The Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of
Later Day Saints in Salt Lake City
First of all the problem is the word “Christian.” We use it in very ambiguous ways. “She is such a Christian” generally means “She is such a good person.” It particularly refers to people who are kind and generous, as if one had to be a disciple of Jesus to be kind and generous. I wish all of Jesus’ disciples measured up to this standard. I know more than a few, and even some who wear those funny black and white “dog collars” around their necks, that would fail the “Christian” litmus test if Christian genuinely meant nice and kind. In fact, sometimes the more religious a person is the less Christian he or she seems to be. As one old priest from Poland who is a friend of mine confided to me, his frequent prayer is “From the daily communicant, libera nos, Domine!”
A second sense in which one can use the word “Christian”—and this one with some legitimacy—is a person who embraces the ethical teachings of Jesus as outlined in the Gospels. One may accept Jesus as a great moral teacher without espousing his Divinity or even the uniqueness of the Revelation he imparts to humankind in his teachings as the New Testament records them. By this standard, Thomas Jefferson and many of our Founding Fathers (and I suppose Mothers) would qualify as Christian as would Quakers, most Unitarians, and many good souls who have no formal religious affiliation with a particular denomination that claims to be “Christian.” Few of our the founders of our nation were Christians in the stricter use of the term. Charles Carroll, the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence, was one of the few leaders of the new nation who actually was a practicing Christian.
A third sense of the word “Christian” would be a person who does have formal membership in a religious group that claims for itself to be a “Christian” Church or denomination. Now claiming to be Christian doesn’t make a person or collective group of people Christian anymore than claiming that bag you’re selling on a street corner for 25 dollars is a genuine Versace makes that knockoff a genuine Versace. But there is a social convention by which we generally don’t call each other out in public about such claims. Nevertheless, while we may be polite and choose not to challenge the authentic Christian beliefs of one another, that doesn’t mean that we accept the authenticity of Christian faith in each other. A particular point is the issue of valid baptism. Some groups that claim to be Christian, groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, baptize “in the name of Jesus” as opposed to baptizing “in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The Catholic Church insists that the Trinitarian formula is necessary for valid baptism according to Matthew 28:19. (There are scripture passages which would seem to validate baptism in the “Name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 2:38; 10:48;19:5, but the Catholic Church and most other Christian denominations reject this formula as insufficient based on historical usage and the centrality of the Doctrine of the Trinity to Christian Orthodoxy.) While we might say that a particular Jehovah’s Witness is “such a fine Christian” in the sense that he or she is a very nice person, or we might even see how their reading the Gospels has endowed them with a set of good Christian values, we would not consider Jehovah Witnesses to be Christian in the sense of belonging to a community of baptized disciples.
A fourth sense of the word “Christian,” very close to the last mentioned definition but still different from it, is public affiliation to one of the Churches or religious communities that stands by Christian Faith and Doctrine as taught by the Apostles and historically defined by the first seven Councils of an undivided Christian Church. This faith is generally seen as that proclaimed in the three historic creeds: the Apostle’s Creed, the Creed of the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople I, and the Athanasian Creed or Quicumque Vult. A Christian in this sense accepts the doctrine that there is one God in three Divine Persons, each Person possessing the fullness of the Divine Nature yet being not three Divine Beings but only One. Such a person, to be a Christian also must accept that Jesus Christ is truly God as is the Father (and the Holy Spirit) and is truly human as are we. In the one Person of Jesus Christ there are two natures, one Divine and one Human, the natures are joined but not mixed and while each nature is and remains distinct, what can be attributed to each nature can also be said of the other. All this sounds very complicated but that is because we always try to explain that which transcends our experience and thus is inexplicable. Sometimes I think we should simply let Mystery be Mystery and not try to unpack Grace.
How do Mormons fit into this scheme? Mormons use the Trinitarian formula for baptism (and until I had done research for this posting, I had thought they baptized in the Name of the Lord Jesus), but most “mainline” Christian theologians and denominations—Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Methodist—have looked at Mormon theology and decided that while Mormons talk about the Trinity they have a very different understanding of the Divine Nature, that is of “God,” than historic Christianity. In other words, while they use the same words (God, Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) they mean something quite different by those words. That would mean not only that their faith is substantially different from Christian faith but that their baptism, while using the same words and outward signs (immersion in water), means something very different than as understood by historic Christianity. For this reason the Catholic Church as well as most other Christian denominations require that Mormons be baptized when joining the Church. A Presbyterian or a Lutheran, for example, would be “received” into the Catholic Church without repeating baptism. Baptism in the Catholic theology is an unrepeatable act. If validly baptized once, you are never baptized again. But a Mormon becoming a Catholic would have to be baptized as his Mormon “baptism” would be regarded as invalid as the “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” in which he or she had been baptized as a Mormon is not the “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” of our historic Christian faith which is shared by the Orthodox Churches of the East and the majority of Anglican and Protestant Churches (or ecclesial communities) of the West. Also, because the Mormon understanding of the Divine Nature is, or at least appears to us to be, so radically different than that espoused by historic orthodox Christianity, their understanding of Jesus Christ—in whom the Divine and Human natures are united (though not mixed)—is radically different from that proclaimed historically by the Christian faith. Thus Catholics would not recognize Mormons doctrinally as Christians.
So it all seems to boil down to Are Mormons Christians? Yes, in the sense that as many (indeed most) Mormons are really fine people many (indeed most) Mormons are Christians in that broad colloquial sense. Yes, also, in the sense that most Mormons lead lives shaped by the moral teachings of Jesus. In this they are as Christian as Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin or most of our Founding Fathers who thought Jesus was this really wise and ethical teacher. Actually even more so for while they understand the Divinity of Christ, and indeed divinity, differently than historic Christianity, Mormons do believe that in their sense of being Divine, Jesus fit the bill. They do not think of him merely as some enlightened human teacher. But No, from the Catholic understanding of Christian Faith and Sacraments, Mormons are not Christians in the sense of professing authentic Christian doctrine and no they are not Christian in the sense of being in the community of the baptized. Frankly, when it comes to being President of the United States, I won’t hold anyone to a test of religious beliefs, but the only sense in which I would prefer a Christian over a non-Christian is that second sense—a man or woman whose life and values are shaped by the teachings of Jesus in the Gospel. When it comes to Christians in public life, I am much more interested in orthopraxis than orthodoxis. And in that sense, Mitt is the only fellow (or fellowette) currently in the Republican field that I would vote for.