Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Heavenly Father: Sinless Redeemer or Redeemed Sinner?

One of the more distinctive aspects of mainstream, historic LDS teaching is that, just as we are spirit-children of our Heavenly Father and currently experience a mortal probation before attaining to exaltation, so did our Heavenly Father himself have Heavenly Parents of his own and have his own mortal experiences. One question on which Latter-day Saints have often been divided - but an important one, I think - is whether the Father was himself a sinless redeemer, like Christ, or was himself a sinner in need of redemption, like every one of us. Aaron Shafovaloff, an associate of Mormonism Research Ministry (an Evangelical ministry that takes a stance that Mormonism is incompatible with Christianity), has done some deep probing into this particular issue. Aaron conducted video interviews with a wide range of Latter-day Saints in order to get a feel for what position, exactly, is likely to be taken by the average Latter-day Saint; the result is a definite show of diversity, but with a number of Latter-day Saints stating that they firmly hold out the possibility or even the definite belief that the Father was a sinner, because it gives them comfort to think so. Please view the video yourself:

A number of LDS interviewees seemed to believe that it's rather inconsequential what God may or may not have done in the past. This fits with a dominant trend I've seen among many Latter-day Saints to hold that giving much thought to 'speculative' theology as opposed to practical theology is a waste of time. Knowing whether the Father has anyone to worship is less important than knowing not to drink coffee. Knowing when and how the Father or the Son became divine is less important than knowing to use water to represent the blood of Christ, rather than a grape product of some sort like Jesus used or like his apostles used. Knowing what exactly exaltation means is less important than knowing where the Garden of Eden was. Knowing whether or not the Father is a polygamist is less important than knowing precisely how much of our money to turn over to the ecclesiastical authorities or forfeit our good standing. Knowing whether or not the Father might once have been an idolater, a false prophet, a pedophile, an abusive husband, or a slave trader is less important than knowing how exactly to interpret one isolated verse in 1 Corinthians. Such are the implications of that sort of thinking. By way of contrast, many other Christians realize that if God is the most important being there is, then a question about the nature and character of God is a truly significant question, not some idle curiosity to be sneered at by holier-than-thou pragmatists. After all, eternal life is rooted in truly knowing God (John 17:3), and Joseph Smith agreed, which is why in his famed King Follett Discourse he announced that eternal life could not be had without accepting the theology he articulated in that message - which makes it all the more problematic that many Latter-day Saints dismiss that sermon so readily.

At any rate, for an Evangelical, the answer to the question is simple. God the Father is God from everlasting to everlasting. He never attained exaltation and/or godhood, as though true deity were something that could be acquired. God the Father is, by metaphysical necessity, absolutely perfect. He always has been perfect and holy, he is perfect and holy, and he always will be perfect and holy. Therefore, he never sinned or did anything morally wrong, nor could he do so. The same is true of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Anything less would not be the true ultimate reality; anything less would not truly be God. Anything less would therefore be an idol, and any suggestion that the Father might have sinned or attained godhood would be a blasphemy against him.

And this is what makes the LDS diversity on the issue so problematic. Many of the Latter-day Saints interviewed felt much the same reaction to the question that an Evangelical, a Catholic, or an Orthodox Christian would have: no, it isn't possible that the Father was a sinner, since he's perfect from everlasting to everlasting. And yet, LDS thought is broad enough to make an allowance for what seems to basically every other Christian out there, and perhaps even to some LDS adherents, to be outright blasphemy. (This is part of why so many other Christians are reluctant to extend the right hand of fellowship to Latter-day Saints as fellow Christians.) Now, of course, as has been mentioned, there are strains of LDS thought that uphold the Father's perfection throughout the past as well as the present and future. And that is commendable and right. The problem, as an outsider such as myself sees it, is that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as an institution, has never - to my knowledge and to the knowledge of many others, including apparently a majority or at least a significant proportion of its own followers - repudiated the notion that, e.g., our Heavenly Father was once an extremely grievous sinner (unlike Jesus, who then would have to be considered more successful and righteous than his Father).

Aaron, in an article ("God Never Sinned") meant to accompany the video, presents a number of brief arguments showing the importance of the eternal sinlessness of God:

  • God is maximally reliable; a God who never sinned is more reliable than a God who sinned; and therefore God never sinned.
  • It is better to have never sinned than to have sinned; God is the best of all possible beings; and therefore God never sinned.
  • If God had sinned, then whoever forgave him is greater than he is; but God is the Most High and therefore has no one greater than he is; and therefore God never sinned.
  • It is unwise to sin; but God has always been perfectly wise; and therefore God never sinned.
  • Sinners only continue to exist because of grace; but God has always been self-existent; and therefore God never sinned.
  • Someone redeemed from sin would do wrong to not continually declare that his redeemer is greater than himself; but the Father does no wrong now and also declares himself to be the greatest of all; and therefore God was never redeemed from sin, and therefore God never sinned.
  • God is the same from everlasting to everlasting; but God is not deficient in moral character now; and therefore he never was deficient in moral character; but sin makes one deficient in moral character; and therefore God never sinned.

These are only a handful of the relatively simple arguments he offers. I recommend a review of Aaron's article, since it answers a number of questions and objections that are likely to be raised. One thing I especially like about Aaron's article is that it's much more nuanced, comparatively speaking, than some of the other work put out by Evangelical 'countercult' ministries. Aaron nowhere alleges that the LDS Church officially teaches that God the Father was a sinner. He isn't simply prooftexting from obscure statements by important past LDS leaders (though those can, of course, form part of a sophisticated argument as well). Rather, his point is that this sort of position is not ruled out, not discouraged, but clearly allowed to prosper unchecked - which itself, he alleges, is a troublesome failing on the part of the church's leadership. You may disagree, if you either think that God the Father really did sin or else don't see the big deal. And that, I think, is part of the problem.

At any rate, what about you? Do you believe that God the Father was once a sinner? Or, if perhaps you're not prepared to assert it, do you still hold it open as a distinct possibility when you think about it? And if you're in either of those camps, I'd like to invite you to do a brief thought experiment. Imagine an incredibly, incredibly heinous sin, one that you find morally repugnant, but which the Church does not teach would exclude one permanently from exaltation (so you'll have to omit murder and blasphemy against the Holy Spirit). Now, imagine that billions of years ago, that is a sin that Heavenly Father committed habitually and repeatedly before turning his life around. Think hard about the feelings that evokes. Personally, when I do it, I'm overcome with a feeling of revulsion; I cannot accept the notion that God the Father could ever have been in that position, because I believe so strongly in God's flawless holiness. What sort of a reaction do you have?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Highlight: Agitating Faithfully

This time around, the site to which I'd like to draw attention was first brought to my notice by Jack, first on Facebook and more recently in a blog post about it. Jack, like myself, is a strong egalitarian, so we both have considerable interest in the issue of women and ministry, as well as in the issue of women and priesthood within LDS circles. In a 1997 interview, President Gordon B. Hinckley was asked about whether it's possible that the priesthood ban against women could eventually be lifted; his answer was that it could if revelation made that clear, but at present the women of the church seemed largely content with their status. (Historically, many revelations have been given when occasioned by the rise of an issue in the church, so a Latter-day Saint could seek to justify this gender inequality by saying that the reason no revelation has yet been given on that issue is that it just hasn't become enough of an issue in the church.) As President Hinckley expressed it, "Yes. But there's no agitation for that [i.e., equality]. We don't find it. Our women are happy. They're satisfied."

And so that brings us to the mission of the site: Agitating Faithfully. As site owner Dave Laverty says, commenting on President Hinckley's remarks:

In other words, if we're not seeing progress toward gender equality, the prophet is telling us it's because we don't care enough to do anything about it. This site is my attempt to take the prophet at his word and do something about it.

The site also includes answers to some popular questions that are likely to be raised. (Provision of answers is ongoing and as of yet some of the questions have not been answered.) I'd like to encourage any readers to pay close attention to this. What I think is great is that, because of the statements made by President Hinckley (assuming, as I would hope, that they were sincere and not disingenuous), those associated with this project are legitimately able to frame this petition as a stance truly available to faithful members. One cannot dismiss supporters of Agitating Faithfully's mission as being heterodox dissidents from the LDS Church; their proposal is completely compatible with even the strongest positive views on the LDS Church as a divinely led institution - and because of that, they deserve a fair hearing that might not be given to those who give the appearance of wanting to tear down the Church or to remake it in their own image. Of course, that unfortunately doesn't mean that LDS cultural norms against such 'agitation' might not produce a negative reaction to those who sign this petition.

[EDIT (4 March 2011): Please also be sure to check out John Dehlin's interview with Dane Laverty on the Mormon Stories podcast.]

What do you think? To LDS readers in particular: Would you support a move to give priesthood to women? Do you think it will someday happen?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Highlight: Global Mormonism Project

So recently I was chasing random thoughts of mine through the long, cavernous halls of the Internet. I've been thinking lately about how much I miss Turkey (I spent a week there in late 2009 on a pilgrimage to the sites of the seven ecumenical councils), and I'd love to go back there someday, especially to visit places further east such as Cappadocia. At any rate, this got me to thinking about what sort of presence The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has in Turkey these days, and so I did a quick Google search, pondering: "What sort of website would actually have that information?"

