Monday, May 09, 2005

Reformed syncretism

Recently, I was asked to comment on “Reformed Catholicism.” And a little before that, I had commented on Paul Owen’s defense of Catholicism. Owen has now risen to the defense of Mormonism.

So the movement has evolved from Reformed Presbyterianism to Reformed Catholicism to Reformed Mormonism. At this rate, we look forward to such further permutations as Evangelical Baal-Worship, Reformed Witchcraft, Evangelicals & Aztecs Together, as well as a return to the old-time Gospel of Christian Atheism.

Among other things, Owen levels the following salvos:

<< What usually happens is that Mormons who do not fit our straw man conceptions are accused of being misleading, and not telling the “truth” about what Mormons “really” believe. This was the sort of accusation which was leveled against Stephen Robinson several years ago when he co-wrote a book with Craig Blomberg, and already people are beginning to talk this way about Millet. This goes to show the simple fact that many of the most vocal critics of the LDS Church, who somehow have developed a reputation for having expertise in this field, are in reality among the most dismally ignorant of the realities of the theological landscape within Mormonism. (That of course explains why they are not taken seriously.) >>

By way of reply:

1.A few paragraphs before, Owen had issued the following disclaimer: “Millet of course does not claim to be an official spokesperson for the LDS Church in writing this book.”

But if that is so, then what is wrong with countercult ministries concentrating their firepower on those who are official spokesmen for the Mormon cult?

2.There is certainly a place for debating the likes of Millet and Robinson. But to say that countercult ministries are guilty of an ignorant strawman argument because they choose to concentrate their firepower on the version of Mormon theology promulgated by the hierarchy is perverse. It is only natural to take the official representatives of Mormonism, especially given the hierarchical structure of their culture, as its representative spokesmen. This is the very opposite of a straw man argument—and is no evidence of ignorance.

3. In an introduction coauthored by Owen, he and his fellow editors said the following:


The contributing authors to The New Mormon Challenge were not chosen because they are experts on Mormonism. To the contrary, most of them were chosen primarily because of their expertise in some other area…the kind of response we felt was needed was one in which individual scholars studied some aspect of Mormonism or some apologetic claim made by LDS scholars related to an area in which they already possessed a measure of expertise.

The New Mormon Challenge, F. Beckwith, C. Moser, & P. Owen Ed. (Zondervan 2002), 24.


So by this standard, the only qualification you need to evaluate Mormonism is a measure of expertise in some cognate field applied to some apologetic claim made by a representative of Mormon theology. Is Owen really in a position to peremptorily dismiss countercult ministries as unable to meet this criterion?

<< By the way, I guess I should mention that I know what I am talking about in this field. Unlike many critics of the Mormon Church, I have been able to publish articles in two Mormon journals (FARMS Review of Books, and Element), have had the opportunity over the years to participate in closed-door dialogues with representatives of the LDS Church (including Millet), and was able to participate two years ago in an LDS-sponsored conference on Mormon theology at Yale University. Why do I mention this? Because, unlike many critics, I have been able to gain a voice within the Mormon community. How? By earning their respect. And how does one do that? By striving to accurately and fairly represent Mormon theology, even when critiquing it. >>

“Closed-door dialogues”? Isn’t this a delicious phrase? Does that include a secret handshake? No blood-pacts, I trust.

1.If Millet and Robinson are in the good graces of Mormon orthodoxy, then why do these chummy discussions have to take placed behind closed doors, anyway? Either the hierarchy isn’t all that trusting after all, or else the hierarchy has one version of Mormon theology on paper—the official version--and another, more “evangelical” version for public consumption, which it allows the likes of Millet and Robinson to promote through unofficial channels for propaganda purpose--as bait to lure the unsuspecting.

For that matter, Owen, Eerdmans, and Mouw look like perfect dupes for the PR campaign of the Mormon cult. It strokes their ego with honorific breadcrumbs, while they roll over and play the chump in exchange for these calculated flatteries. And they got Owen pretty cheap.

2.Notice that Owen is slandering countercult ministries because they judge Mormonism by its official, public pronouncements, rather than this esoteric version to which he happens to be privy. Once again, isn’t that a very twisted allegation?

3.Isn’t there a practical limit to how far a cult which has pretensions to continuing revelation can reinvent itself? Just to judge it on its own terms, which is certainly a fair standard of judgment, if Joseph Smith or Brigham Young were prophets of God, then they surely speak with more authority than the likes of Millet, Robison or—for that matter—Paul Owen.

Owen says that “Millet’s “type” of Mormonism…certainly shares more in common with traditional Christianity than is sometimes the case.”

But, if so, then that falsifies the Mormon faith inasmuch as it subverts the whole rational for the Mormon cult in the first place, which was to “restore” the “lost” Gospel, which “corrupt” Christendom, with its “abominable” creeds, and “church of the devil” or “whore of all the earth” had suppressed.

<< Some people are upset with Richard Mouw’s comment that Millet believes in the Jesus of the Bible. I want to make three points here:
1) I have no doubt that people within the Mormon Church (even professors of religion) are capable of having a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. The Mormons confess Jesus to be God the Son, whom they worship and serve. The Bible is read, taught and regarded as God’s word within the Mormon Church. Wherever the Bible is made available to people, there is the opportunity for the Spirit to call people to faith in Christ. At the same time, there are false teachings which are allowed to co-exist alongside much truth within Mormonism, and these teachings are dangerous to the soul. The Bible definitely teaches that heresy can bring a person to eternal ruin (1 Tim. 1:19; 4:16; 2 Tim. 2:14, 23-26; Jude 3-4). >>

1.As to the general question of whether Mormons entertain the same object of faith as Christians, Muslims and Mormons are in the same boat. Both are Christian heresies, and what I’ve written about Muslims is equally germane to Mormons. See my essay: “Do Muslims & Christians worship the same God?”

2.Owen is doing exactly what a Mormon apologist would do, which is to use Christian terms as a code-language for an unchristian belief-system.

3.Mormons do not have an otherwise orthodox Christology which is allowed to coexist alongside false doctrine. Their Christology is no less heretical. Indeed, traditional Mormon theology is thoroughly heretical from start to finish.

<< 2) Because of the allowance of certain heresies within the Mormon religion, such as the denial of strict monotheism, redefinition of the Trinity, rejection of the eternal reality of God’s divine status, Pelagian and semi-Pelagian soteriologies, and blurring of the Creator/creature distinction (errors which thankfully are not embraced by all Mormons, or not to the same degree) and because the Mormons do not validly baptize their converts (non-Trinitarian baptisms being invalid in the view of most Christians), I view Mormons the same way I view all unbaptized people who claim faith in Christ. They may well be saved according to God’s secret decree, but they do not profess the true religion, and hence are not members of the visible Church (outside of which there is no “ordinary” possibility of salvation, as affirmed in the Westminster Confession of Faith). In short, my problem with the Mormons is not that they don’t believe in the “real” Jesus (whatever that means), but that they are not baptized, professing members of the visible Church. And whereas people outside the visible Church may well be among the elect (and even regenerate in the secret individual sense), they are not outwardly recognizable as true Christians. >>

1.There is a world of difference between an unbaptized believer with an Evangelical profession of faith, like Gen. Booth, and a heretic whose baptism is invalid.

2.Notice how Owen tones down the gravity of their heretical belief-system, as though it were a difference of degree: the denial of “strict” monotheism; “redefinition” of the Trinity; “blurring” the Creator/creature distinction, &c.

3.Owen has upended the burden of proof. A Christian believer is just that—a believer. Bare belief may be insufficient, but it is necessary. The onus is always on us to render a credible profession of faith. We are not entitled the benefit of the doubt absent a credible profession of faith.

4.Suppose, in place of “Mormon,” we were to substitute “Baal-worshiper.” This is not a facetious comparison. After all, many Baal-worshippers were familiar with the God of Israel due to their close contact with the Jews. Would it be appropriate to say, “I have no doubt that some Baal-worshipers enjoy a saving knowledge of God even though they don’t profess the true religion or belong to the covenant community”?

5.To quote the Westminster Confession at this point is nothing short of a lie. The Confession is not talking about the salvation of heretics. In that same paragraph the Confession expressly defines the visible church as “consisting of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion.”

6. For a “Reformed” believer, Owen has no inkling of providence. The sovereign God coordinates the gift of faith with the object of faith. He doesn’t give the Spirit without the Word.

<< 3) The polemical language of 2 Corinthians 11:4 simply does not apply to the Mormons. Unlike Paul’s opponents at Corinth (who rejected Paul’s apostolic claims and credentials) they do not intentionally advocate “another Jesus” who differs from the Jesus of the apostolic record. Paul is speaking there about those who, like the serpent in the Garden (11:3), intentionally distort and reject God’s word (as it was conveyed through Paul). The Mormons do not advocate faith in a Jesus who differs from the “Jesus” who appeared to Paul on the Damascus Road and called him into the apostleship. They simply misunderstand the teaching of the Apostle Paul, which they are attempting to faithfully preserve, and which they are attempting to faithfully live in accordance with. Therefore, Paul’s sharply worded polemics in his Corinthian letter do not apply to our sincere Mormon friends. >>

1.Now we know why Owen refuses to apply the Pauline anathemas to Rome.

2.An intentional distortion of God’s word is exactly what heresy is. It exchanges the truth of God for a lie (Rom 1:25). That is the essence of heresy, idolatry, and impiety.

3.There is such a thing as willful, culpable ignorance. The presumption is not on salvation--absent some aggravating circumstance, but on damnation--absent some exculpatory circumstance. The presumption is on the lost state of man.

4.Fidelity to falsehood is a vice, not a virtue.

If this is what “Reformed” Catholicism has come to, then it has written its own epitaph--in which event it has no need of me or anyone else to pen the obituary.


  1. Thanks for a very helpful and sensible response to a campaign that is about as unhelpful and nonsensical as anything I've seen lately.

    I'm mystified by why Paul Owen sees such significance in the fact that Millet's Mormonism "shares more in common with traditional Christianity than is sometimes the case."

    The Judaizers' doctrine had even more in common with Christianity than Millet's Mormonism does, and it still warranted Paul's anathema.

    Apparently 2 John 7-11 has gone missing from the Bible Mr. Owen uses.

  2. c.t. --

    They may be comical moles, but they have dug up the back yard. I don't know about you, but I hate it when they do that.

    Steve --

    Another great post. Thanks for your hard work.

  3. Evangelicals tend to approach new religions (or "cults" in popular terminology) primarily through an apologetic paradigm that seeks to contrast biblical truth with heretical error. When viewed from this perspective, the presence of a book by an evangelical en publisher that articulates a Mormon neo-orthodox or minimalist theology tends to provoke a defensive response by evangelicals, as we see in the new Robert Millet book.

    Might there be another way of approachign this topic? A growing international network of evangelicals has begun to experiment with a new way of understanding new religions that is informed not only by apologetics and systematic theology, but also by other disciplines, including missiology. This framework recognizes the presence of teachings incompatible with biblical theology in the new religions, but also seeks to understand the new religions on their own terms, and views them more as spiritual or religious cultures or people groups.

    This insight was recognized in 1980, and again in 2004, by the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. As a result, new analyses and methodologies have been and are being developed and applied to groups such as Mormonism, as well as other new religions.

    Those interested in exploring such concepts and methodologies, which have a bearing on issues like the Millet book, will benefit from reviewing the new book, Encountering New Religious Movements: A Holistic Evangelical Approach (Kregel Academic, 2004), a 2004 Christianity Today Book of the Year Award finalist. The book has been positively reviewed by Christianity Today, as well as international missions journals. The book can be ordered through Kregel at:

    or through at:

    A review of the book can be found at the Global Missiology website at:

    Those interested in this topic might also benefit from a free e-journal, Sacred Tribes: Journal of Christian Missions to New Religious Movements found at:

    Finally, the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization recently released a new paper on mission to alternative spiritualities as a result of their international gathering in October 2004. It may be downloaded at:

    Perhaps in response to the increasing religious diversity of America and the Western world, evangelicals might benefit from fresh theology and missiological reflection in formulating responses to new religions.

  4. Thanks, John. I intend to respond. But there's a lot of material here to sift through.

  5. John,
    What do we do after we understand other religions on their own terms? Do we not then present them with the true Gospel of Jesus Christ once for all delivered to the saints?

    Most apologetists/missionaries I know do seek to understand the people (and their beliefs) they are speaking with, but it always ultimately comes down to whether or not someone accepts the truth of the Gospel, not whether or not we've got their beliefs straight.