Mormons sometimes think that the word “Mormon” is the reason Christians don’t think we’re Christian. Well, no, that’s not the problem. Lutherans, Episcopalians, Catholics, Evangelicals, Methodists, Baptists, Anabaptists, Presbyterians and Calvinists are Christian. No one is confused by a denomination’s nickname into thinking the denomination isn’t Christian.
The reason most Christians don’t think Mormons are Christian is because their pastor said so. But if you get into the doctrinal and historical reasons that Mormons aren’t acknowledged as Christian by most other Christians, you find out that Mormon teachings bring up ideas that the Christians stamped out more than a millennium ago when they formulated the Nicene Creed in about 400 A.D.
Now the dialogue goes like this:
Mormons: We believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of the world. He saved me from my sins. Therefore, we are Christians.
Catholics and Protestants: There’s more to being a Christian than just believing Christ is the Savior. You young whippersnapper religion, not only are you bringing up ideas that we stamped out more than a thousand years ago, but you’ve somehow made them WORSE.
Communicating our thoughts to other people requires a language. Language requires words. To be mutually understandable, words have to have definitions that are understood and used by both parties. If you’re using a word, thinking it means one thing, and another person is using the same word, sure that it means something else, you’ll talk past each other. Christian is a word with a definition that was hammered out about 300 to 400 A.D. Christians aren’t going to change the definition of Christian at this point, no matter how much we try to distance ourselves from the word Mormon.
Mainstream Christians are Trinitarians. A basic understanding of the Trinity as taught in the Nicene Creed, and the debate that led to the Nicene Creed, is vital to understanding the fundamental disagreements that separate Mormon theology from Trinitarian theology. The LDS rejection of the Nicene Creed’s doctrine of the Trinity is the main reason that Trinitarians don’t consider Mormons to be real Christians. The fact that many Mormons don’t know much about the Nicene Creed and the Trinity complicates the discussion.
I’m going to simplify some deep concepts and complex history for the sake of fitting these huge ideas into a blog post. I’ll put references in the footnotes for anyone who wants to do a deeper dive.
Arian v. Alexandrian
In about 300 A.D., a debate that had gone on for many years came to a head. The debate was about HOW Jesus could save us from our sins. Everyone agreed that Jesus was the Savior and saved people from their sins, but how exactly did he do that? Where did he get the power, authority and status to do something as mystical as saving someone from sin? There were two main theories in answer to this question.
The Arian theory was named after Arius, a priest. These ideas had been around since Christ and Arius became the most visible face of this theory. The Arian theory was that Jesus Christ was born a man. Because of his exemplary life, God adopted Christ as his son and sacrificed him to redeem humanity, resurrected him, and made Christ divine. That means that Christ was not always God. He was born as an ordinary mortal three hundred years before Arius and was exalted to Godhood either during his lifetime or at his resurrection.
The teaching that Jesus Christ was born a man set off a theological puzzle. How could a man who came into existence less than 300 years ago be God? According to Arians, Christ earned his deification by growing in wisdom and virtue, setting a perfect example for all of us. Arians believed that ordinary mortals can follow in Christ’s footsteps and attain the same status. Christ was thus an intermediary between man and God and if ordinary mortals followed his example, they had the potential to become gods as well. (Sound familiar?)
Other Christans strongly disagreed. At this point in history, the main spokesman against the Arian doctrine was Bishop Alexander of Athanasius. Alexander argued that God was eternal, omnipotent and unchanging. Only a Being of such power could save mankind from moral and physical destruction. If Christ was any less than God at any point in his existence, he could not save us. Demoting Christ to a deified mortal destroyed the work of salvation and left humanity in its fallen state and doomed to hell.
To restate: Christ’s sacrifice redeemed all humanity — that point was not in dispute — the dispute was about when Christ became God. Arians believed Christ could save us from our sins even though he was born a mortal and became God at some point after his birth. Alexandrians believed that Christ was always God, who condescended to come to earth in mortal form in order to save us.
The debate raged for decades. Eventually, the Arians were destroyed, banished or converted to the doctrines recorded in the Nicene Creed. The solution to the puzzle of Christ’s divinity was to combine Christ’s substance with God the Father’s substance. Christ was begotten and not made. The Nicene Creed teaches that there is one God with three facets. This one Being is God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. They are a three-in-one God, in which God manifests differently depending on which role he is fulfilling, but there is only ever one personage. This is the doctrine of the Trinity.
In this way, Trinitarians explain how Jesus Christ could be divine enough to save us from our sins. Separating God and Jesus Christ would demote Christ to an ordinary mortal whose existence began at birth, just like everyone else. Combining God and Jesus Christ allowed Jesus to draw on God’s eternal nature and divine status.
In addition, the Arian idea of separating God from Jesus Christ would mean there was more than one God. That sort of polytheism was too much like paganism, which Christians wanted to avoid.
The Mormon Doctrine of the Pre-Existence
The LDS Church does not combine God the Father with Jesus Christ, but teaches that God has a physical body and is separate from his Son Jesus Christ, who also has a physical body. “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.” D&C 130:22.
This separation of God the Father from his son Jesus Christ echoes back to the Arian controversy. Trinitarians believe that if Christ was separate from God, then there was a point in time when Christ was not God (heresy), and therefore he was not powerful enough to save us from our sins. Mormons solve the conundrum of Christ being both separate from God and as divine as God in an entirely novel way: the premortal existence.
Jesus Christ’s spirit was not created by God, but has always existed. In the Doctrine and Covenants, Joseph Smith recorded Jesus Christ saying, “And now, verily I say unto you, I [Jesus Christ] was in the beginning with the Father, and am the Firstborn.” D&C 93:21. Jesus Christ, in spirit form, was a God before he was born on this earth, coeternal with God the Father and obedient to God in carrying out his plan for this world.
Because Jesus Christ’s spirit is eternal, he does not need to be combined with the personage of God the Father to draw on God’s eternal nature. Because Jesus Christ was God before he was born, his sacrifice could save us from our sins. Mormons thus reject the Arian doctrine that there was ever a time when Jesus Christ was not God, and also reject the Trinitarian doctrine that Christ must be combined with God in order to draw on God’s eternal nature and divine status. Mormons teach that Christ is God and he saved us from our sins, but the doctrinal backdrop for HOW Christ has the authority and ability to save us from sin is unique in Christendom.
Trinitarians do not have the doctrine of the pre-existence. They typically believe our existence began at birth. Our body and soul is created by God when we are gestated and born.
The Nature of Mortals
The eternal nature of the souls given to mortals is another roadblock in Trinitarians accepting Mormons as Christians. Even worse than separating God and Jesus into separate entities is the Mormon doctrine that all of fallen humanity is co-eternal with God and Jesus. Our spirits have always existed, says Mormonism. For mortals to claim eternal status exalts humanity to the same stuff as God, or drags God down to the same stuff as humanity, depending on how you want to look at it.
Lorenzo Snow’s couplet (as man is, God once was; as God is, man may become) is Christian heresy. The only reason God/Jesus can save us from our sins is because they are God, fundamentally different from fallen mortals. The Book of Mormon teaches that only an infinite and eternal God could save us from our sins:
10 For it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice; yea, not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast, neither of any manner of fowl; for it shall not be a human sacrifice; but it must be an infinite and eternal sacrifice.
11 Now there is not any man that can sacrifice his own blood which will atone for the sins of another. Now, if a man murdereth, behold will our law, which is just, take the life of his brother? I say unto you, Nay.
12 But the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered; therefore there can be nothing which is short of an infinite atonement which will suffice for the sins of the world.
My interpretation of these verses is that no mortal or human could atone for our sins. Words like “infinite” and “eternal” are words that refer to deity, to God. Jesus could save us from our sins because he is a God, infinite and eternal. Mormonism accepts that doctrine, and in addition to it, teaches that humans are co-eternal with God and Jesus and that we could someday progress to become like them.
Every suggestion that Mormon theology makes that God was once a mortal man in need of a Savior horrifies Trinitarian Christians. God was never man; God never needed a Savior. God has to be fundamentally different from us, and far above us, in order to save us. Eternal progression is blasphemy and we’re not going to be allowed in the Christian Club with a teaching like that in our doctrine.
Christian doesn’t just mean “Jesus saved me from my sins.” Christian also includes specific beliefs about the relationship between God and mortals and the connection between God and Jesus.
Here’s the tl;dr of why Trinitarian Christians will never accept Mormons as Christians:
- The Trinitarians spent a hundred years stamping out the idea that God and Christ are separate beings; they’re not going to reconsider that decision.
- Believing that mortals can be exalted to divine status was a heresy that was also stamped out 1700 years ago. Again, Mormons aren’t going to persuade Trinitarians to revisit that decision.
- If God and Jesus are separate beings, then Mormons are polytheists. Trinitarians are monotheists.
- Trinitarians don’t believe in a pre-existence for human souls. If we say God and Jesus are separate beings, then we’ve demoted Jesus to an ordinary mortal created by God at birth just like the rest of us. No mortal can save other mortals from their sins. A Jesus who is separate from God can only ever be a teacher; he can’t be a Savior.
- The doctrine of the pre-existence makes Mormons even bigger heretics. Suggesting that mortals have eternal souls puts us too close to being like God. We’re dragging God down, which destroys his capacity to save us from our sins. God/Jesus has to be different from us if he’s going to save us from our sins.
- There aren’t enough Mormons to change the definition of Christian to include ideas that the Christians violently (seriously – people got murdered) rejected centuries ago.
- Can we please officially bring back the word “Mormon” now that we all understand that it’s our doctrine that separates us from mainstream Christians and not That Word?
- Do you care whether other Christians accept Mormons as Christian?
- Let’s talk about the first half of the Lorenzo Snow couplet (As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become). Do you believe that God was once a mortal man in need of a Savior? Go ahead, drop some blasphemy into the comments.
“Are Mormons Christian?” Gospel Topics Essays. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, undated article. This essay states that one of the reasons mainstream Christians (Trinitarians) do not accept Mormons as Christians is because Mormons do not accept the creeds of post-New Testament Christianity. The creed is not described or named, but likely it is referring to the Nicene Creed. The essay does not describe what the Mormons accept instead, other than to state that Mormons believe in the ideas of Christianity from before the creeds were written.
My comment: The essay neglects to consider that the LDS teachings about the premortal existence are not taught in the New Testament. When reading the scholarly evaluations of the doctrinal disputes that led to the Nicene Creed, I didn’t see any thread of thought that taught the pre-existence of souls. Given the centrality of the premortal existence to the LDS concept of God, Christ, the afterlife and eternal progression, it sure would be interesting to find out if scholars of early Christianity have found any indication that the original Christians believed in a premortal existence. The LDS Church teaches that Joseph Smith restored truths that were lost, but there aren’t any hints that the pre-existence was ever taught and then lost. I’m not scholarly enough to draw official conclusions from that, but I would love to see an early Christian historian do a deep dive into any possibility that early Christians believed in the pre-existence. That might be an easy yes/no question that would prove whether Joseph Smith ‘restored’ early Christian teachings or just straight up created a new theology.)
Ehrman, Bart D. How Jesus Became God. HarperOne, 2014. The authors of the New Testament had differing views of Christ’s divinity, according to Ehrman, who traces the textual evidence for clues as to what the earliest Christians thought of Christ and whether he was born a God, or was exalted to Godhood when he was baptized or resurrected. This book explains the history of the ideas that eventually came to a head in the Arian controversy and resulted in the Nicene Creed.
Grudem, Wayne. Christian Beliefs: 20 Basics Every Christian Should Know. Zondervan, 2005. The doctrine of the Trinity is explained in simple terms in chapter 3, p. 37-41. It doesn’t go into any history.
Rubenstein, Richard E. When Jesus Became God: The Epic Fight over Christ’s Divinity in the Last Days of Rome. Harcourt Brace & Company, 1999. This book contains the political history, biographical descriptions, and explanation of the theological debate between the priest, Arius, for whom the Arian Controversy was named, and Bishop Alexander of Athanasius, whose counter-arguments formed the foundation of the Nicene Creed. This quote from p.115 summed up the issue: “Athanasius’s answer, later expressed at length in his ‘Four Discourses Against the Arians,’ is that Arianism is fundamentally anti-Christian, since it leads logically either to the conclusion that Christ was a man, which is the Jewish position, or that he is a second God or demigod, which is pure paganism.”