By Ronald R. Zollinger
(Springville: CFI, 2010)
Reviewed by Eric Johnson
If you thought of C.S. Lewis and Mere Christianity when you saw the title of the book being reviewed, you were supposed to. Unfortunately, I don’t believe the author of Mere Mormonism—Ronald R. Zollinger—would have been worthy to tie the proverbial shoestrings of the late philosopher from England. Mere Mormonism will be a disappointment to anyone who thought that this book would help thinking people embrace the Latter-day Saint faith in the same way many have become Christians through Lewis’s thoughtful work.
Zollinger is a fourth-generation Mormon who owns a doctorate from LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University. He was a teacher for many years in LDS seminary and church institute classes. Perhaps this is why he decided to define close to a hundred words throughout his book by placing an asterisk* next to them, providing their parts of speech and definitions in an appendix. Some of the words he defined were anecdote, impetus, Karma, myopia, nirvana, plethora, tenet, tangent, and vulgar. For some reason, his decision to apparently assist his readership with their vocabulary felt demeaning to me. Honestly, at least 80 percent of the words were fairly basic that the average reader should have either known or at least understood based on the context.
The Only True Church?
Zollinger’s purpose for his book is stated in the preface: “As a Mormon apologist, I intend to defend the position of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and debunk misinformation.” (p. xviii). He proceeds to quote D&C 1:30—Smith portrays God as saying that the LDS Church is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased.” He also quotes Joseph Smith—History 1:19, where Joseph Smith claimed that he was supposed to “join none of (the Christian churches), for they were all wrong.” (p. xix)
Using these passages, he then explains, “The term wrong seems to imply a dichotomy or an initial connotation of black or white, good or bad, right or wrong. Though our critics ignorantly suggest this to be our position, the restored gospel of Jesus Christ actually teaches a wonderful plan of inclusion and near universal salvation. I intend to present a defense of this position.”
This statement is just not accurate. If it was, then I wonder why the author spends much of his time showing the dichotomy between Mormonism and other religions, including evangelical Christianity. His conclusion is that, while nonMormons can certainly be eligible for the bottom two levels of heaven, only those who get to “eventually become gods and goddesses” in the celestial kingdom are those who are “faithful to their covenants.” (p. 133) In other words, there will be “universal salvation,” which Mormonism does indeed teach, but the top level of heaven is not meant for those outside the church. Anything less than this has been described as being full of regret. According to page 226 of the Program of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “the regret for lost opportunities will be keen among those in the lower degrees of glory.” (Also see John Widtsoe, Understandable Religion, p. 89; Joseph Smith, TPJS, p. 357; Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, v. 2, p. 210). Spending eternity with such regret doesn’t sound like a prize to me.
Another verse used to show that the Mormon Church is true is found in 1 Nephi 14:10 (“there are save two churches only; the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil”). Quoting this on page 127, Zollinger said he used to bring this passage up to his students before asking, “What is the church of the Lamb of God? What is the church of the devil?” Taking 1 Nephi 14:10 at face value, he said that their response to the first question was typically the “Mormon Church” while the answer to the second was “all other religions.” He says that this reaction is wrong and that “a more acceptable response is based on scripture, statements of the brethren, and some common logic.”
In order to come up with their conclusion, perhaps his students were listening in other classes, or maybe they were reading the prophets of their church. For example, George Q. Cannon, who belonged to the First Presidency, said,
“After the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was organized, there were only two churches upon the earth. They were known respectively as the Church of the Lamb of God and Babylon. The various organizations which are called churches throughout Christendom, though differing in their creeds and organizations, have one common origin. They all belong to Babylon” (George Q. Cannon, Gospel Truth: Discourses and Writings of President George Q. Cannon 2:56).
President Joseph F. Smith said,
“No ordinance of the gospel can be performed acceptably to God or with efficacy to man except by its authority and power, and certainly there is no ordinance or rite instituted by the Almighty in the great plan of redemption which is not essential to the salvation or exaltation of his children. Therefore, where the Melchizedek or Holy Priesthood does not exist, there can be no true Church of Christ in its fulness. When this Priesthood is not found among mankind they are destitute of the power of God, and therefore of the true science of theology, or the Church and religion of Jesus Christ who is the great High Priest and Apostle of our salvation” (Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, 1986, p. 189).
