Ben Witherington on Whether Mormons Are Christians

So, over at Patheos Ben Witherington has a blog post titled “Why Mormonism Is Not Christianity–The Issue of Christology,” which you may read here. I’m familiar with Witherington from his articles in Biblical Archaeology Review (I’m a subscriber), which I generally enjoy. But I suppose it should come as no surprise that I thought this blog post was weak sauce.

In general I didn’t have too much of a problem with his catalog of differences between Evangelical and Mormon thought. It is true that Mormons reject an ontological Trinity (he poisons the well by characterizing this position as “polytheism”); it is true that Mormons believe in an embodied God (I wonder whether he realizes how many people historically he just kicked out of Christianity by making this a standard); guilty as charged on our rejection of biblical inerrancy.

But I was surprised at his lack of historical sense and sophistication. He portrays Mormonism as evolving, which is certainly true, but he is blind to the evolution of thought over the centuries in historical Christianity. He cites the historic policy of the priesthood ban, and while I personally think we deserve to take our lumps over that, he doesn’t seem to be aware that the original Mormon policy was an (unfortunate) importation of Protestant biblical thought into the Church (there is a case where if we had been a little less Christian in the 19th century we would have been better off!). He seems to think we are somehow dissembling by calling our meeting places “churches,” and he notes that we don’t have crosses gracing our buildings, apparently unaware of the largely Puritan, low church origins of our Church. As religious history, I was not impressed by his treatment.

He grants that many Catholics and Orthodox are Christian; I wonder how they feel about this supposed magnanimous judgment on his part. I can’t help but wonder whether Catholics and Orthodox might wonder who appointed him the arbiter of who qualifies to be reckoned a Christian. He also allows that many Mormons would pass the test of being decent and honest and loving human beings. Magnanimous indeed.

Here’s the thing. I know what he’s trying to say, and I actually agree with him. From his Evangelical perspective, being Christian is tantamount to being saved, and most Mormons are not saved according to Evangelical theology. I don’t have a problem with that. What I do have a problem with is his throwing around the word “Christian” without bothering to define it, but just assuming his narrow Evangelical definition. Because out in the real world, that is not the way people understand the word “Christian.”

A christianos is a partisan of Christ, just as a Herodian was a partisan of Herod or a Caesarian was a partisan of Caesar. And that is the way the word is understood outside of the Evangelical bubble from within which Witherington is writing. To the person on the street, a Christian is someone who believes in Christ, that he is the Son of God, he lived and died, atoned for the sins of the world, the third day arose again, and dwells in yonder heavens at the right hand of the Father. For most of the world, Christian is a broad generic category of history and culture and belief, not a narrow club for the saved per Evangelical dogma.

Elsewhere I have shared the following (true) story, which illustrates well why simply calling Latter-day Saints non-Christian is inherently misleading. A family with several young daughters used to live in my ward. This family was friendly with a neighbor woman, who would often babysit the girls. As Christmas was approaching, the woman gave each of the girls a Christmas gift, which turned out to be a coloring book featuring Jesus Christ. The girls enjoyed the gift and colored the pictures.

Some time later this woman came to the family’s home, ashen, and apologized profusely for having given their daughters such a gift. It turns out that the woman had just learned at her church that Mormons are not Christian, and therefore she of course assumed that she had committed a grievous faux pas in giving the girls coloring books featuring a deity their family did not believe in.

Now in this story the woman understood the claim that Latter-day Saints are not Christian the same way the vast majority of people would, as meaning that they do not believe in Christ. This is because she naturally applied the public definition of the word to her pastor’s words, not some narrow, undisclosed private definition.

We can see by this story the mischief that results from the semantic legerdemain of calling Latter-day Saints non-Christian. The fact is, they are Christians in the generic sense of the word, even if, from an Evangelical point of view, they are theologically in error and unsaved (i.e., being a Christian is not necessarily tantamount to being right). I personally would have no difficulty with certain shorthand distinctions that would make clear that Mormons neither are nor claim to be creedal or orthodox Christians. But to say they are not Christians at all without such a modifier is to fundamentally misrepresent the nature of their beliefs.

Please read his blog post and share your thoughts on it here.

Comments

  1. Excellent points. Listening to many LDS whine on this topic can be tiresome, but if all of us would provide the nuance you do here, I’d have no beef with any of it. As long as people define their terms carefully, I don’t care what they call me. I’m happy to admit to being a blueberry muffin, provided we define “blueberry muffin” as “freakishly tall and devilishly handsome dude in Seattle”. But as you say, there are certain definitions that are popularly assumed by those who hear a word, and those who label us “non-Christian” surely know how their claims are likely to be misread. Shame on them.

  2. Thanks, Kev. As you point out, Witherington very unoriginally stacks the deck in his definition of what it means to be a Christian, or to have the label of a Christian. Are those who adhered to Pelagianism considered Christian? What about Donatists? How about the Anabaptists? Each of these groups at some point have been considered heretical, of course, but that depends entirely upon who is adjudicating heresy. And all of them can rightfully be identified as Christian, and have been. Come with me to any number of Evangelical congregations next Sunday and see how many Modalists we can pick out of the crowd. Not Christians? He also picks one Mormon (Millett) and allows him to speak on behalf of all Mormons. Fail.

    I actually don’t mind being called a heretical Christian. And to the extent that it disconnects my faith from the more fundamentalist stripe, the anti-intellectual, inerrantist scripture-type stuff, it’s not so bad. But being denied the actual label of Christian still bothers me because it gives the false impression that I disbelieve in Jesus Christ, whereas in fact I simply believe some different things about Christ than you do. Your story of the coloring book communicates this nicely. I’m not denying that as a Mormon I believe some different things about Jesus, but I also recognize a good deal of cross-over Witherington is obviously unfamiliar with. (And complaints about change? Uh….dude, look at Christianity in general.)

    Anyway, I’m personally less concerned with specific “facts” people believe about Jesus than the way they live as a result, or the extent to which they are converted through Christ. If he’s going to bank on a theologically sophisticated understanding of the Trinity as the litmus test whereby one qualifies as a Christian he’s putting too much emphasis on the verse which says the way is straight and narrow and few there be that find it. He’ll have a rather lonely heaven up there!

  3. I think that in this case, and most cases the ‘definition’ of Christian is what makes all the difference. My definition is someone who believes in the true and living Christ… but his definition isn’t the same.

  4. My wife tells a funny story of when a friend came over to her house when they were in high school. Her friend was confused when she saw a portrait of Jesus on the wall. The friend asked, “Kristen, who is that?”. Kristen was startled that her friend didn’t know who Jesus was and said “you’ve never heard of Jesus before?” Of course her friend had, but she had just been told that Mormons were not Christians so assumed it must just be someone who looked just like Jesus.

    I think Evangelicals thought leaders decided at some point to try to steal and horde the label “Christian” for themselves mostly as a dirty, scummy marketing ploy. I suspect most of the masses perpetuate such nonsense because they think that is what they are supposed to do. It’s not unlike the dirty marketing tricks we see in politics.

  5. The differentiation does us a favor, but the semantics are unfortunate.

  6. I also have a great respect for Ben Witherington as a biblical scholar, but I was incredibly disappointed with his treatment of Mormonism (and told him as much in the comment section of his post). It was sad to see someone so well-respected and well-published in his field sink to the level of cheap counter-cult tactics when he ventured into a subject that he clearly had only a superficial understanding of. (Check out his preemptive well-poisoning at the end of his post – it is particularly pitiful.)

  7. Fairsister says:

    The Mormons aren’t Christian crowd is always morphing and sharpening attacks. The picture of Christ incident that Geoff describes reveals the latest insidious tactic that I have encountered. “Your Christ is a different Christ…not the true Christ I know. Oh well, I don’t need anyone’s permission to call myself a Christian.
    God knows my heart even if others will not hear or understand me.

  8. They deleted my comment — though I merely questioned inerrancy as a requirement to be Christian in polite terms. I rather concluded that any polite or literate LDS comments are being deleted.

    If it is not tl;dr or unclear, they are deleting the comment. He does not want rational disagreement.

  9. Over the years of forum-fights with Evangelicals (retired) and having grown up in the South, I have a simple answer I give when told my Christ is not their Christ: “you are right, I deny the trinity and believe Jesus is a man with a body as does His Father.” This makes me a heretic. What I have learned here and am very grateful for is the concept of “Christianos,” a partisan for Christ, the political movement for Christ much like the Herodians and like how some Jews refer to Evangelicals as Paulites (followers of Paul). This is quite graceful. I’ll have to think about it some more and on how to express it with out the very nasty word “politics.”

