There’s been a lot of conversation in the blogosphere about whether or not Mormons should be called Christian. From what I understand, Mormonism is currently the fastest growing American belief system, even more fruitful perhaps than independent megachurchianism. Some people say that Mormons should be called Christians because they call themselves Christians. That was the argument of my American Christianity professor Grant Wacker. Others say that their unorthodox views about the Trinity, the afterlife, and the distinction between humanity and divinity put them outside the bounds of Christianity proper. I didn’t have time to do a whole lot of research beyond the level of summarizing wikipedia, but I figured that my theological training might be helpful to picking through the terminology and comparing it with the rest of Christianity. I’m not going to give a conclusive answer on whether I think Mormons are “in” or “out.” But I thought I would analyze several aspects of their beliefs, trying to be as fair and objective as possible (and if you’re a Mormon reading this, please correct me if I’ve gotten something wrong!).
I. The Great Apostasy
Most Protestant Christian groups justify their schismatic existence on the basis that authentic Christianity was corrupted at some point in the history of the Roman church. For the mainstream Protestant reformers, the corruption occurred in medieval times as Catholic theology got just plain weird. For the more radical reformers such as the Anabaptists, the corruption began when the Roman Empire and the Church united under Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. Mormons take an even more radical stance. They believe that the original teachings of Jesus were corrupted by Platonism and other Greek philosophy shortly after Jesus and his first apostles died, and that the New Testament has been corrupted in its translation. They call this the Great Apostasy and consider the divine revelation to Joseph Smith in the early 1800’s to be the unique restoration of the original church Jesus set out to establish. They generally accept the Christian scripture with the caveat that there are some errors which had to be corrected in Joseph Smith’s revised translations of the Bible and subsequent Mormon writings.
II. Scriptural authority & continuous revelation
In addition to the Christian Bible, the Mormons consider the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, and the Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Latter Day Saints to be divinely inspired. The Doctrine and Covenants is an open scriptural canon, meaning that Mormon prophets can continue to add to it as they receive divine revelations. In this sense, the Mormons are more like Catholics, whose popes continue to add to their doctrinal tradition, than they are like Protestants, who have a closed Biblical canon with unique authority. Mormons place a lot of importance in the principle of “continuous revelation” — that God continues to speak to His people in the present.
III. The Trinity
One of the strongest points of contention between Mormonism and the rest of Christianity is the understanding of the Trinity. Mainstream Christianity (Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox) accepts the theological formulation of the Council of Nicaea that God is Three Persons in One Substance. Mormonism rejects Nicaea as a Hellenistic corruption of Christianity. Instead it divides up Father, Son, and Holy Spirit according to the different names given to God in the Hebrew Bible. The Father is Elohim, the Son is Jehovah, and the Holy Spirit seems to have a somewhat lesser role. Both the Father and the Son have concrete physical bodies while the Holy Spirit has only a spiritual presence. There is also a Heavenly Mother who is the wife of Elohim and not the same as the Virgin Mary. Jehovah is understood to be the literal child of Elohim and the Heavenly Mother (instead of being understood as equally eternal to God the Father, per Nicaea). Jehovah is the pre-mortal form of Jesus, who is then born to the Virgin Mary.
IV. Humanity & Divinity — Exaltation
Mormonism also differs from the rest of Christianity is in its understanding of the relationship between humanity and divinity. They believe that God the Father is not just a spirit but a physical being “of flesh and bones” (Doctrine & Covenants 130:22). Furthermore, God the Father was originally a mortal being who went through a process of becoming exalted and then created the means for inhabitants of this planet (along with many other planets) to join Him in exaltation. Jesus’ atoning sacrifice is central to this process as it is in the rest of Christianity, but this sacrifice does not seem to be something that creates a body of Christ in which believers are incorporated as in a more sacramental understanding of Christianity, but rather something which empowers believers to become like God as individuals. Lorenzo Snow, the fifth president of the Latter Day Saints Church, wrote a sentence which sums up the Mormon belief about exaltation: What man is now, God once was. As God now is, man may be. The closest that any other Christian denomination comes to this belief is the Eastern Orthodox concept of theosis in which the goal of Christian spirituality is to “partake of the heavenly nature” (2 Peter 1:4). St. Athanasius did write the formula “God became man so that man might become God,” but for him, this didn’t mean that each person becomes a god; it means that each person can participate in God’s divinity. So the concept of exaltation is probably the point of greatest difference.
V. The Afterlife
The Mormon afterlife consists in three heavens, or degrees of glory, which are inhabited by almost all humans after their death, though a small group who actively oppose and reject Christ before and after their physical death can remove themselves from the presence of God entirely and inhabit the outer darkness. So in a sense, you could say that Mormons are universalists, because only people who really don’t want to have anything to do with God don’t go to heaven and everybody gets a second chance to receive Christ after they die. The lowest level of glory is the telestial kingdom where people go who did not receive the gospel as well as “liars, and sorcerers, and adulterers, and whoremongers, and whosoever loves and makes a lie.” (D&C 76:103). The telestial kingdom is not a place of torture, but rather a place of lesser glory. People in the telestial kingdom have communion with angels and the Holy Ghost but not the Father or the Son. It’s kind of like getting lawn seats at a big outdoor concert. You can hear the music, but you can’t see the stage. The terrestrial kingdom is the next level. This is for people who kind of get the gospel but not completely. They are able to have access to the Son but not the Father. So this is like having a decent view of the stage at the concert but without backstage passes. The celestial kingdom is the highest level of glory. It’s for the people who believed in Jesus and were faithful to the covenants. This is like having backstage passes at the concert and VIP access to God the Father and Son. The celestial kingdom is further divided into three degrees of glory. The lower two levels give people an existence like that of the angels. The highest level can only be attained by Mormons who have entered into celestial marriage. In the highest level, they are understood to become gods and goddesses on equal standing (?) with God the Father.
VI. Marriage & the Nuclear Family
The Mormon church places a tremendous focus on marriage and the nuclear family. First of all, the structure of their divinity is not a mysterious Three-in-One Trinity of interrelated divine Persons, but a nuclear family consisting of Father, Mother, and Son (with the Holy Spirit having a somewhat subordinate status). One of the most important rituals in the Mormon church is called sealing. When husbands and wives are in an unsealed civil marriage, their bonds dissolve at their death. When they are sealed through celestial marriage, it ensures that they will persist in relationship for eternity. In the same way, children must be sealed officially by the church in order to be eternally connected to their parents. Based on the primacy of these relationships, I would say that the basic ecclesial unit of Mormonism is the nuclear family rather than the body of Christ. I’m not sure what a Mormon would do with Jesus’ statements that “whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35) or “whoever does not hate his mother and father cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). In the teachings of Paul (1 Corinthians 7) and Jesus (Matthew 19:11-12), celibacy is the preference and marriage is a concession, while in Mormonism, marriage is actually a requirement for admission into the highest level of heaven. This helps me to understand why Mormons are the most emphatically devoted to the defense of “traditional marriage” of all American faith traditions.
I am not going to say yea or nay on whether Mormons are Christians or not. They do believe Jesus’ atoning sacrifice is central to the process by which humans gain immortality. They do not believe that the apostolic succession of the church lasted more than a generation or two before a great apostasy occurred. Their heaven is a lot bigger than the heaven of evangelical Christianity, though one could argue it has some resonance with the Eastern Orthodox vision. They reject the Nicene Trinity and have instead Father, Mother, and Son (and a somewhat diminished Holy Ghost). They emphasize the nuclear family over the body of Christ. Honestly, the teachings of Mormonism with its individualism and nuclear family focus are a much better fit for what Americans consider “traditional” and “conservative” values than Christianity itself; this makes sense since Mormonism was created in America. I cannot personally embrace Mormon theology or doctrine, but if God is indeed responsible for the wild, fascinating visions of Joseph Smith and his followers, I won’t love Him any less.