Reviewing McMurrin’s Theological Foundations: Part 2

Part 2 of McMurrin’s ‘The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion’ has to do with the concept of God. Once again I will ignore the historical background and the comparisons McMurrin makes with Catholic and Protestant belief, and will only focus on the Mormon theology.

Section 7 (continued from part 1) deals with creation. Mormonism denies creation ex nihilo which supports its finitistic theology. The Mormon scriptures assert that the elements are eternal, and that they were not and can not be created. In this case the term ‘eternal’ refers to something that never began rather that some state of timelessness. It is common for Mormons to state that God organized the world out of materials that already existed. Mormons realize that in the traditional Christian world this belief is somewhat unorthodox, but deny that the traditional Christian doctrines are demanded by the Bible.

Section 8 considers God as Absolute or Finite. The Mormon concept of God is quite finite. This is based mainly on the personalistic and anthropomorphic description of God, and in the denial of ultimate and absolute creation out of nothing. Mormons do move sometimes ambiguously between the more emotional absolutism and the more rational and logical finitism. This is a failure to recognize the demands of their own theology and the strength of that theology, and comes from a tendency towards biblical literalism and rhetorical Christian orthodoxy.

In Mormonism, God is described as a non-absolute being who is related to and conditioned by the universe of which he is part. And because of the denial of absolute creation out of nothing, the world is not under his absolute control or dominion. The Mormon deity is part of the continuing process of reality, and determines the world’s configuration. God’s environment is the universe, which consist of the minds of individuals who are not identified with him, the principles of reality, and the value absolutes which govern the divine will. For Mormons then, God is finite rather than absolute.

Section 9 addresses Time and Eternity. In the theological context ‘eternal’ can refer to the quality of being ‘timeless’. In this sense something that is eternal would not have a past, present, or future. It would not be involved in any type of process. In this sense Mormonism denies an eternal God. The Mormon concept of a material or temporal God demands that God is somewhere, and that he is sometime. In this way God has a past, present and future. He is involved in the processes of the world. This gives meaning to events from the perspective of God. God is not placed in some absolute ‘above’ or ‘without’ space and time but right there in the ongoing processes of the universe. This theology has a beauty and power which is not fully appreciated.

Section 10 is on Nominalism and Materialism. Mormonism is both nominalistic and materialistic in its view of God. Mormonism tends to the particular and concrete in its concept of reality. It is direct, highly literal, and positivistic and tends to be suspicious of the abstract and recondite. This is evidenced in the Mormon denial of the doctrine of the trinity set forth by the Nicene Creed. Mormonism is tritheistic in regards to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. The unity or oneness of the Godhead is not an internal thing where the individuals dissolve their ontological independence, but is an external relationship involving a total agreement of will and purpose. For Mormons, God DOES have a body, parts, and passions.

Section 11 is on Natural Theology. Mormonism is largely based on the claims of revelation to Joseph Smith and subsequent prophets. And there is an element of Mormonism that views philosophical and theological efforts with suspicion. Yet, for Mormons there is also the belief that the world and the universe are knowable, and in the ultimate sense there is not a need to accept paradoxes or maintain a doctrine of mysteries. The limitations are that of human reason. There is also the optimism of future revelation.

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22 Responses to “Reviewing McMurrin’s Theological Foundations: Part 2”


  1. 1 Mogget July 16, 2008 at 9:51 pm

    Hiya Eric, and thanks!

    I was wondering when this was going to appear…

    I believe the only Biblical support for creatio ex nihilo is in the deutero-canonical Macabbes, so that doesn’t affect us.

    Does McMurrin suggest that the Holy Spirit plays some role in the unity of the Godhead? IOW, if they maintain ontological distinction, how do they achieve “total agreement” of “will?”

    Mogs

  2. 2 smallaxe July 16, 2008 at 11:02 pm

    Is there any sense that McMurrin was reading Whitehead? Some of McMurrins inerpretations about God and creativity are similar.

  3. 3 Eric Nielson July 17, 2008 at 8:39 am

    Mogget:

    Very good to hear from you again. I was on vacation for a week and a half, and then had to travel for work for a few days….

