Saturday, 26 January 2013

Harmonizing mainstream and Mormon theology - example: The Holy Trinity


Although I have been reluctant to debate the heterodoxy of Mormon theology, this is not because it is intrinsically difficult to show that Mormon theology is compatible with mainstream Christian theology - it is because almost nobody is actually interested in showing this harmony.

Mainstream Christians are (almost always) concerned to show that Mormonism is heterodox and beyond the pale, while Mormons are generally happy to acknowledge fundamental differences such that restoration of the gospel can be shown to have been necessary.

Therefore both Mormons and Mainstreamers bring to the task the assumption of incommensurable theological differences - and with that assumption it is trivially easy to find incommensurable theological differences.


But bringing to the task, as I do, an assumption that differences are superficial and mask a deeper harmony, then it is easy to discover harmony.

The key is to recognize that Mormon theology is concrete, personal and simple - such that it can all be fully understood by the average eight year old; and armed with this principle (and with an assumption of harmony) it can be seen that when Mainstream and Mormon appear to diverge this can be seen to be superficial only.

In fact this isn't at all difficult to do! (Else I would not myself be able to do it; since I am not a deep theologian and am indeed impatient with theology.)


For example, Mainstream Christians say that God created everything from nothing, while Mormons say that he created form from chaos and that there never was 'nothing'.

So for Mainstream 'the void' is nothing, but for Mormons is it formless 'stuff'; matter and energy and the rest of it.

But the Mormon view simply recognizes that humans cannot think about something coming from nothing; but can imagine God as a sculpting the world from eternally existing stuff.


Or, the contrast between Mainstream Christians saying that after death, humans - which are not gods - are (potentially) adopted to become Sons of God, and above the angels and adopted brothers of Christ; and the Mormon belief that humans are the actual spirit children of God with Jesus as an elder (and higher) brother, who have volunteered to be clothed in bodies for mortal life to learn important lessons, then (if they pass the tests) potentially returning to live with God at a higher spiritual level and in perfected bodies after death.

The Mormon concepts can be seen as explaining how it is that we could become what Christ promised - Sons of God. If (on the Mainstream view) we are not already divine then since 'adoption' seems too weak to make us divine, because adoption would seem to leave our essential natures unchanged (in this world, adopting a boy is a matter of granting them the rights of a son but not of changing their essence).

But if we were already divine sons before coming to earth, then it is all understandable.


Of course, to go along with this style of explanation requires an acknowledgement of the inadequacy of Mainstream Christian theology - on the basis of 'if it ain't broke, then what is the point of fixing it'; to be sympathetic to the rise of Mormonism one has to feel that Mainstream Christianity is, at least for some people, 'broke', inadequate, ineffective.

This broken-ness seems obvious to me (as evidenced by chosen sub-fertility, to go no further with the evidence).

And one has to be unhappy with the abstractness of what purport to be mainstream 'explanations' - such as attempts to explain the Holy Trinity.

Examples of attempted explanations would include the Athanasian Creed:

And the Catholick Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons: nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son: and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one: the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son: and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate: and the Holy Ghost uncreate. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible: and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible. The Father eternal, the Son eternal: and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three eternals: but one eternal. As also there are not three incomprehensibles, nor three uncreated: but one uncreated, and one incomprehensible. So likewise the Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty: and the Holy Ghost Almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties: but one Almighty. So the Father is God, the Son is God: and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods: but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord: and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not three Lords: but one Lord. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity: to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord; So are we forbidden by the Catholick Religion: to say there be three Gods, or three Lords. The Father is made of none: neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone: not made, nor created, but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son: neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons: one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is afore, or after other: none is greater, or less than another; But the whole three Persons are co-eternal together: and co-equal. So that in all things, as is aforesaid: the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved: must thus think of the Trinity.

The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible: and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible... He therefore that will be saved: must thus think of the Trinity.

In which case, how may anyone be saved?

(Let alone the children, who Christ assured us would be saved).


Of course, I am being mischievous, but I have studied many, many descriptions of the nature of the Holy Trinity from Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican and Conservative Evangelical theology - and I find all of them incomprehensible (if I am honest).

Yet I understand the Mormon description of The Godhead, and so would most children. From Teachings/ Gospel Topics

...The members of the Godhead are three separate beings. The Father and the Son have tangible bodies of flesh and bones, and the Holy Ghost is a personage of spirit (see D&C 130:22). Although the members of the Godhead are distinct beings with distinct roles, they are one in purpose and doctrine. They are perfectly united in bringing to pass Heavenly Father's divine plan of salvation.


Or, from Articles of Faith by James E Talmage 1890 (1962 edition).

Three personages composing the great presiding council of the universe have revealed themselves to man: 1. God the Eternal father, 2. His Son, Jesus Christ, 3. the Holy Ghost. That these three are separate individuals, physically distinct from each other, is demonstrated by the accepted records of divine dealings with man... The Godhead is a type of unity in the attributes, powers, and purposes of its members... The unity is a type of completeness; the mind of any one member of the Trinity is the mind of the others; seeing as each of them does with the eye of perfection, they see and understand alike. The one-ness of the Godhead... implies no mystical union of substance, nor any unnatural and therefore impossible blending of personality. Father, Son and Holy Ghost are as distinct in their persons and individualities as are any three personages in mortality. Yet their unity of purpose and operation is such as to make their edicts one, and their will the will of God.


While Mainstream Christians see this as clearly heterodox, indeed heretical; I see a clear and comprehensible explanation of the Holy Trinity which does the job - something that Mainstream definitions fail to do.

And 'The Job' is to enable us to have a personal relationship with God in His three persons, to understand God's character, motivations, intentions, emotions and so on - so that even a child can live in communication with God as Father, Brother, and Protector/ Comforter/ Teacher.

Faith is Trust; and we can only trust a person - not an abstraction. Thus the value, and perhaps (for some people) the necessity of the kind of concrete, personal and simple version of Mainstream theology which Mormonism provides.



Bruce Charlton said...

ARAKAWA SAYS (He asked me to edit the previous posted comments, which I have now deleted):

As for the Trinity, I don't think I can even begin to compare one explanation of it to another. Clearly the three members of the Godhead are united in some sense; they are distinct in some sense (which at the very least includes having separate personalities). If the relation of the members of the Trinity is entirely unique in the universe, then we have no point of comparison, and thus no way to judge one explanation of the relation against another except on the basis of it being dogma proceeding from a true Church or a false one. On the other hand, if the relation of the members of the Trinity has apparent analogies to some other relation we can conceive of or find in reality, then we can at least argue whether or not the analogy is correct.

CS Lewis in 'Mere Christianity' hesitatingly tried to give us an image to compare the Trinity to, by hinting at a general theory of personalities (as perceived on the human level) as mere elements of greater beings which are to individual personalities as geometric objects are to their component facets, lines, or points. However, besides the Trinity itself we have no such composite beings immediately evident to provide an actually existing point of comparison.

Where would we look? The Trinity itself is the thing we are trying to find a point of comparison for. I don't know that anyone has explored the question of humanity - are human souls ever composite in any way even remotely similar to the Trinity, that would provide a comparison? (It seems intuitively possible to me, but I'm not sure of the questions one would have to ask to sift delusions from reality and obtain a correct understanding of the phenomenon - and there are obviously all sorts of delusions which are mixed into any such off-the-cuff intuition.) And no one has explored the spirit realm, and I'd argue that it is a place that should only ever be explored, if at all, after one has a firm knowledge of God to remain grounded in.

As for creation out of nothingness versus out of Chaos, who can say what the difference between the two even is? I remember discussing this elsewhere, and coming up with a blank. An absolute nothingness has no distinguishing features; if it had, it would be something. An absolute Chaos has no distinguishing features; if it had, it would have some kind of order.

Bruce Charlton said...

There does not seem any point in my publishing comments from people whose assumption is, as I describe above, that Mormonism is incommensurable with Mainstream Christianity - there are about ten million such views around the web, and I have read several books on the topic.

What I'm interested in developing is the 'harmonizing' view I am arguing here.

In particular to demonstrate that - given the necessary assumption, and use of the triple key (concrete, personal, simple) - it is actually quite easy to understand Mormon explanations as describing the same kind of thing in a different way -

...While also assuming that all and every human explanation of divine matters - including all and every Mainstream explanation, no matter how lengthy, abstract and complex - is necessarily partial, approximate and distorted.

Bob Wright said...

"Yet I understand the Mormon description of The Godhead, and so would most children."

In fact, this is precisely how most children and many adults DO understand the Trinity, and no one attempts to disabuse them of this notion or call them unorthodox.

George Goerlich said...

I briefly held the belief that because man was "created in God's image" his earthly countenance would directly reflect the trinity - the mind as God, the body as Jesus, and the Holy Spirit as his soul.

However, as far as I can tell this would be considered very incorrect by any knowledgable theologian.

Dr. Charlton must be right - because the concept seems impossible to truly grasp (for most people?), it may be thought a transcendent truth beyond (most?) people's grasp and so arguably not essentially to salvation, which is said to be open to all who seek and repent.

So while Mormonism would not be a an impediment to salvation, it could miss out on a deep theological truth that perhaps a genius or saint could find very important? But then perhaps Mormonism makes truth more accessible to average people? If both are true, then perhaps different denominations serve a purpose, but that would be incompatible with the one-true-church argument which seems an essential belief to any successful religion. It seems a bit of a mind boggler.

ajb said...

"the one-true-church argument which seems an essential belief to any successful religion"

I'm curious as to what this is. Is Christianity less successful because it has splintered into many churches? How would we know?

More to the point, how do we define 'one church'?

George Goerlich said...

ajb - Sorry if I phrased that poorly, I just meant the need for individual denominations to assert their authority. Perhaps it is necessary for the congregation and clergy to believe they are following the only path to truth, to avoid any doubt and assist in spiritual development. So then if accept that other denominations (e.g. Mormons) may be a path to truth we may be sitting on a contradiction. Though, I know Mere Christianity doesn't see this as an issue.

Perhaps then if we see one denomination opposing or calling heretical another denomination, we should not take offense but understand it may be a necessary part of faith. What "crosses the line" would be the organizations that make it their active work to tear down and destroy a particular denomination (I'm thinking something like

Bruce Charlton said...

@GG - "So then if accept that other denominations (e.g. Mormons) may be a path to truth we may be sitting on a contradiction. Though, I know Mere Christianity doesn't see this as an issue."

Well it *is* an issue; but then so is the opposite view an issue - with people believing that ONLY their own micro-denomination is Christian.

However, if we think of all *real* Christian denominations as being fundamentally not about beliefs (which tend always to conflict incommensurably - when history shows that a very specific (perceived, maybe not real) difference in a specific sub-doctrine can cause permanent schism (eg the Copts and the Eastern Orthodox church)

but if we regard belief in a less micro-specific manner and instead think of denominations as different ways of practizing the Christian way

then the differences amount to incompatible ways of life - which don't really matter at the primary level.

A real christian denomination is a 'package' - and parts of the package may be absolutely necessary for the whole package to be a strong and sustaining way of life.

Therefore denomionations cannot ususally be blended, and if certain elements are extracted from the package, then the package will collapse as a way of life.

For example, The Book of Common Prayer was it turns out, necessary to the cohesion of the Anglican Communion - and when it was extracted/ rewritten/ made multi-optional - the whole denomination became irreversible fissile and weak.

Yet it would be silly to argue that all Christians must embrace the BCP or else not be Christians.

SO, it was necessary for Anglicans, but not for all Christians.

I think that's how it works; and why denominations ought-not to regard themselves relativistically - yet should tolerate other real Christian denominations and recognize them as *fully* Christian.

ajb said...

GG "I just meant the need for individual denominations to assert their authority."

I think a denomination has to say they are the best way (for at least some), but they need not hold they are the only way.

The Catholic (universal) church holds that it is the best way for everyone, but that there are other ways (albeit not quite as good as it is). However, within the Catholic church there are many different ways (including many different ways or analogies that people use to conceptualize the trinity).

(It seems obvious to me that different denominations hold different strengths, key insights, interesting practices, and so on.)

I think Bruce's point is an important one, though. Given certain aspects of practice, certain other things are required, and so the organization has authority in that sense.

On the issue of Mormonism in particular, the Catholic church says that Mormons aren't Christians because they aren't properly baptised, i.e., proper intent is lacking due to how the baptiser conceptualizes the trinity.

I think a resolution requires an understanding of how our intentions map up to the reality of the trinity - how exactly that works. As far as baptism is a metaphysical event and we should know this by the effects, though, then it seems they are indeed being baptised, perhaps with greater consistency than most Christian denominations.

Bruce Charlton said...

wrt re-baptism - whether or not this is required is an aspect of denominations.

Some Orthodox sub-denominations always require re-baptism whatever type of Christian is converting (the most traditional ones) but others do not. Baptists often require re-baptism of other types of Christian - for obvious reasons! So do Mormons, for much the same reason as Baptists.

In practice, there is not a close match between whether or not re-baptism is required; and whether or not one denomination actually in practice regards another as Christian. It depends, partly, on the place of the act of baptism within the denomination.