Response to Michael W. Fordham
Rejoinder by Mike Thomas
In order to make this review easier to read, all original quotes from the Mormonism 201 rebuttal are boldfaced and italicized to separate these from the rest of the rejoinder.
I cannot launch into a reply to Michael Fordham’s revue of chapter 18 of Mormonism 101 without making an observation I have already made elsewhere, i.e. it seems inevitable that the Mormon’s first response to any criticism is disparaging and dismissive. This is a great shame because it shuts down any opportunity for genuine dialogue. (In this context I find that discussion is where two parties say what they want to say, while dialogue is where they actually listen to each other. Mormons, I find, can often have a discussion but struggle to pay sufficient attention to dialogue).
Mr. Fordham seems to struggle even to have a discussion. Indeed, his revue seems to be less like a discussion as I define it and more like the missionary discussions presented by Mormon missionaries, i.e. he expects to make certain, in his eyes, unassailable claims and assertions and we are meant to listen thankfully. Where he departs from the practice of Mormon missionaries is when he seems incapable of hiding his contempt for the authors. As Archbishop Paley observed, “Who can refute a sneer?” Be that as it may, I will attempt to address some of the issues he raises.
McKeever and Johnson – Anarchists
In his opening sentence Mr. Fordham writes, “The point trying to be made in chapter eighteen of Mormonism 101 is that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should not follow, obey, or accept the council (sic) from the General Authorities.”
Mr. Fordham insists that the authors’ point “is that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should not follow, obey, or accept the council (sic) from the General Authorities.” This is clearly not what they are saying. Rather, it is their assertion that Mormons should not follow unquestioningly. They go on to demonstrate, by means of compelling and disturbing evidence, why caution is needed. Had Mr. Fordham approached the book with the same degree of academic rigour that he later insists on ascribing to Mormon academics, he might have seen this for himself.
Given McKeever and Johnson’s questioning of Mormon authority, Mr. Fordham goes on to make the wild and unsubstantiated claim that “Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson do not believe the leaders should have any authority in the Christian world.” The authors, in his view, are clearly anarchists of the worst order. I smiled when, later in his essay, Fordham takes the biblical example given by McKeever and Johnson of Paul questioning the practice of Peter among the Gentiles to illustrate authority being questioned as an occasion of hypocrisy on their part, writing “Oh! So now McKeever and Johnson claim there is ultimate authority. Not only does this statement show the hypocritical arguments of McKeever and Johnson, but they show again their inability to use scripture within proper context.”
Had Fordham been less inclined to look for fault at every turn, he might have realised that this shows McKeever and Johnson do believe in authority but also believe in intelligently questioning what is taught both by precept and example, which, in Peter’s case, was a bad example that needed challenging. This consistency makes his reading of their motives and purposes mistaken and, indeed, shows McKeever and Johnson practising what they preach, i.e. by all means recognise authority but do not follow unquestioningly.
Fordham goes on to assert: “Throughout their book, McKeever and Johnson have consistently demonstrated that they could care less about what Latter-day Saints really believe, and insist that it is they who can define LDS doctrine and history, instead of the Latter-day Saints themselves.”
On whether the authors “could care less about what Latter-day Saints really believe,” I would first ask why, if they are so indifferent to the beliefs of Mormons, they have gone to the trouble to write and minister as they have for so many years? This is an old argument but worth repeating. If those who question the teachings of Mormonism are thoroughly indifferent to the beliefs and fate of Mormons, then surely they would leave Mormons to their own devices. Allow them to “go to hell in a handcart,” as the saying goes. Why try and engage with those whom they “could care less about“? Of course, it would suit Fordham to insist that their motives are dishonourable, but this simply brings me to my second question. If they are so wrong, why has he not presented any compelling evidence to show this?
He will insist that he has, of course, but the truth is that his essay is no more than an assertion that Mormons are right after all, heavily supported by a barrel load of cut and pasted material put out, to no one’s surprise, by the Mormon Church. It is a panegyric rather than an apologetic; a diatribe rather than a dialogue; an invective and not an investigation. This is like shouting louder to get your point across.
Mr. Fordham, we hear you clearly, but we are simply not impressed or convinced. Your job is to win us with compelling evidence and logic, not to frustrate us with loud repetition of what we already know and find unconvincing. It really doesn’t help your cause that you, as do so many Mormons, mistake testimony and a reassertion of Mormon beliefs for sound argument and logical reasoning. There is nothing in what you write that I don’t already know, but where is your evidence that I should both know and subscribe to these things?
Another issue that often arises in these discussions is the Mormon assertion that, if you want to know and understand what Mormons believe, the best people to ask are Mormons. On the face of it, this seems fair and, indeed, anyone wishing to study Mormonism would be wise to listen to what Mormons have to say about themselves. What Mr. Fordham seems to be suggesting, and what many Mormons insist upon, is that only Mormons can define Mormonism. Only they can be relied upon to give a true picture of their faith. This, on reflection, must be wrong.
To illustrate, if we wish to understand what Muslims believe, then a good place to start might be the local mosque. Within Islam there are different sects, and if we wished to know what each of those believed, we might begin with asking people from each sect. We would, however, wish to understand how these sects relate to each other, so it might be reasonable to ask the Sunni Muslims what their take is on the Shiite Muslims, and vice versa. Then we would wish to see how all this fits into the wider picture of world faiths, what different Muslim groups make of other faiths and what other faiths make of them.
