Mormonism and The Denial of Classical Theism

I to give credit to those on The Particular Baptist team that helped me with this article with recommendations and edits.

With my deeper dive into theology proper and historical theology it has opened up considerations I have not taken into account before. In this case, with Mormonism’s theism and how this topic was dealt with by Joesph Smith, the founder of the Mormon church. That is not to say I did not have a problem with Mormonism’s theism before, but with a stronger knowledge of God and historical theology has led to “Aha!” moments. The dots connect so to speak. It may surprise you to find that classical (i.e. biblical) theism is specifically dealt with in Mormon teaching. I know it did me. It makes for an intriguing study.

Classical theism, to those who may be new to this discussion, claims in its most basic form that God is simple (not composed of parts) and is therefore not actuated by anything outside of Himself. He just “is,” He is impassible (meaning God does not suffer or is acted upon ergo is not moved to anger, love, etc.), and is immutable (he does not change). There are other implications, but these are core tenets. This is contrasted, for instance, by “open theism” which sees God as mutable, passible, and creaturely. The purpose of this article is not to defend classical theism per se. We have defended classical theism in other places (such as in this podcast episode). But for the purposes of this article, it is important to know that classical theism represents the historical Christian position on the nature of God (hence its namesake, “classical”). As we will see, Joseph Smith’s rejection of this doctrine put him and his followers outside of the “catholic” (meaning, in this case, universal) church. In addition, this article is not an exhaustive treatment of Joseph Smith’s theology proper but looking at different aspects of it that he taught over the years. The quotations of Joseph Smith’s theology in this article are from a book put out by their church historian at the time, Joseph Fielding Smith (not to be confused with the Church’s founder), who was also the Church’s tenth president. The book is titled, “Teachings of The Prophet Joseph Smith.” I also quote from the Church’s website, making all my material quoted from the Mormon point of view (whether from the Church’s founder or from broader Mormonism primary sources). Let us begin.

That without body, parts and passions is nothing. There is no other God in heaven but that God who has flesh and bones…We came to this earth that we might have a body and present it pure before God in the celestial kingdom. The great principle of happiness consists in having a body. The devil has no body, and herein is his punishment.

Smith, Joseph Fielding. “Section Four.” Teachings Of The Prophet Joseph Smith, Deseret Book Company, 1976, p. 181.

The title of this section in the quoted work is, “Observation on the Sectarian God”. Smith knew that the God of historical Christianity is without body, parts, or passions. Given he came from a Presbyterian background, this should be hardly surprising. He probably knew the Westminster Confession of Faith quite well. It is also important to note that the time that Smith found himself in was one where people had trouble knowing what church to join, at least in the area of western New York where Smith resided. There were also people who were “unchurched” or segregated from mainline churches. See below from the Church’s website:

As more and more Americans crossed the Catskill and Adirondack mountains to settle in the Finger Lakes area of western New York, they tended to lose contact with established churches in their former homes. These “unchurched” settlers worried religious leaders of the main denominations, principally the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians, who established proselyting programs for their disadvantaged brothers in the West…Farmington (later Manchester township) was one of several settlements in its district affected by this religious enthusiasm. In later years Lucy Mack Smith remembered it as “a great revival in religion, which extended to all the denominations of Christians in the surrounding country in which we resided. Many of the world’s people, becoming concerned about the salvation of their souls, came forward and presented themselves as seekers after religion.”6 Most folks wanted to join some church but were undecided on which one to adopt. The Prophet Joseph recalled that about two years after they moved to the farm there was “an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country. Indeed, the whole district of country seemed affected by it, and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir and division amongst the people” (Joseph Smith—History 1:5)

“The First Vision.” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Intellectual Reserve, Inc., https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/manual/church-history-in-the-fulness-of-times/chapter-three?lang=eng.

It really should not be any wonder that Smith would fall into heretical doctrine since he probably was not well-versed in historical and biblical Christianity, given the culture he found himself in. This provides us what I think is key context for understanding Smith’s sharp deviation from orthodoxy. Now, to the discussion of God that Smith was against, this is the God that is not creaturely, composed of parts (simple), and passionate. Smith was in direct opposition to historical Christianity at this point, pitting himself against the ecumenical creeds of the Christian church that taught these principles. This is confirmed by the LDS Church’s own source material which discusses Smith’s engagement with classical theism of his day.

The earliest Latter-day Saints came from a society dominated by English-speaking Protestants, most of whom accepted both ex nihilo creation and the Westminster Confession’s definition of God as a being “without body, parts, or passions.”23 They likely knew little or nothing about the diversity of Christian beliefs in the first centuries after Jesus Christ’s ministry or about early Christian writings on deification. But revelations received by Joseph Smith diverged from the prevailing ideas of the time and taught doctrine that, for some, reopened debates on the nature of God, creation, and humankind.

