CES Reply: Comprehending the Incomprehensible

This is a serialization of “A Faithful Reply to the CES Letter from a Former CES Employee.”  You can download the whole PDF here, and you can also participate in the Latter-day Saint Survey Project by joining or creating one of the Canonizer camps in the links at the bottom of this post.

This is a line-by-line response to Jeremy Runnells’s October 2017 iteration of the CES Letter. Jeremy’s original text appears in green, the color of life. My response text appears in black, the color of darkness.

So the problem with understanding the Trinity is that, by definition, it’s “incomprehensible,” so the way people comprehend the incomprehensible often tends to be, in practice, fairly consistent with the Mormon view. Pollster Gary Lawrence, who worked with me on my father’s unsuccessful 2010 reelection campaign, conducted a series of polls on this subject, and the results were revealing.

The poll asked two questions of Christians across the country. Half were asked, “Do you believe that God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost are three separate Beings, or are they three Beings in one body or substance?”

Twenty-seven percent responded similar to the Mormon belief that they are separate beings. Sixty-six percent answered in line with traditional Christian beliefs that they are “three beings in one body or substance.”

The other half of Christians surveyed were given a different question about the Trinity: “The New Testament says that God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost are one. Do you believe that means they are one in purpose or one in body?”

This time the answers went the other direction. Those answering the traditional “one in body” were 31 percent. Those answering “one in purpose” were 58 percent.

Lawrence said that Mormons say the oneness of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the New Testament is an oneness of purpose. The positive response of Christians to this concept in the second question surprised Lawrence. “I was wondering if there was a difference. I wasn’t expecting a flip-flop. But it was. It just shifts from two-to-one one way and almost two-to-one the other way,” Lawrence said.

What caused the shift? Lawrence said it is in the way the questions were asked.

The first question focused on contrasting separateness and oneness — “separate beings” versus “three beings in one body or substance.”

The second question focused on the meaning of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit’s oneness — a physical (or metaphysical) oneness versus a purpose oneness.

“If it is presented in the way Mormons interpret scripture versus the opposite, they come toward the Mormon view,” Lawrence said. “If you focus on physical characteristics, you get another one.”

– Courtesy of the Deseret News

The confusion over how to interpret the creeds is still with us, and it was definitely present in the 1830s. The accepted definition of the Trinity did not arrive until centuries after the Crucifixion, and only then after a great deal of heated – and even on occasion bloody – disagreements.  The biblical verses used to support it are in no way self-evident. As my mission president Joseph Fielding McConkie used to say, if you had no additional information, you could easily read the Bible from now until the Millennium and never have it occur to you that Jesus is his own father.

I offer all that to suggest that Joseph’s thinking on the Trinity very likely did evolve, but not in the way you imply. That is to say, he likely didn’t fully understand that believing in the Father and the Son as separate physical beings required you to simultaneously not believe they were separate physical beings. The Trinity is a logical impossibility, and it probably wasn’t until the Church started to attract attention that Joseph grasped the implications of how heretical his position really was.

But as to these verses, why were they changed? My guess is that they sounded too Catholic for Joseph’s taste, not necessarily Trinitarian. The phrase “mother of God” is uniquely Catholic and carries doctrinal implications that would likely have made Joseph uncomfortable, Trinitarians notwithstanding. All the other changes are in close textual proximity to that first one, so Joseph probably wanted to make sure this passage remained consistent. The changes really don’t change the doctrine – Jesus is both God and Son of God, after all, and Trinitarians fully accept that.

Of course, to accept that Joseph could make such changes is to accept that he could have made an error during the translation process, or that he may have made an error with this change, which, as I’ve repeatedly pointed out, is not hard for me to accept at all. That may have come as a shock to you, but, again, that introduction that warns about “the mistakes of men” has been in print for almost two hundred years, so it’s pretty hard to say the Church has been covering up that possibility.

In addition to these revised passages, the following verses are among many verses still in the Book of Mormon that can be read with a Trinitarian view of the Godhead:

ALMA 11:38-39 

38: Now Zeezrom saith again unto him: Is the Son of God the very 

Eternal Father?

39: And Amulek said unto him: Yea, he is the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth, and all things which in them are; he is the beginning and the end, the first and the last;

MOSIAH 15:1-4 

1: And now Abinadi said unto them: I would that ye should understand that God himself shall come down among the children of men, and shall redeem his people.

2: And because he dwelleth in flesh he shall be called the Son of God, and having subjected the flesh to the will of the Father, being the Father and the Son –

3: The Father, because he was conceived by the power of God; and the

Son, because of the flesh; thus becoming the Father and Son –

4: And they are one God, yea, the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth.

