“It is the first principle of the gospel to know for a certainty the character of God.” (Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p 345)
The prophet preached these words mere months before his martyrdom – part of what is now known as the King Follett Discourse (transcript available here). This sermon epitomizes the trajectory of Joseph’s tenure as Mormonism's founding prophet and is widely considered the zenith of his revelatory contribution to Latter-day Saint doctrine. Because it arrived so late in his fourteen year ministry it also serves as a terrific, two-fold illustration of a student's struggle to accept Mormonism at face value. On the one hand it summarizes and affirms for believers the supreme importance of attaining the proper gospel knowledge required for functional worship. On the opposite, it is an ironically self-defeating statement to teach knowledge of God as the first and fundamental principle of the gospel, but moments later expound a new, radically divergent concept of God's nature – and this so late in his career! No wonder even the most loyal Saints were troubled by these things, enough to cause a member of the First Presidency to apostatize!
Growing up in the Mormon tradition, I took pride in the testimony that we as an institution possess an exclusively intimate understanding of God’s person. The authenticity of that information relied on it being more than mere musing, more than speculation, and more even than inspired utterance. Mormonism claims direct, dialogic revelation, and heavenly manifestations to boot. Most will be familiar with the story of the boy prophet who in 1820 went into a quiet grove in upstate New York seeking spiritual answers, and in turn witnessed “a pillar of light” pierce the veil of human ignorance. Revelation was had on the earth once more! This, we are taught, was the inception of the restoration of many "plain and precious” truths that were long lost from Christendom, particularly the vanished reality about who and what kind of being God is.
In 1834, leaders of the fledgling Church of the Latter-day Saints held a sacerdotal class in Kirtland, Ohio where they boldly asserted that without the “correct idea of [God’s] character, perfections, and attributes … the faith of every rational being must be imperfect and unproductive,” for “without the revelations which he has given to us, no man by searching could find out God” (1835 ed. D&C, Lecture Third, p 36; or Jessee, The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations: Vol. 2, Published Revelations, p 346). To members of our faith, Mormonism is the receptacle of God’s final revelatory dispensation, a time of consummation in which “God shall give unto you knowledge by his Holy Spirit, … in the which nothing shall be withheld, whether there be one God or many gods, they shall be manifest. All … shall be revealed in the days of the dispensation of the fulness of times” (D&C 121:26,28,31). Or, in the dogmatic words of Bruce R. McConkie, “God stands revealed or he remains forever unknown” (McConkie, “The Lord’s People Receive Revelation,” Ensign, June 1971, here).
Despite the definitive nature of these declarations, Mormonism also claims the right to ongoing revelation; doctrinal development is to be expected to a certain degree. Using the biblical vernacular, “[God] will give unto the faithful line upon line, precept upon precept,” here a little and there a little, enabling us as children to grow from grace to grace (D&C 98:12). This type of gospel learning is supposed to be a progressive education, where fragments of truth are disclosed piece by piece, slowly contributing to the theological “big picture.” For this reason many accuse Mormons of having no theology at all, there being no strictly canonical system by which our revelations are made accountable. Exaggeration or not, this elasticity has in some ways proved an advantage for LDS advocates; like nailing Jell-O to a wall, critics have a hard time formulating arguments that hold any sway with church membership. To its credit, Mormonism’s “doctrine” is flexible enough to avoid most criticism while accommodating a modest variety of convictions.
With that in mind, there is still a certain consistency that is expected of the canonized revelations. After all, their source is Jesus, “the Spirit of truth,” who promises the Saints “knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come.” God solicits his gospel as ultimate truth, and himself as its impeccable vendor. “Whatsoever is more or less than this is the spirit of that wicked one who was a liar from the beginning.” “I, the Lord, promise the faithful and cannot lie.” (D&C 62:6; 93:24,25). Reconciling the versatility of the restored gospel with the absoluteness of revealed knowledge became a lynchpin for me in my own pursuit of solid testimony. I have discovered that this endeavor is an arduous task, even for the most persistent students of Mormonism.
