An op-ed about Christianity and Mormonism in the New York Times

June 16, 2012

The Mormons are raising their profile through advertising. (Image from the New York Times.)

In an op-ed in Tuesday’s New York Times, a theater professor from Rhodes College named David Mason, who is Mormon, wrote what I hoped would be a thoughtful reflection on the differences between his religion and orthodox Christianity. The piece was entitled “I’m a Mormon, Not a Christian.”

Sounds promising, right?

I’ve argued with friends who are touchy on the subject of Mormonism’s relationship to Christianity—either because, like many of us, they’re friends with Mormons whose virtues outshine many Christians they know, or because they want to be assured that the man who could very well be the next president really is “one of us.”

As for me, I’m not touchy. It’s clear to me that Mormonism isn’t Christianity. (Not that Mitt Romney’s success or failure as a president would depend on the question.) But if we were to characterize Mormonism as a version of Christianity, we should all be able to agree that it’s a deeply heterodox one. To say that Mormons are heterodox simply means that they depart from the historic Christian faith in significant ways. If Mormons believe that historic Christianity got it wrong on all these different doctrines, then they should want to be heterodox by comparison, right?

I’m sure from an outsider’s perspective this is all just “inside baseball” stuff. There is a popular myth among many skeptics that we Christians just sort of make it up as we go along anyway; that it’s all subjective; that we create a religion out of thin air to suit our temperaments and label it “Christianity.”

Needless to say, I don’t agree. There are discernible boundaries. As a Protestant, even I concede that they get a little blurry at times. But I think we should be impressed with the level of doctrinal harmony that exists between different Christian churches, traditions, or—thank you, Rome—”ecclesial communions.”

If the best theologians from the freewheeling Pentecostal tradition sat in a room with the best theologians from the Eastern Orthodox tradition and talked about their faith, I bet even they would reach consensus on an impressive number of doctrines. And, contrary to Mason’s point of view, they might not even want to kill one another.

But Mason is exactly right to imply that one key doctrine that separates traditional Christianity from Mormonism relates to the Trinity. Having said that, however, I had to read the highlighted sentence in the following paragraph three times to make sure I was reading it right:

For the curious, the dispute can be reduced to Jesus. Mormons assert that because they believe Jesus is divine, they are Christians by default. Christians respond that because Mormons don’t believe — in accordance with the Nicene Creed promulgated in the fourth century — that Jesus is also the Father and the Holy Spirit, the Jesus that Mormons have in mind is someone else altogether. The Mormon reaction is incredulity. The Christian retort is exasperation. Rinse and repeat.

Can you spot the straw man here? Mormons “don’t believe… that Jesus is also the Father and the Holy Spirit.” That’s good! Neither do Christians!

Mason should feel free to disagree with the orthodox Christian doctrine of the Trinity—which, I hasten to add, emerges from scripture, not merely the Council of Nicaea. But before he does, he ought to at least have some idea what the Trinity is! When orthodox Christians speak of the Trinity, we mean, among other things, that Jesus is precisely not the Father or the Holy Spirit.

I guess because this is an op-ed—and worse, an op-ed about religion—no one at the Times bothered to fact-check this statement. (You may as well fact-check flying spaghetti monsters, right?) The editors at the Times, however, don’t have to assent to the doctrine to appreciate how badly the author misunderstands it. They should have told Mason, “This is not what Christians believe when they refer to the Trinity. We can’t print this.” I also give them a demerit for not capitalizing Trinity.

Of course, none of this has to do with the author’s main point, which is, “Christians are mean, so why would we want to be like them, anyway?” Which raises the question: Is it really so easy to get an op-ed in the Times these days? Didn’t that section used to be considered the Park Place and Boardwalk of newspaper real estate?

4 Responses to “An op-ed about Christianity and Mormonism in the New York Times”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Proud of you, Brent, for not “kowtowing” to popular sentiment that Mormons can be Christians. There is only so far someone can go with respect to deviation from “traditional” Christian doctrine and still be a Christian. Obviously, the Bible has to be our guide in that respect. Regardless of any “inerrancy” debate, it simply cannot be argued otherwise than that the Bible is the centerpiece of what true Christians believe. After all, the Bible is where we get around 99% of our knowledge of Jesus from in the first place. You really can’t throw out very much of the “bath water” without throwing out the “baby” in this instance.

    With respect to the Trinity in particular (well established in scripture, regardless of any lack of use of “the term”), I have to say that I at least tremble for the eternal destiny of one of my best friends from the mission field in Korea who believes in “monism,” or that there is just one “person” who is “manifested” in three ways. That is at least perilously close to the mis-identification of Christians given by the Mormon author that “Jesus is also the Father and the Holy Spirit.” So I pray for him.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I learned recently that Christians of the “Restorationist” tradition (which includes Disciples of Christ and the Church of Christ) refuse to use the word Trinity because the word itself isn’t found in the Bible. But they believe in the doctrine: they call it the Godhead (which is in scripture). Isn’t that interesting?

      Your good friend can be mistaken on the Trinity and still be saved, you know? I agree that it’s a serious error, but plenty of rank-and-file Christians don’t understand the difference between what your friend believes and what the Church teaches.

      By the way, I think the heresy you refer to is “modalism,” not monism.

      Here’s my seminary education in action: Monism is usually distinguished from dualism, and it’s not considered heretical. On the contrary, St. Augustine was probably a monist in that he thoroughly rejected the dualism of his former religion, Manichaeism, which imagined that there was a substance called “good” locked in mortal combat with a substance called “evil.” From Augustine’s point of view, everything is good in the sense that it was made by God. Evil, isn’t a thing per se; it’s the absence of a thing—the absence of good. And, like a parasite, if the host dies, the parasite dies with it. Evil has no independent existence apart from the good. I think this represents the classic Christian consensus.

      I think this is what Christians usually mean by monism.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Brent, thanks for the correction on the terminology. I certainly hope you are right about my friend, though I’m not too sanguine on the point. He is now a preacher and author on the subject (as opposed to “rank-and-file,” who might not understand the distinction).

      • brentwhite Says:

        Author!? Ugh!

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