“Are Mormons Christian?” Gospel Topics Essays (2016)
“Are Mormons Christian?” Gospel Topics Essays
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints unequivocally affirm themselves to be Christians. They worship God the Eternal Father in the name of Jesus Christ. When asked what the Latter-day Saints believe, Joseph Smith put Christ at the center: “The fundamental principles of our religion is the testimony of the apostles and prophets concerning Jesus Christ, ‘that he died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended up into heaven;’ and all other things are only appendages to these, which pertain to our religion.”1 The modern-day Quorum of the Twelve Apostles reaffirmed that testimony when they proclaimed, “Jesus is the Living Christ, the immortal Son of God. … His way is the path that leads to happiness in this life and eternal life in the world to come.”2
In recent decades, however, some have claimed that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not a Christian church. The most oft-used reasons are the following:
Latter-day Saints do not accept the creeds, confessions, and formulations of post–New Testament Christianity.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not descend through the historical line of traditional Christianity. That is, Latter-day Saints are not Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant.
Latter-day Saints do not believe scripture consists of the Holy Bible alone but have an expanded canon of scripture that includes the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.
Each of these is examined below.
Scholars have long acknowledged that the view of God held by the earliest Christians changed dramatically over the course of centuries. Early Christian views of God were more personal, more anthropomorphic, and less abstract than those that emerged later from the creeds written over the next several hundred years. The key ideological shift that began in the second century A.D., after the loss of apostolic authority, resulted from a conceptual merger of Christian doctrine with Greek philosophy.3
Latter-day Saints believe the melding of early Christian theology with Greek philosophy was a grave error. Chief among the doctrines lost in this process was the nature of the Godhead. The true nature of God the Father, His Son, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost was restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith. As a consequence, Latter-day Saints hold that God the Father is an embodied being, a belief consistent with the attributes ascribed to God by many early Christians.4 This Latter-day Saint belief differs from the post-New Testament creeds.
Whatever the doctrinal differences that exist between the Latter-day Saints and members of other Christian religions, the roles Latter-day Saints ascribe to members of the Godhead largely correspond with the views of others in the Christian world. Latter-day Saints believe that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and all-loving, and they pray to Him in the name of Jesus Christ. They acknowledge the Father as the ultimate object of their worship, the Son as Lord and Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit as the messenger and revealer of the Father and the Son. In short, Latter-day Saints do not accept the post–New Testament creeds yet rely deeply on each member of the Godhead in their daily religious devotion and worship, as did the early Christians.
Another premise used in arguing that Latter-day Saints are not Christians is that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not descend from the traditional line of today’s Christian churches: Latter-day Saints are not Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant. Latter-day Saints believe that by the ministering of angels to Joseph Smith priesthood authority to act in God’s name was returned or brought back to earth. This is the “restored,” not a “reformed,” church of Jesus Christ. The Latter-day Saint belief in a restored Christianity helps explain why so many Latter-day Saints, from the 1830s to the present, have converted from other Christian denominations. These converts did not, and do not, perceive themselves as leaving the Christian fold; they are simply grateful to learn about and become part of the restored Church of Jesus Christ, which they believe offers the fulness of the Lord’s gospel, a more complete and rich Christian church—spiritually, organizationally, and doctrinally.
Members of creedal churches often mistakenly assume that all Christians have always agreed and must agree on a historically static, monolithic collection of beliefs. As many scholars have acknowledged, however, Christians have vigorously disagreed about virtually every issue of theology and practice through the centuries, leading to the creation of a multitude of Christian denominations.5 Although the doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints differs from that of the many creedal Christian churches, it is consistent with early Christianity. One who sincerely loves, worships, and follows Christ should be free to claim his or her understanding of the doctrine according to the dictates of his or her conscience without being branded as non-Christian.
A third justification argued to label Latter-day Saints as non-Christian has to do with their belief in an open scriptural canon. For those making this argument, to be a Christian means to assent to the principle of sola scriptura, or the self-sufficiency of the Bible. But to claim that the Bible is the sole and final word of God—more specifically, the final written word of God—is to claim more for the Bible than it claims for itself. Nowhere does the Bible proclaim that all revelations from God would be gathered into a single volume to be forever closed and that no further scriptural revelation could be received.6
Moreover, not all Christian churches are certain that Christianity must be defined by commitment to a closed canon.7 In truth, the argument for exclusion by closed canon appears to be used selectively to exclude the Latter-day Saints from being called Christian. No branch of Christianity limits itself entirely to the biblical text in making doctrinal decisions and in applying biblical principles. Roman Catholics, for example, turn to church tradition and the magisterium (meaning teachers, including popes and councils) for answers. Protestants, particularly evangelicals, turn to linguists and scripture scholars for their answers, as well as to post–New Testament church councils and creeds. For many Christians, these councils and creeds are every bit as canonical as the Bible itself. To establish doctrine and to understand the biblical text, Latter-day Saints turn to living prophets and to additional books of scripture—the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price.
Together with the Old and New Testaments, the Book of Mormon supports an unequivocal testimony of Jesus Christ. One passage says that the Book of Mormon “shall establish the truth” of the Bible “and shall make known to all kindreds, tongues, and people, that the Lamb of God is the Son of the Eternal Father, and the Savior of the world; and that all men must come unto him, or they cannot be saved.”8 In its more than six thousand verses, the Book of Mormon refers to Jesus Christ almost four thousand times and by over one hundred different names: “Jehovah,” “Immanuel,” “Holy Messiah,” “Lamb of God,” “Redeemer of Israel,” and so on.9 The Book of Mormon is indeed “Another Testament of Jesus Christ,” as its title page proclaims.
Converts across the world continue to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in part because of its doctrinal and spiritual distinctiveness. That distinctiveness flows from the knowledge restored to this earth, together with the power of the Holy Ghost present in the Church because of restored priesthood authority, keys, ordinances, and the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The fruits of the restored gospel are evident in the lives of its faithful members.
While members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have no desire to compromise the distinctiveness of the restored Church of Jesus Christ, they wish to work together with other Christians—and people of all faiths—to recognize and remedy many of the moral and family issues faced by society. The Christian conversation is richer for what the Latter-day Saints bring to the table. There is no good reason for Christian faiths to ostracize each other when there has never been more urgent need for unity in proclaiming the divinity and teachings of Jesus Christ.