Tag Archives: Countercultism

Responding to James White (Part 6)

James White is apparently finished responding to my initial post. I have waited a bit and don’t see any indication he intends to address any of my responses, so I will let them stand in response to his first five posts. You can find both our posts here:

James’ Video, My Response

1st Rebuttal, My Response

2nd Rebuttal, My Response

3rd Rebuttal, My Response

4th Rebuttal, My Response

5th Rebuttal, My Response

6th Rebuttal

7th Rebuttal

8th Rebuttal

9th Rebuttal

10th Rebuttal

I will unfortunately have to divide my concluding remarks into two posts, since I want to address two lengthy issues White brings up in addition to the smaller details of his last five responses. I will start in this first post with White’s final remarks, since the concerns I have with it are fundamental issues that will illuminate the remainder of my responses (and my previous ones, too). In this final response White summarizes his fundamental concerns with the broad apologetic trend he sees represented in my comments. I’ve already discussed the problems with his assumptions about change within churches and theology in general, and Mormonism in particular (here), but in this final post White attempts to critique critical biblical scholarship as a whole. It is that critique that I intend to primarily address in this first post. I will first gather and summarize a number of points White makes concerning critical biblical scholarship in general. The intention is first to show that White’s approach to the entire endeavor of critical biblical scholarship is fallacious, uninformed, and is based on outdated and equally uninformed scholarship. I will then go on to show specifically where his arguments go wrong, and where his rhetoric misses the mark. Finally, I will try to touch on some smaller points made in this final post.

White begins by explaining that this last post of his is the reason he wanted to respond to my post in the first place, and it’s the reason he’s given his posts the title they have, “Guessing About God: Mormonism’s Inability to Resist the Onslaught of Modernistic Skepticism.” He explains that the shift he sees in Mormon apologetics is clearly seen in comparing Joseph Smith’s hermeneutic to those of modern critical biblical scholarship. His point of comparison is a 1966 book on Deuteronomy by Gerhard Von Rad. He then goes on to summarize the view of the Hebrew Bible that one must have in order for my argument to make sense. This rather lengthy summary characterizes “modern principles of skeptical criticism” in the following way:

“you do not look at the Old Testament as a whole; you do not even look at the individual books as singular units.”

“the foundation of this viewpoint is that of philosophical naturalism: that is, the basic assumption is of the disunity of the text”

“contradiction and error is the starting point, the first ‘given.’ That way we can produce theories that allow us to get ‘behind’ the ‘original’ and, well, to be perfectly blunt, get published and hope for tenure.

“While certain theories become predominant over time, it is not because those theories have been thoroughly tested (how do you test such things in the real world today?). In the main, once those theories find a “major” proponent they become widely accepted, whether they are sound or not.”

White thus characterizes critical scholarship basically as an old boys club filled with cynical people who can’t think for themselves and are really only concerned about publishing and tenure. White then rather unsubtly accuses me of some kind of academic elitism because of the way I presented my argument. “Many conservative Christians,” he states, “unfamiliar with the perspective of modern critical redaction theory, will not understand Mr. McClellan’s claims.” He continues parenthetically, “I find the willingness of redaction critics to throw out their conclusions without giving a thought to the fact that their readers will generally not have the means of understanding them rather educational.” White summarizes the approach of redaction critics in the following way:

You begin by refusing to allow any interpretation of these passages or terms used therein that is based upon looking at all that the Old Testament says. The many texts that say Yahweh is the only true God, and that all other gods are idols, such as Isaiah 43:10 or Psalm 96:5, must be seen as irrelevant, and kept separate from any texts that are under consideration. So, in the specific text cited at the end of the above citation, Deuteronomy 32:8-9, you cannot even consider testimonies to monotheism elsewhere even in the same book (since, on this theory, the book can be cut into small parts and isolated from any context at all, depending on the particular theory you are applying to the text). So, even though Deuteronomy 4:35 plainly states, “To you it was shown that you might know that Yahweh, He is God; there is no other besides Him,” that does not matter. That’s “over there,” and since Deuteronomy is a patchwork quilt of, well, whatever someone with a Ph.D. decides it is made up of, you can ignore that kind of thing. Remember, the basic assumptions include 1) internal contradiction, and 2) redaction of sources, often pagan in origin, must be looked to rather than any kind of divine revelation.

For White, redaction critics compartmentalize and then ignore inconvenient texts while overemphasizing other texts. The context is ignored so that atomistic considerations can apparently be thrown over the whole text. The inconvenient portions are ignored because of whatever reason someone with a PhD came up with, and divine revelation is precluded. To insist on consistency within the biblical text, according to White, is to guarantee you will never be published. The rest of his post addresses particulars of my argument, and I will get to that later, but for now I will respond to each of the points I’ve described above. (And for his specific claims about Deuteronomy and monotheism, see my posts here, here, and here. Obviously I am not simply ignoring those texts. White shows a marked naivety regarding what exactly critical scholarship argues.) I start with the way White characterizes critical scholarship.

Critical scholarship, according to White, is rationalistic, modernistic, and German. He quotes Von Rad. He calls critical scholars “liberal theologians.” He lumps their approach under modernism. White is here appealing to an early to mid-twentieth century characterization of liberal Protestant scholarship, particularly as found in the German school. This is an entirely obsolete view of critical scholarship that wasn’t even very accurate in its own day. What White is presenting is a broad and uninformed perspective he inherited from early and mid-twentieth century Fundamentalism. This is the kind of position that dominates in conservative seminaries and leads to students moving on to more academic programs thinking that no one has believed JEDP since it was debunked way back when The Fundamentals was published. That approach misunderstood scholarship in the early to mid-twentieth century and has continued to do so since.

A good example of how things are misunderstood and misrepresented is a 2002 article by one Colin Smith called “A Critical Assessment of the Graf-Wellhausen Documentary Hypothesis.” The article comes from White’s own website and argues against JEDP, which it exclusively identifies with the Documentary Hypothesis (which is incorrect). From the beginning the article shows it cannot and will not address JEDP as it currently is understood. It’s clear the author does not understand the theory or its foundation very well, either. He does not directly engage a single textual argument. Everything takes place at the methodological level. He seems to think that tearing down Wellhausen will tear down everything that has followed. The author confronts (although not directly) critical scholarship almost exclusively from the nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth century. He cites a number of Evangelicals from the late twentieth century who criticize the early DH, but I count only one critical scholar from after 1950 that is cited (Lester Grabbe), and even then he is only referenced and dismissed on two minor points. The most oft-cited publication in the footnotes (35 references) is a 1969 book by R. K. Harrison, followed by a publication by James Orr, who died in 1913. Wellhausen himself is only cited six times in the footnotes (via a Project Gutenberg version of the book that has no page numbers). This is the only discussion of JEDP I’ve been able to find on White’s site. I see no indication he’s aware of the work of Carr, Baden, Van Seters, Levin, Friedman, Haran, or numerous others from the last fifty years. There’s no need within his worldview, though, since everything’s been debunked for decades.

Not only is White’s position outdated, it is incredibly uninformed. White is not familiar with early or modern critical scholarship regarding the Pentateuch, he’s only familiar with the caricature of early critical scholarship that has been filtered to him through Evangelical Fundamentalism. That caricature is demonstrably false. White accuses biblical scholars of blindly sticking to mainstream ideas and of promoting those ideas only in the hopes of getting tenure. Basically, White is accusing the academy of standing in complete opposition to its own fundamental values, namely objectivity, originality, and scholarship for its own sake. White must simply assume that these academics secretly oppose the values they repeatedly affirm in conferences, publications, and university departments. This is, of course, ludicrous. Universities don’t pay professors to say the same stuff everyone else is saying. Grants, fellowships, and scholarships aren’t handed out so that people can just promote the status quo. Dissertation committees don’t sign off on dissertations for not adding anything to the academic discussion, or for refusing to be objective. White’s caricature is grotesque and naive.