ETHER 3:14-15 

14: Behold, I am he who was prepared from the foundation of the world to redeem my people. Behold, I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son. In me shall all mankind have life, and that eternally, even they who shall believe on my name; and they shall become my sons and my daughters.

15: And never have I showed myself unto man whom I have created, for never has man believed in me as thou hast. Seest thou that ye are created after mine own image? Yea, even all men were created in the beginning after mine own image.

MOSIAH 16:15 

15: “Teach them that redemption cometh through Christ the Lord, who is the very Eternal Father. Amen.”

Yes, and these verses take the bottom out from under your argument. If Joseph’s purpose in altering 1 Nephi was to purge Trinitarianism from the Book of Mormon, why would he leave these untouched? Also, you left out a big one from your list. The same title page that announces the Book of Mormon is not inerrant also says the purpose of the Book of Mormon is “to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that JESUS is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL GOD, manifesting himself unto all nations.” [Caps in original]

Again, there it is, right on the first page. The verses you quote, coupled with the announcement of its purpose, make it clear Christ is God and that he is the Eternal Father as well as the Son, and it does so more explicitly than the verses Joseph changed. Even if he somehow forgot about all these other verses – highly unlikely – surely he wouldn’t let that Trinitarian title page hang out there like a big steaming matso ball, would he?  In addition, the Doctrine and Covenants makes no attempt to shy away from these doctrines – several revelations begin by announcing that it is the Father speaking, and they end in the name of Jesus Christ.

What’s going on?

The answer, paradoxically, is that these verses are no more intrinsically Trinitarian than the changes are un-Trinitarian.

The Trinity relies on extra-Biblical creedal language to interpret scripture. In other words, one has to learn from creedal texts outside the Bible that God doesn’t make any sense at all and then graft that interpretation on the scripture after the fact. The plain meaning of the text will not automatically guide you to that bizarre conclusion. So these verses are consistent with Bible verses that make similar pronouncements, and no one, including Joseph Smith, has to apply the external Trinitarian lens to read them correctly.

After all, Jesus stated that “this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” (John 17:3) If our eternal life depends on us knowing God, how can we do that if he’s incomprehensible?

That verse comes from what I believe to be the most profoundly spiritual chapter in all of scripture. John 17, the Great Intercessory Prayer, offers the solution. It provides the clearest possible understanding of what God means when he says he is the Father and the Son, and it does so in what seems to me to be explicitly Latter-day Saint terms:

JOHN 17: 20-23

20 Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word;

 21 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.

 22 And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one:

 23 I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.

So we’re all supposed to be one, just as Christ and his father are one. Do we imagine that involves all of us becoming the same person? To be saved, does Jeremy Runnells have to become Jim Bennett and become Jesus Christ, too? Are we all to be some giant blobular God together, and yet be somehow also separate at the same time?

As Paul would say, Heaven forbid! This is a unity of purpose Christ is talking about, not an esoteric Trinitarian paradox. These verses in the Book of Mormon, and similar-sounding verses in the Bible, are teaching the essential nature of unity. To paraphrase BYU professor Robert Millet, they’re to teach us that the Father and the Son are infinitely more alike than they are separate. I think we often overcorrect in the Church and go out of our way to emphasize their distinct physical forms and lose sight of their innate and magnificent spiritual unity. These verses remain in order to teach us a profound lesson that we overlook at our spiritual peril.

When I teach this doctrine, I liken it to children who try to play one parent off the other. Kids often hold out hope that if Mom says no, maybe they can convince Dad to say yes. A perfectly united marriage wouldn’t have this problem, as the mother would be able to perfectly speak for the father, and vice versa.

In the Godhead, Jesus’s agenda is identical to the Father’s agenda – you can’t play one off of the other. So when people read scriptures and ask, “well, is this the Father or the Son speaking,” Jesus’s answer is – doesn’t matter in the least. We speak for each other without the slightest deviation. I am so in line with the Father that I can speak for the Father, in the first person as the Father, as if I were the Father.

That’s what Christ expects from us – to become one, to have His agenda be our agenda, for all of to be perfectly united and “knit together in love.” It’s a beautiful doctrine, and, at its core, astonishingly simple, as opposed to the Trinity, which is ridiculously complex and impossible to understand.

More trinitarianism next time.  In the meantime, take a look at the Canonizer camps below. If you think I’m completely wrong, you can join a camp that says so – or create one of your own!