Bruce D. Porter
Mormonism has been much in the news over the past year. The presidential campaign of Mitt Romney was the principal reason, though there were other causes as well: the growth of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to become the fourth-largest denomination in the United States, for instance, and the prominence of Harry Reid as Senate majority leader. The total number of news articles devoted to the church in the past year more than doubled the previous high, reached during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
For all this, there has been more smoke than light, particularly about the fundamental question of what Mormons actually believe. Journalists, never particularly interested in doctrinal matters, tend to focus on the contemporary influence of the church or on intriguing chapters from its past history—most prominently the practice of polygamy, which officially was ended in 1890. Scholarly studies do little better, in part because they tend to focus on the history of the church, particularly its formative era from 1820 to 1890, or on its contemporary sociology and culture.
All this has led to considerable misunderstanding about what Latter-day Saints believe about the central subject of Christian religion: Jesus Christ and his atonement for sin. One can find innumerable assertions that Mormons do not believe Jesus was the messiah, that they do not believe he atoned for the sins of the fallen human race, and that they believe salvation comes by works.
All of these statements are false, and they reflect incomprehension of Mormon beliefs and doctrine. Joseph Smith, the founder of the church, whom we regard as a prophet raised up by God, made the following statement about Christ: “The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the apostles and prophets concerning Jesus Christ, that he died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.”
Latter-day Saints revere the Bible as the word of God and the scriptural foundation of Christianity. We generally interpret it in quite literal terms, although allowing that some passages may use figurative, allegorical, or symbolic language. Our most criticized departure from mainstream Christianity is our acceptance of another work, the Book of Mormon, as the divinely revealed word of God. We regard it as holy writ: equal to the Bible in authority, a second witness of Christ's divine mission, and a compilation of inspired writings that enlighten and clarify many biblical teachings. Latter-day Saints also count in the canon a slim two volumes of revelations and tenets revealed by Jesus to the prophet Joseph Smith: the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.
A vital aspect of Latter-day Saint theology—and its most obvious difference from traditional Christianity—is the belief that Jesus Christ is an individual being, separate from God the Father in corporeality and substance. Mormons do not accept the phrase in the Nicene Creed that describes the Father and Son as being “of one substance,” nor do we accept subsequent creeds by ecumenical councils that sought to clarify the nature of the Trinity in language describing them as one indivisible spiritual being. The Book of Mormon refers in several passages to God, Christ, and the Holy Ghost as “one God,” but Latter-day Saints understand this to mean they are one in mind, purpose, will, and intention. Their unity is the same unity of which Christ spoke in his high-priestly prayer following the Last Supper: that his disciples may “be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us” (John 17:21). Hence, Latter-day Saints rarely use the term Trinity, but prefer the title Godhead to refer to the three divine beings who govern our universe in perfect oneness.
Joseph Smith, whose first heavenly vision was of two personages, the Father and the Son, offered the following revelation regarding the members of the Godhead: “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man's; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit. Were it not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us” (D&C 130:22). Mormons believe that Adam and Eve prior to the Fall were created in the tangible image of God the Father, and that Christ when he came to earth was, as the apostle Paul wrote, “the express image” of the Father. We interpret this to mean that he appeared physically like the Father, not only that he exemplified the Father's spiritual attributes.
God's divine, embodied being is the center, not the limit of his power. We believe that a tangible glory or light “proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space—the light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne . . . who is in the midst of all things” (D&C 88:11-13). By means of this spirit, God's power and influence are present at every point of time and space.
We believe that, prior to his mortal life, Jesus was a divine personage of spirit who partook of the fullness of Godliness but was unembodied. At the moment of his resurrection he assumed an immortal, incorruptible, eternal, and glorified body like that of the Father. He thus became the “first fruits” of a universal resurrection that will eventually encompass the whole of humankind. Mormons believe in the literal resurrection of Christ's physical body: As the savior declared to his disciples in the account of Luke, “a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have” (Luke 24:39). We believe that he will never lay down this body—or, in other words, that after his ascension he was not, nor ever will be, subsumed into a non-corporeal divine essence known as the Trinity. Rather, he is at the literal right hand of the Father, and the martyr Stephen saw two beings, not one, when he looked up and said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56).
