The October 2008 edition of First Things contains a lengthy article titled, “Is Mormonism Christian?” The article is in two parts. The first was written by LDS Seventy Bruce D. Porter and takes one position; Christian professor and author Gerald R. McDermott wrote the second part, concluding with a different opinion.
After lamenting the poor secular reporting on the LDS Church, Dr. Porter writes:
“All this has led to considerable misunderstanding about what Latter-day Saints believe about the central subject of Christian religion: Jesus Christ and his atonement for sin. One can find innumerable assertions that Mormons do not believe Jesus was the messiah, that they do not believe he atoned for the sins of the fallen human race, and that they believe salvation comes by works.
“All of these statements are false, and they reflect incomprehension of Mormon beliefs and doctrine.”
Dr. Porter continues by explaining various LDS beliefs including:
“Latter-day Saints revere the Bible as the word of God…Our most criticized departure from mainstream Christianity is our acceptance of another work, the Book of Mormon, as the divinely revealed word of God…A vital aspect of Latter-day Saint theology—and its most obvious difference from traditional Christianity—is the belief that Jesus Christ is an individual being, separate from God the Father in corporeality and substance…Latter-day Saints affirm the reality of the virgin birth…Our beliefs regarding the savior’s mortal life are based on a literal reading of the biblical texts…he organized his Church and delegated authority to his apostles to administer it after his ascension…that he suffered in Gethsemane and at Golgotha, that he died for the sins of mankind on the cross, and that he was resurrected on the third day.”
Dr. Porter includes much more about Christ’s atonement, the sinfulness of mankind, and salvation by grace via “receiving Christ as the redeemer and exercising faith in him.” He concludes,
“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.”
Nevertheless, Dr. McDermott holds a different position. He writes,
“…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.”
Dr. McDermott provides a run-down of history and teachings attributed to Christ which are found in the Book of Mormon then asks,
“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.
Dr. McDermott details these reasons with clarity, but I will only list them:
- Corroborating witnesses/lack of witnesses
- Contemporary witnesses/witness removed by centuries
- Inconsistencies between the “Palestinian Jesus” and the “American Jesus”
- “Intratextual inconsistencies” between the Book of Mormon Jesus and the Jesus Joseph Smith developed over time.
“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.”
Dr. McDermott demonstrates the presence of abundant Trinitarian teaching in the Book of Mormon and concludes,
“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.”
Dr. McDermott continues his analysis of “Is Mormonism Christian?” with a discussion about the nature of Christ, summed up here:
“…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.”
When LDS Seventy Bruce Porter concludes his part of this First Things article, he changes the question from “Is Mormonism Christian?” to “Are Mormons Christian?” He declares his verdict that Mormons are Christians who belong to a church that is part of the Christian community, a church made up of “a body of believers” who worship Jesus Christ. He writes,
“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.”
Based on the information outlined by Dr. McDermott, to the title of “Christian” as it relates to Mormonism, I would add the simple modifier “non.” But I would be very careful before saying the same thing about an individual Mormon. Dr. Porter has blurred the distinction between the religious system and individuals. This is yet another difference between Mormonism and Christianity. The question, “Is Mormonism Christian?” means one thing to Dr. Porter and another to Dr. McDermott. The LDS website clarifies,
“Anyone who accepts Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Redeemer of the world is a Christian, regardless of differences in theology”
But for orthodox Christians, theology, or Christology, is really a core issue. Whether discussing religions or individuals, the paramount question is always “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15)
Nevertheless, any discussion is useful, and this First Things article is very helpful and well worth reading. Dr. McDermott has definitely not made any “blanket assertion[s]”; he has provided a well-informed and thoughtful argument to answer the question asked by the editors. I leave you with his closing paragraph:
“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.”