The Traditional Concept of the Trinity

As someone considering conversion to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the “Mormon church”), I, along with all others that come from traditional Christian backgrounds (Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism) must come to terms with the difference in our understanding of who God is.  While traditional Christians believe in the Trinitarian view of God, Latter-day Saints do not, and instead believe in what is termed the “Godhead”.

The purpose of this post is not to compare and contrast each view of God.  Instead, I will go over the traditional view of the Trinity.  Why?  In a few Latter-day Saint-related publications and venues, such as General Conference, books, articles ,etc., I have noticed a misportrayal of the Trinity doctrine.  Just to be fair, many Trinitarians themselves incorrectly explain the doctrine, which perhaps contributes to the lack of understanding of it by non-Trinitarians such as LDS.  However, I think that it is even more important for LDS apologists to understand the Trinity doctrine when attempting to debate on it, since it is never helpful to be debating a straw man construct.  LDS do not like when critics misrepresent their beliefs, and nor do traditional Christians (even when that misrepresentation may have originated with a traditional Christian incorrectly explaining the doctrine to the non-Trinitarian, since they would not know this).  Therefore, this article will attempt to define what is meant by the Trinity, so that misperceptions can be cleared up and traditional Christians and Latter-day Saints can discuss and debate on the real differences between their two differing views on God.

The Trinity is defined as the belief in three distinct Persons that are one God.  It will be helpful here to quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

253 The Trinity is One. We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons, the “consubstantial Trinity”.83 The divine persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God whole and entire: “The Father is that which the Son is, the Son that which the Father is, the Father and the Son that which the Holy Spirit is, i.e. by nature one God.”84 In the words of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), “Each of the persons is that supreme reality, viz., the divine substance, essence or nature.”85

254 The divine persons are really distinct from one another. “God is one but not solitary.”86 “Father”, “Son”, “Holy Spirit” are not simply names designating modalities of the divine being, for they are really distinct from one another: “He is not the Father who is the Son, nor is the Son he who is the Father, nor is the Holy Spirit he who is the Father or the Son.”87 They are distinct from one another in their relations of origin: “It is the Father who generates, the Son who is begotten, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds.”88 The divine Unity is Triune.

These two paragraphs sum up the major points of the Trinity.  What is important to realize here is that the Catechism is clear that “the divine persons are really distinct from one another”.  I cannot emphasize this point enough, and it is one that Latter-day Saints must understand before they attempt to discuss the Trinity with a Trinitarian (or at least one that is knowledgeable on the subject), since it has come up multiple times.  Trinitarians believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct from each other.  The Father is not the Son or the Spirit, the Son is not the Father or the Spirit, nor is the Spirit the Father or the Son.

Trinitarians do not believe that Jesus prayed to Himself.  He prayed to the Father, who is distinct from the Son.  In Genesis 1:26, Trinitarians believe that the “us” in “Let us make man…” is a reference to the Trinity, since it is a belief in a plurality of Persons (Tri) in the Unity.  Jesus’ baptism is also another example of the distinction between the Persons.

So, how are the Three, One?  This is perhaps the part that confuses many people.  The Three Persons are said to be “consubstantial”, or of the same substance.  What does this mean?  The important word here is “substance”.  This doctrine actually has origins at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.  This word came up in an attempt to describe the relationship between the Father and the Son, specificially if and how the Son, Jesus Christ is divine.  This was in response to the so-called heresy (among others) of Arianism.  From “The Story of Christian Theology” by Olson:

“After some wrangling and little agreement, Constantine himself proposed that the new creed include the affirmation that the Son is homoousios-consubstantial-with the Father.  It may be that Hosius recommended the wording to him and that Hosius may have been influenced in that direction by Alexander and Athanasius.  Another possible source is Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea.  In any case, the compound word homoousios-made up of hte Greek words for “one” and “substance”-was accepted by the majority of bishops to describe the relationship of the Son of God to the Father.  They are “one substance”, or “one being.”

