Making peace between Joseph Smith and Saint Paul

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.

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44 thoughts on “Making peace between Joseph Smith and Saint Paul

  1. 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.

    Interestingly, one of the many of references in the Book of Mormon to the serpent in the wilderness, Alma 33:11-23, seems to grasp Paul’s explicit message quite well.

  2. 20 But few understood the meaning of those things, and this because of the hardness of their hearts. But there were many who were so hardened that they would not look, therefore they perished. Now the reason they would not look is because they did not believe that it would heal them.

    21 O my brethren, if ye could be healed by merely casting about your eyes that ye might be healed, would ye not behold quickly, or would ye rather harden your hearts in unbelief, and be slothful, that ye would not cast about your eyes, that ye might perish?

    The message I take away from most LDS discussion of the atonement is that you need to do a lot more than looking to the source of salvation in order to be healed. Many in the church do not have the hope that the BOM teaches, it gets lost in the obedience discussion

  3. Jared, not unlike Catholics, that Mormons place value on other avenues for God’s authority (prophets, personal revelation, even local leaders), their dependance and immersion in scripture is, in my opinion, lackadaisical. Sure the rhetoric is closer to what you might from Protestants, but the reality is Mormons don’t outright reject Paul, (he is in the Bible after all) they just don’t take his letters as seriously as they probably should. Part of that is just hearing Evangelicals repeat Paul ad nauseum. Part of that is just not knowing how to deal with the those verses in the larger context of their faith and the rest of the Bible.

    Ultimately, I hope that Mormons would take the Bible seriously enough (in deed, not just word) to really deal with Paul in more urgent manner – coming to their own conclusions. This doesn’t necessarily mean accepting the Protestant view. But I have been hopeful in recent years as I’ve read from a number of Mormon blogs, engaging with Paul and even respecting the historical treatments. As well is more contemporary treatments like the new perspective folks.

  4. Christian J,

    I agree that there are some who are reforming the way they teach the Gospel based on Paul’s writings. I also think that the LDS will never fully get what Protestants are talking about because of the way they view history. And I am not really wed to the precise wording of Paul’s explanation of what Jesus was talking about, but I do think he was at least very careful and accurate and made very good arguments that his view was the Christian message. I don’t see that happening in the LDS church which considers Paul authoritative because of his position as Apostle rather than for his arguments.

  5. “I don’t see that happening in the LDS church which considers Paul authoritative because of his position as Apostle rather than for his arguments.”

    Very interesting thought.

  6. Most people only listen to Jesus because he was the Son of God, most people listen to Paul because he was an Apostle of the Son of God, I think they both had good arguments and are worth listening to even if you have no idea what “Son of God” means.

  7. Further, Paul consistently had to justify his credentials and always offered reasoning both Jews and Gentiles would understand. I am not sure I agree people believed him because he was an apostle.

  8. Also, I am not talking about why they believed Paul in the first century, I am talking about why they believe him now.

  9. You said his being an apostle is what gives him authority, not his arguments, as if his arguments are secondary to authority, implying an apostle need not have strong arguments as long as he is an apostle. This is why I find it interesting and find it different from your second statement here.

    As to the present v. the past the arguments are there for all to read. That some may not consider them on their own lends credit to my point above.

    The message is arguments be damned as long as one has authority.

    You may well agree with me in principle but this is another area where I find significant differences in our faiths. Apart from maybe Catholics and other Orthodox traditions the only real authority is God revealed in three persons. Even there, arguments are very important even with authority.

  10. Let me clear:

    (1) Most Latter-Day Saints believe that we should listen to Paul because he had authority from God to explain the Gospel to people by the Spirit.

    (2) The average Christian believes Paul should be trusted because he had a vision where Jesus himself appeared and opened his mouth to speak the word of God.

    (3) I believe Paul because he has the best explanation of one essential element of the sort of Christianity that Jesus taught.

  11. I think you don’t quite get what Christians think of Paul. We believe Paul wrote and preached because his experience changed his mind and not because Jesus granted him any authority.

    This idea of authority is very Mormon. But why do we listen to Paul? Because he said a lot that makes sense about Christ. That he was chosen by God is not really a concern. I won’t say it’s irrelevant but it’s not our primary reason for trusting him.

  12. Jared, the point is that I found your statement re authority over argument off for the reason that I explained. I am not sure what it is you are trying to say about Mormons and authority vs argument as well as Christians on the same.

  13. “I don’t see that happening in the LDS church which considers Paul authoritative because of his position as Apostle rather than for his arguments.”

