Review of Chapter 1: Are Mormons Christian? (The LDS Gospel Topics Series, Signature Books, 2020)
Authored by Craig Blomberg, New Testament professor at Denver Seminary
Reviewed by Eric Johnson
NOTE: Click here for an introduction and a short review of each of the 13 chapters in the book The LDS Gospel Topics Series: A Scholarly Engagement (edited by Matthew L. Harris and Newell G. Bringhurst). This is a more extensive review of the first chapter titled Are Mormons Christian? authored by Craig Blomberg, professor at Denver Seminary.
Out of the thirteen reviewers who contributed essays to The LDS Gospel Topics Series (Signature Books, 2020), Dr. Craig Blomberg is the one (token?) Evangelical Christian. For background, it should be noted that Blomberg is a renowned New Testament scholar who coauthored How Wide the Divide? (Intervarsity Press, 1997)–a dialogue he had with the late Stephen E. Robinson who was a professor at Brigham Young University. For this new project, Blomberg was invited to respond to the Gospel Topics Essay titled “Are Mormons Christian?”
On page 36, Blomberg points out the three major differences between Mormons and Evangelical Christians:
- Mormons “do not accept the creeds and confessions of post-New Testament Christianity.”
- “They (Mormons) do not ‘descend from’ any one of the three lines of historical Christianity—Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, or Protestantism.”
- “Scripture for the LDS includes not just the Bible but the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.”
Beginning on page 37, Blomberg astutely points out that the Gospel Topics Essay—though admittedly limited in scope—does not cover several important topics, including:
- Salvation by grace through faith
- The Jesus of Mormonism (along with the Trinity)
- The Mormon restoration (i.e., the Great Apostasy and the return of a “lost” priesthood)
- The LDS expanded canon and lack of importance of the Bible in LDS thought
He expresses hope that the original Gospel Topics Essay (“Are Mormons Christian?”) could be revised to include these issues. In addition, he suggests adding two more points to what he listed above:
- “Latter-day Saints are a religion of works, not grace, and therefore no more successfully qualify as genuinely Christian than did most medieval Catholics.”
- “Latter-day Saints do not believe that Jesus provided a full and final atonement for the sins of humanity because they are constantly urging their people to do more and more good works and participate in temple rituals, so that they can achieve the highest levels of heaven in the life to come.” (p. 40)
Blomberg’s Wishful Thinking
One of the frustrating things about this piece is Blomberg somehow believes that the LDS scholars and general authorities are moving in the direction of Christianity. While he gives clues that he does not accept Mormonism as “Christian,” his idea that LDS scholars and select sermons by general authorities are an indication that their church is getting closer to Christian orthodoxy is troubling. And as I will point out later, I think this attitude can be very dangerous.
Responding to the fourth point given above, Blomberg writes that we should refer to the kinds of teachings one finds in former BYU professor Robert Millet’s Grace Works or in the 2015 LDS general conference address by Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the First Presidency of the LDS Church.” Summarizing their teachings, he then makes this incredible statement about what he thinks Mormonism is teaching: “Works are absolutely essential but as the outflow of one’s salvation by grace, not as a contributor to it” (p. 40).
Let’s take a quick look at the teachings of Millet and his book, which speaks for itself (“Grace Works”). Millet writes on pages 128 to 129:
If, as we have suggested, the works of man are necessary, then how can the words of the risen Lord be true: My grace is sufficient for thee”? (2 Corinthians 12:9; compare Ether 12:26; D&C 17:8). The answer lies in the final words of Moroni on the last page of the Book of Mormon: “Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind, and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you” (Moroni 10:32). For us to enjoy the strength, enabling power, and purifying influence of the mighty arm of God, we must do all in our power to receive it. Thus, we reach and stretch to take the hand of the Almighty. We open our hands and our hearts to the proffered gift. We strive with all our souls to love our Maker and avoid unholy attitudes and behaviors and places and influences that distance us from the Holy One. Then his grace is sufficient for us.
In his review of Grace Works (click for full review), Bill McKeever makes a good point when he wrote:
Dr. Millet makes an excellent observation on page 66. “What a person trusts in, what he or she relies on — these are excellent indicators of spiritual maturity.” Mormons often say they are totally trusting in Christ, but is this really so? Does Dr. Millet have the confidence that he will achieve exaltation without his church membership, his baptism, his tithe, or his temple endowments? Can any Mormon who has neglected being sealed for time and eternity in a Mormon temple be confident that he will be exalted? My experience talking with Mormons shows that they are not. The fact that they are trusting in these accomplishments etches away at any probability that they are trusting completely in the merits of Christ for their salvation.
Millet certainly doesn’t fit the paradigm as listed by Blomberg (“Works are absolutely essential but as the outflow of one’s salvation by grace, not as a contributor to it”).
Regarding to the 2015 general conference talk given by Apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf (then a second counselor of the First Presidency) titled “The Gift of Grace,” what Uchtdorf taught is not a step in the right direction. McKeever wrote,
At general conference in April 2015, Dieter F. Uchtdorf, a member of the LDS First Presidency, gave a message called “The Gift of Grace.” In it he said “salvation cannot be bought with the currency of obedience.” How is one to understand this in light of all the many comments made by other leaders and manuals that emphasize the need for complete obedience by members? After all, it was only two years ago when President Thomas S. Monson, citing Gordon B. Hinckley, said that “eternal salvation and exaltation of this people lie in walking in obedience” to the counsels of God (“Obedience Brings Blessings,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 2013, p. 90).
Mormonism indeed includes a doctrine of grace in its theology; however, this concept of grace does not at all resemble the New Testament grace that is unmerited and undeserved. If God’s best must be gained by works, it is not a gift in the true sense of the word. If it is not a true gift, it is not biblical grace. In Uchtdorf’s conference talk, he said Mormons do good works “out of love” for God. No doubt, many Mormons have that motivation, but this does not erase all of the many times Mormons have been told that the grace that forgives the Mormon of sins comes after meeting a long list of performance requirements. . . .
While general salvation (resurrection) is not dependent on works of any kind, exaltation or eternal life most certainly is. Personal performance and commandment keeping is essential to complete a Mormon’s journey to exaltation. According to the manual True to the Faith, “The phrase ‘after all we can do’ teaches that effort is required on our part to receive the fulness of the Lord’s grace and be made worthy to dwell with him” (p.77).
In the March 2013 issue of Ensign magazine, members were told, “What do Latter-day Saints believe about grace? We believe that God’s grace is what ultimately saves us; yet it does not save us without our doing all that we can to live God’s commandments and follow Jesus Christ’s teachings. We do not believe salvation comes by simply confessing belief in Christ as our Savior. Faith, works, ordinances, and grace are all necessary” (Ensign, March 2013, p. 21).
The day after Uchtdorf gave the above message, Kevin W. Pearson, a seventy, told members, “Once we enter into covenants with God, there is no going back.” Covenants are promises made by members to keep all of the commandments. Mormons are told that God is not bound to keep his end of the agreement if a member fails to live up to the covenants made (D&C 82:9-10).
Mormons who have participated in the temple are also fully aware of the threat made by the character portraying Lucifer. In the endowment ceremony Lucifer addresses the crowd and tells “Peter,” “if they do not walk up to every covenant they make at these altars in this temple this day, they will be in my power!” Since it is highly unlikely that Dieter F. Uchtdorf was implying that members need not live up to every covenant to achieve exaltation, it’s highly unlikely that the LDS Church is moving toward a biblical view of grace. Source.
Blomberg references the late Stephen E. Robinson’s 1995 book Following Christ: The Parable of the Divers and More Good News. Robinson, a former professor at church-owned Brigham Young University, did not have any writings that come close to what is taught in biblical Christianity. Just consider a parable Robinson told in his book Believing Christ in 1992. His daughter Sarah came to him asking if she could get a bike. He told his daughter to “save all your pennies, and pretty soon you’ll have enough for a bike.” Over the next weeks, she saved the money she received from her mother for doing chores. Then, one day, she approached her father and showed him a jar with her coins. Excitedly, she said, “You promised that if I saved all my pennies, pretty soon I’d have enough to get a bike. And Daddy, I’ve saved every single one!”
At this, Blomberg decided to take her to a near-by bike store. When Sarah saw the price tag for the bike she wanted, she became sad. Robinson asked how much money she had and she told him, “Sixty one cents.” He tells the rest of the story:
“Then I’ll tell you what, dear. Let’s try a different arrangement. You give me everything you’ve got, the whole sixty-one cents, and a hug and a kiss, and this bike is yours.” Well, she’s never been stupid. She gave me a big hug and a kiss and handed over the sixty-one cents. Then I had to drive home very slowly because she wouldn’t get off the bike. She rode it home on the sidewalk (it was only a few blocks), and I drove along beside her. And as I drove, it occurred to me that this was a parable for the atonement of Christ. (p. 32).
Turning the story into a spiritual lesson, he wrote,
At that point, the Savior steps in and says, “So you’ve done all you can do, but it’s not enough. Well, don’t despair. I’ll tell you what, let’s try a different arrangement. How much do you have? How much can fairly be expected of you? You give me exactly that much (the whole sixty-one cents) and do all you can do, and I will provide the rest for now. You give me all you’ve got and a hug and a kiss (that is, make this a personal relationship), and the kingdom is yours! . . . You do everything you can do, and I’ll do what you can’t yet do. Between the two of us, we’ll have it all covered. You will be one hundred percent justified” (p. 33).
Instead of sounding like divine grace, this story sounds like a divine subsidization. After all, the payment could not be made unless it was made in full, but the 61 cents–no matter how minimal–was a requirement. This is a much different picture of Christ’s atonement than what is taught in the Bible.
Like other teachings given by top leaders, a closer evaluation takes away any hope that Mormonism is moving in the direction of Evangelical Christianity. To think that the teachings of Uchtdorf, Millet, and Robinson are close to Christianity would be to misunderstand the terms they use. Isn’t this the problem many Christians face when talking to Mormons? (i.e., “Say, the missionary told me he believes in salvation by grace and the atonement of Jesus. They must be Christian like us!”) Miscommunication happens when terms used by both Christians and Mormons are not properly identified and selective hearing is the rule rather than the exception.
