Seminary President Richard Mouw’s Reply to the ‘Disturbed’

To all who are disturbed by my comments at the Tabernacle:

I am pasting below the text of my actual comments at the Tabernacle event.

The critical concerns raised are threefold, and I will offer at least an attempt at clarification regarding each: Some of this will be a repeat of specific things I have already written to some of you.

First, some folks have asked who the “we” is that I apologized on behalf of when I said that that “we” evangelicals have sinned against Mormons by bearing false witness against them. I certainly did not mean to imply that every evangelical has sinned in this regard. Suppose I were to address an African-American gathering and say that we whites have sinned against you blacks. Who would deny that this is a correct assessment? But who would think that I was speaking about and on behalf of all white people?

There is no question in my mind that there has been a discernible pattern of sinning against LDS folks in this regard. I could show, for example, how Walter Martin oversimplified Mormon teachings in his much-read books. But here is an obvious example of more recent vintage: when Dave Hunt writes a whole book whose main thesis is that Mormonism is Satanic in its inspiration and practice, I think this is bearing false witness. On a more technical point, I have received emails in the past few days where evangelicals have said that Mormonism teaches that God was once a human being like us, and we can become gods just like God now is. Mormon leaders have specifically stated that such a teaching, while stated by past leaders, is something they don’t understand and has no functioning place in presentday Mormon doctrine. Bob Millet has made the same point to many of us, and Stephen Robinson insisted, in the book he co-authored with Craig Blomberg, that this is not an official Mormon teaching, even though it can be found in non-canonical Mormon writings. The Ostlings, in their book on Mormonism, reported that Mormon leaders insist that the idea that God is omnipotent, omniscience-and much unlike what we are or could ever be-is more accurate than the simple notion that we are all becoming gods like God the Father is. A number of LDS writers have been formulating the “becoming God” theme in terms that are common in Eastern Orthodoxy: that “we shall be like Him” in the sense of I John, but that we will never be Him.

Another point: I have been told by many evangelicals that Mormons believe that the atoning work of Jesus Christ was accomplished in Golgotha and not at Calvary. Bob Millet has demonstrated from Mormon writings this this is not true-if the Cross had not occurred, he says, we could not be saved.

Here, for example, is how the LDS writer Glenn Pearson described the requirements for salvation in a popular Mormon book of the 1960s: “There has to be down payment of a broken heart and a contrite spirit. Who has a broken heart and contrite spirit? One who is stripped of pride and selfishness. One who has come down in the depths of humility and prostrated himself before the Lord in mighty prayer and supplication. He has realized the awful guilt of his sins and has pled for the blood of Christ to be made a covering to shield him from the face of a just God. Such a one has made the down payment.”

In none of this am I saying that Mormons are “orthodox Christians.” But I do believe that there are elements in Mormon thought that if emphasized, while de-emphasizing other element, could constitute a message within Mormonism of salvation by grace alone through the blood of Jesus Christ. I will work to promote that cause. Most of you will disagree with that approach. But at the very least admit that we have not always been fair in our wholesale condemnation of Mormonism as simply a false religion.

Second, some folks are upset about what they took as a call from me for evangelicals to join in the celebrations of the bicentennial of Joseph Smith’s birth. I can see how people heard me say that we evangelicals should join in “celebrating” Joseph Smith’s birthday, but that is not what I intended to say. Instead I said that I hoped that many evangelicals would participate in those events that would allow us all to “pay special attention to Joseph’s life and teachings” during this year.

I was thinking and speaking too much as an academic on this one, and I know that doing so created unnecessary confusion. For example, I am going to take part in a special conference at the Library of Conference, where I will respond to an LDS scholar’s views on the contribution of Joseph’s theology. Those are the kinds of events where there can be critical give and take, and I see this bicentennial year as a time when we evangelicals can try to sort out the good from the bad in Joseph’s thought. There are some of his writings, for example, that sound quite orthodox, and others–such as the King Follett Discourse–that have views that are far removed from anything in the Christian tradition.

But ordinary evangelicals do not have opportunities to engage in those kinds of serious theological panels–thus I was talking too much as an elitist! At the same time, I would think this would be a wonderful opportunity to put on some events in Utah, perhaps in cooperation with local LDS folks, where people talk together about some basic themes in Joseph’s thought. In our quiet dialogues, for example, we–evangelicals and LDS together–find many of his earliest statements to come close to a traditional Reformation (and Epistle to the Romans!) emphasis on salvation by grace alone, the unique substitutionary work of Christ on the Cross (and not just in Golgotha) and so on. The statements from D&C that I quoted, for example, sound straight out of an evangelical sermon. My own view is that instead of arguing primarily about the things we find offensive in Mormonism, it would be good to spend some time reflecting together about what we mean when we both say that Jesus alone saves, and that he paid the debt for our sin on Calvary.

For the record: I do not believe Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God; I do not accept the Book of Mormon as a legitimate revelation; I do not believe that temple baptism saves; I do not believe that all people will be saved. And it is precisely because of this that when my good friend Bob Millet says that his only plea when he gets to heaven is “the mercy and merit of Jesus Christ,” I want to respond by saying with enthusiasm, “Let’s keep talking!”

I hope this helps a little. I am deeply sorry for causing distress in the evangelical community. I make no apology for wanting to foster gentle and reverent dialogue with Mormon friends. But I want people to be upset with me only about things I really meant to say–and I failed on this occasion, on one important point, to make my case clearly enough. Blessings!