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The Non-Mormon Theology of the Book of Mormon

Today’s Latter Day Saints (with the exception of the Reorganized Church) reject the Nicene Christian doctrine of the Trinity. But the Book of Mormon actually affirms our doctrine of the Trinity more explicitly than the New Testament itself does! In fact, I can use numerous verses from the Book of Mormon itself to defend the Biblical doctrine of the Trinity and to refute the later teachings of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young about God.

Some of these verses express the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity exactly. For instance, in Mormon 7:7, we are told that those who are found guiltless on the Day of Judgment shall sing with the choirs above “unto the Father, and unto the Son, and unto the Holy Ghost, which are one God.” 2 Nephi 31:21 says, “And now, behold, this is the doctrine of Christ, and the only and true doctrine of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, which is one God, without end.” Also, Alma 11:44 states that in the future resurrection, everyone shall be brought to court before the bar of “Christ the Son, and God the Father, and the Holy Spirit, which is one Eternal God.” (See also 3 Nephi 11:27, 36.)

Other Book of Mormon passages give us clumsier, confused attempts to affirm the Christian Trinity by equating Jesus with God the Father (!) rather than saying that the two are one in substance but distinct in personality. In the third century AD, this approach (which was called Patripassionism, the belief that “the Father suffered”) was rejected as well-intentioned but faulty. The closest the Bible comes to this idea is where Jesus says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:8), but the Biblical Jesus never says “I am the Father.”

In Ether 3:14, the LDS Jesus says, “Behold, I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son.” In Mosiah 16:15, we read, “Teach them that redemption comes through Christ the Lord, who is the very Eternal Father.” In Alma 11:38-39, we read, “Now Zeezrom saith again unto him: Is the Son of God the very Eternal Father? And Amulek said into him, Yea, he is the very Eternal Father of heaven and earth.”

Mosiah 15:2-5 exhibits similar conflation of the persons of the triune God: “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…”

There are numerous additional passages where the Book of Mormon declares Jesus to be the Father, or declares him to be God far more often and explicitly than what we find in the early cautious statements in the New Testament. The Book of Mormon reads like a book for which the great historic Christological debates have been settled in the distant past. It reads this way, even through the mouths of characters speaking purportedly hundreds of years BCE.

The God of the Book of Mormon, like the Nicene Christian God, is said in Mosiah 3:5 to be the one “who was, and is from all eternity to all eternity.” But Joseph Smith flatly contradicts Mosiah in a sermon on April 6, 1844 when he says, “We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea.” (Journal of Discourses 6:3) In a classic sermon that is worth reading in its entirety (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Journal_of_Discourses/Volume_6/Character_and_Being_of_God,_etc.), Joseph goes on to spell out his doctrine of eternal progression: “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted Man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens. That is the great secret…and you have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done before you…” This belief is nowhere to be found in the Book of Mormon, or in the Bible. It contradicts both.

The Book of Mormon reads like a product of the theology of the 1820’s. It is an impressive product indeed, reflecting both the rough education and the sharp mind of its author, able to retain and synthesize the preaching and religious literature of his day into a sizeable volume of work. I will give Joseph Smith credit for a masterful creation, but I would argue that the only parts of it that are revelation from God are the parts that are restatements of Biblical truth.

So why do we find the Book of Mormon to be more Nicene Christian than Mormon in its theology? I believe the book is designed to be a bridge document, whose purpose is to lead people to Joseph Smith as the source of new revelation, while attempting to temporarily affirm what is essential in Nicene Christianity. It is like the Quran, designed to lead readers to a new prophet while affirming as much Judaism and Christianity as possible.

I do not believe the story told by the Book of Mormon. But for those who do believe the book, I would urge them to believe in the triune God taught in this book, rather than in the later teachings of Joseph Smith and his successors. And if the choice is difficult, I would ask them to consider whether their leaders have strayed from the truth, and whom they should follow when forced to make such a choice.