Moving on, White insists that disunity is the presupposition with any critical literary analysis of the biblical texts. I will set aside for the moment the fact that he does not and cannot empirically support any case for the complete unity of the biblical text. Of course, he doesn’t have to; he’s not approaching this from a logical or evidence-based position, he’s approaching this from pure dogmatism. The people who presuppose disunity are simply wrong because he presupposes unity and he’s right (at least, as far as his intended readers are concerned). White cannot possibly defend his presumption of unity on intellectual grounds, so he has to simply insist that a presumption of disunity is problematic in and of itself. Let’s examine that, though.

While it is true that early source criticism sometimes got rather carried away with itself in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, it didn’t begin this way. In fact, the first person to propose specific sources for the Pentateuch was actually writing an apologetic text directly affirming the unity of the text, and he was French, not German. Jean Astruc’s eighteenth century Conjectures sur les mémoires originaux, dont il paraît que Moïse s’est servi pour composer le livre de la Genèse, employed methods used by Greek and Latin scholars for identifying manuscripts and evaluating Homer. It argues that Moses produced separate narrative traditions that were later conflated by editors to produce Genesis. Astruc proposed separate narratives because he felt the evidence simply pointed to separate narratives (which it absolutely does). He maintained their compositional unity, though, insisting on Mosaic authorship. While Astruc’s methodologies were later taken up by Eichhorn and other German scholars among whom the approach flourished, the vast, vast majority of scholars who have approached the question have been believing Jews and Christians who are first concerned with a factual and logical approach to understanding the Bible, and who have decided that the evidence simply points to separate traditions. Even Wellhausen describes his study of the Pentateuch as beginning from an assumption of unity.

When one arrives at the conclusion that the text is fractured and then proceeds forward from there, it’s hardly accurate to say they are beginning with a presumption of disunity. Additionally, subsequent scholarship is not responsible for laying out the entire case for disunity with each and every publication. At some point scholarship has to be able to agree that the conclusion no longer needs to be made from the ground up. White prefers to ignore these facts and insists that any scholar who arrives at the conclusion of disunity must have presupposed it.

White’s position is perplexing for other reasons, too. It insists that critical scholars presuppose disunity and will not engage the evidence that has arisen out of the presumption of unity. In other words, he’s asserting that scholars who argue for disunity have never had to engage an argument against it. Why does he say this? It’s because he presupposes unity and will not even allow for the possibility that his presupposition is incorrect. As a result, anyone who disagrees with him must be doing something wrong, and must not be aware of how weak their argument really is. This is another rather grotesque caricature of critical scholarship. Anyone familiar with source criticism knows that it is constantly in dialogue with the notion of unity and synchronic analysis. They let the evidence guide the evaluation whereas White predetermines what the evidence is and is not allowed to say and then pretends to interact with it.

His treatment of Deut 32:8 is a good example of this. He provides the notes from the apparatus of the Göttingen edition and then states simply that the reading is unsure and that’s that. He states this “without fear of contradiction.” I’m curious on what this fearless conclusion is based. Is it the fact that a couple scholars have actually argued for the priority of “sons of Israel”? Does this mean any time a scholar publishes a challenge to a scholarly consensus that the consensus is automatically undermined? The fact that an argument has been made in print for “sons of Israel” no more indicates academic uncertainty than the fact that millions of people believe Elvis is still alive indicates uncertainty about his death. To insist otherwise is simply naïve. Scholars who argue that “sons of Israel” is original are simply wrong, and I will be happy to fully and directly address any publications White can cite to the contrary. Certainly it can’t be that. Is it because the argument for “sons of Israel” is the strongest? He doesn’t say a word about how strong it is, so it can’t be that. Is it because there are several different variants attested in the critical apparatus? Certainly he’s aware of the priority of the different Greek manuscripts in this case, as well as the Qumran witness—the earliest of them all—that is not found in the apparatus. It can’t be that. Is it because there are a couple different suggestions for reconstruction? I don’t believe this is the case. There is absolutely no question whatsoever that the text did not originally read “sons of Israel” or “angels of God.” The uncertainty is whether the text originally read “sons of El,” “sons of Elohim,” or, as Joosten has argued, “sons of Bull El.” I am at a loss to explain why he feels his assertion is valid, much less why he feels fearless in asserting it, unless he does so simply because he presupposes it. Whether or not this is the case, in the end, all he does is sidestep an argument he knows he cannot win.

Let’s examine another problem with his caricature of the critical method. White states,

While certain theories become predominant over time, it is not because those theories have been thoroughly tested (how do you test such things in the real world today?).

I would first ask what evidence White can produce that these theories have not been thoroughly tested, but it’s clear he can produce nothing beyond his own assumptions. On the other hand, there is a mountain of evidence that flatly contradicts his assumption. Even as early as the 19th century scholars found ways to empirically test the methodologies of source criticism. Tatian’s Diatessaron was the first text to be pointed to as analogous to the processes suggested by source critics. Tatian took four separate gospels and conflated them into a kind of gospel harmony. Scholars have noted the sources for each word of the text and then examined the phenomena that occur at the major seams, pointing out that those phenomena are the same things source critics have used to identify separate sources. Objections were quickly raised on the grounds that the Diatessaron is too late to bear on the question of Pentateuchal composition. Later discoveries silenced those objections. Primary among these discoveries were a number of versions of the Gilgamesh epic, which actually preserved multiple stages of its literary development from millennia before Tatian. Again, when the major seams were examined, they attested to the same literary phenomena. The Septuagint, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and even the Samaritan Pentateuch, because they sometimes preserve earlier stages of a text’s development (or later stages), produced a number of similar examples, although on a smaller scale.

What this shows is that (1) the methodologies used by source critics are testable, (2) they have been thoroughly tested, and (3) they have been shown to be reliable. Additionally, it shows that source critics constantly have the question of unity vs. disunity before them, and that they consider both traits fully and honestly. Here is a short list of some publications that directly address source critical methodologies and their empirical testing, as well as the value of diachronic and synchronic approaches to literary criticism (in no particular order):

David Carr, Reading the Fractures of Genesis: Historical and Literary Approaches (1996).

John Van Seters, The Edited Bible: The Curious History of the “Editor” in Biblical Criticism (2006).

Ernest Nicholson, The Pentateuch in the Twentieth Century: The Legacy of Julius Wellhausen (1998).

Jeffrey H. Tigay, Empirical Models for Biblical Criticism (1985).

Jeffrey H. Tigay, Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic (2002).

Jeffrey H. Tigay, “An Empirical Basis for the Documentary Hypothesis.” Journal of Biblical Literature 94.3 (1975): 329–42.

Z. Talshir, “The Contribution of Diverging Traditions Preserved in the Septuagint to Literary Criticism of the Bible.” Pages 21 to 41 in VIII Congress of the International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies, Paris 1992 (1995).

Michael V. Fox, The Redaction of the Books of Esther (1991)

George F. Moore, “Tatian’s Diatessaron and the Analysis of the Pentateuch.” Journal of Biblical Literature 9.2 (1890): 201–15.

Paul R. Noble, “Synchronic and Diachronic Approaches to Biblical Interpretation.” Journal of Literature and Theology 7.2 (1993): 130–48.

The remainder of the comments in White’s tenth installment covers the same rhetorical grounds as his earlier comments, so I’ll save myself the time. I will point to a couple final points, though. White argues in his final post that my accusation that his argument is nothing but petty sectarianism and dogmatism is ironic. He states,

I still find this kind of language coming from a follower of Joseph Smith to be ironic, given that Smith’s claims to prophethood are far more liable to such an assertion. Be that as it may, we have seen that in fact my arguments are logical, biblical, and compelling, and it is Mr. McClellan’s position that lacks a rigorous and, most importantly, self-consistent, foundation.

First, Joseph’s Smith’s claim to prophethood is quite a distinct claim that, as with revelation and the supernatural, is not open to empirical verification. It’s a religious claim, so it’s not really an analogy that serves to undermine the consistency of my argument (which has explicitly avoided all religious truth claims). I am perfectly happy to recognize that my belief in his prophetic calling is an exclusively faith-based claim. White cannot say the same about his beliefs. Next, I disagree entirely that White’s arguments are logical, biblical, or compelling, and I have provided numerous blog posts in defense of my position. He is free to engage my arguments if he wishes. But he will not. He cannot. He has yet to really engage my position directly. He’s only hurled fallacious and vague argumentation at a general methodological trend within LDS apologetics of which he believes me to be a part. He accuses me of not being “self-consistent,” but what he is really arguing is that that broad movement of which I am a part is inconsistent with Mormonism’s wider historical approach. That historical approach has nothing to do with me, of course, so the inconsistency he thinks he sees is not at all confined within my approach. I am being perfectly “self-consistent.”

White later argues that my appeal to the authority of self-definition is indicative of my unbiblical and corrupt worldview. As I already pointed out, in his responses to me White himself appeals to the authority of his self-definition as a Christian, so his argument is already thoroughly undermined. He now claims that respect for “self-definition” robs words of meaning. In another personal insult, White states,

rational, logical soul realizes that words have meaning

This is, of course, a rather ridiculous straw man. I never said words didn’t have meaning. My appeal to self-definition was intended to show, in part, that words mean different things to different people, and we can’t simply demand—based on nothing but our own dogmatism—that others adhere to our definitions of specific words. White’s definition of a Christian is not based on an objective or thorough look at the term’s usage (he stated that all of Christianity rejects Mormonism’s participation in Christianity, but this was obviously just an a priori assumption. I later showed that actual research shows the majority of Christians actually accept Mormonism as Christian). As I’ve shown, any objective definitions of “Christian” includes the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

White cites Gal 2:4–5 to show that Paul rebuked people who had pretended to be Christians in order to bring true followers of Christ “into bondage.” White insists that, by my criteria, they should be recognized as Christians. I did not say that self-definition was the only criterion, however. I said there were others, but that self-definition was the first and the most important. That is still true even in light of White’s text. If the people to whom Paul refers indeed joined his congregation under false pretenses in order to subjugate it to some kind of outside or harmful authority then obviously that has to be taken into consideration. White doesn’t recognize this either because he has not thought it through or because he has not read my comments carefully enough. Either way, his criticism is invalid.

Next, I didn’t think I would see White appeal to this canard, but he actually insists on the notion that Mormons promote a “different Jesus.” It is an odd situation when two people insist they believe in the Jesus of the New Testament, but one then insists that the other’s Jesus of the New Testament is a distinct Jesus from his Jesus of the New Testament. The only way this can make any sense at all is if each conceptualization of Jesus relies on identifiers absent from the biblical text, and the differences lie between those extra-biblical identifiers. If both believe only in the person described throughout the text, neither has a belief that differs from the other. The difference in belief must come from qualities not found in the text. In other words, White is comparing an extra-biblical view of Jesus to an extra-biblical view of Jesus. As long as he is comfortable recognizing that fact, I’m perfectly happy to recognize that the aspects of Jesus I recognize that are not found in the Bible differ from the aspects of Jesus that White recognizes that are not found in the Bible. The notion that this excludes me from Christianity, however, can only rely on a non-biblical definition of Christianity (and a definition that would also exclude most first century Christians). In other words, we’re back to dogmatism and sectarianism. White’s argument can never escape that gravitational pull.

Finally, White argues that I mischaracterize his argument when I state that he’s really only arguing that Mormonism isn’t Evangelicalism, and thus isn’t Christian. He states,

Ironically Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, historical Anglican (still seen in the African branches, and down in Sydney, Australia), etc., all confirm monotheistic Trinitarianism as well. This is not merely a matter of “Mormons are not Evangelicals,” it is simply, “Mormons worship a god utterly unknown to Christians.”

Of course, as I explained in my original post and in my fourth response, his personal maintenance of the boundaries of Christianity is not limited to the doctrine of God. It only has to do with the doctrine of God when it comes to a religion with which White disagrees regarding the doctrine of God. The definition of a Christian he accidentally gave when he was not intentionally trying to exclude Mormonism was very clear to draw the lines just around Evangelicalism (it came from this response):

 I recognize the reality of God’s Spirit working in men and women who disagree with me on the non-essentials, and see a world-wide body of believers, the elect of God, united by a common confession that Jesus Christ is Lord, the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, and the Scriptures are sufficient for life and godliness.

As I pointed out, this highlights sola scriptura and excludes Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Contrary to White’s rather selective argument, it is indeed merely a matter of “Mormons are not Evangelicals”; White just has different tools in his belt that he utilizes for dealing with each of the different non-Evangelicals he wants to exclude from Christian fellowship.


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.


Responding to James White (Part 4)

I had assumed that White was finished with his third post, but I was mistaken. He had posted a fourth response to my comments. After reading over it carefully a number of times, I don’t feel there is much that I could say about his argument that hasn’t already been said. White is appealing to the same fallacies to which he appealed in earlier posts. I do have a couple things to point out, though.

In this fourth post, White argues that I am wrong when I say that “Mormonism claims to be Christian just like James claims to be Christian.” He evidently interprets this to mean “Mormonism claims to be Christian in the exact same manner that, and based on the exact same perspective from which, James claims to be Christian.” From their he dives into Mormonism’s claim to be the only church with God’s authority, and thus the only true church of Jesus Christ. He distinguishes this from his own claim to be Christian and insists that Mormonism is too audacious in their claim to be then allowed to turn around and identify generally with the Christian faith. Of course, my comment had nothing to do with the nature of our separate claims to be Christian. It only had to do with the simple fact that we each claim to be Christian.

Another statement White makes, however, problematizes his earlier rhetoric. In showing that he does not have the unmitigated gall to claim to be the only church with God’s authority he states,

I recognize the reality of God’s Spirit working in men and women who disagree with me on the non-essentials, and see a world-wide body of believers, the elect of God, united by a common confession that Jesus Christ is Lord, the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, and the Scriptures are sufficient for life and godliness.

Here the fundamental definition of Christianity appears to be the “common confession that Jesus Christ is Lord, the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, and the Scriptures are sufficient for life and godliness.” Why was this not put forth as the fundamental definition of Christianity in earlier posts? He repeatedly stated that Christianity is fundamentally defined by its doctrine of God. Others have even commented to me that it is odd that White fundamentally defines Christianity without ever talking about Christ. I have argued that his definitions are begging the question and are trying to construct an artificial definition of Christianity that can help him to draw Mormonism outside the circle. I have argued he isn’t really addressing true defining issues. I think White’s slip-up above shows that my assessment has been perfectly accurate. When the rhetoric is over and it comes time for White to define Christianity for those we don’t want to a priori exclude from Christianity, White’s definition actually overlaps quite a bit with Mormonism. I don’t know any Mormon who would disagree with the first two confessions. Of course, White’s definition, asserting sola scriptura as it does in its third confession, is more an Evangelical set of confessions than a simple universally Christian set of confessions. He’s intentionally excluding Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity, but since that last confession is so ingrained in his own tradition’s fundamental identity, it’s to be expected.

