The Last 4,000 Years

The last 4,000 years of religious history, up to and resulting in us, can be described as a series of questions and answers, with each new question arising out of the previous answer over generations or centuries as the full implications of each answer become understood. I think it worked something like this:

Good news! Our nation has only one god. We are united in worship.
– But what if the gods of our enemies are stronger or more appealing? Maybe I’ll wander a few miles to the north and worship the gods of the Hittites.
Good news! There is no god but God, everywhere. If we all follow his law, he will aid us.
– This is unbearable. God sees our faults and shortcomings no matter where we are. We cannot escape him no matter where we go. Surely he will destroy us for our iniquity.
Good news! Priests can make propitiation for the people through sacrifices and offerings.
– But I’m pious and literate, and omnipresent God sees into my soul. Surely God will destroy me, individually, for my sins. Also, I’m worried about my personal dissolution at death.
Good news! A personal savior has atoned for you and enabled your resurrection.
– So now I can do whatever I want?
No. You still need to live a god-pleasing life and access the Atonement in the proper way. Teachers will guide you, and priests will make sure the rituals by which you access the Atonement are conducted properly.
– But there are so many churches, and they disagree about the sacraments.
Good news! The true church has been restored.

And here we are.

Or in short: Monotheism generates the Law, the Law generates the Atonement, the Atonement generates the Church, and the Church generates the Restoration—not mechanistically, but through the gradual realization of a potential that was inherent from the start. This is how we find foreshadowings of Christ in the Old Testament, and foreshadowings of the Restoration in the New Testament. There are other paths, responding with different answers to the same questions or to questions that we ignore as unimportant, but this path is the one we took.

An implication of this is that historical development has introduced a series of dependencies to the inner logic of Mormonism such that if you kick out one of the critical pillars, the structure begins to collapse, and the farther back you go, the greater the damage. It’s one reason I’m suspicious of most theological tinkering, especially of proposals that fail to acknowledge their downstream effects. There is no “polytheistic Mormonism,” at least not one that is viable over a time frame of generations. I don’t think the Jewish and Muslim suspicions that Christians were polytheists because of belief in a trinity were warranted, or the suspicion from other Christians that Mormons are polytheists because we don’t subscribe to a particular Trinitarian formula, but the danger that lies in flirting with polytheism is quite real. For my taste, some varieties of Christian and Mormon speculation stray too far into polytheism, and once you admit the existence of another god who might prioritize commandments differently or offer salvation on different terms, the whole project is doomed. Likewise, the result of rejecting the Christian tenets of obedience, sin, and repentance is not a “humanistic Mormonism,” but the collapse of any need for a Savior, a Church, and a Restoration. Obedience will not save us, but unless we can feel the implacable demands of obedience, neither will we understand why we need a Savior.

33 comments for “The Last 4,000 Years

  1. “There is no “polytheistic Mormonism,” at least not one that is viable over a time frame of generations.”
    My reaction to this is the same as Pres. Hinckley to the Nicean Creed. Personally I can’t understand it.
    In his talk “The Things of which I know, he talks of two distinct personages that are gods. That means at least two Gods. It is not monotheism.

  2. One thing left out is the balance between pluralism and universalism. If you go back to Rome, a lot of paganism was extremely pluralistic simply because Rome conquered so many religiously diverse places. You had the more philosophical movement which had allegorized most of the myths, and effectively unified them. While Christianity took some of this (say Augustine’s influential neoplatonic take on Christianity) much of what happened was Christianity winning out because it was politically useful for the Roman empire. Later you had a similar move with Islam. The question then becomes whether this is some natural development towards monotheism (the more Hegelian take) or whether this is more an accident of history when a single state religion was more useful than the earlier pluralism.

    I ask this since arguably since the 19th century – particularly in the US – you had the return of pluralism. Admittedly this pluralism was primarily a pluralism of Protestant sects with Catholicism later gaining respect. “Fringe” religions, like ours, or non-Christian religions were typically still repressed in various ways. The real question though becomes this tension between a single unitary view and pluralism. While secularism sometimes embraces elements of pluralism, it’s historically also tended to be rather distrustful of religion that has actual differences from secularism. (The issue of what’s allowed in private vs. public vs. the public square — with most secular societies placing limits on religion in the public sphere)

    Within religions you have similar tensions. To what degree is diversity within a religion tolerated? Obviously with some religions that are less centralized that’s unavoidable. Protestantism was forever breaking off into smaller groups. Judaism and Islam are more interesting as there’s no real way to have centralization. Yet orthodox Jewish practitioners often look askew at reform or conservative Judaism. Within Mormonism for somewhat understandable reasons there’s always been a move towards centralization.

