The Controversy over God in the Corridor

We had a big wind storm yesterday on I-15 in Idaho.  Many cars wrecked in the swirling dust.  But I grieve over the bigger storm, a spiritual storm raging on I-15 in Idaho and Utah.

 

After laying out his personal quest in chapter one of the book, Why Would Anyone Join The Mormon Church, Brad Brase begins chapter two, zeroing right in on the number one, fundamental issue in the corridor:  “The True Nature of the Godhead”.

Concerning the three members of the Triune God, Brad questions,

I was taught that each was a person but each was not a being, for they together comprised one being in total.  Wasn’t a person also a being?  If the Father was a person, wasn’t He also a being?  If Jesus Christ was a person, wasn’t He also a being, even a human being?  When pursuing such logic, one is told not to try to understand the incomprehensibility of God, for it is truly a mystery (13-14).

For starters can Brad unravel for me the mystery of Jesus Christ as a person being 100% man yet 100% God?  Who can fully comprehend the biblical data over the relationship of divinity joined with humanity, yet undiluted in the mix?  Indeed, this is mind-boggling metaphysics, one of many mysteries.

Secondly, where does it say in Scripture that to be a person, you have to have flesh?  Brad’s logic forces you down a constricted road, that to be authentic personality, you must be a human being, the same species as him.  This sounds like the popular, prevailing human-speak of the corridor rather than divine declaration in Scripture.  I don’t mind our human reasoning and experience to be a tool in theology, but must it always be shoved to the forefront in the corridor to fill in the gaps where the biblical scripture does not say that the Father came down from heaven and became flesh?

Brad’s instruction for me to literally visualize God as a human being only confounds my attempts at any possible mental imagery.  Quoting Scripture, he writes,

Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock:  And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by:  And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts:  but my face shall not be seen” (Exodus 33:21-23).  In this scripture, God mentioned His hand, face, and back, hardly the attributes of a being without body, parts, or form.

So here Brad is concluding that God is a being because He has hands, back parts, etc.  Which leads me like a little child to wonder, “Does God really have a literal arm long enough to cover Moses’ eyes to prevent him from seeing the frontal glory before God swishes by (and what would literal human legs be doing in the passing)?” 

Does the image of a literal human being make biblical passages more fully comprehensible?  Does God have to be a human being to be personal?  Not only Brad but it seems the whole majority in the corridor unquestionably cries, “Yes!”

I don’t get it when a week and a half ago, one of the general authorities during general conference in downtown Salt Lake City proclaims unflinchingly, “The Christian doctrine of the godhead consist[ing] of three separate beings was known in biblical times.”  But Coleman doesn’t publicly name which early Christians believed this.

On similar lines, from the shelves of Wal-Mart, Brad’s message reaches the home of every buyer,

The record shows that the early Christians believed in a Godhead comprised of three distinct beings, as a study of early Christian writings will attest, giving rise to accusations of polytheism by Jewish authorities.  Early Church “Fathers” living prior to the Council of Nicaea such as Clement, Ignatius, Hermas, Justin Martyr, and Origen, believed that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost were three numerically distinct persons.  This embarrassed many early Christians who regarded the plain and simple doctrine of the Godhead as naïve and unsophisticated.

As a result, influential parties within the early Christian Church felt compelled to meld the three members of the Godhead into one single being or substance by some linguistic legerdemain or semantic sophistry in order to preserve the dignity of their persecuted religion.  They set themselves to the task of utilizing the philosophies of men in an attempt to argue that God (or the Godhead) was one-in-three, three-in-one being.”

So let me get this straight.  LDS converts like Brad, who do some poking back into church history, think Clement, Ignatius, Hermas, Justin Martyr, and Origin are good because they taught three separate Gods, comprising a Godhead one in purpose, uncompromised by any Greek philosophy; while the later patristic doctors like Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory the Great screwed everything up on the nature of God for Christianity, by purporting three separate, distinct Persons yet one in substance.  In bedding Christian concepts with Greek philosophy, they produced a bastard child of wicked apostasy, only to be finally derailed for its falsehood by Joseph Smith’s first vision.  Excuse me, where are the historical scholarly links that substantiate all this about the apostolic fathers?[1]

Gary Coleman and Brad both climax this discussion by telling me to believe Smith’s vision.  It reminds me of two weeks ago when in Turkey, Muslims would desire me to believe the prophet Mohammed’s visitation by Gabriel.  All I can say is that before the Greek philosophers, before Mohammed, and before Joseph Smith, the Christ in the Scriptures reached me first in revealing God in glorious color.

In his sections on “the Godhead”, “God’s eternal family”, and “the oneness of God”, Brad jumps from John 17:3, to John 5:30, to John 5:22, to John 14:28, to John 8:13, to John 8:16-18, to John 7:16-18, to John 20:17, to John 10:30, to John 17:20-22, to John 10:30, to John 8:54-58, to John 14:11, and then to John 14:20.  I just wish he would let John’s marvelous gospel unfold for itself starting with the prologue on the glorious mysteries of God.  The book shatters any all-night, gripping page-turner that you will ever read. 

Please don’t return my challenge with a yawn.  Brad emphatically declares, “Latter-day Saints do not believe that God is incomprehensible to the human understanding.”  It is almost hard to imagine that he is reading and pouring over the same material that I am studying, delivered by the prophet Isaiah or the apostle John.

But lest you think that I am all anti-Brad because he is definitely and severely anti-Triune God, let me share something in closing where I seriously and soberly agree with what he wrote,

While the differences might seem trivial, they are indeed critical, since the scriptures teach us that “this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3).  Our very salvation depends on our proper worship of the true God.

This last sentence is piercing.  If it isn’t, we had better get our minds off our jobs, our houses, and our recreation, and start thinking over a message like John 17, beginning with John 1.  We have got to start thinking about heart issues.  Some urgent debates unlike superficial discussions had better not end.  Love demands this.  Your life and my life are slipping by fast.

___________

[1]  Coleman (because his message during general conference has been broadcast in well over 80 different languages all over the world) and Brase (because his book is right now being sold at Super Wal-Marts all over the intermountain West) need to be sharply challenged about their projections on what early Christians believed.  How many people trust these guys without ever checking the sources?

I pulled off the shelf early this morning a book entitled, The Apostolic Fathers (Grand Rapids:  Baker Book House, 1989), translated by J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer and edited and revised by Michael W. Holmes.  I read through many of the writings.  Here are excerpts; none of them are implying three separate gods.

I Clement 42 – “The apostles received the gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus the Christ was sent forth from God. (2) So then Christ is from God, and the apostles are from Christ.  Both, therefore, came of the will of God in good order. (3) Having therefore received their orders and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and full of faith in the Word of God, they went forth with the firm assurance that the Holy Spirit gives, preaching the good news that the kingdom of God was about to come. . . .”

I Clement 46 – “ . . . (5) Why is there strife and angry outbursts and dissension and schisms and conflict among you? (6) Do we not have one God and one Christ and one Spirit of grace which was poured out upon us?  And is there not one calling in Christ? . . .

I Clement 59 – “But if certain people should disobey what has been said by him through us, let them understand that they will entangle themselves in no small sin and danger. (2) We, however, will be innocent of this sin, and will ask, with earnest prayer and supplication, that the Creator of the universe may keep intact the specified number of his elect throughout the whole world, through his beloved servant Jesus Christ, through whom he called us from darkness to light, from ignorance to the knowledge of the glory of his name.  (3)  Grant us, Lord, to hope on your name, which is the primal source of all creation, and open the eyes of your hearts, that we may know you, who alone is ‘Highest among the high, and remains Holy among the holy.’ . . .”

II Clement 20 – “(5) ‘to the only God, invisible,’ the Father of truth, who sent forth to us the Savior and Founder of immortality, through whom he also revealed to us the truth and the heavenly life, to him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”

Ignatius to the Ephesians 9 – “But I have learned that certain people from there have passed your way with evil doctrine, but you did not allow them to sow it among you.  You covered up your ears in order to avoid receiving the things being sown by them, because you are stones of a temple, prepared beforehand for the building of God the Father, hoisted up to the heights by the crane of Jesus Christ, which is the cross, using as a rope the Holy Spirit; your faith is what lifts you up, and love is the way that leads up to God.”

Ignatius to the Ephesians 21 – “ . . . (2) Pray for the church in Syria, from where I am being led to Rome in chains, as I—the very least of the faithful there—have been judged worthy of serving the glory of God.  Farewell in God the Father and in Jesus Christ, our common hope.”

Ignatius to the Magnesians 8 – “ . . . (2) For the most godly prophets lived in accordance with Christ Jesus.  This is why they were persecuted, being inspired as they were by his grace in order that those who are disobedient might be fully convinced that there is one God who revealed himself through Jesus Christ his Son, who is his Word which came forth from silence, who in every respect pleased him who sent him.”

Ignatius to the Magnesians 13 – “Be eager, therefore, to be firmly grounded in the precepts of the Lord and the apostles, in order that in ‘whatever you do, you may prosper,’ physically and spiritually, in faith and love, in the Son and the Father and in the Spirit, in the beginning and at the end, together with your most distinguished bishop and that beautifully woven spiritual crown which is your presbytery and the godly deacons. (2) Be subject to the bishop and to one another, as Jesus Christ in the flesh was to the Father, and as the apostles were to Christ and to the Father, that there might be unity, both physical and spiritual.”

The Epistle to Dignetus 7 – “For this is, as I said, no earthly discovery that was committed to them, nor some mortal idea that they consider to be worth guarding so carefully, nor have they been entrusted with the administration of merely human mysteries. (2) On the contrary, the omnipotent Creator of all, the invisible God himself, established among men the truth and the holy, incomprehensible word from heaven and fixed it firmly in their hearts, not, as one might imagine, by sending to men some subordinate, or angel or ruler or one of those who manage earthly matters, or one of those entrusted with the administration of things in heaven, but the Designer and Creator of the universe himself, by whom he created the heavens, by whom he enclosed the sea within its proper bounds, whose mysteries all the elements faithfully observe, from whom the sun has received the measure of the daily courses to keep, whom the moon obeys as he commands it to shine by night, whom the stars obey as they follow the course of the moon, but whom all things have been ordered and determined and placed in subjection, including the heavens and the things in the heavens, the earth and the things in the earth, the sea and the things in the sea, fire, air, abyss, the things in the heights, the things in the depths, the things in between—this one he sent to them! (3)  But perhaps he sent him, as a man might suppose, to rule by tyranny, fear, and terror? (4)  Certainly not!  On the contrary, he sent him in gentleness and meekness, as a king might send his son who is a king; he sent him as God; he sent him as a man to men.  When he sent him, he did so as one who saves by persuasion, not compulsion, for compulsion is no attribute of God.  (5)  When he sent him, he did so as one loving, not judging.  (6) For he will send him as Judge, and who will endure his coming? . . . (7) [Do you not see] how they are thrown to wild beasts to make them deny the Lord, and yet are not conquered?  (8) Do you not see that as more of them are punished, the more others increase? (9) These things do not look like the works of man; they are the power of God, they are proofs of his presence.

8 – “For what man had any knowledge at all of what God was, before he came?  (2) Or do you accept the empty and nonsensical statements of those pretentious philosophers, some of whom said that God was fire (the very things they are headed for, they call God!), and others, water, and still others some other one of the elements created by God. (3) And yet, if any of these statements is worthy of acceptance, then every one of the other created things might just as well be declared to be God. (4) No, these things are merely the illusions and deceit of the magicians.  (5) No one has either seen or recognized him, but he has revealed himself. (6) And he revealed himself through faith, which is the only means by which it is permitted to see God.

5 comments

  1. Thanks Todd, for bringing this up. I have been reading the Early Church Fathers for the past few years. You can go on and on with great quotes from these guys.

    Louis Berkof in his book “The History of Christian Doctrine”
    sums up what these men are saying about the Father and Christ.

    In relation to Justin Martyr, Tatian, Athenagoras and Theophilus, Berkof says this, “They represented God as the Self-existent, Unchangeable, and Eternal One, who is the primal cause of the world, but because of His uniqueness and perfection can best be described in terms of negation.”(page 57-58)

    “To them, the Logos [Christ] as He existed eternally in God was simply the divine reason without personal existence . . . Essentially the Logos remains identical with God but in view of His origin as a person he may be called a creature. Briefly stated, Christ is the divine reason, immanent in God, to which God gave a separate existence, and through which He revealed Himself…. It should be noted particularly that the Logos of the Apologists… had an independent personality.” (page 58)

    In relation to Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Tertullian, Berkof says this about their beliefs, “This God is Triune, a single essence subsisting in three persons. Tertullian was the first to assert the
    tri-personality of God and to use the word ‘Trinity.’ In opposition to the Monarchians he emphasized the fact that the three persons are of one substance, susceptible to number without division.”(page 63)

    “[Tertullian]. . . stresses the fact that the Logos of the Christians is a real subsistence, an independent Person who was begotten by God and thus proceeded from Him, not by emanation, but by self-projection just as a root projects a tree. There was a time when He was not. He emphasizes that the Logos is of the same substance of the father and yet differs from Him in mode of existence as a distinct Person. He did not come into existence by partitioning but by self-unfolding. The Father is the whole substance, but the Son is only part of it, because He is derived. . . . His work is of lasting significance in connection with the introduction of the conceptions of substance and person into Theology, ideas that were utilized in the construction of the Nicene Creed.”(page 65)

    He says this about Origen…. “ Origen says that the one God is primarily the Father, but He reveals himself and works through the Logos, who is personal and co-eternal with the Father, begotten of Him by one eternal act.” (page 72)

    I found all of these quotes to be accurate representation of what I have read of these men.
    Hope this is helpful to the discussion.

    Here is a link to the writings of the early Church. Check them out.
    http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/ecf/001/index.htm

  2. Very helpful.

    For that last link, it would be cool if there is was a search engine attached to it, where I could type in key phrases like “three beings”, “three gods”, “only God”, and “one God”, etc.

    Chris, I haven’t read much of Origen. Does he believe in our pre-existence as spirits?

  3. Yes, I believe he did. I did a paper on Origen in seminary and found that Origen tended to speculate on many different issues but I believe he did not place the same weight on these speculations as he did other issues. One of my favorite passages from Origen is where he speculates about what is beyond the oceans. That was a complete mystery to the people of that time. Here is a quote that might help understand his thinking about pre-existence.

    Origen
    “as no one can be a Father without having a son, nor a master without possessing a servant, so even God cannot be called omnipotent unless there exist those over whom he may exercise his power; and therefore, that God may be shown to be almighty, it is necessary that all things should exist. He must always have had those over whom He exercised power, and which were governed by Him either as king or prince” (De Prinicipiis, 1.2.10).

    I find that I agree with much of the writings of the early church. There are some that I might word differently or would completely disagree with (Origrn on pre-existence) but if one is going to cite the Early Church Writings, they need to do so honestly.

    A search engine would be great. There is so much material to wade through. Do you know of any good books that summarize the teachings of the early church? All I have is Berkof.

  4. Very Interesting.

    To your last question, let me think? Actually, I need to work through all my piles of books on the floor . . . I will let you know what I find in the discovery. 🙂 And my wife will be happier for seeing a floor in my home study if I get organized.

  5. For one book in particular that addresses exclusively early church fathers on the Trinity in a summary chapter, pick up The Holy Trinity by Robert Letham. I have yet to read his chapters on The Arian Controversy, Athanasius, The Cappadocians, The Council of Constantinople, and Augustine, etc.

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