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Mormonism and Early Christianity:

The Nature of God and the Origin and Destiny of Man

by Barry Bickmore

1997 Barry R. Bickmore. All Rights Reserved.

This article may be copied and distributed freely, but only in its entirety.

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Introduction

From the first visit of the Father and the Son to Joseph Smith in the Sacred Grove, the Latter-day Saints have considered themselves part of a restoration of the true kingdom of God on earth. That is, the Church is not, in essence, some new revelation, but a reestablishment of the primitive Church as it was instituted by Christ and His original apostles. It is an irrefutable fact, however, that the Church of Jesus Christ was restored by revelation, not by any conscious effort to mimic what was then known about the Primitive Church. Indeed, the systematic study of this earliest era of Christian history did not begin in earnest until after Joseph Smith had accomplished his mission of restoration. Even now the question of what the original Church taught and practiced is the subject of furious debate.

So how can Latter-day Saints objectively approach this subject, "as all have not faith...?"1 When scholars agree that "conditions [in the early centuries of Christianity] were favourable to the coexistence of a wide variety of opinions even on issues of prime importance,"2 who can say whether the doctrines and organization Joseph Smith restored were identical to the teachings of Jesus? Although we cannot prove the Prophet's claims by the arm of flesh, we can offer some powerful evidence in their support. That is, since Joseph Smith did, indeed, restore primitive Christianity, it should be possible to find remnants of the true doctrine scattered through the histories of both the apostolic and early post-apostolic Christian Church. As it happens, this is exactly the case. And given this fact, one must either accept the Prophet's claims to inspiration, or explain how else he could have consistently come up with genuine early Christian doctrines as part of a coherent system of beliefs and practices. In this article, it will be shown that the Latter-day Saint doctrines relating to God and man's relationship to Him are genuine early Christian beliefs, which could only have been restored by direct revelation from God.

The Person(s) of God

The Mainstream Christian Trinity Doctrine: Where Did It Come From?

The first element of doctrine we must examine is that of the "person" or "persons" of God. That is, in scripture it is often stated that there is only one God3, but various other scriptural passages also speak of three distinct individuals as God.4 All varieties of Christians explain this apparent paradox in one way or another. Most denominations adhere to the doctrine, expounded in the Nicene Creed of 325 A.D., that the Godhead consists of three distinct persons who are "of one substance or essence."5 This creed was the product of a council of Catholic bishops, called together by the Roman emporor Constantine to decide once and for all what the official doctrine about the Godhead should be. (The common notion of the Trinity as a single person who dons three different masks in order to relate to humanity is actually a heresy called modalism, which was condemned at the Nicene Council.)6

But the phrase, "of one substance or essence," might seem strange and unenlightening to the modern reader. This concept can correctly be understood in the context of Neoplatonism, which was the predominant intellectual system of the fourth century. Neoplatonism was both a revival and an amplification of the philosophy of Plato (427-347 B.C.) Realizing the material world was ever changing, Plato speculated that true knowledge was not obtainable through observation of natural phenomena. But he had faith that true knowledge was possible, so he posited an unchanging, perfect world that was a higher reality than the material. He called this region or dimension the world of "Ideas" or "Forms." These "Ideas" were considered the perfect essences of various objects or attributes. For example, a waterfall and a person can both be said to be "beautiful" although they seem to have nothing material in common. Plato suggested that there must be an "Idea" or essence in the world of Forms - perfect and unchanging - called "The Beautiful", in which both the person and the waterfall participate.7 Therefore, in the Greek world it was perfectly acceptable for the Christians to say that there are three, distinct persons who participate in a single "Divine essence or substance". But these three persons cannot be said to be three Gods, because the divine essence must be indivisible. And God cannot be said to be a material being, for matter is a lower reality than a pure "Idea", and is in a constant state of change.

Thus, we can see that the authors of the Nicene Creed drew on the conclusions and terminology of a Greek philosopher to explain that the Trinity consists of three equal but distinct persons who participate in a single, indivisible "Divine Essence or Substance." Indeed, J.W.C. Wand, the historian and former Anglican Bishop of London, admits that the terminology employed in the Nicene Creed was directly borrowed from the Greek philosophical systems.

