Thursday, September 29, 2011

Four Kinds of Salvation

The following LDS article about salvation, written by Parley P. Pratt, first appeared in The Latter-Day Saints' Millennial Star 2/2 (June 1841): 21-22. It later appeared in the 8 March 1845 issue of the LDS periodical The Prophet, as well as in Orson Pratt's The Prophetic Almanac, for 1846: Being the Second After Bissextile or Leap Year (New York: New York Messenger Office, 1846), 15-16, this latter being the copy from which it is here reprinted. Afterwards, it was also reprinted in The Latter-day Saints' Millennial Star 38/40 (2 October 1876): 627-629, and again in Liahona The Elders' Journal 6/47 (8 May 1909): 1125-1126.

Salvation, as proposed to man in the Scripture, is of four kinds, viz: -
  1. First, Salvation from original sin and its effects.
  2. Secondly, Salvation from actual sin, or individual transgression.
  3. Thirdly, Temporal Salvation.
  4. Fourthly, Eternal Salvation.
We shall now proceed to set forth the nature of each of these salvations, and the conditions on which they are enjoyed by man.

Original sin and its effects came by the transgression of Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden. So "sin entered into the world, and death by sin."

This sin and death effected the whole family of man in a twofold point of view, banishment from the presence of the Lord, and the death of the body. And unless some means of salvation had been provided, the bodies of men must have slept in eternal silence, and their spirits dwelt in eternal banishment.

But says the Apostle, "AS in Adam ALL DIE, even SO in Christ shall ALL be made ALIVE."

Jesus Christ, then has paid the debt which Adam contracted, and through his death and resurrection has redeemed ALL men from the fall, and from death, and from every thing which Adam's transgression entailed upon them.

This salvation is UNIVERSAL, that is, it applies to all the race of Adam, without any regard to the deeds done in the body. The death and condemnation came by one (Adam), and passed upon all men without any act or agency of their own.

So the redemption comes by one man (Jesus Christ) and will be effectually applied to all men, without any conditions whatever on their part.

It is free grace alone, without works, which redeems man from the fall, and from the death which came by reason of the fall. The most hardened sinner, who sinks to endless woe, will go there as free from Adam's fall as if it had never been.

Hence Christ said, "Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven."

All little children (being redeemed by Jesus Christ) are saved and counted holy, without any faith, repentance, baptism, or any thing else.

Hence the doctrine of little children being "desperately wicked, deceitful, depraved, &c., and that they must be born again, changed, be converted, experience religion, be regenerated, &c.," is a doctrine of devils, or of foolish and inconsiderate man.

We come now to speak of the second salvation, viz.: salvation from personal transgression. This salvation is the gospel which was to be preached to sinners, "It is not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance."

This salvation is promised on conditions made known in the gospel, "He that believes and is baptised shall be SAVED." "Repent and be baptised every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost."

"SAVE yourselves from this untoward generation." "Arise and be baptised, and wash away your sins." "The like figure whereunto even baptism doth now SAVE US."

"Ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you; being then made free from sin, ye became servants of righteousness." The foregoing texts all go to show that sinners experience a present salvation from sin on condition of faith in Jesus Christ, repentance towards God, and baptism for remission of sins. They were saved then and there; - they were saved that very hour, that is justified, forgiven, and free from sin.

This gospel salvation pertains to sinners only. Little children could have no part in it.

We next proceed to the third salvation, viz.: temporal salvation.

This varies in different ages and under different circumstances. In the days of Noah it was salvation from the flood, and the ark was the means.

In the days of Lot, it was salvation from fire, and fleeing from Sodom to Zoar was the means.

In the days of Jacob it was salvation from famine, and revelation to lay up corn was the means. In the days of Moses it was salvation from Egyptian bondage. In the days of Esther it was salvation from the decree of Haman. In the days of Ezra it was salvation from seventy years' captivity in Babylon, by a restoration to Jerusalem. In case of Paul's shipwreck, it was salvation from the watery grave, by the soldiers and sailors abiding in the ship according to Paul's directions. But in the days of Josephus it was salvation from the sword, famine, and pestilence, which befel the Jews. This salvation was accomplished by fleeing to the mountains, according as the Saviour forewarned his disciples, "When ye see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then let him who is in Judea, flee to the mountains."

So in these last days, salvation is needed from famine, earthquake, war, pestilence, and flame of devouring fire, which must overtake the wicked world and all that remain among them. "But in Mount Zion, and in Jerusalem, shall be deliverance, and in the remnant whom the Lord our God shall call." So in fulfillment of this, the Lord has provided the western wilds of America and the land of Palestine, places of deliverance for his own peculiar people. And will gather his sheep out of all countries where the false shepherds have preyed upon them, and will "cause them to dwell safely in the wilderness, and sleep in the woods." - (See Ezekiel, 34.) This temporal salvation comes by revelation in these last days, as in days of old, and therefore can only come to those who are governed and led by revelation, viz.: the Latter Day Saints.

We must now speak of the fourth state of salvation, viz.: eternal salvation. This can only be enjoyed in the immortal state, after the resurrection of the body, and its re-union with the soul.

All those who are redeemed from Adam's fall will enjoy this eternal salvation, if they die before they come to years of accountability, so as to be capable of committing sin.

All sinners will enjoy eternal life and salvation, on conditions of faith, repentance, and baptism, and endurance to the end.

