In the following article, two friends, Taylor Barker and Christian Bennett, present their understanding of the Catholic and mainstream Protestant view of the Trinity as compared to the Latter-Day Saint view on the Godhead. They wrote this article to help us better understand the intersections and differences between their Christian denominations. They cover the history, some fundamental points and some common misunderstandings of their doctrines. We hope our mutual effort will help you to better understand two different Christian beliefs on the Trinity and who God is, whatever your present familiarity with our faith.
I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.
I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made…
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets…
Even for the millions who attest their faith by this, the Nicene Creed, every Sunday, the Trinity is probably one of the least understood and most neglected doctrines of Christianity. How did this happen—how did we come to weekly recite our foundational tenet without understanding it? Let’s break it down.”
“I believe in One God”: as part of the line stretching back to Abraham, we Christians recognize God as the source of creation and the foundation of our faith. “Begotten, not made”: the Father brings the Son into being from His substance before the creation of the universe. This generation begins redemption through the Son’s obedience and crucifixion. “Who proceeds from the Father and the Son”: after Christ ascends to Heaven, the Spirit emerges from the Son’s love for the Father and the Father’s love for the Son. But despite the present tense of these origins, God stands outside of created time, and so does each person of the Trinity. Son and the Holy Spirit were neither part of creation nor created. The Father has never existed without the Son, Who has never existed without the Spirit, Who has never existed without the Father. Each participates in the act of creation and each fully partakes of the divine nature of God. When we pray in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, we are not invoking three different names, but rather His complete name.
Where did this doctrine come from? Though each is named in the New Testament, the Trinity is never named as such in the Old or the New Testament. The Greek term trias (translated into Latin as trinitas) first appears in the writings of Theopilus of Antioch in 180 A.D. He argued that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are distinct persons but all of the same substance (consubstantial). The First Council of Nicea in 325 affirmed this tenet in the Creed, meant not only as a summary of belief but as a declaration of what it meant to be Christian. This act was not without controversy, but Catholics recognize that the Church may teach doctrine as revealed by natural reason and communion with God beyond exegesis of the Bible.
Yet even though the Church was three hundred years old by the formalization of this doctrine, we find the Old and New Testaments provide justification for a Trinitarian view and address a few potential misconceptions. Jesus is not an avatar of God the Father, perceived differently while he is on earth, just as the Holy Spirit is not a manifestation of Christ whispering to men. Each is a distinct person capable of interaction. Jesus is from “the beginning the Word [who] was with God . . . and was God” (KJV Jn 1:1)— “Word” here meaning the divine intellect and power of God, the agent of God’s creation. The Holy Spirit proceeds (rather than being born) from the love of God the Father and God the Holy Spirit—this is the God that inspires and transforms, like at Pentecost. We see them distinctly within the Gospel narrative: the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus after His baptism by John the Baptist, upon which God the Father declares “This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased,” (Mt 3:17). Likewise, Jesus proclaims “The Father is greater than I,”(Jn 14:38) and prays in the garden “My Father, if it is possible, let this chalice pass me by; only as thy will is, not as mine is,” (Mt 26:39), reflecting His genuine obedience to and dependence on the Father.
This does not mean that the Trinity comprise three different Gods. The nature of God, what He wills and how He acts, is fully carried out by each member of the Trinity. Each has distinct roles in God’s plan. Jesus is obedient as befitting a son and dependent due to the Incarnation. The Holy Spirit depends on the love of the Father and the Son from which it emanates. But just as Christ is the wisdom of God, so too is the Holy Spirit the love and holiness of God. Were God to be separate from Christ, that would mean that wisdom is not an essential feature of God; from the Holy Spirit, love and holiness. There is nothing of God that is not essential to God.
When Joseph Smith was asked by The Chicago Democrat newspaper editor John Wentworth in 1842 the simple question of “What do Mormons believe?” he responded with a short letter in which he enumerated 13 points, or what later came to be known as The Articles of Faith. First and foremost, the first is “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.” This belief is central to who we as Mormons are and defines much of our central dogma. We believe in three separate beings, unified in purpose “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.”
Without a doubt, one of the most important events in all of human history is the Atonement of Jesus Christ, including the suffering that He went through in the Garden of Gethsemane, His crucifixion on the cross, and His rise from the tomb once again. In these three moments, we catch a glimpse of the fullness of Christ’s mission and purpose. In fact, by understanding the Atonement, we understand that Christ is necessary for God’s purpose.Whereas God the Father “cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance,” Jesus came down to Earth to live among us sinners and to vanquish sin. Records are few, and the small amount written by Christ’s disciples only provide some understanding of what actually happened. Closed off to us is what happened in Christ’s thoughts, as are the actual mechanics of how the Atonement works, as is how Christ was able to feel the suffering of every human to have lived. These events are literally incomprehensible to us. As mortals, we may never fully know the extent of the Atonement. This much is true though—as we draw closer to Christ, and as we rely on his Atonement to repent, each of us can feel the strength and mercy present in the Atonement. On a deeply personal level, we can experience a small glimpse of this supreme act. This act, this Atonement, should lie central to each one of our lives. This one act defines our doctrine as it beautifully lays out our need for our Savior.
