The Mormon Trinity

KC KernGod, Mormon, religion, sacrament meeting, theology, Trinity 28 Comments

A few months ago, Bruce hosted a discussion about the word and concept of the Trinity.  It seems that most Mormons associate the idea of Trinity with false doctrine, and substitute any reference to it with the term “Godhead.” I have been in many Sunday school and quorum lessons in which the nature of God is discussed, and usually the teacher says something along the lines of “In other churches, they believe that God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost are all the same person.”  Then, they turn to the scriptures of Jesus’ baptism, point out the distinctness of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and consider it case-closed.  Or, they will turn to a scripture of Jesus praying, and, in a semi-mocking tone, say “So, is Jesus praying to himself here?”  trying to show how ridiculous the idea is that they could all be the same.

I fear that this straw-man description of the trinity does it great injustice.  The traditional concept of the Trinity, as understood by mainstream Christianity, can be expressed in this diagram:

On first sight, someone might scoff, noting both the “is” and “is not” jutting from and between each member of the Godhead, and see that as an irreconcilable contradiction.  What I find interesting about this diagram, however, is the fact that essentially, a fourth unit is created: the central “God,” which represents all three.

We usually use the term “God” to refer to “God the Father”/Elohim, but do we as Mormons have any terms that irrespectively refer to all/any three?  It turns out we do.  Consider the four following statements that could plausibly be heard at the pulpit on any given Sunday:

  1. “I prayed, and asked the Lord to help me.”
  2. “I’m so grateful for the Lord’s sacrifice for all of us.”
  3. “The Lord comforted me in my time of need.”
  4. “I know that the Lord loves each and every one of us.”

Each of these fairly generic LDS-friendly sentences uses the term “Lord,” but in each instance refers to someone different: #1 refers to Heavenly Father, #2 refers to Jesus Christ, #3 refers to the Holy Ghost, and #4 refers to their collective whole.

Now let’s look back at our Trinity diagram.  Replace the central “God,” with “the Lord,” and as far as I can tell, it is congruent with the LDS usage of the word, as I just demonstrated.  So what does this mean?

First, I think it’s important to note the unique elements of LDS beliefs.  The corporal and physically separate nature of the Father and Son, and the unembodied spiritual, yet also distinct nature of the Holy Ghost are fundamental tenants of LDS theology, and these beliefs are by-and-large not shared with our mainstream Christian neighbors.

But let’s not forget that even their Trinity diagram includes “is not”s separating each figure.  As Mormons, this essentially fits within our doctrine that they are separate and distinct.

In considering the “is”s, we enter a realm where mainstream Christians feel as ease, and Mormons begin to feel squeamish.  But should we?  Besides the fact that, to us, they are all “the Lord,” do we have any other basis to embrace their oneness?  The scriptures, yes, even the scriptures of the Restoration, would confirm this with a resounding “YES!”

When Jesus visited the Nephites, he told them:

“And thus will the Father bear record of me, and the Holy Ghost will bear record unto him of the Father and me; for the Father, and I, and the Holy Ghost are one.” (3 Nephi 11: 27)

And to Joseph Smith, the Lord was even more emphatic:

