Thinking about the Trinity

It is hardly news to this crowd that Mormons don’t accept the traditional understanding of the Godhead, the Trinity. To say that two members of the Godhead are embodied and the third will be is explicitly to reject the traditional understanding. Indeed, I think that, in context, Joseph Smith’s statements about God’s embodiment have as much to do with rejecting Nicean Trinitarianism as with explicating new doctrine, though of course they also do the latter. Since a great deal hangs on the doctrine of the Trinity for traditional Christianity, our rejection of that doctrine is fundamental to our difference from them. It is certainly fundamental to the common accusation that, in spite of our claims to the contrary, we are not Christians. Nevertheless, Latter-day Saint thinkers have done very little investigation of the doctrine of the Trinity or thinking about our alternative. David Paulsen and Blake Ostler have each done some work on the question and related issues, but to my knowledge no one has taken the time to understand the history of the tradition and the differing threads within that history, and, against that background, to explicate fully the LDS position and to argue carefully for it.

Of course, in an important sense doing so is unnecessary. My testimony stands without such a book. Missionary work will go forward in very much the same way and with the same success with or without it. The naive arguments we make against the traditional doctrine–for example, that it isn’t logical or that it is impossible to understand–will remain naive, as will our explanations of what it means to say that God has a body, but neither life in Christ nor missionary work require sophistication. They certainly don’t require much by way of theology. Salvation and exaltation require, instead, a particular kind of life with others. Nevertheless, I think that such a work would be important. Someone ought to do it.

It isn’t the kind of thing one can do in a short time. Just reading the source materials well enough to understand accurately the arguments made and the variations on those arguments could take years. And that would be only the beginning since someone doing that work would then need to follow up with careful reflection on Joseph Smith’s teaching.

Were you advising someone setting out on this task, what would you advise? What authors and works should she or he be sure to read? What pitfalls must be avoided? Can you suggest the outlines of arguments for our position?

74 comments for “Thinking about the Trinity

  1. This is just a small part of your overall question, but I think that it is important to better understand what we mean by God being embodied. Spirit is matter, our bodies are matter, and resurrected bodies are matter. What does this mean for the embodiment of God? Is it just a way of saying that Jesus and the Father are separate and distinct identities?

  2. I wish I knew enough to make any cogent suggestions, Jim! It seems to me that “the LDS tradition” itself subsumes a number of divergent–if not entirely distinct—positions. One could go with a particular prophet in the Book of Mormon, or could try to distill a Nephite theology of the godhead (this seems tricky, given the breadth of the book, doctrinally and temporally); or could look only at Joseph’s revelatory output; or could work only with what has evolved into current official pronouncements such as “True to the Faith.” I’d probably stick only with Joseph for source-texts—but even there it would be difficult to know what period one should take as definitive.

  3. “…and the third will be…”

    Sorry to potentially derail the thread, Jim, but I need to ask: is the eventual embodiment of the Holy Ghost in fact official doctrine, whatever that means? My understanding was that all we have insofar as possible revelation of that teaching goes is an apocryphal comment from Joseph Smith, nothing more. Is this implied somewhere in the D&C, or in explicit statements from more recent prophets?

  4. Yikes! It would be hard to figure out where to go. I think that in addition to Joseph you ought to look at some of his systematizing compatriots. In particular, Orson Pratt’s _Absurdities of Immaterialism_ as well as some of his spirit fluid stuff. (Oh! How I love spirit fluid!) Another thing to look at might be to various Utah era battles trying to sort out the status of the Holy Ghost. A good entre into this might be to trace out the textual history of section 130, which as I recall was added in Utah as a way of clarifying the official doctrine of the godhead.

  5. J. Stapley: D&C 130:22 suggests that to speak of the Fathe and the Son as embodied is to mean more than that they are distinct entities since it speaks of them being as tangible as human beings.

    Rosalynde: Help me out here. I don’t see the variety of positions that you do. We have statements by Joseph Smith that move toward his culminating claims that God the Father and God the Son are embodied. We have D&C 130. And we have the First Presidency statement on the Godhead, which I take to be authoritative. Are there a variety of positions within those? What are they?

    Russell Arben Fox: You’re right. That phrase repeats something I’ve learned, but not something that I could justify any further. I don’t know whether it is doctrinal or Mormon folk theology.

  6. Nate Oman: I hope that in “you ought to look at” you were using “you” as a general pronoun rather than referring to me. I think someone needs to do this work, but I don’t think it is me.

  7. “I think someone needs to do this work, but I don’t think it is me.”

    Why not? You’d be good at it, and then I could read the paper…

  8. Nate Oman: I don’t think it is me because so much “retooling” would be required. I really do think the person would have to read a great deal of the history of theology, from before Nicea to the present. Then one would have to read the things you mention. I already have several major projects on the back burner that will probably never get finished, and they don’t require me to start from scratch. But thanks for the vote of confidence.

  9. D&C 130:22 suggests that to speak of the Fathe and the Son as embodied is to mean more than that they are distinct entities since it speaks of them being as tangible as human beings.

    That is fine, I guess, but it seems like Ressurected folks can dissapear, fly through walls, appear in different forms, etc. So, can they appear to be intangible? Seems that they can. So what does tangible as human beings mean? Was the premortal Jesus tangible as he touch the Brother of Jared’s Stones? How is being material different than being tangible?

  10. J. Stapley: I forgot to add: “Nevertheless, I think you are right. Part of such a project would be getting more clear what we mean by “material” and “embodied.” Even “tangible” remains up in the air for me. Can I touch an immortal, glorified being? If I cannot see him with my physical eyes, how can I touch him with my physical body?

  11. J. Stapley: It looks like you and I were posting at the same time, making much the same point.

  12. ” is the eventual embodiment of the Holy Ghost in fact official doctrine, whatever that means?”

    The relevant data points are in Words of Joseph Smith, 245 (1st quote) and 382 (second quote).

    Franklin D. Richards “Joseph also said that the Holy Ghost is now in a state of Probation which if he should perform in righteousness he may pass through the same or a similar course of things that the Son has.”

    George Laub Journal “the holy ghost is yet a Spiritual body and waiting to take to himself a body. as the Savior did or as god did or the gods before them took bodies.”

  13. “If I cannot see him with my physical eyes, how can I touch him with my physical body?”

    You can’t? I thought that you couldn’t see him with your physical eyes and live. That’s different.

  14. Lots of good questions.

    I believe the embodiment of the Holy Ghost is NOT doctrine, in fact as I recall some people have been disciplined in church proceedings for so teaching. The H.G. is an interesting personage, perhaps the most interesting — an exception perhaps to the teaching that physical bodies are required for perfection.

    One anecdote that’s always troubled me is the “flesh and bones” doctrine, which teaches that resurrected being have not blood in their veins. creepy.

    In terms of texts and sources, Joseph Smith knew more about the Godhead than any of us, but the problem as I see it is that Joseph’s concepts weren’t laid out in full immediately following the First Vision, but grew and developed over time. I’m led to believe that the concepts would have continued to develop had his life not been taken so early. Thus the pitfall — all we have are headstarts and hints at the Godhead.

  15. For sources inside our tradition, I would study the Journal of Discourses carefully. Keywords could be traced using GospeLink or some other e-version.

    Six or seven of the Twelve who heard Joseph Smith lecture in Nauvoo on divine embodiment gave dozens of discourses on related themes in the thirty or so years after arrival in the Salt Lake Valley. Separating Smith’s doctrine from these later interpeters would be impossible, of course, but in some ways that intermingling is part of the doctrine’s legacy–no formal exposition, interpretation all the way down. What we think JS is doing is part of the story.

  16. Jim: I was thinking, for instance, of Abinadi’s concept of Christ as the Father God; or the current “TTTF”, which contains no reference to the HG’s eventual embodiment (I don’t think, at least); as well as the restatements and elaborations of Joseph’s teachings by contemporary and later leaders.

