How Wide the Divide? by Craig L. Blomberg & Stephen E. Robinson

How Wide the Divide? by Craig L. Blomberg & Stephen E. Robinson


Dave Combe


How Wide the Divide?, (1) published in April of this year, is an initial dialogue between LDS and Evangelical academics seeking first to find common ground, and second to delineate differences between two religious traditions. Dr. Blomberg is a professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary; Dr. Robinson is professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University. Though invited, neither author was able to be with us today.

The book’s format is in the form of a dialogue, with the authors writing alternately. In their half of each chapter, each author both discusses hisown tradition’s teachings as well as reviews and comments on the the other author’s material, discussing in turn, scripture, God and deification, Christ and the trinity, and salvation. (2) My paper today is not a review of the book per se. Rather, I am using the book as a place from which to begin what is very much a personal statement about contemporary Mormonism.


After noting that “pure LDS orthodox doctrine can be a moving target” (3), we read that:

…LDS orthodoxy is defined by the Standard Works of the Church (Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price) as interpreted by the General Authorities of the Church – the current apostles and prophets. (4)

Later, Dr. Robinson further clarifies his view by specificly excluding certain material from being used to define doctrinal orthodoxy, such as

…commentary, sermons, expansions and speculations…all of them, I might add, [are] without canonical standing. Surely Protestants understand the difference between the excellent interpretive writings of Luther, Calvin or Wesley on the one hand and the authority of the Bible itself on the other. The same difference exists between the homiletical statements and writings of Brigham Young or Orson Pratt on the one hand and the canonical Standard Works on the other…speculative statements of Brigham Young, Orson Pratt, etc., that have not been canonized are not the official doctrine of the church… (5)

That Brigham Young is held to be a prophet and no such claim is made for Luther or Calvin is not mentioned.

Nothing can be used to determine LDS doctrine except canonized material, with the addition of official statements over the signatures of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve. (6) “The Church’s guarantee of doctrinal correctness lies primarily in the living prophet, and only secondarily in the preservation of the written text”, (7) Robinson explains, thus elevating the words of the living prophets, seers and revelators above both the canonized text and, by extension, that issued over the signatures of previous prophets, seers and revelators. Or, again as expressed elsewhere, “…the parameters of LDS doctrine are clear – Scripture is normative; sermons are not.” (8)

As a tradition established by revelation through Joseph Smith, Mormonism has continued with apostles and prophets in the two highest priesthood quorums, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve, and maintains as an article of faith that revelation from God continues as the guiding force of church governance. (9)

Doctrine and Covenants section 68 declares:

… whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation. (10)

While this revelation was received prior to the organization of the Twelve, that it is by most Mormons believed to apply to the First Presidency and the Twelve can easily be demonstrated by Elder Packer’s October 1996 Conference address, “The Twelve Apostles”, where he quotes this verse as describing calling of the Twelve. (11)

This builds into Mormonism a methodology to apply the canon to new situations in an authoritative way, through continuing revelation, meaning either new revelation, or allowing a reinterpretation of existing canon to a new situation. Given this, Robinson’s view that late 20th century Mormonism ought not to be judged by 19th century Mormonism seems reasonable. Yet, there seems to be the suggestion that the words spoken as defined in the revelation, “when moved upon by the Holy Ghost” may be uncanonized scripture. Our challenge is determining what among the “commentary, sermons, expansions and speculations” (12) meets the definition of scripture by coming to us by means of the Holy Ghost acting upon the speaker. Robinson’s definition of what can be used for doctrine, while eliminating from consideration some of what he views as the extremes of 19th century Mormon expression, also may be eliminating some scripture as Section 68 defines it, as well as helping to maintain our current more organizational, bureaucratic Mormonism, divorced from its more charismatic past.

