by Fred W. Anson
At what point does recontextualized music drift into syncretism and/or compromise?

Once a year the Los Angeles Bonaventure hotel that I pass through on my way into work gets overrun by the Self Realization Fellowship (SRF). For those unfamiliar with the SRF here’s a quick synopsis:

Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) is a worldwide spiritual organization founded by Paramahansa Yogananda in 1920 and legally incorporated as a non-profit religious organization in 1935, to serve as Yogananda’s instrument for the preservation and worldwide dissemination of his writings and teachings, including Kriya Yoga. Yogananda wrote in God Talks With Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita that the science of Kriya Yoga was given to Manu, the original Adam, and through him to Janaka and other royal sages.

Self-Realization Fellowship continues to disseminate Paramahansa Yogananda’s teachings following his stated Aims and Ideals. SRF publishes Yogananda teachings of home-study lessons, writings including Autobiography of a Yogi, lectures, and recorded talks; oversees temples, retreats, meditation centers, and monastic communities bearing the name Self-Realization Order. It also coordinates the Worldwide Prayer Circle, which it describes as a network of groups and individuals who pray for those in need of physical, mental, or spiritual aid, and who also pray for world peace and harmony.

SRF is based at Mount Washington in Los Angeles, California, which is the international headquarters for SRF and for Yogoda Satsanga Society of India (YSS). YSS was founded by Yogananda in 1917 before he came to America. In countries outside the Indian subcontinent the organization is known as Self-Realization Fellowship.1

20150816_122835

A shot looking into the gift shop that the SRF sets up at the LA Bonaventure Hotel each year.

That’s the long version, the short version is this: It’s Hinduism. Or, more precisely, according to Elliot Miller of Christian Research Institute (CRI) it’s, “a kind of New Age Hinduism in Christian garb.”2 So once a year for about a week, I wander through this strange hindu-land on my way to pick up my lunch on my way to my job in the building next door. And as I do, when I’m not quieting praying, this is what I sing:

Let me fulfill thy will
Let me fulfill thy will

Oh Lord Supreme, Supreme
Let me fulfill thy will
Let me fulfill thy will

Oh Lord Supreme, Supreme
Let me fulfill thy will
Let me fulfill thy will

Oh Lord Supreme, Supreme
Let me fulfill thy will
Let me fulfill thy will

Let me fulfill thy will
Come by my side

Let me fulfill thy will
Come by my side

Let me fulfill thy will
Come by my side

Let me fulfill thy will
Come by my side

Let me fulfill thy will
Come by my side

Oh Lord Supreme, Supreme
Let me fulfill thy will
Let me fulfill thy will

Oh Lord Supreme, Supreme
Let me fulfill thy will
Let me fulfill thy will

Oh Lord Supreme, Supreme
Let me fulfill thy will
Let me fulfill thy will

Of course anyone who was a Jazz Fusion aficionado in the seventies will tell you that I’m singing, “Eternity’s Breath, Part 1” by the Mahavishnu Orchestra3 from the 1975 album “Visions of the Emerald Beyond”. Of course I’m not singing it to Vishnu as the original artists were, I’m singing it to the only true God – the God of Israel, Yahweh Elohim. I’m singing it to the only true Lord, my Lord, Jesus Christ.

However, this song was written to neither. The composer and founder of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, John McLaughlin, was a disciple of Sri Chinmoy and a Hindu.4 As McLaughlin explained in a 1982 interview:

By the time I was 27, I’d already started doing Hatha Yoga and doing mind and breathing exercises. I felt more capable mentally, but I had this feeling I was being tuned up but not being played very well, which relates to what we were talking about a while ago. I felt the need to learn from somebody who really knows.

I arrived one evening at a meditation featuring Sri Chinmoy and he invited questions. I thought, “Great, this is the first time anyone has ever invited questions,” so I said, “What’s the relationship between music and spirituality?” and he said, “Well, it’s not really a question of what you do. It’s what you are or how you are that’s important because you can be making the most beautiful music sweeping the road, if you’re doing it in a harmonious way, in a beautiful way.” It sounds so simple, of course, but it was everything I wanted to hear and I felt I should stay with him, which I did for five years.5

jmvlargelive2

John McLaughlin working his craft with the Mahavishnu Orchestra around the time that Eternity’s Breath was recorded.

All that aside, what I do know is that I love this song! McLaughlin’s incendiary but elegant guitar, Jean Luc Ponty’s soaring violin, Narada Michael Walden’s driving drums, Ralphe Armstrong’s melodic bass, Gayle Moran’s inspired keyboard work, all combined with gorgeous, tightly harmonized vocals. It’s a classic.

And I know that when I sing it I’m worshiping my God not the god of Sri Chinmoy or John McLaughlin. Further, I would go so far as to say that if there’s such thing as a Christian mantra this contextualized song is mine – it captures my deepest heartfelt desire for living my life Coram Deo (Latin for “Before the eyes of God” or “In the presence of God”), as the words so simply yet profoundly say:

Oh Lord Supreme, Supreme
Let me fulfill thy will
Let me fulfill thy will

Is that syncretism? Is it compromise? Or is it, Jesus Christ redeeming this song and taking it captive to His purposes; conquering it for His Kingdom, and; putting it under His foot? I think it is – but you tell me, for I’m only an fallen man, and prone to be deceived. Which is why I sing:

Oh Lord Supreme, Supreme
Let me fulfill thy will
Let me fulfill thy will

As originally performed on "Visions of the Emerald Beyond"

As originally performed on “Visions of the Emerald Beyond”

NOTES
1 “Self-Realization Fellowship”, Wikipedia

2 Elliot Miller, “Swami Yogananda and the Self-Realization Fellowship”

3 According to Wikipedia, “Mahavishnu” means, “Mahavishnu (Devanāgarī : महाविष्णु) is an aspect of Vishnu, the Absolute which is beyond human comprehension and is beyond all attributes.”

4 As were guitarist Carlos Santana, percussionist Narada Michael Walden, singer Roberta Flack, saxophonist Clarence Clemons and Russian rock legend Boris Grebenshikov. Wikipedia explains:

“Chinmoy offered the musicians a disciplined spiritual path that forbade the use of drugs and alcohol and encouraged music and poetry as expressions of thankfulness to the Divine.

“[Carlos] Santana and [John] McLaughlin stayed with Chinmoy for a number of years before leaving. In 1973 they released an album based on Chinmoy’s teachings, titled Love Devotion Surrender. McLaughlin was a Chinmoy follower from 1970 to 1975. In 1971 he formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra, named for the spiritual name Chinmoy had given him. Santana was introduced to the guru when McLaughlin took him to one of Chinmoy’s weekly prayer meetings at the United Nations. Santana and his wife Deborah were Chinmoy followers from 1972 to 1981, and Santana said, “Without a guru I serve only my own vanity, but with him I can be of service to you and everybody. I am the strings, but he is the musician. Guru has graduated from the Harvards of consciousness and sits at the feet of God.” Santana released three albums under the spiritual name Devadip – meaning “Lamp of God”, “Eve of God”, and “Light of God” – that Chinmoy gave him: Illuminations (1974), Oneness (1979), and The Swing of Delight (1980). In 2000, he told Rolling Stone that things soured between him and Chinmoy in the 1980s. Santana emphasized that he took much that was good from his years with the guru, even though when he left, Chinmoy “was pretty vindictive for a while. He told all my friends not to call me ever again, because I was to drown in the dark sea of ignorance for leaving him.”‘
(“Sri Chinmoy”, Wikipedia)

5 Robert Fripp, “Coffee and Chocolates for Two Guitars”, Musician magazine, number 45, July, 1982

Later that night the lights were brought down and this California Ballroom was filled with 3,000 singing, dancing, chanting and meditating SRF practitioners.

Later that night, after this shot was taken, the room lights were brought down, the stage lights came on, and the California Ballroom at the L.A. Bonaventure Hotel was filled with 3,000 singing, dancing, chanting and meditating SRF practitioners.

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We Agree with Moroni 8--18

“God is not a partial God, neither a changeable being; but he is unchangeable from all eternity to all eternity.”
Moroni 8:18

There was a time when Mormons agreed with Moroni 8:18. As Mormon historian Thomas G. Alexander writes, “Much of the doctrine that early investigators found in Mormonism was similar to contemporary Protestant churches.”1

Mormonism has apostatized from its own Book of Mormon, and now Christians—who don’t even believe that the Book of Mormon is divine scripture—agree with Moroni 8:18 more than Mormons do. It is a verse that we Christians profoundly wish Mormons would agree with. It is far more important of an issue than tithing, baptism, priesthood authority, or whether Joseph Smith was a true prophet. It concerns an eternal truth of the fundamental nature of God.

“Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.”
Psalm 90:2 (JST)

“Before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me.”
Isaiah 43:10 (JST)

“I am the first, and I am the last; and besides me there is no God.”
Isaiah 44:6 (JST)

Doctrine and Covenants
In what was originally read to Church membership as the “Articles and Covenants of the Church,” D&C 20:17 spoke of the God who was always the same unchangeable God: “By these things we know that there is a God in heaven, who is infinite and eternal, from everlasting to everlasting the same unchangeable God…” D&C 76:4 spoke of this same God: “From eternity to eternity he is the same, and his years never fail…”

The Lectures on Faith, which was a canonized part of D&C from 1835-1921 agreed with the Book of Mormon that God is a spirit (from the fifth Lecture on Faith, page 53.) Click on image to zoom and read.

The Lectures on Faith, which was a canonized part of D&C from 1835-1921 agreed with the Bible and the Book of Mormon that God is an eternal, unchanging, triune Being (from the fifth Lecture on Faith, page 53). Click on image to zoom and read.

Lectures on Faith
In what was originally a part of Mormon scripture, Lecture 3 of the Lectures on Faith taught, “A correct idea of his character, perfections and attributes” is “…necessary, in order that any rational and intelligent being may exercise faith in God unto life and salvation.” It goes on to quote the word of God, Psalm 90:2, “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, you are God.” The lecture then goes on to say that, “he changes not, neither is there variableness with him; but that he is the same from everlasting to everlasting, being the same yesterday today and forever; and that his course is one eternal round, without variation.”

Book of Mormon
This echoes Mosiah 3:5, which speaks of “the Lord Omnipotent who reigneth, who was, and is from all eternity to all eternity…” Moroni 7:22 also speaks of “God knowing all things, being from everlasting to everlasting…” A chapter later we learn in Moroni 8:18 that “God is not a partial God, neither a changeable being; but he is unchangeable from all eternity to all eternity.” Other passages in the Book of Mormon also reaffirm God’s eternal, unchangeable nature:

“For behold, I am god; and I am a God of miracles; and I will show unto the world that I am the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
2 Nephi 27:23

“And I do this that I may prove unto many that I am the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
2 Nephi 29:9

“For do we not read that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever , and in him there is no variableness neither shadow of changing?”
Mormon 9:9

“And if there were miracles wrought then, why has God ceased to be a God of miracles and yet be an unchanging Being? And behold, I say unto you he changeth not; if so he would cease to be God; and he ceaseth not to be God, and is a God of miracles.”
Mormon 9:19

Mormonism Radically Changed
The Book of Mormon was published in March of 1830. Fourteen years later, Mormon theology had dramatically changed. On April 7, 1844, Joseph Smith preached his famous King Follett Discourse. In it he taught:

God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens…

It is necessary that we should understand the character and being of God, and how he came to be so; for I am going to tell you how God came to be God. We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity, I will refute that idea, and will take away and do away the veil, so that you may see. These are incomprehensible ideas to some; but they are simple…

Here, then, is eternal life—to know the only wise and true God; and you have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done before you…2

Lorenzo Snow summarized the big idea that further developed like this: “As man is God once was, and as God is man may be.”

Since then, Mormonism has never been the same. Mormons now radically re-interpret verses like Moroni 8:18 and essentially reject the original teaching that God was unchangeably God from all eternity to all eternity. Mormons are now even in disarray and confusion over whether Heavenly Father was once a sinful mortal.3

Again, Mormonism has apostatized from its own Book of Mormon, and now Christians—who don’t even believe that the Book of Mormon is divine scripture—agree with Moroni 8:18 more than Mormons do. It is a verse that we Christians profoundly wish Mormons would agree with. It is far more important of an issue than tithing, baptism, priesthood authority, or whether Joseph Smith was a true prophet. It concerns an eternal truth of the fundamental nature of God.

NOTES
1 Thomas G. Alexander, “The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine: From Joseph Smith to Progressive Theology.” Sunstone 5:4; July-August 1980

2 Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 345. On June 16, 1844, Smith went on to teach that Heavenly Father has his own Heavenly Father (History of the Church, vol. 6, pp. 473-479). Also see Ensign, April 1971 and May 1971.

3 See http://GodNeverSinned.com

JST = The Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible (aka “The Inspired Version”)

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The Difference a Vowel Makes
"Communion of Saints" (stained glass window)

“Communion of Saints” (stained glass window)

by Keith A. Mathison

The twentieth century could, with some accuracy, be called a century of theological anarchy. Liberals and sectarians have long rejected outright many of the fundamental tenets of Christian orthodoxy. But more recently professing evangelical scholars have advocated revisionary versions of numerous doctrines. A revisionary doctrine of God has been advocated by proponents of “openness theology.” A revisionary doctrine of eschatology has been advocated by proponents of full-preterism. Revisionary doctrines of justification sola fide have been advocated by proponents of various “new perspectives” on Paul. Often the revisionists will claim to be restating a more classical view. Critics, however, have usually been quick to point out that the revisions are actually distortions.

Ironically, a similarly revisionist doctrine of sola Scriptura has arisen within Protestantism, but unlike the revisionist doctrine of sola fide, the revisionist doctrine of sola Scriptura has caused very little controversy among the heirs of the Reformation. One of the reasons there has been much less controversy over the revisionist doctrine of sola Scriptura is that this doctrine has been gradually supplanting the Reformation doctrine for centuries. In fact, in many segments of the evangelical world, the revisionist doctrine is by far the predominant view now. Many claim that this revisionist doctrine is the Reformation doctrine. However, like the revisionist doctrines of sola fide, the revisionist doctrine of sola Scriptura is actually a distortion of the Reformation doctrine.

