The Oneness of God: Questions about God, the Trinity, and Mormon Beliefs
Here we discuss common questions about the oneness of God and the Trinity, explained from an LDS perspective. This is part of a suite of "Frequently Asked Questions about Latter-day Saint Beliefs." This work is solely the responsibility of Jeff Lindsay and does not necessarily reflect official LDS doctrine, though I strive to be accurate. The answers are mine, based on correspondence with many people, and reflect my personal views, biases and opinions. For additional information on the nature of God as understood by early Christians and Jews, see my LDSFAQ page on "Questions on Relationships Between God, Man, and Others." For further scriptural insights regarding the Trinity, also see my page, "Are Mormons a Cult?"
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a Christian church that is neither Protestant nor Catholic. Rather than evolving from traditions over the centuries, it claims to be a restoration of the original Gospel of Jesus Christ, restored by divine revelation through the prophet Joseph Smith. The process of the Restoration began in 1820 in the state of New York, when a young Joseph went into the woods to pray to God, seeking to know which of many conflicting Christian churches was the right one. In a marvelous vision, Joseph saw a pillar of light descending, and in the light he saw two glorious Beings. One pointed to the other and said, "This is my beloved son. Hear him!" While more was said, right away centuries of confusion about the nature of God was cast away. Unfathomable metaphysical doctrines about the Trinity were displaced with a simple truth: God the Father and His son, Jesus Christ, are two distinct Beings, in whose physical image we are created. There is one God the Father, and His son, Jesus Christ. They are real, tangible, glorious Beings. Obviously, when Christ says, "The Father and I are one," (John 10:30), something other than "one substance" is meant. We believe that their oneness is a oneness or unity of heart, mind, and purpose. The Father can be fully represented by the Son. To worship one is to worship the other. As LDS apostle James E. Talmage put it:
This unity is a type of completeness; the mind of any one member of the Trinity is the mind of the others; seeing as each of them does with the eye of perfection, they see and understand alike. Under any given conditions each would act in the same way, guided by the same principles of unerring justice and equity. The one-ness of the Godhead, to which the scriptures so abundantly testify, implies no mystical union of substance, nor any unnatural and therefore impossible blending of personality. Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are as distinct in their persons and individualities as are any three personages in mortality. Yet their unity of purpose and operation is such as to make their edicts one, and their will the will of God.
(Articles of Faith, p. 37)
Contrast this with the "mainstream" view from the creeds of the fourth and fifth centuries, captured here in this excerpt from the famous Athanasian Creed:
Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith. Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the Catholic Faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity. Neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost is all One, the Glory Equal, the Majesty Co-Eternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father Uncreate, the Son Uncreate, the Holy Ghost Uncreate. The Father Incomprehensible, the Son Incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost Incomprehensible. The Father Eternal, the Son Eternal, and the Holy Ghost Eternal and yet they are not Three Eternals but One Eternal. As also there are not Three Uncreated, nor Three Incomprehensibles, but One Uncreated, and One Incomprehensible. So likewise the Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty, and the Holy Ghost Almighty. And yet they are not Three Almighties but One Almighty.
So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not Three Gods, but One God. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not Three Lords but One Lord. For, like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by Himself to be God and Lord, so are we forbidden by the Catholic Religion to say, there be Three Gods or Three Lords. The Father is made of none, neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created, but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father, and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.
So there is One Father, not Three Fathers; one Son, not Three Sons; One Holy Ghost, not Three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is afore or after Other, None is greater or less than Another, but the whole Three Persons are Co-eternal together, and Co-equal. So that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved, must thus think of the Trinity.
(Catholic Encyclopedia 2:33-34.)
Now honestly, can you find such metaphysical abstractions anywhere in the pages of the Bible? (And how can you square it with such simple and clear statements as "My Father is greater than I" in John 14:28, or Stephen seeing Christ on the right hand of the Father in Acts 7:56?) This is the work of a committee of philosophers, not revelation to apostles and prophets. But this standard, crafted amid heated debate centuries after the time of Christ, is held up as a definitive statement of Christian faith by some of the same people who claim that the Bible alone is sufficient for salvation, and that no one can add to scripture. If the Bible is sufficient, we don't need the creeds. And if we open the door to the need for further revelation and doctrine beyond those of the Bible, then we need to look for prophets from God, not contentious committees steeped in Hellenistic thought. And that's why it's so great to have the restored Church of Jesus Christ on the earth again - complete with a restored and pure knowledge of the nature of God.
In my opinion, there is clear evidence that today's "mainstream" view of God's nature is closer to the teachings of ancient non-Christian philosophers than it is to the understanding of the early Jews and Christians of Bible times. A good analysis of this issue comes from Barry Bickmore (FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 12, No. 1, 2000, pp. 275-301, with the following excerpt taken from pp. 278-280):
Is [God] a person with a body in human form, as the Latter-day Saints believe, or a "most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternally incomprehensible," as the Westminster Confession of Faith states? The Vatican Council further explains that God's being is "a unique spiritual substance by nature, absolutely simple and unchangeable, [and] must be declared distinct from the world in fact and by essence" [George Brantl, Catholicism, New York: Braziller, 1961, p. 41]. These definitions of God go beyond anything in the Bible, but they happen to coincide nearly exactly with those taught by the ancient Greek philosophers. For instance, Xenophanes (570-475 B.C.) conceived of "God as thought, as presence, as all powerful efficacy." He is one God - incorporeal, "unborn, eternal, infinite, ... mot moving at all [and] beyond human imagination" [Karl Jaspers, The Great Philosophers, New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1981, 3:13]. Empedocles (ca. 444 B.C.) claimed that God "does not possess a head and limbs similar to those of humans.... [He is] a spirit, a holy and inexpressible one" ibid., p. 51]. This concept of God was adopted by Christians, starting in the mid-second century, in an attempt to make sense of their faith in light of the assumptions they inherited from Hellenistic culture. Thus the Christian theologian Tertullian (ca. A.D. 200) could say, "The Father ... is invisible and unapproachable, and placid, and (so to speak) the God of the philosophers" [Tertullian, Against Marcion 2.27, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers (hereafter ANF), ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Buffalo: Christian Literature, 1885-96, 3:319].
How did the Jews and Jewish Christians conceive of God before they moved out into the Hellenistic world? Christian Stead, Ely Professor of Divinity Emeritus at Cambridge, writes that "The Hebrews ... pictured the God whom they worshipped as having a body and mind like our own, though transcending humanity in the splendour of his appearance, in his power, his wisdom, and the constancy of his care for his creatures" [Stead, Philosophy in Christian Antiquity, Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994, p. 120].
The details of how these changes occurred and how the doctrine of the Trinity became formulated and adopted is beyond the scope of this article, but further information is available in various links on my page on the Restoration.
Finally, here is an interesting passage, including some information from early Christianity, from Alonzo Gaskill's article, "Maximus Nothus Decretum: A Look at the Recent Catholic Declaration regarding Latter-day Saint Baptisms," FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 13, No. 2, 2001, pp. 175-196):
Roman Catholic scholars (including the church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) are not ignorant of the history behind the development of trinitarian theology or the patristic proclamations acknowledging the distinct individuality of the Father and Son. Rather, they traditionally view the evolution of the church's doctrine of God as a positive move toward a more philosophical and sophisticated model. In the subordinationist spirit of John 14:28 (see Matthew 19:16-17;24:36; Mark 13:32; and John 17:21), the Catholic saint Justin Martyr indicates that Jesus simply carries "into execution" the Father's "counsel," publishing "to men the commands of the Father and Maker of all things." Justin argues further:I shall attempt to persuade you . . . that there is . . . another God and Lord subject to the Maker of all things; who is also called an Angel, because He announces to men whatsoever the Maker of all things - above whom there is no other God - wishes to announce to them. . . . He who is said to have appeared to Abraham, and to Jacob, and to Moses, and who is called God, is distinct from Him who made all things, - numerically, I mean, not (distinct) in will. For I affirm that He has never at any time done anything which He who made the world - above whom there is no other God - has not wished Him both to do and to engage Himself with. . . . He who is called God and appeared to the patriarchs is called both Angel and Lord, in order that from this you may understand Him to be minister to the Father of all things.
Similarly, Irenaeus, who is considered by Catholics to be at the "orthodox center" in his teachings, also indicates that the Father is superior to the Son. One contemporary scholar declares that until about the year a.d. 300 "every single theologian, East and West, had postulated some form of Subordinationism." [emphasis mine] Indeed, one scholar notes that "subordinationism was pre-Nicene orthodoxy."
While Catholics accept fathers such as Justin, Irenaeus, and others who explicitly tended toward a subordinationist view of the Godhead, they also accept the baptisms of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which is also clearly subordinationistic in its pneumatology. . . . How, therefore, the Catholic magisterium can deny the validity of Latter-day Saint baptisms because of subordinationistic issues is mind-boggling.
22. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 60 (ANF 1:227).
23. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 56 and 58 (ANF 1:223-224 and 225). See Justin Martyr, The First Apology of Justin 13 (ANF 1:166-67).
24. Richard P. McBrien, Catholicism, rev. ed. (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1994),489.
25. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 2.28.8 (ANF 1:402).In their note 2, the editors indicate that this passage is clearly an example of "the subordination of the Son" to the Father.
26. Richard Hanson, "The Achievement of Orthodoxy in the Fourth Century AD," in The Making of Orthodoxy: Essays in Honour of Henry Chadwick, ed. Rowan Williams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 153. I am indebted to Barry R. Bickmore for bringing this source to my attention.
27. Henry S. Bettenson, The Early Christian Fathers, trans. Matthew J. O'Connell (London: Oxford University Press, 1956), 330.
Notice that statement in bold from a non-LDS scholar: before the post-Biblical creeds were hammered out centuries after the time of Christ, the "orthodox" view was that Christ was subordinate to the Father, contrary to the current doctrine of the Trinity. This demands further attention and consideration of the very real possibility of an apostasy regarding basic truths about God - truths which I maintain have been restored in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Now let's look at some common questions on this issue.
