On Russell McGregor's Review of "The Mormon Defenders"

A word at first of explanation, regarding The FARMS Review of Books. FARMS is the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, the shall we say "professional" branch of Mormon apologetics staffed by true scholars. The Review is a journal set aside for reviewing relevant literature about Mormonism, pro and con. It's an honor to appear in it, but quite honestly, the author, Russell McGregor, did that journal a serious dishonor to with his review.

Titled, "The Anti-Mormon Attackers", the review begins with a cite of Eccl. 1:9. The theme is that "the anti-Mormon enterprise [is like] selling old clothes from a shiny new pushcart."

What's that now? TMD by anyone's reckoning -- including that of several Mormons I have shared the material with -- contains almost entirely new arguments; which is to say, the data is not new, but it has never before been applied to a Mormon situation. For example, the idea that "image and likeness" means our "stewardship" representation of God on earth is well known from OT scholarship texts; it just has never found it's way to being used as an argument against the Mormon use of passages like Gen. 1:26. Not that I was otherwise aware of, anyway.

And not that McGregor shows it at first, either. Rather than address the text to begin, McGregor goes to the back cover, where my good friend Kevin Bywater of Summit Ministries had provided a commendation, selected from the Foreword he wrote. McGregor comments that it "seems unusual to me for a book's recommendation to be quoted directly from the book itself."

It does? As a librarian by trade, I have noted that it is a known practice to put blurbs from a Foreword on a book's back cover, or on the flyleaf, or somewhere else where it will be seen; not that it makes a difference, for what does this have to do with the book's contents anyway? Is this sort of pedantic objection to be expected from the leading professional journals of the top Mormon apologetics organization?

And yet it continues. My profession in the Introduction to deliver the claims of "top-notch Biblical scholarship" is replied to thusly: "This level of self-certification makes no concessions to false modesty. Whatever the actual quality of the scholarship here, the author certainly thinks it is formidable."

But McGregor severs my quote somewhat; he puts it as, that "[Holding] promises to deliver the goods in the form of 'top-notch Biblical scholarship'", but the full quote is, "by bringing top-notch scholarship to bear upon Mormon truth claims."

Is this MY scholarship? No, it's the scholarship of the people I cite -- folks like Ben Witherington III, Larry Hurtado, Simon Kistemaker, etc.

And still it continues. We are told that TMD is "in part, another response to Blomberg and Robinson's How Wide the Divide? - a book that seemingly continues to disturb those who have trouble accepting the proposition that individuals can believe differently and still be Christians."

"Disturb"? What place is there in a professional journal for this sort of psychoanalytic treatment? This is all the more inappropriate since I didn't even address the question of whether Mormons can rightly claim the name of "Christian" because frankly, I consider that to be a diversion in context. I am less concerned, by far, with whether Mormons can be called "Christians" than I am with the issue of whether or not what they say is correct. I mainly want to know if what you say is right or wrong. It seems that some LDS apologists (so far a minority I have seen) are too wedded to the standard answers to see what the real question is.

As for HTWD, it disturbs me not in the least. I think Blomberg showed that Mormon scholarship and apologetics have very little to offer.

No, it still goes on. After naming the chapter subjects and commenting on the format in which I use summary notes at the end of each chapter, McGregor returns to the Foreword -- those arguments in the text are just going to have to wait -- by objecting that when Bywater says that "Mormonism is not biblical", it's of no worth, because "neither he nor Holding spells out is what they mean by 'biblical.'"

How hard is this? "Biblical" = "in agreement with the Bible." Obviously, not 100% (because not even the worst atheist disagrees with the Bible 100%) but at core points that are distinctives.

In this paragraph at last we have some substantive comment:

The hermeneutic approach appears to shift as the author moves from subject to subject; the only overriding principle appears to be a search for whatever readings provide the most useful argument against Latter-day Saint beliefs and truth claims. Thus, in his attempt to support the nonscriptural notion of an ontological trinity, he builds up what he calls an "interpretive template" based on a mixture of canonical, deuterocanonical, and noncanonical Wisdom literature (pp. 36-40), which he then uses to control the biblical passages he chooses to examine. Then, having relied on these sources to teach Latter-day Saints how to read the Bible, he subsequently chides Latter-day Saint apologists for citing the same sources.

