Why We’re Confused

An old adage among outsiders who study Mormonism states that determining what is and is not Mormon doctrine is a lot like trying to nail jello to a wall—except that the latter feat is entirely possible while the former remains a struggle to this day. Evangelicals who interact with Mormons often express frustration to that end. It seems that as soon as we think we’ve figured out what Mormons believe and how to respond to it, the next Mormon we meet will tell us “we don’t believe that,” “that’s not doctrine,” or “that’s just his opinion.” It would probably help if evangelicals spent more time genuinely trying to understand Mormonism and less time sizing it up for the best spot to throw a punch,1 but to some of us, the desire to understand is earnest and the frustration is genuine.

On the other hand, the Mormon who wishes to understand evangelical Christianity takes up quite the task of her own. I’ll be the first to admit that we’re a large, unruly, confusing movement, and if you’re looking to me to sort things out for you, you’re already on the wrong track because so far I’ve been formally trained by Mormon scholars, not evangelical Christian ones. I’m still trying to understand all that there is to us, which is part of why I’m looking to attend an evangelical Christian college in the fall. I do know enough to know that if you’re interested in us, you’re going to have to study and understand the following: Arminians v. Calvinists v. Open Theists, Credobaptists v. Paedobaptists, Complementarians v. Egalitarians, Charismatics v. Cessationists, Creationism (of the soul, not protological) v. Traducianism, Regula Fidei v. Sola Scriptura v. Solo Scriptura, and Justification v. Sanctification v. Glorification. If you’re really dedicated, you can add our various beliefs on protology and eschatology to your study, and those are just the basics. It won’t help that some evangelicals are a little bitter about these divides and will misrepresent the opposing positions when asked about it. As Douglas A. Sweeney put it in The American Evangelical Story, “In short, when viewed from the perspective of our multiplicity, we evangelicals hold hardly anything in common. We are a people more remarkable for our differences than our union.”2

However, there’s more to consider as we search for the wellspring of our mutual confusion. Evangelical Christianity is a movement whose estimated adherents number somewhere between 700 million and 812 million.3 Mormonism’s boasted 13 million membership figure pales in comparison to those numbers, with Mormonism being about the size of a single Protestant denomination, say the United Methodist Church (12 million members) or the Southern Baptist Convention (16.2 million members). Does the diversity and variety found throughout all of evangelical Christianity outdo Mormonism’s diversity and variety? Definitely. Does the diversity and variety found within a single Protestant denomination of comparable size outdo that of Mormonism? Unlikely, and there’s a good reason for that. A Mormon who begins to reject some of the positions being officially articulated by church leaders or desires to see change within the church is still going to believe that those leaders are God’s prophets who hold the keys to the priesthood, so he’ll probably stay in the church. A Southern Baptist who begins to disagree with some of the pronouncements and beliefs of her denomination will likely shift to another Baptist denomination more suited to her beliefs, or another form of Christianity altogether. There’s a reason there isn’t a sprawling network of UMC or SBC bloggers discussing doctrine, analyzing the statements of leaders and suggesting changes those denominations could make like there is with Mormonism and the Bloggernacle. In Protestantism, it’s more trouble to reform your own denomination than it is to simply move on to one that suits you better. In Mormonism, you have no where else to go.

In conclusion, you’re confused by us because we’re big and confusing, and we’re confused by you because we’re not used to encountering so much diversity within such a (comparatively) small religious movement.

In my next post, I hope to cover the specifics of some of that diversity and focus on how we can categorize common strains of LDS thought and positions for the benefit of non-members in general and evangelical Christians in particular.


[1] Fair is fair: I do believe that there are some Mormons who only study evangelicalism for the purpose of looking for the best place to hang a target. They don’t have the grassroots organizational presence that evangelical anti-Mormons do, but they do exist. For my own part, I try to be an adherent of the interfaith dialogue philosophy of Krister Stendahl: If we’re going to compare, let’s compare your best with our best, though I sometimes fail in this goal.

[2] Douglas A. Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 20.

[3] See Robert L. Millet and Gregory C.V. Johnson, Bridging the Divide: The Continuing Conversation Between a Mormon and an Evangelical (Rhinebeck: Monkfish, 2007), 124 and Sweeney, 9. Sweeney estimates that there are 570 million Pentecostals and charismatics alone in addition to 242 million other types of evangelicals; however, there is some debate among scholars as to whether or not Pentecostalism should continue to be counted as part of evangelical and therefore Protestant Christianity or if it should be considered a new, fourth major wing of Christianity. See this post at Todd Wood’s “Heart Issues For LDS” blog for some discussion of this.

62 comments for “Why We’re Confused

  1. “In conclusion, you’re confused by us because we’re big and confusing, and we’re confused by you because we’re not used to encountering so much diversity within such a (comparatively) small religious movement.”

    Brilliant. Thanks.

  2. Very nice, Jack.

    I have a fantasy of writing a descriptive theology of Mormonism. My idea would be to start with the sort of outline of topics one finds in systematic Christian theologies, and add to it uniquely Mormon topics. But instead of trying to actually do a systematic theology of Mormonism, which is impossible, I would describe the various schools of thought that exist from an insider’s perspective. So on X issue some Mormons follow McConkie and believe Y, others follow Roberts and believe Z, while there is a recent strain of thought that rejects both historic positions in favor of A, B, or C. Or something like that.

    It would take years and I’m not a theologian, so it’ll never happen. But to me that is the kind of theological roadmap that would be truly useful–descriptive, not systematic.

  3. Very nice take!

    I confess that often when I speak of Protestants to my classes, I have to step back and say, “I’m really thinking of Evangelical Protestants here, but you shouldn’t assume all Evangelicals think this way.”

  4. I’ve had similar fantasies as Kevin (#2), but instead to focus on the practices on the varieties of practices and experiences in Mormonism–perhaps akin to William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience.

