Talking with Mormons: An Invitation to Evangelicals

By Richard J. Mouw.

Grand  Rapids: Eerdmanns, 2012, x + 99 pp., $7.59 paper.

Reviewed by Dr. Bryan Hurlbutt, Lead Pastor at Lifeline Community in West Jordan, Utah

Richard Mouw is the outgoing president of Fuller Theological Seminary.  He is a key evangelical figure in the realm of interfaith dialogue and has spent the better part of the last decade engaged in discussions with Latter-day Saint scholars and some LDS church officials.  His role has afforded him some high profile encounters typified by his role in the preliminary portion of Ravi Zacharias 2004 lecture at “An Evening of Friendship” in the Mormon Tabernacle at Temple Square in Salt Lake City.  This event is central to the book’s occasion and content since it affords much of the impetus for Mouw’s role in Mormon/Evangelical dialogues and established him as both a respected and controversial figure in this arena.

As someone present at that Tabernacle event and as an evangelical regularly engaged with Latter-day Saints in both the public arena and local church life, I take a particular interest in Mouw’s work and role in interfaith dialogue.

Mouw’s book is short and consists of twelve short chapters (including an introduction entitled “Explaining the Sound Bites”).  The general intent of the book seems two-fold.  On the one hand it serves as an opportunity for Mouw to explain and possibly vindicate his approach to interfaith dialogue with Mormons.  On the other it is, in accord with the book’s subtitle, an invitation for evangelicals to dialogue with Mormons maintaining the tenor and optimism characteristic of his own approach.

He begins with two brief chapters orienting the reader to the subject at hand.  The first sets out the defining moment that created Mouw’s public platform in this branch of interfaith dialogue.  He briefly describes his 2004 Mormon Tabernacle comments and offers a brief explanation for the nature of his conciliatory remarks.  In the next chapter he shifts into a bit of autobiographical information regarding his early engagement with Mormonism that set the stage for his desire to craft a conciliatory approach focused on mutual understanding.  Citing, among other personal experiences, his observation of Walter Martin’s factual but insensitive engagement with a Mormon, Mouw sets out to articulate a different kind of engagement one less driven by polemical debate and more directed to mutual awareness of each other’s theological convictions.

In the third chapter he gets to the heart of his modus operandi in evangelical/Mormon interaction by criticizing the traditional “counter-cult” approaches to reaching Latter-day Saints.  Mouw is mainly critical of the ethos of those vested in this approach typified by the aforementioned Walter Martin.  Here Mouw over-generalizes and egregiously lacks the nuance to proffer an adequate criticism of a label that encompasses a wide variety of philosophies for missional engagement.  “Counter-cult” ministry does not resemble the monolithic gloss which Mouw uses to paint it as he describes “prominent” and “typical” strategies of such approaches.  Additionally, his assessment of “counter-cult” failures is simply wrong in specific assertions.  For example, he cites that “the problem with the typical evangelical historical effort to find a smoking gun in Mormon teaching is that it hasn’t been very successful.”  When, in fact, the guns of Mesoamerican archaeology, the existence of reformed Egyptian writing, DNA evidence for the Semitic origins for Native Americans and the location of Cumorah, among others, are still smoking furiously.  His overall caution to make sure that we steer away from creating straw men is important and valuable.  His means of illustrating his point, however, seems strained.

In his fourth chapter Mouw interacts with a book by LDS author O. Kendall White entitled Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy.  White wrote this in 1987 out of concern for where he saw his church’s theology heading.  Mouw finds encouragement in what White was concerned about and wonders if it typifies the broader trend in the movement of LDS theology that he attests to.  But perhaps it is here that Mouw’s detractors find their most significant fodder for disagreement with him.  Mouw uses an example from White’s book as he expresses concern about Glenn Pearson, a BYU faculty member and his theological writings.  Mouw quotes a section in which he believes Pearson to be sounding a “solidly biblical call for sinful people to plead for mercy from a righteous God.”  He even goes on to suggest, after quoting Pearson, that an evangelical would not find fault with what Pearson said in the quoted paragraph.  But what does Pearson actually say?  Here is Pearson’s quote and no review of Mouw’s work can ignore this quote and Mouw’s affirmation of its orthodoxy: “There has to be a down payment of a broken heart and a contrite spirit.  Who has a broken heart and contrite spirit?  One who is stripped of pride and selfishness.  One who has come down in the depths of humility and prostrated himself before the Lord in mighty prayer and supplication.  He has realized the awful guilt of his sins and pled for the blood of Christ to be a covering to shield himself from the face of a just God.  Such a one has made the down payment.”

Strikingly, Mouw’s affirmation of this quote’s orthodoxy misses the very heart of the chasm between evangelical and LDS soteriology, namely, the sufficiency of Christ’s death.  What evangelical would regard Christ’s death as a “down payment?”  The very heart of evangelical and reformation soteriology is grounded upon the fact that Christ’s death is a “full payment” not merely a “down payment.”  This lack of savvy regarding how Latter-day Saints historically and presently speak of atonement in synergistic terms is what alarms Mouw’s critics.

In his subsequent chapter entitled “Getting at the Basics” Mouw tries to show that we can disagree significantly about theology without asserting that the one we disagree with is eternally lost.  At a basic level this assertion certainly holds.  However, his assessment concerning Mormonism suffers from a weakness in both his sample size and his sample diversity.  He admits that the sample he has to go on in shaping his conclusions about whether he is being misled is the motives of his Mormon friends.  This is fair enough.  But his sampling is too nuanced and not indicative of Mormonism.  A handful of BYU scholars and a couple of church officials do not give us the sensu lato of Mormon doctrine.  But Mouw seems to assume that they do.

In one sense Mouw is appropriate and honest to share from whence his assessment comes and this is commendable and does give insight into appreciating his perspective from his own experience.  Yet if his book’s subtitle holds it provides inadequate grounding for an invitation for evangelicals to engage Mormons in dialogue because his sampling is not at all indicative of the warp and woof of Mormonism that evangelicals would normally engage.  And while Mouw’s personal engagement with LDS scholars may indeed be moving the meter at the scholarly level, his book is a broader invitation that is intended to extend beyond academia.  And it is in this larger and more pedestrian realm that his experience and example fall flat.

The next several chapters in the book deal with different key points in the discussion of Mormon doctrine as it rubs up against evangelical Christianity.  Mouw rightly and helpfully begins by asserting that our attitude needs to lack presumption when we engage our Mormon friends in discussion about important theological matters.  His righteous desire to have dialogue flavored by Christian virtue is important and commendable and can serve as an important corrective to many who don’t adequately value the weight of the Puritan admonition that “God loveth adverbs.”

In these chapters three issues are dealt with: Jesus’ identity, the nature of religious authority and the person of Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith.  Mouw tries to show points of resonance and common ground for gaining theological traction in conversation with Mormons on these three important issues.  He has rightly identified these three as central topics that cut at the heart of much of the discussion between the two communities.

In the first of these chapters dealing with Jesus, Mouw’s generous spirit pervades so much that it feels like the chapter’s intent is to minimize disparities between evangelical and Mormon perspectives about Jesus identity (i. e. the Son’s relationship to the Father, Jesus’ pre-existent ontology and the nature of Jesus’ conception), to smooth over past statements of creedal rejection on the part of Mormons and to reframe LDS soteriology.  In the second of these chapters dealing with authority he discusses briefly the role of the Prophet, revelation and inscripturation in Mormonism highlighting that evangelicals often pragmatically add to the canon in the way they view creeds and confessions.  Finally in the third chapter dealing with Joseph Smith he takes an empathetic view of the religion’s founder preferring to utilize Smith’s quest for fulfillment of deep human longings as a starting point rather than specious assertions about his character. Throughout these three more doctrinal chapters his generous and well-meaning efforts utilize a range of false analogies (pp. 48, 51, 65, 69) and eisegetical interpretations (pp. 53-54 and 56-57).  Generosity of spirit is commendable but only in concert with, not at the expense of, doctrinal clarity.

In the book’s final two chapters Mouw makes a final appeal that he is not being duped in his discussions with Mormons and that we need to “cut some slack” in these dialogues to allow for some of the misunderstood messiness that is part of two traditions trying to understand each other.  Additionally, he closes with an illustration about the differences between propositional knowledge and experiential knowledge.  He leaves the reader with the idea that he wants us to be open to people (presumably Mormons) having wrong propositional knowledge of Jesus but real experiential knowledge of Jesus via a genuine relationship.

Mouw’s book is unique among literature addressing the topic because of its situational appeal.  It is akin to Carl Henry’s short book in 1947, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, which helped establish the divide between evangelicalism and fundamentalism.  Like Mouw’s work it was an insider’s polemical appeal to issues of cultural and theological engagement.  While there are a number of works that address evangelical and Mormon dialogue at differing levels such as Blomberg and Robinson’s How Wide the Divide?: A Mormon & an Evangelical in Conversation, Johnson and Millet’s Bridging the Divide: The Continuing Conversation Between a Mormon and an Evangelical and McDermott and Millet’s Claiming Christ: A Mormon-Evangelical Debate along with a plethora of works that attempt to engage LDS theology from evangelical perspectives there is not a book like this because the situation and perspective is unique to a particular setting and occasion.

The book will serve as a helpful summary of Mouw’s approach and his legacy in interfaith dialogue and as a helpful representation to an important perspective in evangelical engagement with Mormonism.  Yet it is not particularly helpful or balanced if one wants an assessment of how to engage Latter-day Saint thinking.  It is overrun with false analogies, over-generalizations and lacks both the breadth and the nuance to be much help in practical or scholarly engagement with Mormonism.  Its appeal is to a limited number of people engaged in or aware of the issues at play in this sector of interfaith discussion.  Its arrival in an election year with a Mormon candidate running for president may evoke additional interest, but more than anything it will serve as an artifact of history in an ongoing debate about the nature of evangelicalism’s engagement with Latter-day Saints.


For a 9-part Viewpoint on Mormonism series on this book that aired in June 2012, click on the following links:  Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4  Part 5  Part 6  Part 7 Part 8  Part 9  

For other reviews on manuals, books, and videos, click here.