I first wrote this piece in 2006 and got it posted on a couple of websites, including Tekton. I have reposted it here to reinvigorate it with a couple of very minor edits. Some of the links have changed, and I have done my best to update them.
The purpose of this post is to quote primary authorities within Mormonism, so that the reader can see what was actually written rather than getting it second-hand, and to challenge the claim that it is supported by the Bible.
First, God himself, who sits enthroned in yonder heavens, is a man like unto one of yourselves, that is the great secret. . . . I am going to tell you how God came to be God. We have imagined that God was God from all eternity. . . God himself; the Father of us all dwelt on an earth the same as Jesus Christ himself did, . . . You have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves; to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done; by going from a small degree to another, from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, ...
Joseph Smith, Times and Seasons, Vol. 5, pp. 613-614
Mormonism claims that all nature, both on earth and in heaven, operates on a plan of advancement; that the very Eternal Father is a progressive being; that his perfection, while so complete as to be incomprehensible by man, possesses this essential quality of true perfection – the capacity of eternal increase. That therefore, in the far future, beyond the horizon of eternities perchance, man may attain the status of a God. Yet this does not mean that he shall be the equal of the Deity we worship, nor shall he ever overtake those intelligences that are already beyond him in advancement; for to assert such would be to argue that there is no progression beyond a certain stage of attainment, and that advancement is characteristic of low organization and inferior purpose alone. We believe that there is more than the sounding of brass or the tinkling of wordy cymbals in the fervent admonition of Christ to his followers – ‘Be ye perfect even as your heavenly Father which is in Heaven is perfect’
James Talmadge, Articles of Faith
The principle of eternal progression cannot be precisely defined or comprehended, yet it is fundamental to the LDS worldview.
Lisa Ramsey Adams and Elder Bruce R McConkie
This gradually unfolding course of advancement and experience -- a course that began in a past eternity and will continue in ages future -- is frequently referred to as a course of eternal progression.
Elder Bruce R. McConkie.
Lorenzo Snow, who was President of the Mormon Church from 1898 to 1901, wrote the following in a poem entitled "Man's Destiny":
Still, tis no phantom that we trace
Man's ultimatum in life's race;
This royal path has long been trod
By righteous men, each now a God:
As Abra'm Isaac, Jacob, too,
First babes, then men--to gods they grew.
As man now is, our God once was;
As now God is, so man may be, --
Which doth unfold Man's destiny. . . ."
The Gospel Through The Ages, by Milton R. Hunter, 1958, p. 113
Where Does This Doctrine Come From?The logic pursued by the Mormons I have spoken to seems to be based on the idea that change and progression are natural principles, therefore they apply to God as they do to the rest of creation. The idea that God’s invisible qualities are visible in creation is supported in Romans 1:20 and Mormons interpret the father-son relationship between the Heavenly Father and Jesus as pointing to other father-son relationships before and after this world. Mormonism asserts that because we are the children of God, it is our destiny to progress in this life and the next in order to attain the perfection that God himself presently enjoys.
As regards the progress of the Saints and their attaining perfection, there are two main NT references;
1. Matthew 5:48 (as quoted by Talmadge) Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. In context, it is clear that Jesus is delivering a damning criticism of the Pharisees because they conveniently limited God’s directive; the Pharisees were teaching “love your neighbour but hate your enemy”. The original command in Leviticus 19:18 does not make this distinction; “You shall love your fellow man as yourself. I am the LORD” (from Prof Robert Alter’s Translation of the Five Books of Moses). Jesus is not preaching ontological perfection (as Talmadge asserts), but that our love should be as perfect as God’s, which extends even to his enemies.
2. Hebrews 10:14 states that the one sacrifice of Christ has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. In context, the writer is contrasting the old system, which can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship (see Hebrews 10:1). The use of the past tense is crucial in this verse. It says the saints have been already made perfect, but nowhere in the NT do we find sinless saints, not even Saint Paul and Saint John (by their own confession). The perfection mentioned in Hebrews, therefore, cannot be an ontological perfection. The verse, however, makes sense when we understand it to mean being made perfectly acceptable to God, or being made ‘whole’ in our union with Christ. The saints are perfectly acceptable to God not by their own merit, but by the merits of Christ in whom they enter the Holy of Holies. The perfection of the saints is in the past tense because it was achieved in the past, at the cross of Christ.
There is no support in the Canonical Bible for the notion that human beings can become, in their very nature, as God is now.
Theological Implications – the Orthodox ViewThe orthodox view is that God created the cosmos, and it exists within him.
Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made, John 1:3.This is ex nihilo creation, which Mormonism explicitly rejects.
For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. Colossians 1:16
The orthodox view states that there can only be one God, because there can only be one ultimate origin of everything. God is the unchanging datum, from whom a changing universe is created. He is answerable to no-one, and owes his being to no-one. Only such a God could say, as Jehovah said to Moses, I will be what I will be (Exodus 3:14). Only such a God could claim to be the alpha and omega (Revelation 1:8 and 22:13) within which all time and space is bracketed. Being subject to no higher authority, God is truly a law unto himself, but he will not act in a way that denies his own nature.
Theological Implications – the Mormon ViewIn polar contrast, the Mormon view is that God emerged from the cosmos, and lives as an inhabitant of it, subject to principles and laws that were not of his own making. Further, there is not one God, but an infinite number, all of whom are progressing in experience, knowledge and intelligence, though we need only concern ourselves with the God who rules the universe that we inhabit (which is henotheism).
