Mormonism within Christianity; Christianity within Mormonism

Every so often the question “Are Mormons Christians?” gets batted around; the question has probably grown tedious for many. The discussions I’ve heard or read, though, usually leave me dissatisfied, in part because they treat Mormonism as if it were some unitary thing of definite and agreed upon content, and then argue about whether that unitary thing should be placed in the general category of “Christianity.” To me this approach seems false to the more complicated reality, and it misses the ways in which the question of Mormonism within Christianity is not just an abstract theological issue, or a polemical point (one that gets made in connection with Mitt Romney, for example, or Prop 8) but a live and important personal issue– at least for some of us.

Here I venture, with trepidation, onto ground that some contributors to this blog have certainly traveled and charted more carefully than I have. But my own judgment has long been that Mormonism has elements and teachings that fit well with historic Christianity, and it has other elements that are more distinctively or even uniquely “Mormon” and that are pretty hard to square with historic Christianity. I think of the Book of Mormon– its teachings– as a source and locus of the more “Christian” ideas and teachings (if I can call them that). And I might take the King Follett discourse as representative of the more uniquely “Mormon” ideas that are harder to reconcile with historic Christianity (and that combative evangelical types accordingly like to call attention to).

In this respect, Mormonism is like any large-scale and lasting movement, which is likely to give rise to diverse ideas and teachings that the movement tries over time to reconcile and harmonize. Religious movements do this; Christianity surely has had to do it. Law does too. In this ongoing process of harmonization and self-interpretation, some ideas and themes will typically be taken as more fundamental or constitutive, and other ideas and themes will be interpreted in light of, or absorbed into, those primary ideas. And some ideas and themes will drop out. The movement may or may not explicitly repudiate these themes, but in any case they come to be ignored, and forgotten, and even people who know about them understand that these are not themes that should be brought up. You don’t talk about Brigham Young’s Adam-God teachings in Sunday School.

So it seems to me that Mormons have– and maybe have always had– a choice of sorts (although these things are not usually presented as pure, deliberate choices) to emphasize the Christian dimension of the religion or the more distinctly Mormon dimensions. We could emphasize King Follett-type elements, or we could linger on the Book of Mormon, reading it for what it actually says and not imposing other, later notions onto it. One can imagine a Mormonism in which a lot of the peculiarly Mormon ideas have gone the way of the Adam-God theory (and polygamy?), and in which the live differences between Mormonism and historic Christianity seem relatively marginal. Indeed, we don’t even need to imagine but only observe a condition in which Mormons believe many of the doctrines of historic Christianity– the literal resurrection, the Second Coming, the virgin birth– more whole-heartedly than many other self-identifying Christians do.

You may be able to tell that I’m engaging in a bit of wishful thinking here. I’ve long been attracted to the Christian dimension in Mormonism– to some of the more distinctly “Mormon” ideas not so much. (I suppose that’s why I felt pretty comfortable at Notre Dame– more so, maybe, than I might have felt at BYU?– and why I’ve somehow felt at home when I’ve occasionally done talks or whatever up at Pepperdine.) My own choice or judgment is based on the criterion of truth (as I very fallibly understand it, of course): I believe that the Christian story and Gospel are true. I regularly recite the Apostles’ Creed (understanding “catholic” to mean “universal,” as some translations have it), and I don’t see anything in that creed that Mormons should object to. If I didn’t focus on the Christian side of Mormonism, or if I came to think that this side was missing or discarded, I wouldn’t have much excuse to keep coming.

But I’ve had friends in the Church who see basically the same tension and choice that I see but who (if I understood them correctly) would make the opposite choice, emphasizing the distinctly Mormon elements and downplaying the ideas or teachings that tie Mormonism more closely to historic Christianity. I suppose that choice reflects what they find to be true. And I also admit that if the choice is viewed in strategic or prudential terms, there are pros and cons each way. Taking the “Christian” path might ease some of the tensions that arise with evangelicals, for instance, but it might also make it harder to justify, say, missionary work. (If we basically believe what other Christians do, why should we be trying to convert them?) And so forth.

For myself and in my situation, I don’t have to worry about these prudential pros and cons. I’m thankful that I can just go to Primary and play “I Am a Child of God” for the kids and leave the larger matters to the Church leaders (and to God). Even so, I know which direction I’d like things to go.

45 comments for “Mormonism within Christianity; Christianity within Mormonism

  1. DavidH
    August 4, 2010 at 11:45 am

    I too have no problem with the Apostles’ Creed, and I too prefer emphasis on the core teachings of Christianity (and actually the core teachings of true religion as defined by James). For that reason, I am grateful for President Benson’s call to return to focusing on the Book of Mormon and its teachings, which are, in my opinion, the core teachings of Christianity.

  2. Eduard A. Erdtsieck
    August 4, 2010 at 11:56 am

    This question is like asking a hot chocolate drinker; at what point is it no longer chocolatty, when I keep adding hot water? I am not diminishing the importance of this question, but I am asking is this really the question we should pose?

    The US Constitution has lost its “salt” and the 10 Commandments forgotten by the US legislators and Wall Street. The Obamacrats operate to distorts the purposes of governance. Perhaps we could blame the Christians for the US to loose favor in the Eyes of God. Perhaps the question should be: Who lost God’s blessings for His children?

    You know what, keep on answering, because I love to read what other people write. It is my passion!

  3. August 4, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    Nothings like some nuts (in this case…a nut)to go with a good post.

  4. August 4, 2010 at 12:22 pm

    For me, I have never felt a need to view Mormonism within the rest of institutional Christianity, but it is very much part of a larger story of Christianity.

    I have long been one who chose to see Mormonism as distinct from the rest of Christianity. However, I think this was not well reasoned and largely the result of laziness.

    I am finding that much of what I have always considered as part of my Mormonism is not all that unique to Mormonism.

  5. Glenn Thigpen
    August 4, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    A person who has a testimony of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and strives to follow His teachings and precepts as they understand them is a Christian. It doesn’t matter about what one considers “core Christian” beliefs, etc.


  6. August 4, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    I get what you are saying, but I’m not sure that “core teachings” can necessarily be understood as either “traditionally Christian” or “traditionally Mormon.” Our core teachings draw from both, thinking of what we have to believe to get a temple recommend, for instance. And traditional Christianity is often correct to say that we have a fundamentally different understanding of Jesus (for all the similarities). The existence of the Book of Mormon itself is sometimes seen as a kind of accusation that the traditional Christian God is inadequate and that the Bible is insufficient.

    All of which is to say that I am torn by your aspirations for the faith. I share them, but I also value what makes us distinct from surrounding Christianity.

    If I were capable of deriving a point or argument from your comment, I would engage it, but I am tired and you are obscure. Also, you used the term Obamacrat, which means you are unlikely to listen to me or reason. That said, this probably isn’t the right post for that conversation, is it?

  7. Craig H.
    August 4, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    I’ve experienced a similar phenomenon through studying the history of Christianity: there are more similarities than I’d supposed, and more that I feel kinship to (and I don’t just mean counting up similarities and differences, but in the significance of them). I think you’re right that emphasizing the differences stems largely from missionary impulses. People are always asking you, what’s the difference between your church and mine? And your mission leaders emphasize the same thing. Then you start studying more carefully and you see the huge similarities, bigger than you supposed. What if missions started stressing similarities? What would happen? Would they dissolve, or would they simply take different form?

  8. August 4, 2010 at 12:56 pm

    Honestly, I think that if we want to succeed as “just another Christian denomination,” we need better speakers and better music.

  9. Melissa B.
    August 4, 2010 at 1:23 pm

    I don’t understand why this issue has to be so complicated. To me, a follower of Jesus Christ is a Christian, therefore, Mormons are Christians.

    I must admit I feel frustrated with this topic and I wish the world would just read the Book of Mormon and see for themselves. Problem solved.

  10. August 4, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    The tendency or choice of whether to emphasize those ideas within Mormonism that seem to stand apart and even run counter to ideas found within the broader Christian tradition, or whether to embrace ideas within Mormonism that corroborate and support the traditional Christian narrative is complex.

    I think one of the challenges we face is the temptation is to impute a kind of ulterior motive to those who have affinities on one pole of the spectrum or the other. Drawing attention to elements within Mormonism that emphasize and even support certain traditional Christian concepts is sometimes seen as selling out or being ashamed of Mormonism, or seeking to curry favor with Evangelicals, or to downplay truths of the restoration in order to find accommodation in the world, as compromising or jettisoning truth for political expedience. Likewise, sometimes the relentless assertion of unique and distinctive Mormon interpretations, no matter how tenuous, can be seen as nothing more than retrenchment or a mechanism to distinguish one’s religious identity, to marginalize the religious other, and engage in classic boundary-maintenance driven largely by the “Christian world as apostate” paradigm where the value of a doctrine solely depends on whether it is different.

    While both of these explanations may possibly hold true for some, we should not overlook the possibility that such an explanation may also be an extremely unfair caricature and one that completely misses the complex and nuanced ways that we negotiate our real life experiences and historical tradition. Certainly, the temptation among Mormons to uncritically foist these caricatures on each other is strong and at times even irresistible. Many discussions on this topic tend to emphasize a public relations effort between Mormons and the outside world, but there is also an internal dialogue among Latter-day Saints on this issue that is probably and may prove to be more important; not an issue of how the world sees us, but how we view one another.

    Joseph Smith wrote: “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.” Perhaps we need to draw upon the truth of this statement and apply it within the Mormon community, rather than see it only as communication from Mormons to the outside world-not to stifle rigorous discussion and healthy debate but to increase charity and understanding in our associations one with another as we seek out the “virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy.”

  11. August 4, 2010 at 1:28 pm

    The more I see the matter debated, the more convinced I am that the real issue is, “Do Mormons have cooties?” That is, “Is it OK to maintain an irrational dislike for Mormons and Mormonism?”

  12. Michael
    August 4, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    I like this post. I feel the same tug and pull in my own life and in my own testimony. Having converted to the Restored Gospel at age 19 after having been raised Irish Catholic and attending Catholic school, I find that the distinctly “Mormon” elements of the Gospel are the most potent and the most beautiful. I love the Book of Mormon and the Glories revealed in the Doctrine and Covenants (especially D&C 76 and 88). The Pearl of Great Price brings tears to my eyes whenever I read of Enoch or Abraham.

    That being said, I find that we, culturally, downplay the traditional aspects of Christianity that would round out the picture. For me, that means a more liturgical emphasis and a Celebration of Christ and His life much more than we currently practice. It is so very evident in our avoidance of any high church traditions and the de-emphasis of Holy Week, Pentecost, etc. Sometimes we tend to think these practices anathema but we have really just substituted Mormon practices in their place that push us further away from other Christians.

    For example, instead of pilgrimages to Rome or Jerusalem, we substitute Temple Square and Nauvoo. Instead of celebrating Pentecost and Holy Week, we substitute conference and Pioneer Day. Instead of honoring the lives of Saints, we honor the lives of Pioneers. Instead of honoring motherhood through the Virgin Mary, we have substituted Emma and Eliza. Instead of holy relics, we substitute original copies of the Book of Mormon or other historical Church memorabilia.

