Joseph Smith, Jesus and Satanic Opposition: Atonement, Evil and the Mormon Vision by Douglas J. Davies

Davies argues that Mormonism’s force as a religion is intelligible through a relational trinity (Jesus, Satan and Joseph Smith) evoked in three paradigmatic scenes: the Grand Council, Gethsemane and the Sacred Grove.  This intelligibility makes Mormonism Plan of Salvation both accessible and appealing.  Davies’ attempts to speak to and through a form of Mormonism which is now fading, or at least shifting, gives this text a liminal quality.  He attributes some of the major shifts in LDS ecclesiology and theology to the reconfiguration of this trinity.  And yet, despite being focussed upon Mormonism’s past, his book sensitises members of the Church, and interested observers, to those changes currently occurring.

For Davies one of the primary paradigm for the restoration is seeing early Mormonism as a form of sacred community, a form of Mormon-Israel.  The formation of a chosen people was enacted through new and idiosyncratic scripture, various ritual elements (such as patriarchal blessings, endowments etc.) and the emergence of polygamy as a foundational kinship structure.  Though Christian, these early Saints saw themselves as a breed apart and not really in competition with other Christian Churches nor did they seek their recognition.  Here Davies wants to connect this Mormon-Israel with a larger, and perhaps more problematic contention, that LDS Christology was profoundly shaped by this early commitment[1].

Thinking Jehovah-as-Jesus, for Davies, is one of the singular theological innovations which emerged from this era.  For LDS this ‘highlights’, according to Davies, ‘the “Mormon-Israel” theme and the father-son bond’ that underpins much of Mormonism’s creation narrative and the theology erected upon it (p. 70).  However, as Davies implicitly recognises, qua Parley P. Pratt’s teaching that Jesus was the son of Jehovah-God, earliest conceptions of Jehovah and Jesus were not so uniformly delineated.  Thus it is unclear how Davies reconciles the simultaneous de-emphasis of the “Mormon-Israel” and the (authoritative) rise of the Jehovah-as-Jesus formulation (cf. Thomas Alexander).  To be sure, rather than focussing upon this theological innovation, Davies’ account would be bolstered by drawing out how the father-son bond (between God and his Son) took root in LDS theology and which elucidates the familial and relational aspects of Mormon soteriology.

For Davies, Mormonism is Binitarian; a view that seemingly draws heavily upon the Lectures on Faith.  Thus ‘it is the Father and the Son who possess experience-developed bodies, with the Spirit effecting unanimity’ between them (p. 81).  This unity is key because it frames Satan’s opposition (also from within the Father-son dyad) and becomes the focus of the rest of Davies book as he eloquently extends the implications of this idea for Mormon theology.  Having only an amateur interest in Mormon theology I was surprised by Davies initial formulation of Mormon binitarianism.  Despite an initial defensive reflex regarding the LoF it becomes apparent that this a prescient approach which raises a number of significant questions for how we experience Mormonism and how we consider our theology, questions which have not been seriously engaged (as far as I am currently aware) at this point (cf. Ostler) [2].  For example, that Davies believes the Holy Spirit is of primary importance to LDS religious experience but is almost insignificant in our formal theology indicates a gap (and a potential weakness) in our appreciation of the Godhead.

Satan’s opposition to the divine unanimity of Father and (righteous) Son provides a narrative framework for apostasy in Mormonism, according to Davies.  This has been explored in cursory form in an earlier essay, but this book adds fleshes to the details of that argument and enables him to establish some of the elective affinities that made it possible.  Personal character mattered when the message emerged from life narratives rather than other forms of authority.  Consequently, Mormons invested heavily in those who were true to the cause.  LDS theology and ecclesiology begins with, and is grounded in, apostasy; an insight perhaps previously under-appreciated (i.e. myself).  Kristine Haglund illustratively recalls hearing some Mormons express frustration that PBS’ ‘The Mormons’ did not provide labels for the ‘anti-Mormons’ – correct me if I am wrong Kristine.  Authority to speak is so fundamentally character based that we have erected an elaborate system of trust in an ecclesiology which advances those most faithful (read trustworthy and competent) to global leadership positions.  Mormons imbue that process with divinity but consequently those outside it are often unintelligible or simply ignorable.

Davies book also implicitly explores questions concerning sources throughout his text.  ‘Folk-theology’, as Davies calls it – borrowing from Givens, provides much of the material for this discussion; and yet I wonder whether this was an attempt to skirt the thorny issue of ‘authoritative doctrine’ in Mormonism.  (Though this side-step might be more for Mormons than for him).  The wide range of sources he cites are seemingly an attempt to excavate latent trends in LDS thinking that are outside of the unified message sometimes presented in more recent times.  Thus, the liminality referred to earlier recurs with each unfamiliar citation.  This book enacts diversity in Mormon theology even as it tries to elaborate it.

This is a fast-paced book that could probably have been twice as long and there was often a frustrating sense that he had more to say.  Moreover, Davies skips across broad swaths of Mormon thought with a flexibility that was, at times, breathtaking.  His prose is enjoyably concise and remarkably similar to this speaking style; which made reading this book like listening to an extended lecture on a challenging and exciting view of the ‘Mormon Vision’.

Notes:

  1. In elaborating this view of Mormon-Israel Davies uses James Strang’s Millenial Kingdom as a foil for the Utah Church’s development of this theme.  Davies argues that Strang’s movement extended these ideas further than did BY and his followers; but it would be great to hear John Hamer’s views on Davies chapter at some point.
  2. Davies’ article in IJMS is a rare exception.
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