Winning the Battle and Not Knowing It, Part III: Let the Dialogue Begin
by Justin Hart

This series of articles is intended to inform the reader about recent trends, books and publications about the dialogue between Evangelicals and Mormons.

To sum up our previous discussions: two non-Mormon scholars point to the robust defense of the Mormon faith as an affront that Evangelicals can no longer ignore; and an Evangelical and a Mormon scholar face off in an unprecedented co-authored book to jump-start the interfaith dialogue. We join our story in 1999 at BYU where these two stories collide in an engaging publication that breaks new ground of its own.

FARMS (The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies) has long been seen as the leading bastion of Mormon apologists. Its publications are numerous and its scholars are recognized around the world for more than just defensive posturing. FARMS scholars, directors and associates have sponsored numerous conferences around such topics as the Dead Sea Scrolls, Abrahamic traditions, and Egyptology. FARMS publishes a bi-annual publication entitled: FARMS Review of Books, in which various scholars report on, critique, and review recent publications on Mormonism and related topics.

Volume 11, Number 2 was published in late 1999. This volume was unique on several levels: first, it was one of the lengthier publications in the series. Second, it was the first Review of Books to concentrate on reviewing just one book, namely How Wide the Divide. Third, our two non-Mormon scholars, Paul L. Owen and Carl A. Mosser, were invited to contribute to the publication in a review of their own.

As Dan C. Peterson, editor for this edition noted, the publication, offered “a very significant opportunity to begin a new chapter in the often troubled relationship between Latter-day Saints and their conservative Protestant brothers and sisters.”

Professor Peterson provides the introduction and the afterword; Owen and Mosser lend their pen for a good portion of the soft cover publication; Blake Ostler, William Hamblin, and James Siebach (all of them frequent FARMS contributors) also provide reviews. Finally, to further the dialogue, the publication includes articles by David L. Paulsen, R. Dennis Potter, and Roger D. Cook responding to Owen and Mosser’s review. Needless to say, if you’re a fan of what we’ve discussed in this column, you’ll enjoy this exchange.

Peterson notes that the review by Owen and Mosser is “overtly critical” of the doctrines of the church, but unlike previous critiques “it is critical in an informed way and largely fair and serious in its approach.” This theme is recurrent throughout all of the reviews. Owen and Mosser themselves recognize the sea change: “We must admit, with embarrassment, that many Evangelicals have reacted in manners simply unbefitting those who profess the name of Christ. The initial responses [to How Wide the Divide?]. are almost entirely negative.”

Indeed, while How Wide the Divide? has been praised and demonized for its content, it is the concept of the book that has garnered the biggest response. And well it should. As the late Eugene England noted in his review of the book (BYU Studies 38/3), it is the first serious interfaith dialogue “in LDS circles since the B.H. Roberts-C. Van der Donckt debate of 1901.”

No doubt we could go on for ages about the newfound rapport that these discussions have afforded us, but let’s get to the meat of the matter and head into the fray. I should point out at this juncture that this is no a walk in the park. These are heady matters with deeply-rooted positioning and well-articulated points on both sides. While the current exchange has an unprecedented and respectable tone, it is still polemic in nature. In short, you need to have the stomach for this kind of debate.

There is not enough room here to discuss the entire contents of the reviews. Rather, I will focus on one general topic which best illustrates the kind of debate we are talking about, namely: an open or closed canon.

The Open or Closed Canon
In their review, Owen and Mosser take umbrage with the LDS insistence that the scriptures are not closed. All of the parties involved note that this is the oldest point of contention between Mormons and Orthodox Protestants. Similar to our current dialogue, Terry L. Givens has noted in his recent book, By the Hand of Mormon, that the first sparks of conflict were not about what was in the Book of Mormon but rather what it purported to be, additional scripture. I will summarize five points that Owen and Mosser make on this debate of an open or closed canon.

In their first argument, they take a position that Joseph Smith originated, namely, if the Bible is sufficient it should have said so, and turn it on its ear. To wit: if the Bible is not sufficient it should have said so. They compound their complaint by pointing out: “Robinson’s primary argument for the possibility of an open canon seems to rest on an argument from silence.” This is an accurate rebuttal, but as Paulsen and Potter note in their response: “if these were the only arguments to consider then we would seem to be in a stalemate-this fact reminds us why an argument from silence is not a good argument. Fortunately, there is more for us to consider.”

For example, Paulsen, Potter and Peterson all remark in the review that the “burden of proof” lies squarely on the shoulders of Owen, Mosser, and associates. As Peterson retorts: “after all, it [the scriptural cannon] was open for all the centuries of the biblical record. Why would it suddenly-and silently-cease to be open?”

Second, Owen and Mosser speak about additional scripture being unnecessary. The evangelical, according to the authors, believes that “the Bible contains all the truth ‘necessary’ to get a person into the kingdom and keep him or her there.” While this remark seems logical enough, if followed to its conclusion we could, as Peterson notes in the afterword, “justify. jettisoning virtually the entire biblical canon.”

Is the book of Jude necessary for salvation? Is it really essential that we know the number of the beast, or that we have the book of Revelation at all? Surely we could dispense with Ecclesiastes, or Obadiah, or, for that matter, with Leviticus. (Peterson)

However, Peterson’s rebuttal may not hold up if we conclude that “sufficient” does not equal “minimalist” information. Couldn’t Owen and Mosser simply reply: “its in there!” and leave it be.

Paulsen and Potter, buttress this argument by drawing a line between salvation and exaltation. In short, if we distinguish between the two terms we might readily identify that the Bible is sufficient for salvation but insufficient for exaltation. This line of dialogue, as I see it, is still open for discussion.

Another point (number three in my list) that Owen and Mosser provide is that any additional cannon would be “anticlimactic”. The responding authors are a bit puzzled by this phrase. Do they mean, “superfluous”? As Peterson questions: “[why would the] expression of God’s concern for his children. be governed by anybody else’s sense of proper dramatic unfolding or of what might be ‘anticlimactic?’ The Lord is not subject to the rules of Aristotle’s Poetics.” Taking the rhetoric a bit further, does the current struggle of the last 2000 years, including the second coming of Jesus Christ, simply constitute the denouement of a world play? Is our whole life simple an epilogue?

Another argument revolves around the “historicity” of a closed canon. That is, “the further removed a writing is from the context of the first century, the greater the likelihood of discontinuity between it and the original message” (Owen and Mosser) Evangelicals, we are told, “insist on apostolicity.” A witty retort might be that we have apostles, but there are better responses. If we assume that the idea of a closed canon was a post-apostolic formation, we can rightly surmise, as Peterson does, that “the notion of a closed canon now becomes merely a human deduction, a theory or hypothesis, rather than a revealed divine edict.”

A final argument made by the authors points to something called an “advent argument”. Essentially, this is the same old inquiry that most missionaries respond to on a weekly basis, namely: “Doesn’t it say in Revelation that you cannot add to this book?” Of course, the response is that the verses in Revelation do not refer to the Bible but just to John’s book itself. Still, Owen and Mosser bring in the book of Malachi as a model for God appointing a thematic end to the Old Testament. This is point well taken and an interesting twist on the usual diatribe around this argument.

In my high school drama program we had two types of celebrations after a big production. One was a boys vs.girls all out war with shaving cream, water balloons and general mayhem. The other was dubbed “the gentleman’s war”. In essence, you chose an opponent, put on your best suit, placed an old rug underneath your feet and calmly took turns pouring produce, pies, and pastries over each other. An egg in the shirt pocket, a cream-pie down the pants, Ragu Spaghetti Sauce and molasses on the head – and you took it like a man. The advantage of the gentleman’s war over an all out mle was twofold. First, you had a deeper respect for your opponent which encouraged you to bestow only the finest weapons. Secondly, you had less of a chance of losing your two front teeth, which is what happened to someone my senior year and promptly ended the fighting tradition for good.

In the current dialogue we have left the mle in favor of the gentleman’s war. While it can get messy and sticky at times, the general tenor of the battle is wholly improved. (Perhaps a chess game would be a better analogy).

I hope that the plateau we have reached will only lead to higher levels of discussion. Some groups within traditional anti-Mormon organizations have called these recent trends “disturbing.” To this Owen and Mosser respond: “Was it disturbing to those within the countercult movement because the two authors were courteous to one another?” We concur.

Next week’s review: March 2002, Owen, Mosser and company publish a full-length book of their own entitled: The New Mormon Challenge in which they dispense with all previous anti-Mormon literature and forge their own responses to our challenge.

You can purchase many of the articles we discussed on the FARMS website.


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