Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Gerald McDermott Interview on Evangelical-Mormon Dialogue

Gerald McDermott is professor of religion at Roanoke in Salem, VA. He is the author of a number of books, and many of them present a refreshing perspective on a theology of the religions. These include Can Evangelicals Learn from World Religions? (InterVarsity Press, 2000), and the new volume God's Rivals: Why Has God Allowed Different Religions - Insights From the Bible and the Early Church (InterVarsity Press, 2007). Gerry has also been involved in interreligious dialogue in the form of Mormon dialogue with Robert Millet of Brigham Young University. In October a new book will be released that presents their dialogue, Claiming Christ: A Mormon-Evangelical Debate (Brazos Press, 2007). We have had the privilege of interviewing Gerry before on the topic of religious pluralism in connection with his book God's Rivals, and this time we will focus on his perspective on Evangelical-Mormon dialogue.

Morehead's Musings: Gerry, thanks for coming back a second time to share some thoughts related to your scholarship and activities. I enjoyed our previous discussion related to a theology of religions, one of the key issues for Western evangelicals in light of religious pluralism, but this time I'd like us to focus on Evangelical-Mormon dialogue. This is a timely topic in light of the National Student Dialogue Conference hosted by Standing Together and Salt Lake Theological Seminary this October, and in light of some of the criticism that has been raised by one segment of the Evangelical community over some forms of this dialogue process. To begin, how did you get interested and involved with dialogue with Mormonism, and how did you come to develop a relationship with Bob Millet?

Gerald McDermott: About five years ago I was invited by Fuller Seminary President Richard Mouw to a small meeting of Evangelical and Mormon scholars, for the purpose of learning more about each other. I remember being impressed by the erudition and piety of the Mormon scholars I met. Robert Millet, whom I now consider a close friend, was particularly articulate and open. He, Grant Underwood, and other Mormons at the conference showed what to me was remarkable familiarity with Evangelical theology and history, not to mention central principles of historic Christian theology.

I invited Bob Millet to come to Roanoke College the following fall and debate me in public at the college chapel. Our subject was “Mormon and Mainstream Christian Similarities and Differences.” We spoke before a packed house. Most of the traditional Christians and Mormons in attendance, who were in roughly equal numbers, said they enjoyed and profited from the exchange. In the fall of 2005 we had another debate at Roanoke College, but this time focused on the person of Jesus. We used Bob’s landmark 2005 book from Eerdmans as our focal point: A Different Jesus? The Christ of the Latter-Day Saints. Bob argued that the LDS view of Jesus was not essentially different from that of traditional Christianity. I contended that it was.

Because we received such a good response from these debates, we thought we might try to do something similar, but more extensive, in print. Thus this book. We wanted to try to model what has been in short supply in the 175+ years since Joseph Smith’s first vision--love and respect in the midst of serious theological differences.

Morehead's Musings: Some of the criticism that has been raised by Evangelicals about this dialogue is that Bob Millet is allegedly being dishonest about his beliefs, and that he is using evangelicals to further the public relations posture of the LDS Church. Let's address this criticism directly. You have a relationship with Bob and have known him for some time. How would you respond to this criticism?

Gerald McDermott: I have seen some of this criticism, and some of Bob’s response to it. Bob has shown that the supposed “dishonesty” comes from differences of context—saying some things for one audience, and other things for another audience that is in a very different situation. You could say the same things about both Jesus and Paul on such things as whether the law is still applicable, or whether salvation is by grace or by works. Depending on the audience and its needs, they emphasize different things. And those different things are fully compatible—tho not to a casual or hostile observer. We do the same many times when we say, for instance, that God is both love and holy vengeance, and (for the Reformed among us) that on the one hand we are free, while on the other hand God is in control of even our choices.

Now I also know that in our book Bob does not retreat from any of the “hard sayings” of Joseph Smith and the LDS Church. He tries to explain their context and help non-Mormons understand why he believes them, but he does not back away from peculiarly-Mormon doctrines which I and all orthodox Christians clearly oppose. We clearly disagree in every chapter. And Bob is, I should say, “honest” about his clear departures from historic orthodoxy. If the charge is that he is trying to boost Mormon PR by camouflaging doctrines that are offensive to Evangelicals, his chapters contain plenty of “offense” for Evangelicals and other orthodox.

Morehead's Musings: In your forthcoming book co-authored with Bob you focused on Christology. This is obviously an area of belief central to Christianity, but are there any other reasons why you focused a volume on this topic?

Gerald McDermott: As I shared above, this book stems from a debate Bob and I staged at Roanoke College following the publication of his book on Jesus. He claimed there that the Mormon Jesus is the same as the orthodox Jesus, and I disagreed. Then we decided to expand the debate into this book.

