Earlier this week, Happy Hubby addressed the Mormon Leaks release about trends in Young Single Adult activity rates. During the same leak, Mormon Leaks revealed a 40-page training document from 2012 for LDS church leaders and Public Affairs personnel to use in addressing common questions (full PDF here, Infants on Thrones smackdown here).  Reading the first few doctrinal questions about what Mormons believe about Jesus and the Trinity made me realize something important: Mormons really don’t get why traditional Christians think Mormons are heretics!

(This is the first post in a series — I would appreciate comments from anyone, LDS or not, on if you think I have messed up any details about either LDS or traditional Christian theology.)

Are Mormons Christian?

I’m sure every Mormon has experienced someone questioning their Christianity. And, if you were like me, born and raised in the church, you probably had no idea why your non-LDS Christian friends were so insistent that Mormons are not Christians.

From looking at the church’s answers, I am struck by how I could easily see myself using similar answers to the ones the LDS church advises leaders and Public Affairs to use: we have Jesus Christ in the name of the church — how can we not be Christians?!

And so it goes for the questions regarding Mormonism’s status as a Christian religion:

Are Mormons Christian?

Yes. Latter-day Saints worship Jesus Christ as the Son of God and embrace His message, mission, and ministry as set out in the New Testament. In addition, The Book of Mormon is another testament, or witness, of the divinity of Jesus Christ. Christ-centered references occur throughout the book, such as in 2 Nephi 25:26: “And 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.

Who could protest this?

The one thing I’ve learned since engaging with non-LDS Christian theology on a more substantive level has been that most of the time, terminology has very different meanings and Mormons may not even be aware of that. At best, the church’s answers are blissfully ignorant of the substantive issues at play. At worst, the church’s answers are explicit obfuscations of those issues.

Do Mormons believe in another Jesus?

At first, the LDS answer to the question of whether Mormons are Christians seems unassailable. Mormons do talk about Jesus a lot. Jesus’s name is in the name of the church, it is in every Mormon prayer, and Mormons have not just two testaments to Jesus (because the Old Testament is also definitely about Jesus), but three! To understand the issues lying beneath the surface with the LDS answer to the question of whether Mormons are Christians, we have to address where Mormons and traditional Christians might disagree on who Jesus is, how the members of the Godhead or Trinity relate to one another, and (in the next post), how they relate to us.

This leads to another question addressed in the document:

Do you worship a different Jesus?

Latter-day Saints worship God the Father and Jesus Christ — the Jesus of the Bible that many people are familiar with.

No more questions, right?

The church anticipates that some people will not be pleased with one line, so it continues:

Do you believe in the Trinity?

We believe in God the Father, and his Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost (or Holy Spirit). In many Christian traditions, these are usually understood as manifestations of one God. In our belief, they are separate personages but one in purpose.

Here is where Mormons and traditional Christians are going to start having major problems. For many Mormons who aren’t aware of traditional Christian theology, these three short sentences are unobjectionable. Before talking with traditional Christians in depth, my understanding of the Trinity probably would have been the same.

The first sentence still isn’t too objectionable (at least, not yet), so I’ll start with the second.

Is it true that in many Christian traditions, Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost are understood as manifestations of one God?

This answer plays on the popular understanding that Christianity is utterly committed to monotheism, so it is true that traditional Christianity is absolutely committed to the claim that there is one God. And yet, how can there be three in one?

Many people throughout history have tried to explain how this can be, and many times, they have expressed one form of heresy or another, either rejecting the oneness of God or the personhoods of some or all of the Trinity.

The idea of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost as being different manifestations evokes the heresy of modalism: the idea that the members of the Trinity are only three modes or aspects to God, rather than being three persons.

Modalism, the Nature of God
Source: Graphic Design Hero – full series of “The Nature of God” here

One expression of modalism might be to say that God is like the states of matter for water — water can be liquid water, or it can be solid ice, or it can be vapor, but it’s the same thing.

Another expression of modalism might be to say that God’s three aspects are roles or metaphors…one man might be a husband to his wife, a father to his son, and a son to his own parents — but at the end of the day, he’s one man.

I suspect that many Mormons sincerely believe that the Christian trinity is modalism (and, apparently, the church’s own document on common questions), and that Mormonism fixes the Trinity by making God into three distinct persons. (Thus, you might also hear Mormons criticizing Christians for believing the baffling claim that Jesus was praying to himself, and so on.)

But here’s the issue: modalism is a heresy and has been for a long time. It is not what traditional Christians believe!

Trinity Shield - The Father is not the Son, who is not the Holy Ghost, but the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are God.

Behold the Trinity Shield — the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, but the Father is not the Son nor the Holy Ghost, and neither are the Holy Ghost or the Son the same person as the Father or one another.

So, what do traditional Christians believe? The traditional understanding of the Trinity is that God is three persons (Jesus, the Holy Ghost, and the Father) in one being.

Mormon beliefs on personages

Let’s go back to the 3rd sentence from the previously discussed answer.

In our belief, they are separate personages but one in purpose.

Firstly, this line reinforces the previous impression that traditional Christians are modalists — Mormons believe that three members of the trinity are separate personages, but traditional Christians do not.

But what is actually true is that both Mormons and traditional Christians believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are separate persons. Neither group seriously thinks that Jesus prayed to himself.

So, what’s the big deal?! Why are traditional Christians so insistent that Mormons are not Christians?

It’s in what is not mentioned. Never is the word being or substance mentioned.

For many Mormons, “being” is probably seen as synonymous to “person” or “personage.” To say God is three persons for a Mormon is probably synonymous as saying “God is three beings”. Even now, I imagine many folks having a tough time separating the concepts.

But for traditional Christians, being and person mean different things. Being is more like (not exactly, but more like) a reference to species, and this is where things can get really complicated (in fact, at the end of the day, most folks I talked to embraced the idea that the Trinity is a divine mystery, and therefore isn’t intended to be easily understood.)

For traditional Christians, the persons of God are defined by who they are, and their shared nature is defined radically separately from all of creation as the one that is uncreated, eternal, necessary, and existing in and of itself. This contrasts with the nature of all creation, which are created (duh!), temporally and logically contingent, beings separated and divided materially and temporally, and who are held in existence by God.

In the attempt to make the Godhead more relatable, personal, and understandable than the traditional Trinity, Mormonism drastically redefined who God is and how God operates significantly from the traditional Christian understanding. The Mormon Godhead is not defined by who they are, but by what they do, or, as the church document emphasizes: the Godhead is one in purpose. Godhead is more like an office or role performed by the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

In this way, to say something like “Heavenly Father is God” in traditional Christianity is like saying “I am human” — it is something that is true regardless of what I do, although the actions I can perform are mediated by my human nature. It’s who I am. In contrast, to say something like “Heavenly Father is God” in Mormonism is more like saying “I am an accountant” — that is something that is true because of what I do.

So, who is God in Mormonism? How does who God is relate to who we are? In Part II, I’ll get into Mormon-specific speculations about relationality between being such as God and humanity, which spills over into fun questions for Mormons such as what relationality exists between Jesus and Satan, and whether persons than the members Godhead can do the actions that would make them God.