Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Another Evangelical/Mormon Dialogue Blunder

Evangelicals just can't get their arguments past preconceptions and horrible mis-readings. It doesn't matter how sincere they are in trying to defend positions while trying to be fair. It is one reason I don't believe dialogue is possible. They don't want to listen and learn, just argue. Mormons have the same problem, but most are too busy trying to explain themselves to attack others. I find that Gerald R. McDermott starts out well, recognizing both that Mormons believe in Grace and critical Christians believe in Works. From most arguments I have seen, this is one of the triad reasoning that some contend the "non-Christian" status of Mormons. He then continues by using the other two standard bearers of the Trinity concept and extra-Biblical exclusion to make the case. The problem is that the arguments are full of so many misrepresentations I think it brings his exegesis and research abilities into question.

Mormons do not believe Jesus was always God

I am not sure exactly what this means. Even if taken at face value for his meaning, the whole paragraph comes off incoherent. A better case would be to say that Mormons believe Jesus was always Divine, but never more than the Son of God. He has never been considered by Mormons as God the Highest. It can't be said Jesus has never been considered God the Father, as there are some instances in the Book of Mormon that he was given that status. In fact, later on in his argument McDermott brings up that idea as a way to prove Mormon inconsistencies or at least theological developments of the Godhead. As usual, perhaps because of his evangelical background, he simplifies what is a complication in order to score points.

Again, he has a great start with, "It is indeed, for it purports to give us another history of what Jesus said and did—not one to replace the Jesus of the gospels but to supplement that record." However, like the quote above, he becomes incoherent in the argument trying to shoehorn what he believes in with what Mormons believe and comes out sounding ignorant. If he would have left off with that sentence and then simply stated, but other Christians don't believe in the Book of Mormon, then the argument would at least make sense. Instead he goes off where such an argument has been weak for at least the last 150 years (from the start if you count Catholics). Other Christians in the first-century, even if you call them heretical, kept other writings as Scripture that Protestants have dismissed.

His main thesis is that the Bible is a collection of witnesses where the Book of Mormon has only a witness of itself. That is all fine for a simplistic interpretation of history and Biblical textualism. The problem is it too quickly dismisses the lengthy scholarly questions of authorship and authentic testimonials. Strangely enough, it is the multiplicity of testimonials mixed with inconsistencies in the texts that put the Bible to question for some. His idea that "the testimonies we have to the Palestinian Jesus date from the same century as [the Bible] Jesus," is not universally accepted. Even if taken as true, there is a huge question of what part of that century. No matter how much the testimonies of the New Testament matters, there is still no original texts in existence.

Besides, the Book of Mormon is considered a testimony of the Bible and Jesus Christ. It is to be a "Fourth Gospel" rather than a separate textual entity. To create a separation where one doesn't exist is to reject the purpose of its existence to bolster (and not take over) the Biblical testimony. Even if it purports to be ancient, it is considered a "Modern" Scripture for a reason; to warn us today that the prophets and prophecy of yesterday are still of relevance. There are, of course, other purposes of the Book of Mormon. All of them have been ignored and rejected by the simplistic world view of McDermott who can't see past his limited preconceptions enough to make an argument reaching beyond his own self-congratulatory audience.

Third, there are inconsistencies between the Palestinian Jesus and the American Jesus. For example, while the American Jesus promises the land of America to the new Israel as a “new Jerusalem” (3 Nephi 20:22, Ether 13:3), the Palestinian Jesus speaks only of a kingdom of God that is open to people of every land. His promise to the meek is that “they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). His apostles write that Jesus’ followers still seek a country (Heb. 11:14) and “should be the heir of the world” (Rom. 4:13). People will bring into the New Jerusalem “the glory and honor” not of a single nation but of all the “nations” (Rev. 21:26). So the Palestinian Jesus seems to think of the coming Kingdom as a worldwide phenomenon not limited to one geographical part of the earth, while the American Jesus is fixated on America.

I quote the whole paragraph above because those who honestly understand the Book of Mormon and Mormonism quickly recognize the lack of research it had to take to come to that conclusion. If anything, the Book of Mormon is rather universalist in its declarations of worldwide salvation and Kingdom building. One only has to read the First Book of Nephi to see the interplay between the American Continent and the world. Just like Jerusalem for the Bible, America is a center place where the gospel spreads to other lands. Many times the Book of Mormon hints at or right out says that there are promised lands all over the place for different people. The heavy use of Isaiah quotes are to teach how widespread and important having promised lands are to making the whole Earth a Kingdom in the final days. Although not directly related to what is said in the Book of Mormon, he ignores Joseph Smith saying the Kingdom of God will fill North and South America, and indeed the Whole World. All of this is ironic considering the current argument of many Evangelical Christians that America is a Christian nation in much the same way that Palestine is a Jewish land.

His "other discrepancies" are that Jesus in the Book of Mormon praises the faith of the twelve in the America's, but criticizes the faith of the Twelve he chose in Palestine. Also, that he didn't allow anyone in Palestine to remain alive (I disagree with his interpretation of John 21:23. I take it to mean that Jesus didn’t say if John would not die, but that it is none of your business to know if he will live), but does that with three American disciples. I don't find these a discrepancy as much as a difference in time and place. In other words, because Jesus might have said or did something different in one place than in another, that makes the Book of Mormon a discrepancy. He simply dismisses the idea that those in the Americas were more faithful and righteous than those in Palestine and therefore more worthy of greater blessings. That is a discrepancy from McDermott’s early assertion that Jesus taught the universality of the Kingdom of God. Ironically it begs the question of Jesus the Christ as an historical figure. The idea is basically if it didn't happen in the Bible then it didn't happen.

I am going to leave the rest of the criticism to Summa Theologica that covers exactly what Mormons believe about Jesus and God. The comment section is also worth reading. The article is well enough done and in-depth that anything I would write would be a poor substitute.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Jesus and the Mormon Concept of Grace

There is a topic over at "First Things" that discusses yet again if Mormons are Christian. Despite the fact that the discussion is old and never ending, I was impressed with Bruce D. Porter's response to the question. Normally I don't like long postings of articles that you can read somewhere else. Reading it one place is not going to change what was written originally. However, I liked this well enough to quote most of it:

Latter-day Saints revere the Bible as the word of God and the scriptural foundation of Christianity. We generally interpret it in quite literal terms, although allowing that some passages may use figurative, allegorical, or symbolic language. Our most criticized departure from mainstream Christianity is our acceptance of another work, the Book of Mormon, as the divinely revealed word of God. We regard it as holy writ: equal to the Bible in authority, a second witness of Christ’s divine mission, and a compilation of inspired writings that enlighten and clarify many biblical teachings. Latter-day Saints also count in the canon a slim two volumes of revelations and tenets revealed by Jesus to the prophet Joseph Smith: the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.

A vital aspect of Latter-day Saint theology—and its most obvious difference from traditional Christianity—is the belief that Jesus Christ is an individual being, separate from God the Father in corporeality and substance. Mormons do not accept the phrase in the Nicene Creed that describes the Father and Son as being “of one substance,” nor do we accept subsequent creeds by ecumenical councils that sought to clarify the nature of the Trinity in language describing them as one indivisible spiritual being. The Book of Mormon refers in several passages to God, Christ, and the Holy Ghost as “one God,” but Latter-day Saints understand this to mean they are one in mind, purpose, will, and intention. Their unity is the same unity of which Christ spoke in his high-priestly prayer following the Last Supper: that his disciples may “be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us” (John 17:21). Hence, Latter-day Saints rarely use the term Trinity, but prefer the title Godhead to refer to the three divine beings who govern our universe in perfect oneness.

Joseph Smith, whose first heavenly vision was of two personages, the Father and the Son, offered the following revelation regarding the members of the Godhead: “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit. Were it not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us” (D&C 130:22). Mormons believe that Adam and Eve prior to the Fall were created in the tangible image of God the Father, and that Christ when he came to earth was, as the apostle Paul wrote, “the express image” of the Father. We interpret this to mean that he appeared physically like the Father, not only that he exemplified the Father’s spiritual attributes.

God’s divine, embodied being is the center, not the limit of his power. We believe that a tangible glory or light “proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space—the light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne . . . who is in the midst of all things” (D&C 88:11–13). By means of this spirit, God’s power and influence are present at every point of time and space.

We believe that, prior to his mortal life, Jesus was a divine personage of spirit who partook of the fullness of Godliness but was unembodied. At the moment of his resurrection he assumed an immortal, incorruptible, eternal, and glorified body like that of the Father. He thus became the “first fruits” of a universal resurrection that will eventually encompass the whole of humankind. Mormons believe in the literal resurrection of Christ’s physical body: As the savior declared to his disciples in the account of Luke, “a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have” (Luke 24:39). We believe that he will never lay down this body—or, in other words, that after his ascension he was not, nor ever will be, subsumed into a non-corporeal divine essence known as the Trinity. Rather, he is at the literal right hand of the Father, and the martyr Stephen saw two beings, not one, when he looked up and said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56).

We believe that Christ was the Creator of the earth, under the direction of the Father, and that even before the earth was formed he had been anointed individually to the sacred mission of serving as the redeemer of all God’s children on earth. As John writes, “He was in the world, and the world was made by him” (John 1:10). In a modern revelation found in the Doctrine and Covenants, Christ speaks of his pre-mortal divinity: “Thus saith the Lord your God, even Jesus Christ, the Great I AM, Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the same which looked upon the wide expanse of eternity, and all the seraphic hosts of heaven, before the world was made” (D&C 38:1).

This verse introduces a Mormon doctrine not generally taught in Christianity—that Christ was the great I AM who spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai and revealed himself to the prophets throughout the Old Testament. Latter-day Saints believe that from the time of the earth’s creation Jesus Christ was its anointed Lord, who under the direction of the Father acted as an intermediary between God and man. He revealed his Word and law to the prophets, whose sacred mission was to testify to him.
The words of those prophets were fulfilled with the birth of the messiah in Bethlehem as the only-begotten son of God the Father. Latter-day Saints affirm the reality of the virgin birth. We do not worship Mary, nor pray to her, but we revere her as the mother of our Lord, a woman blessed above all others. Our beliefs regarding the savior’s mortal life are based on a literal reading of the biblical texts. We believe he lived a perfect and utterly sinless life; that the accounts of his miracles, all of them, are literal; that he organized his Church and delegated authority to his apostles to administer it after his ascension. We believe that he suffered in Gethsemane and at Golgotha, that he died for the sins of mankind on the cross, and that he was resurrected on the third day.

Despite these beliefs, many critics of Mormonism charge that we do not believe in salvation by grace. Early in the Book of Mormon, a prophet named Lehi gives a lengthy discourse on the subject of Christ’s atonement that underscores the centrality of his grace in human salvation: “Wherefore, redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth. Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit” (2 Nephi 6–7). Then the prophet declares, “There is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah” (2 Nephi 2:5–8). Another Book of Mormon prophet, Amulek, explains Christ’s sacrifice as the means by which “mercy can satisfy the demands of justice,” and he sees mankind as irretrievably lost without it: “This is the whole meaning of the law, every whit pointing to that great and last sacrifice; and that great and last sacrifice will be the Son of God, yea, infinite and eternal” (Alma 34:16).

Latter-day Saints regard a lengthy sermon by the prophet-king Benjamin to be among the most powerful discourses on Christ’s mission found in the Book of Mormon (Mosiah 2-5). I can find hardly a word in it that I think any orthodox Catholic or Protestant would find objectionable, with the possible exception of his teaching that infants and little children are made innocent by the atonement of Christ (and therefore, as elaborated later in the Book of Mormon, do not require baptism). Many of King Benjamin’s statements are classically Christian in formulation. He emphasizes the nothingness of man before God, his fallen nature, and his dependence upon the grace of Christ for salvation: “And moreover, I say unto you, that there shall be no other name given nor any other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent” (Mosiah 3:17).

Why, then, is there a perception among so many Christians of other faiths that Mormons do not believe in grace or in salvation through Christ? One reason may be that the moment Latter-day Saints cite the Book of Mormon as evidence of their Christian faith, animosity arises against the possibility that there could be any canon of Scripture beyond the Holy Bible. The issue then quickly descends into whether or not the Book of Mormon could possibly be an authentic ancient record. If attention were paid to the text itself rather than to theories of its authorship, we would at least have a dialogue focused what Mormons actually believe.

Another reason may be that critics sometimes take passages from the Book of Mormon out of context. There is also a common misperception that Latter-day Saints believe in salvation by works. It is true that, for example, many prophets in the Book of Mormon fervently admonish their people to repent and keep the commandments of God if they want to be saved. Taken out of context, they may appear to be claiming that salvation comes by works. But the prophets are saying simply what Christ said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” The Book of Mormon itself denounces speaks of “dead works” and proclaims “the deadness of the law” and it teaches plainly that only the blood of Christ can atone for sin. Mormons regard good works as a manifestation of faith in Christ, not as a way of earning salvation.

