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Mormon apologists gather, but not to apologize

Published: Thursday, Aug. 2 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

FAIR conference attendees take notes during a 2010 session. This year's conference opens today at the South Towne Exposition Center.

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SANDY — When the Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research (FAIR) opens its 14th annual Apologetics Conference this morning at the South Towne Exposition Center, it will do so in front of its largest audience ever.

"Advance registration for the conference is at an all-time high — as of now, we are projecting attendance at the conference to be 44 percent higher than previous years," said Steve Densley Jr., FAIR public relations director. "There is more interest than ever in Mormon apologetics."

FAIR is a private, independent organization with the mission to "address the charges leveled at the doctrines, practices and leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with documented responses that are written in an easily understandable style." FAIR is not owned, operated or controlled by the LDS Church itself.

Densley attributes the increased interest in all things Mormon to presidential politics.

"It seems likely that much of the reason for the surge of interest in apologetics is the candidacy of Mitt Romney and the increased attention this has brought the LDS Church and its members," Densley said.

"Members of the church are facing a more pressing need to defend the church and to explain difficult issues. FAIR helps meet those needs."

And defending the church is really what Mormon apologetics are all about.

"A lot of people hear the word 'apologetics' and they think we're all about groveling and apologizing for the church," said Scott Gordon, FAIR president. "Some people are kind of offended by the notion. They're like, 'Why are you apologizing for the church?' "

What many people don't understand, said Bridget Jack Jeffries, an evangelical Christian who is currently a master's candidate at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, is the root word from which our current word "apology" descends.

"'Apologia' is a Greek word meaning 'defense,'" she said during a session on Mormon apologetics at last week's Sunstone Symposium in Salt Lake City. "Today when we say 'apology,' it is usually an expression of regret: 'I'm sorry I stepped on your foot.' But in the classical Greek sense, an apologetic response to the same scenario would be, 'I stepped on your foot because you had it poking out in the middle of the aisle, you idiot!' — in other words, to make a reasonable, fact-based explanation."

Daniel Peterson, professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic at BYU and widely known as a leading Mormon apologist, said that in the ancient Greek legal system, the "apologia" was delivered in a formal speech as a way of giving a rational explanation in response to charges by way of rebuttal to those charges. Plato's "Apology," for example, is the philosopher's retelling of the speech Socrates gave as he defended himself against charges of corrupting the young and not worshipping the approved gods.

"Socrates was not apologizing for his actions," Peterson said. "He was defending and explaining them using reason and logic."

Which is precisely the objective of the religious apologist.

Kevin Barney, who has been involved in Mormon apologetic research for years, defines it as "that branch of theology defending religious faith in scholarly ways."

"The Christian apologist tries to provide a rational justification for the truth claims of the Christian faith," Jeffries said. "They do so in three ways: first, making a rational case for faith to unbelievers; second, defending the gospel against attacks; and third, strengthening the faithful. This is the three-fold nature of Christian apologetics."

Jeffries cited several New Testament examples of apologetics, such as on the day of Pentecost, when the apostle Peter "appealed to the case of the witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus Christ — he was making a reasoned case for the faith."

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