs about the NY Times article. If Romney weren’t running for President and if the author didn’t have an axe to grind against Christianity it’s doubtful the NY Times would have run this piece. If you’re going to slam Christians for believing in the Trinity, at least describe the orthodox understanding of it rather than The Book of Mormon understanding.
I just recently finished reading “Mormon Doctrine” by Apostle Bruce R. McConkie. I noticed something in his entry on Monotheism that indicated that he was on the path to unintentionally discovering and agreeing with the doctrine of the Trinity.
Monotheism is the doctrine or belief that there is but one God. If this is properly interpreted to mean that the Father, Son and Holy Ghost–each of whom is a separate and distinct godly personage–are one God, meaning one Godhead, then the true saints are monotheists. Professing Christians consider themselves monotheists as distinguished from polytheists, those pagan peoples who believe in a host of gods, whose powers are exercised only in their own fields.
I agree. I’m sure with my agreement McConkie would choose to define some of those words in a particular way so as to decline his creedal confirmation. But he illustrates for us how the doctrine of the Trinity began to form. First with an affirmation of monotheism, then with an attempt to understand how three persons could be one God.
I think Mormonism better fits the definition of henotheism. Had McConkie chosen to identify Mormonism with henotheism he would not have been caught in this unintended ascent to Trinitarianism. What’s interesting is that McConkie also had an entry on henotheism and condemned the idea that ancient Jews were henotheist (an argument routinely made by FAIR).
I’m not saying that McConkie was a Trinitarian, he makes it quite clear in other places that he is not, but I think it shows that if his thinking had been pushed a little bit further he would either have had to drop monotheism or embrace at least a limited form of Trinitarianism.
Christian J recently posted this comment
Does the Jesus I believe in have power to save the human family? Is that salvation extended with mercy and grace? I don’t believe that these questions are dependent on esoteric understandings of the eternities.
In short, the book doesn’t make sense out of the Trinity as much as it shows that the Trinity makes sense out of everything else in Christianity. If you struggle to understand why Evangelicals are so hung up on the Trinity and are confused about why Mormons are excluded based on this esoteric doctrine, this book is a great place to start.
The chief differences between Mormonism and Christianity are often difficult to decipher. I recently attended a seminar presented by Carl Mosser in which he tried to spotlight the different faiths in terms of contrasting worldviews. It’s one thing to say that they are similar because they both feature Jesus as the Savior of humanity. It’s another to broaden the picture to the origins of the universe itself. Is Jesus the only self-existing Creator ever or is he one of many self-existing beings? Perhaps he’s part of a vast universal system that forms matter together into beings that in turn form more matter together.
In a good faith attempt to illustrate the various religious views on the nature of God (and the capital “U” Universe”) I created this diagram. A comment by Christian J inspired the reptilian illustration. Virtually no one sees God as some sort of reptile, it’s merely a humorous attempt at illustrating the ideas that each worldview presents.
I will gladly admit that the Mormon section was the most difficult to capture. Depending on the Mormon you talk to, and the day you talk to him, I’m sure there are many different ideas floating around. Blake Ostler for instance will give a picture more inline with Social Trinitarianism. So go easy on me if you think I got it wrong. If you disagree, I’m interested to know how you would have drawn it.
Click the image to see the full-size version, you may have to click the image again when it pops up to see it in full magnification (browser dependent).
*Made a few clarifying edits on 11/8/11.
1. Is it Biblical?
2. Does it make sense?
3. Does it matter?
Fred Sanders, in his book “ The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything decides to charge at these three questions in a different way. The book in no way offers an overview of the historic development of the doctrine. It does not delve into the philosophical mathematics of the Trinity. It doesn’t even offer “triadic prooftexts” to support the doctrine. Instead Sanders spends his entire time on the third question “Does it Matter?” I came away from just the first couple of chapters with the impression that the Trinity isn’t just one of many Christian doctrines, it is probably our most important and most defining doctrine. Everything we say and do as Christians is a testimony to the existence of the Trinity.
Many Evangelicals are Christ-centered, Father-forgetful and Spirit-ignoring. There is a general malaise toward the doctrine of the Trinity that causes Evangelicals to think “it’s kind of weird, it’s not something I want to think about, and I’ll go no further than to sheepishly agree because I don’t quite get it.” The book challenges those notions by fine-tuning our understanding of all our other doctrines so that we can see how the Trinity is at the center of action of all of them.
