Blob-like Divine Essence...?
On Rachel Evans blog, she invited readers to pose questions or curiosities to those of the Mormon faith.
I posed this question:
I heard a Mormon say they believe Jesus was a man (not a member of the Trinity). Trinitarian doctrine is a non negotiable focal point of the Christian statement of belief/faith, as the Nicene Creed (325 AD) affirms. My question: For what reasons, do Mormons consider themselves Christians?
In response, Mormon Troy Schoonover, wrote this to me:
First, let me state that I expect most people on this blog to already have strong, deeply held beliefs that are not going to change, so that my purpose is simply to foster understanding of LDS beliefs, not convert anyone. I will do my best not attack your beliefs (Latter-day Saints are very tolerant of the beliefs of others–attend LDS worship services for a year and I promise you will never hear a bad word uttered about another church or its beliefs). I will do my best to explain what Mormons believe and answer your questions. That may mean I have to agree to disagree much of the time with your beliefs, and I ask for the same consideration of my beliefs.
I can shed even more light on this, since I feel several people have unintentionally misstated our doctrine a little bit in the comments here, and I want to more fully explain the reasons why we consider ourselves Christians. We believe in God the Eternal Father (Elohim), and in His Son (who, before he was born of Mary, was Jehovah), and in the Holy Ghost. The Father and the Son have a (glorified, perfected) body as tangible as man’s, but the Holy Ghost is a personage of spirit. We believe in a ‘pre-mortal’ life where we all lived as spirit children of our Father in Heaven. Jesus Christ, or Jehovah, as he was then, was the Firstborn of the spirit children of God. We are all brothers and sisters as a result, and Latter-day Saints call each other that at Church for this reason. We believe that Jesus was NOT just a man. He was and is God the Son–divine. The idea that Jehovah came and dwelt with us as Jesus Christ makes perfect sense to a Latter-day Saint, and we do not have to believe that God the Father and God the Son are one in the same essence to do so.
As to the Nicene Creed, I might also add, “Which one?” Orthodox Christianity uses and has used many, many, many variations of the Creed starting from ancient times. That the essence of the Creed points to a Trinitarian, rather than a Godhead version of Christianity, I am not disputing, just pointing out that it is not as set in stone as Joseph Smith’s simple testimony: “I saw two Personages, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name, and said, pointing to the other, ‘This is my Beloved Son. Hear Him!” When Jesus Christ prayed in marvelous fashion in John 17: “O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was” he was literally praying to his Father–and our Father, too. Latter-day Saints have a ‘three-separate-but-one-in-purpose view of the Godhead, whereas Trinitarian Christianity sees God as having three personas. John 17 again illustrates beautifully the Mormon doctrine of the Godhead being “one”, as in purpose: “Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me. Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world.”
The fact remains, also, when Mormons say that Jesus died for our sins, they’re testifying of the same divine Savior–who was Jehovah in the Old Testament and we read about as Jesus Christ in the New Testament–as other Christians. The persona on which Jesus took after his ascension into Heaven is where Latter-day Saints begin to veer away from other Christians. We absolutely do not want to be Orthodox Christians–in fact an Apostle of our Church said in a conference address several years ago that we should qualify ourselves as ‘Christian, but different,’ because we do not want to be lumped in with Trinitarian Christianity. It is an important, fundamental distinction that we do not shy away from, and one that impels us to call ourselves Christians. The Atonement of Jesus Christ is central to our doctrine, and though I’m surrounded by loving protestants here in Pensacola, FL, who tell me that my Church is works-based, I will testify to you right now that no Mormon believes they can work themselves into Heaven on their own merits. The Book of Mormon is filled with verses that clearly state our need for a Savior, and that we must retain a remission of our sins. The best way I can describe it is that Latter-day Saints view repentance as a life-time pursuit, and that while the first time you exercise faith in Jesus Christ, repent, accept the gift of His Atoning sacrifice, and become a new creature in Christ, that is the beginning, not the end. We must endure to the end in faith, and continue to repent of our sins. We enter a covenant at that point–one that is set by Jesus Christ–that even though we may struggle our entire lives with sin, the point is that we continue to struggle–we endure, “relying wholly upon the merits of Him who is mighty to save” as it says in the Book of Mormon. No amount of ‘being good’ or ‘good works’ is going to earn anyone salvation, but a whole lot of repenting is required. Jesus Christ died for sins I haven’t even committed yet, but I cannot repent of sins I haven’t committed yet. I must ‘die daily’, as Paul said, knowing that the covenant with Jesus Christ under which I live my life is one that is personal and that no one else can judge my heart on that fateful Judgement Day as to whether or not my repentance was sincere. If you ask a Latter-day Saint if they’ve been saved you’ll get one of two responses: A blank stare (if they’re from out West and they’re not as used to being asked that question), or a firm “Yes” if they’re from the East (especially the South where I live where we’re used to being asked that by our friends). The point is that Latter-day Saints view salvation as a partnership with Jesus Christ where he did all of the work, and where we are supposed to accept that work throughout our lives through exercising faith in Him enough to repent of our sins. Any other covenants we make after baptism (such as those in LDS Temples) are secondary and only serve to reinforce this fundamental relationship with Jesus Christ.
Now, having said all of that, which is more than I intended to say but, perhaps, necessary to drive home the point of how and why we view ourselves as Christians (of the Godhead variety, if you will), I will say that I respect the view of the Trinity of other Christians, and understand why they would still claim that to be a Christian you have to have a proper understanding and belief of who he is first to be able to call yourself a Christian. Fine. Mormons are just as adamant about “know[ing] thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent,” but when we talk about that verse from John 17, it is not just about knowing the nature of God and Jesus Christ, but really ‘knowing’ God and developing a relationship with Jesus Christ through one’s daily Christian walk.
I found this to be one of the best explanations I’ve heard from a Mormon on their beliefs in God. Clearly there are many similarities between Mormonism and traditional Christianity; and yet some areas of large divergencies. (The Trinity doctrine, is but one example of this. We aren’t even getting into women being saved through marriage, having dominion over your own planet, and the archangel Moroni (which, strangely has NOTHING to do with pasta), among other things.)
But, this got me to thinking: Trinitarian ideas of God are tough sledding. They always have been.
In fact, the doctrine of the Trinity can be so mysterious and perplexing, that we can mentally switch into a mere abstraction. But, God is not a “thing”, of course. God is not merely a “Divine Essence” which contains manifestations of Father, Son, and Spirit, but rather God is a relational Being who functions as a Three-in-One Godhead.
So, to begin a dialogue on this, I submit to you a response from a friend, and reader, “Nicholas” of the blog Nicholas to Myra. Nicholas has weighed in with some insights of the nature of God. I invite you to submit your own thoughts, or responses as well.
God is not a Blob
The Trinity in not a mere Divine Essence, or blob-god. In fact, that view was condemned as heretical by the Christian Church in ancient times under the label of Sabellianism/Modalism.
Here’s the main reason why: The foundation of who God is does not lie in an abstract Essence. Rather, the Persons of God are the foundation of God’s being, these Persons possessing a common Essence rather than being generated by it. This distinction prevents “blob-god” concept from rearing its ugly head, and assures that your relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is not a mere illusion or facade. Where, then, you might ask, is the source of the Godhead itself? All you’ve got to do is read the Gospel of John: It’s the Father.
Once you reject the blob-god, relationship with the real Trinity becomes accessible. Then, you take a new look at what St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 13:14: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” In the early church, the Father was often referred to simply as “God”, with the understanding that God always existed with His Word and Spirit; being God’s own Word and Spirit, they were obviously not composed of a different Essence than He was or beneath Him in honor. Thus the unity of the Godhead is preserved.
The Judeo-Christian question is this: How do you get to God? The answer: Through His Word and in His Spirit. God has revealed Himself, the Father, through and in His Word and Spirit; Persons He actually is, not mere manifestations of an Essence. How much grander, therefore, is the statement of faith: “One of the Trinity suffered in the flesh”* when it is understood to mean that Jesus Christ, the Word, the subsistent Person of God Himself, truly suffered in the flesh for us.
I’ve found that everything in the Gospel means far more once one renounces blob-god… Try it! Let us all take comfort and be enlightened by that ancient doxology, in which the incomprehensible Mystery of God is declared:
“Glory to the Father through the Son and in the Holy Spirit, both now an ever and to the ages of ages, Amen.”
*The “Theopaschite” formula affirmed at the 5th Ecumenical Council.
So, my dear readers, comment on something you just read. Thanks!