Looking at Scripture Mastery – John 17:3
Greek: αὕτη δέ ἐστιν ἡ αἰώνιος ζωή, ἵνα γινώσκωσιν σὲ τὸν μόνον ἀληθινὸν θεὸν καὶ ὃν ἀπέστειλας Ἰησοῦν Χριστόν.
My Translation: But everlasting life is this, that they all might come to know you, the one true god, and that you sent Jesus Christ.
KJV: And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.
My translations are purposefully stretched and should not be viewed as more accurate than the KJV translation unless I say so in the post. I'm trying to show the range lying between the original Greek text and the English.
A Quick Note”
It's a lot of fun to write these posts, but I want to do even better. So I'm slowing down the pace in order to give each individual post some time to hopefully spread through the Internet. A new Scripture Mastery post should appear every Monday and every Thursday. I'm asking anyone who has been enjoying this series to please comment, share/post links, ask questions, post rebuttals, and what have you. I'm relatively confident in what I'm doing, but I've already been able to find and fix some problems in previous posts due to people getting involved. Share your experiences in Seminary or Sunday School about these scriptures. Ask questions about other areas and scriptures (I can only really answer translation questions about the New Testament personally, though I feel rather confident in my knowledge of the “Old Testament”, better called the Hebrew Bible, too). And if you're enjoying this but don't really want to do anything grand, please just drop a quick note to say so. Just a quick “Thanks” or “Cool beans” really makes my day. Thanks! Now onto the post!
The Death of Jesus in John's Gospel
This is a popular one throughout Christianity. It's from John 17, which is a long prayer given by Jesus to God at the Last Supper, sometimes called the “Intercessory Prayer”. One reason it's popular is that this prayer occupies the place of the Garden of Gethsemane in Matthew, Mark, and especially Luke. Whereas in those gospels Jesus is portrayed as suffering in prayer, as in Mark, or perhaps a little ambivalent such as asking God to “remove the cup” before his upcoming death in Luke, in John Jesus is fully in command of the situation, and this prayer to God is a plea not to remove the cup but rather for God to honor and uplift Jesus's disciples. In John's gospel, Jesus does not approach his death with apprehension; in fact, for John, the death of Jesus is not portrayed as a possibly-unexpected event, but is the climax of the book with John working in symbolism of a emperor's coronation into the narrative. For John, the death of Jesus is the crowning achievement of Jesus's work and the event that heralds the full arrival of the kingdom of God upon the world (John's gospel, while still containing some apocalyptic elements, seems to have been written long enough after the death of Jesus for much of the apocalyptic warnings of the coming kingdom of God to be replaced with the spiritual arrival of the kingdom as the gospel of Jesus being accepted and spread by his followers; this tends to happen when people who feel that they were promised they'd live to see the coming kingdom of God begin to die and you need an explanation). (See my post about the differences of the Gospels if you want to know more about these four very different and non-coordinating works.)
Jesus Sent By God
One of the main reasons for the inclusion of this verse, I feel, is the honorable and correct use of it as a pro-Christ verse. This is a verse that is central to Christian and Mormon theology: God sent Jesus Christ, and that eternal life is wrapped up in developing a relationship with God and Christ. So much is wrapped up in this concept for both Mormons and Christians, so I approve of its inclusion for this reason. But I'd argue that there's another less honorable and pretty much incorrect reason for this verse to be included in a list of the most important scriptures from the New Testament for LDS youth, and it has to do with Jesus's statement that life eternal is to know, or understand God. In other words, it's commonly assumed that having a correct understanding of the nature of God is part of attaining eternal life, which for Mormons means living the same kind of life as God the Father: life as a god.
The Only True God
One interesting aspect of this verse is the phrase ton mónon alāthinón theón, the only true god. Monon should be recognizable to English speakers in the numerical prefix “mono”: monorail, monocle, monogram, monotheism, etc. It means “one”, “single”, “only”. This is a verse that seems to have been used during the debates of the Nicene Council of 325 CE, part of the Arian heresy that divided much of the Christian movements during the early Fourth Century. To try and simply summarize what was actually a very complex debate, the Arians felt that only God the Father was an eternal God, and that Jesus, while still divine and unique, was a being created by the Father in the distant past before the creation of the world. In explanation of their viewpoint, the Arians pointed out that the terms “Father” and “Son” were without meaning if applied to multiple beings who had always existed alongside each other and who were equal in all power and glory. Countered by the proto-orthodox viewpoint (which only later developed into the strong Trinitarianism, but was an idea around long before Nicea and wasn't invented there, merely promoted as correct) that this resulted in a worldview of three gods, which was polythesim and was soundly denounced many times in the Bible (such as in the 10 commandments), the Arians responded by using this verse to imply that while Jesus was a god, he was not a True God. Jesus himself in this verse acknowledges that the Father is the only “true” God. Thus, they argued, the commandments for only worshiping God the Father alone were still upheld, because there was only one “true” God in the universe. Jesus was a different kind of god because he had been created by the one “true” God. Needless to say, the nuance in such a view didn't last in Christian thought, but Arianism itself held out for hundreds of years after the Nicene Council as one of the most popular strands of Christianity in the world.