  17. Adam Greenwood (#13): D&C 58:13 says that we cannot see the designs of God with our natural eyes nor the glory that follows on tribulation. Section 76, verse 12 says that the Spirit made it possible for Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon to see the things of God. The Lord told the brother of Jared that he could see the Lord’s finger “because of thy faith.” Based on scriptures like these, I’ve assumed that we cannot see God without having a change wrought in us, without becoming spiritual rather than merely physical (whatever that means).

  18. “Can you suggest the outlines of arguments for our position?”

    I suppose that the first thing to do would be to figure what our position actually is. Aside from an idea that the Christian creeds are wrong, I am not certain that there is a unified LDS idea of who or what God is. We are fairly certain that he has a physical body, but one that is wholly unlike ours. We are sure that God, the Father, and God, the Son, are separate, yet Christ clearly plays both roles in the OT (to a degree). So, the nature of our own position remains somewhat mysterious. I don’t know how we could effectively engage in the greater Christian discussion until that is worked out.

  19. John C: I agree that there is much to work out, though there are already fairly standard answers to some of the questions, specifically to the two you raise, and at least for now, they seem adequate. But that is partly why I suggest that the project needs to be worked out against a study of the notion of the Trinity. If we truly understood that doctrine, we might be in a better position to understand Joseph Smith’s rejection of it.

  20. This may be a bit off topic, but I think it should be stressed that this project is relevant not only as a form of apologetics but also for our own internal theology. The doctrine of the trinity is an attempt to resolve the tension between the claim that the Lord our God is one God despite the obvious scriptural distinctions between Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. This tension exists even in modern-day scripture.

    For instance, at various points, the Book of Mormon itself refers to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost as “one God,” which at least to my mind is a somewhat more trinitarian phrase than I usually hear in Mormon discourse. This raises the question: what are the conditions under which these three personages may be described as “one God”? Certainly, unity of purpose is part of this, but even if my wife and I were to achieve true unity of purpose, I don’t think we would say that our children therefore have “one parent.” Is the grammar of the word “God” different?

  21. But the problem is that we are clearly uncomfortable with our own answers (adequate though they may be). I think that, in part, this is because of the open canon (we may be reluctant to try and define who God is if another revelation may come and show how wrong we are).

    That said, I do think that you are right regarding the use of a study of the Christian Trinity as a catalyst for our own understanding. This may be the sort of thing that we can only work out in a context of conflict.

  22. Michael: My wife has cousin’s in Boston who refer to their father and mother as “The Parental Unit,” precisely because of their (at least claimed) unity of purpose at least vis-a-vis the kids.

  23. Social trinitarianism obviously is one major viewpoint in modern theology that one would want to incorporate in such a study.

  24. Jim F.,
    I see where you’re coming from. I think i could interpret those away, but I do see where you are coming from.

  25. Slight very related threadjack, if no one minds: I recently had someone ask me if we were Arians. I answered that strictly speaking, we couldn’t be lumped in with the Arians, because we don’t believe that at some point Jesus didn’t exist. His response was that it was enough for him that we believe that Jesus and God were two distinct beings to call us Arians. I’ve read Bokenkotter on this issue and think that I’m right: no Arianism without a belief that God created Christ, and before that Christ didn’t exist. Was I right or wrong? Or am I misinterpreting our doctrine that Christ has always existed (working mainly from the “intelligences” doctrine)? Or maybe we were both right, but I was looking at it from a technical standpoint, and he was looking at it from a colloquial standpoint. Anyone have any ideas?

  26. His response was that it was enough for him that we believe that Jesus and God were two distinct beings to call us Arians.

    Given that the Trinity requires they be two separate beings, I’m not sure that makes much sense.

  27. I was going to mention Paul Owen and indeed the whole first issue of Element, but I see Clark beat me to it.

    Then I was going to mention Plantinga and social trinitarianism, but I see JWL beat me to that one, too.

    So I’ll just second their suggestions.

  28. Jimbob, you were right. Early in my mission I thought our position was essentially the Arian one, but later when I learned more about it I realized that early thought of mine was incorrect.

  29. Nate:

    Your wife’s cousins seem just offbeat enough to be Bloggernacle-ites in the making.

    Seriously, that expression is funny precisely because the parents are not really a single entity, except in a metaphorical sense–they are so united in purpose that they act as if they were one Parental Unit. Then the question is whether the scriptural language is similarly metaphorical.

  30. Hasn’t the current BoM been modified to try to clarify what were originally very inconsistent references to the members of the Trinity? Even reading the current edition I think that it is pretty clear that Nephi and company had a pretty different view of the Trinity than we do today. Which makes sense given that they come from a very different frame of reference.

  31. “Given that the Trinity requires they be two separate beings, I’m not sure that makes much sense.”

    Are you arguing with the compromise rendered at Nicea, or my characterization of it? If it’s the former, I agree with GBH’s intimation of last spring that it’s largely unintelligible. If it’s the latter, same answer.

  32. I’m not entirely sure about that John (regarding Nephi’s views). But I suppose it depends upon what you think the current view is. I tend to think the LDS view lines up fairly well with the Metatron notion of exaltation and the lesser YHWH. Blake’s mentioned that in connection to Mosiah 15. I’d just note that Metatron/Enoch has many other parallels to the vision of Nephi even though those aspects aren’t in the Book of Mormon.

    Jim, I’m more arguing about the distinction between a being and Being. I don’t really think the compromise at Nicea is unintelligible. Questionable, certainly. But I don’t think it unintelligible. Indeed I’ve often argued that Mormons and mainstream Christians really aren’t that different in terms of our notions of Trinity, minus perhaps speculation on Being. (Which Mormons simply haven’t done from what I can see) The big difference as I see it is over creation ex nihilo not the Trinity (beyond the implications for the Trinity of ex nihilo.

  33. FARMS has lots of stuff on it John. It’s often discussed in articles on the Jewish background for Christ (especially relative to Qumran).

    This FAIR article is probably worth reading as well. I’m not sure I agree with everything Barry Bickmore writes, but it does orient the discussion well I think.

    Margaret Barker is probably one of the main scholars who set the stage for this approach of LDS apologetics. However I have been told that she is sometimes too sloppy in drawing parallels. (She’s not Mormon, but check out her The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God)

    Blake’s article that discusses a lot of this relative to Mosiah 15 (which is unfortunately typically taken to be modalistic) is also in that first issue of Element and is worth reading. I mention some of the issues in passing in this review of Mormonism and the Nature of God

  34. Blake Ostler may already have done this. He has a 3 volume set, of which only the first has been published. The first seemed to be how the Mormon God stood up to the philisophical thoughts of God. The second, which for some reason is not being shipped, was supposed to be on the Christian Concept of God. The was a pre-publishing copy at the FAIR Symposium this year. Then the final volume is going to be about the Mormon God. At least that is how I understood Blake describing it. I don’t agree with everything in the 1st volume, so I’m interested in what is going to be in the next two volumes.

    Several have mentioned Element. If you join can you still get the 1st issue newletter/magazine, and if you join now can you get access to the 1 issue on line?

  35. random John–

    I’m not sure about specific modifications, except I’ve heard that 1 Ne. 11 originally referred to Mary as the Mother of God instead of the Mother of the Son of God.

    I think you’re right that the Book of Mormon seems to come at trinity from a different point than we do today, which may be why passages about the Father and the Son like those in Mosiah 15 require rather elaborate glosses.

    I guess I just think that someone undertaking Jim’s project would want to explore those differences to see whether they suggest mere differences in phrasing or whether the Book of Mormon prophets had different views than we, the Mormon public at large, generally do. If there is any divergence, the next question would be whether our everyday view is the result of further light and knowledge added by Joseph Smith and others (and the Book of Mormon passages are just outdated)–I can’t tell if you’re suggesting this–or whether there is still something to the trinitarian-sounding scriptural passages that a full development of the Mormon doctrine of the Godhead would take into account alongside the more modern revelations that (in my unscientific opinion) are more influential in Mormons’ view of these matters.

