What do you get when you jam 80 people enthralled with Mormon philosophy and theology into one room?

March 19, 2006    By: Geoff J @ 11:17 pm   Category: Theology

Answer: A very interesting conference.

I attended the opening session of the third annual meeting of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology on Friday. Here is a recap for y’all:

10:00 AM – Alright I admit it – I showed up kinda late and missed the paper presented by Jennifer Lane of BYU-Hawaii. After a full day of snowboarding with Russ the day before and then hanging out with John Fowles and former ‘naclite J Max Wilson that night I was beat. (Who knew one could ache in so many new ways?) But I sort of regretted missing this presentation because the discussion afterward seemed pretty interesting.

11:00 AM – Brian Birch from UVSC gave a very interesting presentation dealing with the ideas of fideism, “belief systems that hold… on various grounds, that reason is irrelevant to religious faith”, and Reformed epistemology, which “seeks to defend faith as rational” by claiming it is so self evident or basic that it needs no defense. He actually didn’t make much of connection to Mormonism in the paper but he did conclude by saying he suspects that Mormons generally “are really fideists, who subsume reason, argument, and evidence under religious categories in nearly all cases of perceived conflict.” Now some around the ‘nacle (like John C. for instance) have openly stated belief that faith is fundamentally not compatible with reason in the end. I’m not sure that is true, and I wonder if folks like John Widstoe would disagree, but it is an interesting question.

12:00 PM – Lunch at the Westminster College cafeteria. Salmon salad. Wasn’t bad.

1:00 PM – A paper called “Atonement and Testimony” by Adam Miller from Villanova was read. The question being explored was how seeking a testimony is different than sign seeking. His point seemed to be that in its purest form all testimony is always a testimony of Jesus Christ; testimonies of all other things (BoM, JS, priesthood, etc) are merely pass-throughs to the ultimate testimony of Jesus. Further, he said to have a real testimony is to have revelation from and of Jesus Christ which is, in a real sense, part of salvation and atonement (literally becoming at one with Christ). He said that the messengers (prophets) ultimately need to be transparent and that the message (Christ) must shine through. Another point was that sign seeking was focusing on something other than the relationship with Christ and compared that to adultery by using the Joseph Smith quote saying all sign seekers are adulterers.

So based on my notes I liked a lot of things Adam had to say. But I might have only noted the things I liked so I can’t be sure of that. Other things I noted, like “testimonies don’t show things as they are but as they ought to be” and “we don’t have testimonies – testimonies have us” made a lot less sense to me. Unfortunately Adam wasn’t able to be there to read his own paper and so Jim Faulconer tried to help but was obviously only able to answer questions from his own point of view. If I get a copy of the paper perhaps I’ll post more.

2:00 PMBen Huff presented his paper called “Unity in Action and Unity in God”. He cited Aristotle in order to loosely define a “person” as “an origin of actions”. This is similar to the loose sense in which a corporation is legally recognized as a person. Another example is how a musical group becomes one as they all work together and together they are the “origin of action” of the music and without the parts the whole would not be the same. He compares this to the way our whole is not the same minus a limb or two. The idea is that the term “God” as being one God could refer to the single emergent “person” that is composed of the persons in the Godhead. (I should note that this is reminiscent of Covey’s “synergy” concept that I’ll post on as part of that series).

I really like this idea and think Ben is on the right track. There are lots of scriptures supportive of this subject that Ben alluded to as well (like the true vine verses). In the discussion afterward it became apparent that Ben has not fully considered at what point “persons” become irreducible in this loosely defined version. (If the Pratt/Skousen model of independently acting particles of intelligence were to be accepted then each intelligence atom would be such a “person” for instance.) Maybe we can get Ben to post his paper somewhere too.

3:30-5:00 PM – Blake Ostler and Dan Peterson discussed the Godhead. Blake gave lots of reasons why believing in metaphysical monotheism is a bad idea. He made some claims that stood out like that creation ex nihilo means there can be no real free will (this claim clearly scandalized the non-Mormons and a few Mormons in the room) and the notion that truly free willed person must always remain in some way mysterious even to God. Dan Peterson proved to be very affable and funny in person. He made some interesting points including showing how the word “Godhead” used in the bible does not mean Godhead as Mormons understand now but rather is synonymous with “Godhood”. He also wondered aloud if Orson Pratt had a point (contra Brigham’s opposing view) about the unity of Gods and our worship being of the whole (or as Brigham would say, the attributes) rather than a single person within the Godhead. Lastly he mentioned that we Mormons should not overreact to Christian positions and make ourselves full tri-theists or works-only preachers. Good stuff all around.

5:00-7:00 PM – Went to dinner with Thang regular and BYU philosophy student Craig Atkinson and well known Christian scholars and Mormon studies experts Carl Mosser and Paul Owen. Craig was intent on figuring out how on earth anyone could actually be a Calvinist, but while he and Paul went at it Carl and I had a very pleasant conversation. Getting just a glimpse of Mormonism through their eyes was very interesting. Oh, and the Chinese food was pretty good.

7:00-9:15 PM – Stephen Davis from Claremont McKenna College spoke followed by a roundtable with him, Blake, and Dan. Davis’s presentation was excellently written and researched and his manner was pleasant and charming throughout. The title of the presentation was “The Mormon Trinity and other Trinities”. He explained the various versions of the trinity ranging from modalism on one side (the heretical idea that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are all just parts of one being) to tritheism on the other (the heretical idea that there are three Gods instead of one). He noted that Eastern Orthodox tradition leans closer to tritheism and that Western theories tend to lean closer to modalism but that both try not to stay in the middle of the two via social trinitarianism (the idea that the three members of the Godhead are one community). He conceded that Mormonism’s variation on social trinitarianism does indeed meet the classic seven hurdles for trinity believers. But says other things make it impossible for Christians to accept Mormonism’s version of the trinity as non-heretical for several reasons: 1. The idea (acceptable in Mormonism) of more Gods than the three we have to do with, 2. The notion that two of the member of the Godhead have permanent bodies. He explained that they have a much easier time accepting three persons in the Godhead than three beings in the Godhead (a distinction only a philosopher would make I suspect – but similar to the idea Ben discussed earlier.)

He also mentioned that the idea of “indwelling unity” that Blake loves seemingly wouldn’t work with beings with physical bodies and cited D&C 130:22 as pretty good evidence. Both Blake and Dan (incorrectly I believe) quipped that if that is a problem for us then it is a problem for him too because of Christ’s body. But that is actually incorrect because there would be no problem if only Christ had a physical body. I think the bigger issue is assuming that physical bodies would actually limit indwelling unity of mind which seems silly to me. I will also note that Blake was pretty dismissive of that D&C verse saying it was a later Orson Pratt addition. The irony is that he said that just moments after describing his hierarchy of authority as starting with canonized scriptures. Both he and Dan did readily concede a fallible canon though.

Among the best points I thought Davis made were the ideas that based on our religious claims it makes no sense for Mormons to care what non-Mormons think of us. I couldn’t agree more. Other than the dirty marketing that calling us non-Christians represents I am still baffled by the way we get so bent about not being included in the mainstream Christian club. The other great point he made is that he thinks more work ought to be put into studying where we stand on the questions of infinite Gods, a Head God with subordinates (including our Godhead), or simply traditional Trinity doctrines. I guess I’ll have to take that up here at the Thang, no?

So there you have it. Long enough for ya?


  1. It sounds like the conference may lead to many future Thang posts, so I give it a thumbs-up =)

    Comment by Téa — March 20, 2006 @ 12:33 am

  2. I tried to do a write up for Clark’s website (only because he asked me to) and after reading yours I realised how inadequate my write up was. I took very meager notes. I started the day out pretty strong with Jennifer Lane, but then I got lazy and quit taking notes. Hey, I’ve begun reading Blake’s new book. I just got done reading the first chapter. We need to start a reading group on it. I really like it so far.

    Comment by Craig Atkinson — March 20, 2006 @ 5:40 am

  3. Wish I was there!

    Comment by Eric — March 20, 2006 @ 6:37 am

  4. Geoff: thanks for the write-up. Re: it is impossible for a spirit to indwell in an embodied being. Davis believes that Christ has a fully physical resurrected body. If it is impossible for the spirit of one mere-spirit divine being, say the Father, to indwell in another who is embodied, then it is impossible for the the spirit of the Father to indwell in a being that has a fully physical resurrected body as well and thus the Father could not indwell in Christ. Thus, Davis would have the same problem if that is what he asserted, as both Dan and I took him. The notion that the spirit cannot indwell in an embodied being is nonsense.

    I think that the error lies in the fact that you think that Davis was thinking that LDS assert that the Father and the Son are merely bodies like a materialist thinks of mere human bodies, and thus there is no spirit that proceeds from their presence or light of Christ that indwells in all persons, so it would be like my body indwelling in your body. That of course is impossible.

    If the Father were merely and only an embodied being, without a spirit that proceeds from his presence to indwell in all things as D&C 88 and 93 say, then perhaps there is a problem — but that is certainly not LDS belief because neither Father nor Son are merely embodied beings. So I am at a loss to see why you say what was obvious to both Dan Peterson and me is just wrong. Further, if D&C 130 is read to mean that only merely spiritual beings can indwell or penetrate or enter into or inspire embodied beings, then the notion that the spirit of the Father and Christ are in us, or penetrate us, or that Christ’s light is given to us are also impossible. That cannot be what it means.

    The statement in D&C 130:22 [“Were it not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell within us.”] was added by Orson Pratt as a gloss and I can see no reason that we ought to include it as part of our scripture. It is like the Johannine comma in 1 John 5:7 [“and these three are one”] that is found in the KJV but is not attested in any ancient Ms. of the NT. It is in our scripture but has no authority because it was added by one without authority as a gloss on the text — as the footnote to the most recent version of the LDS scriptures clearly states. The statement in D&C 130 was accepted only because it was thought that JS stated it. He didn’t. So we ought to treat it the same was the interpolation in 1 John.

    Comment by Blake — March 20, 2006 @ 8:11 am

  5. blake said: “It is in our scripture but has no authority because it was added by one without authority as a gloss on the text-as the footnote to the most recent version of the LDS scriptures clearly states. ”

    I am unaware of what this footnote says. Can you illuminate me?

    Comment by Mark — March 20, 2006 @ 9:07 am

  6. Tea and Eric – Thanks. Yeah, the conference ought to provide theological blog fodder for me for some time.

    Craig – I’ll go check out your recap today. Yup, I read chapter 1 of Blake’s book on the plane. I’ll start my reading club this week I think.

    Blake – First, I’m loving the new book so far. I suspect I’ll be your shill for much of it (until we get to the KFD section maybe?)

    Second, as I understood Davis’s point, I thought he was simply using D&C 130:22 to show that if the Father and Son both have bodies then they cannot have indwelling unity. Since he believes that only the Son has a physical body it is not a problem for him. If the Father has a body just like the Holy Ghost then presumbably they could both indwell in the resurrected Christ and in each other. That is where I thought you and Dan missed his point. I don’t think Davis ever said the Spirit can’t indwell in physical bodies — rather that embodied persons can’t indwell in each other.

    Now you do have a point about the idea of Christ’s Spirit being able to indwell in us right now. I imagine Davis might say that the Holy Ghost is Christ’s spirit in a meaningful way (but I don’t know for sure).

    I have no problem with the point about D&C 130. I just noted that as an observer, it was ironic that it came up less than an hour after the comments about our canonized scripture being #1 on our hierarchy of authority for these sorts of questions. I can see why these sorts of things would frustrate non-Mormons to no end.

    Like I said, I think that you are right that having bodies is no barrier to the Father and Son sharing indwelling minds and it seems like the objection was a rather weak to begin with. I just brought it up because I understood Davis’s comments to mean something different than the idea you responded to.

    Comment by Geoff J — March 20, 2006 @ 9:46 am

  7. Mark, I’m not sure what the footnote says, but here’s what the original source of D&C 130 says.

    “the Father has a body of flesh & bones as tangible as mans the Son also, but the Holy Ghost is a personage of spirit.-***and a person cannot have the personage of the H G in his heart*** he may receive the gift of the holy Ghost. it may descend upon him but not to tarry with him” Joseph Smith Diary, in Willard Richards hand, as found in Words of Joseph Smith, 173.

    Ehat and Cook, the editors, note

    Neither the William Clayton Diary, the Joseph Smith Diary here quoted, nor the draft Manuscript History of the Church entry for this date, implies the phrasing of D&C 130:22: “Were it not so [that the Holy Ghost is a spirit], the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us.” Originally the wording in the Manuscript History of the Church entry for this date was the same as in the original draft, but in the 1850s the Church historians reworded it to read the way it appears in the Doctrine and Covenants. Other than this alteration, the Joseph Smith Diary is the source for D&C 130:22-23


    There you have it.

