A review of Philip Roberts', "Mormonism Unmasked: Confronting the Contradictions Between Mormon Beliefs and True Christianity," by Dr. Craig Blomberg.
Roberts, R. Philip, Mormonism Unmasked: Confronting the Contradictions Between Mormon Beliefs and True Christianity. Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1998 184 pp. ISBN 0-8054-1652-8.
How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation, which I coauthored with Stephen Robinson (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997), has sparked a flurry of response. The majority of this has been quite positive and encouraging, but a minority, almost exclusively emerging out of the countercult industry, has at times proved quite critical. James White (Is the Mormon My Brother? [Minneapolis: Bethany, 1997]) holds the distinction of being the first full-length book to interact with Robinson’s and my work. While advertising itself as the first book-length response to How Wide?, it is instead a manuscript which White had already completed before even learning of our volume, but he was then able to go back and intersperse a variety of comments and footnotes superficially interacting with our book. The Counterfeit Gospel of Mormonism: The Great Divide Between Mormonism and Christianity (by five different authors, none of which is specified as the editor of the book [Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1997]), is an even more direct and intentional response, with four of its five chapters matching the topics and sequence of the four main chapters of How Wide? (Scripture, God, Christ, Salvation).
Pride of place in quality of response, however, must now be given to Dr. Roberts’ new book and a very nicely produced accompanying video entitled The Mormon Puzzle. Ironically, neither the book nor the video makes explicit mention of How Wide?, even while clearly borrowing our sequence of topics, echoing many of the identical arguments I introduced in the portions of the book I authored and responding to many of Robinson’s distinctive approaches (while referring only to an interview with Robinson, excerpts of which were featured in the video).
Roberts’ book begins with a fictitious but realistic scenario of how two Mormon missionaries might lead nominal Christians into their church. Roberts then proceeds to outline the image Mormons wish to market, setting the stage for the need for true Bible-believing Christians to be able to give a compelling response to the LDS. Next Roberts turns to a brief history of Joseph Smith and the founding of the Mormon church, replete with all of the historical contradictions in Smith’s writings and failures in his moral character. Roberts then addresses the various distinctive doctrines of the LDS faith, stressing that at their core the Mormon doctrine of God is polytheistic, the Jesus of the LDS is not the same Jesus as found in the New Testament, the road to exaltation is filled with a burdensome demand of obeying commands and performing numerous good works, and the additional “Scriptures” beyond the Old and New Testaments of the LDS reflect Smith’s increasing departure from orthodoxy and contain both internal contradictions as well as both unverified and falsified historical claims, vis-à-vis external sources. Closing chapters deal with distinctive Mormon eschatology, the contrasts between biblical and LDS priesthoods and temple ceremonies and suggestions for how Christians can lovingly but clearly witness to their faith and to the inherent implausibility of the LDS gospel.
A problem with all three of the books mentioned in this review is that while much of the text itself is in each case quite irenic, sensationalist titles and cover blurbs make it unlikely that many actual Mormons will begin to read this literature. Within each of these three texts, another problem surfaces, in that officially canonized Mormon Scripture is cited alongside influential though less authoritative statements of key Mormon presidents, leaders and other theologians over the years. There is no question that in their time all of these statements have reflected major strands of belief within the LDS, but the Mormon church itself defines the most authoritative revelation as the most current. In short, whatever directions the current presidency of the church is leading the faithful supersedes any form of previous Mormon religion, including previously canonical truths! Evangelical Christians are used to basing hermeneutics on authorial intent, going back to what original founders and authors of sacred writings said and meant in their original contexts, and so it is difficult often for us to grasp this completely inverted hermeneutic of the LDS. As a result, Roberts’ work, like so many of his predecessors, will simply be dismissed as irrelevant by people of Stephen Robinson’s stripe because it continues to parade and rebut statements of previous LDS authorities that are no longer necessarily believed by all in the church.
Roberts himself has more directly criticized How Wide? in an unpublished manuscript delivered at the ETS annual meetings in Santa Clara, CA, in November 1997. As with the critiques of others in the countercult industry, the objections of Roberts, the director of the Interfaith Witness Division of the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board, can be summarized under three headings. First, the slant on Mormonism articulated by Robinson is not representative of the church at large, or even of the current LDS leadership; second, by limiting ourselves to the four topics that we did and the specific items addressed in our discussion of each of these four topics, we (and Robinson in particular) omitted treating significant aspects of the Mormon faith to such an extent that How Wide? proved deceptive; and, third, the kind of irenic and courteous dialogue which How Wide? reflects is simply out of place. When Christianity confronts a “cult,” more consistent and combative evangelism is instead the primary order of the day.
What makes Roberts’ book and video stand out from the pack is that without ever saying so, they refute each of these three points themselves! Robinson features as one of the two most prominent LDS spokesmen interviewed in the video, and several extracts from that video are quoted in prominent places in Roberts’ book. Clearly, Robinson is being taken as representative of the current church and its leadership. The topics addressed also match closely those dealt with in How Wide? The video in particular proceeds through the identical four doctrinal concerns in the exact sequence of the chapters of How Wide?, including at times mirroring the outline of the discussion within a given chapter. But neither book nor video, with rare exceptions, ever footnotes or documents in any way their repeated indebtedness to other Christian authors. Documentation is almost exclusively reserved for LDS sources. Finally, in ways often untrue of their predecessors, Roberts’ book and video give significant and sympathetic press to current LDS perspectives. In fact, numerous excerpts of the video come from the LDS church itself and portray Mormonism as highly attractive to many outsiders. If a recurring fear of critics of How Wide? has been that giving Robinson equal time might in fact lead some readers to judge the case for Mormonism more compelling than the case for Christianity, the same must surely be said of Roberts’ video. For me, however, that is not a weakness of either our book or his video. Speaking the truth in love, like acting with justice and grace, demands that we present as objectively accurate perspectives on all competing worldviews as possible. We then simultaneously make the most compelling case we can for our own worldview, and Roberts’ book excels in this respect.
In short, except for the unfortunate titles, covers and promotional materials for both Roberts’ book and video, I commend both works and am grateful for additional resources for evangelicals who do not have adequate understandings of their own faith. I appreciate the extent to which both book and video portray accurately the nature of a significant cross-section of current LDS faith and practice. What still remains missing, however, from those who would criticize How Wide? or who want to go beyond our initial conversations is a more detailed but irenic Christian response to the distinctive form of Mormonism so clearly articulated by Robinson and increasingly promoted from the highest levels throughout the LDS world. Since I have no further publishing projects on the topic in the works, we will have to pray that someone else catches the vision and grasps the exact nature of the current changes that Mormonism is undergoing.
Professor of New Testament