Bridging the Gulf
Reviewed by Blake T. Ostler
Bridging the Gulf
Robinson is a Mormon. Blomberg is an evangelical. Amazingly, they carry on a conversation worthy of being called “Christian” regarding the concerns and agreements they have with one another. They have jointly authored an important book that is a model of informed discussion about issues affecting both Mormons and evangelicals. My hat is off, especially to Blomberg, who no doubt risked his standing among some in his evangelical community to carry on the type of discussion-seeking-understanding and rapprochement that is the hallmark of How Wide the Divide? I thank him for his courage and good will. Through this review, I would like to enter the conversation with them both, if that is not too presumptuous.
Judging from evangelical responses on the Internet and the refusal of several fundamentalist Christian bookstores to carry How Wide the Divide? one would think that Stephen Robinson ate Blomberg’s proverbial lunch, creamed him, got away with several low punches, and basically wiped him out without giving him a fair chance to make a statement. In reality, Blomberg is a very able spokesman for evangelicals. Apparently some so-called Christians are upset at the mere prospect of giving a Mormon a chance to actually declare his beliefs without their first being defined by the anti-Mormon publishing houses.
Robinson is also a fair-minded and informed representative of his Mormon faith. He makes several intelligent choices about defining and dealing with “what is Mormon doctrine” in his essays that I believe are essential to any productive conversation among Mormons and evangelicals. Robinson adopts a personal voice and discusses his personal beliefs, as opposed to defined, “official” Mormon beliefs. This approach is essential to discussions of Latter-day Saint doctrines for a very simple reason: An official creedal statement of Mormon doctrine does not exist, and a broad diversity of possible views abounds within Mormonism. The common assumption—which Robinson correctly rejects—that Latter-day Saints are somehow bound to believe everything ever said by any church authority at any time simply does not reflect what individual Mormons actually believe or should believe. Moreover, acceptance of such an assumption would lead to a wildly incoherent belief system. Robinson wisely sees that trying to define “Mormon doctrine” as a basis for discussion could only lead to endless debate about what constitutes doctrine somehow binding on Latter-day Saints.
Robinson’s presentation is strikingly refreshing and open regarding the fact that not all Latter-day Saint beliefs can be found in the Bible and that Mormons should therefore stop reading Mormon beliefs into the Bible as proof texts. Thus Robinson quite properly acknowledges that the doctrine of the Father’s having a material body cannot be found in the Bible1 and that the doctrine of three degrees of glory is not clearly enough defined to support the Latter-day Saint belief without further clarification through modern revelation (see pp. 89, 150—51). However, Robinson insists that none of his Mormon beliefs contradict the Bible, as opposed to simply not being asserted therein. Robinson adopts a version of sola scriptura—only doctrines presented in works accepted as scripture are binding on Latter-day Saints. He makes an exception for the doctrine—found nowhere in scripture—that God (the Father) was once as man and that there was a time before the Father became God. His rationale for this exception is that Mormons have believed this doctrine for so long and it is so well entrenched that it must be accepted as an official Mormon belief (see p. 87).
My only reservation about Robinson’s modified dogma of sola scriptura is that it is hard to square with his view that the ultimate authority in the Latter-day Saint community resides in living prophets, for he has no principled basis for rejecting the sermons of dead prophets in the Journal of Discourses as opposed to sermons of the living prophet, which he accepts as the ultimate guarantee of accurate interpretation of scripture (see pp. 58—59). The notion that a prophet’s words and scriptural interpretations are true only so long as he is alive is dubious at best and clearly false at worst. Two possible solutions to this dilemma are apparent. One could limit the binding sources to those texts and callings upheld by common consent at a conference of Saints. Thus the scriptures are binding because they have been accepted by the community through a procedurally proper vote. The sermons and interpretations of living prophets and apostles are accepted as binding because they have been sustained by the vote of the people. This approach, however, seems to place form over substance and does little to resolve the tension. One would still be bound to support, for example, the Adam-God doctrine if taught by Brigham Young while president but no longer bound to believe that doctrine after his death. Such a changing view of truth would be acceptable to very few Mormons and even fewer evangelicals.
Another way to resolve this dilemma would be to recognize a continuum of sources, some more and some less authoritative, as a source of Mormon beliefs. For example, only the scriptures are binding and must be accepted in all that they say. However, other sources to which Mormons can look to assist them in interpreting the scriptures would include (in order of descending authority) uncanonized revelations given to Joseph Smith or other prophets, statements by Joseph Smith, official statements by the First Presidency, the Lectures on Faith, statements of living prophets and apostles, and the statements of past prophets and apostles. Accepting a continuum of sources and recognizing that some are more authoritative as sources of Latter-day Saint doctrine than others resolves the dilemma and seems to give due weight to various sources. Moreover, I believe that this approach approximates, in my (quite possibly fallible) experience, how most Latter-day Saints in fact weigh what they should believe.
Robinson also wisely asserts that he is the world’s authority on his own beliefs. By labeling and expounding his own convictions, Robinson sidesteps issues regarding the possible range of sometimes divergent and ill-defined beliefs that Mormons can and do accept. It seems to me that Robinson is able to provide a coherent expression of his beliefs as a Latter-day Saint because he can discount or ignore certain trajectories of (nonscriptural) doctrines that have been asserted by past church authorities, such as the Adam-God doctrine, blood atonement, and views of progression of God the Father from a merely mortal status to godhood. I will discuss some of these beliefs in greater detail later. Here I merely want to point out that a valuable discussion occurs in How Wide the Divide? because Robinson does not waste time trying to prove that what he believes really is or should be Mormon doctrine.
In contrast, Blomberg rarely shares his personal views. With the exception of his commitment to scriptural inerrancy, Blomberg expounds the range of belief systems that have historically been adopted by evangelicals. Blomberg’s choice is also a wise one, given the background assumptions that many evangelicals make regarding evangelical beliefs. The Calvinists and biblical conservatives have so completely controlled evangelical seminaries that it seems evangelicals are all Calvinists. While Blomberg admits that he has Calvinist leanings, he admits Arminian views within the evangelical fold as well. Indeed, he is willing to acknowledge the valuable contributions of those evangelicals who have rejected the classical formulations of God, including beliefs that God is metaphysically simple, impassible, immutable in all respects, or timeless. Blomberg even suggests that it is permissible for an evangelical to believe that God may not have foreknowledge of future contingents (see p. 109).2 Notwithstanding his assertion that evangelicals rely solely on the Bible for their beliefs and see creeds as apt summaries of biblical propositions, he wisely allows a range of evangelical beliefs that are consistent with the historic creeds. Blomberg more than holds his own in this civil discussion.
Apparently Blomberg considers acceptance of biblical inerrancy as essential to being an evangelical. He ignores the neoorthodox view of scripture as a witness to God’s primary revelation in Christ. This view recognizes human mistakes and misunderstanding because scriptures are written by fallible humans from their perspective rather than God’s. For the neoorthodox, the scripture is God’s word insofar as it functions as a witness and locus of encountering Christ, rather than as an object to which one is committed. Blomberg does not contemplate the possibility that evangelicals could hold such a view and remain within the evangelical fold. However, I think that Blomberg’s commitment to biblical inerrancy, especially as defined by the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, ought not be accepted. Now down to the details.
Blomberg on Inerrancy
Both Blomberg and Robinson fall all over themselves to reassure us that they believe every word contained in the Bible. Blomberg uses the Bible to define the bounds of Christian belief while Robinson uses the Bible to show that Latter-day Saints fall within the bounds of Christianity. Blomberg insists that all his beliefs are biblical, thus proposing a version of the doctrine of sola scriptura that has been the mainstay of conservative Protestant thought since the Reformation.
Both Blomberg and, surprisingly, Robinson “agree that the present biblical text is the word of God within the common parameters of the Chicago Statement and the eighth Article of Faith” (p. 75). Blomberg gives a succinct summary of what he believes the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy amounts to:
Inerrancy means that when all facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything that they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical or life sciences. (p. 35)
The doctrine of inerrancy is internally incoherent. In my opinion, numerous insuperable problems dictate the rejection of inerrancy in general and inerrancy as promulgated in the Chicago Statement in particular. First, the Chicago Statement is self-referentially incoherent. One cannot consistently assert that the Bible is the basis of his or her beliefs and then assert that one must nevertheless accept biblical inerrancy as asserted in the Chicago Statement (as Blomberg and other evangelicals do). This statement contains a number of assertions, propositions if you will, that are not biblical. Inerrancy, at least as recently asserted by evangelicals, is not spelled out in the Bible. Nowhere do the words inerrant or infallible appear in the Bible. Such theoretical views are quite alien to the biblical writers. Further, inerrancy is not included in any of the major creeds. Such a notion is of rather recent vintage and rather peculiar to American evangelicalism. Throughout the history of Christian thought, the Bible has been a source rather than an object of beliefs. The assertion that the Bible is inerrant goes well beyond the scriptural statements that all scripture3 is inspired or “God-breathed.” Thus inerrancy, as a faith commitment, is inconsistent with the assertion that one’s beliefs are based on what the Bible says. The doctrine of inerrancy is an extrabiblical doctrine about the Bible based on nonscriptural considerations. It should be accepted only if it is reasonable and if it squares with what we know from scripture itself, and not as an article of faith as Blomberg presents it. However, it is not and it does not.
The Chicago Statement can function only as a statement of belief and not as a reasonable observation of what we find in the Bible. The Chicago Statement itself acknowledges that we do not find inerrant statements in the Bible, for it is only “when all facts are known” that we will see that inerrancy is true. It is very convenient to propose a theory that cannot be assessed unless and until we are in fact omniscient. That is why the Chicago Statement is a useless proposition. It cannot be a statement of faith derived from the Bible because it is not in the Bible. It cannot be a statement about what the evidence shows because the evidence cannot be assessed until we are omniscient. What is left except a pious-sounding noise?
The doctrine of inerrancy is untenable. Second, the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy is incoherent because it attempts to assert simultaneously that “the written Word in its entirety is revelation given by God,” yet that we can somehow ignore obvious contradictions and prescientific assumptions contained in the Bible that are clearly wrong because, somehow, such views are not affirmed by the scripture.4 This convenient exception to inerrancy, i.e., that the Bible is inerrant only in what it affirms, contradicts not only the notion of plenary inspiration asserted in the Chicago Statement, but also seriously begs the question. For example, the Genesis creation story views the world as a three-tiered reality, with the great waters held above the vault of the earth, which was broken at the time of creation. The earth is a flat disc totally surrounded by waters. It is situated over Sheol at the center of the earth. While it is an easy rationalization to argue, as Blomberg does (see p. 36), that this view of the world is merely assumed and not asserted, such an explanation cannot be squared with the biblical assertions about how the creation proceeded in the opening chapter of Genesis, for God creates by defeating chaos and unleashing the waters above the great vault.5 Further, the book of Joshua makes it fairly clear that the sun stood still (see Joshua 10:12–13). For those of us living in a post-Copernican world, the sun does not go around the earth as Joshua presupposes. It is understandable that intelligent persons such as Blomberg cannot in integrity affirm all that the Bible does, given its prescientific assumptions, but it is not understandable that persons have religious devotion to a nonbiblical doctrine of inerrancy that cannot in integrity be reconciled with the facts.
Inerrancy ignores the biblical evidence of human errors and disagreements. Third, the Chicago Statement simply cannot be reconciled with the facts presented by the biblical documents themselves. The Chicago Statement asserts that scripture is without error or fault in all of its teaching and that inspiration “guaranteed true and trustworthy utterance on all matters of which the Biblical authors were moved to speak or write” (Article 9).6 Yet this faith is misplaced and subject to being seriously eroded by even a facile reading of the biblical text. To give only a few examples: Acts 9:7 narrates that the companions who accompanied Paul on the road to Damascus heard a voice but did not see a form of man; whereas Acts 22:9 tells us that Paul’s companions did not hear any voice but saw a light. One of these scriptural affirmations, both of which are attested in all the earliest manuscripts, is surely erroneous and thus fallible. Either Paul’s companions heard the voice or they did not.
Matthew uses a Greek translation of Isaiah as the basis for a prophecy that a “virgin” shall conceive and bear a child (Matthew 1:23; compare Isaiah 7:14). The Greek word translated from Isaiah is parthenos, which clearly means “virgin.” The Greek translates the Hebrew word ‘alma’ used in the Hebrew text of Isaiah. However, the Hebrew ‘alma’ means a young woman, without any necessary connotation of virginity. The Hebrew word for virgin is betûlah. The author of the Gospel of Matthew relied on a mistaken understanding of Isaiah arising from mistranslation. To rationalize that the Matthean text does not affirm that Christ was born of a virgin simply will not work—that is the very purpose of using Isaiah to prophesy of Jesus’ virgin birth. Moreover, it is inconceivable that the “original autographs” read differently because the entire scriptural argument in Matthew rests on the mistaken translation. Scriptural inerrancy is simply not tenable in light of these types of problems, which could be multiplied many times over.
The Chicago Statement professes “the unity and internal consistency of the Scripture” (Article 14).7 Even Robinson accepts a harmonizing hermeneutic that forces scriptural unity and harmony by assuming it (see p. 70). This assumption of harmony among all writers ignores the various, sometimes conflicting, views presented in the scripture. For example, 1 Samuel 8 presents the Israelite acceptance of the monarchy as a rejection of Yahweh: “And the Lord said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but have rejected me, that I should not reign over them” (1 Samuel 8:7). However, the promonarchy message of 1 Samuel 12 presents the establishment of a monarchy as Yahweh’s own act: “Now therefore behold the king whom you have chosen, and whom ye have desired! and, behold, the Lord hath set a king over you” (1 Samuel 12:13). It appears that there were opposing political views in ancient Israel regarding the monarchy. Attempts to harmonize these two views, as if the monarchy is both a rejection of Yahweh and also divinely instituted by Yahweh, overlooks the complexity of the scripture and the reality of opposing views.8
Further, the diverse development of the sayings of Jesus in the early Christian church wipes out any assumption that the scriptures constitute a harmonious whole. For example, Mark and Luke (probably in reliance on Mark) both teach that divorce is prohibited.9 However, Matthew twice adds an exception to this absolute prohibition against divorce and remarriage: “I tell you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries someone else, commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9, Albright and Mann, trans., The Anchor Bible Matthew, 225; compare Matthew 5:31—32). Paul goes further and prohibits divorce unless a believer is married to a nonbeliever who wants a divorce (see 1 Corinthians 7:10—15). This disunity among the writers of the Bible has led, not surprisingly, to various views regarding divorce. Catholics prohibit divorce absolutely, following Mark and Luke. The Orthodox, following Matthew, permit divorce only in the case of adultery. Protestants and Latter-day Saints allow divorce in a wide range of instances. Further, commentators agree that within the original context of the question put to Jesus about whether divorce is allowed by the Law (Torah), the Pharisees were asking Jesus whether he followed the Jewish teacher Shammai, who prohibited a man to divorce except in cases of adultery, or Hillel, who permitted a man to divorce in the case of a wife’s shameful or disgraceful acts. (Jewish law did not allow a wife to divorce her husband, contrary to Mark and Luke). Matthew has Jesus side with Shammai, while Mark and Luke have Jesus reject all Jewish interpretations of the Law in favor of an absolute prohibition of divorce.10 In any event, a clear divergence in opinions raises questions about what conditions, if any, justified divorce. Any attempt to force a harmonizing hermeneutic again simply misunderstands and misrepresents the diversity among the biblical authors. These problems hardly touch the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Finally, Blomberg is simply wrong when he asserts that “no Evangelical (or for that matter no Protestant) doctrine depends on any textually disputed verse” (p. 35). Blomberg is well aware that the earliest manuscripts of Mark 16 end at verse 8, just after the announcement of the empty tomb and without mentioning any resurrection appearances. Based in part on this textual dispute, scholars debate whether the “empty tomb” tradition existed prior to or independently of resurrection-appearance texts.11 I would have thought that the fact and nature of the resurrection were important doctrines. Further, the sole support for the two-nature theory of Christology is a disputed reading of the Gospel of John 3:13 (which doesn’t support the theory anyway).12
These problems are not created by biblical scholars, many of whom have a deep love for both the Bible and Christianity. Rather, the problems are suggested by the very doublets and multiple versions of the same events and sayings attested in the Bible itself. For example, the differences between the birth stories in both Matthew and Luke suggest two irreconcilable traditions of Jesus’ birth.13 One could hardly accuse Raymond Brown, a Catholic who has a greater stake in the status of Mary and the virgin birth than either Latter-day Saints or evangelicals, of simply creating these problems out of naturalistic assumptions. The problems arise from the text and not from naturalistic assumptions.
Inerrancy is inconsistent with libertarian free will. Fourth, inerrancy is also inconsistent with the notion of morally significant free will asserted by Mormons and Arminians. One of the primary reasons many have given for rejecting inerrancy is that it amounts to a theory of divine dictation, an obliteration of the human personality and contribution to the scriptures. In response, all evangelical writings I am acquainted with deny that their views on scriptural inerrancy amount to a doctrine of divine dictation, as if the scripture were simply words recorded as God spoke. Blomberg is no exception: “No reputable Evangelical scholar or theologian believes in divine dictation for more than a tiny fraction of Scripture (e.g., the Ten Commandments)” (p. 37). Yet the issue is not whether evangelicals claim not to accept divine dictation, but whether their view logically entails a dictation theory, whether they acknowledge it or not. It is my position that the Chicago Statement implicitly assumes a Calvinistic determinism and is incompatible with morally significant free will despite such disclaimers.
