Don’t Debate the Trinity

June 10, 2013 | 63 comments
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Against my better judgment, and to the detriment of my workday, I allowed myself to be temporarily pulled into a Facebook debate on Friday about Mormonism and orthodox Christianity.

This went about as well as could be expected, of course. The word “cult” was used in earnest, the Tanners were quoted, and all in all it was a horrifying flashback to my high school days as an Internet messageboard crusader. (Thank goodness those days are over!) I eventually came to my senses and retreated like Luke Skywalker fleeing the Mos Eisley Cantina.

2013-06-10 Mos Eisley

I did, however, gain some insight into the futility of arguing about the Trinity. The problem is that when Mormons and mainstream Christians argue about the Trinity, the real conflict has almost nothing to do with the subject at hand. This was underscored when a non-Mormon friend of mine posted the following YouTube video on Facebook along with the comment: “For the record, St. Patrick does rightly define the Trinity in the beginning: 3 people who are 1 God. Then it all just goes down hill.”

Now, if by “Trinitarian” one simply means accepting “3 people who are 1 God,” then Mormons are pretty unambiguously Trinitarian. In fact, I can’t think of a more clear statement of Momon belief, if we are to take Alma 11:27-28 seriously:

28 Now Zeezrom said: Is there more than one God?
29 And he [Amulek] answered, No.

In my own experience, most Mormons tend to be basically social Trinitarians. But notice that I said most Mormons and not, by contrast, Mormonism. That’s because definitive theological categories and Mormonism are mutually exclusive. According to Joseph Smith:

The most prominent difference in sentiment between the Latter Day Saints and sectarians was, that the latter were all circumscribed by some peculiar creed, which deprived it’s members of the privilege, of believing anything not contained therein, whereas the Latter Day Saints have no creed, but are ready to believe all true principles that exist, as they are made manifest from time to time. [emphasis added] [1]

Detail of a manuscript illustration depicting a knight carrying the "Shield of the Trinity." (Wikpedia)

Detail of a manuscript illustration depicting a knight carrying the “Shield of the Trinity.” (Wikpedia)

The commitment of early Mormons to atheology was so strong that “in the 1830s, some Mormon leaders, like David Whitmer and William McLellin, even resisted the publication of [the Doctrine and Covenants], reflecting their hostility to rendering doctrines of the latter-day “restoration” fixed or concrete.”[2] In fact, it is the atheological nature of Mormonism and not the content of Trinitarian orthodoxy where the true conflict over Trinitarianism lies.

In this sense, the idea of the Trinity takes on a role analogous to that which Terryl Givens described for the Book of Mormon in By The Hand of Mormon: it’s not the content of the message, but the existence of the message that creates all the controversy. The Book of Mormon contains essentially no controversial doctrine within its pages, but it’s mere existence is an affront to all who believe in a closed canon and Biblical sufficiency. It is the Book of Mormon as scripture that causes all the problems. Similarly, it is the Trinity as creed that causes the problems.

But as for the content of the creed? Two prominent creeds that discuss the Trinity are the Nicene and Athanasian. The Athanasian Creed states (in part):

And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence.

Meanwhile the Nicene Creed reads (in part):

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds (æons), Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;

Athanasius. (Who probably didn't write the Athanasian Creed.)

Athanasius. (Who probably didn’t write the Athanasian Creed.)

I do not think that this particular formulation with its commitment to Aristotelian metaphysics (via consubstantiality) would necessarily be popular with very many Mormons, but I don’t think that there’s anything in this statement that is necessarily incompatible with Mormonism. Today we celebrate the revelation of the disparate persons of God the Father and Jesus Christ as they appeared to Joseph Smith in the First Vision, but in truth the idea of God the Father and Jesus Christ being in two different locations is not original. Consider the baptism of Jesus Christ or the vision of Stephen from the New Testament, for example. Furthermore, Joseph Smith seems to have initially been entirely uninterested in the connection between the First Vision and Trinitarianism:

That Smith did not even reflect immediately on its bearing on the Trinity is evident in his lack of attention to the very question of number when describing his experience. In his earliest, 1832 account, he recorded that “the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph my son they sins are forgiven thee,” leaving unclear whether his two uses of “Lord” referred to one personage or two, in succession.[3]

Finally, as quoted before, Amulek’s direct answer is pretty unambiguous. Although only one example, it’s a very stark one. It’s interesting that despite Mormonism’s antipathy towards the idea of Trinitarianism, the Book of Mormon contains more explicit support for it than the New Testament does. The content of the Athanasian Creed is therefore compatible with but of course not necessarily implied by Mormon scripture.

If this analysis is correct, then the greatest theological wedge between Mormons and Christianity may have been a mistake based on a combination of Mormonism’s rejection of creeds per se (irrespective of their content) and our desire to underscore the the significance of the Restoration. All things being equal, it would be nice to rectify that error. This is not to say that I believe Mormon theology should be warped by a desire to find acceptance within the mainstream Christian community, but simply that we shouldn’t go out of our way to pick unnecessary fights. It’s not imperative that Mormonism be embraced within the larger ecumenical community (although I wouldn’t mind it, either), but if we are going to be given the boot I would like to earn that distinction for something we actually believe. On the other hand, Mormonism’s compatibility with Trinitarianism as outlined in the Creeds may be necessary but not sufficient for our inclusion by mainstream Christians. If “3 people comprising 1 God” doesn’t cut it for some folks, then so be it. Even in that case, however, we should probably not be quick to say we reject the Trinity since–at least to the lay members of most Christian denominations–we really don’t.

It’s not that I seek to minimize Mormonism’s distinctness, but simply that I would rather draw distinctions based on substantive differences. It would also be nice to shift the emphasis away from what Mormons reject towards what we embrace. A lot of our beliefs, from the weeping God to the pre-mortal existence to free will, are worth standing up for. Rejection of a belief that actually seems perfectly commensurate with our scripture, however, just isn’t.

[1] The Journal of Joseph: The Personal Diary of a Modern Prophet, compiled by Leland Smith Nelson, p. 203.

[2] Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought, Vol 1, Terryl Givens, p. 9 (manuscript).

[3] Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought, Vol 1, Terryl Givens, p. 95-96 (manuscript).

63 Responses to Don’t Debate the Trinity

  1. Eric Facer on June 10, 2013 at 9:11 am

    Excellent post, Nathaniel.

    Professor Harrell, in his book “This is My Doctrine,” chronicles, in great detail, the evolution of Joseph Smith’s teachings on the nature of the Trinity. He concludes his analysis with the following summary: “Joseph’s teachings regarding the members of the godhead appear to have progressed from essentially a trinitarian three-in-one God with a modalistic flavor, to a godhead consisting of ‘two personages’ united by the indwelling Holy Spirit, to a godhead consisting of ‘three personages,’ and finally to a godhead consisting of ‘three Gods.'”

    Given the peripatetic nature of Joseph’s thinking on this subject, perhaps in addition to saying that Mormonism may be compatible on several levels with Trinitarianism, we should simply concede that we do not fully comprehend the nature of the godhead. Humbly acknowledging the limits of our own understanding and not automatically rejecting the views of others, may help us achieve wider acceptance and could prompt others rethink some of their views on the subject.

  2. Michael H. on June 10, 2013 at 10:19 am

    If we’re talking about God being multiple persons united in being divine, I don’t think Mormons have too much of a quibble with other Christians. However, I do believe that disagreements over the Trinity (at least in today’s Mormonism) go deeper than creedalism. While we might agree with the “One God” bit, for example, many Mormons (including me) would probably be ready to discard the “THREE persons” section, acknowledging that there is nothing in that three-ness that is inherent, and indeed, that there are probably other gods somewhere out there and humans can become Gods. Further, you’d get into some questions of definition when Mormons define the relationship I Christ to God the Father: his being “begotten” means very different things in the two faiths, if we even know what it means in Mormonism.

