Van Dyke and Ericson, eds., “Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics” (reviewed by Harlow Clark)


Title: Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics
Author: Blair G. Van Dyke and Loyd Isao Ericson, editors
Publisher: Greg Kofford Books
Genre: Theology / Philosophy / Apologetics
2017, 279p, $25.95

Reviewed by Harlow Clark for the Association for Mormon Letters

Speak to us in the Syrian language, for we understand it.

In a reader of some kind or other on Existentialism, I read the comment that any movement which could include both a fervent Christian like Soren Kierkegaard and a fervent anti-Christ like Friedrich Nietzsche must be broad indeed.

“Nietzsche wasn’t an anti-Christ,” Dr. Faulconer said.


“Nietzsche wasn’t an anti-Christ. I don’t believe in the same god Nietzsche didn’t believe in,” meaning that for Faulconer Nietzsche’s rejection was of a definition, a concept, not a being, but Nietzsche didn’t have a way of separating the person from the definition. There’s no evidence that he was aware of Kierkegaard, Faulconer told me, but if he had known Kierkegaard perhaps he could have found a definition of God he could have believed in.

That conversation was a great gift to me, allowing me to think about who defines a concept and why, who benefits from the definition, and who doesn’t–and who controls definitions.

Apologetics, the latest in Kofford Books’ Perspectives on Mormon Theology series, is very much concerned with definitions, including the one that says a scholar is someone who follows the research wherever it goes while an apologist has decided beforehand what conclusions they will reach. This isn’t a very satisfying definition, if only because scholars regularly state the conclusion they plan to reach through their research. For example, if my theory about light is correct this eclipse in Egypt will show the planets in slightly different positions relative to each other during the eclipse than they show in the night sky.

Some of the early essays discuss and reject this idea of apologist versus scholar but it keeps coming back with interesting variations throughout the book, particularly in examining the tension between reason and testimony.

Blair G. Van Dyke explores some of the variations and tensions in apologetics, gives a brief overview of Mormon intellectual history and apologetics, and introduces some terms of apologetics in his opening essay, “Critical Foundations of Mormon Apologetics.”

Several essays quote as the foundation of Christian apologetics, “be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you.”

Daniel Peterson, “A Brief Defense of Apologetics,” focuses on the words answer and reason. Apologetics is a reasoned answer to questions and challenges, a reasonable and honorable activity, with an honorable and ancient history which includes Socrates, St. Justin Martyr, Moses Maimonides, Ibn Rushd (see Salman Rushdie’s “Two Years, Eight Months, Twenty-Eight Days”) and many others.

With minds of this caliber and many scholars both ancient and modern engaging in apologetics, Peterson suggests, why would we consider it an unworthy or unscholarly activity?

And indeed Michael R. Ash calls his essay “I Think Therefore I Defend.” Ash’s essay follows Neal Rappleye’s “Boundary Maintenance that Pushes the Boundaries: Scriptural and Theological Insights from Apologetics.” Both essays take up the question of where the boundary line is between apologetics and scholarship, if there is one. And Rappleye uses the same approach Fiona Givens uses later in combining scholarship and apologetics to explore topics like authorial bias in the Book of Mormon, the portrait of the heavenly mother in Nephi’s dream (which Givens expands upon), the Book of Mormon’s picture of temple worship and more.

Ash considers at some length the idea that scholars approach evidence free of assumptions while apologists do not. “Brains are designed to see patterns” (69), which means that much of the work of scholars and apologists involves recognizing and interpreting patterns, with the interpreted patterns often becoming assumptions that guide new interpretation and help us apply what we learn from patterns. He has an interesting section on experiments in pattern recognition, including a supermarket taste test that involves switching between black currant and raspberry jam and seeing whether people would notice the switch.

My wife would. She’s allergic to raspberries. They leave a distinct taste pattern in her mouth (73-74).

But the main reason it doesn’t work to say that scholars follow the evidence wherever it leads is that “different interpretations of the evidence always exist” (79). Interpretation is always a choice, though we may not see the choice until we see someone else’s interpretation. As Ash notes, people weigh evidence differently and what one finds convincing another may not. (Ash mentions John-Charles Duffy’s”Defending the Kingdom, Rethinking the Faith: How Apologetics is Reshaping Mormon Orthodoxy,” Sunstone, May 2004, which would be good for further reading.)

