The Book of Mormon’s Doctrine of Deity

Note: This is a reprint of a post I did on Mormon Matters and then later on Jr. Ganymede. I have to repeat it again because if I ever want to finish my thoughts on Mormon Doctrine of Deity, this is my starting point.

I am fascinated by the Book of Mormon’s teachings (i.e. doctrines) about deity. I am almost equally fascinated with the many scholarly attempts to force fit it into pre-existing categories to make it seem safe. [1]

There is a danger in trying to force fit the Book of Mormon into a pre-existing theological doctrine of deity. It is the same danger that exists in trying to force the Bible into a pre-existing theological doctrine of deity.

Scripture — whether the Book of Mormon or the Bible — supplies us points of data. They do not supply us a specific theology. Theology is how we interpret or put those points together into a coherent whole for ourselves.

But often our theologies are merely approximations of scriptural teachings. After all, profound truths must somehow be turned into concrete concepts or we can’t wrap our mind around them.

In this article, I’m going to attempt to actually list all the data points but not (at least not yet) attempt to “best fit” it to a theology.

Jesus is God

This is the most fundamental message of the Book of Mormon and the Title page states so:

…to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations…

2 Nephi 26:12:

12 And as I spake concerning the convincing of the Jews, that Jesus is the very Christ, it must needs be that the Gentiles be convinced also that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God;

Jesus is specifically indicated as being fully God and fully Divine. There is no Book of Mormon concept of Jesus being a sub-god of some sort.

Jesus is specifically referred to, by those worshiping Him, as their Lord and God:

3 Nephi 3:18:

And behold, they began to pray; and they did pray unto Jesus, calling him their Lord and their God.

See also Mosiah 13:28,33-34; Helaman 8:22-23; 3 Nephi 11:10,14;

Jesus is the Son of God, the Only Begotten of His Father

2 Nephi 25:19

19 For according to the words of the prophets, 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.

Alma 9:26:

26 And not many days hence the Son of God shall come in his glory; and his glory shall be the glory of the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace, equity, and truth, full of patience, mercy, and long-suffering, quick to hear the cries of his people and to answer their prayers.

3 Nephi 20:31:

And they shall believe in me, that I am Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and shall pray unto the Father in my name.

See also Mosiah 4:2; Alma 5:50; Alma 6:8; Alma 7: 9-10, 13; Alma 13:16; Alma 16:19-20; Morm 9:22 and many many more. (See here)

Jesus is Worthy of Worship

In some sense of the word “worship” — we shall allow for more than one sense of that word — Jesus is to be worshiped, though the proper sense is specifically stated as worshiping the Father in His name.

2 Ne. 25: 16, 29

16 …until they shall be persuaded to believe in Christ, the Son of God, and the atonement, which is infinite for all mankind-and when that day shall come that they shall believe in Christ, and worship the Father in his name, with pure hearts and clean hands, and look not forward any more for another Messiah, then, at that time, the day will come that it must needs be expedient that they should believe these things.

29 And now behold, I say unto you that the right way is to believe in Christ, and deny him not; and Christ is the Holy One of Israel; wherefore ye must bow down before him, and worship him with all your might, mind, and strength, and your whole soul; and if ye do this ye shall in nowise be cast out.

When Jesus is On Earth, He is Treated as a Separate Personality from His Father

3 Nephi 19, previously discussed, Jesus explains that the people prayed to Him only because He was present while the Father was not. He prays to the Father while they pray to Him and he explains that He wants them to be one in the same sense that He and the Father are one.

3 Nephi 19:21-23:

21 Father, I pray thee that thou wilt give the Holy Ghost unto all them that shall believe in their words.

22 Father, thou hast given them the Holy Ghost because they believe in me; and thou seest that they believe in me because thou hearest them, and they pray unto me; and they pray unto me because I am with them.

23 And now Father, I pray unto thee for them, and also for all those who shall believe on their words, that they may believe in me, that I may be in them as thou, Father, art in me, that we [the disciples and the Godhead] may be one.

