Given where I teach, the question about the relationship between Mormonism and Christianity is something that comes up quite often in my classes and in general religious discussion. For those interested in that discussion, this article may be of interest. The author, Richard Mouw, is an evangelical who is very Mormon friendly. Here he takes up a big sticking point – the LDS claim that man and God are members of the same species. Perhaps the most famous expression of this LDS belief is the so-called ‘Lorenzo Snow couplet’, which says, “As man now is, God once was; As God is, man may be.”
I think there is no doubt, and Mouw seems to agree, that orthodox Christians simply cannot sign on to the view that human beings and God are members of the same species or that God the Father was, at one point, just as we are now. A clear ontological difference between Creator and created is basic to orthodox Christianity and indeed orthodox Jewish teaching. If Mormons believe the Snow couplet on its plain meaning, then Mormonism is a religion fundamentally distinct from the rest of the Christian world.
But Mouw proposes that the LDS church is actually backing away from the more controversial, heterodox (from the point of view of the rest of Christianity) part of the famous/infamous Lorenzo Snow couplet, that “as man is, God once was”. If he is right, perhaps LDS theology is tracking toward a more conventional and orthodox set of beliefs that would be accepted as ‘Christian’ by the rest of Christianity.
I am frankly not informed enough on internal LDS theological debates and internal decisions about belief within the LDS hierarchy to have a view much worth sharing about where Mormonism is going. I can, however, say this: in my experience with teaching thousands of LDS students over the last 12 years, my sense is that an overwhelming majority of my LDS students believe what is contained in the Snow couplet. Some if not most consider it a central belief (along with other related beliefs: that God is material, etc). My LDS students who seem the most devout and informed have, in every case I can think of, deeply believed the doctrine contained in the Snow couplet and consider it fundamental to the Mormon faith. In view of this, it seems odd for Gordon Hinckley to have said, regarding the claim that “God the Father was once a man”, that he was not sure if it was really taught (“I don’t know that we teach it, I don’t know that we emphasize it.”). Given how widely held those beliefs are among my LDS students, it is hard to believe it is not taught or that it has not been a topic of discussion for some time.
And it is not hard to find echoes of the Snow couplet in popular and contemporary LDS works. Terryl and Fiona Givens are widely respected scholars and very well regarded by all of the devout Mormons I know. There are very clear shades of the Snow couplet in their book The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life. Indeed, that book dedicates most of a chapter to arguing that a wide range of orthodox Christian thinkers (they cite Tertullian, Augustine, Aquinas, Kierkegaard, and Weil) are wrong to think that God is metaphysically “other” than human beings. Granted, the Givens are not part of the LDS hierarchy and so (a) their views are not authoritative for Mormons and (b) perhaps they have not received the internal memo suggesting that Mormons begin to de-emphasize the point. But the book was published some 15 years after Gordon Hinckley’s remarks, so it is hard to imagine Mormons of the stature of the Givens would not have received the message. All of that said, the main point here is that this example of a widely read book of popular LDS theology suggests that, for most of the Mormon world – including some of her intellectuals – the Snow Couplet is not being de-emphasized and re-interpreted.
So if LDS leadership is trying to genuinely back away from the first part of the Snow couplet and the claim that God and man are members of the same species, as well as reframing the second part of the couplet in terms of pretty ordinary Christian doctrines of theosis, then that shift in belief has not yet trickled down to the ordinary Mormon faithful. And, if that is all so, it is understandable enough. It takes time for shifts in belief to take hold across a culture. Or perhaps Mouw’s interpretation of LDS theology and its trajectory is just wrong.