  36. I agree with John C that we could really benefit from figuring out what our position is on this.

    I agree with J Stapley that we ought to figure out just what being embodied and “flesh and bones” and “tangible as man’s” mean for the Father and Son. (Clearly it means something very different than our tangible flesh and bones. And are surely spirits are tangible to each other, right?… don’t they also have spirit flesh and spirit bones?)

    I agree with Jim F. that it would be very helpful to know what specific doctrines about God prompted Joseph’s sermon now recorded (in part at least) in section 130. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was mostly refuting the idea that there is an ontological divide between God and humankind…

  37. I also think that most Mormons read the BoM with the assumption that all the people in the book have the same concept of God/the Trinity as late 20th/early 21st century Mormons do. Thus they just read right past anything that might subtley suggest a different perspective. As for the modifications, I’d have to look it up. I’m pretty sure that there are many. DKL could probably cite them from memory, but he ain’t here.

  38. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was mostly refuting the idea that there is an ontological divide between God and humankind…

    EXACTLY! I think what he was doing is saying this: “You know, there really is no difference between God and man, except that man is fallen and living in a fallen world.” We know God can sire children, and when he does, that child (contra docetism) is not a full-roaming ecto-plasmic vapor, but rather a flesh and blood human being. And he was fallen, but overcame that through the power of the Holy Ghost. We know that Christ is like God, and that mankind is like Christ. Well, the simplest of syllogisms would then conclude that man is like God. In more arithmatic terms, if A = B, and B = C, then A = C. Jesus is the one who bridges the gap between the fallen world and the world to come. This stuff is KFD 101 by my own experience.

  39. While we’re on this godhead discussion, anyone have any ideas about 1 Nephi 20:16? “… and the Lord God, and his Spirit, hath sent me.” [presumably Jesus Christ speaking] I’ve been scratching my head over this one. To me the hierarchy (I know, if they are One, there is no hierarchy, right?) has always seemed to be Father, Son, Holy Spirit. To me this was a temporal hierarchy, since God was made mortal and glorified first, the Son next, and the Holy Spirit–yet to be (as per Mormon folklore, but it makes sense to me given the requirement of a body for exaltation, and the fact of the Holy Spirit being included in the godhead, a quorum of exalted or to be exalted beings, yes?)

    Also (sorry, have to ask)–where do goddesses fit in to godhead/ godhood?

  40. I am SO ignorant on this, but what did JS say about the problems w/ the Christian concept of Trinity? I would LOVE it if the gender exclusion of the Trinity is any part of the problem with it theologically, given our idea of exaltation as a divinely coupled state.

  41. Without getting into all the possible names, one ought to read the early folks (on various sides of the issue) to see how and why they came to the decisions they did in the early councils. We might think they made mistakes but there’s much that LDS would need to keep in mind were we to do some serious theological work with respect to the Godhead. Early councils, for instance, were very concerned about how Christ was divine, why it was important that he be divine. One ought not to overlook that issue. From my experience I’ve seen Latter-day Saints generally shy away from Book of Mormon statements, for instance, that say God himself will come and redeem his people–a shying away that I think comes because we know we’re not traditional Trinitarians and we don’t know what to make of such statements and their fundamental importance because we worry about explaining what it _doesn’t_ mean that we don’t absorb what it does.

    I think Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther are certainly folks to read. In later theology, I think Karl Barth, Moltmann, and Kierkegaard (surprise) are some who would deserve attention. I put these last ones on the list (and Kierkegaard especially who doesn’t really develop a theology) because they would cause one to remember to ask what the personal, social/familial, and ecclesiastical meaning and import of the Godhead is–its meaning for our existence and our redemption.

    Of course, my philosophical and theological bias here would be to not come out with a systematic theology. Lots of thinking, yes. If it were me writing the book (and it isn’t and wouldn’t be), I’d start with the question of the oneness found with the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. What is meant when the scriptures talk about this? What is the connection with our salvation–and there is a connection because we are often told of their oneness in so many of the places where the Gospel is defined (in the narrow sense of that–what Christ does to save us (and how he does that) and what we do to appropriate that salvation). What is there about that oneness that God wants us to know with respect to our being saved? Why are baptized in the name of all three? In what sense is the oneness we are invited to similar to or different from the oneness the Godhead has?

    But, as I say, I’m not the one to write the book. Maybe a paper someday.

  42. Although it does not fit into any of the responses, I wanted to note that one of the more powerful testimonies I heard was from my contstructive theology professor as he bore his testimony of the trinity. Even though I don’t believe in the triune God, I couldn’t help but feel his respect for a God that would limit His/Her own power to become “one of us” merely to know and love His/Her creation more fully.

    There is power in that concept, though logically I cannot agree with it and I have just as much joy in recognizing that God went through life, just like me, and has faced similar experiences, and that Christ became one with me and my sins through the atonement, to show me the way home.

  43. Keith: I’d start with the question of the oneness found with the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. What is meant when the scriptures talk about this?

    I’m a fan of Blake’s take on this “Oneness” subject. I posted on it recently and riffed on his ideas. I liked where the discussion took us.

  44. It seems to me that the LDS conception is a superset of the triune God. i.e. we don’t so much reject the Trinity as expand it to include more persons than three.

  45. Sorry for my delay in posting. I’m 4-7 hours ahead of most of those who respond here, so I go to bed and you keep respond. Rather than respond to everyone, I’ll respond to those that seem to me to be most directly related to the original post.

    #22, John C: Thanks for the reminder that the proposed project would be as much about us understanding our beliefs as it is about apologetics. And I think you are also right (in #23) that part of the problem for anyone doing LDS theology is the openness of the canon. Personally I don’t think that systematic theology works well with an open canon. But there are other kinds of theology.

    One difference between what I was thinking in the post and what you have said in response is that I don’t see the investigation of the tradition as necessarily one of conflict. The early Christian apologists were trying to understand their beliefs. Even if we disagree with the conclusions to which they came, seeing the problems they were dealing with and why they tried to solve those problems as they did is likely to help us considerably.

    #33, Jimbob: “I agree with GBH’s intimation of last spring that it’s largely unintelligible. If it’s the latter, same answer.” Perhaps by “unintelligible” President Hinckley meant “wrong.” If so, then I certainly agree. Perhaps he meant “something I don’t understand.” If so, I’ll take his word on it, especially since I don’t think I understand it either. But I don’t think that it is absolutely unintelligible.

    Certainly the Nicean teaching is unintelligible if we don’t understand the thinking that is behind it. It is also possible that a large group of people agreed to a statement that was unintelligible. It may even be possible that for 1500+ years people discussed that statement and thought they understood it, though it was unintelligible. But the probability is excruciatingly low. I think that the unintelligibility of the doctrine comes on our end: we don’t understand the terms used, and we don’t understand the problems to which the doctrine is an answer. That’s why I think that anyone setting about this project would have to do a study of the tradition first. It is hard to explain how you differ from someone if you don’t understand them. And if the doctrine is truly unintelligible, showing that it is would require that kind of study.

    #34, Clark: When you said “Jim,” I assume that you were responding to Jimbob. Otherwise, I’m confused. I agree that one way to understand the problem is through the difference between beings and being. In fact, I think that a major failure of contemporary theology has been to take up the challenge to Trinitarian doctrine that Heidegger’s work produces. I cannot claim to know contemporary theology as well as I ought if I’m going to make these claims, but it seems to me that most theologians today at least give a nod to Heidegger’s work–and often more than a nod yet they ignore–his argument that God must be a being rather than being itself.

    #45, Keith: Thanks for chiming in, Keith. Only a few members of the Church know this stuff as well as or better than you and Jennifer. Several have pointed out that we need to understand better what the Book of Mormon teaches about the Godhead, and leave open the possibility that what it teaches is not exactly the same as what we currently teach. You’re right, Keith, to remind us as well that we ought not to shy away from the Book of Mormon because we are afraid that it will teach something different. (We have the same fear of Paul, the fear that he teaches something we don’t believe–but that’s for another day.)

