Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Guessing About God: Mormonism's Inability to Resist the Onslaught of Modernistic Skepticism (Part 10--Final Installment!)
05/09/2011 - James White
One aspect of that scriptural heritage that Christianity cannot shake is the identification of several divine beings as gods (Gen 6:2, 4; Deut 32:43 [LXX, 4QDeut-q]; Ps 29:1; 89:7; Ps 97:7, among dozens of others). There are even divine beings called the sons of God. Other literature is in agreement. In the Dead Sea Scrolls angels are repeatedly called gods (אלים). Even rabbinic and Christian literature recognizes the existence of other gods.
The modern notion of monotheism largely has more to do with philosophy than religion or the Bible, but in religious arenas it rests on the traditional decoupling of divine beings from the “god” taxonomy. Although the Bible makes reference to other gods, the ontological transcendence of God is so absolute that people just find it acceptable to consider him the only God. Mormonism, of course, has much the same approach. God will always be the highest God for humanity, and so Mormons largely consider themselves monotheistic. They worship one God. Ask a traditional Christian about the “sons of God” and the other divine beings in the Bible and they’ll respond, “Oh, they’re just angels,” or “they’re just subordinate/contingent/created beings.” Ask a Mormon about divinized human beings and they’ll point out that they will always have God above them. For Latter-day Saints, there is one God. Don’t Mormons believe that God is not the absolute highest God, though? Don’t they believe he had a God, too? Many of them do, although it’s not a notion to which they are bound. Additionally, according to the Bible—or at least the original version of portions of it—Yahweh was also not the highest God. The Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls show in Deut 32:8–9 that Yahweh was considered one of the sons of El, also known as Elyon. It states that Elyon divided the nations according to the number of the “sons of God.” Elyon gave Israel to Yahweh. It wasn’t until around the beginning of the monarchy that Yahweh was conflated with El.
We come now to the main reason I titled this series as I did. You see, Mormonism’s foundations are clear for us all to see. Joseph Fielding Smith put it bluntly when he said Smith “was either a prophet of God, divinely called, properly appointed and commissioned, or he was one of the biggest frauds this world has ever seen. There is no middle ground” (Doctrines of Salvation 1:188). Smith’s view of divine revelation, his claim of near constant latter-day revelation, and the resultant books of “scripture” he produced, tell us much about his viewpoints. And one thing is obvious: he wasn’t a German rationalistic liberal. He did not embrace the foundational principles of liberal theologians or simply destructive critics who took over just about every theological institution in Europe long ago, and who predominate, especially in Old Testament departments, in schools of theology in the United States. There is no evidence that his “inspired translation” of the Old Testament is based upon accepting rationalistic viewpoints such as the JEDP theory---just the opposite, his alterations, scattered as they are, show only a naïve “prophetic” impulse (how else do you explain finding an extra chapter of Genesis that is all about…you!?), not the sharp knife of the modern critic that begins with the assumption that these books are but the end result of a long process of unguided, natural historical processes. I do not think Smith would have understood the words of Gerhard Von Rad who, in commenting on a text in Deuteronomy 26, opined, “Deuteronomy is, after all, not the work of a lawgiver, but a collection of cultic and legal materials which are in part very heterogeneous and which have scarcely been brought into agreement with each other” (Von Rad, Deuteronomy: A Commentary, 1966, p. 158). Smith seriously believed he was “translating” the very handwritten records of Abraham when he was actually looking at Egyptian funerary documents from around the first century, so there is little reason to count him amongst the followers of modern destructive critics.
To understand McClellan’s assertions here, one must embrace a particular (and very popular) view of the Tanakh in particular that is fundamentally skeptical and unbelieving in its origins and practice. For those unfamiliar with the background, allow me to briefly summarize. Most Christians look at the Bible as a single volume with different chapters. But, of course, that is not an accurate perception. The Bible came to us over a long period of time through the hands of many different authors, as many as 40 in the Old Testament, less than a dozen in the New. Conservatives view the process in the Old Testament as taking about a thousand years, less-conservatives about six hundred. Some of the books of the Old Testament are anonymous in their authorship, others are not. If you embrace modern principles of skeptical criticism, you do not look at the Old Testament as a whole; you do not even look at the individual books as singular units. Instead, you are free to atomize the text, that is, cut it up into parts, and set these parts at odds with one another. Hence, some theorize that these documents are the end results of long periods of evolutionary editing (redaction) with all sorts of different sources providing the initial compilations, that are then edited over time. So, you might have one writer initially emphasizing one element or view, say, a priestly view; then another writer presents a different view, and he might be identified by his use of certain terminology, say, his use of the divine name Yahweh, or his non-use thereof, etc. Some of the sources used might be pagan in origin; sometimes the biblical writers are assumed to have been, well, quite dull and dim-witted, to be perfectly honesty with you, borrowing haphazardly from this or that, resulting in a poorly constructed compilation of contradictory views. But even this, then, goes through redaction, or editing, over time, where later writers, sensing these problems, attempt to correct them by editing and changing the text.
As one can quickly see, the foundation of this viewpoint is that of philosophical naturalism: that is, the basic assumption is of the disunity of the text since, of course, there really can’t be any substantial unity since that would require us to believe in things like inspiration, the supernatural, etc., and that simply won’t fly in the academy these days. We need to look at these books not only as the mere productions of men, but we need to look at them as guilty until proven innocent. That is, harmonization, allowing one text to explain another, is out of bounds right at the start. That’s what Christians have always done, and we all know that can’t be right! So, contradiction and error is the starting point, the first “given.” That way we can produce theories that allow us to get “behind” the “original” and, well, to be perfectly blunt, get published and hope for tenure. Which is why you have more theories of redactional history of any one text than you have redaction critics, of course. While certain theories become predominant over time, it is not because those theories have been thoroughly tested (how do you test such things in the real world today?). In the main, once those theories find a “major” proponent they become widely accepted, whether they are sound or not. You see, so often, the only position that could challenge these views, the historic one that takes biblical texts seriously as to their own claims for themselves, is not allowed into the conversation. Hence, at times, you will find things being accepted as a “given” simply because “that’s how I was taught it” and so it goes for years on end.
Many conservative Christians, unfamiliar with the perspective of modern critical redaction theory, will not understand Mr. McClellan’s claims (I find the willingness of redaction critics to throw out their conclusions without giving a thought to the fact that their readers will generally not have the means of understanding them rather educational). Here is how it works. You begin by refusing to allow any interpretation of these passages or terms used therein that is based upon looking at all that the Old Testament says. The many texts that say Yahweh is the only true God, and that all other gods are idols, such as Isaiah 43:10 or Psalm 96:5, must be seen as irrelevant, and kept separate from any texts that are under consideration. So, in the specific text cited at the end of the above citation, Deuteronomy 32:8-9, you cannot even consider testimonies to monotheism elsewhere even in the same book (since, on this theory, the book can be cut into small parts and isolated from any context at all, depending on the particular theory you are applying to the text). So, even though Deuteronomy 4:35 plainly states, “To you it was shown that you might know that Yahweh, He is God; there is no other besides Him,” that does not matter. That’s “over there,” and since Deuteronomy is a patchwork quilt of, well, whatever someone with a Ph.D. decides it is made up of, you can ignore that kind of thing. Remember, the basic assumptions include 1) internal contradiction, and 2) redaction of sources, often pagan in origin, must be looked to rather than any kind of divine revelation. So, for this text:
1) isolate it so that you can place it in any context you wish;
2) insist it is a post-Mosaic, redacted statement;
3) adopt an unbiblical interpretation of various names of “deities” that, elsewhere in the Tanakh (and even in the Torah---but remember, that is irrelevant, since Mosaic authorship is not only rejected, it is scoffed at), are simply synonyms for the one true God, such as Elyon (and ignore that this is a poetic text, which might explain its appearance here), and present the idea that Elyon is one God, Yahweh a secondary, later god, despite how this goes against so much else in Deuteronomy and the Torah as a whole;
4) based upon the foregoing, adopt an uncertain textual reading that you can then use to present a demotion of Yahweh to a son of Elyon to whom Israel is given as an inheritance (rather than seeing it as a statement speaking to why Israel as a people are uniquely the property of Yahweh in a way no other people are---as that would be tied to far too many other texts in the Tanakh and would allow the Bible to speak as a consistent whole on a topic, which would not get you published, almost anywhere, anymore).
