Reviewing Paulsen’s Statements Relating to ‘Spirit Birth’

In one week my presentation will be over, and perhaps I will be able to think about something else.  That might be nice.  In a recent thread at BCC, J. Stapley apparently felt the need to argue my presentation before it is even given.  This is probably no big deal since we have been over this stuff often, and I am sure that I will not be presenting anything that will be a big surprise to anybody.  In the comments to this thread I stated that Dr. David Paulsen and I seemed to be on the same page with much of this topic.  Matt W. said that he read the same section of ‘Mormonism in Dialogue with Contemporary Christian Theologies‘ and did not come away with the same impression.  I am pleased to pass along what I feel are the relevant statements from this section of the book.

On page 525 Paulsen begins speaking of deification, and he states:

Latter-day Saint tradition holds that there exists no ontological barrier preventing mankind from becoming all that God is and enjoying the same kind of life that God lives, and I have been puzzled by scholarly claims to the contrary

This is a foundational motive for me maintaining the idea of spirit birth – maintaining no ontological barrier.  Incidently the reference of his puzzlement is to ‘How Wide the Divide?’, which made me laugh and got three exclamation points and two underlines.

Then on page 526 Paulsen is reviewing some of the King Follet Discourse, and then provides:

In short, God’s purpose is to help man realize his divine potential, and until recently LDS thought has recognized no limits upon this potential.  …the question for open theism is what to do with the overwhelming biblical evidence that humans are the offspring o God, not creatures merely.

Scriptures that are cited are – Acts 17:28-29, Deut. 14:1, Ps 82:6, Hosea 1:10, Mal. 2:10, Eccl. 12:7, Rom. 8:16, Eph. 4:6, and Heb. 12:9.

Then there is a section titled ‘God and Gender’ which starts on page 532.   Paulsen begins by addressing two specific questions, ‘Do Latter-day Saints speak of goddesses?’ and ‘Is there procreation [with god’s and goddesses]?   Paulsen answers, ‘To both of these questions, LDS  theology answers yes’.  He then gives some background and quotes the hymn ‘O My Father’ at length.  He then quotes from the ‘Origin of Man’ and ‘The Family: A Proclamation to the World’.  (He sounds a little like me, huh?)

Then he wraps up this section on page 536 with quite a paragraph that I will quote at length:

While the Latter-day Saints admittedly do not often speak of ‘gods and goddesses’ in their Church meetings, this idea does occupy a central place in LDS theology as well as in temple ceremonies – of which eternal marriage is one.  And as noted before, the ability to enjoy an ‘eternal increase’ is one of the main characteristics by virtue of which God is considered to be divine.  Hence the LDS notion of deification holds that this divine, procreative power can be communicated to those who qualify for exaltation in the Celestial Kingdom.  Thus it is clear that deification requires both the male and female genders, and that both are considered ‘gods’ and ‘goddesses’ respectively, and the doctrine of the eternality of families and the ability to exercise procreative powers beyond the grave are cherished by the Latter-day Saints.

Now, in fairness, Paulsen admits in his second response, that we do not know all of the details associated with what I might call ‘bodily functions’ of resurrected beings.  Perhaps they do not need to use the toilet for example.  But even if the procreative process is different for resurrected beings than it is for mortal beings, does not mean that it does not take place.

22 Responses to “Reviewing Paulsen’s Statements Relating to ‘Spirit Birth’”

  1. 1 matt w. March 21, 2010 at 8:48 pm

    Touche’ my friend. I remembered none of that!

  2. 2 Eric Nielson March 21, 2010 at 9:12 pm

    I think we often find what we seek.

  3. 3 WVS March 22, 2010 at 11:53 am

    So Eric, does this mean (I have not read the item in question) that Paulsen is on board with “Tripartite Existentialism?” If yes, then I find that interesting, but I suppose not surprising, given what I know of *his* views on Mormonism’s doctrine of man = individual human consciousness eternally backward (and forward).

  4. 4 Eric Nielson March 22, 2010 at 12:21 pm


    I believe that he does, as he does affirm our eternal past in this section of the book.

  5. 5 Mark D. March 23, 2010 at 12:46 am

    Excellent post. I don’t think there is any fundamental reason why viviparous spirit birth is remotely necessary for mankind and any of the members of the Godhead to be of the same species, however. There are any number of other alternatives.

