Is man a literal child of God through a sort of spiritual procreation? Or was man perhaps more or less spiritually adopted by Heavenly Father in a premortal life?
That was one of the many challenging, even provocative questions posed by a group of LDS collegians from around the United States who gathered Thursday at BYU and presented their research about subjects from the formative years of Mormon theology.
The annual Mormon Scholars Foundation Summer Seminar, hosted by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute, posed the aforementioned query in a presentation by Justin White, a PhD student from University of California Riverside.
White was one of 10 student presenters, most of whom of which raised equally stimulating questions after a month of intense research at the feet of Terryl Givens, a leading historian and author of church history.
"For Mormons the idea that humans are part of the family of God is so natural that they hardly bat an eye," White said. "Yet the belief that the distinction between humans and God may be one of advancement or progression rather than one of kind or ontological difference is at least audacious, for many heretical."
White delved into President Lorenzo Snow's famous divine anthropological statement, ("As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may become") and said it has two basic articulations, one more literal than the other.
According to the first, and most predominant view, God is in some sense the literal father of our spirits, by a sort a spiritual procreation.
The second way to become considered children of God is adoption by and through one's submission and obedience, a principle most transparent in Paul's writing to the Galatians.
Of course one can believe both notions if the first is taken literally and the second figuratively. But did Paul mean adoption figuratively? Indeed what seems to have been an allegorical statement by Paul, about starting out from an earthly default status of a master-servant relationship with God then moving to an adopted father-child relationship (after repentance and baptism), could be a literal statement. Some evidence points to a sort of premortal adoption, according to White.
"Though the belief that God is the father of our spirits through some type of spiritual procreation, which would extend to all humans, has become dominant in the contemporary LDS church, the first public articulation of literal spirit birth by heavenly parents is usually credited to Eliza R. Snow with (the hymn) 'O My Father' in October 1845" said White.
But a year earlier, Elder Orson Pratt wrote, "What is man? The offspring of God. What is God? The father of man. How did man begin to exist in the first? He was begotten and born of God."
White said it seamed to have been Orson's statement that likely inspired Parley P. Pratt to finish fleshing out the theology in the same direction with the kind of thoroughness for which Parley was known. Parley wrote a poetic rejection of an immaterial God, and instead described a God who eats, walks and converses as a man, White said.
"But before the doctrine of spirit birth, that humans are part of God's family prior to (a premortal) adoption, became dominant, another interpretation of premortal families seemed to be viable," White said. "This other view draws from Joseph Smith's 'King Follet Discourse,' and the 'Sermon in the Grove.'
From those sermons, some scholars interpret Joseph's views on the eternality of the spirit of humans, combined with a reading of God's organization of intelligences in Abraham chapter three as a more social organization than a spiritual creation.
"This theory seems to take into account the fact that Joseph Smith seams to have used 'spirit' and 'intelligence' interchangeably, in contrast to the view usually under-girding spirit birth, that intelligence is eternal, waiting to be organized into spiritual entities through procreation or some other process," White said.
On the adoption or social organization view our spirit existed eternally and through a process of adoption God organized these spirits into his family.
Whichever view may more correct, White postulates that our earthly experience certainly lends more toward the adoption model, anyway, since each person must be adopted into God's kingdom by repentance, baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost.