Richard J. Mouw and Robert L. Millet, ed. Talking Doctrine: Mormons & Evangelicals in Conversation. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015. See here to buy the book.
Mormonism and evangelicalism have not always had a positive relationship, to put it mildly. Many evangelicals have regarded Mormonism as strange, and there are evangelical anti-cult books that depict Mormonism as heretical and unfaithful to orthodox Christianity. I think of the popular anti-Mormon documentary, The Godmakers, in which there is a cartoon about Mormonism’s alleged history and beliefs, and a narrator with a thick gravelly voice talks about “the Mormon Jesus.” The Mormons with whom I have interacted, on the other hand, insist that they are real Christians, with many of the same beliefs that evangelicals have. During Mitt Romney’s Presidential runs, questions were in the public’s minds about Mormonism, as many people viewed Mormonism as enigmatic and mysterious. What about the existence of polygamy within Mormonism’s history? Was Mormonism historically racist? What about that special underwear that some Mormons supposedly wear? Does Mormonism believe that Jesus and Satan are brothers?
Talking Doctrine: Mormons & Evangelicals in Conversation features contributions by evangelical and Mormon scholars about dialogue and doctrine. The doctrinal topics include the nature of God, as Mormons have an unconventional view of the Trinity and regard God the Father as corporeal; the question of the extent to which believers can become like God (deification), and what that means; the possibility of prophecy after the time of the Bible (since Mormonism regards Joseph Smith as a prophet) and extra-biblical revelation; the question of whether Mormons believe that salvation is by grace through faith alone, or rather believe that good works, on some level, can earn one salvation; and the nature of religious authority, and where evangelicals derive it. One chapter of the book discusses the common political ground that Mormonism and evangelicalism have found on social and cultural issues.
The early part of the book had the obligatory things that I usually read in books about inter-religious dialogue: the importance of respecting others and not caricaturing their position; the value of noting similarities and also differences; and a statement about how highlighting differences can influence each side to look at their own positions with a fresh look, noting possible deficiencies or areas of misunderstanding. What made these discussions endearing to me were the stories about Mormons and evangelicals in conversation. I think of a reference to a Mormon professor, who was ironic and honest about the eccentricities in Mormonism’s history.
What surprised me somewhat was the wiggle-room that some of the evangelical contributors were willing to grant to Mormonism, regarding the question of whether Mormon beliefs are acceptable or objectionable. One evangelical contributor questioned whether the Mormon belief that God the Father was corporeal is really that objectionable, since Christians hold that Jesus, as God, was a corporeal human being. Another evangelical contributor referred to a discussion that she had with a Mormon about whether God the Father ever sinned. The Mormon was saying that he could have, but that Jesus’ sacrifice would have atoned for it. The evangelical contributor said that this was when it dawned on her that this Mormon really loved Jesus, just like she does. I was surprised that she did not regard his view as offensive, as a number of evangelicals probably would. A number of the evangelical contributors did not seem to regard Mormon beliefs about God as necessarily objectionable, or as something that places Mormons outside of the pale of Christianity. If there was an area that the evangelicals deemed to be non-negotiable, it would probably be that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, that this is the belief that makes one a Christian. There were evangelicals and Mormons who insisted that Mormons accepted this, and some evangelicals said that Mormon emphasis on good works can serve as a counter-balance to the tendency of some evangelicals to dismiss the necessity of a holy life.
I think that some of the chapters should have been arranged differently. A chapter by evangelical Craig Blomberg was interacting with Mormon beliefs about God and gods, and a later chapter by a Mormon was lucidly explaining what those beliefs are. The latter chapter, in my opinion, should have come before Blomberg’s chapter, to provide readers with the background information to understand what Blomberg is talking about.
My favorite chapter in the book was by Sarah Taylor, who talks about her experiences as an evangelical attending Brigham Young University. If there was a chapter that I would like to unpack some more, it would be Brigham Young professor emeritus Robert Millet’s “Authority Is Everything.” This chapter is about whether the Protestant Reformers were really justified to break away from the Roman Catholic Church, and the point seems to be that such a break would only be justified if God officially and explicitly sanctioned it, which, according to Mormonism, occurred when God called Joseph Smith. In the course of this discussion, Millet referred to Roger Williams’ belief that no one is qualified to administer the sacraments until there are new apostles. I hope that I have represented Millet’s discussion accurately; it stood out to me on account of religious discussions that I have had with people.
Ordinarily, Mormonism is not an interest of mine, but I did find this book to be informative and interesting.
The publisher sent me a complimentary review copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.