LDS Doctrine Compared with Other Christian Doctrines
Stephen E. Robinson, “LDS Doctrine Compared with other Christian Doctrines,” in Latter-day Saint Essentials: Readings from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. John W. Welch and Devan Jensen (Provo, UT: BYU Studies and the Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2002), 177–81.
As biblical scholar W. D. Davies once pointed out, LDS doctrine can be described as biblical Christianity separated from hellenized Christianity, a conjunction of first-century Judaism and Christianity. Latter-day Saints accept the Bible and its apostolic teachings as God’s word, but reject many later interpretations of the Bible that express Greek philosophical concerns—they accept John and Paul but reject Augustine. For example, Latter-day Saints accept both the threeness of God and the oneness of God as biblical teachings. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three divine personages who together constitute one Godhead. But Mormons reject the attempts of postbiblical, nonapostolic Christianity to define how the oneness and the threeness of God are related. They accept the biblical doctrine of the Trinity, but reject the philosophical doctrine of the Trinity as defined at the Council of Nicaea and later. In short, Latter-day Saints reject the authority and conclusions of theologians and philosophers to define or interpret what the Bible, apostles, or prophets have not. They accept biblical Christianity, but not its extension in extrabiblical creeds and traditions.
To those Christians who have welded the Bible to its later interpretation and cannot separate Plato and Augustine from Peter and Paul, and cannot think of “true” Christianity in first-century categories, LDS doctrine may seem iconoclastic in separating biblical texts from their later “traditional” interpretation. Nevertheless, Latter-day Saints feel that New Testament Saints would have been just as uncomfortable with the philosophical creeds of later Christianity as they themselves are.
LDS rejection of much postbiblical Christianity is based on belief in an ancient apostasy that is both predicted and chronicled in the New Testament (e.g., 2 Thes. 2:1–5; 3 Jn. 9–10). Apostolic authority ceased just after the New Testament period, and without apostolic leadership and authority the Church was soon overwhelmed by alien intellectual and cultural pressures. The simple affirmations of biblical faith were turned into the complex propositions of theology. Though subsequent churches were still “Christian,” in the LDS view they no longer possessed the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ or apostolic authority. Latter-day Saints would agree with Catholics and “high church” Protestants that apostolic authority is essential in the true church but would also agree with other Protestants that apostolic authority was lacking in medieval orthodoxy. A close parallel is presented by Protestant rejection of Roman Catholic claims to binding apostolic authority. While Latter-day Saints trace the Apostasy to roughly the second century and reject subsequent orthodoxy, most Protestants would place it somewhere nearer the fifteenth century and then reject subsequent Catholicism.
Protestants who denied the necessity of apostolic succession, or who did not believe its links were severed by the Reformation, generally held that the fulness of the gospel could be achieved by reforming the Roman Church. Latter-day Saints, who insist on the necessity of apostolic succession but believe its links were severed early, see a reformation as inadequate for recovering the fulness of the gospel and reestablishing original Christianity. Only a total restoration of apostolic doctrines and authority could reestablish the pure Christianity of the first century. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sees itself as constituting this Restoration.
LDS rejection of hellenistic philosophy in matters of doctrine accounts for many characteristic differences between Latter-day Saints and other Christians. For example, Latter-day Saints reject the Platonic spirit-matter dichotomy, which holds that spirit and matter are opposed and inimical to each other. They believe instead that spirit is refined matter and that both spirit and matter are eternal, being neither created nor destroyed. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “there is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes” (D&C 131:7).
Thus, for Latter-day Saints there is no ultimate incompatibility between spirit and matter or between the spiritual and the physical realms. In LDS theology, the physical elements are coeternal with God. The idea that physical matter is transitory, corrupt, or incompatible with spiritual or eternal life is rejected. Latter-day Saints usually define “spiritual” as “infused with spirit” rather than as “nonphysical.” This unitary understanding of spirit and matter allows them to accept the Father and the Son as the concrete, anthropomorphic beings represented in scripture and reject the definition of God as the abstract, “totally other” nonbeing of philosophical theology. For Latter-day Saints, God exists in the normal sense in association with time and space, rather than in the abstract Platonic sense of beyond time and space. The traditional disparagement of matter and of the physical state of being is not well grounded biblically, and Latter-day Saints believe it is a product of hellenistic thought. They also think the concept of a God “without body, parts or passions” dismisses too much of the biblical data or allegorizes it excessively.
Since Mormons believe that the elements are eternal, it follows that they deny the ex nihilo creation. Rather, the universe was created (organized) out of preexisting elements that God organized by imposing physical laws. The Prophet Joseph Smith also taught that intelligence is also eternal and uncreated: “The intelligence of spirits had no beginning, neither will it have an end . . . Intelligence is eternal and exists upon a self-existent principle” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 353–54).
