Roger Olson has written a long post in answer to the question of whether Mormonism is Christian. That question will probably seem to many evangelicals to be hardly worth asking, but Olson’s answer is carefully nuanced and it grows out of much greater knowledge of Mormonism than most evangelicals possess. I commend the whole post to you if you are at all interested in what is happening within Mormonism, but here is the nub of its findings.
Olson posits that
The LDS Church is an organization with spokesmen and at least somewhat authoritative statements. Mormonism, however, is a bit amorphous and is always evolving. Yesterday’s Mormonism is not necessarily today’s Mormonism or future Mormonism. And Mormonism in the local Ward (congregation) is not necessarily the same as Mormonism among Mormon scholars at Brigham Young University or in the local LDS/Mormon Institute. [And] somewhat the same could be said about the LDS Church, the Salt Lake City headquartered 13 million member worldwide organization most people call “the Mormon Church.”
For his assessment of Mormon doctrine, Olson focused on 3 significant written works:
(1) A Study of the Articles of Faith (Being a Consideration of the Principal Doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) by James E. Talmage, “one of the twelve apostles of the Church,” published by the LDS Church in 1890.
(2) Mormon Doctrine (Second Edition) by Bruce R. McConkie, also a member of the “Quorum of the Twelve [Apostles],” published by Bookcraft, Salt Lake City, 1979.
and (3) LDS Beliefs: A Doctrinal Reference by Robert Millet, Camille Fronk Olson, Andrew C. Skinner, and Brent L. Top, published by Desert Books, Salt Lake City, 2011.
Within these books, Olson discerns “an evolution of Mormonism over time. Some of it is explicit and some of it is a matter of tone.” Talmage’s book lumped together all non-Mormon churches “as part of the ‘great apostasy.’” He considered the doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone a “most pernicious doctrine,” and he taught that salvation is by baptism and good works as well as faith. He “denied the omnipresence of God and condemned any idea of an ‘immaterial God.’” He asserted (App. 24, part 4) that, “In his mortal condition man is a God in embryo” and “in the far future…man may attain the status of a God.” Talmage also “affirmed that the Father, Son and Holy Ghost are ‘three…separate individuals, physically distinct from each other’ and that the Father, like the Son, is a literal man.”
Bruce McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine
breathes a slightly different spirit from Talmage’s; it is less concerned with condemning non-Mormon churches even as it strongly affirms the “restoration of Christian authority” with Joseph Smith and the higher truth held by the LDS Church over others. McConkie’s exposition of the Mormon doctrine of God is less starkly materialistic than Talmage’s even as he quotes at length Joseph Smith’s “Teachings” that God was once “as we are now” and “is an exalted man [who] sits enthroned in yonder heavens.” McConkie also affirms as Mormon belief that “That exaltation which the saints of all ages have so devoutly sought is godhood itself. Godhood is to have the character, possess the attributes, and enjoy the perfections which the Father has. It is to do what he does, have the powers resident in him, and live as he lives, having eternal increase.” (p. 321) McConkie firmly rejects the traditional Christian doctrines of inherited sin, salvation by grace alone, the Trinity and final judgment after death. . . . Overall, McConkie’s tone differs somewhat from Talmage’s. There is real continuity between the two books, but one can discern in McConkie a softening of the “rough edges” of Mormonism and a greater generosity toward non-Mormons of good will who have a real chance at eternal salvation. Still, the basic core differences between Mormonism and traditional Christianity about the transcendence of God, the depravity of humanity, salvation by grace alone, exaltation of saved persons to godhood and continuing revelation are found in McConkie as in Talmage.
But the much more recent work done by leading Mormon scholars in LDS Beliefs: A Doctrinal Reference “constitutes a quantum leap from Talmage and McConkie with regard to tone and expression of Mormon doctrines.”
