Condescension and Exaltation

April 14, 2005 | 21 comments
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For all of our insistence that we are Christians too, Mormons think about Jesus differently. I think that the two words that best capture this difference are condescension and exaltation.

Traditionally, the theological focus of Christian understanding of Jesus has been on the concept of condescension. Christ is the god who chooses to become a man in order to save his people. The ultimate symbol of the condescension, of course, is the cross. It is the moment of Christ’s maximum humiliation and for that reason it most powerfully and forcefully pushes home the full scope of Christ’s love and grace — the master of the universe allowing himself to be treated as the lowest of the low.

Obviously, as Mormons we believe in the condescension of Christ as well, but it is not for us, I think, ultimately the most important spiritual facet of our understanding of Christ. Rather we focus on the post-Resurrection, exalted and triumphant Christ. There is much more at work here than some simple formula about how we want to celebrate Christ’s life rather than his death, etc. etc. Rather, I think that it signals a basic reorientation toward our understanding of Christ. Rather than focusing on his condescension we focus on his exaltation. For us Christ is not the god who became man, so much as the man who became god. By narrowing the ontological distance between man and God, Mormonism cannot help but render the condescension less powerful than it is in a vision of the universe in which man is utterly a creature of God. Having endowed man with greater dignity, Christ’s resurrection takes on much greater significance because it marks the point at which Christ makes his final transformation from man into God. Resurrection becomes tied up with exaltation, taking on a meaning far beyond the simple triumph over the grave, and becoming the beginning of the process by which man becomes as God is.

In support of my theory, I would point to the King Follet Discourse. Lorenzo Snow popularized the ideas of that sermon with his couplet, “As man is God once was, as God is, man may yet become,” but like all popularizations, Snow’s formulation distorts the message slightly. Joseph taught not simply that the God who sits enthroned in yonder heavens was once a man, but that Christ imitated the things that his Father had done. In other words, Christ’s cycle of humanity, death, resurrection, and exaltation recapitulated the Father’s route to godhood. It is this move, I think, that reoriented Mormons away from the cross and subtlety but significantly changed the emphasis of our interpretation of Jesus.

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21 Responses to Condescension and Exaltation

  1. Russell Arben Fox on April 14, 2005 at 12:30 pm

    “By narrowing the ontological distance between man and God, Mormonism cannot help but render the condescension less powerful than it is in a vision of the universe in which man is utterly a creature of God. Having endowed man with greater dignity, Christ’s resurrection takes on much greater significance because it marks the point at which Christ makes his final transformation from man into God.”

    Nate, do you think that in rendering “the condescension [of Christ] less powerful” and thereby allowing the resurrection to take on “much greater significance” in our understanding of God, we have also limited our ability to comprehend the depths of the atonement, and thereby the moral enormity of sacrifice and submission? Or do you think Mormon doctrine allows for the best of both perspectives?

    “Joseph taught not simply that the God who sits enthroned in yonder heavens was once a man, but that Christ imitated the things that his Father had done. In other words, Christ’s cycle of humanity, death, resurrection, and exaltation recapitulated the Father’s route to godhood. It is this move, I think, that reoriented Mormons away from the cross and subtlety but significantly changed the emphasis of our interpretation of Jesus.”

    Or at least it did. Some would argue that the last couple of decades have been characterized by slight correction to that reorientation.

  2. Blake on April 14, 2005 at 12:40 pm

    Nate: I respectfully suggest that no one can read the Book of Mormon (e.g., Mosiah 15) and come away with the view you suggest that Jesus is a mere man become God. He is Jehvoah who condescended to become mortal. I suppose I would also suggest that for LDS there are mortals who are already of the species of the gods and have the capacity for the fullness of divinity and then there are mere mortals — and which one we are is a matter of choice and not ontological gapping.

    There is no path to divinity — we already possess it and always have. As I read the KFD, the Father condescended to become mortal just like Christ rather than the Father having once been less than fully divine and then rose from the muck to become God.

  3. J. Stapley on April 14, 2005 at 12:43 pm

    I think it is important to note that huge disparity between Snow’s couplet and the doctrine preached by Joesph.

