Living out in Colorado, I don’t get to attend too many Mormonism-related events. But the last couple months have been pretty good out here. First, I was able to attend a screening of “Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons” (more on that in another post), and just last week, Regis University in Denver held a Mormon-Evangelical dialogue between Mormon Dr. Robert Millett and Evangelical Rev. Gregory Johnson through its Institute of the Common Good. Having just read the book they co-authored – “Bridging the Divide,” I jumped at the chance.
Most people know that the relationship between Mormons and Evangelicals has often been rough, if not downright ugly. Often exchanges between adherents of both faith traditions devolve into caricatures, insults, and personal contests.
Robert Millet and Greg Johnson are part of a movement to change this. The first big breakthrough in Mormon-Evangelical relations came with the publication of “How Wide the Divide?” by Mormon professor Stephen Robinson and another Denver Evangelical – Craig Blomberg. This book is required reading for anyone interested in the general debate between Mormons and Evangelicals. Although the authors took a lot of flak from their own people for “fraternizing with the enemy” the book is a model of respectful, but convicted debate.
“Convicted dialogue” was the term used by Millett and Johnson at last week’s event – held in the beautiful Regis University Chapel. The idea of dialogue suggests the respectful exploration of the beliefs of another. The problem is when such dialogue becomes so respectful that we become unwilling to disagree about anything. We take the stance of “everyone is correct” and avoid confrontation.
Unfortunately, the end result of “everyone” being right is that ultimately no one is. Millett and Johnson have both been accused by hardliners in their own faith, of taking exactly this stance – being unwilling to call out the other on the heresies and falsehoods of their faith. Robert Millett reported at the event how he has lost 30-year friendships with some of his Mormon colleagues over his friendship with Rev. Johnson. Greg Johnson, for his part reported a similar backlash from his Evangelical colleagues. I also happen to know from my own debates online, that Millett is often regarded as the sneaky architect of some sort of theological Trojan Horse whereby those Mormons will ambush Evangelical Christianity.
Both Millett and Johnson explained that while they take great pains to be respectful of each other and truly understand each other’s beliefs, they take equally great pains to avoid compromise on essential doctrines. Both remain committed to the core beliefs of their own faith and are not afraid to disagree with each other when it is important to do so. Millett does not deny the essential narrative of the Great Apostasy any more than Johnson acknowledges LDS claims to Priesthood authority. Both are “convicted” of the rightness of their position. Thus the term “convicted dialogue.”
The central point of the event at Regis Chapel was not to have a “debate” in the normal sense of the word. The goal was not for one side to win. Both said that they hoped no one would leave the event saying “our guy really gave it to that other guy” or vis versa. The point of the event was so Millett and Johnson could model how a Mormon and an Evangelical can have respectful and friendly conversation without “giving away the store” on doctrinal distinctions.
The starting point was the personal friendship. Both Millett and Johnson emphasized that personal friendship was the ideal starting point for real dialogue. The reason is that such exchanges must be founded on trust. Johnson had to trust that Millett was honestly portraying his own beliefs. I would second this, and point out that nothing kills an interfaith conversation quicker than accusations that someone is being dishonest about his or her own faith. In this instance, both Millett and Johnson emphasized their trust in the other.
From this starting point, Millett noted that you can learn an awful lot about another religion through civil dialogue. He stated that while he was fairly well-read before embarking on this exploration of Evangelical Christianity, he has read an awful lot more since. He also stated that a true process of dialogue results in you feeling a sense of responsibility for your counterparts on the other side. You often end up coming to the defense of the opposing faith when you hear it being misrepresented. Millett finished by pointing out that learning about another faith and debating it forces you to learn a lot more about your own religion.
With preliminaries out of the way, Johnson and Millett moved into a few selected “debate” topics. Forgive me if I focus more on Millett’s words than on Johnson’s words. Johnson gave a very eloquent account of himself and his faith. But I’m a Mormon who has been trying to do something that Millett has been doing on a larger scale. I was looking for some inspiration and cues. So my notes cover Millett better than Johnson. Hey, I never claimed to be unbiased.
It wasn’t really a debate format. Both sat at a table and discussed a few pre-selected core topics. It was apparent that at least part of it was scripted. Perhaps this is because both have been doing so many of these events across the nation (I believe they mentioned having done more than a dozen such events) – so things just naturally settle into a pattern. So it had the feeling of one of those LDS Priesthood training broadcasts where they conduct a mock Correlation Meeting or Priesthood Interview. But it was still quite good and this didn’t prove to be a distraction in the least.
The first topic was the ever-present “Are Mormons Christian?” question.
Millett started by remarking that religion is always based on relationships. Christianity in particular is based on a relationship with Christ. Millett then declared the strength of his own relationship with Christ. He said he didn’t see how, in light of this relationship, he could be called “not Christian.”
Johnson responded by pointing out two things:
First, it was the Mormons who started it with Joseph Smith calling the creeds of all other religions “abominations” and their professors corrupt. This bold stance of the LDS Church being the “ONLY” true Church is very confrontational, and hurts a lot of feelings among other Christians. So Mormons should not be surprised if Evangelicals want to hit back a bit.
But secondly, and more importantly, Mormon theology became increasingly radical from its founding up to Joseph’s death and beyond. Johnson pointed out that Mormonism simply is very, very different from the rest of Christianity. This makes it very hard for other Christians to include Mormons in the designation.
Greg Johnson had an interesting aside from a conversation he had with the aforementioned Stephen Robinson. He asked Dr. Robinson “Am I Christian from your perspective?” He said that Robinson was rather evasive on this point, but eventually explained”
“Well, it’s like this. You’re like a 60-watt light bulb and I’m a 100-watt light bulb.”
I think most people reading this know where Robinson was trying to come from, but Johnson pointed out that if Mormons expect Evangelicals to be flattered by this kind of talk, they’ve got another thing coming.
For his part, Millett had an interesting aside of his own. He remarked that in all his studies of Mormon history and historical criticisms of Mormonism, he never sees early critics of Mormonism questioning whether the religion was “Christian” or not. The question seems to have never arisen for the simple fact that everyone – even the most vehement opponents of the Mormons – just ASSUMED that Mormons were Christians. It never came up.
Millett then asked rhetorically when this particular criticism of Mormons as “not Christian” arose. He answered “I’d date it to the 1960s.” There was a bit of a murmur from the audience on this particular point (my suspicion is that most of them were Mormon, although nobody really checked).
At this point, the discussion moved to Greg Johnson’s point that Mormons started the whole confrontational stance when they called all other churches “abominations.”
Millett responded that you have to understand the context that Mormonism arose in. Most of the surrounding religious climate in that part of frontier America (and probably much of the United States) was a sort of “high Calvinism” where God was being relentlessly described as remote, implacable, and impassive (I would also add unknowable). Millett suggests that Joseph’s extreme claims were primarily a response to that theological climate.
This brings up an interesting point when one considers that the theology of Christianity at large has lost a few of its harsher aspects as it has traversed the 20th century. It seems to suggest that the term “abomination” may not be as applicable to today’s Christian churches as it was to those of Joseph’s day. Something to think about anyway.
Millett also brought up a point that I have heard elsewhere – the idea that when Joseph called the creeds of traditional Christianity “abominations,” he was not so much attacking their teachings, as he was attacking the way creeds were being used – as a muzzle on a living God, and a club to drive away those who do not conform to certain theological standards. Blake Ostler made this same point a few months ago over on New Cool Thang – that the “abomination” is not so much the theological content of the creeds, but rather the fact that “creeds” exist in Christianity at all. A quote from Joseph Smith seems apropos:
“Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be asked out of their Church. I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammelled.”