3 Nephi 11:6-8

6 And behold, the third time they did understand the voice which they heard; and it said unto them:

7 Behold my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased, in whom I have glorified my name-hear ye him.

8 And it came to pass, as they understood they cast their eyes up again towards heaven; and behold, they saw a Man descending out of heaven

Jesus Existed Before His Incarnation

Ether 3: 14

14 Behold, 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. In me shall all mankind have life, and that eternally, even they who shall believe on my name; and they shall become my sons and my daughters.

Indeed, the majority of the Boo k of Mormon enforces the idea that Jesus existed before His Incarnation. [2]

When Jesus is in Heaven, Prior to His Incarnation, He is Treated as a Separate Personality Than His Father

2 Nephi 31:11-12, 15

11 And the Father said: Repent ye, repent ye, and be baptized in the name of my Beloved Son.

12 And also, the voice of the Son came unto me, saying: He that is baptized in my name, to him will the Father give the Holy Ghost, like unto me; wherefore, follow me, and do the things which ye have seen me do.

15 And I heard a voice from the Father, saying: Yea, the words of my Beloved are true and faithful. He that endureth to the end, the same shall be saved.

Compare also to 3 Nephi 31:18:

18 And then are ye in this strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life; yea, ye have entered in by the gate; ye have done according to the commandments of the Father and the Son; and ye have received the Holy Ghost, which witnesses of the Father and the Son, unto the fulfilling of the promise which he hath made, that if ye entered in by the way ye should receive.

Jesus Has the Title “Father” Because He Created All Things

Often, Jesus is referred to as the Father when we are specifically talking about Jesus as Father of Heaven and Earth because he created “all things”.

Mosiah 3:8

8 And he shall be called Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of heaven and earth, the Creator of all things from the beginning; and his mother shall be called Mary.

Hel 14:12

12 And also 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 from the beginning; and that ye might know of the signs of his coming, to the intent that ye might believe on his name.

Ether 4:7

7 And in that day that they shall exercise faith in me, saith the Lord, even as the brother of Jared did, that they may become sanctified in me, then will I manifest unto them the things which the brother of Jared saw, even to the unfolding unto them all my revelations, saith Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of the heavens and of the earth, and all things that in them are.

Alma 11:38-39

38 Now Zeezrom saith again unto him: Is the Son of God the very Eternal Father?

39 And Amulek said unto him: Yea, he is the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth, and all things which in them are; he is the beginning and the end, the first and the last;

Compare to 3 Nephi 9:15

15 Behold, I am Jesus Christ the Son of God. I created the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are. 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.

See also 2 Nephi 25:12; Helaman 16:18;

Jesus Fully Represents and Even Identifies as the Father

But Jesus is also presented as being called the Father because He fully represents and even identifies as His Father. This is specifically stated as being because they share the same will. Thus they are “one God” because they have one moral will. The very best example of this is the incorporable Mosiah 15:1-5

1 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.

2 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-

3 The Father, because he was conceived by the power of God; and the Son, because of the flesh; thus becoming the Father and Son-

4 And they [not "He"] are one God, yea, the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth.

5 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.

This passage is so full of meat that we’ll have to revisit it under another point later.

Against all odds or sense, Mosiah 15:1-5 is the passage most used to “prove” that the Book of Mormon teaches modalism. But modalism does not teach anything like this passage. The closest fit to a literal interpretation of this passage is actually Swedenborgian, not modalism. [3]

However, it’s not really Swedenborgian either since v. 2 specifically states that Jesus is God (in v.4) due to subjecting His Flesh to the will of the Father. To the best of my knowledge, Swedenborg had no corollary to this. And this is to say nothing of the rest of the context of the Book of Mormon, which does not allow for Swedenborgian teachings at all.

Ether 4:12 also specifically teaches that Jesus fully represents the Father

12 And whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do good is of me; for good cometh of none save it be of me. 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.

Compare also to Morm 9:12 and Ether 3:14;

The standard Mormon “explanation” for why Jesus identifies as His Father in some cases is to refer to the doctrine of Divine Investiture. I will have to deal with this in a future post.

Jesus, Prior to His Birth, is a “Spirit Body” with a Physical Image – Not a Formless Spirit Filling Everything

This fact comes out when the brother of Jared sees the pre-mortal Jesus and see a physical form like a man’s.

Ether 3:6-8

6 And it came to pass that when the brother of Jared had said these words, behold, the Lord stretched forth his hand and touched the stones one by one with his finger. And the veil was taken from off the eyes of the brother of Jared, and he saw the finger of the Lord; and it was as the finger of a man, like unto flesh and blood; and the brother of Jared fell down before the Lord, for he was struck with fear.

7 And the Lord saw that the brother of Jared had fallen to the earth; and the Lord said unto him: Arise, why hast thou fallen?

8 And he saith unto the Lord: I saw the finger of the Lord, and I feared lest he should smite me; for I knew not that the Lord had flesh and blood.

It might be tempting to say that God was just taking a physical form so that the brother of Jared had something to look at. But the actual passage does not allow for that possibility because of the reason Jesus Himself gives for why the brother of Jesus saw a physical form:

Ether 3:13

13 And when he had said these words, behold, the Lord showed himself unto him, and said: Because thou knowest these things ye are redeemed from the fall; therefore ye are brought back into my presence; therefore I show myself unto you.

According to this Book of Mormon passage, to be in the presence of God is to be physically standing next to Him. So the physical form of Jesus is literally His presence. The popular Christian idea that God has no physical presence, because God is everywhere present fully, is thus eliminated as a possibility. [4]

We are Physically Created In the Image of God

Ether 3:15-16

15 And never have I showed myself unto man whom I have created, for never has man believed in me as thou hast. Seest thou that ye are created after mine own image? Yea, even all men were created in the beginning after mine own image.

16 Behold, this body, which ye now behold, is the body of my spirit; and man have I created after the body of my spirit; and even as I appear unto thee to be in the spirit will I appear unto my people in the flesh.

Gen 1:26-27 is specified in the Book of Mormon as being a physical image, not just sharing having free will like God has or some other spiritualized interpretation. This is one of the most ignored aspects of the Book of Mormon, that it declared a physical God in which we are physically the image of. Compare this passage also to Mosiah 7:27

27 And because he said unto them that Christ was the God, the Father of all things, and said that he should take upon him the image of man, and it should be the image after which man was created in the beginning; or in other words, he said that man was created after the image of God, and that God should come down among the children of men, and take upon him flesh and blood, and go forth upon the face of the earth-

It’s difficult to twist this passage to mean anything but that Gen 1:26-27′s “image of God” was meant to be a literal image, not a figurative one because it specifies that Jesus’ human form was the image of man because we were in the image of God. In other words, it specifies it both ways so that you can’t miss the point.

The Spirit of the Lord is Also Presented as Being With a Human Form

1 Nephi 11:1, 11

1 …I was caught away in the Spirit of the Lord

11 And I said unto him: To know the interpretation thereof-for I spake unto him as a man speaketh; for I beheld that he was in the form of a man; yet nevertheless, I knew that it was the Spirit of the Lord; and he spake unto me as a man speaketh with another.

Compare this wording also with 1 Nephi 1:12, 1 Nephi 7:14-15, 1 Nephi 13:15 and many others were the Spirit of the Lord is referred to.

The Idea that God Is, Was, and Always Will Be a Spirit Is Considered Heresy

The heretical Zoramites believed that God was a spirit, is a spirit, and will always be a spirit forever. This shocks our true believers who immediately recognize the heresy involved.

