Trinity Sunday

MLP

MLP

Mormon Lectionary Project

Trinity Sunday, Year A

Gen. 1:1-2:4a (NRSV); Psalm 8 (KJV); 2 Corinthians 13:11-13 (NRSV); Matthew 28:16-20 (NRSV); 1 Nephi 11:6; Alma 34:37-38D&C 20:21-28

The Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who as the Father and the Son, aided by the presence of the Holy Spirit, appeared to thy servant Joseph Smith, jr.: grant that we may be one with each other, and one with thee, as you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are one God forever and ever.

Early in the Book of Mormon, Nephi receives some information that seems to have been all at once exciting, shocking, and confusing. After Nephi affirms his belief in Lehi’s vision of the tree, the Spirit who had carried him away responds with praise: “Hosanna to the Lord, the Most High God; for he is God over all the earth, even above all.” Then comes the intriguing part: “And blessed art thou, Nephi, because thou believest in the Son of the most high God.”

This is intriguing not only because Nephi has not affirmed any such belief, but more profoundly because the text has not hitherto mentioned any such Son (except when the narrator Nephi, writing 40 years after the fact, attributes his father’s vision to “faith on the Son of God” [1 Ne. 10:17]). The book opens with Lehi, likewise carried away by the Spirit, seeing God enthroned (1 Ne. 1:8), after which he sees “One descending out of the midst of heaven” and “twelve others following him” (1 Ne. 1:9-10). While we are justified in understanding this “One” as Jesus Christ, the Book of Mormon does not at this point identify him as God’s Son; nor does it clarify the relationship between this One and God at all.

Although Nephi stands by the filial relation of this anointed one to the Father that the Spirit had revealed to him, his focus tends to fall on the fact of anointed status instead of on the matter of relationship. He seems to prefer the word “Messiah” (23 uses in 1-2 Nephi) to “Son” (8 times in 1 Nephi, mostly in chapters 11-13, 10 times in 2 Nephi, concentrated in chapters 25 and 31, with “Son of Righteousness in 2 Nephi 26:9).

Nephi handles the relationship among members of the Godhead most explicitly in 2 Nephi 31, where he addresses “the doctrine of Christ.” He begins by talking about “the Lord God” in verse 3, introducing “the Lamb of God” in verse 4, which also mentions “that prophet which the Lord showed unto me.” The relationship among these titles is not altogether clear. 1 Nephi 11 clearly identifies Nephi’s visionary guide as the Spirit, although this figure becomes “the angel” later on. Is “the Lord” in verse 4 therefore the Spirit? Are we to take “the Lord God” and “the Lamb of God” (the latter explicitly identified as “the Son of the Eternal Father” in 1 Ne. 11:21) as distinct beings or as distinct titles for the same being?

All three persons come into play in verses 7 and 8. The Lamb “humbleth himself before the Father,” and “the Holy Ghost descended upon him in the form of a dove.” This formulation emphasizes the superiority of the Father, with the movement of the Holy Ghost being similarly downward.

Verse 10 makes the relationship between Father and Son relevant to human believers by asking, “Can we follow Jesus save we shall be willing to keep the commandments of the Father?” This turns Jesus’ submission into an example.

Intriguingly, the individual persons of Father and Son speak in verses 11 and 12. The Father commands baptism in the name of the Son, and the Son says that the Father will give the Holy Ghost to all who are so baptized. With these verses a pattern begins to emerge in which the Father issues commands, with the Son both acting as example of obedience and as communicator of the message to humans—a role he continues in verse 14. In verse 15 the Father then adds his witness to the Son’s message.

In the chapter’s concluding verses, Nephi crystallizes his interpretation of the relationship among the persons. In verse 18 he speaks of our having obeyed the commandments of both Father and Son. Thus, even though the Father issues the commandment and the Son merely communicates it (by deed and word), Nephi feels comfortable assigning this function to both persons.

