In case you have not already seen it, I’m posting information about Blake Ostler’s new interpretation of Joseph Smith’s teachings in the King Follett Discourse and the Sermon in the Grove toward the end of his life. Re-evaluating the several historical sources that provided eye-witness accounts of the experiences, and combining it with studies of the LDS scriptures, Blake arrives at a much more consistent outline of Joseph’s understanding of the Godhead/Trinity, his belief in the realilty God’s and Christ’s eternal divinity, and no infinite regress of Gods.
Blake is the philosopher who came for the workshop of BYU and Talbot Philosophy students at Biola last year, and is one of the three LDS thinkers (along with Steve Robinson and Robert Millet) that the editors of “New Mormon Challenge” suggested are emphasizing the right things at this point in time.
To provide some sense of Blake’s final formulation of the idea, I’m posting excepts from chapter 12 of Blake Ostler’s just-published second volume of “Exploring Mormon Thought”, on “God the Eternal Father”. Anyone who does not read this book in it’s entirety is missing an important paradigm shift.
This idea is under discussion among philosophers in the Church, especially in numerous blog discussions on the issue. An invaluable summary and evaluation is available on the FAIR Wiki website, in an article titled “Infinite Regress of Gods?”
Blake contributes frequently to the blog called New Cool Thang . In a post containing many of the arguments and discussions, a scholar defending the previous usual interpretation of the discourses used these words:
I believe that a different analogy would be more appropriate though. I would compare the KFD to something like the twist at the end of the movie The Sixth Sense. In other words, the KFD reveals startling new information that shifts the lens through which we view everything that came before it. It gives Christian theology a major paradigm shift and an entirely new set of lenses through which to see reality. Rather than forcing the new revelation to fit in with the former views of reality, I think we must rethink our interpretation of all previous revelations based on the KFD. (Sort of like what you had to do with the entire movie when we had our paradigms shifted with the revelation about the Bruce Willis character.)
So when I think of the life of Joseph being lived in crescendo, I think of it concluding with his providing us a massive theological paradigm shift – one that further proved that he was a prophet in the same class as the great prophets of old.
Blake Ostler uses these words to express his increased appreciation of Joseph Smith’s teachings after re-formulating his understanding of the King Follett Discourse and the Sermon in the Grove:
The reading that I give the King Follett Discourse is the view that is consistent with the idea of Joseph Smith’s life as a crescendo. It seems to me that you all (those disagreeing with his new understanding) see Joseph simply playing a different tune altogether and with a different musical era rather than a symphony that crescendos. Indeed, what we get if you all are correct is a dissonance on which Joseph Smith ends his life instead of a beautiful symphonic masterpiece that crescendos into the King Follett Discourse as the exclamation point of his life. What you give us is a sour note at the end of a beautiful multi-media presentation that ruins the whole thing and says that what went before must just be seen as so much fluff and dressing for the real refrain that starts a new piece. It is kind of like a heavy metal refrain at the end of the moonlight sonata!
I (Steve St. Clair) have discussed this information with a very learned participant at Mariners Church in Irvine, whom I met at a recent excellent meeting there to discuss doctrinal differences between Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints. The gentleman at Mariners stayed afterwords for an hour discussing this, and expressed at the end that he thought that the Latter-day Saints moving in this direction would be the resolution of the largest issue between us. His words were to this effect: “Keep the Book of Mormon, keep the Three Degrees of Glory, and keep Baptism for the Dead, if you come to this understanding of the King Follet Discourse.”
Thanks for letting me know what you think.
Love & Thanks,
Steve St. Clair
===================================== Blake T. Ostler
Excerpts from EXPLORING MORMON THOUGHT VOLUME 2 (click on link to Order from Amazon.com)
The Problems of Theism and the Love of God
Greg Kofford Books
Salt Lake City: 2006
Excepts from CHAPTER 12: GOD THE ETERNAL FATHER
Psalm 90:2 declares: “From everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.” On February 5, 1840, Joseph Smith observed: “I believe that God is eternal. That he had no beginning, and can have no end. Eternity means that which is without beginning or end.” However, just a few years later, Joseph Smith reportedly stated: “We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea.” How can these both be true? What is affirmed in the first statement is refuted in the second. Now I am open to the possibility that Joseph Smith asserted contradictory statements. He was, after all, a prophet and not a systematic theologian. Perhaps we should see such statements as a paradox that can be resolved by seeing them as asserting that God is “God” in different senses. Perhaps we should see such statements as a koan that challenges us to transcend our limited perspective to achieve enlightenment. Yet there is something deep in me that holds that contradictory statements cannot both be true.
