Winning the Battle and Not Knowing It, Part V: Part 2 of the Review
by Justin Hart

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

Our authors start their doctrinal critique with a half-frustrated vent: “Trying to figure out just what constitutes Mormon theology is like trying to nail Jell-O dipped in olive oil to the wall” (22).  Given our per-capita digestion of Jell-O products, and the fact that many Latter-day Saints have olive oil within a key-chain’s reach, there is something deeply humorous about this analogy.

For lifetime members, however, this is a puzzling assessment.  Mormon theology seems almost second nature to us; intimately clear.  On the other hand, many new members (and most of us are “new” members) may find similar confusion.  It’s not necessarily that Mormon doctrine is changing or ambiguous. I believe the difficulty lies in pinpointing “official” doctrines.

There have only been a handful of doctrinal exposs that the brethren have deemed to publish over the past 150 years (literally 3 to 5).  Rather, church authorities have concentrated their efforts on principles taken from the basic doctrines of the Gospel rather than biblical exegesis on deep doctrines.  There are no diplomas, no scholarly catechisms, and no paid clergy.  In fact, among the General Authorities of the church, there have only been a handful of “professional” academicians.  There is, of course, no shortage of materials or publications on church doctrines; just very few that have the official “sanction” of the church.

Some claim the “ambiguity” lies in doctrines that were taught in our early history but that are now downplayed (the minimalist movement as we discussed previously).  Typical anti-Mormon circles would fain exploit this for some rhetorical points.  The authors of The New Mormon Challenge, however, bring a fresh and welcome approach to the table by targeting and attacking Latter-day doctrines rather than Latter-day doctrines of yesteryear.  For example, there is no mention of the much-maligned and misunderstood Adam-God theory.  Their angle is focused on what we believe now, not what someone thinks about what a someone else said about a transcribed conversation that occurred a hundred years ago. 

Scriptures and Philosophy
With those opening remarks I should note at the outset that I am in no way qualified to fully rebut the points made in these deep doctrinal chapters.  Nether is there room in this article to do so.  Indeed, the bulk of the critiques will be inaccessible to the lay reader. 

Section II of the book, for example, on “The Mormon Worldview” contains 5 articles.  Three of these articles concentrate on a philosophical analysis of the Mormon’s view of God, God’s relation to the creation and his relation to man. 

Paul Copan and William Lane Craig start out the section talking about creationism and the concept of Creatio ex nihilo.  Just a sample of the deep philosophy involved in these chapters:

Since an actual infinite cannot exist and an infinite temporal regress of events is an actual infinite, we can conclude that an infinite temporal regress of events cannot exist; that is to say, the temporal regress of events is finite.  Since the temporal regress of events is finite, the temporal series of past physical events is not beginningless.  And this is the second premise of the original syllogism that we set out to prove. (132)

I cite this paragraph out of context for effect, not to diminish its argument, but rather to warn the reader that this is heady stuff.  So bring your copy of Cantorian Set Theory to bed with you. 

I find it interesting that while the authors call on the Big Bang theory to support their premise, they deny the law of conservation and mathematical theories of the infinite in relation to the creation of the universe. To be fair, the authors do cite the scriptures in tandem with their assessments, but if their goal is to convince the lay member to leave Mormonism, there are very few arguments to be had here.

A God That’s Just Too Real
Stephen Parrish, in his chapter entitled “A Tale of Two Theisms,” pits Mormon theology against the classical view of Trinitarian Monotheism to see which theory of God seems more plausible and logical.  He dubs the Mormon viewpoint, Monarchotheism, by which he means: there are other gods that exist, but Mormons only worship one God.  He sees characteristics like omniscience and omnipotence as a better fit for the classical view of the Godhead.  His problem as I see it, stemming from our opening remarks, is that he reads way too much into our supposed concept of God.

For example, he claims that we somehow deny God omnipotence through our concept of evil.  His logical train of thought, in short, is this:  Mormons believe that God obeys and is subject to eternal laws, evil is therefore an eternal law, God did not create evil, therefore God has no power to destroy evil, therefore evil will remain with us forever.  His conclusion: “What can we look forward to, if the Mormon concept of God and creation is true, an eternity of struggling with evil” (217). 

The evangelical point of view is that God wholly transcends the laws of the universe and is not subject to them.  The main thrust of many of the arguments posited in the book are around the Mormon view of God being too materialistic, too defined, somehow finite and infinite at the same time.  Parrish later laments: “Simply put, there seems to be no way that an object with a mass about the size of a human being could control objects with the mass of the entire galaxy” (210).  My reply is, so who’s putting finite limits on God now? 

I believe that Orson Pratt’s reaction to the classical God of Christianity is just as acute today as it was over a hundred years ago.  To wit:

Reader, can you see the difference? A god “without a body!” A god “without parts!” A god that cannot be “here or there!” A god that is “NOWHERE!” A god that cannot exist “NOW and THEN!” A god that exists in NO TIME! A god that has no extension-no “parts”-no conceivable relation to time or space! O, blush for modern christianity!-a pious name for Atheism! (Orson Pratt, pamphlet)

This leads us nicely into J.P Moreland’s article entitled “The Absurdities of Mormon Materialism”.  Before you take unkindly to the title you should note that it is a rhetorical play and critique on a pamphlet by Orson Pratt entitled: “The Absurdities of Immaterialism.” 

In his critique, Moreland determines that Pratt’s view of existence is inadequate and lacking.  Pratt’s believes that existence implies time and space and that anything that exists must therefore be subject to time and space.  Moreland states: “unless Pratt offers independent justification of his view of existence. his argument here must be judged inadequate” (251).  In my mind, the argument seems to weigh more heavily on Moreland and Co. to identify why existence should be considered anything other than what Pratt says it is, because, for the life of me, I can’t remember when I last saw something that wasn’t existing in time and space.

Again, you’ll notice that my remarks are a quick, quippy and inadequate.  I’ve approached these middle chapters this way for two reasons.  First, as I noted there is hardly room to address the objections in this forum.  Second, the arguments made in these chapters are wholly unconvincing to the average Mormon.  Returning to a previous point, the Mormon believes in his theology because he has a witness from God of its divinity, not because it has met the requirements of someone’s theories on philosophical physicality.

The Keystone Hold its Own
The last section of the book is the most telling in my eyes.  The authors devote two chapters to the Book of Mormon.  In their conclusion the editors admit there is still much to do to refute the Book of Mormon.  I’m not sure these two chapters have moved their ball down the field much either. 

The first chapter spends a few paragraphs referring to the use of metal plates in ancient writing.  The author, Thomas Finley, claims that there are no examples of extended writing on metal plates.  This point deserves a look see by our scholars.

The bulk of his chapter, however, tries to examine the Book of Mormon from a linguistic point of view.  Finley attempts to find plausible ways in which Joseph Smith may have come up with some of the trickier proper and place names in the Bible.  In essence he sees KJV derivatives for a number of names that we have placed in our plus column.  The approach is interesting but ineffective for its “could have gotten it from.” theory.

The final article in the book is by David J. Shepherd, entitled, “Rendering Fiction.”  In it he claims that the book of Mormon is a pseudotranslation.  A pseudotranslation is a translated work that has wholly embellished its source so as to be unrecognizable from the original.  Shepherd claims the primary source is the bible and this he bases primarily on the Isaiah chapters.  Shepherd’s comments in his conclusion however, deserve marked attention:

Although it will be faint praise indeed for defenders of Smith’s “translation” work, it seems clear to the present author that the Book of Mormon is the most complex, ambitious, and influential pseudotranslation that the world has ever seen or is, indeed, ever likely to see. (395)

In 1856, Adam Mickiewicz, the renown 19th century Polish poet, wrote a short satirical poem entitled: “Kartofel” (translated: “The Potato”).  In it he describes a surreal encounter between the Greek gods of antiquity and the famous trio of 16th century vessels under the direction of one Christopher Columbus.  While the entourage approaches the “virgin” shores of the New World, the Gods command Neptune to hold the ships at bay while they discuss the matter.  The Gods quarrel on for a time about the foreseeable atrocities against the American Indians, the loose hankering for gold, and the bloodshed from wars and infighting, all the while weighing the matter, literally, by placing each count against the landing in one side of a pair of scales.  Some Gods even the matter out, pointing to the wealth of invention and prosperity that a future democracy will render.  In the end however, the scales lean against the voyage’s success, until a small mite, slips around back of the scales and throws in the final determinate: a potato.  The future abundance of this one vegetable and its effect upon the world tips the scales in favor of the landing and the ships continue onward to their respective place in history.

In our discussions I have frequently pointed to the growing momentum behind the Mormon “worldview” in scholarly circles.  From reading and re-reading the articles in this book, one point becomes evidently clear to me: the Book of Mormon is our potato, and, our voyage will go on. 

Note: FARMS is planning to devote a fair amount of its next Books Issue to reviews on this book.  Also, Blake Ostler has produced some excellent rebuttals to the claims of these articles that can be found online.

2002Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.