Monday, July 07, 2008

Witnessing to Mormon elders

I just got finished talking to a pair of Mormon elders coming to my front door. Honestly, I was tempted to not even talk to them: to quote 2 John 10, and ignore them. However, since I have been studying evangelism through Way of the Master and other sources, I decided to talk to them.

They were, as usual for Mormons, very nice young men. They were respectful, and seemed honestly appreciative that I knew a fair bit about the Bible. I also admitted to them that I had not made an extensive study of their religion. Besides, as I noted, even if I came up with a bunch of places where the Book of Mormon contradicted the Bible or where their prophets have issued false prophecies, they'd no doubt have a list of responses to each objection.

Rather, I tried to focus on two ideas. First off, that I had no particular reason to believe the Book of Mormon. When they brought up the fact that we needed help to understand the Bible and apply it to our lives, I agreed to a certain extent. However, I continued, I have many other good books by good, God-fearing men like John MacArthur and Charles Stanley - why should I listen to this Book of Mormon? They did not attempt to convince me of the supernatural source of the Book of Mormon - which is not supportable on objective grounds anyway - but rather said to look at the fruit. I then responded that it seems to me that these men have powerful ministries, helping thousands of people to become Christians or become strengthened in their faith and holiness. That's the kind of fruit I can believe in.

I then mentioned that, I simply cannot believe that there was no true church or religion on earth until Joseph Smith came along in the early 19th century to rediscover it. Jesus said that the gates of hell would not defeat His church, and I was being asked to believe that - at least for awhile - the gates of hell did in fact defeat the church. So they asked whether I thought that we needed continuing authority for functions like baptizing and prophesying. I responded no, that Scripture makes it very clear that Jesus Christ is the chief Cornerstone, that He built His church on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, who wrote the Bible.

They started talking about the "burning in the bosom" to authenticate the truths in the Book of Mormon, to which I said that I did not see any Biblical authority for this. They said that the Scriptures say that we should ask of God, who will lead us into truth. In response, I pointed out that it seems to me that God gave us many ways to "ask" of Him and be lead into truth - talking to Godly friends, reading the Bible, reading good books, etc. - and to their credit one of them agreed. He said he just meant that for some people the burning in the bosom applied, including for him.

The second idea I tried to focus on throughout the entire encounter is the basic truth of the Gospel: that every one of us is a sinner, and we are deserving of hell. When I spoke to them, I didn't realize that Mormons don't really believe in hell as a destination for any of us. I have since read about that and will bring it up in my next Mormon encounter. To that end, I led them through the Way of the Master "how many lies have you told in your life ... what does that make you?" stages. They admitted that they were liars and thieves and adulterers-at-heart, and said they needed Jesus to save them.

But it was a pretty easy admission. At one point they talked about God will give us faith after we make the effort to know Him and follow Him. That strikes me as the core of every man-made religion: that we make the effort first, and God saves us afterward. It seems to me it's at home just as much in Mormonism as it is in Arminianism or Catholicism. Now, I hasten to say: it's taken to a more logical extreme in Mormonism; that's why I would call Mormonism a heresy and the Mormon church a cult but not Arminian/Catholic ones. But that old desire to do it ourselves, to take some credit for our own salvation, is in every one of us. Only an honest reading of the Bible - and having our eyes opened by God - shows us that all our good deeds are truly like filthy rags.

It was quite a long conversation - and I have not done a very good job relating it all - and they wanted to follow up at a later date. Not wanting to enter a long-term discussion, I demurred, but ended by saying that I believe that we are not where we are by accident, that God appoints our times and places. I said I believed that God had brought them here for a purpose. And it was God's purpose that we examine ourselves, "make our election sure." The one who seemed the more experienced agreed, and promised that he'd honestly ask God to show him the truth if I would do the same. I agreed. I have no problem with that. They also gave me a Book of Mormon and pointed out some passages to read.

I just pray that, in addition to God showing me more and more of His truth (which I truly do pray for!), that He opens up the eyes of these two precious young men to their own true state, to the own desperate wickedness, and their need for the Savior as He opened mine. And not the son of Jehovah god who had advanced, through eternal progression, into a state of godhood and of the celestial mother, not the spirit brother of Lucifer; but the one and only begotten Son of the only and living God, Jesus Christ.

21 comments:

Rebecca Talley said...

My son is currently serving an LDS mission for which I am so thankful and grateful.

I believe you have some misconceptions about the LDS Church and I invite you to learn the truth about the LDS Church with a sincere heart.

Joel McDonald said...

As a former Mormon Missionary and now a disaffected Latter-day Saint, I commend you for your uncontentious discussion you had with these two young men. I think one of the most powerful things any LDS Missionary needs to witness on their mission is the strength of faith of others, and how that faith is supported by scripture and arguments no less rational than their own.

Gary Bisaga (aka fool4jesus) said...

Rebecca, I appreciate your and your son's sincere convictions, but I think you sincerely wrong. I did not make any proclamations of misconceptions: I just asked questions and related here, as best I could reconstruct, their answers. I truly and honestly do ask God to show me more and more of His truth; that does not mean I can't ask Him to also show these young men His truth as well. I love them and want them to know the true freedom that comes from a relationship with the Creator and Savior of the Universe.

Joel, thanks for your comments. These were very nice young men, but I am sure that sometimes things can get contentious. That's one reason why I didn't really want to go into failed prophecies, errors in the Book of Mormon, etc. I think you're right, that making a positive witness for the most part is the better way. Now, it probably can be useful to gently, once a relationship is established, to question the errors of the BOM and prophets; but even then we need to maintain an honest and loving heart. Like they say at Way of the Master, the objective is not to win an argument, but to introduce the people to the Savior. May we always remember that!

God bless you both.

Seth R. said...

I'm a believing Mormon. Sounds like an appropriate and respectful conversation on your part. I agree that going into critical-mode doesn't often help much. It's too easy as a Mormon responding to Evangelical criticisms, to get into a spitting match where you deride my religion, and I deride yours, and atheism is the only winner.

It actually is possible to believe both in Mormonism and in a very strong grace-theology. There is ample material on grace in the Book of Mormon. One of the most highly grace-focused passages is King Benjamin's address - found in Mosiah chapters 2-5. Benjamin tells his people that we are eternally in God's debt, and are less than the dust. No matter what good works we attempt, it does nothing - in itself - to bring us closer to God. We simply dig ourselves deeper and deeper in debt to our Father.

I'll admit that not all Mormons really understand or focus on the abundant scriptures on grace in our own scriptures. But it is possible to do and remain fully active in the Mormon faith. The difference between Mormons and Calvinists is that we do not really believe in "Total Depravity." We do not believe that there is nothing worthwhile in the human condition. We believe that we all have at least one thing that we can offer God freely - our own agency or free will.

For instance, I cannot simply decide to be something worthy of heaven, work hard, and get there. All my efforts will be futile in this respect. But what I can do, is turn over my own "agency," my own free will, to God and let Him make a new man of me.

Where we differ from Calvin is that we believe that there is something inherent in men and women that can be freely given to God - our wills. We just don't accept ideas like "Predestination" and "Total Depravity." We're like Arminians in this respect. But I think we go further than that. I would suspect that we pretty-much have problems with Calvin's entire "T-U-L-I-P."

We have an optimistic view of human nature and its inherent goodness. But that doesn't mean that we do not acknowledge an unbridgeable gulf between us and God. A correct understanding of the Book of Mormon would show that Christ is absolutely necessary to make not just the ultimate step into heaven, but also necessary for any gains we make as mortals.

True, many lay Mormons do not fully understand the notion of Christ's grace, and I think that Evangelicals could do many Mormons a great service in helping them to understand the overwhelming necessity of Christ's Atonement. But I think you'll find problems in understanding this stuff in most Christian populations, and not just among Mormons.

Gary Bisaga (aka fool4jesus) said...

Seth, thanks for your thoughtful comment. It's an interesting point about a strong belief in grace and Mormonism. I'll have to ponder that a bit more. However, by denying Total Depravity, I think you are saying the same thing my missionaries said: that it's up to us to make the first move. We use our free wills, and then God will pull us up the rest of the way across that great divide between us and Him.

It was exactly that sense that I compared Mormonism to Arminianism. Consistent Arminians, too, reject all five points of TULIP, although many of them are not really consistent and agree with some while disagreeing with others. As I point out elsewhere, that's not really possible: the five points all go together, and points 2-5 are really just elaborations on #1.

The other problem though, and the reason why I label Mormonism a cult, is that we're not even talking about the same God. Does Mormonism not teach eternal progression, that God was once a man as we are?

http://www.i4m.com/think/leaders/god_was_man.htm

Does it not teach that Jesus is a created being ontologically equal to Lucifer? Those are really the main points, though I admit I did not bring them up. My goal was to witness, not to argue. But if you have a different God, you have a different religion. You may be right, or we may be, or we both may be wrong, but we cannot both be right.

Finally, I readily agree that most Christians do not really understand God's grace either. What can I say - I'm doing my best to help educate them. :-)

God bless you.

Seth R. said...

Well, I want to be cautious in responding here for two reasons:

1. The LDS Church is not as careful about its orthodoxy as some other Christian faiths. Mormons are practical-minded, by and large, and not much-given to theological speculation.

2. The LDS faith is also sort of a "big tent" that tries to allow people to hold a wide range of PRIVATE beliefs while still participating. Note that I stressed the word "private." You'll find a wide range of speculations among lay LDS on some of our more esoteric points of doctrine (what God was doing previously would be a prime example of this). As long as these private speculations don't interfere with the worship of the LDS community, the general sense seems to be that these members are welcome to their opinions.

Perhaps the best way to approach this is not to try and speak authoritatively for the LDS Church, but to simply give you my take on the nature of God after having studied Mormon scripture and the statements of Joseph Smith and other Church authorities.

To my mind, the biggest divide between Mormons and other Christians is not our views on grace (the Arminian-Calvinist tension shows there's a range there). Nor is it the idea that "God was a man." Christians also believe this in the person of Jesus Christ. Nor is it the idea of closed or open canon - both Mormons and Calvinists believe that the canon is both open and closed at the same time. The only difference is the emphasis we place on certain particulars.

The real divide, as I see it, is on the ontological nature of God and humankind.

If I understand correctly, the traditional Christian view divides the universe ontologically into two categories: "Creator," and the "created." God being the former, everything else being the latter.

The idea is that God is the only self-existent being in the universe, omniverse, whatever you want to call it. He is not derivative or dependent on anything for His reality.

Everything else, was created - ex nihilo - by God and depends on that God for its existence. In strict Calvinism, I believe that the idea is that God is not just the original distant cause of creation, but also the active and present cause of creation. For instance, every breath I take, every movement of every atom in my body, is only possible because God, from moment to moment, wills that it be so. If he were to "will" 5 minutes from now that I be an ostrich, it would be so. If He were to decide tomorrow that I stop breathing, it would happen. Everything I am from moment to moment is because of God. I am a derivative of God's will.

Let me know if this accurately reflects your views or not.

Under this view, Predestination actually makes a great deal of sense. God wills it all.

Mormons do not generally accept this viewpoint. So, in one sense, your assertion of a "different God" is correct. However, there is some misconception in Evangelical circles as well. For instance, implicit in the statement "you believe Jesus and Satan are brothers" is the accusation that we are degrading God and lowering Him to a lower esteem than other Christians hold Him.

This is wrong.

The conflict is not so much that we degrade God, as that we exalt humanity.

Mormonism rejects "creation ex nihilo" generally. If you take the time to read the breadth of Mormon scripture and prophetic utterance, you will find a rather firm conviction that all matter is eternal. God never created anything "out of nothing." Rather, He organized everything out of pre-existing chaotic matter. Mormons only believe in God as a "Creator" in the sense that a painter or sculptor is a "creator." The creation comes into being from unformed materials.

