Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Heavenly Father: Sinless Redeemer or Redeemed Sinner?

One of the more distinctive aspects of mainstream, historic LDS teaching is that, just as we are spirit-children of our Heavenly Father and currently experience a mortal probation before attaining to exaltation, so did our Heavenly Father himself have Heavenly Parents of his own and have his own mortal experiences. One question on which Latter-day Saints have often been divided - but an important one, I think - is whether the Father was himself a sinless redeemer, like Christ, or was himself a sinner in need of redemption, like every one of us. Aaron Shafovaloff, an associate of Mormonism Research Ministry (an Evangelical ministry that takes a stance that Mormonism is incompatible with Christianity), has done some deep probing into this particular issue. Aaron conducted video interviews with a wide range of Latter-day Saints in order to get a feel for what position, exactly, is likely to be taken by the average Latter-day Saint; the result is a definite show of diversity, but with a number of Latter-day Saints stating that they firmly hold out the possibility or even the definite belief that the Father was a sinner, because it gives them comfort to think so. Please view the video yourself:

A number of LDS interviewees seemed to believe that it's rather inconsequential what God may or may not have done in the past. This fits with a dominant trend I've seen among many Latter-day Saints to hold that giving much thought to 'speculative' theology as opposed to practical theology is a waste of time. Knowing whether the Father has anyone to worship is less important than knowing not to drink coffee. Knowing when and how the Father or the Son became divine is less important than knowing to use water to represent the blood of Christ, rather than a grape product of some sort like Jesus used or like his apostles used. Knowing what exactly exaltation means is less important than knowing where the Garden of Eden was. Knowing whether or not the Father is a polygamist is less important than knowing precisely how much of our money to turn over to the ecclesiastical authorities or forfeit our good standing. Knowing whether or not the Father might once have been an idolater, a false prophet, a pedophile, an abusive husband, or a slave trader is less important than knowing how exactly to interpret one isolated verse in 1 Corinthians. Such are the implications of that sort of thinking. By way of contrast, many other Christians realize that if God is the most important being there is, then a question about the nature and character of God is a truly significant question, not some idle curiosity to be sneered at by holier-than-thou pragmatists. After all, eternal life is rooted in truly knowing God (John 17:3), and Joseph Smith agreed, which is why in his famed King Follett Discourse he announced that eternal life could not be had without accepting the theology he articulated in that message - which makes it all the more problematic that many Latter-day Saints dismiss that sermon so readily.

At any rate, for an Evangelical, the answer to the question is simple. God the Father is God from everlasting to everlasting. He never attained exaltation and/or godhood, as though true deity were something that could be acquired. God the Father is, by metaphysical necessity, absolutely perfect. He always has been perfect and holy, he is perfect and holy, and he always will be perfect and holy. Therefore, he never sinned or did anything morally wrong, nor could he do so. The same is true of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Anything less would not be the true ultimate reality; anything less would not truly be God. Anything less would therefore be an idol, and any suggestion that the Father might have sinned or attained godhood would be a blasphemy against him.

And this is what makes the LDS diversity on the issue so problematic. Many of the Latter-day Saints interviewed felt much the same reaction to the question that an Evangelical, a Catholic, or an Orthodox Christian would have: no, it isn't possible that the Father was a sinner, since he's perfect from everlasting to everlasting. And yet, LDS thought is broad enough to make an allowance for what seems to basically every other Christian out there, and perhaps even to some LDS adherents, to be outright blasphemy. (This is part of why so many other Christians are reluctant to extend the right hand of fellowship to Latter-day Saints as fellow Christians.) Now, of course, as has been mentioned, there are strains of LDS thought that uphold the Father's perfection throughout the past as well as the present and future. And that is commendable and right. The problem, as an outsider such as myself sees it, is that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as an institution, has never - to my knowledge and to the knowledge of many others, including apparently a majority or at least a significant proportion of its own followers - repudiated the notion that, e.g., our Heavenly Father was once an extremely grievous sinner (unlike Jesus, who then would have to be considered more successful and righteous than his Father).

