“Are Mormons Christian?”: A Historical Perspective on the Gospel Topics Essay

By Jana Riess

Jana Riess has a Ph.D. in American religious history from Columbia University. She is the author of Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor, and is at work on a book about gratitude. She is a senior columnist for Religion News Service.


Latter-day Saints Do Not Accept the Creeds of Post-New-Testament Christianity


The opening section of the Gospel Topics essay “Are Mormons Christian?” argues that merging Christianity with Greek philosophy is a “grave error”; it also implies that the Greek influence happened after the second century CE. That is not the case.

We can see very significant Hellenistic influence in the Biblical witness for more than 300 years before Christ, culminating in the Maccabees’ violent struggle to retain their Jewish culture in the face of encroaching Hellenization (160s BCE). Greek philosophy is also present in the very New Testament that Mormons consider part of the canon, including, most famously, the concept of the Logos at the beginning of the Gospel of John. “In the beginning was the word” is a Greek idea in the Bible.

And speaking of the New Testament, Mormons would do well to remember what language it was written in . . . Greek! So to say that the Greek influence happened only after Christ’s ministry is not a historically tenable view. When Paul set off on his missionary travels, he did not have to go to the MTC first to learn Greek. Most of the people in the Mediterranean world he preached to, no matter what culture they came from, used Greek as the lingua franca. So, really, we should stop dissing Greek influence as something new and bad. It is much older, and its record is mixed.

The concept of restoration is crucial to this Gospel Topics essay. Somewhere back there, it implies, there’s a purity. If we could just get back to the halcyon time before all the accretions set into Christianity, then everything would be awesome. But the New Testament itself is much more complex.

For example, if we were serious about rejecting anything that was added onto Christianity during the second century and beyond, we would have to reject the canon of the New Testament itself. The essay implies that the New Testament was already finished by the time this so-called apostasy was supposed to have occurred, but the New Testament canon was not fixed until the end of the fourth century. Which makes sense because Christianity didn’t become a state religion of the Roman Empire until the fourth century. Before that, Christianity was mainly run from house churches in local communities. In one little community, you might have two gospels, three letters of Paul, and one post-Pauline document like Hebrews; but over there they might have a couple of different letters of Paul and one gospel that didn’t correspond with what you had. The collection we have now is the result of a decision made by a committee—the very kind of committee that this statement suggests is “post-New Testament Christianity.” So when the Gospel Topics essay speaks of Roman Catholicism basing some of its decision-making on post-New Testament councils and creeds, the irony is, we would not even have the New Testament if it were not for those very councils. Let’s have a little appreciation, you know? It’s not quite fair to draw a sharp distinction between our post-New Testament Christianity and other people’s post-New Testament Christianity. Where the canon is concerned, we are all swimming in the same fourth-century soup.

If we were really serious about keeping the tenets of first-century Christianity—the Christianity we think of as the halcyon time, the apostolic age—we would also be reading another book, titled Didache, also called The Teaching of the Twelve. This is a first-century—possibly early second-century—text, but contemporaneous with some of the New Testament. It’s the first book we have in the historical record that shows what Christians actually did in their daily lives. How did they worship? What did they practice? How did they baptize? We know from this book that many of the earliest Christians prayed from five to seven times a day at prescribed times facing the direction of the Jerusalem Temple. If you look carefully in the New Testament, you can see this happening. The healing that takes place in Acts 3 happens on the steps of the temple because Peter and his companion were there observing fixed-hour prayer—the text goes out of its way to tell us that it was three o’clock. Also, when Peter was praying on his rooftop and had that vision about how pigs were clean and kosher, it happened at twelve o’clock. He was praying on his rooftop so that he could face the temple. Though fixed-hour prayer is something we know the first apostles did, Mormons don’t do it—in fact, we don’t even talk about it.

Other things that are advocated in the Didache that would not be very popular include fasting from food on both Wednesday and Friday, fasting before a baptism (which would not be very popular with the eight-year-olds I know), and reciting the Lord’s Prayer three times a day. I bring this up not to idealize the Didache or claim that everything the first Christians did is what we need to be doing right now, but to say that a little humility on our part would be great. Whenever we want to see ourselves as the sole heirs of the true historic Christian tradition in all of its fullness, let’s remember the practices the apostles lived that we don’t.


Latter-day Saints Believe in a Restored Christianity


This section of the essay opens with a statement I agree with whole-heartedly:

Members of creedal churches often mistakenly assume that all Christians have always agreed and must agree on a historically static, monolithic collection of beliefs. As many scholars have acknowledged, however, Christians have vigorously disagreed about virtually every issue of theology and practice through the centuries, leading to the creation of a multitude of Christian denominations.

What’s wrong with that statement’s implicit comparison, though? Do we Mormons have a totally impeccable relationship with our own theology? Is there nothing messy about it? Were there never divisions? (Hello. Polygamy calling.) The essay incorrectly implies that Mormonism has always been unified in its beliefs.

When I was investigating the Church in my early 20s, some friends took me to the visitor’s center at the Washington D.C. Temple. I remember that there was some kind of diorama or display that showed Solomon’s Temple. A young female missionary there was very enthusiastically saying, “Solomon had a temple. We have a temple, therefore . . . ” You see where this is going.

I didn’t say anything, but here’s what I would have said if I’d had the guts.

Your Mormon temple is awfully large compared to the roughly 2000 square feet of Solomon’s Temple. Good for you! You Mormons must be so successful. Everything is bigger in America.

But, you know, that makes me wonder, what kinds of animals do you sacrifice in your temple? And what do you do with all the blood? What? You have wall-to-wall carpeting in your temple? How does that work?

Also, I’m seeing women in your temples, and they seem to go everywhere. Do they even go into the holy of holies? You don’t have a holy of holies? What about Yom Kippur? You don’t do Yom Kippur?

So, this is the one centralized temple that people from all over the world come to, right? No? You have more than 100 temples around the world? The book of 1 Kings is clear that HaShem only wants one house to dwell in. And you’re the ones who insist that HaShem has a physical body? Why would a deity with one physical body need more than a hundred temples to live in?

OK, I’ll go with all the temples, but that brings up another question: where did you get all the slaves to build them? The Bible says that Solomon had thousands of slaves building just this one small temple, and you Mormons have so many temples . . . .

You get the point. There is no direct historical connection between Solomon’s Temple and its purpose and the purposes of our temples today. But we make these comparisons all the time, taking one thing from the Bible completely out of context and saying, “Look at that! That’s us 3000 years ago!”


Latter-day Saints Believe in an Open Canon


This section starts with a promising statement, “ . . . to claim that the Bible is the sole and final word of God—more specifically, the final written word of God—is to claim more for the Bible than it claims for itself.” But then it goes on to say, “Moreover, not all Christian churches are certain that Christianity must be defined by commitment to a closed canon. In truth, the argument for exclusion by closed canon appears to be used selectively to exclude the Latter-day Saints from being called Christian.”

What? Really? Are we so egotistical that we imagine that religions are manipulating their doctrine and history just to exclude us?

Mormons are Christian. Why didn’t we focus this essay on what it means to follow Jesus? Why didn’t we acknowledge that our church’s history and theology are every bit as messy and dynamic as the churches the essay appears to be criticizing?

On the day I first delivered these thoughts, it was the 100th birthday of Thomas Merton. He died from electrocution in 1968 while attending a conference in Thailand on inter-monastic dialogue between Catholic and Buddhist monks. About an hour before he died, he said, “I believe that by openness to Buddhism, to Hinduism, and to these great Asian traditions, we stand a wonderful chance of learning more about the potentiality of our own traditions.” What I like about this statement is its openness and humility. Thomas Merton was a deeply committed Catholic. He believed his religion was the right one. But he never stopped searching for the truths that other people had.

The “Are Mormons Christian?” essay closes with the line, “The Christian conversation is richer for what the Latter-day Saints bring to the table.” I believe that’s entirely true. But there’s nothing in this document about what other religions bring to the table except when we’re trying to criticize those religions. There’s no sense of us being teachable, of us learning or listening deeply to what these traditions are trying to say.

I think we are asking the wrong question. First and foremost, the question should not be “Are Mormons Christian?” That reflects an immaturity on our part—an adolescent preoccupation with finding ourselves in other people’s eyes. The better question would be the one Merton is asking: “What can we learn from other traditions that can help us to maximize the potential of our own?”