Are Mormons Christians? A Response to Ben Witherington
Further, Witherington is right that Mormons believe in living prophecy (something else about which I've written). Therefore, we believe that beliefs and practices can change and have changed over time. In that we are, perhaps, not unique, but we are at least unusual.
Jews argue that prophecy ended with Malachi and have several explanations for that end. For some Christians it continues at least through the lifetimes of Christ's apostles and then ends. For this, too, there are several explanations. Many Christians believe that prophecy—in other words God speaking through a human being, revealing his truth—continues today through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Mormons, too, believe that God speaks through inspired human beings, and that those who do so in the spirit of testifying of Jesus (Rev. 19:10) utter prophecy. The difference is that in addition to that belief in prophecy that we share with many Christians, we believe God appoints some to be prophetic leaders in the Church and he does so in an orderly way.
Whether we are monotheists seems, at first glance, like a trickier question. After all, we do believe that the members of the Trinity or Godhead are distinct beings. Three distinct personal beings make up the Trinity. But the question of monotheism depends on what the unity of the Trinity consists of.
Many Jews would reject the traditional Christian claim that the Christianity is monotheistic. Certainly Christians are not monotheists in the same sense that Jews are. Jews and Christians would both accept the biblical statement that God is one, but they would understand that claim quite differently, sufficiently differently that the multiple persons in the Christian Trinity would, from a Jewish perspective, in itself disqualify those Christians as monotheists.
Similarly traditional Christians like Witherington reject the Mormon claim that we, too, are monotheists. Yet we, too, accept the biblical teaching that God is one. What we disagree about is about how to understand that unity: what do we mean by one when we speak of the Trinity or Godhead being one? Mormons and most Evangelicals have different answers to that question. (And Witherington is right to insist that these are not trivial issues.)
The usual Mormon answer to the question of divine unity is that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one in will and purpose. The few Mormons who have given the question theological thought have argued that Mormonism is a species of social trinitarianism. To my knowledge, those outside of Mormonism who accept social trinitarianism as the explanation of divine unity are not, thereby, disqualified as Christians.
Witherington asserts that Mormons deny the sufficiency of Christ's death for salvation, but I don't think that is right. It is right that individual Mormons sometimes speak of works as if grace were either irrelevant or merely a means for filling in the gap left over after our works have done what they can. But that isn't an official view among Mormons. (After all, there is an official view on very few doctrinal questions.) And the Book of Mormon quite clearly says otherwise. For example: "[I]t behooveth the great Creator that he suffereth himself to become subject unto man in the flesh, and die for all men, that all men might become subject unto him" (2 Nephi 9:5).
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.