    Understanding Mormonism, in my view, will always be fruitless (or very thin) without understanding the meanings of Mormon practices. This includes, of course, understanding the unity of Mormonism, which is clearly there but hardly a unity of belief.

    I look forward to your next post!

  5. That’s a good explanation, thanks. I’ve been trying to understand more about certain evangelical groups, and it’s incredibly confusing to me. Every time I think I have something figured out, someone comes up with some issue or word I never heard of. I didn’t think I was *that* ignorant, but when I asked about a particular flavor of Presbyterianism on a message board recently I didn’t even understand the answers. And I think sometimes I can’t even see the issue–someone will bring up some theological controversy and I can’t tell the difference between the two sides, or understand why they think it’s important.

  6. There is a lot of misinformation out there about everybody. That creates misunderstandings all around. It doesn’t help that some persons publish and preach things that aren’t true about groups they don’t understand thereby leading their followers to believe that the tiny group of 13 million has been deceived by the leadership.

    Since we do all things are done by common consent (So do you agree on what that means you will ask? I answer yes as far as we understand it. ) we have a set of agreed upon scriptures that contain our beliefs and practices. Its all in there. There are places one can go to learn about our beliefs without getting conflicting answers. Ultimately though understanding has to come through different channels.

    Diversity is a good thing as long as charity remains central in our discourse and our actions.

  7. __ ( I . ) Objective analyses:

    Mormons: An organized people revering (in various ways) the narratives within its sacred books of Restorationist Christianity.

    Evangelicals: Loose amalgamation of believers revering (in a rather literalistic manner, for the most part) interpretations of the Christian Bible.

    __ ( I I . ) Words either people use to describe themselves (juggling, as they do, almost all of same words around and come up contrasting statements of belief for Evangelical Protestantism and Mormonism. (Note: for tomorrow’s class we’ll do the same for even Judaism and Islam).

    Paraphrasing pastor Rick:

    We believe in and — as will naturally follows this belief — we also follow and are enlightened and purified by the good news of Jesus Christ, as given to us in His Word, as was, through His grace, inspired to be canonized, thus taking upon ourselves His Name, to thereby to be considered by others (but, more importantly, by God!) a part of His Church. (Note: we can modify and/or expand stuff in the foregoing in order to come up with statements of the beliefs within whatever the various strains within Evangelicalism.)

    Paraphrasing some random set of Mormon sister-/elder-missionaries:

    We accept the enlightenment and purifications of the gospel of Jesus Christ, as we follow what has been established and taught by Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ through the prophets of His Church, ancient, modern and also living!

  8. One last thing:

    Evangelicals: We are saved, and hope you individual Mormons may eventually come to Christ and His salvation, too.

    Mormons: We imagine you Evangelicals ARE saved. And we ourselves additionally hope to be exalted and hope you may come to be, too.

  9. Kevin, I was speaking with Terryl Givens about the need for an intellectual history of Mormonism. He said that he and Bushman outlined it a while ago and he said he may consider it for a next project. This is the exact type of book we need in the church, outlining the schools of thought and where we are today. If any of you communicate with Terryl, please encourage him to take on this project!

  10. Kent and Kevin: I have a question about the viability of your smorgasboard approach (at least that is what I call it) to doing a descriptive theology. I’m not at all sure that it is a compelling objection, but it seems to suggest a self-defeating approach. Unless there were prior worked-out theological positions of the type you reject as possible for Mormonism (e.g., some more or less coherent approach like McConkie’s or the Pratt brothers or B. H. Roberts), then you would have no range of theologies about which to write. It seems like suggesting that there is a veritable smorgasboard of food to eat, but when you look at the boxes that are supposed to provide the feast they are all empty and meaningless.

    Jack: Great post! I guess in some ways we are looking in a mirror when we assert the jello-nailed-to-a-wall objection! I have two questions:

    (1) Aren’t there very well defined systematic views within evangelical thought (as you suggest)? E.g., If someone follows Calvin or Arminius or etc., then they have a very well-worked-out body of theological writings to look to and it is easy to see the logical and doctrinal positions that have been staked out and to derive the logical and theological implications of such view. What ties them all together as evangelical possibilities is the methodology for supporting them, e.g., finding scriptural support from a reliable set of scriptural propositi0ns for such a system.

    The real problem for such an approach is accepting a propositional view of scripture it seems to me.

    (2) Aren’t there also well-established beliefs in Mormonism the have theological implications which are open to various ways of being developed? E.g., it is agreed among all LDS that the Father has a body like the Son’s resurrected body. Such a view has enormous theological implications about which we may disagree, but about this “theological fact” pregnant with meaning for Mormonism we must reason within this established parameter. Ditto rejection of creation out of nothing or the view that we existed prior to this mortal sojourn.

  11. Jack,
    The reason that it is so hard to pin down what is and what is not Mormon doctrine is that there is no (or at least very little) Mormon ‘doctrine’, at least not in the way that most Christians use the word. Mormonism is inherently non-creedal. As conceptualized by Joseph Smith, Mormonism is the rejection of all creeds in favor of the ongoing pursuit of truth.
    Joseph declared:

    “I never thought it was right to call up a man and try him because he erred in doctrine; it looks too much like Methodism and not like Latter-day Saintism Methodists have a creed which a man must believe or be asked out of their church. I want the liberty of believing as I please, it feels so good not to be trammeled” (Documentary History of the Church, Vol. VI, 273- 274)

    This principle is perhaps best evidenced in the-very Mormon-principle of continuous revelation. If you are to embrace the possibility of continuous revelation then logically you must reject all creeds. At their heart creeds are fixed and cannot be changed. They are the final word. To fully accept the principle of continued revelation one must be willing to embrace the notion that there is nothing set in stone. Mormon doctrine is jello because just about any part of it could, at least theoretically, change at any time.

  12. Blake, of course the majority of the prophets didn’t think through all of the logical implications of staking out various positions; but the fact that they took different positions is what I think is important for the Church to recognize. Getting used to a diversity of thought, or schools of thought, within the church is a value laden proposition in my opinion. If you think that their ideas weren’t very well thought out, I’d probably agree. In this case, diversity for diversity’s sake is actually a helpful apologetic tool.

