Why We Already Believe in the Trinity - But Not Your Trinity!

by Barry Bickmore


Note: A reader named James asked me to respond to an article an acquaintance sent him entitled "Why You Should Believe in the Trinity". The person who sent the article cut and pasted it from another source, but he didn't give credit, so for a while I had the article posted without any byline, etc. However, I found out that the article was written by Francis Beckwith and is posted on the web by the Institute for Christian Leadership. (Incidentally, Beckwith teaches at the "Trinity Graduate School" of "Trinity International University". That cracked me up.) The article is divided into five parts, and you can access them by clicking here. The following is my response.

How Are They One?

Hi James! Your friend's essay is a nice piece of argumentation, but it is woefully incomplete, and it doesn't seem to be directed against Latter-day Saint beliefs, anyway. Latter-day Saints certainly would accept both the propositions he proposes, and the conclusion he draws based on those premises. We DO believe that, in a sense, there is only one God, although it is clear that three separate persons are spoken of as God. Just read 2 Ne. 31:21, which states that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are "one God". We DO believe in the "Trinity". The difference is HOW we believe the three persons are one God.

HOW are the three persons "one God"? They are completely one in mind, will, power, and purpose. However, we can also say that they are three different Gods in the sense that they are separate beings. Robert L. Millet, former dean of Religious Education at BYU put it this way: "It is true that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are one in mind and power and glory. Indeed, they are infinitely more one than they are separate; they just happen to be separate personages." [Millet, "By What (Whose) Standards Shall We Judge the Text? A Closer Look at Jesus Christ in the Book of Mormon", in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, vol. 6, no. 1, p. 192.]

HOW does mainstream Christianity believe the three are one? They have adopted the Hellenistic idea of God as "the One" - a simple, eternal, indivisible "Divine Substance" or "essence", so in that view, if the Son and Holy Spirit are "really God" then they must be part of the "Divine Substance". (This is why the Nicene Creed states that the Father and Son are "of one substance" - Greek "homoousios".) And yet, when we say they are "part" of the "Divine Substance", this cannot be in such a way as to divide the indivisible. Therefore, it is considered an unfathomable mystery how three distinct persons can form a single, indivisible "Divine Substance". (For more background on this, see the first article in the "Cosmology" section of my website.)

Anyway, I believe your friend's essay is a bit misleading in that he tries to make it appear as if the mainstream doctrine of the Trinity is a logical consequence of the two premises he finds in the Bible. It is ONLY a logical consequence if one accepts the additional premise that "God" = "the One" of the Greek philosophers. Indeed, the only place I find that the Bible defines the oneness of the Trinity at all is in John 17:21-24, where Jesus prays that His disciples "may be one, even as we are one." (v.22) Did Jesus want his followers to meld into a sort of "disciple substance" analogous to the "Divine Substance"? I find that hard to believe. And if Jesus' statement was metaphorical, then where does the Bible speak of the oneness of the Godhead in more literal terms? The fact is that no one appears to have thought to describe the oneness of God in terms of "oneness of substance" until about 200 A.D., with Hippolytus and Tertullian, and even then their doctrine seems to have been different than that adopted in the later creeds.

Has It Always Been "One Substance"?

Another corollary of the "Divine Substance" theory is that each person of the Trinity must be equal to the others, not just in nature, but in degree. Your friend briefly mentions this. On the other hand, the Latter-day Saints believe that although the three persons are all Gods with a capital "G", the Father is greater than the Son, and the Son greater than the Spirit, both in rank and glory. This is possible for us because they are the same "kind" of being - and we have no conception of some infinite, indivisible essence that must be "God". "Subordinationism" is the name this type of doctrine has been given, and it turns out that "'Subordinationism', it is true, was pre-Nicene orthodoxy." [Bettenson, _The Early Christian Fathers_, p. 239.] Furthermore, subordinationism seems to have been considered quite orthodox even AFTER Nicea! JND Kelly has a good discussion of the debate at Nicea in his book, _Early Christian Doctrines_, and I'll be quoting from it while I explain what I mean by this.

