A friend of mine asked me to explain the doctrine of the trinity and its origins, and the nature of the Godhead, esp. according to the Bible. She asked me verbally at Bible study last week, so I will have to paraphrase her question.
Q: I have a friend that has several issues with the doctrines of the LDS church. One of them centers around your belief that God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost are each separate beings. This does not conform to the doctrine of the trinity, which he holds to be one of the basic criteria for true Christianity. Where did the doctrine of the trinity (that says that God and Jesus and the Holy Ghost are the same being) come from? What does the Bible say about it?
A: Much of the debate about the trinity begins with confusion about the divinity of Christ, and his relationship to God the Father. Much of this confusion stems from the various and sometimes opposing interpretations of scripture passages such as this one in the first chapter of the gospel of John (verses 1-2, 14):
“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. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.”
The language contained in this handful of verses has at times ignited a firestorm of doctrinal debate and strife, as various scholars and clerics struggled to decide just what it is that these verses mean.
The Oxford Companion to the Bible sheds some light on this passage: “Many… Christians…feel that the last phrase, "...the Word was God" equates Christ (the Word) with God (the Father). However, scholars of all religious stripes accept that this "Johannine Prologue", which probably formed part of an early hymn, sets up three different meanings of the word "was", meanings which aren't always easy to render into English. The first instance of "was" uses it as a statement of existence, as if to say, "the Word existed in the beginning." The second instance is a statement of relationship, which links the Word with God. The third instance is the one that is hard to translate—it is meant to indicate a "predicate," not "identity."… A "predicate" statement in English would be something like "George Washington is the United States." This clearly does not mean that the political entitity, the United States, is one and the same as a man named George Washington, but it identifies George Washington with the United States in an intimate way.” (Metzger, Bruce M.; Coogan, Michael D.; editors. The Oxford Companion to the Bible, [Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993]: 782-3. Author of entry: Daniel N. Schowalter, Assoc. Prof., Dept. of Religion, Carthage College, Kenosha, Wisconsin).
The (presumably) well meaning clerics and scribes that worked to glean an understanding of this and other scripture passages were forced to labor without the guiding light of revelation, which had ceased with the death of the apostles. If the church organization of former days had persisted, under the direction and inspiration of Christ through His prophets and apostles, there would have been no cause for debate and misunderstanding, because such men held the authority to seek guidance directly from the Lord on such questions. In that light, I feel that it would be instructive to examine the beliefs and doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ as they were taught and understood during the age of revelation, and also almost immediately after the death of the apostles.
The Concept of the Trinity was NOT taught or believed by the Earliest Christians
Even though the notion of the trinity is considered one of the fundamental tenets of mainstream Christianity today, it was not universally taught or believed in the early church until well after the time of Constantine. In fact, as you trace the basic doctrines and tenets of belief of the church back to the time of the apostles you will find that the Trinitarian position disappears entirely. In fact, the doctrine of the trinity did not become an official tenet of Christianity until at least the 4th century A.D. I will endeavor to show that most of the earliest Saints believed in the Godhead, and therefore would be rejected as “true Christians” by the Trinitarian standards of many of today’s Christians.
As for the doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ in these the Latter days concerning the nature of God and the Godhead, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of The quorum of The Twelve Apostles stated emphatically:
“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”, Conference Report, October 2007)
In the 1890 edition of Hitchcock’s New and Complete Analysis of the Holy Bible (which consists of “the whole of the Old and New Testaments arranged according to subjects”), the editor Professor Roswell D. Hitchcock D.D., LL.D. seeks to establish the doctrine of the Trinity by collecting every last verse on the subject under one heading. Unfortunately for Dr. Hitchcock, a staunch Trinitarian, the best he can manage after an exhaustive catalog of each and every verse in the whole Bible are these vague and unsatisfying categorizations under the heading: “The Trinity: …Foreshadowed; …Hinted at; …Implied”. Elder Jeffrey R Holland demonstrated just how tenuous the Biblical basis for the Trinity actually is when he said:
“Indeed, no less a source than the stalwart Harper’s Bible Dictionary records that “the formal doctrine of the Trinity as it was defined by the great church councils of the fourth and fifth centuries is not to be found in the [New Testament]” (Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Only True God and Jesus Christ Whom He Hath Sent”, Conference Report, October 2007).