Alma 31:12-15

12 Now, when they had come into the land, behold, to their astonishment they found that the Zoramites had built synagogues, and that they did gather themselves together on one day of the week, which day they did call the day of the Lord; and they did worship after a manner which Alma and his brethren had never beheld;

14 Therefore, whosoever desired to worship must go forth and stand upon the top thereof, and stretch forth his hands towards heaven, and cry with a loud voice, saying:

15 Holy, holy God; we believe that thou art God, and we believe that thou art holy, and that thou wast a spirit, and that thou art a spirit, and that thou wilt be a spirit forever.

Jesus is the Son of God Because of His Physical Birth

I previously used Mosiah 15:1-5, but let’s look at it again with an eye to what we mean when we refer to Jesus as the Son of God

1 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.

2 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-

3 The Father, because he was conceived by the power of God; and the Son, because of the flesh; thus becoming the Father and Son-

Since the rest of the Christian world considers Jesus the only Begotten because He was Begotten before the world began [5], this passage is significant theologically and separates the Book of Mormon view of Christology from the rest of the Christian worlds.

What The Book of Mormon Doesn’t Teach

What the Book of Mormon doesn’t say is as important as what it does say. It does not use the phrase “of one substance.” It does not tell us that Jesus and the Father are “one person.” It does not tell us God is a formless spirit. It does not tell us that God is equally present everywhere. It does not develop an Athanasius-like formula of “one God.” There is no mention of “persons” vs. “beings.” In fact, it does not use any creedal phrases at all.

What the Book of Mormon Doesn’t Confront

On the other hand, the Book of Mormon never actually deny any popular view of God directly. Though clearly not Modalistic or Trinitarian, nevertheless, only a careful parser ever feels their modalistic or Trinitarian views are deeply threatened by the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon did not force people to confront their false views of God right away but instead left plenty that a Modalist or a Trinitarian would relate to or feel comfortable with, even while preparing them for something else later.

Full Analysis

The following chart summarizes the relationship between what the Book of Mormon actually teaches compared to the theologies of Joseph Smith’s and our day:

BoM Doctrine Modalism Trinitarianism Tritheism Swedenborgian
Jesus is God Yes Yes Yes Yes
Jesus is the Son of God, the Only Begotten of His Father Figurative Yes Yes Figurative
Jesus is Worthy of Worship Yes Yes Yes Yes
When Jesus is On Earth, He is Treated as a Separate Personality from His Father No Yes Yes No
Jesus Existed Before His Incarnation No Yes Yes No
When Jesus is in Heaven, Prior to His Incarnation, He is Treated as a Separate Personality Than His Father No Maybe* Yes No
Jesus Has the Title “Father” Because He Created All Things Yes Yes Yes Yes
Jesus Fully Represents and Even Identifies as the Father Yes No No Figurative
Jesus, Prior to His Birth, is a “Spirit Body” with a Physical Image – Not a Formless Spirit Filling Everything No No Maybe No
We are Physically Created In the Image of God No No Maybe No
The Spirit of the Lord is Also Presented as Being With a Human Form No No Maybe No
The Idea that God Is, Was, and Always Will Be a Spirit Is Considered Heresy No No Maybe No
Jesus is the Son of God Because of His Physical Birth No No Maybe No
Eschewing creedal formulas and language Yes No Yes Yes

* Clearly Trinitarianism does teach that in heaven Jesus and the Father are seperate personalities. However, there seems to be at least some discomfort over something as blatant as 2 Ne 31:11-15 where Jesus and the Father both talk to a prophet from heaven. So I listed this one as “maybe.”

Conclusions

In conclusion [6], we can now easily see that The Book of Mormon doctrine of deity is not fully Modalistic, nor Trinitarian, nor Tritheistic but does share some attributes with each. Each might even be considered an appropriate approximation of the nature of God, to some degree, but none is definitive. In reality, the Book of Mormon denies all of the popular existing theologies about God. [7]

Notes:

[1] One poster once quoted Melodie Moench Charles to me as, in his view, a fair evaluation of the Book of Mormon’s doctrine of deity: “Although modalism is the best description for Book of Mormon theology generally, it is not apt in every instance. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that Book of Mormon authors were intentionally constructing a theology that would fit any previous or future model or label. Nor did they seem concerned about making sure that the theology of any one part of the book was always consistent with the theology of other parts.”

