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.


Anonymous said...

While I respect your right to critique McDermott's response, I think we should be grateful for what he WAS willing to do. While McDermott was unable to fully understand Mormons, it would be unfair to call him ignorant (even though myopic is an interesting term). I firmly disagree with your characterization however, that McDermott was writing a "typical anti-Mormon screed." While McDermott is certainly mistaken, and makes numerous errors in how to understand and describe us, he is not "a typical anti-Mormon." In fact, McDermott has enabled a wider range of understanding between Mormons and Evangelicals. Before you write your review, I would suggest that you read "Claiming Christ" jointly authored by McDermott and Bob Millet. Eventually a critique of the entire Evangelical world-view (that allows the assumptions that lead to such misunderstandings) would be helpful.

While McDermott has only a limited understanding of Mormon doctrines, we MUST at least applaud that he was willing to make an effort to understand, while most anti-Mormons simply skim for material to attack the church. McDermott has at least tried, and for that he MUST be applauded. Compare that to an anti-Mormon minister in Michigan named Sharon who quotes something out of Doctrines of Salvation (single quote, out of context) to show "Mormons think they are better than everyone else."

Jettboy said...

Better perhaps, but still so wrong to such an amazing degree that it still smacks of disrespect. After thinking of the question "what is an anti-Mormon viewpoint," I have come to the conclusion it is something that shows disrespect and not just healthy disagreement. Most importantly it is a completely negative picture giving no positives. I think that McDermott follows that pattern, at least in this article. The idea that "Mormons are nice" doesn't count because Mormonism, as I have explained on another blog entery, is at the heart of Mormon attitudes.

On the whole I think that Evangelicals are jerks that hate everyone anyway. I don't believe that "understanding between Mormons and Evangelicals" is even possible until there is a sea change in Evangelical attitudes toward those who believe different than themselves. The reason I tolerate them is because they are political allies. It would be nice, for instance, if the Conservative tent could become tolerant of more than just the evangelical Christian Right - although they allow Catholics to join the group. I do wonder, however, if a Catholic is treated the same as Mormons; votes count, but leadership positions are not acceptable.

As for Bob Millet, I don't like him as a theologian. Like my statement about works in this piece, I think he glosses too much at some points that are unique to the Mormon faith. He is an apologist and it bothers me that he is seen as *the* unofficial theologian of Mormonism. I want to see a new B.H. Roberts, James E. Talmage, and Joseph Fielding Smith/Bruce R. McConkie. Even the last two who "invented" Orthodox Mormonism still examined rather than made excuses for beliefs.

Wow, anonymous, whoever you are really touched on a lot of my ideas that I have wanted to blog about. Now I am going to have to flesh them out to better explain.