Thoughts on “Is Mormonism Christian?”

Posted: September 18, 2008 by joelmartin in Heresy
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The current issue of First Things, which I subscribe to, contains an article with a topic very familiar to those of us who interact with the LDS Church: Is Mormonism Christian ? The authors are Bruce D. Porter from the First Quorum of the Seventy on the LDS side, and Gerald McDermott a Professor from Roanoke College from the (ahem) Christian side.

There is nothing ground-breaking in either man’s presentation if you are at all familiar with the history of these debates. Mr. Porter outlines LDS differences with the Nicene Creed and then goes on to outline the LDS version of the creation, birth, life, death, resurrection and the atonement of Jesus Christ. He summarizes his article with this:

Are Mormons Christian? By self-definition and self-identity, unquestionably so. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints affirms that it is a Christian-faith denomination, a body of believers who worship Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and who witness that salvation is possible only by his atoning blood and grace. By the simple dictionary definition of a Christian as one who believes in or worships Jesus Christ, the case is compelling. To the title Christian a critic of Mormonism may add any modifiers he deems appropriate-unorthodox, heretical, non-Nicene, different-but blanket assertions that we are not Christian are a poor substitute for informed argument and dialogue.

Mr. McDermott counters with two major points of disagreement:first, “The Book of Mormon, which is Mormonism’s principal source for its claim to new revelation and a new prophet, lacks credibility.” Second, “…the Jesus proclaimed by Joseph Smith and his followers is different in significant ways from the Jesus of the New Testament.”
The frustrating thing about this exchange to me is the failure to define terms – granted there is a necessity for brevity in the magazine format. Porter at least puts forward a reductionist definition of Christian in his closing statement: “one who believes in or worships Jesus Christ.” My dictionary defines Christian as “a person who has received Christian baptism or is a believer in Jesus Christ and his teachings” but that is neither here nor there. McDermott does not even define what Christian means, he simply illustrates some areas where he thinks the two faiths contrast.
In some ways fighting over this term is unproductive and doesn’t get us anywhere, but on the other hand, we should be able to define what the word means from inside the Church itself. If we can’t define what Christian means, who can? But it is a vexing question – what is a Christian? If we say that it is one who has been born again then many thousands if not millions of Latter Day Saints will agree that they have been born again and are Christians. If we say that it is believing in the Bible, they would again concur, generally speaking. We could try Trinitarian baptism which gets close to the heart of the matter as the Vatican has noted. Mormons use the formula of the Trinitarian Name, but the meaning implied by their Father, Son and Holy Ghost is not the same as that of orthodox Christianity.
If we include Nicene orthodoxy as defined by the first 4 to 7 councils of the ecumenical church, we are getting somewhere. But this standard might rule out millions of folks whom we would be loathe to remove the Christian label from. And can we really expect the average person in the pew to be able to define Nicene Christology correctly?
I have argued before that the Trinity is the defining doctrine that separates a Christian from a non-Christian. I believe that the decisions of the councils, viewed through the lens of Scripture, are defining as boundary markers for what a Christian is. This doesn’t mean a believer has to know them and be able to talk about them. They don’t get tacked on to the end or our Bibles. But they function in an authoritative way in explaining the outlines of our faith. This is a high view of church authority, one that believes that the Holy Spirit did not vanish at the end of Revelation and cease guiding the church. I believe that our conflicts with Mormons and other heretics necessitates this view. The early Anglican theologians provided this view of the authority of the church:

The Church has power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.

  1. Seth R. says:

    I’m a believing Mormon (LDS), but I don’t really want to debate over the well-worn subject of who is Christian. Just a few observations…

    The discussion between McDermott and Porter illustrates a few key problems that Evangelicals and Mormons have when they come together to debate. Porter shows up with an aim of bearing witness and explaining his feelings on the scriptures. McDermott comes looking to pick a fight for Jesus. You see the same pattern in the book “Claiming Christ” coauthored by McDermott and LDS theologian (if there is such a thing) Robert Millett. Millett comes with an approach of testifying how much he enjoys the scriptures, Christ, and the Church, etc. He’s interested in personal belief and “likening the scriptures” to his own situation.

    McDermott, by contrast comes ready to have a knock-down debate over religious legitimacy, the bounds of orthodoxy, and theological concerns.

    The result is a rather unsatisfying book. Evangelicals will come away feeling that Millett is dodging their concerns. Mormons will come away feeling like McDermott is picking on them over concerns that are alien to them.

    We’ve got to come to grips with the fact that we simply approach religion differently.

    Mormons approach it experientially. The scriptures to us are not primarily a source of doctrine, but rather a pattern and narrative that we are supposed to envision our own lives in and pattern our own lives after. We do this in the framework of sacred covenants. We approach the scriptures ethically and experientially.

    Evangelicals by contrast, approach the scriptures as primarily a source of correct abstract belief or orthodoxy. For the Evangelical (at least the ones who are interested in debating Mormons), being orthodox is paramount. Correct abstract belief is what is most important.

    But Mormons do not generally share this concern with orthodoxy. We could take it or leave it, honestly. Part of that may simply be due to the fact that we are a young religion. Remember that the first 400 years of Christianity didn’t have much of an organized theology either. The only attempts at organized theology were mostly an ad hoc response to Roman criticism – apologetics (much like Mormonism today).

    Another part of that may be inherent in our structure. But either way, we do not care much about questions of orthodoxy.

    Believe it or not, the average Mormon probably doesn’t really know if God was once a “sinful man” like us or not and probably doesn’t care. To Evangelicals, this kind of attitude is appalling. How can you not care about something as foundational as the eternal nature of God the Father?

    Well… foundational for what?

    If you are trying to create a rigorous theology and orthodox framework for policing the boundaries of the Church community, then, yeah… that is a very foundational issue, and negelcting it would be inexcusable.

    But that’s not what Mormons are doing.

    If you are instead attempting to create a community of believers with shared identity and a shared purpose in making sacred covenants with God, then no, the ontology of God is honestly something you can put on the back-burner. It’s not a crucial issue. If we don’t know now, no problem. God will let us know when we need to know. Until then, we have enough light to carry on the work and goals of the Church.

    It’s a totally different mindset. And as long as Evangelicals fail to recognize this, they will be exasperated with us that we aren’t “playing by their rules.” They will often make the mistake of thinking that Mormons are dishonest or sneaky.

    We aren’t. We just don’t care about the same things in religion that you do.

    Likewise, Mormons are going to have to learn to be more careful and rigorous in their theology if they wish to productively converse with a Christian world that has made orthodoxy its guiding light.

  2. joelmartin says:

    Seth, I mean to get back to you, I just haven’t had time.

  3. joelmartin says:

    Seth, as I re-read your comments I come to the conclusion that you are creating a false either/or for Protestants. Protestants also see Scripture as “a pattern and narrative that we are supposed to envision our own lives in and pattern our own lives after. We do this in the framework of sacred covenants. We approach the scriptures ethically and experientially.”

    I would also argue that truth claims matter to the LDS church as much as they do to us, so I really don’t see this as the core difference between us.

  4. Seth R. says:

    Fair enough, I’ve probably just been spending too much time with the Evangelical counter-cult movement, and not enough time Evangelicals who aren’t ideological warriors (and yes, I do acknowledge that there are plenty of them out there).

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