(Joseph Smith in History of the Church 5:340)
Johnson did have a response to the idea that Protestants are somehow silencing God by denying revelation. Johnson asserted that Protestants DO NOT believe the heavens are closed, but they do believe the canon of scripture is closed. So Protestants do generally believe in continuing revelation – usually they make it a personal matter or a more open matter of something that is available to the “Priesthood of all believers” as they term it. I would add on my own that, in my experience, Evangelicals do not believe that the Priesthood is passed through a formalized ecclesiarchy, but rather that the functions of the Priesthood and all its gifts are available to ALL true believers of Jesus Christ (who they identify as the only High Priest of Melchizedek). Just an aside…
At this point, Johnson moved the conversation on to the question of grace vs. works. The question obviously being whether Mormons really believe that it is Christ’s grace alone that saves them, or whether they believe that their works also save them.
Millett referenced 2 Nephi 2:4 where it clearly states that “salvation is free.” Therefore, Mormons can also be said to believe in “free grace.” However, this doesn’t mean that repentance is not needed. He explained that faith in Jesus is a total trust and reliance on the Savior. BUT, this faith will always manifest itself in repentance, and the ordinances associated with repentance (such as baptism and the sacrament). The ordinances and actions are the outward manifestation of an inward covenant with God.
They also manifest in a life of righteous works. He referred to Jesus statement “if ye love me, keep my commandments.” To repeat, it seems clear that from this event and from other things Millett has written, righteous works are asserted to be the natural outgrowth of an inward conversion. Millett concluded by stating that salvation, divinization, resurrection, forgiveness – all of these are things that he cannot do for himself and he relies completely on Christ to do them for him.
Millett then quoted 2 Nephi 25:23 – “it is by grace we are saved, after all we can do.”
This verse is often read by both Evangelicals and Mormons as making 100% of our best efforts a prerequisite for salvation. Millett said this is, in his view, and incorrect reading of the scripture. In light of numerous other Book of Mormon passages on grace, Millett feels this verse could accurately read “it is by grace we are saved IN SPITE of all we can do.”
Johnson responded by asking Millett just how representative his own read of 2 Nephi 25:23 is of Mormons in general or Mormon authorities.
Millett responded by admitting that Mormons have not always read this verse the way he does. But he pointed out that Mormons are still in the process of discovering the full extent of their own existing grace theology. He noted that we’ve only started seriously using and studying the Book of Mormon – as a Church – since the 1970s when President Kimball made it a focus, followed, of course, by President Benson. Since then, the Book of Mormon has been a major centerpiece of all Gospel conversation and study in the LDS Church.
As we have been forced to ponder and grapple with the powerful “grace theology” contained in the pages of the Book of Mormon, our beliefs as a Church have been forced to change as well. Evangelicals have sometimes suspiciously viewed this change as an attempt by Mormons to downplay their differences and pretend to be “just like you.” But Millett claims the movement has more to do with the rediscovery of the Book of Mormon rather than an attempt to ingratiate ourselves with Evangelicals.
Millett then had a question for Johnson. He asked if the Evangelical over-emphasis on the grace end of the equation doesn’t lead to a problem of “anti-nomialism” (anti-commandments).
Johnson responded that as wonderful as Christ’s gift to us is, any gift can be devalued. Clearly a true conversion will change the heart and lead to good works. If you are living in blatant disregard of Christ’s commandments, then you are trampling on the gift that Christ provided for us. Such disregard evidences that a person was not really “saved” to begin with. He gave an example of a pastor who was having an illicit affair and when asked about it, claimed that his questioner “didn’t get it” because “I’m saved.” Johnson called this approach “cheap grace” or “grace-gone-wild” (I’ll have to remember that one…).
Johnson concluded with a line that I think is worth remembering:
“We are saved by grace alone, but grace is never alone.”
Now the subject of whether God was once “a man” and whether we can become gods.
Millett referred to a statement by Jeffrey R. Holland when he was asked if he believed the “Godmakers narrative.” He responded “I don’t know about all that planetary stuff” but said that we do believe in – line upon line – becoming like Christ. Holland delineated a distinction between what we know and what we don’t.
Millett did point out that the idea of theosis (divinization) isn’t new and was taught by the early Christian fathers (and is still taught by the Eastern Orthodox Church). He hastened to assure Johnson that we will always worship the same being – God the Father.