The Holy Ghost, in turn, “witnesses of the Father and the Son.” Whereas the chapter had, up to this point, shown the Father and the Son as distinct beings with unique, if complementary, functions, it now draws our attention to their unity. Since testifying of the Father’s commands is enough for the Son to be considered one with the Father, the Holy Ghost’s witnessing of both Father and Son is by implication sufficient ground for assuming its unity with the collective as well.

Indeed, Nephi makes this claim of unity among the persons explicit in the chapter’s final verse: “And now, behold, this is the doctrine of Christ, and the only and true doctrine of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, which is one God, without end.”

This claim of unity among the persons did not, however, settle the matter for Nephi’s descendants. On their mission to the Zoramites, Alma and Amulek encounter a group of people who seem to believe that the doctrine of God’s unity precludes the possibility of there being a Son. This concern becomes clear in Alma 33:1, where the people “sent forth unto him desiring to know whether they should believe in one God.”

In their subsequent preaching, Alma and Amulek persistently draw attention to all three persons. (No doubt Alma learned something of his approach to these matters from his father, who witnessed Abinadi’s discourse in Mosiah 15.) Indeed, Amulek concludes his masterful sermon in chapter 34 with a Trinitarian chiasmus in verses 37-38:

37 And now, my beloved brethren, I desire that ye should remember these things, and that ye should work out your salvation with fear before God, and that ye should no more deny the coming of Christ;

38 That ye contend no more against the Holy Ghost, but that ye receive it, and take upon you the name of Christ; that ye humble yourselves even to the dust, and worship God, in whatsoever place ye may be in, in spirit and in truth; and that ye live in thanksgiving daily, for the many mercies and blessings which he doth bestow upon you.

By calling this chiasmus “Trinitarian” I simply mean to say that it shows all three persons operating in harmony toward a unified end. The purpose of this lengthy exegesis is not to show that the Book of Mormon supports the doctrine of homoousios (unity of essence/being/substance) espoused in the Nicene Creed, but rather to demonstrate that the Book of Mormon is responsive to the theological pressures that resulted in the Nicene formulation and its subsequent articulations in the Chalcedonian and Athanasian Creeds.

In a nutshell, the problem is this: given the Jewish emphasis on one God in the key text of Deuteronomy 6:4, how does one make sense of Jesus (especially if one understands Jesus to be in some sense God)? The difficulty of this question became increasingly apparent over time, with Tertullian in the 2nd century being the first to offer a Trinitarian solution. Still, the debate grew more heated, especially amidst the Arian controversy of the early 4th century. Addressing this controversy was one purpose for the Council of Nicaea in 325, and even this powerful gathering could not put the matter to rest. Augustine’s influential De Trinitate was written amidst continued controversy decades after Nicaea.

At this juncture I wish to suggest that the Restored Gospel offers an inspired take (or at least the potential for one) on the controversies swirling around the nature of the Godhead. This approach does not involve attempting to settle the question by appeal to Joseph’s vision (especially given the discrepancy between the 1832 and 1838 accounts with respect to how many beings he saw), but rather appears in the First Article of Faith: “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in his Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.” The inspired genius of this creedal statement is that it commits adherents only to the basic, essential details, the same ones included in the Gospel of Matthew’s grand commission to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. The Athanasian Creed it is not.

If (in my view) the Athanasian Creed goes too far in committing a person to belief in metaphysical niceties, an advantage of the First Article of Faith is that someone who believes those metaphysical niceties should still in good conscience be able to join with the body of the church in affirming this basic belief. It creates space in the Church for differences of belief that early Christianity found intolerable, while fostering unity around core shared concepts.

D&C 20:21-28, a revelation connected with the Church’s founding, contains powerful language that, while reminiscent of the Apostles’ Creed, similarly leaves room for differences of belief on the metaphysical nature of the relationships among members of the Godhead:

21 Wherefore, the Almighty God gave his Only Begotten Son, as it is written in those scriptures which have been given of him.