Many would prefer to prioritize “What does faith do for me?” over “Who is God?” It makes sense that people would do this because it’s practical and has an affect on their day-to-day lives. But Sanders responds “a better way of underlining what God has done on our behalf is to keep it securely anchored in his own inherent goodness.”
This diagram illustrates his point that the doctrine of the Trinity can be useful in understanding how and why God has acted in a particular way toward us.
A person may be satisfied and not ask any further questions after being given salvation, but typically when someone steps into faith they begin to seek understanding. The ripple effects of salvation leads the believer to question “How did Jesus bring about this salvation?” then on to “Who must Jesus be to save in this way?” and then on to “Who must God be, if that is true of Jesus?”
“If you notice. . . how much bigger the outer circle is, you can begin to see how Trinitarian theology can help us maintain a proper sense of proportion. The Trinity is bigger than you and your salvation and has other things going on in the parts of the circle that don’t overlap with your circle. Those other parts of the Trinity are the rest of the fullness of God’s own life, the happy land of the Trinity. It is not possible to draw it to scale, because it is infinite, boundless and finally inconceivable. There are parts of that happy land that you don’t go to, and you never will. I cannot describe to you what happens there and neither can anybody else, for God has remained silent about those regions.” (page 74)
My take away from the book is that by finely tuning our religious practice into the frequency of the Trinity we get a much greater sense of who God is, what he is doing and why we are allowed to participate. Instead of making the Trinity an item on a list that we affirm “our tacit Trinitarianism must be coaxed out, articulated and confessed. . . . it does us little good if we continue to be radically Trinitarian without knowing it. We are at risk of staying in the shallows when God calls us to the deep things.”
I think Sander’s real gem is found in the introduction. He cites two great problems facing Evangelicalism, shallowness and Trinity-forgetfulness. Not coincidentally they are related. Evangelicals would like to emphasize four things: the Bible, the cross, conversion and heaven. Those are probably the right things for us to emphasize. But being emphatic is different than being reductionist. If we emphasize those four things by isolating them out of the main body of Christian truth, we very quickly create an anemic faith. Shouting “the cross! the cross! the cross! the cross!” over and over again very quickly makes the cross meaningless. ”The gospel reduced to four points ceases to make sense unless its broader context can be intuited.”
“Knowing what to emphasize in order to simplify the Christian message is a great skill. It is not the same thing as rejecting nuances or impatiently waving away all details in order to cut to the main point. There is a kind of anti-intellectualism that is only interested in the bottom line, and considers everything else disposable. Certainly that kind of ant-intellectualism can be found in evangelical history, but it is a deviation from the true ideal. Emphatics are not know-nothings. The emphatic approach to Christian witness has a different impulse. It knows that the only way to emphasize anything is precisely to keep everything in place, not to strip it away.” (page 17)
I’m frustrated by Evangelicals who wish to declare Mormonism to be Christian by reducing Christianity to its most simplistic confessions. This explanation of emphatic Evangelicalism vs. Reductionist Evangelicalism perfectly nails down my thoughts on why I’m bothered by it.
“A blade is not all cutting edge. In fact, the cutting edge is the smallest part of the knife. The rest of the knife is the heavy heft of the broad flat sides and the handle. Considered all by itself, the cutting edge is vanishingly small — a geometric concept instead of a usable object.” Christianity reduced to “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved” is meaningless outside of the much larger context of who Jesus is, how Jesus saves and why we need salvation. The Reductionist successfully brings Mormonism into the camp of orthodoxy by effectively declaring “there is no camp.”
I thought I’d highlight two different blog posts.
The first is a reflection of God’s past in the LDS view and whether or not it’s possible God was once a sinner. I appreciate that there is someone giving the issue some reflection. Check it out over at Lehi’s Library.
The second is a post about a new book on the Trinity, why it matters and how it changes everything. You can read Dr. Sanders synopsis of his book and his three steps to the doctrine. It can be found at Scriptorium Daily. If you’re wondering how and why the Trinity is so important to Evangelicals and how it impacts our faith, I can’t think of a better source than Dr. Sanders.
My church recently presented a sermon on the Trinity. It’s a thorough explanation of why we embrace a seemingly contradictory doctrine about the nature of God. If you’re interested in why we would believe such difficult doctrine this will be a great resource for you. I encourage you to listen.
Since Tim is gone, I thought I would back him up by writing a Tim-Style Post. i.e. throw out a controversial LDS doctrine in sort of a challenging way and then open it up for comments.
Few Mormon doctrines are more radically paradigm-shifting than the believe in the existence of a Heavenly Mother.
What equally interesting to me is what this particular doctrine tells about how Mormonism works.
I think Evangelicals often stand with open-mouth when they read that those crazy Mormon’s believe such things because they are nowhere to be found in the Bible. Aside from being a radical shift in understanding of God and Man between Protestants and Mormons, the doctrine also shows a fundamental difference in the way Mormons form their personal theology vs. the way Evangelicals seem to go about it. This is what I want to explore with this post. To try to explain to bible-focused (limited?) Evangelicals why Mormons believe in a Mother in Heaven, even when its not in the bible. For this I am going to have to call on the usual bunch of commentators.
Few people, if any, know the ultimate origin of the idea that we have a Mother in Heaven. Joseph Smith does not seem to have spoken directly about it in his life and there is no reference in the LDS Canon.
The first time we see it in writing comes from a woman, Eliza R. Snow, in a hymn, “O My Father” President Kimball acknowledged that “O My Father” was a “doctrinal hymn” and dozens of prophets and apostles have reiterated this idea.
President Lorenzo Snow explained that Eliza Snow got the doctrine from Joseph shortly before he was murdered.
President Spencer W. Kimball in a general conference address:
“When we sing that doctrinal hymn … ‘O My Father,’ we get a sense of the ultimate in maternal modesty, of the restrained, queenly elegance of our Heavenly Mother, and knowing how profoundly our mortal mothers have shaped us here, do we suppose her influence on us as individuals to be less?” (Ensign, May 1978, p. 6.)
The doctrine of the hymn is pretty straightforward, there is a mother in heaven and we will return to live with Her and the Father, and that they together sent people on their mission to earth:
I had learned to call thee Father,
Thru thy Spirit from on high,
But, until the key of knowledge
Was restored, I knew not why.
In the heav’ns are parents single?
No, the thought makes reason stare!
Truth is reason; truth eternal
Tells me I’ve a mother there.
Let me come and dwell with you.
With your mutual approbation
All you sent me forth to do,
Then, at length, when I’ve completed
When I leave this frail existence,
When I lay this mortal by,
Father, Mother, may I meet you
In your royal courts on high?
So there we have it, a revolutionary new way of looking at God and heaven that turns traditional notions on their ear.
Mormons believe it, but I can see the Evangelicals left scratching their heads:
- The doctrine is not found in scripture, including Mormon Scripture
- The doctrine was not explicitly taught or explained by Joseph Smith (even though it is pretty clear that he was claimed that he originally taught the doctrine)
- It really shifts away from all traditional interpretations of the Bible.
I can see how an Evangelical is probably left dumbfounded: ”You can’t win with those Mormons, how can I teach them correct theology whenthey are going to beleive stuff like this with such slim support or understanding?”
Here we have, in my mind, the genius as well as the vulnerability of Mormonism. . . our willingness to believe in things that are not in the Bible. To some Mormons, this doctrine is very uncomfortable. We sometimes downplay it and even reproach those that make “too much” of it due to the little we “know” about it. To others, agreeing with Eliza R. Snow, it makes religion make more sense: i.e. “If man is made in the image of God, why wouldn’t there be family in heaven as well as on earth. “
I think if we can give a good explanation to our Evangelical friends of why we believe this doctrine, they will be a lot closer to really understanding Mormonism. (and we might have a clearer way of understanding our own view of how “doctrine” is born).
So Mormons, explain to Evangelicals :
1. Do you believe in a Mother in Heaven? and
3. What is the significance of the doctrine to you, to the Church, and to the world?
Evangelicals, we know you don’t believe it, and we know its not in the Bible, if you try to understand why we believe you may learn a lot about Mormonism in general that will enlighten you on how we do religion in other areas.
In this lecture about the doctrine of the Trinity, Fred Sanders answers three questions about the Trinity.
- Is it Biblical?
