by Sharon Lindbloom
1 September 2022
Steven Harper is a professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University, a school owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Last week (23 August 2022) Dr. Harper published an article in the online edition of LDS Living Magazine titled, “Starting right—how an assumption led to apostasy.” In this article, Dr. Harper provides a “high-level overview” of events he assumes moved Christianity from a true understanding of the nature of God to a heretical understanding, ultimately resulting in the apostasy of the Christian church.
Dr. Harper leans heavily on the assertion that the foundational doctrines and creeds of Christianity were derived from Greek philosophy. He takes special issue with the Christian doctrine of the immutability (unchanging nature) of God, contrasting it with the God that Joseph Smith presented in his famous 1844 King Follett Discourse. (Dr. Harper includes both the immutability and impassability of God in his critique of Christian doctrine, but I will limit the discussion in this article to the doctrine of God’s immutability.)
“The God Joseph knew,” Dr. Harper writes, “was mutable or capable of change, of becoming God… The God who revealed himself to Joseph Smith became God… Joseph taught that all people are children of God, with potential to become like him.”
“Joseph taught that God, and later Christ, had become exalted, and that because of them we could become exalted too, but not overnight. ‘It will take a long time after the grave,’ he said. Joseph taught: ‘You have got to learn how to make yourselves God, king and priest, by going from a small capacity to a great capacity to the resurrection of the dead, to dwelling in everlasting burnings … to be an heir of God & joint heir of Jesus Christ enjoying the same rise exhaltation & glory untill you arive at the station of a God.’” (“Starting right—how an assumption led to apostasy”)
Dr. Harper’s commentary and quotes are but a fuller expression of what has become known in Mormonism as the Lorenzo Snow Couplet: “As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may be.” That is, God was once a human being who changed over time to become a God–there was a time when God was not yet God. Furthermore, this earth’s human beings, who are not yet Gods, may likewise, over time, change from humans into Gods.
This view of God(s) and man is not what historic Christianity embraces, and so Dr. Harper sets up a ‘Joseph Smith vs. the creeds of Christianity’ scenario. Has God been God through all eternity? Joseph Smith said no. The creeds of Christianity say yes.
Dr. Harper’s high-level overview gives readers the mistaken idea that the Christian creeds are merely assumptions, based on the philosophical reasoning of uninspired men. The truth is, the historic creeds and confessions of the Christian church are statements of what the Bible teaches and, therefore, what Christians believe.
In the case of the immutability or eternality of God, God quite clearly states of Himself in Malachi 3:6, “I the LORD do not change…” In the New Testament, James wrote, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). The Old Testament psalmist made clear that God has always been God: “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Psalm 90:2). The immutability/eternality of God is clearly a biblical teaching, so the conflicting Mormon position is not actually Joseph Smith disagreeing with man-made assumptions; it is Joseph Smith vs. God’s self-revelation in the Bible.
There’s yet another aspect to consider regarding Dr. Harper’s assertion that the doctrine of the eternality of God arose from a dangerous philosophical assumption: The doctrine that God is eternally God was also fully taught and believed within Mormonism until Joseph Smith preached against it in 1844. “I am going to tell you how God came to be God,” he preached in the King Follett Discourse. “We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity, I will refute that idea, and will take away and do away the vail, so that you may see” (as found in the Journal of Discourses account, 6:1-11).
Joseph’s Mormon congregation didn’t just imagine and suppose that God was God from all eternity. They believed it because it was stated as truth in the Book of Mormon. Moroni 8:18 said—and still says– “For I know that God is not a partial God, neither a changeable being; but he is unchangeable from all eternity to all eternity.” (Also see Mosiah 3:5 and Moroni 7:22.)
Another LDS scripture, Doctrine and Covenants, says, “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) and “From eternity to eternity he is the same, and his years never fail…” (D&C 76:4).
Furthermore, in 1834-1835 Joseph Smith taught a series of lectures on doctrine and theology to a group of church elders. The lectures were subsequently included in the 1835 edition of Doctrine and Covenants, and all successive editions until 1921. Lecture Third discusses the “character of God.” Here Joseph taught,
“From the foregoing testimonies [of scripture], we learn the following things respecting the character of God.
“First, That he was God before the world was created, and the same God that he was, after it was created.
“Secondly, That he is merciful, and gracious, slow to anger, abundant in goodness, and that he was so from everlasting, and will be to everlasting.
“Thirdly, That he changes not, neither is there variableness with him; but that he is the same from everlasting to everlasting, being the same yesterday today and forever; and that his course is one eternal round, without variation.”
So the “radical, restored truth” that Joseph Smith taught in the King Follett Discourse not only “challenged classical theism” as Dr. Harper states. It also challenged the bedrock doctrine of Mormonism that God was God from all eternity to all eternity, an unchangeable being, the same from everlasting to everlasting.
Dr. Harper writes, “Joseph rejected the assumption on which traditional Christianity is based.” But if belief in the eternality and immutability of God came from an erroneous assumption, how did it become so entrenched in Mormonism’s scripture, revelations, teaching, and belief? How could Joseph Smith have gotten it so wrong?
In his article, Dr. Harper sets up a ‘Joseph Smith vs. the creeds of Christianity’ scenario, which turns out to also be a ‘Joseph Smith vs. the Bible’ scenario. This isn’t surprising as Mormonism has always disparaged both the creeds and the Bible. But Joseph Smith vs. the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith vs. the revelations he claims to have received directly from God, Joseph Smith vs. the doctrinal teaching he provided in the LDS church’s School of the Prophets – this is Joseph Smith vs. Joseph Smith. What is a Latter-day Saint to do with this?
As Dr. Harper’s article title suggests, an assumption can lead to apostasy. In the case Dr. Harper has presented, the most damaging assumption anyone has made is the assumption that Joseph Smith spoke with and for God. That assumption has led millions of people to turn away from the one true God to follow after a false prophet and his imagined deity.
But the true God who was and is and is to come (Revelation 4:8) is gracious and merciful to forgive. He says to all who have gone astray, “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other” (Isaiah 45:22).
Friends, now is the day of salvation (2 Corinthians 6:2). “Put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the LORD, the God of Israel.” (Joshua 24:23)
To see Sharon’s other news articles, click here.