Ah, the Trinity! As far as doctrines go, is there anything that has caused more confusion and frustration for both Mormons seeking to understand Christian doctrine, as well as Christians trying to explain it to Mormons? Well, here's our attempt to help out a little.
The Big Myth about the Trinity
"The Trinity was concocted at the council of Nicea in the Third Century because of religious pressure and reflects the pagan influences of Greece and Rome." Mormons--as well as many other sects that reject the Trinity--often point to this doctrine this as part of a "falling away" or apostasy in the early Church, in which they allege many false doctrines were introduced.
In reality, the opposite is true. The Trinity doctrine was a response to heresy--erroneous, unbiblical teachings that were trying to work their way into the early church--namely the teaching that Jesus was not God. It was heretical because it contradicts what the Bible says!
So why does the Trinity always get in the way? What is the big hang-up with the Trinity, anyway? And why is it even important? We'll take a look at these questions.
First of all, we understand that it's not an easy concept. Sure, you can state it easily enough in a sentence or two, but wrapping our minds around the implications of it is no small task! But even with our imperfect understanding, the Trinity reveals something of God's awesome glory and beauty. And it is critical to understanding the power of the gospel.
Common Challenges to the Trinity
"Well if Jesus is God, who is he praying to all those times? Is he just talking to himself?" For example, we read in Matthew 26:39, where in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prays to the Father saying, "Not my will, but thy will be done." It seems to imply some kind of disparity between the Father and Jesus.
Another one that comes up a lot is Acts chapter 7. As Stephen is being stoned, he looks into the sky and sees Jesus “standing on the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55-56). Doesn't this mean that they are separate beings?
There are a number of other similar examples. God's voice calls out from the sky at Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:17). Jesus declares that the Father is greater than him (John 14:28).
To understand why these verses, and others like them, don't cause problems for Christians, we must look at the basic differences between the Mormon and the Christian understanding of Who God Is at an even more fundamental level.
A Lesser God?
If we're dealing with the God of Mormonism, we're talking about someone who has flesh and bones, who was once presumably a fallen mortal being like any of us. Someone who eventually worked his way to godhood and had many spirit children, including Jesus, Lucifer, you, and me. We're talking about a God who wasn't always God. We're talking about a Father who wasn't always a Father. We're talking about a God that is not all-powerful; who can't be everywhere at once; who is continuing to grow and evolve--subject to the laws of eternal progression, which he neither authors nor controls. (And if you personally disagree with this, don't take it up with us...take it up with Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and other LDS leaders and apostles who taught this as doctrine.)
If this is the God that we're talking about, then yes, if you read some of those verses, you might come away thinking that God the Father is one being, that Jesus is a another being, and that they are separate beings. After all, in Mormonism, God is just an exalted man, and so is Jesus. All this "three-in-one" business just doesn't make sense at all, because it's impossible, it's paradoxical, and it's just plain strange. Why would anyone even want to concoct such a bizarre scheme to describe God?
An Infinite God we can know!
But the God of the Bible is something altogether different from God as taught in Mormonism. He is an infinite, all-powerful, omni-present and unfathomable God—the God who spoke the Heavens and the Earth--and our very substance--into existence. It's downright presumptuous to think we could fully wrap our minds around his nature. After all, the sum of all human knowledge just barely scratches the surface of understanding the creation...how could we possibly have a full understanding of the Creator? His full nature is so far beyond anything that human language or knowledge could ever understand. But...in spite of this, God wants to be known. So He has revealed himself to us in ways that we, despite our limitated abilities, can grasp.
With that in mind, we know that God could exist both as the Father in Heaven, and at the same time walking on Earth as the Son with His disciples. That isn't really a problem, if He is truly infinite and all-powerful, and able to do things that may appear paradoxical to our limited perspective. After all, "my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts." (Isaiah 55:8-9). Nothing is impossible with God. Therefore the idea that God can be three persons, and at the same time one being is not an obstacle for an infinite, eternal God. Difficult to grasp in human terms? Sure. But we don't worship a God who is a human like us. He's not bound by the things that constrain us. If he were, would he really be worthy of worship?
This is why the doctrine of the Trinity does not cause biblically-minded people to lose sleep. If we accept the truth of the Bible, and its declaration of who God is, the Trinity is an inescapable conclusion.
The Trinity--a Biblical Idea
Often you will hear, "The word 'Trinity' does not appear in the Bible." No, it doesn't, but the doctrine does. There is no one verse that declares the truth of the Trinity, but rather, it is the distillation of all that the Bible says about God's being and nature. So the Trinity is nothing more and nothing less than the reconciliation of four biblical declarations:
1. There is only One God.
2. The Father is God.
3. The Holy Spirit is God.
4. Jesus is God.
Let's take a closer look!
1. There is only one God.
The Bible leaves no room for more than one God. He is eternal--he has always been God, from the very beginning, over all things. Here are just a few of the verses that show this:
Isaiah 43:10: You are my witnesses, says the LORD, and my servant whom I have chosen: that you may know and believe me, and understand that I am he: before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me.
Deuteronomy 6:4: Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.
Isaiah 44:6: This is what the LORD says—Israel's King and Redeemer, the LORD Almighty: I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God.