    Of course Kierkegaard belongs on any list of those to be read, not only because he is such a good thinker, but also because he may well provide us a better model for how to write about these things than does systematic theology. I especially like the questions you offer. I think that these are, indeed, better ways of dealing with the issue, better ways of doing theology.

    #48, Clark: Can you say more about what you mean when you say you understand the LDS conception of God as a superset of the traditional conception? I don’t understand.

  46. “I’m pretty sure that there are many (changes in the BoM regarding the Godhead.)”

    Relatively few, actually .

    “The first category is a series of changes in which language is changed from “God” to “Son of God.” This category includes two verses. In the first edition (1830), 1 Nephi III, p. 25, reads, “the virgin which thou seest, is the mother of God, after the manner of the flesh.” Joseph changed it to read, “the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh” (1 Nephi 11:18). Also, 1 NephiI II, p. 26, reads, “[The Lamb of God] was taken by the people; yea, the Everlasting God, was judged of the world.” It was changed to read, “[The Lamb of God] was taken by the people; yea, the Son of the everlasting God was judged of the world” (1 Nephi 11:32). Before the changes were made, these verses were actually evidentially neutral as between trinitarianism and modalism, as previously discussed. The changes that were made thus provide no significant evidence for Widmer’s thesis. Since the Father and the Son are both referred to as “God,” the changes simply make clear which member of the Godhead is being referred to.

    The second group of revisions involves changes from Christ’s being referred to as “the Father” to his being referred to as “the Son of the Father.” First Nephi III, p. 26, originally read, “behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Eternal Father.” It was changed to read, “Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father” (1 Nephi 11:21). Also, 1 Nephi III, p. 32, originally read, “[these records] shall make known to all . . . that the Lamb of God is the Eternal Father and the Saviour of the world.” It was changed to read, “[these records] shall make known to all . . . that the Lamb of God is theSon of the Eternal Father, and the Savior of the world” (1 Nephi 13:40). Since both Christ and his Father are referred to as Father, these revisions can also be plausibly understood as attempts to clarify which member of the Godhead is being referenced.

    It must also be recognized that Joseph did not alter the majority of the apparently modalistic passages in the Book of Mormon. This fact alone should be enough to cause us to look for other reasons for the changes. If Joseph were really trying to change the doctrines of the Book of Mormon, why did he neglect so many passages?”
    -David Paulsen, on Early Mormon Modalism and Other Myths

  47. Jim, I actually think the Pragmatists would be required reading for anyone facing this question. After all, they were obsessed with the problem of unity versus plurality, created connections between things (persons) rather than metaphysical connections, and so forth. I guess I’m thinking primarily of William James, here, but other pragmatists (like Dewey) might also have stuff to say. Joseph Smith, in many ways, seems to share the same obsession with unity and plurality and offers conclusions that mirror the pragmatists: connections between persons are always evolving creative achievements rather than being pregiven metaphysical truths. In formulating his notion of the godhead, I believe Joseph wanted to say as much about human communities as he did about the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

  48. Well, there are scriptures all over the place in the Book of Mormon which seem to support the trinity.

    Personally, I think the truth is somewhere in between. Nothing makes sense about what anybody says about this. Except for the first Article of Faith.

  49. One might want to approach Stephen E. Robinson if considering a book of this sort. He has touched these questions in several of his books (including his discussion with Craig Blomberg in “How Wide the Divide”). He’s pretty knowledgeable about Hellenization of Christianity.

  50. Jim F.: (I’ll try to be clearer what Jim I’m talking about) I think that a major failure of contemporary theology has been to take up the challenge to Trinitarian doctrine that Heidegger’s work produces. I cannot claim to know contemporary theology as well as I ought if I’m going to make these claims, but it seems to me that most theologians today at least give a nod to Heidegger’s work–and often more than a nod yet they ignore–his argument that God must be a being rather than being itself.

    I’d probably agree up to a point. I say that because I do think for better or worse theologians have embraced Heidegger. I’m not sure they take the implications quite the way you do. That raises the issue of whether the Father and the Son are beings with the ousia being Being or at least a certain openness. Having said that though, it seems that traditional theologians who do accept the Trinity are embraced fairly heavily by people trying to understand various strains of how Heidegger’s project has developed. The pseudo-Dionysus is one obvious example. I suppose though that I must confess that I only see discussion of the ousia and not the persons in those debates. So now you’ve made me curious. But I’d suspect that even there the problem for many orthodox theologians is ex nihilo as it relates to the Trinity with Heidegger. That is, I’m not entirely sure that the Trinity itself is the problem.

    Jim F.: Can you say more about what you mean when you say you understand the LDS conception of God as a superset of the traditional conception?

    I didn’t mean too much by it. Just that the LDS concept of God as whole entails more than just three persons. Indeed if one accepts the KFD God consists of an infinite number of persons. The Trinitarians can’t do this because of ex nihilo, thus placing a definite limit on God that Mormons don’t share. That’s why deification ultimately must be so different for them than us. As others say, the ultimate distinction that manifests itself in theology is the ontological divide between man and God. Mormons reject it while ex nihilo entails it.

  51. “Certainly the Nicean teaching is unintelligible if we don’t understand the thinking that is behind it. It is also possible that a large group of people agreed to a statement that was unintelligible. It may even be possible that for 1500+ years people discussed that statement and thought they understood it, though it was unintelligible. But the probability is excruciatingly low. I think that the unintelligibility of the doctrine comes on our end: we don’t understand the terms used, and we don’t understand the problems to which the doctrine is an answer.”

    Jim: “Intelligible” may be a poor word choice, but it’s not as though I’ve never looked into the history and crises–both in Rome and Alexandria–that precipitated the Nicean creed. I’m arguing that the compromise on the nature of God, even given the impetus for the council, didn’t make sense when written, and doesn’t make sense now. As far as I’m concerned, the document doesn’t just not agree with antecedent scripture, but is internally inconsistent. So to that extent, I don’t think it even really answers the “problems” that prompted the council in the first place, because no side got all of what they wanted. Thus, knowing its impetuses (impeti?) doesn’t, to me, make the document any more understandable. And maybe the best evidence of such is from my mission where all I taught were Catholics. Nearly every day I would ask how God could be God and be the Son at the same time. With a few exceptions, almost all of them would recite me–even if unknowingly–parts of the Nicean Creed. When I asked what that meant, almost none of them really knew. Indeed, the very people it was meant to help understand the nature of God don’t understand it.

    It was a political compromise that didn’t make a lot of sense when written and makes less sense now. I think it should be viewed in the same way that we view slavery and the constitution: logically both non-volitional slavery and equality among men couldn’t really exist in the same document, and most of the founding fathers are on record as knowing so, but it was needed to keep a nascent country together. The same should said about the Nicean creed.

  52. Jim: Great questions. As you know, the issue of the coherence of the Trinity and in what the oneness and the distinctions in the Trinity consist have been the subject of numerous discussions in the Anglo-American tradition of analytic philosophy in the last 20 years — beginning really with Cornelius Plantinga and the emergence of Social Trinitarianism (there are more than 200 articles and at least 40 books). I was going to include seven chapters in volume two on the Latin and Social Trinities, the LDS views of the Godhead (scriptural and historical) and the relation of the Trinitiarian relation to human deification — with a focus on the views of the Godhead in the Book of Mormon, the Book of Moses and the council of gods in the Book of Abraham (along with D”&C 121) and Joseph Smith’s early teachings compared to his teachings in the King Follett Discourse and the Sermon in the Grove. That is a lot for anyone to swallow and digest! So I took them out. Alas, a book that was well over 1,000 pages was just too much even for me — so it looks like there may be 4 vols. rather than 3 in my three-volumed study. (Maybe I should call it vol. 2 1/2?)

