Three Mormon Reactions to “The Gift of Grace”

LDS President Dieter Uchtdorf delivered a talk on Easter morning that I found to be different than the way Mormons typically discuss grace.  I reached out to a number of Mormon friends and message boards to gain an understanding out how they viewed his talk.  I’ve come away with four general reactions

1) At Last

This is the reaction of those who have become convinced by the writings of Stephen Robinson and Robert Millet or have appreciation for a talk by Brad Wilcox.  They clearly hear a difference and are grateful to have the understanding pronounced by someone in the First Presidency at General Conference.

2) No Difference

Some hear no difference between what President Uchtdorf said and what they have always heard in Mormonism.  I would classify these respondents into two camps Continue reading


Why Mormonism is only for those who desire it, and why it matters.

In our discussion about the LDS temple ritual.  I mentioned that I do not believe the endowment is for everyone, nor was it meant to be.  It is only for those who desire it.

While this seems to be a somewhat technical/semantic point. I think it is important in the context of the “Mormonism-seems-to-be-a-cult-because-it-has-secret-Rituals” discussion. By saying that endowment is ONLY for those that really want it, I underscore how different this position is from any sort of cult-like view of the ritual. Mormons are not forcing people to do weird things against their will. This seems akin to the same fallacious argument that Mormons are somehow disrespectful for performing rituals for the dead or that they disrespect holocaust victims by baptizing them. It makes no sense in context of Mormon thought and doctrine. It seems that among the pervasive misunderstandings and/or misrepresentations regarding the religion are that Mormons are a cult that pushes people or brainwashes them into making crazy commitments and weird secret rituals against their will.  This is unsupportable by the doctrine or the scriptures.

Continue reading

Talking with Mormons

Talking with Mormons - Richard MouwRichard Mouw has released a new book entitled “Talking with Mormons: An Invitation to Evangelicals“. I haven’t read the book so I don’t intend to review a book I haven’t read. I respect Richard Mouw and his influence on me is evident.

I do wish to respond to something attributed to Dr. Mouw in an article by Peggy Fletcher Stack.

Too often, Evangelicals pick up little-taught LDS beliefs — such as humans becoming gods or having their own planets — and put them at the center of Mormon theology, rather than at the periphery.

This quote isn’t directly attributed to Mouw so I don’t know if it’s something he said or if it’s Stack’s attempt to collapse a larger thought offered by Mouw. Without having read the book, I’m tenuously willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But I find this troubling.

Mouw was correct to call out some Evangelicals for previously mischaracterizing Mormon ideas and beliefs. But I think this too is a mischaracterization of Mormon beliefs. Dr. Mouw has been meeting for many years with various Mormon scholars and thinkers. He may have been given the impression by those Mormons that Exaltation is a doctrine at the periphery of Mormon thought but it is a mistake to believe so.

In my own dealings with some Mormons (though not by any means all) I have experienced a reshaping of Mormon teachings that makes them more palatable and less offensive to Evangelical ears. In particular I have experienced this with missionaries and those more bent toward Neo-Orthodoxy. But when I listened in on “in-house” discussions of Mormonism I discovered that those teachings were not as they were originally presented to me, and in some cases were the opposite of what I was told. This has happened frequently enough that I sometimes wonder if there is an unwritten rule of Mormon culture; make the church appear to be whatever the outsider needs it to be. [Some former members have taken to writing long articles on this phenomenon]

I firmly believe that Evangelicals need to listen to Mormons and let Mormons define their own beliefs. But I do not think Evangelicals should be content with how Mormons define their beliefs to Evangelicals. To really understand Mormonism it’s important to go a step further and understand how Mormons define their beliefs to other Mormons. In some cases Evangelicals will discover something entirely different. I think that may be the case here in regards to Dr. Mouw’s understanding of Exaltation.

Exaltation is a core belief of Mormonism. The idea that humanity can become deity is emphatically a core belief. The nature of God as a human and the “plan of salvation” (in which we can become gods) are essential ideas in Mormonism. If Richard Mouw thinks that these are periphery issues, he either doesn’t understand Mormonism or he’s been woefully misinformed about Mormonism. I don’t need to reach back into the archives of 19th Century sermons to show this to be the case. I can direct him to current publications and sermons from recent General Conferences to provide evidence.

I probably advocate for much of what Dr. Mouw discusses in his new book, but this snippet from “The Salt Lake Tribune” leaves be concerned and skeptical.

I just discovered this Catholic review of Mouw’s book.

This part is relevant to my post:

Mormons fail the Calvinist test because they believe that, as Mouw puts it, God and humans are “of the same species ontologically.” Mormonism went wrong not with the Book of Mormon but with a flawed metaphysics.

Mouw argues that a “metaphysical gap” between God and us is essential to Christian faith and that Calvinism offers the best protection against any attempt to close that gap: “Judaism and Christianity have been united in their insistence that the Creator and creation—including God’s human creatures—are divided by an unbridgeable ‘being’ gap.” Mouw means that God’s existence is so different from our own that it can be said that God is beyond being altogether. Put another way, God is so “other” that God cannot even be said “to be.”

So it appears that Mouw is indeed aware and concerned about the Mormon view of the nature of God.

Salvation or Exaltation

This is Part 2 of a review of Spencer W. Kimball’s “The Miracle of Forgiveness” Part 1 can be found here.

One of the most fallacious doctrines originated by Satan and propounded by man is that man is saved alone by the grace of God; that belief in Jesus Christ alone is all that is needed for salvation. Along with all the other works necessary for man’s exaltation in the kingdom of God this could rule out the need for repentance. It could give license for sin and, since it does not require man to work out his salvation, could accept instead lip service, death-bed “repentance,” and shallow, meaningless confession of sin. [page 206]

The above quote would have most Evangelicals barring the doors and rejecting Mormonism in total. I noticed something in it though that may indicate how Kimball could so utterly reject the plain words of Paul. Indeed Kimball seemed to recognize the tension himself and acknowledges:

Of course we need to understand terms. If by the word “salvation” is meant the mere salvation or redemption from the grave, the “grace of God” is sufficient. But if the term “salvation” means returning to the presence of God with eternal progression, eternal increase, and eventual godhood, for this one certainly must have the “grace of God,” as it is generally defined, plus personal purity, overcoming of evil, and the good “works” made so important in the exhortations of the Savior and his prophets and apostles. [page 207]

I wonder how Kimball was taught that the word “salvation” could be synonymous with the word “exaltation”. It seems a considerable amount of confusion would be cleared up if he recognized that the words mean different things. In fact he agrees that the “grace of God” (as people call it) IS enough for salvation. But then he adds a number of rewards to it as if there is “Salvation Jr.” and “Real Salvation.” This conversation has come up in this space before and now more than ever I’m curious where this started in Mormon thought. Kimball quickly departs from this “mere salvation” and consistently uses the word “salvation” to mean “exaltation” in the rest of the book.

I think he does this to the detremint of his own understanding of Mormonism. Late in the book he struggles to help a woman who had committed adultery and has given up hope for salvation because of something Joseph Smith stated in the disciplinary council against Harrison Sagers. Smith stated:

If a man commit adultery he cannot receive the celestial kingdom of God. Even if he is saved in any kingdom, it cannot be the celestial kingdom.

Kimball clearly wrestles with this himself and presents over a dozen Mormon scriptures that indicate that adultery can be forgiven. He asserts that words should be inserted into the quote so that it insteads says:

If a man commit adultery (and remain unrepentant) he cannot receive the celestial kingdom of God. Even if he is saved in any kingdom, it cannot be the celestial kingdom.

But this is clearly not what Joseph Smith stated. He was in no way saying adultery can’t be forgiven and salvation is lost for any who sin in this way. He was quite clearly differentiating between salvation and exaltation. Kimball puts a fog over his own understanding of Mormonism by equating the two.

D&C 76:103 agrees with Smith in his condemnation of adultery and his pronouncement that adulterers will not enter the Celestial Kingdom.

This is not the first time I’ve encountered this confusion. Does anyone know or understand when “salvation” and “exaltation” began to mean the same thing for Mormons?

You can read part 3 of my review of “The Miracle of Forgiveness” here.

Maximally Perfect in Every Way

In his book The God Question, JP Moreland sets out to give a basic overview of why someone should consider becoming a Christian and what her life should look like in following Jesus.

In his chapter on Worship he states:

Christian philosophers call God a “Maximally Perfect Being.” This sounds pretty heady, but in reality, it is a crucial concept. To see why, think of people who are phenomenally gifted. Now, these folks deserve respect for their attributes, abilities, or whatever. How much respect? They deserve a degree of respect proportionate to their excellence in their area of giftedness, such as intelligence. But these people do not deserve our complete or full respect. Why? Well, if someone more intelligent came on the scene, the new person would deserve more respect. So even if a more intelligent person is not around, we know such a person undoubtedly exists, so we hold back our respect a bit.

A Maximally Perfect Being is one who could not possibly be surpassed in wisdom, mercy, love, power, and so on. God is not the greatest being who happens to exist. He is the greatest being who could possibly exist. The implication should be clear: God is worthy of our complete, full, deepest, total commitment. Worship is the act of giving admiration, respect, affection, honor, reverence, and adoration to God. And given the nature of God, worship should be unreserved and total.

I think his thoughts give a good overview of why Evangelicals are so scandalized by Mormon teachings on the nature of God. To view God as someone who may have once been a man, might have been a sinner, or even someone who is in the process of progressing robs Him of something integral to His character. To the Evangelical ear, Mormonism states that God is not a Maximally Perfect being.

This is part of the reason Evangelicals often ask Mormons why they don’t seek to worship the god of God. We want to give respect and worship to the one who deserves it most. We are seeking out the greatest possible being. If there is one greater than Heavenly Father we want to offer him our praise.

The Pre-Existence of Jesus

I’ve been reading “The Deep Things of God” by Fred Sanders. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about the book when I finish it. I got caught off-guard by a side point that he made and was struck by what a wide gap between orthodox Christianity and Mormonism has been totally neglected in my mind.

In the book Sanders refers to Jesus’ pre-existence. The idea of Jesus pre-existing is certainly familiar to Mormons. But Evangelicals don’t typically think of it in those terms. Sanders basically states that before his own birth, Jesus pre-existed. Before an angel visited Mary, before David was anointed, before Moses split the Red Sea, before creation and even before Jesus was known as the Christ; he pre-existed eternally as God. He didn’t become God or earn divinity. He was always God.

This puts the incarnation (the act of God becoming a man) in a totally different light for Evangelicals and Mormons.

Philippians 2 (The Message) puts it this way:

Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.

According to orthodox Christianity, Jesus emptied himself of Godhood to take on all of the characteristics of humanity. As The Message states, “it was an incredibly humbling process”.

I recognize that the details of the pre-existence and the “plan of salvation” within Mormonism are sometimes a bit obscured or unclear. But my basic understanding is that Mormons believe that Jesus was not God in the pre-existence (like the Father). Jesus developed a plan for us to come to earth, live a mortal existence and prove ourselves worthy to be exalted to Godhood. Jesus lived out this plan and provided a means for everyone else to follow him into it.

This differs significantly from the orthodox concept of the incarnation. Jesus didn’t really humble himself in any way that is different than the rest of us according to Mormonism. Jesus had to become a god and he could only do that through living a mortal life. A human life was a necessary condition for Jesus to become a god (though he was a creator beforehand). Deity was not an eternal and fundamental characteristic of his being.

I recognize that the doctrine of the Trinity seems to be philosophical mumbo-jumbo without any pragmatic implications for some. But if we just focus on the Trinitarian ideas about who Jesus is and what he had to do to become a man; we immediately start running into some practical implications that make Jesus a different kind of being than the one Mormonism offers. I might be so bold as to say that Mormonism removes the entire doctrine of Incarnation or if it does not, then it makes it as ordinary as birth.

Denial is a river in Utah

Approximately 1.75 years ago, I published my second guest-post at this blog, a little number entitled “Evangelicals, Theosis & Exaltation.” Quite unexpectedly, that post sparked an immense discussion that got to 281 comments, brought in numerous first-time commentators, and seemed well-received by most. In February of this year, I was contacted by the Mormonism portal gatekeeper at Patheos with a request that it be re-published there, and after making some minor modifications, it was.

As you may recall, I used something of a gimmick at one point in the article. I quoted a lengthy excerpt which I attributed to The God Makers film by Ed Decker. This excerpt taught that:

  1. Mormons believe in becoming God. Not just a god, or a God, but becoming God.
  2. Mormons believe they will one day rule over their own universes.
  3. Mormons believe women are needed for exaltation so that they can give birth to the spirit children who will populate these universes.

After citing this excerpt, I pulled a “just kidding” and came clean that the dialogue comes from an LDS Institute manual called Achieving a Celestial Marriage, and I did not get it from Ed Decker or any anti-Mormons. I purchased it from the Distribution Center in the basement of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building on Temple Square during my first trip to Utah in August 1999.

I had my reasons for this ploy. Continue reading