Of course the Bible teaches that there is one true God whom we worship. The question is what this means. The Bible clearly teaches that Christ and the Father are two distinct beings, and that the Father is greater than Christ (John 14:28), who is the Son. So if Christ is God (He is) and the Father is God, and they are distinct persons (even Stephen saw Christ standing on the right hand of God in Acts 7:55,56), there are two Gods (and the Holy Ghost makes 3). So the question is what is meant by "one"? Christ explains it in His intercessory prayer in John 17:11,20-23:
11 And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are....
20 Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word;
21 That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.
22 And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one:
23 I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.
Christians should be one even as the Father and Son are one. Not one substance, but one in mind and heart and purpose. What else can the unity of Christians mean? And that is the kind of unity we find in the Godhead. Yes, there are three persons - and three Beings. They can be called One and fully function as One. The Son represents the Father, only does the will of the Father, and is the author of our Salvation, acting for the Father. They are one - but not in the abstract, bodiless "one substance" concept of the Greek philosophers.
Our understanding of John 17 on the issue of the oneness of God seems consistent with a viewpoint expressed by Gregory of Nyssa, an early Christian father. Though he had written an essay entitled, "On Not Three Gods," he still wrote the following:
Does not the nature always remain undiminished in the case of every animal by the succession of its posterity? Further a man in begetting a man from himself does not divide his nature, but it remains in its fullness alike in him who begets and in him who is begotten, not split off and transferred from the one to the other, nor mutilated in the one when it is fully formed in the other, but at once existing in its entirety in the former and discoverable in its entirety in the latter. (Against Eunominus, 2.7, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (hereafter NPNF), Series 2, ed. P. Schaff and H. Wace, Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1994, 5:109, as cited by D. Waltz, "A New Look at Historic Christianity," FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 12, No. 2, 2000, pp. 165-180)
Accordingly, a man becomes "one" with another, when in will, as our Lord says, they are "perfected into one" (see Jn. 17:23), this union of wills being added to the connexion of nature. So also the Father and the Son are one, the community of nature and community of will running, in them, into one. (Ibid., 1.34, in NPNF, 5:81)
That's a viewpoint from a widely respected early Christian that I'm pretty comfortable with as a Latter-day Saint. Below on this page, I present further evidence that early Christians did not see things the way modern Trinitarians do.
Background: Deuteronomy 6:4 contains one of the most famous passages of the Torah: "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD" in the King James Version. The New English Bible gives, "Hear , O Israel, the LORD is our God, one LORD" and Ellis T. Rasmussen suggests, "Hear, O Israel: JEHOVAH is our God; JEHOVAH is one" (A Latter-day Saint Commentary on the Old Testament [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1993], p. 173.) The capitalized "LORD" in the first two translations refers to the sacred name of deity, YHWH, often given as Jehovah in English. This verse is so important in Judaism that it has its own name: "Shema," taken from the first word in Deut. 6:4. The verse is commonly used by modern Jews, but instead of saying the name YHWH, the substitute name "Adonai" (Lord) is pronounced.
Deut. 6:4 is consistent with the declaration of Christ in John 10:30, that He and His Father are one. The question, of course, is what is meant by "one" in these passages? In modern Judaism and mainstream Christianity, this verse is taken to teach strict monotheism: there is only one divine Being. But is this what was really meant by Moses or what was understood by early Christians?
The non-LDS scholar David J. Ellis gives the following explanation in his commentary on John in The International Bible Commentary (ed. F.F. Bruce, Zondervan Publ. House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1986, p. 1249):
I and the Father are one (Gk. hen): The neuter gender rules out any thought of meaning 'one Person.' This is not a comment on the Godhead. Rather, having spoken of the sheep's security in both Himself and the Father, Jesus underlines what He has said by indicating that in action the Father and He can be regarded as a single entity, because their wills are one.
This is important: unity of will is what the Greek text of John 10:30 implies, not some metaphysical statement about oneness of substance (such Hellenized spinning of the text came much later). But what about Deut. 6:4?
Before addressing the Shema issue directly, I should first note that Latter-day Saints believe that the title Jehovah in the Old Testament typically referred to the pre-mortal Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Elohim. Though the titles Elohim and Jehovah sometimes seem to be interchangeable, there are many instances pointing to a distinction, suggesting a view in which there are more than one divine Being, who nevertheless act with perfect oneness, such that Jehovah and Elohim are truly one and not competing Gods with different agendas and commands.
There is strong evidence that early Christians also shared this view of Christ as the Jehovah of the Old Testament, as I discuss more fully on my page about "Questions on Relationships Between God, Man, and Others." For example, non-LDS scholar Margaret Barker recognizes the "overwhelming" evidence that early Christians identified Christ with Jehovah in the Old Testament, and in doing so, addresses the issue of how they understood Deut. 6:4. The following excerpt is taken from her book, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel's Second God (London: SPCK, 1992, pp. 192-193, as cited by Kevin Christensen, Paradigms Regained: A Survey of Margaret Barker's Scholarship and Its Significance for Mormon Studies, FARMS Occasional Papers (Provo: FARMS, 2001), pp. 24-25):
The evidence that the first Christians identified Jesus with the God of the Jews is overwhelming; it was their customary way of reading the Old Testament. The appearances of Yahweh or the angel of Yahweh were read as manifestations of the pre-existent Christ. The Son of God was their name for Yahweh. This can be seen clearly in the writings of Paul who applied several 'Lord' texts to Jesus. . . . Now Paul, though completely at home in the Greek world, claimed to have been the strictest of Jews, educated in Jerusalem and zealous for the traditions of his people. How is it that he, of all people, could distinguish between God and Lord as he did in 1 Corinthians, if this was not already a part of first century Jewish belief? He emphasized that this distinction was fundamental to his belief: "there is one God, the Father . . . and one Lord, Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 8:6). This is, to say the least, a remarkable contradiction of Deuteronomy 6:4, if he understood that verse in the way that we do, as a statement of monotheism. If, on the other hand, it was a statement of the unity of Yahweh as the one inclusive summing up of all the heavenly powers, the 'elohim, then it would have been compatible with belief in God Most High also. (emphasis in Barker's original text)
The New Testament speaks of Christ and God the Father as separate beings in other places as well, such as John 17:3, Romans 15:6, 1 Timothy 2:5 and 1 Timothy 5:21. While Christ and Paul use such language, Christ Himself repeated Deut. 6:4 in Mark 12:29, reminding us that there is but one God. Again, this would be a serious contradiction if Deut. 6:4 actually teaches strict monotheism. Since the New Testament clearly does not see Deut. 6:4 as requiring that the Father and Jesus Christ were one Being, there is no needed for other modern faithful Christians to accept a "one Being" theology on the basis of Deut. 6:4. We believe in one God (Elohim) AND in one Lord (Jehovah/YHWH), who are one God, but not one Being as specified in the modern doctrine of the Trinity.
Even Moses, the prophet who wrote Deut. 6:4, referred to "Gods" in the Creation account (Gen. 1:26,27, for example, where the plural noun "Elohim" which literally means "Gods" speaks as a plural entity, saying "let US make man in OUR image"). Clearly, Moses did not exclude the possibility of more than one godlike Being being in unity with God the Father. As Richard Hopkins put it in "Counterfeiting the Mormon Concept of God," FARMS Review of Books (Vol. 12, No. 1, 2000, pp. 215-274, quote from p. 272):
The existence of more than one person who is designated as "God" is the foundation of the two-thousand-year-old problem classical theists have resolved through their belief in the Trinity. If this seeming inconsistency can be tolerated in the Bible, it is disingenuous to pretend that it is a contradiction when it appears in LDS scripture. It would be more appropriate to complain if this "contradiction," a teaching that has uniquely marked Christianity, were absent from LDS scriptures.
This is a misleading question. All Christians, including Mormons, should recognize that when it comes to God, there is both a plurality and a oneness. The standard doctrine of the Trinity holds that there are three persons who are nevertheless one Being and one in substance. We believe that there are three persons who are three distinct Beings who are one. We differ in how we understand the oneness to be achieved. This quibbling seems irrelevant to many non-Christians, such as Muslims, many of whom are convinced that belief in God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost makes all of us hopeless polytheists. So don't get too dogmatic about calling others polytheists because of a difference in understanding what "one" means.
Barry R. Bickmore provides very helpful information regarding the charge that Mormons are polytheists in his essay, "Of Simplicity, Oversimplification, and Monotheism " (FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 1, 2003, pp. 215-258), where he responds to a recent anti-Mormon publication by Paul Owen who wrote, "To put it simply, Christians believe that God is one, whereas the Latter-day Saints believe that God is more than one." The following excerpt from Bickmore deals with the unity and plurality of God:
The plain fact is that both Latter-day Saint Christians and Christians in the creedal tradition believe God is one and more than one. Both parties believe that there is one God composed of more than one person. For example, Owen writes:One of the most theologically enlightening allusions to Deuteronomy 6:4 is found in 1 Corinthians 8:4-6: "We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many 'gods' and many 'lords'), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live" (emphasis added). What is interesting here is the way the Jewish Shema was reinterpreted by the early Christians in order to include both the Father (one God) and the Son (one Lord). . . . What this adaptation of Deuteronomy 6:4 shows is that in the early decades of the first century, Jewish Christians were including Jesus within the unique identity of Israel's "One God" without acknowledging any breach of biblical monotheism....
So what? Since Latter-day Saints believe everything in the above statement, why waste the space to make this an issue? If the point concerns which aspect of God should be emphasized, then we are wrangling over semantics. The real difference between Latter-day Saints and creedal Christians on this score is how more than one "person" can be "one God." They believe that the divine unity is a "oneness of being," while we do not. Since, even in his caveat, Owen oversimplifies the subject, I will describe three ways in which Latter-day Saints believe that there is only one God.
First, there is only one God because the Father is the supreme monarch of our universe. There is no other God to whom we could switch our allegiance, and there never will be such a being. He is "the Eternal God of all other gods" (D&C 121:32). Elder Boyd K. Packer writes:
The Father is the one true God. This thing is certain: no one will ever ascend above Him; no one will ever replace Him. Nor will anything ever change the relationship that we, His literal offspring, have with Him. He is Elohim, the Father. He is God; of Him there is only one. We revere our Father and our God; we worship Him.[Boyd K. Packer, Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1991), 293, emphasis in original.]
