Matthew B. Brown. A
Pillar of Light: The History and Message of the First Vision.
American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2009. xii + 268 pp., with
bibliography and index. $23.95.
Matthew Brown has published an interesting and readable account
of Joseph Smith’s first vision, which the Prophet experienced in 1820. The book
provides useful background information, the several accounts of the vision as
related by Joseph, the elements in these accounts, and some of the more
important results and implications of the vision. It also responds to criticisms
about the vision.
Church leaders have stressed the great importance of the
first vision. President Gordon B. Hinckley noted that “our entire case as
members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rests on the
validity of this glorious First Vision” (p. ix). Brown’s book will assist
members in becoming better acquainted with the details of the vision, and his
historical sketch will help shed light on the conditions and circumstances in
which the vision was received. Of special interest is the information on what
Joseph referred to as the “religious excitement” of the time that led
him to inquire of the Lord. Brown identifies and discusses contemporary
newspaper articles, religious camp meetings, and persons in the area that could
have been important in encouraging Joseph’s prayer that resulted in his
The elements of the different accounts are compared in some
detail. Considered together, they are impressive and give a more complete and
rounded understanding of what transpired. Although written over a period of
time, these accounts reveal a remarkable harmony. Particular attention is given
to comparing the two primary accounts—the one that Joseph committed to
writing as early as 1832 and the second, more familiar account written in 1838.
A chart compares eight accounts on a substantial number of details, assisting
in showing the consistency among them (pp. 170–71).
Helpful appendixes feature documents showing what was said
about the first vision during Joseph’s lifetime, provide a chronological
listing of first vision recitals and references through 1844, demonstrate the
interconnectedness of the different accounts, and offer additional comparative
information. A select bibliography is provided for the reader who would like to
pursue further the study of this foundational vision.
|George L. Mitton|
William J. Hamblin and David Rolph Seely. Solomon’s
Temple: Myth and History. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2007. 224
pp., with 201 illustrations, glossary, maps, select bibliography, and index.
William Hamblin and David
Seely both served LDS missions in Italy. They shared a Latin class at BYU. They
both earned doctorates from the University of Michigan—Hamblin in the
history of the pre-modern Middle East and Seely in biblical studies. On one
occasion, they were standing in a Borders bookstore in Ann Arbor together, admiring
something from the London publisher Thames and Hudson, and they decided that
they would like to do a book with that firm someday.
So, in 2007, they did. And their book has since been
translated into French, German, Spanish, Dutch, Norwegian, and Romanian.
Solomon’s Temple: Myth and History is a beautifully
illustrated book, not only about the Bronze Age background and historical reality
of ancient “Israelite Temples,” the title of the first of the volume’s
five chapters, but also about the afterlife of those temples, and particularly
that of Solomon, in subsequent Jewish tradition, Christian thought, and Islamic
lore. It concludes with a chapter entitled “Modern Conceptions of Solomon’s
Temple” that ranges from the Reformation to Freemasonry, from Renaissance
painting to the politics of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (where both authors
have lived for extended periods).
Latter-day Saint readers will note with interest the authors’
dedication: “For Hugh W. Nibley, who showed the way.” Although
the book is by no means overtly (or even covertly) designed to preach Mormonism
(though “Mormon Temples” are treated on pp. 190–93), the
inspiration of Nibley’s passion for the temple is apparent on every page of it
for those familiar with his work. (John M. Lundquist’s The Temple
of Jerusalem: Past, Present, and Future, published by Praeger in New
York City, also in 2007, is likewise dedicated to Professor Nibley. Another
Michigan PhD, Lundquist went on to write several important books and articles
about ancient temples for both Latter-day Saint and non-LDS audiences, and to
become the Susan and Douglas Dillon Curator of Asian and Middle Eastern Collections
at the New York Public Library. Thus, Hugh Nibley’s influence
continues—and well beyond Provo.)
The Temple of Solomon, believed to be a place of communion
between God and humanity, has been a continuing focus of profound reverence for
more than three thousand years. Although its last successor was destroyed very
nearly two millennia ago, it lives on. Justinian’s great sixth-century church
of Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul (the former imperial Byzantine capital, Constantinople),
was conceived as, in some sense, a re-creation of the ancient Israelite shrine.
