Irenaeus, Joseph Smith, and God-Making Heresy

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Adam J. Powell
Fairleigh Dickinson University Press Mormon Studies Series
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Fairleigh Dickinson University Press
    , October
     276 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Irenaeus, Joseph Smith, and God-Making Heresy explores the formation of religious identity through experiences of marginalization. Adam J. Powell presents the argument that early Mormonism and early Christianity adopted forms of deification as their primary mode of soteriology in the face of persecution and increasing social isolation. This study relies on the Weberian concept of “elective affinities” to investigate the formative period of two religious traditions with vastly different belief systems. That is to say, despite their separation in time and space, Mormons and Christians in their embryonic periods shared social experiences that gave rise to their respective theologies that deify believers. 

This argument is laid out in two parts. Part 1, “The Role of Heresy: Social and Doctrinal Impact,” delves into the sociology of heresy. In the first chapter, the author proposes a definition of heresy as an “ideal type” of opposition, entailing antagonistic beliefs, but also forces that threaten the social position and unity of a group. While the author builds a theoretical case that heresy is not simply doctrinal, but social as well, lacking in the argument is any reference to the historical movements under investigation. Instead, to make this claim, the author draws on the works of social theorists, in particular Hans Mol. The second chapter offers a review of these sociological theories that provide the bedrock for the claims of the first chapter. This section is an unwieldy literature review of the “sociology of knowledge” (50), ranging from Edmund Husserl to Peter Berger. These summaries provide context for Mol’s “adaptation/identity dialectic” (69) that provides the theoretical framework for the remainder of the book. Mol’s theory that “humans respond passionately and arduously to experiences perceived as threats to the social order” (71), drives the author’s subsequent arguments that Christian and Mormon identities formed in the Janus-faced dynamic of persecution and oppositional heresy. 

The second portion of this book, “Surviving and Integrating Heresy,” turns to the analysis of the two religious movements in question. Chapter 3 examines the historical contexts that produced Mormonism and Christianity and finds elective affinity in the persecution and social rejection these new religious movements faced in their formative years. Chapter 4 examines how heretical concerns sculpted the Mormon “Plan of Salvation,” and Irenaeus’s “Economy of Salvation.” Irenaeus’s Gnostic opponents and Joseph Smith’s philosophical disagreements with other leaders during the Second Great Awakening prompted each movement to articulate theologies of the deification, or perfection, of humans as part of the divine salvific plan. The final, fifth chapter concludes by considering how their heretical enemies were useful for the construction of religious identity. As opposition, heresy tests the boundaries of religious identity, and becomes an opportunity for a movement to adapt and refine their belief systems. For Irenaeus and nascent orthodoxy, this meant that Gnosticism was defeated as Romans killed Christians; for Joseph Smith, and Mormonism, this meant that Joseph Smith’s own murder was not a defeat, but ultimately ensured the success of the new religion.

Irenaeus, Joseph Smith, and God-Making Heresy is a difficult book. The dense academic prose renders it inaccessible to non-specialists. This presents a problem because the project is inherently comparative, placing the field of early Christianity in conversation with Mormon studies. Specialists in early Christianity will be frustrated with the outdated model of Irenaeus and Christian orthodoxy versus Gnostics, as well as with the over-reliance on classical works of scholarship (Bowersock, Bauer) at the expense of newer studies. I imagine specialists in Mormon studies would have similar concerns. However, this is the challenge of comparative work—how does one draw in and satisfy two groups of scholars? With this in mind, the book serves as a valuable starting point for more interdisciplinary studies that bring together ancient and modern new religious movements.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Anne Kreps is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Oregon.

Date of Review: 
November 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Adam Powell is assistant professor of religious studies and director of the Master of Arts in Religious Studies at Lenoir-Rhyne University’s Center for Graduate Studies of Asheville, NC.



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