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

This post will attempt to take a closer look at “what this passage is about”: the heart of Abinadi’s message on the Father and the Son. This is the last post in my series critiquing Book of Mormon Central’s piece on Mosiah 15. In previous parts I addressed what I thought was some loose use of the word “Trinity,” the way the piece uses the 1916 First Presidency statement on the Father and the Son, and the way the piece draws a parallel between Abinadi and one aspect of Mayan religion.

But in truth, those issues are relatively minor. More importantly, my biggest frustration with the piece is essentially that it never actually addresses Abinaid’s message. It talks around Abinadi, discussing what other sources have said about him, or about the same topic that he addresses, but it doesn’t look closely at what Abinadi himself says. By suggesting “that this passage is about and fluidity of Christ’s titles and roles, not that He is ‘one God’ with the Father as in a Trinity,” it confuses what “this passage is about” with “an easy way to reconcile this passage with our godhead doctrine,” and therefore never actually gets to “what this passage is about.”

Read closely, I don’t think Abinadi’s point is that Jesus has many roles. Yes, you can infer from the passage that Jesus has at least two roles, but that doesn’t seem to be what Abinadi’s main point really is.

So what is Abinadi actually saying?

I believe that Abinadi’s point is to teach that Jesus himself actually personifies or embodies the atonement by becoming one with the Father and the Holy Ghost while in mortality, through the act or process of submitting his will to the Father, and his flesh to the Spirit.

Abinadi’s goal is no secret. He announces at the beginning of this passage that his purpose is to make his audience understand that “God himself” will come down and redeem his people; in other words, his purpose is to teach the incarnation and the atonement. In explaining this concept, the next point he makes is that “God himself” who shall come down, is also “the Son of God” because he is “begotten in the flesh.” I think Abinadi is not just multiplying Jesus’ roles/titles for the sake of it; rather, he is consciously juxtaposing two of Jesus’ specific roles/titles: the pre-mortal “God himself,” and the mortal “Son of God.”

Abinadi then further explains these juxtaposed roles: Jesus is the Father specifically “because he was conceived by the power of God” and he is the Son specifically “because of the flesh.” If you read closely, Abinadi is calling Jesus the Father here in a way that is slightly different from (though not inconsistent with) the ways that Elder Talmage identified in the 1916 statement (creator, covenant father, and divine investiture). By saying that Jesus is the Father “because he was conceived by the power of God,” he’s not calling Jesus the Father because he created the earth, or because he is the Father of those who take his name upon them, or because he speaks for the Father, he’s saying that he is “the Father,” specifically “because he was conceived by the power of God.”[1]

Abinadi does not explain specifically how being “conceived by the power of God” makes Jesus”the Father,” but here’s one possible way of making sense of this statement: because the pre-mortal Jesus, as “God himself,” was one with the Father, he was a full participant in the Father’s power, “the power of God,” and because that power is  the power by which he came to earth as a man begotten in the flesh, he therefore shares the Father’s name/title. “Conceived by the power of God” also seems to be a reference to the virgin birth–that Jesus, being “conceived by the power of God,” rather than by the power of normal mortal procreation, had a divine birth unlike a normal human birth. Because his birth was divine, accomplished by “the power of God,” he therefore shares the Father’s title by birthright. There are probably other possible explanations, but in any case, when Abinadi calls Jesus “the Father,” in this passage, he is referring to Jesus’s divinity.

And that divinity is delierately juxtaposed against his humanity, which Abinadi refers to by calling him “the Son.” He is the son “because of he flesh.” “Thus,” says Abinadi, Jesus, being both divine and human “becom[es] the Father and Son–”

The point, as I see it, is not just to point out a bunch of roles or titles that Jesus has, just for the sake of pointing them out, it’s to draw attention specifically to two of those roles: Father and Son, which in this passage are references to Jesus’ divinity (the “power of God”) juxtaposed against Jesus’ mortality (“the flesh”).