I think the next paragraph undermines the statement that Mormons don't believe works save. True enough in a philosophically sophisticated understanding of the interplay between Grace and Works in Mormonism. The problem is that works are vital to salvation, even if grace makes them of any value. I think that those who believe in Faith alone really don't believe that anyway, considering how often they argue for morality. If Faith because of grace is all you need then those who believe it should be amoral. To continue:

Nonetheless, salvation in our view is not obtained without effort on the part of the sinner. “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21). Grace requires a price to be paid and that price is the heart of the sinner. We believe that an individual obtains salvation by receiving Christ as the redeemer and exercising faith in him. Receiving Christ entails turning to him: repenting with a broken heart and contrite spirit, and striving, however imperfectly, to do his will. We also believe that the ordinances of baptism by immersion and confirmation by the laying on hands for the reception of the Holy Ghost are essential to salvation. For us, baptism is the making of a covenant with God to remember Christ and do his will; it is the symbolic death of the sinner (his burial in water) and his rising to a new life in Christ (Rom. 6:4). The gift of the Holy Ghost gives followers of Christ guidance and strength to walk his path throughout life. Some theologies regard these ordinances as “works” and therefore unnecessary or even undesirable. We regard them as integral to God’s plan for our salvation.

The most riveting and crucial drama in human history took place in Jerusalem from the hours of Christ’s Passion in Gethsemane to his death by crucifixion at Calvary. One unique teaching of Mormonism regarding Christ’s atonement is that his suffering for human sin took place both in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross at Golgotha. We do not see his agony in Gethsemane as a preliminary struggle to accept the will of the Father that he sacrifice his life. Rather, we believe it was an integral part of his ransom for sin.

Sin has many consequences, but the universal penalty for all sin is the withdrawal in some measure from the sinner of the spirit of God, that light “which giveth life to all things” (D&C 88:13). No ordinary mortal could survive the withdrawal of God’s spirit in its entirety. But the messiah was able to endure in Gethsemane the total withdrawal of the Father’s Spirit by virtue of his singular status as the Son of the Almighty. In this manner he suffered vicariously for the sins of all humankind. King Benjamin prophesied: “behold blood cometh from every pore, so great shall be his anguish for the wickedness and abominations of his people” (Mosiah 3:7).

Our emphasis on the significance of Gethsemane in no way diminishes the vital importance of his Christ’s suffering and death on the cross as a ransom for the sins of fallen humanity. The atonement began when Christ entered Gethsemane and said, “My soul is extremely sorrowful,” and it ended on the cross when he pronounced its fulfillment, “it is finished,” and voluntarily yielded his life. The Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants teach plainly and repeatedly that Christ was crucified as a free-will offering for the sins of the world. Christ’s crucifixion was an offering of his flesh and blood for sin, an offering of his physical life, an offering of his whole being, all he could possibly give, as he “poured out his soul unto death” (Isa. 53:12). We believe that his suffering at Golgotha entailed not only the excruciating agony of crucifixion, but also, as at Gethsemane, a withdrawal of the Father’s Spirit that led Christ to cry out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

In our eschatology, Latter-day Saints believe that Christ will come again to the earth and that his second coming will take place, as prophesied by Zechariah and promised to his disciples, on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. He will come in glory and power and will reign personally on the earth during a millennial Sabbath of a thousand years. We also believe that at the end of the millennium a last judgment will take place and that Jesus Christ himself will stand as the judge of all mankind, each individual soul having to enter in by him: the door or gate to heaven. In the words of Jacob, brother of Nephi: “The keeper of the gate is the Holy One of Israel; and he employeth no servant there; and there is none other way save it be by the gate; for he cannot be deceived, for the Lord God is his name” (2 Nephi 9:41).

Are Mormons Christian? By self-definition and self-identity, unquestionably so. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints affirms that it is a Christian-faith denomination, a body of believers who worship Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and who witness that salvation is possible only by his atoning blood and grace. By the simple dictionary definition of a Christian as one who believes in or worships Jesus Christ, the case is compelling. To the title Christian a critic of Mormonism may add any modifiers he deems appropriate—unorthodox, heretical, non-Nicene, different—but blanket assertions that we are not Christian are a poor substitute for informed argument and dialogue.

The next blog entry will critique Gerald R. McDermott's response. I found it myopic and ignorant; hardly better than a typical anti-Mormon screed. He probably would have done better to read Douglas Davies than the slim self-guidance readings of a few Mormon sources. Even the Book of Mormon is great, but not self contained as far as theological understanding.