Even if Mormons are lost sheep, Aren’t Evangelicals like sheep on a leash?

I have been following with interest C.Michael Patton’s discussion of why he is not a Charismatic on his blog Parchment and Pen.  I don’t know anything about the author of the blog but I find the subject both new and interesting to me from a Mormon pespective. 

One of the arguments Patton puts forward that there are no longer spiritual gifts such as speaking tongues and prophecy, is that early and later church fathers didn’t think that such things. 

He explains in his post Why I am not a Charismatic Part 5: An argument from history: 

Notice what John Chrysostom (347-407), the great Antiochean exegete, says when he comes to 1 Cor. 12 about spiritual gifts.

“This whole place is very obscure . . . but the obscurity is produced by our ignorance of the facts referred to and by their cessation, being such as then used to occur, but now no longer take place.” (ECF

Chrysostom is “ignorant” of the facts because of his experience of their “cessation.” He is not living in the time of a charismatic controversy, he is just stating the way things were in his day, just a few centuries after the last Apostle died. He is a de facto cessationist. If the gifts were still being practiced in his day, the implication is that he would have been able to explain to his listeners what these gifts were. But since they had ceased, he does not know how to explain this passage.

The same can be said of the great St. Augustine (354-430). Notice what he says when it comes to the gift of tongues.

“In the earliest time the Holy Ghost fell upon them that believed: and they spoke with tongues which they had not learned ‘as the Spirit gave them utterance.’ These were signs adapted to the time. For it was proper for the Holy Spirit to evidence Himself in all tongues, and to show that the Gospel of God had come to all tongues [languages] over the whole earth. The thing was done for an authentication and it passed away.” (Ten Homilies on the first Epistle of John VI, 10).

Augustine limits the practice of the charismaton (particularly tongues) to the “earliest time.” Augustine believed that these were “signs adapted to the time.” The adaptation has to do with the necessity of authenticating the Gospel message. While Augustine gives more of a theological explanation for their supposed passing, he still seems to be a de facto cessationist. If you were to ask Augustine “How do you know these gifts ‘passed away,’” my guess is that he would simply say “Because they passed away. Because no one has them anymore!”

This early church de facto cessationism is not unlike the canon of Scripture. Why has the canon “closed”? Because God stopped inspiring writers to add to it. It is that simple. It is a de facto closing. Sure, some could provide a theological explanation as to why the canon closed (i.e. the fullness of time, the finality of Christ’s revelation, the completion of soteriological history, etc.), but the fact is the reason why people believe that the canon had closed was because it had closed. No inspired verified prophet or apostle was adding to it.


Mormons would refer to this lack of “verfied prophets” as evidence of the Great Apostacy. Leaving aside the argument of whether it is any such thing, I think it raises a compelling argument to those Evangelicals who do believe modern day prophecy is possible and happening:   

If God is still speaking, why shouldn’t the canon be open, why can’t people now explain doctrine as well as Paul did? (a man who never met Jesus and knew him personally only through his claimed visions of the risen Christ). 

It seems to me that you either believe that men like Paul could be around today or you don’t.  If you do, then you should be open to considering what they reveal to be scripture.  If you don’t then you are left with no one to guide you out of the possible pitfalls of the limited bible. 

This exposes one of the problems of considering the Bible the infalliable or inerrent standard for anything about God.  Ultimately the conventional interpretations become completely intractable doctrine, along with any possible mistakes made by the ancient authors or subsequent scribes and editors.

Here is a stylized hypothetical scenerio that shows the problem I am attempting to describe: 

  • Biblical author writes proposition A. 
  • Proposition A is basically true but is only truly understood in light of a belief in Proposition B. 
  • Proposition B is not found in the biblical text simply because the Bible is not an exhaustive theological treatise and we can assume much more was written and said about the religion of Jesus by his apostles. 
  • Without a belief in proposition B, a reader is likely to think that Proposition C must follow from proposition A. 
  • Proposition C makes Proposition B appear false or heretical. 
  • Those who believe only in the current Bible, are left unable to accept the true Proposition B over the false Proposition C.

Frankly, given the wide range of interpretations and unanswered questions that scripture raises, It seems to me that in order to believe that the Bible is all that it is cracked up to be, you have to believe that there is yet a lot more to be said.  Unless there are current authoritative sources to fill in gaps, there seems a high probability that the current bible could lead people astray

In order to combat the consequences of scenerios like this, Evangelicals and other believers in sola  scriptura  have concocted implausible and ultimately unsupportable theories that the current Bible was essentialy edited by unseen forces to be whole, inerrent, and complete rather than a document shaped by the the accidents of history and human intervention that are surely shaped by a good measure of human falliability.  I think its easier to believe that Jesus rose from the dead than believe that those that wrote about it got all of the facts right without injecting ANY errors of doctrine. 

Indeed the author of the last verse  of the Gospel of John admits that that Gospel was only the tip of the iceberg: 

 John 21:25 Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.

I say unsupportable because I think that there is no compelling argument, either from the text of the bible, or from history or archeology that would suggest that the bible we have now was meant to be  the only authoritave teaching on theology that should supercede all other teachings.   (Most christians don’t even accept the sola scriptuar arguments and often consider extra-biblical tradition and contemporary teachings as authoritative as well. )

This leads me to think Evangelicals and other sola scriptorians (is that a term?) are in a bit of a dilemma:

  • They either have to accept the cessationist arguments that prophecy does not happen, leaving them to the necessarily incomplete (and possibly misleading) teachings of the Bible or
  •  they believe that prophecy does currently exist but leaving them unable to accept true prophecy that may lead them in a direction that is not spoken of in the bible we have. 

To use a well-worn analogy, Sola Scriptura seems to be like a tether around the sheep’s neck that would prevent from following a new benevolent shepherd very far (or even recognizing that a new shepherd is possible). 

Of course these arguments are completely independent of whether Joseph Smith or Thomas Monson are such shepherds, but it seems to me that in order to avoid pitfalls you need a way to determine true prophets that goes beyond biblical scrutiny.


18 thoughts on “Even if Mormons are lost sheep, Aren’t Evangelicals like sheep on a leash?

  1. Jared C said:

    … but it seems to me that in order to avoid pitfalls you need a way to determine true prophets that goes beyond biblical scrutiny.

    That’s one reason that they have the creeds. Although Protestants as a rule claim that they believe in the Bible only, and tend to discount the role of tradition in, say, Catholicism, in fact the creeds become something of a test of orthodoxy.

    I am not saying that’s bad. In fact, there’s nothing in the Apostles’ Creed that I disagree with (not so with later creeds). But I don’t see how, for example, you could believe in the Bible alone and independently arrive at a doctrine such as that of the Trinity. (I don’t believe the traditional doctrine is inconsistent with the Bible, but I don’t believe it’s the only understanding of the Godhead that is consistent with the Bible either.) And many other Protestant beliefs (some of which are shared with Mormons, BTW, so I’m not criticizing the beliefs themselves) are also not clearly and unequivocally taught in the Bible. (An example would be on the origin of Satan, the biblical passages concerning which are ambiguous at best.)

    So what happens? One is that the creeds become a measuring stick, and that’s why (for example) certain churches, such as the CoJCoLDS and the United Pentecostal Church, are not seen as fully Christian. Another is that churches coalesce around someone they believe has done a good job of interpreting the Bible — there are denominations that follow the teachings of Luther, for example, or Calvin or Wesley or Smyth. (In modern evangelicalism, there seems to be more coalescing around things such as worship styles and perhaps less around doctrine. And some churches seem to be more personality-driven than theology-driven. But that’s a whole other subject.)

    I’m not saying this is bad; anyone who knows me knows that I can find plenty to both criticize and praise about Mormons as well as Protestants. But I do think many Protestants are deceiving themselves if they say that their beliefs are based on the Bible alone. They aren’t.

  2. Yes, we are tethered to the Bible. I think we make it abundantly clear that we think it’s important to be found safely in the confines of what the Bible clearly teaches. There are after all, wolves that like to masquerade.

    The teachings and actions of men like Joseph Smith only convince us all the more that it’s the right thing to do. Yes, there are things we do not know. That doesn’t mean every “answer” is trustworthy.

    But let’s be honest. You’re throwing stones from a glass house. Mormons aren’t any less untethered than Protestants. You’re just tethered to something different; the hierarchy of the LDS church. If a true prophet doesn’t happen to be the longest serving member of the Quorum of 12, your church is more than likely going to ignore his teachings as well. If that prophet’s teachings make the Quorum uncomfortable, then they just excommunicate him. Perhaps Margaret Toscano was a true prophet that was treated by her religious establishment the same way Jesus was.