  4. Nate Oman on April 14, 2005 at 12:45 pm

    Blake: I agree with you with regard to the Book of Mormon and I never said that Christ was a mere man who became god. I am provided two simplified typologies in order to make — I think — a completely valid point about emphasis. I am not arguing that we deny the condescenion, but rather that our theology has other points of emphasis that are not present in traditional Christian thought.

    I am well aware of your interpretation of KFD. On my reading of the text the point is ambigious. Certainly there were lots of people who were very familiar with Joseph’s teachings who rejected your reading, eg Brigham Young.

  5. Nate Oman on April 14, 2005 at 12:46 pm

    J. Stapley: KFD is ambigious. There is only a huge disparity if you adopt one controversial reading rather than another controversial reading.

  6. Blake on April 14, 2005 at 12:46 pm

    Nate: with that clarification, I think I agree.

  7. Russell Arben Fox on April 14, 2005 at 12:51 pm

    “There is only a huge disparity if you adopt one controversial reading rather than another controversial reading.”

    Which means that your argument about the way in which you see Mormonism as having “reoriented” itself away from the cross and the “ontological distance” of traditional Christianity is itself admittedly controversial, right?

  8. Nate Oman on April 14, 2005 at 12:54 pm

    Russell: No. The difference between my controversial interpretations and the controversial interpretations of others is that I am right. ;->

    Actually, I don’t think that there can really be any argument as to whether or not Mormonism has oriented itself differently to Christ in the way that I have sketched out. The reason is that this is not really a discussion that is imagineable within the tradtional theological framework. The fact that we have a controversy shows that there is a difference in orientation. Finally, I don’t think that there is any reasonable interpretation of Mormonisms theological anthropology that does not lessen the ontological distance between man and God. The only arguments are about how much the distance has been lessened.

    Sorry. We aren’t protestants.

  9. J. Stapley on April 14, 2005 at 12:59 pm

    Regardless of the controversy of the reading, it would seem that none of the early brethren – BY, Snow, JFS, etc.- held the popular contemporary interpretation of Snow’s couplet. They all accounted for the KFD in roughly the same way (at least from my take on things).

    While we have shaken off what many would consider misreadings of Joseph Smith by the early Utah saints, it has also been at the expense of any coherency in the KFD. I don’t think you have to accept BY’s reading if you reject the popular reading of Snow’s couplet.

  10. Russell Arben Fox on April 14, 2005 at 1:02 pm

    “I don’t think that there is any reasonable interpretation of Mormonism’s theological anthropology that does not lessen the ontological distance between man and God. The only arguments are about how much the distance has been lessened.”

    Fair enough. You position in general is not wholly controversial–only the question of how and in what way it is to be understood, in our teaching and practice, is.

    “Sorry. We aren’t protestants.”

    Strange. I didn’t know I’d made that claim. Glad to know that Protestantism must begin wherever Brigham Young’s understanding of the (remember, non-canonized!) King Follett Discourse ends.

  11. Nate Oman on April 14, 2005 at 1:06 pm

    “Glad to know that Protestantism must begin wherever Brigham Young?s understanding of the (remember, non-canonized!) King Follett Discourse ends.”

    Russell: I think of Protestantism as rather like adultery. I would prefer not to see how close I can get to the sin without actually doing it. I think that staying firmly within BY’s theology is a good way of avoiding the danger. Polygamy and Adam-God, I admitt, are problematic ;->

  12. Steve Evans on April 14, 2005 at 1:26 pm

    Nate, that’s the best post of yours I’ve read in a long time. Good to see the varnish fumes are wearing off.

    Question: Christ condescends, and rising again becomes a co-inheritor with God. We, through faith, may become like them. Which is a greater accomplishment? It would seem to me that exaltation for one with a divine birth would be a bit of an easier task. A bit glib, but still interesting to think about.

  13. Gilgamesh on April 14, 2005 at 2:35 pm

    Russell Arben Fox Said “Nate, do you think that in rendering “the condescension [of Christ] less powerful” and thereby allowing the resurrection to take on “much greater significance” in our understanding of God, we have also limited our ability to comprehend the depths of the atonement, and thereby the moral enormity of sacrifice and submission? Or do you think Mormon doctrine allows for the best of both perspectives?”