We believe that Christ was the Creator of the earth, under the direction of the Father, and that even before the earth was formed he had been anointed individually to the sacred mission of serving as the redeemer of all God's children on earth. As John writes, “He was in the world, and the world was made by him” (John 1:10). In a modern revelation found in the Doctrine and Covenants, Christ speaks of his pre-mortal divinity: “Thus saith the Lord your God, even Jesus Christ, the Great I AM, Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the same which looked upon the wide expanse of eternity, and all the seraphic hosts of heaven, before the world was made” (D&C 38:1).
This verse introduces a Mormon doctrine not generally taught in Christianity—that Christ was the great I AM who spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai and revealed himself to the prophets throughout the Old Testament. Latter-day Saints believe that from the time of the earth's creation Jesus Christ was its anointed Lord, who under the direction of the Father acted as an intermediary between God and man. He revealed his Word and law to the prophets, whose sacred mission was to testify to him.
The words of those prophets were fulfilled with the birth of the messiah in Bethlehem as the only-begotten son of God the Father. Latter-day Saints affirm the reality of the virgin birth. We do not worship Mary, nor pray to her, but we revere her as the mother of our Lord, a woman blessed above all others. Our beliefs regarding the savior's mortal life are based on a literal reading of the biblical texts. We believe he lived a perfect and utterly sinless life; that the accounts of his miracles, all of them, are literal; that he organized his Church and delegated authority to his apostles to administer it after his ascension. We believe that he suffered in Gethsemane and at Golgotha, that he died for the sins of mankind on the cross, and that he was resurrected on the third day.
Despite these beliefs, many critics of Mormonism charge that we do not believe in salvation by grace. Early in the Book of Mormon, a prophet named Lehi gives a lengthy discourse on the subject of Christ's atonement that underscores the centrality of his grace in human salvation: “Wherefore, redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth. Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit” (2 Nephi 6-7). Then the prophet declares, “There is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah” (2 Nephi 2:5-8). Another Book of Mormon prophet, Amulek, explains Christ's sacrifice as the means by which “mercy can satisfy the demands of justice,” and he sees mankind as irretrievably lost without it: “This is the whole meaning of the law, every whit pointing to that great and last sacrifice; and that great and last sacrifice will be the Son of God, yea, infinite and eternal” (Alma 34:16).
Latter-day Saints regard a lengthy sermon by the prophet-king Benjamin to be among the most powerful discourses on Christ's mission found in the Book of Mormon (Mosiah 2-5). I can find hardly a word in it that I think any orthodox Catholic or Protestant would find objectionable, with the possible exception of his teaching that infants and little children are made innocent by the atonement of Christ (and therefore, as elaborated later in the Book of Mormon, do not require baptism). Many of King Benjamin's statements are classically Christian in formulation. He emphasizes the nothingness of man before God, his fallen nature, and his dependence upon the grace of Christ for salvation: “And moreover, I say unto you, that there shall be no other name given nor any other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent” (Mosiah 3:17).
Why, then, is there a perception among so many Christians of other faiths that Mormons do not believe in grace or in salvation through Christ? One reason may be that the moment Latter-day Saints cite the Book of Mormon as evidence of their Christian faith, animosity arises against the possibility that there could be any canon of Scripture beyond the Holy Bible. The issue then quickly descends into whether or not the Book of Mormon could possibly be an authentic ancient record. If attention were paid to the text itself rather than to theories of its authorship, we would at least have a dialogue focused what Mormons actually believe.
Another reason may be that critics sometimes take passages from the Book of Mormon out of context. There is also a common misperception that Latter-day Saints believe in salvation by works. It is true that, for example, many prophets in the Book of Mormon fervently admonish their people to repent and keep the commandments of God if they want to be saved. Taken out of context, they may appear to be claiming that salvation comes by works. But the prophets are saying simply what Christ said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” The Book of Mormon itself speaks of “dead works” and proclaims “the deadness of the law” and it teaches plainly that only the blood of Christ can atone for sin. Mormons regard good works as a manifestation of faith in Christ, not as a way of earning salvation.
Nonetheless, salvation in our view is not obtained without effort on the part of the sinner. “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21). Grace requires a price to be paid and that price is the heart of the sinner. We believe that an individual obtains salvation by receiving Christ as the redeemer and exercising faith in him. Receiving Christ entails turning to him: repenting with a broken heart and contrite spirit, and striving, however imperfectly, to do his will. We also believe that the ordinances of baptism by immersion and confirmation by the laying on hands for the reception of the Holy Ghost are essential to salvation. For us, baptism is the making of a covenant with God to remember Christ and do his will; it is the symbolic death of the sinner (his burial in water) and his rising to a new life in Christ (Rom. 6:4). The gift of the Holy Ghost gives followers of Christ guidance and strength to walk his path throughout life. Some theologies regard these ordinances as “works” and therefore unnecessary or even undesirable. We regard them as integral to God's plan for our salvation.
The most riveting and crucial drama in human history took place in Jerusalem from the hours of Christ's Passion in Gethsemane to his death by crucifixion at Calvary. One unique teaching of Mormonism regarding Christ's atonement is that his suffering for human sin took place both in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross at Golgotha. We do not see his agony in Gethsemane as a preliminary struggle to accept the will of the Father that he sacrifice his life. Rather, we believe it was an integral part of his ransom for sin.
Sin has many consequences, but the universal penalty for all sin is the withdrawal in some measure from the sinner of the spirit of God, that light “which giveth life to all things” (D&C 88:13). No ordinary mortal could survive the withdrawal of God's spirit in its entirety. But the messiah was able to endure in Gethsemane the total withdrawal of the Father's Spirit by virtue of his singular status as the Son of the Almighty. In this manner he suffered vicariously for the sins of all humankind. King Benjamin prophesied: “behold blood cometh from every pore, so great shall be his anguish for the wickedness and abominations of his people” (Mosiah 3:7).
Our emphasis on the significance of Gethsemane in no way diminishes the vital importance of his Christ's suffering and death on the cross as a ransom for the sins of fallen humanity. The atonement began when Christ entered Gethsemane and said, “My soul is extremely sorrowful,” and it ended on the cross when he pronounced its fulfillment, “it is finished,” and voluntarily yielded his life. The Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants teach plainly and repeatedly that Christ was crucified as a free-will offering for the sins of the world. Christ's crucifixion was an offering of his flesh and blood for sin, an offering of his physical life, an offering of his whole being, all he could possibly give, as he “poured out his soul unto death” (Isa. 53:12). We believe that his suffering at Golgotha entailed not only the excruciating agony of crucifixion, but also, as at Gethsemane, a withdrawal of the Father's Spirit that led Christ to cry out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
In our eschatology, Latter-day Saints believe that Christ will come again to the earth and that his second coming will take place, as prophesied by Zechariah and promised to his disciples, on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. He will come in glory and power and will reign personally on the earth during a millennial Sabbath of a thousand years. We also believe that at the end of the millennium a last judgment will take place and that Jesus Christ himself will stand as the judge of all mankind, each individual soul having to enter in by him: the door or gate to heaven. In the words of Jacob, brother of Nephi: “The keeper of the gate is the Holy One of Israel; and he employeth no servant there; and there is none other way save it be by the gate; for he cannot be deceived, for the Lord God is his name” (2 Nephi 9:41).
Are Mormons Christian? By self-definition and self-identity, unquestionably so. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints affirms that it is a Christian-faith denomination, a body of believers who worship Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and who witness that salvation is possible only by his atoning blood and grace. By the simple dictionary definition of a Christian as one who believes in or worships Jesus Christ, the case is compelling. To the title Christian a critic of Mormonism may add any modifiers he deems appropriate—unorthodox, heretical, non-Nicene, different—but blanket assertions that we are not Christian are a poor substitute for informed argument and dialogue.
Gerald R. McDermott
Most Christians say Mormonism is not Christian—though their reasons are sometimes awkward. Thus, for example, the most common explanation given by evangelicals and Lutherans is that Mormons teach salvation by good works. Since Mormons stress the necessity of works, they conclude that Latter-day Saints must not understand grace, which means, among other things, that God saves us by his work in Christ.
One problem with this line of thinking is that Christians who level this charge sometimes forget that Jesus also teaches the necessity of works as a fruit of true faith: “By their fruit you shall know them.” “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” Another problem is that the Book of Mormon and important Mormon writers actually teach salvation by Christ's work of grace: “For we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23). Robert Millet, a prolific Brigham Young University theologian, explains that “after all we can do” means that “no matter how much we do, it simply will not be enough to guarantee salvation without Christ's intervention.”
