Review: Joseph Smith, Jesus & Satanic Opposition

Douglas J. Davies, Joseph Smith, Jesus and Satanic Opposition: Atonement, Evil and the Mormon Vision (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010).  292pp., inc. index, bibliography, textual references. Paperback: £16.99, ISBN: 978-1-4094-0670-9.

Davies argues that Mormonism’s force as a religion is intelligible through a relational trinity (Jesus, Satan and Joseph Smith) evoked in three paradigmatic scenes: the Grand Council, Gethsemane and the Sacred Grove.  This intelligibility makes Mormonism Plan of Salvation both accessible and appealing.  Davies’ attempts to speak to and through a form of Mormonism which is now fading, or at least shifting, gives this text a liminal quality.  He attributes some of the major shifts in LDS ecclesiology and theology to the reconfiguration of this trinity.  And yet, despite being focussed upon Mormonism’s past, his book sensitises members of the Church, and interested observers, to those changes currently occurring.

For Davies one of the primary paradigm for the restoration is seeing early Mormonism as a form of sacred community, a form of Mormon-Israel.  The formation of a chosen people was enacted through new and idiosyncratic scripture, various ritual elements (such as patriarchal blessings, endowments etc.) and the emergence of polygamy as a foundational kinship structure.  Though Christian, these early Saints saw themselves as a breed apart and not really in competition with other Christian Churches nor did they seek their recognition.  Here Davies wants to connect this Mormon-Israel with a larger, and perhaps more problematic contention, that LDS Christology was profoundly shaped by this early commitment[1].

Thinking Jehovah-as-Jesus, for Davies, is one of the singular theological innovations which emerged from this era.  For LDS this ‘highlights’, according to Davies, ‘the “Mormon-Israel” theme and the father-son bond’ that underpins much of Mormonism’s creation narrative and the theology erected upon it (p. 70).  However, as Davies implicitly recognises, qua Parley P. Pratt’s teaching that Jesus was the son of Jehovah-God, earliest conceptions of Jehovah and Jesus were not so uniformly delineated.  Thus it is unclear how Davies reconciles the simultaneous de-emphasis of the “Mormon-Israel” and the (authoritative) rise of the Jehovah-as-Jesus formulation (cf. Thomas Alexander).  To be sure, rather than focussing upon this theological innovation, Davies’ account would be bolstered by drawing out how the father-son bond (between God and his Son) took root in LDS theology and which elucidates the familial and relational aspects of Mormon soteriology.

For Davies, Mormonism is Binitarian; a view that seemingly draws heavily upon the Lectures on Faith.  Thus ‘it is the Father and the Son who possess experience-developed bodies, with the Spirit effecting unanimity’ between them (p. 81).  This unity is key because it frames Satan’s opposition (also from within the Father-son dyad) and becomes the focus of the rest of Davies book as he eloquently extends the implications of this idea for Mormon theology.  Having only an amateur interest in Mormon theology I was surprised by Davies initial formulation of Mormon binitarianism.  Despite an initial defensive reflex regarding the LoF it becomes apparent that this a prescient approach which raises a number of significant questions for how we experience Mormonism and how we consider our theology, questions which have not been seriously engaged (as far as I am currently aware) at this point (cf. Ostler) [2].  For example, that Davies believes the Holy Spirit is of primary importance to LDS religious experience but is almost insignificant in our formal theology indicates a gap (and a potential weakness) in our appreciation of the Godhead.

Satan’s opposition to the divine unanimity of Father and (righteous) Son provides a narrative framework for apostasy in Mormonism, according to Davies.  This has been explored in cursory form in an earlier essay, but this book adds fleshes to the details of that argument and enables him to establish some of the elective affinities that made it possible.  Personal character mattered when the message emerged from life narratives rather than other forms of authority.  Consequently, Mormons invested heavily in those who were true to the cause.  LDS theology and ecclesiology begins with, and is grounded in, apostasy; an insight perhaps previously under-appreciated (i.e. myself).  Kristine Haglund illustratively recalls hearing some Mormons express frustration that PBS’ ‘The Mormons’ did not provide labels for the ‘anti-Mormons’ – correct me if I am wrong Kristine.  Authority to speak is so fundamentally character based that we have erected an elaborate system of trust in an ecclesiology which advances those most faithful (read trustworthy and competent) to global leadership positions.  Mormons imbue that process with divinity but consequently those outside it are often unintelligible or simply ignorable.