The Chicago Statement seems to assert two mutually exclusive sources of scriptural texts. On the one hand, it asserts that all the words are controlled by God and therefore must be infallible and inerrant:
Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches. . . . Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all of its teachings. . . . We affirm that the written Word in its entirety is revelation of God. . . . We affirm that the whole of scripture and all of its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine [i.e., infallible] revelation. . . . We affirm that inspiration . . . guaranteed true and trustworthy utterances in all matters of which the Biblical authors were moved to speak and write.
On the other hand, the position of the Chicago Statement is that even though all the words are wholly God-given the human authors are nevertheless responsible for the human limitations evidenced in the biblical scriptures:
We affirm that God . . . has used [human] language as a means of revelation. We deny that human language is so limited by our creatureliness that it is rendered inadequate as a vehicle for divine [i.e., infallible] revelation. . . . We affirm that God’s revelation . . . [is] progressive. . . . We affirm that God . . . utilized the distinctive personalities and literary styles of the writers whom He had chosen and prepared. We deny that God, in causing these writers to use the very words that He chose, overrode their personalities.14
But how can God cause humans to use the words that he chooses and guarantee that these words are infallible unless he overrides their freedom to use the words they would choose? If the words of scripture reflect human interpretation, human personalities, historical horizons from the human perspective, then the words are at least in part reflective of human limitations and errors.
The crux of the matter is the different notion of free will with which most evangelicals (many explicitly and most implicitly) operate. As David and Randall Basinger have pointed out, the inerrantist’s argument, when fully fleshed out, is as follows:
- “The words of the Bible are the product of free human activity.”
- “Human activities (such as penning a book) can be totally controlled by God without violating human freedom.”
- “God totally controlled what human authors did in fact write.”
- “Therefore, the words of the Bible are God’s utterances.”
- “Whatever God utters is errorless (inerrant).”
- “Therefore, the words of the Bible are errorless (inerrant).”15
The question boils down to whether premise (2) can be coherently asserted, which depends on the notion of free will one adopts. If one adopts the Arminian notion of contracausal agency—also known as libertarian free will—as the ability to do otherwise given all conditions obtaining in the moment of free decision, then (2) cannot be coherently asserted. God cannot both cause or determine humans to write the words of scripture and also leave humans free to choose words other than those God causes or determines. That is, the human author cannot do otherwise in relation to God and thus is not free in the relevant sense. If a person is free in this sense, then the words he writes are chosen by him, originating with that person and not fully determined by causes outside his control. Given inerrancy, the words are not chosen by human writers, but by God. If there were an error in scripture, who would be responsible for the error, given that God has chosen the very words used? It seems clear to me that God is responsible, and not the humans who had no control over the words used in the scripture. That is why the logic of inerrancy entails that there cannot be any errors—God is the source of all the words in scripture, God is infallible; therefore the words of the Bible must also be infallible.16
We now see why inerrancy is adopted by evangelicals despite the fact that it neither is found in the Bible nor can be reconciled with what is found in the Bible. It is a necessary corollary of the Calvinist theology of complete divine determinism. Without the assumption that God completely controls every word of scripture—indeed everything that happens—there simply is no reason to accept inerrancy.
The inerrantist thus assumes either the Calvinist view of soft determinism or adopts Martin Luther’s acceptance of hard determinism and rejection of free will altogether. The Calvinist view assumes that humans can be free although they are caused to think and do as they do: a person is free so long as he can do as he wants, though what he wants is not up to him. Thus if God causes a biblical author to want to write the words that God chooses, that author is free to do as he wants, although his wants and actions are not his own. However, if a person’s wants and desires are not up to him, if the desire to write the specific words chosen by God originates with God and is ultimately “guaranteed” by God, then how is that person’s personality still present in writing the words? Why do the words chosen by God exhibit the limitations of the words the person would choose if they originated with God rather than with him? It is incoherent to assert that biblical scripture reflects the human cultures and limitations of its human authors but the words are chosen by God, who is free of such limitations. Once again, given scriptural inerrancy, God, and not the human author, is ultimately responsible for the words of scripture. Thus any limitation or errors evidenced in scripture must be laid at God’s feet as the ultimate cause of these words. The problem of inerrancy is thus parallel to the problem of evil. Given the Calvinist commitment to complete divine determinism, any evils or errors that occur are actually caused by God and he is therefore responsible for them. But then any scriptural error, even the slightest mistake, is sufficient evidence to show that inerrancy is false, since God cannot be in error or mistaken. Because I believe that it is manifest that human limitations, mistakes, and errors are present in scripture, it is easy to conclude that inerrancy is an erroneous human view.
Mormonism and Inerrancy
It was unclear to me, even after reading his contribution several times, whether Robinson fully adopted the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. My confusion arose from the fact that while repeatedly allowing for the possibility of errors in the written versions of Mormon scripture, Robinson nevertheless affirms that Latter-day Saints can accept the Chicago Statement:
The original revelation [of Mormon scripture] understood in its original context might have been “inerrant” as given to the original apostles or prophets. . . . Therefore, Latter-day Saints would agree with the five qualifications of the “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” although, as usual, we would probably use different terms to express the same ideas. (pp. 56—57)
I was confused as to whether Robinson allowed only scribal errors or whether he allowed for human errors also in the original revelation. I finally concluded that he holds that the original revelation is inerrant, though any attempt to put revelation into human language suffers from human limitations as provided in the Chicago Statement.17
I was stunned that Robinson apparently accepted the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy as consistent with his Latter-day Saint beliefs, especially after he went to such great lengths to explain that he as a Mormon believes that scripture “is in our [Mormons’] view recorded by men who can and do make mistakes” (p. 57). Moreover, he points out that views asserted in scripture can be mistaken because “the specifics of language, style and vocabulary are conditioned by the capacities, education, cultural context, time and place of the inspired writer to whom God speaks” (p. 57). While I totally agree with these statements, it is clear that Robinson cannot consistently assert that scriptures contain mistakes due to human limitations but that these same scriptures are “inerrant in all that they assert” as the Chicago Statement declares, nor that although the very words of scripture are chosen by God, nevertheless, the “specifics of language” of scripture are “conditioned by the capacities, education, cultural context, time and place of the inspired writer to whom God speaks” (p. 57). Like evangelicals, Robinson appears to want a guarantee of scriptural correctness while allowing for the limitations and errors of its human authors. He wants to have his cake and eat it too. Moreover, it is even inconsistent with Latter-day Saint scripture to assert that the original revelation was without error, because the Book of Mormon writers repeatedly affirm that their original autographs may contain errors.18 Acceptance of the inerrancy of scripture is also inconsistent with Joseph Smith’s practice of making changes, some of them doctrinally significant, in subsequent editions of the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants (Book of Commandments).19 If the scripture contains God’s very words, as the Chicago Statement claims, then no person could improve on or dare change the words of the revelations as Joseph Smith did. That is why evangelicals are scandalized and expect Mormons to be bothered when they reveal (as they suppose)20 that there have been numerous textual changes to the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants. However, Latter-day Saints need not be bothered by the assumption of inerrancy implicit in the arguments from such textual changes because neither Mormon scriptures nor Joseph Smith buy into that assumption.
Robinson stresses that “the recording, transmission and interpretation of the word depends on fallible human beings, using the fallible human tools of reason and language. Thus, Scripture is the word of God for Latter-day Saints, ‘as far as it is translated correctly'” (p. 57). He asserts that Mormons can be “guaranteed” the correctness of their texts primarily because of the presence of living prophets (p. 57). In response to criticism from Blomberg that the Joseph Smith Translation (JST) adds to and changes the Bible in a way that seems to be inconsistent with the notion of inerrancy accepted by both of them, Robinson points out that:
In 1828 the word translation was broader in its meaning than it is now, and the Joseph Smith translation (JST) should be understood to contain additional revelation, alternate readings, prophetic commentary or midrash, harmonization, clarification and corrections of the original as well as corrections to the original. . . . Joseph Smith often saw more than one meaning in a passage and brought many of these explicitly to our attention by means of the JST. (p. 64)
Joseph Smith never explained how he was “translating” the Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price and I do not claim to know the relationship between Joseph’s Egyptian papyri and the finished text. (p. 65)
Blomberg correctly points out that this view of inspiration is different and, to him at least, less objectionable than insistence on a literal translation. Blomberg affirms that if:
“Translation” includes interpretation, adaptation and application, if the media of plates and scrolls were merely a means to an end—proclaiming the gospel irrespective of the literal significance of the written characters—then these debates [about the historicity of Mormon scripture] diminish somewhat in importance. (p. 53)
I believe that both Robinson and Blomberg are correct: If the JST, and Joseph Smith’s translations of the Book of Mormon and the books of Moses and Abraham contain prophetic commentary or midrash, harmonization, clarifications, and corrections, then many problems regarding the historicity of Latter-day Saint scripture can be resolved. We can agree with Robinson that Joseph Smith was not merely reproducing or restoring original texts because “his main concern was not merely to reproduce God’s word to ancient prophets but also to produce a correct text for the use of Latter-day Saints in the latter days” (p. 64). Robinson may limit this process of prophetic expansion to the translation of the Bible that resulted in the JST, but I do not see how he can consistently do so because Joseph Smith also used the word translation to describe his activity in producing the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham. In addition, the book of Moses and Joseph Smith—Matthew in the Pearl of Great Price, which are accepted as scripture by Latter-day Saints, were produced as part of Joseph Smith’s work to translate the Bible that resulted in the JST. Allowing prophetic expansion by providing midrashic commentary, clarifications, and corrections is consistent with Joseph Smith’s revisions and clarifications of later editions of the Doctrine and Covenants and Book of Mormon. Robinson thus defends Joseph Smith in producing the JST by allowing prophetic expansions and clarifications to the biblical text as part of the meaning of the word translation (as it was used by Joseph Smith).
Robinson’s response to Blomberg is especially interesting (to me at least) because he roundly rejected a similar argument which I made in 1987 to defend the Book of Mormon from similar charges. In an article entitled “The Book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source,” I argued that Joseph Smith provided “authoritative commentary, interpretation, explanation, and clarifications” to the ancient text of the Book of Mormon.21 As a result, I argued that many of the elements of the Book of Mormon that appeared to be modern to critics could be explained as deriving from the interpretation inherent in the process of revelation and translation that resulted in the Book of Mormon. In my view, a proper translation requires expansion and explanation. For example, the Hebrew term hesed could be translated merely as “covenant-love,” but such a translation fails to convey the richness and depth of the concept. A proper translation of this one word might require an entire chapter to explain God’s gracious dealings with Israel in delivering the Hebrews from Egypt, the exodus, and the history of God’s continual acceptance of his covenant people even in the face of their constant rejection of him. Thus finding words and concepts that seem to be peculiar to the nineteenth century in the Book of Mormon is not proof that it does not derive from an ancient text, given the nature of the translation. My argument was essentially as follows:
- All human experience involves human interpretation.
- Revelation (translation) is, at least to some extent, a human experience.
- Therefore, revelation (translation) resulting in the Book of Mormon text involves, at least in part, human interpretation.
However, I fail to see any difference between my view of the Book of Mormon translation and Robinson’s view of the Joseph Smith translation of the Bible. If Joseph Smith could provide commentary, midrash, explanation, and clarification of the biblical text as part of the inspired biblical text itself, then why couldn’t he do the same for the Book of Mormon translation?22
Robinson appears to have changed his mind somewhat regarding whether scripture has been expanded by prophets in the translation process to include interpretation and inspired expansion. If so, then I commend him for his willingness to rethink issues in light of evidence. If he limits such prophetic expansion, interpretation, and commentary to the JST, then I would inquire as to why such inspired “midrashic commentary” is all right with the Bible as evidenced in the JST and not in the Book of Mormon, which Joseph Smith also felt free to modify and clarify in subsequent editions.
Given the recognition by both Blomberg and Robinson that a mode of translation that allows for inspired interpretation and commentary resolves problems regarding the historicity of Latter-day Saint scriptures, I was disappointed in their exchange on this subject. Blomberg argues that the Mormon scriptures, including the Book of Mormon, appear to fit perfectly into the nineteenth century because they “seem” to him to contain Arminian influences (see pp. 51—52). In response to Blomberg, Robinson says that it “seems” otherwise to him (see pp. 65—66). Given Blomberg’s acceptance of the notion of translation proposed by Robinson, why is that an issue? The Book of Mormon and other Latter-day Saint scriptures could contain phrases, words, and even concepts influenced by the nineteenth century, and still have originated with ancient texts as the source of the translation, because they were translated “by the gift and power of God” by a nineteenth-century prophet. Once we have acknowledged that interpretation is a part of the translation process, modern influences and interpretations in the text are no longer proof that the pretranslated text was not ancient. Further, why does Robinson deny the possibility of nineteenth-century Arminian influences in Mormon scriptures, including the Book of Mormon, after he has admitted repeatedly that many Mormon doctrines are thoroughly Arminian, and even that his own view of grace is properly termed “Arminianism”? (pp. 146, 159). It seems inconsistent to me to assert that Mormon doctrines are largely Arminian but that Mormon scriptures are not.
In my view Robinson should have said, given his view of translation: “Well, sure the Mormon scriptures show influences of nineteenth-century Arminianism. Given Joseph Smith’s Methodist leanings and the interpretation inherent in translation, that is what one would expect. But what you have not explained are all the ancient aspects of the Book of Mormon, such as genuinely ancient Israelite prophetic call forms, exact Israelite judicial procedures, and ancient covenant renewal festivals in the Book of Mormon.”23 I have never seen an adequate explanation for these types of ancient patterns discovered through form-critical analysis except for Joseph Smith’s, i.e., that he translated an ancient record by the gift and power of God. That is what Robinson should have asked Blomberg to explain—in my opinion.
A More Consistent View of Scriptural Inspiration
If inerrancy is rejected, how should we think of the “Word of God” that we agree is contained in the scriptures? Instead of inerrancy, I believe that Latter-day Saints should accept a view of revelation/translation as “creative coparticipation” involving both divine inspiration and human interpretation. The scripture is inspired because God imparted knowledge to prophets/writers “in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding” (D&C 1:24). Scripture is the Word of God as proclaimed in the eighth Article of Faith because God has breathed knowledge into the prophets in their own language and according to their varying capacities to understand. Thus the inspiration of scripture is not experienced by the prophet/writer free of human interpretation, cultural biases, and conceptual limitations. In Latter-day Saint scripture, revelation is experienced from within a divine-human relationship that respects the personhood and free agency of the prophet/writer. The human cognitive categories that the prophet/writer uses to organize reality and make sense of his experience are not obliterated by the revelation, and thus the revelation expresses both God’s inspiration and the prophet’s personality and limited understanding. The ultimate reality in Mormon thought is not an omnipotent God who causally determines passive and powerless prophets to regurgitate his words as dictated. God acts on the prophet/writer and imparts his will and message, but receiving the message and expressing it are, at least partly, up to the individual, who is also free to act for himself. In this view, scriptural inspiration is not an intrusion of the supernatural into the natural order. It is human coparticipation with God in creating the scripture.
In Latter-day Saint scripture, the prophet/writer is an active participant in creating scripture together with God. Revelation is not the filling of a mental void with divine content. It is the synthesis of human and divine event. The prophet is a coauthor and active participant in conceptualizing, verbalizing, and expressing the message of scripture in language meaningful to his contemporaries. That is why we call it the “Gospel according to Matthew,” or Mark, or Luke, because it is a particular view of a particular person living in a particular time and culture who also took part in authoring the text.
Further, this view of scriptural inspiration does not preclude propositional revelation. As semantic field theory has demonstrated, the inspired language of the scriptures can be understood only in the full context of the culture and worldviews or paradigms from which the language derives. The scriptures are not written from the divine point of view by God, free of particular cultural and linguistic constraints; they are written from the human perspective, within a particular time, language, culture, and thought-world. That is why all biblical scholars, even evangelicals, attempt to learn the original languages and the setting of the ancient world from which the scripture derives. Such background is necessary to enable one to grasp the meaning of the scripture. But the very recognition that the scripture reflects the views of particular humans writing in a particular culture and language is in tension with scriptural inerrancy. The very activity of learning about human language and ancient cultures as a necessary background to scriptural exegesis assumes that the biblical records reflect human temporal constraints and limitations—horizons, from the human view. These horizons include prescientific worldviews, tribal ethics, and a limited and often erroneous understanding of history. All this is perfectly acceptable and understandable because the writers of scripture were no less human than we are; no person can escape his own skin. In contrast, inerrancy assumes that scriptures are written from God’s perspective, which is free from the human limitations giving rise to prescientific worldviews. That is why the Chicago Statement asserts that the scriptures are a reliable guide in all matters scientific and historical as well as religious and ethical. Scriptural inerrancy should be rejected in favor of the view that scriptural inspiration includes a human who must interpret the divine message from the human perspective. In doing so, the inspiration may be reduced to propositions taking the customary linguistic forms. One must not exclude the propositional understanding of revelation, but any understanding of the scriptural propositions must be kept in relation to the linguistic structure and the human frame of reference in which alone the propositions have meaning.
This view of scriptural inspiration is superior to inerrancy because it allows both for divine authority of scripture and also for human perspectives and understandings. This view can actually be reconciled with the facts without distorting or ignoring many biblical passages. It makes sense of the scriptures as they actually are instead of as we assume they must be to satisfy our need for an absolute guarantee of correctness. In Latter-day Saint theology, only Satan offers absolute guarantees of salvation at the disregard of human agency (see D&C 29; Moses 4:3). This view makes honest sense of what we actually find in the scriptures, while still recognizing divine inspiration.
Robinson on God and Deification of Humans
I believe that Robinson has elucidated a profound and insightful view of deity and grace. Moreover, his views of the Godhead, human deification, and grace form a complex of interrelated and consistent assertions, i.e., a theology. Here I will summarize his theology of the Godhead and human deification:
- The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three separate divine persons who are one Godhead in virtue of “oneness of mind, purpose, power, and intent” (see pp. 128—30).
- The Son and the Holy Ghost are subordinate to the Father and dependent on their relationship of indwelling unity with the Father for their divinity—that is, the Father is the source or fount of divinity of the Son and Holy Ghost (see p. 132).
- If the oneness of the Son or Holy Ghost with the Father should cease, so would their divinity (see p. 132).
- Human beings may become gods through grace by becoming one with the individual divine persons in the same sense as the divine persons are one with each other (see p. 82).
- Humans are eternally subordinate to and dependent on their relationship of loving unity with the divine persons for their status as “gods” (p. 86).
- By acting as one with the Godhead, divinized humans will share fully in the knowledge, power, and glory of God, but they will never be separately worthy of worship nor will they be a source of divinity of others (see p. 86).
I want to emphasize that Robinson has done an outstanding job in describing how humans become “gods” that is consistent both with Mormon scriptures and the Bible. I believe that the foregoing propositions are supported by the biblical passages quoted by Robinson together with Doctrine and Covenants 93 and the Lectures on Faith. However, his discussion regarding how and when God the Father became “God” leaves a bit to be desired. Let me explain why.
I believe that Latter-day Saints commonly believe that God the Father became God through a process of moral development and eternal progression to godhood. The corollary of this view is that there was a time before God the Father was a god or divine. Robinson correctly points out that no Mormon scripture supports this view; rather, it is an inference from noncanonical statements made by Joseph Smith in the King Follett Discourse and by President Lorenzo Snow, who coined the couplet: “As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may become” (see p. 87). However, his assertion is questionable that “what God did before the beginning . . . [is] unfortunately not the [subject] of biblical information” (p. 86). Robinson tries to argue that when the scriptures say that God is “eternal,” they are usually translating the Hebrew olam or the Greek aion, both of which can mean an indefinite period of time. Robinson is clearly correct that these words decidedly do not mean that God is timeless in the sense that he experiences no temporal succession. However, Robinson’s interpretation that they cannot mean without beginning or end as the English word eternal connotes is extremely strained.
Moreover, the problem arises not so much from the Bible, but from Mormon scripture. The Latter-day Saint scriptures say that “there is a God in heaven, who is infinite and eternal, from everlasting to everlasting the same unchangeable God” (D&C 20:17). “[The] Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God, infinite and eternal, without end” (D&C 20:28). When the term eternal is conjoined with infinite and from everlasting to everlasting, it is pretty clear that it means without beginning or end. The notion of infinity usually means unlimited, without bounds—directly contrary to Robinson’s assertion that eternal in the Bible means an age that has a bounded beginning and a bounded end.
Other Mormon scriptures are even clearer: “Behold, I am the Lord God Almighty, and Endless is my name; for I am without beginning of days or end of years; and is not this endless?” (Moses 1:3). “For I know that God is not a partial God, neither a changeable being; but he is unchangeable from all eternity to all eternity” (Moroni 8:18). Further, Joseph Smith declared in 1840 that: “I believe that God is eternal. That He had no beginning, and can have no end. Eternity means that which is without beginning or end.”24 Given this clarification, it seems pretty clear to me that these scriptures mean that God has always been God in the same unchanging sense without beginning. Are the King Follett Discourse and President Snow’s couplet simply inconsistent with scripture? It seems to me that several possibilities can be explored here.
For purposes of clarity in this discussion, I will need to make a few distinctions. The word God is equivocal in Mormon thought, and in Christian thought in general, because it can have many different references. For example, the Father, the Son, or the Holy Ghost can each be referred to individually as “God.” I suspect that most references to God in the New Testament refer solely to God the Father. However, when I speak of the divine persons individually, I will use the locutions Father, Son, or Holy Ghost. I will use the biblical term Godhead to refer to these three individual divine persons as one God united in indwelling glory, power, dominion, and love. I will use the term God as an equivocal reference where it is unclear whether the reference is to one of the individual divine persons or to the Godhead. I will use the term god(s) to refer to humans who become divine through atoning grace. Finally, I will use the nonscriptural term divine beings to refer to the nonscriptural “gods” who supposedly existed as “gods” before the Father became a divine person. Now for my best crack at responding to this difficult question.
One could understand the scriptural references to an “eternal God” to refer solely to God the Father as an individual divine person. One could take the position that when “God” says he is eternal and without beginning, he is referring merely to the personal existence of the Father as a beginningless spirit or intelligence and not to his status as a divine person. Thus the Father has always existed as an individual without beginning, but he has not always been “God.” There was a time when the Father was not divine in this view. However, it need not imply that there were no divine beings before the Father became divine because, as I understand the implications drawn by Latter-day Saints such as Orson Pratt and B. H. Roberts, supposedly an infinite chain of divine beings existed before the Father.25 It was obedience to these divine beings and their commandments by which the Father became divine in this view, as I understand it. The problem with this view is that it seems to contradict the scriptures that say that “the Lord God Almighty” is without beginning of days. It is also hard to square with the scriptures that assert that God is the same unchanging God from all eternity. Moreover, this position seems to contradict Robinson’s view that it is a divine relationship of loving unity with God the Father that constitutes the source of divinity of the Son, the Holy Ghost, and god(s) (see pp. 86, 130—32). I believe that Doctrine and Covenants 93 teaches that the Son is divine in virtue of his indwelling unity with the Father and that mortals become god(s) by becoming one, just as the Father and the Son are one. In this scripture, the Father is the source or fount of divinity of all other divine beings. If the Father is the source of divinity, then it certainly seems inconsistent to assert that the Father became divine in dependence on some other divine beings, for then the Father is not the ultimate source of divinity. Thus the view that the Father became divine in dependence on other divine beings and was not divine from all eternity is not scriptural—and it seems to contradict both the uniquely Mormon scriptures and the Bible.
On the other hand, one could understand “God from all eternity to all eternity” to refer to the Godhead rather than to any of the individual divine persons separately. It is not true that if there has always been a Godhead that all the divine persons constituting the Godhead have always been divine. Thus, when the Word was made flesh and became mortal by leaving aside the divine unity of complete oneness with the Father and Holy Ghost, the Son “emptied himself” of his divinity and became mortal while the Father and Holy Ghost remained divine as members of the Godhead. What is true of the individual divine persons separately is not necessarily true of the divine persons united as one in the Godhead. For example, atoms of hydrogen and oxygen considered separately have very different properties than two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen joined in one entity in a molecular unity to form water. Analogously, the individual divine persons could have very different properties considered individually than when the Godhead acts, thinks, and wills as one God. Thus, when the scriptures say that “God is from everlasting to everlasting the same unchangeable God,” it means that the Godhead has always manifested all the essential properties of godhood (whatever they may be), but the individual divine persons may not always have possessed all the properties of godhood individually. In other words, there was a time when the Father took on himself mortality just as there was a time when the Son became mortal, but there was a Godhead before, during, and after that time.26
This latter view seems to be more consistent with the scriptures to me. Moreover, it need not entail that the Father became God after an eternity of not having ever been divine, or that there was a time before which the Father was not divine. Rather, when we say that “as man now is, God once was,” it seems more consistent to say that just as the Son was divine before becoming mortal (and was in fact very God as Yahweh of the Old Testament), so also the Father was divine from all eternity without beginning before he became mortal. The scriptures seem to assert that the Godhead is the same unchangeable and everlasting God from all eternity without beginning. References to “the same unchangeable God” in Mormon scripture often explicitly refer in context to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost as one God.27 They also seem to say that although the Son was made flesh, he was an individual divine person before mortality from all eternity. It is often not certain whether scriptures or sermons refer to God the Father or the Son as individual divine persons or to the Godhead. However, if the Son only does what he has seen the Father do before him, as Joseph Smith asserted in the King Follett discourse, then the Father was also divine before becoming mortal just as the Son was before being made flesh.28 Robinson endorses the idea that we should view the Father’s having once been mortal as analogous to the Son’s incarnation: “To those who are offended by Joseph Smith’s suggestion that God the Father was once, before the beginning, a man, I point out that God the Son was undoubtedly once a man, and that did not compromise his divinity” (p. 91). Of course, this argument is less compelling if the Father was not divine before his incarnation or condescension, for then the parallel with the Son’s experience of mortality would be somewhat compromised.
Robinson on the Nature of God
Robinson objects to referring to God in Mormon thought as “finite, limited or changeable” (p. 88). He implicitly disagrees with the conclusion of many LDS philosophers that the God described in Mormon thought is “finite” because he’s never heard any such proposition presented in church (p. 92).29 Of course, I’ve never heard Hugh Nibley’s views on Zion in church either, but that does not make them false or even suspect. However, I think that a good deal of confusion regarding talk of a “finite” God in Mormon thought arises from the failure to distinguish between references to “God” as the Godhead and references to “God” as one of the individual divine persons. The divine persons may be limited in ways that the Godhead is not. For example, each of the divine persons is limited to space-time by virtue of their corporeality; however, the Godhead is not corporeal. While the individual divine persons cannot be omnipresent in the sense of being spiritually present to all things, that does not make it impossible for the spirit of the Godhead that proceeds from their presence to fill the immensity of all space and to be in and through all things.30 The divine persons are not essentially or by nature all-powerful, or all-knowing, for if they empty themselves of their divine glory by leaving aside the indwelling unity of the Godhead and become mortal (a concept known as kenosis in theological discussion) they are not all-knowing or all-powerful but mortal.31 However, the Godhead is essentially all-knowing and all-powerful, for these are attributes of godhood which inhere in this relationship of indwelling love. Thus the divine persons may voluntarily take on themselves limitations which “God” as the Godhead cannot experience. The discussions of God as “finite” in Mormon thought (my own included) seem to refer exclusively to “God” as a divine person and either ignore the implications of “God” as a Godhead or commit the fallacy of composition by assuming that the properties of divine persons are the same as the properties of the Godhead.32
We need to be more careful when we speak of the Mormon God as “finite.” When Latter-day Saint philosophers have referred to God as “finite,” they mean something different than Blomberg and others critical of Mormon views infer. When Mormon philosophers refer to God as “finite,” they mean merely that “God” is not the absolute defined by classical theologians; they do not mean that “God” is merely a limited being who is less than supreme or maximally great as Blomberg infers. Regardless of the sense in which the word God is used, the biblical God is “finite” in the sense that God is not the metaphysical absolute of Greek metaphysics, particularly Platonism and Aristotelianism. Blomberg and others refer to God as “infinite” in the apparent sense that God is absolutely infinite and unlimited.33 However, it is doubtful that any person in the Christian tradition can affirm that God is infinite or absolute in this sense. If “God” were absolutely unlimited, he would be necessarily the whole of reality and not a Creator as contemplated in the scriptures. The Judeo-Christian scriptures envision a God who creates beings distinct from himself.34 Thus God is not the whole of reality and is delimited by the existence of beings that have real existence and a measure of independence from God. Further, a God who is not limited in any sense could not have any definite attributes. For example, if God is necessarily immaterial then he is limited in the sense that he could not be corporeal or embodied, or if God were necessarily good then he would be limited in the sense that he could not exercise moral agency in the presence of a genuine possibility of doing wrong. Moreover, God is personal in Christian thought, and personality implies some degree of limitation. For instance, choosing among alternatives, planning an undetermined future, and interacting with the world are all activities of God described in the Bible that imply temporal limitations.35 The biblical God is personal and therefore “finite” in the sense that he stands in relation to the world and is distinct from it.
It is appropriate to call the personal God of the Bible (even allowing for several different views of God among different biblical writers) “finite” in this sense because God is clearly delimited by personality and limitations inherent in that concept.36 Further, a mere limitation as such need not be bad. For example, limitations on stupidity, cruelty, or capriciousness are good. Thus limitations per se do not detract from the greatness of deity; rather, the nature of the limitation must be considered. For instance, allowing free agency certainly limits God’s options in specific ways and opens the world to risks of evil (and God to risks of pain) that otherwise God could completely control. However, granting agency to other intrinsically valuable persons so that they can grow morally is so valuable that it justifies the inherent divine risks and limitations. A God who is limited by the genuine agency of other intrinsically valuable beings may be considered “greater” or more perfect than a god who is not so limited, because such a being is morally superior.37 Thus the absence of a limitation may, in some circumstances, provide a “being” who is less worthy of worship, not quite as “great,” as a God who is limited by loving, interpersonal relationships.
In addition, God the Creator is conditioned in Mormon thought in a way that God in classical theology is not. As a result of the rejection of the nonbiblical doctrine of creation out of absolute nothing (creatio ex nihilo), the Mormon God is conditioned by an eternal natural environment of space-time and an eternal social environment of eternal intelligences. For example, God in Mormon thought could not have a universe without other entities, whereas the God of classical theology could have a universe without any beings other than himself at all.38
I want to make two salient points regarding these limitations on the divine sovereignty. First, it is often assumed that such limitations are inconsistent with the biblical view. However, this assumption can be justified only by reading into the Bible postbiblical developments regarding the notion of creatio ex nihilo. Very strong arguments have been made demonstrating that the biblical doctrine of creation includes organization of a “chaos” which existed before God’s creative activities.39 Thus, while the philosophical assumption that God is absolutely unlimited may require creation out of nothing, that is not the biblical view.
Second, creation by organizing chaos is not inconsistent with a coherent notion of omnipotence. I am not aware of any concept of divine omnipotence that is logically consistent but that would preclude God’s creating by organizing chaos. Definitions of omnipotence must qualify the absolutist understanding of divine power by two conditions in addition to power to bring about any state of affairs that is logically possible: (1) God cannot do or bring about anything inconsistent with his essential attributes; and (2) God cannot bring about any state of affairs inconsistent with what has already happened.40 However, because it is logically possible that the world has always existed (“world” means everything that exists distinct from God in this context), it follows that God need not be able to change the fact that the world has always existed to be considered omnipotent. Thus God is omnipotent in Mormon thought when the concept is carefully articulated.41 God’s power in Mormon thought is “maximal” and supreme. No individual being can exercise the kind of power as the divine persons acting as one agency, for they act on a level of reality different from mere individuals. No being who exercises power in the context of the actual world could possibly exercise greater or more power than the Godhead as conceived in Mormon thought.
Both Robinson and Blomberg object to the view that God changes. However, since both repeatedly claim that God changes in some respects, further clarification is needed. Here, a distinction between the Godhead and individual divine persons is essential to allow a coherent discussion. Latter-day Saints can and should agree that the Godhead does not change with respect to the essential attributes of godhood. The set of essential properties to be considered divine does not change; the attributes of godhood are therefore immutable.42 In this sense, God is absolutely unchanging. However, it does not follow that the individual divine persons therefore do not change with respect to possession of the properties of godhood. If the Word was God and became human at some point in time, then certainly it is appropriate to refer to God as “changeable,” at least in the sense of “God” that refers to the divine persons. In fact, it would be hard to conceive of a greater change within the realm of logical possibility. Although God, used in the sense of the Godhead, is always the same God, always unchangeable in divine power, knowledge, and goodness, the same is not true of the individual divine persons who can change by condescending to empty themselves of their ability to exercise the divine power and knowledge and taking on themselves all the essential limitations to which humans are heir. Even in evangelical thought, the Son of God changed radically by taking on himself a human nature—a nature that Blomberg admits was not present in the Godhead before the incarnation. Would Blomberg argue that God is therefore “finite” as conceived by evangelicals?
Nevertheless, I agree with Robinson that referring to the Mormon God as “finite” can be misleading if not carefully defined and does not do justice to the majesty and glory of God described in scripture. It has all the wrong associations and cultural baggage. The God who created the universe by bringing a cosmos out of chaos and who sustains its order and natural laws should not be referred to as “limited in power.” The God who knows the chemical makeup of every molecule and the atomic weight of every atom on every one of the infinite number of stars in the vastness of infinite space and yet knows the intimate thoughts of our hearts should not be referred to as “limited in knowledge.” Surely such a being has knowledge and power so vast and great that we cannot comprehend it. Referring to God as “finite” simply does not do justice to the awe and worship that is proper toward God. I agree with Robinson that we should not speak of a finite God. Mormon philosophers, including myself, have not been as sensitive as we ought to have been about the connotative power of the word finite instead of merely insisting on its denotative meaning. I now reject the term finite as adequate to express the Latter-day Saint view of God. I prefer a phrase such as maximally great to describe God, rather than absolute or finite.
Still, it is important to keep straight that when Latter-day Saints use terms such as omnipotent, omniscient, eternal, and omnipresent, they mean something different than the same terms in classical theology. Indeed, these same terms mean something different for Arminians than for Calvinists. Robinson acknowledges this with respect to terms such as finite, changing, and limited, but seems to insist that the “omni” attributes are somehow univocal for both Mormons and evangelicals. This position can only lead to confusion and further charges that Latter-day Saints are somehow not being up-front.
Blomberg on God
Blomberg admits that God is not “eternal,” “changeless,” or “omniscient” in the sense most often used by Calvinists and other classical theologians. He says that God is omniscient, but he also teaches, correctly in my view, that in the incarnation God learned something genuinely new in the sense that he gained experiential knowledge of what it is to be human—a knowledge that he lacked before the incarnation. As Blomberg asserts:
There is a kind of perfection that comes only through experience. Prior to the incarnation, no member of the Godhead had ever experienced the limitations of a bodily nature; therefore, Jesus truly had to grow and had to learn what it was like to be human. We acknowledge that the early Church, with its infusion of Greek and Roman ideas, at times lost sight of the more “dynamic” concept of God that the Hebrews had bequeathed to Christianity (p. 103, emphasis added).
One cannot avoid the conclusion that although God was “omniscient,” there was knowledge that the Godhead and individual divine persons did not possess before the incarnation, and could not possess because such knowledge can only be gained by experience. In addition, one cannot avoid the implication that God (both as a Trinity and as a divine person) changed at the time of the incarnation and that God is therefore temporal and not timeless as the classical tradition would have it. I think that what Blomberg has to say here is a genuine insight and very valuable for our contemplations about God—for both Mormons and evangelicals.
This all makes perfect sense in interpreting what the scriptures say about the humanity and divinity of Jesus. But if Blomberg is right, then God’s intrinsic properties underwent change through the incarnation. Thus God is not changeless or immutable in the classical sense that none of his intrinsic properties can change. Further, God is not eternal in the sense of “timelessness,” lacking all temporal succession, for there was a time before God had this experiential knowledge and a time after he gained it. Blomberg is careful to explain that when he speaks of God as changeless, he means that God is faithful in keeping his word. It does not mean that “God cannot be affected by our prayers or that the nature of events in this world cannot genuinely change as a result of those prayers” (p. 102, emphasis added). Blomberg also rejects the Augustinian/Thomistic doctrine of impassibility, or the doctrine that nothing acts upon God so that all causal influences proceed away from God as First Cause and never toward God: “Most Evangelicals agree that the old Greek and Latin emphases on ‘impassibility’ led to misconceptions about God’s not having emotions” (p. 103).
But can Blomberg consistently maintain that God was omniscient before the incarnation if he lacked experiential knowledge? Sure he can, if omniscience is understood as “knowledge of all things that it is possible for a being having the attributes of God to know at the time in question.” Because “God’s” attributes entail that each of the three divine persons exist in indwelling unity of intimate love, it is impossible for God to experience alienation, isolation, abandonment, rejection, and loneliness qua Godhead. This knowledge could be gained only by leaving aside the unity and experiencing the alienation inherent in mortality. This definition is analogous to definitions of omnipotence that recognize that God is not able to do absolutely anything, such as create a perfectly round square, but only what it is logically possible for a being having God’s attributes to do at the time in question.43
All this shows that it is impossible to carry on a conversation among Mormons and evangelicals without engaging in some “philosophical precision” and theology. Without being careful about how we use the same terms coming from different theological traditions, we merely speak past each other. Further, without accepting some common standard of logic and what counts as a reasonable position, we have no way of assessing the various assertions made. It seems to me that philosophical precision is not the problem Robinson makes it out to be.44 Care and accuracy in discussion are virtues, not vices. The problem comes when devotion to prior philosophical paradigms or religious dogmas blocks acceptance of new revelation or leads to the commitment to two incompatible traditions of religious beliefs.
It is hard to wed the dynamic and living God of Hebrew thought with the static and impersonal absolute of Greek philosophy as classical Christians have attempted to do. But Blomberg admits as much (see p. 103). Unfortunately, the creeds to which Blomberg seems committed (despite their less-authoritative status) assume the absolutist paradigms of Greek philosophy. The two-nature theory of Christ that Blomberg promotes is a result of attempts to explain how God can be impassible, immutable, timeless, and omniscient in the absolutist sense that Blomberg obviously rejects. Why stick with the solution if you solve the problem by rejecting the assumptions from Greek philosophy, particularly Middle Platonism, that created the problem in the first place? By rejecting the absolutist metaphysic that creedal Christianity inherited from Greek philosophy and fully embracing the personal and dynamic God of Hebrew revelation, Mormonism has avoided the logical problem created by embracing two diametrically opposed views.
Blomberg on the Incarnation
I thought that Blomberg’s statements regarding the incarnation and the trinity were intelligent. However, Blomberg’s acceptance of the so-called “incommunicable” attributes of God leads to an incoherent view of the fully human and fully divine Jesus Christ. Blomberg maintains that the so-called metaphysical attributes of God (show me that term in the Bible!) are not communicable to humans, including omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, eternality (uncreated), and immateriality (see p. 96). He adds that God alone is “uncaused Being” and “alone is worthy of worship” (p. 97).
The logical problem that this creates for Christology (the explanation of how Jesus is both God and man) is easily defined: the essential properties of “God” appear to be incompatible with the essential properties of humans. The most basic law of logic, the law of noncontradiction, is thus to be violated by Blomberg’s assertion that Jesus was both fully God, and thus Creator, and also fully human and thus creature. The law of noncontradiction asserts that no thing can be characterized simultaneously by a property and its complement (negation) in the same respects—or the claim that the thing both has and does not have the property in question. For example, it is not possible for a thing to be both red and also noncolored at the same time, or both taller and shorter than Socrates in the same respects. Now let’s list the metaphysical attributes of God and those of humans:
|Essential Attributes of God||Essential Properties of Humans|
|1.Uncaused Being or ontologically necessary 2. Incorporeal (immaterial) 3. Omniscient 4. Omnipotent 5. Omnipresent||1′. Created or ontologically contingent 2′. Corporeal (material) 3′. Not omniscient 4′. Not omnipotent 5′. Not omnipresent|
To allow this discussion to proceed, some clarifications are necessary. A nonessential property is one that a thing can fail to have and still be what it is. For example, a dog could fail to have the property of “having hair” (say, for example, it gets shaved bald) and still be a dog; but it couldn’t fail to have canine chromosomes and still be a dog. “Having canine chromosomes” is thus an essential property a thing must have in order to be a dog and “having hair” is a nonessential property. A nature of a kind includes all those properties essential for anything to be a member of a kind. Thus all reptiles are cold-blooded. If an animal does not have the property of being cold-blooded, then it does not belong to the natural kind reptile.
Blomberg’s Christology is incoherent because it asserts both that Christ was very God, having essential properties 1 through 5, and also that Christ was fully human, thus having the complements of these properties 1′ through 5′. The problem is that Blomberg implicitly asserts that the properties of divinity are incompatible with being human and vice versa—they are not compossibly exemplified in the same individual—for they are “incommunicable” to humans. If properties 1 through 5 are essential properties belonging to the kind deity or divine person or God, and if properties 1′ through 5′ are essential to the kind human, then the law of noncontradiction is clearly violated. It is no wonder that John Hick regards the doctrine that Christ was both “very God and very man” to be as “devoid of meaning as to say that a circle . . . is also a square.”45 Certainly Christians hope for more than a central and defining belief that either cannot be given any meaning or that, when carefully elucidated, can be shown to be positively incoherent.
Blomberg asserts that: “If Christ was ever less than fully God (even when he assumed a human nature), then he is by definition not the kind of infinite deity necessary to atone for sins” (pp. 117–18). But if Jesus was not omniscient, omnipotent, and immaterial even while lying in the manger, then how can he be simultaneously fully God? It is clear that Blomberg accepts the traditional response to this question: he accepts the two-nature theory of Christology promulgated in the Chalcedonian creed in 451 A.D. (see p. 112). Blomberg claims: “We do not argue that Jesus was simultaneously incarnate and omnipresent. Instead, we claim that there was more to God than Jesus. . . . Jesus had a fully divine nature, inseparable from the Father’s divine and essentially immaterial nature” (p. 99). No one disputes that there is more to the Godhead than Jesus (for there are also the Father and Holy Ghost); the problem is that Blomberg has not set it forth it accurately. Jesus does not fully embody even God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, in this view. Just what is claimed in the two-nature theory of Christology that is the mainstay of Catholic/Protestant thought? This theory asserts the following: (1) “Christ” is identified with a single person; (2) this single person possessed both fully human and fully divine natures; and (3) these two natures are simultaneously present in one person.46
The concepts promulgated in the Chalcedonian creed are very difficult to convey to the modern layman, including concepts of ousia or substance, phusis or nature, and an extremely equivocal notion of hypostasis or person. However, I take the term homoousious (“of the same substance”) to refer to possession of the essential, generic properties held in common between two entities that belong to the same kind—that is, sharing the same nature. The Father and the Son are said to be homoousious or to share the same divine nature. I take the term ousia or substance in the affirmation that Christ is “of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead . . . [and] of one substance with us as regards his manhood” to mean that Christ has all the essential properties both of God and of humans.
So how is this supposed to solve the problem? Christ is supposed to be omniscient, omnipotent, and so forth, only in his divine nature as God, and supposed, on the other hand, to be nonomniscient, nonomnipotent and so forth, only in his human nature as man. But how can both of these logically incompatible natures be contained in the babe lying in the manger? The divine nature of God the Son is also “in heaven” so to speak, while Jesus is on earth. Doesn’t that give us two separate entities, one divine and one human, and not one person as asserted at Chalcedon? Well, supposedly not, because that is the Nestorian heresy that divides the person of Christ into two separate beings. The Council of Chalcedon rejected that view. The divine nature is not separate from the human nature—at least, that is what Chalcedon asserted. The divine nature contains the human nature, but the human nature does not fully contain the divine nature. Further, a thing can have a property and its negation if it has them in different respects. For example, as a mortal I can die; as an immortal spirit I cannot die. The logic of Chalcedon is supposed to work in an analogous way: as God, Christ is omniscient, omnipotent, immaterial, and so forth, and as human, Christ is not omniscient, omnipotent, incarnate, and so forth.47
However, this strategy will not work if the property is possessed by the entire person rather than just by some aspect of that person. For example, as a Caucasian I am light skinned but dark haired. I am thus both light and dark, but in different respects. It would be a contradiction only if I were said to be light and dark in the same respects, or with respect to my entire person. However, I am a human being with respect to my entire person and not just in some aspect of my person. It is thus inconsistent to say that I am a human being but I also have a property that no human being can have, such as being uncreated. The two-nature theory is ultimately incoherent because the entire person of Christ is essentially uncreated (ontologically necessary) as God whereas humans are necessarily created (ontologically contingent)—at least in Blomberg’s view.48 Blomberg’s Christology thus implicitly violates the law of noncontradiction. Nothing can be both created and uncreated in the same respects.
Further, the two-nature theory contradicts both the Bible and common sense because it multiplies entities to make sense of the incompatible “natures.” The title Christos in the Chalcedonian creed is used as a personal name for the individual “person” who is both human and divine. However, this individual “person” cannot be identical to the historical Jesus of Nazareth. An object x is identical to an object y only if every property possessed by x is also possessed by y and vice versa.49 But clearly the “person” Christ referred to in the creed is not identical to the human “person” known as Jesus, because the Christ of the creed possesses a range of properties not possessed by Jesus of Nazareth, that is, all those properties 1 through 5 possessed essentially by God but not by any human being. Further, the “person” of Christ referred to in the creed is not identical with God the Son, the second “person” of the Trinity, because this creedal Christ possesses properties 1′ through 5′, which are possessed by humans but not by divine persons. The “person” referred to in the two-nature theory must therefore be understood as yet a third “person” that is not identical to either the person Jesus or the second “person” of the Trinity, the Son. Rather, the “person” spoken of in the creeds includes both of these “persons,” a human person identical with Jesus and a divine person identical with “the Son,” the second person of the Trinity. In conclusion, there is a “person” Jesus, a “person” who is the second person of the Trinity, and a third “person” who includes both of these other “persons.”
Numerous problems arise with this theory. Because humanity is logically incompatible with divinity in this view, it is not possible for them to exist within the same person. Second, these ideas are not scriptural and indeed contradict the scriptures. Accordingly, one could not assert, as the New Testament does, that when a person spoke with God the Son, he was speaking to Jesus. The two-nature theory contradicts the Christian claim that “Jesus is God,” for Jesus was not identical to the divine nature and could not be divine. But if “the Word was God” (see John 1:1), and ‘the Word was made flesh” (see John 1:14) as Jesus of Nazareth, then how can we avoid the conclusion that Jesus was identical to the divine Word in all his essential properties as an individual? Most importantly, the creed affirms that it was not the divine nature of Christ that suffered in the atonement, but solely the human nature. According to this theory, the divine nature was never made flesh. The divine nature never died. The divine nature did not learn from the things it suffered. Following Blomberg’s logic, the atonement could not be accomplished because it was not wrought by the divine nature (see p. 118).
By now it should be clear why Latter-day Saints reject the creedal two-nature Christology: it is unbiblical and contradictory. Nowhere does the Bible assert that the Son, the second person of the Godhead, the divine Word, remained a separate and distinct nature from Jesus’ humanity. It says that the Word was God and that the Word became flesh as Jesus of Nazareth. The two-nature theory of Christology adopted by Blomberg is a concoction brewed by people who had imbibed too much Middle Platonism.50
Robinson’s Implicit Christology
Robinson does not elucidate a Christology. He simply asserts that “if the divine can become fully human and then as human be raised up again to be fully God (Phil 2:6—11), then it is established that what is fully human may also be divine” (p. 83). Because in Mormon thought humans and divine persons are of the same kind, the same species, it is no contradiction to think of divinity as fully mature humanity. Nevertheless, it is clear from Robinson’s assumptions about divinity arising from complete unity that he has constructed an implicit kenotic Christology. This view takes its name from the Greek word kenosis, which means “emptiness.” The term appears only in Philippians 2:6—11, cited by Robinson. It reports that Christ “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself [the Greek verb here is a form of the word kenosis], taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (RSV). The notion is that the preexistent Christ emptied himself of divine properties to become like humans.
The notion of the preexistent Christ throughout the gospel of John also assumes this view. For example, in John 17:4—5 Jesus prays: “I glorified thee on the earth, having accomplished the work which thou gavest me to do; and now, Father, glorify thou me in thy own presence with the glory which I had with thee before the world was made” (RSV). Stephen T. Davis points out that at least three claims are implicit in this scripture: (1) “Jesus Christ once had divine glory and complete oneness with the Father” before the world existed; (2) during his mortal ministry Jesus “did not possess the fullness of divine glory”; and (3) Jesus anticipated regaining the full unity and glory that he once had with the Father.51 Exactly these same claims are made in the Doctrine and Covenants: “And thus he was called the Son of God, because he received not of the fulness at the first. . . . And I, John, bear record that he received a fulness of the glory of the Father; And he received all power, both in heaven and on earth, and the glory of the Father was with him, for he dwelt in him” (D&C 93:14, 16—17).
Robinson’s Christology thus follows from the recognition that divinity arises from the indwelling unity of the divine persons. It follows that if the divine unity of the Godhead is voluntarily severed, as occurred when Christ voluntarily “condescended” to become human, then Christ no longer possesses the properties of divinity that arise only from being in this relationship. Thus Christ “emptied himself” of his divinity and became human. However, he regained his divine glory by perfectly doing the will of the Father, became one with him again, and was exalted to divinity. Humans become divine in the same way that Christ did—by becoming one with the Father. Moreover, Mormon scriptures take Christ more seriously as a revealer of both human and divine nature than does the two-nature Christology. Jesus Christ revealed to us the divine nature by being made flesh and by being glorified by the Father as a resurrected being. But he also reveals the true human nature and its divine origin and potential. Rather than trying to unify two disparate natures, Christ has demonstrated that human nature can be glorified and made divine. Doctrine and Covenants 93 makes the deification of humans exactly parallel to Christ’s, so that we may share fully as heirs of all that Christ is just as he shared fully in all that we are as humans:
|The Son||Human Beings|
|I was in the beginning with the Father (D&C 93:21).||Ye were also in the beginning with the Father (D&C 93:23).|
|I . . . am the Firstborn (D&C 93:21).||All those who are begotten through me are partakers of the glory of [the Firstborn], and are the church of the Firstborn. (D&C 93:22).|
|And he received not of the fulness at first, but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fulness (D&C 93:13).||If you keep my commandments you shall receive of his fulness, and be glorified in me as I am in the Father; . . . You shall receive grace for grace (D&C 93:20).|
|[I] received a fulness of the glory of the Father (D&C 93:16).||You may come unto the Father in my name and in due time receive of his fulness (D&C 93:19).|
|He received a fulness of truth, yea, even all truth (D&C 93:26).||He that keepeth his commandments receiveth truth and light, until he is glorified in truth and knoweth all things (D&C 93:28).|
|He received all power, both in heaven and on earth (D&C 93:17).||[Those who are ordained possess] all things; for all things are subject unto him (D&C 50:27).|
Robinson is thus quite correct to base his view of deity on the indwelling unity of the Godhead for both Christ and humans. His view seems to me compatible with the primary thrust of the Mormon scriptures on this point. The kenotic view can be coherent only if human beings can be uncreated like God the Son; for if it is an essential property of humans to be ontologically contingent or created, then it would be inconsistent to say that the divine Word was made fully human in Jesus of Nazareth. If humans must be ontologically contingent, as Blomberg asserts, then contradictory properties would be asserted of the same person. There is thus a logical consistency demonstrated in the revelation presented in Doctrine and Covenants 93, which states that humans are uncreated: “Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be” (D&C 93:29). This Christology is not only logically consistent, it is fully scriptural.
