The great German literary demigod Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once remarked: “There is nothing more frightful than ignorance in action.” My reading of Bethany Blankley’s recent Huffington Post article has confirmed Goethe’s fear as being my own. In the doleful cacophony that sounds forth from the ranks of fundamentalist Evangelical critics of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Ms. Blankley is more than suitable at playing first-chair violin. She is an adept Konzertmeisterin who plays with a zealous gusto that is by no means forced into a decrescendo by facts or evidence.
The accusation that Latter-day Saints are not Christians is not new, and it is not it likely to go away anytime soon. So long as fundamentalist Evangelicals dominate the religious landscape of modern America, the benighted Mormons can anticipate this Hydra to rear its ugly heads incessantly. All of the efforts of the Latter-day Saints to quell this tired assertion will almost certainly be in vain, as misinformation, misrepresentation and outright calumny continue to capture the imagination of an ignorant public with scandalous tales of the moral and theological debauchery and baseness of the Mormons.
Ms. Blankley, thankfully, withholds from her readers lurid and fanciful tales of polygamy and blood atonement and instead refuses to call members of the Church of Jesus Christ “Christians” on theological grounds, viz.:
- The Ministry of Jesus: “According to the first four gospels of the Bible, Jesus Christ lived and ministered in the region of modern-day Israel. He never appeared in the Americas.”
- The Virgin Birth: “The Mormon Church teaches that Mary, the mother of Jesus, conceived Jesus through sexual relations with God the father.”
- The Spirit World: “Mormons believe that God, angels and humans are the same.”
- Jesus and Satan: “The Mormon church explicitly teaches…that Jesus Christ and Satan are both sons of God and are not only spirit brothers to each other but are spirit brothers to humans and angels as well.”
Those Latter-day Saints especially attentive to the criticisms usually leveled against their faith will not fail to notice that Ms. Blankley has offered nothing more than a warmed over serving of the sort of cuisine that one might be served by the venerable Ed Decker or the respectable Walter Martin. This is, however, to be expected. I can sympathize with the sentiment put forth by Professor Daniel C. Peterson:
Anti-Mormonism of the evangelical kind has come, with a few exceptions, to bore me intensely. It is not only that it tends to be repetitious and uninteresting. (My friend and colleague William Hamblin and I have laughed about doing an autobiographical film entitled Bill and Dan’s Excellent Adventure in Anti-Mormon Zombie Hell.) It is not merely that the same arguments reappear ad nauseam, no matter how often they have been refuted, and that reviewing essentially the same book for the thirty-second time grows tiresome. (One definition of insanity is that the insane one keeps doing the same thing over and over and over again and expects to get different results.) It is also the deep streak of intellectual dishonesty that runs through much of the countercult industry, the triumphalism that exaggerates and even invents problems on the Mormon side while effectively pretending that no problems remain to be addressed on the so-called “Christian” side.
Notwithstanding, Ms. Blankley has offered her objections and, I assume, expects to be taken seriously. As such, let us take a few moments to review these four protestations and see how firmly they withstand the scrutinizing gaze of the facts.
The Ministry of Jesus
Ms. Blankley provides a summary of the narrative of the Book of Mormon thusly:
Lehi, a Jewish prophet from the tribe of Manassah, left Jerusalem with several others, sailed east and landed in South America. Two of Lehi’s sons, Lamen and Lemuel, rebelled against God. God cursed them and gave them dark skin — birthing the Native American race… [I]n A.D. 34, Jesus Christ descended from heaven, baptized the Native Americans, called and commissioned 12 disciples, instituted sacraments, and taught the message of the Sermon on the Mount.
Besides the suspiciously negative way in which she relates some of the details of the Book of Mormon narrative, Ms. Blankley seems to have offered a fair description of the Book of Mormon. Having given the Book of Mormon her superficial treatment, she continues to announce that “according to the first four gospels of the Bible, Jesus Christ lived and ministered in the region of modern-day Israel.” Because the New Testament is silent on Jesus’ ministry to the Nephites, Ms. Blankley feels safe to conclude that “he never appeared in the Americas.”
I have always been given to understand that an argument from silence is a fallacy. True enough, the New Testament does not relate the details of Jesus’ ministry to the Nephites. But why should it? The authors of the biblical texts, as far as we know, never reached the shores of ancient America. The record of the Apostles of the Old World is just that, a record of Jesus’ dealings in ancient Palestine. It is by no means meant to be a comprehensive evaluation of everything Jesus ever did. “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written” (John 21:25). These are considerably potent cautionary words from one of the biblical authors to those who would assume that if something concerning the life of Jesus is not recorded in the New Testament, it therefore did not happen.
