The 10 Myths Part 4: “Biblical Christians believe Christ prayed to Himself.”

Posted: October 9, 2022 in Mormon Studies, Paul Nurnberg, The 10 Myths Mormons Believe About Christianity, The Trinity
Biblical Christians fully acknowledge the one-ness and  the three-ness of God

A detail from Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci, “Battesimo di Cristo (The Baptism of Christ)”, c.1475. Please note how this allegedly “apostate” artist has clearly depicted the three persons of the Trinity as distinct.

by Paul Nurnberg
Mormonism is fueled by faith-promoting stories. No one said this better than Mormon Apostle, Bruce R. McConkie, “We have in the Church an untapped, almost unknown, treasury of inspiring and faith-promoting stories. They are the best of their kind and there are thousands of them.” (“The How and Why of Faith-promoting Stories”, New Era magazine, July 1978). Unfortunately, some of them, as another Mormon Apostle said well, only provide “…a kind of theological Twinkie—spiritually empty calories?” (Jeffrey R. Holland, “A Teacher Come from God”, Spring General Conference 1998). This series exposes the following ten “Twinkies”…

10 Myths That Mormonism Tells About Biblical Christianity

  1. Biblical Christianity apostatized.
  2. The Bible has been corrupted.
  3. Biblical Christians believe in cheap grace.
  4. Biblical Christians believe Christ prayed to Himself.
  5. The Biblical Christian God is a monster who sends good people to hell just because they never had a chance to hear the gospel.
  6. Biblical Christians worship the cross and the Bible.
  7. Biblical Christians have no priesthood.
  8. Biblical Christian Pastors and Apologists practice Priestcraft – they’re only in it for the money.
  9. Biblical Christians hate Mormons.
  10. Biblical Christianity is divided into 10,000+ sects, all believing in different paths to salvation.

… and replaces them with nourishing truth. Let’s talk about the one that’s bolded, shall we?

This meme illustrates how this myth is typically used in popular culture by Mormons.

The Myth
To illustrate how this myth is typically used by Latter-day Saints, I have included a well-known Mormon meme that pops up on Social Media from time to time. It shows how Latter-day Saints will often use critiques they believe to be silver bullets that debunk the doctrine of the Trinity when, in fact, they are nothing more than contrived strawman arguments. The myth being addressed here isn’t the only one of these, but it’s probably the most common.

So, where do Latter-day Saints get the incorrect idea that Biblical Christians who affirm the doctrine of the Trinity believe that Jesus was praying to himself when he lifted his voice in prayer to the Father?

Gordon B. Hinckley said the following:

“I am aware that Jesus said that they who had seen Him had seen the Father. Could not the same be said by many a son who resembles his parent?

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.”
— Gordon B. Hinckley
(“The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” October 1986 General Conference, bolding added for emphasis)

LDS leaders often appeal to Joseph Smith’s First Vision as the reason they teach that the Father and the Son are distinct beings (see, for example, N. Eldon Tanner’s “The Contributions of the Prophet Joseph Smith”).

Some LDS leaders, Smith included, seek to make the case on biblical grounds:

“I have always declared God to be a distinct personage, Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, and 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?”
— Joseph Smith, Jr.
(quoted in Joseph Fielding Smith, ed. “Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith” Section VI, 370, bolding added for emphasis)

More recently, Jeffrey R. Holland attempted to make the case that the Latter-day Saints hold to a more biblical view of the Godhead than Biblical Christians do:

“Indeed no less a source than the stalwart Harper’s Bible Dictionary records that “the formal doctrine of the Trinity as it was defined by the great church councils of the fourth and fifth centuries is not to be found in the [New Testament].”