I would conclude that White here has come full circle and finally proven that the fundamental criticism I provided in my original critique of his video was exactly on target. I would reiterate it:

What James is arguing throughout his video is that Mormonism is not Evangelicalism. This hardly needs a 14 minute video to point out, though. The implication, however, is that because it is not Evangelicalism, it is not Christian.


Responding to James White (Part 3)

White’s third post in his series can be found here. I start off by noting the following comment (I’ve already responded to his comments about the First Vision):

the consistent rejection of Mormonism as a Christian religion by the entire spectrum of Christian churches has been based, first and foremost, upon the doctrine of God.

Unless White can document the rejection of Mormonism as Christian by “the entire spectrum of Christian churches” I would ask him to avoid hyperbole. But as has been pointed out in the comments section of this post, White’s hyperbole is demonstrably false. A 2007 Pew Research Center Survey (found here) found that 40% of white Evangelicals, 62% of white mainline Protestants, 43% of black Protestants, and 52% of Catholics identify Mormons as Christians. Historically, I have seen a few different kinds of responses to these data. They usually come down either to the notion that these people must not be real Christians; that it’s the church’s official judgment that counts, and that’s determined by whether or not they consider Mormon baptisms legitimate (or something along those lines); or the data will simply be ignored. Perhaps White will have a different approach. For the issues with his prioritization of the “doctrine of God” in analyzing Mormonism, see my comments in Part 2.

White continues:

Fundamental to all of these discussions was the overwhelming testimony of the divinely inspired Scriptures, that is, Yahweh is the eternal creator of all things, and there is no God other than Him. Monotheism is not a negotiable for the Christian faith, and it never has been.

This is simply false. As I already pointed out, Paul asserts there are many gods and many lords. Identifying them as demons not only reads into the text something that isn’t there, but it also doesn’t change the fact that demons are divine beings, or gods. Christians accept the Hebrew Bible as God’s Word, and the Hebrew Bible affirms the existence of numerous divine beings from beginning to end, even calling many of them gods. The modern concept of monotheism is not that there exists only one divine being. It’s that there only exists one divine being monotheists consider worthy of worship. In the first century that wasn’t even true, though. Revelation 3:9, 21 show that humans were expected to be worshipped in the end times. 4Q246 shows the same expectation within the Qumran community. 1 Enoch and other pseudepigraphical texts expressed the same, as did a number of rabbinic texts. It wasn’t until the assimilation of the Greek notion that God, understood as a universal superlative, could not number more than one, that these ideas were manipulated to fit into the new rubric. Many of the ideas didn’t go down without a fight. This is why Christianity fought for centuries to make it sound logical to have three distinct deities considered one deity.

White goes on:

It is only when the divine inspiration and consistency of the Bible is denied (as Mormonism does), and the consistency of belief of the Christian people on the fact that there is only one true God is made to be only as relevant as the views of a religious sect from the Intermountain West that arose 1800 years after the founding of the Christian faith, that the question can be made difficult or complex.

This is absolutely true, but James would have to provide an argument for why my denial of a univocal Bible (I don’t deny it is in some sense inspired, I just don’t commit to any particular idea about exactly what that means) is unfounded before this comment could become relevant to this discussion. As it stands it is a simple statement of dogmatism and only serves to reinforce my original conclusion, namely that White’s rejection of Mormonism as Christian is not based on an objective or logical analysis, but on nothing more than sectarianism and dogmatism.

White continues on for some time apparently defending the fact that his argument was begging the question. He ends with a series of questions that I’d like to answer:

But let us note something here that is very important: if Mormonism can be included as a Christian faith, then…what is the Christian faith?

A variegated collection of religious groups claiming to be trying to follow Christ.

We know Mormonism actually does not claim to be merely a Christian faith, it claims to be the Christian faith, the one true Church, the sole repository of God’s true authority in the priesthood, etc. So keep this in mind as you listen to Mr. McClellan’s rhetoric.

In other words, try to be offended as you read my comments. It makes disagreeing with them so much easier. We do claim to be the only church with the proper authority. We don’t claim to be the only Christians, though. We don’t equate “Christian” with “saved,” too. Christian is not a soteriological judgment in our book. Salvation is a process that we believe finds culmination only after this lifetime, and we don’t believe anyone who tries their best to live up to the worldview to which they hold will simply be flippantly denied salvation.

But even more important, if Mormonism is Christian, I have to ask…what isn’t?

All groups that do not self-identify as Christian and claim to be trying to follow Christ.

I mean, as we will see, Mr. McClellan will appeal to the “self-identification” of Mormons as Christians as evidence.

I said it was the most important criterion, but I also said it wasn’t the only one. The word began as a descriptor for people who follow Christ. That must also be taken into consideration. The person’s sincerity, as we will see, is also important.

OK, then Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christians, too, right?

Do they self-identify as Christians, and do they claim to follow Christ? If so I see no reason to deny them the designation.

And, if a Muslim wants to be called a Christian, they do believe in Jesus, right?

This is a rather silly question. Can anyone point to any Muslims who honestly self-identify as Christians?

And how about Robert Price, the atheist scholar, who is a member of an Episcopalian Church? Can we have an atheist Christian, too?

Does he actually claim to be a Christian and does he claim to follow Christ?

 Why not?

I didn’t say he couldn’t.

Is there any objective element to Christianity that can differentiate it from what is “not” Christianity?

Yes. I already explained what those elements were. These questions aren’t addressing my claims, they’re just trying to find silly loopholes in the logic. Anyone can do that, even for James’ definition of a Christian. Observe: If a Muslim said they accepted the Nicene Creed and believed the Bible was the only word of God, would they be a Christian? Will White respond that they would no longer be a Muslim, or will he respond that he’s still a Muslim and so he can’t believe those things? Either way, the integrity of his premise falls apart.

Let’s ask the question this way: am I a Mormon? If I “self-identify” as one, am I one?

Does White self-identify as a Mormon? Obviously not. The hypothetical situations are really pointless since their rhetorical strength rests exclusively on the conflict created by the juxtaposition with a current reality that precludes the hypothetical one.

I believe Joseph Smith was a false prophet, the Book of Mormon a 19th century fraud, the temple ceremonies bad copies of Masonic rituals, etc. But as long as I “self-identify” as a Mormon, who is to say I am not?

The people who know that White being completely dishonest in his self-identification are those who would say he is not a Mormon. Mormonism is a different animal altogether, though, since it holds to a much more limited and unique set of ideologies. Additionally, this line of argumentation is becoming increasingly silly.

If Mormonism has the right to define its borders and boundaries, why can’t Christianity?

First, “Mormonism” can technically mean more than just the mainstream LDS church, and those that self-identify as Mormon contribute to that general boundary. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can define its borders and boundaries because it has, since the beginning of its existence, maintained a very clear and very formal process to gain and maintain membership. It also has a central authority structure that is recognized by the entire membership. That structure is reaffirmed by the membership twice a year. The apodosis here doesn’t follow. Christianity does get to define its borders and boundaries, but White alone does not speak for all of Christianity, and not only do Mormons self-identify as Christians, but there are plenty of Christians in other denominations and churches that have no trouble identifying Mormons as Christians.

White concludes his final (?) response with the following:

The reality is, Christians for over a century and a half have been putting Mormonism “outside the circle,” and until just recently, Mormonism seemed to be fine and dandy with that, and returned the favor. Can Mormonism retain its identity while seeking to mainstream? I am unconvinced that it can.

No, Mormonism has not been fine being considered non-Christian. They have been fine not being considered mainstream Christian, or Protestant, or any one of a number of other sub-designations, but it’s equivocation on White’s part to insist that not identifying with specific other Christians means not identifying as Christian. White has shown throughout these responses of his that he hardly speaks for all of Christianity, much less for Mormonism, and that he doesn’t give the facts a fair shake when he’s got a rhetorical point to make; his predictions about Mormonism’s internal integrity thus don’t really amount to much more than dogmatism and petty sectarianism.

