I’ve been quite busy recently and unfortunately haven’t had the time to blog, but this question has been getting quite a bit of air time lately, so I thought I’d chime in. Normally I keep things focused on a purely academic look at ancient Judaism and Christianity, but I think this can be approached academically, and it has bearing on questions of religious identity in antiquity and today. Jim West addressed the question most recently among bibliobloggers. He had this to say:
Viewed from the perspective of historic, orthodox Christianity, the answer is an irrefutable yes, it is. But why is it so deemed? Two reasons, primarily:
1- It devalues the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. He is not, for Mormons, THE Unique Son of God- he is merely one of many sons and daughters of God. For orthodox Christians, Jesus is the Son of God in a particular and profound way. And while all those who have faith are the children of God, they are not ‘in the same league’ as Jesus.
2- It asserts a secondary revelation, absent from Scripture, claimed to be equal to Scripture (the so called ‘Book of Mormon’). For orthodox Christians Scripture is ‘complete’ and secondary accretions are both unnecessary and unwarranted and therefore illegitimate. Further, numerous claims in the book of Mormon contravene the teaching of Scripture. That fact alone is sufficient reason to disregard its views.
Now, that said, it must also be said that there are certainly adherents of the Mormon faith who are authentic Christians. But how can this be? Simply put, there are Mormons as unfamiliar with the intricacies of Mormon doctrine as there are Baptists and Catholics and Methodists utterly bereft of any comprehension of the doctrinal views of their particular denominations. We are not saved, however, by our doctrine- we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ.
So, yes, there are Mormons who are authentic Christians even though their particular faith perspective on the whole fails to measure up to Christian orthodoxy. And there are Baptists and Catholics and even Methodists and Presbyterians and Anglicans and Episcopalians (!) in the fold of Christ as well. Just as there are members of those denominations outside the faith because they don’t truly trust Christ for salvation.
We should all give thanks to God that our purity of doctrinal comprehension isn’t the basis for our salvation. Were that the case, salvation would itself be lost because then it would depend on us (and on our views) and not on Christ, who died for us.
Now, while I understand where Jim is coming from with his two points, I have concerns with it. Obviously we’re not going to arrive at a consensus about this, and I mean Jim no disrespect, but I don’t think his position here is well thought out.
First, what is his definition of the word “cult” and whence does it come? Normally with this kind of question I find that the definition is secondary to the compartmentalization effected by whatever sectarian concerns an individual might prioritize. In other words, I don’t like groups X, Y, and Z, for any given reason associated with my idea of orthodoxy, so I group them, find a common denominator, and label them a cult. What is a cult? Whatever common denominator I find. Jim gives a broad definition in one of the comments that fits into this observation:
‘cult’ in the present context merely means ‘deviation from the norm’ – the norm being orthodox christianity.
This is about as broad as it gets, and it leaves the door open for any deviation from an artificial “norm” to qualify a group as a cult. You’re a covenant theologian? Well, orthodox Christianity is dispensationalist. You’re in a cult. Catholicism is sometimes accused of being a cult along these lines. Each person gets to decide on what does and does not define orthodox Christianity, and what is and is not critical enough to merit the “cult” designation, and those criteria usually just align with the ideologies of whatever group a person isn’t supposed to like.
Additionally, this paints any “deviation from the norm” with a quite pejorative and loaded brush. The word “cult” is very clearly associated in the minds of modern English speakers with social deviancy, violence, etc. The term arose in modern parlance (etymologically it just refers to any religious system) in reference to ostensibly socially deviant religious and quasi-religious groups that stole middle and upper class young adults from conservative friends and family members in the sixties and seventies. It became popularized in the seventies and eighties through the pseudo-scientific research carried out by a number of different “counter-cult” organizations (made up of those friends and family members). That research led in the eighties and nineties to lots of illegal and otherwise morally questionable activities on the part of counter-cultists that eventually led to numerous lawsuits. The widespread collapse of that movement occurred when government approbation was pulled after it was conclusively shown that the psychological and social detriments for which the movement said these groups were responsible were really not there. Some people still try to keep the movement going, but there’s a reason modern publications within the movement have a hard time finding research from after the mid-nineties to support their claims. I don’t believe it’s very responsible to use the word “cult” and pretend one does not mean to make associations with things like Jonestown and the Branch Davidians. If one doesn’t intend to make them then they should make that explicit if they insist on the word.
Jim’s concerns vis-à-vis historic, orthodox Christianity deal with additional scripture and the idea that Mormons don’t believe Christ is the “Son of God in a particular and profound way.” The value of the first point disintegrates the closer we get to first century Christianity, since the New Testament was not considered a closed canon for quite some time (it wasn’t part of the canon at all in the first century CE), and many books considered canonical by the early church were subsequently ejected (for instance, 1 Enoch, the Shepherd of Hermas, First Clement). Some books considered spurious in the early years were later added, as well (for instance, Revelation was first asserted to be canonical by Valentinus [Eusebius rejects it but says some accept it]. Clement of Alexandria was the first to recognize Jude. Sinaiticus was the first to include 2 Peter or James!). Jim is going from a perspective of a limited “historic, orthodox Christianity” in his first point. By this measure, the Christians of the first century might well call modern Christianity a cult.
His concern about the Latter-day Saint view of Jesus is a bit off-target, in my opinion. Latter-day Saints believe all human beings are spiritually begotten by divine parents and physically begotten by human parents. Jesus Christ, in Latter-day Saint ideology, is the Son of God in a “particular and profound way” in that he is the only person to have his spiritual father as his physical father. He was, and remains, literally the Son of God. That is very particular and profound in the LDS worldview and I don’t know any Latter-day Saint who would not be more than a bit surprised to hear someone insist otherwise. In fact, they might argue that their view is quite a bit more aligned with the meaning of the phrase “Son of God” than the idea of an eternal generation of a second person within a single being. That’s particular and profound in a way I don’t think existed prior to around the middle of the second century CE. This is a different view than that of our limited historic, orthodox Christian view, but were we to press the question of the nature of Christ’s sonship to first century Christians, we’d find just as much variation as we do between contemporary Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints. (The question of the manner in which God is Jesus’ physical father was once a popular speculation within Mormonism, but isn’t much anymore, despite the best efforts of anti-Mormons to canonize that speculation on the behalf of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.)
For these reasons, I don’t think it’s helpful to say Mormonism is a “cult.” I think it’s sectarian rhetoric that isn’t well reasoned, even if some people think it’s necessary. I have no problem with people believing Mormonism isn’t true or isn’t aligned with historic or orthodox Christianity. I do take issue with insisting it’s not Christian or that it’s a cult. I find it the result of sectarianism rather than insightful consideration.
Another take that I think falls along what I believe to be more thoughtful lines was provided today by Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary.