Evangelicalism, Catholicism, and Mormonism

In the comments of Tuesday’s post, an interesting discussion arose, started by Fr. Greg of the ACCA, about the interrelation between Evangelicalism and Mormonism. Fr. Greg himself wrote a worthy post on the subject. His argument is that while Mormonism and Catholicism have what may appear, on the surface, as similarities, Mormonism is actually a product of (and reaction to) Evangelicalism.

I agree with this point. As Fr. Greg notes, and as I noted in the earlier post, Evangelicalism tends to promote some notion of a Great Apostasy; that Christ set up the True Church, but that at some point, the Church either went into hiding (contrary to Christ’s claim that It wouldn’t and couldn’t – Matthew 5:14), or was destroyed (contrary to Christ’s claim that It wouldn’t be – Matthew 16:18).

This leaves Evangelicalism virtually defenseless against Mormonism for three reasons: first, their shared belief in a Great Apostasy; second, their shared belief in the primacy of an individual’s reading of Scripture over Church teachings and Tradition; and third, their shared belief that Scripture is self-attesting.

First of all, the notion of a Great or Total Apostasy is almost required, since Evangelicals reject the religion clearly taught by the earliest post-Apostolic Christians on through the Reformation. Mormons simply claim that the Apostasy didn’t end until Luther, rather than the vague point at which Evangelicals try and label the return of the Church (you would think it would be Luther’s “reform” of the Church, but it turns out, Luther and his compatriots believed all sorts of Marian dogmas which Evangelicals find anti-Christian). On what grounds can an Evangelical concede that a Great Apostasy took place, and argue against Mormonism’s revisionism of history? After all, on what basis should we conclude that a handful of dissident Catholics from the 16th Century were able to conjure the True Church back into being simply by interpreting the Bible in novel ways? If there was a Total Apostasy, why isn’t it more likely that it took a Newer Testament to fix the mess and re-create the Church?

Second, and related to the first, Evangelicals and Mormons reject Tradition and Church history whenever convenient. For example, in this episode of The Berean Call’s “Contending Faith” segment, the hosts try and figure out why Evangelicals are converting to Catholicism. The hosts respond by making the seemingly contradictory claims that (1) the Fathers weren’t Catholic and (2) listeners shouldn’t read the Fathers; and (3) if they do read the Fathers, you should obey the Bible instead. Clearly, (2) and (3) give away the fact that by its own self-understanding, Evangelicalism isn’t the faith taught by any member of early post-Apostolic Church. Mormonism simply takes this notion and runs with it. For example, Mormons don’t see things like the Trinity in the Bible. It’s not that they think the Bible taught the Trinity, and the Book of Mormon overruled it. They think that the Bible doesn’t teach the Trinity. What is an Evangelical to do in this situation? Say, “I know your personal reading of the Bible has lead you to reject the Trinity, but you need to submit on this issue to the historical, traditional teaching of the Church?”

And finally, Evangelicals and Mormons both believe that Scripture is self-attesting. For Evangelicals, this view is more or less required to believe in sola Scriptura, since Scripture doesn’t teach the canon of Scripture (implicitly or explicitly). Nothing in 2 Timothy, for example, says 2 Timothy is Scripture instead of just good advice. In response to this, Calvin wrote:

“Let it therefore be held as fixed that those who are inwardly taught by the Holy Spirit acquiesce implicitly in Scripture; that Scripture carrying its own evidence along with it, deigns not to submit to proofs and arguments, but owes the full conviction with which we ought to receive it to the testimony of the Spirit. Enlightened by him, we no longer believe, either on our own judgment or that of others, that the Scriptures are from God; but, in a way superior to human judgment, feel perfectly assured – as much so as if we beheld the divine image visibly impressed on it – that it came to us, by the instrumentality of men, from the very mouth of God.” -Institutes, 1.7.5

Now, Calvin’s doctrine of Scriptural self-attestation is absolutely absent from the Bible. He’s making it up. But from a Mormon perspective, there’s an identical belief, based on the Mormon book of Moroni 10:4-5, which tells readers to pray on the books, and determine if they’re true or not:

And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.

