Latter-day Saints tend to think of the Trinity as a way of expressing that God the Father and God the Son are the same person; however, this is not an accurate representation of the doctrine of the Trinity. A more accurate understanding of the Trinity might help Latter-day Saints better understand their own conception of God.
Latter-day Saint discomfort with the Trinity stems from the claim that Joseph Smith saw God the Father and Jesus Christ, together. Furthermore, because Latter-day Saint theology teaches that God the Father has a glorified and perfected body (despite very few scriptural references on the subject) and the concept of the Trinity, as understood in classical Christian theology, seems to suggest an immaterial and non-corporeal God the Father, the Latter-day Saints understand the Doctrine of the Trinity as being anethema to the Latter-day Saint Doctrine of the Godhead.
The Doctrine of the Trinity arose from a need to define early-Christian conceptions of God against their contemporaries within first-century Judaism and Paganism. In the first three centuries of Christian history, Christians needed to develop an answer to the question, ‘How many gods are there?’. One of the frequent charges the Jews made against the early Christians was their seeming abandonment of the Shema (‘Hear o Israel, the Lord thy God is One’ Deuteronomy 6:4). Christians recognise the authority of the Old Testament and only believe in one God, but this raised questions, was Jesus the God of the Old Testament? If so, to whom did He pray and to whom do His followers pray, in His name?
Sabellians (followers of the teachings of Sabellius) attempted to reconcile the above questions by teaching that Jesus and God were the same being. According to Sabellius, God the Father was the God of the Old Testament and Jesus was God’s manifestation or mode on Earth. The parts of the Bible where Christ refers to God as a separate person, were, according to Sabellius, merely manners of speech which convey two “modes” of God. This was eventually condemned by the Early Church as a heresy because Modalists/Sabellians deny the literal existence of God’s Only Begotten Son; thereby negating the importance of Christ as Mediator and Advocate and undermining Christ’s role as High Priest and Intercessor—which in turn diminishes the necessity of the Sacraments of the Church and priesthood authority.
Many early Christians resisted the teachings of Sabellius and argued that Christ was subordinate to God. Where the Sabellians argued that Christ said ‘He and the Father were one’ (John 10:30) and that ‘If you have seen [Christ] you have seen the Father’ (John 14:9), their opponents, the Subordiantionist disciples of the early-Christian theologian Origen, argued that Christ also said, ‘The Father is greater than [Christ]’ (John 14:28). The Subordinationist error was to render Christ as somewhat less than the Father. This is a subtle heresy because, while Christians must accept the Monarchy of God the Father, Christ and the Holy Spirit must be co-equal and co-eternal with God if Christ is God and the Holy Spirit is God. Latter-day Saint teachings can sometimes appear to be Subordinationist because Latter-day Saints emphasise the distinctness of Christ from the Father and the Monarchy of God the Father; however, Latter-day Saints do recognise Christ as God.
Arius built upon the teachings of the Subordinationists to argue that not only was Christ less than equal to God, but that Christ was less Eternal than God the Father. Their arguments were 1) that if Christ was born, there must have been a time when He did not exist; 2) God’s essence cannot be divided and therefore Christ cannot be of the same essence as God the Father; 3) Christ was created by God and is a creature; 4) Christ is the First and most Exalted creature—who created all others on the Father’s behalf (Arians believed that God the Father would have been rendered less than perfect if he were to touch matter so Christ served as a less than perfect intermediary between God the Father and the world); 5) Christ can be called “God” because God the Father made Christ an extension of God through the Grace of the Father; 6) Christ’s Will was created and He could sin and make mistakes. These six teachings are heretical, as argued by the early-Christian bishop, Athanasius, because 1) no creature can save or redeem another creature and if Jesus was a creature then He could not be the Christ; 2) Only God can redeem mankind from the Fall and if Christ redeemed mankind then He must be God, as the scriptures say He is.
The text of the Nicene Creed was primarily aimed at expressing the Christian belief against the Arian heresy and is therefore explicit in its understanding of Christ as equal to God, co-eternal with God, and being of the same substance as God. This concept ‘of the same substance’ is intended to communicate that Christ and God were One and shared the same nature. To further complicate the idea of consubstantiality, the same terminology is used to describe Christ’s oneness with mankind. The emphasis of the Nicene Creed was to show the unity of God. That God the Father, Christ, and the Holy Spirit are One God and Distinct Persons is a mystery that Christians must accept on faith. The Doctrine of the Trinity is a simple and elegant expression of that mystery of how the members of the Godhead can be both One and Three by describing them as consubstantial.
The word consubstantial, means of the same essence. In the Creeds, Christ is revealed to be ‘consubstantial with the Father’ by which they mean to express that Christ is of the same divinity as God the Father. The Nicene Creed expressed the idea that the Father and Son were of the same essence (same divinity, co-equal, and co-eternal) but distinct from each other. This would mean that Christ was, identified with and associated with the Father while being an extension of Him and in relation to Him. Thus, He is of the same substance as God in the same way that we become an extension of Him and identified with Him through baptism. The Latter-day Saint terminology, Godhead rather than Triune, emphasises the distinct personages of God where the classical Triune emphasisd their oneness; but the conception of God–three distinct persons united in one Godhead–co-equal, co-eternal, and all God is the same. Latter-day Saint discomfort with the Trinity is less about the Doctrine of the Trinity than it is a commentary on Latter-day Saint Christology and Theology Proper.
Appendix: The Text of the Nicene Creed
The Creed from the First Council of Nicea (AD325)
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God,] Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; By whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth]; Who for us men, and for our salvation came down and was incarnate and was made man; He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost. [But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not,’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’—they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.
Text after the First Council of Constantinople (AD381)
‘Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipotentem, Factorem Caeli et terrae, visibilium omnium et invisibilium. Et in unum Dominum Iesum Christum, Filium Dei unigenitum, et ex Patre natum ante amnia saecula. Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine, Deum verum de Deo vero, gentium, non factum, consubstantialem Patri: per quem omnia facta sunt. Qui propter nos homines et propter nostrum salute descendit de caelis, et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria Virgine, et homo factus est; crucifixus etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato, passus et sepultus est, et resurrexit tertia die, secundum Scripturas, et ascendit in caelum, sedet ad dexteram Patris; et iterum venturus est cum Gloria, iudicare vivos et mortuos, cuius regni non erit finis. Et in Spritum Sanctum, Dominum et vivificantem: qui ex Patre Filoque procedit, qui cum Patre et Filio simul adoratur et conglorificatur, qui locutus est per prophetas. Et unam, sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam. Confiteor unum baptisma in remissionem peccatorum. Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum, et vitam ventur saeculi. Amen.
Latin text is later and differs from the original Greek which excludes Deum de Deo and Filioque
The reason the Latins adapted the Creed to include the term Filioque was not to change the meaning of the original Creed or imply that the Holy Spirit originates with the Son but to imply that the Holy Spirit goes forward from the Father and the Son and is similar to the Greek term employed in the original Greek wording of the Creed of Constantinople (AD381).
English Text (Book of Common Prayer, 1662)
I believe in one God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible: and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried, and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father. And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead: whose kingdom shall have no end. And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spake by the Prophets. And I believe in one Catholic and Apostolic Church. I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins. And I look for the Resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.