The Oxford Companion to the Bible elaborates: “Because the Trinity is such an important part of later Christian doctrine, it is striking that the term does not appear in the New Testament. Likewise, the developed concept of three coequal partners in the Godhead found in later creedal formulations cannot be clearly detected within the confines of the canon….While the New Testament writers say a great deal about God, Jesus, and the Spirit of each, no New Testament writer expounds on the relationship among the three in the detail that later Christian writers do.” (Metzger, Bruce M.; Coogan, Michael D.; editors. The Oxford Companion to the Bible, [Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993]: 782-3. Author of entry: Daniel N. Schowalter, Assoc. Prof., Dept. of Religion, Carthage College, Kenosha, Wisconsin).
In an example of the discord between modern Christian thought, and early Christian teachings, Professor Hitchcock lists Genesis 1:26 as foreshadowing the doctrine of the Trinity, and yet this interpretation is not in harmony with that of the early Christian Fathers. In fact Tertullian (A.D. 160-220), used the same scripture as evidence that God and Christ are indeed separate and distinct beings: “ I ask you how it is possible for a Being who is merely and absolutely One and Singular, to speak in plural phrase, saying, ‘Let us make man in our own image and after our own likeness’; whereas He ought to have said, ‘Let me make man in my own image, and after my own likeness’, as being a unique and Singular Being?” If God and Christ are one being, why does God speak in the plural?
Rather than straining for the interpretation of semantics and grammar, as Professor Hitchcock and Tertullian both found themselves forced to do, let us examine exactly what the Bible does say concerning the physical and numerical nature of God, and the Godhead.
In the account of Christ’s baptism in the waters of Jordan found in Matthew 3:16-17, we receive a significant glimpse into the nature of the Godhead
“And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
Where was Jesus? He had just come out of the water. Where was the Holy Ghost? It rested upon him in form like unto a dove. Where was God The Father? He was speaking from heaven. Unless Jesus was the world’s best ventriloquist, this is a perfect example of the separate and distinct nature of God, Jesus Christ, and The Holy Ghost. In yet another example of the same dynamic, God made a similar declaration from heaven concerning his son when Christ was transfigured before Peter, James, and John on the mount of transfiguration in Matthew 17:1-5.
Another important illustration of the physical and numerical distinction between the members of the Godhead from the Bible is the vision that came to Stephen as he was being stoned to death in Acts 7:55-57:
“But he [Stephen], being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.” I feel that it is important to point out that God was not standing on his own right hand (that seems both awkward and painful, not to mention pointless and inexplicable), but rather that Christ was standing beside His Father in a position of favor and Glory (see Hebrews 1:1-3 for an example of this) while the Holy Ghost abode within Stephen.
When Christ knelt in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane he prayed “Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.” (Luke 22:42). Why would Christ surrender himself to a will that appears to supersede His own unless that will belongs to His God and Father? It seems unlikely bordering on the ridiculous that Christ would bother to pray to himself in this moment. The same holds true for His exclamation while on the cross: “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
“With these New Testament sources and more (See, for example, John 12:27–30; John 14:26; Romans 8:34; Hebrews 1:1–3) ringing in our ears, it may be redundant to ask what Jesus meant when He said, “The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do.” (John 5:19; see also John 14:10) On another occasion He said, “I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me.” (John 6:38) Of His antagonists He said, “[They have] . . . seen and hated both me and my Father.” ( John 15:24) And there is, of course, that always deferential subordination to His Father that had Jesus say, “Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God.” (Matthew 19:17) “My father is greater than I."(John 14:28)" (Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Only True God and Jesus Christ Whom He Hath Sent”, Conference Report, October 2007)
To take another approach, it might be helpful to remember the many times that Christ is declared to be the “Only Begotten” of the Father. (Five times by John: 4 times in his Gospel (most notably in John 3:16) and once in 1 John 4, and once by Paul in Hebrews 11:17.
