Thanks for enjoying these excerpts from the introduction and joint conclusion of Craig Blomberg and Stephen Robinson’s book “How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation, which you can find at Amazon.com at this link.
Craig Blomberg and Stephen Robinson
I WAS A GRADUATE STUDENT at Duke University when our LDS bishop, along with other local ministers, received an invitation to attend a meeting of a citizens’ committee combating the growth of adult bookstores and movie houses in our area. However, when LDS representatives actually showed up at the meeting, they were asked to leave because some of the Evangelical ministers threatened to walk out if Mormons were involved. So we withdrew, but the lesson was not lost on us—some Evangelicals oppose Mormons more vehemently than they oppose pornography.
More recently a friend of mine returned to Utah after her husband completed his twenty years in the military. As practicing Latter-day Saints, they do not smoke or drink, and they uphold certain nonnegotiable social and moral standards. They tell me that it was often difficult in the service to make friends who shared similar values. Early on they discovered that they generally felt comfortable in the company of Evangelical Christians and that Evangelicals tended to feel the same way about them—but only as long as the subject of religious affiliation was avoided. If they let their Evangelical friends know they were LDS, the Evangelicals frequently would not see them again.
I must confess my amazement that two communities with as much in common in so many areas as Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals are not on better terms, particularly since much of what separates us is in my opinion false impressions, which are generated by extremists on both sides or are caused by misunderstanding each other’s theological terminology.
One of the great paradoxes in LDS-Evangelical relations is that we frequently gravitate toward each other, and then we are surprised that this is so.’ In graduate school I found that my closest colleagues generally turned out to be the more conservative students. Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints share the same moral standards, the same family values, the same old-fashioned standards of personal conduct. We have the same reverence for the sacred. We both interpret the Scriptures literally and believe them to mean what they say. Latter-day Saints read C. S. Lewis with a sense of kinship; we read E E Bruce, Bruce Metzger and other Evangelical biblical scholars and seldom, if ever, fmd cause for disagreement. Most Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints alike would be surprised at the amount of theology we share. In any situation where denominational affiliations are not identified up front, Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals will sense shared values and a shared outlook and move toward each other—until individual affiliations are revealed. Then prejudice or proselytizing usually ends the fellowship.
Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals do not understand each other Very well, and much of what we say about each other is untrue. There are many unintentional lies, since the most accessible sources of information on both sides are often untrustworthy or polemical. Thus we learn and pass on untruths. I believe both Prof. Blomberg and I were surprised to discover how little we really knew about each other when we first began corresponding. I have learned that what many Mormons believe about the theology of “born again” or “saved-by-gracers” (as Evangelicals are sometimes labeled by LDS) is often a caricature of mainstream Evangelical beliefs, as distorted and unfair as the typical Evangelical view of Latter-day Saints.’ Though unfortunate, it would be fair to say that the average Latter-day Saint honestly believes the average Evangelical to be mean-spirited and dishonest; mean-spirited because, as Prof. Blomberg has pointed out, we tend to identify all Evangelicals with the fundamentalist anti-Mormons who incessantly attack us, and dishonest because these so-called anticulfists always insist the LDS believe things we do not in fact believe’ Since the Evangelicals of our experience—Professor Blomberg calls them fundamentalists—usually attack us and usually tell whoppers about us when they do` (i.e., are mean-spirited and dishonest), we naturally assume that all Evangelicals think and behave the same way.
In fact, most Evangelicals do at least passively accept and even actively disseminate the picture of Latter-day Saints created by rabid anti-Mormons, and so they share some responsibility for the continuation of these impressions. It was always a mystery to me as a Latter-day Saint how the Evangelicals who so consistently misrepresented my beliefs could be so right and so admirable in many other ways. Perhaps if mainstream Evangelicals could distance themselves a little from the repugnant literature of “extreme fundamentalists,” as Prof. Blomberg calls them, Mormons could in turn do a better job of distinguishing between mainstream Evangelicals and fundamentalists.
Ironically, what I most appreciate about Prof. Blomberg is his fairness and honesty. If I say to him, “Look, I just don’t believe that” (as I frequently do), he accepts it, whereas most Evangelicals of my acquaintance merely smile and think me a liar. A precedent of sorts is found in the orthodox Christian understanding of Judaism before events of the twentieth century forced a long-overdue correction. Until then, Jews had been vilified by Christians for doctrines and practices they didnotreally espouse, simply because Christians were unwilling to abandon their fantastic prejudices and accept what Jews actually said about themselves. In time the stereotypes (including the blood libel) became a part of orthodox belief (added precepts of the popular Christian faith), just as a distorted stereotype of the LDS has become a religious conviction for some Evangelicals. It has become their orthodoxy that Mormons believe X, Y and Z, even though the Latter-day Saints emphatically deny it.
This is why the initial disagreements between us are always about what Mormons believe instead of about whether or not it is true. (This phenomenon alone should give thinking persons a sufficient clue to recognize the distortion.) I am very happy to discuss my beliefs with anyone, but it is absurd—and a sure and certain sign of bad faith—to argue with me that I do not really believe what I think I believe! Any religious group, whether Jewish, Mormon, Baptist or whatever, ought to be able to define itself rather than be defined by its antagonists.
Professor Blomberg is the first Evangelical scholar I have known of to examine the Latter-day Saints closely for any purpose other than where best to land a blow. Through my association with him I have come to accept that most Latter-day Saints have probably encountered only the more extreme factions of Evangelicalism and have mistakenly identified that part as the whole.
Quite frequently Prof. Blomberg and I have discovered that our initial ideas of each other have rested on totally erroneous information, and we continue to surprise each other in some degree every time we attempt to clarify our respective beliefs. There is still a long way to go. My point is this: if two individuals who hold doctorate degrees in religion and who are honestly attempting to get at the truth experience difficulty understanding each other, what chance do polemicists have of correctly understanding or representing the beliefs of the other side? It is our hope that with this book we will begin to tell and believe the truth about each other, the issue of who is ultimately right and wrong being set aside for the moment.
