Vision vs. Explanation: LDS Godhead and the dogma of the Trinity

Andrew brought up a point that I often scratch my head about: Why does it matter whether you describe God as the Godhead or the Trinity?

I am not quite sure how my understanding of the Trinity influenced my new understanding of Christ. But given that a greater understanding of the Trinity may have played an important part, I don’t think the LDS should not reject the creeds simply because creedal Christians reject LDS doctrines.  I think it is reasonable to accept the LDS view of Godhead as a summation of literal interpretations of the visions of God found in the scriptures, but it is not reasonable to fail to affirm the Trinity as a extremely important explanation that fits in with a larger body of philosophy.

The LDS claim that all we know about God comes from direct experience with God (spiritual experience) and thus we can only really grasp God through spiritual practice, which includes asserting as doctrine the literal meaning of scripture.  Joseph Smith’s theology was not in the words themselves, but in the knowledge brought through the Spirit when pondering the words and applying them to life. Joseph Smith  describes this position at the tail end of his most important revelation about the three-tiered nature of heaven (D&C 76):

But great and marvelous are the works of the Lord, and the mysteries of his kingdom which he showed unto us, which surpass all understanding in glory, and in might, and in dominion; which he commanded us we should not write while we were yet in the Spirit, and are not lawful for man to utter; Neither is man capable to make them known, for they are only to be seen and understood by the power of the Holy Spirit, which God bestows on those who love him, and purify themselves before him; To whom he grants this privilege of seeing and knowing for themselves; . . .

 

Doctrines are words attached to mystery. Any LDS who thinks that the scriptures explain God should keep this in mind. God is inexplicable, all knowledge of God is going to be essentially beyond explanation to others.  Whatever explanations we do formulate are simply to orient our understanding of God within the other knowledge, perceptions, and beliefs.

The Godhead is a summation of the visions of God.  The Trinity does not do this, it is just a philosophical attempt at defining the mystery of why there is only one God that is three persons.

Joseph Smith taught that spiritual visions were more important and carried more authority than philosophical explanations. This may be true, but even so, it would not eliminate the utility of philosophical explanations and catechism for pointing to spiritual truth.  It is perfectly reasonable to accept a Trinitarian explanation of God in precisely the same way it is reasonable to accept rights-based interpretation of human government.  Likewise, it is fine to conceive of God as a divine Man – as Stephen did in the vision recorded in Acts – because that is how God shows up for some people.  What is not reasonable is to take a vision for a reasonable/philosophical/historical explanation, just as it is not reasonable to explain matter by simply re-telling what it looks like.

As I mentioned before, all theology and creeds are existentially the same as the whistling of beavers.  The difference between theologies is most simply, the attitude they produce in those who speak and hear them as truth.  In some ways, denying the value of the Trinity is similar to denying the value of Newtonian physics. Even if you have proven the validity of the theory of General Relativity, it does not make sense to reject Newton’s theory as vitally useful. Thus, it may be reasonable to posit dogma such as transubstantiation, the Trinity, the hypostatic union, etc. to consistently orient our understanding of scripture with the body of intellectual work that girds our philsophically-minded view of the world — even when these explanations conflict with the literal wording of certain visions.

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44 thoughts on “Vision vs. Explanation: LDS Godhead and the dogma of the Trinity

  1. I lost Joseph Smith in the middle of your quote of D&C 76 but I picked him up again at the latter part when he says, “They [I assume he means the mysteries of the Lord’s kingdom] are only to be seen and understood by the power of the Holy Spirit, which God bestows on those who love him, and purify themselves before him; To whom he grants this privilege of seeing and knowing for themselves; . . .”

    That is right on the mark. I know he was hearing from the Spirit at that point. Mysteries of God’s kingdom can only be understood by the Spirit, whom God pours out on those who love him and purify themselves daily.

  2. Jared, the subject of doctrine within traditional Christianity gets to much more than it merely being “words attached to mystery”. Christianity is, as far as I know, the only faith to really use doctrine, as almost all others are more experiential. Christianity stresses correct, consistent, and historical doctrine.

    While some differences have developed through time, the identity of Jesus has remained paramount and consistent. When Christians say its all about Jesus, it really is. There’s a reason to be so protective of this doctrine.

    You are right to say that the differences produce different attitudes, but I am not sure all theologies are existentially the same, precisely due to that issue of attitudes.

  3. I saw a headline about a man who refuses to believe the earth revolves around the sun. All of his experience and all of our language tells him that the sun revolves around the earth. Is there any evidence you can really provide for him that will convince him otherwise? Is there any practical reason he needs to believe the earth revolves around the sun?

    I think this is probably the heart of the difference between “Godhead” and “Trinity” IF a Mormon is truly tri-theistic. I think more explanation about how this doctrine can practically improve their faith is probably the only thing that would change their mind which is why I so valued “The Deep Things of God” by Fred Sanders. That’s the point of the book.

    I think the practical implications of exaltation being false are much more obvious (an probably the thing that would move someone from classic Mormon cosmology to Tri-theism).

  4. I’m glad you brought this up Jared. I’ve said before that the philosophy behind the Trinity (and trad. Christian doctrine about the nature of God in general) is compelling to me. But, holding me back from jumping in the deep end has always been the practical implications. Specifically in my view of other humans. Loving and serving and giving of myself to other human beings (even my enemies) is much less daunting a task when I view everyone as a child of God in the Mormon sense, to use just one example.

  5. When it comes to theology, I think it is vitally important to understand the difference between reality and bullsh!t. Bullsh!t is talking about things in a way where you are indifferent to the truth of what you are saying, you are playing a word game.

    A vision is always bullsh!t to some degree. From a philosophical point of view we must be indifferent to the reality of the content of the vision because it is, by definition, just a vision and not reality.

    The vision of God as a man points to the idea that God acts and thinks like a man. I think this might be beneficial, we begin to believe that God has the same understanding of justice and love as we do, we don’t believe we can justify inhuman activity by referring to God’s will, etc.

    But I think it is vitally important to recognize also that God MUST BE radically different than us in ways we cannot even begin to comprehend. Otherwise we will not be able to see that Christ is possible, and we will expect God’s love to be the same as human love. A Christian should think this is the case even if he believes that God is an embodied spirit.

    Likewise the dogma of the Trinity is not reality, it is just a (bullshi!t?) explanation. The value of the explanation is in how it points you to reality. The Trinity points more clearly to the reality that God is fundamentally different than humanity, yet, unlike a strict monotheist God, mysteriously close and loving to humanity in Christ.

  6. Slowcowboy,

    Christianity is, as far as I know, the only faith to really use doctrine, as almost all others are more experiential. Christianity stresses correct, consistent, and historical doctrine

    I am going to disagree with what you say regarding other religions not having doctrine. Islam is far more dogmatic, but agree that a defining feature of Christianity is its absolute connection to history.

    You are right to say that the differences produce different attitudes, but I am not sure all theologies are existentially the same, precisely due to that issue of attitudes.

    In this area you may be closer to a Mormon than a Patristic church father or Reformer. I agree that there is a very complicated relationship between words and the realities they create, to the point that some have a very difficult time not seeing the words as somehow magical in themselves.

  7. “In this area you may be closer to a Mormon than a Patristic church father or Reformer. I agree that there is a very complicated relationship between words and the realities they create, to the point that some have a very difficult time not seeing the words as somehow magical in themselves.”

    To the contrary, I think the fathers and reformers all were very aware of the importance of accurate doctrine and theology, which is different than existential inferences and experiences. This is my point regarding doctrine. The development of the early church structure was to protect the doctrine, and ensure accurate Christianity was taught. This was a radical departure from pagan faiths where what matters is what you felt and experienced. How you got there did not matter. Christianity came along and said that how you get there matters.

    So, unless I misunderstand what you mean when you say all theologies are existentially the same, I cannot agree.

  8. By saying all theologies are existentially the same I am simply saying that they exist as just words. They are just a bunch of words strung together.

  9. I saw a headline about a man who refuses to believe the earth revolves around the sun. All of his experience and all of our language tells him that the sun revolves around the earth. Is there any evidence you can really provide for him that will convince him otherwise? Is there any practical reason he needs to believe the earth revolves around the sun?

    I think this is a great point. Sometimes we are told not to believe our eyes, and sometimes we are told not to believe what we think, and sometimes we are told not to believe what is reasonable. I think that this can be great advice in every instance, how to discern is difficult for everyone.

    I would say that explanations are better than visions and experience in that they are easier to interpret. We can understand what they are saying even if what they are saying is incorrect. With a vision, it is very difficult to discern the meaning.

  10. Then I have a hard time understanding how if they are just words strung together, and if they affect our attitudes, how they can be said to be just the same. Do they not have meaning that derives from those words?

    You try to differentiate the reality from the crap, but how do you explain these things if not through words?

    If you are saying that words are used to point to a reality, but t he reality can be hard to understand, so we need to be sure that we don’t get caught up in the minutiae of the words for the sake of the reality, I can agree with you to an extent. But that agreement is not an open book because I do think the words we use are reflections of the reality we see.

    And that is where traditional Christians and Mormons part ways. The words used do reflect different realities.

