Perhaps the most basic assumption of Christian theology is the contention that there is an ontological distinction between God and man. Divinity and humanity are of two essentially different kinds. This conviction underlies, not only Christianity, but Islam, Judaism, and other monotheistic faiths. That such a distinction exists is so basic to most theological systems that arguing for it might seem unnecessary. If God exists, he is certainly of a different genus, species etc. than man. To be the Creator is fundamentally different from being a created thing. But it is this fundamental principle of all theology which Mormonism rejects, which then sets the Mormon faith on a radically different course than Christianity.
In Smith’s early writings, such a distinction between divine and human seems to be assumed. In the Book of Mormon, for example, Smith writes of God’s eternality and uniqueness among all other things. In Alma 11, for example, Amulek is asked, “Is there more than one God?” and gives the simple answer “No” (Alma 11:28-29). This then leads to a further confession of the uniqueness and eternal nature of the Father (Alma 11:39). Divine immutability is also clearly confessed in the book of Moroni, which states: “For I know that God is not a partial God, neither a changeable being; but he is unchangeable from all eternity to all eternity” (Moroni 8:18). Numerous passages could be cited in both the Mormon Scripture and the writings of young Joseph Smith on these points, which clearly demonstrate a conviction regarding some of the basic monotheistic teachings surrounding the nature of God.
Later writings of Smith began to depart from classical theism in a number of ways. In terms of the canonical writings (the “standard works”), this is most clear in the book of Abraham, which presents the Genesis creation account as an act of multiple gods (Abraham 4:1-5:21). This act of creation as further described as the organization of preexistent matter, rather than creation ex nihilo (Abraham 4:1). Mormon theologian John Widtsoe writes, “The earth was not made from nothing, nor by the fiat of God, except as his will and words determined that the work should be undertaken” (Rational Theology, 45). Matter itself is eternal, and God is a material being. As does the incarnate Christ, God the Father has a physical body, and thus cannot be omnipresent except through his holy spirit (which is differentiated from the Holy Ghost). Widstoe again writes that “God is a personal being of body–a body limited in extent. He cannot, therefore, at a given moment be personally everywhere” (Rational Theology, 68). God is one among other gods, is not the only eternal being, is not unchangeable, did not create from nothing, and has bodily limitations.
Alongside of these convictions, Mormon theology confesses that God and man are one of the same kind. The fifth president of the LDS church, Lorenzo Snow, famously stated, “As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become.” God the Father is an exalted man, and those who live on this earth may one day become divine in the same sense that God himself is. Such an exaltation to godhood is defined by Bruce McConkie as synonymous with with salvation (Mormon Doctrine, 257). Widtsoe writes, “In short, man is a god in embryo. He comes from a race of gods, and as his eternal growth is continued, he will approach more nearly the point which to us is Godhood, and which is everlasting in its power over the elements of the universe” (Rational Theology, 25). All things are in a state of constant growth and progression, including God himself. God has knowledge now that he did not have previously. He is, thus, not all-powerful, but only appears to be so to human creatures who are not as far along in such progress. God is to be worshiped, not because he is a different kind of being, but because he is much farther along in his progression than we are.The majority of LDS theologians purport that God gained exaltation to godhood in time in a manner no different than we can. Brigham Young famously taught an infinite progression of gods, wherein God was created by another God, who was created by another God, ad infinitum. This type of Mormonism can, in no sense, be truly labeled “Monotheism.” This is polytheism of the greatest kind, contending that the number of gods which exist are infinite. This approach appears to be that of Smith himself who writes in the King Follett Discourse:
In order to understand the subject of the dead, for consolation of those who mourn for the loss of their friends, it is necessary we should understand the character and being of God and how He came to be so; for I am going to tell you how God came to be God. We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea, and take away the veil, so that you may see. (The sermon can be accessed here)
This leads to the idea of a grandfather God. If God himself is not the greatest of all beings, why is he to be worshiped, rather than his God, or his God, or his God, etc.?
Mormon philosopher Blake Ostler has seen some of the problems with the traditional Mormon view, as well as the contradictions that the grandfather God view has with certain sections of the Book of Mormon (not to mention the book of Isaiah). For that reason, he has argued for a certain form of monotheism, wherein the Father is not the only God, but is the greatest of all gods. He presides over a council of lesser gods, and he alone is to be ultimately worshiped. Ostler does not, however, reject Snow’s couplet, but instead argues that it must be understood as to teach that God the Father, like Christ, experienced a kind of kenosis at some point, though not in a soteriological sense. Ostler provides, by far, the most philosophically rigorous defense and exposition of the Mormon doctrine of God available. His three volume Exploring Mormon Thought series is a necessary addition to any library on LDS theology.
Though Ostler’s view might approach orthodoxy more-so than the earlier approach of Young and others, he does not reject the fundamental tenant which differentiates Mormonism from classical Christian theism. God is still of the same species as man. (Ostler expounds upon this idea in a clear way in his talk at the 2005 FAIR conference here, for any interested in delving into the subject further). This leads to the obvious question, if God is of the same essence as man, is he truly worthy of worship? Worship itself is grounded in the otherness of the one who is worshiped, in the great differentiation between God and the worshiper. In Mormon thought, God is not greater in kind, but only in degree. Furthermore, and most importantly perhaps, is this really consistent with the manner in which God portrays himself in Scripture as he speaks to Job about his greatness, or as Isaiah expounds upon God’s uniqueness in Isaiah 48? When God asks, “Who is like me?” in Isaiah 44:7, does he really just mean that everyone is like him, just not as far along in their eternal progression? Contextually, such a claim does not fit.
It is this idea which greatly separates Mormonism and Christianity. Contemporary Mormonism often portrays itself as simply a form of evangelical Christianity, often bemoaning the fact that Christians view them as a different religion. But, with such a basic theological difference as the identity of God in relation to man, how can Mormonism be anything other than a different religion? When the most primary theological grounding of each faith differs, they are surely not simply two slightly different approaches to the same religion.