The January 2016 Mormon Ensign magazine features an address by Elder Jeffrey R Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles on the subject of the nature of God. He begins with a quote from Joseph Smith, ‘It is the first principle of the gospel to know for a certainty the character of God.’
He goes on to quote the first article of faith of the Mormon Church: ‘We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.’ This is a mischievous and misleading statement when stood on its own since it sounds so trinitarian. Countless Mormon missionaries have met the charge that Mormons worship a different God with this statement, insisting they worship the God of the Bible.
The Mormon Gods
When he unpacks this deceptive tenet it is clear that they worship a very different God. The Mormon faith is henotheistic, believing that they have a special relationship with one God but that there are other gods. He also launches a direct attack on the Christian concept of God. Under the heading Christian Confusion he characterises the Christian teaching as confusing and incomprehensible. He then goes on to describe the Mormon concept of God as much more clear and accessible, ending with an appeal to modern revelation as the key to this clarity of understanding.
What is interesting is not the theology he presents, which is scant and woefully inadequate, but the way the article works to avoid the theology and plant the idea of Mormonism in the reader’s mind. He appeals to people’s natural instinct to oversimplify, knowing that God as an exalted man, with a wife and kids, is more readily comprehensible than ‘the mystery of godliness,’ which Paul describes as ‘great.’ (1 Tim.3:16) Every argument against the doctrine of the Triune God begins with the words, ‘It makes no sense to me…’ It is as though some think the Divine being, the Creator and Sustainer of all things, the transcendent God, should be completely comprehensible to finite beings; God in all His glory and Majesty reduced to a manageable dictionary definition.
A small but significant ‘thought bomb’ is planted in the opening lines of the article that shapes and colours everything that follows. It is the line that says:
“…our members, and our investigators must know for a certainty the character of the members of the Godhead. We must have a correct idea of Their individual perfections and attributes and an admiration for the excellency of Their personal character.” (Emphasis in original)
Note how he emphasises the words ‘Godhead’ and ‘Their [personal character]’ in the text. Already the idea of a plurality is planted and the one true ‘God’ is exchanged for a ‘Godhead.’ Every time he subsequently refers to God it is in this context of plurality. This is how Mormons speak to each other, and nothing wrong with that, but this ‘discussion’ of God will be shared with people who don’t understand the secret code, the internal language peculiar to Mormonism. They won’t easily recognise the significance of his careful references to ‘the Godhead’; ‘Divine Beings’; ‘Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’; ‘They,’ and ‘Them.’ But it is in the name of these three gods, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that people are baptised into the Mormon Church.
He goes on to quote that first Article of Faith, identifying this Godhead as comprising three separate Gods, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. He doesn’t explicitly state, ‘our faith is henotheistic.’ Rather, he insinuates the idea by a series of well rehearsed Mormon tropes and aphorisms, and questionable quotes.
He speaks of the ‘expanding frontier’ of the Mormon Church, introducing the idea of apostasy stating:
“As the Savior Himself taught, missionary work—the work of salvation—is like a net that we are throwing to a wider and wider world of nations, cultures, and people. As such, we will gather, as the parable says, fish “of every kind” (Matthew 13:47). Many of those “fish” in our expanding frontier do not know who God is or what His Fatherhood is actually like; they do not know who Jesus Christ really is or why His is the only name given under heaven whereby we may be saved (see Acts 4:12); they do not know who the Holy Ghost is or why this member of the Godhead “was sent forth to teach the truth” (D&C 50:14).”
This casts the churches in a very bad light, which is typical of what Mormonism does, and prepares people for the ‘Restored Truth’ of Joseph Smith. But he hasn’t yet discussed God, rather, he has asserts the Mormon God by dismissing the God of the Christian Church. The Christian Church is wrong, or how else can peoples’ ignorance of the true nature of the Godhead be explained?
To underline the idea of Christian apostasy, he wheels out Bruce R McConkie and his famous devotional address at Brigham Young University in March of 1982. Entitled, ‘Our Relationship with the Lord,’ it is didactic and emphatically defines our relationship with each member of the Godhead. He famously states, ‘We pray to the Father, in the name of the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit,’ as though assigning to each their rightful place in the scheme of things and defying them to contradict him. In the article he is quoted:
“true and saving worship is found only among those who know the truth about … the Godhead and who understand the true relationship men should have with each member of [what one of the Brethren has called] that Eternal Presidency.”
