How Many Gods Are There?

September 26, 2007    By: Blake @ 3:31 pm   Category: Ostler Reading,Theology

This post is a summary of my third volume — and also responding to the rather uninformed banter I often hear from evangelicals regarding plurality of gods. My third volume is entitled: Exploring Mormon Thought: Of God and Gods. There are certain concepts that Joseph Smith elucidated at the very end of his life that challenged the tradition at its foundations. These concepts may be summarized as follows:

1. The creation occurred by organizing the world not “from nothing” but from preexisting matter.

2. There was a grand council consisting of a plurality of gods in the beginning of the creation of this earth.

3. There was a Head God who presided over the council of gods.

4. The council of gods, under the direction of the Head God, appointed one God to preside over us in the work of creation and redemption.

5. Among these gods in the pre-earth council were intelligences who existed eternally without creation before they became mortal.

6. Humans have the potential to be gods because they are the same kind as God.

While these six concepts were no doubt synthesized in a way that created a new vision for the first time in the King Follett Discourse (KFD), each of them had been taught by Joseph Smith prior to that sermon. Each of these concepts is distinctive to the Mormon view of God and gods. Each would be considered heterodox in the tradition. In fact, Joseph Smith’s teaching of the plurality of gods contributed to his martyrdom. In a sense, each of these doctrines is therefore a dividing line between the tradition and Mormon thought. It is at the juncture of this interface that I focus in the third volume.

An examination of the biblical texts in light of more recently discovered ancient Mesopotamian and Ugaritic texts from Ras Shamra have led to a reassessment of Israelite beliefs in biblical scholarship. In light of these ancient Near Eastern texts, concepts 1, 2 and 3 have become the scholarly consensus regarding the most ancient Israelite beliefs and there is solid support for concept 4. I also develop textual support for concepts 5 and 6. There is clear evidence that the later Masoretic text of the Old Testament was altered to avoid the reading that there was a plurality of gods.

Moreover, not only ancient Israelite, but also early Christian views of the plurality of gods have been transformed by recent studies of a wealth of Jewish documents now available from the period of Second Temple Judaism, or the period of the second temple in Jerusalem, roughly from 535 B.C. to 70 a. d.. Although it has been held that Christianity grew up in an environment of intense monotheistic commitment, that assumption recently has been called in to question. The earliest Christians did not adopt a “strict monotheism” in the period of Second Temple Judaism. Instead, the evidence strongly suggests that it was a common belief in Second Temple Judaism that there is a Most High God who had a chief agent or primary vizier who represented God and who ruled over other divine beings, heavenly armies, and heavenly messengers.

In chapter 1 I elucidate Joseph Smith’s thought and give further support for the view that Joseph Smith consistently believed in and taught that there is a Most High God surrounded by a council of gods. I examine the KFD Sermon in the Grove in particular and argue that Joseph taught the same doctrine in these sermons.

In chapter 2 I examine the biblical passages that teach that God is superlatively great, but he includes others who are of his same kind in his decisions. I demonstrate that there is overwhelming textual, epigraphic and archaeological evidence for that the notion of a Head God surrounded by gods who are the same kind, indeed “sons,” was the earliest Israelite teaching (just as Joseph claimed) and consistent during the entire period of the Old Testament. As prominent Near Eastern archaeologist William Dever has explained, this view has affected the scholarly perception concerning the development of Israelite monotheism:

“A generation ago, when I was a graduate student, biblical scholars were nearly unanimous in thinking that monotheism had been predominant in ancient Israelite religion from the beginning—not just as an “ideal,” but as the reality. Today all that has changed. Virtually all mainstream scholars (and even a few conservatives) acknowledge that true monotheism emerged only in the period of the exile in Babylon in the 6th century B.C.E., as the canon of the Hebrew Bible was taking shape. . . .”

In chapter 3 I present evidence that while there was plurality of thought in Second Temple Judaism, the view of the Head God surrounded by a council of gods continued among a number of Jewish groups (including early Christians). They also believed that humans could be deified and join the council of gods.

In chapter 4 I review the New Testament teachings related to the relation of the Father and the Son. I show that the earliest Christians (including prominently Paul) search out Old Testament and pseudepigraphical proof texts showing two distinct divine beings, the only true God and a vizier second only to God who receives God’s name and glory and appears as God himself. In chapter 5 I review the relation of the Logos and the only true God, the Father. John also taught of two quite distinct divine beings.

