Seeing Ourselves Through the Eyes of a Friendly and Thoughtful Evangelical

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A review of Richard J. Mouw, Talking with Mormons: An Invitation to Evangelicals. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2012, 99 pages.

Some Latter-day Saints will recall Richard Mouw from the introductory remarks that he offered in November 2004 when the Evangelical Protestant apologist Ravi Zacharias was the featured speaker at a special interfaith meeting in the Tabernacle on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah. In the course of his remarks, Professor Mouw apologized to Latter-day Saints for the way in which Evangelicals have often treated the Mormon faith. Carrie Moore, of the Deseret News, reported about Zacharias’s speech on 15 November 2004:

But what many Utahns may remember most distinctly is the sermon that came before it.

Taking the pulpit to speak of the event’s historic nature, Fuller Theological Seminary President Richard Mouw addressed a capacity crowd of several thousand, offering a stunningly candid apology to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and noting that “friendship has not come easily between our communities.” He dubbed the evening “historic” and apologized that Evangelicals “have often misrepresented the faith and beliefs of the Latter-day Saints.”

“Let me state it clearly. We evangelicals have sinned against you,” he said, adding both camps have tended to marginalize and simplify the others’ beliefs.1

I was there in the Tabernacle that evening, and to me his apology was, by far, the highlight of the evening. (His own comments on that “Tabernacle Apology” occur on pages 1-4 of Talking with Mormons.) A [Page 98]number of evangelicals disagreed, though. Which is putting it mildly. Why were they so upset? Because the man offering the apology was not only one of them, but an unusually prominent and credible one of them.

Richard J. Mouw served for twenty years, from 1993 to 2013, as president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. He joined the faculty at Fuller, a highly respected evangelical school, as Professor of Christian Philosophy in 1985, prior to which time he had taught for seventeen years at Calvin College in Michigan. He is still on the faculty of Fuller as Professor of Faith and Public Life.

In my limited personal experience with Professor Mouw, I’ve found him to be a pleasant and fair-minded gentleman who treats even contentious doctrinal differences with insight, good humor, and respect. I hold him in high esteem. Quite a number of years ago, for example, I was one of five Latter-day Saint scholars who formally debated five well-known Evangelical scholars during a meeting of the Evangelical Philosophical Society in Denver, Colorado. Professor Mouw was an admirably even-handed moderator, and the debate was an enjoyable experience for us (particularly, when, toward the end, a messenger broke in to announce that the BYU football team had just beaten the University of Utah). Only once did one of the Evangelical participants — an internationally esteemed Christian philosopher whose work I admire very much — make a rather disparaging and uncivil remark about Mormon beliefs. I happened to glance at Professor Mouw right then, and he looked back at me and rolled his eyes with quiet exasperation. Coincidentally running into me the next day, he apologized for the lapse of his friend and fellow Evangelical from the politeness and even friendliness that had otherwise characterized the debate.

Mouw describes himself as “a longtime subscriber to Sunstone” (59), which is another way of saying that his interest in Mormonism is long-standing and more than merely casual.2 His connection with Mormonism began during a cross country trip with his parents when he was just entering adolescence. Pausing with them for a visit to Temple Square in Salt Lake City, he picked up a copy of the pamphlet “Joseph [Page 99]Smith Tells His Own Story” and began to read it in the back seat of the family car. He reports that he felt an immediate kinship with that other fourteen year-old’s religious confusion, as his own family was somewhat divided by religion. He states, “It’s no exaggeration to say that I felt like I had discovered a friend” (6). Nonetheless, he hastens to assure his readers, “I was not tempted to believe Joseph Smith’s account of being visited by the divine Persons and angels” (7).

Later, he encountered Mormonism again through the teaching of the late counter-cult writer Walter Martin, for whom he plainly has a lingering respect that I find myself utterly unable to share or even, really, to grasp. He recalls a meeting in New Jersey at which Martin spoke and remembers a frustrated Latter-day Saint in attendance — with whom I strongly identify — who told Martin, “in an anguished tone, ‘You’re not even trying to understand!’” Quite surprising to me, he sees his experiences with Joseph Smith’s story and with Mr. Martin as pivotal to his own intellectual autobiography: “I’ve often thought of those two teenage encounters — my reading Joseph Smith’s First Vision account and witnessing the exchange between Walter Martin and the young Mormon — as what really pushed me toward the study of philosophy” (9).

Mouw wrote and published the book that I’m considering here, Talking with Mormons: An Invitation to Evangelicals, while he was still serving as president of Fuller Theological Seminary. From his vantage point at an important center of Evangelical Protestant thinking, he was well aware that writing such a book would be a potentially divisive undertaking within his community: “Promoting the idea of friendly dialogue with Mormons isn’t a popular thing to do in the evangelical world,” he observes. “And you really get into trouble if you suggest that we evangelicals haven’t always been fair in our portrayals of what Mormons believe” (41).

Thus, he starts his book off with a disclaimer, and he issues such disclaimers at several points throughout: “Given the somewhat controversial character of the subject matter of this book, I don’t want to implicate friends who might suffer from guilt by association” (vi). “I approach my engagement with Mormonism as a Calvinist,” he explains (x). (His seventeen years at Calvin College, mentioned above, weren’t entirely the product of coincidence.) “I don’t believe that Joseph Smith was a specially anointed prophet of God. I don’t believe that the Book of Mormon is a new divine revelation. And so on” (32).

