“Infinite Regress” or “Monarchical Monotheism”

By February 27, 2008

In Brian Birch’s class, “Mormonism and Christian Theology,” at CGU we recently discussed the “King Follet Discourse” and the “Sermon in the Grove” and the ways Mormon scholars have interpreted records of these sermons over the years. A point of conversation relates to what Smith meant in stating that God “is a man like one of yourselves” who “dwelt on a Earth same as Js. himself did.”[1] In a related recorded statement, Smith is said to have explained that “Paul says there are gods many & Lords many” I want to set it in a plain simple manner–but to us there is but one God pertaining to us.”[2] Smith’s words generally have been interpreted in two ways. First, thinkers like Orson Hyde, John A. Widtsoe, and B.H. Roberts believed Smith’s words supported an “Infinite Regress” model. This model proposes that Christ’s father had a father, ad infinitum. Hyde stated,

There are Lords many, and Gods many, for they are called Gods to whom the word of God comes, and the words of God comes to all these kings and priests. But to our branch of the kingdom there is but one God, to whom we all owe the most perfect submission and loyalty; yet our God is subject to still higher intelligences, as we should be to him.[3]

While Widtsoe and Roberts might not use the term “subject to” in explaining the Father’s relationship with “higher intelligences” the general idea runs parallel with their beliefs.

Recently Blake Ostler presented a different interpretation, which is labeled “Monarchical Monotheism.” For Ostler, Monarchical Monotheism is the correct interpretation of Smith’s King Follet Discourse and his Sermon in the Grove given a few months later. Ostler argued:

the other gods that Joseph Smith refers to in the Sermon in the Grove are not gods “above” the Father, but sons of the Most High God. They are all sons of God the Father. They are all engaged in the same process of leaving behind an immortal state to become mortal, die, and then be resurrected, just as both the Father and the Son have done. Thus, the eternal God of all other gods is the Father.[4]

Where Widtsoe believes that God the Father has a father, Ostler maintains that the Father is “the eternal God of all other gods.” No doubt Ostler will have much more to say on this topic in his forthcoming third volume.

In discussing these issues I realized I have always accepted an “Infinite Regress” model. Perhaps, this is in part because until Ostler, Smith’s words have always been presented in the former light. In attempting to read the text more closely I think I still interpret it differently from Ostler. He explained that Smith referred to the Father as “the Father of the gods” and “the head of the Gods” in reference to his interpretation of Genesis I. He concluded from these and similar statements (including verses from the Book of Abraham) that Joseph Smith taught that “the eternal God of all other gods is the Father.” Yet, I think Joseph Smith’s teachings in the grove are not definitive on this point, and in fact may suggest something more akin to Infinite Regression. Thomas Bullock reported in his shorthand:

if J.C was the Son of God & John discd. that god the Far. of J.C had a far. you may suppose that he had a Far. also–where was ther ever a Son witht. a Far.–where ever did tree or any thing spring into existence witht. a progenitor–& every thing comes in this way–Paul says that which is Earthyly is in likeness of that which is Heavenly–hence if J. had a Far. can we not believe that he had a Far. also?[5]

Ostler interpreted this to mean that “When the Father condescended from a fulness of his divine state to become mortal, he was born into a world and had a father as a mortal.”[6] If this is what Joseph meant, then what was he referring to in quoting Paul concerning earthly things in the likeness of heavenly things? Further, the statement makes no reference to Christ’s mortal father, but instead mentions the Father of Jesus Christ. Ostler argued that Smith made reference to the mortal father in his following statment:

I want you all to pay particr. attent. J. sd. as the Far. wrought precisely in the same way as his Far. had done bef–as the Far. had done bef.–he laid down his life & took it up same as his Far. had done bef–he did as he was sent to lay down his life & take it up again.[7]

Again, this seems to imply that the Father of Jesus Christ had a father who laid down his life and took it up again, which suggests he is not talking about a mortal father. Earlier in the sermon, Smith is recorded as having stated, “the apost[les] have disc[overe]d. that there were Gods above–God was the Far. of our Ld. J.C.–my object was to preach the Scrip–& preach the doctrine there being a God above the Far. of our Ld. J.C.”[8] This statement further evidences the idea that Smith believed that Christ’s Father had a father in the “Infinite Regress” model. Orson Hyde (a contemporary of Smith) interpreted Joseph Smith’s teachings in this way, and quite possibly he heard him speak on this topic on several occasions. If so, how are we to understand Smith’s statements about Christ’s Father as “the Father of the gods” and “the head of the Gods?” Is it not plausible that Smith was speaking of the “one” God and those gods subject to him? In other words, although there are other Gods not dependent on Christ’s Father, Christ’s Father is our God and hence we generally speak of him in relation to those subject to him.

I have not fully nor adequately explained Ostler’s view above, and I do this realizing that many of you are aware of his argument, but I wanted to point out a few strictures I see with a Monarchical Monotheistic interpretation of Smith’s statements. This is not to suggest that there are no problems with the Infinite Regress interpretation as Ostler pointed out. I am primarily interested in a careful examination of the primary sources in deciding what Joseph Smith believed and attempted to teach.

[1] Joseph Smith, The Words of Joseph Smith, 341, 350.
[2] Smith, 378.
[3] Orson Hyde, Millennial Star 9 (January 15, 1847), 23-24.
[4] Blake Ostler, Exploring Mormon Thought, vol. 2, 446.
[5] Smith, 380.
[6] Ostler, 444.
[7] Smith, 380.
[8] Smith, 378.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Blake discusses his views on this topic online as well (in case you haven’t seen it), and I think you may find it interesting:


    I find his presentation has an important over-riding virtue: namely that it best fits the LDS scriptures (which I consider to be the primary source of doctrine for the Church), and especially best fits the context and meaning of scriptures revealed specifically through Joseph Smith.

    Comment by The Yellow Dart — February 27, 2008 @ 7:46 am

  2. Smith’s use of Abr 3:18 in the Sermon in the Grove argues against Blake’s interpretation, even though there’s evidence that Smith had not worked out the details of what he was proposing. Phelps in 1845 suggests that the “head” may have been “God the Father,” though Smith’s late sermons are complex.

    Though I think Blake’s argument is theological rather than historical, I will say that Smith’s distinctive exegesis of “rosh” suggests that “infinite regress” as stated is not entirely consistent with Smith’s theology. And what a nasty-sounding description for Smith’s endless chain of being.

    Comment by smb — February 27, 2008 @ 8:44 am

  3. smb: I am interested in why you believe that Joseph’s interpretation of rosh leads to an infinite regress — especially since he refers to rosh as “the head God who organized the other gods.” Doesn’t the very notion of a head God mean that there is one who is at the head?

    Further, how can Abr. 3:18 argue against my view? Note that Abr. 3:19 states that there is one intelligence that is more intelligent than all of the others: “19 And the Lord said unto me: These two facts do exist, that there are two spirits, one being more intelligent than the other; there shall be another more intelligent than they; I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all….” So if there is one that is more intelligent than all of the others, there is a superlative or most intelligent. There cannot be more than one that is most intelligent.

    The Amalgamated Text of the KFD regarding the Head God includes the following:

    [Genesis 1:1] read in the first: ?The Head One of the Gods brought forth the Gods.? This is the true meaning of the words. ROSHIT [BARA ELOHIM] signifies [the Head] to bring forth the Elohim …. Thus, the Head God brought forth the Head Gods in the grand, head council.
    The Head One of the Gods called together the Gods and the grand councilors sat in grand council at the head in yonder heavens to bring forth the world and contemplated the creation of the worlds that were created at that time.
    …. to show that I am right and to back up the word ROSH ? the Head Father of the Gods. In the beginning the Head of the Gods called a council of the Gods. The Gods came together and concocted a scheme to create this world and the inhabitants.*

    In the King Follett Discourse, the Head God is consistently singular and rather clearly refers to the most supreme God in the council of the gods. The Head God organized the head gods or leaders among the gods in the council. The Sermon in the Grove presents a nearly identical analysis regarding the Head God who presides over the council of gods. However, the Sermon in the Grove presents particular challenges because we have only one source of notes from Thomas Bullock. We know, from his notes of the King Follett Discourseg that he often abbreviated the comments in his own peculiar shorthand and that, when he ran out of ink, he would miss the intervening phrases and begin again wherever the discourse was in its progress without attempting to pick up what had been missed. Because there are no other written accounts, we have no other controls to see what was missed. However, there are several scriptural quotations and references in both sermons and these scriptural quotations are often rephrased or incomplete in the Thomas Bullock report of that sermon. Thus, we have compelling reason to believe that the text of the Sermon in the Grove is incomplete and the phrasing is not exact. With such cautions in mind, the Bullock notes of the Sermon in the Grove regarding the Head God include the following:

    I will show from the Hebrew Bible that I am correct, and the first word shows a plurality of Gods…. Berosheit baurau Eloheim ait aushamayemm vehau auraits, rendered by the King James? translators, ?In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.? I want to analyze the word Berosheit. Rosh, the head, Sheit, a grammatical termination; the Baith was not originally put there when the inspired man wrote it, but it has since been added by an old Jew. Barau signifies ?to bring forth,? Eloheim is from the word Eloi, God, in the singular number; and by adding the word ?heim,? it renders it Gods. It read first, ?In the beginning the head of the Gods brought forth the Gods.? or, as others have translated it, ?The head of the Gods called the Gods together.? I want to show a little learning as well as other fools.

    The head God organized the heavens and the earth…. If we pursue the Hebrew text further, it reads, ?The head one of the Gods said, Let us make a man in our own image.?… The word Eloheim ought to be in the plural all the way through – Gods. The heads of the Gods appointed one God for us….

    From these statements it appears that there is a Head God who organizes a council that consists of other head Gods to plan the creation of the world. The term ?the heads of the Gods? refers to the Gods in the council who are called together by the Head God. The term ?Head God? appears to be singular. Moreover, this Head God and the council appointed one of these head Gods to be God as to us or as to the earth.

    The doctrine of the Head God would thus seem to strongly support the view that there is a supreme Most High God who presides over the council of gods and, in this council, there are other heads of the gods.

    Comment by Blake — February 27, 2008 @ 9:29 am

  4. Jordan: You are correct that devote another 20 pages to the analysis of the Sermon in the Grove in vol. 3 of Exploring Mormon Thought, due out in about two weeks. I show that Bullock’s quote of the the book of Abr. is mistaken and incomplete and that, since we actually have the source from which Joseph was quoting or to which he was referring, we know that Bullock mistranscribed the sermon and in critical respect this leads to a misunderstanding of what Joseph was teaching.

    Comment by Blake — February 27, 2008 @ 9:33 am

  5. I am not entirely persuaded by Blake’s arguments, but if one is going to make the Orson-hyde-knew-Joseph-and-thought-differently argument, it is only fair to point out that Blake’s position is very similar to that of Orson Pratt, who also knew Joseph intimately and presumeably had unrecorded coversations with him about these things. More to the point, I think it is a mistake to think that Blake’s argument is primarily a historical claim about what Joseph said or subjectively thought. Likewise, I think that it is a mistake to think that Blake’s argument can ultimately be settled one way or another by historical analysis. Rather, I take it that he is offering a theological hermeneutic of Mormon scripture and Joseph’s Sermon, offering the best possible account of them, where “best” means not only historically accurate but also philosophically and hermeneutically defensible.