Davies book also implicitly explores questions concerning sources throughout his text.  ‘Folk-theology’, as Davies calls it – borrowing from Givens, provides much of the material for this discussion; and yet I wonder whether this was an attempt to skirt the thorny issue of ‘authoritative doctrine’ in Mormonism.  (Though this side-step might be more for Mormons than for him).  The wide range of sources he cites are seemingly an attempt to excavate latent trends in LDS thinking that are outside of the unified message sometimes presented in more recent times.  Thus, the liminality referred to earlier recurs with each unfamiliar citation.  This book enacts diversity in Mormon theology even as it tries to elaborate it.

This is a fast-paced book that could probably have been twice as long and there was often a frustrating sense that he had more to say.  Moreover, Davies skips across broad swaths of Mormon thought with a flexibility that was, at times, breathtaking.  His prose is enjoyably concise and remarkably similar to this speaking style; which made reading this book like listening to an extended lecture on a challenging and exciting view of the ‘Mormon Vision’.

Notes:

  1. In elaborating this view of Mormon-Israel Davies uses James Strang’s Millenial Kingdom as a foil for the Utah Church’s development of this theme.  Davies argues that Strang’s movement extended these ideas further than did BY and his followers; but it would be great to hear John Hamer’s views on Davies chapter at some point.
  2. Davies’ article in IJMS is a rare exception.

Comments

  1. Thanks for the review, Aaron. I’ll have to go check out the book because your summary raises some questions for me. Of course I can’t make any judgements without reading it myself, but it seems like his approach could at time be ahistorical, especially relying on a text like Lectures on faith which I Mormon theology grew beyond within a decade.

  2. I tried to read Davies’s Mormon Culture of Salvation and his Cambridge University Press book. Sorry to say, but I think he is a master purveyor of postmodern gobbeldygook. His prose is turgid and inscrutable, and once striped of its of superfluous jargon, his conclusions are either banal or wrong. I attended his lecture at the meetings of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion this fall, and after listening to him speak for an hour, I had no idea what he was talking about. None. Whatsoever. Sorry.

  3. Ben, it is certainly worth reading, but in response to your comment: the LoF as a source does not feature prominently in the book. Rather this Binitarian formulation is derived, somewhat implicitly, from it. Though Davies would surely agree with you that Mormon theology in general went beyond the Lectures in later years he seems to suggest that the basic theological structure of the Godhead persists (i.e. the ambiguous role for the HG). The IJMS article is probably a good source for this part of his argument.

    Crotalus, though I am sure there are reasons to disagree with his argument I am surprised that you found his prose so unpalatable.

  4. Additionally I should note, Ben, that my reference to Ostler is important primarily because Davies does cite him regularly and seems to be reading into the absence of the HG in Ostler’s vision of Mormon theology.

  5. I have had communications with Professor Davies on and off over the past few years. I live within walking distance of Durham University where he is based. If you have any questions for him, I am able to provide a podcast or a written transcript from an interview that I can schedule. Let me know if you any of you are interested.

  6. Aaron, does he demonstrate the evolution of this theology over time or is it snapshots to produce a some kind of normative theology of Mormonism.

  7. Ambiguous role for the HG? Laying on of hands for the gift of the HG, sacrament attendance and every conference talk we hear pleads for us to be worthy of unity with the HG. I can think of few religions which so fully structure their worship and every day lives around the HG…

  8. c, I see where you’re coming from, but I think Davies is onto something here. You’re right–which is also his point–that the HG is a huge part of our religious experience: rituals, teachings, spiritual experiences, etc. But when it comes to defining the HG’s theology–its nature, identity, past/present/future–we are very vague. This only becomes more fraught when we teach that deity is embodied. What does that mean if a member of a godhead is, in LDS terms, less than perfect because it does not have a body? Will it ever receive one? Is it a “child” of God like we or even Christ is?
    We have very few (zero?) answers to these questions, though many a missionary and high priest has speculated on it. That’s why even though the binitarianism of LonF seems odd to our current social trinitarianism, we claim to “know” much more about the Son and the Father than we do the Spirit. It is striking that the HG should be so important in our lived spiritual experience but we are very fuzzy on the details.

  9. Also, I’m surprised at Crotalus’ comment: I’ve found Davies’ writing to be pretty lucid and straightforward. Just my take.

  10. I’m curious to know any theology (past/present/future) regarding God that isn’t poofy and vague. I think LDS actually does a pretty decent job explaining the work and the glory of God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the role of the Holy Ghost in helping to accomplish that mission. Do we really teach less about who the HG is compared to other religions? I’m curious now to read what others say that adds more enlightenment? It would seem since we accept the NT, everything they have, we have and we have a few more puzzle pieces added in via modern revelation to boot.