We accept the fact that God is the Supreme Intelligent Being in the universe. He has the greatest knowledge, the most perfect will, and the most infinite power of any person within the realm of our understanding. . . . Yet, if we accept the great law of eternal progression, we must accept the fact that there was a time when Deity was much less powerful than He is today. Then how did He become glorified and exalted and attain His present status of Godhood? In the first place, aeons ago, God undoubtedly took advantage of every opportunity to learn the laws of truth and as He became acquainted with each new verity He righteously obeyed it. From day to day He exerted His will vigorously, and as a result became thoroughly acquainted with the forces lying about Him. As he gained more knowledge through persistent effort and continuous industry, as well as through absolute obedience, His understanding of the universal laws continued to become more complete. Thus He grew in experience and continued to grow until He attained the status of Godhood. In other words, He became God by absolute obedience to all the eternal laws of the Gospel--by conforming His actions to all truth, and thereby became the author of eternal truth. Therefore, the road that the Eternal Father followed to Godhood was one of living at all times a dynamic, industrious, and completely righteous life. There is no other way to exaltation.
Milton R Hunter.
God earned the right to become a god by his own self-effort. The path to exaltation is a path of learning, experience, effort and industry (compare Gnosticism, for example). Mormon teaching differs widely on the role of the cross of the Saviour in this journey of the saints, and it is noticeably absent from Hunter’s description of the path to exaltation.
If God (and Jesus) was a man like us, then did he/ they have need of a saviour? I canvassed my Mormon friends with this question, and the answers I got were;
1. There has been no revelation from [the] prophets on any specifics relating to these matters (from a Mormon Bishop)
2. Short answer, Yes , as far as I follow it, they [sic] would have had a saviour (from an active member of a Mormon church).
3. Our Heavenly Father was born and did live in mortality on another earth. Did He have need of a Saviour? I don't know the answer to that question. I do know that He is my God, and that He knows and understands me. He has reached perfection and desires the same for His children (from a Mormon Bishop).
The full version of answer 3 differentiates between God the Father, who was born on an earth, and Jesus, who was born in a spirit realm before coming to this earth.
What Does It Mean To Us?Ralph Bowles (former Rector of St Stephen’s, Brisbane) once told me that the Trinity is the Gospel. I think there is much merit in this view and it aligns closely with the view of the Apostle John, in particular. John opens his Gospel with the audacious claim that the creator of the cosmos became flesh. We can follow John’s train of thought in his Gospels, Letters and Revelation, through Jesus’ submission to death on a cross, to the resurrection, the present age of the Church and the Final Judgement. I think that paramount in John’s mind was the question of why the omnipotent God, who wraps up skies and silences heaven, should purposefully set things up so that he, himself, would have to die on the cross. The conclusion John reaches, is that God is love. It is such a perfect love that it would have to give of itself to the point where there was nothing more to give. If God had sent his 2IC, his lieutenant, or even a close relative, he would not be expressing this love, he would be simply getting his credit card out; and that does not mean much to a God who could create a thousand ‘sons’ in an instant (“What? Jesus is dead! Never mind, I’ll just make another one”).
The doctrine of eternal progression places God within the constraints of an impersonal universe, such that he is not free to submit exclusively to his own love for us, nor to his own justice (“I’d like to help, but my hands are tied”). It also flatters with the promise of divinity through a process of experience and knowledge (compare the serpent’s appeal to Eve in Genesis 3:1-5). The emphasis on earning our exaltation relegates the cross to a moral example; we salute the crucified Christ as we pass, and we are grateful to leave our sins there, but the road ahead is one of advancement by a process of obeying the law. Finally, God is not God and eternity is not eternity.
Post Script: Ex Nihilo and Genesis 1:1There is just enough play in the Hebrew of Genesis 1:1 to raise some interesting possibilities. Prof. Robert Alter translates it as When God began to create the heavens and the earth… Also, the name used for God, Elohim, has a plural form and it is properly used to describe ‘gods’ in some places in the Pentateuch as well as a singular ‘God’ in others.
Was God up to something before the creation? The Bible does not tell us explicitly, so any answer must be speculative. If we understand the creation of the cosmos to include the creation of time itself, then the question of what happened before the beginning of time becomes meaningless.
Does the plural name of God suggest a Council of gods? Some Mormon apologists argue that the idea of such a council is consistent with the ancient religion of Egypt (it is certainly true of Babylonian religion – see the Flood account in the Gilgamesh Epic), and it is reflected in some ancient Jewish teachings. These apologists may be right, but we must question whom it is that we seek guidance from. Are we to take instruction from some ancient pagan religions (even the paganism practised in ancient Israel) in preference over the Bible?
It must also be noted that there is not one sane translation that mentions more than one God in Genesis 1:1. The justification for these ‘one God’ translations is not found solely in this one verse, but in context with the remaining corpus of the canonical Bible, which is polemically monotheistic. In other words, if you want to believe that more than one god was involved in the creation, you could stretch the opening words of Genesis just far enough to fit your theory, but you would have to ignore everything that follows it in the Canonical Bible.
I am he: before me there was no God formed neither shall there be after me. I, even I, am the Lord; and beside me there is no saviour. Isaiah 43:10-11
Thus saith the LORD the King of Israel, and his redeemer the LORD of hosts; I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God…Is there a God beside me? yea, there is no God; I know not any. Isaiah 44:6 & 8
This one was written by senior Mormons; and this one was written by Sandra Tanner, one of the most prominent anti-Mormon apologists. Both sources are quoted above.
Martin Jacobs 2006