41 comments for “First Things Articles

  1. It’s interesting that neither one talks about another divider: the Mormon idea of restoration, and thus apostasy. McDermott alludes to it, but neither treats it directly. Is this because these doctrinal differences over the Trinity have become more important dividers now? The Mormon claim that all (most) was awry until Joseph Smith is inherently dividing, and were I of some other faith I would find that the most offensive claim, and divider. But maybe others don’t see it that way. It’s also the way missionaries tend to divide Mormons from others, as I heard just last Sunday during a practice discussion. Anyway, the stuff over the Trinity is a bit of a yawner to me, but others find it a matter of life and death (and salvation).

  2. I applaud McDermott for seeming to have read so many LDS sources. (It’s sad the bar is so low, perhaps, since so many authors in the past have refused to do so.)

    But he engages in several uncharitable readings and interpretations that seem to force Mormonism into another worldview.

    For example, “For one thing, Mormons believe matter always existed, coeternally with both the Father and the Son. So they are within but not outside the cosmos. To put it crudely, Jesus and the Father are not bigger than the universe.” The first sentence is clearly LDS. The extrapolations he makes seem to me reductio ad absurdum, or at least, non sequitor.

    “Mormons deny that Jesus is a member of the Trinity.” Oh?

    “Mormons say Jesus is a different being from the Father, and in fact a different God. Mormons therefore say Jesus is one of several Gods.” “Joseph Smith prophesied against the Trinity, saying that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three separate Gods.”

    He doesn’t cite them, but clearly is relying upon JS’ statements separating the Godhead into three distinct Gods. What’s clear from reading those statements in context, however, is that JS was clearly reacting against a **modalistic** perception of the trinity, not the trinity itself. (Quite forgiveable, since I’ve had many a Catholic and Protestant explain the Trinity to me in modalistic terms.)
    His over-divisive rhetoric (“three Gods”) was a equal-and-opposite reaction to overly-unitary explanations (modalism), and shouldn’t be read as an independent theological statement.

    I guess I don’t see JS later statements as being incompatible or inconsistent with the BoM’s teachings on Deity. On the other hand, there is that whole line-upon-line principle. McDermott’s paradigm seems to assume that all doctrine and all scripture must be consistent (a paradigm which LDS do not share) but I see that as highly problematic both between the OT and NT, as well as between the NT and modern flavors of Christianity. In other words, if it’s a problem for us, it’s also a problem for anyone who takes the Bible seriously. (Peter Enns has recently taken up this problem in the OT from a scholarly Evangelical perspective.FPR post)

    I’m glad they published the Porter piece as well.

  3. “Mormons regard good works as a manifestation of faith in Christ, not as a way of earning salvation. ”

    If I said this in my gospel doctrine class, most class members would disagree and would cite 2 Ne 25:23 to support their argument.

  4. 2 Ne 25:23 is usually cited incorrectly, both in terms of doctrine and in grammar. Here is the original phrase in question:

    “For we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.”

    Here’s the problem: the subordinate, dependent clause cannot stand on its own. The ordinate, independent clause carries the weight of the phrase. If you re-order the two clauses (and read the verse in the context that it was written — a novel idea, I know) we reveal what is truly meant by the sentence:

    “For we know that after all we can do, it is by grace that we are saved.”

    Not only does this reveal the true emphasis of this verse, but it also lines up perfectly with Lehi’s teaching in 2 Ne 2:3-9, and with Jacob’s teaching in 2 Ne 10:24. Both are very clear and explicit that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves (contrasting the law, which condemns) but rather it is the merits and mercy and grace of the Holy Messiah that saves us.

    In other words, our merits have no power to save us or anyone else. Remember, “it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved.”

    So why do we do good works at all then? And why have we focused so much on our works, and that we should “work out your own salvation”? The answers await in another post, with a fun mental diagram to add to the standardized Flow-Chart of Life (uh, I mean Plan of Salvation diagram).