    It has often been pointed out that with the Council of Nicea Christianity had entered upon a new stage in its development. It was now officially linked with Hellenic [Greek] philosophy. Metaphysics had been brought in to assist religious faith, and in an authoritative formula it had been found necessary to employ a terminology coined in paganism.8

To further demonstrate the dependence of the mainstream Christian creeds on Greek philosophy, consider the similarity in the language of two Christian creeds to the thought of some of Plato's predecessors. The Westminster Confession of Faith, written in 1646 as a creed for the "Reformed" churches which had their origin in the work of Zwingli and Calvin, defines God as "infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible...."9 Similarly, the Vatican Council of 1871 explained that God is "eternal, immense, incomprehensible,... who, being a unique spiritual substance by nature, absolutely simple and unchangeable, must be declared distinct from the world in fact and by essence...."10 On the other hand, Xenophanes [570-475 B.C.] conceived of "God as thought, as presence, as all powerful efficacy." He is one God - incorporeal, "unborn, eternal, infinite,... not moving at all, [and] beyond human imagination."11 And Empedocles [ca. 444 B.C.] claimed that God "does not possess a head and limbs similar to those of humans.... [He is] a spirit, a holy and inexpressible one...."12 Thus, the ancient Greek philosophers and the mainstream Christian creeds are agreed that God is incorporeal, without a material body or human emotions, immovable, indivisible, and totally incomprehensible to humanity.

Some of the first Christian thinkers to adopt these thoroughly Greek ideas were even so bold as to quote almost directly from Xenophanes. Christopher Stead writes that the early Christian writers Irenaeus [A.D. 130-200], Clement of Alexandria [A.D. 150-215] and Novatian [ca. 250] believed in a God who is "simple and not compounded, uniform and wholly alike in himself, being wholly mind and wholly spirit... wholly hearing, wholly sight, wholly light, and wholly the source of all good things." This, Stead points out, is almost identical to Xenophanes' assertion that "All of him sees, all thinks and all hears." And "since Clement elsewhere quotes Xenophanes verbatim, we have good grounds for thinking that Clement's description, and indeed the theory as a whole, derives from Xenophanes."13

The Earliest Christian - and LDS - View of the Godhead

However, Christianity did not always appeal to Greek philosophy to explain its doctrines. Edwin Hatch, formerly a professor of Ecclesiastical History at the University of Oxford, explained that, "The earliest forms of Christianity were... outside the sphere of Greek philosophy,... [and they appealed] to a standard which philosophy did not recognize."14

And if the doctrine of God now espoused by the various sects is foreign to the thought of the primitive Church, what was the Godhead of the early Church like? Indeed, we find in the early Church the true doctrine of a Godhead consisting of three distinct persons who are completely separate in substance, but one in will - the Father presiding over the Son and the Son over the Spirit. For example, Justin Martyr [ A.D. 100-161] wrote that God abides "in places that are above the heavens:" the "first-begotten," the Logos, is the "first force after the Father:" he is "a second God, second numerically but not in will," doing only the Father's pleasure.15 He also maintained that the Son is "in the second place, and the prophetic Spirit in the third."16

The Transcendence of God

Is God Material or Immaterial? What is He Like?

The God Christianity adopted from Greek philosophy can be said to be "radically transcendent". That is, God is so far above the material world, including mankind, that one cannot even say anything positive about Him. Thus Augustine, Bishop of Hippo [A.D. 354-430], could say that "the transcendence of the Godhead surpasses the power of ordinary speech."17 But according to Edwin Hatch, "From the earliest Christian teaching, indeed, the conception of the transcendence of God is absent.... The conception which underlies the earliest expression of belief of a Christian community is the simple conception of children...."18

We also find that God was conceived of as an actual physical being in the form of a man, just as Joseph Smith taught. "The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man's; the Son also...."19 In the Bible, God always appeared as a man. For example, God told Moses that he could not see His face at that time, but said he would "cover thee with my hand while I pass by: And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts." (Ex. 33:22-23) The early Christians took passages like these literally and believed in an "anthropomorphic" [Greek anthropos (man) + morphe (form or shape) = "in the form of man"] God who was a material being. Wand asserts that Christianity replaced the early conception of God as an anthropomorphic, material being with the Neoplatonic conception of God as an incorporeal Spirit.

    It is easy to see what influence this school of thought [i.e. Neoplatonism] must have had upon Christian leaders. It was from it that they learnt what was involved in a metaphysical sense by calling God a Spirit. They were also helped to free themselves from their primitive eschatology and to get rid of that crude anthropomorphism which made even Tertullian [A.D. 160-220] believe that God had a material body.20

Creation out of Something or Nothing?