    As for “polytheistic” I think that gets complicated. Arguably as the shift towards monotheism happened in various ways across the near east, typically other members of the pantheon simply shifted their role from god to angel or demon. Within the more abstract philosophical movements, God becomes the One, but you keep these various semi-divine figures in various guises again more abstractly. As Catholicism absorbed most of Europe, older traditions get transformed into saints or Mary with often the older rites normalized into forms acceptable to Catholicism. Within Mormonism, while I think our theology, particularly by Nauvoo, is a move towards pre-Catholic forms, the key tension of competition and disagreement among divine beings is kept limited. Mainly by the theology of a certain oneness (also true in Catholicism). Whether one calls that monotheism or not seems not to matter as much. Much like the earlier pre-Trinitarian form in the late Hellenistic through Roman periods didn’t matter too much. That’s the main value of the shift from god to angel. Angels are submissive and don’t oppose God unless they become demons.

    The real issue ultimately is less about polytheism than it is the limits of God’s power. That is the common theme in philosophical conceptions, the mostly monotheistic religions, or Trinitarianism is how absolute God is. It’s precisely there that Mormonism seems to be going the opposite direction of the historical sweep by placing more and more limits on God. Compared to the God of Trinitarianism, the God of Plato, or the like, the Mormon God is limited and at least in the short term can be thwarted.

  3. Also, is this really about not liking the concept of a mother in heaven that is a God?

  4. Clark,
    I think you raise a good point about limits on God’s power. I think that according to many defines of God, in LDS belief there is no God at all. Its not so much polytheistic as poly-supernatural.

  5. Thanks Jonathan. I’ve had similar thoughts, they they go in a different direction for me. Thinking about earlier in the human story. Like what would it mean to have hunter-gatherer Mormonism circa 20kya in a pre-agriculture, small-scale existence while living in relatively small bands of maybe 10-40 people? The earliest forms of religion (animism, ancestor worship, and shamanism) have what might seem to be analogs in Mormonism, but they operate with quite different understandings of the world. Mormonism assumes a superstructure of accumulated ideas, like a big God, the notion of sin, and the idea of authority. The small gods of small-scale, hunter-gatherer societies could be displeased, but our notion of a Savior would be viewed as out of place there. You just don’t need a Savior when the gods are small. And in groups without any gods at all, the key tenets of Mormonism would seem even stranger.

    E.g., the Hadza of Tanzania have no churches, no religious meetings, no idols or images of gods, no religious leaders, no belief in afterlife, no formal marriage ceremonies. They have cosmology (a creation myth), some strict codes about who could eat what types of meat, and some other norms. But some early European contacts concluded that the Hadza had no religion because they lacked the things we normally think of, like church buildings and priests. Most anthropologists today would say that they have religion, but it is just of a form totally alien to us. Just as Mormonism would be alien to them.

  6. MIke, I’ve spent a few days with the Hazda. I remember dancing and singing in a circle with them. I asked our guide what they were saying. Basically, he said “Isn’t it wonderful to be born a Hazda, the most fortunate of all people. Oh, the irony that ethnocentricity is universal.

  7. Hi Jonathan,

    I’m just curious what your qualifications are to be discussing the past 4,000 years of religious history and its meaning. Is this your area of academic training? Do you read any ancient languages? What journal articles have you read lately about ancient religion?

  8. Let’s take it from the bottom.

    FGH, this blog is for entertainment purposes only. Please consult a clergy member or professional advisor of your choice before making important decisions based on what you read here. Many people report feelings of interest or satisfaction after reading this blog, but these results have not been verified by scientific studies.

    It’s reasonable to ask about my qualifications. At various times I’ve read two ancient languages, depending on your definition of ancient, although neither of them particularly well (I’m not counting the semester-long Hittite seminar). My academic training and publications touch on a tiny sliver of a fraction of the last 4,000 years of religious history, and not a terribly relevant sliver at that. I’m at best a secondary or tertiary consumer of current research in ancient religions.

