A Response to Stephen E. Robinson's 'Are Mormons Christians?'
James K. Walker
From its inception, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter--day Saints (LDS or Mormonism) has positioned itself as something distinct and different from professing Christianity. In LDS Scripture, Joseph Smith recounts his "First Vision" when in 1820, God the Father and Jesus Christ warning him that there were no true Christian churches on the earth. Smith, Mormonism's founder recalls:
Likewise, Christian churches have historically recognized Mormonism as separate from themselves--something neither Protestant nor Catholic--in their eyes not Christian. Mormonism teaches the existence of many true Gods, that our God is not eternally God but was once a man, and that worthy men and women can eventually become gods and goddesses themselves. This theology has led Mormon critics to conclude that Mormonism does not fall in the same category of religions as Christianity. They reason that while Christianity, Judaism, even Islam fall into the camp of Monotheism, Mormonism with its belief in the existence of many Gods is unexcusably Polytheistic. Thus, critics conclude, Mormonism is not a Christian religion or even one of the Monotheistic religions--although it often expresses itself in Christian terms.
Early in 1991, Dr. Stephen E. Robinson released a new book published by LDS owned Bookcraft, arguing that Mormonism is as Christian as Protestantism or Catholicism--in fact more so. His book is titled Are Mormons Christians? and his answer is a resounding "Yes." It should prove to be a significant volume for those on both sides of the issue. It promises to appeal to LDS who are looking to, "answer critics' objections, [and] reassure and fortify Church members whose families and friends fear they have joined `a cult,' . . ." Likewise, those critics who believe they have will need to understand the book and have a reasonable response to its claims. They most certainly will encounter them.
Stephen E. Robinson is the chairman of the Department of Ancient Scriptures at Brigham Young University, where he did his undergraduate and master's work. He received a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Duke University and has taught religion on the faculty of Hampden-Sydney College (a Presbyterian-related school), as well as Duke and Lycoming College (both Methodist-related institutions). He chaired Lycoming's Religion Department while simultaneously serving as a bishop of the LDS Church.
The book concentrates on the major reasons a large segment of the Christian community has considered Mormonism to be outside the fold. Robinson claims that Mormons have been wrongly classified as non-Christian based on six faulty "exclusions." They are exclusion by definition, misrepresentation, and name-calling, as well as on historical/traditional, canonical/bib-lical, and doctrinal grounds.
Exclusion By Definition
Robinson argues that the critics who claim Mormons are not Christians use "nonstandard definitions" for the word Christian. According to the standard dictionary definitions, "Latter-day Saints qualify as Christians." He explains:
At first glance, quoting the dictionary and proclaiming a match seems to settle the issue. Anyone who would exclude Mormons by using other "non-standard" definitions of "Christian" have stacked the deck and are employing a specialized meaning for the word--not found in dictionaries.
By quoting Webster, Robinson has not once and for all settled the issue but is begging the question. According to this definition, a Christian must conform to the "doctrines of Christ," and "the truth taught by him" or belong to a group that professes "Christian doctrine or belief." What is "Christian doctrine or belief?" Does the LDS Church hold to and profess those beliefs? These questions, of course, are not addressed in Webster's. It is interesting, though, that even Webster's recognizes that doctrine and beliefs are essential to the definition of "Christian."
When Robinson states that LDS meet the requirements of the dictionary, he has imported his own assumptions (LDS teachings are "the doctrines of Christ") into the definition. Robinson does deal with these issues in his sections on doctrinal exclusion. Before claiming that Latter-day Saints fit the dictionary definition, these theological issues must be explored. This section, Robinson's chapters on doctrinal exclusion, contains the real pivotal issue and he wisely devotes the most space to it. The chapters on misrepresentation and name-calling, while dealing with important matters, are not really critical to the thesis. The same could be said on the historical/traditional and canonical/biblical sections.
The real underlying problem, the crux of the entire discussion, is the "doctrinal exclusion" issue. It comes down to one simple question: Are Mormons worshipping a different God than the traditional Christian community? If so, it is totally reasonable to suggest that Mormonism might be better classified as outside of that community.
When dealing with the doctrinal issues and the nature of God, Robinson's most powerful argument is that the LDS doctrine of God is not polytheistic but is consistent with that of the Church Fathers, the Bible, and therefore Christianity.
Did the Church Fathers teach Mormonism?
According to Robinson, the LDS doctrine of God (God was once a man, and men can become gods) was actually taught by the Anti-Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers and is still proclaimed by many modern Protestant conservatives. In his doctrine of deification section, Robinson quotes the fifth LDS Prophet Lorenzo Snow's famous couplet: "As man now is, God once was; As God now is, man may be." Not only good Mormon doctrine, Robinson insists that it was also the doctrine of the early church. Others who have taught that doctrine include: Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Justin Martyr, Athanasius, and "the greatest of the Christian Fathers," Augustine (pp. 60-61).
He quotes Irenaeus, "If the Word became a man, It was so men may become gods." He adds, "Saint Clement of Alexandria wrote, `Yea, I say, the Word of God became a man so that you might learn from a man how to become a god,'--almost a paraphrase of Lorenzo Snow's statement" (pp. 60-61).
It should be noticed that in all of his citing of the Fathers, Robinson never attempts to support the first half of Snow's couplet--that before becoming a God, our Heavenly Father was once a man. He does suggest that Jesus is human, and Christians believe that Jesus is God. Christians, of course, are saying they believe that Jesus is eternally God, who became a man in his incarnation (John 1:1-14). They are not saying that they believe Jesus became God, nor are they (or any of the Fathers) trying to say God the Father is or ever was a man.
Robinson does support the second half of Snow's couplet with quotes from the Fathers, saying:
Robinson quotes Irenaeus, "Do we cast blame on him [God] because we were not made gods from the beginning, but were at first created merely as men, and then later as gods?" While it may seem at first glance that Irenaeus and the Church Fathers are teaching Mormon theology (or at least the second part of Snow's couplet), this is not the case.
For example, Johannes Quasten, Professor of Ancient Church History and Christian Archaeology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. discusses Irenaeus' use of "gods":
Like the other Church fathers, Irenaeus expresses the impossibility of the Mormon concept that there exists a God before or besides our God saying:
Robinson admits that when the Fathers use a form of the word "gods" in reference to men and women (as well as in similar examples in the Bible), "god" is being used in a "nonultimate" and "limited" sense (pp. 66-70). He explains:
He insists that neither the Church Fathers nor Mormons are polytheistic saying, "for them [the Fathers], as for Latter-day Saints, the doctrine of deification implied a plurality of `gods' but not a plurality of Gods. That is, it did not imply polytheism," (p. 68).
Mormonism: Monotheistic or Polytheistic?
Evidence does exist suggesting that early in its history Mormonism did teach Protestant style Monotheism. But, while the first LDS Scripture, the Book of Mormon, has nothing to say about plurality of Gods (see Alma 11: 22-35), later scripture has "the Gods" creating the heavens and the earth (Abraham 4). Joseph Smith said, "I wish to declare I have always and in all congregations when I have preached on the subject of the Deity, it has been the plurality of Gods." Under the heading "Plurality of Gods," Mormon Apostle Bruce R. McConkie makes a distinction between the three capital "G" Gods and the billions of "gods." Mormon apologist Van Hale admits, "that Mormonism initially was monotheistic can only be said with reservation, and it is certainly inaccurate to define Mormon Doctrine since the 1840's as Monotheistic. . . . [P]olytheism technically refers to belief in the existence of more than one god--clearly a Mormon doctrine." He adds, however, that the term is inappropriate solely because, "tradition has imbued this word with a very negative connotation."
Robinson avoids the negative connotation of the term polytheism, by trying to say that the multiple gods of Mormonism, "are not Gods in the Greek philosophic sense of `ultimate beings,'" (p. 68). Rather than proving that Mormons are not polytheistic, exposes the fact that the LDS Heavenly Father is not an ultimate Being.
In Mormon theology there does exist other Gods who are equal to and potentially greater than the Heavenly Father. In Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, one scholar notes:
This concept is not foreign to leaders in the Church. A General Authority of the LDS Church, Milton R. Hunter of the First Council of the Seventy, writes:
Who was God when Heavenly Father was a mere man learning the "laws of truth?" Mormonism's Law of Eternal Progression demands that He too had a Father above Him. This certainly sounds like polytheism.
Robinson complains that traditional Christianity's "ultimate being" is a concept of God that is of "Greek philosophic sense" and is "Platonic rather than biblical," (p. 68). Milton R. Hunter seems to disagree identifying the LDS concept of God as the one more closely resembling Greek philosophy and pagan religion. He notices:
. . . were pronounced in their viewpoints on the divine nature of man. . . . The Mystery Religions, pagan rivals of Christianity taught emphatically the doctrine that "men may become Gods." Hermes declared: "We must not shrink from saying that a man on earth is a mortal god, and that God in heaven is an immortal man" This thought very closely resembles the teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith and of President Lorenzo Snow.