Second, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are so unified in mind, will, love, and covenant that they can collectively be called "one God" (see 2 Nephi 31:21; D&C 20:28). A powerful unity of spirit, the universal "light of Christ" that is the power of God pervading the universe (D&C 88:7-13), bonds them. Jesus Christ can even be identified by the title "Father" because "I am in the Father, and the Father in me, and the Father and I are one - The Father because he gave me of his fulness, and the Son because I was in the world and made flesh my tabernacle, and dwelt among the sons of men" (D&C 93:3-4). Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained: "Monotheism is the doctrine or belief that there is but one God. If this is properly interpreted to mean that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost - each of whom is a separate and distinct godly personage - are one God, meaning one Godhead, then true saints are monotheists."[Bruce R. McConkie, "Monotheism," in Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), p. 511.]
Third, even though an innumerable host of beings may be gods and though many more will become such, there is still only one God because all of them are unified in essentially the same way as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In support of the third point above, I would suggest reading John 17 where Christ prays that Christians might be one as Christ and the Father are one, and would also suggest reading the other sections of this page or Bickmore's entire article.
Please read Acts 17:29, Rom. 1:20, and Col. 2:9. In the KJV, each of these passages uses the term "Godhead." Acts 17:28,29 is teaching a very LDS concept: that we are the offspring of God - which implies, if one remembers Genesis, that we are somehow like Him, and in His image. Col. 2:9 teaches another relevant concept: that the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily in Christ - i.e., He has a body, and fully represents and shares in the glory of the entire Godhead. When He speaks, He speaks for all three, representing them fully. I agree that the concept of the Godhead is not part of modern "normative" Christianity and that those in these wonderful but incomplete traditions may grow up never hearing of the Godhead, but I see that only as further evidence of the loss that has occurred among them over time, not as evidence that we are not Christians.
By the way, the early Christian father, Gregory Nazianzen, wrote of the Godhead in terms much closer to LDS theology than to modern "mainstream" Christianity. He said:
When we look at the Godhead, or the First Cause, or the Monarchia, that which we conceive is One; but when we look at the Persons in Whom the Godhead dwells, and at Those Who timelessly and with equal glory have their Being from the First Cause - there are Three Whom we worship. (On the Holy Spirit, 5.14, in NPNF, 7:322, as cited by Waltz, p. 172)
I will baptize you and make you a disciple in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost; and These Three have One common name, the Godhead. (Ibid., 40.45, in NPNF, 7:376.)
Do not forget this basic truth, taught so plainly in the Bible: Christ is the Son of God, and God is the Father. Among the many implications of this truth, we know that as a child looks like its father, so Christ looks like His Father in Heaven. More than just being in the image of God, as all of us are (Gen. 1:26,27; James 3:9; Gen. 5:1-3), Christ is "the express image of his person" (Heb. 1:3), meaning that His physical appearance (the only proper translation for the word "image") is expressly that of the Father's. It can't be said much more clearly than that. So exact is the physical resemblance that in John 14:9, Christ says to Peter that "he that hath seen me hath seen the Father." It is important to realize that Christ is in our image, that He looks like us and has a physical, tangible body, though it is now immortal and glorious. He showed His body after He was resurrected and had his disciples feel it to remove all doubt that He was alive, resurrected, and not just a spirit. This powerful point is made in Luke 24: 36-43. He even went so far as to eat and swallow food in front of His apostles to make sure they understood the nature of His glorious body after the Resurrection, the same kind of body that we should look forward to receiving (Philip. 3:21; 1 Cor. 15:39-43; John 5:28,29). Christ is in the image of God the Father, and we are created in their image.
Some Christians, having never been taught the plain meaning behind the phrase "in the image of God," and not having understood the physical reality of Christ's resurrection, are offended at the LDS view of God. They have been taught that it is a departure from the Bible to believe that God looks like man or could even have a body (as the Resurrected Christ most obviously does). They are offended to think that God could be anthropomorphic. But it's not God that has been "created" to look like man, but man that has been created to look like our Father in Heaven. Rather than God being anthropomorphic, it is man that is "theomorphic." But is this doctrine something new to Christianity? Though we may point to Bible verses for support, did the original Christians believe such a thing? Yes! It was post-apostolic philosophers and intellectuals who introduced a new, manmade doctrine in denying that God has a body, parts, or passions, seemingly recreating God in their own intellectual image. Daniel C. Peterson and Stephen D. Ricks explain this in Offenders for a Word: How Anti-Mormons Play Word Games to Attack the Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Aspen Books, 1992, pp. 74-75):
And, finally, does anthropomorphism really disqualify those who believe in it from being Christian? It would be odd if it did, for most Christians of the very earliest period were almost certainly anthropomorphists. As a recent article in the Harvard Theological Review contends, "ordinary Christians for at least the first three centuries of the current era commonly (and perhaps generally) believed God to be corporeal," or embodied. "The belief was abandoned (and then only gradually) as Neoplatonism became more and more entrenched as the dominant world view of Christian thinkers." [David L. Paulsen, "Early Christian Belief in a Corporeal Deity: Origen and Augustine as Reluctant Witnesses," Harvard theological Review 83 (1990): 105-16; quotation from p. 105.] And these early Christians had excellent biblical reasons for believing in a corporeal deity, as the contemporary fundamentalist preacher Jimmy Swaggart, an anthropomorphist himself, has noticed. [Swaggart, "What is Meant by the Trinity? And When We Get to Heaven Will We See Three Gods?", typed, undated paper.] But pursuing this argument would take us too far afield. Roland J. Teske has shown that the great Augustine turned to Manichaeism out of disgust at the anthropomorphism that characterized the Christianity in which he had been raised, and that he had thought was typical of Christianity as a whole. "Prior to Augustine (and, of course, the Neoplatonic group in Milan)," writes Teske, "the Western Church was simply without a concept of God as a spiritual substance." [R.J. Teske, "Divine Immutability in Saint Augustine, The Modern Schoolman 63 (May 1986): 233-49, especially 242 n. 25, 244 nn. 34 and 35.]
Having a body does not limit God. He created it and we can presume it is a powerful tool, just as our vastly inferior, mortal bodies are great blessings to us. He has a body, as does Christ. They are distinct beings, yet one, just as the followers of Christ should be one (John 17:20-23) - meaning one in heart, mind, intent, will, etc. - but not one substance.
While I feel that the LDS doctrine of the nature of God is purely Biblical, there is room for disagreement. But using that doctrinal disagreement to label someone as non-Christian is grossly improper. It would certainly rule out many of the earliest Christians and, in my opinion, the writers of the Bible themselves.
For you and others who may have grown up with the doctrine of the Trinity, I think it is very difficult to realize that this doctrine is one of several possible interpretations of the nature of God, one of many possible ways of interpreting the Biblical record. Many Trinitarians are taught that the post-Biblical creeds they grew up with are IDENTICAL to Biblical teachings, but they are not. The doctrine of the Trinity can be viewed as consistent with many Bible passages, but you need to realize that there are other possibilities. And once you accept that, it then becomes possible to realize that the earliest Christians understood things much differently, and that there are many passages in the Bible that seem strongly inconsistent with the Trinity. In fact, you may even come to realize, as I do, that revelation to Joseph Smith about the nature of God is much closer to what the earliest Christians understood than anything in the post-Biblical creeds that defined a God of the philosophers, not the living, tangible Christ in whose physical image we are created, and His glorious Father, who looks like His Son and is One with His Son - in much the same way that Christians should be one with each other.
Here is a specific exemplary comment received in 2001:
The trinity doctrine says one God, which God himself declared over and over again (why do you ignore those scriptures?), but three persons. Why do you persist in defining God in terms that you can understand?
It is a common argument of Trinitarians that God is incomprehensible, and so, the argument goes, people should not wonder at the logical problems encountered in trying to explain what is meant by the post-Biblical creeds that define the Trinity. "God cannot be known. Don't worry if it doesn't make sense." That attitude seems radically foreign to the world of Peter, James, and John, who knew, saw, and handled the living Christ. Indeed, John wrote that we must know God to have eternal life: "And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent" (John 17:3). John spoke more of knowing when he wrote to Christians in his first epistle. Consider, for example, 1 John 2:13: "I write unto you, little children because ye have known the Father." He is not unknowable, nor utterly incomprehensible.
A God that is three persons but one Being is NOT taught by the Bible. A God of unity is taught. A Father greater than and separate from His son is taught. But the Trinity concept with an unknowable, immaterial, "wholly other" God is nowhere to be found in the first century of Christianity. Its incomprehensibility is hardly evidence of its truthfulness!
In his letter to the Trallians, around 110 A.D., we see the early Christian father Ignatius opposing the intrusion of false philosophical ideas. Apparently some were already teaching that Christ suffered in appearance only and wasn't a real human who was born, had lived, and had died. He condemns such doctrines, emphasizing that Christ was really born, had really lived, and was really raised from the dead. But the apostates, the heretics, teach a God that cannot be known, as he explains in section 6 (available online: The Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallians):
"They also calumniate His being born of the Virgin; they are ashamed of His cross; they deny His passion; and they do not believe His resurrection. They introduce God as a Being unknown; they suppose Christ to be unbegotten; and as to the Spirit, they do not admit that He exists. Some of them say that the Son is a mere man, and that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are but the same person, and that the creation is the work of God, not by Christ, but by some other strange power."
The unknowability of God was a heretical doctrine then, though now it is standard fare for "mainstream" theologians, who feel it is ridiculous for one to seek to understand what the self-contradictory language of the creeds actually means. Latter-day Saints are criticized for wanting to understand the nature of God, but our early cousin, Ignatius, insisted that he had come to know and understand God. After all, Christ said that eternal life is to KNOW the one true God (God the Father) - AND Jesus Christ (a separate Being), whom God has sent (John 17:3). In fact, Ignatius quotes that verse in the Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, 6:
And the Lord says, "This is life eternal, to know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom He has sent." And again, "A new commandment give I unto you, that ye love one another. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." Do ye, therefore, notice those who preach other doctrines, how they affirm that the Father of Christ cannot be known, and how they exhibit enmity and deceit in their dealings with one another. They have no regard for love; they despise the good things we expect hereafter; they regard present things as if they were durable; they ridicule him that is in affliction; they laugh at him that is in bonds.