“…the Holy Ghost, which beareth record of the Father and of the Son; Which Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God, infinite and eternal, without end. Amen. (D&C 20:27-28)
The defensive LDS refrain regarding the Godhead being “one,” is that they are “one in purpose.”  But what does that really mean anyways?  Sometimes it seems like code for “oh, we don’t really believe they’re one, we just need to find a clever way to explain away these bothersome scriptures.”
I think a more accurate perspective of their oneness might be reached if we consider their omniscience.  If we truly accept that God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost are in fact all-knowing, that would mean that one could not think a thought without the others instantly knowing it.  One could not acquire or process any piece of information without the others doing the same.  So while we do have accepted procedural protocols on how to pray (to the Father in the name of Jesus Christ,) we need to be aware that we cannot address the Father without Jesus Christ being equally aware of our prayer, and the Holy Ghost cannot inspire us with anything that Heavenly Father and Jesus aren’t equally wishing for us to know.
Often times in our attempts to conceptualize God as a loving a personable father, we impose mortal human limitations on him that in fact do not exists, forgetting the divine attributes which we do not posses as mortals: omniscience and omnipotence for starters.
But even within the scope of our human limits, there are ways to wrap our brains around a similar kind of “oneness.”  Any entrepreneur or business person should be familiar with concept of a business partnership, or corporation.
Suppose two people, Tim and Tom, engage in a business venture, and decide to create a corporation to do so.  They call their corporation “T&T Widgets Inc.”  The corporation becomes an independent legal entity.  Tim was one entity, Tom was an another, and a third, virtual entity was created to represent them both: the corporation.  When “T&T Widgets” sends a message to a customer, its a “letter.”  When Tim sends a message to Tom, its a “memo.” The corporation has rights, has a name, can engage in business transactions, can participate in legal affairs, all as a single entity.  In terms of practical reality, Tim, Tom, or both, are engaging in the actual check writing, paper signing, and legal testifying, but whether it is Tim or Tom, it makes no difference, so long as they are acting in the name of the corporation, not themselves.
So, the corporation is “real,” it exists, it interacts with the world, and it is not imaginary.  But does it have a physical body?  Does it have parts?  Does it have passions?  No.  It is formless, has no location, no physical bounds.  How about Tim and Tom?  They, on the other hand, do have bodies, parts, and passions, have physical limits, locations, etc.  I hope the analogy is clear.

It’s true that the scriptures and prophets don’t always use the clearest of language when describing one member of the Godhead as opposed to another.  Abinadi told his listeners:

“Teach them that redemption cometh through Christ the Lord, who is the very Eternal Father. Amen.”

“Eternal Father” is not usually the term we use to refer to Jesus Christ.  But how off-base is that?  Abinadi seemed comfortable enough using it.

Some powerful insight about this comes from the Gospel of John, chapter 14.

Jesus tells Philip that “no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also: and from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him. ” (v6-7)

Philip, anxious to finally come to know and see this “Father” of which Jesus spoke, said:

“Lord, show us the Father, and it sufficeth us.” (v8)

Jesus responds by poignantly describing his relationship and role as a revelator of the Father:

“Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Show us the Father? Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works. Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me.” (v9-11)

In his own words, it is impossible to see Jesus, and not see the Father.  I believe this is to be understood not in context of seeing their physical beings, but in knowing them.  It is impossible to know, believe and love Jesus without knowing, believing, and loving God—because they are one.  Jesus is the perfect representation of the Father, and exhibits his attributes in every imaginable way.  Their oneness goes far beyond simply having the same mission statement.

Even in reference to the physical nature of their resurrected bodies, Joseph Smith said that he “saw two glorious personages, who exactly resembled each other in their features or likeness,” (1840 account, emphasis added.)  While the physical distinctness of the two is a clear message from the first vision, even Joseph Smith felt it appropriate to, in a different account, report his vision of the two by simply saying: “I saw the Lord.” (1832 account)

I have found that the scriptures and words of the prophets, particularly those which have direct references to God, find increased beauty and simplicity when both the concepts of distinct beings as well as a unified single virtual entity are taken into account.  Quandaries over “who’s speaking” in the scriptures are quickly resolved; there’s no need to loose sleep over why Jesus is sometimes called “God himself,” no need to provide apologetics for scriptures teaching that they are one, and we might grasp a more reasonable understanding of how God is understood (or maybe misunderstood) in other religious circles.

Most importantly, I think the greatest take-home lesson is that we can deepen our relationship with deity by realizing that any interaction with one member of the Godhead (praying, feeling the Spirit, reading the words of Christ) spans through the awareness and care of the other two as well.

Optional reading assignment: “The Grandeur of God,” by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland

Comments 28

  1. I have some time ago devised an analogy like T&T Widgets to illustrate the same issue. But the novelty of the idea is that, we could, perhaps say that “God” is not a person at all, but a function of what Father, Son and Holy Ghost are doing for our eternal life. To say that could be very easy to misunderstand, though, and I’d hate to take away from anyone’s relationship with a personal God.

    Anyhow, to me it’s no stumbling block – I’m content with the idea that there are some things we won’t fully understand with our mortal minds. But my view is that our relationship with the Trinity idea is necessarily a little strenuous.

    Besides, your diagram doesn’t really deal with “homoousion” – or being of one substance. That to me seems to be at the heart of Trinity. As I was growing up Lutheran the idea of one substance was harped on quite a lot, and it always went against my instinct. I read the 17th chapter of John and Jesus’ baptism with the Spirit descending on him the way many LDS read it. I couldn’t believe that God was into theatrical tricks of this nature.

  2. Very good post. You are, I believe, right on in your assessment. These are things I’ve been thinking on quite a bit lately, and I do concur that many Latter-day Saints could stand to have their understanding improve of “the Mormon Trinity”, as you put it. Well done.

  3. It’d be interesting to note the conflations and assumptions of name throughout the different books of scripture; the relative position of Jesus Christ in the Book of Mormon, for instance. That’d probably help clear up at least some of the confusion that arises from how different revelations treat God (differing interpretations of Enoch’s dream in the Holland talk you mentioned, for instance).

  4. Great post. I’ve tried in the past to articulate something along the lines of T&T Widgets, but you put it better. It wasn’t until I was already in college that I had the epiphany that “God” is a title, and not a name. That suddenly made things make a lot more sense to me.

  5. Some interesting quotes from modern day prophets that I think complement your post.

    Mark Petersen Oct. 1966
    But there is only one God and only one way to be saved in his presence. That is by avoiding all forms of hypocrisy and by honestly and sincerely keeping his commandments. He is God of charity, mercy and law. He is truly a God of charity and mercy, but he is also a God of law. He has said in clear and precise terms that no unclean thing can come into his presence.

    Essential Brigham Young page 92 (this entire speech is relevant to your discussion)
    You and I have only one God to whom we are accountable, so we will let the rest alone, and search after the one we have to do with; let us seek diligently after Him, the very being who commenced this creation…..But let us turn our attention to the God with which we have to do. I tell you simply, He is our Father; the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Father of our spirits. Can that be possible? Yes, it is possible, He is the Father of all the spirits of the human family.

    Orson Pratt “The Seer” vol. 1 no. 2 page 24
    And also when we speak of only one God, and state that He is eternal, without beginning or end, and that He is in all worlds at the same instant, let it be distinctly remembered, that we have no reference to any particular person or substance, but to truth dwelling in a vast variety of substances.

    Orson Pratt Oct. 7, 1854
    this I endeavored to do in some of my last publications; not because I had more light upon this subject than many others, but I endeavored to do it for the benefit of the people—to show them wherein we believe in the plurality of Gods, and yet acknowledge only one God. I believe both of these principles with all my heart. I believe there is one only wise God, and I believe there is an immense number of Gods

    John Taylor March 1, 1880
    He had nobody around him to rise up and say, had you not better put it off for a little while, or otherwise change things, or to intimate that they were not prepared for what was done. No, they knew better. I suppose it would be more correct to render it, “And the Gods said, Let there be light, etc” But to us you know there is only one God; and he said, let there be light, and there was light. And God saw the light that it was good. It was made according to eternal principles, according to the strictest principles of intelligence and philosophy; and when it was made, it was declared good.

    Charles Penrose March 4, 1883
    There is only one way of life, only one plan of salvation, because there is but one God to serve. If there were many Gods to worship, there might be many different ways to salvation; but as to us there is only one God, there can be but one Gospel, one Church, one gate leading to the celestial city.

    Joseph Smith History of the Church vol.6 page 474
    Mankind verily say that the scriptures are with them. Search the scriptures, for they testify of things that these apostates would gravely pronounce blasphemy. Paul, if Joseph Smith is a blasphemer. you are. I say there are Gods many and Lords many, but to us only one, and we are to be in subjection to that one, and no man can limit the bounds or the eternal existence of eternal time. Hath he beheld the eternal world, and is he authorized to say that there is only one God? He makes himself a fool if he thinks or says so, and there is an end of his career or progress in knowledge. He cannot obtain all knowledge, for he has sealed up the gate to it.

    On page 476 Joseph Smith says: Many men say there is one God; the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are only one God! I say that is a strange God anyhow—three in one, and one in three!

  6. Ideally, Mormons don’t get caught by the ‘false dichotomies’ that creedal Christians are tied too. You may be able to come up with a better list, but some dichotomies that come to mind are:

    * The Godhead is one (office, unity, purpose) and also three distinct beings.
    * The Bible is true and the earth is much older than 7,000 years.
    * The Bible is true and it (some of it) is not
    * The Bible is the revealed word of God, and there is more
    * You must accept Christ in this life to be saved and you don’t (if you don’t have the opportunity)

  7. Excellent post, KC. I agree that we share much with regard to the Trinity/Godhead as many other Christians – and that it is the nature of their “bodies” that constituted the core difference.

  8. Pingback: The Mormon Trinity « Heart Issues for LDS

  9. I thought the corporation analogy was probably the weakest part of this post (which I otherwise liked a lot). The corporate analogy does not convey the passage following that says that the Son is identical in attributes to the Father. Nothing in there could be construed to say Tim and Tom were identical in attributes.

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    Velska, yes, the critical point of divergence on this issue is the “one in substance” thing. I’m not familiar enough with denominational Christianity to know to what level this point is emphasized in other faiths, but it certainly is the deal-breaker with respect to LDS theology.

    I guess what I felt most significant about the Trinity diagram (made by mainstream Christians, it is not my creation) is that it provides for “is” and “is not” compartments between each one. The rules and standards for which one is classified where (substance, purpose, etc) does not appear to be explicit, and as such, it provides an insightful model in which we can classify elements of the LDS concept of God. Especially when we replace the central node with “the Lord,” and all of a sudden start dealing with LDS vernacular.

    Seth R., you’re right, the analogy dissolves when comparing Tim and Tom directly. I use it primarily to illustrate the concept of a virtual entity which represents multiple literal entities… and thus how the idea of a virtual entity being formless and intangible is not quite as ridiculous as we often make it out to be.

    I meant to present the following passages about the oneness of the Father and Son as a separate idea from the corporate analogy; sorry if that was a bit ambiguous.

  11. I have to admit I hadn’t really thought of the idea of the oneness of the Godhead interpreted to mean instant synchronization of knowledge. It seems kind of a strange concept that is very foreign to me. That got me leading then to wondering, if everyone has the potential to become like God then could they have such an experience? Are we destined to just join the great hive mind collective? I’m not sure what I think about losing privacy of thought, but I suppose that in the eternities things may be different. Anyways, great post.

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    Gregeth, I think this is where we leave the realm of doctrine and enter into sci-fi-ish speculation; but the implications of omniscience—and co-omniscience with others—has some staggering implications.
    Perhaps we may gain some clues from scriptures that talk about the “oneness” of Christ’s followers:

    “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us.” (John 17:21)

    And an admonition to “be of one mind”:

    “Finally, brethren, farewell. Be perfect, be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you.” (2 Cor 13: 11)

    And from the Book of Mormon:

    “And now Father, I pray unto thee for them, and also for all those who shall believe on their words, that they may believe in me, that I may be in them as thou, Father, art in me, that we may be one. Father, I pray not for the world, but for those whom thou hast given me out of the world, because of their faith, that they may be purified in me, that I may be in them as thou, Father, art in me, that we may be one, that I may be glorified in them.” (3 Ne. 19: 23, 29)

    And we can look with fresh eyes at the famous passage:

    “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” (John 17:3)

    It definitely gives one something to ponder.