22 He suffered temptations but gave no heed unto them.

23 He was crucified, died, and rose again the third day;

24 And ascended into heaven, to sit down on the right hand of theFather, to reign with almighty power according to the will of the Father;

25 That as many as would believe and be baptized in his holy name, and endure in faith to the end, should be saved—

26 Not only those who believed after he came in the meridian of time, in the flesh, but all those from the beginning, even as many as were before he came, who believed in the words of the holy prophets, who spake as they were inspired by the gift of the Holy Ghost, who truly testified of him in all things, should have eternal life,

27 As well as those who should come after, who should believe in the gifts and callings of God by the Holy Ghost, which beareth record of the Father and of the Son;

28 Which Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God, infinite and eternal, without end. Amen.

What emerges in this passage as more important than metaphysical propositions is the unity of the prophets with the Godhead in testifying of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. However else the Godhead may be one, the persons’ unity of witness matters most, as does our potential for unity with them.

The irony with the doctrine of the Trinity is that, for an idea whose premise is unity, it has caused an awful lot of division. One could certainly argue that the sort of unity enabled by the First Article of Faith or Section 20 is a shallow one, made possible only by the theological naïveté of a religion still younger by a century than the Christianity that convened at Nicaea. Nevertheless, a profounder unity might not be possible without a superficial one.

The first creation story in Genesis offers a powerful paradigm for unity in difference. Unlike the second creation story, in which the woman is created after (and out of) the man, this one has them created at the same time, both in the image of God. Notwithstanding all that might serve to distinguish between the sexes, they can be one, just as the image of God is indivisible, even though God is three persons.

Though we may be “a little lower than the angels,” we must still strive, as the body of Christ, toward this unity, following Paul’s injunction: “agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.” His invitation for us to “greet one another with a holy kiss” has now, in many churches, become the practice of giving the sign of peace. At this moment in the service, all present arise and say “Peace be with you” while shaking hands with surrounding congregants. I love this practice and the spirit of love and unity it fosters, even when performed with strangers.

In the end, even if we hold to the traditional LDS teaching that I encountered in my youth—the idea that Joseph’s vision, in tandem with D&C 130, indicates physically distinct persons, thus proving homoousios false—this teaching still gives the unity among the members of the Godhead a powerful ethical edge for us as members of the Church. In fact, the ethical edge might be even sharper than it would be if we believed in homoousios, for in granting that the persons are fundamentally different we acknowledge, on a very basic theological level, both the need for and the possibility of unity in diversity. In keeping with Mormon pragmatism, then, this teaching allows us to acknowledge the reality of diversity in the Church as something with which we not only can but more or less have to live.

This message of unity among the persons of the Godhead is especially timely in light of the news of various disciplinary actions that have sent tremors through the body of the Saints. May we all, in our actions towards one another, look to the perfect example of Father, Son, and Spirit, who, though different, are yet One God through the miracle of charity.

I conclude with a poem, “These Three (1 Cor. 13:13)”:

In faith I look to God to salve my mortal faults; this faith, an upward nod of hope though falling, vaults my eyes from self abroad, where charity exalts.

For the music, here is one of Bach’s three(!) cantatas for Trinity Sunday, “O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad” (BWV 165). The others are BWV 129 and BWV 176.

Comments

  1. Jason,

    You have brilliantly added to the (small) corpus of Mormon Trinity rehabilitation writings. I like what you say about the malleability of the Article of Faith 1 creed.

    Count me as someone who absolutely believes in homoousios. The unity of the Godhead makes them indeed of one substance.

  2. Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
    Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee;
    Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty!
    God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!

    Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore Thee,
    Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
    Cherubim and seraphim falling down before Thee,
    Who was, and is, and evermore shall be.

    Holy, holy, holy! Though the darkness hide Thee,
    Though the eye of sinful man Thy glory may not see;
    Only Thou art holy; there is none beside Thee,
    Perfect in pow’r, in love, and purity.

    Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
    All Thy works shall praise Thy Name, in earth, and sky, and sea;
    Holy, holy, holy; merciful and mighty!
    God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!

  3. Jason K. says:

    Thanks, Ronan. I’m personally not sure whether I believe in homoousios or not, but I absolutely believe in the oneness of God, and I’m glad to count you as a brother in the faith.

  4. Jason K. says:

    Thanks, Steve. A most welcome contribution!

  5. Shawn H says:

    a profounder unity might not be possible without a superficial one

    I love this. Indeed, I believe we are a long way from a more profound unity. We (me especially I fear) are all so far from a superficial unity, finding false comfort in our differences, that I don’t think a superficial unity, let alone a profound one, is possible in this life.

    Thank you for this Jason

  6. Well, let’s define terms. What is “homoousios”?

  7. Interesting. From what I read in this article it seemed, to me, that you don’t believe in homoousios. The fifth lecture in The Lectures on Faith provide good insight, as well. As long as you take into account Joseph’s words that he always taught the Holy Ghost is a personage.

  8. Jason K. says:

    That’s the sort of question better discussed over a few weeks on the road to Canterbury or something. Still, the main reason why I’m not sure whether I believe in homoousios is that I’m not sure what it means. Sure, I know what it means, but not what it *means.* The whole controversy about how to render it in Latin indicates some of the problem. (I know you know this, but let’s fill in the details so that others can join the conversation.) The first impulse was to render ousia straightforwardly as esse, the potential for tritheism in translating the Greek hypostaseis as substantia (or subsistantia) resulted in this term’s being shifted to the “one” part of the Trinity instead of the “three” part, which then got filled in by the frankly metaphorical “persona” (which means “mask”).

    To break this down, briefly, here’s the sequence:
    Greek: one ousia, three hypostaseis
    Latin (early): one esse, three substantiae
    Latin (later): one substantia, three personae

    So, to your question, does homoousios (the word in the Nicene creed reflecting the oneness side of the equation) mean that the hypostaseis are one in abstract being or in substantial being?

    For my own part, I’m partial to Milton’s approach, or at least a part of it. His Christology is frankly subordinationist, but he still insists, citing John 17:21, on the unity of Father and Son. “[The Son] declares that he and the Father are one in the same way that were one with him, and that is definitely not in essence, but in love, in communion, in agreement, in charity, in spirit, and finally in glory [Latin: [Filius] declarat se et Patrem esse unum quo modo nos cum eo unum sumus: id utique non est essentia, sed dilectione, communione, consensu, charitate, animo, gloria denique.]”

    I’ve tried to make the case elsewhere that Milton’s notion of unity depends more on commitment to a particular truth-process than it does on assent to particular propositions. The notion that such a process crafts us into beings that, while essentially distinct, are nevertheless substantially the same, seems to sit rather comfortably with Mormon theomorphism, but it means that we’re defining “substance” as qualitas (how something is) rather than quidditas (what something is).

    (Apologies for the jargon in this comment. One virtue of Mormonism’s relatively atheological character is that it frees us from the terminology that this sort of technical discussion requires. If we must unite around some propositions, it’s easier for us to unite around basic plain expressions like the first article of faith than to get involved in hashing out what exactly we mean by it. To be clear, I’m perfectly happy to have such technical conversations. I’m a dork that way, and they’re kind of fun, just so long as we don’t take the outcome too seriously. In that sense I agree with Adam Miller that theology, when taken most seriously, has to be treated as a game.)

  9. Jason, this is amazingly good Mormon trinitarian exegesis. Thank you.

  10. I’m not really sure what it means either, so I make of it what I want!

    I just like what is implied by Jesus being of one nature with the Father *just as* he is of one nature with humans. His humanity is not of another substance than ours; his divinity is not of another substance than the Father’s. This analogue leads me me to believe in homoousios. I think Mormons are pulled away from it because we believe that somehow we need to be (without knowing why).