Jeffrey Holland goes on:
“Elder Bruce R. McConkie (1915–85) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles reminded us that Lucifer understands the significance of such doctrine, even if we don’t. He said:
“There is no salvation in believing … false doctrine, particularly a false or unwise view about the Godhead or any of its members.…
“It follows that the devil would rather spread false doctrine about God and the Godhead, and induce false feelings with reference to any one of them, than almost any other thing he could do.” (speeches.byu.edu, Our Relationship with the Lord)
An Ethereal Mist
Appealing again to sentiment and people’s bent for simplicity, Holland remarks:
“A God who cares about them as tenderly as a parent cares for a child cannot be an ethereal mist or a vague philosophical First Cause or a deistic absentee landlord. He must be recognized for what He truly is—a merciful, compassionate Father, in whose image every one of His children has been made and before Whom all of us will one day again stand—and then kneel! Few of our investigators will know that kind of God now, in or out of contemporary Christianity.”
In two sentences he has misrepresented what Christians believe and swept aside many fundamental principles of the Christian message. God is not regarded as ‘an ethereal mist,’ but as ‘spirit,’ which is how Jesus describes him (John 4:24). It is bizarre that Mormon teachings should so disparage the idea of God as spirit since one of the three principle gods in their pantheon is a spirit, the Holy Spirit. If being a spirit makes God ‘an ethereal mist’ then so is the Mormon ‘Holy Ghost.’
Neither is God ‘a vague philosophical First Cause.’ Indeed, when we consider the work of God in creation, there is nothing vague or abstract about him. John makes clear that ‘In the beginning…’ there was intimacy of relationship: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word Was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.’ (John 1:1-2)
The Creation story describes a God very much involved in his creation, particularly with mankind. Man was made, ‘in the image of God.’ Not in the physical image (how shallow such a concept surely is) but in the most important way, in the spiritual/emotional/intellectual image of God. Think of Shakespeare’s words in Hamlet’s soliloquy:
“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!” (Hamlet, Act II, scene 2)
Did you get that? ‘In apprehension how like a god!’ So God made man in his own image. God himself regarded man ‘the paragon of animals’ and declared his Creation ‘very good’ following his creation of man, the pinnacle of his work. He gave man dominion (Gen.1:27) making him steward, co-regent over God’s Creation. He has man name the animals (Gen.2:19-20)and was so involved with man that he, ‘walked in the garden in the cool of the day.’ So intimate was God’s relationship with man, so immanent his presence, that they hid from him (Gen.3:8)
This is not Mormonism’s caricature of Christianity’s God as ethereal, vague, and absent. Such a distortion of the truth undermines the essential message that such a close and unfettered relationship as man had with God was lost because of sin. Even then, God proves determined to meet man at every opportunity and draw man back to himself. This culminates in the sending of his Son to die for the sins of the world. Ethereal, vague, and absent? Jesus declared: ‘Anyone who has seen me has seen the father.’ (John 14:9). The writer to the Hebrews says of Jesus:
“…in these last days [God] has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” (Heb.1:2-3)
Mormonism would have you believe that all this is impossible if God doesn’t have a body, despite the fact that one of Mormonism’s gods is ‘ethereal and vague.’
Lets Define Terms
“Regarding the distinct nature of these Divine Beings, our latter-day revelations teach that “the Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit” (D&C 130:22).”
That is official Mormon doctrine. It is also a very old heresy.
Jeffrey Holland compares this ‘clear baseline’ with what he regards as ‘terrible confusion and near-fatal errors’ of the Christina Church:
“Many evolutions and iterations of religious creeds have greatly distorted the simple clarity of true doctrine, declaring the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost to be abstract, absolute, transcendent, immanent, consubstantial, coeternal, and unknowable; without body, parts, or passions; and dwelling outside space and time.”
But God is not abstract, and he doesn’t need a body to be substantial.
Many of the words used here to sow a sense of confusion are simple enough and if they didn’t describe God he wouldn’t be the God of the Bible:
To be absolute in this context simply means to be free from restraint or limitation; a physical body defines restraint or limitation. The only limitation on the God of the Bible is the restraint of his own character. In other words, he must be true to himself. Isn’t that God?