  5. (1) #7 Jonovitch – I think 2 Ne. 25:23 should be read more often in conjunction with Alma 24:11 (in relevant part “…for it was all we could do to repent sufficiently before God that he would take away our stain.”)

    (2) McDermott also states “Mormons do not believe Jesus was always God but that he was fully divine in the incarnation and continues to be God the Son today.” I don’t think there is any scriptural or doctrinal basis for this statement other than an extrapolation off of, say, the King Follet discourse, Lorenzo Snow’s couplet, or a sermon or two from the Journal of Discourses. I think there is WAY too much that is not known to be making any sort of assertive claims about what is doctrine here; but even if you want to constitute those sources as doctrine, I don’t think they necessarily shed light on this question.

  6. I felt the Spirit strongly as I read Bruce Porter’s essay about Mormon belief in Christ. It felt very good. It was the same feeling that I often get when reading and pondering the words of the Savior in the Bible and the Book of Mormon. It would be nice (maybe) if a study of the Bible alone would be enough to discern all truth, but it is not. However, reading, pondering, and praying (good old Moroni’s promise from Moroni 10:3-5 of the Book of Mormon) leads to real results. I know myself that Jesus Christ is our savior and redeemer and the only name under heaven by which we can gain eternal life. I also know by the same spirit Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and that the Book of Mormon is scripture.

    I appreciate Gerald McDermott’s civil essay about his disagreement with Mormonism. I don’t agree with some of his conclusions, but it is nice of him to be so polite. In fact it is downright astounding to read a non-mormon who has apparently read enough of the Book of Mormon as to summarize parts of it so well. He does, however, seem to be misunderstanding many of our doctrines and the statements of both the Book of Mormon itself and many LDS leaders. We as LDS sometimes like to say that you can’t help learning of the truth of the Book of Mormon if you will just read it, but reading is clearly not enough. You have to both want to know and be willing to actually ask God with a sincere heart and with faith that He will answer.

    On a lighter note I am resisting my innate LDS urge to use middle initials :-))

  7. I think the McDermott piece reveals a key point from mainstream Christanity. The McDermott piece isn’t bad and is fairly represetitive of accurate LDS belief however 1) it still skews the discussion in such a way that while many of the facts are correct the conclusions are not 2) Mormons are defined, rather than being allowed to define themselves 3) Mormons are held to a different standard than they hold themselves to 4) as is often the case a type of Mormonism is described in this article that I, who have been born and raised in the church, cannot recognize and 5) none of the arguments from Mormons and addressing Mormonism are answered. So while he does “throw a bone” at the end by noting that not every Mormon is necessarily damned, really we are all. It is a relief to note that there is still nothing new coming from the other side.

  8. I’m amazed that McDermott’s first argument is that the NT gives us four “independent” witnesses to Christ when it is very clear that Mt and Lk are working off of Mk’s text. No NT scholar would call the four gospels “independent voices” as McDermott does. They (not John, of course) are very obviously dependent on each other.

    His larger point that the BoM is one, late voice is fine for what it is, but his manner of speaking about the four gospels seriously undermines his credibility.

  9. More broadly,he seems to put a lot of weight on historical evidence, but I think that undermines his larger arguments. If historical evidence is the key to credibility, then much of the Bible is on some pretty shaky footing.

  10. OOPS, major error. Comment #13 was intended for a BCC thread and is now there. Sorry. So much for multi-tasking.

  11. Although I too found McDermott’s piece to be unnecessarily argumentative, the fact that he was fairly civil, at least tried to some degree to rely on LDS primary sources (as opposed to LDS Primary sources :) ) and clearly had a better understanding of LDS doctrine than your average evangelical polemicist is a tribute to Robert Millet’s years of effort to create outreach and bridges to the evangelical scholarly community.

    In fairness to McDermott, I do think we have to recognize that our beliefs on the nature of divinity are going to continue to confuse outsiders until such time as the Lord sees fit to clarify Joseph’s later teachings on that topic and their relation to earlier more traditional sounding formulations.

