2013-10-05

On Sharing Faith with Mormons



A friend of mine recently wrote me and asked for some advice on "witnessing" with some Mormon missionaries who had come to his home several times. I want to share what I shared with him, because it represents what I find to be the central flaws in Latter Day Saint theology.

However, I must preface this by saying that I have the utmost respect for many Mormons I have known and worked with for their commitment to their faith, to Jesus, to their families, and to moral integrity. They set a lifestyle example that many Christians should learn from. In terms of many moral issues, you would find me in total agreement with Mormons. Yes, I differ with them when I drink coffee and have beer with dinner. And yes, I would expand the definition of family beyond what Mormons would, to include families with two dads or two moms. But as far as core moral values of integrity, love, compassion, justice, and commitment to sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ: I would be in full agreement.

Where we differ is in the explanation of WHY these moral values are core to life. We may agree on the practice of moral integrity. And we may agree on many details of Old Testament and New Testament history. But we differ as to the theory of history and view of God that upholds this moral practice and this Biblical narrative.


So, when we, as orthodox Christians, are cross-witnessing with Mormons, I would ask: What are we wanting to see happen from this exchange? Most Mormons would already claim to have a personal relationship with Jesus. And their Jesus is, historically, substantially the same as our Jesus up to a point. We both agree on the New Testament narrative of Jesus' life, and that Jesus is God's unique, sinless son embodied in human form. What they add/change about this is threefold:

1. Extra-Biblical events: For them, both the Old and New Testaments are historically incomplete. Their "Book of Mormon" tells of the supposed voyage of ancient Jews to the Americas prior to Jesus. In addition, Jesus did many other historical things in the Americas after the events of the New Testament.

2. The Nature of God: Their concept of who and what God is, is radically different from the Christian concept of God as an eternal Trinity of persons, in which one of these eternal Persons becomes incarnate in the human life of Jesus of Nazareth.

3. A Restorationist view of History and Providence: Their concept of how history flows, and divine providence within history, is very different. For them, God allowed many centuries to pass with no renewal or restoration of God's true Gospel, until Joseph Smith came along in the 1800's to put it all together finally.

I think arguing over #1 (Mormon claims of extra-Biblical events) is pointless. They have their apologetics and "evidence" that the Americas were home to lost Jewish peoples before the advent of Europeans. Last time I looked at the "evidence" on their F.A.I.R. and F.A.R.M.S. websites (devoted to historical apologetics for Mormonism), it seemed to be an eccentric picking at straws amidst mountains of archaeological evidence. It seems to me that the basic claims of Jewish colonization of the Americas made in the Book of Mormon are simply implausible to the point of irrelevance.

However, if you argue that with them, you will get sucked into minutiae and miss the main point of witnessing to them. If non-specialists debate what may or may not have happened 2000-3000 years ago in the Americas, it is bound to have nothing to do with life and faith today. So, I would move to things that are more important and tangible, and agree to disagree about ancient historical questions. Instead, we need to focus on our area of agreement: The New Testament narrative of Jesus' life.

Yet, another point must also be made. Even though the Book of Mormon appears to be fictional, the basic outline of the character and mission of Jesus is similar to the New Testament. This is to say that even if none of the events in Book of Mormon actually happened, the picture it paints of Jesus is still largely congruent with the Jesus of the New Testament. It is actually in other Mormon Scriptures- notably the "Doctrine and Covenants", and "Pearl of Great Price", where things begin to radically diverge from orthodox Christian theology. And it is to this divergence I now turn.

Discussing #2 (the view of God) is more helpful in contrasting Mormon theology with Christian theology. They have a theory that the God and Father of our planet was once a person on another planet who earned Godhood, and was rewarded with this planet. In their view, there are myriad gods, each with their own planets. Each god has a "Plan of Salvation" which includes: (a) People begin existence as spirit-children who are born from god in the heavens before history. (b) They are then sent to their planet in incarnate form, in which they forget their previous existence, and (c) they must earn their way back to that existence through moral and spiritual effort. (d) If they are exceptionally faithful, they may attain godhood in their afterlife.

