Elder Holland has it right: “It is not our purpose ever to demean any person’s belief or the doctrine of any religion. We extend to all the same respect for their doctrine that we ask for ours.”

It is therefore a shame to have this statement appear a few sentences before: “We agree with our critics on at least that point—that such a formulation for divinity [an unflattering amalgam of the doctrine of the Trinity] is incomprehensible.”

It is also to be regretted that the full context of Serapion’s lament — “Woe is me! They have taken my God away from me, … and I know not whom to adore or to address” — is not given, either by Holland, Paulsen, or Robinson). The Anthropomorphite heresy Serapion clung to had its crux in the veneration of icons. As an iconoclastic religion, Mormonism would no doubt also have frowned on Serapion’s use of icons in prayer and sought to take them away.


  1. It may not have been Holland’s purpose to demean 2000 years of Christianity, but he did so nonetheless. However, he does not seem to understand that asserting that God has a body of flesh and bone that is too “fine” to seems to be a way of avoiding the problem of a finite, limited divinity.

  2. It seems you are trying really hard to find something to be disagreeable about.

  3. I don’t think so. To “demean” surely includes the use of straw-man caricature as well as the apologetic use of evidence that in reality does not quite fit, all in an attempt to show how silly the classic formulation of the Trinity surely is to all right thinking people.

    I do not believe that the creedal formulation of the Trinity offers some ontologically absolute truth about God, for that is impossible given the dark glass through which we peer. However, as a formulation for the way we experience God as simultaneously Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, weighed against the theological demands of Deuteronomy 6:4, it is entirely sensible. It may not be true but it is not incomprehensible. To claim it is through the use of loose rhetoric is demeaning of Christianity, which thing we are counselled not to do.

  4. kellywsmith says:

    Much ado about nothing, unless, you are on the road to apostasy and then everything is a really big deal.

  5. John Mansfield says:

    Once for a Sunday School lesson, I used Joseph Smith’s 1838 FAQ, the one from the Elders’ Journal that included “Will everybody be damned, but Mormons?” I asked the questions, the class gave answers, and then I read Joseph Smith’s answers. At the end, I asked if they had learned anything, and 14-year-old Michael answered, “I learned that Joseph Smith liked to make fun of other religions.”

  6. I started blogging at BCC in 2005. One of my first posts was “Why I Can’t Stand Captain Moroni” and I was immediately accused of apostasy. This road has been going on for eleven years. When will it ever end?

  7. JM,

    1838, huh?

    Q: “Do the Mormons believe in having more wives than one?”
    A: “No, not at the same time.”


  8. RJH, nice post.

    One thing members of the church need to realize is that Joseph Smith’s teachings on the composition and nature of the Godhead changed over time. This is documented in some detail in Professor Harrel’s fine book, “This is My Doctrine.” I am also confident that if the prophet had lived longer, his theology on this topic would have undergone further revision.

    This is a topic every faith should approach with great humility. God, for whatever reason, has chosen to reveal limited information about who He is, how He thinks, and how He came to be. The temptation on the part of all religions, including our own, to try to fill in the missing pieces seems to be irresistible. But I’m not sure it is wise.

  9. Nice post. And while I am sure it was not intended, Elder Holland could’ve been more accurate in describing the beliefs of other Christians.

    I have disagreed with RJH in the past but let’s drop the whole apostasy silliness. People should be able to freely express ideas and thoughts without having apostasy accusations thrown at them. RJH is wrong about Captain Moroni though. If you look at the Arnold Friberg painting, the guy was clearly awesome.

  10. I’m a little surprised it took so long to get a post on this talk!

    Elder Holland describes the trininty as “all three members are separate persons, but they are a single being.” I suppose it depends on how you define “being,” but I’m not sure that what Elder Holland has in mind here isn’t closer to modalism than to trinitarianism–something that trinitarian Christians also reject as wrong, if not incomprehensible.

    And when he says that the trinity is “abstract, absolute, transcendent, immanent, consubstantial, coeternal, and unknowable; without body, parts, or passions; and dwelling outside space and time” it sounds like he is describing something like the Westminster confession, not the trinity as it was established by the early creeds. Again, Christians who accept the trinity as defined in those early creeds may well agree that such a formulation is incomprehensible.

