A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation: Idaho Falls Edition

I took the two-hour drive to Idaho Falls last night to hear Greg Johnson and Robert Millet present their friendly conversation on Mormons and Evangelicals to an audience of six or seven hundred. Johnson is an Evangelical pastor who runs the Standing Together ministry in Utah; Millet is a Professor of Ancient Scripture at BYU. Together they coauthored Bridging the Divide: The Continuing Conversation Between a Mormon and an Evangelical back in 2007. Their live presentation covers some of the same ground as the book, but also takes questions from the audience.

The Setting. The stage is arranged to make the exchange a friendly conversation. The speakers do not stand at lecterns, they sit in easy chairs with bookshelves stationed behind for effect. They show a 15-minute introductory video that relates how the two got started with this project and what their goals are, basically to promote friendly dialogue and understanding across two religious communities that often misunderstand each other. The hour-long discussion that follows has Millet and Johnson posing the usual LDS/Evangelical questions to each other and responding. I outline all of this to emphasize how hard they work to model open, friendly conversation on what can be very touchy issues of religious difference. It’s a very effective method.

The Discussion. I’ll summarize a couple of the exchanges, which the two men are are obviously quite comfortable with at this point as they have been doing these presentations for several years now. Millet asks Johnson why he and other Evangelicals might think Latter-day Saints are not Christian. In his answer, Johnson makes the helpful point that it wasn’t simply that other Christians went out of their way to marginalize 19th-century Mormonism: Mormons worked hard to set themselves apart from other Christian denominations by labeling traditional Christian creeds as “abominations,” adding new scripture, and practicing polygamy. In his response, Millet noted that the “you are not Christian” charge was simply not made in the 19th century. He traces that tactic and the use of the “cult” label to Walter Martin’s 1965 book Kingdom of the Cults.

Johnson asks Millet about the LDS rejection of the one God (ontologically) of the Trinity and LDS affirmation of the ideas that God developed over time and that humans can become gods. Millet answered that Mormon texts do see God as a man — a glorified and exalted man, not an impersonal force or a congeries of natural laws. Contra the idea that God developed over time, Millet cites the Book of Mormon’s reference to God as “the Eternal Father” and Jesus Christ as “the Eternal God.” As for the idea that humans can become gods, Millet cited New Testament scriptures such as Romans 8:17 (we can be joint-heirs with Christ), then suggested a better way to phrase the LDS view is that we believe men and women should and can become more Christ-like. Johnson responded that Evangelicals read these New Testament passages in essentially that way — that we can become more Christ-like — and quoted a member of the LDS Quorum of the Seventy who once rephrased the Lorenzo Snow couplet in this less objectionable way: As man is, Christ once was; as Christ is, man may become.

Questions From the Audience. They took five questions from those submitted in advance via email to event organizers. My question made the cut, of course — hey, ten years of blogging has taught me how ask a good question! It was: I know you are sometimes criticized by members of your own denominations for participating in these interfaith events, which some see as legitimizing rival religious views or somehow compromising one’s own beliefs or faith commitments. How do you respond to these criticisms from fellow-believers? [And I’ll just note in passing that LDS bloggers are sometimes criticized on similar grounds.]

Johnson responded by discussing Acts 17, which relates Paul’s several months of “dialogging” in Athens, culminating in his eventually being invited to talk about his Christian beliefs to the local philosophy club (my term). So Paul took dialogue seriously. Millet responded by relating his experience reading the autobiography of Billy Graham. God used this simple preacher to accomplish so much. If we have any humility, we should acknowledge that God works through people of many different faiths.

Todd Wood, pastor of the Berean Baptist Church in Idaho Falls (known to the Bloggernacle as the author of the Heart Issues blog) also attended the event last night. He added an extension to my question: How did early Christian apostles and pastors deal with exchanging religious views? Johnson’s comments on Paul and Acts 17 responded in part to that question, but my own general sense is that early Christians really didn’t handle dialogue very well. Over time, differences of religious opinion gave rise charges of heresy, mutual excommunications, and eventually violent persecution of religious dissenters. I think Christians are doing better in the 21st century.

Reflections. It was gratifying to see such a large turnout for this event. Johnson and Millet have worked long and hard promoting this kinder and gentler approach to interfaith relations based on mutual respect and “convicted civility” (a term they borrowed from Richard Mouw) and they certainly deserve credit for providing a model that others can learn from. I think experienced bloggers and commenters learn some of the same skills and lessons about exchanging religious views without descending into a series of mutual attacks or personal insults. It’s tougher than it looks!

FYI, Seth at Nine Moon posted reflections on a similar Johnson-Millet event held in Denver in 2008.

20 comments for “A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation: Idaho Falls Edition

  1. Aaron Brown
    June 14, 2012 at 5:20 pm

    Thanks, Dave. Was about to make a comment, but I see you’ve linked to Seth’s old post, where I give my 2 cents in the comments there. :)

    Glad to hear it was a good experience.

  2. Eva
    June 14, 2012 at 8:09 pm

    Was the audience mostly LDS? Is this a money making series? I absolutely love Bob Millet..

  3. June 14, 2012 at 8:21 pm

    Dave, I enjoyed meeting you for the first time in person. And to add my two cents, I don’t think Millet can be emphatic in saying,”the ‘you are not Christian’ charge was simply not made in the 19th century.” With all his references to Baptists in the presentation, I don’t think that he has read up on the American Baptist history. Perhaps on my blog, I will insert some 19th century snippets by American Baptists on their missionary work in Utah and Idaho. Secondly, like you, I don’t see the smooth connection of Paul on Mars Hill with the Millet/Johnson conversation. Again thanks for making the drive.

  4. June 14, 2012 at 8:22 pm

    Eva, no charge for the event. The LDS public relations committee in Idaho Falls made sure of that.

  5. Seth R.
    June 14, 2012 at 9:56 pm

    Are they still doing these?

    I heard they were asked to stop doing them. Maybe that was just a rumor…

  6. June 14, 2012 at 10:39 pm

    Permission needed to be granted. And it was. Who knows, it might happen sometime at BYU-Idaho. Seth, rumor is that Kim Clark was in favor of this.

  7. June 14, 2012 at 11:47 pm

    Dave, I attended the event in 2008 and have blogged my reflections as well.

  8. WVS
    June 15, 2012 at 12:27 am

    Thanks for the report, Dave. As an example, I think many 19th century Utah Presbyterian missionaries were quite clear in their assessment that Mormons were not Christians. I believe that was pretty common among other Protestants too. Among many instances, see Rocky Mountain Presbyterian (June 1875). Walter Martin is certainly a 20th century flash point, but he’s in no way unique as far as the “non-Christian” bit.

  9. June 15, 2012 at 10:22 am

    (Millet) “suggested a better way to phrase the LDS view is that we believe men and women should and can become more Christ-like.”

    So, has Mormon doctrine tossed out the idea of eternal progression–that we can become gods and create and people our own worlds?

  10. June 15, 2012 at 10:47 am

    CC, I think Millet’s position is that the way that idea is popularly expressed — that exaltation means becoming a God with a big G and getting your own world to play with in the hereafter — is speculation, not doctrine. He would probably describe the idea of eternal progression as becoming more Christ-like by progressively developing Christ-like attributes of love and longsuffering patience in this life and the next. He would likely do so using the New Testament scriptures he cited in his response and elsewhere.

    More generally, Millet argues for defining Mormon doctrine from Mormon texts (scripture) rather than with reference to public speculation of various Mormon leaders of past eras (current Mormon leaders are much better at avoiding doctrinal freelancing).

  11. June 15, 2012 at 9:07 pm


    I too was in attendance (I drove up from Pocatello). Like Todd Wood, I found Millet’s assumption that 19th Century Baptists weren’t arguing that Mormons weren’t Christians a little off, though I’ll agree with Millet that Walter Martin’s book probably lit the fire for a new generation of counter-cultists. Both Millet and Johnson seemed reluctant to dig deeper into controversy, but given the nature of the setting, I don’t think they really needed to. While I enjoyed their book “Bridging the Divide” and Blomberg and Robinson’s “How Wide the Divide,” the best discussion in my opinion came in Millet and McDermott’s “Claiming Christ.” I’ll be posting my own personal notes to Wednesday’s discussion on the Mormon Dialogue and Discussion Board later tonight.

  12. June 16, 2012 at 12:21 am

    Thanks for the comment, Tyler. I found your notes over at MDDB — a little more detail than I managed to capture. Of the three books, the Millet/McDermott is the only one I haven’t read yet. I’ll have to get to it this year.

  13. Ben H
    June 16, 2012 at 1:02 am

    Thanks, Dave! It’s fun to hear about this phenomenon that I have felt too far away from.

  14. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    June 16, 2012 at 9:57 am

    Well shoot! I move away from Idaho Falls and then they hold this event!

    Have any of these events been video recorded?

    It would be interesting to develop this kind of a dialogue team with a Catholic priest. I think years of consuming secondhand Protestant propaganda about Catholicism has given many Mormons who lack a personal relationship with any Catholics a very distorted view of their beliefs.

    As for the concept of becoming like God, the Eastern Orthodox churches preserve the ancient Christian belief that salvation consists of theosis, of becoming like God. They cite all the same New Testament scriptures that Mormons use, and add in quotes from the Christian Fathers who predate the Nicea Council, such as Irenaeus: “God became man so that man may become God”. The typical Evangelical ridicule of the Mormon concept would also classify the Orthodox teaching as ridiculous too. And Catholics have acknowledged.it is actually part of their doctrinal heritage, though rarely discussed. Mormons should become more familiar with the Orthodox preservation of this teaching, and appreciate our similarities and diffetences on that point.

    The Orthodox churches also point out that there is not a single concept of the Trinity, since the difference over the relationship of the Father and the Son is the focus of the schism of the last thousand years. Additionally, many Protestant explanations of the Trinity border on interpretations that have been officially classified as heretical, such as Modalism. Christianity is not nearly as unified in doctrine as many critics of Mormonism would like people to believe.

  15. June 16, 2012 at 10:35 am

    RTS, the event was taped, but I’m not sure who was doing the taping or how to get a copy. If I find out, I’ll post it here.

  16. European Saint
    June 16, 2012 at 3:31 pm

    Thank you for the report, Dave. Good stuff!

  17. Tim
    June 16, 2012 at 3:42 pm

    RTS, the Orthodox doctrine of Theosis is nothing like the Mormon doctrine of Exaltation (other than the word sounds similar in some twisted way). Theosis is much more akin to Sanctification and Glorification. Read this post by Ms. Jack for more depth: http://ldstalk.wordpress.com/2009/03/11/evangelicals-theosis-exaltation/

    Mormons seem only interested in Theosis in so far as they can draw theological strings to it, but don’t seem at all interested in correctly describing it. If you DO think Exaltation is something like Theosis I welcome the change in perspective. The idea that man may become a god is a deadly heresy and I’m always happy to see Mormons abandon it for the orthodox ideas of Theosis and Glorification.

    I attended a similar presentation in Santa Barbara shortly after the ban had been lifted off of Millet. My review here:

    You can read more about their brief hiatus here: http://chriscarrollsmith.blogspot.com/2010/04/brethren-end-standing-together-roadshow.html

  18. June 16, 2012 at 5:43 pm

    Aye, Tim. Just ask Father Greg, the orthodox priest in charge of outreach, who has provided the most comments on my blog in its history. Orthodox theosis and LDS exaltation are apples and oranges. Two different starting points of reference.

  19. Ben S.
    June 16, 2012 at 6:09 pm

    “Orthodox theosis and LDS exaltation are apples and oranges.” I know a former Catholic priest who wrote a thesis comparing the two who disagrees. Fuji and Pink Lady, perhaps.

  20. June 16, 2012 at 10:02 pm

    Thanks for the links, Tim. For what it’s worth, the regional arm of LDS Public Affairs sponsored the Idaho Falls event and covered some or all of the cost of the facility for the evening. So whatever the basis for putting these events on hold during 2010, it appears there is now official support for continuing with them.

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