In chapter 6 I transition to an analysis of Latin Trinitarianism (“LT”) and the claims of the creeds. I conclude that the creeds really resolve very little because they are vague. I also conclude that LT is either modalistic or hopelessly incoherent. I then review Social Trinitarianism (“ST”) in chapter 7 and conclude that it is scripturally and logically superior to LT. However, ST cannot maintain real relations of love and it is thus deficient.

In chapter 8 I present an LDS view of the Godhead and defend it. In chapter 9 I then review what I believe are the chief philosophical challenges to the LDS Godhead. In chapter 10 I then look at the doctrine of deification in the tradition and argue that none of the traditional views (Easter thought, Western Roman thought and Protestant) can present a coherent view of deification. In chapter 11 I then outline the LDS view of deification and defend it against the primary philosophical and theological arguments. Finally, in chapter 12 I review the scriptural basis of deification.

Well, that’s it.

41 Comments »

  1. Greg Kofford books is saying that they hope to have the book published by the end of October 2007. This page is now linked to blakeostler.com, so there you go Jacob, you’re going to be famous!

    Comment by Kent — September 26, 2007 @ 4:12 pm

  2. Wow, Todd’s head is going to explode with all the stuff to disagree with.

    Comment by Jacob J — September 26, 2007 @ 5:20 pm

  3. Very nice. So what is the latest word on the actual release date Blake?

    Comment by Geoff J — September 26, 2007 @ 5:25 pm

  4. Blake,

    Thanks for this layout of your forthcoming book; as I mentioned on a previous post, I always enjoy reading your scholarship and investigating your perspective on the issues you address. They have benefited me greatly. Thank you again!

    As for the plurality of gods in ancient Israel, this is a topic I recently debated with Aaron Shafovaloff and others on his blog. (However, he ultimately deleted my posts and actually banned me because, according to him, I apparently take an “ultra-liberal” view of scripture–i.e., something analogous to the Documentary Hypothesis–and apparently such discussion is anathema on his website regardless of its relevance to the historical context of the texts [such as Deut. 32] in question.) I am always struck by the length that fundementalist evangelicals such as he go to in order to avoid the obvious reading of the biblical texts and the archeological evidence when it contradicts their views, while at the same time making absurd attacks on others claiming that they are the ones avoiding “real” “evidence” and “issues” and the “clear” meaning of scripture. But I digress.

    Anyway, thank you again, and keep up the great work! I look forward to reading volumes 3 and 4.

    Comment by Mike — September 26, 2007 @ 5:38 pm

  5. Nice, Blake. I’m looking forward to your treatment.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 26, 2007 @ 6:05 pm

  6. Blake,

    The preface of the first volume speaks of a different third volume. Is that book still yet to come?

    Comment by Eric Russell — September 26, 2007 @ 6:06 pm

  7. Guess I have to finish book 2 and read book 1 finally…

    One question:

    Are the Plurality of Gods = the Plurality of Intelligences?

    I know, I know “read the book”…

    Comment by Matt W. — September 26, 2007 @ 7:05 pm

  8. Blake, thanks for being clear. And who is it that accuses you of swimming in Mormon neo orthodoxy? I hold my tongue, presently. I wish Robert Millet would be this refreshingly forthright in his media dialogue with evangelicals.

    Here is my question (and thinking back to the discussion on creeds). Is a Latter-day Saint in danger of being “ousted” if he publicly but peaceably writes tracts against all six of these theological tenents.

    Comment by Todd Wood — September 26, 2007 @ 7:40 pm

  9. That’s it?!

    Comment by Eric Nielson — September 27, 2007 @ 5:41 am

  10. :)

    Comment by Eric Nielson — September 27, 2007 @ 5:42 am

  11. Not to get all semantic, but doesn’t labeling something as ‘god’ prejudice our understanding of it? I mean, the distinction may be between a single All-Powerful Being and a plurality of Very Powerful Beings who are in His company. Both types of being can be called “gods” but that word obscures rather than elucidates the meaning.

