Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Evangelicals and Mormons dialogue

From Richard Ostling in Christianity Today...

Robert Millet would do things differently if he were carefully strategizing how fellow Mormons could best pursue interfaith contacts.

"I probably wouldn't have started with evangelicals," said the Brigham Young University (BYU) professor, considering the antagonism between the two groups since Mormonism's beginnings. "If we can have more civil and respectful relations with evangelicals, we can do it with anyone."

Not many years ago, evangelicals would have deemed substantive contact with Mormonism equally improbable. Yet since 2000, small scholarly teams of Mormons led by Millet and evangelical teams led by Fuller Theological Seminary president Richard Mouw have managed to hold 17 intense, closed-door dialogue sessions....

The talks are not the only breakthrough. LDS president Thomas S. Monson and his two counselors permitted Standing Together, an alliance of 90 Utah evangelical churches, to use the historic Salt Lake City Tabernacle for a September 13 revival meeting. Throngs of evangelicals and Mormons enjoyed gospel songs and prayed together....

Two dialogue books from evangelical publishers were pivotal. Blomberg laid early groundwork for closer relations in 1997 when he co-wrote How Wide the Divide?: A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation (InterVarsity Press) with BYU's Stephen Robinson. In 2005, Mouw contributed a friendly foreword and afterword to Millet's A Different Jesus?: The Christ of the Latter-day Saints (Eerdmans).

I read the Blomberg/Robinson book and it was key in changing the way I related to Mormonism. (I have a similar but more recent book by Millet and McDermott-- Claiming Christ-- but have not yet read it.) When I was in Texas for grad school, I met a lot of Mormons, studied it thoroughly, rejected it, but was attracted to debate the "weirder" aspects of the faith and to argue about the veracity of its additional Scriptures.

In contrast, the Bloomberg/Robinson book focused on core doctrines-- rather than the secondary (but still important) stuff. I read the book and then read/studied through it again with a Mormon colleague who was the primary teacher in his local ward. He attended my Bible study on campus. And as far as I could tell, he is a Christian.

Another influential data point was a 2001 Barna survey on key doctrinal beliefs by self-professed religious identity. In that work, Barna found that Mormons were as likely as Catholics-- and twice as likely as Episopalians-- to embrace the core doctrines of the evangelical Christian faith. After that, I grew fond of joking: "if the Mormons are a cult, what are the Episcopalians?"

In any case, all of this points to the need to talk with individuals about their faith-- rather than relying exclusively or even mostly on what their denomination "believes".

The rest of the article gets to this tension:

...preceded in 2004 by LDS officialdom's remarkable go-ahead for an address in the Tabernacle by well-known apologist Ravi Zacharias. His theologically orthodox presentation of Christianity, which some Mormons attended, was overshadowed by Mouw's introduction. He declared that "we evangelicals have often seriously misrepresented" Mormon beliefs and practices. "We have sinned against you," he said.

This offended many evangelicals, particularly those in ministries dedicated to opposing LDS doctrine and seeking converts. For instance, Bill McKeever, veteran director of the Utah-based Mormonism Research Ministry, attended the Zacharias address and issued a lengthy rebuttal to Mouw. McKeever says while he doesn't oppose dialogues as such, they must be "brutally honest" in addressing historical and theological problems.

Mouw explains that individual Mormons may have "genuine faith in Christ" but that he "could never give endorsement to Mormonism as a Christian theology" due to its "significant departures from the Christian tradition and Christian orthodoxy, by its own testimony." Likewise, Johnson is "open to the possibility" that individual Mormons "have a relationship with Christ," but said, "Mormonism does not legitimately receive the label Christian."...

Mouw is not alone in perceiving that Millet and other "neo-orthodox" thinkers at BYU have been migrating closer to belief in salvation by grace alone apart from human works. However, McKeever contends that Millet and other BYU professors may "want to sound evangelical" but that they carry no doctrinal authority, and that traditional LDS beliefs still emanate from headquarters....


