A Review of Richard Mouw’s Talking With Mormons
Richard Mouw, Talking With Mormons: An Invitation to Evangelicals (Eerdmans 2012).
This short book is difficult to review. In fewer than a 100 pages Mouw manages to say some incredibly helpful things, and, well, some other things too. In the former category, Mouw reminds evangelicals that loving our neighbor means we try to understand his beliefs and describe them accurately. His burden is “to invite us to nurture friendlier relations with the Mormon community” (43). To that end, he rightly notes that evangelicals have not always dealt patiently or charitably with Mormons. Throughout his ministry, Mouw has called evangelicals to greater civility and understanding with “outsiders.” Those who are eager to defend the faith and rebuke doctrinal error should not quickly dismiss Mouw’s concerns. He provides a needed warning for a certain type of evangelical.
On the other hand, Mouw’s approach to Mormonism is not without problems. For starters, his eagerness to build bridges leads him to attempt bridging the sometimes unbridgeable. Mouw does not personally reject any evangelical doctrines. In fact, he explicitly affirms them in numerous places. He understands where the differences between evangelicalism and Mormonism lie. But at every major difference he looks hard (and creatively) for a way to bring the two sides closer together. This basic impulse, while commendable to a degree, encourages methodological confusion. For example, Mouw routinely softens official Mormon teaching by quoting from progressive authors or citing new (potential) trends in Mormon theology (e.g., p. 59). I admit to being suspicious of these “trends,” just like an outside observer might be suspicious to think evangelicals were leaving their conservative politics behind just because of a few quotes from Brian MacLaren or N.T. Wright.
There are other problems with Mouw’s approach. Perhaps it’s the nature of the book, but I found he would only hint at some major differences with Mormonism, while proceeding for most of a chapter to find common ground. At other times, Mouw makes assumptions without any corroborating evidence, like they claim that in the future “Mormon leadership will add nothing new without being sure that what is accepted as new is continuous with the doctrine of faith, as set forth in Scripture” (71). No reasons were given for this optimism except Mouw’s sense that Mormonism seems to be changing.
At the most basic level, Mouw wants evangelicals to approach Mormons in a whole new way. While I think he rightly critiques one approach; his new approach is not the answer.
Mouw criticizes the sort of approach that starts with an assumption that Mormons are some combination of stupid, evil, imposters, and charlatans and then offers the usual anti-Mormon talking points (God doesn’t have a body, Jesus and Lucifer were not brothers, Joseph Smith was nuts, early Mormons were polygamists, etc.). He is right to call evangelicals to a better way.
But Mouw’s way is not it. He works from the experiential conclusion that Mormons have the presence of Jesus in their lives, even if they fall short of theological orthodoxy (99). From that starting point, Mouw tries to bridge the vast doctrinal divide by a combination of the following arguments: Mormonism is changing, Mormonism was trying to correct legitimate Christian abuses, we can find God-given truth in Mormonism, Mormons have been out of touch with the rest of Christianity so we should cut them some slack, Mormons have proved to be personally warm and trustworthy so we should not doubt their commitment to Jesus. The end result is that no doctrinal differences are actually resolved, but we’ve been encouraged to ask questions, look for shared “space,” and keep the conversation going.
If that were the only end result, Mouw’s project would be more benign. But I fear the other end result is that evangelicals will see orthodox theology as officially important but practically negligible. I know Mouw doesn’t think that, but that is the taste left in my mouth after finishing the book. On issue after issue, my take away was: no matter how serious the theological error, there will always be a way to make heterodoxy more sanguine. It’s hard to see a connection between right belief and regeneration in Mouw’s “invitation.” He certainly believes in the importance of truth, but it is largely something we work on to make our relationship with Jesus stronger, not something indispensable for the relationship in the first place. Mouw describes his faith as the experience of Jesus “as a loving Savior who offers me his warm embrace.” With that definition it’s easy to see how one can assume that Mormons are already in the fold, but it’s a far cry from the Heidelberg Catechism’s understanding of faith (Q/A 21-23).
I haven’t met Rich Mouw before, but he strikes me as an eminently likeable guy whose impulse is to find common ground. There are worse things that can be said about a person. Many Christians would do well to have more of that impulse. But the impulse to clarify and correct significant–sometimes eternally significant–disagreements is also admirable. Mouw does correction well when it comes to evangelicals, but seems less probing when it comes of Mormons. This book would be more helpful if the careful rebuke of our mistakes were matched by an equally trenchant correction of their views. I’d like to see a straight forward, deeply evangelical follow-up book entitled, “Talking to Mormons: An Invitation to Historic Christianity.”