Excerpts from Chapter 9;
The New Mormon Challenge for World Missions, Apologetics, and Theology
Carl Mosser is a Ph.D. candidate in New Testament studies at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. Mosser earned a B.A. in biblical languages from LIFE Bible College; an M.A. in theology, an M.A. in New Testament, and an M.A. in philosophy of religion and ethics from Talbot School of Theology; and a Th.M. in philosophy of religion/apologetics from Fuller Theological Seminary. He has published significant articles on Mormonism in Trinity journal and the FARMS Review of Books (an LDS publication).
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, many of its leaders having been successful businessmen prior to accepting church callings, has, over the years, shrewdly built up impressive financial holdings to support its religious goals. But two things, perhaps, mark Mormonism’s success more than anything else: the LDS Church’s growth from 6 members at its founding in 1830 to over 11 million today, and the massive missionary force it fields around the world, making Mormonism continually visible to outsiders.
Evangelicals have often underestimated the challenge Mormonism’s success poses to evangelism and world missions, if they have considered it at all. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that as a community, evangelicals tend to be poorly informed about advances in LDS apologetics and theology. Latter-day Saints, unlike the members of most other New Religious Movements or “cults,”‘ have begun to enter the academy and produce genuine works of scholarship that have apologetic significance for Mormon truth claims. They have also begun to develop their theology in ways that render many traditional portraits and, in turn, the critiques based on those portraits, inaccurate and outdated. Some of the developments in LDS theology are encouraging; it is important to keep track of all of them if evangelicals are to formulate more effective responses to those LDS teachings that are incompatible with true Christian faith.
It is the purpose of this chapter to discuss some of the challenges as well as some of the opportunities that Mormonism presents to evangelicals in the areas of world missions, apologetics, and theology. Along with the previous chapter, this one is largely descriptive in nature and seeks to provide some background for understanding the context and development of the LDS scholarship to which subsequent chapters respond. Unlike the other chapters in this book, this one is addressed primarily to evangelicals in, or preparing for, positions of leadership in denominational, parachurch, academic, and local church settings rather than to a general evangelical and LDS audience. Of course, I expect others to “eavesdrop,” and I will occasionally direct comments to other readers.
Mormonism’s Challenge for World Missions
The Next World Religion?
In 1969 Jack W Carlson boldly predicted that by the year 2000 the Mormon population of the world would rise from 2.6 million of the world’s 3 billion inhabitants to 8.5 million of a projected 5 billion inhabitants.3 Carlson was mistaken. The world’s population and LDS Church membership both exceeded his predictions, but not equally. World population grew approximately 20 percent higher than predicted; LDS membership exceeded the prediction by 29 percent. In the year 2000, world population reached 6.1 billion persons, and LDS Church membership surpassed 11 million members (with slightly more than half living outside the United States).
In 1984 Rodney Stark, the eminent sociologist of religion and professor at the University of Washington, wrote an important article in which he made an even bolder prediction. He claimed that with Mormonism we are witnessing the rise of a new world faith. In that article he attempted to demonstrate “that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons, will soon achieve a worldwide following comparable to that of Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and the other dominant world faiths.” He stated: “Indeed, today they stand on the threshold of becoming the first major faith to appear on earth since the Prophet Mohammed rode out of the desert.”‘
Stark went on to examine the patterns of growth in the then-150 years of Mormonism’s existence. He considered various factors that are known to slow the growth of other religious movements and found that Mormonism has historically grown even when those factors were present. This is due largely to the fact that Mormonism is unsurpassed in its missionary efforts and has many social benefits to offer converts. These and other factors favor a continued rate of rapid growth.
Stark initially projected that if Mormonism continues to grow at a somewhat slower average rate than it did in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, it will have a membership of more than 265 million people within a hundred years.” In a 1996 update of his original study, comparing his projections with fifteen years of actual growth,” Stark found that actual growth exceeded his most optimistic prediction by nearly a million persons. If one recalculates from 1997 membership figures with the same rate of growth Stark used in his initial study, Mormonism will have a membership of over 580 million by the end of the century.?
