“Comparing LDS Beliefs with First-Century Christianity,” Ensign, Mar. 1988, 7
Comparing LDS Beliefs with First-Century Christianity
Latter-day Saints reject the doctrines of the Trinity as taught by most Christian churches today. These creeds were canonized in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. and do not reflect the thinking or beliefs of the New Testament church.
Since the inception of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, many critics have denied that it is Christian. Surprisingly, the basis for the claim has little to do with the standard definition of Christian: anyone or any group that believes in Jesus Christ as the Savior and Son of God. Rather, it has to do with Latter-day Saint doctrines that some feel are alien to “traditional Christianity,” where “traditional Christianity” means that body of beliefs held by most present-day Christian churches. The argument essentially goes that if the LDS church believes in certain doctrines not believed in by most present-day Christian churches, then the LDS church cannot be Christian.
The problem with this argument is that the major doctrines under attack are amazingly similar to Christian beliefs held during the New Testament period and the generations immediately following.
Does the New Testament define Christianity?
The Gospels lack any explicit treatment of the word Christian. Indeed, the word appears only three times in the New Testament, and never from the mouth of Christ himself. The word Christianity is entirely absent from the New Testament.
Acts 11:26 tells us that “the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.” Here, the passive construction “were called Christians” suggests that the term was first used not by Christians, but by non-Christians. (Similarly, the names Yankee and Mormon were first used by outsiders.)
The term was probably modeled on such words as Herodian and Caesarian, already in circulation at that time, and meant nothing more complicated than Christ’s people or, perhaps, partisans of Christ. Note that the Christian congregation at Antioch represented a wide range of backgrounds, including Jews and non-Jews. These believers displayed the whole spectrum of attitudes toward the Jewish law—from continued adherence to the traditions of Judaism to rejection of all things Jewish.
The next mention of the term Christian is in Acts 26:28, where Agrippa makes his famous reply to Paul: “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” The Apostle had related to Agrippa and Festus the story of his conversion. The doctrinal content of Paul’s speech is simple and straightforward: Paul bears witness that Jesus had been foretold by the Jewish prophets, that he suffered and rose from the dead, and that forgiveness may be obtained through him. Paul described Christ’s mission as summoning people to “repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance.” (Acts 26:20.) The scriptural account gives no indication that Paul had to correct Agrippa’s use of the word Christian to describe one who believes in these basic doctrines.
First Peter 4:16 is the last instance of the word’s appearance in the New Testament. This verse is virtually without doctrinal definition, merely assuring the believer that he need not be ashamed if he suffer as a “Christian.” Even here, the term may be one that persecuting outsiders were using. It may have derived from current Roman, that is, non-Christian, legal usage.
In each of these instances, the term appears to originate from someone outside the community of believers themselves. In neither of the two passages from Acts does Paul use the word himself; it is non-Christians who use it. Where the term is used, the stated and implied beliefs of the Christians are far different from the present-day beliefs used to deny that Latter-day Saints are Christians, as can be clearly shown.
Is it true that because Latter-day Saints reject the traditional doctrine of the Trinity, they are not Christians?
The Church’s first Article of Faith is “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.” This is a straightforward statement of belief that there are three members in the Godhead. However, Latter-day Saints do reject the doctrines of the Trinity as taught by most Christian churches today. For the most part, these creeds—the most famous of which is the Nicene Creed—were canonized in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. following centuries of debate about the nature of the Godhead. Consequently, it is highly questionable whether these creeds reflect the thinking or beliefs of the New Testament church.
“The exact theological definition of the doctrine of the Trinity,” notes J. R. Dummelow, “was the result of a long process of development, which was not complete until the fifth century, or maybe even later.”1 As Bill Forrest remarks, “To insist that a belief in the Trinity is requisite to being Christian, is to acknowledge that for centuries after the New Testament was completed thousands of Jesus’ followers were in fact not really ‘Christian.’”2 Certainly the revelatory manner by which Joseph Smith learned of the doctrine of the Godhead pierces through the centuries-old debate on the subject.
Is it true that because Latter-day Saints believe that human beings can eventually become like God, they are not Christian?
As even a cursory glance at early Christian thought reveals, the idea that man might become as God—known in Greek as theosis or theopoiesis—may be found virtually everywhere, from the New Testament through the writings of the first four centuries. Church members take seriously such passages as Psalm 82:6 [Ps. 82:6], John 10:33–36, and Philippians 2:5–6 [Philip. 2:5–6], in which a plurality of gods and the idea of becoming like God are mentioned.
The notion of theosis is characteristic of church fathers Irenaeus (second century A.D.), Clement of Alexandria (third century A.D.), and Athanasius (fourth century A.D.). Indeed, so pervasive was the doctrine in the fourth century that Athanasius’s archenemies, the Arians, also held the belief3 and the Origenist monks at Jerusalem heatedly debated “whether all men would finally become like Christ or whether Christ was really a different creature.”4
According to an ancient formula, “God became man that man might become God.” Early Christians “were invited to ‘study’ to become gods” (note the plural).5
Though the idea of human deification waned in the Western church in the Middle Ages, it remained very much alive in the Eastern Orthodox faith, which includes such Christian sects today as the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox churches.6 Jaroslav Pelikan notes, “The chief idea of St. Maximus, as of all Eastern theology, [was] the idea of deification.”7
Is the subject of deification truly a closed question? After all, echoes of man becoming like God are still found in the work of later and modern writers in the West. For instance, C. S. Lewis’s writings are full of the language of human deification.8 Even Martin Luther was capable of speaking of the “deification of human nature,” although in what sense it is not clear.9
Related to the claim that Latter-day Saints are not Christians because of their belief in deification is the assertion that if they hold to some kind of belief in deification then it must be that Church members do not view Jesus as uniquely divine. Such an assertion is totally erroneous. The phrase “Only Begotten Son” occurs with its variants at least ten times in the Book of Mormon, fourteen times in the Doctrine and Covenants, and nineteen times in the Pearl of Great Price. Basic to Latter-day Saint theology is the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the Only Begotten Son of the Father in the flesh.
Is it true that because Latter-day Saints practice baptism for the dead, they are not Christian?
The argument that Latter-day Saints cannot be Christians because they practice baptism for the dead presumes that it has been definitely established that 1 Corinthians 15:29 [1 Cor. 15:29] has nothing to do with an early Christian practice of baptism for the dead. The argument ignores the fact that such second-century groups as the Montanists and Marcionites—who are invariably referred to as Christians—practiced a similar rite. The practice was condemned in A.D. 393 by the Council of Hippo, which certainly implies that it was still a vital issue.10 As Hugh Nibley has shown in great detail, many of the Church Fathers understood this verse literally, even when they did not always know what to make of it.11
Mormon temple ritual in general is another source of controversy, largely because many think that the reticence to talk about it is not Christian. But the New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias has shown that “the desire to keep the most sacred things from profanation”—a concern shared by the Latter-day Saints—is widely found in the New Testament and in the early Christian community.12
The second-century church father Ignatius of Antioch was known to have held “secret” doctrines. The historian Tertullian (second century A.D.) even takes the heretics to task because they provide access to their services to everyone without distinction. As a result, the demeanor of these heretics becomes frivolous, merely human, without seriousness and without authority.13
The pagan critic Celsus (second century A.D.) probably referred to Christianity as a “secret system of belief” because access to the various ordinances of the church—baptism and the sacrament—was available only to the initiated. In his response to Celsus, Origen (third century A.D.) readily admitted that many practices and doctrines were not available to everyone, but he argues that this was not unique to Christianity.14 As late as the fourth century, some groups were making efforts to return to an earlier Christian tradition of preserving certain doctrines and practices for the initiated only.15
Is it true that because Latter-day Saints do not accept the Bible as their sole authority in faith and doctrine, they are not Christians?
Latter-day Saints accept the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price as scriptural, in addition to the Bible. But the whole question of canon—which writings are sacred, inspired, and binding on disciples—has always been a complicated one in the history of traditional Christianity.
In the earliest period of the Christian church, it is difficult to see a distinction being made between canonical writings and some books not in the present Protestant canon. For example, the Epistle of Jude draws heavily on noncanonical books such as 1 Enoch and The Assumption of Moses. As E. Isaac says of 1 Enoch, “It influenced Matthew, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, Hebrews, 1 John, Jude (which quotes it directly) and Revelation (with numerous points of contact) … in molding New Testament doctrines concerning the nature of the Messiah, the Son of Man, the messianic kingdom, demonology, the future, resurrection, the final judgment, the whole eschatological theater, and symbolism.”16
The so-called Muratorian Fragment, dating from the late second century A.D., shows that some Christians of the period accepted the Apocalypse of Peter as scripture. Clement of Alexandria, writing around A.D. 200, seems to admit a New Testament canon of thirty books, including the Epistle of Barnabas, the Epistle of Clement, and the Preaching of Peter. Origen recognized the Epistle of Barnabas and the letter from the Shepherd of Hermas.17
Even in more recent times, the question of canon has not been unanimously resolved. Martin Luther characterized the Epistle of James as “an epistle of straw”—largely because it seemed to disagree with his teaching of justification by faith alone—and mistrusted the book of Revelation.18 Roman Catholics and the Orthodox churches tend to accept the Apocrypha as canonical—books included in their Bibles but left out of most Protestant Bibles, including the current King James Version. In fact, Eastern Orthodox churches have never settled the question of canon. A number of scholars have pointed out that the church has priority, both logically and historically, over the Bible—that is, a group of believers existed before a certain body of texts, such as the books of the Old and New Testament, were declared canonical.19
Is it true that because Latter-day Saints deny the doctrine of original sin, they are not Christian?
The notion of original sin as it is usually understood today in traditional Christianity is a distinctly late invention that evolved from the controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries. Tertullian (second century A.D.), who was very concerned with the idea of sin, says nothing of the doctrine of original sin. Indeed, very few of the Church Fathers up to the fourth century show any interest in it at all. It was not clearly enunciated until Augustine (fourth/fifth century) needed it in his battle with the Christian Pelagians, who denied the doctrine, and it came to be associated with the Council of Carthage in A.D. 418.20
As Norbert Brox points out, “Pelagian theology was the traditional one, especially in Rome. But the Africans, under the theological leadership of Augustine, managed to make their charge of heresy stick within the church, thereby establishing the Augustinian theology of grace as the basis of the Western tradition.”21 Some modern scholars now raise the issue that Augustine, and not Pelagius, was the real heretic.22
Is it true that because Latter-day Saints reject the doctrine of salvation by grace alone, they are not Christians?
Perhaps the most famous statement of the Latter-day Saint understanding of the relation between grace and works is in 2 Nephi 25:23: “It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” [2 Ne. 25:23] This idea is sometimes called synergism—a term Van A. Harvey has used to describe Roman Catholicism.23
The doctrine that salvation depends both on God’s grace and man’s good works is very old in Catholic theology. One of the canons at the Council of Trent specifically repudiates the notion of grace alone: “If anyone saith that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sin for Christ’s sake alone; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified, let him be anathema.”24 Are we to say, then, that Roman Catholicism is not Christian because it does not subscribe to the doctrine of salvation by grace alone?
The doctrine of salvation through faith alone, sometimes called solafidianism, is not a biblical doctrine: there are no instances in the New Testament of the phrases “grace alone” or “faith alone.” The philosopher-theologian Frederick Sontag argues that Jesus himself was interested not in words, and not even in theological dogma, but in action: For the Jesus in Matthew, he says, “Action is more important than definition.”25 Richard Lloyd Anderson shows that even in Paul’s major treatments of the doctrine of grace, particularly in Romans and Ephesians, there is a balancing element of works as well.26 Other New Testament writers, most notably James, make it clear that saving faith can only be recognized through works: “Faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” (James 2:17.)
The generations immediately following the New Testament period also recognized the need for both grace and works for salvation. The famous Didache—The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles—which dates back to before A.D. 70, is conspicuous for its moralism and legalism.27 It is also significant that “the oldest datable literary document of Christian religion soon after the time of the Apostles”—the letter of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians, written in the last decade of the first century—emphasizes “good works, as it is in the Epistle of James, which may belong to the same time.”28 The second-century document Shepherd of Hermas contains twelve commandments. J. L. Gonzales writes that they “are a summary of the duties of a Christian, and Hermas affirms that in obeying them there is eternal life.”29
Even F. F. Bruce, who contends that Paul taught a doctrine of salvation by grace alone, concurs sadly that the doctrine was not a part of the early Christian church: “The Biblical doctrine of divine grace, God’s favour shown to sinful humanity, … seems almost, in the post-apostolic age, to reappear only with Augustine. Certainly the majority of Christian writers who flourished between the apostles and Augustine do not seem to have grasped what Paul was really getting at. … Marcion has been called the only one of these writers who understood Paul.”30
Marcion, incidentally, was a second-century gnostic Christian who distinguished between the gods of the Old and New Testament. He felt that the Old Testament deity was a lesser deity than the God of the New Testament and rejected the Old Testament entirely, as well as any New Testament writing “tainted” with Old Testament ideas. Marcion produced a canon of scripture that recognized no Apostle of Jesus except Paul. He considered the other Apostles falsifiers of God.
By contrast, in the fourth century, one prominent Christian bishop was teaching the necessity of rituals. “If any man receive not Baptism,” wrote Cyril of Jerusalem, “he hath not salvation.” He also wrote about an ordinance of anointing, which he called “chrism”: “Having been counted worthy of this Holy Chrism, ye are called Christians. … For before you were deemed worthy of this grace, ye had no proper claim to that title.”31
The Eastern Orthodox churches also do not accept solafidianism, the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. “Eastern Orthodox Christians emphasize a unity of faith and works. For the Orthodox, being conformed to the image of Christ … includes a response of our faith and works.”32 Sensing the danger that a “grace alone” position could become “cheap grace” (to borrow an expression from the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer) or “a theologically thin, no-sweat Christianity,” some modern Protestant writers have adopted a similar position, recognizing that works also play a vital role in salvation.33
With so many other past and present Christians rejecting the position that grace alone brings salvation, excluding the Latter-day Saints from “Christianity” for their belief in faith and works is not justified.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints easily meet the definition of a Christian as implicitly defined in the New Testament: they believe that ancient prophets foretold Christ’s coming, that Jesus Christ suffered for our transgressions, that he was put to death but rose from the dead, that through him we may obtain forgiveness of our sins, and that he will come again in glory.
The doctrinal reasons some Christians give for excluding the Latter-day Saints from Christianity make little sense, because many of the doctrines used by traditional Christianity are late developments, reflective of creeds formulated in the fourth and fifth century or developed during the Reformation.
Given the wide variety of beliefs among the various Christian churches, it is better to take persons claiming to be Christians at their word and to let the Lord be the judge.