I came to the conclusion years ago that the difference between Mormons and Evangelicals was the difference between taking Paul’s philosophy and taking Joseph Smith’s seriously. If the LDS Church wants to be what it claims to be, I think it behooves them to think though and reconcile these differences in a way to keep the theology of both men intact, even if they have to be viewed within different metaphysical paradigms. My view currently is that the failure to reconcile these differences without discrediting what Paul said is a grave mistake. I think that the historical antagonism between the LDS and Paul’s theology has been as unhelpful as the LDS policy of denying the priesthood to people of African descent.
In my mind, Paul and Joseph Smith are very similar figures. Both assumed authority within their Christian communities do to supernatural experiences, and claims that they spoke and wrote under the authority of the Holy Spirit. Both were religious geniuses, able to bring the patterns of ancient scripture to spectacular effect in promoting their new worldviews. They both claimed to bring to light hidden knowledge from God that was hidden in the past due to false traditions perpetuated by the hard-headed, and hard-hearted. Both claimed to speak the true Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I think Mormons and Evangelicals can both agree that Paul and Joseph Smith are not in complete harmony. It is unquestionable that Paul and Joseph Smith saw both God and Christ differently, they had to because their historical and cultural context was radically different. Joseph Smith knew more than Paul about the last days, having nearly two millennia of history of the end times to draw from. Both Paul and Joseph believed that the Second Coming was at hand. Both were ostensibly wrong about their specific predictions.
In my view, the overarching question for the LDS must be, how should the LDS take into account the obvious discrepancies between Paul’s theology, Joseph Smith’s, and the theology propagated by Joseph Smith’s successors? This question is still very much open within the Church, and often sadly ignored.
I suggest that the LDS take a new view of Paul, and see his very particular theology an extremely important part of bringing salvation to God’s children. Paul’s role is after the pattern of Moses. In Numbers the text describes a spectacular incident during the wanderings of the Children of Isreal:
“Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.” (Numbers 21: 4-9.)
Many times LDS rejection of Paul’s explicit message seems to be like a criticism of the standard Moses erected in response to Jehovah’s commands. Moses did not explicitly obey what the Lord commanded. He did not erect a “fiery serpent” he had to use bronze instead. However, given the effectiveness of Moses’ substitute, it is hard to criticize him from using his own limited ingenuity and craft to carry out the Lord’s command.
I see Paul’s writings to be parallel to Moses’ approach to erecting a fiery serpent. Paul’s writings are not the Gospel, just as Moses’ bronze serpent was not the fiery serpent the Lord described. However, in my experience those who look to Paul’s writings, and can see the fire symbolized by the bronze, also see the salvation of God, just like the wandering Israelites were saved from painful death when they beheld Moses’ make-shift pretend fiery serpent. Even though Paul utilized the “bronze” of Greek and Pharisaic thinking to formulate his version of the “fiery serpent” that is the Gospel, it would be foolish to reject his important formulation just as it would be for the Isrealites to critize Moses’ standard simply because it was not actually made of fire.
Mormons should recognize that Joseph Smith was not meant to be Paul, nor was he meant to replace him. He was not meant to take down the standard that Paul erected, or replace it with a new standard, even if God asked Joseph to erect a new standard to rally the elect to Zion. I think President Uchtdorf’s example is critical. As one who undoubtedly was steeped in Paul’s theology as a child, he should recognize that the only thing we are doing by discrediting the very specific pattern that Paul erected is to leave many of the dying without hope. I encourage the LDS church to abandon attempts to replace Paul’s standard, even as they rally around God’s latter-day call to his saints to form Zion.