As promised in my earlier post, let’s now look at the first few chapters in The LDS Gospel Topics Series: A Scholarly Engagement (Signature Books, 2020), edited by Matthew L. Harris and Newell G. Bringhurst. In this post, I’m going to look at the Introduction, by the editors; Chapter 1, “Are Mormons Christian?” by Craig L. Blomberg, a professor at the Denver Seminary; and Chapter 2, “Becoming Like God: A Critique,” by Richard Sherlock, a Catholic professor of philosophy at Utah State who was formerly LDS. I’m going to try to limit my discussion to two or three paragraphs on each essay, and let readers bring up more particular points of interest in the comments.
Introduction, by Matthew L. Harris, a history prof at CSU-Pueblo, and Newell G. Bringhurst, an emeritus history prof at the College of the Sequoias in California. Here is a link to the LDS Gospel Topics Essays page at LDS.org, where the current versions of each essay are now easily accessible. They weren’t always so easy to find. I know that some and possibly all of the essays have been updated and modified since their first publication. The current versions of the essays, however, do not indicate what those edits or modifications are. If anyone has links to sites that give more information on the edits, please give them in the comments.
The Introduction starts with the Swedish Rescue in 2010, covers discussions between concerned Latter-day Saint lay members and a couple of interested General Authorities, and winds up with the publication of the Essays between 2013 and 2015. It’s well worth reading, of course. It gives readers a sense of why the leadership decided to commission the Essays, which were drafted by LDS scholars, then edited by internal staff and reviewed by senior leaders before publication. The problem is that different leaders likely had various ideas about why the Essays were a good idea, and I’m guessing many of them now have changed their mind about what use, if any, the Essays serve.
But the relevant questions now are what we make of the Essays in 2021. How accurate and transparent are they? What is the target audience for the Essays? What use, if any, are the Essays to local leaders or to the rank and file members of the Church? Those are the relevant questions, and the answers you and I give in 2021 may be quite different from what the Introduction tells us about what LDS leadership thought about these questions back in 2012. I’m sure you’re familiar with the fact that many projects and initiatives take on a life of their own. I think the Essays fit that pattern.
Chapter 1, “Are Mormons Christian?” by Craig L. Blomberg. Discussing the Essay “Are Mormons Christian?” at LDS.org.
Let’s summarize every discussion on this topic you have ever heard. The Mormon says, “Of course we’re Christian. Look at our name. Read our baptismal prayer and our sacrament prayers. We talk about Jesus all the time in church. Look at our new logo. Do you have a statue of Jesus in your church logo?” The Evangelical Christian responds, “You claim extra-biblical scripture. You proclaim extra-biblical doctrine. You disclaim connection with historical Christianity, which you deride as apostate right back to the first century. You reject the efficacy of Christian baptism. Hey, you are nice people and do great service projects, you’re just not Christian in the standard sense of the term.”
The LDS Essay and the response by Blomberg recapitulate that discussion in somewhat more elevated language and in more detail. It’s worth noting that it’s really only Evangelical Protestants who get hung up on this issue. That’s because we share adjacent space on the religious map. We appeal to the same people and compete for their allegiance. Evangelicals don’t like Mormons because we are so much like them. In the broader world of Christianity, which includes Catholics and Orthodox churches, not to mention the wide variety of Christian groups in early Christianity (see Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities for a good review), Mormons are just another variation on how to do Christianity. The whole “Are Mormons Christian?” discussion says more about Evangelical Protestants than it does about Mormons. Here in 2021, with Evangelicals supporting The Loser Donald Trump in even greater numbers than Mormons, the better question to ask is: Why would anyone want to be an Evangelical? In 2021, Evangelicals stand for the prosperity gospel, cheap grace, and Donald Trump. In 2021, Mormons stand for the prosperity gospel, works righteousness, and Donald Trump. Take your pick.
Here are some quotes from the next essay, “Becoming Like God: A Critique,” by Richard Sherlock, that make better points on this topic than the main essay. Sherlock says,
If those of us who are traditional Christians were limited in our assessment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the theology found in the Book of Mormon, we could reasonably conclude that Mormonism is a somewhat robust version of free will Baptist theology that was pervasive in early America. … Catholics such as I would find many things to contest in this theology, but we could not say that the theology was out of the broad Christian orbit. … Imperfect though Catholics would find Book of Mormon theology to be, we might well see it as broadly Christian.A Scholarly Engagement, p. 51
Sherlock does go on to find “a difference of kind not of degree” between Mormonism and Christianity because of “plural marriage, temple rituals, and the [LDS] teaching about God and humankind” (p. 52). But clearly Catholic scholars don’t get as worked up about the issues as Evangelicals do. Stephen H. Webb, another Catholic scholar, wrote the book Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn From the Latter-day Saints. (Webb is cited and quoted at the end of Blomberg’s essay.) At the end of the day, almost any informed person without a dog in the fight is likely to see Mormons, Evangelical Protestants, Mainline Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox as representing different versions of Christianity, all with as good a claim to the generic term “Christian” as any other.
Incidentally, Sherlock has given us a road map for the LDS Church to gain broader acceptance within the Christian community. Turn temples into visitor’s centers. Give a clear and public repudiation of the doctrine of plural marriage rather than an ambiguous repudiation of its practice. Acknowledge that the Mormon view of heaven or salvation is about being with our families in the hereafter, not attaining Godhood and creating our own little worlds. Then we’ll be accepted as full members of the Christian Club.
Chapter 2, “Becoming Like God: A Critique,” by Richard Sherlock. Discussing the Essay “Becoming Like God” at LDS.org.
If you read the Essay and the response by Sherlock carefully, it quickly becomes evident that the point of dispute is not about whether, in the hereafter, you or I or anyone else “becomes like God” and what that means. The discussion is really about what it is you or I or anyone else is going to be doing in the hereafter. Christian theologians talk about the Beatific Vision, “contemplating God in His heavenly glory,” which is tied to the Christian doctrine of theosis. I think lay Christians think about holding hands and singing hymns. Mormon theologians talk about the Celestial Kingdom and eternal increase and try not to talk about plural marriage. I think lay Mormons think about hanging out with family and enjoying an eternal potluck dinner, possibly wandering off to create a new world now and then and possibly doing some procreating to people those new worlds.
So Mormons add some color to the hereafter. What Christian theologians don’t like (on full display in Sherlock’s essay) is the creating new worlds part. In Christian theology proper, God is the Creator and we are all part of His Creation. To claim that we as humans, even as saved and resurrected humans, would exercise powers of Creation in the hereafter flips the script, so to speak. Christian theologians don’t like that at all. Their vision of hereafter is about somehow continuing to worship God, who in turn is just very happy to continue being worshipped by his saved and resurrected creatures. Okay, that’s fine for a day or two, maybe even a couple of weeks, but doesn’t anyone who ponders this vision of the hereafter come around to thinking, “Okay, but at some point don’t we, like, get to do something else? Something fun or productive? Maybe write a poem?” It’s that “what do we do after the first two weeks” part that Mormons try to fill in with something fun and productive. I honestly don’t know what the average lay Christian would say about what Heaven has to offer after the first two weeks.
I employ a fairly casual tone in blog posts, but I don’t want you to think I’m treating the issues lightly or misrepresenting the speakers in any way. When I suggest Christian theologians think salvation in Heaven amounts to an eternity of worshipping God, just happy to be in the room with the Celestial Being, I’m not exaggerating. Here is Sherlock’s own statement:
For our purposes, a useful description of deification is given by Orthodox priest and scholar John McGukin: “The concept of deification is the process of sanctification of Christians, whereby they become progressively conformed to God; a conformation that is ultimately demonstrated in the glorious transfiguration of the just in the heavenly kingdom, when immortality and a more perfect vision (knowledge and experience) of God are clearly manifested in the glorification of the faithful.”
Like I said, Mormons take that view and run with it. Here’s what Sherlock says about the expanded Mormon view: “‘Becoming Like God’ makes so many contestable claims that one chapter cannot treat all of them” (p. 52). He especially takes issue with the first part of the Lorenzo Snow couplet, “As man is, God once was.” He makes the quite reasonable objection that if this is true, then “God” might be an advanced intelligence, a powerful being, but he wouldn’t be God in the sense that theologians speak of God (timeless, eternal, all-powerful, and so forth) and as such he would not be deserving of our worship. As Sherlock puts it, “Christians reject this picture of God because this cannot be a god in which we can have absolute trust for our salvation” (p. 60). Sherlock quotes a lot of prior Mormon leaders who endorsed the problematic doctrine, but I think recent LDS leaders have backed away from the claim (Gordon B. Hinckley: “that gets into some pretty deep theology that we don’t know very much about,” quoted by Sherlock at p. 60).
That darn couplet. Let’s just chop off the first half, since as Pres. Hinckley notes we don’t know very much about that, so Lorenzo Snow didn’t know very much about that, so we can safely ignore it. And let’s modify the second half of the couplet to read, “As God is, man may sort of become.” Sort of, as in resurrected and even glorified but not fully deified. Then we can read all the Church Fathers and medieval theologians quoted by Sherlock in his essay who talk about the Beatific Vision and mystical union with God, and we can nod along with Sherlock and the rest of Christendom.
Let’s wind this up with a discussion prompt or two. If you can resist weighing in on the question of whether Mormons are Christians, then consider this one instead: Do you now, or did you ever, believe in your heart of hearts that one day in the hereafter you would get to create your own worlds? Did you ever really think you would get your own galaxy (there are billions of them, after all) to play around with? Have you met a fellow Mormon who actually, truly believed this about their own future?