Ben Witherington III, a well-known evangelical New Testament scholar, recently posted an article on “Why Mormonism is not Christianity.” William J. Hamblin, a Mormon scholar, swiftly responded on his blog with a critique of Witherington’s six criticisms of Mormon belief. The two articles may be read here:
Ben Witherington III, “Why Mormonism Is Not Christianity—the Issue of Christology,” Patheos, 27 Aug. 2012.
Bill Hamblin, “Are Mormons Christians? Witherington Says No,” Mormon Scripture Explorations (blog), 28 Aug. 2012.
For the most part, Hamblin misses the point, as I shall explain. In fact, much of Hamblin’s response misses the context of Witherington’s six points, which are not presented as “six reasons why he believes Mormons are not Christians,” as Hamblin claims. In fact Witherington is very clear as to what the six points represent. He writes (emphasis added):
While it is true that in some respects, Mormons have more disagreements with Catholics and Orthodox Christians than they do with Evangelicals they certainly have major differences with Evangelicals as well. They could not, for example, in good conscious sign a faith statement that the Evangelical Theological Society might present to them for membership in that society. What are these major differences? Here it will be worth listing just a few in this post.
Note that Witherington states explicitly that he is going to list major differences that Mormons have “with Evangelicals,” not with all Christians. Indeed, Witherington makes it clear that this list would not be the same as a list of differences between Mormons and Catholics, for example. After he discusses the six points, Witherington comments, “It is of course true that there are Christians who are a part of the Mormon religion.” Hamblin fails to mention this statement. It is also important to notice that the title of Witherington’s article is not “Why Mormons are not Christians” but “Why Mormonism is not Christianity.” Thus, Witherington is discussing Mormonism as a religious and theological system, not the status of individuals within the religion.
Let us now look at Witherington’s six points and Hamblin’s rebuttals.
1. Witherington states that “Mormons are polytheists, not monotheists. That is, they believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three separate beings, thus denying the essential monotheistic statements of both the OT and NT that God is One.” Hamblin responds: “The problem here is not a question of the oneness of God, which Mormons affirm, it is a question of the nature of that oneness. Mormons believe that the Trinity is of one will, broadly comparable to Social Trinitarian concepts.”
Redefining the “nature” of God’s “oneness” does not eliminate the real difference between the historic, biblical understanding of God and the Mormon doctrine. The Bible never describes the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three Gods; Mormonism does. In the Bible, the three divine persons exist co-eternally as the one transcendent Creator God distinct from his finite, temporal creation. In Mormonism, each of the three persons became Gods—at different times and in different ways—and human beings on earth have the potential to become Gods as well. For this and other reasons, Hamblin’s comparison of the LDS doctrine to social Trinitarianism is not apt (a fact that his qualifier “broadly” does not overcome). Social Trinitarianism views the three persons as uniquely and eternally one God; each person has always been God, and no one else can ever be God, though human beings are invited to share in the loving fellowship of the three persons. Social Trinitarianism does not reduce the unity of the Trinity to a unity of will. Thus Witherington’s statement is absolutely correct and Hamblin’s response is misdirection.
Hamblin goes on to criticize the idea that acceptance of the Nicene understanding of the Trinity is necessary to be a Christian, an idea that leaves out the “medieval peasant” and many others who cannot understand the Nicene Creed. But this is simply more misdirection. Witherington does not claim, and neither do other evangelicals, that one must understand the Nicene Creed to be a Christian. However, if you consciously and deliberately reject the Nicene position for a radically different theology that denies basic elements of the biblical and Christian position, then you have separated yourself confessionally from orthodox Christianity. This is what Mormonism does, and that is why we assert that it is not an authentic form of Christianity. The theologically illiterate medieval peasant or modern evangelical (and yes, there are some) may not be able to explain the Nicene doctrine correctly. However, their mistakes pale by comparison to the error of making “God” an open category of being to which any of us may aspire and of which the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost happen to be the three representative members who rule over us and under whose rule we may pursue our own Godhood.
Hamblin also suggests that it should be enough to “affirm that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.” It would be enough so far as Christology is concerned if what the person making the affirmation meant was the truth that those words express biblically. In fact Mormons do not mean the same thing by “the Son of God” as do orthodox Christians. In Mormonism, Jesus is “the Son of God” in the sense that he is the only human being who has an immortal Man as the father of his physical body. It is useless to say the right words if you attach radically wrong ideas to them.
