“The formal doctrine of the Trinity as it was defined by the great church councils of the 4th and 5th centuries is not to be found in the New Testament.”
–Harper’s Bible Dictionary
Boldly refuting our critics who claim we aren’t Christians because we don’t accept some of the extra-Biblical doctrines, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s Saturday afternoon General Conference address included some hard-hitting comments. In addition to testifying of our obvious commitment to Jesus Christ and our sincere and devout worship of Him as our Savior and Son of God, Elder Holland specifically took on the critics who say we aren’t Christians for not sharing their views on the Trinity. While we believe that the Father and the Son are One in every meaningful way – one in heart, purpose, will, etc. – our understanding of how they are one does not include the perplexing formulations of an immaterial single being of three persons and one substance or other post-New Testament formulations that were heavily influenced by Greek philosophy. After pointing out that the metaphysical doctrine of three persons of one substance and Trinitarian formulations evolved long after New Testament times in councils of men, Elder Holland cited multiple verses from the New Testament illustrating that the early Christian understanding of the Godhead was consistent with the understanding of modern Latter-day Saints, an understanding that came as part of the Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
His purpose was not to say that Trinitarians are not Christians! Rather, he was clarifying our status and demonstrating the irony of other Christians saying we are not Christian for failing to accept modern doctrines foreign to Peter, Paul, and the early Christians. While we disagree with the modern concept of the Trinity, those who believe it are still Christians in our book. We may be concerned that some of their doctrines are incomplete, but we don’t scare others into thinking that other churches aren’t even Christian just because we disagree in how we interpret the scriptures.
Some tough love from Elder Holland – but nicely handled, I thought.
Update: here is an excerpt from an excellent source on the development of the doctrine of the doctrine of the Trinity, Barry Bickmore’s Restoring the Ancient Church (footnotes deleted – see the original for details):
The Mainstream Trinity: The Nicene Creed
When mainline Christians see the basic propositions about God discussed above, along with statements that “[Christ] and the Father are one” (John 10:30), they conclude that the doctrine of the Trinity as expressed in the Nicene Creed of 325 A.D. is the only logical explanation:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of his Father, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father. By whom all things were made, both which be in heaven and in earth. Who for us men and for our salvation came down [from heaven] and was incarnate and was made man. He suffered and the third day he rose again, and ascended into heaven. And he shall come again to judge both the quick and the dead. And [we believe] in the Holy Ghost. And whosoever shall say that there was a time when the Son of God was not, or that before he was begotten he was not, or that he was made of things that were not, or that he is of a different substance or essence [from the Father] or that he is a creature, or subject to change or conversion–all that so say, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them.
That is, there is only one God, but that God is composed of three distinct persons who share in the same substance or essence.
“Of One Substance”
Was this the original interpretation of the scriptural passages in question? Modern scholars agree that the Nicene view introduced new elements into the standard interpretations that had not been accepted by the earliest Church. For example, Maurice Wiles concludes that, “The emergence of the full trinitarian doctrine was not possible without significant modification of previously accepted ideas.”
Specifically, the phrase, “of one substance or essence,” expresses a concept that was adopted and adapted from contemporary Greek philosophy, but was foreign to the thought of the original Christianity. This concept may seem strange to the modern reader because Greek philosophy is no longer the predominant system of thought, although it has remained the basis of many aspects of mainstream Christian theology even to the present time. At the time the Nicene Creed was adopted, the predominant philosophy was a hodgepodge of ideas, mostly based on Neoplatonism and a few other schools of thought. These schools, in turn, largely based their ideas on the thought of a few earlier philosophers, notably Plato, Empedocles and Xenophanes. A quick summary of how these philosophers viewed God should make the language of the Nicene Creed clear to the reader. (Although the Christians modified the terminology of the philosophers to fit their purposes, one still cannot make sense of their language without reference to these Hellenistic ideas.)
Plato, realizing the material world was ever changing, speculated that it was impossible to obtain true knowledge by observing the natural world. But he had faith that true knowledge was possible, so he posited an unchanging, perfect world that was a higher reality than the material. He called this region or dimension the world of “Ideas” or “Forms.” These “Ideas” were considered the perfect essences of various objects or attributes. For example, a waterfall and a person can both be said to be “beautiful” although they seem to have nothing material in common. Plato suggested that there must be an “Idea” or essence in the world of Forms–perfect and unchanging–called “The Beautiful,” in which both the person and the waterfall participate. Similarly, Plato’s idea of God was a perfect, unchanging, indivisible essence known as “The Divine,” or “The One.”
Xenophanes and Empedocles expressed similar ideas of what God must be like. Xenophanes (570-475 B.C.) conceived of “God as thought, as presence, as all powerful efficacy.” He is one God–incorporeal, “unborn, eternal, infinite, . . . not moving at all, [and] beyond human imagination.” And Empedocles (ca. 444 B.C.) claimed that God “does not possess a head and limbs similar to those of humans . . . . A spirit, a holy and inexpressible one . . . .”
Therefore, in the Greek world it was more acceptable for the Christians to say that there are three, distinct persons who are a single “Divine essence or substance”–or as Plato would say, “The Divine.” But these three persons cannot be said to be three Gods, because the divine essence must be indivisible and simple. Many Christians envision the Trinity as three “centers of consciousness” within the one God, but even this is inadequate to express the ineffable reality of God.
More on the “Being” of God
Consistent with this conception of the “Divine Substance,” God cannot be said to be a material being, for matter is a lower reality than a pure “Idea.” Thus, the ancient Greek philosophers and modern mainstream Christians would agree that God is incorporeal, without a material body or human emotions, immovable, indivisible, and therefore ultimately incomprehensible to humanity.
This theory of the nature of God began to be adopted into Christian thought in the late second century. Christopher Stead writes that the early Christian writers Irenaeus (A.D. 130-200), Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 150-215) and Novatian (ca. 250) believed in a God who is “simple and not compounded, uniform and wholly alike in himself, being wholly mind and wholly spirit . . . wholly hearing, wholly sight, wholly light, and wholly the source of all good things.” This, Stead points out, is almost identical to Xenophanes’ assertion that “All of him sees, all thinks and all hears.” And “since Clement elsewhere quotes Xenophanes verbatim, we have good grounds for thinking that Clement’s description, and indeed the theory as a whole, derives from Xenophanes.”
Thus, we see that to interpret what is meant by the mainstream Christian creeds, we must appeal to the ideas of the Greek philosophers. We also see that the concepts of deity derived from these sources are contrary to the doctrines and teachings presented in the New Testament.