This transcendence from the material did not just mean that God is "a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions...."21 In addition, the post-apostolic Christians came to believe that God actually created the entire material universe out of absolutely nothing [i.e. creatio ex nihilo], rather than out of pre-existent, chaotic matter. Perhaps in a misguided attempt to give more glory to God, Christian philosophers of the late second century discarded the early Christian and Jewish idea of creation from chaos in favor of the theory of creatio ex nihilo, as formulated by the early second-century Gnostic philosopher, Basilides. According to Hatch, Basilides' theory was based on concepts borrowed from Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, and it "became itself the basis for the theory which ultimately prevailed in the Church. The transition appears in Tatian [ca. 170 A.D.]"22 Before Tatian introduced this innovation into Christianity, all the Christians believed as Tatian's teacher, Justin Martyr [A.D. 100-167]: "We have learned that, being good, [God] created all things in the beginning out of formless matter."23 Therefore, when God revealed to Joseph Smith that "the word create... does not mean to create from nothing; it means to organize"24, and that "the elements are eternal"25, he was only restoring what every one of the earliest Christians knew.

The Origin and Destiny of Mankind

Along with the idea that God transcends the material came the notion that God is far removed from mankind. Again, we find that the doctrines of the pre-existence and deification of mankind, which Joseph Smith restored, were widespread in early Christianity, yet were gradually lost to later generations of Christians, so that today the sects declare that man was created out of nothing and will attain nothing higher than the status of an angel.

The Premortal Existence

According to a second-century Christian document called the Clementine Recognitions, which is a biography of the Apostle Peter's friend and disciple, Clement of Rome, the Apostle Peter preached "the doctrine of the pre-existence of souls."26 In addition, it is well known that the great theologian Origen [A.D. 185-254], who headed an important Christian school at Alexandria, was a firm exponent of the doctrine of pre-existence. "'Before the ages,' he writes, 'they were all pure intelligences, whether demons or souls or angels. One of them, the Devil, since he possessed free-will, chose to resist God, and God rejected him.'"27

Written between A.D. 100 and 150, The Pastor of Hermas , an account of a series of visions experienced by Hermas, brother of an early bishop of the church at Rome, claims that God created the Church even before He created the world. "She [the Church] was the first of all creation... and the world was made for her."28 This document was considered as authoritative as the New Testament books by many of the earliest Christian writers. The earliest extant Christian sermon, called 2 Clement [ca. A.D. 150], confirms the same teaching: "Moreover, the books and the apostles declare that the Church belongs not to the present, but existed from the beginning."29

In his illuminating study of the concept of pre-existence in the New Testament, R.G. Hammerton-Kelly, Professor of the New Testament at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, shows that not only is the pre-existence of Christ explicitly taught therein, but also the pre-existence of the Church is implied in many passages, for example in Paul's writings. "The main pre-existent entity, however, as far as Paul is concerned, is the Church. It is the heavenly city or heavenly temple, to be revealed at the end but pre-existent now in heaven."30 However, the Church was not just some abstract idea that existed in the mind of God - individual Christians also were pre-existent as part of the Church. Commenting on Paul's doctrine of foreordination as expounded in Romans 8:28-30, Hammerton-Kelly explains that the Greek verb for "foreknow" used in the passage means "'to take note of', 'to fix regard upon' something, preliminary to selecting it for some special purpose. Such a meaning would entail that the believers existed in some form more substantive than an idea...."31 However, the exact doctrine of the pre-existence of souls is never made explicit in the New Testament writings - it is simply assumed that readers know about it already. "One is impressed by the ease with which the idea of pre-existence is assumed as the background for certain aspects of Paul's theology, especially for his doctrines of Christ and the Church."32 Therefore, scattered through the Bible is both implicit and explicit confirmation of God's revelation to Joseph Smith that, "Man was also in the beginning with God."33

The Deification of Man

Even more widespread in early Christianity was the doctrine of deification. Kelly explains:

    While the [early Christian] theologians... repeat and elaborate the familiar eschatological themes, there is a further theme, that of the deification of the Christian, which is interwoven with their teaching and which was to have a profound influence on subsequent theology. According to this, the final flowering of the Christian hope consisted in participation in the divine nature and in the blessed immortality of God.34

Perhaps this important doctrine is best summed up by Irenaeus [A.D. 130-200], Bishop of Lyons, who wrote that we "were not made gods at our beginning, at first we were made men, then, in the end, gods."35 Irenaeus also said that Jesus "became what we are that he might make us what he himself is."36 In a similar vein, Clement of Alexandria insisted that Christ "became man just that you may learn from a man how it may be that man should become God."37 Origen [A.D. 185-254] claimed that God "will be 'all' in each individual in this way: when all which any rational understanding, cleansed from the dregs of every sort of vice, and with every cloud of wickedness completely swept away, can either feel, or understand, or think, will be wholly God...."38 And according to Samuel Angus, former professor of New Testament and Historical Theology at St. Andrew's College in Sydney:

    In the same strain Lactantius [A.D. 260-330] affirms that the chaste man will become 'identical in all respects with God'. Even more emphatically the Greek father, Methodius [d. A.D. 311], taught 'every believer must through participation in Christ be born a Christ,' and the master of orthodoxy did not hesitate to say dogmatically, 'He was made man that we might be made God.'39

As John taught, "Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is."40

Conclusions

Clearly, the Prophet has proven true to the test. But what has really been resolved? Only this - If Joseph did not restore these genuine early Christian doctrines by revelation, he was almost inconceivably lucky. What other person could step forward claiming to be a prophet, reformer, or spiritual teacher and be so at home in the milieu of the original Christian Church? As non-Mormon scholar Ernst Wilhelm Benz stated, "One thing is certain: Joseph Smith's anthropology is closer to the concept of man of the original church than that of the protagonists of the Augustinian doctrine of original sin [namely, most of the Christian sects today], who considered the idea of such a fundamental and corporeal [wesenhaftes] relationship [with God] as the quintessential heresy."41 Therefore, it is clear that the evidence supports what the Holy Spirit testifies: that the Prophet Joseph Smith restored the original Church of Jesus Christ by revelation from God.


1 D&C 88:118.

2 Kelly, J.N.D., Early Christian Doctrines, (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1978,) p. 4.

3 See Deut. 6:4; John 17:3; 2 Ne. 31:21.

4 See John 17:3; 1:1; 5:18; 8:58; Rev. 22:7-16; Acts 5:1-4; Acts 13:2.

5 See Beisner, E.C., God in Three Persons, (Illinois: Tyndale House, 1978,) p. 24.

6 Beisner, God in Three Persons, p. 18.

7 Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, pp. 15-16.

8 Wand, J.W.C., A History of the Early Church to A.D. 500, (New York: Routledge, 1994,) pp. 159-160.

9 The Westminster Confession of Faith in Creeds of the Churches--A Reader in Christian Doctrine From the Bible to the Present, (New York: Anchor Books, 1963,) p. 197.

10 Brantl, G., Catholicism, (New York: George Braziller, 1962,) p. 41.

11 Jaspers, K., The Great Philosophers, vol.3, (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1981,) p. 13.

12 Empedocles, in Jaspers, The Great Philosophers, vol.3, p. 51.

13 Stead, C., Divine Substance, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977,) pp. 187-188.

14 Hatch, E., The Influence of Greek Ideas and Usages upon the Christian Church, (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1957,) p. 124.

15 Hatch, The Influence of Greek Ideas and Usages upon the Christian Church, p. 268.

16 Justin Martyr, First Apology 13, in Davies, J.G., The Early Christian Church, (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1995,) p. 97.

17 Augustine, de Trinitate 7:7, in Davies, The Early Christian Church, p. 251.

18 Hatch, The Influence of Greek Ideas and Usages upon the Christian Church, p. 251.

19 D&C 130:22.

20 Wand, A History of the Early Church to A.D. 500, p. 140.

21 Westminster Confession of Faith, in Creeds of the Churches - A Reader in Christian Doctrine From the Bible to the Present, p. 197.

22 Hatch, The Influence of Greek Ideas and Usages upon the Christian Church, pp. 195-196.

23 Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, p. 84.

24 Smith, Joseph Fielding, ed., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976,) p. 350.

25 D&C 93:33.

26 Footnote on Clementine Recognitions 1:28, in Roberts, A., and Donaldson, J., eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 8, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975,) p. 85.

27 Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, p. 180.

28 The Pastor of Hermas, Vis. 2:33, in The Lost Books of the Bible, (New York: Bell, 1979,) p. 201.

29 2 Clement 14:2, in Grant, R.M., ed., The Apostolic Fathers, vol. 2, (New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1965,) p. 126.

30 Hammerton-Kelly, R.G., Pre-Existence, Wisdom, and the Son of Man, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973,) p. 193

31 Hammerton-Kelly, Pre-Existence, Wisdom, and the Son of Man, p. 154.

32 Hammerton-Kelly, Pre-Existence, Wisdom, and the Son of Man, p. 156.

33 D&C 93:29.

34 Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, pp. 469-470.

35 Bettenson, H., The Early Christian Fathers, (London: Oxford University Press, 1956,) p. 94.

36 Bettenson, The Early Christian Fathers, p. 106.

37 Clement of Alexandria, Protrepticus 1, (8,4), in Bettenson, The Early Christian Fathers, p. 244.

38 Origen, De Principiis 3:6:3, in Roberts and Donaldson, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 4, p. 345.

39 Angus, S., The Mystery-Religions, (New York: Dover Publications, 1975,) pp. 106-107.

40 1 John 3:2.

41 Haroldson, E., "Good and Evil Spoken of," Ensign, vol. 25, no. 8, p. 10.