Richard Mouw and Robert Millet’s new book Talking Doctrine: Mormons and Evangelicals in Conversation (IVP: 2015) is the culmination of two decades of a specific inter-religious dialogue project between evangelicals and Mormons. In 1997, evangelical scholar Craig Blomberg and Mormon BYU professor Stephen Robinson published a landmark book entitled How Wide the Divide which explored, for the first time ever, the critical issues dividing evangelical Christians and Mormons within a relational-dialogical atmosphere. What emerged from this book—or at least was inspired by it—was an intentional conversation between evangelicals and Mormons that has spanned over fifteen years. This most recent book is, in a sense, is a conclusion to that project (though, as the authors suggest, it should best be seen as a beginning for a new generation).
Setting the tone for the conversation is the focus of the first half of the book. Most inter-religious dialogue goes off base when the playing field is not well set at the beginning. If the book is any reflection of what the nature of this dialogue for the past 15 years has looked like, I must say that I am encouraged and it would serve evangelicals well to study the how of dialogue. Several authors of varying theological commitments reflect their opinions on how the conversation has progressed over the past several years and it is nothing but a positive assessment. As a fan of inter-religious dialogue, I could not be more pleased with the tone of the book: respectful, cordial, complementary, etc.
That said, there are varying answers throughout the book on how significant our major differences are. In other words, how important is doctrine to salvation? Traditionally, evangelicals have responded with a hard doctrinal line to that question and Mormons (often, though not always) strive for inclusion as a sect of Christianity along with Catholics and Orthodox Christians. It is important to remember that evangelicals have had a tendency of drawing that line rather sharply. That is changing and in many ways it is a positive thing. But does that line extend to Mormonism? Is Mormonism too different? At what point does difference become heresy?
The authors point out the many points of contact, both relationally and socially, between Mormons and evangelicals (look no further than the evangelical support of the Romney presidential bid). We are, in many ways, very similar groups. I was surprised to see how many quotes of C.S. Lewis, Bonhoffer, and N.T. Wright in the Mormon chapters. There is much, even theologically, that we agree on. And, yet, emphasizing the points of agreement can potentially blur the lines of important differences. Sarah Taylor’s chapter on her time as an evangelical at BYU is a case in point, especially at the point where she concludes—only by the criteria of experience—that her Mormon friend was a Christian (105). That very assessment is a controversial one, but it appears to be more representative of many of the book’s authors in the first half: our differences matter but they don’t matter all that much.
The book takes a bit of a different turn in part two where scholars attempt to dialogue around the subject of the debate, namely the theological differences between evangelicalism and Mormonism. These chapters center on cosmology, soteriology, trinity, and scripture and illustrate the major theological and doctrinal differences between the two groups. Whereas one may feel more prone in the first half of the book to welcoming the Mormons in the bounds of Christianity due to points of agreement, the theological differences really do make one wonder to what extent the object of faith really is wholly different. As Christopher Hall asks, “Is the difference so great that we must finally admit that the God and the Christ we worship are indeed fundamentally different?” (131). Ultimately, the differences outlined here between Mormonism and historical Christianity are massive and appear to answer Hall’s question with a profound “yes.” Though Mormonism can claim a similar experience of the divine (as can anyone in any religion), it cannot claim that its differences merely lay in perception and perspective. Words and definitions matter because at some level they change the subject.
Talking Doctrine is helpful if for no other reason than it does stress the need to have relational dialogue at the center of inter-religious debate. It is also significant because it reflects a project which will likely continue to grow into another generation of scholars and theologians and one that we should be paying more attention to as it develops. Some good questions are asked, though much more could be done with this book from the angle of consistency. Further, the demarcation between experience and doctrine is a false line and though the authors recognized this, I think they still contributed to drawing it. I am looking forward to seeing what a new generation of evangelical-Mormon inter-religious dialogue looks like if for no other reason than to see friendships form across boundaries.