Should non-Mormon Christians even have theological problems with the Book of Mormon?
Today at Times and Seasons, Nathaniel gives sage advice: Don’t debate the Trinity. The advice is a little incomplete — it’s perhaps more accurate to say that one should never debate anything relating to religion whatsoever. The fact that we still do (those of us who do) just shows how gluttonous we are for punishment.
Anyway, Nathaniel points out that for all the conflict about Mormons’ theological view about the trinity, there doesn’t actually appear to be much essential conflict. As he writes:
The problem is that when Mormons and mainstream Christians argue about the Trinity, the real conflict has almost nothing to do with the subject at hand. This was underscored when a non-Mormon friend of mine posted the following YouTube video on Facebook along with the comment: “For the record, St. Patrick does rightly define the Trinity in the beginning: 3 people who are 1 God. Then it all just goes down hill.”
Up until very recently, I thought that the heresy of the Mormon godhead was that Mormons believe the godhead is made up of three separate persons. In contrast, I thought that the trinity was the belief that God was one person in three forms or modes or something like that.
If you had asked me to explain the trinity that Mormonism disagreed with, I might very well have used the “three phases of water” analogy — the trinity is like water, ice, and vapor. All are the same thing in different forms.
Imagine how surprised I was to find that that example itself was a heresy — modalism.
When I learned about the shield of the trinity and the fact that the trinity teaches that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are three different persons, I wondered what the big deal was.
What could be disagreeable about the Mormon position then?
In his post, Nathaniel focuses on describing the atheological approach to Mormonism…he discusses that many Mormons believe in a social trinity that could probably fit the above shield, and emphasizes that what many Mormons believe is different than talking about what Mormonism requires. In general, I am a fan of any approach that points out that Mormonism is actually less stifling and limiting than many people experience it — I am a fan of any approach that points out that many of the things people take for granted are assumptions, and when you radically evaluate every assumption, Mormonism comes out looking quite differently. (If you’re trying to find something to attack in Mormonism, then when you deal with someone who recognizes this, that’s probably where the expression, “nailing jello to the wall” comes from. A Mormon well-versed in nuance and close reading can slip out of nearly any commitment.)
However, in addition to showing how atheological Mormonism is, he points out that when the Mormon scriptures do speak on the issue, they typically are not controversial. In fact, in some ways, they are even more “orthodox” than even the New Testament. As Nathaniel writes:
Finally, as quoted before, Amulek’s direct answer is pretty unambiguous. Although only one example, it’s a very stark one. It’s interesting that despite Mormonism’s antipathy towards the idea of Trinitarianism, the Book of Mormon contains more explicit support for it than the New Testament does. The content of the Athanasian Creed is therefore compatible with but of course not necessarily implied by Mormon scripture.
When I read the Book of Mormon, I notice this too. I mean, I am not a protestant, so maybe there are things I don’t get, but from the Book of Mormon itself, it doesn’t seem like people should find Mormonism to be very problematic.
(Of course, I think there are other reasons people might find Mormonism to be problematic. For example, let’s turn back to the Mormon idea of the godhead. I don’t think the problem is so much in whether Mormons believe in the trinity or not [although there are some details of the trinity that probably would be suspect for Mormons], but rather other things that Mormons believe about God. For example, that many Mormons believe God is essentially the same “species” as humans. [e.g., "As man is, God once was..."] Or, many non-Mormon Christians have issue with the idea that Jesus was “created” along with the rest of us. [I may be getting this complaint confused...since to me, the LDS idea of eternal intelligences suggests that unlike in a creatio ex nihilo context that non-Mormon Christianity has, in Mormonism, no one is "created".] These issues are lumped under as being trinity noncompliance.)
Nathaniel talks about the Book of Mormon being more explicit about certain Christian doctrines than even the New Testament. But this raises questions for me — as it raised questions for me when I read the Book of Mormon and the New Testament.
See, the New Testament to me reads as a very foreign religion. It is what I would expect from a proto-Christian community still trying to figure stuff out. How should meetings be run? Should we still hold to Jewish customs? What about the non-Jews who are in our midst?
On the other hand, the Book of Mormon reads to me as very Protestant. It does not read as Jews going to America. It reads as very Protestant people dealing with Protestant issues that seem to conveniently be the sorts of issues that a 19th century audience would be asking about. And, for the most part, the Book of Mormon gives all the “right” answers. Where “right” is not the distinctive answers that I would associate with Mormonism…but the answers I would associate with Protestantism.
Hmm…the Book of Mormon was written for our day, they say…
I have a working hypothesis for why the Book of Mormon reads as it does — I don’t know if this hypothesis is discussed by anyone, or if it’s already been torn to shreds, but here goes:
The Book of Mormon was never meant to be a place for distinctive doctrines. In fact, it was meant to be as familiar to the 19th century as possible, so when people would read it, they would nod along. It would confirm what they already knew was true.
Rather, what the Book of Mormon was meant to do was to give credibility to the idea of an expanded canon. If the Book of Mormon had these true ideas in it, then perhaps Joseph was on to something. And if he was on to something, perhaps we should continue listening to what he has to say. So really, all the Book of Mormon has to do is establish that revelation and prophecy are still real. Because if it can do that, then it really does become important to listen to Joseph to see what God tells him next. (And cue the Pearl of Great Price, cue the Doctrine and Covenants, cue this and that…)
Still…I can’t say I read the Book of Mormon every day, and I can’t say it’s even been that recent since I read it last. So, maybe there are glaring theological issues of which I am not aware? What do you think? Should non-Mormon Christians (especially Protestants) have any theological opposition to the content of the Book of Mormon (separate from its origins, its implications or its claims about continuing revelation, restoration, and so on?)