Mention the word “Trinity” to a group of Mormons and the response you’ll get probably will be “I don’t believe that false doctrine of Satan!”  Mormons often even feel more kinship with religions like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who also reject the Trinity doctrine, than we do with orthodox Christians on this topic. But do we Mormons even understand what the doctrine of Trinity really is?
I had an interesting experience recently. I was engaged in an ongoing discussion with a Protestant friend on the internet. I described my beliefs about God and “the Trinity” and she described hers. I went to great lengths to explain exactly what I believed. At the end of it all, she said “I think it’s only fair to mention though that your belief in the Trinity and my belief in the Trinity are a close as you can get without them being the same.” My Mormon instincts wanted to shout “No they aren’t!” But after time to think about it, I’m now convinced that she’s right. 
It helps to understand that the actual doctrine of Trinity can be summarized as “one God in three persons.” This might shock some Mormons that think the Trinity doctrine is “one God that takes three forms.” No, sorry, that doctrine is actually called “Modalism.”
“But wait!” someone might cry, I’ve been told by an orthodox Christian while on my mission that God is like water: He can take the form of a liquid, solid, or ice! Well, it would seem that the doctrine of Trinity, as taught by Catholic and Protestant Churches, is difficult to understand and so many Christians finally just settle into Modalism in an attempt to wrap their heads around it. But orthodox Christians aren’t supposed to be describing God in this way because it’s a misunderstanding of what their Churches teach. 
So armed with a more correct understanding of what the doctrine of Trinity is, I want to pose a question: Why do we Mormons run from the term “Trinity,” even going so far as to use a replacement word: “Godhead.”  Don’t Mormons believe in one God? Don’t Mormons believe in three persons in this God? Of course we do.
I assume the reason we dislike the word “Trinity” is because it carries with it connotations of the Athanasius Creed and substance theology (i.e. the Nicean Creed). Of course we should reject these Creedal extensions to the doctrine of Trinity, but I think it’s wrong for us to assume that “the Trinity” itself equates to them.
What is it we reject about the Athanasius Creed and substance theology? The biggest issue is that they have been elevated to being the same as or above scripture. But Mormons have issues with some of their content as well.
In the case of the Athanasius creed, the offending point seems to be “And yet they are not three Gods: but one God” complete with anathema curse if you ever claim otherwise, in any sense.  Our issue here is that this is a verifiably logical contradiction.  The Athanasius creed is more or less Mormon doctrine up until it insists that there is a damning ban on referring to the Trinity as numerically three Gods, even in a sense. 
In the case of the Nicene creed our rejection seems over the idea that the Trinity is “one of substance.” I sometimes feel this is like requiring everyone to believe “God is Abracadabra” or they are damned. I have no idea what it means, nor does the person damning me for not believing it. I can’t realistically claim that I do or don’t believe in it, but I feel that a loving God would never require such a profession of me.
But does Mormon rejection of the Athanasius formula and the Nicene Creed equate to a rejection of “the doctrine of Trinity?” Consider this Wikipedia article on “Social Trinity.” Do you see anything in Social Trinitarianism, at least a Wikipedia defines it, that Mormons object to? If Mormons were Social Trinitarians, wouldn’t we still be Trinitarians?
Now let’s do a quick exercise. I think many Mormons believe that Jehovah’s Witnesses are closer to Mormon theology on the nature of God than orthodox-Christians. But look over this list and compare:
- Believe in one God
- Believe in three persons that make up that one God
- The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are three separate persons
- Believe the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are one
- Believe Jesus is fully Divine and fully God.
- Believe Jesus was also fully a man.
- Affirm to creedal formulas that reject as damning any wording that involves there being numerically three Gods.
- Affirm to creedal formulas that claim the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are “one in substance” though they don’t define what that means.
- Believe in a greater God, Jehovah (the Father), and a sub god, Michael the Archangel or Jesus.
- Jesus is not fully divine. That is to say, Jesus is not God.
- When they say Jesus “is divine” they mean it more in the sense that a being created by God to be holy, like an angel, might be said to be “divine.”
- Jesus and the Father are separate persons
- The Holy Ghost is not a person at all, just the power of God
Looking over this list, I see a lot more in common between Mormon theology and orthodox Christianity than I do with Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Should we, as Mormons, avoid the word “Trinity” or “Trinitarian” when describing our beliefs? Or do we have as much right to it because of our belief in a Tri-Unity God? Perhaps we should claim these terms as our own but with our own unique twist whereby we reject the Athanasius creed and substance theology as a way as understanding that Tri-unity better? Or should we just avoid the term all together?
Similar thoughts on the Bloggernacle:
Notes: I exaggerate  Lest some of you think I didn’t really fully explain the Mormon view of the Trinity, our discuss included: 1) An argument over the meaning of every “Trinity” verse in the Bible, 2) a discussion about how Mormons believe the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are not only three separate persons, but they are physically separate and the Father is even embodied just like Jesus is, 3) an explanation that Mormons are comfortable with calling the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost “one God” in a certain sense and “three Gods” in a different sense, 4) a thorough review of what the Apostolic/Early Christian Fathers taught about the doctrine of Trinity, 5) a discussion about divine investiture, though I didn’t call it by that name.
Interestingly, our main point of disagreement was over whether or not Jesus could, in some sense (a lesser sense), be considered as the same person as the Father. In other words our main disagreement was over a slightly modalistic and non-Trinitarian twist that she personally held, not with the actual doctrine of Trinity. In fact, Modalism is a condemned heresy by every major Christian denomination. Just as some Mormons don’t understand all Mormon doctrine, we need to cut other Christians some slack over not understanding all of their doctrines. However, I find irony in the fact that such modalistic Christians often condemned my views of the Trinity as making me a non-Christian when in reality my views are closer to what their Churches teach than what they believe.  “Godhead” is really just a word that means “divine nature.” “The Divine Nature” to a Mormon is the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, thus the connection.  There are other points we could quibble over, such as “The Father incomprehensible” or “three Persons are coeternal, and coequal.” But I would argue that if understood in a certain way, Mormons could agree with such statements.  If God is made up of three persons, each divine, than in a logical sense they are each a God and thus numerically we have three Gods, even if you choose not to normally speak of it that way. As was shown in this post, this is provable logic. If there is some other way to think of these words such that it’s not a contradiction, the burden is on the orthodox-Christian to explain himself better prior to using such a statement as a way of defining others as non-Christians or as anathema.  Owen and Mosser, two Evangelical Christian scholars, argue about the orthodox view of the doctrine of Trinity: “We agree that a number of the church fathers developed theories to explain the oneness and threeness of the members of the Godhead that were unorthodox. However, these various theories were insufficient for very good reasons, the main one being that they simply did not incorporate all the relevant biblical data, just as we do not think the Latter-day Saint view does.” (link) But of course there would always be an infinite number of contradictory ways to incorporate a set of data. What they miss is that there could never be a compelling case to emphasize one contradictory explanation over another. So how could they possibly know substance theology or the contradictory Athanasius formula better represent the truth than the Mormon view that they feel contradicts the Biblical data? At worst, Mormons are as bad off as they already are.