However, Blomberg raises a serious problem with kenotic Christology. If Jesus was not divine at the time of atonement, then it seems that the atonement could not be effected; for no mere human could atone for the sins of others (see p. 117—18). Unlike Robinson, I believe that Blomberg has a point here, for the scriptures affirm that only a divine being can atone for the sins of others. Robinson believes that the scriptures show that Christ, as a mortal, accomplished the atonement, so it must be possible. Robinson claims, “it was clearly the mortal Jesus Christ, in his subordinate state (or ‘lower position’ or ‘state of humiliation’) before his ascension and glorification, who suffered for us, bled for us, atoned for us, redeemed us, and died for us” (p. 131). However, I don’t think that Robinson has fully appreciated the implications of his own position, for he correctly affirms that Mormon scriptures also insist that only a Christ who is “fully God” could accomplish the atonement (pp. 134—35; see Mosiah 15:1—5; Alma 34:9—14; 42:23—25). The logic of his own position entails that Jesus is not divine unless he is one “in” the Father. Therefore, Robinson is logically stuck with the view that Jesus was one “in” the Father at the time of atonement. However, as a human who shares our alienation and separation from the Father, it would appear that Robinson’s implicit Christology logically entails that Jesus was human and not divine at the time of effecting the atonement. Robinson needs an explanation of how the mortal Jesus was fully one in the Father and divine at that time—but he offers none.
I want to suggest here at least two possible responses to Blomberg’s challenge. First, Latter-day Saint scripture emphasizes that Christ must be morally perfect to atone for the sins of others (see Alma 34:9–17; 42). Christ was a perfect sacrifice because he freely remained without sin—he was morally perfect. Thus perhaps the only divine property that had to be fully actual and manifest in the person of Jesus to effect the atonement was moral perfection. The other essential properties of divinity, such as omnipotence, omniscience, and so forth, need not be fully actual, but only potentially possessed, for purposes of accomplishing the atonement. Thus the essential divine property relevant to atonement is not possession of omnipotence per se, but omnipotent-unless-voluntarily-emptied; not omniscience per se, but omniscient-unless-voluntarily-emptied, and so forth.52 Of course, some of the so-called essential properties of divinity listed by Blomberg would be rejected by Latter-day Saints. It is not essential that the Son be incorporeal to be divine. Further, Mormons would reject as essential to humans the property of having been created, in their essence, or of being ontologically contingent. Being created or being uncreated are not properties that can be “emptied” or set aside temporarily. Thus in kenosis Christ emptied himself of those divine properties that are not possibly exemplified at the same time with human nature and he retained those which are. However, in so emptying himself he retained all properties essential to be fully God. He was thus “fully God and fully human” at the time of atonement. For Mormonism, humanity and deity are not incompatible.
Second, one could maintain that at the time the atonement was accomplished in the garden, the Father gave Jesus that glory he possessed with the Father before the world was, as reflected in the High Priestly Prayer of John 17. At the beginning of the prayer, Christ prays: “O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was” (John 17:5). At the end of the prayer, Christ recognizes that God had in fact already glorified him by being in him and becoming one with him: “Father, I will that they also, whom thou has given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24, emphasis added). Thus during the prayer in Gethsemane, Christ was glorified with the glory of the Father and became fully divine, for he dwelt in him. His prayer for complete unity was answered. Therefore, at the time the atonement was accomplished, Jesus had all the properties of divinity, including a relationship of indwelling unity. These are only two scriptural possibilities to respond to the problem raised by Blomberg.
Blomberg and Robinson on the Trinity
Blomberg does not present his notion of the Trinity succinctly enough to permit a clear idea of just how close the Father and Son are in the Godhead. However, he clearly prefers a view which, he believes, retains something like Hebrew monotheism as much as possible while also keeping the distinction between the Father and the Son (see pp. 123—24). He is emphatic that Latter-day Saints have separated the Father and the Son too much to meet this requirement, by giving each of them a glorified body (see p. 121). However, it seems to me that the Father and the Son are more radically separated in Blomberg’s view than he appears willing to admit. Consider that the Son, in Blomberg’s view, possesses a disparate human nature that is not possessed by the Father. The Son took on himself flesh, but God the Father is somehow “essentially immaterial” and thus could not take on himself a material body (p. 99). The Son has gained experiential knowledge personally while the Father cannot have such first-person experiential knowledge. The Son is functionally subordinate to the Father. The Son “issues” from the Father, but the Father is essentially unoriginated and uncaused. In Blomberg’s view, the Son thus has a nature and capacities that the Father not only lacks, but can never have. How is this supposed to maintain an identity between Father and Son compatible with Hebrew monotheism?
Moreover, I doubt that any person who accepts the Trinity, at least one who is not also a modalist (one divine being manifest in three modes), can in integrity claim to be a monotheist as understood by the Hebrew prophets. For the Hebrew prophets there was a single divine person, Yahweh, not three—at least so far as we can discern from the Bible alone. Moreover, this one divine person was thought to be a person in the fullest sense of the word as an intelligent, purposive center of consciousness having a distinct cognitive and conative personality. The Hebrews did not use the term persona as it was used in the Latin Church to mean a mere mask or different roles played by the same person.53 Nor did they acknowledge distinct persons within the one God. The claim to be a monotheist in this sense and also to accept the Trinity as elucidated in the creeds is logically impossible. Consider the following:
- There is only one divine person, Yahweh.
- The Father is a divine person.
- The Son is a divine person.
- The Father is not identical to the Son.
The acceptance of any three of these premises entails the denial of the fourth. If only one divine person exists, and the Father is a divine person and the Son is a divine person, then the Father and the Son must be identical to each other and to Yahweh—but this option leads to the heresy of modalism. Then the Son and the Father would be merely different names or modes of the one divine person Yahweh. On the other hand, if the Father is a divine person and the Son is a divine person, and the Father is not identical to the Son, then more than one divine person exists. However, the acceptance of more than one divine person entails the rejection of Hebrew monotheism, which accepts only one divine person. Alternatively, if only one divine person exists, and the Father is a divine person, and the Father is not identical to the Son, then the Son cannot be a divine person. No Christian who accepts the Trinity could accept that.
Unless we try to read the doctrine of the Trinity back into the Hebrew texts (where, in my opinion, it is clearly not found), we simply equivocate and mislead when we refer to the “one God” of Hebrew monotheism as the “one God” of the Trinity.54 Moreover, the same is true even of the references to the “one God” in the New Testament—the doctrine of the Trinity as defined in the later creeds simply does not appear there unless it is read back into Bible by forcing the text with later assumptions. At this point the assumption of the doctrinal unity of all scripture assumed by inerrancy looms large. It seems to me that Blomberg reads the text with this assumption in mind and thus requires the Hebrew prophets to say something consistent not only with the New Testament, but also with later creedal pronouncements that supposedly “merely summarize” biblical beliefs. However, I believe we should allow the Hebrew prophets, such as Isaiah, a different understanding from John or Paul, perhaps an understanding that cannot be reconciled without comprehending that we are dealing with two disparate worlds of thought. The “one God” of the Jewish shema is not the “one God” of the creedal Trinity.
How did the earliest Christians converted from Judiasm resolve the tension between Jewish monotheistic commitments and acceptance of Jesus as Lord, a divine person separate from the Father? In One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism,55 Larry Hurtado concluded that the earliest Christians appropriated the Jewish notion of divine agency to resolve the tension. He finds evidence of the “divine agent” theme in a number of New Testament texts (see Acts 2:33—36; Romans 1:1—4; 1 Corinthians 8:1—6; 15:20—28; 1 Thessalonians 1:9—10; and Philippians 2:5—11) and concludes that these texts demonstrate that:
(1) Jesus is exalted to a particular position, second only [in authority] to the one God [the Father]. (2) In this position, he acts by divinely granted authority and as God’s principal agent in the execution of God’s will. (3) He is directly associated with the one God and likened to him in certain ways (e.g., he is given the “name above every name”). . . . The Christian conception of the exaltation of Christ shows a concern for the uniqueness and supremacy of the one God, just as we found in the Jewish evidence dealing with chief agents.56
This evidence shows that in the Pauline texts, Christ was not the “one God,” but the chief agent of the one God, the Father. Monotheism was preserved by recognizing the Father as the one God of Jewish devotion and Christ as the Son who does the Father’s will, is sent by the Father, is given the name above all names by the Father, gives all glory to the Father, and acts at the Father’s request. In Paul we see a clear distinction between the persons of the Father and the Son. We also note a thoroughgoing subordination of the Son to the Father. Nevertheless, titles and devotion previously reserved for deity are given to Christ. Blomberg is correct: The experience with and of Jesus shattered previous categories and required rethinking the notion of divinity (see p. 115).
Cornelius Plantinga Jr. likewise reviewed the “Trinitarian” texts in Paul’s letters and reached a similar conclusion. Plantinga explains:
We have in Paul one God, one Lord, and one Spirit. I might add that Paul’s habit of reserving the designator God for the Father, and indicating the divinity of the Son and Spirit in ways usually other than calling them God straight out, is typical of the New Testament generally. This habit, combined with biblical characterizations of the Father as generator and sender, lies behind a Christian trinitarian tradition, especially pronounced in the Greek East, of regarding the Father as God proper, as the source or font of the divinity of Son and Spirit. The latter two may be fully divine, but they are derivatively so.57
Plantinga notes that the Gospel of John and the epistles of John and Hebrews are the other primary sources of the notion of threeness/oneness in the New Testament. He argues convincingly that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are united in “will, work, word, and knowledge among them, and by their reciprocal love and glorifying. These same six phenomena both distinguish the three persons and also unite them, typically by a functional subordination relation that obtains among the three.”58 In John, the Father sends the Son who does not his own will, but the will of the Father who sends him. Though the Son has a will of his own, he subordinates it to his Father’s, who is greater than he. In turn, the Son sends the Paraclete or Holy Ghost to his disciples as his agent to comfort them after he leaves. The Spirit is thus subordinated to the Father and the Son. Plantinga concludes:
Yet this very superordination and subordination of wills that distinguish the three persons also unite them. For in fact only one divine will is expressed—that of the Father who sends the Son and who, with the Son, sends the Paraclete. The sending idea itself, given the sali(a)h [“called and sent by Yahweh as prophet”] tradition of the Old Testament and rabbinic Judaism, suggests both that “the one who sends is greater than the one sent” and also that the one sent is an almost perfect duplicate or representative of the sender.59
Nevertheless, we must never lose sight of the fact that in John the Son is equally divine with the Father. If the Father is “the only true God,” the Son is also “God” (theos; John 1:1 and 17:3). The Son is primordially united as one “in” the Father. The Son enjoyed the fulness of glory of the Father before the world was—a fulness which he temporarily set aside to become flesh. Their unity is so profound that the Father and Son are “in” each other. However, as Robinson correctly points out, this unity does not obliterate the distinct persons of the Father and the Son, for the disciples are also to be one with the Son and each other just as the Father and the Son are one “in” one another.
Blomberg insists that Latter-day Saints have gone too far: “Historic Christianity has always insisted on balancing Christ’s functional subordination with his ontological equality. In other words, in the very essence of Christ’s being he is eternally equal with God, even if in playing certain roles he voluntarily submits himself to his Father” (p. 117). This type of talk is vague. I’m not sure what Blomberg means by “historic Christianity,” but if it includes the earliest Christians who wrote the New Testament, then his insistence on “ontological equality” seems to me misdirected. I cannot find that word or even the concept anywhere in my Bible. “Ontology” is the category of Greek philosophy par excellence which defines necessary and contingent existence. If Blomberg merely means to assert that the Father and the Son have the same type of existence ontologically, so that both have always existed of some type of logical or factual necessity, then Latter-day Saints have little to disagree with even if such concepts are entirely foreign to the biblical writers. It is standard Mormon doctrine that both the Father and the Son have always existed as individuals and could not fail to exist. In this sense, both the Father and the Son have ontologically necessary existence in Mormon thought.
Clearly, Blomberg cannot mean to assert that the Father and the Son have always existed as the same divine person or merely different roles of Yahweh, despite his talk about being equal (“identical”?) to one another or “playing roles” of the same God, for this view would amount to modalism—which Blomberg clearly rejects.60 If Blomberg intends to assert merely that Christ is equally God with the Father in the sense that both possess all properties essential to be considered divine, then Latter-day Saints can happily embrace this claim regarding “ontological equality.” Latter-day Saints can agree with the traditional claim that the Father and the Son have the “same essence”—in the sense that they both have all essential properties of godhood. But since Blomberg rejects the Mormon view, that cannot be what he means. It appears, therefore, that Blomberg means something more. But if Blomberg objects to the notion that Christ is subordinate in the sense that he is divine in dependence on his relation to the Father, then Blomberg can only mean that Christ is not dependent on his relation to the Father for his divinity. What is left except the assertion that Christ would be divine ontologically independent of the Father?61 Not only is this doctrine contrary to the New Testament, but it is also incoherent. When theologians begin to use the language of Greek philosophy, especially in regard to ontology, they often fail to see that they import notions of isolated ontological independence (represented prominently by the classical doctrine of aseity) that are foreign to the scriptural understanding of God. Robinson is correct to assert that the Gospel of John and the writings of Paul teach that Christ is God only in relation to the Father, for it is this relation of unity that gives rise to the divine love and life. God is essentially love, and in the absence of such love the very concept of God has no meaning in Christianity. Robinson is correct to point out that Blomberg’s insistence on ontological equality in this sense is driven not by the biblical record, but by Greek notions of perfection which insist that every divine property is identical to the divine essence (the doctrine of simplicity).62 Further, an insistence on such ontological independence is inconsistent with the doctrine of divine “oneness of being” that Blomberg elucidates, for it entails that two divine persons could exist who are ontologically independent of one another. Finally, the view that Christ is ontologically independent is inconsistent even with Chalcedon’s creedal formulae that “Christ issued from” or that the Son is “eternally begotten by the Father,” certainly pointing to some kind of relation of ontological dependence of the Son on the Father.63
A growing number of Christians in the traditional Protestant camp have avoided the assertion that the three divine persons are one Being in a metaphysical sense because such assertions are hopelessly ambiguous, unbiblical, and often incoherent when fully fleshed out. Instead of emphasizing a metaphysical unity, such that three beings are the same identical Being (a view that is demonstrably incoherent and unbiblical), they have adopted a “Social Trinity,” which views the Godhead as three metaphysically distinct persons, having three separate centers of consciousness and will, and who are interpersonal in the fullest sense of the word as one social unity. These Christians have adopted this view because it is more faithful to the biblical documents and logically coherent (pretty strong reasons in my view).64 In addition, it seems impossible to make sense of the fact that God the Son has properties that the Father does not have by virtue of the incarnation if one accepts Blomberg’s view of the Trinity as three beings who are metaphysically “the very same Being.”65 The Mormon view of three persons as one Godhead is identical to the Social Trinity with the exception that the individual divine persons are individuated, in addition, by having separate corporeal existence. However, for those many Christians in the traditional camp who believe that Christ retains his resurrected body, even this distinction is not as significant as it might at first seem. Evangelicals would do well to adopt Social Trinitarianism in light of their emphasis on biblical fidelity.
Latter-day Saints have been quick to emphasize that the Father and the Son are two distinct persons, having different bodies that are spatially separated. In my experience, they are not as quick to recognize the indwelling unity of divine persons. Greater balance is necessary here. The fact that the mortal or resurrected Christ has a body does not entail that the Father’s spirit does not interpenetrate the Son and vice versa. Latter-day Saints should not forget that the Father and the Son are not merely bodies, but also persons of spirit—which spirit extends to penetrate “in” all things (see D&C 88:6—12). Perhaps Latter-day Saints should not be quite as quick as Robinson to reject the notions of “co-inherence” or “ontological oneness” to describe this indwelling unity (p. 130). While neither word is biblical, the concepts they intend to express are nonetheless accepted in principle by Mormon scriptures in the senses suggested above. Latter-day Saints affirm that the Son possesses all the essential properties of divinity possessed by the Father.
Robinson reiterates that the divine persons are one in the sense that they are one in “mind, purpose, power and intent” (p. 129). This should not be read—as Blomberg appears to do—to mean that the divine persons have the type of unity that members of the same football team can have (see p. 125). It is not enough that they have the same purposes and intent and similar power, for members of a football team have that kind of unity, but they certainly are not divine. Both the Mormon scriptures and the Gospel of John repeatedly claim that the divine persons are actually “in” one another. Something more intimate and intense is needed to express this type of interpenetrating and indwelling unity. In this sense, I agree with Blomberg that we should not reject the notion of coinherence so long as we can reject the creedal categories and cultural baggage that the word carries with it.
The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost somehow share their lives and spiritually extend their presence to interpenetrate one another and thereby become one “in” each other. The unity is so profound that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost have the same mind in the sense that what one wills, the others also will; what one knows, the others also know. Their unity is so complete that only one power governs the universe rather than three, for what one divine person does, they all do as one. There is a single act for any state of affairs brought about by the divine persons acting as one almighty agency. Thus there are distinct divine persons, but hardly separated or independent divine persons. In the divine life we find no alienation, isolation, insulation, secretiveness, or aloneness. The divine persons exist in a unity that includes loving, interpenetrating, and intimate knowledge of another who is also in one’s self. There are many divine persons, but there is only one Lord or governing power of all.66
Robinson’s view that divinity arises from unity of persons suggests an analogy with the relation between separate atoms in a molecule of water. Although three atoms exist, only one molecule is formed. The atoms form a synergy when united as one molecule that leads to emergent properties. The atoms are “in” one another in the sense that they “share” electrons to form a bond. By knowing merely the properties of hydrogen and oxygen separately one could not begin to guess that they would have the properties of water when united as a molecule on a new level of existence. Similarly, one could hardly begin to guess what individuals can become when united as one with the Father. The unity of divine persons entails life on an entirely new level of existence that is very different from this mortal life of separated and alienated existence. While it is appropriate to think of three separate atoms on the atomic level of analysis, it is also appropriate to think of only one thing, one molecule, on the molecular level. Similarly, there is no contradiction in thinking of three distinct, divine persons as constituting one Godhead, just as there is no contradiction in thinking of three atoms but one molecule. Further, when the bond of unity is severed, the emergent properties of water are no longer manifest, just as when the unity of the divine persons is set aside, many of the properties of divinity are possessed potentially but not in actuality. Analyzing divinity on the level of divine persons addresses an entirely different level of reality than addressing the divine unity of the Godhead.
No risk of polytheism as such arises in Mormonism because these divine persons necessarily act, will, think, govern, and save as one agency. Because the divine persons cannot exercise divine omnipotence or omniscience when acting as separated individuals, it logically follows that the divine power and knowledge are necessarily exercised only by the divine persons acting as one agency, one Godhead. There is therefore no risk of divided loyalties or warring factions of so-called tribal gods because there is only one God in the sense that there is only one Father, one sender, one fount of divinity, only one God with whom all other divine persons agree in purpose, power, and will in this sense of God. There is only one divine unity, one governing entity, one divine family of gods, one Godhead, only one God in this sense of God. Mormonism is not polytheistic, nor tritheistic, nor even monotheistic. Just as all prior categories were obliterated by the experience of Christ as Lord and Savior by the earliest Christians, so all these pigeonholes have been shattered by the recognition that humans have been lovingly invited to be one just as the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one.
Mormons and Grace
Blomberg questions whether Robinson’s views regarding grace, works, and salvation are really Mormon beliefs or merely idiosyncracies of Robinson’s peculiar belief system. While he finds little objectionable in Robinson’s statement of grace, he seems to suspect that Robinson is a closet evangelical and that Latter-day Saints are really committed to salvation by works (see p. 182). However, I enthusiastically endorse Robinson’s statement of grace and salvation as a view not merely compatible with Mormon scriptures, but required by them. Some years ago I published a study of the notion(s) of grace in the history of Christian thought and in Mormonism.67 The conclusions I reached regarding grace in Mormon thought (and in Paul) are remarkably similar to those that Robinson teaches. We both concluded that for Latter-day Saints being justified means to enter into a saving covenant relationship with Christ Jesus through grace. No conditions are required to enter the covenant relationship because it is offered in unconditional love—it is a sheer, unmerited gift. Christ already loves us. However, once in the relationship, one must abide by covenant conditions to remain faithful to the relationship (see pp. 145—46).68 I will give three different expressions of how we should conceive of God’s grace in both the Bible and Mormon scriptures in general.
1.The Johannine Model of Grace. John teaches that “we love [God] because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). God’s unconditional love precedes our response; he has already accepted us. We accept God’s unconditional offer of love, of saving grace, by reciprocating love. If we accept God, we love him, and if we love him, we “keep his commandments” (John 14:21—23; 2 John 2:6). If we keep God’s commandments, then we “abide in [his] love” (John 15:10—11; 1 John 3:22—24).69 We “know” God (interpersonally) if we keep his commandments (1 John 2:3). To “know” the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom he sent, is life eternal (see John 17:3). If we keep the commandments, then “the love of God [is] perfected” in us and “we [know] that we are in him” (1 John 2:5). The love of God transforms us into “sons of God,” and when he appears “we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2) because this hope purifies us as He is pure (see 1 John 3:3).
The Johannine expression of grace and salvation focuses on the unconditional divine love that we accept by reciprocating love. However, conditions to “abide in” the relationship require keeping the commandments. Blomberg is uncomfortable with the talk by Robinson and Latter-day Saints in general about keeping the commandments rather than relying on grace alone to complete a once-and-for-all salvation already fully accomplished at the moment of conversion or accepting Christ (see pp. 178—80). However, neither Robinson nor the Latter-day Saints invented this emphasis on keeping the commandments as a condition for abiding in God’s love. It is a part of the Johannine expression of grace.
2.The Pauline Model of Grace. No contradiction between unconditional grace and conditional perseverance exists in the covenant relationship. For example, I love my wife unconditionally, but that does not imply that there are no conditions necessary to maintain my marriage covenants and remain faithful to her. The meaning of faith (Greek pistis, Hebrew ’emundah) in Paul is similar to this “faithful” interpersonal commitment between husband and wife of unconditional love and faithfulness to covenants. Paul expressed entrance into the covenant relationship by the terms justification or to justify (dikaioo and dikaiosyne), which are very difficult to translate but essentially mean to enter into a proper relationship and through the relationship to be “right-wised” or to be made right. Justification for Paul almost always meant to enter into a proper relationship with God the Father through the saving action of Christ Jesus.70 Just as Israel had been elected to the covenant relationship with Yahweh without regard to whether Israel deserved such a relationship, so the covenant relationship was now offered to Christians without any conditions. The covenant relationship was therefore offered as a grace, an unmerited gift, that could not be earned by works. The only condition to entering the relationship was faith in Jesus (see Romans 5:1—2; 11:6).
However, once “in” the relationship, once living “in” Christ, once justified, one was under obligation to keep the “law of the spirit of life in Christ” (Romans 8:2), or “the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2), or Christ’s law (see 1 Corinthians 9:21), or the “law of faith” (Romans 3:27). The law of Moses had been replaced by the law of love given by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, which summarized the Torah in a single command (see James 2:8). The only faith that justified was “faith which worketh by love” (Galatians 5:6, 13). Both Robinson and Blomberg agree that works naturally follow from accepting grace and faith. However, in my view it is inaccurate to assert that works “follow” faith or grace, as if works are a mere afterthought that play no role in our salvation. As James explained, faith without works is dead (see James 2:17). A distinction between faith and works is a false dichotomy—like a body without a spirit (see James 2:26). Acceptance of Christ is to love him, and to love him is to keep his commandments. As James put it, “faith works together with (synergei) deeds and by works faith was made complete and fulfilled (pistis synergei tois ergois kai ek ton ergon he pistis eteleiothe kai eplerothe)” (James 2:22, author’s translation). To have faith is to be faithful. Entrance into the divine relationship as a sheer grace by faith must lead to perseverance in grace and sanctification through grace by continued faithfulness to God’s commands.
Finally, Blomberg appears to acknowledge a contradiction between being saved by grace and being judged by works. In Blomberg’s view, once one is justified by grace one enters into a “process of moral transformation . . . that inevitably leads to perseverance in good works . . . [that are] never adequate to merit eternal life with God in and of themselves” (p. 169, emphasis added). There may be a judgment according to works, but only “the lost will be judged on the basis of works, not by grace” (p. 174). However, those who have been “saved” by grace have a “fully completed salvation by grace through faith alone” (p. 180). Thus judgment by works is only for those who are lost according to Blomberg’s view.
This seems wrong to me. It is important not to read into Paul the contradiction between works and grace seen by Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, as Blomberg seems to do. As E. P. Sanders has convincingly demonstrated, Paul did not perceive a tension between being saved by grace and being judged by works.71 In particular, Paul recognized that persons could “fall from grace” if they rejected Christ by conduct inconsistent with the law of love—conduct injurious to the covenant relationship—such as murder, fornication, or sodomy (see Galatians 5:5—6, 19—21). Though the covenant relationship is entered (i.e., persons are justified) by grace through faith in Christ, all persons nevertheless will be judged according to their works and receive according to their deeds (see 1 Corinthians 3:12—15; 2 Corinthians 5:8—10; Romans 2:6–7). “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” to receive the things done in this life (2 Corinthians 5:10, emphasis added); God will “render to every man according to his deeds” (Romans 2:6). Even if one accepts Christ, one can fall from grace and be “led away with the error of the wicked” (2 Peter 3:17–18). Thus it is not inevitable, if one is once “in Christ,” that one is saved once-and-for-all. Grace does not “inevitably” lead to perseverance in good works. According to Paul, only those who endure “in grace,” or “in the Spirit,” or “in Christ,”—that is, only those who belong to Christ on the Day of the Lord (i.e., the day of judgment)—will be saved (see 1 Thessalonians 5:23; 1 Corinthians 1:8; 16:3; 2 Corinthians 11:3; Philippians 1:27; 2:15; Galatians 6:9).
For Paul, the final result of remaining “in grace” is apotheosis. Christ became human so that we could become as Christ: “For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). As A. N. Williams explains:
What is human destiny? To become God. That, at least, was the belief of the earliest Christians. Such an understanding is evident in the letters of St. Paul (Rom. 8:11; 1 Cor. 15:49; and 2 Cor. 8:9) and the first Christians found it in the pages of the Hebrew Bible (Ps. 82:6, quoted in John 10:34). Above all, the nascent theological tradition pointed to 2 Peter 1:4: “Thus has he given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from corruption that is in the world because of him, and may become participants in divine nature.” As the tradition reflected on these texts, deification became the dominant model of salvation and sanctification in the patristic period, from Ignatius of Antioch to John Damascene, in the West (in the writings of Tertullian and Augustine) as well as in the East.72
3.The Latter-day Saint Model of Grace. Although the earliest statements of grace and salvation in Mormon scripture rely on Paul’s categories of justification and sanctification (see D&C 20:30-34), Mormonism adopted a more dynamic view of grace based on John’s metaphor of growth in the light of Christ. Paul’s view of grace assumed a state of being—being justified, being sanctified, being “in Christ,” being “in grace,” and so forth. In contrast, the Mormon scriptures view grace as a process of growth in Christ’s light. Christ is the light who gives himself to every person (see D&C 88:5—7; 93:2, 9). This light is equated with God’s own governing spirit, power, and knowledge (see D&C 88:7, 11—13). The light of Christ redeems the human will so that persons are free to accept or reject the light, having a knowledge of good and evil (see D&C 93:31—32, 38—39). A person freely enters the saving relationship with God by receiving this divine light: “he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day” (D&C 50:24). The offer of light is a sheer gift, an unmerited grace, which can be freely accepted through faith. Everyone will receive freely precisely that degree of joy and light that he or she is willing to accept:
And they who remain shall also be quickened; nevertheless, they shall return again to their own place, to enjoy that which they are willing to receive, because they were not willing to enjoy that which they might have received. For what doth it profit a man if a gift is bestowed upon him, and he receive not the gift? Behold, he rejoices not in that which is given unto him, neither rejoices in him who is the giver of the gift. (D&C 88:32—33)
Persons must grow from “grace to grace” until they “receive a fulness” (D&C 93:20, 27). Once having entered the relationship by accepting the light freely offered by God as a gift, a person grows in the light by keeping the commandments “until he is glorified in truth and knoweth all things” (D&C 93:28). We will be quickened, or made alive in Christ, by that degree of light that we freely accept as a gift (see D&C 76; 88:28). Moreover, all receive the light in varying degrees and are saved except a small group who openly reject Christ and descend into the depth of darkness (see D&C 76:43). The ultimate goal is to be one with God, for one who receives a fulness of light is one in the Father and the Son just as they are one in each other (see D&C 93:20). Those who receive a fulness of his glory are “gods, even the sons of God” (D&C 76:58). “These are they who are . . . made perfect through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, who wrought out this perfect atonement through the shedding of his own blood” (D&C 76:69). Thus the result of the gracious at-one-ment perfectly accepted by faithfulness is to be at-one “in” God.
Sanctification is thus distinct from justification, which refers to the initial experience of conversion, to entering the saving relationship by grace through faith. Justification is God’s external declaration that we are in a state of being described as “not guilty,” that he accepts us unconditionally as we accept his love by exercising faith in Christ. In contrast, “sanctification” refers to the internal process of restoring or renewing the Christian through divine grace, of growing in the relationship with God, of being made conformed to the image of God, of being made over in Christ’s image through works of love.73 As Doctrine and Covenants 20:31 clearly declares: “We know also, that sanctification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is just and true, to all those who love and serve God with all their mights, minds, and strength.” Whereas we enter the relationship by God’s grace through our faith, we become one with God through Christ’s gracious at-one-ment and the purging of sin from us by the Holy Ghost through our reciprocating love. The clearest statement of sanctification by grace in Latter-day Saint scripture is Moroni 10:32—33.74 In Mormon thought, one finds no “cheap grace,” for the only person who can claim to be saved by grace is the person who gives everything to God-heart, might, mind, and strength. Sanctification consists in participation in the divine nature, to be holy as God is holy (see Leviticus 19:2; and 1 Peter 1:15—16).
This view of grace is well suited to the Mormon view of salvation as an ongoing process of “eternal progression” and apotheosis or deification of humans by grace. Yet it is essentially the same view of grace and salvation as the Johannine and Pauline views: we enter into the saving relationship by grace, in unconditional love, and we remain in, abide in, grow in the relationship by faithfulness to God’s commandments. The light of Christ is more than a metaphor; it is an actual description of the quality and closeness of our relationship with God, which varies for every person according to the grace he or she is willing to accept.
However, it must be emphasized that the freedom to accept the gift of light, to exercise faith, to enter the relationship, to be justified, is a gift made possible only by the atonement (see D&C 93:38—39). In Mormon scripture, all persons would be forever cut off from God’s presence (see Alma 42:7), would be in a state contrary to God and naturally evil (see Mosiah 3:19; Alma 41:11; 42:10), would be captive to the devil (see 2 Nephi 9:8—9), and would not be free to choose good (see Mosiah 16:3)—they “would be,” that is, except for the atonement.75 However, because of Christ’s atonement, all persons are made free to act for themselves and not merely to be acted upon (see 2 Nephi 2:26—27). Because of the atonement, all persons will return to God’s presence to be judged according to their works (see Alma 42:23; 2 Nephi 9:13—16; Alma 41:3—4; 42:23). Because of the atonement, little children are made whole and are not capable of committing sin (see Moroni 8:8, 12). According to Latter-day Saints, Christ’s grace offered through the atonement is the necessary and sufficient condition for human agency. As such, it is ultimately “by grace that we are saved, [even] after all we can do,” for it is only by grace that we are able to act for ourselves to enter into the saving relationship (2 Nephi 25:23).
Thus Mormonism has a notion of prevenient grace, although it differs significantly from the Calvinist view of prevenient grace. “Prevenient grace” is that grace given to humans before any act of human agency or faith. For Calvinists, God’s prevenient grace moves the human will to accept God’s efficacious grace. According to Calvin, persons can accept the saving grace only because God has predestined them to salvation and causally determined their will to accept efficacious grace through his prevenient grace. Moreover, God’s prevenient grace is irresistible—it cannot be rejected by an evil will. Those who do not accept God’s efficacious grace, or grace that accomplishes their salvation, fail to do so because God has decided in his arbitrary election to leave them to damnation. That is, in the Calvinist view God has decided not to grant irresistible prevenient grace to some and thus has decided to abandon them to damnation.76
This concept of prevenient grace makes God an arbitrary and evil tyrant. He could save all persons, but he has decided not to. This is not the God of love taught by Jesus. This view of grace makes God unjust, unfair, unloving, and loathsome. Blomberg adopts a notion of salvation by grace alone (by which he apparently means that human will has no role in salvation);77 God’s election alone explains who is saved and who is damned (see p. 185).78 Blomberg responds to the argument that (at least this view of) grace is unfair in the same way as did Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Luther: “We should not want God to be fair” because we all fall so short of God’s holy standard that we cannot hope to make it on our own (see p. 185). According to Calvinists, because of sin all persons (including little children) “deserve eternal death” (p. 171). But this response is a dodge; it evades the central issue: if God can save everyone, and he desires to save everyone out of love, then why has he decided to leave some persons to damnation? It just won’t do to observe that we all deserve to be damned, so we should be grateful that God has decided to save some of us. What would we think of a parent who could pull both her children safely from a burning car, but decides arbitrarily to save one and not the other?79 We should be morally outraged. We should be even more outraged if we learn that the parent’s decision is based on the judgment that the child who burned deserved it because the child supposedly was guilty for sins of an ancient ancestor—even though she was only three years old! Of course, the child who was saved deserved salvation or damnation equally, so this supposed justification is not the reason for salvation or damnation at all—the decision is purely arbitrary and capricious. I cannot worship such a “god.” I wouldn’t even want to spend the weekend with such a person—let alone an eternity.
Fortunately, this admittedly “unfair” view of grace is not the only option. God has given all persons sufficient grace for their salvation; whether they are saved is dependent on their choice to make Christ their Lord and to persevere “in Christ” by keeping the commandments, or to reject the light that is offered. Christ’s atonement is not limited to benefit only the elect few; it is universal in scope and infinite in effect. Moreover, the decision to accept the atonement or to reject it, to grow in light or to descend into darkness, is one that must be made in every moment of human existence rather than just one time at conversion, once-and-for-all. Thus God is not unfair in his judgments and discriminatory in his love. The Latter-day Saint notion of “prevenient grace” makes grace the foundation for human moral agency rather than its complete negation. Rather than irresistibly “moving” the will to initiate faith to accept grace, as in Calvinist thought, in Mormon thought God’s grace restores the otherwise paralyzed will to respond in love to God’s loving overtures of salvation. Before any decision or action on our part, God has graciously restored our will so that we can decide to accept or reject the light he offers. This is a view of grace that is not only scriptural, but, as Joseph Smith might have said, it tastes good.
I highly recommend How Wide the Divide? as a model of Christian dialogue. We are the beneficiaries of the intelligent, charitable, and engaging discussion of two persons who are exemplary representatives of their respective faiths. It is obvious that I disagree at points with both Blomberg and Robinson. That is to be expected. However, I want to emphasize that we agree on much more and have much in common. I hope my comments do not detract from that central fact. I hope that the divide has been bridged to the extent that further dialogue can take place. I have learned a great deal from evangelical writers, both Reformed and Arminian. They have a rich and valuable heritage from which Latter-day Saints have much to gain. I only hope that they can reciprocate and find the value that I believe can be gained from Mormonism.
One final note: As Christians, both evangelicals and Mormons accept Jesus’ new commandment to love one another. We show our love best by listening with the Spirit and speaking with mutual respect. That is what both Blomberg and Robinson accomplished without compromising their faith. It is a simple message. It is hard to learn. But we can do it.
1. However, it has recently been argued that the reference in Philippians 2:6 to the “form of God” may very well refer to the visual image of the glorified body of God. See Markus Bockmuehl, “‘The Form of God’ (Phil. 2:6): Variations on a Theme of Jewish Mysticism,” Journal of Theological Studies 48/1 (April 1997): 1—23.
2. David Basinger argues that it is permissible for an evangelical to believe that God does not know future contingents in The Case for Freewill Theism: A Philosophical Assessment (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1996), 49—52, and “Can an Evangelical Christian Justifiably Deny God’s Exhaustive Knowledge of the Future?” Christian Scholars Review 25/2 (1995): 133—45. Francis Beckwith argues that an evangelical cannot deny God’s foreknowledge of future contingents in “Limited Omniscience and the Test for a Prophet: A Brief Philosophical Analysis,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 36/3 (1993): 357—62. By my lights, Basinger convincingly shows that Beckwith’s arguments are unsound and not well considered. Norman Geisler argues that evangelicals must accept not only that God foreknows all future free acts, but also the Thomistic doctrine that “God causes all things by his knowledge.” Creating God in the Image of Man? (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1997), 37. For the insuperable problems of such a Thomistic determinism, see the responses to Geisler by fellow evangelicals John Feinberg, Bruce Reichenbach, and Clark Pinnock, in Predestination and Free Will: Four Views of Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom, ed. David Basinger and Randall Basinger (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1986), 85—98. If Geisler’s response is the best that Calvinist Thomist evangelicals can manage in response to those who promote the “open view of God,” then the Calvinists appear to me to be in real trouble. John Sanders also responds to Beckwith’s argument and shows that simple foreknowledge affords God no more providential control (including prophecy) than the notion of God’s all inclusive “present knowledge.” John Sanders, “Why Simple Foreknowledge Offers No More Providential Control Than the Openness of God,” Faith and Philosophy 14/1 (1997): 26—40.
3. It is also problematic to assert that these statements about the “inspired” nature of “all” scripture refer to the New Testament, for neither the New Testament nor many works contained therein existed at the time the writer of 2 Timothy asserted that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God [Greek “God breathed”] and is profitable for doctrine” (2 Timothy 3:16). The author no doubt referred to the Old Testament, as Blomberg himself acknowledges (see p. 34).
4. The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy can be found in Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, rev. and exp. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 181—85, emphasis added. I quote from Article 3 here.
5. See the discussion in E. A. Speiser, The Anchor Bible Genesis (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964), 12—13; John Day, God’s Conflict with the Dragon and the Sea: Echoes of a Canaanite Myth in the Old Testament (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1985); Hermann Gunkel, Schöpfung und Chaos in Urzeit und Endzeit (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1895); and Richard J. Clifford, “The Hebrew Scriptures and the Theology of Creation,” Theological Studies 46 (1985): 507—12.
8. See the discussion in John Bright, A History of Israel (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1981), 187—90; and J. A. Soggin, “Charisma und Institution im Königtum Sauls,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 75 (1963): 54—65.
9. The statements in Mark 10:11—12 and Luke 16:18 are nearly identical: “And [Jesus] saith unto them: Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery.”
11. See Steven T. Davis, Risen Indeed: Making Sense of the Resurrection (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1993), 62—84; and Leonhard Goppelt, Theology of the New Testament, trans. John E. Alsup, ed. Jürgen Roloff (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1981).
12. John 3:13 says: “And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven” (emphasis added). Some use John 3:13 as a proof text to show that while Jesus was on earth, the Son of Man was simultaneously in heaven, based on the present tense of the verb in this text. However, it is precisely the tense of the verb on which many of the earliest manuscripts disagree. For the variant textual readings see Augustinus Merk, S. J., Novum Testamentum Graece et Latine (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1963), 314.
The two birth stories do not agree with each other. Matthew would lead the reader to assume that Joseph and Mary lived at Bethlehem where they had a house ([Matthew] 2:11), for he takes great pains to explain why they left Bethlehem to go to settle in Nazareth ([Matthew] 2:22—23). His account leaves no logical space for a census that brought them temporarily to Bethlehem from Nazareth, such as Luke describes. Luke reports nothing about magi, a star, and the flight to Egypt; nor does his account of a peaceful return to Nazareth through Jerusalem leave room for such events. These discrepancies make it extremely dubious that both accounts could have come from a family source or that both accounts are historical. The contention that Luke’s account at least is historical runs up against the non-verifiability of the census and the fact that Luke describes inaccurately the process of purification/presentation (despite forced attempts to explain away ‘their purification’ in Luke 2:22—only Mary needed purification).
15. Randall Basinger and David Basinger, “Inerrancy, Dictation, and the Free Will Defence,” The Evangelical Quarterly 55/3 (1983): 177—80. For Norman L. Geisler’s response, see “Inerrancy and Free Will: A Reply to the Brothers Basinger,” Evangelical Quarterly 57/4 (1985): 347—53. See also the Basingers’ reply in “Inerrancy and Free Will: Some Further Thoughts,” The Evangelical Quarterly 58/4 (1986): 351—54. Geisler, Creating God in the Image of Man? 131, now admits that the brothers Basinger were essentially correct and that only those who espouse the Calvinist view of soft determinism can square their belief with scriptural inerrancy. It follows that those who believe in scriptural inerrancy cannot rely on the free-will defense to the problem of evil; rather, they must assert that all evils are merely apparent and that each instance of evil or pain is really ultimately good because it serves as a necessary means to the existence of a greater good—a position that strikes me as implausible in extremis. For a devastating critique of this type of theodicy, see Terence Penelhum, “Divine Goodness and the Problem of Evil,” in The Problem of Evil, ed. Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 69—82; and Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), 334—61. John Feinberg also admits: “We must accept either a dictation theory, which says God dictated exactly what the writers wrote, or a theory of inspiration consistent with compatibilism, which allows both God and the writer to be active in the process so as to guarantee that what God wanted was written. . . . [T]he only way to hold to verbal plenary inspiration as set forth in 2 Peter 1:21 seems to be to hold compatibilism [i.e., that causal determinism is compatible with free will].” Feinberg, “God Ordains All Things,” in Predestination and Free Will, 35. Feinberg asserts that 2 Peter 1:21 requires his view of plenary verbal inspiration because it should be translated: “Men spoke from God as they were carried along [Greek pheromenoi] by the Holy Spirit” (emphasis added). He asserts that pheromenoi must be understood in the sense of “being taken up by the bearer and brought to his [God’s] goal” rather than “moved upon by the Holy Ghost,” as the KJV translates it. Ibid., emphasis added. However, Thayer suggests that the more appropriate translation in this context is “to be moved inwardly, prompted,” suggesting persuasion rather than coercion. Joseph H. Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1979), 650. Feinberg’s argument suggests that God coercively carries the inspired writer away rather than persuasively prompting.
16. This is the very argument used to support inerrancy in Geisler and Nix, General Introduction to the Bible, 53. A similar position is suggested by J. I. Packer, ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God (reprint, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1992), 80.
17. I base my conclusion on the fact that Robinson says: “The initial revelation may be divine, but human languages and cultures are not” (p. 57). “I think that informed Latter-day Saints will affirm with me that the present books of the Bible are the Word of God (within the common parameters of the eighth article of faith and the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy) and that the texts are essentially correct in their present form” (p. 63). I consider myself an informed Latter-day Saint, and I do not think that any right-thinking Latter-day Saint ought to accept the Chicago Statement. If I am wrong in my conclusions about Robinson’s views of inerrancy then I am happy to be corrected.
18. Nephi proclaimed: “And now, if I do err . . . ; not that I would excuse myself because of other men, but because of the weakness which is in me, according to the flesh, I would excuse myself” (1 Nephi 19:6). Mormon concurred: “And if there be faults [in his record] they be the faults of a man. But behold, we know no fault” (Mormon 8:17). Moroni2 clarified: “Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father, because of his imperfection, neither them who have written before him; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been” (Mormon 9:31). “And if we could have written in Hebrew, behold, ye would have had no imperfection in our record” (Mormon 9:33) .
21. Blake T. Ostler, “The Book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source,” Dialogue 20/1 (1987): 66. My position follows largely from developments in semantic field theory. As Alister E. McGrath, in Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, From the Beginnings to 1500 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 9, noted:
The difficulties attending the translation of the Old Testament into any second language, whether modern English or Hellenistic Greek, are well illustrated by the application of semantic field theory. The semantic field of a word includes not merely its synonyms, but also its antonyms, homonyms and homophones. As such, it is much broader than the lexical field, which may be defined very precisely in terms of words which are closely associated with one another. The enormous size of such semantic fields may be illustrated from the associative field of the French word chat, which is estimated to consist of some two thousand words. The translation of a word into a different language inevitably involves a distortion of the semantic field, so that certain nuances and associations present in the original cannot be conveyed in a translation, and new nuances and associations not already present make their appearance. The word chosen to translate the original will itself have a well-established semantic field, so that an alien set of associations will be imposed upon the word in question.
McGrath notes the numerous difficulties surrounding the translation of theological terms in particular, including the very basic concepts of sedaqa (Hebrew), dikaiosyne (Greek), and iustitia (Latin), all translated as “justification” or “righteousness” in the scriptures, but having numerous separate meanings and connotations that translation cannot convey.
22. Stephen E. Robinson, “The ‘Expanded’ Book of Mormon?” in The Book of Mormon: Second Nephi, the Doctrinal Structure, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1989), 391—414.
23. I discussed these ancient “form-critical” features of the Book of Mormon in my article, “The Book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion,” 87—100; and “The Throne-Theophany and Prophetic Commission in 1 Nephi: A Form-Critical Analysis,” BYU Studies 26/4 (1986): 67—95. Some, of course, claim that the translation of the Book of Mormon was so literal that it preserved Hebrew syntax. See, for example, Royal Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1997), 61—93. I view that position as extremely unlikely because such a literal translation would result in nonsense in English. Wherever we have a Hebrew text to compare to the Book of Mormon translation, it is the KJV syntax that is used (often word for word) rather than a literal Hebrew translation. For example, a literal translation of the Hebrew in Ezekiel 37:16—17 (paraphrased in the Book of Mormon at 2 Nephi 3:11—12) reads: “Son of Man, take yourself stick one and write on it, for Judah and for the sons of Israel, his companions. And take stick one and write on it for Joseph the stick of Ephraim and all the house of Israel, his companions; . . . and they shall become ones in your hand.” It seems transparent to me that the Book of Mormon renders the translation in a KJV idiom and does not preserve a literal Hebrew syntax—but no meaningful translation could preserve such a syntax faithfully.
25. I have discussed the views of Orson Pratt, B. H. Roberts, and others regarding the status of the divine beings in Blake T. Ostler, “The Idea of Pre-existence in the Development of Mormon Thought,” Dialogue 15/1 (1982): 59—78.
26. It should also be noted that a failure to distinguish between “God” as the Godhead and “God” as an individual divine person may also have led to a misunderstanding by evangelicals and others about Mormon claims that “God” is a glorified man and otherwise anthropomorphic. Latter-day Saints do not claim that the Godhead is a glorified man. Further, those evangelicals and other Christians who accept a kenotic theory of Christology can hardly object to the view that “God” as a divine person has a glorified or resurrected body. As Ronald J. Feenstra observed: “If the exalted Christ is human, then we have good reason to hope that we human beings can also be glorified in an eschatological existence, since it will follow that being human is compatible with being glorified. Both Lutheran and Reformed confessions have held that the ascended Christ retains his body, . . . If Christ is still embodied, he remains incarnate and therefore truly human.” See Feenstra, “Reconsidering Kenotic Christology,” in Ronald J. Feenstra and Cornelius Plantinga Jr., eds., Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement: Philosophical and Theological Essays (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), 147.
28. In the King Follett Discourse, Joseph Smith affirms: “What did Jesus Christ do, the same thing as I se[e] the Father do.” Joseph Smith was quoting from John 5:19, which says: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise.” Joseph Smith took this scripture literally, so that the Son does exactly what the Father did before him. See The Words of Joseph Smith, 345 and n. 41.
29. That God is “finite” has been asserted by several Mormon philosophers, including David L. Paulsen, formerly holder of the Richard L. Evans Chair for Religious Understanding at BYU, in “Comparative Coherency of Mormon (Finitistic) and Classical Theism” (Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 1975); Kent E. Robson, “Time and Omniscience in Mormon Theology,” Sunstone 5 (May–June 1980): 17—23; Sterling M. McMurrin, The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1965); and Blake T. Ostler, “The Mormon Concept of God,” Dialogue 17/2 (1984): 65—93.
30. See Doctrine and Covenants 88:7—13, 41—44. These scriptural verses make it very clear that “God’s” omnipresence consists not merely in having influence everywhere, but in actually being present immanently in and through all things. Given the understanding of a category distinction between the divine persons and the Godhead, there is no logical problem in understanding the Godhead’s spirit to be present to all things.
31. This view follows immediately from Robinson’s view, which I heartily endorse, that “the divine Son and the divine Holy Spirit are subordinate to the Father and dependent on their oneness with him for their divinity. They cannot stand alone; they are ‘God’ only as they are one with the Father in the Godhead. If their oneness with the Father should cease, so would their divinity” (p. 132). It follows that when Christ left the total indwelling unity of the Godhead to become mortal he was no longer divine. However, as the unity was restored Jesus became divine. I believe that Robinson is correct in this doctrine and that it is taught in Doctrine and Covenants 93. Thus a Christology is implicit in this view of the Godhead.
32. Sterling McMurrin consistently confuses the properties of the divine persons with those of Godhead in The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion. However, a review of McMurrin’s fallacy involves a more detailed examination than is possible here.
33. It is precisely in this misunderstanding of the way Mormon writers use the term finite that evangelicals such as Francis Beckwith and Stephen Parrish go wrong. See their The Mormon Concept of God: A Philosophical Analysis (Lewiston: Mellen, 1991). They therefore fundamentally misunderstand the Mormon view of God. See my review of their book in FARMS Review of Books 8/2 (1996): 99—146.
34. In this sense, only pantheistic philosophers such as Spinoza can consistently adopt the view that God is absolutely infinite; theists who make such assertions either do not understand what they assert or assert something incoherent.
35. In this context see Richard Swinburne, The Christian God (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994), 137–44; and The Coherence of Theism, rev. ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993), 223—29; and Robert R. Cook, “God, Time and Freedom,” Religious Studies 23 (1987): 81—94.
37. The further question as to whether the limitation is a self-limitation occasioned by God’s own choices rather than by his nature (which is logically prior to his will or power of intellect) would also have to be considered. Evangelicals have distinguished between God’s absolute power de potentia absoluta possessed (logically) prior to any decisions regarding creation and his power de potentia ordinata based on limitations that God imposes on himself by deciding which world to create and to enter into covenant promises with his creation. However, if the decision arises from God’s essentially loving nature, then the distinction may not hold up. See Berndt Hamm, Promissio, pactum, ordinatio: Freiheit und Selbstbindung Gottes in der scholastischen Gnadenlehre (Tübingen: Mohr, 1977).
38. It should not be inferred that in Mormon thought God could therefore not have a universe where intelligences do not exercise free agency, for the one Godhead can clearly overpower all other beings and coerce them. Other beings exercise their free agency therefore only at God’s sufferance, because he allows it. Agency of intelligences is thus a moral and not a metaphysical limitation on God as divine persons united as one.
