Spiritual Birth: Challenges for Historians
[Cross posted from FPR]
I appreciate the comments received in response to the Bushman and Paulsen post and found fascinating the diversity of views. I wanted to explore the reasons for preferring one aspect over another apart from historical or textual arguments, but I realize that perhaps it is impossible to bracket those issues from our emotional investment. Perhaps for some, they are one and the same.
In this post, I’d like to state some tentative conclusions on the development of “spirit birth” based upon the state of the literature as I see it today (aware that related studies are forthcoming that, for obvious reasons, I’m unable to take into account at this moment). This is a departure from my usual posts where I prefer to trace the journey of an idea over time (even the move from using the phrase “spiritual birth” to using the phrase “spirit birth” has a history worth exploring)1. Departing from that approach, I thought I would respond to the last set of comments by setting forth five tentative observations that might serve as a catalyst for new inquiries. I’ve subtitled the post “Challenges for Historians” on purpose, in an attempt to separate historical issues from philosophical ones. Perhaps “Challenges for Philosophers” will be taken up in a later post.
1. This seems to be a case where one doctrine (primeval spirit birth) has the effect of displacing another doctrine (becoming sons and daughters of God by covenant). While B. H. Roberts sought to reconcile Mormon discourse on the uncreated nature and begotten nature of man, it was not without repercussions.2 There is a tension in Mormon discourse between being sons of God and becoming sons of God. It is important, however, to credit Roberts with being aware of this problem (unique among his contemporaries).
Eternal Intelligences are begotten of God, spirits, and hence are sons of God-a dignity that never leaves them. “Beloved,” said one of old, “now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be; but we know that when he [Christ] shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (I John 3:2). Here, in the way of anticipating an objection, I shall pause to remark, parenthetically, that I am not unmindful of the array of evidence that may be massed to prove that it is chiefly through adoption, through obedience to the Gospel of Christ, that man in the scripture is spoken of as being a son of God. But this does not weaken the evidence for the fact for which I am contending, viz., that man is by nature the son of God. He becomes alienated from his Father and the Father’s kingdom through sin, through the transgression of the law of God; hence the need of adoption into the heavenly kingdom, and into sonship with God. But though alienated from God through sin, man is nevertheless by nature the son of God, and needs but the adoption that awaits him through the gospel of Jesus Christ to cry again in renewed and perfect fellowship, Abba, Father!3
Roberts here seems to offer a kind of harmonization where we are sons of God already but also must become sons of God, but it isn’t clear this is successful. The two doctrines seem to resist harmonization. Furthermore, Roberts never really utilized the language of adoption in his writings as did, for example, Parley P. Pratt.4 A strong emphasis of sonship by nature tends to downplay sonship by covenant. It doesn’t seem, however, that this was necessarily Roberts’ intention:
The End of the Matter-We Shall Be Like Him-Conformed to the Divine Image: That is the end then, for the spiritually born man-he will be conformed into the image of God-conformed to the type of the Spirit-life that has taken up his abode in him. How long shall it take? Who knows? And what shall it matter? The important thing is that it shall be done. The important thing for us men is that the spirit-birth takes place; that union with God be formed; the ages may wait upon the growth, and full fruitage of that event. It may take aeons of time to make a man, longer to make Super-man; but the eternal years are his who is born of the Spirit; and again I say the important thing for us men is to have that Spirit-birth, and then are we sons of God; and while it doth not appear what we shall be, for the height and glory of that is beyond our human vision, ultimately we shall be like him, and see him as he is, and be conformed to the Christ image, that is to say, to the Divine nature-unless one shall sin against the Holy Ghost.5
These passages are important for a few reasons. First, modern readers should be surprised that Roberts uses the term “spirit-birth” to mean being “born again” of the Spirit. Second, I should point out that here Roberts uses 1 John 3:2 in this last passage to refer to being born again, but uses the same passage in the Roberts-Van Der Donckt Discussion to refer to our premortal sonship by nature. Roberts was thus not consistent in his scriptural exegesis. Third, Roberts does not reject the notion of becoming sons of God. Still he doesn’t seem to incorporate Mormon scripture and early Mormon writings on point as much as he could have. It could be argued that perhaps adoption fell out of favor because Mormon discourse was dominated by a robust emphasis on premortal origins and a literal familial relationship with God.