Blomberg proudly cites 2 Nephi 25:23. It says, in part, that “it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” He admits that a literal reading would not provide much hope and even “sounds exactly like the teaching of the Judaizers in Galatia whom Paul condemned” (p. 41). With this point, he’s correct. However, Blomberg goes on to say that he sees hope despite the bleakness of the literal reading of the verse. Using eisegetical techniques, he gives two possible interpretations: “’after all you can do, which can never add up to anything that would satisfy God, we are saved by grace,’ or ‘after all, there is nothing you could ever do to merit God’s favor, so God saves us wholly by his grace,’ then the believer from any denomination should acknowledge this as a thoroughly Christian concept” (p. 41)
How does he come up with the idea that these two possibilities are viable interpretations? It is uncertain since he provides no evidence from LDS leaders to support such a rosy perspective. In fact, his leaders have been consistent in offering very literal understandings about how grace is extended only upon completion of the task. MRM has covered this issue at depth in two different articles, so to read more on this, please visit:
- 2 Nephi 25:23: Saved by grace “in spite of” all we can do?
- 2 Nephi 25:23: A Distinctive Mormon Passage on Salvation
Blomberg then goes on to rightly explain that Christianity does not embrace antinomianism, or the idea that a person can accept Christ and then be dedicated to living a life of sin. (Paul certainly addresses this issue in Romans chapters 6 and 7.)
As far as the atonement provided by Christ, Blomberg explains on page 43 that “Mormons can in good conscience stress that Christ did make full and final atonement for our salvation, and that we stand purified before God solely on the basis of ‘the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah’ (2 Ne. 2:8).” By pointing to a verse in the Book of Mormon, it appears Blomberg wants the reader to assume that the religion of Mormonism supports the biblical doctrine of imputation, a word that refers to how Christ’s righteousness is credited to a person’s account based on faith alone (Rom. 4:3). This is not the teaching of the LDS leadership as given throughout the years, as leaders do not teach that a person can be “purified before God solely on the basis of ‘the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah” as indicated by 2 Nephi 2:8. Just consider three citations from different official church manuals:
We are saved by the power of the atonement of Jesus Christ. We must, however, come unto Christ on His terms in order to obtain all the blessings that He freely offers us. We come unto Christ by ‘doing all we can do’ to remember Him, keep our covenants with Him, and obey His commandments (see D&C 20:77; see also Abraham 3:25) (Book of Mormon Seminary Student Study Guide, 2000, p. 53. Emphasis mine).
Further spiritual death comes as a result of our own disobedience. Our sins make us unclean and unable to dwell in the presence of God (see Romans 3:23; Alma 12:12–16, 32; Helaman 14:18; Moses 6:57). Through the Atonement, Jesus Christ offers redemption from this spiritual death, but only when we exercise faith in Him, repent of our sins, and obey the principles and ordinances of the gospel (see Alma 13:27–30; Helaman 14:19; Articles of Faith 1:3) (True to the Faith: A Gospel Reference, 2004, p. 48. Emphasis mine).
The Savior satisfied the demands of justice for those who repent of their sins and endeavor to keep all of His commandments when He stood in our place and suffered the penalty for our sins. This act is called the Atonement… However, Jesus did not eliminate our personal responsibility. He forgives our sins when we accept Him, repent, and obey His commandments. Through the Atonement and living the gospel we become worthy to enter the presence of our Heavenly Father permanently (Preach My Gospel, 2004, p. 61. Ellipsis and emphasis mine).
Apostle James Talmage wrote,
The Individual Effect of the Atonement makes it possible for any and every soul to obtain absolution from the effect of personal sins, through the mediation of Christ; but such saving intercession is to be invoked by individual effort as manifested through faith, repentance, and continued works of righteousness (Articles of Faith, p. 89). (Emphasis mine)
Apostle M. Russell Ballard taught,
Our beloved Heavenly Father’s plan includes giving us a growing, stretching, learning, physical mortality through which we can become more like Him. Clothing our eternal spirits in physical bodies; living by the teachings and commandments of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ; and forming eternal families allows us, through the Savior’s Atonement, to fulfill God’s goal of immortality and eternal life for His children with Him in His celestial kingdom (M. Russell Ballard, “Return and Receive,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 2017, p. 63. Emphasis mine).
And current LDS President Russell M. Nelson explained,
As Latter-day Saints, we refer to His mission as the Atonement of Jesus Christ, which made resurrection a reality for all and made eternal life possible for those who repent of their sins and receive and keep essential ordinances and covenants (“Drawing the Power of Jesus Christ into Our Lives,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 2017, p. 40. Emphasis mine).
To suggest, therefore, that any hope for the Mormon can be found in 2 Nephi 25:23 is misleading, at least according to multiple citations of the LDS leaders.
In addition, Blomberg places way too much confidence in Apostle Jeffrey Holland who spoke before Uchtdorf at the April 2015 General Conference titled “Where Justice, Love, and Mercy Meet.” Citing this talk, Blomberg explained how he felt this
is a powerful example of the kind of teaching that should warm every Evangelical’s heart. Using the illustration of someone hanging on to the edge of a cliff, unable to pull himself up, Holland envisioned God as the rescuer at the top of the cliff who requires the person to let go, reach out to their rescuer, and trust that they will be caught and placed safely on the top (p. 43).
But was this message something “that should warm every Evangelical’s heart”? I hardly think so and believe that Blomberg–intentionally or not–misleads his readers by not providing the full context of this story. Holland did say,
So today we celebrate the gift of victory over every fall we have ever experienced, every sorrow we have ever known, every discouragement we have ever had, every fear we have ever faced—to say nothing of our resurrection from death and forgiveness for our sins. That victory is available to us because of events that transpired on a weekend precisely like this nearly two millennia ago in Jerusalem (“Where Justice, Love, and Mercy Meet,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 2015, p. 106).
