Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Letter to Local Journalist Who Wrote About Mormonism

Good afternoon Mr. Levy.  As a local San Antonio reader of the Express-News I noticed your front page article "GOP race has put the spotlight on Mormonism" Sunday morning.  However, I felt there was one line in particular which obfuscates what Mormons believe and might give a false impression to your readers.  While most people probably couldn't care less, I consider myself a very ecumenically minded Mormon and thus know that many do care, and therefore think a clarification is in order.

I refer to these two sentences: "The doctrine also breaks from the standard Christian belief that Jesus always was God.  He began as a spirit child, perfecting himself later into becoming God in a process also available to humanity in the hereafter."

There is actually quite a nuanced diversity within Mormon thought concerning the three points you mentioned in those two sentences above, and I write to you because I (as a Mormon) certainly don't wish to be lumped into an unnecessary stereotype that confuses what I believe (even if some Mormons believe it), but also because if I were you I would appreciate being notified where my writing could be stronger.  The three unsettled points in Mormon thought are listed below:

1. Whether Jesus has always been God or at some point zillions of years ago became God.  (I'm one of many Mormons who believes Jesus was always God, and thus strongly object anytime people say it's a "doctrine" or tenet of our faith that it's otherwise.  The truth is, there's much speculation that sometimes gets confused as standard doctrine (both within and without the church).  There's always room for interpretation, but it is indeed a fact that the title page of The Book of Mormon states that "Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God".  http://lds.org/scriptures/bofm/bofm-title?lang=eng

2.  Whether we were born/created as spirit children or whether we were uncreated/pre-existing spirits adopted by God.  See, for example, "God, Self, and Spiritual Birth: Two Perspectives" http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com/2011/01/god-self-and-spiritual-birth-two-perspectives/
Many Mormons thus believe that Jesus was uncreated and thus didn't "beg[i]n as a spirit child".

3.  What the process of theosis/exaltation means, in terms of becoming LIKE God (or a god) or "becoming God".  There are huge ramifications here.  Mormons do not (or at least should not) believe that they will somehow supplant God as if we are on the same track as God.  While some might believe that, Mormons more often speak of becoming "one" with God.  There is not a well defined doctrine, but rather a wide spectrum of Mormon thought in regards to what it means to become "gods" (with a lowercase g)  because God (the one and only uppercase "G") through his grace has the power to exalt His children.  Clearly, there is a difference between future exalted beings and the Exalted One we will always worship.   One helpful clarification about the idea that we can become like God was given by the Church in response to an interview by Fox News during the last election season:

"We believe that the apostle Peter's biblical reference to partaking of the divine nature and the apostle Paul's reference to being 'joint heirs with Christ' reflect the intent that children of God should strive to emulate their Heavenly Father in every way. Throughout the eternities, Mormons believe, they will reverence and worship God the Father and Jesus Christ. The goal is not to equal them or to achieve parity with them but to imitate and someday acquire their perfect goodness, love and other divine attributes."

I hope this helps sheds light on some of the nuances that are often missed when reporting on Mormonism, so that people don't assume all Mormons believe many of these tangential (and oft-debated) ideas are core elements of our faith.  (See, for example, "Approaching Mormon Doctrine" on the Church website:  http://newsroom.lds.org/article/approaching-mormon-doctrine)


Clean Cut said...

I actually really appreciate the following exchange between ji and Kristine. It relates to this issue:

ji Says:
October 12, 2011 at 12:52 pm
Not all Mormons “vehemently insist” that Jesus is part of what God created. Some (perhaps the minority) proclaim that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, as indicated in the Book of Mormon title page and throughout the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants (and the Bible, too). To me (a Mormon), Jesus is fully God and always has been and always will be. I see great meaning in the Savior’s instruction shown in John 14:6-ff.
I would re-write a sentence in the second paragraph as “If Jesus is part of what God created–as some Mormons vehemently insist he is–then he’s also tainted. . .”
This is not intended to be a threadjack. Given the insertion of the “some”, I agree that we are not seeing the matter as some of the louder Evangelical Christians see it — and you are right that our protestations are not convincing to them.

