Saturday, July 21, 2012

Comments on Talking With Mormons by Richard J Mouw: Part II, pp 61–65

This is the second of my posts commenting on some points of interest brought up in Richard Mouw’s interesting new book, Talking With Mormons.

“In talking about the Mormon view of revelation and authority, one point needs to be made clear at the outset. It isn’t just that the Mormons have more revealed books than the rest of us. They do, of course; but to say that doesn’t get to the heart of the issue. The real point is that books are not where the true authority resides for Mormons.

“Evangelical Christians often miss this basic point. We believe in sola scriptura; the “Bible alone” is our supreme authority on the fundamental issues of belief and practice.” (p. 61.)

I have a lexicological problem with the use of the word “authority” in that context. To me the word “authority” means something that has decision making power, and is able to enforce its decisions. The government is an authority, Congress is an authority, the police are an authority, the law courts are authorities. In an ecclesiastical context, in the Catholic Church for example, the Pope is an authority, the Magisterium is an authority, the individual bishops are authorities. In the LDS Church, the Prophet is an authority, the First Presidency is an authority, the Twelve Apostles are authorities, the stake presidents and bishops are authorities. They are all authorities because each, in their respective spheres of influence, have decision making powers, and are able to enforce their decisions. But Protestantism (including Evangelicalism) does not have an authority. They relinquished any semblance of authority when they rebelled against the Catholic Church. The Bible is not an authority, because it has no decision making power, and is not able to enforce its decisions. The Bible is at the mercy of its interpreters. If someone interprets the Bible wrongly, it does not have an independent voice to declare that interpretation to be wrong, and then do something about it. Only a proper “authority” could do that, which both Catholicism and Mormonism posess, and Evangelicalism doesn’t. The Bible (any book in fact, including Mormon scriptures) can serve as an authoritative source of reference; but not as an authority. There is a difference between the two. Protestantism basically does not have an authority, simple as that. They can bash the Bible all they want, but it will never give them even a semblance of authority.

“But in a sense, of course, that’s a little misleading. Back in the 1970s, when evangelicals were passionately debating questions relating to ‘biblical inerrancy,’ James Packer—a theological giant in the evangelical community—gave what was for me a memorable address on biblical authority at a Wheaton College conference. He surprised no one by affirming his own strong support for the idea of biblical inerrancy. But then he went on to remind us all that holding to an inerrant Bible by itself doesn’t guarantee orthodoxy. We must, Packer said, be clear about the fact that the Bible points us to God’s supreme revelation in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

“What has stuck in my mind is the way Professor Packer illustrated his point. He quoted from the hymn ‘Break Thou the Bread of Life’: ‘Beyond the sacred page, I seek Thee, Lord.’ In our devotion to the authoritative written Word, Packer said, we must always allow it to point us to the worship and service of the Living Word.” (pp. 61–62.)

Agreed; but the Bible accomplishes that by providing us with a theological framework in which Jesus can be known, worshipped, served, and obeyed. If we get that theological framework wrong, our salvation is not guaranteed. Merely bashing the Bible is no guarantee that we have got that theological framework right. That is where the authority becomes indispensable. The Bible itself is not the authority, because it can be interpreted in multiple ways. The function of the authority is to inform us which of the possible interpretations is the right one. And as far as I know there are only two churches which make a plausible claim to that authority: the LDS Church and the Catholic Church (one on the basis of continuity, and the other by a Restoration). The Protestant churches cannot, and in fact do not stake a claim to having such an authority. Bashing the Bible gives them no authority.

“For traditional Christianity, then, the Bible’s supreme authority is a ‘pointing’ authority. It points us beyond itself to Jesus Christ, who alone is ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6). When we say that ‘the Bible alone’ is our ultimate authority, we’re insisting that in our efforts to comprehend God’s will for us in Jesus Christ we need a lot of help in understanding the details, and that anything that contradicts what the Bible tells us about God’s plan for the creation has to be ruled out of bounds. This doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from other sources—our intellectual pursuits, our personal experiences, the teachings that come to us from the Christian past—but when such deliverances conflict with what the Bible clearly says to us, the Bible trumps all other sources.” (p. 62.)

That is all well and good; but what if somebody interprets the Bible differently from the way you do? Who is to say that they are wrong, and you are right? This is not an idle or hypothetical question; it is a very practical one. Look at all the splits that have taken place form Protestantism since its inception—all on theological grounds. Who is going to decide which one of them (if any) is the right one?

“For Mormonism, this reliance on writings—sacred “pages”—is secondary. What they see as primary is the office of the prophet. The most important thing to Mormons about their early history isn’t that Joseph Smith dug up the gold plates containing the Book of Mormon in the early decades of the nineteenth century. More importantly, Mormonism teaches that in the person of Joseph Smith the ancient office of prophet was restored.” (pp. 62–63.)

That is generally correct; but there is a subtle nuance here that I think Mouw has missed. It is true that the Prophet is the highest spiritual authority in the Church; but the doctrine or theology of the Church is firmly established in the canonized scriptures of the Church—what we call the standard works. Nothing trumps that—not even the prophet—except when God wants to reveal a new doctrine to the Church. Barring that, the standard works trumps everything, as far as establishing the doctrine of the Church is concerned. Let me explain it another way: Is the prophet capable of making a mistake in doctrine? The answer is Yes. Has it happened in the past? Yes. Is there any authority in the Church that is immune from making a mistake in doctrine? The answer is No; no one is immune from making a mistake in doctrine. Are ordinary Church members entitled to be able to detect such mistakes in doctrine when they are made (by anyone), and not be misled by them? The answer to that is Yes, they are. But two conditions must be fulfilled before they can do that: (1) they must be genuine students of the scriptures, and (2) they must have the gift of the Holy Ghost. A Church member thus equipped is thus immunized against being misled by anyone making a mistake in doctrine. Thus the standard works trumps everything as far as determining the doctrine of the Church is concerned. The Prophet has to stick to that standard as much as anybody else. Once something is canonized and becomes part of the standard works, it trumps everything, and becomes binding on the whole Church as the standard of doctrine and orthodoxy. So there is a strong element of sola scriptura in Mormonism; but it works differently from the way it is envisaged in Protestantism. Here are some statements from LDS leaders in affirmation of what was said above:

“If anyone, regardless of his position in the Church, were to advance a doctrine that is not substantiated by the standard Church works, meaning the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price, you may know that his statement is merely his private opinion. The only one authorized to bring forth any new doctrine is the President of the Church, who, when he does, will declare it as revelation from God, and it will be so accepted by the Council of the Twelve and sustained by the body of the Church. And if any man speak a doctrine which contradicts what is in the standard Church works, you may know by that same token that it is false and you are not bound to accept it as truth.” (Harold B. Lee, European Area Conference of the Church, Munich, Germany, 1973)

“If it is not in the standard works, we may well assume that it is speculation, man’s own personal opinion; and if it contradicts what is in the scripture, it is not true. This is the standard by which we measure all truth.” (Harold B. Lee, 11th President, Improvement Era, January 1969 p.13)

“It makes no difference what is written or what anyone has said, if what has been said is in conflict with what the Lord has revealed, we can set it aside. My words, and the teachings of any other member of the Church, high or low, if they do not square with the revelations, we need not accept them. Let us have this matter clear. We have accepted the four standard works as the measuring yardsticks, or balances, by which we measure every man’s doctrine.

“You cannot accept the books written by the authorities of the Church as standards in doctrine, only in so far as they accord with the revealed word in the standard works.” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, Vol. 3, pp. 203-04)

“For the followers of Joseph Smith, the religious movement that he had established was a restoring of something that had long been lost. And it wasn’t just the finding of an ancient book along with the adding of some new books. It was the restoration of the kind of heavenly visitations that occurred in ancient times.” (p. 63.)

That is quite correct of course; but subject to the proviso mentioned above. The prophet’s authority is not whimsical. It is not willy-nilly. Once the word of the Lord has been given, and canonized, he is as much bound by that revelation as anybody else in the Church is. The house of the Lord is a house of order, not a house of confusion.

“There were times in Old Testament history when godly people had no authoritative book to rely on in understanding the will of God. Noah, Abraham, Moses—none of these had anything like the Bible. God spoke directly to them. Similarly, in the New Testament and the early church, there was much reliance on oral tradition—the memories of what Jesus had taught and done, and later the memories of the teachings of the apostles.

“There came a point, though, when these testimonies were written down; and eventually those writings that the church came to see as supremely authoritative became—in the forming of ‘the canon’—our Bible. Christians became a ‘people of the Book’.” (p. 63.)

Mormons of course have different ideas about that. We know from modern revelation that prophets of the Lord in ancient times have been commanded to keep sacred records since the time of Adam. The antediluvians had sacred records which were preserved by Noah and his posterity. The Jaredites mentioned in the Book of Mormon had a copy of that record which they took with them across the sea to their promised land. Abraham and the patriarchs no doubt had copies of those records—as well as keeping records of their own. And what is more, the Lord has promised that all of those ancient records will one day be restored to the Church.

“Mormons insist on going ‘behind’ the process that produced ‘the Book.’ What matters about the Bible is that it contains the teachings that had come directly from God to apostles and prophets. And now, they argue, the prophetic office has been restored. This means that ‘the canon’ isn’t ‘closed.’ Revelations continue. What binds together the Bible, then, with the Book of Mormon, the Doctrines and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price, and any new authoritative deliverances from the continuing line of the true prophets is that they receive their authority from the fact that they come to us from those who have occupied—and continue to occupy—the office of the prophet.” (pp. 63–64.)

That is correct of course, but subject to the provisos mentioned above.

“I was attending a meeting between several evangelical pastors and some LDS church leaders. After a lengthy discussion of the issues of authority and revelation, we paused to give our impressions of what had transpired. One of the evangelicals offered this assessment. He told the LDS participants how much be admired them, and how much he appreciated the friendliness and candor with which they had presented their views. ‘The very fact that I have such a positive view of you folks as individuals,’ he said, ‘makes it very difficult to tell you how grieved I am because of what you’ve been saying. You talk with such sincerity about Christ as the only Savior, and about his atoning work on Calvary. But I simply cannot take what you say about such things at face value. I believe that the Bible alone is our authority. Anyone who adds to the biblical message is openly rejecting what the Bible says about itself. The Christ that you’re talking about cannot be the Jesus of the Word of God. Your so-called Gospel is a false Gospel and your Christ is a pseudo-Christ. I can only plead with you in love: cast away these false revelations and accept the pure teachings of the Bible as God’s Word!’” (pp. 64–65.)

There is an answer to that. It is not as though Mormons are completely helpless and tongue-tied in the face of such a charge. The answer to it is given by the Lord in the following verses:

D&C 84:

42 And wo unto all those who come not unto this priesthood which ye have received, which I now confirm upon you who are present this day, by mine own voice out of the heavens; and even I have given the heavenly hosts and mine angels charge concerning you.

63 And as I said unto mine apostles, even so I say unto you, for you are mine apostles, even God’s high priests; ye are they whom my Father hath given me; ye are my friends;
64 Therefore, as I said unto mine apostles I say unto you again, that every soul who believeth on your words, and is baptized by water for the remission of sins, shall receive the Holy Ghost.

74 Verily, verily, I say unto you, they who believe not on your words, and are not baptized in water in my name, for the remission of their sins, that they may receive the Holy Ghost, shall be damned, and shall not come into my Father's kingdom where my Father and I am.
75 And this revelation unto you, and commandment, is in force from this very hour upon all the world, and the gospel is unto all who have not received it.

The hard truth is that early Christianity apostatized in the first century; and the LDS Church is a Restoration of the original and true Christian Church. No one can wilfully and knowingly reject its message of the Restoration and be approved of God in the day of judgement. And special “woes” have been pronounced on those who reject its message in order to “build up churches unto themselves to get gain” (D&C 10:56), or to “become popular in the eyes of the world” (1 Nephi 22:23) etc. They will be damned; and where God and Christ are they will not come, according to the declaration of the Lord.

“Like that pastor, I too care deeply about ‘the Bible alone’ as our supreme authority. And like him, I worry greatly about wanting to add to the contents of the Scriptures with new ‘revelations.’ But for all of that, I don’t come to the same harsh depiction of the Mormon Christ as a ‘pseudo-Christ.’

“For one thing, in the conversation that we’d been having in this meeting, our Mormon friends didn’t say anything about Jesus and his atoning work that contradicted anything in the Bible. Indeed, more often than not, they had actually quoted passages from the New Testament. When they did go beyond biblical appeals to quote from the Book of Mormon, the things they cited said pretty much the same thing that you can find in the Bible.

“I’ve had many hours of discussion of such matters with Mormons, and they’ve never said in my hearing that their later ‘revelations’ in any way corrected anything in the Bible. Instead, the additional Mormon scriptures are always treated as further elaborations upon—extensions of, supplements to—the contents of the Bible. I may disagree with them on how they understand the relationship of ‘later’ to ‘earlier’; but in fairness to the Mormons, they don’t talk as if the newer revelations somehow supersede the older ones.” (p. 65.)

His integrity and willingness to acknowledge the truth in the face of opposition is worthy of commendation.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Comments on Talking With Mormons by Richard J Mouw: Part I, pp. 57–60

Richard Mouw’s recent book, Talking With Mormons, is addressed mainly to Evangelicals, but it also has its interest for Mormons. In this, and possibly other articles I will be commenting on some of the points of interest that he has raised.

“In my theology, at the heart of it all is the need for rescue from our sinful condition. We’re lost sinners, rebels against God. And we’re so enmeshed in our sinful rebellion that we can’t get out of the mess by our own efforts. We need a Savior. And God has provided one in the person of Jesus Christ. ‘While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8). Wonderful news!

“When I talk about all of that with my Mormon friends, many of them—scholars and church leaders—agree. And I take their agreement as a wonderful sign. But for me the next question is, Given that we agree that we’re sinners desperately in need of divine rescue, what kind of Savior would it take to save us? What does Jesus Christ need to be like in his own ‘being’ in order to accomplish salvation for the likes of us?

“And this is where it gets interesting. Is the gap between human unworthiness and divine mercy that seems to be implicit in so many of Mormonism’s own formulations of the human predicament and the greatness of salvation—is that gap capable of being explained adequately by a theology in which the God who saves and the humans who receive that gracious salvation are ‘of the same species’ ontologically?” (pp. 57–58.)

The answer is no, it isn’t. I am not in favor of using nonstandard (i.e. non-scriptural) terms to define Mormon doctrine—if it can at all be avoided. I have as much difficulty with the word “species” in this context as he does. I don’t know where it comes from, and I feel under no obligation to accept it. I think that our friend Richard Mouw has been ill served by his Mormon scholar-friends if they have been imposing that kind of terminology on him. The word does not occur in Mormon revelation, and I don’t really know what it is supposed to mean in that context. I consider myself an informed Mormon, and I don’t accept that God and man are “of the same species”—if for no other reason than because I have no idea what that is supposed to mean. Scriptural words tend to be self-defining in theological terms. They are defined by the context in which they occur. Non-scriptural words are not so defined, and therefore need to be very precisely defined before being used—and therefore preferably avoided when possible. That is my biggest problem with the use of that term theologically to define the relationship of man to God.

