Saturday, August 13, 2005
Tonight we got a babysitter, since Calvin seemed to be doing fine, and we went to a performance of Gilbert & Sullivan's "The Mikado" at Deer Valley. It was wonderful to have a night out and the performance was cleverly current (they added some 21st century verbiage to some of the songs) and very funny. We sat on the lawn and brought a picnic from Tony Caputo's deli along with a bottle of wine. It was great!
Tuesday, August 09, 2005
Well, I'll try to post those pics tomorrow, maybe!
Sunday, August 07, 2005
Wednesday, August 03, 2005
"A Different Jesus?: The Christ of the Latter-day Saints" by Robert L. Millet
A review by Tammy Stevenson.
The average evangelical Christian in the pew would probably be quite surprised by the contents of this book. Seven or eight years ago, I would have been surprised too. After living in Utah for six years, and dialoguing often with my Latter-day Saint friends, Millet's book is not so much surprising to me as it is a fair and reasoned summary of the Christology of the Mormon church. Millet intends to convince his evangelical Christian audience (since the book is published by Eerdmans, one can assume that most of the audience will fit into this category) that the Christ of the Latter-day Saints is the same Christ they know, love, and worship. He displays an extensive knowledge of current evangelical thought, citing works by today’s most popular and prolific evangelical writers. But despite his ultimate goal, he does not flinch from honestly and completely presenting Mormon beliefs about Christ, even when they are significantly different from traditional Christian perspectives.
After a thorough introduction (Chapter 1) explaining the origins of the LDS faith, Millet takes on liberal theologians and biblical criticism (remember the "Jesus Seminar"?) in Chapter 2, finding common ground with evangelicals on the accuracy of the four gospels and the historicity of the Jesus of the Bible. Evangelicals will find much to agree with in this chapter, as Millet puts forth arguments that we have heard many times before , adding in a sprinkling of LDS Scripture to support his points. However, there is one place in particular where he reveals his LDS background. In speaking of the liberal theologians, he remarks, "How unfortunate it is that basically good men and women, people who have at least an affection or an admiration for holy scripture, should wander so far afield" (italics mine). This caused me to have an immediate visceral reaction, "NO!" when I read it. Most evangelicals would not refer to anyone as "basically good", but as we shall see in later chapters, in LDS theology regarding the nature of man this does not pose much difficulty.
Beginning in chapter 3, "Why a Restoration?”, our views begin to diverge much more. At first, the chapter is quite illuminating. Many evangelicals will be surprised to learn here that Mormons do not believe that "most of the doctrines in Catholic or Protestant Christianity are false or that the leaders ... have improper motives". Millet explains that the Mormons simply wish to bring us more truths and additional revelations. He takes the time to patiently explain and alleviate misconceptions about what Mormons mean when they say they have "the only true and living church", and his explanation is more positive than evangelicals will expect.
Despite the fact that much of the chapter is conciliatory in tone and helpful in understanding the Mormon mindset, there is still plenty to disagree with. In arguing in favor of modern-day prophets, Millet writes that "There are simply too many ambiguous sections of scripture to 'let the Bible speak for itself'". Actually, though it is true that there are things in scripture that are hard to understand (II Pet 3:16), Protestants in particular believe that scripture is sufficiently clear that we may understand all that is necessary for a life of faith. Furthermore, Millet's argument that we need prophets to interpret scripture for us in order that we can have an independent measuring rod of truth is absurd. Are LDS prophets really "independent"? Do we need additional layers of fallible human beings between us and the Word of God? Is not the Holy Spirit, present in the hearts of believers, sufficient to illuminate the essential truths found in the Bible?
The differences in the Mormon and evangelical doctrines of man’s identity begin to appear more strongly in this chapter. The LDS view of human nature appears to be more exalted in LDS thought than in evangelical thought. Millet refers to following the divine light within each person, citing John 1:9, “The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world”. He also remarks that God “loves us all and is pleased with any and every halting effort on our part to learn of him, serve him, and be true to the light within us.” This theology seems very dangerous, implying greater innate goodness in humans and elevating humankind to a higher place than is warranted. John 1:9 does not refer to a light within us, but rather to the Incarnation of Jesus Christ in the world. The light is completely from outside of us, and is not given to everyone, but to those who believe in his name, reading on in John 1 through verse 13, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God.” Earlier in the chapter, Millet states that “The highest good that men and women can do is to seek tenaciously for the greatest amount of light and knowledge that God will bestow.” This implies that humanity’s self-betterment through obtaining knowledge and light is the most important thing that we can do, and this view gives humans a more central place than we rightfully should occupy. Evangelicals commonly cite the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever”. That is the highest good that we can do – to glorify God, not to better ourselves.
