“‘Only Begotten Son.’ Only Begotten in the flesh, meaning in mortality. This designation of our Lord signifies that he was begotten by Man of Holiness as literally as any mortal father begets a son. The natural processes of procreation were involved; Jesus was begotten by his Father as literally as he was conceived by his mother.” (Bruce McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary 1:144)
His smile grew bigger and he said,
“Christ was begotten by an immortal Father in the same way that mortal men are begotten by mortal fathers.” (Mormon Doctrine, 1966, p. 547)
You got that right, I just won’t give this issue a rest.
James S. (Mormon) of the blog Lehi’s Library chimed in earlier today with a substantive comment. I have some forthcoming YouTube videos on this subject of Mormonism and the not-so-virgin birth, but I’d like to use this Christmas blog post as an opportunity to respond in text.
Let me start out by saying that I appreciate the comment James wrote, even though I have a vehement response to offer.
Undoubtedly there have been LDS who believe that God the Father had sexual intercourse with Mary. There are still some who do. I hope that Aaron’s presentation points out the following things:
1. No statement by any LDS leader explicitly teaches that God the Father had sexual intercourse with Mary. Some of them hint at it, but nobody actually says it.
So let me get this straight: that they said it without saying it—that they communicated it without using the most explicit language available–mitigates the hideousness of it? They essentially communicated that God the Father had sexual intercourse with Mary, but were polite about it, and that is supposed to put more “merry” in our “merry Christmas”?
Is this akin to the increased tendency in Mormonism to describe “becoming full-blown Gods who are worshiped and prayed to as the Holy of Holies and Almighty God by billions of future spirit children” as “becoming like Heavenly Father”?
Is using euphemism to describe jaw-dropping blasphemy one of the fruits of the Spirit? As you can tell, I am outraged that you extol your leaders for mainly avoiding the use of direct language. For now,
a) I think you perhaps overstate the degree to which leaders were unclear about the issue. See the aforementioned McConkie quotes.
b) As Mike Reed points out:
“Some of the quotes critics use are indeed ambiguous, but I believe that this is at least partly due to the fact that the early saints were living in the Victorian era (1831-1901), when discussion about sex (and the mechanics involved) were highly taboo. But other quotes are a little more explicit…”
James writes on,
2. The real focus of such statements is on the literal father/son relationship between God the Father and Jesus Christ. LDS are concerned that some will mistakenly read Matthew’s and Luke’s words to mean that Jesus is the son of the Holy Spirit. LDS want to simply emphasize that God the Father is in fact the father of Jesus Christ in a literal way, and not in a symbolic way.
I agree that is the general focus, but the issue for me is not a matter of emphasis, but rather of propositional truth/false content. Did or did not God the Father have sexual intercourse with Mary? Leaders essentially affirmed this and fostered within members a tendency to believe it.
I believe this appeal to emphasis (or lack thereof) plagues discussion over grace, faith, and works too, so I have thought about it before. The example I sometimes give is this: What if congress had put forth an Affordable Health Care bill that emphasized better cost control measures, better use of technology, efficiency, and regulations on health insurance providers, yet in one footnote in only one of thousands of pages, required that every citizen–while living–donate one of their kidneys?
Do you think the excuse, “But that wasn’t the focus of our bill!”, would be a reasonable response to those concerned?
Think about it another way: If Mormon leaders had, in passing, taught that Jesus was a horrific sinner in pre-mortality and then redeemed by another savior from another generation in the ancestry of the Gods, would it solve the problem by pointing out that they hadn’t emphasized this teaching? I assume (I hope?) you agree that it wouldn’t.
3. Those LDS who might believe that God the Father had sexual relations with Mary usually also believe that they were married. No LDS conceives of a situation in which unmarried individuals had sexual intercourse to procreate the Son of God.
Hence Brigham Young taught (as Orson Pratt):
“The man Joseph, the husband of Mary, did not, that we know of, have more than one wife, but Mary the wife of Joseph had another husband.” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 11, p. 268)
On a somewhat related note, because of quotes like this from Brigham it is unreasonable to assume that Brigham had Orson Pratt’s The Seer condemned partly over any major disagreement with Pratt over this issue. They essentially agreed that Mary and Joseph “associated together in the capacity of Husband and Wife.” (158-9) Brigham’s disagreements with Pratt concerned other matters. Indeed, Young and Pratt seemed far more in agreement on the not-so-virgin birth than Mormon apologists are today.
4. Many (most?) LDS today do not believe that God the Father had sexual intercourse with Mary. It is an incredibly difficult thing to gauge because it isn’t an issue anyone wants to talk about. For LDS, it is totally irrelevant to salvation and so we don’t really care all that much. It becomes hard to know how widespread this folk doctrine is, but it is possible that only a minority believe it anymore.
I happen to agree (with qualification) that it has become a minority view in Mormonism today, and I mentioned this in my presentation. My qualification is this: in my experience, when Mormons do find out either that leaders taught such a thing, or that some fellow modern Mormons still believe it, they usually shrug their shoulders. That isn’t good. It shows me there is still a heart-matter, a lack of repentance over the issue.
Also, I object to the term “folk doctrine” here if it is not made simultaneously clear that it was a belief fostered significantly from the top-down. It was promoted, fostered, acquiesced to, and today is still essentially is condoned (tolerated) by leadership. It’s a “folk doctrine” only if considered in the same sense as historic Mormonism’s institutionalized, leadership-endorsed doctrine of blacks in the pre-existence. It is a folk doctrine that had its significant origin in the Brethren. It was an institutionally fostered folk doctrine. I say this because I get the impression people use the term “folk doctrine” to get leaders off the hook.