Both of us believe Jesus is the heart of all Christian faith. The faith rises or falls on its view of Jesus. Without Jesus there is no Christian faith. Hence the absolute importance of getting Jesus right, and the centrality of Jesus for all discussions between Mormons and Evangelicals.

Morehead's Musings: I had the opportunity to see an early draft of the book as it was developing, and I thank you for that. What can readers look forward to as your book hits the shelves in October?

Gerald McDermott: They will find discussion of most or all the major issues separating Evangelicals and orthodox from Mormons, such as whether the Book of Mormon and other Mormon scriptures are new revelation, whether the Mormon Jesus is different from the Jesus of orthodoxy, and contested discussions of: the Trinity, the fall and atonement, church and sacraments, the relation between grace and works in salvation, baptisms for the dead, second chances after death, and whether nearly all are saved.

Morehead's Musings: Were there any things that surprised you about your exchanges with Bob during the course of the writing of this book?

Gerald McDermott: From both Bob’s books and our conversations I have learned that Bob and others have been bringing a new emphasis on grace to the LDS community. It has not reached the point where we now agree on all dimensions of grace, and I don’t know to what degree Bob’s thinking about grace has permeated the LDS community. But I have been surprised to hear and see what Bob has said and written as a leader in that community. I also discovered that there was more emphasis on grace in the Book of Mormon and other parts of the LDS canon than I had imagined and that Mormons worship Jesus as a God. Now there are also passages in the Book of Mormon that suggest works righteousness, and I don’t know how the overall picture of salvation is presented at the local level. But I was pleasantly surprised by a number of passages in this book that do teach grace forthrightly. I must add, however, that while Mormons worship Jesus as fully God, they also believe Jesus grew into being God—a notion that implicitly rejects the orthodox doctrine of eternal pre-existence of the second person of the Trinity.

Another surprise was the Trinitarian language—without using the word “Trinity”—I found in the Book of Mormon, particularly after reading explicitly anti-Trinitarian messages by Joseph Smith later in his career. I conclude in my part of our book that Smith changed his mind mid-stream, after the completion of the Book of Mormon, and preached a new theology quite foreign to his earlier one, and that the LDS community seems to have followed this later Smith rather than the earlier one.

So there were these surprising discoveries, but of course there are still significant problems in Mormon theology for Evangelicals. As I tried to show in the book, these doctrinal differences separate not only Evangelicals from Mormons, but Mormons from the general stream of orthodox Christianity.

Morehead's Musings: As you know, some forms of Evangelical-Mormon dialogue have been controversial, and even deemed inappropriate by some evangelicals, such as the dialogue between Greg Johnson and Bob Millet. Some of the criticism has been very harsh, not only on the substance of the debate, but also in personal criticisms directed at both participants. Do you have any comments about their specific dialogue?

Gerald McDermott: From my knowledge of Greg and Bob’s dialogue—and I have not read all of it—it is appropriate and helpful. They put on the table the deep divide between the two communities, but do so in a cordial and friendly way. They do not minimize historic differences—and it is important that they not do so—but without the personal rancor and explicit demonization that is common in some circles.

I think there is a tendency among some to regard with suspicion any Evangelical or orthodox Christian who engages in friendly dialogue with religious people outside those communities. This is wrong, and quite ill-suited to disciples of Jesus. Paul, for example, who was the premier evangelist and missionary of the New Testament, told the pagans in Athens (Acts 17) that their own poets had truth, and they had some connection—even if remote—to God. In other words, the Athenian pagans, while mired in religious ignorance, were nevertheless groping for the same God whom Paul knew to be the Father of Jesus Christ. He tells them, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (17:23). That is, their ideas about God were nearly all wrong, but the object of their misguided worship was still the same God who had revealed himself to Paul as the true and living God.

Paul quoted some of their own poets:

For “in him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we too are his offspring.” (17:28)

Paul was probably quoting Epimenides (6th cent. BC) and Aratus (4th cent. BC). The astonishing thing here is that Paul, who apparently believed that Greek religion was abysmally ignorant of the true God, still conceded—in a sermon highlighting Greek religious ignorance!—that the religions had some access to some true notions of the living God.

My point is not that Mormons are pagans. They are not, since at least Bob and Mormons like him use the Bible and speak of Jesus and redemption through Him—even if their view of Jesus is significantly different from the orthodox view of Jesus. But Paul treated these pagans with respect, and seems to have enjoyed their respect and friendship as well (Ac 19.31). He was careful to acknowledge truth where he saw it, even in a very foreign religion. Some of Bob and Greg’s critics seem to regard any such friendship and acknowledgement of truth as prima facie signs of heresy. And I wonder how much they think of Paul’s admonition to “speak the truth in love” (Eph 4.15) in their relationships with Mormons.

