Are Mormons Christian? Depends. Give me your definition of Christian and I will give you my answer.
Are Mormons Christian? This is the type of question that can easily get conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists riled up, especially if you answer, “Well of course Mormons are Christian!” And it is a question that probably sounds stupid to Mormons (they must be thinking, “Well of course we are Christians. We believe in Jesus and the words ‘Jesus Christ’ are part of the name of our church!”).
Personally I don’t really give a crap. Mormons want to call themselves Christians? Sure, who cares. You think Mormons deviate too much from historic Christianity and don’t qualify for the label? Sure, that makes sense too.
In the end I guess my answer to the question would be both yes and no.
The Affirmative Aspect of My Answer
The way in which the general populace understands the word “Christian” is simply a person who believes and follows the teachings of Jesus Christ, along with maybe a belief in Jesus being god (in whatever sense) and that he was raised from the dead. Granted, most people have a pretty piss-poor understanding of what Christ’s teachings were actually about and wouldn’t be able to articulate how they are distinct from the teachings of other religions and religious figures, but that is irrelevant because the fact remains: in society “Christian” has a pretty broad meaning that easily allows Mormonism to be subsumed under it.
I know there are some who would just poo-poo the idea that society’s definition of Christianity is meaningful and that we need to go back to scripture, but what they usually wind up doing is importing their own brand of Christian orthodoxy back onto scripture. For example, I have seen some say that Peter’s confession in Matt. 16:16 provides a basic understanding of what is a Christian, yet in the next breath they will define “the Christ, the son of the living God” in a fashion that is simply anachronistic (in other words, when Peter declared Jesus to be the son of God it had nothing to do with some incipient Trinitarianism).
If someone wants to prohibit the label “Christian” from being applied to people who don’t pass certain theological litmus tests (such as the Apostles’ Creed, the Niceno-Constantinopolitano Creed, and the Chalcedonian Definition), then they can do that, but this idea of a cognitive salvation –i.e. giving mental assent to a list of doctrines as being determinative for one’s redemption and is the determining factor in how others can determine if you are “going to heaven when you die”– is merely theological superstition and is not the emphasis of Christ’s teachings in the New Testament. Ultimately, it is the true God who gives his divine ‘Yes’ to people as he sees fit. And I think that if you are look at people and wonder whether God has given or will give his divine ‘Yes’ to them, their adherence to creeds and confessions of faith is not the primary thing you should be looking at.
The Negative Aspect of My Answer
Mormonism isn’t just simply another denomination of Christianity along the lines of Lutheran, Episcopalian, and so forth. Joseph Smith was given revelation directly from God and Jesus. Why? Apparently Christianity underwent a “great apostasy” at the time of the death of the apostles, leaving only a thoroughly corrupted version of the Christian faith, thus God needed to restore the fullness of the gospel and chose to do so through Joseph Smith. This idea of the great apostasy, along with the unique restoration doctrines and scriptures that resulted from the restoration of the church through Joseph Smith, makes me think it is best to maybe treat Mormonism as if it were something altogether new.
To illustrate this further, take the case of Judaism and Christianity. The latter started as a sect of the former, yet even though I consider the Christian faith as the authentic continuance of Judaism, I don’t go around saying I’m a Jew because obviously I accept beliefs and scriptures –that are reliant upon additional revelation from God– that historic Judaism rejects. In a similar manner, while Mormonism may have arisen as simply a new sect of restorationist Christianity, it quickly transformed into something else (e.g. there seems to be a decisive break in the Mormon understanding of God in pre- and post-Nauvoo periods with the pre-Nauvoo understanding not being quite as unorthodox as post-Nauvoo Mormonism).
Mormonism has beliefs and scriptures that historic Christianity rejects; just as this transforms that little Jewish sect into something new, so too for Mormonism, thus making it inappropriate to label Mormons and Mormonism as Christian.
