A General Response to The New Mormon Challenge
A General Response to The New Mormon Challenge
Reviewed by David L. Paulsen
Carl Mosser asked me to provide a general Latter-day Saint response to The New
Mormon Challenge and, in particular, to respond to the authors’ conclusion
that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not a Christian church.
With our limited time, I cannot do justice to even one of these invitations. Rather
than slighting the second, which is personally very important to me, I have chosen
to defer it to another venue.
My general response will consist of summarizing the authors’ own stated
aims for their work and then assessing how well, from my Latter-day Saint perspective,
they have achieved them. These aims include the following:
- To retard the growth and progress of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
Saints by disproving or otherwise discrediting its beliefs.1 (Given this aim,
I would classify The New Mormon Challenge as an anti-Mormon book.)
- To this end, based on sound scholarship, to provide a rigorous critique of
Latter-day Saint beliefs.2
- As a basis for this critique, to first state Latter-day Saint beliefs accurately
- To this end, to distinguish between “official” or “canonized”
beliefs, traditional beliefs, popular or commonly held beliefs, and, finally,
- To present this critique in a “respectful, charitable and courteous”
- To engage Latter-day Saints in genuine and “fruitful theological dialogue.”6
With the exception of the first, these goals are refreshing. It is rare,
indeed, that an anti-Mormon book has such laudable aspirations. I thank the authors.
How well does The New Mormon Challenge achieve these aims? Leaving aside the first
aim and grading the book by comparing it with other anti-Mormon books, I would
score it near the top of the class, significantly better than most anti-Mormon
books. Again, my thanks.
However, if I were to grade the book against more absolute standards, I would
mark out improvements that still need to be made. And I am hopeful that these
will be made in the authors’ intended sequels. Perhaps some candid comments
will conduce to that end.
Aim 1: To retard the growth and progress of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
Saints by disproving or otherwise discrediting its beliefs.
I will not say much by way of critique of this aim. Res ipsa loquitur—the
thing speaks for itself. Further, this aim seems strikingly at odds with the book’s
additional goal of engaging Latter-day Saints in genuine and fruitful dialogue.
How do a declaration and pursuit of all-out war on another’s faith generate
goodwill and genuine dialogue? Nonetheless, I personally hope that this warfare
doesn’t diminish dialogue between our two Christian communities, which,
I hope, continues and flourishes.
Aim 2: To this end, based on sound scholarship, to provide a rigorous critique
of Latter-day Saint beliefs.
I am a philosopher, so I will leave it to my colleagues to evaluate the soundness
of the book’s scholarship. But, by and large, I am impressed with the quality
of the critiques collected in this book. Contributors have posed challenges to
Latter-day Saint positions that will likely keep LDS apologists engaged for some
time. I do, however, want to raise a metalevel question relating to Aim 2. In
context, what does “sound scholarship” require? Consider two major
points argued for in the book: (1) the Bible teaches that the world was created
out of nothing, and (2) the Bible teaches that God is a single metaphysical substance
consisting of three persons. Each of these claims, I understand, fl ies directly
in the face of a scholarly consensus to the contrary. Of course, this fact in
no way entails that these claims are false or, by itself, impugns the scholarly
nature of the arguments marshaled in their support. But, given a contrary scholarly
consensus, does “sound scholarship” require that defenders of a minority
position (1) acknowledge the contrary consensus, (2) at least summarize the grounds
on which such consensus is based, and (3) only then make a case for their minority
report? Failing to do this, defenders of a minority position may mislead their
readers to conclude that the scholarly consensus supports their view when in fact
it does not. Again, what does a critique of LDS beliefs based on “sound
Aim 3: As a basis for this critique, to first state Latter-day Saint beliefs
accurately and fairly.
