On the Royal Line of Sinless Saviors (RLSS) in Mormon thought

Background

Mormonism’s Lorenzo Snow couplet theology suggests that Heavenly Father may have been a sinful mortal before becoming an exalted god. The clearest alternative position to this among Mormons is that Heavenly Father was a sinless savior for the previous generation of spirit children (our spirit-aunts and spirit-uncles). I have heard this referred to as The Royal Line of Sinless Saviors (RLSS).

Summary

According to traditional Mormon theology Jesus achieved a kind of secured state of non-exalted godhood in pre-mortality. Among the spirit children of our Heavenly Father, he was able to achieve a level of progression that the rest of us failed to achieve. Jesus enters into mortality not to learn from post-Fall inevitable sinful mistakes, but to sinlessly achieve his part in the plan of salvation. After his undeserved death and triumphant resurrection, he is able to be fully exalted unto full godhood, and presumably someday become his own Heavenly Father over his own spirit children, all without ever sinning.

Just as the future spirit children of Jesus would have a Heavenly Father that never sinned, some Mormons think that our Heavenly Father was once a sinless savior for a previous generation of spirit children. In this scenario, Heavenly Father would have, like Jesus, achieved a kind of non-exalted state of godhood in pre-mortality, to then play the role of a sinless savior on a fallen planet. He dies not due to any personal sinfulness. Rather, he dies an undeserved death in sacrifice for another generation of spirit children — spirit children that would essentially be our spirit-aunts and spirit-uncles — Heavenly Father’s brothers and sisters.

Prevalence

Of those who endure some conversation about the issue, roughly one-third of Mormons in my experience seem to adopt this view. I have talked privately and publicly with BYU professors, FAIR apologists, and LDS philosophers about this issue. While it is not easily found in LDS literature it is a real and distinct position.

Problem #1 – Multiple godheads

If Jesus becomes a Heavenly-Father-patriarch over his own generation of spirit children, it stands to reason that he would in turn have to send his own “firstborn” son for salvation. “One eternal round” as it goes. Hence, the “firstborn son” of Jesus would be the second member of a different godhead. Jesus would then be a member of two godheads, one in which is the Son, another in which he is the patriarch-Father. Since Mormons define the oneness of “God” (titular) as a oneness of purpose between the three gods of the godhead, what would it mean for Jesus to be “one in purpose” with two godheads? If those two godheads are of the same purpose, then why are they two godheads at all?

Other Mormons suggest there is one massive godhead to which _all_ the exalted gods belong. Just how large is this godhead, and how much of the genealogy of the gods does it encompass?

In either case, whether a infinite number of godheads or one massive godhead with potentially an infinite number of exalted members, Mormonism’s claim to “monotheism” rings especially hollow.

Problem #2 – RLSS moves the problem without solving it

Even if we were fortunate enough to get a Heavenly Father who never sinned, Mormonism still teaches that sinners can become gods. In the wider cosmos, in the genealogy of the gods, there are countless gods who were once sinners. It’s like saying, “Look, it’s not wrong for sinners to become properly worshiped gods. But we just so happen to have one who wasn’t.”

Clint Roberts articulates this objection

If only a few rare beings in the infinite family tree are part of this unique royal succession who lived sinlessly on earth in order to be redeemers, then it still remains that sinners become gods just as great & powerful as ours (in fact it’s the norm). So big deal if WE just so happen to be offspring in that rare line of succession in which one son (always the eldest, I guess?) in every ‘litter’ carries the sinless-while-on-earth gene.

Brian Mackert:

It moves the problem to a different God. You and I who are sinners are, according to Mormonism, supposed to be able to become gods just like God the Father did, but God the Father wasn’t a sinner? See the contradiction? God the Father wasn’t a sinner, didn’t need a Savior, didn’t need atonement for sin, didn’t need to be redeemed, never fell into sin, it is impossible for us to become a God like He did!!!

The whole of Mormon Theology begins to unravel. If God was a sinless Savior like Jesus, then how was He tested by the flesh so that He could earn His own godhood and be exalted? Was he special somehow? And if we are to become gods just like he did then why aren’t we all sinless Saviors too?

What about the Holy Ghost? How did He become a God without a physical body and being tried by it? What’s up with that? Is He special too?

What about Jesus? How come it’s possible for him to become a God without ever having fallen into sin like us and needing to be redeemed?

It seems to me that if being a sinner or being sinless is optional then there is no need for this probationary period and the trials of the flesh. Why should we have to endure the trials of the flesh in order to become a God if this is optional. It seems to me that if we were to become gods as they became gods, then we wouldn’t have had the fall in the Garden of Eden. We would have all remained sinless and become sinless gods as God the Father did and as Jesus did.

Problem #3 – Misuse of John 5:19

The verse quoted most often to support this theory is John 5:19:

“The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise.”

Let’s look at the context. In the beginning of John 5 Jesus heals a man who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. The problem for the Jews is that Jesus did this on the Sabbath. Verse 16 reads:

“And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is working until now, and I am working.’”

The Jews understood that God still technically worked on the Sabbath, and indeed, had been at work ever since the creation of the world. He alone had divine prerogative to do so. So when Jesus says that, “My Father is working until now, and I am working”, he was claiming equality with God in divine prerogative — to work on the Sabbath. This is precisely how the next verse reads: “This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.”

That is when Jesus lectures them:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. And greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel. For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.” (19-23)

Consider verses 19 and 22 together: “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing.” (John 5:19) “The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son” (v. 22) There is a sense in which the Son judges that the Father does not. Hence, the “seeing” that the Son does of the Father isn’t necessarily a literal watching of the Father’s actions, but a drawing upon the Father for power and authority and direction.

This isn’t about the Son learning from the Father about what he did in the past, and then acting on that past example. This is about the Father actively showing the Son what he is up to–in the present tense–whether that be working miracles on the Sabbath, or later, resurrection and final judgment. Because of their unique relationship, the Son actively participates in the present tense with the Father, or on behalf of the Father who is giving the power and authority.

Problem #4: “The way Father gained his knowledge”

Accepting or rejecting the RLSS theory has correlation with (and implications for) whether one believes Satan was lying or maliciously truth-telling when depicted as saying, “I want you to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, that your eyes may be opened, for that is the way Father gained his knowledge.” (LDS Endowment) If the Father took of the forbidden fruit to gain his knowledge, then it follows that he was not like Jesus (in this respect) in achieving this knowledge without eating of the forbidden fruit. The LDS temple ceremony itself seems to contribute to the dominant LDS position that Heavenly Father at least may have been a sinful mortal before becoming a God.

Hasty claims to the officiality of RLSS

A few advocates of RLSS insist that it is the official doctrine of the LDS Church, the only authoritatively blessed position. Others treat it as a speculative possibility. The former argue that the Standard Works are sufficient to constitute official doctrine, and that the RLSS-reading of John 5:19 is the official interpretation of the LDS Church. This however seems to be a minority position among those who have any position or opinion on the topic.

The matter is also unsettled in Mormon academia. BYU professor Rodney Turner writes:

“[O]pinion is divided as to how closely the Son’s career paralleled that of his Father… These and the Prophet’s earlier remarks are believed by some to infer that our God and his father once sacrificed their lives in a manner similar to the atonement of Jesus Christ. It is argued that the Prophet’s words suggest that these gods did not simply live and die as all men do, they ‘laid down’ and ‘took up’ their lives in the context of sacrifice… This extrapolated doctrine rests upon a somewhat inadequate, if not shaky, foundation. Indeed, it is highly doubtful. The basic process of laying down and taking up one’s life is similar for all even though it is not identical for all” (Rodney Turner, “The Doctrine of the Firstborn and Only Begotten,” in The Pearl of Great Price: Revelations from God [Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1989], 91-117).

I was originally referred to this passage by BYU religion professor Alonzo L. Gaskill who insisted that RLSS was incorrect and that Heavenly Father “probably” was a mortal sinner before exaltation. In a dialog with another BYU religion professor, Craig J. Ostler, I was told that some considerable debate over the topic had privately but substantially taken place between professors, and that an apostle had personally assured them the RLSS theory was not correct. I take all this with a grain of salt.

In a 2007 public dialog, BYU professor Robert Millet indicated that we “don’t know” if Heavenly Father was once a sinful mortal. Craig Ray of FAIR offered a similar position:

“Before he received his exaltation, he lived on a world and it’s possible [that God sinned]. But he also could have been a savior on his world as Jesus is a savior on this world. And therefore he could have lived a sinless life, and therefore not have. So we don’t have his records. We don’t have information about his life. So we don’t know… There’s no doctrinal statement by the Church about his life.” (video interview)

The real issue

Whether one takes the position that Heavenly Father was once a sinful mortal, or that he was in the elite RLSS, the importance and worship-worthy significance of God’s eternal sinlessness isn’t yet appreciated:

“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (Revelation 4:8)