    I don’t really get into theology so much because I kind of figure it’s too big for puny human minds to comprehend. I think Joseph Smith caught a flash impression of the cosmic order, but it was so huge and so complex he first had to struggle with his own understanding of what was revealed, and then was challenged to convey that understanding through the imperfection of language. Kind of like an ant who got picked up one day by a human and then was set back down, only able to vaguely grasp what had happened to it, and much less able to convey the incident to his fellow ants.

    Maybe it’s because I’m a convert, but my approach to faith is less “Big Picture” and more, “one foot in front of the other.”

    Comment by V the K — September 27, 2007 @ 6:40 am

  12. There will also be a 4th volume, with the likely title being Fire on the Horizon; I have no idea on the release date for that volume.

    Comment by Kent — September 27, 2007 @ 7:53 am

  13. Kent, what is the subject matter of the 4th book? I am considering writing my first book with this possible title: Shades of Red Glory.

    Blake, quick questions – Are all LDS Gods to be worshipped? What are the distinctions in worship? Is this covered in the book?

    Comment by Todd Wood — September 27, 2007 @ 8:05 am

  14. I only know a few of the topics that will be published in the 4th volume, and I am probably wrong on some of the details and projecting some hopes, so Blake will have to respond to correct this post. Topics will include: Revelation (how it is experienced, interpreted, and what constitutes authoritative revelations), Scripture and the creation of scripture, the purposes of temple work and sealing families together, interpreting aspects of Mormon History, the paper Atonement and the Sacred Thou at the Center of Joseph Smith’s Revelations (which is linked to on his site), and a other topics the directly with the Mormon experience.

    Comment by Kent — September 27, 2007 @ 8:29 am

  15. RE: 13
    Before this thread goes to several hundred comments :-) I would love it if Pastor Wood and y’all would share your definitions of *worship* …

    Comment by C Jones — September 27, 2007 @ 8:44 am

  16. C Jones, I was about to post something on that very topic…

    Comment by Matt W. — September 27, 2007 @ 9:23 am

  17. I would love that even more, Matt W.!

    Comment by C Jones — September 27, 2007 @ 9:30 am

  18. Todd et al. I don’t have a fast and ready definition of worship. However, only the Godhead is entitled to worship because it reflects the supremacy of divine love and the attributes that arise from it (note that a Head God could not be God alone because an essential attribute of divinity requires a genuine relationship with an “other” who is free to reject the relationship — so God necessarily requires others for expression of love). We worship and honor the greatest thing we know, the divine love expressed graciously for our best interests. We ought never worship sheer power alone (which is why I reject Calvinism). To the extent individuals become “Saviors on Mount Zion” by becoming one with the Godhead and furthering the work of love, they are due gratitude and respect that may entail a duty of devotion and commitment — which are some of the aspects of worship. There are others — like the ability to repose ultimate faith in the promises given. No individual all alone could be the object of such trust and faith, but as one with the Godhead such promises are sure. However, no individual god could ever be worshiped because it is logically impossible for there to be an “individual god” in any significant sense.

    Comment by Blake — September 27, 2007 @ 9:47 am

  19. Looking forward to this latest volume, Blake. You’ve now forced me to expedite my finishing of the earlier volumes. Sigh. Not enough hours in a day.

    Aaron B

    Comment by Aaron Brown — September 27, 2007 @ 10:45 am

  20. Boy, I expected Aaron to blow a fuse on this one. Yet silence.

    Todd: My sense is that there is a broad spectrum of beliefs among Latter-day Saints on the issues I am addressing. I am fully convinced that Joseph consistently taught 1 – 6 in my post. However, issues such as whether there is spirit birth, if so whether it is in some sense literal or merely metaphorical, whether the Father has always been God and, if so, how he became God, whether there is an infinite regress of gods or there is a Most High God — these are all issues that Latter-day Saints can differ over and not worry whether their membership will jeopardized. I am convinced that the notion of an infinite regress of gods is contrascriptural and the view that there is no superlatively great Most High God in truth and fact is not in accord with what Joseph taught.

    Comment by Blake — September 28, 2007 @ 7:28 am

  21. I look forward to owning your new book, as I do your other two. Based on the topic, I am curious as to whether you examine Alexander Neibaur and his effect on the concept of becoming a god. I know that you try to stay mostly in the philosophical and theological spectrum, but it does seem that Joseph’s introduction into many old jewish books, including the kaballah, by Neibaur shows up in his Nauvoo teachings; and is therefore relevant in understanding the King Follett sermon doctrines.

