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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Are Mormons Christians? Notes the Debate (Part 1)

"After all, the Saints asked themselves, is not the name of our Church the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Do we not worship Christ? Is not the Book of Mormon another testament of Jesus Christ?" - Stephen E. Robinson, Are Mormons Christians?, page vii.


Recently, I had the privilege of aquatinting myself with Professor Stephen E. Robinson's excellent volume entitled Are Mormons Christians?. In this short work of only 133 pages, Professor Robinson lays out his arguments that affirms the above question. Now I am not unaware of the fact that this debate has been raging since the days of Joseph Smith, and I do not pretend to be able to answer this question definitively and finally once and for all. Since all human beings are agents unto themselves insofar as they have the ability to formulate their own opinions on these matters (though it should be remembered that just because one has an opinion that does not mean that said opinion is correct) the question as to whether or not Mormons are Christians is not likely to be resolved any time soon in the minds of critics of the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter-day Saints; particularly those of a fundamentalist Protestant influence.


However, I wish to offer some of my own musings on this subject in conjunction with the Book of Mormon. In other words, I wish to compliment and augment Professor Robinson's arguments that the Latter-day Saints are Christians with my own exegesis of the Book of Mormon. 


Much Ado About Nothing: An Introduction to the Problem


The Latter-day Saints, with their peculiar doctrines to contemporary Christians of modern Prophets, new scriptures, revelation and open heavens, have always been viewed, at best, as a quaint and tolerable little sect of no harm or consequence to bulk of Christendom. At worst, however, the Latter-day Saints are nothing more or less than a pernicious and evil cult, founded by a transparent fraud, designing to steal the righteous souls of Christians everywhere with their damnable heresies and pretentious claims to divine authority. Thus, as Douglas Cowan has explained, modern counter-cultists like "Dr." Walter Martin have striven long and hard to delegitimize the Latter-day Saints as non-Christians by a variety of tactics. After all, the likes of Martin reasoned, we can't have people claiming to be Christian who don't believe in the sole authority of the Bible or who claim that works play in role in salvation. Thus, because the Latter-day Saints don't adhere to Protestant doctrines such as sola scriptura or sola fides, to name only two doctrines, and because of their heretical beliefs such as theosis, plurality of gods and an open canon, they are not Christians. They might call themselves such, but don't be fooled! These dupes of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young are no more Christians than Hindus are.


To the Latter-day Saints, the charge that they are not Christians goes beyond the absurd. It is simply ridiculous, they claim, that they are not Christians. While it is true that they differ substantially on a number of doctrines with other contemporary Christians, that does not change the fact that Jesus Christ is the center of their worship and devotion. Despite these protestations, the Latter-day Saints have had to bear the attacks of seemingly countless counter-cultist ministries, preachers and proponents. A steady and growing stream of books, pamphlets and even movies

 have been produced and distributed en masse by these crusading counter-cultists which all unequivocally declare one simple truth: Mormons are not Christians.



The Latter-day Saint response to this accusation has, for the most part, been to simply ignore these charges as nothing more than anti-Mormon rhetoric. Few Latter-day Saint authors have given the proposition that Mormons are not Christians little to no attention, since the claim is below contempt. Notwithstanding, some Latter-day Saints, both professional and lay member alike, have answered the accusations of the critics. Hugh Nibley, for example, delivered a series of lectures in the mid fifties designed to accomplish two things. First, Dr. Nibley sought to defend the Latter-day Saint view of prophets and prophecy in the face of contemporary Christian criticisms of such, which holds that prophecy and the need for prophets ended with the age of the Apostles. For the Protestants, the Bible is the sole authority, whilst the Catholics have the Holy See and the Catechisms to look to for guidance. Secondly, Dr. Nibley responded to the accusation that the Latter-day Saints are not Christians because they don't believe in a number of post-biblical doctrines such as the trinity. These lectures, delivered as a series of radio broadcasts with the immortal name Time Vindicates the Prophets, became the standard Latter-day Saint response to the charge that they are not Christian for several years.


Then, in 1992, Professor Robinson came on the scene and offered his rebuttal to this criticism. As one with some rather respectable credentials, Professor Robinson's work soon became something of the standard work next to Dr. Nibley's earlier arguments as the Latter-day Saint response to the accusation that the Latter-day Saints are not Christians. 


