The Latter-day Saints' understanding of God the Father is central to their view of the Godhead and their faith. Mormonism is thoroughly subordinationist in its theology of the Godhead. In Mormon thinking, Father God-also referred to by the name Elohim-is the primary ruling god in the hierarchy of the Godhead, and the literal father of all spirit-children, including Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Dr. Stephen Robinson affirms this viewpoint rather plainly: "If the Father did not exist, neither the Son nor the Holy Ghost would be God, for their divinity comes through their relationship with the Father."
The Father is the primary god and the principal source of deity. Although the Latter-day Saints refer to Jesus and the Holy Spirit by the term God, in actuality the term God refers first and foremost to the Father alone. The Father is the "God of Gods." In fact, Joseph Smith called the Father "God the first," Jesus "God the second," and the Holy Spirit "God the third." This seems to be consistent with the Mormon teaching that God the Father and Jesus will dwell in the highest level of the Celestial kingdom, Jesus will visit the lower Celestial level and Terrestrial kingdoms, and only the Holy Spirit will visit the lowest Telestial kingdom.
The Father is the Supreme Being, the prime source of deity in the Godhead. As spirit-children of the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are sequentially secondary in that they developed into gods after the Father sometime prior to creation. The deity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit then became a reality only through their parent-child relationship with the Father. This raises a very important question: if all of the Father's spirit-children worship him, why don't Jesus and the Holy Spirit do so, since they are also spirit-children? And why do spirit-children worship Jesus and the Holy Spirit, who are fellow spirit-children even if they have progressed into gods?
Based on Mormon theology, the present divine status of the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit is that of earned deity. Even more confusing for Christians is the LDS belief that God the Father himself has and worships a Father God. Joseph Smith clearly states that there is "a God above the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ."
In stark contrast to the teaching of Mormonism, Christians have understood a functional subordination of Jesus to the Father only during his incarnational life and ministry on earth, but we have never advocated an ontological subordination related to the eternal nature and being of the Father and Jesus. This doctrine of Jesus' submission to the Father during his earthly life and ministry is distinctly explained by the apostle Paul in Philippians 2:5-8:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
In Mormonism, the Father is an exalted man. Joseph Smith called him the Man of Holiness who is a physical being with flesh and bones and is not an immaterial spirit. Latter-day Saints maintain a major interpretation twist on what is meant in Genesis 1:26-27 by the statement that man was made in the image of God. Mormons argue that this means that we were created in the physical image of God. Dr. Stephen Robinson writes this concerning humans' being created in God's image:
"We take this literally to mean that God has a physical image and that humanity is created in it." According to the official LDS student manual Doctrines of the Gospel, God made man in his own image and made the woman in the image of his wife.
Mormons believe that God the Father is "an exalted, glorified, and perfected Man." If we could see God the Father today, he would be in the form of a man. Many Latter-day Saints believe that their literal Father Elohim was once a human man who through obedience and worthiness on another planet progressed and developed into a god. Joseph Smith makes this Mormon view of the nature of God the Father quite clear:
I will go back to the beginning before the world was, to show what kind of a being God is. What sort of a being was God in the beginning? 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 veil were rent today, 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 today, 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. We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea, and take away the veil, so that you may see. These are incomprehensible ideas to some, but they are simple. It is the first principle of the gospel to know for a certainty the character of God, and to know that we may converse with Him as one man converses with another, and that He was once a man like us; yea, that God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth.
Brigham Young University professor Dr. Robert Millet writes:
God our Father was once a mortal, that he lived on an earth, died, was resurrected, and glorified, and grew and developed over time to become the Almighty that he now is. To say this another way, they teach that God is all-powerful and all-knowing, but that he has not been so forever; there was once a time in an eternity past when he lived on an earth like ours.
In Mormon thinking, Jesus was the first spirit-son born to Father God and his wife or one of his wives. This is why Latter-day Saints identify Jesus as the Son of God and also as their Elder Brother. For Mormons, their Elder Brother Jesus became their Messiah, Redeemer, and Lord. In Mormonism, Jesus is in the hierarchy of the Godhead a secondary god under Father God. Latter-day Saints believe that Jesus became a god in his preexistence as an obedient spirit-son. Bruce McConkie writes:
By obedience and devotion to the truth he attained that pinnacle of intelligence which ranked him as a God, as the Lord Omnipotent while yet in his pre-existent state.
Within Mormonism, Jesus is identified as the premortal Jehovah or Yahweh of the Old Testament. Under the direction of the supreme Father God, Jesus organized the worlds, walked in the garden of Eden with Adam and Eve, and was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The Nameless Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is another male child of Father God, and is called a god by Mormons. But unlike the Father and Jesus, who have physical bodies of flesh and bone, the Holy Spirit-or "Holy Ghost," as Mormons like to call him-has only a spirit body in the form of a man. Just as the Father and Jesus can't be omnipresent-present everywhere at one time-because of their physical bodies, neither can the Holy Spirit. For Mormons, the Holy Spirit-a spirit male personage-functions under the direct authority of the Father and Jesus in his roles as comforter, sanctifier, and the revelator. Although they do not seem so prominent and public in the LDS Church today, historical Mormonism believed in and openly practiced spiritual gifts, as stated in the seventh LDS Articles of Faith creedal statement: "We believe in the gift of tongues, prophecy, revelation, visions, healing, interpretation of tongues, and so forth."