Monday, 10 May 2010

Mormonism and “Creedal Christianity”

Note: I have edited and expanded with illustrations and quotes the section on Creeds and Councils and highlighted the edited section.


In a recent conversation a Mormon stated, “Mormons are First Century Christians, not Fourth Century Creedal Christians.” It is a familiar enough claim and something we increasingly hear from Mormons who follow and delight in what passes for apologetics and reason from those nice people at FARMS and FAIR. Implicit in the statement is the charge that the Christian churches are the product of Fourth Century controversy and debate as evidenced, they say, by the schisms and disputes that continue to this day. That Christians base their faith on a Heath Robinson/Rube Goldberg collection of creeds, confessions and catechisms cobbled together for political expediency by corrupt cardinals and patronage seeking popes; the blind and corrupt leading the blind and helpless.

Mormonism, on the other hand, is presented as the true First Century model for church. In support of this claim Mormons will typically use Eph.4:11-14 to demonstrate the significance of their having leaders they call apostles and prophets who put all this right again. Of course, having someone with the correct label needn’t mean anything.

For instance, one of the ways Mormons demonstrate that they are Christians is by indicating that the Lord’s name is incorporated into the name of their church – The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. On that tenuous basis they would have to accept as Christians “Jehovah’s Christian Witnesses”, “Church of Christ, Scientist (Christian Science) “Christadelphians”, “International Church of Christ”, not to mention so-called “breakaway” Mormon groups, such as, “The Re-organised Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Community of Christ)” and “The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (a polygamist group).

“Creedal Christians”, of course, is a handy tag that ill-informed Mormons use to caricature Christians with whom they disagree but with whom they are too ill-equipped to engage in meaningful discussion. It is a device that illustrates very well how Mormonism operates in its recruiting. The Mormon Church teaches its adherents to put up barriers to Christian ways of arriving at reason and truth until you are left with Mormon “living apostles” as the only way to know the mind and will of God.

When a Christian proposes the Bible as the ultimate source of authority the Mormon will block that avenue by characterising the Bible as trustworthy only “as far as it is translated correctly” (Mormon 8th Article of faith); when the Christian posits mature and faithful preachers and commentators to help us with difficult passages the Mormon will shut down this avenue by insisting that there are too many conflicting opinions; when the Christian states that Jesus established his church and “the gates of hell will not prevail” against it the Mormon will bring the evidence of history, notably the controversies surrounding the creeds, to insist that the traditional church is riven with schisms and hopelessly apostate.

As the barriers to what the Christian thought were certainties go up and the ground is taken from under him the Mormon comes to the rescue with the great good news that “the heavens are once again opened and God has spoken through prophets in these latter days.” If you have ever wondered how anyone could fall for the lies of Mormonism put yourself in the position of a lukewarm or disaffected Christian hearing this message for the first time, or a complete novice in such things who has a yearning for truth and nothing with which to compare these claims.

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?

This is a classic formula for blind fundamentalism, which is to denigrate and sweep away all that has gone before, tried and tested ways that might help in reaching understanding, and bring every claim to truth before the judgement bar of your own private interpretation. All, past, present and future, custom, tradition and innovation are now judged according to this newly established authority; but who will guard the guards? (Quis custodiet ipsos custodies) By what shall we judge that authority that judges Christianity to be apostate? The Mormon would argue that, since all other authorities are discredited, the only recourse left is to follow the example of Joseph Smith and pray about it, take the counsel of James, test Moroni’s promise. I have already looked at the Mormon test for truth in the context of the Book of Mormon.

One of the first things you will hear from a Mormon sharing their faith is the story of how Joseph Smith, confused by the conflicting claims of the churches, read James 1:5:

“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not (without reproach ESV); and it shall be given him” (KJV)

Based on this he went into the woods near his home, it is claimed, and asked God which church he should join. He reports: “I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.” (Joseph Smith-History 1:19)

The charge that the churches are corrupt is there from the beginning and Mormonism quickly brings the inquirer (called an “investigator”) to the unique Mormon method of testing truth, i.e. by praying about it just as Joseph did. This seems so right in a spiritual setting and Mormons press home this message focussing that prayer on Mormonism. Presented with the Book of Mormon, the inquirer is urged to test Moroni’s promise, found at the end of the book:

“And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.” (Moroni 10:4-5)

The method is further reinforced by another Mormon “Scripture”:

But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. 9 But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong. (Doctrine and Covenants 9:9)

You go to the Source and truth is established by an ‘inner voice’, a spiritually instinctive sense of right and wrong. This sounds so very right to many. Imagine yourself knowing very little of spiritual things. Religious affairs are other-worldly after all, unfathomable even. The churches do seem hopelessly divided, even irrelevant, and the story of Joseph Smith seems intuitively right, a ray of clarity in an otherwise impenetrable world. If you are seeking spiritual meaning and find denominations confusing, apparent ill-tempered claims and counterclaims discouraging, Mormonism seems to give an accurate account of affairs as well as a clear way forward.

But what have you really done? What exactly have you tested? You might be surprised to find you have done very little and tested nothing. Most significantly, you have not actually tested the claims of Mormonism. You don’t believe me? The journey I have just described is completed in the first missionary lesson (there are five lessons) by the end of which the inquirer is invited to be baptised: “The invitation to be baptised and confirmed should be specific and direct.” (Lesson 1 Missionary Discussions) This landmark conclusion, that the churches are apostate and the gospel has been restored in Mormonism, is passed and its “truth” apparently established after a cursory “discussion” with two barely post-pubescent missionaries whose grasp of the world, let alone Christianity, is tenuous at best.

The Mormon might object that there are more lessons to come, with more information - Well, the more information claim is dubious at best and it might surprise you to find how empty and simplistic the Mormon message is once you see how solid and challenging the Christian message is - However, all subsequent lessons are founded on the unproven assumption that this first, tenuous, claim of apostasy and restoration is correct. It is never discussed again but mentioned occassionally to reinforce what the inquirer is told he now “knows”. But what do you know?

Would you buy a car sight unseen in an hour from a complete stranger? Of course not! You would want to test drive the vehicle; you would want to compare it carefully with other vehicles from other dealers. You would not take a stranger’s word for it that his was the only true car and all other models not worth the effort of turning on the ignition. He might be sincere, he might bear you his testimony that it was the best car he ever had but would that be enough to make you part with your money?

Yet if you have become a Mormon you have done so by a process of chatting about shallow Mormon prejudices that are unfamiliar to you and that appeal to the popular perception of the Christian Church about which you know – how much? And, after this visit, how much more do you know about the Christian message you have now rejected in favour of Mormonism? What proof have they offered that might give you confidence in the Mormon story?

How do you know Joseph Smith went into the woods to pray? Why should we believe that he saw a vision? Have you tested the claims about Christian apostasy, or have you simply allowed two charming young people to play to popular prejudices and confirm your worst fears? Have you prayed about the Bible, looked into the claims of Christianity as it has come down to us? What are the Creeds, who produced them and why? Are they really confusing and oblique? Mormons have a lot to say about them and base their claims to having restored Christianity on a rejection of them but are you any the wiser for “discussing” these things? Do you even know what the Creeds say? Can you name any, quote any? Can your Mormon visitors?

Creeds and Councils

The Creeds declare biblical orthodoxy and are summaries of Christian truth produced in a time when the gospel was spreading rapidly and needed to be transmitted concisely and when error and confusion were a threat. They don’t make new truth but clarify and reinforce established truth. One of the charges routinely brought by Mormons against Early Church Councils is that they represent a total failure in authoritative leadership and inevitable recourse to doctrine by committees of bickering bishops. However, the presence of apostles does not, as Mormons suggest, preclude the need for church councils; there are two in Acts. In Acts 1 the embryonic church met together in council in the upper room where they were staying, to choose a replacement to fill the place in the twelve left by Judas Iscariot. More germane to this discussion is the Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15. Far from reinforcing the Mormon thinking that apostles and prophets bring clarity and thus dispense with controversy, the Jerusalem Council represents a massive controversy between two apostles, Peter and Paul, and was one of the most controversial and heated in church history. It settled the key issue of whether one had to observe Jewish custom and ritual in order to be a Christian.