  3. Nathaniel Givens on June 10, 2013 at 10:42 am

    Michael-

    However, I do believe that disagreements over the Trinity (at least in today’s Mormonism) go deeper than creedalism.

    One of the things that complicates this discussion, however, is that you have to track the following as two distinct conversations:

    A – What Mormons think.
    B – What Mormonism entails.

    On a practical level this dichotomy exists for all faith traditions, of course, but it’s a different kind of problem in Mormonism because of our atheological nature. With other Christian denominations, (A) is more of a tangent than an essential point because you can always refer to (B) normatively. But with Mormonism, (B) is so small that in many cases you can’t refer to it and–more problematically–there’s no bright line to divide when you can vs. when you can’t. Mainline Christians not only have formal dogma to check their personal beliefs against, they also have a catalog of which beliefs need to be checked against the formal dogma. Mormons just have a continuum of doctrinal importance and clarity with no black-and-white categories or formalized, technical definitions.

    Sure, we all have a sense that the divinity of Christ is something that Mormonism is rock-solid on. And on the other end of the spectrum the location of Kolob is totally irrelevant. In between, however, everything is shades of gray.

    I guess the way I look at it is that Creedal Christian dogma on the Trinity can coexist within Mormonism, although it doesn’t have to necessarily. This is probably enough to keep us out of the Christian mainstream, but it’s much different than saying “Mormonism rejects the Trinity”.

    I also think that the subtle difference between orthoprax and orthodox religions is actually the much, much more significant distinction between Mormons and mainline Christians vs. the Trinity, the nature of God, or other things about which–as Eric says–we should just acknowledge “the limits of our own understanding”.

  4. Lorian on June 10, 2013 at 11:48 am

    I once heard a very memorable and, I think, quite accurate quote in a sermon delivered in an Episcopal church on the morning of Trinity Sunday (Episcopalians being, as you know, confessors of the Athanasian and Nicene creeds). The priest stated that one of her professors in seminary used to begin discussions about the Trinity with the qualifier that it is impossible to discuss the Holy Trinity for more than five minutes without falling into heresy. This is because the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is nowhere in scripture taught or discussed in anything remotely resembling specificity. It is a later construct based upon various mentions of God as father (parent/progenitor), son (Christ/Jesus/son/messiah) and Holy Spirit (ghost/comforter/inspirer, etc.). Nowhere in Jesus teachings does he discuss the Trinity, other than oblique references to his “father” or to the “comforter” whom he promises to send, and to the Holy Spirit descending at Jesus’ baptism and the voice from heaven referring to him as “my son.”

    Certainly, the ingredients are present, but the specifics for how they interrelate are vague, at best, including the question of what form “the son” took prior to the Incarnation, i.e., in the Old Testament.

    Since a good many people have lost their heads over these questions (figuratively and quite painfully literally), I tend to think its probably unnecessary to get too hung up on the details. But then, I find that the older I get, the less the details really matter to me. I think most of the details are human constructs, anyway, and that whatever we think we know about God probably has very little actual basis in reality. Better, I suspect, to go with the quiet stillness advocated so many times throughout the Old and New Testaments, and most particularly in the Psalms. It’s when we put too much thought into things, sometimes, that we lead ourselves down pathways of confusion and turmoil.

  5. charlene on June 10, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    Lorian, your last paragraph is golden. I was beginning to wonder if I was in a “crisis of faith” moment since I’m feeling little reason to debate the fine points.

    Nathaniel, thank you for another clarifying jaunt into the fine points to show that they may not be so pointy.

  6. Kullervo on June 10, 2013 at 1:12 pm

    So… you’ve just handwaved consubstantiality away and then concluded that Mormonism and orthodox Trinitarian Christianity are theologically compatible?

    In other words, Mormonism and orthodox Trinitarian Christianity are theologically compatible, as long as you re-define orthodox Trinitarian Christianity . Typical.

  7. Nathaniel Givens on June 10, 2013 at 1:31 pm

    So… you’ve just handwaved consubstantiality away and then concluded that Mormonism and orthodox Trinitarian Christianity are theologically compatible?

    I don’t think I handwaved it away. I think I did two things:

    1. Point out that no one really knows what it actually means. Making its utility as a filter highly suspect. (This isn’t necessarily a dig at Aristotle’s metaphysics. I don’t think that any human conception of the divine is going to be correct in a final sense.)

    2. Point out that, as best I can tell, a definition of the Trinity using consubstantiality could fall within the boundaries of Mormonism. I don’t know of any neo-Aristotelian Mormons personally, but I suspect there are some and if I ran into one I certainly wouldn’t look askance at his or her faith based on their embrace of consubstantiability. Partially because I see no direct doctrinal conflict and partially because it’s just too vague and undefined to get excited about.

    Let’s be clear: the “substance” in question is a theoretical metaphysical construct that is defined almost entirely by it’s total lack of any observable characteristics. It is what’s left after everything detectable has been accounted for. It’s easy to see the utility of applying it to try and make sense of the mystery of the Trinity, but hard to see why anyone would really hang their hat on what, by definition, can never have any perceptible impact.

    I know there will be diehards who live or die by technical linguistic formulations, but I guess I’m just glad that it’s now metaphorical living and dying rather than literal living and dying.

  8. WalkerW on June 10, 2013 at 4:12 pm

    I think it has more to do with the Creator/creature metaphysical divide that had become prominent in Christian thinking since the second century A.D. (see Keith Norman’s BYU Studies article: https://byustudies.byu.edu/PDFLibrary/17.3NormanExNihilio-fa3c5949-b8d0-4944-8d98-431062701212.pdf). The Arian version of subordinationism placed Jesus on the creature side of this divided ontology. The Athanasian alternative sought to maintain the divinity of Jesus and His rightful role as Creator. For that, I think we as Mormons should be grateful. It is also worth noting that deification played a prominent role in the development of the Trinity:

    “Ultimately, though, the Arian position was untenable simply because it reduced to incoherence the Christian story of redemption as it had been understood, proclaimed, prayed, and lived for generations…For Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and many others, it was first and foremost the question of salvation that must determine how the identity of Christ is to be conceived. And they understood salvation, it must be appreciated, not in the rather impoverished way of many modern Christians, as a kind of extrinsic legal transaction between the divine and human by which a debt is canceled and the redeemed soul issued a certificate of entry into the afterlife; rather they saw salvation as nothing less than a real and living union between God and his creatures. To be saved was to be joined to God himself in Christ, to be in fact “divinized”-which is to say, in the words of 2 Peter 1:4, to become “partakers of the divine nature.” In a lapidary phrase favored, in one form or another, by a number of the church fathers, “God became man that man might become god.” In Christ, the Nicene party believed, the human and divine had been joined together in a perfect and indissoluble unity, by participation in which human beings might be admitted to share in his divinity…Only God can join us to God. And so, if it is Christ who joins us to the Father, then Christ must himself be no less than God, and must be equal to the Father in divinity.” (David B. Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009, 205-206.)

    See also Keith Edward Norman, “Deification: The Context of Athanasian Soteriology” (Ph.D. dissertation, Duke University, 1980).

  9. Dave on June 10, 2013 at 4:44 pm

    Nice post, Nathaniel. For a kick, try reading the first line of the post (slightly modified) in the Voice of Alec Guinness: “Against my better judgment, I allowed myself to be pulled into a Facebook debate about Mormonism, Christianity, and the Force.”

    Here is how Robinson and Blomberg stated the common ground and the difference between the LDS view and the standard Christian view of the Trinity in the joint summary to the relevant chapter in How Wide the Divide?

    Both Evangelicals and the LDS believe in the simultaneous oneness and threeness of God, though Evangelicals understand God’s oneness as an ontological oneness of being, while the LDS understand it as a oneness of mind, will and purpose. Both sides accept the biblical data about Christ and the Trinity, but interpret them by different extrabiblical standards (the ancient creeds for Evangelicals, the modern revelations of Joseph Smith for Mormons).