When it was finished, according to the historian Procopius, Justinian
exclaimed, “Solomon, I have outdone thee!” Likewise, Jerusalem’s
seventh-century Islamic Dome of the Rock and the later headquarters of the
Templar knights and many medieval Christian cathedrals were regarded by their
builders as restorations of King Solomon’s great structure.
For Jews, in fact, after the final destruction of the temple
by the Romans in AD 70, the Bible
itself became a metaphorical “Temple of the Lord.” Its traditional
three sections were said to coincide with the tripartite structure of Moses’s
wilderness tabernacle: the Writings were the outer court, the Prophets were the
holy place, and the Law was the holy of holies. The Mishnah and the Talmud
contain entire tractates on the measurements of the temple and its rituals, and
about their meaning and function even in post-temple Judaism, and these texts
are at the core of rabbinic studies still today. Moreover, many of the biblical
psalms are temple hymns.
So great was Solomon’s temple that many later legends
ascribed that achievement to supernatural help, and many magicians sought to
harness that power for their own ends. (The six-pointed shield or star of David
seems to have originated in a magician’s hexagram called the Shield of
Solomon.) And this temple has persisted in the visions of Jewish, Christian,
and Muslim mystics, who have seen a celestial temple that mirrors the temple on
earth, a place where divine secrets are revealed to humankind.
Solomon’s Temple: Myth and History tells a story that
is every bit as fascinating, every bit as exotic and far ranging, as the tales
spun by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of
the Lost Ark. It has one advantage over those, however, that will appeal
to some: the story that Professors Hamblin and Seely tell is true.
|Daniel C. Peterson|
Grant Hardy. Understanding
the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide. New York: Oxford
University Press, 2010. xix + 346 pp., with subject and scripture indexes.
Grant Hardy majored in classical Greek at Brigham Young University,
then earned a PhD in Chinese literature from Yale.
Now a professor of history and religious studies at the
University of North Carolina at Asheville (where he formerly chaired the Department
of History), he specializes in premodern historical writing. Columbia
University Press published his Worlds of Bronze and Bamboo: Sima Qian’s
Conquest of History in 1999, Greenwood issued his coauthored The
Establishment of the Han Empire and Imperial China in 2005, and his
Oxford History of Historical Writing, Volume I: Beginnings to AD 600 will appear later this year.
But that isn’t all. The University of Illinois Press issued
Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition in 2005, and Oxford has recently
published his Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide, in
which this superbly trained scholar applies his expertise to a book that has
seldom been read so carefully and intelligently.
Hardy pronounces the Book of Mormon “an extraordinarily
rich text” (p. xii), “a carefully constructed artifact” (p. xv),
“more intricate and clever than has heretofore been acknowledged” (p.
xv). “My basic thesis,” he writes, “is that the Book of Mormon
is a much more interesting text—rewarding sustained critical
attention—than has generally been acknowledged by either Mormons or
non-Mormons” (p. xvii).
Although himself a believer (of an admittedly skeptical
sort, as shown in his entry on MormonScholarsTestify.org), he sets the question
of historicity or authorship aside: “It does not matter much to my
approach whether these narrators were actual historical figures or whether they
were fictional characters created by Joseph Smith; their role in the narrative
is the same in either case. After all, narrative is a mode of communication
employed by both historians and novelists” (p. xvi).
“I want to demonstrate a mode of literary analysis,”
he explains, “by which all readers, regardless of their prior religious
commitments or lack thereof, can discuss the book in useful and accurate ways”
(p. xvii). “I will leave it to others,” he remarks, “to prove or
disprove the historical and religious claims of the book; my goal is to help
anyone interested in the Book of Mormon, for whatever reason, become a better,
more perceptive reader” (p. xviii).
He seeks to enable discussion of the Book of Mormon even
among those who differ over its origin and religious importance. “If we
shift our attention away from Joseph Smith and back to the Book of Mormon
itself, a common discourse becomes possible” (p. xvi).