  11. Jason K. says:

    I certainly agree with your last sentence, Ronan. I’m still grappling with your Christology, though.

  12. Discuss in person!

  13. Jason K. says:

    Indeed!

  14. I’ve been fascinated with the similarity of some early LDS writings (like D&C 20:21-38, as discussed in the post, and also Joseph Smith’s statement in the Elder’s Journal summing up the “fundamental principles of our religion”) with the apostles creed (or the Old Roman creed). Does anyone know of any good work that has been done on this topic that I could look at for further reading?

  15. Jason K. says:

    I don’t, but If also be very interested in doing further reading on the subject.

  16. Ronan, after I finished choking out (as a recovering Catholic) on your statement that you believed in homoousios long enough to read your last comment, I felt better. I think this sentence – “His humanity is not of another substance than ours; his divinity is not of another substance than the Father’s” – puts that in a distinctly LDS context.

    Of course, it also means that an angels-dancing-on-a-pin Trinitarian might say (unless I misunderstand *you*) that you don’t actually believe in homoousios at all. But, in that case, we probably shouldn’t.

    One of the reasons I left Catholicism was my semi-Arian view of the Trinity; one thing I appreciate about Mormonism is its ability (as Jason K. says) to discuss these things without a bunch of hair-splitting Greek. If “As man is, God once was,” then the fact that all three of us – Father, Son, and humans – are the same substance, at different stages of development, should be no surprise nor too high a theological hurdle.

    It may not be quite what Athanasius had in mind, however. ;)

  17. And, of course, Jason, we call it the “Godhead,” sticking with the actual Biblical term rather than using the term coined to describe the philosophical abstraction encapsulated by the creeds. I’m with Ronan on homoousios, i.e. “One Substance” — as we are commanded to be one with Christ as Christ is one with the Father, John 17 unlocks this mystery for us. We could hardly be one with the Christ as He is one with the Father if we were not of the same substance as they are. It is not (or should not be) that we reject the one substance of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; rather, taking John 17 and many other scriptural passages at face value, we reject the eternal alienation of humanity from God.

  18. I am fascinated by this discussion. I would love to hear Jason and Ronan discuss this further. Future Friday chat transcript?

  19. Jason K. says:

    New Iconoclast: thanks for the perspective. I think you’ve helped me toward an understanding of Ronan’s comment.

    RTC: this conversation will actually happen face-to-face in a couple of weeks. But maybe there’s some kind of joint follow-up post that we could do.

    john f: “we reject the eternal alienation of humanity from God.” Yes. Exactly this.

  20. My view on substance is lifted directly from the Enchiridion. Rahner’s summary: “Christ is of one substance with the Father and of one substance with us by reason of the two natures in him.”

  21. Yes, a follow up post! While recently attending local Anglican services, I felt a real pull towards the idea of the Trinity. I have always struggled to figure out how to develop a relationship with the Son, while solely praying to the Father.Obviously, you can study his life, use the Atonement, etc. but I like to communicate with those I am close to. Is that odd? Anyway, I have since begun reading up on the Trinity (a concept I had previously mocked) and continue to see the appeal. This is the first time I have read a Mormon perspective. I want more! I am not ready to go Anglican quite yet.

  22. RTC, you’ll need to read Ronan’s post from a few years ago and the discussion in the comments. No need to go Anglican to get a grasp on and incorporate the Godhead (“Trinity”) — the fundamental unity is described both in the New Testament and The Book of Mormon:

    http://bycommonconsent.com/2012/03/12/mormonism-a-trinitarian-religion/

  23. By the way, Jason, loved this part: “we acknowledge, on a very basic theological level, both the need for and the possibility of unity in diversity. In keeping with Mormon pragmatism, then, this teaching allows us to acknowledge the reality of diversity in the Church as something with which we not only can but more or less have to live.”

