by Fiona Givens
D&C 3:2: “God is constant”
In his paper, delivered to the Mormon History Association conference in June of 2016, John Rogers argued that “the central influence on the New Religion’s [the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] theology was Milton’s Paradise Lost. While Rogers argues that the LDS practice of polygamy and of baptism for the dead emerged from Joseph Smith’s engagement with a perhaps adumbrated version of Paradise Lost, I wish to suggest that John Milton’s portrayal of the character of the Father and Son had equal if not greater impact on Joseph’s theological thinking by way of resistance rather than absorption. In D&C 3:2, we learn that “God is constant.” Indeed, in Milton’s poem God is, described as possessing the constancy of a despot. In a fit of juvenile rage following the ingestion of the fruit of good and evil from the Tree of Knowledge, which could be transmuted into The Tree of Wisdom, “th’incensèd deity” explodes at the weakness of man, whom He had created and for whose actions he, therefore, should be responsible. “For man will… easily transgress the sole command,/Sole pledge of his obedience: so will fall/He and his faithless progeny: whose fault?/Whose but his own? Ingrate, he had of me/ All he could have” (Milton, Paradise Lost, book III 93-97). Because “man hath offended the majesty of God by aspiring to Godhead… unless someone can be found sufficient to answer for his offense, and undergo punishment” all humankind must perish (Paradise Lost, Introduction). At this point, God’s Son, apparently is not of “divine similitude” with the Father. Unlike the Father, the Son of God is seen “Beyond compare… most glorious… In his face/Divine compassion visibly appeared,/Love without end, and without measure grace.” (Paradise Lost, Book III:138-142). In this portrayal, the character of the Father and Son are very different. The merciful Son steps into the breach created by Eve and Adam’s eating of the “interdicted” fruit to protect them and their posterity from His Father’s rage and eternal damnation. The Father and the Son’s characters are so disparate. One is full of wrath and the other full of divine love.
Beelzebub’s view of God, the Father, is little different from the characterization of God’s character that infiltrated Christianity a few centuries after its advent and was cemented in place by the writings of the Reformers—Martin Luther, John Calvin and Ulrich’s Zwingli, in particular. Beelzebub describes God in the same sovereign terms as does John Milton. The fallen angel embraces hell as “this place our dungeon…/Beyond his potent arm, to live exempt/ From Heavn’s’ high jurisdiction…but to remain/ In strictest bondage: for he be sure/ In heighth or depth, still first and last will reign/ Sole King, and of his kingdom lose no part… but one Hell extend/ His empire, and with iron scepter rule/ Us here, as with his golden those in Heav’n” (Book II, 310-328). The Christian world in general—and we, Latter-Day Saints, by extension, have inherited much of Milton’s wrathful, vengeful, omnipotent God. The consequences are too often felt at the level of our culture and lived religion.
In the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon humanity’s condition, following the “loss of the plain and precious things” is described as “wounded” (1 Nephi 13:32). Doctrine and Covenants 3:2 suggests that the first and most important truth to have been lost regards the true nature of God, which has been obfuscated in the centuries following the birth of the Church of Christ. It is not surprising, therefore, that on the threshold of the Restoration, the topic of God’s character is immediately undertaken. In D&C 3:2 God is described as “constant.” This means that God cannot possess opposing characteristics. For example, God cannot be both angry and merciful. Or, in the words of Dame Julian of Norwich, “[W]rath and friendship be to contraries.” Edward Beecher (1803-1895), brother to Harriet Beecher Stowe, claimed, “Of all errors, none are so fundamental and so wide reaching in their evil tendencies and results as errors with respect to the nature of God” (Edward Beecher, Concord of Ages). He continued, “There is no greater harm that Satan can do than to destroy the true knowledge of God and no greater good we can do than endeavor to restore it” (Beecher, Concord of Ages). Unsurprisingly, Joseph Smith stated that three things are pivotal to the exercise of “faith unto salvation,” the first two of which are to “know that God exists” and to know “his correct character and attributes.” According to Elder F. Uchtdorf, what we believe matters enormously because “our beliefs…influence our daily decisions” (“He Will Place you on His shoulders and Carry you home,” Ensign, May 2016, 101-104).
In the official account of Joseph’s first encounter with God, Joseph states that it took him a long time to muster up the courage to engage God in conversation. “I at length came to the determination to “ask of God,” concluding that if he gave wisdom to them that lacked wisdom, and would give liberally, and not upbraid, I might venture (JS-H:13). The 1830 definitions given for the word “upbraid” in Webster’s 1828 dictionary are: “to charge with something wrong or disgraceful,” “to reproach” or “to treat with scorn or contempt.” For the word, “venture” the definitions include: “A hazard; an undertaking of chance or danger; the risking of something upon an event which cannot be foreseen with tolerable certainty.” It is small wonder Joseph hesitated. The God he understood to exist was one who instilled fear. The response to his prayer instilled exactly that. “Immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me… and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction” everything changes. The old paradigm is obliterated and replaced by a new. “I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun which descended gradually until it fell upon me… It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name.” The resultant theophany involved two divine personages in tandem not in opposition.
This vision also restored the God of the New Testament: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called the children of God… What we do know is that when He is revealed we shall be like Him” (1 John 3:2 NRSV). “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father.” The Son is in the express image of the Father, endowed with the same characteristics—the greatest of which is the capacity and desire to heal the entire human family and bring every child home because each of the children is “consubstantial” with God as Parley P. Pratt would say “God found Himself in the midst of spirits and glory… saw proper to institute laws whereby [those] who were less in intelligence…could advance like Himself and be exalted with Him” (King Follett). For, the entire raison d’être of the Divine Family is “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). In this effort God remains constant and unyielding in His purpose and promise through consistent, absolute love. In the beloved Son “we see ourselves as we are meant to become” (Givens, All Things New, 13). As Macrina the Younger, sister of Gregory of Nyssa, stated “Love is the foremost of all excellent achievements and the first of the commandments of the Law. Love is the life of God, and it cannot be otherwise, since perfect beauty is necessarily lovable to those who recognize it; and out of this recognition comes love… [T]he life of God consists in the eternal practice of love;… And because beauty is boundless, love shall never cease” (De Anima et Resurrectione, 8).
Surprising for many, the chief characteristic of God is not sovereignty or power but vulnerability. Edward Beecher wrote: “To be capable of great and intense suffering is universally conceded to be not a weakness or a defect but an indication of a great and lofty character, and an essential condition of the highest power, because it denotes great and exquisite sensibility (Concord of the Ages). This is seen most powerfully in the Book of Moses, chapter 7, in which the ascended Enoch, to his great bewilderment, witnesses God weeping. He entreats the Father, not once but three times, the reason for His tears. They clearly do not stem from a place of joy. “And it came to pass that the God of heaven looked upon the residue of the people, and he wept; and Enoch bore record of it, saying: How is it that the heavens weep, and shed forth their tears as the rain upon the mountains?” (Moses 7:28). And God responds by saying “wherefore should not the heavens weep, seeing these [my beloved children] shall suffer? (Moses 7:37). Edward continues: “If we concede to God infinite and exquisite sensibility,… if we hold that he suffers, not because he is weak, but because he is delicately sensitive, and exquisitely refined and tender in his feelings,… then the way is open for him also to manifest the most glorious kind of power, upon the scale of infinity. Without divine sensitivity the highest power cannot be developed, nor the greatest strength of character be obtained” (Beecher, Concord).
Interestingly, while God weeps because of the fallout that occurs from not heeding the two great commandments, his greatest concern is not that His children are failing to keep the first commandment but because they are failing to keep the second: “Unto thy brethren have I said, and also given commandment, that they should love one another…but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood” (Moses 7:33). This is an extraordinary theological development (or restoration). We can only keep the first commandment by keeping the second. We worship God by our adherence to the second. We worship God most fully through our adherence to the baptismal covenants—in the way we do or do not carry each other’s burdens, mourn with those who mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort.
The covenants are sanctified and ratified by the connection of each member of the Godhead to each covenant. The God who carries our burdens all through his life, into Gethsemane and onto Golgotha is God, the Christ, the Redeemer of the world. The God who mourns with us when we mourn is God, the Father and the Redeemer. The God who mourns with us when we mourn is God, the Father. The God who comforts us when we stand in need of comfort is God, the Holy Spirit. As we keep these commandments, in particular, we are actually collaborating with the Godhead in bringing healing and wholeness to the world. We are building Zion as we cross boundaries—religious, political, cultural and social in the keeping of these commandments. We are building a world in which, because we are of one heart and one mind with the Divine Family in healing our friends, neighbours and strangers, we will dwell in righteousness and there will be no poor—either financially, physically, psychologically or emotionally among us and in our day we shall build a City of Holiness, even Zion (Moses 7:18-19).
When Christ returns to the earth, “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Healer of the world,” not from compulsion by from the recognition that in serving each other they have been worshipping God, the Father, God, the Son and God, the Holy Spirit. In process of time, all the children of the Divine, will be taken up into heaven. And the Lord will say to them: “Behold [your] abode forever” (Moses 7:21).
D&C 5:14: The Church of the Wilderness
The Western Christian Church followed St. Augustine in its negative view of humanity’s genesis together with their existence and end. The belief that humankind had offended God’s sovereign majesty by eating of the fruit of the Tree of Wisdom, thereby losing his love and incurring his wrath was for centuries endemic to Western Christianity. Although Christ was slain for the sins of humanity, the effects of the redemption incorporated very few. While these views are shifting, it is still widely held in the Western Christian world that God is incapable to recuperate all of humankind the deity. If this is true then God fails in His promise to bring “immortality” and “eternal life” to His children. However, before the arrival of the Latin fathers in the West, another gospel was preached. One embraced and preached by the Eastern Fathers among whom were Irenaeus (120/140-c. 200/2003), Origen (c.185-c.253), Gregory of Nyssa (c.335-c.395) and his sister, Macrina the Younger (c.330-c.379).
Irenaeus had not only a very positive view of Eve and Adam’s advent into mortality but also of their future and that of their children. “Man has first to come into being, then to progress, and by progressing come to manhood, and having reached manhood to increase, and thus increasing to persevere, and by persevering be glorified…For it is God’s intention that he should be seen: and the vision of God is the acquisition of immortality; and immortality brings man near to God.” (Adversus Haeresis, IV. xxxviii. 2-3). Again, “We are not made gods at our beginning, but first we were made men, then, in the end, gods. God does this out of the purity of his goodness so that none may think him envious or ungenerous. ‘I have said You are gods, and all of you children of the Highest” (AH IV. xxxvii.4., Ps 82:6-7).
In explaining the necessity of mortality, Irenaeus states that “God himself could not have offered perfection to man at the beginning, but man, being as yet an infant, could not have taken it” (AH IV.xxxvii:1). The child-likeness of Adam and Eve is Irenaeus’s preferred way of describing the first couple’s condition before their eating of the Fruit of Wisdom, which caused their maturation into sexual beings. Reproduction could, therefore, not have occurred without the couple first ingesting that particular fruit. Mortality was the necessary first step to Godhood. As Irenaeus explains humankind first had to become mortal, so that “mortality [could] be swallowed up by immortality, corruptibility by incorruptibility, and man become conformed to the image and likeness of God, having received the knowledge of good and evil” (AH, IV.xxxvii.4).
The first couple’s ingestion of the fruit was understood not to be a precursor to a precipitous Fall but an ascent into educative mortality. The ingestion of the fruit was the first step toward Godhood. Upon eating the fruit, God states: “They have become as one of us, knowing [experiencing] good and evil” (Gen 3:22). Of Christ, Origen suggests that this is the reason Christ “deigned to assume our flesh… For if he had not suffered [experienced good and evil] he would not have entered into full participation in human life” (Origen, First Principles). All four of these influential figures of the early Church read “God shall be all in all” as implying the deification of all humankind. Or, in the words of Joseph “God hath made a provision that every spirit can be ferreted out in that world that has not sinned the unpardonable sin.” (Words of Joseph Smith, 360). These are the ideas that were embraced and disseminated by the church who fled into the wilderness “where God hath prepared a place for her to nourish her” (Revelation 12:6). This is the church that is referred to in D&C 5:14. For, the Restoration heralded “the beginning of the rising up and the coming forth of my church out of the wilderness—clear as the moon, and fair as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners.”
The Church of Christ was never lost. She retreated into the wilderness for protection “where she hath a place prepared of God, that [she should be fed] there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.” (Rev. 12:6). President John Taylor stated that “there were [people] in those dark ages who could commune with God and who by the power of faith could draw aside the curtain of eternity and gaze upon the invisible world. There were people who could gaze upon the face of God, have the ministering of angels and unfold the future destinies of the world. If those were dark ages I pray God to give me a little darkness.” This knowledge is what probably prompted Joseph to state that “The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men, or by the dominations of one another.”
Presumably, this is the reason why we have been enjoined as a people to search the best books [for] words of wisdom and to seek learning by study as well as faith (D&C 88:118). This includes a study of the Apocrypha for “there are many things contained therein that are true” (D&C 91:1). Joseph enjoined us to seek for truth in other faith traditions. “If the Presbyterians have any truth, embrace that. If the Baptists and Methodists have truth, embrace that too.” (Words of Joseph Smith, 234) We are “to get all the good in the world if [we] want to come out a pure Mormon.” For “the Latter Day Saints [should be] ready to believe all true principles that exist.”
Indeed, there are indications that the wilderness church is already among us. In D&C ten starting in verse 52, which is given in 1829—a full year before the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is organized—the Lord turns to His church and promises to bring its adherents more light and wisdom—“this part of my gospel.” He speaks words of peace and comfort to the members of this invisible, already-existing church: “Behold, I do not bring [this part of my gospel] to destroy that which [you] have received… I do not say this to destroy my church, but I say this to build up my church; Therefore, whosever belongeth to my church need not fear, for such inherit the kingdom of heaven” (D&C 10:52-55).
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Fiona Givens was born in Nairobi, educated in British convent schools, and converted to the LDS church in Frankfurt-am-Main. She earned degrees in French, German, and European History while co-raising six children. Fiona has worked as a lobbyist, a translator, and as chair of a French language program. She is a frequent speaker on podcasts and at conferences. She is currently a Research Associate at the Maxwell Institute. She has published with Kofford Books, Exponent II, LDS Living, The Journal of Mormon History, Dialogue, and Routledge. In addition to co-writing The God Who Weeps (Ensign Peak, 2012), she is the joint author of The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Quest for Faith (Deseret 2014), The Christ who Heals: How God Restored the Truth that Saves Us (Deseret, 2017), and All Things New: Rethinking Sin, Salvation and Everything in Between. She currently resides with her husband in Midway, Utah.