Daniel C. Peterson: Mormons and the Holy Trinity

By Daniel C. Peterson

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Sept. 16 2010 6:30 a.m. MDT

Do Latter-day Saints believe in the Trinity? Virtually everybody who knows anything about Mormonism, believer or not, says no.

But that answer is wrong. Although Latter-day Saints tend to avoid the term \"Trinity,\" some Mormon authorities have used it to describe their belief in a Godhead of three persons. Thus, for example, Brigham Young, speaking of \"the Father of us all, and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ\" at the Salt Lake Tabernacle in 1871, asked: \"Is he one? Yes. Is his trinity one? Yes.\"

Similarly, the second chapter of Elder James E. Talmage's authoritative 1890 book on \"The Articles of Faith\" is titled \"God and the Holy Trinity.\"

Furthermore, uniquely Mormon scriptural texts assert the unity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost at least as strongly as the Bible does. An April 1830 revelation to Joseph Smith, for instance, affirms that they \"are one God, infinite and eternal, without end\" (Doctrine and Covenants 20:28). The Book of Mormon agrees, declaring (with an interesting singular verb) that \"the Father, and … the Son, and … the Holy Ghost … is one God, without end\" (2 Nephi 31:21; compare 3 Nephi 28:10).

The impressive testimony of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon, published in the book since 1830, concludes by ascribing \"honor … to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, which is one God.\" \"I am in the Father,\" says the Lord to Joseph Smith in an 1833 revelation, \"and the Father in me, and the Father and I are one\" (Doctrine and Covenants 93:3).

The question isn't really whether Mormons use the word \"Trinity,\" nor whether they regard the Father, Son and Holy Ghost as \"one.\" They have, and they do. The only real question is how they understand the divine unity.

Mormonism rejects the traditional Trinity of the Nicene Creed, but sees the Father, Son and Holy Ghost as perfectly unified in love and purpose. There is not a hair's breadth of difference between them on any matter and certainly not with regard to their loving intention to save as many of the human family as are willing to be saved.

And this is true to the biblical data: It is precisely the same kind of unity that Jesus, in the famous \"intercessory\" or \"high priestly\" prayer recounted in John's gospel, sought for his disciples and their eventual converts — and precisely the same kind that he claimed for his Father and himself: He implored \"that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us … that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me\" (John 17:21-23).

Fortunately, there are contemporary Christian theologians, both Catholic and Protestant, who are attending more carefully to the biblical roots of Trinitarian doctrine and pruning away the dead branches of outdated Greek metaphysics that have long damaged its health. Many of these identify themselves with what has come to be called the \"social model of the Trinity\" or, simply, \"social Trinitarianism.\" According to this model, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost are perfectly unified in love and purpose, wholly transparent and open to one another, inseparable but distinct centers of consciousness and personality.

While this isn't quite the Latter-day Saint concept of a Godhead comprising three anthropomorphic beings, it's considerably closer than the model worked out, under the influence of ancient pagan Middle Platonic ideas that have long since dropped out of fashion everywhere but in creedal Christendom, by the delegates to the Council of Nicea. And, anyway, many if not most Christians already believe that one member of the Trinity — the resurrected Son — is embodied, retaining the body that rose from the tomb on the first Easter morning. So the distance between the Latter-day Saints and other Christians on the nature of the Trinity may be growing smaller.

For a much more developed analysis of this matter see Daniel C. Peterson, \"Mormonism and the Trinity,\" in the journal of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology, \"Element\" 3:1-2 (Spring/Fall 2007).

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