James White and Daniel McClellan: The Challenge of Mormon Academia for Evangelical Apologetics

“…we cannot hide the facts of the matter. In this battle the Mormons are fighting valiantly. And the evangelicals? It appears that we may be losing the battle and not knowing it. But this is a battle we cannot afford to lose….The evangelical world needs to wake up and respond to contemporary Mormon scholarship. If not, we will needlessly lose the battle without ever knowing it.”

Carl Mosser and Paul Owen, “Mormon Scholarship, Apologetics, and Evangelical Neglect: Losing the Battle and Not Knowing It?” in Trinity Journal, 19:2 (1998)

Two decades have now passed since Mosser and Owen, two Protestant scholars of Mormonism, sounded this clarion call to the Evangelical world, outlining the need for a stronger, more robust apologetic in the face of increasingly sophisticated Mormon scholarship. The two of them, along with scholar Francis Beckwith, would come to soon meet their own challenge. Later publishing The New Mormon Challenge: Responding to the Latest Defenses of a Fast-growing Movement (Zondervan, 2002), their collection of essays addressed a range of Mormon apologetic arguments and remains to date the single-most serious apologetic treatment of Mormonism from an Evangelical Christian worldview; receiving praise from Christians and respect from Latter-day Saints alike.

While several other works have since come forth—offering either commendable neutral engagements with Mormon theology from Christian perspectives or apologetic attempts to critique Mormon truth claims—none have quite replicated what The New Mormon Challenge accomplished. Indeed, some have noted a steady decline in Evangelical literature directed towards Mormonism since the 1990’s. Though several factors are likely at play here, it is nonetheless the case that in the decades since Mosser and Owen’s remarks, the world of Mormon scholarship has grown only exponentially more impressive, respectable, and sophisticated. Whether in the form of dozens of contributions to the expanding field of Mormon Studies from reputable university presses, the unparalleled documentary research of The Joseph Smith Papers project, text critical and academic study editions of the Book of Mormon, or countless other published works, it is safe to say that Mormon scholarship is currently experiencing an unrivaled time of respectability, rigor, and presence in the larger academy than ever before in the faith’s history. With this in mind, Mosser and Owen’s concern seems perhaps all the more pressing for those seeking to evangelize in the shadow of America’s Mormon Moment.

I hope to present what I see as a useful case-study in light of what I have described: a series of written exchanges between Reformed Christian apologist, James R. White, and Latter-day Saint academic, Dr. Daniel O. McClellan, from April 8th, 2011 to May 16th, 2011 on their respective online personal venues. While not formally structured in any moderated sense and taking place close to a decade ago, I believe that this lengthy debate illuminates multiple patterns—originally identified by Mosser and Owen in 1998—in which contemporary Evangelical apologetics fails to effectively respond to Mormon academic thought. Though of course not representative of all Evangelical apologetic treatments of Mormonism, James White typifies an all-too-common and none-too-convincing form of Evangelical counter-cult outreach toward Latter-day Saints; one that has become increasingly insufficient in the face of Mormon scholarship.

In the Age of the Internet, outreach resources in the forms of audio and visual media have proven invaluable to Evangelical Christians around the globe in defining their views and understandings of Mormonism. In many cases, these establish and perpetuate the theologically-driven narrative of a crumbling Mormon Empire; suffocating on its own self-defeating theology, embrace of postmodernism, and historical controversies. Such is true with regard to Apologia Church (of which, James White has recently become an Elder of) and their respective media platform, Apologia Studios. Along with Pastor Jeff Durbin (to whom White served as a personal mentor) and others, Apologia Studios represents a significant contemporary expression of Evangelical (specifically Reformed) Christian counter-cult outreach toward Mormonism that has achieved an online-presence far eclipsing their actual local membership. Presenting in ways as a kind of Netflix for Reformed apologetics, included in the Apologia media platform are the blogs/podcasts Sheologians and Cultish. While at the time of the shared exchange, James White wrote from his role as director of Alpha and Omega Ministries, all of these listed platforms reside within the school of thought of Walter Martin, author of The Kingdom of the Cults.

Though certainly the scope of Apologia’s collective outreach amongst both Christians and Mormons has been impressive, in my experience it is in their underlying methodology, approach, and substance where their treatments of Mormonism have been incredibly lacking. Since the time of this exchange, Apologia has demonstrated an ignorance, whether intentional or not, of contemporary Mormon scholarship and serious apologetics; preferring instead to devote their attention to unlearned laity alone with a few rare exceptions. As will be demonstrated in this previously-held discussion, I am not the first Mormon to voice concern for their collective approach and worldview either. Enter Dr. Daniel McClellan, who I will briefly introduce, followed by James White:

Dr. Daniel O. McClellan received his BA from Brigham Young University in ancient Near Eastern studies, focused on Biblical Hebrew and with a minor in Classical Greek. He likewise received an MS in Jewish studies at the University of Oxford in July of 2010 and an MA in biblical studies in 2013 at Trinity Western University in Vancouver, BC. Daniel has (as of April 28th, 2020) successfully defended his doctoral dissertation at Exeter, where he has been a PhD candidate in theology and religion. His dissertation examines the notion of divine agency in early Israelite and Jewish thought and practice through the lens of the cognitive science of religion. Overall, his areas of specialization include Second Temple Judaism, early Israelite religion, textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible, early christology, the cognitive science of religion, cognitive linguistics, and religious identity. He works as a scripture translation supervisor for the LDS Church in Salt Lake City.

According to his media bio:

James White is the director of Alpha and Omega Ministries, a Christian apologetics organization based in Phoenix, Arizona. He is a professor, having taught Greek, Systematic Theology, and various topics in the field of apologetics. He has authored or contributed to more than twenty four books, including The King James Only ControversyThe Forgotten TrinityThe Potter’s Freedom, and The God Who Justifies. He is an accomplished debater, having engaged in more than one-hundred sixty five moderated, public debates around the world with leading proponents of Roman Catholicism, Islam, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormonism, as well as critics such as Bart Ehrman, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, and John Shelby Spong. In recent years James has debated in such locations as Sydney, Australia, as well as mosques in Toronto, London, and South Africa. He is a Pastor/Elder of Apologia Church in Arizona. He has been married to Kelli for more than thirty-seven years, and has two children, and four grandchildren.”

You can access their exchange in either of two formats:

  1. Through a comprehensive Google Doc file which contains the entire discussion in a structured and aesthetic manner, totaling 91 written pages. I have edited only minimally in the case of small grammatical or spelling mistakes.
  2. By visiting each of their respective websites and blog posts, to which I will provide ordered links to below.

Happy reading, I hope you enjoy, and as always, reach out with any commentary, questions, or feedback. I will be following up this post with a more-detailed commentary in the following days.

Click here to access the full written exchange between Dr. Daniel O. McClellan and James R.White.

Links to the posts in their original form:

McClellan – Introduction

White – 1st Response

McClellan – 1st Rebuttal

White – 2nd Response

McClellan – 2nd Rebuttal

White – 3rd Response

McClellan – 3rd Rebuttal

White – 4th Response

McClellan – 4th Rebuttal

White – 5th Response

McClellan – 5th Rebuttal

White – 6th Response

White – 7th Response

White – 8th Response

White – 9th Response

White – Concluding Remarks

McClellan – Concluding Remarks

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