Hence, a man may be saved from Adam's fall by free grace, and from his own sins by belief and baptism, and also, partake of temporal salvation, by obeying the warnings which God sends by revelation; and being saved in this threefold sense, he may neglect to endure to the end in keep the requirements of Jesus Christ; and so at last be damned.

Here then is a condition to be fulfilled by the creature, in order to the enjoyment of eternal salvation, which is not absolutely necessary to either of the salvations, viz.: endurance to the end. - That is, a person must continue in well-doing and keep the commandments of Jesus, from the time he is baptised into Christ till the end of this life of probation.

Having now shown clearly and distinctly the nature of salvation as revealed and proposed by the Heavenly Father to his children in different ages, we leave the subject, with a sincere hope that all those who love the truth may be led to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.

Monday, September 26, 2011

1845 LDS Article on Heaven

The following article, "Heaven", is taken from Orson Pratt, The Prophetic Almanac, for 1846: Being the Second After Bissextile or Leap Year (New York: New York Messenger Office, 1846), 3-5. It earlier appeared in The Latter-day Saints' Millennial Star 6/6 (1 September 1845): 85-86. I presume that one of the Pratt brothers is the author, probably Parley Pratt.

A planetary system where there is no death, sickness, pain, want, misery, oppression, ignorance, error, doubt, fear, sin or sorrow; where the inhabitants enjoy eternal life, and live in love and union with each other. Where each bosom is a mirror, where eternal truth is reflected, and from which emanates the purest affections, without any mixture of falsehood, hatred, selfishness, jealousy, pride or envy.

Where is such a planet located?

At present, no doubt, there are many such worlds among those shining orbs on high; for instance the planet where Jesus has gone to dwell; and where Enoch, Elijah, and all those who have been translated or raised from the dead have their present home.

But our earth is destined eventually to be redeemed from death, sin, and the curse, and to be regenerated, melted, purified, by fire, and renewed in such a manner as to constitute a celestial kingdom, or in other words a heaven of immortal felicity. When this comes to pass, there will be no more death, no more pain, or sorrow. Man will then live on this earth for ever. And even those who are gone from it for a season, will then return and dwell here forever in the flesh.

Job will then see his Redeemer in the flesh, and dwell with him on the earth.

Adam and Eve will then hold the dominion committed to them at the first.

Abraham will then come into his everlasting inheritance in the land of Canaan, and will dwell there with Isaac and Jacob, and all their children, and thus the promises will be fulfilled, which have been spoken by all the holy prophets since the world began, in relation to the promised inheritance to the chosen seed.

Then the inhabitants of the earth will be governed by apostles and prophets, instead of their pretended successors, under the name of popes, bishops and clergy. And instead of contentions about the succession to the 'Chair of Peter', Peter will be here to fill his own chair, as it is written, 'Ye that have followed me, shall, in the regeneration, when the Son of man shall come in his glory, sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

When death, sickness, pain and sorrow are banished from the earth; when sin and all its cursed effects have ceased to operate; when darkness, ignorance and error shall pass away; when Jesus Christ shall be King, and the patriarchs, prophets and Apostles of old become kings, governors, magistrates, judges, and civil rulers; when the mountains are thrown down, and the valleys exalted; when the crooked places become straight and the rough places smooth; when cities are built, and houses and temples reared and furnished in the most durable and elegant manner, with a word; when gold is used for paving streets; when men walk in pure white linen, and eat and drink of the fruits of the earth only, instead of flesh; when flowers bloom in eternal spring, and fruits ripen in profuse succession every month of the year; when children are born without pain, and reared without sin; when Rebecca lives again on the earth, and becomes the mother of thousands of millions according to the blessings and good wishes of her friends, when she went to become the wife of Isaac. When life and law eternal reigns, and God and his tabernacle are with man on the earth forever. Then will earth be heaven and heaven be earth. And then shall man know and understand that nothing was made in vain, but that all things were created for the glory and pleasure of God, and the enjoyment of his creatures.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Phelps on Stars and Planets

The following mini-article, "A World Burnt", comes from William W. Phelps, Deseret Almanac, for the Year of Our Lord, 1852: Being Leap Year, and After the 6th of April, the 23rd Year of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints; and the Second Year of the Last Half Century of This Dispensation (Great Salt Lake City, UT: Willard Richards, [1852]), 21:

About 280 years ago, commencing in Nov. 1572, a very bright star, not far from the north star, 5 degrees N. N. E. of Caph, in the constellation of Cassiopeia, was seen to change its light from whitish till it appeared like a world on fire, surpassing the brilliance and splendor of a planet. It was visible at noon-day, but finally began to diminish in brightness, until, in 1573, it disappeared, leaving a void, which to man remains a mystery.

Much speculation, at the time, occupied the learned, and the christian clergy: - the heathen said nothing, because they knew nothing. So the matter rests. One may imagine that it was a space-boat burnt up with its own gas; and another declare that it was a great meteor which had been collecting ever since lightning lived, and a few suppose it might be a world called to judgment. All ignorant.

O faithless generation! it was a world called to pass away! Thus all have to be changed and resurrected! Ours next, while the moon turns to blood! (as it were) The clouds of light taken from the sun, then he will be darkened, and finally all resurrected, and all re-lighted by a light as much above the sun, as the sun is above a candle!

And again, "Philosophy of the Heavens" on page 37 of the same document, wherein Phelps throws a fit over all this gravity 'nonsense':

In presenting the solar system table, we wish to consider three things as doubtful, and unworthy of the confidence of saints:

First. The influence of signs, stars, &c., according to the wisdom of the world.

Second. The conjectures of the Christian world upon the heavens above and the regions "beyond the bounds of time and space."

Third. The philosophy of attraction and repulsion; attraction and gravitation, or empty space.

For the grand reason, that the earth and every planet or system in the heavens, is governed by law, and controlled by the power of God, or Gods; from whom proceeds 'light to fill the immensity of space;' for there is no space without a kingdom.

That every world, or system, is a living animal, whose life giving, or life moving power, is in itself, as much as the same powers are in man, animals, trees: - even all created - "whose seed is in itself."

Talk not to me of universal laws, and attraction and repulsion, to govern the bodies above, or below! What a confusion of worlds there would have been, in such a case, when Joshua commanded the "sun and moon" to stand still, and the earth ceased to roll for at least a day!

Again, what becomes of philosophical nonsense, when the earth is suddenly jogged back "ten degrees," as in the instance of Hezekiah? Only forty minutes slow o'clock, at one instant's sudden back action!

No more matter on the earth at one time than another! O fools! and slow of understanding! Did Enoch's city and people weigh nothing? They left this earth. After the resurrection, Jesus took his body and went to his Father. That body was a part of this world, but it is gone!

No universal law, of man's seeking, governs the works of God. Every world "rolls on its wings," and is controlled by a God, whose laws are executed by the angels: - as guardian angels; as "angels holding the winds;" as angels holding the "vials of wrath;" as angels having the "everlasting gospel to preach," - and, as quick as sight or thought, a look, a sign, or a hint to God in Kolob, Tamen, or any glorified kingdom, brings assistance, that earth and hell cannot demonstrate.

"Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit after the rudiments of the world, and not after the doctrine of Christ."

Well may it be said, "man was created upright," but he has sought out many foolish theories, aided by Lucifer; whose perigration from one world to another, furnish astronomers, philosophers, doctors and priests, with an ocean of words and hypotheis, which, like the spider's web, entangles flies, but the fowls of heaven fly through unimpeded!

Then, the following statement comes from William W. Phelps, Deseret Almanac, for the Year of Our Lord 1853: Being the First After Leap Year, and After the Sixth of April, the Twenty-Fourth Year of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints; and the Third of the Last Half Century of This Dispensation (Grand Salt Lake City, UT: Willard Richards, [1853]), 5:

The stars are worlds of people.
Finally, the following statements come from William W. Phelps, Deseret Almanac, for the Year of Our Lord 1854: Being the Second After Leap Year, and After the Sixth of April, the Twenty-Fifth Year of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints; and the Third of the Last Half Century of This Dispensation (Great Salt Lake City, UT: Willard Richards, [1854]), 5.

The fixed stars are worlds celestial.
The planets are worlds in probation.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Otterson on Mormonism and Traditional Christianity - Part II

At the beginning of the month, I provided some commentary on the first installment of Michael Otterson's Washington Post column series about the differences between Mormonism and traditional Christianity. Otterson has now released a second installment, "From the Bible to the Book of Mormon: How do Latter-day Saints interpret Scripture?", which unfortunately says rather little about how Latter-day Saints interpret Scripture. Instead, the article - which has received coverage by the Deseret News and a positive mention at the official LDS Newsroom site - covers two main topics: what the Book of Mormon is, and how Latter-day Saints view the Bible.

Otterson states that the Book of Mormon is "not an allegory", which is clearly true, though I imagine that some at the fringe edge of 'liberal Mormonism' might like to claim that the text is an allegory, just as some at the fringe edge of 'liberal Christianity' attempt all sorts of utterly irresponsible things where the Bible is concerned. Otterson also, however, states that the Book of Mormon is not "primarily a history", which is a curious statement. Most books in the Book of Mormon, to my recollection, are written as though in historical genres. Otterson clearly believes that the Book of Mormon narrative is principally a historical one, which - while I of course disagree with the stance - seems to me to be the only truly faithful position for Latter-day Saints to take. All of Otterson's references to the main figures of the Book of Mormon are written in a way that implies their historical existence, and his reference to the visit of the risen Christ to the New World is to a "literal" event.

