Are Mormons Developing Toward Greater Orthodoxy?


Today I ran across this fascinating piece over at First Things by Richard J. Mouw: “Mormons Approaching Orthodoxy” (“Orthodoxy” here is what we might call “small-O orthodoxy”). In this, Mouw, the former president of Fuller Theological Seminary, makes observations about his relationship with Mormons that resulted from his participation in years of Evangelical-Mormon dialogue, which he uses to interpret statements made by Mormon leadership in recent years. He believes that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may be moving in a rather surprising theological direction.

The key question revolves around the traditional Mormon doctrine, taught by Mormon founder and prophet Joseph Smith, Jr., that God the Father is an exalted human being and also that we humans can achieve the same thing that the Father has. This is possible because God and man are fundamentally made from the same stuff.

Smith taught against the traditional Jewish and Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo (out of nothing), saying that all that exists is really just a rearrangement of pre-existing matter, the same matter that makes up what God is. So the difference between God and man is not an eternal ontological gap but rather just a difference in how that eternal material that makes up everything is arranged.

In this, there is a deep similarity to most ancient pagan doctrines of creation, in which a god or gods make the material creation out of matter derived from an existing god, usually a goddess, which is why motherhood and creation are so intimately linked in most pagan religion. The Father Who stands apart from and is entirely different from His creation was unique to the faith of the Jews and then inherited by the Christians. (Pagan monotheist philosophers eventually taught something similar, but their Unmoved Mover was not personal as the Father of the Jews, and creation was not really ex nihilo, either.)

The collapse of the created and uncreated into the same category is the fundamental theological supposition that is at the heart of all of the core Mormon theology. I wrote about this in Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy (and added considerably to my section on Mormonism in the forthcoming revised edition), and the more I’ve read Mormon theology, especially the words of Joseph Smith himself, the more it became apparent to me that this lack of differentiation between the created and uncreated is the “key” to what can often be a bewildering maze of theology.

Thus, I was fascinated to read Mouw offering his opinion that Mormons were signaling a backing away from this most critical piece of their tradition:

In April of 1997, the late Gordon Hinckley, then the president of the LDS Church, was asked by a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle whether “Mormons believe that God was once a man.” His response:

    I wouldn’t say that. There was a little couplet coined, “As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become.” Now that’s more of a couplet than anything else. That gets into some pretty deep ­theology that we don’t know very much about.

    Q: So you’re saying the church is still struggling to understand this?

    A: Well, as God is, man may become. We believe in eternal progression. Very strongly. We believe that the glory of God is intelligence and whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the Resurrection. Knowledge, learning, is an eternal thing. And for that reason, we stress education. We’re trying to do all we can to make of our people the ablest, best, brightest people that we can.

A few months later, in the August 1997 issue of Time magazine, Hinckley was once again asked about the “God the Father was once a man” teaching. He responded, “I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it. . . . I understand the philosophical background behind it. But I don’t know a lot about it and I don’t know that others know a lot about it.” When Time was later asked about the ellipses in the quoted comment, Richard Ostling, the person who conducted the actual interview, provided a transcript from his notes that included these sentences that were a part of the original response: “I haven’t heard it discussed for a long time in public discourse. I don’t know. I don’t know the circumstances under which that statement was made.”

Now, in order to parse this correctly, we have to understand what the position is of the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: he is nothing less than a prophet who speaks on behalf of God. And we also have to understand that mainstream Mormons very much believe that their prophets can develop dogma for them in a way that contradicts earlier doctrine. Perhaps the more famous examples of this development are the repudiation of plural marriage (polygamy) by the main LDS church, as well as the reversal of the longstanding ban on allowing blacks into the Mormon priesthood (i.e., full membership for men). Both doctrines were previously declared to be eternal revelations from God, but both have now been revealed no longer to be in force. (Plural marriage is said to be restored in Heaven. It is still practiced by some splinter Mormon groups.)

Mouw goes on at some length to detail what he sees as indications from the LDS leadership that God the Father’s ontological existence is being redefined away from the idea that He was once a man. In other words, perhaps He is God in a way that always was true, and perhaps human beings never can actually achieve that full Godhood that the Father has. He discusses the question of whether Hinckley and others are being deceptive and gives several more pieces of evidence for his belief that Mormons seem to be changing their views on such a central piece of their tradition which was very clearly taught by Joseph Smith.

