Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Doctrine of a Plurality of Gods Is Not Polytheism

By request, rather than diverging in the comments section of a recent post, I'm dedicating a new post as a place of discussion concerning some matters of confusion. It involves belief in a plurality of gods, which some credal Christians mistake for polytheism. (One disclaimer for those who mistakenly insist that LDS are polytheists: even evangelical scholar Gerald McDermott has conceded that Mormons are not polytheists, and clarifies that "polytheism portrays a world in which competing gods either vie for ultimate authority or have delimited provinces over which they rule".)

While the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are separate beings, they function as one God, or Godhead, to oversee, bless, and save the human family. There is no competition between Them. They are "one", and share a perfect love and unity. Moreover, They desire that we too share a relationship of love. See "That They May Be One As We Are One".

To avoid confusion, I should clarify and separate two different concepts here. There are two different kinds of plurality: the plurality within the Godhead (only three) and the plurality that arises from the fact that exalted children of God can be called gods. Whether we're talking about a plurality of Gods within the Godhead (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost), or a plurality of gods (ie: all the "sons of God"), it doesn't change the fact that there is only one true source of worship, love, power, light, and glory in the universe--God the Eternal Father, His Son, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost.

Elder M. Russell Ballard touched on both kinds of "plurality" and their accompanying confusion years ago in a talk entitled, "Building Bridges of Understanding":
[An] area of misunderstanding among some of our friends in Christianity is that they refer to us as “polytheists,” meaning that we believe in a plurality of Gods. Much misunderstanding would be avoided if they understood that we worship only one Godhead, consisting of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. We believe that the biblical record teaches that God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost are separate persons. When the Savior was baptized, the Father spoke His approval from heaven, and the Holy Ghost was witnessed to be present by the sign of a dove (see Matt. 3:16–17). Likewise the Bible records the prayers of Jesus Christ to our Father in Heaven, a separate being (see John 17:3). We believe this doctrine is taught in the Bible despite what the creeds of other Christian denominations may teach. Such creeds were created hundreds of years after Christ’s mortal ministry through the processes of debate and compromise, often at the expense of biblical truths. The falling away from the teachings of Jesus Christ resulted in the Apostasy, which made the restoration of the gospel essential. This is a subject to be studied by all; the various Christian creeds were born through church councils and other efforts to define the true nature of God and His Son, Jesus Christ. Through revelations to modern prophets, we now know God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost and our true relationship to each one of them.

There is another related dimension of the scriptures that causes discomfort for many traditional Christians regarding this whole matter. We believe our Father in Heaven has promised His faithful sons and daughters “all things”—even that those worthy of exaltation in the celestial kingdom will be as “gods, even the sons of God” and that “these shall dwell in the presence of God and His Christ forever and ever” (see D&C 76:55, 58, 62). Although we do not know the full detail of these promises or what is fully meant by being “gods, even the sons of God,” we do accept these promises as revealed doctrine. Yet notwithstanding these promises, we say that for us there is indeed no other object of worship than God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Now, in fairness to credal Christians, the doctrine of the Trinity also recognizes that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are separate persons (that is, that the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father), but it holds that these divine persons mysteriously share the same ousia, substance, or being. Latter-day Saints recognize that there is more than one way to worship the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as "one God" than simply numerically as one ousia. These three divine persons are one in purpose, love, unity, and just about every other way except physically. Thus, Mormons also believe in "one God", even though we know each has their own being/ousia. (ie: D&C 20:28: "Which Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God, infinite and eternal, without end."). Therefore, notwithstanding this separateness of being, or plurality of Gods within the Godhead, because they are "one", there is no polytheism.

On the most misunderstood point of a plurality of gods in reference to LDS belief in deification, people need to understand that "becoming a god" is not the equivalent of setting up independently from God, replacing or displacing God, or competing with God. Deification involves becoming the sons of God, and this is done only in and through a loving relationship with God, and becoming one with the Father and the Son as Christ prayed we would in John 17. Stephen Robinson explains in his book "Are Mormons Christians?":

Some believe that certain LDS doctrines are so bizarre, so totally foreign to biblical or historical Christianity, that they simply cannot be tolerated. In terms of the LDS doctrines most often criticized on these grounds, however –the doctrine of deification and its corollary, the plurality of gods–this claim does not hold up to historical scrutiny. Early Christian saints and theologians, later Greek Orthodoxy, modern Protestant evangelists, and even C. S. Lewis have all professed their belief in a doctrine of deification. The scriptures themselves talk of many "gods" and use the term god in a limited sense for beings other than the Father, the Son, or the Holy Ghost. If this language is to be tolerated in scripture and in ancient and modern orthodox Christians without cries of "polytheism!" then it must be similarly tolerated in the Latter-day Saints.

