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.]

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