  13. Enjoyed your thoughts Jack. I think #4 & #9 are getting at an important distinction (and I would love to know your thoughts). You write:

    There’s a reason there isn’t a sprawling network of UMC or SBC bloggers discussing doctrine, analyzing the statements of leaders and suggesting changes those denominations could make like there is with Mormonism and the Bloggernacle. In Protestantism, it’s more trouble to reform your own denomination than it is to simply move on to one that suits you better. In Mormonism, you have no where else to go.

    I can’t help but think that part of the reason Mormonism is more “flexible” in it’s interior diversity, whereas Protestantism is more likely to fission comes from our orthodoxic vs. orthopraxic leanings. Obviously practice is important to evangelical Christians, just as doctrine is important to Mormons (even if it IS hard to nail down as you say). But as noted above, Christianity has often been very credal, while Mormonism often gets compared to the more praxic religions of Judaism and Islam.

    Part of this, I’m convinced, comes from our being a people as opposed to a movement. There’s no question that Joseph and Brigham and most Saints for most of our history have felt and behaved like a people. Jan Shipps is about to fire a full-fledged broadside against the notion that we’re still a people–she thinks we’ve steadily become a denomination over the past sixty years. Some friends and I argued with her at length about this point, but I don’t think we convinced her. I think this is a major issue in contemporary Mormonism and obviously Shipps has some important insights. But I think that there’s lots of evidence that we continue to treat ourselves (and “doctrinally” believe ourselves) to be a people. Your insight about Mormonism’s conduciveness to a bloggernacle culture is very interesting in relation to this issue.

  14. Sgarff said:

    As conceptualized by Joseph Smith, Mormonism is the rejection of all creeds in favor of the ongoing pursuit of truth. … This principle is perhaps best evidenced in the-very Mormon-principle of continuous revelation. … To fully accept the principle of continued revelation one must be willing to embrace the notion that there is nothing set in stone. …

    That sounds fine in theory, but is it really that way in practice?

    In some senses, at least in practice, is the evangelicals who believe in “continuing revelation” (although nobody would call it that) more than we do. We’re still singing 19th-century hymns and are stuck culturally in the 1960s (ever seen a GA who doesn’t look like he’s an IBM employee from 1968?), whereas the evangelicals are constantly adapting and interacting with both believers and the culture. Go listen to a typical General Conference talk and you’d have a hard time telling in which decade it was uttered; not so with a sermon in your typical evangelical megachurch, where you most likely could pinpoint the year if not the week in which it was preached.

    And while in theory, perhaps, nothing is set in stone, it is at least set in hardened mud. While we may not consider things such as our belief in a corporeal Heavenly Father (for example) as being creedal, the application of that belief is no different than if it were in a creed.

    I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. It just seems to me that an arrogant attitude of “our lack of a creed is better than your creed” is a bit misplaced.

  15. Eric (17):

    Go listen to a typical General Conference talk and you’d have a hard time telling in which decade it was uttered.

    Maybe you have a hard time, but this has not been my experience. I think there is quite a difference, rhetorically at least, from various “schools” of the prophets. Packer, Perry, and Nelson are perhaps in an “older” school that more closely resembles the rhetoric of McConkie and such. But the newer apostles (Oaks, Holland, Eyring, Bednar, Uchtdorf, Cook, Christopherson, and Anderson) have a rhetoric that is much more “fresh” (not to say better).

    At any rate, there is a difference between explicit connection to current events and continual revelation.

    While we may not consider things such as our belief in a corporeal Heavenly Father (for example) as being creedal, the application of that belief is no different than if it were in a creed.

    Well, you can speak for yourself on this one. As for me and my house, I respectfully disagree.

  16. Go listen to a typical General Conference talk and you’d have a hard time telling in which decade it was uttered; not so with a sermon in your typical evangelical megachurch, where you most likely could pinpoint the year if not the week in which it was preached.

    Eric, that sounds to me something like being “tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine.” Do you really think the truth held by evangelicals has advanced significantly from the 1960s with all that yearly or weekly shifting, or has it been commotion without a lot of progress? Do you think that the preaching of apostles would somehow be truer or more advanced if they used more product in their hair or quoted from pop culture?

  17. The rule is very simple – if a principle is in a current publication of the Church, i.e. if the Church is spending actual effort trying to teach some precept or another, it is Church doctrine. Everything else is history or commentary.

    In other words, to be a doctrine of the Church, either an open and shut case for a proposition must be able to be made from the standard works of the Church, or there must be repeated emphasis in General Conference reports, or the doctrine must be present in the official manuals for Church teaching. A short hand equivalent is the doctrines of the Church can be found on lds.org and if it isn’t on lds.org, it is not a doctrine of the Church.

  18. I normally would not comment, but I found the discussion of systematic theologies intriguing. I think if you look at the better systematics (dogmatics) you will find that they engage with not only their own traditions but with others as well. Donald Bloesch in his Christian foundations does this from a modern “evangelical” position for example.

    Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology (available on Google Books and in hardback), while dated, provides a good overview of differing theological positions, still maintaining its Reformed confessional nature. Being a confessional Reformed Protestant myself I have a soft spot for the Dutch Dogmatics. I cannot think of a single Dogmatic that does not engage with many different views on a given doctrine.

    I think that if an LDS theologian desired to do a “systematic” theology like the one suggested by the comment made by Kevin Barney the style of Berkholf and many Reformed theologians may be helpful to show many divergent beliefs while still presenting the organic completeness and doctrinal connections nessasary for a good theology. I think this would be quite the endeavor but while a Protestant Dogmatic is concerned with what the Bible and 2,000 years of theological development says about a subject and the relations between doctrines a LDS systematic would look at not only what the Bible says but also your standard works and the teachings of your prophets. It would be interesting to see the relation between LDS doctrines laid out. Let me know when volume 1 is published.

  19. #20: I don’t know if you are 100% right as to what is doctrine, but a lot closer than “Jello”.

  20. #23: What if it’s not true, is it also Mormonism? There has always been a lot of folklore in Mormonism. Or, is Truth also a “Jello”?

  21. I also appreciated your insight as to why there is no Evangel-nacle. However, I’ve always been curious as to why there’s not a JW-nacle. It seems that, structurally, their organization isn’t so different from the LDS church. However, I speak as one ignorant.

  22. Bridget, one reason I like your approach is because you seek to understand the position of the other rather than to “find a target” as you say. As I’ve argued elsewhere, I especially enjoy religious dialog when it is comprised of respectful engagement that seeks first to understand and respect the beliefs of the other. Morally, this approach fulfills the commandments to “do unto others” and “love my neighbors.” Pragmatically, it reduces the possibility of wasting time by arguing past one another or getting hung up on peripheral issues. If the conversation is clearly a polemical debate, I don’t need to participate. One simple way to know if I understand the position of the other is by attempting to restate the position of the other to his or her satisfaction. When I can do that I know I am on the right track.

  23. Eric #17,

    I don’t mean to sound arrogant. I envy the creedal nature of other Christian denominations. I find the lack of certainty within Mormonism (on just about every point of doctrine) to be extremely frustrating at times. This is especially true whenever I have to listen to arguments between the waring factions of my Elder’s Quorum.

    You seem to be mostly pointing to aspects of the church that are more stylistic than doctrinal. And with respect to the stylistic aspects I agree with you. There’s an old saying in the church that goes something like: “the doctrines of the church do not change but the practices do.” I believe the opposite is probably more accurate.

    I think you’re characterization of church doctrines as hardened mud is particularly apt. Though they are, at least theoretically, subject to change they rarely do. So, instead of nailing jello to the wall we are trying to nail mud to the wall. I guess that’s a little easier.

  24. I used to want a book of systematic theology for Mormonism but after talking about it with several people I have come to wonder if that would accomplish any purpose other than to push people further into camps on particular issues. I have read three separate, well received books on systematic theology from different evangelicals and it is striking how much disagreement there is.

  25. Short of some sort of revelation, or other compelling practical justification, I don’t see any reason for the Church to adopt one of a number of competing theological perspectives as canonical.

    The only reasonable justification for why such a thing might occur to any serious degree would be if a near universal consensus developed – universal to the degree that virtually all dissenters were believed to be far outside the mainstream of Church doctrine and practice.

    Warring in Elders Quorums is not the sort of thing that produces any sort of consensus – it is too abbreviated a forum for any real understanding of the merits of various positions to be acquired. The latter is at the very least the number one benefit of a level of theological (if non-normative) discussion the Church has rarely had.

    Most Mormon disputes tend to reduce to a contest of authorities, and the number one weakness is that many authorities don’t bother to explain their reasoning, presumably for fear of undermining their quasi-authoritative status. I think recent history has amply demonstrated that trying to establish Church doctrine without authoritative consensus nor theological justification is a fool’s errand.

    Why would anyone want to read a doctrinal text that is neither current Church doctrine nor provides any reasoned justification for a long series of quasi-doctrinal pronouncements? Such works are of little more than historical interest, no matter who they are written by. The only way for non-authoritative theology to survive is to put a documented argument behind it. Otherwise it will become “folk” doctrine in less than a single generation.

  26. sscenter,

    If you do not mind me asking what systematic theologies have you read? Evangelical has become such an overused and broad term preventing any form of a reasonable definition.

  27. Great comments everyone. A couple of thoughts:

    On creeds, etc., I’ve gradually come around to feeling that there isn’t a huge functional difference between the lineage of Christian creeds for evangelicals and pronouncements/teachings of LDS prophets for Mormons. Gerald McDermott makes this point in the first chapter of Claiming Christ, that this isn’t really a debate about whether or not we should listen to tradition but rather whose tradition is correct. The difference is that evangelical tradition (which is considered fallible) has less authority than the Bible (which is considered infallible), while in Mormonism, Scriptures, living prophets, and past prophets are all considered fallible and you’ll get variation among individuals as to what is most authoritative. Some Latter-day Saints (like Mark D. in #20) feel that current church teaching and how it interprets past canonized scripture is what’s most important, while others feel that canonized scripture is most important and current teachings on those are subject to change and so less meaningful, and then there are plenty of folks in between. Evangelicals will always say that the Bible is > tradition, though the importance of tradition varies among evangelicals. On a scale of 1 to 10, I give it a 3 myself.

    I would personally love to see a work such as Kevin suggests in #2, and my next post will perhaps be a miniature experiment in that sort of descriptive theology writing.

    Blake ~ I’d generally agree with both of your points except to point out that rank-and-file members of both groups don’t necessarily follow those systems/essential beliefs very well. I often hear evangelicals on the interfaith blogs express something which sounds Calvinistic, but when the LDS respondents say, “So you’re Calvinist,” they’ll reply, “No no, that’s not Calvinism it’s just the Bible!” or something like that. Likewise, you can technically be Mormon and disagree with almost every “doctrinal” pronouncement there is just so long as you maintain the praxis every week and don’t make a big deal about your disagreement. Those may not be relevant issues to theological taxonomy, but it is something for both groups to be aware of in knowing what they may expect when interacting with the other group.

    James ~ On the LDS-evangelical blogs, I’ve often heard Seth R. discuss the orthodoxy v. orthopraxy distinction. I was tempted to put a paragraph about it into my OP, as it’s one that I tend to agree with. I’ve heard the “Mormons have no doctrine” arguments, but I can’t say I would go that far. There is definitely a limit on what is acceptable for teaching and discussing at the local level, and that at least seems doctrinal to me.

    Dane ~ I’m not very learned on the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I was taking their discussions at the same time as I was taking the Mormon ones in high school because I was hardcore like that, but I haven’t had any interaction with them since then. However, I’ve heard again and again that they are an anti-intellectual group and an anti-ecumenical group, which means they don’t really allow free and open academic discussion like LDS blogs do.

    It’s one of the reasons I get annoyed with people who lump Mormonism in with the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a “cult.” If Mormonism were a cult, I don’t believe we’d be having this discussion right now.

  28. Bridget, I agree that Church doctrine includes any unambiguous and non-preempted proposition from the standard works (i.e. the scriptures). The main alternative positions to what I outlined in #20 are as follows: (1) Some people include any uncontradicted proposition any apostle and/or president of the church has ever made as church doctrine. (2) Some people include anything that any significant number of church members actually believe as church doctrine.

    In the case of (1) the objection is if the church doesn’t publish or teach something any more, its claim to doctrinal (i.e. “teaching”) status is weak. The Church has often given specific instruction to teachers to avoid such materials.

    In the case of (2), I think the claim reveals a misunderstanding of what it means to be a doctrine of the church. Such principles that make their way into Sunday School classes and the like are often referred to as “folk” doctrine for a reason, namely because they are no longer authoritative and in most cases never were.

    This same objection applies to some degree to non-consensus pronouncements by current church authorities (and more so to those by past authorities of course). No authoritative consensus no doctrine – not of the church at any rate.

    One last problem is that one often sees some neglect to make any distinction between the term “doctrine” and “religious truth”. The term “eternal doctrine” sometimes leads to this confusion, where “eternal principle” would be more accurate.

  29. Thanks for your candor. I’ve been confused since I read “Kingdom of the Cults.” I didn’t recognize my faith as portrayed there. Most Evangelicals I’ve studied with have used that book as the foundational description for Mormon doctrine. No wonder there is confusion. My fantasy is to do a complete comparison with the other faith groups “cults” portrayed there, to see if they are equally confused about the way they were described in that book.

  30. I like the article, analysis, and most of the comments I’ve had time to read. Nice when we can discuss interdenominationally vs. each go for the other’s theological throat.

    Out here in “the field”, I really don’t see that much doctrinal diversity. I see political diversity (and a few wingnuts on either side who try to use the teachings of the prophets to “prove” their point). But most of the key doctrinal points seem to cause little controversy.

    I think much of this applies to my evangelical friends as well. Other than the most politically motivated crowd, there seems to be reasonable agreement on the key points of doctrine.

  31. #32: “The term “eternal doctrine” sometimes leads to this confusion, where “eternal principle” would be more accurate.”.
    This is where I disagree. Changing the name of a thing does not change it’s nature. Changing the name of a dog’s tail to “leg”, does not give the dog five legs. (Lincoln). Changing “Doctrine” to “Principle” does not end the confusion. (For me).

  32. Bob, So are you arguing for calling something by the wrong name or arguing that the name being used is the right one?

  33. While the LDS Church grew out of (or was restored in) a Protestant environment and bears many of its trappings, including a low, rather than high, worship style (outside the temple), I think that theologically and structurally LDS are closer to Roman Catholicism.

    There are key components on which most Catholics feel they must agree, but the key component seems to be loyalty to the Bishop of Rome and his authority. Thus, in the eastern rites of Roman Catholicism, priests are married and the services bear little resemblance to the predominant western worship style. The eastern rite is part of Roman Catholicism because of loyalty and acknowledgement of the authority of the Pope.

    There is room for a wide variety of religious thought in Roman Catholicism, and has been over the last two thousand years. Some of the ideas espoused by Luther had been kicked around many times before, so much so that some viewed his excommunication as unwarranted, as being based simply upon a “squabble among monks.”

    For me the Roman Catholic and the LDS churches derive their “unity” in their loyalty to and recognition of certain officers as God’s authorized representatives on earth. To me, many protestants derive their “unity” not from recognition or loyalty to a line of “authority”, but instead on a “unity” of acceptance of ideas (including, for many, the priesthood of all believers).

    A disagreement over certain teachings does not of itself breach a “unity” of acceptance of authority or loyalty (as we debate endlessly in the bloggernacle) either in the LDS or Roman Catholic churches. But it does seem like a disagreement about teachings may breach a “unity” of teachings upon which some Protestant churches may be based–thus resulting in a departure from one denomination to another, rather than remaining and as much debate over the issue.

    My understanding may well be mistaken. It is only my impression, and I offer it only as such.

  34. Rob #2, all I meant was that my proposed descriptive theology would have similar taxonomic detail to a Christian systematic theology. If you prefer, you could start with something like the syntopicon published in the Encyclodpedia of Mormonism, although you’d have to flesh it out quite a bit.

    Blake #12, I personally would find it useful to have a presentation of the various posiitons Mormon thinkers have taken on various issues and why, perhaps with some subjective indication as to which positions have the greatest currency in the contemporary church. So somewhere under the heading Christ and the subheading Atonement, there would be a subsubheading on the extent of the Atonement. X, Y and Z have said that the Atonement relates to this planet alone. A, B and C in contrast take the position that the Atonement relates to all creation in all the universe, and it just so happened that we live on the planet where it was effected.

    Or under the nature of man, when you drill down far enough in the taxonomy you’ll get to the various views of (an) “Intelligence.” A, B and C view intelligence as a kind of undifferentiated primordial soup from which spirits were created. D, E and F view intelligences as eternal, uncreated and individuated, and incorporated into a spirit born to heavenly parents (spirit birth would be its own category). G, H and I think that there is no difference between an intelligence and a spirit and reject spirit birth.

    I’m a lifelong member, and even I get confused about who has taught what when, so I would find such a tool very helpful.

    It would also help with interfaith dialogue, I should think. Instead of denying BY taught Adam-God, that would simply be one of the various teachings about the nature of God the Father that have existed historically. It is not accepted in the mainstream Church today, but it was taught by BY and is accepted by various fundamentalist groups.

    I realize some people would freak out to see our doctrinal diversity presented in all its messy glory, since most average members assume there is pretty much just one doctrine that is universally believed in the Church, has always existed and never been changed. But I think it might be good for them to learn that Joseph originally conceived of everyone going to the same spirit world after death, and only later provided for a provisional separation of the righteous and the wicked.

    Am I the only one who would find such a tool useful in helping with the jello nailed to a wall effect?

  35. #37: “So what’s in a name?”. (Shakespeare). My argument is this is just “Mormonspeak”, or changing or adding words without really giving an answer to the question, or adding understanding. For most Mormons, the Church’s doctrines, teachings, principles, all mean the same thing.

  36. I have gotten the idea from Richard John Neuhaus’ monthly commentaries on religious foibles, including many in his own adopted Catholic tradition, that there are within Catholicism, despite two millenia of creeds and theology, a wide variety of views on many contemporary doctrinal topics. Wide varieties of both belief and actual practice are tolerated among Catholics, the key defining characteristic being loyalty to the Holy See. May I suggest that Mormonism’s variation in doctrines might be assessed in comparison with Catholicism’s variations?

    The way the First Presidency has avoided making specific pronouncements on the topic of evolution indicates an intentional restraint against adding doctrinal requirements that don’t seem to be necessary for ongoing management of the church or the lives of its members. There is an intentional avoidance of adding authoritative Midrash to LDS scriptures. LDS scriptures emphasize that the converse of receiving new revelation is to recognize that our knowledge at any given time MUST BE incomplete and subject to refinement. That fundamental ethic of restraint is perhaps a key distinction from Protestantism, which has developed a tradition of insisting that particular intepretations are authoritative, but in the absence of an agreed source of authority that can settle the issue (all use the Bible), leading to schisms and sects.

  37. #39: “I personally would find it useful to have a presentation of the various positions Mormon thinkers have taken on various issues and why”. We have this…and that’s why we have confusion. Once you get passed faith and repentance, you start to discombobulate people. (Most people have no idea what “taxonomy” means).

  38. 40: Well, to the degree that “Mormonspeak” promotes irrational, ambiguous, and self-contradictory thought processes, I would say it should be reformed, if only by a personal insistence on clear and precise usage.

    If people who should know better didn’t play fast and loose with the language, perhaps everyday member understanding of certain points of doctrine and usage wouldn’t be such a litany of hibblety gibblety mumbo jumbo.

  39. I would be interested in Bridget’s take on the correspondence of LDS basic beliefs and the varieties within Evangelical Christianity. A simple one is the LDS insistence that infant baptism is wrong, which clearly correlates with certain Evangelical denominations but not others. My general sense is that many of the main LDS doctrines have correlaries within one of the Evangelical denominations.

    Additionally, it is my sense that, within the broad range of Evangelical theology, there are some folks who have reached conclusions that have strong correspondences with even some of the LDS doctrines that are most frequently cited as outliers. For example, some

  40. (continued) theologians have concluded that post-mortem evangelism is supported by scripture, and others support a social Trinity in which God has real passions, contrary to the classic formula of the Nicene Creed.

    There are even Evangelicals who believe God speaks to us in intelligible terms and can instruct us to do specific things, even though other Evangelicals find such modern revelation a scandal. Thus an editor of Christianity today got a negative reaction when he wrote about hearing a voice telling him to write a book and donate the proceeds to a young ministerial student’s education.

    So while I don’t expect Evangelicals to embrace the specific idea that Joseph Smith was a prophet, an honest survey of the broad range of acceptable Evangelical thought should admit that the POSSIBILITY of God speaking to a 14 year old boy is within the realm of Christian orthodoxy, at least as some Evangelicals interpret it. Similarly, one of the reasons Mormonism had its appeal to many in its early years was because it was an extension and affirmation of ideas already present in the broad mix of Protestant thought.

    There are even Evangelical theologians who are willing to admit that certain beliefs of primitive Christianity are not broadly embraced in modern Protestantism, but are found in the LDS church, such as belief in premortal existence of our spirits.

    Certainly, it has generally been in the mutual interest of both Mormon missionaries and evangelical pastors to emphasize differences, because in order to “retail” a church one has to distinguish one’s “product” in the marketplace. I have even heard an LDS general authority express the view that some churches are intentionally trying to neutralize our advantage by accepting ideas that were previously anathema (such as post-mortal evangelism).

    But in the interest of integrity and common citizenship, we ought to also acknowledge that even some of the most distinctive doctrines of Mormonism have corrollaries within the poles of Evangelical Christianity. It is all too common to see Mormonism being denounced for a concept that is actually shared with one or more Evangelical churches or theologians, though not the one with which the attacking speaker is affiliated.

  41. #44 RTS ~ It’s funny that you bring that up. My LDS father-in-law actually tuned into my blogging life for the first time when I did this post, and he called me up and said, “You should do a post on all the ways Mormons and evangelicals are similar!” I winced and told him that quite a few people—largely evangelical but some LDS—would probably skin me alive if I did that. He told me I needed to have some “cojones” (his word) and do it. It is actually one of my running theories that Mormons and evangelicals are a lot more similar than we often like to admit, but I’ve been loathe to talk about it because of the bloodbath which would likely ensue.

    On infant baptism, there’s actually a very strong correlation in our practices. What the LDS scriptures condemn is infant baptism done with the purpose of cleansing children from sin, but not all sects perform infant baptism for that reason. Most do it because (1) they believe it replaces circumcision as a sign of the covenant (2) it’s a symbol of accepting the child into the religious community. There’s actually a very large number of evangelicals who believe children are innocent and will go to heaven if they die young. To use a pop culture example, in the nauseously popular Left Behind series, all of the young children and unborn babies disappeared in the Rapture. The book gives specific time pointing out that after the Rapture, the abortion clinics are out of work for a few months because no one is pregnant anymore. I don’t believe the books ever say what the cut-off age was for the Rapture, but there it is.

    Do we know anyone in the LDS church who gets baptized in spite of being considered free from sin with an automatic pass into the celestial kingdom and unable to make an informed decision about faith in Christ? Yes we do: children with severe mental disorders (autism, Down syndrome, etc.). Some LDS parents opt not to baptize them at all, some do, but not for the remission of sins. It’s done as a symbol that the child is part of the religious community. (Also, in the case of male children, it’s sometimes done so that they can be ordained to the Aaronic priesthood and participate in passing the sacrament, which is just another way of welcoming them into the religious community.)

    So yeah, I think that there are a lot of correlations between evangelical belief and LDS belief, more than members of either group typically expect. Whether I do a blog post on that here at T&S really depends on how people respond to this post and others. I’m kind of gauging people’s comfort levels as I go.

  42. And just to be clear: the infant baptism example is one where Mormons are closer to evangelicals than they think. There are places where the opposite is true, with evangelical denouncing LDS practices when there are actually close correlations within the umbrella of evangelical thought. I agree with this statement:

    It is all too common to see Mormonism being denounced for a concept that is actually shared with one or more Evangelical churches or theologians, though not the one with which the attacking speaker is affiliated.

    We’ll see if a post further developing this topic fits into my guest-blogging time here.

  43. RE:46-47. Clearly, there is precedent for baptizing people who do NOT need remission of sins, namely, Jesus Christ. What Mormon denounces is a belief that young children who are not baptized will not be redeemed by Christ.

    There are certainly degrees of mental and emotional disability, and if there were any uncertainty, there is plenty of reason to baptize a young person who has passed the basic age of accountability, especially as we understand that some of them can grow in understanding over time. I think the basic test would be whether the person understand what baptism is, and can articulate a desire to receive it, at the level any 8-year-old does. The same with priesthood ordination.

    As to the general proposition: I would love to see a comparison of Mormonism against the full breadth of the doctrinal possibilities and alternatives embraced within Evangelical Christianity. Even exercises like those undertaken by Stephen Robinson and Robert Millet and their Evangelical counterparts have emphasized doctrines where there are material distinctions, and not spent time on the deep areas of common belief. it is natural to assume that everyone knows those areas, and that it would not be interesting to recite them or that they should be deferred within the limits of a book. I know that the Evangelicals who have engaged in these dialogues have been criticized vehemently form some corners of Evangelicalism for conceding even some of the commonalities.

    For example, Gerald mcDermott was criticized for the simple admission that the Book of Mormon has a high Christology, even though he pointed this out in the context of an argument that the Book of Mormon is arguably more Trinitarian in outlook than standard Mormon doctrine. This fact about the Book of Mormon is so basic that it ought to be one of the first things that any Christian knows about the Book of Mormon, but it is in fact one of the least publicized aspects of it in Evangelical discussions about Mormonism. How are Evangelicals supposed to treat a book whose publishing history seems so outre, but whose actual sermons (e.g. King Benjamin’s sermon, Abinadi’s sermon, Alma’s discourse on faith in Alma 32) would be hailed and embraced by many Christians if it were among the Nag Hammadi library and written in script called Coptic instead of a script called “Reformed Egyptian” (even though Coptic is derivative of Egyptian)?

  44. #48 RTS ~ Gerald mcDermott was criticized for the simple admission that the Book of Mormon has a high Christology, even though he pointed this out in the context of an argument that the Book of Mormon is arguably more Trinitarian in outlook than standard Mormon doctrine.

    Evangelicals who complain about things like this annoy me. If they disagree with such observations, let them argue that, but if they’re only complaining because they don’t think we ought to call attention to the positive things in Mormonism since Mormons are “the enemy,” aren’t they really just evangelicals with their own BKP “Some things that are true are not very useful” attitude?

    I firmly believe you could write a book on all the things in Mormonism which are similar to certain systems of thought within evangelical Christianity, and someday I do intend to write a book about it, but I’ll consider doing a post on some of those things while I’m here.

  45. On my mission about twenty years ago, the relevant authorities would not *let* a mentally impaired man be baptized on those grounds, even though the man in question dearly desired to be, a decision I thought was insane.

  46. To be clear, the grounds were that baptism wasn’t necessary for this man, and so shouldn’t be performed. The man in question was more or less heart broken as a consequence, and soon thereafter quit coming to church.

  47. Justmeherenow ~ It’s not so much that there are isn’t an evangelical blogging network. What I said was that there isn’t a blogging network for individual denominations of comparable size to the LDS church, no United-Methodist-Church-nacle or Southern-Baptist-Convention-nacle. There are plenty of evangelical blogs out there, but they don’t seem to be as well-organized into a network like the Bloggernacle is, and to be honest, a lot of them are more testimony-style blogs which don’t focus on intellectual discussion of issues facing the evangelical community like the Bloggernacle does. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but it is the latter type of blog that I prefer.

    These are some of the evangelical blogs that I do enjoy:

    Parchment and Pen
    The Evangelical Outpost
    Internet Monk
    Think Christian
    Women in Ministry
    42 (this one may be better classified as mainline)
    Missio Dei

    However, you’ll note that they aren’t participating in one big evangelical blogging ring like LDS blogs do with Mormon Archipelago. There are several networks, like this one, but like I said, lots of testimony blogs.

    There’s also a number of evangelical-run blogs focused on Mormonism where a healthy number of both Latter-day Saints and evangelicals participate, so we get some really interesting discussions going sometimes. Some of these blogs have more of an “outreach to Mormons” orientation rather than an “ecumenical dialogue” orientation like my blog does, but here they are:

    LDS & Evangelical Conversations
    Heart Issues for LDS
    I Love Mormons
    Mark Cares

    Anyways, that’s the run down on evangelical blogging, at least as far as I know.

  48. I spent about a year in the Evangelical/Fundamental movement of Christianity during my teens in the 1970’s. I have to say it prepared me for discovering, investigating, and accepting the restored gospel as taught by the LDS church.

    Of the basics that I picked up as a teenager, some were those essential things that also happen to be items of overlap, or in common with, LDS gospel principles: God is the same as before, He’s not a respecter of persons, getting answers to prayers, miracles, personal revelation through the Spirit.

    Yeah, God could call a prophet today, just like He did in the past. Yeah, God could start training him as a boy, like He did with Samuel. Yeah, Jesus could show his post-resurrection body to people in America, just like he did in Jerusalem. Yeah, God could answer my prayer to know “if these things are true”, because He answered my prayers in the past. Yeah, this Mormon thing about “influence of” and “gift of” the Holy Ghost sounds like the Evangelical thing of “walking in the Spirit”.

    I already knew “some churches were ‘truer’ than others” from my Evangelical experience. Evangelicals/Fundamentalists taught me churches who don’t believe in modern miracles, and spiritual gifts, and outpourings of the Spirit, didn’t have the whole picture.

    Evangelicals/Fundamentalists taught me that some churches practice “churchianity”, that is, the traditions of men that aren’t really Bible-based, and don’t conform to the Christianity of the Bible.

    So in fact, it was Evangelicals/Funamentalists who taught me the concept of being “open ended” and look for “more God” and “more Spirit”.

    “Mormonism” is the fulfillment of that to me. In fact, Mormonism is “open ended”, because it teaches that God reveals mysteries and advanced doctrine to you by the Spirit as fast as you can receive it, that God can reveal literally anything that is within your sphere of authority, or general information that is within your ability to handle.

  49. ray: How are Evangelicals supposed to treat a book whose publishing history seems so outre, but whose actual sermons (e.g. King Benjamin’s sermon, Abinadi’s sermon, Alma’s discourse on faith in Alma 32) would be hailed and embraced by many Christians if it were among the Nag Hammadi library,…

    Those sermons made Vincenzo di Francesca, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WDcodO5xts0 the most popular pastor in his church until his supervisors found out where he got them from.

  50. It is all too common to see Mormonism being denounced for a concept that is actually shared with one or more Evangelical churches or theologians, though not the one with which the attacking speaker is affiliated.

    Years ago, when I lived in Boca Raton, Pat Robertson did a TV show on cults. Of course, we were featured stars! But on every single point he made, he could just as easily have been talking about the Catholic church. Strangely, though, the Catholic church was never mentioned as a cult.

    I guess he just wanted to pick on the skinny kid in the room, instead of the big guy.

    There are plenty of evangelical blogs out there, but they don’t seem to be as well-organized into a network like the Bloggernacle is.

    Are we “well-organized”? I started Mormon Momma on January 1, 2003, when the original Circle of Sisters (I being one of the three) decided to stop writing for Meridian. I don’t recall knowing about any other sites that had author articles and reader feedback. Now my site is listed on a couple of LDS blog aggregators–although at least one of them has a bad feed link. Other than that, I’m not sure what organization we have.

  51. Our blog has the same organization as existed in the primitive church, namely, apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and so forth. Jack is the evangelist, obviously.

  52. Kevin, Kent and Blake. I didn’t really know others also felt the same way about the usefulness of a History of Mormon Theology, which is a book I’ve wished I could obtain and then realized it hadn’t been written yet. Given the Mormon proclivity for documenting history, it would seem like the natural thing to do. In my own research and studies, I’ve been able to connect theological influences and ideas among various individuals. I personally enjoy intellectual histories in the Western tradition and theological histories in Christianity in general. In some ways, it is difficult to know not only where you are, but why you are where you, are until you know where you’ve been. It isn’t simply a question of identifying what a belief is. Beliefs don’t occur in a vacuum, but they arise out of social and historical contexts. I wouldn’t conceive that such a book would follow completed theologies throughout LDS history, rather it would follow proponents and the beliefs that they develop or champion and the trends, events, and individuals they are reacting to when they write. There are many reasons I can imagine why this hasn’t been done. There is a tendency to assume continuity where there is none, or to harmonize theological positions.

    Personally, I do not think that Mormon doctrine is difficult to “pin down,” Evangelical frustrations notwithstanding. I think the reality is more that the landscape and contours of doctrine and theology between Evangelicalism and Mormonism do not have a one-to-one isomorphism. Understanding the history of the development of these views explains why it is that a body of theological thought takes on the shape that it does. In my view, it is less of question of difficulty identifying official Mormon doctrine, as much as the realization that there may not be an official Mormon doctrine on every point of religious inquiry. Often the reason for this is either that the theological system does not lend itself to producing questions in certain areas or there is no proponent arguing otherwise. For example, Mormonism has not produced a need for a dual nature of Christ or a need to create a system of incommunicable and communicable attributes. Mormonism has not developed a need to teach that Christ had pre-fallen Adamic human nature, as other Christian theologies do. The very concept of “nature” in Mormonism is different from that as was developed in historic Christian philosophy. Why is this? It’s in the history. On the other hand, Mormon thinkers have struggled with how to explain God as knowing everything and yet still progressing. Mormon thinkers have struggled with how there can be literal parent-child relationship between God and man given a theology where intelligences cannot be created and are co-eternal. These theological whirlpools are completely absent in traditional Christian theologies. Why? It’s in the history. Identifying the solutions and outlining the contributions made by various individuals in response to such questions is something that seems critically important. As I speak with various individuals I can sense where and what schools of thought seem to influence them. Yet, the resources to explain and more deeply understand these theological currents do not yet exist, or I suppose I should say that there are many resources, and many people who have contributed to my understanding in this area, but the scholarship hasn’t been gathered together in one volume, and of course other areas have not yet been explored. I imagine that if such a book were produced it would be heavily criticized and attacked on many fronts, but perhaps that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps it would simply move the discussion and dialogue in new fresh directions.

  53. Of course you can nail jello to the wall, you just need a lot of nails to distribute the weight of the jello so it’s not all hanging on one nail. I don’t know exactly how that translates from the metaphor to the real-life issue, but there ya go!!!

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