    Like a lot of believers, though, I end up discussing religious history weekly or more frequently, and I can’t avoid making decisions daily about ancient texts and how I think they relate to history and to my present situation, whether I’m academically qualified or not. My academic instincts lead me to be skeptical of grand theories like the one I posted, but I also can’t avoid a theory of religious history with practical applications. Some people find my thoughts on the topic interesting. Well, four people, at least, including you.

    So here’s my own reasonable question for you: Why do you think you are qualified to evaluate my qualifications? Do you have academic training in some field? A publication record, maybe? Teaching experience? It’s not necessary, of course. I’m just trying to figure out if you have the understanding that comes from first-hand experience of how knowledge is created through research, disseminated through publication, and presented to nonspecialist audiences. In my own work, I’m all too aware of the gaps between history as it happened, the most plausible interpretation of the remaining evidence, and a defensible argument that can pass peer review. How have you developed that awareness? You’re not required to identify yourself (although I wouldn’t mind at all if you did), but give us something to work with.

    My hope is that you’ll make some contribution to the discussion, like disagreeing with me on substantive grounds, or pointing out that my model of religious history was already considered and discarded in the 1930s, or something like that. I do hope you’ve got something more to add than just sniping at people about their lack of academic qualifications.

  9. Martin, using an overly simplistic definition of polytheism is a bad idea. It’s not enough to count up personages and declare that anything greater than 2 is polytheism. The angel Gabriel, for example, is a personage, and yet Jews and Muslims don’t consider themselves polytheists for giving him a divine role. You have to look at what those personages do. Is it conceivable in Mormonism to reject the terrible demands of the Father and instead seek grace from the merciful Son? Or to find some spot that is under the Son’s care but beyond the view of the Father? No, it’s not. And the moment you admit the possibility, you open up the potential for untold mischief.

    Mother in Heaven is, as you point out, an interesting case. I’ve read Paulsen and Pulido’s article; we know almost nothing about her except that a recent prophet was comfortable with the idea that she exists, and that she has been used for a variety of rhetorical effects over the years. Some of the uses to which she is put are in fact heretical, and some of those heretical uses are also polytheistic by imagining her as accepting worship or offering grace under different terms than those of the Father and Son. My argument is that a polytheistic approach to Mother in Heaven creates grave issues for the system of religious belief as a whole: Who needs the Son’s sacrifice to answer the demands of the Law, if a Mother doesn’t care about your obedience anyway?

    I notice that you’re quick to accept – or assert? – controversial points about Mormons, that we’re polytheists, or that we don’t really believe in God. What I’m saying is that smuggling in these basic points brings the whole house down. I don’t know if that’s your intent or not. I’ll just register my strong disagreement.

  10. Clark, while I see pluralism and universalism as important issues in general in religious history, I don’t see how they are inflection points in our own religious DNA. Certainly we live with the tension between them, but I don’t see where we commit to either one at any point, or how they play a crucial role in our system of religious belief. Can you explain what I’m missing?

    As for limits on God’s power, I don’t think they’re quite so alien to traditional Christian belief. In the Old Testament, for example, the Flood is presented as wiping the slate clean after God’s intentions for the human race are thwarted. In the New Testament, we have Christ limiting himself with human weakness and accepting his own execution. I agree that there is some additional tension in Mormon belief, especially concerning ideas about pre-existent matter or intelligences, although that’s a discussion where I tend to start edging toward the refreshments rather than engaging in the discussion.

  11. I don’t see how Mormonism isn’t polytheistic. Its teachings about the Godhead state that both God the Father and Jesus Christ are gods who are one in purpose but distinct in substance. The Book of Genesis and the Book of Abraham talk about gods in the plural and Mormonism interprets that as pluralistic. Additionally, Joseph Smith that god is an exalted man and that as God the Father once was man can become. Trinitarian Christianity can be argued to be monotheistic since it sees God as one in substance with three different hypostases.

    I think it can be derived from Mormon teachings that the gods are uniformly in tune with some universal essence of truth, which sets it apart from other polytheistic religions. But the teachings don’t give specifics on the nature of gods other than Elohim and Jesus.