There you go, that’s how it works. Of course, you can then provide a few dozen footnotes to sources almost no one has access to, and your work is done. If I was not so short on time, I would add a few personal experiences from Fuller Seminary as illustrations, but we will have to skip that for now.
There is no question that there is an interesting textual variant here. Here is the textual data from the Göttingen LXX:
8 ὅτε διεμέριζεν ὁ ὕψιστος ἔθνη,
ὡς διέσπειρεν υἱοὺς Ἀδάμ,
ἔστησεν ὅρια ἐθνῶν
κατὰ ἀριθμὸν υἱῶν θεοῦ,
8 (ὅτε) διεμέριζεν] αʼ (θʼ Syh; + ut Syh) ἐκληροδότει (εμηρ. M) M Syhb | ὡς—Ἀδάμ] αʼ ἐν τῷ διορίζειν αὐτὸν υἱοὺς α̅ν̅ο̅υ̅ M Syhb | Ἀδάμ] α̅ν̅ο̅υ̅ Fb | ἐθνω̅ν] λαῶν Fb | (κατὰ ἀριθμὸν) υἱῶν θεοῦ] οἱ λʼ κατὰ ἀριθμὸν υἱῶν Ἰσραήλ C′’ comm Procop 957; αʼ εἰς ψῆφον υἱω̅ν (υιους 58) ι̅η̅λ̅ (θυ̅ 85) M 58(s nom) 54txt 85-344; θʼ αʼ υἱω̅ν ι̅η̅λ̅ 344 Syhb; σʼ υἱοὺς ι̅η̅λ̅ M 54txt 85(s nom)-344; αʼ τὸ σαμʼ υἱοὺς ι̅η̅λ̅ C′’ comm; αʼ σʼ τοὺς υἱοὺς ι̅η̅λ̅ C′’ cat; υἱῶν ι̅η̅λ̅ Fb
Entire scholarly articles have been published on this topic, many of which I have read, but I can say without fear of contradiction, the reading of the text is uncertain. A case can, and has been made, for the Massoretic reading, and a case can, and has been made, for numerous others. McClellan’s easy “The Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls show in Deut 32:8–9 that Yahweh was considered one of the sons of El, also known as Elyon” is a massive simplification of a very extended conclusion based upon a huge number of very, very challengeable assumptions, and goes way, way beyond anything the textual data actually provides. (For those interested, see Dr. Paul Owen's comments, found in The New Mormon Challenge, 2002, pp. 298-299).
But while these are important things to note, I also realize that by even commenting on them, I have given to Mr. McClellan what he wanted: our eyes are now off the point I was making in my original video, and we have strayed far from the real issue. Leaving the issues relating to textual variations in the LXX or DSS, and the consistent recognition of the teaching of the Bible regarding the one, uncreated Creator, and all other beings, physical or spiritual, who are dependent upon Him, what was the topic we started on long ago? Whether Mormonism is Christian. The Christian faith did not define itself in light of modern German rationalism, did it? So unless Mr. McClellan is suggesting a complete redefinition of Christianity (he may well be, given he does not think a Mormon even has to be bound by Joseph Smith’s central teachings on the nature of God), this really does not help him to answer the real question. The Christian faith has never enshrined in its own self-definition or understanding the forms of polytheism that surrounded the people of Israel. Instead, it has always rejected those forms of polytheism. So, if Mr. McClellan wishes to point to them as means of making Mormonism “Christian,” is he not tipping his hand, so to speak, and admitting that the only way Mormonism can be identified as “Christian” is if Christianity is radically redefined? It would seem so.
James then makes a number of assertions that Mormonism does not align with “biblical” concepts of atonement, the Godhead, etc. The problem with this is that James’ concept of atonement, the Godhead, etc., are also not biblical. They’re traditional.
Please note this: if it is “traditional” it is not biblical. This goes back to the foundational assumptions of liberal skepticism: whatever else you do in theology, biblical studies, etc., the one option that cannot be allowed, that cannot be put on the table, and that will not be given the time of day, is the one Christians came up with long ago. What I asserted regarding the atonement, etc., has been fully defended in published works, etc., and is easily obtainable for anyone who wishes to examine it. I find Mr. McClellan’s comments here to fail to rise above the level of, “nuh uh.”
His view of the Trinity is not biblical, it’s Nicene (he has argued otherwise, but I know of no single scholar who does not have a deeply vested interest in his conclusion who agrees with him).
I only pause long enough to note the blindness Mr. McClellan seems to have to the deep “vested interest” not only of himself, but of his instructors. I will allow The Forgotten Trinity to speak for itself in reference to the biblical testimony to the Trinity.
It derives from philosophical debates which took place in the late third and early fourth centuries CE.
The language of formulation did, the doctrine itself did not. I see little evidence Mr. McClellan has seriously engaged this particular topic, as he is merely repeating the platitudes of modern skepticism.
His notion of atonement comes from the Reformation. His notion of grace comes from the Reformation through modern Fundamentalism. He will argue it is biblical, of course, but the same hermeneutic circles and anti-intellectualism define those arguments as well.
Notice McClellan does not provide anything more here than bald assertion based upon…nothing. He does not interact with my published works, sermons, debates, etc. Given that we have tried for a long time to get his instructors to debate these topics in the Salt Lake area, maybe he would like to encourage them to do so now? A debate on the doctrine of atonement in the book of Hebrews would be great. I’d be happy to engage it, and I know of plenty of folks up in Salt Lake and Provo who would work to arrange it. As I have been preaching through Hebrews for about two years now, I would not even have to step out of my publishing research and writing duties to do this.
James has no more a corner on the Bible than Mormonism. It’s a variegated and conflicted book that has as many interpretations as it has readers, and as we’ve seen, for other Christians James’ own positions fail the text of Christianity.
While this is rather shallow rhetoric, without even a pretense of providing a meaningful foundation, I think it is important to examine it.
Do I have more of a corner on the Bible than Mormonism? Well, let’s think about it. I do not claim to have a corner on anything. Mormonism claims to be the One True Church (when I say Mormonism, I am still speaking of orthodox Mormonism, expressed by Joseph Smith, the General Authorities, the LDS Scriptures, etc.: Mr. McClellan may not be an orthodox Mormon, given some of his comments, but he is surely not a General Authority, so unless he believes himself to speak for the LDS Church as a whole, those sources still trump him). I believe in sola scriptura, the sufficiency of the Scriptures as the sole infallible rule of faith; I believe the Bible is θεόπνευστος and has been preserved for us by the providential care of God for the edification of His church; I believe the Bible is consistent with itself, not on some surface level, but at the deep level of transcendent truth and harmony. Mormonism says the Bible is the Word of God “so far as it is translated correctly,” and adds other books of scripture to it, including outrageously discredited faux-translations of Egyptian funerary texts. So, who really honors the Bible, and who actually denigrates it and denies its validity and value? I believe the answer is clear and unambiguous.