The phrases “one substance” and “one being” are used interchangeably in Trinitarian discourse.  It is these phrases that cause confusion.  If there are three distinct Persons, how can they be one being at the same time?  The problem here is that we are thinking of the word “being” in its modern usage, where we think of one human person as being equivalent to one human being, and use “person” and “being” interchangeably.  This is not the case in Trinitarianism.  We must remember that the Trinity was not formulated in the 21st century, nor was it formulated in the English speaking world.  These words therefore have specific meanings from that specific time, which is what many Trinitarians and non-Trinitarians alike do not realize.

The word “substance” actually comes from the Latin “substantia”, which in turn is a translation of the Greek “ousia”.  Ousia means “essence”, “being”, or “nature”.  So, the Greek “homoousios”, or “one substance/one being” means that the three Persons are of the same essence or nature.  What does that mean?  Olson continues:

The Arian bishops and their sympathizers pointed out that since the Greek word ousia could mean an individual subsistent thing like a person, saying that Father and Son are homoousios could be interpreted as saying that they are identical in every way, including being the very same person in two disguises.  That would be modalism and Sabellianism.  The more common meaning of ousia, however, was “substance” or “being,” and affirming that Father and Son are homoousios simply meant to most of the bishops that they share all the same essential attributes of deity. If the Father is eternal, so is the Son.  If the Son is omnipotent, so is the Father.  And so forth.”

So, it is important to realize that Trinitarians do not believe that the Father and the Son (and the Spirit) are one Person, nor are they attached to each other like some sort of three headed monster.  They are three distinct Persons who are “homoousios” or the same being in that they “share all the same essential attributes of deity”.  I personally prefer the usage of the phrase “one essence” or “one nature” (the Catechism states “divine substance, essence or nature”), since it avoids the confusion of the word “being” in its modern usage.

As we can see, the Trinity doctrine uses words important to philosophy, such as “being”, “person”, “essence”, etc. that must be understood to explain what the doctrine actually means.  While there are many differences between the traditional Trinity and the LDS Godhead, it is important to focus on real differences, and not those based on our misinterpretations of either position.  I would just like to emphasize again that Trinitarians do not believe that Jesus prayed to Himself, nor do they believe that the Father incarnated (was born on the earth as Jesus).  They believe that Jesus prayed to the Father, that the Son incarnated and not the Father, that Jesus’ baptism emphasizes the distinct Persons of the Trinity, and that the “us” in “Let us make man…” emphasizes the multiple distinct Persons of the Divine.  To say otherwise is to confuse Trinitarianism with Modalism, Unitarianism, etc.

I will close with one final point from “Theology and Sanity” by Sheed:

The three Persons are God, not by the possession of equal and similar natures, but by the possession of one single nature; they do in fact, what our three men could not do, know with the same intellect and love with the same will.”

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4 comments

  1. I enjoyed reading your article The Traditional Concept of the Trinity. You may find the discussion by B.H. Roberts (LDS) and and Van Der Donckt (Catholic) interesting. It is titled: The Mormon doctrine of Deity. You can get it on abebooks.com for less than $10.00.

    I am growing in my knowledge of God. When you ask a Mormon: Do you believe that Jesus Christ is God? He will hear in his mind: Do you believe that Jesus Christ is God the Father? Therefore a Mormon may unintentionally answer the wrong question and therefore give the wrong answer. But clearly the Book of Mormon teaches that Jesus is God, and makes the distinction between God the Father, and God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. It also teaches that They are One. When Mormons talk about God they are usually thinking of the Father not the Godhead, which as a Mormon I need to be careful about.

    Kind Regards,
    Christopher

  2. Thank you for this post. It is good to be accurate in our portrayal of one another. The one thing I object to is the passage you quoted from The Story of Christian Theology” that seems to imply that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity arose solely because Constantine wanted it. This view overlooks the much more complex and beautiful manner in which the knowledge of the Trinity came about. It wasn’t just one man’s decision, but the result of years of doctrinal and philosophical study. How can God not be one substance when God is omnipresent (from a Catholic perspective, of course)?

    1. Thanks for the comment. Right, I hope that my post doesn’t imply that the Trinity doctrine came about because Constantine wanted it. On the other hand, it is clear that Constantine did have a role in the development of the formal defining of the Trinity doctrine, specially the issue of “homoousios”. And on the third (?) hand, I do think it is interesting that even though Constantine did suggest it, the bishops of the council still had to decide to accept it, since Constantine obviously didn’t have authority in the Church to define doctrine.

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