  12. Clark and Jonathan, in your comments you seem to be saying that Mormonism can be argued to be monotheistic with its Godhead doctrine because Catholicism and Islam are clearly monotheistic even though these religions believe in semi-divine figures such as angels and saints. This seems like a bad comparison. Islam talks of angels (and in some traditions saints), yes, but in no sense exalts them to the level of Allah. They are operating under the command of Allah, even though they supposedly possess greater powers than mortal humans. The Virgin Mary is most certainly worshiped in Catholicism, but I have never heard any Catholic authority say that she is a god or on par with the Trinitarian God. You mention that these saints and angels have “divine” aspects. Yes. Divine can mean “of god.” It doesn’t have to mean “god.” I.e., “the angelic appearance was divine” could mean that the appearance was essentially God appearing, or it could mean that it was because of God that it occurred. Contrast this with the teachings of the Godhead in Mormonism. God the Father and Jesus Christ are treated as both gods who have creative and saving power.

    I’m also surprised that no one has mentioned this on the discussion about polytheism. The LDS church regularly teaches that God is an exalted man. This teaching was featured most recently in Chapter 2 of Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith: “God Himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man.” This clearly suggests that the God that the LDS church worships has his own God that he in turn worships. This God of God presumably has his God that he worships, and it would appear that there are a never-ending number of Gods who each have their own Gods. I know of no other religion or denomination of Christianity that has such a teaching. And this really sets Mormonism apart from not just other Christian denominations but other religions on the whole.

    So no, Mormonism isn’t polytheistic in the way Hinduism or ancient Greek religion is where the gods are not all-powerful (and control different properties of nature) and are competing with each other. But it clearly teaches that there are multiple omnipotent gods that are single in purpose (maybe not necessarily, since it is possible that the God of God has a completely different purpose and MO that affects the God that earthlings are supposed to worship but not the actual earthlings themselves). And I don’t see how such beliefs can be called monotheistic. Maybe the OP is looking for different words besides monotheism and polytheism to drive down the point, but Mormonism is clearly a polytheistic religion. And saying that polytheism is bad just doesn’t quite work here.

  13. Xander: “And I don’t see how such beliefs can be called monotheistic.”
    But Abinadi, the angel speaking to Nephi, Nephi, Mormon, and others seem to have seen it and preached it. Even the Wikipedia authors have acknowledged various kinds of monotheism, citing the Encyclopaedia Britannica for: “A distinction may be made between exclusive monotheism, and both inclusive monotheism and pluriform (panentheistic) monotheism which, while recognising various distinct gods, postulate some underlying unity.”
    Some disagreements such as we see in this thread may amount to little more than the assertion that a word (“monotheistic”) should only be used to describe the narrowest way in which it has been used.
    By Xander’s narrow definition, it can be argued that Catholicism is polytheistic because it insists that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are separate persons. Of course, it also insists they are one God. Then we get into the mess of what the heck “consubstantial” and its variations mean other than the council of Nicea’s attempt to preserve a single first cause responsible for creation ex nihilo and at the same time put down the “heresy” that Jesus was not co-eternal with God the Father.
    Like Clark, it seems to me that a “theology of oneness” is enough and that “Whether one calls that monotheism or not seems not to matter as much.”

  14. Jonathan, I was more thinking of pluralism broadly especially in how religion develops in Roman times. However I also think it’s a pretty significant issue in early America. Part of my thinking was informed by Chris Beneke’s book, Beyond Toleration: The Religious Origins of American Pluralism. The reason I raise it is that I think the evolution of religion, both ancient and more recent, are very much wrapped up in issues of toleration and pluralism. I thought in your OP you were touching on that. Consider our own history. We developed a persecution complex that started early on with often violent opposition to our Church. Arguably that persecution complex didn’t really fade until relatively recently – say the late 90’s. The evolution of our Church since then is much more wrapped up in pluralism. So I think it’s hard to separate our the effect of pluralism on religion.

    So if you ask about inflection points, I’d quickly point to Nauvoo theology which was largely kept to an inner circle. When it breaks out of that inner circle, you then have violence (culminating in Joseph’s death). We move to Utah largely because the development of American pluralism isn’t yet broad enough to include us. In early Utah we’re more open and our theology evolves fairly quickly making Nauvoo theology part of the public church. You then have theological and ecclesiastic innovation until once again conflict with pluralism ends that leading to first the transitionary period then the rise of the correlation period we’re still in. During that era many innovations get jetisoned. While there’s still a certain persecution complex, as I mentioned, there’s also a big move to be accepted by wider society (for better or worse). That focus on what is acceptable in pluralism really shapes how the church develops particularly through the administration of Heber J. Grant but arguably culminating in Gordon B. Hinkley. It’ll be interesting now that in some ways society is moving away from what used to be the pluralistic norms. I suspect we’re going to see a lot of changes under the administration of Nelson and Oaks that may be at least as significant as anything that happened in the early 20th century.