    I sustain Elder Holland and I’m inclined to cut him some slack for not being all that well versed in the doctrine of the trinity–especially given that even many of those who believe in the trinity, or belong to churches that subscribe to it, don’t really understand it, and may very well have an understanding similar to Elder Holland’s. If the trinity really means what he seems to believe it does, then some respectful criticism is probably justified. But if you take the time to study the doctrine of the trinity, you see it doesn’t really mean what Elder Holland seems to think it does in this talk. Kind of like how you can make a case if you want to, that the LDS church still believes in stuff like blood atonement, polygamy, crazy space doctrine, etc., but if you take time to study these issues you see that the church’s actual doctrine doesn’t really require that. If we insist that other faiths understand us on our own terms before they criticize our beliefs, it’s not too much to give them the same courtesy.

    I don’t think we need to try make missionaries into proficient theologians (if such a thing is even possible), but a little education on traditional Christianity is a good thing. Of course, if I had my preference, we would stop all this talk of “tenets” and instead instruct our missionaries to focus on “declar[ing] repentance and faith on the Savior, and remission of sins by baptism, and by fire, yea, even the Holy Ghost.” (Section 19:31)

    That said, I applaud Elder Holland’s acknowledgment of our failure to fully appreciate and emphasize the unity of the Godhead. I might have put it a little differently: rather than say we need to insist on their separateness and the follow it up by insisting on their unity, I would probably say that, consistent with the Book of Mormon, we need to first and foremost emphasize their eternal and transcendent unity as one God, and then follow it up, if needed, with a clarification that each member of the Godhead still has and retains his own identity. But that’s a relatively minor quibble. An apostle admonishing the missionaries for failing to adequately teach the unity of the Godhead, and instructing them to not only concede, but insist upon it, is a positive development, I think.

  11. Well done, RJH. Well done. Let’s start taking ourselves seriously when we say we invite all to bring all their truth with them when they join us and we’ll see if we can’t add to it.

    Maybe, just maybe, we’ll learn something from the encounter as well. Are we humble enough to believe that is possible? I used to think so but now, pushing 40, I’m really unsure whether Mormons, including Church leaders, believe this is possible at all.

  12. RJH, I agree and enjoy the tweak AND as a consequence have ‘road to apstacy’ thoughts about myself.
    The problem is that this particular criticism or form of demeaning, i.e., criticizing the creeds over some (sometimes mangled) form of Trinitarian thinking, is deeply embedded in Mormon practice and thought, reinforced–if there were any need–in the endowment narrative. Everybody does it means that criticism (of the criticism) makes one an outsider.

  13. Clark Goble says:

    I think there must be some way to disagree while being respectful. For instance I don’t have a problem with the majority of traditional Christians who just see a limited God as fundamentally not what the term means. I also think that the mystery aspect of the Trinity is pretty traditional. That is it is supposed to be incomprehensible. This is a common point in philosophical analysis of the Trinity. In fact negative theology such as Anselm’s fundamentally requires this. So portraying Elder Holland as being disrespectful on this point seems a tad silly. BTW a famous and well regarded analysis of the logic of the Trinity is by Richard Cartwright and well worth reading. In any case since Elder Holland is just restating the fundamental belief of apophatic traditions which are extremely significant in both eastern and western Christianity I think he’s on firm ground.

    All that said the basic ideas of the trinity (three persons in one ousia) seems pretty compatible with Mormon thought. Orson Pratt had an oddly materialistic theology of just such a conception. The difference is of course that the Trinity doesn’t let you say “Jesus is a god.” Whether one sees that as an unessential rhetorical part of the Trinity or a key metaphysical component of course varies quite a lot in practice among Christian thinkers.

  14. FWIW, I probably also wouldn’t say that Jesus is _a_ god. There was a time that I would have said that, but having studied the Book of Mormon a lot more since then, I think it is more consistent with the Book of Mormon to say that Jesus is God.

