Trinity Sunday

This post is a slightly revised version of last year’s Trinity Sunday post. For more recent BCC discussion of the Trinity, start with J. Stapley’s “Mormon Jesus?”, which links to other posts by BCC authors.

Early in the Book of Mormon, Nephi receives some information that seems to have been all at once exciting, shocking, and confusing. After Nephi affirms his belief in Lehi’s vision of the tree, the Spirit who had carried him away responds with praise: “Hosanna to the Lord, the Most High God; for he is God over all the earth, even above all.” Then comes the intriguing part: “And blessed art thou, Nephi, because thou believest in the Son of the most high God.”

This is intriguing not only because Nephi has not affirmed any such belief, but more profoundly because the text has not hitherto mentioned any such Son (except when the narrator Nephi, writing 40 years after the fact, attributes his father’s vision to “faith on the Son of God” [1 Ne. 10:17]). The book opens with Lehi, likewise carried away by the Spirit, seeing God enthroned (1 Ne. 1:8), after which he sees “One descending out of the midst of heaven” and “twelve others following him” (1 Ne. 1:9-10). While we are justified in understanding this “One” as Jesus Christ, the Book of Mormon does not at this point identify him as God’s Son; nor does it clarify the relationship between this One and God at all.

Although Nephi stands by the filial relation of this anointed one to the Father that the Spirit had revealed to him, his focus tends to fall on the fact of anointed status instead of on the matter of relationship. He seems to prefer the word “Messiah” (23 uses in 1-2 Nephi) to “Son” (8 times in 1 Nephi, mostly in chapters 11-13, 10 times in 2 Nephi, concentrated in chapters 25 and 31, with “Son of Righteousness in 2 Nephi 26:9).

Nephi handles the relationship among members of the Godhead most explicitly in 2 Nephi 31, where he addresses “the doctrine of Christ.” He begins by talking about “the Lord God” in verse 3, introducing “the Lamb of God” in verse 4, which also mentions “that prophet which the Lord showed unto me.” The relationship among these titles is not altogether clear. 1 Nephi 11 clearly identifies Nephi’s visionary guide as the Spirit, although this figure becomes “the angel” later on. Is “the Lord” in verse 4 therefore the Spirit? Are we to take “the Lord God” and “the Lamb of God” (the latter explicitly identified as “the Son of the Eternal Father” in 1 Ne. 11:21) as distinct beings or as distinct titles for the same being?

All three persons come into play in verses 7 and 8. The Lamb “humbleth himself before the Father,” and “the Holy Ghost descended upon him in the form of a dove.” This formulation emphasizes the superiority of the Father, with the movement of the Holy Ghost being similarly downward.

Verse 10 makes the relationship between Father and Son relevant to human believers by asking, “Can we follow Jesus save we shall be willing to keep the commandments of the Father?” This turns Jesus’ submission into an example.

Intriguingly, the individual persons of Father and Son speak in verses 11 and 12. The Father commands baptism in the name of the Son, and the Son says that the Father will give the Holy Ghost to all who are so baptized. With these verses a pattern begins to emerge in which the Father issues commands, with the Son both acting as example of obedience and as communicator of the message to humans—a role he continues in verse 14. In verse 15 the Father then adds his witness to the Son’s message.

In the chapter’s concluding verses, Nephi crystallizes his interpretation of the relationship among the persons. In verse 18 he speaks of our having obeyed the commandments of both Father and Son. Thus, even though the Father issues the commandment and the Son merely communicates it (by deed and word), Nephi feels comfortable assigning this function to both persons.

The Holy Ghost, in turn, “witnesses of the Father and the Son.” Whereas the chapter had, up to this point, shown the Father and the Son as distinct beings with unique, if complementary, functions, it now draws our attention to their unity. Since testifying of the Father’s commands is enough for the Son to be considered one with the Father, the Holy Ghost’s witnessing of both Father and Son is by implication sufficient ground for assuming its unity with the collective as well.

Indeed, Nephi makes this claim of unity among the persons explicit in the chapter’s final verse: “And now, behold, this is the doctrine of Christ, and the only and true doctrine of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, which is one God, without end.”

This claim of unity among the persons did not, however, settle the matter for Nephi’s descendants. On their mission to the Zoramites, Alma and Amulek encounter a group of people who seem to believe that the doctrine of God’s unity precludes the possibility of there being a Son. This concern becomes clear in Alma 33:1, where the people “sent forth unto him desiring to know whether they should believe in one God.”

In their subsequent preaching, Alma and Amulek persistently draw attention to all three persons. (No doubt Alma learned something of his approach to these matters from his father, who witnessed Abinadi’s discourse in Mosiah 15.) Indeed, Amulek concludes his masterful sermon in chapter 34 with a Trinitarian chiasmus in verses 37-38:

37 And now, my beloved brethren, I desire that ye should remember these things, and that ye should work out your salvation with fear before God, and that ye should no more deny the coming of Christ;

38 That ye contend no more against the Holy Ghost, but that ye receive it, and take upon you the name of Christ; that ye humble yourselves even to the dust, and worship God, in whatsoever place ye may be in, in spirit and in truth; and that ye live in thanksgiving daily, for the many mercies and blessings which he doth bestow upon you.

By calling this chiasmus “Trinitarian” I simply mean to say that it shows all three persons operating in harmony toward a unified end. The purpose of this lengthy exegesis is not to show that the Book of Mormon supports the doctrine of homoousios (unity of essence/being/substance) espoused in the Nicene Creed, but rather to demonstrate that the Book of Mormon is responsive to the theological pressures that resulted in the Nicene formulation and its subsequent articulations in the Chalcedonian and Athanasian Creeds.

In a nutshell, the problem is this: given the Jewish emphasis on one God in the key text of Deuteronomy 6:4, how does one make sense of Jesus (especially if one understands Jesus to be in some sense God)? The difficulty of this question became increasingly apparent over time, with Tertullian in the 2nd century being the first to offer a Trinitarian solution. Still, the debate grew more heated, especially amidst the Arian controversy of the early 4th century. Addressing this controversy was one purpose for the Council of Nicaea in 325, and even this powerful gathering could not put the matter to rest. Augustine’s influential De Trinitate was written amidst continued controversy decades after Nicaea.

At this juncture I wish to suggest that the Restored Gospel offers an inspired take (or at least the potential for one) on the controversies swirling around the nature of the Godhead. This approach does not involve attempting to settle the question by appeal to Joseph’s vision (especially given the discrepancy between the 1832 and 1838 accounts with respect to how many beings he saw), but rather appears in the First Article of Faith: “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in his Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.” The inspired genius of this creedal statement is that it commits adherents only to the basic, essential details, the same ones included in the Gospel of Matthew’s grand commission to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. The Athanasian Creed it is not.

If (in my view) the Athanasian Creed goes too far in committing a person to belief in metaphysical niceties, an advantage of the First Article of Faith is that someone who believes those metaphysical niceties should still in good conscience be able to join with the body of the church in affirming this basic belief. It creates space in the Church for differences of belief that early Christianity found intolerable, while fostering unity around core shared concepts.

D&C 20:21-28, a revelation connected with the Church’s founding, contains powerful language that, while reminiscent of the Apostles’ Creed, similarly leaves room for differences of belief on the metaphysical nature of the relationships among members of the Godhead:

21 Wherefore, the Almighty God gave his Only Begotten Son, as it is written in those scriptures which have been given of him.

22 He suffered temptations but gave no heed unto them.

23 He was crucified, died, and rose again the third day;

24 And ascended into heaven, to sit down on the right hand of the Father, to reign with almighty power according to the will of the Father;

25 That as many as would believe and be baptized in his holy name, and endure in faith to the end, should be saved—

26 Not only those who believed after he came in the meridian of time, in the flesh, but all those from the beginning, even as many as were before he came, who believed in the words of the holy prophets, who spake as they were inspired by the gift of the Holy Ghost, who truly testified of him in all things, should have eternal life,

27 As well as those who should come after, who should believe in the gifts and callings of God by the Holy Ghost, which beareth record of the Father and of the Son;

28 Which Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God, infinite and eternal, without end. Amen.

What emerges in this passage as more important than metaphysical propositions is the unity of the prophets with the Godhead in testifying of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. However else the Godhead may be one, the persons’ unity of witness matters most, as does our potential for unity with them.

The irony with the doctrine of the Trinity is that, for an idea whose premise is unity, it has caused an awful lot of division. One could certainly argue that the sort of unity enabled by the First Article of Faith or Section 20 is a shallow one, made possible only by the theological naïveté of a religion still younger by a century than the Christianity that convened at Nicaea. Nevertheless, a profounder unity might not be possible without a superficial one.

The first creation story in Genesis offers a powerful paradigm for unity in difference. Unlike the second creation story, in which the woman is created after (and out of) the man, this one has them created at the same time, both in the image of God. Notwithstanding all that might serve to distinguish between the sexes, they can be one, just as the image of God is indivisible, even though God is three persons.

Though we may be “a little lower than the angels,” we must still strive, as the body of Christ, toward this unity, following Paul’s injunction: “agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.” His invitation for us to “greet one another with a holy kiss” has now, in many churches, become the practice of giving the sign of peace. At this moment in the service, all present arise and say “Peace be with you” while shaking hands with surrounding congregants. I love this practice and the spirit of love and unity it fosters, even when performed with strangers.

In the end, even if we hold to the traditional LDS teaching that I encountered in my youth—the idea that Joseph’s vision, in tandem with D&C 130, indicates physically distinct persons, thus proving homoousios false—this teaching still gives the unity among the members of the Godhead a powerful ethical edge for us as members of the Church. In fact, the ethical edge might be even sharper than it would be if we believed in homoousios, for in granting that the persons are fundamentally different we acknowledge, on a very basic theological level, both the need for and the possibility of unity in diversity. In keeping with Mormon pragmatism, then, this teaching allows us to acknowledge the reality of diversity in the Church as something with which we not only can but more or less have to live.

This message of unity among the persons of the Godhead is always timely, amidst our human tendencies to turn differences into points of political disagreement. May we all, in our actions towards one another, look to the perfect example of Father, Son, and Spirit, who, though different, are yet One God through the miracle of charity.

I conclude with a poem, “These Three (1 Cor. 13:13)”:

In faith I look to God to salve my mortal faults;
this faith, an upward nod of hope though falling, vaults
my eyes from self abroad, where charity exalts.



Mormon Lectionary Project

Trinity Sunday, Year A

Gen. 1:1-2:4a (NRSV); Psalm 8 (KJV); 2 Corinthians 13:11-13 (NRSV); Matthew 28:16-20 (NRSV); 1 Nephi 11:6; Alma 34:37-38D&C 20:21-28

The Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who as the Father and the Son, aided by the presence of the Holy Spirit, appeared to your servant Joseph Smith, jr.: grant that we may be one with each other, and one with you, as you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are one God forever and ever.

For the music, here is one of Bach’s three(!) cantatas for Trinity Sunday, “O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad” (BWV 165). The others are BWV 129 and BWV 176.



  1. Great stuff. I’d never noticed the Apostles’ Creed/D&C connection before. What was the life of the creed during the Second Great Awakening? As you know, I think homoousios is compatible with Mormon theology, but I think you are right to promote a “mere Trinity” belief.

  2. Jason K. says:

    Exactly, Ronan: you can believe in homoousios, I can be a little less sure, and we can both say the first Article of Faith with clarity of conscience.

    As for the life of the Apostles’ Creed in the Second Great Awakening, I don’t know. Maybe one of our wise commenters will enlighten us. :)

  3. This is great. It follows many of my own thoughts on the subjects touched upon. (But I suppose that isn’t too surprising to those who have read my comments on earlier posts).

    As you’ve pointed out, Nephi and Lehi don’t identify the Messiah as the Son until after Nephi’s vision of the incarnation (or, the condescension of God, to use the Book of Mormon’s phrase). As I’ve said before, Nephi’s vision of the incarnation is arguably the theological turning point of the Book of Mormon, because it teaches emphatically that this Messiah is “the Son of the Eternal Father” (or, the Eternal Father, in the earliest edition). And it is remarkable, I think, that the angel both identifies Jesus as the Son, and also describes Jesus’ incarnation as “the condescension of God,” because the only way this is not a contradiction is if Jesus is in fact God (unless you think the condescension of God only means the Father inseminating Mary, but I don’t think that reading is very faithful to Nephi’s text, because the angel says: “behold the condescension of God!” not only describing the miraculous conception, but also describing Jesus’ ministry.) So Nephi’s vision teaches him, among other things, that Jesus is not only a son of God, but is the Son the Eternal Father, and is in fact God. So years later, when he is writing Second Nephi, Nephi is theologically equipped to write about the Father and Son and Holy Ghost as one God, and that becomes one of the central doctrines that it affirmed over and over again throughout the Book of Mormon. Abinadi teaches it, and is killed precisely for teaching that “God himself” would come down as the Messiah. Alma and Amulke teach it forcefully, using the exact same phrase: “God himself” atones for the sins of mankind. And when Jesus comes he teaches over and over that he is one with his Father and the Holy Ghost, and that they are one God.

    And, this might go beyond your post, but I think your approach to these doctrines—showing that the Book of Mormon teaches an understanding of the trinity that largely sidesteps the specific trinitarian doctrines that are the source of the disagreement between Mormons and other christians, and that is arguable compatible with both—begins to point the way to how the Book of Mormon can fulfill one of its purposes, which is to lay down contentions and establish peace concerning the points of the doctrine of Christ, and this is a point made both in the Book of Mormon itself (2 Nephi 3:12; 3 Nephi 11:28) and also in the revelations given to Joseph Smith while it was being translated (D&C 10:63).

  4. I also would like to know the answer to Ronan’s question about the apostles’ creed. I have read that Methodists use a form of the apostles’ creed in the form of questions asked to a baptismal candidate just before he is baptized, and I wonder if it is possible that Joseph Smith would have been exposed to it through the Methodist church, given his early association with the Methodists. But I don’t know if Methodists at that time, in upstate New York used the same baptismal ceremony, or how prominently the apostles’ creed would have figured in their worship.

    I would also point out, in addition to section 20, we also have the July 1838 statement in the Elder’s Journal, attributed to Joseph Smith, that “[t]he fundamental principles of our religion is the testimony of the apostles and prophets concerning Jesus Christ, ‘that he died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended up into heaven;’ and all other things are only appendages to these, which pertain to our religion.”

    It isn’t clear what Joseph is quoting here between the quotation marks, but it could arguably be a paraphrase of a portion of the apostles’ creed, or the old roman creed.

  5. Excellent and valuable. Jason, I think this post established some clear room for variability on this belief.

  6. Thank you for this, especially the D&C 20 connection. That, together with Mosiah 15 and several other exclusively Mormon trinitarian texts in the Book of Mormon, should allow us to simply accept the Godhead as the One God which it is. We need no longer try to explain Mosiah 15 away with circuitous explanations about divine investiture of authority or other such mechanisms to try to make sure that Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of the Father, is not truly One with the Father, and God from eternity to eternity.

  7. (We also need no longer feel obligated to berate those among us who worship Jesus Christ as God, together in the Godhead with God the Father. Such censure, as has sometimes surfaced in the past in our Mormon discourse, is incompatible with the posture taken in The Book of Mormon toward Jesus Christ and such scriptures as the passage from D&C 20 highlighted here. If we are going to deviate from an interpretation in canonized scripture, it needs to be based on a clear statement that new revelation — and not merely personal conjecture/interpretation/speculation, though certainly well meaning — is the justification for an interpretation that changes the plain meaning of canonized scriptural text. That is the only way to maintain a conservative faith and understanding of doctrine.)

  8. Jason K. says:

    JKC: thanks, as always, for the thoughtful comments. The last paragraph of your first comment perfectly captures the irenic mission of the Mormon Lectionary Project. As john f. points out in his comments, the combativeness hasn’t always been exclusively directed towards Mormons, but we’ve engaged in our own polemics, notwithstanding the call of our own scriptures to do and be better than that.

  9. Jason: Yes, and what excites me about it is that texts like 2 Ne. 3 and D&C 10 situate that irenic mission squarely among the Lord’s purpose for revealing the Book of Mormon in these days.

    The ironic thing is that despite our (ignorantly well-intentioned) discomfort with anything that sounds like “the trinity,” the Book of Mormon arguably affirms the doctrine of the trinity (properly understood) more frequently and more emphatically than even the New Testament does! Setting aside all the identity politics, it would be a wonder that the Christian world at large doesn’t embrace the Book of Mormon as a second witness of its own doctrines.

  10. King Follett Discourse, anyone?

  11. Jason K. says:

    Care to elaborate?

  12. I don’t see how the doctrine of the Trinity is divisive. It was Arianism that was divisive and which brought the Council together to figure out a way to express the orthodox position which became the Trinity. And this happened before any major split within the Church. This was before the East/West Schism, and this was long before the Protestant Reformation. And today, despite the differences between Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism, they all agree on the Trinity.

    It seems divisive from a Mormon point of view because Mormonism got started with a very bold and divisive declaration, “All their creeds are an abomination.”

    Christianity had a lot of work to do in its early centuries. Mormonism started off by flippantly dismissing all this work in one fell swoop. But it never went on to begin hammering out its own theology. So, the doctrine is all across the board. In the Lectures on Faith, we’ve got a God with no body, and a two-person Godhead. Then, later, we’ve got an embodied God. You’ve even got the founding prophet who supposedly saw God literally face to face saying that God wasn’t God from everlasting to everlasting. And then you can find Brigham Young saying that Adam is God, and leaders calling God a polygamist.

    This is a Restoration?! This bears the marks of apostasy far more than anything we seem to see in the 1st and 2nd centuries.

  13. Jason K. says:

    I think you’re glossing over a) the extent to which there was no singular church pre-Nicaea and b) the frequency of anti-Trinitarian resurgence–especially that running from 17th-century Socinianism through Newton and other rationalist skeptics in the 18th century into 19th-century New England Unitarianism.

    But in any case, to the larger question of apostasy, again, a major premise of the Mormon Lectionary Project is that there’s a whole lot of good in historical Christianity that Mormons would do well to embrace, eminent among which is the hard theological sorting of the patristic era. To use Richard Baxter’s phrase, later appropriated by C. S. Lewis, we are after mere catholic Christianity.

  14. You know, this is cool, I love the MLP, but it just leaves me a little cold, because it seems to entirely shut the door on Heavenly Mother. If God is Heavenly Father and Jesus and the Holy Ghost, then is God also Heavenly Mother? Or no? And if yes, why was the condescension of God male-embodied? And either way, when our God has both parts and passions, where does that leave me?

    If these worries are simply beyond the scope, I apologise.

  15. Jason K. says:

    No, oleablossom, that’s an entirely legitimate concern. The closest we’ve gotten is my “Mother Jesus” post (, but I ought to have revised this post further in light of Sarah Coakley’s excellent book on the Trinity (which I review here: There’s room in the Trinity for the feminine divine, and you’re right that I completely leave that out here. I shouldn’t have.

    I am glad for your comment. Thank you.

  16. “Christianity had a lot of work to do in its early centuries. Mormonism started off by flippantly dismissing all this work in one fell swoop. But it never went on to begin hammering out its own theology. So, the doctrine is all across the board. In the Lectures on Faith, we’ve got a God with no body, and a two-person Godhead. Then, later, we’ve got an embodied God. You’ve even got the founding prophet who supposedly saw God literally face to face saying that God wasn’t God from everlasting to everlasting. And then you can find Brigham Young saying that Adam is God, and leaders calling God a polygamist.”

    You know, I think all the chaos of early Mormonism’s doctrines on the nature of God actually ends up being a strength for the church rather than a weakness. Or rather, a weakness born of ignorance that, only through God’s grace, was made into a strength. Let me explain:

    I am increasingly convinced, as I learn about church history (meaning the history of the christian church) that perhaps the major precipitating cause of the apostasy was not so much people believing incorrect things about God, but people persecuting heretics for believing incorrect things about God. I think that’s what section 64, verse 8 is talking about. I think we often read that verse as perhaps describing the argument between James and John and others about who would sit on Jesus’ right hand when he came into his kingdom. But another possible reading, which I find more convincing, is to read it as a description of the apostasy in the church after the council of Nicea and into the medieval period, in context of section 121’s description of how priesthood authority is lost. Section 64 says that the “disciples sought occasion against one another,” or in other words, church members and leaders persecuted one another for heresy, using their authority as leaders, rather than seeking to reclaim the heretic by persuasion and unfeigned love, and “for this evil they were afflicted and sorely chastened,” and ultimately, lost the authority of the priesthood (compare section 121). So when we have Jesus telling Joseph Smith that the creeds are an abomination, I believe that it was not so much the fact that the creeds got things wrong that was the problem, but that they were used as a weapon to persecute heretics, against the Lord’s instruction to his apostles to let the wheat and the tares grow together until the harvest. In fact, Joseph Smith himself, who reported Jesus telling him from his own mouth that the creeds of the methodists and the presbyterians were an abomination is also reported to have said that all the creeds have some truth in them.

    Mormonism has followed a similar pattern as the early church, in that there has been, in it’s first nearly two centuries, a large diversity of thought and belief, and a winnowing down of those ideas to something resembling orthodoxy. (I agree with Jason that John’s comment glosses over that diversity). But Mormonism has been able to largely (though not entirely) avoid falling into the same trap of setting up creeds and wielding them as weapons to persecute heretics. Yes, we excommunicate heretics in the modern church, but for the most part, we don’t persecute them the way they were persecuted in the early church and in the medieval church. Part of this is due to the fact that we now live in a secular society where such persecution is mostly illegal. But I believe that a major reason is the fact that in Mormonism, the heretics were not a lowly bishop, like Arius, but the president of the Church himself, and other high-ranking leaders, who happened to be the link in the line of priesthood authority that the later leaders depended on. So it was not so easy for later leaders who found their ideas heretical to declare them anethema. So our version of the council of Nicea was to sort of throw up our hands and assign James Talmage to come up with some statement of doctrine to settle the issue, so we get the First Presidency Statement on the Father and the Son, which answers a few questions, but leaves things pretty vague and really only just provides a set of possible tools for understanding certain types of “trinitiarian” scriptures to find a way to reconcile them with a belief in the three separate persons of the trinity, and let Brigham Young’s heresies die a slow death of de-emphasis, rather than a violent death by anathema. So we have sort of been forced by circumstances to leave the tares alone more than they did in the early church (not that we haven’t excommunicated heretics, at all, of course).

    And through a combination of all these factors, as if by chance, “if chance you call it,” as Tom Bombadil would say, Mormonism’s ignorance of the subleties of creedal theology results in a statement of doctrine that is more vague and therefore more frustrating, but also more inclusive and more flexible, and with more possibilities. Now, we haven’t always lived up to that aspiration, but as Jason suggests in the post above, the restored gospel provides the potential for a more inspired approach to such questions. I think taking seriously the instruction in the Doctrine and Covenants to “say nothing but repentance,” could help us with that. As well as the Lord’s statement to the Nephites that “my doctrine” is nothing more than the gospel of repentance and baptism, the promise of the Holy Ghost, and the unity of the Godhead (3 Ne. 11:31-41). (Again, it is the Book of Mormon that provides a definitive statement of doctrine that sidesteps controversy that all believers can be united in affirming! We really need to take this book seriously!) Everything else is speculative theology.

    As for the diversity of thought in early Mormonism, there is, no doubt a lot of competing stuff out there, from King Follet, to Adam-God, to Orson Pratt’s ideas, but I think it is, or should be, clear that the Book of Mormon trumps any such speculation, unless that speculation has been presented to the church as the word of God and the Holy Ghost has witnessed to the body of the church that it is true. Like Joseph F. Smith’s revelation on the salvation of the dead, for example. King Follet and Adam-God have some interesting things to say, but I don’t think either meets that standard.

  17. How do you reconcile the fact that the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, in many verses, did not include descriptions of Christ as being the son, but referred to him as the Eternal Father or God? For example, 1 Ne 11:21, which you referenced originally said “behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Eternal Father” and not “behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father”. 1 Ne 11:18 originally said “Behold, the virgin which thou seest, is the mother of God” and was later changed to “Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God”. 1 Ne 11:26 originally said “the Everlasting God, was judged of the world;” and was later changed to “the Son of the everlasting God, was judged of the world;” 1Ne 13:40 originally said “that the Lamb of God is the Eternal Father and the Savior” and was later changed to “that the Lamb of God is the Son of the Eternal Father, and the Savior”. (!/paperSummary/book-of-mormon-1830&p=31 — there aren’t verse numbers, but 11:18 is in the first paragraph)

    It seems to me, given Abinadi’s speech that fits more closely with the doctrine of the trinity, the original wording in 1 Nephi also reflective of the trinity, and Lectures on Faith #5, that the early church (or at least Smith) held a view more closely representing the trinity than the church’s current view of the godhead. Thoughts?

  18. Jason K. says:

    Owen: seems right to me.

  19. Owen: I agree with Jason, but I’m going to push back a little on your comment. The question you are asking depends what you mean when you say “the doctrine of the trinity.”

    The doctrine of the trinity is that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God, but three distinct persons, sharing a single divine essence or substance. There is very little difference between that doctrine and the doctrine of the Godhead currently embraced by the church. The only point of real difference is the whole “one divine substance” idea, and even that isn’t necessarily off the table, for the reasons discussed by Ronan in his past posts.

