Mormon Trilemma

I have a meeting this afternoon with a couple of Mormon missionaries who stopped by some time last week and asked to talk with me about their, um, gospel. So I’ve been thinking for the last few days about how to get to the heart of the matter with them as quickly as possible.

The difficulty with Mormons is that they appear so much like ordinary evangelical Christians in their culture and lifestyle that it’s difficult to point out something that is blatantly un-Christian, and at the same time, they have distinctive views on history and biblical texts that make it’s easy to point out errors in their beliefs without ever coming to the issue of the gospel. In other words, it’s easy enough for a committed evangelical Christian to see that Mormons aren’t, and so avoid the possibility of being converted accidentally. But it’s very difficult, in polite conversation, to point out to a committed young Mormon that his religion is different from yours even in its essence, and dangerously so.

Questions of Kolob and ancient Indian civilizations notwithstanding, there are actually two theological errors that Mormons partake in. One is a kind of Arianism, which sees the trinity as three separate entities who are unified only in as far as their personal agreement, rather than three persons of the same substance, eternally experiencing a perichoretic unity. In other words, it’s difficult to explain.

The other error is easier to deal with, because the nature of the gospel hinges on it. The Mormon position is that any human who makes an attempt at self-reform according to God’s law can in time improve to a level of perfection. It is a gospel of self-improvement aided by the power of the Holy Spirit, and God’s gracious repeated revelation of the plan for this self-improvement. In other words, Pelagianism.

Mormon Pelagianism isn’t something that Mormons try to hide, though the true doctrines of grace may escape them. How hard is it, really, to hear that you are saved by God working a heart change in you, to which achievement you yourself make no actual contribution? It’s difficult!

I suppose a more thoroughly indoctrinated Calvinist than I could bring the distinction home through a rigorous application of TULIP, but as for myself, I have a hard time remembering what the letters stand for. And the last thing I want to do is to frighten them by appearing like an enraged madman attempting to throttle them with the gospel.

And besides, I think I have an easier way.

I think it’s essential to remember that these young men are intent on evangelizing me. They are sincere and earnestly want what they believe is best for me. Door-to-door evangelism is hard and any kind of personal delivery like this is a bit intimidating. The Christian response, I think, is not to be offensive, but to respond to them as I would want them to respond to me if I showed up at their door hoping to bring them to an orthodox faith. They want to have a conversation with me about their religion? Great, I want to have that conversation, too, because I want them to be saved as badly as they want me to be converted. I don’t want to score any points in an argument.

I don’t, however, want to be an easy sell. It would be a disservice to both of us if I were to be genial to the point of placidity. The only reason I’m interested in talking to them about Mormonism is that I want to talk to them about orthodox Christianity, so we need to hone in on the difference as quickly as possible, otherwise it would have been a better use of everyone’s time if I had refused to answer the door.

What I want to do is start talking immediately about the fact that we have two different gospels and hone in on what the differences are between them. But Pelagianism isn’t the gospel that they’re preaching; it’s just the theological type that fits them. The message is about an apostate church and a replacement church. The power is in the institution, and I happen to be a member of the old institution. This means that the old Reformation questions about the basis of authority are just as pertinent here as they have ever been. How do you know that the gospel you preach is “the faith given once for all to the saints?”

The Mormon story is that the church, shortly after Jesus ascended to heaven, lost the gospel. I agree, though I caution about how shortly. But I acknowledge that it’s quite possible for a church to fall away and become bankrupt, to “lose the keys of heaven” as it were. The question then is by what means can these keys be regained, and how can we prevent the church from falling away? My little Mormon tract says that

Some inspired people, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, recognized that practices and doctrines had been changed or lost. They tried to reform the churches to which they belonged. Without priesthood authority, however, Christ’s gospel could not be returned to its original form. A restoration was needed.

So Joseph Smith brought the restoration that was needed. Fine. But Joe Smith isn’t around any more, so how does the Mormon church guarantee that they don’t fall into apostasy like the other churches? And here is a Mormon trilemma:

Can they guarantee that Mormonism is preserved by adhering to the additional texts in the Book of Mormon? Just so. But if you can be sure of getting the right gospel by holding to the right text, and if there is nothing in error about the such texts as Romans, Galatians, and the Four Gospels, then the Protestant churches who follow the biblical text carefully aren’t apostate. So I am perfectly fine staying in the church where I am.

The other option is that Mormonism is preserved by a “priesthood authority” which Joseph Smith was allowed to pass down, say by the laying on of hands. The Mormon church is in fact led by a prophet (so-called) who speaks with apostolic authority, much the way the Catholic church is led by the Pope. But if the Mormon church is preserved by apostolic descent, then apostolic descent should be sufficient to preserve any church. But if this is so, then Eastern Orthodox churches and Roman Catholic churches, which both can trace their succession in an unbroken line back to Jesus’ apostles, are preserved by this means. In that case, these churches must not be apostate.

The only other option is to insist that the authority to establish the correct church is found either in apostolic descent or in a correct text (or both) but that gospel presented by the Mormon church is simply fundamentally different that held by either the Protestant or Roman or Orthodox churches.

But if the Mormon gospel is different, then I dare not even consider it, for (Gal. 1:8) “even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.”

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