Mormon Theism, the Traditional Christian Concept of God, and Greek Philosophy: A Critical Analysis
Beckwith, Francis J., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
One of the charges leveled against traditional Christian theology is that its concept of God, otherwise known as the classical Christian concept of God, is the result of Greek philosophical thought significantly shaping, indeed corrupting, the way in which church Fathers, councils, theologians, and philosophers have interpreted the phenomenon of God found in Scripture.
A number of scholars in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), popularly known as the Mormon church, believe that the truth of this charge helps ground their unique theology.2 For the necessity of the founding of the LDS church is contingent upon the truth of the belief that pristine Christianity vanished from the earth. According to LDS theology, the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, Jr. (1805-1844) served as God's instrument to restore the lost Gospel.' So, any evidence of corruption makes the Mormon case more plausible, though such evidence would certainly be far from decisive, since the disappearance of true Christian theology is only a necessary and not a sufficient condition for the truth of the LDS claims.
The purpose of this paper is to offer a philosophical reply to the Mormon claim that the classical concept of God is a corruption of the true Christian concept of God. In order to accomplish this, we will cover the following: (1) the Mormon concept of God; (2) the classical Christian concept of God; and (3) the LDS charge and its problems. My intention is not to give a biblical case for traditional Christian theism. Rather, my intention is to show that the LDS charge is philosophically problematic and rests on five mistakes. The issue of whether and to what degree Christian theology has been influenced by Greek philosophy is historically important and worth assessing, but it is outside the scope of this paper. Although I will touch on historical sources, my main purpose is philosophical and not historical.
Because of the unjust persecution some Mormons have received at the hands of some self-professing Christians, I am sensitive to the fact that this paper may be interpreted to be within that unfortunate tradition. That would, however, be an inaccurate interpretation. For I am a Christian philosopher who is concerned with both the acquisition of truth as well as sharing the power of Christ's love. Some of what goes by the name of anti-Mormon literature, though containing some accurate information, may, because of its tone and spirit, fuel intolerance, bigotry, and prejudice.4 This, of course, does not mean that criticizing another's religion is in principle wrong. As Eleanor Stump and Norman Kretzmann have pointed out, the postmodernist's absolute prohibition of such activity, though politically correct and theologically fashionable, is self-referentially incoherent.5 Because I am sensitive to complaints by Mormons that their views are misunderstood by traditional Christians, especially Evangelicals,6 I have attempted in this essay to understand and critique the Mormon view fairly and honestly.
1. THE MORMON CONCEPT OF GOD
1. Sources of doctrine. The Mormon doctrine of God is derived primarily from three groups of sources.' And it is because of these sources that it departs radically from creedal Christianity.
(a) The first group of sources consists of works regarded by the Mormon church as inspired Scripture: The Book of Mormon (BM), the Doctrine and Covenants (DC), and the Pearl of Great Price (PGP).
(b) The Mormon concept of God is also derived from Joseph Smith, Jr.'s other statements and doctrinal commentaries, such as the seven-volume History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (HC), which was compiled and extensively edited by B. H. Roberts (1857-1933). Although not regarded by the LDS church as Scripture per se, Smith's extracanonical pronouncements on doctrine are accepted by the Mormon laity and leadership as authoritative for Mormon theology.
(c) Authoritative presentations of the Mormon doctrine of God can also be found in the statements and writings of the church's ecclesiastical leaders, especially its presidents, who are considered divinely inspired prophets. …