Article ID: JAM813 | By: James R. White
This review first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume31, number1 (2008). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org
With the publication of Robert Millett’s A Different Jesus,1 major Christian publisher Eerdmans signaled its willingness to begin publishing works by authors who are members in good standing of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the LDS or Mormon church). These authors are not only members, but leading theologians and apologists for Mormonism; yet their works now appear on the publications list of what was once one of the leading evangelical publishing houses in the United States. This massive paradigm shift is due primarily to a collapse of a meaningful theological standard in the publishing industry, and this reflects the same collapse in the broader stream of evangelicalism, especially on issues related to the nature of God, the Trinity, and the gospel. Major leaders in what once was called evangelicalism have spearheaded this huge shift in the theological landscape, one that could scarcely be envisioned only a few decades ago.
A Christian View of Muhammad? Muhammad: Prophet of God by Brigham Young University (BYU) professor Daniel C. Peterson is the newest offering from Eerdmans featuring an LDS author. Unlike Millett, however, Peterson is not addressing issues of Mormon theology. He instead is writing from his own expertise in the subject of Islam. Peterson earned his Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures from the University of California at Los Angeles, and is professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic in the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages at BYU. He has written a number of books, including The Last Days: A Comprehensive Survey of Prophetic and Doctrinal Statements by Latter-Day Prophets and Apostles (Aspen Books, 1998), and has edited others, such as Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon (Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies [FARMS], 2002). A very similar book to the current Eerdmans publication authored by Peterson appeared in 2001, titled Abraham Divided: An LDS Perspective on the Middle East (Aspen Books, 2001). There is no question of Peterson’s credentials to address the issue of Islam from an LDS perspective. It is the blurring of the lines of demarcation between Christianity and Mormonism that is so troubling in this situation.
Peterson is one of the leading apologists for the LDS faith. Aside from his extensive involvement in the primary LDS apologetics organization, FARMS, he has written numerous chapters and books defending Mormonism. For example, he wrote a lengthy chapter in the Mormon book The Disciple as Scholar defending the LDS doctrine of a plurality of gods and exaltation based on John 10:34.2 The clarity of his views of historic Christianity, however, and his defense of the main errors of Mormonism can be seen in a book he coauthored with Stephen Ricks, Offenders for a Word (FARMS, 1998). This work is one of the most strident responses to evangelical critiques of Mormonism. It is a classic example of LDS apologetics. It is, however, filled with egregious errors, and unintentionally illustrates how very far from historic Christianity Salt Lake really is. One example of Peterson’s argumentation helps to contextualize the author who is now writing for Eerdmans:
It is true that Mormons irritate their critics by accepting other books of scripture not included in the traditional canon. But is this enough to exclude them from Christendom? It seems odd to take such drastic action on so flimsy and uncertain a basis. The Hebrew canon had not yet been fixed in the time of Jesus. Josephus (d. A.D. 100) was among the first to identify an authoritative collection of Hebrew scriptural texts. But the collection of which Josephus spoke consisted merely of the Pentateuch, thirteen prophetic books, and four books of “writings”—for a grand total of twenty-two, seventeen short of the canon insisted upon by fundamentalist anti-Mormons.3
Those familiar with the issue of the development of the canon in history know that the Jews’ twenty-two books do, in fact, correspond to the Protestant Christians’ thirty-nine books, as the Jews did not enumerate the books in the same way Christians do today. That is, the minor prophets, for example, were taken as a single work, Lamentations was included with Jeremiah, and so forth. This basic kind of error is commonplace in the apologetics works of Peterson and other leading LDS scholars.4
What kind of a review of the founder of Islam can we expect from one who professes to follow a man who himself claimed to be a prophet and who, in many ways, parallels Muhammad, specifically, Joseph Smith Jr., the founder of Mormonism?5 More importantly, as this book will find its way onto the shelves of Christian bookstores across the land, what kind of resource will it be for the unsuspecting believer who, seeing the Eerdmans’ name, picks it up, expecting to get a distinctly Christian view of the founder of Islam? The endorsements on the book itself include the assertion that this is a Christian review of Muhammad: “The best scholarly text on the prophet Muhammad written by a Christian. A must-read, especially for non-Muslims who are interested in a solid, compassionate treatment of Muhammad’s vision and accomplishments.”
The writer cited here, Khaleel Mohammed of San Diego State University, likewise wrote the foreword, in which he identifies Peterson’s work as an “irenic piece of scholarship” (p. x). It is troubling to note that Mohammed likewise includes these words in his foreword: “Professor Peterson shows that the Christianity of Muhammad’s time was not that of the modern mainstream views now accepted, but was highly variegated” (x). Given Peterson’s regular contribution to the LDS attempt to rewrite Christian history in the LDS mold, seeking to find LDS theology in patristic sources, one cannot help but see a cobelligerence here against the orthodox faith on the part of two writers representing different religions that are united in their rejection of the key elements of the Christian confession.
There is evidence of at least some element of pro-LDS, anti-Christian bias in Peterson’s book. One must look carefully, though, to detect it, and it would be lost on most who have no background in Mormonism or Islam.
One of the key goals of BYU and FARMS is the mainstreaming of LDS scholarship. Mixing in references to specifically LDS scholars and their published works in the midst of other scholarly citations fits perfectly with this overarching goal. In an extended footnote only marginally connected to the text itself, then, Peterson lists numerous references to ancient pagan temples (a key element of LDS theology and practice), and to LDS-authored materials that seek to find parallels in ancient pagan temple rites to modern Mormon temple rites (23–24, n. 39). It is easy to draw parallels between the LDS temple ceremonies and ancient paganism, but this is only further proof of the non-Christian nature of Mormonism.6
The work in general is readable and, as far as providing references to obtainable English sources, useful. The style is not overly technical, but it is bland and rather uninviting. Peterson clearly knows where the areas of dispute lie, and charts a generally middle-of-the-road course through the main issues of debate regarding Muhammad’s life and rise to power.
A Mormon View of Prophethood and History. Peterson, a man who labors to defend Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of Mormonism, cannot address the question of Muhammad’s legitimacy as a prophet in a way that would be at all useful to a Christian. This is the tragedy of this work being published by Eerdmans. Peterson writes, “The reception of the Qur’an must have been an awesome, intimidating, even terrifying experience” (62). What if Muhammad did not, in fact, “receive” the Qur’an at all, as the vast majority of Christians have believed down through the ages, but, instead, it represents his own mind, his own thinking, his own progression toward power and dominance? Elsewhere Peterson writes of Muhammad and his attempt to establish his prophetic credentials among the skeptical Meccans: “He was simply an ordinary person, and it seemed wildly implausible that the God of the universe had somehow singled him out for special attention. (This would very likely be a powerful objection to any prophet, in any time)” (80).
It is difficult to read these words without hearing the echo of Peterson’s own defenses of Joseph Smith, Jr. The believing Christian has a standard of prophethood in Scripture that neither Muhammad nor Joseph Smith meet, but Peterson cannot stand on that foundation without denying his own confession.
One likewise can hear the echo of the Book of Mormon and its historical problems in these words: “Not all of the heavenly book was given to him (Muhammad), but only a portion” (84).7 At this point Peterson gives two references: Sura 90:78 and 4:164. There is no Sura 90:78, as Sura 90 is only twenty ayahs8 long. If we assume this was a typographical error and Peterson meant to cite Sura 9:78, that passage reads, “Are they not aware that Allah knows what they conceal and what they secretly discuss, and that Allah has full knowledge even of all that is beyond the reach of perception.”9 It is hard to see how this is relevant to Peterson’s assertion. Likewise, Sura 4:164 reads, “We revealed to the Messengers We have already told you of, and to the Messengers We have not told you of; and to Moses Allah spoke directly.” The only possible connection would be the reference to “Messengers We have not told you of,” but it is a long reach to conclude that this means that the Qur’an, like the Book of Mormon, is only part of a larger divine work stored up in heaven.
Another troubling example is found in these words: “The Qur’an’s account of the death of Jesus has parallels among both the Manichaeans and the Basilidean Gnostics” (41). A Christian work would document and discuss the fact that these sources are just as ahistorical and disconnected as Sura 4:15710 in the Qur’an is from the events that took place in Jerusalem in the early fourth decade of the first century. Peterson’s work, however, passes by this assertion, a favorite of such anti-Christian scholars as Robert Price and Bart Ehrman, without so much as a comment.
A Secular View Overall. Peterson provides a typically Western, scholarly review of the major outlines of Muhammad’s life and of the rise of Islam. His work relies heavily on the work of W. Montgomery Watt,11 but in general, is what one would expect to read if one went into a secular bookstore and pulled an academic volume from the shelf.