There are several other factors working against our understanding each other—we Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals. First, there is history. After all, Prof. Blomberg’s great-great-grandfathers may very well have shot at my great-great-grandfathers as the Mormons were driven out of New York, Ohio, Missouri or Illinois and eventually out of the country altogether. For many Latter-day Saints such events as these are not yet ancient history. The murders, the rapes and the burnings are still a deeply felt part of our family heritage.’ Many still cherish the memory of each nineteenth-century outrage committed against their forebears, and this frequently sours twentieth-century relationships. Perhaps if we start trying now, the twenty-first century may see the beginnings of better understanding between our two communities.
Besides history, another obstacle to mutual understanding is terminology—our respective theological vocabularies. Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals generally employ the same theological terms, but we usually define them differently, and this quite often makes communication more difficult than if we spoke different religious languages entirely. The similarity of terms makes us think we are communicating, but when all is said and done both sides go away with the feeling that nothing quite added up, and this raises suspicions of deception.’ Evangelicals often forget that we Latter-day Saints are not Protestants, and that our theological language has not been shaped to the same extent as theirs by the theological and political concerns of the Reformation. Latter-day Saints are generally quite naive when it comes to the technical usage of theological language. Thus when Mormons speak on the subject of faith and works, for example, they usually do so in a way that seems from an Evangelical perspective to be inadequate or imprecise, though it makes perfectly good sense to us. This is not an issue of who is theologically right or wrong. New Testament Christians, were they suddenly transported to the twentieth century, would experience the same difficulty and for the same reasons—it is just a case of highly idiomatic terminology on the one hand and a lack of terminological sophistication on the other.
Unfortunately, Protestants and Catholics, when evaluating LDS statements, seldom bother to adjust their thinking to allow for LDS definitions and usage (if they even know them), usually assuming that we mean what they mean when they use the same terms. Often we do not. Unless Mormons and Evangelicals make greater efforts to investigate what the other means, rather than merely exploiting what the other says, we shall remain, to paraphrase Twain, two peoples divided by a common language. Presently, because Latter-day Saints do not say things the same way Evangelicals do, we are often made to be “offenders for a word” even in cases where we actually mean exactly the same thing as Evangelicals.’
Since very few Latter-day Saints or Evangelicals are theologically bilingual, the same misunderstandings tend to be compounded over and over, which is grist for the mills of prejudice on both sides. All this makes it difficult for Evangelicals to get completely and specifically correct explanations (as opposed to only general approximations) about what Mormons believe without themselves investing the time to study LDS Scripture with LDS mentors, which is the way the LDS do it.8 I might add that the worst way for Evangelicals to learn about Latter-day Saints is to ask other non-Mormons or to read non-Mormon literature about the Saints. As Prof Blomberg has discovered, it is a rare thing indeed for non-Mormons writing about the Saints to get it right even when they are trying to, and most contemporary non-LDS writing on the Mormons is frankly not trying to get it right.
Another frustration Evangelicals often experience in dealing with Latter-day Saints is the fact that we have no professional clergy, no creeds or catechisms, and no theologians in the strict sense? Pure LDS orthodoxy can be a moving target, depending on which Mormon one talks to. Indeed, my part of this book represents only the views of one Latter-day Saint, though I hope a credible one. I do not speak in this volume for the LDS Church, only for myself, but I think I qualify as the world’s authority on what I believe, and I consider myself a reasonably devout and well-informed Latter-day Saint.
On the other hand, those Mormons who most frequently talk to Evangelicals, the LDS missionaries, receive very little formal training before going out to proselytize. They are almost literally babes in the woods, and quite often, particularly where the Mormon Church is strong, the LDS missionaries might be among the least knowledgeable members in a congregation:10 Yet when Evangelicals talk to LDS missionaries, they often assume, on the basis of a pattern that holds true for Protestants, that they are talking to trained professionals or at least to competent theological authorities. Actually such elementary understanding as most missionaries have, while it meets the needs of LDS proselytizing by bearing simple testimony, hardly constitutes a sophisticated guide to LDS doctrinal specifics. Missionaries frequently say more than they know. For these reasons, as Prof. Blomberg notes, LDS missionaries sometimes give incorrect or unintentionally misleading answers to specific doctrinal questions, most often because they do not know how their vocabulary is being understood by Evangelicals. This in turn contributes to suspicions of intentional deceit.
By and large the LDS do not worry as much about orthodoxy within their own community as do Evangelicals, though there is such a thing as LDS orthodoxy. In the short run, LDS orthodoxy is defined by the Standard Works of the Church (Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price) as interpreted by the General Authorities of the Church—the current apostles and prophets. In the long run the church depends on the cumulative study of Scripture by its individual members to ensure that doctrine is correctly understood and taught within the Church. Unfortunately, where the members disregard this responsibility, there is no systematic theology, no sophisticated and definitive creed, no lengthy catechism, no network of professional theologians to back them up. In these cases “speculative” or “popular” theology can overgrow scriptural orthodoxy. It is one drawback of having a nonprofessional clergy.
Unfortunately, up until now most of the dialogue between Mormons and Evangelicals has been dominated by those on both sides having the least training or the worst motives. Future discussion must move from this level to good-faith exchanges between informed parties.
So what are the major points of the “restored” gospel, the confession common to most informed Latter-day Saints? Partially paraphrasing Joseph Smith, I would summarize it this way:”
We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in God’s Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost. We accept the biblical doctrine that God is three and that God is also one, but we reject the post-New Testament attempts to explain how these two truths are to be reconciled.
We believe that humankind fell through the transgression of Adam and Eve and that humans in their present state are subject to sin, death and corruption. However, we believe that individuals are accountable for their own sins, not for guilt inherited from Adam and Eve. We accept both divine justice and human accountability, but we do not believe in original sin.
We believe that through the atonement of Christ, fallen humanity may be saved by accepting and obeying the gospel of Jesus Christ (cf. 2 Thess 1:8, 11; 1 Pet 4:17 for obeying the gospel). No one is predestined either to salvation or to damnation; anyone may be saved who responds appropriately to the good news of Christ.