2 Samuel 7:22: How great you are, O Sovereign LORD! There is no one like you, and there is no God but you,
Psalm 86:10: For you are great and do marvelous deeds; you alone are God.
The Bible doesn't allow for two gods, three gods, a multiplicity of gods, or even that God is just "the only God with whom we have to do." Yes, there are references to "gods" in the Bible, as many Mormons are quick to point out; but if you take these verses in context (for instance, references to the pagan gods, or in rhetorical statements), nowhere do you get the idea that God shares his divine nature with anyone.
2. The Father is God.
Truth be told, this is usually not disputed much. Anti-trinitarians usually approach it one of two ways: they will suggest that the Father is God, but one of several or many gods, which may include Jesus and the Holy Spirit; or they may say that the Father alone is God, and deny that Jesus and the Holy Spirit share in that divine nature. Nevertheless, the Bible makes it clear that God the Father is God:
3. The Holy Spirit is God.
Ephesians 4:6: One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.
Malachi 2:10: Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us?
Throughout scripture, the Holy Spirit (or Holy Ghost; the terms are interchangeable) is given full, equal status as God. Mormonism tends to separate the two terms, calling the "Holy Spirit" a representation of the spiritual presence of Heavenly Father, while the "Holy Ghost" is a separate entity and member of the Godhead. However, the Bible makes no such distinction. What is clear is that the Holy Spirit is God:
Acts 5:3-4: Then Peter said, "Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit....You have not lied to men but to God."
1 Corinthians 12:4-6: There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.
Concerning Jesus' incarnation, his conception was attributed to the Holy Spirit, (Luke 1:35, Matthew 1:20) and so he was the Son of God. If the Holy Spirit were not God, it would have been more accurate to call Jesus the Son of the Holy Spirit.
4. Jesus is God.
Ah, now we get to the most hotly debated point of the Trinity--the nature and divinity of Jesus! This is where the rubber meets the road. Is he a separate God? A sub-god? A demi-god? Or just a man, exalted or otherwise?
The Bible declares him to be...God. Pure and simple.
Colossians 2:9: For in him [Jesus] dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.
1 Timothy 3:16: And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.
John 20:28: Thomas said to him [Jesus], "My Lord and my God!"
Throughout the Bible, Jesus is identified as being one with the Father. Not simply one in purpose, a qualifier many Mormons try and add. Jesus doesn't provide us with any such qualifier.
John 10:30: [Jesus said] "I and the Father are one."
John 14:9: Jesus answered: "Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'?
Isaiah 9:6: For to us a child is born, to us a son is given...And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
The apostle John goes to great lengths to highlight this remarkable aspect of God's nature.
John 1:1: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
John 1:18: No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known.
John's unusual language here expresses both the distinctiveness and the one-ness of the Father and Jesus--portrayed as being with and beside one another. They are in relationship with one another as real persons. This mystery is the essence of the Trinity. In fact, this relational aspect between the persons of the Trinity are an important part of of what makes God...well, God. It is often said that "God is love" (1 John 4:8). It is the love that exists among the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit that was the first "love" and it is from this love relationship that all true love comes.
Sometimes people get hung up on the "Father" and "Son" language, because in our physical human experience, this refers specifically to procreation and biology, wherein a father exists before his son, and doesn't even become a "father" until he produces offspring. But the Fatherhood of God and the Sonship of Jesus aren't like this. Our earthly ideas of "father" and "son" with their limitations of space, time, and biology are at best a faint and imperfect shadow of the real and complete meaning of "Father" and "Son" as represented in God's being; much in the same way our being created in God's image is only a tiny glimpse of God's true nature.
As for the implication that Jesus was distinct from and even subordinate to the Father, the doctrine of the Trinity would say, "Yes, and that's the point!" It's the miracle of the incarnation--God becoming flesh. Taking on our humanity. The Creator entering his creation as one of us. Out of His love for us, the Almighty God, Creator and King of the Universe, became a man--and in so doing, he became an example of humility and servanthood that we might know him, follow him, and be in vital relationship with him. Jesus illustrates a complete and total submission to God:
Philippians 2:5-7: Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
The Mormon concept of becoming "like Jesus" (that is, becoming a god like Jesus) is quite different from the Biblical picture of becoming "like Jesus" (that is, conforming to His character, values, and will).
If Jesus were not the One True God Himself, then the true power of the gospel of our salvation to eternal life would be entirely lost. For only God can do what Jesus claims to have done on our behalf. The Jesus of Mormonism cannot accomplish this, because he is an exalted man--a good guy, to be sure, but not the surpeme, all-powerful authority over all things. The Mormon Jesus is said to open the way to eternal life through his sacrifice...but the biblical Jesus is the way to eternal life (John 14:6).
The Mormon Jesus makes salvation possible, but beyond that, that the rest is up to us. The Biblical Jesus is our salvation, and we can't contribute anything to it.
The biblical Gospel says it can't be up to us, because it's far too great and impossible a thing for us to think we can accomplish. To even insinuate that we could earn it or deserve it, even in part, is the height of arrogance...and blasphemy. Jesus himself is our eternal life. His work accomplished it for us. And no one short of God could ever do that for us.
And motivated by love, He invites us to share in the richness of this wonderful, indescribable gift! So what do we need to "do"? All we need to do is say "yes."