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Probe Ministries > Related Articles > Related Articles on Mormonism


Understanding Our Mormon Neighbors Print E-mail

Don Closson

Written by Don Closson

Mormon Neo-orthodoxy?

Have you noticed that Mormons are sounding more and more like evangelical Christians? In the last few decades individuals inside the Mormon Church, and many outside, have noticed a shift in the content and presentation of the Mormon faith. Certain aspects of Mormon theology, like the physical, limited nature of God, are either downplayed or left unsaid. Other aspects, like salvation by faith in the justifying work of Jesus Christ, are highlighted. Is something significant happening within Mormonism? Although Mormon theology has been somewhat fluid over the decades, some feel that a new band of Mormon scholars are indeed moving the religion in a new direction and that Christians need to be aware of these changes if we are to have effective dialogue with our Mormon neighbors.

Mormon sociologist Kendall White has been writing about this change in Mormon thinking since the 1960's. He writes that traditional Mormon theology produced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by B. H. Roberts, James Talmage, and John Widtsoe, centered on an "optimistic humanism, finite theism, and [an] emphasis on human merit in attaining salvation."{1} The new movement, called neo-orthodox Mormonism by some, "stresses the omnipotence and sovereignty of God, human sinfulness and inability to merit salvation, and the necessity of salvation by grace."{2} The primary theological sources for neo-orthodox Mormons are the Bible and the Book of Mormon. The later writings of Joseph Smith, including sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price, and the King Follett Discourse are seen as less helpful.

White argues that this theological trend is actually a return to the earliest form of Mormon beliefs found in the 1830s. It's interesting to note that, while White admits that Mormon neo-orthodoxy is a valid form of Mormonism, he's not in favor of it. On the other hand, Robert Millet, past dean of Religious Education at Brigham Young University, argues that the neo-orthodox movement is a positive trend and more in line with the teachings found in the Book of Mormon.

In the book The New Mormon Challenge evangelical theologian Carl Mosser writes that neo-orthodox Mormons "promote an understanding of the relationship between works and grace that is openly modeled after noted evangelical pastor John MacArthur's expositions of ‘Lordship salvation.'"{3} Mosser also argues that it is these neo-orthodox Mormon writers and teachers who are influencing typical Mormons today rather than those who support a more traditional Mormon theology.

The result is a new Mormon synthesis that may cause the traditional Christian to ask himself, Have the Mormons returned to the historic orthodox Christian faith? In what follows we will highlight some of this new Mormon theology in order to help the reader decide how orthodox neo-orthodox Mormonism really is.

Recent Events and Historical Patterns

It was a bit of a shock recently when I discovered that Ravi Zacharias, a highly respected Christian apologist, had addressed a mixed crowd of Mormons and evangelicals at the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City. Even more interesting is the fact that after his hour long discussion on the exclusivity of Christ, Zacharias received a standing ovation from the entire crowd. The apologist was introduced by Dr. Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Seminary. Dr. Mouw began his comments by saying "Let me state it clearly, We evangelicals have sinned against you . . ." He added that not every evangelical has sinned against Mormons, but he feels that too often we are guilty of misrepresenting what most Mormons believe and ignoring their pleas when they protest. He went on to argue that traditional Christians and Mormons have enough in common to profit from a dialogue. He explained that, "when my good friend [and Brigham Young University professor] Bob Millet says that his only plea when he gets to heaven is 'the mercy and merit of Jesus Christ,' I want to respond by saying with enthusiasm, 'Let's keep talking!'" Topped off with the music of Michael Card, this was a unique event. It had been over 100 years since the last evangelical spoke in the Temple; Dwight L. Moody preached there in 1871.

When considering the traditionally negative view that evangelical Christians have of Mormons, this kind of event can be difficult to evaluate. Also challenging are the results of a recent George Barna survey that found 26% of those Mormons that participated were classified as "born again" by their responses. How can this be? Are all these Mormons being disingenuous regarding their true beliefs? Part of the answer lies in the fact that at any given moment there are more first generation converts within Mormonism than there are second generation. Since Mormon evangelism is primarily aimed at the Christian population, it is not surprising that many who attend Mormon worship services have carried with them a more traditional theology and are often there because of the youth programs and the accepting community that often exists within Mormon Wards.

But another part of the explanation is a movement within Mormon circles that began with the presidency of Ezra Taft Benson. It has called Mormons back to their roots by focusing more on the Bible and the Book of Mormon and away from the later writings of Joseph Smith. The leaders of this movement have worked hard to distance themselves from the more speculative thoughts and writings of past LDS authorities.

Many evangelicals are hoping that the Mormon Church will go through something similar to the recent changes in the Reorganized Latter Day Saints Church. This group was an early offshoot from the main LDS Church which never did accept many of the later writings of Smith. In recent years, its numbers have declined significantly because many have turned back towards a traditional evangelical theology.

The Mormon Neo-Orthodox Movement

Stephen Robinson is professor of ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University. He and Craig Blomberg, professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary, co-wrote the book "How Wide the Divide" which explores both the similarities and distance between evangelical and Mormon theology regarding revelation, the nature of God, the person of Christ, and what one must do to be saved. Robinson passionately implores evangelicals to not give into a caricature of Mormon theology, one that few Mormons actually believe. He argues that there are legitimate reasons for misunderstanding between Mormons and evangelicals. They both use identical theological terms in different ways; in fact the LDS Church as a whole lacks a sophisticated theological language. Also, Mormonism's lack of professional clergy, creeds, catechisms, or theologians in the strict sense often contributes to the confusion.

In his book with Blomberg, Robinson complains that Mormons are chastised because they take the Bible too literally, actually believing everything in it that is written about God. He accuses evangelicals of accepting second and third century explanations of biblical truth that are dependent upon Greek philosophical thought rather than on what the Bible actually says. Both Blomberg and Robinson agree that the two sides hold to a very different description of God and humanity. But they also conclude that many of our differences are found in areas where the Bible is silent and where the Mormon canon has claimed to fill in the void with new revelation.

However, Robinson's greatest concern is that evangelicals take him and other Mormons seriously when they claim to believe certain things to be true. For instance, Robinson believes that "through the atonement of Christ, fallen humanity may be saved by accepting and obeying the gospel of Jesus Christ."{4} He also argues that Mormons believe in the God of the Bible, "the Eternal Father, and in God's Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost."{5} He adds that they accept the biblical description of God as three and also one, but not the post-New Testament attempts to explain how this can be reconciled.

It would be more than impolite to accuse Dr. Robinson of being less that genuine when he personally claims to believe something. However, he admits that there is much theological speculation within Mormon circles and that it can be difficult to discover exactly what represents official Mormon doctrine.

Let’s consider some specific examples of Dr. Robinson’s beliefs and compare them to both traditional Mormon and Christian theology.

Robinson describes God as omniscient, omnipresent, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable. However, he also believes that God and man are of the same nature or species, and that God has a body of flesh and blood. He denies that this constitutes a finite theism, a charge often attributed to Mormons. Robinson also states that salvation is only acquired through grace by faith in Jesus Christ. He argues at length that Mormons do not believe that one can be justified by works in the eyes of a righteous and Holy God, but instead that works follow justification and conversion. He attributes evangelical claims that Mormons believe otherwise to confusion about Mormon terminology and a deficient desire to really understand what Mormons teach.

How do these theological positions compare with traditional Mormon thought? Is this a new or neo-orthodox Mormonism? Mormonism has always held that God has attained his position via a path of eternal progression, and comments to that effect by past Mormon leaders seem to conflict with Robinson’s statements. For instance, when Mormon Apostle Orson Hyde said that God was once a child who rose step by step to be where he is today, it appears to contradict the idea of an unchangeable deity. Apostle John Widtsoe states the issue even more plainly. He says that God “must now be engaged in progressive development and infinite as God is, he must have been less powerful in the past than he is today.”{6}

Robinson argues that there was once a time, before the beginning of our creation, that God was human. But he adds that any speculation about the events of that time is done so without support from the Bible or LDS literature. Robinson is different from earlier Mormons in being unwilling to speculate on how, or even when God rose from a finite human to an infinite God, but he still believes that it happened.

Robinson’s beliefs about God are dramatically different from traditional Christian, and I believe biblical, teachings. The Mormon god is contingent or dependent on matter rather than its creator. He is finite in the sense that there was a time when he was not God, no matter how long ago that might have been. He is obviously not the First Cause or only self-existent being. Even though Robinson refuses to speculate on the origin of God, Mormon views imply that God is the offspring of other Gods, leading to polytheism which the Bible calls idolatry. As God said through Isaiah long ago, “I am the LORD, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God.”{7}

Are Mormons Christian?

Above we introduced ideas about salvation from the Mormon scholar Dr. Stephen Robinson, professor of Ancient Scriptures at Brigham Young University. He states that individuals are saved by accepting the gift God has provided in his perfect Son, Jesus Christ. Robinson believes that "If humans accept this gift and enter the gospel covenant by making Christ their Lord, they are justified of their sins, not by their own works and merits, but by the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ accepted on their behalf."{8} He admits that the LDS Church is thoroughly Arminian, rejecting the Calvinist doctrine of eternal security, but that this shouldn't remove them from the sphere of biblical Christianity.

While not doubting that Dr. Robinson believes all this to be true, it is difficult to interpret Mormon doctrine in light of past statements by Mormon leaders and in Mormon writings. For instance, how do we interpret the Book of Mormon when it states "for we know that it is by grace we are saved, after all we can do"?{9} Or when Joseph Smith writes "We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel"?{10} Even more disconcerting are statements made by Bruce McConkie, a popular Mormon writer. He writes that, "Repentance is a gift from God conferred upon those who earn the right to receive it. It comes by obedience to law." And again, he writes, it is a gift "reserved for those who abide the law that entitles them to receive it."{11} These statements point to an earned salvation based upon individuals fulfilling legalistic obligations, the kind of religion that Paul condemns in the book of Galatians.

Mormon teaching tools, such as the booklet Gospel Principles, also make statements that appear to contradict a gospel of grace. In a chapter titled "Freedom to Choose" the book states, "We began to make choices as spirit children in our Heavenly Father's presence. Our choices there made us worthy to come to earth. Our heavenly Father wants us to grow in faith, power, knowledge, wisdom, and all other good things. If we keep his commandments and make right choices, we will learn and understand. We will become like him."{12} Not only does this teach that salvation depends on works during this life, but also on works performed during a pre-existence as spirit beings.

In spite of the recent changes in Mormon theology, a person who holds to the full spectrum of Mormon teachings has a view of God, salvation, and particularly the relationship between mankind and its creator, that is radically different from what traditional Christians believe and what we think the Bible teaches. This is not a reason to stop talking with Mormons; in fact, it is why we need to continue to express the reasons for the hope that we have in Christ.

Notes

1. Carl Mosser, The New Mormon Challenge, ed. By Francis Beckwith, Carl Mosser, and Paul Owen (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002) p. 78.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid., p. 79.
4. Blomberg and Robinson, How Wide the Divide (InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL., 1997) p. 16.
5. Ibid.
6. Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson, Mormonism 101 (Baker Books: Grand Rapids, MI, 2000) p. 28.
7. Isaiah 45:5
8. Blomberg and Robinson, 144.
9. 2 Nephi 25:23
10. Blomberg and Robinson, 177.
11. Ibid., 178.
12. Gospel Principles (Corporation of the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1979), p. 19.

© 2005 Probe Ministries


About the Author

Don ClossonDon Closson served as Director of Administration and a research associate with Probe for 26 years, until taking a position with the same title at the Centers of Church Based Training in 2013. He received the B.S. in education from Southern Illinois University, the M.S. in educational administration from Illinois State University, and the M.A. in Biblical Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary. He has served as a public school teacher and administrator before joining Probe and then the CCBT. He is the general editor of Kids, Classrooms, and Contemporary Education.

What is Probe?

Probe Ministries is a non-profit ministry whose mission is to assist the church in renewing the minds of believers with a Christian worldview and to equip the church to engage the world for Christ. Probe fulfills this mission through our Mind Games conferences for youth and adults, our 3-minute daily radio program, and our extensive Web site at www.probe.org.

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