In my readings of early Mormon writings there seems to have been a distinct pride in distinguishing Mormonism from historic Christianity. The opposite almost seems to be the case today. It is as is there is some real hesitancy in the Mormon Church to divorce itself too far from mainstream Christianity. For instance, in 1997 the previous Mormon Prophet, Gordon Hinckley, gave an interview with Time Magazine, in which he was asked about God being a man before he became God and his answer comes across as if he is passing it off as some sort of peripheral belief that just isn’t important to Mormon theology:
Question: Is this the teaching of the church today, that God the Father was once a man like we are?
Hinckley: I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it. I haven’t heard it discussed for a long time in public discourse.…
For the unaware reader, the Mormon belief in exaltation can perhaps best be summed up in the well-known couplet by past Mormon President Lorenzo Snow: “As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become.”
A Mormon apologetic I have encountered runs that this doctrine of exaltation is simply a recovery of the early church’s belief in theosis/divinization. While the idea of theosis is practically unheard of in Evangelicalism and broader Protestantism, it is nevertheless a key feature in the theological diet of the Orthodox Church (maybe this is due, in part at least, to how the Eastern and Western parts of the church came to have different conceptions of essence and energy). In fact, for many years after becoming Christian I had never even heard of such a notion as theosis, and if I had I would have recoiled in horror. It was only when I started to get to know the Christian faith from outside of my own very narrow stream that I happened upon this idea and came to see that not only does it go back to the early Patristic literature (e.g. Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria), but there are even passages in the New Testament (e.g. John 17:21-23, 2 Cor. 8:9, 2 Peter 1:4, and Rev. 3:21) which could be taken as early antecedents to theosis (or, if not theosis, then at least a more weighty doctrine of the future of man than the flaccid going-to-heaven-when-you-die-and-floating-on-a-cloud-for-all-eternity position that is the default Christian position).
The Mormon belief in exaltation is quite distinct from the Orthodox belief in theosis. A key distinction is that in theosis we partake of God’s energies, not his essence (in Orthodox thinking God’s energies are not separate from God’s essence but are the way God manifests himself within creation). Hence, in theosis we remain human in our essence and do not unite with God’s (uncreated) essence, only with his (uncreated) energies. Whereas in the Mormon teaching of exaltation, divinization is an innate capacity in every person because humans and God are essentially of the same species (humans and deities are ultimately all eternal “intelligences” as Joseph Smith put it).
An interesting study on the topic is Jordan Vajda’s, “Partakers of the Divine Nature”: A Comparative Analysis of Patristic and Mormon Doctrines of Divinization” (available online here). Vajda says: “This difference—the difference between participation [i.e. Orthodox thesosis] and growth [i.e. Mormon exaltation]—can be rooted in two very different ontological understandings of divine nature and human nature.”
All this is to say that while historic Christianity and Mormonism have a lot in common, there are important differences between that shouldn’t be swept under the rug. And it is because of these differences that I think one could argue that Mormonism should be classified as something new apart from Christianity. Who knows, maybe in a century or two –if Mormonism experiences a significant growth in adherents and doesn’t shy away from what makes it unique from historic Christianity– maybe Mormons will no longer desire to be called Christians.
The Long and Short of It
I really don’t care whether Mormons go around calling themselves Christian. I have no problem calling them Christians but that is probably because I don’t see the term as a magical talisman denoting that you fall into doctrinal orthodoxy and/or are a citizen of the New Jerusalem. I’m sure there are Mormons who really are Christian. Heck, I’m sure there are even some evangelicals who are really Christian too!
I think that instead of focusing upon such matters as whether it is alright to apply the label “Christian” to various groups, we should be more focused upon whether it applies to ourselves. In the words of Paul, we need to “examine ourselves to make sure that we are in the faith” (2 Cor 13:5). Because it doesn’t really matter a single iota whether you say you’re a Christian or whether you don’t think someone else is a Christian; all that matters is whether Christ himself will say that you are a Christian (see Matt 7:21-23; that is perhaps the scariest verse in the entire Bible, with Matt 10:37/Luke 14:26 being a close runner-up).