The apologetic testimonies of Hank Hanegraaff, Gretchen Passantino Coburn, and Fuller Theological Seminary in defense of the Local Churches are highly problematic. As I explained in my previous post, they lack serious argument to justify the about-face of those who (in the case of Hanegraaff and Passantino Coburn) for years deemed the Local Churches, at the very least, theologically unsound. But there is something else that makes these testimonies problematic and even troublesome. There is something oddly familiar about them. Specifically, what general and unsubstantiated claims that these evangelicals make about the Local Churches eerily parallel claims that some evangelicals have also been making about the Mormon religion—as well as some claims that Mormon apologists have made. Indeed, in one instance it is the same evangelical making these claims in both cases.

In drawing these parallels, I am not presenting an argument that the Local Churches and the LDS Church are theologically or religiously in the same category. I am not addressing that question at all. Anyone complaining that I am drawing some sort of equivalence between the Local Churches and the Mormon religion with these parallels will have completely missed my point and be totally incorrect. My observation is that the same sort of questionable defenses that are being used to defend Mormonism are also being used to defend the Local Churches. I am sure that neither Hanegraaff nor Passantino Coburn would ever employ these arguments in defense of the LDS Church. What is so surprising is that they think these are good arguments when used in defense of the Local Churches.

In what follows, parenthetical references are to the Local Church booklet that includes the testimonies of Hanegraaff, Passantino Coburn, and Fuller Seminary.

·         Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Seminary, apologized to the LDS Church on behalf of all evangelicals for the supposed distortions and misrepresentations of Mormon belief by evangelicals in countercult ministry. Mouw also headed up the panel from Fuller Seminary that gave the Local Churches a clean bill of theological health, and their document likewise asserts that evangelical critics of the Local Churches “grossly misrepresented” their teachings (30).

·         Those evangelicals who have criticized countercult ministries argue that the leaders in those ministries have a jaundiced view of Mormonism because they do not spend adequate time talking to Mormons and getting to know them personally. Passantino Coburn faults her earlier study, and that of all other evangelical discernment researchers, for relying too heavily on the published works of the Local Churches instead of spending time in face-to-face relationships getting to know people in the Local Churches.

·         The evangelicals claiming to have a more culturally sensitive understanding of Mormonism are getting it primarily from LDS scholar-apologists and secondarily, according to their own report, from rank-and-file members. Very little of this dialogue has involved the allegedly inspired prophets leading the LDS Church. Passantino Coburn, Hanegraaff, and the Fuller Seminary scholars appear to have engaged in dialogue some Local Church apologist-scholars as well as meeting rank-and-file members of the Local Churches. In both cases, the scholars interpret the doctrines of the group’s revered founder and teacher in a far more nuanced, sophisticated, and biblically plausible way than the founder himself did.

·         The evangelical—LDS dialogues involving scholars from both sides have been conducted largely behind closed doors, and the evangelicals who have emerged from these private discussions insist that the Mormons were sincere, honest, transparent, and forthcoming. The evangelical—Local Church dialogues involving scholars from both sides have also been conducted behind closed doors, and the evangelicals likewise insist that the Local Church participants were sincere, open, transparent, and forthcoming (30).

·         When the evangelicals and Mormons in these dialogues do write or speak about their discussions, the evangelicals make generous concessions as well as express regret for how evangelicals have wronged Mormons, while the Mormons make few or no such concessions or confessions. Likewise, in the evangelical—Local Churches dialogues it is the evangelicals who are making all of the concessions and confessions. Conspicuously absent from these press releases, for example, are admissions that the Local Churches lied in asserting that Walter Martin believed in three Gods. The closest that Passantino Coburn comes to criticizing the Local Churches is her tepid observation that “some,” “immature” members (not Lee) were overly zealous in their rejection of other churches (26).

·         LDS scholars have tried to defend their doctrine of eternal progression to godhood by comparing it to the Eastern tradition of theosis (deification), even though there is no evidence of any historical-theological connection between the Eastern and LDS doctrines. Similarly, Passantino Coburn defends the Local Churches’ doctrine of believers as “God men” by comparing it to the Eastern tradition of deification, even though, once again, there is no evidence of any historical-theological connection between the Eastern and Local Church doctrines. (Lee’s teaching was a radicalized version of Watchman Nee’s doctrine, and Nee’s doctrine had its roots in the Protestant Holiness tradition, not the Eastern Orthodox tradition.)

·         LDS scholars defend the Mormon view of Christendom as apostate as merely a rejection of denominationalism, not a rejection of the members of those denominations as fellow Christians. Likewise, Passantino Coburn compares the Local Churches’ teaching about Protestantism to her exuberant youthful rejection of “dead, dry denominationalism” (15) and emphasizes that the Local Churches acknowledge that there are Christians outside their ranks (22-23).

·         Mormons constantly fault evangelical critics of Mormonism for supposedly taking an overly rationalistic approach to faith (that is, when the critics point out the glaring contradictions within Mormonism and between Mormon and biblical teachings). These scholars defend Mormonism by appealing to their subjective religious experiences, which they view as beyond the reach of rational inquiry or testing. At the same time, LDS scholars are happy to employ rational argumentation where it seems to support their position. Likewise, Passantino Coburn explains that her earlier assessment of the Local Churches was faulty because it stemmed from a form of Christianity that was “a product of American rational modernism” in which “facts, arguments, evidence, and reason reigned supreme” (24-25). She describes the Local Church religion as a religious movement that embraced subjective spiritual experience along with objective rational argumentation” (25).

This last parallel may be the most disturbing, at least as far as its implications for apologetics are concerned. Passantino Coburn appears to have accepted the notion that traditional evangelical apologetics, with its emphasis on coherence, rationality, and evidence, was the illegitimate child of Christianity and Enlightenment modernism. In short, she seems to have been influenced by the postmodernist critique of conservative Christianity. In the course of offering this explanation, she actually suggests (25) that Aristotelian logic is to blame for the negative assessment of the teachings of Witness Lee that she and other evangelicals made in the 1970s and 1980s!

So there you have it. Aristotle made us do it. Now you know.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, January 29th, 2009 at 10:54 pm and is filed under apologetics, Mormonism. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 comments so far


This is a troubling trend. So when we evaluate a religious movement we are to now prefer moving testimonies or undocumented assertions made by winsome and engaging members of a questionable religious groups. And this is somehow better or more desirable than clear, objective statements taken from primary sources produced by the religious group’s leadership. And yet, (just a guess) if we should come to negative conclusions about the group based on similarly subjective impressions, we would be chastised for not making sure we had our facts straight. Like my dad used to say, “Sometimes you just can’t win for losing.”

January 30th, 2009 at 4:03 pm

Once one begins to reject the validity of argument based upon coherence, rationality, and evidence, it’s time for such a person to recuse themselves from Christian apologetics. And perhaps any intellectual endeavor that involves argument.

That’s it. It’s truly anti-intellectual. “Don’t get hung up on the actual teaching and doctrinal statements of these groups. Disregard our previous research because we did it before we found out that there are nice people in that organization just like us.”

I’m sure that there is an appropriate critique of the Enlightenment influence on Christian apologetics, but this isn’t it. This is a critique based entirely upon naivete. Not the naivete of “I do not know”, but the naivete of “I no longer wish to care.”

February 3rd, 2009 at 4:06 pm

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