In Chapter 3, Millet makes a remark that will have greater significance later on. He is criticizing what he calls the “postbiblical creeds” of Christendom. This is understandable, coming from an LDS point of view; however, the standard that he applies undergirds the very reasoning by which most evangelicals reject the Mormon worldview. He says, “To the extent that creeds perpetuate falsehood, particularly concerning the nature of the Godhead, then of course our Father in heaven would be displeased with them.” This, of course, is central – we are agreed on that. But if Mormonism itself is perpetuating falsehood concerning the nature of the Godhead, then this is equally problematic, and it does not need creeds to do so. No matter how a faith codifies its doctrines, as creeds or as words from a prophet, those doctrines may be accepted as true or rejected as false. The question is: what standard are we judging the doctrines by? The evangelical response is that we judge them against scripture, and the doctrine of God is of primary importance, as we will see in later chapters.
The heart of the book is found in chapter 4 “The Christ of the Latter-day Saints”, where Millet gets to the meat of Mormon Christology. He prefaces his discussion with a quote from C.S. Lewis, warning us not to judge who is or is not a Christian, “It is not for us to say who, in the deepest sense, is or is not close to the spirit of Christ…It would be wicked arrogance for us to say that any man is, or is not, a Christian in this refined sense…When a man who accepts the Christian doctrine lives unworthily of it, it is much clearer to say he is a bad Christian that to say he is not a Christian.” Millet intends for the evangelical reader to be wary of judgment, which is an appropriate caution. However, there is still that niggling question of doctrine. Implicit in Lewis’ statement is that he thinks one must accept “Christian doctrine” to be a Christian. What is “Christian doctrine”? Do Mormon beliefs about Christ fit into “Christian doctrine”? We may not be able to judge the hearts of individuals, but we are certainly able to use our reasoning powers to judge whether or not particular beliefs are “Christian” or not.
Millet goes on to list fifteen “fundamental and foundational LDS beliefs about Jesus Christ”, and leaves it to the reader to decide whether these are indeed “Christian” or not. There are other points that Millet mentions that differ from evangelical beliefs, but in the interest of keeping this review to a reasonable length, we will just examine a few of the more contentious ideas he presents about the identity of Jesus Christ.
He remarks in point four that “Jesus is the Son of God the Father and as such inherited powers of Godhood and divinity from His Father…he possessed the powers of a God” (italics mine). While evangelicals recognize Jesus as the Son, they do not believe the Bible says that Jesus inherited his divinity or powers, but rather that they were his inherently as a member of the Trinity. Why does this matter? It speaks to who Jesus is fundamentally. Is he the offspring, the son in the flesh of Heavenly Father, or is he God from all eternity in the core of his being, begotten, not made? Did he possess the powers of a God, or was he the one and only God incarnate?
In point seven, he remarks of Jesus, “Because he kept the law of God, Jesus was in the Father…they were two separate and distinct persons” though they were one in “transcendent unity”. Millet states that we all ought to have this unity with God, and should “strive to be one with the Gods”. This point, as well as point eight (regarding the relationship of the Spirit and Jesus) display a separation in being of the “godhead” resulting in, as Millet puts it, “three separate members of the Godhead”. He explains that they are one because they bear the same witness and teach the same truths; however, when one considers the exalted view of humanity in Mormonism, that we may one day become what God is, it is hard to escape the conclusion that though there may only be one God with whom we have to deal, there are many gods in this faith. This philosophy is called “henotheism”. Millet makes it clear that this is what he believes in a later chapter, when he remarks, “While we believe that becoming like God is entailed in eternal life, we do not believe we will ever, worlds without end, unseat or oust God the Eternal Father or his Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ; those holy beings are and forever will be the Gods we worship. Even though we believe in the ultimate deification of man, I am unaware of any authoritative statement in LDS literature that suggests that men and women will ever worship any being other than the ones within the Godhead.” The description of God the Father and God the Son is quite foreign to evangelical thought, to the point that one wonders whether we are really talking about the same being (beings, in Mormon thought!).