    Comment by larryco_ — September 28, 2007 @ 12:12 pm

  22. Blake, sure, there is a broad spectrum of spin off beliefs but aren’t there core fundamentals that unite all LDS in attraction to these 6 propositions.

    You might think this humorous: for I am no Martin Luther :) And I am no debator.

    But I am thinking of posting a 95 theses at the end of October for the I-15 corridor. I hope to kindly send this to the First Presidency and the 12 apostles. I am eager for the interaction. And some of it swirls right around the discussion in this post.

    Comment by Todd Wood — September 29, 2007 @ 9:30 am

  23. Todd: Go for it. But make sure to mention that you have received actual revelation as a prophet so that they have some reason to listen to you. Otherwise, it will merely be your take on things open for public debate and that debate is trumped by revelation and the calling and keys of a prophet to receive such revelation for the body of the Saints as a whole.

    Larryco: I haven’t discussed Neibaur’s possible influences because we just don’t have anything really solid. Further, I don’t believe that Kaballah is the best framework for thinking through Joseph’s views. His views suggest an openness to what we now call higher criticism and multiple redactions of scripture. His views seem more in touch with the most ancient Israelite views than the more recent Kaballah to me. I know Clark believes there is some Kaballic connection. I’m not pwersuaded. However, I’m sure that there is some Mormon Cabal that could create a vast Mormon conspiracy to derail September Dawn by getting everyone to use the phrase “ham fisted” to describe it.

    Comment by Blake — September 29, 2007 @ 9:51 am

  24. Becoming Mormon, from Jewish background, I had and have no trouble with the concept. Because, Joseph Smith explained that we are all eternally progressing –that none of us is Infinite and that all of us are finite, forever and ever– including Heavenly Father.

    In other words, we are all of us in the same eternal process of BECOMING God. And so none of us will ever finally get to that point, since this process is unending. We as human beings, including Heavenly Father, are gods in the FINITE sense. Not in the Infinite sense.

    Preceding all this, preceding even Heavenly Father, is the One, Infinite God. Infinite Intelligence as Joseph Smith called it, from which all of us derive.

    That is the One God I always believed in as a Jew, and that is still the One God I believe in as a Mormon. Though none of us, whether Jew or Mormon, can say just what this God is like. It is easier, we Jews say, to say what this God is not than to say what this God is.

    Now as a Mormon, as well as a Jew, I know of levels of Godhood more accessible to me. Thank God. I know of God the Son, and God the Mother, and God the Father who is himself a Son, one among untold myriads of fathers and sons from countless races of human beings on innumerable worlds, ever and ever progressing toward the image and likeness of One, Infinite God.

    Who then is the Holy Spirit? Holy Spirit (the Feminine apsect of God which we in Judaism call Shekhina or Shaddai, also called ShangTi and even Shakti in other cultures) is the manifestation of Divinity with and in all of us, that aspect of the Infinite Spirit which is with and in every son and daughter of God, to one degree or another.

    Comment by Martyn Varyonah — October 4, 2007 @ 6:59 am

  25. Blake and All,
    I thought I might mention here that I am very happy that Greg Kofford Books has decided to publish Blake’s Books, but it should be known that the book will no appear in October. I spoke to someone who said that “other projects” are taking up their resourced and Blake’s book is on hold for some unspecified length of time.
    I told them this was not a good thing as far as I was concerned, but I suspect that will matter very little.
    Charity, TOm

    Comment by TOm — October 27, 2007 @ 8:40 pm

  26. Blake,

    I was re-reading this post and I wanted to ask what your views are concerning the emergence of Israel in Canaan in light of its many connections with Canaanite religion. Does your book address the emergence of Israel in Canaan? I have been reading/looking over Dever’s and Mark S. Smith’s books recently and wanted to hear your thoughts.

    Comment by Mike — November 21, 2007 @ 7:12 am

  27. Mike: I look at the issue of the relation between Israelite and Canaanite cultures and linguistic influence, but I don’t deal with the many sources and issues about that relationship. In large part, we are still piecing it together. There is no doubt that the Israelite views, including those that are reflected in the oldest biblical text, are heavily influenced by and fit comfortably within the larger melieu of the Canaanite culture.

