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Justin Hart
Monday, April 27 2009

Winning the Battle and Not Knowing It - Part IV: The New Mormon Challenge Reviewed

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Winning the Battle and Not Knowing It - Part IV: The New Mormon Challenge Reviewed
by Justin Hart

The New Mormon Challenge
Mosser, Owen, Beckwith eds.
2002 Zondervan Publishing

Editor's Note:  This is the fourth in a series of articles examining the new stance some evangelicals are taking toward Latter-day Saints and our theology.  Traditionally, many evangelicals have taken an anti-Mormon stance that depended on distortions, polemics, and old diatribes which have been around since Joseph Smith's day.  Recently, that approach is being moderated.

As I finished the forward to our latest book under review, The New Mormon Challenge, I was stunned.  Within the first paragraphs of the forward Richard J. Mouw, a prominent leader of an evangelical seminary, says he is "ashamed of our record in relating to the Mormon community."  He continues: "[By propagating] distorted accounts of what Mormons believe. and bearing false witness against our LDS neighbors, we evangelicals have often sinned not just against Mormons but against the God who calls us to be truth tellers." (11)  Needless to say, he has my ear, more importantly my respect. 

The title of the book, together with the foreboding picture of the Salt Lake Temple on the cover, has all the earmarks of an anti-Mormon diatribe.  But a quick reading of the front and back flaps will tell you this is not an anti-Mormon book.

In fact, when I inquired at my local Christian bookstore, the volume was nowhere near the popular pamphlet, When Mormons Come Knocking; it was shelved far away from the soft cover cult book The Truth about Mormon Temples.  Rather, it lay in a corner of scholarly works about biblical exegesis.  It seems the bookstore owners were even a bit puzzled as to where to put it. 

I'm no librarian, but, in my opinion, this book should never be shelved next to Fawn Brodie or E.D. Howe.  We should even keep it an arm's length away from Brent Metcalfe.  The authors have expended great efforts to make it thus and proclaim that The New Mormon Challenge "pioneers a new genre of literature on Mormonism." (front flap)

Keeping with our battle analogy: having observed the ongoing fight from a unique vantage point, the evangelical authors from our first article, Owen and Mosser, have organized a team of combatants, armed themselves with newly fashioned weapons, and dived into the fray, hoping to discount the gospel.  Giving fair warning of their approach, indeed signaling their insistence on a fair fight, the authors have shunned the usual ambush and guerrilla techniques of their less-than-successful predecessors and offered a fresh foray against our battle-hardened soldiers in the field.

This is a bit overboard of course, but were you to read Brodie, Howe, Decker (another  anti-Mormon author) and The New Mormon Challenge in succession, you would plunge into hyperbole too.  As Dan Peterson notes, the tone is "light years" from the usual garb.

No more Bellicose Theological Terrorists
I should note, however, no one should (or could) categorize this book as "pro-Mormon".  In fact, the book sets out to demonstrate the "fundamental weaknesses of the Mormon worldview." (back flap)  The premise and a priori assumption of the book is that Mormonism is not a Christian sect (more on this later).  

The New Mormon Challenge (530 pgs), is a compilation of essays and scholarly papers edited by Francis J. Beckwith, Carl Mosser, and Paul Owen.  The volume has four sections dealing with various aspects of Mormonism.  In the first section, our authors tackle "Mormonism's Appeal, Growth, and Challenges."  Sections two, three and four take on Mormonism's "worldview", the Mormons' place (or lack of place) in Christianity, and the Book of Mormon respectively.  Each section contains several articles breaking down the subjects into more manageable topics.

The tenor of the book will be wholly unfamiliar to many of our readers.  There are frank admissions of our successes, unique efforts to propose a détente on doctrinal subjects, and a general concession that we are worthy opponents.  The writing in the book is engaging, but at times deeply rooted in philosophical and exegetical treatments on multiple texts.  Section one is accessible to most any lay reader.  Sections two and three are very demanding, but well worth the effort.  Section four is short and in my mind very telling, more on this later.

As the forward states: the tone of the essays: "is a laudable attempt to set the record straight." (11)  The editors, we are told, "have approached this project with the intention of talking to Latter-day Saints, not at them" (399, emphasis theirs). The authors recognize the past polemical mantra that has dominated the interfaith discussions to date:

[We] are not interested in doctrinal dispute for the sake of dispute.  We are not interested in attacking and tearing down the beliefs of others like some sort of bellicose theological terrorists. (26)

Why all the sudden niceties?  As we noted in our previous articles: the mass of Mormon apologetic works has reached a "fervent pitch" that cannot be ignored.  In a nod to decades of recognized scholars, extensive research and spent resources, the editors of The New Mormon Challenge declare: "we would do well to treat the Mormon worldview as a serious intellectual perspective." (12)

However, beyond the courtesy and rapport of the authors are serious disagreements with our theology.  "Mormonism's challenges are real and can be dismissed only at a cost evangelicals are unwilling to pay" (86). says Carl Mosser in his article entitled, "And the Saints Go Marching On." 

They Keeps Going and Going and.
So what is it about Mormonism that has got these folks up at night writing such vigorous scholarship?  What is the "high cost" that we hold over their heads? 

