Elder Christofferson: The ascendance of the tripartite model #LDSConf

In the spirit world where the dead await the glorious Resurrection of the just, B. H. Roberts is currently giggling to himself, trying not to smile too conspicuously. Bruce R. McConkie wants to go over and wipe the smile off his face with his spirit fist.

In one hundred and fifty years, I suspect that today’s sermons will seem as timely as sermons from the 1865 General Conference to us. Nevertheless, there will be those who read them, and among them will be those interested in the development of Mormon cosmology. They will point to Elder Todd Christofferson’s talk. They won’t be particularly interested in his comments about the family, this sermon is one of legion marshalled in recent years. No, they will point to his comments about the premortal life as perhaps the most explicit endorsement of the tripartite model in General Conference up to this point in history.

A quick summary: Joseph Smith taught that spirits were never created or made and are coexistent with God. The Pratts and Brigham Young normalized competing views of an existence where God created our spirits from spirit element through a process of celestial viviparous spirit birth. For them, we began at this creation. B.H. Roberts synthesized these views with Joseph Smith’s teachings to yield the tripartite model in the last decade of the nineteenth century. In this model a self-existing being–an “intelligence”
(intelligency in his early writings)–is transformed into a spirit by spirit birth. The First Presidency of JFS pretty much hated that idea, and Elder McConkie in particular waged an effort to eliminate it from the Church while he was a General Authority. Still, the linguistic shifts McConkie relied on just didn’t have the appeal that Robert’s idea seems to have had.

Church leaders aren’t trained in theology or history. Consequently, in many ways Elder Christofferson’s talk demonstrates the triumph and power of folk belief. Given a suitable doctrinal problem, the silence of institutional catechisms conceived in uncertainty, can give way to ideas once determined to be false by earlier generations. These ideas can brew among the people for long enough that when those steeped in their essentials join the highest quorums, they are proclaimed as the foundational truths sufficient to frame our most pressing social challenges.


  1. Jason K. says:

    Good stuff, J.

  2. Elder Packer tells this story.

    Some time ago I interviewed a young bishop in Brazil. He was twenty-seven years old. I was impressed that he possessed every attribute of a successful Church leader—humility, testimony, appearance, intelligence, spirituality. Here, I thought, is a young man with a great future in the Church.

    I asked myself, as I looked at him, “What will his future be? What will we do for him? What will we do to him?” In my mind I outlined the years ahead.

    He will be a bishop for perhaps six years, then he will be thirty-three years old. He will then serve eight years on a stake high council and five years as a counselor in the stake presidency. At forty-six he will be called as a stake president. We will release him after six years to become a regional representative, and he will serve for five years. That means he will have spent thirty years as an ideal, the example to follow, the image, the leader.

    However, in all that time, he will not have attended three Gospel Doctrine classes in a row, nor will he have attended three priesthood quorum lessons in a row.

    Brethren, do you see yourselves in this illustration?

    Unless he knew the fundamental principles of the gospel before his call, he will scarcely have time to learn them along the way. Agendas, meetings, and budgets and buildings will take up his time. These things are not usually overlooked.

    But the principles are overlooked—the gospel is overlooked, the doctrine is overlooked. When that happens, we are in great danger! We see the evidence of it in the Church today…

    It is so important that every member, particularly every leader, understand and know the gospel.

    It is not easy to find time to study the gospel. It is harder for the stake president to do it and infinitely harder for the bishop to do it, but it is necessary and it is possible. Brethren must attend the classes as often as they can; bishops and stake presidents should find some way to attend at least a good share of the Gospel Doctrine classes and the appropriate priesthood quorum lessons.

    – Elder Packer, “Principles” Ensign, March 1985.

    One of the implications is that, if you’re not reading and studying history/doctrine/scripture heavily BEFORE you get called as a Bishop… you’re probably not going to have time to acquire a nuanced or deep understanding of history/doctrine/scripture.

  3. J. Stapley says:

    Elder Packer bringing the hammer!

  4. Clark Goble says:

    Could you clarify what you means by tripartite model? By Robert’s tripartite model I always took it as an immaterial intelligence + quasi-material spirit + material body. (I’ve come to be convinced that Robert’s actual view was a bit more nuanced but that’s how I’ve usually seen it presented) Yet Pratt has a kind of a tripartite view of intelligent atom + other organized intelligences as spirit + other organized intelligences as body. Pratt’s view is an odd kind of mixing of Leibniz and Priestly’s atoms. But he still seems to have three separate phases.

    Reading your link to your earlier post. What was the conflict between JF McConkie and Madsen? I confess I somehow managed to miss that entire conflict. BRM seemed to hold to the Pratt view but thought the *term* intelligence could apply to the primordial intelligence or more properly to the organized form of intelligence that was spirit. (MD 387)

    I always thought the fundamental disagreement was the nature of primordial intelligence and spirit birth. I thought most rejection of the tripartite model rejected primordial intelligence as separate in any sense from spirit in terms of material. I’ve typically used the term tripartite to include any model that sees three distinct phases representing a significant difference in material (either by kind or addition of parts)

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    That Elder Packer story was sobering.

  6. Clark Goble says:

    Sorry – typo in that Mormon Doctrine reference. It’s Page 751 not 387. It’s the entry for “Spirit Element.” There he distinguishes between uncreated spirit element and pre-existent spirits. “…portions of the self-existent spirit element are born as spirit children, or in other words the intelligence which cannot be created or made, because it is self-existent, is organized into intelligence.” Now I’m not sure what he means by “portions” here but I assume it’s the standard Pratt view where there’s a collection of intelligent atoms that are organized by spirit birth into a spirits.

    Not criticizing, mind you. I know most of my question is really more a semantic question. Just that I confess to being a bit confused here.

  7. J. Stapley says:

    Clark, while tripartite could refer to any three phase system, I’m using it specifically to refer to Roberts’ particular (and now popular) synthesis, where a self-existing being >> spirit body >> physical body. Brigham Young taught that spirits were created from unintelligent “spirit element,” and that the person was created at that moment. Orson’s was that this spirit element had a will and that as it associated with more and more complex creations, higher degrees of will/personality emerged: spirit dirt >> spirit carrot >> spirit bunny >> spirit person (but the person was not eternal). McConkie took BY’s position but renamed “spirit element” to be “intelligence.” Madsen was perhaps the biggest popularizer of Roberts tripartite model. JFM took his father’s view. My comments about their relationship on the other post were a bit of speculation on my part.

  8. Kevin, there’s also this, from my favorite “The Core of My Faith” by Carlfred Broderick, which happens to pertain to this topic. Link to pdf

    One last experience in my late teens might perhaps be cited as contributing to my differentiation between spiritual leadership and doctrinal sophistication. As a seventeen-year-old freshman at Harvard, I had the great privilege of get-ting to know my first General Authority on other than a conference-visitor basis. Elder S. Dilworth Young, one of the Presidents of the Seventy, was the mission president and would invite students over to his home for firesides once a month. I was delighted at the opportunity to get an informed opinion on many of the doctrinal imponderables that I and the little clutch of faithful LDS Harvard students debated in our weekly Sunday afternoon discussions.
    For starters, one evening I cornered him and asked how he had resolved the paradoxical issues around the nature of our spiritual birth as described in the early chapters of the Book of Moses. It took several minutes of confusing noncommunication before it dawned on me that this great man not only did not have an informed opinion on the matter, but he scarcely understood the issue and frankly had concerned himself very little with such obscure doctrinal points. Once more I had confirmed the lesson of my childhood—that spiritual maturity and inspirational power (which this man unquestionably had in abundance) need not be packaged together with advanced intellectual questing.

    While General Authorities have great strengths, we cannot assume that scriptural/historical knowledge is one of them. Elder M. said as much.

    “Though general authorities are authorities in the sense of having power to administer church affairs, they may or may not be authorities in the sense of doctrinal knowledge, the intricacies of church procedures, or the receipt of the promptings of the Spirit. A call to an administrative position of itself adds little knowledge or power of discernment to an individual, although every person called to a position in the Church does grow in grace, knowledge and power by magnifying the calling given him.”

    -Mormon Doctrine, “General Authorities”

  9. Clark Goble says:

    Ah. OK. So the real debate then, as you see it, isn’t over materiality but over intelligence (whatever this meant). While BY talked of elements of spirit, I always thought his take on them was fairly vague. He talked of things like that “matter can be organized and brought forth into intelligence” (JD 1:219) but I confess I never read that as necessarily espousing physicalism. (The position that mind is just matter in some organization ala most modern conceptions of mind as brain – just that Young didn’t limit it to brain) I just thought BY didn’t really care that much. His concerns appear once spirits are born. That is his main problem with Pratt was with Pratt’s focus on ontology and cosmology rather than human beings and the way they live. (I’m actually pretty sympathetic to that view)

    My concern with taking McConkie as first just lifting Young and then adopting a physicalism is that it seems at odds with his uses. For instance it seems odd to use the term intelligence for unintelligent spirit element if he’s arguing for physicalism. i.e. the real issue relative to McConkie is how he read Young. To my eye McConkie seems aware of both Pratt and Young and takes elements of both. Maybe McConkie argues for physicalism somewhere, but I’ve not seen it. (I’d be interested if you know of one)

    I know this is me getting pedantic on semantic issues. But it seems to me there are three issues that get conflated.

    1. Do we have an essential eternal connection to some piece of self-existent stuff. Young says no. Pratt says yes. Roberts is complex but is usually taken to be yes, but it’s mind not matter. McConkie seems to say there’s stuff and I think takes Young’s position that we don’t have an essential connection to it.

    2. Have we as individual thinking *persons* always existed. Young says no, and adds that we can be destroyed as such. Pratt says maybe although perhaps attributing personhood to his atoms is mistaken. (I think it is) As such they are perhaps better seen as quasi-intelligent and quasi-persons. Roberts says yes, although again that’s complex. The way Roberts is usually received takes him as supporting eternal Cartesian minds and thus persons. McConkie seems to follow Young here from my memory.

    3. Was there a spirit birth? All of them say yes although it’s debatable whether Joseph did and now there are positions that reject the spirit birth. (I’d have to check but I think Blake Ostler rejects it, although he embraces a quasi-Pratt view for the other positions although intelligence proper is radically emergent)

    4. Do we as individuals have three phases? Similar to (2) but one can reject the spirit birth and thus the idea of three phases. Young & McConkie say yes, Roberts and Pratt say yes, Blake I *think* says no. (I really ought double check before saying that)

    5. Physicalism, property dualism, substance dualism, or emergence? I think we can say Pratt’s a property dualist. Roberts is typically taken as a substance dualist although I think his position might be more nuanced. I don’t think Young takes a position. You seem to be taking him as a physicalist or perhaps something more Aristotelean? Blake adopts an emergentist view.

    Sorry. Again this isn’t me really disagreeing with anything so much as trying to clarify what the debate’s about.

  10. Guys, Robets Wasn’t just blowing in the wind. His move was inspired I think, and I think it may finally win the preexistence wars. I promise fun things in the sermon book (grin).

  11. J. Stapley says:

    Can’t wait for the publication, WVS.

    Clark, I think everything revolves around your #2, because that was the issue for JS. It was the whole purpose for his sermons on the topic. WVS’s work is critical here. I think everything besides that is ancillary (though spirit birth was a key issue forcing BHR’s synthesis).

