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Critics Corner


Observations about The Evangel
January 2000

by Dr. Daniel C. Peterson

Subject: Phil Roberts's Article in the January 2000 Evangel
Date: Sat, 22 Jan 2000 17:13:50 -0700
From: "Daniel C. Peterson" <>

Dear Dennis: 

The January 2000 Evangel is much improved.  Truth be told, I rather miss the old Evangel.  It was a lot funnier.  The new, more grammatical, less outlandish Evangel is a great deal less entertaining.  But I suppose that's the price that we have to pay for progress. 

Nonetheless, I'll occasionally offer some observations on articles in The Evangel.  Right now, I'd like to comment briefly on R. Philip Roberts's front page piece, "A Hellenized Gospel or an American Messiah?" 

* "Additionally, the great ecumenical councils of the Church from Nicea on are thought to be frivolous and false in the minds of Mormon leaders."  

I've never heard any Mormon leader, nor heard of any Mormon leader, who described the council of Nicea or any other of the ecumenical councils as "frivolous." 

* Dr. Roberts informs his readers of "the pattern of belief within much of LDS life that the Bible is not to be trusted."

I know of no such pattern.  Evangelical anti-Mormons routinely exaggerate the degree to which Latter-day Saints are critical of the Bible -- virtually always to the point of outrageous caricature.  I suspect, in this case, that Dr. Roberts's exaggeration is related to the "battle for the Bible" that has recently raged within the SBC.  No such battle has ever occurred within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and we almost universally take a comparatively conservative approach to the historicity of the Bible. 

* Dr. Roberts quite correctly declares that "to castigate universally everything that was thought, believed and taught [in historic, post-biblical Christianity] as corrupted and wrong is an overstatement of the worst kind."

I couldn't agree more.  For him to attribute such a ludicrous view to the Latter-day Saints is indeed "an overstatement of the worst kind."  He is beating a straw man.  I can't see how that would be particularly satisfying. 

* Dr. Roberts cites Matthew 16:18 -- where "the gates of hell" are said to be unable to "prevail" against the church -- as evidence that there cannot have been a general apostasy.  

I have written about this passage elsewhere.  Suffice it to note that, once one realizes that the Greek word underlying "hell" in the King James rendering of this verse is hades, which refers to the morally neutral destination of all the dead, the verse cannot be taken to mean that evil will never overcome the church.  It must mean that death will not overcome the church.  And that is quite a different thing -- not inconsistent with a universal apostasy, but also, given its context (e.g., the discussion of the sealing keys) entirely congruent with ordinance work for the dead.  But that, naturally, is a big discussion, and must be reserved for another time and place. 

* Dr. Roberts announces that "the Holy Spirit was promised to be the divine superintendent of the Bible so that its words would be God's message completely, accurately, and finally (John 16:13; 2 Peter 1:21)."

There seems, however, to be absolutely nothing -- nothing whatsoever -- to support Dr. Roberts's claim in either of the verses that he cites.  Nothing in either verse speaks of the Bible at all, let alone says that it is God's complete word, let alone says anything of its accuracy or lack thereof, let alone says that it is God's final revelation.  Is this simply a typographical mistake?  Did Dr. Roberts perhaps intend to cite other verses than these? 

* "Mormonism's blanket condemnation of the Gospel, as having been Hellenized beyond recognition," writes Dr. Roberts, "is grossly and unfairly overstated."  

No, what is "grossly and unfairly overstated" here is Dr. Roberts's claim that "Mormonism [makes a] blanket condemnation of the Gospel."  Latter-day Saints do no such thing.  And we certainly do not believe that it has been "Hellenized beyond recognition."  Dr. Roberts is serving up a caricature here, not a serious portrait. 

* "Lehi goes West with his family," says Dr. Roberts, attempting to demonstrate the supposed "Americanism" of Latter-day Saint belief.  ("Go West, young man," was Horace Greeley's famous nineteenth-century advice.)

But this is not true.  Lehi traveled to the southeast, down to the Gulf of Aqaba (or Eilat) and then along the Red Sea to the Arabian coast.  From there, he almost certainly sailed eastward.  Thus, since Dr. Roberts's claim is factually untrue, it cannot support the overall point he is attempting to make. 

* Dr. Roberts thereupon writes that, after Lehi's family's arrival in the New World, they "gradually migrat[ed] Northward into the present day United States." 

Once again, he is attempting to demonstrate the supposed "Americanism" of Latter-day Saint scripture and belief.  But virtually no serious student of Book of Mormon geography would agree to Dr. Roberts's claim.  Book of Mormon scholars are almost universally agreed that the primary location of the Book of Mormon story is in Mesoamerica.  Here again, since Dr. Roberts's claim is very likely untrue, it offers at most dubious support for the overall point he is attempting to make. 

