Paradox and Peculiarity: Exploring Mormon Identity through Patristic Scholarship (conclusion)

This is the conclusion to a 3-part series from guest author Adam J. Powell, a PhD student at Durham University. His multidisciplinary work analyses the role of opposition in the development of identity and soteriological beliefs among second-century Christians and early Mormons. The first and second parts of this series can be found here and here, respectively.

PART 3

Having recounted the shortcomings of Hugh Nibley’s use of Irenaeus in the previous post, three additional LDS figures will now be discussed.  The 1970’s and 80’s witnessed two Mormon thinkers who significantly propelled the move away from an emphasis on the Great Apostasy to a focus on Patristic theology.  Keith Norman and Philip Barlow both took on the task of drawing comparisons between the early Christian concept of theosis and the Mormon doctrines of eternal progression and exaltation.  In doing so, each espoused the notion that the earliest forms of deification gradually morphed in order to become more compatible with the orthodox Christian belief in creation ex nihilo.  In an article for Sunstone, Norman said, ‘…the principal reason the doctrine of Divinization could not survive in the church’s theology proper was that it conflicted with the doctrine of creation ex nihilo to which most “orthodox” Christians adhered by the middle of the third century.’ This followed his claim that Irenaeus was the ‘first explicit advocate of divinization’.  In fairness, Norman published an article (‘Ex Nihilo: The Development of the Doctrines of God and Creation in Early Christianity,’ BYU Studies 17 (Spring 1977)) a bit later in which he explicitly claims Irenaeus as the first Christian to formulate a creatio ex nihilo doctrine.  The confusion, however, still remains.  How can Irenaeus be an early proponent of both creatio ex nihilo and theosis if the two doctrines are fundamentally incompatible?

Later in Sunstone, Barlow echoed Norman in asserting that this doctrine of creation inhibited the spread of theosis.  In fact, he asserted that a ‘fundamental’ connection exists between the thoughts of deification expressed by the ‘earliest church fathers’ and those of Mormonism, adding that these similarities preceded the ‘creedal formulations of the Trinity or of creation ex nihilo.’ Their belief, then, suggests that the earliest Christian fathers held a specific view of deification which was incompatible with the theology promulgated by the creeds of the mid-fourth century.

Claiming Irenaeus as a proponent of divinization may seem justified in light of much of his diction.  To imply, however, that his view of deification was incompatible with creation ex nihilo is to reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of Irenaean theology.  In fact, many Irenaean scholars have noted that the bishop’s anthropology can only be understood by recognizing the seminal role of creation ex nihilo in humanity’s need to progress.  For example, J.T. Nielsen argues in Adam and Christ in the Theology of Irenaeus of Lyons that the progress of humankind was initiated, not with the first sin of Adam, but at the moment of creation.  Indeed, Irenaeus saw the very act of creation as an act of separation or ontological distinction.  If God can provide existence, He is necessarily other than that which is contingent on his creative power.  Matthew Steenberg, a top-rate scholar of the early church, articulated the matter profoundly in Of God and Man by remarking that for Irenaeus humanity’s need to progress toward a model of perfection actually glorifies God by pointing to Him as alone worthy to be that very model.

In 1991, Stephen Robinson published Are Mormons Christians?  In this book, Robinson addresses the LDS belief in deification (theosis).  Once again, Irenaeus is cited as evidence that early Christians at least believed in something similar to Mormon exaltation.  Robinson quotes two passages from Against Heresies in the main body of the book and includes an additional passage in the endnotes.  There is literally no discussion of Irenaeus’ setting, purpose for writing, theological stances, opponents, biographical information; nor is there any mention of secondary sources on Irenaeus.  Perhaps more importantly, Robinson provides no source for the translation of Irenaeus’ statements which are, seemingly, more paraphrases than quotations.

After presenting his audience with a handful of Patristic examples (Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Justin Martyr, Athanasius, and Augustine) of deification, Robinson claims that the theology of the Mormons represents ‘the same theology and the same goal.’  Further, he asserts,

In fact this doctrine is not pagan, nor is it foreign to the larger Christian tradition.  Since it is found among theologians/saints from Justin Martyr in the second century to Simeon the New Theologian in the eleventh century, Joseph Smith obviously did not make it up.

