This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 3 (2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
“It is Infinity, which, joined to our Ideas of Existence, Power, Knowledge, etc.
makes the complex Idea, whereby we represent to ourselves
the best we can, the Supreme Being.”1 —John Locke
It is sometimes thought that while Mormonism and Christianity differ significantly, they both are Christ-centered. After all, the Mormon Church is named The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But appearances can be deceiving. Mormon leaders and teachers add to the confusion of Mormon theology with statements made in both their public dialogue and written commentary.
While there may be many similarities between Christianity and Mormonism, such similarities are minuscule when analyzing the religions overall. For example, there are many theological terms in Mormonism that will be familiar to the Christian. Those terms, however, denote different meanings. The biblical Christ differs substantially from the Mormon Christ. Through tactical dialogue, one is encouraged to ask questions that serve to illustrate this crucial difference. This provides the basis for addressing the difference concerning not only the identity of Jesus but also the worship worthiness of Jesus. Worshiping someone who is merely growing in superhuman powers obviously is different than worshiping the Supreme Being, who is worthy of worship. In historic Christian theology, God is not simply that which is worshiped but that than which no greater can be conceived. In what is explained as Mormon anthropotheism, however, Mormons conflate human nature and divine nature not only in Christ but also in each of us, such that there is no distinct field of anthropology or theology to consider in Mormonism. As such, Mormon theology cripples Mormon Christology.
Ask five Mormons the same theological question, and you’ll receive five different answers. Mormon theology is progressive by nature, and its theological terms are a constantly moving target. The Greek philosopher Epictetus once quipped, “We have two ears and one mouth for a reason.” We need to listen more and ask questions that lead to truth.
TACTICS OF DIALOGUE
In talking about Christ and God with Mormons, it is important to understand the differences and their significance. But this presupposes that there are differences. Many Mormons initially soft peddle differences until forced to admit them. I illustrate this with some dialogue:
Me: “Let me ask you a personal question. Do you have a mom?”
Mormon: “Yes, of course.”
Me: “I do, too! Can you spell that?”
Me: “No way! I spell it the same way. Maybe we have the same mom? Can you spell it backward?”
Me: “Surely we have the same mom because it is spelled the same!”
This silly dialogue illustrates the point with lighthearted humor. On further description of our respective moms, if hers is eight feet tall and mine only four feet tall, then they are two different moms. Likewise, one should point out that while we all spell “Christ” and “God” the same, the meanings aren’t necessarily the same.
Mormons often claim to be Christians because they believe in Christ, and many Christians agree, given that claim. This is why it is imperative to define terms. Asking questions opens reflective dialogue, demonstrates genuine interest, and allows one to understand what the Mormon really believes — not merely what we think she believes. It even helps her understand and declaratively own what she believes.
“Is Christ the Son of God”? “Is He God the Son”? “What do you mean by God?” “Is Christ God?” “Has Christ always been God?” “Is God supreme?” “How can God be supreme unless He’s always been supreme? On your view, wouldn’t god2 be steps behind his own heavenly father and other gods who are likewise eternally progressing for all eternity, precluding him from being supreme?”3 Whether deceived or deceiving, Mormons often give an affirmative response to most of those questions, but asking from different angles probes the depth of the issue such that one will inevitably arrive at a difference.
THE MORMON JESUS IN THE PUBLIC SQUARE
Mormons are talking more now about Jesus and his work than in the past. Is it just a public relations play in view of an ever-increasing dialogue between evangelicals and Mormons? Does it make a difference?4 This new rhetoric has not actually changed the meaning of the terms used. Indeed, the Mormon and Christian conceptions of Jesus remain very different. In what follows, I will identify and develop what I think is the main difference between the Jesus of Mormonism and the real Jesus, the Jesus of Christianity.
Robert Millet is perhaps the most prominent Mormon scholar writing today — at least in terms of public relations. Under the heading “What Mormons Believe about Jesus Christ,” located on the official Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) resource for news media and the public, is an address he gave at Harvard Divinity School.5 While not an LDS General Authority, he is nonetheless relevantly platformed and sanctioned by the LDS Church as a leading representative for obvious reasons. He is not only the most prominent Mormon engaged in evangelical-Mormon dialogue but also the former dean of religious education at BYU, overseeing the religious education of thirty thousand Mormon students. Here and elsewhere, he outlines several familiar beliefs that Mormons and Christians hold about Jesus (Messiah, Son of God, incarnation, resurrection, exaltation, miracle worker, etc.).
