The LDS Godhead and the Traditional Christian Trinity: Which is More Confusing?

According to Nephi, many “plain and precious truths” were taken out of the Bible. When the question is posed in Gospel Doctrine as to what exactly these truths might be, people often bring up the nature of God. Other Christians have a completely confusing understanding of God, it is said, as opposed to our straightforward one. What is with this whole three-in-one Trinity, anyhow? This is perhaps the most common complaint I hear about mainstream Christianity—their understanding of God is far too complicated.

I agree that the Trinity is a difficult doctrine. However, I’m not persuaded that the LDS take on the Godhead is actually any clearer.

Yes, asserting that the Trinity consists of three separate personages solves some problems. On the other hand, it poses others. We’ve ended up having to explain some confusing scriptural passages, for example, by coming up with doctrines like divine investiture. We also run into ambiguity about who to worship in what way—is it okay to pray to Jesus, for example?

Or what about the idea that to be a God involves having a resurrected body? Except, of course, in the case of the premortal Christ. Not to mention the Holy Ghost. And speaking of the Holy Ghost, where did he come from? What is his relationship to us, or to the other members of the Godhead?

There’s also the ever-vexing problem of Heavenly Mother. Does she exist? If so, is she in any way a part of the Godhead? If not, what does that mean about the eternal status of women? If so, does that mean we have a quadernity? The doctrine that 3=1 may sound odd, but is our doctrine that 3=4? Or, if HF is a polygamist, maybe 3=100?

Then we have the doctrine that God is literally our Father. This also raises a number of questions. Is HM eternally giving birth? Why do parents on earth produce offspring after their own kind, but exalted beings produce spirit bodies? How do these spirit bodies relate to eternal intelligences?

I realize that people have come up with all kinds of theories to address these questions. However, I’m not sure these theories are any less elaborate than traditional theologies accounting for the Trinity.

8 comments

  1. Great questions, Lynnette. I’ve certainly always found the idea of three separate beings easier to understand, but then, I was raised Mormon. I think you point out a ton of good questions that are raised by thinking of them as separate. The one about praying to Jesus stands out to me as one that I remember as a kid made me particularly uncomfortable. In 3 Nephi, when Jesus appears, the people pray to him. And that just felt so *wrong* to me, although I’m not sure why. Probably I had read just enough of McConkie in his authoritative voice saying we’re only supposed to worship the Father. Anyway, thanks for raising these points.




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  2. So what is so confusing? Heavenly Father, Heavenly Mother, Christ and his spouse,Mary Magalene, and the Holy Ghost….Five Gods that we know of. Jews and Muslims are monotheists. We are not monotheists, we are polytheists. (If you don’t think so, which God don’t you believe in?) You can’t have a God without a Goddess, so what is the problem?




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  3. Lynnette writes, I’m not sure these theories are any less elaborate than traditional theologies accounting for the Trinity.

    Oh, yes, they’re much less elaborate – but only because we’ve spent less time elaborating them than we have congratulating ourselves on how non-Trinitarian we are. 🙂 The Christian church was 300 years old by the time the Trinity won the No Holds Barred, All-Out “Nature of God” Free-For-All Mud Wrasslin’ Match of antiquity at Nicaea. We have a century to go before we even make the playoffs.

    Seriously, as a body of believers, we have too much inspiration and not enough philosophical background (or maybe too much) to overelaborate the Mormon godhead like the Trinity was overthought. Plus, we have the disadvantage that they were inventing out of whole cloth. It’s almost impossible to examine the LDS Godhead in any other way, in theological terms, than by contrasting it with the Trinity. The Trinity is what theological terms were invented for.

    On a related and more serious note, I always thought it was interesting, Ziff, that after the people pray to Jesus in 3 Nephi 19, he steps aside and explains to the Father that they’re praying to him because he’s there, like, maybe because they’re caught up in the moment – “don’t worry, Father, I taught them how to do it right in chapter 18; I’m sure they’re just a little emotional right now.”

    (PS: Bruce, technically, we’re henotheists. I think. 🙂 )




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  4. As someone who studies a lot of medieval Christian theology, one of the things I have come to appreciate is that the classic trinity is representing a fundamentally different idea of divinity than the Mormon godhead. The trinity seeks to represent a kind of divinity that the human brain is simply not set up to understand on its own, implying the human needs divine help to raise its intellect to the level where it can comprehend divine truths. This seems for me to jive a lot more with many classic biblical passages, things like “my thoughts are not your thoughts.” If you want to really stress that God is infinite, of course no human mind can immediately and straightforwardly grasp what that means. If you want to think of it in a certain way, understanding the godhead becomes like another gift of the spirit, something bestowed upon you by the divine, rather than a self-evident truth.

    In Mormons’ attempt to make their version of the godhead self-evident or immediately (seemingly) graspable, they set up a lot of complex problems down the line, like the ones Lynette describes, or even a whole host of others. And the question of the infinity of god is one of the more potent ones to my mind. An embodied god is not infinite in terms of space, for example. He may be omniscient and somehow able to omnipotently affect change throughout the universe, but his true presence is certainly not everywhere, which seems like a pretty huge limitation on the classic view of the Christian divine.

