The Mormon prophet Gordon B Hinckley once said:
“As a church we have critics, many of them. They say we do not believe in the traditional Christ of Christianity. There is some substance to what they say” (Ensign, May 2002, p.90)
It is not often that we find such candour coming from a Mormon when challenged on their beliefs about God. The usual response is to quote the first Article of Faith and leave it at that. Mormons have a very different view of God and this is important because they claim that their church is a restoration of biblical truth.
In 2006 the official Mormon Ensign magazine launched “A series of articles explaining basic beliefs of the restored gospel” entitled The Fullness of the Gospel. The series begins in the January issue with the following quote:
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has many beliefs in common with other Christian churches,” said Elder Dallin H Oaks of the quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “But we have differences, and those differences explain why we send missionaries to other Christians, why we build temple in addition to churches, and why our beliefs bring us such happiness and strength to deal with the challenges of life and death.” (Ensign, January 2006, p.50)
The first article (January 2006) addresses the nature of the godhead and the first thing to note is that this huge subject is covered in a page and a half. In a little over nine hundred words the article purports to explain this fundamental of Mormonism, key to the ‘Restoration’ story of Joseph Smith.
There is no substantial theology in the article in the sense of reasoning from the Scriptures. No attempt to show what God has revealed about himself in the past, and no effort to show how and why Mormon theology fits better than Evangelical Christian theology into the Bible account of God. Indeed, you might say that the writer takes these things as read. The article might be summed up thus:
· The Mormon Church ‘has many beliefs in common with other Christian Churches. But we have differences…’
· The Mormon Godhead has three beings while other churches ‘reject the idea of three separate beings.’
· Thanks to Joseph Smith centuries of speculation have ended and the true nature of God is known.
· The true purpose of life is now revealed as we realise man’s literal potential to become a god like the other gods of Mormonism.
No reason is given why we should believe these things. They are simply asserted and the reader expected to accept their self-evident truth. This confirms what we have believed for some time, i.e. that the flagship Ensign magazine has become little more than an elaborate brochure for the Mormon Church.
The Nature of the Godhead
Is the Christian Church ‘confused’ about the Godhead and have the centuries truly been marked by endless speculation?
Has Mormonism ‘Restored’ true knowledge of God?
What does the Bible reveal about God’s nature?
Which picture is closest to the Bible account, the Christian Trinity or the Mormon plurality of gods?
If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, “Let us follow other gods” (gods you have not known) “and let us worship them,” you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The LORD your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deut. 13:1-3)
The Bible makes clear that it is what prophets teach, not they’re winsome nature, urbane character, or apparent success, that is the clue to they’re status as guides.
Mormons claim to follow latter-day prophets who lead people to believe those things that the Mormon Church itself admits are ‘different’. These differences, they claim, fill the considerable gaps in our understanding, darkened by apostasy, and are their motivation and apologetic for sending missionaries. We should remember that Mormonism does not bring what might be readily recognised as the traditional Christian message, but a very different gospel.
Nothing illustrates this better than their view on the nature of the Godhead, Father, Son and Holy Spirit:
“In common with the rest of Christianity we believe in a Godhead of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. However, we testify that these three members of the Godhead are three separate and distinct beings. We also testify that God the Father is not just a spirit but is a glorified person with a tangible body, as is the resurrected Son, Jesus Christ…In contrast, many Christians reject the idea of a tangible, personal God and a Godhead of three separate beings. They believe that God is a spirit and that the Godhead is only one God. In our view, these concepts are evidence of what we call the Great Apostasy.” (Dallin Oaks)
This is a misrepresentation of the Christian God. The mistake the Mormons have made is in assuming that any conception of the Infinite, Eternal God must be fully comprehensible to finite man. In doing this they have made the fundamental error of creating God in the image of man, making him physical, finite and limited to time and space. Joseph Smith stated:
“It is the first principle of the gospel to know for a certainty the character of God…and that He was once a man like us.” (History of the Church, 6:305)
What is the Mormon theology behind this conclusion? It is so far removed from traditional Christian belief it is hardly credible that they should get these ideas from the Bible and yet they claim to do that very thing. Have Christians had it wrong for almost two thousand years and has Mormonism restored the truth about God’s nature? Using these articles as a starting point we want to build a picture of what Mormons typically believe to be true and fundamental to their faith and compare it with the Bible.
The ‘Parts’ of God
The Mormon will reason that in Genesis 32:30 Jacob declares “I saw God face to face”. Also in Exodus 33:11 we read “the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend”.
However, the Christian who knows the Bible will know that in Exodus 33:20 God declares that “you cannot see my face, for no-one may see me and live”. So what is the Bible talking about when it refers to men seeing God “face to face”? In Numbers 12:6-8 we read:
“When a prophet of the Lord is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams. But this is not tr
ue of my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house. With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles”;
When prophets hear from God it is in visions and dreams and the prophet may not always fully understand at the time the nature and purpose of the message. Not so with Moses with whom God speaks “face to face”, or directly, “clearly and not in riddles”. The term “face to face” is an indication of the special relationship Moses had with God.
The ‘Image’ of God
The Mormon will further reason from Genesis 1:26-27 that God has a body by saying that if we are made “in the image of God”, and we have bodies, then he must have a body. They will further reason that the Bible speaks of God’s physical attributes such as his eyes (Psalm 139:16); his hand and arm (Psalm 44:3); his mouth (Deuteronomy 8:3).
The Christian might point out from Scripture that in John 4:24 Jesus declared “God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth”. The resurrected Jesus said, “a spirit does not have flesh and bones” Luke 24:39. If God is spirit and a spirit does not have a body then what does Genesis 1:26-27 mean? In Ephesians 4:24 we read of the purpose of our redemption:
“To put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”
To be made in the image of God, then, is to enjoy his “communicable attributes”, i.e. his character and personality, righteousness, holiness, wisdom, justice, love. To strengthen their argument, the Mormon will reason from Matthew 5:48 that we are to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”. In the correct context this is not, as they claim, a call to achieve godlike perfection, but to achieve right thinking in our attitude to others, i.e.
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous”.
Impartial love, a God-like attribute imputed to man, making man to be in the image of God.
References to God’s eyes, mouth, hand and arm, etc. describe not God’s body but the activity of God, his eyes ever watchful; his arm, ever reaching out to save; his mouth, communicating with us. We can point out Psalm 91:4 “he will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge”. The Mormon will readily understand that God does not have wings and that the Bible is speaking metaphorically. This is true of every such reference.
The Fatherhood of God
The Mormon will reason, in his attempt to establish the man-like nature of God, that “we are the children of God” Romans 8:16, meaning that we are literally his offspring Acts 17:24-29, and that he is our “Father in heaven” Matthew 5:48. This forms the basis of the Mormon Plan of Salvation, i.e. “We are the children of our Father in Heaven. We are created in his image. Because he is the Father of all people, we are brothers and sisters” and “God has a plan” for his children.
However, Malachi 2:10 clearly links creation and the fatherhood of God “Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us?” God is the father of humanity in the sense that he created humanity. Acts 17:24-26 speaks of God “giving all men life and breath” teaching that “From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live”. The statement that “we are his offspring” is clearly set in the context of creation. Romans 8:16 is again dealt with properly in context for in verse 15 we read “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the spirit of adoption. And by him we cry Abba, Father”.
In Acts, then, we have a reference to God as our Creator/Father, while in Romans we have a reference to God as our Father by adoption, through faith in the saving work of his Son and the leading of the Spirit. Matthew 5:48 takes on a wholly different meaning as we consider our creation and subsequent adoption into God’s family, i.e. “even as your Father (who made you and adopted you into his family) is perfect”.
The True ‘Otherness’ of God
The contrast between the nature of God and the nature of man could not be more clearly stated than in Psalm 90:
Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You turn men back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, O sons of men.” For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning – though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered (Ps.90:1-6)
God is eternal, “from everlasting to everlasting”, while man is mortal, springing up in the morning but by evening dry and withered. He is our Creator and we are creatures.
While Christians see man being made in the image of God the Mormons have quickly taken us to a god who is in the image of man. They start with reference to a Supreme Being but end up worshipping a Superior Being, i.e. an exalted man.
