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The Doctrine of The Trinity
in LDS and "Catholic"1 Contexts
In this essay I would like to offer, in the spirit of inter-religious
dialogue, some thoughts on what must surely be the religiously sensitive
person's most beautiful object of contemplation: the nature of God. In
particular, I want to explore the understanding of God as a Trinity of
persons, as articulated in the historic Creed of the Council of Nicaea
(325 CE).2 I reproduce here by way
of introduction my own translation of the text of the Nicene Creed
interspersed with relevant Scripture passages:
What do non-LDS Christians mean when they speak of God as one Being,
three persons? How does this conception of God, shared by Roman
Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Protestants, differ from the
understanding of God's oneness and threeness within the Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-day Saints?4 This
short essay makes no pretensions to offer any definitive answers to such
questions, but rather will attempt to lay some groundwork which may help
people to appreciate what exactly mainstream Christians mean when they
speak of the Holy Trinity.5 This is
not intended to be a defense of the Trinity, but rather an explanation
of how the doctrine is understood within the framework of historic,
Economy and Ontology in "Catholic" Trinitarianism
3. First of all, mainstream Christians distinguish between the trinitarian economy of God, and the trinitarian ontology of God.6 What does that mean? These terms are an attempt to come to grips with two aspects of God's relationship to the world: his otherness (transcendence), and his presence in the world (immanence).
God and Creation
4. God is not, in his essence, a part of the space-time continuum which we might designate the "created order."7 It is necessary to distinguish between the Life of God, which is grounded in Divine Sovereignty (Exodus 3:14), and the life of the contingent world.8 Luke attributes the following statement to Paul the apostle in the book of Acts: "The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; neither is He served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all life and breath and all things" (Acts 17:24-25).9
5. Genesis 1:1 tells us, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." It is illuminating to compare this with John 1:1, which says, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." So apparently, God and his divine Word both existed prior to "the beginning." Paul writes: "And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together" (Colossians 1:17). Here we see that Christ, as God's image (Col. 1:15), precedes the created order, and the very existence of that order is sustained by Christ. The same message rings true in Proverbs 8:22-31. There we read that "from everlasting" (Prov. 8:23) God existed with his Wisdom, before the heavens and the earth were brought into existence. Because of the fact that Genesis 1:2 mentions the role of the Spirit of God in creation, as well as the connection between God's Spirit and Wisdom in passages such as the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon (7:22-25) and Psalm 104:24 & 30, some theologians have taken this to imply that God's Wisdom is associated with the Holy Spirit, just as God's Word is associated with the Son. In light of the fact that the language of Colossians 1:15ff., and Hebrews 1:2-3 applies such imagery to Christ however,10 it is probably best not to draw rigid distinctions with respect to the relationship of God's Wisdom to the Son and the Spirit. The same ambiguity exists with regard to God's Word for that matter, since the very act of speaking implies breath, which might easily be associated with the Spirit (Hebrew ruach cf. Isaiah 40:7-8; 59:21).
Ontology and Intra-Relationality in God
6. At any rate, traditional Christians insist that one not confuse the non-contingent essence of God, with the space-time continuum of the "post-beginning" created order.11 Yet, the scriptural allusions to God's Wisdom and Word existing with God in the beginning imply that within the very structure of the non-contingent "be-ing" of God there is internal relationality. God possesses non-contingent Life within himself---in fact, non-contingent Life is a fairly good working definition of the "essence" of God---yet this Life is shared in a plurality of self-distinction.12 God shares his Sovereign Life with Others. Orthodox Christians understand those Others to be the Son and the Holy Spirit, who may be distinguished from the Father insofar as God may be distinguished from the Wisdom of God and the Word of God, yet not so far as to postulate that God could ever be God-without-Wisdom, or God-without-Word. An essential continuity between the self-grounded identity of God and the begotten Son and proceeding Holy Spirit, is indicated by the very phrases "Son of God" and "Spirit of God." The Word is the Son as "Son OF God," and Wisdom is the Spirit as "Spirit OF God." It is the OF which signifies that the divine essence is shared by each self-distinction.13 The Son and Spirit are not creations of God; nor was there ever a time when the Son was not Son, or the Spirit was not Spirit. From another angle, never was there a time when God was a Son/Word-less God, or a Spirit/Wisdom-less God. The essential nature of who God eternally is, irrespective of the created order, is displayed in this plurality of self-distinction.
God and Extra-Relationality in the Divine Economy
7. Thus far we have been attempting to talk about God's ontology, or being; and we have given some reasons why traditional Christians speak of a non-contingent essence of God.14 But we must move beyond the realm of ontology to that of "economy." This is a move from contemplating God as he eternally and non-contingently is "in himself," to speaking of God as he moves and acts in the created world. God is not only other than the world, but also "immanent" in the world. The same Paul who insisted that God is not a contingent being, also affirms that, "He is not far from each one of us" (Acts 17:27). God not only exists non-contingently apart from the world, but he also chooses to exist as a distinguishable person within the world. The world is not a part of God, neither does the world exist apart from God, but rather the world exists "by" God. Paul says that "in him we live and move and exist" (Acts 17:28). Yet the intimate relationality between God and the created order does not thereby make God "part of" the created order. God in his essence remains distinct, which is why the Apostle quickly adds: "Being then the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature (to theion) is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man" (Acts 17:29 cf. Romans 1:20-23).15
8. Just as we saw that there is, according to classical Christian thought, a trinitarian structure to the non-contingent Being of God, so likewise there is a trinitarian structure to the historical "economy" of God. Or in other words, God is three not only in himself, but is also God three-fold "for us." God's non-contingent being is reflected in the self-revelation of God in the realm of contingency. Hence, the New Testament scriptures present us with God in three "modes of existence." God is the Father who sends his Son into the world on a mission of redemption (John 3:16; Galatians 4:4). And God is the Father who sheds abroad the Spirit of His Son upon all those who are called into the fellowship of the Divine Life (Romans 5:5-6). The apostle Paul expresses it in these words: "And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!' " (Galatians 4:6). To receive "eternal life" is to be taken up into the non-contingent Life of the eternal Godhead.16 It is the Life which is revealed in the intimate fellowship of the Father and the Son (1 John 1:1-3). We earlier suggested that "non-contingent Life" is at least one serviceable working definition of the "essence" of God. This finds confirmation in 1 John 5:20, which states: "And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding in order that we might know Him who is true, and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life" (emphasis added). The true God is the one in whom to be is to be in Jesus Christ. Because the self-distinctions of Father and Son are both grounded in the same essence, the same shared Life, the definition of the true God, as opposed to the idols of the world (1 John 5:21), is not exhausted either by the revelation of the Father alone, or the Son alone. That is why John tells us, "Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also" (1 John 2:23).
9. This is why Jesus could say, "He who believes in Me does not believe in Me, but in Him who sent Me. And he who beholds Me beholds the One who sent Me" (John 12:44-45). Likewise Jesus tells Thomas, "If you had known me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him" (John 14:7). This does not mean that Jesus is the Father, as though there were no personal distinction between the two; but rather it means that the Son is one in essence with the Father (John 10:30). Jesus’ remark to Thomas functions rhetorically in preparation for that great confession which Thomas makes in John 20:28: "My Lord and my God!" The two persons may be distinguished with respect to their place in the divine economy, but not with respect to Deity (John 1:1). The Father and the Son mutually indwell one another (John 14:10-11); they share the same non-contingent Life (John 1:4; 8:58); and this is the life which believers are granted to participate in by grace (John 17:20-24). Because the Father, within the order of the divine economy, has granted to the Son to have Life "in himself" (John 5:26), which reflects the communion which has always existed between the two (John 17:5 & 24), the Son grants the life of God to all those who believe in him (John 17:2-3).