39. See Keith Norman, “Ex Nihilo: The Development of the Doctrines of God and Creation in Early Christianity,” BYU Studies 17/3 (1977): 291—318; Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987); Luis Stadelmann, The Hebrew Conception of the World: A Philological and Literary Study (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1970). As Bernhard W. Anderson grudgingly concedes: “The notion of creation out of nothing was undoubtedly too abstract for the Hebraic mind; in any case, the idea of a created chaos would have been strange to a narrative that is governed by the view that creation is the antithesis to chaos (cf. Isa. 45:18).” Bernhard W. Anderson, From Creation to New Creation: Old Testament Perspectives (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 30. The development of the traditional doctrine of creatio ex nihilo from issues presented by Greek philosophy, particularly Neoplatonism, is well documented in Edwin Hatch, The Influence of Greek Ideas on Christianity (Gloucester: Smith, 1970), 194—98.
40. See George I. Mavrodes, “Defining Omnipotence,” Philosophical Studies 32 (1977): 191—202; Thomas P. Flint and Alfred J. Freddoso, “Maximal Power,” in The Existence and Nature of God, ed. Alfred J. Freddoso (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), 81—113; Edward R. Wierenga, The Nature of God: An Inquiry into Divine Attributes (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), 12—35; and Swinburne, The Coherence of Theism, 153—66.
41. Some have gone so far as to suggest not merely that God creates the material world, but also all logical truths. For example, some evangelicals affirm the proposition that God created the meaning of the word “create.” However, this definition of omnipotence is clearly overblown and meaningless, for the very assertion that “God creates logical truths, including the meaning of what it is to create” is circular. This notion of omnipotence clearly presupposes that God creates had some meaning before God created it. But this view also assumes that God creates could not have meaning until God created the meaning of to create. This view therefore involves a vicious circularity that thereby renders the concept incoherent.
42. I take this to be the meaning of the various scriptures which assert that God (i.e., the Godhead) is the same unchangeable being from eternity to all eternity (compare Moroni 8:18). As found in Lecture 3 of the Lectures on Faith, it is essential for any rational being to exercise faith in God as one Godhead to believe that God “does not change, neither does he vary; but he is the same from everlasting to everlasting, being the same yesterday, today, and for ever; and his course is one eternal round, without variation.” Lecture 3, paragraph 15, in Larry E. Dahl and Charles D. Tate Jr., The Lectures on Faith in Historical Perspective (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1990), 68.
43. This definition of omniscience is similar to the one provided by William Hasker in God, Time, and Knowledge (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), 74, and Swinburne, in The Coherence of Theism, 177—83.
44. Robinson laments: “It has been my experience that when theologians want precise definitions for biblical terms and concepts, they go not to the Bible but philosophy” (p. 89). However, he admits that “biblical language is inadequate for defining actual orthodox belief about the nature of God” (p. 137).
45. John Hick, ed., The Myth of God Incarnate (London: SCM, 1977), 178. Hick’s position is not that no coherent view of incarnation exists, but only that “to say, without explanation, that the historical Jesus of Nazareth was also God is as devoid of meaning as to say that this circle drawn with a pencil of paper is also a square.” However, Hick argues that no doctrine of incarnation can be reconciled with what we know from biblical criticism (i.e., that the historical Jesus of Nazareth did not claim to be God or an incarnation of God the Son) and also provide a suitable candidate for “God” as traditionally understood. See his The Metaphor of God Incarnate (Louisville: Knox, 1993), 3, in which Hick critiques both the two-nature Christology of Chalcedon (along with its modern “two minds” interpretation) and also of kenotic Christologies. See chaps. 5—7.
46. See David Brown, The Divine Trinity (La Salle: Open Court, 1985), 228. According to the Council of Chalcedon, found in Henry Bettenson, ed., Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University, 1963), 73:
[Jesus Christ is] at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance (homoousios) with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin . . . one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence.
47. This type of proposition is known as a reduplicative proposition because it recasts the property in negation in different aspects of the same singular term. This strategy has been worked out by R. T. Herbert, Paradox and Identity in Theology (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979), 88; and Peter Geach, Providence and Evil (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 25—28.
48. Blomberg explains: “If [Latter-day Saints] mean that humans can take on God’s being and God’s incommunicable attributes . . . then we demur, claiming that [Latter-day Saints] have not adequately preserved the distinction in essence between the creature and Creator” (p. 107). Blomberg thus insists that humans must be created whereas God is uncreated. Thomas Morris has suggested that perhaps it is not an essential property of humans to be created, but merely a common property. He asserts: “If contingency, coming into existence, and possibly ceasing to exist were essential human properties, the doctrine of the Incarnation would express a metaphysical, or broadly logical, impossibility. But I can think of no compelling argument, or any other type of good reason, to think they are elements of human nature.” Morris continues: “Only a very few contemporary theologians who have written on the topic [of Christology] seem to have recognized that we can understand human nature in such a way that it can be coexemplified with divinity in one and the same subject.” Thomas V. Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), 65. This is a remarkable statement for a creedal Christian to make, for it allows that humans could be uncreated and still be human. However, Blomberg seems to be unwilling to countenance such a possibility, for that would make human existence “uncaused,” and he reserves that attribute for God.
49. This principle, known as the identity of indiscernability, is presented here more simply than in precise philosophical discussions. More properly, the principle is: for any x and any y and any property P, if x is identical to y (x = y), then x has P if and only if y has P.
50. For an excellent discussion of the pervasive influence of Greek philosophy on Christian thought that is available to the layperson, see John Sanders, “Historical Considerations,” in The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God, ed. Clark Pinnock et al. (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1994), 59—100. I believe that Maurice Wiles is correct in his conclusion that the particular views adopted by Christians at Nicea and Chalcedon were not identical to any existing school of philosophy; however, the presuppositions of Neoplatonism and Middle Platonism provided the assumptions from which the entire debate commenced. Thus, although the nonbiblical notion of ousia or substance utilized at Chalcedon derived from Aristotle, the interpretation of the term was novel and not entirely derived from Aristotle. However, all participants in the councils (on both sides of the Arian controversy) assumed the Platonic distinction between the timeless, changeless, and impersonal ideal forms and the lesser reality of the phenomenal world. Thus Christian theologians assumed that God is immutable, timeless, impassible, and incorporeal—giving God the same properties as the Platonic ideas or forms. The absolutist understanding of God that developed from this Neoplatonic worldview led inevitably to the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo:
But increasingly the stress came to be laid on the absoluteness of God’s creative work as creation out of nothing [and eventually to the two natures Christology.] The great divide was not between the spiritual realm (God, the Word, angels, human souls) and the phenomenal; it was between God and the created order, between God and everything else. The tension always inherent in Christian understanding of the Son was being stretched to breaking point. How in such an altered framework was the person of the Son to be understood? (Maurice Wiles, “The Philosophy in Christianity: Arius and Athanasius,” in The Philosophy in Christianity, ed. Godfrey Vesey [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989], 47)
Platonic assumptions led the early Christian fathers down the wrong path, replacing the dynamic and personal God of the biblical revelations with the impersonal absolutes of Greek metaphysics.
51. Stephen T. Davis, Encountering Jesus: A Debate on Christology (Atlanta: Knox, 1988), 52—53. Davis does a good job of elucidating a kenotic Christology from an evangelical perspective. Kenotic Christology has also been elucidated and defended by Gottfried Thomasius, “Christ’s Person and Work,” in God and Incarnation in Mid-Nineteenth Century German Theology, trans. and ed. Claude Welch (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), 37—94; Stephen T. Davis, Logic and the Nature of God (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1983); Brown, The Divine Trinity; and Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate, 88—102; Brian Hebblethwaite, The Incarnation: Collected Essays in Christology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); Frank Weston, The One Christ: An Enquiry into the Manner of the Incarnation, 2nd ed. (London: Longmans, Green, 1914); Stephen W. Sykes, “The Strange Persistence of Kenotic Christology,” in Being and Truth: Essays in Honour of John Macquarrie, ed. Alistair Kee Long and Eugene T. Long (London: SCM, 1986), 349—75.
52. This suggestion to reconceptualize the essential divine properties was made by Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate, 99—100. Feenstra, “Reconsidering Kenotic Christology,” 140—41, also adopts this position, and I have modified the divine properties along the lines he suggests.
54. As John J. Collins commented in his review of the relationship between the Christian doctrine of the Trinity developed at Chalcedon and Jewish monotheism, “Non-Christians, and many Christians who lack the appetite for metaphysical reasoning, may be forgiven for thinking that [the assertion that the Son is homoousious with the Father] allows for some equivocation, enabling Christianity to maintain contradictory positions without admitting it. . . . The notion that God is three as well as one, however, obviously entails a considerable qualification of monotheism.” “Jewish Monotheism and Christian Theology,” in Aspects of Monotheism: How God Is One, ed. Hershel Shanks and Jack Meinhardt (Washington, D.C.: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1997), 104.
60. When Blomberg asserts that the Father and the Son are the “same being,” he does not mean that they are the same divine person; rather, he must be understood to mean that they together constitute the same being on a different level of analysis. Otherwise, the heresy of modalism follows.
61. Blomberg accepts that Christ is subordinated functionally to the Father—that is, that Christ does the Father’s will and is sent by the Father as the Father’s agent. However, he denies an ontological subordination, meaning that the Son is not in any way dependent on the Father for his existence or his divine status. While Mormonism agrees that Christ exists of ontological necessity and is not dependent on the Father for his existence, it rejects the view that Christ is in no sense dependent on the Father for his divine status, for Christ could not be divine independently of the Father.
62. Several persons have critiqued the attempt to reconcile the doctrine of the Trinity with the notion of divine simplicity or the claim that God is not composite in any sense but wholly without parts. See Christopher M. Hughes, On a Complex Theory of a Simple God: An Investigation in Aquinas’ Philosophical Theology (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989); Thomas V. Morris, “Dependence and Divine Simplicity,” International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion 23 (1988): 161—74; Cornelius Plantinga Jr. “The Threeness/Oneness Problem of the Trinity,” Calvin Theological Journal 23 (1988): 37—53; G. E. Hughes, “The Doctrine of the Trinity,” Sophia 2 (1963): 1—12.
63. See Timothy W. Bartel, “The Plight of the Relative Trinitarian,” Religious Studies 24/3 (1988): 144, for an exposition of the ontological problems arising from the notion of God’s eternally begetting Christ in the creed of Chalcedon.
64. In addition to Cornelius Plantinga Jr., the Social Trinity has been defined and defended by C. Stephen Layman, “Tritheism and the Trinity,” Faith and Philosophy 5/3 (1988): 291—98; Richard Swinburne, “Could There Be More Than One God?” Faith and Philosophy 5/3 (1988); 225–41; and The Christian God, 170—91; David Brown, “Trinitarian Personhood and Individuality,” in Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement, 48—78; Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God: The Doctrine of God, trans. Margaret Kohl (London: SCM, 1981); Clark H. Pinnock, Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1996), 21—48; and Thomas V. Morris, Our Idea of God: An Introduction to Philosophical Theology (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1991), 174—84.
65. See Bartel, “The Plight of the Relative Trinitarian,” 129—55. Bartel convincingly shows that the incarnation is impossible to construe on the view that the Father and the Son are the same Being. As Morris commented, “Kenotic Christology seems to demand a view of the Trinity as consisting in three metaphysically distinct individuals severally exemplifying the attributes of deity, a view which has come to be known as ‘Social Trinitarianism’ because, according to it, there exists a society of divine persons.” The Logic of God Incarnate, 92. Morris defends Social Trinitarianism because it is the best way to make coherent sense of Trinitarian claims and the incarnation. Ibid., 205—18.
68. According to Robinson: “The LDS concept of being ‘in Christ’ (Paul’s term) or being ‘perfect in Christ’ (Moroni’s term) is one of covenant relationship. While there are no preconditions for entering into the covenant of faith in Christ to be justified by his grace through faith, there are covenant obligations incurred by so entering. Those who have been justified by faith are obliged to serve Christ and to make him their Lord by imitating him in their behavior and keeping his commandments” (pp. 145—46).
69. For a good discussion of the themes of grace and salvation in the Gospel of John, see Grant R. Osborne, “Soteriology in the Gospel of John,” in The Grace of God, the Will of Man: A Case for Arminianism, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1989), 243—60.
71. E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977), 516—18. The Latter-day Saint view is strongly supported by the “new perspective” on Paul or “covenantal nomism.” In this view one enters the covenant relationship or is justified by grace, but obedience to the terms of the covenant is thereafter demanded to remain in the relationship. See D. B. Garlington, “The Obedience of Faith in the Letter to the Romans Part II: The Obedience of Faith and Judgment by Works,” Westminster Theological Journal 53 (spring 1991): 73—91; J. D. G. Dunn, “The New Perspective on Paul,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 65 (1983): 95—122.
As D.B. Garlington noted in his excellent article on the relation between present justification by grace and ultimate judgment by works: “The problem . . . is the presence of biblical—particularly NT—passages which ground eschatological justification in the works of the individual. We think for instance of Jesus’ warning to the Pharisees: ‘I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account of every careless word they utter; for by their words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned‘ (Matt. 12:36—37). All the more striking because of its author is the pronouncement of Rom. 2:13: ‘For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.’ And of course, there is James’ insistence that justification is by works and not by faith alone (2:24). Even in passages where ‘justification’ as such is not mentioned, the same perspective is evident, e.g., 2 Cor. 5:10: ‘For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be repaid according to what he has done in the body.'” Garlington, “The Obedience of Faith,” 73. Garlington argues persuasively that the apparent paradox arising from present justification by grace and judgment by works is not a contradiction: “The question then is how the NT and particularly Paul can make what appears to be a quantum leap from present justification by faith alone to future justification, which entails an assessment of one’s life ‘in the body.'” Ibid. Because Paul taught that persons are accepted into the covenant relationship through grace, but must be obedient to the terms and stipulations of the covenant to persevere therein, judgment by works follows from Paul’s doctrine of grace.
72. A. N. Williams, “Deification in the Summa Theologiae: A Structural Interpretation of the Prima Pars,” The Thomist 61/2 (1997): 219. On page 221, Williams notes: “Because God alone gives grace, the assertion that the human person becomes divine by grace rather than by nature effectively reinforces the ontological divide between Uncreated and created. The distinction between creature and Creator can be parsed as the difference between the One who voluntarily and generously shares his life, and those who can only be recipients of that life. By grace the deified indeed share in divine nature, but they never themselves become Deifiers.” Latter-day Saints can accept this distinction between Creator and created, for God is the source of our life and, by grace, of deification. Latter-day Saints believe that the Godhead is the source of grace and deification through grace; however, no scripture supports the view that humans can become the source of deification for others. Although, strictly speaking, all Christians who have spoken of deification from the Patristic period to the Restoration differ from Mormons in insisting on an ontological divide between God and humans, nevertheless, Latter-day Saints can accept the distinction between God as the giver and humans as the receivers of grace by which they can be deified. Mormon scripture does not support the view that humans become deified by nature. For excellent discussions of the relation between the doctrines of grace, justification, and apotheosis of humans, see also William G. Rusch, “How the Eastern Fathers Understood What the Western Church Meant by Justification,” in Justification by Faith: Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VII, ed. H. George Anderson, T. Austin Murphy, and Joseph A. Burgess (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1985), 131—42; Jules Gross, La divinisation du chrétien d’aprÃ¨s les pÃ¨res grecs: Contribution historique Ã la doctrine de la grÃ¢ce (Paris: Gabalda, 1938); Dictionnaire de spiritualité, ascétique et mystique, doctrine et histoire (Paris: Beauchesne, 1937—), s.v. “divinisation.”
73. The Reformers adopted a systematic and deliberate distinction between justification and sanctification. By justification they understood an extrinsic declaration that the Christian is righteous, involving a change in status before God rather than a change in nature, and by sanctification they understood the process by which God renews or restores the justified sinner. See McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 1:182.
74. “Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God. And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot” (Moroni 10:32—33).
75. Latter-day Saints thus do not accept the traditional view of original sin for which persons are either guilty of Adam’s sin (Calvin’s view) or inevitably led to sin by their evil nature (Ambrose’s view); rather, Mormons believe in “hypothetical original sin.” We would be utterly lost and evil but for the atonement. Because of the atonement, we are made free to choose for ourselves. However, if we reject the atonement by failing to keep the commandments, then we “return” to our evil nature. See my “Mormon Concept of Grace,” 60—62.
77. In fairness, Blomberg does not say that the will has no role in salvation. I have inferred that this is his position from his insistence on “grace alone” and what he says about Robinson’s analogy of the bicycle. He rejects any human input into the reception of grace (see pp. 180—81). If I have misinterpreted Blomberg on this point then I apologize in advance and look forward to being corrected. However, I am still glad to be able to present (albeit very briefly) a few reasons for rejecting Calvinism.
78. For a good discussion of some of the problems of a Calvinist view of grace, see Jack W. Cottrell, “The Nature of the Divine Sovereignty,” in The Grace of God, the Will of Man, 97—119; and Bruce Reichenbach, “God Limits His Power,” in Predestination and Free Will, 99—124.
79. Of course, Calvinists and others who adopt the notion of irresistible grace are not without recourse to respond to these types of problems with their theology. The most common move is to deny that God owes the types of duties to his creatures that mortal parents owe to their children. See Allister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, from 1500 to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 47—52. However, one pays a high price for this approach, for if God’s moral duties (if any) are radically different from ours, then we lose all conception of what good means when applied to God. Moreover, what sense does it make to call God “Father” if he is nothing like a human parent?