Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Miller on the topic of Mormonism and how it differs from Christianity.
Topics of conversation include:
- The history of Mormonism
- Key distinctives of Mormon theology
- Significant differences between Mormonism and Christian orthodoxy
- Ways for Christians to engage Mormons and share the gospel with them
Dr. Corey Miller the president and CEO of Ratio Christi. He previously taught Philosophy and Comparative Religions at the University of Indiana for 12 years, and is the author of several books, including Leaving Mormonism: Why Four Scholars Changed Their Minds (Kregel Publications, 2017), and Engaging with Mormons: Understanding Their World; Sharing Good News (The Good Book Company, 2020). Dr. Miller holds a PhD in Philosophical Theology from the University of Aberdeen.
Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.
Brian Arnold (00:18):
10 years ago, I was pastoring in western Kentucky, and there was a prominent Mormon family in town. And this family wanted to help people understand Mormonism better. And so they put together a lecture at the local library and invited a bunch of people to come. And at that lecture, they helped people understand Mormonism, mostly through teaching the ethical teachings of the church. Well afterwards, during the question and answer time, a gentleman raised his hand and said, “I want to know if you believe that Jesus died on the cross for your sins?” And they said, “Absolutely. We do.” And that gentleman said, “that’s all I need to hear.” He gathered his things and left, but he didn’t hear a lot of the other questions that were asked which demonstrated that Mormonism is different than historic orthodox Christianity. And I think it’s caused a lot of Christians to be confused about the relationship between orthodox Christianity and Mormonism. And that even raises the question of—is Mormonism Christian?
Brian Arnold (01:13):
Well, to help us understand that question today, we have Dr. Corey Miller joining us. Dr. Miller grew up in Utah and was a seventh-generation Mormon, but he came to faith in Christ in 1988. He has served on a pastoral staff at four churches, and has taught nearly a hundred college courses in philosophy, theology, rhetoric, and comparative religions at places like Purdue and Indiana University. He’s also the author, or co-author, of several books, including Leaving Mormonism: Why Four Scholars Changed Their Minds and Engaging with Mormons, Understanding Their World; Sharing Good News. Dr. Miller holds masters degrees in Philosophy, Biblical Studies, and in Philosophy, Religion, and Ethics, and has a PhD in Philosophical Theology from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. Currently, he serves as president and CEO of Ratio Christi, a campus ministry that equips students all over the country to be strong in their faith, so they can withstand the challenges they face as they go out into the world. Well, Dr. Miller, welcome to the podcast.
Corey Miller (02:14):
It is great to be here with you. Thanks for inviting me.
Brian Arnold (02:18):
So our big question today is this—is Mormonism Christian? And I think to help us answer that question, we need to first start by asking you to define Mormonism. So what is Mormonism?
Corey Miller (02:32):
Sure. Mormonism typically would denote a group that stems from Salt Lake City, Utah, currently, but since the foundation of Mormonism, there have been at least 400 different expressions of that little church that began with the founder, Joseph Smith, who then is said to have translated plates, to give us what is called the Book of Mormon. So there are numerous existing sects of Mormonism, and the dominant expression would look to the Salt Lake Church. It believes certain doctrines that most Christians would consider abberant to historic Christian orthodoxy.
Brian Arnold (03:18):
So let’s just even begin with the history. So you mentioned a couple of these pieces, Joseph Smith, these tablets that became the Book of Mormon. I’m sure some of our listeners couldn’t even place this in time. So maybe even tell us kind of when Joseph Smith lived, and a little bit about his life and these tablets that he found to help the story come into focus.
Corey Miller (03:42):
Sure. So 1805, Joseph Smith was born in Vermont. He was raised in that area, and there were numerous revivals happening at the time. And when he was a teenager, he would wonder, according to the report, which church is true? There were, you know, congregational churches, Presbyterian churches, Methodist churches, and so forth. And so, according to Mormon records, they say that Joseph Smith prayed and asked his Heavenly Father which church he should join. He went into the grove, this forest, and asked. And God appeared to him, or God and Jesus, or whatever version of the first vision you might take. The typical one is he was 15, and God and Jesus appeared to him, and he said, “Join none of these existing sects, for they’re all abominable, and their teachers are apostate.” And so Joseph Smith eventually was given the priesthood authority by God to—not reform the church, this is not a reformation—but to restore the church that had been lost for nearly 1800 years. So that now baptisms can count as legitimate, marriages can count as legitimate, et cetera, when they’re done by the proper priestly authority. And along with that came a new set of truths, or they would say not new, but that were locked in the Great Apostasy, when those who followed Christ fell away, ultimately, from Christ.
Brian Arnold (05:15):
Well, that’s quite striking that the claim is that for 1800 years, the church has been apostate. How do they describe why God let it go so long without giving somebody some sort of a revelation to bring the church back to faithfulness?
