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

Citing Brant Gardner and Mark Wright, The Book of Mormon Central piece also compares the doctrine taught in the 1916 statement (that despite being distinct from the Father, Jesus is himself both the Father and the Son) to the idea of a “Maya deity complex”–the idea that one Mayan deity might have several different identities. The parallel is kind of mildly interesting, I guess, but I don’t think it supports the argument that Abinadi was teaching the doctrine set forth in the 1916 statement rather than some form of Trinitarianism or modalism. In fact, I think it actually works against it.

This is the third Part in a series examining Book of Mormon Central’s piece on Mosiah 15. In the first Part I pushed back against the apparent conflation of trinitarianism and modalism. In the last Part, I suggested that while Abinadi’s teaching that Jesus is the Father is consistent with the the 1916 First Presidency statement on the Father and the Son, I questioned whether that teaching was identical to the ways that Jesus is identified as the Father in the 1916 statement. In this part, I discuss the comparison between Abinadi’s teachings and the “Maya deity complex.”

It’s a really minor point, so this part will be pretty brief.

What’s the deal with the Mayan comparison?

I don’t find the comparison to a Maya deity complex all that illuminating. I suppose there


I, Odin, the Allfather, the Eagle’s Head, the Flaming Eye, the Spear Shaker, Lord of the Undead, Gallows’ Burden, the Ancient One, the Riddler, God of Prisoners, the Greybeard, the Battle Wolf, the Screamer, the Raven God, God of Riders, the Allwise, the Wanderer, the Battle-Smith, the Father of the Slain, have over 200 names and titles. And I have an eight-legged horse.

is a parallel, but isn’t there such a parallel in just about every religion? Doesn’t just about every god have multiple titles/roles/identities? For that matter, don’t most human monarchs have multiple titles/roles? Isn’t that just kind of something that goes along with being a God or even just a mortal sovereign? I’m no expert on mesoamerican stuff, so I could be missing something, but I don’t see how the Mayan tendency to multiply their Gods’ roles and titles is unique or particularly relevant to the Book of Mormon, or that it offers any insight into Abinadi’s meaning.

But it’s not just that the Mayan thing isn’t just that compelling of a parallel, it’s also problematic because to the extent that it is a parallel, it actually undermines the argument that the piece is making. Maybe I’m missing something, but the idea that “[e]ach of the elaborations that a modern reader might see as a different deity was actually considered to be merely an elaboration of the complex essence of one particular deity,” sounds a lot more like modalism or the Trinity than it does the LDS godhead doctrine of three distinct divine persons that are perfectly united as one God.

Of course, I also think don’t think that proves that Abinadi was teaching modalism or the Trinity, because I don’t find the parallel all that persuasive to begin with. As I’ve said, elaborating all the ways that the three members of the godhead are distinct and the ways they are united is not Abinadi’s point, and for that reason, his teachings are vague enough on that point that they are arguably consistent with more than one conception of the trinity.




  1. Really appreciate this series of posts.

  2. A very good series. In part II you make mention of how the various BoM prophets speak differently about the godhead. It would be interesting to see a more in depth comparison.

    I don’t know of any BoM verse that clearly identifies the Son and the Father as distinct persons but there are many that clearly identify the Son and the Father as different roles/titles of the same person. Nowadays the only time a Mormon will conflate the Father and the Son is to explain away the BoM’s apparent modalism. I doubt the 1916 statement would mention the ways that Christ is also the Father if it were not for the BoM’s confusing inconsistency with our modern model of the godhead.

    It would be a lot easier to take Woodruff’s approach, shrug our shoulders, and admit that maybe the BoM prophets – or even our modern prophets – didn’t have an accurate or complete understanding of the godhead. After-all, they didn’t seem to know about a lot of other doctrines (per-existance, degrees of glory, eternal marriage, etc.) so why should we expect them to have a perfect understanding of the godhead?

  3. Aussie Mormon says:

    “I don’t know of any BoM verse that clearly identifies the Son and the Father as distinct persons”

    There’s the obvious one:
    3 Nephi 11:7 “Behold my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased, in whom I have glorified my name—hear ye him.”

    There’s also these two in Moroni.
    Moroni 7:27 “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, have miracles ceased because Christ hath ascended into heaven, and hath sat down on the right hand of God, to claim of the Father his rights of mercy which he hath upon the children of men?”

    Moroni 9:26 “And may the grace of God the Father, whose throne is high in the heavens, and our Lord Jesus Christ, who sitteth on the right hand of his power, until all things shall become subject unto him, be, and abide with you forever. Amen.”