Dictionary.com defines the word begotten as the following:
–verb (used with object),be·got or (Archaic ) be·gat; be·got·ten or be·got; be·get·ting.
1.(esp. of a male parent) to procreate or generate (offspring).
In the language of the Bible, it would be appropriate to say that God “begat” Christ. Along these same lines Justin Martyr (A.D. 110-165) concluded “that the scripture has declared that this Offspring was begotten by the Father before all things created; and that which is begotten is numerically distinct from that which begets.” On this same subject Dionysius of Alexandria declared further that: “Parents are absolutely distinguished from their children by the fact alone that they themselves are not their children.” That seems like stating the obvious, but it had to be said.
“God and Christ are literally a Father and a Son—separate, distinct, individual beings who are wholly unified in Their purpose.” (Robert D. Hales, “Eternal Life—to Know Our Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ,” Ensign, Nov. 2014).
Who or What is The Holy Ghost?
What about the Holy Ghost? If the Holy Ghost is a separate and distinct being from God the Father and Jesus Christ, then who or what is he? President Gordon B. Hinckley had this to say concerning the Holy Ghost as a member of the Godhead:
“I believe in the Holy Ghost as a personage of spirit who occupies a place with the Father and the Son, these three comprising the divine Godhead. The importance of that place is made clear from the words of the Lord, who said:
“All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men.
“And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come” (Matt. 12:31–32).
That the Holy Ghost was recognized in ancient times as a member of the Godhead is evident from the conversation between Peter and Ananias when the latter held back a part of the price received from the sale of a piece of land.
“Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost … ? Thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God” (Acts 5:3–4).
The Holy Ghost stands as the third member of the Godhead, the Comforter promised by the Savior who would teach His followers all things and bring all things to their remembrance, whatsoever He had said unto them (see John 14:26)." (Gordon B. Hinckley, “In These Three I Believe,” Ensign, Jul 2006, 2–8)
Tad A. Callister cites many of the same scriptures to demonstrate the “separateness of the Son and the Holy Ghost and…the distinction of the Holy Ghost as a god. If the Son is the same as the Holy Ghost, why is it that the man who speaks “a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him” (Matthew 12:32)? If they are one and the same, why would there be different consequences for the same sin? There is no question that the Holy Ghost is also a God in his own right, as is evidenced by the reprimand of Peter to Ananias: “Why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost….Thou hast not lied to men, but unto God” (Acts 5:3-4).” (Tad A. Callister, The Inevitable Apostasy, p.109).
How God the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost are One
As mentioned before, there has been much confusion about Christ’s status as a God, and even his seperateness from God because of scripture passages such as John 1:1. Under the heading of “Christ’s Divinity”, Dr. Hitchcock also lists such scriptures as John 10:30 in which Christ declares “I and my Father are one.” He also lists John 14:9-11 in which Christ answers Philip’s request to see God:
“Jesus saith unto him, 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, Shew 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: or else believe me for the very works' sake.”
These are some of the main passages of scripture that have been the source of a fair amount of confusion among certain individuals and groups for hundreds of years. Because these people did not understand the scriptures, they fell into error, and strife concerning the precise nature of God. Many have erroneously cited these passages in order that they might prove the doctrine of the trinity. Fortunately, Christ himself explained precisely in what way the Father and the Son are one when He made His great intercessory prayer (in John 17:11, 20-21):
“And now I am no more in the world, but these [the apostles] 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. Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; 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.”
Unless Christ is praying that the apostles might somehow be combined into some kind of amorphous being that consists of 12 beings, and yet somehow is only one being (and I think it’s clear that he is not), then this is a beautiful illustration of how the Godhead is composed of separate individuals who are perfectly “united in purpose, in manner, in testimony, in mission”, and also united in a “godly sense of mercy and love, justice and grace, patience, [and] forgiveness”. It is in this sense of oneness that Christ prays that his apostles, and indeed all believers, will be united.