The Modalist Heresy
Mormons have a viewpoint that is similar to the Arians, but it should not be confused as being the same viewpoint (and for those familiar with the homoiousios/homoousios debate of Nicea, go ahead and laugh). Mormons began in a period of American history where many traditional aspects of Christianity were being examined, doubted, and experimented with. One aspect of traditional Christianity that many original converts had trouble with was Trinitarianism. The basic idea of Trinitarianism is that God is composed of three beings: the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Now, as to whether God is a title for all three, an aspect of the three that arises through their mutual love and unity, or whatever, is a subject of much debate and thought. The basic idea is simply that there is one God and three persons. Unfortunately, it is rather easy for many Christians to unwittingly slip into another heretical belief when trying to understand how a singular God is composed of three persons: modalism. Modalism is the belief that there is only one God who appears to be three different people at different times and in different places. To over-simplify, it's the belief that God has a “Father” mask that he wears when he needs to be the Father, a “Son” mask that he wears when he needs to be the Son, and a “Holy Ghost” mask for when the Holy Ghost is working in the world, but it's the same person behind all three masks. Most Mormons are surprised to find that this view is a heresy, because it tends to be the viewpoint we are taught growing up in the Church of what “other Christians” believe. Modalist thought can be found throughout Christian history, but it is always regarded by Christian theologians as heretical and is corrected when found. That doesn't mean that it doesn't continue pop up all over the place even in congregations nowadays, and it was commonly said to be an issue for many early seekers in America's Second Great Awakening. Even Thomas Paine, the writer of the revolutionary tract Common Sense, discussed the oddity of the Trinity in his Age of Reason. It's bound to happen when people continue to use analogies to try and explain the mystery of the Trinity such as “It's like water: it can be solid, liquid, or gas but it's all water,” or “It's like an egg: you have the shell, the whites, and the yolk, but it's only an egg when all three are united together.”
Mormons and Their “Trinitarian” Straw Men
I still have more research to do on this point, so from here on out it's my own supposition (though I'm rather confident in this hypothesis), but I think it can be shown that the great divide between Mormons as non-Trinitarians and other Christians as Trinitarians has its roots in Mormon rhetoric and not in anti- Mormon rhetoric. In other words, I think Mormons started self-identifying as non-Trinitarians decades before other Christians even cared about the issue. I would argue that issues that are related to that divide, such as Mormons believing in an embodied God or in human deification and theosis, can and occasionally do live side by side with traditional Trinitarian thought. I think that eventually as Christians in general turned against Mormonism during the 19th Century it was originally because of polygamy and the strong control exerted upon members by Church leadership. Eventually, some Christians heard that Mormons also identified themselves as anti-Trinitarianists and so came to agree that this was an issue, and today the argument that Mormons cannot be Christians because of the Council of Nicea has been ongoing for so long that everyone on both sides of the divide has forgotten who first started saying it and everyone simply believes it is true because it's been said for so long by both sides. However, I'm still doing my own research into what the earliest Mormon narratives on Nicea and the Trinity were and when and if they changed.
Anyways, all of this is a very long way of saying that I think this scripture is present because it's one of the main anti-Modalist scriptures (the Arians in particular loved to use anti-Modalism scriptures and arguments because it helped force their opponents into the uncomfortable position of possibly having to argue against Arian ideas using heretical terms and ideas from earlier Modalist thinkers). Jesus is talking to God and mentions himself as being separate. Mormons (incorrectly) assume that this scripture is thus speaking against Trinitarianism. For Mormons, this rejection of Trinitarianism is, oddly, one of the most important differences between Mormonism and Christianity. In the First Vision account, where God and Jesus visit Joseph Smith as a young boy to start him on the road to becoming a prophet, Mormons routinely will point out that Joseph saw two “personages” in the grove where was praying and not one. But remember, this is because they've been perpetuating the idea of a modalist Trinity for so long that today it is simply an accepted point among Mormons that Christians are Modalists. However, this isn't true, and unfortunately the elevation of this scripture to be included in a list of the most important scriptures for LDS youth almost certainly involves this scripture being used to combat this false view of what other Christians “believe”.
Why Do I Think This Is Part of Scripture Mastery?
For two reasons, one good and one bad. The first, good reason is because it is a scripture that speaks to one of the central doctrines of Christian and Mormon theology: God sent Jesus Christ. However, the second bad reason focuses on the idea that life eternal is to “know God”: for most Mormons this knowledge includes a true understanding of the nature of God as “non-Trinitarian,” placed against a straw-man conception of “orthodox Christianity” that is actually heretical for traditional Christians.