The idea that God cannot be known or understood does not derive from Biblical Christianity. To those who accept that innovation of men, we have something wonderful to offer them in addition to the truths they now have - even more truth in the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Here are some comments from a Catholic correspondent received in 2001:
Your site is very well developed and you have a lot of energy. But please understand that the LDS Church is not a Christian Church. It does not believe many of the doctrines that Christians believe.
Peter, Paul, John and the rest of the Bible clearly indicates one God. They were all Jews were they not? If they taught a gospel of multiple gods wouldn't it be much clearer and a major restatement? You say that the doctrine was not taught until much later. How much later, please be specific? I asked you if you considered Clement, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus apostates. You did not answer. All these early Fathers taught the Trinity and Apostolic succession. They were disciples of the Apostles. Have you bothered to read their writings?
Latter-day Saints fully subscribe to the concept of the oneness of God. The Book of Mormon also affirms that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are ONE GOD. But the Bible and other scriptures also fully affirm that the Son is distinct from the Father, yet is God, and that the Holy Ghost is also distinct, and yet can be called God - apparently making three Gods. The issue, then is in what sense are three distinct persons one God? That's where we differ. Most modern Christians rely on a post-Biblical formulation that asserts the three persons are nevertheless one substance and one Being - phraseology not found in the Bible but claimed to be consistent with the Bible. We believe that the oneness of God lies in their perfect unity of mind, purpose, and will, wherein each can represent the others. To worship the Son is to worship the Father, to believe in the Son is to believe in the Father. Looking to Jesus Christ does not take us to some other God, but to the Father. Which definition of oneness did Christ teach? Clearly the latter - for he prays (John 17:11,21-24) that Christians might be one even as the Son and the Father are one. That's clearly not a oneness of substance nor an assimilation into one Being, but a oneness of unity. (On the related issue of early Christian views on the nature of God, see my LDSFAQ page on "Questions on Relationships Between God, Man, and Others.")
We also believe in what some term "subordinationalism," the idea that the Son and the Holy Ghost are subordinate to the Father, who presides over all. Though contrary to many post-Biblical formulations, it is clearly what the Bible teaches. Christ said the Father is greater than HIm (John 14:28), and spoke of the Father as His God and our God (John 20:17). Peter likewise speaks of the Father as "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 1:1), and multiple passages refer to Christ being at the right hand of the Father - a subordinate position.
Related to these concepts is the anthropomorphic nature of God and Christ, that they look like we do, having a physical human form, though glorified and eternal. Both the early Christians and the early Jews believed this. The Old Testament definitely teaches an anthropomorphic God in whose physical image we are created (Gen. 1:26,27 + Gen. 5:1-3), who spoke to Moses face to face (Ex. 33:11), who has feet (Ex. 24:9-11), hands (Ex. 31:18), a back (Ex. 33:23), a mouth (Num. 12:8), etc. (Other expressions that speak of the wings of God and so forth are clearly poetical or figurative - not describing the real experiences of those who knew God.) Thus, Christopher Stead of Cambridge Divinity School states that, "The Hebrews ... pictured God whom they worshipped as having a body and mind like our own, though transcending humanity in the splendour of his appearance, in his power, his wisdom, and the constancy of his care for his creatures" (Christopher Stead, Philosophy in Christian Antiquity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. 120, as cited by Bickmore, op. cit.). And the New Testament affirms these teachings, certainly in showing that the resurrected, glorified Christ had a physical body, but also in affirming that He is in the form of God (Phil. 2:6) and is the "express image" of the Father (looks just like Him) in Heb. 1:1-3 (cf. 2 Cor. 4:4; John 14:9; Col. 1:15) and in affirming that we are created in the image of God (James 3:9; Rom. 8:29; cf. 1 John 3:2). The early Jews and Christians subscribed to the notion that God looks like us. He was anthropomorphic and tangible, not immaterial and wholly other. And the Son and the Father, though one, were distinct Beings, allowing Stephen to exclaim that He saw "the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God" in Acts 7:56.
This understanding persisted for some period of time. For example, the Clementine Homilies, a Jewish-Christian document dating to the second century, contains this passage:
"And Simon said, 'I should like to know, Peter, if you really believe that the shape of man has been moulded after the shape of God.' And Peter said, 'I am really quite certain, Simon, that this is the case.... It is the shape of the just God." (Clementine Homilies 16:19, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, Buffalo: The Christian Literature Publ. Comp., 1885-1896, 8:316).
So when did the change occur? And what of Clement, Irenaeus, and others? I consider those early fathers of the Church to be great men who sought to do right and preserve Christianity. But after the loss of revelation to apostles and prophets, there is no doubt that many within the Church began to be influenced by the dominant assumptions of intellectuals of the day, assumptions based on Hellenistic philosophy which taught that God must have a single, self-existent nature, that He must be Mind, utterly immaterial and wholly other, of one essence and being. To believe otherwise was to be an atheist, and early Christian writers were very concerned about showing the Hellenistic world of their day that they were not atheists. Irenaeus, though striving to preserve teachings of Christianity, was influenced by Greek philosophy, enough that one scholar would say that he was "profoundly original" in the perspectives he used to deal with Christian doctrine (Jean Danielou, Gospel Message and Hellenistic Culture, transl. J.A. Baker. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1973, p. 503, as cited by Barry R. Bickmore, Restoring the Ancient Church: Joseph Smith and Early Christianity (Ben Lomand, CA: Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, 1999). (Get Restoring the Ancient Church: Joseph Smith and Early Christianity at Amazon.com.) In fact, the early father Tertullian near the end of the second century became the first to use the term Trinity (or triad) and spoke of God as being like the God of the Greek philosophers:
"Whatever attributes therefore you require as worthy of God, must be found in the Father, who is invisible and unapproachable, and placid, and (so to speak) the God of the philosophers; whereas those qualities which you censure as unworthy must be supposed to be in the Son..." (Against Marcion, 2:27, in Ante-Nicene Fathers 3:319). (emphasis mine)
By Origen's day, the dominance of Greek philosophy was nearly complete, though there were still Christians that Origen speaks of who, like the Jews of antiquity, held to old ideas of an anthropomorphic God:
"The Jews indeed, but also some of our own people, supposed that God should be understood as a man, that is, adorned with human members and human appearance. But the philosophers despise these stories as fabulous and formed in the likeness of poetic fictions" (Origen, Homilies on Genesis 3:1, transl. R.E. Heine, Washington, DC: Catholic Univ. of America Press, 1982, FC 71:89).
Did you notice that? Origen appears to reject anthropomorphism not because the scriptures abhor it, but because PHILOSOPHERS despise it. Origen is a great example of a fine person struggling to package Christianity in a form compatible with the mandates of the dominant philosophy of the day - just like many modern Churches are striving to become more politically correct, aligning their practices and teachings with modern philosophical views.
It is a matter of record that Greek philosophy (Platonism and Neoplatonism) strongly influenced the development of "mainstream" Christian doctrine. For example, consider the following excerpts from the article "Neoplatonism" by P. Hadot in the New Catholic Encyclopedia (McGraw-Hill, NY, 1967), Vol. X, pp. 334-336 (excerpts from page 335):
Hadot then notes that Neoplatonism further entered the West via Arabic literature, where Arabic philosophy had become "a Neoplatonic interpretation of the works of Aristotle. . . ." He continues:
From Plotinus to Damascius [leading figures in Neoplatonic thought], Neoplatonism was always anti-Christian. Attacking the Christian Gnostics, Plotinus simultaneously combatted specifically Christian notions, as for example, that of creation....
From the middle of the 4th century onward, however, Christian thought was strongly influenced by Neoplatonic philosophy and mysticism. In the East, Basil of Cesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Synesius of Cyrene, and Nemesius of Emesa, and, in the West, Marius Victorinus, Ambrose, and Augustine, made abundant use of Plotinus or Porphyry, frequently without citing them. . . .
From the 12th century onward, Latin translations from Arabic or Greek gave Christian theologians a direct knowledge of Neoplatonic works. . . . Having received a strongly Platonized thought from the Christian tradition [i.e., the post-apostolic tradition - Platonized thought is not found in the Bible!], certain theologians of this era, reading these Neoplatonic texts, regarded Platonism as naturally Christian. (emphasis mine)
Note that a dominant pagan philosophy that strongly influenced Christianity would, centuries later, seem "naturally Christian" to those steeped in Hellenized thought.
Regarding Platonism, J.O. Riedl in the article "Platonism" in the New Catholic Encyclopedia (McGraw-Hill, NY, 1967), Vol. XI, pp. 433-438, writes :
Neoplatonism, in the view of one historian, "was the last breath, the last flower, of ancient pagan philosophy; but in the thought of Augustine it became the first page of Christian philosophy" (Copleston 1:506). Apart from influences that are now recognized as Neoplatonist, however, Christian writers found much in the older Platonism that helped them in their understanding of Christian theology and much that helped them answer philosophical questions without compromising their theology [Riedl is overly optimistic here!]. They found evidence for the unity of God, preexistence of the forms of things in the mind of God, creation of the world, . . . [etc.].
The Greek apologists during the reign of Antonines were educated in the pagan schools of philosophy. They used their knowledge to point out to the emperors, themselves philosophers, that Christian doctrine was reconcilable with philosophy, and therefore not to be condemned. . . .
At Alexandria Christian scholars adapted Platonic thought to religious instruction and scriptural exegesis. (p. 435, emphasis mine)
This process of making Christianity seem compatible with a dominant pagan philosophy greatly accelerated the process of apostasy, in my opinion.
While Neoplatonism may have become strongly influential on mainstream Christian thought in the 4th century, the early Jewish and Christian understanding of God had begun to give way to pagan philosophical maxims no later than the end of the second century, though even Tertullian was still a long ways from the Nicene Creed and the concepts of one substance or essence that would later become a basis for understanding God in "normative" Christianity. Today, the LDS view and the "normative" view are miles apart. But which one is closer to what was revealed in the Bible and which one is closer to what was taught by Greek philosophers? This is a serious question and I hope you will have the open-mindedness to think about it - and then, perhaps, come to an initially disturbing but eventually joyful conclusion: maybe something has been lost, and maybe something has been restored.