    However, it seems to me that the LDS discussion is transformed by the view that we, humans, have been invited to share the same unity as the Father, Son and Holy Ghost in LDS scripture (D&C 93, 3 Ne. 27 and really John 17). The unity is a peer relationship of divine persons — and that is audacious and exciting! Thus, the kinds of ontological and metaphysical issues that are definitive of the Trinity in conventional thought are obliterated and deconstructed in LDS thought. So I am in total agreement with Jim that our take on the Godhead is and must be quite different than the conventional view. The key difference (I addressed this a bit at the FAIR conference and the last SMPT conference) in my view is the conventional Judeo-Christian-Muslim thought must be committed to metaphysical theism of the sort entailed by the idea of creatio ex nihilo. God is the unique, sole and only possible being that is uncreated and all else is merely created and radically contingent. Even our notion of what a person is must be vastly different (and I argue in vol. 2 that the idea of creatio ex nihilo is logically inconsistent with free will of any sort, libertarian or compatibilist or modified).

    When I studied the creeds and their place in the develpment of the Latin and historical Trinities (not to mention the more Greek social Trinity) I found to my surprise that I don’t regard the various creeds as definite or clear enough to really resolve or even address most of the issues that are important to the discussion of the Trinity. Just what “one substance” is supposed to mean is contentious to say the least. I suppose that one could give an LDS reading to the Nicene Creed and accept virtually everything in it with the possible exception of the affirmation of creatio ex nihilo!

    I also agree with Clark and Jim and Keith that discussions of Christology, or how Christ is both mortal and divine, both human and God, are central to issues of the Trinity (some of which I discussed in chs. 13 and 14 of the first volume which are really the heart of my discussion). However, as far as intelligibility goes, I’m quite sure I have failed because I am unable to make an outright contradiction intelligible and I believe that at least the Latin Trinity is just that.

  53. I’m not LDS, rather I speak as a unitarian-universalist Christian who believes that my commitment to “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning” using sources such as “Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love; [and] [w]isdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;” (UUA Principles and Purposes) means I need to take the LDS scriptures and prophets seriously. Frankly, I think that much of the reason the study/book that Jim F sees as lacking haven’t been done, is that approximately contemporaniously with Joseph Smith in New England, many ministers and thinkers were discussing and debating the trinitarian versus unitarian (one god, one son, the Holy Spirit; three persons) views. Much of that work has already been done and was being done elsewhere at the time that it was probably
    important within the LDS. Most of those ministers and congregations that believed in the unitarian view became Unitarian or Universalist congregations, and today, their papers, articles, and books languish in our archives and libraries; mostly overshadowed by later controversies, the merger of the two denominations; and by the greater readability and broad attraction of other early church scholars like Emerson and Thoreau.

    That’s not to say that a contemporary, readily available work isn’t needed. The fact that something is in the, e.g. Harvard Divinity School Library ( doesn’t help you or I grow in faith or better share or understand our beliefs if we can’t go to Cambridge and read it. I think historians and scholars with an interest in such things are significantly more aware of and have better access to these documents than we non- and lay-scholar unitarian Christians. I share your desire to have such a work (either as a new document or a re-print of one of the 18th or 19th century unitarian scholars); I just don’t see the impetus for a scholar or a historian to write one. I think any scholarly discussion of unitarianism (theological or historical) from or within an American based religion will end up needing to reference both UU and LDS sources, if for no other reason than to avoid issues of plagurism, stealing of ideas, … Since today UU’s and LDS
    end up on opposite sides of heated political battles (often arguing opposing positions on the basis of similar beliefs), I imagine many faithful from BOTH groups would find it difficult to find such a document faith promoting. This may be why UU’s like to look at Transylvanian Unitarianism when we start looking at historical unitarian background – though the fact that kings and martyrs make for better stories probably has a role as well. I doubt there are many Christians of other faiths who could overlook our dual listings on the cult lists to take such a work seriously either.
    That’s too bad, because I think it’s an important topic, worthy of more thought and discussion.

  54. I think there is more to what the Nicene Council had in mind than is reflected in recent discussions of the Trinity. Not that the council members all had the same thing in mind; that is a big part of why most recent discussions don’t do justice to what they had in mind. I am not sure that the formula was unintelligible when framed, though most readings of it today not only fail to render it intelligible but render it unintelligible by the way they insist on reading it a certain way that goes beyond the text. I honestly think there may have been a religiously acceptable, even useful meaning to it that has since been lost as readers and interpreters have grown increasingly out of touch with the teachings of the original apostles. But to turn that meaning up I think would require a rather creative approach to history, since if a meaningful understanding (or two or three) had been preserved in a straightfoward way in some historical documents, one would think it would have remained available.

    So Julie, is there a link to Channing’s watershed speech? Can you clarify a bit more the difference between the basic unitarian thesis on the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and conventional trinitarianism? (am I asking you to do just what you said we can’t do without going to the HDS library and reading a while?)

  55. Bryan could you clarify how the pragmatic view of pluralism – especially in Dewey and James – solves the Trinity problem of plurality and unity?

  56. One more attempt to keep up, though it appears that interest in this thread is dying down.

    Ben S. (#50): Thanks for the discussion of references to the Father and the Son in the Book of Mormon.

    Bryan Warnick (#51): Like Clark, I’m curious as to how you see the Pragmatists helping us understand the unity and plurality of the Godhead. Can you say more, or is it something that would require an article rather than a response?

    Clark (#54): You say that you don’t think that contemporary theologians, most of whom give at least a nod to Heidegger, take the implications of his work the way I do. I agree. But that is the problem. If being is the openness of events, of temporality, then God cannot be being. Heidegger argued that God must be a being rather than being, yet most theologians deny that he is. Instead, they describe him as “beyond being.” But they generally make that argument without taking Heidegger on. (Marion is the only exception I can think of–cf. God Without Being.) Of course you’re right that creation ex nihilo is a huge problem for any Heideggerian, but I think that the two problems are closely linked.

    Jimbob (#55): I wasn’t accusing you of not knowing about the history of the Nicean Creed. I’m arguing that, even though it makes sense to understand that creed as the result of political compromise, it doesn’t follow that it is unintelligible. Given that many very bright people have found it intelligible, we ought at least to give it the benefit of the doubt, a charitable reading. I don’t know of any believing Christian philosophers on record as knowing that the Nicean Creed is unintelligible, so the analogy to the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution doesn’t hold.

    In my experience, we almost always fail to understand what we fail to read charitably. And we cannot argue effectively against what we do not understand. So, my suggestion was that we need to look carefully at the arguments made for the Creed, both at the time of its creation and afterward, to see whether they are intelligible, and we ought to do our looking with the methodological presumption that they are. Whether they are intelligible is a question about concepts and logic rather than history, though one must read history to find the concepts. That most Catholics don’t understand the Creed is a shame, but it doesn’t follow that it is, in itself, conceptually unintelligible. I don’t understand how to explicate conceptually the belief that God is embodied because I don’t understand what that belief entails. But it doesn’t follow that my belief is unintelligible.

    Blake (#56): Since, as you point out, you’ve written on this topic more than anyone else I know, thanks for joining the conversation. Of course we agree that the key problem of the traditional view–whether it is conceptually intelligible or not–is that “conventional Judeo-Christian-Muslim thought must be committed to metaphysical theism of the sort entailed by the idea of creatio ex nihilo” (and, as you know well, the question of what “one substance” means or, even, of what “substance,” means is inextricable from metaphysics). Indeed, I think that it more likely that the Trinity is unintelligible because metaphysics is unintelligible than that it is unintelligible in itself. However, given the work you’ve put into the question, I’m willing to provisionally accept your judgment that it is unintelligible in itself. However, if the Latin Trinity is an outright contradiction, what is the contradiction and how do you explain the fact that so few Christian philosophers have seen that it is?

    Julie (#57): Thanks very much for joining this conversation. It is very helpful to have another point of view on these questions. I bet you are right that a look at the work produced in the early years of the Unitarian and LDS movements would provide us with works already dedicated to this question. The trick is finding them–and then updating them based on what more we have learned about ancient thought.