This view of the relationship between the members of the Godhead was also held by many of the early Christian fathers. Origen (A.D. 185-254), in his treatise “Against Celsus”, gives an equally compelling explanation of the previously mentioned passages (John 10:30 and 14:9-11). He begins by quoting an assertion made by a heretic named Celsus, and then refutes it using the above mentioned verses along with Acts 4:32 as an example of oneness as it applies to the Godhead:
“They pay excessive reverence to one who has but lately appeared among men [Christ], and they think it no offence against God if they also worship his servant.” To this we reply, that if Celsus had known the saying, “I and my Father are one,”…he would not have supposed that we worship any other besides Him who is the Supreme God. “For,”says He, “My Father is in Me, and I in Him.” And if any should from these words be afraid of our going over to the side of those who deny that the Father and the Son are two personages, let him weigh this passage, “And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and one soul,” that he may understand the meaning of the saying, “I and my Father are one.”…We worship therefore, the Father of truth, and the Son, who is the truth; and these, while they are two, considered as persons or subsistences, are one in unity of thought, in harmony and in identity of will.” (Origen, Against Celsus 5:39, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 4:643, in Where Have All the Prophets Gone?, 156)
The prophet Joseph Smith also addressed the confusion over the nature of the Godhead that he saw in his day:
“There is much said about God and the Godhead….The teachers of the day say that the father is God, the Son is God, and the holy Ghost is God, and they are all in one body and one God. Jesus prayed that those that the Father had given him out of the world might be made one in them, as they were one…The scripture says, ‘I and my Father are one’, and again that the Father, Son and Holy Ghost are one, and these three agree in the same thing [see 1 John 5:7-8]. So did the Savior pray to the Father, ‘I pray not for the world, but for those whom ye gave me out of the world, that we might be one,’ or to say, be of one mind in the unity of the faith [see john 17:9,11]. But everyone being a different or separate person, so are God and Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost separate persons, but they all agree in one or the selfsame thing….I have always declared God to be a distinct personage, Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, and that the Holy Ghost was a distinct personage and a spirit: and these three constitute three distinct personages and three Gods.” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, 42)
How is it that God, Christ, and even the Holy Ghost can each be Gods in their own right, without detracting from the supremacy of God the father?
Hyppolytus explains: “The Father decrees, the Word executes, and the Son is manifested, through [the Holy Ghost] whom the Father is believed on…It is the Father who commands, and the Son who obeys. And the Holy Spirit who gives understanding: The Father who is above all, The Son who is through all, and the Holy Spirit who is in all.”
Joseph Smith taught something similar: “[It is] the province of the Father to preside as the Chief or President, Jesus as the mediator, and the Holy Ghost as the Testator or Witness.” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, 42)
“Accordingly, when we pray, we address our prayer to God the Father (Matthew 6:9). Our prayers are answered through Jesus Christ, the Son, our intercessor [John 14:6,13-14], through the ministration of the Holy Ghost, who is a spirit. Thus, the Godhead operates in perfect harmony, one with the other, as One Eternal God in divine purpose.” (Scott R. Petersen, Where have all the prophets gone?, 169)
How many Gods do we worship?