A second charge sometimes made by Nicene Christians is that Mormons are modern-day Arians who reject the deity of Christ. This is untrue in an important sense. Mormons do not believe Jesus was always God but that he was fully divine in the incarnation and continues to be God the Son today. The Book of Mormon says it was “the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” who was “lifted up” and “crucified” (1 Nephi 19:10).
A third accusation sometimes made is that Mormonism is more about Joseph Smith than Jesus Christ. It is true that Smith is central to Mormons' view of reality, but it is also true that Jesus Christ is central to the Book of Mormon: “We talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins” (1 Nephi 25:26). Since Mormons identify Jehovah in the Old Testament with Christ, there is reason to believe Mormon author Susan Black's calculation that Christ or his ministry is mentioned on the average of every 1.7 verses in the Book of Mormon.
No, the true distinction between Mormons and non-Mormons on revelation is not whether God still speaks to his people but whether he spoke to Joseph Smith in a way that reinterprets what he said to the first-century apostles. The question of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon is the first of two principal distinctions between the Latter-day Saint faith and orthodox Christian theology.
The Book of Mormon proclaims itself “another testament of Jesus Christ.” It is indeed, for it purports to give us another history of what Jesus said and did—not one to replace the Jesus of the gospels but to supplement that record. This new record contains the stories of Jesus' three visits, just after his ascension in a.d. 34, to the Nephites in the Americas. According to this third testament, these were the primary group descended from Lehi and his son Nephi. Lehi was the patriarch and prophet who led his family from Jerusalem to the western hemisphere about 600 b.c. He was also the progenitor of the two major Book of Mormon peoples, the Nephites and the Lamanites. Most of the Book of Mormon traces the rise and fall of the Nephite nation as they either chose “to obey God or yield to the enticings of riches and pride.”
The story of Jesus' visits to North America is in 3 Nephi. Here we are told that, over the course of three hours, Jesus Christ destroyed many cities in the Americas by fire and earthquake because of their wickedness in casting out prophets and saints. This was followed by three days of darkness. Many Nephites and Lamanites were killed, but those who did not join in wickedness were spared. “Soon after the ascension into heaven” (3 Nephi 10:18), Christ showed himself to a crowd of 2,500 in North America. He let them put their fingers into the hole in his side and touch the nail holes in his hands and feet. He called and commissioned twelve disciples as leaders and teachers, who were given authority to baptize with water, confer the Holy Ghost, and pass on his teaching (3 Nephi 11:14-15, 21-22, 18:37).
Jesus taught the crowds something very close to the King James Version of the Sermon on the Mount, prayed for their children one by one, administered Communion with “bread and wine” several times, healed their sick, and raised a dead man (3 Nephi 12-14, 17:21, 18:2-4, 20:1-7, 17:9, 26:15). He also made statements and promises unfamiliar to the New Testament. He said the law of God was fulfilled in him but also “hath an end” (3 Nephi 15:5); he said America was specially destined as this new Israel and was the “new Jerusalem” (3 Nephi 16:16, 20:22); he praised these American disciples for their “great faith” (greater than “all the Jews,” 3 Nephi 19:35) and promised that three Nephites would remain on earth until Jesus returned at the end of the age. They would not suffer pain or sorrow (save that for the sins of the world), they would be cast into a prison and furnace and den of wild beasts but emerge unscathed, and their bodies would be transformed into an immortal state (3 Nephi 28).
What are we to make of this history of Jesus? Can we believe that the same Jesus who preached and healed and was crucified in Palestine came just a year or so later to the Americas and said and did all these things?
There are four reasons this is unlikely. First, there are many voices testifying to what I will call the Palestinian Jesus. We have four gospels in the New Testament, each written by someone with close connection to the Palestinian Jesus. Even if historians are unsure of the identity of every gospel author, there is plenty of historical evidence that the gospels come from communities close to Jesus and the apostles.
In contrast, there is only one voice testifying to the authenticity of the American Jesus—the translator of the gold plates that comprise the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith. To be sure, the Book of Mormon purports to be the testimony of more than several ancient prophets, and eleven witnesses say they saw the golden plates. But while there are many extant manuscripts from the ancient world attesting the existence of four gospels that arose independently—hence at least four independent voices—there is no other record from the ancient world outside the Book of Mormon that speaks of this Jesus, and none of the eleven witnesses claimed to be able to translate the writing on the plates.
