January 2003
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Perspectives Journal
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Grand Rapids, MI 49512
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January 2003: Essay

Are Mormons Christians?

Theological Impressions After a Visit to Zion

by Stephen T. Davis

Recently I participated in a theological conference at Brigham Young University. It was called, "Salvation in Christ: Christian Perspectives." Six Latter Day Saints (LDS) scholars participated as speakers, all of them impressive and serious faculty members in the Religious Studies department at Brigham Young University (BYU), and nine representatives from what I will call historic or mainstream Christianity. They included six Protestants, two Catholics, and one Greek Orthodox pastor. Evangelicalism was well represented.1

Although this was my second visit to BYU (the first was sponsored by their philosophy department), and I have read fairly widely about Mormonism, I do not consider myself an expert on the subject. What follows should be seen as a series of impressions, most of them theological, of an interested observer of LDS thought.

The announced purpose of the conference was the promotion of religious understanding. As always, the BYU people were polite, sincere, and welcoming. They were not trying to convert us. But they seemed to be fascinated by non-Mormon views of Mormonism. Indeed, the seven representatives of mainstream Christianity who were there for the entire conference2 were highly conscious of the delicate position that we were in. We respected the sincerity and scholarship of the LDS participants, but we also knew that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is most anxious to be perceived by non-Mormons as a legitimate Christian branch, like (say) Lutheranism or Pentecostalism. They are loath to be considered a sect, and certainly not a non-Christian sect.3 We frankly did not want to be part of advancing that agenda.

Mormon scholars are well aware that many of their doctrines seem eccentric to mainstream Christians. And one of their strategies for trying to normalize Mormonism in the eyes of non-Mormons is to locate and point out theological motifs or movements in historic Christianity that are similar to some of the Mormon eccentricities:

  • When the Mormon theory of the Trinity as a committee of three separate persons is criticized, LDS scholars point to the "social theory of the Trinity" in some mainstream theologians.
  • When the Mormon limited God who does not create the world ex nihilo is criticized, LDS scholars point to similar themes in contemporary Process theology.
  • When the Mormon practice of baptism for the dead is criticized, LDS scholars point to I Corinthians 15:29.4
  • When the Mormon theology of "eternal progression toward godhood" is criticized, LDS scholars point to the theme of "divinization" or "theosis" among certain of the church Fathers.
  • When the Mormon theory that God deliberately caused the human fall into sin is criticized, LDS scholars point to the "fortunate fall" (or O felix culpa) theme that is found in some mainstream theologians.

In other words, Mormon scholars are often at pains to convince the rest of us that Mormon doctrines are not so odd after all.

Our solution to the dilemma that we were in was to be honest about what we saw as Mormonism's many theological shortcomings. At one point during a break in the sessions, several BYU students and other members of the audience in effect asked what prevents me from being a Mormon. I replied that (1) I simply do not believe the foundational Mormon story about Joseph Smith and the golden plates and magic spectacles, and (2) I accept only the Old and New Testaments of the Bible as sacred scripture. (The Mormons also accept The Book of Mormon, The Pearl of Great Price, and a book called Doctrines and Covenants.)

I was then asked, "But why limit God like that: Why can't God still reveal himself to people? Why did God stop revealing himself with the book of Revelation?" To which I replied: "Of course God still speaks to people. I myself feel strongly that God has led me and guided me on many occasions. What God stopped giving at the end of the apostolic age was normative revelation, revelation that is authoritative for all Christians."

Indeed, many Mormons are hurt whenever mainstream Christians suggest that they are not Christians. "We too believe in committing our lives in faith to Jesus Christ as Lord and savior," some of them will say. Those who do use that sort of language (not all Mormons do) seem sincere in saying so. Suppose the question is, "Are Mormons saved?" Then the answer has to be that while it is not given to human beings to know or predict who will be saved, still, so far as we can tell, despite their theological errors, some Mormons are saved. If someone sincerely says to me, "I have accepted the grace of God and have committed my life in faith to Christ," then so far as I know that person is saved, even if she is in error at other theological points.

But suppose the question is: "Is Mormonism a legitimate expression of Christianity?" Then my answer would have to be no. Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism (including fundamentalism, evangelicalism, pentecostalism, and main-line denominationalism) are, in my opinion, legitimate expressions of Christianity. (This despite the fact that I would have important theological differences with some of them.) But Mormonism is not.

As I say, Mormons tend to be pained and mystified by that sort of sentiment. As I pointed out at a lunch conversation with several of the BYU scholars, however, they should not be distressed. This is because the opinion of Mormonism that most mainstream Christians have is quite similar to the official Mormon view of historic Christianity. It is essential LDS belief that at the end of the apostolic age, the Christian Church went radically off the rails into what they call "the Great Apostasy," and was in grievous error until Joseph Smith came along nineteen centuries later and straightened things out.5

Indeed, at the initial session of the conference, a professor emeritus at BYU was asked to give the opening prayer. A nice man, I am sure he meant no harm, but the very first thing he said in his prayer was "Lord, we thank you for the Restoration." This is LDS terminology for Joseph Smith's purported recovery in the 1830s of the true gospel and the founding of his church. I asked: "How do you think that sort of idea sits with mainstream Christians? Although we admit that the church has erred many times in its history, we do not believe that there was any need for a 'restoration,' not at least as understood by Mormons."6 Professor Robert Millet of BYU, one of the most impressive of the Mormon scholars, said he could understand my point.7

We were fortunate to have at the conference New Testament scholar Craig Bloomberg of Denver Theological Seminary. He has written extensively and sensitively about Mormonism. Baylor University theologian Roger Olson, with his deep knowledge of the history of Christian theology and his keen awareness of contemporary theological issues, was also a valuable presence. John Sanders of Huntington College gave a balanced and thorough presentation of Christian theories of the fate of those who have not heard the gospel. Laura Smit of Calvin College and I represented the Reformed perspective, and I trust we did not let our tradition down.

As noted earlier, I have little expertise in Mormon history or theology. Still, I have the impression that the Mormon thought that emerged in the founding decades of LDS history amounted to an acceptance of much of historic Christianity, a rejection of much of it, and a tendency to "smooth out" what were taken to be various difficulties in it. In fact, if one were to list, quite apart from Joseph Smith, what might have been taken to be the most serious theological objections that would have been raised against Christianity in the first half of the nineteenth century, I am sure that the following would have to be included:

  • How can God be both three and one?
  • How can Christ be both fully human and fully divine?
  • How can a morally good God decide who will be saved and who will be damned?
  • How is predestination compatible with human freedom?
  • How can people be saved by "faith alone"?
  • How can a good God send the unevangelized to hell?
  • How can a good God grant deathbed converts the same eternal reward as lifelong, serious believers?

The "smoothing out" on each point is easy to see:

  • Mormons deny that the three members of the Godhead are ontologically one. They are three separate persons, one only in spirit, will, and purpose.
  • Mormons deny that Christ is "fully divine," at least as that term is understood by mainstream Christians. They believe he is ontologically subordinate to the Father.
  • Mormons deny the idea that God decides who is to be saved. It is up to human beings themselves whether they choose to have faith in Christ and obey God.
  • Mormons affirm human free will and cooperation between God and humans in salvation. They deny predestination.
  • Mormons deny that "faith alone" can save a person. Continued obedience and good works are also necessary.
  • Mormons deny that God sends the unevangelized to hell. Such folk will be given a chance in the next life to hear and respond to the gospel. Moreover, Mormons practice baptism for the dead.
  • Mormons deny that all believers receive the same reward; there are, they hold, three separate afterlife kingdoms or levels in heaven with different degrees of glory.

Not all these points constitute theological errors; Christian Arminians affirm the third and fourth, for example. But I believe it is clear that Joseph Smith looked for and, in the religion that he founded, located solutions to the dilemmas in historic Christian theology that had troubled him.

In connection with the LDS notion of "eternal progression," there was considerable discussion of Lorenzo Snow's famous couplet, "As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become." Snow was the fifth president of the LDS church, and Joseph Smith himself taught the doctrine of eternal progression toward Godhood in his famous "King Follet Sermon." This discourse, although not a part of Mormon sacred scripture, is still a highly authoritative source of Mormon theology.

It is, I think, an undeniable part of Mormonism that God was once a man and that human beings can become God. The question is: what does that mean? As already noted, on the "man becoming God" half of the couplet, Mormons like to point for support to the notion of "deification" or "theosis" in certain early Fathers and in Eastern Orthodoxy to this day. But it is perfectly clear that all historic Christian friends of the notion of theosis, including Irenaeus and Athanasius, would have been shocked, outraged, and horrified at any suggestion that a human being can ontologically become God. So I was somewhat relieved when Professor Millet, in the discussion session after his presentation, indicated that that is not what the LDS doctrine of eternal progression means. And if it simply means that in the eschaton the divine image in us will be fully restored and that in our glorified bodies we will be immortal and perfect in holiness, I have no problem with that half of the couplet (although mainstream Christians might wish that the idea be expressed more carefully).

But as to the "God once having been a man" half of President Snow's couplet, mainstream Christians can see nothing but philosophical confusion and even absurdity in the idea. Yes, God became a man in the incarnation, but the Mormon idea that God was once a finite human being and grew to his present infinite status seems to mainstream Christians to be logically absurd (not to mention religiously blasphemous). Did some other God create God? Where did the universe come from? Are there an infinite number of Gods who created lesser beings who then grew to divinity? Isn't this polytheism? And how can a finite thing become infinite? So far as I recall, none of the Mormon scholars responded to these challenges, and it remains a major sticking point for mainstream Christians.

There is no denying that most Mormons are admirable people. I do not see how you can be a practicing member of that religion without being highly responsible, energetic, and moral. And you cannot rub shoulders with BYU students without noticing their politeness, sincerity, and earnestness. There is also no denying the fact that Mormons do a better job of socializing their young people and keeping them "in the fold" than do most Christian groups. Doubtless the LDS expectation that young people spend significant time in missionary work (two years for males; eighteen months for the much smaller number of females who go on a mission) is a significant reason.

I have heard Christians express the somewhat perverse wish that we could somehow have in our society "Mormons without Mormonism." But, obviously, that is not about to happen. There are examples of sects or even cult-like churches that have, over time, evolved to the point of being virtually indistinguishable from a Christian denomination. This very thing has apparently occurred with the Worldwide Church of God. Perhaps it is in the process of happening with Seventh-Day Adventists. Christians thank God for those facts.

Will the same sort of thing occur with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints? Humanly speaking (i.e., apart from a mighty work of the Holy Spirit), I think the chances are slim indeed. Mormon culture is far too entrenched, Mormon emphasis on their distinctive doctrines is far too insistent, and Mormon pride in their church's undoubted accomplishments is far too high for that to occur.

But, as on every nearly hopeless point, mainstream Christians can continue to pray. Maybe Mormonism will change. Maybe someday Christians like me will visit BYU or other Mormon institutions and reach the conclusion that Mormonism is indeed a legitimate expression of Christianity. I do pray--at the present moment, against all hope--that that will occur.8

ENDNOTES:

1 As the conference evolved, the two main talking partners seemed to be evangelical Protestantism and Mormonism. Our two excellent Catholic scholars were Franciscan priest Professor Kenan Osborne of the Franciscan School of Theology and layman Professor William Loewe of Catholic University.
2 The Anglican speaker, Professor Douglas J. Davies of Durham University, at the last minute was unable to attend the conference. And the Greek Orthodox speaker, Father Harry Pappas, Pastor of St. Mary's Greek Orthodox Church in Minneapolis, was there for just one day.
3 I deliberately avoid the word cult, because that term, in contemporary usage, seems to refer mainly to a small new heterodox offshoot of a historic religion that is ruled by a charismatic leader who exercises inappropriate control over the members. Mormonism is hardly small (there are some eleven million members worldwide), and has had several non-charismatic leaders.
4 I do not believe anyone today knows for sure what practice Paul was referring to when he asked, "Otherwise, what will those people do who receive baptism on behalf of the dead?" But here at least is one point where Mormons can legitimately claim that they are doing something biblical that other Christians are not, viz., practicing "baptism for the dead." On balance, however, my own view is that the practice that Paul refers to in Corinth was proxy baptism on behalf of undoubted Christians who had died before baptism. And if that is correct, current Mormon practice is not biblical after all.
5 See the strong language about historic Christianity in I Nephi 13:5-6 and Doctrines and Covenants 29:21.
6 See Matthew 16:19.
7 The others were Dean Andrew C. Skinner, Dean Emeritus Robert J. Matthews, and Professors Camile Fronk, David L. Paulsen, and Roger R. Keller.
8 I would like to thank Craig Bloomberg, Susan Peppers, and Laura Smit for their helpful comments.

Stephen T. Davis teaches philosophy at Claremont-McKenna College in Claremont, California.