When I was on my mission, I met many to people who maintained that Mormons could not be Christians because we reject the dogmatic tenet of the trinity. Mormons, like the early Christians and the apostles, believe in three separate and distinct Gods that form the Godhead, and so I would occasionally be accused of promulgating a form of paganism: “If you believe that God, Jesus Christ, and The Holy Ghost are each separate beings, do you also believe that Christ is divine? If so, then how do you reconcile the fact that God the Father is God, while at the same time you claim that Jesus Christ is also God (and don’t forget the Holy Ghost is God too)? Aren’t you essentially advocating polytheism (the worship of more than one God)?” This was usually where we were unable to come to an understanding. Many people today, like many people throughout the ages who have been blinded by “the philosophies of men”, cannot seem to wrap their minds around the idea of three separate and distinct Gods (who act as one) at the head of Christianity. To them it seems like reverting to the days of paganism with the large and colorful pantheons of Gods and Goddesses that populate the mythologies of such ancient religions. The idea of such a return is naturally repugnant to them. To such people Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has this to say:
“To acknowledge the scriptural evidence that otherwise perfectly united members of the Godhead are nevertheless separate and distinct beings is not to be guilty of polytheism; it is, rather, part of the great revelation Jesus came to deliver concerning the nature of divine beings. Perhaps the Apostle Paul said it best: “Christ Jesus . . . being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God.” (Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Only True God and Jesus Christ Whom He Hath Sent”, Conference Report, October 2007)
In their defense, questions such as these have confounded theologians and scholars within Christianity for centuries. The confusion arose when people began to try to define and systematize the divine nature of Jesus Christ, especially in relation to that of God the Father, without the aid of divine revelation. This was a problem because, as the age of revelation receded into the past, people’s understanding of the gospel became tainted by the sophistry of Greek philosophy and thought. “Certain key Greek Philosophers, such as Plato, taught there was only one cause to all being and that cause was God. He wrote, ‘God is the absolute idea, …the first and the final cause of all being, and consequently superior and anterior to being itself.’ From this the conclusion was reached that all other beings must be subordinate to the original cause and, thus, there could exist only one God. This single dogma had a powerful influence on Christian thinking…This formed the basis of the theological battle for several centuries…How did the doctrine of the Godhead become entwined in such a web of inconsistencies? The church leaders were faced with two irreconcilable conclusions-three gods on the one hand, as taught by the scriptures, but only one God on the other, as taught by the philosophers.” (Tad A. Callister, The Inevitable Apostasy, p.111, 113).
The Oxford Companion to the Bible explains that Christianity had essentially painted itself into a dogmatic corner, and how the Christian clerics tried to use the doctrine of the trinity to reason their way back out again:
“Later believers systematized the diverse references to God, Jesus, and the Spirit found in the New Testament in order to fight against heretical tendencies of how the three are related. Elaboration on the concept of a Trinity also serves to defend the church against charges of di- or tritheism. Since the Christians have come to worship Jesus as a god (Pliny, "Epistles" 96.7), how can they claim to be continuing the monotheistic tradition of the God of Israel? Various answers are suggested, debated, and rejected as heretical, but the idea of a Trinity—one God subsisting in three persons and one substance—ultimately prevails.” (Metzger, Bruce M.; Coogan, Michael D.; editors. The Oxford Companion to the Bible, [Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993]: 782-3. Author of entry: Daniel N. Schowalter, Assoc. Prof., Dept. of Religion, Carthage College, Kenosha, Wisconsin)
The Creeds and Councils that gave us the Notion of the Trinity
It was this atmosphere of confusion and contention that gave rise to the circumstances that prompted the emperor Constantine to convene the first Council of Nicea in June of 325 A.D. It all began in A.D. 318. In Alexandria there was a popular ecclesiastical leader (a presbyter-a leader of a smaller congregation on the outskirts of Alexandria) named Arius who believed (and taught) that because the Son was begotten by the Father (who he held to be “without beginning”), he must be just one of God’s many creations (albeit greater than the others). He reasoned that if Christ had to be created by God then He could not possibly be equal to God. He therefore maintained that Christ was of a lesser order of divinity. Arius also held that God and Christ, as well as the Holy Ghost, are separate beings, but that because Christ is subservient to God (in his view) that meant that there is only one God, namely God the Father.
The Bishop of Alexandria, a man named Alexander, was bitterly opposed to Arius and his teachings. He and his followers (among whom the deacon Athanasius would emerge as a leader) held that Christ is eternal and divine, and therefore co-equal with God. This meant that Christ had the same power as God. “This presented a deep theological problem-were there two Gods or one God?” (Tad A. Callister, The Inevitable Apostasy, p.112) I feel that I should point out that Alexander and Athanasius were both staunch defenders of the notion of the trinity, and that Alexander’s views on the subject were one of the main contributing factors that led Arius to depart from what Alexander felt was orthodoxy.
