Monday, April 23, 2018

Explicit and Implicit Doctrines in the Book of Mormon

There are doctrines in the Book of Mormon that are taught explicitly, and there are doctrines that can be inferred from the event described in the narrative. Sometimes these explicit and implicit doctrines do not square with each other. Let me give two examples. And let me mention at the outset that all Book of Mormon quotations will come from Skousen’s Earliest Text, because I want to come as close as I can to what Joseph actually dictated, not what decades of editing have produced.

The Memo Problem
A dilemma for Christian scholars over the centuries has been referred to as the soteriological problem of evil, or the memo problem (billions of God’s children didn’t get the gospel memo). This dilemma results from the incoherence of two Christian doctrines and one irrefutable fact: (1) God is loving and just and wants all of his children to be saved; (2) salvation comes only through an acceptance of Jesus Christ; and (3) billions of God’s children have lived and died without ever having heard about Jesus. This is a perplexing problem, about which much has been written. And the Book of Mormon weighs in on it very explicitly.
Jacob, Abinadi, and Mormon all agree that those who die without hearing the gospel are saved through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Abinadi even goes so far as to say that these people receive eternal life, although in the Book of Mormon that term does not mean what it means in modern Mormonism. It is simply another expression for salvation, or going to heaven, the ultimate reward in Book of Mormon theology.
Jacob declares: “Wherefore he has given a law. And where there is no law given there is no punishment, and where there is no punishment there is no condemnation, and where there is no condemnation the mercies of the Holy One of Israel hath claim upon them because of the atonement, for they are delivered by the power of him. For the atonement satisfieth the demands of his justice upon all those who hath not the law given to them, that they are delivered from that awful monster, death and hell, and the devil and the lake of fire and brimstone which is endless torment; and they are restored to that God who gave them breath, which is the Holy One of Israel” (2 Ne. 9:25–26).
Abinadi agrees: “And now the resurrection of all the prophets and all those that have believed in their words—or all those that have kept the commandments of God—these shall come forth in the first resurrection; therefore they are the first resurrection. They are raised to dwell with God, who hath redeemed them. Thus they have eternal life through Christ, who hath broken the bands of death. And these are those who have part in the first resurrection, and these are they that have died before Christ came, in their ignorance, not having salvation declared unto them. And thus the Lord bringeth about the restoration of these, and they have a part in the first resurrection, or hath eternal life, being redeemed by the Lord” (Mosiah 15:22–24).
Mormon, in his letter to Moroni about child baptism, includes a similar claim about those who died in ignorance: “For behold that all little children are alive in Christ, and also all they that are without the law, for the power of redemption cometh on all they that have no law. Wherefore he that is not condemned—or he that is under no condemnation—cannot repent, and unto such baptism availeth nothing” (Moro. 8:22).
This is of course a problematic doctrine, one that we completely reject today in the Church. If those who died without hearing the good news of the gospel are saved, or given eternal life, through the mercy and grace of Christ, then missionary work is not only unnecessary but ultimately counterproductive, because people would be accountable and may be damned if they hear the word and reject it. But if they never hear the gospel, they are automatically saved. Likewise, family history and temple work would be completely unnecessary.
Because this is an unsatisfactory doctrine, Joseph Smith rejected it. Charles Harrell, in his book This Is My Doctrine, shows how this doctrine went through at least three stages of development before arriving at what we now accept. The first step came in February 1832 with the Vision, now recorded in D&C 76. Here, those who die without the law inherit the terrestrial glory (D&C 76:72–74). The next stage came in January 1836 with Joseph’s vision of his brother Alvin in the celestial kingdom. Here those who die without the restored gospel receive the celestial kingdom if they “would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry” (D&C 137:7). They are judged “according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts” (D&C 137:9), without any need for the ordinance of baptism or the as yet unrevealed temple ordinances. The final stage in the development of this doctrine began in 1840 with Joseph’s introduction of baptism for the dead. This evolved over the years into our current program of baptizing, endowing, and sealing the dead. A far cry from what we read in the Book of Mormon.
But it appears from the Nephite narrative that they didn’t believe Jacob, Abinadi, or Mormon. There is an implicit doctrine that carries through the entire book. Preaching the gospel to the ignorant is seen as a necessity. The sons of Mosiah were “desirous that salvation should be declared to every creature, for they could not bear that any human soul should perish; yea, even the very thoughts that any soul should endure endless torment did cause them to quake and tremble” (Mosiah 28:3). But if Jacob, Abinadi, and Mormon are to be believed, this was a needless anxiety. In fact, by going to the Lamanites and preaching to them, they ensured that thousands who heard their words and rejected them would suffer eternal torment. If they had just stayed home and ruled the kingdom, all those Lamanites would have been automatically saved through the Atonement of Christ. And their missionary effort is not unique. The theme runs through the whole Nephite narrative. Preaching the gospel to the ignorant is viewed as a high priority. Amulek insists that this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God” (Alma 34:32). It is obvious from the Nephite narrative that the implicit doctrine is at odds with the explicit theology taught by three different prophets.