But it is the next line that I really want my readers to hear. “It’s a variegated and conflicted book that has as many interpretations as it has readers.” This is the reason I initially decided to respond to this blog post. Here is the face of modern Mormonism, but, I truly ask, is it a face the Mormon Church can survive? Surely Mormons have been attacking the Bible since the days of Joseph Smith, but there was a fundamental difference in outlook back then. Smith pretended to “restore” the Bible with his simplistic and a-historical “Inspired Translation.” But you see, the skeptical stance of the new LDS apologists is far, far removed from the worldview of Joseph Smith. They still attack the Bible, but not from the angle Smith and his followers did. No, theirs is a naturalistic skepticism, one that draws its lifeblood from a form of criticism that has eviscerated every denomination it has infected. Evidently its usefulness, for now, seems worth the risk up at BYU. But a friendly word of historical reality: by the time you realize it is battery acid to the soul, it is too late. If Mormonism seeks to defend itself in this fashion, it is simply inevitable that more and more of its next generations will apply the same standards to far, far more susceptible documents, such as…well, the entirety of the LDS corpus. And once that process starts, does Mormonism have within its reach a means of stopping the decay? I think not. Is the Book of Mormon a “variegated and conflicted book that has as many interpreters as it has readers”? If not, why not? How about the Book of Abraham? Is the Bible’s condition due to corruption over time, or is this just incipient post-modernism breaking into the sunlight? It is hard to say. But one thing is for sure, if the historically grounded, contextualized Christian Scriptures have “as many interpretations as readers,” what are we forced to say about a-historical works like the Book of Mormon or the Book of Abraham?
What James is arguing throughout his video is that Mormonism is not Evangelicalism. This hardly needs a 14 minute video to point out, though.
Ironically Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, historical Anglican (still seen in the African branches, and down in Sydney, Australia), etc., all confirm monotheistic Trinitarianism as well. This is not merely a matter of “Mormons are not Evangelicals,” it is simply, “Mormons worship a god utterly unknown to Christians.” And for all his erudite assertions, Mr. McClellan has completely failed to prove otherwise. The God of Joseph Smith, and the God of the Apostle Paul, cannot be made one.
The implication, however, is that because it is not Evangelicalism, it is not Christian. Mormonism is not the only religion James has decoupled from Christianity for not being Evangelical enough. James has argued elsewhere that Catholicism also does not merit the title “Christian.” Why? It’s unbiblical, at least according to Evangelicalism.
As long as Mr. McClellan thinks the Bible has as many (valid?) interpretations as interpreters, he will never be able to understand why those of us who follow it, believe it, accept it, and live in its light, can not only identify his deity as a false god, but the gospel of Rome, or the gospel of Salt Lake, as false as well.
James doesn’t consider Mormons Christian, and that’s fine. That’s his prerogative. His argument, however, is not supported by anything other than dogmatism.
I still find this kind of language coming from a follower of Joseph Smith to be ironic, given that Smith’s claims to prophethood are far more liable to such an assertion. Be that as it may, we have seen that in fact my arguments are logical, biblical, and compelling, and it is Mr. McClellan’s position that lacks a rigorous and, most importantly, self-consistent, foundation.
It is only valid for others who share his particular sectarian views. From an objective and intellectual point of view, it’s a non-starter.
Note the continued use of unfounded claims to “objectivity” and “intellectual” standing. Evidently, this comes with your degree from Oxford.
It has no real bearing on anyone who does not already accept the premise for dogmatic reasons, although the rhetoric is likely to be effective on those who don’t know any better. In light of these considerations, his argument fails on all counts to substantiate his thesis.
And the reality is, of course, that no amount of argumentation can change the exalted man who lives on a planet that circles a star named Kolob into the unchanging creator of all that exists, the eternal, omnipotent God who has revealed Himself to be holy, just, and the redeemer of a particular people in and only through Jesus Christ. Joseph Smith set his followers on a very different path from the “apostate churches” he rejected in 1830, and though his later views of polytheism developed after that initial founding of Mormonism (requiring a fair amount of editing of his previous “revelations”---and that is not hypothetical redaction criticism, that’s established historical fact, documented as clearly as Ergun Caner’s lies, and very similar thereto), the fact is that the god of Mormonism, as defined by the General Authorities of the LDS Church up until this present day, is far removed by definition and character from the God worshipped by Christians around the world today.