President Joseph Fielding Smith said,
“Every Latter-day Saint knows that following the death of the apostles, Paul’s prophecy was fulfilled, for there were many ‘grievous wolves’ that entered the flock, and men arose ‘speaking perverse things,’ so that the doctrines were changed and the true Church of Jesus Christ ceased to be on the earth. For this reason there had to come a restoration of the Church and a new revelation and bestowal of divine authority. The Church of Jesus Christ and the Holy Scriptures are, therefore, not responsible for the changed doctrines and unscientific teachings of those times, when uninspired ecclesiastics controlled the thinking of the people” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Man, His Origin and Destiny, p. 467).
Apostle Bruce R. McConkie wrote,
“Just as there is a kingdom of God both on earth and in heaven, so there is a kingdom of the devil both on earth and in hell. Just as the kingdom of God on earth is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ‘the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth’ (D&C 1:30), so the kingdom of the devil is the church of the devil, the great and abominable church, the combination of powers and forces which lead men away from heaven and toward hell. And just as the kingdom of God in heaven is the celestial world, where saved persons go, so the kingdom of the devil in the spirit realms is that eternal hell whose inhabitants suffer the torments of the damned” (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 1966, p. 419. Italics in original).
While saying that there were good things that did come in the eighteen centuries of the Christian church, one LDS scholar wrote that “…the power of God unto salvation’ (Rom. 1:16) is absent from all but the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which the Lord himself has proclaimed to be ‘the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth’ (D&C 1:30). Satan’s goal of hindering many of God’s children from returning to their Father’s glory is thus realized. How appropriate, therefore, is Paul’s description of him sitting in the place of God in the church of the apostasia” (BYU Professor Kent P. Jackson, “Early Signs of the Apostasy,” Ensign, December 1984, p. 9.).
Many other quotes could be provided. Regardless of the reasons why the church is “destitute of the power of God,” these leaders taught that the authority of God could not be found in “fullness” in the established Christian churches. As McConkie wrote, those not being led to heaven are actually following Satan away from a potential return to glory. Anything outside of Mormonism did not possess the “keys” to be able to help a person progress to the next level, which Zollinger defines as “godhood.”
We must also consider logic. Remember what Zollinger said about the implied dichotomy apparently contrived by anti-Mormons. The verses in question, he says, do not imply “black or white, good or bad, right or wrong,” but rather this connotation is supposedly given by critics of the church. Yet if Mormonism is correct, then Christianity as understood by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and the Protestant denominations is certainly wrong. Yes, these faiths may have some truths, but wouldn’t enough untruths poison the whole well? As a student once asked me, “How much dog poop in a brownie batch is required to taint the whole pan?” For me, even a teaspoon would make every brownie inedible. So how can we say that a religious system that moves people away from the goal of obtaining godhood is “good”? Why can’t Zollinger disregard political correctness and instead say, “Hey, there are some nice things in Christianity that we can learn from, but basically their creeds miss out on the vital restored gospel as given to us through prophets and apostles as ordained by God Himself”?
While Zollinger attempts to doctor D&C 1:30, Joseph Smith—History 1:19, and 1 Nephi 14:10 to make them look innocuous, there is too much history to show how Mormonism discounts the teachings of the Christian church, with its leaders clearly preaching that the Mormon Church is the “only true and living church on the face of the earth.”
On page 35, Zollinger mentions some of the controversial issues found within the Mormon Church, whether in the past or today. He includes plural marriage, gender roles, sexual orientation, and even the Mountain Meadows conflict. He writes, “Any one of these issues, if given only a cursory investigation, could lead a member to question his or her allegiance to the Church if that member’s testimony has not been anchored to a spiritual witness of the Restoration.”
He proceeds to then list five points that a person ought to consider when “handling difficult issues within Mormonism.” Summarized, they are:
- God lives
- Jesus is the Son of God
- Joseph Smith is a prophet of God
- The Book of Mormon is the word of God
- President Monson and the other general authorities are ordained by God
With this, he writes on page 36: “Hold on to these pillars as you proceed to investigate, study, analyze, ponder, and at times, put issues back on the shelf and wait for the spirit to massage your mind and heart until a reconciliation comes—because it will.”