Obviously there is a lot more to Mormon theology which is objectionable not only to Orthodox Christians but to all Trinitarian Christians of any stripe (really, to all non-Mormons). But this piece of theology is so much at the heart of what Joseph Smith taught that it is hard to imagine a Mormonism that continues in the same way if this affirmation is ultimately discarded.

Mouw ends his piece by saying that Mormons may well piously intend worship of the true God in a way that their theology does not (yet?) express, and he leans toward saying that those who do that, even though they might be damaging others with their doctrine, could well end up among the saved. This leans a little too far toward Pietism for me, though Mouw is at pains to say that doctrine really is important. But one gets the sense that piety for him might be just a bit more important.

There is of course something to what he is saying—one might be innocently mistaken on dogma, and God may well pardon that mistake. But the problem from the historic Christian perspective is that doctrine is not just a matter of getting something right. Rather, as Mouw himself says, doctrine plays itself out in the spiritual life: “Getting theology right is of great importance, for an orthodox theology helps us sustain our orthodox intuitions, expressions, and practices.” But he tends more toward suggesting that an accidentally good spiritual life might be salvific, something which undermines his professed allegiance toward doctrine, holding “the conviction that a person’s piety is often a better test of his faith in God than are his theological formulations.” But for the Orthodox, at least, theological formulations are not just “formulations” but are, in the words of many of our hymns, “saving dogmas,” saving not because being “right” is itself salvific but because eternal life is to know God (John 17:3), and you can’t know God as well if you believe wrong things about Him.

That said, this is still a very interesting piece, and I recommend reading all of it.

And just as something of a parting comment, I also recommend checking out this 1996 piece from Christianity Today, From the Fringe to the Fold: How the Worldwide Church of God discovered the plain truth of the gospel,” which details the journey of the Worldwide Church of God (“Armstrongism”) from being an odd anti-Trinitarian offshoot of Adventism with an obsession with British Israelism, into the mainstream of Evangelicalism. It almost seems like an impossible story, but it’s still true. (I also write about Armstrongism in the new O&H.)

I think it would be harder for Mormons to make a similar voyage, but you never know. Weird things happen all the time.


  1. Mouw has been criticized for years by fellow Evangelical Protestants, as he notes, for essentially looking through rose-colored glasses with regard to LDS doctrine. When I read through the mentioned LDS “Teaching Manual” which was published in 2011, well after President and Prophet Hinckley’s public backing away from part of Snow’s couplet, I do not share in Mouw’s hope and optimism that the LDS Church is making some sort of move in an orthodox direction regarding the ontological nature of God. The couplet is referred to in the text as “this truth” and it is noted that Snow did not publicly teach it until he was sure that then current Prophet and President Joseph Smith was also teaching it. Until the LDS Church clearly backs away from the implications of the first clause of this couplet, from the theology of the King Follett Discourse by Joseph Smith, and from other such teachings, their desire to use the Church Fathers to compare and almost equate their doctrine of eternal progression with the patristic idea of theosis, is ignorant and misguided at best, and deceptive at worst.

  2. I am a former Mormon, now Eastern Orthodox Christian and participate in discussion with many LDS members. I believe Mouw is correct . . . there is a move occurring within LDS circles away from emphasis on the idea that “God was once a man.” (Although, the idea is still considered acceptable LDS doctrine.) However, I don’t think this aspect of their theology can be separated from their understanding of God and man’s ontology. Creation ex materia and the belief that man is a “spirit born” son/daughter of God the Father (and possibly one of His wives) in the pre-existence is LDS dogma, and I don’t see it ever changing. This understanding influences their entire soteriology. Man does not have to “put on Christ” to become a Son of God, because we are ontologically one with God already. Furthermore, God is not “omnipotent” in the proper sense. Instead, He is subject to overarching eternal law. This Law is external to God, and His existence as God depends upon His obedience to it. Skousen wrote profusely about how “intelligences” (the basic fabric of creation) only obey God because of His obedience to eternal law. Were He ever to disobey it, He would cease to be God. Given this, it is highly unlike that their understanding of Who God is and what Theosis and salvation are in general will ever be truly “orthodox.”

    I guess the basic question is, if LDS do continue to move towards orthodox theology (small O), how close will they be able to get? The entire foundation of the faith is based upon the idea of a Great Apostasy, and is, thus, rooted in an utter repudiation of the Doctrine of the Trinity. Personally, I believe they may come “closer” to Orthodoxy, which is good, but for those who consider the Doctrine of the Trinity a fundamental Christian Dogma, I doubt the LDS Church will ever be accepted inside the “Christian Tent.”