As a matter of fact, we are hard pressed to find any details from the Bible pertaining to Jesus’ activities after his resurrection and his initial showing of himself to his apostles, other than a remark by Luke that he spent 40 days teaching his disciples and subsequently ascended into heaven (Acts 1:3-4, 9). Just because the biblical authors do not explicitly say Jesus appeared to other people in other lands that does not rule out the possibility. To argue such would be a textbook example of arguing from silence. Furthermore, one wonders what Ms. Blankley makes of Jesus’ words in John 10:16: “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.” To the Nephites gathered at the temple in the land Bountiful the risen Lord confirmed that they were those of whom he spoke of as his “other sheep” (3 Nephi 15:16-24).
The Virgin Birth
Our authority informs us that “the Mormon Church teaches that Mary, the mother of Jesus, conceived Jesus through sexual relations with God the father” and therefore does not believe Jesus was born of a virgin. As evidence for this claim, Ms. Blankley invokes the teachings of Brigham Young and Bruce R. McConkie to the effect that God the Father had sexual relations with Mary to conceive Jesus. As a matter of fact, the “Mormon Church” teaches that “we believe that He was born of a virgin, Mary, in Bethlehem of Judea in what has come to be known as the meridian of time, the central point in salvation history.” According to Ms. Blankley, “The Bible teaches that Mary, a virgin, “was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18).” Unsurprisingly, so too does the Book of Mormon:
- And it came to pass that I looked and beheld the great city of Jerusalem, and also other cities. And I beheld the city of Nazareth; and in the city of Nazareth I beheld a virgin, and she was exceedingly fair and white….And I looked and beheld the virgin again, bearing a child in her arms” (1 Nephi 11:13,20).
- “And behold, he shall be born of Mary, at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers, she being a virgin, a precious and chosen vessel, who shall be overshadowed and conceive by the power of the Holy Ghost, and bring forth a son, yea, even the Son of God” (Alma 7:10).
I hasten to add that I am not inherently opposed to the idea put forth by President Young and Elder McConkie that has mortified Ms. Blankley. Given my acceptance of the profound truth restored by Joseph Smith that God is embodied, their idea seems logical. However, given the dearth knowledge we possess concerning the manner of the conception of Jesus, other than it was done by the power of God through miraculous means, I am not willing to stake out any position just yet. As President Harold B. Lee cautioned:
We are very much concerned that some of our Church teachers seem to be obsessed of the idea of teaching doctrine which cannot be substantiated and making comments beyond what the Lord has actually said. You asked about the birth of the Savior. Never have I talked about sexual intercourse between Deity and the mother of the Savior. If teachers were wise in speaking of this matter about which the Lord has said but very little, they would rest their discussion on this subject with merely the words which are recorded on this subject in Luke 1:34-35: “Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.” Remember that the being who was brought about by [Mary’s] conception was a divine personage. We need not question His method to accomplish His purposes. Perhaps we would do well to remember the words of Isaiah 55:8-9: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Let the Lord rest His case with this declaration and wait until He sees fit to tell us more.
What’s more, Ms. Blankley seems to have overlooked some of Elder McConkie’s other writings on this matter (which, incidentally, come from the same volume that she proof-texts in her article):
Our Lord is the only mortal person ever born to a virgin, because he is the only person who ever had an immortal Father. Mary, his mother, “was carried away in the Spirit” (1 Ne. 11:13-21), was “overshadowed” by the Holy Ghost, and the conception which took place “by the power of the Holy Ghost” resulted in the bringing forth of the literal and personal Son of God the Father. (Alma 7:10; 2 Ne. 17:14; Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-38.) Christ is not the Son of the Holy Ghost, but of the Father. (Doctrines of Salvation, vol. 1, pp. 18-20.) Modernistic teachings denying the virgin birth are utterly and completely apostate and false.
As is helpfully summarized by the FAIR Wiki:
Critics of the Church like to dig up quotes like those from Brigham Young for their shock value, but such statements do not represent the official doctrine of the Church. Furthermore, critics often read statements through their own theological lenses, and ignore the key distinctions which LDS theology is attempting to make by these statements. Instead, they try to put a salacious spin on the teaching, when this is far from the speakers’ intent. The key, official doctrine of the Church is that Jesus is literally the son of God (i.e., this is not a symbolic or figurative expression), and Mary was a virgin before and after Christ’s conception.
