Summer Review: A Systematic Theology: B. H. Roberts Dream

[Another blast from the past.]

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>

3 Responses to Summer Review: A Systematic Theology: B. H. Roberts Dream

  1. I rather think of the actual state of things as being more of what is referred to as a quantum state God and reality — so that rather than it being like the blind men and the elephant (with later times consisting of those who now see the entire elephant for what it is), there are only the various parts, but no elephant — reality having different aspects depending on the viewpoint.

    In such a case, contradictory points could be valid at the same time, for different observers, especially as we are within time rather than outside of it.

  2. Clark Goble says:

    I think the problem with synthesis is that there are too many places where the data is vague and open to many interpretations. That’s not just in the theology but even in terms of how we deal with the texts themselves. Blake’s reinterpretation of the classic King Follet Discourse and Sermon in the Grove are themselves a great example of why true systemization can’t happen.

    • WVS says:

      I think certain theological signposts might be set up – set in concrete if you will. I believe that is what Roberts wanted to do. He saw some fundamental pillars for Mormonism and was willing to reinterpret the balance so that those fundamentals pervaded everything. But he found limited consensus. Too bad I think. His vision was very robust in a number of ways. The cultural work it *might* have done? I think drew a line in the theological sand — providing built-in boundary maintenance but enough flexibility to address much of the religious politics that developed over the last 30 years.

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