Mormonism and the nature of God/Infinite regress of Gods
Is it true that Latter-day Saint doctrine teaches a "genealogy of gods"?
Is it true that LDS doctrine teaches a "genealogy of gods," in which God the Father had/has a god, and this god had a god, and so forth?
If so, how does LDS doctrine deal with the problem of an "infinite regress" of "great-great-grandfather gods"?
To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints responds to these questions
"Becoming Like God," Gospel Topics on LDS.org, (February 25, 2014)
For some observers, the doctrine that humans should strive for godliness may evoke images of ancient pantheons with competing deities. Such images are incompatible with Latter-day Saint doctrine. Latter-day Saints believe that God’s children will always worship Him. Our progression will never change His identity as our Father and our God. Indeed, our exalted, eternal relationship with Him will be part of the “fulness of joy” He desires for us.
Not all Latter-day Saints accept the ideas which suggest a regression of divine beings. LDS doctrine on this point is not clear, and mostly speculative. It does not play much of a role, one way or the other, in LDS worship or thought.
Objections based on the infinite regression problem usually rely on a misunderstanding of the properties of infinities, and require that the critic improperly apply finite properties to infinities. These problems are not unique to LDS theism, but must be confronted in some form by all believers in the existence of God.
This question can only be partially answered, in part because so very little is known about this issue in LDS scripture and doctrine.
The basis of the question rests in part in the idea which Lorenzo Snow encapsulated in his famous "couplet":
- [A] As man now is, God once was, and
- [B] as God now is, man may become.
The implications of part [B] are clear, and relatively well laid out in LDS doctrine. This is the doctrine of human deification, or theosis. It formed a key part of early Christian belief, and is discussed elsewhere in the FAIRwiki.
However, the meaning and implication of [A] are not very clear. As President Gordon B. Hinckley indicated in a TIME magazine interview, although we accept the first part of President Snow's couplet, we do not completely understand it nor do we emphasize or teach it regularly.
Stance #1: God the Father had a divine Father
This position is seemingly the dominant one in LDS thought. This line of thinking concludes that because God the Father had a mortal experience, He too was at one point the spirit child of another deity. This deity allowed the Father to progress through mortal life and obedience to moral law, and the Father thereby was eventually divinized. Implicit in this idea is the suggestion that the "Heavenly Grandfather" would likewise have needed to undergo a mortal experience under the patronage of yet another divine Father, and so on.
These ideas are partly based on later 19th century doctrinal extension by Joseph Smith's successors following his death. Two addresses given by Joseph Smith shortly before his death, the King Follett discourse (7 April 1844) and the "Sermon in the Grove" (16 June 1844), were the key source material for these later ideas. Joseph was killed soon after presenting these ideas publicly, and so did not have the opportunity to fully expand, clarify, or explain them. There is some contemporary evidence from the Nauvoo Period that Joseph Smith actually taught this. For example, the anti-Mormon Nauvoo Expositor mentioned this concept. "Among the many items of false doctrine that are taught the Church, is the doctrine of many Gods, one of the most direful in its effects that has characterized the world for many centuries....It is contended that there are innumerable gods as much above the God that presides over this universe, as he is above us..."
Stance #2: God the Father did not have a divine Father
Joseph's remarks were not published until after his death, and no word-for-word transcription of his remarks exists. The version of these addresses with which most members of the Church are familiar, and upon which proponents of stance #1 have often mostly relied, were those published in the Times and Seasons, History of the Church, and Joseph Fielding Smith's compilation of Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Some Church members have argued, as a result, that the conclusions drawn from the commonly-available versions of Joseph's talks are mistaken, and that Joseph actually meant to teach primarily that God the Father underwent a mortal experience.
Therefore, in this view, Jesus' mortal experience is a better model for the Father's mortality, instead of the experiences of other, fallible mortals. These are compared and contrasted in the table below:
|Jesus' Mortal Experience||All Others' Mortal Experience|
|Jesus was divine prior to being born (John 1:1-3.)||
We were spirit children of God the Father, but were not divine beings.
|Jesus' body was conceived by the action of the Holy Ghost on a mortal woman. (Luke 1:35.) God was the Father of His physical body. This allowed Jesus to choose when and whether to die.(John 10:18.)||
We had physical bodies conceived by two mortals; death was inevitable, and not under our own control.
|Jesus lived a sinless life through proper choices and the moral excellence inherent in his divine status.(Hebrews 4:15.)||
Not being divine or perfect, all other mortals choose to sin.(Romans 3:23.)
|Christ atoned for the sins of all humanity. (1 Timothy 4:10, 1 Nephi 10:6.)||
Humanity was unable to atone for their own sins, and would have been separated from God's presence forever without Christ's intercession (2 Nephi 2:5.)
|Following His death, Christ was able to resurrect Himself.(John 10:18.)||
We could not be resurrected without the power of Christ's atonement.(1 Corinthians 15:22.)
|Following His resurrection, Christ resumed His full divine status by right.(John 17:5.)||
Humans achieve theosis or divine status only through the grace of Christ.(Revelation 3:21.)
Proponents of the second view argue that God was once as man is now, but in the sense that Christ was once as man is now. That is, they read Joseph Smith as asserting that the Father took on a mortal body and suffered the privations and trials of a mortal life, just as Christ did. However, as with Jesus, this does not imply that the Father was not divine prior to receiving a mortal body, nor that the Father required someone else to atone for or redeem Him:
- It seems fairly clear to me that Joseph Smith had [the Father being born as a mortal] in mind and not [the Father being spiritually begotten by another Father above him]. First, immediately after discussing the fact that generation of a son necessarily requires a father, he states: "I want you to pay particular attention to what I am saying. Jesus said that the Father wrought precisely in the same way as His Father had done before Him. As the Father had done before? He [Jesus] laid down His life, and took it up the same as His Father had done before." Thus, Joseph returns to the same explanatory principle that he had in the King Follett discourse. The Son as a mortal does "precisely" what the Father did before him.
Many proponents of this view argue that the Father may well have played a role in providing salvation to other mortals, in the same way that Jesus did:
- God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ himself did; and I will show it from the Bible...What did Jesus say?...The Scriptures inform us that Jesus said, As the Father hath power in Himself, even so hath the Son power—to do what? Why, what the Father did. The answer is obvious—in a manner to lay down His body and take it up again. Jesus, what are you going to do? To lay down my life as my Father did, and take it up again.
Thus, since Jesus laid down His life as part of an atoning act, some have seen the Father in a similar role. Such ideas are perhaps plausible and consistent with the Prophet's teachings, but necessarily remain speculative.
Stance #2 has the advantage of accounting for another common theme in Joseph Smith's teaching (as well as LDS scripture) which emphasizes that there is a Most High God over all other beings called "gods," and this is identified as the Father. (See, for example, D&C 121:32. Abraham 3:19). This accords well with Joseph's remarks in the Sermon in the Grove about the Sons of God giving glory to the Most High God:
- I believe in these Gods that God [i.e., the Father] reveals as Gods—to be Sons of God & all can cry Abba Father–Sons of God who exalt themselves to be Gods even from before the foundation of the world & are all the only Gods I have a reverence for– John said he was a King. Jesus Christ who hath by his own blood made us Kings & Priest to God. Oh thou God who are Kings of Kings & Lord of Lords...
Advocates of Stance #1, in reply, point out that references to a Most High God might instead apply only from our perspective, and not to the greater "multiverse" envisioned by Stance #1.
Teachings after Joseph Smith
Brigham Young seemed to believe in a backward chain of divine beings. This teaching was linked to the so-called "Adam-God" theories advanced by Brigham. Given that the meaning of these ideas is not clear, and have never been adopted into LDS thought or accepted as doctrine, proponents of stance #2 have argued that Brigham's speculations on this point ought likewise to be disregarded.
Would multiple deities threaten the sovereignty of God?