More context in that talk is provided to show what he meant:
That first Easter sequence of Atonement and Resurrection constitutes the most consequential moment, the most generous gift, the most excruciating pain, and the most majestic manifestation of pure love ever to be demonstrated in the history of this world. Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, suffered, died, and rose from death in order that He could, like lightning in a summer storm, grasp us as we fall, hold us with His might, and through our obedience to His commandments, lift us to eternal life (p. 106, emphasis mine).
Notice, it is “through our obedience to His commandments” that “lift us to eternal life.” This should not have been missed. The illustration certainly works for the atonement as historically taught according to Christianity, but the Mormon who is hanging on to the side of cliff has to do more than just let go and let the rescuer do the work. In Mormonism, the person who is being rescued is responsible to do his part, precisely as Holland had discussed earlier in his talk:
That Atonement would achieve complete victory over physical death, unconditionally granting resurrection to every person who has been born or ever will be born into this world. Mercifully it would also provide forgiveness for the personal sins of all, from Adam to the end of the world, conditioned upon repentance and obedience to divine commandments (p. 106, Emphasis mine).
According to Holland, mercy is “conditioned” on two things: repentance and obedience to commandments (as interpreted by the LDS Church). This is certainly not the Christian interpretation of “mercy,” which has no conditions. A Christian might say, “We as Christians believe in repentance when we become believers.” That is true, but the difference between what “repentance” means to someone who holds a Christian worldview compared to someone with an LDS worldview must be understood. For a Christian, repentance is turning from sins and receiving the gift of eternal life provided by God. However, the definition given by LDS leaders is that “repentance” is more than just asking for forgiveness of sins. Instead, it is the successful completion of righting those wrongs. Among the aspects of repentance comes this requirement, according to the church’s website:
Abandonment of Sin. Although confession is an essential element of repentance, it is not enough. The Lord has said, “By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them” (Doctrine and Covenants 58:43). We must maintain an unyielding, permanent resolve that we will never repeat the transgression. When we keep this commitment, we will never experience the pain of that sin again. We must flee immediately from any compromising situation. If a certain situation causes us to sin or may cause us to sin, we must leave. We cannot linger in temptation and expect to overcome sin. Source
Apostle Richard G. Scott explained at a general conference,
When needed, full repentance will require action on your part. If you are not familiar with the classic steps to repentance, such as confession and abandonment of sin, restitution, obedience, and seeking forgiveness, talk to a bishop or study a source such as President Spencer W. Kimball’s masterly work The Miracle of Forgiveness (“Peace of Conscience and Peace of Mind,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 2004, p. 16. Emphasis mine).
What did Kimball say on this topic in The Miracle of Forgiveness? Here are a few citations:
“There is one crucial test of repentance. This is abandonment of the sin” (p. 163. See also Doctrines of the Gospel Student Manual: Religion 231 and 232, p. 40. See also Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball, p. 39).
“Trying Is Not Sufficient. Nor is repentance complete when one merely tries to abandon sin . . . . To try is weak, to do the best you can is not strong. You must always do better than you can. This is true in every walk of life” (pp. 164-165).
“Repentance must involve an all-out, total surrender to the program of the Lord. That transgressor is not fully repentant who neglects his tithing, misses his meetings, breaks the Sabbath, fails in his family prayers, does not sustain the authorities of the Church, breaks the Word of Wisdom, does not love the Lord nor his fellowmen. A reforming adulterer who drinks or curses is not repentant. The repenting burglar who has sex play is not ready for forgiveness. God cannot forgive unless the transgressor shows a true repentance which spreads to all areas of his life” (p. 203. See also Doctrines of the Gospel Student Manual: Religion 231 and 232, p. 41. See also Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball, p. 43).
“Christ became perfect through overcoming. Only as we overcome shall we become perfect and move toward godhood. As I have indicated previously, the time to do this is now, in mortality” (p. 210).
“Your Heavenly Father has promised forgiveness upon total repentance and meeting all the requirements, but that forgiveness is not granted merely for the asking. There must be works—many works—and an all-out, total surrender, with a great humility and ‘a broken heart and a contrite spirit.’ It depends upon you whether or not you are forgiven, and when. It could he weeks, it could he years, it could be centuries before that happy day when you have the positive assurance that the Lord has forgiven you. That depends on your humility your sincerity, your works, your attitudes” (pp. 324-325).
“Little reward can be expected for a tiny effort to repent, for the Lord has said that it must be a total repentance ‘with all his heart’ and the error must be forsaken fully and wholly, mentally as well as physically” (p. 333)
In a tract titled “Repentance Brings Forgiveness” published by the church, Kimball explained, “The forsaking of sin must be a permanent one. True repentance does not permit making the same mistake again. . . . The Lord said: ‘Go your ways and sin no more; but unto that soul who sinneth shall the former sins return.’ (D&C 82:7).”
In addition, Blomberg also fails to consider other teachings given by Holland. (If he knows about them, he certainly doesn’t cite any additional teachings.) For instance, the following year (April 2016), Holland gave another general conference talk titled “Tomorrow the Lord Will Do Wonders Among You.” Here Holland introduced a term (“credit for trying”) that many Latter-day Saints have interpreted to mean a possibility of receiving “extra credit” for those hard-working Latter-day Saints who do their best to choose the right path. In that talk Holland said, “With the gift of the Atonement of Jesus Christ and the strength of heaven to help us, we can improve, and the great thing about the gospel is we get credit for trying, even if we don’t always succeed” (“Tomorrow the Lord Will Do Wonders among You,” Ensign, May 2016, p. 126).
Holland went on to say,
When there was a controversy in the early Church regarding who was entitled to heaven’s blessings and who wasn’t, the Lord declared to the Prophet Joseph Smith, “Verily I say unto you, [the gifts of God] are given for the benefit of those who love me and keep … my commandments, and [for them] that seeketh so to do.” Boy, aren’t we all thankful for that added provision “and … seeketh so to do”! That has been a lifesaver because sometimes that is all we can offer! (p. 127, ellipses in original).
Those who skimmed Holland’s talk or were selective in their listening could find great hope in what he said, but upon closer examination, this again was more of the same heretical teaching. For more on this talk, consider reading “Credit for Trying? A Loophole for Latter-day Saints?”
Returning to Blomberg’s essay, a puzzling statement was made at the bottom of page 43: “The renewed focus in many LDS circles of theology of the cross is most welcome and should continue to be highlighted in any revised or expanded version of ‘Are Mormons Christians?’ or any similar document drafted in the future.” To whom is he referring when he says there is a “renewed focus” on the cross “in many LDS circles of theology”? Certainly he can’t get this idea from the two apostles he cited. If he’s making a reference to the LDS scholars, well, his LDS friends are simply espousing their own opinions while having no capacity to teach official doctrine. Blomberg does go on to take the LDS leadership to task for not emphasizing the empty cross more than they do, but I have not seen the atonement through the substitutional death of Christ on the cross stressed any more than when 10th President Joseph Fielding Smith said:
GREATEST SUFFERING WAS IN GETHSEMANE. We speak of the passion of Jesus Christ. A great many people have an idea that when he was on the cross, and nails were driven into his hands and feet, that was his great suffering. His great suffering was before he ever was placed upon the cross. It was in the Garden of Gethsemane that the blood oozed from the pores of his body: “Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit-and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink.” That was not when he was on the cross; that was in the garden. That is where he bled from every pore in his body (Doctrines of Salvation 1:130).
And just a few years ago, 15th President Gordon B. Hinckley distanced himself from Christianity’s symbolism of the cross when he said, “But for us, the cross is the symbol of the dying Christ, while our message is a declaration of a Living Christ” (“The Symbol of Our Faith,” Ensign, April 2005, p. 3).
Blomberg is a bright man with a respected Ph.D. and is rightly acclaimed as a scholar in New Testament studies. I don’t doubt that for a second and have even cited his works in different places. Thus, it is puzzling why he holds out any hope for an LDS general authority who suggests that eternal life comes “through our obedience to His commandments.” His reliance on scholars such as Millet and Robinson is precarious when it is understood just who is authorized to declare doctrine in this church. His sloppy analysis is unfortunate.
Over the centuries, a number of creeds have been created to summarize the beliefs that Christians have in common. Blomberg does not have a problem if a person says, “I believe in every word of the Bible; I simply do not accept the later creeds.” He explains,
This was, after all, the position of the Stone-Campbell movement that birthed the uniquely American denominations, the Disciples of Christ, the so-called Independent Christian Churches, and the Church of Christ. Churches in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America today often do not recite “He descended into hell” as part of the Apostles’ Creed, because the best biblical scholarship is in agreement that the passages traditionally cited in support of that belief do not teach it at all. . . . So for LDS simply to say that they do not accept the creeds does not really get to the heart of the matter. The key question is which parts of the creeds they do not believe in (pp. 44, 45. Ellipsis mine).
Blomberg recites the Apostles Creed and then states how “Stephen Robinson said he could affirm all of it, as long as he was allowed to define ‘holy catholic church’ as ‘true Christianity,’ as he understand many Evangelicals also defined it.” (p. 45). Yet could a Mormon actually recite the Apostles Creed in the same way a Christian would? I would say no for, just as Robinson wanted to redefine “holy Catholic church,” a Mormon typically gives much different definitions for the words used in this creed. Here is the creed:
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
Let’s take a simplified look at the differences between the biblical view of these teachings and what Mormonism teaches by breaking down this creed concerning the belief about God:
I believe in God the Father almighty . . .
Christianity: The first person of the Trinity is God from all eternity (Ps. 90:2) with the idea that no other gods exist (Is. 43:10, 44:6,8)
Mormonism: God has a body of flesh and bones (D&C 130:22) who once existed as a human in another realm–other gods preceded him and will follow him
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord . . .
Christianity: Jesus is the uncreated God from the beginning (John 1:1) and can be worshiped and prayed to
Mormonism: Jesus is a literal creation as the first-born son of Heavenly Father and Mother; he should not be worshiped or prayed to
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary . . .
Christianity: The Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary in a nonsexual, nonphysical manner to conceive Jesus (Matt. 1:18)
Mormonism: God the Father had a physical and literal relationship with Mary to conceive Jesus
I believe in the Holy Spirit . . .
Christianity: The third member of the Trinity who is fully God
Mormonism: Holy Ghost is the spirit son of God the Father and is not equal to the Father
As far as several other teachings:
the communion of saints,
Christianity: All true believers in Christ
Mormonism: Those who are members of the LDS Church
the forgiveness of sins,
Christianity: Pardon for all sins—past, present, and future—through faith in Christ alone
Mormonism: Obtained through repentance and, ultimately, by keeping all of God’s commandments
the resurrection of the body,
Christianity: Receiving a glorified body in heaven
Mormonism: Physically existing in the celestial kingdom with one’s earthly family for eternity and where procreation in the next life will take place
and the life everlasting.