    So I’d say pluralism and more particularly the limits of pluralism are key to how the Church develops.

    To God’s power, certainly in pre-exilic Israel what you describe is more common. By the time of the more Hellenistic period that changes although arguably the beginnings of the change go back to before the exile. (As I mentioned not just in Judaism but across the near east) Seeing God as limitless becomes the norm. With Christ, I think this poses a problem – thus the traditional philosophical category of “Jerusalem vs. Athens.” Traditional Christianity, I think, does not deal well with the two natures of Christ.

  15. Xander, I think a lot depends upon what one calls polytheistic vs. monotheistic. My argument was just the historical one. Pantheons where members of the pantheon were gods become transformed into one God and then a set of semi-divine beings – usually angels or demons. This happens in many different religions across the near east. Arguably Judaism picks it up out of Babylon. Thus by the Hellenistic period you have the rise of angels and so forth. Within Judaism you maintain aspects that blur. This is common both in Merkabah literature as well as many aspects of Apocalypses. So famously for instance in 3 Enoch you have Enoch ascending to heaven to become the angel Metatron but also becomes the lesser YHWH. You also have in this period the treatment of the angel of the presence becoming more transformed into a semidivine being. What both these movements do is allow Eloheim to become the more abstract divine with these intermediate representations also being his manifestation in the human world. These allow varying degrees of anthropomophism to be maintained in the religion. Arguably all these then affect the development of Christ as God in the Christian era – although scholars don’t agree upon how much of an influence they actually are.

    My point is just that rather than monotheism and polytheism being clear cut divides, historically it’s much more muddled. Even ignoring Christianity which clearly has the issue of dealing with the person of Christ, within Judaism it’s also muddled. Judaism tends to embrace a more absolute monotheism, unlike Christianity. However these other elements of manifestations of the one God in quasi-anthropomorphic forms persist. First in the development of Merkabah traditions in late antiquity and early medieval Judaism and then with the rise of mystical Kabbalism. Typically the anthropomorphic elements are somewhat denied. They also form just a part of God. Within historical Christianity that’s not allowed and anything verging upon it is considered part of the heresy of modalism. This makes dealing with multiples persons and yet one essence rather difficult for Christian theologians. Unsurprisingly those faith movements that don’t have multiple formal persons tend to see the Trinity as polytheistic rather than monotheistic. Christianity wants to maintain a monotheism for various reasons (often textual ones where the historic development of the canon is unknown) So it calls itself monotheistic with its distinction between ousia and hypostasis. But that’s a distinction most lay members can’t understand and that non-Christians usually dispute is really monotheism.

    Getting back to your question, the issue then becomes why the Trinity defines monotheism. First off, it’s not clear Mormon theology doesn’t have more to the unity of God than merely “one mind.” While the more nominalistic interpretation where God’s unity are common desires, knowledge and power dominates in the 20th century there are alternatives. Orson Pratt’s conception of God basically is a variation of Tertullian’s more Stoic conception of the Trinity and still is quite popular in Mormonism. Likewise even in the history of Christianity nominalism has its say with Ockham and others. One can dispute I suppose how far nominalism was taken, but even among the realists like Duns Scotus you have a conception of the ousia as nothing that I think is quite similar to how Mormon theologians influenced by figures like Levinas conceive of God.

    Which is all a long way of saying, this is a much more complex question than I think you suggest. On all sides (the Mormon side, the history of Christian theology side, and the non-Christian critic of Christianity in terms of monotheism).

  16. “But Abinadi, the angel speaking to Nephi, Nephi, Mormon, and others seem to have seen it and preached it”

    Many would argue that the concept of God in the Book of Mormon is actually Trinitarian and that it did not actually inform Joseph Smith conceptions of God later on. The teaching of the Godhead where Jesus is a distinct personage from God the Father cannot be derived from the Book of Mormon. Neither can the idea that god is an exalted man.

    “Wikipedia authors have acknowledged various kinds of monotheism”

    Of course, there is debate among scholars about what monotheism is and is supposed to be. Mormonism is indeed pluriform, in which there are multiple gods but a general unity. I did acknowledge in my comment the difference between ancient Greek polytheism and Mormon gods. This belief system is better terms uniform polytheism instead of pluriform monotheism. I think that the idea of “pluriform monotheism” has resulted from Christian theologians’ stigmas against polytheism and their desire to present Christianity as monotheistic. Arguing for a monotheistic Christianity has been a struggle from the beginning.