And the point of this juxtaposition, as I understand it, is that Jesus reconciles these opposites, because then–and this is the important part–Abinadi explains how Jesus reconciles those opposites: through submission to God in mortality. Jesus submits his human nature (the Son, or the flesh) to the divine nature that he shares with the other members of the Godhead (the Father, or the Spirit): the flesh becomes subject to the Spirit as the Son becomes subject to the Father. And through this process of submission, they become reconciled and perfectly unified. Thus, the Father and the Son become in mortality, as they were in the beginning, “one God, the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth.” In other words, Jesus doesn’t just “perform” the atonement on our behalf, as we sometimes say, rather he is the atonement. In him, by submitting Son to Father, by submitting flesh to Spirit, these opposites, flesh and spirit, Son and Father, mortal man and immortal God, become truly “at one” in the person of Jesus. Having thus reconciled man to God, flesh to Spirit, and Son to Father, Jesus has power over the things that separate God and man and is therefore enabled to overcome death, and to satisfy the demands of justice, and thus make us, as his sons and daughters, his “seed,” one with him just as he as the Son, is one with the Father.[2]

The point of Abinadi’s teaching here, I believe, is not to make a theological point about the precise details of the godhead or the trinity–especially not on those particular issues that separate LDS godhead doctrine from trinitarianism. The point is that the Father and the Son, God and man, Spirit and flesh, are reconciled and perfectly united through Jesus’ submission to the will of the Father. And that is true regardless of what you might believe about the details of how the Father and the Son are ontologically distinct and how they are ontologically united. And in the larger context of his speech as a whole, Abinadi’s message is that the same reconciliation and perfect unity is offered to us, if we will follow Jesus’s example and also submit our will to God (i.e. repent and trust in Christ).

In my opinion, this is a remarkably beautiful trinitarian passage–not Trinitarian in the sense that it teaches the formal doctrine of the Trinity, but trinitarian in the sense that it poetically describes the three members of the Godhead working together to accomplish the work of salvation through the united, intertwining cooperation of the three divine persons: The Son takes on mortal flesh by the power of the Father, thus becoming one with humanity, and then submits himself to the Father’s will, as he submits the flesh to the Spirit, thus becoming one with God, and thus reconciling humanity to God.

Interestingly, Abinadi’s teachings about Jesus being simultaneously the Father, because of

800px-Spas_vsederzhitel_sinay

This depiction of Christ, with differences on each side of his face, is said to represent Jesus’s human nature and his divine nature

the power of God, and the Son, because of the flesh, ends up being something similar to the doctrine of the two natures of Christ. I don’t mean to suggest that it is identical to that doctrine (or to any one of the several versions of it). But his teachings do suggest that Jesus had a human nature and a divine nature, and that his human nature (the Son, the flesh) submitted to his divine nature, which he also shares with the Father, and the Spirit.

Note that the Book of Mormon Central piece doesn’t really say anything to contradict my reading of this passage. I wouldn’t be surprised if the authors of the piece basically agreed with everything I have said here. So maybe I’m being unfair by calling them out for not making a point that maybe they did not set out to make in the first place.

But to me, it’s a shame to miss an opportunity to explore how the atonement lies at the heart of Abinadi’s message, and to explore what Abinadi has to say about how Jesus personifies the atonement, and shows the way to reconciliation with God by his own example of submission, because we are caught up in theological questions and mesoamerican parallels that aren’t really Abinadi’s point. If we want to use Abinadi to make a point about the doctrine Godhead, we can do that, or if we want to make sure we understand how Abinadi’s teachings can be reconciled with our Godhead doctrine, that’s fine; but let’s not let Abinadi’s message about atonement, reconciliation, and repentance–which is not only his message, but also his major contribution to the central message of the Book of Mormon itself–get lost in the shuffle or overshadowed.


[1] Of course, when Abinadi says that they are “one God, yeah, the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth, Elder Talmage takes the title Eternal Father of heaven and of earth to be a reference to Jesus’ role as creator of the earth. I have no quarrel with that reading. My point is not that in calling Jesus the Father “because he was conceived by the power of God,” Abinadi was refuting Elder Talmage’s reading, just that Abinadi is saying something else in addition to just saying that Jesus is the Father of the earth because he created it.

[2] Elder Talmage pays special attention to this passage as one example of the basis of his argument that Jesus is the Father because he is the father of those who are born again in the gospel. I fully agree with that reading. Again, my point is not that Elder Talmage was wrong, just that Abinadi is working with more than one way in which Jesus is the Father. Saying that he is the Father. “because he was conceived by the power of God” is consistent with, but different from saying that we are his sons and daughters if we believe in him.

Comments

  1. Thank you for your extraordinary analysis. After reading it, it occurs to me that we might all be missing something when we read this chapter: what Abinidi means when he says “Father”. The idea that Christ was the Father because he was conceived by the power of God is not particularly logical, since those who are conceived are sons and daughters, not fathers.