    To say that God, as defined by the doctrine of the trinity, is incomprehensible, is not the same thing as saying that the doctrine itself is incomprehensible. I don’t think Ronan is saying that the trinity makes God comprehensible, I think he is saying that the doctrine itself is rational and comprehensible as a response to the scriptures (that doesn’t mean it is right, but it does mean that it is not silly). I think the complaint about Elder Holland’s use of “incomprehensible” is that in the philosophical sense it means that it is transcendental–beyond our comprehension, while in common parlance, it often just means silly. Elder Holland’s quip here seems to take the trinitarian’s assertion that God is incomprehensible in that philosophical sense and leverage it into an admission that the doctrine of the trinity is silly. Really, it’s more a joke at their expense than a serious attempt to say something about the trinity, and I honestly don’t think that Elder Holland himself would really expect anyone to take it very seriously.

  15. Clark Goble says:

    JKC (8:22) I think we probably have to distinguish between creeds and the classic formulations of the Trinity. It’s really hard to read Augustine or those after him in the medieval era and not recognize the fairly neoplatonic conceptions driving the evolution of the Trinity. While this is not properly part of the earlier creeds as you note it is part and parcel of most classic writings on it. So I don’t think you can fault Holland here who I’m sure read at minimum Aquinas and Augustine in his college education. (Throw in some Anselm and Duns Scotus and you really get abstract and absolute) The fundamental position of the theology of God in traditional Christianity is that he is simple (a transformed version of the One in neoplatonism especially the Plontinius form) yet unlike Platonism fundamentally transcendent due to the development of the idea of creation ex nihilo. I think it fair to simply take the key writers in Christianity as describing the Trinity.

    Really, none of this is controversial.

    “But if you take the time to study the doctrine of the trinity, you see it doesn’t really mean what Elder Holland seems to think it does in this talk.”

    Again, as in Mormonism we have to distinguish between key authoritative texts and then the theology developed around it. In Mormonism we tend to make perhaps even more of a break there than traditional Christianity does. Yet I think it’d be ridiculous for Mormons to say critics or historians can’t look at what key Mormon thinkers thought about our theology – especially when those thinkers are significant in terms of what Mormons believe. Now some Mormons do get upset on that – but it’s silly. If we are to accord creedal Christians the right to talk about us that way, isn’t the reverse also true?

    Given that, and acknowledging there is diversity of thought among traditional Christian theologians, what exactly did Elder Holland get fundamentally wrong? It just seems to be reading far more into his talk than what he said to limit his comments to just the Athanasian Creed and then criticize him when he never made such a limit. I’m sure he could have invoked Aquinas, Augustine, Duns Scotus, Anselm, Peter Abelard, Eckhart, Albert the Great or others. But that seems a bit much for a church talk.

  16. Clark Goble says:

    JKC (9:43) If the criticism is now just that the term “incomprehensible” is equivocal in common discourse then we really don’t have much of a criticism left of the talk.

    Look, I’ve read most of the key theologians on this and I don’t mind saying that I think the doctrine is incomprehensible. I think they were forced into terms due to a certain exegesis of scripture combined with political concerns. Now there are ways to deal with this. I rather like Duns Scotus on the ousia. But I’d never say it wasn’t incomprehensible.

    In any case I think it’s just misreading Holland if you think he’s saying it’s silly. I can understand why someone might read it that way. However I think Holland’s actual point is based upon the fundamental idea that God is just as comprehensible as we are. That is we can know God. That of course needn’t imply there might be incomprehensible aspects. (I personally like how Levinas changes the analysis of God as absolutely Other into the analysis of other minds as absolutely Other for instance)

  17. FWIW, I probably also wouldn’t say that Jesus is _a_ god. There was a time that I would have said that, but having studied the Book of Mormon a lot more since then, I think it is more consistent with the Book of Mormon to say that Jesus is God.

    Me too, JKC.

  18. Clark Goble says:

    What’s wrong with saying Jesus is a God?

  19. Clark, I don’t actually have that much of a problem with the talk. As I noted above, my quibbles are minor. I do think he is saying that the doctrine is silly, but I also agree with you that that isn’t his main point at all. It’s just a joke at the trinitarians’ expense. I think Elder Holland probably intends it more as good matured ribbing, than anything mean spirited, demeaning, or vicious.

