The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion

[Some time ago, I asked readers for recommended reading on their branches of Christianity.  Below is my understanding of Mormon theology, as gathered from Sterling McMurrin’s “The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion”, one of the books recommended to me.  This is the third in a series, and probably the last for a little while as I gear up for the fall semester.  Mormon commenters should be considered to have more authority than me on this topic, and I will gratefully take their correction.  The goal of this post and the subsequent discussion will be to accurately describe the Mormon faith.  Commenters may respectfully question or register disagreement with this or that LDS tenet, but I will not tolerate the gratuitous insults of Mormonism that are unfortunately common in orthodox Christian circles.]

Despite being highly visible allies in the culture wars, Mormons are by-and-large poorly understood by more mainstream Christians.  Joseph Smith was a genius but not a formally trained theologian, so he ended up using philosophical terms idiosyncratically to express his insights, and this can create misunderstanding among those trained to follow Aristotle’s prior idiosyncrasies.  In this book, Professor McMurrin performs a valuable service translating between Mormon and Trinitarian theological statements.  Usually, misunderstandings lead groups to exaggerate their differences, but McMurrin argues that Mormonism’s innovations are even more drastic and fundamental than either side realizes.

In his presentation of Catholic and Protestant views, McMurrin seems fair and accurate.  I’m less confident that what he presents is Mormon orthodoxy as his coreligionists would recognize it.  One repeatedly catches him chiding his fellow Mormons for failing to follow through on what he regards as Mormonism’s deepest, most fundamental metaphysical commitments.  He admits that often enough the language of classical theism with its absolute and infinite God creeps into Mormon preaching in spite of a dogmatic commitment to a finite God.  I’m always hearing the theistic God called a philosophical monstrosity foisted on simple religious folk who would just like God to be a comprehensible person.  Thus, it’s amusing that McMurrin considers theistic holdovers in Mormonism as concessions to the religious sensibilities of ordinary people, who don’t feel satisfied attributing anything less than Absolute Being to their object of worship.

With those preliminaries out of the way, what is the key to understanding Mormonism?  Here’s a couple to try:

Mormonism as Christianity grafted onto a new metaphysics

Mormons deny that God is the sole ultimate cause of all that exists.  Nor is He thought by them to transcend time (by being atemporal) or space (by being immaterial).  He is, in an ultimate sense, just one being among many.  In my earlier criticisms of Mormonism, I had assumed that Mormons therefore demote God to being a finite, contingent being just like us.  I now realize that I was wrong.  What they do is the opposite:  they claim that we–that is, the fundamental constituents of the world, whatever those might be–are also necessary, self-subsistent beings.  Among the world’s fundamental constituents, most Mormons would include space, time, primary matter, and individual souls (or some basic aspect of them).  Like God, these things exist at all times and indeed cannot not exist.  God’s role then is not to create these things, but, like Plato’s Demiurge, to arrange and bring them together into a universe.  Thus, Mormons agree with classical theism up to the point where it is proved that a necessary, self-sufficient being must exist.  They differ in what comes next.  Theists identify God as the only such being.  Pantheists allow the world to share in this necessity, and pose that the world is ultimately part of God’s being, so again there is only one non-contingent being.  The Mormons propose a third solution:  ultimate plurality of necessary beings.   One could even imagine a distinctively Mormon atheism, in which an assembler God is deemed unnecessary, which would differ from ordinary atheism in that the Godless world would be considered necessary rather than “brute fact” contingent.

Such a Mormon atheism might be the biggest danger of the doctrine of a finite God.  The world seems less reliant on Him than in classical theism, so perhaps He can be discarded altogether?  On the other hand, the world’s dependence on God is admitted to be “very great”, presumably in His role of holding the fundamental principles together in a universe.  McMurrin thinks finite God theology really pays off in its solution of the theodicy problem.  God, not being omnipotent, is off the hook.

Mormonism as a Biblically literalistic liberal Protestantism

McMurrin situates Mormonism among the divisions of 19th and 20th century Protestantism.  On the debate over how to read the Bible, Mormons come down on the literalist side.  It helps their case for a finite God if descriptions of God’s passions and spatial localization are read literally.  On issues of grace and original sin, McMurrin identifies Mormonism as a form of liberal Protestantism.  Mormons deny the doctrines of original sin, salvation by grace alone, and predestination.  Mormon readers may wish to qualify this, but McMurrin isn’t shy about saying that Mormons are basically Pelagians.  Christ’s atonement somehow made salvation possible, but now that it’s possible, it’s up to us to earn it by our free choices.  Some Mormons actually suggest that Adam’s fall was a good thing, that we are better off because of it, not because God thereby chose to bestow more grace upon us that He might otherwise have done, but because our separation from God, our knowledge of good and evil, has enhanced our freedom and moral maturity.  That Catholics and Calvinists would find such a suggestion blasphemous shows what a radical form of Protestant liberalism we are actually dealing with.

The combination of stands taken by the Mormon Church is certainly interesting.  The liberal wing of Protestantism (the successor to the Arminian wing) for the most part ended up dropping the reliability of the Bible literally read, and, as you all know, it ultimately descended into Leftist political agitation with a Deist gloss.  The Mormons took the liberal side on most nineteenth-century theological issues, but they stuck to a mostly literal reading of the Bible, and they haven’t embraced political or social Leftism.  (Yes, they’re mostly classical liberals, but these are Americans we’re talking about, where even the Catholics have “fortnights for freedom”.)  What’s interesting is the lack of a sense of tension between these choices.  Mormonism appears to form a cohesive whole, suggesting that Protestantism didn’t have to develop as it did.  After all, Pope Francis is always accusing Catholics like me of being Pelagians–why couldn’t there be a sect of socially conservative Pelagians?

103 thoughts on “The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion

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  2. I think this is a very good summary given its brevity. I would make one minor correction. The Fall as a good is very explicitly taught in the Book of Mormon (2 Nephi 2:27) and frequently reiterated in Mormon teaching and temple ritual. It is the majority view if not the only view.

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  4. Bonald, I would like to know more about Mormon theology proper — about the Mormon understanding of God — because I get conflicting impressions from discussions with LDS folks. On the one hand, I hear about a limited but very powerful demiurge figure who knows the laws of nature and manipulates them to make the world (as your mention). On the other hand, I hear that our God is not God universally and that he was once a man (presumably from another world and therefore the son of another God) who graduated (in the Mormon understanding of theosis) to what my brother calls the “God Club” and got to sire a new people and make a new world. How do these two apparently conflicting theologies fit together? Are there Gods “all the way down,” or are we privileged, according to some Mormon sages, to have the first, chief God as our God? And in those cases when men earn divine status and get to be Gods, do they maintain some sort of contact with their father and grandfather Gods?

    Also, if the intelligences are eternal and necessary, why do they require an incarnational phase in frail, mortal bodies before achieving glorified body status? Is this part of the process whereby the chaff is separated from the wheat? Our life-cycle in Mormonism is rather complex — rather arthropodic.

    When I read historical mythology or even fantasy or science fiction, I like to figure out the basic ultimate story, and that seems oddly difficult to do with Mormonism.

    • You might be interested in Terryl Givens’ new book Wrestling the Angel for a more detailed look at Mormon theology.

      Unlike McMurrin, Givens is a devout Mormon.

      • Thursday,

        Yes. Givens is both more humble in approaching his subject and more devout in belief than McMurrin, whom I briefly met once, and his book is better and more detailed. Givens also has the advantage of writing a generation after McMurrin’s book was published. Yet I give McMurrin credit for some profound insights.

    • It may be the case that a select group of Mormon theologians know answers to those questions. But I have asked multiple Mormons – educated, devout, Masters-degree holding Mormons – about these conflicts and what they believe, if anything, to sort them out. I am always given the same answer: “revelation is given on a need-to-know basis, abstract reasoning and philosophizing only cause trouble in theology, we just believe what we’ve been told and trust that it all works out, even if we don’t know – and don’t need to know – how.” They all regarded this as a source of moral pride. They regard the Christian God, consistent with all the truths of reason, as an abstract and cold monstrosity; they don’t need to know anything precise about their god. It seems to me like knowing whether God is God, or just the alpha-stud of this planetary community, is something that would fit into that “need-to-know” category. Is there an actual God? A God of the Universe? Should we worship him? Or is this just a spiritually incestuous cult of tribal ancestor-worship? Is this not “need-to-know” stuff?

      None of the Mormons I asked seemed bothered by it; or, rather, they seemed very bothered by it, but also very intent upon proving their good character by blithely keeping a stiff upper lip. For the Mormons I know, everything is about family and inclusion: one is a Mormon because the thought of being excluded from the family is unthinkably bad.

      • CP, that has been my experience, too (meaning that I have met scores of devout, intelligent, otherwise educated Mormons who appear completely disinterested in understanding the fundamental theology of their religion), and I have found such rather troubling. All Christians (I think) are comfortable stating that our knowledge of divine matters is limited, but the blind piety of Mormonism strikes me as fantastic. When a Trinitarian Catholic admits his ignorance about the inner life of God, that seems reasonable to me — he is talking about the basic reality of reality. One cannot get more esoteric than that. Yet, Mormons appear to understand God as just another being among beings — it shouldn’t be that difficult to theologize about him, just as it isn’t an insurmountable task to provide the general biographical details of President Grant. And why don’t Mormons bring up such questions themselves? Whether the Lord of all was simply Tom Jones in the HE 1523-0901 system a long time ago or rather the everlasting Master Engineer of the Universe seems to be an obvious question to ask. Mormons typically spend much time in catechism (those early morning seminary classes, extensive services and exposure to religious instruction, mission training) — what exactly are they learning, given that they are so amazingly ignorant of (their own) basic theology!?!? I just find it baffling, and it makes me suspect that the religion itself is hostile to truth. Obviously, Mormons as a group have a healthy, finely developed sense of practical reason, but their apathy toward understanding the most important object of understanding makes them appear almost irreligious, having no more interest in the sacred as the most unrepentant hedonist.

        Yet, they remain pious, though not interested in God. How is that possible? Mormons seem to exhibit a love for God; they appear to have a relationship with the Lord. How can that emotional relationship be so devoid of intellectual content? One can say that Mormons love God; a man need not understand another person in order to love him. Verily so, but I cannot imagine not seeking to understand a person whom I love. Think of your relationship to your parents (earthly parents). When we’re small, we love our parents but think of them — as them — very little, if ever. We as children are far too self-absorbed to wonder about our parents in themselves. Yet, as we mature, our mind expands beyond the narrow confines of the self, and we (at least the non-sociopathic among us) begin to consider people as real people with their own minds, wills, desires, and such. We try to see things from others’ points of views — especially those whom we love. Can Mormons really have a strong emotional connection to God without triggering their curiosity to understand more about this Heavenly Father? I just find that aspect of Mormonism completely unintelligible.

    • @Joseph A.
      This might satisfy your “basic story:”
      Joseph Smith: “God himself, finding he was in the midst of spirits and glory, because he was more intelligent, saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself. The relationship we have with God places us in a situation to advance in knowledge. He has power to institute laws to instruct the weaker intelligences, that they may be exalted with himself, so that they might have one glory upon another, and all that knowledge, power, glory, and intelligence, which is requisite in order to save them in the world of spirits.”

      In Mormon cosmology, spirit beings (spirit itself being a refined material, not immaterial) require tangible corporeality to eventually become like God the Father – ie eternally embodied glorified being. The rough tangible world is a part of our trial. Mankind is theomorphic.

      • Androcles, thank you for the input. Could I ask you (and other Mormons so inclined) to expound further? Please tell when what I have wrong:

        There are intelligences in the universe — they have always existed in time and will always exist — they are everlasting temporal (meaning existing in time) beings. Is there a set or finite number of them — or can new intelligences be begotten as intelligences (hence everlasting only in one temporal direction, so to speak)? Anyway, they are the most basic nature of rational beings. From your statement, they are not equal — some excel in various ways, such as our God the Father. At some point, the intelligence that came to be known as God acquired a glorified body, married, and had children (though I’m not sure of the marriage and incarnation order). For it is better to be embodied than not. We’re not sure whether he was first a mortal man or not, but such appears to be a common LDS belief.

