Are Mormons Christian? Part 2: The Holy Trinity

“It is the first principle of the gospel to know for a certainty the Character of God, and to know that we may converse with him as one man converses with another.” —  Joseph Smith

“Sure, the Mormons are nice people,” goes the argument, “but that doesn’t make them Christians.”

So what, then does make a person a Christian?  One of the biggest challenges for the LDS Church in establishing itself as Christian is that our critics keep changing the definition of the word.  I remember when I was a missionary in the 1980s, there was a litany of questions that were thrown at us:  “Do you accept Christ as the Son of God?”  “Do you believe he died and was raised on the third day?”  “Have you professed him as your Savior?”  Apparently after we answered all of those questions in the affirmative for a couple of decades, somebody decided to change the script.

The more recent approach is to argue that Mormons are not Christian because they do not accept certain “foundational doctrines” of Christianity, one of those being the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.  Mormons believe that the three members of the Trinity are separate and distinct individuals, and this belief supposedly is at odds with original or “historical” Christianity.

While this is an interesting approach to attacking the bona fides of Mormons’ claims to Christianity, it really does more to reflect the problem than resolve it. 

The first problem is that the concept of the Trinity hardly can be considered a “foundational” Christian doctrine, because Christians fought bitterly for nearly four centuries about the nature of God and the relationship between the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost.  Christians only began to come together on this issue at the first ecumenical council in 325 under the direction of the Roman emperor, where they essentially voted on what was the true nature of God. 

The result was the Nicene Creed, which expresses a view of the Trinity in which each of its members share the same substance but retain some level of individuality.   Mind you, that didn’t end the debate.  Two more councils were convened over the next hundred years in order to fight over the same subject some more, resulting in a substantial portion of the Church packing up their candles and setting up their own shop.

Even if you can make heads or tails out of the Nicene Creed (I’ve tried…honest), for at least 300 years perfectly good Christians walked around without any notion of it in their heads.  Because of that, the more fair challenge to Mormons is that they aren’t Nicene Christians, meaning that they don’t accept the interpretations of the councils that established the Nicene Creed.  And that raises the second problem with this invented controversy:  Mormons never have claimed to adopt the Nicene Creed…but does that mean we aren’t Christian?

Mormons believe that following the death of the original twelve apostles, several false doctrines worked their way into the Church that Christ established.  Much of the New Testament consists of letters by the Apostles trying to correct heresies that already infected the Church.  One is hard pressed to find a topic addressed more frequently in the Epistles.  The result of these conflicting doctrines was a proliferation of different versions of Christianity.  The ecumenical councils that led to the Nicene Creed weren’t called in order to codify a generally held agreement, but rather to resolve widespread debate.  Had there not been divisions in Christianity, there would have been no council.  (And the councils ultimately didn’t lead to a unified Christian faith, as Christians have found plenty to fight about in the 1600 years since). 

Mormons believe that such divisions in doctrine only could be resolved the same way that they always had been resolved:  Through revelation by God.  We believe that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a restoration of the doctrines originally taught by Christ.  We have no choice but to plead guilty to the charge of believing that the Nicene Creed was part of the problem, not part of the solution.

But, again, does that mean we aren’t Christian?

To answer that, you have to understand what Mormons believe with respect to the Holy Trinity (the term used more frequently by Mormons is the “Godhead”).  Perhaps the best way to explain what we believe about the three members of the Godhead is to explain what we believe about Christ.  We believe that Christ was literally the Only Begotten Son of God.  We believe that He came to earth and dwelled in a physical, mortal body.  During His life He prayed to and received guidance from His Father in Heaven.  We believe that following His crucifixion, Christ was physically resurrected.  He appeared to His disciples and instructed them to touch His hands and feet, thereby gaining a direct witness of His physical reality.  We believe that as a resurrected man, Jesus Christ was perfect.  And we believe that God the Father is like Jesus Christ.  We also believe that the Holy Ghost is a separate individual.

What this means is that Mormons identify the resurrected Christ as the absolute model of perfection, and our understanding of the Trinity is based upon that standard.

We believe that one of the reasons that God the Father and Jesus Christ both appeared to Joseph Smith in 1820, in what we refer to as the First Vision, was to make clear the nature of each of them, as separate, distinct individuals, perfectly united in purpose.  The first words of God the Father in that revelation reveal the separate nature of Christ and establish Him as our divine guide:  “This is my beloved Son.  Hear him.”  

Does that reject what was adopted by the three ecumenical counsels?    Yep.  But it also establishes that we place the resurrected Christ as the pinnacle of perfection.  We believe He is the perfect example, and we strive to live like Him.  Whether anyone else is willing to accept that as “Christian” ultimately is of little significance.


4 Responses to “Are Mormons Christian? Part 2: The Holy Trinity”

  1. 1 Ian J. Alexander April 12, 2012 at 9:41 pm

    What I find interesting as I prepared to go to Afghanistan is in many ways Mormons are making the same claim that Muslims do. I say this not in an incendiary way but to bring about the notion of what does it mean to be Christian?

