Part One in a four-part series on Mormon Apologetics, from the Christian Research Journal, fall 1988, page 22. The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is Elliot Miller.
The term "apologetics" is usually used by evangelicals solely of the defense of the orthodox Christian faith -- giving people reasons for believing the message of the Bible. In a more general sense, however, the word can be used to speak of a defense of any system of beliefs. By "Mormon apologetics," then, I mean the attempt on the part of Mormons to defend their faith, to show that Mormonism is true.
In this four-part series on Mormon apologetics, I will be examining current approaches used by Mormons to defend Mormonism. The second, third, and fourth parts will focus on Mormon arguments defending Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and Mormon doctrine, in that order. In this first article we will look at two basic issues in Mormon apologetics. Do all Mormons approach apologetics in the same way? And what are some of the most common strategies Mormons use to defend their faith?
Defending their faith poses a serious challenge to the Mormons, for one simple reason: Mormonism is notoriously inconsistent, both internally (i.e., Mormonism contradicts itself) and externally (i.e., Mormonism is in conflict with the Bible and historical facts). In a nutshell, it is the task of Mormon apologetics to overcome objections to Mormonism that are based on these inconsistencies.
Today's Mormons do not all respond to this challenge in the same way. Those who are considered "traditional Mormons" insist that all such inconsistencies are only apparent. Some will go to great lengths, for example, to show that Mormon doctrine does not really contradict the Bible or the Book of Mormon.
There is a growing number of Mormons, however, who frankly acknowledge such inconsistencies. These Mormons may be divided roughly into two overlapping groups. The first group resolves the tension by opting for a theology which, while still adhering to the teachings of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, emphasizes the sinfulness of man and the transcendence of God in a way that resembles the teachings of the Bible and the Book of Mormon more than that of traditional Mormonism. One writer has described this movement as "Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy."
The second group addresses the problem of inconsistencies in Mormonism by taking a "liberal" approach to Mormon theology. In Protestant theology liberalism denies the literal historical truth of the events recorded in the Bible and treats the biblical teaching about God and the supernatural as myth -- beautiful, poetic symbols of the human experience rather than actual communication from God. "Liberal" Mormons tend to take a similar approach to the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith's "first vision," the Mormon teaching that God was once a man and men can become Gods, and so forth.
Most Mormons hold to the "traditional" Mormonism taught by the church's hierarchy. Moreover, arguments used by nontraditional Mormons to defend their faith are often the same as those used by traditional Mormons. In this article, therefore, I will concentrate on traditional Mormon apologetics.
Among traditional Mormons the inconsistencies in Mormonism are handled in a variety of ways. At one extreme they are sidestepped altogether by an appeal to a nonrational, inner certainty which they claim overrides any objections based on historical or logical considerations. At the other extreme the problems are sometimes met head-on, with intricate rational arguments (i.e., arguments which involve logical thinking, whether or not they are valid) and appeals to publicly available evidence to show that the inconsistencies are only imaginary or apparent. In the remainder of this article I will discuss some representative examples of these varying strategies.
The Mormon Testimony
Mormons often "bear their testimony" whenever challenged as to the truth of Mormonism. These testimonies always follow the same format and usually the same words: the Mormon testifies that he "knows" that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that Joseph Smith is a prophet of God, that the Book of Mormon is the word of God, and that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the true church of God. The basis for this confident testimony is also always the same: a passage in the Book of Mormon (Moroni 10:4-5) which says that anyone who asks God "if these things are not true" with sincerity and faith in Christ will be shown that they are true "by the power of the Holy Ghost." Mormons often argue that only those who have read the Book of Mormon and prayed for revelation of its truth are qualified to pass judgment on its truth -- regardless of the evidence against it. Mormons also often cite the command to seek wisdom in James 1:5 in support of the practice of praying for a revelation of the truth of Mormonism.
There are a number of effective responses to the testimony. One may rightly point out that there is no need to pray about things which are already clear from the Bible. For instance, there is no need to pray about Mary Baker Eddy's Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, the textbook of Christian Science, since it flatly contradicts the Bible. Any revelation, even one producing an inner feeling of assurance, must be rejected if it contradicts the Bible.
Christians may also point out that James 1:5 is speaking of believers asking God for wisdom to overcome temptation (read 1:2-18), not of unbelievers asking for revelation to know what is Scripture or what is the true church.
One may further give to the Mormon his or her own testimony of the truth of the Bible and of historic orthodox Christianity. After all, if subjective "testimonies" were sufficient proof, the Christian would be in as good a position as the Mormon. Thus, one person's experience can cancel out the other's, leaving only the objective evidence to discuss.
Perhaps one of the best approaches is that recommended by Wally Tope: Testify to one's assurance of eternal life in God's presence, referring to the promises of God in the Bible (for example, John 5:24; Romans 8:1, 38-39; 1 John 5:11-13). This approach brings together the objective testimony of Scripture and the subjective testimony of the Christian's experience. What makes this response particularly pointed is that the Mormon has no such assurance. Mormons believe that nearly everyone will live forever through an unconditional salvation, but most separated from God in a lower "heaven" and never attaining spiritual perfection. In contrast, Christians can proclaim with certainty that all who truly repent and trust in the Christ of the Bible will live forever with God in perfect glory. (For more on how to respond to the Mormon testimony, see the "Witnessing Tips" column in the Fall 1987 issue of the JOURNAL.)
Pointing to Parallels
Mormonism is radically different from biblical Christianity, as well as from any professed Christian movement, orthodox or heretical, that has appeared throughout church history. Yet Mormons wish to be accepted as Christians. This fundamental problem is the reason for what is perhaps the most common apologetic strategy used by Mormons: pointing to alleged parallels to vindicate Mormonism's claim to be Christian. These parallels may be between the Bible and the Book of Mormon, or between the Book of Mormon and other ancient Jewish or Christian literature, or between Mormon teachings and the teachings of any of a hundred orthodox or heretical sects or individuals in Christian history. The arguments employing these parallels take two forms, the first positive and the second negative.
1) "You say (or, Christian So-and-So has said) that to be a Christian one must believe A, B, and C. Well, Mormons believe in these things. We have confessed our faith in A, B, and C in these places...."
For example, Mormons will frequently note that faith in Jesus Christ is regarded as essential to true Christianity (perhaps quoting some recognized evangelical authority to that effect), and then say, "Why, we believe in Jesus Christ. We even use the name 'Jesus Christ' in the name of our church. Therefore, we should be accepted as Christian."
2) "You say that Mormonism cannot be Christian because it teaches or practices X, Y, and Z. Well, X, Y, and Z are found in [the Bible, or the writings of some past Christian theologian, or in some heretical sect in church history]. Therefore, our accepting X, Y, and Z is no basis for rejecting us as Christians."
For example, Mormonism is frequently criticized for teaching that men can become Gods. In response, Mormons refer to Bible passages allegedly supporting this belief, as well as to those theologians and church traditions throughout history which have also spoken of men becoming gods.
In the following three parts of this series of articles several instances of these arguments based on parallels will be examined. Here two general observations are in order. First, use of similar or even identical words does not prove similar beliefs or practices. Just because someone uses the words "Jesus Christ" does not mean they believe in the person revealed with that name in the Bible. The fact is that Mormons do not believe in the Jesus Christ of the Bible. Furthermore, the use of words like "men becoming gods" by Christian theologians is not truly parallel to the Mormon doctrine of eternal progression, as I have argued elsewhere at length.
Second, the source of the "Christian parallel" must be considered before it is accepted as representative of the Christian faith. For example, Mormon apologetic literature abounds with "parallels" between Mormonism and the teachings of the Gnostics in the second and third centuries. It may be that in some cases the Gnostics had roughly the same idea in mind as the Mormons (although quite often they did not). But such parallels hardly help the Mormon cause. One must first prove that the Gnostics were more faithful to the teachings of Jesus and the apostles than were their opponents; but in order to do that, one must either show that the Gnostics were consistent with the New Testament (which is a hopeless cause), or argue that the New Testament is not apostolic and is in fact a departure from the teachings of the first Christians. Amazing though this will be to most Christians, many Mormons today are adopting the latter strategy. Of course, to do so is to undermine Mormonism itself, since it teaches the inspiration of the New Testament, and since large sections of the Book of Mormon are nearly identical to the New Testament (as well as to the Book of Isaiah) in the King James Version.
It is interesting to note that sometimes Christian apologists have pointed out parallels between Mormonism and some admittedly non-Christian religious system (say, Hinduism or the New Age movement). In response to these arguments some Mormon scholars have noted that such "parallels" can easily be abused and may mean little; and in some cases, I would have to agree. The reverse is also true, though -- the alleged parallels seized upon by Mormons (often these same scholars!) in defense of Mormonism can easily be abused and often mean very little.
Bringing Down the Bible
Consistent with the strategy of attacking the New Testament in favor of the Gnostic writings, many Mormons attack the Bible, trying to bring it down to the level of Mormonism and the Book of Mormon. This strategy is most often used in defending Mormonism from the charge of internal contradictions. "You say the Book of Mormon has contradictions? Well, so does the Bible," runs the argument.
Ironically, the "contradictions" to which Mormons point in the Bible are generally the same alleged contradictions used by atheists and skeptics to justify their rejection of the Bible. For example, the contradictions in the various accounts of Joseph Smith's "first vision" are compared with the alleged contradictions in the Resurrection accounts in the four Gospels or the different accounts of Paul's conversion in the book of Acts. However, whereas atheists and skeptics forthrightly reject the Bible, Mormons do not. Indeed, it is often difficult to tell whether the Mormon writers who use this strategy actually believe that the Bible is contradictory (and therefore that Mormon writings are too?), or whether they are claiming that neither the Book of Mormon nor the Bible is contradictory, though both seem to be.