The chapter on “Godhood” is illustrative. The authors (and I suspect Bob Millet was the primary author of this chapter) go out of their way to express “exaltation” in terms of biblical and traditional Christian (e.g., Eastern Orthodox) “deification” (theosis). (In other writings Millett refers to Luther and Wesley and C. S. Lewis as proponents of deification.) The emphasis here is not so much on “man” becoming as God is as man becoming like God. It is much easier for an orthodox, evangelical Christian to accept this chapter’s account of exaltation or at least find some sympathy with it. The authors of LDS Beliefs go out of their way to soften the rough edges of past Mormonism to make its doctrines more acceptable to classical, orthodox Christians. Continuity rather than discontinuity is the theme. The chapter on “The Great Apostasy” is instructive and illustrative of the change in tone. While affirming the divine restoration of Christian authority with Joseph Smith and the founding of the LDS Church in 1830 the authors go out of their way to insist that God always had true followers throughout church history and people who strove to maintain authentic Christian faith in spite of the Catholic Church’s general apostasy. Most importantly, perhaps, LDS Beliefs is much more Christ-centered than earlier books of Mormon beliefs and more grace-centered. Less emphasis is placed on the necessity of works for ultimate salvation and more emphasis is put on Christ’s atoning work, God’s grace and mercy and human faith—all without diminishing the importance of personal holiness and faithfulness as fruits of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Here is the general assessment from Olson that gives me significant encouragement, it provides ground for earnest prayer that God will work within Mormonism to bring about a reformation.
There is no doubt in my mind but that something is going on in the LDS Church and Mormonism in general that constitutes a gradual but discernable shift away from those doctrines most anti-Mormon Christian critics like to highlight toward a somewhat more biblical and even evangelical account of Christ and salvation. This comes out even more clearly in Bob Millet’s books The Vision of Mormonism, Bridging the Divide, A Different Jesus?, and Grace Works. Millet all but denies belief that God was once a man “just like us” and that we will (hopefully) eventually become God just as the Father is God. He affirms the eternal deity of the Son of God and his incarnation in Jesus Christ and emphasizes the transcendence, even infinity, of the triune Godhead. He stresses the unity of the three persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He quotes voluminously from C. S. Lewis, John Macarthur, Dallas Willard, Max Lucado and numerous other modern and contemporary evangelical Christian writers and is very familiar with the church fathers and Reformers. Perhaps most importantly he vigorously denies and rejects polytheism—belief in many Gods.
From two weekend long encounters with the BYU Mormons, Olson came away
convinced that some Mormons are Christian in the personal sense of being genuinely God-fearing, Bible-believing and Jesus-loving—even if they do not interpret and understand God, the Bible and Jesus correctly. But if they are Christians, in my judgment, it’s not because they are Mormons but because they have crossed over a line in their own personal spiritual and theological lives from polytheism to dynamic monotheism (trinitarianism), belief in the transcendence of God and sinfulness of man (something Millet affirms even as he denies as I do inherited guilt and total depravity in the Calvinist sense), the unique and eternal deity of Jesus Christ and salvation by grace alone (something Millet affirms even as he insists that grace is never alone but always results in good works).
I have a hunch that Olson is equating “Christian” with “saved” in his comments above, something that is rather common among evangelicals, although it is an equation against which I would advise. Many Christians are not saved, but some non-Christians are. God’s saving work has not been confined to the boundaries of the covenant people in any of the stages of God’s covenant work.
Olson acknowledges that there is a large gap between what is going on among Mormon theologians at BYU and what is being taught and believed at the grass roots level. But he writes:
. . . the shift I see at least in “BYU Mormonism” is so dramatic—from Talmage’s Mormonism, for example—that I can envision someday the LDS Church evolving into a Christian denomination. For now, though, I consider it an alternative religion rooted in Christianity but also rooted, unfortunately, in Joseph Smith’s and Brigham Young’s fantasies.
It will take a huge upheaval of God’s gracious work among Mormons for us to see the evolution that Olson envisions, but it is something we can be longing for, praying for, and hoping for.