By Robert C. Hunsaker
Robert C. Hunsaker is a clinical mental health counselor in Salt Lake City.
Or right-click to download the audio file: A Peculiar People? How Neo-orthodoxy Has Crept Into the LDS Church
In November of 2004 something so uncommon took place in the Salt Lake Tabernacle that nothing like it had occurred there during the previous 105 years.
Non-Mormon preachers, leading figures from the evangelical community—Richard J. Mouw, then president of the Fuller Theological Seminary, and Ravi Zacharias—had been invited to speak, and a capacity crowd of evangelicals and Mormons were gathered together to hear what they had to say.1 The occasion was part of the evangelical/Mormon dialogues promoted by Standing Together Ministries, a Utah evangelical group focused on “Advancing Biblical Unity and Spiritual Transformation in Utah,”2 and Robert Millet, BYU religion professor at the time and occupant of the Richard L. Evans Chair of Religious Understanding.
Later, reflecting on the significance of the event, R. Philip Roberts, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, posed this question: “So just what’s going on in Salt Lake City? Are Mormons coming to their theological senses? Is there a doctrinal seismic shift afoot akin to what occurred with the World Wide Church of God just a few years ago when that group renounced their heretical views and embraced evangelical theology?”3
Most rank-and-file Mormons would probably scoff at the idea of such a shift occurring within the Church. But sociologist O. Kendall White noted just such a trend in his 1987 book Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy: A Crisis Theology, showing that there has been an incremental embracing of evangelical theology in Mormonism over the past half century.
In the book, White claims that neo-orthodoxy took hold—of all places—at BYU in the 1960s, and that its adherents from that time forward focused on linking traditional Christian orthodoxies to Mormonism. He described some of the main Christian imports as “Affirming the fundamental doctrines of the sovereignty of God, the depravity of human nature, and salvation by grace . . . ”,4 which gained ascendancy at the expense of what White considers to be fundamental Mormon doctrines: “ . . . the goodness of humankind, the finitude of God, and humanity’s potential for salvation by avoiding sin . . . .”5
Sterling M. McMurrin, author of The Philosophical Foundations of Mormon Theology, observed a few years later, in 1993, that “too many LDS preachers and writers, like the fainthearted in all religions, lust for the linguistic fleshpots of orthodoxy, the vocabulary of absolutism which provides a plethora of those words of assurance which the religious seek. Words like infinite, absolute, eternal—and the host of omni’s that the orthodox coin—roll from the writer’s pen and resound from the preacher’s pulpit with dogmatic and comforting conviction.”6
Both White and McMurrin’s views were supported by Harold Bloom, the well-known literary critic, in his book The American Religion, in which he admiringly and famously referred to Joseph Smith as “an authentic religious genius.”7 However, Bloom also claimed that “His [Joseph Smith’s] followers, for at least a century now, have backtracked from his radical newness to a public stance sometimes difficult to distinguish from Protestantism . . . .”8 Though Bloom claims that Mormons were embracing Protestant ideas as early as the 1890s, White’s timeline, in my estimation, is more accurate—the neo-orthodox phenomenon began at BYU in the 1960s and has ebbed and flowed there ever since.9
The most current manifestations of Mormon neo-orthodoxy can be seen in the work of former BYU religion professors Stephen E. Robinson and Robert L. Millet. Robinson began writing on Protestant/evangelical topics in the late 1980s and later moved into actual interfaith dialogue with evangelicals. Millet followed suit and then outstripped Robinson with his own evangelical-oriented writing and conversations.10 Both men’s efforts have been to a large degree focused on relationship building between Mormons and evangelicals but, at the same time, they have tended to blur the distinction between Mormonism and Protestantism.
According to Douglas J. Davies, professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University in the United Kingdom, who spent time as a visiting professor at BYU in the early 2000s, “ . . . spirituality and religious experience seldom stand still, and this was true, for example, of Mormonism in the 1990s as ideas of salvation came to turn more directly about the point of grace. This is dramatically clear, for example, in Millet’s 1994 book, Christ-Centered Living, and in Stephen E. Robinson’s Believing Christ (1992), the latter dealing explicitly with salvation by grace . . . .”11 Davies ultimately concludes that “Robinson and Millet’s lines of argument seem slightly discordant in the light of much LDS material on religious life.”12
Addressing How Wide the Divide? (a dialogue between Robinson and evangelical scholar Craig L. Blomberg) Eugene England, at the time a BYU English professor, found Robinson’s view more than slightly discordant. “. . . Robinson ends up, I believe, sounding more Evangelical than Mormon on crucial issues like the inerrancy and sufficiency of the Biblical canon, salvation by grace alone, the substitutionary Atonement, and most importantly the nature of God,”13 he writes. “As Robinson puts it, directly addressing perhaps our major difference from other Christians, ‘Many Evangelicals are convinced, wrongly, that Latter-day Saints believe in a finite, limited or changeable god, even though that notion is repugnant to us.’”14
“Repugnant to Mormons?” England exclaims. “What about Brigham Young: ‘The God that I serve is progressing eternally [in knowledge and power], and so are his children.’ Or the twentieth century Apostle, John A. Widtsoe: ‘If the great law of progression is accepted, God must have been engaged, and must now be engaged, in progressive development.’”15
In relation to Millet’s views, R. Philip Roberts—the same Roberts I quoted at the beginning of this essay—was struck by how Millet seemed to be covering over the stark difference between the Mormon and evangelical understandings of salvation. “. . . at least some of what Millet says has the appearance of actually misleading the reader,” he writes, responding to Millet’s book A Different Jesus?: The Christ of the Latter-day Saints. “For instance, when he discusses that Jesus and Jesus alone ‘saves,’ and nothing else, he fails totally in elucidating the point that, in fact, salvation or ‘immortality’ in Mormon thought is provided for all in either the terrestrial or telestial kingdoms except for apostates from the LDS church, the devil and his angels.”16
Trying to make sense of this disconnect, Roberts muses that the LDS Church’s tacit support of Millet’s efforts:
. . . is likely more about public relations than a serious search and desire for theological truth. This modus operandi falls in line with the entire approach taken by the LDS church over the last 25 years to lower the ‘cult’ profile of the movement while working hard to gain a measure of acceptance and recognition among Christians generally and evangelicals particularly. LDS leaders probably believed that the recasting of their image will greatly assist in their proselytizing efforts.17
There is in fact much evidence in LDS Church materials and experience that we are indeed attempting to appear as a mainstream Christian church. For example, lds.org, one of the Church’s most visible faces to the world, imparts the following standard Christian fare on the nature of God: “God is the Almighty Ruler of the universe . . . . God is the Supreme Being in whom we believe and whom we worship. He is all-powerful and all-knowing . . . .”18 When an official source provides statements like these—statements which contain doctrine indistinguishable from the common Christian view—we shouldn’t then wonder when sacrament meeting talks and Sunday school, priesthood and Relief Society lessons are often filled with imports from Protestantism. Think of how often various speakers and teachers assert that God has “a plan” for each of us—not the general plan of salvation—but a far more particular one, almost like a movie script, in which everything that occurs is in accord with God’s will or on his timetable, or is for our own good because he either caused it to happen or knew it would happen. Or, who hasn’t heard someone affirm that a particular person’s death, no matter how tragic, was the result of his or her being “called home” by God?
The Church’s adoption of the twelve-step model of Alcoholics Anonymous for members who are in recovery from addictions is also a significant example of Christian orthodoxy finding its way into Mormon experience. The history and development of Alcoholics Anonymous is rooted in traditional and evangelical Christian beliefs.19 The first three of the twelve-steps are obvious examples of orthodox Christianity, emphasizing God’s controlling power and the insignificance of human will. Slogans such as “let go and let God”20 are common in the twelve-step experience.