        God and his wife have some sort of procreative power — cosmic sex or something like that, and their procreative act allows for intelligences to gain some additional level of being. I would like to say that such allows them to enter into time and space, but that may go against Mormon belief. So, the glorifiedly embodied God and Celestial Mother have children — who were intelligences but enter somehow more fully into our world in being spiritually born — they are then in the post-intelligence but pre-mortal coil stage. Among these children (all the people who have ever lived or will ever live on our world) are the famous Jehovah, Michael, and Lucifer. The world gets made, and God creates for Michael a body, and he (Michael) thus becomes known as Adam, ancestor in the flesh of the human race on earth. And we all know what happens from there, as the LDS narrative follows the general Christian one, though for Mormons, Jehovah, the faithful son, becomes Jesus. I assume that Mormons accept the Virgin birth — so something special happened with Jehovah/Jesus’ entering into the natural world, just like something extraordinary happened with Michael/Adam’s entering into the natural world. This parallels standard Christian doctrine in that Jesus is the New Adam — who repairs Adam’s tear in the world’s fabric.

        Moreover, I understand the idea of this life as a trial — it is a commonplace belief among Christians (among many others). My inner Nietzsche protests against the idea, but it is not so absurd when you consider stages of growth in nature and in human maturation, both bodily and spiritual. A caterpillar, were it to have the power of reflection, might assume that its true life is the larval one — and that it all ends in the chrysalis tomb. So, fine — rational beings have to go through frail mortal life as a stage toward their perfection. Yet, it seems inelegant to me that glorified bodily beings would have children who were themselves bodiless. What does such begettingness get them — for they were already intelligences? It places them in a particular context in the universe, with particular parents in a particular world — so that may be it. Yet, it seems strange that the progeny of God would lack such a perfection (a glorified body) without having to go through yet another birth in the flesh. Is there a Mormon explication of this?

        Also, how does this worldview affect filial piety? In Mormonism, your flesh father is your spiritual brother — just like in traditional Christianity, but does that father-son relationship have any reality in the true life — what the gentiles sometimes refer to as the afterlife? Or, does the fraternal relationship overtake it, being of a higher order (spiritual brothers)?

        And if we accept the King Follett / Snow doctrine, how did our God/Father get to be a man? If we assume an infinite regress (of Gods, worlds, and men), then we’d have to assume an infinite number of intelligences, as well as temporal infinity, right? Is that the case, at least for those who accept the doctrine?

        And lastly, as I already asked, do the various Gods have any connection to one another? If God wants us to be raised to his level — perfect theosis — which seems to be true (that an all good God would want our highest good), then ideally we would all get to have our own worlds and beget spiritual children and such. Is the celestial kingdom — the highest heaven — where all these Gods “hang out” when not ruling their children in their respective worlds? And that way, they would maintain a fellowship in love among their spiritual ancestors, brothers, and descendants? For it would be sad for one not to have an everlasting relationship with the best people (the ones who become Gods) — which would be the case if every “fully successful” man and woman went off to start some other world without having any further contact with their spiritual families. That seems very un-Mormon.

        I appreciate your patience.

      • Androcles, thank you for the input. Could I ask you (and other Mormons so inclined) to expound further? Please tell when what I have wrong:

        I’ll make an attempt to clarify (in bold, if the HTML works), but I’m with a Book of Mormon prophet here: “I know that [God] loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.” 1 Nephi 11:17.
        Where possible, I will attempt to use the LDS canon of scripture to expound. We tend to literal a understanding of scripture.

        There are intelligences in the universe — they have always existed in time and will always exist — they are everlasting temporal (meaning existing in time) beings. Is there a set or finite number of them — or can new intelligences be begotten as intelligences (hence everlasting only in one temporal direction, so to speak)?
        The works of God would need an endless quantity. For us, God has made/is making/will make inhabited worlds, like ours, without end.
        Moses 1:37 And the Lord God spake unto Moses, saying: The heavens, they are many, and they cannot be numbered unto man; but they are numbered unto me, for they are mine.
        38 And as one earth shall pass away, and the heavens thereof even so shall another come; and there is no end to my works, neither to my words.
        39 For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.

        For us, there is a short list of what God cannot/will not do. Changing the past is one of them. The intelligences, like God, have no beginning. They are susceptible to grow over time.
        Abraham 3:…if there be two spirits, and one shall be more intelligent than the other, yet these two spirits, notwithstanding one is more intelligent than the other, have no beginning; they existed before, they shall have no end, they shall exist after…

        Anyway, they are the most basic nature of rational and probably non-rational beings. From your statement, they are not equal — some excel in various ways, such as our God the Father. At some point, the intelligence that came to be known as God acquired a glorified body, married, and had children (though I’m not sure of the marriage and incarnation order). For it is better to be embodied than not. We’re not sure whether he was first a mortal man or not, but such appears to be a common LDS belief.

        Our Lord Jesus Christ was a mortal man in the way that Heavenly Father was a mortal man.
        John 5:19 …The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise.

        God and his wife have some sort of procreative power — cosmic sex or something like that, and their procreative act allows for intelligences to gain some additional level of being. I’ve heard it described as a transformation from a bare intelligence to a spirit child I would like to say that such allows them to enter into time and space, but that may go against Mormon belief. Being co-eternal with God, intelligences are always in time and space, though time and space can be experientially different depending on what kind of being. So, the glorifiedly embodied God and Celestial Mother have children — who were intelligences but enter somehow more fully into our world in being spiritually born — they are then in the post-intelligence but pre-mortal coil stageoften called “pre-existence,” though I prefer the more accurate “pre-mortal life”. Among these children (all the people who have ever lived or will ever live on our world) are the famous Jehovah, Michael, and Lucifer. The world gets made by Jehovah et al., and God Elohim and Jehovah – “Let us…” creates for Michael a body, and he (Michael) thus becomes known as Adam, ancestor in the flesh of the human race on earth. And we all know what happens from there, as the LDS narrative follows the general Christian one, though for Mormons, Jehovah, the faithful son, becomes Jesus. I assume that Mormons accept the Virgin birth — so something special happened with Jehovah/Jesus’ entering into the natural world, just like something extraordinary happened with Michael/Adam’s entering into the natural world. This parallels standard Christian doctrine in that Jesus is the New Adam — who repairs Adam’s tear in the world’s fabric.Though for the LDS, Adam’s fall was a net positive, not a terrible mistake.

        Moreover, I understand the idea of this life as a trial — it is a commonplace belief among Christians (among many others).
        It is the test of obedience in the context of corporality.
        Abrahm 3:…and he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; 25 And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them;

        My inner Nietzsche protests against the idea, but it is not so absurd when you consider stages of growth in nature and in human maturation, both bodily and spiritual. A caterpillar, were it to have the power of reflection, might assume that its true life is the larval one — and that it all ends in the chrysalis tomb. A leader in the Church has called the children of God “gods in embryo” So, fine — rational beings have to go through frail mortal life as a stage toward their perfection. Ye shall be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect Matt. 5:48Yet, it seems inelegant to me that glorified bodily beings would have children who were themselves bodiless.Bare intellecence -> (spirit body(intelligence)) -> (tangible body(spirit body(intelligence))) -> glorious body, each step has greater opportunity and power. The quality of the next step is contingent on the choices of the previous. What does such begettingness get them — for they were already intelligences? It places them in a particular context in the universe, with particular parents in a particular world — so that may be it. Yet, it seems strange that the progeny of God would lack such a perfection (a glorified body) without having to go through yet another birth in the flesh. Is there a Mormon explication of this? This is where the mantic wine does not fit into the old wineskins of platonic metaphysics and pseudo-gnosticism. In LDS metaphysics, being tangibly embodied is superior to being a bare intelligence or a spirit body only (the Son attains existential perfection through the Atonement and Resurrection [Luke 13:32]). This is, in many ways, the opposite of the God-abstraction of the philosophers, without body, parts, or passions. You will find the parenthood of God difficult, because you are still sneaking philosophical assumptions through the back door. Why do Heavenly Parents create imperfect children? Well, they are not doing fiat “creation from nothing” making of beings. They are taking eternally existing intelligences with a high degree of intelligence and transforming them into spirit sons and daughters, with the grace of moral agency and opportunity for eternal life. The pre-mortal life was a test (which the fallen spirits failed and you passed), and this life is a similar test, with the added growth in corporality.
        Abraham 3:26 And they who keep their first estate shall be added upon; and they who keep not their first estate shall not have glory in the same kingdom with those who keep their first estate; and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever. 27 And the Lord said: Whom shall I send? And one answered like unto the Son of Man: Here am I, send me. And another answered and said: Here am I, send me. And the Lord said: I will send the first. 28 And the second was angry, and kept not his first estate; and, at that day, many followed after him.
        As the Atonement of Jesus Christ teaches us, there is no substitute for experience, and corporality is an eternal blessing.

        Also, how does this worldview affect filial piety? In Mormonism, your flesh father is your spiritual brother — just like in traditional Christianity, but does that father-son relationship have any reality in the true life — what the gentiles sometimes refer to as the afterlife? Or, does the fraternal relationship overtake it, being of a higher order (spiritual brothers)?
        D&C 130:2 And that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy.
        The covenental relationship transcends other ties and my folks will always be my folks.

        And if we accept the King Follett / Snow doctrine, how did our God/Father get to be a man?
        Let’s take the Son of Man as the example –
        As the Son of Man is, God once was;
        as the Son of Man was, man may become
        Colosians 2:8 Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. 9 For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.
        The Son of Man became a spirit Son of God. Then he became a mortal man, the Only Begotten. Then an eternally embodied, resurrected, glorified being. That is the eternal pattern. At some future time, you might go to a world created by the Son of the Son of Man. One of the embodied spirit offspring of Jesus Christ, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, and having seen into heaven might say: “5 For though there be that are called Gods, whether in heaven or in earth, (as there be Gods many, and Lords many,) 6 But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord, by whom are all things, and we by him.”

        If we assume an infinite regress I prefer to think of it as infinite congress-progress(of Gods, worlds, and men), then we’d have to assume an infinite number of intelligences, as well as temporal infinity, right? Is that the case, at least for those who accept the doctrine? Sure. For us, before Genesis and after Revelation are not static. “The course of the Lord is one eternal round.”

        And lastly, as I already asked, do the various Gods have any connection to one another? If God wants us to be raised to his level — perfect theosis — which seems to be true (that an all good God would want our highest good), then ideally we would all get to have our own worlds and beget spiritual children and such. Is the celestial kingdom — the highest heaven — where all these Gods “hang out” when not ruling their children in their respective worlds? And that way, they would maintain a fellowship in love among their spiritual ancestors, brothers, and descendants? For it would be sad for one not to have an everlasting relationship with the best people (the ones who become Gods) — which would be the case if every “fully successful” man and woman went off to start some other world without having any further contact with their spiritual families. That seems very un-Mormon. Time, communion, and distance are different for exalted beings. Celestial Family reunions? Why not?
        I appreciate your patience. Hopefully, the explanations clarified some ideas for you.

      • Andrew, thank you for your clarifications. They are most helpful. “Gods in embryo” — great expression.

        Why, however, has it been so difficult for me to find those answers? I know that most Christians have limited doctrinal understanding, and this ignorance is woefully extensive in our heathen age. Still, it is relatively easy to find the theological junkies in most groups. Informed (cough, fanatical, cough 😉 ) Calvinists will rain upon the plain if you start a religious discussion in their midst. Roman Catholic institutions have no shortage of folks who know a lot about Western Christian theology. I was in the Cardinal Newman Society in college — of course, the students in there were the minority on campus, but we were, as the NYT says, a vibrant minority. The Orthodox in America have a healthy level of theological interest and knowledge — even among the Greeks! Evangelicals have their God-nerds, too. Does such a character exist among the Mormons — because I have never met one? You may be the first encounter that I have had. So, I have a question — in the BYU dorms or while getting ready for bed at the mission language boot camp, did you find other Mormons who would talk about these matters? Are they rare, or are Mormons simply reticent about such topics in the midst of gentiles? From an outsider’s perspective, LDS religious culture appears either apathetic or anti-intellectual concerning theology — which is bizarre, given the general level of devotion Mormons have to their faith.

      • @Joseph A.

        Why, however, has it been so difficult for me to find those answers?

        I don’t know. I have received no unusual training. I did graduate from LDS seminary [high school level] and LDS Institute of Religion [college level], but so have hundreds of thousands of other LDS people.

        Does such a character exist among the Mormons — because I have never met one? You may be the first encounter that I have had.

        Yes, we do have theological junkies and God-nerds. I don’t know that I would qualify. I suppose I’ve read a few more religion books [Nibley, Madsen, Gaskill, Wayment, Ridges, Ludlow, Cook, Parry, et al.] than many of my fellow LDS and probably read the scriptures about as much as the average active member. I don’t consider myself more theologically adept than average, though they do seem to call on me to clarify more than average when questions arise in Sunday School class. I also try to attend the annual BYU Campus Education Week (I’m going next month), which is like a week long religion class. <a href="http://ce.byu.edu/edweek/index.php"http://ce.byu.edu/edweek/index.php

        So, I have a question — in the BYU dorms or while getting ready for bed at the mission language boot camp, did you find other Mormons who would talk about these matters? Are they rare, or are Mormons simply reticent about such topics in the midst of gentiles?

        I don’t know what they do in BYU dorms, since I graduated from UNLV. But at the Missionary Training Center http://www.mtc.byu.edu/themtc.htm, and when I was a full time missionary in Ecuador, we absolutely had doctrinal discussions all the time. Our schedule slated 2 hours every morning for private and companionship study. We talked about or studied anything we liked. I read the Book of Mormon 14 times, the Old Testament twice, the New Testament 6 times and the Doctrine & Covenants 4 times in English and Spanish in the two years as a missionary. We had all kinds of conversation about any topic that came to mind. Not all of them were religious; I recall a heated debate on who the best superhero was. The discussions were mostly doctrinal in nature (at least during study time).

        Are they rare, or are Mormons simply reticent about such topics in the midst of gentiles?
        From an outsider’s perspective, LDS religious culture appears either apathetic or anti-intellectual concerning theology — which is bizarre, given the general level of devotion Mormons have to their faith.

        I think many LDSs are gun-shy when it comes to discussing doctrinal matters with non-LDS. I realize that the extermination order has been rescinded, but there are still quite a few people that are hostile to Mormons. Things seem to go well between people that are already friends and are just talking about ideas. There tends to be a bit more hostility in other situations, depending on the tradition asking. I listen to “Christian” radio sometimes and I’ve noticed they’ve toned it down a bit lately, but there is still name-calling and a lot of misinformation. Search engine results seem to give about 80-20 ex-Mormon/anti-Mormon results to regular Mormon listings, so I appreciate it may be difficult to find out what LDS people actually believe.
        Our culture around theology may seem apathetic or anti-intellectual from the outside. Since I’m not on the outside, I can’t see it from your perspective. I must say, the LDS approach to theology is necessarily different. “Could you gaze into heaven five minutes, you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 324) “The best way to obtain truth and wisdom is not to ask it from books, but to go to God in prayer, and obtain divine teaching” (TPJS, p. 191). The LDS approach to theology emphasizes the vertical, rather than the horizontal approach of mainstram Christianity. We believe that apostasy happened very early on in the history of Christianity, so we don’t have much in common, extra-Biblically. We LDS also have this commandment from God: “D&C 88:118 And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” And this caution about attitudes after gaining knowledge 2 Nephi 9:28 O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish.

      • Thank you, Andrew. I wish you well on your journey.

        And by the way, I mistakenly wrote an error in my comment — I was not in the Cardinal Newman Society (which does exist) in college, but rather in the Saint Edmund Campion Society — wrong English papist! I’m not sure why I mixed them up. J.H. Newman rocks, though.

  5. @Bonald – This seems a fair minded and clear summary of a very valuable little book.

    Btw, just to clarify where this book was coming-from; my understanding of McMurrin was that he was brought-up a Mormon, and had close and friendly relationships with the church leaders including Presidents – and he practiced the Mormon life (stuck to the rules, attended chapel); but that as an adult (including when he wrote this book) he ceased to believe that Mormonism was true. For example, McMurrin did not believe that the Book of Mormon was what it says it is, he thought that idea was absurd.

    So, when McMurrin wrote this book he was describing Mormonism with inner knowledge and scholarly expertise – but not belief: McMurrin was not doing any kind of advocacy or apologetics. He believed in the Mormon way of life – but justified this belief with Liberal/ Democrat/ secular justifications (McMurrin was an active, high level participant in the Democrat Party – engaged in the sixties ‘civil rights’ business – at a time when the vast majority of Mormons were strongly Republican)

    To regard the Mormon theology as a ‘combination’ of other, pre-existing theologies (a new combination of well-known ‘isms’) is one way to *begin* explaining it to other Christians, it is a way into the subject – but I don’t think this captures either the essence, or the experience, nor even the actual development of it.

    In terms of metaphysics, Mormonism is more like a jump-ahead to William James pluralism and pragmatism (and James seems himself to have acknowledged this), than a combination of already existing ingredients. Plus, of course, Joseph Smith *didn’t* historically put Mormonism together from existing ingredients derived from classical theology – because he didn’t know enough about the subject. Indeed, it was probably Smith’s theological innocence (one could say ignorance) that enabled the production of Mormon theology.

    I got this Mormonism as Jamesian Pluraism/ Pragmatism from reading McMurrin – so it is a different way of emphasizing what is in this dense book – and it shows how the experience of a book, and what we get from it, is shaped by individual motivations and background. What you got from the book (its analysis of Mormonism in terms of other Christian theological ‘isms’) is certainly there, and is very interesting – but in the end I felt that this apparatus could and should be set aside.

    Mormon theology ‘crystallized’ in Smith’s mind from a combination of literalistic, common sense Bible knowledge, plus his revelations – and it took the whole of Smith’s short adult life gradually to fill out the details and explore some of the implications and tidy up loose ends – this process was still on-going when he was killed (as seen in the King Follett sermon – which (as it survives) clarifies some implications, and leaves some more new loose ends!).

    My point is that Mormon theology is indeed a different paradigm of Christianity, but it is not *experienced* as a complex combination. Once someone ‘gets it’, Mormon theology is experienced as very simple and coherent and common-sensical – although, like classical theology, it has its weak points of course, but these are different weak points than classical theology.

    My first understanding of Mormonism came from sociologist Rodney Stark (sympathetic but not a Mormon) – who presented it as ‘Christianity Plus’ – i.e normal Christianity plus new scripture, new theology, new rules of life. But this was misleading – it took McMurrin – plus my previous liking for William James’s work – to perceive that Mormonism is more like Christianity with new foundations.

    If metaphysical philosophy is regarded as the foundations of the edifice of Christianity, then perhaps the most accurate metaphor would be that Mormonism leaves the upper and visible building all-but unchanged, while (somehow!) replacing the foundations.

    • Bruce,

      “I don’t think this captures either the essence, or the experience, nor even the actual development of it.” Yes. Contra McMurrin, the “Mormon religion” was not designed or intended to be built on ‘theological foundations,” and McMurrin’s title fails to capture the spirit of the matter. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is built on revelation both to the founders and to contemporary and modern seekers. Theology is what individuals, including professors, make of the revelations after the fact, sometimes well, sometimes not, including things that can be misunderstood (2 Pet. 3:16). That a barely educated New England farm boy produced something that in retrospect is quite theologically profound (leaving aside mere folkway interpretations) while radically reinterpreting virtually all of classical theology, that many millions find spiritually fulfilling, and that has produced a people (admittedly still imperfect) with many admirable accomplishments by the standards of the Sermon on the Mount and who are devoted to the person of Jesus Christ, is no mean feat. Highly educated readers might try their hand at this and see how hard that task is.

      • @Leo – Indeed.

        But if someone was interested in theology – as a discipline – then there is an intellectual fascination in studying Mormon theology as a system, and comparing it with Classical theology in its various manifestations. I found this to be enlightening in both directions.

        Blake Ostler is the man who seems to have taken this activity further and deeper than anyone else, so far – I find his work both enthralling and inspiring!

        http://www.blakeostler.com/theology.html

      • Smith didn’t build Mormonism from classical theology, but from the milieux of the burned over district.

  6. What might be called the common believer does have intuitions that tend towards a more limited, personalist view of God, but also has intuitions that tend towards a classical theist conception of God. The latter has genuine popular appeal and is not just an abstraction imposed on top of popular faith by intellectuals.

  7. The Mormon deity is not even a demiurge, or if he is, he has his own demiurge as well.

    He was a man on another planet, worshipping his own god, and as a result of being a very good follower of his god, he was made a god and had his own spirit children (us) who worship him, and who can become gods of their own worlds if they’re very good Mormons.

    Zeus was esteemed less than God, because Zeus was not ontologically superior to all things. The Mormon deity is esteemed less than Zeus, because the Mormon deity is not ontologically superior to anything. Really, it’s just ancestor worship, except it’s worse than pagan ancestor worship, because the ancestor it worships isn’t real.

      • I’ve heard this thrown out, but always from anti-Mormon sources, that Mormons think God used to be a regular human that somehow evolved or got promoted. McMurrin doesn’t say anything about it. Mormon readers: is there anything to this claim?

      • I’m not Mormon, but the “As man now is …” quotation is a later rephrasing of a line taken from the Ken Follett Discourse which, I’m told by Mormons, is understood to be doctrinally authoritative. It also shows, when taken in relation to earlier theological statements with respect to the doctrine of God proper, that Joseph Smith’s theology developed over time from basic popular level Christian theism to the strangeness that it became. I realize that “strangeness” is a value judgment, but I am a Catholic.

      • Yes, these ideas come from Joseph Smith’s King Follett Address, which Bonald should read. It is widely available on the net.

        However, the King Follett Address has somewhat ambiguous canonical status. It isn’t officially included as scripture by the Mormon church, but its teachings are widely accepted among actual Mormons, at all levels. I would say it is de facto canonical.

      • That’s right. King Follett Discourse. My mistake. It absolutely should be read, as it represents Joseph Smith’s mature theological commitments.

      • Here Bonald:

        https://www.lds.org/ensign/1982/02/i-have-a-question?lang=eng

        “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! … It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the Character of God, and to know that we may converse with him as one man converses with another, and that he was once a man like us; yea, that God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ himself did.” – Joseph Smith

        Not only is Mormonism, as the Holy See has ruled, not Christian, it doesn’t even worship the same deity. Come to think of it, it’s hard to describe the Mormon god as a deity at all. As described, his dignity seems no greater than that of a natural father. So it’s basically paganism minus the gods. Or atheism plus filial piety (to imaginary ancestors).

      • Bonald,

        To hear it from Mormons themselves, one could do worse than to go here:

        https://www.lds.org/ensign/1982/02/i-have-a-question?lang=eng

        Scroll down the page, until you see the question, “Is President Lorenzo Snow’s oft-repeated statement…” The whole matter is substantially explained; Mormons understandably prefer not to raise this doctrine with non-Mormons, because they understand that it is very alienating. But it is certainly their doctrine.

        Joseph Smith was a Freemason, along with many other early Mormons of prominence; the Mormons themselves are aware of this, and Wikipedia has a good page about it, which documents this from friendly and even Mormon sources (Joseph Smith writes openly about it in his “History of the Church,” which I confirmed for myself rather than trust Wikipedia). The Mormon temple endowment, the past forms of the temple garments (i.e., “magic underwear”), etc., are all clearly of Freemasonic derivation. Even the hand signals and handshakes used as part of the Mormon temple rite (used to gain admittance to the higher heaven after death) are simply lifted from Freemasonic rites. It is no surprise that Smith’s doctrine is therefore essentially Masonic and Modernist: the naturalistic deification of man and the satisfaction of earthly desires, forever. I know Mormons find it distressing, but this is a big part of why Christians cannot recognize Mormons as fellow Christians. Their religion is essentially Americanism and Freemasonry, which latter obviously uses many biblical names for God and other persons, but in obviously odd and anti-Christian ways.

      • Yes, we Mormons believe in apotheosis. I could point to New Testament scriptures that we interpret differently from the sects of mainstream Christianity that point to this.

      • Mormonism is basically a return to the doctrine of the Incarnation.

        “As man now is, Christ once was:
        as Christ now is, man may be.”

        Is Christ God?

    • I’d challenge any religion to define what it worships, beyond the abstract word “god” or the curiously convenient notion that god is everything (thus localizing god in matter). Especially with Abrahamic religions. People tend to conceptualize god as a spirit, but unless this is outright stated then I believe this is both an unwarranted jump and it conveys no perceptibly superior theological structure anyhow. It seems to me that defining god to be ancestor worship is actually progress in comparison. Also, I’m not aware of any negatives levied against such worship that aren’t different versions of the relativistic “because my version of god is the truth”.

      If Mormonism rejects structural theology for revelation then it cannot be said to have a theology that it must stay consistent to or that would be interesting outside of academic efforts to categorize it. Such efforts are amusing, but don’t be surprised when the religion does not conform. In historical terms, systematic theology is much more the exception than the rule.

      What is most interesting to me, at this point, would be to discern where Mormonism does and does not take its religious belief and cosmology from freemasonic parallel beliefs.

      Freemasonry’s aim, essentially, is to create the “molten sea” by mixing “fire” (work, sons of Cain, Freemasons, individualists, Statists, Kings) and “water” (faith, sons of Seth, Catholicism, Communalists, Church Authority, Priests) and mix them into a “brotherhood of man”. Explicitly, it’s a lot of belabored allegory and ostentatious spiritism (gnosticism) to justify the eradication of tribal ethnicity in favor of internationalism. See Max Heindel’s “Freemasonry and Catholicism” and “the Rosicrucian Cosmo-Conception” for details from the perspective of a believing member.

      It is no secret that Mormonism’s DNA was largely evolved from Freemasonry. So, what was taken from Freemasonry, what was left behind (if anything), and what can we expect in the future? After all, something like 2/3rds of the book of Mormon is yet to be revealed. IS Mormonism’s cosmology Gnostic in nature?

      One of the most glaring symbols in the Mormon temple is, indeed, the Molten Sea upheld by the 12 oxen that represent the tribes of Israel. The Molten Sea as a centerpiece of belief is premier constant between Freemasonry and Mormonism. What else is there?

      Indeed, Mormonism itself seems to be a pretty good example of the desired World Molten Sea in Freemasonry. It’s a unique mix of strict Church authority and individualistic agency. This is exactly the professed desire for the World that Freemasonry has.

      *Please note that I make no judgments as to any connection to freemasonry being a negative thing, although I personally disagree with aspects of their professed goals. I only discuss the two institutions in connection to further an informative discussion.

      • What is most interesting to me, at this point, would be to discern where Mormonism does and does not take its religious belief and cosmology from freemasonic parallel beliefs.

        As Freemasonry is more of a religiously agnostic fraternity than a religion, there is probably very little in common. I’m not an expert of Freemasonry. Compared to what I know about LDS doctrine, I have limited knowledge of what Masons teach. I think Joseph Smith may have used the structure of the Masonic rites in some of the ordinances, but the actual tenets are necessarily broader and more vague/ecumenical in Masonry. After all, Catholics and Mormons have quite different cosmologies, but can both be Masons. Mormonism claims to draw the foundation of its religion from direct revelation from God, authority from direct ordination from the Primitive Church, and the principles from the scriptures (the standard works which include the Bible). Masons can be any flavor of Christian, Jew, Buddhist, etc. From what I’ve read from some writings by Masons, there may be some similarities of functional epistemology.

        Explicitly, it’s a lot of belabored allegory and ostentatious spiritism (gnosticism) to justify the eradication of tribal ethnicity in favor of internationalism.

        Mormonism’s aim is to bind all the children of God to God and each other, through the power and authority of Jesus Christ. Therefore, it rejects contraries.

        See Max Heindel’s “Freemasonry and Catholicism” and “the Rosicrucian Cosmo-Conception” for details from the perspective of a believing member.

        Here is a presentation by Mormon who is also a Mason (not too much about cosmology, though):
        The Message and the Messenger – Latter Day Saints and Freemasonry

      • It is no secret that Mormonism’s DNA was largely evolved from Freemasonry. So, what was taken from Freemasonry, what was left behind (if anything), and what can we expect in the future? After all, something like 2/3rds of the book of Mormon is yet to be revealed. IS Mormonism’s cosmology Gnostic in nature?

        People do make assertions about Mormonism and Masonry, but they seem a stretch to me. Since Masonry borrows symbolism from Christianity and Judaism, why is it strange when Mormonism borrows the same or similar symbols?
        If by Gnostic, you mean similar to the sects of Christianity in the second century that claimed a special knowledge – in cosmology Mormons are the opposite. Gnostics (who I would call pseudo-Gnostics) disdain the material world, Mormons claim God our Father is Spirit (which is more refined matter) with a Body of flesh and bones, and God created ex materia and not ex nihilo.
        We do believe in a method of gnosticism, a true gnosis – ie, the children of God can gain a special knowledge of Him through initiation of the mysteries along with direct contact with the Holy Ghost (spirit to spirit communication). But we do not believe this is what the so-called Gnostics can authentically claim.
        Prophets and Gnostics

        One of the most glaring symbols in the Mormon temple is, indeed, the Molten Sea upheld by the 12 oxen that represent the tribes of Israel. The Molten Sea as a centerpiece of belief is premier constant between Freemasonry and Mormonism. What else is there?

        I wouldn’t call the “molten sea” (we call it a baptismal font) the centerpiece of the Temple. After all, they are in the basements of the Temples, and are related to the first gate of initiation – baptism. I don’t know what the symbol of the brazen laver and the oxen mean to Masons, but to LDSs, it is specifically Christian. It is a symbol of taking the Gospel of God (3x) to the world (4x) (=12 oxen – Ephraim and Manasseh – gathering the people Deut. 33:17) and baptism to cleanse the children of God to prepare to enter His presence. If Masonry and Mormonism both borrowed a symbol from Solomon’s Temple (1 Kgs. 7:23 (23–26)), I doubt is for the same purpose, as Freemasonry is not explicitly Christian. There may be other symbols that both traditions use, but they can’t point to the same things if Freemasonry is an ecumenical religiously agnostic fraternity.
        The 12 oxen and the laver/baptismal font may be symbols we both use. I doubt Masons are doing proxy baptisms for Jesus Christ in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

        Here’s a bit more on Freemasonry and LDS ordinances:
        Freemasonry and the Origins of the Modern Temple Ordinances

  8. I have never been a member of the LDS church, but have several in the extended family. Attended briefly as a child, but was not raised in the LDS faith (or any faith other than a generic Americanistic Godishness). By the time I was attending college, I was an evangelical Christian with a voracious appetite for reading apologetics works, writings on comparative religions and philosophy.

    Across from the community college where I was attending, there was an LDS Institute of Religion, where faithful Mormon students would take on a class or two in addition to their college studies. I decided to take a few classes myself, becoming a rarity – a gentile student in an LDS church-sponsored school.

    I found the experience fascinating, one of the few students who was engaged and actually took part in the class discussions and did the classwork. The professor (don’t recall if that was his actual title or merely “Brother Something”) really seemed to enjoy having me there and we spent a good bit of time out of class discussing Mormon doctrine. I won the class “Design a Liahona” contest (by default if I recall – no one else entered) and got a gift certificate to a local LDS bookstore where I scored an out-of-print set of Milton R. Hunter’s “Archaeology and the Book of Mormon,” an interesting (but weak) attempt to tie LDS teachings into the native civilizations of Central America.

    But the library…! That was the treasure trove to me. I took full advantage of my borrowing privileges and would spend hours there. It was a very valuable resource in getting to see if the so-called “anti-Mormon” literature circulating in evangelical circles held any water. Sadly, there were a good number of them that would indeed latch onto an LDS claim, sensationalize it and present it as accurate LDS teaching. The king of radio apologetics at the time was Walter Martin and I quickly discarded him as a serious researcher. There were, however, several fair-minded and honest researchers as well. The biggest problem in the anti-Mormon apologetics space was odd-ball people running around making the LDS church sound like evil incarnate and the door-to-door missionaries out to drag you and your family to hell. Nope. Just people with beliefs that they felt were important enough to share.

    I quickly came to realize that much of the issue between LDS theology and mainstream Christian theology is indeed one of definitions. We use the same words in radically different ways, so it’s very easy to have a discussion and think you’re talking about the same thing and be talking about different things entirely. I also realized that a good number of Mormons don’t really understand the core doctrines of their church, it’s history, or any of the objections to it. Much of the “anti-Mormon” material was designed to address these types of members – the members who really had an understanding of God that was more in line with mainstream Catholicism or Protestantism and didn’t understand their own church’s teachings. Those were the members who would be shocked by the sensational, be roused enough to look into it, find out that their church did indeed teach something far out of line with what they thought it did and struggle with that idea. In other words, they went after the low-hanging fruit.

    Others in the LDS church didn’t engage with it intellectually at all (the typical student at the Institute was like this). They were paying their God bill. Doing what was expected of them, but not really interested in digging deeper. A bit like your average Catholic or Protestant. Many LDS members have only their “testimony,” a burning in their hearts that Joseph Smith is a prophet of God, and that settles it. When I would meet with LDS missionaries, that’s their go-to plan: “Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, why don’t you pray to God and ask him to confirm it in your heart?” They were always stymied by my response that God had already told me in the Bible the manner in which to evaluate those who claimed to be His prophets and it didn’t involve praying to feel it in my heart: did they want me to evaluate Joseph Smith by the method God commanded? They rarely came back for a second visit (except for these two sister missionaries who met with my wife and I for several months – Sister Woolsey, wherever you are, I hope the things we spoke of went deep into your heart before they “encouraged” you not to come back to our house.)

    Then there were guys like the professor at the Institute. After many conversations with him, my impression was that of a man who did not believe what his church taught, but it was his life. His parents were LDS. His grandparents had been LDS. He had raised his children LDS. His friends were LDS. His livelihood was in the church. He was comfortable there, though he had ceased to view it as something to defend or to attempt to evangelize. He could explain the theology perfectly, he was aware of the issues, but a simple shrug would be the end of it.

    Is the LDS church a Christian church? I don’t believe so. Are individual LDS members Christians? That depends on where their faith is. Is it in their works? Is it in their church? Or is it a simple faith in Jesus, saying “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”

    Of course, my position is one from a somewhat Reformed Protestant perspective. Your milage may vary.

    We’re getting ready to move from California to a state with a heavy Mormon population. Though I will never be LDS, I’m certainly LDS friendly. They’re good folk and that’s nice to have next door no matter what. They can try to convert me, I can try to convert them and a good time can be had by all!

    (on a sidenote – Joseph Smith. In all my studies, I never came to a conclusion about the guy. Oh, I’m certain he wasn’t a prophet in the biblical sense and I’m pretty sure he never planned on becoming the founder of a religious movement. But I don’t know if he was merely a creative charlatan looking to make a quick buck, the victim of demonic deception, or maybe a little of both. The picture painted of the man in church marketing has elements of truth, but much of Joseph’s story is uncomfortable to the church. They know that their are plenty of warts on the dude, both before and after the church was founded. Educated LDS members know it and have struggled with it. LDS academics are an interesting read. I hesitate to call Joseph Smith a complex man – more like a simple man who stumbled into a complex situation and then ran with it. Honestly, I don’t think we’ll ever figure the guy out.)

