Lecture Covers Joseph Smith and the Recovery of “Eternal Man”

Contributed By R. Scott Lloyd, Church News staff writer

  • 18 December 2015

Robert L. Millet delivers a lecture on “Joseph Smith and the Recovery of 'Eternal Man'” at the annual Truman G. Madsen Lecture sponsored by the Wheatley Institution on December 3 at BYU.  Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves, Robert L. Millet declared December 3, echoing the words of the Prophet Joseph Smith.

“Hence, if somehow, by some unfortunate means, people begin to misconstrue God, they never really grasp what man is,” Brother Millet, emeritus professor of religious education at Brigham Young University, said.

Speaking in the Varsity Theater on the university campus, Brother Millet delivered the annual Truman G. Madsen Lecture, sponsored by the Wheatley Institution. He titled his address “Joseph Smith and the Recovery of ‘Eternal Man.’”

Brother Madsen, who died in 2009, was the founding senior fellow of the Wheatley Institution and a longtime professor at BYU whose rigorous intellectual acumen and commitment to spiritual and moral values were reflected in works that have influenced generations of scholars in the Church.

Quoting Brother Madsen, whom he called his hero, Brother Millet said, “One begins mortality with the veil drawn, but slowly he is moved to penetrate the veil within himself. He is in turn led to seek the holy of holies within his own being.”

Brother Millet noted that in the centuries following the death and resurrection of Christ, the deaths of His Twelve Apostles, and the loss of priesthood keys, debates ensued regarding many theological points, particularly the nature of God and the Godhead.

“Issues that received special attention included: What is the relationship between the Father and the Son? Was Christ a created being or was He co-eternal with the Father? Is Christ subordinate to the Father, or is He equal in power and glory? Who or what is the Holy Spirit, and does that Spirit proceed from God the Father, from God the Son, or from both the Father and the Son? Are there three divine beings, two Gods, or one God?”

In an effort to satisfy the accusations of Jews who insisted there is only one God, and at the same time incorporate Greek philosophical concepts, Christianity began to redefine the Godhead, Brother Millet explained.

“They adopted a strict monotheism, a belief that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three persons but ontologically one being,” he said, adding that religious leaders began to teach of God as being “incomprehensible and unknowable,” incorporeal, without body, parts, or passions, and the belief that He never changes.

“The redefinition of God that had been formalized and codified through Christian councils created, quite naturally, a very different view of man,” Brother Millet noted.

“It is only natural for those who believe that God and humanity are basically of a different substance and thus of a different race to also believe that God is a totally unattached and uncreated being, to conclude that there was a time when only God existed and thus that the creation had to be ex nihilo, out of nothing,” he explained.

Quoting author Karen Armstrong, Brother Millet said such doctrine “tore the universe and the children of God away from God, thus transforming the inhabitants of planet Earth into an entirely different nature from the substance of the living God.”

Joseph Smith, he said, “was charged to restore a correct knowledge of God and man. To assist humanity in accomplishing this near-impossible task, God had been about the business of orchestrating things in preparation for that revolution we call the Restoration. This ‘marvelous work and a wonder’ was not to take place without immense and intricate preparation by divine providence. … Hearts would be open to a new revelation in an unprecedented manner; nothing was to be left to chance.”

The First Vision of Joseph Smith in 1820 “is essentially the beginning of the revelation of God to man in this final dispensation,” Brother Millet said.

“Joseph Smith learned also by revelation that man is an eternal being,” he explained. “Of man’s divine capabilities, Joseph said on one occasion, ‘We consider that God has created man with a mind capable of instruction and a faculty which may be enlarged in proportion to the heed and diligence given to the light communicated from heaven to the intellect, and that the nearer man approaches perfection, the clearer are his views and the greater his enjoyments, till he has overcome the evils of his life and lost every desire for sin.’”

Brother Millet said that about 30 years ago, he encountered an anti-Mormon book distributed free to about 50,000 homes where he lived. The author, a Protestant minister, purported to warn people against the Mormon missionaries, saying they would deliver their message “and prevail upon you to pray about it. This you must not do.”

The author wrote that because human nature is so corrupt, men and women can never trust their thoughts, feelings, or prayers; one could only trust the Bible.

“How tragic!” Brother Millet exclaimed. “How terribly unfortunate for a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ to discourage anyone from thinking, feeling, and praying about matters of eternal import. … I also shook my head, almost in disbelief, wondering how a person could possibly trust the Bible in its teachings if he or she could not think, feel, or pray without fear of deception.”

Brother Millet summarized, “Our discussion tonight is not about lowering a high and holy God to the level of lowly and languishing humanity. It is about worshipping a being with whom we can identify, one who may be known, understood, approached; one with body, parts, and passions who, like His Beloved Son, may be touched with the feelings of our infirmities.”