Sunday, July 20, 2014

Living Apostles and Mainstream Christianity: A Constructive Response to an LDS Argument

An extremely common Latter-day Saint apologetic argument runs essentially as follows:
  1. Assorted biblical passages indicate that there will always be "living apostles" in the authentic church of Jesus Christ.   [Premise]
  2. Traditional/mainstream Christian organizations do not profess to include "living apostles" among their number.   [Premise]
  3. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, however, does profess to include "living apostles".   [Premise]
  4. Therefore, the self-understanding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints satisfies the biblical marks of the authentic church better than does the self-understanding of mainstream Christianity in any of its forms.  [From 1, 2, 3]
  5. If entities X and Y both claim to belong to entity-class F, and if the self-understanding of X exhibits quality Q, and if the self-understanding of Y does not exhibit quality Q, and if quality Q is a mark of authentic membership in F, then, ceteris paribus, X has a stronger claim to F-membership than does Y.   [Premise]
  6. Therefore, the likelihood of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints being identified as the authentic church of Jesus Christ is considerably increased, vis-a-vis traditional Christian organizations, by the factor of apostles.   [From 4, 5]
This argument is indeed a common one, although its structure typically remains solely implicit.  For instance, the 2004 LDS missionary manual Preach My Gospel asserts (36-37):
The Church of Jesus Christ is built on the foundation of apostles and prophets (see Ephesians 2:19-20; 4:11-14).  These leaders have divine priesthood authority.  [...]  With the death of the Apostles, the presiding priesthood authority was absent from the Church.  [...]  Therefore, a restoration, not a reformation, was required.  [...]  With this priesthood authority, Joseph Smith was directed to organize the Church of Jesus Christ again on the earth.  Through him, Jesus Christ called twelve Apostles.
In an April 2006 General Conference message, James E. Faust spoke first of "an apostasy from the Church organized by Jesus Christ and the need for a restoration of the priesthood keys that had been lost" and only then claimed that "we now have in the restored Church apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, and evangelists, as spoken of by Paul to the Ephesians.  These priesthood offices were established by the Savior when He organized His Church in the meridian of time".  Sixty years earlier, in an April 1946 General Conference message, Elder Joseph L. Wirthlin said:
With the restoration of the ordinances and principles of the gospel, the Lord again, as Paul once declared, gave some apostles, prophets, evangelists, teachers, pastors, high priests, seventies, elders, bishops, priests, teachers, and deacons (Eph. 4:11), and with the restoration of these offices in the priesthood of the Church the Church was again organized just as perfectly as it was in the days of Peter and John.
In an October 1977 General Conference message, Elder LeGrand Richards mocked mainstream Christianity for believing today in "man's interpretation" that "we no more need prophets and apostles, that all those things have been done away", to which end he quoted Ephesians 4:11-13, arguing that "if they do away with the instruments that the Lord placed there to bring us to a unity of the faith, how can we ever hope to arrive at that unity?"  Somewhat more clearly, Elder Bruce R. McConkie, in his April 1954 General Conference message delivered while still in the First Quorum of the Seventy, proposed with his usual polemical panache to contrast "the Church of Jesus Christ, as it was organized and perfected in New Testament times, and the self-styled Christian churches that exist in the world today"; and in doing so, he asked:
Where is there a church that has the same organization that existed among the primitive Saints, that has Apostles and prophets, pastors, evangelists, and all the rest (Eph. 4:11)?  Where is there a people that believes that there should be Twelve apostles holding the keys of the kingdom, presiding over and directing all the affairs of the Church and kingdom, and that such group should continue until there is a unity of the faith (Eph. 4:13)?  Where is there a church that believes God has set some in the Church, first Apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, and gifts of the spirit, healings, tongues, helps, and governments (1 Cor. 12:28)?  [...]  And I submit to you further that there is only one Church in all the world that so much as claims to have every essential identifying characteristic of the Church organized and perfected by Christ and his Apostles anciently, and that one Church is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Likewise, Joseph Fielding Smith wrote, as compiled in Doctrines of Salvation (1:239-240):
The Church of Jesus Christ, as it was established in the days of the apostles, was governed by apostles, prophets, evangelists, high priests, seventies and other officers, who are not found in the churches of the world today.  It is quite generally taught that the apostles and prophets, with the need of revelation and additional scripture, were not needed after the first century; that these officers with revelation from the heavens, were given to the Church for the purpose of establishing it, and then they were taken away and man was left to depend upon the things which had been written.  The apostles, however, taught that the Church was it was established in the first century was to continue with the same officers indefinitely, or through all time.  [...]  The Lord taught Joseph Smith and his associates that it is due to apostasy that these officers with their authority were taken away; and when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was restored, it was by divine command that apostles, high priests, seventies and elders, were again ordained and with authority sent forth to proclaim the message of salvation to the nations of the earth.
Similarly, J. Reuben Clark wrote in his book On the Way to Immortality and Eternal Life (44-45):
Now, what is the situation today in the great churches in the world professing Christ, - the Eastern Church, the Russian Church, and the Western Church and its dissident offspring?  Where are their apostles, their prophets, their seventies, who were in Christ's time the possessors under ordination by Christ of the Melchizedek Priesthood and authority in the Church established by Christ?  They do not exist.
I believe that Evangelicals have responded fairly effectively to this sort of LDS apologetic argument in the past.  However, I wish to craft a new response drawing on an LDS tradition of different kinds of apostleship.