  9. Harold Bloom has an extended discussion of Mormonism in his “The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Naion” (Touchstone, 1992). He regards it to be an explicitly gnostic form of Christianity and thinks it has a chance to become a major sect in the US.

    Of course, Bloom himself is a gnostic Jew and sees gnosticism everywhere.

    He discusses other religions as well, and is worth reading.

  10. I’m a sixth-generation Mormon, still affiliated with the church although I harbor strong doubts regarding many of its truth claims (my personal beliefs tend more toward orthodox Christianity). During my graduate school years, I went through a phase when I enthused about McMurrin’s ideas, but now they hold no charm for me whatsoever. It’s worth pointing out in this discussion that the average Mormon has not heard of McMurrin, and I think it’s fair to say, too, that most would reject his idea of an “evolving” God. When I was growing up the familiar maxim of nineteenth-century provenance–“As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become”–was often encountered, but it has been a long time since I have heard it in any setting, which makes me wonder if general Mormon belief is perhaps gradually shifting away from it. I’ll confess that part of my own disaffection with McMurrin’s ideas was finding out that he was not only non-practicing, but also non-believing. He was a good writer providing brilliant analysis in many respects, but I really doubt that the majority of current practicing Mormons would consider his ideas an accurate portrayal of what they believe.

    • I have been told (right or wrong) that the Mormon leadership post 1960’s tends not to emphasize the Mormon beliefs that distinguish it most from Protestantism and Catholicism. The Mormon Vatican II I suppose.

  11. Off topic I suppose but an inevitable question is “are Mormon’s Christian.” Bonald answered “yes” in a previous post or comment somewhere.
    What jumps out at me in answering this question isn’t the abstract theological statements on God’s nature (not that they’re not important) but the fact that Mormonism adds a bunch of additional revelation. Smith made a bunch of very specific and extraordinary claims and added unique scripture. As I think Bruce has said, the choice to believe him or not is a very stark one (in parallel to C.S. Lewis’ words about the choice to believe Christ or not). So you either believe Smith and become a Mormon or you must regard him and his church as a deliberate fraud (or worse, as demonically influenced). So this is what I think drives mainstream Christians to say Mormons aren’t Christian. There’s ways to say this without being mean.
    Taking a look at polar opposite denominations, Baptists can regard Catholics as people who took the gospels and gradually misinterpreted & added to them over time until they obfuscated the simple message of the gospel. Catholics can regard Baptists as people who stripped the faith of essentials by embracing the error of individual interpretation and oversimplifying it. Both are going to tend to see Mormonism as a deliberate fraud or worse.

    • I don’t know as much about Mormon theology as I should, but have I got it right that Joseph Smith (purportedly) had a sort of “Paul on the road to Damascus,” “out of body” experience?

      If I understand it correctly, Mormonism teaches that the God of the Bible is not exactly who he says he, or orthodox Christianity, says he is; that he is a “lesser god” whose godhead derives from some “greater god/gods”. This is polytheism, is it not, and as such cannot be Christian in any meaningful sense of the term?

      • The Mormon missionaries taught me that the Father and Jesus the Son appeared (both bodily) to Joseph Smith as he prayed in an oak grove in Palmyra, New York. He was later visited by the angel Moroni. I think it was Moroni who revealed the location of the golden plates that would be translated into the Book of Mormon.
        The impression I got from the missionaries was that God the Father is one of a chain of exalted men ( I don’t know that the others are greater in any way) who have undergone the LDS equivalent of theosis. I don’t know if the chain of exalted men is believed to be infinite.

  12. @BruceB -I guess you were referring to me as the ‘Bruce’ in:

    “As I think Bruce has said, the choice to believe him or not is a very stark one (in parallel to C.S. Lewis’ words about the choice to believe Christ or not). So you either believe Smith and become a Mormon or you must regard him and his church as a deliberate fraud (or worse, as demonically influenced).”

    I do say that, in fact I said it again today! – but I think you are off-track here – as are some other comments: What is under discussion is Mormon *theology*, not the religion per se. McMurrin is an expert agnostic explicator, not an advocate or apologist.

    To reject Mormon theology because it is not Orthodox is to beg the question under discussion! Of course it is not Orthodox! – if it was there would be nothing to discuss (except maybe how it has been misunderstood).

    It is possible – although someone may not want to do it – to understand, evalute, discuss, compare Mormon theology with Classical theology, without any reference to how the theology emerged. It now exists, as a free-standing, philosophical system. In reading McMurrin, Bonald is trying to understand Mormon theology – ‘from the inside’, as it were – and he has clearly gone a considerable way towards doing so.

    If other non-Mormon Christians are not interested in trying to understand Mormon theology, but instead approach Mormon theology in the spirit of trying to prove why it is wrong – they will almost certainly fail to understand it. And then they are just attacking a straw man, or name calling.

    The point is that there is a real subject here, there is something to understand – there is a real, reasonably-cohesive, and reason-able Mormon theology – which is mostly compatible with the Bible in a common sense and broadly litealist reading of the text. Bonald now knows enough to recognize that as a *fact*.

    Until that point is reached, theological ‘debate’ cannot be informed.

    • The Mormons I know are as intelligent as other Christians and I don’t doubt that they have a well worked-out system of theology that’s not any more definitively provable or disprovable than Catholic or Protestant theology. Ultimately I guess it comes down to faith. I took their lessons, prayed sincerely about it (with Enos from the BoM as my model) and I did not receive the testimony that they talk about so I did not receive the Mormon faith.

      FWIW, like you I’m not real big on abstract theological statements and tend towards common sense understandings of Christianity. However, I think the basic theological declarations about the nature of the Father and Son are fairly easily provable with a common sense reading of the Gospels.

      • @BB – I did not make it sufficiently clear above that although my first remarks were directed at you – to clarify what I said and its relevance to theology – the rest of the comment was not. Sorry about that!

    • “The point is that there is a real subject here, there is something to understand – there is a real, reasonably-cohesive, and reason-able Mormon theology – which is mostly compatible with the Bible in a common sense and broadly litealist reading of the text. Bonald now knows enough to recognize that as a *fact*.”

      “Mostly compatible” does not equal “compatible,” nor does Mormon theology exist outside of a historical context. Neither, for that matter, does what you call Classical theology. Both exist in an historical context. Both make truth claims based on their historical context. I would argue that both Classical theology and LDS theology lack any meaning at all outside of their historical contexts. Also, to point only to the compatible bits without considering the incompatible bits and just how incompatible those bits might be, seems to me akin to putting on blinders.

      It becomes a question of where the authority lies, just as it does for Catholicism and Protestantism. While the Catholic side of the divide starts with scripture and puts a heavier weight on tradition than the Protestant side, where sola scriptura is more likely the norm, there is general agreement that the Bible is true and accurate revelation from God, despite some challenges in translation and interpretation.

      When you toss the LDS into the mix, you’ve got a different picture altogether. They don’t start with the Bible. They start with Joseph Smith and his claim to have been visited by angelic beings who gave him the task of bringing forth the Restored Gospel. This is what LDS theology hinges on – not whether it is “compatible with the Bible.” If this man, Joseph Smith, did not have angels appear to him, did not receive Golden Tablets, did not translate them directly into a gospel without error with the use of the Urim and Thummim, did not receive revelations from God as his designated prophet, did not accurately translate The Book of Abraham (which contains the anti-ex nilho proposition) – in short, was a false prophet and a deceiver; then the LDS church’s compatibility with the Bible is not the concern, its compatibility with the truth is. That’s the case even if the Bible itself is not true.

      Lots of belief systems are “reasonably consistent” and “reason-able.” But the starting assumptions will always determine where you end up. The starting assumptions of LDS theology is that the God of the universe spoke to one man and revealed the truth to him and that we need to examine the Bible through the lens that that man has provided to us. That’s a base premise.

      “If other non-Mormon Christians are not interested in trying to understand Mormon theology, but instead approach Mormon theology in the spirit of trying to prove why it is wrong – they will almost certainly fail to understand it. And then they are just attacking a straw man, or name calling.”

      I acknowledged earlier that there have been many less-than-serious researchers and Mormon demonizers in the classical Christian camp. I heartily endorse more understanding of the beliefs of others (be it Mormon, Islam, Sikh, Catholic, Protestant or Scientologist). But how much must you understand before it’s no longer a straw man? If the LDS church says, “Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and he said this, this and this,” what is my proper response? The Scriptures warn repeatedly about the danger of false prophets in both the Old and New Testaments. Jesus himself said: “If anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.” I think the proper response is I turn to my Bible (which I accept as an authority) and see if the things taught by Joseph Smith are out of line with what the Bible teaches, I can apply the “false prophet rule” from the Scripture and properly reject him without understanding LDS theology at all. Without Joseph Smith, there is no LDS theology to consider.

      Is understanding the motivations of Mormons important? Is it a good idea to build bridges where we can to meet common goals? Absolutely. Understanding LDS theology may indeed help toward those goals. But LDS theology is making truth-claims about ultimate reality. You can’t examine a theology without evaluating its truth claims and rejecting or affirming the truth-claims it makes and I think it’s nonsensical to expect one to. But I do agree that you don’t have to accept the truth claims if understanding mindset is your only goal and not the evaluation of the belief system yourself in order to integrate it with your own.

      Finally, here’s an interesting article that discusses the LDS view of the Bible, from a man involved in creating the BYU commentary on the Bible from an LDS perspective. Of special interest is the author’s description of biblical ignorance among graduating BYU students and the discussion of translating John 1:1, from an LDS perspective, (which reinforces the “we start with Joseph Smith as prophet” contention I made.)

      http://www.fairmormon.org/perspectives/fair-conferences/2007-fair-conference/2007-as-far-as-it-is-translated-correctly-the-problem-of-tampering-with-the-word-of-god-in-the-transmission-and-translation-of-the-new-testament

      • Seems to me Mormanism is similar to Islam in its genesis. Some do argue Islam is a form of Christian heresy, thus Mormanism could be similarly classified. Not using heresy as a claim as to Mormanism’s truth or falsity, but merely as a description. Your opening sentence is “Some time ago, I asked readers for recommended reading on their branches of Christianity.” Thus, implied in this whole discussion is whether Mormanism is a branch of Christianity. Given its genesis similar to Islam (new prophet, lack of trinitarian concept of God, new scripture), it seems fair to say that Mormanism is no more or no less a branch of Christianity than Islam.

      • Given its genesis similar to Islam (new prophet, lack of trinitarian concept of God, new scripture), it seems fair to say that Mormanism is no more or no less a branch of Christianity than Islam.

        I think this is an example of where smart people can think themselves into something that should be obviously not true. Just look at the basic facts on the ground and forget all the brainwork. What I mean is, take the first 200 years of Mormonism and stack it up against the first 200 years of Islam and what so we see? How do the two ledgers compare? One side blitzkrieged a third of the known world in under 100 years through fire and sword leaving behind ashes, slavery and a prodigious body count. The other….well, it looks nothing like that. At all.

      • But I am looking at the facts – not necessarily how it spread, but the origin of its beliefs. Mohammed (like Joseph Smith) claims to have received a new revelation from God through His angel. Mohammed’s new revelation, like JS, “corrects” Christian’s alleged misunderstanding of Christ’s nature while admitting His historical existence and giving Him theological significance (Islam as a prophet, Mormonism as a demigod, essentially). Putting aside the truth of any of it, I simply have a difficult time seeing Mormonism as a branch of Christianity given what its tenets are (at least what I understand them to be) while denying Islam that same description. It seems a basic tenet of Christianity (if not THE basic tenet) is belief in the triune Godhead. Both Islam and Mormonism deny (or correct) that belief. Thus how can one be considered a branch of Christianity, but the other not?