    As I read later scholars – ie Talmage, the power of the Atonement is not connected to the means of death, but the willfull, conscious choice to take upon the sins of the world. The condescension would refer to the willfullness of Christ to place his life in the hands of humans, thus giving away his own power and authority to other humans.

    I agree with you Nate and I like the respect you gave to traditional Christian views of the condescension of Christ symbolized by the Christ. I do think our view of Christ as the first of many extracts us from some areas of Christian dialogue.

  14. ed on April 14, 2005 at 3:55 pm

    I just want to say that this is a really great post.

  15. yddy42 on April 14, 2005 at 4:54 pm

    Unless it was a typo, I believe that Jesus throught himself not quite a God when in the old world (before ressurection), yet a ‘full’ God in the new world (After ressurection). The Bible says “… perfect, as your Father in Heaven…”. The BoM says “… perfect, as I, or your Father in Heaven…”

  16. A. Greenwood on April 14, 2005 at 8:17 pm

    Nate Oman,
    Have you ever once, in the history of the world, spelled ‘ambiguous’ correctly?

    Just asking.

    Great post, by the way. As you know, Russell Fox and I both think most Mormons badly underemphasize the condescension of God, but of course Protestants (and Catholics!) are, as you say, in a whole different ball game. They see a gap so large between God and man that it almost becomes meaningless. ‘Condescension’ is a misnomer when the states of God and man are so different that they can’t be compared.

  17. Ryan Bell on April 15, 2005 at 8:17 am

    I’m afraid I need someone to fill in some extra details on the gap between the KFD and the Snow simplification. In what way did the Discourse include more nuance than the later summary by President Snow?

  18. Nate Oman on April 15, 2005 at 9:32 am

    Ryan: The question is whether God the Father was once a man just like us or whether he was once a man like Jesus. Provided that we acknowledge some difference between the mortal Jesus and us (to say nothing of the pre-mortal Jesus and us) then the distinction may become potentially important. Blake Ostler, for example, has used this to argue that the popular model of exaltation as a process of becoming an independent God creating and ruling one’s own world is mistaken, but rather exaltation consists of joining the quorum of the Godhead as it were.

  19. Ryan Bell on April 15, 2005 at 10:14 am

    Thanks Nate. That’s an interesting set of differences.

  20. Kelly Knight on April 17, 2005 at 6:33 pm

    It seems to me that we fail to factor in the argument made by Abraham that there were many great and noble “intelligences” in the pre-mortal existence, and that perhaps the “chief” intelligence was Jehovah. It can be suggested that these intelligences gained some understanding and knowledge of God’s Plan of Happiness to a greater extent than others, and that in that process and acceptance, progressed along the path to “godhood” in the pre-mortal realm more quickly than others. Perhaps even to the extent that at least three of them actually reached “godhood” without the necessity of mortal existence: Jehovah, Michael, and whomever we now know as the Holy Spirit”.

    The condescension of God was, as we understand it, that Jehovah, who had obtained unto godhood in the premortal, came to earth to take upon himself the guilt of our sins, and to die a horrific and terrible death on the cross. That he is “God” allows him to then take up his body again, bringing to pass the resurrection.

    It also seems to me that each of us are divine in nature, the spirit offspring of God the Father, and thus possess within our souls the ability to become like him, or “god-like” in perfection, at some point along the way.

    Perhaps the Father followed the same path that Jehovah then followed, and we are following along the same path, but in a far distant track.

  21. annegb on April 18, 2005 at 6:41 am

    Kelly, I think you’re right on. Truman Madsen, as much as I know, is very emphatic with the point of view that God could have walked the same road that we are walking now, for instance, I heard him say, in person, maybe Heavenly Father was once in Special Interest (at the time the mostly divorced, but single somehow group of the church).

    It makes sense to me and doesn’t detract from God’s infallibity in the least.

    Plus, despite the fact that we know more than most of the world the real purpose of life, we are still pretty clueless. And it doesn’t matter, what matters is how we treat each other. IMHO