Bible, Church, and Mystic

On a recent trip, I took along as reading material Christianity: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2004) by Linda Woodhead. Like all of the books in the wildly successful VSI series, the book is short but informative. I want to focus on the author’s analysis of how views about divine power and earthly authority can be used to classify Christian churches and denominations, then try to place Mormonism and the LDS Church within that classification scheme.

The first distinction to consider is whether divine power is ultimately lodged in heaven or is somehow present here on earth. The terms transcendence and immanence are often used in this context, but the terms are overused and are perhaps better left aside by a scholar trying to bring new insight to the topic. Woodhouse describes three generic forms of Christianity:

  • Church Christianity affirms “a hierarchical power that flows down from heaven to earth,” centered in God the Father, mediated by Jesus Christ, and channelled through “designated representatives on Earth, the clergy.” Sacramentalism and sacerdotalism (roughly, ordinances and priests) are key features of this form.
  • Biblical Christianity affirms that “the Bible is of greater authority than the church, its sacraments and priests, and its desire that the whole of life should be governed by strict conformity to Biblical teaching.” This form emerged in the wake of the Reformation and the accompanying widespread distribution of printed vernacular translations of the Bible.
  • Mystic Christianity emphasizes not a higher and external power but “power from within,” with the Holy Spirit playing a more prominent role for mystics and the communities that follow them. While the term “mystics” might suggest a marginal chapter from Christian history with little application to the present day, the sudden emergence of “spiritual but not religious” amounts to a personalized version of mysticism, rejecting external authority (church or bible) but recognizing some spark of the divine within.

The second distinction to consider emerges from the course of history and theology over the last three centuries. How does a given church or movement balance divine power or authority against other alternatives?

  • Transcendent authority allows little compromise with reason or with differing human experience. Once God has spoken (through church, bible, or mystic), the thinking is done.
  • Rational authority grants human reason a strong role in determining what God, the Bible, or your favorite mystic is really saying. Another way to describe this view is that granting reason some authority means one is more willing to accommodate one’s church, bible, or mystic views to the discoveries of modern science.
  • Experiential authority is the final category, where tradition, hierarchy, and Bible are all secondary to the present and often personal experience of God.

The three categories of the second set of distinctions are tied to two intellectual revolutions of the modern era. The first was the Enlightenment, which exalted the authority of reason against traditional sources of authority, both political and ecclesiastical. Liberal Christianity, in which some authority is granted to human reason, spanned many Protestant denominations, eventually reaching Catholicism as well. The second revolution was the Sixties, which were about more than just sex, drugs, and rock music. The Sixties produced a second society-wide rejection of traditional authority and a turn to subjective modes of understanding. Almost overnight, Liberal Christianity seemed old-fashioned, almost irrelevant. Organized, hierarchical churches were, within a decade, in steady and unrelenting demographic decline. Suddenly very relevant was personal experience: how you feel about God, religion, your church, your spirituality, your congregation, your minister, and your Bible. So the last three centuries of Christianity can be illustrated by a move across the three columns, with religious authority broadening first to the second column (reason), then later broadening again to the third column (experience, whether rational and scientific or not).

Put these two different three-category analyses together as two axes and you get a table with 9 cells, which the author does on page 104 of the book.

Transcendent authority Rational authority Experiential authority
Conservative Catholics
Anglicans, Lutherans
Liberal Protestants Pentecostal Catholics
(Conservative) Evangelicals
(Liberal) Evangelicals Pentecostal Protestants
Mystical Eastern Orthodoxy Christian Science Quakers

The table brings together 60 pages of material by Woodhouse, which I have summarized in just three paragraphs. Also, I listed only some of the example entries provided by the author in each cell. Nevertheless, I think I have covered enough for you to agree that the categories and the table are helpful devices for understanding what is going on with religion (and Mormonism) in the 21st century.

So here is your discussion question: In which cell should the LDS Church or mainstream Mormonism appear? I can think of arguments for several different cells.

19 comments for “Bible, Church, and Mystic

  1. “In which cell should the LDS Church or mainstream Mormonism appear?”

    All of them. That’s why we’ve got the goods, man.