Christianity: Eternity with God in heaven
Mormonism: Eternity as gods in the celestial kingdom (eternal life or exaltation).
While Christians from different backgrounds can recite this creed and mean the same things, a Mormon and Christian will subconsciously interpret the different aspects of this creed in a much different way–whether or not they are conscious of this fact. Of this, there can be no doubt. To assume that Stephen E. Robinson can recite this creed the same way as it is understood by biblical Christians is misleading.
But Blomberg goes on to say that even the Nicene Creed—with what he admits has a Trinitarian emphasis—could somehow be accepted by Latter-day Saints because, he says, they would reject modalism. Again, when we understand what Christianity has historically taught about the Trinity and what Mormonism teaches about the tri-theistic Godhead, the two religions remain far apart.
The final two paragraphs of Blomberg’s essay is nothing less than confusing. He writes on page 49, “My years of study and dialogue actually make me much more hopeful about the genuinely Christian nature of at least a significant and growing portion of the LDS Church, especially where views on the Atonement and on grace match those we have mentioned earlier.”
As I have pointed out, Mormonism’s leaders have provided absolutely no signs that they are embracing any form of Christianity, whether Western or Eastern. When it comes to the atonement and grace offered by God, there is still a wide divide separating the faiths. He then talks about his desire to see more ecumenical unity take place among those espousing the two faiths:
I thoroughly support joint efforts to combat unhealthy moral and social trends, the plea with which my essays ends. I find it unfortunate that Evangelicals of my generation have largely resisted such cooperation, typically because they think it will confuse others into imagining that we are all alike. In my experience, that seldom actually happens, and, even allowing for very rare instances in which it might, is it not worth the risk for the sake of the good that would be accomplished in the process? And do not those fears of confusing the two movements somehow imply that both LDS and Evangelicals would be mute in the process of whatever projects they jointly undertook, telling no one who the people were who were involved or why they were doing what they were doing? And what are the odds of that ever happening? (pp. 49-50).
In other words, he desires Christians and Mormons to join hands together in an ecumenical manner because there is “good that would be involved in the process.” What are some examples of what this “good” looks like? Blomberg doesn’t provide specifics, but we can assume that he is referring to service projects or working together on godly ethical issues (i.e., abortion, against pornography, etc.) that could benefit society.
What precedence do we see in either the Old or New Testaments where believers joined hands with pagans or the religious elite in order to achieve societal benefits? Do we see the children of Israel doing this? Actually, God told the Jews who were conquering the Promised Land to have nothing to do with those from other nations. When they did, they ended up getting themselves into trouble. In the New Testament, neither Christ nor the apostles advised believers to join with the pagans at the Temple of Diana or the Pharisees to accomplish secular goals.
While it may be a bit off topic, I appreciate what Thaddeus Williams, a Biola University (CA) professor, wrote in his 2020 book on the topic of social justice:
In the first century, ‘only around two percent of the population of a Roman town would be genuinely comfortably off. The vast majority would be destitute poor.’ Some historians estimate that upward of two-thirds of the Roman empire was enslaved in the first century. In other words, there was no shortage of social injustice when Peter preached on Pentecost. Read Peter’s gospel proclamation in Acts 2:14-40. You will find no imperative to do social justice. Nowhere does Peter expose systematic inequalities and rally the crowds to action. If we believe social justice is the gospel or part of the gospel, then we must conclude that Peter either (a) did not preach the gospel that day, making it a mystery how three thousand were saved or (b) preached a truncated gospel. The text itself makes it clear that the whole gospel was preached, and preached with astounding saving results (Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth, 118).
Peter was not concerned with ecumenical issues, but rather he was 100% sold on preaching the gospel. And where does the ecumenism end? I know a local church in my area (albeit, aligned with a liberal Protestant denomination) that joins hands with the nearby LDS congregation each Christmas to put on a concert. The two church choirs sing together and, depending on where the event takes place, the leader at that property delivers a spiritual talk. Should a pastor encourage his congregation to listen to the preaching of someone from another religion? If ever 2 John 1:10 came into play, certainly this would be it!
Blomberg minimizes any idea that a wrong message would be sent, but wouldn’t it? Why would a pastor want to confuse his congregation? And why would a pastor want to have the Latter-day Saint think that Mormons are Christian, or at least close enough? This is not like the Lutherans and Baptists getting together for a friendly game of flag football. These two Christian denominations have many differences concerning peripheral issues, but at least they can pray and even recite the Apostles Creed together before the contest while knowing that they believed the same essentials! We can’t do that with our LDS friends, as much as we might love them.
What is most concerning, though, is footnote 67 found at the top of page 50 concerning how working together “will confuse others into imagining that we are all alike.” Blomberg wrote, “Precisely the main arguments given to me repeatedly by countercult ministry leaders Sandra Tanner and Bill McKeever in private communication and oral conversations after the publication of Robinson and Blomberg, How Wide the Divide?”
Why did Blomberg go out of his way to attack a brother and sister in Christ? Bill McKeever is the founder and president of Mormonism Research Ministry while Sandra Tanner is the co-founder (with her late husband Jerald) of Utah Lighthouse Ministry. Both have dedicated their entire adult lives to reaching the Mormon people. I coauthored a book review with Bill covering the book that Blomberg coauthored with Robinson in 1997. (Maybe I should be offended that he didn’t include my name in the criticism?) To give the reader a background of the book, let me cite portions from that review, with the full review located here.
