This is Part 2 in a series on the Triunity of God in a Messianic Jewish context. For Part 1, click here.
As I mentioned previously, the origin of this series was in a recent chavurah lesson I organized on the triunity of the Godhead in a Messianic Jewish context. During the research for that lesson, I went down several detours in my research in materials I read which I thought would be good discussion for this blog.
Triunity and Trinity is a minefield, and it becomes even more of one when discussing it (discussing Him!) in a Messianic Jewish milieu. The Jewish Body of Messiah has a special onus to avoid all appearance of evil in regard to idolatry and avodah zarah, be it because of our witness to the Jewish people, our need to maintain integrity in our Jewish identity, or just our desire to please God by obeying the mitzvot. But doing so is harder than it may seem, for both Christian and Jew, even under the best of circumstances. As Rav Kook wrote in his essay “The Pangs of Cleansing”
One must always cleanse one’s thoughts about God to make sure they are free of the dross of deceptive fantasies, of groundless fear, of evil inclinations, of wants and deficiencies . . . All the divine names, whether in Hebrew or in any other language, give us only a tiny and dull spark of the hidden light to which the soul aspires when it utters the word “God.” Every definition of God brings about heresy, every definition is spiritual idolatry; even attributing to Him intellect and will, even the term divine, the term God, suffers from the limitations of definition. Except for the keen awareness that all these are but sparkling flashes of what cannot be defined–these, too, would engender heresy. (Emphasis added)
You and I are “idolaters” not just because we’re Messianic Jews or believers in Yeshua, but because we are thinking, reading, and writing about God as we speak. All believing Jews are minim in this sense, along with the majority of humanity who are not atheists–of whom Kook becomes complimentary later in the essay. Of course this is not a full, literal truth of the matter, but Rav Kook’s words serve to show the pitfalls of making even guarded, conservative inquiry about the Godhead.
Thus, when I structured the class, my focus was on what the triunity of God did not mean and used negative examples as a springboard for discussion for scriptural exposition of the Godhead. Statements such as “God the Father is God and not Yeshua,” or “God made Yeshua to be his representative in the world,” or “The Ruach Ha’Kodesh is the mind of God . . . the Shekinah a reflection of God’s glory” or “Yeshua and the Ruach Ha’Kodesh is the One God shown in different forms” are at best highly misleading. That’s one end of “error spectrum”, emphasizing the Oneness of God at the expense of minimizing either the Godhood and/or personhood of Yeshua and the Ruach Ha’Kodesh. It’s the error messianic believers tend to make throughout the years and places where they’ve been found
The other end of the “error spectrum” is to think there are three separate Gods . . . or even more! Part of my chavurah lesson–to illustrate triunity errors–was to ask about religious sects who conceptualize the triunity of God in incorrect ways and the harm this does to the life/worship/spirituality of their adherents. It didn’t take long until I found a very big example: Mormonism.
The first resource I stumbled across was a July 2006 article by the late LDS president Gordon B. Hinckley, “In These Three I Believe”. Much of what Hinckley writes is, frankly, quite admirable and could be mistaken for traditional Christian exposition and praise for the God of Israel. Hinckley makes a distinction between Father, Son and Holy Ghost based on scripture (either from the traditional canon or Mormon literature which imitates it almost word for word). This writing almost appears like some attempt to normalize Mormon views of the Godhead with traditional Christian trinitarianism, apparently a modern trend in the LDS church, be it for proselytizing purposes or a genuine attempt at doctrinal housecleaning. In either case, Hinckley’s love for God and Yeshua is commendable. He writes of Jesus “None so great has ever walked the earth. None other has made a comparable sacrifice or granted a comparable blessing. He is the Savior and the Redeemer of the world. I believe in Him. I declare His divinity without equivocation or compromise. I love Him. I speak His name in reverence and wonder. I worship Him as I worship His Father, in spirit and in truth. I thank Him and kneel before His wounded feet and hands and side, amazed at the love He offers me.” One who loves Yeshua in the same way cannot read the words of Gordon Hinckley, who died in 2008, and help but hope that Yeshua will look on him with mercy and forgiveness.
