Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Guessing About God: Mormonism's Inability to Resist the Onslaught of Modernistic Skepticism (Part 10--Final Installment!)
05/09/2011 - James White
One aspect of that scriptural heritage that Christianity cannot shake is the identification of several divine beings as gods (Gen 6:2, 4; Deut 32:43 [LXX, 4QDeut-q]; Ps 29:1; 89:7; Ps 97:7, among dozens of others). There are even divine beings called the sons of God. Other literature is in agreement. In the Dead Sea Scrolls angels are repeatedly called gods (אלים). Even rabbinic and Christian literature recognizes the existence of other gods.
The modern notion of monotheism largely has more to do with philosophy than religion or the Bible, but in religious arenas it rests on the traditional decoupling of divine beings from the “god” taxonomy. Although the Bible makes reference to other gods, the ontological transcendence of God is so absolute that people just find it acceptable to consider him the only God. Mormonism, of course, has much the same approach. God will always be the highest God for humanity, and so Mormons largely consider themselves monotheistic. They worship one God. Ask a traditional Christian about the “sons of God” and the other divine beings in the Bible and they’ll respond, “Oh, they’re just angels,” or “they’re just subordinate/contingent/created beings.” Ask a Mormon about divinized human beings and they’ll point out that they will always have God above them. For Latter-day Saints, there is one God. Don’t Mormons believe that God is not the absolute highest God, though? Don’t they believe he had a God, too? Many of them do, although it’s not a notion to which they are bound. Additionally, according to the Bible—or at least the original version of portions of it—Yahweh was also not the highest God. The Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls show in Deut 32:8–9 that Yahweh was considered one of the sons of El, also known as Elyon. It states that Elyon divided the nations according to the number of the “sons of God.” Elyon gave Israel to Yahweh. It wasn’t until around the beginning of the monarchy that Yahweh was conflated with El.
We come now to the main reason I titled this series as I did. You see, Mormonism’s foundations are clear for us all to see. Joseph Fielding Smith put it bluntly when he said Smith “was either a prophet of God, divinely called, properly appointed and commissioned, or he was one of the biggest frauds this world has ever seen. There is no middle ground” (Doctrines of Salvation 1:188). Smith’s view of divine revelation, his claim of near constant latter-day revelation, and the resultant books of “scripture” he produced, tell us much about his viewpoints. And one thing is obvious: he wasn’t a German rationalistic liberal. He did not embrace the foundational principles of liberal theologians or simply destructive critics who took over just about every theological institution in Europe long ago, and who predominate, especially in Old Testament departments, in schools of theology in the United States. There is no evidence that his “inspired translation” of the Old Testament is based upon accepting rationalistic viewpoints such as the JEDP theory---just the opposite, his alterations, scattered as they are, show only a naïve “prophetic” impulse (how else do you explain finding an extra chapter of Genesis that is all about…you!?), not the sharp knife of the modern critic that begins with the assumption that these books are but the end result of a long process of unguided, natural historical processes. I do not think Smith would have understood the words of Gerhard Von Rad who, in commenting on a text in Deuteronomy 26, opined, “Deuteronomy is, after all, not the work of a lawgiver, but a collection of cultic and legal materials which are in part very heterogeneous and which have scarcely been brought into agreement with each other” (Von Rad, Deuteronomy: A Commentary, 1966, p. 158). Smith seriously believed he was “translating” the very handwritten records of Abraham when he was actually looking at Egyptian funerary documents from around the first century, so there is little reason to count him amongst the followers of modern destructive critics.
