Reno & Porter Interview: Is Mormonism Christian?
This post is a joy to write. Not only am I able to present an audio interview of Bruce D. Porter, but one conducted by a Roman Catholic interviewer. Here, we have a Roman Catholic interviewing a Latter-day Saint partly in regards to an essay written by an Evangelical. Listen to the audio here.
Russell R. Reno, is an associate professor in the Department of Theology at Creighton University. Creighton is a Jesuit university and Reno is Catholic. I was extremely impressed with his demeanor as well as his questions in sincerely trying to understand Mormonism. In addition to his interview with Bruce D. Porter, Reno also interviews Gerald McDermott in regards to his First Things Article. I intend to comment on that interview later, however, I want to focus on Reno and Porter in this post. In particular I want to emphasize Reno’s questions.
Reno: In terms of the sense in which the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three separate beings, I mean, in no sense, do I, in my acquaintance with Mormons, do I have any sense they are polytheistic in any sense. So the question I have is, if you think about this, what do you think protects the piety from fragmenting? (11:00-11:27)
This is an excellent question. Reno knows from things he has read that Latter-day Saints believe the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are three beings. His question suggests the possibility that, this doctrine could lead to people choosing to worship one being to the exclusion of the other, or as he says it “fragmenting the piety”. However, and most importantly, he reflects on his own experience with Mormons and from an empirical standpoint knows that he doesn’t see Latter-day Saint factions where some choose to be faithful only to one member of the Godhead.
No matter what one hypothesizes about what Latter-day Saint doctrine “might” lead people to believe, it is very important to reflect on the actual experience of Latter-day Saints and ask: does the hypothesis match? Since this is not what happens, Reno thoughtfully asks Porter, “What do you think protects the piety from fragmenting?” In other words, he is seeking to understand how the doctrine works, or in other words, how is it that Latter-day Saints can believe that there are three beings and yet not break into factions over worshiping just one of them to the exclusion of the others?
Porter responds with the Latter-day Saint practice of praying to the Father in the name of the Son (a practice which Latter-day Saints see as conforming to the biblical model of prayer taught by Christ in the Gospel of Matthew 6: 6, 9.)
Reno: In antiquity one of the questions used to pin people down was the question “Was there ever a time when the Son was not?” I’m wondering how a Mormon would answer that. Was there ever a time when the Son was not?
Porter: Well, in the Pearl of Great Price and the Doctrine of Covenants, the Son is described as being “from eternity to eternity without beginning or end,” so no we do not believe there was a time when the Son was not. (13:45-14:17).
Reno also points out that in the LDS Church baptism is performed in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost (in accordance with Matthew 28:19).
Another thing I enjoyed was Reno charitable questions about baptism for the dead.
Reno: It strikes me that the Mormon faith is optimistic. . . One of the things that I think a lot of folks find very mysterious is the idea of the baptism for the dead. Of course, it is in [1 Corinthians 15]. And of course biblical scholars have no idea, at least modern historians have no idea what its referring to, because nothing has survived of that practice in orthodox Christianity. . . How does that work?
Porter: It is very fundamental to our religion that every soul is free, that no one is forced to heaven, forced to accept Christ. We don’t see ordinances including baptism for the dead as compelling anyone to follow a certain course or to accept Christ.
Reno: So there is no, it is not universal salvation, but at the same time, there is a kind of, Mormonism encourages a kind of optimism about the scope of Christ’s proclamation?
Porter: Yes. We believe that He atoned for the sins of all mankind. . . But in many of those eras they did not know about Christ, or very little. They certainly didn’t have the gospel taught to them. They had no access to the saving ordinances of baptism and confirmation. And God has provided a way that they be taught posthumously in the spirit world, in a way for those ordinances to be performed on their behalf. Part of the purpose for that is, I think, so that those who are alive today have the opportunity of performing service on behalf of those who did not have that privilege.
Reno: So it is a kind of solidarity of the human race in a way?
Porter: Exactly. The solidarity across the centuries and across the whole world. For us it is a beautiful vision of the power of Christ’s redemption. . . (18:55-22:52).
On the Christian tradition Porter explains:
Porter: We respect the Christian tradition, we believe that men like Aquinas were godly men. We believe the Protestant reformers were raised up by God to accomplish what they did. We believe that many of the Catholic saints were holy. We have never, contrary to what some people have said, we have never denied the Christianity of other faiths.
Incidentally, the only part of the Nicene Creed, that we would differ with in any significant degree is the statement that says that Christ is of “one substance” with the Father. The rest of the creed is clearly straightforward and we would not disagree with it. As you know there were subsequent creeds that continued to be a discussion and point of contention as to exactly what it meant for centuries, and subsequent creeds tried to clarify that. . . That doesn’t mean there are not portions of those creeds that we wouldn’t agree with. (25:02-26:50).
I think this is an important point to emphasize. In their article, David Paulsen and Brett McDonald write:
If the originators and those who immediately followed could come to no consensus concerning the meaning of the creed, it is clear that modern Christians are not bound to a homogeneous interpretation of it. Proponents of [Social Trinitarianism] (including Mormons) can accept the Nicene Creed as a declaration of the full divinity of Jesus Christ while rejecting the ontological identity of the three divine persons. This point is important and worth I repeating: the Nicene Creed can be (and was historically) interpreted in varying ways, by varying groups, with varying theological commitments. Any number of persons, including modalists and proponents of ST, can subscribe to the creed, each producing its own studies to show why homoousios ought to be understood in a particular way. (Joseph Smith and the Trinity, 51).
In conclusion Porter explains:
Porter: There’s also been an effort, both on our part and on the part of at least some Evangelicals to engage in dialogue. Professor Robert Millet at Brigham Young University has spent several years now in extensive dialogue with various Evangelical authors including Professor McDermott who wrote the companion piece to mine. They in fact, co-authored a book and tried to highlight our some of our commonalities and some of our differences. And I think that’s helpful; we have tried to do the same with some Catholic scholars. I think the biggest challenge for us is that, partly because of the turbulence of our early history, that our doctrine is simply not very well understood. Many people will read an isolated statement from Joseph Smith or something that seems controversial from some of our other leaders and they never actually look at the doctrine as a whole, they rarely read the Book of Mormon, or the Doctrine and Covenants, and so there is a kind of divide simply in understanding. That’s not to say we can’t do more to understand Catholic doctrine or Protestant doctrine ourselves. But I think we, those are so widely taught and so widely accessible in Journals such as First Things, that I think we have a better understanding of that, than most other Christians have of our own faith and doctrine. (28:20-29:57).
Reno: Well, thanks a lot for taking the time to talk. It’s been a real pleasure.
I’d like to thank Professor Reno for providing listeners with a very hospitable and thoughtful interview with Bruce D. Porter.