Thursday, May 1, 2008

A Response to Dr. R. A. Mohler on Mormonism

In June of 2007 a debate was initiated by Beliefnet between Dr R Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and also Professor of Christian Theology at Southern Seminary (and a vocal critic of Mormonism); and Orson Scot Card, a freelance writer and a Mormon. During this discussion each posted three essays in response to the other arguing their case, which may be seen on Beliefnet’s website. The first article by Mohler was posted on 28 June 2007, and the last by Card on 26 July 2007. Each post attracted many comments from readers. As I studied these exchanges, I felt that Orson Card had not tackled the challenges to Mormonism presented to him by Dr Mohler head on, and Mohler was to some extent justified in claiming that his main objections had not been addressed. In this essay I will attempt to address his objections more directly. Mohler begins his first article, which he titles: Mormonism is not Christianity, with these words (emphasis added):

Are Mormons “Christians” as defined by traditional Christian orthodoxy? The answer to that question is easy and straightforward, and it is “no.” Nevertheless, even as the question is clear, the answer requires some explanation.

The issue is clearly framed in this case. Christianity is rightly defined in terms of “traditional Christian orthodoxy.” Thus, we have an objective standard by which to define what is and is not Christianity.

We are not talking here about the postmodern conception of Christianity that minimizes truth. We are not talking about Christianity as a mood or as a sociological movement. We are not talking about liberal Christianity that minimizes doctrine nor about sectarian Christianity which defines the faith in terms of eccentric doctrines. We are talking about historic, traditional, Christian orthodoxy.

Notice that the criterion that is used here to determine the “Christianity” of Mormonism is what is termed “Christian orthodoxy”. That in itself raises some important questions, before we can even attempt to discuss Mormonism: What is “Christian orthodoxy,” and who gets to define it? For example, is the infallibility of the Pope part of Christian orthodoxy? If not, why not? What about the Immaculate Conception, the assumption of Mary, the seven sacraments, or Transubstantiation? Are these part of “Christian orthodoxy,” and if not, why not? How about the belief that the Catholic Church is the whore of Babylon, or the Pope is the Anti-Christ? Those were the core beliefs of the Protestant Reformers and the Protestant Religion to which Dr Mohler belongs. Is that part of “Christian orthodoxy”? If not, why not? What has changed? What determines “Christian orthodoxy”?

The trouble with using “Christian orthodoxy” as a yardstick is that there is no generally accepted definition of it across mainstream Christianity that one can adopt. I have searched the Internet for such a definition, and found none. It is a yardstick that Dr Mohler can determine the size and length of it himself—very convenient!

Asking whether Mormonism is Christian or not according to the arbitrary criterion of “Christian orthodoxy,” as determined by Dr Mohler, is like determining whether the Earth is flat according to the criteria laid down by the Flat Earth Society. Well, according to that criteria it probably is! But those are hardly objective criteria by which to determine whether the earth is flat or not. Card’s biggest mistake was to agree to debate Mormonism on the basis of this narrow, limited, biased, one sided, sectarian definition of what constitutes true Christianity. Mormonism teaches that historical Christianity is in fact Apostate. So what Mohler identifies as “orthodox Christianity” is in fact “Apostate Christianity”. The question posed therefore amounts to: “Is Mormonism Christian according to the standard of Apostate Christianity?” Well, I should think not! Card made a fundamental error to agree to debate Mormonism on the basis of such a flawed criterion. If a criterion is to be used, it should be one that is acceptable to both sides; not one that Mohler and Beliefnet have cooked up between them to corner Mormonism.

Dr Mohler has also been a shade dishonest in his use of this criterion. When Card raised an objection to it, in his second article Mohler responds with these words:

The first matter of concern is to clarify the question. When I asked, “Are Mormons ‘Christians’ as defined by traditional Christian orthodoxy?,” I was stating the question exactly as it was put to me [by Beliefnet]. The words “as defined by traditional Christian orthodoxy” were part of my assignment, not my imposition.

Well and good—but there is a catch. The catch is that Dr Mohler does not limit himself strictly to that conditional definition. He portrays that criterion as being the soul, legitimate, valid, and objective criterion by which the Christianity of Mormonism (or any other church) can be determined. For example, the title of his first article reads: “Mormonism Is Not Christianity”. No sign of the limited conditionality based on a flawed criterion. The title of his third article reads: “Mormonism Is a Sincerely False Gospel”. Again, no sign of the limited conditionality based on a flawed criterion. He follows that subtle deception throughout his articles. Here are a couple of typical quotes from his first and second articles:

Nevertheless, Mormonism is not Christianity by definition or description.

Of course, the only way we know this is because we do have an objective standard by which to judge what is and is not Christianity, and that is the very “traditional Christian orthodoxy” that Mr. Card and Mormonism reject.

The answer to that is, Who says? Was that decided by Beliefnet too? By what right? Who gave Beliefnet the right to lay down the criterion by which the Christianity of any religion should be determined? Dr Mohler wants to have his cake and eat it. When the arbitrary and flawed nature of his criterion is pointed out to him, he backs off and says, “That wasn’t me, that was Beliefnet!” But when nobody is looking, he portrays it as the soul objective criterion by which the Christianity of a religion can be determined—not a very honest way to debate religion.

Dr Mohler’s arguments against Mormonism are rather primitive and limited, and contain very little that is of any substance. He says that the question was put to him “theologically;” but there is very little of “theological” substance that he puts forward as an argument. Most of his criticisms consist of generalized comments that one cannot respond to except with another generalized comment. Here is a typical example from his second article:

Mormonism uses the language of Christian theology and makes many references to Christ. Mr. Card wants to define Christianity in a most minimal way, theologically speaking. If I were arguing the other side of this question, I would attempt the same. But Christianity has never been defined in terms of merely thinking well of Jesus. Mormonism claims to affirm the New Testament teachings about Jesus, but actually presents a very different Jesus from the onset. A reading of Mormonism’s authoritative documents makes this clear.

Well, it is impossible to argue against that (in the same amount of space at least), except by making another generalized statement of the same length to the contrary, which would not be very enlightening to anybody.

The paucity of any solid arguments that he brings against Mormonism, however, also makes it an easy subject for rebuttal. His entire arguments in the three articles that he has put forward can be summarized in just a couple of short sentences, as follows:

1. Mormonism is not Christian because it does not conform to the standard of “historical Christian orthodoxy” (as he chooses to define it himself).

2. For a theological justification he merely cites LDS rejection of the historical Christian doctrine of the Trinity and the nature of Christ, without offering anything by way of detailed theological analysis or discussion.

That is easy to answer. In response to the first objection my answer is, What he calls “Christian orthodoxy” I call Apostate Christianity; and Apostate Christianity cannot provide the standard by which to measure true Christianity. The LDS Church teaches that historical Christianity is Apostate. It went into Apostasy in the first century; and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the Restoration of the original and true form of Christianity. Apostate Christianity cannot by any stretch of the imagination provide the yardstick with which to measure true Christianity. Some other criterion would have to be used that could be acceptable to both sides.

As for his criticism of the LDS rejection of traditional Trinitarianism, that has already been addressed and discussed hundreds of times. The most recent example I can think of is the address given by LDS Apostle Elder Jeffrey R Holland in the October 2007 General Conference entitled: “The Only True God and Jesus Christ Whom He Hath Sent”. In this sermon Elder Holland makes a convincing case for the separate identity of the members of the Trinity or the Godhead, which is the LDS theological position. If Dr Mohler is a serious theologian, let him rebut that, instead of making generalized attacks on Mormonism which cannot be pinned down to anything.

For the remainder of this post I am going to quote selected passages from Mohler’s three articles which require special comments, and briefly comment on them:

From his first article.

Once that is made clear, the answer is inevitable. Furthermore, the answer is made easy, not only by the structure of Christian orthodoxy (a structure Mormonism denies) but by the central argument of Mormonism itself—that the true faith was restored through Joseph Smith in the nineteenth century in America and that the entire structure of Christian orthodoxy as affirmed by the post-apostolic church is corrupt and false.

What does he mean by “the structure of Christian orthodoxy”? There is no such thing. There are a thousand and one Christian churches in the world, each of whom have their own “structure”—and each claims to be the right one. There is no such thing even as a “Christian orthodoxy,” never mind its “structure”.

Mormonism rejects Christian orthodoxy as the very argument for its own existence, and it clearly identifies historic Christianity as a false faith.

Not true. That is not the theological position of Mormonism. We believe that historical Christianity was able to generate genuine faith in Christ; and all such as have believed and lived by the commandments will be saved. We believe that historical Christianity contains many gospel truths, but also errors. We believe that as the result of the Apostasy the priesthood authority of it was lost, but not its ability to generate saving faith in Christ (see 3 Nephi 16:6–7; D&C 10:53–56).

Contemporary Mormonism presents the Book of Mormon as “another testament of Jesus Christ,” but the Jesus of the Book of Mormon is not the only begotten Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, or the one through whose death on the cross we can be saved from our sins.

That is an utter falsehood and a blatant lie. Mohler claims that he has read the Book of Mormon, and I believe him. Anybody who has read the Book of Mormon will know that that is not true. Here is a link to search results for the word “Christ” in the Book of Mormon. It finds all the recorded instances of it, and quotes the verses in which they occur. The reader can judge for himself the truth of Mohler’s assertion.

Normative Christianity is defined by the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the other formulas of the doctrinal consensus.

The LDS Church would not have any problems with the Apostles’ Creed. It is with the councilor creeds that the theological problems begin to arrise. The Apostles’ Creed was not written by the church councils. It dates back to the obscure history of early Christianity, and its teachings are acceptable to LDS.

From his second article.

At the same time, I was glad the question was asked in this manner, for it is the only way I can provide an answer that matters. The question could surely be asked in other ways and we could attempt to define Christianity in terms of sociology, phenomenology, the history of religions, or any number of other disciplines. In any of these cases, someone with specific training in these fields should provide the argument.

The question could simply refer to common opinion—do people on the street believe that Mormonism is Christianity? But then the matter would be in better hands among the pollsters.

In any event, the question was framed theologically, and it was framed by Beliefnet in terms of “traditional Christian orthodoxy.” With the question structured that way, the answer is clear and unassailable—Mormonism is not Christianity. When the question is framed this way, Mr. Card and I actually agree, as his essay makes clear.

That is a bit disingenuous. There is another criterion that can be used to determine the Christianity of Mormonism, acceptable to both sides, that Mohler knows about but chooses to ignore—that is the Bible. That is the criterion that the Protestant Reformers used during the Reformation to challenge Catholicism. “Christian orthodoxy” was not the criterion that was used—for a good reason. At that time the Catholic Church owned “Christian orthodoxy,” whichever way you wanted to define it! The Protestant Reformers would not have stood a chance if they wanted to use that as their criterion; therefore Sola Scriptura became the order of the day. Now with Mormonism, Sola Scriptura seems to have gone out of fashion, or conveniently forgotten about; and “Christian orthodoxy” become suddenly fashionable! Very convenient! If Beliefnet is willing to extend to me the invitation, I am willing to challenge Dr Mohler to a debate on Mormonism based on the Bible as the criterion. Let’s see if they will accept!

Nevertheless, if I were a Mormon arguing that Mormonism is Christianity, I would be very reluctant to suggest that those I am seeking to persuade should read the Book of Mormon. Nothing will more quickly reveal the distance between Mormon theology and historic Christianity.

For his information, the Book of Mormon is the greatest conversion tool of Mormonism, with the possible exception of the Joseph Smith Testimony.

Mormons want their religion to be seen as another form of Christianity. In other words, they want to identify with what from their inception they sought to deny.

Wrong! Mormons want their religion to be seen as a Restoration of the original and true form of Christianity; not as another form of Apostate Christianity.

“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints,” as Mormonism is officially known, claims to be the only true church. As stated in the Doctrine and Covenants [1:30], Mormonism is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth.”

Dr Mohler does say some true things about Mormonism on rare occasions (not intentionally I am sure!) and this is one of them.

According to Mormon teaching, the church was corrupted after the death of the apostles and became the “Church of the Devil.”

False! That is not the position of the LDS Church, as explained above. There is such a thing as the church of the devil; but that is not how it is defined in LDS theology. It is defined as follows:

2 Nephi 10:

16 Wherefore, he that fighteth against Zion, both Jew and Gentile, both bond and free, both male and female, shall perish; for they are they who are the whore of all the earth; for they who are not for me are against me, saith our God.

“Whore of all the earth” is euphemism for the church of the devil. Thus “church of the devil” consists of those only who fight against Zion (meaning the true Church of God), not just to anybody who is a Christian of some other denomination.

Mormonism then claims that the true church was restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith in the 1820s. This restored church was, Mormon theology claims, given the keys to the kingdom and the authority of the only true priesthood.


Why would Mormonism now want to be identified as a form of Christianity, when its central historical claim is that the churches commonly understood to be Christian are part of the Church of the Devil?

Too many falsehoods stuck together. Fact 1: Mormonism sees itself as the Restoration of the original and true from of Christianity; and therefore does not need to seek to identify itself with Apostate Christianity. Fact 2: Mormonism does not see historical Christianity as the church of the devil.

From his third article.

Indeed, the subtitle printed on The Book of Mormon is “Another Testament of Jesus Christ.” A “testament,” that is, other than that accepted by the historic Christian churches.

That is a misstatement of the LDS position. In the Doctrine and Covenants the Restoration is identified as the “new and everlasting covenant”. “Everlasting” means that it is not a “new covenant”. It is the same covenant that was made in ancient times; but it is renewed in our time because of the Apostasy. The Apostasy means that the old covenant was broken. The Restoration means that that old covenant was renewed to us by means of a new dispensation of the gospel. But it is the same old covenant that was renewed. It is not “another covenant”.

Here is the bottom line. As an Evangelical Christian—a Christian who holds to the “traditional Christian orthodoxy” of the Church—I do not believe that Mormonism leads to salvation. To the contrary, I believe that it is a false gospel that, however sincere and kind its adherents may be, leads to eternal death rather than to eternal life.

Misstated. What that means is that as a representative of an apostate Christianity, he has rejected the new dispensation of the gospel in the latter days which is a Restoration of the only and true form of Christianity. There is nothing new about that of course. Apostate religions have always rejected and opposed new dispensations of true religion. The bad news is that it is this rejection of the new dispensation that leads to death and damnation.

And thus I must end where I began. Mormonism is not just another form of Christianity—it is incompatible with “traditional Christian orthodoxy.”

The bottom line is that Mormonism is not another form of Apostate Christianity. It is a Restoration of the original and true form of Christianity. And it certainly is incompatible with Apostate Christianity.

On the subject of the Apostasy, it is worth noting that Mormons were not the first to come up with that idea. The Protestants recognized it first. They also describe it in more or less the same terms. There are two major differences however: (1) In Protestantism the Apostasy takes on a virulent anti-Catholic form, which in the LDS Church it doesn’t. (2) We define the Apostasy mainly in terms of the loss of the priesthood of the Church, which places Protestantism firmly in the same Apostate camp as Catholicism!


Cameron said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

It is disappointing when anyone involved in public discourse immediately questions the sincerity, honesty, or motives of the opposition. That is precisely what you have done. Rather than challenge Mohler on his positions, you attempt to marginalize him by calling into question his motives.

It is wrong when politicians do it during election campaigns, and it is wrong here.

zerinus said...

Sometimes some people knowingly and intentionally use deceptive arguments to achieve their aim. In those situations the only way that one can “challenge them on their position” is to call out their deception. I think that Dr Mohler has brought that on himself.

Anonymous said...

You obviously have no experience in forensic debate. It is never 'necessary' and it is always considered bad form to 'call someone out' regarding their motives or sincerity in public debate. The reality is their motives or sincerity are irrelevant. The only relevant issue is the argument. Is it logical? Cogent? Consistent? If not, why not?

I realize this 'kill the messenger' mentality is standard Mormon procedure. If you cannot destroy the message, denigrate the messenger.

You will be more convincing when you learn to present an argument that stands on its own merits without slandering others in the process.

zerinus said...

I think I destroyed the message. The messenger got destroyed in the process, because he had employed unfair and dishonest tactics.