Wresting the Scriptures

How wonderful it was to gather and hear the words of a living prophet and the Apostles of Jesus Christ at the recent General Conference.  As Latter-day Saints, we do not have all the answers to the mysteries of godliness and of the eternities and the workings of our Heavenly Father and his Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ.  But we believe that Jesus Christ is literally the Son of God, and not figuratively.  We believe in his real power and priesthood, and we know something of his mission and how it relates to our Heavenly Father’s purposes.  What we know comes more from scripture and less from logical deduction or abstract philosophizing.  This is something we can be grateful for.

Over at BCC today, Ronan linked a speech given by the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Islamic University in Islamabad on November 23, 2005.  I have a great appreciation for the Anglicans and for sincere Christians everywhere.  Nevertheless, reading the Archbishop’s description of who he believes Christians believe Jesus is greatly disappointed and disheartened me.  It also reminded me of Alma’s injunction that "Behold, the scriptures are before you; if ye will wrest them it shall be to your own destruction" (Alma 13:20).  The Apostle Peter makes a similar observation regarding those who will surely "wrest" the scriptures with regard to Paul’s writings (2 Peter 3:16).

In explaining Christianity to Muslims, and in reassuring Muslims that creedal Christians are just as monotheistic as the Qur’an commands Muslims to be, the Archbishop reiterated the very philosophical deductions and abstractions that displeased the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ so much that he was willing to refer to them as an abomination (Jesus’ word, not mine) when He appeared to Joseph Smith in 1820 in a resurrected physical body together with Heavenly Father, also in a resurrected physical body.

Of Jesus the Archbishop philosophized as follows:

We call him the Son of God. But we do not mean by this that God has physically begotten him, or that he is made to be another God alongside the one God. We say rather that the one God is first the source of everything, the life from which everything flows out. Then we say that the one God is also in that flowing-out. The life that comes from him is not something different from him. It reflects all that he is. It shows his glory and beauty and communicates them. Once again, our teachers say that God has a perfect and eternal ‘image’ of his glory, sometimes called his wisdom, sometimes called his ‘word’, sometimes called his ‘son’, though this is never to be understood in a physical and literal way. And we say that the one God, who is both source and outward-flowing life, who is both ‘Father’ and ‘Son’, is also active as the power that draws everything back to God, leading and guiding human beings towards the wisdom and goodness of God. This is the power we call ‘Holy Spirit’.

So when we speak of ‘the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’, we do not at all mean to say that there are three gods – as if there were three divine people in heaven, like three human people in a room. Certainly we believe that the three ways in which God eternally exists and acts are distinct – but not in the way that things in the world or even persons in the world are distinct. This is why when Christians read in the Qur’an the strong condemnation of ‘associating’ with God other beings that are not God, they will agree wholeheartedly.

If we then return to what Christians believe about Jesus, Son of Mary, perhaps we can see why they say that he is ‘Son of God’. Because the eternal word and wisdom of God has completely occupied his human mind and body, we say that in him this word and wisdom has ‘become flesh’, has been ‘incarnated’. Because the word and wisdom of God is seen in the Jewish Scriptures of the Old Testament as like a ‘child’ of God – and also because these scriptures often call the kings of God’s people who rule according to wisdom the ‘sons of God’ – we are able to say that Jesus is God’s Son. And from the very first, Christian teachers have said that this language must not be thought of in any physical way.

Such a circuitous and deductive explanation is needed to explain how Jesus Christ can be the Son of God!  Muslims can rest assured, based on this, that creedal Christians are just as monotheistic as Muslims.

But if the Archbishop’s philosophical construct is representative of creedal Christian denominations (as I assume it must be since it flows from the creeds), then creedal Christians are not able to say that Jesus Christ is the Son of God because he was literally begotten of the Father.  Rather, they can only make this statement figuratively and based on abstractions from slim Old Testament statements.  The Archbishop concludes, therefore, that "Because the word and wisdom of God is seen in the Jewish Scriptures of the Old Testament as like a ‘child’ of God – and also because these scriptures often call the kings of God’s people who rule according to wisdom the ‘sons of God’ – we are able to say that Jesus is God’s Son." 

Where does it say this in the Archbishop’s inerrant Bible?  This is a philosophical construct that, if it is related at all to Biblical doctrine, is merely philosophically or distantly deductively derivative of such.  It is not the only logical conclusion that can be deduced from the content of the Bible.  But it can indeed be made to follow when one (for reasons that are at best arbitrary and at worst deliberate results of obfuscation at a certain point in history) takes neo-Platonic premises as necessary assumptions in the philosophical construct.  Indeed, when the Archbishop reports that from early on, "Christian teachers have said that this language [that Jesus is the Son of God] must not be thought of in any physical way,"  he is reaffirming that such teachers proceeded from, at least in part, neo-Platonic premises in their deductive reasoning. 