2. According to Witherington, Mormons “deny the doctrine of the Trinity, calling it an amalgam of Greek ideas with Biblical ideas.” They view the early creeds (Apostles, Nicene, and Chalcedon) “as in essence contradictory to what Scripture teaches.” Hamblin responds, “Quite true. Mormons reject the authority of the ecumenical councils, as necessarily did all Christians during the first three centuries after Jesus…. But the real question is: were the followers of Jesus before Nicaea Christians? They certainly were. Yet none of them affirmed the Nicene creed. If Jesus’ original apostles didn’t believe in the Nicene creed, why must Mormons?”
Evangelicals (such as Witherington or myself) do not regard the ecumenical councils as having “authority” in the same way as Scripture, or as Mormons view their living prophets. We do not view the creeds as inspired documents. Rather, we view them as reliable expressions of Christian faith that have stood the test of time and critical examination as just that—reliable expressions. This is why evangelicals are generally comfortable with critical theological analysis of the creeds to see what refinements or restatements might be needed in light of advancing understanding of Scripture and more developed theological reflection.
Again, our claim is not that one must know, understand, and affirm the creeds to be a Christian. Rather, one must view God in basically the same way as the creeds and not reject the basic system of doctrine or theological worldview that those creeds reliably express. Hamblin confuses the issue here by claiming that necessarily all Christians in the first three centuries must have rejected the authority of the councils. They could not have rejected per se what had not yet occurred or what did not yet exist. Professing Christians prior to Nicaea who taught that Jesus was an angelic creature or a human being exalted to semi-divine status held to an unacceptable form of Christian belief, not because they were ignorant of a creed that had not yet been written but because their doctrine seriously distorted the revelation of Christ preserved in the New Testament writings.
Hamblin asks, “if the councils are authoritative, and affirmation of their creeds a requirement for Christianity, why do Evangelicals reject the theotokos doctrine and veneration of Mary established by the council of Ephesus in 431? Do Evangelicals get to pick and choose which parts of the ecumenical councils one has to believe to be a Christian?” I have already explained that the councils are not authoritative for evangelicals, at least not in the sense that Hamblin implies. Hamblin’s question makes other assumptions that need to be challenged. Evangelicals often question the propriety of the term theotokos (“God-bearer,” sometimes misleadingly translated as “mother of God”), but they accept the Christological truth the term expressed, namely, that Mary’s son was in fact God incarnate. Furthermore, the council of Ephesus did not establish veneration of Mary. The issue was Christological, not Mariological.
3. Witherington states, “Mormons believe that even God the Father has, and apparently, needs a body, denying that God in the divine nature is spirit. Indeed they believe that God the Father is an exalted man!” Hamblin replies: “We believe the Father has a body, not that he is a body. But, for Mormons, the Father is equally spirit. If the incarnate Christ can be God while having a body, why is that problematic for the Father? At any rate, it is quite clear that the Bible describes the Father as anthropomorphic, sitting, having a right hand, speaking, etc. And many early Christians believed exactly that.”
Hamblin’s response here completely misses the point. Orthodox Christians do not object to the possibility of one of the persons of the Trinity becoming incarnate. The Son did just that, and if the Father wanted to become incarnate presumably he could do so as well. But that is not the issue at all. The problem is not in the idea of God humbling himself to become a physical being; the problem is in the idea of a physical being supposedly progressing through a process of exaltation to attain status as a God. Christianity teaches that God became a man; Mormonism teaches that a man became God. The two theologies are radically opposed. It is true that some Christians have thought of God in anthropomorphic ways, but they have not taught that God was once a mortal man who progressed to Godhood and that we can do the same. It is the context of the Mormon anthropomorphism that places the LDS view of God outside the pale, not the idea taken abstractly out of context of God having a body of some kind.
Anyone who has actually read the “anthropomorphic” passages in the Bible should be able to see that they cannot be taken literally, even within Mormon theology. Does God sit on a literal chair? The Bible says that heaven is God’s throne and the earth is his footstool (Is. 66:1; Matt. 5:34-35; Acts 7:49). Does God do his creative works using literal hands? Isaiah says that God measured out the oceans of the earth in the hollow of his hand and measured the dirt of the mountains on scales (Is. 40:12). It is idle to cite biblical anthropomorphic language without seriously engaging how that language is used.
4. Witherington observes that Mormons not only “believe that the early church became apostate” but also that “the Bible as we have it is not inerrant or always truthful and trustworthy, even on major issues like Christology.” For that reason, he says, Mormons think the Bible “needs to be supplemented (and corrected) by subsequent prophetic revelation in documents like the Book of Mormon, or even The Pearl of Great Price.” Hamblin responds first by pointing out that Christians historically have had differing views of the extent of the biblical canon: “What of the Ethiopian Bible, which includes the Book of Enoch and Jubilees? Are the Ethiopians therefore not Christians?” Hamblin points out that the first Christians did not have a New Testament and so could not believe in it. He agrees that Mormons deny biblical inerrancy but asserts that “Mormons don’t maintain that the Christology of the Bible is false.” Hamblin bluntly dismisses both the inerrancy of the Bible and its sufficiency as a guide to Christian doctrine. “But the real question,” he claims, is “must one believe in the inerrancy of the Bible to be a Christian.”
Hamblin’s confusion over what Witherington was claiming to present with his six points is especially relevant on this point. Witherington is explaining six of the many differences between Mormon and evangelical belief. He is not arguing that any deviation, no matter how inconsequential, on any one of these six points disqualifies someone as a Christian. Thus what Hamblin calls “the real question” is not the question at all. Still, to answer Hamblin’s question, no, belief in the inerrancy of the Bible is not in and of itself a requirement to be a Christian. It is a defining belief of evangelical theology, and it was the historic Christian view until the Enlightenment, but not all Christians accept this particular belief.
More broadly, most of Hamblin’s response simply by-passes Witherington’s point, which is that Mormonism regards the Bible as corrupt in such a way and to such an extent that it cannot be even the main source for Christian doctrine. The supposedly restored ancient scriptures and the modern scriptures of the LDS religion are in practice the main sources for Mormon doctrine, with the Bible used where it seems to agree with the “restoration” scriptures. The minor skirmishes among orthodox Christians over the precise extent of the Old Testament canon are nothing like Mormonism’s greatly expanded canon of scripture in which the entire Bible is put effectively at the back of the bus. While Mormons would generally not assert that “the Christology of the Bible is false” (which is not what Witherington claimed), the reality is that Mormonism has depended on its restoration scriptures and the teachings of its prophets to correct the Christology that Bible-believing Christians historically have found in its pages. Rather than viewing Jesus as the unique incarnation of God (John 1:14; Col. 2:9; etc.), Mormonism views Jesus as one of (potentially at least) many Gods with physical bodies. Rather than viewing Christ as the unique eternal Son of the Father (John 1:14 again; 13:1-3; 16:28; 17:5; Rom. 8:3; Gal. 4:4-6; Heb. 1:1-2), Mormonism views Christ as the eldest of billions of the Father’s spirit children in the preexistence. Against the explicit teaching of the New Testament in many places (John 14:14; Acts 1:24-25; 7:59-60; 9:14; 22:16; Rom. 10:12-13; 1 Cor. 1:2; 16:22; 2 Cor. 12:8-9; 1 John 5:13-15; Rev. 22:20-21), Mormonism denies that Christians should pray to Jesus Christ.
5. According to Witherington, “Mormons deny the sufficiency of Christ’s death for salvation. They suggest, as the linked article says, that each of us must do all we can and then trust in the mercy of God. In other words, the de facto position is that Mormonism is to a significant degree a works religion even when it comes to salvation.” Hamblin retorts, “If this is true, it must mean Jesus himself was not a Christian (e.g. Mk. 10:17-22).” He then complains that Witherington’s argument implies that Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are not Christians.
As I have already explained, Witherington is not arguing that one must be an evangelical to be a Christian. Still, it should also be pointed out that Catholic and Orthodox soteriologies do not maintain that the way to salvation is to do all one can and then trust in God’s mercy to make up the difference. Those branches of Christianity understand justification differently than evangelicals, but they also teach salvation by grace alone.
Since Jesus is the Savior and Lord of Christians, the object of their faith, it really is a category mistake to affirm or deny that Jesus was “a Christian.” But of course Hamblin’s point is that Jesus supposedly taught the necessity of works for salvation. Although this is a popular way of understanding a passage such as the one Hamblin cites about the rich man who asked Jesus what he had to do to inherit eternal life, it is a superficial reading that fits neither the passage as a whole nor even Mormon doctrine. Jesus does not tell the rich man what any Mormon missionary would tell such a person: Jesus says nothing about repenting, about believing in him as Savior, or about getting baptized. By all accounts—whether Catholic, evangelical, or Mormon—Jesus did not present the rich man with the gospel. The direction of the conversation was set by the rich man’s opening question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17). He was looking for a way to earn or merit eternal life based on something he could do. Jesus’ answer is straight “law”: to gain eternal life based on your own works, you must keep the commandments (v. 19). The man claimed (whether naively or shamelessly) to have done so from his youth (v. 20). Jesus, rather than arguing the point with him, lovingly gave the man an opportunity to demonstrate his commitment to God: he told him to sell everything he had, give the money to the poor, and follow him (v. 21). The man sadly was unable to do this (v. 22). The exchange brought to the surface the fact that the rich man’s devotion was really to his wealth, not to God (compare Matt. 6:24). To take the passage to mean that Jesus was counseling the man to obtain eternal life by doing good works is a travesty of interpretation.
6. Finally, Witherington states that “the goal of Mormon soteriology” is for human beings to become gods or divine beings, “blurring the creator/creature distinction which was already badly blurred by a theology that suggested that God is actually a sort of uber-human being.” He then quotes (in paraphrase) Lorenzo Snow’s famous couplet that epitomizes this doctrine (which stated, “As man is now, God once was; as God is now, man may be”). Hamblin responds, “Although Protestants reject Deification, it is nonetheless a widely believed ancient Christian doctrine, and still is among the Greek Orthodox.” After presenting a lengthy bibliography on Christian teachings about deification, Hamblin appeals to John 17:20-23: “However one wants to interpret this passage, it is declaring that the disciples can be one with the Father and Son, just as they Father and Son are one with each other. That is the essence of deification as understood by Mormons.”
Once again, Hamblin confuses the issue by bringing up the Greek Orthodox doctrine of deification, since Witherington is ticking off differences between Mormons and evangelicals, not presenting a list of bare minimum doctrines that must be accepted for anyone to be considered a Christian. Furthermore, Greek Orthodox theology is very careful to deny that glorified believers will become Gods in the same sense of becoming beings of the same essence as God. As is the case with the patristic doctrine of theosis, the Greek Orthodox doctrine of deification is nothing like the Mormon doctrine of plurality of gods. The Orthodox Study Bible states plainly:
“When the Church calls us to pursue godliness, to be more like God, this does not mean that human beings then become divine. We do not become like God in His nature. That would not only be heresy, it would be impossible. For we are human, always have been human, and always will be human. We cannot take on nature of God.”
Witherington himself holds to a robustly biblical understanding of the future glorious hope of the redeemed that strikes the right balance. “God’s love starts with people just as they are but transforms them gradually into the divine likeness…. True likeness will be obtained, but not identity with God or Christ” (Witherington, Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians, 1:497). He explains that God’s redemptive work will conform us to his image, so that we will be holy and loving as God is, “when the disciple is fully conformed to the image of the Son…and we become truly like the one whom we admire and thus partakers of the divine nature” (The Indelible Image, 549).
The “essence of deification as understood by Mormons” is not merely oneness with the Father and the Son, but a particular understanding of what this oneness means. Again, it is not enough to use biblical words; one must mean by them what the Bible means by them. Hamblin tries to divert attention from this principle by saying that John 17:20-23 supports his point “however one wants to interpret this passage.” But of course it matters greatly how one interprets the passage. John 17:20-23 simply cannot mean that disciples are to become one with the Father and the Son in every way that the Father and the Son are one with each other. If it did mean this, then it would mean that disciples are to become “one God” or “one Godhead” with the Father and the Son, a conclusion Mormons themselves reject. This means that even according to Mormonism it is not God’s purpose or intent that believers become one with the Father and the Son in every way that the Father and the Son are with each other. Thus, it becomes necessary to determine from a careful reading of the passage in context in what way believers may become one with each other and with the Father and the Son. In context, Jesus prays for the disciples to be one with each other in their mortal lives, so that the world may believe and know that the Father sent Jesus (vv. 21, 23). This means that Jesus is not praying for their “deification” in the future resurrection and glorification of believers. Rather, Jesus is praying that the disciples will be one in love for each other just as the Father and the Son are one in their love for each other (vv. 23, 24, 26; see also 13:34-35).
Hamblin’s conclusions all proceed on the false premise that Witherington was claiming that one must accept specifically evangelical understandings of Christianity (inerrancy of the Bible, “salvation by faith alone,” and so on) in order to be a Christian. As I have noted repeatedly, this is not what Witherington was claiming at all. Rather, his claim was that Mormonism is not Christianity. His six points are six differences between Mormonism and evangelical Christianity, not six minimal requirements that must be met perfectly for any individual to be considered a Christian. Hamblin says, “If Witherington wants to call me a heretic, that’s fine. But I’m a Christian heretic.” Well, of course. We don’t think that Mormons are Buddhist heretics or Muslim heretics. Mormonism is a heretical form of Christianity, not of some other world religion. If putting it this way is enough for Hamblin, I for one am happy to oblige him.