Since its inception in the 19th Century, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has identified itself as a “Christian” church, borne out of the New Testament. They speak of Biblical figures such as Adam and Eve, talk about Jesus’ death for our salvation and even use traditional Christian terminology such as “the Trinity,” “Salvation,” and of course, “Jesus Christ.” Based upon these apparent similarities, many in the mainstream American public have accepted that Mormonism is a branch of Christianity and are quick to label anyone who disagrees with them as being “intolerant.” Mormons themselves will take offense at any suggestion that they are not Christian and even many Christian believers refuse to share the gospel with Mormons, believing they are just another Christian denomination.
Obviously there are many denominations within Christianity, all of which are generally accepted as falling under the Christian “umbrella” even though they disagree on some finer theological points. Switching from one denomination to another is not a departure from Christianity and does not affect one’s salvation.
But the reason these denominations consider themselves to be part of the same body of Christ despite their differences is because they all hold certain foundational beliefs in common. In order for any group label to have meaning, it must have a definition. In other words, there must be some distinctive attributes that differentiate those within that group from those who are on the outside. While Christianity certainly has a history of multiple denominations, these denominations have shared certain core beliefs such that their differences are peripheral.
As in many apologetic discussions, offense is often the main barrier to a productive conversation. One way to try to get past emotional obstacles is to sincerely listen to what other people have to say and express a genuine willingness to explore your own faith as well. Is it important to you that your concept of God is true? Most people would say, “Yes” (although a few people likely would be satisfied worshipping a false god as long as they believe their self-imposed fiction provides some kind of meaning to their lives). We, as Christians, should be no different. Truth matters. If we want others to accept this maxim, we must behave as if we accept it as well. We cannot expect others to value our point of view if we do not value theirs.
Once we are involved in a genuine discussion about the teachings of the Mormon religion, then we can perform a simple comparison between the historic doctrines of Christianity and the beliefs of the modern Mormon Church. The point of this post is to first see what the Mormon’s own scriptures have to say about whether they are another denomination of Christianity, then to compare three core historic tenets of the Christian faith (the Nature of God, the Trinity and Salvation) with the doctrines taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. At this point our mission is not to evaluate the weight of the evidence in favor of one view or another, but rather simply to examine whether Mormonism can properly be said to fall under the “Christian” heading in light of the common ties other Christian denominations share.
What Do the Mormon Scriptures Have to Say?
Joseph Smith claims to have received a vision of the Heavenly Father and Jesus in a grove of trees outside his home in 1820. In the course of that vision, he asked which of the current Christian denominations was true. The response he allegedly received was startling.
“My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner, therefore, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong)—and which I should join. I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: ‘they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.’” Joseph Smith – History (from the Pearl of Great Price), 18-19.
According to Joseph Smith, Christian denominations did not just “miss the mark” on a few peripheral matters. Instead “all their creeds” were an “abomination” in the sight of the Heavenly Father. They “teach for doctrines the commandments of men” and have only “a form of godliness.” This perception of 19th century Christianity is repeated in other Mormon scriptures. 1 Nephi describes the Christian church as “abominable above all other churches” (13:5) and the “great an abominable church, which is the whore of all the earth” (22:13). Of this church, 1 Nephi also declares he “saw the devil that he was the founder of it” (13:6). In contrast, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints teaches that it is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth.” Doctrines & Covenants 1:30.
Christians do not (or at least should not) take offense when the Mormon scriptures declare that all denominations are an abomination. If we are to value truth, we must be willing to confront challenges to our own worldview. After all, if our Christian faith is true, it will withstand intellectual scrutiny. However, in making this acknowledgement we are recognizing that the reason we must be willing to enter into this self-reflection is precisely because Mormonism is advancing a different worldview than our own. There is no reason to evaluate our beliefs when confronted with an identical worldview. Only differences necessitate the possibility of change.
Labels are secondary in this discussion. The only reason there is even an issue about Mormons choosing to attach the label “Christian” to themselves is because by doing so they are attempting to associate themselves with the broader family of Christendom, something which their own scriptures appear to denounce. Regardless of what we choose to call it, the Mormon scriptures which provide the foundation for their religion certainly appear to believe they are advancing a completely new religious system from all that have stood before. The question remains, however, whether their system is in fact different when compared to the foundational tenets of Christianity. Therefore, I will next turn to that comparison.
The Nature of God
Christianity, like Islam and Judaism, is a monotheistic religion. There is only one God.
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Deuteronomy 6:4.
“See now that I myself am he! There is no god besides me.” Deuteronomy 32:39.
“I am the Lord, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God.” Isaiah 45:5.
“We believe in one God...” Nicene Creed.
“There is but one only, living, and true God….” Westminster Confession of Faith 2:1.
This one God created the entire universe.
“I am the Lord, the Maker of all things, who stretches out the heavens, who spreads out the earth by myself.” Isaiah 44:24.
“We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.” Nicene Creed.
“…there is one Divine Essence which is called and which is God: … the Maker and Preserver of all things, visible and invisible…” Augsburg Confession (1530) 1:2.
“God the good Creator of all things…” London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689) 5:1.
God was never created, but rather has existed eternally.
“Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” Psalm 90:2
“There is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal…” Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) 2:1.
“…there is one Divine Essence which is called and which is God: eternal…” Augsburg Confession (1530) 1:2.
In contrast, the Mormon Church teaches that God the Father (who they refer to as the “Heavenly Father”) has flesh and blood and once lived as a mortal on a planet near a star called “Kolob.”
“The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s.” Doctrines & Covenants 130:22.
“And I saw the stars, that they were very great, and that one of them was nearest unto the throne of God; and there were many great ones which were near unto it; And the Lord said unto me: These are the governing ones; and the name of the great one is Kolob, because it is near unto me, for I am the Lord thy God: I have set this one to govern all those which belong to the same order as that upon which thou standest.” Book of Abraham (included in the “Pearl of Great Price”) 3:2-3.
Through following the teachings of the Latter Day Saints, the Heavenly Father was elevated to god status sometime after his death.
“God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens. That is the great secret... [Y]ou have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done before you..." Joseph Smith, King Follett Discourse (1844).
The Heavenly Father is not the only being to achieve god status. In fact, Joseph Smith taught that the Heavenly Father himself had a Heavenly Father, with the string of godly fathers going back ad infinitum.
“If Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and John discovered that God the Father of Jesus Christ had a Father, you may suppose that He had a Father also. Where was there ever a son without a father? And where was there ever a father without first being a son? Whenever did a tree or anything spring into existence without a progenitor? And everything comes in this way. Paul says that which is earthly is in the likeness of that which is heavenly, Hence if Jesus had a Father, can we not believe that He had a Father also? I despise the idea of being scared to death at such a doctrine, for the Bible is full of it.” Joseph Smith, Sermon on the Plurality of Gods (1844).
The result is a man born on an alien planet as a finite human being who was subsequently elevated to godhood to become only the most recent in an infinitely long line of gods. Mormonism is polytheistic. This stands in stark contrast to the traditional monotheistic Christian notion of God.
Mormons will tell you that they believe in the Trinity. However, upon further examination it is clear that they attach an entirely different meaning to that term than historic Christianity. Their concept of the Trinity builds upon their commitment to polytheism.
Over the centuries, Christian churches have taught that God exists as three “persons” in one “nature.” There is only one God, but there is a plurality within the single Godhead in the form of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made… And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified…” Nicene Creed.
Mormonism, by contrast, denies the unified nature of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Rather, the Heavenly Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are three separate and distinct gods.
“From the Prophet's account of the First Vision and from his other teachings, we know that the members of the Godhead are three separate beings. The Father and the Son have tangible bodies of flesh and bones, and the Holy Ghost is a personage of spirit (see D&C 130:22).” http://www.lds.org/study/topics/godhead?lang=eng
Mormon prophets have taught that the Heavenly Father took innumerable celestial wives and bore spirit children. Through his first wife he sired Jesus and his younger brother, Lucifer. All humanity existed in the spirit realm with the Heavenly Father as his spirit children before being sent to Earth to begin the process of living according to Mormon teachings so that they may eventually become gods. Jesus was the only child to actually achieve this status, at least to some extent, while still in the spirit realm before he was sent to Earth in a physical body.
“Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones.” Book of Abraham 3:21-22.
