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CES Reply: Joseph Smith – Trinitarian? (Part I)

11. The Book of Mormon taught and still teaches a Trinitarian view of the Godhead. Joseph Smith’s early theology also held this view.

It’s not nearly that simple, as I’ll discuss below.

As part of the over 100,000 changes to the Book of Mormon, there were major changes made to reflect Joseph’s evolved view of the Godhead.

100,000 changes? Actually, it’s probably more than that. The Book of Mormon was submitted to the printer without any punctuation whatsoever, along with heaven knows how many spelling errors. (Oliver, why couldn’t you have been an infallible speller?)  So every single item of punctuation can rightly be considered a change in the original manuscript. Certainly the 100,000 are almost all punctuation additions and corrections.

The handful of changes that have the slightest degree of doctrinal significance barely register in the double digits, making them approximately .01% of all the changes, total. So let’s deal with those, most of which do, in fact, directly relate to the Trinitarian view, although I don’t think it’s appropriate to refer to them as “major changes,” for reasons I’ll discuss below.

Examples:

Original 1830 Edition Text

View Online

Current, Altered Text

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1 Nephi 3 (p.25):
And he said unto me, Behold, the virgin whom thou seest, is the mother of God, after the manner of the flesh.
1 Nephi 11:18:
And he said unto me: Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of
the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh.
1 Nephi 3 (p.25):
And the angel said unto me, behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Eternal Father!
1 Nephi 11:21:
And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even
the Son of the Eternal Father!
1 Nephi 3 (p.26):
And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Everlasting God, was judged of the world;
1 Nephi 11:32:
And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea,
the Son of the everlasting God was judged of the world;
1 Nephi 3 (p.32):
These last records…shall make known to all kindreds, tongues, and people, that the Lamb of God is the Eternal Father and the Savior of the world;
1 Nephi 13:40:
These last records…shall make known to all kindreds, tongues, and people, that the Lamb of God is
the Son of the Eternal Father, and the Savior of the world;

Your problem seems to be that the text was originally Trinitarian, while the changes are not. But that demonstrates a misunderstanding of doctrine of the Trinity, because even with the changes, these verses remain perfectly consistent with Trinitarian creeds.

No Trinitarian would object to calling Jesus Christ the Son of God, or the Son of the Eternal Father. They fully believe that Jesus is the Son of God. They also believe that Jesus is his own father, as well as a separate individual from his Father, but that he is also not separate from his Father. They believe there are definitely three Gods, but more importantly, there is definitely only one God.

And if that makes no sense, it’s because, by definition, it’s not supposed to.

From that great theological treatise, Eric Idle’s movie “Nuns of the Run:”

Eric Idle: Let me try and summarize this: God is his son. And his son is God. But his son moonlights as a holy ghost, a holy spirit, and a dove. And they all send each other, even though they’re all one and the same thing. 

Robbie Coltrane: You’ve got it. You really could be a nun!

Eric Idle: Thanks! Wait –  what I said – does that make any sense to you?

Robbie Coltrane: Well, no. And it makes no sense to anybody. That’s why you have to believe it.

You can watch the whole scene below:

If you want a more authoritative definition, here’s the doctrine of the Trinity, as described by the Athanasian Creed:

We worship one God in trinity, and trinity in unity; neither confounding the persons, nor dividing the substance. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, is all one; the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, and the Holy Ghost uncreate. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet there are not three eternals, but one eternal. As also there are not three incomprehensibles, nor three uncreated; but one uncreated, and one incomprehensible.  So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Ghost almighty, and yet there are not three Almighties, but one Almighty. So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God, and yet there are not three Gods, but one God.

To quote Elder James E. Talmage, “It would be difficult to conceive of a greater number of inconsistencies and contradictions, expressed in words as few.”

So the problem with understanding the Trinity is that, by definition, it’s “incomprehensible,” so the way people comprehend the incomprehensible often tends to be, in practice, fairly consistent with the Mormon view. Pollster Gary Lawrence, who worked with me on my father’s unsuccessful 2010 reelection campaign, conducted a series of polls on this subject, and the results were quite interesting.

The poll asked two questions of Christians across the country. Half were asked, “Do you believe that God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost are three separate Beings, or are they three Beings in one body or substance?”

Twenty-seven percent responded similar to the Mormon belief that they are separate beings. Sixty-six percent answered in line with traditional Christian beliefs that they are “three beings in one body or substance.”

The other half of Christians surveyed were given a different question about the Trinity: “The New Testament says that God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost are one. Do you believe that means they are one in purpose or one in body?”

This time the answers went the other direction. Those answering the traditional “one in body” were 31 percent. Those answering “one in purpose” were 58 percent.

Lawrence said that Mormons say the oneness of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the New Testament is an oneness of purpose. The positive response of Christians to this concept in the second question surprised Lawrence. “I was wondering if there was a difference. I wasn’t expecting a flip-flop. But it was. It just shifts from two-to-one one way and almost two-to-one the other way,” Lawrence said.

What caused the shift? Lawrence said it is in the way the questions were asked.

The first question focused on contrasting separateness and oneness — “separate beings” versus “three beings in one body or substance.”

The second question focused on the meaning of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit’s oneness — a physical (or metaphyscial) oneness versus a purpose oneness.

“If it is presented in the way Mormons interpret scripture versus the opposite, they come toward the Mormon view,” Lawrence said. “If you focus on physical characteristics, you get another one.” – Courtesy of the Deseret News

The confusion over how to interpret the creeds is still with us, and it was definitely present in the 1830s. The accepted definition of the Trinity did not arrive until centuries after the Crucifixion, and only then after a great deal of heated – and even on occasion bloody – disagreements.  The biblical verses used to support it are in no way self-evident. As my mission president Joseph Fielding McConkie used to say, without any additional information, you could easily read the Bible from now until the Millennium and never have it occur to you that Jesus is his own father.

I offer all that to suggest that Joseph’s thinking on the Trinity very likely did evolve, but not in the way you imply. That is to say, he likely didn’t fully understand that believing in the Father and the Son as separate physical beings required you to simultaneously not believe they were separate physical beings. The Trinity is a logical impossibility, and it probably wasn’t until the Church started to attract attention that Joseph grasped the implications of how heretical his position really was.

But as to these verses, why were they changed? Nobody knows for sure. My guess is that they sounded too Catholic for Joseph’s taste, not necessarily Trinitarian. The phrase “mother of God” is uniquely Catholic and carries doctrinal implications that would likely have made Joseph uncomfortable, Trinitarians notwithstanding. All the other changes are in close textual proximity to that first one, so Joseph probably wanted to make sure this passage remained consistent. The changes really don’t change the doctrine – Jesus is both God and Son of God, after all, and Trinitarians fully accept that – and they seem to clarify the issue in a way that puts distance between the Mormons and the Catholics.

Of course, to accept that Joseph could make such changes is to accept that he could have made an error during the translation process, or that he may have made an error with this change, which, as I’ve repeatedly pointed out, is not hard for me to accept at all. That may have come as a shock to you, but, again, that introduction that warns about “the mistakes of men” has been in print for almost two hundred years, so it’s pretty hard to say the Church has been covering up the possibility of error.

Tomorrow: More Trinity!

CES Reply: The First Book of Napoleon
CES Reply: Joseph Smith - Trinitarian? (Part II)

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