The principal feature of his method is to treat the three
main authors of the book—Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni—”as if they
were real people” (p. 23). And it turns out, under his meticulous analysis,
that “Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni are major characters themselves, and each
has a distinctive life story, perspective, set of concerns, style, and
sensibility” (p. xv).
I don’t labor under Grant Hardy’s self-imposed neutrality. I
say that the striking fruitfulness of his analysis powerfully supports the Book
of Mormon’s authenticity. “Under close scrutiny,” he writes (and
demonstrates), “it appears to be a carefully crafted, integrated work,
with multiple narrative levels, an intricate organization, and extensive
intratextual phrasal allusions and borrowings. None of this is foreign to
fiction, but the circumstances of the book’s production are awkward: the more
complicated and interconnected the text, the less likely it is that Joseph
Smith made it up spontaneously as he dictated the words to his scribes, one
time through” (p. xvii). And yet, as I have argued elsewhere, the evidence
clearly indicates both that Joseph was encountering the text for the first time
and that he had no other reading materials with him during the translation
process (and, physically speaking, could almost certainly not have read them if
“Clearly,” Hardy comments regarding Nephi, “there
is an active mind at work here, one that is colored by his experiences, his
sense of audience, and his desire for order. Readers will always be divided on
whether that mind is ultimately Nephi’s or Joseph Smith’s, but it is possible
to recover from the text a coherent personality within the multiple time
frames, the different levels of narrative, and the extensive intertextual
borrowings” (p. 84). And yet, when, with Mormon (as later with Moroni), “it
turns out that there is another mind at work in the text” (p. 90), the
most reasonable interpretation of the evidence Hardy so carefully marshals is
that these are, indeed, distinct persons. Moreover, when, as Hardy also demonstrates,
Mormon the editor struggles to conform his historical data to his moralistic
view of the past, that struggle strongly suggests that Mormon was dealing with
real, recalcitrant history, not with fiction.
Those inclined to disagree should read this important book.
|Daniel C. Peterson|
Hugh Nibley and Michael D. Rhodes. One
Eternal Round, vol. 19 in The Collected Works of Hugh
Nibley series. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 2010. Illustrations
directed by Michael P. Lyon. xxii + 698 pp., with seven appendixes and indexes
of passages and subjects. $48.99.
Michael Rhodes’s adroit introduction (pp. xvii–xxii)
Eternal Round, which is Hugh Nibley’s last book, is a valuable, elegantly
written, remarkable witness to Nibley’s dogged pursuit of further light and
knowledge, which drove his endeavors from his earliest days until at last his
health waned and he could no longer work on his final project. In addition,
Rhodes has provided a stunning preface (pp. xiii–xvi) in which he tells
the story of how he came to work on the enormous collection of manuscripts and
other materials generated by Nibley and out of which Rhodes was able to distill
The richly detailed, massive book examines one of the three
vignettes attached to the Book of Abraham—namely, Facsimile 2, which is
the famous and important hypocephalus owned by Joseph Smith. One Eternal
Round is thus seemingly focused on the hypocephalus—an
inscribed disklike object that the Egyptians placed under the head of a dead
person as an amulet “to deliver the owner from death and oblivion”
(p. 190). A detailed consideration of these funerary objects is taken up in the
chapter titled “What Is a Hypocephalus?” (pp. 188–235). Before
reaching this point in his analysis, Nibley has cleared the way by, among other
things, answering the chorus of critics of Joseph Smith regarding his opinions
about the meaning of the strange texts he owned (pp. 1–28). He then provides
an elaborate staging of an argument that the hypocephalus, or its many
surrogates in the ancient world, was a way of confronting the sting or fear of
death—a central concern of those who fashioned the cultic objects,
rituals, and accompanying myths (see especially pp. 96–132).
