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Are Mormons Trinitarian?

An Interview with Dr. David Paulsen

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Christians have long been suspicious that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) is a heretical sect, in part because of a faulty view of God. Recently, however, some evangelical theologians have begun espousing views that are similar to traditional LDS teachings. MR asked noted Mormon philosopher David Paulsen to explain to our readers what the LDS believes about the nature of God, especially in light of Open Theism, social Trinitarianism, and other trends in evangelical theology.

Before addressing your questions, it is important for readers of Modern Reformation to understand that Latter-day Saints have no official theology as such. Our doctrines are based not on rational theologizing, but on what we believe to be divine self-disclosures. Joseph Smith, founding prophet and first President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints once said:

Could we read and comprehend all that has been written from the days of Adam on the relation of man to God ... we should know little about it .... Could you gaze into heaven five minutes, you should know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject. (1)
Joseph claimed many such privileged gazes, beginning with his "first vision" in 1820 when God the Father and the resurrected Lord appeared to him near Palmyra, New York.

Revelations that came to or through Joseph Smith have been published in three books which, together with the Holy Bible, constitute our "standard works" or canon. These are the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, and the Doctrine and Covenants. Together, with official declarations of the First Presidency of the Church, these standard works constitute the principal sources for a Latter-day Saint understanding of God. In addition, we give significant, though not binding, weight to non-canonized discourse by Joseph Smith and other latter-day prophets and apostles. These are the sources I will cite as I attempt to answer your questions. Thanks to the editors of Modern Reformation for this rare privilege.

MR: Please briefly explain to our readers how the LDS Church's doctrine of God is similar to or different from the traditional Christian doctrine of the Trinity. DP: Our first Article of Faith affirms our belief in the New Testament Godhead. It states simply: "We believe in God the Eternal Father, in his son Jesus Christ and in the Holy Ghost." We reject the traditional, but extra-biblical, idea that these three persons constitute one metaphysical substance, affirming rather that they constitute one perfectly united, and mutually indwelling, (2) divine community. We use the word "God" to designate the divine community as well as to designate each individual divine person. Thus our understanding of the Godhead coincides closely with what is known in contemporary Christian theology as "social trinitarianism." (3) This, we believe, is the model of the Godhead portrayed in the New Testament.

MR: Christian theologians from all the major traditions (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) are united in their belief in monotheism (only one God in this and any other universe, existing beyond time and space). Is LDS theology monotheistic or is it polytheistic? DP: As indicated above, Latter-day Saints, like other Christians and New Testament writers, affirm that there is a plurality of divine persons. Yet, at the same time, we witness (as our scriptures repeatedly declare) that "the Father, Son and Holy Ghost are one God." (4) Given the plurality of divine persons, how can there be but one God? In at least at least three ways: (1) there is only one perfectly united, mutually indwelling, divine community. We call that community "God" and there is only one such. (2) There is only one God the Father or fount of divinity. (5) (3) There is only one divine nature or set of properties severally necessary and jointly sufficient for divinity. (6) In his explanation of the unity of God, LDS Apostle James Talmage, wrote:

"This unity is a type of completeness; the mind of any one member of the Trinity is the mind of the others; seeing as each of them does with the eye of perfection, they see and understand alike. Under any given conditions each would act in the same way, guided by the same principles of unerring justice and equity. The one-ness of the Godhead, to which the scriptures so abundantly testify, implies no mystical union of substance, nor any unnatural and therefore impossible blending of personality. Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are as distinct in their persons and individualities as are any three personages in mortality. Yet their unity of purpose and operation is such as to make their edicts one, and their will the will of God." (7)

MR: What is the relationship between man (specifically Adam) and God? Is God an exalted man? Is it possible for men to become God? Was God once mortal flesh like we are? DP: We believe that God the Father is, in a literal sense, the father of the human family. (8) Men and women are "begotten sons and daughters unto God." We are his children, not mere creatures. In a 1995 official proclamation, the First Presidency and Council of Twelve Apostles of the Church declared: "All human beings-male and female-are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny..." (9) Adam is a "noble and great" spirit son of God our Father. God (the Son) was once mortal flesh like we are (John 1:1-5, 14), though not exactly like we are for he was God incarnate. He is now exalted and resurrected with a body of flesh and bones (Luke 24:36-43). And when we are resurrected we will be like him (I John 3:2). Latter-day Saints thus affirm the teaching of the New Testament and the early church fathers that we, as God's children, through the grace of Christ and the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit, may become partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). (10) In addition, many Latter-day Saints believe that prior to our creation God (the Father) also was incarnate on an earth in much the same way God (the Son) was incarnate on our earth. (11) This helps us understand why the Father, in both the Old and New Testament, is consistently portrayed as a gloriously exalted embodied person, humanlike in form. (12)

MR: There have been a number of discussions recently among evangelical Protestants about the nature of God's being. Some theologians, commonly called "Open Theists," are asserting that God grows in knowledge in response to the actions and choices of his creatures. Does the LDS doctrine of God allow for a similar view of God's growing and changing according to time and circumstance? DP: Latter-day Saint scriptures resonate with the openness teaching that God in his love endowed his human children with moral agency. (13) Thus, we are free to choose either eternal life or eternal captivity. In endowing us with freedom, God has thus chosen to be neither all-determining nor all-controlling. He responds to our free desires, decisions, and deeds creatively, lovingly, and persuasively and works cooperatively with us in achieving his purposes. Thus, we agree with openness thinkers that God is the most moved mover. The Book of Mormon powerfully portrays the tender and profound passibility of God the Son. Consider two examples. The first is a prophetic foretelling of our Lord's incarnation in the flesh. Alma, an ancient American prophet, wrote (ca. 120 b.c.):

And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people. And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities (Alma 7:11-12).
The second is an eyewitness account of a visit of our resurrected Lord to a gathering of ancient Americans. As his visit was drawing to a close, the Lord advised the multitude that he was leaving. But "cast[ing] his eyes round about again on the multitude, [he] beheld they were in tears, and did look steadfastly upon him as if they would ask him to tarry a little longer with them." Discerning their desires, the Lord lingered, responding: "Behold my bowels are filled with compassion towards you." He inquired if there were any sick among them and told them, "Bring them hither and I will heal them, for [...] I see that your faith is sufficient that I should heal you." As he healed them they "bathe[d] his feet with their tears." Then Jesus invited them to bring their little children to him, and he prayed for them. The record continues: "no one can conceive of the joy which filled [their] souls." Seeing that their joy was full, Jesus said, "Blessed are ye because of your faith. And now behold, my joy is full. And when he had said these words, he wept." Then he "took their little children, one by one, and blessed them, and prayed unto the Father for them. And when he had done this he wept again." (3 Ne. 17:1-25; emphasis added). Our resurrected Lord planned to leave earlier, but lingered because he discerned that the people wanted him to stay. And when their joy was full, then his joy was full. Throughout the Book of Mormon narrative we see portrayed the tender and profound passibility of God the Son, who is in the express image of his Father's person (Heb. 1:1-3). As openness thinkers teach, God does lovingly respond to the desires, decisions and deeds of his children. But does God also, as openness theologians suggest, continue to grow or progress? Joseph Smith taught:
What did Jesus do? Why; I do the things I saw my Father do when worlds came rolling into existence. My Father worked out his kingdom with fear and trembling, and I must do the same; and when I get my kingdom, I shall present it to my Father, so that he may obtain kingdom upon kingdom, and it will exalt him in glory. He will then take a higher exaltation, and I will take his place, and thereby become exalted myself. (14)
Notice that this statement implies that divine persons progress. Joseph Smith did not see divine perfection as a state of static completeness, but as a dynamic life-one of unending growth and progress. God, qua God, is eternally self-surpassing in some respects. But in what respects? Most would likely agree, as Joseph clearly taught, that God is eternally self-surpassing in glory, dominion, and kingdom. Likewise all (or nearly all) would probably agree that God is eternally self-surpassing in creativity and creative activity. But does he grow in knowledge? On this point, the Church has no official position and faithful Latter-day Saints often disagree. Some very influential LDS thinkers, including two men who served as Church President, BrighamYoung and Wilford Woodruff, have affirmed that God is eternally self-surpassing in both knowledge and power. President Young taught that "the God I serve is progressing eternally [in knowledge and power], and so are his children; they will increase to all eternity, if they are faithful," (15) and, in agreement with President Young, President Woodruff explained, "If there was a point where man in his progression could not proceed any further, the very idea would throw a gloom over every intelligent and reflecting mind. God himself is increasing and progressing in knowledge, power, and dominion, and will do so, worlds without end [...]" (16) Other Church leaders have taken a position more in line with that of conventional Christian theology. President Joseph Fielding Smith asserted, "Do we believe that God has all "wisdom"? If so, in that, he is absolute. If there is something he does not know, then he is not absolute in "wisdom," and to think such a thing is absurd [...]." (17) Apostle Bruce R. McConkie expressed a similar sentiment, "There are those who say that God is progressing in knowledge .... This is false-utterly, totally, and completely. There is not one sliver of truth in it ... God progresses in the sense that his kingdoms increase and his dominions multiply .... God is not a student .... He has indeed graduated to the state of exaltation that consists of knowing all things." (18) In sum, faithful Latter-day Saints differ somewhat on the question of whether God continues to grow in knowledge, but they speak with one voice in affirming human freedom and God's profound and tender passibility.