  11. You try to differentiate the reality from the crap, but how do you explain these things if not through words?

    Ah, and there is the rub. In theology words don’t reflect reality, they can’t, they often just vaguely point to it.

  12. “Ah, and there is the rub. In theology words don’t reflect reality, they can’t, they often just vaguely point to it.”

    I disagree with you there. If God is real, then words are no different in explaining God than they are the sensation of walking through the tide on a sandy beach.

  13. I think you just made my point. Those who haven’t walked through the tide will have no idea what you are talking about. There is no sensation in the words themselves and you can’t know what the words are referring to without having some experience with (or related to) the sensation.

  14. But that does not mean that words don’t point to a reality. Those of us who have experienced the very real God can describe him with words. That experience, like going to the beach, is available to anyone (of course, for some, getting to the beach is tough, but they can conceivably get there and walk on the beach). The experience of God is there for anyone.

    Don’t mistake not understanding the reality with not being able to communicate it through words. And no, not everyone will understand the reality of God but that does not mean words just vaguely point to God. No, God is very real and able to be described in words, even if the words don’t fully capture his glory and his immense nature, just like a description of walking through the tide on the beach won’t capture the fullness of the moment. Just the same, the sensation of the beach is very real, even if others don’t know it.

  15. “…but the experience of Christ is not.”

    Why not? If you refer to a Calvinistic view, how do we know who is and who is not able to experience Christ? What, by the way, is the difference between experiencing God and Christ?

  16. “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leads unto life, and few there be that find it.”

    I experience God every time it rains. I experience Christ only when the rain washes me clean.

  17. But that does not mean we ought not explain God with words. Even if someone can never get to the beach does not mean we cannot explain the beach to them. Its just the same with God. And doing so accurately is not pointing to some vague reference to God.

  18. NOBODY is saying that explanations are not important or impossible, simply that they are not always effective. (the point of the post was that they are) (revised. I think that scientific explanations of God are not possible.)

    Visions can also be extremely effective in giving people an understanding of some aspect of God, but that does not mean they are explanations.

    There are several ways I can point to a beach, I can use my finger, I can use a photo, and I can give an explanation in words. All may be effective, depending on the person, at directing you to the beach.

    But if you never get to the beach or anything like it, you will really have no idea what the beach is because existentially you will only be left with a finger, some words, and a photo, and no beach.

  19. Perhaps we are talking past each other here. I am saying that we can use words to differentiate reality from the crap. I am saying that words can be effective tools to describe something. I am saying that a lack of experience does not mean the words heard are meaningless. I am saying that God can be explained through words and theology, and that these words and the theology can represent the real, true God.

    I would agree that certain explanations are not helpful, and some are downright wrong. But whether the receiver of the message ever understands the message does not mean the message is wrong.

  20. I think we are talking past each other. Answer me this:

    You said: I am saying that we can use words to differentiate reality from the crap.

    How do you use words to tell you what is true about God?

    You said: I am saying that God can be explained through words and theology, and that these words and the theology can represent the real, true God.

    What is an explanation?

  21. What do you mean when you ask me how I use words? Are you asking for me to write words I would use to describe God? Or are you asking a more nuanced question asking me how I view the act of explaining God with words?

    An explanation could be any number of explanations, including the early creeds put together by the Fathers.

    Now, again, whether folks understand all of this does not mean it is not true or that I am not defining the true God. It does not mean there won’t be disagreement on some of these things, but as you know, disagreement is hardly proof that something cannot be defined in a correct way.

  22. Or are you asking a more nuanced question asking me how I view the act of explaining God with words?

    Bingo.

    Now, again, whether folks understand all of this does not mean it is not true or that I am not defining the true God.

    My point is that you can’t actually define God with words. Whatever definition you give will simply be literary, not reality.

  23. i just want to quickly jump in and say I totally agree with this:

    I think you just made my point. Those who haven’t walked through the tide will have no idea what you are talking about. There is no sensation in the words themselves and you can’t know what the words are referring to without having some experience with (or related to) the sensation.

    the words don’t get me any closer at all. But more problematic, even though slowcowboy insists that the experience is available to everyone, that does not seem to be the case. At the very least, it seems that in the same way the words don’t really work in describing, words to explain HOW to get that experience don’t work as well.

    It’s like if you were trying to give someone directions to the beach, but someone *also* couldn’t see the streets or the street signs, couldn’t see the landmarks, etc., so they couldn’t even follow your directions.

  24. Christian,

    I am never quite sure how literally to take pre-existent family in LDS theology. There seems to be a wide margin of what divine parents mean in LDS thought and I don’t want to assume someone’s beliefs.

    Trinitarian theology would root our understanding of true humanity in the person of Christ and His incarnation, the value of my neighbor, even my enemy, is illuminated by the value of Jesus.

  25. “It’s like if you were trying to give someone directions to the beach, but someone *also* couldn’t see the streets or the street signs, couldn’t see the landmarks, etc., so they couldn’t even follow your directions.”

    I think this is why it’s important for philosophy and theology to work together. Philosophy helps to point the way to the things of theology by explaining how and why they can (and even must, in some cases) be so. Even then, this doesn’t bring you to faith, which is a matter of will, not intellect. But it helps paves the way for faith, and helps preserve faith when “experience” may be temporarily lacking.

  26. Gundek writes, “Isn’t it generally accepted we cannot define God, we can only describe God?”

    You can define the word “God”, but you can’t define him in the sense of placing him in a species and genus, as, for example, defining man as “rational animal”.

  27. Jared, if I accept your position then I see everything as literary, not reality. Reality, then, can never be anything but how it is expressed in words. Yet, even you acknowledge the ‘fact of Christ’.

    Is there a reality out there? I think so.

    Definitions are merely descriptions, aren’t they? A definition describes the more precise meaning of a word. I looked up the definition of definition, and several used that very word: describe. Others used words like “express”, “state”, or “explain”.

    Can we ever fully define God? Nope. But we can begin to define God.

    I agree with Agellius in that philosophy helps point us to God. Whether we understand the philosophy is not sufficient evidence for or against the truth of God. Philosophy is a tool to help us understand, but not the reality in and of itself. Belief in God comes down to faith, and ultimately cannot be adequately understood by human rationale. By that I mean that its faith that we believe in God, not in specific or tangible philosophy or logic. There is going to be a leap from logic to faith.

    Just as Andrew (sorry, using you as an example, not calling you out), says he does not experience God and cannot find a reason to believe, says he lacks faith, whereas I, and all of us who have faith believe in God.

    We see God as very real, not as some figment of our imagination. Therefore, our descriptions are of reality not just literary words about some unknowable position. Unless this is our imagination at work, and I don’t think it is, God is very real. and specific, and not subject to multiple versions of expressing the reality.

  28. I came across this article today. Seems we are not the only ones having a discussion of who is a Christian (shocker). http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/a-little-pharisaical-southern-baptist-copt-martyrs-christianity/

    Coptics are an interesting group. There are things that do separate themselves from other Western Christian groups, but these differences, I don’t think, separate them from bona-fide Christianity.

    Why them and not Mormons? To put it in a single belief: Mormon’s believe we share God’s essence and believer we can become like him in a very real way. Coptics don’t. This distinction gets to the nature of God and of Christ, and how we approach God.

  29. Thanks for the link. And this line:

    “I’m not God, but if I were a betting man, I would place my money on Coptic Christians who called on the name of Jesus as they were about to be killed for being Christian to make it into the Kingdom before Americans who stand on doctrinal differences to deny the faithfulness of the martyrs. Note well: doctrinal issues are important! They just aren’t the most important thing. I believe I hold the correct doctrines, but I have absolutely no doubt that there will be countless Southern Baptists (and others) who go before me into the Kingdom (assuming that I will make it!) because however incorrect their doctrines, they embodied the spirit of Christ in the lives they lived.”

    Amen.

  30. I thought it was an interesting article. And while I a) sympathize with the sentiment that all that matters is living in the spirit of Christ and b) some Christians really do take things too far, I have to grant there are significant differences between Coptics and Mormons.

    There has to be some identifiable standard/definition of ‘Christian’, or the term becomes useless.

    One could argue that the term is in fact useless, and that what matters is belief. This is true, but the problem comes into play when confusion comes in defining truth of the Gospel.

  31. Defining God is not the job. Even explaining God…is not the job.

    The job is to proclaim God…in Christ Jesus…who died for and forgives real sinners. The kind we all know (deep down) that we are.

    “The gospel is for proclamation.” (also the title of a great book by Gerhard Forde)

  32. Unless I am misinterpreting your question, Jared, To me, the reason it matters whether we have one God (a ‘Three-in-one’), or a group of Gods (Godhead), is:
    The miracle of the Trinity is that the God who created us, the God we rebelled against, the one we hurt, comes down to earth and takes the horrible consequences of our sin and selfishness, on Himself. The Judge bears the weight of the criminal.
    He doesn’t send another, different creature, another deity, to defend or suffer for his indignity, he reaches-down himself. That to me is the most incredible thing, and demonstrates perfect love.