We believe that we respond appropriately to Christ and we accept his gospel by having faith in and being faithful to Christ as Son of God and Savior, that is, by accepting him as Lord and Savior and making him Lord of and in our lives. We cannot merit salvation of ourselves (Alma 22:14), nor is it possible to “earn” the grace by which we are saved (Mosiah 2:21-25), but the obedience of faith (Rom 1:5; 16:26), a godly walk and conversation, is a necessary component of faith in Christ. Jesus will save us from our sins (Rev 1:5) but not with our sins (1 Cor 6:9-10). Beyond having faith in Christ, we must also repent of sin, consent to baptism by immersion for the remission of sins, and receive the regenerating and sanctifying gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands (cf. Acts 2:38; 8:14-18).
We believe that the Christianity of the first century, New Testament Christianity, is true Christianity. As such, it is the only standard by which to define Christianity, as opposed to defining it by post-New Testament councils and creeds.
We believe that the priesthood authority, church organization, spiritual gifts, sacraments (i.e., ordinances) and doctrines of the modem church must be as they were in the New Testament church. This obviously includes the presence of apostles and prophets who receive direct, continuing revelation for the church in the world.
We accept the Bible (the LDS use the King James Version) as the inspired word of God—every book, every chapter, every verse of it—as revealed to the apostles and prophets who wrote it. We also hold the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price to be the word of God.
We believe in the divine conception, substitutionary atonement, sacrificial death, bodily resurrection and present glory of Jesus Christ, and that he will return to this earth in judgment and in his glory to cleanse it from all wickedness and to establish his personal millennial reign. Both the saved and the lost will be resurrected, the former at Christ’s coming or during his reign, the latter at the end of the millennium (1 Thess 4:14-17; Rev 20:7-15).
We believe that the church established by Christ in the New Testament was changed by later Christian intellectuals who believed the simple New Testament proclamation to be inadequate. Feeling the language of Scripture to be unsophisticated, incomplete, vague, ambiguous or imprecise, the second-, third- and fourth-century church sought to “improve” the New Testament gospel by the standards of Hellenistic philosophy, but compromised it instead.
We believe that the Lord in preparation for his imminent second coming has “restored” New Testament Christianity in the latter days through the prophet Joseph Smith. Nevertheless, all honest Christians of whatever denomination, not just LDS Christians, will be among the saved at the last day, and I am personally confident this will include Prof. Blomberg and my other Evangelical friends (see chapter four).
Perhaps an even more basic statement of the gospel is provided by Jesus himself in the Book of Mormon:
Behold I have given unto you my gospel, and this is the gospel which I have given unto you—that I came into the world to do the will of my Father, because my Father sent me. And my Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me…. And it shall come to pass, that whoso repenteth and is baptized in my name shall be filled; and if he endureth to the end, behold, him will I hold guiltless before my Father at that day when I shall stand to judge the world. . . . And no unclean thing can enter into his kingdom; therefore nothing entereth into his rest save it be those who have washed their garments in my blood, because of their faith, and the repentance of all their sins, and their faithfulness unto the end. Now this is the commandment: Repent, all ye ends of the earth, and come unto me and be baptized in my name, that ye may be sanctified by the reception of the Holy Ghost, that ye may stand spotless before me at the last day. Verily, verily, I say unto you, this is my gospel. (3 Nephi 27:13-14, 16, 19-21)
The great irony of LDS-Evangelical relations is that not much of the above, except point 9, would of itself cause serious contention, and, in fact, most of it is accepted in one form or another in Arminian churches or in nineteenth-century restorationist movements now considered to be Evangelical. The real sticking point is not what the LDS think of Christ and his gospel, but rather the different ontological frame or view of the nature of the universe into which Mormons fit the gospel. For Latter-day Saints also believe in the literal fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of humanity. We believe that God and humans are the same species of being and that all men and women were his spiritual offspring in a premortal existence. The main purpose of the gospel of Christ is therefore not so much to get us to heaven as it is to get us home.
We also believe that human families that come to Christ jointly can, through living and obeying Christ’s gospel, be sealed together forever—hence the LDS emphasis on the importance of the traditional family, as well as the LDS slogan “Families are forever?’ Finally, the LDS believe that God intends, through the fullness of the gospel, to make us what Christ is and to share with the most faithful of his children the blessings, powers and glories of eternity.
It is this broader doctrinal framework into which the Latter-day Saints place the basic gospel of Christ, rather than the LDS understanding of the gospel itself, that generates the most opposition from non-Mormons. In LDS orthodoxy, the ontological frame, while a vital part of our theology, is secondary to the truth of the basic gospel itself, yet Evangelicals and others (including many of our own people) often get this backwards. Thus the LDS tend to see agreement with Evangelicals in primary matters and disagreement in those of secondary importance, while Evangelicals tend to ignore our view of the gospel itself (the doctrines of Christ and salvation) and attack instead what is secondary (e.g., the literal or figurative fatherhood of God or the status and powers of the saved in eternity). This is perhaps one reason that Mormons, when comparing our relative views of salvation, see basic agreement with some disagreements, where Evangelicals tend to see basic disagreement with occasional agreement. Still, if it is true that LDS views of Christ and salvation are basically sound from an Evangelical perspective, then does not the insistence on agreement in other areas constitute a “doctrinal test” for salvation, something I am told is abhorrent to Evangelicals?
The statement is sometimes made that Latter-day Saints now want to be known as Christians, whereas in the past we did not. This statement is both true and false. If we define “Christian” generically as someone who accepts the New Testament proclamation of Jesus as Son of God and Savior, then the first part of the statement is true: Mormons do wish to be known as Christians. But the second half of the statement would then be false, since there has never been a time when we wished otherwise.” However, if we define “Christian” as meaning traditional, historical and creedal orthodoxy, then the first part of the statement would be false: Mormons do not now wish to be known as post-Nicene, “orthodox” Christians. But the second part of the statement would then be true, for Mormons have never wanted to be identified with post-New Testament Christianity. Latter-day Saints have always called themselves Christians in the sense that they worship Jesus Christ and attempt to live according to his teachings, but they have never wanted to be identified with the “Christians” who burned them from their homes and drove them into the wilderness.
Latter-day Saints do not, in fact, seek to be accepted as historically “orthodox” Christians or as Evangelicals. We are neither. Neither do we seek to have our beliefs approved or validated by Christian “orthodoxy?’ I do not expect we will ever accept one another’s baptisms or stop proselytizing each other (and I don’t think we should), but I would personally just like to find some Evangelicals willing to admit the truth—that Mormons accept the New Testament and worship the Christ who is described there. We seek to make him the Lord of our lives, whether or not we do this correctly by Evangelical standards. Perhaps more than anything else it is the Evangelical denial of these manifest truths that feeds the LDS stereotype of Evangelicals as people who lie about us.
Moreover, Evangelicals usually forget that the Bible is also Scripture for the Latter-day Saints, and that there is not a single verse of the Bible that Latter-day Saints do not accept. True, we do not interpret the Bible by the Hellenized philosophy of the early church councils (Nicaea, Chalcedon, etc.), but for us the Bible—without the councils and creeds—is the word of God (see chapter one).
Despite historical problems, terminology and the difficulty for Evangelicals of precisely pinning down LDS orthodoxy (and vice versa), it is past time for Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals to try to understand each other. Currently, Mormons and Evangelicals do not understand each other or even have a correct picture to work from, though generally they both think they do. It is this sad fact that motivates the authors of the present volume.
First contacts can be difficult. So it has been, at times, with this book, which would read much differently had it been written by either of its authors without the collaboration of the other. Since the volume is jointly authored, the reader should not assume that both authors would endorse every word, though this is often so. However, concessions have been made on both sides in matters as trivial as phrasing and terminology, and in matters as consequential as accommodating (or tolerating) each other’s odd perspective. Nevertheless, as the reader will see, we pull no punches and make no concessions here in matters of truth or principle. The purpose of this book is neither to attack nor to defend—there will be no winner and no loser at the end of it. The purpose of this book is to explain and to educate—at last to hear and to tell the truth about each other.
MY WIFE’S NIECE AND HER husband are Mormons. A few years ago we were playing a historical trivia game, and one of the questions on a game card was “What religious group in the United States still promotes polygamy?” When my nephew-in-law saw that the back of the card gave “Mormonism” as the answer, he stormed out of the room and refused to play any further. After all, he explained, his church had explicitly prohibited plural marriages as long ago as 1890.
On another occasion a Mormon friend and I were talking about each other’s beliefs. At one point he commented, “I can’t see how you Evangelicals can believe all the garbage that the televangelists spew forth.” He was surprised when I replied that I did not believe a lot of what at least certain prominent TV preachers taught. He explained that he was used to reading in the newspapers about us “fundamentalists”—all lumped together as right-wing religious fanatics.
If an immensely successful game company cannot distinguish between nineteenth- and twentieth-century Mormonism, and if many in the popular press cannot distinguish between Jim Bakker and Billy Graham, is it any wonder that grassroots Evangelicals and Mormons in churches around our country seem similarly confused? After all, few of us have extensive firsthand encounters with each other. Most Evangelicals gain their information about the Mormon Church, more properly known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), from three sources: (1) anticult literature, written by fellow Evangelicals in an often polemical spirit,’ (2) doorstep conversations, as members of the two groups share their faith house to house using a standardized and extremely simplified presentation of their beliefs, and (3) information from ex-Mormons who have left the Church because they are bitter about how it treated them.
None of these sources provide thorough, balanced knowledge of the LDS. Yet every religion should be allowed to speak for itself. Evangelical writers, however well-intentioned, are not likely to know nearly as much about Mormonism as LDS writers, unless they have lived and ministered for years in predominantly Mormon parts of the country. Doorstep conversations seldom get beyond superficial treatment of issues. And individuals who have converted from one religion or denomination to another are usually the most likely to be antagonistic toward the group they have left and to describe only the worst aspects and most extreme manifestations of that organization or belief system.
In the case of relations between Evangelicals and Mormons, the situation is exacerbated by fringe elements of both groups engaging in genuinely hostile, sometimes violent and occasionally criminal behavior toward each other. When the fortieth LDS temple in the world opened in the Denver area in the late 1980s, only half a mile from my home, a handful of Evangelicals protested, picketed and taunted the first Mormon worshipers attending there. Stones flew through the air, and a firebombing scare was reported. More recently, a few Mormons slipped into the library at the seminary where I teach and stole or damaged numerous books they perceived to be anti-Mormon. Our librarian reported that at a regional conference of librarians in the mountain states region she learned that numerous area libraries had been similarly vandalized. Sadly, it is far too easy for the victims of such attacks, on either “side,” to jump to the conclusion that the majority of the “other side” behaves the same way.
Even when things don’t get nearly so out of hand, Mormons and Evangelicals do not have a very good track record of speaking to each other courteously. Undoubtedly the most famous Evangelical anticult writer, Walter Martin, had a penchant for phrasing his displeasure with groups he identified as non-Christian in fairly virulent language. Consider the following excerpts from his chapter on the LDS in his most widely read book, The Kingdom of the Cults, which has gone through dozens of printings:
The author can quite candidly state that never in over a decade of research in the field of cults has he ever seen such misappropriation of terminology, disregard of context, and utter abandon of scholastic principles demonstrated on the part of non-Christian cultists than is evidenced in the attempts of Mormon theologians to appear orthodox and at the same time undermine the foundations of historic Christianity… .It is extremely difficult to write kindly of Mormon theology when they are so obviously deceptive in their presentation of data, so adamant in their condemnation of all religions in favor of the “restored gospel” allegedly vouchsafed to the prophet Joseph Smith’
Despite much good work in Martin’s overall ministry, this kind of “colorful” language consistently characterizes Martin’s writing. Yet even if the claims behind such language were true, it is hard to imagine Mormons not being highly offended by Martin’s inflammatory expressions, and harder still to imagine many Mormons being won over to his positions by this kind of rhetoric.
A high-ranking LDS contemporary of Martin, Elder Bruce McConkie, for thirteen years a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, is probably the most widely cited and best known modem Mormon theologian in Evangelical circles. While not as consistently virulent as Martin, he too has his moments. Compare, for example, the following selections from the last work he wrote on Mormon doctrine, entitled A New Witness for the Ankles of Faith:
Universal apostasy fell upon men between Jesus’ day and our day. … Churches built on false gospels are false churches. They have no saving power. They may, as Jesus said, be “built upon the works of men, or upon the works of the devil” (3 Nephi 27:11). . . . The way to find the true religion and the pure gospel is to find what Jesus and the ancient apostles taught. It is, however, universally recognized by all professors of religion in all churches that such a system no longer exists either in any one sect or in all the sects of Christendom combined.’
With rhetoric like that of Martin and McConkie, is it any wonder that Mormons and Evangelicals barely talk to each other about their respective beliefs, except in overtly evangelistic confrontations?’ And whatever happened to Ephesians 4:15 and “speaking the truth in love”?’
Can we move beyond this negative state of affairs? In the last few decades, leading Evangelical scholars have held numerous conferences and dialogues with their counterparts in Roman Catholicism, Judaism and even the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon.’ Within Protestantism alone there have been many multiauthor works reflecting evangelical-liberal dialogues.’ A few Evangelicals have consistently participated in the international ecumenical body known as the World Council of Churches, so that the conservative Christian voice might not disappear from that forum altogether. The 1994 U.N. Cairo Conference on World Population and Development brought together representatives from all the major world religions, and Evangelicals found surprising allies there among conservative Catholics and Muslims. Recent years have seen Evangelical responses to issues of religious pluralism and to all the major world religions.’ But where in this flurry of interdenominational and interreligious dialogue is a serious and courteous discussion between informed and scholarly representatives of Evangelical and Mormon traditions? Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority took some small steps toward Evangelical-Mormon cooperation for a shared social, political and ethical agenda in the early 1980s, as the religious right emerged into the public arena. Why have these efforts given way to Evangelical snubbing of Mormon efforts to work together for common moral goals?
These are some of the questions that motivate my involvement in this book. Our aims in this slim volume are actually quite modest. Stephen Robinson and I both hold doctorate degrees in the field of New Testament studies. We each teach at church-related institutions (Brigham Young University and Denver Seminary, respectively). We each speak officially for no one other than ourselves, but unofficially we reflect a fair cross-section of the religious traditions we represent. Both of us stand in the progressive wing of our movements, and yet we clearly dissociate ourselves from the “dissidents” who flirt with the very boundaries and established parameters of our respective faiths? We first met at an annual meeting of the huge international umbrella organization for biblical scholars of all religious perspectives (or none), the Society of Biblical Literature. Since then we have carried on extensive conversations by phone, by letter and in person. Those conversations have always been pleasant, courteous and informative, and yet neither of us has shrunk from frank discussion of our beliefs. We would like to reflect our discussions in this book in the hopes that they may advance Mormon-Evangelical dialogue beyond the relatively deplorable state in which it now languishes.
We have chosen four doctrinal issues that seem to us, and to most, to be the most central areas of division between us: (1) Scripture, (2) the nature of God and the deification of believers, (3) the deity of Christ and the Trinity and (4) salvation and the eternal state. Each of us has written a chapter on these four themes with the following three objectives in mind: first, to state succinctly what we understand a substantial number of people in our traditions to affirm on each doctrine; second, to dispel certain popular misconceptions held by the other group regarding our positions; and third, to discuss our misgivings about the other’s perspectives. Each of us read the other’s material after a first draft of the book was produced, and we then revised the chapters that we had written in that light. For balance, we alternate who leads off each chapter. But no matter who begins, we are writing in light of the content of the other’s chapter on that subject and responding to what is said there. We have tried to write in an irenic spirit throughout, expressing gratitude for those areas on which we can agree, even while recognizing that important areas of disagreement remain.
Let us be equally clear on what we are not trying to do. First, there are many interesting but less central areas of disagreement between Evangelicals and Mormons that we do not address. We cannot hope to be comprehensive in a short book meant to be widely read by people in our churches. So we lay entirely to one side such issues as baptism for the dead (or the temple ritual more generally), the premortal existence of souls, forms of church government, the priesthood, the early history of the Americas, and so on.
Second, we do not go into detail on topics of substantial agreement, even though nuances of differences remain on several of them. It is important at least to note a number of these because readers may not generally be aware of them, for example, Christ’s substitutionary, sacrificial atonement; his bodily resurrection; the personality of the Holy Spirit; the continued existence of all of the gifts of the Spirit; the literal, visible, premillennial return of Christ; freedom of worship and a general sociopolitical conservatism. Indeed, there are numerous parallels between the emergence of the Latter-day Saints and their tortuous pilgrimage westward in nineteenth-century America and the rise of other forms of “restorationist” Christianity—most notably the Disciples of Christ and the two splinter groups it spawned, the Christian Church and the Church of Christ.
All of these groups claimed to bypass the Protestant Reformation, going back to apostolic Christianity to restore, rather than merely reform, what was perceived as exceedingly corrupt forms of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. With Methodism, Mormonism rejected most of the Calvinist distinctives, for example, predestination, total depravity and eternal security, and stressed the need for personal piety, holiness and a process of growth toward human perfection. With many Utopian communities of the day, the Latter-day Saints saw the wide expanse of unsettled America as an opportunity finally to create the ideal expression of Christianity on earth. To the extent that Evangelicals today are still heavily influenced by restorations[, holiness and utopian streams of influence, there are numerous points at which their convictions more closely resemble those of Mormonism than those of mainline Protestantism, Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy.
Third, we recognize that crucial issues divide us and that both groups will continue their attempts at evangelizing each °then But for our conversations to be fruitful and honoring to God, we must stop misrepresenting or caricaturing each other, always speaking the truth to each other in love.
Fourth, we do not claim to speak for everyone in our traditions. Some will no doubt object, even strenuously, that their convictions are not represented by what we call Mormon or Evangelical, that we are either too entrenched in the conservatism inherent in our movements, or that we have transgressed more narrow conceptions of our traditions and have thus “gone liberal.” The amount of diversity in both our movements means that anyone speaking for either tradition can almost expect to stimulate such a response. But we write because we believe that we do speak broadly, if not precisely, for many among our constituencies.