Back in January 2014, I finally had the opportunity to read D. Michael Quinn's highly acclaimed 1994 book The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power.  In Quinn's treatment of the development of Latter-day Saint notions and practices of authority, he identifies three types of apostleship: "charismatic apostleship", "evangelical apostleship", and "institutional apostleship".  The first to develop, the "charismatic apostleship", is evidenced in cases where the word 'apostle' is used to "designate unordained charisma" (10).  Thus, Doctrine and Covenants 18:9, produced in June 1829, refers to Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer as apostles ("I speak unto you, even as unto Paul mine apostle, for you are called even with that same calling with which he was called") on the grounds of their charismatic or visionary experiences, which allowed them to function as special witnesses of the Book of Mormon.  In short, "latter-day revelations designated Smith and the Three Witnesses as apostles, without literal ordination by the laying on of hands" (11).  Quinn argues that D&C 18:27's reference to "the Twelve" is actually, in its original meaning, a reference to twelve charismatic apostles: {1} Joseph Smith, {2} Oliver Cowdery, {3} David Whitmer, {4} John Whitmer, {5} Peter Whitmer, {6} Ziba Peterson, {7} Samuel H. Smith, {8} Martin Harris, {9} Hyrum Smith, {10} Joseph Smith Sr., {11} Hiram Page, and {12} Christian Whitmer, these being the original twelve officers of the Church of Christ as of the 9 June 1830 conference (11).  This is further supported by the title of "apostle" used on the written licenses that the seven elders received, and by Sidney Rigdon's 1831 reference to John Whitmer as "an apostle of this church" (12).  Statements by Joseph Smith in 1833 indicated that "the title 'apostle' applied to those who had received a vision.  Charismatic or visionary experience is what distinguished the church's twelve officers at the June 1830 conference, and that is why early Mormons regarded these twelve as apostles" (12).

Alongside this notion of charismatic apostleship, Quinn sees the development of an "evangelical apostleship" beginning toward the end of 1830, this being a sort of apostleship that did not require ordination rites but nonetheless "included an evangelical call to missionary service" (13).  Thus, Orson Pratt could be referred to as an 'apostle' already in December 1830.  Early Latter-day Saint missionaries like Jared Carter recognized their calling as an apostolic one, and a September 1832 revelation to a group of elders and high priests was to commission them as "apostles".  Quinn observes, "These evangelical apostles, like the charismatic ones, were not ordained by the laying on of hands" (13). 

Only in 1835, as Quinn reconstructs the development, did an institutional apostleship, in the sense of an apostolic office within the church hierarchy to which one needed to be ordained via a laying-on-of-hands rite, emerge (14).  As he goes on to say (57-58):
In 1835 the Quorum of Twelve Apostles became the third echelon in the Mormon hierarchy.  Referring to missionaries as "apostles" fell into disuse after 1832, but in 1833 Joseph Smith applied the charismatic designation of "apostles" to the Kirtland School of the Prophets because of their visionary experiences.
Two years later Smith introduced a new form of apostleship into Mormonism.  On 14 Febriuary 1835 he instructed the Three Witnesses to select and ordain twelve men to form an organized quorum of apostles.  This was in response to the New Testament precedent of twelve disciples whom Jesus ordained apostles (Luke 6:13; Acts 1:21-26).

In February 1835 the ordained LDS apostleship was three-fold: charismatic, evangelical, and institutional.  This was the first time all three apostolic functions merged in Mormonism.  The instructions by presidents Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in 1835 to the newly ordained apostles emphasized all three equally.
I would like to suggest that the flexibility of these three conceptions of apostleship can ground a sufficient Evangelical response to the LDS apologetic argument outlined above.  From a New Testament perspective, something like this threefold division seems plausible.  Obviously, there was such a thing as institutional apostleship in the New Testament, embodied chiefly in (though not necessarily limited to) the Twelve.  As has already been discussed here, the Twelve are an eschatological quorum of apostles (Revelation 21:16), and so death is not grounds for the replacement of a member (contrast Acts 1:26 [Judas' apostasy leads to his replacement by Matthias] with Acts 12:1-2 [James' death does not lead to any replacement whatsoever]).  

Furthermore, "charismatic apostleship" is plausibly a New Testament category in at least this respect: charismatic experience of the risen Christ served as a prerequisite qualification to be considered for institutional apostleship (Acts 1:22; 1 Corinthians 9:1).  The last person to become a charismatic apostle was Paul (1 Corinthians 15:8), but his charismatic apostleship, coupled with his evangelical-apostolic calling to spearhead the Gentile mission, yielded a fair bit of institutional clout - though he expressed his deference to the regularly constituted institutional apostles (the Twelve).  Perhaps one could consider Paul as an institutional apostle outside of the Twelve - but, on the other hand, perhaps not.  It is plausible that other figures identified as "apostles" in the New Testament may qualify as "evangelical apostles", for certainly the etymology of apostolos tends to privilege the evangelical sense.  In the New Testament sense, perhaps "evangelical apostleship" amounts to a missionary lifestyle with an emphasis on church-planting.

How, then, does this apply to mainstream Christianity today and throughout the ages?  Certainly, it is true that, in most mainstream Christian traditions, it is deemed a given that no institutional apostles exist on earth today.  It is in this sense that premise {2} of the LDS apologetic argument above has apparent plausibility.  It is also true that mainstream Christian traditions typically reject the idea that any charismatic apostles exist on earth today, at least in the sense in which the early Christian charismatic-apostles were charismatic-apostles.  Indeed, this is part of the reason why mainstream Christians do not recognize modern institutional-apostles on earth: that, as noted above, charismatic-apostleship is a prerequisite for institutional-apostleship.  

Mainstream Christians have two more basic reasons for rejecting modern earthly institutional-apostleship.  The second is the contention that the Twelve is an eschatological quorum, as indicated above, and so - at least so far as institutional-apostleship in the sense of Twelve-membership is concerned - there are no vacancies created.  The third is the observation that, as a matter of historical fact, church history does not feature new ordinations to institutional-apostleship.  (Naturally, the LDS defender will appeal to the doctrine of the Great Apostasy to explain this; but, given that the defender of mainstream Christianity sees independent grounds for rejecting that doctrine, this appeal to a 'Great Apostasy' falls flat, and the mainstream Christian appeal to church history retains its force.)

As for evangelical apostleship, however, mainstream Christians can readily affirm living evangelical-apostles on earth today.  There are many who are specially gifted by God as missionary church-planters, and as other sorts of missionary laborers.  Throughout church history, particularly gifted missionary church-planters have been used by God to open new mission fields to the work of the gospel, and these figures have been recognized with apostolic titles as a result.  Famously, of course, Mary Magdalene has been called "the Apostle to the Apostles" for bearing the news of Christ's resurrection to them first.  Naturally, Paul is termed the "Apostle to the Gentiles".  But beyond him, St. Patrick has been called the "Apostle of Ireland".  St. Ninian has been called the "Apostle to the Picts", or the "Apostle to the Southern Picts".  Frumentius of Axum has been called the "Apostle of Ethiopia".  Sometimes St. Gregory the Illuminator is called the "Apostle to Armenia".  St. Remigius of Rheims has been called the "Apostle to the Franks".  St. Boniface has been known as the "Apostle to the Germans".  St. Ansgar is called the "Apostle of the North" for his missionary labors in Denmark and Sweden.  Saints Cyril and Methodius have become known as the "Apostles to the Slavs".  Stephen of Perm has been called the "Apostle to the Zyrians".  John Eliot was called the "Apostle to the Native Americans".  The nineteenth-century missionary David Hill, instrumental in the conversion of Confucian scholar Xi Sheng Mo, has occasionally been described as an "Apostle to the Chinese", while his more famous contemporary Hudson Taylor has also been described as an "Apostle to China" or, more precisely, an "Apostle to Inland China".  The phrase "Apostle to China" has additionally been used to describe other missionaries, such as Karl Friedrich August Gutzlaff.  All of these titles should be given their due force.  Indeed, in a much broader and less specified sense, all Christians are apostles or missionaries - which is part of the reason the Creed confesses the church not just to be 'one', 'holy', and 'catholic', but also to be 'apostolic'.

So in evaluating the LDS apologetic argument above, premise {2} requires further specification.  Consider the six following possible interpretations:
  • {2E}  Mainstream Christian organizations do not profess to include "living evangelical-apostles" among their number.
  • {2C} Mainstream Christian organizations do not profess to include "living charismatic-apostles" among their number.
  • {2I} Mainstream Christian organizations do not profess to include "living institutional-apostles" among their number.
  • {2E*}  Mainstream Christian organizations do not profess to include "living evangelical-apostles" among their number on earth.
  • {2C*}  Mainstream Christian organizations do not profess to include "living charismatic-apostles" among their number on earth.
  • {2I*}  Mainstream Christian organizations do not profess to include "living institutional-apostles" among their number on earth.
It seems clear, in each of these cases, that the truth of {2X*} is entailed by {2X}, but not necessarily vice versa.  So, is {2E} true?  The answer must be no, for {2E*} is not true; and {2E*} is not true because there are missionary church-planters living on earth today whom mainstream Christians can justifiably deem "apostles" in the sense specified.  For {2C[*]} and {2I[*]}, the case is more complicated.  It has been established that {2C*} and {2I*} are true (excepting perhaps some groups of particularly charismatic orientation, especially in Africa; but we can disregard those for the purposes of argument here).  Does it follow here that {2C} and {2I} are true?  No.  As noted above, mainstream Christians may treat the Twelve as an eschatological quorum whose members are not replaced by death.  The reason that the Twelve's members are not replaced consequent to death is that membership in the Twelve is not terminated by death.  

So, focusing in on {2I}, mainstream Christians affirm that institutional apostles do presently exist.  Are they "living apostles"?  Yes, for their God is "not the God of the dead but of the living, for to him all are alive", and so they remain "alive to God in Christ Jesus" (Romans 6:11), just as they were while on earth.  Are these "living apostles" considered by mainstream Christians to be "included" in the church?  Yes, for mainstream Christians affirm the communio sanctorum, the vivid spiritual communion between the church triumphant and the church militant (and the church penitent, for Roman Catholic thinkers) as part of one and the same mystical body.  Therefore, it may be said that, from a mainstream Christian perspective, the Twelve are living institutional-apostles who are currently - at this very moment - part of the church.  Mainstream Christian organizations do profess to include 'living institutional-apostles' - and therefore {2I} is false.  The same goes for {2C}, because the Twelve are charismatic-apostles, as is required in order to be an institutional-apostle in mainstream Christian understanding (following the teaching of the New Testament).

All that remains, then, is {2I*}.  This is probably what is frequently meant by {2} as employed in LDS apologetics anyway - or, at least, {2I} is.  But is {2I*}, without {2I} itself, sufficient to put the argument forward?  Not without further specification of {1} along similar lines.  In order to reach conclusion {6}, the quality claimed by one group but not by the other must be the same quality that is essential to authentic membership in the relevant entity-class (here, "the one true church").  If {2} is modified to {2I*}, then {1} must be modified analogously to {1I*}: "Assorted biblical passages indicate that there will always be 'living institutional-apostles' on earth in the authentic church of Jesus Christ". 

Herein lie several problems.  First, the LDS apologist must make the case that a perpetual ministry of apostolic persons (or the apostolic role, or the apostolic office) is in fact indicated by the text in its context; this is often disputed, as in the case of Ephesians 2:20.  With regard to some typical LDS prooftexts, then, this hurdle is harder to clear than is often thought - and nothing about it hinges upon my arguments throughout this post thus far.

Second, the LDS apologist must make the case that the biblical passage(s) in question must be understood as referring to institutional-apostleship rather than, say, evangelical-apostleship.  For instance, it seems quite plausible to me that Ephesians 4:11 could be understood in terms of evangelical-apostleship.  Indeed, I am aware of Evangelical authors today who make precisely that sort of application of Ephesians 4:11 in presenting the importance of fivefold ministry roles - see, for instance, JR Woodward's superb 2012 book Creating a Missional Culture: Equipping the Church for the Sake of the World, which should be required reading for every pastor (and perhaps for all Christians in general).  

Third, even if the LDS apologist is able to make the case for both of those qualifications regarding the passage in question, the LDS apologist must also successfully argue that the passage requires such apostles to be on earth, as opposed to merely being living members of the church.  Even assuming that (for instance) Ephesians 4:11 must be taken in the sense of institutional apostles, and even assuming that the standard LDS case from Ephesians 4:13 indicates the continuing nature of all the ministries listed in Ephesians 4:11, it need not follow that Ephesians 4:11 is incompatible with God giving the Twelve to the church as apostles and then allowing those very same Twelve to be a perpetual gift to the church.

In short, a modified (or clarified, if you will) version of the LDS apologetic argument in question is a highly tenuous thing.  If we make {1} and {2} into {1E} and {2E}, respectively, then {1E} enjoys reasonable plausibility, but {2E} is false.  The same is true for turning {1} and {2} into {1E*} and {2E*}, respectively.  If we make {1} and {2} into {1I} and {2I}, then the exegetical case for {1I} from the usual biblical passages is weakened, while {2I} is still false; and, what's more, to the extent that an exegetical case for {1I} can be made, it tends to support mainstream Christianity, owing to ~{2I}.  Turning {1} and {2} into {1C} and {2C}, respectively, will naturally yield essentially the same results.  If we make {1} and {2} into {1I*} and {2I*}, finally {2I*} becomes true, but the case for {1I*} becomes exceptionally weak indeed.  A mainstream Christian is, in all probability, fully justified in rejecting {1I*}, and so the argument remains unsuccessful.  The same holds, mutatis mutandis, for turning {1} and {2} into {1C*} and {2C*}, respectively.

But, as already noted above, these six alterations are the only configurations that preserve the logical validity of the argument's structure.  Therefore, since on none of these six accounts do both premises simultaneously have plausibility, the LDS apologetic argument in question must be adjudged a failure.  There is indeed an Evangelical theology of apostleship that, through the taxonomy crafted in early Mormon circles, provides a successful defense against this argument, because in all respects that seem genuinely important, Evangelicals do believe in living apostles today.  The LDS effort to gain a rhetorical edge is, in this respect, baseless.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Miroslav Volf, Wisdom-Reception, and Mormon Missionary Culture

Back in March, I read Miroslav Volf's 2011 book A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good.  (For those not familiar with him, Volf is a Protestant theologian from Croatia who teaches at Yale Divinity School.)  It started off a bit slow, and seemingly meandering, but Volf's overall argument emerged when he tied things together at the end.  He makes a powerful, gentle, and nuanced case for the validity of religious reasoning being employed in public policy decisions and in public discourse about social and cultural issues - and clearly our era needs to take note of just such a case.  

But this post is not about that.  It is, instead, about a thought that occurred to me when I read a brief remark he made in the sixth chapter ("Sharing Wisdom"), in which he casts religious persuasion, or evangelism, in terms of offering a distinctive form of wisdom.  Christian evangelism is offering wisdom of an integrated Christian way of life - and, ultimately, offering Jesus, who is himself the Wisdom of God.  Thus, as Volf says (102):
For Christians, wisdom is a peculiar kind of truth that concerns all people - and concerns them in the deepest way.  It concerns them as human beings, not as members of this or that group or as performers of certain tasks or pursuers of certain goals.  To reject wisdom as a way of life, or Christ as the embodiment of wisdom, is not like leaving the dessert untouched after a good meal; rather, it is like refusing the very nourishment without which humans cannot truly flourish.
Volf goes on to say that Muslims will plausibly offer Islamic wisdom, and so forth for other proselytizing faiths (103).  As for Christians, we share wisdom because "Christians have an obligation to share wisdom" (103), because "the obligation to share wisdom is an expression of love for neighbors", and because "the wisdom dwelling in them seeks to impart itself through them to others" (104). Wisdom-sharing must not be done via forceful imposition, or "by the power of rhetorical manipulation, or with inducements of material gain" (106), nor should wisdom-sharing be reduced to a commodification of wisdom, which is done when 'wisdom-sellers' "seduce buyers into making a purchase by tailoring the merchandise to fit the desires of the buyer" (107).  Rather, "Christian wisdom is fundamentally about what God gives free of charge and must therefore be imparted free of charge" (108).

All this leads up to the point that struck me and made me think of issues particularly relevant here: "As we share the wisdom of our religious tradition, we should keep in mind that the person to whom we offer wisdom is also a giver, not just a passive receiver.  As givers, we respect receivers by seeing ourselves as potential receivers too" (111).  I will be first to admit that mainstream Christians have often failed, and continue to fail, in this regard: in many instances, we as individuals and even as a community have not even been open to the idea of receiving what others might want to share.  This is a distortion of a virtuous stance (the desire to protect the pure integrity of the faith from adulteration or pollution by foreign elements - for such an admixture risks syncretism, heresy, or apostasy) - but it is a distortion all the same.

That said, it seems to me that this quote from Miroslav Volf encapsulates what I consider to be one of the gravest problems with the culture of the Mormon missionary program.  I gladly affirm that some elements of the Mormon missionary program are commendable, and that even the unique features do have some real benefits.  But there are also points of weakness, and not just tactical weakness.  This, I think, is one of them: LDS missionaries are inculcated with a mindset that discourages the possibility of reception.

What I mean is, almost never have I had an LDS missionary show the slightest interest in what I believe, save on rare occasion to get a stripped-down version of it for polemical purposes.  Consistently - not universally, but so near to it as to be rather consistent - their apparent interest has been in adhering to the conceptual script of how LDS missionary encounters are supposed to go.  What's more, attempts to share distinctly non-LDS wisdom with LDS missionaries are consistently (again, not universally, but commonly so) quickly categorized as "anti-Mormon", and common defense mechanisms are employed to squelch or dismiss the foreign wisdom.  (Not to say that all of these defense mechanisms are always wholly illegitimate, of course, but clearly many of them are susceptible to critique on a number of fronts.) 

Again, I am not saying that this resistance to wisdom-reception is a uniquely Mormon phenomenon.  What I am pointing out is that it is a considerable part of many Mormon subcultures, and perhaps especially Mormon missionary subculture, in spite of the fact that wisdom-sharing is so central to that subculture (and to significant components of Mormon culture in general).  This, I think, ought to be remedied.  What would the Mormon missionary program look like if demonization of so-called "anti-Mormon" literature and viewpoints were replaced by eagerness to learn about other perspectives and evaluate them fairly?  Indeed, what would Mormon culture look like if this replacement were widespread?  Very different, I think, and in many cases for the better.  I hope that these changes will someday take place in Mormon culture (and mainstream Christian cultures, for that matter). 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

I should have more posts here in the near future, but until then, please consider reading or watching my latest sermon ("Ambassadors of Another Kingdom"), preached this morning right before I was installed as the assistant pastor of my new church. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Brief Thoughts on Ordain Women

A good LDS friend recently sent me a message inquiring for some of my thoughts on the Ordain Women movement, and in light of the recent furor surrounding the prospect of disciplinary action for the movement's leader Kate Kelly (as well as for John Dehlin of the Mormon Stories podcast and for Alan Rock Waterman of the Pure Mormonism blog), I figure this is as good a time as any to put forth some of my (fairly scatterbrained) thoughts on the subject.  (For the record, I have no real sympathy for Dehlin and am astonished that he didn't get excommunicated earlier; and I'm not familiar enough with Waterman to speak to the issue.  So far as I am aware, leadership of the Ordain Women movement is the only factor involved in the apostasy charges being pursuted against Kate Kelly, and that does not seem to meet a reasonable standard of what constitutes "apostasy".)  For what I'm sure is a more comprehensive and fair picture of the issues at play, my blogrolls contain a variety of LDS-related blogs that have produced an assortment of posts relating to the Ordain Women movement - some favorable, others unfavorable.

My friend's inquiry particularly concerned the comparisons being drawn by supporters of Ordain Women between (1) the current and longstanding ban on bestowing the LDS priesthood upon women and (2) the pre-1978 ban on bestowing the LDS priesthood upon people of certain ethnic backgrounds.  My friend notes some differences he sees between the two issues: first, on the grounds of the basis of the restriction; and second, on the grounds of the methods employed by opponents of each ban.

I think that the precise nature of the comparisons being made, and the point to their use, is pivotal to addressing this issue.  What is it about the pre-1978 priesthood ban that either offers precedent or else provides other factors of relevance to those who oppose the other priesthood ban that remains in effect to this day?  From what I have read so far by supporters of the Ordain Women movement, appeal to this comparison often enters as a defeater to an assortment of objections that their movement faces, whether these objections are expressly articulated or simply anticipated.

For instance, some dismiss Ordain Women simply because the group is critical of the current doctrine/policy regarding the sex-based priesthood ban.  However, there were faithful Latter-day Saints prior to 1978 who opposed the then-current doctrine/policy regarding the race-based priesthood ban - including members of the upper echelon of church leadership, such as First Presidency member Hugh B. Brown.  Furthermore, so far as can be discerned based on current discussion, the LDS Church has formally disavowed all previous teachings regarding the grounds for the race-based priesthood ban, leaving no conclusion but that, in spite of past defenses of that priesthood ban, it was ultimately groundless - and thus opposing it would have been the proper course at any stage.

