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 :-) ).