In an engagement with an evangelical theologian, reflecting on Christ’s divinity, Millet claims that Jesus was not only the son of god but also god the son. Further, Jesus is viewed from everlasting to everlasting in that he exists from eternity past to eternity future.6 He refers to this as a mystery, but says, “While Jesus was, in that first estate, our elder brother, he was also God and is certainly God today.” He even refers to Jesus as “the self-existing One.”7 Aside from this “elder brother” bit (elder to us and to Lucifer, in their view), there seems to be a great deal of prima facie harmony with the historical Christian view of Jesus’ divinity. One is reminded of the subtitle to the Book of Mormon added in 1982, “Another Testament of Jesus Christ.” Impressed by Millet’s claim that in the Book of Mormon “Christ or his ministry is mentioned approximately every 1.7 verses,” Millet’s evangelical opponent Gerald McDermott concedes that Christ is central in Mormon theology.8 But that’s a hasty concession even for academic pleasantries because it is both misleading and false.
While merely highlighting and repeating the word Jesus may make him central to LDS consciousness, it is still a far cry from connecting to the real meaning of Jesus. There remains a fundamental lack of correspondence to the real Jesus of Christian theology, philosophy, and Scripture. The problem is that Mormon theology directly impacts Mormon Christology, which underwrites statements by LDS prophetic authorities such as Gordon B. Hinckley when considering Christ: “The traditional Christ of whom they speak is not the Christ of whom I speak.”9 “As a church we have critics, many of them. They say we do not believe in the traditional Christ of Christianity. There is some substance to what they say.”10
As is well known, in his King Follett Sermon, Joseph Smith taught that god was once a man who lived on an earth and was later exalted, the same as all gods have done in the past, representing the evolutionary divinity in Mormonism.11While polytheism and the progression toward godhood is foreign to the Book of Mormon, it is certainly part of Smith’s theology and is grounded in other Mormon scriptures where the divinized-humanity or humanized-divinity occurs along the evolutionary spectrum (cf. the Book of Abraham in The Pearl of Great Price and Doctrine and Covenants section 132). When challenged, Millet makes a surprisingly implicit concession in his question, “To what extent does it truly matter whether Jesus was always God or at a certain point in the pre-mortal realm he became God….What difference does it really make whether he was not always God?” Continuing with personal confession, he says, “When he was God, he was God….My adoration or worship of him is not dependent on when or how or under what circumstances he became God.”12 Aside from the fact that Millet worships what are in Mormon theology two separate deities (Jesus and the Father), Jesus’ nature is clearly a radical departure from the Jesus known in the biblical Christian tradition.
When it comes to the identity of Christ, the problem isn’t their lack of embracing Jesus’ humanity per se or his divinity per se. Indeed, Mormons embrace the humanity and divinity of Jesus just as they do of all persons. They conflate these natures as one species on a continuum. Their evolving Jesus from being divinely human to humanly divine isn’t the traditional Christian Jesus, which is the Jesus of revelation, just as their god isn’t the traditional Christian God, which is the God both of revelation and of reason.
Jesus is only one of an infinite number of finite gods in Mormonism. He resembles the superhuman Greco-Roman gods, which perhaps surpass in number the 330 million gods of Hinduism, since “eternal progression” of the gods has been happening for all eternity. Mormon deities are, like everything else in their worldview, material beings. Mormons believe that “there is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes.”13 Each of these “anthropotheistic” beings, as we might call them, exist eternally, albeit in various developmental stages. A Mormon can claim that both god and man are eternal.
According to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Joseph Smith said that “the spirit of man is not a created being; it existed from eternity,” and that the best understanding of what it means for a deity to create means no more than “to organize.”14 For Mormonism, man is eternal. All beings, including Jesus, existed for all eternity as some sort of spirit matter. The real question is the nature of these progressive beings.15 The late prophet Spencer W. Kimball, about whom I sang songs while a Mormon, refers to such beings somewhat ironically as “supermen” and to us on Earth as “gods in embryo.”16
This confusion from divinized-humanity to humanizeddivinity is foreign to Judeo-Christianity. Understanding the precise relation of these two distinct natures in one person is what concerned the major Council of Chalcedon (AD 451). It sought to articulate and defend the orthodox biblical view of the one person, Jesus, in two natures, yet without confusing the natures. Mormons confuse the natures. The Council issued its “two-natures/one person” definition that set the boundaries for Christology in the West, saying “One and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion….even as the prophets from the earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the Fathers has handed down to us.” This became the orthodox standard, embraced as consistent with the biblical progressive revelation from Old to New Testaments to the historical theological accounts of Christ as incarnate deity.17 The Son of God was “given” but the child was “born.” The Son was infinite but the child finite. Millet admits that “we do not believe that God and man are of a different species,” and yet he’s somehow “uncomfortable with stating that we believe in a finite God; all of the scriptures state otherwise.”18 Perplexing! Although Mormon scriptures often use terms of divinity familiar to us such as “infinite,” “eternal,” “everlasting,” and “unchangeable,”19they are empty of their traditionally understood meanings.