Thus, the approach I want to explore here is whether these statements can be explained within the context of Joseph Smith’s beliefs about the one God and the plurality of gods. To do so, I adopt the scholastic dictum, “whenever a contradiction arises, make a distinction.”
For purposes of this discussion, I need to clarify a few terms as I will use them. While I believe that the way I use these terms is well within the family of meanings commonly used in Latter-day Saint discourse, I don’t pretend that Latter-day Saints speak this way in Sunday School.
The word “God” can refer to both the individual divine persons of the Father, the Son, or the Holy Ghost, and it can refer to them as a united Godhead. To avoid this type of equivocation, I will refer to the Father, or the Son, or the Holy Ghost when referring to the divine persons individually. I will refer to the “Godhead” when speaking of these three as a unity. I will use “God” as an equivocal term that does not distinguish between these uses. To be “divine” is minimally to possess all of the essential attributes of Godhood.
A “divine person” is a “person” who possesses all the essential properties of divinity. The word “person” in LDS thought is much more univocal with what we mean by human “persons” than in the tradition. A person is minimally a being embodied in some sense having distinct cognitive and conative capacities, although a fully divine person also transcends embodied presence by being the locus and source of omnipresent spiritual power, knowledge, and glory.
I also want to clear away an assumption that could derail this discussion before it gets started. It is common among Latter-day Saints to assert that it is necessary to have a glorified body of flesh and bones to be divine. However, that view is surely mistaken, for the LDS scriptures uniformly identify the Son as the God revealed in the Old Testament. It follows that the Son was fully divine before he became mortal. However, Christ was not a resurrected being until after his incarnation and resurrection. Therefore, the Son was fully divine even though he did not yet possess a glorified (or resurrected) body of flesh and bone. In addition, the Holy Ghost is a personage of spirit though a fully divine person (D&C 130:22). So it is clear in LDS thought that to have divine status, a divine person need not possess a glorified, resurrected body as both the Father and the Son now do.
In LDS thought, it is also clear that God the Father is an eternally self-existent being. The notion of God’s self existence was made clear by Joseph Smith in his April 1844 King Follett discourse: “We say that God is a self-existent being. Who told you so? It is correct enough; but how did it get into your heads?”
However, there is a fundamental question which is unsettled in LDS thought regarding the eternal existence of the Father: Has the Father always existed as a divine person from all eternity without beginning? This question makes a distinction between at least the following two possibilities:
(1) There was an interval of time from T2 through T3 during which the Father was mortal and not fully divine, but the Father was fully divine eternally prior to T2 and forever after T3.
(2) There was a time T2 at which the Father first became fully divine, but he was not fully divine prior to T2; however, the Father has always existed without beginning and will always exist without end.
The difference in these two views is that according to (1), the Father was divine from all eternity before experiencing a mortality. According to (2), the Father was not divine until after his mortality, and thus became a divine person at some time. I first want to note that both (1) and (2) are consistent with Lorenzo Snow’s aphorism: “As man now is, God once was, and as God now is, man may become:’ In either view, there was a time when the Father was once mortal as we are now and also a time during which he is divine-as this aphorism affirms. What is at issue is whether the Father was divine only after his mortality and less than divine before his mortality. In what follows I defend (1).
The Scriptural Argument
There is strong scriptural motivation for Latter-day Saints to adopt (1), the view that God the Father has been divine from all eternity. Before beginning, I want to make two further distinctions. I will argue for the view that: (a1) “God the Father is eternally, without beginning, a divine person,” although: (a2) “he condescended for a time to become a mortal in the same manner as Christ.”
There is a third question that I will not discuss here but which I have discussed elsewhere, i.e., whether in his mortal state the Father was divine though not fully divine. It is my view that the Father was at one time a mortal, though not a mere mortal, and that during his mortality the Father was divine, though not fully divine. It may seem that the careful position to take is that (a1) (the view that God has eternally been divine) alone is supported by both biblical and LDS scripture and (a2) (the belief that the Father at one time condescended to become mortal) is a non-scriptural view that has come to dominate LDS thought
Joseph Smith delivered the King Follett discourse. However, Joseph Smith himself claims scriptural support for (a2) and the scriptures he cites also support (a1).
LDS scriptures repeatedly assert that “God” is eternally “God.” Consider the various ways in which the eternity of God is affirmed in LDS scripture:
Father, Son and Holy Ghost are one God, infinite and eternal, without end. (D&C 20:27; cf., Mosiah 15:2-5; Alma II:44; Eth. 12:41)
Behold, I am the Lord God Almighty, and
Endless is my name; for I am without beginning of days or end of years; and is not this endless? (Moses 1:3-5)
By these things we know that there is a God in heaven who is infinite
and eternal, from everlasting to everlasting the same unchangeable God, the framer of heaven and earth. (D&C 20: I 7)
For we know that God is not a partial God, neither a changeable being; but he is unchangeable from all eternity to all eternity. (Moro. 8:18) Taken together, the most obvious reading of these scriptural statements is that God the Father has been a divine person from all eternity without beginning. I add a caution: the assertion that God is “unchangeable” surely does not mean that God is unchangeable in all respects. Yet it seems fairly transparent that God is unchangeable in at least one crucial respect. The fact that God is divine does not change. As the Lectures on Faith stated, God “does not change, neither does he vary; but he is the same from everlasting to everlasting, being the same yesterday, today, and forever; and his course is one eternal round:’
There is of course a question about how broadly we should take the scope of the word “eternal” in Mormon scripture in general and in Hebrew and Greek scriptures in particular. The word “eternal” could mean something like the Hebrew elohim or the Greek aionios, both of which are translated as “eternal” but which can mean an unmeasured span of time like the English “eon.” However, Joseph Smith himself stated fairly clearly that, when he spoke of God as eternal, he meant that God had no beginning, and he made these statements during the Nauvoo period (1839-44). In a January 1841 sermon, Joseph Smith gave a key to understanding the scriptures: “A key, every principle proceeding from God is eternal, and any principle which is not eternal is of the DeviI.” On February, 1840, Joseph Smith stated: “I believe that God is eternal. That He had no beginning, and can have no end. Eternity means that which is without beginning or end.” On another occasion in 1840, Joseph Smith stated: “The priesthood is as eternal as God Himself, having neither beginning of days nor end of life.” Joseph Smith’s statements also show that the view that God is eternally divine is not an early view that he later superseded, although, as we shall see, he did develop a nuanced view of God’s eternity.
It seems to me that the scriptural record uniformly supports the view that God the Father has been divine, without beginning. Further, it seems to me that the scriptural record should be given priority to determine LDS beliefs. The very notion of a scripture accepted by common consent of the Saints suggests that Latter-day Saints take these scriptures as foundational. In the event of any conflict between scriptural and non-scriptural statements, it seems that scriptural statements should be accorded greater weight. In addition, these statements are strongly supported by Joseph Smith’s own statements that “God” is without a beginning.
Now when these statements say that “God is without beginning,” it may mean only that the Father, as an uncreated intelligence, was never created, but that the Father became divine only after a mortal experience. However, it seems to me that such an interpretation cannot be reconciled with the assertion that it is “the Almighty God” who is without beginning of days as the Book of Moses asserts. The “Almighty God” is the Father of Christ (D&C 20:21). Further, such an assertion seems inconsistent with the affirmation that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are eternally united as one God. Thus, while this may be one fruitful way of looking at such texts, I will not pursue it here. I believe that the view that the Father has always been a divine person is more faithful to scripture. However, there are two sermons given by Joseph Smith in Nauvoo that may appear to challenge this uniform scriptural teaching: the King Follett discourse given April 7, 1844, and the Sermon in the Grove, given June 16, 1844.
The King Follett Discourse
Some have taken statements made by Joseph Smith in this discourse to support (2)-the view that the Father was not divine before his mortality. However, it seems to me that a closer reading of the King Follett discourse supports (1) and precludes (2). It may be instructive to look at a few of these statements:
It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the Character of God, and to know that we may converse with him as one man converses with another, and that he was once a man like us; yea, that God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ himse!f did; and I will show it from the Bible …. The Scriptures inform us that Jesus said, As the Father hath power in Himself, even so hath the Son power–to do what? Why, what the Father did. The answer is obvious–in a manner to lay down His body and take it up again.
This statement has been taken by some to support (2), but I believe that it better supports reading (1). First, Joseph Smith looks to Jesus Christ as God the Son to reveal the nature of God the Father. Only (1) preserves the scriptural base text in John 5:19 to which Joseph Smith refers to support this doctrine that the Son did exactly what the Father had done, because it is uniformly taught in Mormon scripture and by Joseph Smith that Christ was a fully divine person prior to mortality. John 5:19 reads: “The Son can do nothing of himself but what he seeth the Father do; for what things soever he [ the Father] doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise:’ However, if this scriptural interpretation is followed to its conclusion, then the Father’s mortal experience was like Christ’s, and thus it is more consistent to interpret Joseph Smith to assert that the Father, like Christ, was divine before his mortal sojourn but emptied himself of his divinity and became mortal for a time.
Further, this assertion is positively inconsistent with the view that the Father was not divine until after his mortality, for the Prophet declares that, as a mortal, the Father had a power that only a divine being can have the power to lay down his body and take it up again. This interpretation is reinforced by another statement from the King Follett discourse:
What did Jesus do? Why; I do the things I saw my Father do when worlds came rolling into existence. My Father worked out his kingdom with fear and trembling, and I must do the same; and when I get my kingdom I shall present it to my Father, so that he may obtain kingdom upon kingdom, it will exalt him in glory. He will then take a higher exaltation, and I will take his place, and thereby become exalted myself. So that Jesus treads in the tracks of his Father, and inherits what God did before; and God is thus glorified and exalted in the salvation and exaltation of all his children.
This statement continues the same line of reasoning as before. Christ does what he saw his Father do. They work out their exaltation in the same way. Thus, this passage also reinforces (1) because Christ was divine before his mortality. However, this statement adds that divine persons, as divine, progress. Joseph Smith did not see perfection as an upper absolute limit, but as a dynamic activity of growth and progression. This notion of divine perfection is important to keep in mind to accurately interpret Joseph Smith’s statements in the King Follett discourse. The Son, as a divine person, progresses to the Father’s station and then the Father takes a higher station. Thus, the mere statement that the Father is progressing does not indicate that the Father is not already divine.
However, other statements in the King Follett discourse are more difficult to align with (1) and, at first blush at least, seem to support (2). For example, Joseph Smith stated:
Here then is eternal life-to know the only wise and true God; and you have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done before you, namely, by going from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one; from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, until you attain to the resurrection of the dead, and are able to dwell in everlasting burnings, and to sit in glory, as do those who sit enthroned in everlasting power.
This statement has been interpreted to require (2). Because it speaks of “Gods” learning how to be gods and of their progressing from one capacity to another, it is often assumed that those engaged in the process of learning to be gods cannot already be gods. However, there are at least two interpretations of this passage:
(A) Persons learn how to become Gods by becoming a “god” at some first time TI by advancing from one capacity to another until they reach the status of gods.
(B) God the Father has been in a process of eternal progression from one exaltation to another for all eternity, and humans can commence to progress toward godhood by engaging in the same activity of progression.
For Joseph Smith, divine persons are engaged in the process of going from one capacity to another. Thus, it seems to me that Joseph Smith is asserting (B) and not (A). Interpretation (A) assumes that, if a being is engaged in learning how to be a god or progressing from one capacity to another, then that being is not yet divine or “a god.” However, this assumption is not well taken. According to Joseph Smith, the Father, as a divine person, is engaged in the process of progressing from one exaltation to another by being glorified by his creations.
Interpretation (A) assumes the classical notion of perfection as an absolute upper limit beyond which it is impossible to progress. Joseph Smith rejected that view. He did not see learning and progression as antithetical to divine status.
