In the spring of 1836, a few weeks before his Kirtland, Ohio, baptism into the Mormon Church, Lorenzo Snow met with Joseph Smith Sr., the father of Mormonism’s founder. Snow was deeply impressed by this encounter. He came to see it as a turning point in his spiritual journey, especially because of a prophecy the elder Smith pronounced, one that both moved and “confounded” him. “You will become,” the prophet’s father told him, “as great as you can possibly wish—even as great as god, and you cannot wish to be greater.” Snow did not know what to make of the notion of becoming as great as God, something that struck him as “approaching blasphemy.” Nonetheless, he reported that this disturbing declaration did not in any way counter “all my favorable impressions of the Patriarch.”

Four years later, Snow had an experience that finally made clear to him the meaning of “Father Smith’s dark saying.” As he listened to a Mormon leader’s explanation of a parable of Jesus, suddenly “the Spirit of the Lord rested mightily upon me.” Immediately, “I saw as clear as the sun at noon-day, with wonder and astonishment, the pathway of God and man.” This experience led him to formulate what has come to be known as “the Lorenzo Snow couplet”:

As man now is, God once was;
As God now is, man may be.

Not long after that, Parley Pratt, dubbed by his recent biographers “the Apostle Paul of Mormonism,” set forth the teaching that “God, angels and men are all of one species.” Joseph Smith himself makes a similar claim:

God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted Man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens. That is the great secret. If the vail was rent to-day, and the great God who holds this world in its orbit, and who upholds all worlds and all things by his power, was to make himself visible,—I say, if you were to see him to-day, you would see him like a man in form—like yourselves, in all the person, image, and very form as a man; for Adam was created in the very fashion, image, and likeness of God, and received instruction from, and walked, talked, and conversed with him, as one man talks and communes with another.

What is the orthodox Christian to make of such statements? John Calvin insisted that a vast ontological gap exists between our human selves and the sovereign Creator and Ruler over all things. It is only, he argued, when we “begin to raise our thoughts to God, and to ponder his nature, and how completely perfect are his righteousness, wisdom, and power” that we will see that “what in us seems perfection itself corresponds ill to the purity of God.”

While John Calvin’s manner of depicting the ontological gap is admittedly rather stark as compared to other Christian theological traditions, there’s little disagreement on the main point. Wesleyan, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox theologians also insist on the “being” gap between the Creator and human creatures. God alone possesses the “omni-” attributes. Human beings may be enabled, by grace, to manifest something of God’s goodness, love, mercy, and long-suffering (often called God’s “communicable attributes”). But we can never legitimately aspire to omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience.

The consensus is clear: God and human beings are of different orders of “being.” The God of the Bible is the totaliter aliter, the Wholly Other. He infinitely transcends his creation. From such a perspective, the view set forth in simple form in the Lorenzo Snow couplet denies an essential Jewish and Christian teaching. What can we possibly share in common with Mormons if we disagree on something so ­fundamental?

Nothing, many assume. I know; I’ve been involved for a long time in an Evangelical-Mormon dialogue. When that dialogue began fifteen years ago, we were told by the Mormon participants that the Lorenzo Snow couplet has no canonical status in Mormon theology. I reported that assessment in print, arguing that the apparent denial of any ontological difference between God and man in the Snow couplet need not prevent Evangelical-Mormon dialogue.

Right away, Evangelical “countercult” groups responded in a sharply critical way. One issued a “Statement on Richard Mouw and Evangelical Countercult Ministries,” stating that “the evidence is voluminous that the LDS Church has been continuously teaching the doctrine of eternal progression, as it is commonly known, represented by the King Follett Discourse and the Lorenzo Snow couplet from 1844 right up to the present.” An extensive critique appeared in an essay by Ronald V. Huggins, published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, “Lorenzo Snow’s Couplet: ‘As Man Now Is, God Once Was; As God Now Is, Man May Be’; ‘No Functioning Place in Present-Day Mormon Doctrine?’ A Response to Richard Mouw.”

