Posts Tagged ‘Daniel C. Peterson’


On the Alleged Clarity of Mormon Doctrine

   Posted by: Rob Bowman    in Mormonism, theology

In a recent blog piece entitled “On the Alleged Indeterminacy of Mormon Doctrine,” LDS scholar Daniel C. Peterson argues that “that Mormon doctrine is impossible to pin down.” Not so, according to Peterson. Even though they don’t produce detailed creeds, he argues, this doesn’t mean “that Mormonism lacks any and all doctrinal clarity.” As proof, Peterson rattles off a list of 50 questions he typed up quickly the night before: Does God exist? Is Jesus God’s Son? Did Jesus organize a church? And so on. He concludes:

Latter-day Saint teaching doesn’t aspire to be like a system of geometry, with propositions, theorems, and deductive proofs. But that doesn’t mean that Mormonism is a doctrinal free-for-all, a total chaos in which all is confusion.

Peterson’s blog article does a fine job—of diverting attention from the issue.

No one claims that Mormonism is unclear about absolutely everything. We all know that Mormons believe that God exists, that Jesus existed and rose from the dead, that Jesus visited the Americas, and so on. What Peterson has done here is to knock down a straw man. When evangelicals (like me!) talk about the difficulty of pinning down what Mormonism teaches, we are not talking about everything Mormons think but about key doctrinal issues on which clarity ought to be available in a religion that claims to have living prophets and an overabundance of scripture. Questions like these:

  1. Did the Father become God after passing through a period of testing and exaltation, so that he was not always God but rather became God? (Joseph Smith said yes, but some Mormons today say no.)
  2. Was the Father a sinner during his mortality? Could he have been a sinner? (The LDS Church doesn’t seem to have a position on this question. Some Mormons answer yes to one or both questions, some say no.)
  3. Is the Father still progressing in knowledge or power? (Famously, Mormon leaders in the late nineteenth century publicly disagreed with one another on this question. It still comes up.)
  4. What is the relation of the Holy Ghost to the Father? Is the Holy Ghost another spirit son of the Father? If not, who is he? (I was once accused of misrepresenting the LDS position on this question—because I repeated what was in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, which was written and edited by Mormon scholars.)
  5. Was there a God before our Heavenly Father who was his Father? Was there a Father before that one, and so in, in an infinite regress of divine Fathers? (Joseph clearly said yes to the first question and implicitly answered yes to the second. But the LDS Church no longer talks about these ancestors of Heavenly Father, and again different Mormons seem to have differing answers.)
  6. Is Heavenly Mother a God (or Goddess)? If so, why shouldn’t we worship her, since she is our divine Mother and is even the divine Mother of Jesus Christ? Why isn’t Heavenly Mother a member of the Godhead? (I don’t think the LDS Church has said much of anything on these questions. Indeed, they say as little as possible about Heavenly Mother except that one should not worship or pray to her.)
  7. Is worship properly given to the Father only, or to the Father and the Son? (Again, differing answers have been given. Since Mormons view the three Persons as three Gods, it is difficult to claim to worship only one God while affirming worship of both the Father and the Son.)
    (Note that Peterson doesn’t mention any of these first seven questions or anything close to them.)
  8. Were we actual self-conscious, individual persons from all eternity, or did we become such persons at some distant point in the past preexistence? (I’ve heard both answers from Mormons.)
  9. Did our heavenly parents literally procreate us as their spirit offspring, and again, what did that change about us if we were eternally preexistent? (Some Mormons say yes, some say no to the first question. Those who answer yes sometimes suggest that when we were procreated in heaven, we became individual persons or received spirit bodies.)
  10. If our heavenly parents literally procreated us as their offspring in the preexistence, why did they procreate us as spirits rather than as physical beings like themselves? Don’t physical beings have physical offspring? (I don’t know if any Mormons have even addressed this question.)
  11. If mortality and exaltation are essential steps in attaining Godhood, how did Jesus Christ become a God in the preexistence when he was Jehovah, before he had become mortal and attained exaltation? (He just did, okay? That seems to be the usual answer.)
  12. Mormonism affirms that Jesus Christ is the literal son of Heavenly Father and of Mary his mother in the flesh, actually “sired” by Heavenly Father. Is it consistent with this doctrine to infer that the Father impregnated Mary by physically uniting with her, i.e., is there anything in LDS doctrine that actually denies that this happened? If that is not how Jesus was conceived, how was he conceived such that he is the Father’s literal physical offspring? (Peterson’s “question” on this topic is, “Was Jesus the son of Joseph?” which neatly sidesteps the problem. Mormons usually take offense at these questions, however politely they may be asked, rather than offering any answers to them. Orthodox Christians don’t have this problem because their theology absolutely precludes the notion of God uniting physically with Mary.)
  13. Is the hill where Joseph Smith discovered the gold plates the same hill called Cumorah in the Book of Mormon? (The popular Mormon answer is yes, while most LDS scholars say no.)
  14. Is the Book of Abraham a translation of text that appeared on one of the papyri that the LDS Church bought in 1835? (The popular Mormon answer has until recently been yes; many Mormons still answer yes, but the scholars are divided on the matter.)
  15. Is the Bible missing any books that are actually extant today, and if so, why doesn’t the LDS Church include them in their editions of the Bible? (I’ve had Mormons tell me that the early church wrongly excluded books like Shepherd of Hermas or the Book of Enoch, but they can’t tell me why those books aren’t in the LDS Bible. Please don’t tell me that they aren’t included due to their not being copied or translated correctly, because you say the same thing about the books that are in the LDS Bible. Besides, y’all have prophets with the gift of translation, remember?)
  16. Why did the early church become apostate—because the Christians were bad, or because of persecution, or what? (Mormons have a tough time with this question. It’s a dilemma: if they say it was because the Christians were bad, that runs into the problem that Christians in the second and third centuries were renowned for their good works and willingness to suffer martyrdom for Christ; if they say it was because of persecution, that ignores the fact that the church continued to grow and flourish while suffering persecution.)
  17. If the purpose of polygamy is to “raise up seed,” then why did Joseph Smith apparently not have any children by his plural wives? (Mormons admit that Brigham Young and the Utah Mormons in the nineteenth century had large families with plural wives bearing numerous children, but argue strenuously that Joseph Smith had no children by any of his plural wives. Why not? Was he doing something different than the Utah polygamist Saints? Again, they claim that Joseph was simply restoring what the patriarchs of the Old Testament did, but those patriarchs had children by their wives. These questions often lead to Mormons coming up with all sorts of other possible reasons for the practice.)

Feel free to mention additional questions about LDS doctrine that you have found elicit varying answers from Mormons. If you are a Mormon, feel free to offer comments answering these questions.

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Daniel C. Peterson, a leading LDS scholar and apologist, has written an article entitled, “When the criticisms of the Book of Mormon can’t be taken seriously.” In his article he suggests that some criticisms of the Book of Mormon are so silly that they should be dismissed with laughter. “Sometimes, an efficient response to certain criticisms is simply a good laugh.”

Well, some criticisms might well be so implausible as to deserve ridicule. Often, however, what is really happening is that Mormon representations of the criticisms are caricatures. Take, for instance, Peterson’s description of a supposedly laughable criticism of the Book of Abraham (apparently he didn’t have enough for just the Book of Mormon):

More than 20 years ago, two critics suggested that the cosmological ideas in the Book of Abraham derive from a 1728 entry in Benjamin Franklin’s unpublished personal papers and from an obscure 1755 work by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant that was barely noticed in Germany and wasn’t published in English until 1900.

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