Corey Miller (05:36):
That’s a good question. I don’t think they’re very concerned about the question of duration there, because in Mormon theology there is an opportunity to do works for the dead. Vicarious works for the dead. And so, all these people that have died since then…that’s why they do genealogical work. They’ve got one of the world’s greatest genealogical libraries, so that they can go back and baptize for the dead, since baptism is an essential for salvation, they believe. And baptism by the proper priesthood, of course. And so, people have an opportunity in the next life, according to popular Mormonism. But of course that’s popular Mormonism, and it may not be essential Mormon.
Brian Arnold (06:27):
Well, and that’s a helpful distinction—that there is kind official teaching of the church, and things that become popular. We see that even in evangelical or Catholic circles as well, where there’s a spectrum of theology and you’ll find people a bit all over the map. But there is something that is essential to Mormon theology, and so I want to chat with you about that a little bit. So what are some key distinctives of Mormon theology, especially those places of the most significant places of disagreement between them and orthodox Christianity?
Corey Miller (06:56):
Right. I think if we consider the essentials—who is God, how does man get to heaven, both of which find their segway in the person and work of Christ, we would do well. And the first one is on that issue of salvation. When I grew up, I believed the little saying, “try, try your best, and God will make up the rest.” So there was no real urgency. You knew that, you know, God sent a Savior, and you would be just fine as long as you were a relatively good person, and so forth. But at the same time, I knew that there was something different about that, because true Mormonism, the book of Mormon, Mormonism, seemed to teach mission impossible. That you’ve got to reach perfection by this lifetime, or else. And so I struggled as a young boy, because I remember if you got baptized, that creates a blank slate. You’ve got a blank slate,
Corey Miller (07:51):
and I said, “well, what if I sin after this?” Well, then you’ll get marks on your slate. And I thought, “oh my goodness!” Because I knew that to get to celestial glory with Heavenly Father, no unclean thing could enter. So I figured what I would do is I would beat the system, and I would wait until I was 88 years old, rather than eight—the traditional age—and I’d get baptized. But then I lived in fear for the next year, for what if I got hit by a semi truck and failed to do what I knew I should have done? So I capitulated and got baptized. So Mormonism teaches a works-based salvation that is grace plus works. And we’re never told just how many works. And there’s a spectrum on that, but I think true Mormonism versus pop Mormonism can give us a clue. The second issue is their view of God. When we consider the Mormon view of God and the traditional Christian view of God, much less than Muslim or Jewish view of God, Mormonism seems a bit more like Hinduism, or maybe like the Greco-Roman view of God. They have more gods than we would even count in Hinduism, and their understanding of God or the gods, seems a lot like those anthropomorphic deities, with hands and fingernails and toes and eyeballs of the Romans and the Greeks, than it does of the Bible.
Brian Arnold (09:11):
Let’s jump in right there. I mean, there’s so much you said, even going back to the works-based piece, and the way that you were even struggling existentially with that. It feels like medieval Catholicism, in which Martin Luther comes along and has that same kind of angst, and then recognizes the just are made, you know, made righteous by faith alone. And he has that great reminder of historic, orthodox teaching. And then into the person of God, let’s…help us understand that a little bit more. Who do Mormons think Heavenly Father was? What’s his backstory?
Corey Miller (09:51):
So at first, on the salvation note, since you brought up Luther, that’s very interesting. Because Luther used to go to his confessor, von Staupitz, and he would come to him at all hours of the night with confession of his sin. And he did so, because he thought, “to get to heaven, I need to repent and confess, but to do so, I need to remember what it was—what if I forget?” So he would go to him all the time and confess sins. And until he came to the realization that penance, or repent, meant different things, and the just shall live by faith. Well in Mormonism, it’s something very similar. Part of what’s required for salvation is faith, but part is also repentance. And once you get into understanding what repentance means, that is—”going to the point of no return without having the thought, urge, or desire to sin again,” according to one of their prophets, then you realize, “oh my goodness, I need to be repenting all the time!
Corey Miller (10:48):
What if I forget just one of them?” So it’s very similar to what Luther was experiencing back then. In terms of God, then, his history…well, Mormons will say that, you know, God is eternal because Christians will say, well, are we worshipping the same God? Well, I spell it G-O-D, how do you spell it? G-O-D. Jeez, that’s right. Well, I spell mom, M-O-M, how do you spell it? M-O-M. Well, maybe we have the same mom, right? Until you start describing the characteristics of that M-O-M or that G-O-D. As it turns out, the Mormon concept of God is, well, like you and me. He began as a man and became God, like all gods had done before him. And even before he was man, there was a preexistence in some preexistent world, where Heavenly Father and one of his celestial wives gave birth to you and to me and to Jesus and to Lucifer. And then we had opportunity to get populated on earth. And even before that, we were some kind of spirit matter, or whatever that means, so that they can accurately say that God has existed for all eternity, but so have you and so have I. Just not as God.