    More recently, Robert L. Millet authored a short entry (17 lines!) on the Trinity in LDS Beliefs: A Doctrinal Reference (Deseret Book, 2011), that starts as follows:

    Latter-day Saints believe in the Trinity in the sense that we believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, the three members of the Godhead. We do not, however, subscribe to all the teachings of the post-New Testament church councils and creeds that set forth what some have called the ontological oneness of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — that these three, while three in person, are yet one in being.

  10. Mtnmarty on June 10, 2013 at 4:48 pm

    1. Point out that no one really knows what it actually means.

    Amen to that brother Nathaniel.

    I am curious what you view from a practical standpoint is of how people acquire conceptions of the divine or how they come to use abstract words.

    I am more interested in what false concepts are made of than the truth or falsity of them as explanations of reality. What is your working understanding of the matter?

    It is just so very hard to find people willing to admit both that science doesn’t constrain our imaginations AND also that what we imagine to be the case almost never is.

    Often wrong but never in doubt…

  11. Mark N. on June 10, 2013 at 6:05 pm

    “… the older I get, the less the details really matter to me.”

    I’ll second that position.

  12. WalkerW on June 10, 2013 at 6:17 pm

    Philosopher Christopher Stead was struck by the “flexibility of the [Greek] term” ‘homoousios’. He states that the “basic meaning is ‘made of the same kind of stuff’.” (Stead, Philosophy in Christian Antiquity. Cambridge University Press, 1994, 167)

    He further explains,

    “Christian writers naturally turned to the Bible for their teaching on the nature of God. But the use of it was often influenced by the philosophical thought of their own day. The Hebrews…pictured the God whom they worshipped as having a body and mind like our own, though trascending humanity in the splendour of his appearance, in his power, his wisdom, and the constancy of his care for his creatures. Such a conception, set out in the earlier books of the Old Testament, retained its authority despite some later changes of emphasis. But this biblical view…was radically modified in the teaching of Philo of Alexandria…[who] presents him as the metaphysical first principal of the universe, without bodily form or human passions, indeed without any sensible qualities: a perfectly simple, unchangeable, unfathomable being…Christian writers developed a broadly similar view, partly because they were influenced by the same philosophical authorities, partly through direct imitation of Philo himself. To this they added their doctrine of the Trinity…” (pg. 120)

  13. WalkerW on June 10, 2013 at 6:29 pm

    Larry W. Hurtado, emeritus professor of New Testament at the University of Edinburgh, finds that the claimed resurrection of Jesus led to a number of religious mutations and innovations. First and foremost, an outgrowth of the Jewish divine agency tradition that placed the exalted Jesus at the right-hand of God, making him an object of devotion. This included hymnic practices, prayers, the use of the name of Christ, the Lord’s Supper, confessions of faith in Jesus, and prophetic pronouncements of the risen Christ.[1] The binitarian inclusion of Jesus in the Godhead (part of the Two Powers in Heaven tradition) led to a clash between Jewish Christians and “a group of Christian writers called “heresiologists,” the anatomizers of heresy and heresies, and their Jewish counterparts, the Rabbis.”[2] Early Christian writers such as Justin Martyr defended the binitarian stance against Christian Modalists and Jewish Rabbis who claimed the doctrine was ditheistic. It was not the doctrine of the Logos that was unique to Judaism, but that the Logos “became flesh among us” in the person of Jesus. Ironically, “in the move to a trinitarian theology within which the entire trinity is both self-contained and fully transcendent, Athanasius and his fellows insist that God alone, without a mediator, without an angel, without a Logos, is the creator. Logos theology is, ultimately, as thoroughly rejected within Nicene Christianity as within orthodox rabbinism.”[3]In other words, one of the earliest Christian claims about Jesus was implicitly rejected by the orthodox position.

    1. See Larry W. Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism, 2nd ed. (London: Continuum, 1998), specifically Ch. 5; Hurtado “Religious Experience and Religious Innovation in the New Testament,” Journal of Religion 80:2 (2000).

    2. Daniel Boyarin, Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 2.

    3. Boyarin, 2004, 139.

  14. Raymond Takashi Swenson on June 10, 2013 at 7:33 pm

    It seems clear to me that God did not think a clear description of his nature was important for his worshippers to hear, at least not important enought to make it a prominent part of the teachings of his prophets, apostles, and Jesus Christ himself. Claiming that believing that the nature of God is “just so” is essential to avoiding excommunication and damnation, may be an internally logical rule, but there is nothing in the Bible that demonstrates it had anything to do with God’s commandments to Moses or His atonement (reconciliation) to mankind through the Son. None of the detailed pictures of Christ, Peter, or Paul preaching shows them giving any kind of priority to the creedal conception of the Trinity. It does not come up in the Sermon on the Mount, in the intercessory prayer of John 14-17, on the day of Pentecost, or in Paul’s preaching to the Athenians or to King Agrippa. There is not even any indication that god thinks the topic is all that important, let alone spell it out. Insisting that believers in Christ cannot be saved unless they pay lip service to a statement that has no meaning in any human language, whose every attempt to explain it by analogy immediately falls into a heresy (great little video!), makes many people skeptical of the whole business. How does it have any value to US or to GOD? It is tempting to say that it tries to glorify God through the demonstration that “God” has the power to make us say nonsense that we don’t understand as a condition of Him saving us. What THAT demand says about the “God” they conceive of is not very appealing to me.

  15. Bubba Mike on June 10, 2013 at 7:36 pm

    “. . . acknowledging that there is nothing in that three-ness that is inherent, and indeed, that there are probably other gods somewhere out there and humans can become Gods.”

    You can’t get further from orthodox Christianity than this. You can believe in the Trinity all you want but the moment you say that there are other gods and that human can become Gods you’ve stepped outside the allowable limits. The entire reason the gymnastics of the Trinity is needed is to conform the Old Testament belief that there is ONE God. When you add Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost you now need to some how create a reality where there aren’t three Gods but one God with three aspects. Here Oh Israel, The Lord our God, The Lord is One!

  16. Nathaniel Givens on June 10, 2013 at 8:01 pm

    You can believe in the Trinity all you want but the moment you say that there are other gods and that human can become Gods you’ve stepped outside the allowable limits.

    The funny thing is that every time you try to draw a line in the sand on this or that issue of doctrine, you find that it’s really not so clear after all.

    I have said, ye are gods, and all of you are children of the most High.
    –Psalm 82:6

    Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?
    –John 10:34

    Let the interpretation of the Psalm [82] be just as you wish, yet thereby it is demonstrated that all men are deemed worthy of becoming gods.”
    –Justin Martyr

    “Yea, I say, the Word of God became a man so that you might learn from a man how to become a god.”
    –St. Clement of Alexandria

    “The Word was made flesh in order that we might be enabled to be made gods.”
    –Athanasius

    “But he himself that justifies also deifies, for by justifying he makes sons of God. ?For he has given them power to become the sons of God [John 1:12]. If then we have been made sons of God, we have also been made gods.”
    –Augustine

    And then, for fun:

    “Finite beings (with free wills) [may progress] into—well, Gods.”
    –C. S. Lewis

    “There are no ordinary people. We live in a society of possible gods and goddesses.”
    –C. S. Lewis

    The entire reason the gymnastics of the Trinity is needed is to conform the Old Testament belief that there is ONE God.

    That’s quite true, but the need for metaphysical ONEness comes from Aristotle, not the Bible, which is self-evidence from the Psalms quote that was re-iterated by Christ himself and then influenced all those early Christians.

    So, while I respect the fervor of this statement:

    Here Oh Israel, The Lord our God, The Lord is One!

    The one who benefits from the fervor is Aristotle. Not God.

    You can try to squeeze all the significance you would like out of the God / gods dichotomy, but the reality is that, once again, there just isn’t anything like technical precision in the Bible. Jesus Christ taught the Gospel, not academic theology.

