I suspect Mosiah 15 – particularly the first few verses – may cause some confusion. In fact I’m reminded of a Sunday School class (over a decade ago now) where a teacher asked the class what the Book of Mormon taught us. Someone claimed something along the lines of it restoring a complete and true knowledge of the Godhead and someone there happened to point out that it actually doesn’t.
In fact quite a few scholars – somehow expecting it to have a “complete” doctrine along those lines – have gotten quite confused at the Book of Mormon’s approach to this, with Mosiah 15 being one of the passages that sparks confusion. This has led to suggestions that the Book of Mormon teaches Modalism (the belief that God is one person who manifests himself in three modes), or Trinitarianism, or Arianism, or whatever. This contradictory list indicates the problem is with their assumption that the Book of Mormon is even trying to teach a “complete” doctrine of the Godhead. Rather it’s keen to emphasise certain key points: that Christ is one with and in perfect harmony with Heavenly Father (indeed so much so that – along with the Holy Ghost – they are sometimes described as one God, as in 2 Nephi 31:21); and that Christ is divine and may justly be termed God (indeed teaching such is given as one of the book’s key aims). It’s also clear (from episodes in which they converse, as in 2 Nephi 31, or indeed their ability to bear witness of each other) that Jesus is also a distinct person from Heavenly Father. But beyond this, the Book of Mormon isn’t trying to convey a complete theology any more than the New Testament is.
I think it’s important to remember this, when people are trying to tie everything up into one grand unified theory but some of the details don’t quite match up. In some cases, different scriptural passages are addressing different topics, and so the same terms might not always mean the same thing. Some of the same confusion – as I’ve mentioned before – exists around the “name” Jehovah (which is in any case a Anglicization of the Hebrew word at stake – YHWH – with the vowels from a completely different word). In the modern Church, we use “Jehovah” to refer to Christ, including in his pre-incarnate state, and “Elohim” specifically to refer to the Father. This is fine as a modern practice to help clarity. But this isn’t the case in the scriptures: there are clear examples where YHWH refers to Heavenly Father (such as in Christ’s own reading of Psalm 110:1 in Matthew 22:44 and Luke 20:42, in which YHWH addresses the Messiah), or where such a distinction just plainly doesn’t make sense (as in Deuteronomy 6:4, where if you insisted both were proper names, you’d end up with the reading that “Jehovah our Elohim is one Jehovah”), and indeed places in Restoration scripture where the title “Lord” – often substituted in for YHWH – is specifically referring to Heavenly Father and not to Christ (Abraham 3:27). Trying to pretend this isn’t the case (as I’ve seen some do, to supposedly “reduce confusion”) seems mistaken; that approach would seem to warn people away from actually reading the scriptures lest it confuse them! But this need not worry us if we remember that these are not simply names but titles and descriptions, and we don’t need to try and slot it all in to the picture (and the way we describe it) that we have now.
In fact some details about the Godhead were conveyed quite a bit later than some people might imagine. D&C 130:22, for instance, comes from instructions in 1843, 13 years after the publication of the Book of Mormon. Some details are clarified in the First Presidency’s doctrinal exposition on “The Father and the Son” in 1916. Which suggests some of these details, though true, may not be quite as important as we think them to be, especially compared to those things the Lord chose to reveal earlier.
With that caveat in mind, onto the first eight verses of Mosiah 15:
And now Abinadi said unto them: I would that ye should understand thathimself shall down among the children of men, and shall his people.
This one shouldn’t be such a struggle for people – since it’s clearly visible elsewhere in the Book of Mormon, but Abinadi here by God means the pre-mortal Christ, who is fully divine, and (as the title page states) “the ETERNAL GOD”. But sometimes I’ve seen people use God as a proper name, as in the question I read today asking “are Jesus and God the same person?” To which the correct answer is “who do you mean by God?” If Heavenly Father is meant, then the answer is no. But here the answer is yes!
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
And here’s where we introduce some confusion. Christ here is called both the Son (and specifically “the Son of God”) and the Father. How is this so?
The aforementioned doctrinal exposition of 1916 goes into some detail in explaining three ways in which Christ may be called Father: as the creator (namely the Word by which Heavenly Father created the worlds, as in Moses 1:32-33); as the Father of those who abide in the covenant (see, for instance, Mosiah 5:7); and divine investiture of authority, by which Christ can speak as Heavenly Father (and indeed angels sometimes speak as them). However – as we shall see! – none of those reasons applies to this passage. We have discovered another sense in which Christ is “the Father”!
It’s also worth noting that there’s more than one sense in which Christ is “the Son of God too. This should be evident when we consider that at least one of those senses is one we share with him.
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, yea, the very of heaven and of earth.
This is the reason Christ is given the title “Father” here: “because he was conceived by the power of God”. And the reason he is called “the Son” here is “because of the flesh” (matching verse 2: “because he dwelleth in the flesh”). What is meant by this distinction – between his conception by divine power on one hand, and his dwelling the flesh on the other.
My suggestion is that we can better understand this passage if we understand the former to refer to Christ’s divine nature, and the latter to refer to his human nature, the flesh he shares with us. Christ in mortality possessed both natures: divinity on one hand, humanity on the other.
While we may not be used to thinking in these terms, this is an important topic, because this hasn’t always been realised. The subject of Christ’s natures used to cause riots in late antiquity (the Byzantines used to find fun stuff to riot about, and while that sort of passion may seem remote to us, the doctrinal consequences shouldn’t. After all, if Christ only had one nature (as some argued), which was it? If divine, than can he have truly been tempted, or suffered, or actually died? Or did he merely appear to do so (hence the early heresy of the docetists). But if human, than he would only be a mere man, and then how could he have done the mighty works people claimed he did, or risen from the dead, or save us? Keep these points in mind for the next few verses.
As mentioned, there are points in the Book of Mormon where the entire Godhead – Heavenly Father, Christ and the Holy Ghost – are together termed one God. But verse 4 isn’t one of them: it’s referring here specifically to Christ, who with both his human and divine nature is one God, the very Eternal Father of heaven and Earth (a reference, as discussed in the aforementioned 1st Presidency statement, to his role as creator).
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.
6 And after all this, after working many mighty miracles among the children of men, he shall be led, yea, even as Isaiah said, as a sheep before the shearer is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.
7 Yea, even so he shall be led, crucified, and slain, the flesh becoming subject even unto death, the will of the Son being swallowed up in the will of the Father.
8 And thus God breaketh the bands of death, having gained the victory over death; giving the Son power to make intercession for the children of men
(vv. 5-8, italics and bold text my emphasis)
Thus we now turn to the verses following, and I believe now with this concept in mind – Christ’s divine and human natures – and bearing in mind the concerns people had in mind about these, we can now see more clearly what Abinadi is getting at. I have marked the quotation above accordingly, italics for those that relate to his human nature, bold for those that relate to his divine. Thus because of his human nature, Christ could experience temptation, but because of his divine nature, he never succumbed. Because of his human nature he could suffer all that we do, and did. Because of his divine nature, he could work mighty miracles. Because of his human nature, he could be slain, the will of his flesh* becoming subject to that of his divine nature even unto death. And because of his divine nature, he breaks the bands of death, not just for himself but for all; yet because of his human nature he understands our experience and can intercede for us (thus Alma points out that Christ suffered “according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities”, Alma 7:12).
If we try and read this passage as relating to the Godhead (meaning the relationship between Heavenly Father and Christ), then I think it little wonder we might find ourselves getting confused. Rather, this passage appears to address the two natures of Christ, the two qualities he needed – and had – in order to perform his atoning work and redeem us, that very work being the subject of the rest of this chapter and the next.
* It was actually only when I was writing this very line that I made the connection to Lehi and Jacob’s teachings in 2 Nephi 2:29 and 2 Nephi 10:24, where they teach that we likewise have to contend against “the will of the flesh”. Even for us, it is evidently scriptural to speak of that side of us having a somewhat separate will that we have to bring into line.