So, it is certainly false to imply that a Mormon feels in any way that Jesus Christ is not eternal. We most certainly do believe he is eternal. The difference is that I also believe that you and I are eternal - without beginning or end.

Now, was God ever "a sinful man" as the accusation goes?

I think there is a range of acceptable belief on this subject. If you read Joseph Smith's "King Follett Sermon," that idea most certainly is asserted quite forcefully. However, Joseph's statements in that sermon were never canonized. In an interview with Time Magazine several years ago, the late Mormon prophet Gordon B. Hinckley took a somewhat agnostic approach to the question.

The Church also has to be careful here, because Joseph Smith made these remarks toward the end of his life. The sermon was recorded by several in the audience and we have to piece together what Joseph said from those accounts. Joseph also never had the opportunity to clarify what he meant before he was killed. Thus, current leadership is reluctant to press the issue much, since we are all "seeing through a glass darkly."

Nonetheless, it's a popular idea, and many LDS do hold it. However, some Mormon theologians assert that Mormon scripture actually rules out such a read and there is no scriptural reason for a believing Mormon to believe that God was ever a "sinful mortal man."

Certainly, the Book of Mormon gives no grounds for such belief. Christian scholars who take the time to study the Book of Mormon in depth, often express surprise at how trinitarian the language is.

So I don't think you are required to accept the idea of God ever being a "sinful man" in order to be a believing Mormon.

Personally, I'm agnostic on the question of what God was doing before we came along. I don't know, and I'm content to leave it there.

As far as how I regard God, I view Him as my literal spirit Father. I worship Him and feel that all goodness can be found in Him. I view Him as all powerful. I view myself as hopelessly corrupt before Him and in need of outside intervention if I ever hope to become like Him. My own desire is to become like Him in the same way a child becomes like his father. I am grateful to my Elder Brother Jesus Christ for making the infinite sacrifice that makes this possible.

So as to whether we worship "different gods"... I imagine that, in a theological sense, we do. But I don't think that makes the LDS any less respectful and worshipful of God the Father and Jesus Christ.

Note: not all Mormons are going to be of the same opinion as me on this. I'm able to talk about this, because I've been blogging about LDS theology and dialoging with Evangelicals for several years now. This has forced me to be more careful about my theology than most Mormons are probably used to. And as I mentioned, many Mormons don't spend too much time thinking about this stuff and dismiss it as "speculative" - preferring to focus on the business of life in the Gospel.

P.S., I forgot my Blogger password, so I'll just use Name/URL instead. The link is to a blog on Mormon-Evangelical conversations.

Angela said...

Seth R. - as in other places, I find your comments very insightful and helpful to understanding the LDS viewpoint. And as an LDS, I totally concur with your summary of our beliefs.

Gary Bisaga (aka fool4jesus) said...

Seth, I appreciate your insights on the Mormon religion. It is a good deal of information that I did not know.

However, nowhere have you shown that my main point - that Mormonism and historic Christianity have different basic beliefs - is invalid. I still maintain that the Mormon teaching on God's ontological being and the historic Christian one are different. You admitted it yourself. It is true for God the Father (creating ex nihilo in the Christian conception vs. making from eternally existent matter) as for the Son (being one in ontological being with the Father vs. being a different eternal spirit being). (BTW, sorry I misspoke about Jesus being a created being in your theology - a bit of the Witness theology snuck in there. I know that you believe all of us are eternally existing.)

You say this is just an official teaching that has little or no bearing for the average Mormon, and that may be true. However, I have two things to say to that. First, the fact that the majority of Mormons are ignorant as to what their church teaches is not an excuse to ignore what those teachings are. The majority of "Christians" are just as ignorant. Second, it's not just a fact about the remote past: it's about the very definition of Who God is. Is God merely an exalted man (whether formerly sinful or not made no part of my argument, and honestly I don't really care what the answer is) and we can attain to that same exalted state some day? Or is God the Creator (ex nihilo) of everything that exists? You say that question does not make any practical difference, but I could not disagree more. Who God is makes all the difference to how I see Him. In your conception, for example, the concept of God's Holiness really does not make any sense because He's not really separate - we can get there too!

You also say that some Christian scholars read the BOM as being very Trinitarian. I would like, first off, to know who these scholars are - since none that I've read believe this - but secondly that it should not be surprising that there are Trinitarian echoes in the BOM. Joseph Smith had grown up in the Christian tradition, so it's only natural that its echoes would show up in a book he wrote. It's the same reason echoes of Christianity show up in Mithraism and Islam. However, echoes are not the same thing as reality. I remember when I first learned about the Hindu "trinity" (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva). It sounded, to my unconverted mind, like the same thing as the Trinity. Now, I can hardly imagine that state of mind. When the Bible says that any man who is in Christ is a new creation, I believe that literally.

You say you are agnostic about all this, but I think it's clear the Bible encourages us to seek God to know Him more, to "ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true" (Moroni 10:4). In truth, I don't think you really are so agnostic. You seem to have a very clearly defined understanding of the nature of God in the Mormon conception.

In fact, without such a conception, the "business of life in the Gospel" does not even have a definition. What is the Gospel? That we are saved from our sins by Jesus Christ? But who is Jesus? What are sins? Why do we need saving from them? What happens to us if we are not saved from them? What happens if we are? All of these are the heart of the Gospel, and they totally depend on your understanding of who God is. I suppose I could mouth the words of the Gospel without any understanding of what they mean, and God can even use that to save other people, but that would really be no different than having a computer continually spit out the words.

Mormon Soprano said...

Hi Gary,
It is lovely that you took the time to speak with these two missionaries and have a respectful dialog. As a former Latter-day Saint missionary, it was always my greatest desire to be allowed to share what I love most with others, and it was always so appreciated when someone would open their door and not be too impatient or busy or afraid to spend some time conversing.

