The golden era of Mormon apologetics ran from Nibley to FAIR and Old FARMS. With so many distinctive doctrines as well as a high public profile, Mormonism attracts a lot of criticism, so the urge to publicly defend Mormon beliefs is understandable, and there is now plenty of Mormon apologetics out there. What is badly needed is some reflection on the whole enterprise, trying to distinguish between good and bad apologetics and perhaps some thoughts on when the best response is no apologetics (polygamy comes to mind — trying to defend it just seems to dig a deeper hole). Enter the latest publication from Greg Kofford Books: Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics, a collection of essays covering a broad spectrum of views on the topic. We will have two reviews of the book and maybe a Q&A here at T&S in a couple of weeks. For now, I want to address a narrower question: What’s worse, bad apologetics or no apologetics? Does bad apologetics do more harm than good?
That’s a pressing question because there is a lot of bad apologetics. This is partly because we have moved from the golden era of apologetics to the age of social media apologetics. No need for reviewers or editors to vet and edit your essay defending this or that doctrine or episode, you can just draft and post, and plenty of rank and file Mormons are doing just that. Perhaps it is just in the nature of things that 90% of Mormon apologetics is bad apologetics. This reflects Sturgeon’s Law, in which science fiction writer Ted Sturgeon famously acknowledged that 90% of science fiction is trash, but then asserted that 90% of what is produced in any genre or field is trash. But I suspect bad Mormon apologetics does more harm than bad writing in other fields. If you doubt that, consider the difficult position that several generations of bad LDS history has put the Church in. So yes, identifying and avoiding bad apologetics seems worth the effort.
Here’s a starting point: In order to defend a Mormon doctrine in print, you should know what you are talking about. Corollary: If you don’t know what you’re talking about, don’t attempt to defend a Mormon doctrine in print. Knowing what you are talking about does not mean being a Mormon theologian. Mormonism doesn’t have any theologians. What it does mean is that you have read the literature, so to speak, on that doctrine or topic. The knowledge you pick up in Sunday School class, being a church-going Mormon, is good enough to share your feelings or bear a testimony, but not enough to produce good apologetics if you don’t put in the work to read up on the topic. Which is why there is so much bad apologetics.
Here’s a current example which is apparently circulating widely: “Influential Anti-Mormon Caught Spreading Lies About LDS Church.” Overheated title: check. Overheated fonts, with bolding, underlining, and large font: check. No comments, so no reader can correct or contradict your misstatements: check. But the biggest problem is that the attempted refutations seem like knee-jerk responses based on Sunday Mormonism rather than with any particular knowledge about the topics addressed. It’s bad apologetics.
An Evolving View of the Godhead
Take the first point the post tries to refute, that “there were major [changes to the Book of Mormon that] reflect Joseph’s evolved view of the Godhead” (parenthetical in original). There are several publications one ought to consult to get started on this topic. I’d look at Dan Vogel’s “The Earliest Mormon Concept of God” (in Line Upon Line: Essays on Mormon Doctrine, Signature Books, 1989), Thomas Alexander’s “The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine” (Sunstone, 1980, Vol. 4, p. 24-33, a shortened form of which appears in Line Upon Line), several chapters in Charlie Harrell’s book This is My Doctrine: The Development of Mormon Theology (Greg Kofford Books, 2011), several chapters in Terryl Givens’ book Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity (OUP, 2015), and “The Development of the Mormon Understanding of God: Early Mormon Modalism and Early Myths,” by Ari Breuning and David Paulsen (probably the closest thing the Church has to a theologian), in the FARMS Review of Books, 2001, Vol. 13, No. 2, p. 109-69. None of these are cited or referred to in the post.
The post seems to reject idea that the LDS view of the Godhead ever changed or evolved. Here’s Paulsen, certainly a scholar sympathetic to LDS beliefs: “That Latter-day Saint understanding of the nature of God has undergone significant development is not at issue. What is at issue is the particular course that this ongoing development has taken.” Vogel and others suggest the earliest view, reflected in the Book of Mormon, is modalism, aka Sabellianism. Paulsen argues that that early view is best viewed as a particular form of trinitarianism, “social trinitarianism,” which some theologians find hard to distinguish from tritheism, belief in three gods. Paulsen firmly denies that tritheism is the early LDS view. Paulsen asserts that early Mormon thinking, in particular the Book of Mormon, is definitively trinitarian in that it affirms three persons in the Godhead that constitute “one God.” But the author of the post we’re talking about rejects the view that “Joseph had a Trinitarian view of the Godhead until at least the mid 1830s” and states: “[T]hat is demonstrably false.” He seems to think tritheism is the LDS position. He’s trying to defend the LDS view of the Godhead without really understanding it. Good intentions, bad apologetics.
The post’s discussion of polygamy supports my suggestion that in some cases no apologetics is the best alternative. The major point the post makes in defense of polygamy is that since there are no acknowledged offspring from Joseph Smith’s plural marriages, and since Joseph had many children with his first wife Emma, that therefore Joseph only had, uh, occasional sex with some of his plural wives. As if having sex with only half the plural wives makes it okay, whereas sex with all the wives would make it wrong? That is wholly inconsistent with the later, public practice of polygamy under Brigham Young and John Taylor (they flaunted their offspring the way current Mormons count their grandchildren) as well as the Book of Mormon’s sole justification for polygamy: “For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things” (Jacob 2:30).
The purpose of the polygamy section, besides defending the LDS practice of it, was to distinguish Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy from how Warren Jeffs and his group practice it. The post somehow fails to mention the biggest difference: Warren Jeffs publicly acknowledges his practice, relies on a public theology to justify it, and has been held publicly accountable for his practice; whereas Joseph Smith never publicly acknowledged his practice of polygamy, never published the revelation that justified it (as noted, the Book of Mormon does not justify it the way he practiced it), and he never had to publicly defend his actions. I’m not sure most Mormons today grasp how “secret” Joseph’s practice was. You won’t learn it from the post. Again, good intentions, bad apologetics. For a review of a book that nicely and fairly objectively summarizes current scholarship on Nauvoo polygamy, read this earlier post.
Let’s wind up on sort of a positive note. Bad apologetics probably works if you are preaching to the choir, at least a choir that doesn’t ask questions. And most bad apologetics is aimed at the mainstream Mormon choir, not as a reply to critics and not even to neutral readers. So put it in your ward bulletin or your family newsletter rather than publishing it to all the world! Honestly, if your Methodist neighbor or Catholic coworker asked a sincere question about Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy, and your response was, “Well, evidence suggests he only had occasional sex with half of his thirty or so plural wives …” well, I don’t think they would give a knowing nod. They would probably think you have a rather strange view of marriage and morality, and they would almost certainly not let their teenage daughter into your home to babysit. Most of the time, no apologetics is better than bad apologetics.