One might be skeptical of Stark’s projections; many social scientists initially were. Stark reports that after publishing his predictions, he received considerable resistance from peers.” Some had assumed that Mormonism’s tremendous rate of growth was largely the result of higher-than-average birth rates and that sooner or later those rates would level off. In response, Stark pointed out that most Mormon growth was from converts, not natural increase. He buttressed the point by showing that in 1991 there were 3.97 converts for every child baptized. The ratio has since increased: according to recent data, there are now 4.23 converts for every child baptized? As Stark says, this allows us to see something of immense significance about Mormonism: at any given moment, the majority of Latter-day Saints are first‑generation converts.10
Other colleagues argued that the pool of potential converts was rapidly drying up and would soon be “fished out” and that LDS growth rates would then plummet. Behind this thinking was the view that the worldwide trend toward modernization would inevitably result in the secularization of society As scientific knowledge increases, religious beliefs will be increasingly viewed as superstitious and implausible; thus, there will be fewer viable converts over which the religions will have to compete for survival. Stark responds by showing that the modernization thesis, widely touted as it has been for 150 years, simply does not correspond to reality and is built on faulty observations. Data suggests that Mormonism, like many conservative religions, including evangelical Christianity, actually tends to thrive amidst the pressures of modernization and secularization.11 Other studies have confirmed that Mormonism has the capability to respond to modernization and secularization by adaptation without giving up its theological and social conservatism.12 Contrary to trends found in other religious denominations, higher education does not tend to have a significant secularizing influence on the membership of the LDS Church.” Mormonism also experiences great growth when high numbers of non-LDS people move into traditional LDS strongholds. Despite several decades of “Gentile” influx, the LDS percentage of the population of Utah is higher today than it has been in more than a century. The reason, again, is not larger average family sizes as much as it is conversions. According to Rick Phillips, two of the LDS Church’s missions in Utah obtain more converts than any other mission in the United States or Canada?”
In a follow-up to his 1984 article, Stark responded to those who criticized him for making a straight-line prediction. He went back to 1880 membership figures and projected Mormon growth between 1880 and 1980 post facto, using the same methods as his original study. He additionally considered several environmental factors that might have slowed Mormon growth during this time: the polygamy crisis of 1890, World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. His study confirmed that major environmental disruptions like these have historically slowed LDS growth. But it also showed that their overall impact was quite limited. For the entire hundred-year period, despite forty years of wars and depression, his projection was off by only 0.2 percent. With the joy of vindication Stark wrote: The fact is that straight-line projections will be accurate unless or until something basic changes in the process involved. That is, unless there is a really dramatic shift in the basis on which current Mormon growth rests, the past does reveal the future!'”
One difficulty with the self-reported membership figures of any religious denomination is knowing how accurate those figures are. Some denominations have been known to deliberately inflate their numbers, and others use faulty means of data collection that result in inflation. In case one should think that the LDS Church has deliberately inflated her official membership figures, as is sometimes suggested, one should note Stark’s comments about them: “One of the great scholarly advantages in studying the Mormons,” he writes, “is the extraordinary detail and high quality of their records and their recognition that statistics are at least as vital as names and dates.”‘” “It is worth noting,” he further states, “that Mormon statistics are extremely reliable (is there another denomination that actually sends out auditors to check local figures?)…. [The research efforts of other denominations shrink to insignificance when compared with the quality, scope, and sophistication of the work of the Mormon social research department…. [T]he right data are being collected in the right way.”17
The membership figures reported by the LDS Church, as with all denominations, do not represent actual church attendance and commitment. As with other groups, the LDS Church has names on its roles of many members who are inactive and people who no longer consider themselves adherents to the faith. But to the degree that any denomination’s membership figures indicate anything, the LDS figures are indicative of tremendous growth during the last few decades and the potential for even greater growth in the decades ahead. Thus, I agree with Stark that if there is no change in the process, LDS growth rates will remain close to what they have been during the last three decades, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will become one of the world’s largest religious organizations within the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren. I do not, however, agree that if LDS membership fully meets or even exceeds Stark’s highest projections, this would constitute Mormonism as a world religion. It is worth commenting on this, since predictions about Mormonism’s ascendancy to the status of a world religion are sometimes used in propaganda for and against the movement.
Defining precisely what constitutes a world religion is not a simple task, and I will not attempt to do so here. But one thing that should be clear on reflection is that all of the religions commonly classified as world religions have many more characteristics in common than having a large number of adherents. As Douglas Davies rightly points out, approaching the question of a group’s potential status as a world religion “is not answered merely by citing membership figures: size of membership needs complementing with the more crucial elements of the power of belief and practice as they extend through a variety of cultural bases.”‘° The “cultural bases” Davies lists include such things as distinctive attitudes toward death, ethics, and beliefs about the origin and destiny of the self that are central to cultural presuppositions.19 It should also be observed that world religions make large contributions to the structures around which much of life is organized in a society—the weekly pattern of work, rest, and worship; holidays and calendars; marriage, sexual norms and customs, and so forth. In short, world religions contribute to cultures in important foundational ways that other religions do not.