To fulfill this aim, it seems to me that evangelicals must state our beliefs to
our satisfaction. And here we arrive at what I consider to be a major failing
in The New Mormon Challenge. While I find in this book some misstatements
of Latter-day Saint beliefs, the primary sin of the editors of The New Mormon
Challenge is not so much one of commission as it is of omission. The editors,
as they themselves acknowledge, fail to set out our basic beliefs.7 Especially
troubling here is their failure to set out our views of Christology, soteriology,
and the doctrine of the Trinity, while nonetheless attempting to convince their
readers that our faith cannot be considered Christian in “any very useful
or theologically significant sense.”8 Strange that these nonpresented
beliefs should have no theological bearing on whether our faith is Christian.
And stranger still that our rejection of two extrabiblical beliefs—creation
out of nothing and the classical doctrine of the Trinity—should be theologically
decisive for excluding Latter-day Saints from the Christian circle.9
Compounding this failing to set out our beliefs is the authors’ proposed
remedy. They recommend that their readers fill this information gap by reading
another book by evangelicals about Latter-day Saints that, on its flyleaf, promises
to provide everything anyone ever wanted to know about the Mormons: Mormon America:
The Power and the Promise, by Richard and Joan Ostling.10 They even call this
book “an excellent companion” to their own.11
I have two bones to pick here. First, why Mormon America? It is laden with errors
of all kinds, both major and minor.12 It is also often biased in its depiction
of Latter-day Saint history and contemporary Mormon culture.13 If the editors
choose to incorporate by reference its portrayal of LDS beliefs and practice into
The New Mormon Challenge, they do so at the price of defeating their goal to state
LDS beliefs fairly and accurately, perhaps even at the price of dissuading informed
Latter-day Saints from taking their book seriously.
My second bone is more fundamental. If the editors of The New Mormon Challenge
really want their readers to understand what Latter-day Saints believe, why not
let us tell our own story? Why not refer readers to books about LDS doctrine written
by Latter-day Saints for Latter-day Saints? Let me make a positive suggestion
here: Why not encourage them to read Jesus the Christ or The Articles of Faith,
both by the late Apostle James E. Talmage?14 In Jesus the Christ Elder Talmage
explains our understanding of the divine nature, life, and redemptive mission
of Jesus Christ. In The Articles of Faith he clearly explains our thirteen Articles
of Faith. (Let me add here that our first article of faith proclaims: “We
believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy
Ghost.” In explaining this article, Talmage consistently uses the term trinity
to describe God and sets out, as our own self-understanding of God, what is clearly
a social trinitarian view of the Godhead.15 By way of contrast, the Ostlings,
as outsiders, inform their readers that Latter-day Saints are henotheists.)
Jesus the Christ and The Articles of Faith were published nearly a century ago,
were both commissioned by the First Presidency of the church, and for decades
were published under the imprimatur of the Corporation of the First Presidency.
After nearly a hundred years, they remain among the few books that church missionaries
are authorized to take with them on their missions. While not inerrant, these
books provide a much more accurate description of our beliefs than does any book
describing our beliefs written by someone outside our faith, let alone the highly
unreliable Mormon America. The editors should consider recommending Jesus the
Christ and The Articles of Faith to their readers.16
Aim 4: To this end, to distinguish between “official” or “canonized”
beliefs, traditional beliefs, popular or commonly held beliefs, and, finally,
Since the authors provide almost no exposition of Latter-day Saint beliefs, I
did not attempt to assess the authors’ performance with respect to this
aim. While the Ostling book sometimes provides differing formulations of LDS beliefs,
it largely fails to make the aimed-for distinctions.
Aim 5: To present this critique in a “respectful, charitable and courteous”
I deeply appreciate the editors’ intent to fulfill this aim. And I believe
they are sincere. In light of this, I must confess I was mystified to discover
that in The New Mormon Challenge, my beliefs and my church are referred to by
terms such as: “parasite,”17 “pagan,”18 “cult,”19
“pitiable,” “worse than scientific poppycock,” “a
fairy tale.”20 Somehow, these epithets fail to strike me as courteous, respectful,
or charitable. Given their stated aim, I ask the editors to help me understand
why these disparaging descriptions of my faith are in their book. Let me illustrate
the object of my concern here by reading a longer passage in the manuscript:
Almost all converts to Mormonism come from a nominally Christian background. .