    What is the impetus for new a work on the intelligibility of the doctrine of the Trinity? Good question. For those who are scholars, whether at a university or independent, it would be the same impetus that is behind other scholarly works, a perverse but unshakeable predilection for thinking and writing about these kinds of things.

    Ben H (#58): Since you and I agree here, it must be true that great minds think alike! I didn’t know that we were thinking the same thing until I read what you wrote, but I agree, so we must have been.

    My only quibble is with the last claim of your first paragraph. You say that this kind of history “would require a rather creative approach.” I don’t think it would have to be any more creative than other good histories. I assume that the relevant documents are available, but the question is one of how to read them. An example of the kind of reading that I think suggests a direction to proceed is in Michel Henry, Incarnation. Une philosophie de la chair (Paris: Seuil, 2000), 10-34. Too briefly, Henry argues that the major intention of the Nicean Council was to oppose the Gnostics by insisting that Christ was fully divine and fully incarnate.

    See also Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (trans. rvsd by Joel Weinsheimer & Donald G. Marhsall, 2nd rvsd. ed. New York: Crossroad, 1989), 418-428) who, like Henry, insists on the difference between embodiment and incarnation and that Christianity’s understanding of the latter is a unique contribution to thought. Understanding and thinking about that difference might well open new ways for us to think about the issue of God’s body. Or, it might show us another way of thinking the difference between the LDS view and the Trinitarian view.

  57. Clark and Jim, I’m not sure the Pragmatists “solve” the problem of unity and plurality in the Trinity. As in other areas, the Pragmatists would find the traditional questions about the Trinity to be boring and useless. Instead of asking about the truth of the Trinity they would want ask about the meaning of the Trinity. Why should we care that God is described in this way? What does thinking of these persons as a unity help us to do? To put it crudely, what problems does this “tool” help us solve? (A “unity” and a “connection” is, after all, a psychological tool that helps us to navigate the world; it is not an ingrained feature of the universe.)

    For James, how we describe divine unity seems to matter in how at home we feel in the universe and how we might come to work together (as natural and supernatural beings) to improve it. To think of connections between things as being “built in” metaphysical features of the unverse closes off the universe to us and makes us feel alien to it. With this sort of understanding, there is no invitation to join in. For James (and I believe for Joseph Smith) our notions of the Godhead matter to how we think about community and how we are to exist within those communities.

    That is a very short and insufficient response to your complex questions.

  58. Ben H.:”>Unitarian Christianity. But I think our understanding of the concept of unitarianism is perhaps a victim of Channing’s notoriety. Channing’s biographer, David Edgell, says that rather than being an original idea, “He reflected the intellectual cross-currents that swirled about him.” (And in fact, this was an ordination sermon, commenting on what would otherwise be the ghost in the room – why are a large chunk of the local ministers, who would normally appear for an ordination, missing.) But This wasn’t just a discussion of scholars, whole towns were arguing these
    issues. Congregations, which previously had been town resources like the school and the town square, split over this point of doctrine; often going to court over resources like the communion silver. Arguments for and against unitarianism are carved into the buildings of old New England churches, not as graffiti but as part of the decoration or building plan. Channing got to name the theology, but it wasn’t solely his idea and since that time many people have found some logical problems with his theology an. For instance, I think all of us would agree that Jesus is divine, contrary to Channing (although there are unitarians Christians who believe he is not, they then have to have a reason to follow Him and not follow every more-evolved teacher or a reason to call doing so Christianity, still.)
    In some ways, I think the doctrine of the Trinity exists to avoid all the questions that arise once you say there are three different persons – God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Spirit. You have to address the issue of how you have 3 divine persons, yet follow the 10 commandments and only worship the ONE God. I think it’s much simpler to say, you must accept on faith that these three personalities are one Holy being and cut off the reamaining questions. I’m not sure there is a unitarian view that ever answered all the questions in a way that doesn’t leave any other possible answers. Unitarianism (the concept not the denomination that traces itself back to Channing) leaves open the possibility of many questions and possible answers about divine nature. Personally, I believe that I will never full understand divine nature as a human, and one of my objections to the Trinity is that it is almost too simple – make this one simple assumption and you can understand the nature of God. If it were that
    simple, it seems like God would have happened to mention it to Moses during all the time they spent together up on Mt Sinai, if not one of the earlier or later prophets. Or Jesus could have told us himself. That said, I don’t see the Trinity as a bad way to imagine the interrelationship between God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit; as long as we are aware that it is a crutch for our understanding and not TRUTH.
    (Julie catching up after a migraine, and hopefully coherent.)

  59. Jim F., Ben H., et al:

    My feeling is that the document’s biggest weakness is that it is usually only “intelligible” to “bright people” reading it “charitably.” Is it too much to ask that the document meant to illuminate the nature of God to all mankind actually make sense to those who aren’t bright or charitable? Or does one have to be fluent in late Roman and early Christian history and theory to understand the very basics of the nature of God?

  60. Jim: As usual, you have asked good and penetrating questions that set me back a bit to make sure I’m not being flippant or just foolish. As far as I can see, the unintelligiblity of the Latin Trinity consists in the claim that derives logically from metaphysical monotheism that God is metaphysically simple and the unique and only being possibly of the kind “God.” If there is a being as such, then it cannot have the plurality of persons that are in any sense distinct — other than merely semantically distinct. So I see the unintelligiblity arising out of the metaphysic that demands simplicity and necessarily unique being wedded to a view that requires plurality and real distinction. The problem is not metaphysics per se, but the assumptions in the metaphysics as to what kind of being God is. Tho I also admit that just what “substance” means within this formula is notoriously difficult to grasp or pin down (just more unintelligibility).

    As to why those very bright people who accepted and accept the Latin Trinity who don’t see the outright contradiction, I chalk it to up the their faithfulness to the view that such a view is what Christianity requires and that our cognitive capacities are limited and we should not expect to grasp anything about God’s inner nature (this kind of talk is frequent in the literature discussing the LT). I don’t believe it is a mystery or due to our limited cognitive capacities (tho I believe there are mysteries and that our capacities are limited). I think that we possess quite enough cognitive moxy to see that it is a contradiction unless it is rather literally meaningless.

  61. Jim, I think the problem is that we aren’t clear whether we are discussing the nature of the persons or the ousia. As you say Marion does deal with this question of the ousia. But I’m not at all sure he’s that unique. Say what you will about the whole Levinas-Derrida strain of European post-Heidegger thought, but I think it really does end up embracing a lot that is similar to Christian neoPlatonism and Jewish neoPlatonism. When you’ve done that, how far is it really from being able to discuss both the ousia and the hypostasis? Unless there is a bigger problem I’m missing. (I fully admit to sometimes not seeing the forest for the trees)

    But it seems to me there are two problems with the question of Being and beings in Heidegger. The first is the ontic/ontological distinction. As I think I’ve mentioned, I take Heidegger as an ontic realist. However the question of beings seems more an ontological one in terms of meaning. But surely even an Heideggarian could say that ontically God is real. So I guess my point is we have to be careful about what question we’re really asking when we ask about Being vs. beings. It seems Heidegger changes the discussion somewhat such that the older talk about Being and the Heideggerian talk about Being can’t be translated. Being doesn’t mean the same thing. That says nothing, that I can see, about God though. At best we can say folloiwing Heidegger, if there is a God (which he denies) then it has to be considered ontically and not as Being. But I think that’s in large part because we misunderstand what Being is.

    Having said all that though I don’t think that entails (beyond ex nihilo) that the Trinity is wrong. Just that some of the metaphysical language and thought rests upon a basic metaphysical error. But given the way even traditional theologians took the Trinity to be a mystery, I don’t see that as a problem. Most of what we read of metaphysics and the Trinity isn’t really a formal part of the creeds and isn’t a formal part of the Trinity even if it does form part of the historic background. But by the same token Mormon theology isn’t bound by the historic background of Joseph Smith. So why don’t we treat Catholics with that same respect? That is, I think we historicize their doctrines unfairly.