If stance #2 is adopted, then all divine beings are subject to the Godhead of God the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ), and God the Holy Ghost, and this is a non-issue.
If stance #1 is adopted, some Christians have feared that this perspective threatens the sovereignty of God, since some other divine being could attempt to over-rule God the Father, or even seek to usurp His power. In LDS thought, this possibility is of no concern, because a divine being, by definition, is engaged a unity of love and holiness with other divine beings. The Godhead of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost retain their individuality as persons, but are totally united in love, will, and their goals. For one member of the Godhead to threaten this unity is unthinkable. Believers who receive divinization through divine grace are likewise invited into this same unity and love (see John 17:.)
Likewise, any other divine beings with whom the Father has a relationship would likewise be utterly united in love, justice, mercy, and Their goal to maximize the blessings and progress of God's children. In LDS thought, a 'conflict' between divine beings is almost a contradiction in terms, since divine beings are united by choice and nature with all other divine beings.
Thus, the idea of "infinite regression" of divine figures is not necessarily an issue for all members of the Church. However, even if one accepts stance #1 above, this does not necessarily cause problems for Latter-day Saint thinkers.
Those who attack the Saints on these grounds often make the mistake of confusing various ideas about infinity. They may take principles that apply to finite things, and improperly extrapolate them to infinite things. Trans-finite mathematics and some aspects of the calculus deal with infinities, and show that such concepts are not irrational, nor do they share all our intuitive ideas of what infinities must involve. (The issue of infinities is an ancient one in western philosophy, going at least as far back as Zeno's paradox.)
An excellent reply to those who use a variation of the "infinite regression" argument against LDS theism can be found in Blake T. Ostler, "Review of The Mormon Concept of God: A Philosophical Analysis by Francis J. Beckwith and Stephen E. Parrish," FARMS Review of Books 8/2 (1996): 99–146. off-site
It should be noted too that the problem of an infinite past is also an issue for any believer in God. Anyone who believes that God has existed forever, and created the universe ex nihilo out of nothing must also confront similar difficulties about infinite past, infinite regression, and the like. An improper or unsophisticated approach to infinities could also make the idea of a God that existed "forever" seem illogical. Critics are often quick to see their own stance as "reasonable," while believing that the Latter-day Saint view is incoherent.
- Lorenzo Snow, Teachings of Lorenzo Snow, compiled by Clyde J. Williams, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1984), 1–2. ISBN 0884945170. The first citation of the couplet can be found in Lorenzo Snow, Deseret News Weekly x/y (3 November 1894): z. Reprinted in Lorenzo Snow, "Glory Awaiting the Saints," in Brian H. Stuy (editor), Collected Discourses: Delivered by Wilford Woodruff, his two counselors, the twelve apostles, and others, 1868–1898, 5 vols., (Woodland Hills, Utah: B.H.S. Publishing, 1987–1989), 4:162. [Discourse given on 6 October 1894 [main text gives date in error as 5 October].] See also Lorenzo Snow, "?," Millennial Star 56 no. ? (3 December 1894), 771–773. The letters in square brackets have been added for clarity in the discussion that follows.
- Blake T. Ostler, Exploring Mormon Thought Vol. 2: The Problems With Theism And the Love of God (Salt Lake City, Utah: Greg Kofford Books, 2006), 444–445. ISBN 1589580958. ISBN 978-1589580954. Citation is from Joseph Smith, Jr., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected by Joseph Fielding Smith, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976), 343. off-site
- Joseph Smith, Jr., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected by Joseph Fielding Smith, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976), 345–346. off-site
- Bullock report of Sermon in the Grove, 16 June 1844. off-site Available in Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of Joseph Smith, 2nd Edition, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1996), 378–381.
- See Blake T. Ostler, Exploring Mormon Thought Vol. 2: The Problems With Theism And the Love of God (Salt Lake City, Utah: Greg Kofford Books, 2006), 451, footnote 28. ISBN 1589580958. ISBN 978-1589580954.