Historicizing God

There is a certain apologetic strand of Mormon reflection on the Bible that points out that the God(s) of the biblical texts are not identical with the  theological constructs developed in classical philosophical theology.  This view emphasizes two central aspects of “the God of the Bible”: 1) God is one among many gods; 2) God is anthropomorphic.  These arguments have tended to focus on particular representations of God in ancient Israelite religion from the 8th-4th century.

First, this theological move represents a sort of biblicist fundamentalism.  It suggests that the Bible represents factual, uncomplicated, ahistorical truths about God.  Such a view leaves no room for critical asseessment of the representation of God, such as God’s jealousy, commands to fully exterminate the men, women, children and animals of Canaanites, Amalekites, and others.  Further, the androcentric and patriarchal character of God’s representation, including violence against women in Ezek 16, Hos 1-3, and others remain intact.  This sort of biblicism is not a particularly solid place to begin theologically.

Second, this approach proceeds as if there is a singular view about God in the Bible.  Debates about the representation of God as anthropomorphic are already in the text.  So are debates about the singularity of God.  There is no single view about God, but rather many.  Any claim that a particular view of God is the “biblical” one is a selective reading.  Even anthropomorphis not a singular tradition.

Third, this theological approach downplays the great differences between Mormonism and ancient Israelite views on God.  Joseph Smith’s understanding of God in Nauvoo is not anthropomorphic.  Anthropomorphism implies that God only appears to have human characteristics.  It is a theological term that attempts to make sense of representations of God as a human.  For Joseph Smith, God is a human, and humans are gods.  There is nothing like this in the biblical tradition.  This does not mean that Joseph Smith was wrong, only that the authority of a historical-critical approach to the biblical tradition cannot be used to validate Joseph’s understanding of God.

Mormon theological tradition, like any theological tradition, begins from an interpretation of sacred literature.  The critical feature of a mature theology is one that recognizes its status as interpretation.  This is the difference between theology and fundamentalism.

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