Elder Harold B. Lee’s comment is instructive. Speaking at BYU in 1964, Elder Lee noted:

It is not to be thought that every word spoken by the General Authorities is inspired, or that they are moved upon by the Holy Ghost in everything they read and write. (13)

But, there is also in LDS thought the idea that, as Elder Lee states in the same talk, we are “not dependent only…on our standard works…we have a mouthpiece [whom] God will never permit…to lead us astray”. (14)

Elder Lee’s more limited sense of a sort of near-infallibility (15) for THE prophet, seer and revelator, seems to have developed into something more in recent years. President Faust’s message in the August 1996 Ensign seems expands the principle. (16) “How, then, one might ask, can we be sure, that as promised [as an aside, note these are now plural], the prophets, seers and revelators will never lead the people astray?”. He cites the scriptural injunction that decisions of these church councils must be unanimous (17), and continues, “The requirement of unanimity provides a check on bias and personal idiosyncrasies. It ensures that God rules through the spirit…”. Then follows his comment that “we make no claim of INDIVIDUAL [emphasis added] infallibility or perfection as the prophets, seers and revelators”, implicitly suggesting a group infallibility.

Compare this to George Q. Cannon’s remarks:

Do not, brethren, put your trust in man, though he be a Bishop, an Apostle or a President. If you do they shall fail you at some time or place; they will do wrong or seem to, and your support is gone; but if we lean on God, He will never fail us. When men and women depend on God alone and trust in Him alone, their faith will not be shaken if the highest in the Church should step aside. (18)

Then, in last April Conference, President Hinckley said:

His church will not be misled. Never fear that. If there were any disposition on the part of its leaders to do so, He would remove them. (19)

And Brigham Young expressed his view that:

I have never yet preached a sermon and sent it out to the children of men, that they may not call scripture. (19A)

And then there is this quote from Joseph F. Smith:

I have never pretended nor do I confess to have received revelations. I never said I has a revelation except so far as God has shown to me that so-called Mormonism is God’s divine truith; that is all…Well, I can say this: That if I live as I should in the line of my duties, I am susceptible, I think, of the impressions of the spirit of the Lord upon my mind at any time, just as any good Methodist or any other good church member might be. And so far as taht is concerned, I say yes, I have had impressions of the spirit upon my mind very frequently, but they are not revelations. (19B)

Perhaps those from both the “iron-rod” and the “liahona” perspectives need to reexamine what LDS leaders mean by their individual comments about this issue.

Let’s look at two recent explanations about how revelation works in the church today.

Elder Maxwell, interviewed by Hugh Hewitt for the PBS series, “Searching For God in America”, talks about “the voice in the mind”, that “revelation doesn’t have to be spectacular or global”, that “it’s the personalness of the revelation that matters…”. When specifically asked, “…What is that process like?”, Elder Maxwell explained:

It’s the voice of the spirit. It’s the voice in the mind. It’s the Lord speaking to us in such a way that when men may have had different opinions on something, then comes the prophetic intervention. There is a calmness and a serenity, and we vote to sustain that action… (20)

Elder Maxwell says that he has experienced this “on four or five occasions” “in the upper room of the temple”. (21)

More recently, President Hinckley, interviewed by Don Lattin of the San Francisco Chronicle, (22) identified revelation as “one thing that’s different” when asked about differences between LDS theology and that of other churches:

Q: … As the prophet, tell us how that works. How do you receive divine revelation? What does it feel like?

A: Let me say first that we have a great body of revelation, the vast majority of which came from the prophet Joseph Smith. We don’t need much revelation. We need to pay more attention to the revelation we’ve already received.

Now, if a problem should arise on which we don’t have an answer, we pray about it, we may fast about it, and it comes. Quietly. Usually no voice of any kind, but just a perception in the mind….

One observer on the internet, looking at all this, sensed a circular argument, noting that President Hinckley says that we have a body of revelation and don’t need much revelation, and yet, the Church emphasizes the importance of continuing revelation and the need for living prophets both in its public discourse, curriculum and instruction to potential converts. (23)


Robinson’s definition of what can be used to determine orthodox doctrine, the canonized Standard Works, and their interpretation by the living prophets was discussed earlier. It is significant that he does accept two additional statements, that while not canonized, “they are so widely accepted by Latter-day Saints that this technical point has become moot.” (24) They are, first, Lorenzo Snow’s couplet, “As man is, God once was; as God now is, man may become”, (25) and Joseph Smith’s sermon at the funeral of King Follett, in which the prophet taught that God is an exalted man. (26)

President Gordon B. Hinckley in a series of recent interviews has addressed this principle.