To understand McClellan’s assertions here, one must embrace a particular (and very popular) view of the Tanakh in particular that is fundamentally skeptical and unbelieving in its origins and practice. For those unfamiliar with the background, allow me to briefly summarize. Most Christians look at the Bible as a single volume with different chapters. But, of course, that is not an accurate perception. The Bible came to us over a long period of time through the hands of many different authors, as many as 40 in the Old Testament, less than a dozen in the New. Conservatives view the process in the Old Testament as taking about a thousand years, less-conservatives about six hundred. Some of the books of the Old Testament are anonymous in their authorship, others are not. If you embrace modern principles of skeptical criticism, you do not look at the Old Testament as a whole; you do not even look at the individual books as singular units. Instead, you are free to atomize the text, that is, cut it up into parts, and set these parts at odds with one another. Hence, some theorize that these documents are the end results of long periods of evolutionary editing (redaction) with all sorts of different sources providing the initial compilations, that are then edited over time. So, you might have one writer initially emphasizing one element or view, say, a priestly view; then another writer presents a different view, and he might be identified by his use of certain terminology, say, his use of the divine name Yahweh, or his non-use thereof, etc. Some of the sources used might be pagan in origin; sometimes the biblical writers are assumed to have been, well, quite dull and dim-witted, to be perfectly honesty with you, borrowing haphazardly from this or that, resulting in a poorly constructed compilation of contradictory views. But even this, then, goes through redaction, or editing, over time, where later writers, sensing these problems, attempt to correct them by editing and changing the text. ...
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Guessing About God: Mormonism's Inability to Resist the Onslaught of Modernistic Skepticism (Part 9)
05/06/2011 - James WhiteThis is the ninth in a series of replies I am providing to a blog article (linked numerous times before) by Daniel McClellan. This has grown to proportions I never expected when I first decided to respond to it, but it remains my hope that it has value for those dealing with the new generation of Mormon apologists.
Christianity, in all the manifestations of which I am aware, accepts the existence of angels, demons, cherubim, seraphim, and all kinds of divine beings. From an etymological point of view, Christianity is absolutely not monotheistic.
It is hard to take this kind of argumentation seriously. While various forms of “theism” can be discussed when examining, say, the gods of the Assyrians or Moabites, for example, and one can speak of monotheism, henotheism, polytheism, etc., the meaning of my use of monotheism, and the meaning of the Christian faith in asserting one true and eternal God, unique and self-sufficient, is clear and unambiguous, and McClellan’s pointing to created spiritual beings that are not eternal, are not unique, and are not self-sufficient, is a red-herring of monumental proportions. Christianity has always asserted of God divine attributes that are not attributed to angels, so to even attempt to go down this road is to engage in mere obfuscation and word-play. But note as well, what Christians believe about angelic beings is not what Mormons believe about them either! So only the most easily confused will find this kind of argumentation compelling.
It believes in numerous divine beings. A divine being is and always has been, by very definition, a god.
Really? “By definition”? Whose definition? Surely not the definition Christians use in their own self-definitions, that’s for certain. So observe this form of argumentation: Mormons are Christians because we use a different definition of God than Christians have ever used! An angel may be called “a divine being” in the sense of “a being of supernatural origin or character,” but that does not mean the angel is a god! This kind of argumentation, as I noted above, is hard to take overly seriously.
We may argue that one is higher than, and rules absolutely over the others, but this is monarchism, not monotheism, and it erases the lines of distinction between James’ Christianity and Mormonism.
Here is clear evidence that Mr. McClellan has not even begun to attempt to engage my actual argument, nor does he intend to. He has to shift the grounds. The line of distinction between Mormonism and Christianity is found not in angels or the like, it is found in what is positively taught about the nature of God. For Christians, God has eternally been God; He is unchanging, all-powerful, the Creator of all that exists, anywhere, at any time. He is not dependent upon the creation, but transcendent, immutable, omnipotent, unique. Re-read the discussion, provided the LDS leadership itself, of how Elohim came to be a god provided earlier in this series; the LDS god is not unique, for many have followed the path to exaltation before him, and will do so after him (including, I would think, in his own hopes, Mr. McClellan, unless he no longer believes in exaltation to godhood); the LDS god is not the creator of all things, but only the organizer of things relevant to either this planet, or this universe, depending upon what Mormon you are talking to; the LDS god has progressed in the past, and may still be progressing in the present, again depending on who you are talking to or reading. The distinction is plain, obvious, and beyond disputation, and noting the existence of angels as created beings in no way, shape, or form, logically “erases the lines of distinction” between Christianity and Mormonism.
Let’s not commit the etymological fallacy, though. Monotheism is a descriptive term, and it was coined in describing Christianity at a certain time and place. Specifically, it was coined by a 17th century Cambridge Platonist to define his own conceptualization of Christianity, and specifically his conceptualization of Christianity over and against philosophical materialism, which he characterized as atheistic. The term “monotheism” was thus developed to define Platonic Christianity as antithetical to atheism, which included pantheism and several other -isms not considered atheistic by today’s standard. Interestingly, this Platonist (Henry More, by the way) actually explained that the “mono-” in “monotheism” could accommodate more than one divine being.
Let’s say Mr. McClellan’s assertions regarding the history of the term “monotheism” are correct. They would also be irrelevant to my usage of the term. He has here committed a common linguistic fallacy, one often committed in biblical eisegesis as well. The meaning of the term, as I used it, is plain from the context of my usage. It is a standard scholarly usage, one you will find over and over again in scholarly literature. I recently read through a work by well known New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado, and he used the term over and over again, often in the context of the monotheism of Second Temple Judaism. [Hurtado has recently commented on all sorts of monotheisms, even "pagan monotheism," here, but ironically, stops short of commenting on Christian monotheism per se, only speaking of the most primitive church's monotheism---in any case, the many uses of the term in Hurtado prove the point: the term is defined by usage and context, not by its alleged origin.] One will find many others likewise using the term in such contexts, such as Bauckham, Wright, etc. I had intended to invest time in providing numerous examples, but have chosen not to simply for time’s sake. It is not a disputable point (for anyone serious about the subject anyway). The point is that my use of monotheism had a clear meaning, and the meaning used by Henry More is, of course, utterly irrelevant to that which I presented. My use is in the historic, and biblical, context of the assertion of the utterly unique character of the one true God, creator of all things.
This definition is a far cry from American Evangelicalism, and it arguably doesn’t exclude Mormonism, but the reason this definition doesn’t help James’ position is the same reason no other characterization of Christianity as monotheistic over and against Mormonism will help: Christianity is based on the Bible, and the Bible as a whole is not monotheistic, according to James’ definition (which appears to align with the etymological notion).
Of course the Bible is monotheistic by my definition, for, as we saw above, the red herring of angelic beings, who are, by nature, created, is not relevant to the real theological divide between Christianity and Mormonism: the uniqueness, eternality, and utter “other-ness” of God. The Mormon presents to us an exalted man, with men, angels, and God, all existing in the same continuum, with men being “gods in embryo.” This is a fundamental denial of the Creator/creature distinction that cannot be expunged from Christianity merely to allow an 19th century religious group to feel better about itself in today’s post-modern world.
Christianity putatively derives its theology and ideology from the Old and New Testaments. That scriptural heritage will stay with it and will influence it no matter what renegotiations take place between those texts and modern expediencies and ideologies.
This is a very interesting section. First, as I quoted earlier, Apostle LeGrand Richards said plainly that Mormonism does not derive its doctrines from the Bible, but from modern day revelation. Would it follow then that Mormonism is not Christianity, given this observation? Next, the use of the term “putatively” is interesting. Much of what is called Christianity today has abandoned the only sound foundation of its faith, that being the θεόπνευστος Scriptures. For them, sola scriptura has been abandoned in favor of…a myriad of sources and traditions. But surely, for true Christianity, the Scriptures are our source of theology and doctrine. I am uncertain exactly what Mr. McClellan has in mind about “renegotiations,” but given what comes later, I think we can guess what he is thinking.
[continued and concluded in the next and final installment]
Guessing About God: Mormonism's Inability to Resist the Onslaught of Modernistic Skepticism (Part 8)
05/04/2011 - James WhiteI here continue my response to Daniel McClellan’s April 8th article.
