I’ve been enjoying James’ recent close readings of the Book of Mormon. His last post on 1 Nephi 11 got me really thinking about what the condescension of God is. Around the same time I read Ralph Hancock’s recent essay at First Things about common ground between Mormons and traditional Christians. The big divide between Mormons is usually taken to be our theology of the relationship between God and humans. “As man now is, God once was; As God now is, man may be,” to quote Lorenzo Snow’s famous couplet.
Within that couplet we find some huge divides with traditional Christianity. First we absolutely reject Augustine’s notion of creation ex nihilo. That absolute gap between God and humans disappears. That isn’t to say we necessarily have no gap. Most Mormon theology tends towards a flat ontology so there’s no ontologic difference between God and humans. Yet many such as Blake Ostler do put God in a special place we can never reach. (Not necessarily conceived of ontologically though)
It’s not just our rejection of creation ex nihiilo that makes our creedal Christian friends so uncomfortable with Snow’s couplet. To them it sometimes seems like we could become like God without God. Now I don’t think any Mormon actually thinks that. However a few do come rather close. For instance there’s the idea that while only Christ was perfect, in theory other humans could have chosen to make right choices the way Christ did. That is, for these people it’s more an empirical fact that all humans “come short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23) than an actual limit on humans. Needless to say, to creedal Christians this is near blasphemy. Even if this isn’t really a doctrine, it was a not uncommon belief in the mid-20th century by some Mormons.
Figuring all of this out makes me return to 1 Nephi 11 and that enigmatic phrase “the condescension of God.”
The way it is usually interpreted is that God constrains himself to make himself mortal. He leaves the fulness of his glory behind in order to become human and be with us. Now I personally think that creedal Christianity struggles with what they call the theology of the two natures of Christ. That is the theology of how Christ is fully God yet fully mortal. My experience is that often people in more traditional Christianity are apt to throw off the mortal aspects of Christ in order to preserve the divine aspects. I should hasten to add that this is completely at odds with theology of creedal Christianity. It’s just something I’ve noticed as I discuss such issues with more philosophically inclined Christians.
Even in Mormonism the reading of God restricting himself probably is the dominant view. An other way of putting this is that God is essentially transcendent or beyond what we are or understand. For Christ to be Jesus he has to restrain this transcendence in certain ways. This class of interpretation for 1 Nephi 11 tends to focus on condescension as the removal of at least significant parts of this transcendence. That God is born of Mary marks the beginning of condescension.
I’d like to suggest a different way of reading the passages.
I always found the couplet interesting because the condescension of Christ becomes a condescension not just for him but for every person. This isn’t reading back into Nephi elements of later Nauvoo theology or even early Utah theology. Rather it seems to me to be part and parcel of D&C 93. That revelation is pretty early – spring 1833 – but its theology of learning grace from grace is then applied not just to Christ but to humans. Verses 19-20 seem extremely significant. Verse 23 also.
that you may come unto the Father in my name, and in due time receive of his fulness. For if you keep my commandments you shall receive of his fulness, and be glorified in me as I am in the Father; therefore, I say unto you, you shall receive grace for grace. And all those who are begotten through me are partakers of the glory of the same, and are the church of the Firstborn. Ye were also in the beginning with the Father; that which is Spirit, even the Spirit of truth; (D&C 93:19-20;22-23 emphasis mine)
There’s a lot here to unpack. First note that long before the King Follet Discourse we have the idea that we were uncreated with God. Second there’s the idea that the same relationship Christ had to his father we’ll have with him in terms of receiving grace for grace. Note that the meanings of Father and Son here are unlike what we typically think of but match Mosiah 15.
And that I am the true light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world; And that I am in the Father, and the Father in me, and the Father and I are one— The Father because he gave me of his fulness, and the Son because I was in the world and made flesh my tabernacle, and dwelt among the sons of men. (D&C 93:2-4)
Compare with Abinadi.
I would that ye should understand that God himself shall come down among the children of men, and shall redeem his people. And because he dwelleth in flesh he shall be called the Son of God, and having subjected the flesh to the will of the Father, being the Father and the Son— The Father, because he was conceived by the power of God; and the Son, because of the flesh; thus becoming the Father and Son— And they are one God, yea, the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth. (Mosiah 15:1-4)
The two sections are extremely similar. A close reading shows they don’t line up with how most think about Christ. The typical reading, much like the typical reading of condescension, is that Jesus fully as God divests himself in some way of his full divinity and becomes mortal. However both these passages invert this. Jesus, fully mortal, invests himself with God’s glory grace for grace.
Continuing in Mosiah 15 we find that Abinadi’s reading of Isaiah 52 parallels extremely closely D&C 93:19-20. Christ becomes our Father as “the flesh becom[es] subject to the Spirit.” (Mos 15:5) To be fair, while this was known back this far how it was interpreted didn’t bear much resemblance to what came later in Nauvoo. One could argue that this doesn’t mean we were co-eternal with God the way the King Follet Discourse puts it. But at a minimum, whatever the beginning is, man is already there. Christ becomes the Father in that he has the fulness and we are Sons in that we are mortal. As we receive grace for grace the same investiture from God is given to us.
Let’s return back to 1 Nephi 11 again. Now some of the verses where it says “son” (such as 18) were added later by Joseph Smith to the text to clarify who was being spoken of. However reading these in light of Mosiah 15 and D&C 93 makes clear how Jesus is fully the Father (because of the glory). The key verse is 27. The condescension of God is God descending into Christ in terms of receiving the Spirit, grace for grace. Compare this section in 1 Nephi with D&C 93:12-17.
And I, John, saw that he received not of the fulness at the first, but received grace for grace; and he received not of the fulness at first, but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fulness; and thus he was called the Son of God, because he received not of the fulness at the first. And I, John, bear record, and lo, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Ghost descended upon him in the form of a dove, and sat upon him, and there came a voice out of heaven saying: This is my beloved Son. And I, John, bear record that he received a fulness of the glory of the Father; and he received all power, both in heaven and on earth, and the glory of the Father was with him, for he dwelt in him. (D&C 93:12-17)
Let’s take inventory of what we have here. First there is not even the hint of a discussion of ontology. Rather we have simply that people were in the beginning with God, but didn’t have the fulness. Those that don’t have the fulness are called Son. They can learn grace from grace and receive the Father. As they receive the fulness they become the Father. The oneness of God in both Mosiah 15 and D&C 93 is the reception of this power. Further even in Nephi’s vision, as with Abinadi, this goes to the people who accept Jesus. Compare for instance Abinadi’s exegesis of Isaiah 52-53 in Mosiah 14-15 with 1 Nephi 14. There’s very similar imagery going on with Nephi.
And it shall come to pass, that if the Gentiles shall hearken unto the Lamb of God in that day that he shall manifest himself unto them in word, and also in power, in very deed, unto the taking away of their stumbling blocks—and harden not their hearts against the Lamb of God, they shall be numbered among the seed of thy father; yea, they shall be numbered among the house of Israel; and they shall be a blessed people upon the promised land forever; they shall be no more brought down into captivity; and the house of Israel shall no more be confounded. (1 Nephi 14:1-2)
And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld the power of the Lamb of God, that it descended upon the saints of the church of the Lamb, and upon the covenant people of the Lord, who were scattered upon all the face of the earth; and they were armed with righteousness and with the power of God in great glory. (1 Nephi 14:14)
Compare this with Mosiah 15:10-11.
So here’s my thesis. The condescension of God isn’t Jesus coming. It’s Jesus receiving the fulness of the Father. Further the condescension isn’t just Jesus receiving the fulness but the potential for anyone through Jesus to receive the fulness of the Father. The condescension of God isn’t God restricting himself but God fully giving himself to those below him.
Note how this resolves the deification problem of Snow’s couplet. First Jesus and the rest of us humans go through this the same way. We receive grace from grace. The ontological question is put aside and becomes the question of the opening up of humans to the divine. Christ sets the pattern here. Theosis just isn’t supposed to be taken as an ontological question but a question of receiving God. The thorny problems of late antiquity and the scholastic era of how to deal with the two natures of Christ disappears. Instead of the ontological question of the two natures we have the question of the reception of the spirit.
I should add that none of the above should be taken as a claim about what Jesus was like in the Council in Heaven.