The Christ who Heals is a remarkable book, one that any Orthodox Christian interested in Mormon studies should read. It is the third book by Fiona and Terryl Givens, who are among the foremost scholars in Mormon studies. At a time of crisis in the Mormon world, the Givenses turn to the “Eastern Fathers” to let in some new light and fresh air. Mormonism meets Orthodoxy in this slim volume.
The crisis in LDS Church history has been going on for decades, but has received new impetus with the Internet, which allows people to bypass official channels and verify historical claims against the sources. As a result, individuals are discovering that many anti-Mormon tropes are founded in facts, facts long denied or ignored in the official LDS Church history.
The Givenses sidestep the whole issue of history and historicity and maintain that the new scriptures produced by Joseph Smith are divinely inspired and official canon. They assume and find meaning in the “great plan of happiness” that Mormons learn from a young age. By this method they avoid the danger of appearing out of line with the leadership, even while they offer a radical rereading of Mormon history, scripture, and practice, trying to find a Mormonism that only ever existed in aspiration, one that is embracing of foreign ideas, even incorporating them when appropriate. The Givenses are introducing Mormons to the world of the Fathers, complete with biographies and a simplified history familiar to any Orthodox: Eastern Fathers good, Western Fathers go bad after Augustine, who comes in for repeated bad notices as the source for multiple errors, the worst being his teaching on original sin.
The most charitable account of Mormon teaching from an Orthodox perspective (Mormonism avoids both creed and systematic theology) is to imagine that one eliminates the apophatic from trinitarianism. One is left with the perceptible Uncreated Light (specifically affirmed in LDS scripture as uncreated), the human person of Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit (always called Holy Ghost by Mormons; the Spirit means something akin to the Divine Energy in Mormonism). The Father and the unknowable essence shared within the Trinity are gone. To supply the space lost by the Father they create a duplicate of Christ and call this theophany “father.” Thus, the father-theophany is embodied as a human male. I call this figure “theophany” because Joseph Smith claimed a two-person theophany of Jesus and the Father. Two-person theophanies are not unknown in Scripture. The clearest example is the Ancient of Days/Son of Man theophany of Daniel.
Mormons view Old Testament theophanies as the pre-incarnate Jesus, as do Orthodox, but this results in the father-theophany having little role in time. They solve this by pushing the father-theophany into a narrative in a pre-existence where the father-theophany is head of the heavenly council, evoking allusions in Scripture to polytheistic prototypes of such councils. The introduction to Job is an obvious but not the sole allusion to such councils in the Old Testament. A “war in heaven” ensues, and the totalitarians are cast out while Jesus leads freedom-lovers to victory.
The Givenses find in the pre-existence narrative the antidote to original sin as taught by Augustine and the Reformation. Humans are affirmed as literal children of God who, when given the choice, choose the possibility of committing sin over the certainty of salvation, with the consequent loss of free will. The emphasis on pre-existence and free will is easily sourced to Origen.
The story continues with Adam and Eve, reframed in Mormonism as a “fall upwards.” That Adam and Eve were naïve children and that the fall was pedagogical and not punitive are positions they find throughout the “Eastern Fathers.” Mormon teaching can sound like the Ante-Nicene Fathers on many points, especially to Mormons, but the denial of the ontological gulf between creature and Creator, replaced by a continuum between the Uncreated Light and complete darkness, means that they reach these similar sounding conclusions in starkly different contexts.
This ontological gulf, central to patristic teaching, is the reason that Reformation theology appears, according to the Givenses, to pitch the Father’s justice against Christ’s mercy. If the Father is “without body, parts, or passions,” how can He love us? If an Aquinas can imagine the beatified in heaven gazing with equanimity and even joy on the sufferings of the damned, what kind of compassion towards mankind is the Father supposed to have? Instead of a harsh judge, the Givenses find a Father who is moved by suffering: The God who Weeps was the title of their first book together.
As with pre-existence, Mormon teaching provides a detailed account of the afterlife. Tending towards universalism, Mormonism teaches that all will be raised to the glory they have received in this life, another doctrine known among Orthodox. The Givenses acknowledge Swedenborg’s contribution to Mormon theology by defining “three degrees of glory” in the afterlife.
The goal of Mormons is to follow the commandments from the leadership to reach the highest degree of glory: the Celestial Kingdom. There men and women will become kings and queens, even gods, and will continue procreating within family structures. Lacking the apophatic and allegorical tools used by the Fathers, Mormons tend to understand “theosis” (they have taken to using this term) quite literally. Thus, ideas of godhood in popular imagination include the idea of creating worlds of one’s own to populate with one’s own offspring, as the father-theophany has populated this world with his progeny from pre-existence. The Givenses do not disabuse these unofficial notions, even referring to “Heavenly Parents,” the unsanctioned but popular belief that the father-theophany attained his position in a similar way to Jesus, that he was once a human (not on this earth) and is now a god with a wife (or wives rather), popularly known among Mormons as “Heavenly Mother.”
At the center of this story is the Atonement. In interviews, Fiona Givens has stated that their reframing of the Atonement is revolutionary for Mormon theology, which has long used language reminiscent of substitutionary atonement theory. Their revolutionary move is to make punishment for sin not the arbitrary will of the Father, whose justice must be satisfied, but to make punishment for sin the same as the consequence of sin. Sin leads to bad outcomes, and those outcomes are the punishment for the sin. Christ takes on the consequence of sin that repentance avoids, as with Nineveh in the Book of Jonah. God repents of the natural outcome of the sin of Nineveh, the city’s imminent fall, because Nineveh repents, and by that repentance the consequence is averted. Where did the consequence dictated by natural outcomes go? To Christ on the Cross. But what about judgment and punishment for breaking laws, a framing that is common in Mormon discourse? This is Jonah’s question too. God’s love is greater than our ideas of fairness and justice, the Givenses affirm.
When Orthodox talk about the Atonement, they tend to talk about the Incarnation and not the sufferings of Christ exclusively. One would think the doctrine of the Incarnation is exactly the doctrine Mormons cannot have because they deny the ontological gulf between creation and Creator, the gulf the Incarnation bridges. Yet, “the saintly Gregory of Nazianzus” is quoted approvingly in that “the reconciliation of God and man began to take place at the moment of the incarnation itself,” when Christ “united to himself a complete and entire human nature, thereby healing it and ennobling it.”
We Orthodox can only understand sympathetically what the Givenses are saying by reading their understanding of the Incarnation as the union of Uncreated Light and flesh, rather than our traditional teaching of the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures.
In this book, the Givenses try to expunge the effects of Augustinian/scholastic/Reformation theology on Mormon teaching on sin and salvation, recasting them as disease and healing. To accomplish this goal, they turn to the early Fathers with their emphasis on God’s love: on healing, not punishment; on forgiveness, not judgment. These same characteristics the Givenses find, at least in nascent form, in the LDS tradition and scriptures.
Thomas Shaw holds a specialized BA (Ptychio) with Highest Honours from the School of Theology of the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki. A former priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, he was raised LDS and attended Brigham Young University until his conversion to Orthodoxy in 1976. In 2016 he broadcast live on YouTube a 40-part series on the Old Testament and trinitarian theology called A Star Out of Jacob.