Are Mormons Christians? Mormons are Christians, Robinson contends, because to say they are not is to commit, "the logical fallacy of using nonstandard definitions or an overly specific taxonomy for exclusionary purposes," (p. 3). For evidence he cites a parallel case:
Actually, the difference between the pagans and the Christians was far more substantive than the fact that they "worshipped God differently." As Robinson points out, they were worshipping a different God than the polytheistic deities of the ancient Roman world. While the pagans may have not have been technically correct to use the term atheist (a belief in no God), they were absolutely correct to recognize that the Christians did not believe in their gods and belonged to a different world-view (Monotheism) than that of Roman Mythology (Polytheism).
Similarly, when critics say that Mormons are not Christian, they are not trying to say that Mormons are not members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. By saying "not Christian" they are claiming that Mormons are worshipping a different God and a different Jesus than the Christians are worshipping.
This should not seem so unreasonable to Robinson. His own Church superiors, in their official writings, have said that Christians worship a different Jesus and God than do Mormons. Elder Bernard P. Brockbank, of the First Quorum of the Seventy, speaking from the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City during General Conference quotes a June 18, 1976 "London Times" article that states in part, "In fact, there is good reason for regarding them as a new religion rather than as another variety of Christ-ianity. . . . the Christ followed by the Mormons is not the Christ followed by traditional Christianity."
Elder Brockbank then adds a very frank admission:
According to Mormon leaders, the mainstream Christians are not just theologically off, they are worshipping the wrong God. In the Mormon classic, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, LeGrand Richards, an Apostle of the LDS Church, openly condemns the traditional Christian view of God. Under the headings, "The Worship of False Gods," and "The Strange gods of Christendom," Richards accuses both Protestant and Catholic churches of breaking the Ten Commandments through idolatry.
Mormon Prophets even call other churches that believe in Joseph Smith "cults." Yet when mainstream Christianity uses the term cult to describe Mormonism, they are somehow not being "objective" and are guilty of fueling "emotions and prejudices," using a "nasty name," (pp. 23-24).
In his introduction, Robinson promises: "The operating principle behind most of my arguments will not be rectitude but equity--what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander." He adds, "This is simply an issue of playing on a level field," (viii).
Traditional Christians say the Mormon Church is not truly a Christian Church. Is that really so different from Mormons saying that the LDS Church is the only true Church? There is something inherently wrong with proclaiming: "All Christian churches are wrong--we are a Christian church too!" It cannot be, "We are Christians too." If all professing Churches are false, Mormonism must be Christian instead. There is no middle ground. This has been the historic position--not just of Mormonism's critics--but the LDS Church itself.
Why is it so hard to say, "Mormonism is Christian?" To say Mormonism is a true Christian Church, is to admit that no other church is. If true, then Christianity ceased to exist before Joseph Smith restored it in 1830. Christians who are knowledgeable of Mormonism's claims realize what they are being asked to do. Traditional Christians are being asked to declare bankruptcy--a price most find too high.
Joseph Smith Jr., History of the Church, 7 vols., 2nd. ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1978), 1:6. Also published with Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price as LDS Scripture: Joseph Smith -- History (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985), p. 49.
Stephen E. Robinson, Are Mormons Christians? (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1991), from the dust jacket.
Robinson is justifiably concerned with critics who use faulty research, misquote, and cite LDS leaders out-of context. This does not address those cases when proper methods and a loving attitude are utilized. He also deplores those that attribute as standard Mormon doctrines quotes from Mormon General Authorities who are not speaking officially or issuing new Scripture. While recognizing that such quotes are less authoritative than LDS scripture, many critics feel that the writings by LDS Apostles and Prophets printed by the Church's own presses are significant. The teachings of these men in a formal, public capacity are at least somewhat representative of LDS beliefs.
Here Robinson is disturbed with those that label Mormonism as a cult, complaining that label is used in a pejorative, non-objective way that is foreign to the three most common meanings for the word in Webster's. Robinson fails to point out that Mormon leaders label all Christian denominations as cults and use the term in the same way Mormon critics do. That is to describe false and heretical splinter groups who claim to be the "true church" but are doctrinally in error when compared to their beliefs.
LDS apostle, Bruce R. McConkie, uses "cultists" to describe Mormon splinter groups and "cults" to describe all Christian denominations. "CULTS, see SECTS. . . . SECTS. see Apostasy, Christianity, Creeds. . . . the sects of Christendom." Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), pp. 18, 174, 699.