The Divine Economy and Soteriology
10. This three-fold structure to the divine economy pervades the discourse of the first-century apostolic witness.17 God condescends to reach down to man, displaying the trinitarian structure of the Divine Life which entered the world in the historical mission of the Son, and confronts the world with the Life-giving presence of the One God in the person of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:14-18). The trinitarian economy is witnessed at the baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3:13-17), whereby the identity of Jesus Christ is publicly unveiled. The "heavens were opened" (Matt. 3:16), and the true nature of Jesus Christ as the Son of God is attested by the Spirit (3:16), and the Father (3:17). The unique identity of Jesus is related by association with the Divine Others. John the Baptist realized the implications of this revelation: Jesus of Nazareth is none other than the Son of God (John 1:34), who existed prior to John (despite the fact that John was conceived six months earlier [Luke 1:24-26]), and has the authority to baptize the world with God's Spirit (John 1:33). This Messiah is none other than the incarnate presence of Israel's God, for whom John had been sent in preparation (Isaiah 40:3//Matt. 3:3).
11. This baptismal scene brings to light the triadic allusions in the Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah's prophecy. Within chapters 40-55 of Isaiah, we read of the future ministry of an enigmatic figure, the Suffering Servant (50:4-9), who at one and the same time seems to represent Israel's righteous remnant (49:3), as well as Israel's God (50:1-3). Isaiah 40:3 anticipates the earthly visitation of God, which will result in the display of "the glory of the LORD" (40:5). This glorious visitation is rooted in the revelation of God (40:5), and the immutable nature of God's Spirit (40:7) and Word (40:8). The Lord will come and bring about the "rule" (Hebrew mashal) of God by the strength of his own arm (40:10 cf. Revelation 22:12). When Israel's God visits the earth, he will be a shepherd to his people (40:11 cf. John 10:11). In 42:1, we read of God's Servant, the Chosen One, upon whom God's Spirit will rest; the One who will "bring forth justice to the nations." Here again we are confronted with Israel's God, the Servant, and the Spirit of God. This triad of God, Servant, and Spirit also appears in 48:16: "And now the Lord GOD has sent Me, and His Spirit." In 40:10 it is the Lord GOD (Adonai YHWH) himself who comes to shepherd Israel; whereas in 48:16, the Lord GOD (Adonai YHWH) is distinguished from the One who is "sent", and from the Spirit. Yet the One who is sent in verse 16 is none other than YHWH, the God of Israel, as the preceding context makes plain---the LORD is the speaker throughout 48:3-15. Despite the referential shift however, we find no hint that two Gods are in view in these passages; in fact, Isaiah takes great pains to emphasize the unrivalled exclusivity of the one true God (e.g. 40:25; 43:10; 44:6-8). Somehow the identity of the Servant, and the identity of Israel's God who sends the Servant are related to one another.18
12. This identification of the Servant, the one who is sent to bring salvation to Israel (Isaiah 49:5; 53:11), with Israel's God, who is in some sense both the Sender and the Sent, is amplified in light of three other considerations: 1) Isaiah 7:14 has already anticipated the coming of one who will be a "sign," and whose name will be "Immanuel" ("God is with us"). 2) Isaiah 11:1-4 has predicted the arrival of a messianic "branch" who will be endowed with the Spirit of God to bring judgment upon the earth (11:4 cf. 42:13). 3) Isaiah 57:13 promises that God will exalt the one who trusts him; and 57:15 identifies YHWH as the high and exalted One who dwells with the "crushed" (dakka cf. 53:5, 10). The same Hebrew roots (rum and nasa) which are used in 57:15 are also found in 52:13: "Behold, my Servant will prosper, he will be high (yarum) and exalted (nissa)"; and in 6:1: "I saw the Lord (adonai) sitting on a throne, high (ram) and exalted (nissa)." These two terms are rarely combined together in the Hebrew Bible.19 4) Hence perhaps it should come as no surprise that the Apostle Paul develops this Isaianic imagery in the hymnic passage of Philippians 2:6-11. Isaiah 53:12 is alluded to in Philippians 2:7, which immediately follows Paul's affirmation of Jesus’ pre-incarnational equality with God in verse 6. We can now see how it is that Paul derived the notion that the one who "emptied Himself" is none other than the one who "existed in the form of God" (verse 6).20
13. Lest there should be any doubt that Paul was thinking along these lines, in Philippians 2:10, Paul applies to Jesus the words of Isaiah 45:23: "I have sworn by Myself, the word has gone forth from My mouth in righteousness and will not turn back, that to Me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance." Yet in the same context Paul distinguished between Christ and the Father. It is God who exalts Christ Jesus (Phil. 2:9); and it is the Father who receives glory when Jesus Christ is confessed as Lord (2:11). Paul apparently saw in Isaiah 45:23 a reference to the Father and the Son, possibly on the basis of the reference to the word (Word?) which goes forth from God's mouth. But another basis of distinction may be based on the wording of the LXX (Greek) version of Isaiah 45:23, which reads: "to Me shall bow every knee, and every tongue shall confess to God." Paul may have distinguished between the "Me" of 45:23, and the "God" which is mentioned at the end of the verse; hence deriving a distinction between God (theos) and Lord (kurios), who both fall under the identity of the exclusive Deity proclaimed in 45:21-22.21
14. It is in the relationship of the one God to the Servant of Isaiah's prophecies that we see as poignantly as anywhere else the nature of the economic Trinity. God's three-fold identity as Father, Son and Spirit, is related to the historical progress of redemption. The One God who exists within himself, non-contingently as God, Wisdom and Word, as Father, Son and Spirit, is the One who reveals himself within the realm of contingency, within the constraints of the space-time continuum, as the three-fold God for us. The triune identity of God is historically unfolded in the story of salvation, whereby the eternal, sovereign, non-contingent "I AM" enters the fallen world, assumes a delimited role and identity over against others in space-time history, and both secures, as the Son, and sheds abroad, as the Holy Spirit, the eternal life of God. The historical life, death, and subsequent glorification of Jesus of Nazareth becomes nothing short of the historical experience of God.22 And the sending forth of the Holy Spirit to empower and indwell the Church, is nothing short of God's own historical "coming down" to dwell in the midst of his people (Ezekiel 37:14 & 27).23
Contingency, Sovereignty and LDS Theism
15. The Latter-days Saints, as I understand them, are eager to affirm the Sovereignty and Eternality of God, but they have serious reservations about the doctrine of Immutability and Spirituality as it is often understood within Classical Christianity. All I can do here is stake out the boundaries within which I believe constructive conversation must take place.
16. The LDS affirm that God is the Eternal Creator of all things, although this is subject to a range of understanding within Mormon thought. The Lectures on Faith 2.2 states plainly: "We here observe that God is the only supreme governor and independent being in whom all fullness and perfection dwell; who is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient; without beginning of days or end of life" (emphasis added). God's uniqueness is maintained in the words "only supreme governor;" his self-existence is contained in the term "independent being;" and his eternality is expressed in the words "without beginning."
17. The LDS Book of Moses, affirms these same truths in its creation account. The account begins with an affirmation of the eternality of God: "I am the Lord God Almighty, and Endless is my name; for I am without beginning of days or end of years; and is not this endless?" (Moses 1:3).24 This statement is a theological affirmation of God's unique position in relation to the created order, for the following verse continues: "And, behold, thou art my son; wherefore look, and I will show thee the workmanship of mine hands; but not all, for my works are without end, and also my words, for they never cease" (Moses 1:4 emphasis added). Verse 4 may imply that just as God is eternal, so are his "works" and his "words." Although this is consistent with the LDS view that the universe is eternal, it still maintains that the eternality of the created order issues out of the eternal creativity of God. I do not believe these affirmations can be limited to this earth and its order of reality, for Moses 1:33 affirms that God has created "worlds without number," and in 1:38 God says, "there is no end to my works, neither to my words." This not only maintains a theological connection between God's decree ("words") and whatever exists ("works"), but it maintains that one is contingent upon the other, perhaps not temporally, but certainly logically: "And by the word of my power, have I created them" (Moses 1:32 emphasis added). This holds true for both the physical (Moses 2) and spiritual (Moses 3) realms.
18. The LDS Book of Abraham does not necessarily contain any information that would conflict with the eternality nor the sovereignty of God, although certain statements within it are sometime interpreted in such a manner as to raise serious questions about God's uniqueness in relation to the created order. Abraham 3:3,9 does not necessarily imply that there are orders of reality above and beyond the jurisdiction of the God of this world-order, although one could read such an implication out of such references. Abraham 3:16 states: "If two things exist, and there be one above the other, there shall be greater things above them." This does not necessarily imply that there are intelligences greater than the God of this order, for the "greater things" may refer simply to the members of the Godhead themselves: "therefore Kolob is the greatest of all the Kokaubeam that thou hast seen, because it is nearest unto me" (3:16 cf. 3:24). Abraham 3:18 does affirm the eternality of intelligent spirits; but 3:19-22 goes on to affirm that God is superior to all other spirits/intelligences, and nowhere is it implied that God, nor the one "like unto God" (3:24), was ever "organized" (cf. 3:22). This certainly allows for the view that although all intelligences are eternal in a temporal sense, they owe their "being" or "organization" to the non-contingent God.
Mormon theology may have no room for a view of God as the "First
Cause," but there is room for conceiving of God---by which I mean
the Godhead---as the universe's "Eternal Cause."25
God may not precede the created order in a temporal sense, but that does
not have to prevent LDS theologians from affirming that there is a line
of demarcation between God as he is "in himself," and God as
he is for the created order. The balance which trinitarian theology
seeks to maintain is to distinguish between the ontology and the
economy of God without sacrificing the relation between the two. It is
my suspicion that LDS theology may have the weakness of failing to
distinguish between the ontological Trinity and the economic Trinity
because of an exaggerated sense of continuity between God and the
created order which is not a necessary element of Mormon
theological and philosophical discourse.26
Is there a basis upon which some LDS thinkers might reflect more upon
the relationship between God's non-contingent life and his
self-revelation in the (logically) contingent world?
BEING AND PERSONS
A further step which may help to increase understanding in religious
discourse between traditional Christians and Latter-day Saints, is to
explore more carefully what is meant by the sorts of distinctions which
are drawn between terms such as "Being" and
"person." The doctrine of the Trinity insists that God is
three with respect to personal distinction, but one with respect to
Divine Nature. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are essentially
the same, but personally differentiated. What is the purpose of drawing
Defining the Boundaries
21. It first of all must be kept in mind that there are two viewpoints which most Christians perceive to be unscriptural theological frameworks: modalism and polytheism. Polytheism can simply be defined as offering religious devotion to more than one God.27 Since Christians from the earliest stages of church history have offered prayer, worship and religious devotion to Jesus Christ alongside God the Father, to separate the Son and the Father as two Gods rather than one would seem to fall into the error of polytheism, and hence idolatry. The only other solution would be to withhold prayer and worship for the Father alone, which would seem to contradict the pattern of religious devotion attested in the New Testament witness.28
The other error which most Christians believe it necessary to avoid is
modalism. Modalism arises from the failure to maintain a proper
theological continuity between the economic Trinity and the ontological
Trinity. The three persons are explained as three "roles"
which God plays for our sake; but these manifestations are not believed
to reflect who God actually is within himself. In other words, the
problem with modalism is that God essentially remains unknown.
Father, Son and Holy Spirit, are simply names which God assumes within
history, but they do not correspond to the Reality of who God actually
is. God in his essence remains veiled and hidden, and we are left with
no objective referential ground by which to define or describe the God
we claim to be in relationship with.29
It is these two perceived errors which orthodox trinitarianism attempts
Defining the Terms
At this point it may be helpful to define some terms which many
Christians use as they explain their understanding of God:30
1) "Substance" (Latin substantia) or "being"
(Greek ousia) is that of which an objectively real person or
thing consists. All real objects (whether spiritual or material) have
"substance," otherwise they are mere figments of the
"Essence" (Latin essentia) or "nature" (Latin
natura) refers to what someone or something is like;
or what qualities, powers or characteristics are by definition
possessed by a person or thing. 3) "Subsistent" (Latin subsistentia)
or "person," (Latin persona) are words which are used
to refer to a given instance of a particular substance. Orthodox
Christians believe that God is one eternal, personal and spiritual
divine substance,32 who exists in
three modes of subsistence, or three self-distinctions.
24. Now when we come to the biblical evidence a decision has to be made. Does one start with the assumption that God is one, and then attempt to explain how God can be three; or does one begin with the knowledge that God is three, and then attempt to explain in what way God can be one? This decision is an important one, and as we will see, it is the basis of important differences of understanding among Christians of different traditions. Protestants and Roman Catholics, who tend to be under greater influence from the heritage of the Western tradition, generally start with the assumption of God's oneness. The Eastern Orthodox Church on the other hand follows the heritage of the East, and hence tends to begin with the knowledge of God's threeness. Whether consciously or not, the LDS Church appears to side with the Eastern tradition in this matter.33
25. In the opinion of the present writer, the Western tradition is correct to begin with the assumption of God's oneness, and move from there to an explanation of God's threeness. Revelation begins with the Old Testament, not the New; and hence it seems fundamentally misguided to begin building a portrait of God based upon later stages of revelation. One must first come to grips with what the Hebrew Bible teaches us about the nature of God; and then upon that foundation we can establish a clearer understanding of God as derived from the New Testament witness. Perhaps no truth is more fundamental to the religion of the Old Testament than the revelation of Deuteronomy 6:4: "Hear O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!" When the Lord Jesus was asked by a Jewish scribe what was the most important commandment of all, he replied: "The foremost is, ‘Hear, O Israel! The LORD our God is one LORD" (Mark 12:29). Hence there is good reason to take Deuteronomy 6:4 as the capstone of true biblical religion. St. James took the shema to be such a fundamental truth that even the demons recognized it (James 2:19).
Yet alongside this fundamental truth of God's oneness, we find the New
Testament scriptures describing God the Father alongside two other
persons: the Son and the Holy Spirit. Matthew 28:19 reads: "Go
therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the
name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit." 2 Corinthians
13:14 states: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of
God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all." In 1
Peter 1:2 we read of those who are chosen "according to the
foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit,
that you may obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood."
