I was recently pointed to a video by James White from a while ago which asks the question, “Is Mormonism Christian?” Primarily, White is responding to a video based on an address given by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland at a session of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint’s general conference. In that address (found here) Elder Holland describes Mormonism as a Christian faith, although he delineates points of departure from Nicene Christianity. James disagrees with Elder Holland. In doing so he tries to paint a picture of a shifting and manipulative Mormonism working to hide its disparity from Christianity in the interest of seducing converts. The two primary issues which seem to define Christianity for James, at least as it relates to Mormonism, are monotheism and the atonement. The following is a brief critique of James’ argument and presentation.
James’ video opens with the title question. His answer is introduced with the following: “It’s not really a difficult question, to be perfectly honest with you, as long as Christianity can define itself and as long as fundamental defining issues are allowed to be stated and defined, then it’s not really much of a difficult question.” He goes on to state a single defining issue, namely that Christianity is a monotheistic religion. He elaborates with the following: “We believe that God has eternally been God, that God is the creator of all things, God himself is not created, and that man is the creature of God, that God creates man; he does not beget man. Man is not of the same species as God.” These are peculiar fundamental defining issues, as every single one is a direct response to an ostensibly LDS ideology. If the above are the fundamental defining issues of Christianity, then we must conclude that Christianity is fundamentally defined by its distinction from Mormonism. James, no doubt, does not mean to imply that Christianity only exists and has an identity insofar as it opposes Mormonism. He’s just not paying attention to his methodologies, and his conclusion is more important in crafting his argument than having a good argument. His definition of Christianity must be easily contrasted with Mormonism and must focus exclusively on those aspects of his brand of Christianity which distinguish it. It must be crafted with the goal of differentiation in mind. Defining Christianity in preparation for tackling the question of whether or not Mormonism is Christian by explaining how Christianity is distinguished from Mormonism is a textbook example of begging the question. James’ conclusion is assumed in his premise. His definition of Christianity is invalid if he hopes to assert any logical or academic basis for his argument.
Additionally, James makes it clear that he, and by extension modern American Evangelicalism, speaks on behalf of the Bible and of Christianity as a whole. He gets to define Christianity and what the Bible says, and the lines he draws have a specific purpose: to exclude a single group. This is why his defining issues don’t actually distinguish Christianity from Judaism or Islam. They only place Mormonism, as far as James understands it, outside of the circle. This is problematic. First, it’s begging the question again. Additionally, given that Christianity must be allowed to define itself (as James asserts), in any objective approach to the question, Mormonism must be allowed to participate in that process of definition. To preclude Mormonism from Christianity’s self-definition is, again, begging the question. It assumes the conclusion in setting up the premise. Would it be begging the question in the opposite direction to allow Mormonism to contribute to the definition of Christianity? No. Mormonism claims to be Christian just like James claims to be Christian, and according to many Christians, Mormonism meets the criteria.
Unfortunately for James’ position, self-identity is widely recognized as the most important criterion in religious identification, and virtually all Mormons self-identify as Christians (those that don’t do so only in reaction to arguments like James’). It’s not the only criterion, but it is the one that carries the most weight. Religions are variegated, and the bigger the religion, the more variation. The marginalization or excision of one group within a wider religious movement by an opposing group within that movement is called sectarianism. Sectarianism usually arises when a group has no authority over another group of which it disapproves. Without authority the most effective way to express that disapprobation is to dismiss them as not belonging. This frees the group from association with undesirables and reaffirms notions of uniformity. This is what is compelling James’ argument. Because James’ concerns about Mormonism derive from sectarianism and not from an objective or intelligent assessment of Mormonism’s position within or without Christianity, his argument can only be made on dogmatic grounds. He cannot argue his position from an academic or a logical point of view. It always comes back to simple dogmatic sectarianism. Depriving people of participation in Christianity is not uncommon among more sectarian religious groups. What is odd is that James has been on the receiving end of that kind of sectarianism before (see here). He’s also dished it out to other Christian groups besides Latter-day Saints. Observe how diplomatically he tells a Catholic apologist that he’s not a Christian (here):
As to the use of the broad term “Christian” with reference to Roman Catholicism, such a term, due to its ambiguity in this situation, is less than useful. Faithful in preaching the apostolic message of the gospel? Certainly not, and that is the issue, Dave. If you feel a communion that replaces the grace of God with sacraments, mediators, and merit, can be properly called “Christian,” then please go ahead and use the phrase. But please understand that if a person shares the perspective of the epistle to the churches of Galatia they will have to hold to a different understanding, and hence may not be as quick to use the term “Christian” of such a system.