You have been given a great gift in that Book of Mormon the Elders gave you. I hope that you will take the time to read from it. If you study it, you will find that it is written as a beautiful second witness that Jesus Christ is the Savior & Redeemer of the world. The promised Messiah. Another witness that through His Atonement, we may return to live with God again. His grace and sacrifice is the greatest gift to mankind. Mormon's believe this with all our hearts. The majority of population of the world still do not know about Jesus or believe in His mission. Many state that there isn't enough evidence. The Bible no longer has to be the only witness of Jesus to the world.

Our invitation to you and everyone is to keep all the good and truth you have already learned and gained. Bring it all with you, share it with us, and then we have some things to share that will add to your truth and knowledge and assist in your spiritual growth. The Latter-day Saints aren't here to take away anything good you already have. We just offer more, and we offer it to everyone freely and eagerly. We save our money for years in order to go out and meet with strangers and share the good news. Our young people give up their time from schooling, loved ones, sweethearts and employment. Older couples leave their children and grandchildren and their comfortable homes to go to faraway lands and live in strange and difficult circumstances all because we feel our message is so important to share with all our brothers and sisters of the earth. We try to follow the Savior’s example. So, those two Elders who knocked on your door arrived after invariably making tremendous personal sacrifice to do so. Thank you so much for showing them kindness and respect, being willing to talk to them and even to accept a Book of Mormon.

I find that one of the most amazing blessings of being alive is the opportunity to learn. I work in a University research setting where regular scientific discovery is taking place. The breast cancer gene has now been isolated and new tests and advancements are moving forward in finding a cure. New discoveries on heart disease are taking place. There is a greater understanding of the effects of cholesterol and how to combat its destructive capacity, and much, much more! It is a very exciting time!

Obviously there is so much that we still do not know about the physical world, and may never know, and yet as human beings we are continually striving to learn, and our efforts are rewarded, and all benefit because of it. The spirit of discovery is alive and well. There are modern Columbus's and Galileo's improving society continually as we speak. Think of all the wonders of the 20th Century alone! Electricity, indoor plumbing, clean water, airplanes and automobiles, computers, cell phones...all absolute miracles that are so common we take them all for granted.

I am also a mother, and as a parent I have delighted in every new accomplishment and skill my children obtain. Nothing brings greater joy than watching a baby take their first steps, a toddler form their first words, a 7 year old work out a difficult math problem all on their own. And then their personalities and creativity really takes off! A 10 year old writes an insightful poem, a 14 year old brings her use of watercolors alive, and a teenager conducts a winning science experiment and then later that evening shows true wisdom when she has the courage to leave a party as drugs are distributed. What joy it is to watch a child grow up!

These are our God-given gifts, and what makes us stand above all other creatures on earth - the ability to change and learn, to grow intellectually and spiritually, to expand our capabilities, make intelligent decisions, and to create something new and beautiful!

I certainly would never want to have those gifts taken away from me, would you? If these are gifts from God, I cannot imagine He would do that. Do you think heaven would be very happy and interesting if we wandered for the rest of eternity stuck at the same intelligence and skill level we died with, napping on clouds, never learning any more, never getting to be share our creativity?

I would like to learn how God created butterflies, and tulips, and trees and water, for starters. If God is our Father, and we are His children (the Bible tells us this is so) then I don't think He would deny any of us that. (Luke 11:11-13) Every devoted father loves to teach their children what they know. My own father diligently and patiently tried to explain the theories of mathematics and the art of fishing to me - his specialties. I am sure you have had the same experience. As we get older, and wiser, it becomes our great desire to teach, and to share all our experiences, our wisdom and skills.

Didn't Jesus himself spend his lifetime diligently teaching and imparting his greater knowledge? Isn't the Bible full of great wisdom from God through prophets, which enlightens us in new ways as we read and ponder? How glorious are Gods ways of teaching His children! It is not a stretch then, that He would want all of His children throughout all of the earth to have equal knowledge and wisdom (the Book of Mormon is one such example). It is not a stretch that He could also send additional truth and knowledge and information to the earth once He thought we were ready for it. After all, his children had to live the Law of Moses first, before given the higher laws from Jesus. All must eat milk before meat. (1 Cor. 3:2, Hebrews 5:12,14)

God does not ever keep us in darkness when we are seeking. (James 1:5) Rather, He reaches out to us to encourage us to be ever learning, growing and improving! He always wants to give us more!

You have already demonstrated your great inner God-given desire to impart your knowledge & truth, such as with the missionaries, and you have demonstrated your power to create lovely things, such as this website.

If all good things are from God, (and learning and progression is certainly good) then learning more in this life is divine. And, I cannot imagine it could ever end after death. It is a truth of humanity. Truth never dies. Our spirit never dies. Thus, progression can never end. We don’t get to take anything earthly with us when we die, except what we have learned.

So, go ahead and Read the Book of Mormon. Don't be afraid to open the cover and find out for yourself what's inside. Find out what we really believe straight from the source, and consider things from another perspective. We are so eager to share! Why is that? Because if what we have is true, it is the most important message you will ever listen to. God is offering you more. Don't let yourself be bogged down by what you have heard others telling you we believe, or especially how you should feel about it. Ignore the voices that say you don't need any more light and knowledge and good in your life! Those voices don't make sense, and certainly are not from God. We are on this earth to learn and grow! I think you are absolutely correct, that those elders did not come to your doorstep by accident. It is interesting to ponder, and you have been, as your post demonstrates. What if God sent them directly to you, to hear the message they carried? You owe it to yourself to find out. You are a very intelligent man. Don’t limit your possibilities and understanding to what you know today. Don't limit God.