These "teachers" were not the Apostles of Jesus Christ, but rather Church Fathers and Scholastics who followed them.  In light of doctrines of Biblical sufficiency and inerrancy, it is unclear why their writings should be attributed any more authority over the minds of believers than the musings of Joseph Smith (if we are to assume that Joseph Smith was just musing about the nature of God and not reporting an experience that he actually had) or any other about the nature of the relationship between Jesus Christ and God the Father.  Answering that their philosophical and "theological" educations qualified them to make authoritative philosophical deductions that would become binding on all future generations of Christians verges on circular reasoning.  If they did not have the authority of Apostles or the insight of direct revelation, then their musings can only stand or fall based on their logical soundness and validity.

The erroneous conlusions of these "teachers," inherited by modern creedal Christianity, are the reason that a Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ was needed.  It also reinforces why a living prophet and Apostles of Jesus Christ, who receive revelation from God, are essential.  As curious and intellectual beings, we are prone to follow our theories away from the path leading to the tree of life, "wandering in strange roads" (1 Nephi 8:32).  With the light and knowledge available to us through the Restoration of the Gospel, I am sympathetic to President Hinckley’s statement, with reference to the Book of Mormon but applicable to the Restoration of the Gospel more generally, that "I would think that the whole Christian world would reach out and welcome it and embrace it as a vibrant testimony" ("The Great Things Which God Has Revealed," April 2005, Sunday Morning Session).

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11 Responses to Wresting the Scriptures

  1. Ronan says:

    John,

    I don’t think Rowan Williams believes in an “inerrant Bible.” Also, consider the audience! If you were speaking in Islamabad…well, I think you’d find common ground too! (Note how many Mormons bend over backwards to make Mohammed into a Good Guy in order to be friendly with Muslims. Good?)

  2. john f. says:

    Ronan, are you suggesting that Williams is open to the idea of extra-Biblical scripture such as the Book of Mormon, Book of Abraham, etc.?

    Also, Williams’ exposition on Jesus as the Son of God was not uniquely tailored to a Muslim audience. It is pretty standard, no? My quibble is with the circuitous philosophical route taken to reach such a conclusion — the conclusion cannot be reached without such abstraction.

  3. john f. says:

    (I said Biblical sufficiency and inerrancy, referring to them together because they are wielded together against Latter-day Saints for the unpardonable sin of believing in extra-Biblical scripture. You know more about Anglicanism than I do, so perhaps you know something that I don’t about their willingness to accept material outside of the Bible as Holy Scripture?)

  4. Ronan says:

    Right, for Anglicans, the Bible is sufficient, but not inerrant.

  5. I really liked this essay a lot. It points out to me what has been obvious ever since I joined the Church as a high school youth, that traditional Christians are only Christians in the broadest sense of that word because they do not really believe that Jesus is the literal Son of God. For that matter, because they believe that God is “incorporeal,” they only barely believe that God actually exists. Oh how I love Joseph Smith and this Church. If I were still a Baptist, I would still be wondering if there really is a God; and if there is, whether or not Jesus Christ was actually his Son.

  6. Greg says:

    I’ll have more time to comment on this next week, but for now you may be interested in reading what a former Episcopal priest (who has since joined the Catholic Church) had to say about a similar talk Rowan Williams gave in Cairo in 2004:

    Allah and the Trinity

  7. john f. says:

    Greg, from that linked article, a quote:

    Williams notes this concern and responds that Christian theologians have also rejected tritheism and the introduction of creaturely distinctions into the transcendent Godhead.

    Unfortunately, despite your great insights elsewhere on this blog, this is exactly the kind of philosophization of God and Jesus that I take exception with both in this post and in the post about the Resurrection in which I quote Nibley on the Scholastics’ rejection of “creaturely distinctions” within the Godhead. Latter-day Saints definitely make such distinctions since they believe God the Eternal Father has a resurrected physical body of flesh and bone just as his Son, the Savior Jesus Christ does (two separate, physical bodies of flesh and bone). That this makes us heretical in the eyes of Christians who have espoused Williams’s view is certain. The real question is why give precendence to the abstractions and deductive circumlocutions of the Scholastics, theologians, and philosopers? If Joseph Smith really did see God the Father and Jesus Christ together, each with their own separate, physical resurrected body, then it doesn’t matter what kind of philosophical or theological deductions have arrived at Williams’s conclusions. Such conclusions are extremely disappointing and, in my mind, deny the power and identity of the Lord Jesus Christ, not to mention God the Eternal Father.

  8. Greg says:

    Well, naturally Catholics and Mormons don’t believe the same things. If we did we wouldn’t be two separate churches. I would hope though that when we disagree with each other, we understand what it is that we are disagreeing about.

    Your comment above makes assumptions that I don’t subscribe to. I don’t think we’ll ever agree on them, and I think it’s okay to agree to disagree. I really don’t want to get into an argument over whether there was a Great Apostasy, which is where I sense this thread is going. Such an argument would never end, and it’s unlikely either of us would change our minds.

    For what it’s worth, your questions in the preceding comment assume a Mormon worldview that don’t seem relevant to me as a Catholic. For example:

    [Regarding rejection of tritheism and "creaturely distinctions":] this is exactly the kind of philosophization of God and Jesus . . .

    I don’t really think of the doctrine of the Trinity as “philosophization”. This point begs several questions in my mind. What does “philosophization” mean exactly? (I know what you’re getting at, but I think Mormons and some other Christians throw that term around like it’s an epithet, and I’m not sure they have a good reason to.) Why is Catholic theology a philosophization but not Mormon theology? Seems to me the Mormon view of God uses philosophical notions too, just not the same ones Catholic theology uses.

    The real question is why give precendence to the abstractions and deductive circumlocutions of the Scholastics, theologians, and philosophers?

    Again, this begs questions for me: Do we give them precedence? Is the Trinity “just” an abstraction? It isn’t an abstraction to me. And why is it necessarily more abstract than the Mormon God? (Certainly I’ve never seen or touched the Trinity directly, so I guess you could argue I only perceive it in my mind, but then you’ve never seen a Heavenly Father of flesh and bones, either, have you? Only artists’ renderings. It would seem most Mormons have had his fleshly nature explained to them and so they picture that in their minds. Isn’t that abstract too? Or maybe you mean by “abstract” anything that doesn’t consist of matter. In that case, you are making a philosophical assumption, that something is only real if it is material.)

    Just for the record, Scholasticism came along much later than the definition of the Trinity, so we shouldn’t give them the credit (or blame, as the case may be).

    If Joseph Smith really did see God the Father and Jesus Christ together, each with their own separate, physical resurrected body, then it doesn’t matter what kind of philosophical or theological deductions have arrived at Williams’s conclusions.

    That’s true, it doesn’t. On the other hand, if the Catholic Church really is still guided by the Holy Spirit and preserved by God from teaching doctrinal error, then it doesn’t matter what Joseph Smith says he saw. In other words, anyone who has a strong faith in their own religion will not necessarily find the beliefs or claims of someone else convincing, even if that other person strongly believes in them. My faith in the authority of the Catholic Church doesn’t generally impress Mormons, and Mormons’ faith in Joseph Smith and their priesthood generally doesn’t impress Catholics. But I’m not saying anything you don’t already know.

    Such conclusions are extremely disappointing and, in my mind, deny the power and identity of the Lord Jesus Christ, not to mention God the Eternal Father.

    That’s fine. I think it’d be good to keep in mind though, that just because you think our doctrine of the Trinity denies God’s power, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Trinitarians themselves deny God’s power. I sometimes see this logic in Mormon discourse. “I as a Latter-day Saint feel that the Trinity seems abstract and irrelevant, so that must be how other Christians view God, that he’s abstract and irrelevant.” That sort of logic might make a Mormon feel stronger in their testimony, but it wouldn’t be meaningful to a faithful Christian from another church.

    I hope it’s clear from my comments, but I want to say explicitly that I don’t mean to attack or denigrate the LDS Church, its teachings or its members. My goal is just to clarify points of fact, and maybe give an idea of where Catholics are coming from, so the next time you meet a Catholic and want to talk religion, it’ll be easier to establish a rapport. I don’t mean to argue that the Catholic Church is right, even though that’s what I believe. This really isn’t the place for that.

  9. john f. says:

    That’s true, it doesn’t. On the other hand, if the Catholic Church really is still guided by the Holy Spirit and preserved by God from teaching doctrinal error, then it doesn’t matter what Joseph Smith says he saw. In other words, anyone who has a strong faith in their own religion will not necessarily find the beliefs or claims of someone else convincing, even if that other person strongly believes in them. My faith in the authority of the Catholic Church doesn’t generally impress Mormons, and Mormons’ faith in Joseph Smith and their priesthood generally doesn’t impress Catholics. But I’m not saying anything you don’t already know.

    Well, I agree with this. And, incidentally, your faith in the authority of the Catholic Church does impress me.

    My goal is just to clarify points of fact, and maybe give an idea of where Catholics are coming from, so the next time you meet a Catholic and want to talk religion, it’ll be easier to establish a rapport.

    As a general matter I don’t usually “talk religion” with Catholics or other Christians because, frankly, it is annoying to be accused of being a deluded cultist, following a satanic con-artist womanizing fraud. You seem to be the rare exception among creedal Christians (whom I have met in a mere 29 years) who does not openly voice such views in these discussions.

  10. MikeInWeHo says:

    Why would anybody expect the Archbishop of Canterbury to say anything else? If Mormonism doesn’t stand in stark contrast to all other Christian bodies, what is the legacy of Joseph Smith? There is no reason for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to exist if the other churches are not “all wrong” in a fundamental sense.

    The message of the Restoration is unambiguous, and the various branches of Christendom understand this. That’s why (John F) you get the response you do with other Christians when you “talk religion.” Joseph Smith threw down the gauntlet at the outset.

    Why do contemporary Mormons feel such a profound need to be accepted by the Catholics and Evangelicals? They can barely tolerate each other!!

  11. john f. says:

    Mike, I agree. Thanks for the insight.

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