2005: Clarifications on Mormonism / Paul Owens

Paul Owens is the co-author of the groundbreaking article “Mormon scholarship, apologetics, and evangelical neglect: Losing the battle and not knowing it?” in 1998 in the Trinity Journal, and is, along with Paul Owens and Francis J Beckwith) one of the Editors and contributors to the Evangelical response to it in 2002, “The New Mormon Challenge“. To make sure that people did not mis-interpret where he is on theological issues and interactions with Latter-day Saints, he published this post in September 2005.
Steve St.Clair
Clarifications on Mormonism
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Catholicity — September 9, 2005 @ 12:38 pm

In light of comments which are circulating on the internet by some Baptists, who seem to have appointed themselves as the theological guard dogs of the blogosphere, I would like to clarify my views of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

1. The article which Mr. Johnson refers to was published in the Fall 1998 edition of the Trinity Journal. For anyone who is capable of reading it objectively, it is quite obviously an appeal to the Evangelical academy to take apologetics seriously as one of the obligations of their academic ministry. For too long, there has been a dichotomy between well-meaning “apologists” who lack rigorous academic training (some of the more obnoxious examples opposed us from the beginning for obvious reasons–we made them look bad), and scholars in the academy who do not take seriously the obligation to defend the faith. As a result, we were seeing BYU scholars with excellent training, advancing their apologetic with considerably more sophistication than nearly all corresponding Evangelical critiques. The whole point of the article was to make this problem known to the Evangelical academy, which does in fact have academic resources which could be brought to bear in addressing our differences with the LDS Church.

2. I have never advocated accepting the self-professed Christian status of the Mormon Church. There is such a thing as the visible church, united around a common faith which is articulated in the Nicene Creed and similar ecumenical statements of faith, and entered into by Trinitarian baptism. The Mormon Church does not formally give their assent to the Creed, does not accept the doctrine of the Trinity as it has been historically understood, and hence does not validly baptize its converts. I view no unbaptized person as a Christian (which is not to say that God is not free to do so).

3. I do believe that it is possible for Mormons to be “saved” in the ultimate sense, though they do so outside the Church, and hence this is not normative. The Westminster Confession of Faith says that there is no “ordinary” possibility of salvation outside the visible Church, and that is what I believe. So there is no “ordinary” possibility of salvation inside the Mormon Church. But that is something different from saying there is no possibility of salvation outside of the visible Church, period. That I reserve for Christ. There is no salvation outside of Christ, period. I do believe that some Mormons have a sincere, saving faith in Christ, though it is surely a confused faith. Because such persons are presently outside of the visible Church, I do not feel free to identify them as Christians, but nor do I exclude the possibility, even the probability, that God does view some of them so. God’s mysteries are not openly revealed to me (Deut. 29:29), so I do not know for certain the identity of the elect (2 Tim. 2:19). I do know that God will show mercy to whomever he desires (Rom. 9:15), and that he does not ask for or need my approval of a person’s theological accuracy to do so.

4. I do not believe that the argument, sure they believe in a Jesus, but not the Jesus, applies to the Mormons. The accusation of preaching “another Jesus” (2 Cor. 11:4) is directed at false teachers who knowingly deny the authority of the apostle Paul, and who intentionally proclaim a different Jesus from the one Paul claimed to have met on the Damascus Road. The Mormons do not intend to worship a Jesus who differs from the apostolic testimony, as Paul’s opponents did. Their intention is to worship the Jesus who spoke through all the apostles. Christian apologists, in their zeal to latch onto a prooftext, have misapplied Paul’s strong words here, and wrongly applied them to Mormons, who intend to affirm what Paul, and all the apostles taught pertaining to Christ, but who misunderstand some of those teachings. That, in itself, is not damnable. I take their claim to have faith in Jesus at face value. The problem is, it is a defective faith, because the Mormons do not affirm the true substance of the faith as it has been summarized in the consensual affirmations of the Church. The problem with the Mormons is not that they do not believe the Bible (many of them do); it is that they do not believe in the testimony of the Church as to the content of the faith once for all committed to the saints (Jude 3). In short, the problem with the Mormons is not that they are not Evangelicals, but that they are not Catholic Christians.

5. I do not accept Joseph Smith as a true Prophet. I do not believe that Joseph had the authority to pen Scripture, as did the prophets and apostles of old. I do believe that Joseph can be viewed as a prophet of sorts (something along the lines of Balaam in Numbers 22-24), who experienced a taste of the charismata, and who may have been used to speak a true word of rebuke upon a wordly, divisive church which was gripped by the spirit of revivalism. God used Joseph to speak to the churches, and to expose their shallow versions of the Christian religion. Out of the fragmented confusion of frontier revivalism and evangelism arose a new religion, which took revivalism to its logical conclusion, and implemented the popular primitivist, Anabaptist, Radical Reformation vision in such a manner as to decisively break from the historic fold. When the Church does not bear witness to its Catholicity, when the Faith becomes more of a mechanism of producing converts than maintaining the unity and identity of the visible body, God raises up men and movements to rebuke the worldly church. The Rechabites (Jer. 35) and the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) provide us with comparable models in which to understand God’s purpose in raising up Joseph Smith and the Mormons.

6. While I do not accept the conclusions of LDS scholarship in terms of their apologetic claims, I have never refrained from giving credit where credit is due. BYU has produced a host of highly skilled Hebraists, NT scholars, Near Eastern specialists, and experts in pertinent fields of ancient history (especially in the study of Gnosticism and Egyptian Christianity). Here I think of men such as Stephen Robinson, Kent Jackson, C. Wilfred Griggs, Stephen Ricks, S. Kent Brown, Paul Hoskisson, the late Hugh Nibley, and others as well. I’m not afraid to say that, just because the collected volume of their work makes most of the books you will find in the “cults” section of your local Christian bookstore look awfully simplistic.

7. What is more, I have not only complained about the poor quality of Christian apologetic materials, I have actually participated in doing something about it. I co-edited and contributed a chapter to The New Mormon Challenge (published by Zondervan), in which we begin to address Mormon scholarship head on. The fact that men such as William Lane Craig, Craig Blomberg, J. P. Moreland, and Francis Beckwith (as well as others) contributed chapters to the book testifies to the seriousness with which we take the task. These men are among the finest scholars and apologists in the world. We hope to produce at least one or two more similar volumes in the coming years.

8. While I think there is still a lot of progress to be made, I do believe that the theological changes within Mormonism (which have been noted by historians like O. Kendall White since the 80’s) are a positive movement of the Spirit of God. There is a definite trend in the theological and devotional literature toward classical absolutist categories in the description of God, as well as toward Protestant distinctives in the area of soteriology. Mormons like Stephen Robinson, Blake Ostler and Robert Millet are providing influential voices for affirmations of true monotheism, grace in conversion, the sole instrumentality of faith in justification, imputational categories of justification, and models of the Trinity which approach orthodoxy.

So in any case, I hope that clarifies where I am coming from. Do not believe the misrepresentations which some people are putting forth out of motives known ultimately only by the Lord himself.


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