2 Types of Sect Leaders

I just finished teaching a course on Contemporary Religious Movements at Tyndale University College. One of the things that I enjoyed about the course was seeing the connections between the different groups. We focused on groups that developed during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

What was interesting was that there were two basic types of leaders of the sects that developed during this period. I call them the Bible teacher and the prophet. There is some overlap between them, but most leaders fall primarily into one or the other.

For example, Joseph Smith, Jr. was definitely in the prophet category, not that I consider him to have been a real prophet. But the religious group that he created was based primarily on what he considered to be his personal revelations. No one could have sat down with just a Bible and come up with Mormonism. It is based on the ideas of their prophet.

On the other hand, John Thomas of the Christadelphians and Charles Taze Russell of the Jehovah’s Witnesses never claimed to be prophets. They sat down with their Bibles and attempted to discover the truth of Scripture outside of traditional interpretation. Even if we disagree with the teachings of Thomas and Russell, we can at least see where in the Bible they got their ideas. They were Bible teachers, even if orthodox Christians might argue that their interpretations were incorrect. (Check out my book, The Watchtower and the Word)

The Seventh-day Adventists are an interesting example (See my post Are Seventh-Day Adventists Christians?) William Miller, who had predicted that Jesus would come in 1844, was definitely in the Bible teacher category. His interpretation was not based on his own prophecy but on an interpretation of Daniel. Now the explanation by others about why Jesus didn’t return in 1844 was a blend of revelation/interpretation. And Ellen G. White, the founder of Seventh-day Adventism wrote her books in the style of a Bible teacher. But she was seen, during her lifetime, as a prophet by her followers.

Oneness Pentecostals are another interesting example (See my post How Did Oneness Pentecostalism Start?). Their understanding of the proper baptismal formula comparing Matthew and Acts was in the Bible teacher category (taught by Canadian R.E. McAlister). But the development of a Jesus only baptismal formula into a rejection of the Trinity was understood as revelation.

The categories of Bible teacher and prophet are not perfect, but they help us to understand the different types of sectarian leaders of this important time in history.


Joseph Smith, Mormons and the Godhead

MormonsI always prefer hearing directly from people what they believe about God rather than just a summary by a critic. So, how do Mormons and Christians compare when it comes to an understanding of God? We both use the term “Godhead” but don’t necessarily use it in the same way.

Historical Christianity has understood the Godhead as a Trinity, one God in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

What did Joseph Smith, Jr. teach? This is from his Lectures on Faith:

Q. How many personages are there in the Godhead?

A. Two: the Father and the Son.

Q. How do you prove that there are two personages in the Godhead?

A. By the Scriptures: Genesis 1:27 (Inspired Version); “And I, God, said unto mine Only Begotten, which was with me from the beginning, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and it was so.” …. (Lecture Five)

It should be clarified that the “Inspired Version,” also known as the Joseph Smith Translation, it is not really a Bible translation, not even like the Jehovah’s Witnesses’s New World Translation. The JST is more of a midrash, that is a paraphrase and interpretation and it is not based on translating Hebrew and Greek. Interestingly, the official translation of the Bible for Mormons is the King James Version and not the Joseph Smith Translation.

This is what Genesis 1:26-27 says in a recognized translation, “Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the [a]sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”

Aside from differences in how the Father and Son relate to each other, Joseph Smith taught that only the Father and the Son were a part of the Godhead. However, in the same lecture, Smith claims that the mind that is shared by the Father and the Son is the Holy Spirit. He then says:

Q. Do the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit constitute the Godhead?

A. They do.

This seeming contradiction is because Smith saw the Godhead as comprising two persons (Father and Son) and their shared mind (Holy Spirit). This is far from historical Christianity that claims that Father, Son and Spirit are all person and comprise the same God.


Doctrines and Covenants

What are the Doctrines and Covenants?  The D&C is a book that is considered scripture by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and the Community of Christ.  A large portion of this book are writings that Joseph Smith, Jr. claimed that he received by prophecy. If you are looking for theological insight into these movements, you may be disappointed.  While there is some of this, much of it is about where a certain missionary would go or who would take a certain position in the organization.  Without trying to be offensive, it is one of the most boring books I have read.  At least the Book of Mormon is a narrative.  It is important to note that the LDS and the C of C use a different version of this book.  They overlap with the Joseph Smith, Jr. material but diverge after that.  The C of C version has sections given even within the last few years.  If you are interested in Mormonism or the Community of Christ, it is worth looking at.  Not so much for the details that are written but for how they understand revelation and of the spiritual authority of their organizations.  You can find the LDS version here.  You can find some recent sections of the C of C version here.


Mormons and the “Restoration of Truth”

I am starting a series on the beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  I am going through their beliefs as stated on their official web page.

The first part deals with their understanding of the Restoration of Truth.  At first glance, there is a fair bit that most Christians would agree with.  It is true that God sent his prophets and then eventually sent his Son Jesus Christ.  Jesus was rejected and was killed.

However, Mormons teach that the church fell away soon after the time of Jesus and that it was restored only with the appearance of Joseph Smith.  There are a number of problems with this.  When did the church fall away?  The teachings of the Apostolic Fathers are in line with the New Testament.  Was it at Nicaea (things are usually Constantine’s fault)?  When was the apostasy?  And what exactly was the error?

To understand what Mormons are really getting at, we must understand what the primary truth is.  Most Christians would say that even if the church fell into some error (which of course it did), as long as people received in faith the forgiveness of sins and eternal life through the cross, there was still hope.  But if you look at what they say about the life of Jesus, the first thing they say is not that Jesus died for our sins but that Jesus established his church (they mention his death but not atonement).  The primary truth for the Mormons is not the cross or atonement but rather the authority of the church.  Joseph Smith did not remind people of the hope of the cross but re-established the authority of the church.

This is where Mormons differ from orthodox Christianity.  Christians believe the church is important but it is important as the vehicle which proclaims the message of the cross.  It is not in the church that we find salvation but rather in the atonement of the cross.  Paul in the New Testament (especially 1 Corinthians) teaches that it is the cross that is central to our faith and not a specific organization as the church.