Brett D. McDonald and Dr. David L. Paulsen, Philosophy
Excluding his claim to the resumption of public revelation and its, corollary, the re-opening of the canon, perhaps no other Mormon doctrine has received as much criticism as the conception and formulation of the trinity by Joseph Smith and his successors. Ever since Joseph declared that God the Father and Jesus Christ had appeared to him as two distinct personages in the spring of 1820, the cry of tritheism from Mormonism’s detractors has been both loud and persistent. For instance, early on, British theologian T.W.P. Taylder, asserted that Mormon doctrine was tri-theistic because it denies the “unity of the Godhead.” In modern times, Carl Mosser (along with the other editors of The New Mormon Challenge) has taken up this cry of heresy. In his writings on Mormonism, he has consistently maintained that Joseph’s model does not qualify as a version of “monotheism”, and hence Mormonism does not qualify as Christian. For Mosser, Mormonism’s rejection of the “ontological oneness” if the persons of the trinity, “strikes at the heart of the theological gap that presently separates all varieties of Mormonism from Christianity.” I argue, and research has proven, that such disparagement is undeserved. In the following, I argue that Joseph’s model of the New Testament Godhead is an instance of social trinitarianism (ST). As such, many contemporary Christian theologians are asserting views that are very similar, and in some cases seemingly identical to what Joseph asserted.
John Hicks describes the revival of social trinitarianism as “one of the most significant developments in contemporary theology.” In his watershed and lucid treatment of the issue, Cornelius Plantinga sets out the three conditions necessary for a theory to qualify as “a strong or social theory of the Trinity” and they bear repeating:
(1) The theory must have Father, Son, and Spirit as distinct centers of knowledge, will, love, and action. Since each of these capacities requires consciousness, it follows that, on this sort of theory, Father, Son, and Spirit would be viewed as distinct centers of consciousness or, in short, as persons in some full sense of that term. (2) Any accompanying sub-theory of divine simplicity must be modest enough to be consistent with condition (1), that is, with the real distinctness of trinitarian persons. And (3) Father, Son, and Spirit must be regarded as tightly enough related to each other so as to render plausible the judgment that they constitute a particular social unit.
For Wolfhart Pannenberg the divine persons are not three modes of being in the one divine subject. They are rather three separate and dynamic centers of action. They can be considered three separate centers of consciousness and thus can be distinctively described as persons on the basis of their unique self-relations that are mediated through their relationships with each other. Scott Horrell is even more specific in asserting that each divine person is constituted by:
(1) generic nature of deity, that is, the attributes that distinguish God from creation; (2) full self-consciousness (“I am”), the actual reality of self distinct from other persons, which presupposes distinct mental properties and internal relations; (3) unique relatedness, distinguishing each member of the Godhead from the others in I-thou relationships; and (4) perichoresis, the mutual indwelling of each in the other without confusion of self-consciousness.
While safeguarding the real personhood of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, valid ST argues that God is one in three specific ways. There is “only one font of divinity, only one Father, only one God in that sense of God,” there is “only one divine essence or set of excellent properties severally necessary and jointly sufficient for their possessor to be divine,” and there is “only one divine family or monarchy or community, namely, the Holy Trinity itself.”
However, no matter how related and unified these Persons are, for ST they remain numerically distinct. Thus, Richard Swinburne concludes his argument with the assertion, “I believe that there is overriding reason for a first God to create a second God and with him to create a third God…”
In this explication of the ST, I have not stopped to point out each instance of congruence of ST with Joseph Smith’s Godhead. I feel the similarities are self-evident such that reminding the reader at every turn is unnecessary. However, I wish to emphasize to those who would continue to heap abuse on Joseph’s model that by so doing, they must denounce a great many more that have made (and continue to make) strong cases for their models based on biblical evidence, philosophical argument and historic Christian documents. Thus, it seems that after receiving more than 150 years of criticism, Joseph’s model of the Godhead is now being accepted by a wide range of theologians from a wide range of traditions. For the Latter-day Saint, such company is welcomed.
- T.W.P. Taylder, The Materialism of the Mormons, Or Latter-Day Saints Examined and Exposed (Woolwich: E. Jones, 1849), 8 as cited in Craig L. Foster, Penny Tracts and Polemics: A Critical Analysis of Anti-Mormom Pamphleteering in Great Britain, 1837-1860 (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2002), 124-125. In recent times, Stephen Parrish has continued this charge of tritheism. See “A Tale of Two Theisms” in The New Mormon Challenge, ed. Francis J. Beckwith, Carl Mosser and Paul Owen (Grand Rapids, Mi: Zondervan, 2002), 203-204.
- Carl Mosser, Paul Owen and Francis Beckwith, “Introductory Essay to Mormonism and Christianity” The New Mormon Challenge. 269.
- Carl Mosser and Paul Owen “Mormonism” To Everyone An Answer: A Case for the Christian Worldview ed Francis Beckwith, William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2004) 337-8.
- John Mark Hicks, An Introduction to the Doctrine of God, Harding University Graduate School of Religion, July 18, 1996. This paper was prepared for the “Theology in Service of the Church” seminar held on July 17-18 in conjunction with the 1996 Christian Scholars Conference, Nashville, Tennessee.
- We accept Plantinga’s criterion as the best-to-date because of his intelligibility, coherence and biblical consistency. Cornelius Plantinga, “Social Trinitarianism and Tritheism,” in Ronald J. Feesntra and Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Trinity, Incarnation and Atonement (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989) 22.
- Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology (vol. 1; trans. G.W. Bromiley; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991) 384. See also, William J. La Due, The Trinity Guide to the Trinity, (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2003) 134.
- J. Scott Horrell, “Toward a Biblical Model of the Social Trinity: Avoiding Equivocation of Nature and Order” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 47.3 (September 2004) 403.
- Ibid., 31.
- Richard Swinburne, “Could There Be More Than One God?” in Faith and Philosophy vol. 5 No. 3 (July 1988) 233-234.