Mormonism’s status as a Christian faith, and its exact relationship to Christianity, continue to be subjects of long-standing dispute. As prominent scholar Sydney Ahlstrom remarked of Mormonism in his celebrated Religious History of the American People, “One cannot even be sure if the object of our consideration is a sect, a mystery cult, a new religion, a church, a people, a nation, or an American subculture.”
The Catholic and mainline Protestant churches alike have declared in recent years that Mormonism “does not fit within the bounds of the historic, apostolic tradition of Christian faith.” In writing Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought, I hoped to illuminate which aspects of the Latter-day Saints (LDS) tradition are continuous with the Christian tradition and which are distinct from the more orthodox varieties. The study may not resolve the question, but it should better inform the debate
From the LDS perspective, the faith’s congruence with the essentials of Christian orthodoxy is unambiguous. Joseph Smith came out of a Protestant past, was influenced by Methodism and had family members in the Presbyterian faith as well. His first religious experience was born of the typical Puritan anxiety of salvation. He sought spiritual assurance, and reported of his famous “First Vision” that “the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph my son they sins are forgiven thee.”
Accordingly, Mormonism has never varied in establishing its theology upon a belief in Jesus Christ as savior. For Latter-day Saints, reunion with God is absolutely predicated on the central and indispensable gesture of Christ’s selfless gift of atonement; Mormons emphatically affirm that it is “by grace that we are saved.”
Mormons view materiality more favorably than most Christians, asserting that God himself is a material, embodied being.
On that basis, Mormons assert without caveat that they are professing Christians. Additionally, Mormons believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, as their first Article of Faith professes. God is the Creator God, Christ is the Redeemer, born through a miraculous conception and raised from the dead on the third day after his crucifixion. The Holy Ghost is the third member of the Godhead, the Comforter and Testator, bestowed upon the newly baptized as an essential sacrament (or ordinance, in Mormon parlance). Most Mormons would have no problem, in this regard, assenting to the Apostles’ Creed.
At the same time, Mormonism’s substantive differences from the contemporary Christian mainstream are undeniable. They are most evident in, and largely attributable to, a unique underlying cosmic narrative — one that gives new meaning to some of the propositions above. Mormonism posits a distinctive cosmology and metaphysics, in which it situates an unconventional narrative of human identity and a re-envisioned divine nature.
A foundational tenet of Mormon metaphysics that alters the whole landscape of its religious worldview is its “eternalism.” Mormonism posits a universe that is eternal, everlasting, without beginning or end — along with its constituent elements. What this means is that Mormonism’s God is indeed a Creator God — but a Creator ex materia, rather than ex nihilo. He is the Supreme organizer and fashioner of what is, not the Summoner out of what never was. (Early Christians were divided on this question; Justin Martyr’s position was, for a time, the standard Christian line: “we have been taught that He in the beginning did of His goodness, for man’s sake, create all things out of unformed matter.”)
Equally novel in modern Christendom is the corollary that humans are co-eternal with God, having existed as eternal intelligence before they were fashioned into (or adopted as) his spirit offspring. (Here again, a seeming heresy — premortality of humans — finds frequent antecedents with Origin, Clement of Alexandria, the early Augustine, and many others). Since mortality is seen as a planned, educative step in the eternal soul’s ascent toward godliness, humans are seen as inheritors of a mortal proving ground rather than of sin and exile, and original sin has no place in Mormon thought. An emphasis in Mormonism with agency, primordial innocence, and eventual perfectibility, is profound enough to lead to charges of Pelagianism.
Another aspect of Mormon cosmology is its denial of the radical duality typical of Christian metaphysics. Mormons reject what Samuel Coleridge considered the lynchpin of a religious outlook: “the heterogeneity of Spirit and Matter.” Spirit is in the Mormon view a more highly refined matter (as it was for William Blake and the Cambridge Platonists). Accordingly, Mormons view materiality more favorably than most Christians, asserting that God himself is a material, embodied being. Corporeality is therefore a step toward, rather than away from, divine nature.
The Mormon God, “of body, parts, and passions,” is strikingly unlike the creedal God of Christendom, even if there are significant precursors and parallels among the church fathers and contemporary theologians alike.
Mormons believe that grace — the freely offered, unmerited, gift of atonement — makes possible human repentance and re-choosing.
When it comes to Christology, the differences from orthodox traditions diminish. Strikingly absent from Joseph Smith’s thought and revelations, so explosively daring in other ways, are revisionist versions of atonement theology. In Smith’s rendering of the Book of Mormon, salvation is by grace, “after all we can do.”
Mormons believe that grace — the freely offered, unmerited, gift of atonement — makes possible human repentance and re-choosing, so to speak. But seeing sanctification as occurring only through compliance with eternal laws, Mormons assert that obedience is as indispensable in the working out of salvation as the grace that enables the whole process. Mormon exile from the Christian category, if it is to be theologically grounded, generally owes more to their radical rejection of Trinitarian thought (as well as their extra-biblical scriptures), than to any rejection of Christ’s status as savior of the world.
If the history of Mormon thought shows anything, it is a fact as common to Mormonism as it is to Christianity generally. The Mormon “restoration” is a continuing process. Mormon thought has evolved, unfolded, followed a few cul-de-sacs and dead ends, and found itself unwilling or unable to arbitrate a number of doctrines contested among its own faithful — Is God the author and source of eternal law, or its most perfect master? Did God begin as a human, much as humans are gods in embryo? Will the entire human family continue to progress through kingdoms of glory?
At the same time, excavating the Christian past reveals a surprising number of congruences and intersections with Mormonism’s most radical teachings. In both cases, Christian heterodoxies and Mormonism’s theological adventuresomeness, one can deplore the narrative that departs from an imagined linear model of divinely ordained revelation. Or one can relish the ongoing project whereby humans of diverse makeup and imperfect understanding struggle to come to terms with the divine, like Jacob with his angel.
This post first appeared on On Faith.
For more conversation, and to read a book excerpt, from Wrestling the Angel — The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity by Terryl L. Givens, visit the Patheos Book Club here.
Terryl L. Givens is Professor of Literature and Religion and James A. Bostwick Chair of English at the University of Richmond. His books on Mormonism and American religious culture include By the Hand of Mormon, People of Paradox, Parley P. Pratt (with Matthew Grow), and Viper on the Hearth.