Is it found among theologians of the ‘larger Christian tradition’?  At other times, Robinson concedes that Mormons may be misinterpreting the Patristic sources, but he remains unyielding that those same sources prove the validity or longevity of the doctrine.  This claim is offered even after Robinson himself quotes Irenaeus in the endnotes of the book as saying that ‘man…shall always progress towards God.’  Superficially, this might somehow support LDS doctrine, but a deeper familiarity with Irenaean anthropology elucidates its meaning for the bishop.  Humanity’s advancement toward God is salvation.  It is the restored likeness of God that was lost in Eden.  Individuals are, after Christ’s resurrection, restored to the path of sanctification.  This bears little resemblance to the LDS doctrines articulated at the funeral address of King Follett.

Six years later, Stephen Robinson added an endnote to his book coauthored by Craig Blomberg, How Wide the Divide?  In this endnote, Robinson once again cites the same five church fathers (Irenaeus, Athanasius, Clement, Justin, and Augustine).  Listing the reference for each of them, he then states, ‘While one might coherently argue that Latter-day Saints misunderstand the traditional doctrine of deification, one cannot with honesty assert that we invented it.’  It is true that no one could substantiate any claim that Mormons invented ‘the traditional doctrine of deification’, but why would anyone desire to make such a claim?  Ostensibly, Robinson wants to both admit to misinterpretation but engage in equivocation.  That begs the question, which definition did he misunderstand?

Again, the desire to locate similarities between Patristic theology and Mormon doctrine seems to have inhibited the ability to engage fairly with early church thought.  It is one thing to peruse Patristic tomes in search of remnants of the original truth; it is quite another activity altogether to take the time to fully grasp the context and broad themes which engendered the expressions of the Graeco-Roman writers.  Indeed, theosis itself was an adaptation of apotheosis, a term firmly rooted in the Roman context which referred to the imperial cult and the notion that emperors were divine.  Christians revised the term and applied it to the Christian message.

The preceding discussion was not intended to be a thorough critique of Mormon scholarship, nor of LDS appeals to Patristic theology.  The Irenaean example was simply chosen for its ability to highlight an interesting characteristic of Mormonism.  Namely, the identity safely harbored in the idiosyncratic expressions of the religion is often overshadowed by the converse, a desire to connect with the greater society.  In a very recently published book concerning anti-Mormon violence in the post-bellum south, Patrick Mason makes this remark:

Latter-day Saints struggled valiantly to preserve their distinctiveness.  In the end, however, the forces opposing them, in the South and in the nation, were too great, and they, like other minority groups in nineteenth-century America, were forced to wave the white flag of accommodation in self-preservation.

This rings true throughout Mormon history.

One’s mind naturally turns to the controversies surrounding issues such as the manifesto of 1890 or the racial decisions of the late 1970’s.  There are, however, more subtle examples.  Perhaps, the attempt to uncover doctrinal similarities in the writings of early Christians is one of them.  Few would doubt the intentions of the aforementioned individuals.  A key LDS apologist such as Stephen Robinson certainly works hard at his goals.  In fact, he was undoubtedly responding to the ripples caused in the 1980’s by the film and book entitled, The God Makers.  This explains the desire to reassure the orthodox world that Mormons did not invent bizarre, detrimental doctrines.  It does not explain, however, the similar projects in decades prior to that controversy.  In any case, it may be that amalgamation is accommodation.  In other terms, perhaps the conservation of peculiarity is the maintenance of identity.  When there is said to be an ‘opposition in all things’ (2 Nephi 2:11), does marginality lead to inimitability?

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    I’m curious what you make of Keith Norman’s 1980 Duke dissertation, _Deification: The Content of Athanasian Soteriology_, which may be read here:

    http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/papers/?paperID=5

    It doesn’t strike me as lacking substance on the patristics or overly concerned with Mormon theology. Of course, if his reading of Irenaeus is off, that’s a fair critique to make, but it reads to me like a good faith effort to get at what Athanasius believed.