Basically, Zollinger is utilizing circular reasoning to make his point. In order to make Mormonism true, we have to make a number of assumptions, prohibiting other issues from introducing confusion. Since Zollinger said he wanted to use logic to show how Mormonism is true, this argumentation comes across as, shall we say, strange. For example, no evidence is even provided to show that God exists. (C.S. Lewis did a masterful job utilizing the moral argument for evidence in supporting his case.) Zollinger offers no explanations why we should accept Jesus as God’s Son. And nothing is provided here to lend credence to Smith’s calling as a prophet, the legitimacy of the Book of Mormon, or the authority of President Monson and the LDS leadership. So many assumptions, so little logic.
If Zollinger wants this book to be the Mere Christianity of Mormonism, he needs to do much more than make assumptions. His arguments here will only convince those in his choir, leaving the rest of us scratching our heads in bewilderment.
A press conference?
Quoting from a list of principles originally provided by former church leader Gerald Lund, Zollinger writes, “Revelation from God does not contradict gospel principles or go contrary to established church policy and procedure. New doctrine and procedure comes in one of three ways: a. A formal press conference will be called by the leaders of the Church, at which as official announcement will be made. b. It will be announced through the Church News, the Ensign, or other official Church communications. c. It will be announced in general conference by those in authority.”
As I read this, a number of thoughts and questions crossed my mind, creating a brain freeze. Consider:
- Where in the standard works are these procedures given? (He writes on page 130: “For Latter-day Saints, the bull’s eye of true and inspired writings are the four standard works of the Church.”)
- Did Jeremiah and Malachi call press conferences when they gave prophecies? How about Joseph Smith?
- Haven’t there been a number of teachings in the Mormon Church that “contradicted gospel principles” or went “contrary to established church policy and procedure”? For instance, polygamy was definitely taught by the church at one time as an eternal principle. To this day, LDS scripture (D&C 132) still contains this teaching. Why was this principle allowed to be abolished in 1890 when there is no indication this was anything but a political move?
This I Believe
From chapter 6 onward, Zollinger spends a lot of time showing how Mormon doctrines are superior to how they are viewed in Christianity. For example:
- The “Trinitarian doctrine seems not only puzzling but fails to support the principle of faith in such a being.” In Appendix C under the title “Incorrect Doctrines of Christ Taught within Historic Christianity,” Zollinger uses six of his twenty points to criticize “Traditional” and “Trinitarian Christianity.” Among other things, he contradicts Christianity’s teachings that:
- “Jesus was conceived from a union of the Holy Spirit and Mary.”
- “Jesus is the Triune’s incarnate representation of the ‘Son.’”
- “The ‘Son’ was ‘begotten’ but not created and of the same substance as the Father.”
- “Lucifer and Jesus have never had any filial relationship.”
“There is no doctrine of Jesus as the ‘Firstborn’ spirit child of our Heavenly Parents, as there is no belief in Christianity of our spirit premortal existence or of our previously existing heavenly family.”
In addition, he teaches:
- The Athanasian Creed is a “false interpretation of Christ.”
- God has “a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s.”
- “There was a time when our God was not God.”
- “Man was also in the beginning with God.”
- The idea of Preexistence—that our spirits existed on another level before being born on this earth—which he says is believed by every other religion except Christianity and was taken out of Christianity in AD 553.
- “Jehovah (Jesus) is our eldest brother.”
- “Spirit children are not born ex nihilo” (out of nothing).
- “A central tenet of Mormonism is the doctrine of theosis or of man’s deification,” which he acknowledges is “vehemently rejected in western Christianity.”
- “It was required for Adam to sin because God gave him two opposing instructions (to populate the world while not partaking of the tree. Thus, Adam did the lesser of two evils for the benefit of all the spirit brothers and sisters who awaited bodies.”
- “The great atoning act (of atonement was) performed in our behalf by Christ during his Gethsemane experience.”
