Historicizing God

There is a certain apologetic strand of Mormon reflection on the Bible that points out that the God(s) of the biblical texts are not identical with the  theological constructs developed in classical philosophical theology.  This view emphasizes two central aspects of “the God of the Bible”: 1) God is one among many gods; 2) God is anthropomorphic.  These arguments have tended to focus on particular representations of God in ancient Israelite religion from the 8th-4th century.

First, this theological move represents a sort of biblicist fundamentalism.  It suggests that the Bible represents factual, uncomplicated, ahistorical truths about God.  Such a view leaves no room for critical asseessment of the representation of God, such as God’s jealousy, commands to fully exterminate the men, women, children and animals of Canaanites, Amalekites, and others.  Further, the androcentric and patriarchal character of God’s representation, including violence against women in Ezek 16, Hos 1-3, and others remain intact.  This sort of biblicism is not a particularly solid place to begin theologically.

Second, this approach proceeds as if there is a singular view about God in the Bible.  Debates about the representation of God as anthropomorphic are already in the text.  So are debates about the singularity of God.  There is no single view about God, but rather many.  Any claim that a particular view of God is the “biblical” one is a selective reading.  Even anthropomorphis not a singular tradition.

Third, this theological approach downplays the great differences between Mormonism and ancient Israelite views on God.  Joseph Smith’s understanding of God in Nauvoo is not anthropomorphic.  Anthropomorphism implies that God only appears to have human characteristics.  It is a theological term that attempts to make sense of representations of God as a human.  For Joseph Smith, God is a human, and humans are gods.  There is nothing like this in the biblical tradition.  This does not mean that Joseph Smith was wrong, only that the authority of a historical-critical approach to the biblical tradition cannot be used to validate Joseph’s understanding of God.

Mormon theological tradition, like any theological tradition, begins from an interpretation of sacred literature.  The critical feature of a mature theology is one that recognizes its status as interpretation.  This is the difference between theology and fundamentalism.

  • Euthyphronics

    I agree that, as a hermeneutic strategy, the line of thought you point out is problematic. But it’s not clear to me that it’s a flawed apologetic point. Insofar as the apologists are responding to a Biblical fundamentalism that takes the Bible to present a singular view of God incompatible with LDS tradition, it’s enough to point out that, even spotting them their singularlism, the text doesn’t support their argument.

  • http://boaporg.wordpress.com WVS

    Nice, TT. And yes, this sword does cut all ways.

  • Ben

    “There is nothing like this in the biblical tradition.” That’s a bit absolute, no? I’m sure I’ve seen a few things undermining that statement. To be sure, the bulk of the tradition draws a sharp line between God and man, but not all of it.

  • Joe Spencer

    I agree with what you’re saying about the complexities of what’s represented in the text, but I’m not sure you’ve treated Mormon apologetics fairly. The best Mormon apologists (Nibley, for instance) don’t claim that the 8th-4th-century Hebrew God is the right one, the only true one, so “Ha ha!” to all you apostate Christians. (Obviously, that’s put too crudely, so I’m not really being fair to you. :) ) They claim, rather, that every claim that an anthropomorphic God can’t be found in canonical scripture is bogus, given what historians have discovered about 8th-4th-century Hebrew beliefs.

    We Mormon scriptural theologians would do well to think further—and further still—about the relationship we sustain to the best of Mormon apologetics. It’s clear we’re not doing apologetics, or at least not apologetics in the same vein as it has been done. But we’re doing doing without apologetics either. Perhaps we should say that Hugh Nibley, as the foremost of the best apologists, is precisely the person who gave us theologians the freedom to experiment with and speculate about texts, since he showed Latter-day Saints generally how elastic they can be. The apologists established that elasticity (let’s be ever thankful to them for that!), but we hope to set it to work.

    (Maybe this would give us another way of sorting out what seems so dissatisfying about apologetics today. From the point of view of the theologian, the most important of the products of the apologists has already been put to use. It isn’t clear, therefore, to the theologian why the apologist is still trying to establish elasticity, unless she’s trying just to convince the fundamentalist Christian on this point—a battle the theologian doesn’t see as worth fighting.)

  • Clark

    Joseph Smith’s understanding of God in Nauvoo is not anthropomorphic. Anthropomorphism implies that God only appears to have human characteristics. It is a theological term that attempts to make sense of representations of God as a human.

    While true that seems a bit too pedantic and focuses on semantic nuance. I think Mormon writers who talk about anthropomorphism are pretty clear what they mean by the term. The problem Mormon writers face is that there typically aren’t terms that fit our usage so we’re stuck using the closest available term and then adding nuance.

    I’d also say that most apologists don’t adopt a literalistic or fundamentalist approach to the OT. I think all of them recognize the OT as the most problematic of our scriptural texts on its own ground. The issue isn’t so much a proof-texting but rather showing how the Mormon view is consistent with parts of the OT and a willingness to explain apostasy and uninspired scribes for the rest. And even past that most apologists offer a much more nuanced view. For instance those talking about a female deity in the OT are quick to note the attacks on her in parts of the OT as well as explain how she disappears.

    The apologetic position depends upon the elasticity, as you note, precisely because they are only trying to make a space for where Mormon dogma already exists. They really aren’t arguing that the texts unambiguously point to Mormon doctrine.

    As for why the apologist takes the approach they do, I’d simply note that the main opponents of Mormons still are Evangelicals. While secularists have been making up more and more of that position even secularists often try to argue from within Mormon texts for inconsistencies. If you can establish the breadth of possible exegesis within our canon it typically undermines both Evangelical but also a lot of secular attacks. Also the audience apologists are writing for typically are relatively unsophisticated. i.e. they aren’t the sort of people with training in Biblical history who already know the Bible is a cacophony of competing views.

