In 1840, almost nine years before being called as an LDS apostle, while he was listening to a friend read from the scriptures, Lorenzo Snow experienced a sudden enlightenment that he apparently regarded as a revelation from God. He summarized his enlightenment in this well known verse (which I’ll call the Couplet):
As man now is, God once was:
As God now is, man may be.
Neither the Couplet, nor any alternative account of Lorenzo Snow’s pre-apostolic claimed revelation, has been canonized. It is not scripture. The first part of the Couplet in particular encourages the belief by rank and file Mormons that, once upon a time, God the Father was just some mortal guy on a planet near Kolob, but that he grew up to be God. This view is contrary to LDS scripture, yet many Mormons have been taught something like this while growing up and seem to assume it is part of the LDS gospel. Now Chapter 5 of the current priesthood manual comes along and, by highlighting the Couplet with no additional commentary on the meaning or limits of the first clause, effectively confirms this questionable and problematic understanding for some readers. Isn’t this the sort of problem that Correlation is supposed to fix?
First, let’s restate the implicit argument of the Couplet in a way that makes its reasoning (Lorenzo Snow’s reasoning) more apparent by inverting the clauses. It goes like this:
As God is, man may be.
[Therefore,] As man now is, God once was.
There are a couple of missing premises to this argument: First, that individual humans and God are essentially identical types of beings, so that analogies between man and God of the sort that Snow employs may be freely drawn; second, that the process being described works retrospectively, in reverse, as well as prospectively. If either of these unstated premises fail, then Lorenzo Snow’s conclusion (what follows “therefore” in a valid argument) that God was once a guy like one of us does not follow.
Another way to flesh out the implicit argument of the Couplet is using the doctrine of theosis. “As God is, man may become” applies theosis to us, looking forward. That use of theosis, which has a long and venerable history in Christian theology, is largely unobjectionable. [Note 1] “As man now is, God once was” applies the doctrine of theosis to God, looking backwards, sort of making it into a doctrine of untheosis. That view argues that God was once a nondivine mortal (“as man now is” — we are nondivine mortals). This does not follow at all from the doctrine of theosis without the addition of the two controversial premises identified in the prior paragraph.
So what exactly are my problems with this seemingly popular LDS idea that, once upon a time, God the Father was just some nondivine mortal guy on a planet near Kolob? Briefly:
1. It contradicts LDS scripture. “For I know that God is not a partial God, neither a changeable being; but he is unchangeable from all eternity to all eternity” (Moroni 8:18). “By these things we know that 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 which are in them” (D&C 20:17). [Note 2]
2. It is not established by the Couplet because the Couplet was never canonized. Spencer W. Kimball received what he thought was a revelation while he was President of the Church, then put in the work required to secure the assent of his fellow apostles, then presented a text conveying the revelation to the membership of the Church, where it was accepted and canonized. Lorenzo Snow was not President of the Church when he received his claimed revelation, he did not secure the assent of his fellow apostles when he later became President of the Church, and he never formally presented a text conveying his claimed revelation to the membership of the Church.
3. It is not established by the Couplet because no modern LDS leaders present and affirm the conclusion as an LDS doctrine. As I noted earlier, the doctrine many LDS leap to from the first line of the Couplet is actually the conclusion of a chain of reasoning that relies upon additional assumptions or premises. No modern LDS leader that I know of has publicly stated and affirmed those additional assumptions. No modern LDS leader that I know of has publicly stated and affirmed the conclusion, with or without supporting reasoning or argument. [Note 3] If no modern LDS leader is making the argument or affirming the conclusion, why do so many LDS nevertheless accept this disputed doctrine?
4. It damages the Church. As shown in Note 2, the Couplet is often Exhibit 1 in a Christian argument that LDS doctrine is outside the bounds of Christian belief. Those are not “anti-Mormon” arguments — they are sincere arguments made by reasonable Christians with legitimate questions about why Mormons would apparently accept and affirm such a questionable and problematic doctrine. Highlighting the Couplet, as the current Lorenzo Snow manual does, supports that Christian argument against the Church. Thanks, manual writers. Great job, Correlation. [Note 4]
I could end here, but the following long quotation from Stephen Robinson should help the discussion along by supporting some of the points I have made above, as well as showing there is LDS support for the view I’m arguing against. After citing LDS and Biblical scripture on the doctrine of theosis, Robinson explains that “I am only trying to sort out what is canonical from what is homiletical for the benefit of non-LDS readers ….” He then continues:
To the scriptural passages above, I would add Lorenzo Snow’s epigram and Joseph Smith’s statements in the funeral address for King Follett that God is an exalted man. Neither statement is scriptural or canonized in the technical sense, and neither has been explained or elucidated to the church in any official manner, but they are so widely accepted by Latter-day Saints that this technical point has become moot. Each of these two quasi-official statements asserts flatly that there was once a time before the beginning of our creation when God was human, just as there will be a time after the final resurrection and judgment when exalted humans will be gods. One element in Jesus’ ambiguous title “Son of Man” is his role as Son of the archetypical, heavenly Man in whose image all other men are created.
What do Latter-day Saints mean by “gods”? Latter-day Saints do not, or at least should not, believe that they will ever be independent in all eternity from their Father in heaven or from their Savior Jesus Christ or from the Holy Spirit. Those who are exalted by his grace will always be “gods” (always with a small g, even in the Doctrine and Covenants) by grace, by an extension of his power, and will always be subordinate to the Godhead. In the Greek philosophical sense — and in the “orthodox” theological sense — such contingent beings would not even rightly be called “gods,” since they never become “the ground of all being” and are forever subordinate to their Father. Any teaching beyond this involves speculation without support from either the Bible or the LDS Scriptures, and these are waters I refuse to swim in. I grant that some LDS do indulge in speculation on this point (it is a favorite jumping-off place for LDS fundamentalists) — but they go beyond the teaching of the LDS Church and the advice of LDS leaders when they do.
In truth, what God did before the beginning and what humans may do after the end are unfortunately not the subjects of biblical information. [Note 5]
Thank you, Professor Robinson.
- See Robert L. Millet’s “‘We Shall Be Like Him’: Explorations into the LDS Doctrine of Deification,” in Jacob L. Baker, ed., Mormonism at the Crossroads of Philosophy and Theology (Greg Kofford Books, 2012), p. 255-75 for a full discussion of both the LDS and Christian versions of theosis.
- As Stephen E. Robinson states in the first line of his extended argument against this very idea in Chapter 2 of How Wide the Divide? A Mormon & an Evangelical in Conversation (InverVarsity Press, 1997): “In the LDS view God is omniscient, onmipotent, onmipresent, infinite, eternal and unchangeable.” Later in the same chapter, in his criticism of the LDS view “that God was once a human being,” the first thing Craig L. Blomberg does is quote the Couplet. Is there a better illustration of the damage that modern LDS affirmation of the Couplet has done to Christian perception of LDS beliefs?
- Millet, “We Shall Be Like Him,” p. 271, responding directly to the Couplet: “[W]e know little or nothing about God’s life before he was God.”
- This questionable doctrine was also affirmed in Chapter 4 of the earlier Brigham Young priesthood manual, where a suggested question at the end of the lesson includes this choice statement: “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?”
- Robinson, How Wide the Divide?, p. 85-86.