Monday 1 July 2013

In what sense are Men 'gods' or Sons of God? (A part of refuting supposed Mormon 'polytheism')


Excerpted from Re-vision-ing the Mormon concept of deity, by Blake Ostler

53. Of course it may also be argued that [in late revelations and the King Follet Discourse] Joseph Smith somehow intended to replace the notion of three distinct persons united as one God with the idea that there are simply three Gods.

But I see no evidence in the text that something of that nature was intended. Indeed, it seems much more reasonable to me to assume that Joseph Smith intended later revelations to be bound in the same volume with the earlier revelations and thus contemplated that they would be read in pari materia or in light of one another. [...] What was needed was a clarification that the divine persons are more distinct than the Saints previously understood.

54. It has also been asserted that later Mormon scriptures adopt polytheism straight out. Polytheism is the view that there are a number of deities having distinct spheres of sovereignty. However, such an assertion is not sensitive to the way the word 'God' operates in Mormon scriptures. [...]

56. An 1832 revelation known as the Vision calls humans 'gods' for the first time in Mormon scripture: "as it is written, they are gods, even the sons of God." (D&C 76:58). However, this language merely reflects Psalm 82:6: "I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High." This same Psalm was quoted in the gospel of John in response the charge of blasphemy when Christ claims to be the Son of God who is one with the Father. (John 10:30-38) These scriptures probably assert only that humans are gods in the sense that they have been commanded to be holy as God is holy.24
57. The only other scripture that calls humans 'gods' straight out is D&C 132, which states that: "Then shall they be gods, because they have no end; therefore shall they be from everlasting to everlasting, because they continue, then shall they be above all things because all things are subject to them. Then shall they be gods because they have power and the angels are subject unto them." (132:20)

This scripture does not entail polytheism because humans are always subordinate to the Father, Son and Holy Ghost and dependent on their relationship with them for their divinity. They are never pictured as separately worthy of worship. The Godhead has communicated to them the attributes of divine power, knowledge and presence Humans, as subordinate 'gods' are not independent rivals for worship in the sense required for polytheism.

Blake Ostler


In this closely argued essay, Ostler (Mormonism's premier modern theologian outwith the LDS Church Authorities) shows, to my satisfaction, that Mormons are not polytheists any more than mainstream Christians are polytheists (or alternatively, if Mormons are polytheists, then so are all Christians who are Trinitarians and who take seriously that the saved will become Sons of God.)

Ostler shows that the Mormon concept of the Godhead (Father, Son, Holy Ghost) is both coherent and Scriptural/ Biblical (in a way that Classical Trinitarianism is not) - and is indeed formally identical with the 'Social Trinity' theory elucidated and argued by (among others) Reformed Christians such as Cornelius Plantinga - ex President of Calvin Theological Seminary (I presume this implies Plantinga is therefore a Calvinist?).

And in the above passage he shows that by the salvific work of Jesus Christ, Christians are promised divinity as Sons of God - this divinity is to be distinguished from the divinity of the Godhead/ Holy Trinity in the sense that to be a Son of God is to be dependent upon God for this divinity. Thus each Sons of God is NOT a God in his own right but - as being dependent, Sons of God (the future state of Christians, after theosis is complete) are not beings worthy of worship.

Hence (according to Ostler) there is not polytheism in scriptural Mormonism, any more than there is in the most scriptural forms of Reformed Protestantism.


Adam G. said...

I think its fair to point out that Ostler's view isn't every Mormons. Although Mormonism requires that every saint whom God exalts is therefore *causally* dependent on God, it doesn't require that they remain otherwise dependent at subsequent points of time.

tgj said...

I have downloaded this paper, if it is a paper. Maybe I will read it. But I haven't yet, and I may not read it at all. Why?

St. Seraphim of Sarov wrote almost nothing on the Holy Trinity, and what he did write was essentially "don't even try to think about it, but if you do, pray to the Church Fathers who wrote about it before, during, and after, and ask for their guidance." Of course he assumed that it went without saying that, if one came to conclusions that differed from what those Church Fathers had written in any substantive way, they were surely in error. Because they knew what they were writing about. We can be more sure of that than we can be sure of our own ability to even understand what St. Seraphim of Sarov meant, let alone what people with real revelation about the Trinity meant when they tried, very, very carefully, to write what very, very little can be profitably written about it, for *any* audience, let alone for general consumption.

In general, reading St. Seraphim, and even what's written about him, it is almost impossible to distinguish what he wrote and what he said, especially about the most esoteric matters, from things that the most dilettante modern "mystics" say about revelation. In general, what he writes is maddeningly simple, almost to the point where it is easy to dismiss it entirely.

I've come to the conclusion that this is precisely why he doesn't say much about it. If you don't live the way he did, or even try to live according to the most basic presuppositions that he lived by (i.e. Orthodoxy of the type that still exists in basic and even far beyond basic form), then you simply can't understand it. It is metaphysically *impossible* to understand it that way, even though it *is* possible to understand it, to some degree, in this life, *if and only if* the proper means are used, starting with purification generally (or, more simply, "right living," or, even more simply but perhaps more obscurely, "integrity"). This is the inextricability of every single act that a person makes and their ability to properly understand, well, pretty much anything. But perhaps especially abstruse points of theology.

One is simply not possible without the other. This is a point, as someone who loves to read and think and would love to be more creative while eating ice cream and doing no honest work whatsoever, that is nearly impossibly for me to grasp. I can see just enough of it to make me uncomfortable.

What goes for understanding theology also goes for telling the difference between angels and demons, our own thoughts and thoughts that are whispered to us by some other being, the difference between ourselves and others, off-the-cuff opinions and carefully sifted factual reports, flippant incivility and thoughtful contributions to discourse, being honest with oneself and misrepresenting oneself to others, and finding reality in general, at every level, from the most abstract and theoretical matters of theology to the most simple and practical question of what are you going to do, right now, this very second. Are you going to click here, or are you going to move the mouse a very short distance and click there? This is an action, already grown to full maturity, of almost limitless complexity in itself, to the extent that if you even try to really think about it, you will probably never, ever, get anything done. In fact, you will probably go insane. Or I will.

But St. John of the Ladder, St. Theophan the Recluse, Fr. Seraphim (Rose), and many others have all covered this much better than I can already, comprehensively and down to the most fine details. The hard part is taking it seriously enough to do it. Or even to begin to start doing it.

Summary: One should not attempt to talk about theology on the internet, because talking about theology on the internet is absurd. You will only get comments from rude cranks. Sensible people simply won't respond. Because really you are just talking to yourself. In public. Like a crazy person.

Bruce Charlton said...

@AG - I don't think I follow your point.

But my subtext is that the arguments used by mainstream Christians to prove that Mormons are *necessarily* polytheists almost all work against mainstream Christianity; and to more than a billion non-Trinitarian monotheists, all Christians actually *are* polytheists.

In fact, quite a lot of Protestants regard Roman and Orthodox Catholics as de facto polytheists for their veneration of the Virgin Mary, and many other Saints, prayers to angels etc.

Catholics insist on a distinction between veneration and worship, and deny worship; but Protestants may not believe them!

My sense is that the point of being Christian is not to be 'a monotheist', and to fit Christianity around some philosophical definitions of monotheism - but to be Christian; and it doesn't matter what philosophers call it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@tgj - These are valid and respectworthy reasons for not reading theology - indeed I agree that theology probaly does a lot more harm than good.

But they are not reasons for not writing theology - especially if theological problems are causing trouble in one's own life.

Writing is thinking - potentially; so sometimes theology is helpful to the writer.

Adam G. said...

Ostler's view is that at some point in the future, my deification depends on God's action or will at that point in time.
An analogy: a pilot takes you flying. At that point, your altitude, your exalted station, is clearly dependent on him. Whereas if the pilot teaches you to fly and you go flying, your altitude is causally dependent on him, but not dependent on him in the other senses that would hold if you didn't know how to fly and he were your pilot. I see Ostler's view of deification as closer to the pilot taking you flying whereas I believe that its actually something closer to the pilot teaching you how to be a pilot yourelf.

TOm said...

Adam G,
I agree that one could find LDS who recognize the dependence humans have upon God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and deny the continuing linkage between God and deified man in the eternities. **I think it is good that you may be unable to find ANY LDS who somehow thinks that apart from God we naturally grow into gods though this is imputed (or seemingly imputed) upon LDS by others.**
I find the future separation view difficult to align with various one God scriptures in the Bible and the rest of LDS scripture. I also see things like the High Priestly Prayer John 17, suggesting strongly that the unity of the Father and Son is to be the unity of His disciples and Him. Such linkage between the divine Father and the divine Son begs (IMO) to be linked to HOW they are One God. And by extension it would point to our future state. Together with “God is love” I see no reason to introduce a concept of distance between the deified and the Deifier. I am open to the charge of arrogance when I say that we are called to be divine and this is not “idealistic gas,” but at the same time I see no reason to jettison my complete dependence upon God now and then.
“I need the every hour.” I do not expect such to be less true in any potential future state I might receive by His grace. Of course, “through the glass darkly,” I do not yet see Him as He is much less see me like Him, so I could be wrong.
Charity, TOm