Joseph Smith and Modern Mormonism: Orthodoxy, Neoorthodoxy, Tension, and Tradition

Much has been said in recent years about the development and “evolution” of thought and practice in Mormonism. Of particular interest to some is what is perceived to be a “reconstruction of Mormon doctrine,” a movement on the part of the Church away from a traditional view of God, man, and salvation, toward a radical “progressive theology.”

O. Kendall White has described what he calls a type of “Mormon neoorthodoxy.” From White’s perspective, Mormonism emerged in the midst of Restorationism, with a theology not terribly unlike other Protestant faiths of the day. White believes, however, that in time Joseph Smith and the Mormons reached beyond their primitivist roots and developed into a progressive and expansive faith characterized by such beliefs as a finite God, the innate goodness of man, and exaltation by works. But with the expansion of the Church in the modern world, White proposes that a “crisis” in faith has taken place in the lives of many modern Mormons, particularly as they have engaged a growing secularization, more liberal ethical systems, accelerated efforts of anti-Mormons, or revisionist explanations for foundational events of Mormonism. He suggests that a form of “Mormon neoorthodoxy” has begun to develop—an attempt to return to a tighter “redemptive” theological system, based primarily upon a belief in the sovereignty of God, the moral depravity of man, and salvation by grace. Because Joseph Smith’s progressive brand of Mormonism ingeniously linked the other-worldly with the here and now—because it pointed man in a positive and lifting direction, away from the pessimistic worldview of traditional Protestantism—White fears that “few things portend a more ominous future” for the Church than the growing trend toward a redemptive theology.

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