Are Mormons Christians? A Response to Ben Witherington
Of course beliefs are relevant and important, but Mormonism is a religion of practice in which beliefs have the importance and meaning that they do as part of practices. (I've written about that here, here, and here and published several relevant print pieces.) Doing what Mormons do is what makes a person a Mormon, much more than believing what Mormons believe.
The broadest understanding of what Mormons do could be described as making and keeping covenant with God. Those who try to understand what Mormonism is simply by referring to beliefs that have been put forth in the past or even that are presently held deeply misunderstand us if they don't understand those beliefs as important to the degree that they are part of understanding religion as covenant, and religious practice as keeping covenant. Apart from that, we feel comfortable allowing a wide range of beliefs amongst us.
For Witherington and many others, belief is central to one's religion. I'm not saying that he would say that Christian practices are unnecessary or unimportant. Nor would he think that covenant is irrelevant to being a Christian. But whereas Mormons believe that practices are fundamental and beliefs make sense from within those practices, I bet that Witherington believes that beliefs are fundamental and practices follow from them.
So, to respond to the way in which many people think about Christianity and to the specific things that Witherington has said, consider the question of what Mormons believe.
Witherington gets a number of things right about Mormons. We believe that God the Father is, like his Son, embodied, and that enables him truly to understand us in our weakness (Alma 7:11-12).
David Paulsen has shown that belief in a corporeal God was not unusual for first-century Christians. (See "Early Christian Views of a Corporeal Deity: Origen and Augustine as Reluctant Witnesses," Harvard Theological Review 832 : 105-16). Stephen H. Webb (a non-Mormon scholar) has made a related argument in his book Jesus Christ, Eternal God (Oxford, 2012). Presumably Witherington would not argue that the early Christians' belief in an embodied God disqualified them as real Christians.
If my experience talking with those of other faiths is evidence, understanding God as corporeal is also the unreflective, folk view that many traditional Christians hold, apart from what their creeds teach. "Yes, but that's only the folk view," a theologian might respond. Agreed. But these people, too, are Christians in spite of their folk view. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—Mormons—are in the theological minority on this one, but it isn't such a bad minority to be in, and it isn't clear how it disqualifies us as Christians.
Witherington is also right when he says that we don't believe that the Bible is inerrant. We can add to that the statement on the Book of Mormon's title page explicitly saying that it also is not. We do not believe that the human instruments through which God reveals his will were or are infallible. Many Christians may disagree with us about the inerrancy of the Bible, but at least as many agree with us, and they do so without losing their identity as Christians. Why? I'm not sure, but my guess is because the inerrancy of scripture is an extra-biblical belief.
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.