Perhaps the most obscure issue upon which Christians and Mormons disagree is the nature of the relationship between God the Father and Jesus Christ. The question is difficult because each side may use the same Scriptures to prove the same points, and end up not understanding where the disagreement lies: thus Joseph Smith could say that the Mormons believe in "God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost," and many assume that this means that Mormon belief is little different than Christian belief. However, Smith also said just prior to his martyrdom that the three members of the Godhead "constitute three distinct personages and three Gods," and his affirmation that all of the church's creeds were an abomination in God's sight presumably includes the creeds which defined the Trinity. (See Paul Anderson, Understanding Paul, 248. It is beyond our scope to ask whether the Standard Works are consistent in presenting the relationship in the way Smith describes.)
Our operative questions are as follows:
To what extent do Mormons and Christians agree concerning the nature of the relationship between Father and Son? Agreement exists on certain points, and in identifying these points at the outset, we will be able to focus properly on points of disagreement.
To what extent do Mormons and Christians disagree on this subject? Complicating this question is the diversity of terminology one will find used by Mormon commentators. Some willingly call their position "tritheism." Others use the word "Trinity," but in terms of a belief in three completely separate deities. (Griffith, One Lord, 18; see also Daniel C. Peterson and Stephen D. Ricks, Offenders for a Word: How Anti-Mormons Play Word Games to Attack the Latter-day Saints, 67n, who acknowledge that "tritheism" is "probably not an inappropriate term for Mormon teaching," and Anderson, Understanding Paul (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company), 1983, 248, who says "Latter-day Saints are not really Trinitarians but tritheists, for they bluntly hold to the individuality of each person of the Godhead." In contrast, Robinson seems to eschew the label of "tritheist" and explicitly rejects the use of the term "polytheism." See Blomberg and Robinson, How Wide the Divide?, 132. Mormons like Robinson may prefer to use the terms Social Trinity, Economic Trinity, or Functional Trinity to express their belief.
Both sides agree that there is between Jesus and the Father a oneness of purpose and will, and appeal to verses like John 10:30 ("I and my Father are one.") as evidence of this.# Both agree that the Son is in some sense subordinate to the Father, and appeal to verses like John 5:19 ("The Son can do nothing of himself. He can do only what he sees the Father do."), John 14:28 ("My Father is greater than I.") and 1 Corinthians 11:3 ("The head of Christ is God."). The difference, as Blomberg explains, is that while Christianity recognizes Christ's subordination in a functional way, it also recognizes Christ's equality in an ontological way. In other words, Christianity maintains, as the traditional creeds state, that Christ in his essence is equal with God, and that the Trinity comprises one deity with three distinct centers of conscious thought. In contrast, Robinson affirms that Latter-day Saints affirm that the oneness of the Trinity lies only in "mind, purpose, power and intent."
Both sides also agree that Christ is an eternal being, but they disagree on the nature of Christ's existence through eternity: whereas Christians maintain that Christ was always and eternally the Son of God, Latter-day Saints argue that Jesus pre-existed as an "intelligence" and became the Father's firstborn Son.
We have described the Biblical relationship between the Father and Jesus in Link 1 below, which should be read first in order to fully understand what follows. Let's look at how some Mormon apologists interpret some of the relevant passages.
John 1:1: John's language is quite explicit about the nature of the Logos. The Greek phrase behind "with God" (pros ton theon) literally means "toward God." (Gerald L. Borchert, John 1-11 , 103.) It is an expression that "should not be read merely as connoting that the Word was in the presence of God but rather that there existed a kind of interactive reciprocality between the Word and God." If the Mormon conception of Christ were true, and if Christ had been in a pre-mortal state in which he was not God's Son, then John has used the wrong word. He has used en (was) rather than egneto (became). The verb egneto is used by John to "denote that something had taken place or come to pass in time and space." Borchert, ibid., 104.
Colossians 1:15ff. Some Mormon apologists appeal to this phrase as evidence of Christ being God's literal firstborn son, or spiritual birth in the pre-mortal world. However, the parallel usage in Philo speaks against this interpretation. Both Paul and Philo use "firstborn" (prototokos) in a figurative sense of primacy. For similarly figurative uses of "firstborn," cf. Rom. 8:29 and Col. 1:18, and the church father Polycarp, who refers to an enemy of the church as "firstborn of Satan." The term "firstborn" is also used in Judaism to signify primacy and preference when describing the messianic king, the patriarchs, and even the Torah. See Peter T. O'Brien, Colossians, Philemon, 44.
Our study will be completed with an examination of passages appealed to by the LDS as evidence of a plurality of heavenly gods and against a conventional Trinitarian conception of the Godhead.
John 17:21-22 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...