MR: Is it proper, in light of the significant differences between traditional Christian theology and the doctrines of the LDS Church, to call faithful Mormons "Christians"? DP: Yes! Latter-day Saints believe that through modern day revelation, God has literally restored his New Testament Church and teachings (Acts 3:21) in preparation for Christ's Second Coming. Thus, we believe that faithful members of this restored Church are quintessentially Christian. My response is also affirmative when I attempt to answer the question without the light of modern revelation. As my responses to the preceding questions demonstrate, LDS understandings of God, in some respects, differ significantly from conventional conservative Christian theologies although some of these differences are not nearly as substantial as they are usually represented to be. However, none of these differences is relevant to the question of whether faithful Latter-day Saints are Christians. Faithful Latter-day Saints put their trust in, believe in, and worship the New Testament Godhead. They accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. They love him and seek to follow him and keep his commandments. By these standards, the earliest saints were known as Christians. By these same standards, Latter-day Saints are also Christians, as well as faithful members of evangelical and many other Christian Churches. Spatial constraints allow only the briefest answers to the questions posed. For fuller explanations, I earnestly suggest you consult sources written for Latter-day Saints by Latter-day Saints. I've yet to see a presentation of LDS doctrine by a non-LDS writer that comes anywhere close to getting it right. My recommendations: Jesus the Christ and The Articles of Faith by LDS Apostle James Talmage. For those wanting to become acquainted with uniquely LDS scripture, I suggest you begin with The Book of Mormon. I would also be delighted to either personally field your questions or, if necessary, refer you to a specialist. You can contact me at david_paulsen@byu.edu.

David Paulsen (Ph.D., University of Michigan) is a Professor of Philosophy at Brigham Young University. He has published widely on issues in the philosophy of religion in both international and national venues, including The International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion, Analysis, The Harvard Theological Review, Faith and Philosophy, and the Journal of Speculative Philosophy. At BYU, he has held the Richard L. Evans Professorship for Religious Understanding. In the LDS Church, he has served as a Bishop and as a member of a Stake Presidency.



1 [ Back ] Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Ed. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1976), p 324.
2 [ Back ] Blake Ostler writes, "The Father, Son, and Spirit are primordially united-a claim made in the Gospel of John by use of the Greek words en and hen, i.e., in and one. The Father is said to be "in" the Son and the Son "in" the Father, and the Spirit is "in" them both and they "in" the Spirit. Because of this "in-ness," or one-ness and loving unity, they act as one God. FARMS Review of Books, vol. 8, no. 2 (1996).
3 [ Back ] Among the many influential Christian thinkers who have also opted for a social model of the Godhead are Cornelius Plantinga (see his "Social Trinity and Tritheism" in Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement: Philosophical and Theological Essays, eds. R.J. Feenstra and C. Plantinga (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), pp.21-47); Jurgen Moltmann (see his The Trinity and The Kingdom of God: The Doctrine of God (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1981); and Leonardo Boff (see Trinity and Society, trans., Paul Burns (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988); Clark Pinnock (see his "Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God's Openness," Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2001).
4 [ Back ] 2 Nephi 31:21; Alma 11:44; 3 Nephi 11:36; D&C 20:28.
5 [ Back ] 1 Corinthians 8:6: "But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him.
6 [ Back ] See Cornelius Plantinga, supra. "Social Trinity and Tritheism" for a fuller explanation of how a social model of the trinity remains properly "monotheistic." See B.H. Robert's "The Seventy's Course in Theology," (Dallas: L.K. Taylor Publishing Company, 1976) p 106. He suggests that there is only "one God-nature."
7 [ Back ] James Talmage, "A Study of the Articles of Faith" (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company, 1988), p 37.
8 [ Back ] James Talmage, "A Study of the Articles of Faith," 421.
9 [ Back ] "The Family: A Proclamation to the World," Ensign, Nov. 1995, 102.
10 [ Back ] See Father Jordan Vajda's "Partarkers of the Divine Nature: A Comparative Analysis of Patristic and Mormon Doctrines of Divinization" (Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2002)
11 [ Back ] See Teaching of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company, 1976), pp. 342-362.
12 [ Back ] See David Paulsen's articles: "Augustine and the Corporeality of God," Harvard Theological Review 95:1 (2002) 97-118; "Early Christian Belief in a Corporeal Deity: Origen and Augustine as Reluctant Witnesses," Harvard Theological Review 83:2 (1990) 105-16. Also see, Kim Paffenroth, "Paulsen on Augustine: An Incorporeal or Nonanthropomorphic God? Harvard Theological Review 86:2 (1993) 233-234; and Paulsen's, "Reply to Kim Paffenroth's Comments," Harvard Theological Review 86:2 (1993) 235-239.
13 [ Back ] 2 Nephi 2:27; Mosiah 2:21; D&C 37:4; 58:28; 98:8; Moses 7:32.
14 [ Back ] Teachings, 347-348.
15 [ Back ] Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 11:285.
16 [ Back ] Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, compiled by Bruce R. McConkie, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954-56), 1:6-7.
17 [ Back ] Bruce R. McConkie, "The Seven Deadly Heresies," 1980 evotional Speeches of the Year, (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1981), 75.

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Issue: "Trinity: God in Three Persons" Nov./Dec. 2003 Vol. 12 No. 6 Page number(s): 40-43

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