  10. Well, they haven’t posted my response to Witherington’s semantic gymnastics, so i will post it here — with trepidation in light of the fact that Kevin’s comments are so much more common sense and hit the mark so well:

    Dr. Witherington: My initial response is very simple: shame on you for oversimplification. You well know that there is a good deal of diversity among Mormons on these issues — and your failure to note the contours of Mormon thought amounts to disqualifying distortion. Let me flesh this out:

    (1) I deny that Mormonism promotes polytheism. I have actually written a book on it: Exploring Mormon Thought: Of God and gods. The Father, Son and Holy Ghost are distinct but decidedly not separate. The Father, Son and Holy Ghost are one in the same sense that Social Trinitarians have suggested — they are united in perichoretic unity of spirit and purpose, in shared omniscience and glory. There is only one sovereign of the universe in Mormon thought — the Trinity or Godhead of three divine persons united as one in unity of thought, purpose, knowledge, power, act and glory. It is true that Mormons deny metaphysical simplicity, but so have many that you undoubtedly consider Christian including Alvin and Cornelius Plantinga.

    (2) You are just wrong that Mormons deny the Trinity in a very important sense. Check out this elucidation of the issue: David Paulsen and Brett McDonald, “Joseph Smith and the Trinity: An Analysis and Defense of the Social Model of the Godhead,” Faith and Philosophy Vol. 25, No. 1 (January 2008): 47-74. You can also check out my book Of God and gods and this: http://ldsfocuschrist2.wordpress.com/2007/09/21/2005-revisioning-mormon-concept-of-diety-blake-ostler/

    However, you are correct that Mormons view the homoousion as an infiltration of Greek thought into scriptural revelation — and with good reason. Now for my test of a Christian: if a criterion would preclude Jesus Christ and the first 300 years of Christians, it cannot be a criterion on which to exclude a person from being considered “Christian” — and your criterion most certainly fails this critical test. In fact, it is very revealing that you would adopt a criterion that would undoubtedly exclude Jesus himself from being considered Christian.

    (3) Now here is something very interesting. It is true that Mormons believe that the Father has a glorified, physical body in the same sense that Jesus now does — after the resurrection. But if the Father cannot have a body like Christ’s resurrected body, then how on earth could you possibly consider them to be “one” in any sense that could possibly satisfy the “monotheism” criterion? You see, the Father not only lacks a nature that the Son has (a human nature), but based on your criterion it is logically impossible that the Father have such a nature. Thus, the Father and Son are of two very distinct and separate and ontologically disparate natures. Shades of Arianism! As Aquinas held, if the Son had a mortal body, then so could the Father. But that means that the divine persons can become embodied. On the other hand, if what you mean is that the Trinity doesn’t have a body, then Mormons do not believe that it is possible for the Godhead or Trinity to have a body either. You are going to have to clear up this logical mess for me.

    (4) Are you telling me that there are no issues regarding the reliability of the various mss. of biblical documents? Are you suggesting even remotely that there are not different points of view among biblical authors on even central issues like whether divorce is permissible and, if so, on what conditions? Only an uninformed person would make such a claim (note: I know that you are extremely knowledgeable on this issue, and that is what bothers me most about your oversimplified comments).

    (5) Your distortion of Mormon soteriology is serious. I have no doubt that some Mormons believe we must do all that we can before we can saved — just as poll after poll shows that the majority of evangelicals actually believe that we have to be good before we can saved. But that is irrelevant. Your assertions are distortion of Mormon thought – distortions that I address at length in Exploring Mormon Thought: The Problems of Theism and the Love of God. Christ’s death is totally sufficient to overcome both physical and spiritual death. It is totally sufficient to save us from death and hell the moment that we acknowledge him as Christ — that is the dominant view in Mormon scripture and thought. It is not sufficient to save us without accepting Christ as such — as all Arminians have long held.

    (6) It is true that Mormons blur the creator/creature dichotomy — but no less than Jesus did himself as both God and man. I discuss this issue at length also in Of God and gods. I suggest that the Christian truth is that everything Christ is, he sought for us to be — to be one with him and the Father just as they are one and to share the very same glory with nothing lacking. You can check it out in John 17.

    Now I know of your reputation and have read several things you have written. This is a major misstep and one that you owe more thought to.

  11. I think Kevin and Blake have just handed Witherington his medicine.

  12. Witherington also filtered my comment.

  13. Wow. Scholarship fail, Witherington. Can’t even handle serious counter-arguments, so must delete them.

  14. Daniel F. Smith says:

    Just slightly off-topic, if I may be allowed to. Blake, I havent been able to get your book, could you tell me where I might be able to obtain a copy?

  15. Kent Larsen says:

    My response, in case it is deleted there:

    It is really hard for me to understand why this is all so important. What are you after by claiming that Mormons are not Christian? You want bragging rights?

    Do you need to be able to look down your nose at Mormons and say “Nanny nanny boo boo, we’re Christian and you aren’t” like you’re teasing another child on a playground? Is that in line with your definition of how a “Christian” should act?

    I’m sure you say that Muslims are not Christians also. So where is your post with careful exegisis of Muslim belief proving that they are not Christian?

    I get that it is important for evangelicals to distinguish between those who might be admitted to evangelical congregations as fellow Christians and those who need baptism or conversion. Fine. I’m OK with explanations to evangelicals about why that is necessary.

    But beyond this, it really looks like the evangelicals who make an issue out of this just feel threatened by Mormons and need to say “Mormons aren’t Christian” over and over to keep their members from accepting Mormons. Gotta make sure Mormons are the unacceptable other, so that some evangelicals will think “Oh, my neighbors are Mormon. I can’t let my children play with them!”

    In the end, this is just semantics, an argument about the definition of “Christian.” But definitions aren’t just what an individual claims them to be. They are what the vast majority of those who use a language believes the definition to be. And despite your beliefs and those of many evangelicals, the definition of Christian isn’t as complicated as you make it out to be. The definition of “Christian” is “a follower of Christ,” regardless of the details of belief.

    I’m sorry if you don’t like the definition.

  16. Kevin,

    “A christianos is a partisan of Christ, just as a Herodian was a partisan of Herod or a Caesarian was a partisan of Caesar. And that is the way the word is understood outside of the Evangelical bubble from within which Witherington is writing. To the person on the street, a Christian is someone who believes in Christ, that he is the Son of God, he lived and died, atoned for the sins of the world, the third day arose again, and dwells in yonder heavens at the right hand of the Father. For most of the world, Christian is a broad generic category of history and culture and belief, not a narrow club for the saved per Evangelical dogma.”

    I think you are simplifying things too much. While this may certainly be the public/generic understanding of the word ‘Christian,’ it certainly doesn’t take into account how most knowledged Christians understand the term. (I doubt we want to turn to the public understanding of ‘Mormon’ to define the term). Regardless of what the Bible may or may not say about God, or what the earliest of Christians may or may not have believed, what set Christians theologically and essentially apart from the rest of the religious world for almost two millennia is the belief in a triune God that is neither monotheistic (in the way that Judaism and Islam is) nor polytheistic (as the ancient Greeks and eastern religions were). Theological wars were fought over this and Christianity as a Triune religion won out and has been the defining aspect of Christianity since. It is so dominant that the description you give above cannot be understood by most Christian theologians without the basis of the Trinity underlying it all. (For example, our rejection of the classical Trinity is the reason why Catholics do not accept Mormon baptisms).

    Compounding this, another dominant understanding of what it means to be a Christian religion is to recognize oneself as part of a long tradition hearkening back to the formation of many of the early Christian creeds–a tradition that we officially reject being part of.

    Of course we can point to group A, scripture Y, and early Christian X to try to make the case that “Christian” is broader than the Trinity, but IMO that simply isn’t the case. If anything, rather than complaining that evangelicals and others don’t acknowledge us as part of their Christians-only club we just need to do what our early Mormon fathers did and acknowledge the traditional and common understanding of the term, reject it, and own it anew for ourselves. Of course Bill Hamblin won’t like this, but its much more honest than trying to twist and turn other definitions (such as social trinitarianism) or our own tradition (as I think both Paulsen and Ostler do) in order to squeeze us in to their club.

  17. Though a Mormon, I’ve actually become rather fond of Evangelical Christian culture and worship in the past 5-10 years. My wife, however can not get over being coldly excluded on every turn by her predominantly Evangelical Christian community growing up. Its a major obstacle in her appreciation of Protestant theology and culture. Its a shame really. All she wanted was to be a part of the Bible club in HS – or to participate in community service projects etc. Here Mormonism prevented her from truly getting to know the dominant culture and learning how to appreciate it. All this – for what?

  18. Kent Larsen,

    “They are what the vast majority of those who use a language believes the definition to be. And despite your beliefs and those of many evangelicals, the definition of Christian isn’t as complicated as you make it out to be. The definition of “Christian” is “a follower of Christ,” regardless of the details of belief.”

    If you were reciting the Nicene Creed on a regular basis you might think differently.

  19. Kent Larsen says:

    “If you were reciting the Nicene Creed on a regular basis you might think differently.”

    Why, because my reciting the Nicene Creed would somehow change what the vast majority of the entire world thinks the definition is?

    My own opinion of the definition doesn’t matter. What matters is how the term is widely used in English. Your use and my use are only a couple of uses out of millions or billions. They don’t matter in comparison to the vast majority.

  20. Kevin Barney says:

    But narrator, you haven’t solved the problem. Ben can say (1) “Kevin is a Christian” or (2) “Kevin is not a Christian.” He is arguing that (1) is not true, so he is going to say (2). But I am arguing (2) is not true; to be accurate, Ben needs to say something like (3) “[From my Evangelical perspective,] Kevin is a heretical Christian,” or perhaps simply not predicate the word Christian in any sense whatsoever of me (including in particular not denying that I’m a Christian). While you may think I have been too simple, you haven’t solved the perrvasive miscommunication problem engendered by Ben’s approach, which undoubtedly has a boundary maintenance motive and therefore is highly suspect. I think your equation of a Christian being one who believes (and understands?) the ontological Trinity is the formation that is overly simplistic. As Blair correctly points out, that equation simply will not stand in the history of Christianity taken as a whole. The history of Christianity is littered wwith individuals and groups that would not meet such a standard, and yet are correctly spoken of as Christians in the historical literature. Ben is writing here in the vein of a countercultist, not of a respected and thoughtful scholar of religion, and he can and should do better.

  21. No Kent, I don’t think your depiction is accurate. Yes, it is to be a follower of Christ, but what is meant by “Christ” cannot be ignored.

    I’m a Christian because I’m a follower of Christ. Christ is the golden retriever next door.

    It doesn’t work. Christ is generally understood to be the second member of the Trinity. Yes Christ was more than that, he also did all of those many other things. But, again, for nearly 1700 years, what has separated Christ and Christians from other religions is their unique belief in a three-in-one God.

  22. Narrator: Your comments are themselves an oversimplification. There are many Christian denominations that reject the creeds, e.g., Disciples of Christ, the Church of Christ and the “oneness” denominations such as United Pentecostal Church International, Assemblies of the Lord Jesus Christ, Pentecostal Assemblies of the World,Apostolic Restoration Mission, Reconciling Pentecostals International. In addition, your post adopts the surely erroneous assumption that there is a single view of the Trinity in the history of the development of Christian thought. The number of views of what constitutes the “Trinity” is staggering. You fail to grasp the number of theological options left open by the homoousion formula and how little Nicea really resolved. More importantly, there are dozens of articles (which are persuasive in my view) that argue that the Cappadocians adopted Social Trinitarians and these theologians (prominently Gregory Naziensus) were among the most influential in forming the contours of the Trinitarian doctrine.

    Equally important, your assertion that Paulsen, MacDonald and I are somehow adopting a Social Trinitarian view to try to fit into the “orthodox” club is beyond ill-informed. Attributing motives is a tricky thing, but I would really like to see how I somehow am attempting to fit into some pigeon hole after writing several articles on the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo and how Mormonism differs from the tradition.

    Further, your claim that the Trinity is not “monotheistic” would be rejected by virtually all Trinitarians — even if you qualify it and say not in the same way as Jews and Muslims (as if they had a single view as well).

  23. Jonathan Green says:

    Narrator: Luther, Zwingli, and a million other Christians in the 16th century had some pointed things to say about tradition, which they were very much not interested in being part of. Unless you want to exclude all of Protestantism from Christianity, appealing to ‘tradition’ won’t hold water as an argument. Evangelicals belong to Christian tradition in exactly the same sense that Mormons do: we pick and choose which elements of history we think make up the authentic Christian tradition, and jettison the rest. Saying that Mormons are outside the Christian tradition simply papers over the massive divisions within the Christian tradition, using us as others against which to create a fictive Christian solidarity.

  24. So, it looks like he moderates comments, but allowed Blake’s and BHodges’s comments to be posted – which he then promptly and completely ignored. Here’s the comment I just left:

    “Mr. Witherington, please respond to Blake and BHodges (as well as the blog post to which Ben linked), the Mormons who have made the most substantive opposition to your post, and not only to the ones whose words you can nitpick for any tiny fallacy or ambiguity so as to assume that actual engagement is a silly venture. It doesn’t speak well of you to ignore your more articulate interlocutors, a practice made blatant by how you’ve responded multiple times to less articulate but later commenters.”

  25. “what set Christians theologically and essentially apart from the rest of the religious world for almost two millennia is the belief in a triune God that is neither monotheistic (in the way that Judaism and Islam is)”

    Judaism was not and has rarely been monotheistic in the way Islam is, unless we radically redefine the term. Early Christianity differed from Judaism in assigning Jesus the role of the “second power in heaven”, God’s hypostasis, but the role of the second power was not an innovation.

  26. “While you may think I have been too simple, you haven’t solved the perrvasive miscommunication problem engendered by Ben’s approach, which undoubtedly has a boundary maintenance motive and therefore is highly suspect.”

    I want to say I think it is suspect, but I’m not exactly sure how. I guess he could have added “Sure, Mormons call themselves Christian and share many of the same beliefs and practices as Christians, but that have excised what lies at the heart of it and given it a completely different meaning–just like the gays have done with marriage,”

    “As Blair correctly points out, that equation simply will not stand in the history of Christianity taken as a whole. The history of Christianity is littered with individuals and groups that would not meet such a standard, and yet are correctly spoken of as Christians in the historical literature.”

    Language changes and morphs over time. While Ben and others (such as ourselves) may make the same mistake of pointing to the past as justification for current use, the main issue is how that term is used today. And I still contend that at the heart of it’s contemporary use is Christ as a member of the Trinity. As I mentioned already, you can appeal to scriptures and ancient Christians, but those things take a second seat to metaphysical/philosophical assumptions at the foundation of what it means to be a Christian.

  27. “Narrator: Luther, Zwingli, and a million other Christians in the 16th century had some pointed things to say about tradition, which they were very much not interested in being part of.”

    Nonsense. Luther died a Catholic. Zwingli, like Luther, was a reformer. Yes, they had their strong differences with the tradition, but they didn’t see themselves as entirely out of it and starting Christianity anew.

  28. Christian J says:

    narrator, what do you make of pre – creedal Christians? The Jews at Pentecost (or Peter for that matter) could not have possibly had a robust understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity upon accepting Jesus as Messiah and becoming his followers. The Bible sets a great precedent for the importance (or lack thereof) of doctrinal purity.

    Besides, let’s not pretend that the average Evangelical even thinks about the creeds as a signifier. They trace their history to Jesus and Paul – not Constantine.

  29. “Judaism was not and has rarely been monotheistic in the way Islam is.”

    But far more monotheistic that the Trinity (aside from some Kabbalistic threads). And again, I’m not appealing to ancient use, I’m referring to contemporary use.

  30. I’m not appealing to it for the Christian argument, just trying to correct your misperceptions. But I suspect you just like to be contrary.

  31. Christian J,

    “narrator, what do you make of pre – creedal Christians? The Jews at Pentecost (or Peter for that matter) could not have possibly had a robust understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity upon accepting Jesus as Messiah and becoming his followers. The Bible sets a great precedent for the importance (or lack thereof) of doctrinal purity.”

    Appeals to ancient use is too problematic (for both traditional Christians and Mormons). At heart is contemporary use.

    “Besides, let’s not pretend that the average Evangelical even thinks about the creeds as a signifier. They trace their history to Jesus and Paul – not Constantine.”

    Of course, but those creeds are understood as descriptive of what Jesus and Paul taught. It’s the lens by which they read scripture, see Jesus, pray, etc. Their theological worldview cannot be separated from the Trinity.

  32. Interesting. He only flags some comments for moderation; one of mine just got posted immediately. I’m suspecting now that he flags better, more pointed critiques until they get buried in the comment thread and people skip over them…

  33. Ben, not trying to be a contrarian. Perhaps I’m just ignorant of all of the 1st millennium Jews who weren’t monotheists.

  34. Kent Larsen says:

    haycockm wrote: “Interesting. He only flags some comments for moderation; one of mine just got posted immediately.”

    I doubt it. It looks more like the typical blogging system of moderate the first comment and allow all subsequent comments automatically. Its a system meant to catch spam.

    I wonder if the other complaints about comments being deleted are simply because the comments hadn’t been approved yet. My own first comment was moderated then approved, and a second comment went through immediately.

  35. Ah, okay. I misunderstood. That does appear to be the case.

  36. Narrator: You have a double standard. Mormons are not entitled to their current use (you accuse those Paulsen and MacDonald of distorting Mormonism by adopting a modern view of Social Trinitarianism); but somehow there is presently a single developed use of what “Trinity” means regardless of the tradition and long history of almost innumerable different views out of which it arises. However, it is reference to this long history that is somehow also determinative of what it means to be Christian as “Christians” use it. This is not merely confused — it is not merely a double standard — it is a mess.

  37. Blake, there is no double standard. And I never said nor implied that there was a single use of the trinity. However, I will say that the various forms of the Trinity (at least those generally non considered non-Christian–such as modalism) all–even Social Trinitarianism–involve three persons consubstantial in one divine being. Social Trinitarianism does not step outside of this, it only emphases the distinctness of the three persons through an analogy of social interaction.

    Yes, there are some similarities between Social Trinitarianism and Mormon theology–especially when the latter is trimmed down and made to fit traditional absolute (or pseudo-absolute) metaphysical/philosophical conceptions of divinity. However, the separation of ontological being (not of type but of isolated centers of existence) cause Christians who subscribe to Social Trinitarianism to almost uniformally reject Mormonism as an expression of it.

  38. Kevin Barney says:

    Well, narrator, we simply disagree then. My desktop Webster’s defines a Chrsitian as “one who professes belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ.” As a matter of lexicography, that is intended to be a statement of common contemporary usage, and I think it is accurate. Is it dated? I don’t think so. I work in Chicago. I could take the elevator down to the ground floor, go stand on a street corner, and poll the first hundred people who come by, and I believe the vast majority would express something similar to this dictionary definition. So by saying I’m not a Christian, one is saying I don’t profess a belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ. And that is offensive to me. I freely acknowledge that I may be wrong in my understanding of those teachings, which is why I wouldn’t be offended if an Evangelical were to describe me as a heretical Christian. But to describe me as a non-Christian, as Ben does, is simply wrong and offensive.

  39. This guy (Witherington) is a well-regarded Bible scholar? Forgive me my possible ignorance, but based on his article or his follow up comments, I’m not the slightest bit impressed by his intellect. He seems completely oblivious to the history of Christianity, as well as current variance in the Christian community.

    If this is meant to be an expert attack on the notion that Mormons are Christians, Witherington might as well mail a framed-in-gold “OFFICIAL CERTIFICATE OF CHRISTIAN AUTHENTICITY” to the Mormon HQ in Salt Lake City so they can hang it on the wall.

  40. Kent Larsen says:

    Well, now it does seem like maybe he is moderating comments he doesn’t like. My latest comment didn’t go through.

  41. Kent Larsen says:

    Never mind. It just came through.

  42. Narrator: You are now going to have to tell me what you mean by “separation of ontological being” since, as they say in the Princess Bride, I do not think that it means what you think it means. Same goes for consubstantial. And you are wrong if you think that social trinitarians only emphasize distinction by a social analogy. For instance, Richard Swinburne’s view is clearly not merely an analogy but distinctness even in grades of ontological dependence of divine persons. In any event, as Kevin Barney says, we’ll just have to agree to disagree since I don’t find either your argument or your response to be cogent.

  43. Kevin,

    Ben is making a specifically theological claim, and is thus making an appeal to a theological understanding of Christian. I can see how someone might see it as a slight-of-hand hat-trick to make readers believe that Mormons don’t follow the teachings of Jesus, but he never does that. To the contrary, he lays out specific claims beginning with the Mormon rejection of the classical Trinity (I see his first two claims as essentially one and the same, given the historical origins of the consubstantial Godhead).

    But yes, I concede that if I went around town (somewhere outside of Utah) and asked what it meant to be a Christian, I would get something similar. But, of course, I’m sure that you agree that most people don’t know what the hell they are talking about–ask them about sushi and you would probably get “raw fish.” However, if I were to ask someone who regularly eats sushi, and pushed them for nuance, I would get a different answer. Similarly, If I were to follow up with those who knew something about their faith and asked who this Jesus was that Christians follow, I would probably hear something about the Trinity.

  44. Blake, I am referring to Trinity and Perichoretic social trinitarianism. I’m pretty sure you know what those are, so how you are unable to find my claim cogent is baffling to me. Swinburne’s functional social trinitarianism is a minority position rejected by most Christian theologians for much of the same reasons that Mormonism is rejected. Furthermore, I know that the wholly interdependence of the Godhead is part of your theology, but IMO, you trim up too much of the grandeur aspects of Mormon theology in order for it to fit these metaphysical restraints.

  45. Kevin Barney says:

    It doesn’t really matter what his intent is; the effect is the same. If he were to say “This is how an Evangelical defines the word ‘Christian,’ and based on this definition Mormons don’t qualify” that would be fine. But he’s not doing that. He is assuming a universally recognized definition of the word and then saying Mormons don’t qualify. It’s a bait and switch, whether he intends it to be or is simply sloppy about it.

  46. Doug Hudson says:

    So, narrator, how many angels can dance on the head of pin?

    Seriously, Christians argued for centuries over the nature of the Trinity; taking a minority view on that hardly makes one non-Christian. Non-creedal, perhaps, but not non-Christian.

    The Evangelicals (particularly the fundamentalist evangelicals) are doing their best to classify their own version of Christianity as “the only true Christianity”–they are even trying to deny that liberal Evangelicals are “true Christians”. But they have no standing to decide who is or is not Christian, and the Mormons should hold the line on this.

  47. I certainly agree that it’s sloppy. I could write a much better ‘Mormon’s aren’t Christian’ article.

  48. Narrator: consubstantial merely means that whatever the ontological status of the Father in terms of being uncreated, that same status is shared by the Son. But certainly Mormons believe that the Father and the Son are ontologically equal as both being uncreated and sharing the same divine glory. I would argue that the fact that the Son is in the Father and dependent on the Father for his glory and status as a fully divine person is just what Mormonism as always taught. It is so ubiquitous in the Book of Mormon and D&C 93 and other scriptures, that is must be one of the most discussed and best established views in Mormon scripture. As for the “grandeur aspects of Mormon theology,” if what you are saying that you know of something grander than the indwelling relationship of loving unity shared by Father, Son and Holy Ghost and into which we have been invited to share and thus to be all that God is — I just don’t know anything grander or more fairly definitive of Mormon beliefs than that. The Trinity or Godhead is at the center of the entire revelation of Mormon beliefs.

    You’ll have to say more about the “trimming” to fit into metaphysical restraints for me to have any idea what you are talking about. I would really like to hear what you have in mind here.

  49. As I see it, the central problem with Witherington’s article is precisely the one Kevin unmasks. He admits that he writes it so that “Christians” can have a proper view as they make the decision to vote. His message is explicitly intended to be political. He is undoubtedly aware that what his comments really mean is that “Mormons are other,” they don’t believe in the “real” Jesus and therefore are not Christians. It is the political nature of the this discourse that is most disconcerting. it is an adulteration and manipulation of Christianity to achieve political ends.

  50. Doug,

    “So, narrator, how many angels can dance on the head of pin?”

    Depends on if they are baby or adult angels.

    “Seriously, Christians argued for centuries over the nature of the Trinity; taking a minority view on that hardly makes one non-Christian. Non-creedal, perhaps, but not non-Christian.”

    Again, I’m referring to its contemporary theological usage. Words had all sorts of meanings long ago, and if we lived back then and were hashing out what the theology was, then it would be a very different discussion.

    Personally, I think this would all be much easier if we just took the time to ask “What do you mean by X?” a few times.

  51. Narrator: The current theological use of “Trinity” is, if anything, at least as varied as the numerous views discussed historically. Further, what Witherington is addressing is not some contemporary discussion, but what he takes to be the single and correct historical view of the Trinity established definitively in the creeds. Thus, what you are addressing just doesn’t exist and isn’t relevant to what Witherington thinks he is taking about. I think that you would agree that the assumption that there is some defined view of the Trinity that has been universally accepted by “Christians” and thus definitive of what it is to be a Christian is just a vast oversimplification of the issue — and begs the question against those who have a different view.

  52. Blake,

    “consubstantial merely means that whatever the ontological status of the Father in terms of being uncreated, that same status is shared by the Son. But certainly Mormons believe that the Father and the Son are ontologically equal as both being uncreated and sharing the same divine glory.”

    I’m referring to consubstantial substance in light of the traditional beliefs of God’s simplicity and indivisibility.

    “You’ll have to say more about the “trimming” to fit into metaphysical restraints for me to have any idea what you are talking about. I would really like to hear what you have in mind here.”

    I’m referring to things such as the genealogy of the gods, the Father’s pre-divine (us-like) mortality, becoming Gods and giving birth to spirit babies, creating new planets to populate and be gods on, etc, etc, etc. I realize that not all Mormons believe these things, that we might question whether Joseph Smith taught these, that they might be speculation, whatever. However, they make up what I find to be a grandeur (more beautiful and epic in scale) theology. In order to meet certain metaphysical requirements of eternality, power, worshipworthiness, etc, it seems to me that you cut out many of these things.

  53. Kent Larsen says:

    “Again, I’m referring to its contemporary theological usage”

    Or, in other words, “contemporary theological usage in traditional Christianity” which makes this whole argument circular, doesn’t it?

  54. Blake,

    Perhaps I am being much too charitable with Witherington and am seeing him saying what I hope that he is saying rather than what he actually is. (I hope that sentence makes sense.) He’s certainly not alone in this view. Stephen Davis, Blomberg, Beckwith, Mosser, and virtually all other Christian theologians argue similarly (though usually with much better tone). I certainly agree that since the days of Peter and Paul, the God of the followers of Jesus (and the Christ of the followers of Jesus) has been understood differently. If we were having this discussion 1700 years ago, it would be a very different discussion, with very different things at stake.

    Perhaps Witherington is doing this for politcal reasons–though I don’t quite understand what political end he has in mind. I see this mostly as a response to the resurgent question of Mormonism that Romney campaign (and the Mormon Moment (TM)) have engendered. He sees Romney calling himself a Christian and desires to set things straight–just as when the Church sought to clear matters up when polygamists were calling themselves Mormon. As anybody who knows me should know, I’m an advocate for opening up “Mormon” to be bigger and more inclusive. Similarly I’m an advocate for opening up “Christian” to be more inclusive. However, I recognize that doing so bucks up against traditional understandings of the terms, and is perhaps even more political than bordering them up. I consider myself a Christian, but in doing so I realize I’m (as a liberation theology-loving skeptic of the afterlife) creating/utilizing a drastically different understanding of the term in a way that many Mormons might point to me and tell me that I’m not a real Christian.

  55. Excellent response, Kevin! And I learned a new word (legerdemain).

    My favorite sentence by Witherington is “It is of course true that there are Christians who are a part of the Mormon religion.” It’s a completely meaningless sentence unless he defines Christianity, which he declines to do in favor of legerdemain!

  56. Emily: Witherington does provide a definition of Christianity: 1) monotheist 2) accepts the doctrine of the Trinity 3) accept that God the Father is unembodied and whose the divine nature is spirit 4) the Bible is inerrant or always truthful and trustworthy,5) accept the sufficiency of Christ’s death for salvation, not a works religion 6) have a creator/creature distinction.

    IMO, 1, 2, 3, and 6 are also basically the same thing, and–as I have been arguing–very much a foundational belief for the contemporary Christian tradition. 4 and 5 seem to be far more open for nuance in both Christianity and Mormonism.

  57. Jonathan Green says:

    Narrator: Luther died a Catholic? I must have missed the part where his excommunication was revoked.

    It won’t do to say that Luther was simply a reformer. There were reformers throughout the Middle Ages, but Luther brought about an enormous breach in belief, ritual, and institutional structure, so that you had people asking the question of where the church was before Luther. Dumping five sacraments, a governmental structure, and a tradition of monasticism as old as the Nicene creed is not some minor readjustment that leaves the tradition intact. 16th-c. Lutheran polemics saw Christianity as having gone astray with Constantine and the ‘imperial papacy,’ and called for a return to a state of Christianity prior to it – in other words, not much different from popular LDS thought concerning the Christian tradition. So I still find your argument to tradition entirely unpersuasive.

  58. Jonathan,

    I stand corrected. What I should have said was that Luther died a catholic–a member of the universal church and continued tradition that he believed still continued in tact. Those things that he rejected were things that he felt were excesses to the Church that was still present. While it may not have been far different from Joseph Smith’s early understanding of him being a reformist, it is drastically different from the contemporary LDS Church understanding of the Great Apostacy and Restoration, where the Church was completely absent (in correct authority, liturgy, and theology).

  59. the narrator, in all seriousness, I can make a duck a Christian by using a particular “saved” definition that is totally legitimate academically. Doesn’t mean squat if the duck doesn’t consider itself to be a Christian.

    As to Witheringrton’s stance, circular reasoning is circular reasoning, and lazy arguments are lazy arguments – no matter how verbose or academic the wording is.

  60. Ah but the issue is not whether Mormons believe in Christ, it’s what they believe about Christ, and therein lies the rub. And for the record, I was using the term Christianity in the same way Catholics and Orthodox do when they say ‘no, Mormonism is not Christianity, which is btw very different from saying no Mormons are Christian. Blessings BW3

  61. Ben: Ah, but not all Catholics or Orthodox claim Mormons aren’t Christian, or that Mormonism isn’t Christian, and therein lies the rub. Moreover, no one that I know is claiming that “Mormonism is Christianity.” Mormonism is a Christian religion, but it isn’t, of course, Christianity.

    Perhaps the bigger rub is the way you flatten centuries of Christian history into a singular and unified tradition which at any and all times must assent to your particular view of Trinitarianism in order to qualify for your Christian club.

  62. Kevin Barney says:

    Ben, thank you for coming by and making an appearance in the discussion.

  63. What’s particularly puzzling is BW’s inability to see that A. Mormons believe Jesus is God and part of a separate but completely unified Godhead and B. Mormon believe that his Atonement is absolutely necessary for salvation. Sure, there are huge differences in the details, but saying Mormons are like Muslims (for example) is plain lazy.

  64. We have pretty clear record of who Christ will claim to know and who he will not. And it seems there will be some who claim to know Christ (Lord when have we….?) but that Christ does not recognize. In this dividing it does not seem to be details of our belief about the metaphysical nature of God that sets us on God’s right or left hand. What does he have to say about this “inerrant” biblical passage?

  65. One of the most wonderfully informative treatments of this subject can be found in the form of a Sunstone Symposium panel discussion. Blake Ostler is on the panel, and because I found this via his site I will provide the link to it. Look under the audio heading.

    http://blakeostler.com/complete_works.html

    I was happy to see an article about this here. I like to track the progress of the thought concerning these things. Thanks for your great comments everyone.

  66. Narrator, your definitions requires excluding Nestorians. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nestorianism (rinse and repeat for other historical branches that do not fit within the Procrustean bed proposed). Interestingly enough, most evangelicals would also reject ” the long-used title Theotokos” … so guess they are all not historical Christians?

    That doesn’t really seem to fit clearly. /Sheesh.

    “We have pretty clear record of who Christ will claim to know and who he will not.” Indeed. Nothing in there about names or calling or anything but doing what Christ told them to do.

  67. Stephen Marsh:

    “Narrator, your definitions requires excluding Nestorians.”

    Are there Nestorians around today? Holy hell, how many times do I have to make this point????

    #17 “Regardless of what the Bible may or may not say about God, or what the earliest of Christians may or may not have believed, what set Christians theologically and essentially apart from the rest of the religious world for almost two millennia…”

    #22 “But, again, for nearly 1700 years, what has separated Christ and Christians from other religions is their unique belief in a three-in-one God.”

    #27 “As I mentioned already, you can appeal to scriptures and ancient Christians, but those things take a second seat to metaphysical/philosophical assumptions at the foundation of what it means to be a Christian.”

    #30 ” And again, I’m not appealing to ancient use, I’m referring to contemporary use.”

    #32 “Appeals to ancient use is too problematic (for both traditional Christians and Mormons). At heart is contemporary use.”

    #51 “Again, I’m referring to its contemporary theological usage. Words had all sorts of meanings long ago, and if we lived back then and were hashing out what the theology was, then it would be a very different discussion.”

    #55 I certainly agree that since the days of Peter and Paul, the God of the followers of Jesus (and the Christ of the followers of Jesus) has been understood differently. If we were having this discussion 1700 years ago, it would be a very different discussion, with very different things at stake.

    I know very well that 1500+ years ago there were different “Christian” groups that were not Trinitarians. I get it. I’ve made that clear repeatedly. If we were having this discussion 1500 years ago it would be very different. It’s not the 6th century though, its 2012. I’m referring to a contemporary theological definition. I realize that it would exclude many “Christians” of the past. Most contemporary Xians with this definition (which are most) would exclude them as well now.

    Seriously, I’m baffled why it’s so hard to see why so many Christians feel this way. Just sit back for a moment and think about what we Mormons believe/teach. We have an embodied God physically located somewhere in the cosmos! We have three heavens and no hell! We have esoteric temple rites that are essential for salvation. We wear magic underwear. We claim to have some sort of metaphysical priesthood power. We believe the Holy Ghost is somehow physically located and in the shape of a man. Our Jesus (and our Satan) are our spiritual brothers. Our Jesus is a literal son of God (to the point that early Mormon leaders taught that he was conceived through sex with Mary). We believe in a Heavenly Mother. We (most Mormons) believe we will become Gods. We (most Mormons) believe we’ll have celestial sex to conceive spirit babies that will populate new worlds. We believe that human spirits are uncreated. We reject original sin. We do baptisms for the dead. We baptize ourselves for dead jews, celebrities, Hitler, popes, and reformationists. In practice we hold multiple sets of scripture above the Bible. We marry in temples and not let our friends/family see it. We (most Mormons) have a negative use of using the symbol of the cross. The list can go on and on and on and on.

    Not only that, but these things are generally emphasized in our meetings more than grace, faith, Jesus, being saved, creeds, etc that have a much stronger emphasis in most Christian sects.

    Yes, there might be a group, person, here and there and when that might also have one or two of these things, but we don’t just have one or two of these things. We have dozens, and we emphasize them like crazy in our meetings (I’ve been told far more often times to have a picture of a temple in my house than a painting of Jesus). We are very, very, very, very different than the rest of Christianity.

  68. Ugly Mahana says:

    How can we be different from the rest of Christianity without being Christian?

  69. By claiming the term for myself but realizing I’m doing so against how it is traditionally used.

    Again, from #55 ” I consider myself a Christian, but in doing so I realize I’m … creating/utilizing a drastically different understanding of the term.”

  70. Narrator: “I’m referring to consubstantial substance in light of the traditional beliefs of God’s simplicity and indivisibility.”

    You couldn’t find one in 10,000 traditional Christians that would or could state what these doctrines even are — and the very notion that the Trinity can meet the criterion of metaphysical simplicity is not merely questionable, but many, many who view themselves as traditional Christians have argued is outright incoherent — and certainly (beyond a reasonable doubt) not biblical. If that is what you have in mind, it is a far cry from was elucidated by BW3. In fact, I’d like to see you elucidate what you mean by it.

  71. Ugly Mahana says:

    So, to be clear, that was an exclusive “we.”

    You are a Christian, but other Mormons are not.

  72. Glenn Thigpen says:

    1. The term Christian was first applied to the disciples of Christ at Corinth, evidently by unbelievers.
    2. Christ himself defined how those who professed to be His disciples could be determined to actually be His disciples.
    John, Chapter 13
    34 A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.
    35 By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.

    Christ is the authority. No one else has the authority to subtract or expand on His own definition.

    Glenn

  73. Jonathan Green says:

    Narrator: Now you’re using Luther’s self-perception to explain why he falls within the tradition of Christianity, despite the Reformation’s radical innovations with respect to theology, liturgy, and authority, while at the same time arguing that Mormons’ self-perception isn’t enough to make them Christian. Sorry, it’s not working for me.

    It would be interesting to look at how the woman driven into the wilderness in Revelation shows up in LDS discourse. Is she ever used in discussions of the Apostasy?

  74. the narrator says:

    Blake,

    I never said that it was coherent or biblical. In fact, I find it non-sense. However, that some theologians reject absolute simplicity (especially with regards to attributes, as does Plantinga (I’ve got much larger problems with Plantiga)), doesn’t mean that they reject it altogether. I am simply referring to the simplicity of God’s essence that partly lies behind consubstantiality, that God’s essence must be one and not a composition of substances–that God is not composed of parts, nor is God three ontologically separate beings made up of similar substances.

    But this is all besides the point, if we have to go down to this in order to say that — our formerly-mortal embodied God the Father, who, with his wife, created a pre-mortal Jesus, who was ontologically distinct from the Father and man-shaped Holy Ghost, and who later became mortal with the Father’s and Mary’s DNA, to suffer primarily in Gethsemane for nothing to do with Original Sin, so that we might all become God’s through temple rites and marriage — has any relation to what the rest of the world means when they say “Christian” then we clearly are in little agreement.

  75. the narrator says:

    #72 ”
    So, to be clear, that was an exclusive “we.”

    You are a Christian, but other Mormons are not.”

    Again: ” I consider myself a Christian, but in doing so I realize I’m (as a liberation theology-loving skeptic of the afterlife) creating/utilizing a drastically different understanding of the term in a way that many Mormons might point to me and tell me that I’m not a real Christian.”

    Reading does wonders.

  76. the narrator says:

    No. I’m saying that Luther saw himself being in part of the continued universal Christian church/tradition that never seized being on the earth–the same continuing tradition that all other Christians seeing themselves as being a part of, and the same tradition that Mormons explcitly deny being a part of.

  77. the narrator says:

    Ceased.

  78. “I’m baffled why it’s so hard to see why so many Christians feel this way.”

    Is there anyone in this thread who is having a hard time seeing why many Christians consider Mormons to be non-Christians? Seriously, who has made that argument – or anything remotely like it?

    I can repeat those questions four or five times to emphasize it, if you want me to do so.

    You’re arguing against a position nobody here has taken. I hope you at least understand why you’re not getting anywhere with your explanations. Nobody here is arguing that non-Mormon Christians don’t think we also are Christians – or that they don’t have valid reason to do so IF the conversation is cloaked from the beginning in their language. There’s a HUGE difference between “should” and “do”. This post is about the former, and the quote at the beginning of this comment is about the latter. We get the latter and won’t argue against it, so it would help if you’d drop it, also.

    We concede. It’s a given. Now try arguing why they “should” – and use something other than, “because, from their definition, they are justified to do so.” 100% true – and 100% useless in this conversation.

    Seriously, completely missing the central point of the post and all of the subsequent comments and then getting upset when others don’t accept a faulty premise is a guarantee for further misunderstanding and frustration.

  79. Quickmere Graham says:

    Ben Witherington the 2nd just called. Told me Mormons are Christian! Thanks, BW2!

  80. Kevin Barney says:

    See also Bill Hamblin’s comments on Ben’s blog post here:

    http://mormonscriptureexplorations.wordpress.com/2012/08/28/670/

  81. Ray,

    I’m not missing any point. I’m specifically calling into question Kevin’s claims he gave in the OP:

    “What I do have a problem with is his throwing around the word “Christian” without bothering to define it, but just assuming his narrow Evangelical definition. Because out in the real world, that is not the way people understand the word “Christian.””

    1. Whether or not you agree with his definition, Ben did offer up a broken definition, which I pointed out in #57 : “1) monotheist 2) accepts the doctrine of the Trinity 3) accept that God the Father is unembodied and whose the divine nature is spirit 4) the Bible is inerrant or always truthful and trustworthy,5) accept the sufficiency of Christ’s death for salvation, not a works religion 6) have a creator/creature distinction.” In other words, he is making appealing to a theological definition of what Xians believe.

    2. I argue that Kevin’s short definition isn’t exactly how people understand the term “in the real world.” However, I would first point out that (as Jay Leno and numerous other night-time talk show hosts have shown) going around and asking random people on the street what a word means is hardly a good way to get an accurate definition. Yes, even if you asked a group of people with a mediocre knowledge of religion and Christianity you might get a simplistic answer “someone who follows Jesus.” But if you asked them what Xians believe (a theological question) about X (God, Jesus, scripture, etc) you would get answers involving the Trinity, an unembodied God, Son of God, grace, Biblical inerrancy etc. If you asked them if Xians believe any of the long list I gave in #68, they would say no.

    “But that’s just because other Xians dominated the discourse!” Exactly. They won, that’s why all the heretical groups eventually died out. There is a reason why Mormons-Are-Xian apologists always have to point to dead 5th-8th century groups to justify a broader theological definition of Xianity: because the boundary-keepers won and established a new definition. A millennia and half have grounded it. Sure there might be a group here and there who hold a slightly diverging understanding, but most definitions have some wiggle room. Mormons-Are-Xian apologists aren’t asking for wiggle room though, they’re asking for a premium penthouse to squeeze in a whole other set of beliefs.

    My comments have been about the “should” from the beginning. Given the historical (meaning the last millennia and a half) definition and theological use of “Christian,” Mormons should be excluded from it. We should just accept that and stop complaining that we are being kept out of the cool-kids club. Our Mormon forefathers understood this, so they played the same game and started their own club: “No. We’re the real Xians! You are apostates!”

    “Christian” isn’t trademarked. Mormons should just embrace the Restoration and all our drastically different beliefs and just claim the term with our own definition.

  82. Kevin,

    what are your thought’s on this and Hamblin’s response in relation to Hamblin’s own boundary-making? http://mormonscriptureexplorations.wordpress.com/2012/08/09/minimal-beliefs-to-be-considered-a-mormon/

  83. I am an Indian Catholic, who always considered Mormons as Christians. For me, anybody who is a follower of Christ is a Christian. If anybody thinks s/he is a Christian, then they are. Who made these hard and fast rules about Christianity? I recall only one rule, and that is love!

  84. Wendell Welling says:

    I wonder if Jesus would not be just a bit puzzled by all the heat and bewilderment which comes from people who all claim they follow him as they argue back and forth about the true meaning of a term he never used himself and never defined.

  85. to Ben Witherington: At # 61 above you say: “And for the record, I was using the term Christianity in the same way Catholics and Orthodox do when they say ‘no, Mormonism is not Christianity, which is btw very different from saying no Mormons are Christian.”

    Actually, that is not what you said in your article. You said that no Mormons are Christian unless they reject their own church’s doctrine.

    Here is the quote from your article: “I bring this issue up now, because of the general ignorance of the American public about whether or not *Mormons are actually Christians or not.* If they really embrace the official positions of their religious group, *they are not Christians,* though they often present themselves as such…” (emphasis added).

    I find it curious that you put in significant effort to tell us what a noted Biblical scholar you are, yet you ignore the New Testament’s own definitions of what a Christian is, and you ignore the comments pointing this out to you.

  86. Wendell Welling says:

    And since Jesus never defined the term in question, and since the Bible does not in all of it’s pages clearly define the term, is it not the height of human arrogance to presume to define it in a manner which would exclude those who wish to be identified with Jesus? If a person declares they are a partisan of Christ, is it not up to Christ to decide whether or not he accepts their pledge? I am always amazed that so many Evangelicals rely on clearly post Biblical and extra Biblical creeds and definitions to claim sole possession of a term the Bible barely even mentions. If the Bible is to be our guide in this issue, are we not limited then to the context of the very few verses of the Bible that mention the term? By what logic do some people try to define the term Christian by ideas that never would have occurred to those who first received the description? I simply find it astonishing that some people try to convince others that a group of people cannot be followers of Jesus because they don’t fit their definition of a term Jesus never used.

  87. Narrator: I think that you are just missing the issue. What we are saying is that BW3’s criteria are just wrong-headed; not that if we adopt his criteria he is wrong. I am saying that any criterion of “Christian” that would exclude Jesus himself is just wrong-headed – -obviously and on its face. All of BW3’s criteria fails this critical test. So quite arguing what no one is arguing.

  88. KerBearRN says:

    Groan. *rolls eyes*. Another arrogant evangelical who thinks he somehow owns Christianity. Christian=follower of Christ. Period. I see no room in this for judgementalism. If you consider yourself a Christian, then you are.
    73– right on!!
    Thanks Kevin, I think your explanations are wonderful — and without belaboring the jots and tittles.

  89. the narrator says:

    Blake,

    Gotcha. Didn’t realize that “missing the issue” meant disagreeing with you and others. Had I known that, I would have grasped the issue and agreed with you much sooner. From now on I will only argue what everyone else is arguing instead of arguing against them. Silly me.

    “I am saying that any criterion of “Christian” that would exclude Jesus himself is just wrong-headed.”

    Gotcha. So since Jesus is the second consubstantial member of the Trinity, eternally begotten by the Father, then you are fine with a definition of Christian that has belief in these things as criteria, right?

    This last sentence is, of course, in jest, and I only make it because your statement assumes that the person and attributes of “Jesus himself” are obvious and readily known and understood. To the contrary, what is referred to with “Jesus himself” is a theological claim, presupposing the very criteria for identifying “Jesus himself” and Christians.

  90. Although the term Christian did not arise until after Jesus arose and ascended into heaven, it seems to me that in his own effort to define his followers, Jesus was rather unsophisticated and plain spoken when he simply said, “By this shall men know ye are my disciples. If ye have love one to another.”

    No technical theology, no definition of the canon, no litmus test regarding soteriology, just that we love one another. What would happen if all the competing Christian bodies embraced the only definition Jesus seems to have cared to give regarding his disciples? Maybe then we could begin to transform the world as he asked his disciples to do.

  91. I’m not sure if it has been said but there are many catholics who do not believe that mormonism is christian:

    http://wdtprs.com/blog/2012/03/quaeritur-are-mormons-christians/

    Maybe we need to rethink our concern with what men say that we are or are not and begin to be concerned about what Christ says we are or are not. Christ says we need to take his name upon us. Surely that matters above all.

    as for the love one another claim – many non-christians do that – does that make them christian?

  92. Ugly Mahana says:

    Part of the issue is the multitude of possible definitions of the word Christian. Narrator is correct to state that Mormons are not contemporary mainstream Christians, but neither are Christian heretics from centuries ago. Yet, if the old heretics are properly described as Christian, then why cannot Mormons also be described as Christian?

    It is not sufficient merely to show that Mormonism can be distinguished from contemporary normative Christianity. To be pursuasive, the argument must show that the set of persons who are Christian is limited to those persons whose beliefs conform to contemporary normative Christianity, exclusive of all other partisans of Christ.

  93. Kent Larsen says:

    the narrator (82) wrote:
    “I would first point out that (as Jay Leno and numerous other night-time talk show hosts have shown) going around and asking random people on the street what a word means is hardly a good way to get an accurate definition.”

    Um, what do you know about definition making? I’m no expert, but I have read a little. It is complicated business, but it does boil down to how the word is used in the real world. That is what Kevin is talking about.

    Given that, perhaps you can actually provide a definition from a dictionary somewhere (except perhaps an evangelical dictionary) that defines “Christianity” as you claim? Or even a definition that relies on words or concepts that elsewhere in the dictionary imply what you claim.

    I’d be very surprised if you can find such a definition.

  94. Yes. It does make them “Christian.” All good things come from God (see Moroni 7:12. And when their actions are loving (Christian), they are demonstrating Christ-like behavior. Again, it’s all how you define it. In the eternal scheme of things all children of God who show love to others will be judged to have chosen well, to have followed the light of Christ within them, whether they defined themselves with the correct label or not.

    Those of us who have made covenants to take Christ’s name upon us just don’t appreciate havin someone

  95. Kent Larsen says:

    FWIW, the Oxford English Dictionary definition of “Christian” is:

    One who believes or professes the religion of Christ; an adherent of Christianity.

    It then defines “Christianity” as:

    The religion of Christ; the Christian faith; the system of doctrines and precepts taught by Christ and his apostles.

    Note that the Nicene creed is absent from this definition! Instead, it refers to Christ and his apostles, instead of the creeds established hundreds of years later.

    When the dictionary defines “Nicene” it doesn’t indicate there either that the creed is an exclusive aspect of Christianity.

    I suspect that evangelicals are so wrapped in their views that it seems to them that everyone thinks that Christianity=Nicene creed.

  96. Here’s a review of a book written by a Catholic theologian who situates Mormonism within Christianity, and demonstrates a variety of historical theologians who Witherington would have to disqualify as “Christian.”

    http://bycommonconsent.com/2012/01/23/review-stephen-h-webb-jesus-christ-eternal-god/

  97. else claim we are not followers of Christ, when that effort is at the core of our being.

    (Smart phones are not the best for typing comments)

  98. the narrator says:

    Kent, as I’ve said a thousand times before, Ben W is making a theological claim and is thus using a contemporary theological definition, one that has developed and become grounded over the last millennia and a half.

  99. Kent Larsen says:

    Theological definitions are limited by the theology of those making the definition. Claiming that Mormons aren’t Christian because non-Mormons wrote the definition is circular and useless — the basic problem with Ben W’s post, IMO. All he has ended up saying is that Mormons aren’t Christian because non-Mormons say they aren’t. So what?

  100. The Book of Mormon uses the word ‘Christian’ in a stricter sense than the New Testament does. It is a more exclusive usage. In fact, it is more exclusive than the use of most members of the church. Some in the church use the word ‘Mormon’ in a stricter sense than the public understanding of that word. This makes our offense in this case very ironic.

    Although, it would be clearer to say that Mormons are heretical Christians, or incorrect Christians or untrue Christians – that seems too mild for the purposes that those who are excluding us want to achieve … because they want to assert that we cannot be saved without a substantial doctrinal or epistemological change – so saying we are not Christian indicates the need for that in their own minds. Because we are not Christian we need to be converted.

    I question the whole idea that we should be offended because we are being excluded. Offended? How ‘Christian’ is that? Excluded? Really? From what?

    Those who conform to the light of Christ can be considered Christian … in a certain sense. But then the word becomes very broad as it includes those who do not explicitly follow all the teachings of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament (or the Book of Mormon) – it could and would include non-Christian religions and even atheists. I don’t mind that … as long as we clearly indicate our use of the word.
    But then, as you’ve seen, I don’t mind the narrow definition either. Being labelled ‘Christian’ by everyone outside the church who has an opinion on it is not my biggest concern. It doesn’t in any way affect my approval or disapproval with God.

  101. Also, Witherington should realize that people who hold his definition to be self-evident are rather few in number, and recognize that when he and others declare that “Mormons are not Christian” with no qualifiers (creedal, Nicene, traditional, orthodox, whatever) the message that gets sent across is “they don’t believe in Jesus Christ, period” (like Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and so forth; Jews have been adopted into “Judeo-Christianity,” so they’re alright).

    Even more pernicious about this is that in the US political sphere, being seen as properly “Christian” (or *Judeo*-Christian) is almost a requirement for public office. Like “atheist,” “non-Christian” in public parlance is often a pejorative, not a descriptive. He’s pretty much using theological language to say “Mitt Romney is a worse person than you think he is,” which is a problem.

  102. Kent Larsen says:

    Michael H. has answered Saddened’s comment — we object because we don’t want our beliefs mischaracterized. In this sense, its not so much that Mormons are “offended” as that we are trying desperately to give a correct idea of our beliefs.

    I’m fine with describing Mormons as “non-Creedal Christians” or something. Clearly we aren’t the same as traditional Christians and don’t want to be. But given our doctrinal emphasis on Christ, it bothers most Mormons to hear that we are “not Christians.”

  103. It’s not just popular usage that ignores Witherington’s definition; it’s elite usage too. Mainline protestant theologians wouldn’t consider biblical inerrancy a defining feature of Christianity. Historians and sociologists don’t conflate “trinitarian” and “Christian”.

    Anyone is free to devise their own definition of Christian, but decency dictates that they should at least make clear when they’re using it as private jargon. If Witherington’s post had been titled “Why Mormonism is outside the Evangelical definition of Christianity”, then it would have seemed less like slander. The annoying thing isn’t that Witherington uses a contemporary theological definition, it’s that he pretends it is the only contemporary theological definition.

  104. To borrow a Wittgensteinian phrase – the meaning of a word is given by its use in the language game. The problem, with a word like ‘Christian’, is that there are multiple uses – and hence multiple meanings.

    Episodes like this (media articles describing Mormonism as non-Christian) are actually are great opportunity to prove our Christianity – by how we respond. Offense is not a good response.

  105. Narrator: Talking to you is like talking to get a brick wall. No, Jesus is not a person with attributes or some set of properties defined by the absolute logical limit. Jesus was a person who walked around the Palestinian countryside about 2,000 years ago and taught people by parables and example to love one another. We have only faint whispers and traditions of what he actually said as a person. What we do know beyond doubt is that he was not an evangelical Protestant. We know that he didn’t teach anything about a Trinity or about being consubstantial with his Father (he would have been horrified at the thought) or about inerrancy. We know these things because it is completely out of the nature of what he did teach — at least based upon the writings that evolved out of the oral tradition that grew up around him after his death and the amazing claim that folks saw him and talked with him after he was dead. We know that what he taught and thought, when he asked people to be like him, and to remember his body and the blood of his covenant with his intimate Father had nothing to do with the criteria to be “Christian” that you and BW3 claim were somehow univocally established without variation for 1,500 years. Your own claim is so badly misinformed and oversimplified as to be laughable. However, the claim made by BW3 must be particularly offensive to anyone who really takes seriously what the man named Jesus taught.

    To suggest that someone couldn’t be his follower or called after him as a Christian because they didn’t believe in consubstantiality or the Trinity or inerrancy is not just simple nonsense (though it is that), it is an exclusion that is out of character with everything he taught.

  106. Blake: Are you really so blind to not be able to see that your simplified list of things “we know” about Jesus are theological claims in themselves. While I might disagree with them in the same way you do, there are thousands of theologians who see things and interpret things differently than you. Of course, they disagree with the great Blake Ostler, so they are obviously wrong, but that is besides the point.

    I never claimed that the definition was “univocally established without variation,” so stop making stuff up. I have explicitly stated that there are some here and there and when that have slightly differed.

    “However, the claim made by BW3 must be particularly offensive to anyone who really takes seriously what the man named Jesus taught.”

    This might be a big surprise to you Blake, but most Christians see Jesus Christ as being much bigger than the “man named Jesus.” To most (almost ALL) Christians, the “man named Jesus” is God incarnate, the consubstantial 2nd member of the Trinity, the Eternally Begotton of the Father, the Word made flesh. He’s the God who revealed himself to Paul and inspired his writings, who inspired the early Xian fathers, and who continued to lead the church to the present. For most Xians, his presence, imprint, and influence extends far beyond his recorded sayings in the Gospels and is also the source for the Hebrew scriptures, epistles, and every other part of the Bible. There is little severing of the “man named Jesus” from these theological claims from their reading of the scriptures.

    We are clearly two brick walls talking past each other, so I’m finished with this thread.

  107. Narrator – what’s the point of this? We all realize that a lot of Christians think of Jesus as God incarnate, the consubstantial 2nd member of the Trinity. The interesting thing is that he never actually says that. “I am God incarnate” and “I am the consubstantial 2nd member of the Trinity.”

    To me, that seems to be the point being made. It’s permissible that someone believes those things and is still adopting the label Christian. Language has been created to describe Jesus based on philosophical interpretations of the bible. That same language is being used to write Mormons out of the construct of Christianity. It’s entirely reasonable to point out that Christ never had these dividing lines, so we should we?

    We (pro “Christian” LDS types) are not making accusations against others here, just defending ourselves against a combination of misunderstanding or libel.

  108. Kent Larsen says:

    Turns out 51% of Americans see Mormons as Christian, per the Pew Forum’s report:

    http://www.pewforum.org/Christian/Mormon/mormons-in-america-infographic.aspx

  109. Sure, Kent, but if I focus only on the evangelicals in that report, Ben and narrator are correct.

    Why can’t you see that? It’s so simple. *sigh*

  110. Kent Larsen says:

    LOL!

  111. While discussing Mormonism at one of our pastor’s classes, a parishioner asked, “Couldn’t there be some Christians in the Mormon religion?” And my pastor replied, “Sure…there might even be some here.”

  112. Over time, the number of Christians who believe Mormons are Christians, will grow, for one specific reason: the number of Mormons is growing, while the number of Christians in other churches is shrinking (at least in the US).

    And the second reason Christians will accept Mormons as Christians will be when Christ comes in glory and declares to the world that this is his true church.

  113. After following this conversation for quite some time, and wondering if you needed a PhD in religious theory to have an opinion, I suddenly had a thought.

    Why not forget the word Christian, and just say, those who have, by covenant, taken on the name of Christ?

    That does explain who I am. I am not sure I want to deal with a word that was used as the basis for killing Infadels of all kinds. That was used to keep people illiterate because their priests wanted them dependent upon the church for access to God, and that often stands for bigotry and hate. I am more than happy to leave that history to those who want to claim it.

    I am happy to have covenanted to take on the name of Christ.

  114. I am a second cousin of Mit Romney and descendent of Brigham Young whose was raised in the LDS church.

    After spending most of my life researching the scriptures and the history of the LDS church I have concluded that the Book of Mormon is true but that the modern LDS church, like all other so-called christian churches, is in apostasy.

    I have no vested interest in whether anyone votes for Mitt.

    My personal opinion is that it is a sin to vote for the lesser of two evils. For that reason I will not be voting.

    I do find it interesting that the author finds himself on solid ground with hundreds of other christian churches that disagree on numerous tenets and do not conform to the true teachings and gifts of the spirit found in the New Testament Church. .

    The truth is that all of Christianity is in apostasy and the Bible foretold that this would be the case just prior to the Lords return.

    The Biblical church had all things in common.. is that true of the congregation you belong to Ben?

    I didn’t think so.

    There is no such thing as “Evangelical Christianity”.

    That is a term only used in recent decades that PROTESTANTS devised to give themselves credibility and divert people from the true origins of the protestant faith.

    Ben, you are a “protestant”. The word defines how you and all of the other harlot churches that sprang forth out of the Catholic whore came into existence.

    It was through the act of protest.

    It was the act of protesting against Catholicism that all of the various protestant church came into existence as the reformers attempted to correct the false doctrines being taught by the Catholic Church.

    The act of protest does not endow you with any special power, authority or knowledge.

    You have a form of Godliness but you deny the power thereof.

    People who live in glass houses should not throw stones.

  115. “Are there Nestorians around today?”

    Wow. I am speechless.

  116. Kevin Barney says:
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