In a recently published article for Christianity Today, Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, was interviewed by Salt Lake Tribune religion reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack regarding his thoughts on the “evolving nature of Latter-day Saint (LDS) theology” and its similarities and differences to historic Christianity. The article appears to be a similar defense of Mouw’s position stated in an October 2011 article that “Mormonism isn’t a cult.”
In that CNN article from October 2011, Mouw wrote:
These folks [Mormons] talk admiringly of the evangelical Billy Graham and the Catholic Mother Teresa, and they enjoy reading the evangelical C.S. Lewis and Father Henri Nouwen, a Catholic. That is not the kind of thing you run into in anti-Christian cults.
So are Mormons Christians? For me, that’s a complicated question.
My Mormon friends and I disagree on enough subjects that I am not prepared to say that their theology falls within the scope of historic Christian teaching. But the important thing is that we continue to talk about these things, and with increasing candor and mutual openness to correction.
In this most recent interview, Mouw appealed to similar reasons for rejecting the label of “cult” for Mormonism:
Cult often connotes secrecy, duplicity, and a rigid “one true church” mentality. None of that really fits present-day Mormonism, which scholars instead call a “new religious movement.” Ordinary Mormons love Billy Graham. They read Christianity Today as a helpful resource for their own growth in faith. Many Mormon scholars enjoy attending evangelical-sponsored theology conferences. None of this is true of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientology, or Hare Krishna, which are typically described as “cults.” Source
Of course, none of the above proves that Mormons ought to be considered Christians, nor does it provide adequate reasons to refrain from labeling Mormonism as a non-Christian cult. Dr. Walter Martin (1928-1989), who authored the classic textbook The Kingdom of the Cults, and was universally recognized in the field of Comparative Religion and non-Christian cults offers the following definition:
A cult, then, is a group of people polarized around someone’s interpretation of the Bible and is characterized by major deviations from orthodox Christianity relative to the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith, particularly the fact that God became man in Jesus Christ.1
Martin further classified Mormonism as a non-Christian cult for the following reasons:
The Savior of Mormonism, however, is an entirely different person, as their official publications clearly reveal. The Mormon “Savior” is not the second person of the Christian Trinity,… Mormons reject the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, and he is not even a careful replica of the New Testament Redeemer.
In Mormon theology, Christ as a preexistent spirit was not only the spirit brother of the devil (as alluded to in The Pearl of Great Price, Moses 4:1-4, and later reaffirmed by Brigham Young in the Journal of Discourses, 13:282), but celebrated his own marriage to “Mary and Martha, and the other Mary,” at Cana of Galilee, “whereby he could see his seed, before he was crucified” (Apostle Orson Hyde, Journal of Discourses, 4:259; 2:82)…[and] the Mormon concept of the Virgin Birth alone distinguishes their “Christ” from the Christ of the Bible.2
While Richard Mouw acknowledges that there are differences between Mormonism and historic, orthodox Christianity, he nevertheless seems to think that the perceived similarities between the two are promising for future dialogue:
Mormons deny the Trinity, but they talk about “the three Persons of the Godhead.” They say that God has a humanlike form, but they sing “How Great Thou Art” (which is in the Mormon hymn-book). Other basic differences include issues like baptism, temple worship, and authority. Evangelicals emphasize the Bible alone, while Mormonism not only adds scriptures, but also sees the scriptures themselves as an expression of a prophetic office restored in the early 19th century.
We have to make a distinction, though, between the “working theology” of Mormonism today and its previous declarations. In the past, they put much more emphasis on good works. The most important development in recent decades has been an increasingly strong emphasis on the substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross.
The final sentence in the quote above is an example of the great importance of carefully defining terms, especially in religious dialogue. As Mormonism Research Ministry notes, the doctrine of atonement taught by the Mormon church is not the same as that taught in the Bible:
[Blood atonement is] a doctrine that stems from the belief that the blood of Christ does not cleanse all sins; therefore, one who sins a sin beyond the cleansing power of Christ must atone for his own sins by having his blood shed. While current Mormon leaders may deny the blunt description of this practice as taught by their predecessors, tenth LDS President Joseph Fielding Smith wrote, “man may commit certain grievous sins–according to his light and knowledge–that will place him beyond the reach of the atoning blood of Christ. If then he would be saved, he must make sacrifice of his own life to atone–so far as in his power lies–for that sin, for the blood of Christ alone under certain circumstances will not avail…. Joseph Smith taught that there were certain sins so grievous that men may commit, that they will place the transgressors beyond the power of the atonement of Christ. If these offenses are committed, then the blood of Christ will not cleanse them from their sins even though they repent” (Doctrines of Salvation 1:134, 135). Source
Contrarily, Christianity teaches from the pages of Scripture that man was born dead in trespasses and sins and cannot atone for himself (Eph. 2:1; Rom. 5:8, 3:10-11). God in his infinite love sent Jesus to suffer and die as a substitute to bear the wrath and punishment of God in the place of those who believe (1 John 4:10; 1 Pet. 3:18; 1 Pet 2:24). Thus, the blood of Christ was the complete, perfect and acceptable sacrifice to God for the sins of all who will believe (Rom. 5:9; Heb. 10:14) and it is through the resurrection of Christ that God demonstrated His acceptance of this sacrifice, reconciling believers to God (Rom. 5:10).
The opinions expressed by Richard Mouw, who is president of one of the most influential “evangelical” seminaries in America, are becoming more common in the visible church. The cry for unity at any cost grows louder, and compromise dominates where fidelity to the truth once stood firm.
For a helpful comparison of key doctrines of Christianity and Mormonism, visit CRN’s Mormonism research page.