So any criticism that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not hold the contemporary Christian view of God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost is not a comment about our commitment to Christ but rather a recognition (accurate, I might add) that our view of the Godhead breaks with post–New Testament Christian history and returns to the doctrine taught by Jesus Himself…

To whom was Jesus pleading so fervently all those years, including in such anguished cries as “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” and “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me”? To acknowledge the scriptural evidence that otherwise perfectly united members of the Godhead are nevertheless separate and distinct beings is not to be guilty of polytheism; it is, rather, part of the great revelation Jesus came to deliver concerning the nature of divine beings.”
— Jeffrey R. Holland
(“The Only True God and Jesus Christ Whom He Hath Sent” in October 2007 General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, bolding added for emphasis, ellipses added for the sake of brevity)

Why It’s a Myth
Biblical Christians agree with Latter-day Saints that the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit are distinct persons. On biblical grounds, we disagree that this means they are three Gods. The three-in-one nature of God means that when the incarnate Son prayed to the Father, he was praying to a distinct person. Latter-day Saints fail to acknowledge that the three-ness of God in the doctrine of the Trinity is a true distinction of persons.

Holland wants to give the impression that the LDS view of a Godhead is the doctrine of God taught by Jesus and his apostles. In his attempt, he abused his source, making it look like it concedes more than it does.1 Biblical Christians affirm the doctrine of the Trinity primarily on the basis of the biblical data; not solely because of the creeds of Nicaea and Constantinople. It is precisely this point that Harper’s Bible Dictionary makes. Directly following the lone sentence Holland quoted from the concluding paragraph of the Trinity entry, one finds the following qualification:

“Nevertheless, the discussion above and especially the presence of trinitarian formulas in 2 Cor. 13:14 (which is strikingly early) and Matt. 28:19 indicate that the origin of this mode of thought may be found very early in Christian history.”
— Thomas R. W. Longstaff, Ph.D.
(“The Trinity” in “Harper’s Bible Dictionary”, Paul J. Achtemeier, ed. Harper & Row. San Francisco, 1985, pp. 1098-1099)

Joseph Smith’s “Sermon in the Grove” that I quoted above was delivered in Nauvoo, Illinois on June 16, 1844, just eleven days before he was killed. Later in the same sermon, he quoted from Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer in John 17, specifically vv. 9 and 11b. Then, after polemically mutilating the doctrine of the Trinity, Smith told his audience that he wanted to read them the text of John 17 for himself. He paraphrased verse 21, claiming that the Greek should be translated “agree” instead of “one.”

The Greek word translated “one” in this verse is from the root heis; the Greek word for the cardinal numeral “one.” In the 345 times that it is used in the Greek New Testament, it never means “agree” as Smith claimed (see Bill Mounce’s Biblical Greek Concordance and Dictionary). Of the seven times the English word “agree” is found in the KJV, it is most often translated from the Greek verb symphōneō (“agree”). Further, Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible does not change heis to “agree” at John 17:21, as Smith attempted to do in his sermon (see John 17:21 in the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible)

Smith was not only wrong about the meaning of the Greek in John 17, but also wrong about the implication of that chapter for the doctrine of the Trinity. He didn’t take seriously the myriad biblical passages that declare that God is one.

Pietro Perugino, “The Baptism of Christ”, c.1482. Again, please note how this allegedly “apostate” artist has clearly depicted the three persons of the Trinity as distinct.

Hinckley gave a nod to a biblical passage that should give any Latter-day Saint pause (John 14:9), but he dismissed it too easily, given the ubiquity of New Testament passages declaring that the Father and the Son are one. Benjamin B. Warfield noted the following about the authors of the New Testament:

“[W]e cannot help perceiving with great clearness in the New Testament abundant evidence that its writers felt no incongruity whatever between their doctrine of the Trinity and the Old Testament conception of God. The New Testament writers certainly were not conscious of being “setters forth of strange gods.” To their own apprehension they worshipped and proclaimed just the God of Israel; and they laid no less stress than the Old Testament itself upon His unity (Jn 17:3; 1 Cor 8:4; 1 Tim 2:5). They do not, then, place two new gods by the side of Yahweh, as alike with Him to be served and worshipped; they conceive Yahweh as Himself at once Father, Son and Spirit. In presenting this one Yahweh as Father, Son and Spirit, they do not even betray any lurking feeling that they are making innovations.
[ . . . ]
It is not in a text here and there that the New Testament bears its testimony to the doctrine of the Trinity. The whole book is Trinitarian to the core; all its teaching is built on the assumption of the Trinity; and its allusions to the Trinity are frequent, cursory, easy and confident. It is with a view to the cursoriness of the allusions to it in the New Testament that it has been remarked that “the doctrine of the Trinity is not so much heard as overheard in the statements of Scripture.” It would be more exact to say that it is not so much inculcated as presupposed. The doctrine of the Trinity does not appear in the New Testament in the making, but as already made.”
— B.B. Warfield
(“Trinity” in “The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia”, edited by James Orr, 5:3,012–22. Chicago: The Howard-Severance Company, 1915)

Biblical Christians agree with Warfield that the doctrine of the Trinity is incipient in the Old Testament revelation, that it is clarified in the New Testament revelation, and that in “point of fact, the doctrine of the Trinity is purely a revealed doctrine” (Benjamin B. Warfield “Trinity”, ibid).

How It’s a Myth
The doctrine of the Trinity declares the clear biblical data that can be summarized in four statements:

  1. There is only one God.
  2. The Father of the Lord Jesus Christ is God.
  3. Jesus Christ, the Son, is God.
  4. The Holy Spirit is God.

Latter-day Saints who charge that Biblical Christians think Jesus prayed to himself fail to take into account the whole counsel of God (for an accessible overview see “The Biblical Basis of the Doctrine of the Trinity” by Robert Bowman, Jr.). The doctrine of the Trinity maintains both the one-ness and the three-ness of God, as revealed in the biblical record.

The criticism levied by Holland is that the doctrine postdates the New Testament. Specifically, Latter-day Saints argue that the doctrine amounts to the philosophies of men mingled with Scripture. Biblical Christians acknowledge that there are ways of explicating the doctrine of the Trinity that use nonbiblical words, but that the doctrine itself is thoroughly biblical. Warfield states the matter clearly:

“The term “Trinity” is not a Biblical term, and we are not using Biblical language when we define what is expressed by it as the doctrine that there is one only and true God, but in the unity of the Godhead there are three coeternal and coequal Persons, the same in substance but distinct in subsistence. A doctrine so defined can be spoken of as a Biblical doctrine only on the principle that the sense of Scripture is Scripture. And the definition of a Biblical doctrine in such un-Biblical language can be justified only on the principle that it is better to preserve the truth of Scripture than the words of Scripture. The doctrine of the Trinity lies in Scripture in solution; when it is crystallized from its solvent it does not cease to be Scriptural, but only comes into clearer view. Or, to speak without figure, the doctrine of the Trinity is given to us in Scripture, not in formulated definition, but in fragmentary allusions; when we assemble the disjecta membra into their organic unity, we are not passing from Scripture, but entering more thoroughly into the meaning of Scripture. We may state the doctrine in technical terms, supplied by philosophical reflection; but the doctrine stated is a genuinely Scriptural doctrine.”
— B.B. Warfield
(“Trinity”, Op Cit, bolding added for emphasis)

Biblical Christians fully acknowledge the one-ness and the three-ness of God as described in revelation.

The Doctrine of the Trinity and Mormon Godhead doctrine illustrated graphically.

Why It Matters
From my perspective as a former Latter-day Saint, the impulse on the part of Mormons to critique the Trinity is primarily the result of Smith’s innovative teachings – an anti-Trinity, if you will – of his most distinctive doctrines:

  1. God the Father has a body of flesh and bones (Doctrine and Covenants 130:22)
  2. Man was also, in the beginning, with God, and in essence “was not created or made, neither indeed can be” (Doctrine and Covenants 93:29).
  3. That humans must learn how to be gods [themselves], and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all gods have done before [them] [ . . . ] (Joseph Smith, Jr. “King Follett Sermon”)

Smith himself argued the difficulty that his teachings posed when run up against the doctrine of the Trinity:

“Many men say there is one God; the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are only one God. I say that is a strange God anyhow–three in one, and one in three! It is a curious organization. “Father, I pray not for the world, but I pray for them which thou hast given me.” “Holy Father, keep through Thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one as we are.” All are to be crammed into one God, according to sectarianism. It would make the biggest God in all the world. He would be a wonderfully big God–he would be a giant or a monster.
— Joseph Smith, Jr.
(quoted in Joseph Fielding Smith, ed. “Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith” Section VI, 372, bolding added for emphasis)

In this sermon, Smith argued essentially as Holland did. Namely, that Latter-day Saints affirm the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit “are one in every significant and eternal aspect imaginable except believing Them to be three persons combined in one substance [ . . . ]” (Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Only True God and Jesus Christ Whom He Hath Sent”). The key question here is this: Are the Father, Son, and Spirit unified in any way that is different than how believers are unified? Smith and his successors argue that the unity of both the Godhead and of humanity with the Godhead is solely that of will and purpose — not of substance. Biblical Christians answer in the affirmative that there is a difference between the unity of substance shared by the Godhead, and the unity of will and purpose that Jesus prayed his followers would have — with the Godhead and with each other.

In his great High Priestly Prayer, Jesus prayed, “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent (John 17:3 KJV). Ambrose of Milan, one of the greatest theologians of the fourth century compared our unity with the Godhead’s unity:

“No separation, then, is to be made of the Word from God the Father, no separation in power, no separation in wisdom, by reason of the Unity of the Divine Substance. Again, God the Father is in the Son, as we ofttimes find it written, yet [He dwells in the Son] not as sanctifying one who lacks sanctification, nor as filling a void, for the power of God knows no void. Nor, again, is the power of the one increased by the power of the other, for there are not two powers, but one Power; nor does Godhead entertain Godhead, for there are not two Godheads, but one Godhead. We, contrariwise, shall be One in Christ through Power received [from another] and dwelling in us.

The letter [of the unity] is common, but the Substance of God and the substance of man are different. We shall be, the Father and the Son [already] are, one; we shall be one by grace, the Son is so by substance. Again, unity by conjunction is one thing, unity by nature another. Finally, observe what it is that Scripture hath already recorded: “That they may all be one, as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee.”

Mark now that He said not “Thou in us, and we in Thee,” but “Thou in Me, and I in Thee,” to place Himself apart from His creatures. Further He added: “that they also may be in Us,” in order to separate here His dignity and His Father’s from us, that our union in the Father and the Son may appear the issue, not of nature, but of grace, whilst with regard to the unity of the Father and the Son it may be believed that the Son has not received this by grace, but possesses by natural right of His Sonship.”
— Ambrose of Milan
(“On the Christian Faith” cited in “Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament” IVb John 11-21, Thomas C. Oden, ed. InterVarsity Press, Dowers Grove, IL 2007, pp. 256-57, bolding added for emphasis)

The Book of Mormon states that “God himself shall come down among the children of men, and shall redeem his people” (Mosiah 15:1). Biblical Christians can affirm this without qualification. The nature of the Son as fully God is critical to the efficacy of his sacrifice, as is the reverence for and the submission of his human nature to His Father, which he demonstrated in his prayers.

Summary and Conclusion
The Father is God. The Son is God. The Holy Spirit is God. Yet, there are not three Gods, but one true God. The Son did not pray to himself, but to His Father.

The Trinity Triangle: “We believe in the Triune God-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One God, three Persons” This window uses the Latin Pater, Filius, and Spiritus Sanctus to name the persons in the Trinity. One God and Three Persons is a great mystery of the Church. The window explains that the Persons are not each other, but each is God (Deus).