    (For more on theological interpretation within Mormonism, see my article “Jurisprudence and the Problem of Church Doctrine.”)

    Comment by Nate Oman — February 27, 2008 @ 9:49 am

  6. As a historian with little expertise in theology, exchanges like this make me wish we had more theological/philosophical discussions within Mormonism. Good stuff.

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 27, 2008 @ 10:13 am

  7. I think perhaps, in your selective quoting of Hyde’s diagram interpretation, you skew his perspective toward infinite regress, when it may not be there. Note that he state that “all these kingdoms are one kingdom” and there is a King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Even his diagram is indicative of the one Kingdom idea (crown and all). I don’t think he is so clear cut.

    Now Brigham Young does, I think, demonstrably occupy a position of radical regress.

    Over at the Thang we have gone circles with Blake’s interpretation of the Sermon in the Grove and the KFD. Those posts (with interminable comments) may be of interest.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 27, 2008 @ 10:31 am

  8. Yet, I think Joseph Smith?s teachings in the grove are not definitive on this point, and in fact may suggest something more akin to Infinite Regression.

    So do a lot of us. See a long knock down, drag out discussion over this very issue in this thread.

    Comment by Geoff J — February 27, 2008 @ 10:48 am

  9. This is a wonderful discussion. I find theology wonderful and intimidating. I think it is important to know what was being discussed in Joseph Smith’s environment (other church’s and literature of the day) when it comes to his theology. In Rick Grunder’s new Mormon Parallels I found this little blurb. The detail in Rick’s book is quite over whelming so I have tried to minimize as much as possible. By doing so the detail is lost and that is my fault, not Rick’s. This is in PDF and coping and paste does come out a little funny. Sorry again. There is so much more on this subject in M.P’s, but I thought people might enjoy this little piece.

    SPIRIT. In a Series of Letters. In Four Parts. I. On the Unity of God. II. On the Real
    Divinity and Glory of Christ. III. On the Character of the Holy Spirit. IV. An
    Examination of Difficult Passages of Scripture. The Whole Addressed to a Worthy
    Minister of the Gospel. By Noah Worcester, A. M., Pastor of the Church in Thornton. “But
    to us there is but ONE GOD, the FATHER.”?ST. PAUL. “This is MY BELOVED SON.”?JEHOVAH. “How
    GOD anointed JESUS OF NAZARETH with the HOLY GHOST and with POWER.”?ST. PETER.
    Copy=Right Secured. Concord [New Hampshire]: Printed by George Hough, 1810.
    Noah Worcester did not believe in a plurality of Gods. Taking Trinitarian
    vagueness to its logical extreme, however, he presented what he felt would be an
    inescapable conclusion of confusing the person of God with godly nature shared
    by multiple personalities of a Father, Son and Holy Ghost in One. Worcester’s
    reductio ad absurdum is presented in language which is startlingly suggestive of
    future Mormon ideas:
    On the whole, the hypothesis of Mr. Jones [of Godly “nature, essence, or
    substance” shared by interchangeable persons, p. 29] . . . precludes the necessity of
    any distinction between Person and Being, or intelligent Person and intelligent
    Being; and under the generic or general name GOD, it exhibits an ORDER OF
    SUPREME and SELF-EXISTENT INTELLIGENCES, to each of whom the name God may
    be properly applied; the number of this ORDER OF DIVINE INTELLIGENCE[S] he
    supposes to be but THREE; this, however, is only supposition; there is no
    certainty in the case. The Divine nature is doubtless as extensive as human nature;
    and if it include more than one self-existent Person, it may be impossible for us to
    see why it may not comprise as many Persons as human nature. . . . the hypothesis
    seems to open the way for the re-admission of Lords many and Gods many. [p. 32;
    the “s” in brackets above supplied in the text in early manuscript, in both copies
    We also find, that God has endued [i.e., endowed] the various tribes of creatures
    with a power of procreation, by which they produce offspring in their own
    likeness. Why is it not as possible that God should possess the power of
    producing a Son in his own likeness, or with his own nature, as that he should be
    able to endue his creatures with such a power? May it not, then, be presumed,
    that no shadow of evidence can be produced from the works of God, to invalidate
    the [p. 35 ends] hypothesis that Christ, as the Son of God, possesses divine nature
    by derived existence?
    . . . . .
    . . . He is emphatically called God’s “OWN SON.” And to denote that God has no
    other Son in the sense in which Christ is his Son, he is called God’s ONLY Son.
    And more fully to express the idea that he, and he only, properly derived his
    existence and nature from God, he is called “the ONLY BEGOTTEN SON of GOD,”
    “the ONLY BEGOTTEN of the FATHER.” [pp. 35-36]

    Comment by Joe Geisner — February 27, 2008 @ 12:08 pm

  10. Nate O: it is only fair to point out that Blake?s position is very similar to that of Orson Pratt

    I think this is overstating things a bit. Blake holds that the Father is an individual being basically like us who has always been the Most High God (even though he condescended to a planet like Jesus did here).

    As I understand Orson Pratt, he assumed that God the Father is not really a person at all but rather the unified ocean of intelligence particles. So if God is the ocean of intelligence particles we are essentially separated glasses-full-of-intelligence-particles or satellites of intelligence particles seeking to be re-unified with the great ocean again. Of course the objection most people have to that model is that it entails the obliteration of personal identity.

    Blake’s model doesn’t make most of those claims at all. He just says there never was a time before God became God.