How are statements such as these to be understood in light of the
monotheistic heritage of the Old Testament? Clearly these three persons
are to be understood in some sort of close relationship with one
another; but does this mean that we are to speak of three Gods instead
Three Key New Testament Texts
27. There are indications in the New Testament witness of how such statements ought to be reconciled with one another. In 1 Corinthians 8:4-6 St. Paul discusses the matter of pagan idolatry, and it is clear that Deuteronomy 6:4-5 is in the background.34 Paul brings up the matter of loving God in 8:3, which brings to mind Deuteronomy 6:5. In 8:4, we read that most Christians understand in reality that, "there is no God but one." What Paul means is clarified by 8:7, where the Corinthians are reminded that, "not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol." Sandwiched in between these two statements we read as follows from verses 5-6: "For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords [i.e. in the pagan religions], yet for us [i.e. in the Christian religion] there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through him."35 The wording of 8:6 clearly seems to reflect Deuteronomy 6:4; and what is significant is that Paul distinguishes two persons in Moses’ words, based on the terms YHWH and elohim. In Paul's understanding, the term "God" used here refers to the Father, whereas the term "LORD" refers to Jesus Christ. Thus both the Father and the Son are associated together under the one Deity spoken of by Moses! Hence, the exclusive love which Deuteronomy 6:5 insists must be reserved for "the LORD your God" would be understood to embrace both the Father and the Son.
28. A second passage which may bring clarity in this regard is John 10:30, where Jesus is depicted as claiming: "I and the Father are one." Mainstream Christians generally take this to mean that the Father and the Son share the same essence, or divine nature. The usual alternative to this is to take these words to mean that the Father and the Son are only one in purpose and action. However there are good reasons for favoring the "one in essence" reading: 1) John 1:1 has already informed us that the Father and the Son are both God (theos not merely theios).36 2) The issue at stake in John 10:24ff. is the identity of Jesus, not his union of will with the Father. 3) The Jews clearly understood Jesus to make claiming to be God, as seen by their response: "For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God" (10:33 emphasis added). John records their statement very carefully. What is at stake is a question of "be-ing." The Jews insist on Jesus being merely a man; the rhetorical contrast which John intends the reader to pick up insists on Jesus being God; which is exactly what the Jews understood his claim to be. Hence the oneness which Jesus claims with the Father in 10:30 is best understood ontologically as a oneness of Be-ing. It is this same identity of Be-ing which Jesus claims in 8:58: "before Abraham came into being I AM" (cf. Exodus 3:14). In 8:54, Jesus identifies his Father as the one whom the Jews claim as their God; hence this I AM statement asserts an ontological equality (con-substantiality) between Jesus and the Father. Again, this should come as no surprise, since the reader has already encountered these words in the very first verses of John's gospel: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God" (John 1:1-2 emphasis added). The copulative verb eimi occurs four times (in the imperfect tense) in the space of two verses, which tells us that the identity between God the Father and God the Word (the Son) is a matter of ontology, or being.37
29. It is this understanding of the ontological identity of the Father and the Son which lies behind the controversial homoousion clause in the Nicene Creed which we translated "essentially the same as the Father." The Father and the Son are understood by orthodox Christians to be "of the same essence," because the Son is begotten of the Father's own being (ek tes ousias tou patros).38
This understanding finds further support in at least one other New
Testament text. In Hebrews 1:3 we read of the Son: "who being the
brightness of the glory and an exact representation of his
essence" (hypostaseos autou).39
The Son is an exact representation of the essential nature of God. If
God were to "image-ine" himself, this is what his mind's eye
would see. The Son cannot be split off from the essence of God any more
than the brightness of a light can be separated from the light itself.
Hence the imagery of the first clause of this verse, which describes the
Son as "the brightness of the glory."40
This same idea is expressed several times in John's gospel: "And
the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory,
glory as of the only [Son] from the Father, full of grace and
truth" (John 1:14). "No man has seen God at any time; the one
and only God, being in the bosom of the Father, he has explained
Him" (1:18).41 "Not that
any man has seen the Father, except the One who is from God; He has seen
the Father" (6:46). "These things Isaiah said, because He saw
His glory, and he spoke of Him. . . . And he who beholds Me beholds the
One who sent Me" (12:41 & 45). Or in the words of the Nicene
Creed: "God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,
begotten not made, essentially the same (homoousion) as the
The Essence, the Persons, and the Latter-day Saints
31. It is sometimes assumed that the distinction between God's essence or substance, and the divine persons is a unique feature of Nicene Trinitarianism, and that LDS thought has no room for such subtleties, but this is not the case. B. H. Roberts and Orson Pratt both distinguished between God's underlying nature (substance) and the particular incarnations of that nature (subsistents). Orson Pratt writes: "We are compelled to admit that the personage of God must be eternal, exhibiting no marks of design whatever, or else we are compelled to believe that the all-powerful, self-moving substance of which he consists organized itself. But in either case, whether his person be eternal or not, His substance, with all its infinite capacities of wisdom, knowledge, goodness, and power, must have been eternal."43
32. B. H. Roberts confesses: "The Latter-day Saints believe in the unity of the creative and governing force or power of the universe as absolutely as any orthodox Christian sect in the world."44 Roberts here is using the term "governing force" in a sense intended to approximate the Classical Christian term "Divine Being." Elsewhere,45 he describes individual Gods as radiations of "the same nature and qualities and attributes." When the individual Gods are considered in terms of their essential unity, they are described as "blended into one divine essence, constituting the spirit of the Gods . . . one spirit essence in which all are united. This is God immanent in the universe; omnipresent, and present with power; omniscient, all knowing; omnipotent, almighty. This united force and power of all the Gods of the universe . . . holds all things in an eternal present." Did Roberts believe that the individual incarnations of the Universal Intelligence have independent existence, once separated from their source? No: "But this Spirit of God is never separated from its source, any more than rays of light are separated from the luminous bodies whence they proceed."46
33. Many Latter-day Saints appear reticent to speak of distinctions between God's nature and the persons who possess that nature, but there is precedent for it in LDS theological discourse. Truman Madsen describes B. H. Robert's view in the following terms: "There is one God, ‘the Eternal God of all other gods’ (D&C 121:32). That means there is only one God-nature to which the children of God may be linked by the Spirit."47 This is an area which I believe holds the potential for understanding the mystical-monotheistic underpinning of the earliest LDS "plurality of Gods" language, as well as offering a point of constructive dialogue between LDS and "catholic" Christians. Both camps are agreed that there is a sense in which God is one in nature, yet plural in person. Simplistic representations of polytheism in Mormon thought and philosophical sophistry in Classical Christian thought need to be set aside in order that meaningful theological exchanges can continue to take place.
UNITY AND DIVERSITY
There is one final issue which ought to be addressed in the interest of
increasing understanding between traditional Christians and LDS on the
topic of the Trinity. That is the matter of unity and diversity in
theological understanding of the nature of God's oneness and threeness.
Many Christians give the impression that all who believe that God is a
Trinity (essentially one, but personally differentiated) are in complete
agreement as to the nature of the unity of God's Being. That
however is not the case, and obscuring the different viewpoints on this
subject does not do anyone any favors. There are at least three areas
where certain differences of understanding need to be recognized.
The Apologists and the Nicene Fathers
First of all, there are differences between the views of the Apologists
(second and early third centuries CE), and those of the post-Nicene
Fathers (fourth and fifth centuries CE). The Apologists (e.g. Justin,
Athenagoras, Tertullian, Irenaeus,) did not express their understanding
of God in exactly the same manner as did later Fathers (e.g. Athanasius,
the Cappadocians, Augustine). The Apologists’ main opponents were
gnostics and modalists; the Arian controversy had not yet arisen, and
hence they cannot be expected to have formulated their definitions in
light of later controversy. J. N. D. Kelly outlines two of the primary
differences between the earlier and later stages of understanding:
36. For the Apologists, the Son and the Spirit were not eternally con-substantial persons, but rather extensions of God's essence who became distinct "persons" for the purposes of creation and redemption.49 We offer two quotes here by way of illustration; one from Tertullian and one from Athenagoras. Tertullian writes:
Likewise note the following statement from the pen of Athenagoras:
There is both continuity and discontinuity between the views of these
earlier writers and those of the post-Nicene period. The continuity is
in the fact that the three Persons were each understood to be of the
same "substance" and hence fully God, yet personally
distinguished from one another. But there is discontinuity in that the
Apologists held to an essentially Monarchian view of the Deity. The
Father is God in the proper sense; the Son and the Spirit derive their
divinity by sharing in the essence which belongs to the Father as the
source of the Godhead. It is also unclear in these earlier writers how
the conclusion could be avoided that there once was a time when the Son
and the Spirit did not exist as distinct persons. The Son and the
Spirit always existed within God as Word and Wisdom (Irenaeus), but not
necessarily as personal subsistences alongside the Father.
