The Attributes of God: Whence God? Talking about God.

The Attributes of God
Part iv: Whence God? Talking about God

Related posts: Immutable, Omnipresence ; Omniscience ; Omniscience and divine Learning ; Godhead: God or Gods?

In 1844 Joseph Smith taught,

God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens!…I say, if you were to see him today, you would see him like a man in form—like yourselves in all the person, image, and very form as a man; for Adam was created in the very fashion, image and likeness of God. (King Follett Discourse, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith)

This was emphasized by president Lorenzo Snow (5th president of the church; d. 1901), “the Spirit of God fell upon me to a marked extent, and the Lord revealed to me, just as plainly as the sun at noon-day, this principle, which I put in a couplet: ‘As man now is, God once was; As God now is, man may be’” (The Teachings of Lorenzo Snow, edited by Clyde J. Williams, p. 2). That couplet is widely recognized by Mormons. Elder N. Eldon Tanner (Apostle; d. 1982 ) said, “We believe also that ‘as man now is, God once was: As God now is, man may be’…Therefore, man should strive all his days to increase his intelligence and learn all the truths he can” (“Ye Shall Know the Truth,” Ensign, May 1978). Consequently, even Mormons who hold a more traditional view of omniscience tend to believe that God gained his knowledge of past, present, and future; as opposed to orthodox omniscience where God knows all things timelessly and independent of causation.

The following articles from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism quote President Snow’s couplet: Theogony ; Christology ; God the Father ; Godhood ; Snow, Lorenzo ; Doctrine: LDS Doctrine Compared With Other Christian Doctrines.

How Mormons talk about God
As I mentioned in my previous post, most Mormons believe that God knows all things; they believe in traditional omniscience. Joseph Fielding Smith (b. 1876; became 10th president of the church in 1970; d. 1972) said, “I believe that God knows all things and that his understanding is perfect…why should we say that his knowledge is limited and that hidden law and truths abound which he has not discovered. Who made those laws and where do they come from?” (Doctrines of Salvation, vol. 1, p. 8). The Lectures on Faith (included in the Doctrine and Covenants until 1921) reads, “Without the knowledge of all things God would not be able to save any portion of his creatures…if it were not for the idea existing in the minds of men that God had all knowledge it would be impossible for them to exercise faith in him” (4:11).[1] Yet Brigham Young said, “[it has been said that] God can progress no further in knowledge and power; but the God that I serve is progressing eternally” (JD, 11: 286 – 287). And Wilford Woodruff (as an Apostle) said, “God Himself is increasing and progressing in knowledge, power, and dominion, and will do so, worlds without end” (JD, 6:120). George Q. Cannon (Apostle; d. 1901) said, “There is progress for our Father and for our Lord Jesus…It is endless progress, progressing from one degree of knowledge to another degree” (Gospel Truth: Discourses and Writings of President George Q. Cannon, p. 92). John A. Widstoe (Apostle; d. 1952) said, “If the great law of progression is accepted, God must have been engaged, and must now be engaged in progressive development” (A Rational Theology, p. 30-31).

The interpretation of these passages hinges upon the meaning of progression.

Within Mormonism there are principally two views of progression. Both hold that God has progressed to where he is now. The minority view holds that God is now progressing in knowledge and increasing in dominion. The other view, the neo-orthodox view, holds that God has progressed to ultimate perfection and knows all things past, present, and future. His increase in dominion is purely quantitative: he creates new worlds and his children become exalted, and this for all eternity. Elder Bruce R. McConkie (Apostle; d. 1981) taught this view: “There are those who say that God is progressing knowledge and is learning new truths. This is false—utterly, totally, and completely. There is not one sliver of truth in it…God progresses in the sense that his kingdoms increase and his dominions multiply—not in the sense that he learns new truths and discovers new laws. God is not a student” (“The Seven Deadly Heresies,” June 1, 1980, BYU Speeches).

Can there be harmony between these apparently divergent views? Sterling McMurrin suggested that we simply sermonize classically and theologize non-classically: “The word ‘finite’ stirs nothing in the soul of the worshipper,” he wrote in the Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion, “But ‘infinite,’ ‘omnipotent,’ and ‘omniscient’ are words made to order for the preacher…So Mormon theological writing and sermonizing are more often than not replete with vocabulary of absolutism” (p. 35). It’s true in any religion that preachers sometimes preach one way and theologize another. But there is another view that rests on the idea of spheres of existence that synthesizes the ideas of perfection and progression. Brigham Young taught, “[We may become] as perfect in our sphere as God and Angels are in theirs, but the greatest intelligence in existence can continually ascend to greater heights of perfection” (JD 1:93). That statement implies that perfection can be relative to a given sphere. So perfect knowledge means knowing all there is to know and perfection means as perfect as one can be in a given sphere of existence. LDS scholar and essayist Eugene England has made use of this concept in an attempt find harmony between these two views of God. He writes,

My simple thesis here is that, in fact, these statements are not contradictory. These Church leaders were using two different, but complementary, ways of talking about God based on two different aspects of the Mormon understanding of God, both of which, I believe, are essential to our theology and must be maintained. With the help of a basic concept—that of different, progressive spheres of development and of possible perfection within each sphere—it is possible to believe both in God’s perfection of knowledge and power in relation to our sphere and in his progression in these attributes in his own and higher spheres. (“Perfection and Progression: Two Complementary Ways to Talk about God,” BYU Studies, vol. 29, no. 3.)

James R. Harris, Professor of Ancient Scripture at BYU, has adopted a view that God does know all things past present and future.

Statement about the foreknowledge of God are characteristically associated with reference to the “beginning and the end,” i.e., that the scope of God’s knowledge spans all of man’s experience (premortal, mortal, post-mortal, and immortal) and that man’s end (i.e., his final condition as an individual) was known by God, “from the beginning”…

The scope of God's foreknowledge would, at the least, encompass that period of man's existence cradled between the “beginning and the end”…

Eternal progression, like eternal punishment and eternal life, may represent a quality of experience and not exclusively a duration of experience…

For God there is no floundering, no experimentation, no misapplication of truth, for all things, past, present, and future are present with him… (“Eternal Progression and the Foreknowledge of God,” BYU Studies, vol. 8, no. 1)

Harris’s thesis is that God knows at least everything about this sphere of existence, past, present, and future, from its beginning to its end, as well as all things generally. I believe England is saying that God is omnipotent and omniscient in this sphere of existence; God can do everything that is possible to do in this sphere and knows everything about it. Only after its “end” does God progress to a higher sphere.

I haven’t thought through these arguments completely; the idea of spheres of existence seems to work. On the other hand I’m not bothered that within Mormonism there are divergent schools of thought about the attributes of God. So I don’t feel like harmonizing these different views is highly important. We have no equivalent to the Athanasian Creed which says that unless one firmly believes in the Trinity “he cannot be saved.” Mormonism has never required adherents to believe in a prescribed conception of God.[2] (See Four Important Creeds, Mormonism and the Creeds of Christendom.)

End Notes______________________
[1] Recent scholarship suggests the Lectures on Faith were written by Sidney Rigdon. They were removed from the Doctrine and Covenants because “they were never presented to nor accepted by the Church as being otherwise than theological lectures or lessons” (“Lectures on Faith,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism).

[2] The beliefs necessary to becoming a Mormon can be found in the baptismal interview. These questions are adapted to the individual’s circumstances and age. These interview questions outline the basic beliefs necessary to being baptized and confirmed a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

1. Do you believe that God is our Eternal Father? Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Savior and Redeemer of the world?

2. Do you believe the Church and gospel of Jesus Christ have been restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith? Do you believe that [current Church President] is a prophet of God? What does this mean to you?

3. What does it mean to you to repent? Do you feel that you have repented of your past transgressions?

4. Have you ever committed a serious crime? If so, are you now on probation or parole? Have you ever participated in an abortion? a homosexual relationship?

5. You have been taught that membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints includes living gospel standards. What do you understand of the following standards? Are you willing to obey them?
a. The law of chastity, which prohibits any sexual relationship outside the bond of a legal marriage between a man and a woman.
b. The law of tithing.
c. The Word of Wisdom
d. The Sabbath day, including partaking of the sacrament weekly and rendering service to fellow members.

6. When you are baptized, you covenant with God that you are willing to take upon yourself the name of Christ and keep His commandments throughout your life. Are you ready to make this covenant and strive to be faithful to it?
(From Preach My Gospel, p. 206)

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