Review: So What Happened to the Cross? Distinctive LDS Teachings
Written by Robert Millet
Deseret Book, 2007
Reviewed by Eric Johnson
Robert Millet, a professor of ancient scripture and a former dean of Religious Education at Mormon-owned Brigham Young University, has authored dozens of books on the LDS religion. Along with Greg Johnson, the founder of the Christian ministry Standing Together, Millet has spent much of the past decade dialoguing on the topic of Mormonism and Christianity, using his amiable personality to make his faith appear almost synonymous with mainstream Christianity. Hence, he wrote the 2007 book So What Happened to the Cross? to help Mormons share their faith about the atonement of Christ, the authority of Joseph Smith and living prophets, and the role of families today.
The Bible vs. The Book of Mormon: Which is more trustworthy?
After spending the first chapter describing Joseph Smith and his 1820 appearance of God, Millet uses chapter 2 (“Setting the Keystone”) to tout why he believes the Book of Mormon is the most correct book on earth compared to the Bible, which he claims has not “come down to us in its pristine purity, as it was written by the original writers” (p. 31).
Why does he accept this as true? For one, “unlike the Bible, which passed through generations of copyists, translators, and corrupt religionists who tampered with the text, the Book of Mormon came from writer to reader in just one inspired step of translation. Therefore, its testimony of the Master is clear, undiluted, and full of power” (p. 35).
I’m not sure if Millet is just ignorant about the transmission of the text or if he is willfully poisoning the well. Either way, he misstates the facts about the Bible’s transmission. Despite what many may think, the Bible is not just a translation of a translation. It does not depend on late texts, which undoubtedly could have been corrupted by translators if earlier copies were not available. In fact, the wealth of resources to describe how accurate the Bible is—including abundant, early manuscript evidence and the wealth of the Church Fathers’ writings—has been documented in many other places. For those who want further information on this topic, allow me to suggest Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ (Harper Collins, 1998) on the popular level, and for the scholars, From God to Us: How We Got Our Bibles (Norman Geisler & William Nix, Moody, 1974), The Canon of Scripture (FF Bruce, IVP, 1988), and The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (Bruce Metzger, Oxford, 1968). In his recent DVD called The Bible vs. Joseph Smith, Joel Kramer had an excellent section describing how the Bible came to us.I might also recommend an article on our website located at http://mrm.org/article-eight
Millet spends the next pages of his book praising the correctness of the Book of Mormon. He says something very important on page 36: “…if either the story of the origins or the message of the book itself is false, the whole religious system that is built upon and flows from the book, including our individual and collective testimonies of the Restoration, are false, misleading, and thus spiritually destructive.” He supports this idea by quoting from LDS general authorities Ezra Taft Benson and Jeffrey R. Holland.
He is correct in saying that the entire Mormon story rests upon the shoulders of Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith, Jr. and the accuracy of his translation. If Smith were a deceiver and his work a fraud, then the LDS religion is based on falsehood. While he believes the book is accurate, Millet and other faithful Latter-day Saints are apparently willing to gloss over the apparent problems. For example, what about contradictions that can be found in the Book of Mormon when compared to the Bible? How about the fact that the archaeological evidence portrays the Book of Mormon as a fictional book referencing fictional people groups and physical locations? Or what about the number of changes to the Book of Mormon from the time it was first dictated to Joseph Smith to today’s editions, even though God supposedly gave Smith word-by-word direction? For more description about these issues, go to http://mrm.org/book-of-mormon and consider the articles listed there.
Misquoted and misrepresented?
In chapter 3, Millet makes the tired argument that past teachings of his church’s leaders such as blood atonement are “very often…misquoted, misrepresented, or taken out of context” (p. 56). He adds, “Further, not everything that was ever spoken or written by a Church leader in the past is a part of what we teach today….We are commanded to pay heed to the words of living oracles (D&C 90:3-5)” (p. 56)
According to Millet’s (and many Latter-day Saints’) philosophy, if something was said in the past by LDS leadership that involved doctrinal issues no longer taught by church leaders today—such as blood atonement, plural marriage, and the banning of blacks to the priesthood —then these teachings can be minimized and treated as if they never existed. But the question is, were these issues taught as doctrinal truth? Or was it taught as the prophets’ mere opinion?
Time does not allow me to get deep with this issue, but consider the Adam-God doctrine, a teaching second president Brigham Young said was true (JOD 1:51) and was taught as being scripturally sound in his day. This was considered to be so important a teaching that he had this teaching included in the endowment ceremony at the St. George temple in January 1877. (Journal of L. John Nuttall; BYU Special Collections, delivered on Feb. 7, 1877). Thus, either Adam was God (as Young and other leaders asserted) or he was not. But it doesn’t matter that the doctrine is no longer being taught because either Young was wrong or he was right—for all people in all times in all places—but he couldn’t be right in his day and wrong today. If he was right about the ontological make-up of the God of this universe, then Mormon leaders are wrong to not teach this truth. If he was wrong, then he was a false prophet. While Mormons may want to sweep this issue under the carpet and pretend it never existed or claim that this was just “Brigham’s” opinion, it is truly a very serious issue. (For more information on this example, see http://mrm.org/adam-god .)
The problem is that too many Mormons are disregarding their history, including past teachings of their leaders, in order to maintain their faith. In the July 15, 2010 edition of the Mormon Times, popular LDS author Orson Scott Card reflects on how his church’s checkered history used to cause him consternation. Married to the oldest daughter of church historian James Allen, Card and his father-in-law took a trip one day to the Church Historical Department to research a play that Card was penning on Joseph Smith’s incarceration at the Liberty Jail. What he found was less than faith-promoting; in fact, he discovered that the Mormons occupying Missouri were not as innocent in their dealings with the “Gentiles” as he had apparently once thought.
“It was a time of turmoil, with some of the most prominent church leaders turning against the Prophet and getting excommunicated in the process,” Card said. “Some of them signed affidavits that appeared to justify criminal charges against Joseph Smith.”
He also learned about the Danites, a group of Mormons who physically retaliated against their enemies. This apparently bothered the Mormon author, who grew up learning “Saint Speak” stories reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984 where indoctrination, not the truth, seems to be the chief goal. These revisionist stories of historical events typically portray the Mormons as persecuted victims, oftentimes by only telling part of the story or by creating legendary details. According to Card, however, his father-in-law offered sage advice to help him deal with any doubts.
“I don’t remember now whether he actually said it, or whether I extrapolated it from his testimony and his calmness about the conflicting information from the Missouri era, but this is the principle I came away with: ‘Whatever happened or didn’t happen, Joseph Smith was the Prophet of God, and the gospel is true.’ Without realizing it, I had been letting my testimony slip into a dangerous condition of contingency. That is, I had been letting the accusations of traitors and anti-Mormons raise doubts in my own heart about whether the actions of church leaders had always been wise or good — and then I had been letting those doubts reach into the deeper place where my faith in the gospel resided.”
Did you hear Card’s rationale? Regardless of the facts of history, he learned that disregarding them was the best solution. The most important thing he could do as a Latter-day Saint was accept Smith as a prophet and, ultimately, the Mormon gospel as true. This fideistic mindset declares that faith trumps rational thought whenever the apparent facts differ with a person’s beliefs.
Card later wrote this: “Just because I was now finding out details about church history that had not been taught to me in Sunday School or in some of the official histories did not mean that the things I had been taught were not true. In short, why should I let my own previous ignorance make me doubt things about the gospel that I had ample reason to be certain of? I learned to approach church history, right up to the present, with this attitude: This happened … and the church is true.” (emphasis his)
Granted, people are certainly going to fail, and I for one would never claim that Mormonism ought to be judged mainly by the bad behavior of certain 19th century people calling themselves Latter-day Saints. But what Card fails to realize is that the Mormon faith is helplessly based on historical events.
Suppose history does show that Joseph Smith did have a vivid imagination. Let’s say he really was a teller of tall tales and, based on archaeology (Why the lack of the evidence in the ground to support the Book of Mormon story?) and science (Why does the DNA evidence contradict the idea that Native Americans were Lamanites?), the Book of Mormon is empirically shown to be a story Smith conjured up. And what if he merely pretended to have had “revelations” from God, Jesus, and an angel in order to lend support to his own theological and personal tastes? (For one, consider the doctrine of polygamy and how Smith personally benefitted from it, at least from his viewpoint.) Then, very clearly, history does matter. Allowing our presuppositions to get in the way of the discovery of truth has a high price tag.
Instead of minimizing history, Scott and other Latter-day Saints ought to pay more attention to it. If Smith was a true prophet and did restore the gospel, then there is something to Mormonism. If Brigham Young and succeeding prophets have accurately portrayed God’s mind, then the LDS Church is true regardless of how one “feels” about it. But sweeping facts under the carpet—whether they are historical or perhaps theological—in order to maintain one’s faith is a very dangerous precedent.
Church Doctrine: From Whence it Comes?
Another point Millet makes is that doctrines of the church should come from one of four places: the Four Standard Works, official declarations of church leaders, general conferences held twice a year in Salt Lake City, and approved curriculum. He adds that those teachings from “all that God does reveal” should also be authoritative, such as the temple endowment ceremony. Yet the very issues that Millet would apparently like swept under the rug, such as blood atonement, Adam-God, and polygamy, were certainly authoritative teachings in those days. To try to make these controversial issues disappear, he minimizes them and pretends they never were really important in his church’s history.
He writes, “A significant portion of anti-Mormonism focuses on statements by Church leaders of the past that deal with peripheral issues. No one criticizes us for a belief in God; in the divinity of Jesus Christ or his atoning work; in the literal, bodily resurrection of the Savior and the eventual resurrection of humankind; in baptism by immersion; in the gift of the Holy Ghost; the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, etc.” He adds, “In that spirit, we must never allow a person not of our faith to teach us—to insist upon—what we believe.” (p. 56)
Are “countercult ministr(ies)” such as MRM guilty of his charge? Let’s consider Millet’s laundry list from above, along with a category of articles that deal with the topic found on our website:
When the objective observer realizes that the LDS definitions of words such as God, Jesus, salvation, and baptism consistently differ in meaning from the Evangelical Christian position, it is plain to see that Mormonism ought to be criticized on the issues mentioned by Millet. For example, Christianity has never taught that God was once a man and that people can become gods and goddesses in the next life. Jesus is not just the first created being but is God in the flesh and is to be worshipped as such, which is what Christians have believed for two millennia. True Christians say that people are saved by grace through faith, and not by works, so baptism—though a beautiful symbolic act—is not required for exaltation, as Mormonism attests. And so on. Millet is wrong when he says that Christians merely criticize Mormonism on the peripherals. No, we disagree with essential and peripheral issues.
Painting an ad hominem picture of everyone in the Christian countercult ministry, Millet then poisons the well when he writes: “I am, to be sure, absolutely stunned that men and women who claim to be Christian can waste and wear out their lives seeking to tear down what they cannot understand, doing so with a venom and a horrid bitterness that is anything but Christian.” (p. 203) In essence, this view says that Mormonism should only be judged and understood by those belonging to the special club. This is like saying that unless a person played professional football, he or she has no right to talk about the rules of the game or judge whether a player should have made a catch in the end zone. Or a person who has never played the piano has no ability to determine a good song from a bad one. Most people see such reasoning to be absurd.
Later in the chapter, Millet guffaws when an LDS member explained how Christians were telling her how Mormons “believe that God the Father had sexual relations with Mary and thereby Jesus was conceived.” He told the woman, “I’m aware of that teaching, but that is not the doctrine of the Church; that is not what we teach in the Church today” (p. 60). Because it is not found in the four major works listed earlier, it is therefore not doctrine. But is this the case? Over and over again, this teaching was taught in the places Millet claims are authoritative sources. For instance, there were General Conference talks on this issue. Brigham Young was clear about it (see Journal of Discourses 1:51; 4:218; 8:115; 11:268.), as was Joseph Fielding Smith (Conference Reports, April 1921, pp. 39-40; DOS 1:1), Heber C. Kimball (JOD 8:211), Orson Pratt (JOD 19:319), and James Talmage (CR, April 1915, p. 123).
As far as official manuals, consider Joseph F. Smith’s teaching in the Family Home Evening manual from 1972 (pp. 125,126), which included a pictorial example of how “Heavenly Father + Mary = Jesus” is equal to “Daddy + Mommy = You.” Other church manuals where this teaching is clearly taught include Book of Mormon Gospel Doctrine Teacher’s Manual 1999, p. 15), Doctrines of the Gospel Student Manual: Religion 231-232, p. 9, Book of Mormon Seminary Study Guide, 2000, p. 22, Gospel Principles, 1997, p. 64, Messages for Exaltation, 1967, pp. 378-379, and Primary 1: I Am a Child of God, p. 13. The LDS pamphlet What the Mormons Think of Christ clearly states on page 44, “He is the Son of God, literally, actually, as men are the sons of mortal parents.”
How can Millet say this teaching is not meant for today? As it can be seen, LDS leaders have historically taught that there was a literal, even physical, union between Heavenly Father and Mary. And this teaching is fully documented in church manuals. If this is not accurate, then he needs to produce the evidence to show how these quotes are taken out of context or where the current leadership repudiates this teaching.
Amazingly, Millet makes it appear that his leaders sometimes gave their personal opinions that did not reflect official teaching. He writes on page 62: “Those of other faiths who leap to criticize the Church and question its truthfulness because of past teachings from Church leaders that are not accepted as doctrine today would do well to ask themselves if they are prepared to apply the same standards of judgment to their own tradition, their own prominent speakers, or their own past.” Would Protestants like it, he asks, if they were judged on everything Martin Luther said and wrote?
Millet makes a false parallelism. For one thing, Luther never proclaimed himself to be God’s representative on earth who restored the Church from an apostasy taking place soon after the death of the apostles. But Joseph Smith and all succeeding leaders do. They are representatives of God’s will to restore the true church to the fact of the earth. They even received direct revelation from God to abandon their polygamous ways in 1890 and the ban on giving the priesthood to Blacks in 1978. His leaders ought to be expected to be held to the higher standard because they claim to be God’s official representatives on the face of the earth.
Regarding the Black revelation in 1978, Millet quoted Bruce McConkie (who wrote very harshly about Blacks in his pre-1978 Mormon Doctrine) as saying that people ought to “forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whosoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.” (p. 65) Too many questions are left unanswered. For instance, how should a person today know if a teaching is “official doctrine”? What are the parameters? Does “current teaching” mean the doctrine had to have been taught in the past year? The past decade? The past century?
Of course, Mormons can know polygamy should no longer be practiced (Declaration 1) or that Blacks can now hold the priesthood (Declaration 2). But how are they supposed to know that Blood Atonement is no longer valid? Or that the Virgin Birth as believed by Millet is the right way and not the account found in official church manuals? And what about teachings that are left up to personal interpretation? For example, what about Heavenly Mother? Does the Word of Wisdom ban caffeinated sodas? And a host of other issues are left up to the individual’s take on the doctrine, which results in Mormons in the same ward becoming confused as to what is current teaching.
There is also the problem of trying to determine if what an LDS leader—whether he is speaking in conference or through official church manuals—is getting the teaching right when it could be easily changed in the next manual or conference. For instance, how does a Mormon know that polygamy wasn’t always supposed to be, as the leaders clearly taught it was? (See http://mrm.org/polygamy) Or that Blacks would never get the priesthood, as the leadership insisted? (See http://mrm.org/curse-of-cain) Or how do we know that the couplet “As man is, God once was. As God is, man may be” couldn’t be changed next week? It could be true today but not true tomorrow. Why would a church that supposedly “restored” the Christian gospel to the face of the earth make it so confusing as to what a person is supposed to believe?
After all of this is said, Millet has the gall to say that “what the Latter-day Saints believe is what the Former-day Saints believed.” (p. 83) Using Acts 1:3, he insinuates on pages 176-177 that perhaps such important teachings as the temple endowment ceremony and sacred marriage ceremonies might have been introduced by Christ during the forty days after His resurrection, which is why they’re not explicitly taught in the gospels. Where is the evidence for such a claim? If, during the 40 days after His resurrection, Jesus really did teach on temple marriage, endowment ceremonies, and other issues taught by Mormons today, then it would have been wrong for the disciples to have withheld this information. Indeed, Millet is grasping at straws in his obvious argument from silence.
Conclusion: A different (and corrupted) gospel
Toward the end of the book (p. 184), Millet writes: “My heart aches as I read the words or listen to the sermons of good men and women, devoted and intelligent religious leaders, who do not grasp the beauty of the concept of the eternal family, who do not fathom what things are possible through the powers of the holy priesthood. My heart leaps and my joy is full as I reflect upon what takes place in holy temples in regards to both the living and the dead.”
My reaction is that, truly, my heart aches in the understanding that the Mormon people are on their way to eternal destruction if they die without a saving belief in the Jesus of the Bible. Regardless of all their good works, the beliefs and practices as taught by the Mormon Church are biblically bankrupted and, instead of drawing a person to the true God of the universe, merely push him or her away. Though the subtitle of this book reads “Distinctive LDS Teachings,” Millet wants everyone to think that Mormon beliefs are very similar to Christian beliefs and that we shouldn’t point out how distinctive these beliefs really are. Too many people are joining this religious organization not fully grasping the differences; in addition, too many members don’t understand the vast differences between Mormonism and Christianity. Until their leaders completely revamp their unbiblical teachings, I am compelled to explain the ways that make this religion so unique.