At stake in this dispute is a choice between two approaches to Mormon teachings and practice. One is skeptical and presumes that Mormonism is a ­deeply heretical form of Christianity, so much so that dialogue is impossible. The other is more trusting and is willing to entertain the possibility that Mormonism has the resources for theological self-criticism and self-correction, and that dialogue might help in this process. Recent Mormon history suggests the ­latter approach is more fitting, and more in keeping with the way Mormons themselves understand their tradition.

In April of 1997, the late Gordon Hinckley, then the president of the LDS Church, was asked by a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle whether “Mormons believe that God was once a man.” His response:

I wouldn’t say that. There was a little couplet coined, “As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become.” Now that’s more of a couplet than anything else. That gets into some pretty deep ­theology that we don’t know very much about.

Q: So you’re saying the church is still struggling to understand this?

A: Well, as God is, man may become. We believe in eternal progression. Very strongly. We believe that the glory of God is intelligence and whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the Resurrection. Knowledge, learning, is an eternal thing. And for that reason, we stress education. We’re trying to do all we can to make of our people the ablest, best, brightest people that we can.

A few months later, in the August 1997 issue of Time magazine, Hinckley was once again asked about the “God the Father was once a man” teaching. He responded, “I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it. . . . I understand the philosophical background behind it. But I don’t know a lot about it and I don’t know that others know a lot about it.” When Time was later asked about the ellipses in the quoted comment, Richard Ostling, the person who conducted the actual interview, provided a transcript from his notes that included these sentences that were a part of the original response: “I haven’t heard it discussed for a long time in public discourse. I don’t know. I don’t know the circumstances under which that statement was made.”

These brief comments provoked considerable controversy, with much commentary by both Mormons and non-Mormons. One interpretation, set forth in various ways by critics of Mormonism, assumes that Hinckley was being deceptive. The Mormon leader knew well, the argument goes, that the idea of God the Father having started off as a human being strikes the uninitiated as a puzzling, even shocking, notion. Since Hinckley worried that a clear affirmation would harm LDS proselytizing efforts, he prevaricated. One Evangelical assessment was particularly blunt: “What Joseph Smith declared proudly and unambiguously—that God the Father was once a man—President Hinckley apparently now wishes to conceal from the public.”

The second view, the one that I accept, is that Hinckley was signaling a decision on the part of the Mormon leadership to downplay the Snow couplet within the corpus of Mormon teachings about the deity, not just to outsiders, but within their own community. This suggests that contemporary Mormonism is interested in joining the broad Jewish and Christian consensus that God is ontologically different from man—or at least that Mormons today don’t want to directly contradict that consensus. Again, we’re faced with a choice. Will we approach Mormonism under the assumption that its theology is heretical beyond repair? Or will we adopt the more optimistic assumption that Mormonism is capable of self-reformation?

I must confess that my own decision to presume sincere Mormon self-questioning has been strongly influenced by many conversations over the past fifteen years in my role as co-director of the Mormon-Evangelical dialogue with my friend Robert Millet. During those conversations, I have witnessed the Mormon participants pondering the role of the Snow couplet in the present-day LDS context. And the unanimous consensus has been that President Hinckley was accurately reporting the present state of things. Mormonism is genuinely unsure about this aspect of its theological inheritance.

Am I allowing the friendships developed during the dialogue process to cloud my judgment? I don’t think so. In 2012, the LDS Church published a study volume, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Lorenzo Snow. This slim book was the twelfth in a series of annually released study guides featuring the legacy of past LDS presidents, including Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and Spencer Kimball.

Shortly after the volume was released, I received an email from an Evangelical countercult leader suggesting that the appearance of this new study guide decisively demonstrated the inadequacy of my view that present-day Mormonism downplays the Snow couplet:

If the LDS Church does not teach, “that God was once a human being like us, and we can become gods just like God now is,” then I am curious as to why this information appears in an official teaching manual. I am also curious as to why your Mormon friends are claiming that this is not an official Mormon teaching. What do teaching manuals teach if not doctrine? Again, if it is not an official doctrine, (when Lorenzo Snow states that it is “doctrine” on page 83), then why will it be taught in Mormon Sunday School classes next year?