    I really think this gets at the heart of it. The Godhead is a unity in all the same ways as the Trinity; the only quibble is the issue of homoousios, arguably a Greek philosophical abstraction imported into the Biblical construct of the Godhead. The Mormon approach becomes much more helpful while all the same affirming the fundamental unity of the Godhead — that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are indeed One God, in keeping with Deuteronomy and John 17 (among other places). And it provides us with a roadmap to approaching diversity in the Body of Christ today (that is, in his Church). Though diverse, we must be one with each other as we are one with Christ, just as He is one with the Father.

  24. For ease of reference, RTC, here is something I contributed in a long comment to Ronan’s earlier discussion of this issue (http://bycommonconsent.com/2012/03/12/mormonism-a-trinitarian-religion/#comment-250750):

    “To summarize: John 17 + Mosiah 15:1-5 = The doctrine of the Trinity as believed (or should be believed) by Mormons, i.e. biblical Godhead in trinitarian terminology minus Greek philosophical abstraction of homoousios (“One Substance”), though as discussed, “One Substance” doesn’t even have to be off the table for Mormons if we view ourselves as One Substance, or potentially so, with the Father.”

  25. john f., I really appreciate you attaching the link. The post was excellent, as were the comments. I am so glad that I discovered this site, as these discussions don’t normally interest my friends and neighbors!

    While I am honestly interested in the scriptural/intellectual arguments, I still struggle with the reality of connecting with the Godhead. Do we assume, in prayer, that we are speaking to the Godhead as a unit? Does it matter? Am I silly to be concerned with such things?

    While recently attending a Shabbat service, I was envious of the straightforward monotheism. I know, one minute I am a Trinitarian, the next I am ready to convert to Judaism. I am a mess! I do think your statement, “we must be one with each other as we are one with Christ, just as He is one with the Father.” is beautiful. I am just not sure how to live it in terms of worship.

    Thanks again john f. My husband would likely extend his thanks as well. I am sure he would like me to shut up and just pray already!!

  26. The way we pray is scripturally mandated in the New Testament, though we’ve given it an exclusivity that is probably not necessary. That is, in Philippians it says that we should pray to the Father in the name of Jesus. We follow that.

    But we fall short in following Jesus’ example in offering the Lord’s Prayer directly to God. Creedal Christians cast a broader net with prayer, offering the Lord’s Prayer and other set prayers in addition to personal, direct, unscripted prayers to the Father in the name of Jesus, as prescribed by Paul.

    You might be interested in Pope Benedict XVI’s perspective on the value of the set prayers used in the Catholic Church for focusing the mind and submitting to the Gospel as mediated through the Church. It’s very enlightening.

  27. Back to the Godhead vs. Trinity, Colossians 2:6-9, to my mind, sort of weighs against the Trinitarian abstraction of homoousios required by the creeds, but not, of course, the Trinity itself, and especially in the Mormon exegesis laid out by Jason above. I just think we should call it the Godhead rather than the Trinity simply because that is the biblical usage. One could argue that calling it the Trinity — as based in homoousios or other extra-biblical overlay adopted from Greek philosophy of the day — is captured by Colossians 2:8 as the “philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ” that threatens to spoil our understanding that we walk in Christ (Col. 2:6) and that “in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2:9).

  28. Thanks for the recommendation. The Lord’s Prayer and the Serenity Prayer are personal favorites, as my father is a longtime AA member. I have always loved set prayers but felt rather guilty for it. My stepmother may make an Anglican of me yet! Over my mother’s dead body. Anyway, I have ordered Pope Benedict’s book from Amazon. Other recommendations are welcome.

    Again, a million thanks. I fear that I have taken away from the intellectual nature of the post but I appreciate you bringing it down to my beginner level.

  29. Jason K. says:

    RTC: no, your comments have not detracted in the least! To the contrary, I’m glad to have someone with such vivid interest engaging on this topic. (And I’m grateful to john f. for carrying on the conversation so ably while I was occupied with other things.)

  30. woodboy says:

    Greatest trinity anthem ever:

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