    If you accept that the Book of Mormon was a translation of an ancient document, like almost all members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do, then this could be a flaw in the translation. When I am reading a translation and come across something that is glaringly nonsensical, my first assumption is that it is a translation error. “Father” could be a literal rendition of a word that actually had multiple meanings in the original language, the sort of error you see in Google Translate and other computerized translations, and a kind of error even human translators sometimes make.

    As a side note, I would like to see a neutral website devoted to the Book of Mormon, one which would appeal to members of other Latter-day Saint groups, as well as to religious and literary thinkers who do not believe the book is scripture. Explaining how Mosiah 15 is consistent with the doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, even though a simple reading of the text says otherwise, is not particularly neutral. It makes the website seem to be just another proselytizing tool.

  2. Clark Goble says:

    I’m not sure I’d oppose “divine investiture” with “conceived by the power of God.” My sense is Abinadi isn’t talking about the virgin birth but more a kind of adoption/investiture of power. It’s because of that conception of power that Jesus is God. Maybe I’m just reading Talmage wrong (it’s been a while) but I think that’s what he means by divine investiture. Further I think our conception of priesthood (act in God’s name by the spirit) is that same investiture even if we don’t get quite as much. (And I think how Abanadi shifts the watchment and broadens the envoy of victory from Isaiah 52 pushes that direction as well with the “who shall be his seed?”) It’s interesting that the opening of Isaiah 52 is left out although Jacob quotes it in 2 Ne 8.

    Interestingly when Jesus talks about how he is one with the Father in 3 Ne 20 (as well as 3 Ne 9) he is in many ways riffing on Mosiah 15 but does quote the opening of Isaiah 52 along with the rest. Structurally it’s nearly identical to Mosiah 15 except for that addition of the opening poem. The strong relationship of Mosiah 15 to 3 Ne 20 BTW is why I find a lot of exegesis of Mosiah 15 problematic. I just don’t think you can separate the two. Especially 3 Ne 9:15-17. “as many as have received me, to them have I given to become the sons of God”

    Fully agree with your main points though. The emphasis really isn’t on some ontological theology of the trinity or godhead. Rather it’s how God is in Jesus and how we can become sons. For the more theological point I’m not sure we can ignore Mosiah 15 although the more interesting section is Alma 11-12.

    I also think your point about the two natures is important. Although I think because Mormons tend to think in terms of this divine investiture (not just of authority but also of spirit) we think it quite different than our Trinitarian friends. However because we’re not attempting to reconcile fairly distinct ontological natures I also think we have an easier time of it. (I’ve always found the two natures theology I’ve read pretty problematic)

  3. ALW: I am a non LDS, committed Orthodox Christian. I believe the Orthodox Church is the “True” Church, the continuing, non apostatizing visible One, Holy, Universal, Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ from the Pentecost until today. I have read all of LDS scripture extensively, multiple times over multiple years. Though I’ve never been a member of the LDS Church, I’ve also read the Journal of Discourses, Jesus the Christ by Elder Talmage, I’ve listened to General Council, been to Singles Ward, Family Ward, Firesides, YM/YW, the MTC, BYU, even taken Institute classes. If anyone (as much as is possible) would be objectively able to discern if this article is twisting a simple text into something else just to fit LDS doctrine, I think I’d fall into that category on some level.

    While this group isn’t neutral, so far at least, it’s been open to me, a “religious and literary [thinker] who do[es] not believe the book is scripture.” That said, I’ve read all 4 posts in this series and I can say with objectivity, that JKC has not taken a simple text that reads contrary to be made to sound consistent with LDS doctrine. He was fair in his exegesis of the text – at least in my reading. In fact, if you go back to part 1 in this series, you’ll see in the comments where I myself, a non Mormon, made this article’s exact point for the exact reasons from the text of Mosiah myself prior to JKC writing it.

    All that to say, while a totally other website could be fruitful for the interchange you’re speaking about, it’s also already happening here. Cheers.

  4. Clark Goble says:

    ALW, the idea is that the conception is a giving of seed. This seed makes one like what was planted. (You get a similar metaphor in say Plato’s Phaedrus) So the seed is planted and grows but if it grows it makes the culmination of the seed. For a mustard seed that’s a mustard plant. For a Father that makes a Father. I’d note that this is partially why Abinadi’s exegesis of Is 52 can’t be avoided. That section explains how Jesus is a Father because he plants the seed in us. So Jesus is a father to us and he’s able to be a father because of the investiture of his father.

    Rhetorically there’s a lot going on here. So Jesus is a son because he’s not the father but he’s a father because of this investiture. While I mentioned 3 Nephi above, the closer parallel to Mosiah 15 is actually D&C 93. It was composed just a few years after the Book of Mormon was published but structurally has a lot of similarities to Mosiah 15 (and also a lot of Johanine language) To the degree we dare call D&C 93 a commentary on Mosiah then verse 14 is helpful. “And thus he was called the Son of God, because he received not of the fulness at the first.” So the Father is the fulness and everyone is a son (or daughter I’d add) because we’re incomplete.

    I’d note that D&C 93 while much closer to John (with that connection made explicit at the beginning) also goes into paraphrases of Isaiah 52 and Mosiah 15.

    “I give unto you these sayings that you may understand and know how to worship, and know what you worship, that you may come unto the Father in my name, and in due time receive of his fulness. For if you keep my commandments you shall receive of his fulness, and be glorified in me as I am in the Father; therefore, I say unto you, you shall receive grace for grace. And now, verily I say unto you, I was in the beginning with the Father, and am the Firstborn; And all those who are begotten through me are partakers of the glory of the same, and are the church of the Firstborn.”

  5. Mark A Clifford says:

    This was wonderful and fruitful. Also, encouraging…this is the kind of thing that keeps me coming back to BCC.

  6. Jason K. says:

    Thanks for this charitable and helpful exposition, JKC.

  7. “The point is that the Father and the Son, God and man, Spirit and flesh, are reconciled and perfectly united through Jesus’ submission to the will of the Father. And that is true regardless of what you might believe about the details of how the Father and the Son are ontologically distinct and how they are ontologically united. And in the larger context of his speech as a whole, Abinadi’s message is that the same reconciliation and perfect unity is offered to us, if we will follow Jesus’s example and also submit our will to God (i.e. repent and trust in Christ).”

    Just popping in to say how much I am enjoying this series. The above passage struck me deeply. I wish I had something intelligent to add, but as I don’t, please carry on…

  8. J. Stapley says:

    Solid work, JKC.

  9. ALW, you’re right that Abinadi’s explanation of why Jesus is the Father (because he was conceived by the power of God) sounds incongruous with the way we usually use the word Father, but I’m not sure that I would attribute that to a translation error. Given that he is called Father in the same passage by reason of the creation (“Eternal Father of heaven and of earth”), and given that the passage also deals with ways in which Jesus becomes the Father of those who accept him (they are “his seed”), Fatherhood is an important point to Abinadi, and the references to the Son and the Spirit in the same passage suggest to me that the references to the Father are intentional. Rather than mistranslation, maybe Abinadi is fudging the ontology a little bit for poetic effect.

    Also, Clark’s reasoning, that being a Father is planting a seed, and a seed is itself eventually going to become the same as the Father, might also be a way to understand that passage. “The child is the father of the man,” or something.

    Clark, you may be right that that this not that different from divine investiture. In fact, I had originally had an aside in the post about how maybe it wasn’t too different from soem version, but I took it out because I didn’t want to make the post too confusing, and it was a pretty minor point. But reading Talmage, divine investiture seems to be more about Jesus as the legal representative/executive of the Father.

    The adoption point is an interesting one. If the text said “begotten,” rather than “conceived” I think I would be right there with you, but “conceived” seems, to me, to suggest actual conception, because doesn’t have the history that “begotten” has of being interpreted as a spiritual adoption, not only in John, but in the Book of Mormon itself (King Benjamin saying “this day hath he spiritually begotten you”). But that reading is certainly plausible.

    The connections to the D&C about becoming sons of God are important. But you don’t even need to wait until section 93. Even as early as section 11, before the Book of Mormon was published yet, you see that language.