    As far as unity of the Godhead goes, I think McMurrin is right that Mormon theology demands ontological distinction. I do not believe McMurrin (or the church) can accept some mystical merging when it comes to the Godhead. I think this total agreement would have more to do with a belief that there are moral absolutes in the universe – things like ‘goodness’ or ‘justice’, and when one comes to a complete or perfect state of character or ‘being’ with these moral attributes then you will be in total agreement in every important thing with other beings who have a similar complete or perfect character.

    smallaxe:

    Also nice to hear from you. It must be FPR day 🙂 .

    I did not remember him quoting Whitehead. McMurrin does not do much with quoting sources in this book. I can check when I get home. Unfortunately, I am not well read enough in philosophy to really know myself.

  4. 4 Clark July 17, 2008 at 1:08 pm

    McMurrin probably was familiar with Chamberlain who was part of that early movement which eventually became process thinking. I think seeing it only as influenced by Whitehead is a mistake – although that’s me as an outsider looking in. To me the way process thinkers think seems to go well beyond Whitehead.

    I think McMurrin was more influenced by the positivists though although there is a strong pragmatic streak in his writings.

    I really dislike this book, as I’ve mentioned before. A few years back several blogs did a reading club on McMurrin and you can read my thoughts there.

  5. 5 Eric Nielson July 17, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    Thanks Clark. I do remember McMurring quoting something from Chamberlain at length.

    Thank you for the links also.

  6. 6 Eric Nielson July 21, 2008 at 12:27 pm

    Clark:

    I don’t know if you will swing back by here or not, but I think I understand why you dislike this book. I think because you are such a philosophy/theology guru, that you naturally think this book is superficial.

    I think it should be kept in mind that this is not really a ‘book’ at all as I understand it. It is the trascript of a series of lectures. This understadably lowers the scope and level of detail.

    The very fact that this is a basic, introductory, and superficial effort at expressing the theological foundations of Mormonism is why I like it. I needed a Mormon theology for dummies type of thing.

    So I think the very reason you don;t like it is the reason I do like it.

  7. 7 Clark July 28, 2008 at 6:41 pm

    It’s not so much as it is superficial as it is wrong and trying to make things fit into categories that don’t work. Certainly superficiality is part of it. But one can do a presentation that the lay public will understand without being so problematic.

    I do agree someone ought write the equivalent of a Philosophy for Dummies for Mormons. Or the equivalent. If only to keep people from turning to this book. Blake’s books are good but just too long for that and further they are mainly about promoting a particular view of Mormon theology rather than presenting the range of views within Mormon theology. (Arguably one of McMurrin’s big problems as well)

  8. 8 Eric Nielson July 29, 2008 at 8:37 am

    I am not well read or well schooled in philosophy, but as I have read this book I am surprised with how much I agree with what McMurrin is saying.

    I think if someone were to try and cover a wide range of views it would inevitably be problematic.

    I also feel that at the basic fundamental levels there is not that much of a range of views. Certainly there are exceptions among the members, and there will be those who understand some of the deeper problems in philosophy. But when it comes to the nature of the Godhead, or doctrine regarding original sin, etc., is there really a legitimate range of views?

  9. 9 Clark July 29, 2008 at 5:40 pm

    Yeah, there’s actually a pretty large range of beliefs.

  10. 10 Eric Nielson July 29, 2008 at 10:37 pm

    Of course there is a wide range, but a legitamate large range within Mormonism on basic beliefs? I mean like God has a body of flesh and bones, and the Father and the Son are separate beings. This alone is a biggy, and is the kind of stuff McMurrin addresses. Is there a legit range of beliefs within Mormonism on this? I think not.

  11. 11 ji August 16, 2008 at 5:43 pm

    Eric,
    McMurrin is a man who writes as a man — in the same way Latter-day Saints consider the works of so many non-LDS theologians (Aquinas, for example) as personal opinion (and even good faith and honest), we must say that McMurrin’s writings are his opinions. He does not write for me (and I am a Latter-day Saint). Does Mormonisn deny an eternal God? McMurrin might think so, but the Book of Mormon clearly identifies Jesus Christ as the very Eternal God and the Eternal Father.

    I neither need nor want an “introductory … effort at expressing the theological foundations of Mormonism.”. For me, Mormonisn is a matter of faith. Inviting philosophers and academics (even LDS) to discourse on WHY I believe, and to tell me that [all] Mormon belief derives from a man-made philosophy, is dangerous. Why must we even attempt to philosophize Mormonism? We say the ancients did it, and we say Platoism crept into early Christianity, and we attribute the Great Apostasy in part to these good faith attempts at philosophizing.

    What’s the difference between Aquinas and McMurrin? Nothing, really. Each tries to philosophically and academically explain his beliefs. Do all good Catholics agree with Aquinas? No. Should all good Latter-day Saints agree with McMurrin? No.

    Reading thoughts and ideas from others can be helpful, and I sometimes like to read such. But I reject all attempts to define the philosophical basis for Mormonism — to do that, one would have to put Joseph Smith on the couch and psychanalyze him, and I suppose Christ himself would also have to be similarly psychoanalyzed. McMurrin makes statements that never even occurred in the head of the Prophet, or if they did, McMurrin wouldn’t be able to know absent the [impossible] psychoanalysis. And no doubt, there are thoughts that did occur in the Prophet’s mind, and there are absolute truths, of which McMurrin is wholly unaware. A man, no matter how well-educated in the ways of the world, must always be a child regarding the full extent and meanings of God and creation and eternal purpose.

    I don’t want to discourage anyone from reading McMurrin or any other LDS author. But I hope readers will appreciate they’re reading the words of man, and not of God. It is good if such readings reinforce faith and bolster truth; it is unfortunate if they cause a soul to rely on philosophy and the arm of flesh for their truth.

  12. 12 ji August 16, 2008 at 6:26 pm

    Eric,
    I agree with Clark — there is indeed a wide and legitimate range of possibilities within Mormon belief. We teach a few basic principles and let members govern themselves. For example, who is to say that EVERYTHING regarding the Father’s tangible body has been revealed? Surely, NOTHING has been revealed except a positive statement that the Father has a body. But the nature of that body and essentially everything related to it is fair game for speculation or philosophizing or theologizing or whatever you want to call it.

    For myself, I avoid such speculation, and I have formed no opinion other than to accept by faith that the Father has a body. But as there are no already-revealed or dogmatic boundaries on such speculation (for this one matter), one must say that there is plenty of room for differing (and still legitimate) opinions among Latter-day Saints who elect to consider and speak out on this matter. And so for so many matters — if ALL truth is seen as 100%, what portion has been definitively revealed to man? 5%? 10%?

  13. 13 ji August 17, 2008 at 7:08 pm

    Sorry for the double posting — here’s a last thought — I guess I’m troubled by McMurrin’s writing about and describing the theological “foundations” of Mormonism — maybe I would be a little less torubled if he described the theological “implcations” of Mormonism. By describing FOUNDATIONS, he puts himself at the beginning, but he wasn’t there — and Mormonism is based on revelation, not philosophy. Mormonism was not founded on McMurrin’s philosophy. If McMurrin went back in time and shared his thoughts with Brothers Joseph or Brigham, they might have been amazed at his audacity. But if McMurrin writes about the theological or philosophical IMPLICATIONS of Mormonism, he keeps himself where he belongs in time and he can freely describe his opinion about how certain principles of Mormonism must affect the way mankind (or, the philosophers and theologians among mankind) have traditionally viewed certain matters.

    Okay, that’s all…

  14. 14 Eric Nielson August 18, 2008 at 8:48 am

    ji:

    Of course McMurrin is a man who writes as a man. There is nobody who confused McMurrin for a prophet, apostle or a god. Eternal has a few meanings. In this case McMurrin is saying that God is not everytime. The Book of Mormon idea you express does not deny this. God is eternal in the sense that he will be God forever, but not in the sense that he is in every time simultaneously.

    If you don’t need or want theological discussion of Mormonism, then you may want to go somewhere else. NOBODY here is claiming that Mormonism derives from man-made philosophy. Have you even read this book? If so, you have not understood it. Joseph Smith presents the world with a host of random revelations with no systematic theology behind it. (Which one might expect from a prophet). How to piece these revelations together into a body of doctrine and theology is an important thing. How we interpret scripture is biased by our view of theology. The big picture of truth is important.

    My reading of McMurrin’s book, and similar things, have strengthened my testimony tremendously. I feel it is the natural result of taking my religious belifs seriously. THings like this help me understand how powerful Mormon beliefs really are.