“Becoming Like God.” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Intellectual Reserve, Inc , https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/becoming-like-god?lang=eng.

As we can see, Smith’s opposition was directly against the predominant view of God at the time — among English-speaking Protestants at least. The Church even references the Westminster Confession of Faith’s definition of God’s essence (at least in part). It is interesting that the LDS Church claims that there is this diversity in the beliefs of the Protestant Church early on. While there was not some kind of complete monolithic understanding of God, there were core principles that were agreed on by those who were orthodox. The Council of Nicea in the 4th century concreted the Son’s ontological unity to the Father as opposed to Arius et al who taught Jesus was a creature of the Father, albeit higher than the rest of His creation. Athanatius’ later work bringing out Nicean theology greater shows implications of this ecumenical understanding of God, not to mention the work of the Cappadocian fathers on God that came after Nicea. Matthew Barrett of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary notes:

In the decades after Nicea, Athanasius would not be alone in his appeal to simplicity in the Trinity. Three theologians from Cappadocia offered support: Gregory of Nysa, Basil of Caesarea, and Gregory of Nazianzus. For the Cappadocians, affirming simplicity in the Trinity not only meant the persons held the essence in common. It meant more: the persons were consubstantial with one another because they were one in will and power.

Barrett, Matthew. “How Did We Drift Away?” Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Spirit, Baker Books, a Division of Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, MI, 2021, p. 56.

And Nicea was by no means creating doctrine as they went along, but were following in the footsteps of those who had come before. For instance, James Dolezal points out that we see this even as far back as Irenaeus, who was a 2nd century theologian:

The second-century pastor and apologist Irenaeus of Lyons (c.130-202) in his famous work Against Heresies appeals to divine simplicity in order to prove to certain Greek emanationists that God neither exhibited passions nor underwent a mental alternation in the creation of the world…

Dolezal, James E. “Simple God.” All That Is In God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism, Reformation Heritage Books, Grand Rapids, MI, 2017, p. 50.

We then have the Council of Constantinople in 381, which is where the Nicean Creed was birthed from, with the Council affirming Nicean theology in line with Athanasius (Barrett, 64). This creed was then considered binding across the church, not just in the West but in the East as well. Barrett again:

The fathers are claiming, in other words, that this Trinity they confess is none other than the Trinity of the Scriptures, the same Scriptures penned by the apostles. For that reason, the creed carries authority in the church, and not just the church of the fourth century but the church universal, across all lands and spanning all eras, East and West.

Barrett, Matthew. “How Did We Drift Away?” Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Spirit, Baker Books, a Division of Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, MI, 2021, p. 65.

So while there was some diversity on the nature of God in the early church, it is important to note that God’s simplicity and aseity (that have to do with Him being without parts or body) were agreed upon among the orthodox at the very least, East and West. This is not to even mention the Council of Chalcedon which would deal with the Incarnation specifically and was directly related to Constantinople and Nicea. The article from the Church also mentions that those 19th century Protestants would probably have had little or no knowledge of “diversity” of thought among the early church as if they were simply ignorant and not making an informed decision, which I think would by and large be untrue given the rich heritage that the Westminster came from in the 17th century and its direct line from the early church itself. Notice what Arnold says:

Ultimately, the response of the pre-Restoration Establishment – an Establishment which included many who later would be rejected – remained clear and concise through this iteration of the trinitarian controversy. Even the Laudian regime issued a canon against Socinianism. These theologians built their response on the traditional view of the Trinity as established in the three creeds followed by the Church of England: the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed…the Independents were in harmony with the Establishment when, in the Savoy Declaration (1658), they declared that ‘Doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our Communion with God, and comfortable Dependance upon him’.

Arnold, Jonathan W. “The Godhead.” The Reformed Theology of Benjamin Keach (1640-1704), Regent’s Park College, Oxford, 2013, p. 78.

Keep in mind that the Westminster came about in the 1640s prior to the Savoy Declaration and the Declaration was based on, at least in part, the Westminster. There is different language on the doctrine of God, but it does not contradict it. So if the Savoy was based off the Westminster and the Savoy was following the vein as found in the early church creeds listed in Arnold’s work on Keach that talk about the nature of God, then I think it is unlikely that those during the time of Smith who held to the Westminster’s understanding of God would not have known history surrounding their confession, given said Confession follows the same tradition as the Savoy. It is too simplistic to say that they were merely ignorant. Now, we move onto some astounding words from Joseph Smith.

God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! That is the great secret. If the veil were rent today, and the great God who holds this world in its orbit, and who upholds all worlds and all things by his power, was to make himself visible, – 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 man; for Adam was created in the very fashion, image and likeness of God, and received instruction from, and walked, talked and conversed with him, as one man talks and communes with another. In order to understand the subject of the dead, for consolation of those who mourn for the loss of their friends, it is necessary we should understand the character and being of God and how he came to be so; for 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 way the veil, so that you may see.

Smith, Joseph Fielding. “Section Six.” Teachings Of The Prophet Joseph Smith, Deseret Book Company, 1976, p. 345.

This is a flat out denial of historical, orthodox theology proper. God is made out to be no more than a “super human.” He upholds the world with his power, but he is a man, like us. This plays into what Smith had noted earlier that a being without body, parts, passions is nothing. In his mind, God MUST be like us if he is to be SOMETHING at all. Ergo the only conclusion that Smith comes to is that God must be creaturely. He must be a human body. There is no real creator/creature distinction here: the distinction that if God is the creator of all things, then it must necessitate that everything outside of God must be ontologically distinct from Him. There is no way that this view could be held consistently within this view of a “creaturely” God that Smith created in his mind. We will come back to the discussion of creation here in a bit as Smith addresses it directly. For now, Smith believed and asserted that God is creaturely for various reasons, such as Adam talked with God like you and I would talk — ergo he must be a human body. If God is a human body (even if a “super human”), then it begs the question of who came before God? Is there a supreme being that IS NOT creaturely in Smith’s mind? What about the clear teaching of Scripture (such as Romans 11:36) that teaches God is first cause of all things thereby leaving no room whatsoever for there be anything creaturely in God, as this would necessitate someone above God causing God to be? Smith, in his rejection of over 1,000 years of church teaching, not to mention the Scriptures themselves, created a conundrum on a metaphysical and epistemological level. How can Smith’s God account for anything at all? How can his God really uphold all that there is given he is creaturely and therefore dependent upon outside forces (i.e. his own bodily functions) to be? Smith expressly denies, in the above reference, any notion of eternality in God and treats it as false teaching. The only conclusion that can be made from this assertion is that his God is bound by time. Smith is going after biblical and historical orthodoxy and planting himself outside of Christianity. God’s eternality as found in Scripture (the Bible) leaves us with a timeless being who must be outside of it given his role as the Creator of all things that exist (which would include time by necessity). This removes all change of God since he is not moving along a timeline from one state of being to another as in the category of creatures. The Scriptures remove God from being creaturely in any way (for instance see Psalm 102:25-27). Change is only ascribed to that which is creaturely in this set of verses while God is distinct and remains unchanging. God MUST be outside of His creation, or He would bound to it, or we compromise God’s very distinguished role as Creator as the first cause. This rejection led Smith to believing God became God at some point in time (“in time” is key here since there is no eternality in his mind as Scripture teaches). Smith, by toying with God’s eternality, created a God that was just like him albeit more powerful. This is really no better than a god found in a Greek pantheon of gods: powerful, yet creature. We then look at another error of Smith’s, this time regarding creation.

You ask the learned doctors why they say the world was made out of nothing; and they will answer, “Doesn’t the Bible say He created the world?” And they infer, from the word create, that it must have been made out of nothing. Now, the word create came from the word baurau which does not mean to create out of nothing; it means to organize; the same as a man would organize materials and build a ship. Hence, we infer that God had materials to organize the world out of chaos – chaotic matter, which is element, and in which dwells all the glory. Element had an existence from the time he had. The pure principles of element are principles which can never destroyed; they may be organized and re-organized, but not destroyed. They had no beginning, and can have no end.

Smith, Joseph Fielding. “Section Six.” Teachings Of The Prophet Joseph Smith, Deseret Book Company, 1976, p. 350-352

Here we see explicit denial, by Smith, of creation ex nihilo or “out of nothing”. The book above also has a very long footnote trying to establish the credibility of Smith’s beliefs by citing some “scholars” (some of whom who are from the post-Enlightenment period at least). It seems clear that those cited are not believers in classical theism or of the historical (and biblical) understanding of the doctrine of creation, which speaks to their conclusions about what “create” means. Smith clearly holds to a view that sees some kind of matter as existing alongside God that was then used by God to create the world. If “create” merely means to “form” something (which would mean to be the efficient cause of something and maybe it could be argued the “material cause”) out of what is already there, then we have solved the age of mystery of Creation. However, when studying Scripture (the Bible) we see a very different picture of Creation. Creation ex nihilo is such because the Scriptures teach that God created ALL things (John 1:1-3, Colossians 1:16, Romans 11:36). Matter, given it is not God itself, must thereby come from God, being brought into existence by Him and cannot be equal in terms of its duration of existence. This would give something that is not God the divine essence as eternality (timelessness) is proper to God alone. Therefore, God is not working with some “eternal” matter that God then “forms” or “creates” the world with. Smith seems to have a misunderstanding of creation ex nihilo as historically understood. To begin, Barcellos notes:

Ex nihilo refers to the bringing into existence of being that had no being without change in the Being who brought what was not in being into being. God is productive of things but did not first produce things from things. Creation ex nihilo has not material cause…Ex nihilo does not mean creation from nothing absolutely, for from nothing can come nothing…God brings things into being though not from things in being (i.e. creatures).

Barcellos, Richard C. “Relevant Issues.” Trinity & Creation: A Scriptural and Confessional Account, Resource Publications, Eugene, OR, 2020, pp. 37–38.

God brings things into being and existence, not that they did so spontaneously without a cause as if there was no God, but their existence is grounded in God as being “from Him” (Romans 11:36). This establishes creation ex nihilo. It is also important to note that in the Reformed tradition, at least with the 2nd London Baptist Confession of 1677, it has been understood that there is a difference between “create” and “make”. Notice Barcellos again,

Notice the words “create or make” in 2LCF. These are not necessarily synonymous terms. The word “create” can refer to the production of being or matter and the word “make” can refer to the formation of created matter. This reflects Genesis 2:3, where we read, “Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made” (emphasis added)…To “create” implies “from nothing” and to “make” means to form from something.

Barcellos, Richard C. “Relevant Issues.” Trinity & Creation: A Scriptural and Confessional Account, Resource Publications, Eugene, OR, 2020, p. 39.

This points to the two step approach to creation found among Christians as it relates to creation. Richard Muller notes:

referring to the divine creation of the world not of preexistent and therefore eternal materials but out of nothing. This view is normative for Christian theology and is consonant with the theory of a two-stage creation, i.e., (1) of the material substratum of things and (2) of actual things by the informing or imparting of form to matter.

Muller, Richard A. “Ex Nihilo .” Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally From Protestant Scholastic Theology, 2nd Edition ed., Baker Academic, 2017, p. 112.

God creates existence without any pre-existing material but then (logically, not actually in terms of sequence to remote change in God) forms the matter he brought into existence. Muller again:

The Protestant scholastics allow the maxim Ex nihilo nihil fit as representing the limit of natural reason and as supplemented without contradiction by the truth of the doctrine of the divine creatio (q.v.): no finite creature can create from nothing. The ens perfectissimum (q.v.), God, who is ens (q.v.) in an absolute sense, is without analogy in the finite order and therefore transcends rather than contradicts the results of human reason. As ens perfectissimum, God can give being to the finite order and is therefore the single exception to the rule. In addition, the maxim does not claim Ex nihilo nihil creatur, Nothing is created out of nothing, but only Ex nihilo nihil generatur, Nothing is produced out of nothing. Christian doctrine never claims that nothing or nothingness is a positive source or ground of something but says only that God creates out of nothing or, in other words, creates all of existence, including the material substratum (see materia prima).

Muller, Richard A. “Ex Nihilo .” Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally From Protestant Scholastic Theology, 2nd Edition ed., Baker Academic, 2017, p. 113.

God, as existence itself absolutely, is categorically different than creation and does not fall into the rule that finite beings cannot create from nothing. However, given God is simple, immutable, and pure act, He can and must be able to do this. If God needed material to form the world, He would be dependent upon something outside Himself to actuate states of being within Him (in this case, to make the world). This makes God dependent upon matter and is therefore not supreme but contingent and mutable. This flies in the face of biblical revelation of God’s being and necessitates a God who gains existence from that which is not God. We then have to find the First Cause beyond God and we are back to creation out of nothing. When one is not contingent by nature, infinite power is at their fingertips giving them the ability to actuate existence from nothing. This seems to be along the lines of the Reformer and scholastic Francis Turretin.

One who is existence can give existence to whom they please. All of this leads to the conclusion that Smith has seemed to have conflated these terms (create and make) which had been distinguished in history. Should he have known this? Probably not given the historical reality he found himself in, as we have noted. But this does not diminish the fact he introduced an egregious error. Having a consistent hermeneutic that did not see problems in the Scriptures and that utilizes the “analogy of faith” that Scripture should clarify Scripture would’ve prevented Smith from falling into this trap of seeing the divine, trinitarian act of creation as ex nihilo as anything but problematic. Having proper knowledge of historical Christianity would have helped, too, which it seems he did not have. If he had a theology proper that consistently saw God as being the creator of all things, he would have concluded that matter, in any sense, would need to be brought into existence by God in order to be formed into everything else. This helps us maintain the creator/creature distinction while explaining, as best we can, how everything came to be.

Joseph Smith was a blight. He challenged not only biblical authority (by introducing his own “scriptures”) but challenged settled, Christian orthodoxy as found in the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. His religion and erroneous teachings about his god were not found in Scripture, but in the pagan challenges of an American boy (he was 14 at the alleged First Vision) that were fed likely by a lack of sound theology.

– Daniel Vincent

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