    At least in my experience, there is not much difference when you consider the motivation behind the actions.

  13. Michael
    August 4, 2010 at 2:10 pm


    As far as the Apostles’ Creed goes, I don’t recite it when I attend mass with the family because it does not acknowledge the true nature of Heavenly Father and Christ. It acknowledges a nature contrary to the Restored Gospel and the Prophet Joseph’s revelations.

  14. Matt
    August 4, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    In some ways I feel like the post presents a false dilemma. It does this through the (not so) subtle use of the adjective “historical” before Christianity. At the most fundamental level, Mormonism (with all of its doctrines) IS Christianity–the ur-Christianity practiced before the Apostasy. So, as has been pointed many times before, it really doesn’t matter how much Mormonism has in common with “historical”–i.e. post-Apostasy–Christianity. In this way, this really isn’t a post about the “Are Mormons Christians?” question at all.

    That said, the post raises an interesting issue about Mormonism’s relationship to “historical” Christianity. I remember talking with Richard Bushman once and him mentioning Jan Shipps’ (if I am not mistaken) observation that the Church in the 19th century focussed on its Hebrew/Jewish-ness (gathering of Israel, refering to others as Gentiles, a people set apart from others) and throughout the 20th century has more and more focussed on its Christian aspects. The logo change is one obvious (if superficial) example. I do think, as Steven suggests, that we Mormons have a somewhat odd (and unjustified) distaste for certain aspects of mainstream Christianity–e.g., the cross as a symbol (what’s wrong with focussing on the risen Christ AND the the crucified Christ)and the concept of grace (although I feel this has changed somewhat). Similarly, we are sometimes strangely squeamish about Mormon doctrines that look too much like those of other Christian churches–e.g., we tend to emphasize the separateness of the Godhead rather than its oneness. I agree that we would do well to more fully embrace the aspects of Mormonism that we share with other believers in Christ. But, returning to the first part of my comment, I don’t see it as an either or proposition. I think we should embrace all true principles of the Gospel–those that overlap with other Christians’ beliefs as well as those that don’t.

  15. Adam Greenwood
    August 4, 2010 at 3:35 pm

    “of pilgrimages to Rome or Jerusalem, we substitute Temple Square and Nauvoo. Instead of celebrating Pentecost and Holy Week, we substitute conference and Pioneer Day. Instead of honoring the lives of Saints, we honor the lives of Pioneers. Instead of honoring motherhood through the Virgin Mary, we have substituted Emma and Eliza. Instead of holy relics, we substitute original copies of the Book of Mormon or other historical Church memorabilia.

    Instead of ‘instead of’, I wish this could be ‘and.’ Except for the holy relics thing. Our vast indifference to the shroud of Turin doesn’t lose us anything.

  16. Michael
    August 4, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    Actually Adam I served the first seven months of my mission in Torino (Turin) and had the opportunity to see the Church in which the Shroud is kept. Of course, the Shroud was hard to see since it was so protected behind multiple layers of glass and security.

    I think the Shroud may be the real thing. It shows the nail marks in both palms and wrists. It has a fairly traceable record and the scientific testing that has been completed has not ruled out the plausibility of its authenticity.

    I like the Shroud.

    Don’t we have the Prophet Joseph’s handkerchief from the Nauvoo healings in the Church History Museum? I remember seeing that artifact when visiting there.

  17. Adam Greenwood
    August 4, 2010 at 4:30 pm

    you may be right about the Shroud for all of me. The fact that you don’t know for sure that we have the Prophet Joseph’s holy handkerchief, and that if we do have it, its in a museum, suggests that Mormonism isn’t simply replacing Catholicism’s relics with its own relics while still maintaining the orientation towards relics.

  18. Brad Jenkins
    August 4, 2010 at 6:20 pm

    This was my favorite blog post by Steve so far. It articulated for me thoughts I have had for many years. I have had a similar experience as Steven in my years in the LDS church. I have seen many members over the years emphasize either the life of the Savior and His atonement or the unique aspects of the Mormon faith. Like Steve, I am more in the camp of emphasizing the life of the Savior and His atonement. I too would like to see local membership emphasize the Savior more. There is a good reason why bishoprics begin nearly every fast and testimony meeting by counseling the members to bear testimonies about the Savior. Here again, however, I am quick to point out that we all have our own experiences with other members. We have our own experiences with the wards we attend (including local leaders). Each of us will have our own perspective on how much members and local leaders emphasize the Savior.

    Michael, your comments on celebrating the traditional aspects of Christianity resonated with me. Because of a unique job situation I had a number of years ago, I was able to attend over 300 Catholic masses. I learned a lot. In fact, my commitment to and love for the Savior deepened tremendously. I looked forward to each time I could “pass the peace.” I regretted that our own faith did not participate in the beautiful and meaningful Holy Week celebrations, not the least of which was the celebration of Palm Sunday. I began incorporating those same celebrations in the life of my family (wife and two children). From my own experience, I believe, to some extent, many LDS members adamantly avoid these celebrations because they are determined to show the world that we are different from all the other Christian faiths on the planet. Or it could simply be that members believe these traditions are not divine or holy.

    Lastly, my favorite comment goes to John C. There is something to be said for a paid ministry! The speaking is often better! And, lest we forget, some of the best talks in the church are given by the general authorities, individuals who do get paid for the full-time service they give the church. As for music, my wife completely agrees. She went to BYU with a music scholarship. She has played the oboe since she was thirteen.

