Responding to James White (Part 5)

James White has now published a fifth response to my post, found here. I apologize for how drawn out this has become, and I hope readers will understand that I feel a responsibility to fully address White’s argument.

After explaining that, because of time issues, he’s not going to spend much time with my responses to his post, White begins again to claim that my comments are problematic for a Mormon apologist. Besides the fact that I wouldn’t call myself an apologist, and that this isn’t actually engaging my argument, White’s position isn’t constructed on a firm base. He states,

The vast majority of polygamists living in Southern Utah “self-identify” as Mormons, but, that doesn’t keep the Salt Lake leadership from excommunicating them, does it?

I would like to see whatever data White has that indicates the “vast majority” self-identify as Mormons. I’m not saying it’s not true, but this seems more like an assumption than a statement of fact. He’s already been shown to be completely wrong regarding his assumption that the entire spectrum of Christianity rejects Mormonism as Christian. I would be disappointed if this represents just another a priori assumption on his part.

Irrespective, excommunication from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has nothing to do with broad identification as a Mormon. The designation “Mormon” is not the exclusive property of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The church doesn’t believe polygamist and members of fundamentalist offshoots should be considered Mormons, but that’s because of the need to avoid misunderstanding. “Mormonism” is largely thought of as synonymous with “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” and that identification creates confusion when it comes to other denominations. People still commonly think polygamy is practiced in the LDS church. One approach to this problem is to try to fully appropriate the designation “Mormon.” Another is to try to educate the public about the difference. I have no problem calling them Mormons, and I’m not alone in that. Yes, I depart from the church’s official stance on that, but that’s not relevant to the applicability of self-identity to this discussion in the least. It’s just a red herring.

Next White returns to appealing to dogmatism and sectarianism:

When Mr. McClellan says “self-identity is widely recognized as the most important criterion” does he tell us “by whom” this is recognized? Find out the answer to that, and you have his ultimate authority.

Well, for one White himself recognizes it. He proves as much when he uses his self-identification as a Christian as the foundation of his defense of his approach to the issue (which will be discussed below):

I am speaking as a Christian, basing my comments . . .

Obviously White considers his self-identification as a Christian to be fundamental. Once again I submit that White is neither giving this question nor my concerns the consideration they require. His responses are ad hoc and he’s several times now contradicted himself because he’s not paying enough attention to his own argument.

To get back to the question he proposes, though, I would say my ultimate authority in this instance is objectivity and rationality. I am also curious with what White wants to contrast my “ultimate authority.” What is his “ultimate authority” that must be so obvious to everyone else that he doesn’t even need to say it? It would have to be something that not only rejects the priority of self-identity, but that ultimately reject that Mormons are Christians. We’ve already seen that White’s own approach doesn’t align with whatever he’s setting up opposite mine: he appeals to the authority of his self-identification right off the bat. He can’t appeal to the Bible or to God directly without building his argument upon subjective and dogmatic assertions concerning the two (that he apparently will not defend logically). As I pointed out earlier, the majority of Christians identify Mormons as Christians (contra White’s earlier assumption to the contrary), so the Bible and his perception of God don’t seem to alone make the case for most Christians. There has to be an intermediary that colors his understanding of both to the point that he departs from the majority of Christianity in his interpretation. His ultimate authority can only be sectarianism.

Next White appeals to tradition:

Of course, once again, this assumes the parameters of the Christian faith are determined by current social norms or standards, or by studies done by “experts.” Such has never been the means of identifying the faith, and of course, never will be.

Self-identification has long been a means of identifying the faith, as White has shown.

In the following paragraph White continues to argue from a sectarian point of view, but he also appears to not have paid much attention to my comments. He states concerning self-identification,

If that is all we have as a criterion for what is, and what is not, “Christian,” we are left with the specter seen in Bart Ehrman’s conglomeration of groups making up the “early Christian movement,” so that the resultant mass of self-contradiction and irrationality is taken as the best argument against the divine nature of the faith ever offered.

Of course, it was never my claim that self-identification is “all we have as a criterion.” In fact, I explicitly stated that it was not the only criterion. From my original post:

Unfortunately for James’ position, self-identity is widely recognized as the most important criterion in religious identification, and virtually all Mormons self-identify as Christians (those that don’t do so only in reaction to arguments like James’). It’s not the only criterion, but it is the one that carries the most weight.

I don’t appreciate the mischaracterizations that White is promulgating, but I especially don’t appreciate having critical parts of my argument simply ignored. To go back to White’s paragraph above, I’ve addressed his problem with self-contradiction and irrationality already. His next statement is simply mistaken:

If this is the direction Mr. McClellan wishes to go, is he willing to embrace the necessary results of such a view, results that would assuredly denigrate the very claims to ultimate and final authority vested in the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

Here White is once again confusing religious authority and a simple social relationship. “Christian” is not synonymous with “saved” for Latter-day Saint (I’ve discussed this already), and so we’re not bound to reserve the title only for those who satisfy all of our fundamental soteriological requirements. We’re happy to refer to other Christians outside our faith as Christian. That doesn’t at all compromise our view of the authority of the priesthood. As I have stated repeatedly, White cannot argue his point from an objective or rational point of view. He can only argue it from his dogmas and his sectarianism.

