Craig Blomberg is the scholar at Denver Theological Seminary who co-wrote the groundbreaking book “How Wide the Divide” (click the link to see at Amazon.com) with Stephen Robinson at BYU. He continues to be a major thinker in the discussions between conservative Christians and Latter-day Saints.
Excerpts from Chapter 9, New Mormon Challenge
Craig L Blomberg
Craig L. Blomberg is Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary. He earned a B.A. in religion from Augustana College, an M.A. in New Testament from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. Dr. Blomberg is a widely respected New Testament scholar and the author of such books as The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (InterVarsity), Jesus and the Gospels (Broad man), Neither Poverty Nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions (InterVarsity), and 1 Corinthians in the NIV Application Commentary (Zondervan). He is the coauthor of Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Word) and How Wide The Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation (InterVarsity). He has contributed essays to many reference works and edited volumes and has published in such journals as Biblical Theology Bulletin, BYU Studies, Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Themelios, and Trinity Journal.
With absolute incredulity Mormons often hear or read the charge that their faith is not Christian. How could it not be Christian? After all, isn’t the very name of Jesus Christ in the name of their church—the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Isn’t their Book of Mormon subtitled “Another Testament of Jesus Christ”? Is not the apex of its story line a record of an appearance of the resurrected Christ to the peoples inhabiting the New World? And is not the purpose of the Book of Mormon as well as the LDS Church’s extensive missionary program to encourage and provide opportunity for people everywhere to “come unto Christ” (Jacob 1:7)? Moreover, Latter-day Saints worship Christ as the divine Son of God, the Messiah of Israel, and the Savior of the world. They believe that he suffered as the atonement for sin, that he bodily rose from the dead, and that he will one day return, as the New Testament teaches, to set up his kingdom on earth.’
Given these and other doctrinal overlaps with historic Christianity, the average Mormon is mystified as to how any objective, rational person could cast doubt on Mormonism’s Christian character. Besides, the Latter-day Saint thinks, if Mormonism is not Christian, then what is it? It is not Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, or the offshoot of any other world religion. Nothing is left besides “Christian.” People who deny this obvious conclusion must be either hopelessly deceived or willfully dishonest.’
The average evangelical Christian’s perception of the Latter-day Saints, by contrast, is quite different. They have usually been taught to consider Mormonism a “cult,” lumped together with as wide-ranging religious phenomena as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Transcendental Meditation, and the Branch Davidians. The “cults,” in turn, are often combined with the occult, so that many evangelicals have some vaguely defined fear that it could be personally harmful to associate with Latter-day Saints, even as friends, lest something overtly satanic befall them? Not only are Mormons non-Christians in their minds, but for some, it seems that Mormons should not even receive the love and friendship Jesus commands his disciples to exhibit even to their enemies (e.g., Luke 6:27). Instead, they are shunned and at times even vilified. “Speaking the truth in love” (Eph 4:15) is thus often sacrificed by both sides in the debate.”
It is thus with considerable trepidation that I write this essay. In a previous work dialoguing with Mormonism, I explicitly wrote that the book did “not intend to address the question of whether Evangelicals and Mormons are both, in certain instances, bona fide Christians, however worthwhile that issue might be to discuss.”‘ That did not stop people in both camps, however, from falsely claiming that I was indeed implying Mormonism to be Christian—some of them eventually admitting that they had nor bothered to read the book in its entirety, including my disclaimer.6 To tackle this question directly now runs the risk of alienating everyone I did not previously alienate! I fear that my LDS friends will now accuse me of anti-Mormonism, no matter how courteous and objective I try to be.7And many evangelicals may complain that I am too soft and gracious in my critique. But Ephesians 4:15 remains in my Bible, so I must proceed and hope for the best.Uses of the Term Christian with Respect to a Religious Movement
To address the question “Is Mormonism Christian?” obviously requires a New Testament definition of Christian. The Greek counterpart Christians occurs only three times in the New Testament (Acts 11:26; 26:28; and 1 Pet 4:16), each time in a context of “outsiders” seeking a label for the fledgling Jesus movement. No formal definition of the term ever appears in the Bible. Probably the most common way the term is used in contemporary English is to denote a person who is a member of an Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant church, the three historic divisions of the faith over the centuries of the church’s existence. Thus the World Book Encyclopedia article on “Christianity” begins as follows: “Christianity is the religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Most followers of Christianity, called Christians, are members of one of three major groups—Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Eastern Orthodox.”8 Based on this definition, Mormonism is clearly not Christian, nor has it ever claimed to be so.
Indeed, the uniquely Mormon scriptures declare that all of Christendom after the apostolic age prior to 1830 was “a church which is most abominable above all other churches,” whose founder is the devil (I Nephi 13:5-6)? In Doctrine and Covenants 29:21, that “great and abominable church” is called the “whore of all the earth.” Joseph Smith, we are told, was commanded not to join any existing Christian denomination, “for they were all wrong,” “all their creeds were an abomination in [God’s] sight,” their “professors were all corrupt,” and their religious worship all a hypocritical pretense (Joseph Smith—History 2:19).
A New Form of Christianity?
We have seen, then, that Mormonism does not fit any historic Christian option and that its claim to be a different, restored form of Christianity also fails. But is there, perhaps, a third way in which it might be considered Christian—not as the restoration of the original form, but as a newly revealed fourth branch of Christendom? In many respects, the LDS claims might prove more persuasive had Joseph Smith treated the Book of Mormon, not as the translation of a centuries-old work, but as brand new revelation from God, as he did with his subsequent Doctrine and Covenants?? After all, a large number of LDS doctrines and practices that do find prior Christian precedent most closely parallel the broader Restorationist movement in early nineteenth-century America.
Consider, for example, the following list:
· Belief in an apostasy in the early church, which the Reformation did not adequately correct, necessitating a further Restoration
· Belief in the necessity of believers’ baptism by immersion for salvation
· Dependence on Acts 2:38 for the sequence of saving actions, which include faith, repentance, baptism, forgiveness of sins, the gift of the Holy Ghost, and appropriate good works to demonstrate persevering to the end, upon which eternal life can then be assured
· A rejection of all the historic creeds and confessions of faith of the church
· A desire to separate from all other existing forms of Christianity but to unite as the one true church of Jesus Christ
· Using a name for one’s church that referred only to Christ and not to any human leaders
· Strong anti-Calvinism; against all five points of the “TULIP”—total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the (guaranteed) perseverance of the saints
· Preaching against “faith only,” especially in light of James 2:24
· Ambiguity as to whether or not the Holy Ghost is a person
· The necessity of weekly Communion, but avoidance of wine due to teetotalism
· Against paid clergy, clerical titles, and the factiousness caused by denominationalism
· A spirit of self-reliance, a stress on tithing, and a strong concern to care for the genuinely needy in Christian circles and elsewhere
· An emphasis on Sabbath-keeping and the restoration of morality to a church and culture widely perceived to have become antinomian
· The generation of a new translation of the Scriptures
· The ultimate harmony of science and religion
· A sharp distinction between the dispensations of the patriarchs, the law, and the gospel
· Belief in the establishment of God’s kingdom in America in a more complete form than in any previous era of church history, described as “building Zion”
· A renewed missionary zeal
· A charismatic, iconoclastic founder”
One might be forgiven for thinking that this list described elements of religion newly revealed to Joseph Smith, but in fact every item was a central tenet of the preaching of Alexander Campbell, from which the Disciples of Christ movement was formed.” One of Campbell’s brightest followers, with whom he discoursed extensively, was Sidney Rigdon, who later became Joseph Smith’s “right hand man.”35 George Arbaugh, who chronicled in detail Smith’s career-long doctrinal pilgrimage increasingly away from orthodox Christianity, was even able to say that at its inception, Mormonism was a “Campbellite sect.”36
Of course, Campbell strictly limited his sources of authority to the Old and New Testaments. Joseph Smith had other influences for his more unparalleled “revelations.” To be sure, a sizable amount of the Book of Mormon alludes to and even explicitly quotes from, the King James Bible, including passages that subsequent textual criticism has demonstrated were not in the original manuscripts of Scripture.”‘ But Smith also became a Mason, and there are numerous parallels between the Masonic Lodge ceremonies and LDS temple rituals.38 He heard countless preachers from numerous denominations who passed through the Palmyra, New York, area and read voraciously from local libraries.39 ‘Whether or not we will ever be able to pin down one specific literary source for the general plot of the Book of Mormon is probably irrelevant; there was enough oral and written speculation in Smith’s day about the settling of the Americas by the Indians, possibilities of ancient Jewish pilgrimage to the New World, concerns over the salvation of those who had died without ever hearing the gospel (both in ancient Israel and in the Western Hemisphere), debates about the Negro race as possibly cursed by God, and hopes for America becoming a Christian Utopia (a new Israel and the site of Christ’s return) that it is completely understandable that all these elements should appear in the Book of Mormon and subsequent writings by Smith.40 The standard LDS apologetic of how unlikely it is that the “poorly educated” (formally speaking) young Smith could have created his revelations without divine inspiration overlooks all of these clearly documented influences on his early life and thought.”‘
Now as we speculate as to whether Mormonism could be considered Christian in the sense of simply a new nineteenth-century denomination, we must stress that this is not what the Latter-day Saints themselves claim. Nevertheless, it seems that they would be overjoyed if orthodox Christians would at least grant them that much.42 One obstacle to this acknowledgment, then, becomes the fact that, shorn of its Restorationist claims, Mormonism appears to relate to historic Christianity much as Christianity came to relate to Judaism: it changes enough elements to be classified better as a completely new religion.'”
Perhaps an analogy will help here. Suppose suddenly a group of Caucasian Swedes announced that God had given them a new work of scripture that contained many of the teachings of the Qu’ran in it. A contemporary prophet had translated it into Swedish from ancient tablets purportedly written in an otherwise unknown language called reformed Persian, but those tablets are unavailable for anyone to examine. Despite Muslim convictions about the inerrancy of the Qu’ran, this new religious movement claims that Islamic scripture is corrupt, missing many fundamental doctrines that the prophet Mohammed had in fact promulgated, including an account of Sweden being settled by middle-eastern Arabs long before the Vikings. What is more, the cardinal tenets of Islam—the monotheism of Allah and Mohammed as the prophet who brought final, definitive revelation from God—have been disproved; in fact, the Qu’ran’s original views more resembled the polytheism Muslims believe Mohammed rejected than the monotheism centrally proclaimed throughout their history. While Mohammed himself was a great spokesman for Allah, there is a Swedish prophet continuing to receive revelation from God today who can supersede anything in the Qu’ran that he wishes. Meanwhile, the standard summary of Islamic religion is to be rejected as “abominable,” and most of Islam’s holy men are viewed as corrupt.
The analogy could, of course, be extended. But could we seriously expect any faithful Muslim today to simultaneously reject this new sect’s claims to have restored original Islam and yet accept it as a legitimate expression of the Muslim faith?44 Presumably, the Latter-day Saints would similarly reject claims by a splinter group from within their own midst to be truly Mormon if they differed in this many fundamental ways from the larger parent organization.
There is, however, a possible way forward for Mormonism. Stephen Robinson himself draws parallels to how Roman Catholics and Protestants finally made substantial progress in interfaith dialogue in the last half-century.45 This became possible largely due to the historic Vatican II Council in the mid-1960s. Among other things, Catholicism toned down its claims for papal authority (mildly) and for the impossibility of salvation outside the Catholic Church (dramatically).46 Subsequent ecumenical gatherings of leading Catholic scholars and church authorities with both Lutherans and interdenominational groups of evangelicals have led to considerable agreement on the nature of justification by faith and Christian mission, respectively.47 Significantly, in each of these developments the resulting agreements more closely resemble the theology of Luther than that of the Counter-Reformation.
Most evangelicals, I am convinced, would be thrilled to observe parallel developments within Mormonism.”‘ Clearly, both the Vatican and Salt Lake City have an advantage not available to Protestants—a magisterium that can make authoritative pronouncements that supersede previous belief and practice. In both instances, this can take place very formally and suddenly, as when a pope speaks ex cathedra or an LDS president announces a new revelation from God. In Mormon history this has happened only twice: to cease practicing polygamy (1890), and to rescind the ban on blacks from the priesthood (1978). In each case, one by-product, whether or not intended, was to move Mormonism more in line with historic Christianity on the issue at hand.49 Clearly, such revelations could again move the LDS Church in what evangelicals would consider more biblical directions.