. . Mormon missionaries don’t evangelize, they proselytize. Mormonism is
a parasite religion that gets its life from preexisting forms of Christianity.
. . . If allowed to progress unchecked, Mormonism’s growth will have a significant
adverse effect on evangelical growth. In the animal world large parasites eventually
cripple the health of their hosts. Sometimes they even cause their death. If evangelicals
shrug off predictions of tremendous growth for a parasite religion like Mormonism,
they do so at risk to the health of evangelicalism. . . . It is clear to me that
the current evangelical response to Mormonism does not significantly retard
the spread and growth of the LDS faith. We must somehow bring about . . . “a
change in the process.”21
What follows this passage, it seems to me, is a vigorous call to arms to all sectors
of the evangelical community to do whatever it takes to retard the spread and
growth of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Academics, clergy,
and laymen are all urged to enlist. The New Mormon Challenge then is presented
as an arsenal of weapons to be used, both defensively and offensively, in the
campaign to impede the growth and progress of the Church of Jesus Christ. Does
this response show Latter-day Saints and their beliefs “respect?”
Perhaps, but if so, this seems to me like the kind of respect one shows for a
feared and threatening enemy. This is certainly not the kind of respect I have
for my evangelical friends. I respect them as valued allies standing together
with me in the cause of Christ against his real enemies.
Aim 6: To engage Latter-day Saints in genuine and “fruitful theological
Hallelujah! I hope The New Mormon Challenge helps to bring about this end. But
I have already noted some serious tensions in the several aims of the book. For
instance, on the one hand, the book is a call to arms to evangelicals and other
Christians to join in impeding the growth and progress of my faith, proffering
its essays as weapons with which the warfare can be waged. At the same time, the
volume is proffered as an olive leaf beckoning “fruitful” Latter-day
Saint–evangelical dialogue. Something does not quite add up here. My puzzlement
connects with another important sense of “respect.” It seems to me
that truly genuine and fruitful interfaith dialogue necessarily requires some
notion of reciprocity in the sense that all of the participants are open at least
to the possibility of learning something from the other. I believe that Latter-day
Saints generally are open to that possibility. Indeed, as a prologue to their
book, the authors quote the following statement from Joseph Smith: “One
of the grand fundamental principles of “Mormonism” is to receive truth,
let it come from whence it may” (PPM, 7). Latter-day Saint Christians take
this statement of the Prophet seriously. We do seek truth, whatever its source.
In particular, I believe there is much that we LDS Christians can learn from evangelical
Christians. For instance, evangelical thinkers have been reflecting carefully
and deeply for generations on many questions of Christian theology, especially
soteriology. They surely have much to teach Latter-day Saints here. Personally,
I believe I have already learned and will continue to learn much from them about
grace. One particular sentence from Craig Blomberg’s contribution to How
Wide the Divide? for example, moved me profoundly: “Salvation is absolutely
free, but it will cost us our very lives.”22
On the other hand, I do not get the impression from reading The New Mormon Challenge
that the editors and contributors are even open to the possibility of learning
anything from us, especially pertaining to Christian doctrine or theology. I ask
them to tell me honestly if my impression is correct. If so, I hope they will
help me understand how they expect The New Mormon Challenge to generate fruitful
dialogue. What is their definition of “fruitful?” Exactly what kind
of “fruit” are they hoping to harvest?
In this addendum, I have outlined some of the significant changes made to
the prepublication manuscript prior to the book’s going to press. Most of
these changes were attempts to address panelists’ concerns about Aims 1
and 5. The editors were distressed by my characterization of their book as anti-Mormon.
My principal reason for doing so was their call for collective Christian action
(Aim 1) to retard the growth and progress of the church, as explicitly set out
in Mosser’s essay “And the Saints Go Marching On.” Mosser tried
to make it clear in the published version of his essay that he was not calling
for collective action to impede the church’s growth simpliciter but only
to prevent the church’s growth when it is at the expense of Christian churches.
This qualification, for me, hardly changes the anti-Mormon nature of Aim 1.
With respect to Aim 5, Mosser made some significant revisions to the disparaging
rhetoric contained in his own essay but largely left the rest of the derogatory
language unchanged. I quote at length a recent e-mail post from Mosser detailing
As I recall, most of your concerns were related to comments in my chapter. So,
at the end of the email I have excerpted from the lists of corrections/changes
the sections pertaining to my chapter.
A number of changes made before AAR proleptically dealt with concerns the panel
raised. The changes made after AAR were mostly corrections of new errors that
had entered the text, mistakes that we had previously missed, and formatting issues.
But there were also a handful of changes and small additions made in light of
the panel’s comments. . . . There were a couple of issues I would have liked
to have addressed in light of our discussion (e.g., what constitutes “anti-Mormonism”),
perhaps in the form of a short appendix or an additional section to my chapter,
but that just wasn’t possible.
Changes that Mosser submitted to the publisher before AAR include replacing the
word “cults” with the term “New Religious Movements,”24
altering the phrase “gets its life from” to “gets its life mostly
from” in connection with the term “parasite” as a reference
to the church.25 His deletions include removing the term “cults” as
an inclusive reference for the church,26 the words “parasite”27 and
“parasitical”28 with reference to the church, and the sentence, “In
the animal world large parasites eventually cripple the health of their hosts.”29
Mosser adds that in one instance, “I used the word [parasite] because I
wanted the evangelical missiological community to clearly get the point I was
making and did not intend to imply anything pejorative. In rereading the essay
I see that Mormons would take this in a very different way.” In light of
this consideration, and probably others, Mosser elected to delete all occurrences
of the term “parasite.”
After the AAR a few additional changes were submitted to the publisher. One modification
was inserting the qualification “defined theologically” after the
word “cult” in the sentence containing “however, cult is the
only word . . .”30
Mosser omitted the sentences: “If allowed to progress unchecked, Mormonism’s
growth will have a significant adverse effect on evangelical growth. In the animal
world large parasites eventually cripple the health of their hosts. Sometimes
they even cause their death.”31
With respect to the problematic first full paragraph (PPM, 79; NMC 69),
The LDS respondents at AAR took particular offense at this paragraph and labeled
the book “anti-Mormon” because of it. Therefore, there are a few changes
I would like to make to it. Since a few lines are deleted on the previous page,
the length of these additions should balance out pretty well. First, change
the first sentence to: “It is clear to me that the current evangelical response
to Mormonism (and to New Religious Movements generally) does not significantly
retard the spread and growth of the lds [sic] faith (and other NRMs) at the
expense of orthodox Christianity.” The last phrase will be slightly repetitive
with the phrase “at our expense” used later in the paragraph, but that is by
intention. I want this point to be emphasized. Second, after the sentence ending
“. . . on which its current growth rests,” insert the following sentences:
“I am convinced that a major factor contributing to Mormon growth is the
widespread biblical and theological illiteracy among the laity of Protestant
and Catholic churches. People in our churches need to be grounded better in
basic biblical doctrine. We should also investigate other factors that contribute
to lds growth and redress those that are due to failings within the Christian
community.” Third, replace “counter-cult” with “apologetics.” Fourth, in
the last sentence insert “(and other NRMs)” after “Mormonism.” The entire revised
paragraph should read:
“It is clear to me that the current evangelical response to Mormonism (and
to New Religious Movements generally) does not significantly retard the spread
and growth of the lds faith (and other NRMs) at the expense of orthodox Christianity.
We must somehow bring about what Stark calls “a change in the process”
if we want to prevent Mormonism from becoming one of the largest worldwide faiths
at our expense. Something will have to shift the basis on which its current growth
rests. I am convinced that a major factor contributing to Mormon growth is the
widespread biblical and theological illiteracy among the laity of Protestant and
Catholic churches. People in our churches need to be grounded better in basic
biblical doctrine. We should also investigate other factors that contribute to
lds growth and redress those that are due to failings within the Christian community.