If scripture can use the term gods for nonultimate beings, if the early Church could, if Christ himself could, then Latter-day Saints cannot conceivably be accused of being outside the Christian tradition for using the same term in the same way.

I don't need to argue whether the doctrine is true, although I certainly believe it is. I am only arguing that other Christians of unimpeachable orthodoxy have believed in deification long before the Latter-day Saints came along, and that it has been accepted and tolerated in them as part of their genuine Christianity. Fair play demands the same treatment for the Latter-day Saints

God Bless The Women In Our Lives

"How thankful I am, how thankful we all must be, for the women in our lives. God bless them. May His great love distill upon them and crown them with luster and beauty, grace and faith. And may His Spirit distill upon us as men and lead us ever to hold them in respect, in gratitude, giving encouragement, strength, nurture, and love, which is the very essence of the gospel of our Redeemer and Lord."

-Gordon B. Hinckley, "The Women in Our Lives"

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Chief End of God

John Piper seems to be one of the most highly respected Calvinist thinkers today. I say this only to set up the fact that his book, Desiring God, is highly respected by Calvinists. Now, I can personally find much to admire in the devotion of many Calvinists. But by reading one little excerpt from Pipers' book, I found that the Latter-day Saint and Calvinist view on the chief end of God could hardly be any starker:
"The ultimate ground of Christian Hedonism is the fact that God is uppermost in His own affections:

The chief end of God is to glorify God and enjoy Himself forever

The reason this may sound strange is that we are more accustomed to think about our duty than God's design. And when we do ask about God's design, we are too prone to describe it with ourselves at the center of God's affections. We may say, for example, that His design is to redeem the world. Or to save sinners. Or to restore creation. Or the like.

But God's saving designs are penultimate, not ultimate. Redemption, salvation, and restoration are not God's ultimate goal. These He performs for the sake of something greater: namely, the enjoyment He has in glorifying Himself. The bedrock foundation of Christian Hedonism is not God's allegiance to us, but to Himself.

If God were not infinitely devoted to the preservation, display, and enjoyment of His own glory, we could have no hope of finding happiness in Him. But if He does in fact employ all His sovereign power and infinite wisdom to maximise the enjoyment of His own glory, then we have a foundation on which to stand and rejoice."

Turns out, according to Calvinists, that God is quite narcissistic. I'm almost stunned by the acceptance that God would create such a breath-taking universe and set up such a marvelous plan of redemption, ultimately merely for Himself. No. There's more to it than that. God maximizes His enjoyment and glory in seeing His children become more than we are now--more than we could ever become without Him. In short, God's work and glory is us! "For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man." (Moses 1:39).

He takes joy in helping His children advance and become like Him, one with Him. Now that is true love and grace. That is certainly a reason to be filled with ultimate gratitude, love, and praise. Yes, God is superlatively great, but He's not selfish. Similarly to how I take the most satisfaction from seeing my own children learn and grow, I deeply believe He receives His chief pleasure by watching and helping his own children grow and become like Him. Through the enabling power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, we can become exalted through His grace, sharing in His quality of life. That, to me, is the chief end of God--not egotistically taking pleasure in Himself.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Calling All Calvinists...(or one or two)

While participating in a recent discussion on the foreknowledge of God and free will, I wondered how a Calvinist, who believes that everything in the future is already predestined and fixed, makes sense of the idea of real “free will”.

Sincere question: Are there any Calvinists out there that could fill me in on this from the Calvinist perspective?

Monday, August 3, 2009

True Christians and Grace

I recently came across this gem from Blake Ostler:

The Book of Mormon is a great place to go to find the LDS doctrine of grace. However, we often butcher it beyond recognition. The notion that we are saved by grace “after all we can do” is often translated into “we must do all that we can do first in order to be saved by grace.” Of course, such a reading eviscerates the text of any notion of grace at all. What it really means, it seems to me, is that by the grace of God, through Christ’s atonement, we are made free to choose for ourselves. Herein lies the difference between LDS and at least Calvinist evangelicals (and we shouldn’t lump together Arminians with Calvinists since they are two very different way of elucidating grace).

