Educated Guessing: A Student’s Perspective on Misguided Apologetics

Tyler Stoehr, “Educated Guessing: A Student’s Perspective on Misguided Apologetics,” in Selections from the Religious Education Student Symposium, 2004 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2004), 191–202.

Educated Guessing: A Student’s Perspective on Misguided Apologetics

Tyler Stoehr

At least once during our respective academic careers, we find ourselves fretting over an important test question—the answer to which we haven’t the slightest clue. With sweaty palms and upset stomach we rack our brains, searching for that elusive fact that somehow managed to slip through the cerebral cracks. But despite our best efforts, in the end we realize that all is vain and the best we can do is make what some would call an educated guess. Upon receiving the results, it turns out that the answer we chose was incorrect, and we received no credit for the question. Although some would argue that the question was flawed, or that the answers given were unclear, more often than not they are met with the swift reply: “No credit will be given for answers that are similar or almost correct. You will only receive full credit for correct answers.”

Such is the law of the university, and such, I propose, is the law of life. As we live our lives it becomes painfully apparent that no credit is given for partially following the speed limit, or almost paying our taxes. And yet, despite these recurring reminders, there are people in the world who want to have their cake and eat it too, especially among certain apologists who dilute the doctrines of the Church in their attempt to find common ground. For some time now, a popular trend has been to reach out to those of other faiths with what I call the “arm of similarity,” and considerable effort has been made to demonstrate how similar our faith is to what the world deems “true” Christianity. [1] Now, I am a staunch supporter of finding common ground on which to begin interfaith discussion. Such a step is vital in the promotion of understanding and mutual acceptance. What I cannot support is the misguided tendency of some Church members to adopt loaded theological terminology to represent our beliefs. Most of us are familiar with the age-old adage “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” and this seems to be the axiom by which some Latter-day Saint apologetics are being conducted today.

However, if Christian history can teach us anything it is this: when engaging in philosophical or theological discussions, avoid fraternization with terms that already have philosophical or theological significance, especially when the term comes from a system whose worldview is entirely different from your own. The early Christian fathers adopted Platonic terminology in an attempt to make the gospel more intelligible to the Hellenized world, but despite their good intentions and the efforts of minds such as Augustine, Clement, and Origen, in the end their answers proved to be similar at best. [2] But as we have already seen, no credit is given for similar answers. As a result of such theological and philosophical reform, early Christianity’s theological makeup was altered and obscured permanently. Likewise, why should Latter-day Saints seek credit for providing answers that are only similar to real, unadulterated doctrines? Why are we even tempted to adopt models such as Social Trinitarianism and then spend our strength specifying exactly how our view of Deity fits within this Evangelical model? Furthermore, what are the benefits of aligning ourselves with ideas and models that have already been declared by Christ Himself to be “corrupt” and “an abomination in his sight?” (Joseph Smith— History 1:19). There are none. The only fruits we can hope to reap from such pursuits are confusion within and without the Church as well as the eventual corruption of our understanding of restored doctrine. [3] If the divide proves to be not so wide, what difference does it make if I am Latter-day Saint, Catholic, or Evangelical? Why bother trying to persuade others that your beliefs are similar but ultimately superior to theirs? It cannot be done, and as anyone in business will tell you, this is a horrible marketing strategy.

If we could go back in time, just to the beginning of the twentieth century, we would not find this burning desire to “fit in” present in Latter-day Saint thought. In fact, judging from the writings of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, James E. Talmage, and especially B. H. Roberts, we find the exact opposite. Each of these men spent the majority of their lives clarifying, stating, and restating Latter-day Saint doctrine rather than looking for similarities between themselves and others. In fact, in Roberts we find an expression of Latter-day Saint thought that borders on a systematic theology. [4] According to Roberts, “‘Mormons’ not only admit the variances [between their beliefs and others’] but glory in them.” [5]

At this point the following objection begs for a resolution: what evidences are there of the adoption of loaded theological terms in modern-day apologetics and the subsequent perversion of doctrine resulting there from? Is it not possible that the threat posed by such a practice is exaggerated? And besides, the Brethren won’t let misguided apologists corrupt the doctrines anyway? While it is true that today we are being led by the Lord through living prophets and apostles, I believe that our Savior’s counsel still holds true for us today: “For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29–30). No clearer call for caution can be found in all of scripture than this, the utterance of Jesus Christ to His own Apostles. And if we are to do as Nephi suggests and “liken all scriptures unto us” (1 Nephi 19:23), then clearly it is not the sole responsibility of the Brethren to ensure that true doctrine is being taught in the Church. Rather, it behooves us to proceed with caution when unfamiliar terms or hazy doctrines are being espoused, even if the proponent of such ideas professes “higher learning.” Furthermore, the same is true for those who wish to engage in a more academically rigorous evaluation of Latter-day Saint beliefs. As stated above, we should not be adopting terms just because they are “similar” or “very close” to what we actually believe, for this practice will lead to the confusion and eventual corruption of Latter-day Saint doctrine, and if any proof of this fact is required, let us analyze the essay “Re-vision-ing the Mormon Concept of Deity,” by Blake T. Ostler. [6]