  19. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    August 4, 2010 at 6:33 pm

    I enjoy the irony of noting that the DOCTRINAL CONTENT of the Book of Mormon is the zone where Mormons have the most in common with traditional Christianity (as that is expressed in the 21st Century), even though the narrative of the Book of Mormon, and its bona fides as a book of ancient scripture, and its assertion in both form and substance of authoritatively adding to the revelation in the Bible is an affront to what we might call the Bibliolatry of many traditional Christians. Yet this is an example of what Matt points out, that many of the things that are most distinctively “Mormon”, and most objected to among modern traditional Christians, are in fact things that have the most significant connections to the original christianity of the First and Second Centuries.

    Thus, the earliest Christians had only the Old Testament as written scripture, and the Gospels, the Acts, and the Epistles were additions made later, stretching from circa AD 55 to circa AD 100. Plus it was more years before any major compilation of the books was assembled into a unified entity recognized as an equal counterpart to the Old Testament. Surely the Jews accused the Christians of unauthorizedly publishing new scripture without authority from God to do so. Publishing a new book proclaiming to be an inspired message was exactly what the early Christians and Joseph Smith both did.

    Other things in this category include the belief in a physical resurrection, belief that Christ freed at least some people from eternity in Hell and the need for vicarious baptism, belief in a pre-mortal life with God, and the related belief in the divine transformation of the saved (“theosis”). Much of the distance between us and Catholics/Protestants is the same distance that separates them from primitive Christianity.

    We should recognize that the purpose of any exercise in comparison between Mormonism and the more established brands of Christianity, that is carried out by a pastor of a “Christian” church, is to delegitimize the Mormon “brand”. They feel a keen sense of competition with us, evidenced by what they see as a loss of about 40,000 Southern Baptists every year to Mormonism, which is only part of a gradual decline in their church membership numbers.

    On the other hand, I heard one general authority express concern that some traditional churches were trying to imitate Mormonism on issues where their traditional stances (such as damnation of unbaptized infants) had made those churches offensive, and so they were trying to adopt some of OUR beliefs in order to decrease what he saw as our competitive edge.

  20. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    August 4, 2010 at 6:44 pm

    One other point we should not forget is that “traditional Christianity” is not an unfailing North Star, but rather an agglomeration of diverse bodies which created themselves as denominations largely by disagreeing with other Christians, and whose own “core doctrines” are to a large extent in a state of flux.

    The published literature about Christianity in general, and denominations in particular, manifests the concern of many Christians about innovations that have been made in worship practices and that are being made in doctrinal teachings. The movement of the US Episcopal Church toward schism over sexual morality is just one evidence.

    So any effort to emphasize the Christianity of Mormonism raises the question, “Which Christianity are we aiming to compare ourselves with?” Indeed, in many cases, as in that of the Episcopalians, it is Mormonism that is closer to historical Christian doctrines than the modern version of an unquestionably “Christian” denomination.

  21. Clair
    August 4, 2010 at 8:24 pm

    Matt (14) and Raymond (19) wrote what I was thinking. Basically, is “historical Christianity” Christian?

    And, how could a person know that, without a cross reference from other scriptures, like, say, the Book of Mormon?

  22. Eduard A. Erdtsieck
    August 5, 2010 at 1:07 am

    I like this post, because it is apropos for today. I enjoyed the ideas presented here, because they showed the diversity of our experiences with the revelations of Joseph Smith and the doctrines of Jesus.

    I once saw an elaborate art work made out of sand in the mall. It was detailed, beautiful and very elaborate tableau of zoo animals. As I stood there admiring the scene; I saw what an artist could do with grains of sands and the proper amount of moisture. My approach to doctrines and scriptures is to fashion a mental structure, that is to visualize its numerous details around the the Corner Stone. Both Christianity and Mormonism worship the same person – Jesus, Christ.

    The concept title of this post is “Christianity within Mormonism; Mormonism within Christianity” reminds of an ancient Chinese religious idea – the Yin and Yang. The interaction that influences the destinies of creatures and things.

    The USA having a heritage of two great religious traditions seems to have lost God’s blessings today. Why? Playing with sand on the beach is fun, but what vision are we left with, when the politicians pull one way and the citizens are clueless? What would Jesus do?

  23. August 5, 2010 at 6:06 am

    “The USA having a heritage of two great religious traditions seems to have lost God’s blessings today.”
    Have you some evidence to support this bizarre assertion?

  24. Adam Greenwood
    August 5, 2010 at 12:44 pm

    Assertions that nations do or do not have God’s blessings are not alien to Christianity or to Mormon tradition or scripture. I’m not sure that in some senses America has had God’s blessing to lose of late, but I don’t see anything horrid about someone believing that it had and did lose it.

  25. Ben Huff
    August 5, 2010 at 4:07 pm

    Thank you, Steve, this is a very important question that we don’t often seriously address. It also helps me understand better where you are coming from. I’m a little unsure what you are asking and what you are suggesting, though.

    Why do we have to choose? Is it because generically Christian beliefs and distinctively Mormon beliefs pull us in different directions with regard to our relationship to other Christians? Or is it because the two are inherently incompatible in some way? Or is it just because there is more in the Mormon tradition than we can really keep alive because of limited mental or cultural bandwidth?

  26. Ben Huff
    August 5, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    John C, Eduard’s is not a bizarre assertion. It does not advance the conversation to call it bizarre. If it seems surprising to you, it is appropriate for you to ask for explanation and evidence, so thanks for doing so.

