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.”
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.
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
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.
 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.
 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.