“In origin, man is a son of God. The spirits of men ‘are begotten sons and daughters unto God’ (D&C 76:24). Through that birth process, self-existing intelligence was organized into individual spirit beings.” LDS President Marion G. Romney, “The Worth of Souls,” http://www.lds.org/ldsorg/v/index.jsp?vgnextoid=2354fccf2b7db010VgnVCM1000004d82620aRCRD&locale=0&sourceId=c9b1d0640b96b010VgnVCM1000004d82620a____&hideNav=1
“On first hearing, the doctrine that Lucifer and our Lord, Jesus Christ, are brothers may seem surprising to some — especially to those unacquainted with latter-day revelations. But both the scriptures and the prophets affirm that Jesus Christ and Lucifer are indeed offspring of our Heavenly Father and, therefore, spirit brothers. Jesus Christ was with the Father from the beginning. Lucifer, too, was an angel who was in authority in the presence of God, a son of the morning. (See Isa. 14:12; D&C 76:25-27.) Both Jesus and Lucifer were strong leaders with great knowledge and influence. But as the Firstborn of the Father, Jesus was Lucifer's older brother. (See Col. 1:15; D&C 93:21.)” Jess L. Christensen, “I Have a Question,” Ensign, June 1986, 25–26; http://www.lds.org/ldsorg/v/index.jsp?vgnextoid=2354fccf2b7db010VgnVCM1000004d82620aRCRD&locale=0&sourceId=4a10ef960417b010VgnVCM1000004d82620a____&hideNav=1
“Our Savior was God before he was born into this world, and he brought with him that same status when he came here.” Joseph Fielding Smith, “Doctrines of Salvation,” 1:32.
Therefore, the definitions of “Trinity” utilized by traditional Christian denominations and that used by the Mormons have virtually nothing in common. Christians believe in one divine nature. Mormons believe in countless divine natures, with the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit each possessing their own separate nature. Christians deny that Jesus is a created being, but rather that He existed eternally as a member of the Godhead. According to Mormons, he was the first created spirit child of the Father. This summary only “scratches the surface” of the differences in these two distinct doctrines, but it is enough to demonstrate that they are incompatible and contradict one another. They cannot be describing the same thing.
Christianity has traditionally taught that salvation is by the grace of God through faith in the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross. We can do nothing to earn our salvation, regardless of the number of good works we perform. While Roman Catholic teaching on salvation is often misunderstood and overly simplified, even the Catholic Church teaches that “saving grace” is granted to us because Jesus paid the price for our sins on the cross.
Salvation is living eternally with God, and it is based solely on Christ’s righteousness, not our own. Because our salvation does not depend upon our good works, we can be just as assured of our salvation as we are that God will keep any of the other promises He has made.
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith —and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9.
“I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” 1 John 5:13.
For Mormons, “salvation” is elevation to godhood. While they believe that “Jesus suffered and was crucified for the sins of the world” (http://www.lds.org/study/topics/jesus-christ?lang=eng), people still must live according to Mormon teachings and develop sufficient repentance and good deeds to earn the right to be elevated.
“To become like him we must have all the powers of godhood; thus a man and his wife when glorified will have spirit children who eventually will go on an earth like this one we are on and pass through the same kind of experiences, being subject to mortal conditions, and if faithful, then they also will receive the fullness of exaltation and partake of the same blessings.” Doctrines of Salvation, Vol. 2, 48.
“... however powerful the saving grace of Christ, it brings exaltation to no man who does not comply with the works of the gospel." LDS President Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness, pg. 207.
Traditional Christianity teaches that we are saved solely through the work of Jesus on the cross. Mormonism claims that Jesus’ death only eliminated the stain of Adam’s sin and rendered us capable of repenting. Once we repent, we must still work out our own salvation during our lives. These teachings are almost directly opposite, one claiming our works are irrelevant to Christ’s work for our salvation and the other insisting that even after the cross we must “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” and earn the right to become gods ourselves.
Assume we were to change the names of the historic figures relied upon by Mormonism. What if we replaced the name “Jesus” with “John,” “Adam” with “Samuel,” and “Eve” with “Esther?” If we made that simple semantic alteration, would any resemblance to traditional Christianity remain? This would force us to look solely at the doctrines, and what we would quickly come to realize is that any commonality Mormons claim with Christianity is surface deep at best. Once the labels are changed, nothing else looks even vaguely familiar. What has held Christians together throughout history is far more than a label. I may call two people by the same name, but simply using a common label can never change the fact that they are two different people. Mormons say their religion is based on “Jesus,” but the man they describe is clearly not the same man as He who Christians worship.
Mormonism cannot be considered a “Christian” religion without doing a grave injustice to the meaning that has been ascribed to that word for the past 2,000 years. Of course, this post only took us as far as evaluating the label to be attached to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Nothing said thus far demonstrates that Christianity is true or Mormonism is false. I have simply highlighted their significant points of difference to illustrate that they are two completely different religious systems, regardless of the desire of some to place them into the same broad category. An examination of the respective weight of each position will have to be the topic of a future post.