The East and the West
39. A second distinction that needs to be drawn lies between the views of the Eastern and Western theological traditions. The most influential exponents of the point of view which came to prevail in the West are Athanasius (ca. 295-373CE) and Augustine (ca. 354-430CE). The most prominent of the Eastern theologians are the great Cappadocian Fathers: Gregory Nazianzen, Gregory Nyssen and Basil, who were most active from the period 360-81CE. The Cappadocians are credited with offering a more clearly articulated understanding of the con-substantial relationship of the Holy Spirit to the other two persons---an issue which was not adequately addressed by the Nicene Council.52 What is the major point of difference between the Eastern and Western Church? It has to do with the understanding of the relationship of the Father to the Monarchy of the Godhead.53 Both East and West are agreed that the Father has a certain priority of position within the Trinity. The Father alone is unbegotten and non-proceeding. But does the Monarchy, the font of Deity, reside in the Father's person, or in his Being? Is the Son begotten of the Father's person, or his Being? Does the Spirit proceed from the Father's person, or his Being? If, as the Eastern Church insists, the font of Deity resides in the Father's person, then the Spirit clearly must proceed from the Father alone, since the Son does not possess the Father's person. But if the font of Deity resides in the Father's Being, then the conclusion may be drawn that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, since all are agreed that the Father and the Son are con-substantial, that is, that they are identical in essence. Largely due to the influence of Augustine, the Western Church gradually settled on the view that the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son, and eventually the words "and the Son" were added to the text of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (381CE) in the sixth century in conjunction with the Third Council of Toledo (589CE).
40. This argument has important theological ramifications. If the font of Deity is located in the Father's person, then the divine nature of the Son and the Spirit will of necessity be a derived divinity. In fact, it is a general tendency of the Eastern Fathers (Gregory Nazianzen excluded) to speak of God the Father as the cause of the Deity of the Son and the Spirit. The issue at stake is whether or not each of the Persons of the Trinity can be spoken of properly as God in their own right (autotheos).54
41. There remains an element of ontological subordinationism in the language of the Eastern view, which in the mind of those inclined toward the view of the Western tradition leaves the door open to implicit Arianism. Furthermore, by making the one ousia which is shared by the three persons abstract, and locating it in the person of the Father, the Eastern view confuses divine substance (Deity) with divine nature (Divinity), and hence leaves the door open to tritheism. As Donald Macleod notes: "The core, then, is clear: the essence of the Son and the Holy Spirit cannot be subordinate in any sense to the essence of the Father because it is one and the same essence, equally self-existent in each person. Consequently, such terms as ‘begotten’ and ‘proceeding’ apply only to the persons of the Son and Spirit, not to their essence. Otherwise, we have three divine beings."55
42. There are dangers inherent in both viewpoints.56 The Eastern Church charges the West with subordinating the person of the Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son; and furthermore suspects that the Western tradition leaves an open door to the heresy of modalism. The Western Church charges the East with subordinating the Son to the Father; and furthermore suspects that the Eastern tradition leaves an open door to the heresy of tritheism. The present writer is inclined to side with the West in this matter, and believes that the weight of biblical evidence favors the view that the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son.57 But the main point in this context is that both East and West fall under the category of "orthodox" Christianity; both in good conscience affirm the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. However their respective viewpoints on the procession of the Holy Spirit are reflective of fundamentally different understandings of the nature of the "oneness" of the Trinity. The West insists that the three eternal Persons share a common Deity---each Person is autotheos. The East maintains that the three eternal Persons share a common Divinity---the Father alone is Deity in a proper sense (autotheos).58
Many popular-level treatments of the doctrine of the Trinity, especially
in evangelical literature, offer only a superficial discussion of this
matter if they even mention it at all, generally relegating this
argument to the trash heap of ivory tower technicalities for
"theologians" to quibble about.59
But passing over the difficult issues in order to increase reader
accessibility doesn’t do anyone any favors. Theology is not a task for
those who are unwilling to stretch their minds and grapple with
Social Trinity vs. Modal Trinity
44. This brings us to one final line of distinction which needs to be drawn if our discussions concerning the Holy Trinity are to rise above the level of vague generalities. In contemporary theological and philosophical discussion, there are two heuristic approaches to understanding the Trinity. There is a "social" model, and there is a "psychological" or "modal" (not "modalistic") model. Generally speaking, these two approaches can be traced back to the differences between the East and the West in their articulation of the nature of the "oneness" of the Godhead; but the current "social" model is also largely driven by perceived philosophical difficulties with the doctrine of the Trinity as articulated in Western manifestos such as the so-called Athanasian Creed. The "modal" or "psychological" model goes back to Augustine, and has been advocated by important thinkers in our century such as Karl Barth, Karl Rahner, Donald Bloesch, Kelly James Clark and Thomas F. Torrance.60 The "social" model is more heavily indebted to the Cappadocians, and is represented by theologians such as Cornelius Plantinga, Leonardo Boff, Jürgen Moltmann, Richard Swinburne, Millard Erickson and Clark Pinnock.61
45. What is the difference between these two approaches? Essentially they differ as to their contemplative ground, or starting point. The psychological/modal approach begins with the ontological oneness of God's Being and uses social analogies to explain how the Persons relate to one another. The social approach begins with the inter-relation of the Persons, and articulates the nature of their oneness within the construct of their perichoresis or "mutual indwelling" (John 14:10-11). The psychological/modal model does not deny the idea of perichoresis; but neither does it employ this concept as a means of explaining the ontological "oneness" of the three Persons. In other words, the two models differ as to their understanding of the significance and function of the doctrine of perichoresis. One (the social construct) uses the concept of "mutual indwelling" to explain how the three eternal Persons can be "one." The other (the modal construct) uses the concept of "mutual indwelling" to illustrate the internal relationality of God's Being.
46. The primary illustration which the social model uses to describe the Trinity is that of a harmonious society. Allow me to illustrate this viewpoint with a citation from Cornelius Plantinga:
Essentially social trinitarianism begins with the construct of a
"divine society," and then bases the oneness of the Persons in
the harmony and union of activity of that society. Modal
trinitarianism begins with the construct of a "divine Being,"
and then uses social analogies to explain the inter-relationality of the
three Persons. Modal trinitarians do not understand the Father, Son and
Spirit as fundamentally a unified society; but rather the three Persons
are understood to be "modes of existence" of the one Being of
God. God's oneness is grounded in the non-contingent Life which God has
in himself; the threeness speaks of the relationality which is
comprehended within the Reality of God's self-existent Life. Donald
Bloesch expresses this approach:
49. The primary illustration of this approach is the "psychological" analogy of the relationship of the mind to the self.64 Gregory A. Boyd explains:
Discussions between traditional Christians and Latter-day Saints need to
take into consideration the spectrum of possibilities within the
framework of historic, orthodox Christianity. Mainstream Christians
should not give the misleading impression that there is no theological
"breathing room" for different trinitarian perspectives
underneath the umbrella of "orthodoxy;" and neither should
Latter-day Saints be quick to caricature the doctrine of the Trinity,
without taking the time to understand the spectrum of opinion which
orthodox Christians have arrived at as sincere people of good faith
attempt to grapple with the mystery (Isaiah 45:15; 1 Timothy 3:16) of
the relation of God's one essence to his triune self-distinction.
1 In this paper, I use the term "catholic" in the ecumenical sense of those historic bodies that accept the theological consensus of doctrine established in the first five centuries of Christian thought. The term "catholic" would thus include Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican/ Methodist and most Baptistic churches.
2 This is not to be confused with the later Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381CE. For the Greek and Latin texts of both versions see, Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom: Volume II: The Greek and Latin Creeds (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 57-60.
3 The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed elaborates: "[We believe] in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father (and the Son), who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, who spoke through the prophets."
4 For an extremely valuable introduction to the respective viewpoints, see Craig L. Blomberg and Stephen E. Robinson, How Wide the Divide? (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997), 111-42. Other important theological sources for grasping the range of LDS perspectives include: Stephen E. Robinson, Are Mormons Christians? (SLC: Bookcraft, 1991), 71-79; Blake T. Ostler, "Review of Beckwith and Parrish," FARMS Review of Books 8/2 (1996): 136-43; idem, "Review of Blomberg and Robinson," FARMS Review of Books 11/2 (1999): 155-65; idem, "Worshipworthiness and the Mormon Concept of God," Religious Studies 33 (1997): 315-26; David L. Paulsen and R. Dennis Potter, "How Deep the Chasm?," FARMS Review of Books 11/2 (1999): 250-57; Paul E. Dahl, "Godhead," in Jesus Christ and His Gospel: Selections from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (SLC: Deseret, 1994), 203-05; Orson Pratt, "Absurdities of Immaterialism," and "Great First Cause: Or the Self-Moving Forces of the Universe," in Orson Pratt's Works: Volume 2: Important Works in Mormon History (Orem, UT: Grandin Book Company, 1990); B. H. Roberts, The Truth, the Way, the Life: An Elementary Treatise on Theology, ed. John W. Welch (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 1994), 171-231; idem, The Mormon Doctrine of Deity (Bountiful, UT: Horizon, 1903), 26-32, 137-69; Roger R. Keller, Reformed Christians and Mormon Christians: Let's Talk! (USA: Pryor Pettengill, 1986), 67-79; and Robert L Millet, The Mormon Faith: A New Look at Christianity (SLC: Deseret, 1998), 28-32, 188-92.
6 On this distinction see for example Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996), 73-111; Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), 213-26; and Ted Peters, God as Trinity: Relationality and Temporality in Divine Life (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 146-87.
7 The position I am presenting here is consistent with, but does not demand, the doctrine of creation ex nihilo ("out of nothing"). Within a LDS framework, a meaningful line between Creator and creation could still be maintained by postulating that the elements of the universe are eternally contingent upon God. This is the position taken by B. H. Roberts, The Truth, The Way, The Life: An Elementary Treatise on Theology, ed. John W. Welch (Provo: BYU Studies, 1994), 71-72. Some LDS wrongly assume that their own tradition requires them to maintain that God himself is a contingent Being. On the contrary, Doctrine and Covenants 88:12-13 affirms that God's light/power "giveth life to all things" and "is the law by which all things are governed." Doctrine and Covenants 88:41 maintains that: "He comprehendeth all things, and all things are before him, and all things are round about him; and he is above all things, and in all things, and is through all things, and is round about all things; and all things are by him, and of him, even God, forever and ever." These references do not directly support the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, but they do seem to imply that the existence of "all things" is logically contingent upon God. For those interested in pursuing the matter, good defenses of the Classical Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo can be found in Paul Copan, "Is Creatio Ex Nihilo a Post-Biblical Invention? An Examination of Gerhard May's Proposal," Trinity Journal 17NS (1996): 77-93; and William Lane Craig, "Creation and Conservation Once More," Religious Studies 34 (1998): 177-88.
10 This is pointed out in all of the standard critical commentaries. For a helpful summary of the textual, historical and theological issues involved, see James D. G. Dunn, Christology in the Making (London: SCM, 1989), 163-212.
11 This follows from the fact that God alone is uncreated (Isaiah 44:24), and hence non-contingent. 2 Enoch expresses it this way: "Before anything existed at all, from the very beginning, whatever exists I created from the non-existent, and from the invisible the visible" (J24:2). "And there is no adviser and no successor to my creation. I am self-eternal and not made by hands" (J33:4).
13 This insight I draw from Cornelius Plantinga, "Social Trinity and Tritheism," in Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement: Philosophical and Theological Essays, eds. R. J. Feenstra and C. Plantinga (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), 28.
15 I recognize that man's identity as the "offspring of God" is an important element in LDS theological discourse. The point of Acts 17:29 of course is that we, like God, are spiritual beings, not that God is a material being. This is, in my opinion, the valid theological truth which underlines LDS language about the ontological continuum between God and men, although the point has become distorted and exaggerated in Mormon theology and philosophy.
16 It is this biblical concept which underlines theological discourse with respect to "deification" in Eastern Orthodoxy, as well as in the LDS tradition---although here the belief is placed within a different context of meaning. In Eastern Orthodoxy, deification is a divine gift which restores to fallen man what was lost in Adam; whereas in LDS theology deification is the full blossoming of human potential, which is achieved by overcoming the obstacle of mortality. For the respective viewpoints see Christoforos Stavropoulos, "Partakers of Divine Nature," in Eastern Orthodox Theology: A Contemporary Reader, ed. Daniel B. Clendenin (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 183-92; and K. Codell Carter, "Godhood," in Jesus Christ and His Gospel, 205-09.
17 For a discussion of some of the key passages, see Gordon D. Fee, "Christology and Pneumatology in Romans 8:9-11---and Elsewhere: Some Reflections on Paul as a Trinitarian," in Jesus of Nazareth: Lord and Christ, eds. J. B. Green and M. Turner (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 312-31.
22 To this extent, I am in complete agreement with Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology (London: SCM Press, 1974), 200-90. I also can sympathize with the concerns of Blake Ostler, expressed in "Worshipworthiness and the Mormon Concept of God," 322. When he writes that, "the biblical God who suffers qua God for the sins of Israel, or the Christian God who empties himself of his divine glory to suffer with, for and because of mortal sin and pain is regarded as greater than such an ummoved god [i.e. the classical Greatest Conceivable Being] by Mormons"--- I would concur. Mormon theology has provided a needed critique of Classical Theism with regard to God's ability to experience pain and suffering. I would also want to maintain against some forms of Classical Theism that God does experience pain qua God, but that he does so in Sovereign Freedom, not as an involuntary limitation. So I am thankful for the careful safeguard provided by Ostler in footnote 16: "God experiences that pain as his own experience but within the context of the fullness of the divine life" (emphasis added).
24 I do not believe references such as this can be explained through strained interpretations like that offered by Robert Millet, whom I recognize as one of the most thoughtful and careful theologians in the LDS Church: "Because he has held his exalted status for a longer period than any of us can conceive, he is able to speak in terms of eternity and can state that he is from everlasting to everlasting" (The Mormon Faith, 169). I don’t buy that; and there is nothing in the context of any canonical source of LDS doctrine which supports such an explanation.
25 I borrow this language from B. H. Roberts, The Truth, the Way, the Life, 71. When Roberts speaks of God as the "eternal cause" of the universe, he means Divine Spirit, or the God-nature, not any particular Person; however, I see no reason why the principle could not be applied to the members of the Godhead.
26 But does not the King Follett Discourse plainly state that God is a contingent Being? Apart from the fact that this sermon has never been canonized by the LDS Church, and leaving aside the fact that the edited version(s) of the address were never reviewed by Joseph Smith due to his untimely death, there are statements within the discourse itself which require caution. For instance, Smith states: "We say that God himself is a self-existent being. Who told you so? It is correct enough; but how did it get into your heads?" (See Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith [SLC: Deseret, 1993], 396.) Here, Joseph Smith affirms that God is a "self-existent" being. He goes on to affirm that the spirit/mind/intelligence of man exists "upon the same principles," but Smith falls short of equating God's "self-existence" with our own; rather, we exist upon the principles which are grounded in the Divine self-existence. B. H. Roberts understood that Smith was speaking of man's temporal, not ontological, co-equality with God: "Undoubtedly the proper word here would be ‘co-eternal,’ not ‘co-equal.’ This illustrates the imperfection of the report made in the sermon. For surely the mind of man is not co-equal with God except in the matter of its eternity" (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 450 n. 27).
27 I do not enter here into the question of whether or not Israelite religion was consistently monotheistic. Such discussions are often plagued by the failure to distinguish properly between the false religious practices of Israel, and the correct religious beliefs of Judaism. The belief in one unique and exclusive God is abundantly attested in ancient Jewish literature: Deuteronomy 4:35, 39; 32:39; 1 Samuel 2:2; 2 Samuel 7:22; Isaiah 43:11; 44:6; 45:5, 6, 14, 18, 21, 22; 46:9; Hosea 13:4; Joel 2:27; Wisdom of Solomon 12:13: Judith 9:11-14; Sirach 36:5; 2 Enoch J33:8; J36:1; J47:3; Testament of Abraham [A] 8:7. The fact that the people of Israel were often guilty of idolatry is attested both by archeological finds and by textual evidence (e.g. the polemics in the book of Judges and the prophets); but this does not negate the commitment to monotheism which is attested in the scriptural record. Neither does the fact that angels, and key patriarchs (e.g. Moses, Enoch) could be given the title ‘god’ obliterate the clear line in Judaism between the One God and the created order. The issue is not a matter of titles---it is the issue of identity. Neither does the fact that some Jewish texts attribute divine functions to God's Word and Wisdom (e.g. Wisdom of Solomon 7:22-8:1) compromise monotheism, for these are best understood as personifications of aspects of God's own identity---the very reason why they played such an important role in early Christological formulations.
28 On the origins of the inclusion of Jesus within God's identity, and the worship of Jesus in the historical context of monotheistic Judaism, see J. D. G. Dunn, "The Making of Christology---Evolution or Unfolding?," in Jesus of Nazareth: Lord and Christ, 437-52; Jürgen Moltmann (with Pinchas Lapide), Jewish Monotheism and Christian Trinitarian Doctrine (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), 45-57; Larry W. Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1998); idem, "First-Century Jewish Monotheism," Journal for the Study of the New Testament 71 (1998): 3-26; and Richard Bauckham, "Jesus, Worship of," in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 3:812-19; idem, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament, passim. For a different perspective, which explains such phenomena by arguing that Second Temple Judaism was not strictly monotheistic, cf. Peter Hayman, "Monotheism---A Misused Word in Jewish Studies?," Journal of Jewish Studies 42 (1991): 1-15; and Margaret Barker, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel's Second God (London: SPCK, 1992). See further discussion in Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports about Christianity and Gnosticism (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1977), 205-19.
30 A very helpful resource for understanding the technical vocabulary of Patristic and Scholastic theology, is Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985).
32 Cf. Alma 18:24-28. B. H. Roberts expressed the view that each God is an incarnation of the God-nature, which he equated with Divine Spirit: "And so in every inhabited world, and in every system of worlds, a God presides. Deity in his own right and person, and by virtue of the essence of him; and also by virtue of his being the sign and symbol of the Collectivity of the Divine Intelligences of the universe. Having access to all the councils of the Gods, each individual Deity becomes a partaker of the collective knowledge, wisdom, honor, power, majesty, and glory of the Body Divine---in a word, the embodiment of the Spirit of the Gods whose influence permeates the universe" (Mormon Doctrine of Deity, 168 emphasis added). Cf. also Lectures on Faith 5.2, where the Spirit of God is identified both as a person of the Godhead, as well as the "fullness of the mind of the Father," which is shared with the Son, thus constituting the ground of the unity of the Godhead: "or, in other words, these three constitute the great, matchless, governing and supreme, power over all things; by whom all things were created and made that were created and made, and these three constitute the Godhead, and are one." However the statements in this section are to be understood, it is clear that the nature of the oneness of the Father and the Son extends beyond mere unity of purpose and action.
34 For discussion see Dunn, Christology in the Making, 179-83; Hurtado, One God, One Lord, 161 notes 13, 14; Bauckham, God Crucified, 37-39; and Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 369-76.
35 I am well aware that Joseph Smith appears to have expressed a different interpretation of 1 Corinthians 8:5-6. See Scriptural Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 418-19. In my opinion however, Joseph Smith's doctrine of a "plurality of Gods" has been largely misunderstood by many LDS and non-LDS alike; and his comments on this verse provide a good example of the confusion: "Paul says there are Gods many and Lords many. I want to set it forth in a plain and simple manner; but to us there is but one God---that is pertaining to us; and he is in all and through all" (p. 418 bold emphasis added). These last words are crucial. There is only one ineffable Deity (D&C 121:32); but that Deity has manifold emanations which flow from the divine essence (D&C 88:12). God's essence fills the universe ("and he is in all and through all"), but that essence is incarnated or located in various divine personages---one of whom functions as the God of this world (D&C 88:13, 41). Hence Joseph Smith, like many contemporary Mormons, did apparently believe that other divine personages had jurisdiction over other worlds; but all of these "Gods" were ultimately incarnations of the "one God" whose essence "is in all and through all." Smith emphasizes that he is attempting to speak in a "plain and simple manner." It is Joseph Smith's "plain and simple" explanation which has led, in my opinion, to a great deal of misunderstanding in subsequent LDS theology, due to the tendency to latch onto his plurality of Gods language without due consideration of the mystical and conceptual context in which such statements were originally placed. The two key thinkers who it appears to me truly understood what Joseph Smith was attempting to communicate with his "plurality of Gods" language are Orson Pratt and B. H. Roberts. See for example Orson Pratt, "Great First Cause," in Orson Pratt's Works Volume 2: Important Works in Mormon History (Orem: Grandin Book Company, 1990); and B. H. Roberts, Mormon Doctrine of Deity (Bountiful: Horizon Publishers, 1903), 162-69; and idem, The Truth, The Way, The Life, ed. John W. Welch (Provo: BYU Studies, 1994), 48-49, 166-68; 224-31. Unlike some contemporary Mormons, Smith, Pratt and Roberts were not polytheists, for they believed each divine Person was an incarnation of the Universal Mind, the Master Power, the One Spirit, the Great First/Eternal Cause, the Eternal God (D&C 121:32).
36 See the detailed exegesis of this verse by Murray J. Harris, Jesus as God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), 51-71. Also Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to New Testament Christology (New York: Paulist Press, 1994), 187-88.
37 This argument allows for, but does not demand, a Platonic definition of "substance." By ontological oneness, or consubstantiality, we only mean that the person of Jesus Christ is included within the unique identity of the One God.
38 Richard Bauckham writes: "The credal slogan of Nicene theology---the homoousion (that Christ is of the same substance as the Father)---may look initially like a complete capitulation to Greek categories. But the impression is different when we understand its function within the trinitarian and narrative context it has in, for example, the Nicene and Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creeds. The context identifies God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and identifies God from the narrative of the history of Jesus. The homoousion in this context functions to ensure that this divine identity is truly the identity of the one and only God. In its own way it expresses the christological monotheism of the New Testament" (God Crucified, pp. 78-79).
39 The Greek word hypostasis did not have the technical meaning of "person" in contrast to ousia ("being"), which the term later came to signify in trinitarian formulations, largely due to the Cappadocian theologians. According to the Greek lexicon of Walter Bauer, in its first-century usage, hypostasis simply meant "substantial nature, essence, actual being, reality." Commenting on the usage here, we are told, "the Son of God is . . . a (n exact) representation of his (=God's) real being." W. Bauer, W. F. Arndt, and F. W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 847.
41 My translation, following the best witnesses which read [ho] monogenes theos (presence of the article varying), rather than the more widely attested ho monogenes huios. I am not at all persuaded by the arguments of Theodore Letis, to the effect that the reading "one and only God" is simply due to the influence of Valentinian gnostic interpretation of the prologue of John. This explanation fails to explain the use of this reading by orthodox Fathers (e.g. Clement, Basil, Gregory Nyssa, Epiphanius). Furthermore, Letis allows his theological biases to intrude on the evaluation of external support for the theos reading; and he does not explain the obvious parallelism between 1:1 and 1:18 which bracket the prologue, and which is disrupted by the huios reading. (See Theodore P. Letis, The Ecclesiastical Text: Text Criticism, Biblical Authority and the Popular Mind [Philadelphia: IRRBS, 1997], 107-32.) Neither is Bart Ehrman convincing in his attempts to explain the reading "the one and only God" as an example of "orthodox corruption" of the text. Ehrman explains away the parallelism between 1:1 and 1:18 in an obviously contrived manner; and he operates on the question-begging assumption that a first-century reader would not be able to make sense of the [ho] monogenes theos reading. He furthermore does not give adequate weight to the intrinsic probability that the huios reading was introduced to conform to Johannine idiom outside the prologue, and also in order to avoid the potentially polytheistic understanding of 1:18 (which is most likely why Athanasius did not utilize the theos reading). (See Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament [Oxford: OUP, 1993], 78-82.)
42 It should be evident from my discussion that I am not persuaded by arguments to the effect that Nicene theology merely represents the imposition of Platonic philosophical categories upon the Church's doctrine of God. That the framers of the fourth-fifth century trinitarian and Christological statements were generally sympathetic to Platonism, and used philosophical terms to formulate their understanding of God, is basically true---and truly irrelevant. All theological reflection moves beyond the language of the Bible, and expresses doctrine in contemporary forms of expression. The real issue is whether the ecumenical Creeds are successful in expressing the essential content of New Testament Christology: that the One God became incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who is at the same time a distinguishable person from the Father. In other words, Jesus must be included within the unique identity of the One God, without being swallowed up in the person of the Father. On this whole matter see the provocative argument of Gerald Bray, Creeds, Councils and Christ: Did the Early Christians Misrepresent Jesus? (Great Britain: Mentor, 1997).
49 For discussions see J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 95-136; Alastair I. C. Heron, The Holy Spirit (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983), 63-73; Basil Studer, Trinity and Incarnation: The Faith of the Early Church (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1993), 43-75; and Eric Osborn, The Emergence of Christian Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
56 I provide here helpful summaries of the Greek (Eastern) and Latin (Western) approaches from the study of Leonardo Boff: "Greek: This starts from the Father, seen as source and origin of all divinity. There are two ways out from the Father: the Son by begetting and the Spirit by proceeding. The Father communicates his whole substance to the Son and the Holy Spirit, so both are consubstantial with the Father and equally God. The Father also forms the Persons of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in an eternal process. This current runs the risk of being understood as subordinationism.
"Latin: This starts from the divine nature, which is equal in all three Persons. This divine nature is spiritual; this gives it an inner dynamic: absolute spirit is the Father, understanding is the Son and will is the Holy Spirit. The Three appropriate the same nature in distinct modes: the Father without beginning, the Son begotten by the Father, and the Spirit breathed out by the Father and the Son. The three are in the same nature, consubstantial, and therefore one God. This current runs the risk of being interpreted as modalism" (Trinity and Society, 234).
57 For discussions see Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God, 185-94; Heron, The Holy Spirit, 176-78; Boff, Trinity and Society, 199-207; Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God (London: SCM Press, 1981), 178-90; and Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 246-47.
58 The fundamental issues at stake in these two approaches receive a masterful treatment by John Calvin, who comes down solidly on the side of the Western Church. See Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion I.xiii.1-29. On John Calvin's doctrine of the Trinity, and its relationship to the Nicene Creed, see my article, "Calvin and Catholic Trinitarianism: An Examination of Robert Reymond's Understanding of the Trinity and His Appeal to John Calvin," Calvin Theological Journal (forthcoming 2000).
59 For one recent example of this tendency, see the treatment of James R. White, The Forgotten Trinity (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1998), 218 n. 18. Nowhere does White give any indication that he even understands that the East and the West approach the topic of the Trinity differently. The point is especially important in the context of conversations with LDS, because their view in so many ways approximates that of the Eastern Church.
60 See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Volume I: The Doctrine of the Word of God (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1975), 348-83; Karl Rahner, The Trinity (New York: Herder & Herder, 1970); Donald Bloesch, God the Almighty: Power, Wisdom, Holiness, Love (Downers Grove: IVP, 1995), 166-204; Kelly James Clark, "Trinity or Tritheism?," Religious Studies 32 (1996): 463-76; and Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996).
61 See Cornelius Plantinga, "Social Trinity and Tritheism," in Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement: Philosophical and Theological Essays, eds. R. J. Feenstra and C. Plantinga (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), 21-47; Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988); Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God (London: SCM Press, 1981); Richard Swinburne, The Christian God (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994), 150-91; Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), 321-42; and Clark Pinnock, Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996), 21-48.
64 Jonathan Edwards writes: "This I suppose to be that blessed Trinity that we read of in the holy Scriptures. The Father is the deity subsisting in the prime, unoriginated and most absolute manner, or the deity in its direct existence. The Son is the deity generated by God's understanding, or having an idea of Himself and subsisting in that idea. The Holy Ghost is the deity subsisting in act, or the divine essence flowing out and breathed forth in God's infinite love to and delight in Himself. And I believe the whole Divine essence does truly and distinctly subsist both in the Divine idea and Divine love, and that each of them are properly distinct persons." Jonathan Edwards, "An Essay on the Trinity," in Treatise on Grace and Other Posthumously Published Writings, ed. Paul Helm (Cambridge: James Clark, 1971), 108. Cited by John Piper, God's Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards (Leicester, England: IVP, 1998), 84-85.
About the author:
Paul Owen has just submitted his Ph.D. dissertation to the department of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology at the University of Edinburgh. He co-authored with Carl Mosser an article entitled "Mormon Scholarship, Apologetics, and Evangelical Neglect: Losing the Battle and Not Knowing It?" Trinity Journal (1998), a book review of Craig Blomberg and Stephen Robinson's How Wide the Divide? in FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 11:2 (1999), and (with Francis Beckwith and Carl Mosser) the book The New Mormon Challenge (2002).