    I don’t know if I think God has decided to stop blessing us, but it doesn’t take much imagination to think of a few reasons why someone might suggest it. The economy is in the tank and looks like it is going to stay there for a long time. A few years ago we had the worst foreign attack on American soil since the war of 1812 (or something like that), and we may be losing both of the wars that it led us into. And (roughly) half of the U.S. thinks the current government is (roughly) as big a blight on the country as the other half thought the last one was, so if you’re in that half . . . I don’t know if this is what Eduard had in mind, but his concern seems to be that the country is spiritually adrift. Is it?

  27. August 5, 2010 at 4:24 pm

    This post really resonated with me. I read quite a bit of Christian apologetics, and I am sometimes jealous that they’ve had 2000 years to hammer out systematic theologies for many of their beliefs. There are differences of opinion of course. But after listening to masterful debaters such as William Lane Craig it is hard for me to not be swayed by concepts such as the Universe beginning to exist, which seems to run a bit contrary to what our theologians say.

    I think Blake Ostler has made a valiant attempt to work out a theology for Mormonism but there are many brilliant Mormons out there who disagree with him on very basic things. It’s hard for me as a person who is smart enough to follow most of the debate but not smart enough to think that I know anything. All I have are my feelings, and my feelings say I love the Church and I love the Book of Mormon, but I don’t know about creation ex nihilo, etc.

    I remember FireTag over at his blog talking about the Community of Christ going down a road of liberalization, where beliefs aren’t really regulated by the Church, and they are embracing more of a Trinitarian view, and don’t necessarily say one way or the other about the Book of Mormon. He was wondering whether the world needed yet another white-bread Christian denomination. If we don’t have anything unique that defines us, are we necessary?

  28. Steven Smith
    August 5, 2010 at 4:41 pm

    Good questions, Ben. And hard ones, I think.

    The question of our relationship to other Christians is one of those prudential concerns that is important but, for me, not ultimately dispositive. As I said, for me it ultimately comes down to a question of what’s true. So then your question of compatibility becomes central. And different people, and different Mormons, will obviously have different answers to that question.

    In my view, as I tried to suggest, there appear to be tensions that we might try to address or resolve in different ways. But in general, and simplifying, I think Mormons who concern themselves with these matters tend to make some doctrines primary (the more “Christian” ones, or the more distinctively “Mormon” ones) and then interpret and reshape the secondary themes to fit the primary ones. Some ideas or themes just get dropped out and forgotten: I mentioned the Adam-God theory as an example. And I expressed my own preference for making the “Christian” ideas primary.

    In using these terms (in quotes), I wasn’t trying to beg questions or be tendentious by referring to “historic Christian” teachings, but rather to avoid begging questions by indicating what I was referring to. I understand that some people will believe that the “distinctively Mormon” ideas just are genuine Christianity– ur-Christianity, as Matt nicely put it– and that insofar as “historic Christianity” departs from those ideas it is not true Christianity. I would view this as an instance of treating the distinctively Mormon ideas as primary, and interpreting or reshaping “Christianity” to fit those primary ideas. And this is certainly one possibility. For myself, though, I find a good deal of truth and value in “historic Christianity,” so I’m not inclined to take this approach.

  29. Ben Huff
    August 5, 2010 at 5:02 pm

    Thanks, Steve. It sounds like you are saying, then, that there is some inherent inconsistency or tension between the more generically or classically Christian ideas (e.g. in the Book of Mormon) and the distinctively Mormon ones. Could you give some examples? What is inconsistent with what?

  30. Adam Greenwood
    August 5, 2010 at 5:04 pm

    We’re all pulled by the culture around us, or pushed by it.

    I was a Notre Dame student and am probably, generally, more on the end fo the spectrum tht is very sympathetic to christian tradition. But on the other hand, I have found that some specifically Mormon ideas, such as deification/exaltation, seem to make more sense of traditional Christian concepts such as the Incarnation than traditional Christians are able to.

    So one can partly conceptualize Mormonism not as a revival of a real Christianity that traditional Christianity is sharply distinct from, but as a radical fidelity to some of the truths of traditional Christianity that traditional Christians have grown to used to.

    I chose the Incarnation example because I feel I didn’t truly get LDS concepts of exaltation and the eternal family–even stuff like Joseph Smith’s teaching about sociality–until I read some traditional Christian writing on the incarnation. And traditional Christians are sometimes able to see their own truths as for the first time when shown to them through the light of Mormonism.

    ‘You Mormons believe that God has a body and he’s like a martian on a planet somewhere?’
    ‘Yep, and so do you. He’s very much like a martian. He’s an earthling.’

  31. Steve Smith
    August 5, 2010 at 6:35 pm

    I wrote a long comment trying to respond to Ben and Adam, and then my computer ate it. No time to do it again. Maybe it was Providence working through my circuitry to save me from an ill-advised post. But thanks for the good questions.

  32. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    August 5, 2010 at 7:42 pm

    Syphax: You noted the argument of many traditional Christians that Augustine’s idea of creation “ex nihilo” should be the official interpretation of Genesis 1, and said it is attractive to you, even though Mormonism pretty clearly rejects it.

    This is an example of how some Christians reject Mormonism for being “unchristian” because it differs from their ideas on a topic like God’s creation–but a lot of Mormons are not even sure what they are expected to believe, and how it differs from some traditional Christian version. Lots of Mormons still carry the torch of Joseph Fielding Smith’s rogue book about the Creation that adopted many Traditional Protestant “young earth creationism” ideas, even though it was NOT approved by the First Presidency and the Twelve, and they DID endorse James Talmages’ more open minded approach to the length of time the creation took, and the question of evolution. The self-reinforcing belief of many Mormons in JFS’s version as “official” has gone so far as passing on the “faith promoting rumor” that Talmage and Widtsoe were the Mavericks, rather than the approved “orthodox” on the subject of science and creation. I heard this stated again just last Sunday from a Harvard-educated former member of our stake presidency who is not in sympathy with the JFS approach.

    Is there an impulse among some Mormons to embrace what they think is an orthodox Christian view of creation, with the precedent of JFS? They don’t seem to understand what the official Mormon stance is, nor what many Christians (including Catholics) actually think, which does seem to be compatible with the more authoritative Mormon views on the age of the earth.

    We should remember that the Hebrew of Genesis 1 describes formation of pre-existing matter, so Augustine’s view is simply an interpretation imposed for what I would call aesthetic reasons–God would look better, more omnipotent, more flashy, if he brought every element in the universe into existence all at once.

    The Catholic Church and other traditional Christians who embrace “ex nihilo” creation have seized on the Big Bang Theory as confirmation of their (now ancient) belief. The problem with that is that, like the Church’s earlier adoption of Ptolemaic astronomy from a pagan cartographer, the normal revision of scientific theories always means that such endorsements over time will appear to be misguided and unjustified as theories are modified and evolve. For example, the current popular model of the Big Bang is that the baseline eternal universe randomly experiences recurring sudden inflationary periods, limited areas “blowing up” into new universes like our own, but originating in pre-existing matter in a pre-existing universe. Rather than “nothing”, the universe is preceded by a lot of “something”.

    So what “ex nihilo” creation appears to boil down to a lot of theological speculation that is not firmly anchored in either the Bible or in modern physics. Now it might appear attractive to you for the way it enables certain arguments, but I would submit that secondary argument has to yield to more primary ones.

    Again, this issue illustrates how difficult it is to even define the difference between Mormon and traditional Christian beliefs, when we don’t understand either clearly. Some of the most vehement “Christians” who attack Mormonism on certain issues are not really speaking for Christianity as a whole.

  33. August 5, 2010 at 9:07 pm

    Well, I guess the Big Bang is secondary to the argument that an infinite past means an actually infinite number of things (in this case past events) and that this concept is logically incoherent. But you’re right, it enables certain logical arguments for God’s existence, such as the Prime Mover argument or the Kalaam Cosmological Argument. Because an actually infinite number of things is logically incoherent, the inevitable past terminus of events is a beginning. If the Universe began to exist, then the only thing that could bring time, space, and matter into existence is an immaterial, powerful, personal force (God). Like I said, I’m really not smart enough to really sort through the evidence. The current view of scientists, that there is a baseline Universe of matter out of which inflationary Universes spring, is new information to me. I have heard lots of attempts at avoiding an ultimate beginning (scientists don’t seem to like that idea) but I didn’t know any of them have actually caught hold.

    It seems to me that God as an organizer of previously unorganized matter is hard to consider. How can we tell the difference between a Universe that operates with necessary laws, and a Universe that operates with laws that are contingent, originating with God? Personal revelation I guess. Which I have not yet received regarding this subject.

  34. Ben H
    August 5, 2010 at 11:02 pm

    Syphax, there is nothing logically impossible about an infinite past. The “actual infinite” that Aristotle observed is impossible (and he was right) is a scenario in which there is an event that happened infinitely long ago, and then an infinite stretch of time up until the present. That can’t be, because on that hypothesis it would take an infinite amount of time to get to the present, so we could never get here. However, that is not what is implied by the traditional Mormon cosmology. Rather, there is no beginning, and so there is a past that stretches out without bound into the past. Every event is presumably a finite amount of time into the past; there are just always more events endlessly before any event. That kind of infinity is a bit dizzying to contemplate, but not logically problematic. The Kalaam theorists are manufacturing paradoxes that are not warranted by the hypothesis of an infinite past. As it happens, even Thomas Aquinas (and some of his intellectual predecessors—I think Al-Ghazali is one of them) conceded that philosophically one can’t determine whether the past is finite or infinite.

    Steve, thanks for responding! I wish I could read it! I’ve taken to composing my comments in another text editor, then copying them into my browser, because my internet connection loses them too often. Maybe we’ll see a hint of what you have in mind down the road.

    For my part, I actually think (a bit like Adam perhaps) that the Mormon distinctives make the whole story hang together much better! I don’t think traditional Christianity really adds up. I have a post coming up in the morning that talks a bit about this. I think the traditional perspective leads to serious philosophical problems (such as a nasty version of the problem of evil) that have taken a heavy toll on its credibility, while Mormon teachings are crucially different on these points. I think there are reasons why Christianity (in its predominant, traditional forms) has taken such a beating in the past few hundred years, and it makes me very sad because these foreign elements (Platonic conception of God, denigration of the body and human attachments (which underlies the disastrous Catholic insistence on a celibate priesthood (forgive my dramatic language, but I know devout Catholics who feel the same way)), legalistic misunderstanding of baptism, a priori rejection of further revelation . . .) have to a great extent derailed the beautiful core message of Christ. I think in order to carry forward and rejuvenate loyalty to this Christian core, we need the correction of the Restoration, and I just hope we can reach out to our Christian brothers and sisters in a way that is welcoming to them so we don’t all go down with the wrong ship! If you get a chance again one of these days, though, Steve, I would certainly be interested to hear where you think Mormon beliefs are inconsistent.

  35. Eduard A. Erdtsieck
    August 6, 2010 at 7:02 am

    The self proclaimed classifications – Christian – Mormon – is not founded on the knowledge of the doctrines of Jesus of Nazareth. It is a political choice we make in the market place of social interaction. As individuals, Christians and Mormons, recognize the importance of redemption through Jesus, Christ and our commitment is the personal struggle within us.