On our planet, Jesus was one of this God's myriad spirit-children, born before history, who was selected to be the Savior (this is, for instance, the clear implication of Doctrine and Covenants section 93). Thus all humans are basically the same in status as Jesus, as literal brothers and sisters created by God in the heavens before coming to Earth in a human form. This is even true for Satan, who is Jesus' (and our!) eternal spirit-brother.

This kind of polytheism demands questions like the problem of infinite regress: Who made the god who made the god who made the god who made our god? What is the REAL eternal Source behind all Reality if it is not the God we call Father? I can see how this could be functionally monotheistic, since there is only one God over our planet. But in a broader sense Mormonism is still infinitely alienated from the Ultimate Reality that creates us all.

Furthermore: If their God is finite and limited, is he also changing and evolving? This would seem to be the clear implication of a God who changes his mind, such as in the second declaration of "Doctrine and Covenants" from 1978, when God declared black people fully human. Who is to say this God will not evolve and change into something that is worse than God is now?

For these types of reasons, I think it is infinitely more helpful to maintain an orthodox view of God as an eternal Triune God, who exists as a Community of Love outside of time and space, and for that reason causes time and space to have existence to share Divine Love with other created beings. The orthodox view of the eternal Trinity provides a concept of God that is dynamic and relational, yet not subject to change and degradation, or the infinite regress of polytheism.

However, it is really #3 (the restorationist view of history) where I find the most flaws in Mormonism. For both orthodox Christians and Mormons, we claim God is good and loving. If this is so, here is how it works for orthodox Christians:

God has always revealed Godself in all cultures and religions (cf. Romans 1; John 1; Acts 14 and 17). In one of these cultures, God chose to most fully reveal God's character and moral Law: The Jewish people. And after they were prepared, God revealed himself by coming among them in human form as Jesus. After the resurrection of Jesus, God poured out his Spirit and empowered the Church to spread the Good News to every nation and people for 20 centuries until Christianity (in its manifold forms) makes up 1/3 of the people on planet Earth (about 2.4 billion to date). Thus, in this view there is a constant witness across history to the God of Love who is fully revealed in the life of Jesus (cf. Acts 14.17). And anything in culture that is good or true points us to the Source of goodness and truth that we live and move and exist within (cf. Acts 17.28) who is embodied in Jesus (cf. John 14.6).

Mormons, however, have to deny much of this narrative. For most of the time period listed above, God's Message was literally hidden in the ground until dug up by Joseph Smith. Humans were hopelessly apostate for at least 17 centuries. God made no attempts until the 1800's to clarify his Message and left all of humanity lost to wander in hopeless darkness for all of the rest of history. And even today, God's true religion (according to Mormonism) only makes up a tiny percentage of world population, while even the vast majority of Christians are deluded. In this theory, God seems to either actually not be good (because God has not seemed to try very hard to share the Message for most of history) or God is monumentally incompetent at getting the Word out. Either way, whether incompetent or not benevolent, this God does not seem worthy of worship.

Now, even with all of that said, I'm a bit liberal on the issue of how we come to know Jesus. I think that people who genuinely seek after truth and goodness and love and justice are actually seeking after Jesus even if they have never heard his Name (cf. 1John 4 "all who love know God and have been born of God because God is Love"). And Mormons not only acknowledge Jesus' name, but have a large realm of agreement about his life and teachings! So I would not actually accuse sincere Mormons of not knowing Jesus. I would just say that the mental picture of Jesus they hold is marred by several historical and theological misunderstandings. And I think the two biggest misunderstandings in Mormonism revolve around (a) the eternal nature of God as Triune; (b) their flawed understanding of God's goodness in light of the Mormon "restoration".

Despite all of this, Mormons in general should be commended for their sincerity, missionary zeal, commitment to family, and moral uprightness. In fact, Mormons are in an odd situation in terms of religious identity. On one hand, they are Christians on the practical level of faith in Jesus, baptism in the Triune Name of God, and moral action. Yet, at the level of theory and theology, they hold to a non-Christian type of polytheism and a flawed view of divine providence. Thus, I welcome them on the practical level of doing good in society in Jesus' Name, even while I want them to come to a more coherent and orthodox understanding of the Triune God, Jesus' Historical activity, and Divine Providence.
Post a Comment
This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.