Once Again: Are Mormons Christians?

June 10, 2004 | 40 comments
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It’s been a bear of a day at work (editing 70 text pages of correspondence for the magazine), so I’m going to have to be somewhat short today.

I’m pleased to have been able to inspire so many interesting comments in response to my provocation about the “fairy-tale” character of Mormonism, especially those that go beyond the too-easy “inside it makes perfect sense but outside it looks silly” response, which I’d think is hardly the right outlook for a missionary faith: the point is to bring those on the outside IN, is it not?

I would only add on the subject that . . .

I would only add that I think a good case can be made for Mormonism by appealing to something like natural human longings. That is, why not say: the “fairy-tale” character of the faith follows from the fact that it perfectly responds or answers to what human beings most want to be true. And isn’t that an indication of its truth rather than a sign that it’s all made up? Wouldn’t we expect the true religion to fit perfectly with our hopes and wants, like perfectly designed and produced shoes, as opposed to one that we have to work to make sense of? That is, given how opaque the human soul is — how much of a mystery we are to ourselves — isn’t the ability of Mormonism (in its ideal form, say) to identify and satisfy and answer what our souls long for evidence that it is true, as opposed to something made up out of whole cloth by some semi-literate rural teenager from nineteenth-century New York State?

OK, now that I’ve done my missionary work for the day (talk about preaching to the choir!), I’ll leave you with another provocation. Some of you might be aware that my boss (Richard John Neuhaus) angered a lot of Mormons about 4 years ago when he wrote a long essay for our magazine (I was teaching at BYU at the time) in which he answered the question “Are Mormons Christians?” in the negative. Now there’s no reason for any of you to go run and read the piece, though if you want to you can find it here (http://www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft0003/public.html); it’s not nearly as informed about or respectful of the LDS as I think it should be. But that’s neither here nor there. I’d like to pose the question right here: Are Mormons Christians? And since I bet you’ve debated the question many times before, I’ll stir things up a bit more by offering you what I think is the definitive answer to the question: for Mormons, Mormons are the only true Christians — and for that very reason, for non-Mormons, Mormons are not, and can never be considered, Christians — not even close.

I’ll defend that view tomorrow. Until then, discuss.

Oh, and I have one last bit for Jim F. You say that it was a trick (though an unintentional one) to ask you to expound on the content of the “world” according to Heidegger while precluding you from making reference to formal structures. “Formal content,” you say, is all there is. But isn’t “formal content” a contradiction in terms? A purely formal theory or structure has no content — and that’s precisely my criticism of Heidegger’s thought: he’s defending the truth as it is disclosed within the “world,” but that world could be Nazi Germany or white Mississippi in 1952. Heidegger’s thought has no resources whatsoever to judge the practices (the content) of either world. I know that lots of scholars in the U.S. and Europe have begun to try to tease an ethics out of Heidegger. God bless them. I think he would have considered their efforts to be touching but superficial. On this I agree with Leo Strauss, Heidegger’s thought is permeated by the fact (and the implications of the fact) that ethics is impossible.

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40 Responses to Once Again: Are Mormons Christians?

  1. D. Fletcher on June 10, 2004 at 5:44 pm

    We could sure emphasize Jesus a little more in our meetings. And perhaps put his visage on our temples in place of Moroni. What do our temples have to do with Moroni, one wonders?

  2. Nate Oman on June 10, 2004 at 5:45 pm

    “Are Mormons Christians?”

    Some of them are, and some of them aren’t :->….

  3. Nate Oman on June 10, 2004 at 5:58 pm

    BTW, I have to say that Neuhaus’s essay provoke something of a crisis for me. It wasn’t that I found his ultimate conclusion particularlly shocking. I am actually fine with folks saying that Mormon rejection of the creeds places them outside the context of historical Christianity, so long as they do so in an informed and respectful way. I just found it profoundly disheartening that a Catholic intellectual that I repected a great deal produced an article that seemed just a couple of steps removed from Ed Decker’s “The God Makers.” I had basically divided my world into the conservative Protestant religious right — that I had more or less written off as trogledytes — and conservative Catholics — who I thought of as far more intellectually sophisticated. I expected both groups to regard me as an hopeless heretic, but I also expected differences in nuance and understanding between them.

    I suspect that if I was to re-read the Neuhaus article, my reaction would be less visceral, but at the time I took it as a big “not welcome” sign from the religion-in-the-public-square Catholic intellectuals whom I had always thought of as carrying on a converstation that I was interested in participating in. My Mormon persecution gene came out, and I started reading with greater sympathy sermons by Heber C. Kimball and Jedediah M. Grant predicting calamities upon the Gentiles ;->.

  4. Kingsley on June 10, 2004 at 5:58 pm

    Not even close?

  5. Jim F. on June 10, 2004 at 6:01 pm

    Last things first: Obviously Damon and I disagree about Heidegger. He thinks Strauss is right; I think Strauss is wrong. I think it is only because there are resources in Heidegger on which one can build the possibility of making judgments about the world that contemporary Heideggerians can “tease” an ethics out of his work. A general description of the world would have to describe Nazi Germany, white Mississippi in 1952, up-state New York in 1820, and the contemporary U.S. as well as African and Arab countries. That it could not do so would be strong evidence against it. But we would expect–as I think is the case–that such a general description would not make ethical judgments meaningless or impossible. The fact that many contemporary Heidegger scholars are in general agreement that Heidegger’s understanding not only doesn’t prevent such judgments but makes them possible is evidence for my claim. That evidence is relatively weak to be sure–stronger evidence would require reading and arguing about the relevant texts. But it at least shows that my claim is plausible.

    But now to first things: My take on Damon’s provocation is that he is right from a theological point of view: we are the only true Christians and, for that reason no others who call themselves Christians can agree that we are too.

    But the term “Christian” is not only a theological term. It is also a political one. “I am a Christian” is as much a statement about my place in the world as it is a statement about my theological beliefs. However, a great deal of the discussion of whether we are Christians combines or confuses the theological and the political. As a result, at least some of the arguments that we are not Christian intend more than to solve a theological question, and virtually all of those discussions are perceived by us and by many others to do more than solve such a question.

  6. Kingsley on June 10, 2004 at 6:10 pm

    This, from Fr. Neuhaus, seemed a little glib to me:

    “The true church and true Christianity simply went out of existence, except for its American Indian interlude, until it was rediscovered and reestablished by Joseph Smith in upstate New York, and its claims will be vindicated when Jesus returns, sooner rather than later, at a prophetically specified intersection in Jackson County, Missouri.”

    Basically the whole article is like that, a prolonged (though subtle) sneer. I shared Nate’s disappointment exactly after my first read, having felt a sort of unity with Catholics until then. I was grateful for the LDS responses, & Fr. Neuhaus’s admission that maybe he’d gotten some things wrong, but today’s rereading left me with the same feeling of disappointment & dismay. I don’t know that Prof. Linker’s description of the Church’s position regarding other Christians is really any more accurate, thus throwing his conclusion (“not even close”) into doubt–I, for one, do not even for a second consider myself one of the “only true Christians.”

  7. Adam Greenwood on June 10, 2004 at 6:17 pm

    I don’t think Mormons as Christians is really a philosophical question at all. I think it’s a dictionary question: what do people mean when they say or read Christian? Is it more misleading to call Mormons Christian or is more misleading to say they’re not?

    I think the latter is clearly the case. Certainly most people when they think or say Christian don’t have in mind any notion of the Book of Mormon or so forth. Mormons aren’t the central case of the English word ‘Christian.’ But most people do have in mind a belief in Christ, his Sonship, his resurrection, the Bible, the Ten Commandments, going to church on Sunday, prayer, hymns, you name it, all of which we share. Implying that we don’t have these beliefs is much more misleading than the implication that we aren’t heterodox and outside the mainstream in many respects. I’d hate to think that my mainstream Christian friends wouldn’t quote scripture or talk about Christ around me for fear of offending me, which has been sometimes the case. I certainly and more at home here at Notre Dame than I would be at, say, Yeshiva.

    I think the closest parallels are Christianity to Judaism and Islam to Christianity. Christianity relies heavily on the Jewish tradition–it comes out of it–and if the Christian belief in the Old Testament weren’t so widely known we would be speaking deceptively if we said that Christianity wasn’t Jewish. Islam on the other hand purports to adopt the Christian and the Jewish traditons but the reliance is small, not at all central to the religion. In contrast, Mormonism relies more heavily on Christianity than Christianity does on Judaism. Until Mormon beliefs are much more widely known, truth in most contexts requires us to speak of traditional or mainstream Christians and Mormon Christians, or of just plain Christians, rather than of Christians and Mormons. Someday that may change, but even then we’ll need a hybrid to show how much we have in common, and increasingly so, just as Jews and Christians are the Judeo-Christians for their shared Old Testament and Jews, Christians, and Muslims are the People of the Book or the Abrahamic faiths for their shared characteristics.

  8. Adam Greenwood on June 10, 2004 at 6:24 pm

    I shared Nate’s and others reactions. I didn’t like his conclusions much, but did he really have to be so infantile in getting there? It was if I decided to comment on Catholicism and the only thing I could think to do was to wrinkle my nose at ‘Mother-worship’ and nuns. Come now. His retraction didn’t help much either. It was fairly ungracious, especially when he decided to call us ‘marginal Christians.’ Surely he could have thought of a less condescending term?

  9. Gary Lee on June 10, 2004 at 6:27 pm

    Jim F: Your statement that “we are the only true Christians and, for that reason no others who call themselves Christians can agree that we are too” is not self evident to me. I understand why they could not agree that Mormons are the only true Christians, but could they not respond by saying “you do not understand the meaning of the term “Christian”. You Mormons are not the only true Christians, but we are both Christians.”

  10. Jordan Fowles on June 10, 2004 at 6:32 pm

    “What do our temples have to do with Moroni?”

    Our temples are perhaps the crowning symbol of the “restoration of all things”, which restoration was heralded by the angel Moroni, of whom it is said that he was the angel described in Revelation 14:6.

    As far as mormons being Christian, I agree that we could say a lot more about Christ in our meetings. The other “Christian” churches do a very good job of this- of making Christ real. A person who I love dearly recently told me that she has a very strong testimony of Joseph Smith, but that although she believes in Christ, she has trouble believing with the same ardor and feeling as she has for Joseph Smith. She says that it has been harder for her to get to know WHO Christ really was/is/will be.

    I personally tend to think that mormons are NOT Christian as that word is used in the vernacular today. However, I don’t believe that we are the only “true” Christians- just that to us, the term “christian” denotes a different (though perhaps similar) concept than it does for other “Christians”.

    Elder Oaks gave a wonderful talk on this not too long ago. (See Ensign, May 1998). Although this talk describes differences between our religion and others regarding what it means to be “saved”, a lot of these issues are applicable to this debate. Stephen Robinson also discusses several reasons why we may have been excluded by others from being defined as “Christians”.

    Our notion of a “Christian” is simply different than that of other faiths.

    In the end, why does it matter if other people think we are “Christian” or not? I know I believe in Christ, and I don’t care what other people call that belief.

  11. Doc on June 10, 2004 at 6:34 pm

    Your question, (“Are Mormons Christians?”) begs the question, “Are Christians Christians?” Anyone claiming to be a Christian must embrace and practice the principles Christ advocated.

    Does not the Book Of Mormon (Third Nephi) mirror the very essence of Christ’s message in the New Testament? And what about Moroni’s treatise on charity? These (Mormon) Christian texts’ are truly additional testaments’ of Jesus Christ and His message to mankind–But the essential question we must continue to ask ourselves is simply this, “Am I a true disciple (follower) of Jesus Christ in deed, or in word only.?

    It is a wasted argument for any sect to cliam Christian identity without Christian works. Christianity is as Chrisianity does. Wherever a true disciple of Jesus walks the earth, there is true Christianity.

    Doc

  12. Eric James Stone on June 10, 2004 at 6:35 pm

    > I’ll stir things up a bit more by offering you
    > what I think is the definitive answer to the
    > question: for Mormons, Mormons are the only
    > true Christians — and for that very reason,
    > for non-Mormons, Mormons are not, and can never
    > be considered, Christians — not even close.

    Well, that sounds interesting and nicely symmetrical, but I think it falls apart under close analysis.

    First of all, I think non-Mormon non-Christians would view the Mormon worship of Christ as sufficient reason for labeling Mormons as Christians. So what you’re really talking about is whether Christian non-Mormons can consider Mormons Christians.

    Second, I know some Southern Baptists who do not consider Mormons, Catholics, or any non-evangelical-Protestant) as true Christians. (They aren’t the only ones: Google “Are Catholics Christians?” to see examples of various non-Mormon faiths claiming that Catholics are not.) Since that position is equivalent to what you claim makes Mormons non-Christian in the view of Christian non-Mormons, then in order to be consistent Catholics would have to consider those Southern Baptists to not be true Christians.

    Now, if the Catholics are defining some Southern Baptists as not being true Christians…

    Convoluted logic aside, I think most Mormons tend to consider someone who believes in the divinity of Jesus Christ and tries to follow His teachings to be a Christian. We might believe that such a person has some incorrect beliefs about Christ — but how is that really any different from the Catholic doctrine that it is the only true church and those who worship Christ ouside the Catholic Church do so imperfectly?

  13. Kingsley on June 10, 2004 at 6:49 pm

    “[H]ow how is [the LDS position] really any different from the Catholic doctrine that it is the only true church and those who worship Christ ouside the Catholic Church do so imperfectly?”

    That seems to me to be a key question: if the LDS position is basically “Catholic” in nature, i.e. that it is the only true Church, & not that its members are the only true Christians–why should the Catholic Church feel any differently toward Mormons than toward Baptists?

  14. Davis Bell on June 10, 2004 at 7:26 pm

    Linker: Wouldn’t we expect the true religion to fit perfectly with our hopes and wants, like perfectly designed and produced shoes, as opposed to one that we have to work to make sense of?

    Prof. Linker, I think you’re cherry-picking on this one. Granted, I think most people would find the Mormon concept of Heaven (i.e. living forever with one’s family while progressing towards Godhood) more appealing than the Catholic or Protestant concepts. So, yes, in that sense, Mormonism “fits perfectly with our hopes and wants.”

    However, this instance of compatibility between expectations and doctrine is, in my opinion, the exception. Of course, I can only speak for myself in saying that Mormonism is quite different from what I, a practicing Mormon, would expect God’s true religion to be. I think Mormonism requires perhaps more work to make sense of than Catholicism or Protestantism, for example.

    There are certain teachings that square with my expectations (eternal families, baptism for the dead, etc.), but there are many more that don’t (polygamy, the First Vision, etc).

  15. Russell Arben Fox on June 10, 2004 at 7:26 pm

    [Warning: long comment ahead.]

    “My take on Damon’s provocation is that he is right from a theological point of view: we are the only true Christians and, for that reason no others who call themselves Christians can agree that we are too.”

    Jim, please explain further what you mean by “a theological point of view.” I assume you do not mean “doctrinal,” since the basic saving doctrines of the LDS church (faith, repentence, baptism by immersion, the gift of the Holy Ghost) are common to the majority of Protestant churches, and a few Catholic and Orthodox sects as well. Do you mean “a perspective grounded in the particular European development and refinement of theological concepts and categories”? If so, I can understand your acceptance of the second half of Damon’s comment (obviously, no one who defines Christianity in light of a specific history of ideas expressed in terms of the discipline called “theology” can incorporate into their definition a church that appears to formally repudiate the worth and/or legitimacy of that same history), but I do not understand why you would also agree to the first, since I thought one of your central projects was to show the inadvisability of relying upon the tradition of “theology” to either define ourselves or others.

    I must confess I kind of liked Neuhaus’s piece. Neuhaus is a polemicist, of course, but beneath the cheap shots was a fairly clear drawing of lines, which is always useful. His implied argument was that Christianity, as it has “theologically” come to be construed, cannot accommodate the artifactual canonization of an entirely new revelation. Christianity can accommodate visions of the Virgin Mary, evolutions in doctrine, the witnessing of angels. It can even accommodate pentecostal experiences oriented towards a revivification (even “restoration,” if one insists) of priesthood authority; the Catholics and the Orthodox don’t care for such claims, but it’s not as though there aren’t many other accepted Christian movements that have arisen making claims on how to act in God’s name, or the only one which has grown out of a rejection of other church’s authority. (A fair number of Baptist and Anabaptist-derived sects insist on the baptism of converts even if they had been previously baptized as Christians, as does the LDS church.) But what historical Christianity cannot accommodate, if I read Neuhaus correctly, is the idea of dispensationalism–the idea that God has not done merely one definitive work, that we must constantly return to and make new, but in fact has performed multiple distinct works, as evidenced by the reception of new scripture. There are plainly several things about Mormonism that Neuhaus thinks are beyond the pale of Christianity, but none moreso than the Book of Mormon. Which is why he compared Christian-Mormon relations to Christian-Muslim relations: the Islamic faith, while obviously grounded in the same ancient theological and ethical history of Judaism and Christianity, had permanently departed the fold through the claimed revelation to Mohammed and the promulgation of the Koran. To Neuhaus, there can be no real unity there (anymore than there can be real unity between Jews and Christians, not so long as the Jews resist the idea that the canonized and settled work of Jehovah has actually been supplemented and changed by this Jesus fellow.)

    For my part, Neuhaus helped clarify my thinking. I reject the idea that Mormonism is an Islam, a “new religious tradition”–I think we are, in fact, “theologically” Christian, only that it may take another century or two for that to become clear. My comment on the apostasy before, for what it’s worth, was an attempt to reflect on this possibility. The more we tell ourselves that the apostasy must have been a relatively abrupt, tragic snuffing out of the church (there it is!–wait, it’s gone!), the easier it is to think ourselves utterly distinct from all that evolved afterward. However, should we, on the other hand, accept that there was mostly continuity between the pre-apostasy and post-apostasy church, that the crucial change was small and early and low-key and relatively imperceptible (at least to most of those rank-and-file members trying to elude Roman persecution and live their faith day to day), then it becomes easier to advance the argument–which I think to be correct–that Christian history is also our history, and that the restoration of the gospel was not the flooding of a darkened world with light, but rather “merely” the recovery, through the Book of Mormon, of a very specific and long-absent hue of light and color to the Christian world, in the same way Luther and Wesley (and John Henry Newman, and Dorothy Day) were also involved in the “mere” recovery of something vital and needed and long-absent.

    Of course, Luther’s project was considered heresy by many, and he and his followers were for many years written out of traditional Christianity by those who disagreed with them. The gradual accommodation of pluralism–of the Reformation, in other words–into the Christian tradition changed it utterly. It may take even longer for Mormon dispensationalism, complete with additional scripture emerging out of the dust, to be so accommodated. But I tend to think that it will happen, someday–and that, like the Reformation, the incorporation of Mormonism into Christianity will profoundly remake Christianity (for the better, I might add).

    But this is all speculation, and I’ve long since demonstrated that I’m pretty bad at that.

  16. Eric James Stone on June 10, 2004 at 7:27 pm

    > why should the Catholic Church feel any
    > differently toward Mormons than toward
    > Baptists?

    Well, from a doctrinal standpoint, the Baptists do adhere to the Nicene Creed, whereas Mormons do not. Therefore, the Catholic Church could definitely make a distinction on that basis, as well as other doctrinal issues.

  17. Jeremy on June 10, 2004 at 7:28 pm

    “for Mormons, Mormons are the only true Christians.”

    I don’t buy that at all. D&C 76 indicates that other good Christians (and other good folks in general, presumably), the “honorable men of the earth who were blinded by the craftiness of men,” as going to the Terrestrial Kingdom, where they “receive the presence of the Son, but not the fulness of the Father.”

    Isn’t that more or less the Heaven that “orthodox” Christians were shooting for anyway?

    On the other hand, from what I gather, those same folks imagine Mormons go to a heretic’s hell.

  18. Kingsley on June 10, 2004 at 7:33 pm

    Eric James Stone: But the Creeds don’t come into Prof. Linker’s “definitive answer.”

  19. Kingsley on June 10, 2004 at 7:43 pm

    Eric James Stone: I.e. Prof. Linker seems to avoid the problem of making the Creeds crucial for Christians (but Peter didn’t accept them! etc.) by saying, “Well, the Mormons say they’re the only true Christians, forcing all other Christians to reject Mormons as such.” But if the Mormons aren’t saying that at all, but only what the Catholics are saying, he has no reason for excluding us.

  20. Ben Huff on June 10, 2004 at 7:51 pm

    Damon, you would “only” add the case about human longings? But that’s as good a case as there is! for embracing the fairy-tale-ishness, anyway. Thank you! Here’s an example where we Mormons might benefit from, say, reading Augustine?

  21. Kingsley on June 10, 2004 at 8:09 pm

    Bro. Fox: Is Joseph different in kind from Wesley & Newman etc., is there a difference between “reformer” & “prophet”? I agree 100% that our view of the Apostasy might need a little reformation itself, but is Prof. Robinson’s (e.g.) view,

    “Essentially, what happened is that we have good sources for New Testament Christianity (the New Testament documents themselves); then the lights
    go out (that is, we have very few historical sources), and in the dark we hear the muffled sounds of a great struggle. When the lights come on again a hundred or so years later, we find that someone has rearranged all the furniture and that Christianity is something very different from what it was in the beginning.
    That different entity can be accurately described by the term hellenized Christianity.”

    too black/white as well?

  22. Ben Huff on June 10, 2004 at 8:20 pm

    Adam, I am not sure the meaning of “Christian” is just a matter of how it happens to be used by whoever you’re talking to. While the term isn’t prominent in the New Testament, it does come up, and it is more prominent in the Book of Mormon, where it is clear the members of the Church, at least during some periods, called themselves Christians (it wasn’t just an epithet used by outsiders). Moreover, taking upon ourselves the name of Christ is a sacred obligation.

    So I don’t think it would be right for us to just look at common parlance and, if we find the common meaning is something like “someone who accepts this, that, and the other creed”, say, “Oh, then I guess we aren’t Christians”. I don’t think the term is optional for us.

    Still, there is room for multiple senses to the word “Christian”.

  23. Kaimi on June 10, 2004 at 9:00 pm

    We had some discussion of this a while back, in a post available at: http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000288.html.

    My conclusion at the time was that there exists a basic definition of Christianity — belief in Christ — which Mormons certainly meet. However, most Christian groups apply criteria, eith erexplicit or implicit, beyond that basic definition. Once we move beyond the basic definition, it is quite possible to view Mormonism as not being Christian.

  24. Jim F. on June 10, 2004 at 9:04 pm

    Russell: Yes, by “theological” I mean “a perspective grounded in the particular European development and refinement of theological concepts and categories”? But I didn’t say what I said carefully. I should have responded to Damon with something more convoluted but more accurate: “We are the only true Christians [which is not, in my view, a theological claim], and [given their theology], for that reason no others who call themselves Christians can agree that we are too.” You’re right, by accepting carelessly Damon’s wording as my own, I ended up saying something with which I do not agree.

    As for the question of the apostasy that you raised earlier as well as here: You argue cogently that “the crucial change was small and early and low-key and relatively imperceptible.” I don’t disagree with that. In fact, I think that’s the strength of Siebach’s and Graham’s thesis. The deaths of the apostles meant the loss of priesthood, but not immediately and, probably for many, even perhaps most, Christians, not obviously.

    I share your hope that someday Mormonism will be accepted into Christianity as the Reformation was and, like you, I expect that such acceptance would profoundly remake Christianity, even for those who were not LDS. But it would bring with it a disadvantage, the disadvantage of being accepted and understood. It is more difficult to be a Christian when everyone is.

    On the other hand, I wonder if there isn’t more to our feeling of division from the rest of Christianity than just that we continue to remember the persecutions and, to a small degree, sometimes to experience them. I think we can learn a great deal from other Christians. Anyone who knows my philosophical interests knows that I think they have much that can help us think about our religious life. I also think we have much to learn from others about what it means to live a Christian life. Nevertheless, it seems to me that a chasm remains between us and other Christians. It seems to me that we can’t get away from the profundity of the chasm created by the claim to be a restoration of Christ’s original Church. To say that it was lost and has been brought back is to separate oneself fairly radically from all other Christians.

  25. Ben Huff on June 10, 2004 at 9:29 pm

    Here is an occasion to think about the allegory of the olive tree. There are many lively branches that have been nourished over the years by traditional Christianity. Now that the true roots have been restored, we may begin to graft in some of those good branches, which will allow the restored roots to bear fruit more fully. I think it’s safe to say that the roots are stronger than the top right now, if the church of eleven million or whatever on the ground is the top; the root (restored priesthood and truth) will support a lot more than that! But we need to graft in at a measured pace, so that we don’t just assimilate and lose the distinctive burden and blessing of the restoration.

  26. Kevin Barney on June 10, 2004 at 10:32 pm

    Here is what I wrote on the subject (in FARMS Review 15/1) in response to Craig Blomberg’s essay in The New Mormon Challenge:

    Is Mormonism Christian?

    The only thing I found really annoying about the book was the continued insistence that Latter-day Saints are in no sense Christian. This is most disappointing since the idea that the Saints are generically Christian should not be that difficult a concept to grasp. Although the wording varies a little from dictionary to dictionary, a Christian is one who is a follower of Jesus Christ, “one who professes belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ.”6 This meaning is suggested by the Greek form from which the English derives: Cristianov~ Christianos, the -ianos ending conveying the sense of “partisan” of Christ (analogous forms being ÔHrw/dianov~ Hrdianos “Herodian” and Kaisarianov~ Kaisarianos “Caesarian”). This is the public meaning of the word – the way it is used in public discourse and the way it is defined in dictionaries. Elsewhere Blomberg disparages this meaning of the word, calling it “some very broad and relatively meaningless sense by which every Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox church member, however nominal or sectarian, would also be included.”7 Exactly! Blomberg or any other evangelical is more than welcome to devise a private definition of the word that will exclude Latter-day Saints, but when they do this they must immediately articulate what that private definition is8 and acknowledge that they are not using the word in its commonly understood sense. When they simply say Mormons are not Christian (using an unarticulated private definition), their hearers and readers understand them to say that Mormons do not believe in Jesus Christ (using the public definition, since words are understood to be used in their commonly defined senses unless another sense is indicated). Such evangelicals therefore regularly misrepresent and even defame LDS belief. This is truly offensive to Latter-day Saints such as myself, and I am puzzled as to why they cannot see that.9

    Blomberg attempts to exclude Mormons from even the “relatively meaningless” public definition of Christian in his chapter entitled “Is Mormonism Christian?” He correctly states that the Bible only uses the term three times and nowhere offers a formal definition (p. 317). He then strives to exclude Mormons from the normative definition by limiting who can be called a Christian, not by articulating a proper lexical definition of the term, but by quoting the World Book Encyclopedia article on “Christianity”: “Christianity is the religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Most followers of Christianity, called Christians, are members of one of three major groups – Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Eastern Orthodox” (emphasis added). Blomberg then concludes, “Based on this definition, Mormonism is clearly not Christian, nor has it ever claimed to be so” (p. 317). While it is true that the Latter-day Saints do not claim to be Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox, it is manifestly not the case that they do not claim to be Christian. In the broad and commonly understood sense of the word, the Saints have always considered themselves to be Christians. I am mystified how a scholar of Blomberg’s evident intelligence, talent, and sensitivity could so misread this encyclopedia text (which certainly does not make the exclusionist claim Blomberg ascribes to it), or for that matter why he would appeal to an encyclopedia rather than proper lexical materials to deal with this question in the first place. This methodology is more in line with sectarian propaganda than sound scholarship.10

    I recently shared the following example with Blomberg in an e-mail correspondence following the appearance of The New Mormon Challenge; I think it illustrates well why simply calling Latter-day Saints non-Christian is inherently misleading. A family with several young daughters used to live in my ward. This family was friendly with a neighbor woman, who would often babysit the girls. As Christmas was approaching, the woman gave each of the girls a Christmas gift, which turned out to be a coloring book featuring Jesus Christ. The girls enjoyed the gift and colored the pictures. Some time later this woman came to the family’s home, ashen, and apologized profusely for having given their daughters such a gift. It turns out that the woman had just learned at her church that Mormons are not Christian, and therefore she of course assumed that she had committed a grievous faux pas in giving the girls coloring books featuring a deity their family did not believe in. Now in this story the woman understood the claim that Latter-day Saints are not Christian the same way the vast majority of people would, as meaning that they do not believe in Christ. This is because she naturally applied the public definition to her pastor’s words.

    We can see by this story the mischief that results from the semantic legerdemain of calling Latter-day Saints non-Christian. The fact is, they are Christians in the generic sense of the word, even if, from an evangelical point of view, they are theologically in error and unsaved (i.e., being a Christian is not necessarily tantamount to being right). I personally would have no difficulty with certain shorthand distinctions that would make clear that Mormons neither are nor claim to be historic, traditional, creedal, or orthodox Christians. But to say they are not Christians at all without such a modifier is to fundamentally misrepresent the nature of their beliefs. Since one of the goals of The New Mormon Challenge was to avoid such misrepresentations, I was sorely disappointed that it took the position that Latter-day Saints are not Christian in any sense at all. I view this as an intellectually indefensible position, and in my view it severely undermines the credibility of the book.

  27. Dan Richards on June 11, 2004 at 1:45 am

    Have you ever heard anybody use the phrase “wet water”? Neither have I–it’s redundant. All water is wet. How about the phrase “historical Christianity” or “orthodox Christianity” or
    “mainstream Christianity”? Sure, all the time. These phrases are not redundant, because the modifier is restrictive: the implication is that there is such a thing as non-historical Christianity, or non-orthodox Chrisitianity, or non-mainstream Christianity. (Imagine Venn diagrams here.) Anytime you hear one of those phrases, the person uttering it is implicitly recognizing the existence of an alternate strand of Christianity. Evangelicals have it wrong–we’re not trying to mask our differences or deceive anybody, we just want lexical honesty.

    Having said that, I’m fine with a certain usage of the word Christian that excludes us (although it also excludes Catholics). I’m talking about its use as generic modifier for protestants whose demonination is either relatively unimportant or unascertainable altogether. Think about a “Christian” bookstore or a “Christian” radio station. If I know there is a Christian bookstore on the corner, I expect to find no books by the President Hinckley, nor by the Pope.

    The question is like this hypo: are pitas bread? For years, the pita was an ethnic curiousity confined to a specific region of the world. But as its popularity began to spread, the American Bread Bakers’ Association (ABBA) felt the need to clarify its position. “Pitas are not bread,” they pronounced, “because bread has traditionally come in sliced loaves, and pitas do not come in sliced loaves.” While it is true that if I say “bring some bread back from the store,” you will probably not buy pitas, pita bakers objected to ABBA’s pronouncement. They pointed out that the dictionary defines bread as “a usually baked and leavened food made of a mixture whose basic constituent is flour or meal” and pita as “a thin flat bread.” (Webster’s Collegiate) They pointed out that the earliest bread had neither slices nor “loaves” as we now appreciate the term, and actually more closely resembled the modern pita than modern Wonder bread. They noted that, in comparison to other foods, a pita is certainly in the bread family (you will generally find pitas in the bread aisle of the store and the bread chapter of a cookbook). Heck, they even complained that the proper term is “pita bread,” as it appears on the label! How much plainer do you have to be?

    ABBA was unmoved. “Bread is essential for a healthy diet,” they stated in a later press release, “and we encourage consumers to avoid substituting non-bread foods like the pita.” Now the pita bakers were really angry–nutritionally, a pita has most of the characteristics of “loaf bread,” as they had begun calling it, and there was some evidence it was even healthier. ABBA was playing semantic games to try to protect their market share! The pita bakers, without changing their recipe, tried to inform consumers about the nutritional qualities of the pita, emphasizing that it *is* indeed a bread for nutritional purposes, and that it has delightful qualities that loaf bread lacks. They even enlarged the font of the word “bread” on the “pita bread” package…

    Are Mormons Christians? Ask a disinterested party for a taxonomy of religious groups, and Mormons will certainly be in the Christian family. (Sandra Tanner once claimed that Mormons have more in common with Hindus than Christians, but I don’t think she’s exactly disinterested.) If somebody asks me my religion, though, I’m likely to say “Mormon” rather than “Christian,” simply because it is more informative. My guess is that most Catholics would likewise answer “Catholic.” When somebody claims Mormons aren’t Christian, they have more than taxonomy on their mind.

  28. Mark Butler on June 11, 2004 at 4:09 am

    On my view, all uplifting religions are ultimately Christian – some just don’t know it yet (cf. Isa 45:22, 2 Ne 31:21, 1 Tim 2:4). Confucian, Buddhist, and Hindu, Christian, Jew, and Muslim, orthodox, heterodox, and heretic alike will come to realize they worship the same true and living God, infinite and eternal, in the name of Jesus Christ worship they him.

  29. Ethesis on June 11, 2004 at 5:48 am

    I had a question as to how he responded to your pointing out the effects of what appears to be his intentionally misleading use of words when you gave him the example. Is he at all bothered by reality? Or does he lack basic honesty in that regard?

    quoting the example:

    I recently shared the following example with Blomberg in an e-mail correspondence following the appearance of The New Mormon Challenge; I think it illustrates well why simply calling Latter-day Saints non-Christian is inherently misleading. A family with several young daughters used to live in my ward. This family was friendly with a neighbor woman, who would often babysit the girls. As Christmas was approaching, the woman gave each of the girls a Christmas gift, which turned out to be a coloring book featuring Jesus Christ. The girls enjoyed the gift and colored the pictures. Some time later this woman came to the family’s home, ashen, and apologized profusely for having given their daughters such a gift. It turns out that the woman had just learned at her church that Mormons are not Christian, and therefore she of course assumed that she had committed a grievous faux pas in giving the girls coloring books featuring a deity their family did not believe in. Now in this story the woman understood the claim that Latter-day Saints are not Christian the same way the vast majority of people would, as meaning that they do not believe in Christ. This is because she naturally applied the public definition to her pastor’s words.

  30. Jeremy on June 11, 2004 at 8:25 am

    Dan,

    The pita bread (or “bread”) comparison is priceless. I’m filing that one.

  31. Kevin Barney on June 11, 2004 at 12:25 pm

    Ethesis, Blomberg did not respond to my query.

  32. Mark Butler on June 11, 2004 at 1:35 pm

    Jim, I think one of the problems is that what we tend to mean by “Church” and what other Christians mean by “Church” are completely different things. We tend to mean that which comes with the keys of priesthood authority, they generally mean the body of Christ, or the priesthood of all believers. In the traditional sense, wherever a humble follower of Christ is, there is the Church. In our sense, wherever the High Priesthood is not, there is not the Church.

    Pragmatically speaking, we might consider modulating our usage to match, assuming of course that we could do so without losing our message. I tend to think we could, by focusing on the loss and restoration of the keys of the priesthood, the right of presidency, as well as the gifts of the priesthood, the proper form of the ordinances, etc.

    Furthermore, on my view, we should uniformly drop the nonsequitur “only true church” for the scriptural “only true and living church”. The D&C 1:30 language strongly implies that there are many “(generally) true and dying” churches, who falter only for lacknot of truth, but of a fulness of truth. One might notice that President Hinckley (as of late, at least) does just that, even if others haven’t quite caught on.

  33. danithew on June 11, 2004 at 5:13 pm

    Are Mormons the only true Christians?

    If that is true, then I have sometimes wondered why we get up in testimony meeting and say “I know that this is the only true church” when instead we could say “I know that we are the only true religion.”

    However, that is problematic, as we know that (at least) the Jews continue to have a working covenant with God that will be remembered and fulfilled some day, according to the Hebrew Bible prophecies (as well as the prophecies of other sacred books). So we couldn’t say that.

    Which leaves us back where we started, saying: “I know this is the only true church.”

    I think “the only true church” paradigm brings its own problems. I kind of tire of the Church being compared merely to other Christian denominations. I think we need to get past that and look at the church as representative of “true religion” if it is not, in fact, “the only true religion” — at least not in the sense of being the only religious group that continues to have valid and authoritative covenants with God.

    It is that larger paradigm that helps us to see the church on a global perspective rather than as simply one among many other similar yet different denominations. We are no longer living in Joseph Smith’s day, in 19th century northeast America, where there are only churches on every street corner. In addition to Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, etc. there are also synagogues, mosques, secularists, etc. in almost every town plaza. The original question that started everything in the first place has suddenly come to encompass a much more diverse group of people and faiths. We can’t stay in the paradigm of “this is the only true church” as it is too limiting and narrow a question — especially if we seek to share the gospel with those who don’t attend a church.

    As for the evangelical argument that “Mormons aren’t Christians” … it’s almost a meaningless waste of time debate for me. People who insist on pushing that point as valid participate in a kind of mean and pointless stupidity. They are like kids who make a point of telling others they are not members of the club. We say we believe in Christ. We seek to obey God’s commandments. That should be sufficient for us to exist under the Christian umbrella. If it’s not sufficient for them, let them continue to debate that pointless question/issue among themselves while we plow forward.

  34. Mark Butler on June 14, 2004 at 11:37 am

    That is the “only true and living church” or even better “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth with which [the] Lord is well pleased, speaking collectively and not individually” (D&C 1:30). There are numerous manifestations of largely true or largely living churches. The Lord simply smiles wherever the light breaks forth and frowns at the darkness in like manner.

  35. chris goble on June 14, 2004 at 3:11 pm

    I know the thread is dead, but I just wanted to add my 2 cents (+gst). While it may be useful to classify people as Christians based on some sort of belief structure, I think it is unfortunate that this really doesn’t relate very well to how similar they may be to Christ. The way I read the New Testament makes it seem rather ironic that abstract theology dominates virtue. I don’t find it hard to imagine that some of the people most like Christ may never have heard of him. Are they any less Christian? Perhaps when we talk about abstract belief, but will abstract belief ever have the power to save? Perhaps like the Jews of Christ’s time, we put a bit too much emphasis on what we can create.

  36. Kingsley on June 14, 2004 at 3:28 pm

    I always assumed that an emphasis on proper theology had more to do with the unity of the Church than salvation being a matter of having the right ideas. E.g. I might privately believe x heretical notion about God without it harming my soul, but the moment I enthusiastically propound it in Sunday School I’m on dangerous ground because I’m fostering schism etc. So Prof. Linker’s insistence on the Creeds only makes sense (to me) if he is also insisting on the Catholic baptism & sacraments (in which case Evangelicals are damned alongside Mormons), i.e. as part of the entire saving package. Evangelicals emphasizing correct belief over correct behavior makes no sense at all to me as church unity’s only important insofar as you have a church to unify.

  37. chris goble on June 14, 2004 at 3:47 pm

    Good point Kingsley. I wonder if what is really troubling me then is how much power people ascribe to a church. From what little I know, it seems like the power of the church is very important to Catholics. For Mormons it is more the authority we receive from the church in the form of the priesthood. But, aside fro rather mundane praticalities, why worry at all about the unity of a church? Ouside of the help and encouragement we get from others, it doesn’t seem like a church has much of an influence on our salvation. Or is this just an artifact that arises from universalist leanings?

  38. Kingsley on June 14, 2004 at 4:10 pm

    Well, the unity of the Church seems important because if priesthood authority is in the Church & only in the Church, then to break it up or to leave it or to cause others to leave it would be a very grave sin. Assuming, of course, that sacred ordinances made efficacious by proper priesthood authority are necessary for salvation. Your (Chris’s) notion of why the Church is very important to the Saints closely matches (to my understanding at least) the Catholic notion: priesthood authority, the authority to perform sacraments, is in & only in the Church, & the sacraments are necessary for salvation. But I am highly ignorant of these things, & am only going off of impressions (regarding both the LDS & Catholic notions).

  39. danithew on June 15, 2004 at 1:17 pm

    Mark B.,

    I know this thread is way beyond dead but I just wanted to thank you anyway for drawing me to that verse in Doctrine in Covenants where the Lord Himself refers to this church with such specific language that meets the argument. Point is taken! I’ll be studying this verse and perhaps others like it to think about my whole paradigm argument that I was making. I love it when actual scripture gets used to make a point, as the word of God always help to clarify things and cut through the nonsense.

  40. clarkgoble on June 15, 2004 at 1:41 pm

    Chris, while I agree that many people put too much “power” in the church, I do think unity within the church is important. It is because it is the place where we ought to be creating a celestial family. That’s why the type of the City of Enoch is so important. I think that in the early days of the church achieving that unity within the church was very important. Of course as often as not they failed miserably as well.

    I think that Mosiah 15 and Moroni 4-5 offer pretty compelling reasons why we ought to be one in the church. Yet, I also agree with your comments as well. I’ve never understood those who felt “wronged” by the church. Heavens, I’ve had some Bishops who’ve done some completely offensive things to me before. But I never thought of it as the church. I have a hard time seeing the church as having this huge power when most people don’t even do their home teaching…

    I think the real purpose of the ideal of unity in the church is for those developing to try and develop unity with others. If they aren’t doing that then they really aren’t at the development level they think they are at. (Which isn’t to discount the many blessings others receive when we catch the vision of the mission of the church — but as you say it isn’t *essential* to salvation in one sense)

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