  2. Paul Bohman says:

    So, to extend this discussion to one possible logical conclusion: If key Mormon doctrines (e.g. the example in the previous post of proxy baptism) are not found among the teachings of the early church fathers unless we twist their meaning and ignore their original context, it is reasonable to conclude that the early church fathers did not teach these key Mormon doctrines, or at least did not leave a record of having taught these doctrines. Given this premise, one can either decide that these key Mormon doctrines were never taught by Jesus or the early church (this is the non-Mormon Christian position), or one can decide that these early teachings were lost as a part of the apostasy (as understood by Mormon Christian tradition).

    It becomes an unprovable matter of speculation and interpretation at that point.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    I’m also curious about your reaction to Jordan Vajda’s 1988 master’s thesis at the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, “Partakers of the Divine Nature,” which may be read here:

    http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/papers/?paperID=7

    Vajda was a Catholic Dominican monk at the time he wrote the thesis. Was he on the right track, or in your view was he off?

  4. While the first manifesto is, I think, clearly an accommodation (one which Woodruff repeatedly claimed to be inspired), I don’t really see your other examples as part of this dynamic, which has been widely investigated by various scholars.

    I like Sam and Matt’s work on Buck’s Theological Dictionary as a more sophisticated look at how early Mormons used mainstream treatments of ancient sources.

  5. Adam Powell says:

    Kevin,
    I am very familiar with the works you mentioned. In fact, in my paper for the recent European Mormon Studies Association conference I quote Vajda. As for my opinion of each, I must say that Norman’s dissertation is a respectable work of patristic scholarship. I am more concerned, however, with his use of Irenaeus. For that, I have drawn from his articles published in Sunstone and BYU Studies. I did not find Vajda’s work to be of much use. To be fair, it may have been more helpful to the general discussion at the time of its composition than it is now.

  6. Adam Powell says:

    Paul,
    From a Mormon perspective, would it not be possible that Jesus taught certain concepts which were not carried forth by the church leaders of subsequent generations? In other words, a cogent argument showing that, for instance, Irenaeus did not teach baptism for the dead does not logically necessitate the conclusion that Jesus never taught it. I really appreciate your thoughts on this post. Could you answer a question for me? I am very much curious about the possibility of theological creativity within the LDS church. Is it seen as somehow invalidating, from a Mormon point of view, to have truly unique beliefs? I understand the restoration claims of Mormonism, but is there any conceptual room for originality of beliefs? I suppose it is an epistemological question in actuality. I am just curious about your thoughts on this. Thank you.

  7. I think the ultimate question is to what degree doctrines and beliefs hold together as a whole and are misleading when divorced. Ultimately the issue is to what degree creation ex nihilo and deification can be divorced amongst the early Church Fathers. Within Mormonism I suppose the question might be over what the unity of the Father and us when we are deified is. Now let me ignore the early Fathers question and instead note that there’s a lot of diversity within Mormon thought over what deification is precisely because on those crucial doctrines it’s just plain vague. While I think a rejection of creation ex nihlo is a pretty dominant it’s undeniable that many Mormons hold to God being creator in a stronger way than perhaps most 20th century Mormon thinkers do.

    With regards to Stephen Robinson I think this is important because I think a lot of his methodology only works if Mormonism is held to be vaguer than perhaps many of us would prefer. Of course this is often ongoing. To what degree to we hold to Utah teachings by Brigham Young or Orson Pratt? To what degree do we look not to the common tradition of what Joseph said but actually looking at the texts. (Say on the matter of spirit bodies and spirit birth)

    If we do this then I think perhaps Mormonism is, as I think Robinson suggested, more open to the Church Fathers than most Mormon belief would suggest. (Here taking Mormon belief not in terms of what the typical Mormon believes or even what significant writers of the 20th century believed but what is defendable in terms of significantly accepted texts)

    Going the other way, if we can do this to Mormon thought, why not Patristic thought? While I don’t think anyone would want to say Iraneus or other Father’s didn’t have particular positions, to what degree do these positions really hold together as a whole? Just as perhaps the typical Mormon holds a fairly coherent position but the analysis in terms of what they believe versus why (or the sources) is different from that coherent theory.

    Just a thought in terms of your line of reasoning.

