After the death of Jesus Christ, early Christians spent centuries grappling with understanding who he was. The early creeds developed largely as an effort to reach an official consensus on understanding Jesus’s divine and human natures. While The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a restoration of the primitive church, early Christianity and the debates they had are still part of our heritage and history. At a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history and theology blog, From the Desk, Jason Combs discussed some of these early debates and the resulting Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview (a shorter post with some excerpts and discussion).
One area where Latter-day Saints tend to focus on differences with mainstream Christianity is the nature of the Godhead. While there are some important differences, however, there may not be as many as we usually assume. As Jason Combs wrote:
Modalism is an ancient Christian heresy (in our terms, “false doctrine”). Modalism is the belief that there is only one personage who is God, and that God manifests himself sometimes in the mode of the Father, sometimes in the mode of the Son, and other times in the mode of the Holy Spirit.
Modalism is also what many Latter-day Saints mistakenly think that other Christians believe. Sometimes I’ll hear Latter-day Saints say things like, “We don’t believe in the Trinity because we believe that God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost are three separate personages.” For the vast majority of Christians, that statement is nonsensical because their definition of the Trinity is that God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost are three separate persons who are equally God.
In fact, the term Trinity (Latin, Trinitas) as applied to God’s threeness and oneness was coined by Tertullian as he argued against someone who affirmed a modalist position.
Yes, you read that correctly. The concept of the “Trinity” was Tertullian’s response to someone who affirmed that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were different manifestations of a single personage.
The idea of the trinity may not be as different from the Latter-day Saint understanding of the Godhead as we usually assume.
The definition of the trinity developed over the course of some debates between different leaders in the early Christian church. One of the most notable debates that led to the Nicene Creed was between Arius and Alexander in Egypt. As Combs explained:
People, such as Arius, were insisting that Jesus was subordinate to the Father and not fully divine. But Alexander, and eventually the Nicene Council, asked, if Jesus was not fully divine how did he have the power to reunite us humans fully with God?
Certainly no one but God has that power, they concluded. So, Alexander and the Nicene Council affirmed that the Son was just as divine as the Father, that they have the same divine nature or “being” even though they are different “persons.” . . .
The Nicene Creed affirms that Jesus Christ is just as much “God” as God the Father is. The Nicene Council added the term homoousios because people, such as Arius, were insisting that Jesus was similar to the Father in divinity, but not fully divine. Adding the term homoousios was their way of affirming (contrary to Arius) that Jesus was just as divine as the Father.
This is a point that does become more difficult to parse within Latter-day Saint theology. We believe that Jesus is divine and a god, and that he is a separate person from God the Father, but he is also the son of God, His firstborn, so it can be understood that he is subordinate to God the Father in ways that differ from the theology outlined in the Nicene Creed. However, even that can be understood in different ways that could lead to some reconciliation between Latter-day Saint theology and mainstream Christian theology.
One other key difference in Latter-day beliefs compared to mainstream Christianity, however, is our understanding of human nature and the divine. As Elder Parley P. Pratt put it, we generally believe that: “God, angels and men are all of one species.” This does not align with early Christian beliefs, particularly with the debates that led to the formation of the Chalcedonian definition. As Combs wrote:
Despite the differences in these natures, the human and the divine, Christians have long affirmed that Jesus was (is) fully both human and divine. Understanding why this was necessary, what it means, and how it works are questions that have occupied Christians for millennia —including Christians in the Book of Mormon.
Some ancient Christians understood the difference between divine and human natures to be starker than I’ve described here. For instance, some Christians thought of the divine and human natures as not existing on a continuum, but in two totally different spheres.
An analogy often used to describe this difference is that of a potter (someone who makes pots) and a pot. A potter “begets” a son but “makes” or “creates” a pot. In this analogy human beings are the pot. We might be created in the image and likeness of God, but we are still “created,” whereas the Only-Begotten Son is “begotten” by God and therefore shares all that God is.
Rather than understanding human and divine natures to be a continuum of the same nature, early Christians understood them to represent completely separate categories. Combs went on to add:
In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today, you’re probably not going to get in trouble with your bishop for saying that you think Jesus has two natures, human and divine, or for saying that you think Jesus has one nature that is human and divine—although, he might give you strange looks. As Latter-day Saints, we’re alright setting those theological issues aside so long as you have faith in Jesus Christ and his atoning sacrifice, and you strive to live your life accordingly.
Personally, coming from a Latter-day Saint background, I still find the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and most of the Chalcedonian Definition to be beautiful summaries of the biblical teachings about God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. And I can appreciate Christians who hold to either miaphysitism or dyophysitism.
I think where we tend to disagree as Latter-day Saints has more to do with the often-unstated assumptions about divine nature and human nature.
Remember the pot and potter analogy that we talked about at the beginning? For Latter-day Saints who affirm that all human beings are literal spirit children of God, the distinction between humanity and divinity becomes less stark. To continue the pot-and-potter analogy, all humans become not the pot, but “begotten spirit children of heavenly parents.” In this view, divine and human natures seem to exist on a sort of continuum—we’re a little closer to an ancient Christian named Origen of Alexandria in this regard.
This view, of course, creates new theological questions. What precisely is the difference between our Lord Jesus Christ, a member of the Godhead (Trinity), and us human beings? If the difference is not one of nature, how do we account for the necessity of Jesus Christ as our savior?
I don’t have all the answers. But these are good questions to ponder as we study our scriptures and the teachings of modern prophets and apostles.
They are good questions to ponder as we strive to understand Jesus Christ and God.
Now, the discussion with Jason Combs about the human and divine nature of God and Jesus Christ, based on his chapter in Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints, is very rich and complex. I’ve only scratched the surface here. For more, head on over to the Latter-day Saint history and theology blog From the Desk.
 Parley P. Pratt, Key to the Science of Theology (Liverpool: F. D. Richards, 1855), 33.