Having believed these things explicitly myself, I endeavored for many years to homogenize the teachings of the LDS standard works into a standardized, compatible whole. Over time I developed special, interpretive skills that made this easier. These “private interpretations” allowed me to sidestep very difficult passages — such as Isaiah 45:5,21 in view of D&C 132:20 — by limiting the scope of their application and by developing special definitions for otherwise plain language (apparently a divine practice as well, per D&C 19:5-12). My instincts are not unique; I am a product of the modern “correlated” church, which engages in this process regularly. And frankly, what other choice do the faithful have? The modern Mormon gospel is in this regard very much the product of our second generation theologians (Widtsoe, Roberts, Talmage, etc.), who recognized the discrepancies and began efforts to correlate our doctrine into a consolidated whole.
It must be conceded that doctrinal tenets of all world religions experience change over time for a variety of social, cultural, economic, and political reasons. The Latter-Day Saint tradition is no different in this respect. But when it comes to our revelations we are made to expect precision, for “who am I, saith the Lord, that have promised and have not fulfilled" (D&C 58:31)? And again, "whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same" (D&C 1:38). Remarkably, the vast majority of alterations in Mormon doctrine have their roots in the brief sixteen year period from 1828 to 1844, in parallel with Joseph Smith’s incumbency as prophet. Beyond this period, the inspired Mormon hierarchy shot Joseph's doctrine in almost every imaginable direction before it was roped in early in the 20th century.
As a case study over the next few posts, I will briefly show the development of the Mormon concept of Deity, since it was this problem that first caused me to reconsider the orthodox understanding of Mormon claims to divine revelation. It appears that our honest efforts to align the gospel have instigated the retrofitting of current LDS Godhead ontology (i.e. nature of being) back into our earliest revelations, and with notable seams. I believe an examination of the earliest concepts will show that our collective “private interpretation” is demonstrably anachronistic.
Members of the Church needn’t look far for an illustration: the Book of Mormon can be regarded as the most thorough representative of Joseph’s earliest theological views – he once called it "the most correct of any book on Earth" – and is thusly the most distinguished from modern Mormon doctrines. Today’s students of the book will encounter a number of curious teachings and esoteric phraseologies that are more at home in a 19th century protestant context than in today's LDS theology.
Without retroactively reading our current teachings into the text (looking at you, 1916 First Presidency/Twelve Statement, “The Father and the Son”), what does Mormon’s book explicitly teach about God the Father? How does he identify himself therein? In what way is he differentiated from God the Son? Is the Father an anthropomorphic, or embodied, God – and if so, how so? Book of Mormon theology is not cut-and-dry, but I will try to show the best native interpretation in order to avoid eisegesis.
From beginning to end, the Book of Mormon venerates a singular, supreme being known variously as Lord Omnipotent, Lord God Almighty, Most High God, Eternal God, and Eternal Father. Most importantly, this supreme deity was apparently known to his ancient American adherents as Jesus Christ, the “Son of God.” In this respect, the title page's message is abundantly clear and fairly represents the book's contents. A more straightforward example when the prophet Amulek was asked if there was more than one God, besides the True and Living God. He responded expressly, “No.” After an accusation of polytheism regarding the doctrine of Christ (as a distinct divine entity), he is then asked, “Is the Son of God the very Eternal Father?” Amulek responded without hesitation, “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; And he shall come into the world to redeem his people.” Amulek adds that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are “one God,” claiming to have received his revelation about the incarnate God from an angel (Alma 11:26-40, 44).
The Nephite record further identifies “God the Father” as Jehovah (“I am the First and I am the Last” – Isaiah 44:6), the same who covenanted with Israel (Mormon 9:37), and the very same who “should come down among the children of men, and take upon him the form of man” in the person of Jesus Christ (Mosiah 13:34). This emphasis on the incarnation of God is represented consistently throughout the Book of Mormon. As a reflection of Joseph’s earliest theological views, the Book of Mormon didn’t just allow for God’s anthropomorphism, it demanded it!
