An Brief Post About a Complicated Topic

Today I attended a local ecumenical Christian conference here in Wichita, KS. While there, Fr. Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox archpriest, gave a wonderful plenary address–ranging from deep philosophy to pastoral counsel–on boundaries, the other, and shame. At one point, while making the point that everything that exists is, and should be, bounded in some sense or another, he suggested that even in the perfect unity of the Trinity (what we Mormons tend to call the Godhead), there must be a “no,” a limit, or else everything collapses into one, and love of another becomes impossible. This made me think of two things. The first was 2 Nephi 2:11. The second was: was Father Freeman going off on this own here, or was this the correct Orthodox understanding of God?

Speaking to him afterwards I learned the answer to my question was the latter. I’d never heard of the “Shield of the Trinity” before, but apparently expressing the mystery of the Trinity as something where there is simultaneously unity and separation between God, His Son, and the Holy Spirit is at least 800 years old. Learning this prompted another question: is there actually anything in this image, or in this formulation, that isn’t compatible with Mormon teachings about the Godhead? (As a reminder, the church website states the teaching that “each member of the Godhead is a separate being” but are “perfectly united” in “purpose and doctrine.”) That some Mormon scholars have made use of Orthodox doctrines to articulate our own official church teachings is old news, but if some of them have made specific use of Orthodox approaches to the Trinity, I’ve missed it. Still, BCC readers are a smart and well-read bunch, so I ask the room: is this the pretty obvious theological parallel it appears to me to be? If it’s not, where’s the difference?


  1. I really like Fr. Freeman’s point, and I do think that in a broad sense it resonates well with Mormon thought (though, of course, there are problems with equating it too much with Mormon thought, given Mormonism has pushed the separateness of the Gods so much in the past, likely to articulate exaltation). His point actually reminds me of Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s book Boundaries, which makes a similar point in psychological and emotional terms, with special reference to Christian thought (they describe the Trinity as predicated on unity as well as boundaries). It strikes me as a rather Kantian point, in a way, or even in line with the work of Gilles Deleuze: that there is a level at which we cannot reach people, a fundamental “soul of my soul” layer that is so entirely private not even the Gods can reach it. I resonate with this.

    I actually see this as a prevalent theme in Mormon thought, with interesting ramifications for our modern and post-modern era: the idea that existence itself is fundamentally “fractured,” and that we separate subjects are just one instance of it. Psychologically, there’s a lot to say about this idea, that there is a part of us no one else can reach; religiously, I think Mormonism’s ritual complex and cosmology can be used to symbolize it quite beautifully. The temple, for instance, is a cosmic opera depicting beings without beginning of days or end of years coming into the world with secret names so all-their-own that only they and God know them. The only other time these sacred names appear is in the endowment preluding the sealing of a husband and wife, where one spouse shares their name with the other (there’s a gender imbalance in this part of the ceremony, of course, but it has interesting possibilities).

    Suffice it to say, rather than reinforcing an eternal loneliness, I like the idea of an ontology of boundaries as a means of building emotional intelligence, a way of symbolically teaching and recognizing that we will never be *entirely* understood or understand others *entirely*, and that that is perfectly natural. It’s the recognition that separation is the norm, and that intimacy means working to understand an Other (another person, a spouse, a friend, or even God) who is not immediately obvious, while bringing patience to that relationship, knowing that they too are wrestling to understand you as well.

    Something like that. In any case, a thought-provoking piece, thank you for sharing this idea and your thoughts on it!

  2. “Everything that exists is, and should be, bounded”

    Could you please explain this in layman’s terms.

    “Ontology of boundaries”

    Again, lost. Please explain, Nathan Smith.

    I have always understood the Godhead to be different from the Trinity, and of course, the evangelicals make sure to let Mormons know this difference in no uncertain terms and see the Godhead doctrine as polytheistic heresy. However, what I have found interesting in my interactions with evangelicals is how interested they are in the question of the actual nature of God and the lengths they often go to to ground their explanation in the Bible. Mormons on the other hand seem not to care much about theology or the nature of God question. For Mormons, the main question is the prophethood of Joseph Smith, not the correct interpretation of the Bible. Mormons view the Bible as incomplete and believe in continuing revelation. They generally inform themselves of the nature of God based on what Joseph Smith said, not on the Bible per se. Evangelicals, as well as the larger Protestant community, tend to view the Bible as the utmost authority and have a long tradition of reading it through a strong philosophically grounded interpretive framework. The men who founded the different Protestant traditions are treated as philosophers, not prophets with authoritative words.

  3. Although I wouldn’t consider myself an expert in understanding the trinity, a few things I would note as differences between Trinity and Godhead are as follows:

    1. In the Godhead, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are separate *beings* as well as separate *persons.* In the Trinity, there are three separate persons but God is one being. (I’m not sure if it’s because Mormons simply use the term “person” and “being” synonymously or if there is a real theological distinction made for Mormons.)

    2. The being of God in the Trinity is *conceptually* radically different than other types of beings, meaning that the use of terms with respect to the Trinity can only be used as *analogy* to their use with other beings. In contrast, the beings of God in the Godhead are conceptually similar to other types of beings. So, to say “God is omnipotent” in a classically theistic, Trinitarian sense is different than saying “God is omnipotent” when you see God as essentially being a maximally powered super-man. (And for Mormons, things are even more distinct because it’s not entirely sure that the God Who Weeps is “maximally powered” in any similar sort as even a traditional Christian who might be a theistic personalist rather than a classical theist.)

    3. In *theological practice*, the being of God in the Trinity is *practically* radically different than other types of beings, making an ontological divide that cannot be bridged between Creator and Creature. In contrast, the beings of God in the Godhead are *practically* similar to human beings. Thus, in a Mormon context, “Man is as God was,” which is an utterly impossible statement for a Trinitarian. In Mormonism, we are just as eternal as God (either because God wasn’t always God or because our intelligences were co-eternal), and we are the same species as God (and not simply “adopted” into sonship in an analogical sense.

    I think that (3) or (2) are far more theologically incongruent between Mormonism and traditional Christianity than (1) is. I think that for theologically mindful Christians, what is more offputting about Mormons isn’t the idea of 3 persons or 3 beings of Godhead, but rather the idea that there is no radical difference between Godhead as a being and humanity as a being, (which is why Mormons can think in terms of learning/growing/advancing into being Gods. This is conceptually and practically impossible in Christianity, both in the practical sense that one species cannot “turn into” another, but in the conceptual sense that God’s being is to be uncreated, so no created being can “become” uncreated, and therefore no creature can “become God.”

    I think that many Mormons get caught up on misunderstanding (1) (because of the conflation of personhood with being), and misinterpret traditional Christians as being modalist (e.g., believing that God is 1 person rather than 3.) To be fair, I think that many traditional Christians end up using modalist examples in trying to explain the Trinity because I think most people don’t understand the theological relationship and difference between personhood and being.

  4. I think it is GREAT that members of the church are attending ecumenical dialogues; it’s something that we need so much more of!

    I’ve given a lot of thought over the years about why the Mormon world has struggled with the trinity. I believe that the many culprits for this confusion include a lack of a strong philosophical tradition in Mormonism, a misunderstanding about early Christianity and the development theological terms (how many times have we heard people mistakenly say that the trinity was a fourth century innovation?), the fact that Joseph Smith misunderstood the trinity, the fact that the authors of the Book of Mormon misunderstood New Testament and trinitarian theology, and as Andrew pointed out, the fact that many non-LDS also misunderstand the Trinity. I think Russell is right that there are definite theological parallels between LDS theology and the shield, but as in the example of divinization, this is another area where the most of the parallels seem to come out of a misunderstanding of Orthodox Christianity and early Christian theology. The key to clearing up this confusion and the theology being expressed in the shield can come from a understanding of the philosophical concepts of nature and person.

    Nature is a description of what a thing is and can include a description of its characteristics, both at a high level and in great detail. For example, a bird. A bird’s nature is very different than a human nature. A bird can fly, its diet consists of seeds and bugs, and it has feathers. Another example would be an oak tree; the tree’s nature is that it is an oak tree with a specific type of leaves, bark, wood, etc. which are characteristic of an oak tree. “What a human is” is very different than what a bird or oak tree is; hence a human’s nature is different from a bird’s nature or oak tree’s nature. Expanding upon this concept, the nature of God is to be God, to have a divine nature (e.g., a single, uncreated and eternal, all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful being). Every human, bird, oak tree, etc. has its own nature which it is separate from, but generally equivalent to, the natures of each member of its species. From an ancient Jewish and early Christian understanding, since there is only one God, there can only be one divine nature.

    Person is a discussion of who a thing is. Our person is very different from our nature. Person refers to each human’s unique identity, personality, purpose, etc. Our person is what makes us unique from all other humans.

    Based on understanding these philosophical concepts, trinitarian theology describes God having one nature, but three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). The concept isn’t impossible conceptually, but nothing else is like it. All humans have a single human nature and a single person that is wholly their own (e.g., my nature is being a human, my person is being Peter). The Old and New Testament make it very clear that there is only one God (e.g., Deuteronomy 4:35 and 32:17-18, 2 Samuel 7:22, Psams 86:10) which means that there can be only one divine nature and that there can’t be a species of “gods” with divine natures. On the other hand, the New Testament makes statements about the Father being God, Jesus being God, and the Holy Spirit being God (e.g., John 1:X states “Theos en ho Logos” meaning “The Word (Jesus) is God”). There isn’t enough room here to connect every dot, but this New Testament language seems to be relying on the philosophical concepts of nature and person (at least that’s what Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and early Christians tend to believe). Philosophical terms such as nature and person helps us better understand God when it identifies the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as being fully the one, singular God (nature) while being three distinct persons (the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father, the Son is not the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit is not the Son, the Holy Spirit is not the Father, the Father is not the Holy Spirit).

  5. Oops! I messed up my quote from the Gospel of John (John 1:1). Should have written “Theos en ho Logos” as “The Word (Jesus) was God” or more literally, “God was the Word (Jesus).”

  6. Some distinctions based upon “separate beings” may be using “being” differently than it is meant in some translations of the Nicene creed used, I think, in the Orthodox tradition as well as Roman Catholic and some Protestant traditions. If I recall correctly, another translation uses the word “substance” rather than “being.” (I need help or correction here from a Latin and/or Christian theology scholar; two years of high school Latin decades ago and little more than casual acquaintance with Catholic and multiple Protestant traditions are not enough for any independent conclusion.) I have wondered sometimes if our “separate being” jargon is not sometimes understood by trinitarians as “separate [kinds of] substance[s]” resulting in exaggerating the difference between our Godhead doctrine and the Shield of the Trinity.

  7. Nathan, thanks for those reflections!

    Psychologically, there’s a lot to say about this idea, that there is a part of us no one else can reach

    That actually could have been a direct quote from Fr. Freeman’s sermon. It was really quite wonderful, beginning with stuff that was almost hard-core phenomenology of appearances stuff (everything that is must be a thing that appears as separate from another thing, bounded or outlined or marked out or made distinctive in some way), and gradually leading to really practical counsel about dealing with “healthy” vs. “toxic” shame, getting therapy, the process of confession to other embodied human beings, etc. It was a great example of the kind of deep theology that I know is present in at least some Christian traditions: the application of serious theological concepts (in this case, the “no,” the limit, that is inextricable from our own and every being’s existence) to everyday pastoral practice (helping people deal with their own failures to connect and be honest, especially with themselves).

  8. Andrew and Peter, great comments; thank you for them.

    I believe that the many culprits for this confusion include a lack of a strong philosophical tradition in Mormonism, a misunderstanding about early Christianity and the development theological terms (how many times have we heard people mistakenly say that the trinity was a fourth century innovation?), the fact that Joseph Smith misunderstood the trinity, the fact that the authors of the Book of Mormon misunderstood New Testament and trinitarian theology, and as Andrew pointed out, the fact that many non-LDS also misunderstand the Trinity.

    I would agree with all of that except the claim regarding the authors of the Book of Mormon. Obviously there is no way, absent some revelation which isn’t spelled out in the text, for Nephi, Mormon, or Moroni to have had access to “New Testament and Trinitarian theology,” but if the implication is that they had no notion of the Trinity, I would reject that. The unity of God the Father, God the Son, and God he Holy Ghost is spelled out at several points in the text, particularly by Abinadi, and assuming we take the text’s story of itself seriously, then that record wouldn’t have been included if any of the redactors thought it taught false doctrine. So while the BoM doesn’t give us anything in regards to “personhood” or “substance,” the basic teaching is very much present.

  9. Peter,

    I don’t know that misunderstanding the trinity as a 4th century innovation when it was in fact a 3rd century innovation is a particularly egregious error. Also, the Old Testament is not nearly so clear about there being only one God. If anything, it is at times quite contradictory (specifically in Psalms, in which there numerous references to councils of gods, but also in traces of older traditions in which Yahweh was the son of El Elyon).

  10. Regarding the Shield of the Trinity, I’ve seen it before and I agree that it poses an interesting focus for discussion. I even think I’ve seen it in some work with a “Mormon” label, but not so I’d ever find it again.

    Regarding Mormon thought, I find most thinking about the godhead begins with or assumes two of the three as embodied glorified humans. Certainly not everybody, but enough that such thinking dominates most discussions. And embodied glorified humans is an extremely strong determinant in any Trinitarian talk.

    More process related, I gravitate toward theology (and theodicy, and more) that begins and ends in tension. The Shield respects and encourages that sense of tension. I find much Mormon thought to be directed toward resolving tension, often by disavowing or diminishing one side or the other.

  11. Hi JR, I think you’re thinking about the Greek word homoousios which through Latin to English is sometimes translated consubstantial, one in being, and (in the philosophical sense) one nature. I believe the homoousios language was meant to correct the view about the nature of Jesus promoted by Arius and his followers.

    Russell, yeah, I totally agree there is certainly some sort of notion of the trinity. I think the Book of Mormon language tends to go a little more in the direction of modalism (a personal fascination of mine since the modern LDS church doesn’t have a modalist theology) which I was just proposing might be one of many things that tends to lead to the confusion about what Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants mean when they say the trinity. I think we’re pretty much on the same page. :) Also Russell, thanks for introducing Freeman, I listened to some of his stuff online over breakfast and really enjoyed it!

    Dsc, when I said fourth century, I meant to refer to the Council of Nicaea (~325 A.D.) which seems to frequently be pointed to (incorrectly) as the creation of trinitarian theology. I totally get that there are other opinions. Based on the plethora of early Christian writings, it seems to me that the earliest Christians spent hundreds of years (since the time of Jesus) working through how to best and most accurately express there being one God and the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit being referred to as God in the New Testament. Also, I totally agree the Old Testament appears to have an evolution in understanding about there being one God. Earlier texts especially seem to express a belief or understanding in tribal gods, regional gods, etc. but there does appear to be a growing consensus and understanding (at least with the religious elite in Jerusalem) as later OT texts are written/edited that that is only one God and that all other “gods” are either dead/non-living gods or false gods. For sure a complex issue better suited for a library of books than a comments section I suppose.

  12. I believe Millett and Givens have pointed out that LDS thought is not incompatible with the early creeds. It’s what some Christians believe that was a traditional heresy like Modalism that’s not compatible as well as later developments like the Westminster Confession of Faith (God is everywhere and no where at the same time, etc. )

  13. Trinitarianism, modalism, and other theologies that attempted to show 1) consistency in the nature of God throughout the OT and NT and 2) that God is one in substance appear to be based on a good deal of mental gymnastics by early Christian fathers. The most parsimonious explanation to the concept of God in the Bible is that it is an inconsistent number of concepts of God and that in many parts of the Bible God is not one individual, but that there are multiple gods. I can only imagine that a main driver behind these oneness of God theologies was a belief by some early Christians that Christianity needed to be reconciled with Judaism, which at the time of the emergence of Christianity was very emphatic about the oneness of Yahweh, somehow yet still recognizing of the divinity of Jesus. The need to reconcile the Jewish concept of God with a divine Jesus has tripped Christianity up when trying to explain God.

    Concepts of God clearly evolve and have evolved. In the early stages of Mormonism, Joseph Smith is a Trinitarian/modalist who with time rejects the need to explain God as one and adopts the separate Godhead teaching. By Nauvoo he evolves even further to teach eternal progression where there is no beginning or end and we can all become gods.

    The concept of God in the Bible is disparate and evolved over time. The early Hebrew religion was polytheistic and traces of this polytheistic belief system can be detected in the first creation story in Genesis (1-2:4) and a few other parts of the OT. Yahweh eventually becomes a patron God but not the only existent God, just the only God that the early Hebrews are to worship.

  14. jpv, do you have a link to the book/video/podcast where Millett and Givens talk about the early creeds? My undergrad thesis was on local/regional Christian creeds written prior to the first universal/ecumenical creed written at the Nicaea in 325 and how they were interrelated with the 325 universal creed. All these years later, it’s a favorite topic of mine to study, but it is so hard to find serious, non-apologetic analysis of those earliest Christian creeds by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Would love to see what Millett and Givens have to say about them!

  15. Come on folks, even St. Patrick’s efforts to explain the Trinity were less than satisfactory. And with that, we need a little appropriate comic relief:

  16. I love Fr. Freeman’s writings. He’s an insightful guy. He has a book out called Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe and is working on another book about shame.

    Another Orthodox writer, Fr. Stephen de Young, has written some interesting things about gods and the divine council of God and how they relate.

  17. While you are all discussing what scholars and theologians have said about the Godhead, I look to Joseph Smith and the Lectures on Faith. Joseph did see and talk to both the Father and the Son. Joseph correctly claimed that there are only 2 members of the Godhead, not 3. He did talk often about the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit, but there is not a separate third being. The Holy Ghost is no more nor less than the combined mind and will of the Father and the Son.

    Joseph said that if you gazed into heaven for 5 minutes you would know more than all that has ever been written on the subject. Well, Joseph did gaze into Heaven and so I take his knowledge over your many scholarly and theologian speculations any day.

  18. Wondering says:

    Well, Bernadetter Soubirous and Juan Diego and others also gazed into Heaven.
    It is difficult to tell how much of Lecture Five (and the others) was Sidney Rigdon’s theological speculation of the day and how much may have been JS’ who didn’t report seeing the Holy Ghost as a personage and who also in 1832 didn’t report seeing more than one personage in his First Vision.
    I think I will take my minimal spiritual experience over everyone’s speculations any day. I wonder what difference in anyone’s life it actually makes anyway how many personages or persons or beings or substances might comprise the Godhead.

  19. Just as JS felt he could not resolve his questions by an appeal to the Bible in 1820, I fear today we cannot resolve most questions by an appeal to the BOM or modern prophetic statements. There is just too much contradiction to sift through. Contrary to most TBM opinions, the BOM does not clarify things. In multiple verses in 2 Nephi, Mosiah, Alma, Mormon, and Ether it clearly states that Christ is the Eternal Father, Christ is the Father and the Son.

    The BOM was published in 1830 and even more verses back then referred to Christ as the Eternal Father (many verses were edited since then).

    Although JS claims the First Vision occurred in 1820, it was not well known publicly until the 1830s. Some versions only speak of one heavenly visitor. Not until the official 1838 version did JS claim two distinct personages. It is reasonable to acknowledge that the early saints were not familiar with the first vision but rather gained a testimony via the BOM, which is not clear on the theology. The modern Mormon teaching of God the Father and God the Son (Christ) being two separate physical entities was not core or foundational in 1830. Mormon theology evolved, and continues to evolve. Today we think the 1820 vision was revolutionary and clarifying, but that is revisionist history. It was not even likely known or taught to the early saints.

  20. Learning this prompted another question: is there actually anything in this image, or in this formulation, that isn’t compatible with Mormon teachings about the Godhead?

    I argued there isn’t in this post back in 2014:

  21. When I was investigating the church, members and missionaries used to tell me all the time that the Godhead was different from the Holy Trinity. I was raised Catholic, and I’m no philosopher or theologian, but I literally never understood how. And I still don’t.

  22. Ha! Thanks very much for that blast from the past, John Fowles. An excellent post.

  23. John f. recaptures the Homoian position. “Let’s just stop talking about substance/essence/being, k?”

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