A “Kindler, Gentler Form of Christianity”… with Real Differences

In a conversation full of irenic Christians, no one has approached this project in better faith than our resident Latter-day Saint. Month in and month out, I’ve not only learned more from Robert Millet about Christian theology and practice, but what it means to live out the principles that undergird the “respectful conversation” project. I’m sure it helps that, unlike me, Millet has had years of experience doing this kind of hard work in real life.

For example, Rich Mouw’s short book inviting evangelicals into conversation with the Latter-day Saints (Talking with Mormons, to use the older term that I will occasionally repeat, hopefully not offensively) starts with Millet inviting him to take part in a 2004 “evening of friendship” at the Salt Lake Tabernacle. That event initiated Mouw’s participation in a decade-long project of “Mormons and evangelicals… going out of our way genuinely to listen carefully to each other, trying to get a clearer understanding of what the real differences are between us.” (Mouw also wrote the foreword to Millet’s book A Different Jesus? The Christ of the Latter-day Saints.)

Now, Mouw also emphasized the importance of evangelicals learning when they and their LDS interlocutors are “not quite as far apart as we had imagined. As an evangelical, therefore, I highly value how Millet’s contribution to our year-long conversation helped me see the many ways in which the Mormon way of following Jesus is so similar to my own. Most any Pietist could hear herself described in Millet’s essay about “a praying people” (and a singing people!) who “seek to follow Jesus by serving and loving others as he did.” At the same time, our bent towards individualism can find correction in a tradition that insists that “Christianity is fully lived out only in community,” through a church that “is given to assist and empower us toward that spiritual maturity that is the perfection of which the scriptures speak.” And would that each branch of this conversation join Millet’s in helping to meet the clearly “great need for a kinder, gentler form of Christianity, the kind that Jesus Christ displayed so beautifully”!

That’s all uplifting. But strangely, and to my real surprise, I felt myself a bit disappointed that so much of Millet’s essay sounded so familiar.

Earlier in his book, Mouw reflected on how LDS appreciation for Billy Graham, C.S. Lewis, and the Apostle Paul is, nonetheless, “mixed in with many things that I find worrisome. And I thank God for that.” I don’t know that I’d always use the word “worrisome” to describe the distinctive beliefs and practices of Mormonism; indeed, in reading the work of LDS scholars like Matthew Bowman (plus that of my friend John Turner, a rare evangelical historian of the Latter-day Saints who wrote an entire book about The Mormon Jesus), I’ve been struck by the Saints’ commitment to developing a theology of the body, a branch of Christian belief that often seems to be neglected or distorted by other followers of a Lord who is both human and divine. But precisely because I share Mouw’s desire for “our Mormon friends to help us better understand their answers,” I wish Millet had done more this month to help us understand the “real differences… between us.”

I particularly wish for that as a Pietist. Because I’ve made so much of my own tradition’s emphasis on the Bible, not just as an object of devotional study but “an altar where we meet the living God,” I’d love to understand better how Latter-day Saints distinctively “search the scriptures daily.” Does it make any difference, for example, if one’s canon includes texts beyond the Old and New Testaments? And if there are “teachings… received from prophets of God” who lived in the 19th or 20th centuries — or live in the 21st, how does one’s searching in scripture relate to a belief in continuing revelation?

Moreover, I could use the practice in listening attentively and speaking truthfully to a fellow follower of Jesus with whom I know I have significant theological differences. Precisely because I so highly value Pietism’s commitment to Christian unity, its aversion to heresy-hunting, and its relative decentering of doctrine in favor of emphasis on “lived faith,” I know that I am tempted to elide important differences. And to do that is to avoid the hardest aspect of the hard work of respectful conversation.

2 replies
  1. Robert Millet
    Robert Millet says:

    June 20, 2022

    Thank you, Christopher, for your comments and questions.

    Randall Balmer made a similar request following his reading of my essay—what are some of the differences between Latter-day Saints, a professing Christian group, and more traditional Christians? This is what I sent to him:

    The reason I didn’t deal with distinctive Latter-day Saint teachings/practices was because we were asked to address ourselves to what it means to follow Jesus within our respective denominations. Because you asked, the following are some distinctives within our faith:

    • a belief in a premortal existence; that we are all spirit sons and daughters of God (Numbers 16:22; 27:16; Hebrews 12:9).
    • a belief in a kind of “fortunate fall” of Adam and Eve; that is, the Fall was necessary because it opened the way for the blessings of the Savior and His Atonement to be made available to all.
    • a strong belief in the effects of the Fall (both spiritual and physical death) but a denial of “human depravity.”
    • a belief that the agony of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane was a part of the Savior’s atoning suffering, that what began in Gethsemane was completed, climaxed on Golgotha. It was the withdrawal of the Father’s sustaining and comforting Spirit from Jesus—something Jesus had never experienced— that caused Jesus to sweat blood (Luke 22:44).
    • a non-acceptance of the post-New Testament creeds and theological formulations, including the doctrine of the Trinity.
    • a belief that God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three distinct Persons and three distinct Gods; we believe them to be one in almost every other way imaginable except for an ontological oneness. I might state our doctrine of the Godhead as follows: We believe there are three divine Persons within the Godhead—God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit. We believe that each of these divine beings possesses all of the attributes and qualities of godliness in their perfection. We believe that the love and unity that exist between these three Persons is of such magnitude that they can properly be said to be “one God,” which for us means one Godhead. Our view of the Godhead resembles, to some extent, what is called social trinitarianism.
    • a teaching that would definitely be one of our most distinctive differences from traditional Christianity—that God, our Heavenly, an exalted and glorified Being, has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as mortal men and women. We do not believe that a physical body limits or confines God in any way, any more than a resurrected physical body confined or limited the Risen Christ, who stated that “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth” (Matthew 28:18).
    • that with the deaths of Christ and the apostles in the first century, a period of apostasy or falling away took place in which the keys of the priesthood given to Peter and the apostles was lost, requiring more than a Reformation. A Restoration was needed.
    • that certain ordinances (sacraments) are essential for salvation.
    • that at the time of death we enter into a post-mortal spirit world, an intermediate state; there we learn, grow, repent, and prepare for the resurrection.
    • that every person will have the right to hear the message of Jesus Christ and His gospel, either in this world or in the post-mortal spirit world (compare 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 4:6 regarding Jesus preaching to the “spirits in prison).
    • that in Latter-day Saint temples vicarious baptisms are performed, as well as the sealings of husbands and wives, parents and children, not just until death, but for eternity.
    • that in harmony with Jesus’s teachings that “in my Father’s house are many mansions” (John 14:2) and Paul’s teachings about various types of bodies in the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:40-42), there is more than a heaven and a hell hereafter; there are degrees of glory.

    As to how we “search the scriptures,” given that we have additional books of scripture: This year Latter-day Saints are studying the Old Testament in their homes and at church meetings (Sunday School, young women’s classes, young men’s classes, and even Primary children, from ages 3-11); we are now, for example, in the middle of 1st Samuel. Next year we will study the New Testament. The following year we will study the Book of Mormon as a church and are encouraged to read the Bible, as well. In addition, members of the Church are encouraged to read at least a chapter from the Book of Mormon daily.

    I hope the above is helpful.

    Bob

    Reply
    • Christopher Gehrz
      Christopher Gehrz says:

      Very helpful! Thanks, Bob. I can certainly see why you’d focus on religious practice, given the prompt, but I did wonder if differences in theological belief would have any impact, however subtle, in shaping how we follow Jesus.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.