Wednesday, May 20, 2009

On God, Intelligence, and Atonement

Whether interesting, important, or imperative, I believe that Christ has always been God (regardless of his state of progression). Although it really doesn't matter to me as much as it seems to matter to critics whether he was always God or whether at some distant time before my own personal “beginning” he became God. What matters most to me is His atoning sacrifice.

The atonement of Jesus Christ is the central tenet of my faith and upon which the entire Plan of Salvation hinges. What matters most is that that necessary sacrifice was made by a God. It was not a sacrifice of man or animal, it was a sacrifice of the Lamb of God—“God Himself” as the Book of Mormon teaches: “I would that ye should understand that God himself shall come down among the children of men, and shall redeem his people” (Mosiah 15:1). He was God and is God.

Alma 34:9-10 states:
"For it is expedient that an atonement should be made; for according to the great plan of the Eternal God there must be an atonement made, or else all mankind must unavoidably perish; yea, all are hardened; yea, all are fallen and are lost, and must perish except it be through the atonement which it is expedient should be made. For it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice; yea, not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast, neither of any manner of fowl; for it shall not be a human sacrifice; but it must be an infinite and eternal sacrifice."

It was an "infinite and eternal" sacrifice. That's what matters to me. Nothing short of this would "suffice for the sins of the world" (verse 12). I don’t care so much for “proper theology”, “Christology”, or the history of God, as extreme as that probably sounds to some, because that’s not what saves. I care to learn more of and focus on the central foundation of all human history—Christ’s atonement. It has been said that Mormons generally care more about orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy.

Thus, it doesn't even matter to me if some believe that aeons ago Christ somehow "became" a God, because the "crucial fact" and "central foundation" is my saving faith in the atonement that was made by Jesus Christ as the Son of God and God the Son--my Savior and Redeemer. I'll praise his name forever for his victory over death and hell. That atonement is also central to my life as a disciple of Christ, as I now seek to “become a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord” (Mosiah 3:19).

One ex-Mormon critic I conversed with recently seemed to be under the impression that the Church had an official position on this, and that Jesus Christ is referred to as "Eternal" and "Everlasting" only “since His creations are of eternal quality He is very properly called the Eternal Father of heaven and earth.” That’s certainly one good reason why he can be called Eternal—one way of looking at it--but it’s also not the only way of looking at it. And the only "official position" is that which is found in the scriptures. The scriptures seem to me to be explicit that God is without "beginning" and "end". See, for example, Moses 1:3: "I am the Lord God Almighty, and Endless is my name; for I am without beginning of days or end of years; and is not this endless?"

I’m aware of other interpretations we're also at liberty to believe--because there is no “official" Church view on this. Some, for example, believe that “the Father became the Father at some time before ‘the beginning,’ as humans know it.” (Encyclopedia of Mormonism). I'm just not one of those who think that. I think Joseph Smith makes it very clear in the King Follet discourse that God the Father's mortality was experienced in a divine way; unlike mere mortals, but rather like Christ, who experienced mortality while divine.

However, I'm okay with letting people believe what they want to believe, even if I think that theirs is the weaker argument. After all, I understand that there are some issues with the original words in the biblical manuscripts which were translated into English as our “eternal”. For example, Stephen E. Robinson writes:
"The biblical concept of ‘eternity’ is problematic, and most constructions translated ‘forever’ or ‘eternal’ actually read ‘to the end of the age’ or just ‘to the age.’ Indeed, the words usually rendered ‘forever’ or ‘eternal’ are the Greek and Hebrew words for ‘age’ (aion and olam respectively). First-century Jews understood eternity to consist of successive ages or eons—all within the parameters of the beginning and the end.” ("How Wide The Divide?" p. 90)

The point is that there are various ways of interpreting this (some that seem more correct to me than others) but there will probably never be an “official” statement on this because for Latter-day Saints it’s not really an essential element of the gospel to understand. Thus it would be a caricature to say “Mormonism teaches…” only one stated position, when clearly there are multiple interpretations on some of these things even within Mormonism. As long as we’re all clear on what is actually in our scriptures and on those few things on which the Church actually has an official position, we’re okay. I’m sure one day we’ll find out what it really was like where the scriptures tend to be silent, but that day probably won’t come while we’re on this side of the veil. In the meantime, it would be helpful to understand that various interpretations exist without necessarily contradicting scripture.

Like Joseph Smith, “I want liberty of thinking and believing as I please.” I suppose that as Mormons we can believe whatever we want about spirit "creation". Some believe that our spirits were created (or organized) from existing intelligence. Others believe that our spirits are uncreated, and refer back to the fact that “intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be” (D&C 93:29). (Spirit is used interchangeably with intelligence.) Furthermore, "man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy" (D&C 93:33). For a robust discussion on this very issue within Mormonism, I’ll include a link to a post at BCC entitled "Tripartite Existentialism".

Many Mormons (like J. Stapley and Blake Ostler), take a position that Jesus was uncreated, and to quote the introduction to the Book of Mormon, “is the Christ, the Eternal God.” This is where I tend to line up too. And if I believe that Jesus was always God (I do), than he would have been God even as “intelligence”. There really isn't much to go on in scripture about him being an “unformed” or “uncreated” intelligence—the scriptures don’t state that. Therefore, I don’t claim to know anything about Jesus as an “unformed”, “unorganized”, or “uncreated” intelligence. I thus go with what the scriptures actually say.

I believe that Jesus, as intelligence, was God, or as Abraham put it: “like unto God”. Why do I believe this? Because clearly in those passages (Abraham 3:22-24) there is a difference between all the rest of us “intelligences” and the One "like unto God”. I interpret that to mean that Christ was just like God the Father—who I also believe to have always been God. As I mentioned earlier, I think it's clear that Joseph Smith taught that when the Father experienced mortality, he did so just as Jesus (with divine power I clearly do not have)--not that the Father became God after never having been divine. Lastly, our scriptures teach that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost make up the Eternal “one God” (or Godhead) we worship.


Clean Cut said...

I've been told that some try to interpret the "one" in Abraham 3:24 to be Michael. To that interpretation, I say horsefeathers. And the footnote agrees with me and points to Christ (both as the "Firstborn" and "Creator"). For the record, traditional Christians also believe Christ is both "Creator" AND "Firstborn" (Col. 1: 13-18, Heb. 12: 23, Hebrews 1:5-6, Revelation 1:5). We must be careful, however, as we seek to understand what those terms do and do not mean, and be aware of the assumptions we may be projecting onto the text but which the text itself does not state.

Clean Cut said...

Blake Ostler 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:

"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."

Carol said...

I think Isaiah says it all: "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The fmighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

Tim said...

Clean Cut - could you clarify your belief a bit for me. Maybe a couple of questions can help me understand your position better. You seem to be saying that both Jesus and the Father have always been Gods and that they experienced their mortal probations as divine beings. Correct me if I'm wrong. Wouldn't it then make sense to conclude that those who already have and will someday recieve exaltation are already eternally divine as well? In what way were Jesus and the Father eternal Gods prior to their premortal existence?

Clean Cut said...

"You seem to be saying that both Jesus and the Father have always been Gods and that they experienced their mortal probations as divine beings."Yes. I would assume most Christians would at least agree with me on the fact that Jesus was God and he became a man. But clearly there is a difference between His mortal experience and mine.

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth" (John 1:1;14)

In other words, Jesus was God. I am not. He had a "glory" I do not posses. He also never sinned. I do.

"Wouldn't it then make sense to conclude that those who already have and will someday receive exaltation are already eternally divine as well?"You pick up on a good point here. I think this come down to how you define "divine". If we define "divine" simply as "emanating from God", or "of God" rather than simply "God", than I can see how one could make a case that we are all "eternally divine". I already make the case we are all eternal.

However, in my post above I was using "divine" to mean more than merely mortal. Again, during his mortal experience, Jesus was God. I am not. Jesus never sinned. I do. Clearly there is a distinction between his and my mortal experience. I was using "divine" to make that distinction. Furthermore, I believe that Joseph Smith was teaching that the Father's mortal experience followed this same distinction.

"In what way were Jesus and the Father eternal Gods prior to their premortal existence?"In the sense that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit constitute the one Eternal God or Godhead that all the rest of us children of God worship.

Tim said...

When I asked, "In what way were Jesus and the Father eternal Gods prior to their premortal existence?" I mean that I exist now. You believe that we existed prior to our physical births in a preexistence. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you believe that at some moment in time, we were created and began to exist as premortal spirits, Jesus being the first born of the Father. So my question is in what way was Jesus eternally God (divine in the terms you describe) before He existed (prior to His premortal existence)?

Clean Cut said...

Actually, Tim, as to whether we are uncreated or created (in terms of our pre-mortal spirit "bodies" versus eternal intelligence's) is what's up for debate and is precisely what was discussed at the Tripartite existentialism post I mentioned. It's worth checking out.

Tim said...

I read the article. So Clean Cut, where do you stand? Help me understand...

The pantheistic notion of eternal intelligences from an unknown source continually evolving or the polytheistic Greek and Pagan notion of the physical, material procreation both seem so distant from the monotheistic eternal (eternally God - has ALWAYS been God and never been anything else, whether intelligence, spirit child or man) Judeo-Christian nature of God. Ultimately though, neither position answers the underlying problems regarding eternality and divinity within Mormonism. Either way, eternal intelligences (whether formed or begotten) deny the eternal nature of God as something different, unique to God as scripture declares (if you, I, God, that rock over there are all eternal, then eternal has NO MEANING when God differentiates Himself as eternal). He might as well say He is the existent God, since we all exist. Big whoop.

If Jesus is eternally God, then He has always been divine (even prior to giving His plan for salvation, preexisting in relationship with Israel or becoming incarnate and living a perfect life) and is therefore predestined to be God. The same could be said of the Father. Every God past, present and future were eternally divine. That offers no hope for the faithful LDS to be exalted or they would already be an eternally predestined divine God. Right?

Clean Cut said...

How so? I don't believe that. "Eternal" is not the only distinction, by any means. Of course there is a distinction between me and God. I'm not blurring that distinction. I just don't believe in the Creator/creature distinction to the degree that traditional Christians believe in.

As a Latter-day Saint, I believe we are of the same essence, or species, as God. God is still God, and has eternally been so. He is still the source of all light, worship, and power in the universe. I am not. But I believe that He is my Heavenly Father in more than just a figurative sense. So there is naturally an eternal closeness that I believe in, apart from the distinctions.

Furthermore, I also believe that there will always be a distinction between God and his exalted children who are referred to as gods. Just because I believe in theosis/deification does not mean that I will become equal to God or independent of Him.

Clean Cut said...

More than just dwelling on the distinctions, we can also dwell on how it is that we can be considered "one" with the Father and the Son, as Jesus prayed in John 17. (See my post "That They May Be One As We Are One").

They are inviting us into that relationship of unity and love. Furthermore, the Father promises us all that He has. I believe most literally in Peter's reference to "partaking of the divine nature", and Pauls reference to being "joint-heirs with Christ". Therefore, I believe that partaking of the divine nature includes all of the divine nature, even those attributes that some Christians have deemed "incommunicable", including sharing in His divine power. But again, I maintain a distinction that it is always an extension of His power, not my own. There is a difference between exalted beings and the Exalted One we worship.