According to Davies, “Mormonism seems to possess the basic features required in a world religion but does not manifest all of them to a sufficient degree to make it self-evident that it already possesses that status.”20 In the main, I agree with this. However, when some of the other cultural contributions of the world religions are considered, I think it is more accurate to say that Mormonism possesses many, but not all, of the basic features required of a world religion. When it comes to the important cultural distinctives, a world religion contributes to a society. Here Mormonism is simply not very distinctive; for the most part it simply follows the cultural patterns it has inherited from the Christian society in which it was birthed.
For example, Latter-day Saints worship on Sundays, celebrate Christian holidays like Christmas and Faster, and do not celebrate any distinctively Mormon religious holidays?’ Even in those areas of the world where Mormonism is the dominant religion—some of the islands in the South Pacific and the “Mormon Corridor” of the Western United States22—there is no indication that a distinctively Mormon culture is emerging. To the contrary, Mormonism has developed a distinct subculture, in several respects similar to the evangelical subculture (if you browse in an LDS bookstore, the similarities will be apparent to you). The LDS subculture is clearly a part of the larger “Christian” (i.e., Western) culture and does not appear to be on the road to supplanting it. In non-Christian cultures such as are found in the Middle East, Asia, and parts of Africa, Mormons relate to those cultures in much the same way that Protestants and Catholics do. In the early years of Mormonism’s exile in Utah, it looked like a distinctively Mormon culture might indeed arise. Such things as the United Order (a system of communal cooperatives run on ms principles) and the introduction of the “Deseret Alphabet” would have surely done much to set LDS society apart if they had succeeded. But they failed; and from the early twentieth century to the present, Latter-day Saints have consistently rejected any attempts to segregate Mormon culture from the culture at large. They have, in fact, worked to assimilate Mormonism. The current emphasis on insisting that Mormonism is a Christian faith only further fortifies this trend. Thus, one should conclude that Mormonism is not a world religion. Nor does it appear likely that it will ever become one.23 Even if it fulfills the highest growth predictions discussed earlier, which appear to be sound, Mormonism lacks some very important cultural elements that would allow for it to ever be classified as a world religion. But this should not lessen evangelical concerns about LDS growth in the least.
Mormonism’s Challenge for Apologetics
Mormonism and the Academy
Mormonism stands out from other New Religious Movements in its attitude toward higher education and scholarship. The largest private university and the second largest two-year college in the nation are both IDS Church-owned: Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and Ricks College in Rexburg, Idaho (soon to become a four-year institution renamed Brigham Young University-Idaho). In addition, the LDS Church operates the IDS Business College, Brigham Young University-Hawaii and the BYU Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies in Israel. The LDS Church’s two current four-year schools are both nationally ranked in the annual US. News and World Report annual survey of colleges and universities.34 In Virginia, Mormons have established Southern Virginia College as the first independent Mormon college on a model similar to the Christian college movement 35 As LDS Church-owned schools increasingly turn away students because they have reached full capacity, there is talk of starting more private LDS institutions in the future. At present an approximate 42,000 students attend Mormon colleges and universities. Perhaps more significant, a little more than 265,000 students attend LDS Institutes of Religion adjacent to or near some 1,400 college and university campuses across the United States and Canada where they receive religious instruction at both the undergraduate and graduate level. To assist missionaries from Third World countries to get a college or university education, LDS leaders recently announced the creation of the Perpetual Education Fund. This fund is intended to have the success in education that was experienced by the Perpetual Immigration Fund (which enabled tens of thousands of Latter-day Saints living abroad to move to Utah in the second half of the nineteenth century). It appears that LDS leaders are intent on having a highly educated and thoroughly indoctrinated membership.
If the modernist controversy of the early part of the twentieth century and the current postmodern phenomenon teach us nothing else, it is that the important battles vying for the minds of men and women are won or lost in the halls of academia. What goes on in the so-called real world is largely a by-product of those battles and their outcomes. The saying is true: “If you want to influence the world, influence the world of ideas.” It seems that a growing number of Latter-day Saints have learned that lesson.