UPDATE: I have added a reference to a 2007 Pew Research Center survey after a commenter reminded me of it. I have also made a couple minor edits.


Responding to James White (Part 2)

White’s second post (found here) begins with concern for my use of his first name. He states,

it is possible that in modern Mormon homes, using someone’s first name, even if they are older than you are, and unknown to you, has become the standard.

White here is very clearly taking advantage of every opportunity possible to rhetorically jab at Mormonism in general through me. He is trying to insist that my use of his first name derives from a contemporary Mormon trend away from respect for one’s elders, and thus that Mormons in general are growing increasingly disrespectful. Nothing could be further from the truth. I used his first name because I treat my blog rather informally. I approach things academically, but I’ve always used first names, and most other bibliobloggers do the same. I’m happy to use White’s last name if he prefers that—I meant no disrespect—but the notion that my use of his first name stems from a trend in Latter-day Saint households away from respect is quite petty. It seems, however, to be consistent with White’s general habit in these responses of broad generalization and mischaracterization for rhetorical purposes. He continues with the following:

After linking to my video and that of Elder Holland, he notes, “In doing so he tries to paint a picture of a shifting and manipulative Mormonism working to hide its disparity from Christianity in the interest of seducing converts.” You will not find this kind of language in my original video, of course. What I noted was Mormonism’s seeking to “mainline,” and the resultant shifts in emphasis and presentation. There is no doubt about that, of course. Evidently, this is simply how Mr. McClellan “hears” criticisms of the modern LDS presentation of itself.

I felt and still feel White’s rhetoric is clear enough in the video, and my comment obviously places the main points of his characterization at the rhetorical level. The same is clear of his comments about Catholicism not being Christian, which I quoted in my earlier post. He was careful not to clearly state it, and to use no-fault language (it’s “others” who might conclude that “Christian” may not be the most judicious characterization of Catholicism). He continues that no-fault language here by not actually disagreeing with my reading. He simply states that he did not explicitly say it in his video. Be that as it may, it seems obvious to me that there was a thick shellacking of it between the lines. I may be wrong, though. If James wishes to clearly state that he does not believe Mormonism’s putative mainlining is in the interest of appearing more Christian for the sake of more converts, I will happily retract my statement and issue an apology.

White’s next paragraph attempts to imply that if I am anything like my “apologist” predecessors I am woefully ignorant of my own church’s history and thus need to be reminded of the fact that early Latter-day Saints often leveled harsh criticisms against mainstream Christianity. He links to a collection he has put together of just such rhetoric (here). White is here appealing to emotion again. His collection of sayings is not relevant to the discussion, and that kind of rhetoric was quite tame in that time period, especially compared to the secular and religious polemic aimed at Latter-day Saints. The fact that early Latter-day Saints ridiculed other Christian denominations, or mainstream Christianity in general, while obviously unacceptable today, hardly indicates they didn’t wish to be identified as Christians.

White next addresses my actual comments. In response to my assertion that his definition of Christianity is begging the question and that Mormonism should be allowed to contribute to the definition of Christianity he had this to say:

In fact, he even argues that Mormonism should be given a voice in defining Christianity. Think about this for a moment: that which has existed for nearly two millennia should be defined on the basis of that which came into existence April 6, 1830. No, logically, that which comes into existence April 6, 1830 is to be judged on the basis of what had existed long before it came along. But that is disastrous for the modern Mormon who is attempting to make room in the Christian faith for a belief that is fundamentally “other.”

This, however, is an even more egregious example of begging the question. White must reject the LDS claim to be primeval Christianity restored in the latter days in order to define it as coming into existence in 1830. Additionally, White is still presupposing the grouping together of numerous other manifestations of Christianity of vast degrees of disparity from one another, and of varying ages, under the “Christian” umbrella, with Mormonism intentionally left out. White’s Reformed Baptist tradition does not date back two thousand years. He will insist on ideological continuity with the broad Christian tradition that dates back that far, but that insistence brings us back to the core ideologies that define Christianity. White cannot escape begging the question if he insists on this line of argumentation. In the next paragraph White makes his question begging absolutely explicit:

I emphasized the nature of God (not just monotheism, but the fact that the God of the Bible is eternal, unchanging, self-existent, the Creator of all things, etc.) and the atonement because these are two glaring and obvious areas of contradiction between Christianity and Mormonism

In other words, his definition of Christianity was based on the need to distinguish it from Mormonism. He is begging the question. He immediately moves on to an appeal to popularity and neglects to address the role of sectarianism and the very fallacies to which he appeals in accounting for the popularity of his claim:

I am not alone in identifying these issues. As far as I know, every Christian denomination that existed in 1830 would have agreed with me on the topic, and surely I am representing the majority view over the 180 years of LDS history.

White moves on to claim that the “single defining issue” I highlighted as begging the question is not just “a single defining issue,” but is “the foundation, the definition.” Of course, this again neglects the fact I pointed out in my initial post that if the defining issue of Christianity does not meaningfully separate it from Islam of Judaism, it is hardly defining. Even a brief glance at the New Testament, early Christian literature, and even Jewish and Greco-Roman literature, shows that the foundation and defining issue of Christianity is that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah and the Son of God. Since White is interested in detecting methodological change in broad religious movements, perhaps it would be apropos of me to ask him if Christians have ceased emphasizing Jesus as Messiah and Son of God in favor of what White seems to insist is the only defining issue: the One God, uncreated, eternal, etc. A friend recently commented concerning White’s three responses here that he not once mentions any particular king of belief in Jesus as a criterion for being Christian, nor does he even seem to prioritize belief in Christ. White even states,

the consistent rejection of Mormonism as a Christian religion by the entire spectrum of Christian churches has been based, first and foremost, upon the doctrine of God.

For White, Christianity is not about Christ, but about a correct idea of God’s nature. Certainly a part of this is God’s relationship to Christ, but White never emphasizes this. Look at his list of possible emphases:

I could have pointed to many other areas of contradiction, and, of course, have, in published works on the subject, such as the gospel, the priesthood concept, temple ceremonies, etc. But I was focusing upon the fundamentals.

Christ is not a part of defining Christianity, apparently. This must mean that Mormonism’s idea of Christ is just fine. With all the polemic aimed at Mormonism for putatively neglecting Christ in favor of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, I find this quite surprising. Those accusations (which could not be more ridiculous) strain credulity in light of White’s approach here.

White finishes out his post with a discussion of Joseph Smith’s King Follett Discourse. His idea of an infinite regress of gods is highlighted by White as the issue that “once and for all” separated Mormonism from Christianity:

Smith may have thought he was taking away a veil, but in reality, he was removing his followers from the Christian faith, once and for all.

Again, it is God, apart from Christ, that defines Christianity for White. White’s insistence that this issue alone was what removed Mormonism from the Christian faith would seem to indicate that had he not taught an infinite regress of gods, Mormonism would be considered Christian. This does not seem to me to square with White’s earlier claim to numerous “areas of contradiction,” and I must conclude he is just letting his rhetoric get the best of him. Regarding the King Follett Discourse itself, I would point out first that it’s not official doctrine, it’s not binding on any member of the church, and many members don’t even know about it. Would White agree that those that don’t know about, or reject, the infinite regress of gods are Christians? I don’t think he would. On the other hand, many scholars, myself included, argue that Yahweh was originally conceived of as a son of the Syro-Palestinian high god. At that point there was really no concern for ideas of philosophical eternity or for the immanence or transcendence of any particular deity. If the earliest strata of Israelite biblical tradition are held to be the word of God then Mormonism’s position hardly conflicts with it, and I would see no reason to point to that position as invalidating Mormonism’s participation in the broader Christian tradition. If White wishes to assert that the word of God now opposes the earlier word of God then he must reconsider his earlier criticisms of Mormonism’s evolution. If he rejects the notion that early Israelites believed that Yahweh was the son of the Syro-Palestinian high god then he will have to provide an argument.