  13. I believe that the long standing problem here is the translation of the Greek “ousia” into “substance”. In contemporary terms, it is a very poor translation. “Ousia” is much better translated as “nature” or “essence”.

    The idea that the members of the Godhead share the same nature or essence (and I would say necessarily so) is extremely well supported in the scriptures.

  14. Like Seth, I was with you until the analogy, but I disliked it for a different reason. The problem I have with it is that it suggests that the Father was not God until he became “incorporated” with the Son and the Spirit (just as Tom was not a corporate exec until the formation of T&T Widgets). I’m not “sold” on that theology.

  15. When you say, “the concept of the trinity, as understood by mainstream Christianity,” do you mean that is what is taught authoritatively in other Christian churches, or is that just what the majority believe?

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    BrianJ, you bring up a good point. But one must then ask, at what point did Heavenly Father achieve Godhood? And what role did the timing of Christ’s appointment as Messiah have in his achievement of Godhood? I think it is generally understood that what makes him God is that he is a creator—more specifically, the creator of our spirits. And if we dig deeper into that, we can’t leave out Heavenly Mother—also the creator of our spirits. That takes this whole Trinity discussion to another level–suggesting that the “God the Father” node would more properly be “God the Parents.” The union of the two constitutes the entity which we apply the “Heavenly Father” alias to (perhaps not much unlike referring to a couple as “Mr. & Mrs. [HUSBANDS NAME]”). But as far as how oneness with his/their Son constitutes Godhood, I’m afraid that untangles an array of complexities and questions that I just don’t have the answer to.

    Ameliag, the quote your asking about was a direct reference to the diagram displayed in the post, which is called the Shield of the Trinity. (See Wikipedia) Apparently it summarizes the first part of the Athanasian Creed, which dates to the 9th century. Whether it is currently regarded as authorized doctrine or even believed by most Christians today is frankly unclear to me, but it certainly does have its roots in historical creedal Christianity.

  17. I stumbled across your blog on and I enjoyed this post immensely. Though I saw the minor problems with the analogy, I think it does a good job of getting your point across. I have been doing a little survey on mentions of Christ in Sacrament Meeting and noticed a lot of people, when referring to Christ, actually say Heavenly Father. There is an interesting dichodomy in the LDS church with what we say we believe about the Godhead/Trinity and then the way we refer to it in our speech. Though I agree with most of what you have said, I think it is important to remember the distinct roles all three members play in each persons salvation. Many people confuse the three (or at least the two). It is important that we understand the nature and character of God (the God I’m referring to being the one in the trinity diagram you showed). As we come to comprehend the characteristics of God we will learn how each of the three have their own role they play in our Salvation. When they all mesh together, we may lose sight of some of the important aspects of the restored gospel. If you get the time, please stop by and read my post, I would be interested in your thoughts.

  18. Okay, one thing to add. The word “God” has more than one meaning. So this resolves the concern that “God” is a corporation and not “personal.” Because there is more than one defintion of the word “God.”

    It is impossible to make sense of Mormon doctrine or, for that matter, any Christian denominations doctrines of Deity, without recognizing this.

  19. The Mormon Trinity is a moving target. Joseph Smith originally stated that he saw one image in 1820. His 1835 Lectures on Faith (Lecture 5) posit a Godhead composed of two beings: one with a corporeal body and one without; the third member of the Godhead not a being, but the “mind” of the other two. By 1838, Smith revised his description of his 1820 vision to include two images – as his understanding of the Godhead/Trinity had evolved in that direction, probably with the tutalege of Bro. Rigdon.

    After Smith’s murder, through at least 1916, various apostles (and, for most of them, only Smith was “The Prophet;” the earthly Church was headed by a president) used the terms Elohiem, Jehovah, Jesus, Adam, The Father to refer to various deities. The FP’s 1916 statement regarding The Father and The Son was not merely a statement of doctrine as we know it today. Rather, it put to rest most of the debate regarding the identities of Mormon deities – most especially ignoring Adam’s place in the theological discussions of the previous 60 years. (And causing present apologists to dismiss reports of President Young’s ponderings on the subject as the products of bad reporting.)

