The Message of Sin to a Mormon Missionary

I spent quite a bit of time as a missionary seeking out Evangelicals to talk with.  (I spent 8 months of my mission within a mile of Azusa Pacific University, and I would tract through the student housing for fun.)  Most of the Evangelicals that I met approached me with one of two attitudes: (1) ridicule, and (2 ) fear. I have never felt anyone fear me like I have felt in the presence of some true-believing Evangelicals when I was a missionary. I can chalk some of this up to pure physical presence (I was 6″2, and built a sort of like a skinny orangutan) but I am not a particularly hostile person, and I had made it clear that I was there to learn from them if they were.

It seemed that most of the fear came when I expressed my faith with both confidence and demonstrated knowledge of the Bible.  I seemed to be able to explain my faith better than they could, and in a more confident spirit. Because they “knew” I was wrong, this made them fear that they did not have the prowess or ability to correct me, so they simply wanted escape.  They saw me as a representative of the devil, when I knew I was a representative of God. I knew I was not from the devil, I knew I was there to save them, and they seemed to fear the salvation on offer.  Their fear made me think that the Gospel they believed in must be deeply confused.

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Mormon Doctrine as Positive Law

Gundek suggested I lay out my thinking regarding Mormonism as a system of positive laws. Here goes:

The LDS Church is structured in the doctrine of unity. To them, Christ  himself decreed: “Be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine” (D&C 38:27.)  This command is still at the very root of the way the Church is run today.  This unity is also at the heart of the project of the Church, which is to bring about Zion.  To the LDS, the concept of Zion was simply defined by Jehovah who applied that name to the city established by the antediluvian Enoch “because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” (Moses 7:18.) Zion is a sort of heaven on earth, so much so that, in theory, when people approach Zion in practice, they are translated, i.e. taken to heaven to await the final establishment of Zion.

Unity of heart and mind is generally considered a celestial standard by the LDS, which generally means that it is part of the higher law, the political goal striven for in this life, but ultimately reached after the Second Coming of Christ.  In theory, the Church was designed as the human vehicle for establishment of Zion on earth. As a Mormon, I saw most of the law throughout Biblical and LDS church as human groping with the Spirit to form a Zion society.  The law differed from time-to-time based on what was needed to move toward Zion. The differences were based what the culture and temperament of the people that followed God could sustain.  The doctrines and practices are contingent and transitory steps to produce Zion rather than dogmatic principles of theology.

What this has meant, in practice, is that the political unity of the Church is the paramount priority over the perfection of its theology or practice. Getting the right answer on they way the church has run is less important than getting behind the leadership.  Most theological questions are intentionally left unanswered. In rough terms, this is a system where the policy of the Church is considered correct, not because of its intellectual justification, but fact that the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve, and the Membership have ratified it. The ultimate basis for the authority of the ratification comes from the conscience of the Church as it listens to the spirit. Thus, apostasy has little to do with theology or even argument, but a rejection of the structure that controls the ordinances of the Gospel.

In this way, most of the policies of the church are properly considered posited– i.e.  not directly derived from scripture, reason, or nature but established by proposition by the leadership and ratification by the membership. Unlike with Protestantism, Church doctrine and practice is not derived by interpretation of scripture through some hermeneutic principle. Church doctrine, including the content of Church covenants, is dependent on institutional facts, not the merits of a particular scriptural interpretation or philosophical argument.  This view was helpful to me as a Mormon in explaining the sweeping changes that have been made in the rules and practices and even the ordinances of the Church.  It also explains the pragmatic approach taken by the Church in policy over the years.

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.)

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Mormons believe in a Mother in Heaven

Since Tim is gone, I thought I would back him up by writing a Tim-Style Post.  i.e. throw out a controversial LDS doctrine in sort of a challenging way and then open it up for comments.

Few Mormon doctrines are more radically paradigm-shifting than the believe in the existence of a Heavenly Mother.

What equally interesting to me is what this particular doctrine tells about how Mormonism works.

I think Evangelicals often stand with open-mouth when they read that those crazy Mormon’s believe such things because they are nowhere to be found in the Bible.  Aside from being a radical shift in understanding of God and Man between Protestants and Mormons, the doctrine also shows a fundamental difference in the way Mormons form their personal theology vs. the way Evangelicals seem to go about it.  This is what I want to explore with this post.  To try to explain to bible-focused (limited?) Evangelicals why Mormons believe in a Mother in Heaven, even when its not in the bible.  For this I am going to have to call on the usual bunch of commentators.

Few people, if any, know the ultimate origin of the idea that we have a Mother in Heaven.  Joseph Smith does not seem to have spoken directly about it in his life and there is no reference in the LDS Canon.

The first time we see it in writing comes from a woman, Eliza R. Snow, in a hymn, “O My Father”  President Kimball acknowledged that “O My Father” was a “doctrinal hymn” and dozens of prophets and apostles have reiterated this idea.

President Lorenzo Snow explained that Eliza Snow got the doctrine from Joseph shortly before he was murdered.

President Spencer W. Kimball in a general conference address:

“When we sing that doctrinal hymn … ‘O My Father,’ we get a sense of the ultimate in maternal modesty, of the restrained, queenly elegance of our Heavenly Mother, and knowing how profoundly our mortal mothers have shaped us here, do we suppose her influence on us as individuals to be less?” (Ensign, May 1978, p. 6.)

The doctrine of the hymn is pretty straightforward, there is a mother in heaven and we will return to live with Her and the Father, and that they together sent people on their mission to earth:

I had learned to call thee Father,
Thru thy Spirit from on high,
But, until the key of knowledge
Was restored, I knew not why.
In the heav’ns are parents single?
No, the thought makes reason stare!
Truth is reason; truth eternal

Tells me I’ve a mother there.
Let me come and dwell with you.
With your mutual approbation
All you sent me forth to do,
Then, at length, when I’ve completed
When I leave this frail existence,
When I lay this mortal by,
Father, Mother, may I meet you
In your royal courts on high?

So there we have it, a revolutionary new way of looking at God and heaven that turns traditional notions on their ear.

Mormons believe it, but I can see the Evangelicals left scratching their heads:

  1. The doctrine is not found in scripture, including Mormon Scripture
  2. The doctrine was not explicitly taught or explained by Joseph Smith (even though it is pretty clear that he was claimed that he originally  taught the doctrine)
  3. It really shifts away from all traditional interpretations of the Bible.

I can see how an Evangelical is probably left dumbfounded:  “You can’t win with those Mormons, how can I teach them correct theology whenthey are going to beleive stuff like this with such slim support or understanding?”

Here we have, in my mind, the genius as well as the vulnerability of  Mormonism. . . our willingness to believe in things that are not in the Bible.  To some Mormons, this doctrine is very uncomfortable.  We sometimes downplay it and even reproach those that make “too much” of it due to the little we “know” about it.  To others, agreeing with Eliza R. Snow, it makes religion make more sense: i.e. “If man is made in the image of God, why wouldn’t there be family in heaven as well as on earth. ”

I think if we can give a good explanation to our Evangelical friends  of why we believe this doctrine, they will be a lot closer to really understanding Mormonism.  (and we might have a clearer way of understanding our own view of how “doctrine” is born).

So Mormons, explain to Evangelicals :

1. Do you believe in a Mother in Heaven? and

2. Why?

3. What is the significance of the doctrine to you, to the Church, and to the world?

Evangelicals, we know you don’t believe it, and we know its not in the Bible, if you try to understand why we believe you may learn a lot about Mormonism in general that will enlighten you on how we do religion in other areas.

A challenge to anybody who believes in the Bible: Does lack of unity make us less Christian?

Are we unified? 