Aaron, in an article ("God Never Sinned") meant to accompany the video, presents a number of brief arguments showing the importance of the eternal sinlessness of God:

  • God is maximally reliable; a God who never sinned is more reliable than a God who sinned; and therefore God never sinned.
  • It is better to have never sinned than to have sinned; God is the best of all possible beings; and therefore God never sinned.
  • If God had sinned, then whoever forgave him is greater than he is; but God is the Most High and therefore has no one greater than he is; and therefore God never sinned.
  • It is unwise to sin; but God has always been perfectly wise; and therefore God never sinned.
  • Sinners only continue to exist because of grace; but God has always been self-existent; and therefore God never sinned.
  • Someone redeemed from sin would do wrong to not continually declare that his redeemer is greater than himself; but the Father does no wrong now and also declares himself to be the greatest of all; and therefore God was never redeemed from sin, and therefore God never sinned.
  • God is the same from everlasting to everlasting; but God is not deficient in moral character now; and therefore he never was deficient in moral character; but sin makes one deficient in moral character; and therefore God never sinned.

These are only a handful of the relatively simple arguments he offers. I recommend a review of Aaron's article, since it answers a number of questions and objections that are likely to be raised. One thing I especially like about Aaron's article is that it's much more nuanced, comparatively speaking, than some of the other work put out by Evangelical 'countercult' ministries. Aaron nowhere alleges that the LDS Church officially teaches that God the Father was a sinner. He isn't simply prooftexting from obscure statements by important past LDS leaders (though those can, of course, form part of a sophisticated argument as well). Rather, his point is that this sort of position is not ruled out, not discouraged, but clearly allowed to prosper unchecked - which itself, he alleges, is a troublesome failing on the part of the church's leadership. You may disagree, if you either think that God the Father really did sin or else don't see the big deal. And that, I think, is part of the problem.

At any rate, what about you? Do you believe that God the Father was once a sinner? Or, if perhaps you're not prepared to assert it, do you still hold it open as a distinct possibility when you think about it? And if you're in either of those camps, I'd like to invite you to do a brief thought experiment. Imagine an incredibly, incredibly heinous sin, one that you find morally repugnant, but which the Church does not teach would exclude one permanently from exaltation (so you'll have to omit murder and blasphemy against the Holy Spirit). Now, imagine that billions of years ago, that is a sin that Heavenly Father committed habitually and repeatedly before turning his life around. Think hard about the feelings that evokes. Personally, when I do it, I'm overcome with a feeling of revulsion; I cannot accept the notion that God the Father could ever have been in that position, because I believe so strongly in God's flawless holiness. What sort of a reaction do you have?


  1. JB, for my reactions of the video project see my comments here. For my perspectives on the theological issue proper see my several responses at LDS Views of God’s Past.

  2. If that's really doctrine we are all in trouble.... I have never heard this view from the pulpit nor in any manuals published by the church. Even our scriptures say that he is an eternal and flawless deity. I dare say that if he ever was flawed then we are all lost. But I am with those Latter-day Saints that believe in the perfection of God.

  3. As an LDS, I don't believe that the time we live by now, is the same time that we will always exist by. Time will one day be reckoned differently than it is for us today. And when that day arrives, what will be the use of lingering our perception in an older understanding of time?

    Is it correct to assume that orthodox Christianity teaches that "Once a sinner, always a sinner." I'm thinking of Isaiah 1:18.

    18 Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.

    If "Once a sinner, Always a sinner" is what Aaron Shafavaloff believes is a Christian orthodox teaching, then this would explain why he reasons as he does. And if in Aaron's view time is a universal constant, then this also would explain why he thinks as he does.

    And so to answer the question, I believe God is holy, righteous, and pure, for all time and all eternity. And His Son follows in his footsteps.