    However, when we interact in the public square the identity broadens. Christians and Mormons; then, point fingers at each other and our struggle becomes a socio-cultural one upmanship. Jesus taught us not to judge, because doing so returns the consequences of that judgment.

    The consequences are that, both Christians and Mormons, have not kept their eyes on our lawmakers and politicians, who have diluted the strength of the Jesus, Christ’s doctrines. Their transgressions have been overlooked by us and brought to the center of the public discussion the emphasis on the rights granted by the US Consitution. Issues have come to the forefront, such as abortion, human rights and same gender marriage, etc… Now that the genie is out of the bottle how do we entice them to return into the bottle?

    The doctrines of Jesus were never about Rights, but about being part of a family named Israel. Remember it was the Priesthood of the temple of Herod who denied Him the right to live and crucfied Him.
    It’s about Faith in the Fatherhood of God and treating one another as we would like to be treated.

    The unrest among our fellow citizens reflects the facts that we have been duped by following our self serving politicians. We have allowed them to set a different standard or as the scripture said “worshipping a strange god”.

    How do we get out of our predicament?

  36. August 6, 2010 at 9:04 am

    Ben (& I suppose Eduard),
    Did the country lose the Lord’s blessing during the Great Depression only to regain it during the Post-War boom only to lose it again in the 70s and early 80s only to regain it again in the late 80s, lose it in the early 90s, regain it in the late 90s and finally lose it forever on 9/11? Declaring the presence or absence of the Lord’s blessing based on economic trends seems fruitless and arbitrary. If there had been a time when our country (or any country) wasn’t in some sort of economic distress, wasn’t engaged in some sort of military action, and wasn’t convinced that the past was better than the present, then I would concede that Eduard’s point might be fruitful (and relevant). In the meantime, it strikes me as the sort of thing that I would find written on the placard of a man raving on a street corner.

    Which isn’t to say that I think that our country or our people is without sin. For all I know we may be genuinely more sinful than our predecessors. Or we may be less sinful, of course. Without clear standards and means for measurement, all assertions one way or the other seem groundless. I do know that I am sinful and I generally assume that everyone else is.

    Perhaps what motivated my particular response was that Eduard identifies the loss of God’s blessing (and, I suppose, the recapturing thereof) with the actions of politicians. It is a little troublesome that that particular group seems to carry the moral authority of all of us (God would bless us, if not for Washington). It is also troublesome that Eduard seems to believe that God cares about what party is in power, that religious and political motivations and desires are equivalent. Certainly, they can inform each other, but Eduard seems to be saying that good people of faith will always be led to one particular political stance or party, which is manifestly false.

    Perhaps most objectionable (and I have, unfortunately, contributed to it) is that Eduard is bringing up all this political what not in commenting on a post that has nothing to do with politics. It causes one to question why Eduard brought it up in the first place.

  37. Adam Greenwood
    August 6, 2010 at 9:20 am

    The many, many traditional Christians who believe that creation ex nihilo means that the world had a beginning in time don’t quite grok the implications of their own doctrine. God as the First Cause is outside of time and is capable of bringing into being a universe of infinite existence in every temporal direction.

    I tend to lean away from creation ex nihilo myself, like most Mormons. But the Mormons who believe that this universe could not have a beginning, even a created beginning, also mistake the doctrine. It would be entirely consistent with the idea of that creation is *merely* organization to believe that what is eternal is being, existence, the meta-rules and meta-material (intelligences?) that allow for the creation of universes, but that the universe as we know is a creation.

  38. Adam Greenwood
    August 6, 2010 at 9:30 am

    Steve Smith,

    I regret very much that your response got eaten. I would have loved to see it.

    By the way, you and the participants in your thread might be interested in the old T&S thread on the Apostles’ Creed. It was also quite good:

  39. August 6, 2010 at 11:56 am

    #37. This is actually the interpretation that seems most likely to me. That this particular Universe was created a finite time ago. That God can somehow reverse or “reset” entropy in a localized area of space. Who knows.

  40. Steven Smith
    August 6, 2010 at 12:10 pm

    Thanks for the citation back, Adam. You’re right: that is a very insightful post.

  41. Ben H
    August 6, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    John C, as you will recall, I did not take a position on whether the U.S. has lost God’s favor. I still don’t. Like you, I look at our history, and I see a lot of dreadful things have happened before, so I don’t know how to evaluate the particular constellation of adversities we are dealing with right now. However, I believe God does play a role in history, and that he acts in part based on our moral state. This is a constant theme of the Bible and Book of Mormon, which is hard to ignore if one is paying even casual attention to the Mormon or just plain Christian tradition. I also believe it is probable that at some point the U.S. will lose God’s favor; this is suggested by many prophecies, particularly in the Book of Mormon. So the question is if and when.

    Moreover, it is the most natural thing in the world for a Mormon to think that our politicians would be a crucial factor in whether we keep or lose God’s favor. From a plain moral standpoint, as a democracy, since we choose our politicians, then our politicians reflect our moral status. More importantly, though, the Book of Mormon specifically teaches that when the majority of the people choose wickedness, they will bring down the judgments of God (Mosiah 29:26-27).

    Why is this relevant? Eduard kind of said it, but I’ll put it simply: Most Americans are Christians, within some stream or other of traditional Christianity. Traditional Christianity, however, has been faltering more and more for a very long time. Steve suggests Mormons would do well to be more like traditional Christians, but the weakness of traditional Christianity is arguably a big part of what has gotten our country into so much trouble. And that is something you can say quite well from a lot of political standpoints, certainly both the right and the left.

    I share Eduard’s concern that traditional Christianity doesn’t have what it would take to get this country moving in a better direction. However, I think they have valuable resources, both doctrinally and morally, and I am skeptical that Mormons can get along very well from a social and political standpoint without a little mutual support from the good people of the world, so I share some of Steve’s interest in at least a more positive relationship with them.

  42. Adam Greenwood
    August 6, 2010 at 2:54 pm

    John C., Ben H.,
    I think Lincoln is a helpful guide to this issue. He took claims that God was acting in the war seriously and without condescension, though at the same time he was bemused by the certainty some folks had that they knew *how* God was acting and to what end. Because it was an issue that he took seriously, by the end of the war he seemed to have concluded that he partly understood God’s purposes in the war (retribution for the national sin of slavery).

  43. August 6, 2010 at 5:02 pm

    Lincoln is always a helpful guide.

  44. Eduard A. Erdtsieck
    August 7, 2010 at 6:04 am

    Why did I point to the politicians as being false gods or a strange gods? They make false promises to get gain. This is where Mormons and Christians differ in their interpretation of the scriptures and where the revelation of Joseph Smith has had the greatest impact in religious thought.

    Mormons believe that there was a preparatory state before the earth was created. The Book of John aluded to it in John 1: 1-5. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The same [Jesus of Nazareth] was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him and without Him was not anything made, that was made. In Him was life; and the life was the Light of men and the Light shone in darkness and the darkness comprehended it not [our world]”.

    In the OT, when issues pertaining to the future of Israel was concerned the prophets addressed Him as the “Lord of Hosts”. Meaning He was in charge; even, when not physically present with His chosen people, the people knew Him as Jehovah.

    In the NT, when He answered His disciples questions about their future as children of God; He used the phrase “the Son of Man” before answering their question. Jesus was the “peace offering”, Father in heaven made to ransom His children from some unnamed evil doers or strange gods. The people knew Him as Jesus. The citizens of Nazareth wanted to throw Him of a cliff, after He read a verse in Isaiah and said that it referred to Him. He left and said a prophet is not accepted in his own city.

    The greatest testimony ever given about God was Joseph Smith, Jr’s; First Vision in the Sacred Grove. I believed it the moment the missionaries told me about it. I had been pre-occupied with this question all my life: Why can God, the Father of our spirits, now be so open in identifying Himself?

    He had to show Himself, because His children were, since the Creation of the earth, duped by strange or false gods. Since His “peace offering” was rejected; He was now able to anoint His Only Begotten a King.

    In 3rd Nephi of the Book of Mormon, we read the story of His “other sheep”. A people of flesh and blood, who glorified Him as the King.

    The Light is dawning over US. God has started restoring the broken families, from all the generations of man, in our Temples. The sealing of earthly families into one, Israel, has begun.

    There is no greater message than the Gospel of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

  45. August 16, 2010 at 10:31 am

    Steven Smith,

    The problem I’m seeing here is that you are merely advocating being nice for niceness sake, but no other real reason seems apparent.

    “Let’s minimize the differences between us and other Christians, because golly, wouldn’t it be nice if we were more like other people….”

    But why should we? What’s the benefit of becoming more like other Christians? Popularity, greater influence, better theology? What?

    Since you touted the Book of Mormon and seemed dismissive of the King Follet Discourse, I can only assume that in your case, the motivation is to obtain a better theology because somehow you think that traditional Christian theology is better than ours. And you’d like to see Mormonism more as “Christianity – but now with 50% more fiber!”

    But I’d posit a warning here – Christian theology has serious issues. It has some real problems that Mormonism has – thanks to Joseph Smith’s work – managed to largely avoid. Creation ex nihilo is a hugely problematic doctrine that lies at the heart of traditional Christian theology. It gets in the way of, and obstructs just about everything their theologians try to do. Are you proposing that Mormons should desire a bit of ex nihilo in our own theology?

    I wouldn’t recommend it. The rest of Christianity has essentially painted themselves into a corner with creation ex nihilo, and I don’t think they’re ever going to be able to get out. The problem of evil is exponentially more difficult to deal with when you posit God creating everything except himself from nothing. Human free will is problematic at best, and impossible at worst – unless you want to posit some definition of free will like “complementarian free will” which frankly, to normal human beings doesn’t look like “free” will at all.

    Arminian Christians try to neutralize this, as do Open Theists. But they all run into a really tough problem in creation ex nihilo. If you think that God is 1) all knowing; 2) all powerful; and 3) created everything from nothing, then it pretty much logically follows that free will doesn’t exist and that God deliberately willed evil in the universe.

    To be frank Steve, I don’t think we WANT Augustinian Christianity, and it has nothing to do with making friends and being nice or not. I think traditional Christian theology has always had to struggle with the legacy left by Augustine, and later Aquinas, and we are better off without such restrictions. Joseph’s King Follett Discourse single-handedly cut Mormonism’s ties to the Augustinian tradition, for which I am devoutly thankful. It helped us dodge a huge mess of theological problems.

    Most Mormons find “Five Point Calvinism” distasteful. But really, Calvin did little more than take Augustine and Aquinas to their full and logical conclusion. In a universe where the primary concern is preserving God’s ultimate power, and in a universe where everything is divided ontologically into “Creator” and “created” – Calvin makes nothing but inexorable and brutal sense. He saw the logical implications of traditional Christian theology and wasn’t afraid to take them to their full terrible and logical conclusions.

    Arminian Christian scholars and philosophers are plagued by Calvin constantly – and we would be just as plagued by him if we were to ditch this King Follet stuff that you seem dismissive of, and try to be more “mainstream.”

    Steve, it just isn’t worth the cost. Enjoy your time at Notre Dame, but please, please – don’t try to bring back any biological warheads with you. Mormons are better off without them.

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