CES Letter Core Question
Does the Book of Mormon maintain a trinitarian view of the Godhead?
Several scholars including David L. Paulsen and Brant Gardner have looked carefully at the Book of Mormon's depiction of the Godhead and have concluded that the text's theology is not Trinitarian. Paulsen has written:
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.
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.
Brant Gardner has likewise argued that the Book of Mormon's depiction of the relationship between God the Father and God the Son is consistent with an ancient Israelite conception of God. Gardner explains:
When we approach the Book of Mormon text from the viewpoint of the historical context that it declares to be its origin, we find an absolutely consistent theology of God. The Nephites knew of and believed in a Most High God, known as El in Biblical and Ugaritic literature, but unnamed in the Book of Mormon. That Most High God is father to Yahweh, and the relationship between Yahweh and the Most High God is indicated by the title Son of God.
Yahweh is the God of Israel, and therefore the God of the Nephites. In Yahweh’s relationship to humans, he is our Father, and we are sons of Yahweh. When Yahweh descends to live on earth, he is in that part of the vertical relationship that is appropriate for mortals. He is–Son. Yet he can never cease to be who he is. He is “the Father because of me,” as he declares in 3 Nephi 1:14. He is, therefore, Father and Son. For the Nephites, any possible confusion in the similarity of terms used for deity was clarified by the horizontal or vertical contexts in which they were used.
Incidentally, the non-Mormon scholar Margaret Barker concurs that the Book of Mormon is consistent with ancient Israelite depictions of deity. "It should not go unnoticed," Barker writes, "that these memories [of pre-exilic Israelite temple theology] are also linked to coming of the Messiah in the texts of the Book of Mormon."