    I’d add that I think the typical Mormon apologetic approach is to speak of elements of a structure independent of the theoretic edifice as a whole. If the apostasy took place by elements of some hidden ur-structure remaining in place and then other parts replaced one ought expect to find elements of truth and then new elements added and original elements lost. This really is not just an issue of the apostasy. One can easily see the same phenomena at work as one moves from Nauvoo to the early Utah period and see how doctrines evolve. Ditto as one moves to the first half of the 20th century. I think all that Mormon apologists are suggesting is a similar phenomena in the early Christian church where all we have are but traces of the original sayings of Christ. (Especially if the early Church situation paralleled Nauvoo in many ways – which is why the idea of secret teachings is popular among some Apologists including Nibley)

  8. Just to add, this isn’t just an issue in Mormon history. Consider the same problem in the history of science where we might ask in a person talking about electricity at the time of Ben Franklin is talking about the same thing as a modern physicist talking about electricity. On the one hand we want to say we can make such comparisons and they are the same (or at least can be compared). On the other hand we recognize that the network of ideas a modern physicist holds is completely unlike what Franklin held and that they are incommensurate in some ways. I think the issue of divination and the early Fathers in many ways is quite similar to that topic in history and philosophy of science.

  9. Adam Powell says:

    Clark,
    Your insights are truly appreciated. I am quite pleased to see that my posts got a number of individuals thinking. As to your question above concerning whether we might be able to divorce official, justifiable doctrine from actual belief when looking at the early church, let me offer a response. You ask, ‘if we can do this to Mormon thought, why not Patristic thought?’ In the case of Irenaeus, we cannot do this in the same way simply because of a distinct difference in the scenario. Irenaeus takes as his ultimate theme the unity of all Christian teaching and belief. This has been noted by almost every Irenaean scholar and is unequivocally clear after reading all of his writings. His book, ‘On the Apostolic Preaching’ is entirely composed to show the oneness of God, the scriptures, and the regula fide up to his time. He goes to great lengths to show that he received instruction from Polycarp who, in turn, received instruction from John.

    I suppose that my point is only that Irenaeus was far from believing in continuing revelation. For him, the church did actually preserve the truth and maintained it. This truth was revealed in scripture. Many do not understand that Irenaeus already cited the vast majority of the New Testament books as authoritative scripture (graphe) in the second century. He adamantly asserted that the gospel had been preserved unchanged and that these doctrines were the beliefs of the apostles. That being said, while it is possible for some Mormons to hold a ‘vague’ understanding of their religion without stepping outside of accepted boundaries, this would not be true for Irenaeus.

    I do, of course, understand your observation. Indeed, the implied (though, one was explicit) assertion of many of the comments is that the original nuance of the writers must be acknowledged and integrated into this sort of analysis. On the one hand, this is an astute remark which highlights something often ignored in academic critiques. On the other hand, there is an inherent danger in nuance. At least in the western world, there is a sort of logically determined threshold which, when reached, turns nuance into abuse. Stephen Robinson’s comments are to be seen as nuanced, as are those of Nibley, Pratt, and Talmage. Mormon apologists are to be understood as viewing their own faith, the faith of the early church, and their own writings as ‘vague’ or only beneficial for locating underlying kernels of something similar to truth. These individuals are then to be analysed in a nuanced manner. Ostensibly, the degree of nuance is never questioned. In my view, nuance is not to be taken for granted. Rather, it is to be considered when it unequivocally reveals itself. Effective communication can collapse under the weight of too much connotation.

  10. I’m not sure that how you describe theosis among the Patristic is fundamentally different from Joseph Smith’s theosis. The notion of returning to the state before the fall is one that survives throughout the history of Christianity and John Brooke places Mormon theosis in the context and I would agree with him. I’m arguing in my dissertation that while Joseph Smith was certainly radical, little of what he taught was new. Here’s a post I did on some of the survivals of such ideas. http://www.juvenileinstructor.org/creation-ex-nihilo-proclus-and-the-apostacy/

  11. Adam, I guess I don’t see why the fact Irenaeus focuses in on unity entails that the question of parts can’t be raised. Once again I think an analogy to the history of science is fruitful. There was a strong feeling in the 19th century that physics was a complete whole. (Wrong, of course, but that was the view) Thus they would say that mechanics was complete and that one part couldn’t be understood independent of the whole. Yet that same point of asking whether we are talking about the same thing remains. I come down on the side that thinks we can. But I can certainly understand those who think we can’t.

