Thoughts on “Is Mormonism Christian?”

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.

note: this is cross-posted with Endued

10 thoughts on “Thoughts on “Is Mormonism Christian?”

  1. I generally appreciated this post. The only problem your statement: “I believe that the decisions of the councils, viewed through the lens of Scripture, are defining as boundary markers for what a Christian is.” If this were true, then certainly Mormons would not be Christians, but the same would also hold true for the original and authentic New Testament Christians of the first century. They certainly did not use the decisions of post-biblical councils to define themselves as “Christian.”

  2. The difference is that those early Christians were on a trajectory that took them to the decisions of the Councils. Mormons have rejected that history and so are not in the same position.

  3. Well you’re certainly reading more into the scriptures than what is found in them to be able to arrive at that conclusion. I find that “trajectory” to be unbiblical.

  4. I’m not arguing to be within your church or within traditional/historical/orthodox Christianity. I belong to the restored Church of Jesus Christ already, which is Christianity in the same vein as the first century, original and biblical Christianity. Even protestants acknowledge that the Church changed as it became hellinized (adapted to Greek philosophy) during the late 2nd and 3rd centuries–ie: apostasy to some degree. Otherwise there would have been no need for the Reformation. Where you might believe the Reformation was sufficient to put the Church/Christianity back on course, I do not. I believe that God had to completely restore his priesthood authority and bring back prophets and apostles, since the original ones had been persecuted and killed off.

  5. On hellenization, read this:
    http://www.leithart.com/archives/003358.php
    Also, read St. Athanasius on the Incarnation – the belief in eternal matter is a supreme form of hellenization, so the LDS church is the proverbial pot calling the kettle black.
    Your concept of ‘priesthood authority’ is not in the Bible but is a Mormon invention. Not to mention the fact that we have many, many Bishops with unbroken chains of apostolic succession back to the earliest church, you’ll have to explain to me how this “authority” departed the earth when one man followed another in his office.
    You can’t define what “apostasy” is and if you read history you certainly can’t prove it happened in the early church like you say. And the Mormon church is nothing like the early church. Just imagine them taking the Eucharist with bread and WATER! It is laughable that the blood of our Lord has been exchanged for water. This is only one example, but it goes to show that Mormonism is not Orthodox, not historical, and originated in 19th century Protestant New York.

  6. Well I can agree with you that Mormonism is not orthodox or historical Christianity. Neither was the original Christian church of the first century. Nevertheless, to make a blanket statement that Mormons are not Christians would be incorrect and misleading. As Bruce D. Porter concluded in that “First Things” article: “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.”

    PS: Despite what some Mormons may think, I do not believe, nor do I think that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints affirms that it is the exact replica of the early Christian church. We do affirm to be the Restored Church, but naturally some things will be different, and revelation allows God to adapt things to meet the needs of today.

  7. The church of the first century believed the same core things that we do today, you can read them in the Epistles of Clement for example. No Kolob, no priesthood that goes back to Adam, no Jesus in America, no Temple endowments and on and on.
    Using water instead of wine is quite an “adaptation” and the LDS position on alcohol in general flies in the face of the entire Bible.

  8. I think that the Mormon conception of God and gods is nowhere within the realm of Christianity under any circumstances. Take for example the concept of “Celestial Marriage;” the teleological goal of all LDS members is to produce “Spirit Children” to populate the universe, and this is done wholesale through polygamistic relationships between gods (which all LDS hope to become). The Mormons have effectively reduced the concept of God as a necessary being by relying on the participation of many others, i.e. celestials spouses. In this way the concept of God as shared by the great majority of Christians is smashed to bits in Mormonism because unlike the God of the Christians, the gods of the LDS must lean on others to produce souls.

  9. Sounds like J. Jose needs to read “How Wide The Divide?” (a conversation between an Evangelical scholar and a Mormon scholar) to get to the heart of what Mormons actually believe, where we’re similar, and where we truly have disagreements. By any means, polemical comments such as the above do little to advance mutual understanding and charitable dialogue.

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