Iam continuing my review of The new Mormon challenge (Francis J. Beckwith, Carl Mosser, Paul Owen: general editors, Zondervan, 2002), a new book by evangelical Christians which responds to the latest apologetic writings of Mormonism.
The book is valuable in explaining and describing how the movement is now promoting and defending its message worldwide.
While the book is extremely fair in handling Mormon teachings, the authors uphold a vigorously biblical understanding of key doctrines.
Mormon researchers have already responded to the book. As expected, they are critical of the evangelical assumptions and criticisms evident in the book. However, they have some positive things to say about it.
One response by Blake Ostler, a Mormon scholar, is an example. Ostler sees it as ‘a different type of anti-Mormon book’ (www.fairlds.org/apol/TNMC), one which does not use ‘trite, insubstantial … arguments’ and which is ‘a refreshing change from … books that take recycled pot-shots at the LDS church’.
There is a warning here. Our information concerning Mormonism must be accurate and up-to-date, while our critique must be competent as well as fair.
For Ostler, The new Mormon challenge represents ‘a breakthrough for Mormon studies in philosophical theology’. He sees the authors as ‘pioneers’ because they take modern Mormons ‘seriously’ and do not use ‘worn-out caricatures’.
They also show ‘genuine respect for the scholarly acumen of Mormons’, refusing to engage in irrelevant, slanderous writing. Another pioneering feature is that Ostler knows many of the authors personally and has ‘developed a friendship’ that he values and wants to nourish.
Ostler is impressed by their ‘charity and kindness’ and he views them as being ‘among the finest Evangelical scholars’ whose arguments are ‘worthy of both respect and considered response’.
Different world views
Regarding the ‘high standards of scholarship and astute observations about Mormonism’ in The new Mormon Challenge, Ostler has ‘learned a great deal’ but is not persuaded by the arguments.
I now need to outline the main contents of the book so that you can appreciate how these evangelical scholars have approached Mormonism.
In an introductory essay, we are reminded that ‘one of the few uncontroversial statements’ (p.90) about Mormonism and Christianity is that traditionally they ‘reflect two very different world views’.
This means they embrace very different, conflicting views of God, humanity and the universe.
As Christians, the authors affirm the truth of Genesis 1:1: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’. Unlike classical Greek philosophies and ancient Near East systems of thought, which assumed that the world had been made out of eternally pre-existing chaotic matter, Christians have affirmed the doctrine of creation out of nothing (ex nihilo).
Chapter three is devoted to a detailed examination of the Christian and Mormon doctrines of creation under the title, ‘Craftsman or Creator?’. Believing that matter is eternal, Mormons conclude that God is not so much a Creator but rather a ‘Shaper’ or ‘Organizer’ of already existing matter.
In rejecting this Mormon view — and their charge that creation ex nihilo is not biblical — the authors engage in a detailed defence and advocacy of the biblical teaching on creation.
Nearly six pages (110-117) are devoted to the crucial statement of Genesis 1:1. Interacting with a range of biblical scholars, and engaging in a competent study of the Hebrew, the authors conclude that ‘the very structure of Genesis 1:1 argues for creation out of nothing. Grammatically and contextually, a very good case can be made for seeing Genesis 1:1 as referring to absolute creation’ (p.112).
Their arguments are persuasive. For example, the Hebrew verb in Genesis 1:1, bârâ’ (‘create’) is always used in the Old Testament in relation to God, and the verb ‘never has an object … out of which something is made’.
Also, the words ‘in the beginning’ in the text are used ‘absolutely’ so the eternity of the world or the existence of primeval material is ‘ruled out’ by the text (p.113). ‘Although LDS scholars’, they write, ‘appear to assign exegetical priority to Genesis 1:2, this is misguided’ because the opening verse controls verse 2 (p.114).
They marshal further biblical support for the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. God, for example, is the ‘Creator or ultimate Source of the totality of existing things’ and the Bible statements here are impressive:
‘From him … are all things’ (Romans 11:36); ‘through [Christ] are all things’ (1 Corinthians 8:6); ‘God, who created all things’ (Ephesians 3:9); ‘by him all things were created’ (Colossians 1:16); ‘you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created’ (Revelation 4:11).
In addition, Yahweh’s title ‘the first and … the last’ (Isaiah 44:6; Revelation 1:8) implies that he is the only eternal being and the ultimate creator of all.
There is the further contrast between God’s eternity and self-sufficiency and the created order (Psalm 102:25-27; Hebrews 1:10-12), together with the emphasis on absolute divine sovereignty and transcendence (Isaiah 44:6, 24; 45:18; 46:9; 48:12).
God is not subject to any pre-existing conditions — ‘it is God’s commanding work that brings creation into being’ (p.115).
Some additional NT references used to support creation in this chapter are Hebrews 11:3; Romans 4:17; John 1:3 and Colossians 1:16-17. The challenge to Mormon scholars is clear: ‘interact more intentionally with the biblical text and with biblical scholarship’ (p.119).
The God of Joseph Smith
Chapter four has the intriguing title, ‘The God of Abraham, Isaac and Joseph Smith’ (pp. 135-191). I concur wholeheartedly with the author’s analysis that ‘the view of God, creation, and humanity found in traditional Mormonism has very little to do with the God presented in the Old Testament’ (p.189).
As conceived by Mormonism, ‘God resembles the gods of pagan thought’. Mormon writers sometimes state that ‘God’ is merely a title of honour and does not refer to a unique being.
Humans are able potentially to become what God has already become (p.186). Their view involves a divine assembly in which ‘God’ is regarded as ‘the high god’ alongside deified human beings (p.188).
This theme is pursued in chapter five (pp.193-218) before a discussion of ethics in chapter six (pp. 219-241) and the absurdities of Mormon materialism in chapter seven (pp. 243-266).
A closer examination of New Testament teaching in application to monotheism and Mormonism is undertaken by Paul Owen in chapter eight (pp. 271-314). He underlines the monotheism of the Bible and appeals to Mormons ‘to embrace Christ as the incarnate revelation of the One God’ (p.314).
Is Mormonism Christian?
But ‘is Mormonism Christian?’ That is the title of chapter nine (pp. 315-331) by Craig Blomberg. It is not surprising that the author concludes that ‘Mormonism does not fit any historic Christian option and its claim to be a different, restored form of Christianity also fails’ (p.322). Yes, most certainly!
Blomberg then asks four basic questions. First, can a Mormon be saved in a biblical sense? He assures us that ‘anyone can become a Christian by sincerely trusting in the Jesus of the New Testament as personal Lord and Saviour’ (p.329). It is all of grace, not works, and certainly not by membership of a church or movement.
The second question is harder. Can such a genuinely converted person remain within Mormonism? I would like to have seen a stronger response by Blomberg here, but at least he sees the wisdom of the person moving to an Evangelical Protestant congregation where there would be ‘a lesser likelihood of experiencing a mixture of true and false teaching’.
But, thirdly, what of a seemingly genuinely converted person becoming a Mormon? This is ‘a scenario that is becoming increasingly common’.
Acknowledging that such a person may be ‘backslidden’, he fears that in the light of 1 John 2:19 the person may never have been saved at all (p.330).
In our ‘highly syncretised world’, however, Blomberg fears that some truly ‘born again’ believers may be attempting to add Mormon beliefs to their Christian experience. Can this be possible?
The final question is whether or not a person without any religious background can come to saving faith within Mormonism. I am relieved that Blomberg gives a negative answer (p.330) and insists that it is ‘impossible to consistently believe all of the Bible and simultaneously believe all official Mormon doctrine’ (p.331).
There is much more in this book to explore, reflect upon and apply to our contemporary scene. We need to pray that Mormons will ‘reconsider the non-negotiable beliefs of historic Christianity’ (p.400), and be saved.