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Mormon Inconsistency on the Christian Question


Are Mormons Christian?  To contemporary Latter-day Saint (LDS) Mormons (the largest Mormon denomination)
this question might seem silly.  After all, their church bears the name of Jesus Christ.  But there’s a historical context behind this question that has to do with the history of Christianity and of Mormonism.  Once this context is understood, then the question is not silly.  And when seen in this light, the LDS stance on this question involves inconsistency.

We start with the development of “creedal” Christianity.  In early Christianity, self-proclaimed Christians were very ideological diverse.  One attempt to solve this problem was to make official pronouncements concerning the nature of Christian belief.  In addition to precisely worded creeds, the Christian Church declared certain views heretical.  An example of this is the Nicene Creed.  This official pronouncement contradicts the Arian heresy: that the Son (Jesus) was ontologically dependent on the Father.   It’s important to emphasize that orthodox Christians of all sorts (Eastern Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant) understand this process of creedal formation as providential and hence as setting up a standard for what counts as Christianity and what doesn’t.

Now, typically, Latter-day Saints are largely unaware of this history and context. There’s a reason for this.  In the past, Latter-day Saints have claimed that the process of forming the creeds was not providential and resulted in false doctrine.  This is one aspect of what Latter-day Saints call the “the apostacy”.  In essence, it’s the claim that the Christians are not really Christians since they believe false doctrine.  In fact, they often claim that the concept of God in traditional Christianity was of pagan (i.e., Greek) origin.  Since creedal Christianity is apostate, it is unnecessary (even dangerous) to study it.

So, it seems that we have a situation in which creedal Christians say that Mormonism is not Christian and Mormons claim that creedal Christianity is not really Christian.  This is a dispute over what true Christianity is.  To help see this point, let’s consider the philosophical distinction between descriptive and normative statements.  Descriptive statements tell us what there is.   An example of a descriptive statement is ‘This article contains big words.’  Normative statements don’t just tell us what there is, they tell us what we should do about it.  An example of a normative statement is ‘This article is worth reading.’  Given this, we can say that both creedal Christians and Mormons use the term ‘Christian’ normatively.

Since the Mormon doctrine of the apostacy involves the claim that creedal Christians are not true Christians, it would not make sense for Latter-day Saints to claim that Mormons are indeed creedal Christians, unless they want to be indentified with what is not truly Christian.   So, the Latter-day Saint insistence on being included in the creedal Christian tradition is inconsistent with LDS theology.

Now you might say that Latter-day Saints only mean to assert that they are Christian in the true (non-creedal) sense of the world when they assert, ‘we are Christians too.’  If so, they shouldn’t include the word ‘too’ in the former assertion since creedal Christians aren’t (according to Mormons) truly Christians.  And if this is the case, then when creedal Christians claim that Mormons are not Christian and Latter-day Saints respond that Mormons are indeed Christian, Latter-day Saints are missing the point.  It’s a pseudo-disagreement (a disagreement in words, but not in meaning).  Either Latter-day Saints are inconsistent or they misunderstand the discussion.

There’s another inconsistency involved in the LDS wish to be included in the creedal Christian “click.”  Not only does the LDS Church want to be recognized by creedal Christians as Christians, they don’t want the FLDS church to be referred to as ‘Mormon’.  This results in a case that is analogous to the previous one, but now it’s the LDS Church that is the gatekeeper of the content of the term ‘Mormon’ rather than the creedal church.  The implication is that, to be consistent, the LDS Church should allow the FLDS Church to be called ‘Mormon’ without protest.  However, that’s not what they do.  Instead, the LDS Church wants to be the sole arbiter of the content of the term ‘Mormon’ while no one is allowed to be the sole arbiter of the term ‘Christian’. Since the terms play the same role, it follows that Latter-day Saints apply inconsistent principles of nomenclature.

Religious disagreements are not always what they seem.  Sometimes it appears that believers disagree about the facts of the matter when, as a matter of fact, they disagree about the language. Semantic confusions between creedal Christians and LDS Mormons are fairly commonplace.  This is no doubt due in part to the LDS ignorance of the history of the terms that they so freely use.  However, it is important to note that this ignorance goes both ways, as many creedal Christians have distorted views of Mormonism.  To be sure, some in the LDS community have recognized the need for Latter-day Saints to be more educated about the Christian tradition.

Similarly, some Evangelicals have recognized the need to dialogue with Mormons. The result has been a Mormon/Evangelical dialogue.  It’s not clear to me that Evangelicals are the Christians that Mormons should be talking to, given the nature of Mormon theology.  But perhaps that choice is political rather than theological.

Dennis Potter is the former Mormon Studies Coordinator for the Religious Studies
program at Utah Valley University where he is also Associate Professor of Philosophy.

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2 Responses “Mormon Inconsistency on the Christian Question”

  1. tylhan
    December 30, 2011 at 2:25 pm

    It doesn’t sound to me like Mr. Potter’s understanding of Mormons is correct, despite having been a religious studies professor in Utah. As a life-long Mormon myself, let me clarify a few things.

    The Church has never made any effort or statement even attempting to suggest that other Christian denominations are not Christian. Our definition of apostate (as we DO describe other Christian sects) merely refers to the fact (as they themselves admit, excepting Catholicism) that they are not lead by direct revelation from God. We consider anyone who believes in Christ and who attempts to follow him is Christian.

    That is also why we consider ourselves Christian. Sure, you can define anything in specific enough a way to exclude people you don’t agree with. However, in a largely Christian society, “not-Christian” tends to be used as a synonym for “Cult” which is downright offensive to anyone who believes in Christ.

    I also take issue with the claim that the church in any way discourages research or education regarding other religions. This is completely false. There is no other major religion that is more supportive of education in general than the LDS church. Sure, the church run schools, such as BYU are definitely going to gloss over a lot of that stuff in their general religious education courses, but you wouldn’t expect any more impartiality from a university actively run by the Catholic church, either.

    Regards,
    Tyler
    MIT alum

    • dennispotter
      January 1, 2012 at 10:54 am

      Tyler (from MIT) makes several criticisms of my article. I consider his criticisms to be weak and, in fact, reveal misunderstandings typical of the LDS community. The LDS community is mostly unaware of its own theological development and even more so of the theological development of traditional Christianity. Tyler is no exception to this rule.

      Tyler’s first criticism of my article is as follows:

      “The Church has never made any effort or statement even attempting to suggest that other Christian denominations are not Christian. Our definition of apostate (as we DO describe other Christian sects) merely refers to the fact (as they themselves admit, excepting Catholicism) that they are not lead by direct revelation from God. We consider anyone who believes in Christ and who attempts to follow him is Christian.”

      I grant that the LDS church has not made official pronouncements to the effect that Protestants and Catholics are not Christian. It’s always easy for LDS Mormons to use the “there’s no official statement . . .” trope since the LDS church mostly fails to make very definite or precise official pronouncements about much of anything.

      This doesn’t mean that there aren’t doctrines that they believe. One such doctrine concerns the Great Apostacy. James E. Talmage wrote the classic LDS text on this doctrine entitled The Great Apostacy. And a casual perusal of that text reveals quickly that Tyler is wrong in his assertion that to say that they are apostate is only to say that they don’t receive revelation. Indeed, consider the following passages from that book:

      “[The apostacy is]…the virtual overthrow and destruction of the Church established by Jesus Christ,”

      “In the second of the two stages already specified we are confronted with conditions of far greater import than those attending individual secession from the Church; for here we find the Church sinking to the degraded level of a human institution, with plan of organization and mode of operation foreign to the constitution of the original, without priesthood or authority to officiate in spiritual ordinances, and devoid of the gifts and graces with which the Savior endowed His Church at the time of its establishment. In short, we find the Church itself apostate, boasting of temporal power, making its own laws, teaching its own dogmas, preserving only a form of godliness, while denying the power thereof.”

      “In the scriptures before cited as proof of the early beginning of the apostasy, many of the contributing causes are indicated, such as the rise of false teachers, the spread of heretical doctrines, and the growth of the power of Satan in general.”

      “Among the more detailed or specific causes of this ever widening departure from the spirit of the gospel of Christ, this rapidly growing apostasy, the following may be considered as important examples: (1). The corrupting of the simple principles of the gospel by the admixture of the so-called philosophic systems of the times. (2). Unauthorized additions to the ceremonies of the Church, and the introduction of vital changes in essential ordinances. (3). Unauthorized changes in Church organization and government.”

