Mormonism 101: More on the LDS Scripture’s View of God

   The end result of having canonized revelations that span the period of Smith’s doctrinal development is simple inconsistency. LDS apologists and theologians normally interpret the earlier monotheistic and traditional statements in light of the later, more unique statements. The First Vision story becomes the lens through which all else is seen, so that the unity of the Godhead envisioned in various early passages from Joseph Smith is understood to be a unity of purpose only, rather than a unity of being. It is logical, of course, if one believes in on-going revelation in the LDS fashion, to think that the later pronouncements of a prophet are to be taken as having more authority than the earlier ones, even if those later revelations are contradictory to the prior ones. A prophet has the right, we are often told, to interpret his own messages, and adjust as necessary.[1]
   What do we do with the inconsistencies inherent in the LDS Scriptures? Surely such a fact should be allowed to speak to the question of the inspiration of those Scriptures, but for our purposes at the moment, we need to focus upon those passages that have had the greatest impact upon later generations and the teachings of the General Authorities of the LDS Church.
The Testimony of the Book of Abraham
   Certainly the most unique section of LDS Scripture is found to be the Book of Abraham, contained in the Pearl of Great Price. This work, Translated from the papyrus, by Joseph Smith is allegedly A Translation of some ancient Records, that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt. The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.”[2] The story of the Book of Abraham is fascinating, but beyond our scope.[3] Its importance to our study lies in the final chapters of the book. Here we find what amounts to a rewrite of the opening chapters of the book of Genesis in the Old Testament. Only this time, the fact that Joseph Smith’s theology has changed a good bit is only too clear.
   Joseph worked on the Book of Abraham during two major periods, and the second period came later in his life (1842), after he had begun introducing the idea of a plurality of gods into the LDS Church. It is hardly surprising, then, that in translating the Egyptian papyri, Joseph discovered that Abraham himself had taught a plurality of gods. The reader is directed to chapters four and five of the Book of Abraham for a full accounting, but the first few verses are enough to give a flavor of the passage:

1 AND then the Lord said: Let us go down. And they went down at the beginning, and they, that is the Gods, organized and formed the heavens and the earth.
2 And the earth, after it was formed, was empty and desolate, because they had not formed anything but the earth; and darkness reigned upon the face of the deep, and the Spirit of the Gods was brooding upon the face of the waters.
3 And they (the Gods) said: Let there be light; and there was light.
4 And they (the Gods) comprehended the light, for it was bright; and they divided the light, or caused it to be divided, from the darkness.
5 And the Gods called the light Day, and the darkness they called Night. And it came to pass that from the evening until morning they called night; and from the morning until the evening they called day; and this was the first, or the beginning, of that which they called day and night.
6 And the Gods also said: Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and it shall divide the waters from the waters.
7 And the Gods ordered the expanse, so that it divided the waters which were under the expanse from the waters which were above the expanse; and it was so, even as they ordered.
8 And the Gods called the expanse, Heaven. And it came to pass that it was from evening until morning that they called night; and it came to pass that it was from morning until evening that they called day; and this was the second time that they called night and day.

   By my count the phrase “the Gods” appears forty-six times in only two chapters of text here in the Book of Abraham, each time in capitalized form. Given the obvious dependency upon the text of the book of Genesis, Joseph’s point is all too clear and understandable. He would only two years later claim that the Hebrew term translated God in Genesis is mistranslated, and should be rendered in the plural. Whatever else we may say about the Book of Abraham, one thing is for certain: it presents the plurality of gods very, very clearly.

The Doctrine and Covenants
   The student of Mormonism is well aware of the fact that the primary source of doctrinal teaching in the LDS Scriptures themselves is to be found in the Doctrine and Covenants. While the Book of Mormon is widely read, it does not present the vast majority of the unique, definitional doctrines of the LDS faith. Instead, the D&C (as it is often abbreviated in LDS sources) is the real source of most of modern LDS theology. And it is here we find the clearest presentations regarding the nature of God, especially in reference to God’s relationship to man and the concept of deification.

   It seems to me that the process that led Joseph Smith to his final statements regarding a plurality of gods, and his most famous statement (which we will examine later) that God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, was one that began with the exaltation of man. That is, when you read his statements, including the revelations in the D&C in chronological order, you discover that the first steps are found in an exalted view of man rather than any particular view of God as an exalted man. I present two important passages, one from 1832, the second from 1833, that bear out this reality. The first is from Section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants, verses 50 through 60:

50 And again we bear record for we saw and heard, and this is the testimony of the gospel of Christ concerning them who shall come forth in the resurrection of the just
51 They are they who received the testimony of Jesus, and believed on his name and were baptized after the manner of his burial, being buried in the water in his name, and this according to the commandment which he has given
52 That by keeping the commandments they might be washed and cleansed from all their sins, and receive the Holy Spirit by the laying on of the hands of him who is ordained and sealed unto this power;
53 And who overcome by faith, and are sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, which the Father sheds forth upon all those who are just and true.
54 They are they who are the church of the Firstborn.
55 They are they into whose hands the Father has given all things
56 They are they who are priests and kings, who have received of his fulness, and of his glory;
57 And are priests of the Most High, after the order of Melchizedek, which was after the order of Enoch, which was after the order of the Only Begotten Son.
58 Wherefore, as it is written, they are gods, even the sons of God
59 Wherefore, all things are theirs, whether life or death, or things present, or things to come, all are theirs and they are Christs, and Christ is Gods.
60 And they shall overcome all things.[4]

   Here, in discussing the status of the those who have believed and been baptized, Smith goes so far as to describe them as gods for the first time. Still, he modifies this with the phrase, sons of God, but the movement toward his final theology is clear. A little over a year later, in D&C 93, Smith said this about man:

29 Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.

   Despite these lofty claims for man, we still do not have, at this early stage in his development, the corresponding claims that God was once a man Himself. This comes later in the 1830 and early 1840s. By April of 1843, we find Smith having moved all the way to an assertion that God the Father is corporeal in nature, that is, that He has a physical body. In a revelation dated April 2, 1843, Smith provides one of the classic LDS formulations concerning God, D&C 130:22:

22 The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as mans; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit. Were it not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us.[5]

   Remember that this passage is contemporaneous with the final form of the First Vision (1838) and the final translation of the Book of Abraham (1842). Hence, we can see that at this point Smith has joined together the exalted view of man found in his earlier revelations with a corresponding belief that God has a physical form like man (First Vision, D&C 130:22). Since both God the Father and Jesus Christ have physical forms, the idea of a plurality of gods is then easily understandable in the final chapters of the Book of Abraham.
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[1] In fact, Joseph Smith often altered previous revelations to fit later concepts. Note, for example, the wholesale insertion of material into what is now known as Section 27 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Over 400 words have been added or deleted from this one revelation, without any notification to the reader of the editing that was done by Smith himself.
[2] This is the description given by the LDS Scriptures themselves.
[3] See Charles M. Larson, By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus (Grand Rapids, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 1992) for a recent examination of the Book of Abraham. See also, Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Mormonism: Shadow or Reality? pp. 294-369, and my own Letters to a Mormon Elder, pp. 157-168.
[4] Hyrum M Smith, and Janne M. Sjodahl, The Doctrine and Covenants Commentary Containing Revelations Given to Joseph Smith, Jr., the Prophet With an Introduction and Historical and Exegetical Notes. Rev. ed., (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1954), p. 458, notes, Some take exception to the glorious doctrine here taught, that those who are called forth in the first resurrection are destined to become gods. There is no valid reason for objection. They then quote from Brigham Young (Journal of Discourses 3:93), where Young said,

Jesus is the elder Brother, and all the brethren shall come in for a share with Him; for an equal share according to their works and calling, and they shall be crowned with Him. Do you read of any such thing as the Savior praying that the Saints may be one with Him, as He and the Father are one? The Bible is full of such doctrine, and there is no harm in it, as long as it agrees with the New Testament * * * The Lord created you and me for the purpose of becoming gods * * * How many will become thus privileged? Those who honor the Father and the Son; those who receive the Holy Ghost, and magnify their calling; and are found pure and holy; they shall be crowned in the presence of the Father and the Son.

[5] Interestingly, BYU scholar Stephen Robinson notes concerning this passage, “We believe this not because it is the clear teaching of the Bible but because it was the personal experience of the prophet Joseph Smith in his first vision and because the information is further clarified for us in modern revelation.” Craig L. Blomberg and Steven E. Robinson, How Wide the Divide? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), p. 78.