    “By Xander’s narrow definition, it can be argued that Catholicism is polytheistic because it insists that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are separate persons”

    Catholicism is Trinitarian, and the guys who came up with the Trinitarian theology worked long and hard to extract from the Bible a single God that has three bodies/manifestations/hypostases.

    You took on my arguments about the Godhead, but did not address my arguments about the exalted man doctrine. Not that you have to, but that is another key reason that I argue that Mormonism is polytheistic.

  17. Xander, it’s hard to say the Book of Mormon is Trinitarian (IMO). It’s got two persons in 3 Nephi. However some non-Mormons see Mosiah 15 as modalist. (I think it’s closer to the Merkabah tradition – although to be fair when that’s conceived more neoplatonically that verges into modalism) But what’s key is that there’s nothing explicit in the Book of Mormon that discusses the ousia. Now one can read it through a Trinitarian lens. But the key doctrine is missing. Further I’d say that just shows how vague the theology of the Godhead in the Book of Mormon really is. The key debates really are missing from the text.

    Further one can read later Nauvoo doctrines into the text just as easily as Trinitarianism. Moroni 7:48 (paraphrasing 1 John 3) can easily be read as implying we become gods. (Of course deification is compatible with Trinitarianism as we see in Eastern Orthodoxy)

  18. Xander, It seems to me as inaccurate to suppose that the Book of Mormon has a unified teaching on the Godhead as it is to suppose that the Bible does. I think the doctrine of Jesus as a separate personage from God the Father can be derived from parts of the Book of Mormon as well as possibly contradicted by other parts of the Book of Mormon. The guys who came up with Trinitarian theology do not seem to me to have extracted from the Bible a single God that has three bodies/manifestations/hypostases. Instead, like the rest of us, they brought some of their preconceived notions to the task (exclusive monotheism, Platonic first cause, etc.) and then, with a great deal of effort and multiple linguistic and conceptual contortions, invented a collection of words they felt they could claim were consistent with the Bible (except possibly Jesus praying to his Father and Stephen seeing Jesus on the right hand of the Father, etc. which seem to be consistent with Trinitarian theology only if you begin with Trinitarian theology rather than extracting it from the Bible as a whole) for the primary purposes of preserving a semblance of Jewish monotheism and at the same time insisting upon the divinity and eternal nature (both back and forward in time) of Jesus.

    Clark: “So [Christianity] calls itself monotheistic with its distinction between ousia and hypostasis. But that’s a distinction most lay members can’t understand and that non-Christians usually dispute is really monotheism.” It’s not just lay members who can’t understand. Being able to bandy words about as if one understands doesn’t cut it. I was particularly impressed with a Protestant service I attended on Trinity Sunday when the minister, a thoughtful graduate of a school of theology, introduced the congregational reading of the Nicene creed by noting that he didn’t understand (or believe) it, just as many of them did not, but that they could recite it together as significant “poetry” in the history and tradition of the Church. Acknowledged in that way, it has a variety of meanings and a variety of uses, that is arguably as wide and varied as the uses in the LDS Church of the statement “I know the Church is true.”

    I am not arguing that Mormonism is monotheistic or that the Book of Mormon is not Trinitarian, etc. I simply think the insistence upon labeling Mormonism monotheistic or polytheistic is wasted effort because those labels do not clearly convey any unique meaning and Mormon doctrine, whatever it is, is not a systematic theology consistent over time in any event.

  19. JR, I fully agree that debating monotheism is ultimately pointless. It’s a label that had a particular use. In any case, Mormonism is compatible with the doctrine of the Trinity. The real dividing line between creedal Christianity and Mormonism is over creation ex nihilo and whether the Father is embodied. By making the issue the Trinity it tends to distort the real issues. (IMO) As I said, Orson Pratt’s theology is really just a form of Tertullian’s materialistic conception of the Trinity.