    The present discussion assists the proselytization efforts by attempting to minimize the differences between the Mormon Godhood and the traditional Christian Trinity.

  20. Michah, I think the history is actually more complex than you suggest. I don’t have time to say much I’d just say that the Book of Mormon – especially 3 Nephi throws a big wrench in your thesis. It’s true that the corporality of the Father wasn’t clear initially.

    Also note that Joseph didn’t write most of the Lectures on Faith.

  21. In the past, I’ve actually been appalled by the haphazard use of the term “Lord” by members of the Church. It is a sloppy was to speak and I never can be sure what the person is referring to. My main question would be, why are you even trying to convert people if you don’t actually want to conver them to a different belief? But, I suppose this will be the next step in Mormon theology.

  22. Jeff, Latter-day Saints here are not saying that we’re no different in our theology than other Christians. But we are actually a lot closer that you think. Elder Bruce D. Porter in a recent interview for the “First Things” article made it clear that the only part of the Nicene Creed that Mormons would not agree with would be the statement that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are of “one substance”. And Elder Jeffrey R. Holland recently taught: “Our first and foremost article of faith in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.” We believe these three divine persons constituting a single Godhead are united in purpose, in manner, in testimony, in mission. We believe Them to be filled with the same godly sense of mercy and love, justice and grace, patience, forgiveness, and redemption. I think it is accurate to say we believe They are one in every significant and eternal aspect imaginable except believing Them to be three persons combined in one substance, a Trinitarian notion never set forth in the scriptures because it is not true.”

    -Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Only True God and Jesus Christ Whom He Hath Sent,” Ensign, Nov 2007, 40–42

  23. First of all, I must confess that I’ve stumbled onto your blog while researching for my message I’m preparing. I am a Protestant Christian and to be honest, I was quite ignorant of Mormon beliefs before reading the posts on this site.

    I was quite surprised (in a good way) when I read through your article. And to clear up any confusions: I attend a Southern Baptist church, and I have always been taught that the Trinity was three distinct persons (Father God, Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit), but One God. Of course, it’s a topic that’s always difficult for mortal beings like us to wrap our minds around, but I can honestly say that the majority of (Protestant, or at least Baptist) Christians believe that the Godhead is distinct (3-in-1, 1-in-3). Your image (obviously) and description does a great job in explaining the Trinity. However, in Protestant Christianity, the focus is usually placed on the unity of the 3, not on the separation. But to be fair, I have always been taught that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit had distinct purposes and attributes.

    From what I’ve read in your comments and posts so far, I’ve gotta say: I haven’t really found anything in your beliefs that contradicts what I believe except for your categorization of Joseph Smith (and the other Mormon leaders) as a saint and prophet and in your belief in the Book of Mormon. I have been pleasantly enlightened and encouraged by this. I must admit, this is slightly earth-shattering for me. I have always been taught that the LDS church was a “heresy” and whatnot, but from what I’ve seen, it’s really not all that different from my church except in traditions and stuff of that nature.

    I hope you guys don’t mind an “outsider” involving himself in your discussions. I am just curious now, and I can see that you all are open and genuinely searching for truth, which is something that we are all called to do as Christians.

    God bless,

  24. Isaac, you are welcome here anytime. There are no “outsiders” in Christ, as long as they are sincerely trying to learn and feel and serve and live according to their understanding. We believe God will work everything out perfectly and graciously in the end, no matter how darkly we see through our glasses here in mortality.

    So, welcome, brother.

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    I echo Ray’s welcome, and must say that it’s a pleasure to hear from someone coming from a different background with a different perspective.

    As you learn more about LDS doctrines, you doubtless will find some things that are wholly irreconcilable with mainstream Christianity, but along the way, as you’ve begun to discover, you may find that we have a lot more in common than you may have thought.

    Come back any time!

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