  10. Clark Goble says:

    Yes, Talmage pushes the legal idea of investiture – the analogy of an ambassador is frequently used. However I think other use of the term involves something more robust. I’d do some searching but I’m kind of swamped right now. I’m reasonably sure there’s early 20th century examples of this though. (While Pratt’s ontological views didn’t get widespread adoption – the idea of a shared substance enabling power remained a popular view)

    With regards to the word choice, this highlights the difficulty of interpreting the Book of Mormon even from the believer’s perspective. What is the significance of particular words over similar words. My sense is that conceived is used due to Joseph’s understanding and theology of Jesus literally being the Father’s son by the flesh (whatever that means). So I think there is an actual conception connotation going on. However I think that perhaps we have to be careful attributing the nuances of that to Abinadi. That said though, it was a common belief well into the Utah period that the nature of Jesus’ physical conception gave him power. So I don’t want to discount that view from the BoM even if it might be an expansion over Abinadi’s own words.

    That said the same term is used in Alma 7:10 (“[Mary] shall be overshadowed and conceive by the power of the Holy Ghost and bring forth a son, yea, even the Son of God”) and 2 Ne 17:14 (“a virgin shall conceive and shall bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel”. So the tradition is already among the Nephites in some form. Even if there was merkabah/hekhalot traditions brought by Lehi they’d likely evolve based upon how Nephi changes the religion.

  11. Clark Goble says:

    Just to note, in defense of Talmage’s emphasis – I don’t really have a problem with it. It’s probably the safest view. I’m not sure Talmage (or the many who followed that approach) intended it to be seen as exhaustive. Just that clearly authority in a manner analogous to secular governments seems a pretty easy way to see a lot of priesthood and nature of God. Yet I also suspect Talmage would agree there’s substantial unity that goes beyond common values or ideas or authority. It’s just that we don’t know much about that so it’s probably pointless to get hung up on it. (Just going by distant memory in that and not appealing to any text of Talmage’s)

  12. Oh, I certainly agree that the 1916 statement is not intended to be exhaustive. It’s worth applying that same caveat to the divine investiture portion in particular, as well.

  13. Clark Goble says:

    Yeah I just bring it up because there is a nominalist tendency among many strands of LDS theology which wants to reduce the unity to just similar states. That is just common views the way two people have common views with nothing real between them. (Seeing strands of LDS theology in light of the medieval nominalist debate can be interesting)

  14. Yes, reducing the unity of the godhead to nothing more than shared purpose is present in LDS views, but is in my view too narrow. And I think Elder Holland’s talk and Ensign article on the subject bear me out. Even though I think he’s being (understandably) imprecise about the doctrine of the Trinity, he does emphasize that the unity of the Godhead goes beyond a mere unity of purpose and extends to include unity in every significant and eternal aspect except the idea of “one substance” trinitarianism.

  15. Clark Goble says:

    He clearly emphasizes the unity although he leave the meaning of that extremely vague (wisely in my opinion). It’s interesting that this has been a frequent topic by Elder Holland in talks. I also tend to agree with his criticism of the creeds and the problem of incomprehensibility. Part of that is the odd metaphysics that Augustine developed for the Trinity. If one doesn’t buy into that then it falls apart. The best analysis of it from an analytic perspective is Richard Cartwright’s although I’d add that it’s illogical to him because of the hidden metaphysics he doesn’t address. The medievals were rather sophisticated in drawing distinctions just to make their creeds works.

    While I mentioned creation ex nihilo the real main difference between Mormons and Trinitarians goes beyond that into divine simplicity. For us God in his essence has parts. For the Trinitarians the conception of God is as close to the neoplatonists as possible (which still has important differences: thus the invention of creation ex nihilo). For the platonists going backwards through emanations to intellect and beyond is a process of simplification with God as the most necessary, most complete, yet simplest thing metaphysically possible. For us God is essentially related to things and has important essential parts like his body. (Blake Ostler in his first book of theology does a great job going through all this although I disagree with elements of his open theology/process theology reconceiving of God)

    The problem of the One Substance to my mind remains tricky. First, because of what I mentioned with Duns Scotus and Levinas which I think is pretty open to Mormons. Second because there already is a one substance theology prominent in Mormon thought with Orson Pratt.

  16. I agree that one substance is not all that cut and dried. You’ve pointed out some interesting ways that it could potentially be open to Mormons. I suspect that most Mormons, Elder Holland included, perceive it as shared corporeality and just dismiss it as inconsistent with section
    130 without further thought.

  17. Clark Goble says:

    I’m not sure about Elder Holland who, like Elder Oaks, appears fairly well read on such matters. I’m sure he has at least a passing acquaintance with Pratt’s views. Even though I’m sure he, like most, would reject them in their details.

    Fundamentally I think the question is how the spirit operates physically/metaphysically.