A Systematic Theology – B.H. Roberts’ Dream

In 1912, Brigham Henry Roberts had finished his editorial adventure in LDS church history with the closing of his introductory essay to volume 6 of the History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His final paragraph reads:

This message of the Prophet, and these doctrines of the east bronze tablet, together with the other doctrines taught by him in this Period I of our Church History, and to be found scattered through the six volumes now published of that history, await only the mind of some God-inspired Spencer to cast into synthetical form—to be adequately presented and witnessed—to constitute Mormonism both the Religion and the Philosophy of modern times—to bring to pass and to glorify the Golden Age of the long-promised Millennium of Christian hope.[1]

Roberts had at least some hope to fulfill this promise of a systematization of Smith’s teachings himself, “witnessed” by modern science and thought. His hope centered in his masterwork, “The Truth, The Way, The Life” but that never made it past the church review committee. Published decades later, it is mostly thought of now as a dated discussion of speculative issues, which if nothing else shines some light on the state of doctrinal thinking among the church leaders who reviewed it. I don’t mean this as any kind of criticism of the reading committee of the time. I think they had justifiable, if painful, reticence in regard to some of Roberts’ ideas.

Personally, I believe Roberts’ hope was in vain. The production of a true synthesis of Smith’s thought seems unlikely on several levels.[2] Not least in this program would be a coherent discussion of Smith’ cosmology/ontology. And moreover, a broadly, even officially accepted discussion. The rejection or at least the questioning of some of Joseph’s fundamental cosmology on various grounds since his death makes official support unlikely (and some might say undesirable for a variety of reasons). Because of this division of interpretation of a number of Smith’s statements, there is a common claim that either no revelation exists to settle these questions, or that revelation is needed to settle them since such wide difference of opinion is on record.

The likelihood that such revelation would be forthcoming seems small, given the general conservatism among modern leaders with regard to doctrinal change or exclusion. The 1978 revelation had cosmological overtones, but there is considerable evidence that those overtones do not reach to Joseph Smith in any essential way.

Before Joseph’s death, his word was regarded as essentially final on matters of doctrine, even on cosmological/ontological issues, though his colleagues would sometimes do their own thing in print away from home.

Some issues that would need to be resolved for any kind of accepted theological synthesis:

1) the nature of man. Joseph clearly taught that the individual was eternal, backward and forward. But following his death, and even during his lifetime there was considerable variation on the matter.

2) the nature of God. Joseph’s remarks on God’s past have in recent years been placed on the “back burner.” The anthropology of divine beings in Mormonism enjoys considerable variation.

3) the doctrine of the deification of man. Among modern Mormon thinkers there is variation in the understanding of what this means. This area, perhaps more than others is cluttered with folklore.

4) the nature of the Godhead. This is closely connected to 2 above, but a Mormon Christology and a clear understanding of the Holy Spirit would be needed along with a (possible?) integration of the “Mother in Heaven” idea.

Other issues include a coherent understanding of atonement, resurrection, priesthood, temples, plural marriage. There are of course more.

Even if Roberts had succeeded in publishing his “elementary treatise on theology” it seems unclear that it would have enjoyed a truly lasting consensus. One of the beauties of Mormonism is its adaptability and flexibility. This flexibility seems based in part on a lack of theological formalism which is closely connected to the idea of an open canon.[3]

————-
[1] The “east bronze tablet” refers to a plaque at the base of the statute of Joseph Smith found on Salt Lake City’s Temple Square.

[2] This takes nothing away from Blake Ostler’s fine series on Mormon theology.

[3] The blog charter sort of requires that posts have some relation to Joseph Smith’s funeral sermons, so let me say that the 1912 edition of volume 6 of the history purposely omitted one of the funeral sermons, namely, King Follett. <grin>

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11 Responses to A Systematic Theology – B.H. Roberts’ Dream

  1. J. Stapley says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Very perspicacious.

  2. Ronggui says:

    Great post. I think this touches on an issue I’ve thought about before: those that trumpet the a-theological or un-systematic versions of LDS belief (which in practice I happen to agree with), haven’t squared their attempts with earlier attempts such as those of BH Roberts, which tend toward the systematic (in a general sense). An un-systematic Mormon theology seems only reflective of our historical moment and not Mormon Theology in the definitive sense.

  3. Eric Nielson says:

    The desire for a systematic theology seems a little weird to me – within Mormonism. We don’t even think our prophets themselves are infallible. What makes us think some intellectual piecing together their statements will come up with something that is infallible?

    I appreciate the efforts of Roberts and others, these efforts are helpful.

  4. WVS says:

    Eric, I think that there was some hope that Joseph Smith’s thought could be made systematic. From Roberts’ point of view, I think he felt that, on a cosmological level, Smith could be reconciled with at least some of what had come about in the intervening 60 years. I believe he saw the splintering of views of Mormon cosmology/ontology as a bad thing, and that a referral to Joseph could unify things. In 1912 perhaps he did not see the extent to which his colleagues had developed loyalties to alternate ideas. He thought, perhaps, that a proper education was all that was needed. He was wrong in several ways. I think the interesting thing about Roberts is that his thought remains an attractive thread (for many) in the tapestry of Mormonism and his literary works still have profound influence.

