Book Review: Richard J. Mouw’s Talking With Mormons

January 22, 2014

Cross-posted at By Common Consent by Blair Hodges
cover-mouwLast week, popular Christian evangelist Ravi Zacharias returned to Salt Lake City to address Mormons and other Christians from the Tabernacle pulpit. Back in 2004, Zacharias’s historic Tabernacle address was overshadowed in the news by Richard Mouw’s controversial introductory remarks. Mouw, president of the Fuller Theological Seminary, issued an apology to Mormons on behalf of evangelicals who he said had sinned against Mormonism by misrepresenting their beliefs and practices. Over the past decade, the evangelical (Calvinist) Christian has continued to dialog with various Mormons in order to promote better interfaith relationships. During the last two presidential elections he became one of the many go-to sources for news outlets seeking soundbites on evangelical views of Mormonism. He’s taken a lot of heat for this within his religious community–early on being told that he didn’t know Mormons well enough and so would easily be deceived by them, later being told he had become too close to Mormons to have a clear view of their dangerous heresies.
His new book Talking with Mormons: An Invitation to Evangelicals is an effort to educate the evangelical community about his ongoing work with Mormonism.
As suggested in his 2004 apology, Mouw believes the atmosphere of Mormon/Evangelical interaction has too often been toxic and infused with polemical pollutants. He hopes to clear the air by example. The book is largely conversational; Mouw says deep theological engagements aren’t the focus of this volume. Instead, he describes his interactions with several prominent Mormons–from BYU professors to an apostle–and exhibits some of the fruits of these discussions. The bulk of the book tackles three questions evangelicals frequently raise about Mormon perspectives: Whether they believe in the “same Jesus,” what they believe about the authority of the Bible, and what is the role of Joseph Smith as a claimed prophet. He argues that these examples suggest that the divide between Mormons and evangelicals may not be as wide as they think. Perhaps the book’s most repeated plea is for evangelicals to cease entering the conversation believing they already understand what Mormons believe.
Even though the book is framed as an invitation to evangelicals, Mouw makes his motivation clear by affirming his desire to change Mormonism to align more closely with his own Calvinist perspective; it’s evident he does not see a need for evangelicals like himself to adjust their own theological perspectives in exchange. The main “invitation” here is for evangelicals to first seek to understand Mormonism more fully, and second, to help shift Mormon views closer to those of evangelical Calvinists. How can they accommodate this shift? Although Mouw frequently employs confrontational warfare imagery in his description of the ongoing dialog, he encourages evangelicals to try harder to understand the religious impulses of Mormons themselves, to understand how they respond to “the hopes and fears of all the years”—common human concerns:

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?’ (80).

Doing so will allow evangelicals to offer alternate perspectives, or to encourage a shift in Mormon emphasis, toward a Calvinist model of faith that focuses on the sovereignty of God and the utter depravity of humans.
Mormons will probably benefit most from Mouw’s comparison of Mormonism’s open canon to the function of creeds in Protestantism and the magisterium of Catholicism. (There is much to chew on in this section that I can’t cover in a review.) Evangelicals may benefit most from Mouw’s plea to recognize the possibility that “a person can fall far short of a robust theological orthodoxy and still be in a genuine relationship with Jesus” (99). He goes as far as suggesting that evangelicals can, if they look for it, discover “revealed truths” in Mormon scripture and teachings, but stops short by affirming such truths will not give correction to, but only affirm, things evangelicals already believe (79-80). He tries to overcome the age-old “prophet puzzle” of whether Joseph Smith was a liar, lunatic, or prophet, by imploring evangelicals to focus on the “content” of Smith’s teachings as opposed to scrutinizing his character (79). This means Smith might have taught some inspired things evangelicals could appreciate. Mouw recognizes this is not the most popular position to take toward Mormonism. He even explicitly avoids naming names on his Acknowledgements page because he doesn’t want to incriminate people who might be viewed with suspicion for sympathizing with a Mormon sympathizer. He also issues frequent reminders that he has serious non-negotiable disagreements with Mormon theology.
Will Mouw’s project be successful in terms of changing Mormonism? He paints a picture for evangelicals of what he sees as Mormonism’s increasing internal diversity on theological matters. He believes this diversity will result in a “Nicene moment” when theological boundaries will have to be set more firmly by the Church’s leadership, and he hopes his proximity to the Mormons will really pay off at that point (60). If this particular scenario seems a bit far-fetched, Mouw’s sincere apology on behalf of evangelicals for misrepresenting Mormon beliefs and his effort to understand Mormons on their own terms will hopefully encourage evangelicals to be more careful in their discussions about Mormonism, as well as encourage Mormons to return the charitable favor.
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(See also BYU law professor and evangelical Christian David Dominguez’s interesting review of the book in BYU Studies here.)