    McMurrin really does not do much speculation in this book. You mention the details of God and his body. McMurrin doesn’t go into the details at all. Not even a little bit. He doesn’t need to. The very fact that Mormons believe that God has a flesh and bone body is a huge statement of itself. It has major implcations. And it does us well to understand a little bit about those implications.

    I think McMurrin did address the implcations in this book. When he speaks of foundations, he means the very basic building blocks of Mormon belief. Again, my guess is that you have not read the book, and that this is an argument against philosophy/theology. That is fine. This book only addresses the most basic of Mormon beliefs, and gives a very sweeping, shallow, superficial introduction to theological concepts applied to these beliefs. Which was exactly what I wanted from the book.

  15. 15 ji August 18, 2008 at 2:21 pm

    PART ONE

    I regret not explaining a little better — my point is that neither McMurrin nor anyone else can definitively explain the theological foundations of Mormonism — all they can do is provide after-the-fact rationalizations and justifications, in the same way as did Augustine, Aquinas, and the other early Church fathers (to use the traditional Christian term).

    You write, “My reading of McMurrin’s book, and similar things, have strengthened my testimony tremendously. I feel it is the natural result of taking my religious belifs seriously. Things like this help me understand how powerful Mormon beliefs really are.” This is right — and this perfectly makes my point — McMurrin really attempts to define the theological IMPLICATIONS of Mormonism, not the theological FOUNDATIONS of Mormonism.

    A word game? Maybe.

    If *I* were establishing a brand new church today, *I* could attempt to explain the theological foundations of my new belief system — but someone else a hundred or more years from today could not — at best, he or she could only (i) make educated guesses at the theological foundations of my belief system; or (ii) explain the modern-day implications of my belief system.

    So I just wish his title was “The Theological Implications of the Mormon Religion” rather than “The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion” — to truly explain the foundations of Mormonism, McMurrin would have to explain things that God has not yet explained…

    PART TWO

    Regarding the body, my point was just to illustrate that there is plenty of room for legitimate and differing beliefs on many, many matters related to Mormonism — this was in counter to your statement “Is there a legit range of beliefs within Mormonism on this? I think not.”

    Thanks!

  16. 16 Eric Nielson August 18, 2008 at 2:31 pm

    I agree with what you say about the title of the book. ‘Implications’ would be more representative than ‘foundations.

    I also agree that Mormonism has a lot of leeway. But McMurrin doesn’t get into the details of doctrine very far.

  17. 17 Clark August 21, 2008 at 12:28 am

    What’s the difference between Aquinas and McMurrin? Nothing, really.

    Aquinas doesn’t do it for me but he was one of the greatest philosophers of all time. McMurrin, especially in this book, is anything but.

    BTW – for those slamming Aquinas remember that he had a powerful spiritual experience towards the end of his life after which he refused to do any more philosophy.

    With regards to God being Eternal the issue is the meaning of Eternal not whether the word can be applied in LDS terms. (After all the word simply may not mean what many mean by it)

    I’d say that by foundations McMurrin isn’t speaking genealogically (i.e. tracing the development of Mormon thought) but merely pointing out some philosophical positions demanded by LDS positions. I think he does a poor job of it but I don’t see anything wrong with doing that sort of analysis.

  18. 18 ji September 3, 2008 at 2:54 am

    I. “Mormonism is tritheistic in regards to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”
    This sort of sentence scares me. All of our scriptures, including latter-day scripture, affirm that we are monotheistic — acknowledging three personages in the Godhead doesn’t make us polytheistic (or tritheistic). D&C 20:28 affirms that Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are ONE God, infinite and eternal, without end.
    Anytime latter-day saints speak polytheistically, I have to cringe or wonder in despair, depending on how they say it.
    I believe the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is wholly monotheistic…
    II. [Speaking of the creation ex nihilo] “The Mormon scriptures assert that the elements are eternal, and that they were not and can not be created.”
    If the basis for this is D&C 93:33, we should note here that element refers to the physical side of man, not necessarily the physical universe created all around us.

  19. 19 Eric Nielson September 3, 2008 at 7:05 am

    My first reaction is to completely disagree with you on both counts. Both the Father and the Son have separate bodies of flesh and bones. Joseph Smith saw two personages. Christ prayed to the Father. And on and on. Saying we are monotheistic makes me cringe.