Morehead's Musings: As I have researched the broader issues of interreligious dialogue, and then apply these reflections to Evangelical-Mormon dialogue, it appears as if many Evangelicals are more comfortable with debate between representatives of these faiths, but not dialogue. This may be the case for some in the LDS community as well. What types of adjustments do Evangelicals need to make in terms of theology and lifestyle to more fully prepare themselves for dialogue as a form of engagement between representatives of differing religious communities in the 21st century?

Gerald McDermott: Well, as I have already suggested, we need to think more deeply about what Paul means by “speaking the truth in love.” We also need to reflect on the fact that some of the pagan “Asiarchs” in Ephesus were such friends of Paul as to intervene to save him in a hostile environment. Can we imagine what kind of patient and friendly and respectful dialogue Paul had engaged in with them? We can be certain that Paul would have talked with them about their religion, but also that they would not have been his “friends” (Ac 19.31) or risked their own skins to help him if he had treated them with anything less than respect.

The implication for theology is to remember that those who disagree with us also have the law of God written on their hearts (Rom 2.15), and that some may be “not far from the Kingdom of God” (Mark 13.34). Jesus obviously felt the scribe in the latter passage was still mistaken, but He did not demonize him. Rather than denouncing him, He commended him, and implicitly invited him to further fellowship and conversation—which some might call dialogue.

Does our lifestyle permit that kind of exchange?

Morehead's Musings: Gerry, thanks again for sharing your thoughts with us about this important topic.


Anonymous said...

And I take from the post, you can hardly separate the loving debate for truth from Christ-honoring dialogue.

Right, John?

John W. Morehead said...

Mr. Wood, thanks for leaving your comment. I'm not quite sure what you arguing for in your comment, but the intent of my initial post was to highlight Gerald McDermott's dialogue with Bob Millet, and to bring a fresh assessment of the Evangelical-Mormon dialogue taking place between Bob and Greg Johnson. In my view much of the critique has not been fair or balanced, and while "Christ-honoring dialogue" can include some forms of debate, I'm not sure this is what those in the counter-cult community (or those drawing upon their presuppositions) are looking for in the dialogues, and it certainly does not come across in their criticism.

Anonymous said...

John, you can call me Todd.

Sometimes, I just get the impression from reading your articles, that you believe debate is inappropriate or unacceptable for civil dialogue and effective Christian testimony.

I am just impressed that Gerald uses such terms as "debate" and "contend" in his loving discourse. It makes me now more favorable in purchasing the book.

John W. Morehead said...

Hello, Todd. Thanks for your further comments and clarification.

I hope I can correct your misunderstanding of my views. I do not believe that debate is necessarily inappropriate as a particular format for discussion, nor as an element of interreligious dialogue. However, in my view many evangelicals critical of some forms of Evangelical-Mormon dialogue confuse debate with interreligious dialogue or seem more comfortable with a debate style in an interreligious dialogue context. While I think "Dialogue" would have better suited the subtitle of the McDermott-Millet book than "Debate" (and I think that what they do is rightly understood as dialogue rather than as debate and that this was more of a marketing strategy by the publisher), I recognize that contending and debating are valid parts of this book and can be valid parts of the dialogue process. What I object to is the contentious nature of counter-cult type approaches to Mormonism and how this translates to what they expect or think is appropriate in dialogue with Mormons.

We need to engage a broader range of disciplines and perspectives, such as missiology, ecumenical dialogue, and Christian dialogue with world religions, in order to expand narrow Evangelical understandings and expectations of what is taking place in Evangelical-Mormon dialogue.

I hope this helps clarify my views.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to both John and Professor McDermott for a very interesting interview. The event at Roanoke in Sep 2005 was called a "public conversation" and that is exactly my impression of what it was-clearly not a debate in the traditional sense of the word. While McDermott spoke first, followed by Millet, followed by a response, I would not characterize it as a "rebuttal" in any way. Rather, it was a civil dialogue, where each sought to clarify their understanding. I'm very glad to see Mormon-Evangelical relations move more into a dialogue paradigm. I also appreciate McDermott biblically defending interfaith dialogue.

Anonymous said...

I picked up "Claiming Christ on Amazon. It sounded interesting. I was pleasantly suprised by the book and it's message. I am LDS and listen daily to Christian radio and hear, at least once, twice a day how the Mormon's are a cult. That shocked me at first but everyone is entitled to their opinion. I love the effort put forth by G. McDermott to learn of Mormonism without degrading us. To me, that is what being Christian is. We are encouraged to learn all we can in all things including teachings of other religions. I love what I have learned. I know that we are all striving to do our best and help people in need so they too can be safe and at peace. I plan on writing to Gerald to thank him for his book. thank you for your time.