November 1, 2011
Are Mormons Christians? Of Constantine and Karaites
Christian: one who professes belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ. – Merriam-Webster dictionary
“It was, in the first place, declared improper to follow the custom of the Jews in the celebration of this holy festival, because, their hands having been stained with crime, the minds of these wretched men are necessarily blinded. ... Let us, then, have nothing in common with the Jews, who are our adversaries. ... Let us ... studiously avoiding all contact with that evil way. ... For how can they entertain right views on any point who, after having compassed the death of the Lord, being out of their minds, are guided not by sound reason, but by an unrestrained passion, wherever their innate madness carries them.” – Constantine the Great
Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them. – Matthew 7:20
I’ve received numerous calls and e-mails in the past month from Jewish friends and contacts who want to know why Evangelicals and Baptists feel so strongly that Mormons are not Christians. Since even they will admit that Mormons usually have good values and lead good “Christian” lives, it all comes down to certain points of LDS theology that they believe lie outside the bounds of “traditional” Christianity. I know that most Jews aren’t terribly interested in the finer points of Christian theology, so I’ll limit my discussion to two doctrines that are regularly brought up by the “Mormons aren’t Christians” crowd.
First of all, Mormons are not Trinitarians. We don’t believe in a three-in-one god (or, if you prefer, a one-in-three god). We believe that God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit exist as three separate beings, not as one god. This belief alone is enough for many Christians to eject us from the Christian fold. Why we are criticized for refusing to follow the lead of the Jew-hater Constantine is a mystery to me.
In 325, Roman Emperor Constantine convened the First Council of Nicaea in an attempt to establish a consensus in the Christian church on certain doctrinal matters. It’s important to note that Constantine was the emperor, but did not hold an ecclesiastical office in the church. [His additional title, pontifex maximus, was an office in the pagan priesthood that all Roman emperors held at that time. Sylvester I was the pope, or bishop of Rome]. The 300 or so bishops in attendance at the council (out of 1800 worldwide) came up with the famous Nicene Creed, which proclaimed that Jesus was “of one substance” with His Father. Christians who disagreed with the creed were subject to persecution. As a result, most Christians since that time have incorporated the creed into their doctrine and liturgy.
Unfortunately, the bishops also agreed with Constantine that Jews were “odious,” “detestable” and “blind.” To Mormons, this is Exhibit A for our case that the original Christian church deviated from the true path and needed to be restored by God. Here we have a secular ruler rounding up a distinct minority of bishops in his empire, who are somehow inspired to declare God’s true nature while espousing anti-Semitic views. In Constantine’s empire, conversion to Judaism and Christian-Jewish intermarriage were punishable by death. What greater evidence can there be for an apostate church than anti-Semitism at its highest levels? Mormons are proud to disagree with Constantine and his anti-Semitic bishops on the nature of God, and see no reason why their view should be a litmus test for Christianity.
Another LDS belief that raises Evangelical eyebrows is our acceptance of scriptures in addition to the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. How interesting that on this point Evangelicals are behaving like Jews vis-à-vis Christianity, since Jews believe that there is no need to add an additional testament to the scriptural canon. However, since most Jews also accept the Oral Law and the Talmud as sources of law and tradition, I think that the better comparison is between Karaite Judaism and Rabbinic Judaism.
Karaites believe that the Hebrew Bible stands alone as divinely inspired scripture for Jews, and do not consider the Talmud and the Oral Law to be binding. Just as most Jews believe that the Talmud and other rabbinic writings serve to affirm the truths contained in the Torah, Mormons believe that the Book of Mormon and other LDS scriptures affirm the validity of the Bible. Evangelicals, like Karaites, say that one book is enough.
I thank my Jewish friends for their questions and welcome future opportunities to address this issue.
I will be speaking on the current situation in the Middle East at Temple Etz Chaim in Thousand Oaks, CA on Wednesday, November 2 @ 8:00 p.m.