To be transcendent simply means to be beyond the limits of ordinary experience and knowledge, transcending the universe or material existence. ‘In the beginning,’ we are informed, ‘God created the heavens and the earth.’ (Genesis 1:1) The New Testament says of Jesus, ‘Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.’ (John 1:3) In other words, when the beginning began God was already there, the uncreated creator who transcends all he made because he stands ‘outside space and time.’ What is confusing about that? The Mormon God is not at all transcendent, but is a product of creation, of material existence.
To be immanent is simply to be present. We have already seen that the God of the Bible has always been immanent in his Creation and with his people. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit can be said to be an example of God’s immanence. isn’t that the God of the Bible?
To be consubstantial means to be of the same substance. It describes the Trinity. It means they are three persons who share the same substance and is developed from John n1:1 and Hebrews 1:1-4 and other texts. This is probably the hardest concept to grasp but it is capable of explanation for all that.
Coeternal simply means existing together eternally. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are said to be ‘coeternal.’ Do we have a problem with that?
Unknowable doesn’t mean that God cannot be known but that God cannot be known without his self-revelation. God reveals himself in Creation (Romans 1:18-20); through his Son (John 14:9) and in his people (Ps.105:1).
Finally, we come to this much misunderstood phrase in the Westminster Catechism: without body, parts, and passions. ‘God is spirit,’ we have seen, transcendent, standing outside Creation. But what about passions? The Bible is full of texts depicting God as loving, angry, compassionate, etc. The framers of these words did not mean to say that God has no feelings. Passion is used here in the sense of human passions, which are unpredictable, often out of control, disproportionate, unguarded, sinful. God’s love is a perfect love, his anger a settled sense of hostility towards wrong, his compassion considered, measured. Jesus’ clearing of the temple is described as an act of ‘righteous indignation,’ his zeal for God’s house controlled and determined. That is what this phrase means.
What Holland has done here is throw some words at the page in a way meant to engender a sense of confusion. It is confusion that needn’t be there, and wouldn’t be there if he properly discussed the Godhead instead of asserting his prejudices. In truth, the confusion is on his part and that of his uninformed readers.
Sarapion and the Anthropomorphites
“We agree with our critics on at least that point—that such a formulation for divinity is incomprehensible. With such a confusing definition of God being imposed upon the Church, little wonder that a fourth-century monk cried out, “Woe is me! They have taken my God away from me, … and I know not whom to adore or to address.”
Here is mischief. He quotes a fourth century monk without giving context, giving the false impression that his point is proved by this woeful ascetic. The inference is to be drawn that the councils of the church have so confused the simple truth about God that an old hermit, who has clung to an original, New Testament understanding of the Deity, bemoans the ensuing confusion. He writes:
“So we are very comfortable, frankly, in letting it be known that we do not hold a fourth- or fifth-century, pagan-influenced view of the Godhead, and neither did those first Christian Saints who were eyewitnesses of the living Christ. We are New Testament—not Nicene—Christians.”
The trump is played, the trick is enacted, stand back for the applause of the crowd, the acclaim of the masses. It is a familiar trope of Mormonism in recent years to describe themselves as New Testament Christians as opposed to Nicene Christians. But what is the context of this killer quote?
It is taken from Owen Chadwick’s Western Asceticism (1958) and the Conferences of Cassian. John Cassian, John the Ascetic, c 360-435, was a Christian monk and theologian from what is today’s Romania/Bulgaria. The Conferences of Cassion is a journal that summarises important conversations that Cassian had with elders from Scetis about principles of the spiritual and ascetic life.
The specific quote is taken from a section on prayer. Note, prayer, not the nature of God. Cassion clearly regards this story as a distraction from his main purpose but inserts it anyway:
“The order of my discourse now forces me to insert a passage which may seem like a pimple on a lovely body. Yet I have no doubt that less educated readers will learn much from it about the image of Almighty God which Genesis describes…A few days after the first conference with Abba Isaac, arrived the customary festal letter from Bishop Theophilus of Alexandria…he included a long refutation of the absurd heresy of the Antrhopomorphites. Nearly all the monks in Egypt, being uneducated and therefore holding wrong ideas, received this with bitterness and hostility: and a large majority of elders from all the ascetic brotherhood decreed that the bishop was guilty of grave and hateful heresy because (by denying that Almighty God was formed in the fashion of a man, when Scripture bears clear witness that Adam was created in his image) he seemed to be attacking the text of Holy Scripture.”
