Academic journal article Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought

The Source of God's Authority: One Argument for an Unambiguous Doctrine of Preexistence

Academic journal article Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought

The Source of God's Authority: One Argument for an Unambiguous Doctrine of Preexistence

Article excerpt

The famous couplet coined by Lorenzo Snow in 1840, "As man now is, God once was: As God now is, man may be,"1 rears its head every now and then, inspiring both awe and some confusion among rank-and-file Latter-day Saints while causing at least a degree of discomfort for Church leaders and spokespeople who are trying to make Mormonism more palatable for our mainstream Christian friends and critics. Some observers have even suggested that the Church is intentionally downplaying this doctrine.2 Nevertheless, the couplet found its way into the 2013 Melchizedek Priest-hood/Relief Society manual Teaching of Presidents of the Church: Lorenzo Snow, and this distinctive doctrine also appeared prominently in previous manuals containing the teachings of Brigham Young and Joseph Smith.3

So, what are we to make of this theological nugget, this idea that God was once a mortal man going through similar experiences to ours, who overcame through faith and obedience and, presumably, the assistance of his own deified Father? Should we assume, as President Gordon B. Hinckley was reported to have said, that Lorenzo Snow's couplet "gets into some pretty deep theology that we don't know very much about"?4

I would suggest that although our understanding of the particulars of the premortal existence is certainly meager, this radical doctrine is not something we should downplay.5 In fact, I would argue that without this doctrine, the boundary between Mormonism and mainstream Christianity blurs in certain ways, because it has inescapable ramifications not only for how we understand our own eternal nature and potential, but also how we view our relationship with God, including the question of why and how he is able to exercise authority over us. In short, this doctrine is perhaps the most distinctively "Mormon" of all our doctrines and is something we should neither gloss over nor disavow in any way. This tenet is not just an afterthought to Joseph Smith's other teachings; it is, in a fundamental way, the culmination of what he was trying to teach the Saints in Nauvoo, and if we were to fully embrace this doctrine, it might, among other things, revolutionize the way we understand and exercise authority in the Church. Before we can do this, however, we need to clear up some theological loose ends. So let me set the table with some necessary doctrinal history.

A Selective History of the Doctrine of Preexistence

In a 2013 BYUStudies Quarterly article, Samuel Brown argued that adoption is a theology that, among other things, differs from the doctrine of spirit birth that has prevailed in the Church since shortly after the death of Joseph Smith.6 Before I began editing Brown's essay, I spent some time reacquainting myself with the history of this doctrine. What I learned reinforced for me just how crucial our view of the premortal experience is and how important it is to examine the ramifications of certain beliefs, some of which remain very much unsettled.

The doctrine of spirit birth plays an integral role in the development of the more encompassing doctrine of preexistence. Blake Ostler recounts a portion of this doctrinal history in a 1982 Dialogue article,7 as does Charles Harrell in a 1988 BYUStudies article8 and in his more recent "This Is My Doctrine": The Development of Mormon Theology.9 Ostler and Harrell begin with early Mormonism (roughly 1830-1835) when Latter-day Saints accepted the Catholic/Protestant idea of an infinite and absolute God and perhaps had no well-developed concept yet of an actual premortal existence of humanity. It has been argued that the spiritual creation mentioned in what is now the Book of Moses10 was understood by early Mormons to involve a strictly conceptual creation rather than an actual creation of all things, including men and women, in spirit form. Ostler presents this argument,11 for instance, but Harrell contends that "no record from the early era of the Church offers any evidence that this spiritual creation was ever viewed in any way other than as a spirit creation. …

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