How Wide the Divide? is published by a well-known Christian publisher as a dialogue between Stephen E. Robinson, a Brigham Young University professor of ancient scripture, and Craig Blomberg, a professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary. As stated on the back cover, its basic premise is as follows: “Mormons and Evangelicals don’t often get along very well. They often set about trying to convert one another, considering the faith the other holds as defective in some critical way. Unfortunately, much of what they say about one another simply isn’t true. False stereotypes on both sides prevent genuine communication.”
The book deals with four main issues: 1) scripture; 2) God & deification; 3) Christ and the Trinity; and 4) salvation. In 10-15 pages, the format allows each author to present his viewpoint of these issues along with a rebuttal of the other’s position. It appears that they were given the other writer’s chapters before the book’s publication. Thus, specific points made within the book are referenced and rebutted.
Our thesis then states, “Despite the good intentions of the authors, the book has fundamental problems at its core. Since How Wide the Divide? often clouds essential issues rather than clearly defines them, many innocent Christian laypeople might view the differences between Mormonism and biblical Christianity to be minimal when they really are not.” Under the introduction, we wrote,
From the very beginning, Dr. Robinson attempts to show that the “divide” between Mormonism and biblical Christianity is smaller than many Christians make it out to be. In the first paragraph, he gives the story about a group of Christians who threatened to leave an anti-pornography committee when some interested Mormons inquired about joining the group. This, Robinson lamented, shows that “some Evangelicals oppose Mormons more vehemently than they oppose pornography” (p. 9). Such a conclusion is wrong. Christians who hold the Bible dear want no more to legitimize Mormonism than they want to allow pornography. The refusal to join with Mormons stems more from a desire not to give them credence as a Christian organization; and rightly so.
We were honest in our assessment of Blomberg’s ability to go back-and-forth with someone like Robinson as we wrote:
While we have a great admiration for Blomberg’s contribution to the Christian cause, we personally feel his inexperience in dealing with Mormons on a more personal level made him prey to Robinson. He makes the mistake of assuming too much when it comes to Robinson’s defenses. Instead of challenging Robinson to defend the comments made by those in LDS authority, he too often allows Robinson’s statements to stand as LDS orthodoxy.
It would have been nice if Blomberg had come to the defense of those who have dedicated their lives to defending the faith against heresies such as Mormonism. Instead, Blomberg writes: “Evangelical writers, however well-intentioned, are not likely to know nearly as much about Mormonism as LDS writers, unless they have lived and ministered for years in predominantly Mormon parts of the country” (p. 22). If this is truly the case, what qualifications could Blomberg himself bring to the table to be able to critique Mormonism? How would he know if he were being told the truth as it relates to Mormonism? Would he be able to correctly discern between Mormon doctrine and Robinson’s personal opinions?
Granted, we spent more than two-thirds of the review critiquing Robinson rather than Blomberg, but I wonder if Blomberg might be referring to this review and felt slighted, even though we commended him several times. For instance,
A great point made by Blomberg is quoted here: “The common Evangelical perception, and we hope we are mistaken, is that Mormons talk a whole lot more about the process of human exaltation than about the eternal worship of a one-of-a-kind God. Their focus seems to be human-centered rather than God centered” (p. 107). It seems that Mormons too often appear to be more concerned with their potential godhood than they are about worshipping an almighty God. Many Mormons seem to have a misconception that heaven will consist of playing harps and sitting on clouds for eternity. This leads them to mock the idea that sex (or “eternal increase”) and a physical family will not continue into eternity.
Although Blomberg is an excellent expositor on the biblical subject matter, we feel he too was not the proper choice to co-author this tome. On too many occasions his writing was so generic that we could visualize many Mormons nodding their heads in agreement, saying, “That’s what we believe too!” As previously stated, too often he allowed Robinson to get away without compelling him to either define his terms or support his views with statements from LDS leaders. Had he done so, we are confident the divide would have been much wider than supposed.
Then, in a postscript with the heading “Mormon Minimalists,” we added,
Since the publication of How Wide the Divide, a new term has been given to Mormons such as Robinson who seem to be distancing themselves from the LDS teachings of the past. Rather than being described as traditional Mormons, they are being classified as “minimalist” Mormons. Technically a minimalist is a person who “advocates action of a minimal or conservative kind.” If this term is being used to rightly classify Robinson’s position as being in the small minority we would agree. However, the book does not make this clear. Instead, Robinson portrays himself as doctrinally traditional. This being the case, we would have been much more comfortable with How Wide the Divide had the cover stated this. Perhaps instead of a subtitle that read “A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation,” it would have been more appropriate to have “A Minimalist Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation.” Because this is not made clear, we feel the book will not be a help to Christians who are seeking what actually divides Christians and the great majority of Mormons on these very important issues.
Did Blomberg really need to provide specific names?
