Is Mormonism Christian?
Related Posts: Four Important Early Christian Creeds; Mormonism and Creeds of Christendom; The Trinity ; The Nature of Christ ; Godhead: God or Gods?
Whether or not one thinks of Mormonism as Christian can depend largely on where one stands in the debate. Mormons would like to be thought of as Christian by others, and I suspect that many non-Mormon Christians do, but many well educated Protestants and Catholics do not. So on what basis is Mormonism Christian or not Christian? In a debate with Orson Scott Card, author of Ender’s Game, Dr. Albert Mohler argues, “Are Mormons ‘Christians’ as defined by traditional Christian orthodoxy? The answer to that question is easy and straightforward, and it is ‘no.’” (debate here) But why does he view Mormonism as affirmably non-Christian? He writes,
The orthodox consensus of the Christian church is defined in terms of its historic creeds and doctrinal affirmations. Two great doctrines stand as the central substance of that consensus. Throughout the centuries, the doctrines concerning the Trinity and the nature of Christ have constituted that foundation, and the church has used these definitional doctrines as the standard for identifying true Christianity...Normative Christianity is defined by the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the other formulas of the doctrinal consensus. These doctrines are understood by Christians to be rooted directly within the Bible and rightly affirmed by all true believers in all places and throughout all time…The major divisions within Christian history (Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism) disagree over important issues of doctrine, but all affirm the early church’s consensus concerning the nature of Christ and the Trinitarian faith. These are precisely what Mormonism rejects. ("Mormonism is Not Christianity")
He also quotes Catholic scholar Father Richard Neuhaus who said that Christianity “is not honorific but descriptive” (Richard Neuhaus', "Is Mormonism Christian?"). Neuhaus writes,
[Christianity] is more than doctrines. Were it only a set of doctrines, Christianity would have become another school of philosophy, much like other philosophical schools of the Greco-Roman world. Christianity is the past and present reality of the society composed of the Christian people. As is said in the Nicene Creed, "We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church." That reality encompasses doctrine, ministry, liturgy, and a rule of life. Christians disagree about precisely where that Church is to be located historically and at present, but almost all agree that it is to be identified with the Great Tradition defined by the apostolic era through at least the first four ecumenical councils, and continuing in diverse forms to the present day. That is the Christianity that LDS teaching rejects and condemns as an abomination and fraud.
(He also mentions that there is no doctrine of creation ex nihilo within Mormonism.) Neuhaus uses the words “Great Tradition” and Mohler uses the words “normative Christianity.” In their views Christ’s church has endured throughout the centuries in the Greek or Roman traditions, or is found in the reformations of the Protestant churches. But that the church has endured is beyond doubt for believers like Father Neuhaus and Dr. Mohler. Historical Christianity is bound together by the Bible; common history, including schisms; and agreement in the early Christian creeds. And agreement on the early creeds bind Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christianity to the early church. Since Mormonism does not profess any of the Christian creeds we have definitely broke with that thread. And as to the point that Mormonism is very different from historical Christianity--it is beyond debate.
‘I damn you to hell’ or ‘I darn you to heck’?
A devout believer from any religion will likely believe his faith is the true one: A devout Catholic believes that salvation requires baptism in the Catholic Church; a devout Protestant believes that salvation comes by accepting Christ’s free gift of grace. So from a Protestant view those who believe and live according to Catholic doctrine (to the exclusion of the Protestant view) are eternally damned; and from a Catholic view those who die without baptism in the Catholic Church are likewise eternally damned. And yet this is Christianity? However, Christianity stands for something virtuous, as expressed by the phrase “living a Christian life.” And its essential corner stone is the founder and finisher of our faith, Jesus Christ. “Is Christ divided?”, were the words of Paul. Is Christianity divided? That depends on how the word is defined.
Mohler mentions the Apostles Creed as one of the professions of normative Christianity. Though Mormonism does not profess any of the Christian creeds LDS doctrine does not prohibit me from believing anything that is true. For example, the Apostle’s Creed:
I believe in God the Father Almighty.
And in Jesus Christ his only-begotten Son our Lord, who was born of the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary; the third day he rose from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of the Father; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
And in the Holy Ghost; the holy Church; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; the life everlasting. (For Important Early Christian Creeds)
It is true that Mormonism does not profess any formal creed, and that it must reject the Nicene Creed and similar creeds. But as a devout Mormon I can say that I believe in what the Apostle’s Creed professes. However one could argue that a Mormon could not believe in the phrase “I believe in…the holy Church” since it refers to the Christian church at the time the creed was formulated. That would be a correct observation. To me “holy Church” would refer to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; just as a Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant Christian would apply it to how he believes.
Though it is assumed that the doctrines in the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed can be traced back to the Apostles, it is because of unclarity in the Bible that creeds were necessary. And, it is true that the Bible does not contain an explicit trinitarian description of God. (See The Trinity, Mormonism, and the Godhead.) Though one is free to believe in the Trinity as God--implicit in the New Testament, preserved by tradition, and affirmed by creeds--the link is no stronger than one’s own belief. My own feeling is that the word Christianity should center on the divinity of Jesus, his teachings, life, death, and resurrection; and not “there are not three uncreated: nor three incomprehensibles, but one uncreated: and one incomprehensible.” But howsoever I may think, the Trinity is a central doctrine of received Christianity and many would argue that it is the central doctrine: Thus, the house (Christianity) is less important than the one who dwells in it (The triune Father, Son, and Holy Ghost). One counter argument is “how be it [Christ’s] church save it be called in [Christ’s] name?” (3 Nephi 27:8). If this is true for Christ’s church is should also be true for the meaning of the word Christianity: in its simplest form it refers to a profession in the divinity of Christ and that salvation comes by him.
The church of the Devil
One aspect of our doctrine that upsets many Catholics and Protestants is we believe there is only one true church. Consequently all other churches are the “Church of the Devil” (1 Nephi 14:10). There is no getting around this, for in God’s view there are only two churches: His True church and deviations from it. God cannot look upon apostasy with the least degree of allowance. While the term “Church of the Devil” is a strong stand to take, God’s stand is nothing less.
Though seemingly harsh, the phrase conveys the idea that God does not recognize any deviation from the true original Church. This idea is something Catholics, Protestants, and Mormons agree on and use in the context of their own religious convictions.
However, apart from doctrinal error and lack of priesthood authority I don’t think of non-Mormon churches as the church of the devil. Though admittedly some Mormons do, and shouldn’t. But I strongly suspect that some Protestants are more keen about spreading the idea that Mormons believe they are the church of the devil than the Mormons are. Often Protestants will say that Mormons believe “normative Christianity” is the Church of the Devil, as if to convey the notion that we believe they are satanic. The Catholic Church and the Protestant churches are not satanic. In the Mormon view all things which inspire people to love and serve God are inspired by God (Moroni 7:13). I view Protestantism and Catholicism in this light: the truth they teach leads adherents to live a truer Christian life. When I use the words “Protestant Church” or “Catholic Church” I am referring to an organized body of believers who profess Christ’s divinity, resurrection, and who live Christian values; not to my view of their doctrinal errors. In this light it easy to separate “Church of the Devil” from the Protestant and Catholic churches--the church of the devil phrase has a narrow definition and some theological value. Some people, wanting to embarrass the Mormons, quote Bruce R. McConkie’s book Mormon Doctrine. “The Roman Catholic Church [is] specifically--singled out, set apart, described, and designated as being ‘most abominable above all other churches,’” reads his 1958 edition (p. 129; italics original; brackets mine). However, McConkie was not an Apostle when he wrote this; Mormon Doctrine is not published by the church or by Deseret Book (a publishing company owned by the church); the passage he bases his conclusion on is open to alternate interpretations; and, when the First Presidency learned of this book they had a committee go through it and Elder McConkie was asked to remove many things that were not established doctrine. McConkie did remove those things and consequently the above quote is found only in the first edition. (Many anti-Mormon writers conveniently set this information aside, which goes back to what I said: many Protestants are keen about spreading this “Church of the Devil” stuff--I say Protestants because we get the most flack about this from them. For example Dr. Mohler.)
Who gets to define Christianity?
One reason for believing that the word Christianity is “not honorific but descriptive” is Mormonism departs from many of the threads that bind Protestant, Greek, and Roman Christianity together. However, there is a simple and profound Christianity that traces itself to Jesus, and Mormonism is part of this. If Christianity is defined in view of traditional Christian orthodoxy then of course Mormonism is unique. But how someone defines Christianity can depend on his relationship to it. Does he believe that the Church has endured through the centuries? Is he an atheist? Or an agnostic? Or a true believer? Christianity may be defined in light of orthodoxy; tradition; normative Christianity; a body of those who believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died for our sins; or from a religio-historic view as a series of historical movements focusing on Christ’s divinity. The Encyclopaedia Judaica defines it as
A general term denoting the historic community deriving from the original followers of Jesus of Nazareth; the institutions, social and cultural patterns, and the beliefs and doctrines evolved by this community. …The vague character of the term provides this wide range of meaning…Christianity can be viewed as a religious institution (whether as a universal church or as distinct churches), as a body of beliefs and doctrines (Christian dogma and theology), or as a social, cultural, or even political reality shaped by certain religious traditions and mental attitudes. (parenthesis original)
The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary under “Christianity” defines it as “The body of doctrine that consists of the teachings and way of life made possible by the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ and the giving of the Holy Spirit.” The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “The religion based on the belief that Christ was the son of God, and on his teachings.” The Athanasian Creed defines it in this way: “The Catholic [i.e. true Christian] Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity” (Four Important Early Creeds). The Jewish Encyclopedia under “Trinity” opens with: “The fundamental dogma of Christianity; the concept of the union in one God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three infinite persons.”
But where does Mormonism fall among the world’s religious traditions? Some people would put it in a class by itself; a class that includes all branches of the Latter Day Saint movement traced back to Joseph Smith. Others put it with Christianity. But an interesting question is where do Mormons put Mormonism. [When I say Mormons I mean members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.]
Do Mormons view Mormonism as Christian? Yes. Mormons believe that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is Christ’s restored church. Do Mormons view Mormonism as a religion distinct from normative Christianity? Often. As a devout Mormon I am comfortable referring to Mormonism as a distinct religion and at the same time Christian. This is in recognition that many LDS doctrines are very different from those of received Christianity, and yet that we share a belief in the Biblical account of Jesus life, death, and resurrection.
Do most Mormons believe that the rest of Christianity is Christian? Yes, because we share a belief in the Biblical account of Jesus life, death, and resurrection. But this view contains a proviso that other churches are deviations from the true church. Do Mormons view the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant churches as the Church of the Devil? From my experience most don’t, but regrettably some do.
There are valid historical and doctrinal reasons for putting Mormonism in a class by itself. At the same time, because Mormonism accepts the Biblical account of Jesus life and divinity, and that he will come again, there are valid reasons to view Mormonism as part of Christianity. For Mormon believers (like me) the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints holds the true gospel and is the Church of Jesus Christ. So naturally any suggestion that Mormonism is not Christian or is un-Christian is offensive to us. What further adds to the offense is that this is frequently done as criticism or condemnation of Mormonism. But for devout believers such as Father Neuhaus and Dr. Mohler, their view of Christianity and belief in the reality of Christ permits nothing less than a sincere and firm condemnation of heresy.
I must admit, before I started researching for this post I had no idea how central the Trinity was to historical Christianity. As a person who does not believe in it, and having been raised a Mormon believing that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are always separate and distinct persons, it took a while for me to realize that the Trinity was a truly foundational doctrine in “normative” Christianity throughout its history. Most Mormons do not understand to what degree it is emphasized, which only serves to aggravate our incredulity when devout Protestants or Catholics say that Mormonism is not Christian. My original impression of those who used the doctrine of the Trinity as central to their definition of Christianity was that they were simply trying to keep the Mormons out. I have since learned that my perception, for the most part, was incorrect. The Trinity is truly central to received Christianity; so much so it could be said that historical Christianity is the religion of the Trinity.
The debate about how Mormonism should be categorized will rage on. But the most powerful argument for us Mormons is a simple one: “We talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ” (2 Nephi 25:26). Then, as Jesus said, “let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). If we do this then the argument will be made for us.
 A statement released from the Vatican on July 10 titled “RESPONSES TO SOME QUESTIONS REGARDING CERTAIN ASPECTS OF THE DOCTRINE ON THE CHURCH” reads, “Christ ‘established here on earth’ only one Church and instituted it as a ‘visible and spiritual community’, that from its beginning and throughout the centuries has always existed and will always exist, and in which alone are found all the elements that Christ himself instituted. ‘This one Church of Christ, which we confess in the Creed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic…This Church, constituted and organised [sic] in this world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him’”.
R. Albert Mohler Jr. responded to the Vatican statement in an article titled “No, I’m not offended” published in the Baptist Press. He writes, “The Roman Catholic Church is willing to go so far as to assert that any church that denies the papacy is no true church. Evangelicals should be equally candid in asserting that any church defined by the claims of the papacy is no true church. This is not a theological game for children; it is the honest recognition of the importance of the question…Gospel. The Reformers indicted the Roman Catholic Church for failing to exhibit this mark, and thus failing to be a true church. The Catholic church returned the favor, defining the church in terms of the papacy and magisterial authority. Those claims have not changed.” (emphasis added)
Michael Otterson, former as director of media relations for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, responded with “No Need to Pick a Fight” in the Washington post: “Of course, I profoundly disagree with this papal argument of Roman Catholic primacy, because on the basis of reason, secular history and revelation I reject the priesthood succession claim altogether. My own church stands firmly on the belief that priesthood authority had to be restored by divine intervention, not reformed, and that the apostles, lay ministry, missionaries and most especially the doctrines of the New Testament seen today in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are evidence of that Restoration…It matters not one whit to me that the Catholic and some other churches don’t accept ‘Mormon’ baptisms. We don’t accept theirs either” (emphasis added).