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Overview of Beliefs About God the Father

by Stephen E. Robinson

Latter-day Saints commonly refer to God the Eternal Father as Elohim, a Hebrew plural ('elohim) meaning God or gods, and to his Son Jesus Christ as Jehovah (see Elohim; Jehovah, Jesus Christ). Distinguishing between the persons of the Father and the Son is not possible with more ambiguous terms like "God"; therefore, referring to the Father as "Elohim" is a useful convention as long as one remembers that in some passages of the Hebrew Bible the title 'elohim does not refer exclusively to the person of God the Father. A less ambiguous term for God the Father in LDS parlance might be "Ahman" (cf. D&C 78:15, 20), which, according to Elder Orson Pratt, is a name of the Father (JD 2:342).

In Church theology, the doctrine of the nature of God is established more clearly by the First Vision of the Prophet Joseph Smith than by anything else. Here, Joseph Smith saw for himself that the Father and the Son were two separate and distinct beings, each possessing a body in whose image and likeness mortals are created. For Latter-day Saints, no theological or philosophical propositions about God can override the primary experience of the Prophet (see First Vision).

In one sense, it creates a slight distortion to focus on one member of the Godhead and discuss his characteristics in isolation from those of the other two, for Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one in mind, one in purpose, and one in character (John 10:30; 17:11, 21-23). Most of what can be said of the Father is also true of the Son and vice versa. The Prophet Joseph Smith said that the Son does nothing for which the Father is not the exemplar (TPJS, p. 312; cf. John 5:19-20).

Yet God the Father is not one in substance with the Son or the Holy Spirit, but is a separate being. The Father existed prior to the Son and the Holy Ghost and is the source of their divinity. In classical terms, LDS theology is subordinationist; that is, it views the Son and the Holy Ghost as subordinate to and dependent upon God the Eternal Father. They are his offspring. Thus Joseph Smith referred to the Father as "God the first" to emphasize his priority in the Godhead (TPJS, p. 190). The Son and the Holy Spirit were "in the beginning, with God," but the Father alone existed before the beginning of the universe as it is known. He is ultimately the source of all things and the Father of all things, for in the beginning he begot the Son, and through the instrumentality of his agent, the Son, the Father accomplished the creation of all things.

Latter-day Saints perceive the Father as an exalted Man in the most literal, anthropomorphic terms. They do not view the language of Genesis as allegorical; human beings are created in the form and image of a God who has a physical form and image (Gen. 1:26). The Prophet Joseph Smith explained, "The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man's; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit" (D&C 130:22). Thus, "God is a Spirit" (John 4:24) in the sense that the Holy Ghost, the member of the Godhead who deals most often and most directly with humans, is a God and a spirit, but God the Father and God the Son are spirits with physical, resurrected bodies. Latter-day Saints deny the abstract nature of God the Father and affirm that he is a concrete being, that he possesses a physical body, and that he is in space and time. They further reject any idea that God the Father is "totally other," unknowable, or incomprehensible. In LDS doctrine, knowing the Father and the Son is a prerequisite to eternal life (John 17:3; D&C 88:49). In the opinion of many Latter-day Saints, the concept of an abstract, incomprehensible deity constitutes an intrusion of Greek philosophical categories upon the biblical record.

The Father, Elohim, is called the Father because he is the literal father of the spirits of mortals (Heb. 12:9). This paternity is not allegorical. All individual human spirits were begotten (not created from nothing or made) by the Father in a premortal state, where they lived and were nurtured by Heavenly Parents. These spirit children of the Father come to earth to receive mortal bodies; there is a literal family relationship among humankind. Joseph Smith taught, "If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves" (TPJS, p. 343). Gods and humans represent a single divine lineage, the same species of being, although they and he are at different stages of progress. This doctrine is stated concisely in a well-known couplet by President Lorenzo Snow: "As man now is, God once was: as God now is, man may be" (see Godhood). This principle is clearly demonstrated in the person of Jesus Christ, a God who became mortal, and yet a God like whom mortals may become (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18). But the maxim is true of the Father as well. As the Prophet Joseph Smith said, "God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! That is the great secret" (TPJS, p. 345). Thus, the Father became the Father at some time before "the beginning" as humans know it, by experiencing a mortality similar to that experienced on earth. There has been speculation among some Latter-day Saints on the implications of this doctrine, but nothing has been revealed to the Church about conditions before the "beginning" as mortals know it. The important points of the doctrine for Latter-day Saints are that Gods and humans are the same species of being, but at different stages of development in a divine continuum, and that the heavenly Father and Mother are the heavenly pattern, model, and example of what mortals can become through obedience to the gospel (see Mother in Heaven). Knowing that they are the literal offspring of Heavenly Parents and that they can become like those parents through the gospel of Jesus Christ is a wellspring of religious motivation. With God as the literal Father and with humans having the capacity to become like him, the basic religious questions "Where did I come from?," "Why am I here?," and What is my destiny?" are fundamentally answered.

Latter-day Saints also attribute omnipotence and omniscience to the Father. He knows all things relative to the universe in which mortals live and is himself the source and possessor of all true power manifest in it. This is part of what it means to be exalted, and this is why human beings may safely put their faith and trust in God the Father, an exalted being. Nevertheless, in most things dealing with this world, the Father works through a mediator, his Son, Jesus Christ. With few exceptions, scriptural references to God, or even to the Father, have Jesus Christ as the actual subject, for the Father is represented by his Son. On those few recorded occasions when the Father has plainly manifested himself, he has apparently limited his personal involvement to bearing witness of the Son, as at the baptism of Jesus (Matt. 3:17), at the transfiguration (Matt. 17:5), in his witness to the Nephites and Lamanites (3 Ne. 11:7), and in Joseph Smith's First Vision (JS—H 1:17). Christ is the agent of the Father, and since he alone, by his Atonement, has made access to the Father possible, Latter-day Saints worship and pray to the Father and offer all other sacred performances to him in the name of the Son, Jesus Christ (Moses 5:8).

Another important personal attribute of the Father is his perfect love (1 Jn. 4:8). Because of this love, it is the nature of the Father to improve everything and everyone to the extent that they will allow. Out of preexisting chaos, matter unorganized, the Father created an orderly universe. Out of preexisting intelligence, he begat spirit children. Even those of his children who will not cooperate and obey, and who cannot therefore become like him, he still saves, if they will allow it, and places them in lesser kingdoms of glory (D&C 76:42-43; see Salvation): "For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man" (Moses 1:39). The love of the Father is not limited to those who worship and obey him, although their rewards will be greatest, but it is extended to all of his children. The Father's work, and his glory, is to love and to lift all of his children as far as they will allow him. Latter-day Saints believe it is the intention of the Father to make all human beings as happy as they possibly can be. To that end, the Father authored the Plan of Salvation. The Father desires that all human beings be exalted like himself, receive the powers and the joys that he possesses, and experience a fulness of joy in eternity. The limiting factor is the degree to which humans, by exercising their faith and obedience and by making wise choices, will permit the Father to bless them in achieving this goal. Sometimes having faith in God means having faith that the Father's plan will do what it is designed to do—to bring maximum happiness to human beings. Nevertheless, Latter-day Saints believe, in contrast to some other views, that the Father will never violate individual agency by forcing his children to exaltation and happiness. Coercion in any degree, even in the form of predestination to the Celestial Kingdom, is abhorrent to the nature of the Father. All relationships to him or associations with him are voluntary.

(See Basic Beliefs home page; Teachings About the Godhead home page; Teachings About God the Father home page)

Bibliography

Cannon, Donald Q., and Larry E. Dahl. The Prophet Joseph Smith's King Follett Discourse: A Six Column Comparison of Original Notes and Amalgamations. Provo, Utah, 1983.

McConkie, Bruce R. A New Witness for the Articles of Faith, pp. 58-65. Salt Lake City, 1985.

Smith, Joseph Fielding. DS, Vol. 1, pp. 1-17.

Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 2, God the Father, An Overview

Copyright 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company

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