The ‘Anthropomorphites’ believed that God has a physical body and a Bishop of Alexandria has refuted this idea. One of those caught up in the error, we are told, was a monk named Sarapion, and they tried to bring him back to ‘the true belief.’ A learned deacon named Phonitus, it seems, made an attempt to explain to the old monk that “all the leaders of the churches understood the text [Gen.1:26] spiritually, not literally nor crudely, and made a long speech adducing numerous proofs from Scripture
“That unmeasurable, incomprehensible, invisible majesty cannot be limited by a human frame or likeness. His nature is incorporeal, uncompounded, simple and cannot be seen by human eyes or conceived adequately by a human mind.”
Sarapion, the old monk, finally saw the point and agreed with Phonitus, at which all rejoiced. There was then a call to prayer, and that is where the problem arises. Sarapion, like all Anthropomorphites, had approached prayer with an anthropomorphic image in his mind. The theology he now embraced, correct though it was, robbed him of this image and it is the absence of this image that he was complaining of when he cries, ‘“Woe is me! They have taken my God away from me, … and I know not whom to adore or to address.”
Jeffrey Holland puts the heretical anthropomorphic case when he comments:
“How are we to trust, love, and worship, to say nothing of striving to be like, One who is incomprehensible and unknowable? What of Jesus’s prayer that it ‘is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent’?”
Cassian and his companion Germanus go to Abba Isaac for guidance in light of this development and Abba Isaac explains the root of this false doctrine:
“This error is not, as you suppose, a modern illusion of demons, but an inheritance from the ignorance of the old heathen. They used customarily and erroneously to worship demons fashioned in the likeness of men, and even now they think to worship him in his majesty-the incomprehensible and indescribable-in the limited form of some statue. And they suppose that they have nothing to worship unless they have in front of them a statue, which they can continually address in their devotions, can mentally conceive, and can keep in front of their eyes. Against this error is directed the text, ‘And they changed the glory of the incorruptible God into the likeness of the image of corruptible man.’ And Jeremiah says: ‘My people have changed their glory for an idol.
This the way in which this error has been implanted in some men. Nevertheless, in people whose souls have never been polluted by heathenism, the error is contracted by ignorance, under cover of this text: ‘Let us make man in our image and likeness.’ Hence the so-called Anthropomorphite heresy has risen out of the detestable interpretation of this text, a heresy which maintains obstinately and perversely that the limitless and simple nature of God is fashioned in human form and features.”
You can read the full account here.
The context, then, is the Anthropomorphite heresy. The quote is simply about a monk struggling with the new experience of praying without the aid of mental statues and icons. Holland insists that ours is ‘a fourth-or-fifth century, pagan influenced view of the Godhead…’ Ironically, it is his view that is distinctly pagan. The Mormon Church continues in the Anthropomorphite heresy and is promoting a heathen practice, the ‘detestable interpretation’ of a Bible text. The words of the old monk, Sarapion, may well contain the thought that Jeffrey Holland wishes to convey, but their context certainly does not. This is a totally misleading use of the historical data.
There follows, of course, the usual testimony, An Apostle’s Witness, but saying it is so doesn’t make it so.
“I close with my testimony of each of these Divine Beings, who constitute that “Eternal Presidency” spoken of…I bear witness that the Father was and is the Creator of all things, working through Jehovah and other heavenly agents to accomplish that Creation and sharing the title of Creator with His Beloved Son. I testify that we are to serve the Father in the name of the Son just as we are to pray to the Father in the name of the Son [shades of McConkie]. I testify that Jesus Christ came to do the will of the Father, taught the doctrine of the Father, and worked out His own salvation through the Father.”
Did you catch that? The Saviour had to work out his own salvation. Definitions are so important when considering these issues and the Mormon definition of ‘salvation’ is completely different to what Christians understand by the word. I am sure his words are heartfelt but it isn’t about how we feel about a thing but about whether the thing is true. No doubt he feels he has done a god job of defending his faith and advancing its message, but our job is to bring it all to the plumb line of Scripture, the bar of history, and judge for ourselves.