Kristine Says:
October 12, 2011 at 1:09 pm
ji–the trouble is believing that in the Mormon understanding Jesus remains embodied as a separate personage from God. Both the embodiment and the separateness are serious heresies.

ji Says:
October 12, 2011 at 1:22 pm
Kristine (no. 13) — I would offer that Jesus is embodied separately from the Father, not from God. In my heart, Jesus is our God — he is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob — he is the God of Israel and the whole earth. There are many, many verses of scripture so testifying to me, but let me cite just one, D&C 132:12, where Jesus Christ claims for himself the title of God and says no man comes unto the Father but by him. In this verse, Jesus acknowledges the Father and the goal of our return but retains the title of our God for himself.
Sometimes, I think the common practice among Mormons of denying (or de-emphasizing) the divinity of Jesus Christ and emphasizing the separateness of the Father and the Son is problematic for others. Perhaps they see us as they do because of the picture we paint ourselves.


Clean Cut said...

Not only do I appreciate ji's comments about Jesus as God, but his last line concerning the picture we often paint of ourselves.

I had that in mind when I wrote "Let Us Be Very Clear On This Point" .

I'm afraid the "Elder Brother" strand of thought (based on an understanding on the pre-mortal existence of which we know so very little) is used far too much (I heard it in fast and testimony meeting just last Sunday) and it de-emphasizes Christ as God and Savior. Not once does the Book of Mormon refer to Christ as "brother". It does, however, refer to Him as God. I think we need to emphasize that fact much more--as well as the fact that He is the father of our spiritual rebirth. We become born again as His sons and daughters.

Clean Cut said...

By the way, I really do want to welcome feedback here. I know the letter isn't perfect--I didn't have the time to write a better one. I also know there will be some Mormons who will want to debate this or that element of "doctrine". I'm happy to do that as well.

In fact, one big debate comes comes to mind concerning whether the Father has also always been God and meaning of the King Follet Sermon. (In summary, I also believe that the Father has always been God and that there never was a time He was not--mortal experiences notwithstanding.)

Clean Cut said...

Update--Mr Levy wrote me back the following:

"Thanks for the taking the time to write this. And I appreciate the spirit in which you write it.

If I understand you correctly, you are saying that you are among many Mormons that believe Jesus was always God....Correct?

I'll bring this question up to the local LDS leaders I worked with for the story. They did not mention there was such a spectrum of beliefs about this.

But in the meantime, I did a quick search on this and see this line from "Gospel Principles" from the LDS site:

"The first spirit born to our heavenly parents was Jesus Christ"

The context of this was that Jesus and other prophets came to Earth to fulfill a divine purpose but that before they did they were born as spirit children of God."

Clean Cut said...

My response back to him is as follows:

"If I understand you correctly, you are saying that you are among many Mormons that believe Jesus was always God....Correct?"

That is correct! Thanks for checking. I hope the local LDS leader is aware of the larger conversation, because often they are not. (They're lay volunteers as well, and some are more informed than others). A great recommendation would be to look into various excellent (and "faithful") Mormon scholars such as Richard Bushman and Terrell Givens. Richard Bushman in particular wrote "A very short introduction to Mormonism" publish by Oxford and addresses many of these issues that are overlooked in simplistic manuals. http://www.amazon.com/Mormonism-Very-Short-Introduction-Introductions/dp/0195310306

You're also absolutely right to check the Gospel Principles manual, which is a Church publication. The problem is that these manuals leave much out and in the name of simplifying teachings, much of the alternative debate/intelectual thought is sidestepped. It is great as an introduction to the faith (anecdotal example: http://bycommonconsent.com/2010/09/23/gospel-principle-conversion/), but as a rigorous treatment of Mormon thought, to put it bluntly, the manuals can be horrible. "Gospel Principles" recently underwent revision (although many Mormons wished the revision had been more extensive). Here's an example of a responsible critique:


In regards to being spirit children, the passage you quote from Gospel Principles leaves out any nuance of "spirit birth", as though there is one standardized doctrine on this. Some take that "birth" process literally, some metaphorically. I like how Richard Bushman puts it:

"Where we differ is in spiritual birth, because there are some people who say that we really, in a way, we lived before, but we sort of really came into existence when we were, as we always say, underscoring, literally born of God. I don’t know why they had to underscore that, but that sounds like child birth. We want to have a Mother in heaven along with Father in heaven. Joseph Smith never taught that. That is a doctrine that came along shortly after his death. I’m not arguing against it, but I don’t think it’s the key to the story. The key to the story is the moment when God offers to take us under his wing and we agree. That’s the great moment."

That quote can be found at the previous link I shared with you (and is well worth your time and the time of your local contact person so they understand where I'm coming from) in terms of nuance: "God, Self and Spiritual Birth: Two Perspectives" http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com/2011/01/god-self-and-spiritual-birth-two-perspectives/.

There are strains of Mormon thought that have gained more traction over time on this "spirit birth" issue, although the Gospel Principles makes it seem there is only one. For a great historical primer, please refer to the following which evaluates various "spirit birth" thought models: http://bycommonconsent.com/2009/04/15/tripartite-existentialism/

Clean Cut said...

Mr. Levy responded insightfully:

"‪Thank you...Good resources that I'll look at...Seems like a lot of faiths in which there's a lot of nuances and parsing of words.....Faiths with a hierarchy such as Catholicism and LDS do have variance despite the official texts they produce....Catholics have the book of catechism for example that aims to flesh out meaning but it seems like the Mormon community there is variance."

Well said.

Rich Alger said...

It is a very interesting conversation you are having.

It reminds me of the on we had years ago. I find it interesting that you are referring to non-official blogs as a correction and clarification of what the reporting found in the gospel principles manual. I wonder if he will catch all the nuance.

Did you refer him to the newsroom articles? http://newsroom.lds.org/article/christ-centered-faith

Especially this one, http://newsroom.lds.org/article/what-mormons-believe-about-jesus-christ

Clean Cut said...

Thanks, Rich. You're absolutely right--it too reminds me of our epic conversation on exaltation, an infinite regression of gods, and the Most High God. :)

As to referring him to the blogs--that just seemed to me one of the most easily accesible representations of various Mormon thought where sometimes more robust discussion takes place.

I have nothing against referring him to Church websites--in fact I did so concerning "Approaching Mormon Doctrine". But I decided not to wade into the other parts of his article regarding the "Are Mormons Christians?" debate. I've had my own epic conversation on that here: "How Do You Define A Christian?"

Last Lemming said...

With respect to the phrase "The first spirit born to our heavenly parents was Jesus Christ," I think it is actually useful to refer back to the Nicene creed. It states that Jesus was "begotten, not made." I would point out to the critic that spirit birth is much more analogous to the Nicene "begotten" than it is to "made." The great Mormon heresy, therefore, is not that Jesus Christ is a created being who was not always God, but rather that the rest of us are also "begotten" beings with the potential to become like God. That puts the issue more in terms that creedal Christians will understand. (I would use the same approach if the "Jesus and Satan are brothers" issue were to come up.) They still won't like it, of course.

Papa D said...

Fascinating conversation - a nd excellent addition, Last Lemming. That's the exact approach I take when discussing this issue with someone who is reasonably knowledgeable and open to real discussion.

Clean Cut said...

Great point. LL. Blake Ostler has also made an insightful observation about this which I want to include here:

"Note that creedal traditionalists...also believe that Christ is begotten of the Father as the Son of God — including his divine nature. Just what “begetting” means in the various creeds is vague to say the least. However, it is sure that it means that the Son is dependent on the Father for his existence in some generative sense in the works of Athanasisus who is largely responsible for the creedal view of the Trinity. Look here: http://trinities.org/blog/archives/752#more-752

"Just for the record, I assert that both the Father and the Son are eternally divine. However, there is a priority of the Father in the sense that the Father offers his love to the Son, and in each moment of eternity the Son has freely chosen to fully return that love. They both offer their love to the Holy Ghost and the HG has freely chosen in each moment of eternity to return that love. It is in virtue of this loving interpenetration of freely cooperating wills that these three are one God and also have been eternally one God. Now they are inviting us into this same relationship."

