Is Mormonism Christian?

Part of me hesitates to even post this, because I don’t care too much about this debate.  Mormons want to call themselves Christian, and I don’t really care.  There is no doubt that Jesus Christ plays a central role in their religion, so it makes sense for Mormons to self-identify as ‘Christian’.  Of course, the whole debate hinges on the definition of Christianity, and there are other competing definitions of Christianity.  On those more robust definitions (if we accept them), then Mormons are not Christians, though I think it is probably better to just say they are not ‘creedal Christians’.  But, as I say, I don’t really care too much about quibbling over who has claim to the name ‘Christian’.

That said, I have very little doubt (and most of the LDS folk I know agree) that Mormonism is very different – essentially and fundamentally different – than every other brand of Christianity we usually think of.  Quite simply, Mormon Christians and Creedal Christians disagree about the nature of God (Trinity, Jesus) and the nature of man (whether man is of the same species as God, whether man can become a god).  Which is to say they disagree about the most important things.  

My only complaint is when some Mormons diminish those differences, acting as if Mormonism was just ‘another denomination’ (as if the differences between a Mormon and a Lutheran are not any more extreme than the differences between a Lutheran and a Methodist).  To my mind this is, not to put too fine a point on it, just plain dishonest.  (Let me stress, not all Mormons intentionally diminish these differences, but just that some do).

Anyway, First Things has an article on the matter here.  Bruce Porter (a member of the Quorum of the Seventy) writes on one side, Gerald McDermott on the other.  I think it is pretty fair on both sides (though I am sure my Mormon friends will disagree with some of McDermott’s arguments).  You can also listen to interviews with the two authors here.

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About Kleiner

Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

18 thoughts on “Is Mormonism Christian?

  1. Jon Adams

    I’ve always felt this debate was a distraction, even as a Mormon.

    This is (understandably) a touchy issue for Mormons–they feel their belief in Christ is being impugned. As you note, however, that’s not true. That Mormons self-identify as “Christians” is evidenced by their church’s name.

    But is there more to being Christian than believing in Jesus Christ? Or must you also pass a creedal litmus test? That’s the debate.

    Mormons should be careful to demand that by virtue of their wanting to be called Christians, they should be recognized as such. And here’s why: There are over 100 branches of Mormonism. Many of those branches, most notably the FLDS sect, want claim to the title “Mormon.” I mean, they believe in the Book of Mormon too. But the mainstream LDS Church has tried to monopolize the word. How is this any different than Creedal Christians wanting to reserve the word “Christian” for themselves?

    Moreover, Mormons deny that Creedal Christians are “true” Christians. The LDS Church’s claim of legitimacy is that it is the restoration of primitivist Christianity and that all other churches are in a state of apostasy. Joseph Smith made this point, and he didn’t mince his words either. He called all other sects “abominations” and their professors “corrupt.” John Taylor, the third president of the church, was equally undiplomatic in saying that Christianity was a “perfect pack of nonsense” and that it was engineered by the Devil. So again, I think Mormons are guilty of the very same offenses that they accuse Creedal Christians of making.

    Some LDS thinkers (Terryl Givens comes to mind) are wary of adopting the label “Christian” as their primary status. They are actually fond of the label “Mormon” precisely because it does distinguish Mormonism from Creedal Christianity. Mormons often boast that they are “a peculiar people.” They should be quicker to admit, then, that they are fundamentally different than most Christians.

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  2. Doug Beazer

    I am sure if someone brought Dr. Sherlock into this discussion-he would agree with Vince and he would have an interesting perspective on Mormonism and Christianity.

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  3. Kleiner Post author

    I passed this along to Dr. Sherlock and encouraged him to post here with his thoughts – I hope he does. I suspect he would agree with Vince that one central question is the question of freedom/determinism. And Vince is right on that part of sorting this out is a working out of time and eternity.

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  4. Kleiner Post author

    I left this alone in the hope students would jump in. I’m with Jon in being surprised this did not provoke some discussion. I tried to be pretty accommodating in the first post. Maybe you only get discussion on religious topics if it is started with something more caustic?

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  5. Mark Rasmuson

    Alright, so I have been absent from the blog lately. No tiempo.
    Here are my thoughts:

    Since the term “Christian” seems to have first appeared in books of the New Testament, which were arguably written prior to any of the creeds (which are not found in the New Testament), then I think the argument could hold that neither Catholics, Protestants, nor Latter-day Saints could consider themselves Christians, since none were organized in the same way they are today at the time of the historical church. However, since many claim to be the historical church, especially Catholics and Latter-day Sains, then both can be considered Christian.

    The differences are founded in the Trinity. So addressing Harrison’s concerns about Latter-day Saints minimizing the differences, I am not sure there is as much dishonesty as he says. I think the criticism is too harsh. While the Trinity is a fundamental difference, I think the Christianity Latter-day Saints embrace informs their day-to-day lives very similarly to the ways Christianity may inform the day-to-day lives of Protestants and Catholics (considering their differences respectively.)

    Someone who believes in Christ acknowledges that his or her life falls terrible short of redemption through his or her own efforts. The appeal to God in the name of Jesus Christ, and through His Atonement, is very similar in all three religions.

    I think there may be some strange notion in the minds of those who are not Latter-day Saints that somehow they go around constantly thinking of themselves as Gods in embryo – as if this were the primary motivating factor in their lives.

    Being a Latter-day Saint and knowing many, I think others may be surprised that the motivating force in our lives is a desire to live with God and Jesus Christ because there could in no way be any being who could provide a greater sense of peace, love, comfort, community, family, friendship, and joy. These are the things Latter-day Saints want. Aspiring, seeking gain, putting others down, exalting one’s self – these are strongly criticized in the Church and preached against. These, according to Latter-day Saint doctrine, are the attributes of Satan and are absolutely not to be embraced.

    I think the defensiveness others may experience when confronting Latter-day Saints is probably more due to personality insecurities, and feelings of inadequacy, and a desire to avoid any contention rather than feelings of superiority. This is important to understand.

    So, if two people have their greatest hopes of joy in this life and in the life to come grounded in faith in Christ, then their seems to be no legitimate reason for not being able to be considered Christian.

    I hope this provides a little more clarification.

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  6. Kleiner Post author

    Interesting thoughts Mark. A few responses:

    1) Creed – from credo (I believe) or credimus (we believe). The creeds as we know them certainly did come after the writing of all of the books of the NT. But early formulations of the creeds can be found as early as 100 or before (Ignatius of Antioch’s letter to the Trallians). Another early creedal seed is found in the Epistula Apostolorum (~150) and in Justin Martyr’s ‘First Apology’ (he was killed around 165). So, depending on how you date the Gospels and other books of the NT, some early creedal seeds might pre-date some of them.
    Besides, the creeds do appear in Scripture. The origins of the creeds are actually in the OT. We see in Deuteronomy the ancient confession of faith (creed) that ‘The Lord our God is one Lord.’ Every word of the Nicene Creed save one is from Scripture (homoiousios is the only word not in Scripture, and of course that is a mighty important word when it comes to the difference between LDS Christians and the rest of the Christian world – because it is that word that seeks to entrench the understanding – thought to be rooted in Scripture – that God is radically one and that God and man are essentially different in that One is Creator and the other is created).

    The Creeds were not developed in a vacuum. The ongoing clarification (and definition) of the faith was in response to various misunderstandings and false teachings. We see a lot of this correction in Paul’s letters, but also in other early writings from the Fathers. (Writings against Marcionism, Gnosticism, etc). The creeds were developed from the earliest days of Christianity, they were not an ‘add-on’ later down the road.

    Point here is this: since both LDS Christians and Catholic Christians lay a special claim to being the ‘historical Church’, it is worth looking at what the early Church Fathers were saying in order to decide if one or the other has a better claim to the mantle (in particular, if the earliest Church fathers seem to be pointing toward what would ultimately come to be called homoiousios or not).

    I might add that Mormons have a creed too, even if they don’t call it that (they call it the Articles of Faith). One of the things creeds do is act as a ‘rule of faith’, they provide a measure for the proper interpretaion of Scripture. Without such guides, Scripture is subject to any number of possible readings. Mormons know this, hence the need for the Article of Faith and extra-scriptural authorities in their tradition.

    2) If I am to grant your point about the ‘day to day’ lives of Mormons as compared to regular Christians, I am not sure what that proves. Christians have, and have almost always had, a special interest in orthodoxy (right belief) rather than just orthopraxy (right practice). So even if it ‘looks the same’ (and I am not sure it always does), that does not mean it is the same or is even ‘in effect the same’. There is a tendency on the part of Mormons to make these pragmatic arguments (‘it works’, ‘it is good for the family’, etc), and I just think that those arguments make for pretty bad theology.

    Mormons may not walk around day to day constantly thinking of themselves as gods in embryo, but that does not mean it isn’t an essential teaching of the LDS faith, that it is central to their view of God and man. It is – whether Mormons think about it a lot or not. Why hide from those theological and anthropological commitments? (By the way, I should add for those that don’t know Mark that Mark does not shy away from these commitments).

    3) All of that said, your point about the importance of Christ to Mormons is well-taken, that is why I don’t really object to them calling themselves ‘Christian’.

    4) So why bring it up? The name can hide something important. If there is one person who is eating twinkies and calling it ‘food’, and another eating vegetables and calling it ‘food’, we should not say ‘Oh well, they are both food’. In a sense they are, but we would legitimately seek to distinguish between the good and real food and the bad and false food, right? Mormonism and Creedal Christianity cannot both be true. They are either both false, or one is true and the other is false. Those who seek the truth should be interested in sorting such things out.

    5) To bring us back to Vince’s point, these questions are related to questions of philosophical theology. To what extent is God transcendent (Other)? How does the eternal relate to the temporal? … …

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  7. Kleiner Post author

    Huenemann is just going to have to let us do some philosophical theology and just plain old theology on the site here. Hope he can endure it! (That said, I don’t think the blog should become too focused on religious issues, I hope that theological questions remain outnumbered by philosophical ones).

    A student a few years ago sent me an article in an attempt to explain the apostasy. (I can’t figure out how to link to it in a comment, but I’ll keep trying). It was written by one of the ‘Quorom of the Twelve’ (Dallin H. Oaks) so I presume it carries some weight.

    What is interesting about it, to my mind, is this:
    1) The general tenor of the article presumes a very severe divide (is it too much to say ‘incompatibility’?) between faith and reason – what he calls ‘The collision between the speculative world of Greek philosophy and the simple, literal faith and practice of the earliest Christians’. He speaks of how the attempt to ‘synthesize’ faith and philosophy led to the apostasy, and how ‘philosophical abstraction’ is incompatible with the plain, ordinary, and literal meaning of the Scriptures. (Of course, it seems to me that a plain and ordinary and literal reading of Deuteronomy’s ‘our God is one Lord’ would imply the plain meaning that there is only one God! When the Creed says we ‘believe in one God’, it is telling you to go look at the OT to find out what that means – monotheism, not just that Yahweh was the ‘top god’ but that he alone is God, and that there is a hard and fast distinction to be drawn between the Creator and creation).

    2) The article also presents a real caricature of the development of the Nicene Creed, suggesting that it was produced primarily out of political motivations and treating it as an ‘erasure’ of the tradition that had proceeded it. My post above seeks to undermine this rather naive view.