      I think that it is very clear from these few quotes that Talmage’s view is that the apostacy leaves nothing of original Christianity intact: no authority, no orthopraxy, and no orthodoxy. So, what would it be to call the resulting institutions Christian? It would be just a title without foundation in the original church of Christ. Catholics, Eastern Orthodox-ers, and Protestants would be Christian in name only. I am pretty sure that Catholics and Protestants that insist that LDS Mormonism is not actually (orthodox) Christianity would allow that Mormons call themselves Christians (or that they think that they are Christians). But then what they say about Mormons and what Mormons say about them are indeed analogous.

      Clearly, Tyler is not aware of his own tradition since his view of what the apostacy entails is more minimal than what most LDS Mormons believe. I know this because I lived 36 years as an active Latter-day Saint constantly discoursing with my fellow “brothers and sisters” about what they believe. It is clear to me, from my experience, that Mormons once believed that the Apostacy meant that the Christian church was gone from the face of the earth and had to be restored. From a traditional Christian’s perspective, this claim is tantamount to saying that they are NOT Christians. Tyler’s first criticism fails.

      After this criticism Tyler says,

      “That is also why we consider ourselves Christian. Sure, you can define anything in specific enough a way to exclude people you don’t agree with. However, in a largely Christian society, “not-Christian” tends to be used as a synonym for “Cult” which is downright offensive to anyone who believes in Christ.”

      I’m not sure what to make of this comment as it seems too inexact to be of much use, but I will try. First, Tyler points to the stipulative nature of definition as the reason why some people might claim that Mormons are not Christian. But it’s not the stipulative nature of definition at work here. It’s the history of Christianity that’s at work, a history of which I’d wager that our august MIT graduate is largely unaware. Second, he makes a sloppy claim that ‘not-Christian’ is synonymous with ‘cult’. Clearly, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, etc. are not considered cults in our society. So, this identification is spurious.

      Tyler’s third criticism:

      “I also take issue with the claim that the church in any way discourages research or education regarding other religions. This is completely false. There is no other major religion that is more supportive of education in general than the LDS church. Sure, the church run schools, such as BYU are definitely going to gloss over a lot of that stuff in their general religious education courses, but you wouldn’t expect any more impartiality from a university actively run by the Catholic church, either.”

      Again, Tyler is a paradigm of a misunderstanding that is fairly typical among LDS Mormons. Tyler fails to recognize the difference between the academic and the devotional study of religion. The former is academically rigorous and involves no constraints on perspective, no presuppositions about what is correct. The latter is best captured by St. Anselm’s expression “faith seeking understanding”. BYU’s Church Educational System and Religious Education program at BYU are of the latter sort. So, for example, at BYU when you take a World Religions course you read a text by Roger Keller that presupposes the truth of Mormonism and reads the other religious traditions through a Mormon lens.

      Not all Mormons suffer from the same misunderstandings that Tyler expresses here. Indeed, BYU religion faculty are well aware of the difference between their “religious education” and religious studies carried out in an academic environment. Being on the Religious Studies board at UVU and having been the Mormon Studies Coordinator for several years, I kept up a dialogue about the nature of religious studies with many of my BYU counterparts. Almost all of them agree that UVU’s religious studies program offers students something that they cannot offer at BYU, one of them privately confessing to me that he would like to teach in the fully free environment that we have at UVU. Mormonism claims to be in favor of education and scholarship. But professors at BYU have been push out or fired for lack of orthodoxy and the LDS church still excommunicates scholars for what they write. BYU is not like the University of Notre Dame, for example, since it could never tolerate a religion professor that is openly critical of the LDS Church hierarchy. Notre Dame has atheists, protestants, agnostics, hindus, buddhists [i.e., faculty] etc. on their campus. Methodists teach Catholic theology. Protestants hold chairs of Philosophy of Religion. In the 80’s BYU stopped hiring non-LDS professors in tenure-track positions. So, I stand by my comment that intellectual engagement with religious issues is discouraged in LDS Mormonism.

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About Dennis Potter

Associate Professor of Philosophy at Utah Valley University.