The Social Model of the Trinity in 3 Nephi
On June 16, 1844, in his last public sermon, Joseph Smith declares:
When I have preached on the subject of the Deity, it has [always] been the plurality of Gods. It has been preached by the Elders for fifteen years. I have always declared God to be a distinct personage, Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, and that the Holy Ghost was a distinct personage and a Spirit: and these three constitute three distinct personages and three Gods.1
In the same discourse, Joseph rejects the classical Christian view that the three divine persons constitute one metaphysical substance, affirming instead that they should be considered “one God” in the sense that the three divine persons are “agreed as one.” 2 As Joseph elsewhere explains, “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God, infinite and eternal, without end” (Doctrine and Covenants 20:28),3 but their unity is such that they “all agree in one or the selfsame thing.” 4 Thus, according to Joseph, whatever he spoke about the Godhead was always consistent with the teaching of a plurality of Gods who are agreed as one (apparently a variant of what is now called social trinitarianism).5
But the accuracy of Joseph’s affirmation is disputed. Several scholars allege that Joseph’s claim contradicts the historical record.6 For instance, in his book Mormonism and the Nature of God: A Theological Evolution, 1830–1915, Kurt Widmer argues that “the 1830 Book of Mormon, and subsequently the early Mormon Church, held a modalistic, Christological position,” and that for the first three years of its existence, the church was “a strict monotheistic Christian sect,” holding to a “modalistic form of monotheism.” 7
In a previously published work, “The Development of the Mormon Understanding of God: Early Mormon Modalism and Other Myths,” we tested Widmer’s modalist thesis by examining every reference to Deity in the first edition of the Book of Mormon. We concluded that the evidence, taken in its entirety, powerfully contradicts Widmer’s thesis.8 And of this evidence, we found that the text of 3 Nephi is the most relevant because it recounts the resurrected Christ’s interactions with God the Father and includes Christ’s own explicit teachings about his relationship to God the Father.
In this paper we examine 3 Nephi in light of the claim that the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon is a modalist document. We conclude that (1) 3 Nephi contains extensive and persuasive evidence that Jesus Christ and his Father are distinct persons; (2) the model of the Godhead that most clearly emerges from a careful reading of the text is a variant of trinitarianism, consistent with social trinitarianism; and (3) the evidential potency of putative modalist passages found elsewhere in the Book of Mormon weakens in this context, and that read against the backdrop of this evidence and other teachings found in 3 Nephi regarding the Godhead, even these passages can be plausibly understood within a social trinitarian model. As prelude to this work, we set out more fully the differences between modalism and trinitarianism and summarize and examine the claims of historians who believe the Book of Mormon advances a form of modalism.
Modalisms vs. Trinitarianisms
Modalists affirm that one (and only one) person is God but that he functions or appears to us in three different modes, as Father, Son, or Holy Ghost. Sabellius (ca. 215 CE) thought God appears in these modes successively. That is, God acted in the role of the Father prior to the incarnation, acted as the Son when incarnated as Christ, and acts as the Holy Ghost after Christ’s resurrection and ascension.9 This is called chronological modalism, and many church fathers anathematized it.10 The early controversy around modalism appears most pronounced in the third century and prior to the First Council of Nicaea. Adolf von Harnack explains that “against this view [modalism] the great Doctors of the Church—Tertullian, Origen, Novation, but above all, Hippolytus—had principally to fight.” 11 As a result, the doctrine of the Trinity would at first be understood against the modalist backdrop. It was Tertullian who introduced the term trinity to Latin literature in Against Praxeas, and Theophilos of Antioch would introduce it to Greek literature in Apology to Autolycus 2.15.
Modalism also began to develop into a more rigorous position during this period. “At first Cleomenes, the disciple of Epigonus, was regarded as the head of the sect, and then, from c. A.D. 215, Sabellius. Against these there appeared, in the Roman Church, especially the presbyter Hippolytus, who sought to prove that the doctrine promulgated by them [the modalists] was a revolutionary error.” 12 In the West, the controversy came to a head when Callistus became bishop (217–222 CE). To address the issue, he “determined to excommunicate both Sabellius and Hippolytus, the two heads of the contending factions.” 13 Callistus’s decision marked a distinctive point against the modalist doctrine as a mainstream position in the West. As Harnack explains: “The excommunication of Sabellius by Callistus in Rome resulted at once in the Monarchians [believers in only one divine person]14 ceasing to find any followers in the West, and in the complete withdrawal soon afterwards of strict and aggressive Modalism.” 15
Despite its weakened following, the position of modalism remained theologically relevant to the Arian controversy during the First Council of Nicaea (325 CE). Some bishops feared that the council’s chosen term homoousios (“same substance”) risked falling back into a heretical modalist Christology. John Henry Newman explains that Athanasius—the great proponent of the Nicene conclusions and great opponent to Arianism—mentioned that some council attendees objected to using “homoousios” because “it was not in Scripture . . . [and] that it was of a Sabellian tendency.” 16 But modalism remained a separate heresy from Arianism; both were to be avoided. This separation is clear when Arius himself denies the Sabellian position in a “Letter to Alexander of Alexandria.” He distances his own Christology from the modalist’s when he writes, “nor [was Christ], as Sabellius said, dividing the Monad, a Son-Father.” 17 So Arianism and modalism each stand as independent, anti-Nicene positions. Yet around the time of Nicaea, modalism was already eclipsed by larger controversies and newer heresies, thus marking its limit as a major issue in the early Christian world.
After these losses, whatever was left of modalism in the early church was further renounced by the Athanasian Creed: “We worship one God in trinity, and trinity in unity, neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance. For the person of the Father is one; of the Son, another; of the Holy Spirit, another. But the divinity of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is one.” Put simply, the orthodox view of God is three persons in one substance; this view avoids both extremes—modalism, which confounded (equated) the persons, and Arianism, which divided the substance.
So if Joseph were a modalist, he might have held the view described and ultimately rejected by David Millard,18 a contemporary of Joseph:
[Chronological modalists] reject the term person, and instead of this, use the term mode, or office: and hold that the Trinity consists in one God, acting in three distinct offices: that the three distinct offices are those of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. . . . It is impossible that God should act in more than one of these offices at one and the same time: consequently, while acting in the office of Father, there is no Son nor Spirit: and while acting in the office of Spirit, there is no Father nor Son. This system completely refutes itself: for in finding a character to fill one office, it leaves the other two offices vacant, and is just no Trinity at all. It is reducing characters to mere offices, belonging to certain characters, which is at best only imaginary.19
However, chronological modalism may not have been the only type of modalism available to Joseph Smith. Although orthodoxy considers and explicitly rejects modalism, Michael Servetus (1511–1553),20 Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772),21 and Oneness Pentecostalism (1913–present) 22 openly affirm a version of the doctrine. Alister McGrath explains that contemporary modalism often takes the form that he calls “functional modalism.” Like chronological modalism, functional modalism maintains that one (and only one) person is God, but unlike chronological modalism, functional modalism asserts that when God operates in one office, the other two offices are not left vacant. Thus God acts in all three offices simultaneously throughout history.23
[In Oneness Pentecostalism] there is but one divine being whose essence is revealed as Father in the Son and as Spirit through the Son. The attention is christocentric in that as a human being Jesus is the Son, and as Spirit (i.e., in his deity) he reveals—indeed is the Father—and sends—indeed is the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Christ who indwells the believer. Because the nature of God is one, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all present in the manifestation of each.
Oneness Pentecostalism is a form of simultaneous modalism that, unlike Sabellianism, regards all three manifestations as present at the same time, not in successive revelatory periods. . . . Recalling the Jewish experience of God’s dwelling temporarily in localized places, God now dwells permanently in the human tabernacle of Jesus. . . . In Christ the hidden God becomes manifest. He who is without form takes on the form of a servant. The invisible One reveals himself as in a mirror, Christ being the true and perfect image. The OT theophanies are regarded as temporary manifestations that anticipate the future permanent attachment of God to the human body of Jesus.24
In contrast, trinitarians, as we have already seen, affirm that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct persons who together constitute one divine entity. The precise nature of this oneness has been variously interpreted within the Christian theological tradition. For instance, while classical trinitarianism affirms that the three divine persons constitute one metaphysical substance, social trinitarianism avows they are one divine community perfectly united in mind, will, love, and work. In his watershed and lucid treatment of social trinitarianism, Cornelius Plantinga presents a biblically faithful and internally consistent model that sets the standard for future theorizing. For Plantinga, the “one what” question about the Trinity is answered in three specific ways. There is “only one font of divinity, only one Father, only one God in that sense of God”; there is “only one divine essence or set of excellent properties severally necessary and jointly sufficient for their possessor to be divine”; and there is “only one divine family or monarchy or community, namely, the Holy Trinity, itself.” 25 Did Joseph Smith, as Widmer and others claim, initially understand God as one person who appears in three modes considered chronologically or functionally? Or did Joseph, as he himself explicitly claims, always understand the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost to be three distinct persons? Surely, Joseph’s own declarations of what he believed, combined with the lack of any explicit teachings to the contrary, far outweigh any reconstruction of his belief by others based solely on circumstantial evidence—in this case, interpretations of passages in an ancient record that he translated. However, in light of the number of credible scholars who concertedly contradict Joseph’s own declaration of what he believed and taught, we set out and examine their case for early Mormon modalism based on their interpretations of passages in the Book of Mormon.
Proponents’ Case for Early Mormon Modalism
In attempting to document the earliest Mormon understanding of God, proponents of early Mormon modalism turn to the earliest Mormon publication, the first edition of the Book of Mormon (1830). They believe this best reflects “Joseph Smith’s and therefore the Mormons’ earliest theological convictions.” 26 Many of them assume the Book of Mormon is a work of fiction written by Joseph Smith that reflects Joseph’s personal theological beliefs, including a modalist understanding of God.27 We believe, on the other hand, that the Book of Mormon is, as Joseph testified, a divinely aided translation of an ancient text. Nevertheless, we also believe that the evidence derived from the Book of Mormon testifies against modalism in the early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We now address the specific claims of the modalist advocates.
