Mormonism: Branch on the Christian Tree?
I ran across a book review yesterday that is just…weird. It’s by Stephen Webb, a religion professor at Wabash College and recent convert to Roman Catholicism, reviewing Fuller Seminary president Richard Mouw’s book Talking With Mormons. It’s at Books and Culture, a Christianity Today site. Webb writes:
Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, has two goals in this book. First, he wants evangelicals to stop demonizing Mormons. Second, he wants Mormons to be more Calvinist in their theology.
With the first goal—which will certainly provoke disagreement from some evangelicals—I am entirely in sympathy. I am convinced that we should take Mormons at their word and acknowledge the sincerity of their conviction that Jesus Christ is their Lord and Savior.
I agree with that first goal as well. We’re not here to demonize anyone (though that’s certainly not to say that we can’t evaluate a religion’s teaching, or lay out what the consequences of following those teachings are). But that doesn’t mean we can’t treat even the most religiously misguided with respect. I can also acknowledge that Mormons are sincere in their beliefs without conceding that those beliefs are in the same theological universe as biblical Christianity. As for Jesus Christ being their Lord and Savior, I know they use those words, but what they mean is akin to saying, “I believe in the Jesus Christ who looks like, sounds like, teaches likes, and acts like Lady Gaga as my Lord and Savior.” I would wonder if the person who said that actually knew who Jesus is. I wonder the same thing about Mormons.
By now we should know better than to judge fellow followers of Jesus by the quality of their philosophical speculations rather than the fruits of their faith. Before long, we may hope, religious prejudices against Mormons will go the way of the once widespread prejudices against Roman Catholics. Mouw’s book, written by an insider who can speak with sympathy to Mormon-despisers, will help to bring that about.
This is where Webb starts getting weird. Are the bizarre doctrines taught by the LDS church really just “philosophical speculations?” Is the unique incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity really just “speculation”? Is monotheism really just “speculation”? God’s spiritual (non-embodied) nature just “speculation”? Is salvation by grace through faith (whether you include the “alones” or not) just “speculation”? As for “by their fruits you shall know them,” isn’t one of the fruits of Christian life supposed to be living by and proclaiming the truth?
Mouw’s second goal is a different story. That he—as a Calvinist—would like to see Mormonism become more Calvinistic is hardly surprising, but the two traditions make a very odd couple. The Mormon imagination is edgy and expansive while Calvinism is restrained and ascetic. Mormonism is a compendium of every 19th-century religious movement, including restorationism, apocalypticism, hermeticism, and even a healthy dose of liberalism. It is almost as catholic as the Roman Catholic Church—and that, for Mouw, is precisely its problem. After all, both Mormons and Catholics believe in the historical development of doctrine, divinization as the form of salvation, the need for centralized religious authority, the beauty of ritual, the connection between faith and love, and the existence of a heavenly Mother.
At this point I began to wonder about Webb’s RCIA training as well as his understanding of Mormonism. Let’s take them one at a time:
1) The Catholic view of the development of doctrine is that over the centuries, the Holy Spirit speaking through the Magisterium has brought fresh light to bear on what has been previously revealed. That has resulted in greater understanding of the deposit of faith. But the Spirit does not (contra Episcopal and other Protestant liberals) contradict what He had previously revealed. The LDS view is that the truth of the gospel was lost almost immediately after the apostolic age, was not restored until Joseph Smith came along, and that what he restored bore little resemblance to what the orthodox churches had taught in the interim, since it was the latter that buried the truth that Mormonism restores.
2) The Catholic understanding of divinization does not involve an ontological transformation of human beings from human to divine. We do not become “of one substance with the Father.” In the LDS, those who are divinized (which is not the same thing as salvation, since there are various levels of salvation and not all involve divinization) become ontologically indistinguishable from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
3) The fact that both believe in the “need for centralized religious authority” hardly makes them close cousins if what they in fact teach is radically different. By the same logic, Jehovah’s Witnesses are “almost as Lutheran” as the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, because they both operate (at least in theory) by sola scriptura.
4) Connecting Mormons and Catholics because they both believe in the “beauty of ritual” is another false connection. Again, by that logic John Spong and J.I. Packer are are practically the same because they both use the Book of Common Prayer.
5) I’ll skip the connection of “faith and love,” simply because it’s too complicated to get into.
6) The both believe in “the existence of a heavenly Mother”? He’s kidding, right? Catholics believe that our heavenly Mother is Mary, the mother of Jesus, and she’s called that because of her role in the incarnation and subsequent assumption into heaven. Mormons use the phrase “heavenly Mother” of God’s wife! [“Building upon the foundation laid by Joseph Smith, subsequent prophets taught that God was not single, but married; that there is a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother; and that we were made in their image: male and female children.” (See James R. Clark, comp., Messages of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965–75, 4:203, 205.)]
Suggesting that the Catholic Church and the LDS Church are even remotely related is like saying that Robert Mugabe and Stephen Webb must be brothers because they both have noses.
Calvinism, by contrast, is theologically lean and clean. Calvinism teaches “[t]hat God is sovereign and totally ‘other’ than the creation; that human beings are depraved sinners who are desperately in need of rescue by God; and that salvation is by grace alone.” Mormons fail the Calvinist test because they believe that, as Mouw puts it, God and humans are “of the same species ontologically.” Mormonism went wrong not with the Book of Mormon but with a flawed metaphysics.
I haven’t read Mouw’s book, so I can’t say to what extent this is an accurate representation of it, but I suspect Mouw did not say that they biggest difference between Mormonism and Calvinism is a “flawed metaphysics.”
Mouw argues that a “metaphysical gap” between God and us is essential to Christian faith and that Calvinism offers the best protection against any attempt to close that gap: “Judaism and Christianity have been united in their insistence that the Creator and creation—including God’s human creatures—are divided by an unbridgeable ‘being’ gap.” Mouw means that God’s existence is so different from our own that it can be said that God is beyond being altogether. Put another way, God is so “other” that God cannot even be said “to be.”
To me, that sounds more like Plato than Calvin.
That way of putting it may sound Platonic, but the idea that there is an ontological difference between God and humanity, between Creator and creature, that is fixed and eternal, is hardly a novel idea.
While it is true that the Church Fathers treated Plato as an honorary Christian, many theologians these days are arguing that we should reject the Platonic heritage of a dualism between spirit and matter, soul and body, and the transcendence and immanence of the divine. For these theologians, Mormons can be seen as metaphysical explorers of a post-Platonic Christianity.
There are also theologians today proposing that we treat Jesus as nothing more than a first-century Gandhi, that we scrap barbaric notions such as substitutionary atonement, and that we see the church’s evangelistic mission in terms of the Millenium Development Goals. So what? The fact that there are theologians trying to infiltrate non-Christian or even anti-Christian teaching into the church is hardly as excuse to overlook the multitude of ways that Mormonism departs from historical biblical Christianity.
And yet for all of his Calvinistic crusading, Mouw ends his book on a warmly pietistic note. He recommends that evangelical theologians treat Mormonism the way Charles Hodge, the great 19th-century champion of Calvinist orthodoxy, treated Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of liberal theology. Schleiermacher undercut the infallibility of the Bible, but Hodge admitted that his “personal faith in Christ was real.” In the end, it is enough for Mouw that Mormons love Jesus: “People can have a defective theology about Christ while still putting their trust in the true Christ.” With those words, Mouw sounds much more like an evangelical than a Calvinist (and demonstrates how far apart the two really are).
It is true that if I didn’t know that my wife likes pizza or is allergic to ragweed or prefers baseball to curling, I could still love her in a manner that she would see as intimately connected to her. But if I thought my wife was actually Lady Gaga—bought her Gaga-like costumes, asked that she sing Gaga songs at parties, told people that she was bisexual and liked to hang out in gay bars—most people would say I was delusional, and certainly not in love with the person to whom I was married.So here’s the question for both Mouw and Webb: at what point are we talking about a person who is so unlike the actual Jesus that we should more properly say that one is in love with a projection of one’s own mind rather than the real Person? Given what I know about the Mormonism’s teaching about the Person of Jesus, I have real doubts about who it is that Mormons are talking about when they say they love Jesus. I doubt the statement, I just wonder at whom it is actually directed.
As a recent convert to Roman Catholicism, I think of both Mormonism and Calvinism as branches on the Christian tree, even though Calvinism, I admit, is closer to the trunk. The Mormon branch extends precariously far away, with countless twisting twigs cluttering its bark, while the Calvinist bough, straight and solid, looks like something I could climb out on without any fear. Nonetheless, I am happy that both of them bear good fruit and, by reaching out to the sun, return ample nourishment to the tree’s roots.
I give up.
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