Theological Foundations

Well, I did it. I read ‘The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion’ by Sterling McMurrin. My wife got it for me for our anniversary (at my request, she had never heard of such a thing). I must confess, I quite enjoyed reading it. I imagine that I only got about 10% out of it compared with what someone who was better prepared to read the book would get, but I was glad to read it.

I found myself wondering – in a way perhaps along with McMurrin – why the church, and members of the church, don’t get into the Philosophical and Theological implications of the doctrines of the church. McMurrin provided a bit of a glimpse into this:

Mormon Theology exhibits no more obvious characteristic than its common-sense materialism and nominalism. In matters pertaining to religion the Mormon mind is typically given to the concrete and the particular and to physical imagery. It is direct, highly literalistic, and positivistic and tends to be suspicious of the abstract and recondite (page 41).

This fits me pretty well. He goes on a few pages later:

The primary task of theology is to reconcile the revelation to the culture, to make what is taken on faith as the word of God meaningful in the light of accepted science and philosophy. Mormonism has little traffic with the major philosophical trends of our time, and generally views the philosophical system with considerable suspicion (page 47).

Yes. I can see that too. But even someone like me can read McMurrin’s book with some positive results. It was eye opening and yes, even testimony building for me. It opened my eyes to some of the powerful implications of key doctrines of the church. It also opened my eyes further on what a radical departure Mormonism is from Catholic and Protestant thought.

President Hinkley has said a few times, speaking to those who are not of our faith, something like – bring with you the truths that you have, and see if we can add to it. I think this is very well intentioned and purely motivated salesmanship. President Hinkley, I am sure. is well aware that in the ultimate and overall sense, Mormonism is radically different, at the very foundations, from any other church.

I did the same thing on my mission, having served in Georgia. I would intentionally give the impression that the Mormon church was really not as different as everyone seemed to think. And in many ways this was sincere. A bit naive, but sincere. In my mind at the time, just take a Baptist or Methodist, add the Book of Mormon, the Word of Wisdom, and stir. Chill for a couple of hours and serve. And you have a Mormon.

Now after reading McMurrin’s book my view has changed significantly. Prophets, the BofM, the W of W, etc. are in a way surface differences. You think those things are radical departures, just wait. I will give just one area of difference for illustration. Better reviews are available, or better yet read McMurrin yourself. But, the illustration I might give is our doctrine that God is Finite (as opposed to absolute) and on man as a necessary being (instead of contingent) and how these work to avoid blaming God for all evil.

It is apparently typical in Christian thought that God is absolute, and created everything out of nothing. This places God above the universe and responsible for it all. That before the creation of all things there was nothing except God, not even empty space. And many also think of God as a non-material being who is not subject to time. All this works together to make it look like God is responsible for all the evil that happens naturally (earthquakes, tsunamis, birth defect, etc.) Now when you throw in the notion that human life is created out of nothing at the time of conception by God, again it makes God responsible for all the evil that men do. This whole ball of wax regarding explaining evil apparently has perplexed Christian thinkers for a long time.

General Mormon belief in a God who is part of the universe, and organized the earth out of material that already existed, and that the elements are eternal provides a powerful out for all the evil that happens naturally. The idea that the universe is neutral and neither good nor evil, and was not ultimately created out of nothing by a God who is above all the universe appears to be powerful stuff indeed. And not fully appreciated even by those of us in the church. And then, when you add the belief that intelligences, which are the essential part of what we are, we not created or made, but are co-eternal with God provides another powerful out for all the evil that humans do to each other. Since we are not ultimately the creation of God, we are the ones responsible for the evil we do, not God.

Well, I’m sure it is obvious to many that I am no expert in this stuff, but I have a greater appreciation for it. A thought that I had, which was expressed a few times, but very indirectly, in the book, was that all this wonderful stuff was not the result of theological strategic planning, but is the more simple result of revelation. It appears that many of the really big theological problems for Christianity are handled quite well by Mormon doctrine. This is not to say that everything is done. Certainly there is still work to do in this field. I have a greater appreciation for those who are trying to define and express the implications of Mormon teachings. This stuff may not be right down my alley of interest or ability, but I am seeing a greater importance in it.