  62. Bryan, C. S. Peirce definitely accepted the Trinity. So I’m curious as to your comments there. Perhaps they are more true of James and Dewey, although I can’t speak to them simply because I’m not as well versed in their thought. It seems to me that the way James approaches religion is fundamentally different from Peirce. But then I’ve also been told that that James’ religion is extremely important to his thought and that when considered James is much closer to Peirce than typically thought. But since I’m unfamiliar with most of James’ religious writings, beyond the famous ones everyone reads, I can’t say much. I’ve often wondered how his fathers Swedenborgism affected his thought. But outside of a Peirce review of James’ father book, I’ve not read much on it.

    But I don’t know as much about Peirce’s religious views as I wish, other than finding that the commonly held views people have of Peirce are often wrong. I’ve studied a fair bit on it based upon what is easily accessible. But more needs to be written in the area so I definitely feel lacking even there. It is interesting that Peirce makes parallels between his three categories and the Trinity, although admittedly that goes back to some of the early neoPlatonic thinking about the Trinity that one reads in authors such as Augustine.

    I should add that Peirce explicitly moved from Unitarianism to Episcopalianism largely over the issue of the Trinity, as I understand it. Hookway wrote in his book on Peirce, “…he was confirmed an Episcopalian and acknowledged the Trinity. His early attempts to develop a Kantian system of three categories are given a context which suggest that he is attempting to relate them to the Trinity.” (I don’t have the page number, but it is in the introduction – I snagged the quote off of my Peirce-L archives since the Hookway book is out of print, although I’ve long been looking for it used)

    So to the degree that Peirce’s categories and general approach can still be seen in one form or an other in James and Dewey, we have the influence of very Trinitarian thinking.

    My inclination though is that what Jim calls the discussion of Being in the Trinity would have been considered the unthinkable limits of thought or pure indeterminacy. But that is based more upon his rather early writings where originally he had five categories and not three. Being and Substance the 0th and 4th categories were unthinkable and were pure indeterminacy and pure determinacy – limits he thought unreachable. This actually does, in a way relate to what Jim says of Marion in the Contential tradition, although I have my doubts about Marion. If Being is pure openness then we do have something very similar to what Peirce asserts.

    Unlike Jim I’m not sure the issue of Being/beings is the issue. Rather the question is more whether we reject a common relation to Being or not. The Christian neoPlatonists definitely tended to efface the divide of creation ex nihilo and were often considered heretical because of that. I think this effective denial of ex nihilo is typical in Christian neoPlatonism and I think it is that tradition that Heidegger is taking up. (Jim knows how much I like Sikka’s Forms of Transcendence which discusses many parallels – although not exactly the point I’m making)

  63. Clark, you know much more about Pierce than I do, so I believe you when you say he accepted the Trinity. I’m not sure what James thought about the Trinity, although he probably addressed that issue in the Varieties. My views about James and Trinitarianism are derived from his many writings on “the One and the Many,” his discussion of the stream of consciousness in the Principles of Psychology, and chapter VII of Some Problems in Philosophy. I think James would see the traditional Trinity as a more monistic doctrine and the LDS Godhead as a more pluralistic doctrine. Hence the LDS Godhead has the benefits that a pluralistic view entails.

    Do you know of Pierce’s view of the Trinity were informed explicitly by his pragmatic view of meaning?

  64. Ben H: I think there is more to what the Nicene Council had in mind than is reflected in recent discussions of the Trinity. Not that the council members all had the same thing in mind; that is a big part of why most recent discussions don’t do justice to what they had in mind. I am not sure that the formula was unintelligible when framed, though most readings of it today not only fail to render it intelligible but render it unintelligible by the way they insist on reading it a certain way that goes beyond the text. I honestly think there may have been a religiously acceptable, even useful meaning to it that has since been lost as readers and interpreters have grown increasingly out of touch with the teachings of the original apostles. But to turn that meaning up I think would require a rather creative approach to history, since if a meaningful understanding (or two or three) had been preserved in a straightforward way in some historical documents, one would think it would have remained available.

    Carl G: On my reading, this is pretty accurate. It is certainly not hard to find contemporary or near-contemporary explanations of the major early creeds: Nicene, Niceno-Constantinopolitan, and Apostles’. Of course the Trinitarian formulas are just a small part of the creeds, but they were exhaustively discussed from Nicaea up into the 5th cent. and the rise of the Christological controversies. In fact the creeds and formulas were so extensively discussed that one has a hard time finding theological literature of this period (esp. 325-81), even scriptural commentary, that is not obsessed with them. There were sporadic discussions later, but the Cappadocian theologians, particularly Gregory Nazianzus, were seen (by the orthodox) as having settled the matter of whether the Nicene definition should been accepted.

    There was an enormous diversity of opinion on certain parts of the Nicene creed, especially “the homoousion” (the term homoousios, “of one substance”), even among the orthodox, and many local synodal creeds were issued in response to it. All the turmoil resulted in substantial revision at Constantinople in 381 (esp. the removal of the anathemas), but largely thanks to Gregory N. the homoousion was retained. However, while there was disagreement over terms and wording, I don’t believe basic intelligibility was ever an issue. The Nicene creed was based on prexisting creeds (Eusebius says specifically the Caesarian, but that’s doubtful) that had been in use since a time before memory. With the exception of the homoousion, they were and are in no way unintelligible: they are simple, traditional summaries of faith. I have to think what most consider unintelligible is consubstantiality, the distinctive Nicene addition, and even that was certainly understood anciently, albeit variously, and explained ad nauseam. Just read Gregory Nazianzus’ five Theological Orations. What subsequent generations have lacked is that original theological context.

    Jim originally asked where to start with authors and literature. I can only speak to the early period. Among the great mass of secondary literature there are at least two grand standards: R.P.C. Hansen, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy 318-381 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1988), and Aloys Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1965-). These will point one to all the relevant ancient authors and works, which are very numerous. There is an overwhelming amount of literature on the early understanding of the creeds and there is no need for LDS is break new ground. The context for the creeds could be easily summarized from existing literature. I’d be interested in collaborating on a work like Jim suggests, but it would be difficult for one person to competently discuss the entire subject he broaches. Sounds like a symposium topic.

  65. Bryan, a lot of people argue that pragmatic maxim was more oriented towards science and was simply focused on measurements. I don’t think Peirce’s notion of the Trinity really fits to that. Although his “Neglected Argument for God” might be interesting relative to the maxim. But I’m not convinced the way Peirce takes the maxim and the way James does are necessarily the same. (Although I do believe Dewey is closer to Peirce there) But relative to the Trinity I think his concerns were probably closer to formal neoPlatonism than what most people conceive of as pragmatism. I think Peirce’s reduction of Aristotle/Kant’s categories to a trichotomy arose out of late Latin and medieval writers – especially those in the neoPlatonic tradition. But that then becomes something different from the pragmatic maxim and more of a hypothesis based upon explanatory power and not verification in the normal fashion.

    I don’t know if he’d consider that true of the Trinity proper. But as I said, I just don’t know enough about his religious beliefs. And of course, as with all philosophers, Peirce was sometimes inconsistent and had a nasty habit of starting up systematic writing and not finishing it. Also many see a distinction between the early Peirce and the later Peirce on many terms. Yet the most interesting neoPlatonic parallels are in the early writings and not the later ones.

    I guess my answer then is, I don’t know. I’d say though that believing in the Trinity seems natural given his categories. But that says nothing about the relation of the ousia and the persons. But outside of his early writing pointing out Being is unthinkable, he never writes about it again.

