Thursday, May 15, 2014

Mormon Christianity

Stephen H. Webb was raised in the Stone-Campbell religious tradition (Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ). As an adult he briefly espoused Lutheranism and then converted to Roman Catholicism. For the last several years, he has been an avid student of Mormonism. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago Divinity School. A theologian and philosopher of religion, he taught at Wabash College for 25 years, retiring in 2012. His penultimate book, Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012) has a chapter on Mormonism and Joseph Smith's teachings about divine corporeality and spirit as refined matter. His latest book, Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn from the Latter-day Saints (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013) is an insightful look at some of the ways Mormonism extends and enriches traditional Christianity. His next book, co-authored with Alonzo L. Gaskill, is an attempt to begin serious Roman Catholic - Mormon dialogue. Gaskill, raised Greek Orthodox, converted to Mormonism as a young adult and is currently on the BYU religion faculty.

Webb has lectured at BYU on three previous occasions. His lecture today treated some of the themes in Mormon Christianity which for obvious reasons has been well-received in the LDS scholarly community. I found some of his thinking on Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon quite stimulating. The words that follow are from my notes of Webb's lecture. Inline scriptural citations are my additions.
  • Joseph Smith as a theologian is both powerful and attractive.
  • Mormons breathe more of the air of Jesus Christ's original church than any other Christians.
  • Mormonism's open canon enhances the New Testament. It does not change the New Testament. Other branches of early Christianity (Gnosticism, Marcionism, Arianism) tried to change the New Testament. The creeds, particularly the Nicene creed, were responses to these heresies.
  • Mormonism's enhancements to the Christian canon are not like chocolate added to milk that changes the nature of the milk. They are like another topping added to a banana split that makes the already attractive dessert even more delicious.
  • Restoration movements in traditional Christianity have typically tried to strip away layers of tradition accumulated over centuries to get back to some idealized simplicity from a previous era. Joseph Smith's restoration is an addition, not a subtraction. The Book of Mormon says many plain and precious things were lost from original Christianity 1 Nephi 13:26-29 and need to be recovered.
  • "Translation" in other Christian traditions today means an attempt by scholars to get back to the the earliest, cleanest and simplest texts of important writings. "Translation" to Joseph Smith meant exegesis, inspired accretions and fuller explications. The Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, JST, removes very little and adds a great deal to the Biblical text. Joseph Smith's translation of the gold plates produced another testament that adds to both the Old and New Testaments in profound ways. Joseph's translations are not trying to change or simplify or de-mystify the Bible. They affirm and re-establish biblical authority.
  • The King James Version, KJV, is not the most accurate translation of the Bible currently available, but it is almost certainly the most inspired. The KJV translators did what Joseph Smith did - made an ancient text come alive with language their contemporaries found compelling.
  • The Book of Mormon is the last flowering of the King James brilliance.
  • Joseph Smith lived within the Bible more than any other person of his age. The Book of Mormon established his prophetic bona fides but Joseph's worldview was thoroughly biblical.
  • Yet, Joseph's Bible was not the same as the Lutheran, Wesleyan or Calvinist Bible. Joseph denied biblio solitude - the Bible in isolation. For Joseph, the Bible was singular but not alone, supreme but not barren. It was a living, breathing reality that could be made even more glorious through the restoration of ancient texts and ordinances. In an 1833 letter to his Uncle Silas, Joseph said the word spoken to Noah was not sufficient for Abraham and neither was the Bible sufficient for our day.
  • In Joseph's world, the word of God is eternal but translatable. A translator is a mediator reading between scriptural lines. Translation is extrapolation and affirmation.
  • Jews add targumim to the Torah. Catholics add tradition to the Bible. For Catholics, canon and creed work together in a seamless whole. The creeds are criteria. Creeds are extra-canonical scriptures meant to interpret the canon. A creed closes the canon and sets rules for how to read scripture. The Nicene creed expands the Bible.
  • The Book of Mormon far surpasses the Nicene creed in affirming the hermeneutics of the Bible.
  • In the Book of Mormon, Jesus Christ is God the Creator Mosiah 3:8, Helaman 14:12. In the Nicene creed, God the Father is the Creator.
  • The Nicene creed omits the Old Testament narrative except for the single gloss on Genesis 1:1. The Book of Mormon fills in the gaps in the Old Testament. Who did Ezekiel see on His throne atop the dome of heaven? Ezekiel 1:26-28? Ezekiel saw Jesus Christ. The Book of Mormon makes this wonderfully clear. Old Testament theophanies should be cristophanies. The Book of Mormon is unapologetically christological in Old Testament times. Critics have assailed this as an egregious flaw in the text stemming from Joseph's naivete. It is actually a major strength. The Book of Mormon re-enthrones Jesus Christ pre-incarnation.
  • Putting Jesus in Old Testament theophanies supported the Arian speculations, so the councils put a stop to that with the creeds.
  • The Book of Mormon is a magnificent hermeneutical key to the Bible just as Nephi prophesied it would be 1 Nephi 13:40.
  • For Mormons, the Book of Mormon is a rule of faith, a communal linguistic explication of their worldview.
  • For Protestant fundamentalists, the Bible is one flat book with a single fold - the Old Testament and the New Testament. Catholics see small folds on almost every page with mystical readings and allegories. The Catholic Bible is book-ended with the authority of the Church on one side and the Nicene Creed on the other. Mormons have so many folds in so many different dimensions their Bible is more like a piece of origami art than a flat book.
  • The Book of Mormon is more than a mere supplement to the Bible. It adds to the Bible without damaging it, but in ways that enhance and expand the original. After the Book of Mormon, the Bible is not the same as it was before. It is more profound, more cosmic, more glorious. The truth claims of the Bible are significantly strengthened with the addition of the Book of Mormon. These two books complement each other inside and outside. The Nephites, like Joseph Smith, lived in a world heavily influenced by the Bible.
  • Thought doubles reality because you now have external forces and internal consciousness. The Book of Mormon is like the Bible thinking about itself. The two are intertwined in a productive, virtuous cycle.
  • The five components of the Mormon canon (Old Testament, New Testament, Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, Doctrine & Covenants) form a complex piece of 3D art. It is hard to tell where one begins and the other ends.
  • Is the Atonement limited by human agency? In the JST, Joseph added that the famous phrase of Jesus on the cross, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do" Luke 23:34 applied to the Roman soldiers who ignorantly sinned but not necessarily to the Jewish leadership who ordered the crucifixion with malice aforethought. The Book of Mormon explicitly says Christ's Atonement applies to those who ignorantly sin Mosiah 3:11.
  • Webb had high praise for the BYU New Testament Commentary project. He called S. Kent Brown's commentary on the Gospel of Luke "brilliant." He finds the prospect of reading the New Testament in light of the expanded Mormon canon exciting.
  • The uniquely Mormon scriptures are hermeneutical keys to the Bible in living, productive, symbiotic relationships with their host.
  • Webb feels a personal calling to dialogue with Mormons. The conversations have blessed his life in many ways. Mormonism has made him a better Christian, particularly as it has helped him personally reconcile science and revealed religion.
  • The strongest part of the Book of Mormon is its account of Christ's visit to the Americas. This helps us better understand Jesus' history before the incarnation. His post-resurrection ministry is strengthened by His pre-mortal ministry and vice versa.
  • The Jesus of the Book of Mormon is a truly human, truly divine, robustly personal Savior. Jesus is the proclaimer, but He is also the good news. He is the cosmic Jesus.
  • The Savior's ministry in the Americas helps us understand his descent into hell and the appropriate relationship we should have with our dead.Catholic excesses regarding the dead (inherit your father's ill-gotten estate and then pay the Church to get Dad out of purgatory) led to a Protestant repudiation of the Biblical concept of filial piety Leviticus 19:3. Protestants with few exceptions pay scant attention to the Savior's descent into hell. For Joseph Smith, baptism for the dead was one of the most important parts of God's plan for humanity.
  • Orthodox Christian theology is closer to Mormon thought in many ways than Roman Catholicism is. With 300 million adherents, orthodoxy is the 2nd largest branch on the Christian tree. After a century of decline under the Nazis and then the Communists, orthodoxy is back in a big way. But, Orthodox Christians don't dialogue with anyone. Rooted in patristics and an unchanging liturgy, they view any form of compromise as heretical so the entire notion of ecumenical outreach is foreign to them.
  • Mormonism should re-think the apostasy. The Christian body has preserved many wonderful things from the dawn of the era and those things should be celebrated rather than vilified. Mormonism can and should enhance Christianity without denigrating it.
Stephen Webb's Latest Book from Oxford University Press
Parenthetically, the reason so many Mormon titles are being published by Oxford these days may be largely commercial. A typical title from an academic press will sell 1,000 copies. Titles in the Mormon genre will typically sell at least 3,000 copies.

Thanks to BYU Studies, John W. Welch, editor-in-chief, and The Wheatley Institution, Richard N. Williams, founding director, for bringing Stephen H. Webb to Provo.