Monotheism and Mormonism

One of the most central and difficult issues of Christian theology is how to fit together a commitment to monotheism with a belief that Jesus is a divine being.  While we, as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have resolved some aspects of this in our own ways, we still have areas that are unclear when it comes to working out this theological knot.  While I’m aware that we are looking at scriptures and doctrines that represent ideas that have evolved over time, my hope today is to muse on what we currently believe as a community based on the scriptures and the teachings of Church leaders and try to work towards a better understanding of the issue (as much for myself as for any readers).

We have several competing commitments in our doctrine that complicate the issue of the Godhead and Jesus’s status in our theology, including a commitment to monotheism.  We are part of the Judeo-Christian religious family and Israelite theology committed itself to belief that there only existed one God—their God—known at various times as Yahweh/Jehovah/the Lord, Elohim, El Shaddai, and a few other names as well.  Think, for example, of the proclamation: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.”[1] This commitment to believing that there was one God passed on to Christianity, as indicated when Paul wrote that: “Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”[2] Given that we are rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition and accept the Bible as part of our canonical scriptures, we do continue to have a level of commitment to monotheism.

The second commitment is a belief that Jesus is a God.  The Gospel of John, for example, starts out with a poetic pronouncement that “the Word was God” and that “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.”[3]  While the New Testament isn’t as clear on the point, Book of Mormon is emphatic about this idea.  For example, when Jesus comes to visit after his resurrection, he proclaims that: “I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth, and have been slain for the sins of the world” (3 Nephi 11:14).  Abinadi (who gives us some of the most difficult passages about the Godhead) states that: “God himself should come down among the children of men, and take upon him the form of man, and go forth in mighty power upon the face of the earth” (Mosiah 13:34).  We also have several places in the Book of Mormon where the Son of God is also called the Eternal Father.[4]  In addition to all above, we have the more recent statement in The Living Christ: The Testimony of the Apostles, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that Jesus is “the Great Jehovah of the Old Testament,”[5] which signals that we believe that Jesus was Yahweh, the Holy One of Israel worshiped by the Israelites of the Hebrew Bible.  All of this lays the basis of a very high Christology, where Jesus is viewed as a God.

The third theological commitment is that we believe that there are multiple individuals who we view as being our God that are separate entities.  In his later years, the Prophet Joseph Smith became emphatic about this.  For example, he said that: “I have always declared God to be a distinct personage, Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, and that the Holy Ghost was a distinct personage and a Spirit: and these three constitute three distinct personages and three Gods.”[6]  He also made fun of Trinitarianism, calling it “three Heads & but one body” on one occasion,[7] and joking on another that “if they were to be stuffed into one person that would make a great [big] God.”[8]  On top of the three members of the Godhead, we also believe in a Heavenly Mother, adding another individual to the list of deities we believe in.[9]  All told, we have a few individuals that we view as being Gods in authority over us while believing that they are separate people.

In addition to these three theological commitments, we also believe in deification and multiple generations of Gods expanding back into eternities.  As President Lorenzo Snow succinctly put it: “As man now is, God once was: / As God now is, man may be.”[10]  He also added that: “You sisters … will become as great as your Mother [in Heaven], if you are faithful.”[11]  The implication is that not only are there four beings that we regard as our Gods, but there are a limitless number of gods beyond them in an ever-expanding family of divine beings.

The Church has made some efforts at bridging various parts of our theology about Jesus and God together.  Most notable among these is the 1916 document “The Father and the Son,” which worked to explain how Jesus Christ takes on the role of our Eternal Father (creator of the earth, adoptive father to those who follow the gospel, and stand-in for God the Father using divine investiture on occasion) and differentiates it somewhat from the way in which God the Father is our Father (the father of our spirits).  That discussion forms the basis of how Jeffrey R. Holland reconciles Book of Mormon statements like Abinadi’s teachings about the Father and the Son with modern Church doctrine in Christ and the New Covenant and how the Church has chosen to do so multiple times within the last month’s materials of the “Come, Follow Me” curriculum.  What we haven’t been as good about, at least as far as I have found, is reconciling the latter three of the four theological commitments I discussed above with the first—monotheism.

