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“How Mormons Are Defending Their Faith,” Part One in a four-part
series on Mormon Apologetics (an article from the Christian
Research Journal, Fall 1988, page 22) by Robert M. Bowman, Jr.
The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is
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
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
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.)
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