  17. Lorian on June 10, 2013 at 8:14 pm

    *Forgot to subscribe*

  18. wowbagger on June 10, 2013 at 9:21 pm

    Actually, the LDS church is very careful on how they state it. It would appear that people can become God-like without actually becoming gods

    http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/mormonism-101#C13

    I know this is not an official source of doctrine, but this, combined with comments by Pres Hinckley

    http://www.mormonwiki.org/Gordon_B._Hinckley_interviews

    certainly make it appear that there is some ambiguity on this particular doctrine of apotheosis.

  19. Nate R on June 10, 2013 at 10:15 pm

    I agree that Mormons and other Christians overstate the difference in our conceptions of the nature of God.

    However, Kullervo in comment #6 got it right. One cannot just dismiss consubstantiality as unimportant. For the disagreement is ABOUT CONSUBSTANTIALITY. Trinitarians affirm, and Mormons deny, that God is three persons IN ONE SUBSTANCE.

    Re: Nathaniel’s comment #7

    1` I can tell you what consubstantiality means: it means God the Father and God the Son are different persons with the same immaterial substance. Just as a can of coke (i.e. one substance) can be both red and contain a tasty beverage (i.e. have multiple properties), so (the thinking goes) one immaterial substance can be the ontological “support” for two persons. I think its crazy, but it is not meaningless.

    2` that a Mormon could believe consubstantiality probably has more to do with a lack of authoritative doctrine than the acceptability of believing in the Trinity (as the creeds define it). God rejected in the creeds in the First Vision, the primary doctrine of which is probably the Trinity as there defined. Moreover, it is clearly the mainstream teaching of the Church that the Father and the Son are separate substances (if not well articulated by our non-theologically trained ecclesiastical leaders, and not withstanding the apparent Trinitarian passages in the B. of M.).

    3` that substance is a metaphysical doctrine doesn’t make it unimportant or inconsequential. A difference in one’s ontology of substance can entail big theological differences, such as the acceptance or rejection of the doctrine of transubstantiation. (I mean, people have been killed over this stuff!!!)

  20. Rob Perkins on June 11, 2013 at 12:26 am

    I’ve had my own back-and-forth over the years with this or that EV Christian about the Trinity, but in the last one I just chose not to fight it. It’s simple: Even if I can’t support all the claims of Trinitarianism in the context of my own LDS beliefs, it remains that facets of the doctrine are beautiful to me, the way that a fractal plot is beautiful, or the finishing of a really good complex the derivative. After all, we are talking about a subject in which man tries to, in the words of David Brin, “eff the ineffable”.

    But he was being a bit of a scamp when he put it that way. :-)

    In any case, if we’re talking about consubstantiality, I don’t comprehend it. My own ponderings have suggested that consubstantiality exists, but that God’s relationship to it is more complex than the creeds claim. Perhaps that’s the thing Joseph Smith wanted understood more than anything. I dunno. Isaiah 55 and all that…

  21. WalkerW on June 11, 2013 at 1:58 am

    The more theologically trained GA puts it this way:

    “We believe these three divine persons constituting a single Godhead are united in purpose, in manner, in testimony, in mission. We believe Them to be filled with the same godly sense of mercy and love, justice and grace, patience, forgiveness, and redemption. I think it is accurate to say we believe They are one in every significant and eternal aspect imaginable except believing Them to be three persons combined in one substance, a Trinitarian notion never set forth in the scriptures because it is not true.” – Jeffrey R. Holland, General Conference Oct. 2007.

  22. Nathaniel Givens on June 11, 2013 at 7:11 am

    Nate R-

    One cannot just dismiss consubstantiality as unimportant

    In terms of the precise content of the term: I believe one can dismiss it and many mainline Christians do. They accept it as mysterious, which means that as content it is unimportant.

    But of course that doesn’t mean the term is unimportant, because it also fills other roles. It serves as a point of ecumenical unity (historically and to the present day), a shared social touchstone, and many other vital roles.

    The fact that it is important as a Creed, however, does not actually imply that it’s content is important in the same sense that it doesn’t matter if we drive on the right or the left side of the road so long as we all pick the same side.

    Trinitarians affirm, and Mormons deny, that God is three persons IN ONE SUBSTANCE.

    I have to reiterate the important distinction between:

    A – Mormons believe…
    B – Mormonism entails…

    Some Mormons affirm consubstantiality, some deny it, and most squint at it quizzically and then shrug. In respect to the content of the doctrine, this makes Mormons not significantly different from mainline Christians. There are a wide variety of schools of thought on the Trinity ranging from the heretical (Arminianism) to the not-quite heretical (social trinitarianism) and the border between the two moves and shifts with the ebb and flow of history.

    The only difference is that Mormons–with a total disregard for ecumenical unity and Creedal authority–are prone to actually say that this particular emperor is naked. Which is to say: that no one really knows what Trinitarianism is all about.

    None of this is the same as saying that Mormonism entails a denial of the Trinity, and it does not. A Mormon could be more homoousian than Aristotle himself and still remain a Mormon in perfectly good standing.

    You also wrote, later on, that “…it is clearly the mainstream teaching of the Church that the Father and the Son are separate substances.” This is puzzling given your own admission that there are “apparent Trinitarian passages in the B. of M.).” It would be puzzling to take the non-canonized teachings of historical leaders as more authoritative than the standard works.

    I can tell you what consubstantiality means:

    I admire your defense of the term, but I think you are confusing etymology and analogy with explanation. The Coke analogy wasn’t particularly illuminating because it relied on characteristics of an object, and “substance” is what is left when all characteristics have been accounted for. I’m not sure if it was heretical or not (I’m guessing it probably was in some technical sense), but it wasn’t explanatory.

    I don’t fault you for that, of course. No one can explain the incomprehensible.

  23. Nate R on June 11, 2013 at 11:17 am

    Re: Nathaniel #22

    The APPARENTLY Trinitarian passages in the B. of M. talk about the oneness of the F, S, and HG, but they say nothing about consubstantiality. And so the B. of M. in the strict sense provides no textual basis whatever for the Trinity (as defined in the creeds). Ditto for Alma’s saying there is only one God.

    So, minus ANY textual support for the Trinity in the scriptures, I would take teachings of latter day prophets to be authoritative. (Walker W. thanks for the excellent quote; I take back my “if not well articulated” comment. Holland’s statement on the Trinity, as his statements often are, incredibly articulate and truthful.)

    Re: what Mormons BELIEVE vs. what Mormonism ENTAILS

    The problem is (as you pointed out above) that Mormonism ENTAILS very little. It probably doesn’t ENTAIL a commitment to our ability to become gods, or a belief in the historicity of the B. of M. or a number of other central teachings in the Church. So that Mormon scripture doesn’t ENTAIL the denial of consubstantiality doesn’t say much for its acceptability within the church.

  24. Nate R on June 11, 2013 at 11:18 am

    Re: Walker W #21

    Thanks for the excellent quote. I take back the “if not well articulated” comment. Holland’s statement on the denial of the Trinity, as his statements often are, is incredibly articulate.

  25. Kullervo on June 11, 2013 at 3:29 pm

    Nathaniel, are you sure you are using the term “mainline Christians” right? It means a specific set of American Protestant denominations (which are mostly now theologically liberal and numerically declining) and is not merely a synonym for “orthodox Christians” or “mainstream Christians.”

  26. Cameron N on June 11, 2013 at 4:05 pm

    Yes, Mormons shouldn’t debate the trinity. They should teach from the scriptures and testify. Also, God and gods are different.

  27. Mtnmarty on June 11, 2013 at 4:16 pm

    …same immaterial substance…

    I defy anyone to tell me how they know if their use of “same” “immaterial” or “substance” is meaningful and coherent.

    Its a language game for those that either really, really like make believe or really, really like arguing past each other.

  28. Kullervo on June 11, 2013 at 4:27 pm

    I defy anyone to tell me how they know if their use of “same” “immaterial” or “substance” is meaningful and coherent.

    Are you really that unimaginative?

  29. gundek on June 11, 2013 at 5:23 pm

    As a Trinitarian following your comments I thought it may be helpful to define some terms. If you would rather this remain an LDS conversation just let me know. I agree with the author, it’s pointless to fighting or argue about the Trinity especially if both parties to the debate have not taken the time to learn Trinitarian language.

    Mystery is used in Trinitarian theology in various ways but, none of them should be taken to mean unimportant. (a) Mystery can mean something formerly unknown but now revealed or even something unknowable if not revealed. (b) Mystery can be used to express a line of demarcation between revealed and the unknown. (c) Mystery can even mean that we know something but cannot explain the how or the why because no explanation is given in the Bible. (d) Mystery can even mean we do not know because it is not revealed.

    Try these uncontroversial uses of mystery… (a) Humans have a soul, this is a mystery revealed in the bible. (b) The soul is spiritual but the composition of the soul is a mystery. (c) We know that the spiritual soul inhabits and interacts with a physical body but how this is accomplished is a mystery. (d) It is a mystery how many souls there are.

    Now some people misuse “mystery” as a blanket, I don’t know and cannot be bothered to learn, but this hardly means it is acceptable. It would be easier for many to say I don’t know but I understand that on the internet that is never allowed.

    The definition of consubstantial isn’t a mystery. Robert Letham gives this definition, “the dogma that the Son and the Holy Spirit are of the same substance as the Father. This means that all three persons are fully God and are the whole God.” So what can be said of one person of the Trinity can equally and fully be said of all person of the Trinity, except for those properties that belong to only a single person. As for practicality the doctrine of consubstantiality allows to understand the redemptive work of Christ in relation to the Father and the Spirit in unity and distinction.

  30. Mtnmarty on June 11, 2013 at 6:11 pm

    Kullervo,

    Oh, I have an active imagination, but I also know that point, line and plane are undefined terms and that when I do mathematical proofs it is all make believe; but it is make believe in a community that agrees to have certain kinds of make believe in common.

    The arguments here are people arguing over which undefined terms to use. This line of thought is amazingly pointless. :)

    So, Kullervo, how’s your angelology?

  31. Nathaniel Givens on June 11, 2013 at 7:12 pm

    Kullervo-

    Nathaniel, are you sure you are using the term “mainline Christians” right?

    Nope, I was in error. Thanks for the correction.

    gundek-

    The definition of consubstantial isn’t a mystery. Robert Letham gives this definition…

    I think Robert Letham’s perspective was nicely generic and unobjectionable. I don’t think anyone–even Elder Holland quoted above–would talk issue with what was essentially an extended form of the original quote I cited in the OP: “3 persons and 1 God”.

    The problem with Letham’s statement is that it went no farther than the Bible, really, and therefore has nothing to say about consubstantial. The term was lifted from Aristotle’s metaphysics to try and offer a precise interpretation, whereas Letham stays safely bland.

    Just to be very specific, nothing in Letham’s quote actually talked about the key term “substance” at all. Rather than define the term, it was actually named once and then completely avoided. (Which, as my post indicates, is the sensible reaction to it.)

  32. gundek on June 11, 2013 at 7:54 pm

    While I wouldn’t presume to speak for Dr. Letham, I don’t think he would be insulted that his definition goes no further than the Bible.

    Defining substance isn’t a mystery either, that of which someone or something consists. There is one identical substance of which the Father, the Son, and the Spirit all consist fully and absolutely.

    Of course consubstantial cannot be completely divorced from its Aristotelian philosophy, but in a Trinitarian context it derives its meaning more from the Arian controversy. And in that context, according to Athanasius, its principal use is to express that the Son is indivisible from the substance of the Father. This ensured that any confession with regard to the Son that “there was a time when he did not exist” or “before being begotten he did not exist” would be condemned.

  33. Mtnmarty on June 11, 2013 at 8:02 pm

    I like NG’s references to atheology, but the temple recommend interview questions are at least temporally creedal. This is a minimal nexus between that mormons think (and profess) and mormonism.

    At a minimum mormons profess a belief in 3 beings. It is interesting that the atonement and the role of savior and redemeer only apply to Christ.

    It would be interesting to see if anyone thinks that any trinitarian beliefs would cause one to be agreeing with a group with beliefs contrary to those of the LDS church and hence not worthy of a temple recommend.

  34. Nathaniel Givens on June 11, 2013 at 8:48 pm

    gundek-

    While I wouldn’t presume to speak for Dr. Letham, I don’t think he would be insulted that his definition goes no further than the Bible.

    I thought as much. :-)

    Defining substance isn’t a mystery either, that of which someone or something consists.

    You’re giving an informal ad hoc definition for the English translation of an originally Latin word that was created to replicate a Greek term that was used in a highly specialized sense in a particular organized metaphysics and then retrofitted for an entirely new application in a context that would have been totally foreign to the original author. Then you’re trying to say that it’s the “right” definition.

    I trust you can see the problem here, and the simple conclusion is that it actually is quite the mystery, and different people can legitimately mean any number of things by the term.

  35. Nathaniel Givens on June 11, 2013 at 8:53 pm

    For reference, just skim through this: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-metaphysics/#WhaSub

    Quick taste:

    Z.3 begins with a list of four possible candidates for being the substance of something: essence, universal, genus, and subject. Presumably, this means that if x is a substance, then the substance of x might be either (i) the essence of x, or (ii) some universal predicated of x, or (iii) a genus that x belongs to, or (iv) a subject of which x is predicated. The first three candidates are taken up in later chapters, and ?.3 is devoted to an examination of the fourth candidate: the idea that the substance of something is a subject of which it is predicated.

    Still want to tell me that the plain English definition is the One, True definition of substance?

    And let me just point out again how clearly this highlights the whole problem of technical Creeds. The idea that an argument about the One True definition of a term that doesn’t even exist in the New Testament is somehow fundamental to the definition of “Christian” shows how far afield this rabbit hole takes us.

    The title of the OP “Don’t Debate the Trinity” isn’t just a practical rule for inter-faith communication, but also serves as a stark reminder to keep our focus on the things that matter. This semantic quagmire just really isn’t one.

  36. Nathaniel Givens on June 11, 2013 at 8:56 pm

    Ah, sorry for multiple posts, but I want to reinforce the statement about this term never even showing up in the New Testament:

    The term ????????? had been used before its adoption by the Nicene theology. The Gnostics were the first theologians to use the word “homoousios”, while before the Gnostics there is no trace at all of its existence.

    So this concept–one that you assert is simple–is an invention of the Gnostics. I just can’t stress strongly enough how thoroughly and completely things have gone awry when a central tenet of Christianity hangs from an invented term by a group widely considered heretical and that is completely and totally absent from the Bible.

    So yeah: Letham’s definition was Biblical. And that’s why it has nothing to do with the Creedal definition of the Trinity.

  37. Allen on June 11, 2013 at 10:01 pm

    “Also, God and gods are different.”

    A distinction which only really works in English, and is absent from scripture.

  38. gundek on June 11, 2013 at 11:40 pm

    Sorry for the length I’m updating my photos in Lightroom 5.

    As I said, you cannot completely divorce consubstantial from its Aristotelian roots but, If the goal is to understand how it is being used at Nicaea then the sources would be the Synodical Letter of Nicaea or Nicaea’s staunch defender (Athanasius Contra Mundum). While not trying to oversimplify, the creeds do come with contemporary theological commentary (both for and against) enabling us to understand what was going on and why certain words were used.

    From those critiques both Latin and Greek we see that misunderstandings were created because of the imprecise language at Nicaea. Athanasius explains in his Decrees of the Synod of Nicaea why extra-biblical language was used, but other questions and confusion (particularly ousia (being) and hypostasis (person)) remained to be settled at Constantinople. And we haven’t even looked at the Filioque

    You can object to the definitions I gave. Origen earlier uses the Latin version with similar intent and is quoted by Athanasius. I know that Gnostics used these terms but since there wasn’t exactly a Gnostic constituency at Nicaea that seems to obfuscate the intent.