Because Evangelicals do not congregate exclusively in a single institutional church, some further definition of them is in order. We define Evangelicals as theologically conservative Protestants who make the truthfulness, authority and relevance of the Old and New Testaments central to their worldview, who have come to experience salvation from sin through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and the forgiveness he offers on the basis of his death on the cross, and who believe in the importance of actively sharing that faith with others.'” Evangelical, like conservative, is the opposite of liberal, but it refers only to theological conservatism. In other words, Evangelicals in the political arena may be either Republicans or Democrats. They may be conservatives or liberals on a variety of issues. But when it comes to religious issues, they believe in conserving the major theological truths of historic, orthodox Christianity.
Many Evangelicals trace their spiritual ancestry to the Reformation and to the churches and theological traditions derived from Luther, Calvin and Wesley. Others have more recent roots in the nineteenth-century restoration movement mentioned above. Many value the early creeds (i.e., the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds) and the Reformation-era confessions (especially the Augsburg and Westminster Confessions) as syntheses of biblical truth. Others reject all creeds in favor of maintaining the priority of Scripture. Yet almost all churches, even entirely independent ones, have some statement of doctrine that their members must affirm.
Virtually all who call themselves Evangelicals dissociate themselves from two other categories of professing Christians: (1) the theologically liberal members of virtually every major Protestant denomination and (2) the fundamentalists, more separatistic or sectarian conservatives who tend to reject interdenominational or interreligious cooperation and dialogue. These very conservative Protestants continue to apply the term fundamentalist to themselves despite its almost uniformly pejorative use by the media and despite its history of attachment to quasi-sectarian groups that have separated from other professing Christians in the aftermath of the “fundamentalist-modernist” controversy of the 1920s. Fundamentalists are particularly strong in America’s so-called Bible Belt, especially in the Deep South and in various kinds of Baptist churches.”
A tiny handful of Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox and converts to those branches of Christendom employ the adjective Evangelical as well. But other Evangelicals are skeptical of the possibility of being both fully biblical in doctrine and members in good standing of Catholic or Orthodox communions. Thus the term Evangelical includes theologically conservative Lutherans (most notably the Missouri Synod), Presbyterians (especially the Presbyterian Church in America and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church) and many other Reformed Christians, Baptists (many Southern Baptists and almost all of the Conservative Baptists and Baptist General Conference), Free Methodist groups, the Disciples’ Renewal Movement within the Disciples of Christ, most Pentecostals, a large number of African-American churches of all denominations, the Evangelical Free Church, the Bible-church movement, many Nazarenes, a fair number of Mennonites, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, some (primarily charismatic) Episcopalians, and a large number of independent churches, as well as other individuals and informal fellowships within otherwise more liberal churches and denominations.
What would an Evangelical confession from members of these diverse groups look like? The most widely affirmed North American document is the statement of faith of the National Association of Evangelicals. It reads as follows:
We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.
We believe that there is one God, eternally existent in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
We believe in the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, in His virgin birth, in His sinless life, in His miracles, in His vicarious and atoning death through His shed blood, in His bodily resurrection, in His ascension to the right hand of the Father, and in His personal return in power and glory.
We believe that for the salvation of lost and sinful man regeneration by the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential.
We believe in the present ministry of the Holy Spirit by whose indwelling the Christian is enabled to live a godly life.
We believe in the resurrection of both the saved and the lost; they that are saved unto the resurrection of life and they that are lost unto the resurrection of damnation.
We believe in the spiritual unity of believers in our Lord Jesus Christ .
Of course, the Bible itself has the form of a story. It does not present its doctrine in systematically arranged, itemized theological propositions. A brief synopsis of the theologically relevant highlights of that story might run something like this: The only true God, Creator of the universe, chose at some point to make creatures distinct from himself—human beings—with the capacity to have a personal relationship with him. But they rebelled against God’s command and subsequently forfeited the relationship God had initially established with them. Thus all humans who have ever lived have been sinful and hence separated from God. The animal sacrifices prescribed throughout the Old Testament period, when offered with faith in God’s promises, dealt provisionally with human sins and enabled Jewish people (and all others who accepted their God) to be brought into a right relationship with God. The Old Testament depicts successive phases of God’s initiatives to win back the descendants of the first humans, particularly through the chosen nation of Israel. More often than not, however, the story is one of human disobedience and divine punishment.
Humanity’s sin problem was finally solved in the New Testament era. In the person of the first-century Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, God assumed for the first time human form. Jesus, who was fully human and fully divine, was able, therefore, both to be an adequate substitute for sinful persons and to make an infinite atonement for the sins of those who by faith trusted in him. Since then, reconciliation between God and humanity continues to be possible only when we renounce any claims of being able to save ourselves or of meriting God’s favor. Rather, we put our trust in Jesus, accepting the free gift of salvation made available wholly by God’s grace. Those who accept this gift have the Holy Spirit come to live in them. To the extent that they yield the various dimensions of their lives to the Spirit’s control, they are increasingly transformed into persons who follow God’s moral standards and please him. The motivation for obedience is profound gratitude for God’s having done for us what we could never do for ourselves. All true believers (and only true believers) can look forward, after death or at the end of human history as we know it, to God’s newly re-created heaven and earth, enjoying God’s presence forever in endless happiness and giving him all the glory.
Beyond their essential beliefs, Evangelicals disagree on all sorts of questions. Who should be baptized (and how)? What are appropriate forms of church government? How do divine sovereignty and human freedom interact in the process of salvation? What is the role of spiritual gifts in the present age? What will be the final events of human history? What happens to people after death and before the final resurrection? Disagreements over these issues have given rise historically to the various denominations. Increasingly, sparked by the “parachurch” movement (interdenominational Christian educational, missionary and service organizations), Evangelicals are agreeing to cooperate across denominational lines, playing down historic distinctives that have divided them. My own theology matches the doctrinal statements of the Conservative Baptist movement but is heavily indebted to the contributions of Luther and Calvin as well. It would be presumptuous to speak for the diverse collection of conservative Protestants listed above, but I will continue to do my best to reflect major areas of agreement among them and to note places where I perhaps differ from many.
While the subsequent four chapters, like this introduction, consist of two parts, one authored by each of us, we have agreed to write a joint conclusion that we can both affirm. We have also coauthored brief summaries at the end of each two-part discussion. That means that some things we each might want to say on our own will not appear there, but we think there is much to be said for reflecting on what we can agree about. We hope that we can spark many similar conversations between Mormons and Evangelicals and thus inaugurate a new era in which such conversations move us beyond the impasse of previous polemics, recognizing our areas of agreement and clarifying the nature of our disagreements.
But enough by way of introduction. Let the discussions begin!
[ROBINSON & BLOMBERG]
JUST BEFORE WE BEGAN 1D DRAFT this joint conclusion, Prof. Blomberg was describing our project to a young man in his Sunday-school class, who nodded with approval. “All through junior high and high school,” he explained, “my best friend was a Mormon. We shared the same interests in school, the same favorite sports, and the same moral standards. We talked a lot about our spiritual beliefs. Neither of us ever convinced the other to `convert; but we liked each other anyway. We each discovered that not everything our churches had taught us to believe about the other ‘side’ was true, though some of it certainly was. But we also both found that most of our friends in our respective youth groups couldn’t understand why we would want to be such good friends when we didn’t share the identical faith.”
That conversation epitomizes some of the discoveries we made as we worked together on this project: having more in common than we expected, sharing numerous social and moral standards as well as many of the same theological doctrines, recognizing that not everything Evangelicals and Mormons say about each other is true, though some of it is. We have both explained to each other in some detail what we believe, but neither of us has “converted” the other. We have sought to debunk stereotypes, to correct misinformation, to separate peripheral issues from central ones, to trust that neither of us is lying to the other or trying to deceive the other, and to do it all in a spirit of mutual respect and consideration. Yet we have found many in our respective circles who are suspicious of the project, some even encouraging us to abandon it.
Why is this? Why do people oppose dialogue like ours, particularly in print? There are no doubt many factors, both historical and sociological. Joseph Smith first shared his visions with a Methodist minister, who then demonstrated great animosity toward him (Joseph Smith History 1:21). But what would have happened had that minister responded with love and understanding instead of hostility (even while disagreeing with Joseph’s views)? Perhaps the last 175 years would have turned out quite differently.
One bather to better understanding between Mormons and Evangelicals today is the fact that in many parts of the country and the world Mormons are so few in number that most Evangelicals may never interact with them at any length. Evangelicals’ concept of Mormonism has usually been drawn from anticultists. In those regions where the LDS are strong, Evangelicals often feel like an embattled minority; where Evangelicals are strong, Latter-day Saints often feel the same way.
There is yet another factor. Family members often fight fiercely with each other, and the historical roots from which contemporary Mormonism and North American Evangelicalism derive are exceedingly close. The religion of Old and New Testaments filtered through a uniquely American grid that was deeply indebted to nineteenth-century restorationist movements and was imbued with a heavy dose of pioneer optimism and rugged individualism. But the descendants of this common religious and national heritage have differed on some of the most deeply cherished doctrines of the faith, and the predictable quarrels have erupted.
As we have made clear throughout this book, we do not claim to have settled all of our differences. Neither do we believe that Mormons and Evangelicals would, or even ought to, accept one another’s baptisms. We harbor no delusions that this modest dialogue will in any way diminish the extent to which LDS missionaries bear testimony to Evangelicals or to which Evangelicals witness to Mormons, nor do our respective beliefs convince us that such activity should diminish. But we can hope and pray that as sincere, spiritual men and women (who all claim the name of Christ) talk about their beliefs and life pilgrimages with each other, they might do so with considerably more accurate information about each other and in a noticeably more charitable spirit than has often been the case, after the pattern set by Aquila, Priscilla and Apollos in the New Testament. After all, it is the common intent of both “sides” to confess, to worship, and to serve that Jesus Christ who is described in the New Testament as our Lord.
We hope that we have modeled these goals in this book. Neither of us has pulled any punches. We have gone to the heart of the issues on each topic as we see them, and unfortunately that has involved discussing our differences considerably more than our commonalities. It would have been much more enjoyable simply to stress what we agree on, but our respective constituencies would have immediately noticed that we were avoiding the hardest questions. Yet each of us has prompted the other to indicate where the tone of writing or choice of words sounds polemical or overly sharp, so that we can avoid gratuitously offending each other. No doubt some imperfections remain, but we hope that we have opened the door to further conversations that can go beyond ours.
Might we look forward to the day when youth groups or adult Sunday-school classes from Mormon and Evangelical churches in the same neighborhoods would gather periodically to share their beliefs with each other in love and for the sake of understanding, not proselytizing? (This has already happened in some places.) Can we allow ourselves to envision high-level conferences of Evangelical and LDS scholars and church leaders trying to determine in what ways they really do agree and disagree or trying to work together toward common social goals, as so many other ecumenical groups have done? Surely the God who brought down the Berlin Wall in our generation is capable of such things.
The LDS have a hierarchy in place that enables them to move their entire church when they so desire and as they believe themselves moved on by the Spirit. Evangelicals, precisely because they have no magisterium, could choose to act relatively quickly, as individuals, individual churches and denominations, to begin a new era of cordiality in interreligious conversation and cooperation in social and political action, working together in an increasingly secular and decadent society. If we do not receive one another in full spiritual fellowship, can we not at least become allies in the service of God in temporal affairs?
Perhaps there are a few other lessons to be learned along the way. First, we must treat individuals as individuals, finding out what they believe and what they have experienced. There is considerable diversity among the LDS and bewildering diversity among Christians who attach to themselves the label “Evangelical.” We must avoid stereotyping people we meet or trying to tell them what they believe (as if we know better than they do!).
Second, we ought surely to take people who have a track record of upright, moral living at face value, at their word, accepting what they say for what it is, not judging it to be willfully deceptive or mean-spirited unless we discover convincing reasons to do so. Many of the differences between Mormons and Evangelicals involve divergent use of common terminology. People get confused as they try to talk to each other, and it is understandable how one “side” or the other may come to be thought of as hiding something or as being less than straightforward. But an atmosphere dominated by mutual suspicion is not likely to advance the discussion.
