Most Christian churches accept the biblical idea of a holy Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Confusion and mysticism has surrounded this conception of the Trinity for over a thousand years however. Some hold the view that these beings are a mystical combination of one-in-three and three-in-one. Others say that God is only a spirit. Many believe that Jesus and his Father are one and the same being.
Latter-day Saints believe there are 3 distinct heavenly beings that form the Godhead (what many call the Trinity). Our view on this is crystallized by the visitation of both the Father and the Son to the boy prophet Joseph Smith in his first vision, in 1820. Joseph Smith, while studying the bible, was led to read a passage in James where the apostle exhorts those who lack wisdom to pray for enlightenment (James 1:5). Joseph Smith, then a boy just 14 years old, determined to seek answers to his deep questions regarding which church he should join through prayer.
Joseph did pray, and received a miraculous vision – a visitation actually. He saw “two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description” (JS history 1:17). They stood above him in the air, and one pointed to the other and said “This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” God the Father stood there, and to his right stood his son Jesus Christ beside him. They both spoke to the young boy Joseph Smith on a spring morning in 1820, in a wooded area of Palmyra New York where Joseph had gone to pray. They taught him many things, but apart from this we can plainly see that they are two separate beings. We also learn from this experience that they both possess tangible bodies. These are perfected and resurrected bodies – physical and tangible, but not in the same mortal and vulnerable state as our own bodies.
From this experience the Latter-day Saints defend the idea that the Godhead is composed of three beings, separate and distinct. Learning this idea also seems to bring the scriptures into great clarity. For there are countless biblical scriptures wherein Jesus refers to God as his Father, as if they were two separate beings. For example,
Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father. (John 10:17-18)
The Savior, Jesus Christ, knows his sheep... the Father has given them to him... the Father is greater than all. (John 10:27-29)
The idea is further illustrated at the baptism of Jesus. John the baptist records that he took Jesus into the water, and after baptizing him, heard the Father speak from the heavens above, and saw the dove – the sign of the Holy Ghost. All three were simultaneously present.
But what of this other idea that they are one? Jesus says this quite plainly in John 10:30, as well other places. If we examine the scriptures we can plainly see what Jesus meant when he taught this.
In John 17, We have a prayer in which Jesus prays to his Father (which in itself is an interesting notion – especially if they are one and the same being). In verse 3 we read that it is life eternal to know “thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” Thus we see that Jesus is a being sent down to earth by God. In verse 4 Jesus speaks of the mission which his Father sent him to perform saying, “I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do”.
Later, in verses 20-23, Jesus prays for his followers. He prays “That they all might be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee...” and “that they may be one, even as we are one.” This is what the idea means. Jesus is speaking not of being physically the same creature, but of unity. He wants his followers to become unified in purpose. He and his Father are perfectly unified. They have the same goals, the same desires, the same perfections, and the same qualities. This is what Jesus also meant when he said that if people had known him, they would also have known the Father (John 8:19, 14:9). For the Son is exactly like the Father, and the Father is just like the Son (Heb 1:1-3). If you have seen one, you have seen the other. Jesus is a perfect son, always perfectly in line with his Father's desires and wishes. That is exactly what he desired for his followers to achieve.
This makes sense to me. And whether or not a person accepts the story of Joseph Smith's vision, it still seems the clearest path to an understanding of the scriptures. It also sheds light on the idea that we, as Jesus' followers, are to “take his name upon us”. We are commanded to become perfect, as He and his Father are perfect.
President Gordon B. Hinckley recently had this to say:
Permit me to name a few of the doctrines and practices which distinguish us from all other churches, and all of which have come of revelation to the youthful Prophet...
The first of these, of course, is the manifestation of God himself and His Beloved Son, the risen Lord Jesus Christ. This grand theophany is, in my judgment, the greatest such event since the birth, life, death, and Resurrection of our Lord in the meridian of time.
We have no record of any other event to equal it.
For centuries men gathered and argued concerning the nature of Deity. Constantine assembled scholars of various factions at Nicea in the year 325. After two months of bitter debate, they compromised on a definition which for generations has been the doctrinal statement among Christians concerning the Godhead.
I invite you to read that definition and compare it with the statement of the boy Joseph. He simply says that God stood before him and spoke to him. Joseph could see Him and could hear Him. He was in form like a man, a being of substance. Beside Him, the resurrected Lord, a separate being, whom He introduced as His Beloved Son and with whom Joseph also spoke.
The Great Things Which God Has Revealed, by President Gordon B. Hinckley in LDS General Conference April, 2005.
The current concept of the Trinity as three-in-one and one-in-three can be traced back to this great religious Council of Nicea convoked by the Roman Emperor Constantine. This council produced a formal statement about the nature of God, and then adjustments were made in the Creed of Athanasius (Talmage, p.756). The creed follows:
We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons: nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son: another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one: the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son: and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, and the Holy Ghost uncreate. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible. The Father eternal, the Son eternal: and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal. As also there are not three incomprehensibles, nor three uncreated; but one uncreated and one incomprehensible. So likewise the Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty, and the Holy Ghost Almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties, but one Almighty. So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not three Lords: but one Lord.
As quoted in Jesus the Christ, by James Talmage, p. 756
It seems to me to be a twisted and confusing rendering of what really is quite a beautiful and simple doctrine. One of our modern apostles, Elder Bruce R. McConkie once said the following:
These creeds codify what Jeremiah calls the lies about God (Jer 16:19-21). They say he is unknown, uncreated and incomprehensible. They say he is a spirit without body, parts, or passions. They say he is everywhere and nowhere in particular present, that he fills the immensity of space and yet dwells in the hearts of men, and that he is an immaterial, incorporeal nothingness. They say he is one-god-in-three, and three-gods-in-one who neither hears, nor sees, nor speaks. Some even say he is dead, which he might as well be if their descriptions identify his being.
Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrines of the Restoration, p. 58-59
Other Resources on this Subject
The Only True God and Jesus Christ Whom He Hath Sent (2007) Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, LDS General Conference, Oct 2007.