- Does it make sense?
- Does it matter?
I think he does a great job of summarizing all of the main arguments for the Trinity. Bible in hand, he thoroughly answered if the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are each God. For discussions with Mormons, I think the lecture could have focused more on whether or not the Bible says there is only one God. But as a means of increasing understanding about the doctrine I think this is great listening. Sanders, despite having earned a PhD on the Trinity, does a good job of keeping the talk conversational and understandable.
I really should be encouraging my Evangelical friends to listen to this more than my Mormon friends.
Faith Promoting Rumor has an interesting conversation about the LDS view of Augustine’s (pre-Nicene) formulation of the Trinity. I recommend you read the post and the discussion.
My sister-in-law goes to a church in Seattle called Mars Hill. Their pastor, Mark Driscoll, is becoming a nationally recognized Evangelical speaker. This is a sermon he gave on the doctrine of the Trinity. He is typically not comfortable preaching unless he can talk for a full hour. This gives him the ability to hit just about every issue related to the Trinity in this sermon. If you have any questions about the doctrine it is most likely answered in this sermon. It’s really a comprehensive over view of the arguments for and against the doctrine.
While not the focus of his sermon he does spend some time on Mormonism and its rejection of the Trinity (He calls it polytheistic or tr-theistic). I don’t think he in any way slanders Mormonism, but he doesn’t pull any punches either concerning anyone who claims to be a non-Trinitarian Christian.
One aspect of Trinitarian doctrine that I think I have overlooked is why do we consider the Holy Spirit to be God. I was grateful for his attention to detail.
Video Link with a video Q&A
I wanted to lend some insight into the orthodox notion of the Trinity and the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Check out this verse.
John 1:3 (New International Version)
Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.
Pretend that your mouse cursor is Jesus. Now place him in the appropriate box according to John 1:3
Saying that Jesus is in the the group “all things made” creates a paradox because that would require him to have created himself. So, Jesus fits better into the “uncreated” category. This makes Jesus the uncreated Creator of all things, a self existent being.
This is an attribute of Jesus that John chooses to lead off with in giving us an understanding of who Jesus is.
I’ve had a couple of comments asking if I think some one is not saved just because they don’t buy into the doctrine of the Trinity. It’s an important distinction between Classical Christianity and Mormonism. So it’s worth talking about it as often as needed.
First off, I’m not the judge and I’m not pretending to be. Second, I do not think personal confusion over the doctrine of the Trinity is going to keep anyone out of heaven. No way. Not in the least. The only thing that has the power to save us is the grace of Christ. Nobody has to pass a theology exam to get in. All they have to do is repent from sin and believe in Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
I’m pretty sure that if I walked into any Evangelical church a large number of people would give a theologically inaccurate description of the Trinity. I would hear everything from modalism to tri-theism. I’m also sure that the more I separated those people by theological education, the better their description would become. And with greater theological training comes greater responsibility to understand and avoid heresy.
Whereas I don’t think confusion or misconception about the Trinity will separate anyone from God. I DO think that an outright rejection of the Trinity is a serious problem. Why? Because we have to repent from our sins. One of our chief sins against God is idolatry. Idolatry does not only involve holding on to false gods, it also is about holding on to false ideas about God. If someone understands the doctrine of the Trinity and understands why Christianity describes God as a Trinity but utterly rejects it, then I have some questions.
Do they reject the Trinity because:
1) they do not believe the Father is God and is worthy of our worship as God?
2) they do not believe Jesus is God and is worthy of our worship as God?
3) they do not believe the Holy Spirit is God and is worthy of our worship as God?
4) they do not believe that only one God can necessarily and logically exist?
A rejection of any of these 4 ideas based on an educated reading of the Old and New Testaments (heck I’ll even throw in the Book of Mormon) I believe will pose a problem for anyone facing Christ on Judgment Day. In some way rejecting each of these ideas is rejecting God. It’s hard for me to reconcile someone rejecting God and receiving a place with him.
My question for Mormons is why do you reject the Trinity? My understanding of Mormon doctrine is that the rejection of the Trinity is founded first and foremost based on the First Vision. Between The Book of Mormon and the First Vision account, which has undergone the most revisions outside of spelling and grammatical changes? Which can be trusted as the most authoritative? Which did Joseph Smith say was the most accurate of any book? Which did you receive a spiritual testimony about?
