On a public Facebook thread I asked the Great Pumpkin question. A Mormon responded with the following:
Aaron, by going to an extreme and wondering about the absurd belief in a great pumpkin, I understand that you are attempting to draw out a principle. The principle seems to be that you believe there is an established Christian tradition and theology which must be adhered to. A person who’s beliefs fall outside such traditions and theology would therefore be non-Christian.
Let’s handle Christian tradition first, then we’ll talk about doctrinal tradition. Protestants differ AMONG THEMSELVES in the amount of accumulated Christian heritage they accept. Many Protestants don’t venerate the saints, or observe Lent, or know that Saint Swinith’s day is July 15th. Is there some critical percentage of non-biblical traditions that must be believed, some specific amount of the accumulated customs that one must accept in order to be a true Christian, so that by accepting 50 percent, say, of the post biblical material one is Christian, but not with 49 percent? Or are there certain key non-biblical traditions that must be accepted such as observing Easter on the right day, while other trivial traditions may be safely ignored, such as eating fish on Friday? And exactly who decides which customs are dispensable and which ones are not, and by what authority do they do so, if the traditions are admittedly non-biblical to begin with? Who preserves the REAL post biblical “Christian tradition,” the Greek Orthodox monks at the Mar Saba monastery or the faith-healing TV evangelist from Texas?
What exactly is THE Christian tradition, and how can Mormons be expected to accept it, when “mainline” Christians disagree among themselves on virtually every aspect of it? To quote David Steinmetz, Kearns Professor of the History of Christianity at Duke University: “Christians have argued over every conceivable point of Christian doctrine from the filoque to the immaculate conception. There is scarcely an issue of worship, theology, ethics, and politics over which some Christians have not disagreed amongst themselves.”
Like the modern Latter Day Saints, the Puritans rejected any practice or custom from the Christian tradition that could not be found in the New Testament. And according to Kenneth Scott Latourette, (author of the two-volume History of Christianity and former president of the American Historical Association, the American Baptist Convention and the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society . . .as well as the recipient of honorary doctorates from seventeen universities in five countries) the Christian Seekers, among them Roger Williams and George Fox, “held that Antichrist had ruled so long that no true churches or valid office-holders existed and could not until God sent apostles to establish and ordain new ones.” Now, this is very similar to the Latter Day Saint view. Does that make these venerable Protestants non-Christians? Remember, the question here isn’t whether their belief was correct; rather, the question is, If the Puritans, Separatists (among them our own Pilgrim Fathers), and the Christian Seekers can utterly reject the historical Christian tradition beyond the warrant of the New Testament and still be Christians, why can’t the Latter Day Saints?
Now, on to doctrinal tradition:
One might argue that it is not the customs and traditions of the historical church that must be accepted, but only the DOCTRINES of the historical councils and creeds. But if the councils and creeds teach doctrines not found in the New Testament, on what authority must they be accepted? And if one assumes that the councils and creeds merely repeat or summarize the doctrines of the New Testament without adding to them, then why is it necessary to accept them IN ADDITION to the New Testament itself? Only by making the councils the primary source s of Christian doctrine and the New Testament scriptures secondary can you exclude Mormons as Christians, even theoretically.
Iif you argue that it is necessary for Latter Day Saints to accept the councils in order to be Christian, then I might well ask. WHICH councils must be accepted? Some denominations place their break with the traditional church at A.D 451, while others put it at 787, 1054, or 1517. Regardless of who was right and who was wrong in any of the schisms, in each case SOMEBODY was rejecting the authority of a mother church and refusing to be bound by its traditions and doctrines. Yet no one seriously accuses the Armenians, Copts, Syrians, Greek Orthodox, or Protestants of being non-Christian for having done this. If you argue that Mormons aren’t Christians because we reject the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325), couldn’t Catholics argue that Protestants aren’t Christians because they reject the Council of Trent (A.D. 1545-47)?
Suppose for a moment that the Latter Day Saints were to take seriously the demand that they conform in every particular to “Christian” doctrine, and that they then made the attempt to do so. Having complied with such a demand, would the Latter Day Saints find themselves in total agreement with Protestants or with Catholics? Would they believe in apostolic succession or in the Priesthood of All Believers? Would they recognize an archbishop, a patriarch, a pope, a monarch, or no one at all as the head of Christ’s church on earth? Would they be saved by grace alone, or would they find the sacraments of the church necessary for salvation? Would they believe in free will or in predestination? Would they practice water baptism? If so, would it be by immersion, sprinkling, or some other method? Would they believe in a substitutionary, representative, or exemplary atonement? Would they or would they not believe in “original sin”? And on and on . . .
It is unreasonable for other Christians to demand that Latter Day Saints conform to a single standard of “Christian” doctrine when they do not agree AMONG THEMSELVES upon exactly what that standard is. To do so is to establish a double standard; doctrinal diversity is tolerated in some churches, but not in others. The often-heard claim that all true Christians share a common core of necessary Christian doctrine rests on the dubious proposition that all present differences between Christian denominations are over purely secondary or even trivial matters — matters not central to Christian faith. This view is very difficult to defend in the light of Christian history, and might be easier to accept if Protestants and Catholics — or Protestant and PROTESTANTS for that matter — had not once burned each other at the stake as non-Christian heretics over these same “trivial differences.”
I responded with the following.
That an exact boundary is not known between two things doesn’t disqualify the identification of those two things as distinct and different. I don’t know when exactly night becomes day, or day becomes night, but the two are clearly different. One classical example is that of a bearded man. We know the difference between a beard and mere stubble, even though we can’t identify when exactly one becomes the other.
If a lack of clear and exact boundaries means the collapse of all meaningful distinctions, then anything and everything can be associated with traditional Christianity, including a belief system that says Jesus is Xenu the Galactic Warlord of Scientology, or that the Father is a Great Pumpkin in the sky. Because Christianity cannot give a consistent, exact boundary line between the two “countries”, as it were, do you want to legitimize the invasion of one of those countries with almost anything and everything that can conceivably be thought of?
You throw your arms up in the air over diversity within traditional Christianity, but overlook the staggering diversity of thought within Mormonism, not just over philosophical issues, but over tenets that Christianity has always held fundamental to its center. Mormons disagree over whether Heavenly Father once perhaps sinned, just how horrifically sinful he could have been, whether men can be worshiped someday by billions of their own spirit children, whether the Holy Spirit prepared Mary’s body so that Heavenly Father could have physical sex with her, whether God has always been God, whether there is an infinite regression of Gods, whether Heavenly Father is our “literal” father via sexual union between Heavenly Mother(s) and Heavenly Father, etc. None of those issues are unclear or disputed in traditional Christianity. Every one of them is immediately identified as pagan, non-Christian heresy.
This really is about differing value systems. Let me put it starkly: Mormonism has a clear position on the correct mode of baptism, but it can’t tell me whether or not Heavenly Father was a child predator before becoming an exalted God among the genealogy of the Gods. Christianity happens to value knowing the latter more than knowing the former.
On a last note, if lack of clear and exact boundaries means the collapse of all meaningful distinctions, then that comes back on Mormonism as well. Surely Mormonism is *something*, and not *something else*. But if Mormonism cannot define its own boundaries, at least with regard to the boundaries of its tradition of acceptable thought, then (according to this logic) anything and everything can be attributed to Mormonism, including the Mountain Meadows Massacre, Taoism, Buddhism, and Islam. I don’t think you have thought through the implications of this.
Either both Christianity and Mormonism have their own limits, or they have none. It’s one thing to push the limits or show the lack of clear and exact boundaries. It’s quite another to abandon limitations altogether.