      • cmatt,
        As I understand it, Jesus is not central in Islam. He has a small, unimportant place. Jesus is central to Mormonism. That difference seems important to me.

      • cmatt, well this is exactly my point. Don’t overthink it. The real-world birth pangs of these two religions couldn’t be more different (to say the least). So clearly you’re missing something important.

      • @c matt
        There are a very few similarities between Islam and Mormonism, and a huge amount of difference. We could compile a list, I suppose. From the LDS perspective, Mormonism has more in common with 1st century Christianity than 21st century Christianity does.
        It seems there are multiple and personal standards that individuals have regarding the definition of the term “Christian.”

        But I am looking at the facts – not necessarily how it spread, but the origin of its beliefs. Mohammed (like Joseph Smith) claims to have received a new revelation from God through His angel. Mohammed’s new revelation, like JS, “corrects” Christian’s alleged misunderstanding of Christ’s nature while admitting His historical existence and giving Him theological significance (Islam as a prophet, Mormonism as a demigod, essentially).

        From the start, there are differences. Joseph Smith claims to have seen Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ in glory. If I recall correctly, Mohammed spoke to Gabriel, and in Islam God is unseeable. In Islam, God cannot have a son, so Jesus is a prophet, but not the Son of God. In Mormonism, Jesus is God, the Son of God, and the creator of the heavens and earth, the Lord, the Savior and Redeemer. The Christology of Mormonism is high, but in Islam it is low.

        Putting aside the truth of any of it, I simply have a difficult time seeing Mormonism as a branch of Christianity given what its tenets are (at least what I understand them to be) while denying Islam that same description.

        Perhaps others weigh the Christology of Mormonism vs. Islam more than you do when deciding if they the fall under the umbrella of Christianity.

        It seems a basic tenet of Christianity (if not THE basic tenet) is belief in the triune Godhead. Both Islam and Mormonism deny (or correct) that belief. Thus how can one be considered a branch of Christianity, but the other not?

        We LDS find it strange when people use terms not found in scripture as the necessary standard. The LDSs certainly believe in the Godhead. Our first Article of Faith is “We believe in God the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.” We don’t see the Gospel through the window of Greek philosophy, which makes us different from modern mainstream Christians. But neither, I believe, did the first century Christians. We LDSs believe we can only be save through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Muslims do not.

      • “… while denying Islam that same description.”

        I was not aware that Dar al-Islam has any desire to be called by that description.

  13. @Bonald

    Here is my take on the King Follett discourse

    http://charltonteaching.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/joseph-smiths-king-follett-discourse.html

    wrt an infinite regress of Gods, this should be understood in the way that it is intended; which is that there is One God for us – so this is perfectly compatible with the Bible. The regress is meant to explain where God came from, not to say that there are many Gods that we should worship – for us there is One God and nothing is known, or cared, about any others than may (by some Mormons) be assumed to have existed – they have zero relevance except as an abstract explanation.

    For Christians, much depends what is meant by One God. We should have One God, but the meaning of One God is… complex – for all Christians.

    Mormon ideas of One God fit with the Bible, and are built on it – but what Mormon ideas of infinite regressions of God is *not* compatible with is the non-Biblical abstract philosophical doctrine of ‘monoetheism’ — but then Islam and Judaism do not consider any kind of Christianity to be compatible with ‘monotheism’ since, to them Christianity has two, or three, gods – and the mystical formulations of The Holy Trinity as three-in-one-in-three strike strict monotheists as nonsensical evasion.

    Squaring the circle of philosophical monotheism with the divinity of Christ was, as you know, a major, major, horrible problem in the early Christian centuries Christological dispute, leading to multiple vile (and mostly unnecessary, indeed bilaterally harmful and corrupting) abuses such as the Monophysite wars. These dispute strike this modern Christian reader as 99 percent power politics, validated by a sliver of barely-comprehensible/ misunderstanding-based theological concern.

    And the problem never was solved – because mystical formulations are not a solution – just an agreement to leave the problem alone. However, Mormons are not troubled by the supposed need to make the One Christian God of the Bible fit with the pagan Greek/ Roman philosophical concept of monotheism. They regard monothesism as an abstraction – which is not derived from the Bible, but into-which Christian theology was uncomfortably squeezed by intellectuals who refused to give up their Classical philosophy – and insisted on giving abstract philosophy primacy over the clarity and simplicity of Christian revelation.

    I should mention that many mainstream Christian theologians – as well as Mormons – consider most (not all) Old Testament references to ‘God’ to mean the pre-incarnate Christ – so the interpretation that the ‘One God’ can mean different things at different time – either or both the Father and/ or the Son – is pretty mainstream.

    To talk philosophically, the infinite regress of God the Father is only one possible solution to His origin — if indeed infinities are any real solution, rather than simply a way of stunning us to stop our questioning!

    http://charltonteaching.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/which-infinities-are-easiest-to-believe.html

    – and belief in this infinite is not required of Mormons – I personally do not believe it, because an infinite regress makes no sense to me, is no kind of answer. I simply assume God always has been, and this is compatible with Mormon Theology. So, it is perfectly possible to *assume* that God the Father ‘just is’ from eternity.

    In conclusion – Infinite regress is a formulation for the origin of God that is commonly ascribed to, and ‘believed’ insofar as one can belief such things – but not philosophically necessary and not universally believed among Mormons.

    Another aspect of Mormon theology which is distinctive and important, is that humanity is dyadic: at the highest level of aspiration, men and women are incomplete and complementary:

    http://charltonteaching.blogspot.co.uk/search?q=dyad

    and that is a whole other thing!

    This leads to the mainstream Mormon belief in Mother in Heaven – consort of God the Father.

    http://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Mother_in_Heaven

    This is metaphysically implied, and supported by some authoritative revelations. Whether Jesus Christ also has a wife, or had a wife during his incarnation, is not much discussed due to lack of specific evidence, and seems to play no role in Mormon life – but the possibility is not excluded and perhaps likely, given this ultimate dyadic aspect of Man (and God).

    I mention these to emphasize how *very* different is Mormon metaphysics.

    • @ Bruce Charlton

      In the past I have assumed that in Mormon theology, God’s eternal nature and “oneness” are defined/characterized by infinite regress. This sounds like what you’re saying.

      There may have been a great deal of Realpolitik going on in the early councils – I don’t know. Maybe I’m being naïve, but I think a plain, common sense reading of the Bible supports the important Christological definitions without having to go into abstract formulas that are incomprehensible to all but the intellectually elite.

    • Thank you, Bruce C. Since I’m interested in what Mormons believe, rather than what Joseph Smith said, I have no use for documents until I know how their community has received them. From what you’re saying, it sounds like there is no internal Mormon consensus on this issue. Some believe God is just one of a class of beings, that the universe as a whole doesn’t rely on him, although we in some way do. Others believe in God as demiurge of the whole universe. And, from McMurrin’s complaints, some are moving in the direction of classical theism. The latter two read Smith’s statement on God having once been like us ironically; by providing a nonsensical answer, he meant to indicate the futility of the question. If other Mormons feel like you, then the reason the LDS church hasn’t hammered out a consensus is not lack of interest but fear of conflict. You’re thinking that, whichever side would win such a debate, the facts on the ground of Mormon life wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) change, but in the process of getting to that victory, there may be schisms and all kind of mess, so why not just skip all that and pretend by evasion that the consensus is already achieved?

      I guess I can understand the concern, but like Joseph A., I have trouble believing such a fundamental question can be evaded. Why not take some inspiration from the rest of us, and settle your differences with an incomprehensible formula?

      • @Bonald – “Some believe God is just one of a class of beings, that the universe as a whole doesn’t rely on him, although we in some way do. ”

        wrt ‘in some way’ – perhaps THE key to Mormonism is that of relationship.

        God and Men are linked because we are His Children – it is this actual relationship which binds us to God. Relationship is both literal, and also more than literal – because the loving relationship of an ideal earthly marriage and family is a microcosm and analogy of the much greater situation in Heaven.

        This is why the stuff about demiurge is misleading – God is our Heavenly Father – a demiurge is not.

        This is the reason for the Mormon concern with marriage and families – these are the very basis of cohesion in the universe. Marriage enables a man and woman together to attain a higher state of theosis than either apart. Heaven is organized by families. Baptism of the dead is intended to offer benefits of spiritual progression to family members (family history is therefore a big Mormon activity – deceased family members are researched to get to know them as well as possible, as well as them being baptised by proxy – the deceased relative is then free to accept or reject the baptism).

        “the reason the LDS church hasn’t hammered out a consensus is not lack of interest but fear of conflict. ”

        This would perhaps be the case in the RCC, but is not how the CJCLDS operates – the belief in continuing revelation means that Mormon Authorities are happy to concede that much is not yet known, and to await future revelations and clarifications. There are large areas which are explicitly delegated to the decision of individuals guided by personal revelation (personal revelation is considered to be the big theme of the Book of Mormon that distinguishes it from the Bible – that every faithful individual (not just Prophets) is *entitled* to personal revelations as a guide in their lives.

        Joseph Smith stated explicitly that he was fallible, some things he said were temporary, that he sometimes was just thinking aloud – he set up an organization which was designed to supersede his doctrines as further future revelations decreed.

        http://charltonteaching.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/was-joseph-smith-religious-genius.html

      • @Bonald
        I can’t speak for the Mormon community as a whole, but I’d like to comment. Much, perhaps all of the perceived conflict stems from the differences in cosmologies. As I have heard it explained, the doctrine of CoJCoLDS is “de-Hellenized Biblical Christianity.” That is to say, when you say Mormon formulas are incomprehensible or conflicting, it is because you may be trying to understand through a filtered/polarized window of philosophy. It might be productive, if you want to attempt understanding Mormon theology, to consciously remove the philosophy window and replace it with the LDS point of view window. It is a more mantic than sohpic window. I’d be glad to let you know how I see things as an LDS person, if you have specific questions.

        I suppose, at some future time, the LDS Church may adopt some kind of systematic theology as the early Church did after hundreds of years. If we LDS do, I hope we do it in a way that does not require co-opting philosophical terms or invention of vocabulary.

        These questions seem fundamental to you, but what has Athens to do with Jerusalem? I suppose that it may seem like an anti-intellectual attitude, but it does not trouble me that I do not know if God our Father has attributes not clearly defined outside scripture. For me, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is essentially our behavior relative to our Father. Do we believe His Son? Are we bound to Him through covenant? Are we obedient to His instructions?

  14. Mother in Heaven-Consort of God is more like Hinduism–where each god has a consort-than anything else-esp Christianity.

    What might be the meaning of the word “God” in this theology?

    • In Mormon theology, “God” can mean different things, depending on context.
      For instance, it can mean our Heavenly Parents.
      Genesis 1:27 So Elohim created humankind[a] in his image,
      in the image of Elohim he created them;[b]
      male and female he created them.

  15. Pingback: The problem of Mormonism (for mainstream Christians) | Junior Ganymede

  16. Bonald,
    as a Mormon, I think your post is very fair. I’m a little leary of your source because he’s a ‘Hellenizer,’ in a sense, he is someone who wanted to fit in with mainstream academics, so he had an interest in distancing his presentation of Mormon theology from mainstream Christianity. But even there I think you presented that pretty well by pointing out that he complained that Mormons didn’t fit in perfectly with his vision for us.

    A couple of quibbles:

    “Mormons deny the doctrines of original sin, salvation by grace alone, and predestination.”

    original sin–that isn’t as clear as you present it. There is a definitive Mormon teaching that ‘men are punished for their own sin, and not for Adam’s trangression” but there is also a definitive Mormon teaching that “the natural man is an enemy to God” and that little children would be damned if it were not for the grace of God to take away the stain of original guilt. http://www.jrganymede.com/2012/02/17/korihor-and-terry-givens-vs-the-mormon-doctrine-of-original-sin/ A lot of discussions on these topics have translation problems between the Mormon position and the mainstream Christian view. I think a fair Mormon position, if translated into Catholic terms, would be something like Mormons believing that all infants are automatically “baptized,” in the sense of having their original sin taken away, by Christ’s atonement.

    salvation by grace alone–that’s probably fair, though the doctrine of grace in contemporary Mormonism is probably stronger than your summary would suggest. For example, here’s one of our First Presidency at the latest general conference, teaching a fairly strong doctrine of grace: https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2015/04/the-gift-of-grace

    “Some Mormons actually suggest that Adam’s fall was a good thing, that we are better off because of it, not because God thereby chose to bestow more grace upon us that He might otherwise have done, but because our separation from God, our knowledge of good and evil, has enhanced our freedom and moral maturity.”

    I agree with Wilhelmina. This is more widespread than you realize.

  17. Those of you who profess to be astonished at Mormons’ lack of interest in theology might consider that the entire Old Testament and the synoptic Gospels contain basically no “theology.” Abstract philosophizing about the nature and origin of God didn’t enter the religion until John and Paul. Moses was no theologian, and neither, in all likelihood, was Christ himself.

    • It seems to me that a plain reading of the Gospels reveals the nature and origin of God consistent with the abstract philosophical statements that followed.

      I think this is supported by the fact that groups (LDS, Jehovah’s Witnesses) which deviate from this understanding required additional (or uniquely translated) scripture and revelation for their understanding of God’s nature and origin.

      • @BB – Of course these things never can be settled from ‘the evidence’ but my interpretation of the Mormon Restoration was that the extra sctiptures and revelations were necessary, as the end times approached, to clarify and strengthen some of the core aspects of Christianity that would otherwise be in danger of being lost.

        For example, the relationship between men and women, and the role of marriage and the family… it seems to me that these are the main focus of attack on Christianity and this was foreseen by God, and none of the mainstream Christian denominations are sufficiently clear and strong strong on these matters to stand firmly and unambiguously.

        This was, I think, one reason why further revelation and a new church became necessary

        http://charltonteaching.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/what-is-single-most-important-and.html

        This major LDS statement from 20 years ago can now be seen as exactly what is most required now, and in the future as it appears to be shaping-up.

        https://www.lds.org/topics/family-proclamation?lang=eng

      • @Bruce B.
        That’s an interesting idea, but I would take the contrary position. I think it is extremely unlikely that a person, unfamiliar with the nuances of Greek philosophy, would arrive at interpretations evolved over hundreds of years of Academy influence. After all, trinity, demiurge, homoousis, hypostases, and many other terms used to describe or contrast with God are not Biblical.

        More likely, I think a person not influenced by western philosophy/cosmology would read it like an LDS. For example, the NT says Jesus Christ is the Only Begotten of the Father. The LDS reader says, “Yeah, okay.” Paraphrasing what I have heard explained to me in discussions with modern mainstream Christians, the words often just don’t precisely mean what they say. From where the LDS stand, symbolic and metaphoric content notwithstanding, the plain reading of the scriptures is almost always the most correct and frequently conflicts with a platonist eisegesis.

      • Christians of all types who submit to the source of authority in their denomination (Protestants:scripture, Catholics:scripture+tradition=magisterium) can and will have healthy marriages and families. In my opinion, a new revelation was not necessary for this. What is needed is submission to authority which no one wants to do.

      • Andrew M.,
        After posting many Catholic leaning comments here I’m going to disagree. “Trinity”, “demiurge”, “homoousis”, and “hypostases” are words and I don’t know if they’re necessary to salvation.
        I think a plain reading of the Gospels tells us what we need to know. God the Father is eternal, His Son Jesus is a distinct person but is also God and eternal, Jesus was really a man like us with flesh and temptations but, unlike us, no sin and the Holy Spirit is also God. I don’t think whether or not the Holy Spirit also proceeds from the Son makes a difference to the Gospel.
        I’m not saying that every individual who reads the Gospels would immediately grasp all these things but I think Christians would reach a consensus on these basics. What evidence do I have for this? Well, the Christian groups that deviate significantly from this have to introduce new scripture and revelation.

      • @Bruce B
        “After posting many Catholic leaning comments here I’m going to disagree. “Trinity”, “demiurge”, “homoousis”, and “hypostases” are words and I don’t know if they’re necessary to salvation.”
        And yet, the LDS dissent from using these terms are part of the bases used for excluding LDS from the category “Christian.”

        “I think a plain reading of the Gospels tells us what we need to know. God the Father is eternal, His Son Jesus is a distinct person but is also God and eternal, Jesus was really a man like us with flesh and temptations but, unlike us, no sin and the Holy Spirit is also God. I don’t think whether or not the Holy Spirit also proceeds from the Son makes a difference to the Gospel.”

        I’m feeling a bit amused here. I don’t disagree with any of the statements here. If I was picking nits, I would say that the Holy Spirit proceeds (or is sent) from the Father in the name of the Son. The amusing part is even though I agree with these statements, we would mean different things by saying them. When I say “eternal” in relation to God, I mean it in non-Hellenic philosophy sense. For “ChristiansTM”, it seems a platonic interpretation of the canon is an essential element to stay in the “Christian” tent.

        “I’m not saying that every individual who reads the Gospels would immediately grasp all these things but I think Christians would reach a consensus on these basics. What evidence do I have for this? Well, the Christian groups that deviate significantly from this have to introduce new scripture and revelation.”

        From a certain point of view, deviation does not require introducing new words, only remolding the same words in a pagan philosophy. If that happened, wouldn’t a restoration be required for clarification?

      • @Bruce B.,
        but I and I think most Mormons would agree with your plain language summary of what’s in scripture. The disagreement is what metaphysical and philosophical conclusions these plain language beliefs entail.

      • Andrew M.,
        I don’t know why “eternal” has to have a Hellenistic or non-hellenistic meaning. Eternal means eternal. As humans we can perceive time and space. God precedes both. If God created “in the beginning” He was before the beginning. A little child can understand this without understanding Hellenistic philosophy or LDS metaphysics. Do you remember asking your dad as a little boy “dad, what was before the big bang.” And dad would answer “God.”

      • @Bruce B.
        “I don’t know why “eternal” has to have a Hellenistic or non-hellenistic meaning.”

        Characteristics of the terms time, eternal, everlasting, do not necessarily conform to the ideas of Greek philiosophers. I think it unlikely that Hebrew prophets and Jesus’ disciples mean them in the same way.

        “Eternal means eternal. As humans we can perceive time and space. God precedes both. If God created “in the beginning” He was before the beginning. A little child can understand this without understanding Hellenistic philosophy or LDS metaphysics. Do you remember asking your dad as a little boy “dad, what was before the big bang.” And dad would answer “God.” ”

        Well, since my Dad is also LDS, that’s not how he would have answered, if we had that conversation. We believe there are things that are co-eternal with God. We do not believe in ex nihilo creation. The boundaries of our universe (if there are any) are not where time and material began. God’s work is endless expansive ordering, worlds without end.

    • There’s actually a fair bit of theology (in the relevant sense) in the Psalms and Prophets, as well as the Synoptics.

      Mormonism’s claims to be a more straightforward reading of scripture are very dubious.

    • From the third chapter of Exodus:

      Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

      God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’ ”

      God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’

      “This is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation.

    • Wm Jas writes: “Abstract philosophizing about the nature and origin of God didn’t enter the religion until John and Paul.”

      That’s like saying that none of the Beatles were from Liverpool except John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr.

      And, besides, such is false, anyway. See the passage from Exodus 3, not to mention the beginning of Genesis, Proverbs, the Psalms, and a good deal of the prophets.

      As Bruce C. is fond of noting, there is no human understanding of the world free of metaphysical assumptions. Those who criticize the Hellenic metaphysics of traditional Christianity (the world of thought in which the apostles providentially preached the gospel) often hold the nominalist materialism of the modern world, even if they do not realize it. Wikipedia has a lovely quote by Whitehead suitable for this occasion: “Every scientific man in order to preserve his reputation has to say he dislikes metaphysics. What he means is he dislikes having his metaphysics criticized.”

      I believe that God prepared the Jews and the Greeks to be the seedbeds of the Church — and the one may even be dependent on the other. Early Christians thought that Plato had been instructed by the Jews in Egypt during his exile — for how else could a pagan grasp so much truth? I sometimes wonder whether they were right. Regardless, truth is truth — and is always inspired, though God’s didactic methods appear to be quite varied.

  18. Adam G.

    What metaphysical and philosophical conclusions am I drawing when I take the Gospels at face value? God is who the Bible says He is. If we believe in His Son we can inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. The basic Gospel message is pretty simple.

    • What I’m hearing from the Mormons here is that what defines their religion is not orthodoxy or even orthopraxy but ortho-relationality, correct relationship with God. The idea is that one can have the correct–or at least distinctively Mormon– relationship with God independent of even a pretty basic consensus belief on what sort of Being He actually is.

      • Yes, that seems about the size of it now that you mention it. However, while they say such things, their belief about who God is does come out. For instance, in a reply to Bruce B. above, Bruce C. says that the current attack in our culture on the family was “forseen by God,” thus He established the Mormon church as a preemptive counter-measure since mainstream Christianity was and is ill-equipped to fight the counter-revolution within the family unit. Now, the average mainstream Christian who can see (perhaps dimly, but nevertheless) that the family needs a lot of shoring up might

      • @Bonald
        I agree with part and disagree with other parts.
        Ortho-relationality is important, and perhaps initially of primary importance, but it doesn’t last without some following behavior and understanding improvement.
        An example you can perhaps relate to: Saul of Tarsus, on the road to Damascus, prior to his understanding that Jesus is the Son of God (orthodoxy) and behavior (orthopraxy) that edified the Church rather than destroyed it, was a spirit child of God and foreordained (“ortho-relationality,” if I have understood your term). But if he had not been baptized and accepted the Gospel, he would not maintain “ortho-relationality.”
        A basic consensus belief is required, but is really basic and does not delve into whether or not God is the Ground of All Being, the Prime Mover, or consubstantial with other beings in the Godhead.

      • I don’t think metaphysics, Greek or otherwise, is the only thing at issue here. You guys have to understand the confusion of we non-Mormons isn’t how to square the Mormon God with Aristotle’s prime mover; it’s that we can’t get a straight answer on things like whether or not God used to be a human being. What would I have to be convinced of to decide to convert?

        My understanding of ortho-relationality is that it’s a form of orthodoxy (right belief), but the tenets held up for belief only have to do with man’s relation to God, not with God’s nature. You can think that God is just a really old man, a giant space alien, or anything else you want, but as long as you also regard Him as your “loving father” (as Mormon doctrine understands those terms), you’ve got the non-negotiable Mormon faith. Your other beliefs may be wrong, and you may be very sinful (i.e. not a very good Mormon, just as one could be a bad Catholic or a bad Baptist), but those are other issues.

        If this is right, then the question shifts to determining the tenets of ortho-relationality. Can one really evade questions about the divine nature? Aren’t arguments about creation vs. assembly vs. ascent through a “God club” questions about what precisely God’s paternity consists of? Ortho-relationality looks poised to collapse into modernism, in which the true meaning of any doctrine or Bible narrative is the feeling it’s supposed to inspire in us. But this manifestly has not happened to the LDS Church, or else it would have very obviously gone the way of Liberal Protestantism already. It’s obviously got clarity and firmness built in somewhere.

  19. @Bonald

    ” The idea is that one can have the correct–or at least distinctively Mormon– relationship with God independent of even a pretty basic consensus belief on what sort of Being He actually is.”

    Yes – and I would personally take this further. That the fact that Mormons are Christian, and have remained Christian over eight generations – becoming more obviously Christian with each generation – proves to me that there is scope for at least two fundamentally different metaphysical systems to underlie Christianity.

