This is the second part of my response to Book of Mormon Central’s Mosiah 15 piece. In the first part, I addressed what I thought was some loose use of the term “Trinity.” In this one, I’ll take a look at how the piece uses the 1916 First Presidency Statement on the Father and the Son.
To support and emphasize the point about Jesus having multiple roles/titles, the Book of Mormon Central piece refers to the 1916 First Presidency statement on the Father and the Son. I don’t wholly disagree with this, and I think Abinadi’s teachings are consistent with the 1916 statement, but I think there’s bit more going on in Abinadi’s teachings than the doctrine set forth in the 1916 statement, and for that reason I’m not sure that the 1916 statement really tells us what Abinadi is saying.
Background on the 1916 Statement
But first, some background on the 1916 statement: There was a lot more doctrinal variation on the godhead in the early restored church than there is now. The Lectures on Faith refer to the Holy Ghost as the shared mind of the Father and the Son, seemingly teaching a form of binitarianism. Early church members, including Joseph Smith, sometimes used the titles/names Jehovah and Eloheim interchangeably, referring to God the Father, in contrast to later teachings that solidified Jehovah’s identity and the pre-mortal Christ. And the Adam-God teachings of Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball, of course, opened a whole new can of worms on the godhead. With all these ideas floating around, by the end of the 19th century there was a good amount of confusion and speculation within the church about the godhead. President Woodruff, in conference in April 1895, responded by advocating a return to basics with respect to the doctrine of the Godhead:
Cease troubling yourselves about who God is; who Adam is, who Christ is, who Jehovah is. For heaven’s sake, let these things alone. Why trouble yourselves about these things? . . . God is God. Christ is Christ. The Holy Ghost is the Holy Ghost. That should be enough for you and me to know. If we want to know any more, wait until we get where God is in person. I say this because we are troubled every little while with inquiries from Elders anxious to know who God is, who Christ is, and who Adam is. I say to the Elders of Israel, stop this. Humble yourselves before the Lord; seek for light, for truth, and for a knowledge of the common things of the kingdom of God. The Lord is the same yesterday, to-day, and forever. He changes not. The Son of God is the same. He is the Savior of the World. He is our advocate with the Father. . . . God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, are the same yesterday, to-day, and forever. That should be sufficient for us to know. 
But President Woodruff ended up being a kind of voice in the wilderness. Despite his admonition to focus on the simple doctrines, “the common things of the kingdom,” and to “let these things alone,” 20 years later there was still a good deal of speculation and confusion in the church about the godhead. In conference in April 1916, President Charles W. Penrose spoke in detail and at length of the unnecessary “divisions” that arose in the church on the details of the godhead, including speaking explicitly against points of the Adam-God teachings, and again emphasizing a return to focus on basic doctrines. 
Apparently to resolve such lingering confusion, the First Presidency asked Elder James E. Talmage was to prepare a doctrinal statement clarifying the doctrine of the Father and the Son, which the First Presidency and the Twelve approved and then published in July 1916 as “The Father and the Son: A Doctrinal Exposition by the First Presidency and the Twelve.”
Primarily, the 1916 statement intended to clarify the distinction
between the Father and the Son. It did so by clearly identifying “Elohim” as God the Father, and “Jehovah” as the Son, Jesus Christ. It also was intended to reconcile that distinction with the many passages of scripture that do refer to Jesus as the Father. It did so by explaining that Jesus is “the Father” in three ways: as creator of the Earth, as the Father of those who are born again in him, and as the one whom the Father has invested with his divine authority.
The 1916 statement cleaned up the aftermath of the Adam-God stuff, and basically defined these points of doctrine of the Godhead for the modern church. It was successful because these points are basically unquestioned orthodoxy in the modern church. Because of the role it plays, I sometimes half-jokingly call it the Mormon Nicean creed.
How do Abinadi’s teachings relate to the 1916 Statement?
The Book of Mormon Central piece asserts that the Book of Mormon as a whole “affirms” the 1916 statement and concludes that Abinadi’s teachings therefore can’t be reconciled with the trinity, when viewed in the context of “the Book of Mormon’s overall theology.”
A couple of issues here. Again, I suspect that “trinity” here is standing in for modalism. And, well, I think Abinadi’s teachings could easily be reconciled with the Trinity or with modalism, were one inclined to do so. But I don’t mean to suggest that Abinadi was actually teaching a trinitarian or modalistic theology. My point is that Abinadi’s teachings are vague enough on the points that separate the LDS Godhead doctrine from the Trinity and separate both from modalism that those teachings could conceivably be accepted under a standard LDS godhead framework or under a trinitarian framework, or even under a modalistic framework. Why is Abinadi so vague on these points? Because that’s not his message (more on that later).
