“In recent times more than ever before, [Jesus Christ] has been rousing divided Christians to remorse over their divisions and to a longing for unity” (Vatican II).
(My photo: with a Mormon family in Idaho)
It has now been a week since I’ve returned from my 30-day pilgrimage to Idaho and Utah. The intention of the trip was to engage in dialogue with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (a.k.a. the LDS Church or the Mormons). The last few days have afforded me some time to reflect on my encounters with Mormons, and I feel ready to offer a somewhat coherent–though brief–theological reflection.
However, before I continue, it seems important to address a burning question–are Mormons Christians? The answer is complex, a “yes” and a “no.” If the term Christian means a follower of the figure Jesus of Nazareth, then the answer is surely “yes.” If the term Christian is more narrow and includes adherence to all of the basic doctrines of the Nicene Creed and the other early councils of the Church (the Trinity, God as Creator of the visible and the invisible, etc.), then the answer is “no,” for Mormons do not typically believe that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one in essence and neither do they believe that God created the invisible laws of the universe. Essentially, no pun intended, Mormons believe that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are three distinct beings who are united in purpose rather than three distinct persons who are united in being. If this concept sounds a bit complex, that’s because it is. What it boils down to, though, is that Mormons are henotheists and most Christians are monotheists. Henotheists believe in and worship a single God while accepting the existence or possible existence of other deities that may also be worshipped. (Mormons worship only God the Father.) Monotheists acknowledge the existence of one God and the worship of one God. (Hence most Christians worship the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, who are one God.)
The second matter of division–whether God is the creator of the invisible laws of the universe–is even more complex in some ways. Mormons assert that both matter and intelligence are co-eternal with God, but traditional Christians hold that God created everything out of nothing, including matter and the laws of logic and science. In the traditional view, nothing is co-eternal with God, for He is outstanding in His grandeur.
To complicate the subject, the founder of the LDS Church, Joseph Smith, declared that God the Father was not eternally God; rather, God was a human being and became God at some point during the history of time. In a moment of inspiration Joseph Smith preached, “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! That is the great secret” (https://www.lds.org/ensign/1971/04/the-king-follett-sermon?lang=eng). God the Father had his own God the Father, and the regression extends backward infinitely. Ergo, there are many gods, even though humans in our universe are only meant to worship one God: God the Father. Traditionally, most Christians have maintained that the one God is infinite and eternal, and this idea comes from a combination of biblical precedent and philosophy. The prophet Isaiah writes, “Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me” (Isaiah 43:10). In the psalms we also find, “From eternity to eternity Thou art God” (Ps. 89:2).
Of course, Mormons will point to some Scriptures in the Bible that seem to imply henotheism (Ps. 97:7; Ps. 89:6–7; Genesis 1:26), but traditional Christians have explained these verses either by acknowledging that the Israelites’ idea of God developed over time, culminating in Isaiah, or that the term “gods” applies in a loose sense to humans who share in the image of God or to angelic beings who also share God’s quality of rational intelligence. After all, the henotheistic verses are not directly addressing the topic of henotheism (they are implied), but the monotheistic verses directly bear on the topic of monotheism. Additionally, the Bible itself uses “gods” and “idols” interchangeably, as in Psalm 96:5: “For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.”
Despite these differences, I found that Mormons and Catholics agree about most things, and we both attribute our salvation to the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In the spirit of Vatican II, I encourage Catholics, Protestants, and Mormons to work together when possible, to dialogue in kindness, and to make an effort to better understand each other.
May God bless you now and always!
David J.W. Inczauskis, n.S.J.
P.S.I. I’ve done my best to represent Mormon views as I understand them. I’m certainly open to correction if it turns out that I’ve misunderstood. Additionally, my exegesis of the biblical passages mentioned is not exhaustive. Scholars take a wide range of views on these verses.
P.S.II. Scriptures regarding God’s eternity as God: Ps. 89:2; Jo. 8:58; Ps. 101:27-28
P.S.III. Scriptures regarding God’s immutability (unchanging nature) as God: James 1:17; Ps. 101:27-28; Ps. 32:11; Is. 46:10; Hebrews 6:17; Mal. 3:6; Wisdom 7:24-27
P.S.IV. Scriptures regarding monotheism: Dt. 6:4; Mk. 12:29; 1 Cor. 8:4; Acts 14:14; Acts 17:23; Rom. 3:29; Eph. 4:6; Jer. 16:19; Ps. 95:5; Wis. 13-15
P.S.V. The “henotheistic” Genesis passage (1:26), according to many of the early church fathers, is a reference to the various persons of the Trinity rather than a reference to various gods.
P.S.VI. I received an e-mail from a Mormon theologian regarding my use of “henotheism” and “essence.” Here is his clarification of my writing: I would say…that Mormons are not “henotheists” but, instead, “monolatrists”—as many Biblical scholars posit ancient Israel was. Calling Mormons “henotheists” technically misses the doctrine they espouse. Also, Latter-say Saints believe that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit share “one essence”—if “essence” is defined in the way the Cappadocian fathers defined it (i.e., as “nature,” not “substance”).