Harold Bloom, the self-proclaimed “unbelieving Jew”1 and distinguished scholar, recently characterized Joseph Smith as “a religious genius,” stating that the religion Smith founded “is truly a biblical religion.”2 More recently, Carl Mosser has written concerning the doctrine of that religion: “Mormonism’s heresies are legion; they are also very interesting and often unique in the history of heresy.”3 Biblical or heretical? Of these two reactions, the charge of heresy has been far more common, especially among conservative Christian critics, who consistently draw a circle that leaves Joseph’s Mormonism out.
No wonder, then, the interest in 1974 when Truman Madsen published an article in BYU Studies with the half-jesting title “Are Christians Mormon?”4 The title was an obvious play on the often repeated and too familiar question “Are Mormons Christian?”5 It was only a half-jest because, as Madsen puts it, “In our time there are renowned and influential spokesmen and writers in all the major wings of Christendom—and they are not on the periphery but at the center—who are defending and teaching what, a century ago, Joseph Smith almost alone taught.”6
Now that Latter-day Saints and others7 have commemorated the two-hundredth birthday of Joseph Smith (1805–1844), founding prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it is time to reassess how far Christian thinkers have come in appropriating theological insights once owned uniquely, or nearly so, by Smith and his followers.
In undertaking this task thirty-one years ago, Madsen prefaced his findings with four cautions, which I repeat and endorse here:
First, tracing trends and movements and shifts is always a selective affair. Just as powerful as the movements I am going to chronicle are counter movements equally influential that could lead one to the conclusion that Christianity today has never been farther away from its original moorings. . . .
Second, terminology is deceptive. Men may speak similarly but mean and feel differently. And, as you know, the theological vocabulary is notoriously vague.
Third, the focus on belief is misleading because religion is much more than belief—it involves values, commitments, kinds of loyalty, and cultures.
Finally, there is . . . a tremendous chasm between what professional writers may say theologically, philosophically, and what actually penetrates to the grass roots. Between the theoretician and the layman there is an ocean.8
One more very important reminder: when it comes to Christian fundamentals—the divinity and lordship of Jesus Christ, his redemptive atonement, his resurrection, and our victory through him over sin and death—there is little to distinguish Joseph’s understandings from those of “orthodox” Christians. This point has often been made, most recently by Robert Millet in A Different Jesus? The Christ of the Latter-day Saints.9 And a final important reminder: Latter-day Saint views on many points of doctrine still differ, sometimes radically, from more traditional Christian views. This is true for even those doctrines toward which, as shown in this paper, there has been significant Christian convergence.
With these reminders noted, I examine here seven distinctive theological ideas attributed to Joseph Smith and generally accepted by Latter-day Saints, all of which have engendered the heresy charge: (1) the resumption of New Testament charismata and the reopening of the canon; (2) God as a personal and passible being; (3) a social model of the trinity; (4) deification; (5) the divine feminine; (6) God as eternally self-surpassing; and (7) postmortem evangelization. My threefold aim is to set out Joseph’s views on each of these topics, summarize divergent Christian views and criticisms of Joseph’s views, and spell out developments or trends in contemporary Christian theology that significantly converge in Joseph’s direction. My purpose is not to provide an exhaustive discussion of each of these seven developments, but simply to set them forth in sufficient detail to sustain my thesis that, on the occasion of the two-hundredth birthday of the uneducated “ploughboy of Palmyra,”10 his viewpoints on these once-theological-distinctives are winning increasing acceptance by influential non-LDS Christian thinkers. In light of this, I half-humorously repeat the question, “Are Christians Mormon?”
I. Resumption of New Testament Charismata and Reopening of the Canon
A. Joseph’s Views
Of all Joseph’s challenges to traditional Christian theology, none is more fundamental than his claim to direct revelation from God. This claim serves to ground all of Joseph’s additional claims. No natural or cultural explanations can adequately account for the range, depth, and unique synthesis of Joseph’s teachings. Even the most determined cultural reductionist must still, in the end, deal with Joseph’s claims to authority by divine revelation.11 Revelation is the rock of Latter-day Saint belief.12 The authoritativeness of the Bible for Christians generally hinges on a similar claim to its being God’s revealed word. As Richard Bushman explains:
Joseph aimed a question at the heart of the culture: Did Christians truly believe in revelation? If believers in the Bible dismissed revelation in the present, could they defend revelation in the past? . . . [And] if revelation in the present was so far out of the question that Joseph’s claims could be discounted without serious consideration, why believe revelation in the past?13
Joseph’s claim of new revelation is a challenge based on the Bible itself, a fact of which the Prophet was fully aware. When asked concerning the differences between Mormons and Christians, he responded, “We believe the Bible, and they do not.”14 His was a church alive with angelic messengers, the restoration of the priesthood, new revelation, and new scripture, all of which Joseph viewed as the essence of a true biblical religion. If the biblical canon is closed, Joseph argued, then “there is a great defect in the book, or else it would have said so.”15 Elsewhere he argued, “To say that God never said anything more to man than is there recorded [in the Bible], would be saying at once that we have at last received a revelation: for it must require one to advance thus far, because it is nowhere said in that volume by the mouth of God.”16
To those who deny the possibility of extrabiblical revelation, Joseph’s challenge is not based on argument but on testimony of his revelatory experiences. In setting out Joseph’s experiences, my focus is not on whether Joseph’s claims are true, but simply to make clear how those claims were understood by Joseph and his followers.
Joseph’s heavenly instruction began on a spring morning in 1820 when he retired to a grove of trees and, kneeling in prayer, he sought divine guidance in choosing a church. Joseph testified that he saw and heard and was instructed by the living God and Jesus Christ.17 The First Vision was a transcendent, tradition-shattering experience, yielding many profound insights. Later, Joseph was to write: “Could you gaze into heaven five minutes, you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject.”18 Joseph was privileged to have many such gazes. As a result, Latter-day Saints have greatly enlarged the Christian canon, adding 872 pages of inspired writ, wherein dramatic “thus saith the Lord” directives appear ninety-nine times.
Writers in the Book of Mormon such as Nephi (circa 550 BC) and Moroni (circa AD 400) explicitly reject the claim that God’s revelations would ever permanently cease.19 Joseph viewed the coming forth of the Book of Mormon as a divine harbinger that promised further revelations and greater spiritual gifts. In 1835, Joseph spoke of the Book of Mormon and its attendant fruits in language drawn from Christ’s parables:
Let us take the book of Mormon, which a man took and hid in his field, securing it by his faith, to spring up in the last days, or in due time; let us behold it coming forth out of the ground, which is indeed accounted the least of all seeds, but behold it branching forth, yea, even towering, with lofty branches, and God-like majesty, until it, like the mustard seed, becomes the greatest of all herbs; And it is truth, and it has sprouted and come forth out of the earth, and righteousness begins to look down from heaven; and God is sending down His powers, gifts and angels, to lodge in the branches thereof.20
Indeed, the Book of Mormon paved the way for future events of the Restoration to occur during Joseph’s own lifetime, including the organization of the Church itself, the restoration of the priesthood by angelic administration, the coming forth of the Book of Moses and the Book of Abraham, the building and dedication of temples, and the coming of additional angelic visitors.
The gifts of the Spirit were emphasized by Joseph very early on as an important part of the Restoration of the gospel. Though “all things which pertain to our religion are only appendages” to the mission and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Joseph saw spiritual gifts indelibly “in connection with these” principles.21 Furthermore, the restoration and enjoyment of these spiritual gifts were seen to be equal in measure to the outpourings of the Spirit in the days of the Apostles:
We believe in the gift of the Holy Ghost being enjoyed now, as much as it was in the Apostles’ days; . . . we also believe in prophecy, in tongues, in visions, and in revelations, in gifts, and in healings; and that these things cannot be enjoyed without the gift of the Holy Ghost. . . . We believe in it in all its fullness, and power, and greatness, and glory; but whilst we do this, we believe in it rationally, consistently, and scripturally, and not according to the wild vagaries, foolish notions and traditions of men.22
In 1831, Joseph received by revelation instruction to the early members of the Church concerning the gifts of the spirit. These gifts were a direct resumption of New Testament charismata: the faith to heal and be healed, the gift to speak in tongues, the working of miracles, the gift of prophecy, visions, and the discerning of spirits (D&C 46:17–26). Later, Joseph included the resumption of New Testament charismata as the one of the Church’s thirteen basic Articles of Faith (A of F 7). Latter-day Saints believe that these gifts have been restored in their fullness, and as they were a blessing to the lives of the primitive Saints, so are they now.
B. Christian Divergence and Criticisms
Joseph Smith’s claim to have translated a new book of scripture on par with the Bible caused an uproar in the Christian world from day one. To most of his opponents, Joseph’s “Golden Bible” was an instant sign of inexcusable sacrilege. Francis W. Kirkham related that one of the first recorded reactions to the Book of Mormon was a headline in the Rochester Daily Advertiser: “Blasphemy—Book of Mormon, Alias the Golden Bible.”23 The very notion of new scripture went directly against the long-standing conviction that the “deposit of faith” had been entrusted into the hands of the church in its completeness. When Warren Isham, a Presbyterian editor, received a copy of the Book of Mormon, he described it as “a volume of silly imposture” and denied that it could be “a New Revelation” since, in his words, “A new revelation was not needed. Everything essential to our salvation was already revealed.” Furthermore, “A new Revelation was not expected. . . . The Christian world had settled down into the belief that no further revelation would ever be made to mankind.” To these remarks Walter Norton concluded, “The strong rejection of Mormonism was directly linked to the unalterable orthodox doctrine that revelation had ceased in the apostolic era and that any professing new revelation must come with power to prove their divine mission.”24 In the meantime, then, the canon was deemed closed, and no new scripture was expected from the heavens.
In addition to affirming a closed canon, the Christian world had also by and large held to the belief that the New Testament charismata had ceased, that such gifts and miracles were unique to the days of the Apostles, and with their death so passed away the gifts of the Spirit. Adding further fuel to the fire, then, was Joseph’s pronouncement that the gifts of the Spirit had again been restored on the earth, in a way no less miraculous than on the day of Pentecost among the early apostles. This, too, was unwelcome news and grounds to deal dismissively with the Mormon problem. Around 1839 the Mormon William Seichrist was
excluded from the fellowship of this [the first regular Baptist] church [of the city of Alleghany, Alleghany county Pennsylvania] for embracing and maintaining a heresy,—to wit, doctrines peculiar to a late sect called Mormons or Latter-day Saints, that miracles can be wrought through the instrumentality of faith; that special revelations from God are now given to men; and that godly men are now endowed with the gift of prophecy.25
News against the Mormons spread quickly. The 1835 guidebook for Ohio immigrants warns the English against the “wildest fanaticism” called Mormonism, which espouses belief in miracles, new revelation, gifts of healing and of prophecy.26 The Christian world at that time wanted little to do with Smith’s fanciful notions of new scripture and heavenly revelations. And until recently, most Christian thinkers have held fast to this position.
C. Contemporary Christian Convergence
Recognition of Pentecostal and other charismatic movements in mainline denominations over the past century has given rise to new waves of thought in relation to the once dogmatic cessation of the charismata. It is currently a hot topic. Not only do many branches of thought consider, they insist on the need for spiritual gifts. This change has occurred remarkably fast. According to Jon Ruthven,
Perhaps no theological issue among evangelicals provokes more controversy than the role of ‘miraculous’ spiritual gifts in the contemporary church. A recent Christianity Today poll reported that according to their readers two of the ten most important theological issues today concern the cessation and operation of certain gifts of the Holy Spirit. Traditions from within the Reformation and the Scofield Reference Bible had produced a broad consensus among evangelicals and fundamentalists (outside of charismatic and Pentecostal believers) that so-called ‘extraordinary’ or miraculous gifts, such as prophecy, direct divine revelation, healings, miracles and the like, had ceased with the apostles or their writings (this view may be labeled cessationism).
