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Mormon Theological Development

Posted by nebula0 on October 3, 2008

If you read nothing else but the Book of Mormon, what would you understand about Mormonism?  Not a whole lot.  You’d learn about the Nephites and Lamanitesand relate to Mormonism on that level of storytelling, but you would have no idea just how different Mormon theology is from mainstream/normative Christianity.  This is because at the time of the “translating” of the Book of Mormon Joseph Smith was at the very start of his prophetic career.  He still understood things in a fairly mundane fashion.  In fact, if you read the BoM closely, you’ll see Joseph resolve many of the burning theological questions that he faced through hearing preachers debate during the great revivals of his time in the first half of the 19th C: infant baptism (BoM answer = no), trinity (BoM theology  = modalism), masonry (BoM = bad), and so on.  The BoM religion is basically a blase Christianity plus extra warm and fuzzy stories.

Things didn’t get interesting until later in Joseph’s prophetic career and he developed out a notion of priesthood authority, continuing revelation allowing for the creation of the Doctrine and Covenants (originally The Book of Commandments) and the combination of those two ideas allowed for extensive theological innovation.  Through continuing revelation Joseph formed radical new ideas about the nature of the afterlife, premortal life and God while his priesthood authority paved the way for these ideas to be understood as binding and true for the whole earth.  In the short 14 years between the creation of the LDS church and Joseph’s killing in 1844, an entirely new religious system was developed from the framework of the Christianity he had been exposed to as a boy.

The fact of this great theological innovation has allowed for the modern day LDS church to draw upon different moments of Joseph’s career to fashion its current identity.  Right now there is a shift to the earlier moments, especially as President Benson emphasized reading the BoMnot just to get a testimony of Joseph as a prophet, but as a primary source for doctrine.  This allows for Mormons to think of themselves as “Christians plus…”, Christians plus the Book of Mormon and living prophets.  Many Mormons these days cannot begin to understand the depth of the theological difference between Mormonism and orthodox Christianity- they in all sincerity think any Christian who complains is simply being mean spirited for no good reason.  Remember, the BoM does not contain any real dramatic departure from Christian ideas, the notion of multiple gods and necessity of marriage to be exalted were later innovations.

The question becomes, is the focusing on one period of Joseph’s career to form an identity a legitimate activity?  Only if one is willing to acknowledge that the rest of the 14 years were a mistake and begin to reject parts of the Doctrine and Covenants and Book of Abraham.  The fact of the matter is that these moves to emphasize one Joseph, the Joseph who translates the Book of Mormon, from the Joseph who took on two dozen wives and became a Mason, isn’t done with any kind of justification.  One is more easily swallowed than the other, and that is justification enough for the LDS leadership.

I leave it to the reader to decide if this is a legitimate decision.


2 Responses to “Mormon Theological Development”

  1. Seth R. said

    Well, the third option is that the “two creative periods” of Joseph’s life aren’t as separated as some make them out to be.

    Plenty of Mormon scholars argue exactly this.

    You probably ought to get a hold of Blake Ostler’s three-part book series on Mormon deity. He makes the argument that the Book of Mormon is not, in fact, modalist, and that it does not contradict Joseph’s later framework.

    He often gets waved-away as “an apologist,” but being an apologist doesn’t automatically make your arguments wrong. And his books seem directly pointed at your recurring interest in the nature of the Mormon God, vis a vis traditional Christianity.

    We can’t always dismiss apologetics. Orthodox Christianity’s theology got its start there, after all. For the first few hundred years of Christianity, the only attempt at theology was the scattershot approach of the apologists.

  2. nebula0 said

    Right. Id idn’t mean to make it sound like it was a two stage act. I don’t even see it as a stage type of thing– more of a spectrum.

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