Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy
by O. Kendall White, Jr

Chapter 5
Recent Developments

Since the late 1970s, a new generation of theologians has taken up the banner of Mormon neo-orthodoxy. Usually more theologically sophisticated than their predecessors, they have concentrated primarily on the doctrines of human nature and salvation. The explosion of historical scholarship in Mormon studies during the past two decades has disclosed the essential Protestant flavor of the earliest Mormon beliefs and has provided an authentic foundation for Mormon neo-orthodox theology.

Much like the earliest Mormon converts, the latest neo-orthodox theologians rely primarily upon the Book of Mormon, not the story of Joseph Smith’s first vision (Shipps 1985), for their doctrines of deity, human nature, and salvation. This emphasis on the Book of Mormon reinforces a trinitarian and absolute God, while a preoccupation with the first vision, a trademark of twentieth-century Mormonism, encourages a tritheistic and anthropocentric God. The post-1841 Nauvoo teachings of Joseph Smith on polytheism, eternal progression, necessity of human existence, exaltation, and the ultimate human destiny of godhood have become the building blocks of traditional Mormon theology, whereas the basic doctrines of the Book of Mormon, as the neo-orthodox theologians are inclined to argue, have, [p.140] for most modern Mormons, been relegated to the periphery.

As a pluralistic metaphysics became the philosophical foundation of Mormon doctrine, the concepts of human nature and salvation contained in the Book of Mormon disappeared from traditional Mormon theology. Perhaps the least representative of the Book of Mormon pronouncements on the human condition has become its most celebrated quote among traditional Mormons, namely: “Adam fell that men might be, and men are that they might have joy” (2 Ne. 2:25).

Human Nature

If the way most Mormons today use 2 Nephi 2:25 distorts the basic Book of Mormon concept of human nature, it is nonetheless consistent with their denial of the classical Christian doctrines of original sin and human depravity and their affirmation of humanity’s necessary existence and innate goodness. That the new generation of neo-orthodox theologians recognizes that most Mormons accept the traditional Mormon doctrine of human nature is obvious from the “resistance” they report to their own neo-orthodox doctrine (see P. Toscano 1983, 91; Allred 1983, 13; Olson, 1984, 21; Voros 1985, 1). In distinguishing between “humanistic” and “redemptive” Mormonism, J. Frederic Voros, for instance, contends that “the popular hegemony” of humanistic Mormonism (his term for traditional Mormonism) “is nearly complete” (ibid.). Not [p.141] surprisingly, he and other Mormon neo-orthodox theologians contend that this popular view denies the basic doctrines of the Book of Mormon.

Beginning with a premise of human depravity, the new Mormon neo-orthodox theologians proclaim a Pauline theology which they identify with the Book of Mormon. A typical list of supporting passages includes Mosiah 3:19—the “natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam”; Alma 42:6-12—”fallen man” has became “carnal, sensual, and devilish, by nature,” which “man had brought upon himself because of his own disobedience”; and Ether 3:2—”we are unworthy before thee; because of the fall our natures have become evil continually” (see P. Toscano 1983; Olsen 1984; Voros 1978; 1985). If the Book of Mormon teaches anything about human nature, they insist, it is that human beings are “lost,” “fallen,” “corrupt,” “helpless,” and “condemned” before God. It is clear to these theologians that the Fall transformed human nature leaving human beings helpless.

But what does it mean to be fallen? Is this comparable to classical Christian doctrines of original sin? While the traditional Catholic view holds that the Fall resulted in the withdrawal of supernatural grace, the typical Protestant view assumes that the Fall corrupted human nature; both share the judgment that all humanity are in a state of sin. Remember that traditional Mormonism emphatically denies the doctrine of original sin, proclaiming the inherent goodness of human nature, and regards the Fall as a [p.142] necessary condition for the ultimate exaltation of humanity. While the Fall introduced mortality and separated human beings from the immediate presence of God, it did not transform human nature but established conditions for the further development of human potential. To neo-orthodox Mormons, on the other hand, the Fall definitely transformed human nature. Their position most resembles the Protestant view described above and least resembles traditional Mormon doctrine.

Human depravity is inextricably bound to the doctrine of original sin in Reformation and neo-orthodox Protestantism. For these theologians, original sin is a state or condition—human depravity—from which specific acts are “fruits” or consequences of sin. In the most extreme formulation, human beings are incapable of doing good; they can only sin. Though he rejected the static quality of the Reformation doctrines of original sin, Emil Brunner, a Protestant neo-orthodox theologian, preserved Luther’s and Calvin’s fundamental “insight” by arguing that whenever humans act they act against God (1939, 148). Thus, sin is both a state of being and a behavior.

Though less extreme than these Protestants, the recent Mormon neo-orthodox writers, with the possible exception of Janice Allred, seem to espouse a position of depravity that implicitly entails a doctrine of original sin. If they seldom use the term “original sin,” they freely speak of depravity and fallen human nature. Noting that his Mormon audiences “hardly ever” give him an “opportunity to [p.143] explain that the words ‘depraved’ and ‘fallen nature'” do not refer to “bad conduct,” Paul Toscano observes that “depravity refers to mankind’s essential corruptibility, to the fact that man is born of corruptible seed, lives in a fallen state, and is subject to the powers of deterioration and destruction” (1983, 91). And Donald P. Olsen writes that “humankind requires grace because they are in a lost, fallen, and corrupt state, incapable of regaining God’s presence without divine intervention” (1984, 21).

Voros reverses the aphorism of traditional Mormonism used to affirm the fundamental goodness of human nature—”As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may become”—to establish human depravity—”as man is, Cain once was; as Cain is, man may become” (1979, 4). Speaking of sin as “in our very natures,” he reminds readers that sinfulness is not “temporarily superimposed” on one: “It is your true self” (ibid.). In fact, the doctrine that “man is ‘fallen’ or ‘depraved'” and consequently “powerless to extricate himself from his fallen condition” is so crucial that it constitutes the “single teaching” by which “true Christianity can be distinguished from all other religions” (P. Toscano, 1983, 90).

The writings of these theologians project an ambiance much more characteristic of Protestant than Mormon theology, as the following quotation from Toscano suggests:

The word and works of Jesus Christ may best be seen against the dark background of man’s depravity or fallen nature. Men cannot be expected to rejoice in [p.144] salvation if they do not see clearly the peril from which they are saved, if they do not know the sort of prison it is from which they have been liberated, if they are unaware of the severity of the sentence that is passed upon them and from which they are pardoned, if they are ignorant of the fatal disease which infects them and from which they are cured by the marvelous healing light of Christ Jesus, who is the light and life of the world. For this reason the prophets of Christ have not only included this doctrine in their preaching, but have sometimes begun their explanations of the gospel with descriptions of man’s depravity, sin, and malice (1983, 90).

Even so, this position is less extreme than that of Reformation and neo-orthodox Protestants. None of these Mormon theologians accepts the doctrine of total depravity. Associated primarily with Calvin, total depravity means that not only can human beings do no good, they are incapable of desiring good. Depravity was so profound for Calvin that even human will was corrupt. Indeed, to assume that one’s desires and actions might Be in accordance with God was a profoundly arrogant claim revealing the very depth of human sinfulness. While Mormon neoorthodox theologians may disagree slightly among themselves regarding the “goodness” of human action, they appear to share the judgment that the will itself is not depraved. This, of course, is not to say that there are not human beings who desire to do evil, but it does mean that one can desire to do good. Thus, Paul Toscano suggests that humans are not necessarily “set on evil” or incapable of “pleasing” God as long as they do his will. However, they are sufficiently corrupt to [p.145] be unable to do anything significant to save themselves (1983, 74-78). While we are free to choose good or evil, Voros insists that “free will alone provides no escape from the Fall, since man tends to exercise his freedom to satisfy his own will” (1985, 5).

As in traditional Mormonism, the freedom to choose between good and evil justifies the judgment of God (P. Toscano 1983, 100), but unlike traditional Mormonism it does not imply a doctrine of salvation by merit. It simply enables humans to obey God. An “apparent contradiction” between freedom and authority in the Mormon religion, according to Paul Toscano, “evaporates when we understand that freedom is the foundation of obedience to authority.” Without the choice, compliance is oppression not obedience (1983, 101).

In addition to affirming free will in this way, Mormon neo-orthodox theologians distinguish between “universal sin” and “personal” or “individual” sin to reject the idea of total depravity. Though these theologians abandon the traditional Mormon concept of “actual sin,” the notion of personal sin, at least for Allred, seems to offer a compromise between traditional Mormon and classical Protestant doctrines (1983). Allred defines sin in traditional Mormon terms, as a violation of a divine commandment, but believes that the traditional definition of the “mortal state”—a condition of moral imperfection—cannot explain the inevitability of sin. By shifting the discussion away from innate qualities, an assumption of human depravity, she posits three [p.146] characteristics of the “fallen condition” that make sin inevitable: first, commandments sometimes conflict with one another which means that even the establishing of priorities will require that a lesser commandment be violated; second, human finitude means that our egocentricity, as well as lack of knowledge and power, necessarily limit our capacity to do good and avoid sin; and, finally, the solidarity of humankind, which in part includes the cultural values and prejudices shared with others of our group and society, not only shape choices and behavior but remove some responsibility from individuals as they act in terms of those values and prejudices. Since these universal characteristics of the human condition guarantee the inevitability of sin, Allred has formulated “a Mormon concept of original sin” (ibid.).

If other Mormon neo-orthodox theologians define sin as the violation of a commandment of God, they nevertheless also conceive of the individual “sin” as a product of a “sinful state.” In this sense, their concept of sin varies little from the classical Protestant notion that acts are “fruits” or consequences of original sin (Voros 1978; Olsen 1984). Consider Toscano’s distinction between depravity and sin:

Depravity then refers to man’s innate corruptibility and his present subjection to the law of entropy, of physical and spiritual decay and deterioration.

The term “sin,” however, refers to man’s acts and omissions that run counter to God’s will and authority. Depravity refers merely to the corruption in man’s nature; [p.147] sin refers to man’s misdeeds that arise out of that corrupt nature. Depravity is the cause, sin is the effect. Depravity exists within each of us like a disease; our sins are its outward symptoms. The disease is still in the latent stage in little children so that symptoms do not surface at first. But eventually the depravity will be exposed by misdeeds, errors in judgment, and incontinence without. Sin is the manifestation of our corrupt natures, our human, fallen natures, our depravity (1983, 92).

Given the emphasis on depravity, the little attention devoted to the necessary existence of human beings by these Mormon neo-orthodox writers is not surprising. The assumption that intelligence, the essence of an individual, exists necessarily underlies the optimism of traditional Mormon doctrines of human nature and salvation (exaltation). The moral nature of human beings and their freedom and autonomy are often grounded in the uncreated intelligence. Though he would hardly attribute these qualities to uncreated intelligences, Paul Toscano indicates that humanity’s necessary existence may mean that at some point “individuals were able to exist independent of the life powers that come from God” (1983, 4).

However, the occasional references to intelligences among other neo-orthodox theologians appear to diminish the significance of necessary being. Allred observes that to “be uncreated is not necessarily to be essentially good” (1983, 14), and Margaret Toscano suggests that Joseph Smith’s statement that “our intelligences were ‘co-equal with God himself'”—which, it should be remembered, was [p.148] interpreted historically to mean co-eternal or uncreated—implies “undifferentiated wholeness.” She recalls “a statement of John Taylor’s to the effect that, as intelligences, we were somehow part of the mind of God, and ‘struck from the fire of his eternal blaze'” (1986, 8). It is not clear if she means to imply that a lack of differentiation destroys human autonomy, but her reference to intelligences as “part of the mind of God” ultimately establishes the contingency, not the necessity, of human existence. In fact, such was the intent of certain Mormon neo-orthodox theologians of the previous generation in asserting that intelligences constituted an “undifferentiated mass” (see chap. 4).


Nothing distinguishes the recent neo-orthodoxy from traditional Mormonism and, to a lesser extent, the earlier generation of Mormon neo-orthodox theologians more than the explicitness of its Pauline theology. The preoccupation among new Mormon neo-orthodox theologians with the grace of Christ, justification, sanctification, and the futility of works exceeds anything produced by their predecessors. This “redemptive Mormonism” is different from “humanistic Mormonism,” to use Voros’s categories, by its emphasis on the Fall, rebirth, and redemption by grace; skepticism of human effort; and insistence on the active role of God in the salvation process compared to humanistic Mormonism’s emphasis on the inherent goodness of human nature, human potential, and human effort; [p.149] skepticism of reliance upon God; and insistence on salvation by merit. Redemptive Mormonism is theocentric while humanistic Mormonism is anthrocentric. “Redemptive Mormonism promises transformation” while “humanistic Mormonism promises reformation” (Voros 1985, 1). Of course, Voros’s distinction between redemptive and humanistic Mormonism, both of which profess to be orthodox, is essentially my distinction between neo-orthodox and traditional Mormonism.

Voros’s contention that the “popular hegemony of the humanistic view is nearly complete” (ibid.) would seem to underscore the continuing dominance of traditional Mormonism. Thus Donald P. Olsen asserts that “few doctrines are as well supported in scripture yet as thoroughly misunderstood by Latter-day Saints as the doctrine of the grace of Christ” (1984, 21). Indeed, when he continues by noting that Mormons typically assume that grace refers to the “gift of the resurrection,” he implicitly identifies one of the reasons traditional Mormonism was concerned with exaltation rather than salvation. Essentially subscribing to a doctrine of universal salvation, in which only the Sons of Perdition would be excluded from the resurrection and a degree of glory in heaven, traditional Mormonism proclaimed exaltation—a process in which individuals could attain godhood—as its mission (see chap. 3). And the path to exaltation was largely one of moral development or, to use Voros’s language, “reformation.”

The recent neo-orthodoxy, in contrast, virtually [p.150] ignores exaltation and concentrates instead on salvation. The latter becomes the major theological problem because of the profound discontinuity between divine and human natures. While divine justice requires perfection, human depravity precludes it. Consequently, humanity stands “condemned before divine justice” (P. Toscano 1983, 2). Only perfection can pay the debt of imperfection. Being merciful as well as just, Jesus Christ took upon himself the sins of the world so that depraved, helpless sinners might live. “He carried our cross to Calvary, not his. We deserved crucifixion, not he” (ibid., 75). Thus, the redemption of humanity was beyond itself. “The Lord decided not to leave these important achievements to us. That is why the gospel is such ‘good news.’ Our redemption from death and hell was too vital to be trusted to us. God does the work of salvation almost totally on his own” (ibid.).

This is, of course, the doctrine of salvation by grace. The law of justification involves the “attributing of Christ’s righteousness to the undeserving sinner so that he appears righteous to God” (Olsen 1984, 22). Since Christ has “fully paid” for sins, “the justified sinner is not accountable for them” (ibid., 23). Grace is a gift from God, not something earned or deserved. However, the fact that “grace is an undeserved favor freely given does not mean justification is unconditional” (ibid.). On the contrary, one must believe in Christ, “believe that justification is by the grace of Christ” (ibid.). Redemption comes through the four basic [p.151] principles of the gospel: faith, repentance, baptism, and reception of the Holy Ghost.

Yet, one should not assume that this requires significant human effort. “These simple actions,” writes Paul Toscano, “amount to nothing more than holding still and letting God work in us spiritually” (1983, 11). Indeed, the act of faith itself is not really a human endeavor but rather a product of divine grace (ibid., 53). Olson writes that “even the ability and motivation to have faith, repent, be baptized, and receive the Holy Ghost must also come by grace” (1984, 23). Consequently, the eventual espousal of a doctrine of total depravity, where even the will is corrupt, may become too seductive to resist for theologians who assume that “the carnal man cannot repent unless God wills it” (ibid.).

