“…and your mind doth begin to expand.” – Alma 32:34

 While many set faith at odds with critical thinking, Meridian’s Expand section promotes an alternative model of the life of the mind. Here we engage current moral, political and cultural issues with intellectual rigor from a faithful LDS standpoint.

On Friday, November 6, 2015, a panel discussion was held at Utah Valley University on the subject “Faith, Reason, and the Critical Study of Mormon Apologetics.” The discussion was organized by Blair Van Dyke and Brian Birch of Utah Valley University, and sponsored by:

Mormon Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy

UVU Religious Studies Program

Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, BYU

John Adams Center for Faith, Philosophy, and Public Affairs

Each of six participants presented brief remarks, and then the discussion was opened to all panelists and to the approximately 150 persons in attendance. Here, in the hope of extending the discussion, we offer each speaker’s remarks (in whole or in part). We intend in the near future to post further contributions by the present panelists and by others who wish to join the conversation.

–Ralph C. Hancock


Blair Van Dyke, Utah Valley University and L.D.S. Institute of Religion at U.V.U.

The practice of Mormon apologetics attempts to bring the vigor of faith and merge it with fact to defend Mormonism. In other words, you often know an apologist’s conclusions before the conversation even starts. In many ways, it is not particularly open to options beyond the preconceived conclusions held prior to the discussion at hand. This is not an irrational approach but is it the best way to discuss Mormonism in the public or private square? On the other hand, academics are duty-bound to place Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, Apostolic declarations, and Church governance under scrutiny the way a biologist explores a slide under a microscope. Rational? Yes. Blind to certain nuances of faith? Yes. And all possible conclusions remain on the table. Including the potential that the Church is false. Is this the best way to approach Mormonism as a movement?

Mormon apologetics generally function as an insider pursuit whether intended or not. In other words, the argumentation likely soothes ruffles among fellow apologists but glance off certain armor that protects those holding strictly academic views. Conversely, academics generally function as an insider pursuit as well appeasing those of their own cloth but whose world view may be unacceptable to many others.

What is to be done? Nibley’s style seems to represent a bullet-proof approach among Mormon apologetics. Bushman’s writings, on the other hand, seem to be emerging as a bullet-proof source of academically oriented writings. However, generally speaking, mainstream Mormons are far more literate in the writings of J. K. Rowling and J. R. R. Tolkien than either Nibley or Bushman. Until that changes, and I hope it does, the arguments for and against apologetic-faith based approaches—and academic-intellectual approaches will continue to be insider baseball wherein traction is only gained among those that already agree. A more civil and measured approach between both camps may serve to encourage greater literacy of both world views among the masses and acknowledge levels of holy envy across boundaries of the two different camps.

Brian M. Hauglid, Associate Professor of Ancient Scripture and Director of the Laura F. Willis Center for Book of Mormon Studies at Brigham Young University. 

Mormon apologetics, or the rational defense of the faith, has become a permanent fixture within the Mormon community since the early nineteenth century. In fact, it could be argued that the persistence of Mormon apologia itself provides the imperative that faith must be defended on intellectual grounds. Yet it remains unclear how rational argumentation and the transcendent aspects of faith should relate to each other in the doing of apologetics. That is to say the methodology of apologetics. But what are some of the ways one can do apologetics?

Steven B. Cowan in the introduction to a volume of essays titled, “Five Views on Apologetics” (Zondervan, 2000) writes that apologetics is “an intellectual discipline that is usually said to serve at least two purposes: (1) to bolster the faith of Christian believers, and (2) to aid in the task of evangelism. Apologists seek to accomplish these goals in two distinct ways. One is refuting objections to the Christian faith [i.e. for Mormons this would mean defending direct attacks on the BoM, BoA, or Mormon doctrines] . . . This apologetic task can be called negative or defensive apologetics. The second, perhaps complementary . . . is by offering positive reasons for the Christian faith [i.e. arguments for the existence of God, Christ, resurrection, etc.] . . . called positive or offensive apologetics.”[i]

For the most part Mormon apologetics since the nineteenth century has been defensive or negative apologetics, meaning responding to direct attacks on the truth claims of the Church and trying to show that the criticisms are unjustified.

Cowan proposes a taxonomy of five methodological approaches to apologetics based on an argumentative strategy. Perhaps his taxonomy can offer us a starting point in our discussions on identifying various methods used within Mormon apologia.

  1. The Classical method: This method is comprised of natural theology and evidences. It is assumed that this approach was “used by the most prominent apologists of earlier centuries.”[ii] William Lane Craig states that the relationship between faith and reason is “the distinction between knowing Christianity to be true and showing Christianity to be true.” His methodological approach argues “that reason in the form of rational arguments and evidence plays an essential role in our showing Christianity to be true, whereas reason in this form plays a contingent and secondary role in our personally knowing Christianity to be true.”[iii] Contemporary apologists using this method include William Lane Craig, R. C. Sproul, Norman Geisler, Stephen T. Davis, and Richard Swinburne.[iv]
  2. The Evidential method: Evidentialists “argue both for theism and Christian theism at the same time without recourse to an elaborate natural theology. They might begin, for instance, by arguing for the historical factuality of Jesus’ resurrection and then argue that such an unusual event is explicable only if a being very much like the Christian God exists. Having then established God’s existence via Christ’s miraculous resurrection, the evidentialist would then go on to contend that Jesus’s resurrection also authenticates his claims to be God incarnate and his teaching on the divine authority of Scripture.” Advocates include Gary Habermas, John W. Montgomery, Clark Pinnock, and Wolfhart Pannenberg.[v]
  3. The Cumulative Case method: What distinguishes this approach from the evidential (and perhaps classical) method is that “it does not conform to the ordinary pattern of deductive or inductive reasoning. The case is more like a brief that a lawyer makes in a court of law or that a literary critic makes for a particular interpretation of a book. It is an informal argument that pieces together several lines or types of data into a sort of hypothesis or theory that comprehensively explains that data and does so better than any alternative hypothesis.” The data in this type of approach seeks to explain or support the “existence and nature of the cosmos, the objectivity of morality, and certain other historical facts, such as the resurrection of Jesus” [or the historicity of the BoM]. Proponents include Paul Feinberg, Basil Mitchell, C. S. Lewis, and C. Stephen Evans.[vi]
  4. The Presuppositional method: “Due to the noetic effects of sin [i.e. the effects of sin on the mind], presuppositionalists usually hold that there is not enough common ground between believers and unbelievers that would allow followers of the prior three methods to accomplish their goals. The apologist must simply presuppose the truth of Christianity as the proper starting point in apologetics.” In this approach all experience and truth is interpreted through the Christian revelation of Scripture. Evidence and premises “implicitly presuppose premises that that can be true only if Christianity is true.” [vii] Followers of this method include John Frame, Cornelius Van Til, Gordon Clark, Greg Bahnsen, and Francis Schaeffer.
  5. The Reformed Epistemology method: This approach pushes back against the Enlightenment notion that our beliefs should be subject to “the searching criticism of reason.” Advocates of this view “hold that it is perfectly reasonable for a person to believe many things without evidence. Most strikingly, they argue that belief in God does not require the support of evidence or argument in order to be rational.” Hence, these apologists will tend to focus more on negative or defensive apologetics.[viii]  Proponents include Kelly James Clark, Alvin Plantinga, Nicolas Wolterstorff, George Mavrodes, and William Alston.

According to Cowan, these five approaches represent “the most well-known and popular argumentative strategies in the scholarly apologetics community.”[ix]

I believe we would likely find Mormon apologetics using any or all of these methodologies depending on the questions and circumstances.

In doing apologetics we must be cautious as Scott Hahn warns that some apologists “practice apologetics as a full-contact sport or as take-no-prisoners warfare. For such apologists, the goal is to win the argument, even if that means utterly humiliating their ‘enemies.” We should conduct our apologetics with a genuine love for other people, no matter their position.

I say this because for some time now I’ve been quite troubled and saddened to witness the ideological, cultural warring that’s been happening within various Mormon circles of apologetics. Some of the rhetoric is very emotionally charged and sorely lacking in empathy, compassion, and forgiveness. This kind of Mormon apologetics often demonstrates a condescending dogmatism and a lack of humility in proudly proclaiming an “I’m right and you’re wrong” attitude. With this type of thinking I’ve seen friends get hurt on differing sides and have felt the hurt myself. In my mind it becomes even worse when justified under the aegis of defending one’s faith, which too often leads to castigating another of the same faith. This should not be. We must do better in allowing differences of opinions and approaches to foster constructive dialogue within our religious community rather than allowing ourselves to succumb to intransigent ideologies. By constructive dialogue I mean a dialogue that is empathetic, compassionate, and forgiving. One in which there is more listening than talking, more humility than certitude, and more cooperative than adversarial.

[i] Cowan, Five Ways on Apologetics, 8.
[ii] Ibid. 15.
[iii] Ibid. 27-28.
[iv] Ibid. 15-16.
[v] Ibid. 16-17.
[vi] Ibid. 18.
[vii] Ibid. 19.
[viii] Ibid. 19-20.
[ix] Ibid.

Ralph C. Hancock, Professor of Political Science, Brigham Young University, and President, John Adams for the Study of Faith, Philosophy and Public Affairs

To do “apologetics” is to defend beliefs using arguments. Though the term has been associated traditionally with reasoned accounts of revealed religion, at bottom it means nothing more than reasoning in favor of some conviction or position. Why would anyone object to such a practice?

If the beliefs being defended are simply indefensible, then what is needed is simply to answer the apologetics with a counter-apologetics that refutes the arguments

But of course where religious beliefs– or, more generally, any convictions that bear on the meaning and purpose of human existence — are concerned, it is unlikely that anything like a simple and final “refutation” is possible. This does not mean that religious and philosophical arguments about such ultimate concerns as God, the Highest Good, or Salvation are pointless. Such arguments can be more or less persuasive, and even when they cannot irrefutably demonstrate a higher Truth, they can illuminate the question and clarify what is at stake in it.

So when a defender of a certain understanding of truth wishes to silence the defender of another understanding of truth by disqualifying that other understanding as “apologetics,” we ought to be suspicious.   To disqualify the other’s position as “apologetic” may succeed in conveying the impression that one’s own position is somehow obvious, a kind of neutral default position, and in no need of reasoned defense. This can be a useful rhetorical position for some uncritical audiences, but it is hardly a way to advance the search for truth.

For example: it is argued against “apologetics” that we should move beyond the narrow concern with defending or explaining religious beliefs to engage the broader or “more expansive” conversation among some set of certified academics untainted by any known religious commitments. But what counts as “expansive” turns out in the actual practice of Mormon Studies to often to be a methodology or interpretive practice in which to explain something means to reduce it to its historical context. The more we can show how Joseph Smith was like his 19th-century north-American cultural context, for example, then the better we have explained Joseph Smith.

But is the activity of reducing human choices and truth-claims to historical context really broader or more expansive than that of examining those truth claims for what they are – propositions about God and meaning of this mortal sojourn, for example?

Moreover: is this methodological reduction to historical context even coherent? Is not the contemporary scholar at least as reducible to his or her context as the historical object? If so, then what is the status of the scholar’s truth claims? The scholar’s sense of superiority depends upon the assumption that our present outlook represents the consummation of the historical process, to defend which would require a philosophy as ambitious (and finally implausible) as Hegel’s.

So why would someone object to arguments defending beliefs? To exclude them a priori, because such arguments are somehow embarrassing in the secular academy? But surely the pursuit of truth should not be hindered by the shaming power of any social group, academic or otherwise. For what profiteth it a man? etc…

The disposition to reject apologetics can take the form of insisting that religious Truth is too noble, too holy, too far beyond mere human reason to be subjected to reasoned argument. This high-minded, spiritualist dismissal of apologetics can be very attractive, because it allows for a kind of bifurcation of the mind into sacred and secular categories, and thus leaves the secular conveniently undisturbed by any religious claims. Thus we talk one language on Sundays, and a wholly different language in our classrooms, scholarly publications, etc. Connoisseurs of the history of ideas will recognize the position of the great Latin Averroist of the 13th century, Siger of Brabant, who proposed a doctrine of “Double Truth” or “Two Truths” in order to espouse an atheistic Aristotelianism as a philosopher, while claiming still to be an orthodox Christian.