After seven years of bitter infighting between the opposing groups, during which many bishops across Christendom were dragged into the fray, the emperor Constantine chose to intervene. Constantine had recently reunited the Roman Empire under one throne after decades of division, disorganization, and decentralization. A pragmatic leader, Constantine had marked Christianity as the new faith of the realm, and so had elected to establish it as the state religion. Constantine had little use for internecine bickering and argument over dogma in his new church, and soon moved to consolidate all Christian thought and belief into one comprehensive creed in the name of unity and uniformity. Initially Constantine sent his ecclesiastical advisor Hosius (who was also bishop of Cordova) to examine both sides and settle the matter. Hosius eventually sided with Alexander and Athanasius, and convened a small council of his own in Antioch during which Hosius had several of Alexander’s opponents excommunicated, including the great ecclesiastical historian Eusebius, who was also the bishop of Caesarea in the Holy Land. (Eusebius would be reinstated at the council of Nicea.) Constantine was dissatisfied with the ruling at Antioch, and so he convened a greater council at Nicea (in what is now modern day Turkey) in June of 325, at which he personally presided.
This council at Nicea was made up of more than 300 bishops from various parts the Christian world (although most of them were from the eastern regions of the Empire). These “bishops spent four weeks in debate on the true divinity and personality of the Son of God and the equality of Christ with God before they could become sufficiently united to make a public declaration on the matter.” (LeGrand Richards, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, 2:13-14)
“Motivated by the spirit of compromise and political expediency, someone at the council proposed that omoousios [or homoousios as we would pronounce it] (two Greek words combined meaning “same substance”) be used to describe the relationship between the Son and the Father. In essence, they were deemed to be consubstantial, or of the same substance. It mattered not that such a word was never used in the scriptures or by the early Christian writers; it suited the exigencies of the moment. The concept of consubstantiality was ambiguous enough that the vast majority of attending bishops were willing to accept it. It could mean that God and Jesus were equal (that is, having the same substance) but at the same time two persons, because one cannot be consubstantial with himself” (Tad A. Callister, The Inevitable Apostasy, p.112)
The council voted to issue this decree that resoundingly rejected and condemned the Arian heresy, and in it they declared:
“We believe in one God, the Father, Almighty, the maker of all things visible and invisible; And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only-begotten, (that is) of the substance of the Father; God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God; begotten, not made; of the same substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; that are in heaven and that are in earth: who for us men, and for our salvation, descended and was incarnate, and became man; suffered and rose again the third day, ascended into the heavens and will come to judge the living and the dead; and in the Holy Spirit. But those who say there was a time when He was not, and that he was not before he was begotten, and that he was made out of nothing, or affirm that he is of any other substance or essence, or that the Son of God was created, and mutable, or changeable, the Catholic Church doth pronounce accursed.”
As you can see, the Bishops at Nicea did not address the doctrine of the trinity as directly (or as satisfactorily) as is commonly believed today.
“Although the council’s decision was nearly unanimous, it was marred by ambiguity. Many of the delegates understood differently the precise meaning “of one substance,” homoousios, which affirms “identity”; yet it also implies that that the Father and the Son are the “same.” To some the term indicated a personal or distinct identity, while to many others it referred to a much broader, generic identity.” (Scott R. Petersen, Where have all the prophets gone?, 158)
This is partly because they (the bishops that issued the creed) were more concerned with denouncing Arianism than they were in establishing the precise nature of the trinity, but it is also due to the fact that by inserting the term homoousios they hoped to keep their language vague enough to please everyone. Naturally, it did not actually please everyone, least of all the Arians. Athanasius, in his book De Decretis or Defence of the Nicene Definition, records the complaint of the dissatisfied Arians (and others) concerning the language of the Nicene creed:
“Why did the Fathers at Nicaea use terms not in Scripture, `Of the essence' [ousios] and `One in essence? [homoousios]?”
