Review of Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics
By Devan Jensen
Executive Editor, Religious Studies Center
Those who want to learn about the art and practice of defending the faith—known classically as apologetics—will enjoy reading Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics, a compilation of essays edited by Blair G. Van Dyke and Loyd Isao Ericson (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2017). The fifteen authors share a variety of perspectives, both praising and critiquing past and present approaches. My review focuses on this survey of apologetics, as well as related definitions and questions.
Apologetics in the Past and Present
In the age of Hugh Nibley, the term Mormon apologetics referred to a fairly traditional set of papers defending the claims of the Church or attacking critics. Today’s apologetic approaches are more varied, including “traditional apologetics, new positive apologetics as typified by [Terryl] Givens and [Patrick] Mason, a form of official apologetics as with the Gospel Topics essays, pastoral apologetics as outlined by Seth Payne, [and] religious studies scholarship examining and discussing the same LDS doctrines and practices that apologists often discuss.” These scholars have professional training in fields such as history, literature, Near Eastern languages and culture, and philosophy. The book applauds apologetic work created by the Church History Department, the Joseph Smith Papers Project, the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship (21–22), and FairMormon (67). It seems an oversight not to mention the strong apologetic work published by BYU Studies, the Religious Studies Center, the Interpreter Foundation, and other sources listed at LDS.org.
Defensive versus Affirmative Apologetics
The book defines several vital terms. Van Dyke defines the term negative apologetics as “responses to criticism already levied against Mormonism” (2). Daniel C. Peterson clarifies that the term refers not to being “mean-spirited” but to “rebuttal and defense” (40). Peterson compares this act to “clearing the ground of weeds, and keeping it clear, so that the seed has a chance to take root and grow” (40). Accordingly, Michael Ash prefers the term defensive apologetics (65). Adoption of this term over the other seems important because of Mormon cultural desire to avoid negativity and contention, even to the point of avoiding uncomfortable conversations that lead to heated emotions or compromise.
Conversely, the term positive apologetics refers to “arguments that justify the faith and fortify her position ahead of disagreements and criticisms” (2). In Peterson’s analogy, this is planting the seed in the ground and nurturing it. Ash refers to this as affirmative or educational apologetics (65–67). The latter terms prevent ambiguity and potential criticism that apologists have a “positive” bent or mindset that precludes the possibility of dismissing credible evidence to the contrary of their position.
Evidentialism, Fideism, and Presuppositionalism
Evidentialism refers to attempts to anchor defense of one’s truth claims in objective evidence, such as the 1987 discovery of a steel sword near Jerusalem to justify Nephi’s claim about Laban’s sword (4–5). Conversely, fideism emphasizes subjective faith over objective evidence, suggesting that spiritual matters are deeply personal (5). Van Dyke notes that “Mormons consistently manifest strains of fideism” (6) and sometimes “anti-intellectualism” (12). Presuppositionalism identifies the assumptions all human beings make about which sources of evidence we trust and seek out for additional confirmation (15–17). As one example, after the 2013 US Supreme Court announcement in favor of same-sex marriage, the LDS Church asserted, “Regardless of the court decision, the Church remains irrevocably committed to strengthening traditional marriage between a man and a woman, which for thousands of years has proven to be the best environment for nurturing children.” Van Dyke claims, “Evidentiary proof does not bear out this claim” (19). We would be wise to evaluate the presuppositions and evidence of all parties involved in such vital arguments.
Cautions about Apologetics and Human Nature
The initial chapters offer much praise for the practice of apologetics. Neal Rappleye offers several examples of Book of Mormon defensive scholarship that pushes the boundaries of scholarship in a positive direction (52–61), tempering that praise with the need for nuanced evaluation of the contributions of King Josiah (45–46). Ash notes that we, as humans, see in terms of patterns and predictions (69–71), which necessarily lead to confirmation bias (74). Scholars sometimes harshly criticize the positions of others (including apologists), seemingly unaware of the presuppositions they themselves make (76–79). Echoing Thomas Jefferson’s call for a wall between church and state, Benjamin Park calls for a divide between Mormon studies and apologetics (90). In my opinion, Jack Welch and the BYU Studies team and Richard Bushman and the Joseph Smith Papers Project team have succeeded in both arenas through well-documented scholarship and cautious assertions. I add that the Maxwell Institute and Religious Studies Center have produced material satisfying both the academy and the church. Many other institutions might be added here.
Critiques of Current Apologetics
Ralph Hancock, David Knowlton, David Bokovoy, and Loyd Ericson critique currrent practices of Mormon apologetics, though from various places on the spectrum. For example, Hancock criticizes the newly re-created Mormon Studies Review for being too neutral in faith matters, engaging non-LDS scholars on their own terms (107–9). Knowlton tackles use of the term Lamanites by FairMormon, dismissing their lack of specificity as “a crisis of faith” (207). Ericson divides matters such as Book of Mormon studies very discretely into historical facts or “religious studies,” critiquing historical examinations of “things of the soul” (220). Bokovoy recalls his gradual acceptance of the Documentary Hypothesis of biblical scholarship and then claims, “Apologetics assumes that we have the answers” (227), arguing for more critical thinking. As expected in any book that gathers diverse perspectives, these voices will variously draw praise or criticism.
Three articles focus on women’s issues. Juliann Reynolds, who helped found FairMormon, asserts that Mormon women became ardent defenders of the faith when the Church faced persecution and prosecution for the practice of plural marriage. However, although many women actively promote and defend Church doctrine in venues such as the Ensign, FairMormon, Meridian Magazine, Mormon Women Stand, and social media, they rarely identify themselves as apologists (140–48). Julie M. Smith notes that apologists have often placed more emphasis on the status quo arguments and thus neglected women’s concerns (165). Fiona Givens upholds the ideal union of men and women in the Creation and in ecclesiastical collaboration, with the general implication that men and women ideally should combine in efforts such as defending the faith (something she and her husband have indeed done).
In sum, it seems fair to assert that “every argument defending any position . . . is an apology” (27). Let’s conclude with several questions about how to do apologetics: “Will we be honest? Competent? Civil? Will we be effective, or not?” (41). To which I add several questions of my own: Who is doing the best, most exciting work in apologetics at the present? What place does evidence play in relation to matters of faith? How can scholars be most effective in evaluating evidence for their arguments? How can we evaluate evidence effectively when we are subject to confirmation bias? And how tentative should we be in making assertions and conclusions? These are a few questions raised by a reading of this important book.