I have no desire to dissuade anyone from reading this post, but the contents of this post are best understood when prefaced by my previous three posts (“The Greek and Hebrew Intellectual Traditions,” “Dynamic and Active Being,” and “Hellenized Christianity“). Also, I recognize that this is certainly not the only way to interpret Latter-day Saint doctrine. My strong suspicion of the philosophy of naturalism certainly influences the ideas I present here—those with a strong commitment to the philosophy of naturalism will probably disagree with this point of view. However, I believe that the philosophy of naturalism is too often taken for granted and not for what it is: a philosophical assumption, and an unprovable one at that (all assumptions are). More important than anything, I freely recognize that I gloss over many subtleties and nuances in Christian and Latter-day Saint thought for the sake of keeping this post simple and short.
In my most recent post, I explained how certain strands of Greek philosophy corrupted Christian doctrine. Many Christian theologians began to believe that if God is the author of order, then He must also be an incorporeal abstraction. This is because they adopted Neo-Platonic Greek philosophy which believed that unchanging, incorporeal abstractions are responsible for order and consistency in the material world.
Fortunately, modern revelation has clarified the true nature of God. Jeffrey R. Holland describes the beginning of this Restoration:
In the spring of 1820, a 14-year-old boy, confused by many of these very doctrines that still confuse much of Christendom, went into a grove of trees to pray. In answer to that earnest prayer offered at such a tender age, the Father and the Son appeared as embodied, glorified beings to the boy prophet Joseph Smith. That day marked the beginning of the return of the true, New Testament gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and the restoration of other prophetic truths offered from Adam down to the present day.3
One of the truths eventually revealed to Joseph Smith was that God is an embodied person: “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as manâ€™s.” (D&C 130:22) Another unique doctrine restored in the Restoration is the belief that God was not always God, but has progressed to His position.4 Thus, God Himself has changed. Joseph Smith also taught that matter coexists eternally with God—He did not conjure it from nowhere.
Knowing that God has a physical nature and changes in certain ways, we cannot fit him into the static, abstract Being category that rules and governs the rest of reality in Greek philosophy. There are two possible routes that scholars can take when presented with these new doctrines.
Route 1: Recategorize God
When following this route, clearly, God does not belong in the Being category, and thus he belongs in the Becoming category. We, as “Latter-day Greeks,”5 assume that if God is not abstract, incorporeal, and unchanging, then He cannot be the source of order and consistency in the world; there must be a more fundamental substrate which is abstract, incorporeal, and unchanging which gives order to the world and which constrains God. This route, I believe, maintains the same Greek philosophical dichotomy that influenced early Christianity. Below is an illustration of how this route fits very nicely in the Greek intellectual tradition; the first diagram shows how the Greeks believed that ideas are more fundamental than the physical world. The second diagram shows how that philosophy was incorporated into Christianity. The third diagram shows how this first route perpetuates, in a way, this same philosophical dichotomy.
Reality is divided between abstract, unchanging ideas and material, changing things. The abstractions govern the material things, and can only be understood through reason.
God governs and orders reality, so He must be in the abstract category. Thus, He must be immaterial and unchanging. He is best understood through rational theology.
Popular conception of LDS doctrine
God has a physical body and changes over time, so He must be in the material category. Thus, He is governed by abstractions higher and more powerful than Him, like natural scientific laws.
This perspective is very common among Latter-day Saint scholars; I believe this is because we live in modern intellectual climate that is generally committed to scientific naturalism. An eternally existing material world, we assume, must necessarily entail a kind of scientific order that predates God. Notice that in each of these stages of development illustrated above, obtaining knowledge of the realm of ideas always relies in some way on reason. With our scientific upbringing, we assume that knowledge of fundamental, universal abstractions is a source of power which allows us to control the material world; thus God’s power is the result of His superior knowledge of the fundamental abstract realities which govern the material universe. We often use technological metaphors to describe God’s power and influence in the world. We assume there is an abstract, incorporeal reality that is more fundamental than God, and His actions are restrained by those abstract, scientific laws.
