Apologetics as if People Matter

What Keeps Me Engaged in My Dialogues with Mormons

When I was in seminary I was trained in apologetics by Norm Geisler. We learned a two-step strategy that first convinced people along the way to believe in God (lest one be irrational) and then to believe that Jesus is the only way to God (lest one be irrational). I got a good dose of what I now categorize as one among many approaches in my apologetics course at Azusa Pacific University (which I teach differently than I was trained and subtitle “apologetics as if people matter” or “winning disciples rather than arguments”).

When we covered “cults” in our course, Mormonism was in the mix. We were all absolutely certain Mormons were going to hell, but then I had always been taught the same fate for Catholics, and I wasn’t sure about Presbyterians either (though I eventually became an ordained Presbyterian and now hang around Roman Catholic Benedictine monks). I do not embrace Geisler’s approach, but I did learn some valuable lessons, among which was this: When you engage the member of a “cult” always focus on just one thing—“Who is Jesus Christ?” Ironically, it is that question that has softened my judgment of those members of the Church of Latter-day Saints who have become some of my cherished friends, though I’m not at all sure that is what my seminary professor intended.

But I am jumping ahead of the narrative. The present story really begins in April of 2007.

With some hesitation I agreed to be the faculty advisor for APU’s spring break student mission trip to Utah. The team’s mission was to
learn about Mormonism for several months before making the trek to dialogue with Mormon students at various universities in Utah and Idaho. The agenda was not to proselytize (though everyone quietly hoped that they would come over to our side), but to engage in friendly dialogue that recognized our differences and sought better understanding of each other—what Rich Mouw calls “convicted civility.” I would be with the students for a full three days, flying in and flying out.

The agenda was set by Greg Johnson, founder of the ministry “Standing Together”—an ex-Mormon who had developed a close relationship with BYU professor Bob Millet. Though Greg was a new acquaintance, strangely Bob was not. Years before when I taught at Wheaton College, my colleague Tim Phillips and I had initiated the Wheaton Theology Conference. One year the topic was C. S. Lewis. In response to our “Call for Papers,” we received a proposal from a Robert Millet of BYU; the topic was what Mormons found helpful in C. S. Lewis. The administration was not happy about our acceptance of this paper, but Bob turned out to be delightful, and I learned, among other things, that the BYU library devoted more space to Lewis than to any other single author. My perception of Mormons was ever so slightly beginning to change.

During this initial foray into LDS territory with my students I was asked to link up with Spencer Fluhman, a church historian at BYU. In front of a classroom full of APU and BYU students I presented a historical sketch of Protestant Evangelicalism after which Spencer did something of the same with Mormonism. I was immediately impressed by Spencer’s knowledge of American church history and his lighthearted admission of what he found strange or amusing about his own tribe while still clearly committed to his own identity as an LDS churchman and scholar.

During this short trip I made more new friends among LDS professors and church leaders. Greg also arranged a visit with one of the
quorum over lunch; any and all questions were addressed with straightforward and gracious answers.

I have since joined the students each year except one. I always look forward to reunions with my LDS acquaintances in Utah and to the
time with my students. I have never seen more intensity among students than I have witnessed on this trip. During the week some establish lasting relationships with their LDS counterparts, and they learn along the way that they can differ on what they consider the most important element of their life—their faith—yet respect and enjoy the company of the “other” who is learning the same lesson. Over against the ideological deafness and blindness that is rife in our world today, what my students are learning gives hope.

But the trip is also intense because my students take their beliefs so seriously as they are challenged in dialogue. They question what they have always held in such a way that they discern the chaff from the grain and deepen their commitment to what really matters. At the same time, they learn to listen to those who differ and graciously challenge those folks to do similar questioning and sifting.

It was this initial trip with students that led to my involvement with peers in academia. Twice these have involved trips to our respective “Meccas”—hosted by the LDS in Palmyra, New York, and hosted by the Evangelicals in Wheaton, Illinois. In each case we have seen the iconic places and heard past and present accounts of our traditions. This has led to greater understanding of each other and, along the way, some intense discussions about everything from sources of revelation (on our Palmyra trip) to how concerned the church should be about “relevance” to the culture (at Willow Creek Church on our Wheaton trip). And we Evangelicals have walked away from these deliberations puzzled as to how our Mormon friends can buy into the gold plates, for example, while we realize that on Christmas Eve it should be equally difficult for any outsider to buy into the idea that one person of an undivided triune God can, from that time on, forever assume a human body now resurrected.

These peer discussions about theology take place about twice a year in various venues: BYU, Fuller Theological Seminary, American Academy of Religion annual meeting sites. Recently, these have focused on specific theological issues that have divided us, such as pre-Nicene conceptions of the Trinity. Intense dialogue often centers around a book or papers written by group members. There have been moments when one or some of us will have an “aha” moment—an insight into the other’s position that helps to clarify or surprise, a realization that what we thought we meant is perhaps not exactly what we have been saying, or, once in a while, a recognition that we are in closer agreement on some points of doctrine than we at first realized. In the process of coming to understand LDS teachings better, I have a deeper, more sophisticated understanding of my own Nicene Christianity, while discovering other aspects of my long-held beliefs that need further clarification.

Three times in the past four years I have had the pleasure of dialoguing with an LDS professor before an audience—twice with Spencer and once with Richard Bushman. Both have been exceedingly gracious even as we hold forth with our positions, but not without surprises along the way. As we debated whether the church needed a restoration (as LDS believe that it did), Spencer surprised me when he clarified his position using the analogy of a demolished building that needed complete reconstruction vis-à-vis a damaged building that needed repair; the surprise came because, while I expected him to opt for the former, he opted for the latter. (I hope I have represented his position accurately, since four years is hard on the memory.) Equally, I surprised Richard Bushman as we discussed our differing views of revelation and authority, citing John Calvin’s insistence in the Institutes (I.7.4–5) that “the testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than all reason” and is “the highest proof of Scripture” when it is a matter of establishing Scripture’s divine origin; in other words, “Scripture is self-authenticated.” (Calvin did teach that rational arguments are helpful after one has been convinced by the Spirit that the Bible is God’s word.)

Of course, reactions from the audience have not always been positive. After Spencer and I dialogued at a megachurch in Orange County, I was verbally attacked on a website in a vitriolic tirade that had me in bed with the devil. Even some of the parishioners at the Presbyterian church I used to attend found it difficult to understand how I could engage in friendly dialogue with members of the LDS Church, let alone how I could find anything in common doctrinally. I understand why they are dumbfounded and at times upset with my reports; as I mentioned at the outset, I’ve been there. But then I tell them that the polemical approach would never have led to the hierarchy’s acceptance of Greg Johnson’s suggestion to have Ravi Zacharias speak in the Tabernacle.

One of the most significant memories of my interaction with LDS acquaintances comes from the day that four of us dialogued at that OC megachurch (emceed by Biola’s Craig Hazen). Greg was paired with Bob, and, as mentioned, I was paired with Spencer. Since the dialogue was to take place on a Sunday evening and since the crew had flown in the day before, they worshipped at the Presbyterian church where I happened to be preaching that Sunday morning, followed by a Sunday noon dinner at the Okholm residence. We have lived in our house for seven years now, and there have been many dear friends and family members who have gathered at our table for a meal and conversation, yet, still, the most memorable and enjoyable gathering we have ever had at our table was the dinner shared with Bob, Spencer, and Greg. The irony (and perhaps the shame) is that in the past I would not even have answered the door when, through the peephole, I would spy two young men wearing white shirts and ties.

There will be some who chide me for being naïve (or worse) to savor the company of Mormons in my house without trying to proselytize them, and they may fear that I am wandering off into some relativistic fog. Yet the opposite has occurred: I have learned more about my own orthodox faith and how to articulate it with more accuracy and sophistication. And by practicing the hospitality that Jesus commends, I have discovered that, just as American Evangelicals do not agree on all matters of faith and practice, there are “grace Mormons” and “works Mormons” (as one of our discussants, Jerry Root, puts it)—something I never would have discovered if the only source of information about Mormons I had came from the polemicists.

So am I attracted to this dialogue because I am naïve? Not at all. I may not ever be able to understand why some LDS peers whom I now consider close friends believe what they say they believe. And, frankly, I would not encourage a person to become deeply committed to the LDS Church. Does that mean that I still harbor my early conviction that all Mormons are damned to hell? Not at all. And here is one reason why: this dialogue has forced me to consider the question, how much theology did Jesus’s disciples have to articulate with orthodox accuracy in order to be “saved”? At the end of Luke’s gospel we are told that when the resurrected Jesus appeared bodily, some doubted even as they rejoiced at his presence among them. It would take another three centuries of church disputes to express the church’s understanding of the Trinity, and another century to decide boundaries when considering the relation of Jesus’s humanity to his divinity.

In the meantime, many disciples, whom we would label “heretics” today, declared their loyalty to Jesus and their conviction that they were saved by his atoning work on the cross . . . just as the LDS members of our dialogue profess. Perhaps the irony is that most of the people who sit in the pews of the Evangelical churches in which I have worshipped cannot articulate with orthodox accuracy the doctrine of the Trinity. In fact, many slip into heretical language, yet I have never questioned their salvation precisely because they declare that they are followers of Jesus and that they are saved by his atoning work on the cross—that Jesus is their Lord and Savior. And there lies the irony of what I was taught in my seminary apologetics course about refuting Mormons.

Maybe the best way to describe what I am learning from our dialogue and why it is good for my soul to continue is that I get to practice what it means to pray with St. Francis, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; . . . grant that I may not so much seek to be understood, as to understand.