This elaborate argument places Nibley within a certain
strand of scholarship, although he is anything but an ideologue blindly following
a single school of interpretation. Instead, he builds on, and modifies and
molds, what others have done. He thus leads his readers to Facsimile 2 and
Joseph Smith’s interest in it, and then out into a complicated, rich, diverse
chain of possibilities, none of which we can explore here. Getting this
complicated argument into print was a labor of love performed by Michael
After first sketching an essay, Nibley tended to continually
edit and redraft it, never fully satisfied with what he had written. His manuscripts
were often littered with changes. He knew, as did his editors and publishers,
that he needed a deadline. But there was no deadline for the completion of One Eternal
Round, which meant that recasting, revising, and restructuring went
on and on. As Nibley’s health declined, even his notorious single-mindedness
began to lapse.
Since Nibley, despite enormous efforts, could not finish One Eternal
Round to his own satisfaction, he ended up in need of a properly
qualified, sympathetic friend who could sort the stack of materials, pick the
most complete and polished manuscripts, and then tie them together, fleshing
out a bit here and there. This task has been expertly done by Rhodes, who came
to the rescue.
Nibley had never relied upon student assistants, as some
prodigious publishers have done. When he cited or quoted an item, he was the
one who had located it in a library, read and assessed it, and very often
translated it. For some rather famous authors who have managed to publish a
steady stream of books and essays, this is simply not the case; they tend to
rely very heavily upon assistants whom they merely manage and direct. This was
never the case with Nibley. He was not an academic team player, nor did he
collect disciples or found an ideological school. He simply did not engage in a
kind of “Bancroft”2 mode of writing about the past, even though he influenced a host of scholars,
many of whom have ended up in ancient studies.
Nibley had an amazing familiarity with the arcane literature
of antiquity in the West. He drew upon primary sources but was also familiar
with secondary commentary. This aspect of his endeavors can be seen in One Eternal
Round. However, his declining health may have made it at first
difficult and then impossible to examine some of the secondary literature that
has appeared in the last decade. It appears that Rhodes may not always have
updated Nibley’s work with the latest scholarship. However, given the magnitude
of the venture, this is a rather small problem. Aside from stitching together
and organizing Nibley’s work into its present form, Rhodes has allowed Nibley
to have his say.
Further research will, of course, challenge and may revise
some of Nibley’s lines of argument or conclusions. This is inevitable in any
historical account. This would not trouble Nibley in the least. Why? He was
convinced that everything we produce is necessarily tentative and limited. In
fact, what fed his appetite to revise his own manuscripts was a desire to
include, as well as weigh and assess, all of what might constitute
evidence and to bring into consideration all plausible explanations and
new evidences that he continually found in his ongoing research. He was not at
all like writers who begin by figuring out an explanation and then stick to it
to the end, come what may. Nibley’s faith in God and in the restoration of
gospel fulness through the Prophet Joseph Smith remained rock solid, but
everything else was open to doubt as he rigorously and vigorously sought
further light and knowledge.
If Nibley is only partly correct in One Eternal
Round, then in antiquity there were artifacts, beliefs, rituals,
strange costumes, and institutions of richness and variety that should be of
considerable interest for Latter-day Saints striving for greater knowledge
about human and divine things. Nibley managed to open the door for us to peek
into this world. For this, if for no other reason, this lengthy book—639
pages of exposition, including seven appendixes (pp. 633–39) and a host
of wonderful illustrations (see pp. vii–x for the list of images expertly
drawn or directed by Michael Lyon)—deserves careful attention. Even those
who pride themselves on being familiar with Nibley’s work will find themselves
astonished by the richness and detail found in his last testament of faith in
Jesus Christ and his redeeming work. And, of course, critics lurking on the
margins of the community of Saints, with their usual fear that Nibley might
jumble their comfortable conformity to secular tastes, may brush this book
aside without really caring or learning about its rewarding contents.
Roger E. Olson and Adam C. English. Pocket
History of Theology. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press,
2005. 112 pp., with index. $8.00 (paperback).
Pocket History of Theology is a reduction of Roger
Olson’s book The Story of Christian Theology (1999) into
a much less intimidating survey of the main twists and turns in the complex
history of speculation, conflicts, and challenges that have fretted
Christianity from the end of the apostolic period to the present. The story
told is divided into five “acts,” the first beginning in the second
century. “Act I: A Story Takes Shape” (pp. 9–28) opens with
this observation: “The story of Christian theology does not begin at the
beginning. . . . Theology is the church’s reflection on the salvation brought
by Christ and on the gospel of that salvation proclaimed and explained by the
first-century apostles” (p. 9). The New Testament itself is not theology;
instead, it records the founding stories about Jesus of Nazareth, the agent of
redemption from sin and death, as well as the author of a new covenant and a
New Israel (or the community of Saints).