    I think that the issue is really what one is after. If it’s an understanding of Irenaeus on his own terms of course all you say is fully correct. But is that the only sort of analysis to be made? I think that often we talk past each other (not in this instance – I’m speaking more broadly of the discussion of apologetic strategies) because we’re ultimately equivocating on what is discussed. And ultimately the issue is, as I said, the holism of ideas versus the individuality of ideas. The problem is that Irenaeus is writing in a context he doesn’t master. So yes, he has his own views which can only be understood on his terms. But each of the ideas he brings in don’t have a meaning purely within his thought but also in the context of the things to which he refers. That includes previous texts and so forth.

    Now for the record I do tend to think apologists overstate their arguments. And there are a lot of bad apologetics out there but they are bad because they refuse to engage with all the data. (For instance Robinson neglecting all those texts with theologies that conflict with Evangelicals or early Fathers) But I’m not convinced this entails that no meaningful comparisons between the early fathers and Mormons can be made. However I fully admit that is because of my more philosophical view on the incommensurability of theories. I do however think that any apologist writing about Patristic parallels owes it to their audience to point out the differences lest they be engaging in misleading sophistry. (Which many do)

  12. Steve, I think the issue of creation ex nihlo is a huge difference. Especially a difference between the patristics and the platonists. The very meaning of unity is quite different.

    Brooke is interesting to bring up since he’s an example of a non-Mormon scholar most explicitly not doing apologetics who engages in some of the same sort of methodology. (As aside it’s interesting how many who are quick to raise the “parallelitus” flag against apologists are more accommodating towards figures like Brooke and Quinn who are arguably doing the same thing) Anyways, I do think Brooke is a bit careful in that divinatization is this return to the paradiscial Adam in the broad tradition. When he talks of a formal divination (quoting Peter French) it is “Through his intellect man could perform marvelous feats – it was no longer man under God but God and Man.” Now admittedly he doesn’t bring up the thorny issue with Christian neoPlatonism over the gap between God and man that I think Adam Powell brings up. That as you know was an issue that kept popping up because the more Platonic often effaced that divide which led to charges of apostasy.

    So there are similarities but there are also important differences as well. The question then becomes to what degree those differences matter. Clearly historically they did – thus the problem the Platonists often faced.

    However, relative to Mormonism this is pretty interesting. While it’s a common belief (not really grounded in authoritative texts, but commonly held) that exalted mortals get their own universes independent of God. On the other hand it’s fairly easy to find Mormons who reject this theology and see an unbridgeable gap between God and man. It may be largely bridged, but there will still be a gap. For these people we act only through God in us and always under God. Some even see a certain ontological difference. I think that Robinson more or less takes that position (it’s been years since I read him – so forgive me if I get the details of his belief wrong). Clearly Blake Ostler rejects a lot of traditional readings of say the King Follet Discourse and ends up with a position quite similar, although I think he does efface the ontological difference.

    So while I’m actually really sympathetic to Adam above, I think things are a bit trickier precisely because I think this issue over the ontological difference between God and man plays out throughout the history of Christianity and is still playing out in the history of Mormonism. (It’s always interesting to hear Blake argue for his reading of the King Follet Discourse and Sermon in the Grove for instance)

  13. (Sorry for all the comments – last one I promise)

    An other way of thinking about all this is to say that Mormonism just rejects the conception of God that had started to develop already in the early Patristic period. For Mormonism God the Father is actually an example of this Paradisiacal Adam. In this scheme then Mormonism’s view of divinization is very much the same as the more traditional (and acceptable) Christian view. It’s just that we think God the Father is an example of such a being. While the obvious question is what on earth is the God in us (although I think Orson Pratt’s spiritual fluid is an attempt to think through this problem) I think the Mormon view actually is more similar than it appears. The big philosophical and theological problem in Mormonism, which it has largely avoided, is the source of being and the relationship of this to divine beings.

    Anyway in this view the problem with Ireneus and Mormonism isn’t divination but the nature of God the Father.

  14. Paul Bohman says:

    “From a Mormon perspective, would it not be possible that Jesus taught certain concepts which were not carried forth by the church leaders of subsequent generations? In other words, a cogent argument showing that, for instance, Irenaeus did not teach baptism for the dead does not logically necessitate the conclusion that Jesus never taught it.”

