I had a great opportunity today to sit through a lecture on Grace & Works From a Contemporary Latter-Day Saint Perspective taught by LDS scholar Dr. Camille Fronk Olson, professor of Ancient Scripture in the Religious Studies department of Brigham Young University. For those who don’t know, there has been an exciting dialogue emerging in the last 10-15 years between Evangelicals and Mormons. A significant contribution to this dialogue has been the book entited How Wide The Divide: A Mormon and an Evangelical in Dialogue, which was written by none other than one of my own professors at Denver Seminary, Dr. Craig Blomberg.
The lecture itself was attended by about thirty people. Dr. Olson’s articulate lecture and obvious knowledge coupled with her passion for the subject made for an enjoyable and informative discussion. However, I must say that her slant on grace was not exactly what I expected to hear. This speaks more of my own presuppositions and misconceptions than it does of her lecture.
Dr. Olson began with her own personal faith journey and how she became a teacher who focuses strongly on the person of Jesus Christ and his atoning work on the Cross. Indeed, the Grace of God through Jesus Christ is a keyhole for much of her thought. Moreover, her lecture indicated that in the last 25 years or so there has been a renewed interest and focus on the atoning work of Jesus Christ in broader LDS scholarship. According to Olson, this focus seems to stand in contrast to the strong emphasis on “condemnation” of the former President Benson of the LDS church. Is this in fact a legitimate shift in LDS theology? Dr. Olson seems to think so.
Yet, Dr. Olson also posited that this is not just a new emphasis so much as it is a return to the true teachings of the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine & Covenants. She read from a number of texts which supported this idea. Unfortunately, she did not give references for all the specific passages she quoted. However, her readings did appear to do justice to the overall context surrounding the verses from which she read and to support her thesis.
She talked about other things which I will not mention for the sake of brevity. However, after the lecture a smaller group of us ate lunch with her and were able to pick her brain on more specific issues. I asked the following two questions:
1) As Evangelicals we tend to focus on a Grammatical-Historical approach to Hermeneutics. Are the same methods employed by Mormons on works such as The Book of Mormon and D & C?
Her answer was essentially, “Yes!” The nice thing is that Mormon scholars even have the dictionary that Joseph Smith would have used so they can know the exact meaning of words without having to trace etymological shifts between the writing, transmission and concretization of the text.
2) Have any Mormon scholars attempted to build bridges of dialogue between the Mormon doctrine of the eternal Progression from Manhood to Godhood and the Orthodox notion of Theosis (or deification)? It seems as if this would be a natural way for Mormons to anchor into a tradition with more historical precedence.
Dr. Blomberg answered this one. He essentially said that there does exist a growing corpus of literature surrounding this very issue. I was surprised and will have to look further into the seminal works in this area. It was reassuring to me to know that the connection I had made in my own mind was also one that bonifide scholars have made and researched. Some scholars that have touched on this are David Paulsen and Steve Robertson.
I must say that I immensely enjoyed meeting Dr. Olson and having an opportunity to dialogue with her about the Mormon faith. I think the motive of her lecture was primarily focused on building common ground despite obvious differences we hold. Her gracious character and charitable tone was inviting and certainly garnered my respect.