Whenever this strategy is encountered in a witnessing situation, therefore, the best first step is probably to ask whether the Mormon believes these "contradictions" to be real or only apparent. Does he think the Bible ever really contradicts itself? How about the Book of Mormon? If the Mormon answers "yes" to both questions, the appropriate response is to discuss whether God's word can contradict itself. If he answers "yes" to the first question but "no" to the second, then the Christian may point out both that the Mormon cannot claim to believe the Bible and attribute error to it, and that the specific alleged contradiction is actually no contradiction at all.
A Question of Motive
There are a number of other apologetic tactics which could be examined here: pointing out the "fruits" of Mormonism; denying that Mormonism has ever taught the controversial doctrines in question; and, on a positive note, occasionally refuting a faulty argument against Mormonism or exposing inaccuracies in the literature critical of Mormonism. However, space permits analysis of just one more apologetic strategy, and it is extremely common.
In nearly all of the Mormon apologetic literature which specifically addresses the criticisms of Christian apologists, at some point the motives of the writers are called into question. This may go no further than the continual use of the expression "anti-Mormon." When Mormons flesh out what they mean by this term, they usually indicate that they have especially in mind those who devote their energies full-time to opposing the Mormon church. The term is also used, though, of any and all persons who publicly deny that Mormons are Christians.
Mormon apologetic literature frequently charges that "anti-Mormons" are disgruntled ex-Mormons, profit-seekers, narrow-minded bigots who think only their version of Christianity is acceptable to God, and clergy who resent the competition of the fast-growing Mormon church. As a whole this characterization of "anti-Mormons" is a gross caricature of reality. Many of those devoted to ministering to Mormons have never themselves been Mormons. Most of these persons make great financial sacrifices to keep their ministries afloat. Most accept a broad range of evangelical denominations of differing traditions as Christian, though they do deny the validity of liberal and apostate traditions which deny such basic doctrines as the deity of Christ and His bodily resurrection. And by far most "anti-Mormons" are not clergymen or pastors, though a few, such as Walter Martin, are ordained.
This is not to say that such accusations have never been accurate in the case of certain individuals. The church has always had to deal with persons who pursued ministry for the wrong reasons even while they were preaching the truth (Phil. 1:15-18). And that is the crucial point. Even if all of these criticisms of "anti-Mormons" were true of every person involved (and they are not), that would not vindicate Mormonism (though it would be a sorry indictment on the Christian ministry). Mormonism does not stand or fall on the integrity of Walter Martin, Jerald and Sandra Tanner, or Ed Decker; it stands or falls on the integrity of Joseph Smith.
In the next installment of this series, therefore, the recent efforts of Mormon apologists to defend the integrity of their founder, Joseph Smith, will be examined. As in the rest of the series, the focus will be on assessing the Mormon use of sometimes very sophisticated scholarship to defend the religion of the Saints.
1 O. Kendall White, Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy: A Crisis Theology
(Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987).
2 Liberal Mormon scholarship is best seen in the pages of Sunstone and Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, both of which also feature articles from "neo-orthodox" and "conservative" Mormon perspectives.
3 Wally Tope, On the Frontlines Witnessing to Mormons: Practical Help for Difficult Work (La Canada-Flintridge, CA: Frontline Ministries, 1980), 11.
4 Robert M. Bowman, Jr., "Ye Are Gods? Orthodox and Heretical Views on the Deification of Man," CHRISTIAN RESEARCH JOURNAL 9 (Winter/Spring 1987).
5 E.g., Eugene Seaich, Ancient Texts and Mormonism (Murray, UT: Sounds of Zion, 1983).
6 E.g., Milton V. Backman, Jr., "Joseph Smith's Recitals of the First Vision," The Ensign, Jan. 1985, 8-17 (esp. 8-10).
End of document, CRJ0027A.TXT (original CRI file name),
"How Mormons Are Defending Their Faith"
release A, February 7, 1994
R. Poll, CRI
A special note of thanks to Bob and Pat Hunter for their help in the preparation of this ASCII file for BBS circulation.
Copyright 1994 by the Christian Research Institute.
If you desire to reproduce less than 500 words of this data file
for resale or the enhancement of any other product for resale,
please give the following source credit: Copyright 1994 by the
Christian Research Institute, P.O. Box 7000, Rancho Santa
Margarita, CA 92688-7000.
This data file is the sole property of the Christian Research Institute. It may not be altered or edited in any way. It may be reproduced only in its entirety for circulation as "freeware," without charge. All reproductions of this data file must contain the copyright notice (i.e., "Copyright 1994 by the Christian Research Institute"). This data file may not be used without the permission of the Christian Research Institute for resale or the enhancement of any other product sold. This includes all of its content with the exception of a few brief quotations not to exceed more than 500 words.
If you desire to reproduce less than 500 words of this data file for resale or the enhancement of any other product for resale, please give the following source credit: Copyright 1994 by the Christian Research Institute, P.O. Box 7000, Rancho Santa Margarita, CA 92688-7000.
P.O. Box 7000
Rancho Santa Margarita
Visit CRI International Official Web Site: