Mormons often make fun of traditional Christians for their struggling efforts to make sense of the Biblical teaching that the Father, Son and Holy Ghost are one God. Yet Mormons are committed to the unity of God at least as much as traditional Christians are, by our scriptures, particularly the Book of Mormon. As we start another round of discussion of whether we are Christian in light of Mitt Romney’s potential presidential candidacy, why not think over how we really stand with respect to the idea of the Trinity?
The Bible clearly teaches that Jesus Christ and his Father are one. Traditional Christians have struggled for centuries to make sense of this teaching. Mormons, on the other hand, have been happy to break with tradition on many points, and have often pointed at the difficulties of traditional Christians in explaining the unity of the Godhead, as a sign of their having fallen into error, enamored with their own clever philosophies. Since the time of Joseph Smith, Mormons have often been happy to declare that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three Gods. Mormons do not deny that the three are united, but explain that they are united in purpose, in cooperation and love, and not â€œin substanceâ€? as Nicene Christians maintain.
In our eagerness to point out flaws in the tradition, however, Mormons have a tendency to go too far, exaggerating differences even to the point of neglecting what our own scriptures say. The Book of Mormon is even more express than the Bible in its teaching that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God. The Bible often states that Christ and his Father, and sometimes the Holy Ghost, are â€œone.â€? For example, in John 10:30, Jesus says, â€œI and my Father are one,â€? and in John 17:21-3, he prays that he, the Father, and his disciples â€œall may be one . . . as we are oneâ€?–that is, as he and his father are. The Book of Mormon and the D&C, however, state in several places not only that they are â€œone,â€? but that they are â€œone God.â€? For example: 2 Nephi 31:21 reads, â€œthis is the doctrine of Christ, and the only and true doctrine of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, which is one God, without endâ€?; Alma 11:44 refers to â€œthe Son, and God the Father, and the Holy Spirit, which is one Eternal Godâ€?; D&C 20:28 states, â€œFather, Son, and Holy Ghost are one Godâ€?; other passages also use the phrase â€œone Godâ€?. Mormons thus face the same original puzzle as traditional Christians of explaining how this is.
Of course, the message of 1 John 5:6-8 is closely parallel to one of the key themes of 3 Nephi 11, particularly verses 32-36: the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is crucially expressed in their unity of action and teaching. Historically, I think Mormons have avoided the formulas of traditional Christianity in part because we were afraid we would get sucked into the same theological mistakes. Traditional trinitarian ideas have been too heavily influenced by certain ideas derived from Greek philosophy, and I think have also been too attached to particular words (like substance), even where they have not been able to attach a clear meaning to them. But as our own, independent intellectual life becomes more established, it is important that we Mormons are faithful to our own authorities (including the scriptures), rather than defining ourselves in opposition to others. Our authorities teach that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are both three and one. Are Mormons Trinitarian, in our own way?