Third, we must pay better attention to the differences between us in theological terminology. Latter-day Saints must try to understand Evangelical terms by Evangelical definitions. For example, most Evangelicals do not believe that we may come to Christ, but then rebel and subsequently pursue wickedness until death, and still be saved in the kingdom of God. “Saved by grace” does not mean license to sin. In fact, adjusted for differences in terminology, the LDS doctrines of justification by faith and salvation by grace are not as different from Evangelical definitions as many on either side believe. On the other hand, Evangelicals must take into consideration the LDS definitions of terms. “Being saved by works” to a Latter-day Saint means “enduring to the end,” “being faithful to Christ” or “pursuing sanctification” in Evangelical terms. A necessary prerequisite to better relations between the two communities is the preparation of more “theologically bilingual” representatives.
Fourth, and perhaps most important, we can beware of the labels we apply to one another. Prof. Robinson has demonstrated that Walter Martin’s definition of a “cult” applies equally as well to the original Jesus movement as to the origins of the LDS (small, new, withdrawing from society, led by a charismatic leader, etc.).’ Many of these characteristics no longer apply to Mormonism, yet Evangelicals continue to group the LDS together with Moonies and Masons, Nichiren Shoshu and New Agers, and all kinds of other religious groups, calling them all “cults.” Unless the term “cult” is to be so broad as to be meaningless (that is, equivalent to anything that is not Evangelical—including most Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and liberal Protestantism, not to mention entirely separate world religions like Hinduism, Buddhism or Islam), then it should be reserved for the kind of small, bizarre fringe groups sociologists more technically label as cultic (such as those led to their deaths by Jim Jones or David Koresh).2 As applied to contemporary Latter-day Saints, the term is technically incorrect.
Likewise, LDS rhetoric could greatly alleviate Evangelicals’ fears by refraining from using exaggerated language. Referring to traditional Christians and their churches as utterly “false religion,””abominable” or “apostate” poisons the atmosphere, when what LDS actually reject are Evangelicals’ creeds. Evangelicals are grateful for so simple a concession as voluntarily removing a negative portrayal of Protestant ministers from the LDS temple ceremony. It was not too many years ago when Prof. Blomberg was assured by Mormon acquaintances, more than once, that ordained Protestant ministers (such as himself) were “tools of the devil.”
The Bible, to be sure, is filled with strong rhetoric against false apostles, prophets and other religious leaders. But in every instance this is in-house language for those within the church (or Judaism) who should have known better (Jesus against the scribes and Pharisees; Paul against the Judaizing Christians). Both LDS and Evangelicals need to “clean up their own houses,” particularly in sweeping out their most legalistic and polemical elements. As Paul put it, ‘What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?” (1 Cor 5:12). Conversely, in the New Testament God’s people, when obedient, consistently bent over backward to relate to the outsider (Jesus with the “tax-collectors and sinners,” as in Lk 15:1-2; Paul with his philosophy of being all things to all people so as to save as many as possible, as in 1 Cor 9:19-23). If we Mormons and Evangelicals both believe that the other side needs to hear the gospel as we understand it, then it becomes all the more incumbent for us to treat each other in love as we share our respective convictions. Against our critics who would say that we should spend our time overtly proselytizing one another rather than “merely” dialoguing, we can each affirm that we have a far clearer understanding of each other’s belief system and its consequences (if true) than we would have received from typical proselytizing encounters.
At the suggestion of our editors, we have entitled this book How Wide the Divide? We leave it to our readers to fully answer that question for themselves. Our own answer in part has been “Not nearly as wide as we once thought, but still wide enough to separate us on significant issues.” The following lists summarize the most important points of agreement and disagreement that we have discovered within the scope of the issues addressed in this book.
On the one hand, we jointly and sincerely affirm the following foundational propositions of the Christian gospel as we both understand it.
1. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are one eternal God.
2. Jesus Christ is Lord. He is both the Son of God and God the Son.
3. ‘There is no other name and no other way by which any individual may be saved other than through Jesus Christ.
4. Jesus Christ suffered, bled and died on the cross to perform a substitutionary atonement for the sins of the world.
5. Jesus Christ was resurrected on the third day and raised up in glory to the right hand of God.
6. We enter into the gospel covenant and are saved by the preaching of the word and by the grace of God.
7. We are justified before God by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
8. We are progressively sanctified by yielding our lives to God’s Holy Spirit, who enables us to obey God’s commands.
9. All the gifts of the Spirit manifested in the New Testament church continue in God’s church today.
10. The Bible is God’s word and is true and trustworthy within those parameters that the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy and the eighth LDS Article of Faith share.
11. Jesus Christ will publicly and visibly return from heaven to establish his millennial kingdom on earth.
12. The God of heaven is a God of love, and those who desire to be with him must also seek to be motivated in all their relationships by love.
On the other hand, the following important issues continue to divide us:
· Are the Old and New Testaments the sole inspired, authoritative canonical books that God has revealed to guide his people, or should the Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, and Doctrine and Covenants be included as well?
· Does God the Father currently have a physical body or not?
· Was God at some point in eternity past a human being like the mortal Jesus, or has he always been the infinite Supreme Being?
· Can exalted humans one day share by grace all the attributes of God or only the so-called communicable attributes?
· Is God a Trinity in essence or only in function?
· Do the classic early Christian creeds accurately elaborate biblical truths about God and Christ, while admittedly rephrasing them in later philosophical language, or have they so imported Hellenistic concepts into their formulations as to distort biblical truth?
· Is “justification by faith” or “justification by faith alone” the more appropriate summary of the Bible’s teaching on that topic?
· Do good works function solely as a response to God’s gracious act of saving us, or do they also determine the level of our eternal reward?
· Do people have a chance to respond to the gospel after death or not?
· Is heaven, the abode of the “saved,” subdivided into three degrees of glory or not?
· How serious are the consequences for each of us if one belief system turns out to be wrong and the other turns out to be right?
We remind our readers, in closing, that there are numerous areas of doctrine we have not discussed at all, so that our views on those topics will not appear in either of these lists. Still, if any among either Evangelicals or Latter-day Saints are surprised to discover that those `on the other “side” can honestly assent to some of the twelve joint affirmations listed above, or still incorrectly insist that they do not, we shall have succeeded in establishing the need for this book. That we can readily formulate a list of eleven important disagreements establishes the need for even further dialogue. As we have repeatedly stressed, we can only hope that such dialogue may be characterized by speaking the truth to one another in love.