Tough Questions Answered

A Christian Apologetics Blog

. . . Of One Essence With The Father?

Post Author: Darrell

(This post originally appeared on Darrell’s Thoughts and Reflections on Aug. 5, 2013 and is being reposted here for Tough Questions Answered readers.)

I was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – aka The Mormon Church - for several years prior to converting to Christianity and becoming Orthodox.  One of the significant gulfs between Mormon and Christian theology involves the Doctrine of the Trinity as codified at Nicea in 325 AD.  Traditional Christians affirm the Doctrine of the Trinity, believing it to be the correct understanding of the Godhead, while Mormons repudiate it.  The Church to which I belong – The Eastern Orthodox Church – holds the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed to be The Symbol of our Faith.  It is the standard confession of every Orthodox Christian, being recited at ones baptism and reaffirmed every week before Holy Communion in the Divine Liturgy.

One of the major sticking points of the Trinitarian confession for the Mormon Church is the declaration that the three Persons of the Holy Trinity – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – are one in Essence or Nature.  The Nicene Creed says, in part:

“We believe . . . in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages. Light of Light; true God of true God; begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father. . . “

Considering this aspect of the Doctrine of the Trinity, in the October 2007 General Conference, LDS Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland said:

“Our first and foremost article of faith in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is ‘We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.’ . . I think it is accurate to say we believe They are one in every significant and eternal aspect imaginable except believing Them to be three persons combined in one substance. . .”

In the April 1995 General Conference, LDS Apostle Dallin H. Oaks spoke even more directly when he declared that the rejection of the understanding of God contained in the historic Christian Creeds is “one of the distinguishing features of the doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. . .”

Over the last few years, I have spoken to several Mormons regarding their Church’s rejection of this aspect of Trinitarian Theology.  One of the things I have discovered is that very few of them seem to understand what we mean when we declare the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be one in essence.  Some believe it means that the three are one person with three separate personalities, others believe it means that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are separate expressions of God, and still others say rather directly that they have no idea what it means, they just believe it to be false.

In my opinion, one of the best ways to understand what the Nicene Creed means by “one in essence” is to look to the writings of those in the early Church.  The Third Ecumenical Council of the Church met at Ephesus in 431 AD to address the Nestorian Heresy.  After the Council’s completion John of Antioch wrote a letter to Saint Cyril of Alexandria, seeking to restore greater communion within the Church.  In this letter, he gives great insight into the Church’s understanding of what is means to declare Christ to be of one essence, or consubstantial, with the Father.  It says, in part:

“We confess, therefore, our Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, perfect God, and perfect man of a reasonable soul and flesh consisting; begotten before the ages of the Father according to His divinity, and in the last days, for us and for our salvation, [was born] of the Virgin Mary according to His humanity; that He is consubstantial with the Father according to divinity and consubstantial with us according to humanity, for in Him there is a perfect unity of two natures. [emphasis mine]“

The Early Church Fathers believed that Christ was consubstantial, or one in essence, with us as well as the Father.  In fact, this understanding was central to the Church’s soteriology, the belief being that it was through becoming consubstantial with humanity in the incarnation that Christ redeemed the human nature, uniting it to God through His Person.

So this leads to the question, if Christ is one in essence with humanity as man in the same way that He is one in essence with the Father and the Holy Spirit as God, how are we to understand this oneness in essence?  How is Christ “one with humanity” in essence?  We can say for sure that He is not one with us by being an “expression” of humanity or by being a “personality” of humanity.  Our human experience shows us otherwise.  The simple answer is that He is one with us because He shares our human nature.  You, me, Christ, and all the rest of us are human.  We each share in the oneness of human nature or essence, but we still remain separate persons within the human species.

This is how we are to understand the Oneness of the Holy Trinity.  Each of the Persons of the Trinity are separate individuals.  There exists a Father, and a Son, and a Holy Spirit.  However, each of the members of the Holy Trinity are God, and they are united in essence by each of them being fully God.  Christ is unique among the members of the Holy Trinity in that He became one with humanity in the incarnation – becoming one in essence with us.  However, He did not lose any of His God Nature in this process.  He still remains fully God.

One thing to bear in mind is that the fall caused an unnatural division in the human nature.  As a result, our oneness in essence is broken.  Part of Christ’s mission to save humanity was to heal this brokenness by recapitulating our nature, bringing it back into Communion with God.  However, the Oneness of the Holy Trinity is perfect.  It has never suffered a fall and, as a result, the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit transcends our understanding in a rather profound and significant manner.

Surprisingly, when I have shared this understanding with Mormons, I have often found them to have no issues with it.  When they are able to see that holding the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be one in essence does not do away with them being separate Persons, their points of disagreement seem to fade into the background.  Don’t get me wrong, there are still several points of disagreement between Mormon and Orthodox Theology, and those points are quite significant and profound.  However, this particular point may be one that is more a product of misunderstanding than true substance (no pun intended :-)  ).


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Comments

  • DanOhBrian

    “Each of the persons of the Trinity are separate individuals.”

    Let me take issue with this because I think it borders on Tri-Theism. If it’s not bordering it’s at least allowing for the thought of it, and I think that’s where the mormon sees the same thing they’ve been saying just in a different way.

    The God who is three-in-one is, to my mind, not made up of three individual persons. That is to say, there is not a kind such that the Son of God is the same kind as God the Father who is the same kind as the Holy Spirit; these three kinds making up the essence of God. That is, I think, where your analogy fails, in that it compares the kinds of humans that make up humanity to God. If the Three are the same kind then they fall into an order of that kind and are, therefore, ordered. Then the question may be asked, “Who ordered them?” That is the danger.

    Also, I want to say that God is not a being that exists alongside his creation. That is to say, the universe plus God does not equal two. The universe came from not-universe and man came from not-man; just as white came from not-white. Everything came from nothing. What God is remains a mystery even though he is, in fact, three-in-one. St Anselm puts it, “I would be surprised if we could find anything among the nouns and verbs which we apply to things created from nothing that would worthily be said of the substance that created all.”

    We use exploratory language when we talk about God. We say God acts, causes, knows, and wills; but these words do not mean the same thing when applied to God as they do to created things. Don’t get me wrong; we must explore. But, we must keep in mind that these words are not used as an equal comparison but neither are they so different when applied to God that they cannot be compared at all.

    I realize I have not said anything positively about God here, and I hope you’ll forgive me. But, if the mormons walk away from you thinking that the three-in-one are individual persons like me and you, then it’s no wonder they find no difference in your beliefs. It sounds just like Tri-Theism to them.

  • sean

    I’m sure you didn’t mean it this way, but “man came from not-man; just as white came from not-white” could be very easily misconstrued as racist. Just a friendly warning; we all need to watch what we say. :-)

  • rogin

    You have clearly mentioned . . . .

    . . . Considering this aspect of the Doctrine of the Trinity, in the October 2007 General Conference, LDS Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland said:

    “Our first and foremost article of faith in The Church of
    Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is ‘We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.’ . . I think it is accurate to say we believe They are one in every significant and eternal aspect imaginable except believing Them to be three persons combined in one substance. . .”

    The above statements are correct but what you did is that you stopped at “one substance. . .”

    Let me continue the message of the LDS Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland (http://www.lds.org/general-conference/2007/10/the-only-true-god-and-jesus-christ-whom-he-hath-sent?lang=eng)

    . . . “one substance . . “, a Trinitarian notion never set forth in the scriptures because it is not true.

    Further in the 9th Paragraph of his message, Elder Holland said: “We declare it is self-evident from the scriptures that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are separate persons, three divine beings, . . .”

    Finally in 2nd to the last paragraph, He narrated: “In the spring of 1820, a 14-year-old boy, confused by many of these very doctrines that still confuse much of Christendom, went into a grove of trees to pray. In answer to that earnest prayer offered at such a tender age, the Father and the Son appeared as embodied, glorified beings to the boy prophet Joseph Smith.” –

    Indeed the 14 year old young boy Joseph Smith saw crystal clear that Jesus and the Father are separate individual beings simplifying plainly what have long been debated concept of the true nature of God since the Nicea 325 up to the present . . you are one of them actually. What can you say further?

    Actually you didnt answer this time what you say your ‘TOUGH QUESTIONS” instead you are even making things more complicated. And you are misleading LDS (mormon) members.

    Further I dont believe that you were a former member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (mormons) in the first place you are caught to lie in this issue.

    Repent my friend, you will recall all what you have said and done on earth and you will be sentenced accordingly according to your works.” (not by grace this time) Revelations 20:12.

  • DanOhBrian

    Well, Rogin, it seems that Darrell is getting opposition from both sides. Darrell, I’m sorry for that. But, Rogin, I want to talk with you for a moment.
    Anything that is composed of parts must answer the question of origins. Where did the parts come from and what put them together? If Jesus Christ and God the Father has bodies, then they are composed of parts. What put those parts together?
    Not only that, but Mormonism seems to ask a less important question than Orthodox Christianity. The question that Christians ask is “How come the whole thing instead of nothing?” The Mormon description of the trinity as three separate beings is necessarily included in that question. In your theology, the trinity plus the universe make four. (Plus any other beings that fall under the same kind as God.) So the question can be asked, “How come all of this instead of nothing?’ The Christian question seeks the origin and source of all things, including anything that can exist “alongside” the universe. It is the ultimate question. And whatever turns out to be the answer to that question, we call God.
    If Mormons ask this question, the answer they give undermines the question. Their answer deceives them into thinking they’ve answered it, when in actuality they have only added more beings to be included in the question. The Mormon question to which “three separate beings” has come to be the answer is a less ultimate question and does not get to the origin of all things. Hence, if the Gods who are three separate beings turn out to really exist, the Orthodox Christian God, who is the source of everything other than himself, turns out to be the source of these beings as well.

  • darrellboan

    Rogin,

    Thanks for the thoughts. I understand the concern you have about Tri-theism.

    The teaching that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three separate Persons (Hypostases) is central to Nicene Theology. God is not one in Person (hypostases). God is one in Essence/Nature (Ousia). Unfortunately, portions of Western Christianity have done a great job emphasizing God’s oneness, but have failed to clarify God’s threeness. This one of the reasons that many who think they are Trinitarian are actually Modalist.

  • darrellboan

    Rogin,

    Thanks for commenting.

    You are free to believe that I am a liar and have never been a member of the LDS Church if you would like. I can’t help you there.

    As for your other comments, I am uncertain as to your point. They really don’t seem to contribute anything to the subject the blog post covered.

    God bless!

  • DanOhBrian

    Darrell,
    Let me assure you I am not a modalist. Neither am I a deceived modalist who thinks he’s a Trinitarian. ;)

    The doctrine of the Trinity is a necessity. If God is only one and not three-in-one, then what sense does it make to say that God is loving in eternity past? What was he loving? He would have to create in order to love something, which would mean he was dependent upon creation in some way and, therefore, deficient in some area of his being. And deficient is not something we attribute to God. But, if God is three-in-one, then it makes sense to say that God was loving from eternity past. And we are invited, as it were, into the loving that is already going; like joining in on a quiet fireside chat.

    I’m not giving you an either/or. Its not “either God is one or God is three.” God is indeed three-in-one.

    The problem with using the word “person” is that everyone thinks of “person” in the modern sense. They don’t grasp that it’s actually an analogy. The Three-in-one is not three among the many other human persons that exist. That is using the term equivocally. We use the term “person” analogically. The Mormon, I’m willing to bet, hears your language and thinks it’s used in the univocal sense. But, it’s not the case and Mormons need to know that.

    I would venture to say that Bill Pratt, since he is reading Edward Feser, understands this quite well. Just look at the analogy of being. Being is convertible with goodness which is convertible with truth which is convertible with one. All that we are doing is looking at being from different aspects. It is the same with God, and I think in the same book Feser says that Being itself is just what God is. Just like we look at Being through the aspect of goodness and truth and so on, we look at God through the aspect of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. These are different ways that we relate to God.

    And it is precisely this word “relate” or “relation” which is meant, In the Nicene Creed, when it uses the word person. In the older sense of the word “person” the meaning was more like the word “relation.” The Three-in-one are not persons like us. And I think, Darrell, when pressed on this that you would agree.
    I’m just saying that this difference in meaning needs to be communicated to the Mormon believer so they don’t walk away from your teaching thinking that there’s not much difference at all between their God and ours.

  • DanOhBrian

    I used the term equivocally above when I should have used the term univocally. I changed it. Sorry about that.

  • darrellboan

    Dan,

    I understand what you are getting at, and in one sense I agree with you. That was somewhat the point that I was making in the second to last paragraph in my post, i.e., that God’s oneness and our oneness are not necessarily the exact same, as God is perfect and uncreated, while we are fallen and created.

    However, in another sense I think we need to realize that our person and Christ’s Person, as the Second member of the Holy Trinity, are quite similar. He was a Person who, in His humanity, was born of a mother – the Theotokos – just as you and I, and, as the Holy Fathers said, “He is consubstantial (one in essence/nature) with us as human and consubstantial with the Father as God”. So while the analogy may not be completely perfect, it is one way of helping us to understand the consubstantiality of the Holy Trinity in our finite minds.

    This is a point of similarity with Mormons that I think we can build on. Their understanding of what we mean by the Holy Trinity has been quite tainted (and we are to blame for that). Many believe us to be modalist and others think we believe God to be a freakish three headed being. They don’t understand the difference between nature/essence and person, because to be honest, most Christians in the West THEMSELVES don’t understand it. Looking to our humanity can help to clear this up.

  • Ron Den Boer

    [God- Godhead- Substance- Essence- Being [ all Synonyms ] The Creeds when using these words always have them as singular and person or persons is plural .

    A Christian would say 1X1X1=1 three separate persons One God

    A Mormon would say 1+1+1=3 three separate persons three separate gods

    So we have the Book of Mormon agreeing with Creeds and contradicting Joseph Smith JR

    2 Nephi 31:

    21 And now, behold,
    my beloved brethren, this is the way; and there is none other way nor name
    given under heaven whereby man can be saved in the kingdom of God. And now,
    behold, this is the doctrine of Christ, and the only and true doctrine of the
    Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, which is one God , without end.
    Amen.

    Alma 11:

    44 Now, this
    restoration shall come to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both
    male and female, both the wicked and the righteous; and even there shall not so
    much as a hair of their heads be lost; but everything shall be restored to its
    perfect frame, as it is now, or in the body, and shall be brought and be
    arraigned before the bar of Christ the Son, and God the Father, and the Holy
    Spirit, which is one Eternal God , to be judged according to their works,
    whether they be good or whether they be evil.

    Mormon 7:

    7 And he hath brought
    to pass the redemption of the world, whereby he that is found guiltless before
    him at the judgment day hath it given unto him to dwell in the presence of God
    in his kingdom, to sing ceaseless praises with the choirs above, unto the
    Father, and unto the Son, and unto the Holy Ghost, which are one God, in a
    state of happiness which hath no end.

    The Testimony of
    Three Witnesses

    And the honor be to
    the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, which is one God . Amen.

    Oliver Cowdery

    David Whitmer

    Martin Harris

    “I have always declared God to be a distinct personage, Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, and the Holy Ghost was a distinct personage and a Spirit: and these three constitute three distinct personages and three Gods,” (Teachings of Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 370).

  • Ron Den Boer
  • SoundOn

    I know I’m late to the conversation, but I’d still like to chime in. Orthodox Christians have no advantage over Mormons on this issue. It is astonishing that Mormons are disregarded and not considered Christians simply because they believe in a Godhead that is much easier to understand and explain because it is much more consistent with the Bible. While mainstream Christians believe the Trinity to be three separate persons who are also the same exact being this is not to be found in the Bible. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost are the exact same being. A person is a being of their own and can’t also another person. If a being is not a person someone please explain it? This concept of the Trinity makes no sense and is far too confusing to be true (1 Cor 14:33). Therefore, If you attempt to explain the Trinity using scripture the rationale will become more and more complicated in order to explain this false notion. How do you explain that we are created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27), but that he does not have a body? And you believe that Jesus Christ was resurrected with his body (John 20:3-18), and later returned to Earth with a physical body (Luke 24:39-43), but you believe that he does not have a physical body always? This Trinitarian explanation makes it appear that his body is like clothing that he puts on and takes off, like a visible cloak. Also, God is recorded in the scriptures to be seen standing on the right hand of himself (Acts 7:55-56) or is he standing next to a different manifestation of himself? And God prays to himself (John Ch. 17) and he speaks back (Matthew 3:17). If not who does he pray to? Does he pray to His essence? And why does he call his own essence, Father (Luke 2:49)? Is he the only begotten Son of himself (John 3:16)? Why would he use the word begotten if he is not speaking of his literal Father? And why does he call himself Abba (meaning Daddy) under extreme anguish when in Gethsemane (Mark 14:36) if he is only referring to his essence and power? No doubt someone will attempt to explain the Trinity, but it certainly can’t be done using the Bible. The Trinitarian God is all powerful, but inconsistent, unknowable, unapproachable, and confusing and God is not the author of confusion (1 Cor 14:33).

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