The Mormon Understanding of Persons . . . and God

Nelson proposed three parts to human persons:

· individual intelligence, in other words the uncreated and individual part of the person

· the spiritual body created by God "around" an intelligence

· the mortal body, ensouled by spirit and, therefore, also by intelligence

For Nelson, this tripartite view was the only satisfactory way to account for Smith's teaching that intelligences are eternal and that we were born as spirits in a premortal state.

By proposing this new understanding, Nelson established the current usage of the term "intelligence." On Nelson's usage, that word refers to the eternal part of human being and "spirit" refers to that part given birth by God. According to Nelson, intelligence is eternally individual, and it is born into a spirit body in a manner analogous to the birth of the spirit into a mortal body.

Nelson's idea took hold among the membership of the Church relatively quickly. Early on several important church leaders also became proponents of this way of understanding intelligence. But at the same time other prominent church authorities found his understanding of intelligence unacceptable. That tension continued for some time, with more and more members of the Church understanding intelligence in the way that Nelson proposed at the same time that high-level opposition to his explanation gradually weakened.

One of the last public statements on the belief by an official of the Church came in 1936. Joseph Fielding Smith, an apostle, son of a previous prophet, and great-nephew of Joseph Smith, said that we know there is something eternal and uncreated in the person, but we don't know and cannot now know whether it is eternally individual (Joseph Fielding Smith, The Progress of Man[Salt Lake City, UT: Utah Genealogical Society, 1936], 11).

At present I doubt that anyone knows what the majority view is among the highest councils of the LDS Church. Contemporary LDS authorities seldom make theological pronouncements; their focus is on preaching the gospel and the life it entails. I would not be surprised if they themselves don't know what the majority view about intelligence is among them. Theological training and knowledge is not a requirement for or expectation of those in Mormon leadership positions.

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.

8/17/2011 4:00:00 AM