If there had been no subsequent conflict and contention over
what Jesus had done and who he was, we would have had no theology about which
Olson and English could tell a story. Some of the initial challenges were from
without—from Jewish and Pagan writers (p. 11; compare p. 25). But other
challenges came from within the church and hence from competing understandings
of the founding stories and their meaning. In telling this compelling story,
the authors seem to grant that the earliest Christians believed in theosis (divinization or deification). “Salvation[,] in such a view, is not merely
a one-time decision but a lifelong journey toward godliness. As 2 Peter
1:3–4 [NRSV] indicates, the life of godliness means that we ‘become
participants of the divine nature'” (p. 12 n. 3).
Many similar statements that will resonate with Latter-day
Saints will challenge contemporary conservative Christian theology. For
Shepherd of Hermas, which “contains a series of visions and
their explanations given by an angel to Hermas himself” (p. 14), indicates
God’s mercy is narrowly limited. God will forgive, but not
endlessly. Furthermore, forgiveness is conditioned on keeping the commandments.
The Shepherd tells Hermas that “there will be forgiveness for your
previous sins if you keep my commandments; in fact, there will be forgiveness
for everyone, if they keep my commandments and walk in this purity.” (p.
“This summary of the gospel,” we are told, “not
only speaks for Hermas but also summarizes nicely the overall sentiment of the
apostolic fathers. While all mention God’s mercy in response to true repentance
and occasionally express the necessity of God’s grace through the cross of
Christ, the apostolic fathers seem more concerned with promoting Christian
virtue and obedience by instilling fear of judgment for moral failure”
Olson and English grant that the later “apologists
defended Christian faith by using Greek (or Hellenistic) philosophy to meet
their critics on their own terms” (p. 15; compare p. 17 on the apologists’
use of “non-Christian philosophy”). “The relationship between
philosophy and Christian theology has been a major point of controversy within
Christian thought” (p. 19), according to these authors. This remark
introduces the stance on this issue taken by Tertullian (AD 150–212), who strongly “advised
Christians to avoid rationalizing Christian beliefs with Greek philosophical
categories” (p. 21). Tertullian radically contrasted what he called the
wisdom of Athens (the Platonic Academy) with the wisdom of Jerusalem (the words
and deeds of Jesus and the teachings of his apostles). Yet even Tertullian was
eager to engage in what he warned about when he tried to blunt the modalist (or
Sabellian) heresy by inventing the Trinity, defined by Olson and English in
these terms: “the God Christians believe in is one substance and three persons
(una substantia, tres personae)” (p. 22, emphasis in original).
Like other early Christian apologists, Origen (ca. AD 185–254) loved speculation and
tried to fashion a synthesis of Greek wisdom with the biblical message (pp.
22–23). He also introduced the so-called allegorical interpretation of
the scriptures in an effort to clear the way for what has come to be called
classical theism. In this kind of theological schema, “God is ‘simple
substance’ without body, parts or passions” (pp. 24–25), and hence “is
Spirit and Mind, simple (uncompounded), incorporeal, immutable and
incomprehensible” (p. 24), and so forth. All this, according to Olson and
English, was “strengthened . . . through the use of Platonic philosophy”
In “Act II: The Plot Thickens” (pp. 29–49),
Olson and English indicate that “absolute static
perfection—including apatheia, or impassibility (passionlessness)—is
essential to the nature of God according to Greek thought, and nearly all
Christian theologians came to agree with this” (pp. 29–30). This
dogmatic assumption provides the context of the great ecumenical creeds (pp.
30–31) and explains the “use of extrabiblical terminology” (p.
31). Latter-day Saints will find a useful brief account of the ideological
battles, if not the very nasty political intrigue, behind the great ecumenical
councils (pp. 30–49).
