Ben Witherington on Whether Mormons Are Christians

Posted on by

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.”

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.

Cross-posted at BCC

3 thoughts on “Ben Witherington on Whether Mormons Are Christians

  1. Logophile

    The word Christian appears just three places in the New Testament: Acts 11:26, Acts 26:28, and 1 Peter 4:16. Mormons fit the Biblical description of Christians as well as any group I know.

  2. Pingback: Are Mormons Christians? Witherington says no. | Interpreter

  3. Pingback: 28 August 2012 | MormonVoices

Comments are closed.