    The definitions I gave are two sentence working (or ad hoc if you prefer) definitions, intended as a starting point, for understanding the Trinitarian Creeds as they are understood by confessional Churches. I would never claim one truism for them but, I think they work quite nicely.

    I understand your objections to the creeds, they are old, anti-individualist communal documents, anti-democratic, clerical and liturgical. They force study, assent, and submission if you want to participate with them. I am not trying to force the creeds on you or bash you for rejecting them. I just think you are making some of your definitions harder than they need to be, placing mystery in the wrong context, while completely misunderstanding how the creeds use the word person.

  39. WalkerW on June 12, 2013 at 12:00 am

    “A distinction which only really works in English, and is absent from scripture.”

    Indeed:

    “”How do we differ from pagans?” “We have only one God.” “Do Catholics believe in saints, Jews and Muslims in angels, Protestants in devils?” “That is different,” comes the response! “Do angels not live forever, enjoy supernatural powers, exist in a dimension different from that inhabited by mortals?” “Still different!” …[T]he difference between monotheism and polytheism in the student’s mind is the difference between God and god – between two ways of spelling the same word…” (Baruch Halpern, “‘Brisker Pipes than Poetry': The Development of Israelite Monotheism,” in From Gods to God: The Dynamics of Iron Age Cosmologies. Germany: Mohr Siebeck Tubingen, 2009, 16).

    Joel Burnett has shown that the Hebrew ‘elohim’ is a concretized abstract plural and can be used for both plural and singular subjects. It is similar to the Akkadian ‘ilanu’–which is applied to singular subjects in the Amarna Letters and elsewhere–or the Phenician ‘’lm’. It expresses an abstraction, much like the Hebrew ‘’abot’ (“fatherhood”) or ‘zequnim’ (“old age”). Daniel is called a ‘hamudot’ (“desirableness”) in Dan. 9:23. This is when the abstract plural becomes a concrete reference to Daniel, who embodies this quality of “desirableness.” ‘Elohim’ is best translated as “divinity” or “deity.” Israel’s ‘Elohim’ is the embodiment of divinity. However, this quality of deity is applied to multiple subjects. See Burnett, ‘A Reassessment of the Biblical Elohim’ (Atlanta: SBL, 2001).

    Metaphysical distinctions between the multiple gods in the Hebrew Bible are nowhere to be found in the scriptures. David Bokovoy has done an excellent job of showing this in his article “’Ye Really Are Gods’: A Response to Michael Heiser Concerning the LDS Use of Psalm 82 and the Gospel of John,” FARMS Review 19:1 (2007).

  40. Allen on June 12, 2013 at 1:11 am

    Good quotes for the collection.

  41. Mtnmarty on June 12, 2013 at 8:32 am

    The key to NG’s position is that he wants to retain the ability to define “substantive” differences across different subtle linguistic practices. But everything we know anthropologically about group identification is that small differences have large consequences.

    He recognizes that semantic differences make things hard to commensurate but wants to still be able to discuss what is a substantive difference.

    What conceptual apparatus do you have to compare semantic differences across time and languages in order to determine what is a substantive difference?

  42. Mtnmarty on June 12, 2013 at 9:20 am

    just to beat this point to death, there is no taxonomy of theologies that is free from theological committments.

    it’s like trying to make a cross cultural comparison of offensive language and then argue that someone is misunderstanding the way one is being offensive. The fact that people disagree is prima facie evidence that they disagree substantively. Someone arguing about that fact that their disagreement isn’t substantive is self-refuting.

    NG says he has given up the practice of these arguments but he can’t give up the desire to describe the differences as small. if they really were small there wouldn’t be so many arguments over them.

    The LDS church as practiced in its temple recommend questions is an exclusionary community that believes in an exclusionary priesthood with unique individuals in authoritative roles. That’s a tough place to be ecumenical from.

  43. Seth R. on June 12, 2013 at 8:41 pm

    I don’t really mind the idea of the Trinity being a mystery and all that.

    But I do mind when it’s used as a weapon to determine who is in or out of the club.

    My rule is that if you’re going to use a theological concept to exclude someone from your group – then you damn well better be able to at least formulate it in a coherent manner.

  44. Kullervo on June 13, 2013 at 8:33 am

    Just saying the trinity is incoherent over and over again doesn’t make it incoherent, Seth.

    The thing that really galls me is Mormon obstinacy about the mystery of the Trinity, when saying “I don’t understand how the atonement works” is practically a Mormon shibboleth.

  45. Nathaniel Givens on June 13, 2013 at 10:54 am

    The thing that really galls me is Mormon obstinacy about the mystery of the Trinity, when saying “I don’t understand how the atonement works” is practically a Mormon shibboleth.

    Mormons don’t understand the atonement, and we’re OK with that. As a result, a wide view of beliefs about the atonment flourish within Mormonism, from good ole penal-substitution to the approaches of Ostler or England or others. And no one gets kicked out. As long as you accept the doctrine of the atonement (we need saving, and Jesus did the saving), then the details aren’t worth excommunicating each other over.

    This is pretty much the same view Mormons have on the Trinity: we don’t really understand how God the Father and God the Son can be two distinct persons (physically embodied, no less!) and yet still be one God, but that’s what scripture dictates. As a result, there are a wide view of beliefs, from social Trinitarianism to (in some cases I’m sure), good ole Nicene Trinitarianism. Again: the details aren’t worth excommunicating each other over.

    This seems perfectly consistent. What provokes the gall?

  46. Mtnmarty on June 13, 2013 at 12:00 pm

    Kullervo,

    I am still interested in how I can know if I have a correct of terms.

    Here is another version of the thought experiment. You are going to translate the creed into a new language picked at random and we are trying to come up with some tests of whether the translation is correct.

    How would we go about testing if what is called “substance” in English is translated correctly?

  47. Allen on June 13, 2013 at 12:07 pm

    Some related thoughts froman old post by David Bokovoy, which has some relevance to Gods vs. gods.

    “Scholars often refer to the type of monotheism that many contemporary groups espouse as ‘Radical Monotheism,’ a term popularized by Tikva Frymer-Kensky in her book In the Wake of the Goddess: Woman, Culture, and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth (New York: Free Press, 1992).

    The problem is, however, that when supperimposed onto a belief system, none of these ‘isms’ perfectly defines a group’s religious conceptions. With a belief in three divine individual ‘avatars’ that constitute one God, Trinitarianism, for example, is not Radical Monotheism, nor is it truly monotheistic (at least from a Muslim perspective, since Trinitarians worship Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

    One need not worry about such things, however, for as Paula Fredriksen, a historian of ancient Christianity at Boston University, points out in the Bible Review article that Walker posted:

    “No ancient monotheist was a modern monotheist. Divinity expressed itself along a gradient, and the High God, be he pagan, Jewish, or Christian, hardly stood alone. Lesser divinities filled in the gap, cosmic and metaphysical, between humans and God. Monotheists directed their particular worship to the being they termed the high god, while dealing with others as they would. To make the same point differently: While not every ancient polytheist was a monotheist, all ancient monotheists were, by our measure, polytheists.” (pg. 49).

    So rather than getting hung up on modern ‘isms,’ none of which perfectly define a specific belief system, I believe it’s best to simply analyze each series of religious conceptions individually, rather than attempting to superimpose an artificial, modern label or ‘ism’ upon the group.”

  48. Allen on June 13, 2013 at 12:45 pm

    “What provokes the gall?”

    Some members do take the line that our doctrines are perfectly comprehensible and clear (thus true), whereas the creedal trinity is an incohate jumble that cannot be understood or explained (thus false). I find it a silly line to take, as there is so much in the gospel that we cannot begin to understand in this life. There is a point beyond what our intellect can currently understand. Also, like you said, it isn’t worth excommunicating each other.

