Disturbing Downgrade: A Review of Rich Mouw’s “Talking with Mormons”
Leaving politics aside, Talking with the Mormons: An Invitation to Evangelicals (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2012) is part of Richard Mouw’s ongoing theological dialogue with Mormons. The result is a book that leaves the reader wondering if perhaps we should consider Mormons as wayward, errant brothers rather than completely outside the Christian faith.
First, let me say that I am all for the thawing of evangelical relations with Mormons if it means that Mormons are embracing the white-hot fire of the true gospel. But since this is only happening with Mormons who convert to Christianity, I must remain - out of deep-rooted, warm-hearted love for Mormon people – icy cold toward Mormon doctrine as representative of a damnable false religion.
Again, I am not against healthy back-and-forth, careful dialogue, and finding common ground wherever it exists. But because we are bound to put forth an undiluted, uncompromised gospel, I am admittedly impatient with the kind of dialogue that hems and haws around the edges of commonalities while failing to properly spotlight the unbridgeable gaps between the two religions. And that brings me to Rich Mouw’s latest contribution to this discussion.
Mouw is right to challenge evangelicals to better represent our Mormon neighbors. Evangelicals are right to be offended when Muslim apologists falsely present our views of the Trinity, for example. Likewise, we should take care not to misrepresent our Mormon neighbors or their beliefs (3). At the very least, love for neighbor should lead us to try to understand people with whom we disagree.
Misrepresentation of another’s beliefs is self-defeating. In our zeal to persuade someone else to the truth, we must be careful not to present untruth about the opposing point of view.
Mouw is convinced there is a growing divide within the Mormon community on understandings of sin and salvation. He says that some appear to be affirming concepts closer to orthodoxy. I hope he is right. Because of this divergence of views within the Mormon community, Mouw will not call Mormonism a “cult.” He prefers to call it a “new religious movement.” (30) (I prefer to call it another religion altogether.)
Mouw is right to see Christology as essential to Christian teaching:
What a person believes about Jesus Christ is not only a central issue for theological discussion; it is an issue that has eternal significance for all human beings. (46)
I couldn’t agree more, which is why so much of Mouw’s book leaves me disturbed.
Throughout Talking with the Mormons, Mouw makes a distinction between opposing false teachings and false teachers (21). This is helpful at one level (we ought to not condemn the straying brother who is ignorant of truth), but woefully inadequate at a more profound level. The Bible contains multiple examples of teachers being opposed, not merely teachings.
To make the case for patience, Mouw includes an interesting word of counsel from Donald Grey Barnhouse to Walter Martin:
“It is not wrong to contend for the gospel, but it is wrong to shoot first and ask questions later.” (24)
I agree. But to balance this statement, I might add:
It is not wrong to engage in dialogue for the sake of the gospel, but it is wrong to only ask questions and never shoot.
Jesus warned us about wolves in sheep’s clothing, but Mouw seems more concerned about possible sheep dressed up like wolves. The whole book is geared toward making evangelicals wonder if those who look like wolves may really be sheep after all.
In making his case for the personal salvation of individual Mormons, Mouw tells a story of Spurgeon affirming the salvation of a Roman Catholic priest. He also points out Charles Hodge’s assessment of Freidrich Schleiermacher’s personal salvation as precedent for believing that one can be horribly wrong on doctrine and still a true believer. But even here, a firm distinction ought to be made. The tenor of Spurgeon’s treatment of Catholicism and Hodge’s treatment of liberalism was vigorous opposition. And there is a noticeable absence of “vigor” in Mouw’s stated opposition to Mormon theology.
“I do believe that people can have a defective theology about Christ while still putting their trust in the true Christ.” (49)
Granted. What new believer knows all the intricacies of the Athanasian creed’s summary of biblical teaching?
Still, it’s one thing to take a compassionate posture toward wayward Christians and another to embrace teachers who have been shown the truth and yet persist in teaching falsehood. The requirement for someone teaching a defective theology of Christ is repentance and full embrace of the truth.
At one point, Mouw compares Joseph Smith to Cotton Mather. His point is that previous generations of Christians were accustomed to dreams and angelic visitations. Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised that someone such as Mather also claimed to have been visited by an angel. But this comparison falls apart at a crucial point: Mather’s angelic experience affirmed God’s plan for his life personally. Smith’s angel preached another gospel, the very thing the Apostle Paul said was anathema (84-6).
At the end of Talking with the Mormons, Mouw encourages evangelicals to cut Mormons some slack as they stumble toward orthodoxy. It is clear that he sees Mormon theology as defective, but many Mormons as sincerely seeking the truth.
I appreciate Mouw’s call for evangelicals to fairly represent Mormon beliefs. But despite Mouw’s best intentions, I believe that the kind of “cutting some slack” represented in this book leads us to a disturbing downgrade of the importance of Christology.