Review of Talking Doctrine: Mormons & Evangelicals In Conversation (IVP Academic, 2015, edited by Richard J. Mouw and Robert L. Millet)
By Eric Johnson
Listen to a 5-day Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast series airing in the late summer 2015: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5
The Conversation of Mormon and Evangelical Scholars
Two of my daughters and I had the chance in the summer of 2015 to visit the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio and admire the busts of dozens of elite football players. Something I found interesting was the “Gold Jacket Lounge” at the complex, off-limits to the curious fan and generally reserved for those possessing gold jackets, the iconic symbol of ultimate success in the NFL.
In 2000, a group of scholars composed of Evangelical Christians and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon or LDS) created a similar and very exclusive type of club. Over the past decade and a half, those aligning with this ecumenical gathering have participated in meetings at places such as Nauvoo (IL) and Palymra (NY), two LDS historical sites, as well as Wheaton College (IL) and Fuller Theological Seminary (CA), Christian schools of higher learning. The dialogue provided avenues of discussing church history and theology while encouraging relationships between scholars of different persuasions.
Credited by members of the group for initially getting the two sides together is Greg Johnson, who grew up Mormon and later converted to Christianity. As an M.Div. student at Denver Theological Seminary in Colorado in the mid-1990s, he helped connect his New Testament professor, Craig Blomberg, with Brigham Young University professor Stephen E. Robinson; the two later coauthored a book that attempted to deal with some of the differences between the two faiths.[i]
Today the face of the unnamed group is best typified by Robert L. Millet, a professor emeritus at LDS-owned Brigham Young University, and Richard Mouw, the former president of Fuller Theological Seminary. On November 13, 2004, apologist Ravi Zacharias was invited to address a capacity audience at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. Before Zacharias got up to speak, Mouw gave a short introduction and claimed that Christians “have often misrepresented the faith and beliefs of the Latter-day Saints.” Needless to say, his obvious slam on apologetically-minded churches and ministries ended up attracting more media attention than Zacharias’s sermon. A few years later Mouw penned a popular book[ii] stridently chiding those whom he felt practiced apologetics in too confrontational a manner.
Published in August 2015, Talking Doctrine: Mormons & Evangelicals in Conversation marks fifteen years of these interfaith meetings. With nineteen LDS and Evangelical Christian contributors, this book appears to be the final scene of the group’s dialogue because, as Millet explained, “this particular body of participants had probed and investigated about as much as we could.”[iii]
Is Mormonism Christianity?
Although there have been a few exceptions, most who had been allowed to participate in the interfaith dialogues are scholars working on or possessing their doctorates. Those who belong to Christian ministries aimed at exploring the differences between Mormonism and Christianity as well as most Utah Christian pastors were not invited to participate. It was as if only those with the gold jackets who agreed to abide by the unwritten rules of the fellows were offered an open door. Demonizing those who might practice apologetics differently than the scholars belonging to this group, Mouw explained in the book’s preface: “The past encounters between our two faith communities had been, from the beginnings of Mormonism in the early decades of the nineteenth century, typified by angry accusations and denunciatory rhetoric.”[iv] Later in the book, Millet poisons the well by contrasting those espousing “anti-Mormon polemic” with the conversations of these particular scholars, which he wrote were marked by “sweet informality, a brother-and-sisterhood, a kindness in disagreement, a respect for opposing views, and a feeling of responsibility toward those not of our faith.”[v]
The overwhelming consensus from the book’s contributors is that Mormonism is not so far off the orthodox trail as many might think. “Latter-day Saints are Bible-believing Christians—but with a difference” is how BYU professor J.B. Haws—quoting Philip Barlow—put it in his chapter “Is Mormonism Biblical?”[vi] Roanoke College (VA) professor Gerald R. McDermott explained that as he did research for another book he coauthored with Millet in 2007, he “learned that the Mormon tradition was far more Christ-centered than I had imagined.”[vii]
Core doctrines of Mormonism have not been abandoned by the LDS contributors. For example, in his chapter on “the origin and nature of human beings,” BYU professor Grant Underwood concluded that “the doctrine of humans’ potential to become like their Heavenly Father is central to the gospel of Jesus Christ,”[viii] a theme hardly consistent with the historic Christian faith. Millet points to the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of theosis to support potential divinization of humans, even though Mormonism’s doctrine of attaining the essence of deity is not the same. Millet explains, “Even though we believe in the ultimate deification of human beings, I am unaware of any authoritative statement in LDS literature that suggests that men and women will ever worship any being other than the ones within the Godhead.”[ix] Yet if God the Father was once just like we are when He was in His previous existence, as Mormonism teaches, then why are humans commanded to worship nothing more than an exalted man?
Too often the LDS contributors theorize, speculate, and present their personal hypotheses while offering opinions of perceived similarities with Evangelical Christianity. Only Mormon leaders known as general authorities are commissioned to define Mormon doctrine, not the laity and scholars. As Handbook 2: Administering the Church explains, “Teachers and leaders use the scriptures, the teachings of latter-day prophets, and approved curriculum materials to teach and testify of the doctrines of the gospel. Approved curriculum materials for each class or quorum are listed in the current Instructions for Curriculum. As needed, teachers and leaders supplement curriculum materials with Church magazines, particularly the general conference issues of the Ensign.” [x]
A church manual used by the laity in 2015 states, “The most important prophet, so far as we are concerned, is the one who is living in our day and age. This is the prophet who has today’s instructions from God to us.”[xi] Criticizing those who disagree with the prophet, it added, “The two groups who have the greatest difficulty in following the prophet are the proud who are learned and the proud who are rich. The learned may feel the prophet is only inspired when he agrees with them; otherwise, the prophet is just giving his opinion-speaking as a man.” [xii] Even BYU professor J. Spencer Fluhman admitted in his chapter that “the Mormon scholars have no general ecclesiastical authority.”[xiii]
While some of the LDS contributors do provide selective quotes from their scriptures and leaders, the Evangelicals offer few such citations. It’s as if they are not fluent in the official teachings of Mormonism. Yet references to articles and books written by Richard Mouw and Robert Millet are found in at least half of the book’s chapters. Meanwhile, seven of the ten Christian contributors to Talking Doctrine have official ties to Fuller Theological Seminary. Could the presuppositions of Richard Mouw and this less-than-conservative institution have an undue influence on the conclusions these writers make? Finally, why didn’t the living LDS “prophet” and “apostles”—all of whom supposedly possess an authoritative connection with God—have a role in this conversation?
The Case for Inclusivism
The idea given in these essays is that Mormonism and Christianity are somehow compatible. Consider Sarah Taylor’s piece titled “An Evangelical at Brigham Young University” describing her relationship with “Billy,” an LDS student who believed that God the Father may have sinned in a previous existence. If He had, Billy told Sarah, the “total efficacy of Jesus’ atonement” could have overridden any sins that God the Father may have previously committed. Based on her relationship with Billy, Taylor explained, “All at once, it hit me that Billy—Mormon, God-may-have-sinned Billy—was a Christian. Whenever Billy talked about Jesus, he talked like a man in love, and that was just it for me. Billy has the Holy Spirit in him, I kept thinking. Billy has been born again. And the act of being born seemed like an all-or-nothing event. In all his Mormonness, Billy was no less born again than I was. Literally, I thought, as I sat down next to Billy, we are the same amount Christian.”[xiv] Answering the question “who is Jesus Christ?” Dennis Okholm, a professor at Azusa Pacific University and Fuller Seminary, concludes “that my LDS dialogue partners have more in common with the answer we evangelicals give to that question than I had previously thought.”[xv]
Is a person who holds to a doctrinal view such as God the Father having sinned in a previous existence, or accepts a Jesus who is not fully God, a saved individual, according to the biblical Christian faith? It seems that Christianity has historically held a narrow view of truth while negating the validity of those holding to pluralism or inclusivism. Indeed, it’s a dangerous precedent to allow competing worldviews to claim the name “Christian.” Could it be that friendships developed over fifteen years of dialogue cloud the perspective of those who have participated in this gold-jacket group? If so, caution should be the rule rather than the exception.
[i] How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and Evangelical in Conversations (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997).
[ii] Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (Downer’s Grove: IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010).
[iii] Talking Doctrine: Mormons & Evangelicals in Conversation (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 221.
[iv] Ibid., 9.
[v] Ibid., 22-23.
[vi] Ibid., 218.
[vii] Ibid., 85. The book they wrote was Claiming Christ: A Mormon-Evangelical Debate (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2007).
[viii] Ibid., 160.
[ix] Ibid., 203.
[x] This is section 5.5.4 in the official church handbook, quoted in Ensign (October 2012), 11.
[xi] Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2014), 149.
[xii] The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson (Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1988), 138.
[xiii] Talking Doctrine, 30.
[xiv] Ibid., 105. Italics in original.
[xv] Ibid., 58.