His argument from here becomes, to be honest, self-contradictory and irrational:

If Mr. McClellan wishes to argue his case based upon sociological studies of the history and experience of religion, I will leave him to his arguments. My video was not predicated upon a sociological, or historiographical, definition of the Christian faith. I am speaking as a Christian, basing my comments upon divine revelation contained in Scripture, drawing from the foundational beliefs of Christians down through the ages.

Here White appeals to the authority of his self-identification as a Christian (evidently it’s only an important criterion when he does it), then to the authority of his sectarian reading of the Bible (never mind that the Bible simply does not support White’s doctrine of God and that he refuses to directly engage my argument to that effect), and finally to an historical definition of the Christian faith (which he said was not a part of his argument). I don’t think his rhetorical questions at the end of that paragraph require a response.

White continues:

Let us remember the previously cited statements by the LDS leadership concerning the apostasy of Christianity, its own unique status as the One True Church, and then consider the wisdom of a Mormon apologist making arguments based upon “sectarianism.” In either case, we once again note how unlike the founders of Mormonism Mr. McClellan sounds.

As I’ve stated before, Latter-day Saints don’t try to excise other groups from the Christian family. We disagree on a number of soteriological and theological concerns, which is only to be expected, but we don’t presume to tell people they’re not allowed to consider themselves Christians because we own the designation.

White continues:

Remember, my point was clear: Christianity is monotheistic, believing in one true God who has eternally been God, the Creator of all things, and Mormonism has said, from Joseph Smith onward, the exact opposite. The Mormon God became a god by obedience to law. Yes, that’s the teaching. This is the fundamental divide, the real issue we should be debating.

Yes, that is a teaching, but no, it’s not a doctrine. No Mormon is any more bound to that belief than they are to attending BYU or listening to Donny Osmond (who was fabulous in Mulan, by the way). If that is the fundamental divide then White has to figure out which side of it each Mormon is on. Obviously he’s not going to do that. He wants to dismiss them all together, so he will respond (if he responds) by insisting that Mormons believe Smith was a prophet, and that other presidents have taught it to, and so it must be a doctrine and any real Mormon will believe it. In other words, he will tell us what we believe, for us and over and against us. This is a necessary tool in the countercult repertoire. When it comes to self-identification, he takes care of it for himself and everyone else.

White continues:

One might ask, “Why would a historically consistent Mormon want to be identified with the very religion God told Joseph Smith was corrupt and an abomination?” I will have to leave that to Mr. McClellan to answer.

I will happily answer it. “Christianity” does not exclusively mean “Traditional Christianity.” Additionally, White is clearly growing desperate by retorting that it doesn’t make sense for Mormons to want to be called Christians. That evades rather than engages the discussion.

White gives us the following in conclusion (?):

At this point McClellan noted that I have likewise addressed Roman Catholics on the issue of their errors. I would simply like to point out that there is a difference between my identification of Romanism as a false religion and Mormonism’s definitional distinction from Christianity. Rome teaches heresy, not on the nature of God, or the deity of Christ, but on the gospel. This is the result of a long period of evolution. So Rome represents a departure from, apostasy from, the truth. Mormonism has never possessed the truth. It began, in its foundational documents and from the words of its founding leaders, as a direct attack upon the Christian faith. Rome’s heresy differs in nature, for while it maintains the truth in major areas (specifically, the doctrine of God), it has lost the life-giving element of the faith, that being the Gospel. Mormonism has never possessed the truth about God, Christ, the Spirit, creation, the Scriptures, or the gospel. These are important distinctions to be drawn and understood.

No, these are not important distinctions to make, at least not in light of the argument I’ve provided. Both judgments are constructed upon dogmatism and sectarianism.

I will wait to see if any more responses are forthcoming before attempting to summarize or conclude.

UPDATE:  A friend has directed me to a recent podcast by James White in which he mentions our current discussion. He explains that he’s not sure how long he wants to draw out this debate in light of the exponential growth of the debate with each volley, but he thinks it may be at least a ten-part series he posts. This is an understandable concern, and I agree that it complicates his continued participation (as it does mine, obviously). In light of this, I will refrain from responding to any more of his posts until he states that his series is complete. If he wishes to respond to anything I’ve already published I would ask him to include it before tying off his series. Whether or not he responds to anything subsequent to my first post, when he’s finished I will post a single response that will focus on main concerns. I will try to keep it relatively brief and will consider that the jumping-off point for any further discussion, unless of course he wants to comment on anything I’ve said in the responses I’ve already posted. Hopefully he finds that reasonable enough.