Johnson responded by pointing out that even if the early Christian fathers taught theosis, they certainly never taught that we are ontologically the same as God (the “same species” to put it in layman’s terms). He also pointed out the problem that Mormonism has in conflicting with “Jewish monotheism” as found in the Old Testament (all those verses about there being “one God only”).
Millett didn’t have much response to this point, but merely suggested that theosis is something that Evangelicals haven’t really looked at closely enough (which he said is admitted among Christian theologians). Basically saying “check out your own scriptures on theosis and get back to us.”
At this point, we moved to a Q&A session where Millett and Johnson fielded questions the audience had written on index cards. One of the questions asked “do you find it harder to talk about this stuff with people on the opposite side, or with your own people?” Millett and Johnson were rather impressed with this question and responded that in many ways, it is harder for a Mormon to talk candidly about his faith with another Mormon and vis versa.
That’s honestly, the only other question I remember (except that one of them was about Romney) because… well… Millett read and answered MY question, and my ego won’t allow me to remember much else besides that.
So here’s my question.
My Evangelical friend Tim over at the blog LDS & Evangelical Conversations (you should check it out – it’s a nice blog) made a comment during one of our debates on the topic of grace vs. works that kind of stuck with me. Here it is:
“If Mormons would acknowledge that their own doctrine teaches that salvation is by grace and exaltation is by works, this argument would disappear.”
“Salvation” meaning resurrection and a kingdom of glory, of course, and “exaltation” meaning the Celestial Kingdom, in case you were wondering.
Millett picked up on the distinctions between the words immediately, but rejected the premise. First off, he said he didn’t think that such an acknowledgment would put the debate to rest at all. But then he contended that both salvation and exaltation are – in a Mormon context – reliant on grace.
My question referenced two Book of Mormon verses. The first was 2 Nephi 25:23 which Millett had already covered. The second was Moroni 10:32:
“Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.”
To me, this seemed like a possible statement that maximum effort is required to “earn” grace.
Millett dealt with this verse by pointing out that what it asks for in the first part of the equation, is for us to accept Christ and love him. It is a matter of doing what Christ himself asks of us in Matt. 22:37 (love God with all your heart, might, mind and strength) and can be done in a way consistent with Matt. 11:28-30 (take his yoke upon us). I’m a little fuzzy on exactly which verse Millett cited, so I may have got this one wrong.
In any case, Millett emphasized that “salvation” and “exaltation” are merely words with different emphases. Salvation is an individual affair, while exaltation is a family affair. But BOTH are a matter of grace. Millett pointed out that neither of them are dependent on his own works.
That ended the formal event. I had a chance to talk to Robert Millett in more detail after the event and follow up on my question. He struck me as a very nice guy and was very kind to devote some time to my questions.
I asked him in the context of whether Mormons are “saved by grace” if the mere fact that a lay Mormon has to go through a series of temple recommend interview questions – all intensely focused on righteous works – doesn’t present your average Mormon with a powerful symbol of salvation by works.
Millet agreed that this was definitely a powerful piece of symbolism for your average saint and could very easily lead to a perception of salvation by works rather than by grace. But he re-emphasized that Mormons are still becoming comfortable with their own grace theology and have not fully internalized it yet. But we are making progress. In the meantime, he felt that mistakes of doctrine persist among lay Mormons.
This approach struck me as coming from a plea he made to Evangelicals in “Bridging the Divide.” Our Church is still quite young and hasn’t had much time yet to mature. In terms of the early Christian timeline, we Mormons aren’t even to Nicea yet. He asked Evangelicals to be patient with us and give us a little time to find our own feet. He also expressed a great deal of optimism for the future of Mormon belief.
With that, I concluded the evening.
I think what Millett and Johnson are doing is fabulous. I would encourage everyone to read their book (it’s a pretty easy read) and check out Standing Together Ministries. If you get a chance to attend one of these dialogue events in your neighborhood, I’d encourage you to do so.