Obviously, these theologians repudiate traditional Mormonism’s doctrine of salvation by merit. Human efforts are sufficiently tainted so that any reform, which is dependent upon human will, must fail; redemption requires supernatural intervention. Even conservative Mormon authorities, such as the late apostle Bruce McConkie, are criticized for identifying the idea of “salvation by ‘grace alone without works’ as the ‘second greatest heresy’ of Christendom” and assuming that “justification ‘becomes operative in the life of an individual only on conditions of personal righteousness'” (ibid., 21-22). To the neo-orthodox, works are irrelevant. Justification occurs only “when we rely [p.152] ‘wholly upon the merits’ of Christ—not upon our personal works or worthiness” (ibid., 23). Sanctification, which the neo-orthodox use to indicate a state of righteousness or holiness, is also a product of grace. It does not, according to Olsen, come “as a result of personal merit, but is the means by which personal merit is obtained” (ibid.); and Voros argues that “the Book of Mormon clearly teaches that man cannot earn salvation” and “even our own good works are God’s gift; if they are not, they are not truly good” (1985, 7-8). Thus, faith, which comes from hearing or reading the word of God, precedes works. “Good works come in later. For it is the Spirit that attends the faithful that reveals to them what good works to do, to whom, and when” (P. Toscano 1983, 58). Good works are a consequence of grace, not a cause of it, and their purpose is to bring people to Christ and glorify God.

This means, then, that the traditional Mormon notion of repentance is simply moral reform. For the neo-orthodox, this position is a concession to the false doctrine of works. Repentance requires a divine transformation of human nature, not the taking of either “baby” or “giant” steps; it requires “getting one’s feet planted on the right way” (P. Toscano 1983, 11). It results in a “covenant” with God “to exchange our corruption for his incorruption; to put off our human nature and take upon ourselves his divine nature; to trade our state of powerlessness and helplessness for the gift of the Holy Spirit” (ibid., 25). In short, we must all be born again.

[p.153] The Mormon neo-orthodox doctrine of salvation is summarized by Olsen as follows:

Those who truly have the grace of Christ have faith unto repentance, receive baptism and the Holy Ghost, are justified, are in the process of becoming sanctified, have received salvation from sin, and may have received eternal life. These blessings will be theirs as long as they do not fall from grace by trusting in good works or by attempting to earn, merit, or deserve these blessings. Those who continue in grace will someday stand before God where Christ will plead their case saying to the Father, “I am their righteousness; I have paid justice for their sins.” Then God will see only the good works of Christ and say to them, “Enter thou into the joy of the Lord” (1984, 25).


Though these new Mormon theologians seem less concerned with the concept of God than with the doctrines of human nature and salvation, their position on the classical attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence is evident. A preoccupation with Christ’s perfection and divine justice naturally follows from an emphasis on human failure and the gift of grace (see Olsen 1984; P. Toscano 1983). However, few of these theologians have thus far attempted to reconcile elements of the traditional Mormon concept of God with their theology, leaving them with unresolved philosophical and theological contradictions.

The traditional Protestant insistence on the otherness of God follows from its doctrine of the depravity of human nature. It is this discontinuity between divine and [p.154] human natures that enables divine grace to reconcile fallen man. Only a sovereign God, whose perfection and permanence are ensured, can save human beings. When writing about human nature and salvation, recent Mormon neo-orthodox theologians have apparently consented to these assumptions. Paul Toscano insists that Jesus Christ was “perfect from the outset” (1983, 2), and Voros acknowledges the Book of Mormon’s “unchangeable and eternal God” (1985, 12). Voros’s uneasy reconciliation of the God of the Book of Mormon (who “is the same, yesterday, today, and forever”) with the God of Joseph Smith’s 1844 King Follett discourse (“who was once man”) cannot preserve the values of divine sovereignty. To limit the Book of Mormon to the “chronological boundaries” of human existence while assuming that the King Follett discourse refers to human pre-mortal and post-mortal existence does not eliminate the contradiction between a progressive and an unchanging God (see ibid., 12-13).