Incidentally, I think this point is relevant for my friend's comments on a difference between the bans when it comes to the 'nature' or 'grounds' for the bans.  What the race-based priesthood ban, and the shifting theological perspectives surrounding it, show us today is this: although various theological justifications for the ban were once articulated at all levels of the LDS Church, these justifications have now been dismissed as faulty.  Thus, members of the Ordain Women movement may plausibly argue, there is precedent upon which they may rationally believe that, even in spite of theological justifications for the sex-based priesthood ban being currently articulated at all levels of the LDS Church, those justifications may one day be institutionally dismissed as having always been merely speculative.  Of course, the current state of affairs warrants that they interact with those justifications upon their merits in the present - but members of the Ordain Women movement, and their allies, do precisely that.

Really, I think that this point of comparison is what undercuts virtually every principle-based objection I've heard to the actions of the Ordain Women movement: that is, we live in an era in which there exists a precedent showing that a doctrine/policy of the Church that restricts the priesthood, no matter how universally held, no matter how great a length it has been enforced, no matter how it has been theologically justified, and no matter even if past church leaders have claimed it to be a matter of divine revelation, can nevertheless be overturned and be viewed retrospectively as unjustified.  (After all, even President Hinckley said in 1997 that it was possible that the sex-based priesthood ban would one day be overturned, though he thought that this would require a specific revelation - which had not been sought, merely because "there's no agitation for that".)  This creates theological space for dissent.

If a case against Ordain Women is to be made in terms of the position for which they advocate, then that case must be made by advancing positive reasons why women cannot and should not hold the priesthood - reasons that are more plausible than analogous reasons in support of the now-defunct race-based priesthood ban.  Interaction must be made with the rebuttals offered by Ordain Women and their allies.  The current prevailing strategy of institutionally marginalizing Ordain Women is not a strategy that will accomplish this, whether or not it might succeed in simply making disagreement (temporarily) go away. 

Moreover, Ordain Women's persistent request, as I understand it (at least, according to their own accounts), has been simply for the LDS leadership to devote considerable prayer to the issue, consulting the Lord for revelation, and get back to them with the specific outcome.  Contrary to some of the rhetoric by their opponents, this has been one of the significant tangible requests that they have been making - other than admittance into some of the same church meetings that I, as a non-LDS man, would be admitted.  Well, if a portion of the membership would like the Church's leadership to pray about something, why not pray about it and report the results, if the church in question is built upon the notion that we can receive fresh revelation for our day and age?

As for methods, it seems to me that Ordain Women has been relatively tame.  Given that the 'priesthood session' of General Conference is open to non-LDS men to attend, and given that the contents are now streamed online like the rest of the General Conference sessions, I fail to see any possible justification whatsoever from blocking them access.  (And, from a mere public relations perspective, one blogger presented a far more effective way that that event could have been handled by Ordain Women's institutional opponents.)  Other than simply being known to the LDS and non-LDS world - and I suspect that the media coverage of the disciplinary actions has given them a considerable publicity bump - what, precisely, have they done that is methodologically problematic?  There may well be something; I have no vested interest in saying that Ordain Women has handled the matter well.  (Indeed, any diverse and controversial movement is virtually guaranteed to make some methodological missteps, to say the least.)  But seldom have I seen critics of Ordain Women actually attempt to carefully document the alleged methodological oversteps in a convincing way.  Even more infrequently have critics of Ordain Women's methods offered alternative effective ways to seek to advocate for the changes they hope church leaders and members will make.

I can understand why some Latter-day Saints, even many Latter-day Saints, would not be sympathetic to Ordain Women's hopes.  I can understand why even some sympathetic Latter-day Saints would be less than comfortable with the methods (actual or perceived) employed by Ordain Women, or with the controversies that have ensued due to the apparent impasse.  For my own part, my sympathies do lie with the cause advocated by Ordain Women - even though, in many respects other than this particular issue, I'm likely to feel more kinship with Ordain Women's male and female LDS critics.  I'd like to see the LDS Church drop the restriction of priesthood to only the worthy male members.  Then again, I'm an Evangelical; there's plenty I'd like to see change in the LDS Church.  But even setting aside the question of the sex-based priesthood ban itself, setting aside anything that would require adjustments to LDS theology, there are still some matters where greater equity could be established between men and women within LDS culture. 

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Short Announcements

I haven't posted here very much lately, as I've been rather busy with other matters.  I do have a list of posts I'd like to write up when I get the time, energy, and drive to do so, though.  (Some are further examinations of Evangelical and LDS teaching, while others are critical engagements with popular positions among the ex-LDS atheist communities.)  In the meantime, a few quick updates on what's been going on in my life:
  • I've been spending most of my time lately - as always - reading.  I have a number of books to work through before I return them to the seminary library in mid-July, so I've been making them a fairly high priority.
  • I have graduated, as of May 2014, from Asbury Theological Seminary with a Masters of Divinity (MDiv) degree.  It's been a long four-year journey!
  • On 29 May 2014, at the National Conference of my denomination, I was given my preacher's license and my clergy membership card identifying me as a "licensed pastor".
  • Starting in July, in addition to continuing in my current position teaching elementary-school children in a local Christian daycare, I will begin serving as the part-time assistant pastor of a small congregation out on the fringes of my home county, in the middle of heavy Amish territory.  (The horse-and-buggy nearly outnumbers the automobile on the road there!)  From what I've seen so far, it's a lovely community, and I've heard nothing but positive things about the church.  I strongly suspect that, as removed as the village is from any of the more urbanized areas, that I'm (sadly) rather unlikely to spot any LDS missionaries anywhere around!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

