The Mormon Understanding of Persons . . . and God
Nevertheless, a recent official LDS Church proclamation, "The Family: A Proclamation to the World," suggests that the leadership's view is now the same as that of the majority of ordinary members: intelligences are eternally individual. Among other things, the proclamation says, "Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose." Though it is possible to read what that assumes about intelligence in more than one way, it strongly suggests that those who wrote it assume the eternal existence of the individual.
So it appears that for most Mormons today the question is more-or-less settled: individual persons are eternally co-existent with God.
To sum up, Mormons have understood intelligence in two major ways:
The first way: Intelligence is the material from which all persons are made. This is the view held by Mormon thought leaders from 1845 until at least 1900 and by a number of them well into the 20th century. Some Mormons still take this position.
However, on this understanding, since God is a person, he too has been made of intelligence. So God is limited not only because there are other equally eternal entities, but also because he must have an origin. Some force must have brought God into existence out of spirit matter—but what? That is the question that must be answered by those who take this older view.
Wrestling with that question produced most of the unusual beliefs one hears ascribed to Mormons about the nature of God. Response to the question results, for example, in the belief that God progressed from mortality to divinity, a progression that we can follow. Lorenzo Snow, an early apostle and fifth president of the LDS Church, summed up the usual 19th-century answer to the question of God's origins in a letter to his sister: "As man is, God once was; as God is man may be."
Obviously this understanding of God—an understanding consequent on believing that we must give some account of what brought God into existence—is scandalous to most other Christians. But it is not the only Mormon belief and, I would argue, not the dominant belief among Mormons today.
The second way: The more common contemporary LDS belief about intelligence is that each person, including God, exists eternally as an individual entity. This version of intelligence is also finitistic: the existence of other eternal entities, both personal entities (intelligences) and impersonal ones (whatever basic physical entities there are), puts limits on God that we would not find in classical theism.
But unlike the older understanding of intelligence, this contemporary view doesn't require that some force have brought God into existence. It allows that he has eternally been God. It doesn't raise the question to which the 19th century gave answers, such as Lorenzo Snow's, so one can believe in the eternality of intelligences without believing the claims posited in response to the older way of explaining them.
On the second view it is still possible that, by God's grace, human beings may be brought to be as he is, brought to be like God—though never to be his equal. But that belief is more like the traditional doctrine of theosis and doesn't require speculation about God previously existing as a mortal.
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.