This is a kind of post I seldom write. Actually, I think I have never written a post like this, but I’m entering my dotage and may have forgotten something.
I believe in preaching – teaching – shouting from the housetops (or the computer screens) the truths of Mormonism. Once in a while, teaching truth requires spotlighting and correcting error – I’ve done that a few times here, when I’ve outlined some colorful bit of mistaken history in order to set the record straight. But I’ve always tried to set out the mistaken history in terms its supporters would recognize; I’ve never stacked the deck by painting the mistaken history in exaggerated and distorted terms in order to make it easier to knock down.
I write a monthly column of Utah history for the Salt Lake Tribune. Because that column was designed as Utah history, not Mormon history, I have made a deliberate effort to tell stories about all kinds of Utahns. I’ve written about Mormons, yes, but also about Catholics, and Salvationists, and Jews; about Welshmen, and Polynesians, and Chinese, and Hispanics; about actresses, and pilots, and businessmen, and prostitutes, and playwrights, and Boy Scouts, and heroes of all kinds. The stories of these people are not my own, and I do not claim an infallible ability to represent others exactly as they would present themselves. Because of that, I have consciously chosen to tell only positive stories about groups that do not include me – if I err, I’d rather it be on the side of generosity than meanness.
That thing I seldom do, that I’m doing here? That’s directly addressing someone who doesn’t share my philosophy of fairly representing a group of which he is not a part.
Yesterday Jeff Brawner, a Baptist seminary professor, posted an article on the Baptist Press website, “How to share Christ with your Mormon friends,” as part of a series on witnessing to “friends of another faith.”
I’m not going to argue with his religious views – they’re his, and he’s the best one to outline exactly what they are. But I am going to contradict his version of Mormon beliefs. Whether his false witness of Mormonism is due to (probable) ignorance, or (unlikely) malice, or some unfortunate idea that his own beliefs will appear in a better light when placed side by side with a cartoon version of Mormonism, he is wrong on almost every count. He is wrong, and I am right, when it comes to delineating Mormon teachings.
Mormons believe that God is the ruler of our planet. He is the ruler of only this particular planet. He acquired that status over the earth over a progression of time. He has a physical body and flesh.
Mormon scripture states explicitly that God has created and peopled many worlds: “Worlds without number have I created … There are many that now stand, and innumerable are they unto man; but all things are numbered unto me, for they are mine and I know them” (Moses 1:33, 35). Is there anything in the Bible, as it has come down to us, that is as explicit as that? Limiting God to “ruler” over this single world, magnificent though this world is, is a limitation imagined by Prof. Brawner and is no part of Mormonism, which recognizes no end to the power, the majesty, the expansiveness of an eternally creative God.
Revelation is silent on the details of God’s origins. Many Mormons have extrapolated ideas from the few clues available, but I have seldom seen anything as cut-and-dried in responsible Mormon thought as Prof. Brawner’s bald assertion of God’s becoming God.
And yes, God does have “a physical body and flesh”: “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s” (Doctrine and Covenants 130:22). That much is stated explicitly by revelation, and requires none of the imagination sometimes displayed by Mormons who want to discern more than is plainly stated by scripture, and none of the philosophical negotiation by which creedal Christians arrived at their conception of God.
Mormons teach that Jesus is God’s firstborn spirit son. Jesus, like God, was a human being but attained his godhead status by living an upright life. His death provides for the physical resurrection of all people. This doesn’t mean that on death everyone will go to heaven, but everyone at some point will have an opportunity to be resurrected.
Mormons teach that Jesus is God’s only begotten son, relying on all the same Biblical verses cited by Prof. Brawner, with the advantage of many additional statements, at least as plain as those in the Bible, revealed by God in this dispensation. Jesus was human in the sense of having been born into mortality through a human mother – but we also understand that he retained his divinity as the begotten son of God.
Far from teaching that Jesus attained godhood by the merits of his mortal life, we join Prof. Brawner’s Baptists in teaching that Jesus has always existed and is “one with” God (meaning that Jesus shares the righteousness, glory, powers, purposes, goals, methods, mission, and attributes, if not the physical substance, with God the Father). But we go much further than Prof. Brawner can go in attesting to the eternal, ante-mortal divinity of Jesus: We declare that Jesus is the Jehovah of the Old Testament; and while Christians limited to the Bible can state that “all things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3), we have the advantage of the specificity of modern revelation: “the world was made by him … the worlds were made by him; men were made by him; all things were made by him, and through him, and of him” (Doctrine and Covenants 93:9-10). There is no people on this earth who can claim a better understanding, a greater recognition, of the eternal divinity and the preeminent position of the Lord Jesus Christ, than we Mormons declare.
And yes, we do teach that resurrection is a free gift of Jesus to all mankind. We also understand that while salvation, like resurrection, is universal, exaltation is not – a distinction that cannot be comfortably squeezed into Prof. Brawner’s wording about “going to heaven.”
Mormons believe the Holy Spirit does not have, as God and Jesus have, personhood in the Trinity. Instead, he is nothing more than a spirit manifestation that is from the Father.
We understand that the Holy Spirit differs from God the Father and God the Son in that he “has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit” (Doctrine and Covenants 130:22). But he is a personage, not a mere “spirit manifestation,” and he is a member of the Godhead: “We believe in God the Father, and in His Son Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost” (1st Article of Faith). The Mormon conception of the personhood of the Holy Ghost may be even stronger than the conception of creedal Christianity, in that we recognize the Holy Ghost as not only a member of the Godhead/Trinity, but also that he is a distinct, separate, independent person within that holy council.
Mormonism makes a distinction between the person of the Holy Spirit, and the influence exerted by the Holy Spirit. Prof. Brawner sets aside that distinction, and mistakes one part (the influence) for the other part (the personage).
And as long as I am stating Mormon belief, I will include the Mormon position on one last point.
Prof. Brawner says:
Jesus is defined by how he is portrayed in the Bible alone, not by any other book.
Jesus is defined by who he really is, what he has really done, how he has really revealed himself. Mormonism cannot accept a definition that rules out of hand the revelation of Jesus in this dispensation, as well as the revelation of Jesus in the Biblical dispensations. Jesus is who he is – Savior, Lord, Creator, Redeemer, Advocate, Judge, King, Messiah – regardless of where the testimony is recorded, and he has revealed himself through the Bible, through other scripture ancient and modern, through personal appearance, through introduction by the Father, through testimony borne in our hearts through the influence of the Holy Spirit. I count it one of the great blessings of God to this generation that we have these additional witnesses of Jesus.
That is all. Carry on.