Widmer claims that the restoration of the gospel was in part a restoration of modalism: “Early Mormon documents, [including] the Book of Mormon . . . are attempts at restoring ‘plain and precious truths.’ The great mystery of the ages, the plain and precious truth removed from the Bible, was that ‘the Son is the Father, and the Father is the Son.’ ” 28 While Widmer admits that the Book of Mormon is “neither consistently tritheistic nor modalistic,” 29 he makes the unusually strong claim that the “evidence clearly shows that the 1830 Book of Mormon, and subsequently the early Mormon Church, held a modalistic, Christological position.” 30
Dan Vogel, another student of Mormon intellectual history, argues that, according to the first edition of the Book of Mormon, the members of the Trinity are one in a modalist sense.31 Passages that affirm that Christ is the Father and the Son do not distinguish the Father from the Son, and thus in his view the Book of Mormon does not advocate a trinitarian position. However, he claims modalism does nicely fit this evidence:
Passages which speak of the Father sending the Son (Al. 14:5; 3 Ne. 27:13–14; 26:5) do not necessarily support a trinitarian view and should be understood in light of Ether 4:12: “He that will not believe me will not believe the Father who sent me. For behold, I am the Father.” In other words, Jesus as the Father sent himself into the world to redeem his people. Nor do passages which speak of the Son being prepared from before the foundation of the earth (Mos. 18:13) necessarily imply two persons existing before the incarnation. Consider the following: “I am he who was prepared from the foundation of the world to redeem my people. Behold, I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son” (Eth. 3:14). The Book of Mormon therefore violates a major tenet of trinitarianism by confusing the persons of the Father and Son and by referring to Jesus as the Father.32
LDS thinker Melodie Moench Charles also reads modalism in the Book of Mormon: “In isolation the Book of Mormon’s ‘which is one God’ statements sound like orthodox trinitarianism, but in context they resemble a theology rejected by orthodoxy since at least 215 C.E., the heresy of modalism.” 33 Citing passages like “God himself shall come down among the children of men, . . . being the Father and the Son” (Mosiah VIII, 186 [15:1–2] 34), Charles argues that the Book of Mormon’s teachings are inconsistent with Joseph’s later sermons regarding three distinct personages: 35 there is “no good way to reconcile Abinadi’s words with the current Mormon belief that God and his son Jesus Christ are separate and distinct beings. . . . [P]erhaps Abinadi’s understanding was incomplete.” 36 However, Charles admits that the Book of Mormon does not contain chronological modalism since the text posits a preincarnate Christ as opposed to a Christ who first emerges in the incarnation.37 Indeed, the Book of Mormon affirms the constant activity of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost throughout human history, making a chronological reading implausible.38 Though she does not mention it by name, Charles apparently believes functional modalism best fits the content of the Book of Mormon.
On one point the Book of Mormon’s Christology differs from what early Christian modalists believed [about a premortal Christ]. . . . [E]arly Christian modalists rejected the idea that Christ existed apart from his father prior to his incarnation. They would not have attributed to Christ any of God’s activity prior to Jesus’s birth. For example, they interpreted John 1:1–18 as describing the Word’s creation of the world allegorically, not as Christ’s literal pre-existent activity.39
Charles goes on to state that the Nephites whom Jesus appeared to in 3 Nephi might have understood the Godhead as “one God who could appear in different roles [simultaneously].”40 Mormon critic Ronald Huggins agrees that chronological modalism (what he calls Sabellian sequentialism) does not fit the Book of Mormon. Instead, Huggins argues that Joseph was familiar with Swedenborgianism and drew his functional modalism from Swedenborg.41 However, we find reading functional modalism into the Book of Mormon a difficult task. For example, Charles concludes more from “oneness” statements than the text allows:
Those people are right who point out that many places in the Book of Mormon (particularly in 3 Nephi) portray the Son and the Father as if they were separate gods functioning simultaneously. However, they are not right to imply that this is evidence that Book of Mormon people had a concept of God and Jesus being separate and distinct individuals, as Mormons do today. These descriptions must be assessed in connection with the frequent statements (again particularly in 3 Nephi) that Jesus and his Father are one. To say that “oneness” in these passages refers only to oneness of will, purpose, power, and glory but not oneness of personality, person, essence, or number is imposing an interpretation on the text rather than letting the text speak.42
Also speaking on 3 Nephi, Boyd Kirkland argues that “the more specific Book of Mormon statements on the relationship between the Father and the Son should serve as the framework for understanding the theology of 3 Nephi rather than vice-versa.” 43 It is not clear why Kirkland does not consider 3 Nephi to be “specific” regarding the relationship between the Father and the Son.
Clyde Forsberg 44 writes in his master’s thesis, “Of those passages in the Book of Mormon which might be classified as Christological in their thrust, the great majority seem to favor [modalism].” 45 Forsberg finds evidence in passages that “[refer] to the ‘Son’ as the ‘flesh’ of God” (Mosiah VIII, 186 [15:1–8]) or that identify Christ as the Father (see Alma VIII, 252–53 [11:26–40], Ether I, 544 [3:13–16]).46 And Forsberg sees the amendment from “God” to “Son of God” in later editions of the Book of Mormon as marking a change in Joseph’s thought from modalism to a plurality of Gods.47
Examining the Evidence
So, what does the Book of Mormon actually teach about the nature of God and the Trinity? The Book of Mormon is clear about the role of Christ as the preincarnate Son of God,48 the Creator of the world,49 the God of Israel,50 and the Savior of the New Testament.51 However, the scriptures are not treatises expounding theological metaphysics. Ross David Baron 52 explains: “The teachings of the Book of Mormon focus on Christ, not the details of his oneness with the Father. The nature of the Godhead is only touched on and in this sense the Bible is no different.” 53 Even so, we believe the Book of Mormon provides strong evidence that the Father and Son are one not in the sense of being two offices occupied variously by one person, but in a social (or at least trinitarian) sense, involving two persons.54
Since the Book of Mormon spans over a thousand years of history, we should not assume that every prophet-writer shares the same idea of God’s oneness. Moreover, prophets are not theologians selecting precise philosophical terms; they are divinely inspired men who present their message sometimes in narratives, sometimes in metaphors, and sometimes in doctrinal pronouncements. Therefore, we cannot isolate passages and conclude that they present the nature of God as taught by the Book of Mormon as a whole.
A better way to frame our initial question might be as follows: Which model of the Godhead finally and most fully emerges when we review the Book of Mormon in its entirety? Does the text as a whole suggest a modalist or nonmodalist model? Drawing our data from the first edition of the Book of Mormon, we have carefully considered this question by identifying, analyzing, and weighing book by book, writer by writer, and passage by passage, the doctrine that each explicitly or implicitly teaches on this issue. We use the term nonmodalist to refer to texts that most favorably appear to explicitly or implicitly identify at least two distinct divine persons, and we use the term modalist to refer to passages that most favorably appear to explicitly or implicitly affirm that one, and only one, person is God. We label as evidentially neutral—that is, as favoring neither a modalist nor an nonmodalist view of God—passages that refer to Christ as “God” or “the Lord” without addressing matters of number or identity and passages that affirm only one God (as opposed to only one person). We focus our study solely on those passages that are prima facie either modalist or nonmodalist.
We believe that proponents of Book of Mormon modalism correctly identify several prima facie modalist passages, but that these proponents simply neglect, or discount without satisfactory explanation, many other passages that are prima facie nonmodalist. In our previous study of the frequency, distribution, and implications of all the references to God in the Book of Mormon, we showed the text as a whole to be clearly nonmodalist. Indeed, nonmodalist passages outnumber modalist passages by a ratio of at least 20 to 1.55 Still, the strongest and most extensive nonmodalist evidence is found in 3 Nephi, which is the reason why we have chosen this book as our focus in this paper.
Furthermore, we argue that each prima facie modalist passage can plausibly be subsumed within a social trinitarian model of God, but that numerous nonmodalist passages cannot be made to fit a modalist model without much creativity or contrivance. Next, we also consider the nature and effect of Joseph’s 1837 editorial revisions. On the basis of our examination of the total evidence, we conclude that the 1830 Book of Mormon is decidedly nonmodalist.
The Godhead in 3 Nephi
Of the evidence in favor of a nonmodalist interpretation, as we have already asserted, that of 3 Nephi is particularly pertinent. This is because 3 Nephi contains the explicit conversations of the Son with, and statements about, the Father. From such, we can draw general conclusions pertaining to the Son’s relationship with the Father. Considering the passages that have evidential weight on the issue before us, 3 Nephi is overwhelmingly nonmodalist. Since 3 Nephi contains too many nonmodalist passages to discuss each individually, we will summarize by grouping them into five separate, though closely related, categories.
1. Statements wherein Christ refers to God as “My Father.” When instructing the Nephites in a manner similar to the way he instructed his disciples in Jerusalem, Christ told them, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven” (3 Nephi VI, 484 [14:21]) and “Whoso repenteth and is baptized in my name, . . . [and] endureth to the end, behold, him will I hold guiltless before my Father” (3 Nephi XII, 508 [27:16]). He later tells three faithful disciples that they will “sit down in the kingdom of my Father” (3 Nephi XIII, 510 [28:10]). It seems odd that Christ would refer to himself as “my Father,” because for humans fatherhood is an irreflexive relational predicate, and so if Christ were trying to teach how he begat himself, his message would hardly have been communicated. While references to Christ as the Father may allow a modalist interpretation (under the assumption that Christ is the Father of creatures other than himself), such an interpretation is much more difficult when Christ refers to Christ’s Father.
2. Accounts of Christ praying to the Father or teaching the Nephites the order of prayer. Verses in this category are most plausibly understood as portraying Christ praying to another person, his Father. For example, “when [some Nephites] had knelt upon the ground, Jesus groaned within himself, and saith, Father, I am troubled because of the wickedness of the people of the house of Israel” (3 Nephi VIII, 489 [17:14]). Another account reads, “And it came to pass that Jesus departed out of the midst of them, and went a little way off from them and bowed himself to the earth, and he saith, Father, I thank thee that thou hast given the Holy Ghost unto these whom I have chosen” (3 Nephi IX, 494 [19:19–20]). It seems incongruous to imagine God in one role physically retreating from his faithful saints to congratulate himself for a job well done in his other role. Jesus would not likely petition, or express gratitude to, or intercede with, himself. The text reads best as Christ making prayers that were an attempted communion of two distinct persons.