Modalism among the Nephites?
The second example is a bit messier. For this doctrine, there is only one extended explicit theological explanation, but there are several brief references, some of which can be interpreted in various ways. I became aware of this second example when LDS theologian David Paulsen sent a book manuscript to us at BYU Studies. The book has not been published, but in the manuscript Paulsen and two coauthors attempt to refute the notion that the Book of Mormon teaches modalism.1 They are mostly successful, but I think their blanket conclusion does not fit all the evidence they present. The notion of explicit teachings not exactly matching the implicit teachings comes closer to the mark, in my opinion.
According to Theopedia, “Modalism, also called Sabellianism, is the unorthodox belief that God is one person who has revealed himself in three forms or modes in contrast to the Trinitarian doctrine where God is one being eternally existing in three persons. According to Modalism, during the incarnation, Jesus was simply God acting in one mode or role, and the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was God acting in a different mode. Thus, God does not exist as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at the same time. Rather, He is one person and has merely manifested himself in these three modes at various times. Modalism thus denies the basic distinctiveness and coexistence of the three persons of the Trinity.”
The most obvious place where the doctrine of modalism appears to be taught in the Book of Mormon is again Abinadi’s preaching to the priests of King Noah: “I would that ye should understand that God himself shall come down among the children of men and shall redeem his people. 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 earth—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” (Mosiah 15:1–5).
Some of this doctrine is admittedly confusing, but portions of it definitely do sound like a form of modalism. Paulsen and his coauthors grant that this passage is hard to not see as modalism, but they also try to spin it in a different direction.
Other passages in the Book of Mormon also appear to lean toward a modalistic concept of God. For instance, in 3 Nephi 1:14, Jesus, speaking to Nephi4, says, “Behold, I come unto my own to fulfil all things which I have made known unto the children of men from the foundation of the world, and to do the will both of the Father and of the Son—of the Father because of me, and of the Son because of my flesh.” This language is somewhat confusing, but a plain reading of it has Jesus claiming to be both the Father and the Son.
Amulek, in his debate with Zeezrom, claims that Christ “is the very Eternal Father of heaven and earth” (Alma 11:39) and that “Christ the Son and God the Father and the Holy Spirit” are “one Eternal God” (Alma 11:44). These verses can be read modalistically, but they can be interpreted in other ways too.
Another seemingly modalistic passage appears in Ether 3:14: “Behold, I am he which was prepared from the foundation of the world to redeem my people. Behold, I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son. In me shall all mankind have light—and that eternally—even they which shall believe on my name; and they shall become my sons and my daughters.” Here it is possible that Christ is saying he is the Father because those who believe on his name become his children, but it can also be read with a flavor of modalism.
Another example comes again from Abinadi in Mosiah 16:15: “Teach them that redemption cometh through Christ the Lord, which is the very Eternal Father.” Moroni also uses similar language (Morm. 9:12).
Finally, there are a handful of passages in the Book of Mormon that originally referred to Jesus as “God” or “the Everlasting God” or “the Eternal Father,” but these were changed by Joseph Smith in 1837 to “Son of God,” “Son of the Everlasting God,” and “Son of the Eternal Father.” For example, 1 Nephi 11:18 originally read, “Behold, the virgin which thou seest is the mother of God after the manner of the flesh.” A few verses later, 1 Nephi 11:21 read in the original, “Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Eternal Father.” And 1 Nephi 11:32 once read, “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.” All these had “Son of” added to them to remove any apparent modalism.
Paulsen and his coauthors argue that the Book of Mormon does not teach modalism, because the book contains an overwhelming number of verses that not only imply a trinitarian or tritheistic reading, but cannot be read any other way. I agree with this assertion for the most part. There are scores of passages in the Book of Mormon that strongly indicate separate divine beings in the Godhead. But because of the few verses that do seem overtly modalistic, I see this as another example of explicit doctrines teaching one thing and implicit doctrines teaching another.
The most prominent (perhaps only) passage in the book that actually spells out a doctrine of the Godhead is Abinadi’s sermon to the priests of Noah. Other verses imply modalism. But the vast majority of passages referring to members of the Godhead do not support a modalistic interpretation of the Book of Mormon. So here again we have an explicit doctrine that seems at odds with multiple expressions of an implicit doctrine.
I’m not going to draw any conclusions at this point about what this seeming inconsistency between explicit and implicit doctrines means in terms of how we should consider the Book of Mormon, but it is valuable to note such examples. By considering them with all the other evidence, we can hopefully come to a more complete understanding of what this complex book is.
I haven’t really thought carefully yet about other doctrines in the Book of Mormon that may show a similar disconnect between their explicit and implicit forms. If you’ve noticed some, maybe you can mention them in the comments.

