What do we mean when we say “god”?

One of the challenges that plagues LDS/Evangelical discussion of this subject is equivocation of the word “god”. In other words, the word “god” is used to designate different ideas at different times, places, and by different people. This is an attempt to organize some thoughts I have about this, and throw out some ideas that may or may not stick. As with any such exploratory topic we can expect a degree of ambiguity in the way we use words such as “divine” and “god”. Expect a certain amount of that in this brainstorming exercise.

What exactly is a “god”? If two people define that word differently, but it is never pointed out, they will forever be talking past each other. For example, if I tell you that I saw an alien, you might assume that I saw a small green man from another planet. In reality, what I saw was a person from a different country. We have equivocated on the word “alien”, changing the meaning of the word between us.

I think that is what is happening often when we talk about “gods”. When Isaiah declares that YHWH is the only “god”, what exactly does that mean? What is a “god” to Isaiah? Apparently Isaiah means to say that YHWH is the only one who has power to create, save, and foresee the future. If that is the meaning of “god” I have no reason to disagree with Isaiah! Mormonism teaches that only one “god” can do those things.

The word “god” is used in a variety of ways in LDS literature. Depending on context, the word “god” in LDS literature and discourse can mean any of the following:

#1. A being who has the power within himself to independently create, save, foresee, and accomplish all things.

#2. The Godhead, including the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who operate in perfect unison as “one god” for the salvation of man.

#3. An individual who has joined himself to God the Father in a relationship of indwelling love, knowing what God knows, doing what God does, and participating in God’s plans. This is “theosis”, “divinization”, or in Mormon lingo, “exaltation”.

#4. An individual belonging to the species that includes God the Father (including Jesus, you, me, every person who has ever lived on this Earth, and every other pre-mortal spirit child of God the Father).

#5. Any false “god” which is worshipped but which exists only in the minds of its worshippers.

#6 An individual who has the power within himself to independently create, save, foresee, and accomplish all things (#1) and who operates totally independent from God the Father.

These are 6 different ways in which the word “god” is used in LDS literature and discourse. I’m sure we could come up with other ways. Regarding definition #6, I don’t believe such a an idea is taught anywhere in LDS scriptures, and it is one that I discourage. This is the definition most often attacked by critics, but it is one we need not defend because we do not have any such teaching. We do not need to think it our doctrine just because critics say it is.

When Evangelicals claim that there is only one “god”, which of the above definitions for “god” are they using? They are generally using something close to #1 or #2, though of course with their own unique Evangelical take on it. Well, when LDS declare that there is only one “god” (and we do declare it), we also are defining “god” according to #1 or #2.

But what about when LDS claim that there are other gods? Well, it should be obvious by now that in those cases we are using definitions #3 or #4. When we speak of man’s potential to be a “god”, we are using #3.

So, it doesn’t help to run around demanding that there is only one god unless it is carefully explained what exactly that means. When an Evangelical says that there is only one god, the question ought to be asked, “What definition are you using for ‘god’?”

That same question should be asked for Moses, and Isaiah, and Paul, and Jesus, and for Joseph Smith. They all claim that there is only one god, yet they all also refer to multiple gods. It is clear that various definitions of the word “god” exists. Unfortunately, this leads to confusion and difficulty in LDS/Evangelical dialogue.

I believe that in monotheistic statements like we find in Deuteronomy, Moses is teaching that only one god (Jehovah) is worthy of worship. Moses is not making any judgements about other beings who are the same species as Jehovah. Moses is simply saying that of all the beings in the universe, only Jehovah is worthy of our worship. The same goes for Isaiah. Jehovah is the best, he is King, he is the “God of gods”.

To be clear, “Jehovah” in this context doesn’t refer specifically to Jesus Christ (as LDS believe in most cases). Instead, it refers collectively to the Godhead (#2) whose active spokesperson is Jesus Christ.

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