The biblical evidence clearly points to Jesus Christ being truly God and truly man, yet those two natures exist in only one person, unconfused. While seemingly incomprehensible to grasp how one person can have both infinite and finite attributes, one can apprehend its coherence. For brevity and because large volumes are provided elsewhere illuminating this concept biblically, theologically, and philosophically, I will make only a few comments.20 Illustrations abound, from physics to theology, about truths that are apprehensible while not fully comprehensible. The law of noncontradiction states that a proposition cannot be both true and false in the same sense and at the same time. The predicates composing the two natures of Christ assume different “senses” of person and nature, respectively. Christ is one “who” (person) and two “whats” (natures). Mormonism won’t find it problematic to claim that Jesus is fully god and fully man because god just is man, and man just is god on a single spectrum in LDS anthropotheism.
SUPREME BEING OR SUPERMAN? A QUESTION ABOUT WORSHIP WORTHINESS
God in Western theology is the Being above all beings, indeed, the ontological ground of all being past, present, or future. According to Christian thinkers, this is a being of maximal greatness, that according to which no greater being can be conceived. It’s important to consider the nature of God and not just the term God. God’s attributes can be known via special revelation (Scripture) and general revelation (reason and inference from observation of creation). Reason and revelation can be complementary such that the God of the philosophers and of the prophets can together point to the one Christian God with great-making qualities at the maximal or infinite scale, providing a description of a being whose supremacy is unassailable and matchless. Some Mormons demur at what is aptly called “perfect being theology” (a theology that emerges from considering what it means to be a Supreme Being). But there are good reasons for affirming it. For example, if God exists, it would not be reasonable or biblical — it would be silly, really — to conclude that God is less powerful, less moral, less knowledgeable than humans or other creations. He would be comparatively greater. Indeed, God would be the superlative, the greatest conceivable being, perfectly supreme in all divine attributes. By the nature of supremacy, there can be only one Supreme Being. Otherwise it negates supremacy. God must be thought of minimally in our finite minds in superlative terms.
As a supreme being, God exhibits certain great making characteristics such as omnipotence (all-powerful), omniscience (all-knowing), and omnibenevolence (wholly good). This concept has remarkable convergence with the God of biblical revelation in being unassailable and matchless greatness. “Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit,” declares the psalmist (147:5). But the concept of God is sometimes underdetermined by biblical data. Some great-making properties have more latitude for philosophers. For example, while the Bible affirms that God is eternal (Ps. 90:2), it seems open to debate whether this means “infinite throughout all time” or “transcends time altogether.”21 Mormons also embrace this term (eternal) of God, but understood only in the sense of a finite god who is always inferior to his father, and to his father, ad infinitum, rather than an infinite God who is literally supreme and worship worthy. This is the case with all the attributes of a finite god in Mormonism. The finite superman of Mormonism, with implications for the Mormon Jesus, is not worship worthy.
A prominent characteristic of God, mentioned in word but lacking in meaning by Millet, and Mormons more generally, is God’s aseity (from the Latin, a se, meaning by itself or in itself). God exists a se, that is, God is self-existent. The Bible portrays God as the uncreated Creator of all things (Isa. 40:17–23, 28). Mormonism doesn’t even have a Creator; rather, it has an organizer. No god for any world created all worlds, nor did any god create intelligence, matter, or the metaphysical laws governing them. Such beings are merely co-eternal with other things in existence (D & C 131:7–8, Abraham 3:18–28). By contrast, the Bible declares that all things exist by God’s will (Rev. 4:11).
John reconnects to the first words of Genesis in the origins of all things by the expression “In the beginning…” (John 1:1–3). He says that the Word was with God, was God, and that all things were made through Him. All things came to be other than the Creator. The Word was made flesh (i.e., Jesus in v. 14). All things were made through Him, they came into being by Him and for Him. Paul tells us that “from Him and through Him and to Him are all things,” in that God is the source, sustainer, and the goal of all reality outside of Himself (Rom. 11:36). God didn’t come into being or progress from finite to infinite Being (a logical impossibility). He simply exists, as God, “from everlasting to everlasting” (Ps. 90:2). In revealing His name and nature to Moses, God said, “I am that I am” (Exod. 3:14), the uniquely self-existent one. Jesus takes on this divine name (John 8:58). We find this greatness of attributes amply mentioned of Christ who was before all things, is the “exact representation of [God’s] nature,” and that everything visible or invisible was created by Him whereby all things hold together (1 Cor. 8:5–6; Heb. 1:1–3; Col. 1:15–17; Phil. 2:5–8). Thus, aseity is true of Christ as an essential divine attribute.
God exists independently of anything else. He is supreme and worship worthy, existing by a necessity of His own nature. He is a necessary being, a being that cannot not be. If it is possible logically that God exists, then God exists by necessity in every possible world. If God exists in this way, then He must be eternal. Eternality, as well as necessity, is entailed by His aseity. The greatest conceivable being cannot be one who exists contingently, accidentally, as God, but instead exists necessarily as God. But in Mormonism, there was a time that exalted deities, including Jesus, were not exalted and were somewhat like frozen embryos awaiting their next stage in development. But if God exists a se, then everything outside of God has radical dependence on God. And thus everything outside of God has radical dependence on the Son of God, God the Son — terms Mormons claim to embrace but deny in meaning.
For unto us the Son was given, but the Christ was born, the one person holding the divine essence necessarily and the human nature contingently. The fundamental difference that makes a difference is Mormonism’s affinity with anthropotheism, the idea of a conceptually conflated evolutionary being. Mormons do not make the radical distinction between humanity and divinity that Western theists do in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Mormon gods have more in common with the page you are reading in terms of finitude than with the Western concepts of God in terms of God’s infinite nature. The similarities between the Christian and Mormon ideas of Jesus are many, but the differences are infinite.
Corey Miller, PhD, is president and CEO of Ratio Christi: Campus Apologetics Alliance (www.ratiochristi.org) and teaches adjunct in philosophy and comparative religions at Indiana University-Kokomo. He is coauthor of Leaving Mormonism: Why Four Scholars Changed Their Minds (Ratio Christi/Kregel, 2017).
- John Locke (1632–1704), An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Oxford: OUP, 1979), II.xxiii, 35:22–24.
- Editor’s Note: CHRISTIAN RESEARCH JOURNAL policy is to capitalize pronouns referring to the biblical God and Jesus, but not to capitalize pronouns referencing essentially unbiblical conceptions of God and “other Jesuses” of false religions.
- To understand the major conceptual problems with the Mormon doctrine of eternal progression, see Chapter 2 in Corey Miller and Lynn K. Wilder, Leaving Mormonism: Why Four Scholars Changed Their Minds (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications/Ratio Christi Books, 2017).
- Robert L. Millet and Gerald R. McDermott, Claiming Christ: A Mormon-Evangelical Debate (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007), 46–48.
- Millet and McDermott, Claiming Christ, 50.
- Millet and McDermott, Claiming Christ, 61.
- http://www.ldschurchnewsarchive.com/articles/31188/Crown-of-gospel-is-upon our-heads.html.
- Gordon B. Hinckley, “We Look to Christ,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 2002, 90.
- Joseph Fielding Smith, comp., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976), 342–62.
- Millet and McDermott, Claiming Christ, 61.
- Doctrine and Covenants 131:6.
- Encyclopedia of Mormonism (2:867–8).
- See the work by the late philosophy and BYU religion professor Truman G. Madsen, Eternal Man (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1966), 16.
- Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft), 286.
- Marilyn McCord Adams, What Sort of Human Nature? Medieval Philosophy and the Systematics of Christology (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1999).
- Robert L. Millet, “‘We Shall Be Like Him’: Explorations into the LDS Doctrine of Deification,” in Mormonism at the Crossroads of Philosophy and Theology, ed. Jacob T. Baker (Sandy, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2012), 268–70.
- Doctrine and Covenants 20:17.
- For readers wishing to go deeper into the philosophical and theological understanding of the two natures of Jesus, see Millard J. Erickson, The Word Became Flesh: A Contemporary Incarnational Christology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991); Thomas V. Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate (London: Cornell University Press, 1986).
- For further study on perfect being theology, see Tom Morris and David Baggett, “Abraham, Isaac, and Anselm: In Defense of Greatest Being Theology,” Christian Research Journal 39, 01 (2016), https://www.equip.org/article/god-abraham-isaac-anselm-defense-greatest-theology/