Perhaps what those who have been using such terms have been trying to do (in a sloppy and superficial way) is to narrow the gap between God and man by capturing in their own words the essence of scriptures such as the following:

John 20:

17 Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.

Hebrews 2:

10 For it became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.
11 For both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren,
12 Saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee.

Luke 13:

32 And he said unto them, . . . Behold, I cast out devils, and I do cures to day and to morrow, and the third day I shall be perfected.

Colossians 1:
15 Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature:

Revelation 3:

14 And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God;
Perhaps at this point it is worth turning the question around, and asking Richard Mouw how he (and other Evangelicals) understands those scriptures. Do these scriptures tend to “narrow the gap” between God and man in any degree? If not, why not? And if yes, how would he define that narrowing of the gap, without using such crude terminology as belonging to the same “species”?
“Note that in posing these questions to my Mormon friends, I’m not meaning to question the sincerity of their professions of faith in the saving power of Jesus Christ. What I’m asking them is what I take it the Princeton theologian Charles Hodge would have wanted to ask of his liberal counterpart Friedrich Schleiermacher: Given your obviously sincere love of the Savior in whom you’re trusting for your salvation, is the theology that you teach capable of sustaining that trust?” (p. 58.)

The answer is yes, it does. That is because the theology I teach is derived from Mormon revelation and Mormon scripture, not from Mormon “scholars”. My theology of the Atonement is defined (among others) by the following verses:

2 Nephi 9:

7 Wherefore, it must needs be an infinite atonement—save it should be an infinite atonement this corruption could not put on incorruption. Wherefore, the first judgment which came upon man must needs have remained to an endless duration. And if so, this flesh must have laid down to rot and to crumble to its mother earth, to rise no more.

2 Nephi 25:

16 . . . believe in Christ, the Son of God, and the atonement, which is infinite for all mankind . . .

Alma 34:

10 For it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice; yea, not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast, neither of any manner of fowl; for it shall not be a human sacrifice; but it must be an infinite and eternal sacrifice.
11 Now there is not any man that can sacrifice his own blood which will atone for the sins of another. Now, if a man murdereth, behold will our law, which is just, take the life of his brother? I say unto you, Nay.
12 But the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered; therefore there can be nothing which is short of an infinite atonement which will suffice for the sins of the world.
13 Therefore, it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice, and then shall there be, or it is expedient there should be, a stop to the shedding of blood; then shall the law of Moses be fulfilled; yea, it shall be all fulfilled, every jot and tittle, and none shall have passed away.
14 And behold, 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.

Mosiah 15:

1 And now Abinadi said unto them: I would that ye should understand that God himself shall come down among the children of men, and shall redeem his people.

Now that is genuine Mormon doctrine! Of this “infinite atonement” Elder Russell M. Nelson has said the following:

“In preparatory times of the Old Testament, the practice of atonement was finite—meaning it had an end. It was a symbolic forecast of the definitive Atonement of Jesus the Christ. His Atonement is infinite—without an end. It was also infinite in that all humankind would be saved from never-ending death. It was infinite in terms of His immense suffering. It was infinite in time, putting an end to the preceding prototype of animal sacrifice. It was infinite in scope—it was to be done once for all. And the mercy of the Atonement extends not only to an infinite number of people, but also to an infinite number of worlds created by Him. It was infinite beyond any human scale of measurement or mortal comprehension.
“Jesus was the only one who could offer such an infinite atonement, since He was born of a mortal mother and an immortal Father. Because of that unique birthright, Jesus was an infinite Being.” Source.

I wonder if there is an Evangelical formulation of the theology of the Atonement that is equally authoritative or comprehensive. The word “species” does not seem to fit into that language. Does that theology sustain that “trust”? I think that it does. I think that Mouw would agree that it does. I am sure that he will be pleased to know that sola scriptura works in Mormonism too!

“Now, my second focus: the relationship between the classic creeds and the development of doctrine.