    As I understand it, the LDS ‘Godhead’ is a plural term, referring to pantheon of four (or more) Gods and Goddesses, who often have a common agenda, but are said to act as one body.That seems to me as fundamentally different than the One-God-in-three-persona concept. I realize that many individual Mormons’ view of God is more trinitarian. I found the Book of Mormon very trinitarian,every bit as trinitarian as the New Testament, and it never describes God in the plural.

  33. Chidi,

    With regard to the tremendous aesthetic value of traditional Christian theology, it is hard to argue with you. Traditional theology is like Bach where Mormonism is like the Clash. Both are appealing but one is unquestionably more majestically beautiful.

    I agree with you regarding the Book of Mormon. If Mormons would take the Book of Mormon as completely true, yet independent of Joseph’s later philosophy, and also study Protestant theology I think they could actually grasp the message of the Book of Mormon. The theology of the Book of Mormon is built on top of the theology of Martin Luther, I think this is pretty explicit even in the Book itself. Joseph Smith’s later philosophy is somewhat incommensurate with BOM philosophy. This is actually totally critical to making any sense of Mormon theology. Mormons should not have to come up with an approach to theology that takes into account every word of every proclaimed prophet, it should simply focus heavily on the Book of Mormon and read it in the context of Protestant theology. The later “King Follet” theology can only be sensibly called “Christian” if the theology of the Book of Mormon is viewed as more important that the later philosophy, and the New Testament, more important than the Book of Mormon. I think you can faithfully affirm the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the King Follet discourse if you view their relative value in that order.

  34. Hi Jared:
    When I decided to read the Book of Mormon, I asked the two smartest Mormons I knew, the question you allude to: how to relate the Book of Mormon to the Old and New Testaments, how they use the Book of Mormon to interpret the Bible, and vice-versa, and how to relate the books within the Book of Mormon to each other. The only thing they could say was ‘The Book of Mormon is another testament of Jesus Christ’,. I asked several missionaries the same question, and they had no idea what I was even asking, and had obviously never thought of the question, which shocked me. How can one have such an extensive cannon of scripture, without any guidance of how to relate them to each other, how to use them with each other? Protestants and Catholics are taught very early how to related the Old and New Testaments together, how to read them in the context of each other, for example.

    My impression is like yours: the theology of the author(s) of the Book of Mormon is solidly evangelical Protestant, and feels very much like a tent-revival. Any polytheistic beliefs must come from somewhere else.
    It seems to me that Mormons would benefit tremendously from treating their revelation more comprehensively. For example, when looking at what God has to tell us about himself, look at the witness of the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah, etc..), New Testament, and Book of Mormon, not just these later works.

  35. I actually think if Mormons just read Moroni 7 as authoritative, they would probably be fine. The problem is that at church it seems that nobody even cares about the themes of the Book rather than the individual verses. There are plenty of Mormons who practice only bibliomancy when it comes to reading the scriptures. I have even heard it advocated to only proof-text and never to read the books of scripture as integrated works. I think this is like looking at one square inch of the Mona Lisa at a time.

  36. “The theology of the Book of Mormon is built on top of the theology of Martin Luther,”

    Jared,

    Can you flesh this out?

  37. “With regard to the tremendous aesthetic value of traditional Christian theology, it is hard to argue with you. Traditional theology is like Bach where Mormonism is like the Clash. Both are appealing but one is unquestionably more majestically beautiful.”

    Even as a huge fan of the Clash and frequent critic of Mormonism, I just about spit out my green tea with this comment.

    Mormonism is Jazz man. You know – like Coltrane? A Love Supreme? – improvisational, grass roots, regional and these days – established and a little short on flair. But maybe Traditional Christianity really is Bach – majestic highs and terrifying lows, with its sweeping ideas about Hell. But TC also benefits from its ancient mediterranean roots. And its art and design. Just beautiful.

    There’s a great bit on religion from comedian Bill Burr, where he mocks Scientology for being started by a guy named “Ron”. Modern religious leaders just don’t capture our imagination like the ancients that are unfamiliar and mysterious to us. Burr then concludes that, on second thought, more modern religions aren’t terribly different than virgin birth narratives and the like. They’re just more familiar to us – which makes them harder to mock. Mormonism loses some aura by being born in America in the 19th C for example. But, I would say, Mormonism holds a dynamic and even majestic theological aesthetic as well. If you’re having trouble finding it, I’d suggest start reading more Blake Ostler and less Stephen Robinson.

    http://www.amazon.com/Exploring-Mormon-Thought-Attributes-vol/dp/1589580036

  38. I agree it seems more Wesleyan. I see a lot of Wesley’s “On Christian Perfection” in it. Likeley a concept and book he would be quite familiar with.

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