Brian Arnold (12:07):
And so who are all these…you mentioned Hinduism, there’s all this proliferation of the gods. So how does that, in the Mormon conception, how are there so many gods? Are they over other universes? Is it just the anticipation that we’ll be gods? How does that work its way out in Mormon theology?
Corey Miller (12:26):
So there was an apostle once, named Lorenzo Snow. He was a contemporary of my family, who first became Mormon in 1836, six years after the publishing of the Book of Mormon. And Lorenzo Snow had this little couplet he coined—that “As man is, God once was; As God is, man may be.” It’s called the law of eternal progression. And the idea there, that all Mormon prophets embrace, is that we do have a destiny that is to follow in the same footsteps as God, and as God has done for his God, and his grandfather God, and great-grandfather God, and so forth. Now, they don’t go into a lot of detail on this, but they do split down the middle, almost, between prophets and apostles, throughout their history, on a contradictory understanding of what that means. Because God forever continually progressed, gaining bits and pieces of knowledge, never ending, unbound in that respect? Or does God somehow launch in a microsecond for over a billion years, and you can finally say he is now omniscient, as one of the great-making properties of the classical view of God? Well, those two views are not the same, and the Mormon prophets have actually castigated one another, calling the opposite view dangerous and false. But that’s called eternal progression, and they may have a different interpretation of it, but either way it’s anti-biblical.
Brian Arnold (14:08):
Well, and you can see kind of where some of that is distorted. I think about a place like 2 Peter, chapter one, verse four—”So that through them, they might become partakers of the divine nature.” So Peter has this conception, and then Athanasius will say, “For he was made man that we might be made God.” And of course he, I think, is pulling off of second Peter one. So do you think that’s where they have taken some pieces of New Testament theology, but distorted them to make it sound like we become gods, in the sense of Mormon theology?
Corey Miller (14:48):
They have done that. On the salvation issue, they will look to Wesleyans or Methodists, you know, who may believe that you can lose your salvation, who take an Arminian perspective and say, “Hey, our view is just like the Wesleyans.” It’s not. They do the same thing here, and they say, “Hey look—some of the early church fathers or the Eastern Orthodox Church, they call this idea theosis, but Thomas Aquinas used to call it participation.” And yeah, 1 Peter 1:4 is one of the verses for that. But that verse is talking about how we participate together in our relationship with God. It’s called divinization, it’s called theosis. It’s not the same concept that Mormons affirm that we become God, or like God, in the sense that we are now divine. We are human, angels are angels, dogs are dogs, and cats are cats. For Mormons, the range from humans and angels and God—it’s a matter of spectrum. It’s one and the same species. However, that is not what Muslims, Jews, and certainly not Christians, have ever believed. And so any and all of those quotations that are lifted from their context by church fathers or from Eastern Orthodoxy misconstrue what that is.
Brian Arnold (16:12):
I think that’s critical. I think that is maybe the place where it seems like the fissure happens—is blurring, or losing altogether, the creator-creature distinction. And once you lose that, that God is eternal God, having always existed, having an existence in himself, to the place where we could have those kinds of incommunicable attributes of God even, completely blurs that distinction, which has been fundamental to Christian orthodoxy.
Corey Miller (16:45):
Right. And you can think about the consequences of something like this. If you take one view of eternal progression, it means that God is forever growing in his capacity, just as you and I will in the afterlife as well, like that. But what that means is that the God we worship today—the God of this world, according to Mormonism, because there are many—that God is right now at a position where, say a thousand years from now, if I play my cards right, I’ll have surpassed that point. So the God that we’re worshiping right now is one of the lowest on the totem pole, compared to an infinite number of Gods. Now when I get there, he’ll have gone beyond that. It’s like, you know, a multi-level marketing system like Amway or something. The more downline you get, the higher you get pushed up towards the diamond. But that diamond just keeps going and going and going and going, never stopping. So can we ever say on that concept that God is ever omniscient? Or omnipotent? No, we can’t. That’s not a Supreme God, a Supreme Being. That’s Superman. And one of their prophets called us “Superman in embryo.”
Brian Arnold (17:56):
Wow. Well, there’s so much that that can be helpful in disentangling Mormonism from Christianity in terms of theology. And I hope those listening can really see a stark contrast that exists between historic Christian orthodoxy and Mormon theology. And I want to talk, because of our context that I’m in here, even in Arizona, where Mormonism is very prevalent, about engaging Mormons, and ways that Christians, especially—I assume most of our audience is evangelical Christians—can help share the gospel to Mormons. And maybe even to hear briefly from you, what was it in your own life, being a seventh-generation Mormon, that led you to follow the Lord Jesus Christ?
Corey Miller (18:43):
Sure. Well, for a couple of books, I mean, I hope your audience will consider the ones that I’ve written. The helping…my recent one on Engaging with Mormons: Understanding Their World; Sharing Good News, where I get into, not just Mormon theology and doctrine, but Mormon sociology and psychology. We need to understand Mormonism, not just as a cult, an abberant Christian movement, but as a culture. We need to understand the Mormon person and the Mormon culture as we try to engage them. And I’ve got another book that’s going to be coming out. I’ve assembled a team, all seven of us are ex-Mormon. And each ex-Mormon missionary on the team—there are five—will be writing one of the Mormon missionary discussions, so that when people are meeting with Mormon missionaries they can know in advance what they’re going to get and how to respond.
Corey Miller (19:32):
But in terms of, you know, some of the approaches, there’s another book that I’m a contributing member to, but it’s by Eric Johnson and Sean McDowell, called Sharing the Good News with Mormons: Practical Strategies for Getting the Conversation Started. And there are probably 20 different approaches in there. I offered just one. So I want your listeners to consider that. I think that we need to focus on the essentials, not the non-essentials. That is—who is God? How does man get to heaven? Both of which find their segway in the person and work of Christ, as I’ve said. We need to be truth-seekers, and we need to come off that way, so that they’ll continue to talk with us. And we need to love the Mormon, and hate Mormonism. But in terms of my own testimony, and I can say more about that,
Corey Miller (20:18):
but my testimony is I left Utah to go to a nondenominational Christian camp, only because the family inviting me there said you could spend the entire summer at the beach in California and go to this camp one week. And I went there, and the speaker spoke on hell. I tell people that scared the hell out of me, and heaven into me. And I saw…not only did I hear the gospel for the first time, I heard grace in a different light completely. It made sense now. But I also saw the love of Christ, not religion, displayed in people. And it made such a difference that I moved to California for my junior year of high school, where I was discipled by a family and, you know, a youth group there. It was only when I came back to Utah my senior year, when I was pressured by family and friends and my culture, that I may have made a huge mistake and that I needed to reread the book of Mormon for the sake of truth and not tradition, that I read through the book of Mormon again. And I realized—this is full of holes. Why did I never see this before? And that sent me into a trajectory in skepticism for awhile, wondering, “well, if I disbelieve in Mormonism, what about the Bible? How do I know it’s reliable? How do I know God exists? How do I know I exist?” And that’s what made me into the philosopher and theologian that I am today. And I continued down this path, but now I’m more convinced than ever of the biblical view of Jesus.
Brian Arnold (21:42):
And hopefully our listeners heard the great resume you have at the very beginning. You’ve spent so much of your life studying the Bible, studying the things of God, being a philosopher and a theologian. And you’ve got even more confidence today that the Bible is true and that historic Christian orthodoxy is true. And it doesn’t suffer the same kinds of challenges that Mormonism did, or the book of Mormon.
Corey Miller (22:08):
Yeah, not even the case. I mean, I’ve debated Mormon scholars as well. Just on evidential notes, with respect to the Bible, I’ve been to Israel, I’ve challenged these Mormon scholars that I was able to within one hour, every member of my team, found at least one artifact. I found one that was 1400 years old. And the Bible land is just full of archeological data that confirms the Bible. And yet the BYU campus, the Mormon campus there in Israel, those students get to do the same thing—go out and make digs, and find that the Bible confirms, but there’s not a shred of evidence that confirms the book of Mormon. And yet it is supposed to be a lot younger. We ought to find more, not less, and there’s not a shred. So the Bible is confirmed by, you know, ethics and history and science and things like that. The book of Mormon is not, they are not even on the same level.
Brian Arnold (23:02):
Well, I think all that is helpful, filling in this picture to answer the question—I think we can say with one word—is Mormonism Christian? The answer is no. And it bears itself out in theological challenges they face, archeological challenges they face. It just does not hold up to the same kinds of strict scrutiny that Christianity does. And so, for those listening who need some of those resources, I would point out the books that were mentioned previously by Dr. Miller, especially his new one called Engaging with Mormons: Understanding Their World; Sharing Good News. It’s a fantastic resource for this. But to answer this question—Mormonism is not Christianity. And for the love of our neighbors, we need to get them the gospel, to remind them that it’s salvation by faith alone and grace alone in the Lord Jesus Christ, not in our ability, not in our good works. And that the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have existed forever. And there’s a distinction between God and man. And because of that, God truly can save us through the God-man, Jesus Christ. Well, Dr. Miller, thank you so much for your knowledge of this subject, and being able to help us think through this question today.
Corey Miller (24:24):
It’s great to be here with you again. And God bless you guys and your ministry down there in Arizona.
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