  2. Thanks for the comments … but “all of the above” is not one of the options. To put it differently, a religion or denomination can have enough breadth to, for example, affirm traditional views of transcendent authority yet tolerate and even encourage accommodation and harmonization with scientific theories (the liberal approach that emerged in the 19th century). But you can’t be all things to all people, and certainly the LDS Church does not try to be.

    I added a group to the table: Conservative Evangelicals to the Biblical/Transcendent cell (cell 4 if you match them up to your phone keypad). This is to highlight that while LDS social and political positions often match conservative Evangelical positions rather closely, I think it is clear the LDS Church is not of the Biblical type — that is, scripture never trumps divine revelation through authorized channels. We don’t match the Evangelicals on the vertical axis distinction.

  3. Well, that’s the problem. The LDS church uses the word of God through authorities (Church Type), uses scripture as rationale for church directives (Biblical Type), and also tells members to get their own direction (Mystical Type) aside from the word from either the scriptures or the authorities. All three should be working together, that’s why it fits in all three categories. The same rationales work for the other axis – there are several LDS practices that are “because God says so”, as well as those that are the rationales of men, as well as those that are individual and personal type.

    I don’t see the LDS church having any of the absolute choices you’re giving.

  4. I know you say it’s not allowed (and perhaps it is a cop out), but I think there is a sense that “all of the above works”, while holding in mind that one category may be emphasized in a particular context more than the others. While the emphasis on one may be needed in a particular setting (and maybe in most settings), I think that none of categories can be absolutized without peril either to individuals or the Church or both.

  5. Catholics and Anglicans also use scripture as rationale for their decisions. Given that the common church belief that no personal revelation will contradict revelation from the institutional church, I’d say it’s easily placed in the 1st slot.

    Given that the use of the phrase “true and living church” has just been on the rise in General Conference talks over the years and the fact that one of the distinct aspects of mormonism is temple worship (which screams sacramentalism and sacerdotalism) and the strong top-down idea that the prophet speaks in behalf of God (I’m thinking of the two conference talks which basically re-read President Benson’s ’14 fundamentals’) I think that it would be hard to argue that the church today belongs in any other square. As already mentioned, a religion can have features across the board, but it seems clear (at least to me) that our current church is “Church type Transcendent authority.”

  6. I would say the Church is Transcendent authority. I can’t image too many members would face to face argue with a GA no matter how or why he, the member, thought he was right.

  7. Really enjoyed this post Dave – looks like a very useful model for thinking about the church. I agree with some of the comments that it’s hard to place because of clear (even current) emphases on more than one category. But I very much agree with you that we can scratch the Biblical Type row – the entire row. While we’re all in favor of scripture – so much so that we’ve dramatically added to the cannon and hold open the possibility of continuing to do so! – there is no sense in which the Bible serves as an ultimate or higher authority for us. I thinks it a perceptive insight that you’ve noted here as to why we and Evangelicals struggle with one another, despite some real (current) similarities.

    Beyond that elimination, I keep vacillating every time I try to place us. I suppose I’ll go think about it some more, ask my church leaders for their thoughts, search my own heart, and then get back to you…

  8. This is a really interesting post, and makes me want to check out Woodhead. It seems to me that different social groups within the church would have different ideas about what type of Christianity it is we practice. For example, it’s certainly not coincidence that you used the phrase “Once God has spoken . . . the thinking is done,” to describe transcendent authority. Smacks more than a bit of that misattributed Heber J. Grant quotation. If you are the kind of person who believes strongly in that idea, then you’re like to see the Church as practicing Church Christianity, n’est-ce pas?

    While I agree with some of the other comments that it’s possible to see our church as a blend, it’s also interesting the way we see these categories clash (especially in the bloggernacle). I don’t personally see transcendental, rational, and experiential authority as mutually exclusive categories, but I know that many people I’ve been in wards with (or served with in the mission field) would see these as conflicting, irreconcilable ideas.

    I wonder which of these would win a public opinion poll as the preferred way of describing the Church?

  9. I’m kind of surprised that there’s so much disagreement about which box best describes the Church. It seems pretty clear to me that box 1 (church-transcendent) is most accurate, despite my personal preference for some of the other approaches.

  10. I’ll just add that I find it interesting that the the modern Church seems to have started off in box 9 (mystical-experiential) with Joseph Smith’s First Vision, but then slowly migrated to box 1 with the development of the Church hierarchy during Joseph’s lifetime.

  11. Exactly Silhan. I think many members are inclined to act in their own lives in other areas of the spectrum. But if we look objectively at the church and try to size it up with other religions, the answer seems obvious.

  12. The LDS do have elements of all three, but on the authority question I think we’re more transcendental than the other types.

    However, on the other axis, it really is impossible to pick between ‘church’ forms and ‘mystical’ forms.

  13. Dave, this is a really interesting post and there’s a lot to think about.

    However, I object to the requirement to describe the church with single qualitative descriptor, when what’s clearly needed is a six-dimensional vector with weighted coefficients. Personally, I’d describe Mormonism as 2.5Church+2.5Mystic+1Bible+3Transcendent+2Experiential+1Rational.

    With this approach (possibly using matrix notation), we could compute the eigenvalue of Mormonism, determine what church was most nearly orthogonal to Mormonism, and multiply Mormonism by Eastern Orthodoxy. And that would be awesome.

  14. I think the LDS Church clearly falls into the “Church-type” row, but there is real tension regarding the proper column. I understand the impulse to place it in the “transcendent-authority” column, but Moroni 10:5 (as an example) makes a strong argument for the “experiential-authority” column.

  15. Thanks for the comments, everyone. FYI, I got the author’s name slightly wrong, which I have corrected in the post and in comment #9.

    Certainly there is a good argument for putting the LDS Church in cell #1 (Church-Transcendent). But the exemplars in that cell have a strong clergy-laity distinction that is lacking in Mormonism. Quite often LDS fathers baptize their own children, ordain their sons, and give priesthood blessings of their own accord to family members on request. It is sort of a Pentecostal version of priesthood in which all men participate directly in the sort of clerical mediation that, in true Church-type denominations, is reserved for the relatively few individuals consecrated for clerical service.

    So I think there is a strong experiential component to the modern Mormon version of the Church-type form, one that focuses on priesthood rather than charismatic gifts of the Spirit. I guess I would argue for Church-Transcendent/Experiential, with a nod to Silhan’s (#11) observation that Joseph Smith himself was not initially operating within a Church-type framework.

  16. It’s sort of all and sort of none. The grid really fails for me at characterizing Mormonism. Where do you put “inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren” ?

  17. I’m going to disagree with most of the comments and argue that we belong in the top right with the Pentecostal Catholics. I quickly eliminated “Biblical type” but agree that “Church type” is a better fit than “Mystical type”. I also think “Rational authority” doesn’t fit the church much if at all. There is a tension between “Transcendent authority” and “Experiential authority”, but for me the latter wins out. Perhaps my hearing is selective, but I always felt the emphasis from my leaders was much more on the side of “develop a personal testimony” and “follow the promptings of the Spirit” than on the “the Lord has spoken; it’s settled” side.

    (Perhaps if I’d spent more time in Utah I’d feel differently. The only time I ever felt pressure from priesthood leadership to obey on something I didn’t think was important was when I was there.)

    Anyway, I think the balance between central authority and personal revelation is important to the health of the church. If we went too far in either direction we would stop being Latter Day Saints.

  18. Curtis is right that Experiential Authority is an important and distinct characteristic of our church, one that has not been touted enough in the comments.

    I would say the Mormon church could be understood as two separate churches: the “outer church” and the “inner church,” as in that hymn “Lo in the outward church below, the wheat and tares are together sown.”

    The “Outer Mormon church” would be transcendental, the church of meetings and priesthood, etc. The “Inner Mormon church” is experiential, with the emphasis on personal revelation within our own individual lives and families.

    As far as whether it’s Church, Bible, or Mystic, I would say that in the “outer church” it’s a combination of both Church and Bible (as long as our understanding of Bible includes all the standard works.) But in the “inner church” it would be Mystic, as that ultimately is where personal revelation would come from, however, always tempered by the understanding and submission to Church and Bible.

    Great paradigm for thinking about how our religion fits with others.

Comments are closed.