Source:Webb:BYUS:2011:14:Joseph Smith could hold his own in early Christian debates

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[Joseph] "Smith would have held his own in debating with" Neo-Platonists, Gnostics, and early Christian theologians

[Joseph] "Smith would have held his own in debating with" Neo-Platonists, Gnostics, and early Christian theologians

Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb wrote:[1]

[I]t would be a mistake to think of Mormonism as simply rejecting the Greek heritage of metaphysics. Paulsen has done more than any Mormon thinker to demonstrate how Smith’s idea of divine embodiment would have been in the theological mainstream prior to Origen and Augustine. In fact, [David] Paulsen, who is also a professor at Brigham Young University, has done more

than any theologian of any denomination to rediscover the metaphysical depths of anthropomorphism in early Christian theology, and his work has been extremely helpful for my own project. Paulsen shows how the Mormon version of the restoration of the Church requires a strong reading of the history of metaphysics. Joseph Smith spoke plainly, but that should not disguise the revolutionary nature of his claims. I have discussed emerging ideas of matter in the context of the Neo-Platonists, the Gnostics, and the early theologians, and Smith would have held his own in debating with all three groups. Smith had the imagination of the Gnostics in his multilayered portrait of the divinities that populate the cosmos. Nonetheless, he would have agreed with the Neo-Platonists and the Christians that the Gnostics erred in identifying matter with evil. He would have liked the Platonic concept of pre-existent souls as well as Plato’s portrait of the Demiurge as being not absolutely different from the world. Indeed, his sense of the rhythmic and cyclical movement of spirits from a refined to an embodied state and back again would have led him to express great interest in the circular framework of Plotinus, but Smith would not have accepted the elitism and intellectualism built into Neo-Platonic thought. He would have sympathized with Christians who struggled to identify nature’s inherent goodness, but he would not have shared their solution in attributing infinity to God. Smith absorbed and revised so many Christian traditions, but negative theology has virtually no room in his thought. In the debates over infinity, Smith, ever the concrete thinker, would have affirmed an actual, as opposed to a potential infinity in order to defend his vision of the afterlife as an eternal progression through space and time. His cosmos was big enough for both the eternity of the divine and the infinity of matter, but his materialism left no room for one entity that is both eternal and infinite. In sum, he would have de-Augustinized theology in order to baptize Greek philosophy anew. [2]:91


  1. "Webb is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. He is a graduate of Wabash College and earned his PhD at the University of Chicago before returning to his alma mater to teach. Born in 1961 he grew up at Englewood Christian Church, an evangelical church. He joined the Disciples of Christ during He was briefly a Lutheran, and on Easter Sunday, 2007, he officially came into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church."
  2. Stephen H. Webb, "Godbodied: The Matter of the Latter-day Saints (reprint from his book Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter (Oxford University Press, 2012)," Brigham Young University Studies 50 no. 3 (2011).