If there is more to life, knowledge, God's teachings and future possibilities, wouldn’t you want to know about it? If there really are additional scriptures from God that bring us closer to Jesus Christ, clarify doctrine & teach us even more spiritual truths, don't you want to read them? If there is really a living prophet and apostles speaking God's words today, just as anciently - then, WOW! That would be the very most important news ever! If it's actually true, and I personally believe it is with all my soul, I would sure want all of that in my life and do everything possible to find out! Wouldn’t you?

I wanted to know. I listened, I learned, and I prayed. To me, it makes perfect sense. It feels right. It’s peaceful inside my soul. My relationship with Jesus Christ and my family is even closer and stronger. Life and death has even deeper meaning to me. Millions are finding out and coming to the Church of Jesus Christ. They are listening to the prophets voice, and receiving so much more! We invite you to find out for yourself. Please don’t be afraid to learn.

- God be with you on your exciting personal quest

www.mormon.org

Gary Bisaga (aka fool4jesus) said...

Soprano:

The Bible never has been the "only witness of Jesus to the world." Every one of us who claims the name of Jesus is a witness. Some of us are good witnesses, some are bad - but we are all witnesses nonetheless. We all know atheists or agnostics who became what they are because of the bad witness of some supposed Christian. What's more, as I pointed out my missionary visitors, there are plenty of good books - witnesses for Christ, if you will - written by orthodox Christians whom I know and trust because I can see their fruit. Why should I place such high esteem on a book like the BOM?

You also say that "The Latter-day Saints aren't here to take away anything good you already have. We just offer more..." That is not true at all. You are asking me to accept a different conception of God. Can you honestly tell me that the Mormon church would allow me to be an elder, missionary, apostle, or any other such leadership position holding the orthodox Christian position that I hold? Are you really telling me that when I, as a potential Mormon missionary, go door to door telling people "the BOM is interesting but holds no spiritual weight" I would last even one day as a missionary?

So, let's be honest: you are asking me to give up my current orthodox historic Christian Trinitarian belief and accept another one. I can accept that. As I said to the missionaries, it's not necessarily disrespectful to say you disagree with somebody, or even that you think they are wrong. If you love them, the worst thing you can do is NOT tell them they're wrong.

By the way, where are all you Mormons coming from? I just put this up last night, and now there's a flood of Mormons here. (Well, for me it's a flood, considering I've never had one before. :-) Was I linked to from some Mormon blog?

Seth R. said...

Well...

"However, nowhere have you shown that my main point - that Mormonism and historic Christianity have different basic beliefs - is invalid."

That's probably because I wasn't disagreeing with that proposition. If you read Mormon scholars like Robert Millet and Stephen Robinson (who have both co-authored dialogue books with prominent Evangelicals), you will see them very much making the case that Mormonism is not so far off the beaten path.

I like Millet and Robinson generally. Recently, LDS authorities have been emphasizing points of commonality with other faiths rather than points of doctrinal distinction. Part of a "be good neighbors" push I think.

I've never been a wholehearted fan myself though. I actually enjoy the doctrinal distinctions. For me, there seems to be little point in being Mormon if we are just going to end up a slightly quirky version of Protestantism. But that's just me.

Second, I don't think I was exactly clear. I said that for MANY MORMONS, doctrinal complexities don't have a whole lot of bearing on the day to day business of living the Gospel. I'd wager the average Mormon doesn't spend much worry over questions about creation ex nihilo, gender of the Holy Ghost, God's past job descriptions, or other things on which we just don't have a lot of scripture or revelation giving any guidance. Perhaps that's a cultural weakness of ours. Perhaps it's an advantage. You can be the judge I imagine.

As far as whether it's important to think about these things.... My own bias is that it is. I enjoy theology on a strictly amateur level. I think it does matter whether we are ontologically the "same kind" as God. It changes many ways in which we view the world.

But as important as it may all be, the fact remains that we don't have all the information. On some areas, God has not seen fit to fill us in. Perhaps that is because God does not feel it necessary to tell us. Perhaps it is because we, as members of His Church, are not ready for the answers. Perhaps it is because we are, as other Christians might suggest, misguided from the start.

For myself, I think that while pursuing the truth about God, one should also leave a bit of room for being comfortable with ambiguity while holding to the light and knowledge one has been given. Perhaps saying I'm "content to leave it there" is not the correct sentiment. I may be sinfully mistaken in doing so. But in my weakness, there is only so much I can handle at one time. There are a great many other things in the Restored Gospel to pursue. Divine ontology is only one of them.

But yes, obviously I do consider the issue of the nature of God important, or I would not be wading into it here.

Incidentally, I don't know why you are getting so much Mormon response. I myself found you when you triggered one of my Google Alerts on "Mormon." Your post seemed measured enough to be worth responding to (there is a surprising amount of internet content on Mormons that is definitely NOT worth engaging), so I did.

Recently, an LDS apostle called on Mormons everywhere to "join the online conversation." So maybe you are seeing a bit of a surge from that.

Gary Bisaga (aka fool4jesus) said...

Seth, is it more accurate to say that you "enjoy the doctrinal distinctions" or that you think them important? Both could be true, I suppose. There is a human tendency in all of us (or at least, people like you and I :-) to want to understand and then clearly bring out such distinctives. This tendency is, I think, wholly natural, neither good nor bad. But over and above that, is a belief that it's important to know what's right and wrong, and to make distinctions between the two. I think both of us fall into this category too.

I also wonder whether one can't be better friends with somebody who (respectfully) holds strong opinions on a subject different from your own than somebody who nominally holds the same opinions but doesn't really care one way or the other. I am reminded of C.S. Lewis's description of friendship in his book "The Four Loves" - he said (quoting from memory) that the main thing that makes two people friends is that they agree that the same questions are important; that they agree on the answer is somewhat less so. Not the question "do you see the same truths as I do?" but rather "do you care about the same truths as I do?"

In any case, whether I enjoy the distinctives or not, I believe them important, and I think you do too. I still back up what I said, that without such context the "Gospel" is really just empty words. You can't really say "Jesus's death saved us from sin" until you have a clear idea who Jesus is, what sin is, and what His death accomplished.

