Peterson and Ricks' "Offenders for a Word"

C. S. Lewis once remarked that the use of the term Christian has become much like the use of the term gentleman: It once had a very specific and distinguished meaning (associated with nobility) which was gradually expanded as those lacking the term (and thereby its associated benefits) demanded their "rights" to the term until today when gentleman is used to refer to anyone from Prince Charles to Ted Bundy. In Offenders for a Word, leading LDS defenders Daniel Peterson and Stephen Ricks are very intent upon securing rights to the term Christian for themselves and their brethren.

Do they succeed? That depends on what can be made of their tactics, and indications are that while they fire a lot of ammo, they are aiming for the wrong target.

The tactic of these writers is basically this:

  1. Because LDS believes X, the popular "anti-Mormon" literature says they are not Christian.
  2. But (insert name[s] here) also believed X, and they were never denied the name "Christian".
  3. Therefore, LDS belief in X does not constitute a reason to deny Mormons the title "Christian".

The problem here is that Peterson and Ricks concern themselves so much with "obtaining a word" that they barely make any effort to show that the "belief X" in question is actually true: It does no good to show how you had something in common with an ancient believer unless you also show that you are not claiming solidarity on the basis of error. Ultimately in this case, it doesn't matter whether you acquire the "word" or not.

One may perhaps excuse Peterson and Ricks for this (as the former somewhat excused himself in writing to me about this review) on the grounds that they want to assume that the matters of doctrinal truth can be settled elsewhere. That's just fine, but it nevertheless makes Offenders for a Word of little practical use. These LDS scholars make some fair shots against the popular "anti-Mormon" literature; it remains to be seen (even as I edit this in 2009) whether they can fare as well against the best in Evangelical scholarship.