Denver Journal

Denver Journal

Bridging the Divide: The Continuing Conversation between a Mormon and an Evangelical

06.30.08 | Denver Journal, Apologetics and Ethics, Tobin Huebner | by Robert Millet | by Gregory Johnson

    Tobin Huebner's review of "Bridging the Divide: The Continuing Conversation between a Mormon and an Evangelical" by Robert L. Millet and Gregory C.V. Johnson.

    Robert L. Millet and Gregory C.V. Johnson. Bridging the Divide: The Continuing Conversation between a Mormon and an Evangelical.  Rhinebeck, NY: Monkfish Book Publishing Company, 2007.  185 pages. 

    The relationship between Mormons and Evangelicals has been contentious historically due to misunderstandings, misrepresentations, the lack of civility, and lack of sincerity.  How should the adherents of these differing worldviews interact with one another?  In Bridging the Divide, Robert Millet and Greg Johnson respond to this question by presenting a dialogical method summarized by the phrase "convicted civility."  While this is a recent publication, the relationships which fostered this approach began in the early 1990's.  One result of these relationships was the work of Dr. Craig L. Blomberg and Dr. Stephen Robinson in the book How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation (InterVarsity Press, 1997).  Bridging the Divide was released to honor the 10th anniversary of the publication of How Wide the Divide, and continues to proffer a methodology of "convicted civility."  This method of dialogue encourages the Mormon and the Evangelical to "give a reason for the hope that you have. But do so with gentleness and respect" (1 Peter 3:15).  

    The text is not merely conversational in tone, but a written conversation, which makes the 185 pages accessible to any reader.  It is an edited transcript from one of many public dialogues between Millet and Johnson over the past decade.  While appropriately referenced, one will not find an abundance of citations.  Albeit, anyone interested in apologetic methodology will conclude the lack of technicality does not diminish its pertinence. 

    Prior to the transcript, Bridging the Divide contains a forward from the co-authors of How Wide the Divide, Dr. Blomberg and Dr. Robinson, who present a joint affirmation of Millet's and Johnson's heartfelt desire to "speak the truth in love" (Eph. 4:15).  Next, Millet's preface and an introduction from Johnson clarify that the divide between Mormonism and Evangelicalism has not been bridged.  This is done to dissolve any miscommunication the title and cover art may present.  Each wants to be unequivocal that theological discrepancies remain, and "ecumenicism" has not been achieved (nor is it necessarily the objective). 

    In the first component of the dialogue, Millet and Johnson provide background information.  This interaction provides insight into the personal, familial, and spiritual journeys of the men as well as insight into their relationship together.  Here, we learn of Johnson's LDS upbringing, Millet's childhood in the Bible belt, and the events that led to their conversations.  The second phase of the dialogue, "Questions for One Another," facilitates clarification of definitions, doctrines, and distinctives.  Millet and Johnson clarify their positions, addressing official doctrines as well as mischaracterizations, miscommunication, and hearsay.  Due to the preliminary nature of this dialogue, the men stop short of thorough argumentation.  The final portion of the dialogue incorporates "Questions from the Audience."  A wide variety of topics are presented to Millet and Johnson from the attending audience, ranging from "baptisms for the dead" to "altar calls" to the relationship of faith and works.  A joint conclusion, co-authored in the likeness of the joint conclusions presented by Blomberg and Robinson in their earlier volume, is offered at the end of the transcribed material.  Johnson and Millet emphasize advice given by Bishop Krister Stendahl concerning interfaith dialogue:

    First, if you want to know something about another person's faith or beliefs, ask an active, participating, and somewhat knowledgeable member of that faith.  Second, if you intend to compare the merits of one faith with another, be sure to compare your best with their best. (126). 

    This joint conclusion ends with a controversial affirmation of an inclusivist strand of C.S. Lewis' thought which argues that "there are many outside the ranks of Christianity who are being led by God's ‘secret influence' to focus on those aspects of their religion that are in agreement with Christianity and, as he said, ‘who thus belong to Christ without knowing it'" (129).  Three appendices are included, offering doctrinal parameters within Mormonism, and methodological principles for engaging in fruitful dialogue.

    Craig Blomberg affirms in "A Biblical Basis for Interfaith Dialogue:"

    "There are many forms of announcing the good news of salvation in Christ that remain culturally acceptable in every culture of the world.  One of the most deeply rooted and endearing of these forms is dialogue- respectful listening to another's point of view, questioning them to make sure one has clearly understood them, and then equally clearly explaining one's own point of view and fielding clarifying questions-what Richard Mouw and John Stackhouse have dubbed "convicted civility."   

    Bridging the Divide has a humble objective: to exemplify convicted civility as an effective precursor to apologetic discussions.  Convicted civility eliminates the unnecessary but prominent roadblocks of miscommunication, misunderstanding, and disrespect between Mormons and Evangelicals.  The approach exemplified by Millet and Johnson serves to clear the passage toward negative and positive apologetic arguments.  This will cause some to conclude that the conversation is soft, unsatisfying, and a demonstration in skirting the issues, for what is found is not an apologia.  Rather, I contend that the authors are careful not to apply unfair expectations to this precursory endeavor: "To be candid, this is a work in progress," says Johnson (5).  Johnson and Millet concur with (and are in the beginning stages of exemplifying) the biblical mandate for interfaith dialogue, preserved in Acts 17, expounded upon by those such as Dr. Blomberg. 

    Bridging the Divide is a particularly significant contribution to apologetics because it emphasizes contextualization.  Johnson effectively addresses the Mormon context in two ways:  1) Religious experience plays a crucial role in LDS epistemology (Moroni 10:4-5 promotes the knowledge which comes by way of supernatural revelation, and with a "testimony" comes certainty); and 2) Mormon history identifies the LDS Church as a persecuted people.  This persecution was often instigated by other Christians and perpetuated a high sensitivity to external attacks within the LDS community. 

    How should one attempt to increase the plausibility of the orthodox Christian worldview in the mind of a person who: 1) Relies heavily on experience for knowledge, and 2) who remains sensitive to the wounds of attacks propagated by Christians historically?  Herein lays the success of Bridging the Divide, where Johnson exemplifies the vital, precursory role of convicted civility with respect to LDS epistemology and history by developing a relationship of trust, integrity, humility, and honesty. 

    Dr. Millet is equally successful in engaging the Evangelical context.  He seeks to understand why Evangelicals do not think Mormons are Christians, why so many denominations exist, how Evangelicals view grace, and the doctrine of the Trinity.  To quote Stephen Covey, Millet makes ample efforts in "seeking to understand before being understood."  The message of these men becomes clear: it is upon the foundation of healthy relationships and contextual understanding that we should build arguments which confirm or deny hypotheses through verification.  Fruitful discussions addressing the strengths and weaknesses of each worldview will ensue if one has earned the opportunity to be heard.

    I offer one critique of this book, with an addendum.  While this is a work in progress, clarity ought to be given to the apologetic and evangelistic telos of this endeavor.  The goal of apologetics is to defend a specific worldview by evaluating its hypotheses.  Appropriate apologetic method develops a cumulative case argument for the truth or falsity of worldview hypotheses.  If God is true (John 4:24, John 14:6), then apologetic efforts facilitate our assessment and communication of His Truth.  Thus, we bring Him glory by showing Him worthy through apologetic dialogue. 

    The preliminary and sustained role of convicted civility in interfaith dialogue is vital.  Yet, it is worrisome if convicted civility as exemplified in Bridging the Divide is a sufficient end goal.  The answer to the question, "Where is this going?" should not be murky.  Nor should this question be put on the shelf indefinitely.  I agree that, in many instances, we must concede that answers are unavailable to us.  However, to turn our focus to practical behavior, or to resolve to being satisfied with the process, is an affront to the apologetic endeavor.  Evangelicals and Mormons are only beginning to scratch the surface of significant interaction concerning God, Christ, theology, and philosophy.  Moreover, it is not the significant interaction that is the goal.  It is a conduit for greater understanding of the ultimate goal, Christ.  Neither Millet nor Johnson would disagree with this statement, but greater lucidity should be given toward the telos of this project: the objective truth of God in Christ.                  

    The addendum is this: I suggest that the convicted civility practiced between Mormons and Evangelicals will become stagnant unless the dialogue is focused toward theories of knowledge.  Epistemology is foundational to this telos.  How do we acquire knowledge about the truth of God in Christ? 

    Several things are clear.  Mormons and Evangelicals do not agree epistemologically: particularly concerning canonical authority, prophetic authority, and the extent to which we can acquire knowledge through religious experience.  However, because each worldview claims to have true knowledge, it seems one theory of knowledge ought to be accepted over the other.  Our constraints, and my neophyte status in epistemology, will not allow us to pursue this issue here.  Nonetheless, dialogue focused on doctrine will become frustrated unless convicted and civil efforts are directed toward epistemology, from which knowledge of doctrine stems. 

    In conclusion, Bridging the Divide provides a precursory method helpful in eliminating barriers toward apologetic interaction and the Gospel message.  In the words of J.P. Moreland, it creates a plausibility structure or "favorable conditions" in a person's mind for the truth of Christ.  Yet, the telos of convicted civility ascribed in this book is opaque.  The objective truth of God in Christ, and the transformation that accompanies Him, ought to be explicitly announced as the goal of convicted civility.  If this truth can be known, then epistemological foundations cannot be neglected.  For this reason, I hope this endeavor will not become satiated by the fruit of civility, but remain convicted in striving after difficult issues in the areas of knowledge and truth.         

    Tobin Huebner
    M.A. Philosophy of Religion Program
    Denver Seminary
    March 2008