Episcopal Church Statement on the LDS or Mormon Church
A Debate: Are Mormons Christian?
by Michael Paulson
September 26, 2008 11:56 PM
Catholics and Protestants have long taken a dim view of various aspects of Mormon theology, but the candidacy of Mitt Romney for president brought to the fore (again) the deep suspicion with which some traditional Christians view the Mormon faith. (Mormons have sometimes taken a similarly dim view of the practices of traditional Christians, arguing that those churches lost their way shortly after the events of the New Testament, and that Mormonism is actually a restoration of true Christianity.) The magazine First Things, in its October issue, offers a meaty and interesting point/counterpoint between a Mormon and a Protestant theologian. The two, not surprisingly, disagree.
A key paragraph from Bruce D. Porter, who is a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:
"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."
And an excerpt from the response by Gerald R. McDermott, an Episcopal priest who is a professor of religion at Roanoke College:
"Mormon beliefs diverge widely from historic Christian orthodoxy. The Book of Mormon, which is Mormonism’s principal source for its claim to new revelation and a new prophet, lacks credibility. And the Jesus proclaimed by Joseph Smith and his followers is different in significant ways from the Jesus of the New Testament: Smith’s Jesus is a God distinct from God the Father; he was once merely a man and not God; he is of the same species as human beings; and his being and acts are limited by coeternal matter and laws. The intent of this essay is not to say that individual Mormons will be barred from sitting with Abraham and the saints at the marriage supper of the Lamb. We are saved by a merciful Trinity, not by our theology. But the distinguished scholar of Mormonism Jan Shipps was only partly right when she wrote that Mormonism is a departure from the existing Christian tradition as much as early Christianity was a departure from Judaism. For if Christianity is a shoot grafted onto the olive tree of Judaism, Mormonism as it stands cannot be successfully grafted onto either."
Gerald R. McDermott
Most Christians say Mormonism is not Christian—though their reasons are sometimes awkward. Thus, for example, the most common explanation given by evangelicals and Lutherans is that Mormons teach salvation by good works. Since Mormons stress the necessity of works, they conclude that Latter-day Saints must not understand grace, which means, among other things, that God saves us by his work in Christ.
One problem with this line of thinking is that Christians who level this charge sometimes forget that Jesus also teaches the necessity of works as a fruit of true faith: “By their fruit you shall know them.” “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” Another problem is that the Book of Mormon and important Mormon writers actually teach salvation by Christ’s work of grace: “For we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23). Robert Millet, a prolific Brigham Young University theologian, explains that “after all we can do” means that “no matter how much we do, it simply will not be enough to guarantee salvation without Christ’s intervention.”
A second charge sometimes made by Nicene Christians is that Mormons are modern-day Arians who reject the deity of Christ. This is untrue in an important sense. Mormons do not believe Jesus was always God but that he was fully divine in the incarnation and continues to be God the Son today. The Book of Mormon says it was “the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” who was “lifted up” and “crucified” (1 Nephi 19:10).
A third accusation sometimes made is that Mormonism is more about Joseph Smith than Jesus Christ. It is true that Smith is central to Mormons’ view of reality, but it is also true that Jesus Christ is central to the Book of Mormon: “We talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins” (1 Nephi 25:26). Since Mormons identify Jehovah in the Old Testament with Christ, there is reason to believe Mormon author Susan Black’s calculation that Christ or his ministry is mentioned on the average of every 1.7 verses in the Book of Mormon.
No, the true distinction between Mormons and non-Mormons on revelation is not whether God still speaks to his people but whether he spoke to Joseph Smith in a way that reinterprets what he said to the first-century apostles. The question of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon is the first of two principal distinctions between the Latter-day Saint faith and orthodox Christian theology.
