Beliefnet recently published this debate between Albert Mohler (President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) and Orson Scott Card (a Mormon writer). [HT Mark Shea] The question being debated is: Are Mormons Christian?
Card goes right to the heart of the problem for Mohler: authority. Card asks: "Who gets to define 'Christian'?" Mohler knows that sola scriptura is not enough here, so he appeals to "traditional Christian orthodoxy". He mentions the historic creeds. He writes:
"The orthodox consensus of the Christian church is defined in terms of its historic creeds and doctrinal affirmations."I agree with Card that Mohler simply begs the question. He has to. He has rejected Apostolic succession, so he has no recourse to sacramental magisterial authority, including the authority of the General Councils and Creeds. Presumably he rejects the fifth General Council's teaching that Mary remained ever-virgin. (Cf. capitula 2) But if he rejects the authority of the fifth, then why not the first, second, third and fourth as well? If he held even to the first seven, his position would be much more like that of the Orthodox Churches, and much less like that of the Southern Baptists.
Drawing from St. Vincent of Lerins, Mohler claims that the true faith is that which was "recognized and affirmed everywhere, always, and by all". But presumably he rejects the distinction between bishop and priest, something already clearly visible in the writings of St. Ignatius bishop of Antioch, writing as an old man in 107 AD. The same General Councils to which Mohler appeals regarding the Trinity and the nature of Christ, were decided by bishops who all recognized and affirmed the distinction between bishops and priests. Presumably Mohler rejects the transformation of the bread and wine, baptismal regeneration, veneration of relics, the sacrament of confirmation, the sacrament of penance/reconciliation, fasting on Fridays and during Lent, and the communion of saints, all things that the Church held and believed everywhere. If he thinks Novatianism and Donatism are heresies, how does he think he avoids them? But if he denies that they were heresies, then he has no grounds for criticizing Card for picking and choosing differently from "traditional Christian orthodoxy" than he does himself.
Card could reply by also affirming the Vincentian canon, and claiming that Mormonism is what was initially recognized and affirmed everywhere, always, and by all, and that the purity of the gospel had already been distorted and corrupted by the end of the first century. Mohler's only rejoinder would be: My ecclesial deism isn't as extreme as yours. Card could reply: True, but it is more eclectic and no less ad hoc. Picking 500 AD as the cutoff for "traditional Christian orthodoxy" is no less ad hoc than picking 80 AD. If any ecclesial deism is allowed, then there is no more principled reason to think the 'apostasy of the Church' didn't begin for 500 years than there is to think it began in the first century. And if the creeds have authority for Mohler only insofar as they agree with his interpretation of Scripture, then Card can simply reply that he [Card] does not interpret the Scriptures that way, and therefore the creeds have no such 'authority' for him.
At some point while studying the first four hundred years of the Church, I realized that the term 'Christian' isn't as important as the word 'Catholic'. All the heretics claimed to be Christians. St. Augustine writes:
There are many other things that most justly keep me in her [i.e. the Catholic Church's] bosom. ... The succession of priests keeps me, beginning from the very seat of the Apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after His resurrection, gave it in charge to feed His sheep, down to the present episcopate. And so, lastly, does the name itself of Catholic, which, not without reason, amid so many heresies, the Church has thus retained; so that, though all heretics wish to be called Catholics, yet when a stranger asks where the Catholic Church meets, no heretic will venture to point to his own chapel or house. (Against the Epistle of Manichaeus Called Fundamental)My discussions with Mormons were a significant factor in helping me realize my own ecclesial deism. I pray that Mohler will likewise be benefitted from this exchange. We cannot have unity until we recognize sacramental magisterial authority, and reject ecclesial deism.