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Where the disagreement lies

A fundamental disagreement between Latter-day Saint Christianity and mainstream Christianity concerns the doctrine of the Trinity. Both outsiders and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints themselves commonly say Mormons reject the doctrine.

But this isn’t quite true, and it’s important to be precise about where the actual disagreement lies.

Traditional mainstream Trinitarianism rests upon five propositions:

1. The Father is God.

2. The Son is God.

3. The Holy Ghost (or Holy Spirit) is God.

4. The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Holy Ghost and the Holy Ghost is not the Father.

5. There is one God, and only one God.

Both mainstream Christians and Latter-day Saints accept all five statements. They have little alternative, since all five are clearly scriptural. Take No. 5, for example: “Hear, O Israel,” commands Deuteronomy 6:4, “The Lord our God is one Lord.” (Compare Isaiah 44:6; 46:9; Mark 12:29; James 2:19.) In the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 8:6 also plainly teaches that there is only one God, though it actually seems to distinguish Jesus Christ as the “Lord” from that “one God, the Father” — a formulation that seems more congenial to the Latter-day Saint view than to “orthodox” Trinitarianism. (Compare 1 Timothy 2:5; Moses 1:6.)

Significantly, perhaps the clearest scriptural statements of the oneness of Father, Son and Holy Ghost occur in distinctively Mormon texts (e.g., at 2 Nephi 31:21; Alma 11:28-29, 44; Mormon 7:7; Ether 2:8; Doctrine and Covenants 20:19, 28; compare “The Testimony of Three Witnesses”). Thus, Latter-day Saint scripture declares there is one and only one God.

Neither traditional Christians nor Latter-day Saints deny the deity of the Father, and both proclaim the divinity of the Son of God. (See, for example, 2 Nephi 11:7.) Moreover, the divinity of the Holy Ghost, which is affirmed in virtually every mainstream Christian creed, is also repeatedly declared in the distinctively Latter-day Saint scriptural passages cited above.

Latter-day Saints and other Christians agree, too, with No. 4, asserting the Father isn’t the Son, the Son isn’t the Holy Ghost and the Holy Ghost isn’t the Father. The so-called Athanasian Creed — a document actually dating to the late fifth or early sixth century after Christ and, accordingly, not written by St. Athanasius of Alexandria (d. A.D. 373) — supplies the standard Western theological language for this when it speaks of worshiping Father, Son and Holy Ghost as one God while, at the same time, not “confounding the persons.”

A painting of Joseph Smith's first vision.
A painting of Joseph Smith's first vision.
LDS Church

But surely nobody can accuse Latter-day Saints of “confounding” them. During his 1820 First Vision, Joseph Smith saw the Father and the Son as distinct individuals. “When the light rested upon me,” he recalled in Joseph Smith — History 1:17, “I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other — This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!”

“The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s,” Joseph taught in April 1843, “the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit” (Doctrine and Covenants 130:22).

“I have always,” he said on June 16, 1844, less than two weeks before his assassination, “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” (History of the Church 6:74).

So how is it that mainstream Christians and Latter-day Saints both accept the five propositions that ground the traditional Christian doctrine of the Trinity, yet Latter-day Saints reject that traditional doctrine? Clearly, the difference comes down to exactly what each group understands when it asserts, as both groups do, that there is one and only one God.

Joseph Smith’s use of the phrase “three Gods” in his statement from June 1844 is important here. Latter-day Saints and mainstream Christians use the term “one” in dramatically different ways. Mormons insist on perfect divine unity in mind and will; traditional Trinitarianism, drawing a concept from ancient Greek philosophy, adds to that a unity of “substance.” In an important sense, there is truly only one God. But Father, Son and Holy Ghost are distinct individuals, and Joseph was therefore not afraid, in another sense, to term them three “Gods.”