In the article Ostler attempts to defend the thesis that “a more adequate and consistent understanding of God in Mormon scriptures is Social Trinitarianism.” [7] Ostler’s willingness to accept this Protestant model as well as its theological baggage eventually leads him to commit to the following ideas respecting God:

1. God did not “become” God. He has always been God.

2. Humans will never become “God” in the same way that God the Father is God.

3. Love is reified and deified.

4. Ultimately we are saved by grace alone.

Ostler himself is fully aware of the implications these conclusions carry, for he explicitly admits that “this view of the one God as an emergent Social Trinity requires a radical revision of some common assumptions about the Mormon concept of God.” [8] By “common assumptions,” Brother Ostler must be referring to assumptions drawn by Joseph Smith and his successors, for his model is completely inconsistent with the view of God we see in the teachings of the Prophet.

Ostler derives the first conclusion in the list above by making “intelligence” (as referenced in D&C 93:29) an attribute of divinity, “in virtue of which they [the Father, Son and Holy Ghost] are divine.” [9] Then, since intelligence “was not created or made, neither indeed can be,” Ostler concludes that “the divine persons must themselves have such ontologically necessary existence” as divine personages, because they all possess the divine-making attribute “intelligence.” [10] But this argument is far from proving that God has existed as God for all eternity because Doctrine and Covenants also states that “man was also in the beginning with God” (D&C 93:29), which, for Joseph Smith, meant that God and man exist on the same principle: “The mind or the intelligence which man possesses is [co-eternal] with God himself.” [11] Furthermore, the Prophet taught that “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens!” [12] Such language is indisputable: if God is an “exalted man,” that implies that there was a time when God was not exalted, and not divine. Clearly, then, God has not always been God. Nevertheless, even if we accept Ostler’s logic on this point, it then follows that man also possesses a divine, ontologically necessary existence equal to that of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost by virtue of the intelligence in Him, which is a thoroughly untenable position.

Ostler seems to recognize this, but rather than appeal to Abraham and the doctrine of graded intelligences (see Abraham 3:19), he contradicts himself by denying humans the ability to become as God Himself is, even though the scriptures and the Prophet teach that they both possess the same “intelligence.” Instead, Ostler states that “humans are eternally subordinate to and dependent upon their relationship of loving unity with the divine persons for their status as gods; . . . they will never be separately worthy of worship nor will they be the source of divinity for others.” [13] Again, this conclusion could not be more different than the views expressed by Joseph Smith:

What is it [to be joint heirs with Christ]? To inherit the same power, the same glory and the same exaltation, until you arrive at the station of a God, and ascend the throne of eternal power, the same as those who have gone before. What did Jesus do? Why; I do the things I saw my Father do when worlds came rolling into existence. My Father worked out his kingdom with fear and trembling, and I must do the same; and when I get my kingdom, I shall present it to my Father, so that he may obtain kingdom upon kingdom. [14]

If the Father had to “work out a kingdom with fear and trembling,” that implies that there was a time when the Father did not have a kingdom and hence has not been God for all eternity. But with regards to “theosis” or exaltation, clearly the Prophet intended that those who are joint heirs with Christ would ascend to the “same power, the same glory, and the same exaltation” in the same way that God Himself has ascended. In the early twentieth century, Elder B. H. Roberts elucidated on groundwork the Prophet here provides, and offers the following view of theosis:

Thus exalted intelligences who have become “partakers in the one Divine Nature,” being united in brotherhood with others of like nature may be regarded as available for assignments to presiding stations among the Presiding Intelligences of the universes of the Gods—the sons of Gods, to preside in worlds or systems of worlds as may be required. . . . Of such may be chosen sons to preside as Deities over worlds and world systems as the Gods of eternity may determine or appoint. [15]

According to this statement, Ostler is correct in that the sons of God are subordinate to God the Father for all eternity in that they look to him for direction and “assignment.” However, Ostler is in direct contradiction to both Roberts and the Prophet with his assertion that men do not have the ability to become “separately worthy of worship.”