  12. I primarily found McDermott’s piece interesting in light of Neuhaus’ article from 2000 (can be read here:http://www.irr.org/MIT/Neuhaus.html), which I thought was far less thoughtful. It seems to me that unless Christianity is defined more along the lines of whether or not a religion believes in Christ as a Messiah, rather than on a very particular and tradtional definition of the Trinity, writers like Neuhaus and McDermott will always have very serious issues with Mormonism. It may not seem like a big deal to Mormons, but our inability to understand why it’s such a big issue and their inability to move past it are both a result of our radical break with the Nicene definition of the Trinity.

  13. 1. According to Craig, the Trinity discussion is a yawner. I received that same impression from the author when I read his book, Sunday. Some scholarly LDS do believe that the idea of a transcendent Triune God is a big yawner.

    2. I hope McDermott would not fear the scholarly pressure of loosing credibility for the way he expresses the gospel witnesses.

  14. Gee thanks Todd. I get the sense you feel I was attacking you personally in making such a statement, so I apologize. I think what I mean is that if something is that complex that only scholars can understand it, essentially, how useful and important is it as a saving idea? I find that, I suppose, about a lot of high theology, which is why I prefer to concentrate in my books on how ordinary people actually understand and especially live their religion, or spend their Sundays. Trivial stuff indeed if you prefer high theology.

  15. “…[Jesus] was once merely a man and not God…” (McDermott)

    Does any Latter-day Saint believe this? Do we believe that even the Father was ever *merely* a man? On the contrary, we believe that *no* man is merely a man, but that each human being has the spark of divinity in him. For we are all God’s children, with the potential to become like He is. We are never *merely* mortals.

  16. No, I don’t feel you are attacking me personally, Craig. Sometime, I would like to meet you. Next book that you publish, I will read it. I don’t think any of the content is trivial . . . especially Sabbatarian content. But I do sense an attack on a triune God. In the scholarly world, a yawn does speak. Surely, there are other common, ordinary joes out there like me who connect the dots with who God is and with what they do on Sundays.

    Some think that the prophetic messages of Isaiah or the Gospel of John deliver high theology. I think it is interesting how the common man, the average Idaho spud in the fields, interacts with the universal messages of these texts.


  17. re: 23

    But no matter how you parse (obfuscate?) it, the truth expressed in the Snow couplet will always be shocking and indeed heretical to virtually all other Christians. Sometimes I wonder if most LDS grasp how radical their understanding of God really is.

  18. MikeinWeHo, that may be true of all post-Nicene Christians, i.e. creedal Christians. But I sense that it would be very familiar to the earliest Christians, particularly the latter-half of the couplet about which we have much more guidance and information.

    Todd, it amazes me that you don’t believe that people who believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of the World aren’t Christians because they don’t share the same interpretation of the Trinity that you do. Your interpretation is derivative of Biblical statements and heavily dependent on extra-biblical philosophization of extrapolations of seeming inconsistencies in the Bible (for example, the “One God” of the Old Testament and the three beings that are clearly present in the New Testament: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, each of whom was separately present in such situations as the baptism of Jesus). Mormons believe that the Bible fully supports our view of the Godhead. Our arguments aren’t any more tenuous than yours.

    I agree with the point made in the comments above that people like McDermott are continuing to pursue a double standard, expecting things of Mormonism and Mormons that they don’t expect of themselves in their religious worldview.

  19. I don’t think it works to have an argument regarding the trinity. They believe it in, we do not. We believe though in the eternal nature of Jesus Christ and that is God and that he saved us. I know that for many anyone with different beliefs is very scary but truly, I just don’t think Heavenly Father is going to damn people with the joyful vigor that evangelicals believe He will, even if those people are wrong. I think that is the biggest block for understanding of our doctrine by others. If we are wrong, then we must be damned so they better watch out and they better preach against it and they had better be willing to say anything to keep other people away from it. For instance, it is not LDS doctrine that Christ was only a man when he was on earth. He was able to die for our sins, live a perfect life and resurrect himself. There is not anything mortal in these actions. However, he was able to feel pain, be killed and experience hunger. So clearly there was humanity in some proportion there. This is of course, identical to mainstream Christian doctrine. Yet the Mormons are clearly misrepresented as denying Christ carried any measure of diety. Whatever. It is easier to recognize their other arguments as false when they lie about some of our beliefs. I completed a master’s degree in Pastoral Counseling from Liberty University and had to take a number of religion courses and I was shocked to find two things 1) the absolute ignoring of any evidence historical, geography, scientific, apologetic, whatever that contradicted their thinking. They would never waste their time discussing anti-Baptist arguments from a Mormon and 2) how many groups of people they were VERY excited about were going to hell. They believe everyone, including most other Christians (Catholics, liberal protestants, Orthodox are included in this) are damned. Heaven will be a very small place and this makes them (as a collective group, not individually) very happy.