    Comment by Ben S. — March 20, 2006 @ 9:51 am

  8. So is this explanation contained in the footnotes of the lastest version of the scriptures? I just checked my scriptures and didn’t see anything, but that could mean my scriptures are not the latest version.

    Comment by Craig Atkinson — March 20, 2006 @ 10:12 am

  9. I like Brian’s thought and I really like Adam’s (I’ve heard his paper before). So, there is that. I wish that I had gone.

    Comment by John C. — March 20, 2006 @ 11:19 am

  10. Indeed, thanks for the write-up. I wish I could have attended…maybe next year.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 20, 2006 @ 11:21 am

  11. I should also like the statement of my belief to note that I think that faith is not necessarily compatible with reason, not that they are fundamentally different. The great slide show at the end of the world may make it all make sense, but that isn’t necessary (or even necessarily helpful) in the meantime.

    Comment by John C. — March 20, 2006 @ 11:21 am

  12. I got a new set of scriptures in January. I don’t see anything either I’m afraid.

    Comment by Russ J — March 20, 2006 @ 11:24 am

  13. Sorry I didn’t make it guys. Right up to Friday morning I thought I could at least catch the morning sessions. (I knew I couldn’t make Saturday)

    But come next year we’ll be well into production of chocolate so hopefully I can submit a paper to SMPT. I have two I’m still thinking through.

    Comment by Clark — March 20, 2006 @ 12:01 pm

  14. Craig & Russ,

    It’s not in the scriptures. Ehat & Cook’s WJS, as Ben noted, is one place to find it, as well as Cook’s Revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 287-290. I know the guy who took this to McConkie in the 1980s, and he informed us that McConkie and the others in the heirarchy “knew it was there,” but didn’t want to create a fuss over it, probably to avoid the appearance of “correcting” our canon after-the-fact. He also said that it doesn’t change much of what people think of the HG anyway, in which case I, for one, disagree.

    The snippet that isn’t contained in the D&C may not be all that big in the grand scheme, but for Mormon pneumatology, it’s a must-have.

    Comment by David J — March 20, 2006 @ 1:43 pm

  15. Just a clarification, drawing on Ben S.’s note: the addition in D&C 130 was not added by Orson Pratt (though approved by him); it was added by Leo Hawkins, the historian responsible for that section. See my post on this at M*.

    Comment by Grasshopper — March 20, 2006 @ 3:01 pm

  16. I want to know when Dan Peterson is going to publish more of the Muslim material he referred to.

    He and Blake made an interesting duo; it would be fascinating to hear a little more about the similarities between the Hebrew world view Blake refers to and the Muslim world view.

    I also wonder why LDS care whether other Christians think the LDS are Christians; however, the dialogue with traditional Christianity is productive on several fronts. If nothing else, there is considerable Biblical research that we can benefit from by engaging in the dialogue, but more importantly, it forces us to figure out what we really believe.

    Comment by Jonathan N — March 20, 2006 @ 10:28 pm

  17. You were there Jonathan? Dang – how did we not meet?

    Comment by Geoff J — March 20, 2006 @ 10:39 pm

  18. There are some very interesting Islamic parallels to Mormonism, especially (as I recall) a group in ancient Syria with a kind of priesthood fairly similar to our own.

    Comment by Clark — March 21, 2006 @ 9:41 am

  19. nothing about the second say of the conference

    Comment by marcos — March 21, 2006 @ 9:59 am

  20. Marcos,

    I took a wrong turn and ended up at Snowbird all day Saturday. I’d happily post a recap here if anyone who attended took notes and is willing to write something up though…

    Comment by Geoff J — March 21, 2006 @ 10:04 am

  21. I couldn’t stay very long, but I would have liked to have meet the people who post here. Next time….

    Comment by Jonathan N — March 21, 2006 @ 11:02 am

  22. Yow! That passage on the HG is very interesting! Actually, it ties in well with some things I have been suspecting about spirits. One of these days I’ll try to say what.

    Comment by Ben H — March 21, 2006 @ 11:28 am