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Popular theologian explores Mormon-evangelical debate

SHARE Popular theologian explores Mormon-evangelical debate

What happens when an evangelical and a Mormon sit down to talk about religion? Shouting? Accusations? Misrepresentation? Not when the evangelicall is Gerald McDermott, a professor at Roanoke College, and the Mormon is Robert Millet, a professor at Brigham Young University.

Their book, "Claiming Christ: A Mormon-Evangelical Debate" (Brazos Press, 2007) is an in-depth exploration of what Mormons and evangelical believe about Jesus Christ. It builds upon the pioneering conversations between Craig Blomberg and Stephen Robinson that were explored in the book "How Wide the Divide" a decade earlier.

Now McDermott and Millet's debate is attracting the attention of Stephen H. Webb, a prominent theologian from Wabash College. In his review of "Claiming Christ" in the July issue of Reviews in Religion & Theology, Webb wrote, " Traditional Christianity's suspicion of Mormonism runs so high that taking Mormon theology seriously can require something like a spiritual, if not intellectual transformation. The theology of the Latter Day Saints is soaked in Christology, and coming to recognizing how another religious movement truly recognizes your own savior in spite of differences in how that savior is described can be a powerful experience."

Webb said he found himself transformed somewhat by the book, but confessed, "When I have told this to other theologians, they have warned me about the potential treachery of engaging Mormons in theological debate. Part of the problem has to do with the complexity and secrecy of Mormon beliefs. Mormon apologists can pick and choose their beliefs, playing up or down ideas that others might find odd or offensive."

But Webb found himself trusting Millet's sincerity because the friendship between Millet and McDermott seemed so genuine. "Their friendship lets them argue with daring and honesty," Webb wrote, "but it is their commitment to the truth that makes this book truly edifying."

Webb has a theological interest in the pre-existence of Christ and found this part of the debate particularly interesting. "At issue here is a radically materialistic understanding of divinity as well as a range of speculations about Christ and the Trinity that should show evangelicals what would have happened had papal authority not solidified the church around the Nicene Creed," he wrote.

Webb's review of the debate is a call to take Mormons seriously. He thinks that the Mormons' beliefs keep fundamental questions alive that more liberal theologians have tried to squash. "Reading this book has convinced me that arguing with Mormons about even the most obscure points of their theology would be more productive (and more fun) than arguing with liberal theologians about anything at all," he wrote (parentheses in original quote).

Webb seems to have a little of what the late Krister Stendahl, emeritus Lutheran Bishop of Stockholm and professor emeritus of Harvard Divinity School, called "holy envy": the ability to find elements in other faiths worthy of emulation.

"At the heart of Mormon cosmic optimism is the idea that the incarnation of Jesus was not an afterthought to creation or a contingent response to an accidental fall of humanity into sin," Webb wrote. "Christ embodied is the center of the cosmos; he lived as we do before we were created to be like him."

Webb does not agree with Mormon theology; but he appreciates it better than he had before he read "Claiming Christ." His review's conclusion is radical in its openness and in its hope for illumination on both sides of the debate: "No other religious movement (and I include the contemporary varieties of Judaism) lies so close to traditional Christianity while speaking in such a vexing voice. To shut out this voice as more imaginative than revelatory is to deny the whispers of our own hearts longing. It is time to listen and to learn, but first to forgive and seek forgiveness for all that has separated us in the past."