Hunter said...

Good work! I especially like how you pointed out that there is a wide range of belief on seemingly basic points. Is the reporter going to republish or edit his article?

Anonymous said...

Last Lemming -- Good point about the Nicene Creed. If traditional Christians can say that Jesus was "begotten" yet has always been God, then it seems no more of a stretch to Jesus was born of Heavenly Parents and yet has always been God. The same paradox is involved in either case.

Clean Cut said...

Hunter, thanks--and in answer to your question, I doubt it. But I can hope for better understanding in the future.

Anonymous (by the way, can you please pick a name/handle to use? I have a hard time keeping anonymous commenters straight), while I agree with you, I'd still prefer to steer away from spirit birth language when there are so many ambiguities.

Maybe the term "First Begotten" would be preferred over "Firstborn"--not because it's not scriptural--after all traditional Christians also believe Christ is both "Creator" AND "Firstborn" (Col. 1: 13-18, Heb. 12: 23, Hebrews 1:5-6, Revelation 1:5). Rather, I think we must be careful as we seek to understand what those terms do and do not mean, and also be aware of the assumptions we may be projecting onto the text but which the text itself does not state.

For example, perhaps Christ was the "Firstborn" in the sense that he was the Firstborn from the dead--the first to be born again into new resurrected life, rather than Firstborn in the sense that there was a literal spirit birth after two Heavenly Parents did who knows what to "create" a "spirit child" even though Joseph Smith taught that all spirits are "uncreated" and "co-eternal" with God the Father. ("Spirit birth" and "spirit child[ren]" are foreign terms not found in scripture).

See how confusing terms can be? I prefer to keep it simple and not make the same doctrinal assumptions that the Gospel Principles manual makes. After all, Joseph Smith never taught spirit birth. He taught that all spirits were eternally pre-existing and that there was "no creation about it". If there can be a birth here, perhaps it is the birth or beginning of our relationship to God--that "moment when God offers to take us under his wing and we agree" as Richard Bushman put it.


Clean Cut said...

Another reason to shy away from language of Christ being born of Heavenly Parents (beyond the fact that it's not scriptural) is that the scriptures speak of Christ being "form everlasting to everlasting" (including the Book of Moses).

As to the term "Firstborn", Doctrine and Covenants 93:21 says: “I was in the beginning with the Father, and am the Firstborn”.

You’ll also find references to Christ being the firstborn also in Col. 1: 13-18:

"13 Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son:
14 In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins:
15 Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn [the Greek word here is "prototokos"] of every creature:
16 For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him:
17 And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.
18 And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn [prototokos] from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence."

People bring their assumptions with them when interpreting scriptural texts. But see how in verse 18 "Firstborn" refers to Christ as the Firstborn from the dead? Perhaps, rather than denoting the first creation of a spirit child, we ought to interpret it in that light, or maybe "Firstborn" simply conotes Christ's preeminence or superiority.

The Greek word in these verses--prototokos--is also used here in Revelation 1:5:
"And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten [prototokos] of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood."

Because of this, I have no problem in saying that Christ is both the Eternal God AND the Firstborn.

Kelark said...

In Genesis we find Jacob referred to as Abraham's fistborn when in fact he had a child by his maidservent before Jacob.

Lazurus was raised from the dead and others before Christ although he was the first to gain eternal victory over death.

I think in most case when Christ is mentioned as first born it is in preimmenence not chronology it is a designation of rank.

This made clear through this verse from Colosians
"And He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities.."
We are told that he is the "Image of the invisable God" the first born of all creation not because he was born first because he was never born.

Read the word "for" refers to the previous statement which explains the reason why he is the first-born, because he is the creator of everything.

These are statement of Christ's sovereignty over creation not his place in time within it. His before it and he is over it and he made it. He is the logos and the theos. The very words "let there be light" were the Son.

Clean Cut said...

Kelark, I agree. Thanks.

Clean Cut said...

Kelark, I'm just curious if you (as an evangelical) have ever thought much about what it means for the Son to be "begotten" in the Trinitarian sense. I'm always trying to seek understanding of others' perspectives. (From the LDS perspective, I'm partial to how Blake Ostler put it in the quote I included above. But I'd be interested in hearing from a Creedal Christian perspective.)

kelark said...

Hi Clean Cut,

Wow now you are going to make me think things through.

The example of Abraham and Issac seems to apply here as well. We know Abraham had other sons and yet Jacob is referred to as his "only begotten son".
Galations 4:22: "For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman."

This would be consistant with the Greek definiton of "only begotten" as "one of it's kind.
" or "unique"
I read this interesting article http://www.gotquestions.org/only-begotten-son.html

It seems like John is trying to make a distinction between us the adopted children of God and the unqique one of a kind "only begotten."

This was pretty good too.

I have always believed the Son to be co-eternal with the Father so I never read it as begotten like in the human since. But honestly I have not really fleshed it out before. No pun intended.

As always I love your blog

kelark said...

I have always kinda liked JS's take on it in Mosiah 15

1 And now Abinadi said unto them: I would that ye should understand that God himself shall come down among the children of men, and shall credeem his people.

2 And because he dwelleth in bflesh he shall be called the cSon of God, and having subjected the flesh to the dwill of the Father, being the Father and the Son—

3 The Father, abecause he was bconceived by the power of God; and the Son, because of the flesh; thus becoming the Father and Son—

4 And they are aone God, yea, the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth.

5 And thus the flesh becoming subject to the Spirit, or the Son to the Father, being one God, suffereth temptation, and yieldeth not to the temptation, but suffereth himself to be mocked, and bscourged, and cast out, and disowned by his cpeople.

Mosiah 3:8
And he shall be called Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of heaven and earth, the Creator of all things from the beginning; and his mother shall be called Mary.

Though I quibble with a few of the concepts it is a pretty good sumation.

Also this from Alma

38 Now Zeezrom saith again unto him: Is the Son of God the very Eternal Father?

39 And Amulek said unto him: Yea, he is the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth, and ball things which in them are; he is the beginning and the end, the first and the last;

40 And he shall come into the aworld to bredeem his people; and he shall ctake upon him the transgressions of those who believe on his name; and these are they that shall have eternal life, and salvation cometh to none else.

I agree with this to a point but mostly it is cool. To a trinitarian Jesus is not the Father but as Amulek says there is only one God.

Clean Cut said...

Thanks kelark--I appreciate that. And I'll be sure to check out those articles.

ji said...

As much as I like CES people as individuals, I hope your author doesn't seek clarification from CES. I am so sorry to say it, but it seems to me that CES is part of our problem -- they want to establish an official orthodoxy which they teach and the rest of us follow -- but they don't have the ability to handle this matter -- they're too close, and they're too insistent on promoting the Father and proving the difference between the Father and the Son. If able, CES would impose a creed on us, one that they wrote in their wisdom in order to maintain purity of thought. I know I won't find much support in current LDS curriculum materials for my current belief, but I do find it in the scriptures and in my own walk with God (re: the Holy Ghost).

Clean Cut said...

I'm totally with you, ji. Agreed.

ji said...

I think that somehow we want to emphasize certain points of doctrine, to emphasize our differences with others -- but in doing so, we can lose balance. For example, in the emphasis to stress that the Father and the Son are separate beings, we tend to overstress that point, even to out of balance. The Bible, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine and Covenants emphasize that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God -- that is our doctrine -- that is what we should preach and teach.

I hope we always allow for personal revelation and personal growth in Mormonism. I hope we never establish a college of scholars to definitely answer all our doctrinal questions. Let each man and woman get his or her own answers through study and the Holy Ghost. And let's remember that so much of what we call doctrine is really not important.

Clean Cut said...

Completely agree, ji.

I've written before that perhaps we Mormons are guilty in trying to separate the Godhead too much whenever we emphasize their "threeness" more than their "oneness". They are infinitely more one than they are separate.

ghoti143 said...

Hello. Just found this blog and I'm excited to read more and hopefully engage in discussion. As a trinitarian creedal protestant Christian, I had no idea about the diversity of doctrinal positions in the LDS church. Your initial letter to the newspaper writer and the subsequent conversation has been eye opening. I really appreciate the respectful yet honest and intellectual debate. No straw men here.

An initial question related to some of the above comments. It would seem that some here desire less control from headquarters as it relates to doctrine (i.e. don't force everyone into the same narrow box, but allow each person to come to their own convictionsas based on personal study and the ministry of the Holy Spirit). Is that fair?

If so, how then will the LDS church continue to be the LDS church. As a creedalist, I value detailed creeds (e.g. Apostles' Creed, Nicene Creed, Westminster Confession) as a means of maintaining continuity and integrity of belief. This serves at least two purposes: a) for instruction and discipling in the faith and b) protection against false teaching (Matt 24:11, Mark 13:22, 1 Thes 5:21).

Succinctly put (too late for that), how do you know that a tree is a tree and a rock a rock and a frog a frog and a Mormon a Mormon? To me, the historic creeds are the DNA of the Christian church. In my mind it would be a good thing for CES to standardize on a comprehensive statement of beliefs. The excercise of faith should certainly be more than checking off a series of boxes on a scantron test, but not less. Absent some well worded propositional truths, don't you end up with syncretism?

Like I said, I'm a noob, so if this has been answered elsewhere on this blog, please forgive!


Clean Cut said...

ghoti143, first of all let me say thank you for your great thoughts and really perceptive questions. Second, I apologize for the delay in responding (vacation time made it hard to blog).

I'm glad you have benefited from recognizing the diversity of doctrinal positions among Mormons. I could say more about that, both in terms of the wide diversity of Mormon thought as well as a real diversity of contrasting doctrinal positions at different times historically in the Church (despite the image, whether intentionally or unintentionally, Correlation seems to give off that Mormonism has always been and currently is monolithic) but let me try to address your questions directly.

You asked if it's a fair statement to say that it seems "that some here desire less control from headquarters as it relates to doctrine (i.e. don't force everyone into the same narrow box, but allow each person to come to their own convictions based on personal study and the ministry of the Holy Spirit)".

It's fair, but more importantly it hits upon a tension between authoritative control and authoritative/institutional revelation on the one hand versus individual freedom of expression and personal revelation on the other hand. Both of these have a very strong tradition within Mormonism which we try and balance but which at times compete with each other.

Your follow-up questions more or less seem to be asking about boundary maintenance ("what makes a Mormon a Mormon"), and clearly you're not alone in grappling with those questions; they're at times asked both from without the Church and from within.

I once shared a story about a president of our church who asked similar rhetorical questions ("What is it that a man must believe to be a member of the church? Or what is it that a man is not allowed to believe to stay a member of the Church?”) and he leaned towards a more inclusive and open "big tent" version of Mormonism than even some others of his contemporary and fellow church leaders, some whom wanted to draw a more strict line of orthodoxy.

I've personally argued for
tolerance of varying beliefs within the Church using an article of our faith (the Articles of Faith themselves function as a "creed" to some degree) to back that up--that we must allow each individually to follow "the dictates of our own conscience", but as a friend in the comments section of that post pointed out, there must always be some kind of boundaries--the question is where/how far do those boundaries go and who sets them.

One thing I do know is that it's not the role of CES--the Church Education System--to set those boundaries. Rather, on most things institutional we look to the governing body of the Church collectively--the First Presidency and Quorum of the 12 Apostles. (For example, they have approved the Church Handbook of Instructions to maintain that institutional order in the Church). However, there are many matters that are more personal rather than institutional that are thus left up to the individual or the family as the case may be.

I hope that's helpful.