In a later section entitled “The Cosmic Christ”, Millet sets forth additional Mormon doctrines of Christ. “Modern revelation attests that Jesus was the firstborn spirit child of God the Father”, Millet writes. In some mysterious manner, God the Father existed before Jesus did, and brought him forth. LDS doctrine teaches that Heavenly Father and Mother brought forth spirit children, of which Jesus was the first. Millet explains that “as a premortal spirit, [Jesus] grew in knowledge and power to the point where he became ‘like unto God’ (Abraham 3:24), meaning the Father” (italics mine). Evangelicals would be hard pressed here to recognize the Jesus that they worship, who was and is God in all his perfection from all eternity past to eternity future. Jesus did not have to become “like unto God”; rather, he is and always was and will be fully God.
The next chapter, “Salvation in Christ” further illuminates the LDS understanding of man’s nature as well as the nature of Christ and goes on to describe modern Mormon soteriology. Many evangelical readers may be surprised by some aspects of Millet’s description of salvation. We have been conditioned to believe that Mormons don’t believe in salvation by grace – they believe in salvation by works, of course! Millet shows us that our preconceptions about Mormons only believing in salvation by works are false when he says things like “That redemption and reconciliation come through the finished work of Jesus the Christ. In short, salvation is in Christ. Redeemed man is man who has partaken of the powers of Christ through the Atonement, repented of his sins, and been renewed through the sanctifier, who is the Holy Ghost…This new birth brings membership in the family of God: such persons are redeemed from the Fall, reconciled to the Father through the Son, made worthy of the designation of sons and daughters of God.” He goes so far as to say that we do not go to heaven because we are good and we deserve it, but because God gives us what we do not deserve.
That being said, there are some serious problems with the plan of salvation described in this chapter, most of which have to do with the nature of man and the nature of God. Humanity’s nature is elevated above what traditional Christianity teaches. The LDS believe that our inner spirits are “pure as the heavens” but are corrupted by “tabernacles that are contaminated” (our flesh). In addition, in LDS thought, humans are eternal beings, “To be sure, Joseph Smith taught that man is an eternal being. He declared that the intelligence of man ‘is not a created being; it existed from eternity, and will exist to eternity. Anything created cannot be eternal.’” Millet goes on to explain that men and women possess in “rudimentary form” the “attributes, powers, and capacities possessed by our Father in heaven…There is a sense, then, in which we might say that men and women, being spiritual heirs to godliness, are good by nature.” To sum up, he writes, “Man is basically good, at least his eternal nature is. Man is basically fallen, at least his mortal nature is.” This leads directly to the idea that this time on earth is a time of probation, to see if our good spirits can, with the help of God (Millet writes that “we must have help…if it were not for divine assistance, each of us would…lose the battle of life”), make the choices necessary to overcome our fallen mortal nature. President Gordon B. Hinckley wrote, “the whole design of the gospel is to lead us onward and upward to greater achievement, even, eventually, to Godhood.” To be fair, President Hinckley states also that “this lofty concept in no way diminishes God the Eternal Father…He is the greatest of all and will always be so”. Ultimately, then, God may be full of grace and may give us what we do not deserve, but it is the choice that our spirits make to follow God instead of the pull of our sinful flesh that is what saves us. It is probably impossible to avoid comparisons with the Calvinist-Arminian debate in evangelical thought here; the major difference as I see it is that the Arminian soteriology is not intentionally nested in a worldview that exalts man to be, as Millet acknowledges, of the same species as God. The doctrine of eternal progression from premortal spirit to fleshly human being to exaltation as “gods” cannot be distanced from Mormon soteriology. They are inextricably linked, and the bottom line is that though we may absolutely need God’s help to get where he is, it is ultimately our good spirit and good intentions that get us there.