  3. As an aside, it would seem to me a lot of religions’ problems revolve around the concept of the created and the uncreated and how they interact. I would posit that Mormonism and most of Evangelical Protestantism revolves around this issue, where the former blurs the lines and the latter keeps the lines so far apart there can be no communion (leading to a Nestorian Christology in many of their beliefs and a skewed understanding of “grace”).

    1. “..where the former blurs the lines and the latter keeps the lines so far apart there can be no communion ..”

      Good point. See Fr. Stephen Freeman’s EVERYWHERE PRESENT: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe.

  4. Have you read Terryl Givens’ “Wrestling the Angel”? It’s probably the best introduction to contemporary Mormon theology. While “neo-orthodox” Mormonism is gradually discarding the idea that God the Father is an exalted man, the theological substructure which makes such a belief possible remains firmly in place. God the Father is not the source of the “laws” which govern a cosmos which exists independently of him. Instead, he remains eternally what he is in virtue of his free obedience to these laws. Even though he may have been divine from a temporal eternity, that doesn’t make his divinity qualitatively different from that which is given to us- we are of the same species as him. The biggest problem, for me, is not the historicity of the Book of Mormon, but the philosophical catastrophe that is Mormon theology. It seems to me that the Mormon universe is still deprived of ultimate meaning, even if it provides more relative meaning than a naturalist universe can.

  5. I have had a lot of exposure to Mormons, their theology, and the way which they express it. Gordon Hinckley’s way of expressing his theology is typical of the sort of weasel words they use. While their view of God renders them heretics in the traditional sense of the word, and bound for hell, their Theology Proper is just one of the problems that separate them from Christianity.

    Mouw took a lot of flak over his position on Mormonism. He has backed off his position that they are Christian, but just misunderstood, and is now trying to backpedal.

    It is unlikely in the extreme that Mormons will ever make the trip the Worldwide Church of God did.

    1. While their view of God renders them heretics in the traditional sense of the word, and bound for hell, their Theology Proper is just one of the problems that separate them from Christianity.

      I’m not sure which tradition you mean to be speaking from, but as far as I’m aware, Orthodoxy at least does not specifically consign anyone to Hell. Even conciliarly defined heretics are not told that they are hellbound. They may well be, but we don’t know that for certain.

      1. Sorry it’s been so long as I don’t get here often. So that you can understand where I am coming from, I’m Pentecostal.

        I made the statement as I did because a Mormon is unconverted. Scripturally, the unconverted are dead in trespass and sin. Because scripture says it, we can say it as well. It is not what we are doing, we are simply agreeing with scripture on that count.

        I can understand where you are coming from, however. The term “heresy” can have several meanings depending on whom you are talking with. I do not take the term as meaning simple disagreement, but a doctrine whose acceptance places you among the unconverted.

        From my standpoint, and I think you would agree, I can’t say that you, being orthodox, are hell bound because you aren’t Pentecostal (or the other way around). However, I think you can legitimately say that a person that rejects Christ will not enter the Kingdom. Since there are only two eternal destinies….

  6. As an Orthodox Christian who grew up in a Mormon home, I must say: anyone who is under the impression that the Mormon church is “moving toward orthodoxy” clearly does not understand the basics of Mormonism. Hinckley’s Time interview notwithstanding, Mormonism does teach that God (the Heavenly Father) was a mortal man born on an “earth” somewhere, lived a good Mormon life, and upon his resurrection, gained the ability to “create” worlds of his own (of which our earth is one of many), which worlds were then populated by his own progeny, who were born to him in the celestial kingdom by his many, many wives. In this “theology”, all earth humans are this “God”‘s children, including Jesus, who is no different from us except in the sense that he (Jesus) is our older brother, much more advanced in his “eternal progression” than any of us are.

    For Hinckley to say “I don’t know that” “I don’t know that we emphasize it” and “I don’t know much about that” was not just deceitful, these were outright lies. I distinctly recall listening to Hinkley, Monson, Smith, Lee, and many other “apostles and prophets” teaching these doctrines. They all seemed to emphasize and know a lot about it in all those general conferences and lessons I sat through and books I read. The Mormon church wants acceptance; downplaying the more outlandish elements of its teachings is nothing new; it’s been going on for decades. The method changes as needed. Whether the “o” is big or small, orthodox Christians should not be deceived by heretical doctines of men, no matter how they’re packaged. Anyone who teaches or advocates such doctrines is a false teacher, to be steered clear of. There is no common ground with false doctrine. I don’t think it does the Mormon people any good to imply that if they just adjust their beliefs a little, they would be orthodox. I believe that Mormons don’t need to “adjust” their doctrine: they need to be converted to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and reject the LDS church and its false gospel.

    1. I think it’s worth noting here that moving toward orthodoxy doesn’t imply anything about how much ground there is to cover. Clearly, there is a lot.

      That said, Mormonism has developed before. It could happen again. The purpose of my piece here is just to raise the question and point out Mouw’s piece as something worth thinking about.

  7. I’ve only just come across this piece. Concerning the Worldwide Church of God: yes, some of the WCOG people (perhaps even the majority) became small-o orthodox, but there are multiple offshoots that maintain many, at least, of Herbert W. Armstrong’s strange beliefs; it’s possible, of course, that, like many Protestants, the movement had fragmented before the large-scale transition toward small-o orthodoxy. For example, I still find copies of _The Philadelphia Trumpet_ (full of HWA quotes) in waiting rooms of various facilities, as well as ads in the inserts in our Sunday paper for “Bible Correspondence Courses” from WCOG offshoots.

  8. I was raised Methodist, joined LDS Church when 14 (because my single mother was looking for a church with a good youth program for me). I was thoroughly converted by age 19. I spent 35 years in the LDS Church, mainly teaching the Gospel Doctrine class; married in the temple to a returned missionary, served 2 stake missions, sent a daughter on a mission…the whole bit. Also spent a little over a year in Mormon Fundamentalism and was held prisoner in a small room for 9 months after they caught me trying to sneak away to a Christian church and ordered me to renounce the Christian Jesus. I refused. Nearly died, but God enabled my escape, (story is on my blog.) As far the LDS Church *officially* changing their doctrines, I don’t think they will ever do that. Why do I think that? Because while they may not be teaching many of the fundamental doctrines of long ago to their membership, and are hedging around it like Hinckley did for the public, they are not officially denouncing any of those doctrines they’re trying to publicly deny. They just quietly maintain them in the background. If they truly believed, for example, God is NOT a man of the same material, they should publicly renounce the doctrine. But, that’s not going to happen. But I understand their thinking. The repercussions among members of the World Wide Church of God when Armstrong’s teachings were denounced was so devastating, I think the LDS Church recognizes that and doesn’t want to throw their members into a faith crisis. I truly believe that some would consider suicide. Although I am presently in an evangelical church, I attended an Orthodox church for a while. There’s no way I was convinced that all that ritual and expensive apparel is how the early apostles worshiped. They couldn’t have afforded all that. They met in people’s homes and were simple folk.

  9. I am a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy. I was previously an Evangelical.

    Every once in a while, a pair of young men will be at my door. This contrasts with the pair of old men that come to our door. Can you guess the religious identifies of each pair?

    Anyway, I’ve asked about Reformed/reformed Egyptian. I asked a Mormon that I knew in college why archaeologists haven’t found any of this language and he said that he was confident that that someone would find the language someday because it’s a real language. The young men that I’ve talked with have been mystified when I asked if they had ever seen a Reformed/reformed Egyptian lexicon. I showed them my Hebrew Old Testament, told them how people study the language even though we already have English translations and then asked them if anyone they know studies Reformed/reformed Egyptian. They knew of no one that did.

    I guess that Mormons do a good job of drilling their young people. We have tons of working aids for Greek and Hebrew. I even studied a little bit of Ugaritic when I was doing a paper at Fuller. How do Mormons exegete their special writings if they can’t do anything with the alleged original language. Whoops – I just remembered about the Egyptian burial manual that was supposedly something else until a Mormon Egyptologist read it.

  10. Father Andrew,

    I’m new to this site and ministry. I just wanted to say thanks. I’m a happy member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And it’s nice to find a site where the church leaders who post about my faith do so from a position of friendliness instead of ridicule, castigation, and mockery. I don’t stick around such sites. If they do have anything to offer, the sweet flavor is overwhelmed by the piles of invective smothering it on the plate. Here’s to hoping I’ll find lots of helpful insights here that will help me follow Christ : )

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