The Book of Mormon proclaims itself “another testament of Jesus Christ.” It is indeed, for it purports to give us another history of what Jesus said and did—not one to replace the Jesus of the gospels but to supplement that record. This new record contains the stories of Jesus’ three visits, just after his ascension in a.d. 34, to the Nephites in the Americas. According to this third testament, these were the primary group descended from Lehi and his son Nephi. Lehi was the patriarch and prophet who led his family from Jerusalem to the western hemisphere about 600 b.c. He was also the progenitor of the two major Book of Mormon peoples, the Nephites and the Lamanites. Most of the Book of Mormon traces the rise and fall of the Nephite nation as they either chose “to obey God or yield to the enticings of riches and pride.”
The story of Jesus’ visits to North America is in 3 Nephi. Here we are told that, over the course of three hours, Jesus Christ destroyed many cities in the Americas by fire and earthquake because of their wickedness in casting out prophets and saints. This was followed by three days of darkness. Many Nephites and Lamanites were killed, but those who did not join in wickedness were spared. “Soon after the ascension into heaven” (3 Nephi 10:18), Christ showed himself to a crowd of 2,500 in North America. He let them put their fingers into the hole in his side and touch the nail holes in his hands and feet. He called and commissioned twelve disciples as leaders and teachers, who were given authority to baptize with water, confer the Holy Ghost, and pass on his teaching (3 Nephi 11:14-15, 21-22, 18:37).
Jesus taught the crowds something very close to the King James Version of the Sermon on the Mount, prayed for their children one by one, administered Communion with “bread and wine” several times, healed their sick, and raised a dead man (3 Nephi 12-14, 17:21, 18:2-4, 20:1-7, 17:9, 26:15). He also made statements and promises unfamiliar to the New Testament. He said the law of God was fulfilled in him but also “hath an end” (3 Nephi 15:5); he said America was specially destined as this new Israel and was the “new Jerusalem” (3 Nephi 16:16, 20:22); he praised these American disciples for their “great faith” (greater than “all the Jews,” 3 Nephi 19:35) and promised that three Nephites would remain on earth until Jesus returned at the end of the age. They would not suffer pain or sorrow (save that for the sins of the world), they would be cast into a prison and furnace and den of wild beasts but emerge unscathed, and their bodies would be transformed into an immortal state (3 Nephi 28).
What are we to make of this history of Jesus? Can we believe that the same Jesus who preached and healed and was crucified in Palestine came just a year or so later to the Americas and said and did all these things?
There are four reasons this is unlikely. First, there are many voices testifying to what I will call the Palestinian Jesus. We have four gospels in the New Testament, each written by someone with close connection to the Palestinian Jesus. Even if historians are unsure of the identity of every gospel author, there is plenty of historical evidence that the gospels come from communities close to Jesus and the apostles.
In contrast, there is only one voice testifying to the authenticity of the American Jesus—the translator of the gold plates that comprise the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith. To be sure, the Book of Mormon purports to be the testimony of more than several ancient prophets, and eleven witnesses say they saw the golden plates. But while there are many extant manuscripts from the ancient world attesting the existence of four gospels that arose independently—hence at least four independent voices—there is no other record from the ancient world outside the Book of Mormon that speaks of this Jesus, and none of the eleven witnesses claimed to be able to translate the writing on the plates.
Second, the testimonies we have to the Palestinian Jesus date from the same century as that Jesus, but the single testimony to the American Jesus comes eighteen centuries later. Not only do we have manuscripts containing one or more gospels that date to within just a few centuries of the Palestinian Jesus, but we have evidence within those gospels and some epistles that goes back to within just a few decades (and for some units of the tradition, years) of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. But for the American Jesus, the first public record we can find is not until the nineteenth century.
Third, there are inconsistencies between the Palestinian Jesus and the American Jesus. For example, while the American Jesus promises the land of America to the new Israel as a “new Jerusalem” (3 Nephi 20:22, Ether 13:3), the Palestinian Jesus speaks only of a kingdom of God that is open to people of every land. His promise to the meek is that “they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). His apostles write that Jesus’ followers still seek a country (Heb. 11:14) and “should be the heir of the world” (Rom. 4:13). People will bring into the New Jerusalem “the glory and honor” not of a single nation but of all the “nations” (Rev. 21:26). So the Palestinian Jesus seems to think of the coming Kingdom as a worldwide phenomenon not limited to one geographical part of the earth, while the American Jesus is fixated on America.