This cannot be accomplished by leaving the task solely up to the numerous small
and financially strapped apologetics ministries. Nor are the vast majority
of those engaged in such ministry equipped to do all that needs to be done, even
if finances and personnel were not so limited. A proper response to Mormonism
(and other NRMs) will require the entire evangelical community.”
Though the above changes are laudable, my original analysis (like much of the
language and focus of the book) remains fundamentally unchanged. In my judgment,
the book remains anti-Mormon for two reasons: (1) their call, albeit now qualified,
for collective action to retard the growth and progress of the church; and (2)
their failure (refusal?) to state Latter-day Saint beliefs in LDS terms or to
refer their readers to LDS explanations of our beliefs—e.g., the recommended
Jesus the Christ and The Articles of Faith. As a result, their readers are left
with the Ostlings’ biased (sometimes scurrilous) slants on Latter-day Saint
doctrine and history or, even worse, with characterizations of that doctrine like
Craig’s “infinite progression of humanoid deities consorting
with one another from eternity.”32
This paper in its original form was presented as part of a panel discussion of The New Mormon Challenge conducted before the Evangelical Philosophical Society section of the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) in Denver, Colorado, 17 November 2001. Richard J. Mouw, president of California’s Fuller Theological Seminary, moderated the discussion. Latter-day Saint respondents included David L. Paulsen, Daniel C. Peterson, Stephen D. Ricks, Blake T. Ostler, and Hollis R. Johnson. Representing the evangelical viewpoint were William Lane Craig, Francis J. Beckwith, Carl Mosser, Paul Owen, and Paul Copan. All citations to The New Mormon Challenge in my panel presentation are to a prepublication version of the manuscript (hereafter, PPM). Corresponding citations in this written presentation are to the published version (NMC), which was not yet available at the time of the Denver event. Marc-Charles Ingerson and David Vanderbeek have provided valuable assistance in preparing this manuscript for publication.
- PPM, 77-79; see NMC, 68-69.
- PPM, 21-22; see NMC, 22-23.
- PPM, 21; see NMC, 22.
- PPM, 21-22; see NMC, 22.
- PPM, 20; see NMC, 11, 21.
- PPM, 98; see NMC, 12-13, 86.
- Speaking of the beginning chapters of their book, the editors acknowledge,
“Neither, however, gives an introductory overview of LDS history and belief.
For that we heartily recommend another book which will serve as an excellent
companion to this one: Richard and Joan Ostling’s Mormon America: The Power
and the Promise. PPM, 19; see NMC, 20. See Louis Midgley’s review of the Ostling
book, “Faulty Topography,” in this volume, pp. 139-92, and Raymond Takashi
Swenson’s review, “Faith without Caricature?” FARMS Review of Books 13/2 (2001):
- PPM, 76; see NMC, 66.
- The editors describe these beliefs as “absolutely fundamental and nonnegotiable. We do not feel that the status of Mormonism in relation to Christianity can ever change unless there is a willingness within the structures of the LDS Church to reconsider those issues.” PPM, 476; see NMC, 400.
- Richard N. Ostling and Joan K. Ostling, Mormon America: The Power and the Promise (San Francisco: Harper, 1999).
- PPM, 19; see NMC, 20.
- See Ostling and Ostling, Mormon America. The errors are too numerous to
treat in a footnote. Examples of the minor errors include the Ostlings’ implication
that Latter-day Saints cannot obtain a temple recommend if they drink caffeinated
soda (ibid., 176) and that we hold testimony meetings every Sunday, rather
than only the first Sunday of each month (ibid., 181). More serious flaws
include their claims that the church does “little to accommodate the philosophical
cast of mind” and intellectuals in general (ibid., 374) and that “Mormon teaching
violates the basis of ecumenical fellowship. The LDS scriptures simply do
not allow Mormons to view the others as legitimate churches” (ibid., 323);
“support for the Mormon doctrines of a corporeal . . . God . . . cannot be
found . . . in the early church fathers” (ibid., 313). For a very different
take on the latter issue, see Carl W. Griffin and David L. Paulsen, “Augustine
and the Corporeality of God,” Harvard Theological Review 95/1 (2002): 97-118;
Paulsen “Early Christian Belief in a Corporeal Deity: Origen and Augustine
as Reluctant Witnesses,” Harvard Theological Review 83/2 (1990): 105-16; “Reply
to Kim Paffenroth’s Comment,” Harvard Theological Review 86/2 (1993): 235-39.
