KnoWhy #723 | April 18, 2024

Why Does the Book of Mormon Have Trinitarian-Sounding Statements?

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Scripture Central

“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. Amen.” 2 Nephi 31:21

The Know

In multiple passages, Book of Mormon prophets describe the three members of the Godhead (God the Father, the Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost) as being one, or even as “one God.” For instance, after describing the doctrine of Christ revealed to him separately by both the Father and the Son, Nephi declared that it was “the only and true doctrine of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, which is one God” (2 Nephi 31:21).1 As Latter-day Saint philosophers and theologians have illustrated, the broader context of Book of Mormon teachings about the Godhead makes it clear that these are describing a oneness of purpose—a concept sometimes called a social trinity—rather than a single oneness of being and substance.2

Be that as it may, some people have wondered whether any notion of a three-member Godhead is out of place in a record that was started by pre-Christian Israelites who lived in the New World.3 Ultimately, the Nephite understanding of the Godhead came from direct revelation to their founding prophets, Lehi and Nephi (see 1 Nephi 10–11; 2 Nephi 2; 31). Yet revelations are often informed by or expressed through the cultural understanding and language of the prophets who receive and articulate them.4 Nephi himself noted that “the Lord God … speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding” (2 Nephi 31:3; compare Doctrine and Covenants 1:24).5 “Our understanding and even our application of the Gospel is often mediated through our culture,” noted Mark Alan Wright. “Even our mental images of God and His Kingdom are heavily influenced by the way others in our culture have described or depicted him.”6

It is therefore noteworthy that some surrounding cultures within both the Old and New Worlds had triadic concepts of deity that are not incompatible with the Nephite view of the three-membered Godhead. As Diane E. Wirth has noted, “separateness and unification [in the Godhead] are in keeping with the tradition of triadic gods in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Mesoamerica.”7 According to J. Gwyn Griffiths, “the triadic grouping of gods was an early and persistent tradition in the religion of Ancient Egypt.”8 For example, a hymn written to the god Amun, found on a papyrus dated to circa 1228 BC, declares, “All gods are three: Amon, Re, and Ptah, and there is no second to them.”9 Egyptologist John A. Wilson explained, “This is a statement of trinity, the three chief gods of Egypt subsumed into one of them, Amon.”10 Another Egyptologist, James Allen, said, “Although the ‘chapter’ begins with a triad, … its true subject is the oneness of God.”11

Numerous other triadic groupings of various deity combinations occur in Egyptian religious literature from the Old Kingdom (ca. 2700–2200 BC) up through the Ptolemaic period (ca. 305–30 BC), and “the language used in Egyptian texts to revere and describe these triads is sometimes strikingly trinitarian.”12 Given that the Book of Mormon was written in a form of Egyptian, Stephen O. Smoot and Kerry Hull reason that it is “highly suggestive that we encounter comparable trinitarian concepts in the Book of Mormon.”13

In the New World, similar deity triads are attested in various ancient inscriptions. As Wright noted, “the major [Maya] polities, such as Tikal, Caracol, Naranjo, and Palenque … each had their own distinct triad of deities that were the most prominent of their local gods.”14 Mayanist David Stuart explained, “Triadic gods were seemingly widespread, yet the deities that were members of such Triads differed from place to place, or from kingdom to kingdom.”15 A total of twenty-six different triadic groupings of deities are attested in Maya inscriptions, and many of them are introduced with the glyphic phrase ux-?-ti-k’uh, meaning “three [?] gods.”16

The earliest example attested explicitly in Maya inscriptions is the triad at Tikal, consisting of the deities Unehn K’awiil (“Baby Jaguar”), Muut Itzamnaaj (“The Principal Bird Deity”), and Ehb K’inich, attested on a stela dated to the mid-fourth century AD, contemporary with Mormon’s statement that “the Father, and … the Son, and … the Holy Ghost … are one God” (Mormon 7:7).17 Evidence from triadic temple complexes, which often corresponded to the principle deity triad at specific sites, suggests that deity triads go back to at least 300 BC—placing this religious concept well within Book of Mormon times.18

