I was recently asked if Latter-day Saints are monotheists or polytheists. Which if either are correct and why?
An interesting question, but depending upon who’s asking, it could also be a quite loaded one. Let me explain. The vast majority of current Christianity holds a veiw of monotheism, or belief in only one God. Imagine their trouble then, when they read John 17. In this most beautiful of biblical chapters, we read the words of Jesus as he implores a being he calls Father for the last necessary elements in order to accomplish the Atonement.
From the perspective of the Old Testament, the true Gospel was a monotheistic belief. That changed when Jehovah came to earth to be born, live among men, then suffer and die for men’s sins. While Jesus taught, he taught of one he called his Father. In other words, Jesus began the process of polytheism….but only to a degree. This is where it gets tricky.
In true polythesim, all known deities are worshipped according to need per what the given deity is responsible for. For example, Mars was the Roman god of war, and so on. However in Christianity, this would never apply. At first, the plain and simple nature of the Godhead was accepted. it was a new idea to the Jews especially that the God of all creation (Jesus or Jehovah) would have a father we needed to know about. So, while Jesus was introducing polytheism to a degree, he was quite clear that prayers needed to be addressed to Heavenly Father, and not himself. So on that part, polytheism reaches its limit for now.
Early on, say the first two and a half centuries after Christ’s birth or so, it was an accepted doctrine that Christ and the Father were two separate beings. It was an expansion upon the Jewish doctrines of the Old Testament. However there was great resistance to the doctrines Christ taught within Israel, so the Gospel was to be taken to the rest of the world. This introduced an opposing problem. While the Jewish reaction was one of holding to the monotheistic base they had used for centuries, much of the rest of the world was very polytheistic. This made the doctrines Christ introduced more palatable regarding the Godhead, however it also made room for additional ideas of men to get a foothold. As a result, some philisophical elements of the Greek Hellenistic thought crept into Christianity. This began the foundation for the trinitarian ideas that were first committed to writing at the council of Nicea, or the Nicene Creed. This statement explains that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one single being with three aspects or elements. Without going into too much more detail this was, more or less, the accepted truth continued up until this very day in protestant Christianity and Catholocism.
What changed things was Joseph Smith‘s first vision. In it he beheld two personages. Two separate beings quite similar to each other. One called Joseph by name and said, pointing to the other “This is my beloved son, hear him.” So in this event the truth was restored from ancient times that the Father and Son were indeed two different beings.
Where does that leave us today? I suppose polytheism could be accurate, except there are some pretty specific connotations attached to polythesim that aren’t part of LDS doctrine. For instance, we don’t pray to Jesus for some things and to the Father for others, and to the Holy Ghost for yet others. Instead, we rely upon the order Heavenly Father established through Jesus Christ; that we pray to the Father for all needs in the name of Jesus Christ, relying upon the Holy Ghost to learn the will of Heavenly Father and recieve answers to our questions. Each member of the Godhead has their role in guiding us through our lives in righteousness.
The only other term that I see could apply would be Henotheism. This indicates a religious belief that allows for, and accepts the existence of, many gods, but only worhsips one directly. In this I think we fit more accurately in that we believe all three members of the Godhead are themselves fully gods, yet as stated before, we only ever pray to the Father. I don’t know if three gods equals ‘many’ but at the basic level it works nicely.
I hope this answer helps you, and thank you for a great question.