Route 2: Throw out the dichotomy
Alternatively, we can ignore the categories created by the Greeks to divide up reality. This dichotomy is, after all, a product of Greek philosophy, and significantly distorted Christian thought in the first place. There is no revelatory reason to cling to it. The ancient Greeks were asked to transcend their philosophical paradigm when they encountered Christian doctrine. Neal A. Maxwell explains:
Paulâ€™s experience in Athens showed the mind-set of Greek philosophy (see Acts 17). His intellectually curious audience asked about â€œthis new doctrine, â€¦ for thou bringest â€¦ strange things to our earsâ€ (Acts 17:19â€“20). Then when Paul spoke of the living God and the Resurrection, he was â€œmockedâ€ (Acts 17:32) for seeming to set â€œforth â€¦ strange godsâ€ (Acts 17:18; see also Acts 17:29).2
A personal, embodied deity, who could live and die in a particular place and time, who could walk up to you, shake your hand, and ask you about your day, and who also had power to command the elements and organize worlds did not make sense to the Greeks because the ultimate governor of reality was required to be abstract and incorporeal. The ultimate source of order and consistency was, for the Greeks, an impersonal, passive, static set of abstract principles, the kind of thing that can be represented in mathematical equations. To think that a personal, embodied, interacting God is the source of order and consistency does not sit well with Greek thought. It is very possible that Faulconer is right when he says:
I think … [the suggestion] that the Greek and Roman models of thought cannot do justice to the true and living God is not merely a possibility, it is a probability. I believe that most of what passes for talk about God, whether positive or negative, is talk about a god who is not the God of Israel.
When it comes to thinking about divine things, I think it not too much to say that, by itself, Greek thinking locks us out of an understanding of God as a living and acting being, handing us over to the theology of a static and immutable, in other words, dead, god.5
Thus, in Greek thought, either God is abstract and immutable, or He is not the source of order in the world. For these reasons and many others6, I believe that we ought to reconsider the assumptions we’ve inherited from Greek philosophy including the Being vs. Becoming dichotomy. The assumption that a material world must necessarily entail an innate and immutable pattern of behavior strikes me as an unnecessary assumption. It is likely that other philosophical perspectives are available that allow a personal, active, breathing God to also be the originator of scientific order and consistency in our world—the “decreer” of scientific law, for instance. I believe a Hebrew perspective is one among many that may allow for this possibility. From a Hebrew perspective, order does not have to, indeed cannot, originate in universal, abstract principles (since these are not even expressed in Semitic languages), but rather in an embodied deity as He relates with and governs the world.
One reason some scholars are uncomfortable with this perspective is because it would require them to reconsider their commitment to scientific naturalism. Scientific naturalism, however, has many philosophical and logical difficulties, which I will address another time. Also, some fear that this perspective could easily imply a kind of moral relativism in which any moral order is merely the whim of God; however, I will show in future posts that this point of view does not require God to be the inventor of morality. He certainly engages in a world and lives in an environment He did not conjure out of nothing—however, the fundamental constraints of this world may be moral, rather than scientific, in nature, and moral realities may not need to be described in terms of abstract universals.
1. Dallin H. Oaks, “Apostasy and Restoration,” Ensign, May 1995, p. 84.
2. Neal A. Maxwell, “From the Beginning,” Ensign, Nov. 1993, p. 18. Citations in order are: Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, part 3: Caesar and Christ (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944), p. 595; see Robert M. Grant, Gods and the One God (Philadelphia: Westminster Press), p. 75–81, 152–58; and Edwin Hatch, The Influence of Greek Ideas on Christianity (Gloucester, Mass: Peter Smith, reprinted 1970), p. 49.
3. Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Only True God and Jesus Christ Whom He Hath Sent,” JesusChrist.lds.org, accessed 25 Jul. 2008.
4. “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man.” Joseph Smith, “The King Follett Sermon,” Ensign, Apr. 1971, p. 13–14.
5. James E. Faulconer, Scripture Study: Tools and Suggestions (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1999), 150–51.
6. The Being vs. Becoming dichotomy makes the doctrine of agency very problematic, among other things.