One basic approach that has been taken to render Mormonism marginally monotheistic is to limit the focus of our worship to one individual or concept as our God.  The key scripture used to justify this approach is Paul’s statement that “there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist.”[12]  Eugene England noted that this has been used as “the basic scriptural text for the shift in perspective which makes it possible to talk about many gods, of ascending spheres of power and intelligence, and then, without contradiction, to turn around and talk of one God, our God … despite the context of this scripture, which is a discussion by Paul of belief in idols,” and many Church leaders “have used it as a brief explanation of how it is possible to be both a Christian polytheist (technically a henotheist) and a monotheist.”[13]  In essence, Paul’s text has been used by Latter-day Saints to acknowledge that there are many divine beings out there, but only one that we regard as our God.

This line of thinking can logically be applied to the leading figure of the Godhead, God the Father.  Paul’s text does state, after all, that “there is one God, the Father.”  It is to God the Father that we pray and look to as the father of our spirits and the divine architect of the Plan of Salvation.  When Elder Bruce R. McConkie went to BYU to shut down a charismatic professor’s efforts to encourage people to worship Jesus, he (in his heavy-handed style) condemned the idea and proclaimed that: “We do not worship the Son, and we do not worship the Holy Ghost.  I know perfectly well what the scriptures say about worshipping Christ and Jehovah, but they are speaking in an entirely different sense—the sense of standing in awe and being reverentially grateful to him who has redeemed us.  Worship in the true and saving sense is reserved for God the first, the Creator.”  He argued this on the grounds that Jesus serves the Father, does His will, worked out his salvation by worshiping the Father, etc.[14]  This approach makes sense in many ways, but there are difficulties when viewed through the lens of the Book of Mormon and current Church teachings.

The primary difficulty is that Jesus the Christ is proclaimed to be the God of Israel and the Great Jehovah, placing him in a position of being, in a few major senses, our God.  For all of Elder McConkie’s hand-waving, the role of Jesus as the God of Israel and (in some respects) our Eternal Father is hard to dismiss in deciding who we worship in the true sense.  While we, as Latter-day Saints, still regard Jesus as a subordinate god to God the Father, it does not negate the fact that we regard Jesus as our God in some significant ways.

The result of regarding both God the Father and Jesus the Christ as our Gods (along with the Holy Spirit and Heavenly Mother) and the desire to reconcile our monotheistic roots with our polytheism (or henotheism) has led, at times, to abstracting the idea of God to a more nebulous or council-based idea.  Elder Orson Pratt, for example, argued in favor of regarding the power or attributes embodied by God the Father as the true God we worship rather than any individual who have achieved godhood.[15]  This was strenuously opposed by President Brigham Young (who had some interesting ideas about who to regard as God that Pratt opposed in turn).[16] While Pratt’s ideas never really gained traction in the Church, they do represent an effort to solve the difficult puzzle of reconciling monotheism with our belief in multiple deities.

A more common approach, however, is to regard the Godhead as a collective council as our God.  The Book of Mormon is replete with statements that God the Father, Jesus the Christ, and the Holy Spirit are “one Eternal God.”[17]  We also have the Jesus in the Gospel of John making the statement that: “the Father and I are one,” and praying that his disciples “may be one, as we are one.”[18]  These two points are brought together to make the point that, though the Godhead is three individuals who serve different functions (and therefore the term used in John to “be one” is not a oneness of personage, but a oneness of unity in other ways), they are unified in purpose and action to the point that any individual in the Godhead can be regarded as our God and that they are, as a group, our God (something that Terryl Givens has noted is similar to what has been called social Trinitarianism).[19]  While this does make some senses of the idea that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit act together in oneness as One God, it still fails to negate the fact that there are multiple deities in our Godhead, compromising our monotheism.

How do we solve this puzzle?  Perhaps, moving forward, we just shrug off the need to hold to monotheism, regarding previous expressions of the need for monotheism (including those in the scriptures) as having been made with limited light and understanding.  Perhaps we more thoroughly embrace Elder McConkie’s henotheistic view about God the Father being the only individual we truly worship as our God and rethink how we view Jesus a bit.  Perhaps we just move forward with the stats quo, leaving the details of the exact nature of the Godhead on the shelf for a future day while doing our best to live our religion in the here and now.  Regardless of the path forward we take theologically, it will involve some compromise.  For the time being, we seem to be in a similar situation to the pre-Nicean Christians in working out the theological puzzle of how to fit together a commitment to monotheism with a belief that Jesus is a divine being.

