Being of one substance with the Father

Daredevil Redemption MormonPeggy Fletcher Stack, The Salt Lake Tribune's wonderful and longtime religion reporter, has had a rather busy week. The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints held its 177th Annual General Conference. These meetings are held for instruction of all members, to conduct special church business and respond to special needs. She wrote great stories about the all-male priesthood session and the rededication of the impressive Tabernacle, which had been closed for upgrades. The Tribune has a multimedia gallery for people who are interested in seeing more.

My wonderful Mormon in-laws were in Salt Lake last week and followed and enjoyed the goings-on. I try to keep abreast of what's going on with the LDS church, and Fletcher Stack's coverage is the best way to do that. She covers other religions and denominations in Utah well, too.

Her story wrapping up the conference was the most interesting:

Mormon beliefs about God and Jesus Christ make them Christians, no matter what critics say.

This was the message repeated by several speakers on Sunday at the 177th annual LDS General Conference, held in the 21,000-seat Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City and beamed via satellite to Mormon chapels across the globe.

Finally! A story that gets into doctrinal questions illuminating the debate over whether Mormons are Christian! It is my personal and professional experience that this question -- whether or not Mormons are Christian -- is one of the most important for Mormons. My in-laws and most other Mormon friends I have get very upset at the notion that they might not be considered Christian.

Much of the story deals with speeches about how to live better lives and more closely follow Mormon ordinances -- a key factor in the Mormon understanding of salvation. But here we get back to the lede:

Among the day's sermons, the "we are Christians, too" mantra stood out. It may have been prompted, in part, by the recent distribution of an anti-Mormon DVD produced by evangelical Christians or by some of the harsh statements about LDS theology made in the context of Mitt Romney's campaign for president.

During the morning session, Hinckley said he found the Nicene Creed, a statement from 325 A.D. about the relationship between God the Father and Jesus Christ that most Christians accept, to be "confusing."

The LDS Church relies instead on the personal experience of founder Joseph Smith, who claimed to have a vision of God and Jesus in 1820.

"He knelt in their presence; he heard their voices; and he responded," [President Gordon B.] Hinckley said. "Each was a distinct personality."

God is a "being, real and individual. He is the great governor of the universe, yet, he is our father, and we are his children. . . . Jesus is the living Christ. He is the Jehovah of the Old Testament and the Messiah of the New."

Apostle M. Russell Ballard added that he believes the Book of Mormon does not contradict the Bible in any way. As a piece of reporting, the story is great and provides a nice summary for those who could not watch or attend the conference.

But while the story mentions critics of Mormon doctrine in the first sentence, it doesn't engage any critics or address specific criticisms to help the reader compare views or understand what the debate is over. I was so excited to read a story about Mormon response to criticisms that they are not Christian, but I was left disappointed. Again, this was spot reportage requiring a quick turnaround for a story, so I don't mean to be too critical. But I'm just really looking forward to a story with more context.

To wit, very few Christian churches -- none that I know of -- accept Mormon baptisms as valid. Usually the Christian churches say they don't consider Mormons Christian or accept their baptisms because of a different understanding of the Triune God.

A core doctrine of the historical Christian faith is the Trinity -- that there is one God in three persons. This is articulated in the "confusing" Nicene Creed mentioned by Hinckley, drafted in 325. It describes God in three persons. The subject line for this post is taken from what we say in my church in the Jesus portion of the creed.

Mormons believe in a Godhead of three separate beings who are united in purpose. They also use the word Trinity to describe this. Here's how the BBC characterizes Mormon doctrine about the nature of God:

Mormons believe that:

  • God is an exalted, perfected man
  • God has a physical body
  • There is more than one God
  • Human beings have the potential to become like God . . .
    Mormons believe that:

  • Jesus Christ is the first-born spirit child of God
  • Jesus Christ assisted God the Father at the Creation
  • He was known as Jehovah to the people of the Old Testament
  • He was the literal, biological Son of God, and of Mary . . .

I think clarification on only one of the items listed by the BBC is in order. Mormon Jeff Lindsay defends the belief in more than one God -- both in the Mormon understanding of the Trinity as well as with regard to other deities -- as solidly Christian on his site here.

So often stories that mention the debate over whether Mormons are Christian seem to view the topic in the most non-religious terms possible. They view the issue as one of self-determination (people and groups should be able to identify themselves using their own understanding) or think of the descriptor "Christian" as a kind word that polite people should use with each other. I love that Fletcher Stack identifies the debate as a doctrinal one. That's a good step.

Anyway, both Mormons and non-Mormons in the Christian faith agree that they have very different understandings of the nature of God. And while I concede that it's a difficult story to cover on account of both groups using the same words to describe concepts that are different, I hope Fletcher Stack -- or some other reporter who really gets Mormonism as well as she does -- will write a story explaining this divide with more context.

NOTE: This is not a forum to debate doctrine but, rather, a forum to discuss media treatment of religious issues. Should you wish to debate doctrine, please find another venue. I will delete all comments that stray from the purpose of the site.

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