Just as God organized preexisting matter to create the universe, so he organized preexisting intelligence to create the spirits that eventually became human beings. Consequently, Latter-day Saints do not view God as the total cause of what human beings are. Human intelligence is uncreated by God, and therefore independent of his control. Thus Mormons insist that human beings are free agents in the fullest sense, and deny both the doctrines of prevenient and irresistible grace, which make God’s choice determinative for salvation or damnation. God will not coerce independent, self-existent wills. Though he desires the exaltation of all, and offers it equally to all, its achievement requires individual cooperation, a covenant relationship. In this way, LDS theology escapes the classical dilemma of predestination and theodicy imposed by believing that God created all things from nothing and is therefore solely responsible for the final products. Their radical doctrine of individual free agency also allows the Latter-day Saints to deny the theory of human depravity. The Fall of Adam did not totally incapacitate humans from doing any good thing—they remain able to choose and to perform either good or evil. Moreover, Latter-day Saints accept the concept of the “fortunate Fall” (mea culpa). The Fall was a necessary step in the progress of humanity: “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy” (2 Ne. 2:25).
A positive view of the physical universe and of man also allows Latter-day Saints to anticipate a physical afterlife, the celestial kingdom, a community of physically resurrected beings transformed and perfected. Unlike many ancient church fathers, they do not long to escape the realm of the flesh, but rather to sanctify it. Hence, in the LDS view, even the physical relationships of family and marriage can continue in the eternities in a sanctified state. Thus there is little asceticism and no celibacy in LDS theology, which sees in both of these tendencies a denial of the goodness of God’s physical creation (Gen. 1:31); and LDS theology avoids the traditional disparagement of the human body and the contempt for human sexuality that are largely due to the neoplatonism of late antiquity.
While common ground for Latter-day Saints and other Christians is an acceptance of the Bible and its teachings, issues of interpretation aside, Mormonism agrees with “high church” orthodoxy against conservative Protestantism on the doctrine of the sufficiency of scripture. Though they accept the Bible, Latter-day Saints, like Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox, for example, do not believe that the biblical text alone is sufficient for salvation. Biblical teaching, while true and accepted, has been imperfectly preserved and can be fully reconstituted only through supplemental revelation. This is not because New Testament Christianity was defective, but because New Testament Christianity is only partially preserved in the modern Bible. Those doctrines that were not preserved must be restored; consequently, Mormons deny both biblical inerrancy and sufficiency. Since the apostles and prophets of earliest Christianity received direct revelation from God (see, e.g., Acts 10:9–16, 28), Latter-day Saints believe that any church claiming the fulness of the gospel must also enjoy this gift.
This crucial principle of continuing revelation is illustrated in the experience of the Prophet Joseph Smith, whose visions and revelations form the foundation of LDS doctrine. As the magisterium of the church is fundamental for Roman Catholics, and the scriptures are the fontes for Protestants, for Latter-day Saints the highest authority in religious matters is continuing revelation from God given through the living apostles and prophets of his Church, beginning with Joseph Smith and continuing to the present leadership.
Latter-day Saints insist that both the canon of scripture and the structure of theology are always open-ended, and can always be added upon by God through revelation to his prophets (Article of Faith 9). Through this means they have received clarification of biblical doctrines that are disputed in other denominations, for example, Christ’s ministry to the dead in 1 Peter 3:18 and 4:6 (see D&C 128; 137; 138). Also through modern revelation Latter-day Saints have received some distinctive doctrines that are not explicitly found in the Bible. In these cases modern revelation has not rehabilitated a doctrine that is unclear, but has restored a doctrine that was entirely lost.
Latter-day Saints share with most Christians the conviction that salvation comes only through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, which is representative, exemplary, and substitutionary in nature. Christ is the mediator of humanity to the Father instead of fallen Adam; he sets an example for humans to emulate; and he takes mankind’s place in suffering for sins.
Latter-day Saints are monophysite in their christology; that is, they believe Christ has only one nature, which is simultaneously both human and divine. This is possible because the human and the divine are not mutually exclusive categories in LDS thought, as in the duophysite christology of much orthodoxy. As Lorenzo Snow said, “As man now is, God once was: As God now is, man may be” (Snow, p. 46). Most Christians would agree with the first half of this couplet as applied to the person of Christ, but Latter-day Saints apply it also to the Father. The second half of the couplet is more orthodox in the denominational sense than either Protestants or Catholics, for Latter-day Saints share the ancient biblical doctrine of deification (apotheosis) with Eastern Orthodoxy. Several of early Christianity’s theologians said essentially the same thing as Lorenzo Snow. Irenaeus said, “If the word became a man, it was so men may become gods” (Against Heresies, 4. Pref), and Athanasius maintained that “[Christ] became man that we might be made divine” (On the Incarnation, 54). Yet Latter-day Saints combine both halves of the couplet to reach what they feel is the only possible conclusion—human and divine are not mutually exclusive categories. Mormons insist that the two categories are one: Humans are of the lineage of the gods. Latter-day Saints would agree entirely with C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity:
He said (in the Bible) that we were “gods” and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him—for we can prevent Him, if we choose—He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a God or goddess, dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine [p. 175].
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Lash, Symeon. “Deification.” In The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology, ed. A. Richardson and J. Bowden. Philadelphia, 1983.
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Smith, Joseph. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith. Salt Lake City, 1976.
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