By the way, I hope that my "flood of Mormons" comment did not offend. I am truly surprised since in one day I have exceeded the previous total (0). Actually, I have spoken on topics of faith to other Calvinists, Arminians, Catholics, Atheists, Agnostics, Muslims, a Wiccan, and some other people of unclear Buddhist synergies. Oh, two real Buddhists too, one of whom I witnessed to entirely in Spanish. It is a wonderful thing.

Regarding your comment that "we don't have all the information," that is certainly true. I have never heard a knowledgeable Christian - certainly not of the Calvinist strain - say that they do. Even within Calvinism, reputed to attract highly logical thinkers, there are unclear areas: for example, infralapsarianism vs supralapsarianism. We also don't know on what basis God elects us; we trust that God's decisions are right and not arbitrary as Arminians charge. Sometimes it is most logical to admit that logic can't solve everything; untaught pure "logic" got the Witnesses where they are. But that does not mean we cannot understand anything. We should try to understand what we think God clearly presents; and I think the Bible clearly presents the orthodox Christian (and, yes, the Calvinist) God vs. the Mormon one. Once one brings in the BOM/D&C/PGP as the primary authorities, of course, one reaches other conclusions.

We are agreed that Theology per se is only one part of the Christian life. But I think that the old universities had it right: theology is truly the king of the sciences; it provides the basis and the order for all other knowledge and activity. Because of that, wrong theology = wrong activity. Wrong theology = wrong Gospel.

Also, you mentioned the "Restored Gospel." I would like to understand your view of that concept. According to the official LDS website:

http://tinyurl.com/5wlm4e

"the fulness of the gospel was taken from the earth [in the early Christian era] because of widespread apostasy" and "the Lord has declared [the LDS are] 'the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth'." Do you agree with these statements? What exactly is the "restored Gospel" as opposed to your understanding of the orthodox Gospel (which you presumably think a false Gospel)?

Seth R. said...

Both I imagine. There's a bit of tribal pride in preserving distinctives, of course. But there's also a real desire to get to the bottom of things and discover real truth. I mentioned earlier that speaking with Evangelicals and other Christians has forced me to treat my own religion a little more carefully. So I think that pondering these things actually improves and enriches my own religion.

To elaborate on the "Restored Gospel"...

My own view pretty-much follow the official LDS view with a few alterations. I believe that the Church as it existed under Jesus and the Apostles was the authorized vehicle for transmitting God's will to the body of Christian worshipers as a group. Like the Roman Catholics, we are firm believers in the need for an official ecclesiarchy which can interpret the canon of scripture and (in the LDS case) transmit God's additions to the canon (which we believe is not closed). We are not generally big fans of sola scriptura and are open to the idea that scripture, while flawless in its conception in the mind of God, can definitely lose something in the transmission process. This is due to the flaws of the receivers.

The popular LDS narrative is that there was an authorized Church on the earth up through the era of the Apostles. But once the last of them died, the Priesthood was lost and the Great Apostasy commenced. This continued until Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery (his friend and scribe) received the Priesthood by "laying on of hands" from the resurrected John the Baptist (Aaronic Priesthood) and Peter, James, and John (Melkezedik Priesthood).

If you want to read the traditional Mormon view on the Apostasy, you can read LDS Apostle James E. Talmadge's "The Great Apostasy." It was published in 1909 and takes a fairly hardline view. Rhetoric among LDS leadership has softened somewhat since then.

My own slant on The Apostasy and The Restoration is that the seeds of apostasy were already at work in the Church even during Christ's own life and are found in the surrounding philosophical and political culture in which he lived. I think the apostasy was in motion from the very founding of the Church by Peter. Some of the apostasy was, no doubt, intentional on the part of corrupt men. But I think most of it was simply due to the simple reality of transmitting a unified message over the expanse of the entire Roman Empire. I think Bart Ehrman's book "Misquoting Jesus" unwittingly actually makes a pretty good case for the Mormon assertion of a general apostasy.

What I mean by Apostasy is that the authority to "seal in heaven that which you seal on earth" was lost from the earth. The heavens were judged to be silent. The Bible was deemed sufficient. And it was generally agreed that God had nothing more to say. That's what I mean by "Apostasy."

By "Restoration" I mean that God's Priesthood was restored. The same Priesthood had by Adam, through Abraham, through Moses, through Jesus Christ, and then to Peter and the Apostles. A common Mormon view is that Joseph simply restored the Church as it existed under Peter and Paul. I don't think this is really true since the structure of the LDS Church does not really match up with what we know of the primitive Christian Church. Rather, I think Joseph Smith was seeking to re-establish the archetype religion that had existed throughout the Old and New Testaments. People often remark that Mormonism has a very Old Testament feel to it, and I think this is true.

The purpose of the LDS Church today is the final Gathering of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Mormons who go through the temple are adopted into one of the tribes. A final gathering of the human family as "God's own people" (in the sense the Jews understand the idea) before the End.

I don't know if this clarifies anything for you on the issue of Mormon theology. But I should note that it's hard to talk about theology as a Mormon because that isn't always the main focus of Mormon believing life. One Mormon scholar has remarked that Mormons don't have a theology so much as they have a Divine Narrative. The prime usefulness of the scriptures for a Mormon is not for the theology gleaned from them, but for the Grand Narrative contained in them that the believing Mormon sees himself or herself as taking part in, and re-enacting in his or her own life.

I suppose its a rather "Jewish" approach to religion. Which I suppose is fitting since we see ourselves as sort-of adopted Jews.

This, of course, makes it hard to connect with traditional Christians, because our first concern as a Church is not, and never has been to safeguard an orthodoxy. Mormonism is not so much a theological system as it is a divine destiny. That destiny is where our energies are focused, often at the expense of systematic theology.

