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