There are other discrepancies. The Palestinian Jesus frequently criticizes the faith of the twelve apostles, all of whom were Jews, but the American Jesus praises the faith of his twelve disciples for being greater than that of “all the Jews” (3 Nephi 19:35). The only mention in the gospels of the Palestinian Jesus about anyone not dying is explicitly denied: “Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’” (John 21:23). Yet the American Jesus promises that three of his disciples will remain on earth until he returns, never tasting death, and they will be thrown into the earth, a furnace, and a den of wild beasts, and yet receive “no harm” (3 Nephi 28:20-22).
A fourth reason that keeps us from identifying the Jesus of the Book of Mormon with the Jesus of the New Testament is that there are intratextual inconsistencies, if you will, between the Jesus of the Book of Mormon and the Jesus of later Joseph Smith prophecies. The greatest concerns the Trinity. At the end of his life, in his King Follett funeral sermon (1844), Joseph Smith prophesied against the Trinity, saying that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three separate Gods. While this is now official doctrine, there are no signs of this rejection of the Trinity in the Book of Mormon.
In fact, quite the opposite. Several times the Book of Mormon affirms traditional Trinitarian language and the concept of one being in three persons. Take, for example, 3 Nephi 11:27: “And after this manner shall ye baptize in my name: for behold, verily I say unto you, that the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost are one; and I am in the Father, and the Father in me, and the Father and I are one.” Mosiah 15:5 is even more explicit: “And thus the flesh becoming subject to the Spirit, or the Son to the Father, being one God.” So is Almah 11:44: “Every thing shall be restored to its perfect frame, as it is now, or in the body, and shall be brought and be arraigned before the bar of Christ the Son, and God the Father, and the Holy Spirit, which is one Eternal God, to be judged according to their works.”
This is not a trivial change but one that has done more than most others to separate Mormons from other believers in Christ. It also undermines claims for the historicity of the Book of Mormon and therefore the history of the American Jesus. If the prophet responsible for the Book of Mormon made cosmically significant changes in his view of God over the course of his prophetic career, one has less confidence in the reliability of his prophecies, particularly those that purport to provide a new history of God on earth.
Another major difference between Mormonism and Christian orthodoxy involves their views of Jesus. While the Book of Mormon is fairly orthodox in its view of Jesus and the Godhead, later Mormon teaching is not. It asserts that Jesus is a different God from the Father; that Jesus is one of (at least) three Gods; that he was once a man who was not God; that his nature is in all respects the same as ours, and so his status is also one we can attain one day; and that he does not transcend the cosmos.
Mormons deny that Jesus is a member of the Trinity. They insist they still believe that God is three and one but simply disagree with the early creeds that rendered that three-in-oneness as Trinity. They say they believe every word of the New Testament but do not find those words suggesting what the orthodox Church has conceived in its classic Trinitarian formulas.
The basic difference lies in the relation between Jesus and the Father. Mormons say Jesus is a different being from the Father, and in fact a different God. Mormons therefore say Jesus is one of several Gods. The theologian Stephen Robinson denies that Mormonism is polytheistic, and strictly speaking he is right. Polytheism portrays a world in which competing gods either vie for ultimate authority or have delimited provinces over which they rule. The Mormon picture is closer to henotheism, which posits a supreme God over other lesser, subordinate gods. The Mormons say that the Father is at least functionally over the Son and the Holy Ghost, and they are the only Gods with which we have to do.
Contemporary authorities often speak of God in the plural. Professor Millet says our goal is to strive to be “one with the Gods.” The Encyclopedia of Mormonism (produced principally by Brigham Young University) teaches that there is a “Mother in Heaven,” who is like the Heavenly Father “in glory, perfection, compassion, wisdom, and holiness.” God “is plural,” it declares.
If Jesus is one of several Gods, he was not always God. For Mormons, he was once as we are now but eventually grew in his attributes until he became “like unto God” Abraham 3:24). For orthodoxy, the movement of divine attributes in Jesus is the reverse: Instead of gradually accumulating the divine nature, he always was divine. There were times in his incarnation when he voluntarily “emptied himself” of some of his divine prerogatives, such as knowing the day and the hour of the end of all things (Phil. 2:7, Matt. 24:36). But this was merely an appearance, camouflaging the “fullness” of deity (Col. 1:19) by a divine humility willing to forgo certain privileges.
Because, for Mormons, Jesus was once as we are now, he is no different in kind from what we are. He shares our species. Like Jesus, we never had a beginning but are coeternal with God. According to Joseph Smith’s Doctrines and Covenants, our “intelligence” always existed; it “was not created or made” (D&C 93:29). According to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, “In due time that intelligence was given a spirit body, becoming the spirit child of God the Eternal Father, and his beloved companion, the Mother in Heaven.”
Because we are all of the same species and nature, potentially divine and realized divinities, we are all on the same path of progression—if we take advantage of it. “Then they shall be gods, because they have all power, and the angels are subject unto them” (D&C 132:20). The upshot is that, for Latter-day Saints, Jesus is ontologically no different from other human beings. He fully realized his potential, but we have the same potential. He is simply at the end of the progression along which we too can proceed. We can one day possess even Jesus’ omniscience and omnipotence.
For the orthodox tradition, in contrast, God is qadosh: “wholly other.” There is what Kierkegaard called an “infinite qualitative difference” between the human and divine. We will never be able to attain Jesus’ nature and powers.
Finally, the Mormon Jesus is limited in significant ways. For one thing, Mormons believe matter always existed, coeternally with both the Father and the Son. So they are within but not outside the cosmos. To put it crudely, Jesus and the Father are not bigger than the universe.
Indeed, they cannot be, because they are physical beings who occupy a limited amount of space. Not only Jesus but also the Father have “a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s” (D&C 130:22). For that matter, the Holy Ghost is in a similar position—physical and therefore no larger than the physical cosmos. In fact, all spirit is matter—but matter that is “more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes” (D&C 131:7).
Jesus is also limited by “eternal law,” which according to the Encyclopedia is independent and co-eternal with God, just as matter is. In fact, not only is law independent of God, but God is governed by it. Bruce R. McConkie has written that “God himself governs and is governed by law.” Mormon philosopher David Paulsen states, “God does not have absolute power . . . but rather the power to maximally utilize natural laws to bring about His purposes.” This means that ethical values are derived ultimately not from God but from principles that stand outside him. It also means that the Mormon Jesus is limited. He occupies a limited space (even if immense), and things outside him (law and matter) limit his acts.
In sum, then, Mormon beliefs diverge widely from historic Christian orthodoxy. The Book of Mormon, which is Mormonism’s principal source for its claim to new revelation and a new prophet, lacks credibility. And the Jesus proclaimed by Joseph Smith and his followers is different in significant ways from the Jesus of the New Testament: Smith’s Jesus is a God distinct from God the Father; he was once merely a man and not God; he is of the same species as human beings; and his being and acts are limited by coeternal matter and laws.
The intent of this essay is not to say that individual Mormons will be barred from sitting with Abraham and the saints at the marriage supper of the Lamb. We are saved by a merciful Trinity, not by our theology. But the distinguished scholar of Mormonism Jan Shipps was only partly right when she wrote that Mormonism is a departure from the existing Christian tradition as much as early Christianity was a departure from Judaism. For if Christianity is a shoot grafted onto the olive tree of Judaism, Mormonism as it stands cannot be successfully grafted onto either.
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