I imagine I'm not being very clear. Most Mormons don't really spend much time thinking about this, and my own thoughts are still in rough draft stage. But I really do think we're coming from a much different mindset than many Christians.

Mormons have not generally been too careful theologically. This frustrates our Christian neighbors on occasion. But I think we're making some progress. Keep in mind that we're still a relatively young and developing religion. We haven't really had all that much time to find our feet. Our interactions with other Christians have usually focused on sensational and misguided debates over Joseph Smith's personal character, and irrelevant name-calling. This has allowed both camps to dismiss the other as "deluded loonies" without ever making the effort to explore our real religious differences. But this is improving. A series of books co-authored by Evangelical and Mormon scholars has been trying to start a respectful engagement on the real points of difference. Here are some that are well worth reading:

"How Wide the Divide?" by Stephen E. Robinson
"Claiming Christ" by Robert L. Millet and Gerald R. McDermott
"Bridging the Divide" by Robert L. Millet and Rev. Gregory C.V. Johnson

Gary Bisaga (aka fool4jesus) said...

Once again, Seth, your comments are interesting, and they are quite clear. You have a gift for putting things into writing that, I am afraid, I do not. In any case, I thank you for your calm and informative discussion.

Actually, the more I learn about Mormonism, it sounds not so much like OT Judaism but rather the "emerging church." Orthopraxy overrules orthodoxy, that sort of thing. True, it takes bits from OT Judaism, but that is not surprising either. Many of the later "restorations" of Christianity, including the Jehovah's Witnesses, Worldwide Church of God (before their recent reformation), Seventh Day Adventists - even the Roman Catholic church to a certain extent - do the same things. For that matter, many in the emerging church (e.g. Rob Bell), Muslims, and even some dispensationalists also re-claim Jewish roots. So to have a later religion re-claim Old Testament terminology and practices seems pretty de rigueur.

It's not surprising that Ehrman should be looked to for support. The Muslims (and no doubt Witnesses and Oneness Pentacostals) also look to Ehrman to support their own theologies. But, despite his popularity - Dan Brown, the Jesus tomb fiasco, and Gospel of Judas also were widely popular - I think I will stick with the conclusions of scholars like Dan Wallace, Bruce Metzger (Ehrman's one-time mentor), Ben Witherington, and James White.

I am not one much given to debates over the personal character of people like Joseph Smith. He was a human being; Augustine, Luther, and Calvin were not perfect either. Of course, if you claim to be speaking directly for God, you put yourself in a more closely scrutinized position; and making prophesies you naturally open yourself up to people finding out whether or not those prophesies actually came to pass. But that's not my specialty.

My main question about ecclesiarchy and "the idea that scripture can definitely lose something in the transmission process..." is simply this: if we cannot understand Scripture without an infallible interpreter, how can we understand the interpreter? Why don't we need an infallible interpreter to interpret the interpreter? In either case, we're dealing with transmission of language between humans, which can certainly become corrupted.

The Bible, of course, does promise an infallible interpreter in the person of the Holy Spirit. I think it's more reasonable to believe that the Holy Spirit acts as our infallible interpreter in the "main and plain" things about the Bible; as for the other things, as we both agree, we may just not know this side of when we know as we are known.

Finally, you say that "Mormonism is not so much a theological system as it is a divine destiny" but I would, as I did earlier, question that statement. Let's say I wanted to join the Mormon church, and thought I would make a pretty good elder, apostle, missionary, or some other leadership position. Let's say I believe I have a divine destiny (as I do), and that destiny is to help the people whose doors I knock on come to understand and accept the orthodox Trinitarian position. How far would I get in the Mormon church? I seriously doubt very far - and rightly so. As Lewis said, we don't object to a conservative changing his mind and becoming a communist; we do object to him preaching communism while still in the pay of the conservatives.

Seth R. said...

I don't think the "Gospel of Judas" fiasco (which I did read about) has much to do with the basic proposition that transmission of scripture had a lot of opportunities to go wrong, and often did. But I don't want to push the point too far, since my aim was not to prove the Apostasy, but to simply lay out the Mormon view.

Mormons actually view there being a few components of the human connection with God. First, there is scripture providing the initial pattern. Then there is modern prophetic utterance - only some of which is accepted by the body of the Church as new scripture (much of it is merely treated as "inspired commentary" on the scripture - like the Jewish rabbinical commentary on the Torah). Finally, there is the Gift of the Holy Ghost - a specific gift given by Priesthood ordinance. The Holy Ghost witnesses the truth of the scriptures and the prophets.

Mormons seem to emphasize the personal witness of the Holy Ghost perhaps a bit more than Evangelicals do. I don't really think the differences are as big as some of our Christian critics allege (we are NOT just about vague "warm fuzzies"), but we certainly place heavy emphasis on the personal witness of the Holy Ghost. Mormons are constantly encouraged to gain a personal validation of all scripture and statements by Church authorities.

As to your final point, I should probably note that we do have the oddball die-hard trinitarian in our ranks and they are welcome.

There is a range of belief allowed in the LDS Church, as long as your beliefs don't interfere with the harmony of the community. Usually this means that such opinions are kept private, or merely discussed among friends, but not pushed from the pulpit or from a position of authority. As long as you don't try to proselyte or disrupt communal worship, a wide range of beliefs are often tolerated in LDS congregations.

The crux issue is your willingness to accept the LDS Church as the authoritative vehicle for making binding covenants with God, and your willingness to keep those covenants.

That said, in practice, Mormon communities tend to homogenize to a certain extent, which some people find oppressive. But I think there is more room for diversity of belief in Mormonism than people give us credit for.

Which isn't to say I agree with many of those diverse opinions, but...

Gary Bisaga (aka fool4jesus) said...

Seth, I want to thank you for the most enjoyable and interesting discussion.

I just wanted to make one little comment about the "Gospel" of Judas. Certainly, there are differences between Judas, Thomas, the Jesus Tomb affair, the Jesus Seminar, Dan Brown, the gnostics, Bart Ehrman, Richard Dawkins, and all the others. I mention them in the same sentence for one reason: their popularity among the mainstream media, no doubt due to their common thread of tearing down orthodox Christianity. Every year right before Easter it's interesting to see what old "discovery" will be dredged up, heralded as "new", and put all over Nightline, the New York Times, Time magazine, and NPR.

Re-reading this comment thread, I realize I did not answer one question you posited:

'If I understand correctly, the traditional Christian view divides the universe ontologically into two categories: "Creator," and the "created." ... In strict Calvinism, I believe that the idea is that God is not just the original distant cause of creation, but also the active and present cause of creation. For instance, every breath I take, every movement of every atom in my body, is only possible because God, from moment to moment, wills that it be so. If he were to "will" 5 minutes from now that I be an ostrich, it would be so.'

I agree, for the most part. I think this is not only the Calvinist but the orthodox Christian understanding in general. I believe Hebrews 1:3 is fairly clear when it says that Jesus sustains "all things by his powerful word." I would quibble a bit with your ostrich example, because God is not a God of disorder. It is only because He is consistent that we have consistency in our physical laws: the Principle of Uniformity of Nature is really nothing more than a re-statement of the fact that the universe is sustained by a God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. I think this is an important point: Arminians mock the Calvinist God as choosing arbitrarily who He will save, but that is totally inconsistent with the character of the God that the Arminian and I both serve. But for the most part, I am with you.

I think this conversation has pretty much worked its way out. But it has been fascinating to me, because I come out of it in general knowing much more about Mormonism, and in particular understanding much better those two zealous but lost souls who came to my door. I now feel better equipped to witness to people like them in the future. I sincerely thank you for that.

God bless you.

Seth R. said...

Very well. It has been a nice conversation and thank you.

I'm not exactly always thrilled with the potshots the media takes at Christianity - because, after all, I consider it to be my household too. I also find it annoying that the media always conveniently trots out these controversial stories on Easter or Christmas. It would be nice to let us have our holidays in peace for once.

I found "The Da Vinci Code" to be a fun, but pretty dumb read. Best not to take Dan Brown too seriously.

I think you're right that we've come to the end of this conversation (unless we wanted to get bogged down in more specific arguments). If you want to go into it further, the book recommendations I made are probably a good source.

elenburg said...

A pair of Mormon "elders" (who looked about 18 years old!) came to my door about 8 years ago. I accepted their "Book of Mormon" gift and began reading it while praying for the "burning in the bosom" as they recommended. The Mormon missionaries continued to come back and tried to answer my questions, but when God spoke to me (not audibly, but in my heart) and told me Mormonism was not true, they stopped coming to visit. Oh well.

Gary Bisaga (aka fool4jesus) said...

Good point, elenburg. I have been reading over the Book of Mormon as I told the "elders" I would, and prayed for God to show me more and more of His truth. That's a promise I can honestly make, because I truly do want to understand more of His truth.

So far, if God has shown me anything, it's that some passages of the BOM are taken straight from the Bible, some make Biblical allusions, and some are just historically interesting but fanciful writings by a man, no more fallible or infallible than the rest of us. It may "testify" to Jesus Christ, but so does the Christian life well-lived, or any number of other books.

God bless you.

Pizza Man said...

Hi Gary, very enjoyable post insightful and comments as well. It's very cool that you met with LDS Elders to discuss theology, to be frank you are more confident than I.

However, As an Arminian, I would have to disagree with your assessment that Arminians believe we are justified by works or that we reject total depravity. We do not in either case. No doubt there are Christians that hold to such a view, but it is not an Arminian understanding.

The main distinction between A and C is not Depravity, instead it is that Arminians believe God's grace in enabling instead of irresistible. By God's design we have a choice to make, and that is whether or not to believe. Left on our own we are unable to make such a choice, but by God's grace he brings us to a place where we are enabled to make a decision.

Having faith is not works, it is distinct from works and must come from the heart (Romans 10:5-15). Thus we are saved, by believing and depending on the rightness of Jesus.

So there is a distinction between works, faith, and decree. We are saved by grace through faith. Faith is not works, nor is it a decree. It is believing in our heart and confessing with our mouth that Jesus is lord.

God bless,
Kevin

Texas Craig said...

Wow, great posts!

I lived with a Mormon while in college, and I had a friend who was an ex-Mormon (and had become an evangelical Christian). From my time with both of them, and my extensive conversations with them, I have come to believe that there are many Mormons who are born again and are "saved."

I also think that some of the LDS church's formal doctrines are obviously contrary to orthodox Christianity, so I would not merely classify it within the realm of orthodox Christianity. Thankfully, I believe that there are many Mormons who do not follow or really understand and apply the most unorthodox teachings.

Either way, I am really glad that Gary took the time to speak with the two young men.

Pizza Man (Kevin), I wholeheartedly agree with your comment about Arminianism. I accept the concept of total depravity, but reject the concepts of irressitible grace and limited atonement. Rather, I believe that Christ died for the sins of the whole world and, in so doing, removed the barrier between mankind and God. The mistake that many people make is assuming that "forgiveness of sins" = "salvation." That is wrong. Forgiveness of sins just makes eternal life possible. It is a lot like having a felony on your record. As a convicted felon, you cannot vote. But, if that felony is wiped away, you become eligible to vote. That doesn't mean that you will actually exercise your opportunity.

In the same way, having our sins washed away means that we are no longer diqualified from eternal life. But, until we have been give God's Holy Spirit through our faith, we have not secured salvation.

Moreover, I do not accept the final element of Calvinism, "perserverance of the saints." I believe that, just as a person can exercise faith in God, so can they reject faith. That rejection of faith in God through Christ is the only thing that I believe will jepoardize our salvation, but I believe it exists nonetheless.

So, it is not necessarily true that all "free-willers" reject all tenets of Calvinism, but it certainly means they reject some!

Peace and Grace!