In the Book of Mormon, an angel proclaimed to Nephi the true identity of the person named Jesus: “the Lamb of God is the Eternal Father, and the Savior of the world.” This gives definition to the dualistic statement, “there is one God and one Shepherd over all the earth,” namely, Jesus Christ (1 Nephi 13:40,41 1830 ed.). Jesus’ mother, Mary, is revealed as “the mother of God, after the manner of the flesh,” and afterward the angel reiterates Jesus’ identity as “the Lamb of God, yea, even the Eternal Father!” (1 Nephi 11:18,21, 1830 ed.)
How then should we understand the Book of Mormon’s more explicit declarations regarding the identity of Jesus? “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” (Ether 3:14). Jesus does not simply claim the title of Father, he says "I am the Father!" In the following chapter, Christ reiterates the point to Moroni: “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 4:12). There are many such statements littered throughout the Book of Mormon.
What then of the likewise numerous incidents that draw distinction between the most high God and His Son (1 Nephi 11:6,26; Alma 14:5; 3 Nephi 17:14,15; etc.)? Some of them take the form of poetic repetition and can be seen as consistent with the doctrinal pronouncements of strict monotheism espoused throughout: “they had Christ for their shepherd; yea, they were led even by God the Father;” in other words Christ is both shepherd and God the Father (Mormon 5:17).
The apparent confusion in the Book of Mormon about who covenanted with tribal Israel is likewise dissolved by this interpretation. Christ’s straightforward admission that “I am he that gave the law, and I am he who covenanted with my people Israel” is reconciled with his saying, “the Father hath made [the covenant] unto his people, O house of Israel” by the summary proclamation, “I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth;” for “the Father, and I, and the Holy Ghost are one” (3 Nephi 11:14,36; 15:5; 20:12).
Still, there are cases of real distinction. In every such case, however, the scripture borrows heavily from New Testament texts, events, and vernacular (which itself doesn’t come close to the Book of Mormon’s emphasis on tri-unity). The very best examples of individuality (i.e. 3 Nephi, Father's witness, etc.) are not original, they are borrowed from the King James NT almost verbatim. In fact, many of the subtle alterations made to the text in transition show Joseph's redactional intent by his plain response to Biblical controversies of his day. Accordingly, many of the classic New Testament pronouncements repeated by Jesus in the Book of Mormon are modified to remove aspects of apparent ambiguity and instead harmonize Jesus' sayings in line with Joseph's visionary apologetic for Christ and the Bible. He harmonized distinctions between members of the Godhead to fit his own understanding of the trinity doctrine, which at the time insisted that the Father and Son are the same. For example, notice the change in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount as taught to the Nephites, “Be perfect even as I, or your Father who is in heaven[,] is perfect” (3 Nephi 12:48, cf. Matt 5:48 - variation). They are identical.
Another when Christ is leaving the Nephites; he teaches the people they “must always pray unto the Father in my name.” Returning the following day, he finds the twelve disciples reiterating his instructions to “pray unto the Father in the name of Jesus.” Accordingly, “they began to pray; and they did pray unto Jesus, calling him their Lord and their God.” After a rendition of the intercessory prayer from John 17, Jesus discovers “they did still continue, without ceasing, to pray unto him.” Christ does not reprove them, he “blessed them as they did pray unto him; and his countenance did smile upon them” (3 Nephi 18:19-21; 3 Ne 19:6,18,24,25). Thus, in the Nephite record at least, the intercessory prayer is portrayed as a point for emulation rather than an interpersonal plea to a superior deity. “As I have prayed among you even so shall ye pray in my church … I have set an example for you” (3 Nephi 18:16).