Don Lattin, of the San Francisco Chronicle, interviewed President Hinckley in March 1997. The interview was published on April 13th:

Q: There are some significant differences in your beliefs. For instance, don’t Mormon’s believe that God was once a man?

A: I wouldn’t say that. There is a little couplet coined, “As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become.” Now that’s more of a couplet than anything else. That gets into some pretty deep theology that we don’t know very much about.

Q: So you’re saying that the church is still struggling to understand this?

A: Well, as God is, man may become. We believe in eternal progression. Very strongly. We believe that the glory of God is intelligence and whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. Knowledge, learning is an eternal thing. And for that reason, we stress education. We’re trying to do all we can to make of our people the ablest, best, brightest people that we can. (27)

The PBS program, Newshour with Jim Lehrer, featured a segment on the Mormon Church during the July 18th, 1997 broadcast, during which several people were interviewed by Richard Ostling, including President Hinckley, and the Rev. Thomas Taylor, who the transcript of the segment published on the PBS web site identifies as being from the First Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City. Some of the program describes what President Hinckley was reported to have said, rather then directly quoting him; other statements are quoted.

REV. THOMAS TAYLOR: Have I ever known any Mormons who. after speaking with them, have I come to believe that they know Jesus Christ in the same way that I do; that they are true disciples of Jesus, the answer would be, yes. But if you are asking me, do I think that Moronism as a system of belief and practice is the same as what we ordinarily mean by Christianity, I think my answer would be no.

RICHARD OSTLING: The major doctrinal difference centers on the nature of God.

REV. THOMAS TAYLOR: The Bible says in the Book of John, Chapter 4, God is spirit. But the Mormons say that God is flesh and bone. You get a picture of a God that is progressing. So you see that man is made of the same stuff, as it were, as God is; and that man is progressing toward deityhood, and God once was like man. So this is a very different picture of Christianity.

RICHARD OSTLING: President Gordon Hinckley says the concept of God having been a man is not stressed any longer, but he does believe that human beings can become gods in the afterlife.

PRESIDENT GORDON HINCKLEY: Well, they can achieve a godly status, yes, of course they can, eternal progression. We believe in the progression of the human soul. Ours is a forward-looking religion. It’s an upward looking religion. We believe in the eternity and infinity of the human soul, and its great possibilities. (28)

In the recent August 4th issue of Time magazine, the authors write:

In an interview with TIME, President Hinckley seemed intent on downplaying his faith’s distinctiveness. The church’s message, he explained, “is a message of Christ. Our church is Christ-centered. He’s our leader. He’s our head. His name is the name of our church.” At first, Hinckley seemed to qualify the idea that men could become gods, suggesting that “it’s of course an ideal. It’s a hope for a wishful thing,” but later affirmed that “yes, of course they can.” (He added that women could too, “as companions to their husbands. They can’t conceive a king without a queen.”) On whether the church still holds that God the Father was once a man, he sounded uncertain, “I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it…I understand the philosophical background behind it, but I don’t know a lot about it, and I don’t think others know a lot about it.” (29)

Those of you on LDS internet lists know that each of these statements from President Hinckley elicited responses from acceptance to confusion to alarm. Was President Hinckley downplaying differences in doctrine so as to appear more in the Christian mainstream? Was it his responsibility as the prophet, seer and revelator to use these media opportunities to proclaim truth? As prophet could he really not know a lot about it? Or, as others noted, was this belief uncanonical, and was this the point he wished to convey? Others suggested that President Hinckley did not wish to cast pearls before swine. Some, members of other Restoration traditions, suggested this evidence of apostasy within the LDS tradition.