Second, the testimonies we have to the Palestinian Jesus date from the same century as that Jesus, but the single testimony to the American Jesus comes eighteen centuries later. Not only do we have manuscripts containing one or more gospels that date to within just a few centuries of the Palestinian Jesus, but we have evidence within those gospels and some epistles that goes back to within just a few decades (and for some units of the tradition, years) of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. But for the American Jesus, the first public record we can find is not until the nineteenth century.
Third, there are inconsistencies between the Palestinian Jesus and the American Jesus. For example, while the American Jesus promises the land of America to the new Israel as a “new Jerusalem” (3 Nephi 20:22, Ether 13:3), the Palestinian Jesus speaks only of a kingdom of God that is open to people of every land. His promise to the meek is that “they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). His apostles write that Jesus' followers still seek a country (Heb. 11:14) and “should be the heir of the world” (Rom. 4:13). People will bring into the New Jerusalem “the glory and honor” not of a single nation but of all the “nations” (Rev. 21:26). So the Palestinian Jesus seems to think of the coming Kingdom as a worldwide phenomenon not limited to one geographical part of the earth, while the American Jesus is fixated on America.
There are other discrepancies. The Palestinian Jesus frequently criticizes the faith of the twelve apostles, all of whom were Jews, but the American Jesus praises the faith of his twelve disciples for being greater than that of “all the Jews” (3 Nephi 19:35). The only mention in the gospels of the Palestinian Jesus about anyone not dying is explicitly denied: “Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?'” (John 21:23). Yet the American Jesus promises that three of his disciples will remain on earth until he returns, never tasting death, and they will be thrown into the earth, a furnace, and a den of wild beasts, and yet receive “no harm” (3 Nephi 28:20-22).
A fourth reason that keeps us from identifying the Jesus of the Book of Mormon with the Jesus of the New Testament is that there are intratextual inconsistencies, if you will, between the Jesus of the Book of Mormon and the Jesus of later Joseph Smith prophecies. The greatest concerns the Trinity. At the end of his life, in his King Follett funeral sermon (1844), Joseph Smith prophesied against the Trinity, saying that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three separate Gods. While this is now official doctrine, there are no signs of this rejection of the Trinity in the Book of Mormon.
In fact, quite the opposite. Several times the Book of Mormon affirms traditional Trinitarian language and the concept of one being in three persons. Take, for example, 3 Nephi 11:27: “And after this manner shall ye baptize in my name: for behold, verily I say unto you, that the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost are one; and I am in the Father, and the Father in me, and the Father and I are one.” Mosiah 15:5 is even more explicit: “And thus the flesh becoming subject to the Spirit, or the Son to the Father, being one God.” So is Almah 11:44: “Every thing shall be restored to its perfect frame, as it is now, or in the body, and shall be brought and be arraigned before the bar of Christ the Son, and God the Father, and the Holy Spirit, which is one Eternal God, to be judged according to their works.”
This is not a trivial change but one that has done more than most others to separate Mormons from other believers in Christ. It also undermines claims for the historicity of the Book of Mormon and therefore the history of the American Jesus. If the prophet responsible for the Book of Mormon made cosmically significant changes in his view of God over the course of his prophetic career, one has less confidence in the reliability of his prophecies, particularly those that purport to provide a new history of God on earth.
Another major difference between Mormonism and Christian orthodoxy involves their views of Jesus. While the Book of Mormon is fairly orthodox in its view of Jesus and the Godhead, later Mormon teaching is not. It asserts that Jesus is a different God from the Father; that Jesus is one of (at least) three Gods; that he was once a man who was not God; that his nature is in all respects the same as ours, and so his status is also one we can attain one day; and that he does not transcend the cosmos.
Mormons deny that Jesus is a member of the Trinity. They insist they still believe that God is three and one but simply disagree with the early creeds that rendered that three-in-oneness as Trinity. They say they believe every word of the New Testament but do not find those words suggesting what the orthodox Church has conceived in its classic Trinitarian formulas.
The basic difference lies in the relation between Jesus and the Father. Mormons say Jesus is a different being from the Father, and in fact a different God. Mormons therefore say Jesus is one of several Gods. The theologian Stephen Robinson denies that Mormonism is polytheistic, and strictly speaking he is right. Polytheism portrays a world in which competing gods either vie for ultimate authority or have delimited provinces over which they rule. The Mormon picture is closer to henotheism, which posits a supreme God over other lesser, subordinate gods. The Mormons say that the Father is at least functionally over the Son and the Holy Ghost, and they are the only Gods with which we have to do.