  4. Miles and Aussie Mormon, I think calling it the Book of Mormon’s “apparent modalism” may be overstating it a bit. While I agree with you, Miles, that there aren’t any verses that affirmatively and explicitly identify the Father and the Son as distinct persons, there are lots of verses that circumstantially indicate that they are distinct persons, and Aussie has pointed out just a few of them. I think the Book of Mormon is too complex to be reduced to just modalism.

    I also think it may be overstating it a bit to say that the 1916 statement would not have bothered explaining how Jesus is the Father, while remaining distinct from *the Father” were it not for Book of Mormon’s alleged inconsistency with our modern godhead doctrine. It’s possible, and an interesting counterfactual, but I suspect that such clarification or similar clarification may have also been necessary in light of the Adam-God teachings and their aftermath, which, even aside from Book of Mormon passages calling Jesus the Father, may well have resulted in confusion over who is really “the Father” and in what sense.

    Though, I totally agree that we should not expect any prophets, ancient or modern, to always speak with a complete understanding.

    Also, I agree that a more detailed comparison and contrast of the teachings on the godhead of various Book of Mormon prophets would be interesting. Joseph Spencer gets into some of that in An Other Testament, as I recall, his focus is more on baptism than on the godhead, but those are obviously related.

  5. Clark Goble says:

    I think calling it modalism like some Evangelical critics have done misses a lot of key verses (such as those in 3 Nephi). Likewise it misses the relationship to the exegesis of Isaiah 52 which is about how the prophets and others who accept become sons.

    If one is going to primarily interpret in from a Christian era (we’ll ignore apologetics with the appeals to merkabah and hekhalot literature for now) then the obvious texts to interpret it in terms of are Christian exegesis of Isaiah 52 and John 14. In that context the issue of how the Father is in the Son is important only in terms of how it means the Father and Son are in us. The parallels to John 14 are pretty unmistakeable but almost always the context and parallels are neglected by those pushing a simple modalistic reading.

  6. John teaches that the the Father is ‘in’ the Son and ‘one’ with the Son. Is there a Bible verse that states that the Son ‘is’ the Father? If not, this may be why John 14 isn’t viewed as a parallel by some.

    I’m wondering what a Bible student would think when reading Mosiah 15 or Alma 11 for the first time? Would it sound familiar or would it seem totally new? Being raised Mormon I can’t say.

  7. Clark and Miles, I agree that the idea in John 14 are certainly relevant and parallel, which I think will become clear in the next post. Even though I don’t quote John, I think if you read my interpretation of Abinadi with John 14 in mind you’ll see a lot of common ground. But, as Miles points out, there are still differences, at least in emphasis, if not in substance.

  8. Clark Goble says:

    The statement of the the Father is Jesus isn’t in the Bible so far as I know. (We’ll ignore non-biblical texts) That’s why I find the intertestament Jewish texts interesting. Both for context to John 14 (and other NT texts) but also to simply understand what had developed in Judaism. Again there’s the constant problem of there being a paucity of data regarding the range of Jewish views in pre-exilic Israel compared to what we have of the post-exilic period.

    However note I didn’t merely present John 14 but rather argue John 14 has to be read relative to Abinadi’s exegesis of Isaiah 52 (along with how Christian readings of Isaiah 52 developed) That is I’m not pushing a proof-text kind of superficial reading. Rather I’m suggesting Isaiah 52 is being read in terms of John 14 – 16 (if one is looking at 19th century parallels). Given that exegesis forms the context for the opening verses of Mosiah 15 that then has to inform how we read those passages.

    Now of course if we read purely in terms of Protestant views these nuances don’t matter. Trinitiarianism fundamentally is about how Jesus is fully God, the Godhead are one, but Jesus is not the Father. Mosiah 15 goes against that which is why modalism is constantly brought up. However modalism just doesn’t explain either the type of exegesis of Isaiah 52.

  9. Thanks for the insights. I think I need to spend some more time studying Isaiah 52.

  10. Yes, Isaiah would be the obvious place to go to find verses that call Jesus the Father. If we read it as referring to Jesus, then he is being called the “Everlasting Father.”

  11. Clark Goble says:

    Really my argument is just that critics looking at 19th century parallels want simple parallels. That leads to a false dichotomy between modalism and trinitarianism when neither can really explain key features of the text. But again, ignoring apologetics (although I think they have a strong hand here), there simply are many more choices open even if one is sticking to a 19th century origin argument. While I don’t think 3 Enoch was available for Joseph Smith certainly a lot of Enochian traditions could be found in the esoteric tradition around that time. Although that’s justly very controversial even for the 1840s let alone Joseph in the 1820s.

  12. Clark, your summary of Trinitarianism strikes me as accurate; and also entirely compatible with Mormonism. Mosiah 15 calls Jesus the Father, which may cut against the Trinitarian idea that the Father is not the Son (though not irreconcilably so), and I think you’re right that this is why people read it as modalistic. But I also think you’re right that the text is no more or less consistent with modalism than it is with Trinitarianism, and that neither one is entirely a perfect fit.

  13. Clark Goble says:

    JKC, just to add to this, I briefly reviewed my Augustine on the Trinity over the weekend out of curiosity. There really is a reason why many Mormons would call it modalism. While it’s not technically modes of being, it is different relations of psychological “parts.” However there’s also quite a bit more diversity on the subject than I think most Mormons realize. Aquinas comes in and takes a different view and Duns Scotus yet one more difference. To me though the difference between modalism and Augustine is in practice pretty negligible.

    Likewise when one sees the two roads Augustine is arguing between (Arianism and Sabellianism) it’s easy to understand why he goes where he goes. Likewise it’s easy to see why many traditional creedal Christians would label Mormons as Arian. Arius felt the three persons had separate substances. Augustine is trying to argue against that while avoiding the total modalism of the Sabellianists. To a Mormon he still comes too close to Sabellianism only swapping modes for internal relations which in later medieval thoughts get analogized to different parts of a single psychological act.

    The problem is that what’s meant by substance isn’t quite clear. The reason I actually think the Trinity creed is open to Mormons is because there’s already a tradition in Mormonism’s more existentialist tradition that’s akin to Duns Scotus’ solution. That is the substance is nothingness. Yet for those influenced by Levinas you get a similar move for the core substance of individuals. But by and large Mormons move towards seeing the persons as full robust independent persons in a manner the Trinitarians find abhorrent.

    I’d add relative to Mosiah 15 that what I think comes closest to one of the heresies there is actually Monarchianism. That’s the idea, at least in its dynamic form, that God existed in Jesus the way he can exist in us, only in a more powerful way. (There’s a modalist version too) But again, that whole “conceived” word might block it as being that heresy. A closely related one is Patripassianism which is the idea that God the Father became his son and suffered.

    What’s surprising is how critics only seem to want to apply modalism to Mosiah 15 rather than the arguably far more interesting other choices (even ignoring earlier Jewish traditions in preference to these heresies from the time of Augustine through the early Renaissance).

  14. Interesting points, Clark. I agree with you that in practice the difference between modalism and Augustine is very slim. Though, the whole point of the distinction is one of principle, not practice. But in any case, you’re right that it can be vexing to try to figure out the difference–especially when you get into the more platonist articulations of the trinity. And it’s not as though Mormons are the only ones that confuse the two. It’s my sense that views in the pews largely correspond to modalism, whatever the theologians say. But in any case, I think you nailed the issue: what exactly is the “one substance” (or nature) that the trinity shares?

    The LDS view, or at least the view of many LDS, I would suggest is basically compatible with the idea that the members of the Godhead share the same “nature,” but would be less sure with “substance” to the degree that it suggests shared corporeality, which potentially runs up against the D&C.

  15. Clark Goble says:

    Yup, in practice the history of the Trinity is wrapped up with the history of Aristotle and Plato as found in late antiquity and transformed by Augustine and others. But the philosophy and thereby theology takes as a starting point presuppositions that just aren’t in the texts themselves. Further the theological debates seem as much tied to politics as textual exegesis. Given that, I think the obvious question is why we should care about the heresies or creeds given that we aren’t Platonists nor are we the odd mix of Plato and Aristotle mixed with Augustinism that the medieval era gave us. Once you reject that history and throw in a different metaphysics things change. What I always raise to my more orthodox friends is the question of why we should buy into the metaphysics of late antiquity given scripture is silent on such matters.

    Reject that metaphysics and the difference between Sabellianism and Augustinism is pretty slight.

    I’ve no idea what Abiniadi actually meant. (I still find Abiniadi very mysterious – we don’t even know if he’s a Nephite! Even more mysterious than Samuel.) However I’m sure it wasn’t the sort of debate Augustine was having with Arius.

  16. Clark Goble says:

    To add, I think Orson Pratt’s atomic view of the Spirit as the 19th century aether, however falsified by Einstein does offer a way to reconcile materialistic substance with individuality and yet a shared substance. In a certain way it’s a pretty clever materialist take on the Trinity.