Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Book of Mormon, 1/18

Today, I am starting a series on the Book of Mormon that I've been putting off since last year. Every time I think about what I'm going to put in this series, I always come up with all kind of background information I want to give first. Sometimes the background information is more lengthy than what I plan to write about the Book of Mormon, which leads me to believe I need to cut back on it.

But I'm going to go ahead and give you the skinny. Since I figure Mormons are going to read this, and since Mormons always want to know why I'm interested in these subjects, I'll give you the skinny on that first. Last July, a good friend of mine (let's call her Kay to protect the innocent and prevent me from having to repeat 'my friend' all the time) wrote me a letter giving me a lengthy version of her testimony and how she became a Mormon. I had known her for about seven months without knowing she was a Mormon. So I became interested initially for that reason. As a result, I read the Book of Mormon, and I took notes as I went along. This series is going to be about those notes I took and what I think about the Book of Mormon.

After a while, my enthusiasm waned, and I never took my notes to blog. My enthusiasm has picked up recently, though, because Kay introduced me to another Mormon girl (let's call her Sierra) back in March. Sierra turned out to be quite fetching, and I took a shine to her, so naturally I became interested in the subject of Mormonism again. Sierra is the one who invited me to her church.

That's the background about me. Now for the background about the Book of Mormon. I figure since non-Mormons are also going to be reading this, and since some of them may not know much about Mormonism or what the Book of Mormon is, I ought to give the skinny on that as well.

Supposedly, the church of Jesus Christ disappeared from the earth entirely once all the original apostles were dead. God restored Christ's church in 1830 through the prophet, Joseph Smith. That's how the LDS Church was born. It's supposedly the only true church of Christ on earth.

Before that happened, Joseph Smith was visited by God himself as well as an angel who led him to a hill where Smith found some gold plates with ancient writing on it. The Book of Mormon was translated from those gold plates. It is a record of some ancient civilizations that lived in America who had migrated here from the middle east. Mormons consider the Book of Mormon to be scripture. It is, as it says on the cover, "another testament of Jesus Christ."

The Book of Mormon is important because it speaks to the credibility of Joseph Smith as a prophet. If the Book of Mormon is not a translation of an ancient American document, then Joseph Smith is a false prophet, and if Joseph Smith is a false prophet, then the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (as well as its many off-shoots) is not the true church of Christ restored by God through Joseph Smith.

Although I've read quite a bit since last July, I still consider myself a beginner. It turns out that when it comes to Mormonism, there's a whole lot to know. I've barely scratched the surface. So please think of these blog entries, not as well-researched essays, but as initial impressions.

Part 2

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A visit to an LDS church

This morning, I visited an LDS church for my first time. I had wanted to visit one for some time, but I was too chicken. Since the Mormon worldview is so radically different than the Christian worldview, I guess I expected church to be radically different, too. But the church service was a lot closer to what I am used to than going to a Kingdom Hall, although I think Jehovah's Witnesses have a much more Christian worldview than Mormons do.

I don't know if what I saw this morning was typical of an LDS church service since it's Mother's Day, and a lot of churches deviate from the norm on Mother's day. In most churches I've been to, there's usually a pattern. There'll be a time of singing in the beginning followed by a sermon, and then maybe one last song. But today, a few different people got up and said nice things about their mothers, but there was no sermon. We sang a few hymns, but we didn't sing them all at the beginning. We just sang them at various times during the service.

I looked through the hymnal, which you can search by topic, and saw the section on "agency." Under the "agency" topic was a hymn called Know this: That Every Soul is Free. Being a Calvinist, I was most interested in the lyrics. Here they are:

Know this, that every soul is free
To choose his life and what he'll be;
For this eternal truth is given:
That God will force no man to heav'n.

He'll call, persuade, direct aright,
And bless with wisdom, love, and light,
In nameless ways be good and kind,
But never force the human mind.

Freedom and reason make us men;
Take these away, what are we then?
Mere animals, and just as well
The beasts may think of heav'n or hell.

May we no more our pow'rs abuse
But ways of truth and goodness choose;
Our God is pleased when we improve
His grace and seek his perfect love.
Clearly anti-Calvinistic, although it's a common misconception that people are "forced" as if against their wills in the Calvinist view. In Calvinism, those who sin do so quite willingly, and those who worship Christ also do so quite willingly.

I thumbed through the hymnal and noticed that many of them were dated from as early as the 1700's, which means they could not have been strictly Mormon hymns. And there was nothing unorthodox about any of those hymns. Many of the hymns, including the particularly Mormon hymns, were rich in theological content, unlike a lot of Christian songs today.

This was probably the most rowdy church service I've ever been to. There were a lot of noisy kids, and even the adults were talking to each other a lot. I kind of felt sorry for the individuals who got up and spoke because it didn't look like many people were paying attention to them. It was difficult for me to pay attention because of all the distractions going on around me. I wonder if that is normal for Mormons. I've heard they are into having big families with lots of kids.

Communion was served with water. I had heard about that before, but that was the first time I'd ever seen communion done with water.

No offering plate was passed around or anything like that.