The study guide does quote the Snow couplet, along with other statements from Lorenzo Snow. This is not surprising. Given the decision on the part of the LDS leadership to assign for careful study each year the teachings of a particular president, it is to be expected that they would eventually get around to Lorenzo Snow, who became the fifth president of the Mormon Church in 1898. Nor is it surprising that the couplet would be singled out for discussion.

It is important, however, to look closely at the way in which this official study guide presents the Snow couplet and explains its theological import. The couplet is quoted in the twenty-seven lines of introductory comments to the fifth chapter, “The Grand Destiny of the Faithful.” Here, we are informed that “[in] this chapter, President Snow teaches the doctrine that we can become like our Heavenly Father.” Then there are seven pages of quotations from Snow’s writings, followed by four discussion questions with some recommended passages from the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and Doctrine and Covenants.

The proposed questions for group discussion all focus on the future life of the believer, not the ontological status of God. Readers are asked to reflect upon: (1) how the understanding that we are sons and daughters of God influences the ways we see ourselves and others; (2) the ways the Scripture passages cited by Snow help the faithful to understand their divine potential; (3) how to stay focused on future blessings in the midst of the “cares and vexations” of the present; and (4) how Snow’s teachings help the faithful to understand both the Heavenly Father and their own human destiny as the sons and daughters of the Father.

The Bible passages recommended for discussion point to the glorious future of those who are in Christ: the assurance, for example, in 1 Corinthians 2:9 that our present eyes haven’t seen, nor our ears heard, the blessings of the future; and the promise in Romans 8:16–17 that while God’s Spirit witnesses to us here and now that we are already God’s children, there is much more to come in the future. Each of the recommended Book of Mormon passages echoes biblical language: Alma 5:15–16, on our being raised up to be judged for our deeds; and the slightly reworded variation, in Moroni 7:48, of the promise in 1 John 3:2, that when Christ appears, believers will see him in his glory, and be like him.

The Doctrine and Covenants passages that are recommended are also—for the most part—unobjectionable from a traditional Christian standpoint. Both D&C 58:3–4 and 78:17–22 speak of present tribulations and future glories. D&C 132:19–24 is the longest passage, pointing to what the Last Judgment holds in store for those whose names are found in the Lamb’s Book of Life, but also with references to the promise that those who remain faithful will inherit kingdoms as “gods” with everlasting life, and that angels will be subject to them.

All of that is exclusively about the second half of the couplet: what the faithful are progressing toward. About the first half of the couplet, however, there is no commentary at all. It is neither denied nor affirmed but only quoted as a part of the couplet.

Once again, then, we are faced with the choice about how to approach Mormonism. Why is there no discussion of the “what God once was” clause? Either the LDS leadership continues to hold firmly to what the first half of the couplet expresses, but they are refraining from open advocacy out of deceptive designs, or they are simply saying nothing about it in the hope of keeping it on the margins of their historic teachings without issuing a straightforward rejection of something that loomed large in the LDS past.

I adopt the latter interpretation because I put a lot of stock in the writings of my friend ­Robert Millet, a longtime BYU scholar who is on quite friendly terms with the leadership of the LDS Church. Millet has devoted much attention to the “becoming gods” theme in Mormonism, consistently emphasizing three things. One is that the strong emphasis on deification in LDS thought has to be seen in connection with the theosis tradition in traditional Christianity. Patristic writers make ­frequent appearances in Millet’s writings, as well as C. S. Lewis’s insistence that God “will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature.”

Millet also argues that the LDS version of theosis, like the traditional Christian formulations, does not entail turning human beings into equals of the Godhead in glory and power, much less rivals. “We do not believe,” says Millet, “we will ever, worlds without end, unseat or oust God the Father or His Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ. . . . I am unaware of any authoritative statement in LDS literature that suggests that men and women will ever worship any being other than those within the Godhead.” He specifically appeals to the clarification offered by President Gordon Hinckley, in a 1994 conference address. The LDS teaching about deification, Hinckley asserted, “in no way diminishes God the Eternal Father. He is the Creator and Governor of the universe. He is the greatest of all and will always be so.” As a loving Father, God wants his human children to “approach him in stature and stand beside Him resplendent in godly strength and wisdom.”

