Editor’s note: This column draws on contents from the forthcoming book “Are Christians Mormon?” by David L. Paulsen and Hal R. Boyd, published by Routledge press.
Outsiders have often asked whether Mormons are Christian.
Given contemporary trends in Christian theology, however, it’s now worth asking, albeit half-humorously, whether Christians are Mormon.
Since the beginning of the LDS Church, Christendom’s catechists have largely dismissed LDS teachings as heretical. Yet in recent decades, Christians of all stripes have espoused — on both biblical and philosophical grounds — theological positions that were once considered distinctly Mormon.
Doctrines such as spiritual gifts, a social view of the Godhead, deification, post-mortal evangelization, divine embodiment and continuing revelation are just a few of the teachings once thought anathema that are now championed by an ever-expanding coterie of Christian thinkers.
Take, for example, the Latter-day Saint doctrine of the trinity or Godhead. LDS Church Apostle James E. Talmage distilled Mormon teachings on the subject as follows: “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are as distinct in their persons. … Yet their unity of purpose and operation is such as to make their edicts one, and their will the will of God.”
This formulation has excited charges of Tritheism.
Neither the United Methodist Church nor the Catholic Church, for example, accept Mormon baptisms as valid in part because, in their opinion, it does not involve “a true invocation of the Trinity.”
In recent decades, however, the so-called “social” model of the trinity — which closely resembles the Latter-day Saint conception — has won numerous converts.
“The Trinity,” writes Social Trinitarian Clark Pinnock “is a ‘transcendent society or community of three personal entities. Father, Son and Spirit are members of a divine community, unified by common divinity and singleness of purpose. The Trinity portrays God as a community of love and mutuality.’”
Scholar Dale Tuggy identifies the social model as one of “the two most popular approaches to understanding the doctrine of the Trinity.” More recently, Christian scholar Carl Mosser lamented the 30-year “proliferation” of “theologies that claim the Social Trinitarian moniker.”
But the movement within Christianity toward Mormon theological positions is not limited to conceptions of the Trinity.
Last year, prominent evangelical theologian Richard Mouw wrote a thoughtful piece on Mormon-evangelical dialogue in First Things magazine. He expressed his earnest hope that Latter-day Saints would continue to “bring a historically heterodox tradition into greater conformity with the orthodox Christian consensus.”
He advised his fellow Christians to encourage Mormons in this regard.
Latter-day Saint scholar Terryl Givens responded cordially to Mouw. He called his piece a “generous gesture,” but said that Mouw “gets the direction in which the consensus is moving precisely backwards in some crucial ways.”
He continues: “In many cases, Mormon heterodoxy has become the current orthodoxy — or subject of renewed discussion.”
Two decades of research by scholar David Paulsen on this subject support Givens’ thesis.
In the 1970s, noted BYU professor Truman Madsen first posed the tongue-in-check query: Are Christians Mormon? In a piece for BYU Studies Quarterly he traced contemporary convergences with several LDS teachings. Building on Madsen’s work, Paulsen published his own article updating and expanding the earlier research.
In the decade since Paulsen’s article, there’s been no abeyance in dialogue regarding theological positions once taught somewhat exclusively by Joseph Smith and his 19th-century followers. Our forthcoming book traces this trend, concluding, in the same vein as Givens, that “(Mormonism) is a tradition rich in ancient Christian precedents and, in numerous instances, it anticipates contemporary shifts in the larger Christian consensus.”
It seems that the charge of heresy has often accompanied the Latter-day Saint tradition. Since the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith emerged from a divine dell near Palmyra, New York claiming a theophany and revealing holy writ, few theologians took his teachings seriously. But today the ideas of charismatic gifts of the spirit, an embodied deity, an open canon of scripture and a passible God, among other doctrines, have become increasingly commonplace among the modern-day catechists of Christendom.
Which begs the questions: Are Christians Mormon?