Joseph Smith's First Vision/1830 statement about seeing "God"
Critics have claimed that just because LDS missionaries were teaching around 1 November 1830 that Joseph Smith had previously seen “God” personally it cannot be assumed that this was a reference to God the Father since the Book of Mormon (completed ca. 11 June 1829) refers to Jesus Christ as “the eternal God” (title page; 2 Nephi 26:12). The argument is made that since this evidence indicates that Joseph Smith understood Jesus Christ to be “God” the statement by the missionaries may have simply meant that Joseph Smith had seen the Savior; not necessarily the Father.
It cannot be successfully argued that before the missionaries made their statement in November 1830 Latter-day Saints would have understood “God” as a reference to Jesus Christ alone. When the missionaries (one of whom was Book of Mormon scribe Oliver Cowdery) were teaching that Joseph Smith had seen “God” personally they could have legitimately been referring to God the Father. The critics are anxious to ensure that Latter-day Saints do not make assumptions on this issue. Latter-day Saints insist that critics refrain from doing the same.
The weakness of this argument is twofold. First and foremost, critics ignore the fact that the document which reports the missionaries’ teachings refers to “God” twice but also to “Christ” once and the “Holy Spirit” once. Hence, all three members of the Godhead appear to be represented individually in the document. In this context, a natural interpretation demands that “God” refer to the Father and the statement made by the missionaries would therefore mean that sometime before November 1830 Joseph Smith had seen God the Father “personally.”
The second problem with the critics’ argument is that the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants contain several contemporary texts that undercut their position. For instance, 1 Nephi 12:18 speaks of “the justice of the Eternal God, and the Messiah who is the Lamb of God, of whom the Holy Ghost beareth record.” Here all three members of the Godhead are represented and “the Eternal God” is an obvious reference to God the Father. It becomes apparent from a reading of Alma 11:44, however, that this is a title that can be appropriately applied to all three divine Beings. This scriptural passage talks about being “arraigned before the bar of Christ the Son, and God the Father, and the Holy Spirit, which is one Eternal God.” This concept is paralleled in DC 20:28—a text written about April 1830—which says that the “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God, infinite and eternal.”
The Book of Mormon also begins (1 Nephi 1:8-10) with Lehi's vision of God on his throne. One bright being [Christ] followed by twelve others descends from God to speak with Lehi--thus, Jesus and the Father are here both separate, and the role of Christ in giving instructions to the prophet while the Father looks on and approves is followed, just as it was in Joseph's First Vision. Here too, Lehi is described as praying to "the Lord," and yet has a vision of both "God" and Christ.
- [note] “Book of Mormon,” The Reflector (Palmyra, New York) 2, no. 13 (14 February 1831): 102. off-site