Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Review of "The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion"

In an interview with Blake Ostler, Mormon theologian Sterling McMurrin mentioned that he thought that the texts that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints used in its Sunday School were of a childish nature, this being the case because they did not focus on theology or argument for what the adherents believed. This interview took place in 1981, but in 1965 he had published a groundbreaking book that could serve as an excellent Sunday school text: The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion

It is common for Mormons to connect their religious beliefs to the ancient Christian Church of the 1st and 2nd century before the so called "Great Apostasy." Following along with this line of thinking, McMurrin connects Mormonism to the 4th century monk Pelagius, showing how their approach to religion, unlike most modern Christianity, is more naturalistic, finitistic, and humanistic. Furthermore, McMurrin points out that Mormonism is like a melting pot (though he does not use that phrase) in that in borrows much of the language of traditional Christianity and then turning them upside down by redefining them so much that most other Christian sects will refer to Mormons as heretical Christians at best.

The book itself is only 140 pages, so while it is not very long it has more depth than what is covered in an average Sunday school class. The text is a compilation of prior essays McMurrin had given and they are somewhat philosophically technical, but he often clarifies by giving definitions, so whether one is a trained philosopher or a novice, the book is enjoyable. McMurrin can be a bit dry at times, but he is clear and you come away with a greater appreciation for the strengths and weaknesses of Mormon theology.

Divided into 5 parts, McMurrin starts with metaphysics, or study of prime reality. McMurrin contrasts and explains monism (reality as one substance, a view held by Spinoza) with pluralism (a view held by William James), showing how Mormonism, due to its dualistic belief in the soul, falls in the pluralism category. The priesthood, which McMurrin points out exists independently of God, also shows that strictly speaking Mormons cannot be monists. McMurrin sums up this distinction aptly when he states:
It is perhaps not entirely inaccurate to describe Mormonism as a kind of naturalistic, humanistic, theism. (The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion pg.3)
Close quote. For this reason, though McMurrin does not state this outright, Mormonism has more in common with scientific naturalists than it does with traditional Christians at times, maybe even most of the time.

Part two moves from prime reality to God himself and his nature within Mormonism. In contrast to an infinite and eternal God as in classical theology, Mormonism embraces a finite conception of God, which means that he came to be God rather than always being God, as within traditional Christianity. A major theme that runs through this book is that Mormonism is simply much different than traditional Chrisitianity, even if Mormonism uses the same vocabulary. The words mean different things.

Part three discusses the doctrine of man is Mormonism, pointing out that while in traditional Christianity man is a contingent being (he could not exist), in Mormonism is a necessary being; he has always existed and it would impossible for him not to exist, although not always in an embodied corporeal form. This is a radical departure from traditional Christianity because what Christianity classically attributes to God (necessary existence) Mormonism attributes to man and to God, which shows how fundamentally different Mormons are from their Christian counterparts.

One of the most common arguments against theism, and Mormonism is not exempt, is the problem of evil. This problem states if there is a God who is perfect, all-knowing, and all-powerful, why is there evil in the world? Traditional Christianity has its answers to the problem, but Mormonism has its own unique answer to it. Because Mormonism affirms free will in a libertarian or compatibilist sense, humans are morally responsible for the moral evils they create, God is not. Second, because God is contingent and powerful but not all powerful, and nature is eternal, natural evil is simply intrinsic to the universe, and is not evil at all. So, in Mormonism the problem of evil is really not much of a problem.

The final section is about whether or not God is a person, and if so whether or not he, she , or it is a person worthy of worship. This is a supplemental essay, since the question of whether God is a person is obvious in both traditional Christianity and Mormonism, but is a purely philosophical argument about the problem. One could finish the book without reading this essay, but I recommend it.

Mormonism, as John Dehlin pointed out, is in its infancy. Traditional Christianity is over 2000 years old, Mormonism is less than 200 years old. It's theology is not as well developed as its historical counterpart; there is no equivalent of Augustine, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas in Mormonism (although Blake Ostler may be close). However, there are many strengths to Mormonism, and it has a theology that once developed can be as strong as any of the three great monotheism's.

Not only should The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion be in every Mormon household, it should be a text for Sunday school. Too many Mormons do not understand their own theology, and how it differs from traditional Christianity, and this short, powerful text is the place to start. A wonderful book.


  1. Tarik thanks for posting this.
    I hope sometime you can do a post on some of the arguments for God, like the cosmological, ontological etc. I think those are pretty interesting, but they do seem to suppose a more classically Christian god. I think that the Old Testament is in our favor, but classical theology gives some interesting arguments in favor of a triune god.

  2. Collin,

    I recently just got the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, which talks about all the classical theistic arguments, so I can do that. I was going to do a series on St. Thomas Aquinas' Five Ways and Mormononism, so that is forthcoming. Stay tuned.

    1. My pleasure. If you have anything else you want to write about, let me know.