"Cuttle Fish Hypocrisy": An LDS Article from 1900

The following article originally appeared as "Cuttle Fish Hypocrisy", Latter Day Saints Southern Star 2/24 (12 May 1900): 188. 
When the cuttle fish wishes to hide his true position it opens its spleen bag of black gall and squirts the inky substance into the water around it.  There are, in the so-called Christian world of the nineteenth century, a great many professed "preachers of righteousness," who take a delight (apparently so, from the numerous instances thereof,) in using the same methods, and going through the same manoeuvres as the cuttle fish, when they wish to turn the public mind against that system of religion erroneously known as "Mormonism."  This "cuttle fish hypocrisy" on the part of our good "Christian" friends is neither sound nor convincing.  Preachers may rant and rage about "Mormonism;" they may howl and storm from their lofty pulpits; but after they have foamed and frothed, and their boiling anger is somewhat cooled, they look down upon this strange, peculiar sect called "Mormons," and behold! they grow, increase, and multiply in numbers.  Let us reason for a few moments, Christian people, for we do not look down upon you with scorn, derision, contempt or hate.  No!  Our mission is one of peace and good will; our labor one of love, forgiveness, gentleness, and sweet charity.  You know the Lord says through His servant Isaiah, "Come now and let us reason together;" and, if the Father of all mercies will condescend to reason with His erring children on the earth, have we not the right, and should we not exercise the same, by reasoning among ourselves?  Yes! for "wisdom and reason make us men."  To reason then; would it not be a great deal better for Mr. Baptist to preach Baptistism; Mr. Methodist to preach Methodistism; than for either of them to fight against and endeavor to tear down "Mormonism?"  Yes!  And why?  For this reason: They are commanded by the Lamb of God to let their light shine, and in fighting "Mormonism" they are railing at what they suppose to be darkness, and not exhibiting the light they profess to possess.  As well might you shout to a man who is struggling in the deep, "You are drowning," and not throw out a life line, or buoy, or any other means by which he might be saved, as to rave and abuse the doctrines and teachings of "Mormonism" without casting forth your precious beams of holy light which you lay claim to have.  Why do modern Christians forever continue to slander the Mormon people, and fail to give reason or Scripture for so going?  It is simply this, they, like the cuttle-fish, are desirous of concealing themselves, they are anxious to have the minds of the people turned from the shallowness of their own systems, hence they belch forth wild anathemas against the Latter-day Saints, hiding themselves at the same time behind this sectarian fog of error, heresy, vile abuse, and misrepresentation.  They define "Mormonism" as being a system of lust, false, heinous, treacherous and vile.  Their definitions of the subject - Mormonism - puts us in mind of the student's answer, when asked by a zoological teacher, "What is a crab?"  The student's answer was this, "The crab is a red fish which moves backward."  "Very good," said the teacher, "your definition is correct but for three things.  First the crab is not a fish; second, it is not red; and thirdly, it does not move backwards."  So it is with those who would define for you, that "Mormonism" is a system of lust, vice, and fraud.  They are as far from knowing the truthfulness of what they speak, as the boy in the zoology department; i.e., they know nothing of its virtues, divinity, and praiseworthiness.  You cannot draw water from a dry well.  If the Christian world has light we shall expect them to produce the same, that we might walk in the paths of righteousness.  As yet they have failed to bring the light of the Holy Scriptures to bear upon us, but have gone astray from all righteous precedents, and have resorted to vile abuse, mob law, and scandalous reports.  These are the cogent arguments, the powerful reasonings, the spotless eloquence of those who pose as "Truth Reflectors" in the van of modern Christendom.  The mason generally uses the materials at hand for the erection of the structure he has contracted to build; so do preachers, therefore we are forced to admit that better material, sounder logic, more honorable eloquence, and God-like conduct are needed in the sects of distorted and turbulent Christendom today.  Brother, you can never build up your own church by striving to pull down one with kindred objects like as you profess to have.  If your own cannot stand on its miry foundation you should keep perfectly quiet and let it have an early and peaceful death.
Some questions and points for discussion:
  1. This article features considerable invective toward mainstream Christianity, reflecting a long history of LDS polemics.  The author of this piece deems mainstream Christianity only a "so-called Christian world", suggesting by intimation that mainstream Christians are not really Christians after all.  Frequently, when some modern Christian critics of the LDS faith designate Latter-day Saints as non-Christian, however, this is taken as a highly intolerable offense to those Latter-day Saints.  Is it fair for modern Latter-day Saints to take this sort of offense, given (1) the long historical tradition of making the same accusation towards mainstream Christians and (2) the continuing LDS doctrines that analogously deny certain key soteriological benefits to mainstream Christians?
  2. This article appears to portray mainstream Christian preachers as undertaking, as their primary task, the exclusively negative goal of scurrilously attacking the LDS faith.  Does this impression continue to have reverberations in the modern LDS mindset(s)?  In my own personal experience, I have never heard a negative reference to 'Mormonism' in a sermon by a modern mainstream Christian preacher, let alone a particularly scurrilous one.  I have, however, heard several very clear negative attacks on mainstream Christianity in talks delivered by a modern Latter-day Saint speaker over one of their "lofty pulpits". 
  3. This article uses some particularly vivid images to describe the alleged general behavior of mainstream Christian preachers.  One such image is that of the cuttle-fish, which muddies the waters with other issues in order to distract from its own vulnerability; and this is contrasted with offering deep substance in terms of one's own "system of religion".  In a modern context, however, there is an increasing perception that these sorts of tactics are more to be associated with significant trends in the LDS faith: that the goal is never a real conjunction of clarity and depth, but rather the implications of many historical lines of LDS thought are dismissed as speculative, leaving only a relative theological "shallowness"; and, to distract from this, various rhetorical methods are utilized to move attention away from engaging substantively here.  Such is the perception, at least - and in my own experience, it has some quite unfortunate credibility.  Would it be fair to connect modern Mormonism with the cuttle-fish imagery?
  4. One of the article's complaints is that mainstream Christian critics of Mormonism offer a factually inaccurate presentation of Mormonism.  Is this still generally or near-uniformly the case now?  In what specific ways do prominent mainstream Christian ministries misrepresent the LDS faith?  Conversely, I have repeatedly seen and heard misrepresentations of mainstream Christianity (both in terms of doctrine and practice) in LDS correlated manuals, the writings and speeches of LDS leaders, and conversations with LDS friends.  What dynamics might lead to LDS sources misrepresenting mainstream Christianity in these ways?
  5. Another of the article's chief complaints is that mainstream Christian critics of Mormonism are exclusively negative but offer nothing positive of their own, no positive alternative to the LDS faith.  I cannot comment on what led the article's author to conclude this in his own era, but it is of course manifestly false in ours: Many leading mainstream Christian critics of Mormonism are not exclusively or even necessarily primarily negative, but rather are critiquing Mormonism chiefly as part-and-parcel of the task of offering a substantive alternative, usually some variety of Evangelical Protestant Christianity.  Just as preaching "Mormonism" in certain social contexts must necessarily include a negative attack on mainstream Christianity in general (for frequently, the alleged faults of mainstream Christianity was a key element in early LDS preaching and apologetics), so preaching "Methodistism" [sic] in certain social contexts must invariably include a negative apologetic against Mormonism - but this is not to reduce the message to a purely negative one.  So what is the holistic context in which a religious critique is a healthy endeavor?
  6. Yet another of the article's chief complaints is that mainstream Christian critics of Mormonism were not making their case by invoking reason and Scripture.  The author explicitly lauds reasonable dialogue as a way of effecting a change in perspective.  The author faults mainstream Christian critics for "having failed to bring the light of the Holy Scriptures to bear upon us", for "fail[ing] to give reason or Scripture" as the prime element in their critique.  The clear implication seems to be that, once some other faults in the critique are remedied (on which, see the preceding two questions), a critique based on reason and Scripture would be fully above-board, and indeed would be in principle a commendable act in the sight of the God who invites us to reason with him.  Yet today, it is commonplace in modern Mormonism that appeals to reason or Scripture are viewed in a much more negative light, as contrasted with a fairly fideistic or subjectivist approach to religious truth in conjunction with private affective experiences.  Why this unhealthy change?  What would it look like if modern Mormonism were to embrace the legitimacy of giving and receiving critiques based on reason and Scripture?