The Mormon Church itself has plenty to say about other religions, and especially about Christian churches. Their philosophy of “if you want to understand Mormonism, try asking a Mormon” seems to disappear into the mist when they do. A Christian attempting to understand Mormonism via the works of ministries like MRM will read more LDS material and get a greater understanding of Mormonism from the point of view of its leaders than ever a Mormon would read and hear of Christian leaders in investigating the Evangelical Christian faith. I can personally testify to this since I was a Mormon for many years and, looking back, I am amazed at how narrow and restricted was my experience and that of my fellow Mormons of Christian thinking. Indeed, I now read the same arguments in modern Mormon thinking that I used many years ago and feel embarrassed for the ignorance I displayed then.
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
Intelligent Mormon – Not an Oxymoron
Mr. Fordham then presents us with the impressive qualifications of Mormons who are, he is sure, perfectly capable of making the judgments and demonstrating the independent thinking he insists is typical of Mormonism.
They clinch their unfounded statements and arguments in their final chapter by making the most ridiculous argument ever brought against the Latter-day Saints. They seem to think that members of the church blindly follow their leaders because Mormons can’t, don’t, or are afraid, to think for themselves. This author can’t help but ask, do McKeever and Johnson, or anyone else, really believe that some of the most educated people among mankind cannot think for themselves?
Gilbert Scharffs has presented some statistics on education from 1984 that compares Latter-day Saints to the rest of the nation. The results show that “Utah is first in the nation in percent of adults who have attended college, and eight in percent of college graduates.” According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Utah is still high in its ranking of higher education as compared to the rest of the nation.
Members of the church hold highly respectable and visible positions in society. They are lawyers, doctors, politicians (some in high positions), corporate leaders, professional athletes, professional entertainers, etc., and this is another reason McKeever and Johnson’s argument fails. You cannot convince people to blindly follow any leader without isolating them from the rest of society. Latter-day Saints are not isolated, but are, in fact, a significant part of society. This is also another reason why Mormons cannot correctly be called a cult. The argument of blindly following the leaders of the church is an argument of pure desperation.
But physical isolation and complete social disengagement are not prerequisites to making someone a blind follower. If that were the case, then the only “cults” in the world would be those in the remotest parts or in closed communities. This is patently not the case. Nor is stupidity and ignorance a qualification for following a false prophet. Often people ask how such intelligent and otherwise intellectually gifted people can “fall for such things.” But it happens a lot, and the answer is that it is those very people who are won over by the beguiling arguments and emotionally attractive ways of this or that group. Intellect often fails at the most crucial point to inform their decisions. I found the following, which I have quoted elsewhere, enlightening in this respect:
Jason J. Barker, Director of the Southwest Institute for Orthodox Studies, Arlington, TX, in a paper entitled Who is the Representative Mormon Intellectual? Assessing Mormon Apologetics, examines the LDS educational philosophy. Whilst recognising that “an increasing number of Latter-day Saints are currently active in mainstream academics,” he goes on to quote Karl Sandberg, a Mormon and a French professor (emeritus) at Macalester College, who observes:
“There are Mormons who do scholarship in all of the various disciplines — they play by the same rules as everyone else, they participate in the same dynamics, and they produce the same kind of knowledge. This is not the case, however, when Mormons do scholarship about Mormonism or directly related subjects.”
Barker goes on to explain that “The primary reason for this discrepancy…is that Mormon-specific scholarship in the LDS Church is necessarily limited by the boundaries of Mormon orthodoxy and orthopraxy.” He quotes Sanburg further who elaborates:
“There are prominent examples of Mormon scholarship whose purpose appears to be that of giving scholarly permission to people to believe what they already believed on subjective grounds and of answering and repulsing any perceived attacks on the Church.”
In other words, there are distinct boundaries to Mormon scholarship as the Mormon Church insists on favouring faith over intellect. Thus, just as a car might be fitted with a speed restrictor, a man may be fitted with a truth restrictor.
No less an authority than LDS general authority Boyd K Packer had the following to say in attacking even professionals as they attempt to achieve impartiality in telling the truth about Mormonism: “There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful.” (Apostle Boyd K. Packer, “The Mantle is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect,” BYU Studies, Summer 1981, pp. 263, 267).
Note that it is not lies about which Packer is concerned, but the truth. Given the history of the Mormon Church, I can well see how “some things that are true are not very useful.” Clearly the message here is that there are things about the church’s history that cannot bear close scrutiny without potentially damaging the faith of its members. I am grateful to Boyd Packer for confirming my observations. The church’s test, then, of whether to tell the story of Mormonism is whether what you tell promotes the Mormon faith and engenders faith amongst its members. If the truth does not promote faith, then it is best to protect people from it.
This is not a phenomenon peculiar to Mormonism, or indeed to the cults in general. It can be found operating in the life and witness of every Christian who refuses to reflect intelligently on their faith, recognising that, whilst certain truths are indeed inviolable, it is often faith alone that makes them “true” in this life and only eternity that will confirm their verity. By the same token, much custom and practice, over time, proves provisional and only exists at all by the grace of God as He patiently deals with our muddle-headed humanity. We must learn to be faithful, then, to what we believe whilst holding to a modesty that avoids dogmatism.
If we apply the Boyd Packer school of philosophy to a “not very useful” doctrinal issue raised in chapter 18 of Mormonism 101, we might see how this works in practice and why it is important to question what our leaders tell us, which is what the authors are saying. At the risk of being accused myself of simply repeating arguments, I wish to discuss this further.