In fact, Doctrine & Covenants 93:13-14 asserts that God the Son, Jesus Christ, “continued from grace to grace, until he received a fulness, and thus he was called the Son of God because he received not the fulness at first.” Again, we see that the type of progression predicated of the Father in the King Follett discourse is already predicated of the Son in Joseph Smith’s revelations. The Son laid aside the divine glory that he once had with the Father before the world was and took it up again when he was glorified by the Father through the resurrection. Joseph Smith taught that the Father had done the same before him in the sense that the Father progressed from one capacity to another by laying aside his prior divine glory, becoming “enfleshed” or incarnated for a time on another world and then was resurrected just as Christ was. Thus, the concept that the Father was once incarnated is an extension of Joseph Smith’s Christology.
However, there is one final passage from the King Follett discourse that may seem difficult to square with (1). In the official report of the King Follett discourse which B. H. Roberts redacted and edited for the official seven-volume history of the Church, Joseph Smith is reported as stating:
I am going to tell you how God came to be God. We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea, and take away the veil, so that you may see.
Joseph Smith thus reportedly “refuted” the idea that God (the Father) has always been God or always had divine status. However, this last statement, contained in the official text of the King Follett discourse and supported by the diaries of Willard Richards and Wilford Woodruff, is an incomplete report of what Joseph Smith actually said, according to two other sources with a very different reading. The most complete report is by Joseph Smith’s scribe, Thomas Bullock, who made what appears to be the closest to a word-for-word rendition of the discourse. His records states:
I am going to tell you what sort of a being of God. for he was God from the begin [sic] of all Eternity & if I do not refute it-truth is the touchstone.
This version states that God was God (a divine person) from the beginning and that Joseph Smith does not intend to refute that view. William Clayton omits the statement about a refutation altogether:
Going to tell you how God came to be God. We have imagined that God was God from all eternity-These are incomprehensible to some but are [ sic] the first principles of the gospel.
Although it is clear that Joseph Smith claimed that God the Father was at one time a mortal, the text of the King Follett discourse is not clear enough to determine what Joseph Smith originally said about refuting the notion that God has always been God-if that is, in fact, what he said. However, the weight of the evidence suggests that, even in the King Follett discourse, Joseph Smith taught that the Son’s experience of mortality was like the Father’s and, thus, that the Father was divine before he condescended to become mortal.
Moreover, even if Joseph Smith did state that he intended to refute the idea that God had been God from all eternity, it does not follow that reading (1) must be rejected. The assertion that the Father is not divine from all eternity entails only that there was a period of time during which he was not divine-it does not require that he was not divine forever before that period of time. According to (1), there was a period of time during which the Father was mortal and not divine, and thus He has not been divine from all eternity. Thus, Joseph Smith’s statement is neutral between (I) and (2). Both are consistent with the assertion that there was a period of time during which the Father was not divine and therefore has not been divine at all times.
A final consideration of the King Follett discourse makes it almost certain that Joseph Smith adopted a form of monarchical monotheism rather than simple henotheism or polytheism. Joseph’s interpretation of Genesis 1:1 entailed that there is a single God who is the head of all other gods. Joseph stated:
[I will] make a comment on the first sentence of the history of creation. Berosheit want to annalize the word- -Be-in by through & everything e1se-rosh [indecipherable ]-the head. sheit-where do [sic] it come from-when they inspired man wrote he did not put it there. It reads in the first-the head one of the Gods brought forth the Gods-is true meaning-rosheet signifies to bring forth the Eloheim [sic]. Learned men cannot learn any more that what I have told you hence the head God brought forth the head God in the grand council.
Joseph Smith believed that the text of Genesis 1:1 had been corrupted and that it originally indicated that the head God brought forth the other gods in a council of gods. It follows that there is a head God (the monarch) and other gods who are subordinate to him in the council of gods. It is the same doctrine that he taught just over two months later in the Sermon in the Grove which further clarifies his belief in a head God to whom all other gods are subordinate.