I find that other examples of personality distinction between Father and Son in the Book of Mormon are best understood as differentiation in their salvific roles. Why do I apply that interpretation? I think it exerts the least amount of stress on the text. Again, it should not be forgotten that the oneness of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost is emphasized repeatedly in the Book of Mormon, and more so than any other standard work: “which is one God, without end,” “which are one God,” “being one God,” etc. (2 Nephi 31:21; Mormon 7:7; Mosiah 15:5).
Granted, this concept can be interpreted any number of ways, but the book of Mormon is very specific in its unique contributions. Unity of being is definitely implied in existential, ontological terms: “For if there be no Christ there be no God; and if there be no God we are not, for there could have been no creation. But there is a God, and he is Christ, and he cometh in the fullness of his own time” (2 Ne 11:7). Prophets “testified of the coming of Christ… Behold, he is God, and he is with them [in Jerusalem], and he did manifest himself unto them” (Helaman 8:22,23; cf. 1 Nephi 10:17). An excellent summary of the Nephite prophetic identification of God is as follows:
“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.” (Mosiah 7:27)
Beyond that, the Book of Mormon goes out of its way to expound in great detail the semantics behind Jesus Christ’s identity as both the Father and the Son. According to the prophet Abinadi, “God himself shall come down… and redeem his people.” He predicts, “because he [God] 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 15: 1-7).
In other words, it is Jesus’ conception that makes “them” one God, validating both the titles 'Father' and 'Son'. This teaching clearly sets forth the metaphysical oneness of God in Christ. Abinadi further specifies that because of God’s incarnation in flesh, he becomes the Son; and because his flesh submits to the Spirit (as the tabernacle of God), he is the Father embodied. The appellations “Father” and “Son” are apparently implied as a dualistic metaphor for mortal flesh submitting to divine will represented in the embodied deity, Christ. Jesus thereby becomes the perfect exemplar.
The Lord himself distinguished his title of 'Son' as unique to an embodied deity, while his pre-incarnation person (or spirit) was the Father God: “I come unto my own… 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 1:14). This was spoken in anticipation of the incarnation; more on that later. Hence, the various mechanisms of the Godhead represented mainly by Father and Son are probably best understood as separate salvific roles operating in the same divine being. Examples of Christ speaking about ascending to the Father can easily be interpreted to suggest Jesus is reassuming his patriarchal role in the heavens, as did the early Christian modalists with corresponding NT texts. Getting back to Mosiah 15, verses 8-11 further demonstrate the roles, or modes, fulfilled by this monadic Deity.
Christ is presented as the saving, intercessory figure (taking Jehovah’s divine judgment upon himself) who can simultaneously sympathize with mortals (flesh/Son) and appease perfect justice (spirit/Father), allowing humanity entrance into the divine family by adoption. This adoptive exchange is notably the only way in which humans are said to be sons of God in the Book of Mormon. The later LDS doctrine of mankind as the literal offspring of a divine parent finds no support here. To the contrary, mortals become the sons of Christ by repentance and spiritual rebirth (“he shall see his seed” – Mosiah 15:11). This perhaps clarifies the creative emphasis of the title “Eternal Father of heaven and of earth, and all things which in them are” found repeatedly in the book (Alma 11:39). Humans are ontologically "other" from God in their natural, created state and will remain as such until they repent and submit to Jesus as their Eternal Father. At the end of his discourse, Abinadi refers to Jesus by this ultimate name-title, “the Lord, who is the very Eternal Father” (Mosiah 16:15). Ultimately, Jesus and God the Father are treated as an identical entity in the Book of Mormon, even as their salvific roles are sometimes distinguished and dramatized.
