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Mormon Doctrine and the Trinity

Mormon Doctrine and the Trinity

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“How does the Holy Ghost differ from the Father and the Son? Why is that difference important to us?” (Gospel Principles, 32)
 

 A. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity

We can properly understand the Holy Spirit only by understanding how he relates to the Father and the Son. The New Testament reveals that the Holy Spirit (also called the Spirit, the Spirit of truth, and so on) is a divine person, distinct from the Father and the Son, yet acting on their behalf (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13-15; Acts 13:2, 4). The King James Version usually uses the title “Holy Ghost” instead of Holy Spirit, but “Ghost” and “Spirit” both translate the same Greek word pneuma (for example, compare Luke 11:13 with 12:10, 12; 1 Thessalonians 1:5-6 with 4:8).

"The Holy Spirit will never contradict himself."

The three persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the one divine object of Christian faith, as signified in baptism (Matthew 28:19). Each of these persons is God, the Lord (Matthew 11:25; John 1:1; 17:3; 20:28; Acts 5:3-4, 9; Romans 10:9-13; 2 Corinthians 1:3; 3:17-18), and yet there is only one God (John 5:44; 1 Timothy 2:5; James 2:19). Because he is one God with the Father and the Son, the Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of the Father (Matthew 10:20), the Spirit of the Son, JesusChrist (Romans 8:9; Galatians 4:6; Philippians 1:19; 1 Peter 1:11-12), as well as the Spirit of God (Romans 8:9; Ephesians 4:20) and the Spirit of the Lord (Acts 5:9; 8:39). This understanding of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as eternally and indivisibly one God is what Christians historically call the doctrine of the Trinity.

The first Article of Faith of the LDS Church states, “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.” This statement sounds like an affirmation of the Trinity, and at first Joseph Smith apparently accepted the Trinity as best he understood it. Thus, the Book of Mormon affirms that the redeemed will sing eternal praises “unto the Father, and unto the Son, and unto the Holy Ghost, which are one God” (Mormon 7:7; see also 2 Nephi 31:21; Alma 11:44). However, other statements on this subject from later revelations of Joseph Smith do not agree with the Trinity. To understand why, we must recognize that his doctrine of God changed dramatically after he had founded the LDS Church in 1830. After we review these developments, we will be able to return to a comparison of LDS doctrine with the teaching of the Bible.

B. From One God to Three Gods

Joseph Smith’s theological changes after 1830 went through at least two significant stages. First, in the original work called Doctrine and Covenants, published in 1835, Joseph Smith included a series of lectures and catechism entitled On the Doctrine of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, or more briefly, Of Faith. This material, later called Lectures on Faith, remained part of the LDS Church’s Doctrine and Covenants until 1921, when the LDS hierarchy removed them. Lectures on Faith did not teach the doctrine of the Trinity, and it also taught a very different doctrine than what Mormons believe today:

There are two personages who constitute the great, matchless, governing and supreme power over all things…. They are the Father and the Son: The Father being a personage of spirit, glory and power: possessing all perfection and fullness: The Son, who was in the bosom of the Father, a personage of tabernacle…. And he being the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth, and having overcome, received a fullness of the glory of the Father—possessing the same mind with the Father, which mind is the Holy Spirit, that bears record of the Father and the Son, and these three are one, 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: The Father and the Son possessing the same mind, the same wisdom, glory, power and fullness: Filling all in all—the Son being filled with the fullness of the Mind, glory and power, or, in other words, the Spirit, glory and power of the Father… (Lecture V.2).

At this stage in Joseph Smith’s doctrinal development, he viewed the “Godhead” as consisting of two “personages” (the Father and the Son) united by a single mind, the Holy Spirit. (The lectures make no distinction between Holy Spirit and Holy Ghost.) Furthermore, Joseph thought that the Father was “a personage of spirit” whereas the Son was “a personage of tabernacle,” that is, a person with a physical body of flesh. In fact, according to this same passage, the Son “is called the Son because of the flesh,” proving that at this time Joseph did not teach that the Father had a body of flesh.

