Friday, January 27, 2012

Mormonism and Christianity - Jesus, Salvation and Evangelization

I have to make myself clear at the front. I am a Christian. I have some very close Mormon friends, closer than family. And I am not fighting for who is "right," I am merely trying to explore the truth claim that Christianity and Mormonism are the same. It is my contention that they are different in hugely significant ways that make it untenable to say that they are one in the same.

Jesus is another significant source of contention between Christians and Mormons.

First, the term 'Christian' seems to be a source of contention here. Christian is derived from the greek and means 'little Christs.' People have been called Christian since the book of Acts, (ch. 11). These are people who both (1) claim that the Christ has come and (2) imitate and follow his teaching. For Christians, the Christ has come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth; hence Jesus Christ.

So, in one sense, Mormons are Christians. Their sacred writing depict a Christ coming to both Israel and the Americas. He atones for their sins through suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane (sweating blood mentioned in Luke 22 only!) and the cross and then leads the example of good works that helps his followers make it to heaven to be with their families and the Heavenly Father forever.

In another sense, I think it is really hard to say that they are the same type of Christians that my tradition claims to be. Besides the biggest difference that I discussed earlier, there seems to be some major differences between the Mormon Christ and the Christian Christ, according to the Christians:
  • Jesus atones for our sin by dying on the cross...
    • Mormons claim that it is both Jesus' suffering on the cross and in the Garden of Gethsemane. The main event of atonement happens in the Garden, according to Mormons. For Christians, this idea is not even explored because (a) the blood sweating is mentioned in only one of the Gospels (Luke) and (2) the rest of the New Testament is only concerned with the cross. The Garden is never again mentioned outside of the Gospel accounts. If the sweating of blood is the cornerstone event in the atonement of all sin, one would think that it would be mentioned in more than one Gospel. As it goes, the cross remains the central action and symbol for the earliest Christians atonement:
      • "For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Corinthians 1:18).
      • May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (Paul - Galatians 6:14)
      • "For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ..." (Philippians 3:18)
      • "...God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross" (Colossians 1:20)
        • This goes on and on. There is no mention of the Garden of Gethsemane in the rest of scripture after the Gospels; not once. The Gospels nor Epistles never connect the Garden and atonement.
        • This may seem inconsequential, but the crucified Jesus is one of the most important parts of Jesus' example to Christians. John Howard Yoder, in The Politics of Jesus, says it this way, "Only at one point, only on one subject --- but then consistently, universally --- is Jesus our example: in his cross" (95, referring to the writing of the rest of the NT writers).
  •  Jesus never went to the Americas...
    • Now, negatives are harder to prove. By this I mean, it is hard (impossible??) to prove that something didn't happen. I will give it my best shot according to scripture.
      • Acts 3:19-21: "Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets."
        • Here Peter is giving a sermon to those around the temple. He clearly saw Jesus ascend into heaven and believed that the next time Jesus would return it would be to bring about the end of history as everyone knows it. The earliest Christians have always believed that Jesus' next coming could not be missed by anyone, for it would be on clouds and everything would be literally changed by the melding of heaven and earth and the resurrection of the dead.
  • Salvation is provided through Jesus by grace and not by works...
    • Orthodox and historic Christian faith has always affirmed that salvation is a gracious gift of God, unmerited and undeserved, offered out of the grace and love of God, through God's one and only Son, Jesus Christ. This differs from Mormonism where salvation requires good works. Now, good works are important in the Christian faith as well, but always as a fruit of true salvation and sanctification and never, ever, ever, ever as requirement of salvation. The LDS Church officially says this: "to inherit eternal life requires our 'obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel'" The phrase in quotes comes directly from the LDS Church's official articles of faith.
 It is kind of like two friends talking:
  • Person A says, "Oh, your from from Chico, CA? do you know Joshua C.?" 
  • Person B says, "Yeah, I totally know him. He is a huge mentor to me. I have his biography memorized. I can't believe you know him, how do you know him?
  • A says, "He is a brother to me and a mentor. I love him more than anything and have his biography and journals memorized."
  • B, "Don't you just love the way he helps everyone? He gave me a place to live when I was at my worst."
  • A, "Me too... I stayed with him and he gave me his car. Awesome!"
  • B says, "Wow! This is awesome! I can't believe this! Don't you just love his wife too?"
  • A replies, "He doesn't have a wife. What are you talking about?
  • B explains, "Sharon? You have never met Sharon? He met her in Mexico 25 years ago and they have been married ever since?!?!"
  • A, "Nope, never happened. I talk to him everyday. Not only is he not married, he has never been married and never ever been to Mexico!"
Now, as irreverent as my little parable might be, this seems to be exactly what is happening with Mormons and Christians. A normal conclusion to a conversation to the above scenario is, "Well, we must know different people."

To prove that something like this happens, almost this exact scenario has happened to me. I knew a man in my hometown church. His last name was Fernandez. I told him that he had the same last name as my mom, Victoria Fernandez. I told him that my mom's maiden name actually derives from Portuguese and originally ended in 's' but was changed upon immigrating to the US to the more Hispanic version with the 'z.' He said the same was true with his. I told him that my mom's grandfather ended up in San Francisco. He exclaimed that his family did too. I told him that my great grandfather's name was Charles Fernandez. He said that not only was San Francisco the same place his family ended up, but his dad's name was literally Charles Fernandez... His family eventually ended up moving further north in CA and settling there and my side remained in SF. For a split second I had visions of the two of us being related in that my great grandfather had multiple families all over the state, but I know that my great grandfather passed in SF where he lived and worked daily. I could only arrive at one conclusion, they had a lot of similarities, but were different people.

This little parable serves the purpose to show that Mormons and Christians are different. There are some similarities to the 'Jesuses' we each claim to follow, but the differences are substantial - substantial enough for me, and most Christians, to conclude that Christianity and Mormonism are different in a significant way.

My final proof comes in the form of a very simple and mundane question: why do Christians and Mormons continue to try and convert each other?

It seems that if we all agreed that Christianity and Mormonism were the same, there would seem to be no need to try and proselytize each other. Christians continue to try and evangelize to the Mormons because Christians feel that Mormons are mistaken on some very core, basic beliefs about God, Trinity, Christ, Salvation, etc... Mormons continue to try to convert Christians because they believe that they have a fuller revelation of Jesus Christ (Book of Mormon) and are the truer church. Either way, each acts as if the other is not the same.

So where does this idea come from? I think it comes from Mormons. One of their beloved Presidents is quoted as saying:
We are Christians in a very real sense and that is coming to be more and more widely recognized. Once upon a time people everywhere said we are not Christians. They have come to recognize that we are, and that we have a very vital and dynamic religion based on the teachings of Jesus Christ. We, of course, accept Jesus Christ as our Leader, our King, our Savior...the dominant figure in the history of the world, the only perfect Man who ever walked the earth, the living Son of the living God. He is our Savior and our Redeemer through whose atoning sacrifice has come the opportunity of eternal life. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints pray and worship in the name of Jesus Christ. He is the center of our faith and the head of our Church. The Book of Mormon is Another Testament of Jesus Christ and witnesses of His divinity, His life, and His Atonement.
Mormons have taken great steps to give the impression that they are Christians like all other Christians. Asking any member of the LDS church if they are Christians and they will say yes. There are a lot of similarities. We agree on a lot of what is said in the above quote. It is the last line that I am concerned about and makes all the difference in the world. Hinkley says that The Book of Mormon gives new/alternative/different teachings and doctrines on Jesus, the way he is God ("His divinity") and the way his gift of salvation transpires and is extended ("His Atonement"). That is enough to make the two almost similar institutions completely unalike.

There is a lot each tradition could learn from the other. There are a lot of very good things about each. Each should dialogue with and respect the other. There should be love across the lines. But it is just untenable to say they are the same. They are too different on too many core doctrines.

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