    Comment by Geoff J — February 27, 2008 @ 12:21 pm

  11. As a historian with little expertise in theology, exchanges like this make me wish we had more theological/philosophical discussions within Mormonism. Good stuff.

    What he said. While I don’t feel qualified to actively participate in this discussion, I do fin the topic quite interesting. Thanks for this post, Jordan, and for bringing some of the ‘nacle’s more theology-minded folks over to the JI.

    Comment by Christopher — February 27, 2008 @ 12:42 pm

  12. For those interested at the SMPT conference on the 28 March there will be a panel on Blake’s books. It’ll focus on the second volume though (which doesn’t really address these issues)

    The problem I have with Blake’s view is I think it downplays far too much Nauvoo teaching especially as understood by the rest of the brethren in the early period (1845-1860). If nothing else the claims by William Law in the Nauvoo Expositor ought give us a solid idea that Joseph Smith believed the infinite regress view. “It is contended that there are innumerable Gods as much above the God that presides over this universe, as he is above us;”

    So I can understand why Blake tries to limit things. But it really ends up demanding we discount a lot of Nauvoo teachings as speculation

    Comment by Clark — February 27, 2008 @ 1:00 pm

  13. I agree that there are distinctions to be made with regard to the type of argument that has presented whether it is theological, philosophical, historical, etc. Yet, I do think Blake is making, in part, a historical argument when he states that Smith believed and taught the Monarchic Theistic model. This leads to other questions as well. How much should historians be aware of theological and philosophical discourse, and use it in their analyses? Further, how much should theologians and philosophers be aware of historical discourse, and use it in their arguments? (I am not saying Blake?s work is ahistorical).

    Comment by Jordan W. — February 27, 2008 @ 1:05 pm

  14. Clark, I’m not sure that the Expositor can be viewed with such primacy. Law was out by the last months of 1843 so he likely was basing his criticism off of the KFD as his sole source, which Joseph indicates is proof that he is still a prophet. The SitG is then basically a response to Law’s criticism.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 27, 2008 @ 1:12 pm

  15. Clark: It?ll focus on the second volume though (which doesn?t really address these issues)

    Actually Chapter 12 of Volume 2 is the main place where Blake discusses the KFD and SitG.

    (For those interested, see my series of posts on his Volume 2 here.)

    Comment by Geoff J — February 27, 2008 @ 1:13 pm

  16. Blake (3) I actually agree with that exegesis of the KFD. The problem is that in typical mainstream theology this applies only to our creation. That is there is one Father of spirits who brings his divine children together to plan creation and their probationary state. This says nothing of other creations and how the Father became the Father.

    Nate, (5) I don’t think that a fair portrayal of Pratt’s view. Pratt separates what one might call the ousia of God from the persons of God. Unlike in the Trinity with more of a Platonic twist Pratt adopts a kind of view of the ousia as the aether: an intelligent fluid permeating the entire universe. What we call the Spirit as opposed to the Holy Ghost. (And more in keeping with the theology of say Lectures on Faith) This is separate from the Father in some key ways though.

    I’m doing a post later today at M* on Pratt’s reformulation of the Trinity. So I won’t write too much on that here. Let me quote one key passage that is illuminating though.

    That portion of this one simple elementary substance which possesses the most superior knowledge, prescribes laws for its own action, and for the action of all other portions of the same substance which possesses inferior intelligence. And thus there is a law given to all things according to their capacities, their wisdom, their knowledge, and their advancement in the grand school of the universe. to every law there are bounds and conditions set, and those materials that continue within their own sphere of action, and keep the law, are exalted to new spheres of action when they have served their appointed times; while those materials that have been refractory or disobedient will either remain stationary or be lowered and abased in the scale of being, till their learn obedience by the things they suffer.

    All the organization of worlds, of minerals, of vegetables, of animals, of men, of angels, of spirits, and of the spiritual personages of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, must, if organized at all, have been the result of the self combinations and unions of the pre-existent, intelligent, powerful, and eternal particles of substance. These eternal Forces and Powers are the Great First Causes of all things and events that have had a beginning.

    (Pratt, “Great First Cause, or the Self-Moving Forces of the Universe”, Essential Orson Pratt, 196)

    Pratt continues appealing to Paley’s design argument to argue that the Father has an “anterior designer.” This designer though was “a self-moving intelligent substance capable of organizing itself into one or more most glorious personages.” But this isn’t really Blake’s position since this substance is us and is organizing us as well. Rather it is something much more in keeping with the idea of God as an interpenetrating fluid and lawgiver in the Stoic cosmology. (As I’ve long argued the parallels between Pratt and the Stoics, even if coincidental, are quite amazing)

    Pratt also explicitly taught that we can be Fathers like the Father. “…if one has power to become the Father of spirits, so has another; if one God can propogate his species , and raise up spirits after his own image and likeness, and call them his sons and daughters, so can all other Gods that become like him, do the same thing; there will be many Fathers, and there will be many families, and many sons and daughters…” (260) He continues on saying that while children are raise to God that it isn’t necessarily the case that “God whome we serve and worship was actually the Father Himself, in His own person, of all these sons and daughters of the different worlds.”

    While that can be taken in different ways, I think Pratt feels that the main origin is this spiritual fluid and not the Father. Rather there is a regress of Fathers.

    Now the key aspect of the regress view is infinity. And there Pratt might be more problematic since he has a First Cause and in that way might be closer to Blake. But overall I think his view much closer to the traditional view than most think, albeit given a finitist nominalistic twist.

    Comment by Clark — February 27, 2008 @ 1:24 pm

  17. J. Stapley (14), I don’t think I’m giving a primacy to the Expositor, simply using it as one point above others. The idea that Law was basing his arguments on the KFD rather than anything else seems problematic. I will admit his diary can be used to bolster your argument.

    April 15. Conference is over, and some of the most blasphemous doctrines have been taught by J. Smith & others ever heard of. Such as a plurality of Gods, other gods as far above our God as he is above us. (Cook, William Law, 49)

    The reason I see your position as problematic is that Law is almost certainly reflecting how the KFD was understood by the populace. Now I’ll concede that the SitG is a response to the reception of the KFD. I’m not sure I can accept that it is purely a reaction to Law. (Afterall, as you say, Law was out by then and had bigger problems)

    Comment by Clark — February 27, 2008 @ 1:40 pm

  18. Whoops. Hit “add” before I was done. That should say, “simply using it as one point among others.” Heh.

    Geoff, (15), quite right, quite right. It’s been a while since I read volume 2 and I was confusing it with stuff in volume 1. I’m rereading both again in preparation for the panel.

    Comment by Clark — February 27, 2008 @ 1:45 pm

  19. Blake, how fixed is that release date for your book? Will we have a copy prior to the SMPT conference?

    Comment by Clark — February 27, 2008 @ 2:43 pm

  20. A quick response: I am not claiming that Pratt taught the same theory as Blake, but rather I am saying that first, Pratt’s theory of spirit fluid denies infinite regress by positing a first cause, and second, Pratt’s notion of deification consists of partaking of the divinity of the father, which strikes me as somewhat similar to the position taken by Blake in his “Re-visioning the Mormon Concept of God” article. I am perfectly willing to concede substantial differences.

    Geoff: Do you know of a place where Pratt identifies God the Father with the spirit fluid? I’ve not seen this before, but can’t claim to be a Pratt expert.

    Comment by Nate Oman — February 27, 2008 @ 3:07 pm

  21. Nate,

    I broke out quite a few of the relevant OP quotes in this post. (See the blockquote in comment #8 as well.)

    Comment by Geoff J — February 27, 2008 @ 3:14 pm

  22. In what sense of identification? He clearly (to me) separates the two beyond the fact that the spirit fluid is in all entities.

    I think Geoff is confusing in Pratt God the ousia (the aether or Spirit) with God the Father.

    Comment by Clark — February 27, 2008 @ 3:15 pm

  23. One more bit, I’m not sure Pratt denies an infinite regress. There definitely is a first cause and thus an appeal to a finite end. Yet Pratt appears to me to accept an infinite universe and infinite past. Thus the first cause is always already beyond any Father. But it appears to me that, taken in toto, that Pratt would accept an infinite number of Fathers prior to our Father. At best one could argue that he’s inconsistent on the matter.

    Comment by Clark — February 27, 2008 @ 3:17 pm

  24. An infinite past and an infinite universe are not incompatible with a first cause.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 27, 2008 @ 3:29 pm

  25. Clark,

    I will certainly agree that Pratt was largely inconsistent. But based on the quotes from that link I just gave (especially the one in this comment) it seems to me that at times Pratt argued that there is an emergent One Mind for all exalted beings (who, like all of us in Pratt’s model, have emergent minds from millions of free-willed unified spirit particles to begin with) and that great One Mind is the One God. The obvious criticism of that model is that if there are many resurrected bodies for the people who unite to make up One Mind/ One God it sounds suspiciously like The Borg…

    Comment by Geoff J — February 27, 2008 @ 3:38 pm

  26. The issue of emergence in Pratt is complex. That is whether he thinks there is a dominant monad that is akin to a Cartesian mind (ala Leibniz’ monads) or whether mind as we think of it is emergent.

    My personal view is that he thinks the interaction of his monads (atoms) leads to a unity where they are all in the same state. Thus we have a kind of nominalism where the state of atom is the state of all others.

    I think the emergence way of thinking makes more sense except for the issue of consciousness. I’m not sure it can really be applied to Pratt in terms of exegesis though in a fair manner.

    The key passage is in your quote.

    they must learn, by experience, the necessity of being agreed in all their thoughts, affections, desires, feelings, and acts, that the union may be preserved from all contrary or contending forces

    Note that this is fairly similar to so-called mid-20th century neo-orthodoxy. There the divine persons are unified in information, desires, etc. Although McConkie and company don’t go quite as far as Pratt.

    The problem is that Pratt has to separate the Son from the Father in terms of thoughts and acts. I think the way out of this is to posit a kind of divine unconsciousness. (Which is where I think Pratt goes rather than emergence)

    Comment by Clark — February 27, 2008 @ 3:52 pm

  27. BTW – I don’t think Pratt is as inconsistent as some assert. He definitely is at times but I think we can see him as far more consistent if we are careful. Naivete, I’ll agree with, significant inconsistency I don’t.

    Comment by Clark — February 27, 2008 @ 3:54 pm

  28. Blake, I was saying that “rosh” supports an initial “head” God, rather than infinite regress. The complexity comes in Smith’s failure to associate that “head” directly with Yahweh. That’s where I think Phelps is a useful witness.

    Comment by smb — February 27, 2008 @ 4:04 pm

  29. Although I find myself becoming more and more interested in theology, this discussion is beyond me. But I still find it very interesting, so thanks to everyone on this thread.

    Comment by Ben — February 27, 2008 @ 7:11 pm

  30. I’ve been reading this, thinking that I’m in way over my head, and then Geoff likens Pratt’s conceptualization of our resurrected state to the Borg. Now, I’m only treading water, not drowning.

    Keep it up, I’m learning a lot here.