Deity triads persisted in Mesoamerica among both Maya and non-Maya groups well into colonial times, leading early Catholic missionaries to recognize a conceptual similarity to the Christian Godhead.19 “For the [Catholic] missionaries of the sixteenth century,” observed Nestor Quiroa, “these deities presented an opportunity to teach the Judeo-Christian concept of the Trinity.”20 According to Smoot and Hull, “deity triads are clearly present in ancient, colonial, and modern Mesoamerican groups.”21 Within this wide-ranging cultural and religious backdrop, Wright reasoned that “the Nephites would have fit perfectly well into the larger Mesoamerican religious system due to their belief in a localized triad of deities—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”22

The Why

The Book of Mormon provides some of the clearest, most distinctive, and most powerful teachings on the nature of the Godhead in all of revealed scripture.23 To some of its detractors, the Book of Mormon’s description of the Godhead is thought to be a bit too clear for an ancient record written by Israelites who left the Old World and settled in the New before the theological developments that led to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Book of Mormon descriptions of the oneness of the Godhead are thus presumed by its critics to reflect nineteenth-century Christian Trinitarianism.24

Yet none of the hallmarks of post-Nicene Greek Trinitarianism are present in the Book of Mormon. Smoot and Hull noted, “There is nothing really to suggest the Book of Mormon depicts the classical orthodox trinity of Nicaea. Never does the text suggest Jesus and God the Father are of one substance (homoousios [in Greek]), for example, which was precisely the metaphysical lynchpin of the Nicene council’s theological determination. Nor, for that matter, is there reason to suppose the text promotes trinitarian modalism.” In contrast, “it is striking that two cultural regions, Egypt and Mesoamerica, both of which arguably are linked the Book of Mormon, have such highly developed but fluid notions of deity triads.”25

This research illustrates that Nephites were not an anachronism or anomaly within the ancient New World for believing in three individual supreme divine persons who were unified as one. Rather, deity triads in both the Old and New World provide, according to Smoot and Hull, “a plausible ancient context for the Book of Mormon’s [social] trinitarianism … [and] one that can increase our appreciation for and understanding of the book’s theology.” Indeed, the Book of Mormon’s presentation of the Godhead “reflects especially well an ancient Mesoamerican perspective on the nature of God but … also finds significant parallel with Old World sources.”26

To be sure, a true understanding of the nature of God is foundational to proper gospel understanding. Nothing short of divine revelation could have provided the clear and powerful teaching about God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost found in the Book of Mormon. Yet these revelations did not occur in a vacuum. Cultural religious conceptions of three divine beings unified in some way as “one God” in both the Old and New Worlds would have provided a preparatory framework. Within this framework, Nephite prophets could receive additional revelations clarifying the true nature and relationship of the one true deity triad—the Godhead of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Smoot and Hull conclude,

Knowing something about divine triads as anciently conceptualized therefore helps us better appreciate the cultural context in which Nephite prophets taught about the nature of God and resisted opposing theological forces. … By putting [the Book of Mormon’s] teachings about the Godhead against this ancient cultural backdrop, the Book of Mormon’s message becomes all the more focused and clearer to modern readers who may otherwise not enjoy the benefit of this context.27

Further Reading

 