[Page 100]Still, he felt obliged to write it. “After giving out dozens of sound bites about Mormonism during the buildup to the 2012 presidential election, I decided it was time to write a book on the subject. Mitt Romney has been much in the news” — the book had been completed and long since sent to the press by the time of Governor Romney’s defeat in November — “and journalists have been eager to find someone who was willing to offer some thoughts about how evangelicals might end up voting if their only choice was between President Obama and a Mormon” (viii). Wanting to expand upon the sorts of things he was often being expected to say during quick and inevitably shallow media interviews, he saw his book as a way of “explaining the sound bites” (viii).

“I’m not conscious,” he writes,

of having approached the writing of this short book in a defensive mood. It’s simply that as a teacher I haven’t felt that I’ve been given the opportunity to engage in adequate teaching on the subject. So this book is my effort to take a little more space than I’ve been given elsewhere, to elaborate on a few sentences here and there that have been given public exposure. (ix)

However, if his resolute Calvinism should assure his Evangelical readers that he’s not going soft on the Mormons, that very Calvinism, Mouw says, also motivates him to consider Mormons and Mormonism in a friendly, kind, and irenic way:

I get a lot of help on this from the great Reformation theologian John Calvin. At one point in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin talks about what a political leader — he used the term “civil magistrate” — should be careful of when thinking about going to war against an enemy. Calvin was no pacifist. He believed that leaders, including Christian leaders, sometimes had to resort to warfare in dealing with an obvious evil. But he also knew that this is a very dangerous area spiritually. So he said that when leaders are considering initiating a military attack, they ought first of all to engage in some serious reflection. One thing leaders should do is to check out their own motives: “let them not be carried away with headlong anger, or be seized with hatred, or burn with implacable severity.” And then, Calvin added, they must try as much as possible to “have pity on the common nature in the one whose special fault they are punishing.”

[Page 101]Here’s what Calvin was getting at. He was aware of a sinful pattern that keeps getting stirred up in our hearts and that we have to be constantly on guard against: the tendency to put the best possible interpretation on our own motives and the worst possible interpretation on the motives of the people we want to attack. Recognizing the tendency, Calvin is saying that as an important spiritual exercise we should be sure to be very honest about what is going on in our own hearts, and we should be sure we’re not missing something good — or at least not as bad as we’re inclined to think — in the lives of the people we want to attack. (18–19)3

It’s difficult, in this context, not to be reminded of a marvelous passage in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago: “If only,” that heroic Russian novelist, anti-Soviet dissident, and thinker (d. 2008) wrote,

it were all so simple! there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish.4

Mouw also draws on the nineteenth-century Dutch Calvinist theologian Herman Bavinck, and what he and Bavinck have to say is so helpful and relevant — useful even, as will quickly be apparent, beyond the Mormon/Evangelical dialogue — that I think I’ll treat it at some length here.

Mouw begins (on page 78) with a quotation from the first volume (Prolegomena) of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, where Bavinck has been arguing, with specific reference to Muslim thought, that his fellow Calvinists should approach the claims of non-Christian religions with an open mind:

[Page 102]In the past the study of religions was pursued exclusively in the interest of dogmatics and apologetics. The founders of [non-Christian] religions, like Mohammed, were simply considered imposters, enemies of God, and accomplices of the devil. But ever since those religions have become more precisely known, this interpretation has proved to be untenable; it clashed both with history and psychology.

Mouw then observes that Bavinck’s comment is manifestly relevant to Mormonism as well. Mohammed, like Joseph Smith, had produced a post-biblical scripture on the basis of alleged inspiration and angelic delivery, and, just as in Joseph’s case, mainstream Christianity long contended that Mohammed was either a deliberately deceptive liar or a raving lunatic far out of touch with reality.

In his comments on the subject, Bavinck refused to carry on in that vein. Indeed, he insisted that it’s no longer feasible to dismiss Mohammed simply as one of many “imposters, enemies of God, accomplices of the devil” — characterizations that have also been regularly applied by evangelicals to Joseph Smith. Instead, Bavinck was encouraging his readers to attend carefully to the content of Mohammed’s teachings. And even more important, he suggested that we can expect to find God-given truths in those teachings. (78–79)

I’m reminded here of the great historian of Islam Marshall G. S. Hodgson, who, in his magisterial three-volume work The Venture of Islam, argued that any religious movement that has earned the allegiance of large numbers of people over lengthy periods of time must contain soul-satisfying truths. Otherwise, it would not have survived, let alone flourished. Hodgson had Islam foremost in mind, of course, but the principle holds more broadly than that. And surely, by this stage in our history5 it should be obvious that Mormonism is no merely ephemeral faith briefly entertained by a few marginal and monochromatic cranks.

Mouw’s reflections on Herman Bavinck continue very much in that vein, for, he says,

[Page 103]if … we’re given an opportunity to study and dialogue with the other group’s actual teachings in a leisurely manner, we must wrestle with the question of how those teachings have actually inspired deep commitments in the lives of sane people who sincerely accept the teachings.

The shift here is from an agenda shaped by the question “How do we keep them from taking over our world?” to one that emerges when we ask “What is it about their teachings that speaks to what they understand to be their deepest human needs and yearnings?” When we seriously engage the ideas embodied in another religious perspective, participating in give-and-take dialogue with proponents of that perspective, we must also take seriously their own assessment of the founder(s) of their religious community. By carefully examining Islam as a system of thought, for example, we’re also forced to consider carefully the way intelligent Muslims view the character of Mohammed. I want to commend the same sort of approach to the present-day assessment of Joseph Smith’s teachings. (80)

And, in fact, Mouw treats Latter-day Saints with considerably more respect than we’ve been accustomed to receive from many Evangelical Protestant writers. “A dozen years of sustained dialogues with Mormon scholars and church leaders,” he says, “have convinced me that the ‘cult’ label does not apply accurately to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (viii). “It has never felt to me as though I was talking to members of a ‘cult’” (x).