    3) When he does recognize the theological impulse (which in the creed uses philosophical language) behind the creeds, he mistakes it. He says, ‘For example, philosophers then maintained that physical matter was evil and that God was a spirit without feelings or passions. Persons of this persuasion, including learned men who became influential converts to Christianity, had a hard time accepting the simple teachings of early Christianity’.
    But he is just wrong about this. The Creeds were developed not in order to entrench a gnostic view of the evil of the physical world. Quite to the contrary, creedal developments (including homoiousios) were an attempt to combat such misinterpretations of the Bible.

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  8. Jon Adams

    I would love to read that article from Oaks if someone can find it. There is another talk, by Boyd K. Packer, that seems to drive a wedge between faith and reason. In the talk, Packer encourages LDS educators to withhold information from students that is not “faith-promoting.” I’m not sure how relevant it is to the discussion, but it’s an interesting read all the same.

    Here it is: http://byustudies.byu.edu/shop/pdfSRC/21.3Packer.pdf

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  9. RyanS

    Regarding Kleiner’s 1): It is common for Mormons, now and in the past, to argue that the Church fell into apostasy by accepting the tenets of Greek philosophy and thus corrupting pure Christian doctrine. Many protestants also make the same argument, thus justifying the need for a “reformation”. However, it is now clear that the idea of a Christian capitulation to Greek philosophical ideas is inaccurate. However, while early Christians did carefully adopt some of the language and categories of Greek philosophy, they did in no way compromise the doctrine and teachings of the Apostles and their successors. To those who are willing to delve deep into this topic, I would recommend a book by perhaps the greatest historian of theology ever, Jaroslav Pelikan. The book is called: Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism. This book was very helpful to me in putting this question to rest. I ama former Mormon, and I examined the whole idea of a Great Apostasy and found it severely lacking in real evidence and full of vague, unfounded assertions.

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  10. RyanS

    Articles, like the one Kleiner refers to, are common, and present a facile caricature of real Christian history and theology and are designed solely to reaffirm the ignorant in their Mormonism. They are not written to be persuasive to the honest inquirer.

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  11. Mark Rasmuson

    RyanS: Its facile to ascribe motives.
    Harrison and Jon: I will be writing a paper for my final capstone project on Pelagius and offering a Latter-day Saint view of relationship between grace, faith, and reason. I’ll forward it on when its finished – might not be until Spring.

    Also, Harrison, as for your reading of Deuteronomy, its important to note that the scholarly view of the book is that it was written much later than it purports – after the severity of monotheism was firmly established in the Jewish mind. Furthermore, it seems to me that the Lord of the Old Testament fits the Mormon view much better than the Catholic view. For example, read Genesis 2. There we have the Lord walking in the garden in the cool of the day. In the Catholic view, God does not have legs to walk on. My point is not to prove that Mormonism is more in line with the Bible, because such proof is not logically available. However, I would suggest that many of the debates about Biblical interpretation are precarious because they truly are never without objectivity.

    We all approach the Bible with our own worldviews. The Bible tells a person what he or she wants to know – be the person Catholic, Protestant, Agnostic, Atheist, or Mormon. It is this – the confusion resulting from a myriad of Biblical interpretations – which Latter-day Saints believe, along with the unassuming mind of Joseph Smith that made 1820 a perfect time for a beginning of a restoration of a fullness of truth. It seems, and this is not just an emotional response but theological, that the only way to settle the endless arguments which had been perpetuated through the centuries was to bring another witness, The Book of Mormon, which had been kept hidden from debate. Certainly, for many millions, this other witness (which, I add, has been shown pretty clearly through strict textual analysis to contain many different writing styles and which contains authentic Arabic and Hebrew patterns of culture and writing) has been clear evidence of the restoration.

    Latter-day Saints try to avoid this kind of debate if it gets contentious. If this gets anti-Mormon, I’m out.

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  12. Jon Adams

    Great thoughts, Mark. But I must comment on your claim that the BoM has been authenticated by “strict textual analysis.”

    There have only been a few textual analyses done on the BoM concerning its authorship. The one to which you likely refer is a dated 1979 analysis done at (lo and behold) BYU.