    We might have to agree to disagree on whether the doctrine of the trinity actually incomprehensible. I would certainly agree that it is paradoxical, but a paradox is not necessarily incomprehensible. But maybe we’re just getting into semantics. In any case, I think it’s safe to say that, given all that has been said about the trinity over more than one and a half thousand years, you can make a case that it means just about anything that you want it to. Your point that the doctrine of the trinity can mean a lot more than the early creeds that defined it to mean is a good one. My point is not that the trinity has to be limited to the early creeds, and the later stuff is off limits, it’s just that everything that came later does not necessarily have to be a part of the trinity: that is, you can accept the trinity and reject just about everything about it that we as LDS object to about it, just as you can accept the LDS faith without necessarily subscribing to viviparous spirit birth, for example.

  20. Clark Goble says:

    Yeah I think you’re getting into semantics there. Aporias have an important historical role in thought. Arguably they are where all the early dialogs of Plato end (when Socrates was much more a skeptic than in the later dialogs). Aporias are huge in Aristotle as well. The people who wrote the early creeds and theology on the Trinity were very well aware of the intellectual history of aporias in philosophical thought. So I just don’t think we can dismiss them the way you do. Again, in a more modern context I’d point you to Cartwright’s paper which explicitly makes the incomprehensibility charge. Unlike Cartwright, who is writing from a more analytic philosophy position, I am much more open to aporias being a positive force. But I’d never say they aren’t incomprehensible. (Since that’s their whole point)

  21. “What’s wrong with saying Jesus is a God?”

    I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say that it is wrong, it’s just not how I would choose to express my faith. The Book of Mormon calls Jesus God (as well as the Son of God) unreservedly and unequivocally, and I’m more comfortable with that formulation. It tastes good.

  22. Clark Goble says:

    JKC (10:12) but the Trinity formulation explicitly says it’s wrong. This is what underlies most of Cartwright’s critique I linked to.

  23. Clark Goble says:

    Just to clarify that, I have no problem with saying either “Jesus is a God” or “Jesus is God.” Like you I actually prefer the latter but just see the former as saying Jesus is divine. My problems with the theology of the Trinity is more about divine simplicity and creation ex nihilo.

  24. You’re right, Clark. But as you note above, “[w]hether one sees that as an unessential rhetorical part of the Trinity or a key metaphysical component of course varies quite a lot” among Christians. I tend to favor the former. But more importantly, the fact that such variation exists is itself pretty good evidence that, at least as a purely descriptive matter, it is not an essential metaphysical part of the trinity.

  25. Clark Goble says:

    Well it’s an essential part of the metaphysics of the trinity. It’s just not necessarily meaning it’s a heresy to ever utter “Jesus is a god and the Father is a god but there is a common unity.” I think taking that diversity as implying something metaphysically is just wrong, given how the creeds have been interpreted.

    That said, when you talk to typical laypeople in Christianity most of them interpret the Trinity as modalism rather than Trinitarianism. And when you look at early Mormon attacks on the Trinity what they are usually attacking is modalism not Trinitarianism. So it gets confusing quick. In a similar way cheap grace is a heresy but a surprisingly commonly believed heresy. Part of the problem, my evangelical friends tell me, is that as a practical matter theology really isn’t emphasized in most evangelical churches. Those who know about it tend to either have gone to school for theology or else just had it as a hobby. Of course I can’t criticize since I think that largely describes Mormons too who often don’t go much beyond “sunday school answers” which often are theologically pretty superficial.

  26. Clark Goble says:

    Just to clarify, the reason it’s key to the theology of the trinity is due to the place of Augustinian styled neoplatonism. (It’s a huge break from traditional platonism, but still fundamentally has that basic stance – and platonism continues to dominate until Aquinas becomes more significant in the early Renaissance)