The problem with this strategy is that truth is one, even if we cannot get a clear view of it. The division of the truth in two effectively favors the “secular truth” and sidelines the “religious” to the ineffectual realm of mere individual feelings, private inclinations, etc. The secular truth is authoritative; the religious truth is, well, optional.

Still, there is something to the idea that revealed truth must stand on its own; it is impossible for the work of reason to replace or to account for what God has done. It is true that to defend divine truths with any degree of bitterness, anger or “defensiveness” seems inappropriate to the subject matter. Aggressiveness is generally a sign of a lack of confidence: we defend all the more spiritedly that which we do not hold securely.

I am reminded by of these lucid remarks by the late Shakespeare scholar and BYU professor Arthur Henry King concerning the prose style of Joseph Smith’s canonical account of his first vision:

Here is a portion of Joseph Smith’s account: “Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible. (JS—H 1:12)”

And here is part of Dr. King’s commentary: “I am not good enough to write a passage as good as that. That is beautiful, well-balanced prose. And it isn’t the prose of someone who is trying to work it out and make it nice. It is the prose of someone who is trying to tell it like it is, who is bending all his faculties to expressing the truth and not thinking about anything else—and above all, though writing about Joseph Smith, not thinking about Joseph Smith, not thinking about the effect he is going to have on others, not posturing, not posing, but just being himself.”

Of course, some will find it inherently unreasonable that God and his Son should appear in person to a boy in upstate New York – or for that matter that the Son of God should be born of woman, or that there should be a being such as we are, a mere speck in a vast material universe, but, to paraphrase Pascal a thinking speck, a spark of divinity. There is little that apologetics can do for people who find it unreasonable that there should be wonders, or miracles – except what I am doing right now, that is, pointing out that this objection depends upon a certain, rather narrow understanding of what is reasonable. Is it reasonable to subject God to the limitations of our own sense of what commonly happens or what is ordinarily possible?

So, apologetics can contribute to making revelatory and miraculous events plausible, but it is a mistake to imagine that they can be demonstrated, or that aggressive arguments can draw people to them. Where the central events of revelation are concerned, a tone of calm affirmation is surely appropriate, leaving the responsibility to each person to open his heart and mind to possibilities beyond his ken.

I note, however, that Joseph’s the mild and matter-of-fact manner is not the only tone struck in his canonical account. As Dr. King notes, “…Then he [Joseph] moves from the matter-of-fact to the ironical, even the satirical, as he describes the state of religion at the time—the behavior of the New England clergy in trying to draw people into their congregations.”

Might not rhetorical forms such as irony and satire have a place in “negative” apologetics: that is, reasoned argumentation that aims to deflate the pretensions of those who, for example, oppose the faith from positions that are rationally very vulnerable?


Julie M. Smith, Independent Scholar, specialist in Biblical Studies. Julie serves on the Executive Board of the Mormon Theology Seminar.

Apologetics is like fire: as necessary as it is dangerous.

It is necessary because as long as investigators have questions for the missionaries and the members of the church have Google, apologetics will happen. The only question is whether it will happen in an ad hoc way or a more organized way.

It is dangerous because apologetics supports the status quo, which means that it might make it more difficult for the Restoration to be ongoing. Also, women have often been collateral damage in Mormon apologetics. Sometimes, apologetic endeavors have used poor arguments, which creates a myriad of problems. Apologetics can also encourage the idea that everything can be understood (contrast Mosiah 4:9). 

The next frontier in Mormon apologetics needs to be the Bible and its interpretation. We also must “raise the bar” on Mormon apologetics so that the most stringent standards of scholarship are employed because, ultimately, a poorly-argued apologetic becomes an anti-apologetic. Some examples of recent works which may not initially seem apologetic in the traditional sense but are apologetic in the best sense include Lynne Hilton Wilson’s “The Confusing Case of Zacharias,” Mark Alan Wright and Brant Gardner’s “The Cultural Context of Nephite Apostasy,” and J. Stapley and Kris Wright’s “Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism.” The new focus of the Maxwell Institute shows a commitment to this kind of strong apologetic work. Neither “faithful scholarship” nor “objective scholarship” should be given total dominion; they must be yoked but perhaps not equally. This is complicated and messy; so be it.

Addendum: In the wake of some of the responses to the church’s new policy regarding children of same-sex couples, I do wish I had made one additional point: there can be times when apologetics are simply not the appropriate response. The call is to mourn with those who mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort, not to argue with those who mourn and logically prevail over those who stand in need of comfort. 


Benjamin Park, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Department of History, University of Missouri and Associate Editor of the Mormon Studies

The incessant battles between Mormon scholars, apologists, and revisionists during the 1980s and 1990s were indicative that all three groups of people were fighting over the same topics and for the same audience. New Mormon History and the other scholarly projects of academics of Mormonism, though they drew from tools found in the broader academic community, were still mostly interested in Mormonism as their primary focus, which meant that their direct conclusions claimed broad ramifications for the Mormon tradition. This, in turn, meant that their research was of direct relevance to those whose main interest was to either defend or critique the Mormon tradition. However, with the advent of Mormon Studies, an interdisciplinary conglomerate of scholars who use Mormonism as a case study to understanding wider cultural, historical, and theological issues, there is a more firm boundary between insider conversations and external academic dialogue; neither sphere is more important than the other, but merely focused to different ends and for divergent audiences. This should prove a boon for both fields, as Mormon studies work can be more dedicated to speaking to others in the academic community without the perception of attacking or redefining the Church, and apologetics can be more focused on defending and understanding the Mormon tradition without worrying about transgressing different standards. If good fences make good neighbors, then firm disciplinary boundaries make congenial colleagues.


Brian D. Birch, Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of Ethics at Utah Valley University. 

In 1912, the fiery evangelical preacher Billy Sunday delivered a sermon in which he famously declared that “when the consensus of scholarship says one thing and the Word of God another, the consensus of scholarship can go plumb to hell for all I care.” Sunday was preaching at the beginning of the turbulent period in American religious history known as the Modernist/Fundamentalist debates. A key component of these debates was the extent to which critical scholarship could have anything valuable to say about the the Bible, the origins of human life, or the nature of God.

Those on the other side of the debate (the so-called “Modernists”) argued that the findings of scientific and literary analysis could not simply be set aside in favor of a traditional dogma. On their view, religious traditions needed to be healthily engaged with the findings of science even if this meant revising longstanding and deeply held beliefs. This is just one example of dozens in the history of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in which the current findings of science and scholarship clashed with the received teachings of a religious tradition.

Mormonism is no different in this regard. Despite its relative youth, the tradition has seen its fair share of provocative episodes related to the tensions between faith, reason, science, and revelation. Examples include the very public debates between B.H. Roberts and Joseph Fielding Smith, the debates surrounding the so-called “New Mormon History” (and the work of Leonard Arrington), and the most recent debates surrounding the reorganization and shift in direction of the Maxwell Institute at Brigham Young University.

And this takes us to our panel here this afternoon. As many of you have witnessed, there has been a vigorous debate in play regarding Maxwell’s very decided shift away from an apologetic orientation and toward more active engagement with the broader religious studies community. For the record, this is a move that I firmly applaud and believe has been long overdue. So if we’re dividing up the universe into those on team Mormon Studies and those on team apologetics, I am decidedly on team Mormon Studies. However, with that said, I would like to spend the remainder of my time clarifying why this is the case and, more importantly for our purposes, identifying a couple of qualifications that inform my thinking as this debate has unfolded.