I’ve gone well over the amount of time and space I usually aim for.  Let’s hear from you.  What do you think?  Which approach makes the most sense to you?  Is there an approach that you feel works better that I didn’t discuss here?

 

Footnotes:

[1] Deuteronomy 6:4, NRSV.

[2] 1 Corinthians 8:5-6, NRSV.

[3] John 1-15, NRSV.

[4] See, for example, Mosiah 3:8; Mosiah 15:1-9; Alma 11:38-39; Ether 3:14.

[5] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/2000/04/the-living-christ-the-testimony-of-the-apostles-the-church-of-jesus-christ-of-latter-day-saints?lang=eng

[6] Joseph Smith discourse 16 June 1844, Nauvoo Illinois.  Cited in Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (SLC: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2007), 41-42, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/teachings-joseph-smith/chapter-2?lang=eng.

[7] “Account of Meeting, circa 16 February 1841, as Reported by William P. McIntire,” p. [12], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed May 4, 2020, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/account-of-meeting-circa-16february-1841-as-reported-by-williamp-mcintire/2

[8] Joseph Smith discourse 11 June 1843, Wilford Woodruff Diary, Cook, Lyndon W.. The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 4244-4248). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.

[9] See David L. Paulsen and Martin Pulido, “‘A Mother There”: A Survey of Historical Teachings about Mother in Heaven,” BYU Studies 50:1, https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/mother-there-survey-historical-teachings-about-mother-heaven.  Also, “Mother in Heaven,” Gospel Topics Essay, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/mother-in-heaven?lang=eng. I am aware that some contend that our Heavenly Mother is the Holy Spirit, but that’s a discussion beyond the scope of what I’m aiming for here.

[10] Cited in Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Lorenzo Snow (SLC, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ), https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/teachings-of-presidents-of-the-church-lorenzo-snow/chapter-5-the-grand-destiny-of-the-faithful?lang=eng.

[11] “The Grand Destiny of Man”,  Millennial Star, 22 August 1901, p. 247-248.

[12] 1 Corinthians 8:5-6, NRSV.

[13] Eugene England, “The Weeping God of Mormonism,” Dialogue a Journal of Mormon Thought 35, no. 1 (Spring 2002): 63-80, http://eugeneengland.org/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/2002_e_001.pdf.

[14] Bruce R. McConkie, “Our Relationship with God,” 2 March 1982, https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/bruce-r-mcconkie/relationship-lord/.

[15] See, for example, Orson Pratt, The Seer 1:24, where he writes: “All these Gods are equal in power, in glory, in dominion, and in the possession of all things; each possesses a fulness of truth, of knowledge, of wisdom, of light, of intelligence; each possess a fulness of truth, of knowledge, of wisdom, of light, of intelligence; each governs himself in all things by his own attributes, and is filled with love, goodness, mercy, and justice towards all.  The fullness of all these attributes is what constitutes God. … When we worship the Father, we do not merely worship His person, but we worship the truth which dwells in His person. … It is truth, light, and love, that we worship and adore; these are the same in all worlds; and as these constitute God, He is the same in all worlds.”

[16] See John G. Turner, Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012), 232-236 for a discussion of their disagreements.

[17] See, for example, Alma 11:44; Mosiah 15:4-5; Testimony of the Three Witnesses.

[18] John 10:30, 17:11.

[19] Terryl L. Givens, Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity (Oxford, Oxford University Press: 2015), 74.  See, for one example of this doctrine B. H. Roberts, The Mormon Doctrine of Deity: the Roberts-Van Der Donckt Discussion (Salt Lake City: The Deseret News, 1903), 168-169, where he states: “By appointment, any One or Three of the unit Intelligences may become the embodiment and representative of all the power and glory and authority of the sum total of the Divine Intelligences; in which capacity either the One or the Three would no longer stand only in their individual characters as Gods, but they would stand also as the sign and symbol of all that is divine—and would act as and be to all intents and purposes The One God.”

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