    In addition, I think that Brigham Young-ish VSB tradition to the contrary, the idea of “eternal increase” being founded on the Abrahamic idea of endless physical posterity (and adoption in the world to come) is a far better interpretation.

    It is not as if this idea just sprung into Joseph Smith’s head unbidden. It is _all_ over the Old Testament, in the form in which I have expressed, and without a doubt forms the basis of family history work, transitive child to parent sealings, the language of those ordinances, the doctrine of adoption, and so on. With considerable inspiration of course.

    VSB aside, it is not an accident that Brigham Young believed that Adam and (our) Heavenly Father were one and the same. Doesn’t jive particularly well with the New Testament perspective (i.e. that of Paul) but has some obvious merit just the same. Like many things temple-ish there is a Hebrew background for that idea as well. Masonry is but an idle sideshow by comparison. Masonic temple? Hardly. We are talking about a Hebrew temple, in spades.

  6. 6 Eric Nielson March 23, 2010 at 6:48 am

    Thanks Mark.

    I am having trouble understanding how what you are saying in your comment has to do with the origin of our spirit bodies. Your comment seems to point to the eternal future, not to the eternal past. What am I missing?

  7. 7 WVS March 23, 2010 at 3:22 pm

    Not speaking for Mark, but I’m guessing that looking forward to our hopeful future suggests a push-back onto God’s past. Hence, no need for spirit birth to talk about progeny in several ways. That’s what I got. Mark can correct.

  8. 8 Eric Nielson March 23, 2010 at 7:49 pm

    I guess I would wonder then, what he makes of our preexistence. Anything? I have to be missing something.

  9. 9 J. Stapley March 23, 2010 at 8:13 pm

    Thanks for the write-up. I view Paulsen to be taking a specific interpretation of Mormonism and arguing for it as if it were normative. No problem with that, of course, but it is a weakness.

  10. 10 W. V. Smith March 24, 2010 at 12:52 am

    J, the only way to be within mainstream Mormonism today, and keep what Paulsen obviously views as a philosophically indispensable doctrine (backward eternity of the individual) is to go the Roberts route. Paulsen wants to be heard inside and outside Mormonism, and at BYU. If you try to take on the Mother in Heaven doctrine, you are going to be marginalized by 2/3 of your audience. But the reality is that you can’t really connect MiH to JS without using words like “perhaps” or “maybe” or “it seems like.” I’m not accusing Paulsen of being disingenuous here. I believe he’s sincere. It’s just that there is no good contemporary source that links the idea with JS. Richard Anderson used to make a very big deal about evidence, and hearsay. None of the sources people claim for linking JS with MiH pass the Anderson smell test. I would be happy to find one, better yet, more than one contemporary simultaneous eyewitness report that showed JS believed both doctrines.

  11. 11 Mark D. March 24, 2010 at 2:18 am

    Eric, there are any number of models of pre-mortal existence that do not require viviparous spirit birth. Eternal personal spirit / intelligences is one of them.

    What I am saying is that there is little to no scriptural support for VSB, and an immense amount of evidence for spirit birth by adoption. Mosiah 5:7 is an excellent example, as is John 8:42-44.

    As far as the Abrahamic covenant goes we have Abraham promised an endless temporal posterity and a spiritual one as well. In Galatians 3, Paul concludes by stating: “And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” The righteous are counted the children or heirs of Abraham whether they are his descendants or not.

    The language in D&C 132 with regard to eternal increase is a direct echo of the Abrahamic covenant. So why don’t we understand it that way? i.e. eternal increase as a combination of natural posterity by lineage, and spiritual posterity by adoption.

  12. 12 Mark D. March 24, 2010 at 2:34 am

    Speaking of MiH, if we are counted Abraham’s seed by _adoption_ are we not counted Sarah’s seed by adoption as well?

    This VSB thing seems like an enormous artifice designed to make every couple the _exclusive_ spiritual parents of 100 billion children, when shared spiritual parentage of an endless, multi-generational posterity by birth and adoption is enormously more practical. We all have any number of fathers and mothers in heaven right now.

  13. 13 Eric Nielson March 24, 2010 at 6:51 am


    Offspring is the important part. VSB is just a distraction for many – maybe this is the method, maybe not. Adopted beings are not necessarily offspring, which would leave the door wide open for ontological difference.

    What the scriptures say is a matter of interpretation as you know. I could claim every reference to God as father, and every scripture of mankind as children of God, and have a long list. I just have to take these scriptures literally.

    Your theory seems to either deny the preexistence altogether, or to require that our spirit bodies are eternal. Either way God would simply not be our parent in any literal sense whatsoever.

  14. 14 Eric Nielson March 24, 2010 at 6:53 am


    Read Paulsens abstract as He claims to be making an abductive case for JS teaching this.

  15. 15 Clean Cut March 24, 2010 at 11:14 am

    Forgive my ignorance, Eric. I haven’t read the comments here, and I certainly haven’t been around the discussions you all have had long enough to understand everyone’s position. But when you say that the spirit birth model allows for “no ontological barrier”, are you suggesting that those who don’t buy into “spirit birth” see God and man as ontologically different?

    I felt aquinas said it best on that BCC thread:

    “When Joseph Smith claimed that man was uncreated and eternal, he did away with the traditional creature-creator dichotomy. In other words, spirit birth does not perform the work of placing man and God in the same ontological category. Joseph already did that when he claimed that man was in the beginning with God and is uncreated. To argue that spirit birth is valuable because it does away with the Creator-creature model is to overlook that this work was already done by Joseph’s teaching, before the concept of spirit birth emerged. Spirit birth is not necessary to place God and man in the category of the uncreated. In fact, adding the doctrine of the spirit birth tends to undo that work and places man back in the category of the created, because his spirit must be created and must have a beginning, contra Joseph Smith.”

    Now, I know enough to understand that I enjoy these kinds of debates. I consider it a victory anytime someone is open-minded enough to see new interpretations. So I certainly am not coming down conclusively one way or the other. But I do welcome examination of the deeply entrenched spirit birth understanding, as well as the inside-the-box idea that Heavenly Parents would require procreative powers to have children. After all, in terms of spirits, Joseph Smith never spoke about PROcreation, but rather “NO creation” about it.

  16. 16 WVS March 24, 2010 at 11:22 am

    Read that, Eric. It was mostly what drove my comment. Should have said so.

  17. 17 Mark D. March 25, 2010 at 1:24 am

    Either way God would simply not be our parent in any literal sense whatsoever.

    In case it isn’t obvious, I consider heavenly parenthood to be a shared role that encompasses all of our righteous lineal ancestors, and others, by adoption. Certainly the former are our parents in a very literal sense. They are our fathers and mothers in heaven.

  18. 18 Eric Nielson March 29, 2010 at 6:50 am

    Clean Cut:

    Just because God and man are both eternal does not necessarily guarantee that they are of the same species of being. Being eternal may be the only thing that God and man have in common with that view. It leaves the door wide open for an ontological divide. Aquinas is simply overstating his case here. And I resent the idea that someone who believes in spirit birth is only being blindly obedient to doctrine and lacks creativity.


    Read what?

    Mark D:

    Unless I am missing something, your comment doesn’t help. They would still not be literal parents in any sence. Adopted ‘parents’ maybe but not literal ones.

  19. 19 Mark D. April 4, 2010 at 3:28 am

    Eric N., “literal” is an ambiguous qualifier when associated with a term like “parent” that has at least _two_ primary senses, one to be the progenitor of and the other to raise, guide, and provide for. Which one is literal?

    “Parent” comes from a Latin root that means “bring forth”, how are we to divide the bringing forth that occurs before and during physical birth from the additional bringing forth that occurs during infancy and childhood, which is at least equally as critical in the formation of a well balanced individual.

    As such it is hard for me to conclude that the latter is any less literal than the former. There never has been nor ever will be a true Saint who has not been taught and guided from above. The last phase of parenthood is at least as important as the first.

  20. 20 Eric Nielson April 4, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    I do not view it as ambiguous. Only the progenitor would be literal. Everything else seems a stretch to make the words match your ideas.

  21. 21 Mark D. April 4, 2010 at 12:59 pm

    Only the progenitor would be literal

    “Literal” means “according to the letter”, or the strict or etymological definition of a term. You can’t just pick whatever sense you want to call literal and call it a day.

    Or rather you can, but no one will be sure what you are talking about, which rather defeats the purpose of using a word in the first place.

  22. 22 Eric Nielson April 4, 2010 at 3:33 pm

    I guess that is why the term begotten is a helpful term here.

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