How wonderful it was to gather and hear the words of a living prophet and the Apostles of Jesus Christ at the recent General Conference. As Latter-day Saints, we do not have all the answers to the mysteries of godliness and of the eternities and the workings of our Heavenly Father and his Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ. But we believe that Jesus Christ is literally the Son of God, and not figuratively. We believe in his real power and priesthood, and we know something of his mission and how it relates to our Heavenly Father’s purposes. What we know comes more from scripture and less from logical deduction or abstract philosophizing. This is something we can be grateful for.
Over at BCC today, Ronan linked a speech given by the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Islamic University in Islamabad on November 23, 2005. I have a great appreciation for the Anglicans and for sincere Christians everywhere. Nevertheless, reading the Archbishop’s description of who he believes Christians believe Jesus is greatly disappointed and disheartened me. It also reminded me of Alma’s injunction that "Behold, the scriptures are before you; if ye will wrest them it shall be to your own destruction" (Alma 13:20). The Apostle Peter makes a similar observation regarding those who will surely "wrest" the scriptures with regard to Paul’s writings (2 Peter 3:16).
In explaining Christianity to Muslims, and in reassuring Muslims that creedal Christians are just as monotheistic as the Qur’an commands Muslims to be, the Archbishop reiterated the very philosophical deductions and abstractions that displeased the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ so much that he was willing to refer to them as an abomination (Jesus’ word, not mine) when He appeared to Joseph Smith in 1820 in a resurrected physical body together with Heavenly Father, also in a resurrected physical body.
Of Jesus the Archbishop philosophized as follows:
We call him the Son of God. But we do not mean by this that God has physically begotten him, or that he is made to be another God alongside the one God. We say rather that the one God is first the source of everything, the life from which everything flows out. Then we say that the one God is also in that flowing-out. The life that comes from him is not something different from him. It reflects all that he is. It shows his glory and beauty and communicates them. Once again, our teachers say that God has a perfect and eternal ‘image’ of his glory, sometimes called his wisdom, sometimes called his ‘word’, sometimes called his ‘son’, though this is never to be understood in a physical and literal way. And we say that the one God, who is both source and outward-flowing life, who is both ‘Father’ and ‘Son’, is also active as the power that draws everything back to God, leading and guiding human beings towards the wisdom and goodness of God. This is the power we call ‘Holy Spirit’.
So when we speak of ‘the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’, we do not at all mean to say that there are three gods – as if there were three divine people in heaven, like three human people in a room. Certainly we believe that the three ways in which God eternally exists and acts are distinct – but not in the way that things in the world or even persons in the world are distinct. This is why when Christians read in the Qur’an the strong condemnation of ‘associating’ with God other beings that are not God, they will agree wholeheartedly.
If we then return to what Christians believe about Jesus, Son of Mary, perhaps we can see why they say that he is ‘Son of God’. Because the eternal word and wisdom of God has completely occupied his human mind and body, we say that in him this word and wisdom has ‘become flesh’, has been ‘incarnated’. Because the word and wisdom of God is seen in the Jewish Scriptures of the Old Testament as like a ‘child’ of God – and also because these scriptures often call the kings of God’s people who rule according to wisdom the ‘sons of God’ – we are able to say that Jesus is God’s Son. And from the very first, Christian teachers have said that this language must not be thought of in any physical way.
Such a circuitous and deductive explanation is needed to explain how Jesus Christ can be the Son of God! Muslims can rest assured, based on this, that creedal Christians are just as monotheistic as Muslims.
But if the Archbishop’s philosophical construct is representative of creedal Christian denominations (as I assume it must be since it flows from the creeds), then creedal Christians are not able to say that Jesus Christ is the Son of God because he was literally begotten of the Father. Rather, they can only make this statement figuratively and based on abstractions from slim Old Testament statements. The Archbishop concludes, therefore, that "Because the word and wisdom of God is seen in the Jewish Scriptures of the Old Testament as like a ‘child’ of God – and also because these scriptures often call the kings of God’s people who rule according to wisdom the ‘sons of God’ – we are able to say that Jesus is God’s Son."
Where does it say this in the Archbishop’s inerrant Bible? This is a philosophical construct that, if it is related at all to Biblical doctrine, is merely philosophically or distantly deductively derivative of such. It is not the only logical conclusion that can be deduced from the content of the Bible. But it can indeed be made to follow when one (for reasons that are at best arbitrary and at worst deliberate results of obfuscation at a certain point in history) takes neo-Platonic premises as necessary assumptions in the philosophical construct. Indeed, when the Archbishop reports that from early on, "Christian teachers have said that this language [that Jesus is the Son of God] must not be thought of in any physical way," he is reaffirming that such teachers proceeded from, at least in part, neo-Platonic premises in their deductive reasoning.
These "teachers" were not the Apostles of Jesus Christ, but rather Church Fathers and Scholastics who followed them. In light of doctrines of Biblical sufficiency and inerrancy, it is unclear why their writings should be attributed any more authority over the minds of believers than the musings of Joseph Smith (if we are to assume that Joseph Smith was just musing about the nature of God and not reporting an experience that he actually had) or any other about the nature of the relationship between Jesus Christ and God the Father. Answering that their philosophical and "theological" educations qualified them to make authoritative philosophical deductions that would become binding on all future generations of Christians verges on circular reasoning. If they did not have the authority of Apostles or the insight of direct revelation, then their musings can only stand or fall based on their logical soundness and validity.
The erroneous conlusions of these "teachers," inherited by modern creedal Christianity, are the reason that a Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ was needed. It also reinforces why a living prophet and Apostles of Jesus Christ, who receive revelation from God, are essential. As curious and intellectual beings, we are prone to follow our theories away from the path leading to the tree of life, "wandering in strange roads" (1 Nephi 8:32). With the light and knowledge available to us through the Restoration of the Gospel, I am sympathetic to President Hinckley’s statement, with reference to the Book of Mormon but applicable to the Restoration of the Gospel more generally, that "I would think that the whole Christian world would reach out and welcome it and embrace it as a vibrant testimony" ("The Great Things Which God Has Revealed," April 2005, Sunday Morning Session).