“Not,” he hastens to add, “that I’m ready to give them a free pass as simply another Christian denomination. I have too many serious theological disagreements with Mormonism to offer that verdict” (viii). “I’m not suggesting that by forming more positive relations all of our differences will magically melt away. That certainly isn’t what has happened to me” (43).

Of course, our disagreements with Professor Mouw’s theology are precisely as serious as his with ours, and we Latter-day Saints, I think I can truthfully say, harbor absolutely no desire to be seen as “simply another Christian denomination.” Our claims are dramatic, and we know it. Indeed, we glory in that fact.

“My main concern in what I’ve been saying,” writes Professor Mouw, “is to invite us to nurture friendlier relations with the Mormon community. I want us to listen carefully to our Mormon neighbors, [Page 104]without deciding ahead of time what they ‘really’ believe” (43). It’s scarcely coincidental that the subtitle of Talking with Mormons is An Invitation to Evangelicals.

There are, he says, three big questions about Mormon thought with which he continues to struggle:

(1) “Are Mormons talking about the same Jesus in which we traditional Christians are putting our trust?” (43)

(2) Do Mormons adequately respect the authority of the Bible? (43–44)

(3) And what about Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith? (44)

On the first, he reports, “I still have some serious misgivings, but the misgivings do not run quite as deep as they did earlier” (46). He has at least three reasons, he says, for hope or encouragement with regard to whether or not we Latter-day Saints are talking about the same Jesus as traditional, mainstream Christians.

For one thing, he cites Stephen Robinson’s “important observation” that “LDS terminology often seems naïve, imprecise and even sometimes sloppy by Evangelical standards,” partly at least because Mormons “have no professional clergy to keep our theological language finely tuned,” whereas traditional Christians “have had centuries in which to polish and refine their terminology.”6 “Given that situation,” Mouw remarks, “we should at least work to be sure we’re understanding each other better. And that has been happening” (47).

Secondly, he says, the disagreements that he has with Latter-day Saints are often not altogether unlike those that he has with theologians who plainly fall within the traditional Christian mainstream. Thus, for instance, “the Mormon insistence [on] the ‘good work’ that we must perform in connection with placing our faith in Christ — well, this is not unlike a claim that I regularly argue about with my friends in the Arminian tradition” (48).

And, finally, he senses that Mormon thinkers and theologians are interpreting some of the “very harsh-sounding LDS claims” in softer ways (48). One of these “harsh-sounding LDS claims” is the Lord’s (or, he would say, Joseph Smith’s) apparent condemnation of the [Page 105]great ecumenical and other creeds of mainstream Christendom as an “abomination.” (See his discussion on pages 48–54.)

On this latter point, I’m rather sympathetic. I’ve devoted a fair amount of effort, and hope to do still more, to increase (and, in a sense, to modify) Mormon attitudes toward the content of the classical creeds. But I share the Lord’s evaluation of them, and I’m afraid that I can’t see them as the result of calm — let alone inspired — deliberation; I can’t really see how anybody who has read Ramsay Macmullen’s Voting about God in Early Church Councils would be able to do that.7

Regarding his second “big question,” concerning the authority of the Bible, Mouw acknowledges that Latter-day Saints take a relatively high view of that scripture. “They typically use the word ‘infallible’ in talking about the Bible’s authority as the word of God,” he writes.

But then they add these other books: the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price. And they see these other writings as on a par with the Bible. Isn’t that enough simply to vote them off the Christian island? (44)

To his credit, he doesn’t actually seem to think that it is enough to expel us from Christendom. Not entirely and clearly so, anyway. For that reason, I feel somewhat churlish and ungrateful to look this gift horse in the mouth. But, first, I offer a quibble that will make our situation even worse from an Evangelical standpoint: In my experience, at least, it simply isn’t true that we “typically” describe the Bible as “infallible.” Believing Latter-day Saints usually have a high view of biblical historicity that’s roughly comparable to an Evangelical view, but we’re not inerrantists. Not even with regard to the Book of Mormon, which, on its own (inspired and canonical) Title Page, acknowledges the possibility of “faults” within it that it ascribes to “the mistakes of men.” I personally don’t find the notion of scriptural infallibility even remotely plausible, and I can’t see that I would find it of much help or utility even if I did.

But there are more interesting topics for discussion under the rubric of Mormonism’s view of scripture. For example, “In talking about the Mormon view of revelation and authority,” Mouw writes,

one point needs to be made clear at the outset. It isn’t just that the Mormons have more revealed books than the rest of us. They do, of course; but to say that doesn’t get to the heart of the issue. The real point is that books are not where the true [Page 106]authority resides for Mormons. Evangelical Christians often miss this basic point. (61)

The real authority for Latter-day Saints, he correctly observes, resides in the prophetic office.

In this regard, as in certain others, Mormonism aligns better with Catholicism than it does with Evangelical Protestantism. “The Christian faith is not a ‘religion of the book,’ notes the official Catechism of the Catholic Church. “Christianity is the religion of the ‘Word’ of God, ‘not a written and mute word, but incarnate and living.’”8

A story related at the April 2008 General Conference by President Boyd K. Packer, of the Council of the Twelve, illustrates quite dramatically the claim of the Latter-day Saints on this issue:

In 1976 an area general conference was held in Copenhagen, Denmark. Following the closing session, President Spencer W. Kimball desired to visit the Vor Frue Church, where the Thorvaldsen statues of the Christus and of the Twelve Apostles stand. He had visited there some years earlier and wanted all of us to see it, to go there.

To the front of the church, behind the altar, stands the familiar statue of the Christus with His arms turned forward and somewhat outstretched, the hands showing the imprint of the nails, and the wound in His side very clearly visible. Along each side stand the statues of the Apostles, Peter at the front to the right and the other Apostles in order.

Most of our group was near the rear of the chapel with the custodian. I stood up front with President Kimball before the statue of Peter with Elder Rex D. Pinegar and Johan Helge Benthin, president of the Copenhagen stake.

In Peter’s hand, depicted in marble, is a set of heavy keys. President Kimball pointed to those keys and explained what they symbolized. Then, in an act I shall never forget, he turned to President Benthin and with unaccustomed firmness pointed his finger at him and said, “I want you to tell everyone in Denmark that I hold the keys! We hold the real keys, and we use them every day.”

[Page 107]I will never forget that declaration, that testimony from the prophet. The influence was spiritually powerful; the impression was physical in its impact.

We walked to the back of the chapel where the rest of the group was standing. Pointing to the statues, President Kimball said to the kind custodian, “These are the dead Apostles.” Pointing to me, he said, “Here we have the living Apostles. Elder Packer is an Apostle. Elder Thomas S. Monson and Elder L. Tom Perry are Apostles, and I am an Apostle. We are the living Apostles.

“You read about the Seventies in the New Testament, and here are two of the living Seventies, Elder Rex D. Pinegar and Elder Robert D. Hales.”

The custodian, who up to that time had shown no emotion, suddenly was in tears.

I felt I had had an experience of a lifetime.9

In Mormonism, authoritative teaching comes from revelation to living prophets and apostles, not from books — though, obviously, books can eventually contain records of past revelation.

But surely that was also true of earliest Christianity, as well. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, and Paul had some kind of authority in the primitive Christian movement — whether it derived from priesthood office or closeness to Jesus or some combination of those two and perhaps of other factors — well before they wrote their gospels and epistles, which, in fact, derived their own original status among believers from the status of their (purported) authors. The Christian movement had existed for decades before the Bible came to be, even in part. Christianity predates its scriptures.

Professor Mouw recognizes the problem:

[Page 108]There were times in Old Testament history when godly people had no authoritative book to rely on in understanding the will of God. Noah, Abraham, Moses — none of these had anything like a Bible. God spoke directly to them. Similarly, in the New Testament and the early church, there was much reliance on oral tradition — the memories of what Jesus had taught and done, and later the memories of the teachings of the apostles.

There came a point, though, when these testimonies were written down; and eventually those writings that the church came to see as supremely authoritative became — in the forming of “the canon” — our Bible. Christians became a “people of the Book.” (63)

But it isn’t clear to me that he recognizes — or, at least, that he acknowledges — the implications of that problem: Trust in the living oracles is both chronologically and logically prior to trust in the transmitted written records of their sayings and deeds. Christians became solely a “people of the Book” only many generations into their history; the earliest Christians, by inescapable implication, were not “people of the Book,” not in the sense that he uses the term.

At this point, it might be appropriate to comment upon the term people of the Book itself. The phrase occurs in the Qur’an as ‘ahl al-kitāb, and it’s used to designate non-Muslim adherents of faiths — such as Judaism, Christianity, and Sabianism — that possess a revealed scripture. Significantly, though, only possession of scriptural texts predating the revelation of the Qur’an — texts viewed in Islam as products of divine revelation that have become corrupted — qualifies a group for inclusion as “people of the Book.” The Baha’is, for example, don’t count as a “people of the Book” despite their possession of written scriptures because those scriptures date only to the nineteenth century, and the situation of Middle Eastern Baha’is in recent years has been precarious at best.10

In Judaism, the equivalent term is ‘am ha-sefer (also, roughly, “people of the Book”). Apparently borrowed from Islam, it nonetheless refers specifically to the Jewish people and the Torah, or to the Jewish people and their wider canon (including, for example, the Mishnah and the Talmud). Followers of other religions in the Abrahamic tradition (e.g., Christianity and Islam) don’t count for Orthodox Judaism as “people of the Book.”

[Page 109]In other words, insistence on status as “people of the Book” was used, whether intentionally or not, to close the door on any claim of subsequent revelation. But this should raise warning flags for a follower of Christ. Already in the New Testament, Jesus alludes to those who venerate dead prophets but decline to allow the possibility of living ones:

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous,

And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.

Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets.

Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers.

Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?

Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city:

That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar.11

The third of Professor Mouw’s big questions concerns the status of the Prophet Joseph Smith. He quotes a stark and fundamental question that the Latter-day Saint historian Richard L. Bushman once posed to Mouw and his fellow Evangelicals during an interfaith dialogue: “Is Joseph Smith possible for you?” (72). Or, as Mouw himself restates it, “Are you at least open to the possibility that God would raise up someone who might occupy a restored prophetic office?” (73).

He candidly acknowledges that he continues to be unsure about what to do with the founder of Mormonism: “Even while I reject the key claims that Joseph Smith made on his own behalf, … I still struggle to find some way of explaining him” (75). The choice seems to be, “to put it crudely: a liar or a lunatic?” (73, italics in the original). And there’s no easy way out of that disturbingly sharp dichotomy: “I get nervous when [Page 110]some non-Mormon scholars try to find some alternative to the ‘liar or lunatic’ options.” (74)12

Nevertheless, he cites Jan Shipps’s declaration that “the mystery of Mormonism cannot be solved until we solve the mystery of Joseph Smith,” and then adds that “I have no delusions about being able to solve the mystery of Joseph Smith here. Indeed, I’m content, in a sense, to live with the mystery” (76). (Later, on that same page, he says in fact that he won’t even try to solve it.)