7 Responses to “Theological Foundations”

  1. 1 Bradley May 29, 2006 at 9:47 pm

    Most of the times when I read philosophical posts in the Bloggernacle, my eyes just glaze over. I just don’t get into pure philosophy I guess. But your review makes this book sound very approachable and your example is great.

    As a missionary, I often wanted to jump up on a housetop and shout, “Don’t you people realize that I have the answers to the questions you’ve been asking for so long? Don’t you realize I can help you make sense of the religion you already believe in?!” Sort of like our belief in work for the dead or degrees of glory. Mormon theology offers so many answers to longstanding puzzles. Sure, we have our own puzzles, but we have a lot of answers.

    But then, I guess that is the point of revealed religion!

  2. 2 Ryan May 30, 2006 at 10:49 am

    Great review.

    My curiosity on Sterling has definitely been piqued as I have read through “David O. McKay and the rise of modern Mormonism”. Especially since the book paints him as a very controversial figure who found himself occasionally on the verge of excommunication. Your post has heightened my curiosity

    Having read some of his material, does the “controversial” representation surprise you or did you find questionable assertions in his book?

  3. 3 Eric May 30, 2006 at 2:14 pm

    From my perspective, the only thing that might be considered controversial is that he feels there should be much more work done on forwarding the implications of the doctrine of the church. He seems to feel that church leaders do not take doctrine seriously enough, and that people with a theological background should be part of general church leadership. My impressions are that he would feel that we are all a bit naive about our own doctrine all the way to the top.

    The book appears to be written in a very general way. He did not appear to put mauch of his own opinion into it in my view. In his personal opinions he apparently was critical of the priesthood not being given to blacks (or even women) among other things. But again, the book focussed on what I would consider accepted doctrine and its theological implications, and a lot of comparisons between Mormonism, catholic, and protestant thought.

    It said in the forward that after giving this series of lectures that David O. McKay wrote him a congatulatory letter praising his efforts, while his first councillor (J. Ruben Clark?) was very critical of it.

    I liked it.

  4. 4 Bradley May 30, 2006 at 4:56 pm

    I wrote a post a while ago that quoted a bit of an interview with McMurrin where he talked about David O. McKay. You can find it here with a link to the full interview.

  5. 5 Eric May 30, 2006 at 5:56 pm


    Thank you for your comments, and for that great link to the McMurrin interview. He was quite a character.

  6. 6 tyler May 30, 2006 at 8:29 pm

    I remember attending a BYU devotional when I was a freshman there. Dr. David Paulsen spoke about Joseph Smith and the Problem of Evil (the talk, which is phenomenal, is still available in the devotional archives–1999). I sat entranced by what I heard. Dr. Paulsen outlined the reasons the problem of evil had, for so long, perplexed Christian thinkers. As Eric intimates, the problems really seems beyond solution within the context of traditional Christian philosophy. Dr. Paulsen, however, proceeds to quote Joseph Smith, referencing the Prophet’s words from a number of disparate occasions. Relying on these quotations, Paulsen demonstrates how Joseph’s revelation dissolves the problem of evil like a block of sugar under a stream of water. Upon further contemplation I have realized even the Mormon answer to the problem of evil is neither simple nor complete; nevertheless, that Joseph could unintentionally solve possibly the most perplxing religio-philosophical question in the history of western thought is miraculous. Indeed, Dr. Paulsen told us that if Joseph had “written” nothing but 2 Nephi 2, that would be enough to convince Dr. Paulsen of Joseph’s divine calling.

  7. 7 Eric May 31, 2006 at 5:45 am

    Thanks Tyler. Outstanding comment. How did Joseph do it?

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