    Comment by kevinf — February 27, 2008 @ 7:44 pm

  31. Clark re: #19 — It is about 99% sure that vol. 3 will be available for SMPT. The editing is done and the proofs have been delivered to the press and Greg is shooting for SMPT.

    Comment by Blake — February 27, 2008 @ 9:46 pm

  32. J. Stapley, (24), a first cause if a logical cause is compatible with an infinite past. A first temporal cause seems incompatible with an infinite past. Exactly how Pratt is taking it isn’t quite clear. My sense is that he feels there needs to be something acting as cause for any cause that might exist, due to his reading of Paley. (Paley’s wrong of course, but that’s a different matter) So he ends up with a self-caused cause that is the ground of all other things.

    Interestingly Pratt is pretty close the Trinitarian doctrine here. Especially Scotus (who coincidentally I’ve been reading this week). The big difference is that Pratt makes this self-caused cause or ungrounded ground a thing. That is it is a fluid made up of atoms. That leads to a host of problems (not the least of which the problem of whether it could possible be self-caused in the way he needs) I think Scotus is on stronger ground here.

    Comment by Clark — February 27, 2008 @ 10:32 pm

  33. Jordan W,

    On that thread Geoff linked to in #8 I (among others) hit Blake with almost all the same stuff you bring up in the post. The quote from the post that has the bit about the earthly being in likeness of the heavenly seems especially tough to reconcile with Blake’s view in my opinion. The logic expressed in that account is that if Jesus had a Father we should assume that he (the Father) had a father as well (because the earthly pattern of everything having a progenitor is a reflection of how things work in heaven).

    Blake’s view, as I understand it, requires that this statement that Jesus “had a father” who in turn “had a father” be seen as a euphemism for “was born on an earth had a heavenly father during that time of mortality.” When I read the rest of the speach, I can’t bring myself to believe that this is what the phrase “had a father” meant to Joseph. Furthermore, it doesn’t seem to fit with the analogy of everything having a progenitor to me at all.

    All (about Pratt),

    I obviously think less of Pratt’s theology than Clark does. I think it is hopelessly confused on the subject of shared minds. Once again, on a thread Geoff linked to already (this time in #21) I described in some detail why his view is bewildering to me (see, for example, this comment and this one).

    Comment by Jacob J — February 28, 2008 @ 3:39 am

  34. Blake?s view, as I understand it, requires that this statement that Jesus ?had a father? who in turn ?had a father? be seen as a euphemism for ?was born on an earth had a heavenly father during that time of mortality.? When I read the rest of the speech, I can?t bring myself to believe that this is what the phrase ?had a father? meant to Joseph. Furthermore, it doesn?t seem to fit with the analogy of everything having a progenitor to me at all.

    In my book I deal with several assessments of this issue. First, it seems fairly clear that at least the quote of the Father doing as his Father is just a misquote or misstatement. The phrase is based on John 5L29 where Christ says that the Son only does what he saw the Father do. The same quote is used in the KFD repeatedly and it is always the Son who does what the Father does, not the Father who does what his Father did. The underlying text of John shows that Bullock has misquoted here.

    Second, the analogy to things having a progenitor is to earthly things having a progenitor, and Joseph compares this to the state when the Father was mortal. The fact that earthly things have a progenitor is then compared to the way that heavenly things have progenitors, but in the context of the Father becoming mortal. So I would think that is strong evidence that Joseph had the Father’s earthly father in mind — whoever that was.

    smb: Now that I have read your post again, I can see that I was confused about (by) your statement about the head God. I’m still at a loss as to how Abr. 3:18 is evidence against monarchical monotheism.

    Comment by Blake — February 28, 2008 @ 8:46 am

  35. Blake, it’s complex. I think you’re right that most of what Smith proposed intended a “head,” your monarch, but the relationship between that monarch and the father of Jesus is not clear. I suspect that Smith and Phelps, the people I see making claims the earliest, intermittently merged this father of Jesus (they would have called him Jehovah at that point) with the head, but the identification was not consistent. Abr 3:17-9 uses arguments from the Chain of Being, specifically a version of gradation, to argue for infinite genealogical variation, and in the June 1844 sermon Smith appears to use this comparison to situate Jesus in the middle of this divinized Chain.
    I’m sympathetic to your proposal; I just think Smith had not worked out the details well and was trying to maintain views both more heretical and less internally consistent than your proposal suggests.

    Comment by smb — February 28, 2008 @ 9:28 am

  36. smb: I believe that Abr. 3:17-19 does make a gradation claim until you get to the most intelligent of all intelligences, which is the Lord God: “I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all.” How do you account for that clearly stated superlative on an infinite gradation view? I know you’re saying that it is complicated, but for the life of me I don’t see how one can interpret this other than as a statement that the Lord God is the most intelligent of all intelligences — the Most High of which there can be only one. That is what I’m inquiring about.

    Comment by Blake — February 28, 2008 @ 9:58 am

  37. Jacob, I think Pratt is interesting because he’s basically the only Mormon theologian who attempts to think through the nature of God in non-nominalistic terms. I also think he comes closest to grappling with the problem of Being even if he never takes it up. However I certainly agree his ideas are naive, muddled, and hugely problematic. As you note the problem of minds beyond the mind of a single atom is a huge problem.

    So I don’t think much of Pratt’s solutions (which as I see it is basically Stoicism with a little bit of Leibniz and Reid thrown in to boot) but I can appreciate that he was one of the few thinkers who tried to think through the issues.

    Overall I find Brigham Young theologically much more interesting though even if Young explicitly avoided the issues I think important.

