Church Endorses Apologetics, Sort Of

Here is a clear positive step for the Church: posting an online resources page with almost 30 links to pages or sites with information on LDS doctrine and history. Each link gets zero, one, or two asterisks, depending on if it is within the domain (zero), if it is a Church-related site like that is not within the domain (one), or if it is a third-party site not directly affiliated with the Church (two asterisks). The page is actually under the Seminaries & Institutes umbrella as part of the Doctrinal Mastery program (the upgraded Scripture Mastery). And what are they linking to, you ask?

The no asterisk group includes:

The single asterisk group includes:

Here’s where it gets interesting. The double asterisk group includes:

Those four double-asterisk sites can all be described as practicing LDS apologetics. The page contains this disclaimer: Double-starred websites (**) are maintained by a third party that is unaffiliated with the Church. By linking to this content The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not endorse the content of these sites. Except that including a link to these sites on a page of resources intended to “enhance gospel learning and help provide answers to doctrinal, historical, and social questions” clearly constitutes an implicit endorsement, not necessarily of every word on the site but at least of the site in general. Another vote for apologetics, it seems.

In terms of my other recent post, these sites are clearly practicing “good apologetics”: the content authors are scholars or are well informed and the sites are edited and generally avoid rhetorical excess. FairMormon will even route your question to a volunteer who will get back to you with a one-on-one response and conversation. But good apologetics comes in different flavors, and these sites are all using the Old FARMS model. The newer approach of granting some legitimacy to faith questions and injecting some nuance into orthodox positions, pioneered by Terryl Givens (The Crucible of Doubt) and Patrick Mason (Planted), is nowhere to be found in the links, unless you dig around Mormon Scholars Testify and know who to look for. I suppose that’s to be expected on a resource page by S&I, an organization that still seems enmeshed in Elder McConkie’s writings and Old FARMS thinking.

But let’s end on a positive note. I recognize that the average seminary or college student with a question about polygamy or Mountain Meadows or current LDS policy on this or that is just going to google it, not search this resource page. But providing helpful links to offsite resources is a step forward. It signals to both teachers and students, as well as the general membership, that seeking information to deal with questions or issues is a good thing.

25 comments for “Church Endorses Apologetics, Sort Of

  1. Seems to me that “endorsement with caveats” is a good way of putting it. Heaven knows I disagree with some. I did a non-T&S post on the Mormon Central article on bows and arrows for instance. I don’t think anyone writing at those locations would want a stronger endorsement from the Church. There is hardly unanimity of view there but they’re also often useful resources I’m glad the Church is pointing out.

    My only quibble is that I think BYU Studies and the Maxwell Institute probably deserve the double asterisk treatment as well. Which is in no way a criticism of them. Just that the relationship between any paper in BYU Studies or the Maxwell Institute and the Church is pretty tenuous and more akin to FAIR or the Interpreter. It’s true they’re part of BYU and thus have a closer relationship. But half the writers at the Interpreter or FAIR are BYU professors so I’m not sure there’s that significant a difference. I make an exception for the Encyclopedia of Mormonism simply because from my understanding the First Presidency went over several of the articles requesting edits. So there’s a relationship closer to say what we have with lesson manuals. i.e. I’m not sure appealing to where it is hosted is a good way of dealing with the connection to the church.

    I am curious as to how you contrast FARMS and what you see as new apologetics of Givens and Mason. I ask because I confess I don’t see a huge difference beyond the old FARMS getting overly polemical at times. But certainly most of their stuff wasn’t like that. However some on both sides do see a big difference. You make this point and Duane Boyce’s recent controversial article at The Interpreter makes a similar point from what we might call the other side. To me while Givens and Mason might have some temperamental differences from say Bill Hamblin or Dan Peterson and perhaps some theological differences, ultimately to my eyes their general perspective on apologetics are pretty similar. Maybe I’m wrong in saying that, but I confess I don’t see a big difference.

  2. This is simply not true: “The newer approach of granting some legitimacy to faith questions and injecting some nuance into orthodox positions, pioneered by Terryl Givens (The Crucible of Doubt) and Patrick Mason (Planted), is nowhere to be found in the links.” Givens and Mason have both made presentations at FairMormon conferences and Givens has published with Interpreter. Book of Mormon Central has relied on both Givens and Mason in producing its material. I could provide a mountain of evidence beyond that that demonstrates “granting some legitimacy to faith questions and injecting some nuance into orthodox position,” but I’ll leave it at that.

  3. “The newer approach of granting some legitimacy to faith questions and injecting some nuance into orthodox positions, pioneered by Terryl Givens (The Crucible of Doubt) and Patrick Mason (Planted), is nowhere to be found in the links, unless you dig around Mormon Scholars Testify and know who to look for.”

    I was going to strongly disagree with this as well.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Steve. I hope you noticed I said some nice things about FairMormon.

    But it’s not like it’s one big happy apologetic family. Take a look at the latest Interpreter post, which takes both Givens and Mason to task for suggesting reasonable positions like (1) that LDS leaders get revelation from time to time, not once an hour; and (2) that the 1978 revelation corrected an error in how the Church is run.

    The first dispute seems to turn on the author’s seemingly intended confusion between inspiration and revelation, as those terms are used in the Church. Most statements I’ve heard from leadership are more likely to endorse the reasonable Givens/Mason view of occasional revelation. And what exactly is the author asserting about the priesthood and temple ban: that revelations never correct errors? Isn’t that what most revelations do, historically, correct faulty views? And what is the position he is arguing for, that God made the error and then changed his mind in 1978? That there was no error and there was nothing problematic about the policy as it was instituted and practiced for over a century?

    So my problem with old-style LDS apologetics, at least as now continued by Interpreter, at least from the vantage point of 2017, is that it too often offers unreasonable and unpersuasive answers to sincere questions. That people in the Old FARMS camp see people like Givens and Mason as misguided or threatening shows how out of touch that older approach has become. If Givens and Mason (and others) nevertheless interact and participate in conferences, etc., it is certainly to their credit. That Interpreter publishes trash like the latest essay shows that if there is any cooperation or teamwork going on, it’s not Interpreter that is making it happen, it’s Givens and Mason.

  5. Dave, can’t apologists have disagreements on particular claims without that constituting a major difference in apologetic attitude? It’s not hard to find back in the classic days of FARMS articles written criticizing other FARMS articles. I doubt everyone agrees with everything others write at the Interpreter. A great recent example was Brant Gardner disagreeing with aspects of John Sorenson’s recent book.

  6. Dave: Yes. I appreciate the details regarding FairMormon’s work. And as a board member of Interpreter, I appreciate this post, generally. I simply think your comments would be more accurate if they did not suggest that FM, Interpreter and BofM Central combine in a unity of opposition to the kinds of “nuanced” approaches taken by Givens and Mason (and Hardy, I might add, who has also presented at FairMormon and has been relied upon as a source by BofM Central.) The fact that Interpreter publishes an article that is critical of Givens should not be taken as representative of everything Interpreter has done. This is especially true where the Boyce article criticizes a Givens article that was actually published by Interpreter. The fact that authors with differing views publish with Interpreter should be celebrated as evidence of nuance and the ability to tolerate and consider a broad range of views. Unfortunately, people often look at a single article with which they disagree and assume the whole organization is represented by the single article. I’m sure you would agree that this is not a very nuanced approach.

  7. Are Givens’ and Mason’s books online? If not, they would hardly qualify as “online resources,” another reason why your analysis fails.

  8. Ardis, that’s a good point although I took Dave’s comment more as a difference in style. I don’t buy that though. As Steve notes both have written for the main apologetic groups or are extensively quoted by them. I’d go beyond that and note that the comments to Boyce’s paper which include a lot of well known names in apologetics demonstrate that there’s a fair range of views at the Interpreter.

  9. I big part of my ambivalence toward apologetics is that it seems – almost by design – to keep debate on some issues perpetually open. This is in contrast to authoritative claims which are – again, pretty much by design – aimed at closing discussion on some issues.

    Of course, the church’s quasi-endorsement does suggest that maybe I need to pull-back, or at least re-phrase my objections to apologetics.

  10. I think debate on issues -should- be kept open. It keeps us from resting on our laurels, deciding that no further light and knowledge could come on any particular subject. In what we know of the history of the Gospel on this world, there isn’t anything that hasn’t shifted, some of which could be called quakes far greater than the hoped for womens ordination.

    We tend to get in trouble when we decide that what we have is the ultimate last word on something. Christ was rejected based on this thinking. Authority does not preclude change.

    I’m encouraged that the Church continues to reach out and encourage more discussion on many subjects. If we could get people to study their questions and bring them to our Sunday classes, we’d have less moaning about “boring, repetitive lessons”

  11. My surprise is that the Joseph Smith Papers are categorized with one star, meaning they are published by a third party affiliated with the Church. I thought that they were published by Church’s own history department. But I suppose that represents a misunderstanding of Church structure on my part.

  12. Technically the JSP are published by the Church Historian’s Press, an imprint owned by the Church and operated by the Church Historian and Recorder. So that description technically applies, although you’re right that your average person would just equate that to the Church itself.

  13. Another positive from this development is that the apologetic sites address and legitimize issues that cannot be found on the church’s website. I’ll give one example: The 1949/1951 First Presidency letter declaring that the racial priesthood ban was doctrine from God and adopting several of the explanations the church now dismisses as folklore. I’ve encountered members who doubt the authenticity of the letter. It’s not cited in the gospel essays or anywhere on But it is cited and discussed on FAIRMormon. So I’m grateful for that.

  14. “It signals to both teachers and students, as well as the general membership, that seeking information to deal with questions or issues is a good thing.”

    To actually have to say something like this is incredibly sad.

  15. It’s incredibly sad that you think it has to be said because we’re so incredibly sad.

  16. I once took a Jewish history class that was taught by an orthodox Jew. As we were discussing Judiasm just before the second fall of the temple he taught about the different factions that existed at the time (he categorized them as pharisees, Sadducees, zealots and the Essenes) and categorized Jesus as a pharisee. The professor mentioned that one reason why Jesus may have had such nasty things to say about the pharisees was because is was an “intra-party” battle for who would control the movement and sometimes the intra-party fighting is more intense than fighting between parties.

    Now, I’m not a bible scholar or a historian, so (since many readers on these sites are either/both of those) feel free to correct what I was told about Jesus being pharisee. But I think the professor was spot on about how inter-party battles are sometimes more fierce. I suppose it is because it is people we feel should be on our side and their opinions or mannerisms or whatever can feel like a stab in the back.

    As I’ve been mulling over the difference between “good” and “bad” apologetics I’m increasingly convinced that good apologetics are arguments that resonate with the persons beliefs whereas bad apologetics are arguments in favor of the church that the hearer does not like and not liking the defense believes that line of argument is harmful to the church, and therefore, must be called out and defeated.

    But one persons good apologetics is another persons bad apologetics as I think the comment lines in the last couple posts have illustrated.

  17. Jason B, there is a bit to that. People have different religious and political beliefs and thus their apologetics will be different. As I think we sometimes see the apologetic towards say LGBT issues will be quite different between say a more conservative theological and political member and a progressive political and liberal theological member. However overall while there may be a few issues like that I think there are far fewer than it may appear at first glance.

  18. Bad apologetics operates on the level of “Us” or “Not us”, that is, at its heart “Do you preach the orthodox religion?” And it is important to know that an ideological closed appeal can disguise an argument that is fundamentally “Us” or “Not us.” Good apologetics examines the question of “Why us?” and constantly pursues “further light and knowledge” and does so by considering the implications of one’s own ideology (the beam in one’s own eye), knows the limits of one’s own information and tools, and consciously making a case that is broadly comparative, context sensitive, and appeals to judgements that are not totally paradigm dependent.

  19. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    FYI, Interpreter posted Part Two of the series I linked in my earlier comment, this time taking Grant Hardy to task for his insightful discussion of the Book of Mormon narrative, particularly his discussion of Nephi as a narrator.

    Part Two objects to Hardy’s method of using “general assumptions of human psychology and behavior” in his analysis. If one views the Book of Mormon as historical (talking about real people who lived anciently, written by human authors) I don’t see what alternative assumption is reasonable to make. If you aren’t going to treat the persons in the book as real people, how are you treating them? What a strange objection for an Interpreter author to make.

    The author also objects to Hardy’s view that Nephi’s murder of Laban was, well, murder, and that it contributes to the view that Nephi is, in some places, an unreliable narrator. The author of Part Two sees no problem with Nephi’s murder of Laban or any basis for questioning Nephi’s infallibility. The author’s view seems to be that it is alright to kill someone if you think God is telling you to do so. If this guy is your neighbor, build a higher fence and buy more guns. This isn’t just bad apologetics, it’s bad morality. It is appalling.

    Interpreter has really destroyed its own credibility with this series of posts.

    I should also add a link to Jeff Lindsay’s defense of Grant Hardy posted in response to Part Two of the Interpreter piece.

  20. I think this is rather sad. In my opinion, the Church should own it’s history and doctrine and have the resources (and the guts) to answer questions about difficult issues and topics directly. Our doctrine should be clear – our history transparent. It shouldn’t hide behind ‘third party’ apologists. It does the Church no favors.

  21. Neal, if our Church’s raison d’ĂȘtre wasn’t tied up in the issue of having God’s sole authority on earth (“the only true and living church”), then I think that becomes much easier to do. However, when you proclaim that salvation through Christ’s atonement requires baptism in, and adherence to, this Church, the pressure to justify your leaders’ less savory or at least more puzzling actions and statements becomes enormous.

  22. Neal, the Church would simply be appealing to scholars no matter whether they write things themselves or not. Scholars differ with each other in the particulars. Letting scholars debate the issues and then pointing out consensus seems the most honest and transparent way of doing things.

    Dave, I actually think objecting to calling what Nephi did as murder is pretty legitimate. People might disagree with him there, but there’s certainly a strong case to be made that Nephi was well within cultural norms.

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