In an installment of the philosophy lecture series, David Paulsen shared how Mormon doctrines are becoming widely accepted in mainstream Christianity.
PROVO, Utah (October 29, 2015)—“Are Mormons Christian?” It seems like the question that will not go away. Since the Church’s early days, it has been a peculiarity among Christian religions. Its belief in modern day prophets and claims to divine authority have always meant that it would get its fair share of suspicion. Add in dramatically unique doctrines like baptism for the dead, temple worship and modern scripture, and other faiths begin to wonder, “Really, though, just how Christian are Mormons?”
But some religious scholars have begun to flip the question around, asking instead, “Are Christians Mormon?”
David Paulsen, BYU professor emeritus of philosophy, may have found some answers. As part of the philosophy lecture series, Paulsen presented excerpts from his upcoming book, Are Christians Mormon? The book sets out to demonstrate how doctrines introduced by Joseph Smith – which many at the time considered heretical – have come to be widely accepted by and even mainstreamed among contemporary Christian theologians.
One such doctrine is that God is a passible being, subject to emotions. Mormon scripture is rife with references to God’s emotions; the Book of Moses famously tells of God weeping for humanity, and the Book of Mormon speaks of the resurrected Christ being so moved with compassion for the Nephites that He “[tarried] a little longer with them.” These passages and others led Mormons to think of God as a loving father who was preoccupied with their happiness and actively engaged in their salvation.
This image was not widely accepted during the time of Joseph Smith. Popular theology preached the “impassibility of God.” As a perfect being, God was considered to be free from all forms of influence, especially emotion. Sorrow and compassion were as foreign to Him as temptation and sin. In fact, He was so removed from the flawed emotions of humanity that he could only look upon them with something bordering on disgust. As Jonathan Edwards famously taught, “The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked.”
Since then, however, a shift has occurred in contemporary Christianity, converging with Mormon teachings. The Scottish theologian Andrew Martin Fairbairn wrote, “Theology has no falser idea than that of the impassibility of God.” Impassibility has come to be dismissed as a product of Greek philosophy’s influence on early Christianity, and the majority of Christian religions embrace those same characteristics of God taught by Joseph Smith so long ago.
Paulsen’s forthcoming book details eight additional Church doctrines that have found footholds in the Christian community, showing that contemporary Christian theologians have much more in common with Mormon teaching than is generally presupposed. Thus, the only half-humorous question: Are Christians Mormon?
—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)
Samuel covers events for the Philosophy Department for the College of Humanities. He is a senior pursuing a degree in American studies with a minor in editing.