    In platonism it’s a big deal how a form is instantiated. So if you have the form of a horse then individual horses instantiate horseless. So we can say each is a horse. The doctrine of the Trinity is saying that the relationship between the persons (more properly hypostasis since they really aren’t persons as we think of persons) and their form or essence (the ousia) isn’t that sort of instantiation. So to say we can’t say Jesus is a God is actually to make a very specific claim about the ousia. Likewise even the terms hypostasis and ousia are transformed from their more traditional philosophical senses. For Aristotle hypostasis was the fundamental material underlying change but especially in terms of thatness. It’s the individual that persists through change. In neoplatonism (which is a kind of mixture of Plato, Aristotle, and Stoicism but privileging Plato) the ultimate reality of say Plotinus is three hypostases of the One, the Nous (or divine mind) and World-Soul. So effectively three layers of reality. While there’s still a semblance of that in the Trinity it’s fundamentally transformed especially by Augustine. In earlier Christianity the terms were used loosely with hypostasis and ousia largely synonymous. With Augustine the One becomes the fundamental unity of the persons and it referenced by the ousia. The three persons of the scriptures become the hypostasis. Then, unlike in neoplatonism where everything is one, there’s a fundamental ontological gap between creator and creation.

    Unless you take that background it’s easy to get the Trinity wrong. Now how it develops is different since it’s not taken as a theory of scripture but as a creed. Thus one must affirm the words. This puts certain limits on meaning but it opens up the problem of needing to affirm something that a person might not understand (and might not be comprehensible at all). As such, it’s fair to ask what the logical implications are (which is what Cartwright does). Of course a common opposite approach is to deny logic applies in a normal way – which is the more positive sense of it being incomprehensible on its own terms. I’d argue that’s the direction Anselm and others go.

    I should note this gets taken up in various ways by modern philosophers. So for instance with infinite sets you can get weird apparent contradictions. There are two traditions of how to deal with that. One says contradictions must be rejected and place limits on our math and logic. The other says (following the more Anselm tradition albeit now in an explicitly secular setting) that this is just how things are. This gets into a fairly complex and subtle discussion of things.

  27. Good theological discussion here!

    As I’ve said here before, I think the one substance Trinity is entirely compatible with Mormon thought. In the zeal to despise the content of the creeds, we have created distance where none need exist.

    As for Elder Holland’s talk, I think it is rather obvious that he meant “incomprehensible” not as a theological description but as a joke, a quip. This is not some egregious malfeasance but I did find it jarring in light of his call to show respect to others’ beliefs. Also, this use of Serapion is disingenuous, I feel. The centre of his grief was that he was no longer allowed to use anthropomorphic icons as objects of devotion. One can use icons *and* believe in an incorporeal god.

    Given the ways in which Mormon beliefs are caricatured, I just think we need to be more careful.

  28. Clark, you make a lot of good points and I think we are largely on the same page. I think the only place where we may disagree is whether the things associated with trinitarian theology that are truly inconsistent with LDS canon are truly essential pieces of the doctrine of the trinity. Ronan thinks they are consistent (or at least can be) and maybe he is wrong and wresting LDS doctrine to make it fit trinitarian doctrine. And maybe we’re both wresting the doctrine of the trinity to try to make it consistent with LDS canon, but either way, I think the attempt is worthwhile because even if it is not ultimately successful, I think it does help show that there is a lot more common ground and that the points of true incompatibility are much smaller that you might otherwise think. In any case, thanks for the interesting discussion.

    RJH, As I’ve said before, I’m more-than-half-persuaded-but-not-entirely-convinced by your efforts to find compatibility between the LDS Godhead and one substance trinity. But even if we can’t totally bridge that gap, maybe we can at least narrow it to the point that we see eye to eye and shake hands? I totally agree that in our zeal to be different from creedal Christianity we have needlessly created distance. And I think Elder Holland would agree with that, based on this talk.

    I wonder if the quip would have seemed less jarring with a different audience. Like, if he were speaking to a group of Christian clergy with whom he already had a good relationship would it come across more as good-natured ribbing than it did in print, in front of mission presidents?

    As for Serapion, I’m not sure I agree that Elder Holland’s use is disingenuous as much as it is perhaps a bit uninformed. Disingenuous to me suggests some degree of intentional misleading. I think it more likely that Elder Holland read the quote out of context somewhere else, thought it was a cool rhetorical flourish to make his point, and went ahead and used it without being fully aware of the context. Maybe he should be more careful about checking his sources, but this is a homliy given to mission presidents, not a scholarly presentation, so I’m not inclined to impose the same standards. In any case, I think it’s pretty safe to say that Serapion did not hold a Section 130-style view of the Godhead.