Within the last two decades, however, that consensus has been rapidly eroding. A growing capability in biblical interpretation has weaned these groups from uncritical dependence upon the classic Reformation and Scofieldian traditions. Further, the amazing world-wide growth of the Pentecostal-charismatic movement and the increasing sophistication of its apologists have also prompted a widespread re-evaluation of cessationism.27
Within traditional Christianity, Pentecostalism has paved the way in this area. It is no surprise then that Pentecostals, like Mormons, have suffered persecution from other Christians along the way, though they continue to grow in numbers. The following observation of Ruthven could well describe Mormonism: “This growth did not occur without opposition. Historically, Pentecostalism has provoked controversy at almost every stage of its development. This has been true not merely because of its tradition-breaking forms of worship and practice,” but also “because the emergence of Pentecostalism was a tangible challenge to a theological position maintained in the church for centuries: that the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit had ceased.”28 Today, many Christian thinkers, such as Krister Stendahl, regret how Christianity has treated Pentecostals and feel that the consequences have been grave. “We in the mainline Protestant traditions,” Stendahl explains, “froze out our Pentecostal brethren in the nineteenth century. . . . As a result, the growth of the spirit, the soul, the church—the growth of everything—is stymied.”29
For Stendahl, the renewal of the New Testament charismata is indispensable in triggering a much needed, invigorating vitality into Christianity. Says Stendahl, “I believe that the charismatic movement represents ‘high-voltage’ religious experience—and heaven knows we need it in the churches. . . . And the tragedy of tragedies would be if the mainline churches threw out the charismatic stirrings now going on.”30
Yet many theologians are still hesitant in acknowledging and encouraging spiritual gifts because of their highly subjective nature and the danger of allowing such charismata to overshadow or distort God’s inclusive parcel of revelation in the Bible. W. D. Davies points out the danger, of which Protestants and Catholics alike are quite aware: “Progressive and continuous revelation is certainly an attractive notion, but equally certainly it is not without the grave danger of so altering or enlarging upon the original revelation as to distort, annul, and even falsify it.”31 Wayne Grudem presents similar cautions in relating the role of spiritual gifts in the church. He encourages “charismatics [to] go on using the gift of prophecy,” but cautions that its use should never be confused with or considered equal to the biblical witness. To add balance, he invites those holding to cessationism to “think again about those arguments for the cessation of certain gifts” to allow for a healthy use of the gift of prophecy in the church.32
The emergence and embrace of spiritual gifts on the grassroots level of Christianity reflects a thirsting for a closer, two-way relationship with God and the confirmation that he, through his Holy Spirit, will respond to humankind through the generous outpouring of his gifts. As much as some Christians fear the dangers inherent in spiritual gifts, others fear more how the church would manage to survive without them. According to Stendahl, “High-voltage ecstatic enthusiasm is an important part of total Christian community in any time in any place. Of course, such enthusiasm has risks—everything has.” If nothing else, Stendahl sees a highly pragmatic need for the charismata in today’s churches: “Our flashlight battery voltage isn’t strong enough to fight drugs [and other challenges] the way the high-voltage, charismatic experience does.”33
As we have seen, inherent in the fears of the resumption of New Testament charismata is the adverse way in which such a resumption might affect the scriptural canon. The notions of canon and continuing revelation are no doubt inextricably linked. And recently canon studies has become a very dynamic field. James Sanders writes of the barrier, which is increasingly being breached, to the idea of an open canon:
The quest for closure spawned a corresponding quest for lists, or what could be construed as lists, in ancient Jewish literature outside the Tanak: Sirach, Second Maccabees, Jubilees, Philo, Josephus, and Luke. Similarly, work on the New Testament canonization process looked to “lists” in Tertullian, Eusebius, the Muratorian Fragment, Athanasius’s Easter Letter, etc.34 Such lists were taken to indicate closure for all of Judaism, or all of Christianity, instead of reflecting the distinctive purposes of a particular school or faction at a specific time. Ancient lists, or perceived lists, that contradicted or failed to support eventual official canons could be ignored as uninformed or irrelevant to the quest. Even after the discovery of the Nag Hammadi documents, the Judaean Desert Scrolls, and many New Testament Greek papyri, the consensus tended to hold on despite questions raised by the new discoveries.35
Yet, “in the last forty years,” say Lee M. McDonald and James Sanders, “interest has been growing not only in the origins of the biblical canon but also in its development, continuing viability, and future as a fixed collection of sacred writings.”36
Certainly much of the impetus of this movement has been caused by the ancient document explosion of the last half of the twentieth century. These new discoveries include about eight hundred manuscripts37 recovered from the vicinity of Qumran alone. While greatly increasing our knowledge of the ancient world, the Qumran texts, as Sanders notes, have proven to make the question of canonicity more complex. Indeed one scholar proposes, “The biblical scrolls are of central importance for the way we think about the Bible, and that they require us to update our way of thinking about it both historically and theologically.”38 Furthermore, “The second half of the twentieth century witnessed a strong renewal of interest in and research on the so-called New Testament Apocrypha.”39
The significance of the Qumran texts in regards to canon is twofold. The first is ably stated by James VanderKam:
The thesis I would like to defend regarding the second temple period is that while there were authoritative writings, and these were at times gathered into recognizable groupings (e.g., Law, Prophets, Others), the category of revealed literature was not considered a closed and fixed one, at least not for the type of Judaism for which we now have the most evidence—the people of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Essenes according to most scholars). This is in line with their documented belief that revelation was not confined to the distant past but continued in their time and fellowship. About the Teacher of Righteousness it is said that to him “God made known all the mysteries of the words of His servants the Prophets” (1QpHab VII, 4–5). Regardless whether that gift extended to others, the text is clear that revelation continued at least in the Teacher’s time. Whether others who did not belong to the Qumran community’s persuasion would have agreed that divine disclosures occurred in the present we do not know—with the exception, of course, of the group of Jews who followed Jesus of Nazareth.40
Thus, “at the beginning of the Common Era we cannot speak of a ‘canon’ in the sense of a well-defined number of holy writings—at least not for Judaism as a whole.”41 Secondly, according to Adam S. van der Woude,
Instead of assuming a gradual development from pluriformity to uniformity in the textual tradition of the Old Testament, as has been postulated by Albrektson, E. Ulrich and others, we should consider another possibility: that a far-reaching uniformity of textual tradition existed in the religious circles around the Temple of Jerusalem well before 70 CE alongside a pluriform tradition elsewhere in Palestine, with both traditions being exemplified by the Qumran biblical texts.42 This explains in simple fashion why the textual tradition supported by the Pharisees, who survived the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, could almost abruptly gain the field after 70 CE. The Pharisaic conviction that the Holy Spirit had withdrawn from Israel since the days of Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi excluded appeal to any later divine inspiration, thereby entailing a shift from authority outside Scripture to Scripture alone. This development gradually led to the canonization of Holy (Hebrew) Scripture as God’s literally inspired word, and did not admit of various diverging textual recensions. But the situation at Qumran was different: since the community knew its own divinely-inspired authorities, pre-eminently the Teacher of Righteousness, the need to replace textual pluriformity by uniformity was not urgent.43
In regards to the “strong renewal of interest in and research on the so-called New Testament Apocrypha,”44 at least one scholar has proposed completing work on The Complete New Testament containing the entire library of early Christian texts.45
Many scholars today are reexamining whether closing the canon was, in fact, the proper thing to do. As noted above, Joseph Smith thought it strange that the canon had been regarded closed since the Bible itself never mentions this closure. Reasoning along similar lines, James Barr remarks that the notion of a finite, strictly defined biblical canon is itself an extrabiblical conclusion: “For evidence about what was within the canon, one had to go outside the canon itself” since there was “no scriptural evidence to decide what were the exact limits of the canon.”46 Similarly, John Barton refers us to “the curse of the canon”—the oft-repeated saying British scholar Christopher Evans used in describing the downsides of having a closed canon. According to Evans, says Barton, “It was a fateful day when the Church decided to rule a line under the last book to gain entry to the Bible, and to declare the canon of Scripture closed.”47 Both Barr and Barton agree that the modern notion of a cemented-closed canon does not cohere with how the earliest Christians viewed their own collection of scripture.
Perhaps the most candid discussion of how the changing face of canon studies affects the role of canon today is the final chapter of Lee M. McDonald’s The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon. Here in his “Final Remarks,” McDonald poses honest, open-ended questions concerning the long-held notion of a closed canon:
The first question, and the most important one, is whether the church was right in perceiving the need for a closed canon of scriptures.48 If the term “Christian” is defined by the examples and beliefs passed on by earliest followers of Jesus, then we must at least ponder the question of whether the notion of a biblical canon is necessarily “Christian.” They did not have such canons as the church possesses today, nor did they indicate that their successors should draw them up.49
Second, one must ask whether in fact the present biblical canon has not legitimized practices that the churches today uniformly reject, namely, the practice of slavery or the inferiority and subjugation of . . . [women]. . . . 50
Third, did such a move toward a closed canon of scriptures ultimately (and unconsciously) limit the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the church? . . . Does God act in the church today and by the same Spirit? On what biblical or historical grounds has the inspiration of God been limited to the written documents that the Church now calls its Bible?51
Fourth, in regard to the OT, should the church be limited to an OT canon to which Jesus and his first disciples were clearly not limited?52
Fifth, if apostolicity is still a legitimate criterion for the canonicity of the NT literature, . . . should the church today continue to recognize the authority of . . . [the] nonapostolic literature of the NT? If the Spirit’s activity was not considered to be limited to apostolic documents, . . . can we and should we make arguments for the inclusion of other literature in the biblical canon? 53
Sixth, one must surely ask about the appropriateness of tying the church of the twentieth century to a canon that emerged out of the historical circumstances in the second to the fifth centuries CE. How are we supposed to make the experience of that church absolute for all time? . . .54
Finally, if the Spirit inspired only the written documents of the first century, does that mean that the same Spirit does not speak today in the church about matters that are of significant concern, for example, the use of contraceptives, abortion, liberation, ecological irresponsibility, equal rights, euthanasia, nuclear proliferation, global genocide, economic and social justice, and so on?55
McDonald and other scholars continue to work through these types of pointed questions, endeavoring to consider carefully the issue. On one hand, says McDonald, “all contemporary churches have essentially closed their biblical canons claiming that God has spoken through prophets of old and they wrote down what was communicated to them.” On the other hand, however, “there is no way to argue biblically or theologically that the biblical canon is closed if there is still the activity of God among us. If this is still the age of the Spirit, there is little argument theologically to say that God has stopped speaking.”56
The cautious, forward movements of Christian theology and scholarship toward an expanded view of the workings of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and a reworked understanding of canonical dynamics certainly lean (however warily) in the direction of Joseph Smith’s admittedly radical throwing open of the heavens. Few Christian scholars are so brazen as to go so far. However one chooses to view Joseph Smith’s claim to have received new revelation and scripture, one thing is clear: Joseph never felt the need to apologize for adding new scripture to the canon. To Mormons, the Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price (each containing ancient records) make clear that ancient documents outside of the Bible do exist that have substantial truths to share in shedding greater light upon God’s dealing among men for their salvation through the mediation of Jesus Christ. The basic premise of the Book of Mormon—that a small group of Israel who had their own scripture and prophets existed apart from the Jews at Jerusalem—is not as anomalous today as it was two centuries ago when Joseph first brought forth the Book of Mormon. The revelations of the Doctrine and Covenants, those received by Joseph Smith in these days, demonstrate a profound belief that God has meaningful things to say to humankind in our present age. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a church founded upon revelation—past, present, and future.
Joseph’s work anticipated the discoveries of ancient documents such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the renewed interest in New Testament charismata, and yet anticipates that God has many more such divine disclosures to bring forth for our knowledge—both “a voice of mercy from heaven [as in continuing divine revelation]; and a voice of truth out of the earth [as in ancient divinely inspired documents such as the Book of Mormon]” (D&C 128:19). No longer must Mormons entertain such hopes in total isolation from the rest of the Christian world.
II. God as Personal and Passible
A. Joseph’s Views
As Joseph Smith walked out of the grove of trees following his first supernal encounter with God the Father and God the Son, he announced an unqualified testimony that God is a person. Since that time, Mormonism has been distinguished by its belief in a Godhead of three separate persons.57 Conventional Christianity used the word “person”—and still does—in describing God, “but only in a most attenuated form, ascribing to Deity a consciousness, will, some kind of individuality, but denying the full-bodied characteristics of personality that we associate with the word.”58 John Sanders, in explaining the discrepancy between merely using the word and allowing the word its full expression has commented, “A person is not primarily an isolated cogito but an agent who acts, wills, plans, loves, creates, and values in relation to other persons.”59
Without the full characteristics associated with the word “person,” many question whether the God of traditional Christianity is capable of such agentive functions, particularly love. Charles Hartshorne articulated the problem in this manner:
What it comes to is that in retreating from popular anthropomorphism classical theology fell backward into an opposite error. Intent on not exaggerating the likeness of the divine and the human, they did away with it altogether, if one takes their statements literally. Using the word “love”, they emptied it of its most essential kernel, the element of sympathy, of the feeling of others’ feelings. It became mere beneficence, totally unmoved (to use their own word) by the sufferings or joys of the creatures. Who wants a friend who loves only in that sense?60
This theological axiom is known as impassibility, which means that God is “not capable of being affected or acted upon,” explained Van A. Harvey. “The presupposition of this attribution is the Greek idea that passibility involves potentiality, and potentiality, change.”61 T. E. Pollard articulated Hartshorne’s point, stating that ascribing to God the characteristics of immutability and impassibility “ends inevitably in the use of terms which are not supra-personal but sub-personal.”62 Thus, an impassible God is a sub-personal God.
Joseph’s First Vision revealed a God that is radically different from the impassible, unmoved mover of traditional Christianity. God is not only seeable, but also an approachable and extremely passible person.63 One of the great lessons of the First Vision is the simple fact that God responded. Joseph learned that God is cognizant of and closely engaged in the human predicament.64 The Prophet’s witness speaks powerfully for a God who is affected by human petition. Of his experience, Joseph concludes, “I had found the testimony of James to be true—that a man who lacked wisdom might ask of God, and obtain, and not be upbraided” (JS–H 1:26, alluding to James 1:5).
Joseph taught that believing in God’s passibility has profound influence on Christian living. The Lectures on Faith, compiled under Joseph’s direction, list mercy among the six attributes that man must believe God to possess in order to exercise faith in Him unreservedly. “For,” the Lectures teach, “without the idea of the existence of this attribute in the Deity, the spirits of the saints would faint” amid their tribulations. But when the existence of this attribute “is once established in the mind it gives life and energy to the spirits of the saints, believing that the mercy of God will be poured out upon them in the midst of their afflictions, and that he will compassionate them in their sufferings.”65 Joseph further viewed God’s acute passibility as the pattern that the Saints should emulate in their own lives. In personal correspondence, Joseph wrote, “Inasmuch as long-suffering, patience, and mercy have ever characterized the dealings of our heavenly Father towards the humble and the penitent, I feel disposed to copy the example, [and] cherish the same principles.”66
Joseph Smith viewed God above all else as a heavenly Father. Accordingly, God exhibits those same instinctive cultivating impulses of any loving father, feeling both the joy and pain of his children as he witnesses both their triumphs and failures; sadly, all too often God looks in genuine sadness upon the lamentable condition of our world. Yet Joseph taught that still God’s love remains constant:
But while one portion of the human race is judging and condemning the other without mercy, the Great Parent of the universe looks upon the whole of the human family with a fatherly care and paternal regard; He views them as His offspring, and without any of those contracted feelings that influence the children of men, causes “His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.”67
The scriptures that Joseph Smith brought forth are replete with testimony of God’s personal passibility. Enoch became an eyewitness of the Father’s loving vulnerability and of his sensitive and responsive nature, when he saw the God of heaven weep over the wickedness and suffering of his children (Moses 7:28–29, 32–33, 37).
LDS scripture also alludes to the passibility of God in the agony of Jesus’ atonement, consistent with a theopaschite view (that God suffers). The Book of Mormon speaks of the “condescension of God” wherein God himself “should be oppressed and afflicted,” ultimately to die for the sins of the world.68 In a prophetic foretelling of his mortal ministry, Alma (circa 120 BC) foretold that Christ would “go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind,” he would “take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people,” and he would “take upon him death” and infirmity, all so that “his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:11–12).
The passibility of God created a dynamic interplay of overture and response when the resurrected Lord appeared to a gathering of ancient Americans. When his visit was drawing to a close, he advised the multitude that he was leaving. But seeing the multitude in tears, the Lord instead tarried longer and consoled them with compassion and miraculous healings. Only when he saw that the multitude’s joy was full did he respond, “And now behold, my joy is full. And when he had said these words, he wept” (3 Ne. 17:1–25; emphasis added).
Throughout the Book of Mormon narrative, we see portrayed the tender and profound passibility of God the Son, who is in the express image of His Father’s person (Heb. 1:3). As Joseph taught, to see how the Son walks and acts among men is to see how the Father walks and acts.69
B. Christian Divergence and Criticisms
As with most doctrines espoused by traditional Christianity, belief in an impassible God developed through centuries of thought. That the doctrine is foreign to the Hebrew prophets is attested by Abraham Heschel, who noted, “Quite obviously in the biblical view, man’s deeds may move [God], affect Him, grieve Him or, on the other hand, gladden and please Him. This notion that God can be intimately affected, that He possesses not merely intelligence and will, but also pathos, basically defined the prophetic consciousness of God.”70
However, for the influential Jewish philosopher Philo, the passible God of the prophets is far too human. For Philo, the scriptural denial of the likeness of God to any other being implies a complete lack of emotion. Why, then, does Moses speak “of His jealousy, His wrath, His moods of anger, and the other emotions similar to them, which he describes in terms of human nature?” To this Philo replied, “He hoped to be able to eradicate the evil, namely by representing the Supreme Cause as dealing in threats and oftentimes showing indignation and implacable anger. . . . For this is the only way in which the fool can be admonished.”71 Thus, scripture describes the divine Being in human terms in order to educate man. Philo’s interpretation of biblical anthropopathy would become standard in Jewish and Christian literature.
