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.

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