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.

Summa Contra Moroni: a book review

I was asked several months ago by a ministry colleagu if I had any resources on Mormonism. I really didn’t, other than perhaps a chapter in an overview of world religions. It is interesting that I have a number of resources  on Atheism and the grower secularism in our country. Yet we’ve come much closer to electing a committed Mormon as president than we ever have electing a confirmed Atheist. The evangelical Liberty University has had Glenn Beck deliver a commencement address where he took time to describe his experience of faith as a Mormon. Evangelicals are used to cooperating with Mormons on moral issues (i.e. Abortion, traditional marriage) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has major and growing influence on all aspects of our culture. However their vision of God, humanity, the Bible, salvation, and revelation are different from orthodox expressions of the Christian faith

Mormonism 101: Examining the Religion of the Latter Day Saints is not, as the title implies, a simple overview of basic Mormon beliefs, though that is certainly included. It is a book about how basic Mormon beliefs are wrong and are incompatible with biblical Faith. Authors Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson of the Mormonism Research Ministry have dedicated their lives to engaging Mormons in conversation about the tenants of their faith from an Evangelical Christian perspective. Because they know Mormonism as a dynamic faith led by a living prophet and president, their case against Mormonism makes generous use of documentary evidence, drawn especially from leaders who are central to the Mormon faith.

McKeever and Johnsons book gives a comprehensive overview of Mormonism. They examine the LDS concept of God (the Father, Jesus, and the Trinity),  Mormon anthropology (Human preexistence, the secondary state, the fall and apostasy), their scriptures, their concept of salvation, their ordinances and temple practices, and their concept (and content) of Revelation.  I appreciated how carefully they built their case on documentary evidence (with extensive endnotes at the end of each chapter). Their purpose in writing, is to be a resource for non-Mormons as they engage in conversation with Mormons.

In general, I agree with their theological convictions and their take on Mormonism. I am an Evangelical pastor and while I respect Mormons for their lifestyle and commitment to mission, I think their concept of God, Jesus and Humanity is deeply flawed and their teachings are problematic. Nevertheless I have trouble with the tone of this book.

When I was in college I remember extended conversations on faith I had with a couple of Muslims. They carried little booklets with them with titles like How to Answer a Bible Thumper which rehearsed the contradictions in the Bible (from a Muslim perspective). Mostly, they demonstrated misunderstanding of my faith, having observed it from the outside. I wonder if there is a similar dynamic related to this book. This is not a sympathetic take on Mormonism. Not even a sympathetic-critical take. This is a critical look at where Mormonism is wrong and occasionally the authors tone bothered me and definitely would bother me if I was a Mormon reader.

That caveat aside, for my purposes, I think this is a helpful resource to have around and will likely refer to when I’m next In conversation with a Mormon. In several places, it helped me clear up some of my own misconceptions of Mormon beliefs and I think it is on point on many of the issues (especially the Mormon concept of God and humanity. I give this four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from Baker Books in exchange for my honest review.