Contemporary authorities often speak of God in the plural. Professor Millet says our goal is to strive to be “one with the Gods.” The Encyclopedia of Mormonism (produced principally by Brigham Young University) teaches that there is a “Mother in Heaven,” who is like the Heavenly Father “in glory, perfection, compassion, wisdom, and holiness.” God “is plural,” it declares.
If Jesus is one of several Gods, he was not always God. For Mormons, he was once as we are now but eventually grew in his attributes until he became “like unto God” Abraham 3:24). For orthodoxy, the movement of divine attributes in Jesus is the reverse: Instead of gradually accumulating the divine nature, he always was divine. There were times in his incarnation when he voluntarily “emptied himself” of some of his divine prerogatives, such as knowing the day and the hour of the end of all things (Phil. 2:7, Matt. 24:36). But this was merely an appearance, camouflaging the “fullness” of deity (Col. 1:19) by a divine humility willing to forgo certain privileges.
Because, for Mormons, Jesus was once as we are now, he is no different in kind from what we are. He shares our species. Like Jesus, we never had a beginning but are coeternal with God. According to Joseph Smith's Doctrines and Covenants, our “intelligence” always existed; it “was not created or made” (D&C 93:29). According to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, “In due time that intelligence was given a spirit body, becoming the spirit child of God the Eternal Father, and his beloved companion, the Mother in Heaven.”
Because we are all of the same species and nature, potentially divine and realized divinities, we are all on the same path of progression—if we take advantage of it. “Then they shall be gods, because they have all power, and the angels are subject unto them” (D&C 132:20). The upshot is that, for Latter-day Saints, Jesus is ontologically no different from other human beings. He fully realized his potential, but we have the same potential. He is simply at the end of the progression along which we too can proceed. We can one day possess even Jesus' omniscience and omnipotence.
For the orthodox tradition, in contrast, God is qadosh: “wholly other.” There is what Kierkegaard called an “infinite qualitative difference” between the human and divine. We will never be able to attain Jesus' nature and powers.
Finally, the Mormon Jesus is limited in significant ways. For one thing, Mormons believe matter always existed, coeternally with both the Father and the Son. So they are within but not outside the cosmos. To put it crudely, Jesus and the Father are not bigger than the universe.
Indeed, they cannot be, because they are physical beings who occupy a limited amount of space. Not only Jesus but also the Father have “a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man's” (D&C 130:22). For that matter, the Holy Ghost is in a similar position—physical and therefore no larger than the physical cosmos. In fact, all spirit is matter—but matter that is “more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes” (D&C 131:7).
Jesus is also limited by “eternal law,” which according to the Encyclopedia is independent and co-eternal with God, just as matter is. In fact, not only is law independent of God, but God is governed by it. Bruce R. McConkie has written that “God himself governs and is governed by law.” Mormon philosopher David Paulsen states, “God does not have absolute power . . . but rather the power to maximally utilize natural laws to bring about His purposes.” This means that ethical values are derived ultimately not from God but from principles that stand outside him. It also means that the Mormon Jesus is limited. He occupies a limited space (even if immense), and things outside him (law and matter) limit his acts.
In sum, then, Mormon beliefs diverge widely from historic Christian orthodoxy. The Book of Mormon, which is Mormonism's principal source for its claim to new revelation and a new prophet, lacks credibility. And the Jesus proclaimed by Joseph Smith and his followers is different in significant ways from the Jesus of the New Testament: Smith's Jesus is a God distinct from God the Father; he was once merely a man and not God; he is of the same species as human beings; and his being and acts are limited by coeternal matter and laws.
The intent of this essay is not to say that individual Mormons will be barred from sitting with Abraham and the saints at the marriage supper of the Lamb. We are saved by a merciful Trinity, not by our theology. But the distinguished scholar of Mormonism Jan Shipps was only partly right when she wrote that Mormonism is a departure from the existing Christian tradition as much as early Christianity was a departure from Judaism. For if Christianity is a shoot grafted onto the olive tree of Judaism, Mormonism as it stands cannot be successfully grafted onto either.
Bruce D. Porter is a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Gerald R. McDermott is Jordan-Trexler Professor or Religion at Roanoke College and author, with Robert Millet, of Claiming Christ: A Mormon-Evangelical Debate.