I’ll now turn to his actual argument. I’m going to largely avoid addressing specific claims about Mormon beliefs that are brought up by James with varying degrees of accuracy only for shock value. Such rhetoric really doesn’t make a real point and doesn’t merit a response.
Mr. McClellan’s words contain a thinly veiled accusation of dishonesty, coupled with a claim to be able to read my mind and judge my motivations. This provides a convenient means of escaping doing the real work that must be undertaken by a Mormon apologist, that is, explaining how the unique, definitional elements of Mormon teaching can, by any stretch of the imagination, be called “Christian.” Let’s look at what I said specifically:
There is nothing overly controversial about my statements at the beginning of this video, and unless Mr. McClellan is dismissing the King Follett Discourse, the most commonly cited section of Smith’s teachings in all of the writings of modern LDS Church leaders (I have been told that he actually says the teaching found therein is not binding on Mormons, though I have not even begun looking at his replies as yet---if so, then such a radical position would prove my point about the departure of modern Mormons from the Mormon orthodoxy of only a few decades ago), then there is nothing remarkable, let alone dishonest, in what I said here. And since my citations do clearly communicate to Christian people the very non-Christian nature of LDS teaching, one would think that Mr. McClellan would focus his defense here. But this is not the way of the modern LDS apologist. They have discovered there is no way to shoe-horn Mormonism into orthodox Christian faith. It is just too foreign. So, what you do is you don’t even try: you attack the orthodox Christian faith, seek to undermine its essence (by attacking the clarity, perspicuity and consistency of Scripture, combined with an anti-orthodox reading of historical sources, both relating to ancient Israelite religion, as well as the teachings of the patristic period), and as a result, expanding “Christian” so that it becomes so wide (and, in fact, meaningless), that you can fit Mormonism into the resultant name.
So, the reason a Christian would find “shock value” in the citations I gave is because…it is shocking that anyone would attempt to say that a religion that produces such statements is, in fact, Christian.
Make a video talking about a 6,000 year-old earth, a talking donkey, and a flying man who brings people back from the dead and ask someone not living in a culture that is saturated with those traditions if they think it’s weird. They will think it’s very weird, just as many agnostics, atheists, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and even Christians in America today think certain aspects of Christianity are very weird. Will James feel defeated? No. He’s very aware of the fallacy of that kind of rhetoric when someone else is doing it.
Mr. McClellan’s rhetoric here contains a simple category error. He is comparing apples with oranges. My citations were of orthodox LDS sources making orthodox LDS claims. I did not have to put them in any kind of odd or misleading context. Their “shock value” flows from the fact that Christians know what Christian teaching sounds like, and Mormonism is not Christian teaching. I did not say, “Oh, look, Mormonism is weird.” I said Mormonism is not Christianity. The world’s dislike of supernaturalism or the existence of miracles or divine revelation is hardly a parallel to the fact that Christianity can be defined, and its definition excludes Mormonism.
James states that Christianity is monotheistic and that Mormonism is polytheistic. In fact, he states that it’s the most polytheistic religion he’s ever heard of. He quotes Joseph Smith’s King Follett Discourse in support of this. For the sake of argument, I will allow this characterization of Mormonism.
I.e., I have accurately summarized the teachings of Joseph Smith, the founder of the LDS faith. In fact, I have written an entire book doing just this, bending over backwards to carefully, and fairly, define the theological and doctrinal distinctives of Mormonism (Is the Mormon My Brother?). I spent chapters seeking to allow Mormonism to speak to its own beliefs. But it seems that today what was taught by Joseph Smith, or what even has been the consistent teaching of the General Authorities over many decades, is no longer the highest authority in Mormonism. But if Oxford trained men now presume to speak to what is and what is not Mormonism, can anyone really define the faith any longer? And doesn’t this prove my point about the radical change in methodology represented by this new generation of LDS apologists? One is truly left to wonder whether Mormonism can survive such a radical change in its own self-understanding.
However, I must disagree that Christianity is monotheistic, at least in a way that materially distinguishes it from Mormonism.