But perhaps the first question is this: should we even assume in the first place that Abinadi and all the other Book of Mormon prophets taught a single “overall theology” of the godhead? If you believe that Joseph Smith made up the Book of Mormon to teach his religious ideas, then you would probably expect to find in its pages a coherent uniform theology. But if you believe, as I do, that he did not make it up, and that there is a real historical basis behind the narrative, then I’m not so sure. The Book spans roughly 1,000 years. How much variation has been documented on the doctrine of the godhead in the first 1,000 years of Christianity? There’s a reason all those councils and creeds were needed. Maybe we dismiss that variation as having been the result of apostasy and a lack of revelation, but even in the restored church, how much variation have we seen on the precise details of the godhead over less than 200 years, from the Book of Mormon to the Lectures on Faith to the Adam-God doctrine, to the 1916 statement? I think we accept pretty readily that our understanding of the nature of the godhead has developed in this dispensation gradually, “line upon line.” Similarly, it’s not unlikely that Nephi, Alma, Abinadi, and Mormon may have had slightly different ideas of the precise details of the nature of the godhead. Should we really assume that the Book of Mormon prophets from Nephi to Mormon all operated under same theological understanding of the details of the godhead as to those points that divided the christian church during the ecumenical counsels, or indeed that they ever even considered those points? Probably not.
But on the other hand, maybe that assumption is not necessary to conclude that there is a single unified
Book of Mormon theology. Unlike the Bible, whose contents grew more organically, the Book of Mormon tells us that it was deliberately pieced together by a single person, and I think the text makes clear that Mormon was writing what is essentially a long sermon, not a history and not a theological survey of Nephite religion. He was not trying to capture and catalog all the theological variations of Nephite religion. Rather, he was writing with a very clear agenda: to persuade his readers to accept the divinity of Christ, and he only included those records that he believed furthered that purpose. I think it’s asking a lot to assume that all the Book of Mormon prophets over all the centuries of the Book had the exact same theology of the godhead, but I do think it’s plausible that Mormon redacted, unified, and correlated the Book of Mormon prophets’ teachings into a single unified theology. He wouldn’t be the first one to try to reconcile different past prophetic approaches to theological issues.
But if so, he did not completely eliminate theological differences between Book of Mormon prophets. There are certainly differences in emphasis, if not in substance, between Nephi, who teaches a much more trinitarian theology (not in the sense of the formal doctrine of the Trinity, but in the sense that he heavily emphasizes all three members of the godhead working together) emphasizing baptism in the name of the entire godhead, and the theology taught by Abinadi and Alma and his successors, which focuses more on faith in Christ alone and baptism “in the name of the Lord” without mentioning the other members of the godhead.
But maybe that’s all beside the point, because in any case, in my reading of the Book of Mormon, the theology of the Book of Mormon prophets, to whatever degree it is unified or varied, does not really speak to the precise issue of the details addressed by the ecumenical creeds. Rather, the only points on the doctrine of the godhead that get a lot of emphasis in the Book of Mormon are (1) the doctrine that they are one God, and (2) the roles of each member in carrying out the salvation of humanity.
For example, when Jesus describes “my gospel,” the only statement he makes about the godhead is about the roles of each member, not about the precise details of how they are one and how they are separate: the Father sends the Son to be lifted up on the cross, the Son draws all men to him, and the Holy Ghost will sanctify those that repent and come unto the Son. As to the details of the precise nature of the godhead, the overall theology of the Book of Mormon is pretty basic, almost to the point of being vague. Essentially, it says little more than President Woodruff’s statement: “God is God. Christ is Christ. The Holy Ghost is the Holy Ghost. That should be enough for you and me to know.”
And maybe that vagueness is Mormon’s doing. If Mormon did correlate and unify the Book of Mormon prophets’ teachings, the logical way to do that would be to redact those points where they may have diverged and leave a sort of Nephite version of “mere Christianity” that focused on basic, universally accepted doctrines and was silent on the controversial points. (If that’s what Mormon did, that would be consistent with the revelation canonized as section 10 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which says that the Lord’s purpose in bringing to light the Book of Mormon was “that there may not be so much contention” about “the points of my doctrine.”) But whatever the reason, the Book of Mormon’s overall theology, as I read it, is much more focused on basic simple doctrines and just does not take sides on the abstract theological issues that the councils and creeds wrestled with.
I think Abinadi’s teachings follow the same pattern. They are basic enough that they don’t really take sides on the precise theological issues that divide LDS godhead doctrine from trinitarianism. Put differently, Abinadi’s teachings are as consistent with trinitarian theology as they are with LDS Godhead doctrine, in the same way that the the teachings of John the Baptist are, for example.
As I’ll explain more in a later post, I don’t think Abinadi’s teaching that Jesus is the Father precisely corresponds to the three ways that the 1916 statement calls him the Father. But I still think it is consistent with the 1916 statement, because it does not contradict it, and because read closely, the 1916 statement is not exhaustive: it does not exclude other ways that Jesus is called the Father (other than ruling out the idea that he and the Father are the same person), it merely offers some interpretive tools to help reconcile passages where Jesus is called the Father with the doctrine that he and the Father are distinct individual persons. For this reason, I don’t think the three examples of ways Jesus is the Father explained in the 1916 statement should necessarily limit how we read Abinadi’s statement that Jesus is the Father.
 “The Power of Evil,” General Conference, April 7, 1895, reported in 57(23) Latter-Day Saints Millennial Star 355-56 (June 6, 1895).