So millions of Mormons have prayed, and determined that the Book of Mormon is Scripture. What’s an Evangelical’s response? “No, your personal canon of Scripture is wrong, because my personal canon of Scripture is different”? The Evangelical can’t appeal to Tradition, since the canon used by the Church was historically the Catholic canon. The Evangelical rejects the historical canon for the same reason that the Mormon rejects both canons.

Catholic Responses
Catholicism, of course, can answer all three of these areas in ways that Evangelicalism cannot. First, there was never a Great Apostasy. Certain, Christ prophesied that many would fall away (and they have, and still do), and that there would be heretics within Her walls, but the gates of Hell have never, and will never, overcome the Church. She remains a City on a Hill, Christ is with Her always, and the Holy Spirit has lead Her into all Truth. All of that is solidly Biblical, and there’s just not a contrary case from Scripture showing an Apostasy which would wipe the Church out. Mormons believe in the New Testament, and the New Testament disproves a Great Apostasy. Therefore, Mormonism (and Evangelicalism) are incorrect from their starting assumption.

Second, we’re called to hold fast to Traditions found in the written and oral teachings of the Apostles. For this latter camp, we find evidence from the writings of the Church Fathers. Additionally, the Holy Spirit helps to preserve the Apostolic Teaching from generation to generation (cf. 2 Timothy 1:14). If the first point is true (that God is always with the Church, and leads Her into all right doctrine), and it is, according to the Bible, then we have nothing to fear from history and Apostolic Tradition whatsoever. Go, read the writings of the Church Fathers. You’ll see a stunning continuity of Faith proclaimed for twenty centuries.

Third, the canon of Scripture was set by the Church, precisely because individual believers differed on which books were and weren’t Scripture. Scripture isn’t self-attesting. Even greats like St. Clement of Alexandria, innocently marred the canon (he believed that the Apocryphon of Isaiah was Scripture, but it obviously wasn’t). There will be times in which Christians, and even the Church Fathers themselves, find themselves at loggerheads. And it is precisely at these points in which a binding Magisterium is vitally important to say which traditions are Apostolic Tradition and which are traditions of men, and to settle the disputes. The Catholic Church set the canon of the Bible as a whole, both Old and New. Both Evangelicals and Mormons accept Her New Testament canon while rejecting Her Old Testament canon. This is inconsistent and pretty inexplicable.

Finally, both Evangelicals’ and Mormons’ historical assumptions are self-refuting. If they’re right that there was a Great Apostasy, who’s to say we’re back from it yet? After all, if 2 Thessalonians 2:3 is the Scriptural support for a Great Apostasy, it’s speaking about a falling away from the Church in the days immediately preceding the return of Christ… not Martin Luther, Joseph Smith, or anyone else. So if they’re right that 2 Thessalonians 2:3 means everybody left the Church (which, of course, it doesn’t say at all), then the Church is just gone for ever until the Second Coming of Christ. That’s the context in which Paul is writing (2 Thes. 2:1), and the Second Coming is what Paul says will cure this (2 Thes. 2:8).

9 Comments

  1. Interesting read.

    Usually we Mormons only have Protestants yelling at us. So a Catholic perspective is a nice change of pace.

    A few things need to be pointed out.

    First, the LDS Church does not share the Protestant notion of sola scriptura. In fact, one of our core founding principles – that of continuing revelation – is a direct refutation of the very idea of sola scriptura.

    It is true that Mormons place great stock in their own personal interface with established canon. However, we also have a very strong ecclesiastical tradition that is always meant to inform the message of the scriptures, and at times – even trump it.

    The modern LDS Church is not a sola scriptura faith. Nor is it even a prima scriptura faith. Rather, it is a complex interplay of being at times prima scriptura, and at times prima ecclesia. Both authoritative tradition and the canon have an interweaving dance within Mormonism.