Some eccentricities of Mormon trinitarianism show throughout this Hinckley’s article, some of which–ironically enough–may seem familiar to certain Jewish sectarianism. First is his view of the corporeality of God the Father that shares much commonality with Kaballah mysticism: “In His image man was created. He is personal. He is real. He is individual. He has ‘a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s’ (D&C 130:22) . . . Could any language be more explicit? Does it demean God, as some would have us believe, that man was created in His express image?” This doctrine–that God the Father has a body, somewhere, somehow– is one certain Jews may have less trouble coping with than many Christians, at least as an intellectual concept. The emotional implications are another thing altogether. As Michael Wyschogrod wrote, “When we begin to think about the measurement of Hashem’s limbs, a shudder of mystery comes over the Jew. It is sacrilegious. It is terrifying. That Spirit can be in body, particularly absolute Spirit, is terrifying. This is the terror of the dead body as such;” and also “It is terribly frightened of this thought, and it therefore speaks of emanation and the measurement of Hashem’s limbs, which is terrible enough but which, because of its self-evident implausibility, will be interpreted symbolically; yet, no matter how symbolically interpreted, this will leave a residue of horror in the Jewish mind.”
Mormons don’t seem to share this “horror” and can be very free-wheeling in making artistic depictions of both God the Father and Yeshua. During my research of this article, I actually turned off image viewing in my web browser and erase the memory cache on several occasions. There was a certain stain-glass window depiction, on display at the Museum of Church History in Salt Lake city, of both Jesus and God the Father appearing before Joseph Smith in the “Grove Appearance” I kept stumbling across. I’m sure a smart rabbi could carve out a halakhic exception for my situation, but nonetheless I myself feel “horror” at even accidentally viewing and downloading that kind of stuff, even for research purposes.
Hinckley goes on to say
When Jesus prayed to the Father, certainly He was not praying to Himself! They are distinct beings, but They are one in purpose and effort. They are united as one in bringing to pass the grand, divine plan for the salvation and exaltation of the children of God. It is that perfect unity between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost that binds these three into the oneness of the divine Godhead. Miracle of miracles and wonder of wonders, They are interested in us, and we are the substance of Their great concern. They are available to each of us.
It is here where the discerning Christian and Messianic Jew will balk, where certain common language ceases to match up with core doctrinal concepts. This description of the Oneness of the Godhead as “one in purpose and effort”, like partners in a business venture, is not the same as Nicene homoousion, or the echad nature of Hashem in Judaism. To speak of God as “they” in this manner crosses a dangerous line. And what happens when that line is crossed and God is thus defined?
Consider this especially brazen 1844 sermon by Joseph Smith, who states
I will preach on the plurality of Gods. . . . I have always declared God to be a distinct personage, Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, and that the Holy Ghost was a distinct personage and a Spirit: and these three constitute three distinct personages and three Gods. If this is in accordance with the New Testament, lo and behold! we have three Gods anyhow, and they are plural: and who can contradict it!
then he continues later in his “sermon”
“Now,” says God, when He visited Moses in the bush . . . God said, “Thou shalt be a God unto the children of Israel.” God said, “Thou shalt be a God unto Aaron, and he shall be thy spokesman.” I believe those Gods that God reveals as Gods to be sons of God, and all can cry, “Abba, Father!” Sons of God who exalt themselves to be Gods, even from before the foundation of the world, and are the only Gods I have a reverence for.
Here we have the foundations for the Mormon doctrine of Exaltation based on ambitious interpretations of cryptic verses in Exodus, Psalm 82 and John 10 in isolation of the rest of scripture. Granted, just about all traditional Christianity has some doctrine of eschatological divinization: We’ll be transformed, glorified, made to rule and reign in the age to come, and be “one with Hashem” in a fellowship-sense and not an ontological sense. Joseph Smith, however, breaks all rules of propriety and coherent scriptural exegesis to say we will all be “gods” in a literal sense. ♫ . . . I’m a god, he’s a god, she’s a god, we’re all gods, wouldn’t you like to be a god too! . . . ♫ Lost in the wash is the God of Israel being eternal, transcendent, ineffable, and the eschatological ideal of the Alienu: “Then Adonai will be king over the whole world. On that day Adonai will be the only one, and his name will be the only name.” This ideal is mutually exclusive with a universe where “gods” can be created, removed, copied, or mass-produced like Dr. Pepper soda bottles.
It is unfortunate when, like Rav Kook says, such “childish habit and imagination” get so bad that atheism would be a welcomed relief, “to uproot the dross which separates man from the truly divine light . . . to cleanse the air of the arrogant and evil aberration of focusing thought on the nature of the divine essence–a preoccupation that leads to idolatry.” Is there an “antibiotic” we can take for such a preoccupation before the “amputation” of atheism? Is there a way to know God without going mad, going apostate or being destroyed? It can be found in the Torah appreciation for the mystery and ineffability of God’s personality and oneness, and by extension, a Messianic Jewish appreciation for the mystery of our brother Yeshua’s deity and oneness with the Father–elaboration on which we make at our own peril.