One consequence of people giving different weight to different things is that we may try to compel agreement through coercive or verbally abusive language. (See Robert Nozick’s engaging comment on the language of coercion in his preface to Philosophical Explanations.)

The propensity for coercion is a good reason to build “A Wall Between Church and Academy,” as Benjamin Park says, building on Thomas Jefferson’s famous metaphor. Ash summarizes Jefferson’s intent as:

“Only in the free marketplace of religious belief, where a clear demarcation of duties and obligations is distilled, could religion actually flourish,” Park says of Jefferson’s attempt to protect religion from politics. Park explores how a similar wall between Mormon Studies and Mormon Apologetics as separate disciplines would benefit both.

Park provides for a stile to climb the wall, citing the work of Patrick Q. Mason who, as “Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at the Claremont Graduate University,” writes academic books for the academy and more devotional work for “an explicitly Mormon readership” (89).

Park’s essay also has useful links to essays on the Internet, but what about people who don’t want to climb a stile over the wall, who may not see the benefit of having one style for the academy and another style for non-academic readers? For pages 89-90, the end of the essay, I made the following note: “Park leaves me a little unsatisfied–what about people like me who combine both devotional and scholarly work in one piece, along with lots of wordplay?”

As longtime readers have no doubt divined, I am a thorough-going Marxist, in the spirit of the 1994 Abkhazia postage stamp celebrating Marx and Lennon–that is Groucho and John. I decided a long time ago that if I was going to ask people to read my writing I should make it as engaging as the work I was writing about. If I was going to write writings about the energy scripture generates from energetic repetition of words in different parts of speech, and about how scripture demonstrates a love of equality by using and as the main conjunction rather than but, and about envelope structures that bring the piece back to an earlier point, I ought to use polyptoton and polysyndeton and inclusio in my writing.

And if scripture loves puns, why shouldn’t my writing be pun-ish? Why punish readers with a dry academic style? Granted, the Marx Brothers were often chaotic and self-indulgent, but there’s more in the question of why shouldn’t my writing be Marxist than special pleading for my eccentric style. Consider a paragraph from Cleland Boyd McAfee’s 1911 tricentennial lectures on the King James Version, The Greatest English Classic. After mentioning that the biblical writers’ and translators’ earnestness precluded puns and wordplay, except occasionally, he says:

“One such punning expression occurs in the story of Samson (Judges xv:16), where our version reads: “With the jawbone of an ass, heaps upon heaps, with the jawbone of an ass have I slain a thousand men.” In the Hebrew the words translated “ass” and “heaps” are variants of the same word. It comes near the Hebrew to say: “With the jawbone of an ass, masses upon masses,” and so on. These translators would not risk reproducing such puns for fear of lowering the dignity of their results.” (Lecture III, “The King James Version as English Literature” ).

McAfee is just plain wrong. Puns and playful wordplay abound in the Bible, and we find them in the KJV as well. My favorite is , “They were as fed horses in the morning: every one neighed after his neighbour’s wife.” McAfee’s sense of the “earnestness of the literature” and the earnest intent of the translators precludes him from seeing the puns and wordplay, the translators’ playfulness.

In the same way, maintaining “a wall between church and academy” may mean scholar-apologists can’t fully jump the stile. It may also mean there are people on the wall who don’t want people crossing from one camp into another. Apologetics is set up as a debate, so Ralph C. Hancock’s “Mormon Apologetics and Mormon Studies” replies to Park’s wall metaphor by observing that what the wall really does is relieve secular scholars of the necessity of considering “the problem of ultimate meaning” (95), of taking seriously the very questions scripture and religious history see as basic.

I share a lot of Hancock’s concerns and ought to be sympathetic to his arguments, but he has a barrier that is hard for me to surmount. Reading his essay I recalled that intriguing passage in Isaiah 36 where Rabshakeh demands the surrender of Jerusalem, saying, “the Lord said unto me, Go up against this land, and destroy it,” and Hezekiah’s men reply, “Speak, I pray thee, unto thy servants in the Syrian language; for we understand it: and speak not to us in the Jews’ language, in the ears of the people that are on the wall.”

Rabshakeh, or course, wants the people on the wall to hear and understand his words. He’s come to demoralize them. “Hath my master sent me to thy master and to thee to speak these words? hath he not sent me to the men that sit upon the wall, that they may eat their own dung, and drink their own piss with you?” ().

This exchange is about the danger and power of language, and whether you trust ambassadors to translate your message correctly. Doubtless Hancock would identify with Hezekiah’s men, but he doesn’t want to speak to the secularists in their own language, and misses opportunities to wonder if secular scholars could be other than Rabshakeh come to blaspheme at the gates of the holy city, could be people who would give a fair hearing to Mormon ideas, or could even be allies.

I noted several passages that seem to me trivial objections that miss the opportunity for serious engagement with non-LDS scholars. One example will suffice.

Hancock calls out a comment in Richard L. Bushman’s On the Road with Joseph Smith that “an epistemological gap yawns between my view of the prophet and that of most academics. Believing Mormons stand on the other side of a gulf separating us from most educated people.”

Hancock says he sees the gulf as less wide than Bushman does, perhaps because the political philosophers he deals with aren’t the historical relativists he imagines historians to be, and Bushman “concludes that this gap necessarily cuts off ‘believing Mormons’ from ‘most educated people’–whose assumptions, I gather, it would be impolite to question.”

I don’t see any of that in Bushman’s words. Indeed, I see Rough Stone Rolling (The subject of On the Road with Joseph Smith) as an implicit questioning of the assumptions of the academics on the other side of Bushman’s epistemological gap. Rough Stone Rolling was where I came across the observation that in the Doctrine & Covenants we hear the voice of the Lord, not the voice of Joseph Smith. That is, the rhetorical mode of Joseph’s revelations is that the Lord speaks without apology or apologetics, speaks directly without someone else saying, “thus saith the Lord.” (Bushman considers this at length in “The Little, Narrow Prison of Language: The Rhetoric of Revelation,” Religious Educator 1, no. 1 (2000): 90-104.)

Throughout Rough Stone Rolling Bushman presents Joseph’s revelations without modifiers like reported, purported, supposed, and without killer quotes around the word “revelation.” If Hancock wanted a counterexample to Park’s dictum that “no book can serve two masters” (89), that no book can speak to both secular and religious readers, Rough Stone Rolling is the perfect counterexample. Instead Hancock opts for a cheap shot.

Hancock’s essay is the longest in the book and for me the most difficult to read–emotionally difficult. I kept saying, ‘this is awfully nitpicky,’ and that nitpicking feels like a lack of sympathy for the people he’s taking issue with, which makes it difficult for me to trust that he’s reporting their positions accurately. That doesn’t mean I think Hancock deliberately misrepresents, only that he’s found some convenient strawpeople as foils for his argument. Unfortunate, because I share a lot of his concerns.

Brian T. Birch’s “The Intellectual Cultures of Mormonism: Faith, Reason, and the Apologetic Enterprise” gives some Mormon intellectual history, such as the project to send scholars east for education so they could raise the intellectual level at Mormon schools. A brief account of The Chicago Experiment (122) reminded me of a conversation I had, I think at an AML meeting, with a fellow who was at the U of Chicago. He mentioned that besides Wayne Booth, President Kimball’s son and some others were there. “That must be an interesting ward,” I said. “Oh, they’re all quite inactive.”

And that fear of losing people from the fold is one of the tensions in Mormon intellectual history, one of the dangers of learning the language of the Syrians. Birch acknowledges Hancock’s probing of these dangers (and acknowledges Hancock’s captious style), saying he “raises penetrating and relevant questions that go to the very heart of our discussion” (134). Birch also offers an alternate take on the changes at the Maxwell Institute (formerly FARMS) that Hancock feels are leading “Mormon Studies” (killer quotes Hancock’s) “towards precisely the relativist compassion of the postmodern village ‘love-in’ that Elder Jeffrey R. Holland so eloquently and pointedly derided (yes, derided–points off for tone!) in his April 2014 General Conference address“.

Birch says, “The changes at the Maxwell Institute represent a cautious effort to enter the religious studies arena and to help facilitate conversations across disciplinary and methodological lines” (135). A little dry compared to Hancock, I take it Birch is modeling the caution he talks about, though that word arena does have a hint of combat. I also suspect Birch has an unstated assumption that if we want scholars to engage seriously with the Gospel we need to allow them to speak in a language that is comfortable to them. After all, Acts 2 tells us we each deserve to hear the Gospel in our own tongue, even relativist secular scholars and philosophers who write books about themselves as the Anti-Christ.

Ironically, if Mormons sometimes fear talking to outsiders can be dangerous, outsiders often feel the same way. In Fuller Theological Seminary president Richard Mouw’s account of his friendship with Mormon scholars, Talking to Mormons, he mentions how some of his Evangelical friends felt he was putting his soul in danger. I included some comment on the book in my blog post “The Physical First, Then the Spiritual“. For a story exploring some of the same questions see R. A. Christmas, “Another Angel,” Dialogue.

As I mentioned, several authors cite , “be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you” as the granddaddy of Christian apologetics, concentrating on the words answer, man, and reason.

But the verse can also be the grand mother of apologetics. The whole verse reads, “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear,” and women apologists tend to talk about words like sanctify, hearts, hope, and meekness.

The next three essays talk in part about what happens when these different approaches or emphases meet up on the Internet. Juliann Reynolds, “The Role of Women in Apologetics,” mentions an informal survey she did in Relief Society. “Although all twenty-eight of the women thought of themselves as defenders, only six self-identified as apologists. They either didn’t know what the word meant or didn’t want the label” (140). Reynolds talks about co-founding the FairMormon blog, and profiles the work of some other women on the Internet.

“Avoiding Collateral Damage: Creating a Woman-Friendly Mormon Apologetics” is Julie M. Smith’s project, but it’s not just about making apologetics more woman-friendly. She proposes four standards. The first is Inversion. “Attentive readers have wondered what happened to the man involved in the alleged adultery in the story recounted in John 8.” So begins an engaging discussion of inverting doctrinal pronouncements that usually apply to men to see how men would feel if they were in the place of women. (See also Carol Lynn Pearson’s “Walk in the Pink Moccasins“, and her recently deceased friend Elouise Bell’s “The Meeting“).

Smith’s other standards “On Earth as It Is in Heaven,” “Strict Scrutiny of the Culturally Conforming,” and “Paradox Maintenance,” make for an engaging essay rewarding the time you spend with it.

As mentioned above I came to this book wondering where I fit in. Fiona Givens’ “‘The Perfect Union of Man and Woman’: Reclamation and Collaboration in Joseph Smith’s Theology Making” feels to me like the work of a kindred spirit, and I kept wondering why is this in a book on apologetics–it feels more like scriptural scholarship.

A little background. A few months ago I was listening to the Doctrine & Covenants as I walked to church one morning and the phrase “stewards over the revelations” in section caught my ear. I’ve been reading a few lines of John Whitmer’s handwriting each morning before work this year, working through Revelation Book 1, which the stewards used to prepare the 1833 Book of Commandments, and the phrase “stewards over the revelations” captures a lot of what they were doing as they edited the commandments.

For example, the 49th Commandment, March 10th 1831, reads at one point “it must needs be nessessary that ye save all the money that ye can (& that ye obtain all that ye can)”. Oliver Cowdery added the phrase “in righteousness” within the parentheses. Cowdery probably didn’t want someone reading the published commandment “obtain all that ye can” to see that as exhortation or permission to obtain money by whatever means possible, so he explicated what is implicit in the commandment–that it must be done in righteousness. (D& dispensed with the parentheses.) (“Revelation Book 1,” p. 79, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed October 11, 2017).

Now, what does the previous paragraph represent? Historical scholarship comparing primary sources to later versions? textual criticism? scriptural scholarship? apologetics illustrating that Joseph Smith provided an example of how a living prophet works?

For Givens it would represent “Joseph’s proclivity for collaborative scriptural, theological, and ecclesiastical restoration,” which proclivity included a “readiness to turn what revelations he did receive and record into cooperative editing projects” (172). Having set out the principle, Givens spends the rest of the essay giving examples of how Joseph’s revelations reclaim divine and ecclesiastical collaboration.

If you’ve read that many scholars consider the portrait of Wisdom in Proverbs 8 as a portrait of the Goddess, the Heavenly Mother, Givens’ discussion of the Tree of Life in Lehi’s dream as a symbol of Heavenly Mother. “the love of God,” will resonate well (177-178). If you haven’t read about Wisdom (Sophia) in Proverbs 8, heed Givens’ suggestion that Wisdom should be capitalized in scripture as a divine name–a feminine divine, and see where that takes you as you read passages about seeking Wisdom and loving Wisdom.

The last five essays are cautionary tales of sorts about the dangers of apologetics. David Knowlton’s “Lamanites, Apologetics, and Tensions in Mormon Anthropology” looks at the ways several apologists define the term Lamanite. Knowlton is interested in the anthropology around the term Lamanite, in how the term is used. It’s a bit jargony compared to the other essays, but well worth the read. I’ll just make two comments.

First, Knowlton calls out an unsigned article from FairMormon, “Question: Does the Book of Mormon describe the Lamanites as being “cursed” with a “red skin”?

The answer begins, “Fawn Brodie originated this claim, but does so without attribution or evidence. There is no mention of ‘red skin’ in the Book of Mormon. Other authors who make this claim are clearly parroting Brodie, often without attribution.”

Knowlton observes that this answer doesn’t say where Brodie got the idea, and implies FairMormon wants to attribute the idea of the Lamanite curse as a change in skin color to Brodie rather than to early church leaders so they don’t risk contradicting the words of church leaders.

To be fair, FairMormon is addressing the specific phrase “red skin.” The article is a sub-topic of the main article, “Lamanite Curse.” But a search engine could find this sub-topic without going through the main article, and a person could get the impression they were sidestepping the issue.

Knowlton suggests that FairMormon’s strategy is to show themselves as orthodox, but also to establish themselves as the authoritative interpreters. I suspect their rhetorical approach to teachings of earlier church leaders is more a way of shielding themselves from some charge of preaching false doctrine.

And the scholars writing for FAIR (as it was called then), many from BYU, would have had good reason to want a shield. Knowlton says FAIR “was founded in the fall of 1997” shortly after BYU “was censored [that should be censured] by the American Association of University Professors following an investigation into the firing of Professor Gail Turley as well as other faculty” (I was Gail’s hometeacher a few years earlier, before my mother came downstairs one night and said, “You’re working now and Matthew’s almost two. He doesn’t need four adults telling him what to do. It’s time to buy a house.”)

“I was one of the people fired,” Knowlton says in a footnote (202, n 17). I remember reading an article about the firings at the time, including a pull quote my memory connects with Knowlton to the effect that a scholar can think they’re doing cutting edge research they think reflects well on the Church, and still find themselves in deep trouble. I didn’t find it searching Sunstone’s archive, but did find Knowlton’s essay about the firing, “Once Upon July,” Dialogue.

Loyd Isao Ericson’s “Conceptual Confusion and the Building of Stumbling Blocks of Faith” cautions against building a testimony on apologetic evidence, because if the apologetic is poorly done or turns out later to be wrong, it could become a stumbling block. We have to be careful not to ask more of apologetics than it can tell us. It can’t tell us whether faith claims are true, because their truth can only be known through spiritual means.

I would feel a lot more comfortable with that argument if it didn’t closely mirror a strategy Reza Aslan uses in Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. He says of the Resurrection, for example, that it’s a matter of faith. But he doesn’t mean “It’s a matter of faith, so I have nothing to say about it.” He means something more like, “since matters of faith are beyond human proof believers can’t say anything about them, but unbelievers can,” and he ascribes the legend of the Resurrection to damage control, a big lie to counteract , “he that is hanged is accursed of God.”