    Comment by Blake — November 21, 2007 @ 7:50 am

  28. Blake,

    On a related note, do you have a date for when Kofford Books will be releasing your book?

    Comment by Jacob B. — November 21, 2007 @ 10:24 pm

  29. Nope. I was told that it would be out in late Oct.-early Nov. There were several classes using some chapters of the third volume and we didn’t want to lose sales or interest. However, a very large commentary on the Book of Mormon came before my mine. I have no explanations.

    Comment by Blake — November 23, 2007 @ 10:35 pm

  30. Standard objection here. Pluralizing “God” (with an uppercase G) is a theological contradiction in terms bordering on a grammatical error.

    It is impossible to recognize two sovereign authorities. Multiple rulers either work together forming one sovereign authority, or one ruler is sovereign and the others are not.

    That is why D&C 20:28 reads:

    Which Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God, infinite and eternal, without end. Amen.

    Comment by Mark D. — November 23, 2007 @ 11:22 pm

  31. I agree with you Mark. I deal with this argument at some length and in several variations in my third volume.

    Comment by Blake — November 24, 2007 @ 8:44 am

  32. No new news on the book release?

    Comment by Kent — December 5, 2007 @ 2:18 pm

  33. No. My book got caught behind a very lengthy commentary on the Book of Mormon. No real info.

    Comment by Blake — December 5, 2007 @ 4:29 pm

  34. Just received an update that the book should be released before March 15th. They will be printing an extra 10 copies to make sure they can satisfy the demand :).

    Comment by Kent — February 1, 2008 @ 12:17 pm

  35. I really don’t understand the bog deal about the idea of multiple gods. I mean, every group of people in the world has had a theology of multiple gods, usually with a High God or Sky Father who is king over the others. This would seem to be a clear remnant of truth among the peoples of the world, although their practices became distorted. Just think if the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had been the one to encounter the pagans and heathens instead of the Catholic church (and later Protestant). There would be no need to destroy those people’s traditions and beliefs, no need to discredit their dear ancestral gods; rather teaching them that they can respect and honor their gods, but that Sky Father, Heavenly Father, has given us commands and taught us to direct worship to Him alone, and that He sent a Savior in whose name we can all be saved and return to His presence. So many of the elements of Mormon theology and cosmology were already in place in heathen Europe, it seems such a shame that the Catholic church had to come along and destroy it all before we could get there with the restored gospel. It would have been so much easier for everybody!!!

    Comment by Nikki — February 25, 2008 @ 12:28 pm

  36. All “gods” as such are finite. The only being that is Infinite is the one Spirit that is beyond them all. The Spirit alone is God in this Infinite sense, and all others (whether they be Heavenly Fathers or Heavenly Mothers or Heavenly Sons and so forth) are Infinite only by way of that one Spirit that is in or with them.

    They are one God –or, rather, one with God, one in the Spirit– by way of Infinite Spirit or “Infinite Intelligence” which Joseph Smith speaks of. Which Spirit he says preexists the Father and Mother and all the rest of us that derive therefrom.

    Such are called God or gods merely because God’s Spirit is with them, not because they actually are God themselves. At least that’s how I have always understood it, even before I encountered this very (Judaic) idea within the writings of Joseph Smith.

    Comment by Martyn Varyonah — March 1, 2008 @ 5:47 pm

  37. Publishing update:

    The book is currently at the Printer’s! Any day now and the book should come out.

    Comment by Kent — March 17, 2008 @ 3:59 pm

  38. The new book is out. I have it in my lap! The artwork on the cover is pretty cool, I’ve always liked Salvador Dali (the piece is called Ascension).

    The site BlakeOstler.com is updated. Life is good!

    Comment by Kent — March 31, 2008 @ 2:50 pm

  39. This is exciting Kent! I’m looking forward to checking it out. (As soon as I finish my committment to read the Book of Mormon this year)

    I noted the title has changed. I thought book three was to be on Theodicy?

    Comment by Matt W. — March 31, 2008 @ 8:27 pm

  40. Nope. Book four will deal with theodicy and many other topics.

    Comment by Kent — April 1, 2008 @ 11:20 am

  41. I know this thread is really old, but are volumes two and three of exploring mormon thought not in print anymore? I can’t seem to find anywhere where they have them for sale and I’m dying to get my hands on them.

    Comment by Preston — August 26, 2009 @ 11:18 pm

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