    Another would be the question of omnipotence. What does omnipotence mean if there are multiple divine beings? Can one omnipotent being contradict or undo the work of another? Could the Som contradict the work of the Father? Or would that undo his omnipotence? It seems to go against the very definition of omnipotence if one being is more omnipotent than another. Or is the definition of omnipotence only to be understood in the collective, that divine beings taken in total are omnipotent, but no individual divine being is? Or that their wills are so knit together that they simply cannot contradict one another, which seems to smack of collective consciousness and the removal of agency, which seems like a big jump away from Mormon theology (Satan’s plan and all that).

    It really makes for a very confusing question of what does “god” mean, if they are not fundamentally (ie essentially, in their very substance) united, but all separately embodied with individual wills.




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  5. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I agree that our conception of God is not straightforward at all. Although I’m not sure about all the particulars about the Trinity, I have found the idea appealing lately. Over the course of my life, I’ve come to appreciate and trust Jesus a lot more than Heavenly Father. The mortal Jesus is a God I can worship with my heart and actions. Heavenly Father, on the other hand, seems awfully tied up in polygamy and our silent (silenced?) Heavenly Mother. I’ve taken a lot of comfort from scriptural passages that describe Christ as my advocate, and I’ve come to depend on him to help me negotiate with Heavenly Father when I die. In fact, the Celestial Kingdom holds very little appeal for me, what with it being Heavenly Father’s domain, and quite possibly the realm of all that other stuff–polygamy, eternal childbirth, and who knows what else for us women. Jesus’s Terrestrial Kingdom sounds more my speed.

    But anyway, I’ve started to try out the Trinitarian idea a little as a way to mitigate my negative feelings about God the Father. Because if Jesus really was God, and not just God’s sacrificial son, and if he’s the God who chose to come down here and set the record straight about his merciful nature after we humans had been getting him wrong for thousands of years, maybe there’s some hope for me.

    I get how messed up this is, by the way 🙂




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  6. Bodies produce children after that which flows in their veins, according to an old teaching. If blood, then a child of blood. If spirit, a child of spirit. Resurrected beings have bodies with spirit in the veins.




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  7. Ziff, that’s really interesting that you were uncomfortable as a kid with people praying to Jesus—doubtless, as you say, due to McConkie-isms floating around. I don’t remember having a reaction to that, but I do remember getting exasperated when I heard that I was supposed to be developing a relationship with Christ, when I couldn’t even talk to him.

    Bruce, adding Mary Madgalene to the Godhead is something I would file under “creative speculation.” 😉 And I don’t think we know for sure that you can’t have a God without a Goddess. Certainly some LDS leaders have taught that, but I don’t believe it’s canonical. And if it’s true, it leads one to wonder what exactly these Goddesses are doing.

    New Iconoclast, that’s a very good point—we’re way too young to really be in the running when it comes to elaborate theological development! And I agree that we almost inevitably end up thinking about our own conception of God in the context of trinitarian thought. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say that the early Christian Fathers were inventing out of whole cloth, though—they were grappling with biblical passages on the subject, and were faced with the very real dilemma of asserting the divinity of Christ while maintaining a claim to monotheism. I actually have a lot of appreciation for the doctrine of the Trinity.

    Christian, I agree that that’s a crucial point. If God is fundamentally other, which is the case in traditional Christianity, then s/he isn’t going to make sense in human categories. And that’s an interesting question about the relationship of omnipotence to multiple divine beings—I hadn’t thought much about those complications, but I agree that they’re there.

    Galelujah, I think that actually makes a lot of sense. And I very much relate to your reservations about the Celestial Kingdom and the way it’s gendered. I also think that’s one strength of the Trinity, that it’s God himself who comes to die—not God sending someone else. I have a hard time with the latter, even if it was totally voluntary on Jesus’ part. What kind of a God (the Father) requires someone else to suffer horribly?

    Matt, I hadn’t heard that one. It’s interesting to see what we come up with to make sense of apparent problems in our doctrine (as does every tradition, of course!)




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  8. they were grappling with biblical passages on the subject, and were faced with the very real dilemma of asserting the divinity of Christ while maintaining a claim to monotheism. I actually have a lot of appreciation for the doctrine of the Trinity.

    As do I, more so as I age. “Whole cloth” was uncharitable of me. In addition to trying to reconcile the monotheism issue, they had also apparently lost sight of and thus were trying to eliminate the notion that Christian touches on – the idea that we are the same sort of being as God, but at a different stage of development. Or perhaps that was simply off the table among all serious churchmen, and only the wildest-eyed of heretics still believed it by then.

    There was a post on this topic (sort of) at BCC recently in which the OP attempted, unsuccessfully IMNSHO, to reconcile Mormon concepts of God with Trinitarian ones. It was interesting, if somewhat jarring.




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