10 Questions with Robert Millet

We’re happy to share Kurt Manwaring’s interview with Robert Millet. Millet is a well known professor of ancient scripture at BYU. He was Dean of Religious Education there and is the author of numerous well regarded books including the Doctrinal Commentary on the Book of Mormon along with Joseph Fielding McConkie. He was part of the move in the 1990’s to emphasize the rhetoric of grace theologically in the Church.

The full interview is available at Kurt’s site. I should add I was able to spend a fair bit of time with his family in Louisiana when I was on my mission. His brother was a fantastic blues musician. Here are a few of my favorite excerpts from the interview.

Most important for me [at BYU], however, was my discovery of the Pauline epistles, and particularly Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians. Brother Matthews guided us toward a deeper appreciation for the effects of the Fall of Adam and Eve. He especially emphasized Paul’s message that salvation, meaning eternal life, is the greatest of all the gifts of God; that one does not earn but rather receives a gift; that men and women’s works of righteousness are a necessary but insufficient condition for salvation; and that the ever-present debate on whether we are saved by grace or by works is foolish, shortsighted, and distracting.

Perhaps more important, for the students and for me, was the fact that we focused a great deal on Romans and Galatians, specifically on justification by faith and salvation by grace. It was new stuff to them, but the Spirit that accompanied our learning experience seemed to persuade them that although they did not yet grasp everything Paul had written, they sensed deep down in their soul that what we were discussing was true and worthy of their serious attention.

In summary, I came to BYU with a changed heart and a strong desire to emphasize Jesus Christ, His infinite Atonement, and the power of His mercy and grace. My hope is that at least some of my students caught the vision.

Millet was key in setting up an interfaith dialog with Evangelicals starting in 2000 that has continued since every six months. Speaking of this Millet noted the problems.

The journey, while intellectually stretching and spiritually stirring, has not proceeded without some resistance or opposition.

My Evangelical friends have taken most of the hits (especially Richard Mouw), but I have also been accused by a few Latter-day Saints of being guilty of “compromising the faith,” assuming I suppose, that there is no way that this kind of a deep relationship could exist unless we have compromised something.

Such critics, high and low, are dead wrong. We agreed at the very start of this larger dialogue that no person should be a part of this exercise who was not deeply committed to and convinced of his or her respective faith. Never once have I or any of my Latter-day Saint dialogists (yes, that is a word) given the slightest indication to our friends that we are anything but faithfully solid, mainline members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We have read and studied and discussed and wrestled respectfully and cordially with our friends of other faiths in our investigation of what could be called saving doctrines, but they’re still Evangelical and we are still proponents and defenders of the restored gospel.

Interestingly while Millet along with others such as Stephen Robinson are noted for raising the topic of grace he attributes this move to Bruce R. McConkie.

I believe Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s last address, “The Purifying Power of Gethsemane,” delivered at the April 1985 general conference, was the beginning of that blessed trend. I am persuaded that it is one of those very few public addresses that literally “rocked the Church,” meaning, it so impacted those who then heard or saw the address, as well as millions who have since heard or read it, that we as a people will never be the same.

I sincerely believe it was the beginning of a divinely-planned movement that would make of the Latter-day Saints more deeply devout Christians. It is of interest to me that an Evangelical historian, John Turner, in his fascinating book, The Mormon Jesus: A Biography (Harvard University Press, 2016), begins his last chapter with a consideration of the significance of Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s last general conference address. He too believes it was a formative moment in Latter-day Saint history, one that has propelled the followers of Joseph Smith to a higher reverence for and commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ.

As regular readers know, I find the topic of grace very intriguing and have discussed it here many times. It’s also interesting in how it gets twisted at times into things like cheap grace or into a “grace of the gaps” penal theory where we have to do a certain level of work that’s insufficient and made up by the atonement. Both these two extremes are deeply problematic but keep popping up. I think Millet’s own writings have been deeply important for understanding grace. It’s constantly surprising to me how few people know of him.

17 comments for “10 Questions with Robert Millet

  1. Michelle
    November 30, 2018 at 5:24 am

    I love Robert Millet’s work. So grateful for him and Stephen Robison and their efforts that are mentioned here. (Stephen Robinson gave me the first taste of grace when I was a college student. I will be forever grateful for that seed he planted.)

    I’m assuming you have read Adam S. Miller as well? e.g., His An Early Resurrection is extraordinary. I still have to finish Grace is Not God’s Backup Plan and I’m listening to Letters to a Young Mormon right now to see if I want to give it as a gift to my daughter.

    (I was only 15 when Elder McKonkie died but I can still remember what his talk *feels* like to listen to it. It’s so powerful. I had never heard it discussed in this context, so thanks for sharing.)

  2. Roger Hansen
    November 30, 2018 at 11:19 am

    I find this whole subject deeply troubling. I wish the BYU religion staff would not feel the need to break bread with evangelicals.

    The Church’s regression toward conservative Christianity got its first real push from Bro McConkie and his father-in-law. And it’s been on the slow descent ever since. The Church has backed off the cosmology of Joseph Smith, claims we are strong biblical literalists, continues to discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community, is pushing grace while devaluing works, breeding sceptics of science, etc. Things that push us into the extreme right wing of Christianity. I don’t care if evangelicals don’t think we’re Christians.

  3. Ted
    November 30, 2018 at 11:32 am

    Bob Millet is awful. His books are unreadable. His certainty in his own position is nauseating, and his attempts to address doubt perpetuate unfair stereotypes (like doubters want to sin, are less faithful, etc.).

  4. Dave B.
    November 30, 2018 at 3:57 pm

    Bob Millet is great. The interfaith work he has done with various Evangelicals is great. Apart from building bridges, it has had some effect within the Church as well, countering the habit of stressing the differences between LDS and other Christians and instead focusing on some of our common beliefs and commitments. In 2012, I attended one of the live dialogue presentations Millet did with Greg Johnson and posted about it here at T&S:

    https://www.timesandseasons.org/harchive/2012/06/a-mormon-and-an-evangelical-in-conversation-idaho-falls-edition/

  5. Clark Goble
    November 30, 2018 at 9:45 pm

    Michelle I fixed your tags for you and deleted the comments about the tags. I’ve read most of Adam’s stuff. In many ways I think he comes closest to how I think even though we often come at it from very different angles. I’ve been doing a reading club of his stuff but it didn’t quite get the feedback I’d have expected so it’s a bit more intermittent. I should do an other one this weekend. But in many ways many of my engagements with Adam have been over grace and the subtle ways we differ on it.

    Roger, despite our ontological differences with Evangelicals, we do have a lot of similarities with them. I’d disagree we’re backing off key doctrines, although I think it fair to try and work out what’s tradition and what can be grounded in revelation. The problem is that a lot of things that were traditional were really outside influences, including I’d argue a lot of the racist stuff which had its genesis in southern slavery apologetics making claims about Canaan that were just plain false. In the 20th century we had fundamentalist influences from Evangelicals, Baptists and Seventh Day Adventists, as you suggest. But in many cases it just honestly doesn’t make a lot of sense in terms of our scriptures. So I’m glad we’ve been moving away from that. However the other problem was that in some cases we rejected things just because people doing anti-Mormon attacks believed it – whether Evangelical or secular. That’s a problem too. I think some of the lack of talk about grace for a lot of the 20th century was tied up in that.

    To me while I don’t agree with all of Millet’s approaches, he was valuable in making us turn to the scriptures themselves on these matters. And of course Pres. Benson felt that way too, trying to get us not just accept tradition by way of commentaries as a replacement for scripture.

  6. John W
    December 2, 2018 at 12:47 pm

    I’ll never forget the video of Robert Millet telling kids at a mission prep session to use dodgy sales tactics in answering questions that people have. He tells them specifically to “answer the question they should have asked.” Here is the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UMJvqBq_Qa8. Also, watch the video, it is very much at odds with the interfaith dialogue that he is promoting in the OP.

    As an example, he says if someone asks if LDS people believe the man can become gods, he tells them to dodge the question and answer with something completely different. Do LDS people teach that men can become gods? Yes. The answer should be a straight yes, there is no need to dodge. I understand that what might follow is that the person asking will follow with, “well that is not what is taught in the Bible.” OK. You could just respond by saying, “the LDS church teaches that the Bible isn’t the complete word of God.” I don’t see why Millet feels the need to dodge.

  7. Roger Hansen
    December 2, 2018 at 5:38 pm

    I have a problem with ultra conservative members representing the church in anything. Teaching young impressionable minds is also concerning. Their attempts to redefine Church beliefs is unfortunate.

    The religion department at BYU needs to move off campus, and their classes should not be required for graduation. I’ve had enough of Millet, Peterson, Bott and their ilk. They do nothing but misrepresent and embarrass the Church.

  8. wec
    December 3, 2018 at 6:16 am

    John W,

    I have no problem with his video.
    Milk before meat?
    Pearls before swine?
    Line upon line?

    Those are controversial to you? Better not open your eyes to the suffering and tragedy that surrounds all existence if you think those concepts are controversial. Look around, there’s far more worse things than milk before meat — and that’s the very process that we are learning by. Indeed, if it’s how our Father progressed from grace to grace and became who He his.

    We shouldn’t try to teach everything at once when someone isn’t “ready” for it. We also don’t start building a roof before digging out the footings for a foundation. Don’t make roof the enemy of the wall upon which it sits.

    Read the new testament from the stand point of aggressive questioning from dissenters. The Savior was constantly given these gotcha questions. Sometimes he only partially answered. Sometimes he focused on what he needed to teach instead. Rarely, did he teach everything a person needs to know on the subject.

    It’s my personal experience, and supported by prophetic teaching, that God does not reveal everything at once and some things he saves to reveal himself to others.

    That being said I fully agree that the tendency to avoid arguing over sacred things has the potential to water down the doctrines we teach. That’s ultimately the issue that’s troublesome, but only if we assume there is not continuing revelation and further light and knowledge. Every generation has to receive so many of these truths all over again for themselves. And those who actually study diligently come to this knowledge on their own. Those who don’t — well, that’s kind of part of the plan as well. We all need to use our agency.

    I think talk of Gods and planets and the eternal destiny of all of God’s children is obviously very relevant to all of creation and everyone should learn it. But those doctrines of the priesthood can never come before simple teachings on charity and virtue. The gateway is baptism for remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Ghost, not a creedal Snow couplet, however true it is. That knowledge comes from a consecrated life after baptism. But yes — we also shouldn’t hide it. But really, some random question out of the blue and you want someone to teach a topic that can take a lifetime to fully understand? I could speak quite at length on the issue, but only after decades of consecration, temple worship, and service to my fellow man. And my mouth would be very much constrained.

    In church, from time to time we reinforce them and teach them. For me every doctrine and aspect of the gospel from modesty to priesthood to service can be connected back to our eternal destiny through Christ’s atonement. And listening to Br. Millet for 3 minutes in that clip makes it plainly obviously that he knows such as well.

    It would be wise to reconsider that we don’t always need to argue. If you’re not happy with that answer, I think another response is simply, we are all God’s children, what’s so controversial about that. But Br. Millet’s reply didn’t preclude that. He just recommended starting with the first vision. Laying the foundation before the wall and the roof.

    You and I don’t get to decide what God reveals to us and when.

  9. John W
    December 3, 2018 at 10:37 am

    wec, you miss the point. Why is “do Mormons believe that men can become gods” a controversial question that must be dodged? Why the need to feel persecuted because someone asks that question?

    “Pearls before swine?”

    I thought that meant not sharing personal revelation experiences or talking about what goes on in the endowment ceremony. Not refusing to talk about what can easily be accessed in church manuals and teachings.

    “I think talk of Gods and planets and the eternal destiny of all of God’s children is obviously very relevant to all of creation and everyone should learn it”

    Then why feel embarrassed or persecuted about it? Why not just own it and proceed? What sets the LDS church apart from Protestant churches anyway is the ideas of continuing revelation and that the Bible is not the entire word of God.

    “But those doctrines of the priesthood can never come before simple teachings on charity and virtue”

    The missionaries are not instructed to start off with the importance of virtue and charity, they start out full force teaching the doctrine of the Godhead and how JS’s first vision establishes that. JS sees two personages, not one. Bear in mind that the missionaries teach the doctrine of eternal progression (when I was a missionary, it was the third discussion) in which the ability to become a god is implied.

    “You and I don’t get to decide what God reveals to us and when”

    Didn’t God reveal to Joseph Smith that men can become gods? Then why not share that if people ask?

    There is an oversensitivity to evangelicals’ questions about LDS views on God. Yes, the LDS church teaches different things about God than Protestants and evangelicals. Why dodge questions about that? Yes, it has regularly been taught that Jesus and Satan are brothers and that men can become gods. It doesn’t mean that these beliefs are inherently un-Biblical or un-Christian, which is what some of these so-called ‘antagonists’ are are trying to portray the LDS church as. At the end of the day, we are not persecuted because people ask questions. Sometimes you can answer a question to someone’s satisfaction and sometimes you can’t. So what? Why be dodgy and crafty? It comes off as manipulative.

  10. John W
    December 3, 2018 at 11:22 am

    wec, one more thought. You write:

    “You and I don’t get to decide what God reveals to us and when”

    Here is the thing. It feels like you are trying to make Mormonism into something that it is not, as if its main focus is virtue and charity, and not its doctrines about God, thus contradicting what you write (this is also incorrect as charity and virtue are clearly secondary teachings, the most important being acknowledging Joseph Smith’s revelations about the Godhead, the Book of Mormon, and the LDS church being the only church with authority as true). I agree with what you wrote in the quoted text. Yes, Mormonism is all about God revealing things through prophets and learning to accept those things even if they come as inconveniences. So why skirt around them? This is odd especially given the fact that the LDS church and its followers appear to have no qualms whatsoever teaching the idea of the Godhead, but squirm at teaching of man being able to become a god.

  11. Clark Goble
    December 3, 2018 at 1:23 pm

    John W, just quickly I don’t have time to watch the video but going by your account it doesn’t sound like he’s advocating “dodgy sales tactics.” It’s just a good aspect of teaching to recognize people have a hard time formulating questions, especially those with wrought theological assumptions. Particularly with deification, what it means is actually far less developed in our theology than most assume. Yes most people (myself included) adopt a view fairly close to what Brigham Young taught. However there’s surprisingly little clear revelation for that. There’s also prominent figures with differing views. Blake Ostler’s theology where God the Father is unique in key ways is the best known. While I disagree with Blake, I also think that Pres. Hinkley was correct when he suggested this is a more complex and ambiguous topic than many assume. I recognize people who feel it a key doctrine disagree, the reality is that you can’t point to clear revelations on the issue. As Blake notes even the two key documents, the King Follet Discourse and Sermon in the Grove, are more ambiguous than most assume.

    While I definitely had my issues with CES & the religion department in the 90’s, I think some of the criticism in this thread is kind of ridiculously over the top. I think having a religion department is important. I just wish it were a better one. (Although I should hasten to add that friends at BYU tell me it’s much better today than when I was there)

  12. Stewart
    December 4, 2018 at 12:25 pm

    In the early 2000s Bob Millet and his Evangelical counterpart came to the university that I was attending to host a Mormon-Evangelical debate. It was well-attended, probably equal numbers of LDS and Evangelical students. I left feeling like a new man. I had never seen people disagree respectfully like that before. They each held true to their convictions, they both pointed out inconsistencies in the other’s beliefs, but they did it as friends. I had never seen anything like it before. It changed the way I view people of other faiths. I’m glad I attended.

  13. John W
    December 4, 2018 at 5:01 pm

    Clark, the video is three minutes long. Millet didn’t say, “help them articulate the question better” in which I imagine one could help the prospective investigator phrase a question that they were struggling to formulate, “is the question that you are trying to ask like this?” Millet told the class to “answer the question they should have asked” thus implicitly placing blame on the person asking questions for asking the wrong questions and considering them “antagonists” if they did. Of course, there is such a thing as antagonistic questions that the questioner uses in order to goad the unsuspecting missionary into a response, control the narrative, and then proceed to shame and disgrace. But even then, why try to obfuscate? Why not just answer directly and say that you’re willing to have a serious discussion when the questioner is. But the example of an antagonistic question was, “do Mormons believe that they can become gods?” The answer could be that such has been taught, but it is a vague and unexpounded idea and then use that to pivot into more central teachings. But the sentiment that Millet conveys is that 1) Mormons should carry around a persecution complex, 2) we have to almost trick the investigator into thinking that Mormonism appears more “mainstream” than it really is in order for them to eventually accept the more seemingly “controversial” teachings, and 3) that some teachings (which can be easily accessed with an online search) must be obfuscated and hidden.

    It must be accepted that it is not only evangelical Christians that have caused the teachings of eternal progression and Jesus being Satan’s brother to become controversial, but the LDS church itself. For these things have clearly been taught in the past, but the LDS leaders have repeatedly and deliberately tried to downplay them. It is almost as if the LDS church feels some shame for these teachings not being supposedly “Biblical” and causing the church not to appear “mainstream.” But I thought that it wasn’t about that. I thought that the Bible was supposed to be the word of God but not completely and that revelation played an important role in informing doctrine. If that is the case, then we should feel no shame in eternal progression and Jesus and Satan being brothers. It is what it is. Who cares what some seemingly annoying evangelicals think. In fact, their annoyance will probably decrease if the LDS church and its members just own those teachings and not consider those asking those questions to inherently be antagonists.

  14. Eric
    December 5, 2018 at 2:04 am

    This whole “answer the question they should have asked” idea isn’t just a dodgy sales tactic. When politicians and journalists do it, they call it “staying on message.” Sure, they can answer the question out of left field, and maybe even give a good answer in a sound bite-sized length rather than delivering another King Follett sermon. But that can easily lead the discussion down a rabbit hole it may never return from, as happened to me in the MTC when we were roleplaying a discussion with some elders in the adjacent classroom and did just that. So instead they stay on message, even if their message has little to do with the question they were asked.

