Abinadi on the Godhead and the Atonement: A Response to Book of Mormon Central (Part I)

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.

Background

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”?

Trinityfull

No, not that 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.[1] 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, [2] 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.[3] 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.


 

[1] 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.”

[2] Though, as John and Ronan have suggested in the past, under close examination those differences are arguably smaller than we might initially think.

[3] 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.”

Comments

  1. Terry H says:

    Are you familiar with Crispin Fletcher-Louis’ work? Late last year he published the first of four volumes called Jesus Monotheism. Its all about the divinity of Jesus and distinguishing it from God in early Christian belief. There’s a 150 page summary of the arguments of all four volumes available online. Unfortunately, by the time I can sort out whether or not this might apply to your post, too much time will pass. Suffice it to say that I’m going to revisit this topic (since he’s not the only one).

  2. J. Stapley says:

    I haven’t read the BM Central piece, but I think you are right that Mormons confound the trinity with modalism.

  3. Terry: No, I am not. Sounds interesting.

    Stapley: We sure do. But at least we’re not the only ones!

  4. maustin66 says:

    Great post! I thank we often work ourselves into cognitive and theological pretzels by trying to explain Mormon theology as something that came into the world fully developed and not as something that (like all dynamic belief systems) evolved over time. The Book of Mormon’s theology is much closer, in many ways, to traditional Protestantism than post-Nauvoo Mormonism was and remains, though we have walked back a lot of our 19th century distinctiveness to become more like Protestants in the 21st century. Unfortunately, the Protestants we seem to want to emulate are the Dinosaurs-on-the-Ark fundamentalists. And adopting even a soft version of their view of the inerrancy of scripture makes it hard to see our own scriptures as the products of an evolution. (Not to mention their view of evolution).

  5. Great post! I thank we often work ourselves into cognitive and theological pretzels by trying to explain Mormon theology as something that came into the world fully developed and not as something that (like all dynamic belief systems) evolved over time. The Book of Mormon’s theology is much closer, in many ways, to traditional Protestantism than post-Nauvoo Mormonism was and remains, though we have walked back a lot of our 19th century distinctiveness to become more like Protestants in the 21st century. Unfortunately, the Protestants we seem to want to emulate are the Dinosaurs-on-the-Ark fundamentalists. And adopting even a soft version of their view of the inerrancy of scripture makes it hard to see our own scriptures as the products of an evolution. (Not to mention their view of evolution).

  6. This comment raises a lot of issues that will come up in the next post, life what is book of Mormon theology, and the evolution of theology.

  7. Thanks for the post, JKC. Careful study reveals that Mormon theology of the Godhood has evolved, with the first accounts of the First Vision appearing more trinitarian and some verses in the Book of Mormon having trinitarian implications. A careful study of the first unedited reading of the first edition of the Book of Mormon has further trinitarian verses.

    As we listen carefully to recent statements of the First Presidency attempting to paint ourselves with a broader *Christian* brush, more emphasis on grace, and a complete reversal by the First Presidency, saying that now members *can* have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the Church seems to be moving a bit more towards its early theological roots. President Uchtdorf seems to have a more common sense, revelatory theological view that is resonating with many members. It will be interesting to see what insights future apostles will bring to the table as their share their own insights and interpretations of Scripture.

  8. Chris, some of that stuff will be in the next post. And there’s no doubt that our godhead doctrine has developed over time. But having said that, I think the first vision and book of Mormon changes don’t really speak to the issues that distinguish our godhead doctrine from the Trinity. They arguably go more to the differences between our godhead doctrine and modalism. Arguments that Mormon doctrine has become less “Trinitarian” often falls victim to the same trap of confusing heretical modalism for Trinitarianism.

    In any case, if those changes were really supposed to take out the idea that Jesus is God, or the idea that the Godhead is one God, they didn’t do a very good job, because they left lots of verses intact that do emphasize Jesus’s godhood and the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

    What I mean is, while there’s no question LDS godhead doctrine has evolved, I don’t think the changes necessarily support the somewhat simplistic conclusion that there was a wholesale shift from modalism to something else. I think it’s more complicated than that.

  9. JKC, I agree that it is more complicated that than. A couple of paragraphs cannot begin to address the complexity of the issue. I look forward to you next post.

