Latter-day Saint Doctrine vs. Biblical Christianity
The Mormon Faith, subtitled A New Look at Christianity, is a recent book by Brigham Young University professor Robert Millet. Millet is regarded by many as an apologist and ambassador for Mormonism to evangelical Christians.1The Mormon Faith's second appendix contains information on three "Distinctive LDS Doctrines." The first of these, "God and Man," is an attempt to justify Mormonism's anthropomorphic God doctrine, a doctrine hostile to biblical Christianity. This article begins a response to this section of the second appendix.
Millet himself acknowledges that Mormonism professes that God the Father is an exalted human being. He also claims, however, that "Latter-day Saints believe this not just because it is taught in the Bible but also because modern prophets have so declared it."2 He further says, quoting from the liberal scholar Adolph Harnack, that in the early church "it was a rather 'popular idea that God had a form and a kind of corporeal existence.'" His leading into the quote with the word rather suggests to the reader the meaning for the word popular as pleasing or well liked.3 The context in Harnack, however, appears to be using popular as opposed to educated or scholarly.
Millet also notes that the Mormons "feel that the doctrine of the Trinity is unscriptural, that it represents a superimposition of Hellenistic philosophy on the Bible, and that the simplest and clearest reading of the four Gospels sets forth a Godhead of three distinct beings-not three coequal persons in one substance or essence."4 It is worth noting that the operative word here is feel. Mormons feel many things, and generally judge religious truth by their feelings. Nowhere in the Bible, however, are feelings, even spiritually induced feelings, held forth as a standard or criteria for determining what is true or false, good or bad, or right or wrong. That the intellect is subject to deception is not contested. Feelings, however, are even more liable to manipulation and deception. Allowing feelings to replace or overrule the intellect magnifies rather than solves the problem. Allowing feelings to govern intellect and reason cannot be justified by falsely equating feelings with faith and/or spirituality.
Moreover, the Christian doctrine of God should not, and cannot, be determined by a "simple reading of the four Gospels" alone, apart from the rest of the New Testament and indeed the whole Bible. Such an unbiblical and arbitrary narrowing of the range of material on which to found one's doctrine of God will necessarily lead to an inadequate conception and even distortion.
Millet says, "Indeed it is not difficult to find non-LDS biblical scholars who agree that the Trinity is unbiblical."5 To support this assertion he then offers quotes from two other sources to the effect that the doctrine of the Trinity is not found in the New Testament. His use of these quotes is, to say the least, disingenuous. In both cases the authors' real point is that though the whole doctrine of the Trinity is not all spelled out in one Bible passage, the elements of the doctrine are nevertheless to be found in the Scriptures.
Millet tries to make it appear just the opposite.that these authors think the doctrine is "unbiblical." To the contrary, his first source goes on to say that the work of the early church fathers spelling out the doctrine concisely "will be necessary and invaluable, but it will add nothing essentially new to the Biblical witness of God. It will only give this witness a new mode of expression."6 No one argues that the words Trinity or Triune are found in the Bible, or that the whole doctrine categorized under those words is to be found therein as a succinctly stated formula. Those facts, however, do not prove the doctrine "unbiblical."
Neither does any parallelism between certain aspects of Greek philosophy and the doctrine of the Trinity prove that the latter was only derived from the former. By comparison, Mormons as well as Christians reject the idea that the existence of flood legends in ancient non-Hebrew cultures proves that the Bible's account of the flood is a derivative work based on pagan myths. One must ask the questions, "Could a person who knew nothing of Greek philosophy study the Bible and arrive at the doctrine of the Trinity? Would he be likely to so conclude the matter?"
Both questions may be confidently answered: Yes. The doctrine of the Trinity is a logically necessary inference from wholly integrating all that the Bible teaches about God, about the Father, about the Son, and about the Holy Spirit. The Christian may rightly say that taking the full scope of biblical evidence on the subject, refusing to blunt the edge on any of it, drives one to Trinitarian doctrine so powerfully, so conclusively, that all other doctrines must be rejected as unbiblical. Modalistic "Oneness" doctrines, tri-theism, henotheism, and every other species of polytheism must all be rejected.
Exactly the opposite, however, is what Millet tries to prove. For evidence he cites a study by his Mormon colleague Thomas Sherry, published by the Mormon Church. Using the KJV, the study cataloged every New Testament verse in which more than one member of the Godhead is mentioned. From these references, sixty-five scriptural incidents or doctrinal statements representative of the Godhead relationship were chosen. These references were then categorized according to questions they raised about orthodox creeds of the Trinity. Six major categories were needed to cover the questions.7
Of course these scriptures themselves do not raise the questions the study posits. Questions are raised by persons. The kind of questions a person raises will depend as much upon his own worldview as upon the Scriptures. A person who seeks to conform his worldview to Scripture will necessarily ask different questions than a person who seeks to conform Scripture to his worldview. And it cannot be said that a person who willfully disregards other portions of Scripture bearing on the subject at hand has any sincere desire to conform his worldview to Scripture.
In the first category were placed scriptures that express the will of the Son as being different from or in subjection to the will of the Father: Mathew 26:39; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42; and John 4:34; 5:30; 6:38-40. The question raised is, If Jesus Christ and God the Father are the same beings in whom continually dwells the fullness of perfection, how could the will of the Son be at variance with or in subjection to the will of the Father?8None of these passages poses any problem for the historic, orthodox, Christian doctrine of the Trinity. A problem is raised only when one subtly moves, as Millet does in the quote above,9 from " the will of the Son as being different from " to " the will of the Son be[ing] at variance with " the will of the Father. Christians may agree that these verses demonstrate a difference of wills between the Father and the Son if what is meant by difference is distinction in number, i.e. that more than one will is involved in the situations they describe. That is fundamental to there being more than one Person involved, a fact affirmed by the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity no less than by Mormonism's polytheism.
Millet's switching gears in his question, however, implies that these Bible passages teach there was a variance between the wills of the Father and the Son. If they do not so teach, then Millet's question is not related to the text, much less raised by it. His switching from difference to the more explicit variance also makes more plausible the idea of the Son's will being in subjection to the will of the Father. Subjection connotes the idea of the imposition of the Father's will upon the Son's. There is the subtle implication that the Son's variant will is quashed, that His subservience is obliged. Such variance and subjection appears much more plausible between two wholly separate Beings, than it would in one Being who is three Persons. That, of course, is the very point for which Millet's "question" argues.
It would be more accurate and proper to say that the will of the Son is in voluntary submission to the will of the Father. There is no domination by the Father over the Son. Nothing about Christ's submission requires the idea of any variance, resistance to submission, or the necessity of one will bending or sacrificing itself to be in submission to the other. In sinful human relations those conditions may often occur. So far as the Scriptures teach, however, nothing of the kind may be justifiably charged against the Son's voluntary submission to the Father.
If Millet thinks the Scriptures he cited (above) raise a question, it is fair to say his own question raises questions (or should) for anyone reading his book. For example, Do these passages teach that Christ's will is in submission to the Father's will-or more, that there is variance between their wills, the Son's will being subjected to the Father's? Are these verses problematic to the doctrine of the Trinity? If so, how? And for balance, one should also ask, What problems might these verses and concepts pose for the Mormon view of the Godhead?
First it must be noted that if these verses pose a problem for the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, the same problem is posed for the Mormon doctrine. Mormonism teaches that all the New Testament statements about the oneness of the Father and the Son speak not of their ontological nature as one Being, but of a oneness of purpose, intent, design, desire, etc. Their unity in this sense is also supposed to be perfect. What One would do or say in a given circumstance, the Other would do or say exactly the same. If this is the case, then a variance between their wills, or the case of one being in subjection to the other, poses exactly the same questions for the Mormon view as for the Trinitarian view.
Submission of the Son to the FatherAll the passages cited by Millet10 certainly do teach that the will of the Son is submitted to the will of the Father. If Millet wishes to style this as subjection, the problems created are of his own making. So far as the submission of the Son to the Father is concerned, there is no problem here for either the Christian or the Mormon view. In both views a fundamental part of the unity of will between the Father and the Son is their relating to one another as a loving Father and Son. In both views, Father and Son both possess "the fullness of the Father," "the fullness of Deity." There is no qualitative basis in either view, then, for One to be in submission to the Other (nor, for that matter, for the Father to be in subjection to His ancestor Gods whom, according to Mormonism, He serves). The basis of submission in both views is ontological, but the depth and richness of the Christian view far surpasses the Mormon view.
The ontological basis on which Mormonism grounds the submission of the Son to the Father is a matter of chronology and bodily descent. Ancestors have, and will always have-by right-priority and authority over their progeny. Submission by the progeny to the authority of their ancestor Gods is prerequisite to their exercising any authority over their own progeny. The only alternative is to be cut out of the chain. Why this is so, when the progeny allegedly have matured and all become equals possessing the fullness of Deity, is not explained.
The Christian view grounds the relationship of Father and Son, and the submission of the Son to the Father, in their own sovereign and mutual choice to relate to one another. This relationship is wholly appropriate since the second Person of the Godhead is eternally begotten of the first Person. This begetting, however, is not a specific event in history or time, such that there was ever any time prior to it. The Father has never existed alone as God without the Son and the Holy Spirit. There was never a time when the Son did not exist, or did not exist as God, and as the Son of the Father. The Son is eternally and perpetually begotten of the Father.11 The Being of God has never been other than as it is now, which Being consists in three Persons,12 Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Not one of the three exists apart from the others. Begetting and loving the Son is integral to the existence of the Father. Not to do so would be a change in the unchangeable God; it would mean the end of God. To love and submit to the Father as a loving Son is integral to the existence of the begotten Son. To do otherwise would mean a change in the unchangeable God, and such a change is impossible for God's nature.
Understanding the Son's submission to the Father does not require the existence of two separate beings, much less one of them being chronologically antecedent to the other, as Millet and Mormonism would have the world believe. It requires only the existence of two distinct Persons each having His own will. The doctrine of the Trinity affirms the existence of the Father and Son as distinct Persons just as certainly as does Mormonism's polytheism. Where two eternally existent and eternally perfect wills are concerned, and both agree that the One will always be in submission to the Other, there can be both submission and perfect unity. The submission of the Son to the Father therefore forms no basis for any legitimate objection to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
Variance in the Godhead?Do the Scriptures cited by Millet teach that there is, or ever was, any variance between the will of the Son and the will of the Father? If they do, then again the problem looms as large for Mormonism as for Christianity. If they do not, then there is nothing left of Millet's question, and nothing left by which these verses can be urged as evidence against the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
Matthew 26:39; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42: None of these verses prove any variance between the wills of the Father and the Son. Almost identical, they are from Gethsemane where Christ asks that if possible "this cup" be taken from Him, but then affirms, "nevertheless not what I will, but what Thou wilt," or as Luke has it, "nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done." It is evident that Christ's reference to His own will was a reference to the request He had just made. It is equally plain that His final statement reveals that His own ultimate will was that the Father's will be done.
In His human nature Jesus "was in all points tempted like as we are."13 He is not to be denied the common human experience of conflicting emotions or desires for two desirable but different courses, where the one course is achieved only at the sacrifice of the other. In such a situation, Jesus chose; such choosing is an act of the will. Jesus' choice expressed His own ultimate or supreme will, and that will was to be submitted to the Father. There is no proof whatever of contrariness or variance here between the Father and the Son.
No verbal response from the Father is recorded. Again, nothing in these verses proves any variation between the two distinct wills of the Father and the Son. And they being two Persons, having distinct wills, is no argument against their consisting as (together with the Holy Spirit) one Being.
John 4:34; 5:30; 6:38-40: The verses cited from John are even more remote from proving variation or contrariness between the wills of the Father and the Son. Indeed, John 4:34 is clearly an expression of the perfect harmony of their wills. The statement of Jesus that "I can of mine own self do nothing"14 must be understood according to its context. After saying He can do nothing of His Own Self, He immediately explains what He means: "as I hear, I judge: and My judgment is just; because I seek not my own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me."15 It cannot be supposed that Jesus actually wants to do other than the Father's will, or even that Jesus would not know what to do or how to judge if not told by the Father.16 Jesus is simply saying that He is not acting autonomously, nor in a self-serving manner (in stark contrast to those who were questioning Him).
Again, when Jesus says "I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me,"17 He is not saying that His own will differs from the Father's will in any way. He is simply making the point that He does not act arbitrarily or autonomously. He is expressing the complete harmony of their distinct individual wills. Thus, while teaching the submission of the Son to the Father, none of the verses cited by Millet teach any variance between Their wills. The verses also do not undermine the historic, biblically orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, nor can they be used to prove Mormonism's polytheistic version of the Godhead.
1 Peggy Fletcher Stack, "LDS Theologians Explain Faith's Beliefs; Y Dean Talks With Scholars of Other Faiths," Salt Lake Tribune, 7 February 1998, p. D1.
2 Robert L. Millet, The Mormon Faith: A New Look at Christianity (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1998), p. 188.
6 Edward J. Fortman, The Triune God: A Historical Study of the Doctrine of the Trinity (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1972), p. 33. This is just one page after the quote used by Millet.
7 Ibid., p. 189.
8 Ibid., p. 190.
9 The questions in this section appear to be Millet's, or at least his paraphrasing of the issues raised in the Sherry study.
10 The statement in Psalm 2:7, applied to Christ in Hebrews 1:5, that "Thou art My Son, this day have I begotten Thee," does not require that the Father's begetting the Son be seen exclusively as a "one time act" in history and time. The seventh-day Sabbath rest of God (Genesis 2:2.3) appears to have been eternal. The "day of salvation" is spoken of as "now," meaning this and every moment, today and every day (2 Corinthians 6:2; Hebrews 4:7). The believer enjoys the Sabbath rest of God continuously, as well (Hebrews 4:3-10). "This day," then, in Psalm 2:7 and Hebrews 1:5, may likewise be taken to refer to the eternal now in which God lives (and in which Christ is surely the Lamb raised as much as "the Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world"). As worked out in, or applied to, time, the Resurrection appears to be the moment (cf. Acts 13:30-34, 37; 2:24; Romans 1:4). There is no biblical ground for any supposed premortal "birth" that entails time in which Christ did not exist, or in which He ever existed as anything less than fully God.
11 Persons does not mean human beings, as applied to God.
12 Hebrews 4:15.
13 John 5:30.
14 John 5:30.
15 He earlier stated that the Father has left all judgment to the Son (John 5:22).
16 John 6:38.