  49. Mtnmarty on June 13, 2013 at 12:46 pm

    Allen said “…I believe it’s best to simply analyze each series of religious conceptions individually, rather than attempting to superimpose an artificial, modern label or ‘ism’ upon the group.”

    But what are we analyzing them with? All of our terms are so tied up with historical usages that I don’t see how you can analyze conceptions individually in a neutral way.

    Take the polytheism versus monotheism issue. What do we have other than words to use to categorize potential entities as deities? All our possible definitions of God are based on specific languages and the historical practices that produced those words.

    God is one rose that just doesn’t smell as sweet when the words used to identify it change.

  50. Allen on June 14, 2013 at 1:00 am

    Mtnmarty,

    That is exactly the point. Our modern usage of words cannot take precedence over what primary texts indicate.

  51. Mtnmarty on June 14, 2013 at 10:12 am

    Thanks Allen, let me see if I understand you correctly. Are you saying for purposes of understanding ancient religious conceptions we need to look to the language of primary texts or are you saying as modern religious people we should give precedence to ancient primary texts?

    Let me give a bit more background on why the original post was very interesting to me. I am very interested in the lack of symmetry in the way people explain and use their own religious beliefs and the way they explain and understand other people’s religious beliefs.

    For example, it is quite common for people to explain why they believe their religious beliefs by discussing the nature of the beliefs or their experiences in relation to those beliefs. On the other hand, when they explain other people’s religious beliefs they are more likely to say that they hold the religious beliefs they do because of the culture they were raised in. Few LDS people bear testimonies that say “I know this church is true because I was raised that way and interpret the world through the vocabulary I was taught.”

    For me, I have a simultaneous desire to be religious and to understand myself and my traditions in in a way that also predicts why other people hold the traditions they do. This is a great challenge. One must understand, in neutral terms, why one is part of a chosen people.

    So, my working position is that religious vocabularies only make sense within religious communities. They are hopelessly in-group oriented. The tricky part is that particular correlates of religious behaviors such as moral positions, worship practices, etc. can be compared, but they can only be compared from a particular position.

    So, back to your point about primary texts. I think the only way modern people can relate to any text is with modern usage of words. We can’t imagine past languages well enough to “conceive” in them.

    The extreme case are written records in languages without known successor languages – we all pretty much agree that they are incomprehensible. The level of agreement about other texts are controversial to the extent that people feel that meanings are either conserved over time or there is a clear etymology.

    I lean toward the incomprehensible side because of the all the ways meaning change over time : tone, sarcasm, irony, metaphor, etc. all of these depend enormously on context and for primary texts those contexts are in my opinion dead and gone.

    That is why LDS teachings are a unique blend of both emphasizing and de-emphasizing primary texts. Primary texts are mainly used to promote new contexts and understanding rather than to hone ever and ever closer to an original intent.

    Furthermore, even if one did believe primary texts were the best source of knowledge one faces the enormous task of applying primary texts to modern real world circumstances. Whether it be stem cells, or contraception, or time spent on the internet, we only have the vaguest ideas of how those beliefs would apply to modern circumstances.

  52. Allen on June 14, 2013 at 11:43 am

    “Few LDS people bear testimonies that say “I know this church is true because I was raised that way and interpret the world through the vocabulary I was taught.”

    Perhaps because many are converts, and others (like myself) had fallen away before returning.

    “So, back to your point about primary texts. I think the only way modern people can relate to any text is with modern usage of words. We can’t imagine past languages well enough to “conceive” in them.”

    With effort, it is quite possible to overcome our modern notions and listen to the text. When we are talking about primary texts, first and foremost we should seek what the text says, not what we say.

  53. Allen on June 14, 2013 at 12:00 pm

    “Meanwhile the Nicene Creed reads (in part):

    And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds (æons), Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;

    I do not think that this particular formulation with its commitment to Aristotelian metaphysics (via consubstantiality) would necessarily be popular with very many Mormons, but I don’t think that there’s anything in this statement that is necessarily incompatible with Mormonism.”

    Mormonism’s contribution is not so much that Christ wasn’t made, but that none of us were made, either.

  54. Joe Stanford on June 17, 2013 at 11:36 am

    Expanding on #8 and #53. When Mormons and traditional/orthodox Christians debate the nature of God and the Trinity, I believe the real underlying issue is the nature of humans.
    As I have written elsewhere, “Like McDermott, I have come to the conclusion that the most fundamental issue at the core of informed debate between the Mormon and traditional Christian understanding of God is whether God is ‘wholly other’ or whether man is literally ‘the child of God, formed in the divine image and endowed with divine attributes [so that] even as the infant son of an earthly father and mother is capable in due time of becoming a man, so the undeveloped offspring of celestial parentage is capable, by experience through ages and aeons, of evolving into a God’ (First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1909). See http://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/01/february-letters-10

  55. john f. on June 21, 2013 at 1:21 pm

    Nice post. A debate between Mormons and creedal Christians that also touched on the Trinity piqued my interest last week as well.

    I see a type of Mormon Trinitarianism as a possibility.

    One of the core differences between creedal Christians and Mormons who have rejected or at least do not require adherence to the extra-biblical creeds as part of the faith, it seems to me, is the issue of “One Substance” as a necessary characteristic of the Trinity and the relation of that concept to creation ex nihilo. This is the reason that some (many) creedal Christians accuse Mormons of “worshipping a different Christ.” The litmus test becomes questions posed by creedal Christians such as “Do you believe that Jesus was God from the beginning of all creation? Meaning do you believe that before anything spiritual or physical was created God was always there?” The first question involves homoousios or “One Substance” and the second, creation ex nihilo (though both questions incorporate both ideas).

    But Mormons see themselves as disciples of the New Testament Jesus rather than the Jesus that emerges from creeds heavily influenced by the Hellenistic philosophy pervading the intellectual atmosphere of the day.

    The real question becomes whether the Bible actually requires belief in these concepts to be true disciples of Jesus Christ. Note, this is a different consideration from whether the Bible, when reading between the lines, actually teaches these two ideas.

    My sense is that requiring belief in these two ideas is an extra-biblical litmus test whose sole purpose is to delineate sectarian adherence. This is true whether these concepts are explicitly taught in the Bible or are simply derived from a syllogistic reading of Deut. 6:4 combined with the concept of the Son of God and the parameters of Hellenistic philosophy (i.e. an attempt to reconcile Deut. 6:4 with the fact of the Son of God in the New Testament).

    In other words, Christ’s religion does not require belief in these philosophical abstractions of those who would be his disciples. Some might indeed believe in them based on the way they choose to read the Bible. Others might read the Bible without inferring these two ideas but still be just as devoted to discipleship in the Lord. (And my view is that these ideas are not a necessary inference from the plain text of the Bible even if they are one possible way to read the Bible as transmitted, especially when trying to read the Bible in compliance with fundamental principles of controlling Hellenistic philosophy.)

    As I have said elsewhere, I happen to subscribe to the Mormon understanding of the nature of God and the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of the World. I think the Mormon conception of the Lord Jesus Christ is more directly tied into the New Testament, looking, as it does, at the Godhead rather than the “Trinity” by setting the traditional extra-biblical creeds aside. Without feeling constrained to read the Bible through the lens of the creeds, the Godhead as understood in Mormonism becomes manifestly visible.

    However, as mentioned, I also believe there is room for a Mormon Trinitarianism as well. I think that Mosiah 15:1-9 requires it, and we give it short shrift as Mormons simply because we want to emphasize our non-creedal belief, i.e. that we believe in the New Testament’s Godhead rather than the creeds’ “One Substance” Trinity. But Mormon Trinitarianism arising from Mosiah 15 would be so much more than creedal Trinitarianism precisely because Mormons do not feel constrained by the idea of creation ex nihilo, which we view as a Hellenistic accretion that is unnecessary for discipleship.