5. Notions of sexual intercourse between God the Father and Mary spring from an era in which there was only one way to conceive a child….sexual intercourse. God revealed to LDS prophets that Jesus Christ is the son of God the Father, and then left LDS leaders and members to work out how exactly that works. In the early days of the Church, before the miracle of in vitro fertilization was developed, one logical conclusion was to suggest sexual intercourse.
I agree. And this shows all the more that Mormon leaders weren’t referring to something like in vitro fertilization. They were referring to an act of sexual intercourse between a mortal woman and an immortal man, something which Mary was thought to have been able to withstand only because the Holy Ghost empowered her to participate.
6. Today, with the development of in vitro fertilization, nobody has any reason to suggest that the mechanism by which God the Father’s chromosomes were contributed had to have been through sexual intercourse.
If by “nobody”, you mean thoughtful Mormons like Cheryl Bruno (bored in vernal) who write,
“There are those who would like to skirt the issue by postulating that Mary may have been impregnated by some means such as artificial insemination. But I see no reason, if God has a body and parts, that he would not use his parts.”
… then yeah, I can see how you would say that. More directly to your point: Cheryl did not say it had to happen this way. But this is the way many Mormons (including the past leaders who spoke on it) were naturally led to believe it happened. Mormonism lacks a Biblically robust and faithful view of God’s power to perform miracles, and it fosters a view of God the Father as an exalted man who was just like one of us. The problem isn’t how Mormonism says it “had to be”; the problem is Mormonism’s larger system of theology which suggests how it naturally happened (especially when considered in conjunction with statements by past leaders).
7. The LDS released the following statement to Fox News: “The Church does not claim to know how Jesus was conceived but believes the Bible and Book of Mormon references to Jesus being born of the Virgin Mary”
This sidesteps the issue of whether Mormon leaders like Orson Pratt and Bruce McConkie were correct to redefine “virgin” to a woman who hasn’t had sexual intercourse with a mortal man. I originally noted this persistence of ambiguity in the statement to Fox News here.
8. Nephi said the following: “And I looked and beheld the virgin again, bearing a child in her arms.”
The Book of Mormon teaches a lot of things that aren’t believed or at least aren’t unequivocally, officially affirmed by Mormonism anymore. You have to understand that outsiders like me see the Book of Mormon as representing the Mormonism of 1830, not necessarily the Mormonism of 2010.
9. Ezra Taft Benson said: “He was the Only Begotten Son of our Heavenly Father in the flesh—the only child whose mortal body was begotten by our Heavenly Father. His mortal mother, Mary, was called a virgin, both before and after she gave birth”
10. Finally, this now famous statement from the LDS Newsroom is appropriate: “Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church.”
I have responded to the its-ok-it’s-not-official attitude here. In short, there is no binding and official position in Mormonism on what constitutes a binding and official position. But more important, lack of officiality doesn’t resolve the bigger issue of whether something is true or false. As I wrote to a Mormon a few days ago:
At the end of the day I don’t care if something is “official” [well, to some degree I do, but not as much as other concerns], and I don’t believe my engagement of Mormonism should be limited to that which is allegedly “official.” As I outline in the aforementioned article, our concerns with Mormonism as an institution and as a collection of personal individuals trasncend the abstract, impersonal, elusive notion of what is “official.” Instead of asking yourself if something is “official”, ask yourself whether it is true. Instead of asking whether a false teaching by a Mormon prophet is “official”, ask yourself whether the false teaching is the kind of fruit that Jesus warned would proceed from false prophets. Instead of asking whether a quote by a Mormon prophet is in the “official” Standard Works, ask yourself whether the teaching led people astray and impacted real individuals, with names, birthdays, hopes, beliefs, emotions, families, bank accounts, and eternal futures.
James writes on,
In summary, the LDS Church does *not* teach that God the Father had sexual intercourse with Mary. Some LDS leaders in the past have emphasized the doctrine that God the Father is the actual biological father of Jesus Christ’s mortal flesh, and the implication in that day and age was that it must have been done through sexual intercourse. But it was never, ever, ever, taught as an “official” doctrine of the LDS Church, and it has been specifically repudiated by later prophets.
An unambiguous, unequivocal repudiation would require more than a simple affirmation of the “virignity” of Mary–it would also require a repudiation of the historic Mormon redefinition of the term “virgin” itself.
The issue of “what the Church teaches” is a complicated one. Because different Mormons have different views on what it even means for the Church to teach something, it is an issue that covers institutional teachings, tradition, scripture, academia, and cultural views which are acquiesced to and indirectly perpetuated by leadership. It’s a big issue, and again, I would refer you to my article on the issue of official doctrine.
But I do want to thank you for at least being so honest and explicit to say that some LDS leaders thought “it must have been done through sexual intercourse.” Mormon apologetics has a long history of avoiding explicit admissions like that, so it is refreshing.
It is simply unChristian to misrepresent this issue, and to not tell the whole story. I hope that Aaron tells the whole story.
It would indeed by unChristian of me to misrepresent the issue, which is why in my presentation I have tried to take a very broad and holistic approach to it, replete with qualifications. But the burden not to misrepresent goes both ways: Mormons have an ethical responsibility not to offer up glib and superficial responses like, “We never taught that” or “We don’t believe that.”
James, thanks for your thoughtful comment. Have a merry Christmas!
To the broader Mormon readership: If you buy into McConkie’s view of the not-so-virgin birth, or if you at least shrug your shoulders at it like it’s no big deal, then I hope your take the Mormon “Christ” out of Christmas and replace it with the true Jesus Christ of the Bible, truly born of a virgin!
Again, merry Christmas!