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Editor's Note: This is a little long, but I think it is worth the time.
The Mormon/Evangelical Dialogue: One Effort to Engage Persons of Other Faiths
By Robert L. Millet · January 12, 2015, Expand Meridian Magazine (ldsmag.com)
The story of how a group of Latter-day Saints began to meet and converse with a group of Evangelical Protestants and to talk religion is rather fascinating. To some extent, it is the story of my life for the greater part of the last two decades.
It Started With a Friendship
In April, 1997 the BYU Religious Education faculty invited Professor Bruce Demarest of Denver Seminary to visit Provo and speak to us. His topic was the man Melchizedek, an enigmatic Old Testament character, and of course one of some significant interest to Latter-day Saints. Besides our own faculty, two local ministers were in attendance, one of which was Pastor Gregory Johnson, who was then shepherding a small flock of Baptists in Huntsville, Utah. I happened to slip into the meeting late. Greg introduced himself to me following the meeting. (Picture: Robert Millet)
Greg and I began to have lunch together about once a month to discuss our respective faiths and belief systems. What made the discussions especially provocative was the fact that Greg had been raised LDS and had later, as a fourteen-year old, undergone a gborn againh experience. We covered many topics. We compared and contrasted, we asked questions, and we answered them.
Importantly, our discussions were characterized by a mood of openness, candor, and a general lack of defensiveness. We knew what we believed, and we were committed to our own religious tradition. Neither was trying to convert the other; rather, we were making an effort to better understand one another. Our experience is one example of what can happen when men and women of good will come together in an attitude of openness, and in a sincere effort to better understand and be understood. In a rather informal manner, Pastor Johnson and I sought to acquire the skills and art of what our friend and colleague Richard Mouw of Fuller Theological Seminary has called gconvicted civilityh (Mouw, 2010).
The Conversation Broadens
As our friendship developed over time, Greg and I began to wonder if there might be some merit in enlarging our interfaith circle to include other Latter-day Saints and evangelicals. An expanded group met for the first time in the spring of 2000 at Brigham Young University. The Evangelical participants included Greg Johnson; Richard Mouw of Fuller Theological Seminary; Craig Blomberg of Denver Seminary; Craig Hazen of Biola University; David Neff, editor of Christianity Today; and Carl Moser, who was at the time a doctoral student in Scotland. On the LDS side, participants included myself, Stephen Robinson, Roger Keller, David Paulsen, Daniel Judd, and Andrew Skinner, all from BYU. Names and faces have changed somewhat, but the dialogue has continued since that first gathering. Over the years we came prepared (through readings of articles and books) to discuss a number of doctrinal subjects. We met every six months, for a total of twenty-four times.
In the early sessions, it was not uncommon to sense a bit of tension, a subtle uncertainty, a slight uneasiness, about where this was going. As the dialogue began to take shape, it was apparent that we were searching for an identity—was this to be a confrontation? An argument? A debate? Was it to produce a winner and a loser? Just how candid and earnest were we expected to be?
Some of the Latter-day Saints wondered: Do the gother guysh see this encounter as a grand effort to set Mormonism straight, to make it more traditionally Christian, more acceptable to skeptical onlookers? Some of the evangelicals wondered: Are those gother guysh for real? Is what they are saying an accurate expression of LDS belief? Can a person be a genuine Christian and yet not be a part of Trinitarian Christianity? A question that continues to come up is: Just how much gincorrect theologyh can the grace of God compensate for? Before too long, those kinds of issues became part of the dialogue itself, and in the process, much of the tension began to dissipate.
The meetings have been more than conversations. We have visited key historical sites, eaten and socialized, sung hymns and prayed, mourned together over the passing of members of our group, and shared ideas, books, and articles throughout the years. The initial feeling of formality has given way to a sweet informality, a brother-and-sisterhood, a kindness in disagreement, a respect for opposing views, and a feeling of responsibility toward those not of our faith—a responsibility to represent their doctrines and practices accurately to folks of our own faith.