What about the person who is looking for a specifically Christian work on Muhammad? This book does not pretend to offer such a perspective, nor could it. It is not even a distinctively Mormon review of Muhammad’s life, though I for one would like to read such a work.12 As such, the book cannot fulfill the assumed role that the Eerdmans imprint would lead one to expect.
At the same time, the problems noted above are joined with a generally positive view of Muhammad and Islam in such a fashion as to leave the Christian reader feeling very disappointed if he or she were seeking a balanced yet Christian view of Muhammad’s life. Sometimes a comment will come out of left field and leave the Christian reader wondering, such as the description of the origins of the Islamic call to prayer: “From this rather humble beginning has come the romantic call of the minaret, one of the most characteristic and lovely aspects of daily life throughout the world of Islam” (90). Peterson likewise cites a weak hadith,13 without attribution: “The greater jihad, the Prophet replied, alluding to the primary meaning of the word, which is not literally ‘war’ but ‘struggle,’ is the struggle with one’s soul” (151).
Danger between the Shelves! Scholarship is not the problem with this new publication, even though it is somewhat shallow and imbalanced in its view of Muhammad’s life and role in history. The problem is that it is not a Christian view of Muhammad, which is exactly what someone will expect when they see the Eerdmans imprint on the back. People who are working in Christian bookstores and ordering books for their shelves cannot be expected to know the names of the leading LDS apologists, nor should they expect to find such materials in the book list from Eerdmans.
The continued drift away from a solid theological foundation on the part of the evangelical publishing industry results inevitably in the need to warn the discerning Christian: one of the most dangerous places for the believer to be today is between the shelves of a Christian bookstore. At least when the disciple is in the secular marketplace, his or her defenses are up and discernment is active. We must exercise the very same level of discernment in the “Christian” marketplace as well, for the definition of “Christian” has now been extended to Mormonism.
— reviewed by James R. White
1. See James R. White, “A Different Jesus? Worse: A Different God, Gospel, and Faith,” Christian Research Journal 28, 4 (2005); http://www.equip.org/JAM503.
2. Daniel C. Peterson, “’Ye are Gods’: Ps. 82 and Jn. 10 as Witnesses to the Divine Nature of Humankind,” in The Disciple as Scholar: Essays on Scripture and the Ancient World in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, ed. Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000), 471–94.
3. Daniel C Peterson and Stephen D. Ricks, Offenders for a Word (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1998), 118. This work was originally released in 1992 by Aspen Books.
4. For more information on the errors in Offenders for a Word, see James R. White, “A Test of Scholarship,” Alpha and Omega Ministries, http://www.aomin.org/Offenders1.html.
5. For a discussion of the parallels between Smith and Muhammad, see Robert Velarde and Eric Johnson, “Are Mormons and Muslims Apples and Oranges?” Christian Research Journal 28, 4 (2005), http://www.equip.org/JAM802.
6. See as well the citation of Stephen Ricks on page 53, which also refers the reader to The Disciple as Scholar, the same work in which Peterson has his extensive defense of LDS polytheism referenced above. For examples of other references to LDS works, see also the reference to Hugh Nibley, LDS apologist par excellence, on page 75, and Donald Parry, on page 80. Any Christian seeking to follow up on these resources will find him- or herself in the middle of Provo’s best efforts at defending Joseph Smith and the Mormon religion, here with the aid of Eerdmans.
7. According to Joseph Smith, the remaining “golden plates” from which he had translated only a portion into the Book of Mormon were taken back to heaven.
8. In the Qur’an an ayah is essentially a verse, just as a sura is essentially a chapter.
9. Mawdudi’s rendering.
10. Sura 4:157 is the single ayah in all of the Qur’an interpreted by the majority of Muslims as denying the crucifixion of Jesus.
11. W. Montgomery Watt, Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), garners at least twenty-eight references in the work.
12. That is, although Peterson’s Mormon biases are detectable, he did not write the book from an explicitly Mormon perspective that would affirm polytheism, the prophethood of Joseph Smith, and so forth.
13. A hadith is a tradition attributed to Muhammad; a “strong” hadith has, in the estimation of Islamic scholars, a strong connection, historically, to Muhammad, while a “weak” hadith is much more questionable.