In his historical/traditional section, Robinson contends that the creeds and traditions of Christendom are contradictory and extra-biblical and cannot be used to define Christianity.
His canonical/biblical chapter argues that receiving new Scripture (Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price) is not unlike the early Christians canonizing the New Testament. He notes that Protestants have a different cannon than Catholics and that the process of canonization was more tentative than most Christians realize. Most critics do not argue against the theoretical possibility of new Scripture, but the reasons (based on internal and external evidence) that LDS revelation should not be accepted as such.
Robinson asserts that the prohibition against adding or taking away from "this book" (Rev. 22:18-19) refers to the book of Revelation only (pp. 46-47). Interestingly, he fails to mention that in his Inspired Version of the Bible, Joseph Smith adds and deletes scores of words from Revelation without any manuscript evidence. See: Joseph Smith, Jr., Inspired Version: The Holy Scriptures, corrected ed. (Independence: Herald Publishing House, 1944).
Robinson's "conservative Protestants" include: Paul Crouch of the Trinity Broadcasting Network, "I am a little god;" Robert Tilton, "you were designed to be as a god in this world;" and Kenneth Copeland, "You don't have a god in you, You are one!"
A recent work suggests that this "deification doctrine" of the "Word-Faith" teachers did not evolve from the Pentecostal or charismatic movements, which developed from the Pentecostal-Holiness tradition. An historical connection has been established between these teachers and E.W. Kenyon who admittedly received his ideas from Mary Baker Eddy, Christian Science, and the Mind Science religions of the late nineteenth century. Mormonism teaches "many gods" and humans can become gods in the afterlife (Polytheism), Mind Science teaches "all is God" and humans are god in this life (Pantheism). See: D. R. McConnell, A Different Gospel (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1988), pp. 21-27.
". . . our Father in heaven was once a man as we are now, capable of physical death. By obedience to eternal gospel principles, he progressed from one stage of life to another until he attained the state that we call exaltation or godhood. In such a condition, he and our mother in heaven were empowered to give birth to spirit children whose potential was equal to that of their heavenly parents. We are those spirit children." Corporation of the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Achieving a Celestial Marriage (Salt Lake City: Church Education System, 1976), p. 132.
Johannes Quasten, Patrology, 6 vols. (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1984), 1:311.
Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers, 6 vols. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975; American reprint of Edinburgh ed., 1885), vol. 1 The Apostolic Fathers, Irenaeus Against Heresies, Book II, p. 359.
One Mormon researcher explains: "Joseph Smith, Mormonism's founder, originally spoke and wrote about God in terms practically indistinguishable from then-current protestant theology." Boyd Kirkland, "Elohim and Jehovah in Mormonism and the Bible," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 19 (Spring 1986):77.
Another Mormon writer explains that, "historical scholarship in Mormon studies during the past two decades has disclosed the essential Protestant flavor of the earliest Mormon beliefs . . . . [E]mphasis on the Book of Mormon  reinforces a trinitarian and absolute God, while a preoccupation with the first vision [written in 1838] . . . encourages a tritheistic and anthropocentric God." O. Kendal White, Jr., Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy: A Crisis Theology (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987), p. 139.
Smith, History of the Church 6:474.
"Three separate personages -- Father, Son, and Holy Ghost -- comprise the Godhead. As each of these persons is a God, it is evident from this standpoint alone, that a plurality of Gods exists. To us, speaking in the proper finite sense, these three are the only Gods we worship. But in addition there is an infinite number of holy personages, drawn form words without number, who have passed on to exaltation and are thus gods." McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, pp. 576-77.
Van Hale, "Defining the Mormon Doctrine of Deity," Sunstone 10 (January 1975):25.
David H. Bailey, "Scientific Foundations of Mormon Theology," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 21 (Summer 1988):74.
Milton R. Hunter, The Gospel Through the Ages (Salt Lake City: Stevens and Wallis, Inc., 1945), p. 114.
"If Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and John discovered that God that 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? . . . 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 Fielding Smith, comp., Teachings of The Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1977), p. 373.
Hunter, Gospel, p. 110.
Bernard P. Brockbank, "The Living Christ," Ensign 7 (May 1977):26-27.
LeGrand Richards, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder (Salt Lake City, Deseret Book Company, 1950), pp. 12-14.
Joseph Fielding Smith, the tenth Prophet of the LDS Church, described the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS) and other splinter groups as, "EARLY APOSTATE CULTS" who, "bowed the knee to Baal, and departed from the faith," Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954), 1:247-48.