Unfortunately, Blomberg decided to specifically name Bill and Sandra in his chapter in an awkward attempt to impugn their character. I know both of these fine people and think this was said in a mean-spirited fashion. Blomberg wrote that he communicated with “Sandra Tanner and Bill McKeever in private communication and oral conversations.” Blomberg insisted that he talked to Sandra about two decades ago while they attended a conference held in Salt Lake City. He explained, “Sandra was at a conference that Greg Johnson hosted in Salt Lake and we interacted there more than once over a couple-day period of time and each time the main thrust of her response when I talked about the good that could be done in co-operative ventures was that it was all so confusing and would confuse others.” (Email dated 12/16/20) Should what was said over a couple days at a conference be considered “repeatedly”? This seems like a stretch.
I asked Sandra about any communication she has ever had with Craig Blomberg. She responded, “If I ever talked to Blomberg I’m not sure that I would have realized who it was, or I think I would have remembered.” Concerning what Blomberg wrote at the end of his essay, she wrote,
I am wondering what all these social “cooperative” efforts were in the late 90s and early 00s that I was supposedly opposed to (and I might have been but don’t know what he is talking about), that he hopes Christians will be open to in the future? I don’t know what efforts he is alluding to. And since these items have not been discussed with me recently, then he doesn’t know my current feelings on the issues. (Personal email, December 7, 2020)
Meanwhile, Bill only remembers writing Blomberg only one time. He wrote Blomberg on December 7, 2012, a full decade and a half after the publication of 1997 How Wide the Divide book. His email had nothing to do with that book. In addition, Bill insists that he has never orally communicated with Blomberg. I wrote Dr. Blomberg a personal email about this on December 16, 2020, and this is what he said:
I am sorry you or anyone else found my comments condescending. Even after rereading them, they don’t appear that way to me, and they were certainly not intended as such. I am sorry also that your friends’ memories are failing them on this point, though I can empathize as I realize, even at a younger age than they, what I can no longer remember that others close to me assure me I did or said. Bill and I had numerous written exchanges after How Wide the Divide first came out, but I have long since deleted those. In fact, I once had a hard copy file of typed letters I received from people in the late 1990s when we still wrote those, and I’m pretty sure Bill’s first correspondence with me, his most irate one, was in that kind of a letter.
He added toward the end of his email, “So please reassure your friends that a single-sentence footnote in a wide-ranging essay was hardly intended to signal some huge lingering frustration on my part (just a small one!), but please assure them that I am quite sure my point is accurate as expressed. By using the words ‘private’ and ‘oral’ I hoped to indicate that I did not have a paper trail to produce for anyone.”
“Private” does not necessarily mean “oral.” This could be a reference to either oral or written. But when called to produce the evidence of “numerous written exchanges,” Blomberg wanted me to blindly accept that he is correct in his memory, saying he threw away the written correspondence while deleting the emails. This is quite convenient. I have known Bill for more than three decades and I can testify that he does not throw away written correspondence, especially from someone like Dr. Blomberg. He has an entire filing cabinet dedicated to correspondence over the past four decades in ministry. Bill scoured his files, which are alphabetized, and he did not find any letters written by the professor.
In addition, Bill went back through all of his emails going back to the 1990s and found no other emails exchanged with Blomberg. While this may be a “he said, she said” situation, it does seem quite convenient that the professor has eliminated all correspondence when he was questioned. Without any evidence, why did he decide to use Sandra and Bill’s names at all? He could have easily made the comment in his footnote without giving their names, and we would all be left to wonder who he was referencing. Did he not think Bill and Sandra would not see his footnote–even though he expressed surprise in his email that they did. I wonder if he holds a vendetta against these two ministries and wanted to specifically point them out as the “bad guys” because they do not agree that Christians should cooperate with the LDS Church.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s just say Bill did correspond with Blomberg more than two decades ago. Even if he had should Blomberg have used either name? Couldn’t he have made a general accusation and leave the names out of his complaint? Certainly, this would have been the more gentle way. Then, I think that Blomberg was thinking about Bill and Sandra in his next paragraph on page 50 when he referenced a hoped-for cooperation in working together on moral and social issues:
Among millennials of both communities, however, I find much less fear of such efforts and even some enthusiasm for them. It may require the generation of those sixty and over to largely die off first (though I hope not, since I fall into that age bracket!), but I believe the day will come fairly soon when such cooperation can and will happen if people continue to lobby for it.
In the last paragraph, Blomberg explains that “my conclusion, not surprisingly, is that the evangelical tradition should be the wave of the future that the LDS embrace. Then future documents of the genre of ‘Are Mormons Christian?’ will be more persuasive and the goals and dreams for cooperation with which the essay ends will come to fruition more readily” (p. 50). To be quite honest, I am saddened that Blomberg seems to be more concerned with ecumenical service projects than making any attempt to share the Good News with Latter-day Saints. If Mormons are Christians, then no attempt to witness is necessary.
However, if they are not believers, shouldn’t sharing Good News be a priority? I think it is. I can’t imagine the apostle Paul, for instance, not taking the opportunity to make a clear Gospel presentation. He did it all the time with those who were preaching a Jewish legalism (see Galatians, for instance). Instead of joining hands with our Latter-day Saint friends and hope for a Kumbaya moment, Christians should care for their souls. As Bill once said, “Will those standing in hell have more contempt for those who refused to listen to the Christians who tried to present them the Gospel or those Christians who never tried at all?”
In conclusion, the Gospel Topics Essay titled “Are Mormons Christian?” missed the mark. And so does Blomberg’s chapter as his offering is is nothing less than a wasted opportunity that no other Evangelical Christian got in this entire book. What a shame that he swung and completely missed the mark.
For a review of all the Gospel Topics Essays, click here.
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