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The Mormon View of the Trinity

The Mormon View of the Trinity

The Bottom-Line Guide to Mormonism, Part 4
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The Articles of Faith is a short doctrinal statement that is part of the Pearl of Great Price, one of the scriptures of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The first Article states: “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.” To the casual reader, this Article would appear to be a straightforward affirmation of the traditional Christian doctrine of the Trinity. In reality, the LDS Church’s understanding of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost is dramatically different from the historic Christian belief.

In the previous installment of this series, I described the Mormon view of God the Father. The LDS Church teaches that God was once a man like us, living on another planet. God the Father has not always been God; rather, he progressed to become a God through a process of exaltation—a process that he intends for us as well. Thus, although the Article describes God as “the Eternal Father,” the LDS Church maintains that he has not always existed as God. As an exalted, immortal Man, God the Father has a body of flesh and bones. He is not omnipresent and therefore cannot dwell in the human heart or spirit. In these ways, then, the LDS concept of God the Father differs radically from the orthodox Christian concept.

The Biblical Trinity

The Mormon Godhead

One God—the only true God

Three Gods—among others

Distinct persons but not separate deities

Separate personages with their own bodies

Godhead = the divine nature

Godhead = the group of divine rulers

The Son (Jesus) alone became a physical man

The Father and the Son are two physical beings

Father, Son, and Spirit are co-eternally God

The Father became a God before the Son and the Holy Ghost (two of his many sons)

According to Mormonism, God the Father is the leading member of what Mormons call “the Godhead,” which consists of the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost. While this sounds like the Trinity, there is a critical difference. In orthodox Christianity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God—one eternal, divine being. Each of the three is in some way personally distinct from the others, but they are inseparably one God. For Mormons, these three are separate divine beings with their own unique histories; in fact, they are three separate Gods.

The Encyclopedia of Mormonism states: “These three Gods form the Godhead, which holds the keys of power over the universe” (552). Joseph Smith ridiculed 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” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 372). Ironically, Smith’s statement here, spoken in an 1844 sermon, flatly contradicts what he said in his 1830 “translation” of the Book of Mormon: “Christ the Son, and God the Father, and the Holy Spirit, which is one Eternal God” (Alma 11:44). Mormons also claim that the doctrine of the Trinity originated from Christianity in its “Great Apostasy,” as a false doctrine that was not faithful to the Bible. In actuality, the doctrine of the Trinity is a biblically-based doctrine that originated from the early church’s faithful reflection on Scripture.

Joseph Smith was right about one thing—the triune God of orthodox Christianity (what Smith called “sectarianism”) is indeed “the biggest God in all the world.” As a matter of fact, he is the only God in all the world. The Bible teaches that God is the one infinite, eternal Divine Being, unbounded by space and time (1 Kings 8:27; Ps. 90:2; 102:24; Is. 43:13; 66:1; Jer. 23:23-24; John 4:20-24; Acts 17:24-28; 1 Tim. 1:17). As infinite Being, the true God can exist as three distinct persons without being “a monster.” In Mormonism, though, since the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three materially finite beings (and the Father and the Son each has his own separate body of flesh and bones), these three cannot be conceptualized as one God.

The Mormon “Godhead,” then, is really a unified group of Gods—a kind of cosmic triumvirate or ruling council. Orthodox Christians sometimes use the term “Godhead,” but the meaning is different. Godhead is simply an archaic English way of saying Godhood—that is, the state or nature of being God. In the King James Version of the Bible, the word Godhead always has this meaning (Acts 17:29; Rom. 1:20; Col. 2:9). The term does not refer to the Trinity as such, but simply to the Divine Nature that is unique to God (although we know from Scripture that all three divine persons possess the nature of Deity in full).

The first Article of Faith of the LDS Church also affirms belief in Jesus Christ. According to Mormonism, Jesus was the firstborn spirit child among billions of spirit children born to Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother and the first of their children to become a God. In standard LDS teaching, Jesus is the God named Jehovah in the Old Testament. In turn, Jehovah is distinguished from Elohim, which Mormons use as a name for God the Father. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism cautions that “in some passages of the Hebrew Bible the title ’elohim does not refer exclusively to the person of God the Father” (548). This is a grand understatement: In the Bible, Jehovah is the only true Elohim (God): “To you it was shown, that you might know that the Lord [Jehovah] is God [Elohim]; there is no other besides him” (Deut. 4:35 esv). No biblical text ever hints that there is another God who is Jehovah’s father; in fact, the Bible flatly contradicts such an idea: “Before Me there was no God [El, the most generic word for “God”] formed, And there will be none after Me…. Is there any God besides Me, Or is there any other Rock? I know of none” (Is. 43:10; 44:8 nasb). In the Old Testament, then, Jehovah and Elohim are two designations for the same God—whom the New Testament reveals exists eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The relationship of the Holy Ghost (Mormons prefer this name over “Holy Spirit”) to the Father and the Son is not well defined in Mormon doctrine. At least some Mormons have taught that the Holy Ghost is also a spirit child of God that has since become a God: “the Holy Ghost is a spirit man, a spirit son of God the Father” (Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 649). Whereas the Father had a physical body on another earth before our world was made and the Son has had a physical body for the past two thousand years, the Holy Ghost does not have a body of flesh and bones (D&C 130:22). Mormons believe that Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost happened to become Gods before the rest of us and are now members, under God the Father, of the Godhead.

The differences between the LDS and orthodox Christian views of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not minor theological quibbles. In Mormonism, the idea of separately embodied Gods ruling the cosmos as the Godhead sets up the idea that human beings can also eventually become Gods themselves. So, when the LDS Church rejects the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, then, it is rejecting the biblical teaching about God and humanity, and it reflects an entirely different understanding of human nature and destiny and of the meaning and goal of the Christian life.