    As far as prophecy goes. . . . I am quite open to modern day prophets. After Hurricane Katrina I heard of a prophecy made in New Orleans beforehand that was quite specific and convincing (albeit 3rd hand by the time I heard it). I believe the gifts of the Holy Spirit are still available (though I’m cautious about them). BUT they all must conform to what we already know to be true. They may tell us something new, they can’t tell us something different. I’m highly suspect of prophesies for the entire church since all the Apostles are dead and no one holds their authority.

    Also it should be recognized that the kind of prophecy found in the Bible often has nothing to do with new revelations or future telling.

    For another take than Pen and Parchment about the gifts of the Spirit I would recommend Surprised by the Power of the Spirit. It’s written by former professor at Dallas Theological Seminary which is the last bastion of cessasionism.

  3. Tim,

    I agree that there must be some sort of tether. The question is, should the leash be the accidental leftovers of the ancient church or, as mormons nominally advocate, the current power of the spirit to reveal all truth. Of course these questions come back to my underlying concerns with how scripture is made and an intelligible method of understanding what is a true vs. a false prophet.

    I think in practice it all gets pretty messy and organizations impose their own unbiblical, unspirital constraints in order to make things easier and more orderly. My hope is that LDS leaders can follow the spirit over their bueracracy, convention, or politics. I doubt that this happens in most cases. People are people and it is the nature and disposition of almost all people to diverge from the difficult path of the Spirit and Christianity as soon as they get a bit of authority (as they suppose). Mormons are fooling themselves if they think General Authorities, Bishops, etc. are immune to this basic disposition.

    Perhaps the most impressive thing I have heard from a General Authority (in private) was his reaction to an objection by a stake president that his proposed action did not follow the church manual. He replied that the Spirit overrides every law. I would hope that if a prophet arose outside the current line of succession to the presidency that the leaders would recognize the Spirit leading them to “promote” him to leadership. I am not sure that this happens all of the time. I think that there needs to be an acknowledgment that although some imposed order is needed, we should not pharasaically seek creeds, rules, doctrines when they are not absolutely necessary. We need to be open to casting aside the parts of the rules we use to artificially hold us together when the Spirit demands.

    So, I will throw the stone in the air and see where it comes down, even if it cracks some Mormons’ view of their church. However, I think the reason many Christians are attracted to Mormonism is that it fills the gaping holes left by the Bible and avoids the problem with settling for what the Catholic Church happened to be able preserve of the undoubtably richer and more multi-layered teachings and practices of Jesus and the early apostles.

    “Also it should be recognized that the kind of prophecy found in the Bible often has nothing to do with new revelations or future telling.”

    So you are saying that biblical-type prophecy has ceased but other stuff is still around?

  4. So you are saying that biblical-type prophecy has ceased but other stuff is still around?

    No what I’m saying is exhortation and rebuke are overlooked when people look for prophets.

  5. “exhortation and rebuke are overlooked”

    Nicely said. Made me think of the people taunting Jesus, telling him to “prophesy, prophesy!”

  6. The Mormon response, in theory, is that this is precisely why you need modern “verified” prophets, to call people to the carpet, to organize for the second coming etc.

    But, if you are going to have modern prophets, why would you trust translations of edited manuscripts of what prophets wrote a thousands of years ago over the modern stuff?

    tim said:

    “I’m highly suspect of prophesies for the entire church since all the Apostles are dead and no one holds their authority.”

    Why did Paul have more authority than current visionaries simply because he was alive at the time of Jesus? Where is the scripture that says that Paul was the last of a dying breed?

  7. The reason many “Christians” are attracted to Mormonism is because they are not really “Christian” at all, but just professing like so many today. Because they do not have a saving relationship with Christ and are not grounded in the Word of God (indeed, many of them do not even believe it is the inspired, inerrant authoritative Word of God), they are a prime target for every major cult on the go. If you do not know the real deal, how will you recognize what is counterfeit?

  8. Ray,

    Thanks for the comment. I have had my share of experience with people converting to Mormonism as a missionary in Southern California. I saw all kinds all kinds of people interested in the church and all kinds making lifelong commitments, from an 75 year old pentecostal who spoke in tongues at her baptism to 25 year old catholic graduate students, to middle aged hard-shelled southern baptists. A lot of these people joined the church to get closer to the Christ that they grew up with in other churches, because they saw a direct similarity or connection between Mormon spiritual experience and those they had in other churches you would consider the “real deal”.