Also noteworthy are instances of Christ commanding individuals and multitudes to pray unto the Father in his (Christ’s) name: “Therefore ye must always pray unto the Father in my name” (3 Nephi VIII, 491 [18:19]). Further, “And they shall believe in me, that I am Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and shall pray unto the Father in my name” (3 Nephi IX, 498 [20:31]). Although these passages could possibly be read to be consistent with a modalist doctrine, they at first glance distinguish between the Father and the Son as though they are two persons and are thus most naturally read as nonmodalist.56
3. Descriptions of Christ receiving or obeying the Father’s commandments. For example, we read of Christ saying: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Thus hath the Father commanded me, that I should give unto this people this land for their inheritance” (3 Nephi VII, 488 [16:16]). And in another instance Christ said, “Not at any time hath the Father given me commandment that I should tell it unto your brethren at Jerusalem” (3 Nephi VII, 486 [15:14]). To intelligibly read these passages as supporting modalism is challenging indeed. To do so requires readers to understand God in one mode to give a command that he, himself, receives or obeys in another mode. Odd state of affairs! Why attribute this uncommon speech to God, when the word command as a form of personal decision making is foreign to the rest of the Book of Mormon? Again, this class of passages is more plausibly read as implying that the Father and the Son are separate persons.
4. References to Christ’s ascension to the Father. These passages differentiate between the locations of the Father and the Son when Christ, in the first person, says that he must go unto the Father. “Behold, ye have heard the things which I have taught before I ascended to my Father” (3 Nephi VII, 485 [15:1]). Also, “But now I go unto the Father, and also to shew myself unto the lost tribes of Israel: for they are not lost unto the Father, for he knoweth whither he hath taken them” (3 Nephi VIII, 488 [17:4]. See also 3 Nephi VIII, 492–93 [18:27, 35]; XII, 506 [26:15]; XIII, 509–10 [27:28; 28:1, 4]). The last passage is additionally telling in ascribing to the Father knowledge regarding the lost tribes. It would be extremely unusual for someone to refer, in the third person, to the knowledge (that is, of the location of the lost tribes) he himself has in another role. In fact, this would be the only such awkward description of self-knowledge in the entire Book of Mormon.
If the Son and the Father are the same person in different modes, these passages are difficult to understand. A modalist interpretation would have to posit a figurative ascension, perhaps in the sense of a shifting of roles, or that a locational ascension was required for the shifting of roles. The former seems like a less plausible reading of the text since Christ does physically ascend to and descend from the Father’s presence when remarks like these are made (3 Nephi V, 476–77 [11:7–11]; 3 Nephi XII–XIII, 507–9 [27:2, 28]; 3 Nephi XII, 506 [26:15]). The latter suffers in proscribing an awkward limitation on God’s power: that his ability to act in certain roles depends on his physical location. Both positions will struggle to explain how God still acts in the role of the Son once “ascended to heaven” in the figurative or literal senses (Moroni VII, 579 [7:27]; Moroni IX, 585 [9:26]). A nonmodalist reading of these ascensions is far less problematic.
5. Instances otherwise differentiating the Father from the Son in some manner not heretofore specified. For example, Christ teaches, “The Father having raised me up unto you first, and sent me to bless you” (3 Nephi IX, 497 [20:26]). Christ also tells the Nephites, “Ye are numbered among them which the Father hath given me” (3 Nephi VII, 486 [15:24]). In addition, Christ teaches, “For in that day, for my sake shall the Father work a work” (3 Nephi IX, 500 [21:9]). Numerous verses in 3 Nephi manifest this sort of distinction: V, 478 (11:35); VII, 487 (16:6); IX, 497–500 (20:26–27, 35; 21:2, 20); X, 501, 503 (21:27; 23:9); XIII, 510 (28:10–11). Another example is Christ’s statement “Now, behold, my joy is great, even unto fulness, . . . and even the Father rejoiceth, and also all the holy angels, because of you and this generation” (3 Nephi XIII, 509 [27:30]). At another time Jesus tells his Nephite disciples, “Your joy shall be full, even as the Father hath given me fulness of joy” (3 Nephi XIII, 510 [28:10]). In each of these passages, the Son in some manner differentiates between himself and his Father because the Son receives some action from the Father (for example, being raised up, being “given” the Nephites, or being given a fulness of joy), because the Father does something for the sake of the Son, or because the Father and the Son are separately listed as having some quality or taking some action. For example, if the Father and the Son are the same person, then why does Christ state that not only he rejoices but “even the Father” rejoices? The Father’s joy would follow as a necessary consequence and would be a completely superfluous thing for the Son to add.
We include in this catchall category the Father’s announcement of Christ, his beloved Son, as Christ appears to the survivors in Bountiful, followed by Christ’s acknowledgment of his atonement:
And they [the Nephites gathered at Bountiful] did look steadfastly towards Heaven, from whence the [voice] came; . . . and it saith unto them, Behold, my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased, in whom I have glorified my name, hear ye him. . . . And behold, they saw a man descending out of Heaven; and he was clothed in a white robe, and he came down and stood in the midst of them. . . . And it came to pass that he . . . spake unto the people, saying: Behold I am Jesus Christ, of which the prophets testified that should come into the world; and behold I . . . have glorified the Father in taking upon me the sins of the world, in the which I have suffered the will of the Father in all things, from the beginning. (3 Nephi V, 476–77 [1:5–11])
A natural reading of this passage strongly suggests that Christ is a separate person from the Father. The Father’s words suggest that the Son is an object of his pleasure, someone other than the Father himself. The Son also appears to distinguish between two persons by stating that the Father gave him a bitter cup—indicating one giver and one recipient—and by apparently referring to two separate wills, one of which suffered the will of the other. Hence, this important passage, like the rest of the discourse in 3 Nephi, coheres much more plausibly with a nonmodalist, rather than with a modalist, model of the trinity.
Although 3 Nephi contains more at first glance nonmodalist references than any other book, similar references can be found throughout the Book of Mormon.57 So if the Book of Mormon does mirror Joseph’s earliest understanding of God, as advocates of early Mormon modalism claim, from the foregoing evidence we may reasonably conclude that as early as 1830 Joseph taught just as he testified: that the Father and the Son are distinct divine persons who are agreed as one.
Possible Modalisms in the Book of Mormon
Given 3 Nephi’s apparent differentiation of the Father and the Son, how do we, consistently with that view, interpret or explain other Book of Mormon passages that appear to equate the Son with the Father? Rather than searching for explanations exterior to the text, it seems reasonable to look first within the Book of Mormon itself. What do its writers and editors teach us about Christ? When we become clear about these teachings, it will not be difficult to understand putative modalist passages in a way that is both self-consistent and consistent with 3 Nephi’s clear-cut portrayal of God the Father and Jesus Christ as distinct and separate persons.
Book of Mormon Christology
The very high Christology of the Book of Mormon is evident from the very beginning of the record. Upon completing the record, Moroni, editor and writer, engraves a title page in which he summarizes both the content and the fundamental purposes of the book. These purposes include “the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations” (the title page of the Book of Mormon). The account of Christ’s visit to the Nephites in 3 Nephi contains the personal teachings of the Son regarding himself and is particularly instructive. Prior to Christ’s physical appearance, he proclaims that he is “the Son of God,” that he “created the Heavens and the earth, and all things that in them is [sic],” that he is “in the Father, and the Father in [him],” that those who receive him become his adoptive children, and that he is “the light and the life of the world” and “Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end” (3 Nephi IV, 473–74 [9:15–18]). Among Christ’s first pronouncements during his visit with the Nephites are that he is “the light and the life of the world,” that he took upon him “the sins of the world,” and that he is “the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth” (3 Nephi V, 477 [11:11–14]). He later adds, “I am he that gave the law [of Moses], and I am he which covenanted with my people Israel,” clearly indicating that he is the Jehovah of the Old Testament (3 Nephi VII, 485 [15:5]). The Nephites pray to Jesus, “calling him their Lord and their God” (3 Nephi IX, 494 [19:18]). This is high Christology—high in the sense that it emphasizes Jesus’s eternal, divine nature rather than focusing primarily on his condescended human nature. Notice that such descriptions do not in any way entail modalism and are interwoven throughout the 3 Nephi account, intermingled with the numerous nonmodalist passages discussed above, signifying that modalism is not the best way to understand this high Christology.
Proponents of Book of Mormon modalism commonly rely on four groups of passages in making a case for their claims: (1) passages that affirm that Jesus Christ is God; (2) so-called “oneness” passages that affirm that there is only one God, or that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God; (3) passages that refer to Jesus Christ as the Father of heaven and earth; and (4) passages that unqualifiedly affirm that Jesus is the Father and the Son. We will consider the evidentiary bearing of each of these sets of putative proof texts. We believe that the text, particularly the text of 3 Nephi, provides some very helpful guidance in interpreting these passages in a way that does not affirm modalism.
Passages Affirming That Jesus Christ Is God
Book of Mormon writers repeatedly affirm that Jesus Christ is God, beginning with Moroni on the title page: “Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.” While proponents of modalism cite this and similar passages as evidence for their position,58 we consider them to be evidentially neutral, as both modalism and trinitarianism affirm that Jesus Christ is God; however, we recognize that these types of passages are much more common in the Book of Mormon than in the Bible, reinforcing the high Christology of the former. Nevertheless, if these passages favor modalism in some special sense, we invite proponents of early Mormon modalism to show us how they do so.
Unity Passages Affirming That There Is Only “One God” or That the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost Are One
Advocates of early Mormon modalism 59 also attempt to establish their claim by citing oneness passages that affirm that there is only one God, or that affirm that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God.60 But trinitarians, including social trinitarians, also affirm only one God or that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God. So it again appears that such putative modalist texts are evidentially neutral, being equally consistent with either a modalist or trinitarian view of the Godhead. In this connection, it is important to note that none of these passages affirm that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one person. To so read these oneness passages is the result of interpretation not suggested by the text: while it is possible to interpret them as signifying only one person, this interpretation is no more natural than a social trinitarian interpretation. And with a few exceptions, Christians historically have not interpreted similar oneness passages in the Bible as signifying one person. As already pointed out, “three persons, one God” is the crux of the trinitarian formula. Both modalism and trinitarianism hold that there are three somethings that unitedly constitute one something that is God. For modalism, the three somethings are modes of one God-person, while for social trinitarians the three somethings are three distinct persons who constitute one God in the sense of one perfectly united divine monarchy, family, or community. Classical trinitarianism holds that the three persons are further united in being of one substance. Since these oneness passages do not specify whether the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three persons or three modes, they are compatible with either interpretation. Consequently, many oneness passages are at first glance evidentially neutral.
Nonetheless, 3 Nephi provides some evidence as to how to interpret these oneness passages. Christ prays to the Father, asking that the believing Nephites be purified in him: “That I may be in them as thou, Father, art in me, that we may be one, that I may be glorified in them” (3 Nephi IX, 495 [19:29]).61 The purification is necessary for the oneness of God and man, or for the indwelling of the Son in Christian believers, in the same manner in which the Father indwells in the Son. The analogy for oneness appears to be not that of offices or modes in a single entity, but that of purification, alignment, and divine indwelling within a community.
Passages Affirming That Jesus Christ Is the Father of Heaven and Earth
Proponents of early Mormon modalism also infer modalism from passages affirming that Jesus Christ is “the Father of Heaven and Earth.” 62 But this does not necessarily follow. To see this, we must first clarify the different ways in which the word Father was used when Joseph was engaged in translating the Book of Mormon. In the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary (which purports to merely report common usage), the sixth definition of father reads: “He who creates, invents, makes or composes any thing; the author, former or contriver; a founder, director or instructor. God as creator is the father of all men.” 63 Since father was used sometimes to mean creator, phrases like “the Father of heaven and earth” can plausibly be interpreted as “the Creator of heaven and earth.” This is fully consistent with the Book of Mormon’s high Christology, including its frequent affirmations that Christ is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the God of Israel.64
If the Father were the only Creator of heaven and earth, this interpretation would still suggest modalism by equating the Son with the Creator—the Father. However, other passages of scripture available to early Latter-day Saints explicitly affirm that the Son, apparently distinguished from the Father, is Creator. In 3 Nephi, Christ proclaims from heaven to the Nephites that he is the Creator, while clearly distinguishing himself from the Father: “Behold I am Jesus Christ, the Son of God. I created the Heavens and the earth, and all things that in them is [sic]. I was with the Father from the beginning. I am in the Father and, the Father in me; and in me hath the Father glorified his name” (3 Nephi IV, 473 [9:15]). Similarly, the New Testament explicitly affirms that Jesus Christ is the Creator (or Father) of all things, while differentiating him from his father, God the Father. For instance, John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. . . . And the Word became flesh” (John 1:1–4, 14; emphasis added). Similarly, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews explains, “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds” (Hebrews 1:1–2; emphasis added; see also Ephesians 3:9). The Book of Commandments (also written during the period in which Joseph was supposedly a modalist) similarly discloses Christ as the Creator: “Behold I am Jesus Christ the Son of the living God, which created the heavens and the earth” (Book of Commandments XII:5 [D&C 14:9]).
With these 3 Nephi and New Testament verses, as well as other teachings in the sacred literature, early Mormons likely would have understood that Christ was the Creator of the heavens and the earth. If so, Book of Mormon passages affirming that Christ was the “Father of heaven and earth” can plausibly be read as affirming Christ’s role as Creator without any theological jarring. In fact, it is significant that passages affirming Christ’s fatherhood in this sense also mention his creative role directly afterward. King Benjamin prophesies of Christ that “he shall be called Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of Heaven and Earth, the creator of all things, from the beginning” (Mosiah I, 160 [3:8]). Similarly, Samuel the Lamanite proclaims, “For this intent I have come up upon the walls of this city, . . . that ye might know of the coming of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of Heaven and of earth, the Creator of all things” (Helaman V, 446 [14:11–12]). Both Samuel and King Benjamin specify Christ as the “Creator of all things” directly after mentioning Christ’s fatherhood; this may indicate that they understood his fatherhood in terms of creation. The 3 Nephi and New Testament background on Christ’s creative role, the use of the term father in the sense of creator in 1828, and the juxtaposition of fatherhood and creation in Book of Mormon passages make it reasonable to suppose that the phrase “Father of Heaven and Earth” means “Creator of Heaven and Earth.” Thus, this title ascribed to Christ should not be construed as evidence in favor of modalism.
Moreover, like Hebrews 1:1–2, the Book of Moses (revealed shortly after the publication of the Book of Mormon and during the period in which Joseph Smith was purportedly a modalist) teaches not only that Christ was the Creator but that the Father created the world through Christ, suggesting two separate persons: “And worlds without number have I created; and I also created them for mine own purpose; and by the Son I created them, which is mine Only Begotten” (Moses 1:33). It should be sufficiently clear that passages that teach that Christ is the Father of heaven and earth, while consistent with modalism, are equally compatible with social trinitarianism and are therefore evidentially neutral.
Passages Unqualifiedly Affirming That the Son Is the Father
Proponents of early Mormon modalism do not qualify when they quote passages affirming that the Son is the Father and the Father is the Son as evidence for Book of Mormon modalism.65 Indeed, in our judgment these passages constitute the most plausible evidence for modalism found in the Book of Mormon. Before considering ways in which these passages might nonetheless be plausibly understood within a social trinitarian model, it will be important to once again put this class of data into proper perspective. Passages of this sort are few in the Book of Mormon. Of approximately eighteen hundred references to God, only seven passages (and two others that were subsequently changed, which we deal with later) are of the kind presently considered. Third Nephi—which we have proposed is the most important portion of the Book of Mormon on the nature of God—is permeated at first glance by nonmodalist passages that overwhelm the apparent modalist texts. To repeat: when the Book of Mormon is taken as a whole, the ratio of nonmodalist to modalist passages in the first edition of the Book of Mormon is at least 20 to 1. Hence, even if these modalist passages could not be accommodated by a social trinitarian model, the existence of these seven passages would pose far less difficulty to a social trinitarian model than the overwhelming preponderance of nonmodalist passages would pose to a modalist model.
Let us consider four ways of assimilating or otherwise analyzing the apparently modalist data that are drawn from the Book of Mormon text itself, with 3 Nephi being particularly noteworthy in providing guidance.66 First, some unqualified references to Christ as Father might merely be abbreviated expressions of his being Father in the sense of being the Father of heaven and earth. As already shown, such references when viewed as being ascriptions of Christ’s role as Creator are fully consistent with a social trinitarian doctrine.
Second, the Book of Mormon itself teaches us a second sense of father, which is also properly applied to Christ. In 3 Nephi, prior to his physical appearance, Christ teaches, “And as many as have received me, to them have I given to become the sons of God; and even so will I to as many as shall believe on my name” (3 Nephi IV, 473 [9:17]). Those who receive Christ become his adopted children, as further explained by King Benjamin: “And now, because of the covenant which ye have made, ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you” (Mosiah III, 166 [5:7]).67 Through Christ’s atonement for the sins of all humanity, he spiritually adopts those who covenant to obey him. Christ is an adoptive father to those who are born again and become “new creatures” (Mosiah XI, 214 [27:26]). In his preincarnate appearance to the brother of Jared, Christ explains his fatherhood in just these terms (Ether I, 544 [3:14]). The faithful generations of Nephite Christians following the visitation of the resurrected Christ are described as being “in one, the children of Christ” (4 Nephi I, 515 [1:17]), a phrase Mormon also uses to describe Christians in general (Mormon IV, 537 [9:26]). Mormon further taught that one becomes a child of Christ by following the light of Christ (Moroni VII, 578 [7:19]).
Third, Christ can be called the Father because his Father gave him the fulness of Godhood: he is perfect like his Father. In his visit to the Nephites in 3 Nephi, the Son instructs the multitudes to be perfect “even as I, or your Father which is in Heaven is perfect” (3 Nephi V, 481 [12:48]) and tells his disciples that he is “even as the Father” (3 Nephi XIII, 510 [28:10]).68 He further testifies of the mutual indwelling of the Father and the Son: “I am in the Father, and the Father in me, and the Father and I are one” (3 Nephi V, 478 [11:27]; 3 Nephi IV, 473 [9:15]). The Book of Mormon continually teaches that Christ, the Son or Messiah, received a fulness of divine attributes, being full of grace, truth, mercy, equity, patience, and long-suffering (2 Nephi I, 63 [2:6]; Alma III, 236 [5:48]; Alma VII, 247 [9:26]; Alma IX, 259 [13:9]); and mercy, justice, and holiness are described as being in him (3 Nephi XI, 505 [26:5]). Christ’s perfection, his mutual indwelling with the Father, and his reception of the fulness of Godhood show how he is a perfect image of the Father, which thus provides an explanation of why and how he can also refer to himself as the Father. This is made more explicit in a revelation given on May 6, 1833, in which the Son teaches again that “I am in the Father and the Father in me, and the Father and I are one” and in which he offers this further explanation: “the Father because he gave me of his fulness; and the Son because I was in the world and made flesh my tabernacle, and dwelt among the sons of men” (1835 Doctrine and Covenants LXXXII:1 [1971 D&C 93:3–4]). Christ became the Father in the sense that he inherited the fulness of divine perfections from the Father.
Another way in which the Book of Mormon appears to refer to Christ as the Father is through the subjection of the will of the Son to the will of the Father. In 3 Nephi, the resurrected Lord declares that he “suffered the will of the Father in all things, from the beginning” (3 Nephi V, 477 [11:11]). Similarly, the Gospels describe when Christ in Gethsemane forsakes his will to do the will of his Father (Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42). Nephi reports that Christ fully submitted: the Jews “scourge him, and he suffereth it; and they smite him, and he suffereth it. Yea, they spit upon him, and he suffereth it” (1 Nephi V, 51 [19:9]). By so suffering, the Savior shows his humility and proper obedience to the Father (2 Nephi XIII, 118–19 [31:7]). Because he is fully obedient to the will of the Father, Christ becomes an instrument and extension of the Father.
We will now show how each of the seven putative modalist passages can plausibly be assimilated within one or more of these interpretations. The first of the seven scriptures appears in 2 Nephi. Nephi simply records the words of Isaiah: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace” (2 Nephi IX, 95 [19:6]). The 1830 edition renders this verse exactly as it appears in the King James Version of the Bible. Because Christ was the everlasting God of the Old Testament and the Creator of heaven and earth, it seems likely that this Old Testament passage is a reference to the Son as the Father in the sense of creator. Biblical commentators offer a second interpretation involving Christ’s relation to his people as the father of those who serve him: “ ’Father’ bears on His relation to His people: this King cares for them with loving goodness as a father his children.” 69 This second interpretation seems to indicate something close to Christ’s role as adoptive Father. In either case, this passage can be—and has been for over a thousand years—interpreted in a way that does not entail modalism. It is unclear why proponents of modalism would think that early Latter-day Saints would have interpreted it any differently.
In the second passage, Book of Mormon prophet Abinadi exhorts his listeners, “Teach them that redemption cometh through Christ the Lord, which is the very Eternal Father”70 (Mosiah VIII, 189 [16:15]). This statement could be an abbreviated reference to Christ as the Father in any of the senses of fatherhood previously mentioned, but given the context in which it occurs—several chapters dealing with the atonement—it most likely refers to Christ’s role as adoptive Father of those who follow him. Indeed, this seems to be Abinadi’s own suggestion, for he continues:
Who shall be his seed? Behold I say unto you, that whosoever hath heard the words of the prophets, . . . [and] hearkened unto their words, and believed that the Lord would redeem his people, and have looked forward to that day for a remission of their sins; I say unto you, that these are his seed. (Mosiah VIII, 187 [15:10–11])
In the third passage, Moroni writes, “Behold, he crated [sic] Adam; and by Adam came the fall of man. And because of the fall of man, came Jesus Christ, even the Father and the Son” (Mormon IV, 536 [9:12]). While the immediate context provides no clue as to how Moroni was using the word Father here, Moroni’s description of Christ as Father can be understood as affirming Christ as Father in one of the senses already identified above.
The fourth apparently modalist passage is where Christ speaks to Nephi the night before his birth in Bethlehem: “Behold, I come unto my own, to fulfil all things which I have made known unto the children of men, from the foundation of the world, and to do the will, both of the Father, and the Son of the Father, because of me, and of the Son, because of my flesh” (3 Nephi I, 453 [1:14]). Joseph revised this passage in 1837, and since that time the verse has read, “Behold, I come unto my own, to fulfil all things which I have made known unto the children of men from the foundation of the world, and to do the will, both of the Father and of the Son—of the Father because of me, and of the Son because of my flesh” (3 Nephi I, 453 [1:14]). This altered version adds the preposition of before “the Son” and changes the punctuation, making it clearer that the phrase “the Son” is intended to go with the antecedent clause (“both of the Father and [of] “) rather than with the subsequent clause (“ of the Father”). Note that neither version actually refers to the Son as the Father; both state that Christ does the will of the Father “because of him [Christ],” which could certainly be read to state that Christ is the Father, but need not. The passage could simply be referring to the subjection of Christ’s will to the Father—Christ willingly submits to the will of the Father, and therefore he does the Father’s will because of himself. If one reads the passage as suggesting that Christ is the Father, either version could be interpreted through the lens of any of the ways in which Christ can be referred to as the Father—for example, Christ as the preincarnate Jehovah and Father, or Creator, of heaven and earth, who does the will of himself, the Father.
The change between the two editions does not necessarily mark an evolution in Joseph’s thought, for the 1830 version may itself be altered to support the later (1837) meaning with the mere repositioning of one comma, without the addition of any preposition. Note the main difference:
Original 1830: “I come . . . to do the will, both of the Father, and the Son of the Father, because of me, and of the Son, because of my flesh.”
Altered 1830: “I come . . . to do the will, both of the Father [omission of comma] and the Son[,] of the Father, because of me, and of the Son, because of my flesh.”
This demonstration illustrates that the changes made to this passage in the 1837 edition of the Book of Mormon were likely merely editorial—corrections of punctuation errors in the original text. Additionally, “the earliest text” version of the Book of Mormon, which corrects textual errors of the 1830 edition by comparing them with the original manuscripts and earliest sources, has the verse read as follows: “Behold, I come . . . to do the will both of the Father and of the Son—of the Father because of me, and the Son because of my flesh.” 71
The fifth passage appears in the book of Ether, in which the preincarnate Christ states, “Behold, I am he which was prepared from the foundation of the world, to redeem my people. Behold, I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son. In me shall all mankind have light, and that eternally, even they which shall believe on my name; and they shall become my sons and my daughters” (Ether I, 544 [3:14]). This passage seemingly refers to Christ’s role as adoptive father to those who believe on his name, specifying that they shall “become” his sons and daughters.
The sixth passage also appears in the book of Ether. Mormon writes that “the Lord”—apparently Jesus Christ—said to him, “I am the same that leadeth men to all good: he that will not believe my words, will not believe me, that I am; and he that will not believe me will not believe the Father who sent me. For behold, I am the Father, I am the light, and the life, and the truth of the world” (Ether I, 547 [4:12]). This passage could be referring to Christ as the Father because he does the Father’s will—the Father sent the Son, and the Son acts as agent for the Father such that those who will not believe the Son also will not believe the Father. Alternatively, the scripture could be referring to Christ as the Father because he is the Creator of the world, a reading that is suggested earlier in the narrative when Jesus Christ is referred to as “the Father of the heavens and of the earth, and all things that in them is. . . . And at my command the heavens are opened and are shut; and at my word, the earth shall shake; and at my command, the inhabitants thereof shall pass away, even so as by fire” (Ether I, 546 [4:7, 9]).
Finally, the passage most frequently quoted by Mormon modalist theorists is another passage from Abinadi that they use as their proof text because he provides the strongest evidence for modalism in the entire Book of Mormon: 72
I would that ye should understand that 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, suffereth temptation, and yieldeth not to the temptation, but suffereth himself to be mocked, and scourged, and cast out, and disowned by his people. (Mosiah VIII, 186 [15:1–5])
While this passage may lend itself naturally to a modalist interpretation, it can also be understood within a social trinitarian framework. Beyond the description of Christ and the Father as the Father of heaven and earth, which can be understood in terms of Christ and the Father both playing roles as the Creator, the focus on the fatherhood of Christ in this passage is on his being “conceived by the power of God.” Thus, rather than simply equating the Son with the Father, or stating that the Father became the Son, this passage suggests a deeper meaning than mere modalism.
What is Abinadi arguing by urging that Christ is the Father because of being conceived by God’s power? It probably does not mean simply that he was brought about by divine power, for in a general sense everything is at least indirectly created this way. For God “hath created all things, both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them is” (2 Nephi I, 64 [2:14]). Perhaps Abinadi is affirming the virgin birth of Christ (2 Nephi IX, 93 [17:14]). Alma the Younger suggests that this virgin birth was made possible by the power of God. He teaches that Mary would be “overshadowed, and [would] conceive by the power of the Holy Ghost” (Alma IV, 240 [7:10]). Both Abinadi and Alma use similar language to capture the conception of Jesus. Furthermore, Christ’s conception through God also draws attention to the Book of Mormon’s continual recognition of him as the “Only Begotten,” suggesting that his Sonship is through the Father’s bestowal of himself in bringing about the life of his Son. Thus, it is possible that Abinadi is teaching that Christ is the Father because of his status as the Only Begotten: he was to be conceived directly by God’s person in the miraculous virgin birth. Although we are unaware of any other text in the Book of Mormon that seems to refer to Christ as the Father in this way, the use of the word conceived makes this a very plausible reading of the passage.
Another explanation may be that Christ becomes the Father through conception by the power of God because he receives of the fulness of the Father. Note the similarity of language in the May 6, 1833, revelation discussed above: “The Father because he gave me of his fulness, and the Son because I was in the world and made flesh my tabernacle, and dwelt among the sons of men.” As in Abinadi’s teachings, Christ is the Son because he dwells in the flesh. Here, he is the Father because the Father gave him of his fulness. Christ inherits all the divine perfections of the Father and can be referred to as the Father.
Abinadi’s message also draws attention to the subjection of the will of the Son (the flesh) to the will of the Father (the spirit). The Son, or the flesh, appears to be associated with the natural man and his earthly trials and temptations. This is not surprising since many Book of Mormon prophets speak of the will of the flesh. Lehi cautions men not to choose death “according to the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein” (2 Nephi I, 65 [2:29]). Nephi describes “the lusts of the flesh” (1 Nephi VII, 58 [22:23]) and asks himself, “Why should I yield to sin, because of my flesh?” (2 Nephi III, 70 [4:27]). Jacob urges his brethren to “reconcile [themselves] to the will of God, and not to the will of the Devil and the flesh” (2 Nephi VII, 85 [10:24]). However, the flesh is not inherently wicked, but allows humanity to be enticed by good and evil. Lehi teaches that “men are free according to the flesh: . . . free to choose liberty and eternal life . . . or to choose captivity and death” (2 Nephi I, 65 [2:27]). Men are thus commanded to yield up the inclinations of the flesh “to the enticings of the Holy Spirit” and to be “willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon [them], even as a child doth submit to his father” (Mosiah I, 161 [3:19]; see also Mosiah XI, 206 [24:15]). They, like Ether, are to “suffer the will of the Lord in the flesh” (Ether VI, 573 [15:34]). Given this backdrop, it appears that Abinadi is speaking of the eventual temptations and sufferings of Christ in the flesh as he submits to the will of the Father. After all, Abinadi is expounding on Isaiah’s witness that “it pleased the Lord to bruise him” (Isaiah 53:10). The desires of the natural man must be denied in favor of following God, even unto death, as Abinadi urges (Mosiah VIII, 186 [15:7]).
With these considerations in mind, although Abinadi’s words in Mosiah VIII may appear plausibly modalist, they can be understood in a nonmodalist manner. Furthermore, the vast number of nonmodalist statements by both Abinadi 73 and other authors throughout the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants suggests a nonmodalist interpretation. Therefore, we are compelled to read Abinadi’s words in the context of the whole Book of Mormon.
If any of these interpretations prove unsatisfying, we need not rule out the possibility that a few preincarnation Book of Mormon writers may have been modalists or, at least, had modalist leanings. The clearest and most consistently nonmodalist passages in the Book of Mormon occur in writings that recount the resurrected Christ’s appearance to the Nephites and subsequent events. It is easy to admit the possibility that a few preincarnation prophets (Abinadi is a candidate) did not have as full an understanding of the Godhead as the postincarnation prophets. But this can be just as easily admitted about many biblical prophets and even about Joseph Smith. After all, the understanding of every person—and even every prophet—changes with time and experience. No matter the explanation given for the few apparently modalist passages, the portrait of God that most fully and finally emerges from 3 Nephi—and indeed the Book of Mormon as a whole—is nonmodalist and consistent with social trinitarianism. Contrary to the claims of the proponents of Mormon modalism, the Book of Mormon, when evaluated as a whole text, cannot plausibly be construed as modalist.