    Although I personally prefer Mormon metaphysics; I acknowledge 100 percent that evidence from two thousand years demonstrates conclusively and abundantly that it is perfectly possible to be a Christian with Classical metaphysics! (To say the least of it!)

    Therefore I regard metaphysics as proven to be (to some significant degree – although obviously not in an open-ended way) a matter of *preference* (individual preference, denomonational preference) and not of fundamental necessity – furthermore I regard different metaphysical approaches as having different advantages and disadvantages because (being human constructions and understood and implemented by humans) none of them are completely-true.

    The most I will say for Mormon metaphysics is that it has several advantages – and that these advantages correspond to particular needs of our time and circumstances. In some other respects mainstream Classical metaphysics are superior (e.g. in making clearer the greatness of God and His qualitative difference from Men – Mormon metaphysics does not deny this, but it is less-clear).

    In sum, which metaphysical system a Christian adheres to should *not* be used as a criterion for challenging whether or not he is a Christian. Metaphysics is secondary to Christianity, which means we ought not to insist upon any particular species of it – the essence of the Christian religion is revelation.

    • “Becoming more obviously Christian with each generation.”

      How do you mean; in what particular way(s) have Mormons become more (obviously) Christian over the last eight generations? I guess what I’m asking is whether Mormonism has adjusted itself /righted itself over time to bring itself more in line with classical Christianity? And if so, do you believe, given enough time, it will eventually arrive at a place where its metaphysics will have aligned with classical metaphysics to the point that the two will become, for all intents and purposes, indistinguishable?

      “I acknowledge 100 percent that evidence from two thousand years demonstrates conclusively and abundantly that it is perfectly possible to be a Christian with classical metaphysics.”

      One would certainly hope so! Were you to take the opposite position, it would bring into serious question whether Mormonism (or at least your version of it) is not in reality and in fact an imposter religion bent on destruction of the historic Church. A satanically influenced anti-Christian sect, in other words.

      • Terry, I read Bruce C. as saying that it’s become more obvious every generation that Mormons are real Christians because they have maintained devoutness and that a false church built on lies would not have maintained this level of devoutness.

        I don’t understand the point you are making in your last paragraph.

      • Bruce B.: “If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do? ”

        In his comment above, Bruce C. asserts that there is scope within Christianity for *at least* two fundamentally different metaphysics – Mormon metaphysics and classical metaphysics. Furthering the point he says that 2000 years of church history demonstrates abundantly that

      • Oops, sorry, here is the rest of my comment:

        …demonstrates abundantly that Christianity founded on classical metaphysics (as opposed to mainstream Mormon metaphysics) is Christianity in spite of his personal preference for Mormon metaphysics, and his belief that classical metaphysics is wrong, thus the historic church has been wrong all along in its metaphysics.

        My point above was that any “Christian” sect that comes along seeking to undermine historic Christian teaching (which Bruce’s point denies that he and Mormons have ever attempted to do), and to replace it with a different doctrine, is an anti-Christian cult whose underlying purpose is to destroy the faith passed down to us by our fathers.

      • If a church comes along and it’s a false church then I agree that the net effect is anti-Christian. My reasoning is a bit different. I think the net effect is anti-Christian because it introduces even more division and diversity into the faith and the divisions and contradictory/mutually exclusive understandings are a stumbling block. Since Mormonism is either what it says it is or a fake Church, then Mormonism is either the restoration of the lost Gospel or an anti-Christian church. No middle ground. Since I sincerely took the LDS up on their challenge and didn’t receive the testimony they describe, I have to conclude it’s a false church and anti-Christian in net effect.

  20. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”
    “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 The same was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.”
    “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.”
    Etc.
    Again, maybe I’m being naïve, but is recourse to classical philosophy really necessary to understand these basic things he’s telling us? It seems to me that people that can’t spell “metaphysics” can understand these things.

    • Sometimes one is so close to the window, one does not scrutinize the frame around it.

      Maybe if I insert the varying/contradiction assumptions, you can see how different we can see the same passages. It’s not naive of you, but you, like everyone, assume your metaphysics when you read, unless you are really trying understand other perspectives.

      mainstream Christianity: In the beginning [t=0..], God [the Triune mystery] created [out of nothing] the heaven and the earth [and all time and space]

      restoration Christianity: …Reads context of revelation to Moses … In the beginning [of this local ordering], when God[s – the Only Begotten under the direction of His Father] created [organized out of chaotic matter] the heaven and the earth [the skies and land of the world Moses was on]

      mainstream Christianity: In the beginning [t=0] was the Word [platonic Logos], and the Word was with God [mysterious trinitarian union], and the Word was God [mysteriously identified]. 2 The same was in the beginning with God [with, was = consubstantial]. 3 All things were made by him [all existence is contingent]; and without him was not any thing made that was made.[everything that exists, visible and invisible, was made out of nothing]”

      restoration Christianity: In the beginning [in arche the pre-mortal ruling council] was the Word [the Spokesman for the Father – “the word which ye hear is not mine, but the Father’s which sent me”], and the Word [Spokesman] was with [the] God [His Father], and the Word [Spokesman] was [a] God. 2 The same was in the beginning [pre-mortal ruling council] with [before] [the] God [His Father] 3 All things were made by him [the Only Begotten organized the worlds], and without him was not any thing made that was made [God the Father was the architect and the Teknon was the Tekton]

      “It seems to me that people that can’t spell “metaphysics” can understand these things.”

      Yes, and people that can spell metaphysics can understand the same passages differently.

      • The Faith should be simple enough that a child or stupid person like me can understand it. If you have to add in a bunch of fancy words like your mainstream and restoration version then something’s wrong.

      • What I was attempting to do, apparently unsuccessfully, was to demonstrate that once one has a metaphysical context, it colors the way words are understood. It is actually easier to explain in simplicity to a child or an unlearned person than to someone who has already adopted and defends their own metaphysical context. Like the wagon traveling the same road, mental ruts can form and variations become more difficult to comprehend.

      • “Yes, and people that can spell metaphysics can understand the same passages differently.”

        Why did the LDS require additional scripture and revelation then? Understanding the passages in the Bible correctly should have sufficed. Why do all groups that vary substantially from mainstream Christianity (beginning means beginning, ex-nihilo creation, trinity, etc.) require additional/alternative scripture and revelation?

        The “mainstream Christianity” understanding of John quoted above is how a child would understand it. The “restoration Christianity” understanding is not. A child would not add details about pre-mortal ruling councils which are not in the Bible.

      • “A child would not add details about pre-mortal ruling councils which are not in the Bible.”

        I don’t know about all that. Children are known for having pretty vivid imaginations. Indeed, I distinctly recall, as a child, lying in bed at night for hours on end contemplating the nature of God’s existence: what sort of a being is God, was the base question I spent many a night attempting to resolve as I gazed into the heavens through the bedroom window. One theory I concocted was that God was like an inconceivably giant man, and that the physical universe was just an atom in his big toe. I also theorized that God might be one of many gods who had their own universes in their own big toes. This all started with me about the time I became interested enough in the world around me that I actually began to listen to my Sunday school lessons and participate in the class discussions. The passages you quote above were, by then, very familiar to me. That my theories of God’s being and nature were extra-biblical had no bearing on my concocting them.

    • @Bruce B

      Why did the LDS require additional scripture and revelation then? Understanding the passages in the Bible correctly should have sufficed. Why do all groups that vary substantially from mainstream Christianity (beginning means beginning, ex-nihilo creation, trinity, etc.) require additional/alternative scripture and revelation?

      We believe the logismoi (argument) of men at Nicea and other councils, got it wrong. We LDS believe the knowledge from God > arguments of men [2 Corinthians 10:5]. Therefore, additional revelation was given to correct the syncretization of the erroneous pagan philosophy with the true Gospel of Jesus Christ.

      The “mainstream Christianity” understanding of John quoted above is how a child would understand it. The “restoration Christianity” understanding is not. A child would not add details about pre-mortal ruling councils which are not in the Bible.

      All childrens’ questions require explanation beyond the text alone. Your explanation is creatio ex nihilo. Mine is cross referencing other scripture. My children understand the Gospel of John differently from your children (if you have children; I do).

  21. @Bruce B “Since Mormonism is either what it says it is or a fake Church, then Mormonism is either the restoration of the lost Gospel or an anti-Christian church. No middle ground. ”

    Nonsense! That does not follow – and I don’t think you either believe it, or actually meant for it to come out like it did!

    To say Mormonism is *anti*-Christian (if its claims are not true) is a pretty terrible thing to assert, if (as often happens in such a business, due to natural human fallibility) you have made a mistake in your assumptions or reasoning; and you can see how it is the kind of statement (or line of reasoning) which leads to all sorts of trouble.

    Because matters would not stop there; since many/ most churches/ denomination make exclusivist claims of one kind or another, which – if taken at face value and without any other context – would likely lead to (more or less serious) attempts at mutual extermination (as has happened all too often).

    The important principle is to take a broader context for truth than mere reason – for example, the Anglicans (back in the days when it was a serious and coherent church) used explicilty to refer to reason, tradition and scriptural revelation (plus, implicilty, the teaching authority of the Episcopate) – the point being not these three specific factors and no other – but that there is not, and never can be, a reductive formula on the one hand – just as there cannot be open-ended flexibilty of interpretation on the other hand.

    Although we are often tempted to clutch at a reductive simplification (as when the pronouncement of current church leader/s is stated to be final and definitive, and to close-off debate) Christianity is (almost always) a ‘via media’/ middle way – a path guided by Love.

    This makes it hard to steer a route between the simpler unilateral clarity of some other religions — but when Christians have strayed it usually sets off alarms that what we are doing or proposing is un-loving, or assumes an un-loving God (e.g.when it is assuming a God who is less loving than (even) the best of *Men* – this being a situation when we know that we *must have* erred) – as was the case with your momentary and uncharacteristic lapse that I quoted above.

    In stating that if Mormonism is not fully true then it is necessarily anti-Christian; rounded reflection should convince you that you must be in error, even if you do not (at this moment) understand exactlt how you have erred.

    • I guess I meant “in net effect” and not in nature but maybe that was an error – it’s a thought I’ve had on more than one occasion and didn’t mean to be uncharitable. What struck me about Mormonism is that it is so very different from mainstream Christianity and that this difference greatly widens the diversity and division in Christianity. It’s hard enough when we can’t agree on the implications of the gospels without throwing new revelations into the mix.

      You’ll have to understand where I’m coming from and forgive – I find the division of Christianity intensely distressing. Imagine accepting the Christian claims but being an indecisive person and then having no clue how to navigate these divisions. Being a simple person and not able to understand all this theology stuff.

      • @Bruce B.
        I do sympatize with the anxiety about the sectarian divisions. It sounds similar to Joseph Smith’s conundrum.
        The result of his experience is the idea that every person is responsible to act to be susceptible to direct and personal communication with God. In other words, “would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!” Numbers 11:29

        I would ask that you judge Mormonism by the lives of the people who are earnestly striving to live by its precepts.

      • Andrew,
        I have maintained contact with the original Elders who visited us and we are friendly with some of the local LDS and receive visits on a regular basis. Very nice people with a healthy subculture. In fact I wish I could believe what they teach – I would love to convert for the culture.

      • @Bruce B.
        Yes, we do try to be friendly. You don’t have to be a member to attend our meetings or participate in activities. There are several spouses of LDS members who are always there in my local congregation. They haven’t yet been baptized, but they seem to enjoy our company. I was not convinced with great conviction, independent of my family, the Church was true until I was 13, even though I had been a member my whole life. Brigham Young did not become a member of the Church until he had studied the people and the precepts for 2 years. For some it comes easily, for other it is a long process. For others, they are never convinced. In any case, I hope you are blessed your life and labors in the Gospel.

  22. Pingback: This Week in Reaction (2015/07/19) | The Reactivity Place

  23. Pingback: I am as unworthy of worship as my cat. | Dark Brightness

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