Footnotes
  • 1. For other examples of two or more members of the Godhead being referred to as one in the Book of Mormon, see Mosiah 15:2–4; Alma 11:44; 3 Nephi 11:27, 36; 19:23, 29; 20:35; 28:10; Mormon 7:7.
  • 2. See Book of Mormon Central, “Why Is 3 Nephi Important for Understanding the Godhead? (3 Nephi 19:23, cf. v. 29),” KnoWhy 213 (October 20, 2016). For more in-depth treatments, see David L. Paulsen and Ari D. Bruening, “The Social Model of the Trinity in 3 Nephi,” in Third Nephi: An Incomparable Scripture, ed. Andrew C. Skinner and Gaye Strathearn (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book; Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2012), 191–233; Blake T. Ostler, Exploring Mormon Thought, vol. 3 of 4, Of God and Gods (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2008), 257–320. Of course, this is also consistent with modern Latter-day Saint doctrine of the Godhead. See David L. Paulsen and Brett McDonald, “Joseph Smith and the Trinity: An Analysis and Defense of the Social Model of the Godhead,” Faith and Philosophy 25, no. 1 (2008): 47–74.
  • 3. For the emergence and history of Trinitarian theology, see Declan Marmion and Rik Van Nieuwenhove, An Introduction to the Trinity (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2011). For a Latter-day Saint perspective, see Ostler, Of God and Gods, 195–255.
  • 4. Stephen O. Smoot and Kerry Hull, “Book of Mormon ‘Trinitarianism’ and the Nature of Jesus Christ: Old and New World Contexts,” in I Glory in my Jesus: Understanding Christ in the Book of Mormon, ed. John Hilton III, Nicholas J. Frederick, Mark D. Ogletree, and Krystal V. L. Pierce (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book; Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2023), 200.
  • 5. Book of Mormon Central, “Why Does the Lord Speak to Men ‘according to Their Language’? (2 Nephi 31:3),” KnoWhy 258 (January 6, 2017).
  • 6. Mark Alan Wright, “Deification: Divine Inheritance and the Glorious Afterlife in the Book of Mormon and Ancient Mesoamerica,” (paper, Tenth Annual Mormon Apologetics Conference, Sandy, UT, August 7, 2008).
  • 7. Diane E. Wirth, Weaving Golden Threads: Early Christianity and Its Restoration (Salt Lake City, UT: Eborn Books, 2015), 26.
  • 8. J. Gwyn Griffiths, Triads and Trinity (Cardiff, UK: University of Wales Press, 1996), 11. Some even argue that it “may well have influenced … the formulation of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity” (p. 11).
  • 9. John A. Wilson, “Egyptian Hymns and Prayers: Amon as the Sole God,” in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed., ed. James B. Pritchard (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), 369. For alternative translations, see Smoot and Hull, “Book of Mormon ‘Trinitarianism,’” 192; James P. Allen, “From Papyrus Leiden I 350,” in The Context of Scripture, 3 vols., ed. William W. Hallo (Leiden, NL: Brill, 1997–2003), 1:25.
  • 10. Wilson, “Egyptian Hymns and Prayers,” 369n11.
  • 11. Allen, “From Papyrus Leiden I 350,” 25n37.
  • 12. Smoot and Hull, “Book of Mormon ‘Trinitarianism,’” 190–194, quote on p. 192. See also Griffiths, Triads and Trinity; J. Gwyn Griffiths, “Triune Conceptions of Deity in Ancient Egypt,” Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache un Altertumskunde 100, no. 2 (1974): 28–32; H. te Velde, “Some Remarks on the Structure of Egyptian Divine Triads,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 57 (1971): 80–86; Wendy Wood, “A Reconstruction of the Triads of King Mycerinus,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 60 (1974): 82–83; L. Kákosy, “A Memphite Triad,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 66 (1980): 48–53.
  • 13. Smoot and Hull, “Book of Mormon ‘Trinitarianism,’” 194; see 1 Nephi 1:2; Mormon 9:32.
  • 14. Wright, “Deification.” Mark Alan Wright, “A Study of Classic Maya Rulership” (PhD diss., University of California, Riverside, 2011), 230: “A number of Classic Maya cities appear to have emphasized triadic groupings of gods that were of elevated prominence within the local pantheon (Stuart 2005: 160). The individual gods within each triad may have been worshiped outside of a particular polity’s borders, but collectively each triad created a diacritical marker of local identity and provided a unique mythological template for each city.” See also Wirth, Weaving Golden Threads, 27.
  • 15. David Stuart, “The Gods of Heaven and Earth: Evidence of Ancient Maya Categories of Deities,” in Del saber ha hecho su razón de ser… Homenaje a Alfredo López Austin,2 vols., ed. Eduardo Matos Moctezuma and Ángela Ochoa Peralta (Mexico City, MX: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México; Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas, 2017), 1:256.
  • 16. Smoot and Hull, “Book of Mormon ‘Trinitarianism,’” 197–198; Stuart, “Gods of Heaven and Earth,” 1:254–257.
  • 17. Smoot and Hull, “Book of Mormon ‘Trinitarianism,’” 196–197.
  • 18. Smoot and Hull, “Book of Mormon ‘Trinitarianism,’” 19; Wirth, Weaving Golden Threads, 28. See also Stuart, “Gods of Heaven and Earth,” 1:257; Arlen F. Chase and Diane Z. Chase, “Complex Societies in the Southern Maya Lowlands: Their Development and Florescence in the Archaeological Record,” in The Oxford Handbook of Mesoamerican Archaeology, ed. Deborah L. Nichols and Christopher A. Pool (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012), 258.
  • 19. Smoot and Hull, “Book of Mormon ‘Trinitarianism,’” 198, cite evidence of deity triads among the Zapotec of western Mexico, the Yucatan Maya, and the K’iche’ Maya in colonial and modern times. Wright, “Deification,” mentions the so-called Tiquisate Trinity attested at a non-Maya site in Guatemala in the fifth century AD.
  • 20. Nestor Quiroa, “Missionary Exegesis of the Popol Vuh: Maya-K’iche’ Cultural and Religious Continuity in Colonial and Contemporary Highland Guatemala,” History of Religions 53, no. 1 (2013): 79. Quiroa is referring specifically to the K’iche’ gods Jun Junajpu and his two sons, Junajpu and Xb’alanq’e.
  • 21. Smoot and Hull, “Book of Mormon ‘Trinitarianism,’” 198. Smoot and Hull noted that Maya gods are also sometimes conflated together through a process called by some Mayanists theosynthesis, which could have provided a conceptual framework for the Nephites to understand the three members of the Godhead as “one God.” See Smoot and Hull, “Book of Mormon ‘Trinitarianism,’” 195, 200. Simon Martin, “The Old Man of the Maya Universe: A Unitary Dimension to Ancient Maya Religion,” in Maya Archaeology 3, ed. Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore (San Francisco, CA: Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, 2015), 210–218, coined the term theosynthesis and drew parallels to the conflation of deities in ancient Egyptian syncretism. Wright, “Deification,” calls this a deity complex, which he defines as “a variety of distinctive gods that could be lumped together into a single category based on a core cluster of features. … Their names, their attributes, and their domains of influence were fluid, yet they retained their individual identity.” Wright argued that this aptly described the Nephite understanding of the Godhead: “Among the Nephites, the principle deity complex—referring to distinct gods that shared attributes—was composed of ‘Christ the Son, and God the Father, and the Holy Spirit,’ which were nominally lumped into a single category, ‘one Eternal God’ (Alma 11:44). Unlike a Trinitarian concept of modalism, which essentially views the three members of the trinity as different modes of God’s activity rather than as separate and distinct individuals, the Book of Mormon maintains that each deity had their own identity and at times they were described in terms of their different manifestations, just like the Mesoamerican gods.” See also Mark Alan Wright and Brant A. Gardner, “The Cultural Context of Nephite Apostasy,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 1 (2012): 34–38.
  • 22. Wright, “Deification.” What Wright means here by “localized” is not that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are somehow limited in their power and influence to a specific locale but rather that within the broader backdrop of the Mesoamerican landscape, the Godhead would be understood as the deity triad of the local Nephite polity, in contrast to the triad amongst other groups, such as those as Tikal, Palenque, and so forth.
  • 23. Book of Mormon Central, “How Are the Book of Mormon’s Teachings about the Godhead Unique? (3 Nephi 11:27),” KnoWhy 266 (January 25, 2017).
  • 24. Alexander Campbell, “Delusions,” Millennial Harbinger 2, no. 2 (7 February 1831): 93; Dan Vogel, “The Earliest Mormon Concept of God,” in Line Upon Line: Essays on Mormon Doctrine, ed. Gary James Bergera (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1989), 17–33. For a response to this claim, see Ari B. Bruening and David L. Paulsen, “The Development of the Mormon Understanding of God: Early Mormon Modalism and Early Myths,” FARMS Review of Books 13, no. 2 (2001): 109–169. See also the sources in n. 2.
  • 25. Smoot and Hull, “Book of Mormon ‘Trinitarianism,’” 201. See also Lincoln H. Blumell, “Rereading the Council of Nicaea and Its Creed,” in Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy, ed. Miranda Wilcox and John D. Young (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014), 206–208.
  • 26. Smoot and Hull, “Book of Mormon ‘Trinitarianism,’” 201.
  • 27. Smoot and Hull, “Book of Mormon ‘Trinitarianism,’” 201.
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