    Yes, that’s possible. That would be in line with the Mormon understanding of apostasy. That would be a fast-track apostasy wherein Jesus’s words may never have been re-taught by anyone, or maybe they were re-taught only briefly in a limited context but never gained traction with a larger audience.

  15. Paul Bohman says:

    “I am very much curious about the possibility of theological creativity within the LDS church. Is it seen as somehow invalidating, from a Mormon point of view, to have truly unique beliefs? I understand the restoration claims of Mormonism, but is there any conceptual room for originality of beliefs?”

    I don’t think there’s any real problem with it. It’s just that the church positions itself as a “restoration of all things,” and I think the general assumption, whether right or wrong, is that pretty much all of the major doctrines that the church now teaches were taught at one point or another in the history of the world, and that this generation of the church brings it all together for perhaps the first time. Some doctrines wouldn’t work as well from the Mormon perspective if they are new to this generation. Proxy baptism is one of these, I think. The church uses the passage in 1 Corinthians as a proof text that baptism for the dead was practiced anciently. If in fact it wasn’t, then the church would need to come up with another explanation for why that passage was written. Not only that, but from a practical perspective, if the first time the concept of proxy ordinances was taught was in the “last days,” that leaves a rather large gaping hole in the salvific doctrine of previous Christian generations. Mormons would assume that previous generations taught that baptism is necessary, but in the absence of the doctrine of proxy ordinances, previous Christians would presumably also have to teach that those that died without baptism were out of luck. Or maybe they’d come up with some sort of intellectual workaround to attempt to explain away the problem. There are, of course, other doctrinal ways of dealing with the problem of people who die without baptism, other than with proxy baptism (the rest of Christianity seems to feel it is doing fine without such a doctrine), but Mormons would consider those doctrinal alternatives to be incorrect, so unless we’re willing to grant that non-apostate previous generations of faithful believers (unknowingly) taught false doctrine (according to the current Mormon understanding), I think Mormons have to assume that the concept of proxy ordinances was in fact a restoration and not a new idea or revelation. Then again, maybe it’s not such a big problem to assume that false teachings were prevalent in the “true” church in the past. The LDS church nowadays certainly isn’t immune from them.

    Proxy baptism is only one issue. Other doctrines would fare better as candidates for being entirely new teachings. Things that are not directly related to our understanding of how salvation works — things like the Word of Wisdom, for example — can easily be new to this generation without any consequence to the Mormon understanding of the past.

    But, more importantly, if we have a long list of entirely new teachings in this generation of the church that never existed before, then this cuts into the Mormon position that the gospel is timeless and that it has been taught since the time of Adam and Eve. We have to explain why God seems to be a partial God, favoring one generation more than another, or at least giving them more knowledge in some generations than in other generations. We talk about valiant souls, the “noble and great ones” and so on, and maybe that’s ok on some levels, but it opens the door to unwise judgment on our part. Or we simply say that the different degrees of historical gospel knowledge were part of God’s plan, and we don’t know all the reasons for it. That may be the real answer, but it’s also kind of a non-answer.

    The problem of God seeming to favor one generation more than another is a general problem with the Mormon concept of a nearly 2000-year apostasy, by the way; 2000 years is an extremely long period of time, during which vast numbers of people lived and died. It begs the question of whether the “true” gospel is even important at all if God was content to let 2000 years of history pass by without intervening enough to restore “true” doctrines or “true” authority. Apparently apostate doctrines were close enough? Didn’t God didn’t care enough to correct them? Apparently not. There were certainly lots of believers during those many years. Wouldn’t they feel a little miffed upon dying and learning that they had been deceived in some rather important ways and God didn’t even give them the option to find the truth? Perhaps these important truths weren’t so important after all. Apparently it’s ok to base your life around misunderstandings and falsehoods, despite the incredible waste of misguided mental and spiritual energy that is implied in this scenario. Anyway, that’s a bit of a digression.

  16. Adam Powell says:

    Paul,
    I am grateful for your responses. They have been beneficial for me to better my understanding of Mormon belief from a Mormon perspective. As we all know, doctrines assume a more definitive shape when articulated by believers and not simply formally expressed in texts of the church.

    Clark,
    Again, I am very appreciative of your insightful thoughts and comments. Having written extensively on Mormonism and Irenaeus, especially the doctrine of divinization in each, I cannot entirely agree with you on your assessment that the real issue is an ontological difference concerning God the Father. Though that is one difference it is not the only difference. The fact actually remains that there is very little support for the thesis that ‘Mormonism’s view of divinization is very much the same as the more traditional (and acceptable) Christian view.’ This simply appears implausible. Irenaeus, in fact, constitutes the earliest explication of such a system within Christianity. That being said, a good friend of mine and a superb New Testament scholar, Ben Blackwell, has written a book on Christosis in Paul. In this regard, Paul is said to believe that somehow the Son is actually that which believers may become.

    I do wish I could offer all of the relevant material to substantiate my conclusion, but time and space is limited. My recent EMSA paper is up for review. Hopefully it will be published so that some of you might have a look. I did write my master’s thesis specifically on the topic of Mormon exaltation and Irenaean deification. Unfortunately, it is not available online. If any of you would like to make the journey to Durham, you can view my copy and have lunch on me!

  17. Adam Powell says:

    Allow me to say a collective ‘thank you’ to all on BCC. I have enjoyed reading your comments and I do appreciate the candor and congeniality. In the end, my only objective was to provoke some critical thinking, and that seems to have been successful.

  18. Adam, I’m working on a paper with a colleague looking at the ways believers, particularly Mormons, crafted relationships with their predecessors, with a strong focus on the earliest Mormons, rather than the twentieth century. I have tried to think through how best to respond to your provocative posts. I’m assuming you’ve read the recent Marquette PhD on 20c.: http://gradworks.umi.com/32/10/3210979.html I would be curious to hear how you differentiate yourself from Welborn, as on cursory inspection you take similar rhetorical tracks. I’m multi-tasking right now and will try to provide more directed feedback later if I can.

  19. re # 14, Paul, there’s also the option where Jesus never taught a doctrine and it was revealed for the first time in the latter-days. I see this as a definite possibility in Mormon doctrine given our belief in continuing revelation.

    This then answers Adam’s question about “theological creativity”. In my view it is entirely possible that something constituting a doctrine of the Gospel in 2011 was neither believed by the Church Fathers nor even taught by Jesus or his Apostles.

    But we don’t believe that baptism for the dead or theosis fall into that category. To my mind, this post is not persuasive as to any of the authors’ actual “misuse” of Patristic sources on theosis. Even giving due consideration to their context, the statements about theosis still support the principle behind the Mormon view of it. The post asserts that “this bears little resemblance to the LDS doctrines articulated at the funeral address of King Follett” but not much in the way of supporting that claim.

  20. I see that JStapley in #4 referred to the paper I mentioned and, not unpredictably, I agree with him (and myself, though I am a notoriously poor interpreter of my own work). Although I am loathe to even nod toward Foolcault and Derridumb, I have to admit in this context that the broad schools associated with the French literary critics at least motion in the direction of a better approach to these problems, one which recognizes the kinds of relationships being posited and aspired to by the active exegesis of patristic sources in pro-Mormon literature. Similarly, though the jargon can be a tad overwhelming at times, work on “boundary maintenance” would illuminate the kinds of questions raised in your posts. I don’t want to scoop my paper with Matt in this forum (and need to hurry up and finish it already), so I will have to remain a little cryptic and apologize for my coyness. It seems to me that a much more fruitful approach to this problem would be to relate it to other, similar types of projects undertaken by other Christians, both sectarian and mainstream. JZ Smith’s _Drudgery Divine_, while a bit churlish toward Protestants, may give a sense for parallel views of parallel activities by modern Protestants. That or to appreciate the ways that religion and religious meaning are “made” in these Mormon attempts to come to terms with a patristic legacy.

    A further risk in this endeavor is that it will become a philologically and theologically somewhat more refined version of the he-said, she-said polemics about who is or is not “Christian.” That seems to me a tired and somewhat misleading debate on both sides, and I’m not entirely persuaded that adding a bit of textual sophistication will materially change the underlying problematics of this controversy. I’m grateful for the reminder to hurry up and finish the revisions of my Mormon prisca theologia paper.

  21. Sorry, last comment quickly–I personally recommend that we resist the urge to make Joseph Smith (and his later Mormon followers and interpreters) into Protestant divines/theologians/interpreters. They are not, and I personally think they would lose a great deal if they became such. I do think your posts could become more interesting if they worked to puzzle through the nature of attempts to identify and expand commonalities with creedal Christian groups and the problems of “ownership” of Patristic authors.

  22. Paul: The church uses the passage in 1 Corinthians as a proof text that baptism for the dead was practiced anciently. If in fact it wasn’t, then the church would need to come up with another explanation for why that passage was written.

    I don’t think they need do much here. A lot of proof texts end up not being that great when examined closely. (Think of the one for the resurrection in Job that missionaries used to have to memorize) I don’t think the Church needs be committed to past proof texts. (Note I’m not taking a position on whether baptism for the dead was practiced widely in the early Church though)

    Paul: so unless we’re willing to grant that non-apostate previous generations of faithful believers (unknowingly) taught false doctrine (according to the current Mormon understanding), I think Mormons have to assume that the concept of proxy ordinances was in fact a restoration and not a new idea or revelation.

    I largely agree, although I think Mormon history is replete with major figures such as Brigham Young teaching false doctrine unknowingly. Most even say Joseph did this with the controversial bit about resurrection of children in the King Follet Discourse. Mormons give the benefit of doubt to leaders it seems but are quite open to fallibilism. I think we’d be open to the same in the early Church. (Indeed as I recall Brigham Young claimed this about Paul in several places)

    Paul: then this cuts into the Mormon position that the gospel is timeless and that it has been taught since the time of Adam and Eve.

    We have to be careful not to conflate the set of doctrines with the gospel. While I think we often use the terms interchangeably they aren’t the same. Especially since it is a key Mormon doctrine that there’s a lot left to be revealed. (The sealed portion of the Book of Mormon if nothing else) Also the idea of secret teachings is a pretty common teaching, even in the Book of Mormon. (See Alma 12:9 for example) Doctrine is important but isn’t necessary for salvation. That’s why I think ultimately most people focus on authority in the apostasy even as they acknowledge important doctrines. The Mormon theology of the OT and Law of Moses is pretty important here even if it does have an “anticipatory Christianity” in the Book of Mormon peoples.

    Paul: The problem of God seeming to favor one generation more than another is a general problem with the Mormon concept of a nearly 2000-year apostasy, by the way; 2000 years is an extremely long period of time, during which vast numbers of people lived and died. It begs the question of whether the “true” gospel is even important at all if God was content to let 2000 years of history pass by without intervening enough to restore “true” doctrines or “true” authority.

    I think the time period is less important than areas of the world without the gospel now given how much of the earth’s population has lived in the last 100 years. So I don’t see this as that compelling an argument.

    I do agree though that from a broader perspective it seems that getting the gospel in this life isn’t that important for most people. However Mormon theology already deals with this with its theology of spirit prison which would seem to be the place and time most people will spend their ‘mortal’ existence prior to the resurrection. Unfortunately little is revealed on this, but it doesn’t take much to realize that must be where most of the action of the plan of salvation takes place in LDS theology.

    Paul: there is very little support for the thesis that ‘Mormonism’s view of divinization is very much the same as the more traditional (and acceptable) Christian view.’ This simply appears implausible.

    My point was more that depending upon how you break down the analysis what gets put under each category is different. So I’m not saying they are the same merely that if one focuses on the nature of God then the problem of divinization becomes less important since it’s more becoming like Adam. However I certainly agree that in whole the difference is striking. Once again this is more my point about the degree to which we break a position down into parts. I’m merely saying that how we do this, that is how we conduct our analysis, matters a lot.

    So my point here was much more subtle than I think are taking me to be saying. It’s much more a philosophical point about how difference and similarity is dependent upon the categories of analysis we use. My sense is that you are presupposing one way of doing the analysis, a more holistic one, and thus there’s just one answer. That I think is the fundamental difference. As SMB hints, I’m quite influenced by certain perspectives on general hermeneutics that I suspect you may simply disagree with.

  23. Great discussion, all! Thanks folks.

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