A Review of: Craig L. Blomberg and Stephen E. Robinson, How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997)
When How Wide the Divide? (hereafter HWD?) first came out, it shook the very foundations of Evangelical/Mormon dialogue. Foundations, I might add, that were in desperate need of shaking. In fact, it was first real dialogue between an Evangelical and a Mormon (at least, the first in print). True, not every Evangelical agreed with how Blomberg represented their faith, and not every Mormon agreed with how Robinson represented their faith, a fact that was fully expected by both. In the books conclusion, part of one of the important lessons learned is that “There is considerable diversity among the LDS and bewildering diversity among Christians who attach to themselves the label ‘Evangelical.’”(pg. 192)
Given this diversity, it is probably impossible for any one Evangelical and any one Mormon to accurately represent the whole. Still, though I do not necessarily agree 100% with Robinson, he is well within the “mainstream” of Mormon theology. He is not a “fringe” Mormon, and stays within the bounds of official doctrines. Since I am not an Evangelical, I do not feel qualified to say whether Blomberg in within the Evangelical mainstream. Christians of that persuasion will have to evaluate his comments and decide for themselves.
With this diversity in mind, it is important to recognize that HWD? can ultimately only be considered a measurement of the how wide the division is between one particular Mormon and one particular Evangelical. Like the rocky walls of a canyon are uneven in width, so too is the divide between Mormonism and Evangelical Protestantism. Robinson and Blomberg are perhaps closer than most, though there may be some who are yet closer.
Despite the shortcomings created by diversity, this book represents a commendable effort by both Robinson and Blomberg to communicate and discuss both the similarities and differences of their faiths, and explore just where the dividing lines are, and then to measure them, to see just “how wide the divide” actually is.
It is refreshing to read the words of Evangelical who accepts that Latter-day Saints do accept the Bible as the word of God, and accept the New Testament witness of Jesus Christ. All too often the anti-Mormon (or more generally “anti-cult”) ministries insist that Mormons do not “really” believe in the Bible and the Jesus of the New Testament. Likewise, I have encountered too many Evangelicals who insist that the Bible is 100% contradiction free, while the Book of Mormon (and LDS scripture generally) is rife with contradictions to the Bible. Both extremes are incorrect. Bible has its share inconsistencies, and the Book of Mormon is relatively consistent with the Bible (though not perfectly, especially if one interprets Biblical passages differently than LDS do). Of, the Evangelicals allow for reconciling explanations and interpretations of the Biblical contradictions, but typically do not grant the same privileges to LDS unique scripture, demanding that it must not only conform to everything in the Bible, but everything in the Bible according to their interpretation. Hence, I was happy to see Blomberg humbly admit that the Bible cannot be proven error free, and that though there are purposed solutions for the contradictions, he realizes that “in a small number of cases… the best solutions await future discoveries.” (pg. 35). He then acknowledges that many of the alleged contradictions between the Book of Mormon and the Bible “are likewise similar enough to the alleged contradictions within the Old and New Testaments” and that “An irrefutable contradiction – two affirmations that cannot possibly both be true at the same time – is difficult to demonstrate in many ancient texts.” (pg. 46-47). Blomberg also recognizes the same short comings in arguments based on archeology (pg. 47), also a good change, since it is not uncommon for Evangelicals to insist that the Bible is fully and completely backed up by archeology while the Book of Mormon does not have a shred of evidence (once again, two extremes which are both inaccurate). Similar recognitions on the part of Blomberg are made regarding the Trinity/Godhead issue (pg. 126; 185), and in conceding that LDS Church cannot be honestly considered a “cult” (pg. 193)
Overall, Blomberg was cordial and polite, and willing to hear Robinson out. All at dramatic contrasts from typical Evangelical interactions with Latter-day Saints, at least in my experience. Robinson provides some good insights and rebuttals to both Blomberg, and some typical Evangelical criticisms that were not brought, but that he felt were worth mentioning. I should note here, that I think Robinson has been unfairly criticized for his position on inerrancy. Robinson concedes a stipulated and qualified inerrancy, which ultimately means little more than believe the scriptures were accurate when they were first written down. While not every Mormon would agree with this, I don’t think this is inconsistent with LDS doctrine, neither do I feel it is inconsistent with his other views on scripture, though others feel he is.
While Blomberg is polite and kind, I sense an arrogant, condescending tone to much of what he writes about the Mormons. He always seems to be trying to reassure his Evangelical audience that he is not really thoughtfully considering what this Mormon has to say, he is just being nice and listening with a smile. He seems too often go on the offensive and “attack” the LDS point of view (albeit in a not-so-harsh sort of way) unnecessarily, and on several issues has a kind of “no compromise” attitude, all while Robinson seems to compromise too much. In what seems to be an effort to seem more appeasing to a general Christian audience, Robinson seems unwilling to stand his ground and boldly declare some of the more unique doctrines. That is not to say that Robinson avoids such issues, nor is it to say that he completely folds. He is just not as bold and uncompromising as I thought he should have been. Also, though Robinson did provide some good critiques of many things Blomberg said, I think he let him get away with several statements that are (at best) debatable based on the ancient and scholarly evidence.
I grew ever irritated of how Blomberg speaks approvingly of how he feels Robinson and others are moving LDS views “closer to the truth,” (see for example, pg. 177) as if to say “Mormons are definitely in error and this is really all about correcting them, not trying to better understand them like I’m pretending to do.” In short, I felt that Blomberg was (despite being kind and gracious) still in attack mode, but Robinson had let down all his defenses.
In spite of its many shortcomings (which are in my mind, are inevitable in a book like this), HWD? is a must read for everyone who wishes to be involved in the ongoing dialogue between Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals. It represents an honest effort by two intelligent and well informed men to maturely discuss the issues that divide them theologically. It is unfortunate that thirteen years later, much of the interactions between Evangelicals and Mormons continue to be filled with hostility. Anti-Mormon ministries continue to promote less than accurate caricatures of the LDS Church, and typical stereotyping of Protestants by Mormons aren’t helping either. Still, some have began to listen to each other, and there is much reason to hope for increasingly better relations in the near future. It would not be good for us to spot discussing (and even debating) our differences, but we could all be a little more cordial, respectful, polite, and (most importantly) humble in how we go about it. Blomberg and Robinson have set a positive (though imperfect) example, and I strongly recommend their discussion to both Mormons and Evangelicals who wish to continue the conversation they have started.
Other Reviews of How Wide the Divide:
Eugene England, “How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation,” BYU Studies, Vol. 38:3, pg. 191-201
Carl Mosser and Paul Owen, “How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation,” FARMS Review, Vol. 11:2, pg. 1-102
William J. Hamblin and Daniel C. Peterson, “The Evangelical is Our Brother,” FARMS Review, Vol. 11:2, pg. 178-209
David L. Paulsen and R. Dennis Potter, “How Deep the Chasm? A reply to Owen and Mosser’s Review” FARMS Review, Vol. 11:2, pg. 221-264
Roger D. Cook, "How Deep the Platonism?," FARMS Review, Vol. 11:2, pg. 265-299