June 18, 2008

Book Review: Claiming Christ: A Mormon-Evangelical Debate

Claiming ChristRobert L. Millet and Gerald R. McDermott, Claiming Christ: A Mormon-Evangelical Debate (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007), 238 pp.

The Apostle Paul warns us against “he that cometh [and] preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached,” or offers “another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted” (2 Corinthians 11:4). Devious preachers may proclaim another Jesus, another spirit, or another gospel. With this in mind, how does one know which Jesus is the true Jesus? Do Mormons preach the true Jesus? Do evangelicals? Do Mormons and evangelicals believe in the same Jesus? These are the kinds of questions that Mormon scholar Robert Millet and evangelical scholar Gerald McDermott debate in Claiming Christ.

After providing background on their personal friendship, McDermott and Millet take turns interacting on various topics related to Christ. Starting with their sources of authority, the co-authors move on to a discussion of Christ before Bethlehem, the Trinity, Jesus’ passion and atonement, the historical Jesus, the church and the sacraments, salvation in Christ, and the fate of the unevangelized. In each chapter, one writes the main article, the other follows with a response, and a final rebuttal concludes the section. This format allows the reader to grapple with both authors’ views.

Unfortunately, McDermott’s role as an evangelical contributor is compromised by his deficient view of the Bible. He denies biblical inerrancy, questions the sufficiency of Scripture, and rules out the principle of Sola Scriptura (i.e., that the Bible alone is our final authority in faith and practice). Thus, he says “‘The real question, then, is not whether we will be influenced by tradition in our reading and interpreting, but which tradition?’” (20). Unfortunately, McDermott misses the point. Sola Scriptura does not mean that we can interpret Scripture apart from tradition; it means that the Bible is the Christian’s ultimate standard of truth. We can (and must!) subject our traditions to what God has revealed in Scripture. The Word of God is the ultimate arbiter of truth.

Since McDermott denies these fundamental beliefs, he comes across as more interested in maintaining historic orthodoxy rather than in biblical faithfulness. A typical example would be his treatment of the gospel and the relationship between faith and works. Rather than expositing relevant biblical passages, McDermott gives the reader a comparative analysis of the views of Martin Luther and Jonathan Edwards. In the following chapter on the destiny of the unevangelized, McDermott does not try to answer this difficult issue with Scripture; instead, he summarizes the positions of Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, showing that Christians throughout history have been somewhat flexible. Often I was left asking: So what? How is one to know whether these Christians were right or wrong in their views? The Mormons, as it turns out, have an answer: An authoritative prophet tells us. McDermott never effectively counters the Mormon claim with the proper response—namely, that we have authoritative Scripture to enable us to discern truth from error. Orthodoxy is the result of biblical faithfulness. And while church history can assist us in understanding our faith, it must never be the basis upon which we establish our faith.

McDermott often fumbles when trying to point out similarities between Mormonism and historic Christianity. For example, he consistently maintains that Mormons believe Jesus is fully divine. He actually states: “Rejecting the Nicene definition of the Trinity but holding to the full deity of Jesus and salvific value of his cross and resurrection seems not as serious as denying the incarnation and the atonement” (221). But as I have written to him before:

. . . I do not know how you can maintain: “On the LDS and Jesus, it is a fact that the Mormon view of Jesus is better than the Jehovah’s Witness view, which is fully Arian. They do indeed believe Jesus is fully God.” While I have no problem insisting upon the defectiveness of the JW Jesus, the LDS Jesus is no less defective. The LDS do not believe that Jesus is fully God—if we are defining God consistently. The only way one could maintain that the Mormons believe that Jesus is fully God is by committing the fallacy of equivocation, for the God we refer to is nothing like the God of Mormon doctrine. The word "God" is not some nebulous, abstract notion. God has revealed what divinity is to us.

Essentially, the LDS church redefines "God" when applying the term to Jesus. And in his case, it is no different from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, because both refuse to ccept Jesus as the eternal, immutable, omnipotent, omniscient God. Both offer distortions f the one, true Trinitarian God. As you have stated, the LDS Jesus is not the Jesus of lassic orthodoxy. He is a false Jesus—an imaginary Jesus who cannot save.
McDermott’s equivocations throughout this work all too often prevent one from properly understanding the distinct and opposite beliefs which separate Mormonism and evangelical Christianity.

A truly helpful debate between Robert Millet and an evangelical has yet to be published. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that Mormons and evangelicals can engage in far better dialogues than this book presents, and I hope that a far more productive work will come out soon.