About two months ago, back when we were reading Abinadi for Sunday School, I read Book of Mormon Central’s piece on Mosiah 15. It seemed problematic to me for a couple of reasons. This series is my attempt to articulate those reasons and explain what I think Abinadi’s message is.
I originally conceived of this as a single post, but I wanted to discuss each point in more depth than a single post would allow, so I think it makes sense to break it up into a few parts.
Given our emphasis in the church on the separateness of the members of the godhead, combined with our desire to distinguish ourselves from traditional christian doctrine on the trinity (see, for example, Elder Holland’s 2007 conference talk and 2016 Ensign article), Abinadi’s teaching that the Father and the Son are united in Jesus Christ, and that they are “one God, yea, the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth” can be perplexing to the degree that it might seem to describe a Trinitarian or modalistic God, in tension with our doctrine of three distinct individuals that together in perfect unity constitute one Godhead.
Book of Mormon Central smooths out that tension by explaining that Jesus can be called “the Father” in a number of different ways, and by asserting that the point of Abinadi’s teaching is “fluidity of Christ’s titles and roles, not that He is ‘one God’ with the Father as in a Trinity.” It draws support for this from the 1916 First Presidency statement on the Father and the Son, and from a parallel between the multiple roles/titles of Christ and the “Mayan deity complex”–the idea that in Mayan religion, a single deity might have multiple identities.
Ultimately, I agree with Book of Mormon Central that Abinadi’s teachings, though they may be challenging, can be reconciled with our godhead doctrine. But I disagree that the fluidity of Jesus’ roles is the point of Abinadi’s teaching here–the point is how Jesus personifies the atonement by reconciling the two opposing natures of God and fallen Man within himself. But we’ll get to that later. First, I want to address a few points along the way that I see as problematic.
Is Jesus “One God with the Father as in a Trinity”?
First, the suggestion that Jesus is not “‘one God’ with the Father as in a Trinity.”
It is at odds with too many passages of restoration scripture, both in the Book of Mormon and elsewhere, to say that Jesus is not one God with the Father (and the Holy Spirit, for that matter). I understand that “as in a Trinity” likely is intended to qualify that statement, so that the likely implicit meaning is that Jesus is “‘one God’ with the Father,” but just not in precisely the same way as in the trinitarian creeds. But if you’re not reading carefully, this could also easily be (mis)understood as denying that they are in fact “one God.” LDS scripture forcefully proclaims–and not just here in Mosiah 15–that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are indeed “one God,” and does not put nearly the same emphasis on the distinctness of the members of the godhead that it puts on their unity. To me, statements of theology that may appear to contradict or de-emphasize that point are problematic. It’s not technically wrong, but I think it’s problematic to phrase it this way.
Also, when the piece says “as in a Trinity” doesn’t it really mean “as in modalistic understanding of the trinity”? The doctrine of the Trinity is often (like, really often) misunderstood as a form of modalism, so it’s an understandable mistake, but I still think it’s worth being accurate. Modalism, in a nutshell, is the idea that the Father, Son and Holy Ghost are not three distinct persons, but merely different manifestations or appearances of one single divine being. That appears to be what the Book of Mormon Central piece is trying to distinguish from Abinadi’s teachings here. But modalism, according to Trinitarian doctrine, is a heresy. Properly understood, the doctrine of the Trinity insists, just like our godhead doctrine does, that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are distinct persons, not one person appearing in three forms–that’s precisely why it rejects modalism (in the words of the Athanasian creed, “confounding the persons” of the trinity is a no-no for Trinitarian orthodoxy).
Don’t get me wrong, there are differences between the formal doctrine of the Trinity and our LDS godhead doctrine–especially when you get into the complicated details of whether the Father is embodied, and of the precise nature of divine nature or essence that Jesus shares with the Father,  but both the Trinity and the LDS godhead doctrine reject modalism. Abinadi’s teachings don’t touch on those other issues, and neither does the Book of Mormon Central piece. It seems like what Book of Mormon Central is really concerned with correcting is the notion that Abinadi taught that the Father and Son are just two identities assumed by the same divine being–and that is modalism, not Trinitarianism.
So maybe the Book of Mormon Central piece is just using “Trinity” in a colloquial sense, rather than a technical sense, referring to the formal doctrine of the Trinity. But if so, then I think it may be just as misleading to say that we don’t believe in the trinity, because I think the colloquial sense is broad enough that our belief in the godhead can properly be called a belief in the trinity. Elder Talmage, whose writings were instrumental in clarifying our current godhead doctrines, had no problem saying in Chapter 4 of Jesus the Christ, that we believe in “the Holy Trinity,” even while explaining the godhead in thoroughly Mormon terms. As John has explained, the historical reason that we use “godhead” rather than “trinity” to refer to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is that early translators of the English bible, beginning with Wycliffe, coined the english term “godhead,” rather than use the Latin term trinity. But they mean the same thing: as any LDS missionary that has served a mission speaking a Latin-based language knows, the LDS word for “godhead” in such languages is “trinity.” Similarly, the LDS Newsroom recognizes that even in English, apart from the technical sense, “godhead” and “trinity” mean the same thing: “God the Father, His Son, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost constitute the Godhead or Trinity for Mormons” and “Mormons most commonly use the term ‘Godhead’ to refer to the Trinity.”
So if we are using “Trinity” in its technical sense, it is wrong to conflate it with modalism. But if we are using it in its colloquial sense, I think it perfectly acceptable to say that we worship the trinity. And saying that we don’t believe in the trinity in its colloquial sense could be misunderstood as saying that we don’t believe in the Godhead. In either case, I think it is problematic to say that we don’t believe that Jesus and the Father are “‘one God” as in a Trinity”–at least without further clarifying what we mean when we say “as in a Trinity.”
I know the Trinity can be confusing, and mistaking it for modalism is an understandable mistake that lots of people make, so I don’t mean to come down too harshly on this point, but if we’re going to explain why we don’t accept certain widely accepted traditional doctrines, the least we can do is to make sure that we precisely understand those doctrines from the educated perspective of those who accept them before we offer our reasons for respectfully disagreeing. We expect others respect us enough to understand our beliefs before critiquing them, and justifiably complain when they don’t. We can do it for them, too.
 Sure, you can find scriptures that demonstrate circumstantially the distinctness of the Father and the Son (for example, the first vision, Stephen’s vision, the Father’s voice at Jesus’ baptism, Jesus praying to the Father, Jesus asking the Father to make the disciples one as he and the Father are one, etc.), and I’m not disputing that they are distinct. But I’m not aware of any canonized scriptures that affirmatively proclaim the separateness of the Father and the Son as an essential principle of the Gospel. By contrast, there are several scriptural passages that forcefully and explicitly proclaim that the members of the godhead are “one God.”
 See James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ (2006 ed.) at 32: “The scriptures specify three personages in the Godhead; (1) God the Eternal Father, (2) His Son Jesus Christ, and (3) the Holy Ghost. These constitute the Holy Trinity, comprizing three physically separate and distinct individuals, who together constitute the presiding council of the heavens.”