Most Latter-day Saints are not theologians. Most of us do not engage in the study of other faiths or the history of Christianity. It is rare for members of the Church to read books about Christian theology. We do not require our local and general leaders to go to divinity school to master religious scholarship. We study the scriptures, but do not often pursue scholarly commentaries written about those scriptures. Most of us do not know the logic, conclusions, or language of religious scholars. Their jargon such as ontology, hermeneutics, exegesis, or eschatology is foreign to us.
We appropriately invest our time and efforts in developing a love of God and following His plan for us. This course matters far more than our knowledge of philosophy and theology. In place of studying the conclusions of religious scholars or theologians through history, we turn to the inspired counsel of modern day prophets and apostles who speak on behalf of the Lord.
Because a deep study of theology is not our focus, we may not have the framework or vocabulary to have a discussion about theological differences with those not of our faith. We may feel insecure about understanding or addressing the basis for our different beliefs. We might not feel adequately prepared to represent our doctrine to other Christians in a way that will make sense to them.
And having been immersed in the truths of the Restoration, perhaps some of us do not fully appreciate the elegance and strength of those restored gospel principles when compared to the doctrines of other faiths. Perhaps we could benefit from a deeper understanding of the clarity and wisdom revealed within the doctrines of the Restoration. My hope is that by learning about the beliefs of fellow Christians, we may more fully appreciate the amazing truths of the Restoration.
Let’s consider one of the most common reasons many Christians refuse to accept Latter-day Saints as fellow Christians: the fact that we do not subscribe to the traditional doctrine of the Trinity. Because of this, some claim that we do not believe in the same Jesus as those of Protestantism or Catholicism. Since we believe that the members of the godhead are distinct beings, some perceive us to be polytheists, suggesting we are hardly better than the Pagans of early history who worshipped multiple gods.
So, is our restored doctrine regarding the nature of the Godhead at odds with what is taught in the Bible?
For the beginnings of an answer, let’s turn to the respected Bible scholar Bart Ehrman (who is not a Latter-day Saint): “The only place in the entire New Testament where the doctrine of the Trinity is explicitly taught is in a passage that made it into the King James translation (I John 5:7-8) but is not found in the vast majority of the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament” (2009, p. 186).
There are two key points we can take away from this quote. The first is that there is only one place in all the New Testament that comes close to teaching the doctrine of the Trinity. It is not the uniform or common message of the Bible.
For the second point, Ehrman uses a bit of code language. When he says that the passage was not in the earliest and best manuscripts, he is saying that it was a later addition to Bible texts. The one reference to the doctrine of the Trinity was not in the original text of the Bible. In fact, he cites a tradition that Erasmus added the words in the sixteenth century under pressure from Trinitarians.
Let’s look at the one passage that is the basis for the doctrine of the Trinity. The passage, known as the Johannine Comma, reads, “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.” (I John 5:7-8 ).
In the manuscripts that Erasmus had, the passage read simply: “There are three that bear witness: the Spirit, the water, and the blood, and these three are one.” (See Ehrman, 2005, pp. 80-82.) Someone tried to force the doctrine of the Trinity into the text of the New Testament. When this late and unauthorized addition to the text is removed, there is not a hint of the doctrine left in the New Testament. The doctrine is simply not biblical.
Even if we granted the Johannine Comma, it is still a huge leap to go from that one passage to the Athanasian creed that tried to establish and express the nature of the Trinity while wrestling with their physical natures and that greatest of all conundrums: their one-ness. Most Christians are unaware of the decades of bickering that led to the formula that is now accepted as the orthodox description of the Trinity. MacMullen (2006) described the tendency for the different factions warring over their understanding of God’s nature to actually attack each other. He estimated that 25,000 people were killed in the battles over the creed and its successors at Constantinople (381 CE) and Calcedon (451 CE). How Heaven must have wept as earthlings squabbled and bickered about the Prince of Peace and His Father! Given this history, it is difficult to assert that the creed which established the Trinity doctrine was based upon a commonly accepted interpretation of scripture—or that it was seen as a litmus test for Christians.
Philip Jenkins, a historian of Christianity, has observed that deaths, bribery, politicking, and other quirks of history largely determined what Christians believe today especially with respect to the trinity. Many scholars acknowledge that the doctrine of the Trinity is not biblical. “Exegetes and theologians agree that the New Testament also does not contain an explicit doctrine of the Trinity” (p. 53, The Encyclopedia of Religion, 1987, Volume 15, MacMillan Publishing Company).
There really is no question. The doctrine of the Trinity was developed centuries after the books of the Bible were written. It is not the teaching of the Bible or early Christianity. It expresses more Greek philosophy than teachings of Jesus.
So the simple and unexpected experience of Joseph Smith that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are separate beings is not remotely at odds with the Bible. In fact it agrees beautifully with Stephen’s vision (Acts 7:55-56) in which he saw Jesus on the right hand of God.
It also agrees with Jesus’ intercessory prayer (John 17) where He prays that the disciples will be one the same way that He and the Father are one. I don’t know anyone who believes that Jesus imagined the disciples being compressed into one substance. The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are perfectly one in their purposes and actions just as the best of His disciples.
We could study dozens of passages in the Bible. We could study volumes of commentary. But the simple truth is that the modern doctrine of the Trinity is not biblical. Brother Robinson has expressed it directly (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)
We can feel confident in proclaiming gladly—and biblically—that the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost are separate beings, each with a unique redemptive mission—just as we have been taught by both the Bible and the Restoration.
Ehrman, B. D. (2005). Misquoting Jesus: The story behind who changed the Bible and why. New York: HarperSanFrancisco.
Ehrman, B. D. (2009). Jesus, interrupted: Revealing the hidden contradictions in the Bible (and why we don’t know about them). New York: HarperOne. [See p. 81 for a discussion of the Johannine Comma.]
Jenkins, P. (2010). Jesus wars: How four patriarchs, three queens, and two emperors decided what Christians would believe for the next 1,500 years. New York: HarperOne.
MacMullen, R. (2006). Voting about God in early church councils. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.
Metzger, B. M. (1964). The text of the New Testament: Its transmission, corruption, and restoration. New York: Oxford University Press. [This is the classic book on textual criticism. For a discussion of the Johannine Comma, see pp. 62, 101.]
Robinson, S. E. (1991). Are Mormons Christians? Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft.