Here is another post on the Book of Mormon and we’re going to tackle the big issue right up front: God. Can’t get much bigger than that. Specifically, let’s look at God in the first chapter of Nephi and consider the various names and descriptions that are employed to name God. But first we need to outline some concepts and doctrine.
Maybe You’re a Trinitarian
The Trinitarian theory of God is what became the orthodox Christian view of the Christian God: one substance with three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. “One substance” allows Trinitarians to lay claim to being monotheists, because no one in the modern age wants to be called a polytheist. But distinguishing substance from persons (from the Latin persona and Greek prosopon or mask) allows Trinitarians to speak of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as separate persons while still claiming to be monotheists. The Book of Mormon often seems to follow the same pattern, at times emphasizing that there is just one God (“… the bar of Christ the Son, and God the Father, and the Holy Spirit, which is one Eternal God …”, Alma 11:44) but often speaking of the three persons as distinct entities.
Or maybe you’re a true Monotheist, like Jews or Muslims, affirming there is one God without compromise. For a Christian, this would mean seeing Jesus of Nazareth as a prophet and possibly as a Messiah in the original Israelite sense of one chosen by God to deliver His people, but not as God. And this would mean seeing the Holy Spirit as a thing or a force emanating from God (in Old Testament terms, as ruach, the wind or breath of God). In other words, a Unitarian. For a Trinitarian, this is all heresy. For a Unitarian, this is a satisfactory explanation of God. Thomas Jefferson was a Unitarian (more or less), so there’s that.
In between Trinitarianism and Unitarianism is Modalism or Monarchian modalism or even modalistic Monarchianism. This is the theory that there is one and only one God but He appears at various times in different modes, sometimes as the Father, sometimes as the Son, sometimes as the Holy Spirit. Different modes, not different persons. Just one person, God, and He appears in different modes to us humans. Modalism tends to be a label that no one claims for themselves, but instead is used to paint those you don’t agree with as heretics. It’s almost an epithet. So it shouldn’t surprise you that some critics suggest the Book of Mormon adopts a modalistic view of God. And they have some good evidence. For example, see Mosiah 13:34: “Have they not said that God himself should come down among the children of men, and take upon him the form of man, and go forth in mighty power upon the face of the earth?” Or this longer but not necessarily clearer explanation at Mosiah 15:1-4:
And now Abinadi said unto them: 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.
On the other side of the spectrum, there is flat out Tritheism which sees the Christian God as three substances as well as three persons. Tritheism sounds a lot better than polytheism, but it’s still a heresy to orthodox Trinitarians. There are also critics who see the modern Mormon Godhead as an example of Tritheism, although this does not come straight from the Book of Mormon but from the LDS tradition (beliefs that developed over time). Mormon defenders prefer to depict modern Mormon beliefs as Social Trinitariansism, in which there are three persons in the Godhead united by mutual love and shared goals, not by sharing the same substance (Greek ousia, from Aristotle). Social Trinitarianism is slightly less heretical than Tritheism, but don’t expect a pat on the back from your Lutheran or Episcopalian friends if you bring this up over dinner.
God in the Book of Mormon
The Bible says different things about God at various points, so it is probably asking too much of the Book of Mormon to state and follow one theory of God throughout the book. In general, God is discussed in general terms with a wide variety of names and descriptions, so (as with the Bible) it is very hard to nail down a specific view from the previous discussion that one could confidently apply to Book of Mormon theology. Let’s look specifically at 1 Nephi 1 to illustrate how many different names and descriptions of God appear in just the first chapter.
God the Father is referred to as “God” as follows:
- v. 1, “mysteries of God”
- v. 8, “God sitting upon his throne,” “praising their God”
- v. 14, “O Lord God Almighty”
- v. 15, “the praising of his God”
God the Father is also frequently referred to as “Lord”:
- v. 1, “highly favored of the Lord”
- v. 5, “prayed unto the Lord”
- v. 14, “exclaim many things unto the Lord”
- v. 15, “which the Lord had shown unto him”
- v. 18, “the Lord had shown so many marvelous things”
- v. 20, “tender mercies of the Lord”
The Son is referred to or described twice, but not named:
- v. 9, “he saw One descending out of the midst of heaven”
- v. 19, “manifested plainly of the coming of a Messiah”
The Holy Spirit is referred to several times:
- v. 7, “being overcome with the Spirit”
- v. 8, “being thus overcome with the Spirit, he was carried away in a vision”
- v. 12, “he was filled with the Spirit of the Lord”
There are some interesting things to notice in just this short review. The term “the Lord” is used to refer only to the Father here, never to the Son. As for the Son, the terms “Jesus” or “Christ” are not used (see below). And the term “Holy Ghost” is not used for the Spirit, which is just fine as I prefer the term “Holy Spirit” (which makes it much easier to explain to your kids that we don’t believe in ghosts).