You asked if I have considered the writings of Clement, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus. Let's talk specifics. When you say Clement, I assume you mean Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 160-215), the one who is said to have taught Origen. That Clement was far too late to have been in direct contact with the Apostles. And that Clement, like nearly all the intellectuals of Alexandria, was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy and was one of the best at presenting Christianity in a way that would be compatible with the Greek viewpoint. Here is what the Encyclopedia Britannica says of Clement, from the article "Patristic Literature: The ante-Nicene period":
Late 2nd to early 4th century
Meanwhile, a brilliant and distinctive phase of Christian literature was opening at Alexandria, the chief cultural centre of the empire and the meeting ground of the best in Hellenistic Judaism, Gnosticism, and Neoplatonism. Marked by the desire to present Christianity in intellectually satisfying terms, this literature has usually been connected with the catechetical school, which, according to tradition, flourished at Alexandria from the end of the 2nd through the 4th century. Except for the brief period, however, when Origen was in charge of it, it may be doubted whether the school was ever itself a focus of higher Christian studies. When speaking of the school of Alexandria, some scholars claim that it is better to think of a distinguished succession of like-minded thinkers and teachers who worked there and whose highly sophisticated interpretation of Christianity exercised for generations a formative impact on large sectors of eastern Christendom.
The real founder of this theology, with its Platonist leaning, its readiness to exploit the metaphysical implications of revelation, and its allegorical understanding of scripture, was Clement (c. 150-c. 215), the Christian humanist whose welcoming attitude to Hellenism and critique of Gnosticism were noted above. His major work, the Stromateis ("Miscellanies"), untidy and deliberately unsystematic, brings together the inheritance of Jewish Christianity and Middle Platonism in what aspires to be a summary of Christian gnosis (knowledge). All his reasoning is dominated by the idea of the Logos who created the universe and who manifests the ineffable Father alike in the Old Testament Law, the philosophy of the Greeks, and finally the incarnation of Christ. Clement was also a mystic for whom the higher life of the soul is a continuous moral and spiritual ascent.
Clement had a "welcoming attitude" to popular pagan philosophy and joined Christianity with Middle Platonism. Is this where we expect to find pure, original Christian doctrine? For some issues, perhaps. But Clement, like his peers in Alexandria, appears to have had "the desire to present Christianity in intellectually satisfying terms" - and the issue of the nature of God was the primary focus for this "highly sophisticated" philosophical effort. We must look elsewhere if we are to understand what the earliest Christians believed about God.
But perhaps you didn't mean Clement of Alexandria after all. Since you seem to be claiming that early disciples of the Apostles supported the Trinitarian concepts, perhaps you meant the earlier Clement, Clement of Rome, the bishop of Rome from A.D. 88-97, who reportedly knew Peter. So what did Clement of Rome teach? He left us with a single letter known as 1 Clement (2 Clement was by someone else, dating to around A.D. 150). I read this letter a second time as I dealt with your question, and remain impressed with how much it sounds like a typical LDS sermon from our apostles and prophets, with its emphasis on repentance, obedience, seeking purity, striving for good works while realizing that salvation is based on faith in Christ, etc. There is no hint of the God of the philosophers or of Trinitarian doctrines. Rather, Clement of Rome in speaking of God affirms that "with his holy and faultless hands he formed man as a representation of his own image. For thus spake God: 'Let us make man in our image and likeness. And God created man, male and female created he them.'" (section 33, page 46 in The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd ed., translated by J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer, ed. and rev. by M.W. Holmes, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989). God used His hands to form the body of man in His own image and likeness! That's not the incorporeal, immaterial God of the philosophers or of the post-Biblical creeds. That's the anthropomorphic God of the Bible and of LDS doctrine. Please think about this. Clement, a probable disciple of Peter, worshipped a God with hands in whose physical likeness we are created. Centuries later, we find normative Christianity worshipping something "wholly other" (words from the Catholic Encyclopedia, referring to the relationship between God and man). There has been a loss of Biblical truth in this area - and a triumph of Greek philosophy.
Let's now consider Ignatius, who died in A.D. 110 and may very well have had contact with the Apostles. Does he teach the Trinity? Definitely not. I've read all seven of his surviving letters and find nothing in them that I am uncomfortable with. In fact, he, like Clement of Rome, sounds very much like modern General Authorities in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Ignatius gives great emphasis on the importance of following one's bishop, speaking of bishops are representatives of Jesus Christ (bishops were the highest surviving level of authority at the time of his letters, when the Apostles had been martyred).
As for the oneness and unity of God, Ignatius has much to say - and you won't like it. In his letter to the Ephesians, he urges Christians to seek unanimity and harmony, seeking "perfect unity, in order that you may always have a share in God" (To the Ephesians, 4:2), and praises those who already have such unity with their bishop, who are "united with him, as the church is with Jesus Christ and as Jesus Christ is with the Father, that all things might be harmonious in unity (5:1). But this is exactly what Christ taught about the ideal oneness of Christians being just like the oneness of Christ and the Father - and it's the LDS view, not the Trinitarian view.
In Ignatius' letter to the Magnesians, he again speaks of the unity of God as the kind of unity we can have (though, of course, we are distinct, plural beings). After explaining that Christ was with the Father before the ages began (6:1), indicating, course, a distinction between the Father and the Son, he then urges believers to "accept the same attitude as God and respect one another," not be divided but being "united with the bishop and with those who lead" (6:2). Thus as Christ was united with the Father, we should be united with each other and with our leaders (suggesting that God the Father is the leader over Christ). This theme continues in the next section, where we are told that "the Lord did nothing without the Father, either by himself or through the apostles (for he was united with him), so you must not do anything without the bishop and the presbyters" (7:1). (Presbyters are an office in the priesthood that Latter-day Saints call "elders" today.) Then he calls for "one prayer, one petition, one mind, one hope" (7:2) and implores us to "run together as to one temple of God [another Christian concept restored by Joseph Smith], as to one altar, to one Jesus Christ, who came forth from one Father and remained with the One and returned to the One." (7:2) Understanding the unity in mind and purpose that is intrinsic to Ignatius' teachings on oneness, there is no need to apply Greek philosophy to understand the meaning of what Ignatius says in the next section, writing that "there is one God who revealed himself through Jesus Christ his Son, who is his Word which came forth from silence [some texts give "not from silence"], who in every respect pleased him who sent him" (8:2). The Father revealed Himself through the Son, not because they are the same being, but because these two Beings are perfectly united. There are no Greek metaphysics about one substance and three persons in one being in these writings.
Ignatius again speaks of the unity between Christ and the Father as one we can achieve in the flesh: "Be subject to the bishop and one another, as Jesus Christ in the flesh was to the Father, and as the apostles were to Christ and to the Father, that there might be unity, both physical and spiritual" (13:1). In the context of section 13, physical unity is best understood as unity in our physical actions and in the way we live our lives, not just in what is in our hearts and minds. It does not hint at a metaphysical unity of substance or merging of bodies into one mass. This telling comment by Ignatius is fully consistent with the unity between Christians and between Christ and the Father that Christ refers to in John 17: 11, 20-23. It is inconsistent with the metaphysical creeds about the nature of God that would later be developed by men long removed from the Apostolic era, in a day when revelation had been lost and educated men were seeking to make Christianity more consistent with popular Greek philosophy.
In his letter to the Trallians, we see Ignatius opposing the intrusion of false philosophical ideas. Apparently some were already teaching that Christ suffered in appearance only and wasn't a real human who was born, lived, and died. He condemns such doctrines in sections 9 and 10, emphasizing that Christ was really born, really lived, really raised from the dead just as the Father will raise us from the dead, and really suffered.
The unity of God is again mentioned in section 11: "... the same cross by which he, through his sufferings, calls you who are his members. The head, therefore, cannot be born without members, since God promises unity, which he himself is" (11:2). Unity of multiple members is again likened to the unity of God.
A longer version of this letter, available at CCEL's The Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallians offers this warning about heretics in section 6:
"They also calumniate His being born of the Virgin; they are ashamed of His cross; they deny His passion; and they do not believe His resurrection. They introduce God as a Being unknown; they suppose Christ to be unbegotten; and as to the Spirit, they do not admit that He exists. Some of them say that the Son is a mere man, and that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are but the same person, and that the creation is the work of God, not by Christ, but by some other strange power."
Remember, Christ said that eternal life is to KNOW the one true God - AND Jesus Christ (a separate Being), whom God has sent (John 17:3). Quoting John 17:3 in a longer version of The Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans at CCEL, Ignatius makes this statement in section 6:
Do ye, therefore, notice those who preach other doctrines, how they affirm that the Father of Christ cannot be known, and how they exhibit enmity and deceit in their dealings with one another. They have no regard for love; they despise the good things we expect hereafter; they regard present things as if they were durable; they ridicule him that is in affliction; they laugh at him that is in bonds.
You see, it was apostates, influenced by doctrines of the world, who taught that God cannot be known or understood.
Ignatius, in his Letter to the Philadelphians speaks of familiar themes. He speaks of the unity of the church (3:2), asking us "to participate in one Eucharist (for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup which leads to unity through his blood; there is one altar, just as there is one bishop, together with the presbytery and the deacons, my fellow servants), in order that whatever you do, you do in accordance with God" (4:1).
Especially note his exhortation in section 7: "Love unity. Flee from divisions. Become imitators of Jesus Christ, just as he is of his Father" (7:2). This statement is meaningless if Christ is the same Being as His Father. He imitated His Father, just as we are called to imitate Christ. He was one with His Father, as we are called to become one with Christ. These concepts are out of place with modern mainstream Christianity, but are solid LDS concepts - the kind that get us condemned as non-Christians who have departed from "historical Christianity" (i.e., from Christianity since about 300 A.D.).