After the close of the apostolic era, the idea of an impassible God surfaces again in the writings of the early Church Fathers. However, for the Fathers, impassibility was compatible with emotional states such as love, mercy, and compassion. Their primary purpose in describing God as impassible was to “distance God the creator from the gods of mythology.”72 For the Fathers, the God of Christians is impassible in that he is free from passions exhibited by the pagan gods. For them, God is obviously not full of debauchery and corruption as are Dionysius, Apollo, Persephone, Aphrodite, and Zeus. Nevertheless, by the early twelfth century divergence from passibility was widespread; St. Anselm stated what for centuries to come would be axiomatic of God, namely that he is “not afflicted with any feeling of compassion for sorrow.”73
In proclaiming God to be personal and passible to the extent that he did, Joseph contradicted centuries of Christian thought. Indeed, Christianity had thought of God as an impassible, immutable, omnipotent will for so long that, as John Sanders comments, “We now take this way of thinking for granted.”74 Thus, when Joseph declared God to be a passible person, commentators described the new Church and its doctrine to be “monstrous and absurd.”75 As one writer jeered, “Mormonism tells you that a man is our God.”76 The attack on Joseph’s “anthropomorphic” God continued throughout the nineteenth century. For example, a magazine article published in 1850 called the idea that God does “possess passions” as not only “retrogressive” but profane.77 The article concluded that “[God] possesses the body and passions of a man, so his relations to his creatures are purely human.” Thus, a doctrine “stated as an absurdity in the fourth century, the Mormons embrace as an axiom in the nineteenth.”78
C. Contemporary Christian Convergence
Since the writing of the above 1850 article, the Christian world has experienced a theological shift unparalleled in its history. This shift began in England in the 1890s as a steady stream of English theologians began to advocate a doctrine of divine suffering.79 These theologians included Andrew Fairbairn who wrote, “Theology has no falser idea than that of the impassibility of God.”80 In fact, in 1924 the Archbishops’ Doctrine Commission directed a study into the English theological interest in the suffering of God.81 In 1986, Ronald Goetz described this shift as the “rise of a new orthodoxy.”82
Listing every thinker or theologian since Joseph’s day to ascribe to God the full-bodied characteristics of personhood, most especially passibility, would not only be impractical, but impossible. The list crosses all denominational and national boundaries.83 A brief listing of some of the most distinguished include Berdyaev, Tennant, Hartshorne, Brunner,84 Aulén, Barth, Bonhoeffer, Cobb, Cone, Küng, Moltmann,85 Reinhold Niebuhr, Pannenberg, Ruether, Temple, Teilhard, and Unamuno.86 Moltmann explains the downfall of classical Christianity thus:
Christian theology acquired Greek philosophy’s ways of thinking in the Hellenistic world; and since that time most theologians have simultaneously maintained the passion of Christ, God’s Son, and the deity’s essential incapacity for suffering—even though it was at the price of having to talk paradoxically about “the sufferings of the God who cannot suffer”.87 But in doing this they have simply added together Greek philosophy’s “apathy” axiom and the central statements of the gospel. The contradiction remains—and remains unsatisfactory.88
“Just as significant” as the list of contemporary proponents of divine passibility, according to Goetz, “is the fact that even those theologians who have not embraced modern theopaschism have failed to develop a creative restatement of the older dogma” (von Hilgel and Thomas Weinandy being, perhaps, the significant exceptions).89 Yet, even in repudiating a passible God, Weinandy effectively states my thesis:
From the dawn of the Patristic period Christian theology has held as axiomatic that God is impassible—that is, He does not undergo emotional changes of state, and so cannot suffer. Toward the end of the nineteenth century a sea change began to occur within Christian theology such that at present many, if not most, Christian theologians hold as axiomatic that God is passible, that He does undergo emotional changes of states, and so can suffer.90
In 1959 Daniel Day Williams described the growing belief that God suffers as a “structural shift in the Christian mind.”91 In a similar vein, M. Sarot writes, “During the present century the idea that God is immutable and impassible has slowly but surely given way to the idea that God is sensitive, emotional and passionate. . . . By now the rejection of the ancient doctrine of divine impassibility has so much become a theological commonplace, that many theologians do not even feel the need to argue for it.”92 Finally, Moltmann is so convinced of the rejection of divine impassibility that he writes, “The doctrine of the essential impassibility of the divine nature now seems finally to be disappearing from the Christian doctrine of God.”93 If twentieth-century theologians were not influenced by Joseph Smith’s revelations, “What has brought about such a radical reconception of God? How, in only one hundred years, has the Christian theological tradition of almost two thousand years, so readily and so assuredly, seemingly been overturned?”94 Goetz finds four primary reasons95 for this fundamental shift in thinking:
1. The decline of Christendom. From Augustine’s “theocratic hope that the church as the earthly City of God would gradually come to rule the world to the liberal dream that the Kingdom of God would be established on earth through the liberal’s persuasive evangelism, Christians have been united in the conviction that God’s eternal rule is confirmed by world events.”96 According to Goetz, this Christian triumphalism is becoming increasingly rare. While Christians continue to avow the reality of God, many are unable to recognize and affirm his sovereign lead in the events of history.
2. The rise of democratic aspirations. These democratic aspirations have contributed to the problem of belief in an impassible, immutable God. For if God is conceived of as an unmoved mover—the unaffected source of the world—he is irrelevant to what free men and women do in the world.
3. The problem of suffering and evil. As the traditional belief in a world that was created out of nothing about six thousand years ago with all species intact began to give way to an evolutionary view of creation, many twentieth-century theologians found belief in an impassible, immutable God to be inconceivable. It was indeed unacceptable to believe in a God who impassibly constructed a world through billions of years of slow and painful evolution driven by the principle of “the survival of the fittest.” The brutalities of World War I gave further cause for rethinking the doctrine of God. It appeared that humanity could be more brutal than the beasts, that human moral progress was a charade, and that evil and suffering were a fundamental part of human existence. Talk about an impassible, immutable God was for many simply inconceivable. Warren McWilliams has suggested that “a recognition of divine suffering may be an intrinsic part of a comprehensive Christian response to the theodicy issue.”97
4. The scholarly reappraisal of the Bible.98 Goetz asserts that “biblical interpretation is no longer bound by patristic and scholastic presuppositions about the divine aseity, nor is it bound by the deistic assumptions of liberal scholars. Some find the God of the Bible not to their taste, but today few scholars would disagree that the God of the Bible is a personal, passionate, jealous, concerned, and suffering God.”99
This also applies to the biblical perception of God’s possession of a human form. Many scholars now believe that the Genesis pronouncement of man being created in the “image of God” was first understood as a reference to the visible similitude of the human body to the form of God.100 This corresponds to the early Hebrew view of an anthropomorphic God, but “as Judaism collided with the Hellenistic world many Jews became more consciously uncomfortable with the idea that God might possess a physical form and that a human was in some way similar to this form. Hence, the image of God was reinterpreted to mean other immaterial qualities which humanity shared in common with his creator.”101
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the worldwide acceptance of a passible God is that it came without the councils, name-calling, and bloodshed that have characterized significant doctrinal shifts of the past. This peaceful and almost imperceptible change is described by Goetz:
No one of whom I am aware has quite said that the rejection of the ancient doctrine of divine impassibility has become a theological commonplace. (Yet when one ventures to make this claim in the presence of theologians, one is invariably met with a slightly surprised expression, followed by an assenting, “Of course.”)102
It is this anthropomorphic and anthropopathic God of the Bible that Joseph taught long before it was reaccepted by Christianity.103 Thus, Harold Bloom writes,
I think transumptively of the Prophet Joseph’s God when I read the text of the Yahwist, or J Writer, author of the earliest tales of the Pentateuch. The Yahweh who closes Noah’s ark with his own hands, descends to make on-the-ground inspections of Babel and Sodom, and who picnics with two angels under Abram’s terebinth trees at Mamre is very close, in personality and dynamic passion, to the God of Joseph Smith, far closer than to the Platonic-Aristotelian divinity of Saint Augustine and Moses Maimonides.104
While Joseph did find this personal, dynamic, and passible God implicit in the Bible, his declarations rest on God’s self-revelatory manifestations to him, person to person. Mormons rejoice in seeing other Christians moving more and more away from the “unblinking cosmic stare,”105 that is the philosophers’ god, toward the personal, passible God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
III. A Social Model of the Godhead
A. Joseph’s Views
In 1842, as part of his response to a Chicago newspaperman’s inquiry as to what Mormons believed, Joseph penned the Articles of Faith. Though not intended as such, they remain the closest Mormon analog to a creed. The first of these articles affirms Mormon belief in the New Testament Godhead: “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.” Joseph’s revelations repeatedly declare that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God” (see 2 Ne. 31:21; Mosiah 15:2–5; Alma 11:44; 3 Ne. 11:27, 36; Mor. 7:7). But in his later noncanonized discourse, he explicitly stated that the Godhead consists of “three distinct personages and three Gods.”106 Starting from the premise that three distinct personages make up the Godhead, Joseph understood their oneness or unity to consist of something other than metaphysical or psychical identity.107 Rather, Joseph saw their oneness as a unity of heart, mind, purpose, and mutual indwellingness. Joseph’s Book of Mormon translation emphasized their oneness with words such as one “doctrine,” “judgment,” “baptism,” and “record” (2 Ne. 31:21; Alma 11:44; 3 Ne. 11:27; 3 Ne. 11:36).
Seeing the Godhead as three distinct personages in no way diminishes their collective unity of mind, glory, and power, as repeatedly declared in the Lectures on Faith and LDS-specific and biblical scripture.108 Joseph taught, “everlasting covenant was made between three personages [Father, Son and Holy Ghost] before the organization of this earth.”109 In short, the persons of the trinity are bound by genetics, by “everlasting covenant,” and by “the same fullness” or set of divine attributes. Moreover, there is a synergetic bond between the Father and his Only Begotten, which is altogether peculiar to them. This bond was forged not only out of their oneness of mind and genetic110 relationship but also out of their interdependent missions. As the Father needed the Son to accomplish his purposes, so did the Son need the Father for direction, power, and exaltation. By their acts of mutual service, each fulfilled, and was fulfilled, in the other. Hence, Jesus’ prayer: “Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee.”111 In addition to his testimony of direct experience, Joseph defends such a view biblically, “I want to read the text to you myself [John 17:21]—‘I am agreed with the Father and the Father is agreed with me, and we are agreed as one.’ The Greek shows that it should be agreed.”112 Thus, Joseph explicitly rejected the traditional belief that the Godhead, or trinity, was comprised of a single being.113
In his revelations, the word “God” has dual meaning; it designates the divine community as well as each individual divine person. In order to avoid misunderstanding, it is imperative to keep this dual use of the word “God” in mind. When Joseph declares there are “three Gods,” he means that there are three distinct personages, each of whom is divine. When he affirms that there is “one God,” he means that there is one perfectly united mutually indwelling divine community.114
Joseph held and his successors hold to a “one perfectly united, mutually indwelling divine community” model of the unity of Godhead rather than a “one metaphysical substance” model.115 Thus, the Latter-day Saints do not see the doctrine of the trinity as a mystery in the sense of a doctrine that is incomprehensible, but in the sense of a spiritual truth that was once hidden but now re-revealed through Joseph Smith.
B. Christian Divergence and Criticisms
Except for the claim to continuous revelation and the reopening of the canon, perhaps no other Mormon doctrine has received as much criticism as the conception and formulation of the trinity by Joseph Smith and his successors.
Speaking of the Latter-day Saint model of the trinity, Evangelical Craig Blomberg has written:
If we are prepared to accept as inspired something that is so divergent from all other religions, what would ever disqualify an idea from being a true revelation from God? . . . Which is more likely—that everyone in the entire modern world was wrong and Joseph Smith got it right or that the tenets of monotheism shared by Jews, Christians, Muslims and other theists are right and Mormonism is wrong?116
Such criticism has been ongoing since Joseph Smith first declared that God the Father and Jesus Christ had appeared to him as two distinct personages in the spring of 1820 (JS–H 1:15–17). In 1849, T. W. P. Taylder, a noted British theologian, asserted that Mormon doctrine was tritheistic because it denies the “unity of the Godhead.”117 Recently, Stephen E. Parrish asserted in The New Mormon Challenge that the LDS trinity is a form of tritheism.118 In fact, both the United Methodist Church and Catholic Church have recently declared that they will not accept Mormon baptisms as valid, citing in large part the Mormon doctrine of the trinity.119 One Christian polemical essay “seeks to expose the heresy that exists in Mormon Doctrine as it pertains to the Godhead,” stating, “Throughout history many movements have sought to diminish God and define him in rational, human terms. So it is in the Mormon Doctrine of the Godhead. Holding the God that is revealed in Scripture to ‘natural’ standards creates a god that is not worthy of our praise.”120
C. Contemporary Christian Convergence
Despite such avid criticism, many Christian thinkers are showing a renewed interest in Joseph’s kind of trinitarian thought. The social analogy of the Trinity reasserts the religious teaching that the Godhead is composed of three substantively separate and distinct persons121 who are perfectly one in thought, word, intention, and action. Essentially, social trinitarianism begins with the construct of a “divine society” and then bases the oneness of the Persons in the harmony and union of activity of that society.122 Its methodology is explained by Moltmann: “We are beginning with the trinity of the Persons and shall then go on to ask about the unity.”123 Clark Pinnock articulates social trinitarianism as a “transcendent society or community of three personal entities. Father, Son and Spirit are the members of a divine community, unified by common divinity and singleness of purpose. The Trinity portrays God as a community of love and mutuality.”124
In fact, John Hicks, a non-Mormon scholar, describes the “revival” of social trinitarianism as “one of the most significant developments in contemporary theology.”125 Hicks calls it a “revival” because most scholars of Christian beginnings acknowledge that the social model predated the creedal “one substance” view. Indeed, most attribute this understanding to New Testament writers and the earliest Church Fathers, particularly the fourth- and fifth-century Cappadocian fathers.126 Yet this view is hardly universal. For example, in treating the trinitarianism of the Cappadocians, Roger Olsen states:
Throughout centuries of theology many critics have found it simply too ambiguous to accept without further clarification. When examined closely, it seems either that the Cappadocians were affirming God’s oneness to the exclusion of real threeness or else affirming God’s threeness to the exclusion of real oneness. Their analogies tend to emphasize threeness. Thus they are often treated as the source of the modern “social analogy” of the Trinity. . . . But their abstract explanations tend to emphasize oneness.127
Even more prevalent than appealing to the Church Fathers as support for embracing a social model of the trinity is an appeal to the Bible. Jürgen Moltmann argues, “It seems to make more sense theologically to start from the biblical history, and therefore to make the unity of the three divine Persons the problem, rather than to take the reverse method— to start from the philosophical postulate of absolute unity, in order then to find the problem in the biblical testimony.” The biblical beginnings of the doctrine should take precedence over the philosophical argument, “for ultimately we must always see to it that the liberating force of the biblical witness is preserved and not obscured.”128