The Sermon in the Grove
In the Sermon in the Grove, Joseph Smith gave an interpretive discourse on Revelation 1:3: “And hath made us kings and priests unto God and His Father.” What interests Joseph Smith in this verse is the reference to both God and his Father, because he reads it to support a plurality of gods. In addition, this scriptural verse supports the view that “God” has a Father. The sermon has four topics to support this interpretation.
In the first topic of the Sermon in the Grove, the Prophet argues that because the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are “three distinct personages and three Gods … we have three Gods anyhow, and they are plural.” To the extent that each of the divine persons is a distinct person and because each person is properly called a God, his point that there is a plurality of Gods is simply one of logic. In fact, the very same argument was made by Richard Cartwright in an important article critiquing the doctrine of the Trinity. Cartwright argued:
(1) Every divine person is a god.
(2) There are at least three divine persons.
(3) If every A is a B then there cannot be fewer B’s than A’s.
(4) Therefore, there are at least three gods.
Later in the Sermon in the Grove, Joseph argues that these three divine personages are one God in the sense that they are “agreed in one.” Joseph’s point is that the unity of the divine persons is not a matter of substance but of choice and mutual agreement. Such a view is consistent with the concept that the divine persons are divine by virtue of their indwelling love one for another, for love by its very nature is a choice. However, it is clear that Joseph equivocates in his use of the word “God,” for in the first argument he uses the word “God” as a designator for each of the three divine persons individually and in the second he uses “God” as a designator for the three as one Godhead-as a collective by agreement.
The second topic is a discussion of the doctrine of “the head God. Joseph Smith interpreted Genesis 1:1 to refer to “the head of the Gods [who] called the other Gods together.”23 In the King Follett discourse two months earlier, he had taught that “the only true God” spoken of in John 17:3 is “the head, the Father of the Gods …. In the beginning, the head of the Gods called a council of the Gods; and they came together and concocted a plan to create the world and people it.”
Joseph Smith saw the council of the gods in Psalm 82 and the statement “let us make man .. .” in Genesis 1:26-27 as references to a council of Gods presided over by a head God-the Father. In addition to these two biblical statements, this doctrine is found in two LDS scriptures. An 1839 revelation (D&C 121:32) referred to “that which was ordained in the midst of the Council of the Eternal God of all other gods before the world was.” The same doctrine appears in the Book of Abraham (chaps. 3-4) to which the Prophet alludes in the Sermon in the Grove. In particular, Joseph refers to Abraham 3:19: ” … there are two spirits, one being more intelligent than the other; there shall be another more intelligent than they; I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than them all’ (emphasis mine).26 The Book of Abraham views the head God as the Most High God, the most intelligent of all intelligences.
It bears noting that, if the Father is the “head God,” the “Lord thy God … more intelligent than they all,” it then follows that the Father is the God of all other gods. He is the most intelligent, the highest and most supreme of all gods.
Further, he is an “Eternal God of all other gods.” The very concept of a head God of all other gods surely precludes the assumption that there could be a god “higher” or “above” this Most High God. The fact that God is an “Eternal God of all other gods” suggests that God has possessed that status from eternity. However, the view that there must be an eternal chain of gods, of which the Father is only one, seems to be supported by the next statement that Joseph Smith makes:
If Abraham reasoned thus-If Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and John discovered that God the Father of Jesus Christ had a Father, you may suppose that He had a Father also. Where was there ever a son without a father? And where was there ever a father without first being a son? … Hence, if Jesus had a Father, can we not believe that He had a Father also?
It may seem that Joseph is saying that the Father had a father and that there is another “Father above” the Father of Christ. Some have understood Joseph to teach that if the Father had a father, then that father also had a father and so on ad infinitum. If so, then his view that there is an “Eternal God of all other gods” seems to be in tension with the view that there was at one time a higher “god.” However, there are at least two ways to understand the statement that the Father of Christ had a father:
(X) When the Father condescended from a fulness of his divine state to become mortal, he was born into a world and had a father as a mortal.
(Y) Before he was a mortal, the Father was spiritually begotten by another Father above him.
It seems to me fairly clear that Joseph Smith had (X) in mind and not (Y). First, immediately after discussing the fact that generation of a son necessarily requires a father, he states:
I want you to pay particular attention to what I am saying. Jesus said that the Father wrought precisely in the same way as His Father had done before Him. As the Father had done before? He laid down His life, and took it up the same as His Father had done before.
Thus, Joseph returns to the same explanatory principle that he had in the King Follett discourse. The Son as a mortal does “precisely” what the Father did before him.
Both the Father and the Son were fully divine before they emptied themselves of this fulness to become mortal. The Father, like the Son, exercised a power that only a divine being has: to lay down his life and take up again after death. Yet in becoming mortal, the Son left his exalted state to become mortal and to be begotten on this earth by the Father. When he refers to a father of God the Father, Joseph Smith seems to be asserting that the Father also left his divine state to become begotten of a father at the time he became mortal. Joseph is supporting (X) by asserting that the Father must have had a father when he became a mortal son.
Joseph does not give any information as to who this father of the Father’s earthly body might be. However, if the Father’s generation was like the Son’s, then His earthly mother was overshadowed by the Holy Ghost in a similar way and his generation was also by divine means. That can certainly be true without positing that the father of God the Father’s earthly body was a god above the Father, for there is no such god.
It is of extreme importance to note that in the George Laub’s journal notes of the Sermon in the Grove, Joseph Smith stated that: “the holy ghost is yet a Spiritual body and waiting to take upon himself a body, as the Savior did or as God did.” Thus, Joseph Smith taught that already divine persons, including the Son and the Holy Ghost, take upon themselves bodies. Moreover, it is the same logic used in the King Follett Discourse. The Holy Ghost will take upon himself a body just as the Son took upon himself a body, and the Son took upon himself a body just as the Father did-and it is clear that both the Son and Holy Ghost are divine before their mortal incarnation. We now see a familiar (or family) pattern:
The Son was divine as the God of the Old Testament, yet left his exalted station and took upon himself a mortal body. The Holy Ghost is a divine person who shall leave his exalted station to take upon himself a mortal body. In the Sermon in the Grove, Joseph says that “God” (referring to the Father) also did the same thing. Thus, it seems to be explicitly taught that the Father was divine before he took upon himself a mortal body. We have overlooked Joseph Smith’s explicit statement that it is divine persons who condescend to become mortal, including the Father and eventually the Holy Ghost, because we have relied solely on the Thomas Bullock report of the Sermon in the Grove rather than incorporating George Laub’s journal entry on the sermon as well.
In addition, I believe that the reading of these statements which assumes the “Father of God the Father” refers to a more supreme deity, or one who spiritually begets the Father from intelligence to a spirit body, is likely anachronistic. Such a reading makes assumptions about spiritual birth and intelligences being begotten into spirit bodies that were absent from Joseph Smith’s views.
The fourth and final topic clinches the argument. The Prophet notes that Moses was made a “god” over Aaron and Israel. He then observes:
I believe those Gods that God reveals as Gods to be sons of God, and all can cry, ‘Abba Father!’ Sons of God who exalt themselves to be Gods, even from before the foundation of the world, and are the only Gods I have a reverence for.
Now it becomes clear that the other gods that Joseph Smith refers to in the Sermon in the Grove are not gods “above” the Father, but sons of the Most High God. They are all sons of God the Father. They are all engaged in the same process of leaving behind an immortal state to become mortal, die, and then be resurrected, just as both the Father and the Son have done. Thus, the eternal God of all other gods is the Father. As a conclusion to the Sermon in the Grove, Joseph Smith shouts in praise:
He hath made us kings and priests unto God, and His Father; to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Oh Thou God of gods and King of kings and Lord of lords.
Joseph gives praise to the God of all other gods, who is the Father of God (the Son). Thus, Joseph Smith adopts the Old Testament teaching of a Most High God who maintains sovereignty over a council of gods. This Old Testament view was well expressed by Hans-Joachim Kraus:
Israel borrowed from the Canaanite-Syrian world the well- attested concept of a pantheon of gods and godlike beings who surround the supreme God, the ruler and monarch …. Yahweh alone is the highest God (‘Elyon) and king …. In Psalm 82 we have a clear example of the idea of a ‘council of gods: … ‘God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: The ‘highest god’ is the judge. The gods (elohim) are his attendants. They are witnesses in the forum which Yahweh rules alone, and in which he possesses
judicial authority. We might term the cheduth-el ‘Yahweh’s heavenly court: All of the gods and powers of the people are in his service.
