Serious Mormon Questions for Evangelicals

A frequent commentor named Ray has asked a series of questions. I appreciate these questions because they get at some of the most deeply seeded controversies between Mormons and Evangelicals. A full post (or book) could be written on each question so don’t expect my answers to be completely comprehensive, just an introduction to each issue. The comments section might be a great place to direct Ray and other Mormons to further resources on each topic.

You’ll notice that I will not make a lot of Bible references in my answers. This is not because my answers are not informed by the Bible but because I can answer these questions much quicker and make the length much shorter if I leave them out. To be sure, I can direct anyone interested to the Biblical texts that support my answers.

I have proposed that continuing in sin can cause some one to lose their salvation. Do you agree or do you think once saved always saved? What does “endure to the end” mean to you?

Continue reading

Muzzling the Ox

Occasionally I see critics of the LDS Church attack the salary drawn by General Authorities and the stipend given to Mission Presidents. I think the Church is fully justified by the Bible in offering these benefits to these men. The chief passage that allows for this practice is I Corinthians 9:1-18. In it Paul defends himself from the same charges.

Paul was a “tent-maker missionary”, someone who works full time to support themselves while ministering. Apparently at some point in Corinth he had eaten from the collective meal that Christians participated in as part of the Lord’s Supper. We learn from Chapter 11 that some believers were eating private suppers and getting drunk and not allowing everyone in the congregation to get a share of the portion of the meal. This was depriving some members of the body. Paul defense seems to come in context of this local controversy. Paul is incensed by this accusation because he feels that he’s not only allowed to eat from the church pantry but that he’s even allowed to take a portion of the offerings (though he does not).

Paul offers two defenses for the practice of paying those in ministry. Both are found in the Old Testament, which should especially appeal to the Mormon idea of practicing “Old Testament Christianity.” Continue reading

The simple fact is: God.

Having been thoroughly terrified after watching the Sunset Limited based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel,  I thought I should try to actually do a little philosophy in order to (at least?) believe in God again. I do it here in an attempt to keep myself honest in the company of those that do believe. If this doesn’t make much sense, please keep in mind my lingering view of philosophy, and consider this an apologia and a confession.

Some thoughts to set the stage:

“I am not a religious man but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view”. — Ludwig Wittgenstein, noted philosopher.

“But theology is the function of the Church. The church confesses God as it talks about God… But in so doing it recognizes and takes up as an active Church the further human task of criticizing and revising its speech about God” — Karl Barthnoted theologianChurch Dogmatics, 1.1, p. 3.

Continue reading

One Mormon view of the Truth of Christ

I was once of the opinion that you could convert the entire world to Christ if you sat the world down and simply told them, with sincere love, that they could feel, that He was their Savior. Indeed, I thought that would inevitably happen.  I believed that once a person was converted to Jesus, and followed Him as a disciple, that it did not matter what I believed or thought outside of that one Truth—so long as I lived by what Jesus taught and the Spirit. I think this is a belief that many Mormons might share, and have tried to root out its source—-in my own mind at least.

To me, the core of what Jesus taught was very simple and clear—even if it was mind-blowing, revolutionary, and extremely humbling. It seemed that that was all anyone really needed—everything else was just another conference talk or sermon. The wild variation I saw within the scriptures was merely a function of the fact that the Truth was essentially ineffable, as was the Life. Given the task Jesus gave his disciples–to love as He loved–I did not think you could even precisely explain how to act like a Christian in any particular circumstance without the Gift of the Holy Ghost. The capacity of love was a supernatural gift. It was a gift offered to everyone, and it could be expanded by faith and hard work, but it was the only mark of a true follower of Jesus.

The process of arriving at the Truth also seemed very simple—you could only really know that Jesus was the Christ by the Spirit. These most important truths could only be expressed with the Spirit, and the Spirit was practically instantiated and invoked through love and sincerity.  Hence, the root of my belief that all we could convert anyone to Christ by simply finding the right words.

I recognize that this belief was ultimately unstable. But perhaps I saw things in these terms out of a tendency to keep things simple in what I found to be an immensely complex world.  Perhaps it was pride–I wanted to believe in truth without reservation, and that demands simplicity. Perhaps it was out of recognition of the difficulty of asking and answering the question: What is truth? As a Christian, the answer was ultimately both obvious and simple. The Truth was what Jesus told of. All other truth flowed from That. Whatever we could work out through reason was true, but without that Truth, what did it matter?

Is the Protestant Doctrine of Salvation Incommensurate with the Mormon View?

I am always harping about how Mormons are allowed to believe a lot more things than traditional Christians and still be Mormons. I don’t think the Mormons that run the Church care about truth per se, but its usefulness in the cause, and it is eminently useful not to engage in debates about what you have to believe to be LDS.  I think most sane people believe this— it is generally not wise to declare how stupid you think others are within their earshot, and most people are apt to say stupid things when they are cutting down another cause.

From my point of view, this reality presents those who make massive truth claims, such as Evangelical Protestants, an interesting test: Here is a group of people who ostensibly believe a lot of the same things you Evangelicals believe; they are going to hell, forever, because of their confusion; it seems that the power of your message should be able to convert these people.  For me, it’s as if the Mormons are laying ready on Mount Carmel and Evangelicals can’t make so much as a spark to ignite what is dry kindling. I thought a good place to put my pet theory to the test is to determine whether a Mormon can fully believe the Protestant view of Salvation and remain LDS.  Is there some logical necessity of rejecting the message of the Restoration?  If they are not now, Mormons even become saved Christians and remain in the Church?

The question seems important. If the answer is “no,” Protestants should joyfully want Mormons to believe in their view of the Gospel whether or not the Mormons remain faithful to their LDS covenants or attend LDS church or believe the Book of Mormon is the word of God, or even continue to gather converts.  The entire approach to LDS missionary work would not be to show them where they are wrong theologically (which is extremely boring), but to teach them the truth in spirit and in power like Paul advocated (manifestly less boring). I recognize that many Mormons do not, and never will, understand or believe the theology behind the Evangelical view of salvation from original sin. But most Mormons are new Mormons without set theologies, and LDS Missionary efforts require a wide tolerance for strange beliefs. (I learned this acutely while eating dinner with a Jet Propulsion Laboratory physicist and my missionary companion, who was convinced that the earth was hollow.)   Continue reading

Jesus Was a Pimp?

This blog owes a lot to Del Parsons and a very awkward painting of Jesus (if you’re curious about the title of this post you have to check out that link).  So in effort to honor that legacy we must point out the glory of perhaps the most awkward painting of Jesus of all time.

Everything about this painting is awesome. I’m not sure what my favorite part is but let me point a few of them out in no particular order

  1. The hole Jesus is apparently standing in
  2. The baby orangutan
  3. The inconsistent light sources
  4. Adam’s dislocated hips and birthing posture
  5. Is that the sun or the moon?
  6. A miniature giraffe AND a dwarf tiger symbolizing male virility

awkward jesus paintingThere seem to be a few hints to me in the painting that the artist might have some Mormon influences but wasn’t for sure (Eve in particular). My suspicions were a bit confirmed by this painting of Mitt Romney welcoming a new child’s birth.  But the artist’s resume seems to indicate that he has many Evangelical connections.  Sorry Mormon friends, the brilliance of this painting appears to belong entirely to the Evangelical subculture.

Scared of Hell: Evangelicals don’t really know if they are saved?

Byline: Does the difficulty in feeling assured of salvation dissolve the practical differences in “works”-focused vs. belief-focused religion?Hell Awaits You!

I used to think that the problem of assurance of salvation was a big practical difference between Mormons and Evangelicals.  I am not so sure now.The theological differences seem stark. According to the rough academic analogy, Mormons believe that everybody is born with a passing grade, and you have to decide to fail.  So long as your intentions are in the right direction, and you are living up to your potential , you are going to the Celestial Kingdom. If you fall short you are going to get a great consolation prize– eternally living in heaven with Jesus forever.   If you criminally screw up and reject Jesus,  you are going to suffer for your  sins but eventually you will be in a heavenly place with the eternal joy that the Holy Spirit can bring you.  Mormons believe (or used to) that some striving souls could get a “second endowment.”  An ordinance performed in the temple that seals a person with their spouse to the Celestial Kingdom.  They have their “calling and election made sure.” Anymore, this concept and practice has practically disappeared from the Church.  Mormons are left completely sure they are going to heaven, but always unsure of which heaven they will go to. I believed that whatever I–or nearly anybody else–was in for in the afterlife, it was going to be a whole lot better than this world.

Contrasting my experience with the children of Evangelicalism. I can see how the “faith alone” doctrine would have scared the hell out of me.  Evangelicals believe you are born with a failing grade– the default is hell.  People qualify for salvation by correct belief and reliance on the work of Jesus alone.  It seems to me that if you are an Evangelical facing the never-ending torment of hell, you’d better make darn sure you are saved.  And the problem is, because non-saving faith can masquerade as true belief and faith, there is a lot of room for consternationJust as Mormons obsess about doing enough to be “good enough” , it seems that doubt-prone Evangelicals can easily fall into a cycle of severe anxiety trying to assure their faith is “true” enough.  And the stakes– and possibly the potential anxiety seem considerably higher.  It seems that many Evangelicals indeed have this problem of assurance gauging from this article in Relevant Magazine, by J.D. Greear, Evangelical author of Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart.    

Continue reading

Skittles In Remembrance

Today a friend from college posted the following on Facebook:

We just took Skittles and iced tea as communion elements at my church in honor of the situation with Trayvon Martin–because being a Christian is an active, wrong-righting, radical-loving, justice-seeking way of life…

I knew immediately that there were a great many things to unpack in this posting.  At the very least I knew her congregation had inspired a conversation about Jesus and injustice and for that I applaud them.  But there seemed to be something else nestled into this radical statement that didn’t sit well with me.

254069-skittlesFor those unaware of the reference, Trayvon Martin was a black, 17-year-old who was killed (some say murdered) in an altercation with a neighborhood watchman named George Zimmerman. Zimmerman was recently acquitted of murdering Martin and the case brought up many controversial conversations about race, self-defense, and injustice. Martin had decided to go out to the store that evening to get Skittles and Iced Tea.

It is clear to me that Trayvon Martin did not deserve to die that night.  His death is a tragedy. It simply should not have happened.  I do not wish to jump into the cultural, political or legal controversies surrounding his death in this space, but I acknowledge the deep feelings of injustice that are conjured in the hearts of many Americans by his death. Trayvon Martin should not be dead because he wanted some Skittles and Iced Tea.

In many ways I understand what my friend’s church was doing by serving Skittles and Iced Tea in communion.  The bread and the wine are two of the most powerful symbols in Christianity.  Skittles and Iced Tea have become powerful symbols of racial injustice in America.  From an artistic perspective it makes a lot of sense to put these symbols in proximity to one another.  The moral complexity caused by creating a relationship between these symbols is explosive.  I believe this symbol clashing expression of a Christian sacrament is powerful, but I also must ask “is it good?”

From a purely pragmatic perspective I believe that Skittles and Iced Tea can be used as a substitute for bread and wine in Communion.  On a deserted island with nothing else on hand, I think God would find them an honorable means of worship.  If I had to guess, I’d say 99% of my worship experiences have been in churches that chooses to use grape juice instead of wine.  The LDS church uses water.  Most churches serve some variety of crackers, wafers or even bread with yeast.  My own church has recently begun to set out gluten-free crackers for those with gluten allergies. I say all of this to acknowledge that many churches use some substitute for the wine and the kind of bread Jesus served in the Last Supper.  Not many make the effort to replicate Jewish, First Century wine and Passover bread.

From a symbolic perspective I think the use of Skittles and Iced Tea is wrong.  I whole-heartedly agree that “being a Christian is an active, wrong-righting, radical-loving, justice-seeking way of life… ”  We should, ought and must be fighting against racial barriers and injustice.  Nonetheless I think it was inappropriate to make the Sacrament an opportunity to call Christians to the fight against injustice.

When Jesus broke the bread and served the wine, he said “do this in remembrance of me”.  He did not say “do this in remembrance of Trayvon Martin and the injustice of racial stereotypes”.  I hope and pray that churches every where are preaching relevant, practical and Biblical sermons on breaking the bonds of injustice.  I strongly encourage them to develop programs to help their neighbors overcome those types of struggles.  But Communion is not the place to offer that charge. The Gospel of Jesus is in part about racial and societal reconciliation, but that is not the entire message.

The error in using Skittles and Iced Tea in Communion is that it places the Christian mission against injustice at the center of the worship experience rather than Christ. In many ways this story illuminates the Conservative/Liberal Christian divide for me.  Churches on both sides of the spectrum fall into heresy when they misplace any one aspect of the Christian pursuit of virtue over Jesus himself.  Churches that designate themselves as “open and affirming” seem to easily devolve into nothing more than the message of acceptance.  Jesus and his Gospel are far bigger than that.  Churches that focus on personal piety and moral regulations can devolve into nothing more than the message of righteousness.  Jesus and his Gospel are far bigger than than. Churches that focus on nothing but their liturgy and priesthood can become a place where nothing is more important that the right mode of worship and authority. Jesus and his Gospel are far bigger than that.  Churches that passionately pursue complex theological teaching can become nothing more than their sound doctrines. Jesus and his Gospel are far bigger than that.  Justice, acceptance, righteousness, worship, authority and doctrine are all wonderful things and should be pursued passionately. . . but they aren’t Jesus.  Our Savior calls us to all of them, but they are not saviors.

I imagine the good people at my friend’s church would be appalled if they heard of another church that had replaced the bread and the wine with Budweiser and apple pie.  I hope their outrage would not be because they reject the cultural or political message symbolized by those items, but rather because what those items represent are never meant to displace our call to remember Jesus’ death when we partake of the sacraments.

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.

You are FORGIVEN! – What Evangelicals have that Mormons don’t. (Part 1)

Universal sin is, perhaps, the fundamental building block of the Christian Religion.  Without sin, there is no need for the atonement of Jesus, the central focus of both Mormons and Evangelicals.

C.S. Lewis, in accord with other heavy hitters of Christian apologetics, contend that the most incontrovertible tenant of Christianity is original sin.  (However, my favorite exposition of this doctrine is, of course, found here.) Indeed, most all people have an internal moral compass, a conscience, that tells them that they fall short of perfection.  Those people incapable of feeling guilt are considered the most dangerous and potentially monstrous of all humans.  While I am not convinced that universal sin is “proven” by the facts, it is clear that most of the people we call good or conscientious would agree that falling short of internal and external aspirations is a common part of life.  Falling short is part of life not simply because we are defective, it seems to be an ingrained part of being a human to recognize that we do not live up to what our consciences aspire to.  Even those that are often completely blind to their own faults can usually point out the faults of others.   This brings guilt, perhaps one of the most important defenses against barbarism, yet it also one of those things that invariably saps happiness and joy from life.

What Christianity brings to the table is forgiveness. Evangelists tells us: “In Christ you will be saved and forgiven, white as snow.”  Where Evangelicalism and Mormonism diverge is how they dish up the meaty meal of forgiveness to the believer. (To be specific: I am talking about how the forgiveness of is felt and experienced, not about whether or not either approach is justified by scripture, revelation or theology.)

Continue reading

The Caller on The Line Wants to Know if He’s a Christian

In a discussion on the on-going controversy over Richard Mouw’s 2004 apology at the Mormon Tabernacle, a fellow Evangelical asked me to comment on a passage from Richard Mouw’s book “Talking with Mormons”.

“My assistant came into my office to tell me that a caller wanted to talk with me: “He says he’s a Mormon and he wants to ask you a question about his personal faith. Should I tell him you’re too busy?” Then she quickly added: “He seems quite nice, and he says he isn’t calling to argue with you about anything:”

I decided to take the call. The person on the line asked whether he could briefly tell me about his spiritual journey. I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear his story, but my assistant was right: he did seem quite nice. He had been raised in a mainline Protestant church, he told me, and during his youth he had never felt challenged to make any serious commitment to Christianity. As a student at a university – one of the most distinguished ones academically – his roommate for all four years was a Mormon. ” Continue reading

The Wedding of Jesus

I was wondering how Mormons view Jesus’ status as a bachelor. In Orthodox Christianity singleness and lifelong celibacy are view as acceptable and at times even preferable for followers of Jesus. The value for singleness, devoted to lifelong service of God, is in part centered on the example of Jesus himself.

This lifestyle choice is held in tension in Mormonism. A temple wedding is the penultimate ordinance to qualify for Exaltation. It seems to be THE most exciting and highest honor in temple worship. From an outsider’s perspective it seems the Mormon experience is lacking without a sealing to an eternal spouse.

In light of this, how do Mormons reflect on Jesus’ life without a wife? What kind of justifications are offered for this disconnect? Is it a fact of His life that needs no explanation?

Truly, Honestly. I tell you, this is not just a cheap plug for the post that has become known as “The One True Post.” But I also recognize that I can’t bring up the subject of Jesus and Marriage without referencing it. So consider my obligation to silliness fulfilled.

Personal Jesus

Awhile back BrianJ asked me these two questions. I thought I’d answer them here.

How do you know that Jesus is real?

First off, I think the historical evidence is solid that Jesus was a real man living in present-day Israel 2,000 years ago. Further I think the evidence is solid that he was crucified by the Romans and that his followers immediately began boldly preaching that He rose from the grave. He’s not a mythical figure. He was a real, flesh and blood man who walked the earth.  We can know that he existed with as much certainty as we can know any other historical fact.

I’m aware that Brian is asking me something more metaphyscial than my opinion of ancient historical evidences but I think it’s important to start there.  Based on that same historical evidence I think we can safely assume that Jesus equated himself with the Jewish god and that by his own power he defeated death. The claims of those beliefs are much more controversial and carry much greater consequence, but I rest my own interactions with the resurrected Jesus on those historical claims.

I experience Jesus in my life today through reading his words and the words of his early followers. Based on the experiences and practices of other believers I try different methods of communicating with Jesus. I compare my experiences with other believers and look for points of connection and agreement.

In particular, I’m interested in the radical life change I see in new believers and I see how my own life continues to be transformed as I practice greater dependence on His teachings. I feel inner promptings that sound different than my own inner-dialogue and more often than not, when I listen and obey those promptings other people are encouraged.  I’ve also audibly heard the voice of God on one occasion.

How do you know that you have a “personal relationship” with him? (Apologies if that phrase is not used in your church.)

The phrase “personal relationship” is rather new in the history of Christianity. I believe he got its start in an effort to encourage people to make the Christian faith one of their own choosing. It’s not intended to be a cultural system that one accepts as part of a larger community. It’s meant to be an individual pursuit that’s lived out in a larger community of faith. In places where Christianity is the predominant cultural language it’s important to encourage people to be self-reflective and intentional about their faith.  Far more people check the box on the survey that says “Christian” than people who actually seek to make their lives emulate Jesus’. To have a personal relationship with Jesus is to personally choose to follow him.  To make a direct individual choice.

In addition, as a real, living person, Jesus can be known.  His invitation is not just to be like him but to know him. Jesus works through his (universal) church, but he also works through individuals.  He actually speaks, empowers and motivates individuals.  His calling for every believer is individual and “personal.” To have a “personal relationship with Jesus” is to know what that calling is for yourself. I know I have a relationship with Jesus because I can hear, feel and see him speaking directly to me and using me for his kingdom.

Many times when people are investigating Christianity, Christians will advise that the investigator just give themselves over to a personal relationship. The advice seems to be that individuals should not be concerned with the particulars of the faith but should just experience this “personal Jesus.” I totally understand why Christians promote this.  Many of them have had powerful metaphysical experiences upon saying “yes” to a life in pursuit of Jesus.  Today we call it a “born again experience.” I would disagree, but some would say that you aren’t a true Christian unless you’ve had such an experience.

The reason Evangelicals promote this idea is because it’s a short-cut to understanding. If a person has an experience like this, the particulars of the faith immediately make much more sense. It’s like if I tried to tell you all about my wife. I could probably write a book about my wife, but if you actually met her the time you would need to understand who she is would be cut short.

Would you say your understanding of a personal relationship with Jesus is the same?

More Than a Bible

A recent study showed that nearly 50% of disaffected Mormons become atheist or agnostics. A mere 11% identify themselves as Christians. I think this is a matter of serious concern. Regardless of church affiliation I imagine the LDS heirarchy would like to see all of those who have crossed their path to be in some way devoted to the teachings of Jesus.

Disaffection from Mormonism and Christianity is a complicated topic so I don’t thing I can pinpoint the exact reason this occurs. But I think that a portion of the reason this happens is due to the story the LDS church uses to explain its origin. Another reason is found in some of the LDS evangelistic and apologetic messaging. In short, the LDS church tells its members and potential converts that the Bible is weak and unreliable and that Christianity is shallow, hollow and untrustworthy. The church does this in order to give the Book of Mormon and the LDS church a position of prominence and superior relevance in the life of its members. Does it leave any wonder why former Mormons leave Christianity all together when they lose faith in Mormonism?

This answer from FAIR about sharing the best way to tell people about the Book of Mormon highlights my point:

The Bible alone, as magnificent as it is, has not united the believing world under one Lord, one faith or one baptism. In fact, it seems that the Bible itself has never come under more criticism or skepticism at any time since its inception than it is today. Many around the world are concluding that the Bible is irrelevant in their lives. They say that Jesus may have been just a legend or a mere myth which, over time, transformed him into a God in the minds of a group of people who came to call themselves Christians. The very value of scripture seems to be assailed constantly.

The April 2012 General Conference seemed to have a thread of awareness in it that secular materialism is becoming a threat to faith and that there are shared values found in Protestant denominations. If the LDS church wants to consider itself a part of the larger Christian family it needs to do its part to tone down its own sectarian rhetoric. The simple fact is that we are now living in a post-Christian society. Disaffection to mainstream Christianity is not the threat that Mormonism needs to worry itself with (particularly when its making its own move in that direction).

I was glad to hear L. Tom Perry affirm the need for the Bible in this month’s General Conference. I’d like to see Mormon apologist do more of the same. The current apologetic approach seems to be to affirm and build the secular case against the Bible in order to make room for distinct Mormon doctrines. I think this has the unintended consequence of actually weakening Mormon faith. Mormons need to acknowledge and affirm the important place the Bible has in their religion. They need to be strengthening the case for the Bible. There need to be Mormon apologetic resources which make the case for the reliability of the Bible. Until such time I think we can continue to see disaffected Mormons not only lose their faith in Joseph Smith but Jesus as well.

How to Read the Bible

When approaching the Bible and deciding how to interpret its meaning there are three main approaches used by Evangelicals .  All three approaches overlap to some degree and on their far ends may even be completely dissimilar.  These categories and descriptions can be considered my own and be viewed as a general way in which these approaches are used in practice.

Here are some descriptions pulled from

Biblical Literalism: the interpretation or translation of the explicit and primary sense of words in the Bible. The essence of this approach focuses upon the author’s intent as the primary meaning of the text. It does not mean a complete denial of literary aspects, genre, or figures of speech within the text (e.g., parable, allegory, simile, or metaphor).

Biblical Inerrancy: the doctrinal position that the Bible is accurate and totally free of error, that “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.”

Biblical Infallibility: the belief that what the Bible says regarding matters of faith and Christian practice is wholly useful and true. It is the “belief that the Bible is completely trustworthy as a guide to salvation and the life of faith and will not fail to accomplish its purpose.”

The three terms are occasionally conflated or synonymous with one another.  Literalism is often used a pejorative for Inerrancy and occasionally Inerrancy and Infallibility are synonymous with one another.
Continue reading

Jesus Not Religion

This video is quickly filling up my Facebook newsfeed from other Evangelicals.  I can’t decide if I like it or hate it.  It’s definitely one or the other, but nothing in between.

About 15 years ago it became clever for Evangelicals to say “I’m not in a religion, I’m in a relationship”.  I agree with the sentiment but the cute factor has worn off. In response to the video, one fellow Evangelical stated “I hate religion, but I love how righteously awesome I am! To all you haters out there who are about to tell me that I am arrogant, you’d be smart to remove the log in your eye before you start practicing your “religion” in my general direction.”

Regardless, I think the video is worth watching and I think there are valuable things to take away from it.

Why Was Jesus Baptized?

I knew a pastor who years ago received his ordination from one of Southern California’s first mega-churches.  The head pastor was known for being a strong Bible-first expositional preacher.  His knowledge of the Bible was notorious and intimidating.  As part of the ordination process, my friend had to submit himself to something similar to an oral exam in front of a panel of other pastors who quizzed him on his theology and knowledge of the Bible.

The head pastor always posed something of a trick question to those he faced; “If Jesus was sinless, why did he submit himself to a baptism of repentance at the hands of John the Baptist?”

Matthew 3:11-15 (ESV) says:

I baptize you with water for repentance but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.

I’ve kept this question with me since hearing the story.  In conversations with Mormons it’s often suggested that Jesus was baptized to set an example for what we must do.  I don’t disagree with this.  I think followers of Jesus should follow Jesus’ example and be baptized.  But I think I’d like to put a caveat on that.

John was baptizing Jesus with a baptism of repentance.  Repentance is clearly an important and fundamental step in trusting Jesus. To be saved by Jesus a person has to be saved from something.  Recognizing one’s sin and turning away from it (and toward Jesus) must happen.

But I don’t believe Jesus, as a sinless person, needed to repent.  Jesus was indeed baptized by John but not for repentance.

Matthew 3 continues:

And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him,and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him;  and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

I think John was absolutely correct in objecting that he wasn’t qualified to baptize Jesus.  Jesus had him proceed because it didn’t matter who baptized him.  Jesus’ baptism was a confession of his devotion to God, and God’s confession of his devotion to Jesus. The only two participants of concern were Jesus and God. The righteousness that was fulfilled was not the absolution of sin in Jesus’ life but rather the confessions of Jesus, the Father and the Holy Spirit.

As Christians, we follow Jesus’ example in baptism.  But we do not follow Jesus in a baptism of repentance.  We do not carry on the baptism of John the Baptist.  We carry on the baptism of Jesus, a baptism of identification and commitment. Just as John was an insignificant and unqualified baptizer, it doesn’t matter by whose authority we are baptized.  What matters is how and why we stand before God in our baptism.

The Father and the Son

In 1916 the First Presidency of the LDS Church published this statement written by James Talmage.  It might be compared to the Nicene Creed in it’s importance to Mormon thought on the nature of God.  Out of consequence of this statement the doctrine of Adam-God was abandoned, Joseph Smith’s recognition of Heavenly Father being named Jehovah was contradicted and eventually the Lectures on Faith were removed from the LDS canon.

It’s interesting that this statement wasn’t presented as a revelation, nor was it added to the LDS canon.  It is clearly a work of theology but it seems to have had precedence over both Joseph Smith and what was at that time scripture.  The work of theologians is generally shunned by the modern LDS church but here we have an example of it shaping Mormon doctrine in rather profound ways.

“As an official document from the First Presidency, the orthodoxy of the Church regarding the Godhead was established. What Nicaea and Alexandria accomplished for the Catholic Church, this document accomplished for the Latter-day Saints. Regardless of what had been said before, this was the new standard for doctrinal accuracy.”
[Brian W. Ricks, “James E. Talmage and the Nature of the Godhead” (M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 2007), 132]”

Continue reading

The Nature of God Illustrated

The Nature of God Illustrated The chief differences between Mormonism and Christianity are often difficult to decipher. I recently attended a seminar presented by Carl Mosser in which he tried to spotlight the different faiths in terms of contrasting worldviews. It’s one thing to say that they are similar because they both feature Jesus as the Savior of humanity. It’s another to broaden the picture to the origins of the universe itself. Is Jesus the only self-existing Creator ever or is he one of many self-existing beings? Perhaps he’s part of a vast universal system that forms matter together into beings that in turn form more matter together.

In a good faith attempt to illustrate the various religious views on the nature of God (and the capital “U” Universe”) I created this diagram. A comment by Christian J inspired the reptilian illustration. Virtually no one sees God as some sort of reptile, it’s merely a humorous attempt at illustrating the ideas that each worldview presents.

I will gladly admit that the Mormon section was the most difficult to capture. Depending on the Mormon you talk to, and the day you talk to him, I’m sure there are many different ideas floating around. Blake Ostler for instance will give a picture more inline with Social Trinitarianism. So go easy on me if you think I got it wrong. If you disagree, I’m interested to know how you would have drawn it.

Click the image to see the full-size version, you may have to click the image again when it pops up to see it in full magnification (browser dependent).

*Made a few clarifying edits on 11/8/11.