Line upon Line
Gary James Bergera, editor
Defining the Contemporary Mormon Concept of God
[p.7]For centuries, believing Christians have tried to codify, clarify, and classify their many different doctrines of God. They have asked: Who is God? Who is the Son? Who is the Holy Ghost? Who is Jesus? Who is the Word? Who is the Father? How are they one? and How are they distinct?
The variety of answers to these and other questions has sometimes led to controversies of a life-or-death nature. In Mormon history disagreement over such doctrines was a major cause of dissension between Joseph Smith and one of his counselors in the First Presidency, William Law. Even today, a major difference between the LDS church and its fundamentalist offshoots concerns the doctrine of deity.
Because an individual’s concept of deity can affect his or her spiritual (and in many instances temporal) standing, it may be helpful to become familiar with the terms, classes, and categories used in discussing this topic. While analyzing a list of terms may not seem important—after all, it is understanding the doctrine of deity which is important, not so much the language used to express it—comparing and contrasting such theological ideas can result in a better understanding of many of the teachings about the nature of God.
Other Christians use a variety of terms to describe their concept of the Almighty, but there is no commonly recognized term to define the Mormon doctrine of deity. There are three ways we might wish to solve this problem: borrow an appropriate term; [p.8]combine or modify existing terms; or create new terms. The use of Christian terms is probably most useful, since it allows us to communicate more readily with the wider Christian community.
Of course, there are some problems in attempting to apply these terms to Mormonism. First, because of the complexity of ideas and the ambiguity of terms, it is seldom easy to define precisely any doctrine of deity. Second, doctrines of deity are often broadened, deepened, or in some way changed through continued pondering and debating and also through the passing of time. Thus, perfect consistency is not to be expected.
This tendency toward development is particularly apparent in Mormonism, because it denies that God’s revelation of himself reached its fullness at the beginning of the Christian era. Mormonism does not look back to a completed revelation; it seeks further insight through continuing revelation. There is no better example of this than Joseph Smith’s own doctrine of God, which clearly passed through stages of development—development which he himself acknowledged (see, for example, D&C 50:40; 42:61; 88:49; 121:28). In fact, Smith once indicated that it was not until he was working on the Book of Abraham (no earlier than 1835) that he had learned “that God, the Father of Jesus Christ, had a father … and that He had a Father also.”1 This concept of continuing revelation makes the defining of doctrine precarious and demonstrates the need for several terms to define Mormon doctrine at its various stages of development.
The terms describing different theological positions might best be organized into three groups of questions: (1) In Mormon doctrine how many gods are there? Specifically, is Mormon doctrine monotheistic, polytheistic, tritheistic, or henotheistic? (2) What is the Mormon concept of the Godhead? Unitarian, binitarian, or trinitarian? (3) And what is the Mormon doctrine of the oneness of the Godhead? Monarchian, modalistic, homoousion, or homoiousion?
Etymologically, monotheism means “one god.” But the term “one god” is subject to interpretation. One attempt to define Mormonism as monotheistic is that of Mormon General Authority Bruce R. McConkie, who states in Mormon Doctrine that monotheism, when properly interpreted, means “that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost–each of whom is a separate and distinct godly personage—are one [p.9]God, meaning one Godhead.”2 This, however, redefines monotheism and does not account for the fact that Mormonism teaches the existence of gods who are not the Father, Son, or Holy Ghost. Such a redefinition tends to confuse or mislead those who understand the term to refer more commonly to the belief in one supreme personal being without superiors, equals, or others of the same nature. The value of a term can be greatly diminished if it must be redefined.
Another way to define Mormonism as monotheistic was that of Apostle Orson Pratt and B. H. Roberts, of the Seventy, who believed in an impersonal power or attribute, the “Divine Nature,” which is shared by all who are gods. Roberts called this the “God of all other Gods.” This approach suggests that the “Divine Nature” is the one true God, thus making Mormonism monotheistic.3 However, such a theory has not been popular among Mormons and was even denounced by Brigham Young and other church authorities in 1860.4 In addition, it represents another misapplication of the term “monotheism.”
Some Mormon writers have argued that in its early stages Mormonism was monotheistic. For example, early Mormon scriptures—the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants–not only declare Father, Son, and Holy Ghost to be one God (D&C 20:27, 28; Al. 11:44) but state that Jesus and the Father are identical—that is, that Jesus was the Father come in the flesh (Mos. 7:27; 15:1-5; Eth. 4:12). In addition, several statements in early Mormon scriptures explicitly deny the existence of more than one God. For instance, in the Book of Alma, Amulek tells Zeezrom that there is one God only and explains that the Son of God is the very Eternal Father (Al. 11:26-39; cf. D&C 20:17-19; Moses 1:6).
At the same time, other passages do not appear to support simple monotheism. For example, throughout 3 Nephi a clear distinction is made between the Father who is in heaven and the Son who is on earth (3 Ne. 11:6-8, 32; 15:1, 18, 19; 18:27; 26:2, 5, 15). In addition, any argument on this point must consider Joseph Smith’s own interpretation of his early teachings. In 1844 he said, “I have always declared God to be a distinct personage, Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, and that the Holy Ghost was a distinct personage and a spirit.”5 Thus, that Mormonism initially was monotheistic can only be said with reservation, and it [p.10]would certainly be inaccurate to define Mormon doctrine since the 1840s as monotheistic.
Generally, Mormons have been unwilling to adopt the term “polytheism.” But since polytheism refers to a belief in the existence of more than one god—clearly a Mormon doctrine—why have Latter-day Saints refused to use this common term to define their doctrine of God? The answer is that while the term is appropriate, the technical definition is not the only consideration in this instance. Through the centuries, polytheism has been used to refer to ancient systems of gods totally foreign, if not repugnant, to contemporary Mormonism. As a result, tradition has imbued it with a negative connotation. Today, only Mormonism’s opponents apply the term “polytheism” to LDS beliefs. A more acceptable term to Mormons is “plurality of gods.” This phrase conveys the doctrine of many gods without polytheism’s negative connotations.
Literally, tritheism means three gods. The term was coined in the sixth century by opponents of John Philopon to refer to what they considered to be a heretical doctrine of the Godhead. “According to him, there are many men each with his own essence but `through their common form all men are one,’ so that in this sense they all have the same essence. In similar fashion he conceived the relation of the three persons of the Trinity.”6 Because Philopon saw the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost as having distinct natures, his detractors claimed that he believed in three Gods, although it is unclear if he would have actually confessed such a belief.
Joseph Smith, on the other hand, did believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost “constitute[d] three distinct personages and three Gods.”7 Thus tritheism may be a valuable term for discussing Mormon doctrine. It is simple and transparent, and although created by opponents of the idea, it does not have polytheism’s negative connotation. However, it does refer only to three gods in the Godhead without acknowledging the existence of other gods.
Henotheism is the worship of one God while acknowledging, or at least not denying, the existence of other gods. At first glance, this term seems to apply to contemporary Mormonism, especially in light of this statement from Joseph Smith’s last public discourse: “I say there are Gods many and Lords many, but to us only one, and we are to be in subjection to that one.”8 However, it is important to understand that the term was invented by a nineteenth-[p.11]century German scholar, Max Mueller, to refer to what he and others believed was the faith of early Israel and denotes the worship of a god who is confined to a specific geographical area. For example, some scholars believe that originally Jehovah was the god of Sinai whose jurisdiction did not extend to Canaan, which was another god’s territory. Thus while the basic concept is similar to Mormonism, henotheism would probably not accurately communicate Mormon beliefs to those familiar with the technical use of the term.
The terms “unitarian,” “binitarian,” and “trinitarian” have all been used to describe the Godhead. Unitarianism, which holds that there is but one member of the Godhead, is committed to the idea of oneness–one God, one person, one nature. This concept was proclaimed by a sizeable number of early Christians prior to the formulation of the trinitarian creeds of the fourth and fifth centuries. However, the term “unitarian” was coined in 1600 to identify a strong anti-trinitarian movement which started in Europe and was transplanted to America in the eighteenth century. In the United States, the unitarian controversy peaked between 1815 and 1833 in New England, where Joseph Smith spent his early years.
Some writers have suggested that Mormon doctrine was initially unitarian. However, this assertion seems unlikely. One of the central theological issues of the 1820s was the deity of Jesus Christ. The Unitarians denied that Jesus was God.9 Yet this teaching is precisely the opposite of that taught in the Book of Mormon, which, beginning with the title page, repeatedly declares the deity of Jesus Christ. Mormonism certainly does not accept unitarian doctrine today, nor does it appear ever to have done so.
The term “binitarian” was coined in 1890 to refer to some early Christian theologians who believed in two persons in the Godhead. While the term does not describe Mormon doctrine since the 1840s, there is one important doctrinal statement which seems to have a binitarian emphasis. The “Lectures on Faith,” which appeared in all editions of the Doctrine and Covenants from 1835 to 1921, states that “there are two personages who constitute the great, matchless, governing and supreme power over all things… . They are the Father and the Son.” Elsewhere it instructs, “How many personages are there in the Godhead? Two: the Father and the Son.” The lecture goes on to teach that these two personages possess the same mind, “which mind is the Holy Spirit … and these constitute [p.12]the Godhead, and are one.” This lecture does not present the Holy Ghost as a spirit being, a doctrine taught a few years later. I believe there is value in using the term “binitarian” in reference to the doctrine of this period.
The first person to use the term “trinity” was apparently early Latin church father Tertullian at the beginning of the third century. Since that time it has been used loosely to refer to virtually any idea which mentions three and one in reference to the Godhead. However, around the fifth or sixth century, the term acquired a precise definition, which provides the basis for meaningful use of the term and which is perhaps best expressed in the Athanasian Creed: three distinct persons of one undivided substance.
Throughout history many Christians have departed from the strict doctrine of this creed, emphasizing either the oneness or the threeness. Some have declared the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost to be only one divine person; others have declared that the divine substance is divided into Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and have been charged with tritheism. However, these extremes cannot technically be called trinitarianism.
Has Mormon doctrine ever been trinitarian? A number of Mormon writers have used the word “trinity” to define the Mormon doctrine of the Godhead, including apostles James E. Talmage10 and Richard L. Evans.11 Nevertheless, such usage redefines the term. The technical denotation does not apply to contemporary Mormonism.
Some have claimed that the Book of Mormon and other early revelations suggest that Mormon doctrine began as trinitarian. However, this also must be rejected since these same early Mormon writings so emphasize the oneness of the Father and the Son as to declare “that the Son is the Father, and the Father is the Son” (Joseph Smith Translation, Luke 10:23; cf. Mos. 15; 16:15; Al. 11:38, 39; Eth. 4:12; 3:14).
Finally, what of the Mormon doctrine of the oneness of the Godhead? Is it monarchian, modalistic, homoousion, or homoiousion?
Monarchianism was coined by Tertullian to denote a doctrine which flourished in the third century. It resulted from some Christians who wanted to avoid any possible charge of polytheism by proclaiming the oneness of God and by accounting for Jesus and the Holy Ghost in a manner which could not in any way be thought [p.13]to compromise that oneness. In other words, it was strict monotheism.
This doctrine appears in two forms. The first is dynamic monarchianism. “Dynamic” means “power” and refers to the doctrine that the power of the one God rested upon Jesus, who was not himself a god. Since Mormonism has always taught that Jesus was God before coming in the flesh (see Mos. 3:5; 4:2; 7:27; 1 Ne. 11:16), there appears to be no value in applying this term to any doctrine in LDS history.
The second form is modalism, which teaches that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are not three persons or distinctions but rather three modes of divine expression of the one God. This doctrine proclaims both the oneness of God and the deity of Jesus. While this concept is foreign to current Mormon doctrine, there are similarities between the teachings of several early modalists and some statements in the Book of Mormon. For example, Tertullian records one modalist teaching at the beginning of the third century that “the Father Himself came down into the Virgin, and was Himself born of her, Himself suffered, indeed was Himself Jesus Christ.”12 The concept that Jesus Christ was the Father, took upon himself flesh by birth, and suffered for humanity seems to be taught in several Book of Mormon passages (Mos. 7:27; 13:34; 15:1-5; 16:15; Eth. 3:14; 4:7-12).
But before concluding that modalism is the term to define Mormon doctrine, it must be recognized that the Book of Mormon contains several other passages which seem to contradict the oneness of modalism (e.g., 3 Ne. 11:6-8, 32; 15:1, 18, 19; 18:27; 26:2, 5, 15). Thus, while there may be value in using modalism to discuss Book of Mormon doctrine, one would be well advised to avoid using the term comprehensively.
Two other terms worth examining are “homoousion” and “homoiousion”—Greek words which figured prominently in the theological controversies of the fourth century. “Homoousios” was the term used in the Nicene Creed to identify the substance of the Son as the substance of the Father. That is, the Son was considered by some as homoousios (of the same substance) with the Father. The term “homoiousios,” on the other hand, was used by some opponents of the Nicene Creed to declare that the Son was not of the same substance but rather of like substance with the Father. [p.14]Homoiousios might well be used to define Mormon doctrine, which does declare the Father and the Son to be of like substance but not of the same substance.
By now it should be clear that even though Mormon doctrine can be compared and contrasted to a dozen Christian terms, a precise theological term for the Mormon doctrine of deity is still not readily available. One solution might be to create an entirely new category, such as B. H. Roberts’s phrase, “the Mormon doctrine of deity.” But this is too vague. Another solution might be to combine historic theological terms to define the Mormon doctrine of deity as a development from a homoousion, modalistic monarchian form of monotheism to homoiousion, tritheistic henotheism. But this much technical jargon is too cumbersome for anyone to take seriously.
Perhaps there is some solace in our as-yet unfruitful quest for precise definition. For should we ever succeed in producing the terminology to define the contemporary Mormon doctrine of deity, we might also succumb to the long-resisted temptation to produce a rigid Mormon creed, stifling the open-ended nature of revelation and suppressing the possibility of acquiring new insights in the future.
1. Joseph Smith et al., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2nd ed. rev., 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1932-51), 6:476 (hereafter HC, followed by volume and page numbers).
3. See Truman G. Madsen, “The Meaning of Christ–The Truth, The Way, The Life: An Analysis of B. H. Roberts’s Unpublished Masterwork,” Brigham Young University Studies 15 (Spring 1975), 3:289; Gary James Bergera, “The Orson Pratt-Brigham Young Controversies: Conflict Within the Quorums, 1853 to 1868,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 13 (Summer 1980), 2:11.