Over the past 21 years of ministry in Utah, I have enjoyed the robust discussion we have on issues surrounding doctrine and the church. More than a few of you have made the attempt to “convert” me, and in fairness, I have not been coy about my desire to see you converted either. So what I am about to say comes out of the numerous conversations about God and the Bible we have had in my living room, in my office, or at a restaurant.
It seems to me that you believe the doctrine of the Trinity to be my Achilles’ heel. You might even believe the Trinity to be the strongest argument against orthodox Christianity. I will admit that I am relying more on anecdotal experience than hard evidence or statistics, but every time a Mormon friend – and over the years I have been blessed to make many friends here in Utah – attempts to convert me, the Trinity is always the starting point of the conversation.
Let me just say that I think I understand why you want to start there. The doctrine of the Trinity is absolutely the most difficult of all the doctrines of orthodox Christianity. You have probably noticed that even those who claim to believe in the Trinity struggle to explain exactly what they believe about the Trinity. I will not deny that the doctrine is difficult or even counterintuitive – you might think it untenable. And along with that, you probably recognize that the doctrine of the Trinity is the sine qua non of the Christian faith, the point on which all other points depend. Unless we know Who God is, we have nothing.
As a friend, I want to offer two things in this short epistle. First, I want to give you a brief sketch of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity held by the historic Christian faith. This doctrine, by the way, was held long before Nicea. The word Trinity itself is found more than 100 times in the writings of the ante-Nicean fathers who date all the way back to Polycarp, a disciple of John the Apostle. So the doctrine was not invented at Nicea, only clarified in response to the heretic Arius. After I have related the doctrine, I want to explain why I believe that the doctrine of the Trinity proves the truth of the orthodox Christian faith. I will strive to be brief.
The Bible clearly teaches that there is but one God only (Deuteronomy 6:4; Isaiah 43:10; 44:6-8; 45:6). Yet in the Bible, we find three distinct Persons who are all called God and considered to be equally God with each other – they are the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Father is called God (John 6:27; Romans 1:7; Galatians 1:1), the Son is called God (John 1:1, 14; Philippians 2:5-6; Colossians 1:15-19; I Timothy 3:16; Hebrews 1:3), and the Holy Spirit is called God (Acts 5:3-4). Thus, the orthodox statement of the Trinity is that there are three persons in the Godhead, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and that these three are one God, the same in essence, equal in power and glory. In our understanding of the Trinity, we must not confuse the Persons, and we must not divide at all the divine essence. Each person in the Godhead is distinct from the others – the Father is not the Son and is not the Holy Spirit; the Son is not the Father or the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is not the Father or the Son. Yet the Father is fully God, the Son is fully God, and the Holy Spirit is fully God. Of Jesus Christ, Colossians 2:9 says,
For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.
The Athanasian Creed offers what is perhaps the clearest and richest expression of the Trinity. This creed, named for Athanasius, was produced by the New Testament church in response to some popular errors that were afflicting the church at the time of its writing. The statement offers a robust description of the Triune nature of God, including descriptions such as this:
…the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Ghost uncreated. The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Ghost unlimited. The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated; nor three infinites, but one uncreated; and one infinite. So likewise the Father is Almighty; the Son Almighty; and the Holy Ghost Almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties; but one Almighty. So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God.
The creed answers some of the most fundamental questions regarding the nature of God and the Godhead:
The Father is made of none; neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created; but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten; but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid; the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped.
For any of my LDS friends reading this, the major difference between our view of God and yours is just this: we both believe in the distinctions between the Persons of the Godhead. You do not believe that the three are the same in essence, that they are one God. By the phrase “the same in essence,” we mean to say that all three hold equally the same divinity, the same divine substance and essence, and that each Person in the Godhead is fully and equally God, not in any way a separate God from the other.
The doctrine of the Trinity is a difficult doctrine, and throughout the New Testament age, many have stumbled at it. In many cases, people have simply adopted something easier, a more comprehensible god that they can wrap their minds around. This practice of opting for the simpler came in full-force near the time of the founding of our nation and the rise of Unitarianism in America. The single biggest objection to the doctrine of the Trinity is that it is incomprehensible. Interestingly enough, the most strident objections to the difficulty of the Trinity came at the very time Joseph Smith had his first vision. Reverend Henry Ware, a Unitarian pastor, became the president of Harvard in 1805, the same year Joseph Smith was born.
Your main objection to the Trinity comes out Joseph Smith’s vision in 1820, fifteen years after Harvard fell to the Unitarians. In American history, this was a time of great social and religious upheaval, and in Joseph Smith’s account of that first vision, he relates the message he was told that all the churches were wrong and that all their Creeds were an abomination in God’s sight. For you, it was Joseph Smith’s vision of two personages – God the Father and God the Son, that defines your view of God, and the assessment these two personages gave of the Creeds of Christianity leads you to reject the doctrine of the Trinity.
So we are dealing with two things here, really. First, we are dealing with your reasons for rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity – which is the different view of God provided by Joseph Smith; second, we are dealing with your reasons for making the Trinity the starting point in an attempt to convert a Trinitarian like me to Mormonism – which is the difficulty of the doctrine itself.
While I would like to spend more time on the first issue – your reasons for rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity – I will refrain for now. I will only say that in order to fully flesh out that issue, we would need to take the Bible and see if it gives any credence whatsoever to Joseph Smith’s claims about the Godhead.
My purpose in writing this article is simply to answer the second issue – is the doctrine of the Trinity our Achilles’ heal? And in response, let me say that the difficulty of the doctrine does not undermine it in any way. In fact, quite the opposite: I believe that the difficulty of it is the strongest evidence for it.
First, no man invented this doctrine. The difficulty of the doctrine of the Trinity is the best proof that it is revealed doctrine, not invented doctrine. Men are not capable of inventing a doctrine that is at the same time so logical and so incomprehensible. In the doctrine of the Trinity, the problems of transcendence and immanence are decisively answered. The Trinity offers the only logical possibility for God to be both transcendent – altogether above us and separate from us – and immanent – near to us, involved with us, interested in us.
Without the Trinity, the idea of “unity in diversity” – a design feature of the created world – would be nonsensical. The Trinity explains why God, in the beginning, said, “Let us make man in our own image,” and explains how God, in making man in His own image, would create both male and female (Genesis 1:27). The Trinity explains how God can insist that there is but one God only, that there is no God before, neither will there be any God after (Isaiah 43:10), and yet how the Father is called God (John 6:27; Romans 1:7; Galatians 1:1), the Son is called God (John 1:1, 14; Philippians 2:5-6; Colossians 1:15-19; I Timothy 3:16; Hebrews 1:3), and the Holy Spirit is called God (Acts 5:3-4).
Secondly, if God could be comprehended by man, He would be no different than us. How could finite man wrap his finite brain around an infinite God? The finite cannot reach the infinite, but the infinite can reach the finite. Through the revealed Word of God, we see that God is truly infinite – not only infinite in power, in knowledge, and in presence, but also an infinite personality. He is the Three-Personal God.
A god who can be comprehended by man is no God at all (Romans 1:23; I Corinthians 2:11). So the fact that the doctrine of the Trinity is itself incomprehensible simply demonstrates that an infinite God has revealed His true self to us in the pages of Scripture. I do not want to serve a god who is like me. I need a God Who is in every way greater and more glorious, one Who is capable of saving a wretch like me and at the same time worthy of my worship. A god who is like me is not worthy of worship.