Another consideration is the legitimacy of his criteria for defining Christianity for those who lived before the development of the specific doctrines he touts as foundational. There was no such thing as a Trinitarian prior to the fourth century CE. James may argue that it is biblical in origin, but no one prior to Nicea ever expressed the notion as James understands it. Were they Christians?
I’ll now turn to his actual argument. I’m going to largely avoid addressing specific claims about Mormon beliefs that are brought up by James with varying degrees of accuracy only for shock value. Such rhetoric really doesn’t make a real point and doesn’t merit a response. Make a video talking about a 6,000 year-old earth, a talking donkey, and a flying man who brings people back from the dead and ask someone not living in a culture that is saturated with those traditions if they think it’s weird. They will think it’s very weird, just as many agnostics, atheists, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and even Christians in America today think certain aspects of Christianity are very weird. Will James feel defeated? No. He’s very aware of the fallacy of that kind of rhetoric when someone else is doing it.
James states that Christianity is monotheistic and that Mormonism is polytheistic. In fact, he states that it’s the most polytheistic religion he’s ever heard of. He quotes Joseph Smith’s King Follett Discourse in support of this. For the sake of argument, I will allow this characterization of Mormonism. However, I must disagree that Christianity is monotheistic, at least in a way that materially distinguishes it from Mormonism. Christianity, in all the manifestations of which I am aware, accepts the existence of angels, demons, cherubim, seraphim, and all kinds of divine beings. From an etymological point of view, Christianity is absolutely not monotheistic. It believes in numerous divine beings. A divine being is and always has been, by very definition, a god. We may argue that one is higher than, and rules absolutely over the others, but this is monarchism, not monotheism, and it erases the lines of distinction between James’ Christianity and Mormonism.
Let’s not commit the etymological fallacy, though. Monotheism is a descriptive term, and it was coined in describing Christianity at a certain time and place. Specifically, it was coined by a 17th century Cambridge Platonist to define his own conceptualization of Christianity, and specifically his conceptualization of Christianity over and against philosophical materialism, which he characterized as atheistic. The term “monotheism” was thus developed to define Platonic Christianity as antithetical to atheism, which included pantheism and several other -isms not considered atheistic by today’s standard. Interestingly, this Platonist (Henry More, by the way) actually explained that the “mono-” in “monotheism” could accommodate more than one divine being.
This definition is a far cry from American Evangelicalism, and it arguably doesn’t exclude Mormonism, but the reason this definition doesn’t help James’ position is the same reason no other characterization of Christianity as monotheistic over and against Mormonism will help: Christianity is based on the Bible, and the Bible as a whole is not monotheistic, according to James’ definition (which appears to align with the etymological notion). Christianity putatively derives its theology and ideology from the Old and New Testaments. That scriptural heritage will stay with it and will influence it no matter what renegotiations take place between those texts and modern expediencies and ideologies. One aspect of that scriptural heritage that Christianity cannot shake is the identification of several divine beings as gods (Gen 6:2, 4; Deut 32:43 [LXX, 4QDeut-q]; Ps 29:1; 89:7; Ps 97:7, among dozens of others). There are even divine beings called the sons of God. Other literature is in agreement. In the Dead Sea Scrolls angels are repeatedly called gods (אלים). Even rabbinic and Christian literature recognizes the existence of other gods.
The modern notion of monotheism largely has more to do with philosophy than religion or the Bible, but in religious arenas it rests on the traditional decoupling of divine beings from the “god” taxonomy. Although the Bible makes reference to other gods, the ontological transcendence of God is so absolute that people just find it acceptable to consider him the only God. Mormonism, of course, has much the same approach. God will always be the highest God for humanity, and so Mormons largely consider themselves monotheistic. They worship one God. Ask a traditional Christian about the “sons of God” and the other divine beings in the Bible and they’ll respond, “Oh, they’re just angels,” or “they’re just subordinate/contingent/created beings.” Ask a Mormon about divinized human beings and they’ll point out that they will always have God above them. For Latter-day Saints, there is one God. Don’t Mormons believe that God is not the absolute highest God, though? Don’t they believe he had a God, too? Many of them do, although it’s not a notion to which they are bound. Additionally, according to the Bible—or at least the original version of portions of it—Yahweh was also not the highest God. The Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls show in Deut 32:8–9 that Yahweh was considered one of the sons of El, also known as Elyon. It states that Elyon divided the nations according to the number of the “sons of God.” Elyon gave Israel to Yahweh. It wasn’t until around the beginning of the monarchy that Yahweh was conflated with El.
Paul states in 1 Cor 8:5 that there are many that are called gods in heaven and on earth and immediately qualifies the statement by saying, “indeed, there are many gods and many lords.” He continues, “but for us there is one God, the Father, from which comes all, and to whom we belong.” Notice he states that there are indeed many gods, but “for us there is one God.” Oddly, near the end of the video, James criticizes Mormonism for believing in a God that is “the only true God for us.” James’ rhetoric is departing from, and criticizing, the rhetoric of the Bible. This becomes necessary when one’s ideology is based not on the Bible alone, but on centuries of tradition and philosophical and political debate. No religion is based exclusively, or even primarily, on the Bible. James states that the Book of Mormon contradicts the Bible in numerous places, but he himself contradicts the Bible, as does the very Bible itself. It is not univocal. It contains numerous different, and not uncommonly contradictory, viewpoints. James disagrees with this, of course, but he cannot defend his dogmatism on an academic or intellectual level.
James then makes a number of assertions that Mormonism does not align with “biblical” concepts of atonement, the Godhead, etc. The problem with this is that James’ concept of atonement, the Godhead, etc., are also not biblical. They’re traditional. His view of the Trinity is not biblical, it’s Nicene (he has argued otherwise, but I know of no single scholar who does not have a deeply vested interest in his conclusion who agrees with him). It derives from philosophical debates which took place in the late third and early fourth centuries CE. His notion of atonement comes from the Reformation. His notion of grace comes from the Reformation through modern Fundamentalism. He will argue it is biblical, of course, but the same hermeneutic circles and anti-intellectualism define those arguments as well. James has no more a corner on the Bible than Mormonism. It’s a variegated and conflicted book that has as many interpretations as it has readers, and as we’ve seen, for other Christians James’ own positions fail the text of Christianity.
What James is arguing throughout his video is that Mormonism is not Evangelicalism. This hardly needs a 14 minute video to point out, though. The implication, however, is that because it is not Evangelicalism, it is not Christian. Mormonism is not the only religion James has decoupled from Christianity for not being Evangelical enough. James has argued elsewhere that Catholicism also does not merit the title “Christian.” Why? It’s unbiblical, at least according to Evangelicalism.
James doesn’t consider Mormons Christian, and that’s fine. That’s his prerogative. His argument, however, is not supported by anything other than dogmatism. It is only valid for others who share his particular sectarian views. From an objective and intellectual point of view, it’s a non-starter. It has no real bearing on anyone who does not already accept the premise for dogmatic reasons, although the rhetoric is likely to be effective on those who don’t know any better. In light of these considerations, his argument fails on all counts to substantiate his thesis.
UPDATE: James begins a response to this post on his Alpha & Omega Ministries blog here. I am busy with a couple papers this week, but will hopefully have some comments up shortly after I’m done.