A few months ago, Bruce hosted a discussion about the word and concept of the Trinity. It seems that most Mormons associate the idea of Trinity with false doctrine, and substitute any reference to it with the term “Godhead.” I have been in many Sunday school and quorum lessons in which the nature of God is discussed, and usually the teacher says something along the lines of “In other churches, they believe that God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost are all the same person.” Then, they turn to the scriptures of Jesus’ baptism, point out the distinctness of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and consider it case-closed. Or, they will turn to a scripture of Jesus praying, and, in a semi-mocking tone, say “So, is Jesus praying to himself here?” trying to show how ridiculous the idea is that they could all be the same.
I fear that this straw-man description of the trinity does it great injustice. The traditional concept of the Trinity, as understood by mainstream Christianity, can be expressed in this diagram:
On first sight, someone might scoff, noting both the “is” and “is not” jutting from and between each member of the Godhead, and see that as an irreconcilable contradiction. What I find interesting about this diagram, however, is the fact that essentially, a fourth unit is created: the central “God,” which represents all three.
We usually use the term “God” to refer to “God the Father”/Elohim, but do we as Mormons have any terms that irrespectively refer to all/any three? It turns out we do. Consider the four following statements that could plausibly be heard at the pulpit on any given Sunday:
- “I prayed, and asked the Lord to help me.”
- “I’m so grateful for the Lord’s sacrifice for all of us.”
- “The Lord comforted me in my time of need.”
- “I know that the Lord loves each and every one of us.”
Each of these fairly generic LDS-friendly sentences uses the term “Lord,” but in each instance refers to someone different: #1 refers to Heavenly Father, #2 refers to Jesus Christ, #3 refers to the Holy Ghost, and #4 refers to their collective whole.
Now let’s look back at our Trinity diagram. Replace the central “God,” with “the Lord,” and as far as I can tell, it is congruent with the LDS usage of the word, as I just demonstrated. So what does this mean?
First, I think it’s important to note the unique elements of LDS beliefs. The corporal and physically separate nature of the Father and Son, and the unembodied spiritual, yet also distinct nature of the Holy Ghost are fundamental tenants of LDS theology, and these beliefs are by-and-large not shared with our mainstream Christian neighbors.
But let’s not forget that even their Trinity diagram includes “is not”s separating each figure. As Mormons, this essentially fits within our doctrine that they are separate and distinct.
In considering the “is”s, we enter a realm where mainstream Christians feel as ease, and Mormons begin to feel squeamish. But should we? Besides the fact that, to us, they are all “the Lord,” do we have any other basis to embrace their oneness? The scriptures, yes, even the scriptures of the Restoration, would confirm this with a resounding “YES!”
When Jesus visited the Nephites, he told them:
“And thus will the Father bear record of me, and the Holy Ghost will bear record unto him of the Father and me; for the Father, and I, and the Holy Ghost are one.” (3 Nephi 11: 27)
And to Joseph Smith, the Lord was even more emphatic:
“…the Holy Ghost, which beareth record of the Father and of the Son; Which Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God, infinite and eternal, without end. Amen. (D&C 20:27-28)
It’s true that the scriptures and prophets don’t always use the clearest of language when describing one member of the Godhead as opposed to another. Abinadi told his listeners:
“Teach them that redemption cometh through Christ the Lord, who is the very Eternal Father. Amen.”
“Eternal Father” is not usually the term we use to refer to Jesus Christ. But how off-base is that? Abinadi seemed comfortable enough using it.
Some powerful insight about this comes from the Gospel of John, chapter 14.
Philip, anxious to finally come to know and see this “Father” of which Jesus spoke, said:
“Lord, show us the Father, and it sufficeth us.” (v8)
Jesus responds by poignantly describing his relationship and role as a revelator of the Father:
“Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Show us the Father? Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works. Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me.” (v9-11)
In his own words, it is impossible to see Jesus, and not see the Father. I believe this is to be understood not in context of seeing their physical beings, but in knowing them. It is impossible to know, believe and love Jesus without knowing, believing, and loving God—because they are one. Jesus is the perfect representation of the Father, and exhibits his attributes in every imaginable way. Their oneness goes far beyond simply having the same mission statement.
Even in reference to the physical nature of their resurrected bodies, Joseph Smith said that he “saw two glorious personages, who exactly resembled each other in their features or likeness,” (1840 account, emphasis added.) While the physical distinctness of the two is a clear message from the first vision, even Joseph Smith felt it appropriate to, in a different account, report his vision of the two by simply saying: “I saw the Lord.” (1832 account)
I have found that the scriptures and words of the prophets, particularly those which have direct references to God, find increased beauty and simplicity when both the concepts of distinct beings as well as a unified single virtual entity are taken into account. Quandaries over “who’s speaking” in the scriptures are quickly resolved; there’s no need to loose sleep over why Jesus is sometimes called “God himself,” no need to provide apologetics for scriptures teaching that they are one, and we might grasp a more reasonable understanding of how God is understood (or maybe misunderstood) in other religious circles.
Most importantly, I think the greatest take-home lesson is that we can deepen our relationship with deity by realizing that any interaction with one member of the Godhead (praying, feeling the Spirit, reading the words of Christ) spans through the awareness and care of the other two as well.
Optional reading assignment: “The Grandeur of God,” by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland