If the Bible can be said to possess a single distinctive theme, it is the person and work of Jesus Christ. From the protevangelium of Genesis to the glorified personage John saw on Patmos, the Bible continually directs attention to the central figure of the eternal Word. His unique pre-existence, birth, redemptive work, and resurrection are the central threads which bind the fabric of redemption into a seamless whole, and his deity makes his incarnation an event not simply of local but of cosmic significance. Against this exalted view of Christ Mormons have erected a theological fancy of their own devising. They have replaced the incarnate God of scripture with a man who differs from us only in the sense of his being more advanced in knowledge and experience; his resurrection, instead of providing the ground of salvation, is important only by virtue of its priority in time; and his death succeeded merely in canceling the ill-consequences of Adam's fall, enabling both men and animals to attain immortality. The Biblical expression, "as the heavens are higher than the earth," vividly describes how far the Mormon Christ differs from the Christ of scripture.
Christ's nebulous position in Mormon theology makes it difficult to ascribe anything genuinely distinctive to either his person or work. The reason for this obscurity is found in the Mormon confusion between God and man. "God, angels and men are all of one species, one race, one great family, widely diffused among the planetary systems..."(1) All share a common parentage and differ among themselves only as an earthly family might differ in age, intelligence, and experience. Jesus Christ, the elder brother of the human race, is a "specimen of Divine, eternal humanity:" that is, he is actually what man is potentially. Parley P. Pratt wrote, "But every man who is eventually made perfect, raised from the dead, and filled or quickened with a fulness of celestial glory, will become like Him [Christ] in every respect, physically and in intellect, attributes or powers."(2)
One of the ways in which Christ differs from us is by virtue of his virgin birth. One wonders, however, if Mormons can properly speak of Mary as a "virgin," since Christ was conceived not by the Holy Spirit but by a sexual act of God. Orson Pratt wrote,
The Father and Mother of Jesus, according to the flesh, must have been associated together in the capacity of Husband and Wife; hence the Virgin Mary must have been, for the time being, the lawful wife of God the Father:...He had a lawful right to overshadow the Virgin Mary in the capacity of a husband, and beget a Son, although she was espoused to another; for the law which He gave to govern men and women was not intended to govern Himself, or to prescribe rules for his own conduct.(3)
The amorous exploits of the Mormon God reads like something from pagan mythology.
Some Mormon apologists have argued that the phrase in Lk. 1:35, "the power of the highest shall overshadow thee," refers to God's physical union with Mary. Aside from being Biblically and morally repulsive, such a notion is alien to the structure and language of the passage itself. Virtually all commentators agree that the angel's statement to Mary, "the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the highest shall overshadow thee," are parallel expressions, the second phrase simply being a repetition of the first. It should also be observed that it is not God's person that "overshadows"(4) Mary, but his power. This distinction becomes important when we compare the richly detailed stories of supernatural births current in the ancient world with the reticence of the gospel accounts. Pagan myths left little to the imagination concerning the nature of divine begetting, and were often of such a coarsely sensual nature that the higher minded Greeks and Romans advocated their suppression. The Biblical narratives, by contrast, say nothing about the mode of Jesus' conception except to ascribe it to an act of God's power or omnipotence. Behind this conception lies the idea of a God who creates not by physical effort but by divine fiat, and who conceived Jesus "without any anthropomorphism as the Creator, not as a lover."(5)
One of the elements of Mormon salvation is marriage and the rearing of children. Jesus Christ, since he was no more divine than any of us before his incarnation, must therefore have been married and had children born to him. Orson Hyde claimed that the marriage feast at Cana was actually Jesus' own wedding, and that he there was married to "Mary, Martha, and the other Mary."(6) Indeed, Jedediah M. Grant (second counselor to Brigham Young) informs us that
The grand reason of the burst of public sentiment in anathemas upon Christ and his disciples, causing his crucifixion, was evidently based upon polygamy,....A belief in the doctrine of a plurality of wives caused the persecution of Jesus and his followers. We might almost think they were "Mormons."(7)
Christ's atonement is viewed by Mormons as having a two-fold effect: first, it redeems every mortal creature from the penalty of death; second, it secures salvation for those who perfectly obey the laws and ordinances of the Mormon Church. The effectiveness of Christ's sacrifice is further limited by the type of sin committed. Certain sins are of such a heinous nature as to place the transgressor beyond the reach of Christ's atonement, and can be absolved only by the shedding of the transgressor's own blood. Brigham Young expressed the doctrine in these words:
There are sins that men commit for which they cannot receive forgiveness in this world, or in that which is to come, and if they had their eyes open to see their true condition, they would be perfectly willing to have their blood spilt upon the ground, that the smoke thereof might ascend to heaven as an offering for their sins; and the smoking incense would atone for their sins, whereas, if such is not the case, they will stick to them and remain upon them in the spirit world.
I know, when you hear my brethren telling about cutting people off from the earth, that you consider it is strong doctrine; but it is to save them, not to destroy them.(8)
This doctrine of "blood atonement" is not, as some have imagined, the mere advocacy of capital punishment for murder. Brigham Young, on the contrary, taught that the doctrine should be invoked for a variety of offenses, from adultery and thievery to rejection of the Mormon "gospel." Young once said that if he caught his brother in bed with one of his wives, he would "put a javelin through both of them...and they would atone for their sins, and be received into the kingdom of God." This he claimed he would do with "clean hands." Orson Hyde advocated that apostates and thieves should be treated as ravening wolves and shot down on the spot. Lest he be accused to teaching "strong things," however, he left it to his listeners to "make your own application of the figure." Heber C. Kimball claimed that all Mormon women are very decent, "...for we wipe out all unclean ones from our midst: we not only wipe them from our streets, but we wipe them out of existence....so help me God, while I live, I will lend my hand to wipe such persons out; and I know this people will." Brigham Young once said that if all thieves should be placed "...before the mouth of one of our largest cannon, well loaded with chain shot, I will prove by my works whether I can mete out justice to such persons, or not. I would consider it just as much my duty to do that, as to baptize a man for the remission of his sins." At an assembly of the Church Young related a dream wherein he cut the throats of two apostates from the Mormon Church, exclaiming as he did so, "Go to hell across lots." After relating this dream, he told his cheering congregation,
I say, rather than that apostates should flourish here, I will unsheath my bowie knife, and conquer or die. [Great commotion in the congregation, and a simultaneous burst of feeling, assenting to the declaration.] Now, you nasty apostates, clear out, or judgment will be put to the line, and righteousness to the plummet. [Voices, generally, "go it, go it." If you say it is right, raise your hands. [All hands up.] Let us call upon the Lord to assist us in this, and every good work.
Young referred to the doctrine of blood atonement as "...loving our neighbor as ourselves;...if he wants salvation and it is necessary to spill his blood on the earth in order that he might be saved, spill it....That is the way to love mankind."(9)
Mormons claim to base this doctrine upon a number of Biblical passages, none of which will survive a close examination. While capital punishment was invoked in Israel for a number of crimes, it was never associated with the salvation of the malefactor. The New Testament also mentions a sin for which there is no forgiveness, but the fact that there is no remission "neither in this world, neither in the world to come" (Mt. 12:32) removes any possibility of redemption through "blood atonement." The author of Hebrews declared most clearly that if we habitually and willfully sin after "we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins" (lO:26).(10)
Two additional passages cited by Mormons are Lev. 17:11 and Heb. 9:22. The text from Leviticus refers not to human but to animal blood, and is a prohibition against eating blood on account of its expiatory value. Heb. 9:22 alludes to this same passage, adding that Christ's atonement superseded the old levitical system of bloody sacrifices (vss. 25-28). Christ's fulfillment of the Old Testament sacrificial laws abolished all other sin-offerings, "for by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified" (l0:l4).
Perhaps the chief New Testament passage supposedly advocating blood atonement is 1 Cor. 5:1-5, where Paul advocated that the sin of incest should be punished by delivering the malefactor "unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." Mormons claim that Paul here commands the death of the transgressor, that by the shedding of his blood "the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." Against this exposition, it should be observed that the phrase "deliver such an one unto Satan" probably originated from Job 2:6, where Satan is allowed to afflict Job with every physical affliction save death.(11) It was used in the early church as a synonym for excommunication and expulsion of the malefactor to the region outside the church where Satan rules. It must be emphasized that the reference to the transgressor's being destroyed in the flesh does not include the thought of death. In 1 Tim. 1:20 there is an identical instance of Paul consigning two malefactors to Satan "that they may learn (i.e., be disciplined) not to blaspheme." The Corinthian transgressor was similarly afflicted in order that his suffering might have a remedial purpose, a purpose which was later accomplished with his repentance and reunion with the church (2 Cor. 2:5-10). The idea of Satan being an unwitting ally to the purposes of God is not alien to the Bible, and physical suffering is often pictured as having a saluatory effect upon a person's spiritual welfare (2 Cor. 4:16-18; 12:8-10; 1 Pet. 4:1-2).
The Mormon understanding of Christ's work and nature also differs from the Christian understanding in yet another fashion. According to Mormon doctrine, Jesus is related to God in much the same way a dutiful son is related to his earthly father; in neither case is there any suggestion that the relationship involves any transcendent union which would overcome their essential separateness. On the Biblical view, however, Christ, while separate from the Father in a certain sense, is in another sense not separate from the Father at all. This is not the place to enter into a detailed consideration of what the Bible says about that relationship, but only to state that it is not exhausted by any view which would limit their unity to simple mind or purpose. In Christ, as Paul wrote, "dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily" (Col. 2:9).
As stated above, Mormons understand the unity of the Godhead as being not one of essence but of will or purpose. "Jesus Christ and His Father are two persons," Parley P. Pratt wrote, "in the same sense as John and Peter are two persons....There is no more mystery connected with their oneness than there is in the oneness of Enoch and Elijah, or of Paul and Silas."(12) The two primary texts upon which this conclusion rests are Jn. 17:11, 21-23.
And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are.
That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one....
It should be apparent to even the most oasual reader that Jesus was discoursing not upon the nature of his union with the Father but upon the oneness enjoyed by his disciples, and that he used the former only as an analogy of the latter. The repeated use of the word "as" signifies not identity but comparison, and points to a relationship which is analogical rather than real. Yet this relationship, however far removed from the relationship existing between Christ and God, proves beyond doubt that the Mormon interpretation of these verses is untenable. Mormons hold that Jn. 17:21-23, which describes the interpenetrating oneness between the members of the Godhead as the pattern for the unity of believers, limits the divine oneness to simple purpose, since individual men cannot be united in any way which would transcend their present separateness. This presumption, however, is in direct conflict with the passage used to support it. While the union of believers is still only an analogy of that deeper union abiding between Father and Son, Jn. 17:21-23 defines that unity in a manner which far transcends any oneness of purpose. Westcott's note of these verses is particularly instructive:
The true unity of believers, like the Unity of Persons in the Holy Trinity with which it is compared, is offered as something far more than a mere moral unity of purpose, feeling, affection; it is, in some mysterious mode which we cannot distinctly apprehend, a vital unity....In this sense it is the symbol of a higher type of life, in which each constituent being is a conscious element in the being of a vast whole.(13)
Yet even this mystical union, intense and exalted as it may be, does not approximate the unity shared by the Father and Son. No man, however blessed, is ever called God in scripture except Christ, who taught that he and the Father shared a unique and inimitable oneness. In Jn. 14:7-9, for example, Jesus said, "If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also: and from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him." Philip, not understanding what Jesus meant by his already having "seen" God, asked Jesus to show them the Father, since he could not recall that Jesus' words were true of his own experience. Jesus answered, "Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father." This last passage does not, as Mormons imagine, refer to Christ's physical resemblance to the Father, for the following verses defines their likeness not as bodily similarity but as spiritual unity, "I am in the Father and the Father in me." Jesus is here represented as teaching that he and the Father shared the same divine nature from all eternity, a thought which also finds expression in Jn. 8:56-59. There Jesus said to the Jews, "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad." Jesus' interrogators considered this statement ridiculous. How, they said, was it possible for a man not yet in the prime of life to be a contemporary of Abraham's? Jesus answered, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am." Jesus' answer is not a simple claim of pre-existence but of timeless deity, a fact rightly understood by the Jews when they attempted to stone him for blasphemy. Jesus' "I am" could not help but suggest to their minds the great "I AM" of Ex. 3:14, and Jesus' answer a claim of equality with God.
The Mormon application of Jn. 17, furthermore, cannot consistently be maintained in the light of those numerous texts which emphasize the unqualified unity of the Godhead. Isaiah wrote,
Ye are my witnesses, saith the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen; that ye may know and believe me, and understand that I am he: before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me. I, even I, am the Lord; and beside me there is no saviour (43:l0).
This solemn declaration of God's unity, while confirming and enriching the New Testament doctrine of the Godhead, utterly destroys the polytheism, tritheism, and henotheism of the Mormon Church.
Mormons rightly observe that such a view of the Godhead is "mysterious," but this is not an objection to its Biblical reliability. "And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness," Paul wrote in 1 Tim. 3:16, "God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory," and in Col. 2:2 he prayed that all Christians might be finally brought to realize the mystery "of the Father, and of Christ." If the relationship between the persons of the Godhead was mysterious to Paul, it is certainly no objection to say that the doctrine cannot be true because bewildering to those less spiritually sensitive. Indeed, if the Mormon view of the matter is correct, Paul's feeling of mystery when contemplating the Godhead is itself a mystery of the darkest hue, for no one could rightly call the Mormon Godhead "mysterious" without being either deliberately obscure or exceptionally obtuse. Paul, according to competent testimony, was neither.
While Mormons rail against those who speak of the "mystery" of God in Christ, they seem less reluctant to admit perplexity when discoursing on the origin of God. The Mormon apostle Orson Pratt once wrote,
We were begotten by our Father in Heaven; the person of our Father in Heaven was begotten on a previous heavenly world by His Father; and again, He was begotten by a still more ancient Father; and so on, from generation to generation, from one heavenly world to another still more ancient, until our minds are wearied and lost in the multiplicity of generations and successive worlds, and as a last resort, we wonder in our minds, how far back the genealogy extends, and how the first world was formed, and the first father was begotten.(14)
This mind-defying assortment of gods and demigods, all generating an endless succession of other divinities, and all tracing their origin back through countless aeons to some great principle or self-begotten god, makes the Christian doctrine of the Godhead appear almost lucid in comparison.(15)
A final objection to the Biblical doctrine of the Godhead involves those passages which represent the Son as subordinate to the Father. Every text that asserts the inferiority of the Son, however, always does so in the light of his incarnation. The divine "emptying" of Phil. 2:7 provides the key that unlocks all such passages. Christ, prior to his incarnation, was one with God. When the "fulness of the time" arrived he divested himself of his divine glory and took upon himself the form of a servant. The ascension marked the resumption of his divine prerogatives. Christ was indeed inferior to the Father while upon earth, but it was a temporary and self-imposed limitation; it was not a subordination of office but of function.
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1. Parley P. Pratt, Key to the Science of Theology, 10th ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1948), 40. This is a much amended reprint of the original 1855 edition.
2. Ibid., 40, 39.
3. Orson Pratt, The Seer 1 (Oct. 1853):158.
4. Some have argued that the word "overshadow" refers to the actual act of divine begetting. A more plausible interpretation follows the Septuagint sense of shelter, an interpretation strengthened by the fact that Lk. 1:35 occurs "in the two most strongly Septuagintal chapters of the New Testament" (W. K. Lowther Clarke, New Testament Problems [New York: Macmillan, 1929], 74).
5. M. Dibelius, Jungfrauensohn und Krippenkind, 37, cit. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4 vols. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1936-1960), 1 (pt. 2):201.
6. Young, Journal of Discourses, 4:259.
7. Ibid., 1:346.
8. Ibid., 4:53.
9. Ibid., 3:247; 1:72-73; 7:19; 1:109, 83; 4:220. Some Mormons have argued that the doctrine of blood atonement, while advocated by the leaders of Mormonism, was never actually practiced. The inflammatory character of the above remarks, coupled with the fanaticism rampant in Utah at the time of their announcement, is itself a sufficient refutation of any such claim.
10. This same section of Hebrews also points out that no earthly organization is empowered to take the life of apostates, but that punishment is inflicted by God alone. This is in direct contrast to Jedediah M. Grant's comment, "I say, that there are men and women that I would advise to go to the President immediately, and ask him to appoint a committee to attend to their case; and then let a place be selected, and let that committee shed their blood" (Ibid., 4:49).
11. Its usage may also have been influenced by the pagan practice of consigning a malefactor to underworld daemons for physical suffering. See G. Adolf Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1927), 301-303.
12. Parley P. Pratt, Key to the Science of Theology, 41.
13. B. F. Westcott, "St. John's Gospel," Speaker's Commentary, 2:246.
14. Orson Pratt, The Seer 1 (Sept. 1853):132.
15. It should be noted that Mormon polytheism, unlike the polytheism of more primitive peoples, places no limit on the number of gods actually existing. "If we should take a million of worlds like this and number their particles," Orson Pratt once said, "we should find that there are more Gods than there are particles of matter in those worlds" (Young, Journal of Discourses, 2:345). The religion of ancient Egypt, which contained over two thousand deities, is practically monotheistic when compared with Mormonism.