N.T. Wright on the Mormon Plan of Salvation

Those of you unfamiliar with N.T. Wright may have not have caught my tongue-in-cheek titling of this post. Wright is a influential theologian and Bible scholar who is also Bishop of Durham, a prominent position in the Anglican church. His words in certain circles carry much more weight than those of 20-year old men in white shirts and black name tags.

It was therefore surprising to read this article from Time: Christians Wrong About Heaven and Hell, Says Bishop. This makes two conservative, mainstream, educated Christians in two weeks siding with Mormons (though not explicitly) on important theological issues. This of course does not, by itself, vindicate Mormonism, but it does chip away at the old adage that Latter-day Saints are not “Biblical” Christians.

In the article, which gives a brief introductory bio of Wright and his influence, Wright mentions some interesting things, including an intermediate state after death, in which we, disembodied, await a literal resurrection. It is this literal resurrection, says Wright, which should be the Christian hope, and afterwards the faithful are to be put to work, administering to world which has been reorganized by Christ.

Dante's CosmologyContrast this with traditional views, of which there seem to be two schools. The first believe that all matter is corrupt and evil and therefore our disembodied spirits should expect no literal physical resurrection after physical death, but are immediately assigned to either Heaven or Hell. Incidentally, the matter=corruption theory is what also prevents belief in an anthropomorphic, material God. Wright says this view is more in line with Greek philosophy than biblical teaching. Greek thought gave rise to opinions such as those in Dante’s Inferno which presents a final judgement immediately after death and consignment to either heaven or hell as an eternal destination.

Some other Christians believe in a physical resurrection but that the soul dies with the body—that there is no life after death before the resurrection, despite the imagery in the parable of dives and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Wright explicitly expresses his opinion that the state of the soul between death and resurrection is one of consciousness. Ecclesiastes is most often used to illustrate this concept (Ecc. 3:20; 9:5–6, 10).Hell. Which level are you on?

These views are important because Christians for centuries have been scouring the Bible to find verses to prove/justify points of view which are, according to Wright, incorrect. These continue to ignore or explain away Bible passages which point to the very things Wright asserts (here are some admirable attempts), such as the literal resurrection (Ezek. 37:12; Matt: 27:52; Rom. 8:11; Alma 11:45; Moroni 10: 34; D&C 88:97), the immortality of the soul (Eccl. 12:7; 1 Pet. 4:6; 2 Cor. 12:1-4; Alma 40; D&C 76:73), and a busy heaven (Rev. 20:4; D&C 75:21–22). Even if Wright is wrong about all of these things, his dissent is significant for two reasons:

If Wright is correct, then even though this does not establish Joseph Smith as a prophet, it damages the argument that Mormons are not Biblical Christians. The LDS view of the afterlife, while not in the top three or four Mormon “heresies,” has been a major point of contention among groups out to prove that Mormons are cultists.

If Wright is incorrect, then his dissent puts a big dent in the Protestant idea of Biblical sovereignty. No one would comfortably say that the Bishop of Durham is a heretic, and yet he interprets the Bible very differently from his co-religionists. Who is correct? If the Bible is supposed to be the final revelation from God, why are there disagreements about its interpretation? Given Wright’s opinion, mainstream Christians would be hard-pressed to counter that the Bible is clear on only important things—after all, the afterlife is pretty important. The difference in interpretation illustrates the conclusion to which Joseph Smith ultimately came:

I reflected on [the passage in James] again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible. (JS-H 1:12).

Latter-day Saints are clear on the source of our doctrine, which is incidentally, the same source from which the Bible got its truth: God himself. We do not acquire any of our peculiar doctrines simply by interpreting the Bible correctly. Eternal truth comes by direct revelation, and the Bible, which happens to be true as well, corroborates it.

Update: Woops! At first I provided a link above to Alma 7, which is a great chapter, but does not speak of the intermediary state of the soul at all. I apologize and have now update the link to Alma 40, where is should have been in the first place. Thanks for your patience.


14 Responses

  1. Actually, many have tagged the bishop as a heretic, though more often for his views of justification than for his views of the after-life. His resurrection views seem more supportive of Jehovah’s Witnesses than LDS from what I’ve read: resurrection of the body plus life on a re-created and perfect earth. I haven’t noticed Wright taking theosis from the Eastern Fathers either, one concept that could work to the favor of Mormons (though I don’t think it’d be easy to do if they were kept in context). As to the corporeality and anthropic understanding of God, the OT, apart from Greek influence, seems to emphasize a qualitative and not just a quantitative difference with humans.

    I do note that you are a faithful follower of Joseph Smith in expecting complete unity of interpretation. Is that fairly characteristic of most LDS folks these days?

  2. I must admit, his view of the “new earth” did sound a little more like Jehovah’s Witnesses than Mormons, but I think it was more his choice of terminology rather than distinct doctrine. After all, he didn’t go as far as to specify that only the righteous have hope of a resurrection, which would have sharply drawn the line between the JW and LDS view, which maintains that all people, regardless of personal righteousness will be resurrected. Admittedly, he did say that it was only the elect of God who would have leadership responsibilities on the new earth, which is still in keeping with an LDS view of the Millennium. Perhaps a potential difference is that Wright seems to side with JWs in thinking that this is the final state of the earth, whereas LDSs believe in the eventual exaltation (beyond its millennial state) of the earth and the theosis of its inhabitants.

    On the other hand, Wright differs sharply with JWs on the immortality of the soul, since they would say, with Adventists, that the soul dies with the body. Wright’s view, though not exactly the same, is more in line with Alma’s in the Book of Mormon, to which I linked above.

    And thank you for the clarification of Wright’s teachings. I’m admittedly more familiar with his reputation (he’s nearly venerated among many Christian bloggers), than his theology.

    As far as OT passages go, I would agree that there does seem to be a qualitative difference, but I would disagree that the difference extends to non-corporeality. Would you care to specify?

    When you speak of “complete unity of interpretation,” I’m not exactly sure what you mean. I think I could more ably answer your question if I understood the concept better.

  3. It’s the Joseph Smith quote and the comment, “If the Bible is supposed to be the final revelation from God, why are there disagreements about its interpretation?” that I interpret as a desire for “complete unity of interpretation.” While such a unity has sometimes been claimed (I don’t know enough about LDS to know whether they claim it or just seek it; I’m thinking of what some Catholics say about the Pope and Magisterium), I think it is much easier to claim than to actually have.

    I’ll have to think some more about how to answer the corporeality question – It’s not one I deal with with any regularity. I know there is some difference of interpretation regarding this concept between traditional Christians and LDS (I think of some of what I read years ago on the LDS view of John 4:23-24).

  4. “Don’t know if LDS . . . claim it or just seek it.”

    Actually, neither. From the Mormon understanding of Scripture it is impossible to have any unity of interpretation. That is why revelation is so important; not to unify Scripture, but to clarify or even enhance what will be a glass darkly until this mortal puts on immortality and we see more perfectly.

  5. Jettboy –

    I edited your comment for you. 🙂 As per your request, forever was taken out. I hope it’s what you wanted.

    Richard –

    Forgive me, I’m still not sure what you mean by “unity of interpretation.” I’m still trying to read your meaning from context. Let me posit a few guesses:

    Unity of Interpretation:

    “The Bible does and should have one right interpretation. Any differing interpretations are wrong.”

    “Interpretation of scripture (and across scripture) ought to be consistent and free from contradiction.”

    “Latter-day Saints have all the answers. No one else has any answers.”

    Okay, I’m kidding with that last one. To be perfectly clear, LDS definitely do not claim to have all the answers and don’t claim to be the only source of truth.

    Anyway, I’m curious to know what a unified interpretation actually entails. Does it mean that all mentions of “heaven” or “salvation” or “repentence” have to be interpreted the same way no matter where they appear in context? Please explain/clarify.

  6. You quote Joseph Smith as saying, “…the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.” This is what I’m interpreting as looking for a unity of interpretation. He wanted some basic level of agreement on what the text said.

  7. Richard-

    Thanks, I see what you’re saying now.

    I think Joseph’s point was that a tradtional view of the Bible–i.e. that we should expect no more information from God and that the Bible contains all the humanity needs–necessarily demands a unity of interpretation. Otherwise, scripture’s authority is severely undercut if there can’t be an agreement on what it teaches. Anyone, presumably, can make it say anything, and no one is wrong.

    The open canon of Mormonsim, on the other hand, needs no strict unity of interpretation, because we fully acknowledge that speculation and disagreement must be tolerated until we get more facts. We acknowledge that, even though there is a right answer, God will tell us in his own good time, and until then, do the best with what we have. Because we know our records are incomplete, it is unreasonable to expect any kind of unity at this point. If, however, our records were complete, like they are for most Christians, we would have to alter our view of God significantly to comfortably accomodate a disunity of interpretation.

    On the other hand, there are certain issues for which we do have enough information to have a unified interpretation. Biblical interpretations which question the doctrine of free will, for instance, are called into serious question if they do not come with heavy qualification, since the Book of Mormon and D&C make it clear that free will is a fundamental part of Christ’s gospel.

    So to sum up, yes, I believe in right and wrong answers, but I don’t necessarily believe in only one right answer. Do all other Mormons believe this? I would say not. I think many people believe everything the Church teaches has to be accounted for, and the conflicts must be explained away or reinterpreted in order to remain tenable. I would say I’m more patient and don’t expect immediate resolution.

  8. Thanks for clarifying the Joseph Smith quote and LDS view on this. I’d first heard the quote years ago (back in high school) but hadn’t heard much explanation of it. I confess that as a United Methodist pastor I spend a lot more time reading Tom Wright’s stuff than I do LDS stuff.

  9. Right, well up until a week ago, I didn’t even know who Tom Wright was.

  10. […] (2/27/08): I just noticed that Jon at The Sunday Page also recently wrote about N.T. Wright’s views on eschatology and how they correlate with LDS teachings.  Check it out. Notes:Article of Faith 10 [←]Millenial […]

  11. N.T. Wright’s position on life after death sounds like that found in Rabbinic Judaism The Talmud does not talk about heaven as the place where you go when you die. It talks about the World to Come or the Messianic Age. Revelation squares with the Rabbinic notion of a restored creation.

  12. In referring to prophetic utterances, we refer to them mundanely as “stuff”? That has the ring of referring to Deiity as , “Hey, you!”

  13. After briefly scanning the responses to this article, I just wanted to clarify a few points of LDS doctrine. The Jehovah’s Witnesses and the LDS church both believe that “the earth will be renewed and receive it’s paradisiacle glory” (articles of faith). In this way N.T. Wright’s position does support LDS theology. A second point is the fact that all revelation and scripture must be “in strict harmony with the bible with the scriptures with the word of God” (Hugh B. Brown) LDS Members do not seek for harmonization but rather claim that all the scriptures and inspired words of those deemed prophet must allign.


  14. I’m not sure if anyone is still reading this – I’m a bit late to the party. It’s great to read your thoughts on N.T. Wright, but I wanted to point out that his views on the afterlife are really not as novel and ‘untraditional’ as people seem to think. It is not the case that NTW has come up with a radically new understanding of Scriptural teaching on the afterlife that contradicts ‘traditional’ Christianity and affirms the LDS alternative. Rather, he is drawing people’s attention back to the biblical teaching of the physical resurrection of believers (1 Corinthians 15), which is a thoroughly creedal doctrine, even though on a popular level many Christians (and many preachers) tend to think in terms of their disembodied soul going to ‘heaven’ forever. The Apostles’ Creed states “I believe in … the resurrection of the body”. Hence, rather than seeking to overturn traditional creedal Christianity, NTW is calling for popular Christianity to return to the teaching of the creeds.

    From my non-LDS point of view, it may well be the case that LDS doctrine sometimes emphasises elements of truth which have been neglected in the historic churches. Historically, Christian heresies have often been reactions against deficiencies of emphasis within the orthodox churches, but have often overreacted and ended up generating further error.

    With regard to Mormonism, I would agree, for instance with the LDS church that God speaks to his children today in tangible ways (not just in biblical times) – i.e. ‘the heavens are not sealed’; that a bare profession of faith without any evidence of spiritual fruit is not saving faith; and that God is not an abstract detached entity but is personally and passionately engaged with his creation. All of these affirmations are entirely consistent with historic Christian orthodoxy, and Mormonism has been right to reject views some Christians have held to the contrary – however, to acknowledge this is not to agree with the distinctive LDS doctrines which have been built around these affirmations

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