    We’re not always satisfied when people do that, of course. And different people can stay on message more skillfully and elegantly than others, depending on the nature of the question they’re avoiding as well (for example, I don’t think the way President Hinckley tried to brush off that question in an interview was one of his finest moments). But talking to people about coming to Christ and helping them understand salvation need to happen before we entertain speculations about apotheosis and what comes after.

  15. John W
    December 5, 2018 at 5:41 am

    Eric, staying on message is different from treating someone like they asked the wrong question. And Millet didn’t say don’t get caught up in tangents and stick to the point. It is different to say something is tangential and irrelevant to the point at hand and to evade giving a straightforward answer because a question is inconvenient. You can clearly see this in politicians. Some reroute questions back to the relevant topic while others give dodgy answers out of a sense of feeling trapped and shame the questioner for asking the wrong question. Big difference.

    President Hinckley’s answer to Larry King’s question about deification was a disaster. He first answered, “I don’t know that we teach that,” but then to his credit attempts some damage control by following with, “I don’t know that we emphasize that.” It is akin to Elder Holland’s attempt to deny the fact that the symbol of slitting one’s throat used to be made in the temple ceremony in his interview with BBC’s John Sweeney, which he also walked back and clarified, but not before attempting to deny it. I think these interviews explain why the leaders haven’t consented to an interview in a while. It is also worth pointing out that when Mike Huckabee noted that Mormons teach that Jesus and brothers are Satan, that Mormon apologists tricked journalists (notably the NYTimes) into thinking that that is not what is actually taught and that Huckabee got Mormonism wrong, which he most certainly didn’t. Why wasn’t this just owned? Controversy would have died down. These ideas are taught. True, they may not necessarily be emphasized to the same extent as other teachings, but we all grew up hearing them. They were published in manuals and magazines made fully available to the public. It wasn’t like talking about the King Follett discourse was like divulging what went on the temple.

    As for the missionaries, you have to realize that they invite questions and should attempt to answer them rather than dodge them and treat the investigator poorly for asking the wrong question. Millet advocated dodginess to inconvenient questions through and through. Again, I cannot understand why LDS leaders, spokespersons, and missionaries can’t just give direct answers to deification and questions about the Godhead.

  16. December 5, 2018 at 11:25 am

    It might be worthwhile to drive some of the commentary back towards the actual substance of the interview segments posted here. I’m surprised at how passionate a few of the comments have been. Upon reflection, I wonder if perhaps that underscores the importance of what Millet and others do. In other words, people come from so many different backgrounds and respond to different types of communication. While Millet’s approach clearly is ineffective for some, it is essential for others.

    I find it interesting that when Millet and the others set up their interfaith dialogue, they purposefully set out to include only those who were adamant in their respective beliefs. As polarization can so easily lead to absurdity and cruelty, it makes the tone they achieved all the more impressive.

    You can tell Millet gained true friends in the process. In fact, while it’s clear he’s gained enemies while trying to do good, Millet almost minimizes the pushback he has received and focuses most on the abuse his Evangelical friends such as Richard Mouw have received. None of these individuals compromised their beliefs, and yet a certain segment of their fellow believers were incensed a dialogue ever occurred.

    It causes one to reflect on what importance God will ultimately place on sincerely held beliefs versus the way His children treat each other. Both are clearly important, but problems arise when beliefs are firmly held and defended with hostility – or beliefs are forsaken for the sake of not rocking boat.

    I also was interested to see Millet and others identify Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s final General Conference address as a formative moment in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I have always found the talk to be powerful, but had not realized it played a major role in significant emphases of the Church since then.

    Another snippet of interest is John Turner, the Evangelic scholar Millet mentions, is one of the three finalists to succeed Philip Barlow as the Leonard J. Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University.

    Chris Blythe has a great introductory breakdown of the three candidates over at Juvenile Instructor (https://juvenileinstructor.org/the-arrington-chair-a-reflection-on-what-could-go-into-selecting-a-mormon-studies-chair/)

  17. Eric
    December 5, 2018 at 4:34 pm

    John W: You say there’s a big difference between “answering the question they should have asked” and “staying on message.” But how are they different? If you have certain things you want to say, and the questions asked from the other person don’t completely relate, then your options are to let them hijack the discussion with such questions, or guide them back to what you want to talk about.

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