Here is the issue. The Book of Mormon teaches that we are free by grace to choose for ourselves. We are made free to repent of our sins and to turn to Christ in the act of repentance (which I think is based on the Hebrew term for “repent,” shuv, which means merely to turn around). However, if we must do something to receive the grace, then Calvinist evangelicals will reject it as a gospel of works (just as they reject Arminianism for the same reason). However, the Calvinist view of grace faces insuperable problems. According to them, because of original sin we are utterly incapable of choosing or repenting for ourselves. Therefore, if we are saved, it must be God who makes the choice as to whom is saved and who is damned. We arrive that easily at the doctrine of predestination which is entailed the Calvinist notion of grace. If we have no say in accepting grace, then it must be all up to God and predestination follows. If we have some say, then it won’t count as grace for many evangelicals.

In my view, I love the re-orietation of the doctrine of grace in LDS scripture. I view justification, the act of being born again, converted or “saved by grace” as the equivalent of entering into relationship with the Father through Christ. He accepts us into relationship without any conditions attached in pure love (we could call it ‘unconditional love’ except for the apostate and misbegotten view that uncondtional love is not a part of the gospel of Christ that has infiltrated our doctrine). We are thus accepted into relationship with God through sheer grace alone without works of any kind. All that we can do is accept the gift of love, the gift of the Son, that the Father offers to us unconditionally. However, once in the covenant relationship (entered through baptism), we must abide by the commandments to remain in the relationship and grow in in the process of sanctification toward glorification and exaltation. However, these commandments are not heavy burdens but merely ways we are taught that loving people treat each other. “Works” are always “works of love,” the works that follow from abiding the law of love that summarizes all of the commandments.

To those who complain that repenting as a condition of salvation reinstates a gospel of works, I reply that repentance merely means giving up those behaviors and ways of being that alienate us and keep us from accepting of the gift of love that is offered to us. When a person holds out his hands to accept a gift it is not a “work” in the sense that earns the gift, but merely the willing acceptance of a gift. Here is the key difference in my view: the gift offered is a loving relationship — and a person who loves another always leaves the other free to choose whether to enter into relationship and whether to maintain it. Love, by its very nature, is freely chosen. That is why the evangelical (Calvinist) view of grace is actually the opposite of grace, for it doesn’t leave the beloved free to accept or reject the loving relationship that is offered.

One final comment. Whereas salvation or being freed from sin is a matter of grace, the reward that we receive is always a matter of judgment of the works done while in this mortal life. If we confuse these two, then we will confuse the scheme of grace and works. We will be judged and receive according to our deeds. Works relate to the life we live after we learn to love and accept the loving relationship which saves us in Christ. However, these works are not done because commanded (although they are part of the love commandment), they are done because we love one another. And by these works of love we know who the true Christians are.

-Comment #10 on God’s Plan of Grace (/of Love/of Happiness/of Salvation)

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Good Works/Dead Works and Appreciating a variety of Fruit

Spotlighting an excellent post: Producing Fruits, Not Just Works. A short excerpt:

The only "works" we can do that will have eternal impact and efficacy are those that are produced as a result of a connection to the Vine - that flow from the Spirit, are internalized into our very being and "produce" a more "perfect" (complete, whole and fully developed) soul. The challenge, in my opinion, is NOT to "do more". Rather, the challenge is to "do God's will" - to do what He wants us to do - to become what He wants us to become.

I also am convinced that this is a personal quest - that what he wants ME to do might be very different than what he wants YOU to do - and that I am forbidden to judge you if He produces peaches through me and grapes through you. That lack of judgmentalism (true charity) is one particular fruit of the vine - but my challenge this month is to be more able to understand and do what he wants ME to understand and do. In a nutshell, it is to be more in tune with personal revelation - and to follow it in my life to produce "good works" - the fruit he will share with and through me.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

An Obvious Contrast in "Love"

I feel compelled to share an obvious contrast between two quotes I recently read very close together. They come from two very different men who share a common desire to speak out of love for God's children:

Aaron Shafovaloff (ardent critic of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints):

"The Mormon Church is an evil, corrupt, dysfunctional organization that lacks integrity, institutional repentance, and a real pastoral love that yields clarity, crisp contrasts, and more practical bottom-up measures of correction and methods to afford checks and balances."

Henry B. Eyring (First Counselor in the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints):

"Our goal when we teach our children to pray is for them to want God to write upon their hearts and be willing then to go and do what God asks of them. It is possible for our children to have faith enough, from what they see us do and what we teach, that they can feel at least part of what the Savior felt as He prayed to have the strength to make His infinite sacrifice for us: “And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26:39).

"I have had prayers answered. Those answers were most clear when what I wanted was silenced by an overpowering need to know what God wanted. It is then that the answer from a loving Heavenly Father can be spoken to the mind by the still, small voice and can be written on the heart."

Can the contrast be any starker?