1999: Stephen Robinson on God and Deification of Humans / Blake Ostler

To my knowledge, this is the first time Dr. Ostler published these very compelling ideas in his review of Craig Blomberg and Stephen Robinson’s groundbreaking book “How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation“. It was an article in the FARMS Review of Books, Volume 11 Number 2 in 1999. I have posted the relevant paragraphs from that article below.
Thanks much,
Steve St.Clair
Blake Ostler: Robinson on God and Deification of Humans

I believe that Robinson has elucidated a profound and insightful view of deity and grace. Moreover, his views of the Godhead, human deification, and grace form a complex of interrelated and consistent assertions, i.e., a theology. Here I will summarize his theology of the Godhead and human deification:

The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three separate divine persons who are one Godhead in virtue of “oneness of mind, purpose, power, and intent” (see pp. 128–30).

The Son and the Holy Ghost are subordinate to the Father and dependent on their relationship of indwelling unity with the Father for their divinity—that is, the Father is the source or fount of divinity of the Son and Holy Ghost (see p. 132).

If the oneness of the Son or Holy Ghost with the Father should cease, so would their divinity (see p. 132).

Human beings may become gods through grace by becoming one with the individual divine persons in the same sense as the divine persons are one with each other (see p. 82).

Humans are eternally subordinate to and dependent on their relationship of loving unity with the divine persons for their status as “gods” (p. 86).

By acting as one with the Godhead, divinized humans will share fully in the knowledge, power, and glory of God, but they will never be separately worthy of worship nor will they be a source of divinity of others (see p. 86).

I want to emphasize that Robinson has done an outstanding job in describing how humans become “gods” that is consistent both with Mormon scriptures and the Bible. I believe that the foregoing propositions are supported by the biblical passages quoted by Robinson together with Doctrine and Covenants 93 and the Lectures on Faith. However, his discussion regarding how and when God the Father became “God” leaves a bit to be desired. Let me explain why.

I believe that Latter-day Saints commonly believe that God the Father became God through a process of moral development and eternal progression to godhood. The corollary of this view is that there was a time before God the Father was a god or divine. Robinson correctly points out that no Mormon scripture supports this view; rather, it is an inference from noncanonical statements made by Joseph Smith in the King Follett Discourse and by President Lorenzo Snow, who coined the couplet: “As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may become” (see p. 87). However, his assertion is questionable that “what God did before the beginning . . . [is] unfortunately not the [subject] of biblical information” (p. 86). Robinson tries to argue that when the scriptures say that God is “eternal,” they are usually translating the Hebrew olam or the Greek aion, both of which can mean an indefinite period of time. Robinson is clearly correct that these words decidedly do not mean that God is timeless in the sense that he experiences no temporal succession. However, Robinson’s interpretation that they cannot mean without beginning or end as the English word eternal connotes is extremely strained.

Moreover, the problem arises not so much from the Bible, but from Mormon scripture. The Latter-day Saint scriptures say that “there is a God in heaven, who is infinite and eternal, from everlasting to everlasting the same unchangeable God” (D&C 20:17). “[The] Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God, infinite and eternal, without end” (D&C 20:28). When the term eternal is conjoined with infinite and from everlasting to everlasting, it is pretty clear that it means without beginning or end. The notion of infinity usually means unlimited, without bounds—directly contrary to Robinson’s assertion that eternal in the Bible means an age that has a bounded beginning and a bounded end.

Other Mormon scriptures are even clearer: “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). “For I know that God is not a partial God, neither a changeable being; but he is unchangeable from all eternity to all eternity” (Moroni 8:18). Further, Joseph Smith declared in 1840 that: “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.” Given this clarification, it seems pretty clear to me that these scriptures mean that God has always been God in the same unchanging sense without beginning. Are the King Follett Discourse and President Snow’s couplet simply inconsistent with scripture? It seems to me that several possibilities can be explored here.

For purposes of clarity in this discussion, I will need to make a few distinctions. The word God is equivocal in Mormon thought, and in Christian thought in general, because it can have many different references. For example, the Father, the Son, or the Holy Ghost can each be referred to individually as “God.” I suspect that most references to God in the New Testament refer solely to God the Father. However, when I speak of the divine persons individually, I will use the locutions Father, Son, or Holy Ghost. I will use the biblical term Godhead to refer to these three individual divine persons as one God united in indwelling glory, power, dominion, and love. I will use the term God as an equivocal reference where it is unclear whether the reference is to one of the individual divine persons or to the Godhead. I will use the term god(s) to refer to humans who become divine through atoning grace. Finally, I will use the nonscriptural term divine beings to refer to the nonscriptural “gods” who supposedly existed as “gods” before the Father became a divine person. Now for my best crack at responding to this difficult question.

One could understand the scriptural references to an “eternal God” to refer solely to God the Father as an individual divine person. One could take the position that when “God” says he is eternal and without beginning, he is referring merely to the personal existence of the Father as a beginningless spirit or intelligence and not to his status as a divine person. Thus the Father has always existed as an individual without beginning, but he has not always been “God.” There was a time when the Father was not divine in this view. However, it need not imply that there were no divine beings before the Father became divine because, as I understand the implications drawn by Latter-day Saints such as Orson Pratt and B. H. Roberts, supposedly an infinite chain of divine beings existed before the Father. It was obedience to these divine beings and their commandments by which the Father became divine in this view, as I understand it. The problem with this view is that it seems to contradict the scriptures that say that “the Lord God Almighty” is without beginning of days. It is also hard to square with the scriptures that assert that God is the same unchanging God from all eternity.

Moreover, this position seems to contradict Robinson’s view that it is a divine relationship of loving unity with God the Father that constitutes the source of divinity of the Son, the Holy Ghost, and god(s) (see pp. 86, 130–32). I believe that Doctrine and Covenants 93 teaches that the Son is divine in virtue of his indwelling unity with the Father and that mortals become god(s) by becoming one, just as the Father and the Son are one. In this scripture, the Father is the source or fount of divinity of all other divine beings. If the Father is the source of divinity, then it certainly seems inconsistent to assert that the Father became divine in dependence on some other divine beings, for then the Father is not the ultimate source of divinity. Thus the view that the Father became divine in dependence on other divine beings and was not divine from all eternity is not scriptural—and it seems to contradict both the uniquely Mormon scriptures and the Bible.

On the other hand, one could understand “God from all eternity to all eternity” to refer to the Godhead rather than to any of the individual divine persons separately. It is not true that if there has always been a Godhead that all the divine persons constituting the Godhead have always been divine. Thus, when the Word was made flesh and became mortal by leaving aside the divine unity of complete oneness with the Father and Holy Ghost, the Son “emptied himself” of his divinity and became mortal while the Father and Holy Ghost remained divine as members of the Godhead. What is true of the individual divine persons separately is not necessarily true of the divine persons united as one in the Godhead. For example, atoms of hydrogen and oxygen considered separately have very different properties than two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen joined in one entity in a molecular unity to form water. Analogously, the individual divine persons could have very different properties considered individually than when the Godhead acts, thinks, and wills as one God. Thus, when the scriptures say that “God is from everlasting to everlasting the same unchangeable God,” it means that the Godhead has always manifested all the essential properties of godhood (whatever they may be), but the individual divine persons may not always have possessed all the properties of godhood individually. In other words, there was a time when the Father took on himself mortality just as there was a time when the Son became mortal, but there was a Godhead before, during, and after that time.

This latter view seems to be more consistent with the scriptures to me. Moreover, it need not entail that the Father became God after an eternity of not having ever been divine, or that there was a time before which the Father was not divine. Rather, when we say that “as man now is, God once was,” it seems more consistent to say that just as the Son was divine before becoming mortal (and was in fact very God as Yahweh of the Old Testament), so also the Father was divine from all eternity without beginning before he became mortal. The scriptures seem to assert that the Godhead is the same unchangeable and everlasting God from all eternity without beginning. References to “the same unchangeable God” in Mormon scripture often explicitly refer in context to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost as one God. They also seem to say that although the Son was made flesh, he was an individual divine person before mortality from all eternity. It is often not certain whether scriptures or sermons refer to God the Father or the Son as individual divine persons or to the Godhead. However, if the Son only does what he has seen the Father do before him, as Joseph Smith asserted in the King Follett discourse, then the Father was also divine before becoming mortal just as the Son was before being made flesh. Robinson endorses the idea that we should view the Father’s having once been mortal as analogous to the Son’s incarnation: “To those who are offended by Joseph Smith’s suggestion that God the Father was once, before the beginning, a man, I point out that God the Son was undoubtedly once a man, and that did not compromise his divinity” (p. 91). Of course, this argument is less compelling if the Father was not divine before his incarnation or condescension, for then the parallel with the Son’s experience of mortality would be somewhat compromised.


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