  20. Clark, I agree the real dividing lines between creedal Christianity and Mormonism are the questions of creation ex nihilo (which flowed naturally from the identification of God with first cause and was part of the motivation to develop a trinitarian doctrine) and embodiment of the Father. Whether Mormonism is compatible with a trinitarian creed depends greatly on what one supposes “ousia” and “hypostasis” mean, what “being”, “essence”, or “substance” and “consubstantial” mean in the face of insistence upon three “persons”. Most of the very few creedal Christians with whom I have discussed it (an extraordinarily small and not representative sample), are so not think of the three “persons” in any way that differs from the Mormon understanding of the Godhead as three distinct “personages.” They have no idea what is meant by their being one in “being”, “essence”, or “substance” or what it means for Jesus to be “consubstantial” with the Father. Accordingly, what they profess to believe is a collection of words divorced from any understanding of their referents. I sometimes wonder how widespread that is. As I must wonder, given my limited understanding, what you mean by the “doctrine of the Trinity” with which some version of Mormonism is compatible.

  21. JR, I don’t think first cause flows naturally into creation ex nihilism. One need only look at neoplatonism with its more natural flow of causes/emanations to see that creating a big gap between creation and creator isn’t necessary.

    As to ousia and hypostasis that’s the great thing about the creed. It doesn’t really define them. They’re used in heavily ambiguous ways. But certainly there are tons of interpretations of them by major figures in history who are completely “orthodox” that are compatible with Mormon thought. I’m not saying we have to pick one of them. I rather like Duns Scotus take on the ousia myself and think it’s quite similar to how many Mormon thinkers have applied say Levinas notion of other minds to Mormon thought. I’d throw in Tertullian too, but often Trinitarians look askance at his Stoic materialism.

  22. “Xander, it’s hard to say the Book of Mormon is Trinitarian (IMO). It’s got two persons in 3 Nephi”

    The existence of two persons in 3 Nephi is no more distinct than it is in the KJV. The idea of a Godhead where God the Father, Jesus, and Holy Spirit are completely separate entities is in no way immediately apparent. This idea emerged much later and wasn’t presented in the packaged form that it appears as in missionary discussions and primary lessons until decades after Joseph Smith was killed.

    “But what’s key is that there’s nothing explicit in the Book of Mormon that discusses the ousia”

    What does it mean to “discuss the ousia”? I found this website that has 100 Bible verses on the ousia ( Much of the content found in these Bible verses is found in the Book of Mormon. So I really don’t see what you mean.

    “Further I’d say that just shows how vague the theology of the Godhead in the Book of Mormon really is. The key debates really are missing from the text.”

    It is really no more or less vague than it is in the KJV. Again the doctrine of the trinity is not immediately apparent from the Bible. It is the product of theologians who tried to package doctrine to sell to followers centuries later.

    “However some non-Mormons see Mosiah 15 as modalist”

    The difference between modalism and trinitarianism is hair-splitting. I gather that the modalist argument emerged because squeamish trinitarian evangelicals, such as McKeever, did not want Book of Mormon content at all representing the god that they claim to believe in.

    “Further one can read later Nauvoo doctrines into the text just as easily as Trinitarianism”

    God as an exalted man (a clear Nauvoo doctrine, and a point that you have yet to address, and no it is different that the idea that men can become gods for it clearly states that God himself was once a man) cannot in any way, shape, or form be read into the Book of Mormon.

    “Of course deification is compatible with Trinitarianism as we see in Eastern Orthodoxy”

    Maybe you can make me eat my words, but I know of no theologian in the Eastern Orthodoxy tradition after it actually becomes a tradition that is distinct from Roman Catholicism in 1054 (and even centuries before leading up to the schism) that interprets deification/divinization as someone actually becoming a god on par with God with a capital G. The conventional interpretation by the modern Eastern Orthodox church leaders is that deification means someone becoming conjoined with God, not becoming a separate god who creates his or her own worlds and peoples.

  23. JR, the Book of Mormon does not make the distinction between Jesus and God the Father anymore apparent than it already is or is not in the KJV.

    “I am not arguing that Mormonism is monotheistic or that the Book of Mormon is not Trinitarian, etc. I simply think the insistence upon labeling Mormonism monotheistic or polytheistic is wasted effort because those labels do not clearly convey any unique meaning and Mormon doctrine, whatever it is, is not a systematic theology consistent over time in any event.”

    Well then take that issue up with the OP, which is clearly insisting that Mormonism is monotheistic and that there is some creeping polytheism that we have to reject. The OP needs to be rearticulated. I think you would agree with me there.

