The Mormon-Evangelical Dialogue

Reflections after 12 Years

In 1991, not long after I was appointed dean of Religious Education at Brigham Young University, one of the senior leaders of the LDS Church counseled me, “Bob, you must find ways to reach out. Find ways to build bridges of friendship and understanding with persons of other faiths.” That charge has weighed upon my mind since then.

To be able to articulate your faith to someone who is not of your faith is a good discipline, one that requires you to check carefully your own vocabulary, your own terminology, and make sure that people not only understand you but could not misunderstand you. Mormons and Evangelicals have a vocabulary that is very similar but often have different definitions and meanings for those words. Consequently, effective communication is a strenuous endeavor. To some degree, we have been forced to reexamine our paradigms, our theological foundations, our own understanding of things in a way that enables us to talk and listen and digest and proceed.

The Dialogue Begins

Our first effort toward a formal dialogue took place in the spring of 2000 at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah (to read a history of the dialogue and its various participants, see the article by Derek J. Bowen). Names and faces have changed somewhat, but the dialogue has continued. In each dialogue, we came prepared (through readings of articles and books) to discuss a number of doctrinal subjects. As of this writing we have met twenty-one times.

In the early sessions, it was not uncommon to sense a bit of tension, a subtle uncertainty as to where this was going, a slight uneasiness among the participants. As the dialogue began to take shape, it was apparent that we were searching for an identity—was this to be a confrontation? 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 “other guys” 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: 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 the larger body of Christ? A question that continues to come up is, Just how much “bad theology” 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.

These 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 year. 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. 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 others.

Engaging Challenges

Progress has not come about easily. True dialogue is tough sledding, hard work. In my own life it has entailed a tremendous amount of reading of Christian history, Christian theology, and, more particularly, Evangelical thought. I cannot very well enter into their world and their way of thinking unless I immerse myself in their literature. This is particularly difficult when such efforts come out of your own hide, that is, when you must do it above and beyond everything else you are required to do. It takes a significant investment of time, energy, and money.

Second, while we have sought from the beginning to insure that the proper balance of academic backgrounds in history, philosophy, and theology are represented in the dialogue, it soon became clear that perhaps more critical than intellectual acumen was a nondefensive, clear-headed, thick-skinned, persistent but pleasant personality. Kindness works really well also. Those steeped in apologetics, whether LDS or Evangelical, face an especial 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.

Third, as close as we have become, as warm and congenial as the dialogues have proven to be, there is still an underlying premise that guides most of the Evangelical participants: that Mormonism is the tradition that needs to do the changing if progress is to be forthcoming. To be sure, the LDS dialogists have become well aware that we are not well understood and that many of our theological positions need clarifying. Too often, however, the implication is that if the Mormons can only alter this or drop that, then we will be getting somewhere. As one participant noted, sometimes we seem to be holding “Tryouts for Christianity” with the Latter-day Saints. A number of the LDS cohort have voiced this concern and suggested that it just might be a healthy exercise for the Evangelicals to do a bit more introspection, to consider that this enterprise is in fact a dialogue, a mutual conversation, one where long-term progress will come only as both sides are convinced that there is much to be learned from one another, including doctrine.

A fourth challenge is one we did not anticipate. In Evangelicalism there is no organizational structure, no priestly hierarchy, no living prophet or magisterium to set forth the “final word” on doctrine or practice, although there are supporting organizations like the National Association of Evangelicals and the Evangelical Theological Society. On the other hand, Mormonism is clearly a top-down organization, the final word resting with the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Thus our dialogue team might very well make phenomenal progress toward a shared understanding on doctrine, but Evangelicals around the world will not see our conclusions as in any way binding or perhaps even relevant.

Dialogue Topics

The first dialogue, held at Brigham Young University in the spring of 2000, was 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 Stott’s 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 extended conversation.

When it came time to discuss Basic Christianity, we had a most unusual and unexpected experience. Richard Mouw asked, “Well, what concerns or questions do you have about this book?” There was a long and somewhat uncomfortable pause. Rich followed up after about a minute: “Isn’t there anything you have to say? Did we all read the book?” Everyone nodded affirmatively that they had indeed read it, but no one seemed to have any questions. Finally, one of the LDS participants responded: “Stott 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.” That comment was an important one, as it signaled where we would eventually lock our theological horns.

In the second dialogue, located at Fuller Seminary, we chose to discuss the matter of soteriology, and much of the conversation was taken up with where divine grace and faithful obedience (good works) fit into the equation of salvation. The Evangelicals insisted that Mormon theology did not seem to contain a provision for the unmerited divine favor of God and that Mormons sometimes appeared to be obsessed with a kind of works righteousness. The LDS crowd retorted that what they had observed quite often among Evangelicals was what Bonhoeffer had described as “cheap grace,” a kind of easy believism that frequently resulted in spiritually unfazed and unchanged people. Toward the end of the discussion, one of the Mormons, Stephen Robinson, asked the group to turn in their copies of the Book of Mormon (each participant comes prepared with a Bible and the LDS books of scripture, what is called 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, “Sounds pretty Christian to me.” Over the years, most of us have concluded that in regard to this particular topic, our two traditions are far closer than we had anticipated.

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 Kärkkäinen, 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 (Liturgical Press, 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 “fix Mormonism.” Instead, it generated 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 God’s energies and not his essence, and divine-human synergy. More than one of the Evangelicals asked how they could essentially have ignored 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 “you and your faith” and far more emphasis on “we” as professing Christians in this setting.

Not long after our dialogue on deification, Rich Mouw suggested that we meet next time not in Provo but rather in Nauvoo, Illinois. Nauvoo was of course a major historical moment (1839–1846) within Mormonism, the place where the Mormons were able to establish a significant presence, where some of Joseph Smith’s deepest (and most controversial) doctrines were delivered to the Saints, and the site from which the Brigham Young and the Mormon pioneers began the long exodus to the Salt Lake Basin in February 1846. 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 dialogue we have had.

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 6, 1830. We had reaffirmed what we had come to know quite well in Nauvoo—that there is in fact something special about “sacred space.” Probing discussions of authority, Scripture/revelation, the possibility of modern prophets, and the nature of God and the Godhead (Trinity) have also taken place.

As we began our second decade in 2011, it was suggested that we start over and make our way slowly through Christian history until we came to Nicaea (AD 325), at which point we could discuss in more depth the theological developments that now divide us. Consequently, we have now held three additional sessions on the doctrine of the Trinity/Godhead, probing conversations that have been both intellectually stretching and spiritually uplifting. Our intention is to prepare, following each topic, a brief document delineating where we agree, disagree, and what might be pursued in future discussions.

Looking Ahead

In pondering on the future, there are certain developments I would love to see take place in the next decade. I would hope that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would become a bit more confident and secure in its distinctive theological perspectives and thus less prone to be thin-skinned, easily offended, and reactionary when those perspectives are questioned or challenged. In that light, I sense that we Mormons have to decide what we want to be when we grow up; that is, do we want to be known as a separate and distinct manifestation of Christianity (restored Christianity), or do we want to have traditional Christians conclude that we are just like they are? You can’t have it both ways. And if you insist that you are different, you can’t very well pout about being placed in a different category! In addition, it would be wonderful if LDS interfaith efforts of the future would receive the kind of institutional encouragement for which some of the early participants of this endeavor have yearned so often. Often this interreligious effort has been a lot like walking the plank alone. It gets pretty lonely out there sometimes.

On the other hand, I long for a kinder, gentler brand of Evangelicalism, one that is less prone to consign to perdition anyone who sees things differently; one that holds tightly to its doctrinal tenets, but is more concerned with welcoming and including than with dismissing and excluding; one that is eager to delight people with the glories of heaven rather than terrifying and threatening them with the fires of hell. Rob Bell’s book Love Wins (Harper, 2011), may cause some Evangelicals to believe the author is a universalist (which I do not) and others to cry heresy, but it seems to me that he is asking all the right questions. The image of Christianity is at stake, and some outside the fold may well be justified in wondering where the “good news” is to be found.

Well, now that I have offended both sides, let me try to be a bit prescient. Looking ahead, I see two professing Christian bodies who, in spite of their differences (which are significant, to be sure), have learned to talk and listen and digest, have learned to communicate respectfully about those differences and celebrate their similarities. I see two groups who have learned to work together as co-belligerents in stemming the tide of creeping secularism, standing united in proclaiming absolute truths and moral values, and fighting courageously in defense of the family and traditional marriage. We have a society to rescue, and, frankly, there is something more fundamental and basic than theology, and that is our shared humanity. We are, first and foremost, sons and daughters of Almighty God, and we have been charged to let our light shine in a world that is becoming ever darker, a world that hungers for the only lasting solution to the world’s problems—the person and powers of Jesus Christ. Only through him will society be fully transformed and renewed.

Many of us have felt a superintending hand in this enterprise and consequently trusted that whatever comes to pass is providentially intended. In reflecting on his visit to Salt Lake City and his major message in the Mormon Tabernacle in November 2004, Evangelical teacher and author Ravi Zacharias observed:

“The last time an Evangelical Christian was invited to speak there was 1899, when D. L. Moody spoke. . . . I accepted the invitation, . . . and I spoke on the exclusivity and sufficiency of Jesus Christ. . . . I can truly say that I sensed the anointing of the Lord as I preached and still marvel that the event happened. The power of God’s presence, even amid some opposition, was something to experience. As the one closing the meeting said, “I don’t want this evening to end.” Only time will tell the true impact. Who knows what the future will bring? Our faith is foundationally and theologically very different from the Mormon faith, but maybe the Lord is doing something far beyond what we can see.”1

1Quoted in Elder Jeffrey Holland’s address, “Standing Together for the Cause of Christ,” available at http://rsc-dev.byu.edu/book/export/html/3857 (accessed 9/1/12).