Chris Coltrin and Dr. S Kent Brown, Ancient Scripture
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints claims to be a church of restoration—restoring what was taught in the church that Christ established when on the earth. My research sought to substantiate the claim of restoration by examining an unusual doctrine in the LDS Church and comparing it with that same doctrine as taught in the early Christian Church. The doctrine of “pre-existence” is one that is very unique to Mormonism in the Christian world of today. However, in the first 500 years of Christianity numerous church fathers believed and taught indepth about the pre-existence and its purpose in the plan of God. It was a much contested doctrine, and was eventually condemned in conjunction with all of the writings of an early Church Father named Origen, who taught the doctrine frequently. My thesis proposed that while there may be minor discrepancies in the technicalities of the doctrine, generally the doctrine of pre-existence as taught in the LDS church is reflected in early Christian writings, historically supporting the church’s claims of restoration.
The bulk of the research involved sifting through the writings of both early Church Fathers and Latter-day Saint leaders, then comparing and contrasting their notions of pre-exstence (or premortal life as it is more correctly referred to today). A few major challenges became apparent as I progressed through the research process. Paradoxically, Latter-day Saint writings were very plentiful but often somewhat shallow in their treatment of the doctrine, whereas the early Christian writings were somewhat limited in quantity, but seemed to be more informative and detailed. This challenge obviously stemmed from modern church leaders’ desire to not delve too far into the “mysteries” of the gospel, a restraint not felt so severely by early Christian Fathers. And with regard to the limited writings of early Church Fathers, my research ended up centering directly on the writings of the Church Father Origen, because his writings contain the only indepth treatment of pre-existence, or at least the only surviving in-depth treatment. While I did use writings of numerous Church Fathers to demonstrate that the doctrine was not unique to or conceived by Origen, his detailed descriptions of pre-existence provided the only real substance to facilitate the comparison.
By examining the writings of Origen and aligning them with LDS writings, many things became apparent. To claim that everything Origen taught about the pre-existence is echoed in LDS thought would be an overstatement, but there are striking similarities between the two— especially when it is taken into account that for almost 1500 years many of these concepts were not written by any other individual or religious group. For both Origen and LDS leaders, the doctrine of pre-existence is a central component of a much larger theological system. The perfection of God ceases to exist without a belief in pre-existence because individuals are born into this life in such different stations. If a just God can only endow blessings on individuals as a reward for righteousness, then that same standard must be the basis for the varied blessings each soul inherits as a result of their birth. Or as LDS scholar Robert L. Millet stated, “mortality can be understood only in terms of labors and assignments and agreements in the pre-mortal world.”1 While this is merely one example of the similarities this paper explored, numerous others were discovered. Origen and LDS writers had similar notions on subjects such as the origin of the soul, pre-mortal agency, God as a literal Father, the creation, and the impact that the preexistence has on mortality.
Because my knowledge of Latin and Greek is minimal, my paper relies on the translation of Origen’s works. Translation is always an issue that arises when trying to determine the specifics of what an individual intended to convey, especially so when very unique subjects for which there may not be standard words are approached. However, this possible stumbling block actually led to the discovery of some of my favorite connections. LDS leaders have utilized a variety of words to describe pre-existent entities. Joseph Smith used the terms “soul,” “mind of man,” and “immortal spirit” interchangeably in one discourse.2 In the Book of Abraham the term “intelligence” is coined and is the word most often used in LDS writings to refer to the matter God used to form the spirit. Parley P. Pratt preferred the phrase “rational intelligence” to refer to pre-existent individuals.3 While translators of Origen’s works undoubtedly struggled similarly to find English terms to describe Origen’s concept of pre-existent beings, the words that different translators use align very closely with the LDS terms. The myriad of words used include “minds,” “souls,” “intellectual creatures,” “understandings,” “intelligent beings,” and “rational spirits.”4 Here, the barrier of translation almost illuminates the totality of the concept envisioned by Origen, a concept that is virtually mirrored in the similar vocabulary used by LDS leaders.
While no amount of research could ever do anything to prove the truthfulness of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, research can help church members to understand more fully the depth of the gospel. Through this research I have been enriched on both academic and spiritual planes, and hopefully my findings can help others be enriched in similar ways. And for those non-believers who come across this research, hopefully it will show that the Latter-day Saint claim of restoration has some historical substantiation.
1 Robert L. Millet, The Mormon Faith: Understanding Restored Christianity [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1998], 195
2 Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected and arranged by Joseph Fielding Smith [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1976], 352
3 Parley P. Pratt, Key to the Science of Theology/A Voice of Warning [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1965], 50.
4 Origen, On First Principles, ed. G.W. Butterworth, Introduction by Henri De Lubac, [New York: Harper and Row, 1966], 2:8:3, 2:9:1, 2:9:7, 3:3:5