Nevertheless, these proponents rely on one other class of evidence, albeit circumstantial, in arguing their claim: certain editorial changes Joseph made to the language of the first edition of the Book of Mormon in his 1837 revision. Their claim is that Joseph was seeking to remove from the document modalist ideas that earlier, but no longer, reflected his theological understanding. Widmer, for example, writes, “The new work, in keeping with the recently emerged Mormon concept of the divine, removed the passages that reflected the earlier modalistic position of the church.” 74
Revisions to the First Edition of the Book of Mormon
According to Widmer, the 1837 edition of the Book of Mormon revised several passages in the first edition that referred directly to the Father and the Son as modes of the same being.75 Charles, Alexander, Forsberg, and Vogel concur.76 Along with the passages of Abinadi, these edits are the “evidence” most frequently cited by advocates of early Mormon modalism. In this section, we examine this alleged evidence, arguing that it fails to establish that either Joseph Smith or the Book of Mormon was originally modalist. We will discuss two groups of changes, only one of which actually removed apparently modalist language from the Book of Mormon. It should be noted first, however, that most of the apparently modalist passages discussed earlier were not changed, suggesting that the revisions to the Book of Mormon were not an attempt to systematically remove modalist references.
The first category of changes, consisting of two verses, includes changes from Christ being called “God” to being called “the Son of God.” In the first edition (1830), 1 Nephi III, 25 (11:18) reads: “the virgin which thou seest, is the mother of God, after the manner of the flesh.” In the 1837 edition, Joseph changed it to read: “the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh” (1 Nephi 11:18). Also, in the 1830 Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi III, 26 (11:32), reads: “[the Lamb of God] was taken by the people; yea, the Everlasting God, was judged of the world.” This was changed to read: “[the Lamb of God] was taken by the people; yea, the Son of the everlasting God was judged of the world” (1 Nephi 11:32). Returning to the criteria we have previously set forth, these verses were actually evidentially neutral between social trinitarianism and modalism before the changes: in both models, Christ is properly referred to as “God.” Because the initial renderings of the passages were evidentially neutral to start with, the revisions cannot represent a change from modalism to social trinitarianism. Instead, since both models properly refer to both Christ and his Father as “God,” the changes simply remove ambiguity by making it clear that the references in the verses are to God the Son rather than to God the Father. The new phrases stating “Son of God” can be read just as much in a modalist sense as they were before when they stated simply “God.” In addition, many passages referring to Christ as God were not changed, suggesting there was not an attempt to systematically alter the doctrines taught in the Book of Mormon.
The second group of revisions involves changes from calling Christ “the Father” to calling him “the Son of the Father.” First Nephi III, 25 (11:21) originally read: “behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Eternal Father!” It was changed to read: “Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father” (1 Nephi 11:21). Also, 1 Nephi III, 32 (13:40) originally read: “[these records] shall make known to all . . . that the Lamb of God is the Eternal Father and the Saviour of the world.” It was changed to read: “[these records] shall make known to all . . . that the Lamb of God is the Son of the Eternal Father, and the Savior of the world” (1 Nephi 13:40). In their context in the 1830 edition, the references to Christ as “Eternal Father” can be seen as part of the high Christology of the Book of Mormon: both passages emphasize his premortal and eternal power and glory. Both teach that the person understood by the Nephites and by other preincarnation Israelites to be the Father (or Creator) was the person who would be born as a babe to Mary and subsequently crucified on a cross. Since both Christ and his Father are referred to as “Father” in the Book of Mormon, these revisions, as with the revisions discussed earlier, should be seen as clarifying which member of the Godhead is being referenced. Once again, disambiguation as opposed to doctrinal alteration provides the best explanation of these editorial revisions, particularly given that the seven other passages that referred to Christ as the Father were left unchanged. So these changes do not in themselves provide a strong challenge for a nonmodalist reading of the Book of Mormon.
Royal Skousen, editor of the ongoing Book of Mormon critical text project, argues that these four changes (1 Nephi III, 25 [11:18]; III, 25 [11:21]; III, 26 [11:32]; III, 32 [13:40]), which he identifies as “characteristic of Joseph’s editing for the first part of the text,” should be “considered as clarifications, not as doctrinal reinterpretations.” The passages were modified so that they “could not be misinterpreted as references to God the Father instead of his Son, Jesus Christ.” To support this, Skousen cites earlier instances where “Jesus is clearly identified as the Son of God” (see 1 Nephi III, 22 [10:17]; III, 24 [11:7]) and points out that subsequently “Joseph Smith left unchanged all the references that describe Jesus Christ as the Father and as God” (see 2 Nephi XI, 104 [25:12]; Mosiah I, 160 [3:8]; Mosiah V, 171 [7:27]; Mosiah VIII, 186 [15:1–3]; Helaman V, 446 [14:12]; Helaman V, 451 [16:18]; Mormon IV, 536 [9:12]; Ether I, 544 [3:14]; Ether I, 546–47 [4:7, 12]).77
Furthermore, Skousen suggests that “perhaps the original motivation for adding the first ‘the son of’ (in 1 Nephi 11:18) resulted from complaints . . . about the use in the Book of Mormon of the seemingly Catholic phraseology ‘the mother of God.’ ” 78 This complaint was printed by an anonymous author, who was greatly influenced by Alexander Campbell’s 1831 article “Delusions,” 79 in an article published in early 1835 in an Illinois newspaper, The Pioneer. As Skousen points out, “There is clear evidence that the Latter-day Saints were aware of this issue.” 80 Oliver Cowdery, editor of the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, quoted a passage from the Pioneer article that labels the 1 Nephi 11:18 phrase “mother of God” as “true Roman phraseology.” 81 Thus, as Skousen suggests, the impetus for inserting the phrase “the Son of” likely was to avoid the Catholic stigma associated with the phrase “mother of God.” So, the shift is likely one of stylistic preference, not a revision of theology.
Yet another problem remains for the thesis that Joseph’s 1837 revision of the Book of Mormon was motivated by a theological shift away from modalism: why did he not revise all the modalist passages? According to Widmer, Joseph’s “revision was not carried out consistently throughout the Book of Mormon. This is seen from the Ether passages that remained unchanged. Many other modern Book of Mormon passages still reflect the Church’s earliest modalistic theology.” 82 But if Joseph did not revise all or even most of the presumably modalist passages—we could forgive him for missing a few—would not a more reasonable explanation of the revision be that Joseph sought to remove textual ambiguities instead? Are the advocates of early Mormon modalism honestly suggesting that Joseph did a hodge-podge job in cleaning up his text for a doctrinal rewrite?
As we have seen, the claim that the 1830 Book of Mormon, read in its entirety, is a modalist document is difficult to support. While the Book of Mormon in a few passages calls Christ the Father and the Son, this does not necessitate that God the Son is identical to God the Father, because, as shown above, Christ can be considered “the Father” in numerous ways. Additionally, passages of scripture that seemingly advocate modalism can easily be interpreted within a social trinitarian model. Furthermore, the accounts of the Godhead in 3 Nephi provide numerous passages that are far more challenging for proponents of functional modalism to explain. Similarly, revisions in the 1837 Book of Mormon do not seem to suggest any motivation to remove modalism from the scriptures. And we have no evidence that Joseph or the Church of Jesus Christ interpreted such passages as modalist in 1830.83
We encourage scholars who believe the 1830 Book of Mormon is an early modalist document to attend to the accounts of the Godhead in the Book of Mormon as a whole. Including the two passages that were changed in the 1837 edition, only nine apparently modalist verses can be found throughout the Book of Mormon—as opposed to numerous distinctly nonmodalist verses. When the latter are combined with the even more clearly nonmodalist passages of the Book of Commandments, the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, and the Book of Moses, we find a larger picture that is definitely nonmodalist. Those who claim that the Book of Mormon is a modalist document seem to have focused on a few passages while ignoring the rest of the book, especially the climactic witness of Christ found in 3 Nephi.
David L. Paulsen is an emeritus professor of philosophy at BYU. He earned a BS degree in political science from BYU, a JD from the University of Chicago Law School, and a PhD in philosophy from the University of Michigan.
Ari D. Bruening graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School and currently is an attorney specializing in large-scale land use and transportation issues at the law firm of Grow & Bruening, PC.
Aaron Tress, Preston Campbell, Michael Hansen, and Martin Pulido, BYU undergraduates majoring in philosophy, significantly contributed to the form and content of this article. Laura Rawlins, managing editor of the BYU Faculty Editing Service, provided valuable editing. The authors thank the BYU College of Humanities and Department of Philosophy for their generous financial support.
1. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 369–70; see 372. See Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1980), 378–80. Joseph’s address responds to apostate members whose local newspaper attacked the church’s doctrine of a plurality of Gods. The editors claim they received personal spiritual confirmation for Joseph’s original teachings as recorded in the Book of Mormon and Book of Covenants (also referred to as the Book of Commandments); however, they anathematize those “damnable” doctrines they say are not among Joseph’s original revelations, such as a plurality of Gods in the Godhead, Gods above God the Father, and the potentiality for God to fall. “Preamble” and “Resolutions,” Nauvoo Expositor (Nauvoo, Illinois), June 7, 1844. Although we can infer that the authors had something other than a plurality of Gods in mind, they do not tell whether they believed Joseph’s original doctrine was modalist, trinitarian, Unitarian, or otherwise. In any case, Joseph denies the apostates’ claim that the doctrine on a plurality of Gods is a recent development. Rather, he holds that he and others have been teaching a plurality of Gods for fifteen years. History of the Church, 6:473–79.
2. Ehat and Cook, Words of Joseph Smith, 380.
3. While giving instruction to the Nauvoo Lyceum on February 16, 1841, “Joseph said concerning the Godhead [that] it was not as many imagined—three heads and but one body. He said the three were separate bodies—God the first, and Jesus the Mediator the second, and the Holy Ghost. And these three agree in one.” Ehat and Cook, Words of Joseph Smith, 63. The unity of God is such that the saved may “become one with Christ, as he and the Father are one.” “The Gospel,” Millennial Star 38/32 (1876): 503.
4. Ehat and Cook, Words of Joseph Smith, 382.
5. David Paulsen and Brett McDonald, “Joseph Smith and the Trinity: An Analysis and Defense of the Social Model of the Godhead,” Faith and Philosophy 25/1 (2008): 47–74.
6. Examples include Dan Vogel, “The Earliest Mormon Concept of God,” in Line upon Line: Essays on Mormon Doctrine, ed. Gary J. Bergera (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989), 17–33; Thomas G. Alexander, “The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine: From Joseph Smith to Progressive Theology,” in Line upon Line, 53–66; Thomas G. Alexander, Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890–1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996); Boyd Kirkland, “The Development of the Mormon Doctrine of God,” in Line upon Line, 35–52; Boyd Kirkland, “Jehovah as the Father,” Sunstone, Autumn 1984, 36–44; Boyd Kirkland, “Elohim and Jehovah in Mormonism and in the Bible,” Dialogue 19/1 (1986): 77–93; George B. Arbaugh, Revelation in Mormonism: Its Character and Changing Forms (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1932); Clyde R. Forsberg Jr., “The Roots of Early Mormonism: An Exegetical Inquiry” (master’s thesis, University of Calgary Department of Religious Studies, 1990); and Melodie Moench Charles, “Book of Mormon Christology,” in New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology, ed. Brent L. Metcalfe (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993), 81–114. Most proponents of this developmental theory make similar claims and use the same proof texts.