I have thought about what the goal and purpose of the discussions we have on this blog and debates/discussions like Millett v. Johnson.    One goal that Christians could have would be to “become one” as Jesus seems to demand of his followers.  (Of course, one way to avoid the task is simply to deny certain groups the right to be His followers. )    As a critical thinking Mormon, who thinks Jesus’ request may be possible, I have the following questions for those who believe the Bible is the primary and final authority on religion: 

1. Is the Bible obviously trustworthy?  Can reasonable people doubt that the Bible is true and correct? 

Follow up questions: Assuming that the Bible isn’t obviously true, even after diligent reading and study,  what is the process by which we can find out if the Bible is trustworthy? What should we trust other than the text of the Bible to determine its worth? 

2. Is your intepretation of the Bible regarding the nature of God and Jesus the only possible reasonable interpretation? 

Follow up: If it isn’t the only possible reasonable interpretation and it is true that reasonable minds can disagree on the interpretation using the text alone is it possible to resolve these disputes? What are reliable places to look to resolve disputes in interpretation aside from the text of the Bible itself.  

3. Is your intepretation of the Bible completely free of possible undue influence of your own personal history, background, emotional temperment, community, or family? 

follow up: Our contexts and perspectives can often give us insight into things that others don’t have, and often can often lead us to wrong-headed positions.  If you think this may not be true for your clear-headed thinking, you should admit that others may have this problem.  If your own context and perspective may distort your inteprepetation, can we be so certain of our own position or uncertain that somebody may not have a clearer view from their perspective? 

My own conclusion:  

If you cannot answer “yes” to these four questions,and you are a believer in the Bible doesn’t it follow that the God of the Bible created (or allowed) reality where: 

(1) the truth of the “true” religion is not clear and obvious to all observers, and

(2) it is difficult to determine whether we have the capacity to see clearly from our perspectives

(3) the correct interpretation of the inspired writings we have are is not unambiguously clear 

(4) Differing intepretations, even on the most fundemental theological issues amongst even the most devout believers, are unavoidable

Thus, isn’t it unfair and unreasonable to assume that you are in a position to exclude believers in the Bible from fellowship of Christians solely based on your “correct” interpretation of the Bible?  If so, isn’t it unreasonabe (and un-Christian) to exclude similarly believing people from fellowship of believers because of differing interpretations?  

What unity must mean: 

I think John 17:20-21 is a remarkable passage:  

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.

To an Evangelicals, it seems that unity among believers in “the message” or “the word” is (should be) a critical part of spreading the Gospel to the world. 

Given the text and the reality of ambiguity and uncertainty of interpretation, must not believers in the Bible seek and aknowledge some degree of unity with other believers in scripture prior to debating intepreptations of the Bible and despite differences in interpretation and belief

Shouldn’t we be one before the debate begins?

The Problem of Revelation for Mormons and Evangelicals

A guest post from Jared C


Something that I have been thinking about while reading the interesting back and forth between Tim, our Evangelical friend and us Mormons is our theories of revelation. This may be a bit controversial for some of my fellow Mormons but I would like to hear a reaction from all sides:

Both Evangelicals and Mormons accept and rely on revelation for understanding of God. LDS and Evangelicals as groups, take all scripture very seriously as inspired of God. Both groups generally reject revisionist descriptions of biblical authorship and both generally agree that the books of the Bible were written by unique inspired men. (e.g. they both generally believe in one Isaiah, not three). They reject the so called “liberal” scholarship that explains away the miraculous and supernatural in the text.

Evangelicalism and Mormonism seems to be equally rooted in the idea that although people can and do receive messages, callings, inspiration, guidance from God. Evangelicals believe, however that the Bible is the ultimate and final source of truth and all other revelation and inspiration needs to be gauged and measured against it. This is because the Bible is considered free from error and therefore can be used prove and reprove doctrine and ideas brought up in the church. Although the Bible was written by men, was directed and brought forth by God, much as the director of a play with the scripture authors as the actors. Mormonism challenges the notion that the Bible is the only possible source of such inspired and directed truth and contends that the play is not over, but in another act.

Latter-Day Saints cogently point out that (1) there is nothing in the Bible that says future revelation is not possible and (2) it is not consistent with how God has operated throughout the bible to refrain from speaking to his people through revelation.

Even if you reject the Book of Mormon, even if it was a proven hoax, these objections would remain. There appears to be no biblical reason to limit God in such away as to preclude Him from sending down additional scripture that should be considered as important as canon. Further, knowing what we know about the prophets and patriarchs in the Bible, we cannot rule out someone from scripture authorship for any particular character flaw. There is no reason to limit a God whom prophets have foretold would use the weak things of the world to pull down the wise.

However, there remains a serious problem, from my perspective, for LDS to be able to coherently explain this process of revelation to the rest of Christianity. Without a coherent explanation of how prophets work that jibes with history of those who were purported to be prophets (Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff, etc. along with Biblical prophets.)

From one perspective, I can understand the Evangelical position. Opening up the canon opens up Pandora’s box in a theological sense. Without a standard, that is taken unquestioned and closed, you are left open to question (or accept) almost any doctrine or idea inside or outside the Bible. The ultimate standard of the Spirit, which LDS believe teach to be the test of all Scripture and Prophets, in practice does not yield the ideological and doctrinal unity that a large organization craves in order to remain intact as a global organization. This is, of course, due to the accepted idea within Mormonism that the Spirit effects men differently and blends with their prejudice in a way that even allows Prophets to firmly believe doctrines that no one (now) accepts as inspired (i.e. the Adam-God theory).

What I see happening in the Church is a process of refining and reforming doctrine and history to make it cohere into a more unified package. The problem I see is that this process appears as political and “people centered” as the Council of Nicaea that is so often scorned by LDS. The “correlation” of LDS doctrines and teaching into a more coherent whole, in principle, appears no different than the consensus and tradition method that traditional brands of Christianity have followed. We knock off and disregard the more “radical”, unpopular, or “speculative” ideas, without really strong reasons for preferring the less-radical, non-“speculative” sides of the issue . Some LDS, I think reasonably, are resentful of the “correlating” that seems to nip and tuck doctrines to make the church more compatible with more traditional notions about God. Doctrines that were clearly held to be absolutely inspired by previous prophets are essentially forgotten or disregarded by current leadership and membership (i.e. polygamy). It is like Nicaea with the added drawback of being LESS transparent and open.

So, from where I sit, while Evangelicals don’t have a good answer for why they firmly reject the idea of writing new Scripture, Mormons really don’t have a good explanation for why some inspired writing is Scripture and some not. Without such an coherent explanation that matches previous practice, I think Mormons will have a hard time convincing the hundreds of millions that cling to the Bible as the final word, to open themselves to the thousands that have claimed to be Prophets since the canon was closed.

Because Joseph Said It Was True

Leviticus 18:18
Do not take your wife’s sister as a rival wife and have sexual relations with her while your wife is living.

In March of 1843 Joseph Smith took two sisters, Emily and Eliza Partridge as polygamous wives. (Actually he married them twice but that’s another story.) In discussing Old Testament polygamy, defenders of latter-day polygamy are quick to point out the provisions and restrictions on polygamy listed in the Bible as justification.

As interesting as polygamy is, this post is not about that.

A problem I think Evangelicals and Mormons encounter in discussing Biblical doctrine is that we’re really not on the same playing field. We have different rules for its application. We Evangelicals want to show why Mormonism is false by illustrating through the Bible why Mormon doctrine is in contradiction to the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. The slipperiness or non-existence of Mormon doctrine not withstanding, this is a difficult proposition.

It is difficult for one reason. Despite the fact that Mormons claim that the Bible is scripture and hold it up as such, the Bible will always take a seat when something Joseph Smith said or did comes in contradiction to it. Joseph can do or say anything because he says he’s a prophet with authority over the Bible. I point out the passage from Numbers as an illustration of this. Here on one hand, we have a clear Biblical passage restricting polygamous wives from being sisters. On our other hand we have Joseph Smith’s direct violation of this commandment. Mormons will wave this off quite simply by saying “But God commanded him to do it.”

So it seems that no matter how clearly the Bible might or might not illuminate to us that there is and only will be ONE God, it’s generally fruitless for me to point it out because Joseph was told something different. Mormons will always hold the words of Joseph Smith over the words of the Bible.

What troubles me about that is that I have friends who are willing to reject teachings of the Bible in favor of something one man merely says Gold told him. There is no evidence for any of Joseph’s revelation whether it is the plurality of gods or the plurality of wives that anyone experienced other than Joseph Smith. The only thing anyone has ever had to go on is “because Joseph said it was true” (and perhaps “I’ve got a good feeling about it”).

I could point out Biblical passages which instruct us to accept new prophecy only when it conforms to scripture. But here again, there’s no point in directing Mormons to the Bible, as long as Joseph tells them that his new revelations supercede scripture and they decide to take his word for it.

The Problem With Orthodoxy

It’s been said that Evangelicals are most concerned with orthodoxy (right doctrine) and Mormons are most concerned with orthopraxy (right practice). There are many Biblical reasons to hold strong to sound teaching and to defend good doctrine. But a place I see that the quest for orthodoxy can cause problems is when the bar for orthodoxy gets pushed past essential and core doctrine and well into issues that we are uncertain and unclear about.

A great example of this in the Evangelical world concerns pre-millenial, pre-tribulationism. This is the idea that Christ will return before his 1,000 year reign on earth. Before that happens there will be a 7 year tribulation, where the Anti-Christ will rule the world under one government and the earth will be under great torment. Before any of this begins, God will rapture all true believers and rescue them from this destructive time in human history. This view is most popularly expressed by the “Left Behind” series of books (totally off topic but a terrible excuse for literature and an embarrassment to Evangelical artistic efforts).

There are a great many Evangelicals who agree with the interpretation of the Bible’s description of the end times. I think there are many good reasons to believe this theological position is true and accurate. But there’s also plenty of reasons to conclude that this understanding may be missing the mark. My greater concern is not the belief in pre-tribulationalism, but the utter devotion to it. There are many people who are simply OBSESSED with figuring out how current events fit into the plot of Revelation. There has not been a time in my life when I haven’t heard some one guessing at which of the latest political leaders is the Anti-Christ or which of America’s enemies is the great whore described in Revelation 17.

I have some real concerns when Evangelicals make pre-tribulationalism any sort of benchmark for orthodoxy. I’ve seen too many people switch churches over the issue and far too many missionaries and full time ministers forced to change organizations because they don’t feel they can hold to pre-tribulationalism any longer and the organization is forced to choose their doctrinal statement over their people. This should not be a central and defining issue.

  • First off, this view point has only been around for about 100 years. In the scope of Christian history its a minority position. In one discussion, as I was pointing out the problems with this view, I heard some people say “well I’m just going to hold the normal view that everyone else holds.” Most Christians have not held a view anything like modern pre-tribulationalism.
  • Second, there is WAAAAY too much about the Book of Revelation that we don’t understand, that should be the first thing we say about that book.
  • Third, no where in the Bible does it explicitly express that the rapture will take place before the tribulation. A rapture is definitely stated, but we have no idea when it will happen.
  • Fourth, we shouldn’t take any meaning or understanding out of the Book of Revelation that 1st Century Christians didn’t understand. It was written specifically to them, not to us. We just get to learn from what was said to them. If anybody should be more clueless about “what it all means” it should be us, not them. A decent reading of Roman history will show that much of the book would seem quite familiar to the 1st Century persecuted church.
  • Fifth and most importantly, if we become too dogmatic about how and when Christ will return we run the risk of making the same mistake the Jews made in the 1st Century. We position ourselves to miss Christ because he doesn’t come the way we think he should return.