  20. Todd, I completely agree that what matters is how a common person interacts with the big messages in scripture and others sources of truth. My problem is with complicated theology, LDS or non-LDS, regarding the trinity or otherwise. I’m not saying life is simple, or religion is simple, I’m saying that complicated theology may not be for everyone, and may not have to be for everyone. Some people think better through abstract concepts, some think better through narratives which embed the abstract concepts rather than focus on them. I prefer the latter, but am sure the former is just as valid. Thus, to me trying to understand the trinity, or non-trinity, through abstract discussion and long citation of authoritative texts, doesn’t do much for me in an emotional or spiritual sense, and that’s the end goal in my view, not neat theological expositions.

  21. MikeinWeHo – None of us can know “how radical [the Mormon] understanding of God really is” as defined by the Snow couplet, because, at its core, it’s unclear what the statement really means or what the implications of it are. Hinckley even said he didn’t know what it meant.

  22. McDermott writes:

    \”So the Palestinian Jesus seems to think of the coming Kingdom as a worldwide phenomenon not limited to one geographical part of the earth, while the American Jesus is fixated on America.\”

    Obviously McDermott forgot about arguably the most important chapter for understanding the rest of the Book of Mormon – Jacob 5.

    Are you kidding me? The message of the Book of Mormon is to prove to the entire earth that God speaks (and has spoken) to ALL people and not just a small enclave in Palestine.

    I get the sense that while McDermott makes a valiant effort to take the Book of Mormon seriously, he just can\’t get past that initial prejudice he has the whole thing is a crock. Bro. Porter was spot on when he pointed out:

    \”One reason may be that the moment Latter-day Saints cite the Book of Mormon as evidence of their Christian faith, animosity arises against the possibility that there could be any canon of Scripture beyond the Holy Bible. The issue then quickly descends into whether or not the Book of Mormon could possibly be an authentic ancient record. If attention were paid to the text itself rather than to theories of its authorship, we would at least have a dialogue focused what Mormons actually believe.\”

    Of course, right after Porter says this, McDermott proceeds to – surprise, surprise – go off on a detailed discussion of why the Book of Mormon is a hoax. It\’s like he didn\’t even listen to Porter (he certainly never addresses Porter\’s comment).

    Every time I talk to Evangelicals, it quickly becomes obvious that they don\’t want to talk about the DOCTRINES in the Book of Mormon. Even with those who have read the entire book, it quickly becomes obvious they only read it with one hand, while holding a counter-cult commentary in the other. If they paid attention to the book at all, it was only to try and pick out inconsistencies that prove the book a fraud (or to prove that it contradicts later stuff Joseph said – as McDermott does in pitting the BoM against Joseph\’s King Follett sermon). They simply cannot allow themselves to take the book seriously or read it and judge it internally on its own terms.

    So it\’s hardly surprising that McDermott goofed here and forgot about Jacob 5. Try as he might, he simply cannot allow himself to take the book seriously. If he did take it seriously, he would look for how some Book of Mormon passages are informed by other passages in the text. Most Evangelicals are unwilling to do this – proceeding from the assumption that the book is a hoax anyway, so taking it seriously would be a waste of time.

    What is really amusing about Evangelical attacks on the Book of Mormon\’s authenticity is that the same critiques demolish their own faith claims in the Bible. McDermott smugly cites how \”historically verifiable\” the Bible account is. A person named Jesus actually existed! We can historically trace the source documents to the time period! Jerusalem exists and is known to all!

    A charming bit of naivete. Less so when used as a club to beat Mormons with.

    What makes McDermott think that the historical record has anything to do with the Bible\’s faith claims? Does the historical record verify that Jesus is the Son of God?

    It does not.

    The bare historical fact that a man named Jesus walked around the Jewish countryside at the meridian of time doesn\’t make Jesus the Son of God anymore than the historical fact that a man named Joseph Smith lived in upstate New York in the early 1800s makes him a prophet.

    The faith claims of the Bible are every bit as extraordinary and unbelievable as the Book of Mormon. That Evangelicals constantly miss this reality shows a remarkable lack of self-observation.

    If anything, the position of the Bible is actually weaker than the Book of Mormon. Thus far the only criticisms against the Book of Mormon are arguments of absence. We haven\’t discovered any evidence of this, or that, or the other… Or no one can verify this or that…

    News flash, the criticisms of the Bible are actually based on positive, discovered evidence. You can believe that evidence or not as you choose. But it isn\’t just arguments from absence in the case of the Bible (though there are plenty of those too). People are digging up direct contradictions. If anyone is having a hard time explaining themselves, it\’s the Evangelicals, not the Mormons. The very historical verifiability of the Bible\’s characters and events makes the book MORE vulnerable to attack and discredit, not less.

    Many Evangelicals (especially those that make a hobby of attacking Mormons) seem to be unaware of the fact that while they point in derision at Mormons, their own fly is open. McDermott doesn\’t seem aware of it either.

    Someone mentioned feeling a different spirit from Porter than from McDermott. I think that is because your typical informed Mormon approaches a conversation fundamentally differently than a your typical informed Evangelical. Porter came with the primary aim of bearing testimony based on his experience of the scriptures. McDermott came with the aim of picking a fight about formalized orthodoxy. It\’s the same approach he takes in \”Claiming Christ.\”

    Speaking of which, John Moorehead did a nice interview with a Mormon issues blogger \”Aquinas\” reviewing the book \”Claiming Christ\” and why it falls short of the benchmark set by Robinson and Bloomberg\’s \”How Wide the Divide.\” Check it out here:


  23. Strange how McDermott’s Palestinian Jesus is fixated on the Levant and ignores America as if visiting America somehow means ignoring the rest of the world.

    By the way, Mormons also believe in the “Palestinian Jesus”, i.e. that Jesus was born, lived, and gave up his life in what is present day Israel (and Egypt during his childhood). Do Evangelicals know this? Mormons believe that after his Resurrection he visited the people who believed in him in the Western Hemisphere. Why this is so impossible in the eyes of creedal Christians is beyond me. Is their Jesus not powerful enough to visit other continents after his Resurrection?

  24. re: 30 True enough, but perhaps I should have said ‘Sometimes I wonder if most LDS grasp how radical their understanding of God really is from the perspective of other Christians on earth today….’

    The question that puzzles me is this: Why do so many LDS seem to feel such a need for acceptance by the Evangelicals anyway?

  25. I don’t know Mike.

    Increasingly, I’m starting to think we should give up on them as a “bad job” and focus instead on outreach to other religions.

  26. Í don’t think anyone should give up at all. In the 17th century, 150 years after the Reformation began, most Protestants still called the Catholic Church the whore of Babylon and other unflattering terms, and most Catholics thought little better of those heretics the Protestants, even if they were friendly in places. Now there are all sorts of interfaith dialogues, communions, and so on. The process of Mormons interacting with other faiths has hardly begun.

  27. Kudos to Nitsav, Julie, and Seth R. Especially for the review of CC.
    What i would like (which means something I should write) is a critique of the Evangelical mindset.
    “Why they think it is OK to add concepts (like ‘merely’) while describing God. In Essence, the absurd arguments. Does he really expect any thinking member of the church to fall for it?”
    Which brings me to my latest reading. I fully recommend “The Scandall of the Evangelical Mind” and “Misquoting Jesus”.
    We cannot give up on the Evangelicals any more than we can give up on Muslims or inactives. We must constantly proclaim Jesus’ good news.

  28. I was disappointed that McDermott did not give as much emphasis in this article to acknowledging the high Christology of the Book of Mormon as he does in Claiming Christ. And frankly his pretention of speaking for little-o \”orthodox Christianity\” on the precise definition of the Trinity glosses over the fact that the Orthodox Churches parted company with the Church of Rome over their belief that Christ is not equal to the Father. Then there is the doctrine of Theosis that they retain but was lost in the Roman/Protestant branching, and bridges much of the gap that R/Ps want to keep between God and mankind. Even some R/Ps have a Social Trinity view that on every other day is pretty indistinguishable from the LDS. I think his theory of JS evolving from one view to the other ignores the First Vision. His claim that a Father with a physical body is too limited to be God ignores the obvious fact that Jesus has such a body yet as he claims is also fully God. Of course the greatest problem with the creedal Trinity is that it was not taught by Jesus or the apostles as a prerequisite for salvation. McDermott\’s acknowledgment at the end that belief in the Trinity is not actually essential to salvation raises the question why it should be a basis of ostracism of a church that he admits leads at least some of its members to saving faith in Christ.

    On 2 Ne 25:23, it is hardly ever read in its entirety. Nephi is describing how he makes a great effort to teach his children and b rethren that it is NOT effort that saves, but Christ\’s grace. He is being ironic to emphasize grace. Like Paul he talks about his trials in teaching what Alma called \”the simpleness of the way\” to look in faith to Christ, represented by the Liahona. The verse is a bookend to his other most quoted verse at 1 Ne 3:7, that he obeys God because God\’s help–his grace–comes when we obey Him. Obedient acts are where we receive God\’s grace. Obeying commandments makes our works \”graceful\”. Nephi\’s example is not obey first then merit grace, it is find God\’s grace in exercising faith through obedience. As Benjamin taught, we are blessed for every obedience beyond our deserving. We do not create a debt of God to us, but merely show we are ready for more grace.

  29. “Of course the greatest problem with the creedal Trinity is that it was not taught by Jesus or the apostles as a prerequisite for salvation.”

    Bingo. You have hit the nail on the head, Raymond.

  30. “McDermott\’s acknowledgment at the end that belief in the Trinity is not actually essential to salvation raises the question why it should be a basis of ostracism of a church that he admits leads at least some of its members to saving faith in Christ.”

    Raymond, I really liked that. Thanks for highlighting it — great cross examination.

  31. Incidentally, The November issue of First Things printed a letter I wrote concerning several items in the June/July issue. Specifically, I pointed out that three separate articles demonstrated that beliefs that Mormons are often criticized for by many Christians as being distinct from their beliefs and therefore evidence that Mormons are not Christian are beliefs that are also found in the early Church, including physical resurrection on a transformed earth, strong belief that the Old Testament prophets spoke of Christ, and salvation consisting of theosis or deification. The fact that Mormons believe these things makes us more in line with the beliefs of early Christians and therefore MORE Christian.

    If you go to the First things web page, in addition to a copy of the articles by Porter and McDermott, there are audio recordings of phone interviews conducted by a First Things editor with both authors. Each is about half an hour long, and well worth listening to. I wrote to the editor to clarify a misunderstanding he and McDermott shared about Mormon belief on when Jesus became a God. They referred to a heretical belief that Jesus was born as a man who was selected by God for transformation based on his merits. I pointed out that the LDS belief that Christ is Jehovah and the Creator as well as Savior of innumerable worlds places his acquisition of the status of God prior to the Creation. Since Catholics and orthodox Protestants believe in creation ex nihilo, that there was no time prior to the Creation, the assumption by Christ of the status of God as Jehovah predates time as they think of it, and is therefore indistinguishable from being eternal as they define eternity. The critique of many non-Mormons about Mormon theology involves them jumping around between their definitions of things and ours.

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