A Mormon scholar says the Christian belief that God created the universe ex nihilo (“out of nothing”) is “apostasy in action” and typical of the pagan Greek thought Mormons believe corrupted the early church. But Mormonism unites with ancient Greek philosophers in thinking matter is eternal and had no beginning. Explain? (Paraphrasing the posted question).
THE GUY ANSWERS:
This may seem esoteric but “creation” debates always get interesting. One of the most famous sentences ever written is “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Those words open the King James Version, the Bible authorized for Mormon use, and most translations agree. Yet Mormon thinking is closer to the Jewish Publication Society version, which puts the familiar wording into an optional footnote while the main text reads “When God began to create heaven and earth…” The traditionalist Reformation Study Bible says “when God began” is a “linguistically possible” but “less likely” translation but either way the Hebrew text is”fully consistent” with creation ex nihilo and argues that’s also New Testament teaching (John 1:3, Hebrews 11:3).
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a.k.a. Mormon or LDS) rejects ex nihilo creation along with many other tenets in traditional Christianity. Instead, Mormonism believes that creation means God merely “organized” but did not originate matter, which had existed eternally in the past. The basis is found in unique scriptures the LDS church adds to the Bible:
“Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither can it be…. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected…” (Doctrine & Covenants 93:29,33). “There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes. We cannot see it; but when our bodies are unified we shall see that it is all matter.” (D&C 131:7-8). LDS materialism includes the teaching that God the Father “has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s” (D&C 130:22).
As for the creation: “The Lord said: Let us go down. And they went down at the beginning, and they, that is the Gods, organized and formed the heavens and the earth” (Abraham 4:1). (The Guy will leave aside treatment of LDS belief in the “plurality of Gods,” the term the church prefers to “polytheism.”) A major theologian, Prophet and President Joseph Fielding Smith, stated a related concept that’s not official dogma but is taught in LDS student manuals: “It is true that Adam helped to form this earth. He labored with our Savior Jesus Christ. I have a strong view or conviction that there were also others who assisted them. Perhaps Noah and Enoch and why not Joseph Smith, and those who were appointed to be rulers before the earth was formed?” (Doctrines of Salvation 1:74-75).
The Greeks enter in because the very existence of the LDS church depends upon the conviction that after Jesus’ apostles died a “great apostasy” soon corrupted Christianity. Thus God considered the creeds of all existing churches to be “an abomination” and commissioned 19th century American Prophet Joseph Smith and his successors to restore true doctrine and priesthood authority. Some Mormons say pagan Greek philosophy, especially Neo-Platonism and Middle Platonism, was the chief culprit that corrupted Christianity in the 2d century.
The Guy referred Harvey’s question to Roger D. Cook of Brigham Young University’s philosophy department. Cook says most LDS scholars today think the great apostasy occurred prior to the mid-2d century when Christians began heavy reliance on Greek thinking. Cook sees 2d century philosophy as a “major factor in the elimination of many pure and unsullied doctrines” but only “the final blow,” not the single cause. Cook says Mormons who blame ex nihilo belief on Platonism are incorrect because Christians developed this idea independently of Greek philosophy.
To Cook, ex nihilo defies reason because “one cannot get something from nothing. That seems to defy logic.” He also says the 2d century produced “a radical redefinition of the early Christian concept of God” that the LDS church has restored: The Church Fathers “replaced their own tradition of God as a celestial man, clothed with a perfect material body, with Greek philosophical notions” about a non-material God with the abstract attributes that have been part of conventional Christian theology ever since. Sidelights:
— Christians often say ex nihilo fits with modern science’s universe originating with the “Big Bang.” But LDS astronomer Hollis Johnson says that’s no longer so due to newer theories in physics and speculation about multiple universes besides the one we know.
— An LDS expert in Arabic, Daniel Peterson, finds “little or no reason to suppose” Islam’s Quran involves ex nihilo and “at the very least” nothing requires that interpretation. But he admits “the vast majority if not all of the commentators” in Islam embrace ex nihilo anyway.
All this is vastly complicated and The Guy confesses this only skims the surface. So note that articles by Cook, Johnson, Peterson, and other scholars who defend LDS beliefs are searchable at http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu. For orthodox Christian responses on ex nihilo and other LDS items see http://mit.irr.org.