    Freed from this and other extra-biblical philosophical constraints, Mormon Trinitarianism would read Mosiah 15:1-9 together with John 17, as is only proper. Based on Jesus’ desire expressed in John 17 — that all of his disciples should be One with him as he is One with the Father — we could say that NOT ONLY is Jesus Christ “One Substance” with the Father as expressed by creedal (i.e. Trinitarian) Christians, BUT ALSO we all are, or can be to the extent that we are baptized in Jesus’ name, become “One Substance” with Jesus and the Father. This is what Jesus greatly desired in John 17 and we should each desire it as well. In any event, that helps us understand the principle that we, if we are disciples of Jesus Christ, will become “joint heirs with Christ” to all that the Father has.

    Yes, I think there is room in Mormonism for this kind of Trinitarianism. It is consistent with the Bible, does not disturb the idea of the Godhead or impose outside philosophical constructs on the teachings of the New Testament, and remains true to Deut. 6:4 when read in light of John 17 and the “Oneness” of Christ and God that is described there.

    Whether God created the world ex nihilo or not will remain a fascinating issue for philosophical debate. But the answer to the two questions often used a sectarian litmus test by creedal Christians posed are by no means determinative of whether the interlocutor is a disciple of Jesus Christ. Mormons affirm that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Savior of the World, the Messiah, the second member of the Godhead, the Creator of the World. Based on the New Testament, this makes us Christians. Yes, there are myriad doctrinal differences between Mormons and creedal Christians if you interpose the creeds as normative for “right belief”. But this makes us Mormons heretics from that point of view and not non-Christians.

  56. john f. on June 21, 2013 at 1:40 pm

    Mormonism’s contribution is not so much that Christ wasn’t made, but that none of us were made, either.

    Exactly, Allen! And, on that note, it’s not just that Jesus Christ is “One Substance” with the Father, we all are or can be through uniting ourselves to him as his disciples through baptism and Christian living.

  57. Michael Edwards on June 24, 2013 at 4:01 pm

    As an LDS member for one year in April–after 68 years of Catholic and Episcopal Catholic membership–and as a former teacher of Aristotelian Logic, I cannot tell you how welcome and refreshing these conversations are.

    I followed my wife into Mormonism after 12 years of trying to understand what Mormons believe–especially about God. Gordon Hinkley’s invitation to bring my religious culture with me plus the realization that I could accept LDS doctrines intellectually in faith and pray to the Spirit for clarification one way or another allowed me to accept Baptism — with a promise of increasing in my understanding and commitment to Christ. But my testimony on some levels still seems insufficient and I have feared that my LDS friends were trying to remake me in the image of a life-long Mormon with some very uncompromising opinions.

    Your dialogue here is so welcome. The idea that I can still be a spiritual explorer to feel the quiet majesty of the Father within my heart; to be able to think of ‘begotten, of one substance with the Father’ as a unity of being that I can aspire to become one with is somehow to me comforting. Be still, and know that I am God. Be still and be one with Christ as he is one with the Father. I guess I like that word “substance”. I think of it as the basic mysterious essential being that makes something what it is and without which it would not be what it is.

    I’m not as versed or well-read as the scholars on this page. But your writings are stimulating to my mind and refreshing to my soul. Thank you for making your thoughts and ponderings available.

  58. john f. on June 26, 2013 at 2:09 pm

    Michael:

    Congratulations on surpassing one year since your baptism! In my opinion, the Church is greatly enhanced by your presence and decision to join. You should feel comfortable to express your own views, opinions, and beliefs about such topics in any Church setting! You will enlighten your fellow members.

  59. Nathaniel Givens on June 26, 2013 at 4:00 pm

    Michael-

    Just wanted to add my contragulations to john f’s. I strongly feel that the community of Saints is improved when converts bring the best of their heritages along with them. My mother never lost her love of Catholicism either, and it enriches her spiritual life.

    I also really like the idea of continuing to work out our won understanding of Mormon doctrine. I think that’s one of the most important things about Mormonism: we’re both free and responsible to work through the revelations that we’ve been given to try and understand how to make sense of and apply them.

    I’m glad you like the conversation!

  60. Adam G. on June 26, 2013 at 4:49 pm

    Good for you, Michael.

    My own understanding of the Kingdom has been enriched by traditional Christian teachings on the Incarnation and on the meaning of eternity.

  61. Mark D. on June 26, 2013 at 6:16 pm

    A distinction which only really works in English, and is absent from scripture.

    How exactly can one interpret the following passage from the Doctrine and Covenants without making a distinction between “God” and “god”?:

    “Which Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God, infinite and eternal, without end. Amen.” (D&C 20:28)

    The key question for LDS here is “Is Jesus divine in-and-of-himself?” What about his Father? If so, what exactly does that mean? Is it even possible for anyone to be divine in-and-of-him/herself?

    Every problem of classical Trinitarianism flows from the proposition that the Father is an individual who is fully divine in-and-of-himself. That is not a particularly productive assumption, as the history of Christian theology amply attests.

  62. Syphax on August 10, 2013 at 8:37 pm

    I think that arguing about the Trinity with Protestants doesn’t make as much sense, because I have found that Protestants are several more steps away from the culture that defined the Trinity to begin with (and are in general less classically theistic or philosophical). But I think it’s valuable to talk (maybe not argue, but talk) about the Trinity with the Catholics and Orthodox, inasmuch as they generally ARE Aristotelian/Platonic, are much closer to their Greek roots, and are much more strongly creedal (since they not only accept the formulas of the ecumenical councils, but everything else, too).

    I think when the Trinitarian formula is really delved into, with its Aristotelian assumptions and the Ex Nihilo/theosis assumptions of the Early Church Fathers, it really doesn’t jive with any Mormon conception of God.

    Instead, I think what this post/discussion have shown me is that a rough translation of the creeds, in the hands of a generally Protestant audience who approach the creeds non-rigorously, can vaguely jive with the Mormon conception of God. But I think that’s a pretty low bar for any discussion.

    (speaking as an active Mormon Aristotelian who leans towards Eastern Orthodoxy, for the sake of full disclosure)

    Finally, I do think it’s pretty unfair when Mormons imply that the creeds were developed sort of out of the blue, as a way of inventing doctrine that wasn’t there before. It would be nice to at least acknowledge that the Catholic/Orthodox position has always been that the Councils were an attempt to more precisely clarify what they had always believed from the beginning of the Church. On their view, if the Councils had come up with a formulation that was alien to the Christian life the Church was already living, it would have been completely rejected by everyone.

  63. Seraphim on August 11, 2013 at 2:14 am

    “Finally, I do think it’s pretty unfair when Mormons imply that the creeds were developed sort of out of the blue, as a way of inventing doctrine that wasn’t there before. It would be nice to at least acknowledge that the Catholic/Orthodox position has always been that the Councils were an attempt to more precisely clarify what they had always believed from the beginning of the Church. On their view, if the Councils had come up with a formulation that was alien to the Christian life the Church was already living, it would have been completely rejected by everyone.”

    Well said, Syphax. As someone who has delved into the first through third centuries of the Christian tradition, I am always irritated with my Mormon brothers and sisters that perpetuate such a poor interpretation of history. The Nicene Creed was not written with Constantine’s axe looming over the heads of the participating bishops. It clarified beliefs that, based on writings of pre-Nicene Christian fathers seem to have been quite prevalent in the early Christian movement. Further, I personally believe that these creeds are still adhered to in contemporary Christianity is a testament to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

    Another interesting factor that often remains invisible or overlooked is how so many Christian bodies that were so often isolated from one another and had every chance to diverge due to language barriers and independent development have maintained striking similarities. I am thinking particularly of certain Oriental Orthodox churches, the Assyrian Churches, and especially the St. Thomas Christians in India who may have been cut off from the center of Christendom for decades or even centuries at a time.

    I encourage those interested in learning more about what pre-Nicene Christians believed to check out JND Kelly’s “Early Christian Doctrines”, Pelikan’s ” Christian Tradition: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, 100-600 A.D”, and check out the resources this website has to offer:

    http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/

    Can’t beat primary sources, and these translations are the next best thing :)