Others offer existential reasons for rethinking the doctrine of the Trinity. For example, in his critique of the social and political effects of monotheism, Leonardo Boff writes:
It is not surprising, then, that Immanuel Kant should have written: “The doctrine of the Trinity provides nothing, absolutely nothing, of practical value, even if one claims to understand it; still less when one is convinced that it far surpasses our understanding. It costs the student nothing to accept that we adore three or ten persons in the divinity. One is the same as the other to him, since he has no concept of God in different persons (hypostases). Furthermore, this distinction offers absolutely no guidance for his conduct.” This observation shows that the Trinity, for most people, has become a problem in logic and has ceased to be the mystery of our salvation. It has been reduced to a curiosity rather than being a reality that matters to us because it sheds light on our own existence and tells us the ultimate structure of the universe and of human life: communion and participation.129
The distinguished contemporary proponents of a social model of the divine unity represent every major Christian theological tradition and include Cornelius Plantinga Jr.,130 C. Stephen Layman,131 Richard Swinburne,132 David Brown,133 Joseph A. Bracken,134 Jürgen Moltmann,135 Leonardo Boff,136 Clark H. Pinnock,137 Thomas V. Morris,138 John Richardson Illingworth,139 Timothy R. Bartell,140 William Hasker,141 Wolfhart Pannenberg,142 William Lane Craig,143 and Stephen T. Davis.144
In discussing the question of the trinity, Cornelius Plantinga writes: “The main problem or puzzlement here is that of threeness and oneness. Suppose the divine life includes both a three and one. What are the referents of these numbers? Three what? One what? And especially, how are these three and this one related?”145 Social trinitarianism answers Plantinga’s questions by explaining that the “Father, Son, and Spirit are distinct centers of knowledge, will, love, and action. Since each of these capacities requires consciousness, it follows that, on this sort of theory, Father, Son, and Spirit would be viewed as distinct centers of consciousness or, in short, as persons in some full sense of that term.”146 Boff concludes, “To sum up, we can say that in God there are three prosopa or personae; that is, three specific individualities, which the New Testament calls Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”147 In regards to the Greek New Testament text, Boff gives a persuasive explication that mirrors that of Joseph Smith:
The basic reason for this choice is to be found in John 10:30: “The Father and I are one” (hen). Note that Jesus is not saying, “The Father and I are numerically one” (heis), but uses a term meaning “we are together” (Greek hen, as used again in v.38: “The Father is in me and I am in the Father”). The union of the Father and Son does not blot out the difference and individuality of each. Union rather supposes differentiation. Through love and through reciprocal communion they are one single thing, the one God-love.148
Besides speaking of one God-love, Social Trinitarians answer the question, “One what?” in three specific ways. There is “only one font of divinity, only one Father, only one God in that sense of God,” there is “a set of excellent properties severally necessary and jointly sufficient for their possessor to be divine,” and there is “only one divine family or monarchy or community, namely, the Holy Trinity itself.”149 And especially, how are these three and this one related? Social Trinitarians answer, “The mysterious in-ness or oneness relation in the divine life is short of personal identity, but much closer than mere common membership in a class. For it includes a divine kinship relation as well.”150 While traditional Christianity (aided by modern translations of the Bible) has downplayed the familial relationship of the Son to the Father,151 Social Trinitarians cautiously assert doctrine parallel to Joseph’s. Consider Plantinga on the relationship between God the Father and Jesus:
Such biblical language as Son ‘of the Father’ still suggests, however, both kinship and derivation. One might suppose, therefore, that these two persons are essentially related to each other not only generically but also in some quasi-genetic way. For the Son is not only equally divine with the Father; he is also the Father’s Son. He is, so to speak, his Father all over again. We could say, then, that Father and Son are not just members of the class of divine persons, but also members of the same family.152
Furthermore, Leonardo Boff writes, “The Gospels preserve the originality of Jesus’ relationship to his God. This is something extremely intimate and unique; thus Jesus describes God with a word drawn from the language of family relationships, Abba, a childish expression of affection for a father.”153
In an unprecedented move, Plantinga and others propose getting rid of simplicity theory altogether as it “ends up complicating trinity doctrine quite needlessly.”154 (Simplicity theory holds that a perfect being must be absolutely simple or incomposite, inasmuch as anything composed of parts is susceptible of being decomposed or destroyed.) At the very least, Plantinga argues, any subtheory of divine simplicity must be modest enough to be consistent with there being distinct persons within the trinity.155 Moltmann argues from a biblical standpoint:
If we search for a concept of unity corresponding to the biblical testimony of the triune God, the God who unites others with himself, then we must dispense with both the concept of the one substance and the concept of the identical subject. All that remains is: the unitedness, the at-oneness of the three Persons with one another, or: the unitedness, the at-oneness of the triune God.156
A comparison of the conception and explication of the trinity by Social Trinitarians and Joseph’s revelations yields the conclusion that an increasing number of respected orthodox Christian scholars are now holding and defending what was, for a long time in the West, a uniquely Mormon doctrine.157
A. Joseph’s Views
On February 16, 1832, Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon received a revelation from God indicating that those who attained the highest level of glory in the heavens would receive God’s “fulness, and of his glory,” becoming “gods, even the sons of God” (D&C 76:56, 58). This event marked the beginning of the gradual unfolding of a significant doctrine taught by Joseph Smith: deification—the doctrine that man can become like God. This gradual unfolding became a mainstream doctrine of the Latter-day Saints.158
To understand Joseph’s doctrine of deification, it is necessary to set forth a few of the unique aspects of his theological anthropology. First, Joseph taught that the “mind” or “intelligence” of man is eternal. In the King Follett Discourse159 delivered in the spring of 1844, Joseph Smith taught, “The mind of man—the intelligent part—is as immortal as, and is coequal [co-eternal] with, God himself. I know my testimony is true. . . . Intelligence is eternal and exists upon a self-existent principle . . . and there is no creation about it.”160 The assumption that man is uncreate and eternal provides a unique anthropological foundation for Joseph’s doctrine of deification.161 Madsen shows that a close reading of Joseph Smith’s teachings yields four insights into man’s spirit intelligence: Man inherently has individuality, autonomy, consciousness, and capacity of development.162
Second, at some stage in man’s premortal existence, his spirit body is spiritually begotten by heavenly parents.163 Spirit birth does not mark the beginning of man’s consciousness, but rather it constitutes a transformation or enlargement of the uncreate “intelligence.” Says Madsen:
In mortal birth, inherent physical and personality traits of the father and mother are transmitted to their son or daughter. . . . More, one’s bodily inheritance and then his environment mold him and largely condition his destiny.
It is exactly so with man’s spirit. Long before mortality, in a process of actual transmission, there were forged into man’s spirit the embryonic traits, attributes, and powers of God Himself! And in the surroundings of that realm man was nurtured in the Divine image.164
Indeed, Joseph boldly proclaimed that humans are of the same origin and species as God: “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens!”165 And thus the powerful corollary: humankind, as uncreate intelligences who become the literal, spiritual offspring of God, inherits the potential to become like God, able to attain his same knowledge, power, glory, and intelligence. But they cannot achieve this status on their own. God’s fundamental purpose in creating the world was to bring about the “immortality and eternal [God-like] life” of his spirit children (Moses 1:39). On this point, Joseph taught:
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.166
Third, according to Joseph’s revelations, the fall of Adam and Eve and the freedom to choose between good and evil are both essential to the synergistic process of man’s growth into God’s likeness. Lehi informed us that “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy” (2 Ne. 2:25). But to attain this joy, Lehi explains that “it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so . . . righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness . . . neither good nor bad . . . [neither] happiness nor misery” (2 Ne. 2:11). Lehi continued:
And to bring about his eternal purposes in the end of man, after he had created our first parents, . . . it must needs be that there was an opposition; even the forbidden fruit in opposition to the tree of life; the one being sweet and the other bitter. Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other (2 Ne. 2:15–16).
Even God, though omnipotent, cannot by divine fiat bring about joy without moral holiness, moral holiness without moral freedom, moral freedom without an opposition in all things (see 2 Ne. 2:25–26).
Given man’s initial moral imperfection, together with moral freedom and opposition as essential variables in the divine equation for man, two consequences stand out saliently: (1) the inevitability and universality of human sin, and (2) our need for a Redeemer and ongoing sanctification. Accordingly, the fourth foundational principle for Joseph’s doctrine of deification is centered in Christ’s incarnation and atonement. These afford man redemption from sin, immortality, and the ability to grow in holiness through the sanctifying work of the Holy Ghost. Joseph recognized the untoward consequences of man’s fallen status, yet did not attribute to man an essentially evil nature. He stated, “I believe that a man is a moral, responsible, free agent; that although it was foreordained he should fall, and be redeemed, yet after the redemption it was not foreordained that he should again sin.”167 Thus, through the sanctifying influence of the Holy Ghost, Christ’s atonement makes it possible for man to transcend his fallen state and become a partaker of the divine nature. To refer again to Lehi: “And the way is prepared from the fall of man, and salvation is free . . . Wherefore, redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth” (2 Ne. 2:4–6).
Finally, Joseph realized that an essential property of divinity is a relationship of sacred and intimate unity with the persons of the Godhead. As Joseph stated in an 1833 revelation:
[Christ] received a fulness of the glory of the Father; and he received all power, both in heaven and on earth, and the glory of the Father was with him, for he dwelt in him, and it shall come to pass that if you are faithful . . . you shall receive of his fulness, and be glorified in me as I am in the Father; therefore, I say unto you, you shall receive grace for grace (D&C 93:16–17, 20; emphasis added).
The stunning reality, according to Joseph Smith, is that the very purpose of human life consists in the fact that humankind has been invited “into” this relationship through the atonement of Jesus. God wants to relate to us just as the divine persons relate to one another; God wants us to be one in the Father and the Son as they are one in each other. God desires to be “at-one-ment” with persons. Deification, according to Joseph, is dependent upon our acceptance of and obedience to Jesus, thereby making his atonement personally and fully efficacious. As the Lectures on Faith explain:
And all those who keep his commandments shall grow up from grace to grace, and become heirs of the heavenly kingdom, and joint heirs with Jesus Christ; possessing the same mind, being transformed into the same image or likeness, even the express image of Him who fills all in all; being filled with the fullness of his glory, and become one in him, even as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one.168
Although Joseph taught a very lofty view of man’s eschatological potential in asserting that man has the potential to become a god and enter into close association with the Godhead, he also made clear that those who become gods will be forever subordinate to the Godhead. As we progress and attain God’s present glory, God progresses also to reach a higher exaltation and remains our God. Said Joseph of eternal progression,
“When I [Jesus] get my kingdom, I will give it to the Father and it will add to and exalt His glory. He will take a higher exaltation and I will take His place and am also exalted, so that He obtains kingdom rolling upon kingdom.” So that Jesus treads in His tracks as He had gone before and then inherits what God did before. God is glorified in the salvation and exaltation of His creatures.169
Joseph’s doctrine of deification was boldly original and quite distinct from that of the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions (this will be explored more fully below). For example, one difference between Orthodoxy’s theosis and Joseph Smith’s doctrine of deification regards what deified persons actually do. Orthodox doctrine sheds little light on this matter, whereas Joseph’s recorded revelation of God’s word reads that humankind “shall come forth in the first resurrection; . . . and shall inherit thrones, kingdoms, principalities, and powers, dominions, all heights and depths.” The faithful will pass by the angels and receive exaltation and glory in all things, “which glory shall be a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever. Then shall they be gods, because they have no end.” Because these gods have progeny, “they continue.” Then are they “above all” and have “all power, and the angels are subject unto them.”170
In addition, Joseph’s view of deification is both ontological and participatory while conventional Christianity’s view is merely participatory.171 Conventional Christianity sees deification as a change in which the deified being takes on divine attributes but essentially is still of a different species than God.172 Vladimir Lossky writes of human beings, “We might say that by creation ex nihilo God ‘makes room’ for something which is wholly outside of Himself; that, indeed, He sets up the ‘outside’ or nothingness alongside of His plenitude. The result is a subject which is entirely ‘other,’ infinitely removed from Him, ‘not by place but by nature.’”173
Three analogies presented by Jordan Vajda, Rene Krywult, and Blake Ostler underscore the differences between Joseph’s and the Orthodox view. The Orthodox view174 of man’s becoming God, said Vajda, is analogous to iron being forged in a fire.
Reflect on what occurs when iron is plunged into fire, as happens when a sword is being shaped. A definite change takes place. The fire penetrates the metal and communicates to it some of its own properties. The metal begins to glow. It becomes hot and burning. It becomes malleable. None of these things is a natural property of iron; . . . It is only when the iron participates in the nature of the fire that it becomes what it was not while still retaining its essential identity as iron.175
Adding another analogy, Ostler saw the relational aspect of the process of deification as analogous to chemical reaction in the combination of atoms:
Consider the element hydrogen. If we heat the hydrogen, it becomes “hot,” but at a certain point the hydrogen atoms fuse and give off energy. A single atom of hydrogen does not have the ability to fuse and create thermonuclear power, but two hydrogen atoms together can become together what alone they cannot be—a source of power and light. The properties of divinity emerge from the relationship of divine unity and supervene on persons-in-relationship and not just on a person simpliciter.176
By contrast, Krywult noted that many LDS Church leaders have likened Joseph’s conception of man’s becoming God to the development and growth of a human embryo.177 As gods in embryo, we are dependent on God for our subsistence, just as an embryo is to his mother. Once born, an infant gradually becomes aware of his inherited attributes and capacities, which are refined and enlarged as he grows to full maturity. Similarly, we come alive to our divine potential as we are born through receipt of the spirit of God and rise in the resurrection with bodies “fashioned like unto his [Jesus’] glorious body” (Philip. 3:21). Thus growth from embryo to godhood is a lengthy process not to be achieved in this world. Joseph taught that “it will be a great work to learn our salvation and exaltation even beyond the grave.”178
In summary, Joseph Smith taught a unique form of human deification which emphasizes the genetic principle that humans are essentially the same species as God. He would have agreed most with the “gods in embryo” analogy. He rejected the traditional creator/creature distinction and boldly affirmed man’s eschatological divine potential which becomes fully actualized only when man becomes “one” with the persons of the Godhead. Claiming authority from God, Joseph invites us to take Athanasius’ aphorism quite literally: “God was made man that we may be made gods.”
B. Christian Divergence and Criticisms
For traditional Christianity, the doctrine of theosis or deification179 has a unique history. Biblically, Peter, John, and Paul all spoke of the idea that man can become God (2 Pet. 1:4; Rom. 8:16–17). In the writings of Irenaeus of Lyons, Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius, and Cyril of Alexandria, one can find references to the idea that “God became man, that man might become God.”180 From the initial scholarly attention deification received in the first century to its integration in the Byzantine Church in the fourth century, the doctrine experienced numerous developments at the hands of many influential Church Fathers.181 Maximus the Confessor (580–682) was primarily responsible for the elucidation of deification that eventually led to its eventual level of acceptance in Eastern Orthodox religions.182 Gregory Palamas (1296–1359) elaborated the doctrine further for the East by stressing that mankind can be deified by the Holy Spirit; thus deified man can participate in God’s divine attributes.183 But, according to Palamas, the attributes of God that man participates in consist of God’s energies, or knowable attributes, workings, activities, and so forth. Man cannot participate in God’s essence, or unknowable attributes—such as omnipresence or timelessness—for these represent an ontological gap between the Creator (God) and the creature (man) that cannot be crossed.184 After having made explicit the essence/energies distinction, Palamas provided an ontological framework through which the Eastern Orthodox Church could interpret the numerous references made to deification by the Patristic Fathers. Consequently, deification has been explicitly significant in the East; indeed, one influential Orthodox scholar, Vladimir Lossky referred to deification as the “very essence of Christianity.”185
By contrast, however, deification in the Roman Catholic and Protestant West has received mixed reviews. It would be incorrect to say the doctrine has been altogether abandoned by western theologians. A number of Catholic scholars have recognized the centrality of deification, at least to the Patristic Fathers.186 Also Protestants such as Jürgen Moltmann,187 Wolfhart Pannenberg,188 and Reinhold Neibuhr189 admit importance to the patristic version of deification. But the doctrine certainly has not been accepted in the West as in the East, and numerous scholars from both sides have inquired as to why deification has muted acceptance in the West.190 Catholic writer Hans Küng suggests that as early as the Augustine-Pelagius controversy, deification in the Latin tradition was being replaced with milder doctrines of grace, focusing on how God saves rather than on what the condition of the saved will be.191 In response to some of Pelagius’ claims, Augustine said regarding deification:
For my part I hold that, even when we shall have such great righteousness that absolutely no addition could be made to it, the creature will not be equal to the creator. But if some suppose that our progress will be so great that we will be changed into the divine substance and become exactly what he is, let them see how they may support their view. I confess that I myself am not convinced of it.192
Adolf Von Harnack would later claim that due to the Pelagian affair Augustine successfully brought an end to the doctrine of deification in the West.193 Also, mention of deification or theosis is totally absent in any of the early church’s ecumenical councils and creeds. If the doctrine was admittedly so central in the Patristic Fathers’ writings, why was it not explicated in a more official venue? Maximus the Confessor, “the last common Father” who straddled both Eastern and Western theologies,194 wondered the same thing. Jaroslav Pelikan reported Maximus saying in regards to the Creeds, “If this dogma [of theosis] belongs to the mystery of the faith of the Church, it was not included with the other [dogmas] in the symbol expounding the utterly pure faith of Christians, composed by our holy and blessed fathers.”195 Catholic Christoph Schönborn responded that it is not the purpose of a Council to define the doctrines of the Church: “It is the role of a council to profess the Faith, not to explain it: this would be the task of theologians and doctors of the Church.”196 Thus the problem Maximus dealt with: the Fathers clearly taught the doctrine; the Councils and Creeds did not. Also, the Creeds (Apostolic or Nicene [ad 325], Constantinople , and Chalcedon ) were not intended to be full expressions of the Catholic faith. Jesuit Roger Haight writes, “The logic of salvation, a way of understanding how it unfolded, is absent in the creed. . . . The creed does not develop in any way what it means by salvation.” Further, Father Haight writes, “Nicaea did not attempt to say everything. Its intentionality was strictly and self-consciously limited to the narrowly defined goal of refuting Arian propositions. It left many questions unaddressed.”197 Orthodox scholar D. B. Clendenin picked up on this seeming lack of attention paid to deification, and compared its treatment among theologians in the West with those in the East:
Western theologians in general and Protestants in particular have given only scant attention to the central importance of theosis in Orthodox thought. Nor do they address the doctrine as an important biblical category in its own right. New Testament theologies such as those by George Ladd (1974) and Leon Morris (1986), for example, do not even mention theosis. On the other hand, as early as Gregory Palamas’s fourteenth-century work On Divine and Deifying Participation, Orthodox thinkers have systematically analyzed the doctrine at length.198
Finding an ontological understanding of deification incompatible with traditional understandings of Augustinian theology, some assert that, in years following the adoption of the Creeds, Western theologians preferred to emphasize Christ’s soteriological or salvific role in terms of juridical categories (for example, “satisfaction” or penal substitution), rather than Christ’s role as a divinizing Redeemer.199 Keith J. Egan said:
Focused on sin and weakness in the human person, students of moral theology in the centuries after Trent [1545–1563] had too little exposure to the study of holiness and not much incentive to engage the holiness tradition from a theological perspective. The presumption at least in practice, if not in theory, was that holiness was the concern of the few, namely, religious and even more restrictively, cloistered religious [as in monks]. The theology of divinization that is so much part of Eastern Christianity would have been a corrective to this overemphasis in the West on sin, guilt, and confession. But late medieval efforts at healing ties between East and West were futile and the cross-fertilization between Eastern and Western theology and spirituality had to wait for the renewed interest in that dialogue during this century.200
A. N. Williams attributed the very language used by Patristic Fathers to be another reason why the doctrine of deification may have been neglected. “Deification, even in its patristic form, has become virtually invisible to the eyes of modern Westerners because instead of defining deification, or providing a phenomenological description of the deified, the Fathers use a set of cognates for deification that forms a quasi-technical vocabulary.”201 A different emphasis on vocabulary, said Clendenin, partly distinguishes East from West. For the East, “the great mysteries of the faith are matters of adoration rather than analysis.” For Clendenin, “The creeds describe rather than dissect the great truths of Christianity, such as the nature of the Trinity (three persons in one essence) and the relationship between the divine and human natures in Christ.”202 Thus, the difference in emphasis on deification between East and West may have been methodological as well as doctrinal.
But tacit acceptance, neglect, or a shift of emphasis isn’t the West’s only reactions to the doctrine of deification. Indeed, some Protestants in the past 150 years—particularly those influenced by Adolf von Harnack—explicitly rejected the notion of deification. Schönborn suggested Harnack “and other Church historians of his school” may have rejected deification on purely religious grounds or because the concept is ambiguous or unbiblical.203 Carl Mosser attributed Harnack’s views as an influential factor leading to a Protestant interpretation that deification is a remnant of “Greco-Roman philosophy, the mystery religions, or the Imperial cult,” the notion that humans could become gods “represents the climax of Hellenization of Christianity.”204 Protestant Benjamin Drewery believed that “deification is . . . the most serious aberration to be found not only in Origen but in the whole tradition to which he contributed.”205 D. M. Baillie, Scottish Presbyterian professor of systematic theology at St. Andrews (1934–1954), said the belief that God became man in order that we might become God “must be suspect, because if taken strictly it would seem to imply either a pantheistic conception or the idea that there can be more gods than one.” He was particularly critical of the common interpretation of 2 Peter 1:4 (partakers of the divine nature); the testimony given there “seems alien to the New Testament writers.”206 Scottish Protestant David Cairns (1862–1946) believed that 2 Peter 1:4 was “open to misinterpretation, and has in fact been misinterpreted.”207 Eastern theologians, he felt, went “beyond the reserve of the Bible” when teaching theosis.208 German Protestant Dietrich Ritschl felt deification as taught by Hippolytus, third century disciple of Irenaeus, is “unbiblical” and “is actually in its origins a doctrine of participation in the (human) obedience of Christ.”209 But Protestants have not been alone in their criticism. Roman Catholic Cyril Van der Donckt offered this condemnation in 1901: “As to man becoming God, the idea is absurd. With far more reason might we contend that the gnat will develop into a lion, and the animalcules which we swallow in a sip of water will grow into gigantic giraffes and colossal elephants.”210
As these examples show, the responses of traditional Christendom to the idea of deification have been anything but univocal. Most scholars throughout the years generally agree the idea was central to the Church Fathers. The Eastern Orthodox Church explicitly acknowledges the ontological developments in the doctrine made most notably by Maximus the Confessor and Gregory Palamas. Hence, theosis continues to play a central part in the meaning of salvation for the East. The West, on the other hand, has been riddled with varying opinions. Some have affirmed deification’s importance while others prefer to speak of salvation in juridical terms of grace and justification. Still others are hostile to the idea that man could become God—they even equate the notion with Satan’s lie to Eve in the Garden of Eden.211
Irrespective of the acceptance or rejection of Orthodox versions of deification, however, Joseph Smith’s doctrine of deification, including his unique corresponding theological anthropology, has prompted a hailstorm of criticism from the Western Christian world. The editors of The New Mormon Challenge wrote, “We believe that the doctrine of the literal eternality of human persons is inimical to Christian faith.” They proceed to cite Joseph’s doctrine as one of “the three issues” which “are absolutely fundamental and nonnegotiable.” And they concluded by saying, “We do not feel that the status of Mormonism in relation to Christianity can ever change unless there is willingness within the structures of the LDS church to reconsider those issues.”212 Similarly, George Arbaugh wrote concerning Joseph’s doctrine of the literal parenthood of God the Father: “This evil assertion says too much . . . that man is in his own nature divine. This is blasphemous impudence and conceit.”213
Nevertheless, it is Joseph’s understanding of the potential of humankind that has historically received the most ardent attacks. For instance, Jason J. Barker in a paper presented at the annual meeting of the Southwest Region of the Evangelical Theological Society, opined, “Few doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints appear to be more at odds with those of mainstream Christianity . . . than the doctrine of exaltation.”214 Ed Decker offered one of the most famous (and disingenuous)215 attacks upon Joseph’s doctrine in his book The God Makers. Decker called Joseph’s doctrine of deification “a satanic seduction to rebellion against the only true God,” asserting, “no greater lie could be conceived than that humans could become Gods.”216 Evangelical apologist Robert M. Bowman Jr. stated that the Mormon belief in the eternal progression of man is “heretical.”217
Evangelicals are not alone in their criticism. The Catholic Van Der Donckt, mentioned above, is one more critic that labels Joseph’s doctrine as “a mere echo of Satan’s promise in Paradise; ‘You shall be as gods.’”218 Arbaugh echoes this oft-repeated criticism when he ascribes to Mormons “the greatest sin of all, namely pretending to be God.”219 In a similar vein, Ron Rhodes writes that when Latter-day Saints discuss salvation and eternal life, “They completely redefine these words to fit their cultic theology.”220 Jim Adams equates LDS beliefs to those of anti-biblical “pagan religions”221 and then charges Joseph’s doctrine that humans are gods in embryo as “going a step beyond pagan thought.”222 While some characterize Joseph’s doctrine as rebellious, heretical, satanic, cultic, and pagan, some argue that it is philosophically unsound. Francis J. Beckwith and Stephen E. Parrish argue in The Mormon Concept of God: A Philosophical Analysis that the LDS view “seems to be fundamentally irrational.”223
C. Contemporary Christian Convergence
But things are changing. While I am not attempting to show that the Christian world has become more receptive of Joseph’s specific version of deification, the past fifty years reflect a steadily increasing amount of general interest in the issue of Orthodox and Patristic deification from Catholics and Protestants alike.224 In the preface to his seminal work, The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition, Norman Russell points out:
It is becoming less necessary in the English-speaking world to apologize for the doctrine of deification. At one time it was regarded as highly esoteric, if it was admitted to be Christian at all. . . . In recent years a succession of works on deification in individual Fathers from Irenaeus to Maximus the Confessor has confirmed the patristic basis of the doctrine. Since the 1950s several studies have shown how deification, in a more muted way, is also at home in the Western tradition.225
Some scholars are asserting that deification is not only compatible with Augustinian theology, it is central to it.226 References to deification have even been found in Aquinas’s Summa Theologica.227 Russell suggests that renewed interest in the patristic writings and the translation into English of several Orthodox scholars have contributed to the increase in attention paid to deification.228 The result of this awakening has been a virtual explosion of research, dialogue, and publication regarding the doctrine of deification. A current bibliography of articles, books, chapters in books, and dissertations reveals 222 publications. Of these, 195 (or 88 percent) were published since 1950, 104 (nearly half of the total) were published since 1990, and at least twenty more have come off the press in the last four and a half years. Interest in deification remains high, indeed. And it crosses every denominational line.
In May of 2004, Drew University hosted a conference with the theme “Partakers of the Divine Nature: The History and Development of Deification/Theosis in the Christian Traditions.” There scholars representing every major Christian theological tradition—Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Wesleyan, Calvinist, and Evangelical—presented papers.229 While topics ranged from historic theories of deification—ancient, patristic, and medieval—to modern interpretations, one point was salient: the presenters were nearly all claiming ownership of some variant of the doctrine for their respective traditions.
An important instance of dialogue on the issue is the ongoing consultation between the Finnish Lutheran Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. To facilitate the incorporation of theosis into Lutheran doctrine, the Finns have discovered and emphasized explicit references to theosis in Luther’s writings that had long been overlooked. Jonathan Linman suggests that reading some of Luther’s sermons with a “new set of hermeneutic lenses” exposes Luther’s understanding of theosis. For instance, in his Christmas sermon of 1514 Luther wrote:
Just as the word of God became flesh, so it is certainly also necessary that the flesh may become word. In other words: God becomes man so that man may become God. Thus power becomes powerless so that weakness may become powerful. The Logos puts on our form and pattern, our image and likeness, so that it may clothe us with its image, its pattern, and its likeness. Thus wisdom becomes foolish so that foolishness may become wisdom, and so it is in all other things that are in God and in us, to the extent that in all these things he takes what is ours to himself in order to impart what is his to us.230
While differences remain between Lutheranism’s rendering of the doctrine and that of Orthodox theologians,231 the fact remains that “the Finnish dialogue with Lutherans . . . [has] therefore made the notion of deification a center of their discussions.”232
Perhaps a telling sign of the extent to which deification has reentered Christian theology is the way in which it has reemerged in Catholic thought and rhetoric. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, revised in 1993, the fourth reason the Word was made flesh is described thus:
The Word became flesh to make us “partakers of the divine nature” [2 Pet. 1:4]: “For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God” [Irenaeus, Adv. haeres. 3, 19, 1: PG 7/1, 939]. “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God” [Athanasius, De inc. 54, 3: PG 25, 192B]. “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods” [Thomas Aquinas, Opusc. 57, 1–4].233
Pope John Paul II has given further credence to the reemerging role of deification in Catholic doctrine:
This is the central truth of all Christian soteriology that finds an organic unity with the revealed reality of the God-Man. God became man that man could truly participate in the life of God—so that, indeed, in a certain sense, he could become God. The Fathers of the Church had a clear consciousness of this fact. It is sufficient to recall St. Irenaeus who, in his exhortations to imitate Christ, the only sure teacher, declared: “Through the immense love he bore, he became what we are, thereby affording us the opportunity of becoming what he is.”234
After noting that “reference to deification is virtually absent from the major Roman Catholic ascetical and mystical manuals of this century,” Catholic theologian Mark O’Keefe mourns its loss and the fact that it “could not regain a central place in Roman Catholic spiritual theology.”235 He speaks repeatedly of “retrieving” the idea of theosis and believes that this doctrine contains a powerful pragmatic punch, which should be vital in spurring believers to live a more moral and spiritual life. He explains:
To understand the Christian life as path of theosis is to suggest that the human person called not “merely” into relationship with God—as truly incredible as that is in itself—but that human persons are invited and called into a share in the divine life itself, into the very inner life of the triune God.
Because theosis is a present reality—though only partially realized—Christians strive to live a life in conformity to the awesome dignity to which they are called. . . .
To believe that one already shares in the divine life demands of the Christian an authentic response to the divine life and love, especially as this has been revealed in Jesus Christ. Christians strive to model in their lives those perspectives, dispositions, virtues, attitudes, intentions, and affections that seem authentically conformed to the deified life which they have already begun to live, although as yet incompletely and imperfectly. Believers strive to decide and to act in a way consistent with their new life and with the character which flows from it. Christian ethics—both of doing and of being—must be profoundly rooted in the reality of theosis.236
It is indeed stunning that the notion of deification could go from being largely ignored in past Catholicism to being labeled by Pope John Paul II as “the central truth of all Christian soteriology” in addition to being recognized as a powerful doctrine with which to shape one’s ethics and fuel one’s spirituality.
Enthusiasm for deification is widespread. Robert Rakestraw, an Evangelical professor of theology at Bethel Theological Seminary, spoke of theosis as, above all, “the restoration and reintegration of the ‘image’ or, as some prefer, ‘likeness’ of God, seriously distorted by the fall, in the children of God. In this life Christians grow more and more into the very likeness and character of God as God was revealed in the man Jesus Christ.”237 Rakestraw considers the “strengths” of theosis theology to be that it is biblically supported, it offers “hope to some Christians who despair of finding the truly abundant life here on earth,” and that it defines theology itself.238
Carl Mosser has attempted to show that the doctrine of theosis was both understood and taught by John Calvin.239 Mosser points out that for Calvin “partaking of the divine nature” is that “which nothing more outstanding can be imagined.”240 In conclusion Mosser states of Calvin: “It must be remembered that deification is a part of the catholic tradition that Calvin and the other Reformers inherited, affirmed and defended. One should never be surprised to find elements of this tradition in the writings of the Reformers.”241
Methodists have also joined the search for a place for deification in Western theology. Charles Wesley’s hymns, asserts Rakestraw, “contain a strong element of the life of God in our souls now.”242 One such hymn reads:
Made Flesh for our Sake,
That we might partake
The Nature Divine,
And again in his Image, his Holiness shine.243
Charles Ashanin suggests that 2 Peter 1:4 played a significant part in John Wesley’s conversion and no doubt influenced his theology. Ashanin explains, “This Biblical statement, incidentally, led John Wesley to the advocacy of the doctrine of Sanctification. This doctrine is probably Wesley’s adaptation of the Patristic doctrine of Theosis.”244
The Anglican tradition also claims insight to the doctrine of deification. A. M. Allchin has written that “unless we affirm with Athanasius that God became man in order that man might become God, the language of incarnation is likely to lose its true significance, as unfortunately it too often has done.”245 Philip Edgecumbe Hughes clarified Athanasius’ couplet mentioned above by defining theosis as “the reintegration of the divine image of man’s creation through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit conforming the redeemed into the likeness of Christ, and also of the believer’s transition from mortality to immortality so that he is enabled to participate in the eternal bliss and glory of the kingdom of God.”246 Anglican theologian Kenneth Leech expounds on Maximus the Confessor’s idea of deification in that “deification is the work of divine grace by which human nature is so transformed that it ‘shines forth with a supernatural light and is transported above its own limits by a superabundance of glory.’”247 Finally, the words of popular Anglican writer C. S. Lewis reflect how an acceptance of deification influences our view of human dignity: “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.”248
The Mormon doctrine of deification as revealed to and taught by Joseph Smith has been met throughout the years with labels of heresy, pantheism, and philosophical unsoundness. But these denigrations are not original; older and less robust Orthodox versions of the doctrine have also suffered the same criticisms at the hands of scholars and theologians throughout the years. It seems that as contemporary scholarship continues to take a broader interest in deification, as old teachings continue to be interpreted through a “new hermeneutical lens,” and as interfaith dialogue and inquiry continue to reap a rich harvest of understanding, deification will continue to enjoy greater attention in the Christian community. Likewise, perhaps in the future, Joseph’s more robust version of the doctrine will follow suit and eventually gain greater attention and acceptance from Christian thinkers.