  29. Agree that the Serapion story is wrested not by Holland but, probably, by Robinson.

  30. Clark Goble says:

    JKC, I’ve actually made a similar point. At least in terms of the creeds. There’s a lot more compatible with Mormon thought that most think. (I’d made this point in the T&S thread about why Catholicism rejected Mormon baptism due to the trinity earlier this week)

    So I agree to a point. Further even once you add in more complexities you have this specific cases that make it hard to draw a hard line. Say the Pratt brothers theology of God and Spirit, still influential despite Brigham Young’s take on it all. There we have the 19th century view of aether made into the ousia with the persons being literal persons rather than the more abstract hypostases of Augustine. It’s kind of a de-platonizing of the neoplatonic trinity to become much more Stoic.

    To me though the fundamental theological divide between Mormons and traditional creedal Christians is over creation ex nihilo and the embodiment of the Father. I’m not sure those can be bridged. Further those differences make even places that seem similar, such as eastern Christian theology of divinization, actually far more different than it appears at first glance. (Creedal Christian theologians rightfully take some sloppy writing about divinization by Mormon apologetics to task over these philosophical divides)

    I don’t have much to say about the Serapion story. However there are similar stories Mormons from similar philosophical backgrounds to myself raise. The common one is Heidegger’s “before the cause sui man can neither fall to his knees nor sign and dance. Therefore the god-less thinking which must abandon the God of philosophy, God as cause sui, is perhaps closer to the divine God.” Of course things are again a tad trickier than it first appears – especially if one turns to Duns Scotus’ conception of the Trinity.

  31. Pedal to the metal RJH and ignore the off ramps! I’m with you on this road and very much enjoying the ride.

  32. RJH: Yes, the standard formulation of the Trinity is literally incomprehensible — and many in the tradition agree that it is. If you can make sense of three coherently, then go for:

    (1) There is one God, Yahweh.

    (2) The Father is identical to the God Yahweh.

    (3) The Son is God.

    (4) The Father is not the Son.

  33. Mephibosheth says:


    As someone who has participated in interfaith dialogue I very much appreciated your thoughts on substance trinitarianism and have drawn on them in discussions with Christians and found them very fruitful. However just because we can find commonality in some creedal orthodoxy does not mean we have to agree with it all. Other Christians such as the Coptics split with the Church after Chalcedon too. Whatever problems you see in Elder Holland’s tone, most Christians in the know that I have interacted with are not embarrassed by the Triune God’s inscrutability or offended when you point it out, but like the church fathers who formulated it are happy to accept the mystery. “Reason must bow to the mystery of the Trinity” said St. Athanasius.

    I do think you raise a good point, and as others have pointed out here our own understanding of the Godhead wasn’t really solid or consistent for much of our own history. I like to remember the prophet Jacob’s words in the Book of Mormon: “Behold, great and marvelous are the works of the Lord. How unsearchable are the depths of the mysteries of him; and it is impossible that man should find out all his ways. And no man knoweth of his ways save it be revealed unto him; wherefore, brethren, despise not the revelations of God.”

  34. “This road has been going on for eleven years. When will it ever end?”

    See Matthew 12:36

  35. Blake/meek,

    In this conversation it won’t do to play loose, so let us stick to the specific matter at hand. Elder Holland charges incomprehensibility not as a theological description but as a denigration, one which, by the tone of it, is rather obviously meant as a joke. I do not think this is compatible with his simultaneous call to treat others’ beliefs with respect. Furthermore, the charge of incomprehensibility does not follow in his talk from a discussion of the doctrine of the trinity but rather from his caricature of the Westminster confession.

    So, let us stick to what was actually said.

    To answer your red herring of a question, however, I would say that the idea that three distinct persons can be partakers of one substance and thus be one God is entirely comprehensible to me. What about it don’t you get? If we want to play this game, might we turn our attention to the utter shambles that is the modern Mormon view that Jesus is Yahweh (and that the Father is not Yahweh) with all the wresting of the Book of Mormon and the Book of Moses that that requires? Actually, let’s not, for it is wrong to demean faith, per Elder Holland.


    As long as that scripture applies to both of us then I guess I can say that I will see you there.


    I agree with everything you say.

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