In her book The Making of the Creeds, Frances Young points out that, “Christianity is the only major religion to set such store by creeds and doctrines.” Other religions, she points out, have many of the characteristics people associate with religious faith and practice such as hymns, prayers, festivals traditions, myths, saints etc. “Christianity,” she writes, “is homogenous and its homogeneity lies in orthodox belief.” In other words, there is a distinction between true belief and false belief, orthodoxy that even the ecumenical movement, she observes, cannot dilute or compromise.

The Creeds originated in instruction before baptism, they tested the orthodox faith of the baptism candidate, and have their roots in the New Testament itself. Mormons make much of lines of authority, well here’s one: Origen (c.185-254), the early church theologian, studied under Clement of Rome (latter 1st century) who is thought to be the Clement identified in Philip.4:3 and who is reputed to have been consecrated by Peter. Origen reports:

“The Holy apostles, when preaching the faith of Christ, took certain doctrines, those namely which they believed to be the necessary one, and delivered them in the plainest terms to all believers.”

These digests of essential doctrines were regarded as Rules of Faith, were widely used by the early church, and were important precursors to the creeds. Such rules may be found in the New Testament with Paul notably quoting and adapting earlier established confessions:

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance:

That Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the twelve. After that he appeared to more than five-hundred of the brothers...then he appeared to James, then to the apostles... (1 Cor.15:3ff, cf Ro.1:3; 8:34;1 Pet.3:18)

Even in the New Testament controversies arose that made such councils and concise statements necessary to combat error and protect truth. Gnosticism was an early cause of such concerns and many of the later writings of the New Testament specifically refute the Gnostic message. The schisms and disputes that Mormons see as characteristic of apostasy are rather the inevitable outcome of controversy over doctrine and characteristic of a muscular church standing up for what is right in the face of encroaching heresy. Jude wrote:

“Contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless me, who change the grace of God into a licence for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Saviour is Lord.” (Jude 3ff)

The Creeds declare biblical truth and are summaries of Christian truth produced in a time when error and confusion were a threat. They don’t make new truth but clarify and reinforce established truth. The Bible is our final authority but these statements are very important in helping us understand, unpack our Christian faith. Their claim to authority rests on something earlier and more primitive, the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.

I am not a betting man but if I was I would bet a penny to a pound that I could find “Creedal Christianity” in the Bible while a Mormon would be hard pressed to find Mormonism there.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

The Mormon Test for Truth

The Book of Mormon remains the foundation of Mormon faith and its authenticity still the fundamental test of Mormon claims for their religion. Mormon belief in the Book of Mormon is all the more remarkable given that it is purported to be an historical record but there is not a scrap of evidence to support that claim. The way Mormons get around this is to play on the popular but erroneous belief that faith is the opposite of reason and operates outside the realm of evidence and proofs. It is not uncommon for a Mormon to argue, “If God had wanted us to rely on physical evidence there would be no need for the Holy Ghost.” This suggests that, given proof, the Spirit is redundant.

Mormons are quite mistaken in how they understand the relationship of physical proofs and the work of the Spirit. They are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they work together and there is no particular virtue in believing in the absence of proof, much less when there is evidence to the contrary. Luke writes of Jesus:

"He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God" (Acts 1:3)

God gives proofs and Spirit not proofs or Spirit. This suggests that Mormons are quite wrong in making a virtue of ignorant and blind faith.

Mormons will argue that, nevertheless, we take the testimonies of these things “by faith”, i.e. we believe the testimony of history without evidence. Of course, we are to treat historical proofs differently and trust it on a different basis. Yet, there is nothing in the least controversial about this and it is wrong to make a drama of it. We have tried and tested methods for testing the veracity of what history tells us and it is wrong to suggest that distance in time throws us back on how we feel "by the Spirit". This teaching is what is at the root of the Mormon deception and it is thoroughly unbiblical. It does, however, sit very well with the post-modern notion that truth is how you feel about it.

Not a Pot, Not a Shard…

It is simplistic to suggest that the Spirit instructs us in the truth like some sort of didact – “Believe this. Don’t believe that.” Rather, He testifies to the truthfulness of the proofs and evidences with which the Bible and the Christian faith presents us. In this way truth is more than the bare facts but it is never less than the facts.