In the letter to the Smyrnaeans, he testifies of the physical reality of Christ, being in flesh after the resurrection, eating and drinking even, as we also read in Luke 24. In so writing (3:1-3), he not only testifies of the corporeal nature of Christ, but gives insight into the nature of oneness, particularly of the unity between Christ and the Father:
(1) For I know and believe that he [Christ] was in the flesh even after the resurrection; (2) and when he came to Peter and those with him, he said to them: "Take hold of me; handle me and see that I am not a disembodied demon." And immediately they touched him and believed, being closely united with his flesh and blood [a footnote indicates that three sources give "spirit" instead of "blood," which would be consistent with the LDS view]. For this reason they too despised death; indeed, they proved to be greater than death. (3) And after his resurrection he ate and drank with them like one who is composed of flesh, although spiritually he was united with the Father. (emphasis mine)
Ignatius understands Christ to have a physical body, yet was "closely united" physically with His disciples who touched him and saw him. And while He is a distinct, tangible Being in a body of flesh, yet "spiritually he was united with the Father." That's solid LDS doctrine - and eons away from the later developed concept of one immaterial Being having one simple substance.
In another source for the above passage, Ignatius is quoted as affirming that Christ still has the resurrected body that he showed after the Resurrection: "I know that Christ had a body after the resurrection, and I believe that he still has." (Ignatius, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, 3, in J.-P. Migne, ed., Patrologiae Graecae, 161 vols., Paris: Migne, 1857-, 5:709; as cited by Richard D. Draper, "The Reality of the Resurrection," Ensign, Apr. 1994, pp. 34-35.)
Of this glorified, resurrected, tangible Christ, Ignatius again testifies of his reality and refers to Christ as the one who "is [or "became" in two versions of the text] perfect man" (4:2) - a very LDS concept.
In the letter to Polycarp, there is a reference that could be used against the LDS perspective, referring to God as the Invisible who became visible, the Unsuffering who suffered for us, and the Intangible [who obviously became tangible] (3:2), but these concepts are consistent with the LDS perspective as well.
As for the other early Christian fathers you mentioned, they were not directly in contact with the Apostles, as far as we know. Justin Martyr, a converted philosopher, remained entrenched in his dedication to Greek philosophy. Writing in the second century, he strived to make Christianity seem appealing to other steeped in Greek philosophy. In spite of his efforts to conform Christianity to pagan philosophy, he still seemed aware that God and Christ were not the same Being. For example, in Chapter 6 of the First Apology for the Christians, he writes:
And we confess that we are atheists, so far as gods of this sort are concerned, but not with respect to the most true God, the Father of righteousness and temperance and the other virtues, who is free from all impurity. But both Him, and the Son (who came forth from Him and taught us these things, and the host of the other good angels who follow and are made like to Him), and the prophetic Spirit, we worship and adore, knowing them in reason and truth, and declaring without grudging to every one who wishes to learn, as we have been taught.
The Father and Son and Holy Ghost are presented as plural beings, distinct from the Father, as are the angels who also will be made like Him.
He also states that "Jesus Christ is the only proper Son who has been begotten by God, being His Word and first-begotten, and power; and, becoming man according to His will, He taught us these things for the conversion and restoration of the human race" (First Apology for the Christians, 23). This seems to correlate with the LDS/Biblical view that we are all literally spirit children of God the Father, with Christ being the "first-begotten" in the spirit, but that Christ was also the son of God in the flesh, making Christ the "only proper Son who has been begotten by God." Thus, Christ is the Only Begotten in the flesh, and the First Begotten in the spirit - and certainly a distinct Being begotten by the Father.
Justin Martyr departed from earlier Christian and Jewish doctrine, however, in teaching that the Father did not have a material body - an essential doctrine to please the Greek mind. He says that it was not the Father, but the Son who was seen by Moses, Abraham, and others, for the Father doesn't have a body and does not go any place (see Dialogue with Trypho, 113 and 127). And while insisting that our flesh is created in the image of God (On the Resurrection, 7), he apparently means in the image of the Son, not the Father. However, he still insisted on the physical and tangible reality of the resurrection of Christ and of all mankind, and was still quite a ways from later Trinitarian innovations.
In Justin Martyr, we can readily see the process of doctrinal drift occurring under the steady pressure of Greek philosophy among the intellectuals of the day. In fact, it is sometimes pathetic to read his efforts to show that Plato, Socrates, and others were really in line with Christianity, and that Christian doctrine was remarkably compatible with pagan philosophy (e.g., his argument that Plato was really talking about the Holy Ghost, which he learned from the prophets, when he wrote about the gift of "virtue," but just didn't want to offend the Greeks by using the proper term [Hortatory Address to the Greeks, Chapter 32].
You also mentioned Irenaeus, was a disciple of Polycarp, who is said to have been taught by the Apostle John. As mentioned above, he was "profoundly original" in some aspects of his work, meaning that new things were introduced that can't be traced to a tradition he was preserving. If Irenaeus supports Trinitarian doctrines, it is not because of anything we can trace to Polycarp. Polycarp speaks of the Father as "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians) and several times refers to God (the Father) and Christ as if they are distinct, with no clear hint of Trinitarian themes. Interestingly, Irenaeus teaches a God without a body (Against Heresies, 4:3:1), while also retaining some vestige of earlier doctrines about our creation in God's physical image, for he writes that God "gave [man's] frame the outline of His own form, that the visible appearance too should be godlike - for it was an image of God that man was fashioned and set on earth" (Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, 11, as cited by Barry Robert Bickmore, Restoring the Ancient Church: Joseph Smith and Early Christianity (Ben Lomand, CA: Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, 1999, p. 93). That vestige would be largely abandoned by the time the creeds came along.
One early and highly respected Christian author you failed to mention was Hermas, author of the Shepherd of Hermas, a text that was viewed as scripture by some early Christians. The text is believed to have been written in 140-145 A.D. Hermas is said to be the brother of Pius, Bishop of Rome, according to the Muratorian Fragment written in 170 A.D. Like the Book of Mormon and the Bible, the Shepherd of Hermas makes a statement about there being one God:
"First of all, believe that there is one God who created and finished all things" (Commandment 1).
But as in other scriptures, Hermas speaks of Christ as the pre-existent Son who is separate from God:
"The Son of God is older than all His creatures, so that He was a fellow-councilor with the Father in His work of creation" (Similitude 9:12).
Likewise the early Christian and Apostolic Father, Ignatius, in his "Letter to the Magnesians" (The Apostolic Fathers, p. 94), wrote of "the service of Jesus Christ, who before the ages was with the Father" (6:1), indicating that Christ before His mortal existence was with God the Father. Two paragraphs later, Ignatius speaks of the godly prophets who "lived in accordance with Christ Jesus . . . being inspired by his grace in order that those who are disobedient might be convinced that there is one God who revealed himself through Jesus Christ his Son, who is his Word which came forth from silence, who in every respect pleased him who sent him" (8:2, The Apostolic Fathers, p. 95). And shortly after this, he tells Christians to be subject "to the bishop and to one another, as Jesus in the flesh was to the Father, and as the apostles were to Christ and to the Father, that there might be unity, both physical and spiritual" (13:2, ibid., pp. 96-97). (A footnote indicates that two other versions of the text (the Armenian and the Arabic) leave out the phrase "in the flesh," and the editors add "perhaps rightly" (p. 96) to suggest that this may be correct. I would suggest that the unity of Christ with the Father obviously extends past His mortal stage.) Again we have an early Christian indicating that there is one God in essentially the same way that modern Latter-day Saints understand the concept, including the concept that Jesus Christ existed and was known to ancient prophets before His mortal ministry, and that these prophets knew of His grace (something that critics attack in the Book of Mormon).
What do we make of all this? Early Christian writings show a drift from the anthropomorphic God of the Bible - a Father and Son with perfect unity of purpose while still existing as two distinct Beings - toward the "One" of the philosophers, an immaterial, wholly other Being accepted as God by Hellenized intellectuals and eventually by Hellenized Christians philosophers and apologists. Ignatius is very close to the original Biblical teachings on the nature of God, but later in the second century the influence of Greek thought is unmistakable. Eventually, the man-made, post-Biblical doctrine of the Trinity would emerge - not from the pages of the Bible or the eye-witness accounts of Stephen or others who saw God and Christ, but from the councils of men, steeped in pagan philosophical traditions. Do we need to accept their incomprehensible declarations? No, thank you.
The post-Biblical doctrine of the Trinity derived from Greek philosophy, not from the teachings of the Bible. Indeed, Catholic scholar Catherine LaCugna wrote that "exegetes and theologians are likewise agreed that the New Testament does not contain an explicit doctrine of the Trinity. . . . The New Testament does not contain the technical language of later trinitarian doctrine. . . ." Further, "the doctrine of the Trinity did not emerge until the fourth century." ("The Trinitarian Mystery of God," in Systematic Theology. Roman Catholic Perspectives, Volume I, ed. Francis Schussler Fiorenza (Augsburg Press 1991): 151-192, at 159, 160, 161, as cited by Doug Yancey, personal correspondence.)
For an excellent online article (Adobe Acrobat format) about the LDS position and its support in early Christianity, please see "Doctrinal Trends in Early Christianity and the Strength of the Mormon Position" by Barry Bickmore.
One critic argued that Stephen's vision of Christ at the right hand of God proves nothing about their separate nature:
You quote St. Stephen's comment but leave out a critical detail. Scripture says that Stephen "saw the glory of God and saw Jesus standing on the right hand of God". No physical presence is attributed to God the Father! "Standing at the right hand" was a Jewish phrase for someone taking a place of honor not a physical spot.
Look at Zechariah 3:1:
And he showed me Joshua the high priest before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to resist him.
Does this mean that Satan was given a place of honor by the high priest, or by the angel of the Lord? No. Satan is clearly a distinct being, held in dishonor by the Lord and His priests, but was physically at someone's right hand in this passage.
What evidence do you have the "right hand of God" does not describe a spatial, physical relationship? That's simply an assertion to help overlook the obvious. Ministers will say that now as they wrestle with the Acts 7:55,56 and many other scriptures that contradict the mainstream but post-Biblical tradition of the Trinity. But notwithstanding such valiant efforts to "wrest" the scriptures, I don't think they can find anything credible in Jewish scholarship to indicate that being at "the right hand of God" cannot convey its obvious and literal meaning.