We will now move on to Ostler’s third proposition, namely that “God is literally the love of the divine persons for each other.” [16] As explained above, Ostler believes that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost each possess a divine, ontologically necessary existence by virtue of their intelligence and are therefore three distinct, divine beings. However, Ostler contends that once these Three enter into relations with one another as members of the Godhead, they enter a “new level of existence and a different level of logical categories. . . . The unity is so profound that there is only one power governing the universe instead of three.” [17] Ostler draws on a molecular analogy to explain just how this “new level of existence” emerges from the unity of the Godhead. Just as hydrogen and oxygen gases join to form a different entity, so do the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost join together in order to enter a “new level of existence,” and the “essence” that “emerges” from this union is, according to Ostler, God. Hence, God is, in essence, the love that emerges when the divine persons enter into the Godhead.

Here, what Ostler has done is reify love in order to make it God. In other words, he has reversed the scripture “God is love” (1 John 4:8) so that it reads “Love is God.” Reification occurs when one converts a mental concept into an entity. In this case, Ostler has made the attribute “love” a thing worthy of religious worship. While his water molecule analogy is clever, in the end Ostler’s contention that “God” is the emergent love that emanates from the “Social Trinity” amounts to nothing more than the traditional Christian conception of God: an immaterial, invisible, immutable, eternal, impassible “substance,” if you consider reified love to be a substance. Love itself cannot be God anymore than humanity can be my teammate on a baseball team! Furthermore, I think most Latter-day Saints would agree that an attribute is not worthy of worship as deity.

However, Ostler again bypasses the witnesses of both the scriptures and modern prophets in his attempts to explain how three individuals can constitute one “God.” Although I agree with the distinctions that Ostler makes regarding the syntactical usage of the word itself, I fail to understand why he rejects the possibility that the word God could be used as a predicate adjective for membership in a class, namely the class of Gods. Ostler declares such a practice to be Tritheistic, and yet the Prophet preached an entire discourse on our belief in the plurality of Gods, and in the statement above, B. H. Roberts seems to be advocating the efficacy of using the term God to refer to the set of those intelligences who have partaken of the “one divine nature.” However, this still does not answer the question, “How are the three, fully divine members of the Godhead to be considered ‘one’?” The Prophet provides us with the answer when he said that an “everlasting covenant was made between three personages before the organization of this earth, and [it] relates to their dispensation of things to men on the earth.” [18] Roberts further elucidates this principle by saying “this oneness [that exists between the Godhead an will exist among Jesus’ disciples] is not a oneness of persons, not a oneness of individuals, but a oneness of mind, of knowledge, of wisdom, of purpose, of will, that all might be uplifted and partake of the divine nature, until God shall be all in all.” [19] Clearly, then, the oneness that results from the relationship shared by the members of the Godhead is not a oneness of substance, nor is it an “emergent essence,” rather, it is exactly what the Prophet and Roberts say it is: a oneness of mind that results from the covenant relationship they all share. Such an interpretation is consistent with the texts that affirm “God is one” and leaves no room for doubt as to what their prophetic authors meant by it. Thus it is a bit of a stretch to say we need to revise the Mormon concept of deity. Such revision is only necessitated by the adoption of models that are foreign to restored Church doctrine, and Ostler has fallen into the same trap that the early Christian fathers fell when they tried to explain the “three in one” phenomena via neo-Platonic philosophy.

Finally, Ostler asserts that exaltation, which occurs when we enter into a relationship with God, is made possible by grace and grace alone. He defines grace as an “unmerited gift which is offered in unconditional love. We need not, indeed cannot, do anything to earn or merit this love.” [20] And then, two sentences later he says “however, that God offers us love unconditionally does not mean that there are no conditions to abide in this love.” [21] These two statements are the clearest demonstration of how the adoption of foreign, theological concepts will obscure gospel understanding. First of all, God’s love can hardly be classified as unconditional, as the contradiction between these two statements clearly shows. [22] If we must meet certain conditions in order to abide in His love, then it clearly does not operate unconditionally. Furthermore, the fact that Ostler is even tempted to classify grace and God’s love as unconditional shows his willingness to adopt Protestant ideas, for that is what they teach: that grace is free. Again, the correct interpretation of the relation between grace and works is given in the scriptures as well as in the prophetic utterances of modern day prophets and apostles, but once more Ostler fails to align himself with their testimony because of his desire to square Mormon belief with an answer that, in the end, proves to be “almost correct.”

It may be contended that the sources I have used to refute Ostler’s position are not canonical, and therefore cannot be used as proof either for or against the conclusions drawn in his article. I am well aware of the fact that the statements I have quoted are not canonical and that differences of opinion respecting the very subjects we have been discussing may be found even among the Brethren. However, I would like to point out that each of the utterances from the Prophet reflected his interpretation of scripture, just as Ostler’s conclusions are derived for his own exegesis of Doctrine and Covenants 93 and other scriptures. The question we really need to ask ourselves is this: when taken as a whole, whose interpretation is truest to the testimony of scripture and modern-day apostolic guidance? It seems clear that adoption of loaded theological terminology leads to an interpretation of Latter-day Saint doctrine that is in direct contradiction of prophetic interpretation of the scriptures.

