McDermott & Porter: Explaining What Mormons Believe
Dialogue continues between Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals. The October 2008 issue of FIRST THINGS: A Journal of Religion, Culture, and Public Life includes an essay titled “Is Mormonism Christian?” by Bruce D. Porter, a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Gerald R. McDermott, Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion at Roanoke College. Last month I was interviewed by John W. Morehead and presented a review of Claiming Christ: A Mormon–Evangelical Debate (hereafter “Claiming”), which McDermott co-authored with Robert L. Millet. Several of the points and arguments that McDermott makes in Claiming was reproduced in his First Things article. I thought this would be a good opportunity to enter into the fray and set forth my disagreements with McDermott’s characterizations of Mormon teaching and belief.
First, let me express my appreciation for McDermott’s interaction with Latter-day Saints as well as his contributions to explaining Mormonism to Evangelicals. McDermott is correct that often Evangelical critiques of Mormonism miss the mark and fail to take into consideration a larger body of knowledge. Indeed, Latter-day Saints have no qualms with those accurately pointing out differences in doctrine and practice between Mormonism and historical orthodox Christianity. It is usually the “differences” requiring qualification but proposed without qualification and clarification that concerns Latter-day Saints. I shall attempt to set forth several of these concerns that have been on my mind after reading Claiming and since reading McDermott’s recent essay. My hope is that dialogue will continue to refine and improve mutual understanding of each others faith perspectives. Before I begin, I want to stress that there is much in McDermott’s essay that I agree with and find helpful, but I am limiting my remarks to those areas I feel could improve.
1. McDermott writes, “A second charge sometimes made by Nicene Christians is that Mormons are modern-day Arians who reject the deity of Christ. This is untrue in an important sense. Mormons do not believe Jesus was always God but that he was fully divine in the incarnation and continues to be God the Son today. The Book of Mormon says it was “the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” who was “lifted up” and “crucified” (1 Nephi 19:10).”
The underlined sentence without scriptural citation is the culprit here. It would be more accurate to say that “Some Mormons do not believe Jesus was always God but that he was fully divine in the incarnation and continues to be God the Son today.” Some Mormons do believe that God was always God, and it should not be asserted as empirical fact that “Mormons do not believe Jesus was always God.” Notice that Bruce D. Porter never includes such a characterization in his description of Mormonism. In addition, what does it mean to not be “God” but to simultaneously be “fully divine”? If one is “fully divine” is this not “God”? Certainly a vast majority of Christians would logically draw this inference. This needs to be explained to the reader.
2. McDermott argues that Joseph Smith’s teachings in the King Follett Discourse that there are “three Gods” and the Book of Mormon’s teaching that “the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost is one God” undermines the credibility of Joseph Smith.
McDermott argues that “If the prophet responsible for the Book of Mormon made cosmically significant changes in his view of God over the course of his prophetic career, one has less confidence in the reliability of his prophecies, particularly those that purport to provide a new history of God on earth.” This is a legitimate concern for students of Mormonism. However, McDermott makes the assumption that Joseph Smith has repudiated the teachings of the Book of Mormon which, I take it, McDermott believes that Joseph authored years previous. This is certainly one explanation, and one way to deal with the material, but there is little evidence that Joseph ever explicitly stated that he has changed his mind or that he has repudiated the Book of Mormon. Indeed, the evidence suggests that Joseph Smith was consistent in his view of the nature of God. Shortly before his death, Joseph stated:
I have always declared God to be a distinct personage, Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, and that the Holy Ghost was a distinct personage and a Spirit.
Rather than assume that Joseph wrote the Book of Mormon thinking that there is only one God but later on a whim changed his mind and now believes there three Gods, it would be a welcomed posture if those studying Joseph Smith and Mormonism might start with the more natural assumption that Joseph Smith did not repudiate the Book of Mormon and seek to try to understand what Joseph Smith could mean in light of the Book of Mormon. David Paulsen and Brett McDonald in their January 2008 Faith and Philosophy article “Joseph Smith and the Trinity” offer an extended discussion on this very point. They write:
Notwithstanding his explicit declaration that the Father, Son and Holy Ghost are “three distinct personages and three Gods,” Smith’s revelations also repeatedly affirm that “the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, are one God.” At face value, these two affirmations appear to be flatly contradictory. However, closer inspection discloses that the contradiction is apparent only, resulting from Smith’s equivocal use of the term “God.” It is therefore important to briefly examine what Smith meant by the term “one God,” and show how these statements, when correctly understood, are actually consistent with his affirmation of three distinct divine persons, or “three Gods.” (Joseph Smith and the Trinity, 54).
3. McDermott argues that Mormonism “(1) asserts that Jesus is a different God from the Father; (2) that Jesus is one of (at least) three Gods; (3) that he was once a man who was not God; (4) that his nature is in all respects the same as ours, (5) and so his status is also one we can attain one day; and (6) that he does not transcend the cosmos.” This description is nearly identical to the one McDermott makes in Claiming (p. 64).
(1) What does it mean that Jesus is a “different God from the Father”? Both in Mormonism and in historical Christianity “the Son” is not “the Father.” St. Augustine taught:
See how the praise of Unity is commended to us. Undoubtedly our God is Trinity. The Father is not the Son the Son is not the Father, the Holy Spirit is neither the Father, nor the Son, but the Spirit of both; and yet these Three are not Three Gods, nor Three Almighties; but One God, Almighty, the whole Trinity is one God; because One thing is necessary. To this one thing nothing brings us, except being many we have one heart. (Sermon 53 on the New Testament).
It is crucial to recognize that Latter-day Saints can affirm with St. Augustine that indeed, “The Father is not the Son the Son is not the Father, the Holy Spirit is neither the Father, nor the Son, but the Spirit of both.” Is it true that St. Augustine believes “yet these Three are not Three Gods” and Joseph Smith declares that they are “three distinct personages and three Gods.” However, it is confusing to the reader to merely make this observation and walk away. Paulsen and McDonald explain:
Consistent with his revelations, when Smith declares there are three “Gods,” he means that there are three individual persons, each of whom is divine. When he affirms that there is “one God,” he means that either there is one God the Father, one perfectly united divine community or one generic divine nature. (Joseph Smith and the Trinity, 56).
McDermott’s brief explanation is misleading to the reader and even more misleading to the Evangelical reader. It tends to suggest that Jesus and God the Father are separate and distinct in a way that no Latter-day Saint would suggest.
(2) McDermott argues “that Jesus is one of (at least) three Gods” in Mormonism. Specifically, why add the modifier “at least“? Joseph Smith, to my knowledge, never taught that there are “at least three Gods” but rather he declares that the Father the Son and the Holy Ghost constitute “three distinct personages and three Gods.” By adding the phrase “at least” this suggests to the general reader that there are multiple Gods in a kind of Mormon Pantheon, akin to the Greek and Roman Pantheons. While some Latter-day Saints may believe there are several “Gods” (whatever that means) this should not be set forth as a definitive statement of Mormon teachings. It should be stressed that some Latter-day Saints accept the Bible and Book of Mormon witness that there is only “one God.” In fact, such individuals can remain faithful and practicing Latter-day Saints at the same time. It seems to me that that adding “at least” only obfuscates more than elucidates Mormon belief.
(3) McDermott’s Mormon creed continues with the assertion that the Jesus “was once a man who was not God.” That Jesus was a man is without dispute. Both Mormonism and historic Christianity affirms the humanity and the divinity of Jesus. Christ was a man, as orthodox Christianity affirms, he is the God-man, and as the Book of Mormon prophet Abinadi taught “God himself” took on flesh and became man (Mosiah 15:1-5). In the Book of Mormon account, King Benjamin taught “the Lord Omnipotent who reigneth, who was, and is from all eternity to all eternity, shall come down from heaven among the children of men, and shall dwell in a tabernacle of clay” (Mosiah 3:5). Christ is God and according to Latter-day Saint belief he “lived a sinless life.” (Indeed, McDermott cites a Barna Survey in Claiming that concludes: “the people most likely to describe Jesus’ life as sinless were those who attend Pentecostal and Assemblies of God churches, as well as Mormons, while those least likely to view Jesus as sinless attend Episcopal, Catholic and Lutheran churches.”). It simply is inaccurate to claim that Mormon doctrines teaches that Jesus was once a man who was not God. At the very least, one should be extremely cautious before asserting this is Mormon doctrine.
(4) McDermott asserts that Christ’s nature is “in all respects the same as ours.” What does this mean? This really only makes sense in a framework where one has a theology of natures or essences. In fact, what McDermott seems to be saying is that unlike the traditional orthodox framework where the nature of God is different from the nature of man, man being fallen humanity, and God being God, that Mormonism teaches that both Christ and man have the same nature “in all respects.” This is meaningless without more discussion and explanation. First of all, if this is the case then why do Latter-day Saints insist that Christ lived a “sinless life”? And if Christ and “the rest of us” are no different in any respects, how is it that apparently no one else other than Christ was able to live a sinless life? In fact, in Claiming, McDermott chides Millet for writing:
Jesus also had within him the powers of divinity, which enabled him to do what no other man or woman in human history had ever done-to look upon every soul with a Godlike empathy and compassion, to lift souls and liberate captive human hearts, to resist temptation and remain sinless, to forgive sins, and to rise from the dead. (Millet, Claiming, 95-96).
McDermott takes issue with Millet’s essay because:
[He] states that it was Jesus’s “powers of divinity” that enabled him “to resist temptation and remain sinless.” Now I am glad Professor Millet, unlike some Christian writers today, emphatically affirms Jesus’s sinlessness. But the language I just quoted can be read to suggest that Jesus had latent supernatural power that was used to overcome temptation. (The orthodox tradition has always said that Jesus as a human being fought temptation, not with his divinity, but by the Spirit, just as we are called to do.) (McDermott, Claiming, 107).
Notice here how even Millet’s language doesn’t support in any way the hypothesis that for Mormons, Jesus is “no different” from you or me or that Jesus was “merely a man.” If Jesus’s nature (again whatever this means, we are never told) was no different from any of us, why don’t we raise ourselves from the dead or live a sinless life? In addition, to suggest that Jesus overcame temptation, not with his divinity but by the Spirit, is to beg the same question. If this is the case, how is it that no human being as been able to perfectly “fight temptation by the Spirit”, as Jesus did? All of this is to hit home that to say “Jesus’s nature is no different from the rest of us,” is simply not reflective of how Latter-day Saints think of Jesus and can only confuses the reader as to what Latter-day Saints really think about Jesus. Whether Jesus fought temptation with divine supernatural powers or through the Spirit is besides the point. Whatever he did appears not to have been replicated by anyone in the history of mankind thus far.
(5) McDermott explains that for Latter-day Saints, Jesus’s “status is also one we can attain one day.” Deification is certainly a Mormon teaching. However, by itself, this statement tends to confuse the reader rather than enlighten. In Claiming, Robert Millet explained his feelings on the matter: “There is no question in my mind but that God is God, and there is now and will forevermore be a chasm between the two of us. I am not aware of any authoritative statements in our literature that suggest that men and women will ever worship any beings other than the three persons within the Godhead.” (Millet, Claiming, 82). Latter-day Saints typically do not believe they will “replace” God. Terryl Givens explained it this way:
Mormons believe that Peter’s reference to “partaking of the divine nature” and Paul’s reference to “being joint heirs with Christ” reflect the intent that humans should strive to emulate God in every way. The goal is not to equal God and Jesus, or to achieve parity with them, but to imitate and someday acquire their perfect goodness, love, and other divine attributes. (Givens, What do Mormons Believe?)
(6) Finally, McDermott argues that Jesus “does not transcend the cosmos.” I discuss this issue during my interview with John Morehead at Morehead’s Musings. I will reproduce the relevant portion.
We really need spend more time learning each others metaphors. I think McDermott “breaks” Latter-day Saint metaphors by projecting and imposing criteria and meaning from Evangelical metaphors. I’d like to offer three examples of this. First, McDermott makes the argument that the LDS Jesus doesn’t transcend the cosmos (Claming, 75). The Latter-day Saint metaphor is that God creates by bringing order out of Chaos. Cosmos is order. Chaos is disorder, unformed the unorganized. God speaks to Chaos and it obeys. So, what McDermott really means is the LDS God doesn’t transcend Chaos because Chaos exists when God creates. However, this breaks the metaphor because the metaphor only works when Cosmos and Chaos are opposites. The metaphor doesn’t care or it doesn’t make an issue of Chaos pre-existing as a challenge to the absoluteness of God. The point is not who exists before: God or Chaos. The point is that it is God who is creating by speaking to the waters. The point in this metaphor is that God is God because of his creative powers. The Holy Ghost broods over the waters and brings forth heaven and earth from the primordial waters in Genesis. That is one example. (Review of Claiming, Morehead’s Musings).
4. McDermott continues, “Mormons say Jesus is a different being from the Father, and in fact a different God. Mormons therefore say Jesus is one of several Gods.”
This is where Mormons and orthodox Christians regularly talk past each other. When a typical Latter-day Saint thinks of being, they think of being in the sense that I am a being and you are a being, and usually every person is his or her own being. Therefore, it makes sense that Jesus is his own being and the Father is his own being and if the Father and the Son were the same “being” then it doesn’t really compute any more than to say you and I are the same “being.”
Orthodox Christians do not, or should not, mean “being” as in human being or person. Rather, “being” refers to an ontological framework. There are two categories in the universe: God and everything else. If you are God, then you are uncreated, but if you are not God, then you are by default created. The question is “What is Jesus? Created or Uncreated?” (This debate already occurred in Christian history). If Jesus is created, went the argument, then he obviously is not God and cannot redeem us or save us. If Jesus is uncreate then we also have a problem because now we have two Gods and this violates the strict monotheism of the Old Testament. The solution is the Trinity. In the Trinity, Christians can have Jesus be God, be of the same “being” or ontological category of God, but not violate the monotheism of the Old Testament.
So when McDermott says that Jesus is a “different God” from the Father, in historical Christianity this means he is not of the same essence or substance of the Father and thus it would be like having two independent and unrelated “God the Fathers.” However, this is not what Latter-day Saints believe at all, but the reader would never know it from McDermott’s essay. McDermott says “Mormons therefore say Jesus is one of several Gods.” Do Mormons say this? The better statement which reflects actual LDS belief would be to say “Jesus Christ is one of three divine personages of the Godhead.” To say that “Mormons therefore say Jesus is one of several Gods” is simply inaccurate.
Responding to McDermott at Roanoke College, Millet concluded:
“If you were to ask me to characterize our notion of the Godhead, I would say let me suggest three points to you. 1) There are three persons within the Godhead. 2) Each of those persons possess all the attributes and qualities of Godliness in perfection. 3) The love and unity between each of those persons is of such a magnitude that they are on occasions simply referred to as ‘God’. That’s true in the Book of Mormon, over and over, just as it is in the New Testament. So I think, for me, I hear you, but the oneness is still infinitely great. Do I believe they are separate beings? I do. But I think they are just as One as two beings can be.” (1:07:15-1:08:10)
5. McDermott writes: “If Jesus is one of several Gods, he was not always God. For Mormons, he was once as we are now but eventually grew in his attributes until he became “like unto God” (Abraham 3:24).”
Abraham 3:24 is as follows: “And there stood one among them that was like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell.” This verse simply does not teach that Christ “was once as we are now but eventually grew in his attributes until he became “like unto God.” In fact, it says nothing about becoming at all. The verse does not stand for the propositon for which it is cited.
6. McDermott explains, the Mormon “Jesus is also limited by “eternal law,” which according to the Encyclopedia is independent and co-eternal with God, just as matter is. In fact, not only is law independent of God, but God is governed by it.”
Millet responded to this back in 2005. During their public dialogue at Roanoke College, Millet explained following a similar description by McDermott:
You know this is an interesting discussion even within Mormonism, Gerry, because the question of, the way it forms itself in our past has been schools of thought that believed that law and God were sort of on an equal plane. Well, that’s deistic to me. That makes no sense. And if you were to come to me, and I think most of my religion faculty, they would say no. God is the author of law. God is power behind law. Thus God has all power over matter. . . From my perspective, God is the author of law. (audio marker 56:00-57:00)
Now, I’m not citing Millet to argue this is the definitive LDS view of God and law, but I am showing that this is an LDS view of things and McDermott has been exposed to it back in 2005. Yet, McDermott’s essay would not inform the reader of this important fact. He essentially seems to ignore Millet here as perhaps some sort of anomaly. It would seem more meaningful for McDermott to bracket his assertion and inquire a little more into the relationship between God and law in Mormonism rather than proclaim that this is “the” Mormon view. In other words, it is important that when students of Mormonism not present to the world one voice in Mormonism as the voice. It is much more helpful to point out areas where there can legitimately be differing perspectives on doctrinal issues.
7. McDermott concludes with: “Smith’s Jesus is a God distinct from God the Father; he was once merely a man and not God.”
In interfaith dialogue, one would do well to use the modifier “mere” sparingly and only with great caution when applying it to the religious beliefs of another. Years ago, Stephen Robinson wrote:
Other Evangelicals have charged, on the basis of statements made by Joseph Smith and Lorenzo Snow to the effect that God was once a man, that the Mormon God is “merely a man.” But again, I have never heard God referred to in all my days as “just a man.” or “merely a man.” No Mormon would say such a thing. God is God, and Mormons attribute to God every honor, power, glory and perfection that Evangelicals do. (Robinson, How Wide the Divide, p. 92).
Yet, despite this explanation given by Robinson a decade ago in 1997, and despite McDermott referring to How Wide the Divide in his book, he seems to simply ignore Robinson (and Millet) and continue explaining to other Evangelicals that “Smith’s Jesus is a God distinct from God the Father; he was once merely a man and not God.” Part of dialogue means listening to things that Latter-day Saint interlocutors say and taking them to heart. I hope that we can build off of these dialogues rather than ignore them or pass them by without any explanation.
In conclusion, I appreciate many of McDermott’s points but I simply want to suggest that McDermott at least recognize more voices in the Mormon tradition than presenting one point of view as the Latter-day Saint view.