The Name “Jesus Christ” in the Book of Mormon
No reader of the Book of Mormon has any confusion about who is being referred to as “One descending out of the midst of heaven” and as “a Messiah,” but the term “Jesus Christ” does not appear until much later in Nephi’s narrative. Which is no surprise, because how would someone in the sixth century BC who, at the time of writing, was on a different continent eight thousand miles away come by that information?
After referring to the Son frequently, with a variety of descriptions and locutions, the name finally appears at 2 Nephi 10:3, where Jacob blurts it out, then explains how he knew the name: “Wherefore, as I said unto you, it must needs be expedient that Christ—for in the last night the angel spake unto me that this should be his name—should come among the Jews, among those who are the more wicked part of the world …”. That sounds fine to us, but the term “Christ,” a Greek word, wouldn’t make sense to Jacob. Nor is Christ really a name. “Jesus Christ” is used in English as a translation of “Jesus the Messiah” (or Joshua or Yeshua if you insist). But it’s not like this was Jesus Christ, son of Joseph Christ and Mary Christ. (Thank you, Bart Ehrman, for that quip.) It’s not a family name. It’s not a name at all. So if an angel told Jacob that “this should be his name,” the angel was wrong, or at least confused.
Once the name enters the text, it gets used a lot. At 2 Ne. 25:26 it is used four times in one verse! But then later, somewhat puzzlingly, the name gets re-revealed. At 2 Nephi 25:19, Nephi (not Jacob, as above) writes: “the Messiah cometh in six hundred years from the time that my father left Jerusalem; and according to the words of the prophets, and also the word of the angel of God, his name shall be Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” So an angel (same angel?) revealed the name “Jesus Christ” to Jacob and then again to Nephi. Again, “Jesus Christ” is not a name.
It gets more interesting. The current version of 1 Nephi 12:18 reads in part, “… the Messiah who is the Lamb of God, of whom the Holy Ghost beareth record, from the beginning of the world until this time …”. But the original wording in both the printer’s copy and the original copy of the manuscript for the Book of Mormon reads “Jesus Christ who is the Lamb of God.” (Thank you, Maxwell Study Edition, for that reference.) No explanation given at 1 Nephi 12:18 for how the name came to be known to the writer. The reference at 2 Nephi 25:19 to “the word of an angel” may refer back to the original wording of 1 Nephi 12:18, although no reference to an angel appears in that verse.
But wait, there’s more! In Mosiah chapter 3, King Benjamin repeats the same pattern: in verse 2 he states that he has learned some things “made known unto by an angel from God,” then he goes on discuss (in a rather modalistic way) the Son and that “he shall be called Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of heaven and earth” (v. 8). That modalism is even plainer in earlier verses: “For behold, the time cometh, and is not far distant, that with power, the Lord Omnipotent who reigneth, who was, and is from all eternity to all eternity, shall come down from heaven among the children of men, and shall dwell in a tabernacle of clay, and shall go forth amongst men, working mighty miracles, such as healing the sick, raising the dead, causing the lame to walk, the blind to receive their sight, and the deaf to hear, and curing all manner of diseases” (v. 5).
In Mosiah 3, it’s not just the term “Jesus Christ” that appears, but a virtual summary of biographical information from the New Testament gospels: son of Mary; miracles as recounted in the gospels; suffer temptations; blood cometh from every pore; crucify him; rise the third day; and so forth. It’s hard to escape the impression that the account in Mosiah 3 is dependent on a reading of the New Testament gospels.
Obviously, to make any definitive statements about how God is depicted, described, and named in the Book of Mormon would require examination of the entire book, not just 1 Nephi 1. But the discussion in this post should give you enough to see that it really is an interesting question. In particular it is interesting that the Book of Mormon sure sounds modalistic in many places, which is quite different from the Social Trinitarian view that the Church now affirms.
I guess at this point I should give readers who have made it this far a round of applause (this post turned out longer than I intended) and also a good prompt for the comments. So are you a Unitarian, a Trinitarian, a Tritheist, or something in between like a Modalist or a Social Trinitarian? And how do you view the Book of Mormon theory of God: Trinitarian, Modalist, or just all over the map?