    A common misconception about Islam is they worship a different God and deify Mohammed. This is totally false. The often spoken phrase, “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is His prophet” is a poor translation. In actually it should read, “There is no God but the God of Abraham (venerated by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike) and Mohammed is the Seal of the Prophets.” (In this case, Seal means Mohammed is to be the last Prophet God sends to Earth)

    So while you say Mormons were given their own “Good News” to correct what Man had done to the Word, Muslims believe there was three levels of Prophets. First their was Moses and God was stern because Man was like a child. Then Man matured and thus Jesus gave a message of Peace. Finally, in the last phase or “Seal”, Mohammed got the last bit God wanted Man to know.

    So in many ways, from their point of view, Muslims are “Christians” in the sense they believe they are following what they believe the God of Abraham wants them to do and Jews and Christians are those who refuse to give up and move on from their teachings of the earlier Prophets. Fun fact: Jesus is quoted more in the Quran than Mohammed is. Sadly the main reasons Muslims are generally hostile to Mormons is they see Smith as a false prophet.

    Anyway, I remember how surprised I was the first time I heard a evangelical First Baptist type say Catholics weren’t Christians. Of course I’ve known Catholics do the say to Greek Orthodox.

    Frankly I think the point is moot: Instead of trying to argue about differences between sects and differing theologies, it would be better to look at the commonalities. I would be if you look at the world theologies and philosophies, your average person, be they Christan, Buddhist, Atheist, Humanist, Pagan or whatever lives a life with mostly the same shared set of values as everyone else on the planet.

    It seems stupid too me we spend so much time focusing on what makes us different than all the things we are alike.

  2. 3 Steph May 12, 2012 at 1:22 am

    The nature of God has always puzzled me…from “Let us make man in our own image” to “The word was with God and the word was God”…Who is God? Who is Christ? What do they look like? All of those are questions every person who wants to pursue some level of faith will ask. Certainly, it is an important thing to study. If we don’t know WHO God is, then many other things can become confusing. I’ve come to the conclusion I simply do not know the FULL answer, and even if I did I very much doubt I could actually understand it. I have spent the last several years trying to figure out the answer to this question, (and for the record, I too have come to the conclusion that the “trinity” is a misinterpretation of scripture), but I have decided that there are simply some things that I am not going to fully grasp in this life time. More important, I think, is to understand the relationship each member of the trinity, or godhead (as I also describe it), has to the other. If you can form beliefs on what you think the relationship to be, and why, then the nature of God, Jesus, and the Spirit can become a little clearer.

    The trinity will often say that Jesus is simply a manifestation of God the Father in the flesh…(this is an oversimplified explanation)…So, in studying the doctrine of the Trinity you have to ask “What is the relationship that exists here?”

    If you choose to adopt a non-trinitarian belief system….Jesus is LITERALLY God’s Son…(A much more understandable and relateable relationship). To me, this relationship between Jesus and the Father makes much more sense in the context of scripture…(“Make man in OUR image” implies God and Jesus, or the Word, have the same image…and if this is true, then Jesus cannot be a DIFFERENT manifestation of God than the Father)…it also makes more sense in the context of the Gospel (God gave his BEGOTTEN SON….). I know it seems harsh, but there is a part of me that feels like the doctrine of the trinity diminishes the great meaning of the Father’s sacrifice of allowing His Son to die for sin.

    Just some thoughts of my rambling mind. 🙂

    ***I am not a member of the LDS church…or any church for that matter…but I have formed very specific beliefs by carefully studying scripture, including cross referencing English text with Greek and Hebrew translations.

    • 4 R.S. "Rob" Ghio May 14, 2012 at 11:31 pm

      You’ve obviously thought about this a lot, and I don’t know that there is anything you have said that I disagree with.

      I think that there is a fundamental problem with the creeds, which is the assumption that God has to be unknowable. God isn’t any good unless He is a mystery. I don’t think that there is any real scriptural support for that notion. To the contrary, I think that the scriptures are intended to help us work our way closer to God, and as a consequence to know him better. Adam heard his voice and communicated with him. Enoch walked with God. Moses, we are told, spoke to him face to face, as a man would speak with his friend. His voice announced the divine nature of his Son at Christ’s baptism and again on the Mount of Transfiguration. The whole point of worshipping God is to be able to communicate with him, relate to him, and grow to be more like him. At no point do the scriptures tell us that God is fundamentally foreign to us (and, consequently, utterly unapproachable).

      In my opinion, the doctrine of “God as a mystery” was the natural result of Christianity disavowing revelation. If no one can claim to actually speak with or “know” God, then you have little choice but to claim that he is unknowable. But that most certainly is not what Christ taught. Instead, he told his disciples that if they saw him, they saw the Father…because Christ was in the image and likeness of his Father and in all things represented his Father perfectly (just as we, as Christians, should strive to live in such a way that people see Christ in our conduct). I believe that the resurrected Christ was perfect, and if he was perfect, then he could not be a different type of “creature” than his Father. I firmly believe that we are literally the spirit childen of our Father in Heaven, and that Chirst was his only begotton Son in the flesh. The beginning of the story is that we were created in his image. The end of the story, as told by Paul, is that we shall be like him. I believe that is what our Heavenly Father’s plan has in store for us.

      Steph, I very much appreciate your honest thoughts and look forward to hearing more from you.

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