To be clear, I don't believe Joseph Smith ever viewed God in absolute, creedal Trinitarian terms, and the Book of Mormon's fluid theology bears that through. Most Christians then and today understand God in the Biblical vernacular of “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost," but not at all in a rigorous theological sense. In my judgment, the Book of Mormon teaches something that is much closer to the 3rd century Christian heresy known as Monarchianism or Sabellianism. More broadly, this 'heretical doctrine' has been labeled Modalism for its singular Deity enacting salvation through three special modes; viz., Father as justice/will, Son as mercy/executor, and the Holy Ghost as truth/sanctification. Thus, much of the sermonizing in the Book of Mormon speaks of them distinctly for their relative meaning in the book's soteriological-focused dramatization.
As touched on earlier, however, these divine titles were occasionally applied selectively depending on the time of their usage relative to God's incarnation. Although God is identified clearly as the embodied Christ throughout the Book of Mormon, some exceptional revelations disclose his ontological status as a “Great Spirit” prior to Jesus' birth (Alma 22:9). Indeed, Alma does not correct the apostate Zoramites in their belief about God: “that thou wast a spirit, and that thou art a spirit, and that thou wilt be a spirit forever,” except for that last clause, which caused him to lament their belief “that there shall be no Christ” (Alma 31:15,29). Joseph's Book frames the Great Spirit God as Jesus, simply pre-embodiment (see Ether 3). In the words of LDS historian Thomas Alexander, “The Book of Mormon tended to define God as an absolute personage of spirit who, clothed in flesh, revealed himself in Jesus” (Alexander, The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine, p 25).
So looking slightly beyond Mormonism's founding text for a moment, but keeping it in mind, what more do Joseph's early revelations teach about God's ontology? Not surprisingly, the contemporary accounts are mostly harmonious. It has been contended by some that Joseph’s 1830 revision of Genesis 1:26,27 (taking place shortly after the Book of Mormon's translation) necessarily implies that God and Jesus were always considered separate, physical beings: “And I, God, said unto mine Only Begotten, which was with me from the beginning: Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Moses 2:26). Given the general agreement of attitude between most of these texts, it seems to me the distinction of personalities here is more easily understood as an expansion of the existing creation drama in Genesis - both extrapolating the plurality of speech already present in that account while also incorporating the Logos doctrine from John 1. As we'll see in future posts, Joseph revised the Genesis creation myth variously throughout his prophetic career.
The Godhead's union of identity in Joseph Smith's early thought is elsewhere plainly attested in Joseph’s biblical emmendations: “no man knoweth that the Son is the Father, and the Father is the Son, but him to whom the Son will reveal it.” And another that reflects Mosiah 15: “Christ Jesus… is the Only Begotten Son of God, and ordained to be a Mediator between God and man; who is one God” (JST Luke 10:22; JST 1 Timothy 4:2). The earliest revelations given to Joseph likewise synthesize Father and Son personalities in a vaguely modalistic way, while retaining the New Testament rhetoric (D&C 3:20; 5:20; 6:2,16,21,37; 11:2,10,28; 19:1,4,16,18, 24; 29: 1, 42, 46; 49:5, 28; etc.). Hence, the early revelations and Joseph Smith’s “Inspired Translation of the Bible” seem consonant with the Nephite record that the Father and Son are co-operating mechanisms in one God, who was a spirit being until his birth as Jesus Christ. Early Mormonism taught a kind of chronological modalism, roughly.
Despite scholarly and ecclesiastical condemnation of this “heresy” at its Christian advent, it persisted among laity and practitioners of folk religion until Joseph Smith’s day. Although Mormonism’s earliest converts were from a protestant background, the majority were nevertheless seekers institutionally, primitivists theologically, and most were ecclesiastically uneducated. So while these may have accepted modalism as a consistent extension of biblical Christianity, there were some better trained in theology who criticized the Book of Mormon’s concept of God as heterodox early on (see Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations, p 146). It was not until he was surrounded by exceptional converts like Sidney Rigdon that Joseph’s conception of the Godhead began to evolve toward something like Social Trinitarianism – much closer to what the church teaches today.
Continued in Part II...