Monday, October 30, 2017

Review of "Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn From the Latter-day Saints"

The question of whether or not Mormons are Christians is a question not likely to to be answered definitively by both sides. In a recent essay released by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they stated the following in the opening paragraph:
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints unequivocally affirm themselves to be Christians. They worship God the Eternal Father in the name of Jesus Christ. When asked what the Latter-day Saints believe, Joseph Smith put Christ at the center: “The fundamental principles of our religion is the testimony of the apostles and prophets concerning Jesus Christ, ‘that he died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended up into heaven;’ and all other things are only appendages to these, which pertain to our religion.” (Are Mormons Christian?)
However, while Mormons state they are Christians, other Christians unequivocally state that they are not Christians. The Roman Catholic Church lists them as a heretical group and does not recognize Latter-day Saint baptisms as authentic. Furthermore, Evangelical Christian philosophers have in recent years dedicated an entire volume arguing that not only are Mormons not Christian, but they do not have a well developed theology (The New Mormon Challenge).

As a practicing Latter-day Saint who is trained in philosophy and theology, I think you can make a pretty good case that Mormons fall under the Christian umbrella, but I also believe Mormon theology can be better developed. We would do well to remember that Christians have had 2,000 years to develop their theology while Mormons have had less than 200 years; it is not logical to expect the same amount of content in 10% of the time. However, Mormons should do better at developing their theology and encouraging members to attend seminaries (not the LDS seminary) and learn how theology is done. We do have some good theologians in Mormonism (David Paulsen, Blake Ostler, Robert Boylan, Adam Miller, Joseph Spencer), but we will need more in years ahead.

Some Mormons will find that statement offensive or troubling. They consider their apostles to be theologians, so they do not see the need for them in the Church. (When I mentioned we needed more theologians in Mormonism on Facebook last week, I met with backlash.) However, this is a mistake. Apostles are special witnesses of the name of Christ in all the world, that is not what theology is. Apostles are missionaries, theologians are philosophers who specialize in the nature of God, nature of Christ, our relationship to Christ, prime reality (metaphysics) and so forth. True, apostles can be theologians, but one is not automatically a theologian by holding the priesthood office of apostle.

While Mormons generally shy away from theology proper and other Christians see Mormon theology as defective, one man sees Mormonism as an answer to many theological questions and concerns. Stephen H. Webb, a Roman Catholic philosopher and theologian, makes that case in his book Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn From the Latter-day Saints.

In many ways, Webb's book is not only about Mormon theology, but an introduction to Mormonism written by an outsider, as well as an introduction to philosophy for the uninitiated. He begins by recounting a brief history of Christianity, pointing out that it was highly influenced by Plato and committed to a dualistic metaphysics. In contrast, he shows that Mormons are materialists, but that this is not a bad thing since science is showing more and more that the universe is materialistic, and we ought to update our theology as science advances. He sees Mormons as ahead of the curve in this way.

Webb shares my concern that Mormon theology is not as well developed as it should be, but he also points out that there have been people in the past who have worked to systematize Mormon theology (Orson Pratt), and that many of the problems that plague traditional Christianity are solved by Mormonism. (For example, Mormons deny original sin, and thus do not have to wonder where it came from or how it is passed from generation to generation.)

One thing that Webb is unequivocal about is that Mormons are Christians, and it is wrong for other Christians to exclude them. He does acknowledge that Mormonism is very different from traditional Christianity, but affirms that studying it has made him a better, more mature Christian.

In the last chapter of the book he gives two paths that Mormons can choose to follow as they engage with the rest of the Christian world. The first is to follow the example of the aforementioned David Paulsen and to develop a systematic theology built on metaphysics and answering the same questions other Christians ask from a Mormon perspective. The other is to follow Robert L. Millet and do more to reach out to Evangelicals and other Christians who think Mormonism is a cult and show that we are indeed Christians. While I see no reason that you can't do both, the path of David Paulsen seems to be the best approach.

Webb closes the book with a few challenges for Mormons to work on. First, he thinks that Mormons should know more about other Christians beliefs (especially their history and theology). Second, he sees certain questions as not effectively answered by current Mormon theologians (such as how can God have fully libertarian free will but at the same time be subject to law?)

As I mentioned earlier, this book is a great first start for those who are not Mormons but want to know more about what Mormons believe as compared to other Christians, and it is a great introductory book for Mormons who have not studied theology much, if at all. Webb is very fair to both sides, and more than complimentary of the Latter-day Saints. It is a shame that he passed away so young. I will thank him in the next life for writing this book.

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