Rethinking Mormon Christianity

Rethinking Mormon Christianity April 9, 2011

When I first entered divinity school I met a friend who described his home denomination as “Methodist but with more of an emphasis on Holiness.” I was befuddled. I had assumed that it was common practice even among the most liberal denominations to at least make a gesture at avoiding profaneness. I was embarrassed to ask him what he meant by “holiness.” His response was a diplomatic, “Oh. Wow,” and then an awkward attempt to explain something he had assumed was a fundamental principle. The man in question is a great friend, but has hinted before that while he absolutely respects and values my faith in Christ (indeed, we’ve had many uplifting, edifying theological conversations about Christology), that doesn’t necessarily deserve a “Christian” appellation.

So I’ve been thinking for a while about the reasons for or against Mormon Christianity. I suspect most of the people who swear up and down that we’re not Christian and have a public interest in doing so are motivated by theology. The internet is full of such conversations; one of the most recent is Dan McClellan’s response to James White. I absolutely agree with Dan and affirm Latter-day Saints’ right to define themselves and insist that grouping Mormonism with Judaism and Islam over against Christianity is irresponsible and dishonest. Reading between the lines, I think most of those who would rather say Mormons are not Christian at all than say they are heretical Christians are afraid of what it might mean to call a Mormon a Christian. For some, being a Christian denotes salvation. If you are a Christian you have accepted Jesus as your Savior and are saved. So to say that Mormons, JW’s, and Catholics are Christian is tantamount to saying they are saved which runs counterintuitive to the disagreeable doctrines we espouse. So it is more important to say we are non-Christians than heretics, because in their mind, a heretical Christian is a contradiction in terms.

But I digress. I disagree with those who would exclude Mormonism because of a theological litmus test for many of the reasons Dan discusses, but I’m wondering if Mormons might be non-Christians in another sense. As in the story shared above, I have participated in or eavesdropped on many conversations concerning liturgy and theology that have been over my head. During these conversations, I have realized that there has been several centuries of Christian thinking into which I was not plugged. Nor, I would guess, are the millions of Mormons who have not converted from another Christian denomination. So, in conversation with my classmates, here I was pretending to know something about the atonement of Jesus Christ without being able to distinguish the difference between the Substitutionary, Satisfaction, Christus Victor, and Governmental theory of atonement. They all sounded the same to me. I couldn’t contribute to any discussion of church polity or liturgy or anything else being discussed at lunch. And because I’m a Bible kid, I still can’t. I can’t even provide you with adequate examples because I don’t know what I’m talking about.

And I’m afraid most Mormons would do much worse. Since its beginnings in popular 19th-century folk religion, Mormonism as a whole, despite its adherence to the Bible, has existed apart from Christian discourse. To this day it remains largely unaware of the millenia-old Christian conversation to which Catholic and Protestant thinkers have contributed.  This has been a good thing and a bad thing. While it has allowed Mormonism to pursue its own paths of discourse independently of other movements, this independence has resulted in isolation. Consequently, Mormon and general Christian semantics are so differently situated that we often talk past each other in heated debate about something we would otherwise fundamentally agree on. Of course, it’s not impossible for Mormons to participate in this type of mainstream discussion without compromising their doctrine, but few have done so.

So because of this shared history of dialog, historic Christians have enjoyed longtime association — sometimes as bitter enemies and other times as colleagues. In some cases, this association excludes Mormons not because of doctrinal differences but because of differences in theological language and learning. Mainstream Christian academics do not read Mormon authors the way they read authors from Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, or other more traditional backgrounds. Most of these individuals do not exclude Mormonism from Christianity by nature but rather do not think of Mormons first when mentioning “Christian initiatives,” “Christian bookstores,” “Christian missionaries,” “Christian schools,” etc. This is not meant to insist that Mormons aren’t Christian by doctrine or nature or to somehow deny their own difficulties in mapping their own theologies onto the Bible. Instead it just draws distinction between two very divergent currents of collegiality .

So there are two different points here. From an objective view, it might be theological mistake to say Mormons are not Christians. However, it might be a historical mistake to say that they are Christians. Which question is most important? I still believe the first is more important. The theological discourse I describe above is one to which belongs only an academic, erudite subset of Christian believers (to be generous) and remains very misleading if taught to Christians on the whole. The misinformation is always that Mormons don’t believe in Jesus. Therefore, It is more important to accurately describe Mormons theologically than to use the term Christian to mark out who usually chums it up with whom.

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