2. Becoming sons and daughters of God in this life is explicitly taught in the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants, it is unquestionably canonical. Premortal spirit birth, on the other hand, has ambiguous support in Restorationist texts. The history of Mormon scriptural exegesis shows that, over time, Mormon expositors rely on largely on biblical passages for spiritual birth (see Roberts first usage of 1 John 3:2 above), increasingly seeing support for the doctrine in the canon as a naturalistic and literalistic cosmology developed, but setting aside portions of Restorationist texts in the process (i.e. the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants).6
3. In attempting to understand the views of a religious figure, it is common practice to take into account the textual evidence and the earliest interpretations by the earliest followers. In this case, we have a disconnect. The textual evidence that Joseph did not teach spirit birth is overwhelming.7 However, how can it be that Joseph Smith didn’t teach premortal spiritual birth, but apparently the Twelve ignore this point? Thus, Paulsen and others rely on circumstantial evidence and ask 1) where on earth did this idea come from and perhaps more importantly 2) why did many not feel or recognize that they were taking a fundamental departure from Joseph Smith? As others have pointed out in the last post, we seem to lack a satisfactory explanation. To say that all the Twelve misunderstood Joseph, while not logically impossible, seems itself to require explanation.
4. Thus, because of these dynamics we have essentially a bona fide Mormon tradition where “spirit birth” has been taught, in its latest iteration, easily before the last three generations of Mormons were born. It forms an essential component of modern Mormon cosmology, although strangely it doesn’t seem to take into account the cosmology of its founder nor the texts that came out of the Restoration, leading to the situation where we miss out on the theologically significant doctrine of adoption (and our own history), which is a restoration doctrine and one we find surprisingly consistent with Joseph’s cosmology. Given this state of affairs, and the tension between texts and tradition, it is no wonder that Richard Bushman exclaims: “Mormons all know we can’t agree on that.”
5. Historically speaking, I think this history is a good case study for the relationship between tradition and texts in Mormon thought, and a good case study in how reconfiguring doctrine (and there is no doubt Roberts at least saw his interpretations as something new) has implications for individual parts of the cosmological whole. I believe these issues are becoming more prominent due to an emphasis on cosmology in Mormon studies. The question being asked today isn’t so much whether Joseph Smith taught something, but more so how that teaching fits within the architecture of Joseph’s cosmological vision.
[View and Post comments at FPR]
1. The reason for choosing the term “spiritual birth” in this post is pragmatic, rather than historical. Several thinkers contributed to the modern conception of “spirit birth.” B. H. Roberts, who is typically thought of as the father of contemporary notions of spirit birth, himself apparently never used the term “spiritual birth” or “spirit birth” to refer to the process of spirits being begotten in the premortal world, but to the second birth by the Holy Spirit. See B. H. Roberts, The Seventy’s Course in Theology: Fifth year, Divine Immanence and the Holy Ghost (Deseret News, 1912): 103-107.
2. We should use caution to avoid conflating Roberts’ exegesis of “sons of God” in scripture with his unique development of intelligence in Mormon discourse. One does not necessarily demand the other. The teaching that the Father begat our spirits pre-dated Roberts; Roberts inherited that tradition. On the other hand, Roberts’ reformulation of intelligences as the first of four estates of existence is novel with him. See B. H. Roberts, The Seventy’s Course in Theology: Second Year, Outline History of the Dispensations of the Gospel (Deseret News, 1908): 11-12.
3. B. H. Roberts, The Mormon Doctrine of Deity: The Roberts-Van Der Donckt Discussion, to Which Is Added a Discourse, Jesus Christ, the Revelation of God: Also a Collection of Authoritative Mormon Utterances on the Being and Nature of God (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1903), pp. 165-166 (bold added); 2. See also B. H. Roberts, The Seventy’s Course in Theology: Fourth, year, The Atonement (Deseret News, 1911): 15, 17fn7; and B. H. Roberts, The Seventy’s Course in Theology: Fifth year, Divine Immanence and the Holy Ghost (Deseret News, 1912): 103-107.
4. “Now I gather from all those examples of ancient days, and from the precepts laid down in them, that baptism was the initiating ordinance, by which all those who believed and repented, were received and adopted into the church or kingdom of God, so as to be entitled to the remission of sins and blessings of the Holy Ghost; indeed it was the ordinance through which they became sons and daughters; and because they were sons, the Lord shed forth the Spirit of his Son into their hearts, crying, Abba, Father.” Parley P. Pratt, A Voice of Warning and Instruction to All People, Containing a Declaration of the Faith and Doctrine of the Church of the Latter-day Saints, Commonly Called Mormons (New York: W. Sandford, 1837), p. 56-57. For other understandings of adoption as developed within Mormon liturgy see Gordon Irving, “The Law of Adoption: One Phase of the Development of the Mormon Concept of Salvation, 1830-1900,” BYU Studies 14.3 (Spring 1974): 291-314.
5. B. H. Roberts, The Seventy’s Course in Theology: Fifth year, Divine Immanence and the Holy Ghost (Deseret News, 1912): 109 (bold added). For another usage of 1 John 3:2 see B. H. Roberts, The Truth, The Way, The Life, An Elementary Treatise on Theology: The Masterwork of B. H. Roberts, ed. Stan Larson. (Smith Research Associates, 1994): 616.
6. For an example and argument see Darwinism’s Influence on the Mormon View of Spirits – Part II.
7. See for example Joseph Smith’s Revelations on Preexistence and Spirits.