1. David L. Paulsen, Ari D. Bruening, and Benjamin B. Brown, The Earliest Mormon Understanding of God (1829–1844): Modalism and Other Myths, unpublished manuscript, in my possession.


  1. What if we step away from the notion that "the Book of Mormon" teaches a set of doctrines (implicit or explicit) and focus on what individuals teach. Do they line up according to schools? Do some schools seem to contradict what other schools say? To me, it makes more sense to make a coherent whole out of, say, Abinadi's teaching about the Godhead than the Book of Mormon's. If Abinadi's teaching has modalist and trinitarian elements, then we should perhaps temper our reading of Abinadi's modalism (or trinitarianism, I'm not sure which way the tempering should go), rather than the entire Book of Mormon's, especially since it's not clear how much Alma the Younger's or Mormon's thought should affect how we interpret Abinadi's thinking.

  2. A shorter version of Paulsen and Bruening's essay appeared in the FARMS Review of Books 13/2 (2001), conveniently here, and very much worth reading.

    I have also read the long version.

    Another aspect of the problem is contextualization, that is do read in light of our own cultural assumptions, or those of the ancients? (2 Nephi 25:1-5). It makes a difference. Brant Gardner has drawn on Mark Smith and Margaret Barker in his Second Witness series, and in a FAIR Presentation, conveniently here:

    I share his enthusiasm for the implications and significance of Margaret Barker's The Great Angel: A Study of Israel's Second God as a telling context for approaching the Book of Mormon.

    "There were many in first-century Palestine who still retained a world-view derived from the more ancient religion of Israel [that of the First Temple] in which there was a High God and several Sons of God, one of whom was Yahweh, the Holy One of Israel. Yahweh, the Lord, could be manifested on earth in human form, as an angel or in the Davidic king. It was as a manifestation of Yahweh, the Son of God, that Jesus was acknowledged as Son of God, Messiah and Lord." Margaret Barker, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God (London: SPCK, 1992), 3.


    Kevin Christensen
    Canonsburg, PA