    But many members of the church, when they say “the doctrine of the trinity,” have in mind something like modalism, which is a belief that there is only one divine person that manifests himself in three forms. We rightly reject that as inconsistent with our doctrine of the Godhead, but we are largely ignorant that the doctrine of the trinity also rejects such an idea as heresy.

    I agree that Abinadi’s teachings on the Father and the Son are largely consistent with the orthodox doctrine of the trinity. But I also don’t think that means that those teachings are inconsistent with the church’s Godhead doctrine, largely because I really don’t see that big of a difference between the church’s Godhead doctrine and the doctrine of the trinity. I think Abinadi’s words could also be explained with modalism, if one was so inclined, but I don’t think that’s really what Abinadi is saying.

    So, if by “the doctrine of the trinity” you mean modalism, I would disagree with you that Abinadi’s speech is more consistent with that doctrine that with the Church’s Godhead doctrine. If by “the doctrine of the trinity” you mean the doctrine established by the council of Nicea, I would agree with you that Abinadi’s speech is consistent with that doctrine, but I would disagree that it is more consistent with that doctrine than with the church’s current Godhead doctrine because I don’t think Abinadi takes a clear enough position in that speech on the idea of one divine substance, which is the only (arguable) difference between the church’s Godhead doctrine and the doctrine of the trinity.

    I don’t think the verse changes in 1 Nephi are really all that significant in the grand scheme of things because there are plenty of other references to Christ as the Father in the Book of Mormon and elsewhere. Abinadi’s speech is left intact. If not, James E. Talmage would have never had to come up with “divine investiture of authority” as a way to reconcile such passages. Lectures on Faith is interesting. It seems on the surface to teach a sort of two person Godhead with the Holy Ghost as the shared mind between the Father and the Son. But I don’t think it is entirely irreconcilable with the church’s current doctrine if we are willing to open our minds to the possibility that the unity between the Father and the Son is perfect and complete in more ways than we currently imagine.

    As for whether Joseph Smith and early church members held a different view of the Godhead, I think they were probably all over the map. Given that lay members of churches that espouse the doctrine of the trinity often don’t understand it and think it means something like modalism, it would not surprise me that Joseph Smith, with a background in folk religion and a smattering of methodist and presbyterian experiences, began with a belief in some kind of unitarian or modalistic God and then progressed to a triune understanding of God that is closer to what we have today. Certainly by the turn of the century they were all over the map, thanks largely to Brigham Young’s Adam-God teachings.

  20. Jason K. says:

    It’s worth adding, too, that historical Christianity has sometimes struggled to include the Holy Ghost in the Trinity. Sarah Coakley’s book (I link to my review above) has a fine discussion of the iconographic tradition, which sometimes involves a nice game of “hunt the pigeon.”

    A further complication, to return to oleablossom’s apt pushback, is that the gendered iconographic depictions of the Trinity (white guys with beards) were always technically suspect from a doctrinal point of view, since gender as a category isn’t supposed to apply to God. It’s that perspective that enables Julian of Norwich to talk about Jesus as the perfect mother while still using the male pronoun “he.” (This is to say nothing of all the wonderful feminized portrayals of Jesus in medieval art.) For Mormons, though, the idea of a gendered God seems to carry more doctrinal weight, which makes the feminine divine a more potentially transgressive idea, even if there are hints of doctrinal support for it here and there. The MLP may not a good example of the work that needs to be done in this area, but I think it’s urgent.

  21. Loving this discussion.

  22. oleablossom, you might also be interested in reading some of Ronan’s thoughts probing this general issue:

    “Mormons would contend that Christ’s human maleness was not contingent. However, it was not his maleness that healed us but rather his divinity coupled with his humanity.”

  23. “It’s worth adding, too, that historical Christianity has sometimes struggled to include the Holy Ghost in the Trinity.”

    That’s a great point. We should cut President Rigdon a little slack for the Lectures on Faith.

  24. Adding to Jason’s point about Julian’s casting Jesus as a mother, and feminized portrayals of Jesus in medieval art, I would also point out that the very idea of being “born of God” (another doctrine heavily emphasized in the Book of Mormon) makes God a mother. A father can sire children, but only a mother can give birth to them. For example, Jesus was “begotten” by the Father, but he was “born of” a woman.