  11. Thank you so much for your review and perspective on this. I have found Davies’ previous books on Mormonism very helpful. While I am awaiting my review copy for Sacred Tribes Journal, I find three aspects of your review of Davies significant. First, I find a discussion of LDS binitarianism of interest (in contrast with evangelical foci on polytheism or henotheism in Mormonism); second, the significance of apostasy to LDS theology and ecclesiology (a factor in dialogue that serves as a reminder that while evangelical reluctance to call Mormons Christian bothers you, the significance of evangelical apostasy from their perspective is equally troubling to us); and third, an emphasis on folk theology rather than “official” theology from General Authories and official Church publications (often ignored or neglected in evangelical approaches).

  12. Aaron, thanks for the review. The term binitarian to describe early Mormon views of the Godhead is quite common in the literature on the development of Mormon theology (some argue Mormonism developed from modalism to binitarianism to henotheism, etc).

    As with other terms, it is a term borrowed from the literature on the development of Christian theology from its roots in Judaism. In some cases it refers to a denial of the Holy Ghost as divine, in other cases it refers a lack of distinction between the Son and the Holy Spirit. Hurtado seems to use the term in a unique way within the context of Christian liturgy to refer to the worship of the Father and the Son. As a result, the term may not mean the same thing in the Mormon context. Widmer, for example, explains that the Mormon binitarian position on God “does not imply that Mormons did not see three persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, as being divine.” Mormonism and the Nature of God, 59. Rather, Widmer uses the term to mean that that Mormonism drew “a distinction between the Father and the Son.”

    Widmer’s definition, however, leads Paulsen, who expects the term to mean the “denial of the deity of the Holy Spirit,” to lament the application of the term to Joseph’s thought and the Lectures on Faith, though he concedes the Fifth lecture contains “confusing passages which affirm that there are only two personages in the Godhead and which do describe the Holy Spirit as the “mind” of the Father and the Son.” FARMS Review 13.2.

    In An Introduction to Mormonism, Davies writes: “These Lectures on Faith are, then, conceptually odd, for, whilst they introduce a notion of faith that will have distinctive consequences, as I will show in chapter 4, and while they are more Binitarian than Trinitarian, their general tenor, as far as faith in a broad sense is concerned, remains generically Protestant with a rational, rather than a pietist inclination; more Deist or Unitarian than Methodist or Presbyterian. Certainly they differ from the Book of Abraham with its plural notion of deity and it would be theologically impossible to construct the plan of salvation from the Lectures on Faith.” 77-78.

  13. I dunno, Crotalus had me at “postmodern gobbledygook.” In other words, nothing spells intellectual rigor like the ability to publicly and categorically dismiss a person’s entire social scientific corpus as superfluous, banal, wrong, or otherwise unintelligible on the grounds that you can’t seem to wrap your head around the vocabulary. If you actually use the phrase “postmodern gobbledygook” to publicly demonstrate your intellectual superiority to a tenured professor at a first rate university (which superiority was underscored by your inability to understand said professor’s presentation at an academic conference), then there’s an excellent chance that you have no ungodly idea what the term “postmodernism” might plausibly refer to (much less understand it well enough for an informed critique).

  14. But Brad, Crotalus used the words “turgid”, “inscrutable” and “banal” in a sentence. Ergo, he must be an intellectual powerhouse.

  15. c, it’s not that we teach less about the HG than other religions–we teach less about the HG than the other members of the Godhead (the Father and the Son). Additional revelations have added to our perspective on who the Father is and who Christ is, but they’ve done very little actually to expand our understanding of the nature of the HG–they’ve only expounded on his role and purpose (and it seems pretty consistent, in my view, with what’s already taught in the Bible; I can’t think of any radically new elements the BofM or modern scripture has added to this except that he is a spirit body).

  16. Thanks for this. I’ve been wondering about this book for a while now.

    Could we use triad or triplet or triumvirate or some other word instead of trinity? It makes it seem like Mormons actually believe that Satan is part of the trinity when in truth we believe in the Trinity, just not in the terms invented by creedal Christian philosophy, i.e. no homoousios — but the Godhead is indeed a Trinity.

  17. 14. That comment was a rude and unnecessary add-on to Brad’s comment. You don’t have to make snarky remarks about someone’s intelligence and/or education simply because you disagree with them.

  18. Great review, great comments.

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