CESNUR 2004 INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE
"We have imagened and supposed
that God was God from all eternity.
I will refute that idea..."
- Joseph Smith
Many of the unique Latter-day Saint concepts of the nature of God - including their beliefs in the plurality of Gods, the corporeal nature of Elohim (the Heavenly Father), his mortal pre-exalted nature, and his offsprings potential for deification - are concepts that developed early in Mormon philosophy. Most were formulated within the lifetime of its founder, Joseph Smith. Early documents, including Mormon Scripture, during its foundational first decade the Church initially began with a somewhat more orthodox theology, much closer that of its Protestant milieu. After postulating and rejecting several transitional models, the LDS leaders established and promoted a doctrine of God that found its maturation and zenith in the middle to late 20th century. There are signs that this classic Mormon theology of the last century is being questioned or challenged by Latter-day Saints on several fronts. There are indications that the Mormon doctrine of God may be transitioning. For the 21st century, a growing number of Latter-day Saints may be in the process of Re-imagining Elohim.
ELOHIM: EARLY 19th CENTURY MORMON TEACHINGS
The earliest source for Mormon Christology would be the Book of Mormon itself. It was being prepared for publication well before the Church was organized in 1830. Rather than teaching that Elohim (God the Heavenly Father) was once a man who progressed to Godhood, the Book of Mormon teaches a very strict Monotheism. Book of Mormon hero Amulek, who can, . . . say nothing which is contrary to the Spirit of the Lord. is asked, Is there more than one God? And he answered, No. King Zeezrom later reminds the people, . . . See that ye remember these things; for he said there is but one God, (Alma 11: 22-35).
This stands in sharp contrast to later teachings summarized by 20th century LDS Apostle Bruce R. McConkie. As if to reply to the same question posed to Amulek, McConkie writes under the heading Plurality of Gods:
.these three [Father, Son, and Holy Ghost] are the only Gods we worship. But in addition [to theses three] there is an infinite number of holy personages, drawn from worlds without number, who have passed on to exaltation and are thus gods.
The Book of Mormon, especially the first edition, also suggests a very strong unity of the Godhead. Rather than picturing Elohim and Christ separate Gods, it seems to go to the opposite extreme teaching that the Father and Son are not only the same God but also the same Person. Historically the orthodox Christian community has expressed its theology in Trinitarian Monotheism, seeing the one true God as being manifested in three distinct Persons. Expressed in the Athanasian Creed, orthodox Christianity worships, . . . one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance.  While orthodox Christianity might view Mormonisms current position as dividing the Substance (i.e., more than one true God); early Mormonism seemed to confound the Persons. In other words, early 19th century Mormon theology, especially expressed in early editions of the Book of Mormon, seemed to imply that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were the same Person.
This is similar to a position introduced and rejected in early Church history. Popularized of by Sabellius of Rome in the early third century A.D., the doctrine was also known as Patripassianism or Modalistic Monarchianism. Briefly explained:
Sabellianism was an attempt to solve the problem of how to accept the deity of Christ and also maintain the unity of God. The Sabellians achieved this at the expense of a trinity of persons in the Godhead. They reduced the status of the persons to modes or manifestations [i.e., Modalism] of the one God.
The term Patripassianism expressed the Modalistic concept that if the Father was the same person as the Son, then the Father (Patri) suffered the crucifixion (Passion). Tertullian argued fervently against this doctrine saying:
The devil. . . . says that the Father himself descended into the virgin, was himself born of her, himself suffered; in fact that he himself was Jesus Christ. . . . It was Praxeas who first brought this kind of perversity from Asia to Rome . . . he put the Paraclete [Holy Spirit] to flight and crucified the Father.
Not unlike Tertullians nemesis, The Book of Mormon seemed to teach that it was the Father who was born of Mary and was crucified. The 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon proclaims, Behold, the virgin which thou seest, is the mother of God. . . And the angel said unto me, behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Eternal Father. . . . (p. 25). Concerning the crucifixion, the narrative continues, And I looked and beheld the lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Everlasting God, was judged of the world; and I saw and bear record, (p. 26).
Apparently, as Mormon theology developed, the distinctions between the Father and Son were clarified. The Son was no longer seen as the same Person as the Eternal Father or the Everlasting God. These name titles are currently seen as more accurately applying to Elohim, the Father, and not the Son. In later editions of the Book of Mormon, an editor (most probably Joseph Smith), inserted the term the Son of before these references to God. Thus revised, it is now the Son of the Eternal Father who was born of Mary and the Son of the everlasting God who was crucified.
Critics have pointed out that these changes represent a few of over four thousand changes in the text of the Book of Mormon between the time it was first printed in 1830 and the present edition. However, most of the changes are only grammatical in nature. The 1 Nephi 11 passage is one of the more significant doctrinal modifications which supports the argument that early Mormon concepts of the nature of God changed after 1830. Even after redaction, modern editions of the Book of Mormon still contain theological statements that sound much more like early 1830s Mormon Modalism than the current mainstream LDS position:
. . . God himself shall come down among the children of men, and shall redeem his people. And because he dwelleth in flesh he shall be called the Son of God, and having subjected the flesh to the will of the Father, being the Father and the Son - The Father, because he was conceived by the power of God; and the Son, because of the flesh; and becoming the Father and the Son - And they are one God, yea, the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth (Mosiah 15: 1-4).
The basic theology of the Book of Mormon is Monotheistic and there are clear indications, especially in the 1830 edition, that the Father and Son are presented as the same person. The Testimony of Three Witnesses, still published with each Book of Mormon, appears to reflect this view when the witnesses write: And the honor be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost which is one God. Amen. This of course would represent poor grammar if the witnesses were taking McConkies position that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three Gods - one in purpose. However if the witnesses were teaching that the these were three names for the same Person, then the singular verb would agree with both its subject and Book of Mormon theology.
TRANSITIONAL CHRISTOLOGICAL MODELS
Between the Christology of the Book of Mormon and the classic LDS Christology of the 20th century, several positions were taken that could be described as experimental, temporary, or transitional. In 1834-35, less than five years after the publication of the Book of Mormon, the Lectures on Faith were delivered to the School of the Elders in Kirtland, Ohio. The lectures, probably written by Joseph Smith, were printed as the first part of the Doctrine and Covenants in every edition of that LDS scripture from the first edition in 1835 to 1921 when they were removed. The fifth lecture teaches that Christ is a distinct and separate Person from the Father. But the lecture also teaches that there are only two Persons in the Godhead - the Father and the Son. The Holy Spirit is explained as simply the mind of the Father. Also, the lecture makes a sharp distinction between the Elohim and Jesus concerning physical natures. The Father is described as a personage of Spirit in contrast with the Son who is said to be a personage of tabernacle, made or fashioned like unto man.
The obvious clash between this view of the Godhead and later statements by Joseph Smith himself has been offered as a possible explanation for the Lectures on Faith eventual removal from post 1921 editions of the Doctrine and Covenants. Larry E. Dahi writes:
Many have pointed to the content of Lecture 5 concerning the Godhead, suggesting that it contains incomplete, if not erroneous doctrine - doctrine which was corrected or clarified in 1843 by Joseph Smith (D&C 130:22-23). The argument is that the Lectures were removed to avoid these inconsistencies. Some have claimed that the removal of the Lectures from the Doctrine and Covenants constitutes decanonization of material once affirmed by the Church as scripture.
Some, including Dahl, would make a distinction between the Lectures and the revelations which followed them, suggesting that only the latter was considered to be Scripture. However, the fact that they were printed with the Doctrine and Covenants for over eighty years coupled with their subsequent removal and relative obscurity raises interesting questions. Did the 1921 change in the Doctrine and Covenants reflect an earlier re-imagining of Elohim? A strong case can be made for this hypothesis.
ELOHIM IS ADAM - THE ADAM-GOD THEORY
By the death of Joseph Smith in June of 1844, all of the basic elements of theological thought found in 20th century Mormon thought were extant - albeit some in more primitive forms. By 1852, a radically re-imagining of Elohim was put forth by the Prophet Brigham Young who taught on numerous occasions that Adam was our God and the only God with whom we have to do. During General Conference from the tabernacle in Salt Lake City he taught:
When our father Adam came into the garden of Eden, he came into it with a celestial body, and brought Eve, one of his wives, with him. He helped to make and organize this world. He is MICHAEL, the Archangel, the ANCIENT OF DAYS! . . HE is our FATHER and our GOD, and the only God with whom WE have to do. . . . When the Virgin Mary conceived the child Jesus, the Father had begotten him in his own likeness. He was not begotten by the Holy Ghost. And who is the Father? He is the first of the human family.
The teaching became known as the Adam-God theory. It taught that God (Elohim) along with one of his wives became the original man and woman, Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden. This radical new theology skewed all previous distinctions and name-titles in the LDS Godhead. Like a chain reaction, if Adam was God, Eve then became Heavenly Mother, Jesus was the Son of Adam, and Adam was therefore the Father of Jesus, in the flesh. A controversial teaching even in its day, the Adam-God issue a point of contention between Young and one of his Apostles, Orson Pratt, who found the doctrine difficult to accept.
After the death of Young, the church gradually de-emphasized and later strongly discouraged the Adam-God teaching. Boyd Kirkland describes the theological rethinking subsequent shift from the transitional theological models towards 20th century LDS orthodoxy.
Between Brigham Youngs death and the turn of the century, a mixture of all of the previously discussed theological positions circulated within the Church causing much conflict and confusion. To achieve some semblance of harmony between these widely varying ideas, as well as to quell external attacks from anti-Mormon critics at the Adam-God doctrine, Mormon leaders carefully reformulated Mormon theology around the turn of the century and articulated it in 1916. These adjustments remained as the current doctrine of the Church today.
While it is no longer taught by the Church, the Adam-God doctrine is still finds adherents in certain splinter groups and occasionally among isolated pockets of Latter-day Saints. As late as 1976, Prophet Spencer W. Kimball felt the issue still needed to be addressed. He publicly denounced the Adam-God teaching as a heresy from the Churchs official magazine:
We warn you against the dissemination of doctrines which are not according to the scriptures and which are alleged to have been taught by some of the General Authorities of past generations. Such for instance, is the Adam-God theory. We denounce that theory and hope that everyone will be cautioned against this and other kinds of false doctrine.
Youngs Adam God doctrine was a fleeting theology that was never complete embraced by the church. Youngs later successor, Lorenzo Snow, coined a couplet that captured the essences of Mormon theology of the 19th and 20 centuries. It became quite possibly the most famous two-line quote in Latter-day Saint culture. Snows couplet became to many Latter-day Saints what John 3:16 is to evangelicals - an elegant summary of the gospel in a simple statement.
As man now is, God once was;
as God now is, man may be.
Latter-day Saint apologist Stephen E. Robinson, of Brigham Young University concedes the authoritative nature of Snows famous couplet. While not actually LDS scripture, Snows couplet is so widely accepted by Latter-day Saints that this technical point has become moot.
ELOHIM: 20th CENTURY MAINSTREAM MORMON THEOLOGY
Eventually Brigham Youngs theory waned and Snows couplet captured the imagination of Latter-day Saints for many generations. In the aftermath of the Adam-God theology, a new and significant doctrinal direction developed that culminated in mainstream Mormon theology of the last century. Some difficulty arises in nominating the proper spokesperson to expound the 20th century Mormon theology concerning the nature of God. Perhaps some of the best, authoritative examples of traditional LDS orthodoxy of the mid-to-late 1900s are the voluminous works of Elder Bruce R. McConkie, who was an Apostle of the Church until his death in 1985. At his death, the L.D.S. Church News, an official newspaper of the Church, spoke of McConkies practice of addressing important theological issues in a number of popular books:
His books included a set of six volumes about the Messiah, a three-volume
Doctrinal New Testament Commentary and a single volume encyclopedic
reference, Mormon Doctrine. He also edited a three-volume set of teachings of
Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation. [And] another work, A New
Witness for the Articles of Faith. . . .
For the purpose of establishing a representative LDS theology of the mid-to-late 20th century, perhaps no other source could serve as a better example of Mormon orthodoxy than the works of Elder McConkie. The most concise examples of McConkies theology can be found in the pages of his most popular book, Mormon Doctrine. Using the format of a theological dictionary, Mormon Doctrine deals briefly but explicitly with hundreds of major and minor doctrines and is quite candid concerning McConkies view of Mormon deity in general and Elohim, the Heavenly Father, in particular.
Some may question the use of McConkie as a paradigm of mainstream LDS theology of the last century preferring instead the Standard Works (i.e., the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price) as the real source of Mormon theology. This approach fails to appreciate distinctions made by systematic theology between two religious bodies using the same source of authoritative literature (i.e., the doctrinal distinctions between two Protestant denominations that use the Bible as their sole source of theology). Nor does this Standard Works approach attempt to harmonize fairly obvious contradictions between one Standard and another (Compare Isaiah 43:10 and 44:6-8 with Abraham 4:1).
Others would reject the use of McConkies works as a paradigm of 20th century Mormon theology different reasons. Some Latter-day Saints would argue that they are life-long Mormons and their theology has always been very different than that of McConkie. One Mormon writes of McConkies book, Thankfully, Mormon Doctrine is not Mormon doctrine, no matter how many times it is cited in sacrament meeting. While he may not represent some Mormons theology, few would accuse McConkie of not knowing his subject. He wrote as a General Authority, one of the twelve Apostles, whose theological works were wildly popular. He is cited here not as one who reflects the beliefs of all Mormons of the last century, but as one whose teachings were (and are) tremendously influential with a great number of main-stream Latter-day Saints of his generation.
McConkie did not contradict or misrepresent the other General Authorities of his day when he presented the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost as three separate Gods. Under the section, Plurality of Gods, he confessed:
Three separate personages - Father, Son, and Holy Ghost - Comprise the Godhead. As each of these persons is a God, it is evident, from this standpoint alone, that a plurality of Gods exists.
Rather than developing a more orthodox Trinitarian view of the Godhead, 20th century Mormonism continued to expound on doctrine developed in the final years of Joseph Smiths life. McConkies eschews Mormonisms original position of strict Monotheism during the 1830s and embraces at a unity of three different Gods. More than a revival of sixth century Tritheism, McConkies view was based on the widespread LDS teaching that the universe is populated by many Gods. He further elaborated:
To us, speaking in the proper finite sense, these three [Father, Son, and Holy Ghost] are the only Gods we worship. But in addition [to theses three] there is an infinite number of holy personages, drawn from worlds without number, who have passed on to exaltation and are thus gods.
In a radical departure from classical Christian theology and very early LDS theology, McConkie reveals that Mormonism has redefined God in polytheistic terms. The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology contrasts Polytheism with the established evangelical view of God. It defines Polytheism as, The belief in a multitude of distinct and separate deities. The obvious conflict between McConkies position monotheistic world-views is further explained: Nonetheless, it is clear that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam represent forms of theism incompatible with polytheism.
Critics have often pointed out that while Mormonisms Polytheism is incompatible with the historical understanding of Christian Monotheism; the LDS position does find parallels in other polytheistic religions (i.e., Greek and Roman mythology and the multiple deities of the Egyptian, Babylonian and Assyrian mystery religions). Like the parenthetical examples, Mormonism teaches that the Gods, Each occupies space and is and can be in but one place at one time.
These Gods are also non-eternal in the sense that they have not always existed in eternity past but have come into existence and progressed to godhood. While compatible with Snows couplet, this is a departure from both traditional Christian dogma and very early Latter-day Saint teachings. In the article Godhood, McConkie quoted Joseph Smith as he re-imagined the nature God that was wholly different than that of earlier Mormonism:
God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man and sits enthroned in yonder heavens? . . . 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.
To be consistent with classic Polytheism, this new Mormon Christ cannot be equal in divine attributes with the Father (John 5:18), nor can He be God from all eternity (John 1:1). Thus according to Mormon doctrine, Jesus is not the eternal God made flesh - at least not in the traditional Christian view of eternal and God. Jesus may have progressed to become one of the Gods, but He is not eternally God nor is He equal with the Father.
Another theological problem related to the nature of God develops in the area of the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. The historical Christian view holds that Jesus was born to Mary who was still a virgin and that He was begotten of the Holy Spirit (Matt 1:18-20). This view also seems to be held in early LDS Christology reflected in the Book of Mormon (Alma 7:10). This presents a unique problem to current polytheistic Mormonism which sees the Holy Ghost as a different God than Elohim (Heavenly Father). If Christ was begotten of the Holy Ghost, He would not be the Son of the Father but the Son of the Holy Ghost.
McConkie edited the three volume work, Doctrines of Salvation, which was a compilation of the sermons and writings of his father-in-law who was the tenth President and Prophet of the Church, Joseph Fielding Smith. In this work is found a brief description of the dilemma:
CHRIST NOT BEGOTTEN OF HOLY GHOST. I believe firmly that Jesus Christ is the Only Begotten Son of God in the flesh. He taught this doctrine to his disciples. He did not teach them that he was the Son of the Holy Ghost.
The Virgin Birth problem is further compounded by the LDS belief that God the Father is an exalted, resurrected man and has a body of flesh and bone. McConkie quotes Joseph Smith and then in brackets explains this doctrine. He states: . . . the Father being a personage of spirit [meaning that he has a physical body which is by revealed definition a body of flesh and bones. (1 Cor. 15:44-45; D. & C. 88:27)].
Thus Christ was begotten not by the Holy Spirit, but by the Father, an exalted man with a flesh and bone body, who conceived Christ through Mary. In much of the literature published by LDS leaders or the Church itself during the 20th century, it was strongly implied that this was a physical sexual relationship. McConkie explains in the article Only Begotten Son that, Only means only; Begotten means begotten; and Son means son. Christ was begotten by an Immortal Father in the same way that mortal men are begotten by mortal fathers.
He goes on to explain that, There is nothing figurative about his paternity; he [Christ] was begotten, conceived, and born in the normal and natural course of events.
This virgin birth doctrine finds its roots in 19th century Mormon thought. Early Mormon Apostle Orson Pratt taught that, . . . the Father and Mother of Jesus according to the flesh, must have been associated together in the capacity of husband and wife [a rather obvious euphemism for a physical, sexual relationship]. More recently, a Family Home Evening journal printed in 1972 instructs parents in how to teach their children about the nature of Christs conception. It quotes Prophet Joseph F. Smith (the sixth LDS Prophet) teaching children that:
Mary, the virgin girl, who had never known mortal man, was his mother. God by her begot His son Jesus Christ. . Now my little friends. I will repeat again words as simple as I can, and you talk to your parents about it, that God the Eternal Father, is literally the father of Jesus Christ.
The journal then instructs parents to use an illustration to further explain this point. The drawing charts the parallels between natural human reproduction and the conception of Christ. (i.e., Just like Daddy plus Mommy equals You; In the same way, Our Heavenly Father plus Mary equaled Jesus.)
ELOHIM: MOVING TOWARDS THE 21st CENTURY
During the last two decades of the 20th century the theology of the LDS Hierarchy began to show some evidence of change. Unlike early changes, this doctrinal shift is not coming mainly by way of new revelation or authoritative declaration. While the LDS principle of continuing revelation could provide the mechanism for such a transition, this transformation is facilitated by what could be called the New Doctrinal Emphasis. In recent years many of the doctrinal distinctives and fundamental building blocks of traditional LDS metaphysics characteristic the last century have been significantly downplayed. Many of the unique LDS theological teachings which characterized the 20th century are seeing little emphasis, are rarely showcased or publicly promoted. Although it has not yet been retracted or renounced, the teaching that Christ was sired physically by the Father and not begotten of the Holy Ghost may already be slated for removal. Other remaining LDS theological distinctives may follow as well. But they probably will not die the quick death of public repudiation but the slow death of de-emphasis.
This New Doctrinal Emphasis is also reflected in (or perhaps amplified by) a parallel reemphasis in the proselytizing methodologies of the Church. This shift avoids focusing potential converts on the unique doctrinal differences of Mormonisms restored gospel compared that of Protestant or Catholic dogma. From their television commercials and Temple Square Visitor Center, to the content of the missionary discussions, the LDS hierarchy of recent decades is clearly softening its militant claims of yesteryear. The First Vision account was until recent decades a major theme for visitors to Temple square in Salt Lake City. It was at the First Vision that Joseph Smith learned that all other churches were apostate and whose creeds were seen to be divinely condemned as abominable. It is no longer stressed that converts must abandon the abominable doctrines of their traditional Christianity in order to re-image God in light of the First Vision.
This new (and successful) approach seems to minimize the major doctrinal differences focusing instead on the promotion of family relationships, moral values, and addressing human emotional needs. Thus, new converts may join the Church without ever rejecting the creeds and Christology of their background as they were expected to in past generations. As a result, a significant percentage of the two million new members who have joined the Church in the last decade may carry into the Church their traditional Christian theologies (i.e., Protestant and Catholic). As this trend gains momentum, the result may strongly influence Mormon theology in the early 21st century. Among converts and new members, we could see a more eclectic theology emerge consisting of a confluence of LDS beliefs of the 1900s and traditional Christian theologies. This and other theological influences may tend to further divide mainstream LDS doctrine of past generations with Mormon thinking in the new millennium.
Another development in Mormon thought has evolved from earlier roots to emerge in the late 1970s among the LDS intellectual community. It has been described by some as Mormon Neo-orthodoxy. It has received momentum from a number of interdisciplinary forces including womens studies, anthropology, archaeology, biology, genetics, and historical studies. The later is represented by a new wave of LDS historians who use modern historical methods to do honest history that separates the Joseph Smith of history from the Joseph Smith of faith. By demythologizing much of the historical account, they have stripped away its accompanying Mormon dogma. While in most cases still considering themselves to be loyal Latter-day Saints, they are attempting to put a new authenticity and life into the Church structure. This new approach to LDS studies often results in diverse philosophies. For example some Latter-day Saints eventually conclude that the Book of Mormon is true but not historical. They would view the story of the Book of Mormon much like an extended parable. God may speak to you though the pages of the book, but there never were Nephites or Lamanites living in the Americas.
Often, liberal Mormon thinkers wish to celebrate the social benefits of the Church as a great place to raise your kids. At the same time they may, however, reject the official accounts of Joseph Smiths First Vision, discount scriptural claims to LDS exclusivity, and minimize Snows couplet. They usually would not view the Prophets teachings as infallible - perhaps not even helpful.
But surprisingly in some cases, new Mormon studies may also result in a theology more similar to traditional Protestant beliefs. 0. Kendall White, Jr. writes:
The explosion of historical scholarship in Mormon studies during the past two decades has disclosed the essential Protestant flavor of the earliest Mormon beliefs and has provided an authentic foundation for Mormon neo-orthodox theology.
Much like the earliest Mormon converts, the latest neo-orthodox theologians rely primarily upon the Book of Mormon, not the story of Joseph Smiths first vision, for their doctrines of deity, human nature, and salvation. This emphasis on the Book of Mormon reinforces a trinitarian and absolute God, while a preoccupation with the first vision, a trademark of twentieth-century Mormonism, encourages a tritheistic and anthropocentric God.
He elaborates on this obvious deviation from the Mormon norm and its prominent parallel to Protestant Christology saying:
Though these new Mormon theologians seem less concerned with the concept of God than with the doctrines of human nature and salvation, their position on the classical attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence is evident. A preoccupation with Christs perfection and divine justice naturally follows from an emphasis on human failure and the gift of grace.
This liberal development in theology, LDS Neo-Orthodoxy, represents the first substantial shift in belief structure to develop from below (the Church members) and not from above (the Church leadership) and yet remain within (the Church structure). All previous positions that vocally or publicly deviated from the norm have done so from without. In the past, some were ex-communicated against their wishes for expressing far less conflicting views while others left under their own initiative to form rival churches.
The future of LDS Neo-orthodoxy and its unique Christology rests in the uncertainty of the post-Hinckley era. For the last two decades, Elder Gordon B. Hinckley, First Counselor to the Prophet, has been without question the most influential human in the hierarchy of the Church. Due to his position among the Twelve Apostles and to the general poor health of President Benson and his predecessor Spencer W. Kimball, Hinckley has been the single most important factor in the shaping of church policy. It has been under his watch that the recent expressions and current trends of LDS Neo-orthodoxy have been allowed to develop (or have been tolerated). LDS scholars of the new theology may discover a return to a more tightly enforced demand for conformity with the establishment. Or they may find a more lenient hierarchy that advances beyond toleration to support. In a post-Hinckley era of glasnost, the new theologies could actually be encouraged as viable expressions of faith within the Mormon establishment. The Church has certainly survived (and even benefited from) more difficult changes in the past (i.e., polygamy and the Black/Priesthood issue).
However, LDS neo-orthodoxy may ultimately fall under its own weight. Its theology is not firmly grounded in Mormon revelation, hierarchal infallibility, or an evangelical view of biblical authority - although its language is sometimes couched in the rhetoric of all three. It may be philosophically difficult to maintain the doctrines of the Reformation without the principle of sola Scriptura which gave birth to them.
ELOHIM: THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO GORDON B. HINCKLEY
It could be argued that the neo-orthodox movement within the LDS Church only affects a handful of Mormon liberals whose influence is inconsequential and whose loyalties are suspect. Is the nature of God being recast by other, more mainstream Mormons? Are there others besides the liberals re-imagining Elohim?
A perceivable theological shift in recent years can also be documented from the LDS Prophet himself. In a San Francisco Chronicle interview published in 1997, President Gordon B. Hinckley, Prophet, Seer, Revelator and world leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints commented on Snows famous couplet, which for so long embodied the essence of the LDS doctrine of God. Hinckley was asked to comment on Snows couplet as compared with traditional Christian beliefs:
Q: There are some significant differences in your beliefs. For instance, dont Mormons believe that God was once a man? A: [Hinckley] I wouldnt say that. There was a little couplet coined, As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become. Now thats more of a couplet than anything else. That gets into some pretty deep theology that we dont know very much about.
One would not want to read too much into an off-the-cuff response to a reporters enquiry. Critics have been quick to point to this and other recent statements as evidence of duplicity - an attempt on Hinckleys part to disguise the real Mormon teachings. Perhaps Hinckleys statement was more about public relations than it was about systematic theology but one should not quickly dismiss the possibility of a genuine reevaluation on the part of Mormon leaders. It is interesting that he did not claim that Latter-day Saints never believed it - only that he wouldnt say that and that we dont know very much about it.
Very significantly, later in the same interview, Hinckley had no reservations about confirming the second half of Snows couplet. Q: So you're saying the church is still struggling to understand this? A: [Hinckley] Well, as God is, man may become. We believe in eternal progression. Very strongly.
In a PBS program aired the same year reporter Richard Ostling, coauthor of Mormon America: The Power and the Promise commented on this intentional shift in emphasis:
President Gordon Hinckley says the concept of God having been a man is not stressed any longer, but he does believe that human beings can become gods in the afterlife. Hinckley stated: Well, they can achieve to a godly status, yes, of course they can, eternal progression. We believe in the progression of the human soul. We believe in the eternity and the infinity of the human soul, and its great possibilities.
Portions of the Hinckley interview were published in Time magazine. Concerning the idea of God having once been a man,
At first Hinckley seemed to qualify the idea that men could become gods, suggesting that it's of course an idea. It's a hope for a wishful thing, but later affirmed that yes, of course they can. On whether his church still holds that God the Father was once a man, he sounded uncertain, I don't know that we teach it. I don't know that we emphasize it... I understand the philosophical background behind it, but I don't know a lot about it, and I don't think others know a lot about it.
Luke Wilson of the Institute of Religious Research has gone to great lengths to validate the context and accuracy of the quote. In response to the institutes initial enquiry to the LDS Office of the First Presidency, F. Michael Watson, Secretary to the First Presidency claimed that Hinckley had been taken out of context by Time. Wilson contacted David Van Biema, the Time reporter and Richard Ostling who conducted the Hinckley interview, and was able to validate both the quote and the context. Hinckleys response was in direct answer to the question:
... about that, God the Father was once a man as we were. This is something that Christian writers are always addressing. Is this the teaching of the church today, that God the Father was once a man like we are?
By the late 1990s, Hinckley was clearly making an effort to deemphasize if not deny the traditional Mormon belief that Elohim, our Heavenly Father, was once a man before he progressed to exaltation.
Evidence of this same reemphasis can be found in the writings of recent Mormon apologists. In his book Are Mormons Christian, Stephen Robinson make a valiant effort to support the second half of Snows couplet (human deification) arguing that the belief is evident in the Bible and the writings of the Church Fathers. But having quoted Snow, he attempted no defense of Snows first statement - that God was once a man.
Are Latter-day Saints re-imagining Elohim? Theologians and students of Mormon Studies who are in dialogue with Latter-day Saints should remember that God may mean something very different to one Latter-day Saint than to another. What Latter-day General Authorities have taught for decades past does not necessarily translate into the pew. Converts to the church, unaware of 150-years of LDS dogma, often import their own, traditional theologies into the ward. Liberal Latter-day Saint may be very aware of LDS dogma but not feel any necessity to comply. Even the Prophet himself seems intent on moving beyond some aspects of the doctrines of his predecessors.
It is beyond the scope of this paper to explore the motives for change or the social or political factors that may precede them. It is true that the churchs unique understanding of the nature of God has received intense criticism from traditional Christianity which is a potential catalyst for change. Historically, however, within its highest leadership, the churchs theology has also experienced internal criticism and pressures to re-imagine its teachings about the nature of God. It is difficult to determine whether this latest apparent shift is largely cosmetic, to affect public perception, or if Hinckley is intending to truly influence his people to think about God differently. Either way, this could be a noteworthy development in Mormon studies.
When engaging in religious dialogue with Latter-day Saints, it should be remembered that there is no a unified Mormon theology of God. While this has always been the case, it is probably truer in the early 21st century than in decades past. Evangelicals wishing to inform, influence, or critique LDS concepts of God should consider a relational approach with care given to define concepts like deity and terms like Elohim or Heavenly Father.
For sociologists and historians, the current theological crossroads may provide an interesting study of a significant American religion in doctrinal transition. Of special interest would be the methodologies employed for creating transformation, their affect on the membership, and the public response to such transformation. Evangelicals and others wishing to evangelize individual Latter-day Saints may also have a unique opportunity to inform or influence their core beliefs those Latter-day Saints who may be in the process of re-imagining Elohim.
Backman, Milton V., Jr. Joseph Smiths First Vision. 2nd ed. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980.
Beckwith, Francis J., Mosser, Carl and Paul Owen, eds. The New Mormon Challenge. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2002.
Bergera, Gary J. The Orson Pratt-Brigham Young Controversies: Conflict within the Quorums, 1853 to 1868, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 13 (Summer 1980): 7-49.
Bettenson, Henry, ed. Documents of the Christian Church. 2nd ed Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963.
Blomberg, Craig L. and. Robinson, Stephen E. How Wide the Divide? A Mormon & an Evangelical in Conversation. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1997.
Branch, Craig. Re-imagining God, The Watchman Expositor, vol. 11, no. 5, 1994.
Dahl, Larry E. and Tate, Charles D., Jr. The Lectures on Faith In Historical Perspective. Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1990.
DNA vs. the Book of Mormon. (VHS) Brigham City, Utah: Living Hope Ministries, 2003.
Dodging and Dissembling Prophet? Grand Rapids: Institute for Religious Research, 1997.
Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. S.v. Polytheism, by D.B. Fletcher.
Family Home Evenings. Salt Lake City: First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1972.
Kimball, Spencer W. Our Own Liahona, The Ensign, November 1976, p.76.
Kirkland, Boyd. Elohim and Jehovah in Mormonism and the Bible, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 19 (Spring 1986): 78.
Krakauer, Jon. Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. New York: Doubleday, 2003.
Lamb, M. T. The Golden Bible. New York: Ward and Drununond, 1887; reprint ed., Salt Lake City: Utah Lighthouse Missions.
Lattin, Don. Musings of the Main Mormon, Gordon B. Hinckley . . . , The San Francisco Chronicle, April 13, 1997.
Lyke, M. L. Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Monday, Jan. 13, 2003
McConkie, Bruce R. Mormon Doctrine. 2nd ed., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966.
New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd ed., S.v. Sabellianism. by Samuel J. Mikolaski.
________. S.v. Tritheism, by J.G.G. Norman.
Norman, Keith E. A Kinder, Gentler Mormonism: Moving Beyond the Violence of Our Past, Sunstone 14 (August 1990): 10.
Oliver, Timothy. The Mormon Prophet Speaks: Doctrine of Deity - Is It Being Changed, or Camouflaged? The Watchman Expositor 14 (1997):4.
Pratt, Orson. The Seer. London: Franklin d Richards 1854; reprint ed.
Shields, Steven L. Divergent Paths of the Restoration. 2nd ed., Bountiful, Utah: Restoration Research, 1982.
Smith, Joseph Fielding. Doctrines of Salvation. 3 vols. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954.
Smith, Joseph Jr. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 7 vols. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1978.
________. Holy Scriptures Inspired Version. Independence, Missouri: Herald Publishing House, 1974.
Tanner, Jerald and Tanner, Sandra. 3,913 Changes in the Book of Mormon, 1996 ed. Salt Lake City: Utah Lighthouse Ministry.
________. Salt Lake City Messenger. Salt Lake City: Utah Lighthouse Ministry. no. 86 (June, 1994.
Testimony Lingers After Apostles Death, LDS Church News, 28 April 1985, p. 3.
Van Biema, David, Mormons Inc. Time. August 4, 1997.
Walker, James. The Developmental Nature of Mormon Christology. Arlington, Texas: Watchman Fellowship, Inc., 1991.
White, 0. Kendall, Jr. Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy: A Crisis Theology. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987.
Young, Brigham. Journal of Discourses. 26 vols. Liverpool, England: F. D. and S. W. Richards, 1854-86.
 The term re-imagining is borrowed from the controversial Re-Imagining God conferences held in Minneapolis beginning in November of 1993. These gatherings featured several thousand leaders from a number of mainline protestant denominations including Lutheran (ELCA), United Methodist , and Presbyterian (PCUSA) who came together to re-imagine traditional beliefs about God and to recast those beliefs in a liberal, feminist, and (in some cases) pagan image. See: Craig Branch, Re-imagining God, The Watchman Expositor, vol. 11, no. 5, 1994, (http://www.watchman.org/reltop/reimagin.htm, also http://www.watchman.org/na/reimagining98.htm).
 This paper is based on an update and expansion of an earlier work, James Walker, The Developmental Nature of Mormon Christology, (Arlington, Texas: Watchman Fellowship, Inc., 1991).
 Others may wish to give the First Vision, which pictures the Father and Son as separate beings with physical bodies, (1820) priority over the Book of Mormon (1830). Recent evidence, however, dates the official account late in Joseph Smiths life. Earlier, conflicting accounts of the First Vision seem to be in better harmony with Book of Mormon theology. For a compellation of First Vision accounts and attempted harmony from a traditional LDS perspective, see: Milton V. Backman Jr. Joseph Smiths First Vision, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980).
 Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), pp. 576-77.
 For a concise historical overview of Trinitarianism see the New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd ed., s.v. Trinity. by Samuel J. Mikolaski.
 lbid., Sabellianism. by Samuel J. Mikolaski.
 Henry Bettenson, ed., Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963). p. 38.
 1 Nephi 11:18, 21, 32.
 For a reprint of the complete original edition Book of Mormon with subsequent editing noted for comparison, see Jerald Tanner and Sandra Tanner, 3,913 Changes in the Book of Mormon, 1996 ed., (Salt Lake City: Utah Lighthouse Ministry).
 An attempt by an LDS Prophet to harmonize this passage with 20th Century Mormon theology is found in: Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City, Bookcraft, 1954), 1:28-29.
 For an interesting discussion of the authorship, history and canonicity of the Lectures on Faith see: Larry E. Dahi and Charles D. Tate, Jr., eds., The Lectures on Faith In Historical Perspective (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1990).
 There are two personages who constitute the great, matchless, governing, and supreme, power over all things. . . . They are the Father and the Son - the Father being a personage of spirit, glory, and power, possessing all perfections and fullness, the Son, who was in the bosom of the Father, a personage of tabernacle, made or fashioned like unto man, or being in the form and likeness of man . . .
How many personages are thee in the Godhead? Two: the Father and Son. Doctrine and Covenants, 1886 ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Company, 1886), p. 54-56. [Note: While the lecture does use the term Holy Ghost, the Holy Spirit is mentioned as part of the Godhead, but not as a personage].
 Dahl, p. 17.
 A more plausible explanation is that the original Doctrine and Covenants was in fact a two-part scripture - the Doctrine (consisting of the Lectures on Faith) and the second section, the Covenants, consisting of the commandments or revelations revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith. After the radical redaction of the Doctrine and Covenants in 1921, it could be said that only the Covenants remain.
 For example, the soteriological significance of marriage and the concept of plural marriage were already recognized before the death of Smith (Doctrine and Covenants 132). However, it was not until later that this concept was fully developed and applied to Christ in the writings and sermons of some of the Apostles who taught that Christ fulfilled this law himself by being married to Mary, Martha, and others, (Orson Hyde, Journal of Discourses Vol. 2 p.210). There is some question as to whether or not the current Authorities still hold to this teaching as it has not been denounced or supported in modern authoritative sources.
 Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 1:50-51. See also the Deseret News, June 18, 1873 p. 308.
 See Gary J. Bergera, The Orson Pratt-Brigham Young Controversies: Conflict within the Quorums, 1853 to 1868, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 13 (Summer 1980):7-49.
 Boyd Kirkland, Elohim and Jehovah in Mormonism and the Bible, Dialogue 19 (Spring 1986), 78.
 For a discussion of beliefs and practices of certain fundamentalist Mormon splinter groups as well as their alleged connection to 19th Century Mormon beliefs see: Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. (New York: Doubleday, 2003).
 Spencer W. Kimball, Our Own Liahona, The Ensign, November 1976, p. 76.
 Snow, who later became the fifth President and Prophet of the Church, wrote the couplet in 1840 as a recent convert. He described the couplet as the pathway of God and man which expresses the revelation, as it was shown me .Snow, Eliza R. Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow. (Salt Lake City, 1884) p. 46.
 Craig L. Blomberg and Stephen E. Robinson, How Wide the Divide? A Mormon & an Evangelical in Conversation, (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1997) pp. 85-86.
 Testimony Lingers After Apostles Death, LDS Church News, 21 April 1985, p. 3.
 Keith E. Norman, A Kinder, Gentler Mormonism: Moving Beyond the Violence of Our Past, Sunstone 14 (August 1990):10.
 McConkie, p. 576.
 A brief discussion of this heresy is put forth in the International Dictionary of the Christian Church 2nd ed., s.v. Tritheism. by J.G.G. Norman.
 McConkie, pp. 576-77.
 Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, s.v. Polytheism by D.B. Fletcher.
 Baptist pastor M. T. Lamb was one of the first Christian ministers to capitalize on this distinction, writing The Golden Bible in 1887. Even as early as the 1830s, Church of Christ founder, Alexander Campbell (who lost his companion Sydney Rigdon to Mormonism) wrote in general terms against the new movement.
 McConkie, p. 319
 For a philosophical discussion of the LDS view of God in as informed by New Testament studies, see: Paul Owens chapter Monotheism, Mormonism, and the New Testament Witnesses, in Francis J. Beckwith, Carl Mosser and Paul Owen, eds., The New Mormon Challenge (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2002), p. 271.
 Ibid., p. 321, (emphasis in original). Joseph Smith admits that we (he and his LDS audience) once imagined a God who was always God from all eternity. Perhaps his earlier belief was based on the Book of Mormon which teaches 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). Carried over and further expounded in 20th century Mormon thought, Smiths re-imagined Elohim was not always deity but was once a mortal man who became one of the Gods.
 Concerning this point, Joseph Smith radically edited John 1:1 in his own translation of the Bible which reads, In the beginning was the gospel preached through the Son. And the gospel was the word, and the word was with the Son, and the Son was with God, and the Son was of God. Joseph Smith, Jr., The Holy Scriptures Inspired Version (Independence, Missouri: Herald Publishing House, 1974).
 Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954), 1:18.
 McConkie, p. 320.
 Ibid., pp. 546-47.
 Ibid., p. 742 (emphasis mine).
 Orson Pratt, The Seer. (London: Franklin D. Richards, 1854; reprint ed.), p. 158. Elder Pratt goes so far as to speculate on whose wife Mary would be in the afterlife (Gods or Josephs), and how God could wed Mary who was already engaged to Joseph, without transgressing the Old Testament prohibitions against such behavior (Deut. 22:23-24).
 Family Home Evenings, (Salt Lake City: First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1972), p. 126. (emphasis mine).
 Joseph Smith, Jr. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954.) 1:6.
 A recent development in the field of genetics that is pressuring conventional LDS theology is mitochondrial DNA evidence that disputes the Book of Mormon claim that Native American Indians are of Jewish descendent. A new video, DNA vs. the Book of Mormon, (Brigham City, Utah: Living Hope Ministries, 2003), introduces testimony from several biologists, geneticists, and other scientists, including Dr. Thomas Murphy, who is currently a Mormon. Based on extensive research, Murphy, chairman of the Edmonds Community College Anthropology Department, has stated, I think it's fair to conclude that the Book of Mormon is a work of fiction. M. L. Lyke, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Monday, Jan. 13, 2003
 O. Kendall White, Jr., Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy: A Crisis Theology (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987), p. 139.
 Ibid., P. 153.
 For a discussion of these splinter groups and their formulation see: Steven L. Shields, Divergent Paths of the Restoration. 2nd ed., (Bountiful, Utah: Restoration Research, 1982).
 Some are tolerated more than others. Dr. Thomas Murphy was almost excommunicated for his public announcement that DNA evidence disproves the Book of Mormons historicity. A number of well-known LDS liberals and scholars were excommunicated in the 1990s for expressing view not compatible with Church standards. See: Jerald Tanner and Sandra Tanner, Salt Lake City Messenger. (Salt Lake City: Utah Lighthouse Ministry) no. 86 (June 1994), http://www.utlm.org/newsletters/no86.htm#Mormon%20Purge%20Continues.
 Don Lattin, Musings of the Main Mormon, Gordon B. Hinckley . . . , The San Francisco Chronicle, (April 13, 1997, p. 3/Z1; http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/1997/04/13/SC36289.DTL). For a more detailed discussion of this and other similar statements by Hinckley, see: Timothy Oliver, The Mormon Prophet Speaks: Doctrine of Deity - Is It Being Changed, or Camouflaged? The Watchman Expositor 14 (1997):4. (http://www.watchman.org/lds/1404-3.htm).
 Hinckleys statement does seem to contradict the praise he had given President Snows couplet just three years earlier in General Conference. See http://www.lds-mormon.com/gbh.shtml for a representative example of such criticism. It is interesting to note that even in the General Conference sermon, Hinckley supported Snows couplet using praising the concept of humans becoming deity but he did not elaborate on the ancillary proposition that before becoming God, Elohim was once a man.
 The San Francisco Chronicle.
 PBS Program aired July 18, 1997, see also: Richard N. and Joan K. Ostling, Mormon America: The Power and the Promise, Harper San Francisco, 1999.
 David Van Biema, Mormons Inc., Time, August 4, 1997, p 56. See also Jerald and Sandra Tanner, The Salt Lake City Messenger, No. 93 [November 1997] Salt Lake City; http://www.utlm.org/newsletters/no93.htm).
 Dodging and Dissembling Prophet? 1997, (Grand Rapids: Institute for Religious Research; http://www.irr.org/mit/hinckley.html).
 Stephen E. Robinson, Are Mormons Christians? (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1991)
 For a discussion of these and other issues raised by Robinson, see: James K. Walker, A Response To Stephen E. Robinsons Are Mormons Christians? (Arlington, Texas: Watchman Fellowship, Inc., 1991; http:// www.watchman.org/lds/aremormonschristians.htm).
 That Snows entire couplet was representative of 20th Century LDS dogma can be seen by the following quote from the Temple preparation manual published by the Church Education System in the mid-1970s: . . . our Father in heaven was once a man as we are now, capable of physical death. By obedience to eternal gospel principles, he progressed from one stage of life to another until he attained the state that we call exaltation or godhood. In such a condition, he and our mother in heaven were empowered to give birth to spirit children whose potential was equal to that of their heavenly parents. We are those spirit children. Corporation of the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Achieving a Celestial Marriage (Salt Lake City: Church Education System, 1976), p. 132.
 This phenomenon is amplified by the Churchs focus on moral and social issues rather than doctrine or theology in their weekly Sacrament Meetings.
 Gary J. Bergera, The Orson Pratt-Brigham Young Controversies: Conflict within the Quorums, 1853 to 1868, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 13 (Summer 1980):7-49.
 A decade ago the Worldwide Church of God was going through major doctrinal changes on almost every level - including the nature of Christ and salvation by grace. Under the leadership of Joseph W. Tkach and his son Joe Tkach, the Worldwide Church of God eventually abandoned the theology of their founder, Herbert W. Armstrong. The Worldwide Church of God now believes in the Trinity doctrine. They have joined the National Association of Evangelicals and their Pastor General, Joe Tkach, is a member of EMNR. In the early days of the doctrinal changes, many in discernment ministries and most of the staff of Watchman Fellowship (myself included) was concerned that the doctrinal changes may not substantive - more about public relations than theology. Our concerns were unjustified. See: Joseph Tkach, Transformed by Truth (Multnomah Books: Sisters, Oregon, 1997).
 Even if Hinckley was to renounce Snows couplet and convince all Latter-day Saints to reject it, the remaining LDS beliefs would be far removed from traditional Christian doctrine. Most evangelicals would view this doctrinal change by itself as inadequate to redefine God in terms consistent with the Bible and Christian orthodoxy.