No one has compromised or diluted his or her own theological convictions, but everyone has sought to demonstrate the kind of civility that ought to characterize a mature exchange of ideas among a body of believers who have discarded defensiveness. There have been those times, as well, when many of us have felt what Harvardfs Krister Stendahl has described as gholy envyh—something stronger and more satisfying than tolerance, something definitely more heartwarming and even compelling than ideological indifference. No dialogue of this type is worth its salt unless the participants gradually begin to realize that there is much to be learned from the other guys.
Evangelical John Stackhouse has written: gIf I go no further than to think that itfs okay for you to do your thing and I to do mine, then where is the incentive to seriously consider whether I should adopt your thing and abandon mine?h Further, gIf one is not sufficiently sympathetic, not sufficiently vulnerable to changing onefs mind, not sufficiently willing to entertain the idea that these people might just be right—then it is most unlikely that one will enter into that religion far enough to understand its essenceh (Stackhouse, 41, 102). For me, entering into their world has entailed a tremendous amount of reading of Christian history, Christian theology, and, more particularly, Evangelical thought, as well as attendance at evangelical church services and academic conferences.
It soon became clear that perhaps more critical than intellectual acumen in the dialogue was a non-defensive, clear-headed, thick-skinned, persistent but pleasant personality. Kindness works really well, also. Those steeped in apologetics, whether LDS or evangelical, face a particular hurdle in this regard. We agreed early on, for example, that we would not take the time to address every anti-Mormon polemic, any more than a Christian/Muslim dialogue would spend appreciable time evaluating proofs of whether Muhammad actually entertained the angel Gabriel. Furthermore, and this is much more difficult, we agreed as a larger team to a rather high standard of loyalty—that we would not say anything privately about the other guys that we would not say in public.
The first dialogue, held at Brigham Young University in the spring of 2000 was, as suggested earlier, as much an effort to test the waters as to dialogue on a specific topic. But the group did agree to do some reading prior to the gathering. The Evangelicals asked that we all read or re-read John Stottfs classic work, Basic Christianity (Eerdmans, 1958) and some of my LDS colleagues recommended that we read a book I had written entitled The Mormon Faith (Shadow Mountain, 1998). We spent much of a day discussing The Mormon Faith, concluding that there were a number of theological topics deserving of extended conversation.
When it came time to discuss Basic Christianity, we had a most unusual and unexpected experience. Richard Mouw asked, gWell, what concerns or questions do you have about this book?h There was a long and somewhat uncomfortable pause. Mouw followed up after about a minute: gIsnft there anything you have to say? Did we all read the book?h Everyone nodded affirmatively that they had indeed read it but no one seemed to have any questions. Finally, one of the LDS participants responded: gStott is essentially writing of New Testament Christianity, with which we have no quarrel. He does not wander into the creedal formulations that came from Nicaea, Constantinople, or Chalcedon. We agree with his assessment of Jesus Christ as presented in the New Testament. Good book.h That comment was an important one, as it signaled where we would eventually lock our theological horns.
In the second dialogue, held at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, we chose to discuss the matter of soteriology, the study of how salvation comes, and much of the conversation was taken up with the relation between divine grace, faithful obedience (good works), and salvation. The evangelicals insisted that Mormon theology did not contain a provision for grace, and that Mormons seemed to be obsessed with a kind of works righteousness.
This is a matter that had come up many times before in my conversations with evangelicals—namely that Mormons tend to be so focused on doing the right thing, doing enough of the right thing, and laboring tenaciously to accomplish the gwork of the kingdomh that it appeared the Saints felt that they could somehow save themselves, that in fact divine grace was not necessary.
On the other hand, the LDS participants pointed out that what they had observed quite often among evangelicals was what Bonhoeffer had described as gcheap graceh (Bonhoeffer, 45-47), a kind of easy believism that frequently resulted in spiritually unfazed and unchanged people. A later evangelical participant, Gerald McDermott, called this ggreasy graceh or gsloppy agape.h
Rather than attempt to explain why this or that Mormon did not have it right on this topic, one of the first things the Latter-day Saints in the dialogue did was to return to Mormon scriptural texts to demonstrate how often and consistent the grace of God is emphasized there. As an example, one of the Mormons, Stephen Robinson, asked the group to turn in their copies of the Book of Mormon (each participant came prepared with a Bible and the triple combination) to several passages in which the text stressed the fact that we are saved only through the merits and mercy and grace of the Holy Messiah. After an extended silence, I remember hearing one of the evangelicals say, almost in a whisper, gSounds pretty Christian to me.h
In some ways, this topic—grace and works—is seldom referred to any longer among the dialogists. While both groups acknowledge that there will probably always be differences in how salvation in Christ is described between the two faith traditions, in reality we were on the same page and thus to some extent this particular issue became a theological straw man to which no one felt the need to strike a match. This dialogue was a breakthrough that we often refer to when we are in the middle of a doctrinal logjam: we ought to be just as eager to celebrate similarities as we are to define differences.
One of our dialogues took place in 2004 at the meetings of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. We had agreed as a large group to discuss the person and work of Joseph Smith. We extended an invitation to Richard Bushman, LDS professor of History at Columbia University, to discuss with us his soon-to-be-released biography of the Mormon Prophet, Rough Stone Rolling (Bushman, 2005).
Richard quickly got everyonefs attention as he turned to the evangelical element of the group and asked simply, gIs Joseph Smith an impossibility for you?h After a long delay, he restated the question. This time someone replied: gNo, not an impossibility. God can speak to us and certain individuals can have the gift of prophecy and revelation. We just do not believe God appeared or spoke to Joseph Smith.h
The dialogue proceeded from there, discussing true and false prophets, whether Joseph Smith was a prophet with a large or small P (as someone put it), and whether Mormonism could be an expression of something good or Christian if Joseph Smith did not really see God (the matter of historicity). Toward the end of the meeting, one of the most prominent historians in the country, now at a major university, said: gI am not ready to accept a vision of God and Christ, an angel Moroni, or gold plates, but I am haunted by the Christianity within Mormon culture.h As a follow-up, Mouw spoke at our next gathering on gThe Possibility of Joseph Smith: An Evangelical Perspective,h posing the question: Isnft there a way for us to examine Joseph Smith without resorting to such labels as liar or lunatic?
One of the most memorable of all our discussions centered around the concept of theosis or divinization, the doctrine espoused by Latter-day Saints and also a vital facet of Eastern Orthodoxy. For this dialogue we invited Veli-Matti Karkkainen, professor of Theology at Fuller Seminary, to lead our discussion. In preparation for the dialogue we read his book, One With God: Salvation As Deification and Justification (2004), as well as LDS writings on the topic. It seemed to me that in this particular exchange there was much less effort on the part of Evangelicals to gfix Mormonismh or continue another round of gtryouts for true Christianity.h
Instead, there was much reflection and introspection among the entire group. Mormons commented on how little work they had done on this subject beyond the bounds of Mormonism, and they found themselves fascinated with such expressions as participation in God, union with God, assimilation into God, receiving of Godfs energies and not his essence, and divine-human synergy. More than one of the evangelicals asked how they could have ignored, in their encounter with Mormonism, a matter that was a part of the discourse of Athanasius, Augustine, Irenaeus, Gregory of Nazianzus, and even Martin Luther. There was much less said about gyou and your faith,h and far more emphasis on gweh as professing Christians, when addressing divinization and related themes.
Not long after our dialogue on deification, Richard Mouw suggested that we meet next time not in Provo, but rather in Nauvoo, Illinois. Because a large percentage of the original dwellings, meetinghouses, places of business, and even the temple have been restored in modern Nauvoo, our dialogue was framed by the historical setting and resulted in perhaps the greatest blending of hearts of any of our dialogues.
Two years later, we met in Palmyra, New York and once again focused much of our attention on historical sites, from the Sacred Grove (where Joseph Smith claimed to have received his first vision) to Fayette, where the church was formally organized on April 6th, 1830. We had reaffirmed what we had come to know quite well in Nauvoo—that there is in fact something special about gsacred space.h Following the Palmyra exchange, the Mormon participants insisted that Richard Mouw plan a similar experience for us in Wittenberg and/or Geneva!
After a decade of semi-annual meetings, it was decided that we should start over, delve more deeply into the topics, and prepare short written documents summarizing matters on which Mormons and Evangelicals may agree, matters on which, for the foreseeable future, we will agree to disagree, and matters that require further study and dialogue. We also agreed that our initial thrust should be at that point in Christian history where the theological friction begins, namely the years leading up to Nicaea, the decisions of that and subsequent church councils regarding the divinity and humanity of Jesus; and in general the traditional Christian view of the Trinity.
