A few days ago, I passed on the fruit of Roger Olson’s study of Mormonism which has convinced him that some Mormons are saved but that Mormonism as a theology is not Christian. Today, Olson gave Robert Millett “the final word (for now).” If this issue interests you, this is a piece you will want to read carefully. I found it helpful, to some degree it confirms my earlier gratefulness at what God is doing within Mormonism and increases my hopefulness about progress toward orthodoxy from within Mormonism, but it also puts a check on my hopefulness for reasons you will see below. I welcome your own assessment of what is going on.
[Added on June 18: In my earlier post, I indicated the need to distinguish between being Christian and being saved, but Olson’s own position in this regard was not clear.He made this clear, however, in a short follow up post: “I suspect many Mormons are saved, but in individual cases it’s not my business to decide.”]
1) Olson had stated that Mormonism in the congregation is not necessarily the same as it is among LDS scholars.
Millett grants this, but he suggests that the same would be true “with most Evangelical or Roman Catholic congregation.” That sounds highly plausible to me. More substantively, however, Millett questions Olson’s assessment that Millett is progressive and is not representative of mainstream Mormonism. He writes:
You would think if I were proclaiming some new doctrine, some “progressive” dimension to the faith, some unusual avenue to Mormonism, that by now I would have been called out, corrected, silenced, or at least questioned by Church leaders, local or general. Such has certainly not been the case. For that matter, I have worked closely with LDS Church Public Affairs for almost twenty years and have been asked scores of times by Public Affairs to be interviewed by the media, to host representatives from other faith traditions, to answer questions about the faith. . . . I hardly think my views are in any way considered heterodox or out of the mainstream.”
2) Millett agrees with Olson that Mormons have a strong desire to be recognized as Christians.
You’re certainly right there; we do want to be acknowledged as being followers of Jesus Christ, believers in His divine birth, His timeless teachings, His miracles, His sufferings and death for the sins of the world, and His triumphant rise from the tomb as a physical, glorified, resurrected Being. No question about it.
But Mormons don’t want to become a part of mainstream Christianity.
We do want to be better understood and appreciated for what and who we are, but we are not traditional Christians and have never claimed to be. We do in fact see ourselves as Christians with a difference. Mormonism professes to be restored Christianity, and its adherents believe that God has chosen to restore the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ through a modern prophet, Joseph Smith, and that the divine priesthood authority he received—the power and authority to act in the name of God, apostolic authority—has continued in rightful succession to modern apostles and prophets within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today. Not too long before he passed away, I had occasion to meet with Father Richard John Neuhaus in New York City. We chatted for a little less than an hour, and as I stood to leave, he shook my hand and said: “I know of the dialogue you have been engaged in with Richard Mouw and the Evangelicals for some time now, and I appreciate the work you folks are doing.” He then added: “There simply has to be more conversation between Latter-day Saint Christians and Nicene Christians.” I said to Richard: “Now that’s a distinction with which no thinking Mormon would take issue.”
This is a very interesting comment, but it is not one that encourages me. Not to be “Nicene Christians” is to be “unorthodox,” because the “tradition” which Mormons do not wish to share is what has been deemed orthodox Christianity since the first ecumenical council. It sounds as though Mormons want to occupy a separate place within a broader form of Christianity. But if Nicene Christianity is only one form of orthodox Christian belief then Mormons are asking for orthodoxy itself to be reinterpreted. This is not a promising feature of contemporary Mormon theology, even at its best.
[Added on June 18]: The apostolic claim for current Mormon leadership is particularly significant. Perhaps Mormons who wish to be considered Christians see this as counterpart to the Roman Church’s claim that their bishops are successors of the apostles, with the pope having primacy as successor to Peter. But there is a very important difference. The Mormons are not claiming that their leaders are successors of the apostles appointed by Jesus during his time on earth but that they are successors of Joseph Smith who is perceived as a prophet in his own right, appointed by God with a distinctive mission. This, it seems to me, makes their understanding of Joseph Smith’s role more akin to Muslim claims regarding Muhammed than to any Nicene Christian claim to apostolic authority. That is a completely different ball game and, so long as Mormonism holds on to it, they keep themselves very clearly outside of Christianity.
3) Millett proposes that what distinguishes “progressive” Mormon scholars is not that they are less Mormon, but rather that they “are persons who tend to take more seriously the teachings within our own scriptural texts.”
The Church’s 13th President-Prophet, Ezra Taft Benson, charged and commissioned the Latter-day Saints in practically every public sermon he delivered during his decade as our leader (1985-2004), to read and study the Book of Mormon, focusing particularly on the doctrinal teachings. Mormons who did so—and that was the bulk of the Church—found themselves then turning more regularly to the Bible, and especially the New Testament, and picking up on similar theological themes there. It was inevitable as a result of a decade in which the people of the Church were “baptized” in the doctrine of Christ that you would begin to see, on both the general and local levels, a greater emphasis and focus upon the person and powers of Jesus; the means by which we can apply the atoning blood of Christ; and a people who speak more regularly of and live their lives more consistently with what they have come to know as the “enabling power” (grace) of the Savior.
This is not something restricted to Mormon academics, it is “a much more generalized emphasis within the whole of the Church,” in Millett’s experience.
4) Millett affirms deification (“as God is, man may become”), which is also true of many Christians, particularly in the eastern Christian, but he asserts that he does “not know very much at all” about the first statement in Lorenzo Snow’s couplet: “As man is, God once was.” He refers us to an article he wrote for inclusion in a book that he and Richard Mouw are editing, forthcoming this year from IVP, and he hopes that this will clear up any misunderstanding between him and us.
Christ is building his church, and most Christians in the Nicene tradition do not consider Mormonism to be representative of that church right now. Like Olson, I pray that someday they will share with us orthodox Christian faith, and some of what I hear encourages me in that regard, but Millett’s second point sounds a very different note and it tempers my hopefulness.