V. The Divine Feminine
A. Joseph’s Views
The idea of a Mother in Heaven is deeply enshrined in Mormon thought and even hymnody. Indeed, the idea found its clearest and most moving expression in a poem written by Eliza R. Snow,249 first published November 15, 1845, in the Times and Seasons. It was subsequently set to music and included in an LDS hymnal first published in 1851 in Liverpool,250 and today is one of the most beloved LDS hymns:
In the heav’ns are parents single?
No, the thought makes reason stare!
Truth is reason; truth eternal
Tells me I’ve a mother there.
When I leave this frail existence,
When I lay this mortal by,
Father, Mother, may I meet you
In your royal courts on high?251
The belief that we have a Mother in Heaven was officially accorded doctrinal status in 1909 when the Church’s First Presidency, in a statement called the “Origin of Man,” declared: “All men and women are in the similitude of the universal Father and Mother, and are literally the sons and daughters of Deity.”252 The doctrinal status of a Heavenly Mother was again officially reaffirmed in the “Proclamation on the Family” issued in 1995 by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve: “All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny. Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”253
However, since the doctrine is explicitly stated neither in any LDS scripture that came to or through Joseph Smith nor in any of his writings or sermons, at least one scholar has questioned whether the doctrine can be credibly ascribed to him.254 Others find convincing the total evidence—circumstantial, testimonial, and otherwise—that Joseph taught the doctrine.255 Still others, including myself, simply argue that the doctrine was implicit in Joseph’s revelations regardless whether he explicitly drew it out.256
Indisputably, the idea of a Mother in Heaven was openly expressed and published within months of Joseph’s death. W. W. Phelps referred to the idea in a poem that he composed and read at the dedication of the Nauvoo Seventies Hall on December 26, 1844. The poem was published in the Church newspaper the following month.257 It seems especially significant that this first known publication of the idea had presented the doctrine matter-of-factly, as if commonplace, not novel. Several months later, in October 1845, Eliza R. Snow composed “O My Father.” But I will not rehearse here fully the evidence and arguments pertaining to the provenance of the doctrine. Readers interested in this question can peruse the studies referenced in the relevant footnotes. For purposes of this article, I presume that the idea was known to Joseph and was integral to his understanding of deity.
Joseph’s successors in the prophetic office have provided some elaboration into the nature of our Heavenly Mother.258 For example, Spencer W. Kimball said, “When we sing that doctrinal hymn and anthem of affection, ‘O My Father,’ we get a sense of the ultimate in maternal modesty, of the restrained, queenly elegance of our Heavenly Mother, and knowing how profoundly our mortal mothers have shaped us here, do we suppose her influence on us as individuals to be less if we live so as to return there?”259
Much has been said also by way of the existential meaning of Joseph’s doctrine; that a heavenly mother has a direct bearing on the very existence and nature of mankind, particularly women. In speaking to the women of the Church, Kimball said, “God made man in his own image and certainly he made woman in the image of his wife-partner. . . . You [women] are daughters of God. You are precious. You are made in the image of our heavenly Mother.”260 Harold B. Lee observed:
Sometimes we think the whole job is up to us, forgetful that there are loved ones beyond our sight who are thinking about us and our children. We forget that we have a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother who are even more concerned, probably, than our earthly father and mother, and that influences from beyond are constantly working to try to help us when we do all we can.261
Another Church leader, Vaughn J. Featherstone, strongly linked mortal women to the divine feminine:
Women are endowed with special traits and attributes that come trailing down through eternity from a divine mother. Young women have special God-given feelings about charity, love, and obedience. Coarseness and vulgarity are contrary to their natures . . . Theirs is a sacred, God-given role, and the traits they received from heavenly mother are equally as important as those given to the young men.262
This existential meaning is deeply significant to Latter-day Saints.263
B. Christian Divergence and Criticisms
The unique Mormon version of the divine feminine has long been opposed by both Protestant and Roman Catholic critics. In March 2004, before a meeting of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology, Clark Pinnock summarized the traditional Christian view concerning God and gender. Answering his self-imposed question, “What (if any) sexual characteristics apply to God?” he said: “[We] assume that none literally do, except in sociological ways.” He continued: “That is, we have taken the term ‘Father’ to be indicating, not a sexual being264 so much as a patriarch, which points to qualities in God of leadership, headship, and transcendence. We have not and do not think of God as having a consort.”265 While Pinnock was conciliatory and courteous in approaching this delicate subject, others in the Christian world have not greeted the Mormon belief in a Mother in Heaven with as much tolerance. Some have even considered the belief as a basis for the exclusion of Latter-day Saints from the class of Christians. For instance, in 1907 in Salt Lake City the Protestant Ministerial Review published a statement in the Salt Lake Tribune in which the editors charged Mormons with believing and teaching controversial doctrines, including belief in a Mother in Heaven, a doctrine not shared with the world abroad. The Review concluded, “When the full doctrine of the Deity, as taught in Mormon congregations, is known, it will at once be seen that no Christian can accept it.”266
More recently, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said the church could not accept Mormon belief that “God the father had a wife, the Celestial Mother, with whom he procreated Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.” On the basis of these doctrinal suppositions and other considerations, the body decided that Mormon baptism “is not the baptism that Christ instituted.”267
Other criticisms are aimed at the idea of a divine feminine in general rather than the LDS concept of a Mother in Heaven. Vern Poythress and Wayne Grudem, in their book titled The Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy: Muting the Masculinity of God’s Words, address the issue of the new translations of the Bible which are changing the general pronouns of the Bible, such as he, when used hypothetically, into gender neutral pronouns such as they: “There are a few radical-feminist versions that even undertake to call God the Father ‘Father and Mother’ or to eliminate ‘Father’ language altogether. But these versions clearly reject the authority of the Bible and its claim to be the Word of God.” The authors thankfully note that “most modern versions” of the Bible “have attempted to preserve the language about God, including masculine pronouns referring to God.”268
C. Contemporary Christian Convergence
Despite such declarations, some scholars agree with Paul Tillich in lamenting the “intolerable male character” of Protestant symbolism. Too often, God is thought of only as “he.” Somehow, maintains Tillich, “she” and “they” ought to become more common—that is, a representation of Deity both male and female.269 “At a ‘Women’s Liberation Day’ rally in New York City in 1970, Betty Friedan proposed that the question for the new decade was ‘Is God He?’”270 With the rise of feminine theology,271 the Christian world has struggled to find a place for the feminine in God. Since traditional theology assigns no literal sexual characteristics to God, the most common route has been to change how one speaks about God. As the evangelical scholar Donald G. Bloesch wrote in 1985, “Two decades ago the principal issues in the church were whether the Bible should be demythologized (Bultmann) or deliteralized (Tillich). Now the main issue is whether the Bible should be resymbolized.”272 Rosemary Radford Ruether273 argues that monotheistic religions tend to influence societies to be “monarchial” and when we ascribe a masculine gender to the one God, it places men in a position to rule absolutely.274
Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen notes that “Elizabeth A. Johnson’s book She Who Is, a massive study in Scripture, Christian tradition, and other traditions, suggests that there are basically three ways to deal with sexist language if one wants to stay within the Christian theological tradition,” the first way being to “add feminine traits to God such as nurture and care.” This approach may be limited, as it “still implies that God is Father,” though he may possess many gentler attributes. “The second way is to seek a more ontological footing for the existence of the feminine in God; here the main route has been to speak of the Spirit in feminine terms (the Hebrew ruach is feminine). The Spirit is often linked with events and features typical of women such as protecting and bringing forth life.” This approach is also limited “because it maintains the duality of male-female in the divinity. A third approach, favored by Johnson, is to seek equivalent images of God as male and female.” Quoting Johnson directly, “The mystery of God is properly understood as neither male nor female but transcends both in an unimaginable way.”275
Johnson attributes an example of the first model to Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Augustine, arguing that these theologians were writing about the feminine side of God. They all espoused an inclusive model of God including both genders, referring to God as both father and mother, and using such descriptions as “mother wisdom under whose wings we flee for protection.”276
Joan Chamberlain Engelsman models the second approach by writing, “It might be possible to describe one member of the trinity as feminine. Because the Holy Spirit is the least sexually defined member of the trinity, and because it is often symbolized by feminine images—by fire and the dove—I imagine that the Spirit would be chosen.”277 In a more radical example of the second route, Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote late in the nineteenth century concerning the first chapter of Genesis, “Instead of three male personages, as generally represented, a Heavenly Father, Mother, and Son would seem more rational.” Her reasoning for this is that Genesis says that we are created in God’s image, both male and female. “If language has any meaning,” she said, “we have in these texts a plain declaration of the existence of the feminine element in the Godhead, equal in power and glory with the masculine. The Heavenly Mother and Father!”278 Engelsman also posits an ontological footing for the divine feminine writing: “[A] final choice, and the most radical, would be the addition of a feminine image of God and the creation of a quaternity.”279
Ruether, in espousing the third option, does not think that we should ascribe a male or female gender to God, but that we should include both. She says, “God is both male and female and neither male nor female.”280
While there is certainly no consensus concerning which approach to take, Englesman is confident the Christian world will one day embrace the idea of the divine feminine. “I do foresee, nevertheless, that some approach will be found which will assist us in lifting the repression of the feminine, and permit the development of a feminine image of God. The center of that storm will probably be the doctrine of the trinity and the definition of monotheism just as it was in the early centuries of the Christian era.”281
Perhaps more surprising than present Christian theological interest in a divine feminine is the emerging body of scholarship which indicates that the idea of a Heavenly Mother is no modern innovation but has biblical support.282 The least that can be said is that a great many Bible scholars believe that ancient Israel believed in a goddess named Asherah. Mark S. Smith goes further than this, suggesting that perhaps the majority of experts in this field agree that ancient Israel believed in this goddess.
Does the biblical and extrabiblical evidence support the view that Asherah was a goddess in ancient Israel and that she was the consort of Yahweh? Or, alternatively, does the data point to the asherah as a symbol within the cult of Yahweh without signifying a goddess? The first position perhaps constitutes a majority view, represented by the older works of H. Ringgren, G. Fohrer, and G. W. Ahlström, and the more recent studies of W. G. Dever, D. N. Freedman, R. Hestrin, A. Lemaire, and S. Olyan.283
In W. G. Dever’s recent book Did God Have a Wife? extensive archaeological evidence is presented to demonstrate that ancient Israelite belief in a divine goddess was far more extensive than previously believed. He suggests that too many biblical scholars have been slow to accept the findings of archaeology because of its uncomfortable theological implications. But the growing evidence is becoming harder to ignore.284
Margaret Barker has explored the issue in depth, concluding that the evidence strongly supports what Smith refers to as the “majority” report. She outlines the methodology of her inquiry:
It is an interesting exercise to try to recover the Lost Lady using the same methods as are used to reconstruct the male aspect of the God of Israel:
1. By giving priority to the evidence of the Hebrew texts, including inscriptions. There is no exact parallel to the phrasing of the Kuntillet ‘Ajrud inscriptions, which shows that biblical traditions are not representative of everything about Hebrew language and religion.
2. By allowing for singular and plural forms, and for a variety of names for one figure, and for the undoubted practice of using a singular verb with a plural form for divinity.
3. By admitting that if conceptions of the male aspect of deity moved away from anthropomorphism, then the female must have had the same fate. There are unlikely to have been simultaneous movements away from anthropomorphism for the male but towards personification for the female.285
Barker’s research reveals many ancient sources that speak of a divine feminine. In addition to Ugaritic tablets, Hebrew graffiti that associates Yahweh and Asherah, and the hundreds of pillar figurines from Jerusalem that date to the time of Josiah, Barker enumerates many biblical texts that allude to a feminine deity, including many from the Targums. Barker presents important evidence from the Book of Enoch describing the forsaking of Wisdom at the end of the first temple period, corresponding accounts in 2 Kings 23:6 of the destruction of the Asherah (the tree of life that had been in the Holy of Holies during the first temple period), passages in Proverbs which speak of forsaken Wisdom, and the Qumran Isaiah scroll, “which differs from the Masoretic Hebrew by one letter, and reads: ‘Ask a sign from the Mother of the LORD your God.’”286 In addition, Barker also discovers the divine feminine in the New Testament. For instance, in her commentary on Revelation 12:1–2, Barker draws on a wide range of evidences to discuss the significance and the identity of the woman clothed with the sun who appears at the exact center of Revelation. As she reads the passage, “The Woman clothed with the sun is not the Urgaritic goddess, but the Hebrew goddess who was worshipped in Jerusalem until the temple purges in the seventh century BCE.”287 She also finds further illumination in passages from Philo, the Gnostic texts about Sophia, many early Christian writings, and even Orthodox and Catholic icons.
Barker was a featured speaker at the Joseph Smith Conference hosted May 5–6, 2005, by the Library of Congress. There she commented directly on how the portrait of the Heavenly Mother which she found in her explorations compared with passages in the Book of Mormon.
Imagine my surprise when I read the account of Lehi’s vision of the tree whose white fruit made one happy, and the interpretation, that the Virgin in Nazareth was the mother of the Son of God after the manner of the flesh.288 This is the Heavenly Mother, represented by the tree of life, and then Mary and her Son on earth. This revelation to Joseph Smith was the ancient Wisdom symbolism, intact, and almost certainly as it was known in 600 BCE.289
Of all these contemporary Bible scholars and theologians, few approach the radical level to which Joseph’s understanding of Deity points us. His revelations disclose an embodied Heavenly Father who is gendered and masculine as well as directing us towards an embodied Heavenly Mother who is gendered and feminine. Yet in insisting on a divine feminine, a growing number of both Christian theologians and Bible scholars are leaning significantly in Joseph’s direction in a way few dared lean 160 years ago.
VI. God as Eternally Self-surpassing
A. Joseph’s Views
Joseph Smith and the scriptures he brought forth teach that God is perfect. The Lectures on Faith declare: “We here observe that God is the only supreme governor and independent being in whom all fullness and perfection dwell.”290 But what does it mean to be perfect? For the ancient Greeks, perfection meant static “completeness.” As Plato argued in the Republic, a perfect being must be immutable—incapable of any kind of change.291 Plato’s notion of perfection was appropriated by early Christian thinkers and has been integral to the traditional Christian understanding of God. To Joseph Smith, however, God consistently revealed himself as a concrete person: dynamic, passible, relational, and, in some respects, as continuously self-surpassing; or, as the idea is more commonly expressed in LDS discourse, as “eternally progressing.”
But in what respects did Joseph view God endlessly progressing? First of all, in his creations. In the Pearl of Great Price, God declared to Moses: “The heavens, they are many, and they cannot be numbered unto man; but they are numbered unto me, for they are mine. 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.”292 In his King Follett discourse, Joseph Smith indicated additional ways in which God is self-surpassing. He asked: “What did Jesus do?” And he had Jesus answer:
Why; I do the things I saw my Father do when worlds came rolling into existence. My Father worked out his kingdom with fear and trembling, and I must do the same; and when I get my kingdom, I shall present it to my Father, so that he may obtain kingdom upon kingdom, and it will exalt him in glory. He will then take a higher exaltation, and I will take his place, and thereby become exalted myself.293
Thus, God is eternally self-surpassing in kingdoms, glory, and degree of exaltation. Joseph continued, “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.”294
Brigham Young and Wilford Woodruff apparently understood Joseph’s affirmation of divine advancement in a way that included the principles of power and knowledge. Young once commented that “according to [Orson Pratt’s] theory, God can progress no further in knowledge and power; but the God that I serve is progressing eternally, and so are his children: they will increase to all eternity, if they are faithful.”295 Young also taught:
If we continue to learn all that we can, pertaining to the salvation which is purchased and presented to us through the Son of God, is there a time when a person will cease to learn? Yes, when he has sinned against God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Ghost—God’s minister; when he has denied the Lord, defied Him and committed the sin that in the Bible is termed the unpardonable sin—the sin against the Holy Ghost. That is the time when a person will cease to learn, and from that time forth, will descend in ignorance, forgetting that which they formerly knew. . . . They will cease to increase, but must decrease. . . . These are the only characters who will ever cease to learn, both in time and eternity.296
And similarly, Woodruff observed, “If there was a point where man in his progression could not proceed any further, the very idea would throw a gloom over every intelligent and reflecting mind. God himself is increasing and progressing in knowledge, power, and dominion, and will do so, worlds without end.”297 Other Church leaders have passionately denied that God can surpass himself in knowledge, but the idea that God progresses eternally in other aspects such as exaltation and dominion has near-universal acceptance among Latter-day Saints.298
Joseph, then, rejected the Greek and conventional Christian notion of perfection as total static completeness. For him, a perfect being was dynamic—indeed, in some respects, eternally progressing.
B. Christian Divergence and Criticisms
Conventional Christian theology has long been opposed to the idea that God is a dynamic being. According to a great many Christian theologians, God is static and immutable. Philo, a Jewish Neo-Platonist, though a non-Christian, influenced a great many Christian theologians after him. Philo clearly believed God to be a being who transcended temporal succession. He said, “The great Cause of all things does not exist in time, nor at all in place, but he is superior to both time and place. . . . God is the creator of time also . . . so that there is nothing future to God, who has the very boundaries of time subject to him; . . . and in eternity nothing is past and nothing is future, but everything is present only.”299 St. Augustine, in one of the most brilliant treatises on the nature of time, addressed the question “What was God doing before the creation of the world?” For Augustine, the question becomes absurd when one realizes that for God there is no “before” creation. For God created time, and there can be no before and after without temporal succession.300 St. Thomas Aquinas reasoned, “The idea of eternity follows immutability, as the idea of time follows movement. . . . Hence, as God is supremely immutable, it supremely belongs to Him to be eternal.”301 John Calvin reiterated this concept: “When we attribute foreknowledge to God, we mean that all things have ever been, and perpetually remain, under his eyes, so that to his knowledge nothing is future or past, but all things are present.”302
Joseph’s teaching that even God eternally progresses starkly contradicts the conventional notion of divine perfection. It is no surprise, then, that it has come under sustained attack by conservative Christian critics. James White sets out clearly what he sees as the theoretical superiority of the more orthodox view:
We can believe in His promises because He has eternally been what He is today. Can you say this about the LDS concept of God . . . ? Has God eternally been what He is today? . . . If you believe that God has ever been in a state of “progression” how can you be sure that He will not change again tomorrow? I have confidence in my salvation because it is based upon the words of an unchanging, eternal God. How about you?
White concludes, “As we have noted already, God did not ‘acquire’ this knowledge over time through some process of learning or progressing as Joseph Smith taught, and as modern Mormons affirm.”303
C. Contemporary Christian Convergence
Joseph’s dynamic view of divine perfection may have been unpopular among the religious thinkers of his day,304 and, as White’s critique makes clear, with some today. But it did not take long for others to begin to entertain the idea. Among the first was the German philosopher and psychologist Gustav Theodor Fechner (1801–1887).305 Fechner explained that “the perfection of God . . . is not in reaching a definite or limited maximum but in seeking an unlimited progress. Such a progress, however, that God in each time is the maximum not only of all the present, but also of all the past; he alone can surpass himself, and does it continually.”306
William James (1842–1910), the American pragmatist, further developed Fechner’s vision of God as dynamic and in process. On pragmatic grounds, he explicitly rejected the classical conception that God is timelessly eternal and thereby immutable and impassible. As such, James argued, God could not enter into an authentic social relation with us, or be moved by the feelings of our infirmities, or be involved in the sweat and dirt of our daily human trials. He could not be a co-laborer with us in the vast task of building a moral universe, for he would have neither history nor future.307 But James notes that “all the categories of my sympathy are knit up . . . with things that have a history. . . . I have neither eyes nor ears nor heart nor mind for anything of an opposite description, and the stagnant felicity of the absolute’s own perfection moves me as little as I move it.”308
In his classic defense of free will, “The Dilemma of Determinism,” William James argued that given human freedom, the future is in some respects open and indeterminate. Hence, he concluded, God’s knowledge of the future is, like ours, knowledge of both what will be (actualities) and what may be (possibilities). God’s knowledge increases as agents freely make choices.309
These ideas of process and progress—even for God—became dominant in two contemporary movements in Christian thought: process theology, which emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century; and openness theology, which made its appearance as the century came to a close. These two movements—since both have much in common with Joseph’s revelations of God’s nature—deserve closer scrutiny.
Process theologians reject many of the fundamental assumptions of conventional Christian theology—most notably that God is timeless and, hence, metaphysically immutable and impassible—while acknowledging that God is constant in his loving concern for the welfare of human agents. Process theism is, more specifically, “a product of theorizing that takes the categories of becoming, change, and time as foundational for metaphysics.”310
The metaphysical framework for process thought was established by the great mathematician-philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947). Within that framework, Whitehead introduced a radically unorthodox way of understanding God’s nature. He rejected the absolute, static God of traditional theology, calling this type of God monopolar, or consisting of one nature entirely. To the contrary, he asserted that God’s nature is dipolar; he has both a primordial nature (the nature that traditional theology espouses) and a consequent nature. His primordial nature includes all possibilities, or what could be, and his consequent nature is dependent on the decisions of nondivine actual entities, what Whitehead calls “actual occasions.”311 Whitehead’s model of God gave theologians a new perspective and a new way of answering the questions and contradictions that plagued theology.
Whitehead’s creative vision of God influenced a great many theologians after him, especially Charles Hartshorne (1897–2000), who systematized and popularized Whitehead’s process thought. In accord therewith, Hartshorne redefined divine perfection in order to avoid the contradictions inherent in the Greek conception:
If perfection is defined as that which in no respect could conceivably be greater, and hence is incapable of increase, then we face paradox on either hand. But suppose we define the perfect, or supremely excellent or good, as that individual being (in what sense “individual” will appear later) than which no other individual being could conceivably be greater, but which itself, in another “state,” could become greater (perhaps by the creation within itself of new constituents). Otherwise expressed, let us define perfection as an excellence such that rivalry or superiority on the part of other individuals is impossible, but self-superiority is not impossible. Or again, let us say that the perfect is the “self-surpassing surpasser of all.”312
To the question “Is there a strictly immutable yet living being?” Hartshorne answers, “No, life in any sense, no matter how exalted, implies some form of real change or becoming—indeed some form of real growth.” To Hartshorne, “the history of natural theology from Aristotle, Philo, and Augustine to Hume and Kant” has brought out a theism of paradox that “has no rational content.” The error “is one of the penalties we have had to pay for putting too much trust in the first form of rational metaphysical thought, the Greek.”313 Hartshorne concluded that God must be self-surpassing in knowledge:
Consider the traditional transcendent property of omniscience or cognitive infallibility. Whatever exists, the infallible (analogically speaking) knows this existence; yet not even the infallible can know the possible but non-existent as existent, for this would be error, not knowledge. The infallible must, of course, be capable of knowing and certain to know the actuality of the possible should it be actual. To be infallible, then, is to be actually in cognitive relation to what actually exists, and potentially in relation to what could exist. The duality of actual and possible, or of concrete and abstract, cannot be suspended even with reference to the omniscient.314
Other process thinkers concur. For example, Tyron Inbody interprets Job’s encounter with God using the language of process theology: “In this encounter with Job, God learned to recognize, to acknowledge, and to accept the antinomies that so far have been hidden in God’s own unconsciousness. In this moment of self-reflection God discovers that if Job gains knowledge of God, God must also learn to know Godself.”315
In a co-authored book, two of the most influential process thinkers, John Cobb and David Ray Griffin, defined omniscience in the following way:
To say that God is omniscient means that in every moment of the divine life God knows everything which is knowable at that time. The concrete actuality is temporal, relative, dependent, and constantly changing. In each moment of God’s life there are new, unforeseen happenings in the world which only then have become knowable. Hence, God’s concrete knowledge is dependent upon the decisions made by the world actualities. God’s knowledge is always relativized by, in the sense of internally related to, the world.316
In addition, Shubert Ogden argues that God is both perfect and in process, and that the one implies the other:
The point is not that God is growing and therefore is “a God who is not or who is not yet completely perfect,” but that “growing” is itself a wholly positive conception, of which, as of all positive conceptions, God is the eminent or perfect exemplification. In other words, the new theism asserts that God is “completely perfect” in whatever sense these words have any coherent meaning and then questions whether the old use of the words is not, in part, meaningless.317
The philosophers who have put forth these arguments would be considered by most conservative Christians to be far too liberal in their views. But a much more conservative movement within evangelical Christianity known as “open theism” has begun to develop within the last two decades, and it has much in common with process theology, though it nonetheless claims to be biblically based.318 Indeed, the basic primer of this movement, The Openness of God, has as its subtitle A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God.319 Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, David Basinger, Richard Rice, Gregory A. Boyd, Terence Fretheim, and William Hasker are among the most influential thinkers in this movement. John Sanders argues:
According to openness theology, the triune God of love has, in almighty power, created all that is and is sovereign over all. In freedom God decided to create beings capable of experiencing his love. God loves us and desires for us to enter into reciprocal relations of love with God as well as our fellow creatures. In creating us the divine intention was that we would come to experience the triune love and respond to it with love of our own and freely come to collaborate with God towards the achievement of his goals.320
Central to open theism is the self-limiting God (as opposed to the ontologically limited God of process theology). According to openness theists, God limits his knowledge of the future in order that we may be truly free agents that can enter into a reciprocally loving relationship with God.
In speaking of the reasons why openness theologians have decided to take the route they have taken, Clark Pinnock says: “Love and not freedom was our central concern because it was God’s desire for loving relationships which required freedom. In a controversial move, we also envisaged God making a world, the future of which was not yet completely settled, again to make room for the input of significant creatures.”321 And again, “According to openness theism, for example, the future is partly settled and partly unsettled, partly determined and partly undetermined and, therefore, partly unknown even to God and it holds that God himself has a temporal aspect.”322 John Sanders defines God’s omniscience in the following way:
The omniscient God knows all that can be known or all that he wants to know. . . . In the openness debate the focus is on the nature of the future: is it fully knowable, fully unknowable or partially knowable and partially unknowable? Even if the future is fully knowable does God choose not to know it? According to open theism God knows the past and present with exhaustive definite knowledge and knows the future as partly definite (closed) and partly indefinite (open). God’s knowledge of the future contains knowledge of what God has decided to bring about unilaterally (that which is definite or settled), knowledge of possibilities (that which is indefinite) and those events that are determined to occur (e.g. an asteroid hitting a planet). Hence, the future is partly open or indefinite and partly closed or definite. It is not the case that just anything may happen, for God has acted in history to bring about events in order to achieve his unchanging purpose. Graciously, however, God invites us to collaborate with him to bring the open part of the future into being.323
While many Christian thinkers still hold to the static notion of God which emerged out of the biblical/classical synthesis, significant movements in contemporary Christian theology, most notably process and openness thought, espouse process in God in ways closely aligned with Joseph Smith’s thought.324 But new theological winds are blowing still more widely over the landscape of Christian thought. Many of them are the outgrowth of the demise of divine impassibility. With such a central doctrine being put to rest, a cluster of logically related ideas may also end up in the theological graveyard. As Clark Pinnock explains, “The conventional package of attributes is tightly woven. You cannot deny one, such as impassibility, without casting doubt on others, like immutability. It’s like pulling on a thread and unraveling a sweater. A little boldness is required; tentative changes will not do.”325 Similarly, Nicholas Wolterstorff:
Once you pull on the thread of impassibility, a lot of other threads come along with it. Aseity, for example—that is, unconditionedness. The biblical witness seems to me clearly to be that God allows himself to be affected by the doings of the creatures God created. What led the traditional theologians to affirm aseity was their philosophical argument that the world is such that it can only be explained if we postulate a being which is the condition of everything but itself, itself being conditioned by nothing. To give up aseity then is to give up an argument for God’s existence—an argument which is questionable in any case. One also has to give up on immutability and eternity [timelessness]. If God really responds, God is not metaphysically immutable and, if not metaphysically immutable, not eternal [timeless].326
One hundred and sixty years ago, Joseph saw God as living, acting, responding, and even as continually self-surpassing. Once foreign to conventional Christian theology, this vision of God is becoming commonplace.
VII. The Fate of the Unevangelized
A. Joseph’s Views
One of the puzzles challenging thoughtful Christians is the scriptural assertion that there is “none other name under heaven [save Jesus Christ] given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Faithful Christians have no reservations in recognizing Christ as their sole source of salvation, yet how are they to make sense of the fate of the myriad souls who have lived and died on this earth never hearing the name of Christ nor having adequate opportunity to accept his salvific gift? Do they suffer eternally? Are they forever excluded from the joy of eternal life with God? In his book The Logic of God Incarnate, Thomas Morris, professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, explains that a “scandal” arises when considering “a simple set of questions” asked of theologians who assert that only through Jesus Christ can all be saved: How can any be held accountable for something of which they have no knowledge? What of those from cultures with religious traditions wholly disconnected from Christianity? If God is just, why did he give conditions for salvation that are unavailable to most people? “Is not the love of God better understood as universal,” concludes Morris, rather than “limited to a mediation through the one particular individual, Jesus of Nazareth?”327 Consideration of this challenging issue has produced a wide array of answers from Christian theologians, ranging from restrictivism (all who never hear of or accept Christ in this life are forever damned) to universalism (all will ultimately through Christ be reconciled to God and receive eternal life).
Joseph Smith’s revelations from God provide a divine method of justly resolving the fate of the unevangelized without compromising Christ’s unique role as Savior and Redeemer. Joseph fully grasped the despair-filled quandary of the fate of the unevangelized, but could not fathom a God who would allow such arrant injustice to exist unmitigated. As an example Joseph gave the case of two brothers, who are “equally intelligent, learned, virtuous and lovely, walking in uprightness and in all good conscience.” One brother dies without hearing the gospel, and the other hears and accepts the message of salvation. Joseph asked, “Shall the one become the partaker of glory and the other be consigned to hopeless perdition? Is there no chance for his escape?” Noting that sectarianism does not give this chance for escape, Joseph concluded, “Such an idea is worse than atheism.” Instead, Joseph taught that “there is never a time when the spirit is too old to approach God. . . . There is a way to release the spirits of the dead; that is by the power and authority of the Priesthood—by binding and loosing on earth.” The doctrine of redemption for the dead “exhibits the greatness of divine compassion” in God.328
Joseph’s teachings emphasized postmortem evangelization of all those who did not hear the gospel message in this life.329 Directly linked with postmortem evangelization is the performing of vicarious baptisms for those who have died without this essential ordinance, thus preserving Christ’s injunction, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Hence, Latter-day Saints today consider redeeming the dead one of the three primary missions of the Church.330 Joseph’s doctrine of the redemption of the dead allows God to be both merciful and just to all men uniformly, places all mankind within equal grasp of eternal salvation through Christ, and demands and provides universal means for the selfsame ordinances required of every person regardless of the geography or chronology of that person’s earthly sojourn.331 In short, all human beings in all areas and ages of the world will ultimately hear Christ’s good news and have equal opportunity to accept or reject this message of salvation. Thus Joseph confirmed:
[God] holds the reins of judgment in His hands; He is a wise Lawgiver, and will judge all men, not according to the narrow, contracted notions of men, but, “according to the deeds done in the body whether they be good or evil,” or whether these deeds were done in England, America, Spain, Turkey, or India. He will judge them, “not according to what they have not, but according to what they have,” those who have lived without law, will be judged without law, and those who have a law, will by judged by that law. We need not doubt the wisdom and intelligence of the Great Jehovah; He will award judgment or mercy to all nations according to their several deserts, their means of obtaining intelligence, the laws by which they are governed, the facilities afforded them of obtaining correct information, and His inscrutable designs in relation to the human family; and when the designs of God shall be made manifest, and the curtain of futurity be withdrawn, we shall all of us eventually have to confess that the Judge of all the earth has done right.332
Joseph’s view, then, does not minimize the importance of this life for those who do not hear of Christ while alive. On the contrary, he affirms that all men will be judged according to how they responded in the flesh to whatever law they had access. This will then play a significant factor in their judgment. What Joseph’s position makes clear is that all men will hear the gospel and have access to its saving ordinances; thus, as Peter says, they will be able to be “judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit” (1 Pet. 4:6).
Although Joseph saw his teachings as being in substantial concordance and harmony with the Bible,333 he did not consider his views on the issue to be just one more human interpretation of the relevant biblical texts. No human interpretation, no matter how sincerely and carefully crafted, is ultimately compelling. Rather, his view came out of direct revelation from the risen Lord.334 Thus, divine disclosure from the Word, not a scholarly exegesis of the word, stands as the uncompromising foundation of Joseph’s position.
Joseph’s revelation on the fate of the unevangelized brings comforting clarity and a deeper appreciation for the equity and charity of God to an issue which otherwise challenges one’s belief in the universality of God’s love towards his children of all dispensations and locations. God anticipated the predicament of his many children he knew would never hear the glad tidings of the gospel while in mortality, and he prepared a way “before the world was” of equitably solving the problem in perfect love and justice.335 This doctrine has inspired one of the most exulting passages of Latter-day Saint scripture. In language that is saturated with joy, Joseph exclaimed the exciting prospects of the unfolding work for the dead:
Now, what do we hear in the gospel which we have received? A voice of gladness! A voice of mercy from heaven; and a voice of truth out of the earth; glad tidings for the dead; a voice of gladness for the living and the dead; glad tidings of great joy. . . . Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad. Let the earth break forth into singing. Let the dead speak forth anthems of eternal praise to the King Immanuel, who hath ordained, before the world was, that which would enable us to redeem them out of their prison; for the prisoners shall go free. (D&C 128:19, 22)
Truly, then, “God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34) as all have equal access to his salvific gift through his plan of perfect foresight. Joseph concludes, “A view of these things reconciles the Scriptures of truth, justifies the ways of God to man, places the human family upon an equal footing, and harmonizes with every principle of righteousness, justice and truth.”336
B. Christian Divergence and Criticisms
It is widely believed today that the church in ancient times held to some notion of postmortem evangelization. This theme is scattered throughout various early Christian sources and seems to suggest that the early church was in agreement that Christ “descended into hell,” per the Apostles’ Creed. According to Jeffrey A. Trumbower,
Numerous conceptions of posthumous rescue found their way into the earliest Christian speculations: an implicit universal salvation (Rom. 11:32), vicarious baptism “on behalf of the dead” (1 Cor. 15:29), talk of proclaiming the gospel among the dead (1 Pet. 4:6), the dead apostles’ baptizing the righteous dead (Shepherd of Hermas, Sim. 9.16.2–7), and even God’s granting the righteous the privilege of saving some of the damned at the final judgment (Apocalypse of Peter 14:1–4; Sibylline Oracles 2:330–38).337
All of this, suggests Trumbower, fits into the practices of the larger cultures of the time, namely the Greek, Roman, and Jewish concern and pious acts for their dead.338
Postmortem evangelization continued in the writings of early Christian thinkers such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen. A general concern for the dead and belief in Christ’s visit and release of dead souls from hell was a very popular early Christian conviction. “That the doctrine was taken for granted by A.D. 150,” says John Sanders,
is evident from the fact that the heretics Marcion and the Valentinians, who were criticized on most of their beliefs by the early Church Fathers, were not challenged at all on this point. Both the early Fathers and the heretics agreed that Christ descended into hell. Even the cautious Tertullian accepted the doctrine without squabble. In the Arian controversy again, both sides agreed on the descent into hell. It can be concluded from this that the doctrine of Christ’s descent into hell and the release of souls therefrom was well established by the end of the first century. The only question through this time involved who was released.339
Ignatius, Irenaeus, and Tertullian posited that the salvation proffered to the “dead” included only Old Testament patriarchs and prophets; on the other hand, the heretic Marcion, who had a strong distaste of the Old Testament, suggested the very opposite: Christ, in fact, damned all Old Testament believers and released all the Gentiles. Yet despite their differing opinions, “both groups agreed that the purpose of the descent was to give salvation to the dead.”340
In later centuries, ideas concerning postmortem evangelization shifted. Augustine, writing in the early fifth century, marks the turning point away from postmortem evangelization. As Trumbower notes, “By the time he wrote the City of God, Book 21, in the mid-420s, [Augustine] had formulated what would become the clear position in the West rejecting all forms of posthumous salvation.”341 In Roman Catholic circles, his ideas remain highly influential—a solid doctrine formed in Roman Catholicism that upon a person’s death, an immediate, unalterable decree was made concerning that person’s salvation.342 Until the second half of the nineteenth century, when certain Protestants343 considered the idea, little debate for postmortem evangelization took place. In the 1830s, then, when his doctrines concerning the redemption of the dead emerged, Joseph Smith found himself treading on doctrinal ground that had been practically untouched for more than a thousand years.
C. Contemporary Christian Convergence
Postmortem evangelization (variously called “eschatological evangelization,” “future probation,” “probation after death,” or “divine perseverance”) has made a strong resurgence onto the current Christian theological scene. But this development has not occurred all at once. Despite the Apostles’ Creed mentioning that Christ “descended into hell,” Christian theologians have been unable to come to a consensus on what the creed exactly refers to. Such reticence in affirming Christ’s descent is illustrated in the following anecdote shared by Millard Erickson:
In the late 1960s the chaplain of Wheaton College decided that a series of chapel messages on the Apostles Creed would be desirable. Members of the Bible department were asked to preach, each on a different phrase of the creed. No one, however, was willing to preach on “descended into Hades,” because no one believed in it. Therefore that phrase was omitted from the series.344
Many Christian thinkers today, however, are advancing various postmortem evangelization theories based on Christ’s descent into hades. “The twentieth century,” says John Sanders, “has witnessed a tremendous proliferation of belief in eschatological evangelization among theologians and biblical commentators from diverse traditions.”345 Indeed, Erickson considers the wider issue of the fate of the unevangelized “one of the burning issues of the present day,”346 and “only recently have orthodox or evangelical Christians expressed interest in [postmortem evangelization],” which “for much of its earlier history . . . has existed virtually on the fringes of Christianity.”347
Among the leading theologians helping to bring postmortem evangelization from off of the fringes, Sanders lists Joseph Leckie, Gabriel Fackre, and George Lindbeck.348 Donald Bloesch, John Macquarrie, Stephen T. Davis, and others could be added to the list.349 Perhaps what appeals most to advocates of postmortem evangelization is the way in which it preserves Christ’s role as sole author of salvation (exclusivism) while yet allowing all humankind opportunity to hear of Christ. Many see no other way to solve the puzzle while maintaining these two tenets. Indeed, as Sanders points out, “If one holds (1) that salvation is universally accessible, (2) that explicit knowledge of Christ is necessary for salvation, and (3) that the only reason anyone is condemned to hell is for rejection of Jesus Christ, then it is not unreasonable to conclude that the unevangelized must receive some kind of opportunity after death to respond to Christ.”350 Further,
It is argued that postmortem evangelism provides the best answer as to how God makes salvation universally accessible. It has tremendous “theological fit” when accompanied by the control beliefs of God’s universal salvific will, the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation, the necessity that one hears about Christ in order to have faith, and the fact that God is loving, just, and fair. Furthermore, it makes use of the long-standing belief in Christ’s descent into hell and the release of certain souls there. It provides a means to hold up Jesus Christ as the universal Savior without succumbing to universalism.351
Conversely, what causes the most trepidation concerning postmortem evangelization is its lack of explicit biblical warrant. The prime biblical passages used in support of postmortem evangelization are 1 Peter 3:18–20 and 4:6. The problem is that the meaning of these passages is highly debated, and, much like the “He descended into hell” phrase of the Apostles’ Creed, no consensus has emerged on what these verses refer to. In order to claim that the passage affirms postmortem evangelization, Millard Erickson says that
it is necessary to demonstrate that 1 Peter 3:18–20 does indeed teach that Christ preached the gospel to individuals in hades between the first Good Friday and Easter, and that this was a genuine offer of salvation on the basis of belief. Second, one must demonstrate that the offer made to those Old Testament persons is also available to all persons who live and die after that time.352
This has, traditionally at least, been shaky ground.
But within the last century, more and more biblical commentators are affirming at least the first half of the equation—that Christ did indeed preach the gospel to disembodied spirits who had the choice of accepting his message.353 Many are also willing to consider the second half as well, suggesting its implicitness in 1 Peter in addition to being a natural outgrowth of God’s mighty mercy. For instance, Gabriel Fackre finds the second half implicit not only in 1 Peter, but in the whole of the Bible itself:
God’s desire to save—with our freedom to resist—is the “story line” of Scripture, clear at every turn of the tale, from creation to Fall, to the covenants with Noah and Israel, to the person and work of Jesus Christ, to the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the church, in the redeemed, and on the world, and finally to the consummation of all things in the resurrection of the dead, the return of Christ, the final judgment and everlasting life in the reign of God.
The sweep of this story shows us that God’s pursuit of the divine purpose is indefatigable. . . . The last and least, in time and eternity, will not be overlooked or denied access to the saving Word of Jesus Christ.354
Of those advancing postmortem evangelization, there are few, if any, who go further and additionally claim baptism as both required of all and available to all. In terms of explicit biblical support, 1 Corinthians 15:29 is the prime witness, though this passage, not unlike 1 Peter 3:18–20, is one of the most puzzling and divergently interpreted verses in the Bible. In Paul’s great defense of a physical resurrection, he mentions almost in passing those “which are baptized for the dead” as further proof of his argument. Many and varied have been the interpretations of what Paul could possibly have meant. Jeffrey Trumbower is one of many who, like Joseph Smith, sees a description of some actual early Christian practice:
Enormous vats of ink have been emptied in both pre-critical and critical scholarship speculating on precisely what those Corinthian Christians were doing, why they were doing it, and Paul’s attitude toward it. . . . I agree with [Mathis] Rissi and Hans Conzelmann (and, for that matter, with Mormon prophet Joseph Smith), that the grammar and logic of the passage point to a practice of vicarious baptism of a living person for the benefit of a dead person.355
This passage of scripture remains a topic of current debate. A number of scholars suggest that the Corinthians referred to were in fact practicing some form of vicarious baptism, yet scholars are unsure what to do with this puzzling occurrence. “Those who put this forward,” says R. Alistair Campbell, “do so with the air of someone making the best of a bad job. . . . [O]ne detects little actual enthusiasm for this solution even among those who propose it, and in fact many scholars remain unsatisfied with it.”356 This dissatisfaction is caused not by grammatical difficulties inherent in the Greek, but by the theological complications inherent in the passage’s implications. Thus, in his biblical commentary Gordon Fee notes, “The normal reading of the text is that some Corinthians are being baptized, apparently vicariously, in behalf of some people who have already died. It would be fair to add that this reading is such a plain understanding of the Greek text that no one would ever have imagined the various alternatives were it not for the difficulties involved.”357
The number of theologians who are advancing or considering the idea of postmortem evangelization grew rapidly in the twentieth century and continues to the present. Most are drawn by its powerful “theological fit” which makes both Christ’s message and mercy ultimately available to all. Although biblical support of this view has not been part of the traditional interpretive consensus, much current scholarship has shown support for postmortem evangelization in 1 Peter 3:18–20 and other biblical passages.358 Despite these current developments, Joseph Smith’s doctrine remains unique in Christian thought. As mentioned above, his coupling of postmortem evangelization with vicarious baptisms for the dead reflects a position distinct among current Christian theologies. Joseph not only maintained that hearing of and accepting Christ would be a live option for all humankind, but also that the ordinance of baptism is required of and available to all who would enter Christ’s kingdom; thus the LDS emphasis on worldwide missionary efforts and vicarious baptisms for the dead. Although Joseph recognized biblical support for his doctrines, their ultimate source was the revelations he received from God.
Final Thoughts on Joseph Smith
I began this piece asking how far contemporary theologians have come in appropriating theological insights once unique to Joseph Smith. At the conclusion, two points need to be made explicit that were implicit in this study. (1) None of these spokesmen from contemporary Christianity has pulled all of these doctrines together in any comprehensive way, though pieces and fragments of the doctrines are everywhere. Joseph, however, did pull them together, and addressed each of these theological conundrums in revolutionary and brilliant ways. (2) The methods employed by Joseph Smith compared to the methods of contemporary spokesmen vary greatly. While these notable theologians have come to their conclusions through reason, experience, biblical exegesis, and reconsideration of tradition, Joseph bypassed any such hermeneutical exercise, instead claiming divine revelation and authority. Harold Bloom concludes his study of Joseph Smith with these words: “If one decides that Joseph Smith was no prophet . . . then one’s dominant emotion towards him must be wonder. There is no other figure remotely like him in our entire national history, and it is unlikely that anyone like him ever can come again.”359
Charlatan or prophet? Heresy or truth? While the reactions to Joseph’s doctrines remain clearly mixed, one thing is certain: the doctrines he proclaimed are not as “unique” as they used to be.