The adoption of the revisionist doctrine of sola Scriptura has resulted in numerous biblical, theological, and practical problems within Protestant churches. These problems have become the center of attention in recent years as numerous Protestants have converted to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy claiming that their conversion was due in large part to their determination that the doctrine of sola Scriptura was indefensible. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox apologists have been quick to take advantage of the situation, publishing numerous books and articles devoted to critiquing the doctrine of sola Scriptura. One issue, however, that neither the converts nor the apologists seem to understand is that the doctrine they are critiquing and rejecting is the revisionist doctrine ofsola Scriptura, not the classical Reformation doctrine. In order to understand the difference, some historical context is necessary.

Unknown Artist, "The Great Cloud of Witnesses" (20th Century)

Unknown Artist, “The Great Cloud of Witnesses” (20th Century)

Historical Observations
Part of the difficulty in understanding the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura is due to the fact that the historical debate is often framed simplistically in terms of “Scripture versus tradition.” Protestants are said to teach “Scripture alone,” while Roman Catholics are said to teach “Scripture plus tradition.” This, however, is not an accurate picture of the historical reality. The debate should actually be understood in terms of competing concepts of the relationship between Scripture and tradition, and there are more than two such concepts in the history of the church. In order to understand the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura we must understand the historical context more accurately.

The Reformation debate over sola Scriptura did not occur in a vacuum. It was the continuation of a long-standing medieval debate over the relationship between Scripture and tradition and over the meaning of “tradition” itself. In the first three to four centuries of the church, the church fathers had taught a fairly consistent view of authority. The sole source of divine revelation and the authoritative doctrinal norm was understood to be the Old Testament together with the Apostolic doctrine, which itself had been put into writing in the New Testament. The Scripture was to be interpreted in and by the church within the context of the regula fidei (“rule of faith”), yet neither the church nor the regula fidei were considered second supplementary sources of revelation. The church was the interpreter of the divine revelation in Scripture, and the regula fidei was the hermeneutical context, but only Scripture was the Word of God. Heiko Oberman (1930-2001) has termed this one-source concept of revelation “Tradition 1.”1

The first hints of a two-source concept of tradition, a concept in which tradition is understood to be a second source of revelation that supplements biblical revelation, appeared in the fourth century in the writings of Basil and Augustine. Oberman terms this two-source concept of tradition “Tradition 2” (Professor Oberman had many gifts. The ability to coin catchy labels was apparently not one of them). It is not absolutely certain that either Basil or Augustine actually taught the two-source view, but the fact that it is hinted at in their writings ensured that it would eventually find a foothold in the Middle Ages. This would take time, however, for throughout most of the Middle Ages, the dominant view was Tradition 1, the position of the early church. The beginnings of a strong movement toward Tradition 2 did not begin in earnest until the twelfth century. A turning point was reached in the fourteenth century in the writings of William of Ockham. He was one of the first, if not the first, medieval theologian to embrace explicitly the two-source view of revelation. From the fourteenth century onward, then, we witness the parallel development of two opposing views: Tradition 1 and Tradition 2. It is within the context of this ongoing medieval debate that the Reformation occurred.

When the medieval context is kept in view, the Reformation debate over sola Scriptura becomes much clearer. The reformers did not invent a new doctrine out of whole cloth. They were continuing a debate that had been going on for centuries. They were reasserting Tradition 1 within their particular historical context to combat the results of Tradition 2 within the Roman Catholic Church. The magisterial reformers argued that Scripture was the sole source of revelation, that it is to be interpreted in and by the church, and that it is to be interpreted within the context of the regula fidei. They insisted on returning to the ancient doctrine, and as Tradition 1 became more and more identified with their Protestant cause, Rome reacted by moving toward Tradition 2 and eventually adopting it officially at the Council of Trent. (Rome has since developed a view that Oberman has termed “Tradition 3,” in which the “Magisterium of the moment” is understood to be the one true source of revelation, but that issue is beyond the scope of this brief essay).

At the same time the magisterial reformers were advocating a return to Tradition 1 (sola Scriptura), several radical reformers were calling for the rejection of both Tradition 1 and Tradition 2 and the adoption of a completely new understanding of Scripture and tradition. They argued that Scripture was not merely the only infallible authority but that it was the only authority altogether. The true but subordinate authority of the church and the regula fidei were rejected altogether. According to this view (Tradition 0), there is no real sense in which tradition has any authority. Instead, the individual believer requires nothing more than the Holy Spirit and the Bible.

In America during the eighteenth century, this individualistic view of the radical Reformation was combined with the rationalism of the Enlightenment and the populism of the new democracy to create a radical version of Tradition 0 that has all but supplanted the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura (Tradition 1). This new doctrine, which may be termed “solo” Scriptura instead of sola Scriptura, attacks the rightful subordinate authority of the church and of the ecumenical creeds of the church. Unfortunately, many of its adherents mistakenly believe and teach others that it is the doctrine of Luther and Calvin.

"The true rule is this: God's Word shall establish articles of faith, and no one else, not even an angel can do so." (Martin Luther, Smalcald Articles II, p.15)

“The true rule is this: God’s Word shall establish articles of faith, and no one else, not even an angel can do so.”
(Martin Luther, Smalcald Articles II, p.15)

The Reformation Doctrine of Sola Scriptura
To summarize the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura, or the Reformation doctrine of the relation between Scripture and tradition, we may say that Scripture is to be understood as the sole source of divine revelation; it is the only inspired, infallible, final, and authoritative norm of faith and practice. It is to be interpreted in and by the church; and it is to be interpreted within the hermeneutical context of the rule of faith. As Richard Muller observes, the Reformed doctrine of sola Scriptura did not ever mean, “all of theology ought to be constructed anew, without reference to the church’s tradition of interpretation, by the lonely exegete confronting the naked text.” That this is the Reformation doctrine of Scripture, tradition, and authority may be demonstrated by an examination of the reformers’ writings, only a sampling of which may be mentioned here.

Martin Luther is well known for his declaration at the Diet of Worms: “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God.” Many point to this statement as evidence that Luther rejected Tradition 1, the teaching of the early church, but other factors must be considered before coming to such a conclusion, namely, the historical context of this statement and the fact that Luther said and wrote much more on the subject. As simply one example, in a 1532 letter to Duke Albert of Prussia about the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, Luther wrote the following:

This article moreover, has been clearly believed and held from the beginning of the Christian Church to this hour – a testimony of the entire holy Christian Church, which, if we had nothing besides, should be sufficient for us. For it is dangerous and terrible to hear or believe anything against the united testimony, faith and doctrine, of the entire holy Christian Church, as this hath been held now 1,500 years, from the beginning, unanimously in all the world. Whoso now doubted thereon, it is even the same as though he believed in no Christian Church, and he condemneth thus not only the entire holy Christian Church as a damnable heresy, but also Christ himself and all the apostles and prophets.

The second-generation Lutheran scholar Martin Chemnitz (1522-1586), writes along similar lines in his Examination of the Council of Trent:

This is also certain, that no one should rely on his own wisdom in the interpretation of the Scripture, not even in the clear passages…. We also gratefully and reverently use the labors of the fathers who by their commentaries have profitably clarified many passages of the Scripture. And we confess that we are greatly confirmed by the testimonies of the ancient church in the true and sound understanding of the Scripture. Nor do we approve of it if someone invents for himself a meaning which conflicts with all antiquity, and for which there are clearly no testimonies of the church.

Another of the magisterial reformers who addressed this issue was John Calvin. In the 1559 edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, for example, he writes:

In this way, we willingly embrace and reverence as holy the early councils, such as those of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus I, Chalcedon, and the like, which were concerned with refuting errors-in so far as they relate to the teachings of faith. For they contain nothing but the pure and genuine exposition of Scripture, which the holy fathers applied with spiritual prudence to crush the enemies of religion who had then arisen.

And further:

We indeed willingly concede, if any discussion arises over doctrine, that the best and surest remedy is for a synod of true bishops to be convened, where the doctrine at issue may be examined.

To sum up the traditional Protestant view, the words of the nineteenth-century Reformed theologian Charles Hodge (1797-1878) are appropriate:

Again, Protestants admit that as there has been an uninterrupted tradition of truth from the protevangelium to the close of the Apocalypse, so there has been a stream of traditionary teaching flowing through the Christian Church from the day of Pentecost to the present time. This tradition is so far a rule of faith that nothing contrary to it can be true. Christians do not stand isolated, each holding his own creed. They constitute one body, having one common creed. Rejecting that creed, or any of its parts, is the rejection of the fellowship of Christians, incompatible with the communion of saints, or membership in the body of Christ. In other words, Protestants admit that there is a common faith of the Church, which no man is at liberty to reject, and which no man can reject and be a Christian.

hipster

“The reformers’ appeal to ‘Scripture alone,’… was never intended to mean ‘me alone.'”
— Keith A. Mathison

The Revisionist Doctrine of “solo” Scriptura
In contrast with the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura, the revisionist doctrine of “solo” Scriptura is marked by radical individualism and a rejection of the authority of the church and the ecumenical creeds. If we compare the statements made by advocates of “solo” Scriptura with the statements of Reformational Christians above, the difference is immediately evident. It is also important to observe the source of this doctrine in early America. As Nathan O. Hatch notes, the first Americans to push the right of private judgment over against the church and the creeds were unorthodox ministers.

The liberal minister Simeon Howard (1733-1804), for example, advised pastors to “lay aside all attachment to human systems, all partiality to names, councils and churches, and honestly inquire, ‘what saith the Scriptures?'” In his own effort to overturn orthodox Christianity, Charles Beecher (1815-1900) denounced “creed power” and argued for “the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible.” The universalist minister A. B. Grosh (d. 1884) declared in a similar way, “In religious faith we have but one Father and one Master, and the Bible, the Bible, is our only acknowledged creed book.”

The radical American version of “solo” Scriptura reached its fullest expression in the writings of the Restorationists as they applied the principles of Democratic populism to Enlightenment Christianity. In 1809, the Restorationist Elias Smith (1769-1846) proclaimed, “Venture to be as independent in things of religion, as those which respect the government in which you live.” Barton Stone (1772-1844) declared that the past should be “consigned to the rubbish heap upon which Christ was crucified.” Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) made his individualistic view of Scripture very clear, declaring, “I have endeavored to read the Scriptures as though no one had read them before me, and I am as much on my guard against reading them to-day, through the medium of my own views yesterday, or a week ago, as I am against being influenced by any foreign name, authority, or system whatever.” As the Reformed Princeton theologian Samuel Miller (1769-1850) rightly observed, “the most zealous opposers [of creeds] have generally been latitudinarians and heretics.”

Why “Solo” Scriptura Must Be Rejected
The revisionist doctrine of “solo” Scriptura has become so entrenched in the modern church that many Protestant Christians today will sympathize more with the sentiments of the liberal and sectarian clergymen quoted above than they will with the teaching of the reformers. The doctrine of “solo” Scriptura, however, is as problematic and dangerous today as it was in previous centuries. It remains unbiblical, illogical, and unworkable. Here I will address some of the more obvious problems.

The fundamental problem with “solo” Scriptura is that it results in autonomy. It results in final authority being placed somewhere other than the Word of God. It shares this problem with the Roman Catholic doctrine. The only difference is that the Roman Catholic doctrine places final authority in the church while “solo” Scriptura places final authority in each individual believer. Every doctrine and practice is measured against a final standard, and that final standard is the individual’s personal judgment of what is and is not biblical. The result is subjectivism and relativism. The reformers’ appeal to “Scripture alone,” however, was never intended to mean “me alone.”

The Bible itself simply does not teach “solo” Scriptura Christ established his church with a structure of authority and gives to his church those who are specially appointed to the ministry of the word (Acts 6:2-4). When disputes arose, the apostles did not instruct each individual believer to go home and decide by himself and for himself who was right. They met in a council (Acts 15:6-29). Even the well-known example of the Bereans does not support “solo” Scriptura (cf. Acts 17:10-11; cf. vv. 1-9). Paul did not instruct each individual Berean to go home and decide by himself and for himself whether what he was teaching was true. Instead, the Bereans read and studied the Scriptures of the Old Testament day by day with Paul present in order to see whether his teaching about the Messiah was true.

In terms of hermeneutics, the doctrine of “solo” Scriptura is hopeless. With “solo” Scriptura, the interpretation of Scripture becomes subjective and relative, and there is no possibility for the resolution of differences. It is a matter of fact that there are numerous different interpretations of various parts of Scripture. Adherents of “solo” Scriptura are told that these different interpretations can be resolved simply by an appeal to Scripture. But how is the problem of differing interpretations to be resolved by an appeal to another interpretation? All appeals to Scripture are appeals to interpretations of Scripture. The only real question is: whose interpretation? People with differing interpretations of Scripture cannot set a Bible on a table and ask it to resolve their differences. In order for the Scripture to function as an authority, it must be read and interpreted by someone. According to “solo” Scriptura, that someone is each individual, so ultimately, there are as many final authorities as there are human interpreters. This is subjectivism and relativism run amuck. The proponents of “solo” Scriptura rightly condemn the hermeneutical tyranny of Rome, but the solution to hermeneutical tyranny is not hermeneutical anarchy.

The doctrine of “solo” Scriptura also faces historical problems due to the fact that it cannot be reconciled with the reality that existed in the first decades and centuries of the church. If “solo” Scriptura were true, much of the church had no standard of truth for many years. In the first century, one could not walk down to his local Christian bookstore and buy a copy of the Bible. Manuscripts had to be hand-copied and were not found in every believer’s home. The first books of the New Testament did not even begin to be written until at least ten years after the death of Christ, and some were not written until several decades after Christ. Gradually some churches obtained copies of some books, while other churches had copies of others. It took many years before the New Testament as we know it was gathered and available as a whole. Even then, it too was hand-copied, so it was not available in the home of every individual Christian. If the lone individual is to judge and evaluate everything by himself and for himself by measuring it against Scripture, as proponents of “solo” Scriptura would have it, how would this have possibly worked in the first decades of the church before the New Testament was completed?

"Christians do not stand isolated, each holding his own creed." Charles Hodge

“Christians do not stand isolated, each holding his own creed.”
— Charles Hodge (1797-1878)

One of the most self-evident problems related to the doctrine of “solo” Scriptura is the question of the canon. If one is going to claim that Scripture is the only authority whatsoever, it is legitimate to ask how we then define what is and is not “Scripture.” Proponents of“solo” Scriptura claim that Scripture is authoritative but cannot say with any authority what Scripture is. The table of contents in the front of the Bible is not itself an inspired text written by a prophet or an apostle. It is, in a very real sense, a creed of the church declaring what the church believes to be the content of Scripture. One way to illustrate the problem “solo” Scriptura faces in connection with the canon is simply to ask the following: How would “solo” Scriptura deal with a modern day Marcion? How, for example, would a proponent of “solo” Scriptura argue with a person who claimed that the real New Testament includes only the books of Luke, Acts, Romans, and Revelation? He can’t appeal to the church, to history, or to tradition. A self-consistent adherent of “solo Scriptura” would have no way to respond to such a view because, as one such consistent adherent informed me in personal correspondence, it is the right and duty of each individual Christian to determine the canonicity of each biblical book by and for himself. This is the only consistent position for a proponent of “solo” Scriptura to take, but it is self-defeating because it destroys any objective notion of Scripture. One cannot appeal to the biblical authority of Romans, for example, if each believer determines for himself whether Romans is in fact to be considered a canonical and authoritative biblical book.

The question of the canon is not the only theological problem caused by “solo” Scriptura. Another serious problem is the fact that the adoption of “solo” Scriptura destroys the possibility of having any objective definition of what Christianity is and is not. “solo” Scriptura destroys the very concepts of orthodoxy and heresy. If the authority of the ecumenical creeds is rejected, and if each individual believer is to determine all questions of doctrine by and for himself, then the definitions of orthodoxy and heresy are completely relative and subjective. One man judges the doctrine of the Trinity to be biblical. Another deems it unbiblical. One judges open theism biblical. Another deems it unbiblical. The same is true with respect to every other doctrine. Each man defines Christianity as it seems right in his own eyes.

Finally, it must be realized that “solo” Scriptura ignores reality. The Bible simply did not drop out of the sky into our laps. We would not even be able to read a Bible for ourselves were it not for the labors of many others including archaeologists, linguists, scribes, textual critics, historians, translators, and more. If “solo” Scriptura were true, it should be possible to give untranslated ancient Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of biblical, apocryphal, and pseudepigraphal texts to some isolated tribe member somewhere on earth, and with no one’s assistance, that individual should be able to learn the Hebrew and Greek languages, read the various manuscripts, determine which of them are canonical, and then come to an orthodox understanding of the Christian faith. The reason this is not possible, however, is because “solo” Scriptura is not true. It is an unbiblical distortion of the truth.

The revisionist doctrine of “solo” Scriptura has been a source of great damage to the cause of Christ. The magisterial reformers were right to reject the early versions of it that appeared in the teaching of some radicals. Contemporary heirs of the reformers must follow the magisterial reformers here. The fight must be fought on two fronts. We are not only to reject the Roman Catholic doctrine (whether the two-source doctrine of Tradition 2 or the sola ecclesia doctrine of Tradition 3), which places final autonomous authority in the church. We must also reject the revisionist doctrine of “solo” Scriptura, which places final autonomous authority in the hands of each and every individual.

“Communion of Saints” by Elise Ritter (October 2010)

“Communion of Saints” by Elise Ritter (October 2010)


1 For more information on Heiko Oberman’s concept of Tradition 1, see his work The Dawn of the Reformation (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1986), p. 280. For background information on Tradition 0, see Alister McGrath’s Reformation Thought, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell), p. 144. For other background information on “solo” Scriptura see Nathan O. Hatch, “Sola Scriptura and Novus Ordo Seclorum,” in The Bible in America, ed. N. Hatch and M. Noll, pp. 59-78. The quotation from Richard Muller is taken from his Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), p. 51. Luther’s letter to Duke Albert of Prussia is cited in Philip Schaff’s The Principle of Protestantism (Philadelphia: United Church Press, 1964 [1845]), pp. 116-117, note). Chemnitz’s quote can be found in Examination of the Council of Trent, tr. Fred Kramer, Vol. 1, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1971), pp. 208-209. The quotations from Calvin are taken from his Institutes, 4.9.8 and 4.9.13. Mr. Mathison has taken his quotation of Charles Hodge from Hodge’s Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 113-114. Comments from Nathan Hatch on the revisionist doctrine of “solo” Scriptura are taken from “Sola Scriptura and Novus Ordo Seclorum,” in The Bible in America, ed. N. Hatch and M. Noll, p. 62. The quotation from Samuel Miller is found in The Utility and Importance of Creeds and Confessions (Greenville, SC: A Press, 1991 [1839]), p. 15. For a fuller discussion on this topic, Mr. Mathison refers readers to his book The Shape of Sola Scriptura (Canon Press, 2001).

Keith Mathison

Keith Mathison

About the Author
Keith Mathison is associate editor of Tabletalk and author of The Shape of Sola Scriptura (Canon Press, 2001).

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2007 edition of Modern Reformation and is reprinted with permission. For more information about Modern Reformation, visit www.modernreformation.org or call (800) 890-7556 FREE. All rights reserved.

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A caution to Ex-Mormon Christians.
19th Century Restorationist Revival Meeting

19th Century Restorationist Revival Meeting

by Fred W. Anson
Most Mormons are surprised to find out that the Restoration that they think is unique to their church isn’t unique at all. In actual fact, as he had a tendency to do, Joseph Smith plagiarized “The Restoration” from contemporary sources. In this case his major source was a 19th Century Restorationist movement that began in 1801 in Cane Ridge, Kentucky.

That movement (now known as the “Stone-Campbell Movement”) was already an established subset of the Second Great Awakening and was going great guns long before Joseph Smith was even born in 1805. Further, even that American 19th Century restorationist movement had ideological and theological roots going back hundreds of years and crossing continents, cultures, and countries:

Christian primitivism, also described as restorationism, is the belief that Christianity should be restored along the lines of what is known about the apostolic early church, which restorationists see as the search for a more pure and more ancient form of the religion. Fundamentally, this vision seeks to correct faults or deficiencies [in the church] by appealing to the primitive church as a normative model.1

Essentially any group that claims that they have restored something that was lost from primitive Christianity is restorationist. That can range from the addition of a particular rite or belief to the rejection of a particular practice or doctrine. In other words, anything that “restores” the church via addition or subtraction to it’s primitive, apostolic state is restorationist. Does this sound familiar? Can anyone think of any church that believes or does this? Well, I could fill an entire article with just a list of the name of such groups since they’re as common as crickets and more are forming all the time. As the Wikipedia article on Christian Restorationism explains:

The term “restorationism” is sometimes used more specifically as a synonym for the [19th Cenutry] American Restoration Movement. The term is also used by more recent groups, describing their goal to re-establish Christianity in its original form, such as some [20th Century] anti-denominational Charismatic Restorationists, which arose in the 1970s in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. In comparable terms, earlier primitivist movements, including the [15th Century] Hussites, [16th Century] Anabaptists, [19th Century] Landmarkists, [16-17th Century] Puritans, and the [12th Century] Waldensians have been described as examples of restorationism, as have many Seventh-day Sabbatarians.2

And just as most believing, practicing Mormons are oblivious to the reality that Latter Day Saint restorationism is just one of many various and sundry flavors of Christian primitivism, so are most Ex-Mormons. So it’s only natural that Ex-Mormons are going to feel some draw toward Restorationism since it’s what Mormons (particularly Born Into the Covenant Mormons) know best. Restorationist is how they’re been conditioned to think and feel about the Christian Church in general – it’s their comfort zone. There’s really no surprise here is there?

However, I would ask our Ex-Mormon friends to consider fully the dangers of continuing to uncritically think like a restorationist. Please consider this:

At least two disastrous consequences can be expected to result from a zealous embrace of restorationist philosophy. First, it easily leads to a spirit of exclusivism and arrogance, not to mention error. The natural outcome of believing one’s own group has the corner on the truth is the despising of all others who claim the name of Christ, seeing them as apostates, or worse, tools of the devil. No spirit of Christian unity can survive such a mindset. One has only to look at the diverse beliefs that exist among the restorationists themselves, and the resulting animosity that accompanies them, to see the inevitable result of adopting such a belief system. Exclusivism leads to pride, a sin especially abhorred by God (Proverbs 16:5; James 4:6). In addition, exclusivism can provoke delusions of grandeur in its leaders, making possible all manner of erroneous interpretations, not to mention rewriting, of Scripture designed to fit it to the paradigm of the group, without regard for clear and concise biblical scholarship and exegesis.

The second, and far more destructive, result of restorationist philosophy is that it denies God’s ability, or willingness, to preserve the faith “once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), rejects His sovereignty over His people, and disavows His plan to bring to pass His will without fail, despite attempts by Satan and his minions to derail it. God did not send His Son to die on the cross for the sins of His people only to allow those same people to lapse into apostasy and languish there for 1800 years. Such a notion is not only absurd, but it defines God as a ruthless and capricious entity, not the loving and merciful Father God we know Him to be. Those who believe God abandoned mankind for centuries because of their unbelief and sin need only to read Romans 3, which makes it clear that even though men are unfaithful, this does not nullify God’s faithfulness. The Holy Spirit is, and always has been, active in the world “convict[ing] the world concerning sin, and concerning righteousness, and concerning judgment” (John 16:8), drawing God’s people from every race, tribe, nation and language to the Savior. In every era, the redeemed of God have responded to His Spirit because that is God’s plan, and it will continue unabated to the day of Christ’s return. Until then, we have the assurance of Jesus Himself that He will be with us “always, even until the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20).3

An Anti-Christmas Restorationist makes her feelings known.

An Anti-Christmas Restorationist makes her feelings known.

A Practical Example
Another dangerous by-product of Restorationist philosophy can be taking extreme or dogmatic positions on non-essentials of the Christian Faith. To point to just one of many such examples, some Restorationist groups (such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, some Church of Christ groups, etc.) take extreme positions on celebrating some or all holidays – “extreme” as in that they not only don’t recognize or celebrate them, they condemn those who do.

Now let’s be clear: No one denies that the Roman Catholic Church syncretized pagan holidays in creating Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter. However, does this really mean that Christians and Churches that observe these holidays are in error or apostate? Thinking critically, couldn’t a counter argument be made that the priests actually took righteous domination over these pagan holidays and redeemed them by “Christianizing” them? As the pastor of a traditional, liturgical Lutheran church noted well in this regard:

Of the major Christian Holy Days, Christmas, Easter and Pentecost are the high points in the Historic Church Year. On these Holy Days we celebrate God the Father’s gift of His only-begotten Son in the birth of Jesus Christ, we celebrate God the Son’s gift of His life, sufferings, death and resurrection at Passover/Easter, and we celebrate God the Holy Spirit’s gift of calling us to faith and dwelling in us through Word and Sacrament.

These Holy Days are also one of the main fronts in the battle against Christianity by people who wish to undermine Christianity. Part of undermining Christianity means undermining all the claims of Christianity about what the Bible teaches. The historical liturgical practice of the church has been the focal point of the application of Biblical doctrine to the faith and lives of the saints. By discrediting the liturgical practice of the Church the enemies of Christianity try to distract from biblical teaching for that day and discredit that teaching.

This is not to say that these liturgical practices or holiday traditions should be required in any legalistic way. This is to point out that the efforts of those who try to discredit the authenticity of Christian Holy days and seek to scandalize the traditions associated with those days do so to undermine the biblical doctrine the Church teaches through the observance of these Holy Days.

And so any Christian holy day that could be claimed is claimed by the anti-Christian groups. We have seen this with Halloween [which has supplanted Reformation Day on October 31] and we will see it with many other lesser Historic Christian celebrations.4

This isn’t to say that this Lutheran Pastor is entirely right, Restorationist groups completely wrong, or vice versa. As stated previously, choosing to observe or not observe all or a particular holiday is a matter of conscience and personal conviction that has nothing to do with our salvation. This is just as Paul said Colossians 2:16 (NKJV) when he said, “So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths.”

In the end each of us is left to come their own conclusion and life decision on this matter as the “Got Questions” article on this subject states well:

The Bible nowhere instructs Christians to celebrate holidays such as Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, Valentines Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Independence Day, birthdays, anniversaries, etc. This leads some to refrain from observing these celebratory days, even those that are considered Christian holidays. However, at the same time, the Bible does not speak against celebrating holidays.5

We would also remind everyone that since this is a non-essential of the Christian faith, that liberty and charity should prevail toward those who take a position on this subject that differs from our own.

In essentials, unity.
In non-essentials, liberty.
In all things, charity.

Conclusion
Please don’t think that this article means that Ex-Mormons should never consider or join a restorationist church after leaving Mormonism. I would be a hypocrite were I to say that since I’m a Charismatic Christian – that is, someone whose theology includes a belief that God has supernaturally restored the gifts of the Spirit to the church through various revivals throughout Christian Church history. Further, since the congregation I’m a member of is Charismatic, I am in fact in a restorationist church myself. However, that said, there’s a lot of Charismatic Christianity that I refuse to have anything to do so because it fails to pass biblical scrutiny. Rethink restorationism? Oh trust me, I did, I have, and I still do!6

I’m also speaking from hard experience. My lack of discernment and inability to question Christian restorationism landed me in a Restorationist Mind Control Cult back in the day – and my inability to rethink restorationism kept me there for thirteen years.7 So I’m issuing a hard won caution here: If you’re an Ex-Mormon you need to proceed with caution because many restorationist groups are imbalanced, in error, or heretical. Some are even cults that are very similar to the one that you’ve just left – McCraneyism immediately springs to mind here. So be careful out there – think, think, and then rethink!

Finally, I would suggest that biggest error of Restorationism is the presumption that the original Apostolic Church was pristine, pure, perfect, and problem free. Yet all you have to do is read the New Testament to see that this simply wasn’t the case. So when people say they want to restore the New Testament Church, the logical question is, “Which one?” Corinth? Why would you want to restore that dysfunctional mess? Or maybe Galatia where a false gospel was being taught? What about the Seven Churches of Asia in the Book of Revelation – five of which Christ Himself rebukes? Even the original church of Jerusalem (see Acts 2) was slow to fulfill the Great Commission until God stirred up persecution and goaded them into doing so (see Acts 8).

Can you see how presuming that there has ever been an ideal or perfect Church on earth leads to the false conclusion that there can be a perfect church in our day? After all, if Christ’s Apostles couldn’t do it what makes you think that we can? Wasn’t Paul clear in 1 Corinthians 13:10 that the perfect and complete won’t come until the return of Christ? Wasn’t he clear in Ephesians 5:25-27 that Christ is both preserving and preparing His future bride of Revelation 21:2 (notice, present and future tense not past) to be holy, without spot, wrinkle, or blemish? Perhaps, this rethinker of Restorationism said it best with this challenge:

We should stop idolizing a church era, and start worshiping her Creator. We should stop idolizing the past, and look forward to our future with Jesus. We should recognize that we are on a journey, and our ultimate goal is not to reach the “golden age of the church” but it is to earnestly strive to be like our humble Savior in whatever time, season, or place God has appointed us to be.8

Amen Brother Recovered Restorationist, amen!

1829 Methodist Revival Camp Meeting

1829 Methodist Revival Camp Meeting

NOTES
1 Wikipedia, “Restorationism”
2 Ibid
3 “What is Restorationism?”, GotQuestions.org website
4 “Redeeming Holy Days from Pagan Lies — Christmas”
5 “Should a Christian celebrate holidays?”, GotQuestions.org website. And I would encourage the reader to consider this article in it’s entirety in answering this question for them self.
6 How else does one end up both Reformed and non-cessationist like I am – much to the dismay of both my friends in both camps who just can’t figure that one out. To explain my stance a bit, I could only nod in complete agreement with fellow Charismatic Reformed Christian R.T. Kendall when he wrote:

My position is clear. I describe myself as a Reformed theologian—not only in belief but also in practice. I have to say that for some reason I have often felt last in line as far as signs and wonders are concerned. While others have been slain in the Spirit all around me, my body has remained resolutely upright—like the Statue of Liberty. While members of my family have seen physical healing personally, I have not. It is true that I have spoken in tongues, but you would not find an occasion of that in public. In short: if I am charismatic, I am the least of the brethren.
(R.T. Kendall, “Holy Fire: A Balanced, Biblical Look at the Holy Spirit’s Work in Our Lives”, Kindle Location 409)

7 See Fred W. Anson, “My Life as a Mind Control Cultist (Part 1)”
8 Yuriy Stasyuk, “12 Reasons Why The Early Church Isn’t the Ideal Church”

Click to read this article - highly recommended for recovering Restorationists!

Click to read this article – highly recommended for recovering Restorationists.

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A Response to Richard Mouw

BCT-Angel-Moroni5

by Robert M. Bowman Jr.
The May 2016 issue of the Christian periodical First Things (appearing online in April) includes an article Richard Mouw, President Emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary, entitled “Mormons Approaching Orthodoxy.” As I will document here, the Institute for Religious Research figures largely in Mouw’s article even though he never mentions IRR (or me) by name. As the spokesman for IRR in past efforts by our organization to dialogue with and respond to Professor Mouw, I have a special interest in Mouw’s article and a direct responsibility to offer this response.

The focus of Mouw’s article is on the question of whether Mormonism is still committed to the view of God represented by Lorenzo Snow’s couplet, “As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may be.” Mouw’s main claim is that the LDS Church is quietly moving away from the notion that God was a mortal man who became exalted to Godhood in a process open to us as well. Mouw recognizes that this doctrine is incompatible with Christianity but insists that Mormons are doing what they can to retire this false doctrine.

If only it were so.

In this article I will be critically reviewing Mouw’s article, correcting the historical record, explaining the issues, summarizing the evidence as it pertains to those issues, and responding to Mouw’s arguments.

MouwInterview

Richard J. Mouw

Richard Mouw: Dialogue with Mormons but Not with Their Evangelical Critics
Mouw begins by giving a brief recitation of the history of the Snow couplet. Joseph Smith’s father had told Snow that he would become “as great as God,” an idea that Snow felt he came to grasp four years later, leading to his formulation of the couplet. He reports that Parley Pratt “not long after that” affirmed that “God, angels and men are all of one species” and that Joseph Smith taught that “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted Man.” (The order here is a little misleading: Snow composed his couplet in 1840, Joseph Smith delivered the sermon quoted in 1844, and Pratt published his book making the quoted statement in 1855.) Mouw admits that this view “denies an essential Jewish and Christian teaching,” namely that God is ontologically unique, a fundamentally different kind of being than humans, and that we will never become the same kind of being as God.

Yet Mouw argues that this doctrine, which he admits was taught by Joseph Smith as well as by Snow and Pratt, need not divide evangelicals and Mormons, because Mormons are at least in the process of abandoning it. As I shall explain, Mouw’s argument blithely ignores facts that have been presented to him and that flatly disprove his claim.

Mouw recounts the history of this controversy as follows:

I’ve been involved for a long time in an Evangelical-Mormon dialogue. When that dialogue began fifteen years ago, we were told by the Mormon participants that the Lorenzo Snow couplet has no canonical status in Mormon theology. I reported that assessment in print, arguing that the apparent denial of any ontological difference between God and man in the Snow couplet need not prevent Evangelical-Mormon dialogue.

Right away, Evangelical “countercult” groups responded in a sharply critical way. One issued a “Statement on Richard Mouw and Evangelical Countercult Ministries,” stating that “the evidence is voluminous that the LDS Church has been continuously teaching the doctrine of eternal progression, as it is commonly known, represented by the King Follett Discourse and the Lorenzo Snow couplet from 1844 right up to the present.” An extensive critique appeared in an essay by Ronald V. Huggins, published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, “Lorenzo Snow’s Couplet: ‘As Man Now Is, God Once Was; As God Now Is, Man May Be’; ‘No Functioning Place in Present-Day Mormon Doctrine?’ A Response to Richard Mouw.”

Richard J. Mouw Apologizing in the MormonTabernacle

Richard J. Mouw Apologizing in the MormonTabernacle (2004)

This account is rather misleading. Mouw’s original statement denying that the Snow couplet had no canonical status in LDS theology was made in an email in late 2004, following his controversial remarks at the Salt Lake Tabernacle on November 14, 2004. On that occasion, Mouw accused his evangelical brethren of “bearing false witness” against Mormons in the way they characterized Mormon doctrine. In a subsequent email responding to challenges to his criticism, Mouw asserted that evangelicals in countercult ministry had misrepresented Mormonism as teaching “that God was once a human being like us, and we can become gods just like God is now.” Mouw claimed that this idea had “no functioning place in present-day Mormon doctrine.” Huggins responded in the article Mouw mentions, which appeared in the September 2006 issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society.1 That periodical, of course, is not published by a “countercult” group, but by the premier academic society of evangelical scholars. Huggins himself was at the time a professor at Salt Lake Theological Seminary and had published two articles on the Book of Mormon in the academic periodicalDialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.2 Referring to Huggins in the context of a general swipe at evangelical “countercult” groups comes across as an attempt to broad-brush all evangelical criticism of Mouw as unscholarly. It also ignores the fact that many evangelicals engaged in so-called countercult work care about scholarship and that many evangelical scholars are supportive of countercult ministry. For example, Huggins himself has been a member of the board of our organization, the Institute for Religious Research, since before Mouw’s appearance at the Salt Lake Tabernacle.

In an attempt to frame the controversy as one stoked by “countercult” groups, Mouw claims that after his publicly asserting that the idea of man becoming gods just like God is now is not a part of present-day LDS doctrine, “Right away, Evangelical ‘countercult’ groups responded in a sharply critical way.” He then cites the “Statement on Richard Mouw and Evangelical Countercult Ministries.” However, that Statement was issued in April 2013, more than eight years after Mouw’s comment about Mormon doctrine (and more than six years after Huggins’s article). That is hardly “right away.”

Perhaps this is a good place to point out that Mouw made his critical remarks about the evangelical countercult movement without having engaged anyone in that movement in the kind of friendly dialogue he has pursued with Mormon scholars. He made no effort to explain to the evangelicals he criticized what he thought they were doing wrong. Between 2004 and the present he has not pursued such dialogue and has not welcomed overtures from those evangelicals who have expressed a desire to have such dialogue with him.

Talking With The Mormons Front Cover

“Talking with Mormons” by Richard J. Mouw (2012)

The Statement on Richard Mouw and Evangelical Countercult Ministries3 was prompted not by Mouw’s email in 2004 but by his very public campaign in 2012 and early 2013 to promote the notion that Mormonism was moving away from the doctrine of God and man as the same species. In 2012 Mouw published a book entitled Talking with Mormons that criticized the way most evangelicals have viewed Mormonism. That same year and in early 2013 he made some public appearances with LDS scholar Robert Millet in which the two of them discussed some of the subjects addressed in Mouw’s book. In effect, the book and appearances were a public relations campaign to argue that evangelicals should view Mormonism in a more positive way religiously and theologically. In both the book and his public appearances, Mouw expanded on his claim that evangelical “countercult” organizations were misrepresenting Mormon doctrine, especially with regard to the issue of the nature of God.

In early 2013, the Institute for Religious Research reached out to Mouw and attempted to pursue dialogue with him about his critical stance toward countercult ministry. On February 14 of that year I sent to Mouw on behalf of IRR a three-page letter along with a 36-page documentation packet that had been specially prepared to address the comments he had made regarding the LDS doctrine of God and man. Perhaps I might mention that I am a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary (1981), where Mouw later served as president, and I had met with Mouw in his office at Fuller and discussed Mormonism with him in about 2001. After receiving no response to my letter, I sent Mouw a follow-up letter on March 14, which was answered by an email to me from Mouw on April 9. Mouw declined our invitation to dialogue, complaining about a number of things he thought we had said about him. After I responded with an email explaining that we had made none of the statements to which he took offense, Mouw wrote back and admitted that he had indeed confused us with someone else. However, he still chose not to engage us in dialogue or even to respond to the documentation we had provided him.

In the wake of Mouw’s unwillingness to participate in dialogue with evangelicals on the subject of Mormonism whose views he had been criticizing for years, we had a lengthy discussion on the matter at the Evangelical Ministries to New Religions conference in April 2013. EMNR is a consortium of evangelical organizations and researchers who are committed to supporting Christians in mission to people in a variety of new religious movements, including Mormonism. On April 12, 2013, EMNR issued a statement (which I drafted) responding to Mouw. After explaining briefly why we disagreed with Mouw’s comments about Mormonism, the statement concluded as follows:

"Talking Mormon Doctrine" edited by Richard J. Mouw and Robert L. Millet (circa 2015)

“Talking Mormon Doctrine” edited by Richard J. Mouw and Robert L. Millet (2015)

Evangelical Ministries to New Religions applauds Dr. Mouw for his salutary call for Christian civility and his thoughtful engagement in dialogue with Mormon scholars and leaders. At the same time, EMNR respectfully yet strongly disagrees with Dr. Mouw’s generalizations about evangelicals misrepresenting Mormon beliefs and practices, and specifically with his own misrepresentation of the standard LDS doctrine of eternal progression as “folk Mormonism” having no official or functioning place in Mormon belief today. We invite Dr. Mouw to engage evangelical ministries to Mormons in general, and those of us who are part of EMNR in particular, in the same kind of civil dialogue he has rightly championed between evangelicals and Mormons. Furthermore, we encourage Latter-day Saints to engage a wider circle of evangelicals in open and candid dialogue.

Mouw has never taken us up on this invitation.

Ironically, Mouw continues to claim, as he did in his 2012 book, that unnamed evangelical critics of Mormonism disagree with him because they are closed in principle to engaging Mormons in respectful dialogue. Here is how he put it in his book:

Again, there are many evangelicals who are convinced that those of us on the evangelical side who are involved in these dialogues have been duped by the Mormons. Worse than that, they’re convinced that by engaging in friendly—and hopeful—dialogue with representatives of Mormonism, we’re hurting the cause of the gospel…. Promoting the idea of friendly dialogue with Mormons isn’t a popular thing to do.4

In his recent article in First Things, Mouw again criticizes unnamed evangelicals who think dialogue with Mormons is impossible:

At stake in this dispute is a choice between two approaches to Mormon teachings and practice. One is skeptical and presumes that Mormonism is a ­deeply heretical form of Christianity, so much so that dialogue is impossible. The other is more trusting and is willing to entertain the possibility that Mormonism has the resources for theological self-criticism and self-correction, and that dialogue might help in this process.

I do not know of a single evangelical in “countercult” ministry who thinks that dialogue with Mormons is a bad idea, let alone that it is impossible. Indeed, every such evangelical I know seeks opportunities to engage Mormons in dialogue. It seems here that Mouw is using the term “dialogue” as code for something else. Note that Mouw’s comment implies that he disagrees about Mormonism being “deeply heretical.” This implication is confirmed by the title of his article, “Mormons Approaching Orthodoxy.”

President George W. Bush (right) meets with the leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during his visit to Salt Lake City. Seated clockwise are: the late Gordon B. Hinckley, President; Thomas S. Monson, First Counselor (obscured); James E. Faust, Second Counselor (obscured), and F. Michael Watson, Executive Secretary.

President George W. Bush (right) meets with the leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during a visit to Salt Lake City in 2008. Seated clockwise are: the late Gordon B. Hinckley, President; Thomas S. Monson, First Counselor (obscured); James E. Faust, Second Counselor (obscured), and F. Michael Watson, Executive Secretary.

The Real Issue: What Do Mormons Actually Teach?
Here’s what is really “at stake in this dispute.” It is a choice between accepting what official LDS Church publications and its leading theologians actually teach their members or accepting what Richard Mouw says he thinks is happening based on his conversations with his “Mormon friends” despite the public record of LDS Church teaching.5 Mouw gives lip service to the importance of considering what the LDS Church teaches its own members when he writes, “The test for me is not what Mormons say to me, but what they say to each other.”6 However, he doesn’t actually show that this is the basis on which he has formed his theological judgments about Mormonism. Instead, he repeatedly appeals to the assurances of his Mormon friends, as in the following telling comment:

Mormonism is often portrayed as a self-deification program—and not without some legitimacy, given the popularity of the Lorenzo Snow couplet: “What Man now is, God once was; what God now is, Man may become.” My Mormon friends are quick to point out, however, that this couplet has no official canonical status—indeed, Gordon Hinckley famously told Time magazine that he had no idea what it means to say “As God is, man may become.”7

With all due respect, what Mouw’s Mormon friends told him carries no authority as far as defining what has official or canonical status in Mormonism. Gordon Hinckley’s statement to Time magazine also does not pass what Mouw himself says is the test, which is what Mormons say to each other—not what they say to the secular media.

Yet there is more to the story with regard to Hinckley’s supposed denial of the doctrine. As we explain in a separate article,8 Hinckley did not disavow any understanding of the Snow couplet. We will summarize the issue briefly here. In Hinckley’s 1997 interview, he was asked, “Is this the teaching of the church today, that God the Father was once a man like we are?” Here is what he said:

I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it. I haven’t heard it discussed for a long time in public discourse. I don’t know. I don’t know all the circumstances under which that statement was made. I understand the philosophical background behind it. But I don’t know a lot about it and I don’t know that others know a lot about it.9

In saying that he didn’t “know a lot about it,” Hinckley was admitting implicitly that he did know something about it, while at the same time saying that Mormonism doesn’t provide much in the way of details about God the Father’s life before he became a God. Thus, Hinckley was not suggesting that the doctrine expressed in the Snow couplet was not part of Mormon doctrine. It may not be something the LDS Church emphasized, but it is still part of their belief system.

In his recent First Things article, Mouw interprets Hinckley’s remarks as “signaling a decision on the part of the Mormon leadership to downplay the Snow couplet within the corpus of Mormon teachings about the deity,” suggesting that they are “interested in joining the broad Jewish and Christian consensus that God is ontologically different from man—or at least that Mormons today don’t want to directly contradict that consensus.” Since Hinckley’s comment to Time was made in 1997, we have had nearly twenty years to see if the LDS Church actually has pivoted away from its earlier doctrine. The record of the past twenty years demonstrably contradicts Mouw’s interpretation. Some of the evidence comes from sources surprisingly close to Mouw himself.

BYU Professor Robert L. Millet

BYU Professor Robert L. Millet

Robert Millet: God Was Once a Mortal Being
If Gordon Hinckley was signaling in 1997 that the LDS Church was moving away from the doctrine that God was once a man as taught by Joseph Smith and Lorenzo Snow, Mouw’s LDS friend Robert Millet did not get the message. The very next year Millet and Noel Reynolds, another BYU scholar, published a short book addressing “10 basic issues” including number 6, “What do Latter-day Saints mean when they say that God was once a man?” After quoting approvingly both the King Follett Discourse and the Snow couplet, Millet and Reynolds wrote:

That God was once a mortal being is in no way inconsistent with the fact that he now has all power and all knowledge and possesses every virtue, grace, and godly attribute. He acquired perfection through long periods of growth, development, and progression, “by going from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one; from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation,” as Joseph Smith explained…. Not much has been revealed about this concept beyond the fact that God was once a man and that over a long period of time he gained the knowledge, power, and divine attributes necessary to know all things and have all power…. These doctrines are not clearly stated in the Bible. Mormons believe, however, that this knowledge was once had among the ancients and that it has been restored through modern prophets.10

This is not the only place where Millet has affirmed the doctrine of the King Follett Discourse and the Snow couplet. In his 2005 book A Different Jesus? The Christ of the Latter-day Saints, Millet offered the following comments for the benefit primarily of evangelical readers:

The tougher issue for many Christians to deal with is the accompanying doctrine set forth in the King Follett Sermon and the Lorenzo Snow coupletnamely, that God was once a man. Latter-day scriptures state unequivocally that God is a man, a Man of Holiness (Moses 6:57) who possesses a body of flesh and bones (D&C 130:22). These concepts are clearly a part of the doctrinal restoration. We teach that man is not of a lower order or different species than God. This, of course, makes many of our Christian friends extremely nervous (if not angry), for it appears to them that we are lowering God in the scheme of things and thus attempting to bridge the Creator/creature chasm.11

Mouw definitely knew about this statement from Millet, because Mouw wrote a foreword and afterword to the book! Moreover, in his afterword Mouw acknowledged that Mormonism teaches that we human beings are of the same species as God:

At the heart of our continuing disagreements, I am convinced, are very basic worldview issues. Judaism and Christianity have been united in their insistence that the Creator and the creation—including God’s human creatures—are divided by an unbridgeable “being” gap. God is the “Wholly Other”—eternal and self-sufficient—who is in a realm of existence that is radically distinct from the creation that was brought into being out of nothing by God’s sovereign decree. On this view of things, to confuse the Creator’s being with anything in his creation is to commit the sin of idolatry. Mormons, on the other hand, talk about God and humans as belonging to the same “species.” Inevitably, then, the differences are described, not in terms of an unbridgeable gap of being, but in the language of “more” and “less.”12

Mouw and Millet were obviously working on this book in 2004 (if not before) in order for it to be published in 2005. This means that at the time Mouw spoke at the Salt Lake Tabernacle in November 2004 and shortly thereafter sent out an email claiming that the doctrine epitomized in Snow’s couplet had “no functioning place in present-day Mormon doctrine,” Mouw knew that in fact that doctrine was “clearly a part of the doctrinal restoration,” as Millet put it in his book. Less than a year after Mouw had denied that the doctrine had any functioning place in current Mormon doctrine, a book appeared clearly affirming that very doctrine as part of the Mormon doctrinal restoration, with a foreword and afterword by Mouw himself. Mouw’s own statement that in Mormon belief God and humans are members of the same species clearly presupposes the doctrine that God was once a mortal man like us who then became a God and that we as his children can do the same.

"Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Lorenzo Snow" official LDS Church manual (circa 2012)

“Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Lorenzo Snow” official LDS Church manual (2012)

God Was Once a Man: It’s Still Being Taught
The doctrine of eternal progression—that God the Father was once a mortal man, that he became a God, and that we can become Gods like him—has continued to be taught by Mormons right up to the present. In his May 2016 article in First Things, Mouw devotes several paragraphs to explaining why the inclusion of the Snow couplet in the 2012 curriculum manual Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Lorenzo Snow, part of a series of manuals on the past presidents of the LDS Church, was not necessarily endorsing the first half of the couplet. According to Mouw, the discussion of the couplet in the manual focuses entirely on the second half, neither affirming nor denying the first half. Mouw’s analysis of this particular manual’s treatment of the Snow couplet has some weaknesses, but the bigger point to be made is that this is only one of many publications of the past twelve years in which the LDS Church has reaffirmed the validity of the Snow couplet, the King Follett Discourse, and the traditional LDS doctrine of eternal progression. As I pointed out to Mouw in my first letter to him in 2012:

The 2004 manual Teaching Seminary Preservice Readings Religion 370, 471, and 475 stated that “there are approved and inspired writings that are not in the standard works” that “also are true and should be used along with the scripturesthemselves,” among the five most important of which it says are “the ‘King Follett Sermon’ and the ‘Sermon in the Grove.’” At least eight teaching manuals currently available on LDS.org teach the King Follett Discourse, the Lorenzo Snow couplet, or (in most cases) both, including six manuals published since 2003.13

For example, the LDS curriculum manual Doctrines of the Gospel Teacher Manual (2011), which is still on the official LDS website, states:

What we know about God is limited to what he has chosen to tell us through his prophets. The Prophet Joseph Smith’s first vision in 1820 (see Joseph Smith—History 1:11–20) and the famous King Follett discourse given shortly before Joseph’s martyrdom in 1844 (see Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 343–62) are significant doctrinal teachings on the nature of God. From the beginning of his ministry until its end, the Prophet shared his increasing understanding of his Heavenly Father…. In the King Follett discourse, Joseph Smith declared that the first principle of the gospel consists of knowing the character of God. Joseph taught that God “was once a man like us; yea, that God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ himself” (Teachings, p. 346…).14

In 2014, the LDS Church posted a “Gospel Topics” article on its website with the title “Becoming Like God.” Here is some of what that article stated:

What kind of a being is God?” he asked. Human beings needed to know, he argued, because “if men do not comprehend the character of God they do not comprehend themselves.” In that phrase, the Prophet collapsed the gulf that centuries of confusion had created between God and humanity. Human nature was at its core divine. God “was once as one of us” and “all the spirits that God ever sent into the world” were likewise “susceptible of enlargement.” Joseph Smith preached that long before the world was formed, God found “himself in the midst” of these beings and “saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself” and be “exalted” with Him…. Since that sermon, known as the King Follett discourse, the doctrine that humans can progress to exaltation and godliness has been taught within the Church. Lorenzo Snow, the Church’s fifth President, coined a well-known couplet: “As man now is, God once was: As God now is, man may be.” Little has been revealed about the first half of this couplet, and consequently little is taught. When asked about this topic, Church President Gordon B. Hinckley told a reporter in 1997, “That gets into some pretty deep theology that we don’t know very much about.” When asked about the belief in humans’ divine potential, President Hinckley responded, “Well, as God is, man may become. We believe in eternal progression. Very strongly.15

The above statement provides a convenient basis for a review of the main points that have been made here:

  • The LDS Church continues to cite approvingly both the King Follett Discourse and the Lorenzo Snow couplet. Mouw’s claim that the Snow couplet or the idea it expresses has “no functioning place in present-day Mormon doctrine” is still false.
  • Joseph Smith is credited with having “collapsed the gulf…between God and humanity” found in traditional (orthodox) Christian theology. The statement here, in attributing that “gulf” to “centuries of confusion,” obviously is approving of and affirming Joseph’s teaching that collapsed that gulf.
  • The LDS Church affirms here that human nature is divine; this is another way of saying that God and humans are the same kind or species of being, albeit at very different stages of development.
  • Hinckley’s point that not much is known about God’s life before becoming God is affirmed. To say that little has been revealed or is taught about this doctrine is not to deny that the doctrine exists. The LDS Church is still committed to teaching that God was once a man like us and became exalted to Godhood, even though it has little more to say about the matter than that.
  • The LDS Church also affirms strongly the doctrine of eternal progression, which includes the idea that human beings can become like God in his essential attributes. God is an exalted man, and we who are mortals can likewise become exalted like him. This doctrine clearly goes outside the boundaries of orthodox theology, according to which redeemed human beings will become like God morally (perfect in love, holiness, etc.) and become immortal but will not become ontologically the same kind of being as God.

Toward the end of his First Things article, Mouw writes:

My own sense is that many in the LDS community, including several of its leaders, recognize that the first half of the Snow couplet, the statement about God having been like man, is incompatible with what they genuinely want to sing about: spiritual reliance on the all-sufficient Savior. They also see that it works against the spiritual outlook they want to nurture in new generations of Mormons. Evangelicals may wish for an explicit denial by the LDS leadership of the first half of the couplet. But it is important to recognize that another option—to be sure, a less stabilizing one theologically—is simply to ignore that first half and focus on the second and potentially more orthodox half in what is affirmed and taught in Mormonism.

Joseph Smith delivering The King Follett Discourse on April 7, 1844 at Spring General Conference.

Joseph Smith delivering The King Follett Discourse on April 7, 1844 at Spring General Conference.

Up to now, what Mouw says is his “sense” conflicts with the direct statements made by the LDS Church’s leaders, curriculum manuals, and official website statements. The LDS Church continues to affirm the validity and truth of the first half of the Snow couplet even while acknowledging that it does not have anything to offer in the way of elaboration or details as to what God the Father’s life was like or what he did prior to attaining Godhood. The problem here is not merely that the LDS Church has yet to repudiate or explicitly deny the first half of the couplet. The problem is that it continues to affirm its validity, as well as the validity of Joseph Smith’s teaching along the same lines in the King Follett Discourse.

Thus, there is simply no basis for thinking that Mormonism is “approaching orthodoxy.” There has been no significant theological change on the controversial issue at hand. At the very time that Richard Mouw began asserting (in 2004) that the idea of God as a former mortal man had no functioning place in contemporary Mormon doctrine, he was working with Mormon theologian Robert Millet getting his book published by a Christian publisher (Eerdmans), and even writing a foreword and afterword to it, that flatly contradicted Mouw’s claim.

Mouw’s claim about the Snow couplet and eternal progression was refuted by Ronald Huggins in his excellent 2006 article. In the ten years that have passed since that time, Mouw has not rebutted Huggins or offered anything along the lines of a scholarly treatment of the subject. Meanwhile, throughout those ten years the LDS Church has repeatedly reaffirmed their belief in the theology set forth in the King Follett Discourse and epitomized in Lorenzo Snow’s couplet. Except for the 2012 manual on Lorenzo Snow, Mouw has yet to comment on any of the documentary evidence that contradicts his claim.

Forced to choose between accepting Mouw’s assurance that the sense he gets from his Mormon friends is that they would like to abandon the doctrine that God was once a man like us or accepting what the LDS Church’s leaders and theologians (including some of Mouw’s friends!) say is their position on the subject, the only reasonable course is to accept what the Mormons themselves say. Mouw may have his reasons for taking the position he does, and he may sincerely think he is doing the right thing. Regardless, the truth is that Mormon doctrine still stands opposed to the orthodox Christian belief that God is ontologically unique and radically different from his creation. Genuine dialogue between evangelicals and Mormons must begin by coming to terms with what each other actually believes.

Richard J. Mouw

Richard J. Mouw

NOTES
1. Ronald V. Huggins, “Lorenzo Snow’s Couplet: ‘As Man Now Is, God Once Was; As God Now Is, Man May Be’; ‘No Functioning Place in Present-Day Mormon Doctrine?’ A Response to Richard Mouw,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49/3 (Sept. 2006): 549-68.
2. Ronald V. Huggins, “Did the Author of 3 Nephi Know the Gospel of Matthew?” Dialogue 30 (1997): 137-48; “‘Without a Cause’ and ‘Ships of Tarshish’: A Possible Contemporary Source for Two Unexplained Readings from Joseph Smith.” Dialogue 36 (2003): 157-79.
3. The statement is available on IRR’s website: see “Statement on Richard Mouw and Evangelical Countercult Ministries,” Evangelical Ministries to New Religions, 13 April 2013.
4. Richard J. Mouw, Talking with Mormons: An Invitation to Evangelicals (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 41.
5. Mouw’s book Talking with Mormons makes references to his Mormon “friends” over twenty times. By contrast, he cites Joseph Smith only twice and has only one or two other references to authoritative LDS sources.
6. Mouw, Talking with Mormons, 41.
7. Ibid., 55.
8. Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Gordon Hinckley, Richard Mouw, and Eternal Progression” (IRR, 2016).
9. This is the full answer in the unedited transcript provided to IRR by the interviewer for Time, Richard N. Ostling, and quoted in Luke P. Wilson and Joel B. Groat, “Dodging and Dissembling Prophet?” (IRR, 1997). See David Van Biema, “Kingdom Come: Salt Lake City was just for starters,” Time, 4 Aug. 1997.10. Robert L. Millet and Noel B. Reynolds, Latter-day Christianity: 10 Basic Issues (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University—FARMS, 1998), chapter 6, emphasis added.
11. Robert L. Millet, A Different Jesus? The Christ of the Latter-day Saints (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 144, emphasis added.
12. Richard J. Mouw, “Afterword,” in ibid., 182, emphasis added.
13. Letter from Robert M. Bowman Jr. to Richard J. Mouw, 14 Feb. 2013.
14.Chapter 3: God the Eternal Father,” in Doctrines of the Gospel Teacher Manual (2011), 7–8.
15.Becoming Like God” (LDS.org, 2014).

The Los Angeles, California LDS Church Temple at Sunset

The Los Angeles, California LDS Church Temple at Sunset

About the author: 
Rob Bowman is the Executive Director of the Institute for Religious Research (IRR). He has been with IRR since 2008 and is IRR’s Executive Director. Previously he served as Manager of Apologetics & Interfaith Evangelism for the North American Mission Board (2006-2008). For ten years Rob taught graduate courses in apologetics, biblical studies, and religion at Luther Rice University (1994-99) and Biola University (2001-2005). He has also worked with other apologetics and discernment ministries, most notably the Christian Research Institute (1984-91), the Atlanta Christian Apologetics Project (1994-99), and Watchman Fellowship in Alabama (1999-2000). Rob has spoken at over a hundred churches and at some three dozen conferences and debates. He has five years of experience hosting call-in radio talk shows focusing on apologetics, including the nationally famous Bible Answer Man show.

Rob Bowman, Executive Director of the Institute for Religious Research

Rob Bowman, Executive Director of the Institute for Religious Research

Rob Bowman earned the M.A. in Biblical Studies and Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, did doctoral studies in Christian Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary, and earned his Ph.D. in Biblical Studies at South African Theological Seminary. He is the author of roughly 60 articles (e.g., in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Review of Biblical Literature, Christian Research Journal, Moody Monthly, Pastoral Renewal, Mission Frontiers, and Journal of Evangelism and Missions) and 13 books pertaining to apologetics, religion, and biblical theology, including two winners of the Gold Medallion Award, An Unchanging Faith in a Changing World (1997) and Faith Has Its Reasons (2001; 2d ed., 2006). His most recent books are Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ(co-authored with Ed Komoszewski, 2007), which received numerous endorsements from such scholars as Ravi Zacharias and Richard Bauckham, and What Mormons Believe (2012).

Rob and his wife, Cathy, have been married since 1981 and have four children, three of them still living at home.
(source: “Who We Are: The People of IRR and What We Are All About”

This article was originally published on the Institute for Religious Research (IRR) website. It is republished here with the kind permission of the author.

by Fred W. Anson
Even though I haven’t seen or heard hide nor hair of it for a while now, at one point Floyd Weston’s “17 Points of the True Church” was once all the rage among Mormons. They would proudly present it as demonstrable proof of an obvious miracle that validated and confirmed the veracity of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with this story you can hear it directly from Mr. Weston in the video link that I’ve provided above. Or, for those who prefer the short version, here’s the synopsis from a Mormon friendly source:

The “17 points of the true church” is a story often heard in sacrament meeting talks. The story goes like this: Five friends attending college hear Albert Einstein speak. Einstein gives his belief in God. The five friends return to their dorm and begin to map out what the “true” church of God would have to include. Eventually the friends come up with 17 points of the true church. They all separate. World War II happens. Years later they all meet up (one had died in the war). The four had gone off to find the “true” church based on their research. All four had joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.1

However, the body of evidence suggests that it never happened at all.

Einstein at Cal Tech.

Einstein at Cal Tech.

Hearing Albert Einstein Speak at Cal Tech
It is a fact that Albert Einstein was at Cal Tech in the 1930’s. As the school’s website explains:

Einstein was a visiting professor at Caltech for three winter terms only—1931, 1932, and 1933. When Einstein decided to settle in the United States permanently, he accepted an appointment at Princeton University.2

However, according to his obituary, Floyd Elmer Weston was born May 21, 1921 which means that he would have been between 10-12 years old when he was a student there. Further, there’s also no record of Einstein speaking at Cal Tech after leaving the school for his commission at Princeton. Further, since Einstein’s health was failing after the war, a cross country trip from Princeton to Cal Tech (which most likely would have been via train) in the post war 1940’s to mid 1950’s (he died in 1955) for an undocumented speaking engagement is highly improbable.3

Further, there’s this email from 1998:

A convert in our ward fifteen or twenty years ago, Dick Lockett, read Weston’s story of the 17 Points and recognized that Weston claimed to have been a student at Cal Tech at the same time he was there. But several small points didn’t match his own recollection of a few events Weston mentioned. Key among them was Weston’s recounting of Einstein’s visit to Cal Tech. Einstein did come to Cal Tech but several years before Weston and he were students there. Dick began to probe the story further. He found that Weston was indeed a student at Cal Tech during the years he attended and thus could not have heard Einstein speak.4

No Collaborating Witnesses
Another problem with Weston’s story is the lack of collaborating witnesses. Continuing from the same source:

…in his story Weston only identified one of the people in the “study group” with first and last names. The rest are only identified by first names. Dick found the one identifiable member of the study group in the alumni records and made contact. They guy [had] never heard of Weston, was not LDS, and certainly was not part of any study group.5

And Holy Fetch notes:

Here is what we know to be true about this story. It was first told by Floyd Weston. He claims that he was one of the four college students. He attended Cal Tech and Albert Einstein did speak there (although some claim that Weston was a student several years after the Einstein visit). Floyd Weston never denied the story and died still claiming the story to be true. The life event was even mentioned in his obituary.

Floyd Weston’s account of the story is the only historical proof we have of this story. None of the other three people involved in the story have ever come forward to back up the story.6

Floyd Weston (1921-2005)

Floyd Weston (1921-2005)

Did Weston Recant?
However, it’s possible that Holy Fetch is incorrect in its assertion that, “Floyd Weston never denied the story and died still claiming the story to be true.” as the aforementioned email notes:

Shortly after this, Weston was invited to speak at a fireside in our stake. When Dick heard this, he told the stake president what he had found. When Weston arrived, he was asked to meet with the SP who confronted him with Dick’s findings. Weston confessed that he had made up the story and was sent packing. This happened in San Jose South stake.

While I have some sympathies about how difficult it must be to untangle a web of deception (I’m sure he still gets phone calls begging him to come and tell the story one more time), I think it is irresponsible to deliver this talk as he did to a recent group of new mission presidents, at church firesides, and to continue to sell his tape.7

The Internal Confirmation Bias Speaks for Itself
But the most compelling argument against Weston’s “17 Points” is that it’s clearly a case of confirmation bias. Wikipedia defines confirmation bias as follows:

Confirmation bias… is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities… People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.8

A simpler, more vernacular way to define it is, “You only count the hits and ignore the misses for your predetermined, favored position.” Got it? So, once again for those who missed those 17-points here they are again:

  1. Christ organized the Church (Eph 4:11-14)
  2. The true church must bear the name of Jesus Christ (Eph 5:23)
  3. The true church must have a foundation of Apostles and Prophets (Eph 2:19-20)
  4. The true church must have the same organization as Christ’s Church (Eph 4:11-14)
  5. The true church must claim divine authority (Heb 5:4-10)
  6. The true church must have no paid ministry (1 Cor 9:16-18; Acts 20:33-34; John 10:11-13)
  7. The true church must baptize by immersion (Matt 3:13-16)
  8. The true church must bestow the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands (Acts 8:14-17)
  9. The true church must practice divine healing (Mark 3:14-15)
  10. The true church must teach that God and Jesus are separate and distinct individuals (John 17:11; 20:17)
  11. The true church must teach that God and Jesus have bodies of flesh and bone (Luke 23:36-39; Acts 1:9-11; Heb 1:1-3)
  12. The officers must be called by God (Heb 4:4; Ex 28:1; 40:13-16)
  13. The true church must claim revelation from God (Amos 3:7)
  14. The true church must be a missionary church (Matt 28:19-20)
  15. The true church must be a restored church (Acts 3:19-20)
  16. The true church must practice baptism for the dead (1Cor 15:16&29)
  17. “By their fruits ye shall know them.” (Matt 7:20)
035af376-31c8-50be-97d9-f10bd8a94785.image

The solar-powered, eco-friendly LdS Church meeting house in Farmington, Utah.

Now without going any further, doesn’t that list look like a Mormon just took the distinctives and dogmas of the Mormon Church and then generated a list based on them? For example, do you know of any church other than the LdS Church that practices baptism for the dead? Or that claims to have no paid ministry? Or that teaches God the Father has a body of flesh and bones? These are clear and unique Mormon distinctives. In addition, Floyd Weston blatantly misrepresents other churches, their doctrines, their culture and their theology in his address. In fact, his depiction of those churches is more reflective of the type of ignorance driven caricatures, prejudice, and bigotry that non-Mormons still hear from Mormons rather than what one actually finds in those churches. One could easily conclude that he never visited those churches at all.

Further, if you’ve look at the proof texts that Weston provides for each of these points, in many cases, the point is only supported by the biblical text if one engages in Mormon-style eisegesis – that is, inserting words and meanings into the text that the author never intended based on preconceptions. Stated plainly, I question the idea that a non-Mormon approaching the text cold would be inclined to come to the corresponding conclusion that’s found in that particular point. LdS Church indoctrination is clearly at play here.

For example, he cites (Heb 5:4-10) in support of “The true church must claim divine authority” which is the classic text that Mormons eisegete into the text to support their dogma of the restoration of Priesthood Authority. Ditto for point 16 (“The true church must practice baptism for the dead.”) which ignores the fact the language of 1 Cor 15:29 which refers to “they” (third person) rather than “we” (second person), or “I” (first person) – a clear indication that neither Paul or the Corinthian Christians were engaging in the practice. Further, in the full context of the chapter, it’s clear that “they” refers to those who deny the resurrection not those who don’t.

Suffice to say, the “fingerprints” of confirmation bias are all over Weston’s points. In fact, all a knowledgeable person need do is listen to his address to hear it first hand. Mr. Weston’s overtly biased presentation is both self-incriminating and self-discrediting. This fact wasn’t lost on former Mormon Richard Packham who, using the Weston template, developed his own “20 Points of the True Church”:

THE TWENTY POINTS OF THE TRUE CHURCH

Teachings of the True Church:
1. There will be no physical, visible coming of the Kingdom of God (John 18:36, Luke 17:21).
2. The celebration of the Lord’s supper includes bread, wine (Matt 26:26-29) and the washing of each other’s feet (John 13:4-15).
3. Marriage and divorce are frowned upon (1 Cor 7, Matt 19:9, Mark 10:2-12).
4. The Jewish Temple ritual will be observed (Acts 2:46).
5. The Church takes priority over family (Luke 14:26, 12:51-53, Matt 10:21).
6. Women must cover the head while praying (1 Cor 11:5-10).
7. Eunuchs will have special respect in the Church (Matt 19:12).
8. Only two commandments: Love God and love thy neighbor (Matt 22:36-40).

Members of the True Church can be recognized by the following:
9. They hold all things in common ownership (Acts 2:44-45).
10. They do not sin (1 John 3:6-9).
11. They can drink poison without harm (Mark 16:18).
12. They do not strike back if you strike them (Matt 5:39).
13. If you ask to borrow anything from them, you do not have to return it (Luke 6:30).
14. They never have to hire movers or earthmoving equipment, or use UPS; they can literally move anything by the power of God (Matt 17:20, 21:21, Mark 11:23).
15. They have no retirement plans, savings account, or food supplies stored away (Matt 6:25-34). And no possessions (Matt 19:16-21, Mark 16:21, Luke 18:22).
16. They never pray in public (Matt 6:5-8).
17. They are like sheep or children (Matt 19:14, 18:3-4, Mark 10:15, John 10:2-27, Heb 13:20).
18. They do not go to a doctor when ill, but heal each other with prayer (James 5:13-15, Mark 16:18).
19. Their children are not rebellious; they kill them if they are (Matt 15:3-9).
20. They do not die (John 8:51, 11:25-26).9

So who’s to say that Packham’s list is any less valid than Weston’s? After all, they both claim to have biblical support for their claims, right? And since Packham is an atheist he doesn’t have a denominational or sectarian axe to grind or agenda to push. So who wins?

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Further, Mormon researcher Bill McKeever has deconstructed and analyzed Weston’s 17-Points in detail. In doing so he has done a superb job of exposing not only the aforementioned confirmation bias but logical fallacy, after logical fallacy as well:

1. Christ Organized the Church.
This argument is purely subjective as most organizations claiming to be Christian feel Christ organized their church. This would include the Watchtower Society (Jehovah’s Witnesses) and others that deny sound biblical doctrine. People make the Church. Because Christ’s Church is made up of many individuals who have trusted in Christ totally for their salvation, it would be erroneous to view any particular building, organization, or denomination as the “true church.”

2. The true church must bear the name of Christ.
If Mormons wish to use this argument, they must answer as to why their own church was called merely “The Church of the Latter-day Saints” from 1834-1838. By their reasoning their own church must have been in apostasy for at least four years. Those who belonged to the early Christian church were known more by their geographic location rather than an “organizational” name. In I Thessalonians 1:1 Paul addresses “The church of the Thessalonians.” Are we to assume that Paul was addressing a false church?

3. The true church must have a foundation of Apostles and Prophets.
The true church has as its foundation Jesus Christ. He is the Chief cornerstone and/or foundation. I Corinthians 3:11 reads, “For other foundation can no man lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” Deuteronomy 18:15 makes it clear that Jesus Christ Himself is “the Prophet” who guides His Church today. (See also John 5:46; 6:14; 7:40; Acts 3:22-23.)

4. The true church must have the same organization as Christ’s church.
If the LDS Church follows Eph 4:11-14, why is the order of authority reversed? Paul says first in line come the apostles, next the prophets. Mormonism reverses this order. If Mormonism emulates the structure of the early church, where in the Bible is there any mention of multiple high priests, Relief Society presidents, Second Quorum of the Seventies, stake presidencies, ward bishoprics, etc.? Where are the Mormon’s pastors, and evangelists?

5. The true church must claim divine authority.
Again, this is purely subjective. Any organization can claim to be authoritative. Bible-believing Christians claim the authority of God’s Word, the Bible, not the words of mere men who contradict it.

6. The true church must have no paid ministry.
Mormons who believe their leaders are not paid are very misinformed. All the General Authorities in Salt Lake City receive remuneration for their services to the church and from the church. If they don’t believe it, they should call the LDS Church headquarters and ask. A paid ministry is not unbiblical. The entire Old Testament speaks of a paid ministry as well as I Corinthians chapter 9.

7. The true church must baptize by immersion.
If baptism (a work) was necessary in order for a person to be saved, this could be a debatable subject. However, Ephesians 2:8,9 clearly states that we are saved by grace through faith, not works such as baptism. Baptism is merely an outside sign of an inner work of the Holy Spirit in an individual’s life. Believers should be baptized as a testimony of their faith in Christ; however, baptism does not save.

8. The true church must bestow the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands.
Many Christian churches do practice this. The Bible shows, however, that at times the Holy Ghost (Spirit) was received of men without mention of hands being laid on them. (See Acts 4:31; 10:44; 11:15.)

9. The true church must practice divine healing.
Again, many Christian churches do practice this and do get results.

10. The true church must teach that God and Jesus Christ are separate and distinct individuals.
The Christian church holds that Jesus Christ and God the Father are separate personages. Joseph Smith strayed from the truth when he said they were separate Gods. This conflicts with many passages such as Deut. 6:4 and Isaiah 43:10, just to name a few.

11. The true church must teach that God and Jesus Christ have bodies of flesh and bone.
Mormons believe this only to substantiate Joseph Smith’s so-called first vision. John 4:24 claims God is a spirit (lit. God is Spirit). Even Smith at one time taught God the Father was a personage of spirit (See Lectures on Faith, Lecture Fifth). He changed his mind later on.

12. The officers must be called of God.
Another subjective point. All cultists believe they are called of God.

13. The true church must claim revelation from God.
Again, a subjective point. All cultists claim revelation from God.

14. The true church must be a missionary church.
Any Christian church that wants to see souls saved is a missionary church whether that mission field is across the ocean or across the back fence. The Mormon church holds no exclusive rights to missionary activity.

15. The true church must be a restored church.
You can’t restore something that wasn’t lost. Jesus Himself said the gates of hell would not prevail against His church (Matthew 16:18). History proves this.

16. The true church must practice baptism for the dead.
The Christian church never condoned baptism for the dead. Paul excludes himself from such a practice when he uses a third person pronoun rather than first person (“Why do they baptize for the dead …”) (See Hebrews 9:27 and Alma 34:34,35 for that matter.)

17. By their fruits ye shall know them.
This expression is taken from Matthew 7:20, which ironically deals with judging false prophets, not churches. In examining the fruits of Joseph Smith, we find that he indeed was a false prophet. He introduced a foreign view of God, a false plan of salvation, and inaccurate predictions about future events. If we must use this verse to examine the fruits of Mormonism, we must have an answer as to why the Mormon Church must constantly reverse its position on matters that should never change (Alma 41:8). Why do their leaders contradict past leaders? Why did they change the Book of Mormon so many times when it was supposedly translated “by the gift and power of God the first time”? Why did they change their temple ceremony in 1990 when Smith claimed it came by direct revelation? And doesn’t it seem suspicious that many of the changes in the ceremony were things Christians (and Mormons) had been criticizing for years? Did God mess up or did Joseph Smith (or was it their current leaders)?10

And to further expand on Mr. McKeever’s critique of Point Six, LdS scripture actually demands a paid clergy in not one but two different places:

And the elders or high priests who are appointed to assist the bishop as counselors in all things, are to have their families supported out of the property which is consecrated to the bishop, for the good of the poor, and for other purposes, as before mentioned;

Or they are to receive a just remuneration for all their services, either a stewardship or otherwise, as may be thought best or decided by the counselors and bishop.

And the bishop, also, shall receive his support, or a just remuneration for all his services in the church.
(Doctrine & Covenants 42:71-73)

Behold, I say unto you, that it is the duty of the church to assist in supporting the families of those, and also to support the families of those who are called and must needs be sent unto the world to proclaim the gospel unto the world.
(Doctrine & Covenants 75:24)

So the modern Mormon Church’s assertion that a paid clergy is a sign of an apostate and/or untrue church blatantly contradicts what it also claims is part of God’s revealed commandments to His only true, living, and restored church. I believe the word for this is “hypocrisy.”

One can only wonder why Floyd Weston conveniently ignored these rather glaring incongruities in his analysis. The only logical explanation that is that he was not only just counting the “hits” but ignoring the “misses.” So in the end, its clear that Floyd Weston’s “17 Points of the True Church” appears to be nothing more than the type of confirmation bias driven, thought stopping, information and emotional controlling circular logic that Mormon culture produces in spades – and what’s remarkable about any of that?11

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A Comparable Evangelical Case Study
Further, when a public figure is caught fabricating inspiring falsehoods people tend to hold them accountable for it after they’re exposed. For example, let’s consider the case of Evangelical comedian Mike Warnke who got caught in a web of lies back in the 1990’s:

In 1991, Cornerstone magazine launched an investigation into Warnke’s life and testimony. The previous year, Cornerstone had debunked Lauren Stratford‘s story that had been recounted in Satan’s Underground. Stratford claimed her deep involvement in Satanism led her to partake in a ritual in which her own child was sacrificed. After the exposé showed Stratford’s alleged child had never existed, Cornerstone journalists Mike Hertenstein and Jon Trott investigated Warnke and his life.

The Cornerstone investigation spanned from interviews with over 100 of Warnke’s personal friends and acquaintances to his ministry’s tax receipts. The investigation revealed a number of inaccuracies and evidence of fraud and deceit in Warnke’s accounts. During the course of Cornerstone’s investigation, pictures of Warnke taken during the time he was alleged to be a Satanist priest were discovered. Rather than showing an emaciated drug-addict sporting long fingernails and waist-length hair, the pictures showed Warnke as a typical ‘square’ of the mid-1960s. The investigation also revealed Warnke’s claims that he and Charles Manson had attended a Satanic ritual to be false; Manson was in federal prison at the time, having no known ties to Satanic churches.

The investigation further uncovered that before joining the Navy, Warnke had been involved with the college Christian ministry Campus Crusade for Christ. The investigation also revealed the unflattering circumstances surrounding Warnke’s multiple marriages, affairs, and divorces. Most critically, however, the investigation showed how Warnke could not have done the many things he claimed to have taken part in throughout the nine months he claimed to be a Satanist – including his claims to be a drug-addicted dealer or a Satanic high priest.

Warnke sent a response to Cornerstone, published in July, insisting he told the truth, stating:

‘I stand by my testimony of being delivered and set free by the power of Jesus Christ after being a Satanic high priest exactly as published in my book, The Satan Seller…. some information was purposefully changed to protect the privacy of certain individuals and to prevent readers from using the book as a guide for occultism and Satanic purposes. But, as we stated in the front of the book, ‘The events are absolutely as described.”’

Despite these assertions, Warnke did not provide the name of a single Satanist but used invectives against ex-wife Carolyn. In the ensuing months, Warnke conceded parts of the allegations, telling Christianity Today that there had been only 13 members of his coven, not 1,500 as originally claimed, and that of those 13, the whereabouts of five were unknown to him, while the other eight had since died.12

The reaction from the Evangelical community to this deceit and attempt at manipulative damage control was quick and impacting:

Public response was varied but was nevertheless overwhelmingly against Warnke. Initially, Word Records stated that they would stand by their artist. However, further investigations by local Kentucky reporters at the Lexington Herald-Leader revealed that Warnke’s ministry had engaged in financial misdeeds and that “Mike, his ex-wife Rose, and her brother Neale [Hall] received a total of $809,680 in salary at a time when the ministry newsletter claimed donations were down and more funds were needed.” One week later, Word Records dropped Warnke from its label. Finally, on September 30, 1992, fewer than 100 days after the investigation was made public, Warnke Ministries closed its doors.13

moab_lds_church

This historic Moab LdS Church was constructed of adobe in 1884. It was built nine years after the establishment of Moab in 1880. Angus Stocks supervised the laying of the foundation and adobes. Within a few years of original construction an addition was made to the rear of the building. The church was used by the Moab Ward until 1925, when a new church was built and this church deeded to the Grand County School District.

The Mormon Response
Yet remarkably, despite all the evidence discrediting Weston’s 17-Points, the reaction been in Mormon Culture has been quite different to what we saw from Evangelicals in response to Warnke’s faith promoting yarn spinning and denials. Here’s a sampling of Mormon responses:

“I sat in a meeting where Brother Weston himself told that story. I have no reason to question Brother Weston’s veracity.”14

“Floyd Weston told me himself in 1983 that it really happend,[sic] five friends studied four joined (one died). Now about the 17 points that’s just interpretation of those scriptures. I once saw a 42 point one that was more detailed. But according to brother Weston and I have no reason to doubt him. Its true. According to Brother Weston’s son he never denied it to his family either. Please stop trying to make Brother Weston out to be a Paul H Dunn.”15

“I wanted to let you know that I just talked to one of Brother Weston’s relatives. He said that whether these claims are true or false… this 17 points of the true church has been effective & instrumental in helping people join the church and that Satan will do anything to diffuse that.

I highly recommend that you redirect this discussion before it causes Satan to have more power & influence on Jesus Christ’s people.”16

One will, of course, notice that no verifiable evidence is presented to support these claims of Weston’s vindication – once again it’s all “just take my word for it” and “I know a guy who knows a guy” second and third hand feel good hearsay.

Even the Mormon Apologists at FAIRMormon seem to be unable or unwilling to openly acknowledge Weston’s deceit and denounce the 17-Points as a contrived, faith promoting lie. Yet at the same time time they still seem to be posturing for a rapid retreat and slowly backing away from it:

It makes little difference for the Church if Weston made up his story, since the truth or falsity of Weston’s personal history has no bearing whatsoever on the truth of the restored gospel. Additionally, the “17 Points” may be used by certain individual members of the Church, but they have not been used in any official Church publications or adopted by the Church in any other way. The claims of the restored gospel stand independent of Weston’s list.17

Even more amusingly FAIRMormon attempts to woodshed critics of The 17-Points by incorrectly asserting that articles like this are some kind of indirect attack on the Mormon Church via ad-hominem attacks on Floyd Weston:

What this has to do with the validity of Weston’s “17 Points” is not entirely clear, but it seems that the critic is attempting to discredit Weston’s list (and, by implication, the Church) by discrediting Weston himself. This would be a form of the ad hominem fallacy… This confirms the perspective that the hostile reports targeted against Weston suffer from significant bias.18

Oh irony here! Critics are accused by FAIRMormon of engaging in argument “to the man” (the English translation of ad-hominem from the Latin) rather than “to the man’s evidence, arguments, logic, and reason” when those critics are doing nothing more than challenging Weston’s evidence, arguments, logic, and reason. Even more remarkably these charges come right on the tail of FAIRMormon acknowledging that Weston’s 17-Points are indeed rooted and grounded in confirmation bias:

The assumptions underlying the “17 points” are highly dependent upon a worldview widely assumed by Utah Mormons, but which rarely reflects the situation of those who are not members of the LDS Church: the idea that there is “one true church” and that people will accept the LDS faith once they are logically convinced that it “matches” the New Testament Church in salient ways. In reality, these concepts are totally foreign to the worldview of most non-Mormons and depend a great deal on the assumptions which one brings to such an analysis.

“17 Points” is thus a resource that may be interesting to Latter-day Saints in examining the scriptural basis for certain features of the modern Church, but it is one that has relatively little value or relevance to the missionary effort unless the non-member already shares many aspects of the LDS world-view.19

With “logic” and “consistency” like this who needs enemies – FAIRMormon seems to be doing just fine shooting itself in the foot, that is after that foot has been inserted into its mouth first. Say what you will about Evangelical Christianity but you won’t find its apologists defending a member of its tribe who’s been caught in a faith promoting lie. If you doubt me, just read the Warnke case above again and consider that at no time did you have Evangelicals claim that Mike Warnke was being “ad-hominemed” by critics in an agenda driven attempt to indirectly discredit Evangelicalism. In fact, Warnke’s harshest critics, not to mention the folks who exposed his deceit to begin with, were fellow Evangelicals.

Conclusion
At the end of it all, the body of evidence points to fact that the story of Floyd Weston’s “17-Points of the True Church” is a complete fabrication. So the fact that Mormons continue to defend it and use it as evidence in their discussions with outsiders raises some serious questions about the value of truth and integrity in Mormon Culture. As Richard Packham said well in response to one Mormon’s argument that, “whether these claims are true or false… this 17 points of the true church has been effective & instrumental in helping people join the church and that Satan will do anything to diffuse that”: 20

“Does this mean, then, that, according to this Mormon, the truth is a tool of Satan?”

Kinda makes you wonder folks don’t it? Kinda makes you wonder…

OvidChurch01

A former LdS Church building, now privately owned. Peter Jensen was the first branch president in Ovid, Utah in 1873. He later became the first Bishop of this church.

NOTES
1 “Is the “17 Points of the True Church” a true story”, Holy Fetch website.
2 “Fast Facts About Cal Tech History”, Cal Tech website.
3 See “Chronology of Einstein’s life”, Albert Einstein in the World Wide Web website. Also see Princeton University’s article on Einstein here.
4 Anonymous archived email, Wed, 28 Oct 1998 23:46:03 Pacific Time, Richard Packham website.
5 Ibid.
6 Op Cit, Holy Fetch. Underlining added for emphasis.
7 Op Cit, Anonymous email. By the way, one can still buy an audio copy of Weston’s 17-Point at Deseret Book. Or if you prefer the printed tact version, ditto.
8 Wikipedia article on Confirmation Bias.
9 Richard Packham, “The 17 Points of the True Church”.
10 Bill McKeever, ‘Examining the “17 Points of the True Church”‘
11 Also see Fred Anson, “A Short Course In Confirmation Bias” for another infamous example of this.
12 Wikipedia article on Mike Warnke, “Investigation and debunking“.
13 Ibid, “Aftermath”.
14 Mormon Discussion and Dialogue Board, post by ERayR, 4 Mar 2009.
15 Mormon Discussion and Dialogue Board, post by Anijen, 3 Mar 2009.
16 Fri, 30 Oct 1998 09:35:44 Pacific Time, Richard Packham website.
17 “Criticism of Mormonism/Criticism of “17 Points of the True Church”‘, FAIRMormon website.
18 Ibid.
19 Ibid.
20 Op Cit, Packham, “The 17 Points of the True Church”.

Church-at-Sunrise

Also Recommended: 
In November 2011 Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson discussed, deconstructed, and evaluated The 17-Points of the True Church on their Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast. You can listen to these podcasts via the following links: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 

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SLC Temple and Milan Cathedral

The Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City and Il Duomo Roman Catholic Cathedral in Milan.

by R. M. Sivulka
Introduction
For me as a committed Protestant, this subject of Catholicism’s theology on the gospel, justification, and works is quite complicated. I’m not going to answer all the questions here, because I’m just not competent enough to do so, and I’d rather be spending my time in other areas I feel more important to my ministry. So please offer me some grace even if you disagree with my conclusions. If you want more competent authorities on the matter, I offer three sources: 1) Norm Geisler and Ralph MacKenzie’s “Roman Catholics and Evangelicals”, 2) Ken Samples, “Is the Catholic Church Christian?” and “Is Catholicism a Cult?,” and 3) Francis Beckwith’s “Return to Rome”. (The latter is written by a former top evangelical apologist and a former president of the Evangelical Theological Society, who went back to his Catholic roots). I do think it’s important to note from Ken Samples above “that the majority of evangelical Protestant theologians and scholars who are knowledgeable concerning Catholicism would be perplexed to hear Catholicism classified simply as a ‘non-Christian religion’ or an ‘anti-Christian cult’” (“Is the Catholic Church Christian?”). This could not be the case if these scholars understood Catholicism to be in fact teaching a false gospel.

Catholicism and Mormonism
I still don’t find Catholicism identical to what LDS teach on the matter at hand, viz., that one is only made right with God only after doing all one can do (i.e., personal perfection). There is no initial justification for LDS, and as the late LDS President Spencer W. Kimball taught,

“Trying is [n]ot [s]ufficient [n]or is repentance complete when one merely tries to abandon sin. To try with a weakness of attitude and effort is to assure failure in the face of Satan’s strong counteracting efforts. What is needed is resolute action.

…This connection between effort and the repentance which attracts the Lord’s forgiveness is often not understood.

…[Concerning the woman caught in adultery,] [t]here seems to be no evidence of forgiveness. His command to her was, ‘Go and sin no more.’ He was directing the sinful woman to go her way, abandon her evil life, commit no more sin, transform her life. He ways saying, Go, woman, and start your repentance; and he was indicating to her the beginning step – to abandon her transgressions.

…[W]hen she had done these things the forgiveness of the Savior could overshadow her and claim her and give her peace.

…The Lord cannot save men in their sins but only from their sins, and that only when they have shown true repentance.” (Spencer W. Kimball, “The Miracle of Forgiveness, 164-6)

Furthermore, in LDS categories, Christ didn’t even die for all sins since some sins are not forgivable (e.g., killing and subsequent offenses of adultery in D&C 42, and also LDS leaders’ past teaching on one’s own blood atonement for certain grievous sins). This is certainly all something Catholicism would doctrinally disagree.

Catholicism and Protestantism
The subject turns on the role of works in Catholic theology. Do those works invalidate the true gospel making it a false gospel or is the true gospel simply packaged in a way that’s confusing to the hearer? There’s a real important difference here.

It reminds me of the Positive Confession speakers’ claim that we are begotten gods. Walter Martin made the controversial claim that these guys are still Christians. (Martin also, by the way, held that Catholicism wasn’t a cult or heretical even though he certainly had problems with it.) Robert Bowman in his article on various views of deification says that the Positive Confession view isn’t easily classified. These Positive Confession speakers clearly affirm monotheism, and yet they speak in such a convoluted way.

For the average individuals untrained in theology, even cases of orthodox Christian deification are such that they conclude advocates of such a position must be polytheists and outside the Christian doctrine of monotheism. Yet, whether it is Positive Confession speakers or orthodox theologians who teach deification, all steadfastly affirm monotheism and adamantly decry polytheism. Yes, we have problems understanding what they are talking about since prima facie it seems so contradictory. However, it’s not really fair to be so dismissive of these people given the parameters they’ve already clearly articulated. In situations like this, if we have a hard time really understanding what’s being taught, then it’s better to use the principle of charity and give the benefit of the doubt to such people until we come to see how there really is no contradiction in their minds. And this seems especially true when most evangelical Protestant theologians and scholars hold Catholicism to be classified as genuinely “Christian.”

There’s a fundamental problem with the Protestant mind when it comes to thinking in the Catholic categories of justification. Catholics conflate the clear distinction that Protestants have made between justification and sanctification. The Council of Trent put it this way:

“[J]ustification itself, which is not only a remission of sins but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man through the voluntary reception of the grace and gifts whereby an unjust man becomes just and from being an enemy becomes a friend, that he may be an heir according to hope of life everlasting” (Council of Trent, “On Justification”, Chapter VII)

Catholics teach a difference between initial justification and justification that ought to follow throughout one’s life. The former is what Protestants typically mean by “justification.” The other justification for Catholics is a matter of staying justified by works.

The Most Reverend Bishop John Charles Wester of the Salt Lake City Diocese of the Catholic Church speaks to students at the LDS Institute of Religion and at the Alumni House on the campus of Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah Tuesday Sept. 18, 2012. (August Miller, UVU Marketing)

The Most Reverend Bishop John Charles Wester of the Salt Lake City Diocese of the Catholic Church speaks to students at the LDS Institute of Religion and at the Alumni House on the campus of Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah Tuesday Sept. 18, 2012. (August Miller, UVU Marketing)

Now if a Protestant objects that this latter type of justification is not about works, then they would not simply be objecting to Catholicism, but to many other branches of Protestantism as well. The objecting Protestant (typically one of a more Reformed bent) would also have to conclude that these other branches of Protestantism are outside of Christianity and preaching a false gospel. That’s a pretty hard pill to swallow. These other branches of Protestantism affirm that performing works of righteousness may be freely abdicated after our conversion, and thus, one’s salvation may be lost. I disagree with this position and hold to the eternal security of the believer, but that’s beside the point. They are all Christians who affirm the true gospel that our salvation on behalf of all our sins is ultimately given as a gift from God through the sacrifice of His Son.

The Council of Trent in “On Justfication”, Chapter IX is clear that none of us can be absolutely certain that any of us have received the forgiveness of sins. After all, Paul did say to test ourselves to see whether we are in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5). As a result, Chapter X of the same section talks about being further justified by one’s “faith co-operating with good works.” One of the arguments given here is James 2:24: “Do you see that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” So continued justification is just as biblical as what the Protestants mean by “sanctification.” Then in Chapter XI of that same section it goes on to talk about how Jesus taught that if we love Him, then we keep His commandments (Jn. 14:15). Earlier Jesus ties belief with obedience when He says, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (Jn. 3:36). John is clear in his epistle that we know that we love Jesus if we keep His commands, and if we say we love Him and don’t keep His commands, then we’re liars (1 Jn. 2:3-4). Hence, “the necessity” of keeping His commands.

There’s nothing that a Protestant should disagree with here per se. Of course and again, a certain type of more Reformed Protestant may object to an understanding of this necessity of keeping the commands implying a losing of one’s initial justification if the commands aren’t followed, but as Trent stated the issue above, it’s all biblical and every Protestant should uphold that.

At this point a Protestant may object by saying that Catholics are still teaching a false gospel, since the initial justification is dependent on baptismal regeneration whether that be for an adult or an infant, and belief is certainly ruled out for the latter. However, again one would have to exclude various Protestant denominations that hold to the same means of initial justification. Again, a pretty hard pill to swallow. Certainly the nature of belief is up for debate here and is a secondary issue to the nature of the gospel itself, viz., that Christ paid for all our sins, He resurrected, and invites sinners to currently live in His kingdom by learning to live life as He would live (cf. Mat. 4:23 and 1 Cor. 15:1-5). Such debates on the nature of belief have to do with how individual beliefs arise in a context of community. Nonetheless, there is no passage of scripture that explicitly says that not getting the right answer here lands one in hell.

Anathema
Speaking of hell, the final issue I’ll address concerns the issue of “anathema” the Catholic Church has offered from the Council of Trent in reaction to Protestantism. Canon 30, for example, says, “If anyone says that after the reception of the grace of justification the guilt is so remitted and the debt of eternal punishment so blotted out to every repentant sinner, that no debt of temporal punishment remains to be discharged either in this world or in purgatory before the gates of heaven can be opened, let him be anathema.” Is this the gospel and does this entail that those who reject this are cursed of God and not saved being that they are outside the Church of Christ?

Even if that is what is meant by anathema, this is no reason to hold that this entails a false gospel. Believers who have received the grace of justification may still have to be punished by God for their own transgressions, because “whom the Lord loves, He also chastens” (Heb. 12:6). David had imputed righteousness apart from works (Rom. 4:4-8), but the Lord still chastened him in taking his son who was the product of adultery. Whether the Lord metes out punishment in this life or the next prior to entering paradise, what real difference does it make? Even though I take it that the Bible never says anything about a temporary punishment for believers after this life, that doesn’t entail such could not be the case. To conclude this would be based on an argument from silence, and that’s fallacious.

Regardless of this point, it’s been argued that the literal meaning of anathema is not what is to be understood from the judgment of a Church council. There was no intention of a permanent damnation to hell. The Lonely Pilgrim notes, “When the councils pronounced holders of a doctrine anathema, it marked a formal excommunication from the Church: nothing more and nothing less.” He argues that if there was a connotation of permanent damnation, then the missionary efforts to Protestants by the Jesuits wouldn’t make much sense. Further, he argues that if there is a problem here, it’s specifically for those who rebel against the judgments of their church. There is no general relevancy to all Protestants today. He says, “You can’t very well be excommunicated from something you were never formally a part of.”

Now even if the The Lonely Pilgrim is wrong on all this, I don’t see why a group of believers being hyper-exclusionary of one’s judgments marks them as “false Christians” or “heretics,” who teach a false gospel and land them in hell anyway. I don’t see the chapter and verse on that either, and again, we can easily think of other Protestant Christian groups who act in this way.

rob_sivulka_mugAbout the Author
R.M. Sivulka is the president of Courageous Christians United which is an outreach to Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Muslims. Mr. Sivulka reside in West Jordan, UT with his wife Tara, and daughters.

Originally published January 19, 2016 on the Courageous Christians United website. Reprinted with permission. 

Pope Francis and Henry B. Eyring First Counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. At a 2014 Vatican Summit of religious leaders on marriage.

Pope Francis and Henry B. Eyring First Counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. At a 2014 Vatican Summit of religious leaders on marriage.

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