Traditionally, Mormons have tended to study the hard sciences, law, and business. However, because of their relevance to LDS truth claims, Latter-day Saints have increasingly entered the humanities in recent years. The blossoming of historical and sociological scholarship on Mormonism and the important LDS contribution to this is expected and well known, so I will not discuss it here.” More important for the purposes of this essay is the entrance of Latter-day Saints into other fields of scholarship that have apologetic significance to LDS truth claims. Currently some are being encouraged by the granting of fellowships to pursue graduate degrees in New Testament, Christian Origins, Hebrew, Ancient Near Eastern Studies, Egyptology, Mesoamerican archeology, philosophy, and other relevant disciplines. The schools where these degrees are pursued are equally significant: Oxford, Yale, Claremont, Harvard, Duke, Graduate Theological Union/U.C. Berkley, UCLA, Notre Dame, Catholic University, University of Toronto, Hebrew University, and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill among others.37 Some of these fellowship recipients are now beginning to secure teaching positions.38 One of the fruits of such investments will be an increasing voice in the academy and the world of ideas in years to come.
But already Latter-day Saints have a voice. It is worth mentioning that there are many Mormons who are professors at non-LDS colleges and universities. Most teach in the hard sciences, business, and literature departments. However, a few teach in departments of theology, archeology, history, and other fields related to Christian-Mormon debates.39 Some even hold endowed chairs, and others are university or college presidents.” No other New Religious Movement is nearly so well represented among college and university faculties.
Another mark of Mormonism’s increasing success in the academy is LDS participation in relevant professional societies and publication in mainstream academic venues. There are devout Latter-day Saints who participate and at times have held regional positions of leadership in the Society of Christian Philosophers, the American Schools of Oriental Research, the American Academy of Religion (AAR), and the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL). In recent years this presence has become more noticeable as the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies at BYU (FARMS) has sponsored a large booth at the annual meeting of the AAR/SBL.
In recent years LDS scholars have published in important series such as the SBL Dissertation Series,” the Harvard Semitic Monographs,” Studia Pohl 43 and Discoveries in the Judean Desert.” Their work has appeared in numerous influential journals, including Revue de Qumran, Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha, Journal for the Study ofJudaism, Jewish Quarterly Review, Harvard Theological Review, Vigiliae Christianae, Church History, Faith and Philosophy Religious Studies, Journal of Speculative Philosophy and the International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion.°
Increasingly, LDS scholars participate in joint projects of the larger academic world. Four Latter-day Saints are on the International Dead Sea Scrolls Editing Team.46 Latter-day Saints have contributed to such standard reference works as the Anchor Bible Dictionary Oxford Companion to the Bible, Oxford Encyclopedia of Archeology in the Near Fast, Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, and the Cambridge Companion to Philosophy.° Finally, the presence of Latter-day Saints in the academy is reflected by the contribution of essays to Festschriften and other multiauthor scholarly books.” One such book, published by an evangelical publishing house, was edited by a Latter-day Saint and included three LDS essays with those of prominent evangelical contributors.”
The LDS scholars who participate in the activities of the broader academy have not failed to catch the attention, if not of evangelicals, at least of some of their Catholic, Jewish, mainline Protestant, and secular peers. For instance, one of the fathers of contemporary ups apologetic scholarship, Hugh Nibley, has received praise from prominent scholars such as Jacob Neusner, James Charlesworth, Cyrus Gordon, Raphael Patai, and Jacob Milgrom.50 The late dean of the Harvard Divinity School, George MacRae, once lamented, while hearing Nibley lecture, “It is obscene for a man to know that much!51 Nibley and his LDS colleagues have not worked in a cloister, but many evangelical scholars are unaware of their work.
It should be clear that already Mormons have achieved a place in the academy unparalleled by any other group commonly classified as a New Religious Movement. If Mormon growth continues at a rate anywhere near its current one, and if Mormons continue encouraging their students to pursue graduate degrees in the fields listed above, one can only presume that the LDS presence in the academy will continue to grow and that this will be used to the furtherance of LIDS truth claims. As it is, the majority of LDS scholarship, including that published in non-LDS venues, supports a cumulative argument for LDS truth claims in some way or other (often as pieces to a larger puzzle that has yet to be fully assembled).