Furthermore, early Latter-day Saints clearly thought of the Book of Mormon as a history. Benjamin Winchester wrote in 1843 that the Book of Mormon "contains a history of a people that were Israelites of the tribe of Joseph, who emigrated from Jerusalem to this continent about six hundred years before Christ" (History of the Priesthood, p. 130). In comparison to the Bible, Winchester remarks that the Book of Mormon is "a history of a different nation or branch of the house of Israel" (ibid., 132). Joseph Smith, in his 1842 Wentworth Letter, said that the Book of Mormon narrated "the history of ancient America". The previous year, LDS apologist Charles B. Thompson described the Book of Mormon as "a History of a branch of the tribe of Joseph" (Evidences in Proof of the Book of Mormon, p. 28), a "history of their nation, together with the word of God revealed unto them" (ibid., p. 56), a "book or record containing the history of a branch or remnant of the tribe of Joseph, together with the great things of God's Law written to Ephraim which is truth" (ibid., p. 138). The year before that, Orson Pratt had - like Joseph Smith later - described the Book of Mormon as "the history of ancient America" (Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, p. 14), and said that Moroni "continued the history until the four hundred and twentieth year of the Christian era" (ibid., p. 22). Earlier still, Orson Pratt's brother Parley described the Book of Mormon as a "history of the ancient inhabitants of America, who were a branch of the house of Israel, of the tribe of Joseph; of whom the Indians are still a remnant" (Voice of Warning, p. 129). Jumping ahead in time to after Joseph Smith's death, Orson Spencer stated in his 28 August 1847 letter to William Crowell that the Book of Mormon "reveals at once the history of the American continent". It seems fairly clear that the Book of Mormon was most definitely understood - and is still understood, for that matter - to be a purported (sacred) history of Israelite groups in the New World. Why Otterson remarks that the Book of Mormon is not "primarily a history", then, baffles me. It may be a sacred history that includes some texts of non-historiographical genre here and there, but it is surely primarily a history in any case.

What I find most interesting about Otterson's discussion of the Book of Mormon, however, is that absolutely nothing is said of how it came to be published. Otterson says absolutely nothing about the angel Moroni, nothing about the golden plates, nothing about the Urim and Thummim, nothing about the seerstone in the hat, nothing about the 116 lost pages. Otterson's professed purpose, however, is to explain "key elements of the faith", to "explain simply and factually some of the basics of the Latter-day Saint perspective for those outside the faith who know little about Mormon beliefs and want to know what makes us tick". Despite this, he says that the alloted length of his column is too short to "describe its [the Book of Mormon's] content and origin in any detail". Of course, Otterson offers no discussion of the book's origin at all, and discusses its content only very cursorily. Perhaps if Otterson had excised a bit of the fluff in his column, he would have had room to share this information with the public. That may be a bit harsh on Otterson, but he is the one, after all, who specifically intends to address "those outside the faith who know little about Mormon beliefs", and I hardly think it unreasonable to suppose that at least an outline of the basic, 'faith-promoting' rendition might be included on that basis.

Otterson also discusses, to some extent, the relationship of the Bible and the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon, he says, is not a replacement for the Bible. He seems to imply that the Bible and the Book of Mormon are equal in standing, rather than the Bible being subordinate to the Book of Mormon. Otterson stresses the emphasis that Latter-day Saints place on reading the Bible as sacred Scripture. The Book of Mormon, as Otterson presents it, is a third testament equal to the Old Testament and New Testament. Otterson does not, however, address the rather persistent claims heard in some LDS circles that the Bible is incomprehensible without the Book of Mormon, or that the biblical canon is completely faulty, or that the Bible is so corrupt as to be filled to the brim with contradictions, thus rendering it useless save where guided by modern revelation.

Otterson states that the LDS approach to the Bible is less than fully literal; he and other Latter-day Saints, he says, "don't take every word of the Bible literally". Now, strictly speaking, this is not only true, but also proper. Neither do Evangelicals. Informed Evangelicals believe in reading each statement of the Bible within the proper boundaries of the form and genre within which it appears, as informed by the sociohistorical context of the text. It is a common caricature to say that Evangelicals read the Bible with a wooden literalism - though unfortunately a caricature that Evangelicals frequently perpetuate ourselves, out of a desire to reaffirm our seriousness in approaching Scripture as a historical record.

The Evangelical concern is not so much whether Latter-day Saints interpret biblical passages "literally", but rather whether Latter-day Saints accept biblical authority in such a way as to commit themselves to taking biblical passages seriously as they stand. A principal thrust of many Evangelical critiques of LDS views on the Bible is that the attempts to dismiss the biblical text as hopelessly corrupt or incomprehensible apart from modern revelation are in fact nothing more than a baseless denigration of biblical authority, with the result (so the critique might run) that Latter-day Saints do not take key biblical passages seriously as they stand, but instead (1) charge the text with corruption, regardless of textual evidence; (2) insist upon imposing 'modern revelation' upon the text, regardless of whether or not this meaning is compatible with what the text could have meant in its original context; or (3) simply refuse to care about what the Bible says at all. I happen to think that this critique has some merit where at least some Latter-day Saints are concerned. It should be noted that even in its strong form, the critique is likely not meant to say that any of these three, or even their disjunction, is the case with the majority of biblical passages. And, of course, it must be admitted that Evangelicals are often guilty of abusing the text in ways that oughta be banned under international law.

Otterson himself states that his view of the Bible allows for "human errors of translation or omission, or indeed of interpretation". Of course, no one denies that the Bible may be misinterpreted; it is incumbent upon us to strive to interpret faithfully, and while not all disagreements can be resolved, a responsible approach to the text can assist in this. Nor does anyone deny that the Bible may be translated incorrectly. The King James Version includes some noteworthy but innocent examples of this, whereas the New World Translation used by Jehovah's Witness includes far more egregious (and also quite blameworthy) examples. However, this may always be checked against the Hebrew and Greek texts, and most modern translations are fairly faithful, within the limits of the modern English language. Where early Latter-day Saints could get away with a wide variety of 'creative' new translations from Hebrew and Greek, this is no longer the case. (What strikes me as curious is that Latter-day Saints have a supposed 'restoration' of the Bible as God meant it to be, the Joseph Smith Translation, yet refuse to rely chiefly upon it. Pragmatic issues aside, the status of the JST in LDS thought and praxis has always been somewhat of an enigma to me.) That leaves the matter of omission, and here Evangelicals simply have to request evidence for these sorts of sweeping claims. Otterson does not mention other sorts of supposed alterations to the biblical text, such as additions or errors in wording, but I have heard such (baseless) claims frequently as a knee-jerk reaction when it comes to biblical passages that some Latter-day Saints have difficulty reconciling with their own beliefs.

