When Mormons lead Catholics and others into accepting their doctrines, they begin with the familiar and move gradually to those areas that would be more difficult for prospective converts to accept. Over time, they attempt to show the non-Mormons various Bible passages which, they maintain, must be interpreted to support the Mormon belief in question. Many Catholics, inexperienced and uncomfortable with Scripture sleuthing, may reluctantly concede the point.
Let’s see how this method could apply to the LDS teaching on the Godhead. This is purely academic since it is unlikely that a Mormon missionary would present the full doctrine of the Godhead to a potential convert. Such an unfamiliar teaching would be given to the person only after he had sealed his trustworthiness through conversion and prolonged fidelity.
The LDS church officially believes that both God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared in bodily form to the farm boy Joseph Smith in upstate New York in 1820. From this supposed vision, Mormons conclude two things: God the Father has a physical body and there exists a plurality of gods. Their radical and irreconcilable opposition to the orthodox Catholic understanding of the nature of God may be seen in the Mormons’ interpretation of several biblical verses. I offer the authentic Catholic understanding for each of these texts misinterpreted by the LDS church.
In Genesis 1:26–27 we read: “And God said, Let us make man in our image . . . So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” (All references are given in the King James Version of the Bible, the only translation acceptable to Mormons.)
So Mormons claim that, to know God’s image or appearance, simply look at man’s appearance. Since human beings are patterned on the Lord, to see the copy is to see the original. Therefore, God must have a body. He has arms and legs, a head with eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and tongue. In fact, he was once a mere man who worked his way to divinity.
But the correct interpretation of “image” here refers not to any literal bodily correlation, but to the spiritual similarities shared by the Father with angels and men, his rational creatures. We are partakers in his nature in the sense that we share God’s communicable attributes: his moral and intellectual qualities, life, love, justice, holiness, truth, wisdom. By these, we may have spiritual fellowship with him.
A further indication of God’s physicalness is found, Latter-day Saints think, in Exodus 33:11: “And the Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend.” If Moses saw a face, then God has a real face, on a real body. But “face to face” is simply a Semitic term expressing an open and honest manner, the way one would, indeed, communicate with a trusted friend.
Further, Mormonism argues, in various verses God the Father is spoken of as having arms, hands, eyes, mouth, ears, and feet. Put them all together and you get a body. But Mormons ignore the simple technique of anthropomorphism, describing the infinite, transcendent Lord in human terms.
The ancient Hebrews correctly understood that the Creator had a “personality.” His omniscience was depicted as an all-seeing eye; his omnipotence was manifested in arms and hands of power; his omnipresence was signaled by his size and swiftness. He was given a mouth and lips so he could communicate with mankind. He possessed a mind that he could occasionally “change” and a heart from which flowed all the emotions known to man.
Only in this imperfect and halting manner could the inspired writers hope to convey even a hint of the reality of a God who made, yet far transcended, things visible and invisible. References to the body parts and emotions of God the Father are purely figurative, poetic. After all, God is also portrayed as a consuming fire, a mother hen, and a rock.
With these verses, the Mormon proselytizer has offered the Catholic a few well-chosen references from the Bible, expecting that these will be sufficient to loosen the Catholic’s hold on the spiritual character of God. An informed Catholic could disarm this weak attack on the orthodox understanding of the divine nature by referring to passages avoided by the Mormon exposition. For instance, Numbers 23:19 proclaims, “God is not a man that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent.” Hosea 11:9 is equally blunt: “I am God, and not man.
Jesus Christ himself describes his Father in John 4:24: “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” And how do you define “spirit”? Listen to Christ in Luke 24:39: “A spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.”
Catholics need to know from the outset that Mormons are, technically, polytheists. Their religion teaches that there are gods without number, though they are expected to worship only the god of this world, the one they call “heavenly Father.”
Mormons say that God the Father is a separate and distinct personage and god; Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost constitute two other separate and distinct personages and gods. These three gods make up “one Godhead” by virtue of their common purpose: They each want the same thing. Further, while these three gods rule this world and receive honor and obedience from earthly creatures, there are other worlds, each with its own god or gods who are as supreme in their spheres as our three gods are in ours.
Mormonism looks to certain passages to support these doctrines. Recall that Genesis 1:26 stated, “And God said, Let us make man in our image.” Since “us” and “our” are plural, they reason, these pronouns must refer to more than one God. But the Hebrew word for God here is Elohim, which is a plural form. Correct grammar requires that the pronouns “us” and “our” also be plural, to correspond with their antecedent.
While Elohim is plural, as are the pronouns used in his direct self-address, the rest of verses 26 and 27 is in the singular: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him, male and female created he them.” What then are we to make of the plural Elohim? Several possibilities are reasonable. First, Elohim is a plural of majesty. The sacred writer places into the Lord’s mouth words of grandeur and awe, similar to the practice of earthly monarchs who refer to themselves as “we.” Second, God is addressing his heavenly courts, the angels, who had also been made in his image, having life, knowledge, virtue, and power. Third, the Father was addressing the Son and Holy Spirit. After all, the three Persons exist, dynamic and creative, from all eternity.
Misunderstanding the Catholic teaching on the Blessed Trinity, Mormons love to point out the silliness of having but one Person or God taking on all three roles of divinity manifested at Christ’s baptism. How can one God be baptized, speak from the heavens, and descend like a dove, all simultaneously? But Catholics are not modalists, though confused Mormons consider them to be. Modalism is the heresy that states there is one God who manifests himself in different modes or expressions, sometimes as Father, or as Son, or as Spirit. One nature, one divine Person. In heaven, say Mormons, he is the Father. While incarnate upon the earth he was the Son. In his enduring influence throughout time he is the Holy Spirit. This is not the Trinity, but a facile avoidance of its profundity.