    Jared, its true that its a loose teaching in Mormonism that prophets and apostles are basically the ones in charge of writing scripture. (with some exceptions). Its not true, but the assumption is an ancient one of course. Which is why it was so easy to pin large portions of the Hebrew Bible on Moses. Its also why we have multiple NT books falsely attributed to authoritative names.

    The arguments may have been good (or not), but the name gave it staying power. And the Reformation may have charted a better way forward – looking at the arguments. But let’s not pretend that today’s Evangelical Protestant combs through the Bible, judging the arguments. For them, the Bible is true, because the Bible says the Bible is true. If there are uncomfortable versus or whole books that conflict with the traditional interpretation of the the text, there must be some way to make it fit. We just haven’t found it yet.

    The book, the object, becomes an authority in and of itself.

  14. Christian, for what it is worth, no individual has more authority to speak about God than does anyone else. We judge their words on how they got in with God’s word. We don’t think there is anything not revealed through Christ that remains essential to our salvation.

  15. slowcowboy, Am wrong in my observation that most conservative Christians think authorship is important? Not that the Bible lives and dies by it, but that there’s a tendency to reject the idea of pseudepigrapha in the Bible?

  16. To the extent that the Biblical author is who he says he was, yes, its important. That is to say we look to authentic documents, not forgeries. We learn in 2 Thessalonians 2 that there may have been people falsely writing in Paul’s name. So what is important is authenticity within the Bible not authority.

    Bear in mind that Paul often told his readers to not be deceived and to test everything, even what he himself told them.

    Authorship and authenticity are not the same thing, Christian.

  17. “Authorship and authenticity are not the same thing, Christian.”

    It is if you use accurate authorship as your #1 criteria. And in many cases, that is what conservative Christians do. “If the author identifies himself as Peter, then it must be Peter, even if logic tells us that Peter the disciple would not have been able to write in advanced greek or an educated rhetorical style. Even if the document looks like it was written after Peter died, we must accept it as Peter, because of traditional authorship.” – is the argument I’ve heard over and over.

  18. I am not sure the argument that advancement in a language or in an educated rhetorical style gets you far to defeat an authorship.

    Peter is disputed as author, as are several of those letters attributed to Paul. So what? I don’t think this matters much. Authorship is just one of the criteria used to determine the canon, and yes, while it holds an important role in that, also important is that the content is consistent with the Gospel.

    And none of that disputes my point. Authority is not as important to traditional Christianity as it is to Mormons. Really, someone like NT Wright or CS Lewis has as much authority to speak about God as did Paul.

  19. cowboy, what do make of Paul making authority – first through the vision, then through his visit with the Jerusslem apostles – an important distinction in Galatians? After all, there were some teaching “another gospel”.

  20. “Authority is not as important to traditional Christianity as it is to Mormons”

    cowboy: also, I thought we were talking about the Protestant tradition. Unless you don’t consider Catholics, Eastern Orthodox “traditional Christians”.

    Looking to authority in addition to the Bible has a long long tradition in Christianity. Sola Scriptura is a Protestant innovation.

  21. Christian, if you read above you would note that I mentioned that perhaps the Roman Catholics and other Orthodox (note the “O” rather than “o”) faiths you might find more of an argument for authority. However, as I understand those faiths, even they do not give the same weight to authority that Mormons do.

    That others were teaching another gospel has nothing to do with authority. That has to do with argument, not authority.

  22. “That others were teaching another gospel has nothing to do with authority. That has to do with argument, not authority.”

    Why does Paul make it matter of authority?

  23. What is your opinion on why Paul makes it a matter of authority?

    I sense a slip into a circle here, as I don’t see Paul ever claiming his authority as a matter of power. He was a lead teacher, as were the other chief disciples. Teachers have an authority over their subject matter. Paul was no different. Peter was no different. James was no different.

    I don’t think anything we can address on that will change my point that Mormons and Christians view this idea of authority very differently. This is why I found Jared’s comment interesting, as he left it open to the idea that authority is more important than substance.

  24. I sense a slip into a circle here, as I don’t see Paul ever claiming his authority as a matter of power.

    I don’t think this view is consistent with the bible. For example, Paul says: (1 Corinthians 2: 4-6):
    ” My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began”

  25. Authority is an enormously important concept for all Christians, especially Protestants which view the New Testament as the final authority. The important question is, what should be authoritative? I think that accuracy is the most important part of teaching the Gospel, and I think that Paul is accurate. In the end, orthodox theology is the insistence on theological accuracy and precision. But that said, i don’t think the average christian is completely orthodox in their views, even though they might have an accurate personal theology.

    If what Paul said was accurate, it makes no difference WHY you believe it, you will still be accurate if you do.

  26. fair enough cowboy,

    although I see Paul calling upon a kind of authority, its clearly not the same as Mormons see it
    today or the way Christians developed authortative claims in Rome and in in the East during the
    millennium + that followed.

    But on that last point I will not be moved. Institutional authority was (and still is to some degree)
    an essential element of the Christian tradition, for *most* of her history.

    “Mormons and Christians view this idea of authority very differently”

    In a lot of cases, I let it slide when Evangelicals talk about what “Christians” believe – as if
    its all one big happy family. But in this case, you’re specifically talking about Protestants.

  27. Jared, you wrote: “In the end, orthodox theology is the insistence on theological accuracy and precision.”

    This gets to what I am saying, Jared. Authority, if it is to be found, is to be found in being of Jesus and in the Spirit, not in any person.

    I point out that this statement was interesting to me (“I don’t see that happening in the LDS church which considers Paul authoritative because of his position as Apostle rather than for his arguments.”) because it seems to put respect for Paul on his being an apostle above his theological positions.

  28. “Institutional authority was (and still is to some degree) an essential element of the Christian tradition, for *most* of her history.”

    Certainly true. Every schism in the Church has been rooted partially if not completely in either a power grab for authority or a failure to acknowledge and submit to authority.

  29. Christian, I have never heard about a Christian, be him or her a Catholic, Protestant, or anyone, speak of a leader have special authority that differentiates him or her in the way Mormons use the term. For instance, Mormons require baptism by one with authority. That kind of use is absent in traditional Christianity. Authority, even institutional authority, is about being in Christ.

  30. “Certainly true. Every schism in the Church has been rooted partially if not completely in either a power grab for authority or a failure to acknowledge and submit to authority.”

    I would have to agree, but is a different issue from the one I am addressing.

    Though it is interesting to note that Mormon schisms are essentially no different in that regard.

  31. I think Paul does make some claim to apostolic authority in his writings. But that’s not the beginning or the end of why he should be trusted.

    AND I don’t think authorship is as vital as many Evangelicals think it is upon first blush. In my life group recently I explained the differences between Revelation and the Gospel of John and at first there was some puzzlement about the authority of the Gospel but then everyone settled into the idea that someone close to John would have the authorization to present his ideas.

  32. I think that idea makes the narrative about the compilation of the New Testament more realistic. Considering competition that apocryphal literature would have given the canonical texts, considering the considerable agreement between the worldview of the epistles, it seems like they were chosen sparingly for their fidelity to the Gospel rather than based on who the scribe claimed to be the author.

    As far as Revelation is concerned, the claim to being scripture seems to fully rest on the authority of the source of the words. It is hard to accept Revelation as anything but art absent a strong claim to divine inspiration. I think you can derive St. Paul from the sayings of Jesus, but it is difficult to see Revelation as being much different than the Doctrine and Covenants.

  33. I think you might see that differently as a first century christian. Look into NT Wright’s Revelation For Everyone (but you’re right that it’s art than exposition)

  34. It is one of the most influential works of art ever, but I have a hard time seeing the absolute value of the historical pattern that it was supposed to be exposing. I suppose there is self-imposed confusion.

  35. yeah, NT Wright really rejects the quest for a historical pattern in Revelation. “Not the point” he says.

  36. Interesting transcript of a Wright talk on the authority of scripture:

    http://ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Bible_Authoritative.htm

    An interesting quote from it:

    “It is not done with the authority that we reach for so easily, an authority which will manipulate, or crush, or control, or merely give information about the world. But, rather, it is to be done with an authority with which the church can authentically speak God’s words of judgement and mercy to the world. We are not, then, entering into the world’s power games”

    Authority is spoken of here as an argument, an argument that is true to God’s word, which is revealed in the story of the Bible, culminating in Christ, and apart from affairs of the world.

  37. “AND I don’t think authorship is as vital as many Evangelicals think it is upon first blush.”

    I’m glad to hear this. I think adjusting our expectations of what a sacred text is, does not have to diminish its validity. In fact, it can unlock many important insights for our lives.

  38. On the topic of Joseph Smith, the Salt Lake Tribune and Religion Dispatches both picked up a story that a blog run by history academics on the subject of Mormon history is sponsoring a “summer book club” reading of Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. They will be reading a few chapters each week, during which they will have professional historians answering questions in the comments section on the topics covered in the reading.

    From the blog:

    To anyone who teaches Mormonism in their class, this is the opportunity to ask academics who have taught and addressed Mormonism in either university classrooms or more informal settings. . . . If you need to read ONE book on Mormon history, THIS is the one.”

    Although I first read RSR when it was published in 2005, I am planning to read it again this summer to better take advantage of this opportunity. The book itself is truly an exceptional read, especially for anyone looking to better understand Joseph Smith and early Mormonism on a more granular level than the hagiographies and exposes generally provide. But the opportunity to then ask detailed questions to expert historians? Pure awesomeness.

    Details here.

  39. Hi Jared,

    First, I want to thank you for being brave. Thank you for thinking big thoughts and sharing them on the Internet. It takes courage to post your honest opinion on the Internet. Thank you.

    Second, I want to put all of my cards on the deck: I am not a Mormon. Both of my parents are converts from the RLDS church to evangelicalism. Although I have forsaken some of my parents’ specific beliefs, I continue to self-identify as a non-Mormon Christian.

    These things having been said, I do have some brief criticisms of your post.

    1) You claim that both Paul and Joseph Smith were “ostensibly wrong” about their specific predictions. The problem with this is that Paul did not really make any specific predictions. (I can’t speak for Joseph Smith.) The only thing I think one could qualify as a specific prediction for Paul comes from 1 Corinthians 15, 1 Thessalonians 4, and 2 Thessalonians regarding the return of Jesus Christ to reclaim the Christian faithful. If Paul was in touch with the traditions that eventually became–or had already become–the four gospel accounts of the New Testament (there is significant evidence–particularly from 1 Corinthians 7, 11, and 15–to believe that he did), then it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Paul would have believed that a person could “not know the day or the hour” (Mark 13:32) of the return of Christ. Paul, like any other Christian today, should have expected the return of Christ at any moment. However, Paul, like any other Christian, should not have claimed certainty about when the return of Christ would actually happen. In my opinion, the surviving evidence regarding Paul’s beliefs (i.e., his letters) well accords with these ideas. *In other words, I am challenging your claim that Paul was “ostensibly wrong.” In fact, I think it is safe to say with absolute confidence that nothing Paul said was “ostensibly wrong.” If he did say anything that was totally false, I daresay that there would not be a way to prove it yet.

    2) You say that because Moses made a serpent out of bronze, it didn’t count as a “fiery serpent.” To me, that sounds kind of like saying that someone who took a black and white photograph of a a person with red hair (a “redhead”) did not actually take a photograph of a redhead, since the person’s hair is not red in the photograph. In the story, fiery serpents start attacking people. (They are called fiery serpents because they are poisonous, not because they are actually on fire.) And so God says, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole.” Is God asking to create a living snake and set it on a pole? Of course not. It is clear that what God is asking Moses to do is in fact to create a *replica* (i.e., bronze) snake, which is exactly what Moses did.

    3) You say that what Paul preached was not the gospel, or the full gospel, or something to that effect; but that is not really fair to what Paul himself said about the message that he preached. (Galatians 1:11-12 and 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 would be two of the more obvious examples of Paul’s understanding of his own message.) I think that Paul believed that his message was the real deal, and not a mere bronze substitute. (Was Paul correct about that? That of course would be a different question altogether. I’m not saying that Paul was right, even though I think that he was. What I am saying is that he certainly thought he was right, and wasn’t afraid of saying so.)

    I realize that what I wrote was quite long. I hope that it comes across in good taste, because that is how I mean it.

    Now that my criticisms are finished, I have some praise for your post, as well.

    1) I love that you do acknowledge the genuine differences between Joseph Smith and Paul. (I know quite little about Joseph Smith, but have spent much of my life studying Paul.) Thank you for not trying to squeeze them into the same mold.

    2) Thank you for acknowledging the differences between their theologies and christologies. Again, that was very good.

    3) Thank you for your humility. The way you write is excellent; I think that God is with you when you write.

    Hope to see more from you. Looking forward to your future writing.

    “You see, God loved the world in this way: that he gave his only Son, that whoever trusts in him should not be wholly lost, but have the life of God’s age” (my theological paraphrase of John 3:16).

    “…let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:10-12 NRSV).

  40. By “one thing” in regards to a “specific prediction” of Paul, I meant broadly his comments regarding the second coming of Jesus Christ. For example, in 2 Thessalonians, Paul mentions an apocalyptic figure whom Jesus “will kill with the breath of his mouth.” That’s pretty specific. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul says that “the dead in Christ will rise first” when Jesus returns. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says something similar to 1 Thessalonians, except extended. By “one thing,” I was trying to categorize Paul’s traditional statements about the second coming into a single category. If that was confusing to anyone, I apologize.

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