  24. Clark,
    “flowed naturally from” != necessitated
    “that’s the great thing about the creed” = “that’s the beauty of it” — for whatever that’s worth.
    I think you just agreed with me that the trinitarian language of the Creed is a “collection of words” more than it is a singular, articulated concept.

    Yes, there is little or nothing in the Nicene Creed as now recited in the various churches I’ve visited that is not compatible with Mormonism (as I think it is now usually understood), depending upon how one chooses to understand the Creed (or not). This goes beyond its trinitarian language to other content. I don’t think I’m the first to have noted this. (Givens, maybe?)

    Xander @ 2:01am, agreed.

  25. Upon posting my last comment, the blog font changed my not-equal symbol to a question mark, at least as it appears on my computer. Sorry.

  26. JR, yeah, for some reason the blog sometimes rejects certain unicode characters. I’m not sure why. Sorry about that. I’ll see if I can change it for you in a sec. Edit: didn’t work so I changed it to the programmer’s version.

    To the creed, I’d prefer to say it’s vague, although there definitely are arguments that it’s just an incoherent collection of words. I’m not sure it’s a terribly useful way to think about the theology. I just find it funny that Mormons are attacked for not following it when that seems to not be the issue at all.

  27. I have no problem being called a polytheist.

    According to an Orthodox wiki “The Mormons are clear promoters of henotheism, and the Church Fathers have absolutely no communality with their view.”

    The entry in Wikipedia on “Henotheism,” in part, reads: “Henotheism is the belief and worship of a single god with accepting the existence or possible existence of other dieties.”

    A subset of Henotheism is Monolatrism: ” . . . which is also the worship of one god among many. The primary difference between the two is that Henotheism is the worship of one god, not precluding the existence of others who may also be worthy of praise, while Monolatry is the worship of one god who alone is worthy of worship, though other gods are known to exist.”

    The reasons why members of the LDS Church are referred to as Henotheists and/or Monolatrists are two fold: (1) Mormons are non-Trinitarians, they believe that God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost are separate entities (not to mention Mother(s) in Heaven); and (2) Mormon belief in theosis, that man and God are the same species, and that man can achieve godhood.

    It takes verbal gymnastics to assert that Church members are monotheists.

  28. Roger, I’m not sure I buy that although I understand the claim to henotheism. The problem is that Mormon inherently think there’s a strong unity between Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Ghost. The reason people apply the henotheistic label is because we restrict our worship to those three (and arguably just the Father). However the reason people who apply the henotheistic label don’t apply it to creedal Christianity is because of the unity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Yet Mormons clearly think there’s a very strong unity among them too. Further Mormons think that any other truly divine being shares in that unity.

    If henotheism is misapplied to trinitarians, it’s misapplied to us as well. Now the exception might be, as I mentioned, that many Mormons see the unity of the godhead as only a nominalistic one – i.e. it’s in name only and not substantial. But that’s not the only view and arguably not even a view one can defend well in terms of the scriptures.

    I’d thus say that while it may take verbal gymnastics to assert the Mormons are monotheists, I’m not sure it’s any worse than what creedal Christians have to do.

  29. Clark, I don’t pretend to understand trinitarianism; too much double talk. And unity of purpose doesn’t make them one person. There may be unity in a marriage, but there are two separate physical being. JS saw God the Father, Christ the Son, and felt the Holy Ghost. Anthropologists want us to believe that monotheism is a higher-level religion than polytheism. Is that why we go through all the mental gymnastics to justify our supposed monotheism.

    It seems like in one of your comments you mentioned the importance of understanding the nature of God. I don’t believe in any of the omni’s (except omnibenificent). He is omni in relation to our knowledge, power, etc. But he is truly a progressing personage, as in “eternal progression.”

  30. Yes, I reject the abstract absolutist conception of God. It largely arises out of Greek philosophical considerations but is unrelated to a personal God. Attempting to reconcile the two is just deeply problematic IMO.

  31. JG,
    I didn’t see a response to rogerdhansen saying the thought it mental gymnastics to say mormons are monotheists, but I’ll try a response to your earlier comment of “What I’m saying is that smuggling in these basic points brings the whole house down.”
    My opinion is that what brings the whole house down is reducing the theological distance between mormonism and other religions. I think the record is clear that our beliefs are distinct and incompatible with other religions in important ways. It dismays me the extent to which there is a generation of LDS people that think making common cause theologically with other religions over against secularism has some value. I believe it strengthens nothing and weakens much.

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