“Act III: The Story Divides” (pp. 50–68) is
an account of deepening controversies, beginning with Augustine (AD 354–430). There is nothing
novel in stressing divine mercy or grace, but “Augustine introduced into
the stream of Christian thought something called monergism, the belief
that human agency is entirely passive and God’s agency [absolute sovereignty]
is all-determining in both universal history and individual salvation” (p.
51). Monergism is a technical label referring to Augustine’s obsession with predestination and
to his radical stress on grace in which human beings are seen as free to do
what they desire, albeit all human desire is fixed by God at the moment of
creation (out of nothing). Roman Catholics did not adopt monergism, insisting
that Christians should not understand divine grace in such a way as to negate
the need for “greater self-sacrificing piety (what modern Christians call
discipleship)” (p. 56).
Leaving out a host of details about subtle distinctions and
differing nuances, Olson and English reach “Act IV: Reforming, Revising
and Rewriting the Story” (pp. 69–88). After explaining some of the
ecclesiastical abuses that troubled the Reformers (pp. 69–70), they focus
on Luther’s mantra about justification by grace through faith alone (pp. 71,
75). In addition, they introduce the Reformer’s insistence on sola
scriptura and the priesthood of believers (p. 71). They clearly link
Augustine to the Reformers (p. 71) but make the necessary qualifications. They
also stress the belief in the imputation of an alien righteousness to the
totally depraved sinner, who is then supposedly justified at the moment of
surrender to God (pp. 72–73). The authors then introduce John Calvin’s
extreme stress on divine sovereignty, which eventually led to TULIP (or
five-point Calvinism, p. 82) and its challenge from the Roman Catholic
Counter-Reformation (p. 81), from Arminianism (pp. 82–85), as well as from
the perfectionism found in the Methodist movement (pp. 86–87).
The final section, “Act V: An Unresolved Plot”
(pp. 89–108), takes up the “burgeoning challenge of a modern world,”
or modernity (p. 89). The authors discuss the rise of Protestant liberalism and
the European resistance to cultural Protestantism, especially from Karl Barth’s
neo-orthodoxy (pp. 95–102). At this point Olson and English reach the end
of their story. “Post–World War II Christian theology is diverse as
never before. . . . The story of Christian theology has taken so many dizzying
twists and turns and splintered in so many new directions that even experts
find it difficult to draw it all together into one coherent story” (p.
102). Before turning to evangelical theology and its emergence as a reaction to
fundamentalism (pp. 102–4) and to their concluding topic of liberation
theologies, the authors provide this revealing remark:
A quick glance at some of the adjectives now affixed to the
word theology give[s] a hint of the growing diversity: postliberal, liberation, postmodern,
death-of-God, process, narrative, postcolonial, feminist, womanist,
ecotheological, black, radically orthodox, paleoorthodox, open, evangelical,
correlational. (p. 102, emphasis in original)
Latter-day Saints should benefit from, as well as enjoy, a
careful reading of this brief, easily understood summary of the twists and
turns of Christian theology.
Roger E. Olson. Pocket
History of Evangelical Theology. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press,
2007. 151 pp., without index. $8.00 (paperback).
Roger Olson is a prolific writer, fashioning both historical
and theological works, some of which, often published by InterVarsity Press,
Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age (1997), with
Stanley J. Grenz; The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition
and Reform (1999); The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty
Centuries of Unity and Diversity (2002); The Trinity (2002),
with Christopher A. Hall; The Westminster Handbook to Evangelical Theology (2004); Arminian
Theology: Myths and Realities (2006); and Reformed and Always Reforming:
The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology (2007). One
constant theme in Olson’s essays is the wide variety, fluidity, and diversity
of beliefs held by Christians both now and then. He has a reputation for
knowing the sources and for setting out his opinions in a clear, evenhanded
way. He brings these attributes to his account of the history of evangelical
His first task in his Pocket History of Evangelical Theology is to try to provide a definition of the term evangelical. Why is this necessary?
“Even some self-identified evangelical scholars have declared evangelical an essentially contested concept—an idea and category with no precise or
agreed-on meaning” (p. 7). Olson’s strategy is to provide an essentially
historical account of the term’s variety of senses. Etymologically, the term evangelical means “the good news” of the gospel (p. 8). In the next sense, the
word “is simply synonymous with Protestant” (p. 8).
Lutherans like to use it as the name of their denomination (the Evangelical
Lutheran Church in America). Evangelical also identifies a Low
Church party within the Church of England (p. 9), and hence it was associated
with the Methodist movement. In another sense, the term refers to Pietism and
especially that version found among the Moravian Brethren, as well as to the
Great Awakening, where it applied to the message spread in revival efforts (p.
10). But evangelical eventually came to identify “conservative Protestant reaction to the rise
of liberal Protestantism,” and in this sense it came to be nearly
synonymous with fundamentalism (p. 11).
The story Olson wishes to tell concerns that most recent meaning
given to the word. In the 1940s and 1950s evangelical was used to identify
a new postfundamentalist movement—a so-called Neo Evangelicalism, closely
associated with Billy Graham (pp. 12–13).
Olson holds that the evangelicalism he describes “is a
loose affiliation (coalition, network, mosaic, patchwork, family) of mostly
Protestant Christians of many orthodox (Trinitarian) denominations and
independent churches and parachurch organizations” (p. 14). This assertion
is followed by a long list of beliefs and practices of a loose network of
contemporary conservative Protestants, who share revivalist instincts and so
forth (p. 15). What keeps the whole thing from flying apart is not some set of
core beliefs but “the powerful unifying figure of evangelist Billy Graham”
(p. 15). Olson calls this the “Graham glue” and wonders what will
happen when it dissolves.
Latter-day Saints probably encounter evangelicals who are
essentially from the Reformed (or Calvinist) faction of the movement. This is
especially true if they have been confronted by anti-Mormon countercult
propaganda, but it is also true if they know conservative Protestantism only
from some encounter with the recent “interfaith dialogues.” There
they will have faced TULIP (five-point Calvinism), but they will not have even
a faint idea of the vast variety of competing opinions held by the large
majority of those who consider themselves evangelicals. Olson’s expert and
learned narrative is a corrective for this deficiency in LDS understanding of the
conservative Protestant world around them. The Holiness-Pentecostal element in
the loose gathering under the evangelical umbrella is far more numerically
significant than the Reformed element, with which Latter-day Saints are most
Olson describes the theologies of leading evangelical
theologians, including Carl F. H. Henry (pp. 96–107), E. J. Carnell (pp.
108–11), Bernard Ramm (pp. 112–19), and Donald Bloesch (pp.
120–29). He ends this survey by describing what he calls the “postconservative
evangelical theology” (pp. 130–40). In this setting, he introduces
Clark Pinnock (pp. 132–38), who, as some Latter-day Saints are aware,
espouses opinions close to their own. This is seen, for example, in his
rejection of much of classical theism (advancing instead a version of an
openness theology), his acceptance of narrative theology, his eschewing of
traditional evangelical cessationism (the view that spiritual gifts like
prophecy, healing, and tongues ceased early on in church history), and so
As much as Olson prizes and even celebrates diversity among
believers, he also longs for a center that can somehow hold all the competing
and even warring factions together. However, in his final and most important
chapter, in which he addresses the topic “Tensions in Evangelical Theology”
(pp. 141–51), he reluctantly but essentially grants that the center
simply does not hold. Hence contemporary evangelicalism is in flux, with
dynamic forces (some of which involve nasty political and dogmatic powers that
he cautiously identifies) on the verge of tearing the movement apart.
This crisp, clearly written little handbook is highly
recommended for Latter-day Saints who are interested in or puzzled by what is
taking place in conservative Protestant circles.
1. See my “Editor’s
Introduction” to FARMS Review 17/2 (2005): xi–xlix, entitled “Not
So Easily Dismissed: Some Facts for Which Counterexplanations of the Book of
Mormon Will Need to Account.”
2. The American historian and
ethnologist Herbert Howe Bancroft (1832–1918) eventually ended up trying
to produce a multivolume history of the entire American West. He is infamous
for doing this with research and writing assistants.