Most Improbable Dialogue
Christianity Today, a magazine of evangelical conviction, has just published an article written by Richard N. Ostling (co-author of Mormon America) titled “Most Improbable Dialogue.” The article covers the efforts of Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints to engage in a series of dialogues and conferences over the years.
Ostling informs readers of the November 14, 2004 “Evening of Friendship” event at the Mormon Tabernacle where renowned Christian theologian Ravi Zacharias addressed a group of Mormons and Evangelicals. It was also at this event that Fuller Theological Seminary president Richard Mouw shocked the Evangelical world by publicly apologizing to Mormons for the Evangelical distortion of Mormon beliefs.
Ostling covers Robert Millet and Greg Johnson of Standing Together’s 58 public conversations as well as the latest event, described as a “revival meeting,” held September 13, 2009 at the Mormon Tabernacle. There, Australian-born evangelist Nick Vujicic, spoke to roughly over 3700 people.
The article describes the scholarly dialogues that include evangelicals like Craig Hazen of Biola University and Craig Blomberg, co-author of How Wide the Divide, and professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary.
Ostling ends his article with a reference to Evangelical and Mormon political co-operation and references Mitt Romney and Evangelicals for Mitt, and how the negative reaction by Evangelicals during Romney’s campaign was a wake-up call of the latent animosity toward Latter-day Saints held by Evangelicals.
Ostling paints pictures of “closed-door” and “hush-hush” dialogues with high ranking LDS authorities and prominent Evangelicals. While such depictions give sensational notions of some sort of back-dealing going on behind locked-doors, we can chalk this up to journalistic story-telling. Dates and events and telling the number of times that Mormons and Evangelicals have met, are relatively straightforward issues. Where Ostling has difficulty is where he seeks to give his readers an introduction to LDS teachings and history.
Let’s begin. ST will refer to my commentary.
Ostling: “Difficulties with acceptance date to Mormonism’s origins in the 1820s. According to the LDS scriptures, God the Father directly commanded the prophet Joseph Smith Jr. to shun existing Christian churches because “all their creeds were an abomination in his sight” and their “professors were all corrupt.” God subsequently commissioned Smith to re-establish “the only true and living church.”
ST: Technically, the LDS scriptures (Joseph Smith History) have God the Father instructing Joseph Smith to listen to his Beloved Son (“This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” Joseph Smith—History 1:17). It is God the Son, who informs Joseph Smith “not to join” any of the churches.
Does it really matter that it was God the Son and not God the Father? Does “shunning” mean the same thing as “not joining”? The reader can decide. In my view, I would hope those writing on Mormon history would appreciate the finer details like the fact that in the published history that Latter-day Saints would be familiar with, it is Christ who told Joseph Smith to “join none” of the churches, rather than God the Father telling Joseph Smith to “shun” them.
Ostling: “Smith not only claimed unique God-given authority for his “latter-day” institution but also added the Book of Mormon and other texts to the Bible and issued increasingly heterodox doctrines. For example, the LDS God is married and has “a body of flesh and bones,” one reason the Vatican ruled in 2001 that converts from Mormonism must be re-baptized.”
ST: So, according to Ostling, Joseph Smith added the doctrine that God is married. I’ve been digging into Joseph’s sermons and teachings to find where Joseph Smith taught that God was married. The bloggernacle is full of debates where Mormons concede that its very difficult to find any statements by Joseph Smith that there is even a “heavenly mother.”  The best evidence so far are second-hand statements and allusions in poetry. Therefore, to claim that Joseph Smith issued the doctrine that God was married, and to place this doctrine in the same category as an embodied God is simply wrong. Now, critics may say “Oh come now, what’s the big deal? Clearly Mormons today believe God is married, ask any Mormon on the street ‘Do you think it is possible that God is married?’ and I bet they say yes.” But this isn’t what Ostling wrote. He wrote that Joseph Smith “added the Book of Mormon and other texts to the Bible and issued increasingly heterodox doctrines” including “the LDS God is married.”
I think most people familiar with Mormonism know that such a doctrine can’t be found in the Book of Mormon. Again, I’m pointing this out as an example that for some very strange reason, journalists and other commentators simply have a difficult time accurately writing on Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. How hard is it to verify a simple fact like “Does the Book of Mormon teach God is married?” Not to mention that readers are left wondering whether the Vatican ruled that Mormon converts to Catholicism must be re-baptized because LDS teach that God has a “body of flesh and bone” or that the LDS teach God is married. If Joseph Smith taught that God is married, I think I would have heard this by now, and I’m sure all the proponents of a heavenly mother would be quoting this source.
That God [the Father] has a body of flesh and bone can be easily traced to D&C 130:22 which states “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also.” (That the Son has a body of flesh and bone is not controversial given Luke 24:39). We can cite no text in the LDS canon of scripture that teaches God is married. So, placing a doctrine that is directly found in LDS scriptures, with an idea that is not found in LDS scriptures or in any sermon by Joseph Smith is misleading. Let’s raise the bar for accuracy.
Ostling: “The LDS Christ is the Old Testament’s divine Jehovah, but not God the Son within the eternal Trinity.”
ST: Yes, LDS believe Christ is Jehovah of the Old Testament, but while Latter-day Saints typically do not employ the term Trinity, Latter-day Saints affirm that Christ is God the Son. This seems to confuse more than enlighten and I would have phrased it differently, because the reader probably thinks Latter-day Saints reject that Christ is the Son of God. 
Ostling: “The LDS scriptures teach a plurality of gods (in the Book of Abraham, though Mormons reject the label polytheistic) and the millennial prospect that human saints will be “made equal with” God.”
ST: Perhaps this one can’t be helped and perhaps this is a natural limitation with describing theology in a few words. Traditional Christians count to three by using the term person. God is three persons in one being. Joseph Smith felt free to say there are three personages and three Gods. Therefore, the plurality of gods for Joseph Smith was the plurality of persons within the Godhead, namely three. Joseph Smith never spoke of more than three Gods in the Godhead .
An Everlasting covenant was made between three personages before the organization of this earth and relates to their dispensation of things to men on the earth. These personages according to Abraham’s record are called God the first, the Creator; God the second, the Redeemer; and God the third, the Witness or Testator.” emphasis added, Extracts from William Clayton’s Private Book, 10-11, Nuttall collection, BYU Library, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 190 (undated).
in all congregats. when I have preached it has been the plurality of Gods it has been preached 15 years–I have always decld. God to be a distinct personage—J. C. a sep. & distinct pers from God the Far. the H. G. was a distinct personage & or Sp & these 3 constit. 3 distinct personages & 3 Gods—if this is in accordance with the New Testament–lo & behold we have 3 Gods anyhow & they are plural anyhow. Thomas Bullock, sermon given by Joseph Smith on June 16, 1844.
There is another sense in which there was a plurality of gods for Joseph Smith. On March 20, 1839 in the revelation written from Liberty Jail in Missouri, Joseph spoke of “the Council of the Eternal God of all other gods before this world was.” (D&C 121:32). Five years later, Joseph sought to explain this notion from the Bible. “I shall go to the first Hebrew word in the Bible,” Joseph stated in the King Follett Discourse, and explained that according to the original Hebrew, it should read “The Head one of the Gods brought forth the Gods” in a Grand Council. (Bullock Report). William Clayton recorded Joseph as teaching “The grand councilors set in yonder heavens and contemplated the creation of the worlds.” Two months later Joseph again sought to defend his translation from the Hebrew, and was well aware of the opposition. Thomas Bullock recorded:
the head God—organized the heavens & the Earth–I defy all the learning in the world to refute me– In the begin the heads of the Gods organized the heaven & the Earth- now the learned Priest–the people rage–& the heathen imagine a vain thing–if we pursue the Heb further–it reads The Head one of the Gods said let us make man in our image I once asked a learned Jew once– if the Heb. language compels us to render all words ending in heam in the plural–why not render the first plural—he replied it would ruin the Bible–he acknowledged I was right. Thomas Bullock, June 16, 1844. For additional comments see Words of Joseph Smith, edited by Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, p. 409. Ehat and Cook believe the editor of the sermon mistakenly merged Genesis 1:1 with Genesis 1:27
However, in some respects, this wasn’t a radical departure for Joseph Smith. Consider the chronology. In the fall of 1830, over 14 years earlier, he had interpreted Genesis 1:27 to read “And I, God, said unto mine Only Begotten, which was with me from the beginning: Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and it was so.” (Moses 2:26) Therefore, God the Father speaks to God the Son “Let us make man in our image.” In 1835, Joseph Smith begins to translate the Book of Abraham which contains narrative of God in counsel with other interlocutors besides the Son. In March 20, 1839 Joseph refers to the “the Council of the Eternal God of all other gods before this world was” in a written revelation (D&C 121:32). In 1842, 13 years later, Joseph would finally publish his translation of the Abraham papyri to read “And the Gods took counsel among themselves and said: Let us go down and form man in our image, after our likeness; and we will give them dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Two years later on June 16, 1844 when Joseph explains that “The Head one of the Gods said let us make man in our image” it is clear he is elaborating on his translation in Moses 2:26 and the Head God is God the Father. While Joseph never provided a complete roster as to who and how many were on the Grand Council, he never once hinted that he was substituting the Godhead with the Grand Council. Conflating the Godhead with the Grand Council is a common mistake among students of Mormonism. 
As to the “made equal with” God statement, this is a legitimate teaching, found in D&C 88:107 and also D&C 76:95. In fact, the first anti-Mormon publications latched on to this equality language like a pitbull. See for example, LaRoy Sunderland, Mormonism Exposed and Refuted (New York: Piercy & Reed, Feb 10, 1838) and J. B. Turner, Mormonism in All Ages (New York: Platt & Peters, 1842), pp. 240–43. But what I don’t find Sunderland or Turner exposing is that Mormonism teaches that God is married. Wouldn’t it make sense that we would find early critics writing on this if Joseph Smith taught anything even remotely close to this? By the way, if you want to know how early Latter-day Saints responded to Sunderland, read Parley P. Pratt, Truth Vindicated (New York: Parley P. Pratt, 1838), p. 27.
Ostling: Smith asserted other radical beliefs in an 1844 discourse shortly before he was assassinated while running for U.S. President. He revealed “the great secret” that God the Father “was once as we are now, and is an exalted Man,” and that humans will progress to “become Gods … the same as all Gods have done before you.” His discourse was transcribed by four aides, published by the church, later included in its compilation of his teachings, and officially reaffirmed thereafter.
ST: Ostling is referring to the famous King Follett Discourse, a funeral sermon given by Joseph Smith on April 7, 1844 at a general conference in Nauvoo. It has not been canonized and was not published in the History of the Church for years. It was only recently added in volume 6 of the 7 volume History of the Church in 1948, over 100 years later due to the efforts of B.H. Roberts.  Even the recent Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith manual published in 2007 does not contain the full sermon, but only portions. One of the reasons for this is probably due to the fact that the King Follett Discourse is one of the most controversial and contested sermons of Joseph Smith with commentators interpreting the sermon to imply one thing, and some to imply another. 
I have more areas where I disagree with descriptions by Ostling but they more or less fall within the domain of differences of opinion and perspective, rather than outright inaccuracies. Overall, I’m pleased that Ostling provides important information to his readers regarding the history of various conversational and scholarly dialogues between Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals. I’m disappointed that the readers of Christianity Today won’t be getting the clear and accurate description of LDS history and theology that they should. Improbable, I suppose. But even with these inaccuracies, it’s a rather favorable article and I thank Christianity Today for publishing it.
 For just a few examples see New Cool Thang:
A few theories about the Divine Feminine in Mormonism October 7, 2009
A Review of LDS teachings regarding a Heavenly Mother September 29, 2009
Questions about the Nature of God August 21, 2009.
 For a more nuanced and articulate discussion of the topic of the Trinity see the October 2008 issue of FIRST THINGS: A Journal of Religion, Culture, and Public Life and the essay “Is Mormonism Christian?” by Bruce D. Porter, a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Gerald R. McDermott, Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion at Roanoke College. See also “Reno & Porter Interview: Is Mormonism Christian?” October 7, 2008.
 I’m reminded of a line from the Book of Armaments 2:9-21. “Three shall be the number of the counting and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither shalt thou count two, excepting that thou then proceedeth to three. Five is right out.”
 To equate the Godhead with the Grand Council would destroy Joseph Smith’s theology and LDS liturgy where baptism is performed in name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. According to accounts given by George Laub, Joseph explained that Lucifer “himself being one of the councilors” “accused his brethren and was hurled from the counsel . . . There was a warfare with Satan and the gods and they hurled Satan out of his place.” See George Laub Journal (1845); “George Laub’s Nauvoo Journal.” Edited by Eugene England. BYU Studies Volume 18, no. 2 (1978): 151–78. To say that the Council and the Godhead are the same would be to place Lucifer within the Godhead, a position at odds with Joseph Smith’s statements on the Godhead.
 For a good overview of this history see A Textual History of the KFD, Part I: Sources to the “History of Joseph Smith” and A Textual History of the KFD, Part II by J. Stapley at Splendid Sun on June 3-5, 2008. You can read a parallel version of the King Follett Discourse with all scribes writings and compilations side by side.
 The best example I can give is a dialogue between Van Hale and Blake Ostler on Mormon Miscellaneous on August 27, 2007. “Theology With Blake Ostler.” Mormon Miscellaneous. Hale and Ostler both persuasively advocate for their views and raise the main arguments. Both are articulate and long-time students of Joseph Smith.