Scholarly Arguments for Mormon Truth Claims
As might be expected, Latter-day Saints produce scholarly works to respond to common criticisms against Mormon truth claims. For example, John Sorenson has attempted in a monograph to show that the geographic and material cultural references in the Book of Mormon can be plausibly understood in a manner consistent with Mesoamerican geography and archeology.52 Latter-day Saint scholars with training in Egyptology have produced studies trying to give reasons to believe that the Book of Abraham is an ancient scriptural document despite the universally acknowledged fact that its contents can by no means be described as a translation, in the usual sense of the word, of any of the extant Joseph Smith Papyri.53 A Mormon with a background in linguistics has attempted to show that Native American languages show Semitic influences, evidence of cultural contact between the ancient Americas and the Ancient Near East.54
I have no background in Mesoamerican studies, Egyptology, or Native American languages, so I cannot authoritatively evaluate whether these studies are sound. But one should observe what these examples of LIDS scholarship accomplish, even if they are sound. The third example attempts to establish something that one would expect to be the case if LEIS claims about the historicity of the Book of Mormon are true. If one could not at least argue that Native American languages show Semitic influence, then that would count against the idea that there were large cultures in the Americas descended from Semitic immigrants as the Book of Mormon purports.55 The first two examples are attempts to produce necessary “defeater-defeaters”; that is, they provide answers to criticisms that could defeat fun damental Mormon truth claims in order to allow Mormons to continue rationally affirming their faith. None of these three examples of defensive scholarship, however, provide much in the way of positive evidence for Mormonism or the Book of Mormon. A common mistake made by lay Mormon apologists, assuming that this scholarship is sound, is their construing successful defeater-defeaters as positive evidence. But LDS scholars also produce apologetic scholarship that attempts to do more than establish necessary conditions or produce defeater-defeaters.
It is a foundational belief of Mormonism that the church Christ founded in the first century apostatized but was restored through the work of Joseph Smith in 1830. It is claimed that Joseph Smith reintroduced to the world a pristine Christianity replete with truths and insights that had been lost in the “Great Apostasy.” According to the apostasy thesis, the process of Hellenization and the influence of pagan Greek philosophy corrupted Christianity. Precious truths were forgotten, the transmission of the Bible was interfered with, inspired books were lost, and the canon was inappropriately deemed closed. The lenses of Hellenistic thinking caused and continue to cause traditional Christianity to misread and misunderstand the Bible. The Christian tradition of theological absolutism and ontological Trinitarianism is unbiblical, and creedal orthodoxy has much to do with Athens but little to do with Jerusalem. As evidence of Joseph Smith’s restoration of Christianity and the soon return of Christ, God allowed Smith to miraculously restore ancient texts and doctrines that had been lost for nearly two millennia.
Mormon scholars have undertaken the task of demonstrating these claims. They begin with the claim that the Book of Mormon is an ancient text written by people of Israelite lineage who established civilizations in the Americas. Much effort is being spent to show that the Book of Mormon reflects a genuinely ancient Near Eastern background, evidences the marks of translation from Semitic languages, contains subtle Hebrew poetic and literary devices, and evidences the hand of multiple authors redacted by a later scribe. In order to establish such claims, LDS scholars have employed the tools of redaction criticism, comparative philology, background studies, linguistics, and form criticism. It is claimed that though the Book of Mormon may reflect some aspects of the nineteenth century due to the way in which Joseph Smith translated the gold plates, there are features of the text that are too authentic, too subtle, and too complex to be the product of any nineteenth-century author and that cannot be attributed to mere mimicking of the Old Testament. One LDS scholar makes the following challenge to the scholarly world:
It claims to be an ancient book, and it must be examined and criticized in terms of its claim…. Since nobody could feasibly invent a work the length of the Book of Mormon which represented ancient Near Eastern society accurately .. , subjecting the book to the test of historical integrity would be a rather easy task for any specialist to undertake…. It is precisely this dimension of historical criticism, however, which has been almost totally neglected in attempts to establish the book as a fraud.56
In addition to the alleged ancient features of the Book of Mormon, LDS scholars try to show that distinctive doctrines of the LDS Church have no precedent in the nineteenth century or in any of the centuries preceding it back to ancient times. But, it is claimed, these distinctive beliefs do have parallels among the ancient Jews and earliest Christians. In this regard, Mormons have taken a keen interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Pseudepigrapha, the Nag Hammadi codices, and the writings of the Church Fathers. They have, on occasion, discovered some striking parallels, to say the least. Even the world’s foremost authority on the Pseudepigrapha, James Charlesworth, acknowledges parallels between the Pseudepigrapha and the Book of Mormon that he describes as “important parallels… that deserve careful examination”?’ Since many of the texts in which such parallels are found were not even discovered until the twentieth century, Mormons challenge the world to explain them apart from Smith’s claim to divine revelation. They in effect ask: “Is it really rational to believe that a New York farm boy recreated so many elements of the ancient world all by himself? Could anyone in the nineteenth century have pulled this off?”
In addition to discovering parallels with the ancient world, LDS scholars are attempting to free the Bible from what they perceive to be naturalistic and unbelieving scholarship on the one hand, and, on the other, a believing scholarship whose vision has been blinded by an inheritance of Hellenistic philosophy. This is a part of the argument that is still largely undeveloped, but the apparent goal is to examine the primary data of the historical and cultural contexts in which the Bible was written and to build the contextual superstructure necessary for a historico-grammatical interpretation that is both historically and culturally justified and at odds with orthodox Christian theology.
Finally, in the discipline of the philosophy of religion Latter-day Saints are presenting arguments for their unique understanding of God as an embodied being, literally an exalted man’s design in the universe, They are trying to exploit the advantages of their finite theism to account for the problem of evil, Hume’s argument against d and the conceptual and logical dif- ficulties that attend absolutist and Trinitarian conceptions of God.59 In so doing, they are both doing original work and drawing off of the work of process theologians; proponents of the “Open View of God”; social Trinitarians; and historic finite theists like John Stuart Mill, William James, and Edgar Sheffield Brightman.60 In addition, their materialistic ontology and optimistic religious humanism are presented as attractive alternatives for the modern person living in a scientific age.
Keeping Up with Contemporary Mormon Theology
Judging from the reaction of many evangelicals to Stephen Robinson’s contribution to the book he coauthored with evangelical scholar Craig Blomberg, How Wide the Divide? al Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation,71 the theological trends I have been describing caught a lot of people by surprise. Many accused Robinson of being dishonest in describing what Mormons believe. His contribution was labeled as a public relations scheme to beguile unwary Christians who don’t know what Mormonism “really teaches.” Some were a bit more charitable and granted that perhaps Robinson was honestly reporting his personal beliefs. But, they insisted, Robinson did not officially represent the LDS Church, so his personal beliefs were merely the idiosyncratic views of a BYU professor and not characteristic of what is taught within Mormonism. Therefore, Robinson’s theology does not need to be taken seriously.
Had Robinson’s evangelical critics kept abreast in their reading of current LDS literature, they would have known that what Robinson said in How Wide the Divide? was very much the same thing he and other popular LDS thinkers have been saying to LDS audiences for years. They would have known too that Robinson’s views were hardly idiosyncratic. In fact, the brand of Mormon theology Robinson presented counts several LDS General Authorities among its adherents.
When I have discussed these theological trends with other evangelicals, some have been very resistant to the notion that there has been any theological development within contemporary Mormonism. They have insisted, a priori, that what Robinson and others like him teach is really no different than traditional Mormonism; it only appears closer to orthodoxy because it has been given a veneer of orthodox-sounding terminology.72 I have been told that this literature ought to be ignored and that we should focus our critiques on “real” Mormonism, that is, the traditional synthesis. This kind of reply reminds me of a comment philosopher John Bishop makes while reproving atheists who refuse to criticize anything except traditional concepts of God: “They jealously guard the kind of God they don’t believe in!”73 Likewise, some evangelical apologists jealously guard the kind of Mormonism they don’t believe in.