The Spirit World
Ms. Blankley is not impressed with the Mormon ontology of God. “Mormons believe that God, angels and humans are the same.” This description is somewhat misleading. In Mormon thought, God(s), angels and humans are the same in the sense that ice and steam are the same. Sure enough, both ice and steam are composed of two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom, but it would not be accurate to say that ice is steam or vice-a-versa. In the same sense, God(s), angels and humans are all beings of matter and intelligence (D&C 93:29; 131:7; Abraham 3:21), but, as Mormon authorities have been clear to distinguish, they are not inherently the same being. They are, instead, beings of the same matter on different levels of progression in eternity.
Ms. Blankley contrasts the heretical Mormon view of the ontology of God with the alleged “biblical” view. “The Bible teaches that angels (immortals) and humans (mortals) are to worship God (the sole eternal being) their creator (Hebrews 1).” We must take exception with Ms. Blankley’s characterization of God as the “sole eternal being” when, as is increasingly being recognized by biblical scholars, the biblical view is actually that of multiple divine beings that are matter-of-factly called elohim or gods. We do not, however, take exception with her stance that humans and angels are to worship God the Eternal Father, since this is also the stance of the Church of Jesus Christ.
“Angels have taken on anthropomorphic characteristics but they are not human,” writes Ms. Blankley. Well, yes and no. The Hebrew word mal’ak, which is usually translated as “angel”, can mean either a supernatural being or a human messenger. As with most ambiguities in biblical Hebrew, context is the key in deciphering a proper translation. It is true, however, that divine beings known as “angels” and human beings are not the same type of being. But this is not an issue, since the Latter-day Saints have never claimed otherwise. Ms. Blankley, I am afraid, has misunderstood Mormon angelology. Although angels and humans share common anthropomorphic natures in LDS (and biblical) thought, and although Mormons do believe that men and women who have lived on this earth may become angels to carry forth God’s will, it would not be accurate to say that angels and humans are the same.
And yet, biblical evidence does given credence to the Mormon position that angels and humans share some sort of similar nature. One example from the Book of Revelation sheds light on this question, as explained by Professor Peterson:
The “angels” of the seven churches of Asia (in Revelation 1–3) may similarly be simply the human representatives of those churches. In both Revelation 19:10 and 22:7–9, an obviously supernatural or superhuman angel describes himself as a “brother” to John the Revelator and even identifies himself as one of the prophets.
Interestingly, as an aside, there are several ancient extra-biblical texts that speak of the “angelization” of biblical prophets such as Enoch, Moses, Isaiah and others into God’s angelic host. Those familiar with the biblical concept of the council of the gods will understand how this is significant to our present discussion. Time does not permit me to dwell much more on this topic, other than to note that the LDS view of the relationship between God(s), angels and humans is demonstrably biblical. Of course, Joseph Smith and his prophetic successors have added their own unique prophetic insights into this matter, which is one contributing factor as to why the Latter-day Saints have a unique ontology of God.
Jesus and Satan
Ms. Blankley’s finally concludes her concert with a familiar refrain: “The Mormon church explicitly teaches in the Pearl of Great Price in both the books of Moses (chapter 4) and Abraham (chapter 3) that Jesus Christ and Satan are both sons of God and are not only spirit brothers to each other but are spirit brothers to humans and angels as well.” This time-honored criticism has been frequently employed against the Mormons. The most succinct answer to this accusation that I could find is from the FAIR Wiki:
Jesus, Satan, and all humanity share God the Father as their spiritual sire. However, moral agency led Jesus to obey God the Father perfectly and share fully in the Father’s divine nature and power. The same agency led Satan to renounce God, fight Jesus, and doom himself to eternal damnation. The remainder of God’s children—all of us—have the choice to follow the route chosen by Satan, or the path to which Christ invites us and shows the way. Divine parenthood gives all children of God potential; Christ maximized that potential, and Satan squandered it.To choose the gospel of Jesus Christ and the grace that attends it will lead us home again. If we choose to follow Satan’s example, and refuse to accept the gift of God’s Only Begotten Son, our spiritual parentage cannot help us, just as it cannot help dignify or ennoble Satan.
Compare this response to one given by the Church in 2007:
Like other Christians, we believe Jesus is the divine Son of God. Satan is a fallen angel. As the Apostle Paul wrote, God is the Father of all. That means that all beings were created by God and are His spirit children. Christ, however, was the only begotten in the flesh, and we worship Him as the Son of God and the Savior of mankind.
This should effectively help clarify why there is no problem with Ms. Blankley’s statement that “the Bible teaches that God has only one son, Jesus Christ (John 3:16, 17) who came to destroy the work of the devil (I John 3:8).” The Latter-day Saints could not agree more with this sentiment. It would be wholly foolish to somehow imply that Mormons believe Satan is comparable to Jesus in attributes or character, as Ms. Blankley seems to be insinuating here, because they share a common pedigree. Considering that this point has been addressed in a number of times, I will not say much more, other than to direct any readers to some valuable articles located on the FAIR website.
The Larger Issue
We have now reviewed Ms. Blankley’s objections against the Church of Jesus Christ, and found them wanting. She would do well to carefully review some of the salient literature on the faith of the Latter-day Saints before she once again offers her opinions in the public sphere. But what is the overall take-away message that Ms. Blankley seems to be imparting to her readers? Simply this: that Mormons are not Christians because of theological differences between Mormonism and mainstream Christian denominations. Unfortunately, this argument cannot be sustained. Theological differences do not disqualify someone from being a Christian. Consider these two points, which I have raised elsewhere:
- Who in the first place gets to define who is and who isn’t “Christian”? By what authority does this person or group make this determination? What were the standards employed in creating this criteria? Why were these standards selected over others? Etc., etc. To merely assert that you get to define Christian and Christianity without offering any compelling justification is not impressive in the slightest.
- To disqualify somebody else from being a Christian on theological grounds begs the question that your particular theological beliefs are correct. Before you begin disqualifying anyone from being a “Christian” on “biblical” terms you must first demonstrate what “biblical” theology actually is, and that your particular brand of theology is consistent therewith; no easy feat for traditional Christians who have been disagreeing amongst themselves as to what is “biblical” doctrine is since the inception of Christianity.
It is comforting that the time honored reference for the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary, agrees with millions of other people that Mormons are, in fact, Christians.
: Daniel C. Peterson, “Reflections on Secular Anti-Mormonism,” FARMS Review 17/2 (2005): 423.
: On the insinuation of racism in the Book of Mormon, see John A. Tvedtnes, “The Charge of ‘Racism’ in the Book of Mormon,” FARMS Review 15/2 (2003): 183-198; Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 2:108-123.
: At the risk of sounding pedantic, I would like to point out that the “first four gospels of the Bible” are, in fact, the only four gospels of the New Testament.
: David L. Paulsen, “Divine Embodiment: The Earliest Christian Understanding of God,” in Noel B. Reynolds, ed., Early Christians in Disarray: Contemporary LDS Perspectives on the Christian Apostasy (Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2005), 239-294.
: Harold B. Lee, Teachings of Harold B. Lee (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1996), 14.
: Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd edition, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 822.
: See generally E. Theodore Mullen, Jr., The Assembly of the Gods: The Divine Council in Canannite and Early Hebrew Literature, Harvard Semitic Monographs No. 24 (Chico: Scholar’s Press, 1980); See John Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000); William Dever, Did God Have a Wife? Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005); Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Margaret Barker, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992).
: H. W. F. Gesenius, Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon of the Old Testament, reprint (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1990), 475.
: See the discussion on LDS angelology offered by Matthew B. Brown, All Things Restored: Evidences and Witnesses of the Restoration, 2nd ed. (American Fork: Covenant Communication, 2006), 115.
: Daniel C. Peterson, “Ye Are Gods: Psalm 82 and John 10 as Witnesses to the Divine Nature of Humankind,” in The Disciple as Scholar: Essays on Scripture and the Ancient World in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, ed. Andrew H. Hedges, Donald W. Parry, and Stephen D. Ricks (Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2000), 504-505, see also 505-506.
: John Lierman, The New Testament Moses: Christian Perceptions of Moses and Israel in the Setting of Jewish Religion (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), 238-253; Crispian H. T. Fletcher-Louis, Luke-Acts: Angels, Christology, and Soteriology (Tübigen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1997).
: David Bokovoy, “‘Ye Really Are Gods’: A Response to Michael Heiser Concerning the LDS Use of Psalm 82 and the Gospel of John,” FARMS Review 19/1 (2007): 299-300.
: Daniel C. Peterson, “Ye Are Gods: Psalm 82 and John 10 as Witnesses to the Divine Nature of Humankind”, 471-594.
: See especially Michael Hickenbotham, “Do Latter-day Saints Believe Jesus and Satan are Brothers?”, online here.
: On this, see the excellent treatment offered by Daniel C. Peterson and Stephen R. Ricks, Offenders for a Word: How Anti-Mormons Play Word Games to Attack the Latter-day Saints (Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1992). Also helpful is the very recent offering of Kent P. Jackson, “Are Christians Christian?,” in Robert L. Millet, ed., No Weapon Shall Prosper: New Light on Sensitive Issues (Provo: Religious Studies Center, 2011), 43-59.
: See generally Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths we Never Knew (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), for an introduction to this subject.
: Oxford English Dictionary, online version, s.v., “Mormon”.