I wonder no longer! I promptly came across the Global Mormonism Project, hosted - naturally - by Brigham Young University. The Global Mormonism Project has information about LDS history in every country that it's touched, as well as useful statistics and other data. I relished the information on its Turkey page, though I was surprised that there are really that few Latter-day Saints anywhere on Turkish soil. I'm also stunned to find how few Latter-day Saints there are in Greece; there seemed like a few more when I was there! (Greece is where I was living when I took the missionary discussions at a branch in Athens.) At any rate, I think the Global Mormonism Project is a valuable resource, and don't be surprised if sometime soon I add it to the link list here.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Nick Peters on Claiming Revelation

A friend of mine, Nick Peters, has been doing a series on his blog (Deeper Waters) in which he gives his take on various phrases and ideas that are current at the popular level within many Evangelical circles these days. The most recent entry in his 'Christian Sound Bites' series is on the prevalence of people claiming revelation. Since personal revelation is valued rather strongly in the LDS tradition, I thought it might be fruitful to draw attention to his post here. Here is a brief excerpt:

One term that should always put you on red alert when a fellow Christian says it to you is "God told me." To claim insight into the mind of the Most High and that He has revealed information to you is a serious claim. How seriously you take it is an indication of how seriously you take God. If you toss it out casually, you have a low view of God.

Let me state upfront that I am not saying God cannot speak to someone and tell them something today. God can do what he wants. I'm saying it's not normative. None of us doubt that God can raise the dead. However, that doesn't mean we're going to leave the casket open and keep praying. It's not a lack of faith when we bury someone. It's not putting a limitation on God. It's saying that He has promised when He will do that and we're waiting on Him to do so then.

In Old Testament times, the claim to speak for God was definitely taken seriously. People died when they said "God said" and God had not said. If you got one prophecy wrong, you were a false prophet and you were to pay the price with your life for attempting to lead Israel astray.

God is the God of all truth. Do you know what you are saying when you claim that He told you something? You are claiming that what you are saying is absolutely true and true on divine authority and not just that, but personally revealed to you. Now there's nothing wrong with quoting Scripture as the Word of God, but there's something wrong with going beyond Scripture and giving it divine authority. Are you so sure that God has spoken something personally to you that you'd be ready to die for the claim? You'd better be!

For my part, there are times when I believe God has granted me special guidance on a matter, or even spoken through me, but precious few of those are claims I'd die for. I'm quite well aware that it's very easy to be mistaken about those - such is the character of our frail humanity - and hence I don't go about trumpeting those, nor do I place my trust excessively in those, but rather in the Scriptures.

How about you?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Metrophanes Critopoulos on a Double Justification

I found an interesting quote that I've decided to put up here. I suspect that many Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals will have a diverse range of reactions to it and the views it espouses. The quote comes from Metrophanes Critopoulos, a seventeenth-century Orthodox patriarch of Alexandria:

Reason knows of a double justification. The first is from the original sin of our forefathers, through which we all alike became enemies of God. We have this justification simply and solely through the goodwill of the Father, through teh blood of his only-begotten and beloved Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, by the grace of the Allholy Spirit. We ourselves make no contribution or effort toward this, as is shown by the text: "By grace you are saved" [Ephesians 2:5]. The second is our acquittal from our own sins. This requires first of all the goodwill of God, without which everything of ours is dead and lifeless. But this must be accompanied by zeal and diligence on our part, in accordance with the words "by your own works you shall be justified, and by your own works you shall be condemned" [Matthew 12:37]. For it seems that good works contribute even to our standing in the kingdom of heaven. For by simply standing within the bridal chamber, we have received a gift by the grace alone of the God who has invited us. But when we hear that in the house of God there are many different rooms [John 14:2], and that "there is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars, and star differs from star in glory" [1 Corinthians 15:41], we understand from this that there is some difference in the status of the elect. And we believe that to be given this or that standing there is the result of each man's works: "that which a man sows, he will also reap" [Galatians 6:7]. Therefore good works are essential for the chosen. First, so taht it may be clear that their faith is not dead, but living and fruitful. And that through the fruit that they bear they may be good examples to others and that God may be glorified in them. "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven" [Matthew 5:16]. Then also that through good works they may avoid the occasional punishments which they suffer when they fail to do what is right. And finally, that they may enjoy a better and finer place in the church of the firstborn, which is the kingdom of heaven. (Metrophanes Critopoulos, Confession of Faith 6.5, quoted from Jaroslav Pelikan and Valerie Hotchkiss, Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition 1.510-511)


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Question: What a True Prophet Cannot Teach

A close LDS friend of mine and I were discussing this last night in the context of some statements by past LDS leaders.

So here's the question. Are there any categories of things that a true prophet of God cannot teach without being chastised by God and directed to publicly retract it for the sake of God's people? (That is, perhaps a prophet could assert it - maybe - but God would confront him in order to correct him so that the people of God would not be led astray.)

