Joe Carter at The Gospel Coalition blog recently wrote a good article providing relevant FAQs in answer to the question, “Are Mormons Christian?” The first topic Mr. Carter addressed was, “What do Mormons believe about God?” His answer began this way:
“Mormons claim that God the Father was once a man and that he then progressed to godhood (that is, he is a now-exalted, immortal man with a flesh-and-bone body).”
This answer represents pretty straight-forward traditional Mormonism. Even so, a Mormon commenter, Francis, took issue with the statement. As part of a larger discussion that included reference to Aaron Shafovaloff’s video project, God Never Sinned, Francis wrote,
“Actually they don’t teach that he was once a mortal man, what is taught is that he has a body of flesh and bone; hence we were made in his image… I am a member of The Church Of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I have never once EVER been taught that God has ever been mortal much less a sinner. ALL my instruction has always said he is the same now as he has always been, PERFECT and because of that perfection he cannot sin, and has had no need for a mortal probation… I find it severely upsetting myself that others in my religion believe that my Father in Heaven could ever have sinned. I am also upset that the entire world seems to base their view of my religion of the actions and personal beliefs of a few, instead of researching and gaining an understanding for themselves of what we truly believe and are taught. Not to be converted, or to take anything away from any other religion or belief system, but just to be able to speak intelligently on the subject.”
I don’t know how long Francis has been a Mormon, but the doctrine that God the Father was once a mortal man had been very clearly and unapologetically taught in the LDS Church from the 1840s up until 1997 when then-president Gordon B. Hinckley began claiming ignorance of the teaching. About five or six years ago Joel Groat at Institute for Religious Research noted changes in the way Mormonism portrayed this historic LDS doctrine. No longer taught openly and clearly, it is no wonder Mormons do not know what the Mormon Church has traditionally believed about God the Father. Therefore, for the sake of Francis and others who are left in the dark on this topic, here is a brief look at the Mormon doctrine, “As man is, God once was.”
First of all, the nature of God is a core doctrine that is the foundation of everything one believes. Mormon Apostle Dallin Oaks told an audience at Harvard Law School, “For us, the truth about the nature of God and our relationship to Him is the key to everything else” (“Fundamental Premises of Our Faith,” 26 February 2010).
Joseph Smith would agree. This is why, early in his famous King Follett Discourse, he said,
“…it is necessary that we should understand the character and being of God, and how he came to be so; for I am going to tell you how God came to be God…These are incomprehensible ideas to some; but they are simple. It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the character of God and to know that we may converse with him as one man converses with another, and that he was once a man like us; yea, that God himself the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth the same as Jesus Christ himself did.”
Yet, 1844 was a long time ago. Looking at more recent Mormon sources we find the doctrine being taught in Church manuals:
“As shown in this chapter, our Father in heaven was once a man as we are now, capable of physical death. By obedience to eternal gospel principles, he progressed from one stage of life to another until he attained the state we call exaltation or godhood.” (Achieving a Celestial Marriage, 1976, 132)
“God Was Once a Man As We Are Now” (Search These Commandments, 1984, 151)
In 1997, about the time President Hinckley was publicly distancing the Church from the controversial doctrine, a new Melchizedek Priesthood and Relief Society manual was released. The introduction said, “This book reflects the desire of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to deepen the doctrinal understanding of Church members and to awaken within them a greater desire to know the things of God” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, 1997, v). In Chapter 4, under “Suggestions for Study,” the manual stated,
“The doctrine that God was once a man and has progressed to become a God is unique to this Church. How do you feel, knowing that God, through His own experience, ‘knows all that we know regarding the toils [and] sufferings’ of mortality?”
In 2006 Mormon Apostle Henry B. Eyring told BYU students,
“I bear you my witness that God the Father lives, a glorified and exalted Man.” (“Gifts of the Spirit for Hard Times,” 32:18, CES Fireside, 10 September 2006)
In 2007 Mormon Apostle Dallin Oaks helped journalist and filmmaker Helen Whitney understand the “bold ideas” of Mormonism:
“…that first revelation [Joseph Smith’s First Vision], concerning the nature of God as an embodied, glorified, resurrected Being, challenged the creeds of Christianity…
“Joseph Smith put together the significance of what he had taught about the nature of God and the nature and destiny of man. He preached a great sermon not long before he was murdered that God was a glorified Man, glorified beyond our comprehension, (still incomprehensible in many ways), but a glorified, resurrected, physical Being, and it is the destiny of His children upon this earth, upon the conditions He has proscribed [sic], to grow into that status themselves. That was a big idea, a challenging idea. It followed from the First Vision, and it was taught by Joseph Smith, and it is the explanation of many things that Mormons do — the whole theology of Mormonism.”
Then in 2009 when the Mormon Church released a new edition of the Sunday School manual Gospel Principles, the Church chose to still include this:
“Joseph Smith taught: ‘It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the Character of God. … He was once a man like us; … God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ himself did’ (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith , 345–46).
“Our Heavenly Father knows our trials, our weaknesses, and our sins. He has compassion and mercy on us. He wants us to succeed even as He did.” (Gospel Principles, 2009, 279. Ellipses in the original.)
To sum up, the “whole theology of Mormonism,” affirmed by a Mormon apostle five years ago and included in a Mormon Sunday School manual updated just three years ago, is the doctrine that God the Father was once a man like us. Furthermore, he is now an exalted, glorified, resurrected Man, who has set the rules whereby human beings may grow to the same status (i.e., godhood) themselves.
If you are a Mormon and do not know this – the whole theology of Mormonism and the whole point of the Mormon Church* – it would be good to ask why. And an even more important question: What else don’t you know about Mormonism?
My friends, the Mormon view of the nature of God (and man) is unbiblical, and therefore unChristian. If you are shocked or offended by the teaching that God the Father was once a man “like us” who “succeeded” in attaining the status of godhood (exaltation), “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the LORD, the God of Israel” (Joshua 24:23).
* “The Church exists to help families gain eternal blessings and exaltation.” (Gospel Principles, 2009, 211)