But it is nevertheless little but vague generalization. The approach shifts, and I'm just looking for anything? How about an answer to one of those "anythings" I propose? No? I'm just "controlling" the Biblical text? Never mind the precision matches in terminology; I'm just "choosing" texts? What others does McGregor have in refutation?

Let me be plain here: What has clearly happened is that McGregor simply does not possess the capability to understand and therefore review TMD, and this may be shown further as he finally attempts to address actual arguments.

My chapter on 1 Cor. 15:29 is dismissed as "appealing to an argument from silence and to pagan customs - in other words, he bases his argument entirely on nonbiblical grounds."

It is impossible to say what McGregor is claiming here. I did not appeal to silence, and it is not said what "pagan customs" I appealed to -- it could have been Paul's use of Greco-Roman rhetorical procedures or DeMaris' parallels drawn to funerary rites. In the latter case, we would have an instance in which the Corinthians fell back into pagan custom -- something McGregor, who believes in an early apostasy, can hardly deny the relevance or possibility of.

I say:

Therefore, we argue that the majority interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15:29 is off the mark. A more reasonable thesis is that the practice was devoid of theological meaning and thus not requiring Paul's explicit condemnation, or else, that we are misunderstanding the passage completely.

McGregor oddly takes this to mean:

Either the passage doesn't mean anything, or we don't understand it - but whatever the case, its meaning must be sacrificed. What isn't biblical?

No, not "doesn't mean anything," it's "doesn't mean anything theological". Further, I hardly stopped there and provided nothing to explain how we should be understanding the passage. But McGregor says nothing of that.

It is said:

In contrast to this approach, Holding becomes a staunch and loyal enthusiast for majority opinion or scholarship as soon as it suits his purposes.

Hardly so. I follow such views as are demanded by the data, majority or not. The subject this time is Mark 16:15-16, and to my note that "the reader may be surprised to see this verse cited by LDS apologists, knowing that it is almost universally declared to be not part of the original Gospel of Mark," McGregor offers the derisive comment, "Just exactly why the fashions of scholarship should determine which passages of scripture form part of the faith of the Latter-day Saints is not clear, but Holding does not even attempt to address the real issue regarding the authenticity and authority of that passage; the actual question has to do not with Mark's authorship but rather with whether Jesus actually made the statement. Matthew 28:19-20 would seem to suggest that he did say it or at least something very much like it."

Hardly so. Matt. 28:19-20 is, under the evidence given, a model for Mark 16:15-16, and that "fashion of scholarship" has to do with sound textual-critical principles that I list in full but McGregor doesn't even comment on. Mark IS the only source for us to decide whether Jesus made that statement as he did, as his text is clearly not original between 16:9-20, and the appeal to Matthew's parallel is msiplaced.

McGregor then abandons actual argument again to remark upon my "repeatedly assuming that Mormon and Christian are distinct categories."

This is yet another misdirection. As I have told my Mormon friend Kevin Graham, and which he quite clearly understood, my repeated use of such statements as, "A fundamental point of contention between Mormonism and Christianity . . ." is not meant as any kind of social statement about division. These are terms of convenience for the average reader. McGregor spends far more time on such peripherals than he does addressing arguments.

But will there be any such addressing? Apparently not. McGregor tells us that a "detailed critique...would run to many pages and would be tedious." Apparently McGregor was too busy counting the number of places I used the words "Mormonism" and "Christianity" in opposition.

He says: "What is worthy of note is that the real nuts-and-bolts content of this book is substantially the same as most of the doctrinal anti-Mormon books produced by evangelical Protestants."