    Comment by Clark — February 28, 2008 @ 11:51 am

  38. SMB, arguing that Abr 3 appeals to arguments from the chain of being (roughly neo-Platonism) is interesting but problematic. For one we have to ask if this is a coincidental parallel. After all while Joseph probably was exposed to such ideas and they may have influenced his translation process it seems difficult to believe either of the textual origins (either 100 BC – 100 AD or some ur Abraham text) could appeal to these ideas from late antiquity. If one sees Abraham as a kind of inspired midrash created in the 19th century then that’s more plausible. But in that case one would expect the neoPlatonic themes to be more pronounced if that was what was being taught. (IMO)

    Blake, in the great chain of being there’s an infinite regress with the unreachable ‘origin’ being the neoPlatonic One. This is actually the fairly common way of expressing it. In more modern terms you can think of it as akin to a limit in calculus although more accurately would be the endless limit or ordinals in Cantor’s work on transfinite sets. This has been written about a lot and is very characteristic of neoPlatonism.

    I’m very skeptical it has much to do with Abr 3 though and think the burden of proof is definitely on those arguing for this more esoteric view.

    Comment by Clark — February 28, 2008 @ 11:57 am

  39. To add, I think that the line of reasoning SMB employs probably is what Pratt is getting at in his “The Great First Cause” (which probably was partially influenced both by Aristotle’s first cause but also popularizations of the great chain of being). The question is whether it could conceivably work in Pratt’s materialistic scheme. It works in neoPlatonism simply because time applies only in the level of Spirit or Soul and not the realm of Intelligence.

    Comment by Clark — February 28, 2008 @ 11:59 am

  40. Just to note, those not familiar with the chain of being might wish to check out the following:

    Wiki: Great Chain of Being

    Early Rationalists and the GCB

    Renaissance and the GCB

    Ficino and the GCB

    Mediaeval Christianity and the GCB

    Now I am actually quite sympathetic to arguments regarding the GCB. I’ve long thought that the comments on fac. #2 probably tie to something like it although despite searching long and hard I’ve been unable to find sufficient parallel in either ancient texts, renaissance texts, nor 18th and 19th century esoteric texts (which largely ape renaissance texts).

    Comment by Clark — February 28, 2008 @ 12:09 pm

  41. Clark, the problems is in imputing esoterica to believers in the great Chain in antebellum America. I’m finishing up a paper that looks at this. The upshot is that when Mormons embraced the Chain, they were not doing so as formal (neo)platonists, they were taking fragments of their cultural milieu to create something new.

    Blake, the complexity is in understanding how they viewed Jehovah/God the Father. I agree that on balance, the best early evidence favors a head God. Whether that head was Jesus’s Father is complex. I agree, though, that “infinite regress” is both poorly named and historically inaccurate. I think, in theoretical inexactness, Smith was pushing for something like a neoplatonic chain, and the Head was the entity existing above all, though the approach was not asymptotic, it was genetic, it just wasn’t worked out in all its details. I personally believe that Smith varied in his belief about the relationship between Jehovah and the Head but was much more interested in genetic identity with divinity than in those specific details.

    And re: Abraham, I will confess an arrogant oversight, for which I apologize. I tend to assume people see Abraham as revelatory midrash, which is not a reliable or fair assumption. You are correct that gradation would not track smoothly from Plato to the Hebrew patriarch, though notions of immanent hierarchy are fairly diffuse.

    Comment by smb — February 28, 2008 @ 2:11 pm

  42. Clark, any interest in reviewing my paper before I send it out in the next couple weeks? it’s written for a general religious history audience but gives a reasonable cultural contextualization for antebellum religion and Mormonism particularly.

    I think the problem is you’re looking for true esoteric texts when most people accessed the Chain (in diluted form) via Pope, Addison, Paley, and Dick.

    Comment by smb — February 28, 2008 @ 2:15 pm

  43. Sure, I can review it.

    The reason I find the distinction between “formal neoplatonists” and “cultural milieu” is simply because there really aren’t formal neoplatonists except perhaps for philosophical schools in late antiquity – and even there it’s a problematic terms since they saw themselves as Platonists and not something else.

    No neoPlatonist is purely a neoPlatonist. They all have differences. So take someone like Emerson who shares a lot of beliefs with the neoPlatonists. Is he one? Or take all the esoterica often associated with Masonry. Does that make Masonry neo-platonic?

    I do agree, however, that neoPlatonism was a big part of the cultural milieu. The question then becomes how it was interpreted. (Something many folks who bring up parallels – such as Quinn – seem to avoid discussing)

    Anyway, as I said, while I’m very sympathetic to viewing things through a loose neoPlatonic prism (especially with what I perceive to be Brigham Young’s pragmatic Idealism) I think we have to be especially careful.

    Feel free to send me a copy of your paper.

    The reason I look for “true” esoteric texts is that I think there are far more parallels there and I also think it fairly plausible they were available and having an influence. (While Quinn is tremendously problematic I’ll credit him that far)

    Comment by Clark — February 28, 2008 @ 2:57 pm

  44. Whoops. Probably everyone figured it out but that should read “The reason why I find problematic the distinction between…”

    Comment by Clark — February 28, 2008 @ 3:13 pm

  45. smb: So how can you square this notion of gcb with Smith’s very clear statements that there is no God except one who is embodied and sits on a throne?

    Comment by Blake — February 28, 2008 @ 4:25 pm

  46. smb: Of course if Smith is just inconsistent, as you assert, then he could assert anything. I believe it is a mistake to take each statement in isolation as if it could be a text without a context. I see him as being more consistent and much less tied to notions of an impersonal god than you are open to.