So what are we to do? The previous pages of this paper were written as a warning against aligning oneself with answers that are similar or almost identical with what one truly believes. Obviously, if we are to avoid the mistakes of our early Christian predecessors as well as those of some modern-day Latter-day Saint apologists, we cannot continue to adopt other scholar’s terminology or philosophical systems. Remaining silent when it comes to our beliefs is not an option either, as we have been commanded to take our beliefs to “all nations, kindreds, tongues and people.” It seems to me that the best option left open to us is what B. H. Roberts attempted to do during his lifetime: construct a uniquely Latter-day Saint philosophical system using scripture, prophetic utterances, and reason as its foundation. Instead of relenting to fellow Christians and adopting their terminology as well as their philosophical and theological systems, why don’t we invent our own and help them understand us? I believe that this is what Elder Roberts had in mind when he said, “Mormonism may not be classified under any of the titles so far employed [empiricism, idealism, rationalism, pantheism, materialism, and monism]. ‘Eternalism,’ I should select as the word best suited for its philosophical conceptions.” [23] From this statement we can ascertain that Elder Roberts understood two things: (1) that Mormonism cannot be classified under any secular philosophical or theological theory; and (2) the need for a uniquely Mormon philosophy in which the doctrines defining Mormonism could find clear expression. Elder Roberts’s concept of “eternalism” is the closest expression of a Mormon philosophical system that I have come across, and as I stated earlier, surely there are writers present in the Latter-day Saint community who could either individually or collectively construct a uniquely Mormon philosophical system within which we could clearly and completely explain our unique worldview. Otherwise, I fear that we will continue our educated guessing.


[1] By “true Christianity” I do not mean Christianity as defined by the ecumenical creeds. What I am referring to here is the desire of the Latter-day Saint community to be officially recognized by mainstream Christians as a genuine Christian religion.

[2] See John Sanders, “Historical Considerations” in The Openness of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 59–100; Clark Pinnock, “Overcoming a Pagan Inheritance” in Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 65–111; Grace M. Jantzen, “Theological Tradition and Divine Incorporeality” in God’s World, God’s Body (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1984), 21–35.

[3] Unlike the early Christian fathers, we benefit greatly from the guidance and counsel we receive from living prophets. Nevertheless, this does not mean that we should sit idly by and allow others to teach potentially faith-destroying doctrines.

[4] See B. H. Roberts, The Truth, The Way, The Life: An Elementary Treatise on Theology, ed. Stan Larson (San Francisco: Smith Research Associates, 1994).

[5] B. H. Roberts, The Mormon Doctrine of Deity: The Roberts–Van Der Donckt Discussion (Signature Books: Salt Lake City, 1998), 68.

[6] Blake T. Ostler, “Re-vision-ing the Mormon Concept of Deity,” Element 1, no. 1 (online e-journal at

[7] “Social Trinitarianism” is a model for divinity which has been recently proposed by the renowned Protestant theologian Cornelius Plantinga Jr. See “Social Trinity and Tritheism,” in Trinity, Incarnation and Atonement, (Notre Dame Press: South Bend, 1989), 21–47.

[8] Ostler, “Re-vision-ing,” paragraph 26.

[9] Ostler, “Re-vision-ing,” paragraph 28.

[10] Ostler, “Re-vision-ing,” paragraph 28.

[11] Joseph Fielding Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 352; emphasis added.

[12] Smith, Teachings, 345; emphasis added.

[13] Ostler, “Re-vision-ing,” paragraph 24, point 6.

[14] Smith, Teachings, 347.

[15] B. H. Roberts, Discourses of B.H. Roberts (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1948), 95–96; emphasis added.

[16] Ostler, “Re-vision-ing,” paragraph 24, point 2; emphasis added.

[17] Ostler, “Re-vision-ing,” paragraph 24, point 5.

[18] Smith, Teachings, 190.

[19] Roberts, The Mormon Doctrine of Deity, 29; emphasis added.

[20] Ostler, “Re-vision-ing,” paragraph 35; emphasis added.

[21] Ostler, “Re-vision-ing,” paragraph 35; emphasis added.

[22] The reader is strongly encouraged to read Elder Russell M. Nelson’s article “Divine Love” (Ensign, February 2003), 20–25.

[23] B. H. Roberts, The Seventy’s Course in Theology: Third Year (Salt Lake City: Caxton Press, 1910), 148.