    The point of my post is to attempt to demonstrate that the blind acceptance of Sola Scriptura will necessarily limit your vision from ideas, prophecy and “authoritative” teaching that may be both compatible with the text AND incompatible with Evangelical practice and doctrine. I may be wrong but it seems that your belief in sola scriptura is based on a very elaborate and generally unsupported theory that the Bible was somehow selectively preserved from all possible doctrinal teachings of the early apostles. Something that is generally not inside the biblical text. The text itself says nothing definitive about what should be included in the canon and who has authority. This makes be think that the cessationist position is more congruent with sola scriptura than the charismatic. The existence of ongoing spiritual gifts seems to open the door for authoritative teachings outside the Bible.

    Be aware that you may be protected from “every cult on the go” but you should recognize that this is only because you belong to the “cult of the Bible” something that most Christians do not fully accept.

  9. I’ve always liked what Craig Blomberg argued in the first chapter of How Wide the Divide?. It’s too long to quote at length, but his argument is that the canon is open in theory but closed in practice. Evangelicals could, theoretically, accept a minister or leader as inspired by God and add another book to the Bible, but it would have to be consistent with the rest of the revealed word of God and I’m not sure what else. It would take something amazing to convince the majority of us to add new Scripture. Accepting Joseph Smith as a prophet is difficult for a lot of reasons, but as far as Scripture goes, he left a loophole for contradicting the Bible big enough to drive a truck through with the 8th article of faith.

    I haven’t studied out cessationist arguments or what the early church said about it, so I can’t really comment on that, but I have seen an awful lot of what both modern-day evangelicals and Mormons consider exercise of spiritual gifts. I’m in a strange position in that I believe spiritual gifts exist, but I’m not sure I’ve seen the exercise of a spiritual gift that could not be faked from a skeptic’s perspective.

    Mormons say they practice healing by this priesthood authority we hear so much about. At BYU I had plenty of roommates call the men in our ward for a blessing when they were sick. Funny, none of them ever instantly recovered like in the Bible, they stayed sick for a few days like anyone would. One of them had her childhood cancer return and died. Tongues? We learn languages fast at the MTC. Prophecy? General Conference. Revelation? Come on, has the church really added significant doctrine since the 1840s? The 1890 and 1978 changes were arguably wrought of necessity and hardly ring of revelation. Everything the leaders say at General Conference is just a rehash of established Mormon doctrine, and if you don’t like something a GA says, “well that’s just his opinion.”

    I go to an evangelical church that believes in the spiritual gifts. The leaders make weekly calls for people to come be prayed over for back pain and stomach flu by the laying on of hands, but I haven’t seen anyone healed of a shriveled hand or something quantifiable. Tongues? I’m told some people speak in them, though I’ve never heard an evangelical speak in an actual, known, earthly language they didn’t previously know. Prophecy and revelation? People often speak out in the service with messages they say are from God, usually things straight from the Bible. Don’t like something an evangelical leader says? That’s just his opinion.

    I’ve had friends in both traditions swear to me that they’ve seen truly miraculous things, and I even believe them. But I’ve never seen it, nor have I seen evidence that one group is doing it more often than the other.

    So if modern-day Mormonism is about men giving “just their opinions” on established scriptures, and evangelical Christianity is about men giving “just their opinions” on established scriptures, and we may or may not actually be practicing spiritual gifts, what was the difference between us again?

    Oh yeah. Theology.

    And people wonder why I was fine with marrying a Mormon.

    Sorry my post is so long; I should have just blogged on this myself.

  10. Jack,

    I know the blame-the-members trend in LDS circles annoys some people, but I’m going to say it anyway – I’m just not sure that faith to be healed is really all that strong.

    Remember when Jesus in the New Testament “could perform no miracle there” due to the lack of faith among the people? I honestly think something similar could be argued for modern American society today – including Utah.

    I have heard stories I had no reason to doubt about a poor Polynesian man, blind for 20 years asking one of the elders to heal his eyes and restore his vision with absolute conviction it would happen. His sight was restored.

    I once stood up for testimony meeting and remarked to the audience how I personally had never received an assurance of the truthfulness of all this such that I could say “I know” (among other things). After I sat down, an older gentleman (who I don’t recall ever seeing bear his testimony before) stood up and simply stated how he did “know.” He then firmly spoke of the seriously ill being healed, evil spirits cast out, and even a dead person brought back by the power of the Priesthood.

    I have a pretty strong B.S. o’meter. But I felt like he was telling the truth. He’s not one of the flightier members of our ward.

    I think it does happen in this Church. But I also think that faith is lacking too.

    I know mine is. If that Polynesian man had asked me to restore his sight, it frankly would have scared the crap out of me. I’m not sure I could have done it.

  11. As for prophets having or not having “original material.”

    Peruse the Old Testament sometime, and keep a close track of when a prophet is putting forth original material.

    It’s really not all that often. Unless you count calls for people to repent, it is very rare that the Lord’s prophets unload with some new doctrine. Unless you are in the middle of a watershed period – Like Moses at Sinai, or Jesus and his Apostles, or Joseph Smith – the role of a prophet rarely seems to be one of promulgating new doctrines.

    The one place your critique might stick, is the role of a prophet in prophesying destruction to the people unless they repent.

    Arguable. But I think that modern LDS prophets do actually fill this role. So, there you are, I guess…

  12. Bridget,

    I really like your comment. I think you are right that LDS and Evangelicals are more the same than different.

    I think Seth’s comments support what you are saying too. Even if actual miracles and prophecy do happen, the average believer doesn’t see much of the real stuff and few seem to have the faith to perform miracles. Heaven knows that I don’t have a lot of faith. My BS o’meter is usually on overdrive, skeptically picking almost everything apart (With the possible, unfortunate, exception of what comes out of my mouth), I am open to seeing a miracle or seeing actual revelation, but I have seen the negative effects of believing things to be revealed when they are not.

    Related to the topic of the post you said:

    “Evangelicals could, theoretically, accept a minister or leader as inspired by God and add another book to the Bible, but it would have to be consistent with the rest of the revealed word of God and I’m not sure what else. It would take something amazing to convince the majority of us to add new Scripture.”

    Despite lip service to this theory, in practice the current sola scriptura essentially makes any addition to scripture impossible. This is especially true when it comes to doctrines that could not be found in the Bible that cast new light on what is in the Bible. As my hypothetical illustrates, the “Bible only” approach will nix any possibility of acknowledging extra biblical revelation or authoritative teaching.

  13. Ah, I love how we are all people of faith with heavy skepticism and BS detectors set to high. You guys are good company.

    I’ll get back to you late Saturday or Sunday; I have to go make turning 27 look good.

  14. Seth, you make a good point with Old Testament prophets and original doctrine. I’ll have to do some more thinking and comparing of the Old Testament and what LDS leaders currently say. I suspect that a major difference will be OT prophets making specific predictions of good or bad things happening based on the audience’s reception of the message; I don’t consider myself a sign-seeker but I’ve only seen current LDS prophets predict outcomes in the most general terms. But prophecy of the future is a fickle beast, even in the Bible.

    I’m not so down on the “ye of little faith” thing. Evangelicals had a famous preacher and faith healer named Kenneth Hagin who taught very specifically that it’s God’s will to heal every believer of every sickness or disability they have, and if healing didn’t happen lack of faith was always their excuse (I blogged a bit about my experience with the Hagin ministry here). Of course I believe that there are people who would be healed if not for their lack of faith, the Bible talks about it. I guess I’m just too skeptical about it all. Is it really the lack of faith of the one asking to be healed, or the lack of power of the one doing the healing? No way to be sure.

    I also believe that God sometimes does want someone to be sick or die. This is clearly shown in the story of Lazarus, where Jesus deliberately stays where he is for several days after hearing of Lazarus’s condition and lets him die so that he can perform the miracle of raising him. I’m sure Mary and Martha had faith, but there was nothing they could do to stop their brother from dying. It was God’s will.

    Jared I’m not sure what more I could tell you about the sola scriptura thing. I can only say that, in spite of it being one of Luther’s main teachings, I myself never really think of the Bible as closed because it never says it is closed; I’m never comfortable with telling God what He can and can’t do. And “Mormons add to the Bible” was never, ever on my list of arguments for why the LDS church isn’t true, not even in the worst of my anti-Mormon days.

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