If you are familiar with the teachings of the LDS Church today, you can see why they eventually removed these lectures from their scriptures: the lectures simply do not agree with current LDS doctrine. In fact, they do not agree with the doctrine that Joseph Smith himself developed just a few years later. By 1841, Joseph was teaching that “the Son [has] a tabernacle and so [does] the Father, but the Holy Ghost is a personage of spirit without tabernacle” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith [2007], 42). By this time, Joseph had concluded that the Father and the Son both had physical bodies, while the Holy Ghost, though a “personage,” did not have a physical body. In 1843, Joseph gave a sermon in which he made the following remark:

"The Holy Ghost is a personage and a person cannot have the personage of the H[oly] G[host] in his heart" (An American Prophet’s Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith, ed. Scott H. Faulring [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987], 341).

It is clear that at this point Joseph did not regard the Holy Ghost as a spiritual power or mind that was present everywhere, but as a “personage” with a specific location and form, even though that form was not physical in substance. Thus, on another occasion that same year, Joseph stated:

"The Holy Ghost is a personage, and is in the form of a personage" (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 276).

In 1844—just weeks before his death—Joseph Smith claimed that he had always taught that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost were three Gods:

"I will preach on the plurality of Gods. I have selected this text [Revelation 1:6] for that express purpose. I wish to declare I have always and in all congregations when I have preached on the subject of the Deity, it has been the plurality of Gods. It has been preached by the Elders for fifteen years. I have always declared God to be a distinct personage, Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, and that the Holy Ghost was a distinct personage and a Spirit: and these three constitute three distinct personages and three Gods. If this is in accordance with the New Testament, lo and behold! we have three Gods anyhow, and they are plural: and who can contradict it!" (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 370).

Despite Joseph’s claim that he had always taught a plurality of Gods, the evidence clearly shows that in his earliest years he explicitly taught that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (or Holy Spirit) were one God, not three Gods (see also our study on chapter 5 of Gospel Principles). We have also seen that for a few years Joseph taught that the Holy Ghost was the shared mind of the Father and the Son, not “a distinct personage.” We may summarize the change in the LDS Church’s theology as shown in the following table.

 

 

Father

Son

Holy Ghost

Divine Personages

Number of God/Gods

Book of Mormon era (1828-1830) 

spirit

Flesh

spirit

Unstated (One?)

One God

Book of Moses/ Lectures on Faith era (1830-1835)

Personage of spirit

Personage of tabernacle/ flesh

Mind/spirit of the Father and the Son

 

Two

 

One Godhead

Book of Abraham era (1835-1844)

Personage of tabernacle (flesh)

Personage of tabernacle/ flesh

Personage of spirit

Three

Three Gods

 

It is understandable for the theology of an uninspired human being to develop in stages and for his later views to contradict his earlier views. What is difficult to explain is why this would be the case with a supposedly inspired prophet and the supposedly ancient writings (Book of Mormon, Book of Moses, and Book of Abraham) that he claimed to translate by a supernatural gift. Joseph’s claim that all of these writings and his doctrinal teachings were inspired raises a number of troubling questions:

  • If the Book of Mormon contains “the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ” (D&C 20:9) and is, as Joseph Smith claimed, “the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion” (a statement quoted in its Introduction), why does it not reveal that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three Gods?
  • Why, indeed, does the Book of Mormon contradict this later teaching of Joseph Smith by saying that they are “one God”?
  • If God had really inspired all of these writings, why was it necessary for the LDS Church to remove the Lectures on Faith after they had been part of its collection of scripture for 86 years?
  • Why would Joseph claim in 1844 that he had always taught that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost were three Gods, when the Book of Mormon, Lectures on Faith, and other early “revelations” contained no such teaching and explicitly taught otherwise?

The simplest and most reasonable answer to these questions is that Joseph Smith’s writings, including his supposed translations of ancient scriptures, were not inspired after all. Rather, they reflect his own halting, inconsistent theological development between 1828 and 1844.

 

 For Further Reflection

  • What does the Bible teach about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
  • What does Joseph Smith’s changing theology tell us about the source of his revelations?