    The BYU study was arguably contradicted by the Royal Statistical Society, a very reputable institution. Statistician David Holmes did the bulk of the work and concluded that the language in the BoM is consistent with Smith’s other writings.

    Linguist David Packham has also written extensively on linguistic problems in the Book of Mormon. It is worth noting his bias, though–he is an ex-Mormon.

    As for the occurrence of Hebraisms and such in the BoM: I think Mormons give too much import to these instances. Even LDS apologist Hugh Nibley cautioned Mormons against “parallel-o-mania.” Parallels to Hebrew writing styles can be find in many sufficiently long books. Mody Dick, for example, contains instances of chiasmus. As does James Strang’s Book of the Law of the Lord. Also, Smith borrowed heavily from and likely tried to mimic language in the Bible. Biblical language is awash with Hebraisms (of course), so it’s no surprise that we find it in the BoM too.

    Now, this whole issue strays from the intended topic of the thread. And like you, Mark, I don’t want this thread to degenerate into Mormon bashing. But you introduced the issue of BoM authorship and I think it merited a response.

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  13. RyanS

    You are quite right about ascribing motives. I withdraw my last comment with my apologies. I was in an intemperate mood at the time.

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  14. Kleiner Post author

    A blog management point: I appreciate Mark’s willingness to debate these questions openly and honestly. I hope he does not bow out if things get ‘contentious’. But everyone should draw the line at being rude. It is sadly easy on blogs (myself included) to flirt dangerously with a fine line here. Let’s be careful. (RyanS is a smart and kind guy who knows a thing or two (he has a Masters degree in early christian history), but his retraction was welcome). I think we should all be willing to be forthright, but respectful. (I think Mark is wrong, but I try to be respectful about it! :) ) I hope some other Mormons come and post, it might get a little lonely for Mark!

    That said, the article I mentioned says what it says. There is a very problematic understanding of the relation between faith and reason buried in there. I’d like to hear a Mormon clarify how they see that relationship.

    Mark – Whenever Deut was written, it is a part of the biblical canon (even for Mormons). My point was not to defend a ‘plain reading’ anyway – it is the LDS Church that seems to hold up the plain reading as desirable. My only point was to suggest that, on the ‘plain meaning’ interpretation, you’re gonna have trouble with the Shema Israel (the name of that ancient confession of God as one).
    Here is the real point: (and this is the point that was made in the original First Things article I posted): It may be possible to demonstrate that the LDS understanding of God is incompatible with the OT and NT and the very early Christian understandings of the divine.

    But Mormons and Catholics have an important agreement here when it comes to biblical interpretation – both think that Scripture without authority is like a riderless horse. The question is, which Church (if either) is really authoritative? That is why I make appeals to early seeds of the Creeds in the youngest days of Christianity.

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  15. 25or6to4

    There is a biblical canon of scripture. The simple fact that Mormons have additional books they elevate to canon differentiates them. At most, we can say Mormons added a new set of scripture and beliefs in the 19th century to a christian foundation, with the new set not accepted by another christian group.

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  16. Jeff Daines

    I know this is going to be highly controversial, but I would take it one step further and say that not only do LDS people (I think it’s misleading to say “mormons” because people confuse that with polygamists and such) think they are Christians, but that, properly defined, they are in a sense the ONLY true “Christian” church (at least according to my definition, which I shall lay out), or at least that they are Christian to a higher degree than any other church.

    Here’s my definition of what makes a Church “Christian”: if a church is truly “Christian,” then Jesus Christ would have no problem joining or leading it if he were to physically come back to earth today—He would in fact claim “this is MY Church.” In other words, it’s a matter of which church most accurately teaches and follows the actual teachings and practices of which Jesus Christ himself actually believes. After all, wouldn’t a true Christian Church be full of actual “disciples” of Jesus Christ? And isn’t a disciple nothing more than someone who believes and follows Jesus Christ? Or think of it this way, would it make sense to call someone a “Christian” who doesn’t actually believe of follow Jesus Christ? Sure, they may have their own ideas about right and wrong, but you go beyond that when you claim those ideas are “Christian”: you are in essence saying that those ideas HARMONIZE with Christ’s.

    It is precisely in this sense that the LDS Church claims to be the Christian Church: if Jesus Christ were personally present, guiding the Church right now, He wouldn’t have make a single change—He would be perfectly content leaving it EXACTLY as is. He would basically have no problems walking right in and taking over the reigns because, as it turns out, He has in fact been guiding the Church all along—through modern prophets. REVELATION, in a nutshell, is what prevents the Church from falling off course (and thus maintaining its true “Christianity”). Otherwise, how would you actually know if Jesus Christ still agreed with what you were saying or doing? This also harmonizes perfectly with the Bible—the true Church has ALWAYS had continuous revelation through a prophet. Every author of every book in the Bible was (or at least claimed to be) a prophet…THAT’S how they knew they were right (and, by default, “Christian”): they communicated DIRECTLY with God (i.e. Christ—they obviously believe the same things). “For what man knoweth the things of man, save the spirit of man which is in him? Even so the things of God KNOWETH NO MAN, but the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 2:11, emphasis added).

    That’s been the claim of Joseph Smith and all of his successors even up until now—that they are guiding the one and only church of Jesus Christ, i.e. “Christian” Church. To them there can only be one, not because they’re better or smarter but because Jesus Christ is personally guiding them. Interestingly, this is true Socratic wisdom in the sense that they realize their own stupidity: only Christ has the ultimate say on what is or isn’t “Christian.” Understanding this concept is crucial to understanding Dallin H. Oaks’ point about contrasting “philosophical abstraction” with “plain, ordinary, and literal meaning of the Scriptures.” The problem isn’t necessarily that the ideas are merely “philosophical” or “abstract” PER SE, but that those PARTICULAR philosophical abstractions aren’t consistent with the teachings of Christ. All the little specific changes that have happened since after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—i.e. the Inquisition, the Crusades, power-hungry popes, etc.—are symptomatic of the FUNDAMENTAL change whereby Christ ceased to be the actual guide of the Church. In that sense, it simply wasn’t HIS Church anymore, because He was no longer its actual leader.

    Now people are free to disagree on the specific point that the LDS Church really is guided by true prophets who communicate directly with Christ, I’m merely trying to express their perspective which they believe they in fact have SOLE CLAIM over the ultimate title of “Christianity.” Obviously everyone else is going to disagree with them on this point (otherwise they would be compelled to join), but that doesn’t change the claim itself. The important point is WHY they believe they are THE ONE AND ONLY truly “Christian” Church. People are free to disagree, but (if the LDS faith be true) in so doing they lose their claim to actual Christianity. That’s not to say that there aren’t any similarities. I suppose you could say other Churches might have certain elements of true Christianity (or “mere” Christianity, as C.S. Lewis would say), but that would be directly dependent on a comparison to the LDS faith. In other words, the more similar another Church is to the LDS church, the more Christian they are, and vice versa.

    It’s not necessarily that the LDS church has a complete monopoly over all “Christian” truth so much as they have the best means of obtaining it—directly from the horse’s mouth, as it were. It is possible to accidentally arrive at the truth through human intellect or intuition, but it’s equally as likely to get it wrong that way. I believe President Joseph F. Smith said something like “bring us all the truth you’ve got, and let’s see if we can add to it.” There are good ideas out there, to be sure, but nowhere else do they paint the complete “Christian” picture as they only can in the LDS faith, because it is the only church that has direct access to Christ Himself through actual, living prophets—therefore it is the only church that can even know what “Christian” doctrine really is.

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  17. Aaron Johnson

    Big hole in the above argument, it presupposes that Mormonism is in fact true. You must already believe in Mormonism to believe this definition of Christianity. I fail to see any reason to buy anything you say regarding whether or not Mormons are Christian for this reason.

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