The Trinity is the fundamental Christian belief. To comprehend it fully is beyond unaided human reason. We know, however, that the orthodox doctrine of one divine nature and three Persons in One God is firmly grounded in Scripture, believed from the earliest years of the Church, and defined by plenary councils. Though Mormon scholars shouldn’t be required to g.asp its depths any more surely than do their Catholic counterparts, it’s not unreasonable to expect them to do a minimal amount of research to discover at least the Catholic definition of the Trinity.
If modalism were truly the most apt way of describing the Trinity, the Mormon critique would be justified. Indeed, we acknowledge the laughable scenario of a one-Personed God having to take on three separate roles in the baptism account. The same applies to the Mormons’ derision of what they take to be the Trinity in those cases when Jesus prays to the Father. They chide: “So he was praying to himself, since you Christians claim there is only one God?” No, Jesus Christ was praying to his Father, a distinct Person but not a separate God.
Don’t expect to make much headway in clearing up the Mormon’s misunderstanding. The Latter-day Saint generally has the notion that the Christian God is remote, disinterested, theoretical, cold. The Mormon god, on the other hand, is warm and loving, approachable and knowable, someone you can hug because, well, he has arms to hug you back. It would be hard for the Mormon to trade his human god for the metaphysical abstraction their leaders have told him Catholics worship.
Another favorite proof-text for the Mormon notion of many gods is found in 1 Corinthians 8:5: “For though there be those that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth (as there be gods many, and lords many).” It would appear that no less an authority than Paul taught the plurality of gods. But look at the context. The entire eighth chapter deals with the obligation of Christians not to give scandal to their weaker brothers in the faith. The Christians of Corinth, most of whom had converted from paganism, were faced with a practical dilemma. Most of the meat sold in the marketplace came from animals sacrificed to pagan gods or idols. Was it acceptable, Paul was asked, for a Christian to buy and eat this meat, knowing that it had pagan connections? In theory, yes, the apostle answered, since we know that other gods do not exist; they are “nothing in the world.” Besides, “there is none other God but one” (verse 4). He advised the Christians to consider the tender faith and scrupulous consciences of their weaker members. If these saw the stronger Christians buying meat offered to nonexistent gods, would their faith be offended? While the mature Christian knows that, though there are many entities that are merely called gods and lords, there is in fact only one God, the faith of weaker members should be protected from scandal.
Mormons see a continuity between these beings. “As man now is, God once was. As God now is, man may become.” This Mormon motto sums up all that is wrong with both Latter-day Saint theology and anthropology. Mormons believe that the almighty god was once a human man residing on a planet similar to this one. He was born of human parents, learned to believe in and obey the Mormon way of life, died, and was resurrected. After this, his own god conferred divinity on him and allowed him to create and populate this universe. This process has been repeated into the infinite eternities of the past. The Lord confessed by Mormons is but one of untold millions of deities, each of whom progressed from a lower state—humanity—to the highest levels of godhood. But Latter-day Saints insist they believe in only one god, since they ignore all other gods but the (three) gods of this world.
Eventually, the faithful Mormon can follow in the paths trekked by both God the Father and Jesus his Son. He, too, can become a god. Observance of the Mormon gospel, including its requirements of tithing, church work, and abstinence from coffee, tea, alcohol, and tobacco, can open the way to “eternal progression,” the deification of the faithful member. If found worthy, the resurrected Mormon man (with his wife or wives and family) will receive all the blessings and power currently experienced by God the Father. He’ll be god of a world of his own making. With his wives, he will populate that world with millions and billions of children, who in turn will worship and serve him. He will call forth prophets, inspire scriptures, and in time arrange for his children’s redemption, choosing one of them to be offered in sacrifice. But by obedience to his laws and to the Mormon church he will have established in his new world, those children may progress to their own places as gods. The process will continue forever.
Basis for this belief is found in such verses as “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). See, Mormons say, man can become as perfect as God! The child can become everything his father is. But this verse has nothing to do with eternal progression. The setting shows that we are called to perfection in the life of virtue. We are to grow into the likeness of God and his Son in such attributes as charity, chastity, humility, and fidelity. We are to become perfect humans, conformed to the image God intended when he created our first parents. When saved, we are to receive a fullness of all God has, though we will never be who he is.
The current self-description of Mormonism is that of a (the) Christian Church, its members worshiping one eternal and perfect God, obeying his commandments, and striving to live holy lives. It is not correct to call Mormons polytheists if that means they divide their adoration and submission among several competing deities. It is equally wrong to call them monotheists, for they are, at the very least, active “tritheists,” seeing in the three divine Persons three separate gods. But more. They confess the existence of gods without number who, though uninvolved with our world and ignored by believing Latter-day Saints, enjoy a glory which surpasses that of their offspring, the “Heavenly Father,” the only god to whom the Mormon church relates. This god is neither unique nor supreme. He merely stands as one within an infinite line of gods before him and gods yet to be.
Mormons truly love and obey the god they call Heavenly Father. Every prayer is addressed directly to him. Faithful Latter-day Saints say they experience his tender, ready care. In return, they are eager in his work, making enormous sacrifices of time, talent, and treasures to their church. What great energies are spent in service to this unbiblical god! Tens of thousands of missionaries preach him throughout the world. Hundreds of thousands (including many Catholics) are baptized in his name in hundreds of Mormon chapels each year. Over nine million members worship this limited, human god. Many of them strive to become gods themselves. If so narrow a Lord can inflame the ardor of so many, imagine the blaze Catholics could kindle by professing and living our faith in the only, true, and living God.