A third emphasis in Millet’s presentation of the Mormon view is the insistence that the path to deification is possible only “through the cleansing and transforming power of the blood of Jesus Christ.” He cites Joseph Smith’s teaching that our goal of becoming “heirs of God, and joint heirs with Jesus Christ” is possible only “through the love of the Father, the mediation of Jesus Christ, and the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Millet also quotes Parley Pratt, one of the first members of the LDS Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who stipulated that, in the path to glorification, the believer “is subordinate to Jesus Christ, does nothing in and of himself, does all things in the name of Christ, and by his authority, being of the same mind, and ascribing all glory to him and his Father.”

These three approaches to the Mormon teaching about becoming gods can be seen as expressions of a straightforward theological orthodoxy. The final end of the believer’s sanctification is to be restored into the fullness of the image of God. This restoration is neither an absorption into the divine Being nor an attainment of equality with God. And the means by which this growth in godliness takes place is the ­all-sufficient atoning work of Jesus Christ.

Needless to say, though, we need to see how these formulations function in the larger system of Mormon teaching before pronouncing them orthodox. A fourth-century Arian, for example, could endorse all three of Millet’s observations—as could a ­present-day Jehovah’s Witness—and yet do so within an obviously heterodox framework.

Thus, in our conversations with Mormons, Evangelicals have not necessarily taken orthodox-­sounding affirmations at face value. “Yes,” we ask, “but what do you mean when you say these things?” This is an appropriate question, and a theologically urgent one. Discrete theological affirmations not grounded in a robust, biblically faithful theological perspective are vulnerable to the danger described in Ephesians 4:14: that we will be “blown about by every wind of doctrine.”

Nonetheless, during the course of my participation in the Evangelical-­Mormon dialogue, I’ve come to see that the relation of specific doctrinal affirmations to one’s larger system of theology is complex. It is possible for people to affirm profoundly important orthodox Christian tenets even as they remain loyal to a heterodox tradition. Take the case of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s daughter ­Ellen Tucker Emerson. She was a Sunday school teacher at the large Unitarian church in Concord and organized Bible studies in the Emerson home. She was especially fond of studying Ephesians and Romans. Her Christology was Arian, but she firmly believed that Jesus was the Savior sent from heaven—not quite a member of the Godhead but of a status higher than the angels—and that a person needed to trust in him in order to be saved. Indeed, she complained in one of her letters about ministers who viewed Jesus as “only a man” and a mere “moral example.” Without a doubt, her Unitarian system of theology gravely impaired her ability to express an orthodox view of Christ’s identity. But was her Christocentric view of salvation negated by her rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity?

When Evangelicals and Catholics Together published its joint statement on justification by faith (the primary Evangelical drafters were James Packer and Timothy George), the well-known Evangelical pastor John MacArthur strongly opposed the document. He chided the Evangelical participants for implying “that while they believe that the doctrine of justification as articulated by the Reformers is true, they are not willing to say that people must believe it in order to be saved. In other words, they believe that people are saved who do not believe the Biblical doctrine of justification.” Those of us who were Evangelical participants in that project were certainly convinced that our Catholic friends, led by Fr. Richard John ­Neuhaus, well trained in Lutheran theology, had it right. But even if they did not, do we really believe that this means that they have rejected God’s offer of salvation through Jesus Christ? By my lights, it’s possible to be operationally orthodox, at least in part, even when one’s explicit theology suffers from ill-considered and defective elements.

The example that comes closest to my own assessment of the relationship between what Mormons “mean” and the question of their relation to orthodox Christianity is Charles Hodge’s treatment of the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher in his three-volume Systematic Theology. Hodge was deeply critical of the German theologian’s embrace of the rationalist critique of biblical authority, which had the effect, Hodge insisted, of undermining the most fundamental tenets of the historic Christian faith.

At the point, however, where Hodge sets forth his critique of Schleiermacher—who had by this time been dead for several decades—he adds a footnote in which he reports that as a student in Germany, he had frequently attended services at Schleiermacher’s church. The hymns sung in those services “were always evangelical and spiritual in an eminent degree, filled with praise and gratitude to our Redeemer.” He goes on to report that he had been told by one of Schleiermacher’s colleagues that often, in the evenings, the theologian would call his family together, saying: “Hush, children; let us sing a hymn of praise to Christ.” And then Hodge adds this tribute: “Can we doubt that he is singing those praises now? To whomever Christ is God, St. John assures us, Christ is a Saviour.”

Hodge is making an important distinction here. A person’s actual trust in Christ is not the same as his theological account of what goes into a proper trust in Christ. Hodge assumed that the former can be legitimate even when the latter is faulty, and in Schleiermacher’s case, he took seriously the liberal Protestant theologian’s expressions of spirituality and the hymns he chose to sing. Hodge seems to have been convinced that what Schleiermacher “meant” when he was singing about Jesus was a more accurate expression of his personal faith in Jesus than the Christology he outlined in his systematic theology.

I’ve drawn a similar conclusion from Mormon hymnody. On one occasion, I was invited to speak to a meeting of faculty at a university-based LDS Institute in Utah. They wanted me to explain what I meant in calling myself a Calvinist. As I walked into the seminar room, the leader was announcing a hymn: number 193 in the LDS hymnal. As they began, I recognized it as a popular one in my Evangelical upbringing, but one that I had not heard sung in recent decades. It begins: “I stand all amazed at the love Jesus offers me . . .” and then the chorus, “Oh, it is wonderful that he should care for me/Enough to die for me!/Oh, it is wonderful, wonderful to me!”

No one in the room was looking at the words. They knew all the verses and the chorus by heart. I glanced at the faces and saw one Mormon scholar’s eyes well up with tears as he sang the final verse:

I think of his hands pierced and bleeding to pay
the debt!
Such mercy, such love and devotion can I forget?
No, no, I will praise and adore at the mercy seat,
Until at the glorified throne I kneel at his feet.

What did those tears “mean” in relationship to, say, the first half of the Snow couplet? Were the words that the LDS scholar was singing informed by his desire to become his own “god”? Or did his personal experience of what it took for him to be reconciled to God the Father “mean” that he looked forward to the eschatological posture of kneeling in praise and adoration at the “glorified throne,” in gratitude for “hands pierced and bleeding to pay the debt”? I choose the latter interpretation with considerable confidence, with the conviction that a person’s piety is often a better test of his faith in God than are his theological formulations.

This does not mean I downplay the role of theological formulations. I have never said that Mormon theology falls within the scope of historic orthodoxy. I find the teaching that “God, angels and men are all of one species” to be a shocking challenge to a fundamental tenet of biblical religion, namely, the vast ontological gap between Creator and creature.

Getting theology right is of great importance, for an orthodox theology helps us sustain our orthodox intuitions, expressions, and practices. Schleiermacher can be singing hymns directly to Jesus right now in the heavenly realm, but elements in his theology led many generations after him astray. Similarly, without proper safeguards, I worry that the genuine piety that I discern in many of my LDS friends will slip into spiritual confusion, and thus be weakened, even lost.

My own sense is that many in the LDS community, including several of its leaders, recognize that the first half of the Snow couplet, the statement about God having been like man, is incompatible with what they genuinely want to sing about: spiritual reliance on the all-sufficient Savior. They also see that it works against the spiritual outlook they want to nurture in new generations of Mormons. Evangelicals may wish for an explicit denial by the LDS leadership of the first half of the couplet. But it is important to recognize that another option—to be sure, a less stabilizing one theologically—is simply to ignore that first half and focus on the second and potentially more orthodox half in what is affirmed and taught in Mormonism.

From an Evangelical perspective, pushing certain teachings to the margins may not be enough. I would certainly prefer a clear repudiation of the implication that God is on the same ontological level as the human beings he has created. But marginalizing is a way of promoting theological development in good directions. And when it is accompanied by a genuine willingness to engage in serious conversation with others, as it is in the Evangelical-Mormon dialogue, it can be a sign of a sincere desire to bring a ­historically heterodox tradition into greater conformity with the orthodox Christian consensus. This can only be encouraged, however, if we approach our conversations with Mormons with a trust that they genuinely “mean” what they say—especially when they are singing Christ-adoring hymns.

Richard J. Mouw is president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary.