Redux on Exploring Earliest Mormon Understandings of God (Which, For The Record, Isn’t Modalism)

holy_trinity-1I just finished reading Blake Ostler’s Exploring Mormon Thought, volume 1: The Attributes of God. I had earlier read the chapters on the problems of traditional Christology and the presentation of a Mormon Christology, so this reading served as a profitable refresher.

It’s a fantastic book, and should be considered required reading for anyone interested in a true intellectual approach to Mormon theology and philosophy. There’s really nothing else like it out there.

I find Ostler’s arguments logical and useful for understanding a coherent Christology in light of the developments as they stood at the end of Joseph Smith’s prophetic career.

I do not, however, see it expressing a Christology that by necessity needs to be compatible with the earliest and developing understandings and views of the earliest saints as initially presented (and explained) in the earliest Mormon texts – especially without the specific clarifiers that came through further revelation, and re-contextualization of the earlier texts.

In my earlier post, “Mine Only Begotten”: The Divine Pattern and Plan of Love and Perfection (1830-1838),  I attempted to explain, in narrative form, what appears to me to be a view and understanding of the Godhead presented in earliest Mormonism, as developed from the Book of Mormon, the earliest revelations, and in Joseph Smith’s revision of the Bible. By the very nature of rapid development, I do think it is difficult to peg down completely distinct and independent phases in Godhead development in early Mormonism. However, I do feel it is worthwhile to find out where we began.

This is part of acknowledging that Revelation is evolutionary and progressive, and that we should expect man’s understanding (even that of prophets) of the nature of God to progress and change through the course of further revelation and experience. In exploring this, I am not attempting to express what I believe to be the actual nature of God and the Godhead, but rather better determine how the earliest Latter-day Saints would have considered the subject, based on their texts and discourse.

In the comments, David Larsen and Blake Ostler both expressed disagreement in how I presented the development. I want to address some of their comments here, and clarify my own current understanding.

David Larsen correctly pointed out that what I was offering did not appear to similar to traditional Trinitarianism (which I claimed to be a starting point and frame of reference for the early saints’ understanding), and noted that it sounded more like modalism.

I somewhat brashly replied that yes, what I was offering did appear to be more modalist.

In the further comments, Blake (correctly) called me out on my use of the term modalism, and also stated his disagreement with my views of the development of Mormon thought. Good resources were presented  that significantly argue against the Book of Mormon and early scriptures being Modalist.

I have read the resources, and recognized  two key things:

1. The Book of Mormon probably isn’t modalist

2. The early Mormon Christology I was arguing for was not actually modalist at all to begin with!

I realized I was inaccurate in my response to Larsen, and used the technical terminology ‘modalist’ in a way inconsistent with the thoughts I was intending to express. This perhaps colored the way what I said in the post proper was interpreted.

I do not hold that at any point in early Mormon Theology, the texts or standard belief present the Single United Personage of God choosing to be acting in only one Aspect, or Person, to the negation of the Others. In many ways, that’s the opposite of what I wanted to argue.

My argument is for the initial early saints’ understanding of the nature of the Godhead substantially and physically changing at the time of the Incarnation, with that being the first time in history the figure of the Only Begotten, or The Son, becomes in actuality, not just a foreseen potentiality, a physically distinct personage in the Godhead – yet recognizing that there remains a continuity in Being following the incarnation tied to their combined heritage as the united personage of The Lord.


Initially, the texts appear to present God as One, with the Only Begotten being an aspect, or attribute with the distinct physicality of the Only Begotten  being physically separate only in foreordained potentiality, not actuality. Thus, the One God held the attributes or identity of Jehovah, God, The Lord, The Father, The Son.

At the incarnation, the Only Begotten became a distinct Personage, while still being able to profess that He was the same individual as the One God prior to the branching point – a continuity with being Jehovah, God, The Lord, the Father. Thus remaining the Father and the Son, while being in actuality the Son, “Because of the Flesh”.

However, at the point of Incarnation, the aspect or attribute of ‘The Son’ or ‘Only Begotten’ inherent in the One God was granted solely to the Incarnated Personage. The personage of the Father who was “left behind” from this branching (or condescension) still held the attributes of God, Lord, and Father, but lost the potential attribute of Son, being now incarnated and brought to actuality in a distinct personage. The Son had been within Him, and was formed in His Likeness and Image.

While following the Incarnation, there are indeed two personages (One being uniquely the Father, and one being The Son), the plurality have a combined heritage as the One. the Son can justifiably look into His past, and recognize continuity with His identity as Father, thus being the Father and the Son.

One could say at the chronological beginning of the Book of Mormon, there is One God, but at the end, there are Two, one a personage of Spirit, one Physically Embodied, both with a common United heritage which allows their association as One.

This shows why the Early Saints justifiably could acknowledge Jesus Christ as being the Jehovah of the Old Testament, while still using the name Jehovah in discourses and prayers to specifically refer to the personage of The Father.

I understand it as being a powerful developmental stage between classical Trinitarianism (which may be represented by the Book of Mormon’s pre-Incarnate God), and the emerging understanding in developed Mormonism of the distinction of Separate Personages (represented by the Book of Mormon’s post Incarnate development).

I am very willing to adjust my thoughts on the early understanding of this matter, and would appreciate discussion in the comments exploring what faults are seen in the concept as presented.

3 thoughts on “Redux on Exploring Earliest Mormon Understandings of God (Which, For The Record, Isn’t Modalism)

  1. Some deep stuff here. I really need to get intellectually grounded in some theological and philosophical terminology in order to really contribute to this kind of discussion.

    On a light hearted note, if you ever want to delve into Adam-God speculation……

  2. Actually, on your light-hearted note, the post on No Blood Before The Fall: Where’d That Come From? sort of sets up one aspect of the series of speculations and developments that probably contributed to Adam-God conclusions.

    I do want to make clear that none of these particular posts are setting out to explain what I personally view the nature of God/The Godhead as being – my own creed per se – but rather are attempts at tracing (and making sense of) the historical development of ideas to try to better understand what others thought, and perhaps why.

  3. Thank you for clarifying your aims. Actually, it has always been interesting to examine the early speculations of the Brethren. From what I have read, Joseph Smith was very open and encouraged honest speculations, provided that it didn’t conflict with clear revelations. In fact, many of the revelations that came down were in direct response to theological musings.

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