Dionysius of Alexandria, while declaring his support of the Trinitarian doctrine established at Nicea, admitted that these terms do not occur anywhere in scripture.
"And I have written in another letter a refutation of the false charge they bring against me, that I deny that Christ was one in essence with God. For though I say that I have not found this term anywhere in Holy Scripture, yet my remarks which follow, and which they have not noticed, are not inconsistent with that belief.” (De Decretis or Defence of the Nicene Definition, 5:25)
“It is not clear what the council intended to teach by the phrase “from the substance (or essence) [ousia] of the Father” and homoousios with the Father. Both were unscriptural and employed with some reluctance. The latter phrase was placed in the creed by the emperor Constantine…One of the assets of the word homoousios-and this led to its acceptance-was that different groups were able to interpret it in ways compatible with their own theology. As far as Constantine was concerned, this was agreeable.” (William Rusch, Trinitarian Controversy, 19-20, in Where Have All the Prophets Gone?,158)
“Thus, matters of doctrine were negotiated in the same manner as political disputes.” (Scott R. Petersen, Where have all the prophets gone?, 158)
“What emerged from the heated contentions of churchmen, philosophers, and ecclesiastical dignitaries came to be known (after another 125 years and three more major councils) as the Nicene Creed, with later reformulations such as the Athanasian Creed.” (Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Only True God and Jesus Christ Whom He Hath Sent”, Conference Report, October 2007)
Centuries passed, Dogma and belief shifted like sand in the winds of apostasy, and many subsequent councils were held and many creeds were issued. The most pertinent of these was the Athanasian creed which was unofficially adopted by the church by at least the fifth century. It was basically “an attempt by man, without the aid of revelation, to further elaborate on the Nature of God.” (Tad A. Callister, The Inevitable Apostasy, p.112) This creed was named for Athanasius, the deacon of Alexander, who had been one of the loudest voices in favor of the trinity at Nicea. Athanasius later succeeded Alexander as Bishop of Alexandria. In the years after Nicea, Athanasius became known as a staunch defender of Nicene theology, and a champion of Trinitarian dogma. Athanasius did much to develop and refine the formula introduced at Nicea, especially when it came to the nature of the Holy Ghost, about which the Nicene council had said very little. The Athanasian creed was named for him because Christian tradition attributed its authorship to him. Today however, it is almost universally held by scholars that Athanasius was not the author, but in any case the name stuck. By the sixth century the so-called Athanasian “creed”, had become the official doctrine of the church for no better reason than that it was popular. The creed once again employs the phrase homoousios, which I want to reiterate does not appear anywhere in the Bible. The first half of the Athanasian creed deals with the nature of the trinity:
“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 Spirit. But the godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is all one, the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet they are not three eternals, but one Eternal. As also there are not three incomprehensibles, nor three uncreated, but one Uncreated, and one Incomprehensible. So likewise the Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty, and the Holy Spirit Almighty. And yet they are not three almighties, but one Almighty. So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. And yet they are not three gods, but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Spirit Lord. And yet not three lords, but one Lord. For as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge each Person by Himself to be both God and Lord, so we are also forbidden by the catholic religion to say that there are 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 Spirit is of the Father, neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three fathers; one Son, not three sons; one Holy Spirit, not three holy spirits. And in the Trinity none is before or after another; none is greater or less than another, but all 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 think thus of the Trinity.” (Note that catholic is in lower case, meaning universal, as this creed predates the official supremacy of Rome in the church).
Speaking in defense of the LDS Church’s rejection of the dogma contained within the creeds, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland had this to say: “These various evolutions and iterations of creeds—and others to come over the centuries—declared the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost to be abstract, absolute, transcendent, immanent, consubstantial, coeternal, and unknowable, without body, parts, or passions and dwelling outside space and time. In such creeds all three members are separate persons, but they are a single being, the oft-noted “mystery of the trinity.” They are three distinct persons, yet not three Gods but one. All three persons are incomprehensible, yet it is one God who is incomprehensible.