As Mosser states in his chapter: "Of all the 'alternative religious movements' birthed in the last 250 years, Mormonism is by far the most successful" Mosser continues:

It has achieved a high degree of social acceptability, and its members have an influence in the realms of politics and corporate business that is disproportionate to their numbers. (59)

Mosser cites the growing number of converts and missionaries as signs that cannot be ignored by his fellow evangelicals.  Interestingly enough, he gives a fair amount of concern to the number of missionaries in the decades to come (69).  Mosser goes on to question whether or not the Church will become the next world religion as some scholars have suggested (he makes some interesting comments in this line of argument indicating that a "world religion" is more than just grunt large numbers). 

In his usual charitable tone, Mosser tries to clarify his concerns about the growth of Mormonism.  He notes that evangelicals and Latter-day Saints are "allies" in the culture wars.  Both groups support strong family values and are alarmed by political movements against religion in general.  Mosser applauds the church for its recent efforts and successes against homosexual marriage.  He declares: "It is right for evangelicals, as fellow concerned citizens, to partner with Latter-day Saints in our common causes."  In this regard, the growth of Mormonism is viewed as a positive thing. 

Are We Christian?
The caveat, however, comes next: "Given the theological commitments of Mormonism. I do not think we can in good theological conscience view LDS church growth. as a good thing" (66). He claims that the Mormon church has radically departed from "biblical and historical [Christianity]."  Our doctrines and teachings, it seems, have disqualified us for admittance into Christendom:

I don't believe that at this time Mormonism can be categorized as Christian in any very useful or theological significant sense - as much as we might hate to see such a noble people outside the faith. (66)

At this juncture I had the usual reaction to this statement that many of you probably do now.  "Here we go again!"  Upon a second reading, however, you may notice that Mosser breaks fresh ground with this statement. 

First, he acknowledges our primary complaint: Mormons are good people ("a noble people"), and in this sense Christian.  Second, he leaves the door open with his qualifier: "at this time".  Third, a footnote to this section gives us reason to pause and consider with Mosser's assessment.  Let's tackle these three points in reverse. 

Mosser, in his footnote admits he understands our complaint but he says we [the Mormons]:

[have failed] to appreciate the reasons for which non-Mormons reach this conclusion about the relationship between Mormonism and Christianity - reasons that stem, ultimately, from an appreciation of Mormonism's distinctiveness.   (413 #26)

Mosser goes on to compare this relationship to that of Islam and the Druze and Nusayriyyah movements, both of which stem from Islam, but have grown so distinctive to where they "cannot be considered expressions of Islam."  He concludes: "One has failed to appreciate Mormonism's distinctiveness if one can classify it as Christian without qualifications." I believe this is a definition that is both charitable on their part and mostly acceptable on ours.

The Door is Open?
To the second point: Mosser and other authors in the book allow for the possibility that our status might change.  Indeed, this is a common theme throughout the book, but one that does not fully appreciate how vital and God-given we consider our distinctions to be.  Mormonism, according to the authors, has made some definite strides to assuage evangelical concerns.  Craig Blomberg (from our second article), in his paper, "Is Mormonism Christian?",  points to revelations about polygamy and the 1978 priesthood revelation as a precedent for change: "Clearly, such revelations could again move the LDS Church in what evangelicals would consider more biblical directions" (325). 

From their vantage point, Blomberg and others detail an interesting movement that they think they see within the church.  They call this a "neo-orthodox" trend which places increasing emphasis on human sinfulness, salvation by grace, and a decreased emphasis on anthropomorphic characteristics of God.  Mosser calls it a growing "minimalist" trend within our ranks.  

From this viewpoint, Mosser has taken an unprecedented step in his critique.  He suggests that fellow critics should abandon century-old doctrinal odds and ends and focus on contemporary Mormonism.  This would be a welcome change as many anti-Mormon books are lathered in quotes from second-hand heresy and steeped in urban legends that they refuse to correct.  Addressing Mormonism as it exists today and accepting that what we say we believe, we actually do believe, are exciting prospects to say the least.  As Mosser states:

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. (82)

Again, the main thrust here seems decently apolitical; this is not a turf war.  The authors want to interact with Mormons to better understand our beliefs, and prime their critiques against those beliefs rather than belittling them and us.  In their conclusion, the editors note: "If Christians are to effectively meet the new Mormon challenge, the apologetics community needs to use Christian scholarship of the highest caliber" (398)

An LDS Evangelical?
Getting back to the first point: the editors and authors of the book admit that we do much good in the world and that we are candidates for salvation.  Blomberg, for example, admits that an LDS church member can become a true Christian "through genuine heartfelt conversion."  However, he does question whether this member can remain within the LDS Church:

The question is partially parallel to the question evangelicals have debated concerning converted Roman Catholics, to which today there would be a widespread (though not unanimous) consensus that again the answer is 'yes'. The vast majority of all evangelicals would surely also think that it would be wisest for 'born-again' Mormons to change their church membership.  (329)

Blomberg longs to find some type of "evangelical Mormonism" but cannot, "of this writing", "find a meaningful way to include Mormonism within Christianity" (331).  When all is said and done Christianity as he defines it is a tough club to join.  Perhaps we should invite them to join us instead.

Next article: We examine the meat of the book.  Creation out of nothing, Mormon materialism, Dual Theisms and the Book of Mormon. stay tuned.

© 2002Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.

 

 

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