On page 270 of Mormonism 101, the authors discuss the Mormon doctrine of eternal progression, pointing out that there is not agreement among Mormon leaders on the issue. Leaders have, in fact, taken diametrically opposite views on the progression of the god they worship. I take the liberty of quoting the relevant passage here:
Both Wilford Woodruff and Brigham Young taught that God was progressing in knowledge. In 1857 Woodruff stated, “God himself is increasing and progressing in knowledge, power, and dominion, and will do so worlds without end. It is just so with us.” Orson Pratt was reluctant to believe such a notion. In a sermon on 13 January 1867 Young rebuked Pratt:
‘Brother Orson Pratt, has in theory, bounded the capacity of God. According to his theory, God can progress no further in knowledge and power; but the God that I serve is progressing eternally, and so are his children: they will increase to all eternity, if they are faithful.’
Despite the fact that Young felt he was never wrong in his counsel, modern LDS leaders have sided with Pratt. For instance, Joseph Fielding Smith questioned Young’s position:
‘It seems very strange to me that members of the Church will hold to the doctrine, “God increases in knowledge as time goes on.”…I think this kind of doctrine is very dangerous. I don’t know where the Lord has ever declared such a thing…I believe that God knows all things and that his understanding is perfect, not ‘relative.’ I have never seen or heard of any revealed fact to the contrary.’
In his “Seven Deadly Heresies” speech, Bruce McConkie declared:
‘There are those who say that God is progressing in knowledge and is learning new truth. This is false, utterly, totally and completely. There is not a sliver of truth in it…I have been sorely tempted to say at this point that any who so suppose have the intellect of an ant and the understanding of a clod of miry clay in a primordial swamp. But of course I would never say a thing like that.’
While this late apostle’s comments were met with chuckles from the audience, it should make one wonder if his past leaders such as Brigham Young and Wilford Woodruff had the “intellect of an ant and the understanding of a clod of miry clay,” since what McConkie condemned as heresy was taught by such leaders as divine truth. Such contradictions must surely weigh heavy on Latter-day Saints who strive for some consistency in their doctrinal life. To say LDS leaders are incapable of leading their followers astray is certainly not supported by history.
Let us first say that this cannot be dismissed as unimportant since it has application in the lives of Mormons today. Woodruff said, “God himself is increasing and progressing in knowledge, power, and dominion, and will do so worlds without end. It is just so with us.” Brigham Young declared, “…but the God that I serve is progressing eternally, and so are his children: they will increase to all eternity, if they are faithful.“
This is a fundamental cornerstone of the Mormon faith, and any intelligent person would regard it essential that a Latter-day Saint get this right. Do Mormons expect to progress, as described by Young and Woodruff? Or do they expect knowledge and understanding to be so complete that it cannot be added to or improved upon, as taught by McConkie and Fielding Smith?
This is just the kind of question that the authors have in mind when they challenge Mormons to think about what they are taught, yet it is the type of question Packer – and it seems Mr. Fordham – would want Mormons to dismiss as “unhelpful” or even mischievous. I find the authors’ argument both sound and safe while, frankly, I wouldn’t follow Packer into a shoe shop let alone a battle over essential issues of faith.
Another issue here is how Joseph Fielding Smith could possibly claim to carry the mantle of prophet passed down through Wilford Woodruff and Brigham Young but claim, “I don’t know where the Lord has ever declared such a thing… I have never seen or heard of any revealed fact to the contrary.” Was he not aware of the teachings of his predecessors? Shouldn’t he have been “watching the prophet” in his day as other Mormons are counselled to do?
It seems reasonable that McKeever and Johnson should ask how such clear contradictions could happen in a church led by men who claim to be prophets whom the Lord will never allow to mislead his people. If we were discussing a contradiction on such a fundamental level in another church, Mormons would want to discuss it.
On page 2 of his essay, Fordham seeks to put a quote from Gordon B Hinckley “in context.” Unfortunately, the context doesn’t help him. McKeever and Johnson wrote, “While acknowledging that his listeners had been ‘taught to think critically.’ Hinckley made it clear that this must be done without ‘looking for flaws in the church or in its leaders.'”
Fordham then writes:
“Since McKeever and Johnson obviously have read this speech, why don’t they tell you the rest of what President Hinckley said so that these words would be in their proper context? What did President Hinckley mean by thinking critically without looking for flaws? McKeever and Johnson purposely take the statement out of context. Look at what President Hinckley actually said (with underlining being what McKeever and Johnson quoted).
‘Now, while I am speaking of things that impede our progress as Latter-day Saints, let me mention one other. It is an attitude of being critical about the Church. You are bright, able, and educated young men and women. You have been taught to think critically, to explore, to consider various sides of every question. This is all good. But you can do so without looking for flaws in the Church or its leaders. Keep balance in your studies. I do not say this defensively. So very many people are so very gracious and generous and kind in what they say and write to me. On the other hand there are a few who evidently thoroughly dislike the Church and seem to thoroughly dislike me. That is their prerogative. I feel no bitterness toward them. I feel only sorrow for them, because I know what the eventual outcome will be’
Notice that McKeever and Johnson fail to tell their readers that President Hinckley specifically said that being taught to think critically means to “consider various sides of every question,” and that it was good to do so. How can that foster blind obedience?
How can you “consider various sides of every question” if you do not look at what critics of a particular idea are saying? Of course, it is assumed that those who point out flaws are, by default, looking for flaws. Fordham writes, “The prophet was not saying, ‘do not look for flaws in your leaders, or the church.’ He was saying, ‘examine the doctrines, teachings, writings, and statements of church leaders for truthfulness.’ If you have a predetermined belief that something is wrong, then that is all you will be interested in looking for.” (p.3)
But what if you find a flaw in the course of simply looking at all sides of an argument, such as whether God increases in knowledge and understanding? Who is at fault then? Should you be just because you dare to ask? Or is it your leaders for contradicting each other and defying you to speak out about it? It makes no sense to encourage people to “think critically, to explore, to consider various sides of every question” and “keep balance in your studies” without considering allalternative views. If your position is, indeed, unassailable, such an honest appraisal can only serve to strengthen faith. If, on the other hand, your position is questionable, then the sooner you know it, the better.
Fordham writes, “McKeever and Johnson seem to be upset that Latter-day Saints willingly obey the council (sic) of their ecclesiastical leaders.” Is this true? Or is it true that Mr. Fordham seems upset that McKeever and Johnson have had the temerity to point out some unpleasant facts about Mormonism in measured tones and on reasonable terms? Novelist George Orwell of 1984fame wrote, “Liberty is the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear.” I am sorry, Mr. Fordham, if the authors’ use of such liberty is inconvenient.
I once heard a comic say, “I began to feel that I was losing my mind, that my mind was playing tricks on me. Then I thought to myself, ‘No, that can’t be true. You’re imagining it.’ Then I realised that it was my mind that was telling me this.” (Knowing look to audience)
This is what is happening here. At one point Fordham justifies his confidence in “the Brethren” with a quote from Wilford Woodruff:
“The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the program. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so he will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.”
But it is one of the Brethren telling you this! Think about it.
McKeever and Johnson then ask the reasonable question, “What if the Mormon prophets are wrong?” to which Fordham responds, “The more important question is, what if McKeever and Johnson are wrong?” This is not a “more important” question, although I would concede it is an “equally important” question. But surely this is the point of the discussion and Fordham is simply begging the question. An equally important question might be “what if McKeever and Johnson are right?” But, of course, he hasn’t even considered asking it. Instead of addressing the issues raised by the book, he seems determined to defend his position regardless of the facts.
While he insists that he does do his own thinking, his essay shows the opposite to be the case. Many of his interpretations and understanding of biblical truth is seriously flawed for the very reason that he has allowed others to dictate his understanding of these things. To illustrate, Fordham lists doctrines that do make Mormons different. If we take a couple of examples, it will illustrate my point.
- “Latter-day Saints accept the fact that the Bible teaches the pre-existence of man, modern Christians deny such doctrine.”
In support of this claim, he quotes, among other texts, Jeremiah 1:5, which says, “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.”
While the idea of a pre-mortal existence is attractive to some, it is not a biblical teaching. It is completely missing from the teachings of Jesus and the apostles in whom Mormons lay such great store. There is no hint in the Bible of the great doctrinal structure built by Mormonism on such flawed reasoning. The passage is also easily understood without resorting to such an abuse of exegetical practice. In Isaiah 46:9-10, God says of himself, “I am God and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me (aspiring gods take note.) I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come.”
Would a God with such incredible omniscience have trouble in knowing Jeremiah before he was formed? Since God is able to know things before they happen, and with no pre-mortal doctrine anywhere in the Bible, the Mormon “pre-existence” becomes superfluous and even heretical.
- “Latter-day Saints accept the fact that the Bible teaches the Godheadis comprised of three distinct personages, modern Christians deny such doctrine.”
In support of this claim, he quotes Luke 3:21-22, which says, “Now when all the people were baptized, it came to pass, that Jesus also being baptized, and praying, the heaven was opened, And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased.”
This is a red herring since he builds his argument on a false premise. First, he distinguishes between “modern” Christians and Christians of an earlier age which, in this respect, is a false dichotomy since the vast majority of Christians of all ages have accepted the Trinitarian view. Modern Christians do not deny that there are three persons in the godhead.
The famous hymn speaks of “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.” What Christians reject as unbiblical is the idea that there are three separate gods. A Mormon may reject the Trinitarian explanation of God and choose any one of a number of different models, many of which have reckoned in Mormonism at one time or another, but it is quite wrong to misrepresent what Christians do believe. Of course these verses show the three persons of the Trinity and present the Christian with no difficulty at all.
In the first example, we have not just an alternative explanation but a sound and biblical explanation. Mormons will offer up their “proofs” as though they are explaining something that has puzzled Christian scholars for centuries (since the apostasy), but the Bible explains itself at so many points. Christian scholars have always understood these things perfectly well.
In the second example, Mr. Fordham simply regurgitates an old Mormon argument (and one that I, to my embarrassment, once used) that is totally bankrupt of any meaning because it is based on a complete misrepresentation of what Christians believe and a misunderstanding of the nature of God.
But because he doesn’t question his leaders, he will continue to use these flawed arguments. My point is that this knowledge is out there and readily available to anyone who cares to know it and is prepared to “think critically, to explore, to consider various sides of every question.” What is the point of this authority that Mormon leaders are supposed to have if they are going to give you such bad advice and teaching and then deny you the right to go and find out for yourself in case you discover something that isn’t ‘helpful’ and “faith-promoting”?
I think this is the crux of the chapter. There are different structures of church government within different churches, denominations, and sects. There are those even within the Christian Church who subscribe to the idea of modern prophets, there are others who reject the idea of prophetsper se but accept the working of the prophetic in preaching, teaching and ministry, while still others reject any such ministry. And we can discuss these things. The question here is, should we place as much confidence in leaders as Mormons place in those who lead them? I am put in mind of the words of Martin Luther in one of his early interviews before a papal legate:
“These adulators put the pope above Scripture and say that he cannot err. In that case Scripture perishes, and nothing is left in the Church save the word of man. I resist those who in the name of the Roman Church wish to institute Babylon.”
Can there be any doubt that Mormons put their prophets above Scripture? What we have left in that case is indeed nothing but the word of a man. When one man claims such pre-eminence, what are other men to do? This is a huge question, but it seems they have two courses open to them. They can submit and obey because they unquestioningly believe this man leads them unerringly, or they can see the faults before their very eyes and, with Luther, declare:
“Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”
If they take the former course, they can find themselves in all sorts of trouble as they attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable and keep faithful to the prophet. If they take the latter course, the Mormon Church allows them no latitude to do so honourably because to take such a course is to disobey God.
A Closer Look at the Prophetic
A lot of Mormon buzz words pepper Mr. Fordham’s text, including living prophets, revelation,priesthood authority, and restoration. It would be good to take a closer look at his understanding of these things. I emphasise his understanding since it certainly cannot be the Mormon Church’s understanding; he is not permitted to represent himself as speaking for Mormonism when he speaks about Mormonism. Now this is problematic. If he would but realise that he is not in any position to correct, criticise, or otherwise scrutinise the authors’ or anyone else’s critique of Mormonism.
Those who have read Mormonism 101 will remember that on page 266 Seventy L. Aldin Porter is reported as speaking in the October 1994 general conference warning people who would consider trusting their own rationale rather than the counsel of the Mormon general authorities:
One’s intentions may be of the purest kind. The sincerity may be total and complete. Nevertheless, pure intentions and heartfelt sincerity do not give members of the Church authority to declare doctrine which is not sustained by the living prophets. While we are members of the Church, we are not authorized to publicly declare our speculations as doctrine nor to extend doctrinal positions to other conclusions based upon the reasoning of men and women, even by the brightest and most well-read among us. …When you see any document, any address, any letter, any instruction that is issued by the Council of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the twelve it should be recognized for what it surely is – the mind and the will of the Lord to his people in this day.
How do I know, even when Mr. Fordham puts before me official documents of the Mormon Church, that his presentation of these “truths” are not his interpretation? Let me put a problem to illustrate his dilemma:
I wish to know the Mormon view on the nature of God. Now it seems to me a fundamental question and a reasonable issue to raise. Jesus said, “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” (John 17:3) Let’s assume I know something about Mormonism and understand that the official position of the Mormon Church is that God is an exalted man. I have read the King Follett Discourse where Joseph Smith officially declared, “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens.”
I know that Orson Pratt, likewise, said, “The Gods that dwell in the Heaven have been redeemed from the grave in a world which existed before the foundations of this earth were laid. They and the Heavenly body which they now inhabit were once in a fallen state…they were exalted also, from fallen men to Celestial Gods to inhabit their Heaven forever and ever.” (The Seer, January 1853, p.23)
I understand, in other words, the law of eternal progression. However, I read in the 2 Nephi 2:24 of the Book of Mormon: “But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things.” My question is, Does God progress and increase in knowledge, power, and wisdom forever? Or does there come a time, as 2 Nephi 2:24 seems to say, when God knows all things and his understanding is perfect, not ‘relative’?
I realise, of course, that I need an official answer and not the opinion of my Mormon friend. I realise that doctrine is declared by living prophets and not “of private interpretation.” My Mormon friend promises to come back to me with an official answer, and I assure him nothing less will do. And this is what we find:
- Joseph Smith did, indeed, declare God to be an exalted man and that my understanding of eternal progression is correct.
- He could find nothing in the Standard Works that explained eternal progression, which I found disquieting because I had read somewhere that the Book of Mormon contained the“fullness of the everlasting gospel.” I think it was in the introduction. But I didn’t worry too much because he assured me that this highlighted the benefit of having living prophets. They spoke God’s word for today and were bound to have plenty to say on the subject.
- I then found the following for myself: Both Wilford Woodruff and Brigham Young taught that God was progressing in knowledge. In 1857 Woodruff stated, ‘God himself is increasing and progressing in knowledge, power, and dominion, and will do so worlds without end. It is just so with us.”
Orson Pratt was reluctant to believe such a notion. In a sermon on 13 January 1867, Young rebuked Pratt: ‘Brother Orson Pratt, has in theory, bounded the capacity of God. According to his theory, God can progress no further in knowledge and power; but the God that I serve is progressing eternally, and so are his children: they will increase to all eternity, if they are faithful.'”
Despite the fact that Young felt he was never wrong in his counsel, modern LDS leaders have sided with Pratt. For instance, Joseph Fielding Smith questioned Young’s position:
It seems very strange to me that members of the Church will hold to the doctrine, “God increases in knowledge as time goes on.”…I think this kind of doctrine is very dangerous. I don’t know where the Lord has ever declared such a thing…I believe that God knows all things and that his understanding is perfect, not ‘relative.’ I have never seen or heard of any revealed fact to the contrary.
In his “Seven Deadly Heresies” speech, Bruce McConkie declared:
There are those who say that God is progressing in knowledge and is learning new truth. This is false, utterly, totally and completely. There is not a sliver of truth in it…I have been sorely tempted to say at this point that any who so suppose have the intellect of an ant and the understanding of a clod of miry clay in a primordial swamp. But of course I would never say a thing like that.
Here is my problem. The Mormon Standard Works, which is made up of the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, have nothing to say about eternal progression. Mormon prophets have plenty to say but cannot agree. Two of the biggest guns in early Mormon leadership, Brigham Young and Wilford Woodruff, say that God does progress eternally in knowledge, power, and dominion. Joseph Smith is not clear but seems to feel this way too. But another significant early leader, Orson Pratt, takes the opposite view, only to be corrected by Young. On the other hand, more recent leaders take Pratt’s view, one characterising those who hold the former view as having the intellect of an ant, another seeming to be at a loss to know even where the idea came from.
My Mormon friend immediately gets defensive and accuses me of reading anti-Mormon literature and assures me that there is an answer somewhere but we haven’t found it yet. Whatever happens, he says, he knows he can trust the Brethren. “What do you think about it?” I ask. He replies, “It isn’t about what I think about it. It’s about what the Church says about it.”
Now here is his problem. He trusts that his leaders are prophets, seers and revelators, and he has promised to abide by the counsel and teaching that comes through these men. He knows that God will never allow these men to lead him astray and has complete confidence in them. He also understands that it is they who make doctrine by the power and inspiration of God. Although the general authorities disagree, he is not allowed to work it out for himself because it is a question of doctrine. After all, it is written:
While we are members of the Church, we are not authorized to publicly declare our speculations as doctrine nor to extend doctrinal positions to other conclusions based upon the reasoning of men and women, even by the brightest and most well-read among us. When you see any document, any address, any letter, any instruction that is issued by the Council of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the twelve it should be recognized for what it surely is – the mind and the will of the Lord to his people in this day.
Thus, if he tells me what he thinks, he is going against the counsel of the Brethren in publicly declaring his speculations as doctrine and extending doctrinal positions to other conclusions based upon his reasoning. The prophets cannot with certainty tell him “the mind and the will of the Lord to his people this day” on this fundamental issue, and thus there is no clear doctrinal position to extend.
I ask him to choose one of the two “official” positions, but he cannot do that because if he chooses to follow Brigham Young, he knows he will be accused of favouring the authority of a dead prophet over that of a living prophet. Yet he cannot come down on the side of Bruce R. McConkie because he feels uncomfortable accusing Brigham Young of having the intellect of an ant. Besides, both McConkie and Joseph Fielding Smith are dead too. Finally, he can find nothing from the living prophet, Gordon B. Hinckley.
Many Mormons will find it convenient to overlook these things and “trust” that God has his answer. But even God cannot make yes mean no and no mean yes. Anyway, you cannot treat truth like a convenience food, saying “I don’t like that so I won’t have it on my plate.” God’s truth is not served up cafeteria fashion but as a formal meal. It is placed before you and you must learn to be nourished by it. Even James A. Faust, who is Second Counselor in the LDS First Presidency, stated in the fall 2003 General Conference, “Revelations from the prophets of God are not like offerings at the cafeteria, some to be selected and others disregarded.”
Of course, the question that springs to mind may well be, “Well, what have you got as a “traditional Christian” (his phrase) that is so much better than Mormonism? I have a good deal more to offer than Mr. Fordham inasmuch as I have the freedom to find out for myself and the liberty to pass on to you what I have found, regardless of whether my leaders can agree on an issue or not. He, on the other hand, can neither tell me what he thinks or what his leaders have to say on one of the most fundamental issues. I fail to see the advantage, then, in his position. He is rather like Mulder in the X Files who has no explanation but is sure the answer is “out there somewhere.”
The Christian Church
The first thing that might be said about church is that Christ did not die for a building. We have so often heard it said that the church is the people and not the building and we believe that. Yet we still refer to “the church on the corner” and speak of “going to church.” These conventions, not to mention buildings, are useful as long as we don’t allow them to mislead us and, more importantly, mislead those to whom we have a responsibility to give a clear picture of church.
The second thing to be said is that Christ did not die for an institution. Christians, of necessity, need to organise themselves, and so we have church organisations. We need to have some form of government and order, so we choose leaders, hopefully by inspiration of the Spirit, who will teach and counsel. Inevitably, out of this organising activity, institutions grow, which is good and helpful so long as the institution serves the church and not the church the institution.
Someone I know, after years of study with Jehovah’s Witnesses, refused baptism because he disputed the wording of the baptism formula – “in the name of the Father, the Son, and God’s Spirit-led organisation.” He knew that Bible baptism is in the name of the Father, the Son and the Spirit, or in the name of Christ, and this tells us an important principle with regards to the Christian life, i.e. it begins with a change in our relationship with the triune God, for we are baptised into God and not into an organisation.
At Pentecost, when the conscience-struck people cried, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter’s reply was, “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38). Repentance is a turning to God in genuine sorrow for sin, baptism is into, or “in the name of” Christ, who is God.
After listing all the marvellous spiritual blessings we enjoy in Christ in Ephesians 1, the apostle Paul wrote in verse 13, “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.”Those sealed are added to the number of those who are being saved (Acts 2:47). This ‘number of believers’ is the church, which is made up of “living stones.” Consider:
1 Peter 2:4-5: “As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house…”
1 Cor. 3:9, 16: Paul also reminds us that we are “God’s building”; that we are “God’s temple, and that God’s Spirit lives in [us].”
This identifies the church, not an organisation but an organism; not a structure but a body; not marked by offices and hierarchies but by the life of the Spirit in true believers. The church has the Spirit to lead us into all truth.
The obvious question for a Mormon to ask is, “If that is true, why is there so much division? Why don’t we see in ‘Christendom’ the fruits of such an intimate relationship?” Such questions could only come from someone who thinks in terms of rigid structures and formalistic religion. In his book I Believe in the Church, David Watson wrote, “Those who have recently declared that…the church is redundant…must know little of the God of history, the God who raised Jesus back to life, and the God who is able to work through human suffering and sin to reveal his reality to the world.”
In Ephesians 4:11-14, we read, “And he gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers to prepare God’s people to works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
Now what will the church look like “until we reach a unity of the faith?” Unity is not something that falls out of heaven into our laps. It is not organisational but developmental. It is something that develops as we give ourselves to “works of service” and apply ourselves to the apostle’s teaching (Acts 2:42) “so that the body of Christ (the church) may be built up until we all reach a unity of the faith.”
Of course there is no room for complacency, and every right-thinking Christian seeks that maturity in the church. But since the church is living stones and not Portland stone, and since we are “being built into a spiritual house,” there is need for grace as we become what we are destined to be.
Chosen for God, Not For Good Looks
Consider the biblical precedent for such a view of the church – Israel, God’s chosen people. When you read the account of God’s dealings with them, they often looked like anything but the elect of God. Consider the account at the time of the judges when “everyone did as he saw fit.” Or the time when Eli’s sons showed contempt for the Lord’s offering, or the times when Israel had to be punished for following other gods and worshipping in the high places.
Think of Samson who went straight from a brothel to do the work of a judge, or leader, amongst God’s people. Or Saul who, with bitterness in his heart and evil intent, nevertheless could not help but prophesy along with the prophets of Israel. Consider, further, the dividing of the kingdom and the warring factions within Israel. Good times, bad times, Israel never stopped being Israel – and the church never stops being the church.
Matthew 16:18 says, “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it.” Archbishop William Temple observed in 1948,
“What we must completely get away from is the notion that the world as it now exists is a rational whole; we must think of its unity not by the analogy of a picture, of which all parts exist at once, but by the analogy of a drama, where, if it is good enough, the full meaning of the first scene only becomes apparent with the final curtain; and we are in the middle of this. Consequently the world as we see it is strictly unintelligible. We can only have faith that it will become intelligible when the divine purpose, which is the explanation of it, is accomplished.”
What Archbishop Temple said of the world might be said of the church in the world. It is a drama in process, and the full meaning will indeed become apparent with the final curtain. Meanwhile, we must recognise what we are in the middle of and to what end it is taking us (1 John 3:2-3). Of course we do live in times that test and prove us. Much is not right and we need to be vigilant in declaring truth, correcting error, seeking to know more intimately the mind and will of God while becoming what we ought. For this we have scripture, and it is important to recognise that, as 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “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.”
It concerns me enormously the low view of Scripture you end up with if you allow a man to take precedence over Scripture. Compare the unqualified endorsement of the Word of God above with these words in the title page of the Book of Mormon: “And now if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgement seat of Christ.”
I would be very concerned about approaching the judgment seat of Christ if I took such a low view of what is meant to be Scripture. Also, we have the indwelling Spirit who gives life (2 Cor.3:6); helps us in our weakness (Rom.8:26); helps us bear fruit (Gal.5:22); and will guide us into all truth (John 16:13). Now here is where it so important to understand the role of the Spirit in the church. Hebrews 1 gives a clear view of God’s revelation through the ages:
In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things and through whom he made the universe. (Heb.1:1-2)
Mormons make much of “missing Scripture,” and Mr. Fordham has made much of the idea that Jesus said and did much more than was recorded in Scripture, as though to suggest prophets are essential to “restore” this missing truth. A text sometimes used in support of this idea is John 20:30, which says, “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book…” They fail to see the significance of the following verse, “But these things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
Remember the words of Paul in Ephesians when he said in 1:13, “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.”
It is not what was not written that is important but what was written, which is clearly regarded as sufficient to bring people to faith in Christ. And “when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, having believed you were marked with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.” In other words, having heard the truth from what is written, and believed it, you were “included,” numbered with the saints of God, and sealed with the Spirit. This is the church.
Jesus himself declared, “I have much to say to you, more than you can now bear.” How is Jesus to convey the more he has to say? Not by prophets but by the indwelling Spirit, Jesus said in John 16:12-14: “But when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.”
Do Christians believe in revelation? Absolutely! And we trust that the building work continues and that God’s plan for his church, despite the dire pronouncements of those who would write us off, continues. For it is His church and His work and, as Philippians 1:6 states, “he who began a good work in [us] will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
This is rather an untidy picture for some, especially if you take the Mormon view of church, in terms of organisation, marked by hierarchy, and identified by formal structure. “How on earth does someone identify God’s people in this world if that’s how you see it?” one might ask. The best description of church that I ever heard is based on Acts 2:42-47: “The people of God (Eph.1:13) gathered around the Word of God (2 Tim.3:16) ready to do the will of God.”
Every religious group has a founder, and these founders have to have a reason for people to follow them. This is usually some form of vision or miracle, which gives them a special calling to serve God and start something new. “Everyone has gone astray,” they say, “and I have been called to set it right.”
The Mormon Church has a particularly formal and rigid structure of priesthood authority, challenging evangelical Christians that they do not have the authority to act in God’s name. Many Christians have never thought this through and are not sure where they get their authority. We will look at priesthood authority in the Old and New Testaments and the church.
The writer to the Hebrews tells us in 5:1-3 that, like Aaron, the Old Testament priest was to be called of God and represent men in matters related to God in order to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He was to identify with the weaknesses of the people so as to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray.
Speaking of the office of high priest, we read, “No-one takes this honour upon himself; he must be called by God, just as Aaron was.”(5:4). The next three words give us the true intent of the writer: “So Christ also…” He is comparing the callings of Jesus and Aaron. It is the high priesthood of Jesus that is being compared with the high priesthood of the Old Testament. The natural question is, how does Jesus’ priesthood compare with the priesthood of the Old Testament? In this answer, the true biblical priesthood is understood.
The writer of Hebrews goes on to explain how Jesus’ role compares with the points listed above. We find all these fully in Christ:
- Called of God just as Aaron was (“God said to him, You are my Son; today I have become your Father. And he says in another place, You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek” (5:5-6))
- He represented men in matters related to God (“Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them” (7:25))
- He offered gifts and sacrifices for sins: (“…he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears… and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of salvation for all who obey him…” (5:7-9))
- He identified with the people: “(…For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin.” (4:15))
The Same But Different
The writer goes on to tell us about significant differences. It is these differences that explain the role of Jesus as our mediator with God. To miss this is to miss the point of the Gospel story. Hebrews 10:1-3 tells of how inadequate the law was to bring freedom from guilt and sin. Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. …Then he said, ‘Here I am, I have come to do your will.'” (10:5-7)
The sacrifices of the high priests were not pleasing to God because they were temporal and temporary. They had to be repeated as a reminder of sins but were unable to take away sins (10:1-3). So Jesus as a high priest called by God offered a sacrifice that was sufficient. Having offered Himself, “He sets aside the first to establish the second.” (10:9)
What is the first he sets aside? The priesthood of Aaron with its repeated sacrifices; it is made redundant at the cross because you see “day after day every high priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God…by one sacrifice he has made perfect for ever those who are being made holy.” (10:11-14)
Why did Jesus sit down? Because “it is finished“ (John 19:30) What is the second for which the first is set aside? The priesthood of Jesus who is “…a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek”(5:6).
That word forever is very significant. The nature of the Aaronic priesthood is temporal. While the whole tribe of Levites had responsibilities in the tabernacle, one family was set apart for special service, the family of Aaron. These were the priests. And, while a whole family were priests, only one man served as high priest. There was only ever one high priest at a time. (Take careful note, High Priest Quorums!). Sacrifices had to be offered “again and again” by high priests who died and had to be replaced.
The nature of the Melchizedek priesthood is eternal. It is named after Melchizedek for this reason. Unlike the priests of Israel, Melchizedek has no recorded genealogy, making him “timeless” and a “type” of Jesus. Like Melchizedek, Jesus remains a priest forever (7:3); His priesthood was not passed on. (See 7:23-25.) The function of priesthood was to intercede for men before God. Jesus’ sacrifice was once for all time; His priesthood is eternal and His intercession continuous.
In Exodus 19:6 Israel is called “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” This idea is developed in the New Testament in relation to the church. First Peter 2:4-5 speaks of believers as being “… a royal priesthood offering a spiritual sacrifice…” Peter goes on to say in verse 9, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
The Concise Dictionary of Christian Tradition points out that the New Testament uses “priest” only in the plural to describe Christians, further pointing out that a Christian is not a priest individually but only in so far as he is a member of the people of God. It says on page 305, “The whole church is a priesthood… Believers offer sacrifices of praise to God and also intercede for human needs. The church in service of God in the world offers further spiritual sacrifice of obedience to God’s will in the love of the neighbour.”
The church is the body of Christ, and so it is only as a body that we are priests. As a kingdom of priests, we are called of God as was Aaron “…that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9). We intercede for man before God, as it says in Ephesians 6:18, that we ought to “…pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.”
In addition, we offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God because, as 1 Peter 2:5 says, “You…are…a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God.” Finally, we represent God before man, as Jesus commanded in Matthew 28:19-20 to “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
Built on a Foundation
Most cults teach that the true church is an “organisation.” Mormons point to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians commends a church “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (2:20) and “having some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists and some to be pastors and teachers…”
However, as we have already seen, the church is not an institution but a “spiritual house” built of “living stones.” We are collectively “a royal priesthood.” The Ephesians 4 ministries are not offices but functions in which individual members of this royal priesthood operate for the building of the church. We are told that “it was he who gave some to be apostles…”(v.11)
These then are gifts enabling us to speak prophetically, preach the gospel, shepherd, and teach the saints. This, then, is the true priesthood of God, and it is operational in the Christian church today in its varied, though imperfect, expressions.
Standing before Pilate Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36). I sometimes think that Pilate’s response to this has echoed down the ages in the voices of those who look at this unlikely Saviour and his unlikely church: “You are a king, then!” said Pilate. “You are the church!” the world exclaims.
You see, the world judges by the outward appearance but the Lord judges by the heart.
Mike Thomas is a Director of Reachout Trust, a Christian ministry in the UK dedicated to reaching out to people in the cults, the occult and New Age (www.reachouttrust.org). He was a temple-endowed Mormon for most of his fourteen years of church membership and served in many callings in that church, mostly teaching. At the time of his leaving, he was elder’s quorum president. He is the co-author, with his wife Ann, of Mormonism, A Gold-Plated Religion, the only current study of Mormonism from a British perspective. He is also the co-author of Should Christians Apologise? a forthcoming book on apologetics, and the author of a systematic study of the Mormon missionary discussions. Finally, he is a regular contributor to the Reachout Quarterly magazine and web site. He has four children and two grandchildren and lives in Wales with his wife and a Yorkshire terrier named Millie. He says that his wife keeps him sane, his grandchildren keep him young, his children keep him informed, his dog keeps him fit, and God keeps him.