I wish to add two more brief points to this already far too long series of articles. First, I note that as I had indicated more than a decade ago, the level of maturity exhibited by many in the LDS apologetics community, and in particular, by some of the leading names in LDS scholarship, continues to appall me. I will not go into the long history of the childish behavior associated with certain people in the former FARMS organization (including spelling out insults in acrostic manner in published articles, for example). These are facts that have been established in the past. I only note that nothing has changed, given that one of the very first comments left on Mr. McClellan’s blog was by none other than BYU professor William Hamblin. He wrote,
April 8th, 2011 at 10:45 pm Ah, James White, that unrbreachable bastion of illogical dogmatism. I dare say, that the defining characteristic of a Christian for White is that you must agree with White.
Such is the depth of the thought of many of those forming young minds at BYU.
The second and last point I wish to make has to do with the idea that “self-identification” is the means by which we determine who is, and who is not, a Christian. I noted this leads to the inevitable emptying of meaning from words, for today we have, as an extreme, but completely relevant example, the wide range of “gay Christian” groups, even groups of people promoting the most deviant and biblically-condemned forms of sexual perversion, who “self-identify” as Christians. If Mr. McClellan wishes to call these folks Christians, I leave that to him: it only proves my point, for the rational, logical soul realizes that words have meaning.
But I would likewise like to provide a biblical refutation of this means of identifying Christianity by “self-identification.” For the follower of the Bible, this is the final word, as far as I can see. When the Apostle Paul wrote to the churches in Galatia he recounted a situation that arose with certain men. Now, from a modern perspective, the differences in theological viewpoint between the Apostle and these men seem downright petty, and many today reject Paul’s authority on the basis of their judging it so. “Paul was over the top” was the claim of United Church of Christ minister Barry Lynn in our debate on homosexuality back in 2001. And surely, given Mr. McClellan’s views, the Apostle should have accepted these men’s “self-identification.” But, he did not. Note his words:
But it was because of the false brethren secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage. But we did not yield in subjection to them for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel would remain with you. (Galatians 2:4–5)
Please take careful note of the context. These men “self-identified” as Christians. They had “snuck in” to the fellowship and were engaged in making theological claims relating to the nature of salvation itself. They claimed to be “brothers,” but the Apostle knew better. He identifies them as ψευδαδέλφοι, false brethren, a strange term if they were not actually claiming to be brethren at all. Surely they were. But Paul did not put up with them, but withstood them, all for the sake of the truth of the gospel, so that it would remain with the churches (another of the many precious truths found in Scripture but denied by Mormonism with its doctrine of universal apostasy). So, if the Apostle’s practice is our guide, we must follow him, no matter how unpopular it might be.
Mormons claim to be Christians. We examine their teachings, fairly and honestly, and conclude that they worship a different god, promote a different Jesus, a different Spirit, and a different gospel. As such, our calling is to witness the truth of the gospel to them, not join with them in a post-modern celebration of the rejection of objective, unchanging truth.
I hope the reader has been assisted by this series, and I truly hope Mr. McClellan, and other thoughtful Mormons, will consider whether the sources from which they are now drawing their attacks upon the validity, perspicuity, and clarity of the Bible, are consistent with their own professions of faith in the the prophethood of Joseph Smith. It is hard for me to believe that any man can seriously put forward redaction criticism as a means of denying biblical monotheism who, at the same time, can dismiss the blatant, and yes, if it were not so serious, at times humorous, proclamations made by Joseph Smith (including his emendations to the biblical text in his “Inspired Translation,” as well as the simply irrefutable evidence provided by the Book of Breathings, aka, the Book of Abraham). But, it seems the leadership at BYU are intent upon opening that door and rushing as many graduates through it as possible, but I truly wonder if they fully understand the resultant Pandora’s box they have opened in the InterMountain West?