- In order to receive “eternal life or exaltation,” a person must repent, be baptized, keep the covenants, and get married in the temple. “These are they who dwell with the Father and the Son forever and who will have kingdoms of their own as they gain the status of gods and goddesses.”
In other words, Mormonism’s views are correct, but traditional Christianity lost its way after the death of the apostles. His use of scripture in this chapter is, for the most part, limited to the unique LDS scriptures. Because he puts so much effort into showing how Christianity was wrong, I at one point thought to myself how this book could have been better titled Mere Anti-Christianity rather than Mere Mormonism.
Forgivable vs. Unforgivable Sins
When it comes to sin, there is no doubt that there is a heavy burden on the Mormon. Thus, I was surprised to read the following on page 176: “One day I asked my dear wife what would be the main reason for anyone to turn from their prideful, worldly orientation and to return back to God and their Savior. In one fell swoop she cut through all of their arguments with this simple response: ‘I can’t do it on my own!”
While that sounds good on the surface and is actually biblical, one must consider how Mormonism really portrays a heavy burden on the shoulders of the LDS people. For example, saying that the atonement took place in the Garden of Gethsemane and making no mention of the cross of Christ, Zollinger says that “…some sins are classified as those which receive no forgiveness through the Atonement of Christ.” (p. 135) Those whose sins are too weighty will end up in the bottom level of heaven called the telestial kingdom. “This kingdom,” he writes on page 134, “is reserved ‘for liars, and sorcerers, and adulterers, and whoremongers, and whosoever loves and makes a lie’ (D&C 76:103). A year earlier…the Lord…expanded the list to include three additional types of sin: murder, stealing, and evil speaking (see D&C 42:18-27).”
Later, on page 139, he writes that “murder is consider (sic) the ‘unforgivable sin’ in which forgiveness is not obtained in the world or out of the world…” Yet Zollinger says that “a careful reading of 3 Nephi reveals a more merciful scenario,” making it appear that a Gentile who committed murder but was later “baptized and received the gift of the Holy Ghost” would then become eligible for salvation.
That’s not what founder Joseph Smith taught. He wrote, “A murderer, for instance, one that sheds innocent blood, cannot have forgiveness. David sought repentance at the hand of God carefully with tears for the murder of Uriah, but he could only get it through hell: he got a promise that his soul should not be left in hell” (TPJS, p. 33). Tenth President Joseph Fielding Smith said, “Some sins are more serious than others, and less easily repented of. There are sins that cannot be forgiven, such as murder, without the punishment of the guilty with the shedding of blood” (Seek Ye Earnestly, p. 151).
Thirteenth president Spencer Kimball wrote, “The Prophet Joseph Smith underlined the seriousness of the sin of murder for David as for all men, and the fact that there is no forgiveness for it” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 128, emphasis mine). Apostle Bruce McConkie said that, for murderers, “there is no forgiveness, neither in this world nor in the world to come” (Mormon Doctrine, 1966, p. 292) Saying that God cannot forgive murder, Apostle Mark E Petersen added, “The Lord is just and he is merciful, but he does not allow mercy to rob justice” (Three Kings of Israel, p. 99)
Zollinger feels that adultery, which Alma 39:5 says is the “most abominable above all other sins,” cannot be forgiven once a person has received “full forgiveness through the blood of Jesus Christ” since it “makes a mockery of Christ’s suffering and His tender mercies.” I find this interesting in light of what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount about murder and adultery. After all, He said that anyone who hates another person is just as guilty of murder, and anyone who lusts is guilty of adultery. Even though these are things we’re not supposed to do, which one of us is not guilty?
At the beginning of chapter 8 (“Doctrinal Dilemmas within Traditional Christianity”—again, I thought this book’s title was Mere Mormonism!—Zollinger says that he has been asked which religion he would be if he was not LDS. Apparently it’s not Christianity because, he says, it “has a dark downside with doctrinal dilemmas and contradiction, sexual abuse, clerical immorality, unforgiving persecution, dishonorable history, self-serving and power-seeking clergy, and lastly, religious intolerance” (p. 147). He then goes on a diatribe about how evil Christianity has been over the years.
By describing this “dark downside,” certainly much could be pointed in the history of the Mormon Church to show it also has many warts. For example:
- Doctrinal dilemmas and contradiction: Is polygamy something ordained by God? Or not? Is Adam God the Father, as taught by Brigham Young (JOD 1:51), or not? Are blacks cursed for always or not? As the Mormon Church marches into history, there are a number of teachings in its background that certainly are confusing and contradictory.
- Sexual abuse and clerical immorality: If Joseph Smith married 34 women—a third of whom were teenagers and another third who were married to other men at the time they got married to Smith—should this be considered spiritual? What about the many instances of sexual abuse that have been committed by a number of Mormon bishops and other leaders in the LDS Church? Should these sins wipe out the truthfulness of the entire religion?
- Unforgiving persecution: Not sure what his point here is. Does being persecuted unjustly make a religion true?
- Dishonorable history: Let’s start with the polygamy issue, which has been well documented by LDS scholars Richard von Waggoner, Richard Bushman, and Todd Compton. Or how about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, Bill Hickman, or relegating Blacks as second class citizens in the church until 1978? The author should be careful to throw stones in the proverbial glass house.
- Self-serving and power-seeking clergy: Perhaps we ought to do a study in the Mormon hierarchy. When is the last time one of the general authorities talked about his struggle with sin instead of giving kick-in-the-tail speeches aimed at the membership?
- Religious intolerance: While Zollinger makes it appear in the beginning of the book that Mormonism has a “wonderful plan of inclusion,” he sure makes biblical Christianity look like it has no claim to legitimate authority. Would this be somewhat close to “intolerance”? If not, then what is he pointing to in Christianity? The Crusades? Burning witches at the stake? He doesn’t provide details.
Later on page 171, Zollinger quotes Moroni 10:32-33, which says, in part, that you must “deny yourselves of all ungodliness.” Only those who “deny (them)selves of all ungodliness” can have “sufficient grace.” This, he says, “is the message of the Book of Mormon. That is the message of Mormonism. This is the message of Christianity. For that, there is no apologizing.” (p. 172) When it comes to the “message of Mormonism,” he’s exactly right since Mormon leaders teach that God’s mercy and grace can only go so far in a person’s striving toward exaltation and the celestial kingdom. In the end, a person embracing Mormonism is required to attain his or her own righteousness through works, no matter how much this idea contradicts the Christian gospel.
On page 201, Zollinger quotes a speech given by President Gordon B. Hinckley, who told BYU students to “stand a little taller, rise a little higher, be a little better…This is a great day of preparation for each of you. It is the time of beginning for something that will go on for as long as you live. I plead with you. Don’t be a scrub! Rise to the high ground of excellence. You can do it. You may not be a genius. You may be lacking in some skills. But you can do better than you are now doing.” In Mormonism, a person must always do just a little bit better, which makes attaining 2 Nephi 25:23 an impossibility. As Prophet Spencer Kimball wrote, “There is one crucial test of repentance. This is abandonment of sin.” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 163)
In Mormonism, a person can never know that he or she is forgiven and therefore eternally secure. Certainly, Mormonism promises a general salvation that eventually everyone will pretty much receive. But there is no guarantee of celestial glory, even for the most faithful of all Latter-day Saints. First John 5:13 is completely ignored in this religion, as the Mormon continues to race for the carrot like a hamster on the turning wheel. True salvation (exaltation) is based on one’s own efforts. This is why it is confusing when Zollinger quotes his wife who said she couldn’t “do it all on my own.” Mormonism just doesn’t have much to offer those sinners who realize that it’s impossible to do it on their own.
Mere Mormonism is a Mere Mess. Zollinger upholds the vast majority of his church’s teachings, even though he uses politically correct language at the beginning of the book to minimize some very difficult LDS passages. Yet he offers very little logical evidence to convince anyone who does not hold to his presuppositional viewpoints. It apparently boils down to this: Read the Book of Mormon, pray about it to see if it is true, and then God will make it abundantly clear through good feelings. This I could have gotten from the local Mormon missionaries, saving myself $18 and the time spent reading this book.