Really? There is in fact no other "anti-Mormon" book that comes at the issue of faith through the Semitic Totality concept, or at 1 Cor. 15:29 via the avenue of Greco-Roman rhetoric, or at the Trinity issue via the Wisdom literature, or to the "image" issue via the testimony of Josephus and Tacitus. You won't find one. You also won't find McGregor addressing specifics. Calling the work tendentious is not a reply. I realize this was a book review with limited space, but addressing at least ONE argument in detail would have made for some worthwhile effort.

On the positive end, McGregor allows that TMD "really does improve on some of those of its predecessors in its tone. It neither bristles with hostility, as most earlier productions do, nor drips with insincere, condescending friendliness, as some of the more recent efforts do. Apart from one lapse in Bywater's foreword, I saw none of the usual accusations of 'dishonesty' that conservative Protestant anti-Mormons tend to fling at Latter-day Saints for failing to describe our own faith in terms amenable to the hostile caricatures our opponents have fashioned and prefer. His approach is businesslike and his tone scholarly."

McGregor forgot to add that I never use the "c-word" (cult) in my book. The reason for this in part is that -- up until now -- LDS apologists I have dealt with have for the most part earned my respect as being interested in dealing with the issues. There are exceptions (Edward Watson, for example) and McGregor, thanks to this non-review, is one of these. And statements like these do nothing to suggest that this is a wrong impression:

Nonetheless, his agenda is clear from the title he has chosen. For defenders do not contend against other defenders; attackers do. And since Holding's book purports to "contend with The Mormon Defenders" (back cover), its single purpose appears to be to attack.

I just agonized over a title that would represent my agenda, did I? The Reality: I was going to call it The Mormon Challenge until I found out the The New Mormon Challenge was being released at about the same time. Book titles are not easy to come up with. The standard advice in the publishing realm says to make it short and memorable (subtitles may be longer); to put a word at the very beginning that will clearly state your subject and make the book easy to find in searches (thus "Mormon" or "Mormonism" is practically mandatory for a book like this, as the very first word is best) and since my focus was on LDS apologists (as the SUBTITLE clearly indicates), "Defenders" was an appropos word to use and one I regarded as non-confrontational, putting the focus on the efforts of Mormon apologists (not Mormonism as a whole) without making a judgmental statement (as opposed to other books that use words like "illusion" or "counterfeit" or "mask" to suggest deception).

But I was apparently wrong. There's no way you can evade everyone's willful misrepresentation. For what it is worth, again, my friend Kevin Graham knew of the title before it was published, and thought it was just fine. In fact, we discussed it to a fair extent and he didn't get in the least upset by it.

McGregor issues some more about definitions, objecting that TMD "fails to define crucial terms, such as biblical, Christian, and Mormon. Perhaps he felt it necessary to avoid such definitions since they might raise questions that would undermine his entire enterprise." Other than what I said about "Biblical" above: perhaps I just thought definitions were irrelevant in the context of my discussion. As noted, I am far, far more concerned with defining "correct" and "incorrect"; from there let the reader decide on their own whether they are in the right place or not. I have no desire to deal with people's persecution complexes. TMD was designed to be as "un-anti-Mormon" as possible, but you can't please everyone, it seems, especially McGregor.

McGregor closes with yet another vague accusation of focus-shifting as needed, then offers one specific that TMD "relies heavily on such fallacies as the argument from silence, particularly when he insists that the many biblical accounts of divine appearances in human form do not indicate that God might not take some other form when no one is looking (pp. 15-16) or that Jesus might not simply be dissolving his body when he does not need to put in an earthly appearance (pp. 22-23)."

That's because the LDS arguments I addressed were themselves arguments from silence; i.e., that God's forms are permanent manifestations (when the texts say nothing of the sort, and where McGregor gets that "no one is looking" description I can only guess, as I say nothing of the sort) and that Jesus' body was likewise a permanent feature. The words "permanent" and "always embodied" appear nowhere. Neither side, then, can use such texts in their favor; as I clearly say, these passages "tell us nothing" -- not "tells us we are right".

So what can I say? This review was a far cry from the sort of responsible report I had been expecting from FARMS, and while I must make it clear that this doesn't tarnish the reputation of the whole of LDS apologists in my view, it does make McGregor a lot less credible.