“The reason why the Christian church of the fourth century had to say something about the “being” of Christ was that disagreements had arisen that simply had to be adjudicated if there was to be a clear and commonly accepted understanding of what it means for Jesus to be the One who ‘for us and for our salvation . . . came down from heaven,’ as the Nicene Creed puts it. And while the Latter-day Saints presently exempt themselves from that consensus—sticking with, as we saw John Welch putting it, ‘the pure and simple spirit that had prevailed in the apostolic era’— . . .” (p. 58.)

That in itself raises the question of what is the “pure and simple spirit that had prevailed in the apostolic era,” and how do you recognize it? Does the (sometimes questionable) world of “Mormon scholarship” in which Professor Welch swims represent that “pure and simple spirit that had prevailed in the apostolic era”? I am not so sure.

“. . . it will be interesting to see what happens when the LDS leadership decides that this “pure and simple spirit” is being violated in various Mormon expressions about the person and work of Christ.

“My own prediction is that as the scholarly study of Mormon doctrine continues to grow in impressive ways, the need for new doctrinal decisions will become pressing. As Mormonism’s younger generation becomes increasingly well educated and well versed in the various strands of religious thought in the larger culture, new challenges to standard Mormon teachings will inevitably emerge.” (pp. 58–59.)

The Lord has outlined a procedure to be followed when a theological dispute or controversy arises in the Church:

D&C 102:

23 In case of difficulty respecting doctrine or principle, if there is not a sufficiency written to make the case clear to the minds of the council, the president may inquire and obtain the mind of the Lord by revelation.

In other words, at first recourse should be made to what has already been revealed (i.e. existing scripture). If that proves insufficient, then recourse can be made to the second option—obtaining further knowledge by direct revelation from the Lord. In historical Christianity (e.g. at the Council of Nicaea), they only had the first option available to them, not the second. They did the best that they could with the option that was available to them. And their best efforts should not be a source of derision among Latter-day Saints—especially given that their own track record in dealing with doctrinal controversies in the Church has not been impressive. In the LDS Church in its past history, when doctrinal issues have arisen, the procedure outlined above has not always been followed as it should have been, and the opportunity to receive important doctrinal revelations for the Church at important junctures in its history has been missed. But that was an aberration of the past, which hopefully will not be repeated in the future.

“A case in point: as I was writing about these matters I read an issue of the ‘progressive’ Mormon magazine, Sunstone, in which there was a report about a discussion group that had met in a Phoenix home on an evening in October 2009. The writer was himself a participant, and he described with some enthusiasm the range of views represented in the group, which he characterized as a gathering of ‘misfit Mormons.’ The intellectual ‘tent was certainly large that evening,’ he wrote: ‘Internet Mormons, Chapel Mormons, Ex-Mormons, Post Mormons, Feminist Mormons, Gay Mormons’—and even, he says, ‘a couple of Catholics thrown in to add some diversity.’

“As a longtime subscriber to Sunstone, I could have recommended some of Sunstone’s other writers to add yet more diversity to the mix: Jungian Mormons, Deconstructionist Mormons, Process Theology Mormons, Mormons who sneak off to Anglican services, and so on.” (p. 59.)

I don’t think that that kind of opinionizations will ever have a serious impact on the direction and course of the development of LDS doctrine.

“The very existence of an increasingly expanding Mormon intellectual ‘tent’ is a relatively new phenomenon. It’s not unthinkable that there may come a time when the LDS church is faced with the need to establish boundaries in how the faithful are to understand—to make clear sense of—‘the pure and simple spirit that had prevailed in the apostolic era.’ My hunch is that when that happens, it will be very much like a ‘Nicene moment’ for Mormonism.

“The possibility that such a moment may be comming is, as I see it, a good reason for some of us evangelicals to be around in the hope of being able to join in that conversation!” (pp. 59–60.)

“Nicene moments” (though not as dramatic) has arisen in the LDS Church in the past, and may arise in the future; but its outcome will be determined by following the procedure outlined by the Lord in D&C 102:23.