As I will discuss in the next volume treating the Hebrew view of God and gods, the notion of monotheism that does not permit any others who are genuinely and properly called gods is an anachronistic reading of the text. In fact, the incomparable greatness of the God of Israel was not seen as incompatible with an entire council of gods and divine beings. In this sense, Joseph Smith’s doctrine of a plurality of Gods is authentically biblical. His view that God the Son is a distinct being who is properly called “God” in his own right is also biblical.
Why Would a Divine Person Become Mortal?
From the traditional perspective, it is logically possible for the Father (and Holy Ghost) to become embodied, for Scholastic theologians commonly recognized that if the Son could become incarnate, then so could the Father and the Holy Ghost. As Thomas Aquinas said: “Whatever the Son can do, so can the Father and Holy Ghost. But the Son was able to become incarnate. Therefore, the Father and the Holy Ghost were able to become incarnate.” Similarly, Peter Lombard stated: “As the Son was made man, so the Father or the Holy Spirit could have been and could be now.” However, they suggested that the divine persons would have no further reason to become incarnate once the Son accomplished the redemption of humankind. However, LDS scriptures suggest a compelling reason why each of the divine persons may choose to become incarnated.
There are some things that a divine person as one Godhead cannot know. The relationship of the divine persons in the Godhead is, by its very nature, the most intimate and loving experience possible. They live their lives in each as an indwelling spiritual presence. They are transparent to each other. While they are distinct persons, they are not isolated, alienated, or separated persons like we are. To know what it is to experience the existential vicissitudes of mortal life, to participate in the blood and mud of humanity, they must leave the unity of the Godhead to become not merely distinct, but separated, even experiencing abandonment by the other two members of the Godhead.
Joseph Smith received a revelation in 1830 which stated that Adam and Eve could gain experiential knowledge only through experience: “if they did not know the bitter they could not know the sweet” (D&C 29:39). This view that experiential knowledge can be known only through experience is echoed in the words of the prophet Lehi in the Book of Mormon. He states that, if Adam and Eve had not entered mortality, “they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery, doing no good, for they knew no sin … and because they have been redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil” (2 Ne. 2:23, 26). This last statement is also a reminder that Adam and Eve became “as God” by knowing both good and evil. While many focus on the serpent’s lie to Eve, they forget that the Lord God confirmed:
Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil” (Gen. 3:22) As the Book of Mormon prophet Alma observed: “Now, we see that the man had become as God, knowing good and evil (Alma 42:3).
Joseph Smith saw in this primordial story the truth that God confronts good and evil through direct experience. He interpreted these often overlooked scriptures to mean that God continues to learn from experiences forever and has always been engaged in this experiential learning process. Thus, even a person who is already divine has a reason to become mortal: to continue the process of learning through experience. The idea that a divine person may learn through mortal experience something that cannot be learned in any other way also has biblical support: Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in all things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of his people. For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succor them that are tempted. (Heb. 2: I 7- I 8; emphasis mine)
Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all that obey him. (Heb. 4:8-9)
These scriptures find an echo in Alma 7:12:
And he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know how to succor his people according to their infirmities.
There is a type of perfection that is possible only through first-hand experience. Experiential knowledge is, by its very nature, gained only through experience itself. Though Christ was very God, yet he learned from the things that he suffered and was made perfect thereby. Elsewhere I have argued that Joseph Smith taught that there is an aspect of divine knowledge, experiential knowledge, that is inexhaustible and to which there is no end or intrinsic maxima. Thus, there is an infinite possibility of experiential knowledge open even to God. Because there is a type of knowledge available only through first-hand, mortal experience, each of the divine persons has a reason to experience a mortal sojourn. Indeed, Joseph Smith taught that the Holy Ghost, though presently a divine personage of spirit, will one day take upon himself flesh as both the Father and the Son have done. In addition, no matter how advanced God is, when he is glorified by his creations, something is added to God’s glory. Divine persons eternally progress in some respects, including experiential knowledge and glory. It is those who are damned, or stopped in their further progression, who are not gods in LDS thought.
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