White concludes:

Modernistic theories about ancient henotheism in textual variants of the Hebrew Old Testament (based upon the rejection of the consistency of divine revelation across the canon), as popular as they are, cannot change a simple reality: the Christian faith is based upon the confession of one God, not many gods. Smith rejected this, and unless McClellan and his fellows are willing to reject Smith, they simply cannot lay claim to the title “Christian.”

This is problematic, though, because if those “modernistic theories” (and I have stated they include first century Christians as well) are accurate, then the Christian faith is simply not based upon the confession of one God. White must respond directly to those claims if he wishes his assertion to stand. Once again, his argument is built upon dogmatism and sectarianism, not on sound methodologies and sound logic.


Responding to James White (Part 1)

Let me begin by apologizing for the length of this post. I can’t imagine ever reading a post of this length on another blog, and so I understand that most of you will simply move on. In defense of the length of this post, this is a complicated issue and I would like to think I respect James White enough as a scholar to respond carefully to his points. I appreciate that he has taken the time to respond to mine, despite the fact that I disagree rather thoroughly with them. I know he’s busy and I know my comments came out of the blue. I’d like to respond in three parts to his comments, one for each of his posts (the first is here, and my original post is here). I’ll start off by saying I’m not responding to White in an effort to prove my religious convictions are right or that his are wrong. I’m simply examining his methodologies. I believe this question is socially and academically important and I don’t believe that White is treating it with enough objectivity or thoroughness.

After a brief introduction to the context of our discussion, White continues on to the only other section in this first post, which is called “The New Mormon Apologists.” White characterizes contemporary Mormon apologetics as edging closer to secularism, and away from its roots, in its prioritization of objectivity and an academic approach. White describes several ways in which he appears to believe modern apologetics is tacitly rejecting the charismatic/prophetic foundation of the LDS religion. There are serious issues with the evidence he marshals in favor of his characterization. To begin with, White provides little evidence. Most of what he brings forth is based only on the weight of his own assertion and falls apart upon closer examination. For instance, White states:

the First Vision was not actually a part of the earliest apologetic of the LDS movement (indeed, evidence shows it to be a later accretion, coming toward the end of Smith’s life, and is not contemporary with the founding of the LDS Church in 1830)

White cannot provide any support for this assertion, mainly because it is a mischaracterization. The four extant accounts of the First Vision come from 1832, 1835, 1838, and 1842. As Joseph Smith died in 1844, two of those are closer to the end of his life than to the foundation of the church, and two are not. While the earliest known written account comes from 1832 (the differences between the accounts is a discussion for another day), an 1831 article from a Palmyra, New York, publication called The Reflector states that Mormon missionaries the previous year (1830) were preaching that Joseph Smith had been personally visited by God. The conclusion that it was unknown at the founding of the church is not supported by the evidence. That it was not widely publicized in written form hardly indicates that it did not exist. The earliest account is found in Smith’s church history, which he claims to have been told to write by God in 1830. A lot of what he wrote over the next few years took place before 1830. White continues:

the movement was still very “restorationist” and hence anti-establishment in its outlook. Almost all charismatic, prophet-led movements of the day emphasized the direct spiritual nature of its leaders so as to give it a foundation to move away from the established churches. Mormonism was no different, but that emphasis remained central even after the relative isolation of the religion in the inter-mountain West. Mormons even to recent times were well known for eschewing “human wisdom” and the authority of “scholarship.”

Nothing is produced to support this. But let’s take a closer look. In what capacity does White mean “anti-establishment”? Does he mean the government? The academy? The ecclesia? The second sentence indicates the ecclesia, but the last sentence indicates the academy. Both easily characterize earliest Christianity, but it’s the second I’d like to address. White continues in that vein by asserting a clear paradigm shift away from anti-intellectualism and toward the academy:

But times have changed. Brigham Young University was founded, and over time, the desire to be viewed as presenting credible “scholarship” within the “academy” has entered into the thinking of the LDS leadership (which is often drawn from the graduates of BYU). I remember clearly conversations with LDS elders nearly thirty years ago now where they emphasized the centrality of direst spiritual witness over against “man’s arguments” and “human scholarship.”

This characterization of the Latter-day Saint movement as moving from anti-intellectualism toward the academy all in an effort to be taken seriously is demonstrably false. First, Latter-day Saints have emphasized the importance of education and human wisdom since the church was first founded, and it has never had anything to do with a desire to be viewed as presenting credible scholarship within the academy. It has always been about developing one’s intellect for the glory of God and the betterment of mankind. D&C 88:118, a text I saw every time I walked up the stairs of the Harold B. Lee Library, states, “Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” One of Brigham Young University’s mottos, again from the D&C, is “The glory of God is intelligence.” The University of the City of Nauvoo, founded in 1841, was, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, the first municipal university in the United States. Joseph Smith invited instructors from outside Mormonism to come and teach him and other members of the church Greek and Hebrew (with varying degrees of success). Brigham Young encouraged groups of women to travel east to get training as physicians, and he sent a delegation of women to the 1848 Seneca Falls Conference to advocate for women’s rights. The first university west of the Mississippi was the University of Deseret, founded in Utah in 1850. Brigham Young University was founded in 1875. While the church has in the past come out in opposition to positions popularly held by scholars that might conflict with the church’s ideologies or standards, it’s completely inaccurate to state that it “eschews ‘human wisdom’ and the authority of ‘scholarship.’”

Second, James’ conversation with those elders from thirty years ago would be no different today. James’ final sentence here betrays two attempts at equivocation. First, the Latter-day Saint belief that an adequate conviction of the truthfulness of the gospel can only come through a spiritual witness has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the Latter-day Saint position on education and academics in general. It’s one thing to assert that God can only be known through revelation (on this see Matt 16:16–17). It’s entirely another to “eschew ‘human wisdom’ and the authority of ‘scholarship.’” Second, BYU is not an apologetic institution, nor is LDS mission work.  His examples don’t suffice to characterize contemporary apologetics or provide a contrast to early apologetics.

Of course, White is not criticizing LDS apologetics because he believes they eschew human wisdom. James has elsewhere expressed quite vitriolic disdain for the academy and scholarship where it conflicts with his ideologies:

The religion of scientism, with its chief idol in the person of Darwin, has become enshrined in our very governmental policies.

And here:

those who embrace the religion of naturalistic materialism (in its various forms such as humanism, atheism, etc.) have successfully done what many thought impossible: they have installed their own religion as the official religion of the United States government, banishing any and all competing world-views.

One of the results of this new situation is that if one wishes to be thought of as “scientifically astute” or ‘educated” one must bow before the orthodox idol of materialistic thought, primarily expressed in its greatest child, the theory of evolution.

White is accusing Mormonism of secularizing. It’s changing to be more palatable. As can be seen, however, White’s evidence is inaccurate. What shifts are observable are concomitant with the general urbanization of portions of the Midwest and the general progress of science and scholarship. White appears to oppose that progress, however, and that is not surprising given his fundamentalism. It was exactly that progress and the “liberalism” that goes with it that spurred the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy. Perhaps this is why White incorrectly accuses Mormonism of recently falling in with “modernistic skepticism.”