And a follow-up question: if the set of things that a true prophet cannot teach is either empty or relatively small, how ought a follower regard what the prophet says? And what benefit is there in having a prophet anyway?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Question on the Melchizedek Priesthood and the First Vision

In a passage presumably well-known to both Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals, God tells Moses, "Thou canst not see my face; for there shall no man see me, and live" (Exodus 33:20). Less-known by Evangelicals is a prominent LDS expansion on this story in Doctrine and Covenants 84, the revelation 'On Priesthood', which reads in part as follows:

And this greater priesthood [i.e., the Melchizedek Priesthood] administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God. Therefore, in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest. And without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the priesthood, the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh; for without this [i.e., the Melchizedek Priesthood] no man can see the face of God, even the Father, and live. Now this Moses plainly taught to the children of Israel in the wilderness, and sought diligently to sanctify his people that they might behold the face of God [i.e., by obtaining the required Melchizedek Priesthood]; but they hardened their hearts and could not endure his presence; therefore, the Lord in his wrath, for his anger was kindled against them, swore that they should not enter into his rest while in the wilderness, which rest is the fulness of his glory. Therefore, he took Moses out of their midst, and the Holy Priesthood [i.e., the Melchizedek Priesthood] also; and the lesser priesthood continued, which priesthood holdeth the key of the ministering of angels and the preparatory gospel (D&C 84:19-26; bold is my emphasis, bracketed italics are my glosses)

As this expansion on the account in Exodus runs, of the Israelites at that time only Moses had the Melchizedek Priesthood, which he had received from his father-in-law Jethro prior to the Exodus (D&C 84:6). This makes it odd that in Exodus 33:20, God explicitly tells Moses that Moses could not survive seeing his face, when Moses had the only thing required to see God's face. Now that I think about it, I'm curious: what then is the explanation for Exodus 33:20 in light of this priesthood revelation?

(And yes, I realize that the Joseph Smith Translation - Exodus 33:20 JST - alters the text so that God says to Moses: "Thou canst not see my face at this time, lest my anger be kindled against thee also, and I destroy thee, and thy people; for there shall no man among them see me at this time, and live, for they are exceeding sinful. And no sinful man hath at any time, neither shall there be any sinful man at any time, that shall see my face and live." But the LDS Church nevertheless canonized the Bible as it stands in the King James Version, not Joseph Smith's revision of the Bible, which frequently removes all sense from passages such as this one. Nor does the JST here actually give an explanation why Moses could not see God, other than God telling him, "I might get really mad at you and kill you.")

But that isn't what initially had me puzzled. According to this revelation, no man can, while living in mortality, behold God the Father and live - unless that man has the Melchizedek Priesthood, which carries with it the power to directly behold the Father. An alternative reading might indicate that certain priesthood ordinances enable a person, whether or not they themselves hold the priesthood, to behold God the Father and live. As will become apparent, the same difficulty I'll be asking about would have a close analogy under that reading as well, so it makes no difference. A second alternative reading is more popular (it is espoused, for instance, by the LDS apologetics organization FAIR) and needs consideration. In this alternative, the antecedent of "this" is not the priesthood but the 'power of godliness'. There are two reasons, I think, why this won't work. First, the text clearly indicates that the 'power of godliness' cannot be manifested unto men in the flesh except through the priesthood and its ordinances. Nothing in the text allows for the claim that the power of godliness can be temporarily manifested without the priesthood but can only be permanently manifested through the priesthood. First, this seems to ascribe a very limited power to God, as though he could only protect a person with his Spirit for a brief time before tiring. And furthermore, it makes nonsense out of the remainder of the narrative, since then God could easily have given the Israelites a brief glimpse of himself by bolstering them temporarily with his Spirit. But in the narrative, the lack of the Melchizedek Priesthood is given as an explanation why the Israelites could not glimpse God's face at all. A second reason why this alternative reading is inferior is that it does not match the structure of the verse in question at all. The first portion of the verse is a statement that without A (the Melchizedek Priesthood), one cannot have B (manifestation of the power of godliness). The second half of the verse is an explanation of why that is so: "for without this [A'], no man can see the face of God, even the Father, and live [B']". The structure here indicates that the manifestation of the power of godliness must be taken as inclusive of the possibility of a vision of the Father's face. And it is for that reason that the antecedent of "this" in A' must be A - the Melchizedek Priesthood. The alternative reading would work well if the "for" were an "and", since then the second half of the verse would be new additional information rather than explanation. But as an explanation of the first half (and, it seems, a constitutive explanation), the verse only seems to make sense if "this" has the Melchizedek Priesthood as its antecedent. The same sentiment also seems to be upheld in a later revelation indicating that only with the Melchizedek Priesthood can one "enjoy the communion and presence of God the Father" (D&C 107:19).

After the apostasy which Latter-day Saints believe to have happened sometime between the apostolic period and the Constantinian Revolution, the Melchizedek Priesthood was removed entirely from the earth, as was the Aaronic Priesthood. Neither of those priesthoods was available until much later. The account runs that the Aaronic Priesthood was restored by John the Baptist in May 1829 (see D&C 27:8), though note that John the Baptist was not mentioned in tellings of this story until 1835), on the same day in which Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery baptized one another in the Susquehanna River, a river of which I have many fond childhood memories. Not until some time after that did they receive the Melchizedek Priesthood from Peter, James, and John sometime between May 1829 and August 1830, perhaps in June 1829 (see D&C 27:12-13; but note that Joseph Smith also claimed that the Melchizedek Priesthood was first restored at a meeting on 6 June 1831; see Times and Seasons [1 February 1844], p. 416, which reprints the phrase - which is also extant in Joseph's own Manuscript History - that "the authority of the Melchisedec priesthood was manifested, and conferred for the first time upon several of the elders" at this meeting). In either case, neither priesthood was held by anyone at all between the apostasy - no later than the early fourth century - and May 1829. The Melchizedek Priesthood was definitely, according to the LDS understanding, completely absent from the earth from the time of the apostasy until no earlier than June 1829. And without the Melchizedek Priesthood in particular (and/or its ordinances), no one can behold God the Father face-to-face and live, according to the revelation given in D&C 84. Therefore, between the fourth century and June 1829, no mortal man could possibly have seen God the Father and survived the encounter, because the Melchizedek Priesthood - which was entirely absent during that period of time - is a necessary condition for survival under those circumstances.

