by J.B. Haws
This article appeared in the On Faith Blog
Chances are, if you’ve had any extended conversation with a Mormon, you’ve realized that he or she identifies as a Christian. But if you pay attention to recent polls or presidential politics or popular Broadway shows, you’ve also probably realized that other Christians firmly deny Mormonism’s “Christian” status.
Yes, there are some theological differences, but the problem is these denials give the mistaken impression that Mormons do not believe in a divine Jesus. In the words of Mormon historian Philip Barlow, Mormons should be seen as “Bible-believing Christians with a difference.”
At stake here is public understanding. A recent nationwide poll showed a 75 percent public “uncertainty rate” as to whether Mormons believe in both Jesus Christ and the Bible. That’s the rub. In today’s religiously pluralistic America, the importance of mutual understanding cannot be overstated.
Misunderstandings often become fodder for fear and prejudice, barriers to cooperation and empathy. Still, many conservative, evangelical Christians balk at calling Mormons “Christian” because they worry this could blur the reality — and it’s an all-important, salvation-on-the-line issue for many evangelicals — that Latter-day Saints do not subscribe to the traditional, creedal formulations behind a Trinitarian God.
Mormons do not deny this difference. In fact, they are quick to emphasize it. While still using the language of God’s “omni-“ attributes, Latter-day Saints also believe God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are beings of shape and dimension — each individual in form, but perfectly united in their full divinity.
Yet Mormons are concerned that many people outside of evangelical circles simply hear “Mormons aren’t Christian” to mean “Mormons don’t believe in Jesus,” or, more specifically, “Mormons don’t believe Jesus is Savior and Lord.”
Both groups worry, in essence, about the same thing: correct public understanding of bedrock theology. In reality, neither a “yes” nor a “no” answer to the “Are Mormons Christian?” question will satisfy all. But perhaps adding another term could. That term is “biblical.”
We’ve already found it useful to modify “Christian” — “evangelical,” or “mainline,” or “Orthodox” — to bring additional clarity to our increasingly pluralistic society. So a helpful answer to, “Are Mormon Christians?” could be, “Mormons are biblical Christians, but they are not traditional or historic or orthodox or Trinitarian Christians.” This answer highlights both fidelity to the Bible — something important to Mormons — and difference –something so crucial for evangelical Christians.
Here are five reasons why “biblical” works in describing Mormons:
1. Mormons believe the Bible to be the word of God.
In overwhelming numbers, practicing Mormons profess deep faith in the Holy Bible. Pew found in 2007 that 92 percent of Mormon respondents believed the Bible to be the “word of God.”
Officially, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints unequivocally affirms the divinity of the Bible. In the words of one of the Church’s 12 apostles, Jeffrey R. Holland, “We love and revere the Bible. The Bible is the word of God. It is always identified first in our canon, our ‘standard works.’”
Without a doubt, encountering the idea of an expanded “canon” of “standard works” might be the point where many Christians stop reading, but the argument here is that this should not rule out seeing Mormons as sincere Bible believers.
Consider this: hundreds of thousands of Mormon teenagers around the world attend daily religion classes (Mormons call this “seminary”). Two of the four seminary years are devoted to the study of the Bible.
2. Mormons’ beliefs about the Bible as the word of God functionally align with evangelical Christian beliefs about the Bible.
In the same 2007 survey mentioned earlier, Pew found that Mormons and evangelicals polled very closely in their responses about overall belief in the Bible as the “word of God”: Mormons at 92 percent and evangelicals at 89 percent.
Those who resist calling Mormons “biblical” might bring up the LDS Church’s Eighth Article of Faith: “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly” (Article of Faith 8).
Though, as BYU religion professor Robert Millet aptly noted, functionally this caveat for Mormons is no more an assault on the Bible’s trustworthiness than article X of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy might be for, say, evangelicals.
The 1978 Chicago Statement, signed by notable evangelical Christian thinkers, asserts that divine “inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy ” — but, importantly, not perfect accuracy. “We further affirm,” the Chicago Statement continues, “that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.”
This “to the extent” sentiment in the Chicago Statement would be an appropriate rephrasing of the Mormon “as far as it is translated correctly.”
But Mormons are not inerrantists, so it’s no surprise that evangelicals polled at a much higher rate in believing the Bible should be taken “literally, word for word.” Yet 25 percent of evangelicals still said that while the Bible is definitely the word of God, “not everything in the Bible should be taken literally, word for word.”
Which brings up another point: there are intra-evangelical debates over the Bible.
Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith argued that Christian unity over “biblicism” only works in the evangelical world because of “pervasive interpretive pluralism.”
Broad interpretive approaches are tolerated within that world without such pluralism jeopardizing one’s status as a Bible-believing Christian. And Mormon approaches to the Bible fit within that tolerated diversity.
New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg reacted to Christian Smith by arguing for evangelical unity “concerning the full deity and full humanity of Jesus, about the moral attributes of God, about the universal sinfulness of humanity (as distinct from the origins of that universality), about Christ’s bodily resurrection and bodily return, or about the centrality of a love ethic.” Latter-day Saints—individually and institutionally—heartily affirm those same Bible fundamentals.
Beyond that, Mormons and other Christians both choose which Bible passages to take literally and which to take figuratively — and those choices may be different because they read the Bible through different interpretive lenses: ecumenical creeds, the writings of church fathers, the “Great Tradition” for many Christians and modern revelation and additional scriptural books for Latter-day Saints. But this is not a question of allegiance to the Bible itself, since, so often, theological divergences are really at that “lens” level. Thus Father Richard John Neuhaus once remarked, to one of my colleagues, “There needs to be more conversation between Latter-day Saint Christians and Nicene Christians.”
3. The Book of Mormon self-consciously sees itself as supporting the Bible’s trustworthiness.
Regardless of how one feels about the historicity or antiquity of the Book of Mormon or the role Joseph Smith played in the book’s production, one thing that cannot be denied about the book is that its internal logic is focused on bolstering the Bible’s witness of Jesus Christ’s divinity.
It seems likely that many readers from outside the Latter-day Saint tradition might be surprised to find that, in the words of one of the Book of Mormon’s prophet record keepers, “This [the Book of Mormon] is written for the intent that ye may believe that [the Bible — the record of the Jews]” (Mormon 7:9).
The Book of Mormon sees itself as a second witness to the reality of Bible figures such as Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Mary, John the Baptist — and, especially, Jesus Christ. The Book of Mormon calls Jesus Christ “God Himself” and affirms his miraculous ministry, his redemptive death, and his glorious resurrection. (Incidentally — and not unrelatedly, it seems — Pew found that 96 percent of Mormons and 88 percent of evangelicals agree that “miracles still occur as in ancient times.”)
4. Joseph Smith’s theological project was, at its heart, Bible-based.
Again, the surprise: two of Mormonism’s founding prophet’s most quintessential theological “innovations” — Joseph Smith’s vision of a multi-tiered heaven and his rationale for proxy religious rites performed in temples for deceased ancestors — are thoroughly Bible-based.
The “vision of the three degrees of glory,” what is now Doctrine and Covenants 76 in Mormon scripture, is a vision of the afterlife that, Mormons believe, the Lord expressed to Joseph Smith in the language of a string of Biblical passages: John 5:29, 1 Corinthians 3:22-23 and 15:40-42, 2 Corinthians 12:2-4, 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, Hebrews 12:22-24, Revelation 22:15, and more. Joseph Smith presented this theophany as one that validated and unlocked — and grew out of — the truths of the Bible.
The same could be said about the basis for Mormons’ proxy temple work — like baptisms for the dead, mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:29. Joseph Smith explained these rites in terms of Jesus’ granting of keys to bind on earth and in heaven (Matthew 16:16-19), in terms of Peter’s statement that a disembodied Jesus preached to deceased souls in prison (1 Peter 3:18-20 and 4:6), and in terms of Elijah’s prophesied turning the hearts of children to their fathers (Malachi 4:5-6).
Here’s a helpful analogy. Bible scholars Roger Olson and Christopher Hall acknowledge that the Bible does not use the word “trinity” or explicitly spell out the doctrine, but that early church fathers found in Bible passages the “seeds that blossomed,” when nourished by Providence, into that doctrine.
Likewise, Latter-day Saints would be comfortable saying that Joseph Smith found biblical “seeds that blossomed,” when nourished by revelation, into distinct Mormon doctrines. Rootedness in the Bible is key in both cases.
5. Mormons celebrate the Bible’s witness of the divinity of Jesus Christ.
Stephen Robinson, retired BYU religion professor, wrote, “Though Evangelicals often refuse to believe it, Latter-day Saints accept all biblical teaching on the nature of God and Christ, provided these are stated in their biblical forms rather than in their postbiblical, creedal forms.”
Pew found that 98 percent of Latter-day Saints in the survey believed in the resurrection of Jesus.
The LDS Church’s foundational, organizing document, the revelation known as the “Articles and Covenants” (now section 20 of the Doctrine and Covenants), reads, “the Almighty God gave his Only Begotten Son, as it is written in those scriptures which have been given of him,” that “he was crucified, died, and rose again the third day,” and that “justification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” and “sanctification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” are “just and true, to all those who love and serve God with all their mights, minds, and strength.”
Mormons and other Christians would be well served by approaching theological differences with more charity from both sides — well served by an attitude of “I don’t agree with your belief on this, but I acknowledge that your position represents a reasonable interpretation from a biblical starting point.”
Using the category of “biblical Christians” or “Bible-believing Christians” to describe Mormons and evangelicals (and, of course, others!) could go a long way in creating this kind of opening.
This mutual acknowledgement would highlight common ground that technical squabbles over the “Christian” label obscure. Then the work of understanding real differences, rather than getting stuck on inaccurate assumptions, can take place.
Here’s hoping for a religious language revolution that breaks down barriers to conversation rather than reinforces them.
J.B. Haws contributed a chapter on this topic to Richard Mouw and Robert Millet’s new edited collection, Talking Doctrine: Mormons and Evangelicals in Conversation (InterVarsity Press, 2015).