We agree with our critics on at least that point—that such a formulation for divinity is truly incomprehensible. With such a confusing definition of God being imposed upon the church, little wonder that a fourth-century monk cried out, “Woe is me! They have taken my God away from me, . . . and I know not whom to adore or to address.” How are we to trust, love, worship, to say nothing of strive to be like, One who is incomprehensible and unknowable? What of Jesus’s prayer to His Father in Heaven that “this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent”?
In describing the Athanasian Creed, author Tad A. Callister was moved to declare that “The final product was a litany of contradictions…The simple and sublime truth about God had become a total mystery. If one doubts the authenticity of such an assertion, he merely needs to read the language of the creed and then attempt to explain it to another in his own words. Almost always, after going through a line of convoluted reasoning, the participant will end by saying “it is a mystery.” (Tad A. Callister, The Inevitable Apostasy, p.112-113)
Note that the author of the creed has chosen to strengthen the language concerning the orthodoxy of trinitarianism by making such a belief a requirement for salvation. However, if Eternal Life depends on our knowing “the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom [He] hast sent.” (John17:3) then the nature of God should not be an incomprehensible mystery, because if it is, then we are all damned.
Joseph Smith had much to say on this subject:
“It is the first principle of the gospel to know for a certainty the character of God” (History of the Church, 6:305).
“My first object is to find out the character of the only wise and true God, and what kind of being He is…If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves…If a man does not know God…if he will search diligently his own heart…he will realize that he has not eternal life; for there can be eternal life on no other principle.
…Having a knowledge of God, we begin to know how to approach him, and how to ask so as to receive an answer. When we understand the character of God, and know how to come to Him, He begins to unfold the heavens to us, and to tell us all about it. (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, 40-41)
Speaking once again about the nature of God, Joseph Smith declares: “Could you gaze into heaven five minutes, you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject.” (History of the Church, 4:50)
Belief in the Trinity as a Criteria for Christianity?
In my many discussions with others on the subject of religion, I have encountered many people who have accused me of being a member of a non-Christian cult, because I did not accept the trinity. It is usually not long after this accusation is leveled at me that I am informed that I will be going to hell. While it matters very little to me what anyone other than Christ thinks of my relative Christianity, it does irritate me that I am labeled as damned according to someone else's arbitrary definition of what it means to be Christian. If I have to be damned, I would rather not be damned by something that I consider to be as half-baked and ridiculous as a fourth or fifth century political compromise wrapped up in pseudo-biblical religious dogma.
“It is not our purpose to demean any person’s belief nor the doctrine of any religion. We extend to all the same respect for their doctrine that we are asking for ours. (That, too, is an article of our faith.) But if one says we are not Christians because we do not hold a fourth- or fifth-century view of the Godhead, then what of those first Christian Saints, many of whom were eyewitnesses of the living Christ, who did not hold such a view either? (Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Only True God and Jesus Christ Whom He Hath Sent”, Conference Report, October 2007)
In short, I do not believe that you must accept the doctrine of the trinity to believe in God, or to be a true Christian in any way that matters. Additionally, I don't think that anyone will go to hell based solely on their understanding of, or belief concerning, the nature of God. In response to those who through the years have questioned my Christianity, I wish to declare that God the Father does exist, and that he sent his Son to earth as our Savior and Redeemer, to save us from our sins. I know that Jesus was resurrected from the dead almost two thousand years ago, and that He lives today. I know that it is only through the “merits, and mercy, and grace” (see 2 Nephi 2:6-8) of the Savior Jesus Christ that we can return to the presence of God and so gain eternal life.
Regardless of your religious background, or your views concerning the nature of deity, I hope that you are inspired to turn to the scriptures, and to God in prayer, to find out more concerning this subject. Our Heavenly Father will reveal himself to you, through the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. He knows you and loves you, and wants you to know him and His son Jesus Christ, whom he has sent. As you grow closer to the Lord, I promise that you will progress toward obtaining eternal life, which is the greatest gift that God has to give to his children. As James said (in James 4:8): "Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you."