    Comment by Blake — February 28, 2008 @ 4:39 pm

  47. #45, that was Smith mocking the “sectarian God.” all of Smith’s gods sit on thrones, “head” or not. whether our direct God is the head is just not clear from Smith’s preaching. I’m not sure that Smith would have distinguished them as much as we want him to have. I have a sense of a “head” moving in and out of the OT, much as 20th cent. Mormons described Jehovah as referring variably to Jesus and then God the Father.
    as for gcb, early LDS were pretty clear that there was also a “head” of their gcb, just as there was for the Platonists (in the formal sense Clark describes) and the Christian neoplatonists, who very clearly understood God to exist above and supervise the chain.
    #46. I didn’t say “just” inconsistent. I think he was marvelously consistent regarding what I have termed his “sacerdotal genealogy,” a priesthood-mediated kinship network integrating a model of the patriarchal lineage with a genetic permutation of the Great Chain of Being. He was not, however, consistent about how to integrate OT narratives into sacerdotal genealogy or how to understand the Trinity. His use of the Bible, Christian history, and theology was that of an artist building mosaics out of tesselae, not a systematizer, historian, or theologian. His divine anthropology was a statement about human potential and the familialization of all existence, not a rigorous theology of the First Cause or unmoved mover. Sometimes I think he had in mind a metonymous father who, while not sharing the metaphysical essence Pratt borrowed to explain Smithian divine anthropology, overlapped with the “head.”

    I’m preparing a critical edition of Phelps’s fantasy story Paracletes, which I think does suggest an early witness in support of your argument that the “head” was Jesus’s father. You’re not alone in your argument, and I agree that true infinite regress is not strongly supported by Smithian documents, but I think it’s important not to overstate the clarity of the materials.

    I can see no reason to doubt that Smith firmly believed he would greet the “head,” a physically embodied patriarch and king, in person, when he ascended to heaven. It’s not entirely clear whether that was Jesus’s father.

    Incidentally, Doug Davies uses “soteriological lineage” to refer to a subset of what I call sacerdotal genealogy.

    Comment by smb — February 28, 2008 @ 9:17 pm

  48. SMB, if one is appealing to Dick, Paley and company and their reading of the medieval/platonic chain of being as it entered “popular culture” (and interestingly by the time of Joseph Smith it was also largely dying as a robust idea) then it seems to me one ought expect to find the idea of the variety of creation being an expression of this. (Certainly an idea key in Paley and Dick)

    When we look at the expansions of say Genesis 1 – 2 in Moses, Abraham, and the endowment we don’t really see any evidence of that. There’s not even the broader concern of moving from pure possibility to actuality with the associated issues of privation. (And, I might add, an interesting solution to the problem of evil)

    There’s also the focus in Abraham 3 on time (rotations). While there was a kind of transition towards temporalizing the spacing inherent in the earlier renaissance and medieval chain I’m not sure it really is that kind of temporal form.

    It’s been a while since I last studied Dick but I don’t recall him really offering much there either.

    The closest parallels I’ve personally been able to find are in Bruno but even there things are more problematic (and more the result of Kabblistic influences on Bruno as much as anything)

    The best one could perhaps say about Abraham is that the Genesis text insertions of Genesis 1 is intended to re-interpret the seven days of creation in light of the chain of being. (Hardly that unique – one can find similar approaches in various ancient and medieval Christian texts)

    Comment by Clark — February 29, 2008 @ 12:14 am

  49. Just to put my thesis in a shorter form. The focus and emphasis of the 18th century form of the chain of being seems alien to Joseph Smith although earlier forms might be more interesting. (Such as interpreting Orson Pratt’s “First Cause” in light of the chain of being from earlier epochs)

    But if one views Abraham or the Nauvoo sermons in light of 19th century influence of Dick, Paley and so forth we’d expect a different emphasis.

    Now maybe I’m wrong (and I’m curious about your paper) but it seems the more interesting parallels are those from late antiquity and certain Renaissance figures – although even there as I mentioned the parallels are somewhat problematic.

    Comment by Clark — February 29, 2008 @ 12:26 am

  50. I’ll send you my paper. I think it will make what I’m arguing clearer. I don’t see a “pure” gcb, but i do see Smith using a genealogical permutation of the 19th-century gcb.

    Comment by smb — February 29, 2008 @ 12:35 am

  51. Blake, how would you prefer that I quote your statement of monarchical monotheism in my Chain paper? If it’s from your vol. 3 would you mind emailing me a copy of the relevant portions? I’m trying to finish this paper and get it off my desk.

    Also, is there a preferred published justification of “infinite regress” or is it just a lot of Pratt and Young primary texts?

    Comment by smb — March 3, 2008 @ 8:45 am

  52. smb — at this point you could quote vol. 2 which is already out. However, you could also quote it as: Blake T. Ostler, Of God and Gods, vol 3 Exploring Mormon Thought (SLC: Koford Books, 2008), ch. 1. However, in that book I call it “kingship monotheism.” Could I also get a copy of your paper?

    Comment by Blake — March 3, 2008 @ 9:30 am

  53. Sure. Stapley’s made me reconsider how best to treat funereal anointings, so i’m trying to think through how best to communicate the meaning of them within a Mormon context.

    Comment by smb — March 3, 2008 @ 10:26 pm

  54. I am late to this thread, but no one has yet referenced B.H. Roberts’ discourse entitled, “God.” June 18, 1933, Salt Lake Tabernacle. reprinted in Discourses of B.H. Roberts, Deseret Book, 1948.

    One conclusion,

    “United in this Divine Essence, or Spirit is the mind of all Gods; and all the Gods being incarnations of this Spirit, become God in unity; and by the incarnation of this Spirit in Divine Personages, the become the Divine Brotherhood of the Universe, the ONE GOD, though made of many.”

    Comment by Clair — March 9, 2008 @ 12:38 am


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