    Which means that we really aren’t as vulnerable to Catholic claims of “well you got the Bible from us” as you might think.

    Many Mormons can happily respond to Catholic assertions about the origin of the Bible with “well, we’ll take it anyway” secure in the knowledge that anything missing or distorted in the historical Bible can be corrected or compensated for by our core principle of ongoing revelation.

    Evangelicals often complain that this makes Mormonism hard to pin down, and too fluid and adaptable.

    To which I would respond that most Mormons don’t really care. We see these attributes as strengths, not drawbacks.

    The principle of ongoing revelation also prevents our claims of apostasy from being self-defeating. Yes, the authoritative church was lost at some point in the distant past. And we had modern prophets called to restore it.

    So that addresses your point of why the church wasn’t lost forever.

    2 Thess. 2:3 is not obviously talking about a falling away that will come immediately prior to Christ’s Second Coming – even under Mormon readings. It merely says that the falling away would happen prior to the Second Coming.

    Since 100 AD qualifies as “prior” to the Second Coming”, we’re all clear on this score too.

    However, good article. It does seem to identify some problems Evangelicals have in dealing Mormonism generally.

  2. “The principle of ongoing revelation also prevents our claims of apostasy from being self-defeating. Yes, the authoritative church was lost at some point in the distant past. And we had modern prophets called to restore it.”

    On the contrary;. The promise was that it would never be lost. Claiming it needs to be restored shows that you are not speaking of the true Church just as much as claiming it was lost.

  3. Seth,

    If I seemed to be yelling at you in the original post, I apologize. If it’s any consolation, this post was the product of a conversation in which two of my friends and I speculated on why Evangelicals often seem so hostile towards Mormons. One of the reasons we concluded was that given the philosophical similarities cited in this post, it’s hard for them to get traction arguing your philosophical underpinnings — Mormonism takes a lot of the starting propositions of Evangelicalism and runs with it. So we were originally trying to figure out WHY discussions on Mormonism were often more yelling than edifying.

    My governing principle for the blog is 1 Peter 3:15-16, so if I’ve failed in that, or expressed anything less than charity towards you, I’m very sorry.

    That said, there are real disagreements between your religious views and my own, and I’ve tried to present the Catholic response to Mormonism here. In Christ,

    Joe.

  4. Oh no, not at all.

    My comment about Evangelicals always “yelling” at us was not meant to imply that you were taking a similar tone.

    You merely disagree with us, but you have done so in a civil and respectful fashion. This post was a nice change of pace for me from the usual Calvinist screamers telling me I’m going to hell.

    Thanks.

  5. One of my Evangelical friends explained the hostility Evangelicals feel toward Mormonism as similar to when “two girls show up at the prom wearing the same dress.”

    I’m not sure that really captures the whole thing, but it was still a fun analogy.

  6. Just out of curiosity, are you talking about that old “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” verse as a proof against Apostasy?

    Among others.

    And don’t try, btw, to tell me that it means will not prevail over-all. The Nazis prevailed over France in World War II. That it did not last does not refute that it happened.

  7. Well, you can certainly view this verse as only talking about an ultimate triumph – as in hell shall have no ultimate triumph, but may have its successful moment just the same.

    But that wasn’t really what I had in mind.

    My interest is in the use of the word “gates.”

    The imagery of “gates” is something that either keeps stuff out, or keeps stuff in. Not an offensive weapon.

    As a pure imagery matter, it’s kind of silly to think of a set of gates jumping off their hinges and walking down the street and beating the tar out of Christ’s church. Gates obviously don’t do that kind of stuff.

    So I don’t think that’s how the verse meant the word gates.

    What I think the verse means is that the grave “shall yield up her dead”. “Oh death, where is thy sting?”

    That kind of stuff.

    This verse is nothing more or less than a declaration of the triumph of the resurrection over death, and the triumph over the Atonement over the Fall.

    I don’t read it as talking about the Church or its continuity at all.

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