With neo-orthodoxy as a frame of reference, we might even view Sheri Dew’s book Amazed by Grace21 as a sign of neo-orthodox times. The point is not that grace is a problematic topic for Mormons, but that a focus on standard Christian ideas has the effect of precluding a focus on unique Mormon ideas. Who, for example, is developing what Kendall White refers to as “traditional Mormon thought,” with its emphasis on a finite god and the related issues of human agency and free will? General Conference talks are devoid of this subject matter, and recent Deseret Book publications provide few such offerings.
At a time when polls22 show that record numbers of people—sadly including a large portion of young people—are leaving organized religion, one may reasonably conclude that traditional religion does not offer many people what they are seeking. The traditional Christian notion of original sin, which Mormonism rejects, offers a case in point. With its negative assessment of human nature, a doctrine like original sin can have profound implications for one’s self-concept and relationship to God. Mormonism, by contrast, offers a much more positive view of the human soul.
Charles Hartshorne noted that “. . . lives can be changed by showing that some of the traditional problems of belief—for instance how to reconcile the power and goodness of God with the evils we encounter in life—[can be] genuinely solved, or at least greatly alleviated [by philosophical analysis].”23 In other words, Hartshorne is arguing that we can change human lives for the better through the pursuit of truth. Jesus told us that the truth sets us free (John 8:32), which also suggests the opposite conclusion: false ideas limit freedom and consequently make religion repellent to a great many people. This is an idea that Joseph Smith put forth often. In January 1843, he had a conversation with a group of people who were not members of the Church. The prophet said:
I stated that the most prominent difference in sentiment between the Latter-day Saints and sectarians was, that the latter were all circumscribed by some peculiar creed, which deprived its members the privilege of believing anything not contained therein, whereas the Latter-day Saints . . . are ready to believe all true principles that exist, as they are made manifest from time to time.24
Joseph, like a great many people, actually “had an aversion to creeds” in general, because “They circumscribed truth when he wanted expansion.”25
Perhaps those who are exiting religion do not crave traditional religion or a traditional god, a god who is the source of everything and controls and ultimately fixes everything. Many of them may in fact prefer the Mormon notion of a finite god—meaning a god who both wants and needs us as active partners to achieve the goals of his plan. Ralph Waldo Emerson was someone repelled by the traditional Christian god, writing “How dear, how soothing to man, arises the idea of God, peopling the lonely place, effacing the scars of our mistakes and disappointments!”26 But Emerson continues by intuiting something of the nature of the Mormon God and how we might relate to Him: “When we have broken our god of tradition, and ceased from our god of rhetoric, then may God fire the heart with his presence.”27
I view Mormon neo-orthodoxy as a tragic development, one that overemphasizes finding similarity instead of difference between Mormonism and traditional Christian—especially evangelical—doctrine. One can only speculate as to why people like Robinson and Millet have devoted so much time and energy to this kind of effort. It seems to me that their emphasis on evangelical ideas suggests a certain discontent with Mormonism, as if Mormonism is in some sense theologically deficient.
Millet himself provides a striking statement that suggests as much. After Kendall White published his book on neo-orthodoxy, Millet wrote a critical, 20-page rebuttal essay. Oddly, after questioning White’s conclusions on many points, Millet ended his piece by essentially agreeing with a central neo-orthodox theme. He writes “Kendall White is correct in detecting a movement afloat in Mormonism in the latter part of the twentieth century. It is a movement toward a more thoroughly redemptive base to our theology but a movement that is in harmony with the teachings of the Book of Mormon and one that may be long overdue.”28
Proponents of orthodox Christianity and Mormon neo-orthodoxy dwell on grace and the redemptive power of Christ, holding that Mormonism has not sufficiently emphasized Christ’s saving power and that Mormons focus too much attention on the role of individual works as part of the atonement. Does Mormonism, as Millet claims, need “a more thoroughly redemptive base”? To suggest so produces a very obvious problem for Millet, one that can be summed up in a straightforward question—what was the point of the Restoration, if not to address the gap between traditional Christian doctrine and what we in Mormonism refer to as the “fullness of the gospel”? Either Mormonism contains a fullness of the gospel, with thoroughly redemptive capacity, or it doesn’t.