Note the fulfillment of the prediction made earlier: rather than defending Joseph Smith’s positive statements, McClellan seeks to modify Christianity’s own self-understanding. That is, every creedal statement of the Christian faith down through the ages has started with the reality that there is only one true God, creator and maker of all things. These words have meaning. The God of Christianity is not an exalted man from another planet; the God of Christianity did not become a god by obedience to law, via the power of priesthood, etc. The God of Christianity (not just evangelicalism, but of all of the branches of “Christendom”) is self-sufficient, eternal, uncreated, unique. The God of Joseph Smith is…none of that. So, it seems that Mr. McClellan is engaging in a bit of misdirection, for while he will attempt to introduce lesser beings as “divine” and appeal to the conflict between Judaism and the polytheistic/henotheistic religions that surrounded it, the fact is that the religion he is seeking to grant “Christian” definition to is not merely asserting the existence of angelic beings, spiritual beings, or anything of the kind. Smith’s teachings are clear and understandable: he taught about a God who had once been a man, who had progressed to the status of godhood. Angelic beings, created by God, are not deities, they are not self-sufficient, eternal, unlimited. As we will see, Mr. McClellan even has to attempt to redefine the theological usage of “monotheism” to find some way of making Mormonism fit into a wildly distorted, unbiblical, and a-historical definition of Christianity.
Let me “materially distinguish” the monotheism of biblical and historic Christianity from Mormonism, plainly and directly: the God of the Bible has eternally been deity; He did not progress to the status of deity by obedience to laws and principles; He has never worshipped a god that was a god prior to Him, and upon which He depended for His own exaltation to godhood; nothing that exists, anywhere, at any time, in any universe, exists outside of the creative power of the one God Christians worship. He is eternal, unchanging, and absolute. None of these positive assertions can be made of the Mormon deity as defined by Smith and as taught by the General Authorities of the LDS Church, and the negative denials are all directly relevant to the uniquely non-Christian nature of Smith’s (and Young’s) teachings about the Mormon deity.
Guessing About God: Mormonism's Inability to Resist the Onslaught of Modernistic Skepticism (Part 7)
05/02/2011 - James WhiteI continue my response to Daniel McClellan's blog post, found here. Please note that with this article I am breaking from the order of Mr. McClellan's article. I will seek to respond to the material skipped in the next installment. I sincerely apologize for the sheer length of this single segment, but I am truly attempting to transcend the normal fodder one finds in "blog wars" and provide something of value to a wider audience, while at the same time showing Mr. McClellan his due respect. I hope to invest as much time in the discussion of Deuteronomy 32, but as this has already consumed far more time than I have to invest, I will have to be brief in the rest of my comments.
Paul states in 1 Cor 8:5 that there are many that are called gods in heaven and on earth and immediately qualifies the statement by saying, “indeed, there are many gods and many lords.” He continues, “but for us there is one God, the Father, from which comes all, and to whom we belong.” Notice he states that there are indeed many gods, but “for us there is one God.”
The history of the a-contextual and eisegetical reading of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 8:5-6 in Mormon history is long indeed, and the story continues to be written by Mr. McClellan. It goes back to Joseph Smith’s first misunderstanding of the text, enshrined amidst the many other amazing things he said about the text of the Bible (things that you do not find most Oxford trained LDS apologists bringing up very often). Note his use of the text from 1843:
The Doctrine of the Godhead...
There is much said about God and the Godhead. The scriptures say there are Gods many and Lords many, but to us there is but one living and true God, and the heaven of heavens could not contain him; for he took the liberty to go into other heavens. The teachers of the day say that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God, and they are all in one body and one God. Jesus prayed that those that the Father had given him out of the world might be made one in them, as they were one [one in spirit, in mind, in purpose]. If I were to testify that the Christian world were wrong on this point, my testimony would be true.
Peter and Stephen testify that they saw the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God. Any person that had seen the heavens opened knows that there are three personages in the heavens who hold the keys of power, and one presides over all.
If any man attempts to refute what I am about to say, after I have made it plain, let him beware. (TPJS 311-312, 1843).
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