  12. I missed Elder Christofferson’s remarks. What exactly did he say?

  13. “Joseph Smith taught that spirits were never created or made and are coexistent with God”

    I still don’t think a response to the actual claims and merits of Brian Hales’ JMH article has been made to repeat that claim.

    Also, I really don’t think one can argue that “JFS pretty much hated that idea” when the most common origin of Roberts’ tripartitism among the modern Church comes from the editing and footnotes of Joseph Fielding Smith’s TPJS (esp. in KF and Grove Sermons). Elder McConkie, BYU profs like his son and Matt Brown, sure, but not JFS.

  14. I don’t think Brigham was near as explicit about what he meant by intelligence/spirit as to be construed as in conflict with Pratt’s view. He was always very forthcoming when he disagreed with Orson about topics such as Adam or God’s absolute omniscience.

    Anyone aware of any statement where BY specifically disagrees with Pratt’s view?

    As expressed in the Seer to me it almost seems like almost like the Roberts view, but with each cell having it’s own intelligence, resulting in begotten spirit carrots as you say.

    Interpreting all this largely depends on your epistemology: Can one only only preach and produce revelations according to their own understanding? Or is is possible for a seer like Joseph to reveal things he has not fully understood or harmonized himself? (Which could later be harmonized by someone like Roberts).

  15. Clark Goble says:

    I’d some how missed that article. Thanks for the like JPV. That’s rather persuasive that at minimum the ideas were in the air in Nauvoo. One other thing I noticed was that Snow thought the birth took place 13,000 years ago. Where on earth did he come up with that figure? (I assume it’s 6000 years since the fall ala Unger’s calendar + 7000 years for creation)

  16. J. Stapley says:

    jpv, this was my first response:


    Partridge, the text should be available soon.

  17. This new way of handling conference coverage has been an interesting experience, as an outsider who still likes the chance to hear a variety of opinions. This particular article is an example of how far away from reality this approach can take.

    Partidge110 asked a perfectly reasonable question. The essay is incomplete and honestly I kept expecting at least one comment that made up for the gaping hole in the OP. If the best response to the basic question of what was said in the talk essentially comes down to, “Sucks to be you. Come back when the transcripts are available and then we might waste our precious time on you,” there is something very wrong with both the posts and the comments.

    I happen to have had a seminary teacher who geeked out on this stuff, so I can follow most of this particular discussion in the post and comments, but as someone who also missed the actual talk, the post becomes pointless because the post doesn’t contain the information about what was said. That’s a basic, fundamental part of writing to be read.

    If this is the “new BCC coverage,” I doubt I am the only one who won’t bother reading next session. If I need to wait for the transcript to enter the conversation, then there is no value to the “coverage.” At least the live blogging felt like everyone was welcome.

  18. Jason K. says:

    One need not wait for transcripts. Video of the talk is available here: https://www.lds.org/general-conference/watch/2015/04?lang=eng&vid=4153720783001&cid=7

  19. juliathepoet, it sounds like the context you may be missing here is that the post isn’t analyzing one or two sentences that could be quoted. The whole talk was about this, so short of providing the transcripts or video (the former of which is currently not available, obviously through no fault of the post author!), it’s not really possible to provide the text being talked about. The post does offer a review of the key points of the doctrine in question (“A quick summary:”), but I honestly don’t know what else could have been done.

    Partridge did ask a perfectly reasonable question, and I think Stapley provided a perfectly reasonable answer–the only answer that can really be given. Thanks to Jason for the follow up with the video. That is a useful addition!

  20. I have a section in my dissertation on JS’s teachings relative to spirit birth, 449-52.

  21. I somehow missed this post when it was first published. When listening the conference, I too noticed Christofferson’s endorsement of tripartite model, although it was a bit vague.

    The reference to the First presidency of JFS was to Joseph F. Smith’s presidency (especially to Penrose), not to Joseph Fielding Smith as jpv thought, right?

  22. J. Stapley says:

    That is right, Niklas.