The nature of God the Son presented in this chapter is also not without its share of disagreements with traditional Christian views. Millet does write of Jesus, “he was…the divine Son of God. While the prophets were called of God, he is God” (italics mine). While it is refreshing that he states so clearly his belief that Jesus is God, in the context of his remarks in the previous chapter, it is hard to say that he means exactly what evangelicals mean by this. Furthermore, he refers to Jesus as “a God” many times in the chapter. A few examples follow. Speaking of the power of Jesus, he says, “Only a god, only a person with powers over death, could do such things”. On the atonement of Jesus: “we cannot rationally comprehend the work of a God. We cannot grasp…how one man, even a man possessed of the power of God, can suffer for another’s sins.” And on salvation “salvation is in Christ and…the renovation of men and women’s souls is the work of a God”. If Jesus is the ONE true God, then why not refer to him simply as “God” rather than “a God”? The reason seems clear when Millet explains, “We believe in “one God” in the sense that we love and serve on Godhead, one divine presidency, each of whom possesses all of the attributes of Godhood.” Unfortunately, this is not the God that I read about in the Bible, and I believe most evangelicals will not recognize God the Father or God the Son in this description.
The remaining chapters in the book, “Those Who Never Heard” and “Recurring Questions” provide interesting additional insights into Mormon thought, but they are not specifically about Christology, so they will not be covered more thoroughly at this time.
The conclusion by Millet and afterword by Richard Mouw (president of Fuller Theological Seminary) are essential reading to get the complete flavor of the book. The conclusion is an impassioned plea by Millet to accept him and other Mormons as fellow believers in Christ. Armed with quotes by Gregory Boyd (a prominent Open Theist), Jimmy Carter, and Richard Mouw, he argues for tolerance and emphasis on the wideness of God’s mercy. If one were to read the conclusion without reading the rest of the book, one might believe that this Jesus is really not so different after all. Of course, you cannot divorce the conclusion from what has come before. As much as one might wish to be tolerant, to be open, and to be inclusive, if you wish to be a Christian, you must “accept the Christian doctrine” as C.S. Lewis put it. The contents of much of the book mitigate against this, in my opinion.
Interestingly, Richard Mouw’s afterword appears to agree with this on one level. He writes, “I believe that Bob means in his testimony the same thing that I mean when I say that my only plea before the judgment seat of God is that I am covered by the mercy and merits of Jesus Christ. My question is not about the adequacy of his reply to this all-important question. My continuing worry is whether his other LDS beliefs can properly sustain him in – whether they provide a solid theological grounding for – his deep and sincere conviction that his only hope for eternal life is the substitutionary work of Jesus Christ that was completed for his salvation on Calvary.” While Mouw does find some hopeful signs in the book (which I will not repeat here), he remains concerned about some fundamental issues. “At the heart of our continuing disagreements, I am convinced, are very basic worldview issues. Judaism and Christianity have been united in their insistence that the Creator and the creation – including God’s human creatures – are divided by an unbridgeable “being” gap…On this view of things, to confuse the Creator’s being with anything in his creation is to commit the sin of idolatry. Mormons, on the other hand, talk about God and humans as belonging to the same ‘species’…the question of Christ’s saving power cannot be divorced from how we understand his ‘being’.” And finally, he remarks, “…having a genuine personal relationship with Jesus Christ does not require that we have all our theology straight…But I also believe with all my heart that theology is important. There is a real danger for all of us that we will define Jesus in such a way that we cannot adequately claim the full salvation that he alone can provide.”
But in the final analysis, Mouw decides that Millet’s Jesus is defined adequately, “I think that an open-minded Christian reader of this book will sense that Bob Millet is in fact trusting in the Jesus of the Bible for his salvation.” I wish that he had explained more thoroughly how he reached this conclusion, because his remarks in the paragraph above just don’t seem to square with his final verdict. My experience in dialogue with Mormons here in Utah over the last 6 years leads me to many of the same thoughts that Mouw has written above. I deeply love my Mormon friends and neighbors, and I truly wish that I could say that we really believe in the same Jesus. But theology IS important, and after reading this book, I have to say that I remain unconvinced. I wish that it were otherwise, and I truly do appreciate Millet’s honest portrayal of his Christology. But in the end, I see a different Jesus.