The Power of Restored Doctrines:
In previous articles, we discussed taking back the true God from the theologians of both the past and present that have done their best to make Him into a God or their own creation. One of the first areas we can see this is the doctrine of the Trinity. Does the Word of God describe the Godhead the way modern theologians do, or does God have another way of revealing Himself to us? To answer that question, we must first look at the way mainstream Christianity understands the Godhead.
The Athanasian Creed says in part:
The Westminster Confession of Faith, a guide to faith for many Protestants, says of God and the Holy Trinity:
There is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory;The Biblical God?
Much of this description seems quite foreign to the biblical God. Were the apostles who walked and talked daily with Jesus fully blind to the eternal reality? Were the authors of New Testament books unaware of the vital truth about the trinity? Did it require the philosophy of the Greeks to set Christianity on the right doctrinal path? I agree with Hill’s statement of process theology that “the classical doctrine of God, as exemplified by Aquinas . . . has far more to do with Plato than with the Bible” (p. 310). So how did Christianity end up with such an un-biblical view of the Godhead?
The Bible talks about separate beings in the godhead. For example, at Jesus’ baptism we see Jesus in the Jordan River. We hear God’s voice from heaven. We see the Spirit descend in the form of a dove. Jesus regularly prays to his Father. If we read these stories without any knowledge of Christian creeds, we would be quite sure that three separate beings were involved.
Then there is the eyewitness testimony of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. As he was being stoned, the heavens were opened and “he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55). If I were a nave reader, I would be quite sure that I discerned three distinct individuals who are members of a godhead.
There are innumerable places in the New Testament where Jesus talked of doing the will of His Father or returning to be with His Father. Those who hold Trinitarian views of God find ways of making sense of these statements; but they are a strain. If I were approaching the Bible without preconceptions, I would naturally believe that the godhead is composed of three distinct beings. So why do the Scriptures repeatedly say they are One?
A prayer the Savior uttered before He died invoked unity among his followers will help clarify the oneness the prophets understood : “Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me. (John 17:20-23)
When Jesus prays for unity among His followers, it seems unlikely that He anticipated them being formed into one substance-which is the unity that the Father and Son share if Trinitarian notions are to be believed. It seems clear that Jesus was praying that His followers would work together in perfect unity and harmony. Just as He and His Father do. While being separate beings, they would be united in purpose.
From all the evidence, it seems clear that the authors of the biblical books held a simple, material view of God. J. N. D. Kelly, the respected scholar of doctrinal history, observed (1958) that “it was out of the raw material thus provided by the preaching, worshipping Church that theologians had to construct their more sophisticated accounts of the Christian doctrine of the Godhead” (p.90). Hmmm. Apparently the men who were inspired to communicate God’s word to us did not know Him well enough to describe Him to us. That required the work of philosophers and theologians.
A Greek God
It is instructive to read about the battle between Arius and Athanasius that led to the Council of Nicea. (See Barker (1984) for an LDS perspective on the battle.) Much of the description of the godhead is an outgrowth of the doctrinal squabbles between two influential but local leaders of the Church. Even though the Council of Nicea was held in 325 A.D., the bickering delayed settled pronouncements about the nature of the godhead until the council of Constantinople in 381. When a person reads of the hostility and politicking that filled the intervening decades, it is hard to believe that this is the unfailing process God established to settle disputes in His Church.
It seems entirely possible that modern Christian descriptions of God and the trinity owe more to Greek philosophy, historical arguments, and theologian’s personalities than to the simple teachings of Jesus and His disciples. In fact, orthodox sources grant as much. The following commentary on the development of Trinitarian doctrine comes from The Encyclopedia of Religion (1987).
Exegetes and theologians today are in agreement that the Hebrew Bible does not contain a doctrine of the Trinity . . . Further, exegetes and theologians agree that the New Testament also does not contain an explicit doctrine of the Trinity. . . . In the New Testament there is no reflective consciousness of the metaphysical nature of God (“immanent trinity”) nor does the New Testament contain the technical language of later doctrine (hupostasic, ousia, substantia, subsistentia, prosopon, persona). Some theologians have concluded that all postbiblical trinitarian doctrine is therefore arbitrary. While it is incontestable that the doctrine cannot be established on scriptural evidence alone, its origins may legitimately be sought in the Bible, not in the sense of “proof-texting” or of finding metaphysical principles, but because the Bible is the authoritative record of God’s redemptive relationship with humanity. What the scriptures narrate as the activity of God among us, which is confessed in creeds and celebrated in liturgy, is the wellspring of later trinitarian doctrine. (See Vol., 15, pp. 53-57)The Eccentric Saints
The LDS view of God might be consider vulgar and simplistic. It certainly is more connected to common life experience than the pronouncements of Christian theologians and philosophers. It might be that we are rubes and pagans. Or it is possible that we are aligned with the original apostles. Maybe our simple view is an accurate description of God.
Stephen Robinson, an LDS scholar, has posed this challenge (1991):
If Jesus didn’t teach the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity; if the New Testament writers didn’t have any conception of it; if the Apostolic Fathers didn’t know about it or even appreciate the problems associated with it; and if the formula itself wasn’t even developed until the fourth century and, even then, those who signed it didn’t understand it in completely orthodox terms; then one cannot maintain that the Nicene doctrine, as interpreted by modern Trinitarians, is essential to true Christianity, unless of course one wants to say that there weren’t any true Christians before the fourth century-including Jesus, his disciples, and the New Testament Church. (p. 78)Science has long cherished the principle of parsimony. The explanation that describes any phenomenon most simply is favored. When two theories of different complexity explain experience equally well, the simpler theory is considered more credible.
I believe that the LDS view of God is substantially more parsimonious than the creeds of historical Christianity. I also believe that they are much more consistent with the Bible. And then they are attested by modern revelation.
Looks to me like a cloud of witnesses.
Barker, J. L. (1984). Apostasy from the divine Church. Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft.
Ehrman, B. D. (2005). Misquoting Jesus. New York: HarperSanFrancisco.
Hill, J. (2003). The history of Christian thought. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
Kelly, J. N. D. (1958). Early Christian doctrines. New York: Harper & Brothers.
The Encyclopedia of Religion (1987). Volume 15, MacMillan Publishing Company.
I heartily recommend that anyone interested in LDS theology read Stephen Robinson’s Are Mormons Christians? Chapter 7 on the trinity and the nature of God is especially pertinent to this article.
To discuss this or other articles by Wally Goddard, please visit www.DrWally.org