My own judgment is that “the Prophet puzzle,” as it’s been called, is intended to be difficult and to force a choice. The well-attested existence of the golden plates of the Book of Mormon (to say nothing of the other artifacts seen and hefted by multiple witnesses at the origins of Mormonism) leaves no alternative, really, to a choice between deliberate modern fraud or real Nephites. Subjective hallucination on Joseph’s part doesn’t go a long way toward explaining the experiences of the Three and the Eight Witnesses.

Professor Mouw raises an interesting issue that seems worth mentioning at this point. “The very existence of an increasingly expanding Mormon intellectual ‘tent’,” he says,

is a relatively new phenomenon. It’s not unthinkable that there may come a time when the LDS church is faced with the need to establish boundaries in how the faithful are to understand — to make clear sense of — “the pure and simple spirit that had prevailed in the apostolic era.” My hunch is that when that happens, it will be very much like a “Nicene moment” for Mormonism. (59–60)

In other words, he says, a theological tradition will inevitably arise within Mormonism, demanding clearer doctrinal statements, definitions, and distinctions, and perhaps even trained, professional, academic theologians. Perhaps. But the apostolic teaching office, believing Latter-day Saints expect, will still be in place, pending the Second Coming of the Savior, into the foreseeable future, quite unlike the situation in the ancient Christian church after roughly ad 100. There will still be inspiration and prophetic priesthood authority. And we can surely hope that doctrinal issues won’t be “settled” in raucous shouting matches akin to particularly unruly political conventions — as happened at Nicaea and elsewhere.

[Page 111]The description of the last days given late in his life by the prophet Nephi portrays a time of apostasy that Latter-day Saints regard with sadness and dread, not as an ideal to which we aspire:

For it shall come to pass in that day that the churches which are built up, and not unto the Lord, when the one shall say unto the other: Behold, I, I am the Lord’s; and the others shall say: I, I am the Lord’s; and thus shall every one say that hath built up churches, and not unto the Lord — And they shall contend one with another; and their priests shall contend one with another, and they shall teach with their learning, and deny the Holy Ghost, which giveth utterance.13

In that light, I would like to comment, before closing, upon a few specific issues raised by Professor Mouw.

One matter that clearly worries him is “the Mormon teaching that humans and the members of the Godhead belong to the same order of being.” For, he says, “this claim flies in the face of the traditional understanding of biblical teaching, that God is God and we are not, and that any effort to close the metaphysical gap runs the clear risk of espousing idolatry” (87). He mentions several times “the essential Jewish and Christian teaching that there’s a vast metaphysical gap between Creator and creature” (83).

Judaism and Christianity have been united in their insistence that the Creator and the creation — including God’s human creatures — are divided by an unbridgeable “being” gap. God is the totaliter aliter, the “Wholly Other,” who is in a realm of existence that’s radically distinct from the creation that the triune God called into existence out of nothing (ex nihilo) by a sovereign decree (“Let there be… and there was”). (54)

This is undeniably the standard teaching of traditional Judaism and Christianity (and, I might add, of Islam). But is it biblical? (Or even Qur’anic?) I don’t believe it to be. The Bible is silent about “ontology”; Hebrew (like Semitic languages more generally, including Arabic) is quite deficient with regard to a verb to be.14 Furthermore, the Bible says absolutely nothing about God’s being totaliter aliter. Nor is the Bible a text about metaphysics. Instead, metaphysical ideas tend to be imposed [Page 112]upon it. And, for that matter, the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is at best very dubiously biblical.

I’m uncomfortable, also, to read in Professor Mouw’s book that Mormons “deny” the Trinity, as Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Christian Scientists do (15). This isn’t true. As I argue in an article soon to appear here in Interpreter, Latter-day Saints deny the ontological Tri-Unity associated with the Council of Nicaea — but strongly affirm a social model of the Trinity that is entirely in harmony with the biblical data and, at least in my perception, rather like the social Trinitarian models that are increasingly advocated among Protestant and Catholic theologians willing to think outside the proverbial Nicene box.

Moreover, I wasn’t particularly pleased to see Professor Mouw’s enthusiasm for O. Kendall White’s 1987 book Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy (25), either, and I would vigorously contest his claim that we believe in “a self-perfectible human being, and salvation by works” (27). I regret that years of friendly, substantive interaction with Latter-day Saints haven’t already been enough to dissuade him of these (as I see them) misperceptions regarding our beliefs.

But these are matters for further discussion, and the discussions between Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints haven’t ended. Indeed, I hope that they will continue, expand, and flourish. I recognize great value in them.

I agree with Professor Mouw, for example, on one of the areas that he identifies as “an important topic for theological discussion between traditional Christians and Mormons.” That topic is “What are the basic desires and dilemmas of the human condition? What are the hopes and fears that Jesus came from heaven to address in his redemptive mission?” (57) We’re all, both Evangelical Protestants and Latter-day Saints, in the same human existential condition, needing a sense of purpose and meaning, the possibility of redemption, and the hope of life beyond the grave. And there remain, as well, plenty of things to be clarified and discussed in “the unique content of Mormon thought: a continuing post-biblical revelation mediated by a living prophet, divine corporeality, eternal progression, and the like” (73).