They also assert that Joseph Smith revised his account of the first vision
to adapt it to his later teachings (Ostling and Ostling, Mormon America, 305-6);
see Ari D. Bruening and David L. Paulsen, “The Development of the Mormon Understanding
of God: Early Mormon Modalism and Other Myths,” FARMS Review of Books 13/2
- As an example, the Ostlings refer to the church as “an authoritarian and secretive church” (Mormon America, 374) that “operates more like a small cult than a major denomination” (ibid., 354). It is interesting to note that the Ostlings, previous to their claiming that the church operates like a small cult, acknowledged that the term “cult” is the “slippery and all-purpose slur aimed at marginal faiths” (ibid., xx). Whatever the Ostlings personally think of Latter-day Saints, does their book provide, as the editors claim, a fair and objective “overview of LDS history and belief” (PPM, 19; see NMC, 20)? Not even close.
- James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983), and James E. Talmage, A Study of the Articles of Faith: Being a Consideration of the Principal Doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1958).
- Talmage, The Articles of Faith, 29, 39–42, 47–48.
- The editors disregarded this suggestion and continued to recommend Mormon America in their published version.
- “I am skeptical that evangelicalism is growing in the right kind of way to stave off parasite groups like Mormonism.” PPM, 77; see NMC, 67, for revised version.
- “The historic LDS view of God virtually matches this pagan idea of deity whereas the God of the Old Testament is radically different.” PPM, 220; see NMC, 187, for revision.
- “Latter-day Saints, unlike the members of most other New Religious Movements
or ‘cults,’ have begun to enter the academy and produce genuine works of scholarship.”
“Paul Carden observes that ‘few Christians in the field of missions seem to
recognize the multi-faceted threat of the cults around the globe. . . .’ With
respect to Mormonism specifically.” “Mormonism stands out from other New Religious
Movements and cults in its attitude toward higher education and scholarship.”
PPM, 68, 77, 81, emphasis added in all quotations; see NMC, 60, 67, 71. See
Mosser’s discussion of Mormonism being a cult. PPM, 495-96 n. cxv; see NMC,
410-11 n. 1.
- “The idea that there has been an eternal progression of humanoid deities
consorting with one another is worse than scientific poppycock—it is a fairy
tale of Olympian proportions.” The next paragraph refers to the Latter-day
Saint God as “a pitiable deity, indeed!” PPM, 171, emphasis added; see NMC,
- PPM, 77-79; see NMC, 67-69, for the white-washed version: “Almost all converts
to Mormonism come from a nominally Christian background. . . . Mormon missionaries
don’t evangelize, they proselytize. Mormonism is [a] religion that gets its
life mostly from preexisting forms of Christianity. . . . If evangelicals
shrug off predictions of tremendous growth for a religion like Mormonism,
they do so at risk to the health of evangelicalism. . . . It is clear to me
that the current evangelical response to Mormonism . . . does not significantly
retard the spread and growth of the LDS faith. . . . We must somehow bring
about . . . ‘a change in the process.'”
- Craig L. Blomberg and Stephen E. Robinson, How Wide the Divide? A Mormon
and an Evangelical in Conversation (Downer’s Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1997),
- Carl Mosser to David Paulsen, 9 August 2002, e-mail entitled “Re: Fwd: changes to pre-publication ms. of TNMC.”
- PPM, 496 n. cxvii; see NMC, 411 n. 2.
- PPM, 78; see NMC, 68.
- PPM, 81; see NMC, 71.
- PPM, 77, 78; see NMC, 67, 68.
- PPM, 96; see NMC, 83.
- PPM, 78.
- PPM, 496 n. cxvi; see NMC, 411 n. 1.
- PPM, 78; see NMC, 68.
- NMC, 147.