  10. Jason K. says:

    As another BCC Trinitarian, I’m looking forward to the rest of this series.

    Problem is, if you turn out to be another BCC Trinitarian, then there will be four of us, and that just won’t do.

  11. Ha!

  12. jone2093 says:

    I think we can easily call ourselves Social Trinitarians without needing to change any doctrine.

  13. There’s a plausible argument for that position.

  14. Hmm…I must be missing something…

    As I read the BoMC piece, in conjuntion with the BoM itself (particularly Mosiah 15:1-5), it reads to me as the opposite of what you posit their clarification is meant to do.

    That is to say, I read you saying the purpose of the article was to distinguish the LDS doctrine of a (conciliar) trinitarian Godhead from a modalistic trinitarian Godhead where one person fulfills 3 roles – but the article errs in it’s understanding of orthodox Trinitarianism. When I read it, it seems is that the article purposefully, knowingly rejects any notion of ontological trinitarianism – but in doing so, it is the one who is (unknowingly?) espousing a type of ontological modalism. In this case, it is a Christological binitarian modalism – the personage of the Incarnate Son is the fulfillment of the 2nd of 2 roles by the one God the Father of this creation.

    Firstly, the BoMC piece:

    The article makes statements such as, “…this passage is about and fluidity of Christ’s titles and roles”, “In other words…a single deity [takes] on a number of interchanging titles and attributes, but remain a single, unique deity”, “Wright and Gardner argued that…Christ is both the Father and the Son could also be read as an example of multiple manifestations of a single deity”, & “Christ fulfills for them His various roles under the direction of his Father.”

    It further refers to the 1916 doctrinal treatise saying,”that Christ is the “father” in that He is the creator of the earth, the “father” of those who accept his gospel, and has the authority of God the Father by divine investiture.”

    I don’t see that they view the ontological trinitarianism as modalsim in this case. It seems they are purposefully rejecting it by utilizing modalist theology for the GodMan, Jesus Christ. Each statement shoes how one personage can fulfill different roles. Which can be argued is exactly what the Abinadi does in the passage in question.

    Secondly, the BoM (particularly Mosiah 15:1-5):

    A myriad of BoM scriptures refer to Jesus as Father and Son. The one in question serves well the point.

    “…God himself shall come down among the children of men, and shall redeem his people. And because he dwelleth in flesh he shall be called the Son of God, and having subjected the flesh to the will of the Father, being the Father and the Son— The Father, because he was conceived by the power of God; and the Son, because of the flesh; thus becoming the Father and Son— And they are one God, yea, the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth. And thus the flesh becoming subject to the Spirit, or the Son to the Father, being one God…” (Mosiah 15:1b-5a)

    What I hear Abinadi saying is in this particular passage is that the Son truly is the one God because Spirit (not to be confused with the Holy Ghost) has been united to obedient flesh; that a unitarian Divine Personage has united with a unitarian flesh personage Jesus. Therein is the unitarian GodMan who fulfilled two roles: the Father in creation and Son in subjection to the Father. Thus, ontological binitarian modalism. (While perhaps not identical, this is curiously close to monophysitism if I understand Abinadi correctly.)

    God the Father of this creation became the Son in the Incarnation and thus is able to be called one God (personage) and the one Eternal Father and Son rightly because he really is one God/Personage fulfilling 2 rolls. Again, seems to be ontological modalism in regards to Christology (though not the Godhead proper).

    In conclusion, what I read from the BoMC piece and the BoM God/Jesus fulfills rolls, Creator and Son (and Redeemer according to the 1916 Declaration), but remains one distinct separate personage.

    So, while this may have no bearing on your own view and explanation of what Abinadi, or Moroni, or Nephi, or King Benjamin, etc. may mean at different points throughout the BoM, I’d like some insight into what you saw in the BoMC article that caused your to hear they were critiquing ontological modalism.

    Thanks for your time.

  15. Clark Goble says:

    Maustin66 “The Book of Mormon’s theology is much closer, in many ways, to traditional Protestantism than post-Nauvoo Mormonism was”

    I’m not sure that’s accurate. Certainly the way the text goes as a translation reflects the context of Joseph Smith. By and large that was a certain type of protestantism mixed with certain more esoteric folk traditions and superstitions. While we can certainly read it as commenting on certain protestant concerns of the era (infant baptism, cheap grace, paid priesthood, etc.) the theology often is far more complex I think. This is especially true of the various exegesis of Isaiah that often has deep theological implications.

    One problem is of course that if we set out to simply read through the lens of early 19th century protestantism we’ll find lots of parallels. However there’s a danger that we create the parallels often by ignoring context and other sections in the text. The modalism vs. trinity debate over Mosiah 15 is to my mind a classic example of this. It works only by divorcing a lot of context (or arguing for a significant theological change in the weeks between the translation of Mosiah 15 and 3 Nephi)

    I’m not saying such matters can simply be discounted. But if apologists sometimes err by neglecting other contexts and superficial readings so to do others.

    Jason “…as an other BCC trinitarian…”

    I think one problem is over what exactly we mean by trinitarianism. Do we just mean what’s demanded by the Athenasian Creed? If so it’s quite possible for Mormons to embrace it. However if we mean the broader theology largely following Augustine then I think it’s much harder for Mormons to embrace it. Particularly with regards to the persons. There’s a reason most trinitarians are offended by Mormon conceptions of an essentially embodied God and by denying the ontological gap entailed by creation ex nihilo. Separating those two doctrines from the doctrine of the trinity seems to be a bit of sophistry (IMO). I think we have to distinguish the creeds from the theology.

    Of course Mormon apologists starting in the 90’s started raising social trinitarianism. But there’s a pretty robust debate about whether social trinitarianism really is trinitarianism. Further most who embrace social trinitarianism among creedal Christianity still tend to reject the various key Mormon doctrines. So again I just don’t think social trinitarianism offers as much of a way out even if it did manage to stay orthodox despite moving away from Augustine’s revised type of platonism.

  16. Interesting take, Rock. I’ll have to spend some more time thinking about it, but my initial thoughts are these:

    (1) It’s my experience that most LDS people, when they say “Trinity” really have modalism in mind. And when you ask them what they object to about the Trinity, the answer is that they can’t accept that the three persons of the Godhead are the same person, which, of course, is an indictment of modalism, not Trinitarianism. This article seemed to me to follow taht same pattern.Though your point about a distinction between christological modalism and modalism with respect to the godhead proper is a good one. The idea that Jesus actually is the other persons of the Godhead would be out of bounds for LDS orthodoxy. But the idea Jesus himself fills two or more roles without confusing the distinction between him and the Father or the Spirit would not be a problem, and I can see how that could be called a kind of Christological modalism. To be clear, when I use the term modalism here, I’m referring to modalism with respect to the Godhead, not Christological modalism.

    (2) I do agree that they are inadvertently suggesting a kind of modalism. Part III deals with the passages from the article that you honed in on that do seem to support a sort of modalism by drawing the mesoamerican parallel.

    (3) My reading of Abinadi is a bit different from yours, but I think that only illustrates the point you made earlier about the Book of Mormon as a whole, but as applied specifically to Abinadi’s teachings here: they are pretty vague on the specific ontological details of the godhead, because they focus on the roles that each member of the Godhead play, not on their ontology. As a result, many of the same passages are just as acceptable on their substance whether you are reading them within an LDS framework, a Trinitarian framework, or a modalistic framework.

    (4) I agree with your overall conclusion that, read together, Mosiah 15 and the 1916 statement, and the BoMC article support the idea that Jesus is a distinct personage that fulfills multiple roles. And I don’t even disagree with that statement, either. My point is just that, as the next post should clarify more, Abinadi is not just saying that Jesus has multiple roles, he is using two of those roles specifically and drawing a juxtaposition between them to make a point about the atonement and plays into his larger message, which is, above all, a call to repentance.

    Again, thanks for reading and commenting.

  17. Clark, I wouldn’t read too much into Jason’s comment. I took “BCC trinitarian” to mean “somebody who thinks and posts about the trinity” and is open to the idea that the distance between the Trinity and LDS doctrine may be smaller than is often assumed, not as a declaration of allegiance to the trinitarianism of the Athanasian creed.

    You’ve made your point before, I think, that you don’t think Trinitarianism can really be separated from ex nihilo creation and an unembodied God (other than Jesus, of course, who almost all Christians accept is embodied, at least, if they accept the resurrection). Maybe you’re right. And if so, fine, then what we’re discussing is trinitarianism, not Trinitarianism. But that’s not really the point in this series, and not a point that I’m really adamant about.

    (Maybe that means I’m not a “BCC trinitarian,” thus preserving the magic number.)

  18. Rock Blackwell says:

    “Abinadi is not just saying that Jesus has multiple roles, he is using two of those roles specifically and drawing a juxtaposition between them to make a point about the atonement and plays into his larger message, which is, above all, a call to repentance.”

    Absolutely.

    When I said of Mosiah 15, “the Son truly is the one God because Spirit…has been united to obedient flesh…Therein is the unitarian GodMan who fulfilled two roles: the Father in creation and Son in subjection to the Father” while I was talking about Christology, and I do think that was Abinadi’s understanding, that was merely in service to his overall point of the repentance. His utilization of Jesus Christ being Father and Son was that in him, God and Man are in perfect union, that “…flesh becom[es] subject to the Spirit” (Mosiah 15:5a). That is what Abinadi wants for the Nephites under King Noah.

    In fact, I think it probable that pretty much every time the speaker in each text refers to Jesus Christ being the Father and the Son, the undergirding idea of repentance is in mind. At least such seems to be the case throughout Mosiah, as well as in 3 Nephi, Mormon and Ether.

  19. “His utilization of Jesus Christ being Father and Son was that in him, God and Man are in perfect union, that “…flesh becom[es] subject to the Spirit” (Mosiah 15:5a). That is what Abinadi wants for the Nephites under King Noah.”

    Spot on, Rock. At least, that’s what I think, as you’ll see when I get the next post up.

  20. Clark Goble says:

    JKC, You’re right that I’m probably being too pedantic. And I’m actually with you that the creed for the Trinity is pretty open to Mormons. I’ve even done quite a few posts on that in way in the past. While some Mormons don’t fit the creed I think quite a few do, which is why I often find it an odd place for our Protestant critics to attack us. Where I’ve probably primarily changed in the past 10 years is in seeing theology more holistically – i.e. not able to easily separate out the parts.

    BTW – I’ve also found that most Mormons assume the Trinity means modalism. And as I’ve said in early Mormonism the Pratt brothers sure seem to be doing their darnedest to keep as much of the trinity as possible in Mormonism. Effectively Orson’s mature theology is the trinity with the spirit made synonymous with the ousia and equated with the 19th century notion of aether.

    I should add that reading Mosiah 15 in terms of Orson’s odd theology works quite well and has a lot of explanatory power – even if I think Orson wrong theologically. And if we go earlier we have Orson’s brother adopting a more neoplatonic conception where we are literally made out of God’s ousia. This gets atomized by Orson via Priestly’s science and ontology only after the revelation that spirit is matter. Again that also ties John 14 to Mosiah 15 again if the Spirit isn’t a third person but a substance that is the unity of Father and Son (and those made sons of Jesus). Which brings us back to the problem in modalistic accounts of Mosiah 15 that they really don’t account for the spirit well.

  21. I see your point, Clark. And the idea of theology, or rather theologies being holistic, rather than a buffet is an important reminder. Though I also think that theology is often a syncretic endeavor. Maybe the point is that we can use pieces from other theologies, but should be clear that what we’re doing is really creating something new, not just fitting into the old thing. In any case, theology is all analogy anyway, and all analogies have limits, so I don’t have much of a quarrel against theological syncretism, as long as we are clear that what we’re doing is analogy, not ontology, so to speak.

  22. Clark Goble says:

    Oh I don’t either. And lest I push holism too far I think others push it a tad opportunistically as well. Take the theology and apologetics of deification. Critics justly note that discussions of deification by the Church Fathers have a very different ontology in mind. Many are writing after the development of creation ex nihlo (although not all are). Critics make the good point that deification in traditional Christianity presupposes trinitiarianism. Yet in an other sense it seems fair to note the language and development of the theology of deification which Mormons largely share even if we differ in the ontological grounds. That is if you reject creation ex nihilo you end up with something very like Mormon deification. And this was of course a historic problem in Christian history as people who pushed platonic mysticism to efface creation ex nihilo with a more platonic notion of God end up in a place similar to Mormons. Of course Christianity’s solultion was often killing such mystics as heretics.

  23. That strikes me as reasonable.

  24. That all seems not unreasonable, Clark.