I noted above that the Nicene Creed stated the Father and Son are "homoousios" or "of one substance". (Greek "Homo" = "same"; "ousia" = "substance".) So what did it mean to the people who ratified the Nicene creed when they said that the Father and Son have the same "ousia"? As background, we should note that the Council of Nicea was called together specifically to put down the Arian heresy. The Arians had deduced that since there is only "one true God", whom Jesus identified as the Father (Jn. 17:3), Jesus and the Holy Spirit could only be "gods" with a little "g" and quotation marks, so to speak, rather than being associated with the "Divine Substance". Thus, they didn't have to explain how a Triune God didn't destroy the absolute simplicity and indivisibility required by the Hellenistic concept of God Christianity had adopted by that time, but they had to throw out the real divinity of the Son and Holy Spirit. As we shall see, the main purpose of the Council was not so much to create an exact technical definition of the Godhead, as to exclude the Arian heresy. [See Kelly, p. 235.]

Kelly reveals that the term "homoousios" was not an exact term, and indeed had more than one definition. "The root word ousia could signify the kind of substance or stuff common to several individuals of a class, or it could connote an individual thing as such.... Indeed, the doctrine of numerical identity of substance has been widely assumed to have been the specific teaching of the Nicene council. Nevertheless there are the strongest possible reasons for doubting this. The chief of these is the history of the term homoousios itself, for in both its secular and its theological usage prior to Niceaea it always conveyed, primarily at any rate, the 'generic' sense. Christian writers seem to have borrowed it from the Gnostics, for whom it signified the relationship between beings compounded of kindred substance." [Kelly, p. 234-235]

It is certainly true that the party, led by Athanasius, that actually proposed the term "homoousios" believed in the numerical unity of substance [see Kelly, pp. 240-247], but the great majority of believers still believed in a "generic" unity. That is, for the majority "homoousios" meant "the same kind of being". "If such was the teaching of Athanasius and his allies, at least three types of theology found shelter at different times in the anti-Nicene camp. The first, indefinite, on occasion ambiguous on the crucial issues, but on the whole conciliatory, reflects the attitude of the great conservative 'middle party'.... It's positive doctrine is that there are three divine hypostases [i.e. persons], separate in rank and glory but united in harmony of will." [Kelly, pp. 247-248.]

Therefore, at first the term "homoousios" was convenient in that it united most of Christianity and excluded the Arian heresy, but for most of the Christians of the time the term just meant that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were separate persons with differences in rank and glory, but united in will. As we have seen, this is exactly what the Latter-day Saints believe! However, the problem was that pretty much everyone within Christianity seems to have adopted the Hellenistic definition of God by that time, so the Arians had a point. That is, how could there be three of the same kind of being, all defined as "God", when "God" is an indivisible and simple "essence"? Therefore, the Nicene party, led by Athanasius, gradually won over the middle party over the next century or so because their solution was the only real way to refute the arguments of the Arians, given the Greek concept of the nature of God. Actually, there were 13 councils between 325 and 381 A.D. that endorsed various solutions to the problem before Athanasius' concept was finally endorsed in Constantinople. [See JWC Wand, _A History of the Early Church to A.D. 500_, pp. 279-280.]

The Mainstream Trinity Doctrine is Flawed

Stop and think about this for a moment. The modern mainstream Trinity doctrine REQUIRES that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be equal, because they are a single, indivisible "Divine Substance". On the other hand, as Bettenson pointed out, subordinationism was pre-Nicene orthodoxy! There can be no doubt that the doctrine espoused in the creeds of Christendom WAS NOT the doctrine of the first Christians, but as your friend pointed out, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are CLEARLY pictured as divine in the New Testament. So how can we put all this data together? The Latter-day Saints do it by rejecting the strange notion of God as a "substance" rather than an actual person or group of persons in cooperation, affirming the same beliefs that the earliest Christians seemed to have espoused.

I hope this helps!


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