I think that we Latter-day Saints can learn a great deal about our own faith and doctrines by trying to see them through the eyes of friendly and informed outsiders, as well, obviously, as understanding the views of others more accurately and sympathetically. Both of these are very worthy goals. And Richard Mouw is one of the friendliest and most theologically competent of such outsiders. He honors us by the [Page 113]attention he’s given to our faith, and we can profit considerably from our interactions with thinkers and scholars of his caliber.

1. Carrie A. Moore, “Evangelical Preaches at Salt Lake Tabernacle,” Deseret News, November 14, 2004, accessed April 30, 2015,

2. Sunstone was born at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, founded by some LDS students there, and has long seemed to enjoy a special status — rather misleadingly so, in my judgment — among non-Mormon scholars of religion who take an interest in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I spent a summer at Princeton University in 1994, for example, and was surprised to see back copies of Sunstone on the table in the waiting room of the Department of Religion there, along with only three or four other, more mainstream Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish publications.

3. On pages 19–29, Mouw makes a similar point by means of a brief exegesis of Psalm 139.

4. Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, translated by Thomas P. Whitney (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 168 (1:4).

5. I’m writing this paragraph on the 185th anniversary of the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has a current membership of more than fifteen million people in virtually every nation of the earth and which, earlier this week, announced the construction of new temples in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire; Bangkok, Thailand; and Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

6. Mouw cites Robinson from Craig L. Blomberg and Stephen E. Robinson, How Wide the Divide?: A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 156.

7. Ramsay Macmullen, Voting about God in Early Church Councils (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).

8. Catechism of the Catholic Church (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1994), 31 (Part 1, Article 3, Paragraph 108).

9. Boyd K. Packer, “The Twelve,” April 2008 General Conference, accessed April 6, 2015, Significantly, I think, the Visitors’ Center currently being constructed along with a temple outside of Rome will feature marble replicas not only of the Christus, which appears in several temple visitors centers elsewhere, but, flanking that statue, of Thorvaldsen’s Twelve Apostles, including Peter with the keys. The implicit challenge to the claimed Petrine authority and keys associated with St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City is too obvious to overlook.

10. The Ahmadiyya movement, which originated in India under the British Raj toward the end of the nineteenth century, has struggled for acceptance within the broader Islamic community for similar but not precisely identical reasons.

11. Matthew 23:29–35.

12. On page 74, he cites Rodney Stark’s attempt to find a way around that either/or dilemma, obviously unimpressed by it.

13. 2 Nephi 28:3–4.

14. For a classic discussion of this issue, see Thorleif Boman, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek (New York: W. W. Norton, 1970).

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About Daniel C. Peterson

Daniel C. Peterson (Ph.D., University of California at Los Angeles) is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at Brigham Young University and is the founder of the University’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, for which he served as editor-in-chief until mid-August 2013. He has published and spoken extensively on both Islamic and Mormon subjects. Formerly chairman of the board of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) and an officer, editor, and author for its successor organization, the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, his professional work as an Arabist focuses on the Qur’an and on Islamic philosophical theology. He is the author, among other things, of a biography entitled Muhammad: Prophet of God (Eerdmans, 2007).

20 thoughts on “Seeing Ourselves Through the Eyes of a Friendly and Thoughtful Evangelical

  1. Professor Peterson is clearly right that we can and should learn something about our own faith by getting as clear as possible on how and why others see us. And Richard Mouw’s Talking with Mormons is filled with wise observations. And Professor Peterson has provided a remarkably generous, insightful review of Richard Mouw’s instructive book.

    However, despite his irenic, very generous way of understanding the faith of the Saints, it was for me discouraging to find him not grasping that we differ radically from typical Reformation dogma by insisting that, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, one both can and must become a Saint–that is, be purified, purged, regenerated and hence sanctified prior to the justice one can expect in the final judgment. Put bluntly, sanctification must necessarily come before justification. Latter-day Saints simply do not believe that an alien righteousness is imputed to totally depraved sinners at the moment they confess Jesus as Lord and Savior. But denying this key Protestant idea does not entail anything approaching self-salvation by mere human effort. To make that claim, one must ignore what is clearly set out in the Book of Mormon.

    Professor Mouw should have taken the Book of Mormon seriously. Insisting on becoming a Saint is not to be brushed aside as self-salvation. Only God can save us. One is not regenerated, sanctified, or reborn in an instant. The victory over spiritual death brought on by our own sins is available to all who care to accept the gifts God has freely and mercifully made available to us. We must turn to him in faith and faithfulness, as we seek and accept sanctification through the work of the Holy Spirit.

    • Dr. Midgley wrote: “Latter-day Saints simply do not believe that an alien righteousness is imputed to totally depraved sinners at the moment they confess Jesus as Lord and Savior.”

      You mean like Alma the Younger?

      I have great respect for Dr. Midgley, but I believe he is simply wrong about this.

      More information here:

      Another example here:

      ” Put bluntly, sanctification must necessarily come before justification.”

      Joseph Smith puts justification prior to sanctification:

      As does Moroni:

      Elder Gerald N. Lund give a very thorough explanation here:

      • Here’s a statement I forgot to mention earlier. This refers to those who inherit the celestial kingdom:

        “These are they who are just [that is, justified] men made perfect [that is, sanctified] through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, who wrought out this perfect atonement through the shedding of his own blood.” (D&C 76:69.)

        First we are justified (declared “just”), then we are perfected (sanctified).

        Note that sanctification as well as justification comes because of the atonement (“through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant”). Latter-day Saints are fond of saying “Resurrection is a free gift, but exaltation must be *earned.*” If that’s the case, please tell me how many points I need to rack up before I can claim exaltation, and exactly how I can earn those points. How can we possibly think we can earn something as unimaginably glorious as the celestial kingdom? The truth is, we can’t. Well, how do we get there, then? Through the atonement. As we continue to exercise our faith in the Savior, the Spirit works with us (sanctifies us) until we become the kind of people who are able to live in celestial glory. This is sanctification.

      • One more example. Again, Dr. Midgley wrote: “Latter-day Saints simply do not believe that an alien righteousness is imputed to totally depraved sinners at the moment they confess Jesus as Lord and Savior.”

        Alma disagrees: “I would that ye would come forth and harden not your hearts any longer; for behold, now is the time and the day of your salvation; and therefore, if ye will repent and harden not your hearts, *immediately* shall the great plan of redemption be brought about unto you.” (Alma 34:31.)

        The Book of Mormon has many other examples, which I encourage you to seek out for yourself.

        • After reading Dr. Midgley’s statement one more time, I realize he simply doesn’t understand the meaning of “justification.” He wrote: “With the assistance of the Holy Spirit, one both can and must become a Saint–that is, be purified, purged, regenerated and hence sanctified prior to the justice one can expect in the final judgment.”

          He’s mistakenly thinking that judgment is the same thing as justification.

          Justification is a legal fiction wherein we are declared “not guilty” (just) even though we *are* guilty. This is possible only because of the atonement, and it comes at the *beginning* of the process rather than at the end. Again, I encourage you to read the explanation in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism:

    • “Professor Mouw should have taken the Book of Mormon seriously.”

      Why should he take it seriously when we Latter-day Saints do not? There are more than a handful of teachings of the Book of Mormon that we have simply discarded.

  2. Good article. As Christianity itself is more and more assaulted, I suspect that our interdenominational feuds will slowly subside as we all join together to fend off the Atheist/Islamic assaults on our faith.

    That said, I wish you would publish a primer on Islam from an LDS point of view. As far as I can tell, we don’t really deal with Islam much. Presumably there is more to the faith than the terrorist brutality thing, but, well, it’s also indisputable that Islam seems to be a rather violent faith.

    Based on what little I’ve read, it seems like Mohammed, if he even existed, had two periods: Medina and Mecca, and the Mecca one is good and where most of the good in Islam came from, while the Medina one is where all the bloodlust comes from.

    • Vance:

      I’m pleased that you think there’s a need for “a primer on Islam from an LDS point of view.”

      Why? Because I’m intermittently at work on just such a thing.

      It gives me reason to hope for at least one reader!

      Thanks for your kind note.

      • Well, at some point the gospel will be taken to the people of Islam–though I suspect it won’t be there long. Regardless, I’m not sure what to think of Mohammed. 1) Did he exist as portrayed or is it mostly legend written by calculating men looking for mythos to justify themselves? 2) If he did exist; he was clearly inspired. By whom? Was he inspired by God, or was he Satan’s attempt at striking first before Joseph Smith? Or did he switch sides at some point?
        3) The parallels with Joseph Smith are unmistakable. How, then, to deal with the questions of why is Joseph Smith a real prophet and Muhammed not?
        4) Comparing the Koran with Restoration scripture.

        There are so many questions, like even the nature of Sin and the need for a Redeemer; and the nature of Allah as compared to God. And so forth.

        • Vance asked: “2) If he did exist; he was clearly inspired. By whom? Was he inspired by God, or was he Satan’s attempt at striking first before Joseph Smith? Or did he switch sides at some point?”

          What the First Presidency said which kind of answers those questions:

          Based upon ancient and modern revelation, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gladly teaches and declares the Christian doctrine that all men and women are brothers and sisters, not only by blood relationship from common mortal progenitors but as literal spirit children of an Eternal Father.

          The great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals.

          The Hebrew prophets prepared the way for the coming of Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah, who should provide salvation for all mankind who believe in the gospel.

          Consistent with these truths, we believe that God has given and will give to all peoples sufficient knowledge to help them on their way to eternal salvation, either in this life or in the life to come.

          We also declare that the gospel of Jesus Christ, restored to His Church in our day, provides the only way to a mortal life of happiness and a fulness of joy forever. For those who have not received this gospel, the opportunity will come to them in the life hereafter if not in this life.

          Our message therefore is one of special love and concern for the eternal welfare of all men and women, regardless of religious belief, race, or nationality, knowing that we are truly brothers and sisters because we are sons and daughters of the same Eternal Father. (“God’s Love for All Mankind,” First Presidency Statement, Feb. 15, 1978)

  3. This was an incredibly interesting article with lots of food for thought.

    It was fun to hear about your interactions with Richard Mouw and to hear some of his views regarding Mormonism and your responses to them. I would love to hear more about any interactions you had with the magnificent Ravi Zacharias. I am a huge fan of his. He is a brilliant defender of the gospel of Christ found in the Bible.

    Thank you for writing and sharing this article.

    “Joseph Smith puts justification prior to sanctification”

    I agree with the commenter. I think the above supposition is very clearly documented in the scriptures. I would add that in addition to Joseph’s own teachings on the topic, that were consistent with scripture, his personal life demonstrated this principle as well.

    It is documented in sections 84:48 and 88:2 that the covenant was confirmed upon Joseph and that Joseph’s name, (along with others of the first elders of the last kingdom) was entered into the book of the names of the sanctified.

    I believe this sanctification which appears to have taken place somewhere around September or December of 1832 could not have happened prior to the fulness of the priesthood/gospel being restored 1 1/2 years previous in the first part of June 1831.

    And yet, Joseph clearly needed to be justified prior to those events, in order to receive “thus sayeth the Lord” revelations, stand in the presence of angels, receive baptism and the other spiritual gifts that he received.

    He clearly was justified prior to his sanctification.

    “One is not regenerated, sanctified, or reborn in an instant.”


    I could not possibly disagree more with the above declaration. I think it represents one of the great myths of modern day Mormonism and it contradicts Biblical Christianity and the Book of Mormon.

    The Bible and the Book of Mormon are filled with examples of believers who miraculously experienced the baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost which does indeed bring about the instant and ineffable regeneration, sanctification and spiritual rebirth through Christ’s righteousness, atonement and intercession, rather than by a long process of our personal works.

    I think the reason that people accept the myth is because they are not seeing evidence of the true baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost like they had in ancient times and at the beginning of the restoration movement. Hence, it feels like we need to spend a lifetime trying really really hard to complete a very arduous process of achieving sanctification from our own efforts.

    • —————————————————-
      “One is not regenerated, sanctified, or reborn in an instant.”
      I could not possibly disagree more with the above declaration. I think it represents one of the great myths of modern day Mormonism and it contradicts Biblical Christianity and the Book of Mormon.

      I agree. As the commenter says, “The Bible and the Book of Mormon are filled with examples of believers who miraculously experienced the baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost which does indeed bring about the instant and ineffable regeneration, sanctification and spiritual rebirth through Christ’s righteousness, atonement and intercession, rather than by a long process of our personal works.”

      Here are just a few examples:

      Please read these carefully.

      For me, being born again was not an abstract idea; I experienced it with great power. In the morning I was one person; in the afternoon I was another. My life has never been the same.

      • From your Mosiah 4 link:

        ” 6 I say unto you, if ye have come to a knowledge of the goodness of God, and his matchless power, and his wisdom, and his patience, and his long-suffering towards the children of men; and also, the atonement which has been prepared from the foundation of the world, that thereby salvation might come to him that should put his trust in the Lord, and should be diligent in keeping his commandments, and continue in the faith even unto the end of his life, I mean the life of the mortal body—

        7 I say, that this is the man who receiveth salvation, through the atonement which was prepared from the foundation of the world for all mankind, which ever were since the fall of Adam, or who are, or who ever shall be, even unto the end of the world.

        8 And this is the means whereby salvation cometh. And there is none other salvation save this which hath been spoken of; neither are there any conditions whereby man can be saved except the conditions which I have told you.”

        Isn’t this what Midgley was talking about: Ultimate salvation? It is common among Protestant belief that once accepting Jesus as Son of God and LORD, one is sanctified and therefore gains eternal salvation. That once done, the merciful gift of salvation, assured salvation, is not taken away no matter what. While Mormonism does indeed teach of instant redemption and sanctification, it is a well established doctrine that one *must* “endure to the end” lest that person risk the loss of salvation: ultimate salvation before the “bar of the great Jehovah”.

        • I believe that Dr. Midgley was confused about the meaning of “justification.”

          You wrote: “That once done, the merciful gift of salvation, assured salvation, is not taken away no matter what.”

          If I understand this correctly, not all evangelicals accept this doctrine (although probably most do), which is known as the “perseverance of saints” (“once saved, always saved”) and is one of the “five points” of Calvinism.

          “While Mormonism does indeed teach of instant redemption and sanctification, it is a well established doctrine that one *must* ‘endure to the end’ lest that person risk the loss of salvation.”

          I believe your understanding is basically correct. As Joseph Smith wrote, “There is a possibility that man may fall from grace and depart from the living God; therefore let the church take heed and pray always, lest they fall into temptation; yea, and even let those who are sanctified take heed also.” (D&C 20:32-34.)

          However, *you* should “take heed” not to think that “enduring to the end” has anything to do with salvation by works. In my view, it means to continue exercising faith in the Savior throughout life.

          “Pray always, lest you fall into temptation,” by the way, is an oft-repeated admonition of the Savior to his followers. It’s not original with Joseph Smith.

          • I think you and I are in basic agreement.

            Now, regarding Midgley, you make a good case tat he may have conflated “justification” and “salvation” but what if the context which with he write places both at the judgment bar of God? Would he then be conflating the two? Can one repent on his or her death bed and gain ultimate salvation? Protestants would answer yes but it would be difficult for a Mormon to say yes according to his or her understanding of the doctrines of salvation.

  4. “Walter Martin, for whom he plainly has a lingering respect that I find myself utterly unable to share or even, really, to grasp.”

    You mischaracterize Richard Mouw’s feelings. I believe that Mouw has no such “lingering respect” for Martin, and indeed holds him in contempt as an example of callous, “overt antagonism.” The story you briefly allude to took place during a Q&A following a Martin presentation on Mormonism one night long ago at the Riverdale Bible Church in NJ, when Mouw was of high school age. The young Mormon holding his own that night was an LDS missionary. Martin repeatedly insisted that Mormons only believed in salvation by works, leading the missionary to burst into tears, attempting to declare what we actually believe. At which Martin exclaimed to the audience, “See how they lie?” The young missionary then said: “You’re not even trying to understand.” Young Mouw resolved then and there to try to understand. You can find Mouw’s vivid recollection of the event online at (La Canada Presbyterian Church, April 8, 2011), beginning at about 14:54.

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