Of course, Mormons only argue as they do because there is not a scrap of evidence, no proofs, and because of this they make it virtuous to believe without evidence, even against the evidence rather than consider the implications in the lack of evidence. Given a scrap of evidence any Mormon would jettison this nonsense and declare the Mormon case proven - on the evidence. But there isn't any evidence and even the absence of evidence is significant evidence against Mormon claims.

Not a city, not a road, not a building, not a temple or a house, not a wall, not a pot or a shard, not a coin, not a bone, not a record of any kind, not a sword, not a helmet, not a necklace, not a bead, not a casket or an inscription, not a glyph, not even an identifiable topography, not a mountain, a plain, a valley, a river or a lake, not a lore or tradition passed down through generations, not a remnant of a myth, not a legend, not a memory or a whisper about the Mormon story of the ancient inhabitants of America outside Joseph Smith's imagination.

History Tells Us

Ask any historian and they will tell you this is simply not possible. Even talking like this about "the ancient inhabitants" is misleading because the time scale indicated by the Book of Mormon is not so ancient. During the time of the major events reported in the book to have taken place, 600BC – 400AD, we have evidence from all over the world of peoples, civilisations, movements, migrations, settlements, histories, social structures, religions, political movements, etc.

Just look at any chronology of World History and you will find an embarrassment of riches when it comes to producing evidences for the claims of historians. Just looking at the Americas we find:

600 BC: Mayan people start the construction of the city of Tikai in the present day Guatemala.

500 BC: Emergence of the Paracas culture in Peru.

500 BC: Zapotecsbuild a new ritual and political centre at Montana Alba'n.

400 BC: Start of Nazca culture in coastal S Peru.

400 BC: Sack of the Olmec capital La venta dn cllapse of Olmec power; start of Late Formative period in Mesoamerican history.

300 BC: Domestiation in present-day E USA of knotweed, maygrass.

300 BC: Maya build cities in the lowland region of Peten in Guatemala.

The significance of such a list - which is vastly increased in content when looking at other, better excavated and studied parts of the world of that time - is that it highlights the complete absence of such evidences and historical data for the Book of Mormon, whose people are claimed to have numbered in millions and to have built vast cities and civilizations. But not a pot, not a shard...

In a recent article a Mormon apologist argued that a name like “Lamanite” could cover any number of different people who joined the culture and society of Lamanites over time and that, further, different people have different designations depending on who is naming them. However, all this talk of mixed races and comparisons with modern tags such as German, French, English, etc. is just so much cant. The very fact that we can talk with authority about these mongrel races itself strengthens the case. We know where people groups came from and can trace, the British for instance, back to times way beyond the scope of the Book of Mormon, taking in Saxons, Celts, Norse people, Romans, Franks, the list is beyond controversy and well established.

The question is, if the "ancient" Israelites, Egyptians, Babylonians, etc. in the same way fall comfortably within the remit of historical research and what historians and archaeologists can reasonably expect, why not the Book of Mormon peoples? Why, if the Bible and church history press on us proofs and evidences to which the Spirit testifies, why not Mormonism? Why, if Mormonism is restored Christianity, does it operate so differently to the Christianity it claims to restore in respect to these things. Jesus offered “proofs” but Joseph offers – his word?

Because it is all smoke and mirrors, makes a virtue of ignorance and teaches its adherents to honour blind faith. This last concerns me the most because the "faith" promoted by Mormons is the very opposite of faith as it is defined and demonstrated in the Bible. It comes close to denying the very worth of the Incarnation of Christ, suggesting as it does that His demonstrating with many proofs his qualifications and God's purpose is redundant to those who pray and have "faith." The denying of proofs' worth in the face of such proofs as the Incarnation brought is the denying of the Christ who brought them.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Mormons, DNA and the Defeat at Austerlitz

Something discouragingly familiar has been happening in the Mormon Church in relation to the question of DNA and the Book of Mormon. The traditional Mormon claim is that today’s Native Americans are descendents of the people in the Book of Mormon, who were, in turn, descended from Israelites who migrated to American in 600BC.

When, in 2004, anthropologist Thomas Murphy and geneticist Simon Southerton, both men with Mormon backgrounds, made public their conclusion that there is no reliable scientific evidence supporting migrations from the Middle East to the New World Mormons, who had hoped the new discoveries in DNA would vindicate Mormon claims for the Book of Mormon, were dismayed. Christians who have for years made it their business to witness to Mormons, on the other hand, were encouraged and have wasted no time in making these findings widely known and encouraging discussion at all levels. Then something began to happen that might have been lifted straight out of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The Mormon opinion makers began to explain their Austerlitz.

The Russian Defeat at Austerlitz

To understand this oblique reference you need to understand that the Battle of Austerlitz was one of Napoleon’s greatest victories as, in December 1805, he defeated the combined forces of Russia and Austria. Tolstoy, in his great novel, describes the impact this had on Russian society.

“At first Moscow had been quite bewildered by the tidings of the battle of Austerlitz. The Russians at that period were so used to victories that news of a defeat made some people simply incredulous, while others looked for exceptional circumstances of some kind to explain so strange an event. At the English Club, where everyone of note and importance, everyone who had trustworthy sources of information foregathered, when the news began to arrive in December not a word was said about the war or the last battle, as though all were in a conspiracy of silence.

The men who generally gave the lead in conversation…did not put in an appearance at the club but met privately together at each other’s houses, and that section of Moscow society which took its opinions from others…remained for a short time without leaders and without definite views in regard to the progress of the war. People in Moscow felt that something was wrong, and that it was difficult to know what to think of the bad news, and so better to be silent. But after a while, like jurymen emerging from the jury room, the bigwigs who guided opinion in the club reappeared, and a clear and definite formula was produced. Reasons were discovered to account for the incredible, unheard-of and impossible fact that the Russians had been beaten, all became plain and in every corner of Moscow one and the same story was current.

The defeat was due, so people told each other, to the treachery of the Austrians, to a defective commissariat, to perfidy on the part of the Pole Przhebyzhewski and the Frenchman Langeron, to Kutuzov’s inefficiency and (this is a whisper) to the youth and inexperience of the Sovereign, who had put faith in men of no character or ability. But the army, the Russian army, everyone declared, had been extraordinary and had performed miracles in valour. Soldiers, officers and generals were heroes to a man.”

There was no denying the defeat had occurred. And the shock to Russia was palpable. When the “jury” retired those who took their opinions from others looked worried but kept stoically silent, waiting with baited breathe. But a formula was arrived at, all was explained in terms of someone else being to blame, and the same story was circulated, repeated, embellished and found to be comforting as Moscow breathed a sigh of relief on finding their army’s reputation intact and their heroes inviolate.

Mormonism’s Austerlitz?

Just so Mormons have met with their own Austerlitz and responded in like fashion. Those who took their opinions from others waited while the jury, those who led opinion and made authoritative commentary in the church, retired. These eventually reappeared, and a clear and definite formula was produced. Reasons were discovered to account for the incredible, unheard-of and impossible fact that Native Americans, the “Indians”, the Lamanites as Mormons would have us call them, were not descended from Hebrew stock as the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith taught.

This development, it was decided, was due to the agenda of Murphy and Southerton, disaffected church members with questionable pedigrees. It was a new science and all the facts were not in yet. The sample tested was too small to be conclusive. Anyway, nobody said that the Lamanites were ever more than a fraction of the overall population and surely there were too few to show up in such a test. But the church was still true, Joseph Smith was still a prophet and the Book of Mormon still the word of God and their reputation remained inviolate. They were still the agents of God’s restoration.

Read here the latest in a long line of “explanations” for this unfortunate turn of events. Note especially the words of the author, “there is no evidence for a genetic link between modern Native Americans and Lamanites,” But that’s alright because he can explain that too.

Russia famously and dramatically recovered from the defeat at Austerlitz and went on to drive out Napoleon by an inspired strategy at Moscow. Will Mormonism, too, recover from this, their personal Austerlitz, and rise to victory? I fear there have been and continue to be too many such controversies for there to be any real hope of them ever driving the forces of truth from their territory. It may be cold in the Utah winter but, unlike Napoleon, the truth of God knows nothing of climate, borders, obstacles and terrain. It goes where God sends it and his word never returns fruitless, or void.