What's more, it should be noted that many early Latter-day Saints - unlike Otterson's brand of Latter-day Saint - prided themselves on being strict 'literalists'! Parley Pratt notoriously said in 1837 that the Christian world had gone astray when they "departed from its [the Bible's] literal meaning" (Voice of Warning, p. 15), and he ridiculed 'non-literal' approaches to biblical interpretation (ibid., pp. 19, 22, etc.). Those were praised who "never once thought of any other interpretation, but the most literal" (ibid., p. 22). See also statements to similar effect on the first page of the April 1834 issue of the Evening and Morning Star. In 1844, William Appleby wrote that we must take "the scriptures in their most literal sense", heeding "the most literal meaning of words and sentences" (Dissertation on Nebuchadnezzar's Dream, p. 3). In that same year, G. J. Adams said regarding the Bible that "the inspired men who wrote those pages, meant truly and literally what they said" (Lecture on the Authenticity and Scriptural Character of the Book of Mormon, p. 3). The same tenor appears in other authors, as is borne out by an examination of how frequently the word "literal" and its cognates appear in early LDS literature. Benjamin Winchester offered a somewhat more nuanced version of 'biblical literalism' that matches up more closely with the more literalist end of the Evangelical spectrum.

To conclude, however, on a positive note, I commend Michael Otterson for his relatively positive appraisal of the Bible as both literature and as sacred scripture; and I also commend him and join him in his appreciation for those who sacrificed so dearly to ensure that the Bible would survive and be available to as many people as possible, for in it are words of life. To his concluding quotation from Elder Christofferson's May 2010 Ensign article (though not to the whole article itself), I can only say, "Amen."

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Church Membership and the New Birth

Last night while looking through one of the many nineteenth-century books I've downloaded, I found a transcript of a letter written on 19 August 1784 by the famed religious leader John Wesley to his nephew Samuel Wesley, who had apparently converted to Roman Catholicism. Needless to say, the Wesley family was disconcerted by this turn of events; remember that this is long before Vatican II. Wesley, however, had some instructive counsel for his nephew:
But, alas! what are you now? Whether of this Church or that I care not: you may be saved in either, or damned in either, but I fear you are not born again, and except you be born again you cannot see the kingdom of God. You believe the Church of Rome is right. What then? If you are not born of God, you are of no Church. Whether Bellarmine or Luther be right, you are certainly wrong if you are not born of the Spirit, if you are not renewed in the spirit of your mind in the likeness of Him that created you.
Notice John Wesley's main thrust here. Church membership of any sort is not salvific and is ultimately secondary, at best, to the matter of experiencing genuine inward spiritual renewal. And I wonder whether this has something to say to us here. An Evangelical can be baptized and attend church every Sunday and assent to the Nicene Creed and perform all manner of good works, but if that Evangelical is not born again, if that Evangelical is not regenerated, then none of the above can save, and he or she cannot enter the kingdom. Similarly, a Latter-day Saint can be baptized as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and abide by the Law of Chastity and the Word of Wisdom, and tithe consistently, and always sustain the General Authorities, and bear testimony regularly, and be ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood... if that Latter-day Saint has not experienced a transformation in Christ that's so powerful it can only be compared with a completely new beginning to life, can he (or she) enter the kingdom of God? "If you are not born of God, you are of no Church," Wesley said. The same, of course, is true of Evangelicals. We emphatically do not believe in salvation by doctrine alone, or by church membership alone! If we are not born of God, we are of no church.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Otterson on Mormonism and Traditional Christianity - Part I

Recently, Michael Otterson - the LDS Church's Head of Public Affairs - has started a series in his Washington Post column wherein he intends to "respectfully explore the questions people are asking about the similarities and differences between Mormon belief and what is sometimes referred to as traditional Christianity". I learned about this from Todd Wood's notice at the Interstate 15 for God's Glory blog. I'm hoping to produce my own series of posts commenting on Otterson's column installments, and here wish to offer an Evangelical perspective on his first installment, "Mormon beliefs and Christian creeds". (EDIT: Note also that the official podcast of the Evangelical countercult group Mormonism Research Ministry has also included a multipart miniseries commenting on Otterson's article.)

It would be very difficult not to like Otterson. I've only interacted with his writing once before, and that was when I weighed in on the controversy over Warren Cole Smith's comments on the ramifications of electing a Latter-day Saint as President of the United States of America. While I had to criticize a few aspects of Otterson's case against Smith, I commended him for his reasoned and civil approach, and the same is true here. As he sets the stage for this series, Otterson refers to the kindness that he has been shown by Evangelicals, Roman Catholics, and other traditional/'orthodox' Christians in the past, and stresses his desire to show genuine respect to them and to their beliefs. As an Evangelical, I hope to extend the same regard and treatment to Latter-day Saints, and to Otterson himself, just as I believe he would do to me if we were to interact directly.

Otterson puts some added emphasis on the need for religious voices of varying stripes to stand together in defense of religious liberty and in opposition to efforts to marginalize religious voices in general. This is very true. We need to stand together to defend freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and the value of civil dialogue. Otterson balances this sense of unity by also noting that Latter-day Saints have an 'obligation' to provide clarity about the differences between their beliefs and those of other Christians, as well as the points of similarity. This is very important. Otterson specifically rejects the possibility of merely seeking "some amorphous middle ground that we can all embrace". Popular as this style of project is in twenty-first-century America, Otterson is right to reject it. Too often, I have seen Latter-day Saints attempt to minimize the differences between their beliefs and those of other Christians, or to reject those differences as inconsequential, or to shirk from discussing the occasional starkness of the difference. Likewise, I have seen members of non-LDS traditions within Christianity do the same thing. We will not gain anything by simply pretending that we have no differences. We will gain something from honestly acknowledging and discussing the content of our teaching (traditional and present, 'official' and 'unofficial'), not shying away from the contrast, and engaging in a polite and respectful dialogue regarding the discrepancies. I heartily applaud Otterson's determination to do this, even though I think - with all due respect to Otterson - that even within this first installment, he already falls short of this goal somewhat.

One reservation I have, however, is in regard to Otterson's statement that "accusations of heresy on either side make for poor dialogue", and thus should be avoided. First, a positive: Otterson has specified that this is the case "on either side", that Latter-day Saints ought not accuse, e.g., Evangelicals of heresy. However, 'heresy' tends to be a word proper to traditional Christian usage moreso than LDS usage. The closest analogue for Latter-day Saints would be 'apostate'. Perhaps Otterson would affirm the modified statement that 'accusations of apostasy on either side make for poor dialogue'. I do not think he should affirm it, however. While it is true that we must be civil and avoid personal attacks, as well as unnecessary demonization of one another's traditions, it is also true that we must all remain free to engage one another forthrightly with the fullness of what our respective positions contain and imply. If Latter-day Saints dialoguing with Evangelicals were constrained to abstain from any 'accusations of apostasy', how could they ever communicate their core message of a Restoration of the Gospel? Ultimately, an 'accusation of apostasy' is essential to the LDS message. For my part, I would much rather have a Latter-day Saint honestly express his/her belief in the Great Apostasy than have him/her gloss over the topic entirely, since without a willingness to own up to one's own beliefs, no substantive dialogue is possible. For that reason, I have no interest in being immune from LDS 'accusations of apostasy', given the cost. (I realize, of course, that some Latter-day Saints will attempt to soften the blow by saying that they teach only that the whole church became corporately or theologically apostate, not that any individual member is him- or herself apostate. Whether this is a meaningful difference is a matter for further consideration some other time.) Similarly, I must insist on reserving the right to express my belief as an orthodox Christian that traditional Latter-day Saint teaching, including a number of positions that seem to be essential to any LDS theology, are heretical - not just incorrect, but dangerously erroneous and outside the pale of the "faith delivered once for all to the saints" (Jude 3). I respect the right of Latter-day Saints to disagree with this label so long as they grant that, if my theological position is largely correct, then they are in fact heretics (though perhaps unwittingly, honestly, and sincerely so). Similarly, I grant that, if LDS teaching is largely correct, then I have been swept away into 'apostate false doctrine' - but I ask that Latter-day Saints respect my rejection of their claims about a Great Apostasy.

That said, Otterson moves on to discuss the particular difference he wishes to highlight in this installment: the doctrine of the Trinity. Otterson first expresses the LDS view that "much of what is recognized as Christianity today has evolved from the origins of the faith established by Jesus Christ", and he regards this as easily demonstrable. This depends, in large part, on precisely what baggage Otterson wishes to load into the locution "evolved from". Is it meant to designate a sort of development that's compatible with substantial continuity? Would Otterson similarly be willing to state that "much of what is recognized as Mormonism today has evolved from the origins of the faith established by Joseph Smith"? (If any LDS readers would object to the phrasing 'established by Joseph Smith' here, feel free to simply ignore that part, since it's immaterial to my present point.) If so, then I have no problem agreeing with his statement about traditional Christianity. I believe that the essential content of Nicene and Chalcedonian theology stands in substantial continuity with the teaching of Jesus and the apostles, such that orthodox Trinitarianism is, in my opinion, that range of options that are most truly faithful to what Jesus and the apostles believed about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, if Otterson intends his statement to imply that traditional Christianity has deviated from "the origins of the faith established by Jesus Christ", then I respectfully disagree with him and reject his claim that this is "pretty easy to demonstrate from secular as well as religious history".

Moving along once more, Otterson's cursory reference to the early ecumenical councils is among the least objectionable such discussions I've seen in any Latter-day Saint source, and I commend Otterson for not allowing himself to get carried away as is common. Otterson declines to undertake the project of spelling out precisely what traditional Christians believe about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Instead, he links to the Wikipedia articles for several of the key documents that emerged from the Trinitarian and Christological controversies in the patristic period. In one respect, Otterson's approach here is quite commendable. He wishes to let us traditional Christians speak for ourselves on the matter, and he humbly eschews the task of telling us what we believe. This is perhaps a very good thing, given that so few Latter-day Saints are able to represent traditional Christian theology accurately. On the other hand, herein also lies a problem with Otterson's approach. Most LDS readers of his column will walk away from it without any more accurate a picture of what traditional Christian theology holds - perhaps even those who go ahead and read the Wikipedia articles linked.

One minor quibble further: Otterson designates the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed, and the Chalcedonian Definition as all "Christian creeds" that emerged "out of these councils". The Nicene Creed was indeed drafted by the First Council of Nicaea in 325 and likely amended (in light of developing theological controversies) at the First Council of Constantinople in 381. The Chalcedonian Definition was a theological statement produced and endorsed by the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The so-called 'Athanasian Creed', however, is an anonymous Latin document rooted in Augustinian theology that likely emerged in the late fifth or sixth century. It was neither produced by nor endorsed by any ecumenical council during the patristic period, nor would it be acceptable to any of the Eastern Orthodox churches even now, since it explicitly includes an affirmation of the dual procession of the Holy Spirit, which is rejected in Eastern Orthodoxy and affirmed in Roman Catholicism and by most Protestant groups (on those rare occasions when Protestants even remember that there is such an issue). So the 'Athanasian Creed' is not an ecumenical creed comparable to the Nicene Creed or the Chalcedonian Definition. Now, don't get me wrong here. Apart from reservations about the Athanasian Creed's rather bold statement about the necessity of wholesale affirmation of its contents as a requirement for salvation, I agree with its theology - including, with apologies to my beloved Orthodox friends, the dual procession of the Holy Spirit. However, I think it important not to overstate the status of the 'Athanasian Creed'.

Otterson goes on to characterize the creeds as "complex" and Latter-day Saint belief as "a simpler view". This is a quite common theme in much traditional LDS polemic against traditional Christianity: Latter-day Saints preserve the plain and simple gospel truth, while traditional Christians have produced a convoluted theological monstrosity through an illicit reliance on faulty philosophical resources. Setting aside for a moment the negative assessment of 'complexity' for a moment, I'm not at all certain that the LDS stance is "a simpler view" at all. First of all, the essential content of Trinitarian theology doesn't befuddle me or strike me as complex or convoluted. We believe that in the basic sense of the word 'God', there is one God who is sui generis (that is, in a class all his own, not of the same 'kind' as any other thing) and upon whom everything else is completely dependent. This one God, who is eternally God, has never been without his Word (Son) and his Spirit, who are distinct persons in relation with the Father and with one another, and who are with the Father only one God, and who share with him all of the unique properties of this robust sense of godhood. All statements that there is more than one god are either not using the word 'god' in the basic sense relevant here, or are simply false. So this, in a nutshell, is Trinitarian teaching: the three distinct persons are only one God (in the basic and most proper sense of the term, and with a traditional Christian understanding of the divine attributes), each being fully divine without compromising monotheism.

That does not strike me as especially complex, and certainly not convoluted. Believe me when I say that I've seen far, far, far more convoluted things! One might push back here that the real complexity is in answering the 'how' of the three persons in one God. But Trinitarians have never considered it a reasonable demand to be asked to elucidate the mechanics of divine things, nor is it plain to me what general sort of statement would constitute an answer to this 'how' question. This is not unique to traditional Christianity. How might a Latter-day Saint respond when asked, "But how can intelligence be eternal?", or when asked, "But how does Jesus' blood shed in Gethsemane atone for our sins?", or when asked, "But how can God be both loving and just?", or when asked, "But how can God be all-knowing and all-powerful?" Indeed, how might a physicist respond when asked, "But how can light exhibit both particle-like properties and wave-like properties?" We need not be privy to the mechanics of something, or even able to understand where the question is coming from, in order to recognize that something doesn't seem impossible and that we can trust whatever other reasons we have for believing that thing to be so.

So, as I said, the traditional Christian picture does not seem more inherently complex than the traditional LDS picture of the divine. Indeed, perhaps less so; it's difficult to say. In part, Otterson's statement of LDS belief only seems simple and intuitive because it is shorn of many of its traditional distinctives. Indeed, a considerable deal of what has traditionally been held in LDS circles to be essential doctrine about the nature of God is here passed over in an almost mystifying silence. If there is complexity to be found in the traditional Christian creeds, it is because the Church Fathers were forced to engage in a great deal of theological refinement, drawing on many philosophical tools and terms to articulate as precisely as they could the relationships between Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and created world - or, rather, to rule out what they viewed as dangerous misunderstandings of those relationships. If Otterson were compelled to articulate a detailed and precise LDS theology of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in a way that addressed many of the questions he leaves unaddressed, would the end result even appear simpler than the traditional Christian creeds? I am far from confident that it would, and I don't see any solid grounds for Otterson to assume that it would. Furthermore, while the traditional Christian creeds use a few technical terms drawn from Greek philosophy of the time, that seems only natural. Let it not be forgotten that you'll be hard-pressed to find many people today who use the word 'personage'!

But let's grant, for argument's sake, that the LDS position is quite simple and that the traditional Christian position is rather complex. To quote a few remarks from G. K. Chesterton, "The creeds condemned as complex have something like the secret of sex; they can breed thoughts"; and "Those who complain of our creeds as elaborate often forget that the elaborate Western creeds have produced the elaborate Western constitutions; and that they are elaborate because they are emancipated". Even if we grant that the traditional Christian position is complex, is it too complex? Is it more complex than the reality itself? Or is it rather as complex as is necessary in order to do justice to the full range of revealed teaching about God? Could it be that the claimed simplicity of LDS teaching is in fact an oversimplification that does not do justice to the range of biblical statements about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit? Remember, simplicity is to be preferred when all else is equal, but not to be preferred at the expense of, say, accuracy and/or explanatory power.

Otterson also remarks that in LDS teaching, Jesus as the Son of the Father is a "physically separate Being". This, of course, is an accurate statement of LDS teaching so far as it goes, at least depending on what is meant by the extremely malleable word 'being'. However, Otterson risks reinforcing the common LDS misconception that traditional Christianity holds that Jesus and the Father are physically non-separate beings/persons. On a regular basis, I have heard well-meaning Latter-day Saints caricature traditional Christian views of God as being like a 'lump'. But traditional Christian theology does not hold that Jesus and the Father are not physically separate persons because they are physically non-separate persons; rather, it holds that Jesus and the Father are (insofar as their divinity is concerned) not physically separate persons because physicality (that is, materiality or corporeality) is inapplicable to the divine as it is in itself. Apart from the incarnation, neither the Father nor the Son is physical at all, in traditional Christian belief. This is why they are not "physically separate beings".

Otterson also repeats another common LDS perspective that the issue is one of what it means for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be "one"; it is a controversy over the relevant degree of "oneness". By phrasing things in this manner, he is able to present the LDS position as simply another point on the same spectrum, since Latter-day Saints believe, he says, that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are "three separate Beings, but one in unity and purpose and in perfect harmony". Here I must disagree with Otterson again. The controversy is less over what it means for them to be "one", and more over what it means for them to be "one God", if they are. Traditional Christian theology holds that they are one God in the basic and robust sense of the term 'God', and without any distinction in the unique divine essence and identity between them; their oneness in purpose follows from their essential divine unity and is metaphysically necessary and eternal, rather than contingent and potentially mutable. There are several LDS positions on the issue of whether and in what sense these persons can be called "one God", but in all of these positions, the affirmations of polytheism (e.g., "they are three Gods") seem to be using a more basic sense of the word than the monotheizing language is.

Otterson's concluding paragraphs assert that Latter-day Saints genuinely believe that their teaching is consonant with the Bible; they do not intend to consciously reject the biblical view, but are in good faith interpreting the Bible differently than traditional Christians do. This seems in many respects to be true - mostly. However, Latter-day Saint approaches to the Bible are themselves somewhat ambivalent, given the serious reservations that Latter-day Saints have traditionally had over both accuracy in translation and indeed in textual purity itself. I can speak from experience that, when I have brought up certain biblical passages that did not cohere well with the views of some LDS dialogue partners, they have simply dismissed those passages as false. Perhaps it would be more accurate, then, to say that Latter-day Saints do not believe that their beliefs deviate from the Bible as the Bible was meant to be, even though (some) Latter-day Saints do in practice maintain that their beliefs do not match up with the Bible as we have it - and so much the worse for the Bible as we have it.

Finally, I have one brief comment that I've saved for last. Early in this installment, Otterson relates his experiences at a Taiwanese evangelical youth group meeting, and when experiencing their prayer life, Otterson says, "it was obvious we were praying to God in the name of the same Jesus". This is a notoriously controversial assertion, because many traditional Christian critics of Mormonism charge that Latter-day Saints do not acknowledge the same Jesus that traditional Christians do. Precisely what is meant by this accusation is sometimes a bit nebulous, but it is meant to draw on Paul's reference to false teachers who preach "another Jesus" (2 Corinthians 11:4). The issue of whether or not Latter-day Saints and traditional Christians do in fact pray "in the name of the same Jesus" is far too big for me to get into here, and it largely depends on what we mean by "the same Jesus" and what our criteria are for determining the relevant sense of 'sameness'. However, I wonder how Otterson reacted to Gordon B. Hinckley's famed apparent statement that Latter-day Saints do believe in a Jesus other than the one believed in by traditional Christians. While there may be a few different ways to understand what Hinckley meant, they all seem to exist in tension with Otterson's very casual statement about "the same Jesus". This is to say nothing of Bruce R. McConkie's denunciation of non-LDS Christians bowing down at "the mythical throne of a mythical Christ"! This is even more strongly incompatible with Otterson's all-too-simple reference to Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints worshipping the same God in the name of "the same Jesus". It may well be that Otterson here is expressing a 'better' (by whatever standard happens to be most appropriate) LDS position on the matter - I'm not here to adjudicate that dispute at the moment - but Otterson offers his remark without any attempt to address this range of perspectives in the LDS tradition. (And, may I add, it would hardly be appropriate for any Latter-day Saint to demonize Evangelicals who talk of Latter-day Saints having a "different Jesus", unless that Latter-day Saint is also willing to level comparable criticism at the similar remarks of McConkie and Hinckley.)

Although I've made a number of criticisms of Otterson's first installment here, I do wish to commend his efforts to reach out in civility and respect and to actually address some of the very real differences between Latter-day Saint teaching and traditional Christian teaching. If I were to meet him on the street, I'd shake his hand and thank him for it. So I truly look forward to his next installment.

[EDIT: See reply to Otterson's second installment here.]