I do not disagree with this analysis. In essence, Charles tells us that the Book of Mormon teaches Modalism, except for the parts that don’t.

Likewise, I feel that any of the following statements are also equally true:

The Book of Mormon teaches Trinitarianism, except for the parts that don’t.

The Book of Mormon teaches Tritheism, except for the parts that don’t.

Charles wrote her article, “Book of Mormon Christology”, as a response to how Mormons often, in her view, retrofit their doctrines of Deity onto the Book of Mormon. A point that is often valid. Yet she never realizes she’s fallen into the same trap herself, ignoring all evidence that runs counter to her theory of Nephite theology.

[2] Charles uses Ether 3:14 as the sole nod to the anti-modalism inherent on the Book of Mormon throughout: “On one point the Book of Mormon’s christology differs from what early Christian modalists believed. Although Jesus’ description of himself as Father and Son in Ether 3:14 is thoroughly modalistic, its context is not. In this same verse Jesus says, “I was prepared from the foundations of the world to redeem my people.” This, coupled with his identifying himself as Jesus Christ a millennium before his birth, suggests a “pre-existent” Christ. Always concerned to preserve the notion of the unity of God, early 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’ 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 (Kelly 1960, 120).” Charles in “Book of Mormon Christology.” It is unclear why she ignored all the other anti-modalistic statements found throughout the Book of Mormon.

[3] Wikipedia explains: “Both Michael Servetus and Emanuel Swedenborg have been interpreted as being proponents of Modalism, however, neither describes God as appearing in three modes. Both describe God as the One Divine Person, Jesus Christ, who has a Divine Soul of Love, Divine Mind of Truth, and Divine Body of Activity. Jesus, through a process of uniting his human form to the Divine, became entirely One with His Divine Soul from the Father to the point of having no distinction of personality.” This is not classic modalism. In fact, the only thing it has in common with modalism is the lack of three “persons.”

[4] This doesn’t mean that God isn’t “omni-present.” It just means that that word “omni-present” means something other than God being physically present everywhere, as some Christians assume.

Note: When I originally posted this article on Mormon Matters, an Evangelical commenter named Aaron pointed out that Evagelicals make a distiction between physical presence and personal presence. Thus, using an Evagelical point of view, it is possible for them to believe in a physical presence of God distinct from His personal presence. If Aaron took his own beliefs and applied them to Mormonism (which he does not) he would have no issue with the Mormon distinction between their belief that God is everywhere present, which is understood in a spiritual sense, but not everywhere physically present.

[5] “One of the creeds says that Christ is the Son of God ‘begotten, not created”; and it adds ‘begotten by his Father before all worlds.’ Will you please get it quite clear that this has nothing to do with the fact that when Christ was born on earth as a man, that man was the son of a virgin?” (Mere Christianity, p. 138)

[6] I apologize if I missed your favorite verse or excluded a reference to something that I should have included. Collecting all the statements in the Book of Mormon about the Doctrine of Deity together in one place isn’t as easy as it looks to. I’ll have to rewrite this article after I next read the Book of Mormon and find more passages that develop its collective doctrine of deity.

[7] As does the Bible.

8 thoughts on “The Book of Mormon’s Doctrine of Deity

  1. Don’t you love it when you get your thoughts down in one place and get somewhere with them? This is really nice to see here, Bruce. Thanks.

  2. Does anyone know why the borders on my table aren’t showing up? Is it just my stupid browser?

    I checked the HTML and it seems like it’s turned on.

  3. GeoffB,

    I’m going to tackle the “who is talking to Moses” question at some point. But I have to build up my theology argument first.

  4. Pingback: » The Mormon Doctrine of Deity – A Review The Millennial Star

  5. Pingback: » One Eternal God – The Oneness of God in The Book of Mormon The Millennial Star

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