  66. Bryan – I found one more quote on Peirce and the Trinity – it’s rather interesting.

    [Harriet Melusina Fay, his first wife], usually called Zina, was a
    passionate feminist deeply concerned from adolescence about the role of
    women in society. In the summer of 1859 she arrived at an interpretation of
    the doctrine of the trinity according to which the Holy Spirit is the
    feminine element in the triune godhead: a Divine Eternal Trinity of Father,
    Mother and Only Son — the ‘Mother’ being veiled throughout the Scriptures
    under the terms ‘The Spirit’, ‘Wisdom’, ‘The Holy Ghost’, ‘The Comforter’
    and ‘The Woman clothed with the sun and crowned with the stars and with the
    moon under her feet’.

    . By the spring of 1862 they were engaged. It seemed to his parents that for
    the first time he was taking religion seriously. In the evening of 24 July,
    in the chapel of the Vermont Episcopal Institute in Burlington, in the
    presence of Zina and several members of her family, Charles was confirmed by
    her grandfather, Bishop Hopkins. On 16 October Charles and Zina were married
    by her father at St Luke’s in St. Albans. .

    Peirce’s conversion to Episcopalianism entailed of course a conversion from
    Unitarianism to trinitarianism. Though not always an active communicant, he
    remained an Episcopalian and a Trinitarian to the end of his life. And as
    late as 1907 we find a distant echo of Zina’s feminist version of the
    trinity. In outlining a draft of what turned out to be his best account of
    pragmatism within the framework of his general theory of signs, he then
    wrote: “A sign mediates between the Object and its Meaning . Object the
    father, sign the mother of meaning.” That is, he might have added, of their
    son, the Interpretant.

    Max Fisch , Writings of Charles S. Peirce, Vol 1, pp xxxi-xxxii

  67. Bryan Warnick (61): The Pragmatists reasons for being more interested in how the doctrine of the Trinity functions for us are similar to my reasons for preferring non-systematic theologies, such as narrative theology.

    Aaron (62): The references you refer us to do contain a number of things that look like they would be very helpful. Coming up with such references was one of the reasons that I thought to make the post in the first place: this is an important topic, but little has been done on it, and much of what has been done has not, I believe, done enough homework, enough looking at the traditional doctrine and the arguments for it.

    Julie (63): I think you are at least partially right when you say “the doctrine of the Trinity exists to avoid all the questions that arise once you say there are three different persons” in the Godhead. In addition to dealing with Gnosticism, in my mind perhaps the most important reason for the Council of Nicea, they were dealing with this problem. (Of course, the problems raised by the Gnostics weren’t mutually exclusive of the problems raised by this question.) As a Unitarian, you can assume on faith that there are three different persons who are “the one Holy Being.” But Mormons insist that there are three different persons, each of them a Holy Being. Is the question of what it means to say that they are one more conceptually difficult than the question of how they are three? I don’t know, but if not, then we could use the same response. My suspicion is that most Mormons, in fact, do.

    Jimbob (65): Whether the explanation of the nature of God should make sense to more than merely those who are bright is a good question. Whether it should make sense to the uncharitable is another, not as good, question. If I don’t read a document charitably, then I will find it easier to misread it. I don’t see how a charitable reading is avoidable. To read charitably does not mean to agree. It means to read “as if” I could be persuaded, as if I could agree.

    I’m sympathetic to the demand that any explanation of God’s nature ought to be something available to most or all humankind. In spite of that, I wonder. After all, there is more than one kind of explanation. The religious explanation ought to be available to all. But should we make the same requirement of a philosophical explanation? For example, it is not difficult to say what the LDS belief is concerning the nature of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost in religious terms, terms that virtually any person can understand. However, if we begin to think about some of the philosophical/theological questions that doctrine raises, it becomes more difficult. We don’t have to raise those questions. Doing so does not make us better people. But if we do raise them, they may require a certain amount of training and intelligence. It may be that only “the elites” will be able to deal with them–one more sign that they are not ultimately important. I doubt, however, that any LDS philosopher I know believes that the issues she or he deals with are ultimately important, any more than LDS plumbers and other craftsmen do.

    Blake (66): I pointed to the doctrine of substance because it is, I believe, precisely in the Catholic interpretation of Aristotle’s theory of substance that it becomes possible to speak of one unique being that, at the same time, has a plurality of persons. The logic works, I believe, in a way similar to the logic of transubstantiation, where one substance can have more than one set of accidents (the body of Christ can have, in the wafer, the accidents of unleavened bread).

    Clark (67): [PHILOSOPHY WARNING: IF YOU’RE NOT A FAN OF PHILOSOPHY, YOU MAY WISH TO SKIP WHAT FOLLOWS–but what are you doing reading this thread if you’re not a fan of philosophy?]

    I’m quite willing to recognize the connection between late 20th century French philosophy and Christian and Jewish neoPlatonism. I very much appreciated your recommendation of Sikah’s (spelling?) book for that very reason. However, as you say, “the older talk about Being and the Heideggerian talk about Being can’t be translated.” Exactly. Heidegger’s argument is that the older talk was a mistake, that it mistook being for a being rather than something like the openness of events.

    Traditionally, God was identified with (misunderstood) Being. Heidegger denies that such an understanding of being makes sense, so he denies the existence of that god. But that is not the same as denying the existence of God per se, something he did not do. His argument, the one I mentioned earlier and which, I believe, has been ignored by most theologians, is the one you outline: God must be understood ontically and not as Being [. . .] because we misunderstand what Being is.” For those who do not ignore the problem, the standard tack has been to argue for a God “beyond being,” as Marion does. The problem I have with that way of proceeding is that any sense I can make of the phrase “beyond being” applies as well to other persons and to the things in the world in themselves as it does to God. I don’t see being beyond being as something uniquely attributable to God nor necessarily separable from being a being.

    However, if we reject the metaphysical understanding of being, it isn’t clear to me that we can make sense of the doctrine of the Trinity. I don’t see how that doctrine is separable from its metaphysics. However, I recognize that it may be. Several 20th century theologians have put forth what I think to be very interesting and perhaps adequate arguments for transubstantiation that do not depend on the Thomistic metaphysics that is usually used to explain that belief. Perhaps someone could do the same for the Trinity. [END OF PHILOSOPHY WARNING]

    Carl G (70): Thank you very much for your additions to this discussion, both the discussion of the context of the Nicean Creed and the recommendations of literature. These are the kinds of things that anyone interested in pursuing this kind of project would need. I am, like you, predisposed to believe that the doctrine was intelligible–and, as you point out, little of the doctrine is even very controversial. The difference is that I’m just guessing and you have evidence for your predisposition.

    You are right, this would almost certainly be a topic for more than one person, something for a symposium or even something larger. You and I should talk about this.

  68. Jim, I just noticed your comments. I’ve no idea if you’ll notice these. Maybe I ought make a mention on LDS-Phil.

    I agree with your comments on Marion. Obviously the tact taken by Levinas (and I feel Derrida) to take the problem of God as Other and apply it to people as Other is important. That’s always been a large part of the kind of neoPlatonism one found in Kabbalism though, and I suspect that’s where Levinas picked up the approach. As for applying that to the Trinity, I think you simply bring out the central problem of postmodern theology. It seems to render creation ex nihilo problematic precisely because it undermines the person as Other and the God as Other distinction.

    I should add (as you know) that there is also the debate about the Khora versus hyper-ousia debate and whether there is a real difference between them. I’ll not bore everyone here over that debate. (Interestingly one of the people writing a major paper on Derrida and neoPlatonism sent me a pre-copy of it I’m reading – it deals with a lot of these issues)

    With regards to neoPlatonism and understanding God as being. I think that’s sort of what I’m getting at. I don’t think neoPlatonism does this inherently, although it often has. Iamblicus, I feel, takes neoPlotonism as adopting something much more akin to what I think the French tradition does. I think other neoPlatonists do as well and even some of the classic Christian neoPlatonists do. I think though that those neoPlatonists that allow for openness end up repressing the ontological divide between God and Man though.

    I pretty much stick with my claim that the bigger problem isn’t the Trinity proper, but creation ex nihilo. Although I’m obviously somewhat sympathetic to the idea that the two can’t always be separated.

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