    As far as the physical universe, there are pleny of basis’ for the physical elements used in the universe being eternal. Maybe even more so. The elements are eternal – all of them.

  20. 20 ji September 4, 2008 at 12:17 pm

    Let’s not disagree. I did not deny that the Godhead has three separate and distinct personages, and you shouldn’t suggest such.

    Maybe we’re quibbling over words. Permit me to explain why I still affirm that the Church is monotheistic rather than polytheistic, and why I am still troubled when other Latter-day Saints teach that we are polytheistic.

    I suppose the primary (and indeed, maybe the only) basis for the polytheism thread of thought (and the thought that the Father was once a man like us on an earth like ours ) is the King Follett sermon. Several persons recorded their recollections of the sermon, some soon afterwards and some long afterwards, but none of these recollections agree in all the particulars and the Prophet himself never put his own thoughts down on paper. Nonetheless, there is enough consistency in the several recollections to get an understanding of the Prophet’s teachings to that group of people, even though we don’t fully understand the context and purpose of his teachings. The King Follett sermon was never presented to or accepted by a general conference of the Church as scripture, or the word and will of the Lord.

    Even so, the King Follett sermon does color LDS thought still today. But it should not be more than “color” to our thought, as it has not been accepted as doctrine. It is fair for a Latter-day Saint to be intrigued by the teachings of the sermon, and to wonder about the implications of the Prophet’s message. But it isn’t doctrine. In an article in TIME magazine, President Hinckley acknowledged that he understood the philosophical basis for the thought in some LDS circles that God was once like man, but he said that we don’t teach it.

    And the Church doesn’t teach it, not in its scriptures nor in its temples nor in its publications. The Church doesn’t deny the existence of the several recollections of the King Follett sermon, and admittedly the sermons teachings do color LDS thought, but these teachings aren’t Church doctrine.

    And yet, there are some Latter-day Saints who rely on the sermon as doctrine, and who construct theology based on the sermon. Such theologies are man-made. And whatever truths might be in the sermon, it seems to me they are best seen by discreet Latter-day Saints as meat rather than milk, and such truths are best discussed in small and informal groupings, where the Holy Spirit is invited to attend and where the implications of the sermons teachings are pondered in reverence. There is danger in casting pearls before swine, if I may be permitted to adapt the Savior’s words for use here without particularly identifying the teachings as pearls or other persons as swine. And there is danger in relying on a non-doctrinal sermon (or a sermon which has not been presented to or accepted by the Church as doctrine) to construct doctrines and theologies in the name of the Church.

    But D&C 20:28 is doctrine. The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God, infinite and eternal, without end. Amen.

    And D&C 20:12 is also doctrine. God is the same God yesterday, today, and forever. Amen.

    And D&C 20:17-19 is doctrine. We know there is a God in heaven, who is infinite and eternal, from everlasting to everlasting, the same unchangeable God, the framer of heaven and earth, and all things that are in them: and that he created man, male and female, after his own image and in his own likeness, created he them; and gave unto them commandments that they should love and serve him, the only living and true God, and that he should be the only being whom they worship.

    Based on these doctrines as taught here and elsewhere consistently through the scriptures, I affirm that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is monotheistic. I allow that the King Follett sermon does color my private thoughts sometimes, and sometimes causes me to ponder, but I try not to allow that coloring to affect my theology and my outward teachings to others, which must remain firmly rooted in doctrine.

    So yes, when I hear other Latter-day Saints teach that the Church is polytheistic, I do cringe or wonder in despair, depending on how I interpret the speaker’s intentions. My definition of monotheism, my understanding of God, and my understanding of Church doctrine lead me to affirm that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is monotheistic.

    If we must disagree, can we disagree over the definition of words rather than over doctrine? And can you allow that to some Latter-day Saints, the notion of polytheism is a stumblingblock (as that word is used in Romans 14 and elsewhere)?

  21. 21 Eric Nielson September 4, 2008 at 12:34 pm

    Much of what you say here has nothing to do with what has been presented in this post, or in McMurrin’s book. Why the KFD would be brought up here seem silly. Mormonism is tritheistic in regards to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. To state monotheistic claims are to confuse us with trinitarian theology, which is not what we teach.


  1. 1 Reviewing McMurrin’s Theological Foundations: Part 3 « Small and Simple Trackback on July 21, 2008 at 8:48 am

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