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.

Serious Mormon Questions for Evangelicals

A frequent commentor named Ray has asked a series of questions. I appreciate these questions because they get at some of the most deeply seeded controversies between Mormons and Evangelicals. A full post (or book) could be written on each question so don’t expect my answers to be completely comprehensive, just an introduction to each issue. The comments section might be a great place to direct Ray and other Mormons to further resources on each topic.

You’ll notice that I will not make a lot of Bible references in my answers. This is not because my answers are not informed by the Bible but because I can answer these questions much quicker and make the length much shorter if I leave them out. To be sure, I can direct anyone interested to the Biblical texts that support my answers.

I have proposed that continuing in sin can cause some one to lose their salvation. Do you agree or do you think once saved always saved? What does “endure to the end” mean to you?

Continue reading

Hearts of the Scattered

A controversy has emerged in the Evangelical community of Utah.  Shawn McCraney announced on his television show his rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity.

I watched the program and found that Shawn seems to be reacting against Mormonism and Mormon apologetics perhaps more than the orthodox teachings of Christianity.  His arguments are first and foremost a rejection of tri-theism (a belief in three gods) and second a anti-parrallel driven narrative.  Whereas some Mormon apologist are quick to pick up on any parallel from the ancient world as evidence that LDS particulars are justified, Shawn has adopted the inverse argument that any parrallel to anything outside of Christianity proves it must be heretical (This argument is often employed against Christian spiritual disciplines as proof that they are New Age).  What’s even more troubling is that one of his primary sources is a dubiously conspiratorial, Anti-Catholic book called “The Two Babylons”.

I wasn’t so much concerned with his emphasis against the existence of three gods as much as I was by his unwillingness to engage the arguments that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three distinct persons. Towards the end of the program a caller challenged him with an argument that’s a low entry point into Trinitarianism and he was unwilling to engage the argument.

Shawn has a confrontational style and without a force to oppose I think he loses what makes him interesting to watch. This is not the first, nor I think the last time he will set himself up against the Evangelical community in Utah. I’m sure many Mormons are pleased to see this fracture, proclaiming a pox on both of their houses.  It will be interesting to see how Shawn and Utah Evangelicals interact in the near future. Some responses have already begun to appear.  My guess is that without correction, Shawn will be disavowed by Evangelicals and his teachings declared just as heretical as Mormonism’s.

Christ Came Down

The simple birth of a baby in an overcrowded village came to mean a great many things:

Following, then, the holy Fathers, we all unanimously teach that our Lord Jesus Christ is to us:

One and the same Son, the Self-same Perfect in Godhead, the Self-same Perfect in Manhood; truly God and truly Man; the Self-same of a rational soul and body; co-essential with the Father according to the Godhead, the Self-same co-essential with us according to the Manhood; like us in all things, sin apart; before the ages begotten of the Father as to the Godhead, but in the last days, the Self-same, for us and for our salvation (born) of Mary the Virgin Theotokos as to the Manhood; One and the Same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten; acknowledged in Two Natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference of the Natures being in no way removed because of the Union, but rather the properties of each Nature being preserved, and (both) concurring into One Person and One Hypostasis; not as though He were parted or divided into Two Persons, but One and the Self-same Son and Only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ; even as from the beginning the prophets have taught concerning Him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ Himself hath taught us, and as the Symbol of the Fathers hath handed down to us

The NY Times and Religious Controversy

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.

Bruce Was On to Something

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.