7. Kurt Widmer, Mormonism and the Nature of God: A Theological Evolution, 1830–1915 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2000), 6, 36.
8. Ari D. Bruening and David L. Paulsen, “The Development of the Mormon Understanding of God: Early Mormon Modalism and Other Myths,” FARMS Review 13/2 (2001): 109–69.
9. Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), 327–28.
10. Church fathers such as Tertullian and the Cappadocian fathers developed the Trinity doctrine against modalism.
11. Adolf von Harnack, History of Dogma (New York: Russell & Russell, 1958), 3:52.
12. Harnack, History of Dogma, 57.
13. Harnack, History of Dogma, 58.
14. F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd ed. rev. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), s.v. “monarchianism.”
15. Harnack, History of Dogma, 73. The doctrine was more persistent in the East. “That ‘Sabellianism’ was almost the only name by which Monarchianism was known in the East, points, for the rest, to schisms having resulted only from, or, at any rate, after the appearance and labours of Sabellius in the East, therefore at the earliest since about 230–240.” Harnack, History of Dogma, 83. However, the documents needed to trace the doctrine between Origen and Arius are not well preserved. But “this much is certain, . . . in the East the fight against Monarchianism in the second half of the third century was a violent one.” Harnack, History of Dogma, 82. For a detailed account of Modalism in the East, see Harnack’s section entitled “Modalistic Monarchians in the East: Sebellianism and the History of Philosophical Christology and Theology after Origen,” from History of Dogma, 81–118.
16. Athanasius, Select Treatises of St. Athanasius in Controversy with the Arians, 6th ed. trans. John H. Newman (London: Longmans Green, 1895), 1:124.
17. Translation in Christianity in Late Antiquity, comp. Bart D. Ehrman and Andrew S. Jacobs (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 165–67.
18. Apparently during Joseph’s day, the Godhead was a hotly debated topic, especially Unitarianism and trinitarianism. Millard, a Unitarian, argues that trinitarianism approaches modalism and thus should be rejected.
19. David Millard, The True Messiah Exalted, or Jesus Christ Really the Son of God, Vindicated; in Three Letters to a Presbyterian Minister (Canandaigua, NY: Keene, 1818), 7.
20. Although the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church does not name Servetus a modalist, it does report he was anti-trinitarian. However, the following passage certainly lends itself to a modalist interpretation: “[Servetus] maintained that an essentially unknowable divinity was manifest as Word and communicated as Spirit, the supreme manifestation of the Word being the historical Jesus, the Son of God, whose existence was limited to His earthly life.” If Servetus hoped to disguise his beliefs by merely refraining from labeling himself a modalist, it did not work. After sharing with John Calvin a manuscript containing his ideas, Calvin turned him in and Servetus was burned to death. Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “Servetus, Michael.”
21. Rejecting the Athanasian formula that God is three persons and one substance, Swedenborg teaches “that God is one in essence and in person.” Emanuel Swedenborg, The True Christian Religion: Containing the Universal Theology of the New Church (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1912), 2; see 25–26. See also Emanuel Swedenborg, Angelic Wisdom concerning the Divine Love and the Divine Wisdom (New York: American Swedenborg Printing and Publishing Society, 1909), 9–10.
22. Thomas A. Fudge, Christianity without the Cross: A History of Salvation in Oneness Pentacostalism (Parkland, FL: Universal, 2003), 65, 69. Oneness Pentecostalism, like Mormonism, claims it is a restoration of the original church. For Oneness Christians, part of this restoration includes a return to a pre-trinitarian formula of the Godhead, modalism. Fudge, Christianity without the Cross, 16–23.
23. McGrath, Christian Theology, 328–29.
24. Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements, ed. Stanley M. Burgess and Gary B. McGee (Grand Rapids, MI: Regency Reference Library, 1988), s.v. “Oneness Pentecostalism,” 649.
25. Cornelius Plantinga Jr., “Social Trinity and Tritheism,” in Trinity, Incarnation and Atonement, ed. Ronald J. Feenstra and Cornelius Plantinga Jr. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), 31.
26. Widmer, Mormonism and the Nature of God, 27.
27. Charles, “Book of Mormon Christology,” 94. In discussing the Book of Mormon, Widmer writes that through it “early Mormons were reacting against a . . . Trinitarian concept of God” (p. 30). Also, through the Book of Mormon “the Mormons in turn chose an alternative, a strict monotheistic position” (p. 31; emphasis added). It is clear that Widmer considers the Book of Mormon to be a product of the nineteenth-century Latter-day Saints.
28. Widmer, Mormonism and the Nature of God, 53.
29. Widmer, Mormonism and the Nature of God, 30.
30. Widmer, Mormonism and the Nature of God, 36.
31. Vogel, “Earliest Mormon Concept of God,” 21.
32. Vogel, “Earliest Mormon Concept of God,” 22.
33. See Charles, “Book of Mormon Christology,” 98.
34. Hereafter, all Book of Mormon references are from the 1830 edition. Citations include chapter (in roman numerals) and page number as well as chapter and verse for the 1981 edition.
35. Charles, “Book of Mormon Christology,” 103.
36. Charles, “Book of Mormon Christology,” 81.
37. Chronological modalists reject the idea of a preincarnate Christ because God reveals himself only as the Father until the Incarnation. But as Ether 3:14 relates a preincarnate appearance of Christ, a different kind of modalism is required.
38. See 1 Nephi III, 23–24 (10:17–11:13); 1 Nephi III, 33 (14:17); 2 Nephi VII, 84 (10:7); 2 Nephi XI, 107–8 (26:13); 2 Nephi XIII, 119–20 (31:11–18); Alma VIII, 254 (11:44); 3 Nephi V, 480–82 (11:32); 3 Nephi VII, 486 (15:14–19); 3 Nephi VII, 487 (16:9); 3 Nephi VIII, 488–89 (17:4); 3 Nephi IX, 496 (19:27–29); 3 Nephi IX, 498 (20:10); 3 Nephi XII, 508–9 (27:14–30); Ether I, 544 (3:9–12); Moroni VII, 579 (7:27); Moroni IX, 585 (9:26); Moroni X, 585–86 (10:4–5).
39. Charles, “Book of Mormon Christology,” 99.
40. Charles, “Book of Mormon Christology,” 100.
41. Ronald V. Huggins, “Joseph Smith’s Modalism: Sabellian Sequentialism or Swedenborgian Expansionism?” Institute for Religious Research, 2006, http://www.irr.org/mit/modalism.html. We only have one statement in which Joseph allegedly mentions Swedenborgianism, a conversation with Edward Hunter: “I asked him [Joseph] if he was acquainted with the Sweadenburgers. His answer I verially [sic] believe. ‘Emanuel Sweadenburg had a view of the world to come but for daily food he perished.’ ” William E. Hunter, Edward Hunter: Faithful Steward (Salt Lake City: Publishers Press, 1970), 316. For the most extensive study to date on Swedenborgian-Mormon parallels, see Craig W. Miller, “Did Emanuel Swedenborg Influence LDS Doctrine?” unpublished paper. Miller’s paper is available at http://craigwmiller.tripod.com. However, we have no record telling how Joseph learned about Swedenborgianism. Especially pertinent is the question, Did Joseph come into contact with Swedenborgianism before he translated the Book of Mormon? For information on possible ways and times Joseph may have learned about Swedenborgianism, see J. B. Haws, “Joseph Smith, Emanuel Swedenborg, and Section 76: Importance of the Bible in Latter-day Revelation,” in The Doctrine and Covenants: Revelations in Context: The 37th Annual Brigham Young University Sidney B. Sperry Symposium, ed. Andrew H. Hedges, J. Spencer Fluhman, and Alonzo L. Gaskill (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2008), 142–67; Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), 198–99.
42. Charles, “Book of Mormon Christology,” 99–100.
43. Kirkland, “Jehovah as the Father,” 43.
44. According to his 2004 Equal Rites text, “Clyde R. Forsberg, Jr. is adjunct assistant professor of history at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario.”
45. Forsberg, “Roots of Early Mormonism,” 191–92.
46. Forsberg, “Roots of Early Mormonism,” 193.
47. Forsberg, “Roots of Early Mormonism,” 195.
48. 2 Nephi VII, 84–85 (10:7); 2 Nephi XIII, 119–20 (31:12–18); Mosiah IX, 192 (18:13); 3 Nephi I, 453 (1:14); 3 Nephi IV, 473 (9:15); 3 Nephi XI, 505 (26:5); Ether I, 544 (3:9–14).
49. Mosiah I, 160 (3:8); Mosiah II, 162 (4:2); Mosiah V, 171 (7:27); Helaman V, 446 (14:12); 3 Nephi IV, 473 (9:15).
50. 1 Nephi V, 51 (19:10, 13); Alma VIII, 254 (11:44); 3 Nephi V, 477 (11:14); 3 Nephi VII, 485 (15:4–5); Mormon I, 524 (3:20); Mormon III, 530 (6:21); Moroni X, 588 (10:34).
51. 1 Nephi III, 32 (13:40); 2 Nephi VII, 84 (10:3); Helaman II, 418 (5:11); 3 Nephi V, 477 (11:11); Ether I, 544 (3:9–12).
52. Ross David Baron, former director of the Glendora Institute of Religion in Southern California, now teaches at BYU–Idaho.
53. Ross David Baron, “Melodie Moench Charles and the Humanist Worldview,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 7/1 (1995): 106.
54. It should also be noted that functional modalism would seemingly imply separate functions for each mode in which God manifests himself. In the Book of Mormon, however, while some functions do seem specific to certain members of the Godhead, many functions overlap, and those that are individuated often do not favor a modalist model.
In terms of shared functions, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are described as judges (Alma VIII, 254 [11:44]), and as bearing record of the truth (3 Nephi V, 478–79 [11:32–36]; Ether II, 548 [5:4]). The mutual grace of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost is to be in and abide with the children of men (Ether V, 566 [12:41]). Both the Father and the Son covenant with the ancestors of the Jews, promising lands of inheritance (1 Nephi III, 33 [14:8]; 2 Nephi VII, 84 [10:7]; 3 Nephi VII, 485–86 [15:13]), and direct and lead the Nephite people (Mormon II, 527–28 [5:12–17]). Depending on how one reads the text, many scriptures may teach that the Son and the Father created the universe. The Holy Ghost and the Father are both described as comforters (3 Nephi IX, 498 [20:34]; Moroni VIII, 582–83 [8:26]). If the modes are supposed to perform different functions for the one divine person like functional modalism claims, then why are many of the same functions delegated to two or more modes? A functional modalist thesis for the Book of Mormon has to explain this overlap if it is to be convincing. Of course, there are some functions that do seem specific to the Father, Son, or Holy Ghost. Only the Son is manifest in the flesh, making a physical intercession for humanity. The Son is prepared from the foundation of the world, and the Father prepares things from the foundation of the world and directs the course of human history (Ether I, 547 [4:14]; Mosiah IX, 192 [18:13]; 3 Nephi VII, 486 [15:20]; 3 Nephi VII, 487–88 [16:9–14]) through the power of the Holy Ghost (Moroni VII, 579 [7:32]; Moroni X, 586 [10:4]). But that there are some separate roles is not evidence for functional modalism, for both traditional and social trinitarianism accept the same.
Ironically, however, many differentiated roles in the Book of Mormon become difficult to understand in terms of functional modalism. Take, for instance, the method of bearing record as described in the Book of Mormon. The Father bears record of the Son, the Son of the Father, and the Holy Ghost of the Son and the Father (2 Nephi XIII, 119–20 [31:12–18]; 3 Nephi V, 478–79 [11:32–36]). But does it make sense to have offices that bear record of the truth of what is taught by the selfsame person? It seems less reasonable to suppose so. The idea of three witnesses suggests three different sources, like the three witnesses of the Book of Mormon, not witnesses by the same person in different roles. Why would such testimony be persuasive and bring any assurance if it came from one source? The Son is often described in terms of subordination to the Father, which makes far less (if any) sense in terms of roles adopted by one person. The Son receives his power and commandments from the Father (Helaman II, 418 [5:11]; 3 Nephi VII, 486 [15:14–19]; 3 Nephi IX, 497 [20:26]), and the Father directs the Son in which scriptures to give (3 Nephi XI, 503 (24:1); 3 Nephi XI, 505 (26:2); 3 Nephi XIII, 509 [27:26–28]). The Son is baptized to “humble himself before the Father” (2 Nephi XIII, 118–19 [31:7]), and while described as having his own will (3 Nephi I, 453 [1:14]), is also described as having “suffered the will of the Father in all things from the beginning” (3 Nephi V, 477 [11:11]; Mosiah VIII, 186 [15:2–7]). He prays to the Father (3 Nephi VIII, 489–90 [17:15–18]). In what way can it be understood for a role to humble itself to another, or for a role with a will to suffer the will of another role? Roles do not humble themselves, suffer, have wills, or pray to one another; people do. The Father performs a work for the sake of the Son, who has ascended to heaven “to claim of the Father his rights of mercy which he hath upon the children of men” (3 Nephi IX, 500 [21:9]; Moroni VII, 579 [7:27]). This makes sense in terms of two persons, but becomes seemingly arbitrary or superfluous in terms of separate roles.
55. Bruening and Paulsen, “Development of the Mormon Understanding of God,” 124.
56. Similar verses include 3 Nephi VIII, 488, 491–92 (17:3, 18:21–23, 30); 3 Nephi IX, 494 (19:6–8); 3 Nephi X, 501 (21:27); 3 Nephi XII, 507 (27:2, 9); 3 Nephi XIII, 509, 511–12 (27:28; 28:30).
57. For example, 1 Nephi I, 6 (1:8–10); 1 Nephi III, 23–24 (10:17; 11:1, 6); Mosiah VIII, 186 (15:7–8); Mosiah IX, 192 (18:13); Alma XVI, 317 (33:11); Moroni VII, 579 (7:27); Moroni IX, 585 (9:26). For a more detailed discussion of other modalist and nonmodalist passages in the Book of Mormon, see Bruening and Paulsen, “Development of the Mormon Understanding of God.”
58. Ronald V. Huggins, “Joseph Smith’s Modalism: Sabellian Sequentialism or Swedenborgian Expansionism?” http://www.irr.org/mit/modalism.html; Charles, “Book of Mormon Christology,” 81, 100–107; and Vogel, “Earliest Mormon Concept of God,” 23, 25.
59. Forsberg, “Roots of Early Mormonism,” 191–95; Vogel, “Earliest Mormon Concept of God,” 22–23; Kirkland, “Development of the Mormon Concept of God,” 35–37; Alexander, “Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine,” 53, 57; Charles, “Book of Mormon Christology,” 100–107.
60. Widmer, Mormonism and the Nature of God, 35. For example, 2 Nephi XIII, 120 (31:21); Alma VIII, 253–54 (11:28–29, 44); 3 Nephi IV, 473 (9:15); 3 Nephi V, 478 (11:27, 36); 3 Nephi IX, 498 (20:35); 3 Nephi XIII, 510 (28:10); Mormon III, 531 (7:7).
61. See similar passages in Book of Commandments XXXVII:2 (D&C 35:2) and John 17:21–23.
62. For example, 2 Nephi VI, 79 (9:5); 2 Nephi XI, 104 (25:12); Mosiah I, 160 (3:8); Mosiah II, 162 (4:2); Mosiah V, 171 (7:27); Alma VIII, 253 (11:39); Helaman V, 446, 450–51 (14:12, 16:18); Ether I, 546 (4:7).
63. Webster’s First Edition of an American Dictionary (1828 ed.), s.v. “father”; emphasis added.
64. 1 Nephi V, 51 (19:10, 13); Alma VIII, 254 (11:44); 3 Nephi V, 477 (11:14); 3 Nephi VII, 485 (15:4–5); Mormon I, 524 (3:20); Mormon III, 530 (6:21); Moroni X, 588 (10:34).
65. Widmer, Mormonism and the Nature of God, 34. See also 2 Nephi IX, 95 (19:6); Mosiah VIII, 186, 189 (15:1–4, 16:15); 3 Nephi I, 453 (1:14); Mormon IV, 536 (9:12); Ether I, 544 (3:14).
66. For a later LDS exposition of why Christ is called both the Father and the Son, see the June 30, 1916, First Presidency letter, “The Father and the Son,” in Messages of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. James R. Clark (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1971), 5:23–34.
67. Book of Commandments XLI:1–2 (D&C 39:1–4) is even more explicit: “Hearken and listen to the voice of him who is from all eternity to all eternity, the Great I AM, even Jesus Christ, the light and the life of the world; a light which shineth in darkness and the darkness comprehendeth it not: the same which came in the meridian of time unto my own, and my own received me not; but to as many as received me, gave I power to become my sons, and even so will I give unto as many as will receive me, power to become my sons.” See also Mosiah VIII, 187 (15:10–12); Mosiah XI, 214 (27:25); Book of Commandments X:12 (D&C 11:28–30); XXXVI: 1–3 (D&C 34:1–3); XXXVII:2 (D&C 35:2); XLVIII:8–10 (D&C 45:7–8); Moses 6:66–68.
68. The Son’s perfection is noted as being complete in this discourse to the Nephites. Compare with Matthew 5:48, where the Son only commands the multitude to “be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” The Resurrected Lord includes himself, while the mortal Lord does not.
69. Bible Student’s Commentary: Isaiah (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1985), 103. See also John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1–39 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 247–48.
70. Eternal here needn’t be understood as “universal” or “unconditional”—in the sense that Christ has always been, without beginning, our Father (for this reading would preclude the notion of adoption); rather, eternal may be read in the Doctrine and Covenants 19 sense, as “endless,” meaning that Christ will always be, without end, the Father of those who follow him, or that he will always stand as the person one must accept as “father” in order to inherit eternal life.
71. Royal Skousen, ed., The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text (New Haven, CT; Yale University Press, 2009), 565.
72. Charles, “Book of Mormon Christology,” 81–82; Alexander, “Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine,” 53–54; Vogel, “Earliest Mormon Concept of God,” 23; Forsberg, “Roots of Early Mormonism,” 191–92.
73. See, for example, Mosiah VIII, 186 (15:7–8), where Abinadi refers to “the will of the Son being swallowed up in the will of the Father” and “mak[ing] intercession for the children of men.” See also Mosiah VIII, 185–86 (14:4, 10), in which Abinadi quotes Isaiah, who says of Christ that he is “smitten of God” and that “it pleased the Lord to bruise him.”
74. Widmer, Mormonism and the Nature of God, 32.
75. Widmer, Mormonism and the Nature of God, 32.
76. See Charles, “Book of Mormon Christology,” 107–8; Alexander, “Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine,” 54; Forsberg, “Roots of Early Mormonism,” 195; Vogel, “Earliest Mormon Concept of God,” 27–28.
77. Royal Skousen, Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon, Volume 4, Part One: Title Page, Witness Statements, 1 Nephi 1–2 Nephi 10 (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2004), 230–31.
78. Skousen, Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon, 232.
79. See Alexander Campbell, “Delusions,” Millennial Harbinger 2/2 (1831): 85–96.
80. Skousen, Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon, 232.
81. “Trouble in the West,” Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 1/7 (1835): 105.
82. Widmer, Mormonism and the Nature of God, 35.
83. In fact, it is highly significant that the actual term modalism never once appears in any of the early (pre-1900) Mormon documents (that is, books, journals, discourses, newspapers, etc.). The only mention of modalism that does appear, and which uses only cognates of the term, is that referred to and denounced by Orson Pratt in “Are the Father and Son Two Distinct Persons?” Speaking on the subject, Pratt says, “All revelation, both ancient and modern, that has said any thing on this subject, has represented the Father and Son as two distinct persons. There are some [non-Mormons], however, who believe that the Spirit of Christ, before taking a tabernacle, was the Father, exclusively of any other being. They suppose the fleshly tabernacle to be the Son, and the Spirit who came and dwelt in it to be the Father; hence they suppose the Father and Son were united in one person, and that when Jesus dwelt on the earth in the flesh, they suppose there was no distinct separate person from himself who was called the Father. We shall proceed to show from the scriptures, that this view of the subject is erroneous.” Orson Pratt, “Are the Father and Son Two Distinct Persons?,” Millennial Star 11/18 (1849): 281.