Monday, 29 August 2011

The Mormon and the Christian Apologist

The Christian Apologist

Ask a Bible student to define apologetics and they will likely describe it as a reasoned defence of the faith and that would be a good answer. The New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics describes it as, “The art of persuasion, the discipline which considers ways to commend and defend the living God to those without faith.” It further ascribes to apologetics the task of meeting legitimate “questions and objections raised by Christian beliefs with credible and cogent answers.”

The text we usually associate with this idea is:

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Peter 3:15)

But there is more - the book goes on to describe a secondary application in that apologetics is also useful for correction and edification within the Body of Christ. Perhaps this is what Paul had in mind when he wrote to the young church leader Timothy:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16)

And again:

I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:1-2)

This latter application will be readily seen in what Paul describes as the man of God trained in righteousness and thoroughly equipped. This is someone who, from their first faltering steps in the new birth, learns and grows, develops as he submits to correction and sound teaching. In this process new things will be learned and old ideas fall away.

When we become Christians we don't “download” a whole knowledge set like computer software. Correction and sound teaching help us reconsider long-held, perhaps even cherished ideas and help us find a better, sometimes different understanding of things.

As we learn and grow we find ourselves perhaps clinging more tightly to old familiar truths because we have seen them in a new light. By the same token other things we thought we knew may fall by the way as we grow in the faith and see more clearly. Some ideas need honing and refining while others need to be replaced.

We see this in the experience of New Testament leader Peter whose reluctance to evangelise the Gentiles made way for a broader vision of God's great work of salvation (Acts 16&17). We see it in the life of Martin Luther, the 16th Century German priest and theologian who, in setting out to tackle the thorny issue of indulgences, found himself at the centre of a Reformation rediscovering grace.

It happens in much more modest lives when Christians hear a sermon, a powerful illustration, read a book, turn a page, new vistas open and the world changes. John Piper says that books don't change people, paragraphs do, sometimes even sentences.

In this process of growing, maturing, sanctifying we don't always see eye-to-eye but if we are wise we remember the dictum “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things charity.” Paul, who was no slouch in commending and defending the faith nevertheless wrote to Christians in Rome, “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgement on disputable matters...Who are we to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand for the Lord is able to make him stand.” (Romans 14:1,13)

This is well illustrated in the life of John Stott, who passed away recently. In an obituary in our local church magazine he is described as having a “humility and respect for others differing with his views especially on secondary points of doctrine...In Essentials, a liberal-evangelical dialogue with fellow Anglican David L. Edwards, he is able to differ with him firmly on what is fundamental, without losing sight of the need to consider other viewpoints when it comes to less important aspects of doctrine.”

There are times when we blow things out of proportion and turn secondary issues – Paul's disputable matters – into mountains, obstacles in the way of others. At such times we need to be reminded of the liberty in which we all now stand. As Paul wrote, “Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of [these things]” (Romans 14:20)

There are those occasions when we legitimately disagree on essentials and it is incumbent on us to “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3); fundamental truths cannot and must never be compromised for the sake of unity.

Yet at such times it is good to be reminded, in the midst of our contending, of the grace in which we all stand. Paul urges us to “accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” (Romans 15:7) This is grace.

The Christian walk is one in which we are intended to do more than simply put one foot in front of another. We are meant to learn, grow and mature in heavenly wisdom and we are to make space for one another's growing too. In his letter to Christians in Philippi Paul writes of not having yet fully taken hold of every Christian's goal, the full knowledge of Christ, but “I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

He goes on, “All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained.” (Philippians 3:12-16)

In all things we aim for this; we don't always achieve it, but it is a much more common characteristic of the Christian life than some think. In such ways we grow, in understanding, wisdom and grace.

The Mormon

So what has all this to do with the Mormon? It is relevant because Mormons claim to be Christians.

From books like Stephen Robinson's, “Are Mormons Christians?” which address directly the familiar charge brought by cult ministries, through Richard E Grant's, Understanding These Other Christians, which title provocatively assumes Mormons are Christians, to the recent use of the terms LDS Christian and The Church of Jesus Christ by which, increasingly, Mormons describe themselves, Mormons are insisting that they are part of the wider Christian community.

Yet none of what we have said so far applies in the Mormon approach to the issues that typically stand between them and other churches. Indeed apologetics, correctly understood, as a tool of commending and defending the faith and correcting and building up the faithful is a novelty to Mormons in their engagement with “these other Christians”. And what passes for Mormon apologetics today is more a blunt tool of refutation and assertion than a crafted discipline of gracious commendation and defence, instruction and correction.

Given the fundamental claim of Mormonism, that all other churches are apostate - “corrupt and abominable” (Joseph Smith-History: 1:19) - for most Mormons in the past 180 years there is nothing to discuss, you either agree with them or you are wrong.

Led, they believe, by apostles and prophets, and trusting unquestioningly in these oracles, Mormons are, in discussion with Christians, disinclined to reconsider their position on anything. Mormonism is cultishly homogeneous, therefore The Mormon Church is never wrong, so there are no secondary issues, or debatable questions, on which to differ.

Everything then becomes a test of orthodoxy, everything is an essential. Given this situation, there is nothing in which we may exercise liberty beyond the most trivial of matters. There is nowhere where we may expect to see grace as individuals disagree, much less serious reflection as a Mormon ponders the possibility they might be mistaken about an issue

Put bluntly, if you question Mormonism the Mormon never expects that you should have anything to teach him or her. Given this and your stubborn and “unreasonable” questioning of Mormon doctrine the Mormon quickly arrives at the conclusion that the only explanation for your contrary view is mischief; either on your part or on the part of people who have influenced you.

You will never hear a staunch Mormon say, “You have given me something to think about there.”

A true believing Mormon will never be heard to say, “I may have to reconsider my position on that.”

In discussion you will never get the response, “You are right and I am wrong.”

Critics of every stamp are called “anti-Mormon”, the meanest motives are attributed to them, they are described as the lowest of characters, called everything bar respectable, their motivation often linked to money-making and their every protestation of genuine Christian concern for the lost is regarded as the lowest trick of all. Hardly surprising since the Mormons' founding prophet early on characterised Christians and Christian churches as untouchable, untrustworthy, corrupt:

I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong...their creeds were an abomination...their professors all corrupt” (Joseph Smith-History:1:19)

The Mormon Church as an institution can and does get along with other faiths, Mormons can and do work with people of other faiths in civic and social programmes in their communities. But when it comes to doctrinal issues there is a marked difference between how Christians try to deal with differences between themselves, as prescribed in the Bible, and the way Mormons deal with such differences.

Perhaps they are not equipped to exercise such grace as is required, to recognise such liberty as is described in Scripture. I suggest this is possibly the most telling thing of all. It betrays a non-Christian attitude to criticism that brings into question Mormon claims to be Christians.

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