by Sharon Lindbloom
7 June 2019
About a year ago here at Mormonism in the News, I addressed an article about the doctrine of the Trinity by LDS scholar Daniel Peterson. Dr. Peterson has recently reposted his 2018 article. Because links to that recent repost keep popping up in my news feed, I thought it might be helpful to repost my 2018 response as well. Here it is.
by Sharon Lindbloom
7 May 2018
On April 19th (2018) Deseret News published an article by Daniel Peterson in his “Defending the Faith” column that discusses the Trinity. Dr. Peterson begins,
“A fundamental disagreement between Latter-day Saint Christianity and mainstream Christianity concerns the doctrine of the Trinity. Both outsiders and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints themselves commonly say Mormons reject the doctrine. But this isn’t quite true, and it’s important to be precise about where the actual disagreement lies.” (“Defending the Faith: Where the disagreement lies”)
Dr. Peterson lists five propositions he identifies as “clearly scriptural” that define the doctrine of the Trinity and asserts, “Both mainstream Christians and Latter-day Saints accept all five statements.” These are:
- The Father is God.
- The Son is God.
- The Holy Ghost (or Holy Spirit) is God.
- The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Holy Ghost and the Holy Ghost is not the Father.
- There is one God, and only one God.
Yet Mormons and Christians are ultimately not in agreement. Dr. Peterson says, “the difference comes down to exactly what each group understands when it asserts, as both groups do, that there is one and only one God.” He writes,
“Latter-day Saints and mainstream Christians use the term ‘one’ in dramatically different ways. Mormons insist on perfect divine unity in mind and will; traditional Trinitarianism, drawing a concept from ancient Greek philosophy, adds to that a unity of ‘substance.’”
Dr. Peterson’s assertion regarding traditional Trinitarianism “drawing a concept from ancient Greek philosophy” is uninformed at best. Jehovah’s Witnesses also make that unsupportable claim; after addressing their objection, Christian theologian Rob Bowman concludes,
“The doctrine of the Trinity is not a pagan doctrine in any sense. No pagan religion ever taught any doctrine that even resembles the doctrine of the Trinity except in the most superficial manner. The church fathers who developed the formal, systematic doctrine of the Trinity from the second to the fourth centuries were Christians, in some instances eventual martyrs for their faith, who were zealously seeking to uphold the teachings of Christ and the apostles in the New Testament. In formulating the doctrine of the Trinity, the early church established a view of God that was radically opposed to Greek philosophical notions about the divine…Far from being a pagan doctrine, the Trinity is the distinctively Christian conception of God as he has revealed himself in the New Testament in the persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” (Read Dr. Bowman’s full argument, “Is the Trinity a Pagan Doctrine?”)
Moving past the objection raised by Dr. Peterson regarding the influence of Greek philosophy on the doctrine of the Trinity, in his insistence that Mormons believe (and I trust this means Mormonism teaches) that “There is one God, and only one God” – that is, three Gods that enjoy “perfect divine unity in mind and will” – he is describing what BYU professor Charles Harrell calls social trinitarianism: a doctrine that “considers members of the godhead to be distinct individuals who are one only in purpose, and not in substance” (“This Is My Doctrine”: The Development of Mormon Theology (Part 1), Kindle Location 3138).
The problem with this view is that it is actually a form of tri-theism (i.e., that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three Gods), which in turn is a form of polytheism (the belief that many true Gods exist).
- “There is one God, and only one God,” is a statement of monotheism, the historic theology of biblical Christianity.
- Three Gods, though they may be perfectly united (one) “in mind and will,” is polytheism, the historic theology of Hinduism and Shintoism – and Mormonism (among others).
Mormon leaders have asserted that Mormonism has a Godhead they call the Trinity, but it is a long way from the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. LDS Seventy Milton R. Hunter once defined Mormonism’s Trinity:
“The ancient prophets knew that the Godhead consisted of three separate and distinct personages, each of whom had a definite work to perform, and yet they all worked in perfect unity as one. The three Gods constituted the Holy Trinity.” (Pearl of Great Price Commentary, 52)
Joseph Smith mocked the Christian doctrine of the Trinity:
“Many men say there is one God; the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are only one God! I say that is a strange God anyhow—three in one, and one in three! It is a curious organization. All are to be crammed into one God, according to sectarianism. It would make the biggest God in all the world. He would be a wonderfully big God—he would be a giant or a monster.” (Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 372)
LDS apostle Bruce McConkie misrepresented and scorned the Christian doctrine of the Trinity:
“If Christians are people (and this is the standard definition of the clergy of the day) who believe in the holy trinity as defined and set forth in the Nicene, Athanasian, and Apostles creeds, meaning that God is a three-in-one nothingness, a spirit essence filling immensity, an incorporeal and uncreated being incapable of definition or mortal comprehension — then Mormons, by a clergy-chosen definition, are ruled out of the fold of Christ.” (Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary 2:113)
And apostle Jeffrey Holland clearly rejected the Christian doctrine of the Trinity:
“Our first and foremost article of faith in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is ‘We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.’ We believe these three divine persons constituting a single Godhead are united in purpose, in manner, in testimony, in mission. We believe Them to be filled with the same godly sense of mercy and love, justice and grace, patience, forgiveness, and redemption. I think it is accurate to say we believe They are one in every significant and eternal aspect imaginable except believing Them to be three persons combined in one substance, a Trinitarian notion never set forth in the scriptures because it is not true.” (Jeffrey R. Holland, “The One True God and Jesus Christ Whom He Hath Sent,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 2007, 40)
Yet in his article, Dr. Peterson gives the impression that Mormons and Christians are nearly united on this except for the definition of one little three-letter word. But I think we need to go further back than the definition of the word “one” to find the “fundamental disagreement” between Mormonism and Christianity. We need to go back to the word “God.”
Traditionally, the propositions comprising the Christian doctrine of the Trinity begin with, “There is only one God”; the subsequent propositions then define and support the first. But Dr. Peterson places that proposition last in his list, choosing instead to suggest to his readers that Mormons and trinitarian Christians are almost in complete agreement when, in fact, they disagree from the get-go. It is in the very first proposition (in importance and in traditional articulation) that Mormonism and Christianity completely part ways.
When Christianity speaks of God, it is first and foremost affirming that only one true God exists anywhere and at any time – past, present, and future. When Mormonism speaks of God, it may be referring to Heavenly Father (the head God of this earth), it may be referring to the Godhead (this world’s three agreeing Gods of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost), or it may be speaking of any one of a multitude of Gods (perhaps even a multitude of LDS Trinities) that govern other worlds. Charles Harrell explained,
“One of the most distinctive doctrines of Mormonism is the belief in a plurality of Gods. This is generally understood to mean that there are innumerable Gods besides (and above) the God that we worship, all of whom are creators of worlds and objects of worship. Furthermore, these Gods were all once human, and just as they attained Godhood, so can we.” (“This Is My Doctrine”: The Development of Mormon Theology (Part 1), Kindle Locations 3169-3173)
LDS apostle Bruce McConkie made it quite clear:
“Three separate personages — Father, Son, and Holy Ghost — comprise the Godhead. As each of these persons is a God, it is evident, from this standpoint alone, that a plurality of Gods exists. To us, speaking in the proper finite sense, these three are the only Gods we worship. But in addition there is an infinite number of holy personages, drawn from worlds without number, who have passed on to exaltation and are thus gods.” (Mormon Doctrine, 576-577)
Because of the polytheistic nature of Mormonism, even if using Dr. Peterson’s limited definition of “one,” it is impossible to legitimately state that Mormonism teaches, “There is one God, and only one God.”
The fundamental disagreement between Mormonism and Christianity goes way beyond the semantics employed in articulating the Trinity. Not even delving into Mormonism’s significant differences from Christianity’s understanding of who God is, where He came from, and why He interacts with human beings, this fundamental disagreement between Mormonism and Christianity is polytheism vs. monotheism; many true Gods vs. one true God; several Gods acting in harmony vs. one and only one God in tri-unity (trinity).
I agree with Dr. Peterson that when discussing differences between Mormonism and Christianity, “it’s important to be precise about where the actual disagreement lies.” Fundamentally, it lies in the understanding of the very Being and nature of God.
Thus says the LORD…
“I am the LORD, and there is no other,
besides me there is no God;
I equip you, though you do not know me,
that people may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is none besides me;
I am the LORD, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness;
I make well-being and create calamity;
I am the LORD, who does all these things…
And there is no other god besides me,
a righteous God and a Savior;
there is none besides me.
Turn to me and be saved,
all the ends of the earth!
For I am God, and there is no other.” (Isaiah 45:1, 5-7, 22)