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16 responses to “Responding to James White (Part 5)

  • Hjalti

    …never mind that the Bible simply does not support White’s doctrine of God and that he refuses to directly engage my argument to that effect…

    And that’s what I was hoping to see :( Maybe JW knows better than to do that :P

  • Eric

    Wow. He really is getting desperate. Not only has he not directly addressed the most salient points made in your postings, but he continues to allude to the importance of traditional definitions of “a Christian” and Christianity itself. He cites Roman Catholicism as an apostasy (with which I agree) but fully disregards the fact that mainstream Protestantism adopted nearly all of its doctrine and teachings not directly from the Bible but from Rome by recognizing the authority of the Roman church councils which formulated those doctrines, creeds, et. al. When others in time came to the conclusion that such councils had no real authority and digressed further from mainstream Protestantism seeking to determine Biblical truth outside of creeds they were cast out as heretics or cults, and judged unworthy of the name Christian. Who gave him/them such claimed authority? Obviously he claims it comes from the Bible, but in so doing fails to recognize that his is not the only interpretation considered valid. His appeal to Evangelicalism as the representative voice of true Christianity also contradicts his condemnation of Mormonism for claiming to be the ‘one true church’, for he is doing the very same thing of his faith – assuming and presuming that his are the only correct views. This is why more and more people are moving away from organized religion, for the very thing that Mr. White is doing. He is his own worst enemy yet fails to discern it. It reminds me of Revelation 13:12 “He exercised all the authority of the first beast on his behalf”. There are some who identify this “false prophet” with modern Evangelical Protestantism for they call down “fire from heaven” (judgments) upon those who disagree, and insist upon the traditional views of Christianity as the only truth although they were actually formulated by “the first beast” – Roman Catholicism.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Excellent points. I’ve been curious for a while regarding when exactly White thinks the Catholic Church apostatized, and what the nature of that apostasy was.

      • Eric

        He appeals to tradition more than he does to the Bible itself. He argues on behalf of tradition and does not cite any verse of Scripture to support his claims. What a parallelism of Matthew 15:2,6 The Pharisees asked “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?” Jesus replied that it was because they were “nullifying the word of God for the sake of your tradition.”

    • Arlin

      This post’s entire lack of anything remotely resembling what White has actually said in his post is certainly highlighting a theme with your posts.

  • Andrew K.

    Dan,

    Maybe I missed it, but I would like to know what other criterion besides self-identification you consider valid.

    I mean, when going through White’s list of JWs, Robert Price, etc., it was the only one you seemed to consider operative.

    That strikes me as problematic. For if you throw naturalistic materialists, Gnostics, and any other individuals that might want to self-identify as such due to an enormous variety of social or conceptual concerns, the term loses virtually any value it might have as a statement of position, and the label itself becomes the only commonality between people of some of the most divergent worldviews possible.

    I feel that any meaningful understanding of the title /must/ take into account both historical concerns and perhaps the notion philosophers occasionally refer to as “family resemblance.” Do you disagree?

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Hi Andrew. Thanks for the question. In my third response I explained that the word Christian began as a descriptor for people who were followers of Christ, and that I considered that to be another big criterion (claiming to follow Christ). I’ve also discussed how the ideological foundation of the religion (at least according to the New Testament) is the notion that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God.

      I think those are pretty good general criteria, and at that level the term has all the value I think it needs as a statement of position. It positions one on the side of those who follow Christ and believe he is the Messiah and the Son of God. I don’t think the metaphysical nuances of those designations are particularly important to the word “Christian,” and I don’t see a need to refine the general definition of the word any further just in the interest of excluding a few factions from that designation that someone finds theologically unsavory. I don’t think historical concerns or “family resemblance” are important, since they always revolve around later theological developments and will invariably exclude all first century Christians from the group. I think to argue the other way requires one to insist upon a relativistic view of Christianity. While I’m happy to do that if someone insists, the people who are concerned about not letting Mormons call themselves Christians aren’t generally the kind of people who are going to espouse relativism.

  • Nelson Chung

    Dan,
    I was wondering if you were going to respond to Paul Owen’s last 5 points. I read The New Mormon Challenge all the way through. Perhaps you can move your guys’s dialogue to the front page while ‘Dr.’ White completes his glorious work?

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Ah, thanks for reminding me. I prepared a response to them but I’ve been so busy the last couple days I’ve not had a chance to post it. It might be a good idea to commit a whole post to the discussion, if he’s interested in keeping it going. I’ll post my comments first.

  • Are Mormons “Christian”? | Diglotting

    [...] the past few days Daniel McClellan (here, here, here, here, and here) and James White (here, here, here, here, here, and here) have been engaging in a bit of banter as [...]

  • Terry

    James White is obviously blocked about his ability to deal with reasoned, logical argument and your attempts to continue a dialogue and response to him demonstrate why this can be an almost never-ending battle of clarification. It is why (as stuffy as they may seem) academic, refereed discussions, panels and responses are so helpful. It keeps the participants within certain boundaries that maintain a focus for those who are weighing and judging the responses.

  • Paul Owen

    I would just note that in his latest post White depicts the rejection of the KFD theology among Mormons (though not Daniel apparently) as some sort of novelty within modern Mormonism, whereas criticism of the content of that funeral sermon, and questions about the authenticity of the record, were raised long ago by Joseph F. Smith, George Albert Smith and Charles Penrose, none of whom thought it should be consulted as a source of Mormon doctrine.

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