A more common kind of shift is less formal. Just as there are many segments of Western Catholicism that almost entirely disregard the still-official pronouncements of past eras of the Catholic Church about worshipping Mary or avoiding contraception (to use one theological and one moral illustration), so too the LDS authorities could simply decide not to stress those teachings that, from a historic Christian perspective, are most aberrant or offensive. If one is to believe the public persona of the LDS authorities today, this is already occurring, at least to some extent. Mormons widely perceive a movement over the last fifteen years or so, beginning with the presidency of Ezra Taft Benson, to call their church back to its roots, that is, to the Bible and the Book of Mormon.” Given the orthodoxy of the Bible and the smaller amount of heterodoxy in the Book of Mormon compared with Joseph Smith’s later writings,51 this development should be welcomed.
Similarly, the current LDS president, Gordon B. Hinckley, when asked in an interview for Time magazine whether the teaching of the Mormon Church today was that “God the Father was once a man like we are,” replied, “I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it. I haven’t heard it discussed for a long time in public discourse.”52 President Hinckley’s latest book, Stand for Something53 speaks eloquently of ten cardinal virtues needed in American society today, and quotes liberally from the Old and New Testaments but not once by chapter and verse from any of the uniquely Mormon scriptures. Yet Hinckley makes his points compellingly and gives numerous illustrations from his life and that of other Mormons, including an occasional quotation from Brigham Young. Obviously this is a deliberately chosen strategy to have the greatest national impact—but if it can work so well, why not do it consistently, in-house as well as publicly? Just as renewal-movement Catholics today cite the Bible far more often than the Apocrypha or church tradition, so LDS spokespersons could substantially limit their teaching to clearly biblical texts and doctrines. (I am not claiming that this would be sufficient to make the LDS Church fully orthodox, merely that it would be a good first step in narrowing “the divide.”)
The same could hold true for other areas that divide Mormonism from the historic Christian world. Writers like Stephen Robinson and Robert Millet are already demonstrating an acceptable diversity within LDS faith on central tenets such as the nature of God (absolutist not finite), the deification of believers (always subordinate to, and contingent on, God the Father), and salvation (by grace through faith), with frequent supporting quotations from orthodox Christian writers like C.S. Lewis and John MacArthur.” And there are signs that others are starting to follow in their wake.”
Thus, I disagree with Francis Beckwith that changes in Mormonism must “go through” Joseph Smith and Brigham Young; that is, they must account for how those two church leaders said things that are seemingly contradicted by subsequent developments in LDS circles.56 This was not the approach taken by Vatican II (or numerous other Catholic councils over the centuries) with respect to prior papal pronouncements. A church that believes in ongoing revelation or authoritative church tradition by definition looks to the most current form of that revelation or tradition to define its beliefs. It could actually prove counterproductive to try to stress to Catholics or Mormons (or anyone else!) that current beliefs seem to contradict former ones, if one approves of the current beliefs. Those groups might then be tempted to revert back to the older, less desirable beliefs!
I know that the scenarios I have sketched in the last five paragraphs seem far too radical to be conceivable by most current Mormons. But then Vatican II seemed impossible to Catholics even at the beginning of the 1960s. At the same time, it is important to stress that Roman Catholics already agreed with Protestants on fundamental doctrines such as the Trinity, the attributes of God, the relationship of the two natures of Christ, and so on.57 On much smaller scales, who would have predicted the major (though not universally accepted) changes even more recently within Seventh-Day Adventism or the Worldwide Church of God, both of which now have sizable evangelical constituencies? The Reorganized Latter Day Saints have likewise changed dramatically, largely in the direction of liberal Protestantism, and have officially renamed themselves the “Community of Christ.”
Shorn of its unorthodox theology, Mormonism would still have enormous contributions to make to the contemporary religious world: a strong commitment to win people to Christ; a biblical emphasis on numerous fundamental moral values, including putting family relationships as a central priority in life; generous financial giving; a good blend of self-reliance and helping others who genuinely cannot care for themselves; all the strengths of classic Arminianism with its emphasis on human free will and responsibility;58 mechanisms for spiritual growth and accountability for every church member; educational institutions for all ages of people; elaborate church organization, accompanied by genuine community and warm interpersonal relationships; a desire to restore original Christianity and remove corrupting influences from it; social and political agendas often similar to evangelical counterparts; and so on. What a force for good in the world Christianity could be if historic, orthodox Christians could in good conscience link hands with a truly evangelical Mormonism! But we have not arrived at that stage yet.