“It is the first principle of the gospel to know for a certainty the Character of God, and to know that we may converse with him as one man converses with another.” — Joseph Smith
“Sure, the Mormons are nice people,” goes the argument, “but that doesn’t make them Christians.”
So what, then does make a person a Christian? One of the biggest challenges for the LDS Church in establishing itself as Christian is that our critics keep changing the definition of the word. I remember when I was a missionary in the 1980s, there was a litany of questions that were thrown at us: “Do you accept Christ as the Son of God?” “Do you believe he died and was raised on the third day?” “Have you professed him as your Savior?” Apparently after we answered all of those questions in the affirmative for a couple of decades, somebody decided to change the script.
The more recent approach is to argue that Mormons are not Christian because they do not accept certain “foundational doctrines” of Christianity, one of those being the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Mormons believe that the three members of the Trinity are separate and distinct individuals, and this belief supposedly is at odds with original or “historical” Christianity.
While this is an interesting approach to attacking the bona fides of Mormons’ claims to Christianity, it really does more to reflect the problem than resolve it.
The first problem is that the concept of the Trinity hardly can be considered a “foundational” Christian doctrine, because Christians fought bitterly for nearly four centuries about the nature of God and the relationship between the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost. Christians only began to come together on this issue at the first ecumenical council in 325 under the direction of the Roman emperor, where they essentially voted on what was the true nature of God.
The result was the Nicene Creed, which expresses a view of the Trinity in which each of its members share the same substance but retain some level of individuality. Mind you, that didn’t end the debate. Two more councils were convened over the next hundred years in order to fight over the same subject some more, resulting in a substantial portion of the Church packing up their candles and setting up their own shop.
Even if you can make heads or tails out of the Nicene Creed (I’ve tried…honest), for at least 300 years perfectly good Christians walked around without any notion of it in their heads. Because of that, the more fair challenge to Mormons is that they aren’t Nicene Christians, meaning that they don’t accept the interpretations of the councils that established the Nicene Creed. And that raises the second problem with this invented controversy: Mormons never have claimed to adopt the Nicene Creed…but does that mean we aren’t Christian?
Mormons believe that following the death of the original twelve apostles, several false doctrines worked their way into the Church that Christ established. Much of the New Testament consists of letters by the Apostles trying to correct heresies that already infected the Church. One is hard pressed to find a topic addressed more frequently in the Epistles. The result of these conflicting doctrines was a proliferation of different versions of Christianity. The ecumenical councils that led to the Nicene Creed weren’t called in order to codify a generally held agreement, but rather to resolve widespread debate. Had there not been divisions in Christianity, there would have been no council. (And the councils ultimately didn’t lead to a unified Christian faith, as Christians have found plenty to fight about in the 1600 years since).
Mormons believe that such divisions in doctrine only could be resolved the same way that they always had been resolved: Through revelation by God. We believe that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a restoration of the doctrines originally taught by Christ. We have no choice but to plead guilty to the charge of believing that the Nicene Creed was part of the problem, not part of the solution.
But, again, does that mean we aren’t Christian?
To answer that, you have to understand what Mormons believe with respect to the Holy Trinity (the term used more frequently by Mormons is the “Godhead”). Perhaps the best way to explain what we believe about the three members of the Godhead is to explain what we believe about Christ. We believe that Christ was literally the Only Begotten Son of God. We believe that He came to earth and dwelled in a physical, mortal body. During His life He prayed to and received guidance from His Father in Heaven. We believe that following His crucifixion, Christ was physically resurrected. He appeared to His disciples and instructed them to touch His hands and feet, thereby gaining a direct witness of His physical reality. We believe that as a resurrected man, Jesus Christ was perfect. And we believe that God the Father is like Jesus Christ. We also believe that the Holy Ghost is a separate individual.
What this means is that Mormons identify the resurrected Christ as the absolute model of perfection, and our understanding of the Trinity is based upon that standard.
We believe that one of the reasons that God the Father and Jesus Christ both appeared to Joseph Smith in 1820, in what we refer to as the First Vision, was to make clear the nature of each of them, as separate, distinct individuals, perfectly united in purpose. The first words of God the Father in that revelation reveal the separate nature of Christ and establish Him as our divine guide: “This is my beloved Son. Hear him.”
Does that reject what was adopted by the three ecumenical counsels? Yep. But it also establishes that we place the resurrected Christ as the pinnacle of perfection. We believe He is the perfect example, and we strive to live like Him. Whether anyone else is willing to accept that as “Christian” ultimately is of little significance.