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PROBLEMS WITH HOW RICHARD ABANES ADDRESSES THE CHRISTIAN QUESTION


A few months ago, I checked out the book One Nation Under Gods – A History of the Mormon Church (New York City, NY: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003) by Richard Abanes from the UVU library. The title itself gives it away as an anti-Mormon publication. Add that to the fact that on the back are raving reviews from professional anti-Mormons Sandra Tanner (who also wrote the foreword to the book), and Hank Hanegraaff, heir the great anti-cultist Walter Martin at Christian Research Institute. No doubt, in an effort to seem more objective, Tanner is identified as the “great-great-grandchild of Brigham Young.” That ought to really impress people.

Anyway, my purpose in picking it up was to study his chapter titled “Is Mormonism Christian?” So, to be clear, I have not read most of the book. Though I casually read through other parts, my main focus has been on that one chapter. However, if this one chapter is at all reflective of the rest of the work (and I suspect it is), then my verdict is that this is an extremely biased and unreliable book.

Here, I do not necessarily intend to refute the arguments that Abanes makes (though that may happen to some degree as a by-product of my comments), but only to point out problems I noticed with his arguments and research. 


Misrepresentation of Scholars Opinion

After a brief introduction to the chapter, Abanes kicks things off by calling expert witness Jan Shipps to stand and testify against the Mormons. “According to Mormonism expert Jan Shipps – emeritus history professor at Indiana-Purdue University – Latter-day Saints may at best be able to trace their roots to Christianity, but after that must be considered members of a new religion.” (pg. 376) Abanes source it the online transcript of PBS’s “Faith in Transition: Road to Salvation” reported by Richard Ostling. Abanes essentially just rephrases Ostling, who says, “Historian Jan Shipps says the church has Christian roots but is a new religion.” Problem is, both Ostling and Abanes are putting words in Shipps mouth.

Her own comment on the transcript stops short of actually saying that Mormonism is a different religion from Christianity. “In the early years the Christians thought they had found the best way to be Jewish, and 300 years later, they realized they were not Jews. The Mormons started out thinking they had found the very best way to be Christians; that they are the restoration; they are the restored church; they are the restored priesthood.”

Whether she continued from there to say that Mormonism is a new religion or not (and it just got edited out), we don’t know, but I would assume that if she actually said what Ostling said she said, it would have been included. It could be argued that it is implicit in the comparison to Christians starting out thinking they were Jews only to later realize they were not, and I don’t dispute that Shipps does regard Mormons as new religious tradition – but does that mean that she does not regard them as Christians? Shipps answers the same question Abanes is asking in her own article, “Is Mormonism Christian? Reflections on a Complicated Question” (BYU Studies 33:3 [1993], pg 438-465). In that article, Shipps answers quit differently than Abanes, “My point is that both [LDS and RLDS] are forms of Christianity, yet both differed from the Christianities that existed in 1830 – and they still do.” (BYU Studies 33:3, pg. 443)[1]

So, apparently, Abanes' “Mormonism expert” does not agree with his own conclusions, and Abanes has misrepresented her position. Shipps' BYU Studies article was published ten years before Abanes' book, and is accessible online. Abanes either knew about it and choose to ignore it, or he didn’t know about, which reflects poor research on his part. Neither of which is a very flattering circumstance for Abanes.

Contradicting Himself

The next problem comes when Abanes says, “What they [LDS] do not wish to publicly recognize, however, is that the ‘Christ’ in which they believe is not the ‘Christ’ of Christianity.” (pg. 386) going on to say, “Contemporary Mormons, however, refuse to acknowledge what past LDS prophets and presidents proudly admitted: i.e., the LDS concept of Jesus is vastly different than the concept of Jesus accepted by Christians.” (pg. 386)

While Abanes fails to provide an example of this from a past LDS Prophet/President, he does offer this earlier in the chapter, “Most recently (June 4, 1998), while speaking to 2,400 Latter-day Saints in Paris, LDS president Hinckley confessed that Mormons do not believe in the same ‘Jesus’ in which Christians believe.” (pg. 379) He then quotes from the LDS Church News report of the event. In his "Postscript," Abanes reports another statement from Hinckley to the same effect, “Ironically, it was none other than LDS president Gordon B. Hinckley who admitted in April 2002 that Mormons do not believe in the same ‘Jesus’ revered throughout Christendom.” (pg. 447) The manipulation of context regarding Hinckley’s comments aside, like Abanes, I find this “ironic,” though probably not for the same reason. The irony I find in this is that it directly contradicts Abanes own argument that Mormons “do not wish to publicly recognize” that they believe in a “different” Jesus. Hinckley was the President of the LDS Church when Abanes book was published, and both the comments he quotes from Hinckley are publicly accessible. Evidence of that fact is that Abanes himself had access to them. The LDS Church News is a public publication, and is available online. LDS General Conference is made open to the public, and publicly broadcast on TV, radio, and internet streaming. The talks are printed in LDS publication the Ensign, which is also publicly accessible, and they are also made publicly available on the LDS Church website. The Church couldn’t do much more to “publicly recognize” something than to declare it in General Conference. Oh, the irony!

Failure to Refute Opposing Arguments

Another glaring problem with Abanes treatment of this issue is his failure to interact with apologetic and scholarly refutations of the very arguments he is making. For example, Abanes utilizes much of the criteria developed by Walter Martin to “prove” that the LDS Church is a cult (pg. 399 – see footnotes 66 and 68). However, way back 1991, Stephen E. Robinson, in his book Are Mormons Christians? (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company, 1991), effectively demonstrated that such criteria can just as effectively be turned around on the New Testament Christians[2]. Evangelical theologian Craig L. Blomberg agreed with Robinson, saying “Prof. Robinson has demonstrated that Walter Martin’s definition of a ‘cult’ applies equally as well to the original Jesus movement as the origins of the LDS… Unless the term ‘cult’ is to be so broad as to be meaningless…then it should be reserved for the kind of small, bizarre, fringe groups sociologists more technically label cultic…As applied to contemporary Latter-day Saints, the term is technically incorrect.”[3]

This is just one example of how Abanes neglects the faithful LDS responses to this issue. There are a great deal of arguments in Robinson’s afore mentioned book, as well as in Daniel C. Peterson and Stephen D. Ricks book, Offenders for a Word (Salt Lake City, UT: Aspen Books, 1992), which deal directly with many of the claims that Abanes is making. These are probably the two most comprehensive responses from Latter-day Saints to the question of whether or not Mormons are Christians, yet they go completely untouched and unmentioned by Abanes. While Abanes may feel that everything published by faithful Mormons is skewed and biased (pg. 467), that does not excuse him from needing to respond to the arguments they make. To simply insist that arguments are not valid because they are made by people with “bias” says nothing of the argument itself and is a form of the ad hominem logical fallacy.

In the one instance in which Abanes does mention the response of Latter-day Saints, he hardly responds to their arguments, and in fact just brushes them off. Abanes writes:

Noteworthy is the fact that when Mormons seek to justify their claim of Christianity they never mention doctrinal beliefs, but only external appearances and labels. In 1998, for example, apostles Boyd K. Packer and Robert Millet stressed that Mormons are Christians because: Latter-day Saint hymns contain the name of Jesus; prayers and sacraments invoke the name of Jesus, the name of Jesus appears in the Book of Mormon, and the church has “Jesus Christ” in its official name. Exactly what Mormons believe about Jesus, however, was never mentioned. Why? Because that would have clearly placed Mormonism in a non-Christian light along with every other religious belief system that acknowledges “Jesus Christ” in a decidedly different way than Christians (e.g. Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, etc.). (pg. 391, emphasis in original)

There are several problems here aside from the fact that Abanes erroneously identifies Robert L. Millet as an “apostle” for the LDS Church. One is that the previously mentioned works by Robinson, Peterson and Ricks deal with the very doctrinal beliefs Abanes says are “never mentioned” when Mormons “seek to justify” themselves as Christians. Another is the fact that that LDS hymns, prayers, ordinances (sacraments), the testimony of the Book of Mormon, etc. are direct reflections of “exactly what Mormons believe about Jesus.”

The biggest problem however is the fact that it simply does not refute the arguments made by Packer and Millet. This is what Packer, Millet, and the rest of us Mormons would like the critics to explain: Why, exactly, are non-Christians singing hymns of praise to Jesus Christ? Why are they praying in His name? Why do they call their church after Him? Why do they have a whole volume of scripture that stands as “Another Testament of Jesus Christ”?

These are kinds of questions Abanes needs to answer in order to respond to the argument being made by Packer and Millet. Instead, he just brushes them off and puts the Mormon understanding of Jesus in the same ballpark as the way Buddhist, Muslims, and Hindus view Christ. So, then, tell me – are there Buddhist sings praises to Jesus’ name? Are Muslim ordinances preformed in the name of Christ? Does Hindu scripture testify of Jesus as Savior and Redeemer?

Conclusion

I could go on with more of the hasty generalizations, errant logic, and faulty assumptions that Abanes makes in this one chapter of his book, but this is quite long enough for a basic blog post. From these and other problems, I draw my conclusion that Abanes is extremely biased and unreliable. This is true, at the very least, regarding his chapter “Is Mormonism Christian?” and I would not be surprised to find that the rest of his book equally flawed.

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Notes:

1. Some may wonder how Shipps can maintain that Mormons are Christians, yet also believe them to be a new religion. I previously addressed that question in my article, “Mormonism: A New Religious Tradition or Apart of Christianity?” (June 4, 2010)


3. Craig L. Blomberg and Stephen E. Robinson, How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), pg. 193

Comments

  1. That book was among the first books critical of Mormonism that I read. I haven't read it for many years, but I agree with your assessment that Abanes is biased and that much of his research is flawed.

    The book is still worth thumbing through, though. My least favorite chapter was definitely the one you responded to, because it's there that his Christian bias is most obvious. And Christian critics of Mormonism annoy me.

    But it's an interesting read and it may point you in the direction of some more responsible criticisms. I, for one, don't think the Tanners are as bad as you suggest. They've done wonders for the Mormon studies community by getting access to things like the Kirtland Egyptian Papers and were highly critical of some anti-Mormon stuff like Ed Decker's "The God Makers." At the very least, I don't think they're any more biased than many of the people at FARMS.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I do realize that the Tanners have been instrumental in making hard to find documents accessible, and I read some of their stuff critiquing Spaulding/BoM theory. I think the Tanners have a desire to be honest, but at times their bias gets in the way. True, that is probably no different than that of many people at FARMS, FAIR, etc. (In fact, I do not doubt that I am subject to my personal bias and that it gets in the way of honest evaluation at times). My problem with the people like the Tanners, Abanes, etc. is that they make the pretense of being objective, when they are obviously not. It has been my experience (for the most part) that FARMS/FAIR are perfectly open about their biases. They don't pretend to be an objective observer. When posing the question to himself (about if he had been bias) Hugh Nibley responded:

    "Of course we have. We are the counsel for the defense. Our witnesses have all been of our own choosing, but no one can deny that they are competent and unprejudiced. We invited the prosecution to examine them." ("Lehi the Winner" in "Lehi in the Desert")

    That, I think, reflects the attitude that all critics and apologists should have: openly acknowledge which side they are on, admit that they have selected the evidence most favorable for their case (and thereby left the unfavorable evidence out of the picture), and leave it up to everyone else to read, study their case and decide for themselves.

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