This post is a slightly revised version of last year’s Trinity Sunday post. For more recent BCC discussion of the Trinity, start with J. Stapley’s “Mormon Jesus?”, which links to other posts by BCC authors.
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 the Father, 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 always timely, amidst our human tendencies to turn differences into points of political disagreement. 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.
Trinity Sunday, Year A
The Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who as the Father and the Son, aided by the presence of the Holy Spirit, appeared to your servant Joseph Smith, jr.: grant that we may be one with each other, and one with you, as you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are one God forever and ever.