President Hinckley’s suggestion that we don’t emphasize this doctrine seems strange as well. A two part lesson on The King Follett funeral sermon was included in the Relief Society manual for 1988. One of the section headings is, in boldface: “God is an Exalted Man”. (30) The current Church manual for the Gospel Essentials Sunday School class covers this topic in lesson 47. (31) And, a student manual for Institute class Religion 345, Presidents of the Church, published in 1979, covers the topic in chapter 13. (32) True, it is not explicitly stated in canonized scripture. But it is clearly suggested in both Doctrine and Covenants, Section 132, verse 17 – 20, which Robinson specifically mentions (33), as well as in Section 84, verses 33 – 38, which he does not. Robinson also notes:

What do Latter-day Saints mean by “gods”? Latter-day Saints do not, or at least should not believe that they will ever be independent in all eternity from their Father in heaven or from their Savior or from the Holy Spirit. Those who are exalted by his grace will always be “gods” (always with a small _g_, even in the Doctrine and Covenants) by grace, by an extension of _his_ power. and will always be subordinate to the Godhead. In the Greek philosophical sense – and in the “orthodox” theological sense – such contingent beings would not even rightly be called “gods,” because they never become “the ground of all being” and are forever subordinate to their Father. (34)

Compare this to the decidedly uncanonized talk by by Charles W. Penrose from 1884:

As the Father had taken His upward course in worlds before this, so Jesus Christ followed in his footsteps in every respect; therefore he is entitled to sit down at the right hand of God in the heavens, to sit on his throne and be one with the Father in all things; and all the power and glory, and dominion that the Father hath he conferred also upon Jesus. And the promise to the sons of God on the earth is, that if they will follow in the footsteps of Jesus, they shall be also exalted and shall partake of that glory which he partakes of and they shall become Gods, even the sons of God, and “all things” shall be theirs. And we are told in the revelations of God to us in the latter days, that if we are faithful in all things, “all that the father hath” shall be given unto us. We shall become like Him, and we shall receive power, dominion and glory similar to that which he enjoys, only he shall be above us, God as our Father, and Jesus Christ our elder brother…We will comprehend everything we learned when we dwelt in the flesh; and we will be clothed upon with the spirit and power of God in its fullness, and kingdoms and power and glory eternal will be given unto us. We shall have the gift of eternal end endless increase. Our families will be with us and be the beginning of our dominion, and upon that basis we shall build forever. (35)

Given this, what can we make of Robinson’s comment that “God is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, infinite, eternal and unchangeable”? (36) He uses Book of Mormon scriptures to support this statement (2 Nephi 9:20, Mosiah 3:5), and Blomberg provides still more. (37) It seems to me that the Book of Mormon is the beginning of Mormonism, and not the end, in that Joseph Smith, as prophet continued to receive further revelation and guidance from heavenly sources beyond what appears in that book, right up to the King Follett address, ending only with his own death. I wish I had time to review all of Elder Penrose’s talk cited above. But nineteenth century Mormonism’s God was once a man, progressing, accumulating further light and truth until qualifying as a God. The core elements of man are of the same eternal elements of him we call God. This is the only sense that I see that the God of Mormonism can be infinite, eternal and unchangeable: “For, behold the mystery of godliness, how great is it! For behold, I am endless…” (38)


Let me conclude with two quotes written not by Dr. Robinson, but by Dr. Blomberg.

“We each speak officially for no one other then ourselves, but unofficially we reflect a fair cross-section of the religious traditions we represent. Both of us stand in the progressive wing of our movements, and yet we clearly dissociate ourselves from the “dissidents” who flirt with the very boundaries and established parameters of our respective faiths. (39)

This is remarkable. The “progressive wing” of Mormonism? This is a term I have never in my life ever heard applied to us. Orthodox, yes; heterodox, yes; apostate, yes; iron rod and liahona, yes. But never progressive. I have no idea what progressive means in an LDS context.

I would be overjoyed if I learned that there might be an “Evangelical Mormonism,” just as increasing numbers of Roman Catholics or Seventh-day Adventists are abandoning their legacies of works-centered religion. But then I would need to raise a further important question: How widespread in LDS circles are views like Robinson’s? (40)

This likewise, seems odd. Dr Blomberg views Dr. Robinson’s writings as some sort of evangelical Mormonism, similar to that found in some other faith traditions. He continues citing other examples, including other writings of Dr. Robinson, to show that these views may not be as widespread as he hoped for. (41)

President Benson’s well-known talk, based on Doctrine and Covenants 84:54 – 58, that the church is under “condemnation until they [we] repent and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon” (42) was in my experience viewed as a call to return to studying the Book of Mormon and its teachings. Robinson has a more expansive view.

…Prof. Blomberg and other evangelicals have misjudged what is happening in the contemporary LDS Church when they refer to the LDS “modifying” their doctrines and making other “changes”…Ezra Taft Benson…emphasized the importance of personal study of the Book of Mormon and other scriptures for the Latter-day Saints. He also reminded us that the Lord has not been pleased with the gap between scripturally revealed beliefs and the level of “popular” LDS understanding. (43)

Dr. Robinson then proceeds to define “popular” understanding as the uncanonized sermons and homilies from the nineteenth century, including the Journal of Discourses and similar uncanonized material, (44) which brings us fill circle from where I began.

Quoting Dr. Robinson, again:

The only change precipitated by President Benson is that Mormonism now seeks to define itself in terms of its own canonized Scriptures rather then the … speculative sermons of the nineteenth century or the popular theology of the twentieth century. I would argue that this is not an innovation but a course correction, a return to original headings. Inevitably, non-LDS will see it as a change in doctrine, but viewed from within the church it is merely a reemphasis on the basics – our basics.

Either way, it is true that the LDS Church is somewhat different today then it was a decade ago, largely as a result of President Benson’s emphasis on the Book of Mormon. I find it highly revealing that as LDS theology has moved from late nineteenth-century rhetoric to the specific doctrines of the Book of Mormon, it has also been seen as moving closer to the Evangelicals… (45)

If the response to President Hinckley’s remarks on LDS internet lists is representative, then Dr. Robinson is wrong. It is not only non-LDS who wonder if we are seeing a change in doctrine or if we are witnessing a reemphasis on basics.

Is this the trend of late twentieth-century Mormonism? In which light should President Hinckley’s recent remarks be seen: a change in doctrine or a reemphasis on basics? For this question, I do not have an answer. But let me close quoting from two friend’s private correspondence with me which reflects in part the questions raised when living in times of unexplained possible change:

…the constant change of church doctrine and practices is dis- empowering since the individual must look to someone outside of themselves (moral conscience) and any written record (the Standard Works) in the form of the President of the Church… (46)


The idea that God was once a man is an amazingly humanistic theology. It affirms an essential similarity between humanity and divinity. It can be used by people to foster a sense of worth and even independence. On the other hand, the authority structure of the church serves to separate most people (except the Brethren) from the divine, by having the Brethren mediate between the two. The more God is thought of as essentially different from us, the more we need the brethren as mediators…There seems to always have been a dynamic tension between Mormon authoritarianism and its communitarianism. It’s not hard to see which tendency predominates today. (47)


1. Blomberg, Craig L. and Stephen E. Robinson. How Wide The Divide?: A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation. (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1997). 228 pages. ISBN: 0-8308-1991-6 LCCN: 96-051534 $ 11.99 [Hereafter in footnotes as HWTD.]

2. For another brief review of the book’s organization, see Publisher’s Weekly, 24 March 1987, page 76.

3. HWTD, page 14.

4. HWTD, page 15.

5. HWTD, page 85. This definition of orthodoxy is vital to Dr. Robinson’s discussion of Mormon issues; he repeats in varying ways throughout the book. See for example pages 15, 63 – 4, 68, 73 – 4, 76, 83, 93, 135 – 6, 140, 162-3.

6. HWTD, page 208, footnote 32.

7. HWTD, page 57; same idea is expressed on pages, 58, 65, 68, and other pages.

8. HWTD, pages 73 – 74.

9. 9th Article of Faith

10. Doctrine and Covenants, Section 68:4. Note that this section is not addressed to the First Presidency or to the Twelve; neither of these quorums have been organized as of the date of the revelation in 1831. The revelation is addressed to “all those who are ordained unto this priesthood”, and is addressed to Orson Hyde and others. However, it would be my view that section 68 is generally understood to express the place of revelation in the Church, and within the bounds of the stewardship of the person receiving the revelation. of general applicability to all faithful members, including those, such as women, without priesthood.

11. Packer, Boyd K. “The Twelve Apostles”, Ensign, November 1996, page 8 (footnote 28).

12. HWTD, page 85. See also footnote 5.

13. Lee, Harold B. “The Place of the Living Prophet, Seer and Revelator”, Address to Seminary and Institute of Religion Faculty, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah; July 8, 1964, page 8; typeset in my possession

14. Ibid, page 9.

15. I do not intend to imply perfection in teaching and speaking by use of this term, rather, that the view would be that in the broadest sense, prophets might make mistakes in doctrine and belief, but not to a point to lose the ability to be lead by Christ. That this would be orthodox thinking is suggested by Bruce R. McConkie’s letter of 19 February 1981, to Eugene England, where Elder McConkie states that it is his opinion that Brigham Young, in terms of what Elder McConkie called the Adam God “theory”, had taught error.

16. Faust, James A. “Continuing Revelation”, Ensign, August 1996, pages 2 – 7.

17. Doctrine and Covenants 107:27

18. George Q. Cannon, Millennial Star, 53:673 – 74.

19. Hinckley, Gordon B. “Our Testimony to the World”, Ensign, May 1997, page 83.

19A. Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, Volume 13, page 95.

19B. Joseph F. Smith, before Congress, Reed Smoot Hearings, Volume One, page 483. 1904. Let me haste to add her that this comment predates by a number of years President Smith’s “Vision of the Redemption of the Dead”, since canonized and added to the Doctrine and Covenants.

20. Elder Maxwell’s interview is published in full in: Hewitt, Hugh. Searching For God in America. (Word Publishing: 1996.) 432 pages. $27.99. ISBN: 0-8499-1308-X. Selections from the interview were also published with permission, in Sunstone, Issue 104, December 1996, page 80.

21. Ibid.

22. Musings of the Main Mormon, San Francisco Chronicle, 13 April 1997.

23. Copy of e-mail in my possession, 7 May 1997, Mormon-l. HWTD, page 15.

24. HWTD, page 85 – 86.

25. HWTD, page 86; 209, footnote 12.

26. HWTD, page 85; 209, footnote 13.

27. Lattin, Don. “Musings of the Main Mormon”, San Francisco Chronicle, 13 April 1997. [Downloaded from the Chronicle WWW page]

28. Transcript downloaded from here.

29. Biema, David Van. “Kingdom Come”, Time, August 4, 1997, page 56.

30. Relief Society Manual, 1988, published by the church.

31. Gospel Principles, published by the Church.

32. Presidents of the Church, 1979.

33. HWTD, page 85.

34. HWTD, page 86.

35. Penrose, Charles W. “The Personality of God…”, Journal of Discourses, Volume 26, pages 20 -29.

36. HWTD, page 77.

37. HWTD, page 124.

38. Doctrine and Covenants, Section 19, verse 10

39. HWTD, page 25

40. HWTD, page 182.

41. HWTD, pages 182 – 3.

42. HWTD, 67 – 69; see also President Benson’s Conference talk, October 1986, Saturday morning session

43. HWTD, page 67.

44. HWTD, page 68.

45. HWTD, page 68 – 69.

46. Personal correspondence in my possession.

47. Personal correspondence in my possession.

The above is from:
Salt Lake City Sunstone 1997
Thursday, 7 August 1997
Session 166, 3:30 – 4:30 pm