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The Doctrinal Exclusion: Trinity and the Nature of God

by Stephen E. Robinson

It has been said that since Latter-day Saints do not accept the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, it follows that they cannot be considered Christians. Here again the heart of the argument lies in the definition of its terms. Specifically the logical problem with this argument is that non-LDS Christians usually define the term trinity ambiguously. They habitually, and most often unconsciously, equate the biblical teaching on the nature of the Godhead with the later philosophical statement formulated at the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451 --the Nicene Creed.1 But these two ways of perceiving God are simply not equivalent.

What Is the Trinity?

If by "the doctrine of the Trinity" one means the New Testament teaching that there is a Father, a Son, and a Holy Ghost, all three of whom are fully divine, then Latter-day Saints believe in the doctrine of the Trinity. It is as simple as that. The Latter-day Saints' first article of faith, written by Joseph Smith in 1842, states, "We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost." (See Articles of Faith) Baptisms in the Church are performed "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" (see D&C 20:73). The prayer of blessing on the sacrament of the Lord's Supper is addressed to God the Eternal Father in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, to the end that those who partake may have his Spirit to be with them (see D&C 20:77-79). (See Sacrament Prayers) Latter-day Saints thoroughly agree with the biblical doctrine of the threefold nature of the Godhead and of the divinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. (See Teachings About the Godhead; Do Latter-day Saints believe in a different Jesus?)

However, if by "the doctrine of the Trinity" one means the doctrine formulated by the councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon and elaborated upon by subsequent theologians and councils--that God is three coequal persons in one substance or essence--then Latter-day Saints do not believe it. They do not believe it, because it is not biblical. Words central to the orthodox understanding of the Trinity --words like coequal, consubstantial, and circumincession, or the word trinity itself, for that matter--are not found in scripture. 2 The term trinity (Latin trinitas) was first used by Tertullian around the beginning of the third century A.D. 3 The Nicene and Chalcedonian Fathers tried to find scriptural terms for their new formulae but were unable to do so.

The scriptures themselves do not offer any explanation of how the threeness and the oneness of God are related. The biblical writers were singularly uninterested in that problem or in questions dealing with God's essence, his substance, or the philosophical definition of his nature. These later concerns are elaborations upon the biblical doctrine of God, elaborations formulated to answer in philosophically respectable terms the questions and objections of Hellenistic thinking concerning the primitive Christian doctrine. 4 Christian intellectuals of the fourth and fifth centuries felt that the biblical language was too unsophisticated and inadequate for this purpose, and so they attempted to supplement and improve it with their own best efforts.

Did the Councils Write Scripture?

The Latter-day Saints accept both the oneness and the threeness of God--both are biblical. They reject, however, the attempts of the postbiblical church to define, for the sake and in the language of the philosophers, how the oneness and the threeness of God are related- attempts which amounted to putting words in God's mouth. If a proposition is not already found in the Bible, by what authority--in the absence of Apostles and prophets--can it be imposed on the church as the word of God? How can mere theologians expand upon or correct the doctrine of the Apostles? Can theologians add to the scriptures? Yet when the Latter-day Saints reject the doctrines of Nicaea and Chalcedon, which are clearly additions to the biblical teaching, they are accused of rejecting the scriptural view of God. This is simply a misrepresentation, unless one defines the words of the councils as supplemental scripture. Latter-day Saints do not believe that the words of the councils constitute additional scripture, and therefore they refuse to let the Nicene tail wag the biblical dog.

It is absurdly contradictory to say on the one hand, as some critics of the Latter-day Saints do, that the Bible alone is sufficient for salvation (the doctrine of sola scriptura) and then to add that one must also believe the creeds in addition to the Bible in order to even be a Christian. Some may respond that the creeds and teachings of the councils are merely useful as historically accepted summaries of the biblical doctrines, but this is not a fair assessment. Anyone who has passed freshman English knows that a true summary cannot introduce concepts or information not found in the material being summarized. And there is no passage of scripture or combination of scriptures for which the doctrine of an abstract, absolute, transcendent, consubstantial, coeternal unity in trinity existing unknowably and incomprehensibly without body, parts, or passions and outside space and time can be called a fair "summary." There is a vast difference between a summary and an elaboration.

Modern scholars know that the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity not only differs from but also introduces new concepts to the biblical view. One such scholar notes, "It is clearly impossible (if one accepts historical evidence as relevant at all) to escape the claim that the later formulations of dogma cannot be reached by a process of deductive logic from the original propositions and must contain an element of novelty." 5 Further on this same scholar concludes, "The emergence of the full trinitarian doctrine was not possible without significant modification of previously accepted ideas." 6

Thus the Latter-day Saints simply prefer to do without such conciliar "summaries" and to stick to the scriptures themselves. The unsummarized Bible is fine just as it is; bring forward any creed composed entirely of scriptural passages and the Latter-day Saints will heartily affirm every word.

The Trinity in the New Testament

It is a matter of record that the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity is a postbiblical development -- it is simply not found in the New Testament. In one of the major Christian treatments of the doctrine of the Trinity, Jesuit scholar Edmund J. Fortman, having examined the various parts of the New Testament individually, notes that "there is no trinitarian doctrine in the Synoptics or Acts." He also observes that in the New Testament "nowhere do we find any trinitarian doctrine of three distinct subjects of divine life and activity in the same Godhead," and that "in John there is no trinitarian formula." 7 Concerning the letters of Paul, Fortman states:

These passages give no doctrine of the Trinity, but they show that Paul linked together Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They give no trinitarian formula. . . but they offer material for the later development of trinitarian doctrine. . . . [Paul] has no formal trinitarian doctrine and no clear-cut realization of a trinitarian problem, but he furnishes much material for the later development of a trinitarian doctrine. 8

After examining all parts of the New Testament, Fortman concludes that the classical doctrine of the Trinity is not biblical:

There is no formal doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament writers, if this means an explicit teaching that in one God there are three co-equal divine persons. But the three are there, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and a triadic ground plan is there, and triadic formulas are there . . . .The Biblical witness to God, as we have seen, did not contain any formal or formulated doctrine of the Trinity, any explicit teaching that in one God there are three co-equal divine persons. 9

Latter-day Saints couldn't agree more. Biblical theology, like LDS theology, affirms the threefold nature of the Godhead; but, also like LDS theology, biblical theology lacks any indication of a Nicene understanding. The scholarly consensus is further affirmed in Harper's Bible Dictionary: "The formal doctrine of the Trinity as it was defined by the great church councils of the fourth and fifth centuries is not to be found in the New Testament." 10

In his sketch of Paul's theology, J. Fitzmyer notes that the Apostle's views as stated in the biblical text are unclear and undeveloped from a post-Nicene point of view: "This double series of texts manifests Paul's lack of clarity in his conception of the relation of the Spirit to the Son. Paul shares with the OT a more fluid notion of personality than the later theological refinements of nature, substance, and person. His lack of clarity should be respected for what it is and be regarded only as the starting point of the later development."11 In other words, from an orthodox perspective Paul didn't understand the nature of God as clearly as the theologians of the fourth century. If Paul's views had first been proposed after the Council of Nicaea, they would have been viewed as inadequate or even as defective. The Latter-day Saints prefer to think that Paul's conception of the nature of God is clearer and more authoritative than all the theologians and philosophers after him combined. After all, it was Paul that spoke with the risen Lord and was caught up to the third heaven, not the theologians (Acts 9:3-6; 2 Corinthians 12:2-4).

Furthermore, even orthodox writers and theologians now admit the difficulty of identifying the post-Nicene view as biblical:

Trinitarian discussion, Roman Catholic as well as other, presents a somewhat unsteady silhouette.

Two things have happened. There is the recognition on the part of exegetes and Biblical theologians, including a constantly growing number of Roman Catholics, that one should not speak of Trinitarianism in the New Testament without serious qualification. There is also the closely parallel recognition on the part of historians of dogma and systematic theologians that when one does speak of an unqualified Trinitarianism, one has moved from the period of Christian origins to, say, the last quadrant of the 4th century. 12

The Trinity in Early Christian Writings

Other Christians besides the Latter-day Saints have perceived the nature of God in non-Nicene terms without being declared non-Christian. We saw above that by Nicene standards even the Apostle Paul is viewed as "lacking clarity" on the nature of God. In addition the Apostolic Fathers and the Greek Apologists of the second century, many of whom were Christian saints, also conceived of God in terms that were defective as judged by post-Nicene orthodoxy. According to Fortman, the classical doctrine of the Trinity wasn't a part of Christianity in the apostolic period or in the early second century, either. Speaking of the Apostolic Fathers, he writes, "There is in them, of course, no trinitarian doctrine and no awareness of a trinitarian problem."13

Other scholars, the best in the field, agree in almost the same words. In his work Early Christian Doctrines, J. N. D. Kelly writes of the second-century Apostolic Fathers, "Of a doctrine of the Trinity in the strict sense there is of course no sign, although the Church's triadic formula left its mark everywhere." 14 Elsewhere in this same work, Kelly states, "The Church had to wait for more than three hundred years for a final synthesis, for not until the Council of Constantinople (381) was the formula of one God existing in three coequal Persons formally ratified." 15

Many of the Apologists were subordinationist in their doctrine of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. This means that they conceived of the Son and the Spirit not as coequal, coeternal and consubstantial, but as subordinate Gods, contingent Gods, or even as creatures of God whose divinity is dependent upon the Father. Even orthodox scholars admit this, though often gingerly and apologetically:

Where the doctrine [of the Trinity] was elaborated, as e.g. in the writings of the Apologists, the language remained on the whole indefinite, and, from a later standpoint, was even partly unorthodox. Sometimes it was not free from a certain subordinationism. 16

It [subordinationism] is a characteristic tendency in much Christian teaching of the first three centuries, and is a marked feature of such otherwise orthodox Fathers as St. Justin and Origen.17

Johannes Quasten says of Saint Justin Martyr--who saw Christ as "a second God, second numerically but not in will"--that "Justin tends to subordinationism as far as the relation between the Logos and the Father is concerned." 18 Until Origen the Apologists understood the Logos (Christ) to have become the Son only after his expression from the Father, contrary to the teaching of Nicaea, and they did not clearly distinguish between the Logos and the Holy Ghost. 19 In short, by strict Nicene standards, the earlier Christian Apologists were incorrect in their perception of God. Modern scholars and theologians are intensely defensive of these early writers, however, and insist that it is "grossly unfair" to judge the Apologists or question their orthodoxy on the basis of post-Nicene theology. 20 I agree; but I must also insist that if the Apostolic Fathers and the Greek Apologists can be hotly defended as genuine Christians, though they lack Nicene orthodoxy, then Nicene orthodoxy cannot at the same time be proposed as a necessary condition for genuine Christianity.

Furthermore, modern scholars have shown that the Nicene doctrine was not understood in "orthodox" terms even by the bishops that first drafted it. The interpretation of the language and the consequent perception of the Godhead in the minds of the Nicene Fathers were not exactly those of later orthodox theologians. 21 Even though Eusebius of Caesarea, the "Father of Church History," signed the Nicene document, he was a thorough subordinationist who maintained that "everyone must admit the Father is prior to and pre-exists the Son," and that the existence of the Son depended upon a specific premeditated act by the pre-existing Father. 22 This is not orthodox trinitarian doctrine. The same subordinationist doctrine in the theology of the Latter-day Saints is labelled "non-Christian" by orthodox critics, but let it be remembered that Eusebius the subordinationist was one of the bishops who attended the ancient council and signed the creed!

Now, please note that I am not resorting to heterodox writers--Gnostics, Marionettes, and so on --for evidence here. I am referring to only the mainstream writers of Christian orthodoxy--the New Testament writers, the Apostolic Fathers, the Greek Apologists, and the Nicene Fathers themselves--to provide examples of Christians whose doctrine of God was not that of later trinitarianism. If Latter-day Saints can be criticized for not perceiving the biblical God in the same terms as other Christians, then many early Christian writers, saints, and theologians must be criticized on the same grounds. It is just not historically correct that all true Christians have, from the beginning, perceived God in exactly the same trinitarian terms.

It is not my aim here to attempt a refutation of the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity. While Latter-day Saints do not believe it, they do not accuse those who do believe it of being non-Christian. The Nicene doctrine is one way in which the biblical data can be interpreted, though it is one with which the Latter-day Saints disagree.

But I don't need to disprove the Nicene view for the purposes of my argument. For if Jesus didn't teach the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity; if the New Testament writers didn't have any conception of it; if the Apostolic Fathers didn't know about it or even appreciate the problems associated with it; and if the formula itself wasn't even developed until the fourth century and, even then, those who signed it didn't understand it in completely orthodox terms; then one cannot maintain that the Nicene doctrine, as interpreted by modern trinitarians, is essential to true Christianity, unless of course one wants to say that there weren't any true Christians before the fourth century- including Jesus, his disciples, and the New Testament Church.

The Trinity Today

Even today the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity is not understood in exactly the same way by all orthodox Christians. Beginning in the eighth century and officially since the eleventh century, Roman Catholics and Protestants have added the Latin phrase filioque (and from the Son) to the original text of the "Nicene" Creed 23 at the point in which that document says that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. Thus, in the Western churches the orthodox doctrine says that the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and from the Son (filioque), like a torch being lit simultaneously by two other torches. But in the Eastern churches it is maintained that the Holy Spirit, like the Son, proceeds from the Father alone, as when one torch lights first a second and then a third.

The Eastern churches hotly reject the addition of the filioque clause to the Nicene Creed as an unauthorized distortion of the doctrine of the Trinity. Frank Gavin observes, "No single difference between East and West has aroused so much bitterness on the part of Orthodox writers as has the matter of the Filioque." 24 Theologians of the Eastern churches insist that the filioque introduces a false concept of the nature of God--even a false god-into Christianity: "By the dogma of the Filioque [the Western Trinity] the God of the philosophers and savants is introduced into the place of the Living God . . . . By the dogma of the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father alone [the Eastern Trinity], the God of the philosophers is forever banished from the Holy of Holies." 25

Because of this issue of the filioque, then, Eastern Christians and Western Christians have different concepts of the nature of the Trinity. This may seem like a small detail to nontheologians, but it is a dispute over the very nature of God, and it is serious enough to have separated the theologies of the East and West for nine hundred years.

Latter-day Saints believe in the biblical Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, but we are accused of being non-Christians because our concept of their nature differs from that of other Christians. The filioque dispute is also a dispute over God's nature. If the argument used to exclude Latter-day Saints holds, and all true Christians must share the same concept of the Trinity, then either the Eastern or the Western church, and more likely the latter, 26 is not truly Christian. On the other hand, if dissimilar conceptions of the Trinity are allowed to Christians on both sides of the filioque dispute, then the original argument is discredited--differing conceptions of the nature of the Trinity do not necessarily render individuals non-Christian.

Ultimately, being Christian is less a matter of perceiving God in the same Nicene or Chalcedonian terms as other Christians do, and more a matter of perceiving God in the same biblical terms as the first Christians did. Did the atonement of Christ save first-century Corinthians and Galatians, even though they did not conceive of God in Nicene terms? Of course it did. And if that is true, then the atonement of Christ can and will save faithful Latter-day Saints who accept the New Testament witness yet do not conceive of God in Nicene terms.

"God Is a Spirit"

Editor's Note: See the Is God a Spirit? article in the Accusatory Questions section for more information on this topic.

The Latter-day Saint concept of God differs from that of Nicene orthodoxy in more than just the latter's trinitarian doctrine. The Latter-day Saints teach that God the Father is an anthropomorphic being--that is, that he has a tangible body: "The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man's; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit. Were it not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us." (D&C 130:22 .)

Some critics of the Latter-day Saints have argued that belief in an anthropomorphic Deity represents a departure not merely from the Nicene conception of God but from the biblical teaching as well, since John 4:24 teaches very clearly that "God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth." But the Latter-day Saints do not dispute this passage at all, unless it is interpreted as limiting God to being merely a spirit. For even trinitarians must interpret John 4:24 in a way that allows for the corporeality of the resurrected Christ. Two of the most fundamental teachings of the New Testament are that Christ is genuinely God and that he is at the same time genuinely corporeal, both in his incarnation and in his bodily resurrection. Since the trinitarian God must include the person of the Son--who is a physically resurrected being --the statement "God is a Spirit" cannot be understood, even from a Nicene perspective, as limiting God in all contexts to noncorporeality.

Actually John 4:24 should be translated "God is Spirit" rather than "God is a Spirit," for there is no indefinite article (a, an) in the Greek language, and it is always a matter of subjective judgment as to when the translator should add one. The consensus among biblical scholars is that there should not be an indefinite article at John 4:24. C. H. Dodd insists that "to translate [John 4:24] 'God is a Spirit' is the most gross perversion of the meaning.'' 27 According to Raymond E. Brown the passage at John 4:24

is not an essential definition of God, but a description of God's dealing with men; it means that God is Spirit toward men because He gives the Spirit (xiv 16) which begets them anew. There are two other such descriptions in the Johannine writings: "God is light" (1 John i 5), and "God is love" (1 John iv 8). These too refer to the God who acts; God gives the world His Son, the light of the world (iii 19, viii 12, ix 5) as a sign of His love (iii 16). 28

Just as God is not limited to being light and nothing else by 1 John 1: 5, or to being love and nothing else by 1 John 4: 8, so he is not limited to being spirit and nothing else by John 4:24--unless one assumes with the Greeks that spirit and matter are mutually exclusive, opposing categories. That God is spirit does not limit him to being a spirit any more than his being worshipped in spirit (John 4:24) requires worshippers to first jettison their physical bodies.

Like first-century Jewish Christians, the Latter-day Saints do not understand the categories of "spirit" and "element" to be mutually exclusive. According to Joseph Smith, "there is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes" (D&C 131:7). Thus Latter-day Saints understand the term spiritual to mean "infused with spirit," whereas Hellenized Christianity would understand it to mean "incorporeal." For the Latter-day Saints, being spiritual or being spirit does not imply being incorporeal. For example, D&C 93:33 indicates that even "man is spirit," though man is definitely corporeal as well. 29 Spirit and element are both compatible parts of the eternal whole. A strict mind/body or spirit/element dualism was foreign to Judaism and earliest Christianity until it was introduced by Hellenistic thinking. In the LDS view God’s spirit, but he is not merely a spirit.

Latter-day Saints sometimes give the mistaken impression that because they believe the Father has a body "as tangible as man's," they believe him to be corporeal in the limited human sense. But this is not the case. God is spirit, but he is also element; both aspects of existence are included and encompassed within his glorious being. That he is either one does not limit the fact that he is also the other--and infinitely more.

God as a Spirit

Moreover, for the Latter-day Saints God most certainly is a spirit when manifest in the person of the Holy Ghost--"the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit" (D&C 130:22). In the vast majority of cases, when human beings encounter or experience God, it is God manifest in the person of the Holy Ghost. This is the "gift" given to Christians in conversion and confirmation (Acts 2:38; 8:17; Luke 11:13). The Holy Ghost is both the Comforter and the Spirit of inspiration. It is undisputed both by LDS and non-LDS Christians that God is experienced as a spirit (the Holy Ghost) in most of the contexts in which human beings encounter him.

God as a Corporeal Bring

Nevertheless, despite John 4:24 there are many other scriptures clearly teaching that, in the person of Jesus Christ, God also has a tangible body. This doctrine of the incarnation is common to Mormons and non-Mormons alike. After his resurrection, Jesus assured the Apostles that he was not merely a spirit: "Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have" (Luke 24:39). The logic is not difficult: Jesus is God; Jesus has a body of flesh and bones; therefore, God, in the person of the resurrected Son, has a body of flesh and bones. Since both LDS Christians and orthodox Christians affirm the doctrines of the incarnation and bodily resurrection of God the Son, then in the person of the Son, God must be understood to have a tangible body.

Since God, or the Godhead, consists of three persons for Latter-day Saints and trinitarians alike, it does not seem to me any more outrageous or un-Christian to think of the Father as corporeal, as the Son is corporeal, than to think of him as a personage of spirit, like the Holy Ghost. Both Mormons and non-Mormons accept that "God is Spirit," but since the New Testament does not specify whether that means the Father has "a tangible body infused with spirit" or is "incorporeal" (both phraseologies are unbiblical), neither interpretation is more or less biblical or "Christian" than the other.

Nor can one argue, as Hellenized theology often did, that possession of a tangible body is somehow incompatible with divinity, for the Bible has already established both the tangible body (Luke 24:39) and the full divinity (John 1:1) of the resurrected Son. If God the Son can be fully divine and yet possess flesh and bones, there is no a priori reason why God the Father could not have a body also--unless, of course, one insists on strictly Platonic definitions of God. 30

The God of the Philosophers

The real objection to the LDS belief in an anthropomorphic Father comes not from the Hebraic world of the first Christians, nor from Jesus and his Jewish disciples, nor from their Judeo-Christian writings. The real objections are rooted in the God of the philosophers, in the Hellenistic conception of God as an absolute being--abstract, ultimate, and transcendent. The LDS God is the God of the Hebrew Bible, but he is not the God of the philosophers. Regarding these two differing perceptions of God, Shaye J. D. Cohen observes:

The God of the Hebrew Bible is very different from the supreme God of Plato or Aristotle. The former is an anthropomorphic being capable of anger, joy, and other emotions, who created the world and continues to direct human affairs. The God of the philosophers, however, was a much less human and much more abstract figure, incapable of emotion, and far removed from the daily concerns of humanity. Many Jews tried to combine these two conceptions, or, more precisely, to reinterpret the God of the Bible in the light of the ideas of the philosophers, especially Plato. . . . This approach to scripture was developed even further by Origen, Ambrose, and other fathers of the church. 31

The God of the Nicene Council is, in a sense, a convert. He represents the God of the Hebrew scriptures converted into nonbiblical, philosophical terms. While the Nicene God was a divinity with whom the Hellenistic Christians of the fourth and fifth centuries could feel more intellectually comfortable than with the God described in the "primitive" language of the New Testament, he was no longer the God of first-century Jewish Christianity. Cohen continues:

The God of the Hebrew Bible is for the most part an anthropomorphic and anthropopathic being, that is, a God who has the form and emotions of humans .... The God of the philosophers is a different sort of being altogether: abstract (the Prime Mover, the First Cause, the Mind or Soul of the Universe, etc.), immutable and relatively unconcerned with the affairs of humanity. . . . Popular piety does not need or want an immutable and shapeless Prime Mover; it wants a God who reveals himself to people, listens to prayer, and can be grasped in human terms. This is the God of the Shema, the Bible, and the liturgy. This is the God of practically all the Hebrew and Aramaic, and some of the Greek, Jewish literature of antiquity. It is not, however, the God of the philosophers. 32

Nor is the concept of an anthropomorphic Deity so bizarre and foreign to Christianity that it must put the Latter-day Saints beyond the Christian pale. To cite but one example, as late as the fourth and fifth centuries most of the Christian monks of Egypt, relying on biblical passages for their concept of God the Father, believed him to have a human form. For this reason they are often referred to as "anthropomorphites." Following the Council of Constantinople in 381, however, such views were more frequently suppressed, and the new orthodoxy, in the face of considerable resistance, was imposed more stringently upon the holy monks of the desert monasteries. In 399, when a letter from Theophilus, the bishop of Alexandria, insisted that the biblical description of God was only allegorical and that the monks must not attribute to God any anthropomorphic characteristics, one Sarapion, an elderly monk of great reputation, found himself unable to pray to the new God, this God of the philosophers, at all. Falling on the ground he groaned: "Woe is me! They have taken my God away from me, and I have none to grasp, and I know not whom to adore or to address."33 Ultimately the anthropomorphite monks simply rebelled and refused to accept the new view, successfully forcing their bishop Theophilus into an abrupt about-face. 34

A God without Passions

In actual practice the vast majority of modern Christians, like the monk Sarapion, conceive of God in quite concrete and anthropomorphic terms. Despite the objections of theologians, Christians insist on praying to a loving Heavenly Father, "naively" conceived as anthropomorphic according to the biblical model. Yet, according to the strict orthodoxy of the councils and creeds, God is not really our Father in anything but an allegorical or adoptive sense; nor does he exist in heaven in the sense of having location;" 35 nor does he love us in the sense of actually feeling, of being moved by any emotion. The philosophers who had gained control of Christian theology felt that if God could be located in any one place, then he was subject to the limit of location and was not absolute, and hence, according to Greek definitions, not God. The Greek God could not be subject to either time or space. Similarly the Greek ideal held that God must be apatheia (impassible), without passions or emotions. Otherwise, his will would be subject to his emotions and feelings, and in the Greek view God cannot be subject to anything. This is why the God of the philosophers must be not only without body but also without passions (feelings and emotions). 36 Van A. Harvey explains:

Impassibility means not capable of being affected or acted upon and has been attributed to God alone in classical theism and Christian Orthodoxy. The presupposition of this attribution is the Greek idea that passibility involves potentiality, and potentiality, change. . . . Since Biblical and Hebraic thought is marked throughout by the conviction that God is a loving, compassionate being who acts, the attribution of [impassibility] has always constituted something of a problem for classical theologians. 37

Augustine and others went to great lengths to insist that just as the corporeal references to God in the Bible must be reinterpreted in a noncorporeal way, so also all references to emotions in God must be interpreted in a nonemotive sense. For example, Augustine stated: "Now when God is said [in the Bible] to be angry, we do not attribute to him such a disturbed feeling as exists in the mind of an angry man; we merely refer to his just displeasure against sin by the term 'anger,' a word transferred by analogy from human emotions." 38 So in Augustine's mind God does not actually feel the emotion of anger. The big problem, of course, is that love is also an emotion, a passion, and the scriptures insist on the love of God ("God is love," "For God so loved the world," and so on). The philosophers got around this problem by simply redefining love whenever it was applied to God, so that for them divine love was not an emotion. Augustine defined the love of God as a function of His reason and will alone--God feels nothing. Thus, according to the ancient theologians, love as humans know it in an emotive sense has nothing to do with God, the statements of the scriptures notwithstanding. Neither can God have genuine compassion or empathy for human suffering, except as those terms are redefined to eliminate the element of feeling. 39 In this way the language of scripture--the bare words themselves--are retained, but their meaning is completely subverted by philosophical concerns.

Of course the greatest passion of all was the suffering of Christ in Gethsemane and on the cross. Thus the central fact of the Christian gospel was also the biggest obstacle to embracing the absolutely nonbiblical Greek ideal of an impassible God --a God who cannot suffer. This obstacle was finally overcome in 451 A.D. at the Council of Chalcedon, when the theologians declared that unlike all other entities, which have a single essence or nature, Jesus Christ must have had two natures, one human and one divine. 40 It was the human nature that suffered on the cross --the divine nature, the pre-existent Son of God, didn't feel a thing. The human Jesus may have suffered and died for sinners, but the divine Son of God never did!

Did the divine, pre-existent Word, God the Son, actually become human in his nature and then suffer and die for humanity? The Latter-day Saint answer is an emphatic yes; but the orthodox Council of Chalcedon said no, the Bible is not to be taken literally on these points. 41 According to the Tome of Pope Leo the Great, which was approved at the council,

to pay the debt that we had incurred, an inviolable nature was united to a nature that can suffer. . . . Each nature preserves its own characteristics without diminution, so that the form of a servant does not detract from the form of God. . . . Each nature performs its proper functions in communion with the other; the Word performs what pertains to the Word, the flesh what pertains to the flesh. 42

Thus Chalcedon provided a formula by which the theologians could maintain contradictory propositions--that God suffered, because of the corporate identity of the two natures in Christ, and that God did not suffer, because of the strict distinction between the two natures. The formula allowed orthodoxy to affirm with the New Testament that Christ suffered while agreeing with Plato that God is impassible. Most modern Christians are unaware of the doctrine at all and naively talk about a God who suffers, but those who are conversant with the fine points of orthodoxy know that according to the fourth- and fifth-century church fathers, the divine nature within Christ could not and did not suffer for us or anyone else. Henry Chadwick expresses it in this way: "The enthusiasm of devotion may say that 'God suffered and died'; but the theologian knows that God is impassible and immortal, and therefore that this transfer of human frailty to God . . . does not strictly mean what it says." 43

The theological proposition of the two natures in Christ, an invention of the post-apostolic Church, was so incomprehensible and so controversial that it took two hundred years to finally go down, and even then the Egyptian, Abyssinian, Syrian, and Armenian churches never would swallow it. They believed that this doctrine was a cleverly disguised rejection of the central claim of the New Testament--that God suffered and died for man. Yet orthodoxy was willing to accept the doctrine of the two natures simply because Greek philosophy couldn't abide the idea of a God that suffers, either emotionally or physically, and the church at that time had more trust in the logic of its philosophers than in the literal language of its scriptures. 44

The perception of God intuitively shared by most Christians today remains anthropomorphic as regards both his form and his ability to feel. In fact the actual perception of most Christians is closer to the LDS doctrine of God--that of an actual Father who really lives in heaven and really loves us--than it is to the philosophical theology taught by the councils. If the biblical anthropomorphisms and emotions attributed to God are merely allegorical and must be discarded in order to achieve a correct understanding of God's nature, shouldn't the Bible itself give some indication of that fact?

That most Christians "naively" perceive God in anthropomorphic terms doesn't necessarily argue that the anthropomorphic view of God is correct, but it does argue that if perceiving the Christian God in anthropomorphic terms renders one a non-Christian, then a majority of the people who have considered themselves Christians, like the monks of the Egyptian desert, must probably be excluded from Christianity along with the Latter-day Saints. Certainly most Christian children, even in orthodox denominations, think of God anthropomorphically until they are old enough to be taught otherwise. One could hardly argue that such children are non-Christian and unsaved until they make the conceptual adjustment to a nonanthropomorphic Deity.

A Final Question

Is it possible to have faith in everything the New Testament says about Jesus Christ and still not be a Christian? Just how adequate, how competent, is the unadorned biblical proclamation? Will the atonement of Christ be effective for someone who believes every single word of the New Testament, but believes God the Father could have a tangible body like his Son? Even though the New Testament is silent on the issue, will such an opinion cancel the efficacy of Christ's atonement in that person' s life? Are we to believe that those who worship a Father, Son, and Holy Ghost perceived as homoousios (Greek for "of the same substance") will enjoy eternal bliss, while those who worship a Father, Son, and Holy Ghost perceived as homoiousios (Greek for "of like substance") will, as heretics, be denied the blessings of salvation, even though neither word can be found in the teachings of Jesus or his Apostles, or be found anywhere in scripture?

It is true that there were ancient heretics--Gnostics, Marcionites, and others --who rejected the New Testament or parts of it, but I'm not talking about them. I 'm talking about Christians --the first-century Church, the Apostolic Fathers, and the Greek Apologists --who believed all the New Testament, every word of it, but did not share the interpretation given to it centuries later by theologians steeped in Greek philosophy. Just how adequate for salvation is unadorned New Testament Christianity, anyway? Those critics who deny Christianity to the Latter-day Saints for not accepting the doctrines of the councils imply that the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles were incomplete and inadequate for salvation until supplemented and defined by the church fathers--the "new, improved" Christianity of the fourth and fifth centuries. Latter-day Saints see this rejection of the primitive biblical Christianity in favor of the expanded philosophical Christianity of later times as "making the word of God [the New Testament] of none effect through your [philosophical] tradition" (see Mark 7: 13 ).


The Latter-day Saints accept unequivocally all the biblical teachings on the nature of God, but they reject the extrabiblical elaborations of the councils and creeds. A doctrinal exclusion applied to the Latter-day Saints for rejecting the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity is invalid because that doctrine was not taught in the Bible or in the early Christian church. It is not found in the teachings of the Apostolic Fathers or those of the Greek Apologists. Even today Eastern and Western orthodoxies still disagree strongly over both the precise nature of God and the exact wordings of the major creed of Christianity (the filioque dispute). If in order to be a true Christian one must conceive of the Christian God in precisely the terms of Nicene orthodoxy, then all Christians who lived before the fifth century, and all those on at least one side of the filioque dispute since the eighth century, must be excluded as Christians as well as the Latter-day Saints. Moreover, it is contradictory for Protestants to insist on the doctrine of sola scriptura--that the Bible alone is sufficient for salvation --in one context, and then to turn around and add nonscriptural requirements for salvation, like acceptance of councils and creeds, in other contexts.

Latter-day Saints agree that God the Father is spirit in the highest sense of the word, but they deny that this limits him to incorporeality. God is a spirit in the person of the Holy Ghost, but in the person of the Son, God has a tangible body. On the grounds of modern revelation Latter-day Saints believe that God the Father also has a tangible body, but they grant that this cannot be proved or disproved from the Bible. Still, given their philosophical assumptions it is the orthodox who must, without biblical warrant, dismiss the biblical anthropomorphisms applied to God as merely figurative, while the Latter-day Saints accept them at face value. The anthropomorphic view of God is compatible with biblical imagery, but conflicts with the Greek philosophical definition of God. If conceiving of God in anthropomorphic terms, as the Latter-day Saints do, excludes one from being a Christian, then most Christians, both ancient and modern, must also be excluded, for most are guilty in some degree of conceiving ofGod in anthropomorphic biblical terms rather than in the abstract terms of philosophical theology. Moreover, since the Bible itself describes God in anthropomorphic language, even if such descriptions are understood merely as helpful symbolism or allegory, it cannot be seriously argued that perceiving God in anthropomorphic terms is an un-Christian practice.

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1. What is erroneously called the Nicene Creed by modern Christians was actually not a product of the Council of Nicaea nor of the Council of Constantinople (A.D. 381 ) but of the later Council of Chalcedon. See J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds (London: Longmans, 1960), pp. 296-98.

2. The important trinitarian word substance (Greek ousia) is never used in scripture in relation to God. The word does appear twice in the New Testament (Luke 15:12, 13) but only to designate the "substance" squandered by the prodigal son.

3. Tertullian, Against Praxeas, 3, 11, 12. Theophilus of Antioch used a slightly different term (trias) in Ad Autolycum, 2.15, written at the end of the second century.

4. See Maurice Wiles, The Making of Christian Doctrine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), pp. 19, 24-28.

5. Wiles, Making of Christian Doctrine, p. 4.

6. Wiles, Making of Christian Doctrine, p. 144.

7. Edmund J. Fortman, The Triune God: A Historical Study of the Doctrine of the Trinity (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1972), pp. 14, 16, 29.

8. Fortman, Triune God, pp. 22-23.

9. Fortman, Triune God, pp. 32, 35.

10. In P. Achtemeier, ed., Harper's Bible Dictionary (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985), p. 1099. This scholarly dictionary was compiled with the help of the Society of Biblical Literature.

11. J. Fitzmyer, Pauline Theology: A Brief Sketch (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967), p. 42.

12. R. L. Richard, "Trinity, Holy," in New Catholic Encyclopedia, 15

vols. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967), 14:295.

13. Fortman, Triune God, p. 44.

14. J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (New York: Harper 1978), p. 95.

15. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, pp. 87-88. According to R. L. Richard, New Catholic Encyclopedia 14:299. "the formulation 'one God in three Persons' was not solidly established, certainly not fully assimilated into Christian life and its profession of faith, prior to the end of the 4th century .... Among the Apostolic Fathers, there had been nothing even remotely approaching such a mentality or perspective."

16. In F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2d ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), p. 1394. R. L. Richard refers to writings of Eusebius of Caesarea as "blatantly subordinationist" (New Catholic Encyclopedia 14:298).

17. In Cross and Livingstone. Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, p. 1319.

18. Justin Martyr, Apology, 1.22, 23, 32; 133; Dialogue, 56. Johannes Quasten, Patrology (Westminster, Md.: Christian Classics, 1986), 1:209.

19. See William G. Rusch, The Trinitarian Controversy (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980), pp. 5-6.

20. See Rusch, Trinitarian Controversy, p. 6, or Bernard Lonergan, The Way to Nicaea: The Dialectical Development of Trinitarian Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976), pp. 40-42.

21. See Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, pp. 232-37. and R. L. Richard, New Catholic Encyclopedia 14:299.

22. Eusebius, Demonstratio Evangelica, 5.1.20; 4.3.7. Also see the discussion in Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, pp. 224-26.

23. Actually the Creed of Chalcedon. See note 1 above.

24. Frank Gavin, Some Aspects of Contemporary Greek Orthodox Thought (London: S.P.C.K., 1936), p. 138.

25. Vladimir Lossky, "The Procession of the Holy Spirit in the Orthodox Triadology," Eastern Churches Quarterly 7 (1948 suppl.): 45-46.

26. It was the West, after all, that added the filioque to the original Nicene Creed. Cf. John 15:26.

27. C. H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958), p. 225. See also Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (i-xii), vol. 29 of the Anchor Bible (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966), p. 167.

28. Brown, Gospel According to John, p. 172; emphasis in original.

29. Several of the early Christian writers also understood spirits or souls to have corporeal qualities. See, for example, Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 34.1, or Tertullian, De Anima, 7.

30. Even Augustine was willing to grant that while the essence of the Father must always be invisible, still he "may have represented himself to mortal senses by a corporeal form" (On the Trinity, 18.35).

31. Shaye J. D. Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, vol. 7 of the Library of Early Christianity (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987), p. 44.

32. Cohen, Maccabees to Mishnah, pp. 86, 87.

33. See Owen Chadwick, Western Asceticism (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1958), pp. 234-35, citing a reference in John Cassian, Conferences, 10. 3; also Sozomen, Church History, 8.11.

34. See Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967), pp. 185-86.

35. See Augustine, Our Lord's Sermon on the Mount, 2.5 (17): "'Who art in heaven' --that is, in the saints and in the just. For God is not contained in local space."

36. For an excellent summary of the doctrine of the impassibility of God, including its Greek origins and its tension with Hebrew biblical thought, see Cross and Livingstone, Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, p. 694.

37. Van A. Harvey, A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York: Macmillan, 1964), p. 129; emphasis added. Or see (the Very Reverend) James Malloch, A Practical Church Dictionary (New York: Morehouse-Barlow, 1964), p. 244: "This view seems to conflict with God's love for man, Christ's passion, and other doctrines of mercy and sympathy."

38. Augustine, Enchiridion, 33. Cp. also Augustine, On Patience, 1: "For if we think of these [emotions] like they are in us, there are none in him .... Far be it from us to suppose that the impassible [i.e., incapable of feeling] nature of God is liable to any disturbance."

39. These words are derived from Latin and Greek, respectively, and mean literally "suffering (Latin passio, Greek pathos) with another." Since, according to the doctrine of impassibility, God can't suffer, he can't have compassion or empathy, at least not in the human sense.

40. Like the idea of a "square circle," this proposition is incomprehensible to the human mind, but it allows contradictory conclusions to be asserted simultaneously--that is, Christ is God and suffers, but God does not suffer.

41. Yet for insisting that the Bible does mean what it says --that Jesus was God, that Jesus suffered, and therefore that God himself, in his own divine nature, suffered and died for man- Latter-day Saints are labelled heretic non-Christians.

42. The bottom line, of course, is that the divine nature in Christ never suffers or dies. Saint Leo I, Tome, 3-4, in Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), pp. 50-51.

43. Chadwick, The Early Church, p. 193.

44. Today the doctrine of divine impassibility is under attack by both philosophers of religion (e.g., Berdyaev, Tennant, Hartshorne) and orthodox theologians (e.g., Brunner, Aulen, Niehbuhr, Barth). See Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), p. 214.

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