However, according to the canonical account of the First Vision, which that account places in 1820 - which falls into that span of time - Joseph Smith was confronted by not only Jesus Christ, but also by God the Father (Joseph Smith - History 1:17). Crucial to the standard LDS understanding of the First Vision is the view that Joseph Smith, at that point in history, saw God the Father with his own two eyes and lived to tell the tale. If he did not, then either the account never transpired at all - which would require either shuttling it off into the realm of myth or denouncing it as a falsehood - or else the account was a vision in which he dreamt that he saw the Father and the Son, but neither actually appeared to him bodily. What this would mean is that the First Vision itself would be relatively uncontroversial - non-LDS Christians could easily grant that Joseph Smith fell asleep and had a dream while denying that it was an inspired message of any sort - but also that the First Vision was misrepresented by Joseph (at least, it seems unlikely that he would have gotten the same sort of reaction had he claimed to have dreamt about God) and that the First Vision would have little value in supporting LDS views of divine embodiment and the lack of common essence between the Father and the Son. (Actually, even if historically true in the waking world, it would do neither, since an incorporeal God could easily manifest himself in human form for the sake of a comprehensible theophany; and nothing about distinctness of persons or even distinct physical incarnations would be contrary to the Nicene assertion that the Father and the Son are of the same essence [ousia]. But that isn't the point here.)

So here's what's puzzling me. If we suppose that the Melchizedek Priesthood is necessary to behold God the Father while in the flesh and live; and we suppose that Joseph Smith could not have held the Melchizedek Priesthood in 1820; and we also suppose that Joseph Smith beheld God the Father while in the flesh in 1820 and lived - then it seems that we encounter a fundamental contradiction. (Note also that up to that time and afterwards, Joseph frequently lamented his sins, which may introduce an additional tension with Exodus 33:20 JST.) We could reduce it through some substitution:

  1. If x lacks A, then x cannot do B.
  2. x lacked A.
  3. x did B.

(Obviously, x here is Joseph Smith, A is 'holds the Melchizedek Priesthood', and B is 'see God the Father while in the flesh and live'. If you're troubled by the fact that x eventually did obtain A, then feel free to mentally preface each statement with 'at t', where t is the spring of 1820, or whenever it was that Joseph Smith purportedly had his First Vision.) The contradiction seems clear, since (1) and (2) together entail ~(3): 'x did not do B'. But the problem is that it seems that faithful Latter-day Saints must be committed to all three propositions. One cannot reject (3), it seems, without rejecting LDS scripture, since (3) is contained in the Pearl of Great Price and is also part of the foundational LDS narrative. One cannot reject (2), it seems, because (2) is a part of the Church's narrative and is also bolstered by Doctrine and Covenants 27. And one cannot reject (1), it seems, because (1) is likewise contained in Doctrine and Covenants 84. So the three propositions contain an explicit contradiction; but it certainly seems that none of the three propositions can be denied without rejecting a significant portion of what Latter-day Saints regard as inspired scripture.

Now, perhaps I'm either reasoning wrongly or reading wrongly. But no explanation that I've seen so far seems satisfactory, which is why I feel strongly compelled to post this here in search of an answer. (I realize that it may look like I'm presenting an argument against LDS beliefs. And in a way I am, but that's because presenting an argument in a sort of 'test run' is how my mind works when I try to get to the bottom of things. I usually mull it over inside my head for a while as I formulate the argument and try to challenge my assumptions, and if that doesn't dismantle it in my eyes, I generally try it out on someone who's likely to disagree with the conclusion - or at least can play devil's advocate pretty well.) Can you see a way to resolve this issue?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Lausanne Covenant 08

Continuing our Evangelical Documents Study Series, we'll be examining the eighth portion (ninth, as enumerated in the document) of the Lausanne Covenant, promulgated in 1974 by the first International Congress on World Evangelization. The first segment dealt with the purposes of God; the second segment dealt with the authority and nature of Scripture; the third segment dealt with the unique saving role of Christ; the fourth segment dealt with the nature of evangelism; the fifth segment dealt with Christian social responsibility; the sixth segment dealt with the Church's calling to evangelism; the seventh segment dealt with Christian partnership in evangelism; and now the eighth segment deals with the urgency of evangelism.

9. The Urgency of the Evangelistic Task

More than 2,700 million people, which is more than two-thirds of all humanity, have yet to be evangelised. We are ashamed that so many have been neglected; it is a standing rebuke to us and to the whole Church. There is now, however, in many parts of the world an unprecedented receptivity to the Lord Jesus Christ. We are convinced that this is the time for churches and parachurch agencies to pray earnestly for the salvation of the unreached and to launch new efforts to achieve world evangelization. A reduction of foreign missionaries and money in an evangelised country may sometimes be necessary to facilitate the national church's growth in self-reliance and to release resources for unevangelised areas. Missionaries should flow ever more freely from and to all six continents in a spirit of humble service. The goal should be, by all available means and at the earliest possible time, that every person will have the opportunity to hear, understand, and to receive the good news. We cannot hope to attain this goal without sacrifice. All of us are shocked by the poverty of millions and disturbed by the injustices which cause it. Those of us who live in affluent circumstances accept our duty to develop a simple lifestyle in order to contribute more generously to both relief and evangelism.

The first thing that strikes me most strongly here is, as the title conveys, a sense of genuine urgency. It's so easy to lose sight of the massive crisis that should break every heart: the majority of people alive today are trapped in sin rather than freed by the good news that Jesus died to liberate them and rose again so we can share in his triumph. Most people alive today haven't heard about it! And how will they be set free to live for God's kingdom until they hear and have a chance to reply? Now certainly, it may be that those who do not hear in this life may yet have hope - such we may hope in the mercy of God but without presuming - but so many are living their lives in bondage and death when they could have freedom and life!

The document also makes a good point when it urges missionaries to be more mobile. We have precedent for this in the ministry of the apostles. Once a congregation was begun and given initial preparation, it did not continue to depend on the day-to-day presence of the apostles. It began its own life, raising up leadership from within its ranks - though still checked from time to time by apostolic guidance. Today, we need to free up resources so that those countries with a prepared Christian presence within them can be evangelized by their own Christians, while missionaries can focus more on areas yet unreached.

And the third thing that strikes me here is the call for Christians who are relatively more affluent - which, on a global scale, would include anyone reading this - to accept a simpler lifestyle so that we can support the tasks of the kingdom of God. Now, by American standards, I'm by no means well-to-do. I'm a student with mounting debt and no income at the moment who can't always afford to eat. For a while now, I've been trying to figure out how I can effectively simplify my life and divert a bit more of what I do have towards this task. It isn't easy and I'm still trying to figure it out; but there are so many people on earth, even brothers and sisters in the faith, who have so vastly much less than I do. I can hardly imagine it. And still, many of those same believers find ways to give. Surely I - and the rest of us - can do the same.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Some Questions on Personal Revelation

I've been contemplating this more lately. (Hopefully eventually I'll get around to making a post presenting my own epistemological views now that I've refined them further in dialogue with Latter-day Saints.) I've come up with a few scenarios and I'm curious what sort of feedback I might get.

  1. In the first scenario, consider a Latter-day Saint - let's say his name is Thomas. And suppose that Thomas has a stake president, President Jorgensen. Now suppose that Thomas has an experience that he interprets as a revelation from God. Phenomenologically, that experience is indistinguishable in quality from the experiences that he takes to be a spiritual confirmation of his belief in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He can tell no difference; it feels precisely the same. But suppose that this apparent revelation has the following content: "The will of the Lord for President Jorgensen is for him to approve a temple recommend for Brother Sheen. Go and tell him." Now, clearly President Jorgensen is not someone under Thomas' stewardship; and yet he has what seems to him to be a revelation for President Jorgensen. And suppose that when Thomas prays for further confirmation, he experiences whatever it is that he experiences every time he prays for fresh confirmation of his spiritual witness of the Church. What should Thomas do? Should he approach President Jorgensen and offer him this advice as revelation? Should he approach President Jorgensen and offer him this advice, but not stipulate that he believes it to have been received as revelation? Should he refrain from mentioning it to President Jorgensen but still consider it to be a true revelation from God? Should he refrain from mentioning it to President Jorgensen but consider it to be something he concocted on his own? Or should he refrain from mentioning it to President Jorgensen but dismiss it as having been a revelation from Satan?
  2. In the second scenario, Thomas has yet another experience that appears to him to be revelation from God, by whatever criteria he uses to evaluate the phenomena of his experience. As in the previous scenario, it feels to him the exact same way that his spiritual confirmation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints felt to him. But this apparent revelation is not counsel. Instead, in this scenario, the content is as follows: "There are three Heavenly Mothers, and the time has come for the people of God to begin praying openly to each of them by name. Their names, respectively, are Asherah, Sekhmet, and Isis." What should Thomas do? (See range of options mentioned above, mutatis mutandis. And if it helps to uncomplicate things, feel free to subtract the policy change regarding prayer to Heavenly Mother.)

I asked another Latter-day Saint this, and he essentially refused to answer the question (which, alas, is an all-too-common response to questions I ask...), but he intimated that Thomas should dismiss the revelation as either Satanic or human in origin. The grounds he gave for this is that God is a God of order and has implemented a very specific channel of communication for such revelation. Hence, he can know a priori that God would never give this sort of revelation to Thomas; God would only ever go through the channels of 'priesthood authority'. So Thomas could never hope to receive a revelation like either of these; the only revelation that could ever come to Thomas would be personal guidance for himself or his family, or confirmation of something that the Church already officially teaches.

Now, here seems to be the implication of this. If Thomas dismisses either of these apparent revelations, then that means three things. One, personal revelation may be judged by criteria independent of that personal revelation. I have had many Latter-day Saints deny this to me, because in their opinion personal revelation is incorrigible - that is, if they perceive something as being personal revelation, then there is absolutely nothing they could ever learn or think that would be able to persuade them that it was not revelation from God. Thus, the phenomena of personal revelation would be the final verdict. But if there is a criterion for judgment, then there is something that can possibly correct what seems to be personal revelation. And depending on the criterion used, that could have serious implications for LDS-Evangelical dialogue. (For instance, perhaps one might wish to use the universal tradition of Christian believers as such a criterion; then a reason would be needed for rejecting that as a reasonable criterion. And it goes without saying that for Protestants in particular, the Bible has always been the decisive and authoritative criterion of any experience or religious claim.)

The second implication of Thomas dismissing either of these apparent revelations is that it means that the phenomena of the private religious experience itself is not sufficient to assure one of its validity. But if the phenomena of these experiences do not ensure validity, then neither can the same phenomena ensure the validity of the experience that Thomas took as a revelation that 'the Church is true' (whatever, precisely, is meant to be implied by that common phrase). On what grounds, then, should he accept the validity of that experience? (I can think of a potential response to that, but I want to continue developing it mentally before I attempt to publicize it.)

The third implication is... if Thomas can only hope for revelation on a certain narrow scope of issues that pertain to practical concerns within his limited sphere of stewardship, then is personal revelation really all it's cracked up to be? Maybe a case could be made for its usefulness, but it seems to me that within many segments of Evangelicalism, there's a strong popular sense that we can, in fact, feel the Holy Spirit witness to us in order to guide us personally in certain things. (But we're less likely to describe it as 'revelation', and we're also less likely to invest our denominational hierarchies with greater powers of receiving such - and definitely less likely to be easily persuaded that anything from our denominational hierarchy can match or exceed the Bible in authority.) So if personal revelation - as conceived of by Latter-day Saints - is so limited, then in what way is that a selling point that isn't also shared by numerous Evangelical groups?

(And perhaps we can add yet a further difficulty. Suppose that Thomas has a criterion by which he has heretofore been judging putative revelations. Now suppose that Thomas receives a third putative revelation that includes the content: "Your criterion for judging revelations is false." What might Thomas do? If the revelation is true, then he could not justly judge it by that criterion. If the revelation is false, then it should be dismissed anyway - but how is he to judge it false? For if he uses his usual criterion, that would be a blatant case of begging the question, since the validity of the criterion is precisely what is contested. This seems like an interesting quandary that deserves to be explored further in the future once I've done more reading on the subject of belief-policies...)

On the other hand, suppose that Thomas does ultimately conclude that these revelations are fully authentic and that he should act on them. What then? Suppose that you were now cast in the shoes of President Jorgensen. How would you attempt to persuade Thomas to disregard his apparent revelations without giving up his faith in the Church or in personal revelation as a real possibility? Or, would you accept them as valid revelations? (For the sake of simplicity, suppose that when you pray for your own confirmation of them, you get neither a positive nor a negative response.) And what would you do if Thomas begins to present his revelations to the rest of his ward?

Monday, January 3, 2011

Blog Highlights: Honest Jon Comics and Mormon Cartoonist

Today I'd like to feature a couple of LDS cartoonists. The first is Jon Clark, some of whose cartoons have appeared in The New Era and Sunstone, and who also has a children's book out. You can check out his work at his blog, Honest Jon Comics (formerly named 'POD-i-YUM'). Here are a few of my favorites of his:

Another LDS cartoonist who produces new work regularly is Arie Van De Graaff, who has been published in The New Era and also has several books of his cartoons out. You can check out his work at his blog, Mormon Cartoonist. Here are a few of my favorites of his thus far:

From looking through their work a bit so far, I'm really enjoying what I'm seeing. So, since I have pretty darn good taste, you should definitely check them out too! And for an added bonus, another LDS cartoonist, Kevin Beckstrom, has several blogs with his work. Beckstrom Buzz has some miscellaneous pieces, while Zarahemla Times is set in a Book of Mormon setting and Good Heavens is set in, well, heaven. I didn't read his material until after I originally made this post, but I thoroughly enjoyed his as well and recommend it highly.

Martin Luther, the Landing of the Ark, and Continuing Revelation

For a while now, I've been slowly working my way through Martin Luther's Lectures on Genesis. Reading Luther is... an interesting adventure, let's say. Last night I reached a section in which Luther went off on a tangent about the nature of allegory and presented a model allegory that he deemed acceptable under the rule of faith; he presented a treatment of the release of various birds by Noah from the ark. I'd like to summarize, briefly, what it is that Luther said, but first, here's that passage as a refresher:

And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made: and he sent forth a raven, which went to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth. Also he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground; but the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned unto him into the ark, for the waters were on the face of the whole earth: then he put forth his hand, and took her, and pulled her in unto him into the ark. And he stayed yet other seven days, and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark; and the dove came in to him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf pluckt off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth. And he stayed yet other seven days; and sent forth the dove; which returned not again unto him any more. (Genesis 8:6-12)

Luther says that the raven signifies a teacher of the law, or of works-righteousness, which has indeed been sent out by God but cannot return to him with a message of reconciliation between God and man because the law is a 'ministry of death' (cf. Romans 7:9). The first mission of the dove, then, represents the ministry of the prophets who prepared the way for Christ. They still ministered during the era of the law (represented here by the continued presence of the waters of the flood), but they were able to preach the need for faith in the coming Blessed Seed. The second mission of the dove represents the ministry of the New Covenant, which in its mouth - signifying the ministry of the preached word of God - can indeed bring back an olive branch/leaf of redemption. The green of the leaf/branch signifies the fact that the message of the gospel is permanent and enduring and is never without fruit. So what, then, of the third dove? Luther says:

The third dove did not return. When the promise of the Gospel, announced to the world through the mouth of a dove, has been fulfilled, there is nothing left to do, and no new doctrine is expected. All we still expect is the revelation of the things we have believed. Hence this also serves to give us a sure testimony that this doctrine will endure until the end of the world. (LW 2:163)

Now that the 'knowledge of the Blessed Seed' has been revealed, "there is nothing left except the revelation of what we believe and our flight with the third dove into another life" (LW 2:164). Hence, after the New Testament, there is no further revelation of that sort from God, only revelation such as confirms the faith that had already been delivered completely to the people of God (cf. Jude 3). Such, at least, is Luther's allegory of the birds released from the ark.

New Site Banner

If you're reading this on the site rather than by RSS feed or something like that, you might notice that this blog now has a banner instead of just some text at the top. It took a little while yesterday - especially because my computer is still being very, very uncooperative - but I finally finished it.

In the center is a picture from one of the manuscript revelation books of what is now the Doctrine and Covenants; the text is that from which this blog takes its title. To the far left is Del Parson's 'Jesus the Good Shepherd', representing an iconic motif dear to both Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints. Next to that is an image of Joseph Smith's First Vision, and next to that is an icon of the Holy Trinity, representing the Holy Spirit as a dove and the Father and the Son depicted as two men side-by-side, each of whom has a nimbus with Greek lettering signifying 'the Being', which is from how the Septuagint renders the 'I am who I am' of Exodus 3:14 as 'I am the Being'. To the right of that is another picture of Jesus that I found somewhere once and liked because of the cosmic background. At the other end is Del Parson's famed 'Christ in Red Robe', and to the left of that is an icon representing the First Council of Nicaea (with the heresiarch Arius appropriately bound at the feet of the bishops there). And then to the left of that, of course, is the beautiful Jesus statue in the visitors center at Temple Square in Salt Lake City. I chose the background for the text to match fairly well with the background of the blog itself.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year, everyone! In celebration of the new year, I'd like to reprint here the words of a little-known New Year's hymn. (There really are such things, you know.) The title is simply 'Hymn I', and it's taken from John Wesley, A Collection of Hymns for the Nativity of Our Lord: and for New-Year's-Day (London, UK: Thomas Cordeux, 1810), 19-20. I hope you won't mind if I modernize the spelling and remove a few minor eccentricities in punctuation.

Wisdom ascribe, and might and praise,
To God who lengthens out our days,
Who spares us yet another year
And lets us see his goodness here;
Happy and wise the time redeem,
And live, my friends, and die to him.

How often when his arm was bared,
Has he our sinful Israel spared!
Let me alone, his mercy cried,
And turned the vengeful bolt aside,
Indulged another kind reprieve,
And strangely suffered us to live.

Laid to the root with conscious awe,
But now the threatening axe we saw,
We saw when Jesus stepped between,
To part the punishment and sin
He pleaded for the blood-bought race,
And God vouchsafed a longer space!

Still in the doubtful balance weighed,
We trembled while the remnant prayed;
The Father heard his Spirit groan
And answered mild, It is my Son!
He let the prayer of faith prevail,
And mercy turned the hovering scale.

Merciful God, how shall we raise
Our hearts to pay thee all thy praise!
Our hearts shall beat for thee alone,
Our lives shall make thy goodness known
Our souls and bodies shall be thine,
A living sacrifice divine.

I and my house will serve the Lord,
Led by the Spirit and the Word;
We plight our faith assembled here,
To serve our God the ensuing year;
And vow when time shall be no more,
Through all eternity to adore.

I'm fondest of the first and fifth verses, myself.