It’s one thing when the Robinsons and Millets of the Church blemish extraordinary facets of the Mormon jewel; it’s quite another when Mormon leaders do it. In May of 2016, Richard Mouw—the same Mouw who spoke at that momentous Salt Lake Tabernacle event in 2004—published “Mormons Approaching Orthodoxy.” Mouw examines what he sees as the Church’s retreat from some of the teachings of Joseph Smith and other early Church prophets. Using statements from Millet and Gordon B. Hinckley, among others, Mouw attempts to show how the Church has distanced itself from LDS teachings on the nature of God and man found in Lorenzo Snow’s famous couplet—“As man now is, God once was; As God now is, man may be.”29
Hinckley was interviewed by major news sources on the topic and appeared to dissemble in his answers. In 1997 when asked by a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle whether “Mormons believe that God was once a man”—Hinckley’s stunning reply was: “I wouldn’t say that. There was a little couplet coined ‘As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become.’ Now that’s more of a couplet than anything else. That gets into some pretty deep theology that we don’t know very much about.”30 Hinckley’s answers on the subject remained stable for years. In a 2001 Time magazine interview he was again asked whether the Church teaches that God was once a man. His answer: “I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it . . . I understand the philosophical background behind it. But I don’t know a lot about it, and I don’t think others know a lot about it.”31 With this sort of evidence in hand, Mouw concludes that “Mormonism is genuinely unsure about this aspect of its theological inheritance.”32
Hinckley’s comments are beyond regrettable, particularly when juxtaposed with Doctrine and Covenants 135:3, where we read:
Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it. In the short space of twenty years, he has brought forth the Book of Mormon…has sent the fulness of the everlasting gospel, which it contained, to the four quarters of the earth; has brought forth the revelations and commandments which compose this book of Doctrine and Covenants, and many other wise documents and instructions for the benefit of the children of men.
Verse six also contains the famous line that Joseph’s death for his teachings “cost the best blood of the nineteenth century to bring them forth for the salvation of a ruined world.”
Needless to say, against the backdrop of Section 135, it’s unsettling that one of the most well-known modern Church leaders seemed to turn his back on one of Joseph Smith’s most exceptional teachings, particularly considering that, to my knowledge, no other prophet has abandoned the position that God was once a man. Hinckley’s statements are puzzling to many both inside and outside the Church. In relation to the idea that God was once a man, philosopher Simon Critchley asks: “Why are Mormons so keen to conceal their pearl of greatest price? Why is no one really talking about this?”33 Critchley wrote that in his 2012 New York Times piece called “Why I Love Mormonism.” The title makes one wonder why intelligent outsiders might be able to “love” distinctive aspects of Mormonism more than some who belong to the faith. In this vein, I can now circle back to Robinson and Millet, but only to point out that it’s deeply ironic for BYU religion professors to have been a conduit for neo-orthodoxy when they ought to have been advocates for the further development of the beauty and richness of Mormon theology.
I believe the brightest future for Mormonism is one in which we cultivate and deepen the ideas and theological positions that make us unique from mainstream Christianity and mainstream religion in general. In speaking of the Mormon doctrine of work for the dead, Joseph Smith said, “Brethren, shall we not go on in so great a cause? Go forward and not backward” (D&C 128:22). Forward was in fact the only option for Joseph Smith. He was buffeted by the magnitude of what he had been given, wishing only “ . . . to know how I shall make the Saints of God comprehend the visions that roll like an overflowing surge before my mind.”34 Let us eagerly pursue those unorthodox visions.
- See Carrie A. Moore, “Evangelical Preaches at Salt Lake Tabernacle”, Deseret News, 15 November 2004, http://www.deseretnews.com/article/595105580/Evangelical-preaches-at-Salt-Lake-Tabernacle.html?pg=all & Stack, “Evangelical Writer Ravi Zacharias Lauds Bridge Building with Mormons,” Salt Lake Tribune, 21 January 2014, http://archive.sltrib.com/story.php?ref=/sltrib/lifestyle/57411664-80/zacharias-beliefs-christ-jesus.html.csp (both accessed 23 August 2019).
- See “Vision, Mission, Values” at https://www.standingtogether.org/vision-mission-values (accessed 23 August 2019).
- R. Philip Roberts, “The SBJT Forum: Speaking the Truth in Love,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 9, no. 2 (Summer, 2005): 72–75.
- O. Kendall White, Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy: A Crisis Theology (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1987), xi.
- Ibid, 79.
- Sterling M. McMurrin, “Some Distinguishing Characteristics of Mormon Philosophy,” Sunstone 16, no. 4, issue 90 (March 1993): 44.
- Harold Bloom, The American Religion: The Emergence of The Post-Christian Nation (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), 82.
- Ibid, 80–81.
- White identifies Hyrum Andrus, Hugh Nibley, Rodney Turner, and David Yarn as original neo-orthodox advocates.
- Relevant works by Robinson include Are Mormons Christians?; Believing Christ; and How Wide the Divide?: A Mormon & an Evangelical in Conversation. Millet has published the books Christ-Centered Living; Alive in Christ: The Miracle of Spiritual Rebirth; After All We Can Do: Grace Works; A Different Jesus?: The Christ of the Latter-Day Saints; What Happened to the Cross?; Claiming Christ: A Mormon-Evangelical Debate; and Bridging the Divide: The Continuing Conversation between a Mormon and an Evangelical, as well as the essays “Joseph Smith’s Christology: After Two Hundred Years” and “Joseph Smith Encounters Calvinism.”
- Douglas J. Davies, The Mormon Culture of Salvation: Force, Grace and Glory (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2000), 54.
- Ibid, 56.
- Eugene England, “The Weeping God of Mormonism,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 35, no. 1 (Spring 2002), 73.
- Ibid, 73.
- Ibid, 74.
- Roberts, “The SBJT Forum: Speaking the Truth in Love,” 74.
- Ibid, 73.
- See “God is Our Father,” https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/topics/plan-of-salvation/god-is-our-father?lang=eng&_r=1 (accessed 23 August 2019).
- See Diaconis, Ari J. “Religion of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA): Applying the Clergy Privilege to Certain AA Communications,” Cornell Law Review 99 no. 5 (2013–2014): 1185–1226.
- Ibid, 1202.
- Sheri Dew, Amazed By Grace (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2015).
- See Michael Lipka, “5 Key Findings about the Changing U.S Religious Landscape,” Pew Research Center http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/05/12/5-key-findings-u-s-religious-landscape/ (accessed 23 August 2019).
- Charles Hartshorne, Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes (Albany, NY: Suny Press, 1984), x.
- Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, https://www.lds.org/manual/teachings-joseph-smith/chapter-22?lang=eng (accessed 23 August 2019).
- Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 172.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays and Lectures, (Digireads.com Publishing, 2009), 207.
- Ibid, 207.
- Robert L. Millet, “Joseph Smith and Modem Mormonism: Orthodoxy, Neoorthodoxy Tension, and Tradition,” BYU Studies 29, no. 3 (1989): 66.
- Richard J. Mouw, “Mormons Approaching Orthodoxy,” First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion & Public Life 263 (May 2016): 43–48.
- As cited in Mouw, “Mormons Approaching Orthodoxy,” 45. See also Lattin, “Musings of the Main Mormon / Gordon B. Hinckley, ‘president, prophet, seer and revelator’ of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sits at the top of one of the world’s fastest-growing religions,” San Francisco Chronicle, 13 April 1997, http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/SUNDAY-INTERVIEW-Musings-of-the-Main-Mormon-2846138.php (accessed 23 August 2019).
- David Van Biema, “Kingdom Come,” Time, 4 August 1997.
- Mouw, “Mormons Approaching Orthodoxy,” 45.
- Simon Critchley, “Why I Love Mormonism,” New York Times, 16 September 2012.
- Bushman, Joseph Smith, 419.