With scant media attention, leading U.S. thinkers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a.k.a. Mormon) and Evangelical Protestantism have been holding regular dialogue meetings the past 15 years. This is a good moment for religion writers to examine where things stand between these two dynamic faiths.
That’s because the talks are pausing temporarily as participants issue a new anthology: “Talking Doctrine: Mormons & Evangelicals in Conversation” (InterVarsity Press). The book’s editors, who’ve led the dialogue to date, are top sources for journalists: Robert Millet, former religious education dean at the LDS Brigham Young University, and Richard Mouw, retired president of Fuller Theological Seminary.
The two sides constitute the most unlikely dialogue partners imaginable, despite their concord on moral issues in the socio-political realm. They are past antagonists and current archrivals in evangelism. Participants were sometimes branded sell-outs, especially on the Evangelical side. Defending his participation, Dennis Okholm of Azusa Pacific University says, “I have learned more about my own orthodox faith and how to articulate it with greater accuracy and sophistication -- and love.”
Adding to the unlikeliness, the two sides insist they teach the one true Christian faith but have remarkable differences. The LDS church, in fact, insists that all authentic Christianity vanished by the 2d Century and God needed to restore the authentic faith and church authority uniquely through American founder Joseph Smith Jr.
The book is disappointing in that participants offer no shared statement to define agreements and disagreements. The anthology might be more useful if it had printed verbatim some key doctrinal papers presented in the talks with responses from the other side.
Evangelical Christopher Hall lists some disputed topics: “The nature of God, God’s relationship in time and space, whether God is corporeal or incorporeal, whether God was once a human being and, perhaps at the top of the list, the Trinity.” Thus the perennial question, unanswered in the anthology: “Are Mormons Christians?” Also, did Smith properly add new holy Scriptures to the Bible, and did his apostolic successors properly bar those of African ascent from all church offices till 1978?
If asked by a reporter, what other big sticking points would participants list?
The two sides form an asymmetrical juxtaposition. The LDS church is highly centralized in organization yet sometimes confusing on theology, for instance regarding the status of some of Smith’s teachings. Evangelicals are united in defending orthodox Christianity but organizationally dispersed. LDS officialdom did not authorize these talks, and no Evangelical entity is in a position to authorize anything.
Considering all that, the miracle here is that such respectful discussions ever occurred in the first place.
Related side comments: How did the Religion Guy winnow out the countless non-fiction books that eager publicists shipped to Time magazine and The Associated Press over the years?
The first step was simple: No index, no interest. That is, any religion title without an index is likely of fleeting importance and not worth a journalist’s limited time and attention.
“Talking Doctrine” breaks that rule. Inexplicably and inexcusably, it has no index, yet the Guy thinks it warrants news attention anyway. Admittedly, that’s partly because he co-authored “Mormon America” (HarperOne, 1999, revised 2007).