1 Here is what that entry in the 1985 Harper’s Bible Dictionary actually says in its full and complete context:

“Trinity, the, a term denoting the specifically Christian doctrine that God is a unity of three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The word itself does not occur in the Bible. It is generally acknowledged that the church father Tertullian (ca. a.d. 145-220) either coined the term or was the first to use it with reference to God. The explicit doctrine was thus formulated in the postbiblical period, although the early stages of its development can be seen in the NT . Attempts to trace the origins still earlier (to the ot literature) cannot be supported by historical-critical scholarship, and these attempts must be understood as retrospective interpretations of this earlier corpus of Scripture in the light of later theological developments.

For the purpose of analysis, three relevant categories of NT texts may be distinguished (although such sharp lines of demarcation should not be attributed to first-century Christianity): first are references to the incarnation, describing a particularly close relationship between Jesus and God. Although a number of passages make clear distinctions between God and Christ and therefore suggest the subordination of the Son to the Father (e.g., Rom. 8:31-34; 1 Cor. 11:3; 15:20-28; 2 Cor. 4:4-6), there are other texts in which the unity of the Father and the Son is stressed (e.g., Matt. 11:27; John 10:30; 14:9-11; 20:28; Col. 2:9; 1 John 5:20). This emphasis on the unity of the Father and the Son may be understood as a first step in the development of trinitarian thought.

Second are passages in which a similarly close relationship between Jesus and the Holy Spirit is depicted. In the ot, the Holy Spirit (i.e., the Spirit of God) is understood to be the agency of God’s power and presence with individuals and communities. In the NT , Jesus is understood to be the recipient of this Spirit in a unique manner (see esp. Luke 3:22, where the Holy Spirit descends in bodily form upon Jesus after his baptism), to be a mediator of the activity of the Spirit (Acts 2:33 and elsewhere), and even to be identified with the Spirit (Rom. 8:26-27, 34; John 14; cf. expressions such as ‘the Spirit of Christ,’ ‘the Spirit of the Lord,’ ‘the Spirit of Jesus,’ and Gal. 4:6, where God sends ‘the Spirit of his Son’). While one cannot use the creedal formulation that the Holy Spirit ‘proceeds from the Father and the Son’ in its later dogmatic sense, in the NT the Holy Spirit comes to represent both the presence and activity of God and the continuing presence of Jesus Christ in the church.

Finally there are passages in which all three persons of the Trinity are mentioned in the same context. The most important of these are the ‘Apostolic Benediction’ of 2 Cor. 13:14 (the earliest trinitarian formula known) and the baptismal formula of Matt. 28:19 (perhaps a development from the simpler formula reflected in Acts 2:38; 8:16; and elsewhere; see also 1 Cor. 12:4-6; Eph. 4:4-6; 1 Pet. 1:2; Jude 20-21).

The formal doctrine of the Trinity as it was defined by the great church councils of the fourth and fifth centuries is not to be found in the NT . Nevertheless, the discussion above and especially the presence of trinitarian formulas in 2 Cor. 13:14 (which is strikingly early) and Matt. 28:19 indicate that the origin of this mode of thought may be found very early in Christian history.”
(Thomas R. W. Longstaff, Ph.D., “The Trinity” in “Harper’s Bible Dictionary”, Paul J. Achtemeier, ed. Harper & Row. San Francisco, 1985, pp. 1098-1099)

About the Author
Paul Nurnberg was born and raised in the Salt Lake Valley in Utah. He served a two-year proselytizing mission for the LDS Church in Hungary. After converting to Biblical Christianity, he studied at Cincinnati Christian University. He holds an M.Div. in Biblical Studies and a BBA from Thomas More University where he graduated summa cum laude. He is a member of Lakeside Christian Church in Kentucky, which belongs to the Independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, which has roots in the American Restoration Movement. He has enjoyed a long career in the health insurance industry, and since 2019 has produced the podcast, “Outer Brightness: From Mormon to Jesus.” He has been happily married to his best friend, Angela, for 22 years. They have five children and three dogs.

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