  • Clark

    One other quick point, while there’s clearly a tie between scripture and theology for Mormons I don’t think it’s quite the way you describe in your last paragraph. It seems to me revelation is able to be pretty creative. Even when tied to a text (say the Book of Moses or even D&C 76) it’s often hard to call it merely an interpretation of that text. Put an other way I think Mormon theology presupposes that a lot of stuff wasn’t revealed – Especially in the OT era – and allows a lot of new theology untethered to texts. (Or if there is a tether is a very thin one)

  • TT

    Dear all, thanks for the great discussion so far! I am just getting back to this after writing it while watching TV last night and I noticed a bunch of horrible typos, repetitions, and incomplete sentences. Apologies to all those who read that version and appreciation to those who looked past the mistakes!

    Euthyphronics, Joe, and Clark, it is a fair point that apologetics is attempting to do different work than theology and should be judged by different standards. At the same time, I think that having higher standards for our apologetic work leads not only to better theology, but to better apologetics. That is, the same apologetic goal can be achieved by destabilizing a biblicist reading as by piggybacking on it. In my view you can do even more significant apologetic work by laying the proper foundation.

    Ben, that is a fair point too. I guess it depends on what one means by “like.” It would be more accurate to say that “there is nothing identical to this in the biblical tradition.”

    Joe, no doubt you’re representing the best of this apologetic tradition while I am critiquing the worst of it. And I think that you’re right to show that this tradition starts by introducing elasticity. I am concerned when they then return to a more rigid representation of the text, equating truth and origins/antiquity.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithpromotingrumor/ Chris H.

    Nibley’s apologetics were not even the best Nibley. While he is surely amongst the great of the apologists….it is not because of his apologetics.

  • Joe Spencer

    TT, I’m entirely agreed with you on this point, as I am with Chris on his.

  • Clark

    TT, doesn’t your approach to apologetics reduce to rejecting immanent critiques? I guess I just like immanent critiques as an useful form of argumentation.

  • Bojangles

    Shouldn’t Mormon theology recognize itself as the interpretation, not an interpretation?

    Also, you write:

    ” This does not mean that Joseph Smith was wrong, only that the authority of a historical-critical approach to the biblical tradition cannot be used to validate Joseph’s understanding of God.”

    Given that Joseph Smith claimed to restore ancient truth about God, do you have any ideas for alternative validations of Joseph’s understanding of God?

  • TT

    Clark, I had to look that one up! I think you’d have to spell out more why you think that I fully close that option off, but as I understand it I am suggesting that the rules of the game should not be reinscribed, but challenged. That doesn’t mean that you can’t show that the rules produce different results, but this strategy should be aimed at showing the inadequacy of the rules, not declaring victory through rules that are wrong.

    Bojangles, as I see it, the difference between theology and dogma is that the former understandings itself as an interpretation while the latter does not. The reality is, however, that the latter is just as contingent as the former, only that it asserts its authority through claims to being unified and unchanging. It seems to me that if we had “the interpretation” we wouldn’t need prophets anymore. But this is an illusion. We know that we have to continually reinterpret because meaning is not singular or fixed. I’ve been reflecting on James Cone’s definition of theology, paraphrasing here, “theology is the task of making the gospel meaningful today.” This strikes me as not only a correct description, but one that captures our notions of continual revelation. okay, more later! i have to run!

  • Ben

    I found one of my pop references. John Collins in Aspects of Monotheism discusses several examples of what he calls “exalted human beings”, and says “This does not mean, of course, that the righteous dead are on a par with the Most High God (or with the Olympian gods) or that worship should be directed toward them (although the dead have been worshiped in many cultures). But it does indicate that the line separating the divine from the human in ancient Judaism was not as absolute as is sometimes supposed.”

  • TT

    Ben, I’d need to see what the antecedent to that claim is.

  • Clark

    but as I understand it I am suggesting that the rules of the game should not be reinscribed, but challenged. That doesn’t mean that you can’t show that the rules produce different results, but this strategy should be aimed at showing the inadequacy of the rules, not declaring victory through rules that are wrong.

    Right, you want the rules attacked rather than positions within their economy attacked. I think that’s simply biting off too much. Take a step back and ask yourself how much attention is required for that. Further rather than having to win a few small arguments you have to win these huge battles that demand a huge paradigm shift of the person. Frankly that’s just unlikely on practical grounds.

    There’s nothing wrong with attacking the rules of course. But it’s much harder to do. Further you have to know your audience. Attacking the underlying paradigm for someone with a background related to history is much, much easier than with people with more literalist tendencies who’ll defend far more their underlying paradigms. Also if your aim isn’t to covert people to some secular stance but merely convince them to make a place for Mormonism in the community it’s not clear why this harder more complex task should be our aim.

  • TT

    Clark, I think that separating out our differences on this (if there really are any) would require spelling out just what we both think apologetics are, which may be too much to do at this point. That said, I am not sure that apologetics is really for outsiders, as your view suggests. If it is, it has certainly failed in its efforts however they are judged. Rather, I think apologetics are primarily for insiders. With this orientation, I am disappointed at the reproduction of biblicist approaches to scripture in and for our own communities. Nor am I so sure that attacking the rules of the game represents a harder task, but that may be a subjective evaluation.

  • Clark

    Fair enough – for the record I think apologetics has numerous tasks and audiences. I just think the main ones are regular folks weak in the faith, curious people who are insiders, and then outsiders who attempt to marginalize Mormons. I think the middle group is probably a worthy target for your aims. Although I still think there are big complexities in what you’re attempting to bite off.

  • Robert Couch

    Nice post and discussion — thanks, TT.

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