White is right about one thing in relation to this topic, though. One of his key points is that early Latter-day Saints believed the Bible to have been inspired in its autographs (although one might legitimately wonder at what stage of literary development we place the autographs). The criticisms leveled against the Bible by Mormons in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries largely had to do with its transmission after its original composition. I advocate a different view, however, and suggest that even in its original autographs it was susceptible to human error, and is often in conflict with itself. White’s point is that I depart from traditional Mormonism and therein lies the problem. For White, I don’t have faith in Joseph Smith’s original version of Mormonism. The rhetorical point is clear: whatever else I have to say, I’m not even an orthodox Mormon. I don’t even properly represent my own faith. My approach represents a broader trend that is, according to White, “incoherent and self-referentially destructive.”

This might be true if churches and their members were perfect, but they’re not, and this incoherence and self-referential destructiveness is an absolutely inevitable quality of all religions. In fact, without this quality, religions would never survive past the first generation. All religions evolve in response to their environment, even in fundamental issues, and White’s is no exception. All religions also must tolerate a degree of logical tension, or “incoherence,” to use White’s words. Rather than being destructive, these qualities actually help religions stay relevant. Here are a few examples from traditional Christianity.

The Christian scriptures frequently alter the meaning of Hebrew Bible texts in the interest of contemporary needs. For instance, Jesus quotes Psalm 82:6 as a reference to human beings in John 10, but the psalm originally referred exclusively to divine beings. Heb 1:6 cites the Greek translation of Deut 32:43 as a reference to the Messiah, but it originally had only Yahweh as its object, and originally didn’t say “angels of God,” but just “gods.” Hebrews does the same for Ps 45:7, which originally had the king as the object. In Acts 15:17 James cites Amos 9:11–12 in support of taking the gospel to the Gentiles. He understands the text as a reference to a future time when all humanity would be allowed to seek the Lord. His proof text, however, is based on the Septuagint’s misreading of Edom as adam, “human.” The Septuagint also alters other portions of the verse to make it coherent. The New Testament thus bases a doctrinal decision on a misreading of the Hebrew Bible.

These manipulations or misunderstandings of the sense of the scriptures arose simply because they were needed, and they were and continue to be accepted. The only thing that gets in the way of accepting this evolution is the dogma that insists it’s all perfect and can never change, which is a dogma that isn’t even espoused in the Bible itself. Within religions today the normative reading of a text is usually not the original reading, but whatever reading the interpreter can devise that best suits their particular worldview. Adela Yarbro Collins has an excellent discussion of this in Cosmology and Eschatology in Jewish and Christian Apocalypticism (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 1–6. See also the 1993 Vatican publication “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,” which states that biblical interpretation requires the historical-critical method (and understanding the nature and function of texts in their original contexts) as well as establishing modern applications. That these approaches are different makes it inevitable that the interpretations produced by each will differ and in many places even conflict. That tension is absolutely inevitable in any religion that believes its religious texts remain relevant beyond the generation in which they were composed.

In addition, fundamental doctrines of White’s Christianity did not exist in the first century church. For instance, the Trinity represents a doctrinal innovation that would have been an utterly foreign concept to the first Christians. The first time we see a concern for a metaphysical grasp of what it means to be the Son of God happens to coincide with the assimilation of the Greek worldview, and the early grasp of that meaning was quite distinct from the Trinitarian grasp. John 1:1 describes Christ as divine in all the same ways that God is divine. It does not at all equate them, though. Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho describes Christ as “another God,” and a distinct being from God the Father. Their identification with each other is subordinate to the assertion of a single divine “being,” which derives from the Greek doctrine of God as absolutely superlative, and thus indivisible. The first time Christ was conceived of as ontologically identified with God happens to coincide with the description of his relationship with God in terms of emanation. Even with Tertullian (who first expressed the idea of a “trinity”) there is subordinationism, and that seemed to suit people just fine for quite some time. We see, then, a lengthy development during which time each new generation had to renegotiate its beliefs between past traditions and present circumstances and expediencies. All religions experience this. In early Christianity’s merging with the Greco-Roman intelligentsia, then, we’re left with quite serious tension in ideas like the hypostatic union, which is logically impossible but is the only way to assert what the Chalcedonians wanted to assert.

Ideologies also change as we increase in knowledge. I don’t think it’s a bad thing for a church to recognize that our understanding of the Bible will develop as we learn more and more about the universe and about the cultures that produced the biblical text. I do think, however, that it’s a problem to insist that the assumptions we brought to the text centuries years ago need to be asserted over and against the light that has more recently been shined on the past and on our world. I can’t imagine White opposes this idea on principle. I doubt he would agree with early biblical authors that a solid dome separates the waters of heaven from the earth, that the earth was flat, or that the sun orbited around the earth. Sure, he can say that to the author of Joshua 10 the halting of the earth’s orbit would look like the sun was holding still, but that doesn’t change the fact that the biblical text is based on an erroneous worldview and insists God commanded the sun to hold still (see also Eccl 1:5). Unless he actually believes the sun orbits the earth and that there’s a solid dome holding up the waters of heaven, he does not believe the Bible. He can’t. Science has conclusively proven it wrong in those instances.

Does this indicate some sinister “change” within Christianity as a whole? Has it failed to fend off the onslaught of modernistic skepticism? Has it turned to attacking its scriptural foundation? No, it has just recognized that the biblical authors were human and that we are too, and we’re constantly learning new things about our world and the world of the Bible. No church gets to operate outside of that. To sum up this train of thought, I don’t think it particularly insightful or objective to chide the church for developing intellectually along with the rest of humanity. Sure, Joseph Smith claimed to be inspired, and he had some pretty crazy ideas, but the Bible’s got some crazy ideas in it too, and White obviously considers it inspired. The notion of accommodation, found in Calvinism and most contemporary Evangelicalism presupposes the same relativism, so I see no reason why White would oppose it.

So what is one to do with the parts that are obviously wrong, and where do you draw the line between letting science and the academy inform our reading of the Bible and putting our foot down and saying the biblical text has to take priority? I am always looking for honest and intelligent answers to these questions, and not in the interest of rhetoric, but in the interest of dialogue. Unfortunately, I rarely find them. Perhaps White can answer where so many others have refused.

White continues:

Be that as it may, the point is this: the attack upon the Bible was intimately connected with a spiritual claim to the superiority of LDS Scriptures and the prophethood of Joseph Smith, all of which placed Mormonism very much in the charismatic/prophetic tradition, but surely not in the realm of skepticism and naturalistic materialism. Mormonism was not claiming to speak from the midst of “the academy.” It spoke, back then, with a singular voice, and claimed a singular authority.

Latter-day Saint prophets and apostles continue to claim that singular authority. I do not. I’m not a prophet. White next begins to dig in with his attempt to paint me as a heterodox Mormon as he appeals to some more standards of Mormon countercultism. He asks if I’ll say the same thing about the Bible as I do about the Book of Mormon (for the most part, yes). He asks about the sources of my scholarship:

Does the broad world of scholarship view the Book of Mormon as an ancient record, accurately representing the inhabitants of Meso-America? How about the Book of Abraham? Does the same realm of scholarship, academia, intellect, etc., from which he draws his attacks upon the Bible spare the Book of Abraham?

White’s purpose here is to insist that I employ a double standard when it comes to my analysis of the biblical text. I am happy to incorporate methodologies I’ve drawn from the world of scholarship in my analysis of the biblical text, but not in my analysis of unique LDS scriptures. He questions the broader academic field in order to show that if I were to apply the same methodologies to LDS scriptures I would have to reject them, as does the broader academic world. There are problems with this assumption, though. The broad world of scholarship has, for the most part, not analyzed the Book of Mormon or the Book of Abraham. Very few scholars have ever interacted with either in a strictly academic capacity, and advocating for their historicity would be nothing less than advocating for Joseph Smith’s inspiration. In spite of that, many scholars (for instance, James Charlesworth, David Winston, David Noel Freedman, Edmond La B. Cherbonnier, and Jacob Neusner) have commented that there are striking affinities between ancient Judaism and Christianity and LDS ideologies found in the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham. I’m not going to spend time trying to insist that Mormonism has been academically exonerated, though. No religion is. They are all based on approaches to questions of truth that fundamentally conflict with academic methodologies. Those methodologies exist for a very good reason, though, and their flippant rejection evinces misunderstanding more than anything else.

Whites continues:

While Mormonism continues to speak often of latter-day revelation, there is just one little problem: we don’t see any of it. Oh, general and vague discussions of God’s “leadership” of the church are common, but let’s face it: the days of Joseph Smith are past. Gone are the days of almost daily revelations having to do with sending this person on a mission here, this matter of the church there. The charismatic period is gone, and if the current prophet were to come out tomorrow and say, “Thus sayeth the Lord,” and give some new revelation that he would expect to be published in the next edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, the LDS church would reel under the implications.

This manifests a rather uninformed characterization of contemporary Mormonism. The LDS church does still assert almost daily revelations when it comes to where people will be sent on missions (the process has recently been talked about in General Conference) and other matters of church administration. The charismatic period is gone, but that hardly undermines any of the church’s claims. For that to happen, White would have to insist that charismatic prophecy cannot cease in order for the religion it founds to remain viable. Of course, this would mean Christianity ended for White with the de facto closing of the canon and the putative end of prophecy in the first century CE. White would likely insist that the Bible prescribes it, and that it was God’s design, but how would he respond if a Latter-day Saint similarly points out that Mormons believe each dispensation is opened by charismatic and revolutionary prophecy that is followed by more steady maintenance? I imagine he would (1) try to insist that Mormons don’t believe that, (2) insist either that that’s just a modern rationalization (which is equally applicable to his explanation), or (3) that Mormonism is false anyway and so it doesn’t matter. I’m perfectly happy to be wrong, though.

Next White states:

You see, the only forms of scholarship that Mormonism can draw from to reinforce its own self-identity, as seen in McClellan’s article, are those that denigrate the clarity and perspicuity of biblical revelation.

I disagree that it is scholarship that “denigrates the clarity and perspicuity of biblical revelation”; I would say that it is scholarship that does not presuppose and then dogmatically shield it in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The Bible as a whole simply does not represent a clear and perspicuous revelation when viewed objectively. One must reject clear and simple conclusions in favor of unfounded assumptions in order to insist on a univocal or inerrant reading of the Bible.

For example, Sennacherib’s invasion is an historical event that is corroborated by Assyrian sources, but there are three different versions of Hezekiah’s reaction to it in 2 Kings.  The shortest, found in 2 Kgs 18:13–16, states that Hezekiah immediately paid Sennacherib his tribute when he demanded it, completely emptying his treasury and stripping precious metals from the architecture to find the necessary funds. The next account begins in v. 17 and has Rabshakeh and his colleagues come to accuse Hezekiah of rebelling. (It should be pointed out that this second account uses a different spelling of Hezekiah’s name from the first account.) That account ends at 2 Kgs 19:9a and also includes vv. 36–37. The third account extends from 2 Kgs 19:9b–35, and repeats the story of Sennacherib’s message to Hezekiah, only this time the messengers are nameless and the communication is private. Portions of the speech are repeated verbatim, though. In this last account Hezekiah offers his own intercessory prayer and Isaiah comes to deliver the response. In the second account, though, it is Isaiah who offers the prayer and the response. The second account appeals to Deuteronomistic vernacular and avoids all mention of angels (a staple of early Deuteronomistic literature), while the third account appeals heavily to Isaianic traditions and attributes Sennacherib’s failure to angelic intervention. Thus we have three accounts: in the first Hezekiah simply abandons his alliance with Egypt and pays Sennacherib off; in the second he refuses to pay and Sennacherib abandons his campaign because of intrigue elsewhere; in the third Hezekiah refuses to pay and Sennacherib’s army is devastated by divine intervention. Shortly afterward when a Babylonian envoy visits Jerusalem, Hezekiah shows him a treasury full of riches. The univocality of the Bible is here flatly precluded.

White’s rhetoric in his concluding paragraph begins to cross the line into thinly veiled insults:

It is impossible to hold together the world of Joseph Smith, with his personal revelations and seer stones and ancient Nephite civilizations and angelic visitations and Masonic ordinances and polygamy, and the high-brow academic world that, evidently, represents the very celestial kingdom for the staff of BYU. So deep is the desire for fundamental acceptance in “the guild” of scholarship that BYU’s leading scholars are willing to inject into the bloodstream of the LDS Church a concoction whose final results only the future can possibly reveal.

Of course, these things are only impossible if one presupposes they’re untrue, either because that person rejects the supernatural or only accept the supernatural when it occurs in the Bible. If one allows for the supernatural (and White refers in his post to the “ever-corrosive anti-supernaturalism of the modern academy”) then these things are no more impossible than a talking donkey, a sea that splits in half, a flying man, or people being raised from the dead. This manifests a double standard on White’s part. His rejection of those claims is based simply on the fact that they took place outside of the Bible. The historical evidence is no more supportive of a divided sea or Adam and Eve than of ancient Nephite civilizations. I would point out, in defense of the academy, that what White calls “anti-supernaturalism” is a methodological necessity, whether or not one believes in prophecy. Without it, no ex eventu prophecy could ever be detected, and the entire academic endeavor would be undermined.

The heavy handed rhetoric aimed at the BYU faculty is also unnecessary, irrespective of the disrespect White may insist has been aimed at him in the past by BYU professors. In an article from several years ago White described the challenge before LDS apologists as “impossible,” and used much of the same rhetoric. Carl Mosser and Paul Owen, a pair of Evangelical scholars who have for the last decade tried to promote a more respectful and objective dialogue with LDS apologists, published a paper that touched on the tendentiousness of the Evangelical countercult movement and had this to say about White’s article:

The article by James White, “Of Cities and Swords: The Impossible Task of Mormon Apologetics,” was an attempt to introduce evangelicals to LDS apologetics, to the work of FARMS, and, in the process, critique the group. This article failed on all three points. White’s article does not mention a single example of the literature we have presented in this paper. He does not accurately describe the work of FARMS, or of LDS scholarship in general. He gives his readers the mistaken impression that their research is not respected in the broader academic community. We believe that we have demonstrated that this is simply not the case. His attempted critique picks out two of the weakest examples. Not only does he pick weak examples, he does not give even these an adequate critique. This is nothing more than “straw man” argumentation.

White’s final sentence is quite long, and attempts to jam in as much rhetoric as possible:

Unless something highly unusual takes place, BYU will remain the premier institution of LDS education, and as long as it continues inculcating the same kind of thinking into its students that is seen in the current crop of LDS apologists, from Peterson through Hamblin now to McClellan, the tension will continue to mount, much like the dangerous situation at Fukushima: the pressure that exists between continuing to affirm the prophethood of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, along with all their pre-critical, a-historical theological documents and beliefs, and the ever-corrosive anti-supernaturalism of the modern academy together with its rejection of objective truth and naturalistic biases, will eventually rupture any containment structure the aging General Authorities in Salt Lake City can erect.

The pressure to which White refers is, as has been shown, an artificial one constructed primarily upon a series of double standards, an uninformed view of the nature and function of biblical criticism, and the overlay of White’s own fundamentalism on a religious tradition that is not so shortsighted. We will see if White’s engagement of my actual argument rises above his first post’s rhetoric and methodological shortcomings.


James White Responds

For all who are interested, James White has published two posts on his blog (here and here) in response to my recent criticisms of his video on Mormonism/Christianity. I have a lot on my plate right now, but I will hopefully have a response up early next week. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts, so feel free to share in the comments section.

UPDATE: A third response has been posted here.


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