I come at this issue from the perspective of the philosophy of religion and theology. As many here know, there is more intimate engagement between my field of study and apologetics than that of most others currently associated with Mormon Studies. My field is designed to study the science (and the art) of argumentation—and specifically the justification for various positions. Part of what we do is to study the structure of apologetic arguments, examine the coherence and consistency of their reasoning, and identify the ways in which evidence is utilized and how this relates to questions of faith and religious authority.

Mormonism, in particular, is a fascinating tradition to study in this regard due to some distinctive features not shared with other faith communities currently active in the apologetic enterprise. These features include the belief in continuing revelation through living apostles and prophets, which functions an additional authoritative check on LDS scholarly discourse. Evangelical Christians, for example, debate the kind of authority the Bible has, but they are a decentralized religious community. There are denominational parameters in the mix, but these are not accorded revelatory status. The same is true as a general feature of Judaism and Islam.

There are debates within Mormonism regarding exactly what counts as revelatory discourse (and this is no small issue, especially in light of current discussions regarding dissenting voices). However, as a category, continuing revelation is relatively unique to Mormonism. One feature shared in common between Mormon apologists and many others within the Christian community are their approach the scope and method of doing apologetics. One way of slicing up the pie is to distinguish between positive and negative apologetics.

Positive apologetics is the attempt to use reason to affirmatively demonstrate the truth of a religious position relative to alternative arguments. Negative apologetics is more modest in its aims. It attempts merely to neutralize criticisms rather than provide a positive proof. In this way it is said to remove obstacles to faith.

In his essay, “An Unapologetic Apology for Apologetics,” Daniel Peterson states that it is the duty of an apologist to “clear the ground in order to make it possible for the seed to grow.…Apologetics is simply a useful tool that helps to preserve an environment that permits such faith to take root and flourish.” Another commonly used metaphor used by Peterson and others is that of the buttress. Rational argumentation is not the building itself, but can serve to support and sustain the integrity of the building, which is built primarily upon faith and testimony. Though Mormonism as a tradition has embraced academic learning in many important respects, there remains healthy skepticism in the community regarding the extent to which reason and critical scholarship could actually establish the truth claims of the tradition.

…and this leads us to the final portion of my remarks, which consist of a few theoretical and methodological questions for your consideration during the discussion portion of our panel.

First, one important criticism of negative apologetics might be called the fideist objection. The term fideism has been used to characterize a variety of positions, which vary in both form and strength. For this reason, it is important to properly identify and delineate the type of fideism at work here. First, there is radical fideism, which is the position that faith is somehow contrary to reason. One form of this approach is that reason is not merely irrelevant to justifying religious belief, but that its use is a positive barrier to gaining religious understanding. This position is contrasted with moderate fideism, which can be broadly described as rejecting the requirement to positively justify religious belief on rational grounds.

Latter-day Saints would balk at the suggestion that they are radical fideists. The mantra “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” is often utilized to defend something like the complementarity thesis, namely that faith and reason work together with roughly equal status in the acquisition of knowledge. Nevertheless, I believe that careful observation of some of the key practices in Mormonism shows that, in importantly relevant respects, they are are stronger fideists, who subsume reason, argument, and evidence under religious categories in nearly all cases of perceived conflict. In practice, evidence that conflicts with perceived orthodoxy is often either a) rejected out of hand as irrelevant to belief, b) held in perpetual abeyance with the hope that further evidence will come along that resolves the conflict, or c) produces some form of cognitive dissonance.

As Latter-day Saints continue to engage in apologetics, a key question involves the extent to which they remain open to these fideist objections. If there are no conditions under which a religious belief could be criticized, then in at least one very important respect, these beliefs fall outside the scope of scholarly discourse. This is so because “give and take” and revisability of one’s position is part and parcel of the academic enterprise.

The extent to which apologists set limits on the objects of scholarly critique is the extent to which they self-select out of the enterprise of academic religious studies. I don’t want to claim that opting out of this conversation is a problem in itself. I do want to claim, however, that if they do opt out, they are playing a different game—and thus are not justified in crying foul when the rules of the game are not changed to suit their particular sensibilities.