At November 18, 2009 at 10:29 PM , Blogger William Lang said...

It's been said that God created Mormonism so that Christians would know how Jews feel.

At November 18, 2009 at 10:37 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

I can see that.

Of course, whether the analogy holds fully-- or only in part-- is a function of the veracity of the revelation, the history, and so on.

I remember talking to the same Mormon colleague who was amazed that I would talk about archeology and its relation to orthodox Christianity and Mormonism. He said Mormons didn't do that. The semi-tongue-in-cheek response was that it's probably because it doesn't help their cause!

Back to the Jewish/Christian analogy: In a similar way, Mormonism is a cousin to a.) the Protestant break with Catholicism; b.) the Catholic and Church of Christ claims to be "the one true faith"; and c.) the Catholic, Church of Christ, and American tendency to (over)emphasize the place of one's own works in salvation.

At November 18, 2009 at 11:50 PM , Blogger PianoMom said...

You make a great point about getting to know people. Most Christian, Jewish, Catholic people I have known through the years are simply culturally so and not really committed to core beliefs of their faith.

I have a very close family member who studies her Bible and prays regularly, believes in Jesus as her Savior and lives for Him as Lord. She really loves Him and trusts Him.

She also prays Indulgences to be delivered from Purgatory, does acts of Penance for dead people, carries holy water around in case someone needs to be sprinkled and kneels in front of a statue of Mary, to whom she prays as the "Co-Redemptrix".
Once, she said she would leave me some extra money so I could buy Masses to be performed on behalf of her soul after her death - she got terribly upset when I said I could not do it.

Anyway, here's the thing. In my mind the person I have described above has a saving faith, in spite of some heretical beliefs, as far as I can tell.
We have had some very deep spiritual discussions and her Christian love and support has helped me through some difficulties.
A long time ago I quit trying to "evangelize" her and we have enjoyed a fabulous friendship. I love her very much.

However, I unequivocally reject the false doctrines of her faith and will argue the points if they come up. I am not interested in trying to agree in areas where her beliefs obviously contradict basic tenets of the awesome ("good") news (ie.salvation by grace). I do not think evangelical church leaders should be attempting trying to create warm fuzzies where there shouldn't be any.

At November 19, 2009 at 8:12 AM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

I think your anecdote illustrates the perfect balance!

At November 19, 2009 at 11:13 PM , Blogger aquinas said...

I appreciate hearing your perspective. I heartily agree that we tend to approach dialogue differently when we have genuine relationships with those from other faiths. I've also found Blomberg and Robinson's book very useful and a fine example of constructive and respectful dialogue.

At November 20, 2009 at 11:48 AM , Blogger Clean Cut said...

Great post. I especially loved this line:

"In any case, all of this points to the need to talk with individuals about their faith-- rather than relying exclusively or even mostly on what their denomination 'believes'."

Many times I find myself disagreeing with fellow members of my Mormon faith. Thus, "what do you believe" is a much better question than "what do Mormons believe"--since there will quite a bit of variety. And of course this holds true with any other faith.

I too enjoyed "How Wide the Divide?", and felt that it was a phenomenal book. I also have read "Claiming Christ" but it doesn't quite reach the level of excellence put forth by "How Wide the Divide?".

PS: My heart resonates with what you wrote in your profile: "First and foremost, I am saved by God's grace as manifested most clearly through the atoning death of Jesus Christ-- and thus, adopted into His family. As a result, I increasingly seek to extend His grace to others in my daily life."

What a beautifully written and fantastic statement. I wish that more Mormons would feel and speak this way.

At November 20, 2009 at 3:18 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Thanks for your encouraging words!

At November 21, 2009 at 9:41 AM , Blogger Janet P said...

Acts 17:11
Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.

We all have the responsibility to check out what our teachers/preachers/denominational authorities are purporting as truth - to see if it really is!


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