Richard Mouw–Defending a Brand of Mormonism Many Mormons Don’t Believe

Note: The following was originally printed in the July/August 2016 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here

By Bill McKeever 

Dr. Richard J. Mouw, the former president of Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, CA, has been involved in Mormon-Evangelical dialogues for the past decade and a half. Yet, despite actively engaging the topic for such a long period of time, he still manages to get it wrong when it comes to some of the basic teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A case in point would be the Lorenzo Snow couplet. Mouw seems to be on some sort of personal crusade to convince the public that the Mormon Church is moving away from the heretical notion that the God of Mormonism was once a human being.

On numerous occasions, Dr. Mouw has used his public platform to disparage Christians who insist that Snow’s couplet is to this day, a functioning doctrine in the modern LDS Church. In an article that was recently posted on the FirstThings.com website titled “Mormons Approaching Orthodoxy,” he once again attempted to make his case that at least the first half of the couplet was certainly being abandoned.

Mouw places a lot of weight on two interviews that were given by 15th President Gordon B. Hinckley back in the 1990s. When Don Lattin from the San Francisco Chronicle asked whether “Mormons believe that God was once a man,” Hinckley responded by saying, “I wouldn’t say that. There was a little couplet coined, ‘As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become.’ Now that’s more of a couplet than anything else. That gets into some pretty deep theology that we don’t know very much about.”

What many saw as a purposeful dodge on the part of the Mormon leader, Mouw sees as a shift in emphasis. Hinckley never outright denied the “theology,” he merely said he didn’t know much about it. Mormons have often said they have not been given a whole lot of detail regarding their God’s human mortality, but never has the church denied that Joseph Smith taught that it was so. Bear in mind also that when Snow shared his revelation with Smith, he was told by the Mormon prophet, “Brother Snow, that is a true gospel doctrine, and it is a revelation from God to you” (LeRoi C. Snow, “Devotion to a Divine Inspiration,” Improvement Era, June 1919, p. 656).

In his King Follett Discourse, Smith declared, “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens!” In that same sermon Smith also said, “It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the Character of God, and ‘that he was once a man like us’” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 345-346).

Mouw also cited an interview Hinckley gave in 1997 for Time magazine. Here, journalist Richard Ostling asked Hinckley about the first portion of the couplet. Hinckley responded, “I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it. . . . I understand the philosophical background behind it. But I don’t know a lot about it and I don’t know that others know a lot about it.”  Because Mouw is of the opinion that Hinckley was not a deceiver, he believes that “Hinckley was signaling a decision on the part of the Mormon leadership to downplay the Snow couplet within the corpus of Mormon teachings about the deity, not just to outsiders, but within their own community.”

Perhaps Mouw is too trusting, for in the October general conference following the interview with Ostling, Hinckley downplayed what some may have thought was a lack of knowledge on his part when it came to LDS teaching. Putting this notion to rest, Hinckley told followers, “You need not worry that I do not understand some matters of doctrine. I think I understand them thoroughly, and it is unfortunate that the reporting may not make this clear.” At this the audience laughed.

Mouw’s insistence that the LDS Church is setting aside the notion that God was once a man has puzzled not only us at MRM. Dr. Gerald McDermott, Anglican Chair of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School, and also a participant in Mormon-Evangelical dialogues, also expressed his doubts on the FirstThings.com web site. In an article titled, “Are Mormons Actually Moving Closer to Orthodoxy?” McDermott wrote, “I am not so sure that all this represents real theological movement. For while LDS leaders don’t seem to be talking much about the first half of the Snow couplet, there is still public LDS proclamation of the doctrine.” McDermott goes on to correctly note that, “At the LDS website [lds.org] one can find the essay ‘Becoming Like God,’ which cites Joseph Smith’s teaching that God ‘was once as one of us’ and, unapologetically, Lorenzo Snow’s couplet.” In the same piece McDermott also stated, “It seems, then, that the LDS Church is still proclaiming publicly that God and man are of the same species, and that both God the Father and Jesus the Son, who are separate beings and Gods, were once men like us.”

In an article at patheos.com, Mormon apologist and BYU professor, Dr. Daniel C. Peterson also contradicted Mouw’s conclusion when he wrote, “let me simply say that I’ve noticed absolutely no desire among the leaders or the general membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to abandon Lorenzo Snow’s famous couplet — and, effectively, to declare the fifth president of the Church a heretic — and that I can detect no such desire in myself, either. Quite the contrary, in fact” (“Mormons Approaching Orthodoxy?”). Peterson is quite correct. Should the Mormon Church actually denounce the couplet — any part of the couplet — it would not only declare Snow to be a heretic in the context of Mormonism, it would also cast a huge shadow on Smith’s claim to being a prophet of God in the eyes of LDS members.

Though many have tried to correct him, Dr. Mouw stubbornly stands by his conclusions. And though he adamantly denies it, he seems to have let his friendships with Mormon scholars cloud his judgment. In light of the evidence, Mouw has shown himself to be an unreliable source when it comes to LDS teaching.