  25. JKC – yes, separating modalism from the doctrine of the trinity defined in Nicea is something I long misunderstood and which I still have to consciously disabuse myself. I wasn’t meaning to imply modalism, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was a misunderstanding in the early days of the church. The church today uses the 1838 account of the first vision to support the three distinct beings idea, but the first vision wasn’t a commonly known event until later in the Nauvoo period, so they wouldn’t have been able to use that to clarify things. I do find the modifications to the Book of Mormon I listed above to be interesting as they put more emphasis on the “son”-ness of Jesus. If only someone involved in that could have explained why the changes were made, but since they didn’t all we can do is speculate.

    By the way, I need a dictionary to follow some of the discussion here. :)

  26. “separating modalism from the doctrine of the trinity defined in Nicea is something I long misunderstood and which I still have to consciously disabuse myself”

    You’re not the only one!

    The First Vision is interesting because even though we call it a vision, we act like it was a visitation. A lot of the difficulty in reconciling the different accounts goes away if we treat it as a vision–a spiritual experience that may have been symbolic of certain truths rather than a concrete view of what God actually looks like in the flesh (and bone, of course;)), and that Joseph may have struggled to fully understand for the rest of his life. I mean, if Lehi told the story of his first vision multiple times, and sometimes said that he saw one descending from heaven followed by 12 others, and sometimes said that he saw two descending from heaven followed by 12 others, would we really care? We only care about different first vision accounts because we have attached doctrinal baggage to it that I’m not sure we een need to attach given that there are plenty of other sources for our Godhead doctrine. Using Joseph Smith’s first vision as a source of doctrine is rhetorically appealing, I guess, but I’m not sure it is necessary. Joseph saw either one or two beings, but I don’t think we necessarily need to use that fact to prove a doctrinal point about the Godhead. I mean, we don’t use the apostle John’s vision of Jesus in the apocalypse to “prove” that Jesus shoots swords out of his mouth.

    My speculation on the changes on the Book of Mormon is that Joseph revised those passages to avoid doctrinal confusion, just as he did with the bible (like changing the verse that says that it repented God that he had created the erath to saying that it repented Noah, to avoid conflict with the verse that says God is not a man that he should repent). Why he changed the verses in Nephi’s vision, but left others intact, like not only Abinadi, but also Ether 3:14, who can say?

  27. Jason K. says:

    Re: Jesus giving birth, dig this image from a 1225 French Bible Moralisée (Cod. Vindobonensis 2554, in the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, if anyone cares). It’s the second image down in the right column. It shows Jesus giving birth to the church, portrayed as a woman with a crown.

  28. Awesome, Jason. From the wound in his side, no less. The wound from which, according to John, blood and water gushed out. Sure sounds like a birth to me.

  29. Jason K. says:

    And then there are things like this depiction of the side wound from a 14th-century Book of Hours.

  30. Jason K. says:

    (That last link may need a NSFW warning… Or if not, some ‘splainin’ may prove necessary.)

  31. john f.: I find that concept a lot more compelling, especially because it invites me into the atonement (where I can find peace and healing) rather than separating me from it. Thank you for sharing it.

    JKC: there was that excellent post about the first vision as a dream, wow, over a year ago now. I like the idea of being somewhat more free to discuss varying interpretations of the first vision, without assuming visitation in order to give proofs for doctrine

    Jason K.: thank you for your kind response. I did very much enjoy the Mother Jesus post (and oh man, those images – they’re very evocative of the bodily pain that led to Christ offering us life). I’m looking forward to the book review you linked.

    And, as JKC and Ronan have also mentioned, it’s difficult to differentiate homoousios and modalism from other conceptual models of the Trinity (which in any case implies the unity of three beings), especially with a lay understanding of theology and scripture, but I appreciate the work done here at BCC (and especially the MLP). I just have to remind myself that the lack of answers is a blessing, and we don’t need to be afraid to ask the questions over and over, and try out different interpretations.

  32. “I like the idea of being somewhat more free to discuss varying interpretations of the first vision.”

    Well, if Joseph himself struggled his whole life to fully understand what happened to him that day in the woods, then so can we, right?

    (Personally, I think the idea of him struggling to understand and put into words what happened and what he actually did see to be more convincing than the idea that he deliberately deceived people with the different accounts, or that he knew all along what had happened, but was hesitant to reveal it all until 1838.)

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