Many of us have felt a superintending hand in the overall enterprise, and consequently trusted that whatever comes to pass is providentially intended. I would be less than honest if I suggested that the enterprise has been motivated solely by intellectual engagement, although our sessions have been immensely stimulating and enriching. I have learned that I cannot, simply cannot, take another religious tradition seriously without (1) coming to appreciate beauty, truth, and conviction within its adherents, and recognizing in their lifestyle something commendable and even praiseworthy; (2) asking hard questions about my own tradition, including its theological consistency and relevance in a modern world; and (3) recognizing that God is moving in the hearts and lives of men and women throughout the world in ways not easily perceived.
Few things are more needed in this tense and confused world than understanding. It really is time to stop name-calling, categorizing, and demonizing, especially among people who claim to be religious. gIf I esteem mankind to be in error,h Joseph Smith observed in 1843, less than a year before his death, gshall I bear them down? No. I will lift them up, and in their own way too, if I cannot persuade them my way is better; and I will not seek to compel any man to believe as I do, only by the force of reasoning, for truth will cut its own way. Do you believe in Jesus Christ and the Gospel of salvation which he revealed? So do I. Christians should cease wrangling and contending with each other, and cultivate the principles of union and friendship in their midst; and they will do it before the millennium can be ushered in and Christ takes possession of His kingdomh (Smith, 313-14).
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Macmillan, 1963.
Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.
Mouw, Richard J. Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, 2nd ed.
Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2010.
Sider, Ronald J. The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why Are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World? Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2005.
Smith, Joseph. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Selected by Joseph Fielding Smith. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976.
Stackhouse, John G. Humble Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today . New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Willard, Dallas. The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesusfs Essential Teachings on Discipleship. New York: Harper Collins, 2006.
Robert L. Millet is Coordinator of the Office of Religious Outreach and Professor Emeritus of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University.
Two of six comments.
Cindy January 13, 2015
I am weeping as I read this most fascinating and heartwarming article. I cannot thank you enough for this endeavor! Around 2008 an evangelical minister, whom I have never met, and I carried on written correspondence about whether or not Mormons are Christians. He had written a column in the local newspaper claiming that Mitt Romney was not a Christian. I wrote to him a cordial letter outlining why I believe we are Christians. He responded with a nine page letter; in fact we had about three exchanges of letters each over the course of our communication. We agreed at the outset that we would avoid any spirit of contention. I responded with many scriptures, several talks from general conferences addressing the topics we covered and a Book of Mormon. In his final letter, he acknowledged that he could see that we were Christians and thanked me for helping him to better understand our beliefs. I am so glad that I took the time and made the effort to engage him and that he helped me to better understand his beliefs. This is so wonderful what you are doing. I hope to hear more about your discussions. Thank you so very much!
Mike Mansfield January 13, 2015
It is so good to hear when people, who have defined "meaning" in their life slightly different from other, can sit with the intent to increase the shared pool of meaning between themselves. This appears to have been a very positive experience for those involved in the process shared in this article. I look forward to the time that those involved with this endeavor are able to share their increased pool of meaning with those that they have influence with. There is much misunderstanding that can be healed through the desire to honestly reflect upon the understandings that we have all developed and to be open to the chance that we have misunderstood the beliefs of others.
OREM — Borrowing an ancient Hebrew word from an Old Testament text, one of Americafs leading evangelical Christian scholars told nearly 2,000 young Mormons at Utah Valley University Friday that his faith and their faith, often at odds with each other through the years over doctrinal disparities, gneed to find ways we can work togetherh to find gshalom,h or peace.
That hope, he said, emanates from the beliefs that evangelical Christians have in common with members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — specifically their shared belief in gthe redemptive power of Jesus Christ.h
(Picture: Richard Mouw)
For more than 10 years Mouw has been talking about those issues — both the differences and the commonalities — with a group of evangelical and LDS scholars who meet regularly to share and probe and consider varying theological perspectives. One of the things he said he has learned during those years is gtherefs more commonality than we realized in the way we talk about Jesus and his atoning work.h