  5. Christine says:

    I’m fuzzy on the whole “no systematic” theology thing. Are you suggesting that there could be a theology that is unsystematic? What would that look like except a pastiche of unrelated belief statements that don’t provide any world-view? Seems to me that is kind of what McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine was — but that seems like an excellent reason to not go that direction to me. So is Mormonism just a bunch of unrelated beliefs that could be just wildly incoherent — but that doesn’t matter because coherence doesn’t count for or against any statement of belief?

    Is the alternative no theology — a kind of belief in good behavior without any real foundation for good behavior? All of this just seems really weird to me. How can one find solace when no beliefs really fit together or make sense of the world we live in?

    Certainly people in Mormonism must have some views that they think makes sense and sticks together somehow. The notion of a single systematic theology that is normative for all believers isn’t accepted by any branch of Christianity, Judaism or Islam that I am aware of. A Catholic can adopt Thomism, Baneism, Molinism, post-modernism and so forth. Protestants certainly have no central systematic theology that is defining of any group of beliefs — at least not in the present world. Sufism, Sunni and Shi’a all have various different theologies that are acceptable.

    Isn’t theology really just a way of pointing out the open possibilities given various faith commitments and how each might logically work out? If that is any where near accurate, then are you saying Mormonism doesn’t have any coherent ways of working out the various possibilities of beliefs for Mormons? That just seems way weird. How could anyone receive any solace or even help to make sense of one’s own experience in such a chaotic approach to religious beliefs?

    Does Mormonism even have any decent “theologians” – or is it just impossible to do one given the widely divergent views of many church leaders in the past?

  6. W. V. Smith says:

    Systematic theology is actually a relatively new construct as religion goes, so the idea that theology can exist without being “systematic” is obvious. In Christianity there have been numerous attempts at systematization over the last millennium or so. The problem with systemizing Mormon theology stems at least in part from its very fundamental belief in continuing revelation.

    In Mormonism, belief is formalized by certain elementary statements. The church reinforces what it views as correct belief with ongoing centrally produced educational materials both for new converts and long-time members. There are two extreme ways at least in which one can view the church’s theology. The sum total of church scripture, tradition and teaching by its authorities would be the most liberal, but least logically cohesive. The current instruction materials produced by the church would constitute the most conservative view I suppose.

    The collection of current doctrine and practice gives church members a practical theology and beyond that, most members don’t really spend much time in trying to find a coherent logic which might hold those beliefs in a deductive web of explanation. The same could be said about many Protestant sects that still struggle with explanations of doctrine. In Mormonism there exist a variety of positions one might hold with regard to cosmological/ontological questions. All of which could be acceptable in private belief. Beyond that, the situation is complex.

    If you want a fuller explanation of what the church is about theologically, you can try here. Another brief, but unofficial explanation is here.

    Finally, if you define theology as you suggest as “just a way of pointing out the open possibilities given various faith commitments and how each might logically work out” then certainly Mormonism would claim a theology in that sense.

  7. Mark D. says:

    Systematic theology is actually a relatively new construct as religion goes

    Systematization has certainly been a dominant influence in Christianity for at least 1600 years, and in many Greek or Greek influenced religions in general for eight hundred years prior to that.

    To some degree or another, non-systematic theology is an oxymoron, like a religious belief tradition that suffers no internal feedback from anyone actually thinking about it.

    As soon as you have some sort of quasi-scholarly elite thinking about religious questions, some form of systematization is soon to follow. I think the Jewish transition to monotheism (~600-800 BC?) has to be seen in this regard, to say nothing of similar transformations in many other world religious traditions in or about the same time period.

    The milder forms of rationalization aside, I don’t see how Christianity from about 300 A.D. on can be understood without primary reference to the disputes surrounding systematization of Christian theology, in the most formal sense of the term. Not only that, I don’t think the writings of Paul make any sense unless you understand him as coming from a rather formal theological background of the sort that was foreign to most of his Christian contemporaries.

  8. Mark D. says:

    Because of this division of interpretation of a number of Smith’s statements, there is a common claim that either no revelation exists to settle these questions, or that revelation is needed to settle them since such wide difference of opinion is on record.

    I think you need to make a fundamental distinction between the practicality of a systematic theology of Mormonism and the likelihood that any such systematization would gain de facto ecclesiastical endorsement. Those are obviously entirely different questions.

    I don’t think there is much standing in the way of systemization, but there is a certainly an enormous barrier to any such system gaining even minority acceptance, in large part due to the inevitable tensions between any systematization and one or more quasi-authoritative interpretive traditions.

  9. W. V. Smith says:

    I think you need to make a fundamental distinction between the practicality of a systematic theology of Mormonism and the likelihood that any such systematization would gain de facto ecclesiastical endorsement. Those are obviously entirely different questions.

    Agreed Mark. I could have been more precise there. As to systematics, I suppose I was thinking more in terms of Tillich, rather than Augustine. And of course many Evangelicals use the term for what are essentially Bible dictionaries. That sort of thing has been around a long time too.

  10. WVS says:

    Thanks, J., Matt, Ronggui.

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