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Father's Father, Worlds Aplenty, and Populating the Cosmos

I was recently alerted by Aaron Shafovaloff of Mormonism Research Ministry to an extremely fascinating article that appeared in an official LDS periodical 43 years ago.  The article was written by BYU professor Kent Nielsen, and is titled "People on Other Worlds".  It was published in the April 1971 issue of the New Era, and given its contents, I'm actually somewhat astonished that it still appears on  I include below a fairly brief and abridged snippet, but I urge you to go to where the article is found on and read it for yourself in its entirety.  It is a considerably forthright exposition of the old cosmic expansiveness of the LDS message - a cosmic expansiveness that is largely downplayed for audiences today. 

When you look up to the heavens at night and see the countless numbers of stars, it is easy to imagine other people "out there" being tested and tried and experiencing struggles and joys somewhat similar to those we are going through.  [...]  The Prophet Joseph Smith taught:
God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man. ... he was once a man like us ... God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth. ...

If Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and ... God the Father of Jesus Christ had a Father, you may suppose that He had a Father also. ... And where was there ever a father without first being a son? ... If Jesus had a Father, can we not believe that He had a Father also? ...

He [Jesus] laid down His life, and took it up, the same as His Father had done before.
Long before our God began his creations, he dwelt on a mortal world like ours, one of the creations that his Father had created for him and his brethren.  He, with many of his brethren, was obedient to the principles of the eternal gospel.  One among these, it is presumed, was a savior for them, and through him they obtained a resurrection and an exaltation on an eternal, celestial world.  Then they gained the power and godhood of their Father and were made heirs of all that he had, continuing his works and creating worlds of their own for their own posterity - the same as their Father had done before, and his Father, and his Father, and on and on.  [...]  Being joint-heirs of all that the Father has, we may then look forward to using those powers to organize still other worlds from the unorganized matter that exists throughout boundless space.  Creating other worlds, peopling them with our own eternal posterity, providing a savior for them, and making known to them the saving principles of the eternal gospel, that they may have the same experiences we are now having and be exalted with us in their turn - this is eternal life.