This passage is cited as evidence against the ontological unity of the Godhead, for "the disciples, who are indisputably separate and individual beings, can also be one in the Father and the Son in the same way that the Father and Son are one in each other." LDS apologists therefore observe, "the Savior was not asking that the disciples undergo some mysterious merging of essence. Rather, he was praying for a oneness of works, will and devotion." (Griffith, One Lord, 19-20)
We would not disagree that a "oneness of works, will and devotion" is what is in view here. However, because the context of this discourse has to do with showing the world an example of Christ (vv. 21, 23), it is clear that ontological unity is not at issue and is therefore not excluded by this passage.
1 Corinthians 8:4-6 As concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one. For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth, (as there be gods many, and lords many,) But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him.
This passage ("there be gods many, and lords many") was appealed to by Joseph Smith as evidence of a plurality of gods. Christian commentators counter that Paul here is referring to pagan deities. However, Griffith argues that the "plain sense of Paul's wording is that he is making a distinction between non-existent gods and real ones." And what of that Paul says there is "no God but one"? Griffith claims that Paul "qualifies this pronouncement" in verse 6, when he says that "to us" there is but one God, and that Paul's "usage here is positional, not numerical." In other words, there is one God as far as we are concerned, but other deities, including the subordinate Christ, exist as well.
Griffith reads into Paul's language what simply isn't there. Paul's reference to there being "many gods and many lords" no more establishes their objective reality in his mind than saying "Allah is the God of the Muslims" or "Thor is the God of the Norse" indicates that we think of those deities as objectively real. To be preferred is the reading of Blomberg, who avers that "...'for us' in this context is equivalent to 'we know' (vv. 1, 4). That is, even though the pagans do not know it, Christians recognize that there is one God and Lord." (Blomberg and Robinson, How Wide the Divide?, 130.)
Further investigation of the context of Paul's remarks substantiates this view. The Corinthian church was experiencing difficulty with those who took their liberty in Christ to the extent that they ate meat consecrated to idols, reasoning that the idols, being false gods, were of no matter. This view "led to a blase' attitude towards the eating of food offered to idols and an apparent disdain for those who did not eat this food." Paul responds to this simplistic attitude by admonishing such people to be respectful of the consciences of their weaker brethren (1 Cor. 8) and inserting a "reality factor" reminding them that although the idols are false, behind them there does lie the possibility of demonic influence (1 Cor. 10:20-21).
Paul is thus "in the odd position of arguing against former pagans that the 'so-called gods' do have some objective reality." There is no thought here of alternate yet authentic "gods" in the sense that Mormon apologists suppose. (Griffith quotes Robert Grant's observation that the Greek in this verse says, "indeed there are" many gods and lords [which still does not say anything about their objective reality], and Grant's comment that "It is hard to tell what Paul means when he accepts, even for a moment, the existence of 'many gods and many lords.'" However, he apparently did not find himself obliged to repeat Grant's suggested solution, that Paul perhaps "carried over 'so-called' in his mind," or perhaps meant it in same way that the Platonist rhetoritician Maximus of Tyre did, that there is one God who is "king and father of all" and "many gods, sons of God, co-rulers with God."
The latter idea would agree substantially with our own interpretation, adjusted for the fact that Maximus as a pagan would not necessarily identify these lower deities as demonic.) That Paul is not referring to additional gods in the Mormon sense is also proven in that the terms he uses corresponds with the words used to refer to the traditional deities of the Greeks and Romans ("gods") and the deities of the mystery cults ("lords"). There is no holding place in the social context for an idea of additional deities which are legitimate in their own right, but that we simply have no dealings with.
Hebrews 1:9 Thou hast loved righteousness, and hated iniquity; therefore God, even thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows.
Hopkins notes the reference here to Christ's "fellows" and argues that these "peers" of Christ were the angels above whom he was exalted in pre-existence. (How Greek Philosophy, 197) However, this event described is chronologically after Christ's being sent to earth (Hebrews 1:6, "And again, when he bringeth in the firstbegotten into the world...") and therefore refers to the resurrection which exalted Christ above all other men (his "fellows").
Hebrews 3:2 Who was faithful to him that appointed him, as also Moses was faithful in all his house.
Griffith argues that the Greek word behind "appointed" (poieo) means "to make," is never used in the New Testament in the sense of "appointed," and is used by the author of Hebrews elsewhere to mean "made." Thus, he reads it in terms of Christ's pre-mortal birth. (63) But "appoint" is a possible meaning for poieo; beyond that, Griffith fails to offer Hebrews 3:2 within its context:
Wherefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our profession, Christ Jesus; Who was faithful to him that appointed him, as also Moses was faithful in all his house.
The chapter, and the book of Hebrews, goes on to speak of Christ's faithfulness in his office as high priest. Therefore, reading poieo in the sense of "appointed" is more consistent with the context.
Revelation 3:14 And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God...
Griffith argues that this verse "contradicts (the Christian) belief that Jesus and the Father are one God of one undivided substance" and relates the verse rather to Christ's pre-mortal "birth" to God the Father. However, the phrase "beginning and end" was "a widespread ancient title for God" and yet did not indicate for those who used it that God was at some point born out of a pre-mortal existence. David F. Aune, Revelation 1-5, 256. The title comports rather with Christ's eternality and identifies him as the origin and principle of creation. It no more means that Christ had some sort of beginning than calling him the "Alpha and the Omega" (Rev. 1:8, 21:6, 22:13) means he has a beginning and an end. These are titles of primacy, not chronology.
The Father, the Son, and the Apostasy Problem
In terms of the present issue, the matter of continuity of Jewish and Christian belief is problematic for the Mormon apologist. We have shown that the New Testament draws upon the Wisdom tradition found both in the Old Testament and in the Hellenistic-Jewish writings of the intertestamental period. If Hellenism was a source for heretical ideas, then it is difficult to explain why the New Testament shows so much continuity with the Hellenistic-Jewish Wisdom tradition. The New Testament writers chose terms and allusions which signified a concept which had "long served as one of the most important bridge concepts for a Judaism seeking to present itself intelligently and appealingly within the context of the wider religiophilosophic thought of the time..." and was a "serviceable concept to provide a bridge of communication between Jewish monotheism and Greek religious philosophy (as with Philo)." (Longenecker, 54)
Why would they draw upon this concept if Hellenism had corrupted the truth on this point? Would not the potential for misunderstanding be too great? Would not at least some extended explanation be required to indicate that while they were using the terms, they did not endorse the concepts behind the terms in popular thought? It is more likely that there was in fact a continuity between the Jewish Wisdom tradition, Jesus, the Apostolic church, and the post-apostolic church, rather than that the first and final stages were sons of apostasy.
But there are additional problems for the Mormon apologist. The tradition of a Wisdom figure was subject to certain abuses by fringe elements of Judaism, and as a result rabbinic commentators often issued strong cautionary statements on this subject. Segal's study of these statements leads him to conclude that the chief problem for the rabbis lay in the possibility that the Wisdom figure might be treated as "an independent deity," and that the first Jewish-Christians like Paul may have fought a dual battle, on the one hand trying to ensure that Christians themselves did not fall into a "bitheist" heresy, while at the same time having to defend himself from such charges against rabbinic Jews. (See Segal's Two Powers in Heaven.) That Paul had to offer a defense on each of these two extremes suggests that what he stood for actually lay somewhere in between--at the point of what we call Trinitarianism.
A final problem is the complete lack of evidence that there was some battle in the early church fighting for something equal to the modern Mormon view (whether we choose to call it tritheism or something else) over and against the "heretical" ontological Trinitarians. Indeed, if anything, what battles there were raged in the opposite direction. As Blomberg notes (116):
...(W)ithin the first five centuries of intense Christian discussion about the nature of God, tritheism was never nearly the temptation that unitarianism was... (Christians) far more commonly erred in the side of not adequately distinguishing the three. No early Christian theologian ever identified Jesus as a completely separate God from Yahweh, Lord of Israel. "Son of God" in its Jewish context was a messianic title (see Ps. 2; 89; 2 Sam. 7:14) and was never take to suggest that Jesus was the literal, biological offspring of his heavenly Father.
And Bauckham adds (78):
...(I)t was actually not Jewish but Greek philosophical categories which made it difficult to attribute true and full divinity to Jesus. A Jewish understanding of divine identity was open to the inclusion of Jesus in the divine identity. But Greek philosophical -- Platonic -- definitions of divine substance or nature and Platonic understanding of the relationship of God to the world made it extremely difficult to see Jesus as more than a semi-divine being...In the context of the Arian controversies, Nicene theology was essentially an attempt to resist the implications of Greek philosophical understandings of divinity and to re-appropriate in a new conceptual context the New Testament's inclusion of Jesus in the unique divine identity.
Blomberg further observes that "(t)he idea of Father and the Son, both fully God, but kept as separate as Mormonism wants to keep them, is entirely without parallel in the framework of Jewish monotheism." Thus we find yet another serious discrepancy between what is recorded in history and what Mormon apologists must claim actually happened in history.
The LDS understanding of the nature of the relationship between God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son does not correspond with the understanding indicated in the New Testament. The background of the Divine Wisdom of God, first as a personification, and then, in Jesus Christ as a person, is much closer to the creedal understandings of the Trinity as three persons in one essence than it is to the Mormon conception of a social trinity involving three separate deities who closely cooperate. The Jewish background of the New Testament knows of no such concept except in the form of a heresy.