* Finally, Dr. Roberts explains that, "The last pivotal battle of the Book of Mormon [sic] occurs, of course, in the present day state of New York at a place named by Smith as Cumorah." 

This too is supposedly evidence for the "Americanism" of Latter-day Saint scripture and belief.  I wrote an article some time back for a book being edited by the eminent biblical scholar David Noel Freedman.  Permit me to quote from a letter he sent to me on 17 December 1998, which I just happen to have on my desk:  Regarding the word "obviously," Freedman says "I have a constitutional objection to these self-reinforcing and self-serving adverbs, which we all use (sub- or unconsciously, to intimidate the reader into agreeing with whatever half-boiled or parboiled ideas we wish to float).  I say, candidly, nothing is obvious in dealing with the ancient or even medieval world, perhaps even less true of the modern world.  Even worse than words like 'obviously' is the phrase 'of course,' which I abominate totally."  I cite Professor Freedman because Dr. Roberts offers a particularly clear cut example of what he was complaining about.  In this very instance, Dr. Roberts has used the phrase "of course" to introduce two very doubtful notions into his array of alleged evidence.  It is not obvious that the last battle occurred in New York.  A careful reading of the Book of Mormon leads to the clear and inescapable conclusion that that battle occurred within a few days' journey of "the narrow neck of land."  Whether that "narrow neck of land" is taken to be the Isthmus of Panama, as in the old (and in my view, na´ve) hemispheric view of Book of Mormon geography, or the Isthmus of Tehuantepec or something nearby, as in the newer, more scholarly accounts of the subject, the final battle cannot have been in New York.   Moreover, it is not obvious that Joseph Smith used the name "Cumorah" for the glacial drumlin in upstate New York where the plates were found.  Evidence for that proposition is, at best, unclear.  Once more, since Dr. Roberts's claims appear to be false, they offer little or no support for the overall point he is attempting to make. 

* "Smith," Dr. Roberts writes, "asserted that the Garden of Eden . . . had been situated in Adam-ondi-Ahman just outside of Independence.  (The birthplace of Harry S. Truman is a lovely town, but it is not paradise!)"

Dr. Roberts's parenthetical quip elicits a chuckle, as it was intended to do.  But, logically, it is an irrelevant cheapshot.  It is true that Independence is not paradise.  But neither is Damascus, which is another candidate for the one-time site of Eden.  Neither is Sri Lanka, which is yet another.  And Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the traditionally leading candidate for Eden, is about as far from paradise as it is possible to be, even on this fallen earth.  Does Dr. Roberts believe that Eden's paradisiacal garden survives somewhere today?  I would guess that he does not.  In which case, pointing out that today's Missouri is not paradise is completely beside the point. 

* Dr. Roberts alleges that "every President and Apostle since [Joseph] Smith has been an American."  

Really?  Off the top of my head, I think of President John Taylor, an Englishman.  I think of Elders James E. Talmage and George Q. Cannon and Charles W. Penrose and John R. Winder and George Teasdale, also Englishmen.  Elder Charles W. Nibley was Scottish.  Elder Anthon Hendrik Lund was Danish, Elders Nathan Eldon Tanner and Hugh B. Brown and Marriner W. Merrill were Canadians.  Elder John A. Widtsoe was Norwegian.  Elder Charles A. Callis was Irish.  Does Dr. Roberts do any research before he writes?  Once again, since Dr. Roberts's claim is factually false, it cannot be used to support his claim that Mormonism is purely American. 

* Most seriously, perhaps, Dr. Roberts tries to tie Latter-day Saint belief in the potential deification of human beings to American optimism and the tales of Horatio Alger -- evidently in complete innocence of the widespread and very ancient Christian doctrine of theosis.

This is simply embarrassing.  But, yet again, since a proposition that he adduces in support of his general thesis is manifestly untrue, it does not contribute any support at all to his more general contention. 

* In closing, Dr. Roberts cites NKJV Titus 3:5-6 as a purported contrast to Latter-day Saint teaching: "not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior."

There is, it should scarcely need saying, absolutely nothing in this biblical passage with which a Latter-day Saint would disagree.  It remains one of the quaintly endearing features of some evangelical anti-Mormonism that it assumes, with remarkable frequency, that Latter-day Saints are completely unaware of what is in the Bible.  That we have never read that book, and perhaps never even seen it. 

Well, it was fun reading Dr. Roberts's article.  I hope he'll write more. 

Best wishes, 

Dan Peterson