Ben Witherington recently posted the following essay on Patheos: “Why Mormonism is not Christianity– the Issue of Christology.” It seems a perennial Evangelical claim, that, unfortunately never seems to actually engage Mormon response.
There he gives six reasons why he believes Mormons are not Christians. While I have enjoyed Professor Witherington’s biblical scholarship, I’m afraid his understanding of Mormonism is inadequate. I’ll examine each of his six claims.
While there are many reasons why Evangelical Christians of all stripes might disagree with Mormon theology, perhaps the most important of these is Christology and the related matter of soteriology. …
1. Mormons are polytheists, not monotheists. That is, they believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three separate beings, thus denying the essential monotheistic statements of both the OT and NT that God is One.
Of course, Jews and Muslims would deny that Christians are monotheists because we believe in the Trinity. The problem here is not a question of the oneness of God, which Mormons affirm, it is a question of the nature of that oneness. Mormons believe that the Trinity is of one will, broadly comparable to Social Trinitarian concepts. (see B. Ostler, Exploring Mormon Thought: Volume 3, Of God and Gods, (Kofford, 2012)) Be that as it may, the reality is that most Christians, including most Evangelicals, would be unable to accurately explain the Nicene Creed and its concept of Trinity, even if they affirmed it in theory. Are none of them Christians? Was a medieval peasant not a Christian because he couldn’t recite, let alone understand, the Nicene Creed? Must one affirm the Nicene concept of the Trinity to be a Christian? Or must one affirm that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God?
2. Mormons, thus, not surprisingly, deny the doctrine of the Trinity, calling it an amalgam of Greek ideas with Biblical ideas. … Mormons see the ecumenical councils which produced the Nicean creed or the Apostle’s Creed or the Chalcedonian creed as in essence contradictory to what Scripture teaches.
Quite true. Mormons reject the authority of the ecumenical councils, as necessarily did all Christians during the first three centuries after Jesus. The theological and historical problems of these councils are numerous–see, for example, J. Jenkins, Jesus Wars(HarperCollins, 2010)–which certainly present real doubt about their inspired nature. And their dependency on non-biblical Hellenistic philosophical terminology and beliefs is undeniable. (Where does one find homoousios in the Bible? The concept actually originated among the Gnostics.) But the real question is: were the followers of Jesus before Nicaea Christians? They certainly were. Yet none of them affirmed the Nicene creed. If Jesus’ original apostles didn’t believe in the Nicene creed, why must Mormons? The Nicene Creed was developed precisely because early Christians strongly disputed these Christological questions. Furthermore, if the councils are authoritative, and affirmation of their creeds a requirement for Christianity, why do Evangelicals reject the theotokos doctrine and veneration of Mary established by the council of Ephesus in 431? Do Evangelicals get to pick and choose which parts of the ecumenical councils one has to believe to be a Christian? And what of the monophysite churches (Syriac, Egyptian, Ethiopian, Armenian) who also reject the council of Chalcedon (451)? Are they not Christians? That path leads to historical absurdity.
3. Mormons believe that even God the Father has, and apparently, needs a body, denying that God in the divine nature is spirit. Indeed they believe that God the Father is an exalted man!
We believe the Father has a body, not that he is a body. But, for Mormons, the Father is equally spirit. If the incarnate Christ can be God while having a body, why is that problematic for the Father? At any rate, it is quite clear that the Bible describes the Father as anthropomorphic, sitting, having a right hand, speaking, etc. And many early Christians believed exactly that. (D. Paulsen, “Early Christian Belief in a Corporeal Deity: Origen and Augustine as Reluctant Witnesses” Harvard Theological Review 83/2 (April 1990): 105-116. See also Paulsen’s online treatment.) Evangelicals may allegorize anthropomorphic passages of the Bible if they wish; but we Mormons won’t say they are therefore not Christians because of their rejection of this clear biblical doctrine.
4. Just as they believe that the early church became apostate, they also believe the Bible as we have it is not inerrant or always truthful and trustworthy, even on major issues like Christology, and therefore needs to be supplemented (and corrected) by subsequent prophetic revelation in documents like the Book of Mormon, or even The Pearl of Great Price.
There are several questions to unpack here. First, what is the Bible? Is it the Protestant Bible? Are the Catholics and Greek Orthodox not Christians because they accept the deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament? What of the Ethiopian Bible, which includes the Book of Enoch and Jubilees? Are the Ethiopians therefore not Christians? And what of the Bible of Jesus? It included only the Old Testament–the earliest Christians could not affirm the New Testament as scripture because it did not exist at the time; it was probably not formally compiled until a century after Jesus and not canonized until the late fourth century. Obviously, then, one can be a Christian without even believing in the New Testament.
Second, is the Bible inerrant? From a historical and textual perspective, the only possible answer is no. There are clear contradictions in the Bible, and many cases of uncertain textual variants. There are also scientific errors of all sorts. Note, however, that Mormons don’t maintain that the Christology of the Bible is false. We believe it has been interpreted so many different ways by so many theologians and churches that it alone is insufficient.
Third, is the Bible sufficient? While Evangelicals claim that it is in theory, the fact of the matter is, practically speaking, it is not. The thousands of Christian denominations point to this most obvious fact. (See: C. Smith, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture, Brazos, 2011). The fact that Witherington must turn to the Nicene Creed to define his understanding of the Trinity indicates that the Bible alone is not sufficient on this topic. If it were, we wouldn’t have needed a Nicene Creed.
But the real question is: must one believe in the inerrancy of the Bible to be a Christian. The fact of the matter is that many Christians, perhaps even most Christians, do not believe in biblical inerrancy. While this may mean they are not Evangelicals (though many Evangelicals also reject inerrancy), it cannot mean they are not Christians.
5. In terms of soteriology, Mormons deny the sufficiency of Christ’s death for salvation. They suggest, as the linked article says, that each of us must do all we can and then trust in the mercy of God. In other words, the de facto position is that Mormonism is to a significant degree a works religion even when it comes to salvation.
If this is true, it must mean Jesus himself was not a Christian (e.g. Mk. 10:17-22). While this criteria may mean Mormons are not Evangelicals, it cannot mean we are not Christians, unless one wants to claim that Catholics and Orthodox are not Christians either. Must one affirm the tenets of the Protestant reformation merely to be a Christian? Really?
6. The goal of Mormon soteriology is that we all become as ‘gods’ become both immortal and divine, blurring the creator/creature distinction which was already badly blurred by a theology that suggested that God is actually a sort of uber-human being, with less flaws. One rather familiar teaching is ‘as God was, so we are. As God is, so we shall be’.
Although Protestants reject Deification, it is nonetheless a widely believed ancient Christian doctrine, and still is among the Greek Orthodox. (Are Greek Orthodox to be expelled from Christianity as well?) Here is a bibliography of recent books on Christian deification:
Bartos, E. and K. Ware, Deification in Eastern Orthodox Theology (Gorgias, 2007).
Burns, Charlene, Divine Becoming: Rethinking Jesus and Incarnation (Fortress, 2001).
Casey, Michael, Fully Human-Fully Divine: An Interactive Christology (Liguori, 2004).
Choufrine, Arkadi, Gnosis, Theophany, Theōsis: Studies in Clement of Alexandria’s Appropriation of his Background. (Lang, 2002).
Christiansen Michael J. and Jeffery A. Wittung (eds.), Partakers of the Divine Nature: The History and Development of Deification in the Christian Traditions (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2007).
Collins, Paul, Partaking in Divine Nature: Deification and Communion (T&T Clark, 2012).
Cooper, Adam, The Body in St. Maximus the Confessor: Wholly Flesh, Wholly Deified(Oxford, 2005).
Finlan, Stephen and V. Kharlamov (eds.), Theōsis: Deification in Christian Theology. (Eugene OR: Pickwick Publications, 2006).
George of Mount Athos, Theosis: The True Purpose of Human Life (Holy Monastery of Mount Athos, 2006).
Gorman, M. Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology (Eerdmanns, 2009).
Gross, Jules. The Divinization of the Christian According to the Greek Fathers, trans. Paul A. Onica. (Anaheim, Calif.: A & C Press, 1938, rep. 2002).
Hudson, Nancy J. Becoming God: The Doctrine of Theosis in Nicholas of Cusa (Catholic University of America Press, 2007).
Karkkainen, V. One with God: Salvation As Deification and Justification (Liturgical Press, 2004).
Keating, D. Deification and Grace (Sapientia Press, 2007).
Keating, D. The Appropriation of Divine Life in Cyril of Alexandria (Oxford, 2004).
Kharlamov, V. The Beauty of the Unity and the Harmony of the Whole: The Concept of Theosis in the Theology of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (Wipf & Stock, 2008).
Kharlamov, V. (ed.) Theosis II: Deification in Christian Theology, Volume Two (James Clark, 2012).
Maloney, George, The Undreamed has Happened: God Lives Within Us (University of Scranton, 2005).
Norman, Keith, Deification: The Content of Athanasian Soteriology (FARMS Occasional Papers, Vol. 1, 2000).
Russell, Norman. Fellow Workers with God: Orthodox Thinking on Theosis (St. Vladimir’s Press, 2009).
Russell, N. The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2004).
Staniloae, Dumitru, The Experience of God: Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, vol. 2, The World, Creation and Deification (2005).
Thomas, S. Deification in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition: A Biblical Perspective(Gorgias Press, 2008).
The concept of deification is based in part on John 17:20-23 (which is treated at length in William J. Hamblin, “I Have Revealed Your Name”: The Hidden Temple in John 17, Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 1:1 (2012), 61-89, https://journal.interpreterfoundation.org/i-have-revealed-your-name-the-hidden-temple-in-john-17/).
20 Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; 21 That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, thatthey also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. 22 And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: 23 I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.
However one wants to interpret this passage, it is declaring that the disciples can be one with the Father and Son, just as they Father and Son are one with each other. That is the essence of deification as understood by Mormons.
In summary, none of Witherington’s six criteria stand as coherent reasons to deny that Mormons are Christians. We believe that Jesus is the Christ/Messiah, the Son of God. That should be sufficient. That we are not Evangelicals, nor Nicene Christians, nor Catholics, we readily affirm. But this is an obvious category fallacy. The fact that dogs are mammals cannot mean that non-dogs are not mammals. Dogs, lions, and horses are all mammals; and dogs cannot say to horses: “you are not a mammal” any more than Evangelicals can say to Mormons, “you are not Christians.” Christian is a genus of which Evangelicals, Mormons, Catholics, Ethiopians, etc. are all species. Much as they would like to pretend otherwise, Evangelicals do not have a copyright on the name Christian. It applies to all followers of Jesus in their thousands of denominations. If Witherington wants to call me a heretic, that’s fine. But I’m a Christian heretic.
One is not a Christian because of acceptance of the Nicene Creed, nor an inerrant Bible, nor salvation by faith alone. One is a Christian because one believes that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and tries, however poorly, to live as his disciple.
For a more detailed analysis of these questions see: D. Peterson and S. Ricks, Offenders for a Word, (FARMS, 1998). This book is available online here.
Kevin Barney has also posted an important response to Witherington’s claims on the FAIR web page as well.