Is Mormonism Christian?
The October 2008 issue of First Things contains a very useful article entitled “Is Mormonism Christian?” The two-part article consists of an essay by a Mormon, Bruce D. Porter, who explains why he believes Mormonism is a form of Christianity, and a counter-essay by an evangelical scholar, Gerald R. McDermott, who explains why Mormonism is radically different from Christianity.
The key to the difference between the two positions is understanding that there is much more to Christianity than making Christ the central figure in your theology. Christianity must at the very least acknowledge Christ as the incarnate eternal Son of God, one with the Father and the Holy Spirit, through whom all things were made, and possessing a divine nature fundamentally different from our own human nature. McDermott demonstrates that while Mormon theology places Christ at the center, this Christ is very different from the one in whom Christians have historically believed.
McDermott rejects the relatively superficial arguments made by some Christians that Mormonism is not Christian because it fails to emphasize grace, or because it rejects the divinity of Christ, or because it is more about Joseph Smith than Jesus Christ. These arguments are easily refuted. Instead, McDermott focuses on three more telling points.
First, he argues the implausibility that Joseph Smith really found another testament of Jesus Christ in the Book of Mormon, a testament supposedly based on an an extensive new mission of Christ to the Western hemisphere in the years following His Judaean ministry. The Book of Mormon is implausible because of the lack of witnesses, the vast stretch of time (1,800 years) between the alleged mission of Christ and its “discovery” by Joseph Smith, the significant inconsistencies between the teachings of the Palestinian Jesus and the “American Jesus”, and the very significant doctrinal differences between the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s later prophecies (which are also regarded by Mormons as inspired).
Second, for Mormons, Jesus Christ is a different god from the Father. Smith ended by teaching that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are really three different gods. Jesus was not always god but only gradually attained this status. In fact, Mormons believe that Jesus is essentially no different in nature from ourselves, and that we too can develop into gods, just as he did, if we follow the right path.
Third, Mormonism holds that matter exists coeternally along with the Father and the Son, who are themselves part of the cosmos and limited by its immutable laws. The gods neither transcend nor create the cosmos; they simply have a superior ability to exploit the natural law to bring about their own ends, a power we all have the potential to share one day.
McDermott’s excellent essay clarifies the central point in the dispute about whether Mormonism is Christian. Mormons “believe in Christ”, but what they believe is so different from historic Christianity that the name “Christian” cannot be applied without radically altering the meaning of the term.
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