Opposition in All Things


Lehi informed his children that there must be an "opposition in all things." According to 2 Nephi 2:11:


For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my first-born in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad.


In other words, according to Lehi, there must be contradiction and opposition in all things so that one can determine the difference between two factors, ideas, morals, etc. It is the standard idea that we know there is darkness around us because of the absence of light. The Prophet Joseph Smith likewise taught that only by “proving contraries, truth is made manifest.”



How does this relate to the question of wether or not Mormons are Christians? It shows to me that the Latter-day Saints should not “shirk or shun the fight”, so to speak, when confronted by these accusations. Both Lehi and Joseph Smith understood that the Latter-day Saints need to equip themselves to deal with issues by facing the opposition and proving those contraries, as to better flesh out the truth.


In This Series


In this new series of posts, which I will expand upon in the coming weeks, I wish to analyze the arguments of Dr. Robinson in the light of the teachings of the Book of Mormon. I understand that not all of his arguments are readily applicable or relevant to a Book of Mormon exegesis, but a number of them are.


It is hoped that by the end of these posts the reader will come to realize that the Latter-day Saints are Christians in every aspect of the word.


Notes:


1 Douglas Cowan, Bearing False Witness? An Introduction to the Christian Countercult (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003).


2 Martin was the writer of the dreadful screed The Kingdom of the Cults, which is something of the Bible of counter-cultists. Martin also made a number of claims about his credentials that were later discovered to be fraudulent, such as the claim that he was had a legitimate doctorate. On such, see Robert L. and Rosmary Brown, They Lie in Wait to Deceive, vol. 3, (Mesa, Arizona: Brownsworth Publishing, 1993).


3 Sandra Tanner, that indefatigable anti-Mormon sleuth, opined that Mormon theology “is as close to Christianity as Hinduism” in the horrid anti-Mormon video released by the Southern Baptist Convention entitled The Mormon Puzzle. Professor Daniel C. Peterson (FARMS Review, 10/1) in reviewing these materials, commented wryly: “One would very much like to pose a few questions to Ms. Tanner: What, for example, is the role of the Vedas or of the Upanishads in Latter-day Saint devotions? How central is the concept of karma to Mormon theology? What have the leaders of the church had to say about reincarnation, or the transmigration of souls? Is there any passage in Mormon scripture that advocates a rigid and complex caste system? Has an atheistic form of Mormonism, analogous to the Hindu atheist movements, been a fruitful element in Latter-day Saint intellectual history? Which is closer to Hindu monistic teaching, the Mormon concept of the Godhead or classical post-Nicene trinitarianism? Can Ms. Tanner name any Latter-day Saint hymn devoted to Vishnu? Would she care to comment on the rising bhakti movement among the followers of Joseph Smith? On the chanting of saffron-robed Mormon missionaries at American airports? (Hare Joseph!) As of yet—and these questions have been in print and available for many months—I have had no answer from Ms. Tanner. Perhaps she is still working her way through Whitney’s Sanskrit Grammar or Stenzler’s Elementarbuch der Sanskritsprache, and prefers to delay her response until she has a more secure command of the primary sources. I can sympathize. My copies of Stenzler and Whitney have lain largely untouched for years. Sanskrit is a dif´Čücult and intimidating language. Ms. Tanner can take whatever time she needs. I can wait. I am waiting.”


4 The most recent attempt was in 2007 with the release of The Search for the Truth: Jesus Christ vs. Joseph Smith. This insipid and pedestrian anti-Mormon video was reviewed by volunteers with the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research. See: http://en.fairmormon.org/Search_for_the_Truth_DVD


5 The distribution of these anti-Mormon materials unsolicited to Mormons and non-Mormons alike in bulk is, for example, a favorite tactic of the decidedly anti-Mormon Institute for Religious Research.


6 Dr. Nibley’s series has been republished multiple times. The most current offering is by the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies in 1987 as The World and the Prophets (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1987).


7 According to the his brief biography in his book, Dr. Robinson received his PhD in Biblical Studies at Duke University. He has published with both LDS and non-LDS venues, such as FARMS, Revue de Qumran, Journal for the Study of Judaism and Society of Biblical Literature.


8 History of the Church, 6:428.


9 “True to the Faith”, number 254, Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City, Utah: Intellectual Reserve, Inc., 1985)