Acts 7 is not alone in testifying that Christ is at the right hand of God. See also Acts 5:31; Mark 16:19; Rom. 8:34; 1 Peter 3:22, Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3, 10:12, 12:2; and others.
To better understand Acts 7:55,56, you should also understand that the physical presence of God is often referred to as the glory of God. Moses saw the glory of God while speaking with God face to face in the Old testament (strongly suggestive of a physical presence and a distinct spatial relationship between God and Moses!), which clearly implies an anthropomorphic God who looks like us (Ex. 33, Ex. 24:9-11, etc. and see Gen. 1:26,27 + Gen. 5:1-3). In acts 7:55,56, Stephen saw TWO beings. He saw the glory of God, AND he saw Christ at the right hand of God. Two beings. Peter spoke of two beings, referring several times to Jesus Christ AND the Father as if they were two. Christ spoke of the Father as a separate Being. It's the truth. There has been an apostasy, and the basics of the nature of God have been corrupted by Greek Neoplatonic doctrines that require an abstract, incorporeal, wholly other God, not the living Father in whose image we are created and who has a glorious body (Phil. 3:21).
We believe in and worship God the Father and Jesus Christ. They are one God, understanding "one" to refer to perfect unity. But the Bible also teaches that there are other beings that can be called "gods" - not just fictitious idols, but real beings. The existence of multiple heavenly beings that can be called "gods" is not an LDS innovation, as most of our critics charge, but is an solidly Biblical concept widely recognized by many serious Bible scholars.
The concept of multiple heavenly beings that can be called "gods" begins with the first chapter of the Bible: "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness" (Gen. 1:26). It occurs again in Gen. 3:22 ("Behold, the man is become as one of us") and Gen. 11:7 ("Come, let us go down and let us confound their language"). This form of speech, according to non-LDS scholar Frank Cross, "has long been recognized as the plural address used by Yahweh in his council" - referring to a council of heavenly beings - "gods" - subservient to the Almighty God . The Interpreter's Bible states that in the creative act, "God first consults with divine beings other than himself." That source also explains that Hebrew religious thought "was familiar with the idea of a heavenly host with whom God took counsel." In fact, "it is fitting, if not necessary, that there should be something like cooperation on the part of the whole company of heaven" . In general, Bible scholarship provides many references to a divine council having multiple beings (e.g., ). This should be no surprise once we realize that the Bible itself makes multiple references to such a council and to multiple real beings that can be called - surprise - "gods" or at least "sons of God." Job 1:6 is a famous example referring to such a council. Here are some other examples pointing to the plurality of godlike beings in the heavenly council or elsewhere:
God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods.
I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.
The Jews answered him, saying, For a good work we stone thee not; but for blasphemy; and because that thou, being a man, makest thyself God.
Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?
If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken;
Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God?
As concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one.
For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth, (as there be gods many, and lords many,)
But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him.
(1 Cor. 8:4-6)
I will praise thee with my whole heart: before the gods will I sing praise unto thee.
For the LORD your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords, a great God, a mighty, and a terrible, which regardeth not persons, nor taketh reward....
Other examples are less obvious in the King James Version but still support the notion that multiple "gods" exist. In Psalm 8:4,5, David writes that God made man "a little lower than the gods." The KJV gives "lower than the angels," but the Hebrew word is "gods." (Some other translations give "heavenly beings" or "a god" for the Hebrew "elohim" in this passage.)
Psalm 29:1 calls upon the "gods" to give glory to the Lord. The KJV simply says "Give unto the LORD, O ye mighty, give unto the LORD glory and strength." But the New English Bible, for example, is truer to the Hebrew text:
Ascribe to the Lord, you gods, ascribe to the Lord glory and might.
(Psalm 29:1, NEB)
Psalm 89:5-7 also makes reference to the assembly of gods. One scholarly translation offers this:
The heavens praise Thy wondrousness, O Yahweh, Likewise Thy trustworthiness in the assembly of the gods.
For who in the skies can be compared with Yahweh; Who among the gods is like unto Yahweh?
A god who inspires awe in the council of the gods, Who is great and fearful beyond all those who surround Him.
(Julian Morgenstern, "The Mythological Background of Psalm 82," Hebrew Union College Annual (1939) 14:29-30, as cited by McConkie, p. 192).
Further, "Psalm 97:7b likewise bids all the gods to bow down before God. Psalm 103:20-21 is an invocation directed to the celestial assembly, and Psalm 148:2 commands the angels of the Lord, all those who constitute his host, to praise him. Psalm 97:9b records that God is supreme over all the gods; Psalm 96:4 states that God is to be feared over all the gods; and Psalm 95:3 attests that God is a great king over all the gods" (McConkie, p. 192).
What are we to make of this? Christ and others in the Bible speak of "gods" in a sense that does not refer to idols, but to heavenly beings. The gods praise the Lord, or it is before the gods that the author of Ps. 138 praises the Lord. There is a council or assembly of gods working with the Almighty God. Indeed, God is said to be a God of gods (definitely not a god of idols!). And humans have the potential to become "gods," according to Christ and the Old Testament.
Though Paul initially speaks of false idols in 1 Cor. 8:4,5, he does insert the comment that there are "gods many and lords many." He does not speak of fictional beings, but real ones. Origen, an early Christian in the third century, explains his understanding of this passage:
There are some gods of whom God is god, as we hear in prophecy, "Thank ye the God of gods," and "The God of gods hath spoken, and called the earth." Now God, according to the Gospel, "is not the God of the dead but of the living." Those gods, then, are living of whom God is god. The Apostle, too, writing to the Corinthians, says: "As there are gods many and lords many," and so we have spoken of these gods as really existing.
(Source: Origen, Commentary on the Gospel of John, Book I, Chapter 34, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff, available online at https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf09.xv.iii.i.xxxiv.html, or view it in Google Books.)
Clearly, the "gods" Paul speak of are subservient beings, like angels, and are not the source of salvation to us. Thus Paul could say that there are "gods many," but to us there is but one God (1 Cor. 8:5-8), indicating a difference between "gods" and "God." There are other beings that can be called "gods" - and Christ says the scripture to this effect cannot be broken (can't be denied) - yet we don't worship those beings. So yes, there are multiple gods, but we only worship the one Creator, the source of all godliness.
Origen's use of Greek, by the way, illustrates the difference between multiple godlike beings and God the Father. With permission, I quote from e-mail I received from Eugene Seaich, Oct. 11, 1998:
"Men should escape from being men, and hasten to BECOME GODS"(Origen, Commentary on John, 29.27, 29).
"Thou shalt resemble Him...having made thee even God to his glory"(Refutations, X.30).
Note that Origen's "gods" are THEOI. Both Clement and John called the Father HO THEOS, "the God" (with the definite article). Origen explains this important grammatical distinction by pointing out that The True God...is "the God" (HO THEOS, with the article), and those who are formed after him are "gods" (THEOI, without the article), "images," as it were, of him, the Prototype (Commentary on John, 7.2).
It is very likely that Lorenzo Snow's famous aphorism, "As man now is God once was; and as God now is, man may be, should also be interpreted in light of this critical distinction between HO THEOS and the other THEOI. President Snow's "God who was once a man" would accordingly belong to the same category as Origen's THEOI, those who have BECOME gods after the Father's Prototype. But his "God who now is" would be HO THEOS, the Prototype himself, or "the God of all other gods" (D&C 121:32), the one who has always been God (Ps. 90:2; D&C 20:12), and to whose eternal likeness all others aspire. Indeed, there can never have been a time when HO THEOS was not God, nor has he ever been anything but what he now is (Mormon 9:19; Moroni 7:22; D&C 20:17).
The more one digs into the scriptures and early Christianity, the more one sees that all the odd doctrines for which Latter-day Saints are condemned are actually "odd" doctrines from the Bible and original Christianity. These doctrines depart wildly from today's "normative" or mainstream Christianity, which raises a most serious question: just who has departed from what?
The testimony of many early Christian writers after the initial New Testament days again confirms the LDS and Biblical view that humans have the potential to put on the divine nature and become "gods." I present some of that evidence on my LDS-FAQ page about "theosis" - the potential deification of human beings. There are a plurality of "gods" - whether that term refers to angels or glorified humans - it is a Biblical term that cannot be denied. But for us, there is but One God whom we worship, and His Son Jesus Christ (whom we adore and worship), who is One with the Father. That's solid LDS and Biblical doctrine - like it or not.
Footnotes for the answer above:
1. Frank M. Cross, Jr., "The Council of Yahweh in Second Isaiah," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 11.275 n.4.; H. Wheeler Robinson, "The Council of Yahweh," Journal of Theological Studies (1944) 45:155 pp. 154-55; also Raymond E. Brown, The Semitic Background of the Term "Mystery" in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968), p. 62. p. 3, n.9.; all as cited by Joseph F. McConkie, "Premortal Existence, Foreordinations, and Heavenly Councils," in Apocryphal Writings and the Latter-day Saints, C. Wilfred Griggs, ed., Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1986, p. 195.
3. Edwin C. Kingsbury, "The Prophets and the Council of Yahweh," Journal of Biblical Literature (1964) 83:279-86, as cited by McConkie, p. 186. See also R. N. Whybray, The Heavenly Counsellor in Isaiah 40:13-14 (Cambridge: University Press, 1971), p. 78. See also L. Ginzberg, The Book of Isaiah (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1973), p. 44, for an interesting reference to the "the assembly of the gods in the council" implied in Isaiah 14.
Here is the actual question from one inquirer in 2001:
Arius held to a view of Christ and the Trinity almost identically as the LDS church and thus the Council of Nicea took place to decide what it meant to be a Christian. Arius lost. Now, 1500 years later the LDS church wants to take up his cause. Well, ok, but the definition of a christian must change then.
Disagree! Arius was NEVER on trial for not being Christian, and even after he lost, there was never a question as to whether he and his supporters were Christians. They were excommunicated for differing over a doctrine, but have ALWAYS been recognized as Christians. The Arian controversy had nothing to do with the definition of Christian, but with a deep philosophical debate about God's nature.
Doesn't it bother you that a key aspect of "normative" Christianity doesn't find itself at home in the world of Christ, Peter, and Paul, but evolves among the debates of men centuries later? I would say that we're not taking up the cause of Arius in 300 AD - we're returning to what Christ taught about Himself and the Father. They were separate beings. The Son was the Son of a Father, in whose image we and Christ are. Greek philosophy couldn't abide that, and the unity of the Godhead become distorted into a Being of one substance somehow having three persons in a way that none of the Apostles would ever have imagined.
As far as I can tell, you are right that Arius was never on trial for being a Christian. But, he and his followers were seen as non-normative Christians after the council. And that is how this view has been seen ever since. But, as you point out, is it simply (at least partly) due to the Greek influence of the 4th century?
First, I would point out that the reason Arius was on trial was because he proposed a new, or at least a minority, view of Christ (Marcion's Jesus comes closest to Arius's Jesus but that's all I can think of. The Docetists and the Gnostics view of Jesus was not even related). If the church got in an uproar over his view that Christ had a beginning and was separate from the Father, it would stand to reason that the Church was mad/upset/astounded because this was a new or divergent teaching.
Wouldn't it stand to reason that if Arius was arguing that Jesus WAS God and the Church took him to task for it, that they would be calling a council because he wasn't teaching in accord with the historic/standard view of Jesus? Your Greek philosophy theory would make more sense, it seems to me, if the church original held to two entities in the Godhead, but then Arius came along to smooth out the ambiguity by saying they were one substance. But, in fact, the historic/standard view was that Jesus was God before Arius, or else the whole council doesn't make any sense.
Your comments on the role of Greek philosophy are good ones worth some discussion. I've been reading some early Christian works. It's fascinating. In the early words of the Didache, the writings of Ignatius, Clement of Rome, and others, we find very LDS concepts. Slightly later, in the second and third centuries among Christian intellectuals like Justin Martyr, we find great efforts made to repackage Christianity to be more appealing to Greek thought. Justin Martyr tries to argue that Plato and Socrates and other philosophers were teaching pretty much the same thing as Christianity - and though Justin was a long ways from the mind-bending doctrines of the later Trinity concept, he saw God the Father as immaterial, while the separate Son was the one that Moses and others saw, and had received a resurrected body. By Origen's day, Origen even tried to deny the allegation that earlier Christians had accepted an anthropomorphic God, though he admits it in some writings.
The reworking of doctrine is painfully clear as we go from the pages of the Bible and the earliest Christian writings, through the second and third centuries and then into the creeds of the fourth and later centuries. Yes, by that time, Arius was non-normative. A non-normative CHRISTIAN. And I'm happy to be viewed as fully and completely non-normative as well - but as a non-normative CHRISTIAN. But our critics aren't scaring away people by arguing that' we're non-normative - they are scaring them by saying that Latter-day Saints aren't even Christian - that to listen to them is to depart from Christianity altogether. But I'm all for being non-normative - and the more messed up the philosophies of the world become, the more non-normative I plan to be. You can count on it.
Things are invisible when they can't be seen, but that doesn't mean they have no form or body or could not ever be seen. Romans 1:20, for example speaks of "invisible things of him from the creation of the world" that are "clearly seen." The Greek word for invisible, aoratos, can simply mean "unseen" without necessarily describing the permanent physical nature of something.
With rare exceptions, God the Father remains unseen and invisible, not appearing to man. Appearance before men is generally done by the Son (a few examples of men seeing God are given in Exodus 24:9-11 and 33:11; Num. 12:8; Deut. 34:10; and Acts 7:55,56, though only the last reference necessarily involves the Father). Though the Father almost always remains unseen to men, He still has a form. In fact, He looks like His Son, who is in the image of the Father. Colossians 1:15, for example, teaches that Christ "is the IMAGE of the INVISIBLE God, the firstborn of every creature." And Hebrews 1:3 teaches that Christ is "the express image of his [the Father's] person." We are created in the physical image of the Father and the Son - who said "let US make man in OUR image," using a Hebrew word that describes physical appearance (see, for example, Gen. 5:1-3). That Christ is the image of God is again affirmed in 2 Cor. 4:4. As Col. 1:15, Heb. 1:3, and 2 Cor. 4:4 imply, to see Christ is to see the Father, for Christ is the express image of the Father. Thus, Christ could tell His disciples, "He that seeth me seeth him that sent me" (John 12:45). It's not that the Father has no form or body to see (indeed, Stephen saw Christ standing at the right hand of the Father in Acts 7:56), but He is unseen to us and thus "invisible."
Origen in his dialog with a bishop named Heraclides discusses this issue in much the same way Latter-day Saints do. This early-third-century dialog is from a papyrus first published in 1949, a translation of which is offered in The Early Christian Doctrine of God by Robert M. Grant, professor of New Testament and Early Christianity in the Divinity School of the University of Chicago (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1966, pp. 68-69, as cited by L. Ara Norwood, "He Ain't Heavy: Review of Is the Mormon My Brother? by James R. White," FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 13, No. 1, 2001, pp. 150-151). Here is an excerpt:
Origen said: "Christ Jesus, who exists in the form of God, though he is distinct from God in the form in which he existed, was he God before he entered a body or not?"
Heraclides said: "He was God before."
Origen said: "He was God before he entered a body, or not?"
Heraclides said: "Yes."
Origen said: "God distinct from this God in whose form he existed?"
Heraclides said: "Obviously distinct from any other, since he is in the form of that one who created everything."
Origen said: "Was there not a God, Son of God, the only-begotten of God, the first-born of all creation, and do we not devoutly say that in one sense there are two God, and in another, one God?"
Heraclides said: "What you say is clear; but we say that there is God, the almighty, without beginning and without end, containing all things but not contained, and there is his Word, Son of the living God, God and man, through whom all things came into existence, God in relation to the Spirit and man in that he was born of Mary."
Origen said: "You do not seem to have answered my question. Make it clear; perhaps I did not follow you. Is the Father God?"
Heraclides said: "Certainly."
Origen said: "Is the Son distinct from the Father?"
Heraclides said: "How can he be the Son if he is also the Father?"
Origen said: "While distinct from the Father, is the Son himself also God?"
Heraclides said: "He himself is also God."
Origen said: "And the two Gods become one?"
Heraclides said: "Yes."
Origen said: "Do we acknowledge two Gods?"
Heraclides said: "Yes; the power is one."
Origen said: "But since our brethren are shocked by the affirmation that there are two Gods, the subject must be examined with care to show in what respect they are two and in what respect the two are one God."
Even though Greek philosophy was strongly affecting the mainstream Christian view of God in the third century when this dialogue apparently was written, Origen is still able to use language fairly consistent with the LDS view, language that would be rejected in the later Athanasian Creed. Origen recognizes that Christ is God and the Father is God and the two are distinct, making, in one sense, TWO GODS (something the Athanasian Creed expressly denies). But yet they are one God, and the issue is understanding in WHAT SENSE they are one. I do not mean to say that Origen subscribed to the LDS view, for he was clearly influenced by Greek philosophy on several critical issues in that age when Apostolic guidance by revelation had been lost. But it's clear that he recognized that in at least one logical sense, the Father and Christ are two Gods, yet in another sense, one.
The Book of Mormon and the Bible affirm that God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost are One God. But the son is distinct from the Father, making two persons - and arguably two Gods. The question is HOW are these three persons or three Gods still One God? The doctrine of the Trinity, as formulated in human councils of the fourth century, teaches that there is only One Being somehow having three persons, immaterial and of one substance. But Origen's pre-Nicene dialogue discloses that the distinctness of the Father and the Son makes two Gods - that is, in one sense, they are two, and yet in another sense, one. We accept Christ's statements in John 17 as an excellent explanation of the sense in which the three persons are One: verses 11 and 20-23 teach that Christians are to be one just as God and the Son are one. Ah - that oneness might just mean a oneness of unity, of perfect harmony, of total sharing and common purpose and mind - not a unity of a single individual or being or the immaterial essence so loved by the Greek philosophers.
We definitely believe in Christ as God, the Father as God, and the Holy Ghost as God. Accepting that is not necessarily the same as accepting the metaphysical doctrines of the Trinity. We believe in the unified Godhead, the One Eternal God of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost as three distinct Beings. That position seems much more in harmony with the writings of the Bible than, say, the Athanasian Creed.
In John 1:1-2 we read, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God." In English, to say that Christ, the Word, was with God and was God could be understood in either the LDS sense (two beings perfectly united in one Godhead) or in the trinitarian sense (two persons in one Being) or arguably in other senses as well, such as Modalism (two manifestations of the same person). However, the Greek text helps us sort through these possibilities a little better. The first and third occurrence of the word "God" in these verses comes from Greek Ho Theos, meaning THE God, while the second occurrence is simply Theos, meaning God. The English translation could be rendered, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with The God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with The God." There is no suggestion that the Word and The God are the same Being. One divine being, Christ, was WITH another divine being, THE God. As LDS doctrine teaches, Christ is God, but is not the same Being as THE God, who is the Father. (Thanks to Eugene Seaich for the information about the Greek text.)
LDSFAQ: Questions about the Divine Potential of Man - and what does the Bible really teach about "gods"?
LDSFAQ: Questions on Relationships Between God, Man, and Others - includes documentation about what the earliest Christians and early Jews believed.
Are Mormons a Cult? - An LDSFAQ page that deals the Trinity and other issues that are deceptively used to condemn Mormon as a cult.
The Son's Subordination to the Father in Early Christian Writings (archived) - by Michael Griffith's Web site.
Mormonism and Early Christianity - a massive and well documented site by Barry R. Bickmore.
Maxwell Institute - a great source of information about LDS issues.
The Anthropomorphic, Passionate God by Kerry A. Shirts
LDS.org - find official doctrines, Church publications, identify ancestors, and get the help you and your family need for a happy life. Best site on the Web! At least the truest.
Answers to Questions about the Apostasy and the Restoration (an LDS FAQ page)
Trinity and Mormonism by Marc A. Schindler - a review of the evolution of the Trinity concept.
Ancient Shrine to Baal Discovered near Tel-Aviv - is there any modern theological significance to the ancient worship of the god Baal, who was viewed in three manifestations by ancient Canaanite men? (Weak on theology, but strong in - uh - oh, never mind. It's a spoof.)
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Last Updated: Nov. 13, 2012