Yes, mirror images are reversed, and I’m not suggesting Ericson is an unbeliever, only that secular scholars don’t say, “We have to be careful not to ask more of scholarship than it can tell us.”

Perhaps they should. Joseph M. Spencer’s “Toward a New Vision of Apologetics” reminds us that the concept of an open canon and new revelation doesn’t mean that Latter-day Saints define scripture the same way other traditions do, just with more of it. The idea of an open canon is radically different. “One can no longer attempt to embrace the Book of Mormon without at the same time embracing claims regarding the instability of biblical texts. The canon is not simply open but radically open,” he says (246).

“The instability of biblical texts” would be a good way to describe David Bokovoy’s “Shifting Intellectual and Religious Paradigms: One Apologist’s Journey Into Critical Study.” It occurred to me a long time ago that it can be useful to recognize that our ideas about sacred texts may be different from what the texts actually say, and that it can be useful to allow for that possibility. (For example, when I was growing up it was commonly held that The Book of Mormon takes place across the whole of North and South America, which were uninhabited before Lehi came, except by the Jaredites. But The Book of Mormon doesn’t actually say any of that.)

I’ll leave you to discover Bokovoy’s account of studying the documentary hypothesis at Brandeis University under David Wright (unnamed but alluded to) and others. I look forward to reading his Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis-Deuteronomy.

I won’t say more about Bokovoy’s essay except that The Book of Mormon has given me a paradigm to understand the documentary hypothesis. When my brother Dennis introduced me to Richard Elliot Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? he outlined Friedman’s idea that the Redactor was a post-exilic prophet who took the records of his people and wove them into a narrative. Sound familiar?

When I read the book, Friedman’s description of the Deuteronomist sounds even more familiar, as he sees D as one of the priests of Anathoth who took the Deuteronomic core, added to it, then used it as the start of a record he continues in the next six books, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings.

When Friedman talks about J and E as being rival accounts, one to bolster claims of the Northern Kingdom and the other to bolster claims of the Southern Kingdom, I thought that sounded as if J and E were both writing gospels, and I’ve started looking at the Gospels not as synoptic, but as competing. Recently it occurred to me that when Luke talks about things being delivered to us, he sounds a lot like a steward of the revelations, like Mormon searching through his records.

The final essay, Seth Payne’s “Apologetics as Theological Praxis,” felt very close to what I do. Almost 7 years ago the late and greatly missed Jonathan Langford asked me to write a column for Dawning of a Brighter Day. I’ve been exploring some implications of an open canon and of how scriptures and prophets behave rhetorically. That is, I’m exploring implications of continuing revelation and open canon, but not arguing for them. I’m writing for an audience that accepts both concepts, or is willing to consider both.

This seems fairly close to what Payne’s phrase “pastoral apologetics” describes. I like the concept a lot, but there is a point where Payne loses me, where he says, “It may well be, for example, that God the Father has a body of flesh and bones, but this conception is both illusory and fleeting” (260). I keep wondering why he thinks that conception is an illusion, and if he meant elusive?

Payne says that in our moments of darkness we don’t think about whether God has a body–we just want the experience of divine love. Except that in one moment of overwhelming darkness, the deliverer from that darkness was an embodied being, who instructed the almost-destroyed youth to hear another embodied being.

Let me put it another way. Suppose you are a philosopher who loves Jesus but you can’t reconcile the idea of a God who is entirely other than humans with your being human. If God is entirely other how do we have access? An inaccessible god is a dead god, and you say so, and call yourself anti-Christ and your slogan gains a vast following. You die and another philosopher meets you and has a long discussion about “the difference between a genius and an apostle,” takes you through the history of theology, showing how theologians were geniuses who gave ingenious answers to vexing questions, then asks you if you’d like to meet an apostle, a seer, a translator. You accept, and accept what the apostle tells you, but a hundred years later people are still reading your books long after you’ve abandoned your unbelief because you have no more need of it.

Divine love can come in ideas as well as other forms, and that’s partly what the phrase “pastoral apologetics” means to me. So here’s a book of ideas. I hope you find it nurturing and stimulating, worth thinking and writing and talking about.

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