BYU professor Robert Millet and evangelical scholar Gerald McDermott recently coauthored an essay for Christianity Today entitled, “Mittâ€™s Mormonism and the ‘Evangelical Vote’: Can conservative Protestants vote for a member of what they consider a cult?” Itâ€™s an important piece on several fronts and raises many significant questions, but my focus here is singular.
A little more than halfway through their commentary, Millet and McDermott assert that
â€¦ Mormon beliefs are not as un-evangelical as most evangelicals think. Unlike Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons hold firmly to the deity of Christ. For Latter-Day Saints, Jesus is not only the Son of God but also God the Son.
Mormons hold firmly to the deity of Christ. I like the sound of that. I desperately wish I could join the chorus. But for reasons I’ll explain below, the words ring hollow in my ears.
For nearly two millennia, historic Christianity has professed the infinite and unique deity of Christ. With regard to the former, traditional Christian teaching has vigorously maintained that the Son is true deity by virtue of the fact that he is an uncreated being who has always existed in the form of God. With respect to the latter, the New Testament is replete with explicit and implicit affirmations that Jesus possesses a wealth of attributes that are unique to the most high God. Thus, by his very nature, Jesus is superior to the entire created order. This is why the Nicene Creed calls Jesus “the only Son of God” (i.e., uniquely divine) and says that he is “eternally begotten of the Fatherâ€¦ true God from true God” (i.e., infinitely divine).
We’re not dealing with ethereal theological theory here. In recognition of Christ’s infinite and unique deity, the early church felt freeâ€”indeed, compelledâ€”to direct worship and prayer toward the Son. Following their predecessors, Christians today lift theirÂ petitions to Jesus and fall on their faces before him. And they find him worthy of such honor precisely because he is infinitely and uniquely God.
Mormon doctrine, on the other hand, does not teach that the Son is infinitely and uniquely God. Rather, Christ is portrayed as a created and common deity. In Another Jesus? The Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, Millet himself says that “Jesus was the firstborn spirit child of God the Father”Â and that “he grew in light and truth and knowledge and power until he had become ‘like unto God'” (p. 20). In other words, Christ’s divinity is finite. Further, “God is literally our spirit Father” (p. 19) and Christ is ourÂ “Elder Brother” (p. 20), meaning we are all of the same species. And since Jesus was once like us, it’s possible that we might become like him. We thus share with Christ a common nature and the potential for godhood.
Not surprisingly, these beliefs impact the practice of Latter-Day Saints, who do not offer worship (in the fullest sense of the word) or prayer to Jesus. As in the case of historic Christianity, Mormon creeds and customs go hand in hand.
It seems plain to me that Mormonism and historic Christianity have different working definitions for “the deity of Christ.”
None of this is to say that I think Millet is playing word games or trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. Iâ€™m familiar with his work and I believe he’s an honest scholar. I sense the sincerity in his words. But I also think, for reasons touched on above, that he’s wrong if he thinks Mormons and evangelicals preach the same Jesus.
Perhaps more disappointing to me is the fact that evangelical scholar and author Gerald McDermott allowed the statement about Mormons embracing the deity of Christ to stand in an article bearing his name. After all, McDermott is a respected evangelical authority who has penned books for evangelical publishers like Baker and InterVarsity. I have personally benefited from his writings and commended them to others. But, judging from his recent essay, it looks like we’re on different pages when it comes to the meaning of Christ’s deity.
I can’t help but wonder how many evangelicals will read the words of Millet and McDermott on the deity of Christ and assume that shared nomenclature means Mormons and evangelicals should share the name “Christian.” Truth be told, we haven’t exactly done a bang-up job of equipping the average evangelical on this front.
It’s been roughly two decades since a biblically comprehensive treatment of Christ’s deity has been made available to a wide audience by a mainstream evangelical publisher. Yet we’ve had bestselling book after book containing everything from newspaper eschatology to slot-machine prayers. What does this say about our priorities as western evangelicals? And dare I ask what it suggests about our future?
[It was concern over the lack of up-to-date, in-depth, and down-to-earth material on the deity of Christ that led Rob Bowman and me to write Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ (Kregel, September 2007). This blog entry has touched on subjects covered in the book (e.g., attributes of Jesus, worship of Jesus, prayer to Jesus, etc.). If there’s interest, perhaps I can post some relevant excerpts in future blog entries.]
I hope and pray that God will stir a passion in us, spark a sense of urgency in us, and instill a godly discipline in us when it comes to the “first things” of our faithâ€”starting with the true identity of our Lord Jesus Christ. Only then will we be privy to theology that seems palatable at first but fails to satisfy in the end.