There are still many Latter-day Saints like Kendall White whose theology is quite traditional and who do not like the direction in which writers like Robinson are leading LDS theology. Eugene England, for example, makes several telling critical comments of Robinson’s views in his review of How Wide the Divide?74 His comments make it clear that traditional-minded Latter-day Saints do not see Robinson’s theology as merely traditional Mormonism with an orthodox-sounding veneer. For example, How Wide the Divide? confirmed England’s feeling that “the grace in [Robinson’s famous] bicycle parable is more Protestant than Mormon.” In general, “Robinson’s formulations about salvation and judgment, as well as other crucial concepts, seem more Evangelical than Mormon.” England speaks of “Robinson’s rather complete capitulation” on the issue of “scriptural literalism” (i.e., biblical inerrancy) and complains that Robinson “seems to want to define the resources for Mormon theology much too narrowly.” Significantly, England admits that “Robinson and others may indeed be shifting the balance of Mormon theology,” and he countenances that this may be a useful correction “to a popular Mormon overemphasis on salvation by works or God’s finitude.” However, he fears that it will lead to theological intolerance on the part of Mormons who follow this path. In the end, England somewhat half-heartedly says that he trusts “Mormons will cling to doctrines of modern revelation.”75
England’s hope, however, seems to be unwarranted. “Neo-orthodox” or “minimalist” writers like Stephen Robinson, Robert Millet, and Gerald Lund are extremely popular among LDS readers and are popular as Fireside speakers. Through their writing and speaking, they are greatly influencing the thought of the general LDS populace. It should also be pointed out that LDS traditionalists like England are increasingly being pushed to the borders of LDS orthodoxy. England himself resigned his long-standing teaching position at BYU in order to take a position down the road (literally) at Utah Valley State College shortly before his recent death. Those in position to influence the direction Mormonism heads in the twenty-first century are mostly non-traditionalists. Millet recently completed some ten years serving as Dean of Religious Education at BYU and continues as a professor. Robinson recently completed two terms as the chair of the Department of Ancient Scripture and also continues as a professor. For several years future LDS leaders have been sitting and continue to sit under the instruction of teachers like Millet, Robinson, and the faculties they have shaped. There can be no doubt that these students will echo their teachers’ instruction as they climb the ranks within the Mormon hierarchy. The current neo-orthodox and minimalist trends in LDS theology are gaining ascendancy in popular LDS theological discourse and will continue to do so in the future. Interestingly, one can already detect the influence of minimalist scholars in the teachings of some important LDS General Authorities.76
For some time I have advocated that evangelicals focus their critiques of Mormon theology on its contemporary versions. A common objection to this is the insistence that we should only critique “official” LDS theology. While there is much I could say in response to this objection, let me make just a few points. First, the Book of Mormon is an official work of LDS theology. It is said to be their “keystone scripture.” To the degree that contemporary trends in Mormon theology reflect the teachings of the Book of Mormon, they have all the official sanction they need.
Second, if we ignore contemporary LDS theologians because their views do not yet have official church sanction, then many Latter-day Saints will find our critiques largely irrelevant because they do not interact with the views they themselves hold!’ It is only common sense that our critiques of Mormon thought ought to be critiques of what Mormons are actually thinking. After all, are not actually held beliefs the ones that will hinder or facilitate true knowledge of God? Besides, when we insist that Mormons “really believe” the traditional synthesis when many do not, our credibility is called into question. If we describe Mormonism without even mentioning the important nontraditional trend, we end up presenting a caricature and thereby bear false witness against our neighbor.
Because contemporary Mormon theology is in some ways closer to Christian orthodoxy (note well: I am not saying that it is orthodox), its errors are less glaring. The lay person is less likely to notice them. It is important that evangelical theologians produce expositions and charitable but firm critiques of this brand of Mormonism. This is important to do in order to have an accurate understanding of the dynamics of contemporary Mormonism (for its own sake). Iris also important to do in order to make available to our laity accurate resources that will both protect them from error and equip them for witnessing to their LDS acquaintances.
The contemporary LDS theologians I have been describing are far more theologically articulate in expressing and defending their beliefs than the LDS General Authorities, and they present a more plausible version of Mormonism than their traditionalist colleagues do. There is, therefore, a very good strategic reason for focusing our critiques of Mormonism primarily on contemporary neo-orthodox or minimalist versions. If we can successfully criticize a very minimal version of Mormonism, then our arguments will probably apply to more pronounced versions a fortiori. The reverse does not hold true.
Changing Our Approach and Our Attitudes to Meet Mormonism’s Challenges
To evangelicals I would like to point out that as a community, with respect to Mormonism and other New Religious Movements, we have often succumbed to the sinful habits of caricaturing and demonizing the enemy, recycling arguments that have long been answered, refusing to admit genuine mistakes, and being generally uncharitable. The Golden Rule should be applied in the realm of apologetics just as in every other area of life. Combating error should never be used by Christ’s ambassadors as an excuse to display un-Christlike behavior. If we want to effectively meet Mormonism’s new challenges, as I believe the Lord is calling us to do, it will require that we adopt new attitudes and new approaches. If we listen to the Spirit’s voice in this area and pay close attention to what he is doing, the opportunity lies before us to see a true marvelous work and a wonder. May it be so—to the everlasting praise of the Father, the glory of the Son, and honor of the Spirit, the one true and living God.