As Christ hangs on the cross, right before he is about to pass on to the next world, Matthew 27:46 reads, “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” In this moment, something happens, something new. We know that as Christ came to this Earth, He was physically separated from His Father, allowing Him to learn and grow as a man, as each one of us has. However, throughout this process, Christ had the companionship of the Father with him through the presence of the Holy Ghost. As Jeffrey R. Holland, a modern day apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints explained, “With all the conviction of my soul I testify that He did please His Father perfectly and that a perfect Father did not forsake His Son in that hour. Indeed, it is my personal belief that in all of Christ’s mortal ministry the Father may never have been closer to His Son than in these agonizing final moments of suffering. Nevertheless, that the supreme sacrifice of His Son might be as complete as it was voluntary and solitary, the Father briefly withdrew from Jesus the comfort of His Spirit, the support of His personal presence. It was required, indeed it was central to the significance of the Atonement, that this perfect Son who had never spoken ill nor done wrong nor touched an unclean thing had to know how the rest of humankind—us, all of us—would feel when we did commit such sins. For His Atonement to be infinite and eternal, He had to feel what it was like to die not only physically but spiritually, to sense what it was like to have the divine Spirit withdraw, leaving one feeling totally, abjectly, hopelessly alone.”
In this moment, the Father had to momentarily withdraw himself from the Son. These two divine beings, never without the support and love of the other, had to know what that feeling of loss and pain was like. In order for Christ to fully complete his mortal ministry, he had to understand the separation from the Father that each human undergoes when they sin. This separation only highlights the connected nature of the two beings. Numerous other examples from the Scriptures point to the nature of the relationship of the three members of the Godhead. A clearly defined instance is Stephen as his life draws to a close. As He preaches truth to the Sanhedrin, He is stoned for his beliefs. “But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly 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.” Stephen was persecuted for his beliefs. In fact, he was killed for them. One of these beliefs that was nearly lost with his death is [the pure clarity—God and Jesus standing side by side as two separate beings].
In John 10:30 we read a common defense of Trinitarianism: “I and my Father are one.” However, this verse can be read in two separate ways. First is that of the Trinitarians, in that Christ here is stating that He and the Father literally are one. Second, this can be interpreted as Christ saying that they are united in purpose. This is the correct interpretation, as evidenced by the original Greek, in which “one” is neuter, not masculine. If Christ had been referring to them being literally the same version, the “one” used would have been the masculine version, not the neuter. This again shows that they are united in one purpose, but not united in one body. In Matthew chapter 3, we read of the baptism of Christ. “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.” Here, present are three separate beings, interacting and watching over one another, once again continuing to reaffirm the three separate beings with unity in purpose.
This truth was lost and distorted after Christ left the Earth. The Mormon Church believes that shortly after the close of the New Testament, the priesthood authority left the Earth, creating a vacuum of teachings in which Christianity was scattered, allowing for teachings to diverge rapidly. In response to this confusion, the First Council of Nicea was held in 325 AD, where the concept of the Trinity and their unity of purpose was first articulated. It is important to note that there were disputes — [Arius, Irenaeus, and Tertullian, to name a few] — and that the ruling of the Creed was neither absolute nor universally accepted at the time. In fact, we believe that these disputes continued some 1500 years, right up until the spring of 1820, when Joseph Smith delivered an earnest prayer to inquire which of the disputing churches were true. He had a vision, known as The First Vision to members of the LDS church, where both God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ appeared to him, standing side by side, and delivered the message that their truth needed to be restored.
In addition, numerous scholars of the Christian world, both LDS and non, confirm the separation of the three beings. Swiss Protestant theologian Emil Brunner wrote that “ We must honestly admit that the doctrine of the Trinity did not form part of the early Christian—New Testament—message, nor has it ever been a central article of faith in the religious life of the Christian Church as a whole, at any period in its history.”
Roman Catholic priest Charles Curran wrote that “[Christians] went through the problem of appropriating the word in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries with the great trinitarian and Christological councils where we finally came to the conclusion of three persons in God and two natures in Jesus. Many people at the time said, ‘Well you can’t say that because those words aren’t in the scriptures.’ That’s right, they aren’t in the scriptures, they are borrowed from Greek philosophy, but they are the on-going account of the believing community to understand, appropriate and live the word of God in its own circumstances.”
It becomes clear that somewhere between Christ leaving this Earth and the time of the Nicean creed, things were introduced into the canon of Christianity.
James Bethune-Baker writes in his book An Introduction to the Early History of Christian Doctrine that “The victory over Arianism achieved at the Council was really a victory snatched by the superior energy and decision of a small minority with the aid of half-hearted allies. The majority did not like the business at all, and strongly disapproved of the introduction into the Creed . . . of new and untraditional and unscriptural terms.”
Religious professor Paul Achtemeier stated both simply and directly, “The formal doctrine of the Trinity as it was defined by the great church councils of the 4th and 5th centuries is not to be found in the New Testament.”
I, myself have a strong knowledge and belief of these things. God is our Father, Jesus Christ is his Son, and the Holy Ghost serves as a messenger of their truth. They are distinct beings. I believe that I pray to the Father through the Son and that I feel His love through the Holy Ghost. I believe in each one of them, individually and together.The doctrine that I believe in is simple and true. It rings true in my ears and adds to my knowledge of my purpose.
Taylor Barker ’17 was an Economics concentrator in Kirkland House. Christian Bennet ’17 was an Applied Mathematics concentrator in Kirkland House.
Joyce, George. “The Blessed Trinity.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 4 Apr. 2016
Articles of Faith
Pearl of Great Price, Moses 1:39
Book of Mormon, Alma 45:16
Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1949), 205.
Charles Curran, “Creative Fidelity: Keeping the Religion a Living Tradition,” Sunstone 11 (July 1987), 45. off-site Cited in Robert L. Millet, “Joseph Smith and Modern Mormonism: Orthodoxy, Neoorthodoxy, Tension, and Tradition,” Brigham Young University Studies 29 no. 3 (1989).
P Achtemeier, editor, Harper’s Bible Dictionary (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985), 1099.