Reviewed by Massimo Introvigne
As Professor Terryl L. Givens noted in his Viper on the Heart. Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), labels like "cult", "heresy" or even "religion" do not correspond to any intrinsic essence of a group or movement. They are politically negotiated between the group and a number of other forces in society at large. If they are not destroyed by initial opposition, religious movements tend to move slowly towards the mainline and to be recognized as "denominations" rather than "cults". At one stage, this may involve a dialogue with traditional opponents. Within the family of Adventism, this dialogue involved Seventh-day Adventists from the 1950s, and -- more recently -- the controversial Worldwide Church of God (WCG). Adventist intellectuals started a dialogue with Evangelical anti-cultists (and notorious anti-Mormon) Walter Martin in the 1950s. Martin was gradually persuaded that Adventists were not a cult, and was later instrumental in making them more or less accepted by the Evangelical community. The dialogue started privately by a few Adventist intellectuals was later endorsed by the Adventist leadership. Adventists were able to complete a transition towards the mainline without renouncing their core doctrines, while moderating their criticism of other denominations and moving some of their most controversial doctrines to the fine-print parts or the footnotes of their doctrinal manuals. By contrast, in recent years WCG evolved very rapidly from a despised marginal "cult" to a respected member of the National Association of Evangelicals (where it was admitted in 1997). In the process, however, WCG renounced most of the trademark doctrines of its controversial founder, the late Herbert W. Armstrong, having lost in the process almost half of its membership to splinter "armstrongite" groups. Although differences exist, it would be tempting to compare the path of WCG to what is currently happening within the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. On the other hand a recent book by an Evangelical scholar, professor Craig L. Blomberg, and a Mormon scholar, professor Stephen E. Robinson, evidences that something similar to the Adventist-Evangelical private dialogue of the 1950s is now beginning between Evangelicals and Mormons.
The book is divided in four parts -- respectively on Scriptures, God, Jesus Christ, and Salvation -- each treated separately by the Evangelical and the Mormon professor, and each ending with a joined conclusion. At the end, a final conclusion co-signed by Robinson and Blomberg states, inter alia, that "as applied to contemporary Latter-day Saints, the term 'cult' is technically incorrect" (p. 193). Blomberg and Robinson do not hide that major differences exist between Mormons and Evangelicals. The two groups have, however, often misrepresented each other and confused core canonical doctrines with popular or folk beliefs. Throughout the book, Robinson insists in disassociating canonical Mormon beliefs from folk doctrines, insisting that the latter -often used by anti-Mormons - are not technically part of the LDS canon or doctrine. He notes that anti-Mormons mine for their own purposes the Journal of Discourses, often mistaken for a canonical or authoritative source for contemporary Mormon doctrine. On the other hand, Blomberg admits that in defining Evangelical orthodoxy one could and should distinguish between Biblical truths and Evangelical patterns of interpretation, strictly speaking not found nor grounded in the Bible. Robinson would like for Blomberg to admit that the Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds are extra-biblical. Blomberg maintains that these creeds are not contrary to the Bible and express faithfully what is implicit in the Scripture, although their language is different from the Bible and conditioned by Greek philosophy. Of course, once Evangelical Christianity is distinguished -- if not separated -- from the Greek philosophical language in which it is normally expressed by the creeds, and Mormonism is separated from a number of non-canonical folk beliefs, the two worldviews appear less irreconcilable. As professor Robinson notes, "if we would admit that we share a common acceptance of the Bible while rejecting each other's additions to it (the councils and creeds on your side and the revelation of Joseph Smith on mine), we would find that we share far more than we dispute. This could serve as a ground for cooperation, dialogue and increased tolerance and respect, though it would still be insufficient grounds for full fellowship. It is not the LDS aim to be accepted as 'orthodox' or Evangelical Christians; we are not. But the frequent assertion of many Evangelicals that Latter-day Saints do not even worship Christ or believe in the Bible is untrue" (p. 141). This could be accepted by some open-minded Evangelical intellectuals if it is confirmed that "Stephen Robinson's disassociation from various popular Mormon views, which are not clearly taught in the Standard Words" is indeed, as Blomberg states, "part of a trend that will catch on widely at the grassroots level as well" (p. 127).
In fact, not only the "grassroots level" is involved. Will the LDS general authorities pay attention to and somewhat sponsor this dialogue between Mormons and Evangelicals? Are they prepared, without compromising the integrity of the LDS faith or changing any doctrine, to present this faith to the world taking into account that a certain kind of missionary style is particularly offensive to Evangelicals and other Christians in general? If the answer is no, the process started by Blomberg and Robinson's efforts will not continue, and the book itself will remain a minor, although interesting, footnote in the history of the difficult relations between Mormons and Evangelicals. On the other hand, if the answer to the previous question is yes, the book may well be quoted in the future as an historical step in a process pushing Mormonism well into the Christian mainline, thus further marginalizing anti-Mormonism and reducing it (as is contemporary anti-Adventism) to a small, lunatic fringe. Only time will tell.
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