The absoluteness of God cannot be maintained simply by assuming that God is absolute at one point in time and not at another. To formulate this, as Voros does, as a chronological problem, is to place God within rather than beyond time. This may be consistent with the pluralistic metaphysics underlying Mormon theology and the King Follett Discourse—which assumes that God exists within an environment of uncreated matter, time, space, and intelligence—but it also means that God is necessarily finite, that he exists within an environment over which he lacks [p.155] complete control. Assuming this, it is impossible to posit the omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence of God—to proclaim that “God is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Such assertions deny the meaning of these concepts.

With the doctrine of the ex nihilo creation, classical Christianity placed God beyond everything. Only he existed necessarily, all else—space, time, and humanity itself—being his creation, existed contingently. The total otherness of God, his perfection, enables him to redeem and promise eternal life to his fallen creatures. Whatever one may think of this theology, it is consistent: A totally other God is necessary to save corrupt human beings through his gift of grace. Mormon neoorthodox theologians, whose doctrines of human nature and salvation have a basic coherence, are forced into a contradictory position in regard to their concept of deity by their acceptance of Mormon metaphysics. Insisting that God is “NOT totally other,” Paul Toscano’s accommodation of Mormon and classical Christian concepts of God is not adequately reconciled. He writes:

For us God is thus: paradoxical, supreme, holy, anthropomorphic, male and female, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent; loving, caring, creating, forgiving, and intervening—a Divine One, at once on a throne and yet in and through all things, whose infinitude is beyond finite comprehension, but who is known through his Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ (1986, 19).

Margaret Toscano presents an interesting [p.156] explanation of Mormon cosmology by using a model based on the psychological theories of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. She interprets pre-mortal, mortal, and post-mortal existence as movement through four stages, from “undifferentiated wholeness” to integrative wholeness. The latter, which constitutes the reconciliation of opposites, is comparable to post-mortal existence in which the controlling deity is neither God the Father nor God the Mother “but the Divine Couple, locked in an erotic embrace” (1986, 17).

While this attempt to integrate the sexual differentiation inherent in traditional Mormonism’s concept of God has interesting possibilities,1 it suffers from the same [p.157] inconsistencies plaguing Voros’s and Paul Toscano’s doctrines of deity. One simply cannot proclaim that God is absolute and retain traditional Mormon metaphysics. In fact, none of the new Mormon neo-orthodox theologians reconciles divine absolutism with Mormon metaphysics any more convincingly than their predecessors, though they achieve greater coherence in their doctrines of human nature and salvation. The coherence of the latter, however, is accomplished only by moving even closer to Reformation and Protestant neo-orthodox theologies and further away from traditional Mormonism.


1. Toscano’s image of the “Divine Couple locked in erotic embrace” is perhaps the most promising avenue for addressing sexual inequality in Mormon theology. I have argued (1986a) that the nineteenth-century Mormon idea of the family provided a basis for Mormonism’s universalistic impulses. The logical conclusion of Mormon conceptions of the eternal nature of the family, genealogical activity, and the rituals surrounding the dead is the incorporation of the entire human species into one huge kinship structure. By insisting that sexual differentiation, as well as behavior, survives death, traditional Mormonism assumes that this differentiation is inherent in reality itself. A Father-in-Heaven requires the existence of a Mother-in-Heaven, and Mormon references to both are not metaphorical. Since the differences implicit in sexual differentiation cannot be transcended, Mormon universalism depends upon a union of male and female. Tangentially, this theological predicament may be one reason why Mormonism is not receptive to feminist and gay social movements. By separating sex from procreation and celebrating unmarried life styles, feminist and gay people challenge the Mormon vision of the human destiny (1986a, 302-303).

In contrast, the terms “Fatherhood of God” and “brotherhood of man” in the Christian tradition are masculine metaphors for establishing human equality; they identify a universal condition of human contingency. However, Christian universalism rests ultimately on a deity who is beyond distinctions. Distinctions such as sexual differentiation are products of the Creation and disappear in the classical Christian conception of heaven. Thus, the universalism and equality of Christianity requires the transcending of distinctions, not the “union of opposites.”