Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

A Perplexing Gift: Toward Clarity in the Evangelical-Mormon Interfaith Dialogue on Grace

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

A Perplexing Gift: Toward Clarity in the Evangelical-Mormon Interfaith Dialogue on Grace

Article excerpt

The interfaith dialogue between evangelicals and Mormons has progressed significantly in recent years. Moving beyond the "anti-Mormon" invectives of the past,1 evangelicals have become increasingly concerned to conduct civil and productive discussions with Mormons and vice versa. Derek J. Bowen has noted several reasons for why, particularly in the past two decades, there have been significant advances in the evangelical-Mormon dialogue, including (1) evangelicalism's loss of influence and normativity in American society; (2-3) broad political and ethical affinities between evangelicals and Mormons; (4) theological shifts within Mormonism; (5) Rev. Gregory C. V. Johnson's Utah-based ministry directed in part toward interfaith dialogue, Standing Together; (6) publications that model interfaith dialogue;2 and (7) a semiannual dialogue between evangelical and Mormon scholars.3 These advances in evangelical-Mormon dialogue have provided more opportunities and platforms for evangelicals and Mormons to interact. In the wake of these developments, the present authors have personal experience organizing, leading, and participating in formal dialogues between evangelical college students and General Authorities within the Mormon Church, as well as students and faculty of various institutes of religion in California, Idaho, and Utah, including the flagship Mormon institution of higher education, Brigham Young University. In these contexts, the doctrine of grace in particular has been foregrounded as an important topic of discussion- one that at times has proven rather unwieldy and thus stands in need of further clarification. It is the purpose of this article to provide precisely that.

Grace, however, has not only been a major aspect of the evangelical-Mormon dialogue in recent years; it has also been a major topic of discussion within LDS circles. According to anthropologist and theologian Douglas J. Davies, there are two primary reasons for this:

What may be happening ... is a twofold development in turn of the century and millennium LDS life. The one answers the needs of devoted Saints, labouring under apparently impossible goals of achievement, the other displays the preparedness of a Church that now need not fear its distinctive identity to accept wider Christian theological terms. It is as though modern Mormonism feels free to draw on the discourse of grace. This is due, partly, to the influence of Evangelical Christianity in many parts of the world and, partly, to the real pastoral need of a striving Mormon membership.4

If Davies is correct, evangelicals bear some responsibility for the recent rise of grace language amongst Mormons.

LDS scholars themselves are divided over the proper interpretation of the increase in grace discourse among Mormons. On the one hand, scholars such as Camille Fronk Olson, associate professor of ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University, suggest that the dearth of grace discourse in most of LDS history was due to a fear that emphasizing grace would lead to a lack of "obedience and discipleship." 5 The tide began to change, Olson contends, after a Newsweek article appeared in 1980 suggesting that Mormonism taught that humanity received salvation strictly through their own means-a claim that precipitated a major response from Mormons at large who felt misrepresented.6 From there, Olson points out, the frequency of grace language surged within Mormonism, and ultimately, she suggests, this shiftconstitutes a return to the heart of early Mormon theology.7 Alternatively, another LDS scholar, O. Kendall White Jr., understands this trend as a significant shiftwithin Mormonism (and one that goes beyond a theology of grace itself). White suggests that traditional Mormon articulations of salvation by merit, among other historic theological convictions, are being replaced by a "neo-orthodox" configuration that resembles Protestant theology particularly in regard to its soteriology. 8 Thus, some LDS scholars see the recent changes in LDS grace discourse as a return to early Mormonism, whereas others see it as a fundamental deviation from it. …

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