I noticed that almost all the men wore black slacks and white shirts. When I first got there, it seemed like all the men we wearing black slacks and white shirts, which made me stand out like a sore thumb. I was wearing khaki slacks and a coloured shirt. I figured they'd know for sure I wasn't a Mormon, and then they'd want to talk to me. But nobody talked to me. Then I saw a few other men wearing khaki slacks, and that made it all better.

After the service, which lasted maybe an hour at the most, there were other classes. My friend, who had invited me, said there was a class for newcomers where I could ask questions. I decided not to go just because it had already taken a lot of nerve for me to show up at the church to begin with. I am quite shy in person, so it's difficult for me to go to a new church at all, but it's even more difficult for me to go to a new and unusual church!

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Mormon rejection of creation ex nihilo

Last night, I was reading "Craftsman or Creator" by Paul Copan and William Lane Craig in The New Mormon Challenge edited by Frank Beckwith, Carl Mosser, and Paul Owen. They were responding to a view commonly held by Mormons that God fashioned the universe out of pre-existing material. He created order out of chaos. Matter/energy is eternal. They deny the common Christian view that God created the universe ex nihilo.

In Genesis 1:1, it says that God created the heavens and the earth. The word for create is "bârâ', and Joseph Smith pointed out that it does not mean "creation out of nothing," but to "organize the world out of chaos--chaotic matter." Steven Robinson made a slightly more modest claim. He said that "bârâ'" does not necessarily mean "creation out of nothing."

Robinson is right. The same word, bârâ', is used to describe God's creation of the people of Israel (Isaiah 43:15), and Israel wasn't created out of nothing. So bârâ' doesn't necessarily mean "creation out of nothing," but Craig and Copan argue that it does carry that meaning in Genesis 1:1 and a bunch of other passages.

A couple of proof texts that Craig and Copan use to demonstrate creation ex nihilo are Romans 4:17 and Hebrews 11:3. Romans 4:17b says, "God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist." That seemed to Craig and Copan as an explicit statement of creation ex nihilo, but I don't agree. Nothing exists before it exists, including the nation of Israel. If God created the nation of Israel out of pre-existing people, then it would still be accurate to say he called into being that which did not exist. And that seems to be what the context demands in this case. Quoting the whole verse, it says, "As it is written, 'A father of many nations have I made you [Abraham]' in the sight of him who he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist." So when Paul says God calls into being that which does not exist, he seems to be referring to God's creation of many nations from Abraham, not from nothing.

Hebrews 11:3, I think, is an explicit statement of creation ex nihilo. It says, "By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible." Of course a person could argue that this pre-existent chaotic matter was invisible in the sense that you couldn't see it with the naked eye, but I really don't think that's what the author of Hebrews meant. I could be wrong, but I think he meant that what exists was not made out of things that already exist.

Most of the other proof texts that Craig and Copan used were some variation on the fact that God created everything, which presumably would include whatever pre-existing matter out of which he created the universe. Saying that the pre-existent matter was created out of something even more primitive only postpones the problem for those who deny creation ex nihilo.

While I was reading this chapter, another argument occurred to me that I'd like to get your thoughts on. It goes like this:

1. If "creation" always means to craft out of pre-existing material, then God is not the creator of all things.
2. God is the creator of all things.
3. Therefore, "creation" does not always mean to craft out of pre-existing material.

My proof for the first premise is the fact that people create all sorts of things out of pre-existing material. We make cars, radios, plows, chariots, clothes, banana nut bread, and all kinds of groovy things. If creation means to make something out of pre-existing material, then clearly God didn't create everything in that sense. He didn't create banana nut bread; we do.

There are plenty of proof texts to support the second premise. A couple from the Old Testament include Isaiah 44:24, which says, "I, the LORD, am the maker of all things, stretching out the heavens by myself and spreading out the earth all alone," and Nehemiah 9:6, which says, "Thou alone art the LORD. Thou has made the heavens, the heaven of heavens with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them." A couple from the New Testament include John 1:3, which says, "All things came into being by him [Jesus], and apart from him nothing came into being that has come into being," and Colossians 1:16-17, which says, "For by him [Jesus] all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities--all things have been created by him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together."

It seems to me that Paul is trying to be exhaustive in what was created by and for Jesus. He can't be talking about creation out of pre-existing material, or else Paul could not be so exhaustive. After all, we make banana nut bread in that sense, not Jesus. So he must be talking about creation ex nihilo. All these verses which attempt to show the exhaustiveness of what God created must be talking about creation ex nihilo, or else they couldn't be so exhaustive. Lots of creatures create things out of pre-existing material, but only God creates things out of nothing. That's one of the things that makes him unique.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

An atheist goes to heaven

I saw this video on Youtube this morning:

My first reaction was to accuse the author of making strawman arguments. It's an absurd parody based on gross misrepresentation. I see these kinds of misrepresentations on the internet all the time, and it can be frustrating.

But then I got to thinking it's probably not entirely the fault of non-believers. I think it's probably the fault of Christians. Christians aren't articulating the gospel clearly, which results in these distortions. And to an extent, I think this is probably due to Biblical illiteracy and an aversion to theology that a lot of Christians seem to have.