Mormon & Evangelical Conversation: a book review

In another recent review, I faulted the authors of a recent apologetic resource for their tone (though I signaled my substantial agreement with their claims and theological commitments). Talking Doctrine: Mormons & Evangelicals in Conversation is an altogether different approach. Edited by Richard Mouw, Reformed theologian and past president of Fuller Seminary and Mormon theologian Robert Millet, Talking Doctrine is a window into a interfaith dialogue that has been happening between Mormons and Evangelicals for the past fifteen years. Because this volume has contributors from both groups, the concerns of both Mormons and Evangelicals are articulated; yet there is something else too. Each contributor has sought to listen charitably to the other and friendship and trust has grown across the theological divide.

The book’s two parts give us an overview of their discussions and some of the sticking-points for each community. Part one examines the ‘nature of the dialogue.’ The contributors summarize their dialogue and offer autobiographical reflections about what the conversation has meant, and can mean for each their communities. In part two, the authors share the mutual understanding (yet continuing disagreement) on specific doctrinal issues.

When these Mormon and evangelical scholars first met, they regarded each other with mutual suspicion. Both groups have grown used to the other making assumptions about the veracity of  their faith experience (terms like ‘cult’ and apostasy have been bandied about). And yet as they sat down to these conversation and really tried to listen to what the other group actually believed, a surprising common ground emerged. Craig Blomberg, observes:

We have recognized that the most effective forum for mutual understanding comes when we agree that none of us in our joint gatherings will try to proselytize the other, though what two of us might decide to do in some entirely private conversation elsewhere is entirely up to us. At the same time, we have all expected that our communities would continue to proselytize each other actively, but that they need to do so with much greater awareness of each other’s beliefs, misunderstandings, stereotypes, ‘red-flag’ issues and the like (34).

There was not a single convert to Mormonism or evangelicalism in these gatherings. Each participant was (and is) immersed meaningfully in their group’s theological and religious culture. However real change happened.  The evangelicals realized their own characterization of the Mormons as believers in ‘works righteousness’  The conversation revealed a mutual commitment to the efficacy and finality of Christ’s atonement and his work on the cross. The Mormons affirmed their belief in divine grace (especially Camille Fronk Olson’s essay).  This gave the evangelical contributors pause about making declarations on the eternal salvation of their Mormon friends. At the same time, several Evangelicals recognized the Mormon critique of their lack of theological unity and a central authority.

Certainly sticking-points remain and the evangelicals (or Mormon) participants would not commend the others’ faith to seekers. What has emerged from dialogue is not bland relativism of theological commitments but mutual respect and understanding.  As J. Spencer Fluhman (one of the Mormon scholars) says:

We’ve all found it  much more difficult to dismiss a theology when it is embodied. Perhaps some of our evangelical counterparts are even less convinced that we’re real Christians. But I doubt it.  I am sure of this: I would  be perfectly comfortable  with Richard Mouw or Craig Blomberg or Dennis Okholm answering questions about Mormonism in the press or in print.  I would expect them  to be clear about positions they disagree with–heaven knows they have been clear with us–but I know my name or my faith is safe in their hands. The dialogue has been demanding and it has forced some tough questions, but for the most part I have been moved by the displays of generosity and humility on both sides (31).

Without summarizing all of the essays or content of this book, some of the stand-out essays I enjoyed are: J. Spencer Fluhman’s essay on his experience of the dialogue and Blomberg’s dream for future dialogue (both cited above), Dennis Okholm’s essay on ‘apologetics as if people mattered’ more than arguments, Gerald McDermott‘s essay on the nature of serious (rigorous), devout (where each contributor is committed to their faith) and Holy dialogue (aimed at proper understanding and encounter with God), Sarah Taylor‘s autobiographical essay about learning respect for the faith of Mormons while attending BYU as an undergrad, Camille Fronk Olson‘s exploration of the doctrine of grace in Mormonism and Robert Millet’s essays about authority and revelation.

This gets an enthusiastic five stars and I am excited to see where this conversation will go!

Note: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.

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2 thoughts on “Mormon & Evangelical Conversation: a book review”

  1. I was wondering if you had read this when I read your earlier review. I have not read it but had heard very positive things about it, particularly about the tone.

    1. Well this one is worth a read, particularly if you have Mormon friends. You could add it to your never ending ‘to read pile’ 😉 Thanks!

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