2 Nephi 31:21
“And now, behold, my beloved brethren, this is the way; and there is none other way nor 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 true doctrine of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, which is one God, without end.
3 Nephi 11:22-27, 36
And again the Lord called others, and said unto them likewise; and he gave unto them power to baptize. And he said unto them: On this wise shall ye baptize; and there shall be no disputations among you. Verily I say unto you, that whoso repenteth of his sins through your words and desireth to be baptized in my name, on this wise shall ye baptize them–Behold, ye shall go down and stand in the water, and in my name shall ye baptize them. And now behold, these are the words which ye shall say, calling them by name, saying: Having authority given me of Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. And then shall ye immerse them in the water, and come forth again out of the water. And after this manner shall ye baptize in my name; for behold, verily I say unto you, that the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost are one; and I am in the Father, and the Father in me, and the Father and I are one…
And thus will the Father bear record of me, and the Holy Ghost will bear record unto him of the Father and me; for the Father, and I, and the Holy Ghost are one.
With fear and trembling I offer this post. First off, I want to make it clear that this is not my battle. I’m not overly interested in pushing this conversation or convincing LDS of my point of view. But I do seek greater understanding and I want to find a way to explain myself clearly.
Evangelicals and Mormons often squabble over a battle on whether or not Mormonism is Christian. There’s no doubt in my mind that Mormonism definitely belongs to Christianity, it didn’t come out of Hinduism, Buddhism or any other major religion. But the question is, at what point does a faith change a major religion’s core tenets so drastically that it no longer resembles its birth religion.
Mormons do not understand how the rest of Christianity can claim that Mormonism is not Christian. I wonder if this might be more helpful in explaining our (the non-LDS) viewpoint? My recent post on “Worshiping Jesus” pointed out that there doesn’t seem to be a universal Mormon understanding on whether or not Jesus is to be worshiped as God (capital G). Instead (many) Mormons exclusively worship the Father and hold Jesus as one of many gods (small g).
I would contend that historically and traditionally, Christians have always recognized Jesus as God (capital G) and have always worshiped him as such. To worship Christ is to be Christian. If someone does not worship Christ as God how can they properly be called “Christian”? In as much as MormonISM does not teach people to worship Christ as God it is not a Christian religion.
There are some Mormons who do worship Christ as God, I’m content to say that they are Christian (though heretical). But Mormons who do not worship Christ as God are no more Christian than Muslims (who recognize and revere Jesus as an important agent of God). At the point in time that the LDS church clearly recognizes Jesus as God (capital G) and instructs its members to worship him as such I will be willing to concede that it is Christian (though still heretical on many other points).
If you were to ask me “Why don’t you think Mormons are Christian?” and I responded “Because they don’t worship Jesus as God” would that be an explanatory statement?
* I should also clarify that I believe only Jesus has the right and power to define an individual as a true Christian. The point of this conversation is to set theological definitions in a meaningful way and to determine if the LDS church as an organization fits the definition of “Christian”.
The doctrine of the Trinity seems to be a constant speed bump between LDS and Evangelicals. For one, it’s a difficult doctrine to comprehend. One thing that helps me understand the necessity of the doctrine of the Trinity is this:
Any attribute that we give to God must not be contingent on anything else. God (by classical Christian understanding) cannot rely on something or someone else for definition or power. No one gives God power or characteristic except for God alone. He exist absolutely and completely whether anyone or anythng else does. I think this is often condensed by saying that God is without passions.
I John clearly states that God is love. For God to be love, he must be loving someone. But if he has to have “others” to love, then his love is then contingent on someone or something else. So the answer to this seeming contradiction (God is love) is that God loves himself. The Father loves the Son loves the Spirit loves the Father.
God exist within himself in perfect relational unity.
Analogies consistently have big problems explaining the trinity. They usually describe something other than the Trinity (i.e. water describes modalism) Probably the best analogy the Bible gives about the Trinity is marriage. It explains that through marriage, two become one, and that this is a mystery. So how can two distinct persons be one? think about how it might be true through your union to your spouse (if you’re married).
I don’t expect the LDS church to accept this doctrine, but I would like for individual saints to have a better understanding of why we Trinitarians believe this doctrine.