The Trinity and Latter-day Saints
By David Baggett | Bulletin Roundtable
In this month’s Roundtable discussion, the team is tackling topics related to other religions (see Part 1 by Paul Copan on Islam, and Part 2 by Paul Gould on differences on salvation between Christianity and other religions). David Baggett continues the series below, critiquing the Mormon view of the Godhead and comparing it to the Trinity.
For the Kingdom,
J. P. Moreland admits that much good came from the revivalist movements of the 18th and 19th centuries in America, but he also laments that the heavily experiential nature of the movements conduced to making anti-intellectualism one of their prominent features. The problem was not an emphasis on personal conversion, per se, but “the intellectually shallow, theologically illiterate form of Christianity that came to be part of the populist Christian religion that emerged.” One tragic result was what happened in the so-called Burned Over District in the state of New York. Thousands of people were “converted” to Christ by revivalist preaching, but “they had no real intellectual grasp of Christian teaching. As a result, two of the three major American cults began in the Burned Over District among the unstable, untaught ‘converts’: Mormonism (1830) and the Jehovah’s Witnesses (1884).”
Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses both firmly reject the doctrine of the Trinity. Now, there is an important distinction between categorically rejecting the doctrine on the one hand, and honestly raising certain questions about its particular details on the other. Earlier Wesley carved out space for Christians to honestly disagree on and amicably discuss some of the finer-grained theological specifics about the Trinity. That is one kettle of fish, but this is quite another. So let’s critically examine, for now, what Mormons have to say about the Trinity and identify important ways in which their positions represent definitive departures from Christian orthodoxy and biblical teaching. (I will discuss the views of Jehovah’s Witnesses another time.)
Mormons, most of whom call themselves Latter-day Saints, follow the teachings of Joseph Smith (1805-1844). Their canonical scriptures include the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and various writings by Smith. In 1823, Smith claimed to have had an encounter with an angel who directed him to a buried book written on golden plates containing the religious history of an ancient people. He published what he said was a translation of these plates in 1830 as the Book of Mormon, named after the ancient prophet/historian who compiled the book. Later in 1830, Smith founded the Church of Christ. One of the distinctive views of Latter-day Saints, the predominant denomination within the tradition that grew out of the Church of Christ, is their view of the “Godhead,” which bears some resemblance to the classical notion of the Trinity, but is importantly different in numerous respects.
The Godhead, according to the Latter-day Saints, comprises a council of three distinct persons, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, and they are “one.” However, they are one neither in terms of substance or ontology, nor physical or bodily unity, but something more metaphorical. The language of the Book of Mormon is of oneness in terms of spirit, purpose, and glory. Smith taught that God was once a man on another planet before his exaltation to the Godhead, and that Jesus, too, though now divine, was not always so. He ascended to that status, embodying a trajectory of which all human beings are capable. The Father and Son are said to have perfected, glorified, physical bodies, whereas the Holy Ghost is pure spirit. In addition to the Godhead is also a Heavenly Mother, the wife of God the Father. In terms of the Godhead itself, the current prevalent teaching pervasive among Latter-day Saints is that it is not explicable in terms of the classical Trinity.
Former Beeson Divinity professor Gerald McDermott identifies important intra-textual inconsistencies between the Jesus of the Book of Mormon and the Jesus of later Joseph Smith prophecies, the greatest of which concerns the Trinity. At the end of his life, in his King Follett funeral sermon (1844), Smith railed against the Trinity, saying that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three separate gods, which is now the official doctrine of the LDS, contra excerpts from the Book of Mormon. This is no trivial change: “If the prophet responsible for the Book of Mormon made cosmically significant changes in his view of God over the course of his prophetic career,” McDermott adds, “one has less confidence in the reliability of his prophecies, particularly those that purport to provide a new history of God on earth.”
The classical Mormon view is dubbed by some as an instance of henotheism, according to which there are multiple gods but only one ultimate God, namely, God the Father. The Son and Spirit are in some significant sense on a lower ontological level than the Father, but the three are distinct divine beings. This would seem to preclude that their view is monotheistic, a nonnegotiable feature of the Hebraic tradition on which Christianity is predicated. They deny that Jesus was always divine, affirm that God was once a man, agree that all human beings are capable of taking on the ontological status of Jesus, and posit the existence of multiple gods. In all of these ways, most Mormons seem to be clearly departing from classical Christian teaching. Yet they claim to believe every word of Scripture and think that their beliefs can be squared with its deliverances.
So, consider a thought experiment. The earliest Christians were predominantly Jews. In Mark 12:29-31, Jesus is said to consider the opening exhortation of the Shema to be the first of the two greatest commandments—and linked with the second, based on Lev. 19:18b: “The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is first commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself.” Central to the most important command(s), on which hang all the law and the prophets (Matt. 22:40), is the Oneness of God.
Now imagine. Had Jesus proclaimed Mormon theology in that context, what is the likelihood that a henotheistic, non-monotheistic message would have captured the imagination of a culture of Jews? They were steeped in the nonnegotiable monotheism of the Torah, and monotheism was the centerpiece of their daily morning and evening Jewish prayers. Remember what John Henry Newman considered the most important mark of legitimate doctrinal development, namely, unity of type. In any authentic innovation or genuine theological development, one must be able to discern that the main underlying idea remains unchanged.
Latter-day Saints claim that all the words of the NT are fully consistent with subsequent Mormon theological developments, but the incredible growth of the early church within a thoroughly Jewish context is not at all a plausible scenario if implicit in the earliest Christian affirmations was anything smacking of consistency with multiple gods. The classical doctrine of the Trinity, in contrast, while depicting greater complexity within the Godhead than previously recognized, never departed from the substantive Oneness of God, making possible convincing Jewish converts to Christianity that the latter was not the vitiation or violation of their Old Testament faith, but rather its fruition and fulfillment.
 Christian Science also arose in 1866 but was not connected with this area. Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health seems to conflate the Trinity with something like a Hindu paradigm, but we won’t explore that issue here. See J. P. Moreland’s Love God with All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul (Colorado Springs, CO: Tyndale House, 2012), 16-17.
 As McDermott writes, “Several times the Book of Mormon affirms traditional Trinitarian language and the concept of one being in three persons. Take, for example, 3 Nephi 11:27: ‘And after this manner shall ye baptize in my name: for behold, verily I say unto you, that the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost are one; and I am in the Father, and the Father in me, and the Father and I are one.’ Mosiah 15:5 is even more explicit: ‘And thus the flesh becoming subject to the Spirit, or the Son to the Father, being one God.’ So is Almah 11:44: ‘Every thing shall be restored to its perfect frame, as it is now, or in the body, and shall be brought and be arraigned before the bar of Christ the Son, and God the Father, and the Holy Spirit, which is one Eternal God, to be judged according to their works.’” Gerald McDermott, “Is Mormonism Christian?” in First Things, Oct. 2008, available here: https://www.firstthings.com/article/2008/10/is-mormonism-christian (accessed May 5, 2020).
 The LDS’s teaching about deification might bring to mind theories of theosis among some early Church fathers, but unlike the Mormon view, it carried no implications of ontological equivalence between the Creator and creatures.
 Thanks to TJ Gentry for pointing out that I could have spent a bit more time on the differences between classical Mormon polytheism and more contemporary Mormon monarchotheism, a more philosophically nuanced view that is considered the better representative of current Mormon teaching.
— David Baggett is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for the Foundations of Ethics at Houston Baptist University. He is the author or editor of about fifteen books, most recently Telling Tales: Intimations of the Sacred in Popular Culture written with Marybeth Baggett.
Image by Steve Oberhansly from Pixabay
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