In his Confessions Augustine of Hippo reflected on the incomprehensible nature of God:
“Who then are you, my God? What, I ask, but God who is Lord? For, ‘Who is the Lord but the Lord’, or ‘who is God but our God?’ (Ps.17:32). Most high, utterly good, utterly powerful, most omnipotent, most merciful and most just, deeply hidden yet most intimately present, perfection of both beauty and strength, Stable and incomprehensible, immutable and yet changing all things, never new, never old, making everything new and ‘leading’ the proud ‘to be old without their knowledge’ (Job 9:5); always active, always in repose, gathering to yourself but not in need, supporting and filling and protecting, creating and nurturing and bringing to maturity, searching even though to you nothing is lacking: you love without burning, you are jealous in a way that is free of anxiety, you ‘repent’ (Gen.6:6) without the pain of regret, you are wrathful and remain tranquil. You will a change without any change in your design. You recover what you find, yet have never lost. Never in any need, you rejoice in your gains (Lk.15:7); you are never avaricious, yet you require interest (Matt.25:27). We pay you more than you require so as to make you our debtor, yet who has anything which does n
ot belong to you? (1 Cor.4:7). You pay off debts, though owing nothing to anyone; you cancel debts and incur no loss.” (St Augustine, Confessions, Chadwick, 1991)
The best minds in Christian history have struggled with these ideas and, in the final analysis, such knowledge as we have of God is beyond our natural comprehension and must come by revelation, i.e. what we know of God is limited to what God reveals about himself. For the rest we can only stand in wonder with Augustine at the utter ‘otherness’ of God. The Mormon comprehension of God, in contrast, is limited only by man’s imagination as Mormons conceive God as an exalted man. The Mormon God is far from the incomprehensible being described by Augustine and revealed in the Bible. His ways are very much our ways, his thoughts just like our own, his life an extension of finite existence once lived out on an earth, just as will be ours.
The Mormon claim that revelation alone can reveal the true nature of God, but what has God already revealed of himself, how have Christians understood this, and how does it compare with Mormon claims?
The Christian God
Three things might be said about the traditional Christian view of the Godhead:
1. There is but one God
2. The Father, the Son and the Spirit is each fully and eternally God
3. The Father, the Son, and the Spirit is each a distinct person
The Bible makes it clear there is one God, and only one God:
Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me (Is.43:10b)
I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God (Is.44:6)
I am the LORD, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God (Is.45:5)
I am the LORD, and there is no other (Is. 45:18b)
And there is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a Saviour; there is none but me. Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other (Is. 45:21b-22)
The Bible also shows a plurality in God’s being:
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ Now some teachers of the law…[thought], ‘Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mk.2:7-10)
‘For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it’ (Jn.5:21)
Jesus forgives sin as only God can and gives life, as only God can, because he has life in himself (Jn.1:4). Yet Jesus is not the Father, as is made clear from Jn.5:21 (c.f. Mk.1:11).
Jesus speaks of the Spirit as being of the same kind or nature with himself:
‘If you love me you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor to be with you forever – the Spirit of truth’ (Jn.14:15-17)
‘Another Counsellor’ here means ‘Another like me’, another of the same kind. He is ‘the Counsellor’ or ‘Advocate’ and ‘Intercessor’, words applied to Jesus. We read in the Bible that ‘the Spirit gives life’ (1 Cor.3:6) even as the Father gives life and the Son has life in himself and gives life to whom he is pleased to give it.
The Bible reveals, then, that there is one God, but there are three persons who are God. There is one God but this one God has a plural nature. This one God is called the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Christians do not reject a Godhead of three separate persons, rather we believe in what the Bible tells us.
The God of Christianity is an eternal being, plural in nature, comprising Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This God created all things ex nihilo – out of nothing. He became man in the person of the Son, Immanuel, God with us, in order to save fallen and lost humanity from their sin by the sacrifice of the Cross. He dwells in us by his Spirit (Eph.2:22) and by his indwelling we have Christ ‘in us’ and fellowship with the Father (Ro.8:9-10; 1 John 1:3).
The god of Mormonism is a man, who became a god through repentance and obedience to his god, formed a world from materials already in existence, and peopled it with his already pre-existing spirit children. He sent another god, the Mormon Jesus, to save his children by showing them an example of obedience. He then sent a third god to guide his church, though not very successfully since it apostatised, and finally sent Joseph Smith to achieve what neither the Christ nor the Spirit of Mormonism were able to do at first.
It is not true that the church has been confused over the centuries until Joseph came along. Rather, the church has wrestled with these things, seeking God in his Word and by prayer, and determined to accept only what the Bible reveals to us.
“… you thought I was altogether like you. But I will rebuke you and accuse you to your face” (Ps. 50:21)
For further reading:
Saint Augustine, Confessions, OUP, 1991, trans. Chadwick
Should Christians Apologise? Reachout Trust, 2004, Harris, Hayward, Thomas
New Bible Dictionary, Trinity, IVP, 1996 ed.
Systematic Theology, God: The Trinity, IVP, 1994, Wayne Grudem
Knowing God, J I Packer, Hodder & Stoughton
According to Plan, Goldsworthy, IVP
At The Heart of the Universe, Peter Jensen, IVP
Mormon Teaching Notes, a systematic critique of the Mormon Missionary Discussions, Reachout Trust.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2008 Reachout Quarterly