This is an excerpt of the new book, “Day of Defense: Positive Talking Points for the Latter-days” by Scott Thormaehlen.
What Is a Christian?
Post-New Testament Traditions
Red Flags and Misconceptions:
The last chapter discussed the offices and authority of the church and the eventual extinction, once again, of prophets and apostles. With this lack of leadership, like in the previous biblical times, men continued to practice the teachings and doctrines they had learned, but they didn’t have the spoken word to provide clarification. This sometimes resulted in the creation of new traditions and well-intentioned customs but often led to divisions and the creation of multiple sects. Christ experienced difficulty in his time teaching the Pharisees and Sadducees because they were so entrenched in traditions, rites, and their own interpretation of the Old Testament. Another example of wrestling with the traditions of men or the errors of their ways is found in Abraham fleeing from his fathers to seek the one true God (Genesis 11-12 and Abraham 2:5, 13).
The Great Apostasy of the early Christian church eventually led to new traditions that evolved over the centuries and eventually divided into multiple Christian sects. The confusion and subsequent division that ensued with the death of the Apostles came from the lack of authority and continual revelation, which encouraged Constantine to gather the remaining local authorities (bishops) to the Council of Nicaea. This council ushered in the creation of what would become the Roman Catholic Church. As this new entity sought to create its identity and unity, traditions not originally espoused with or evidently written in the text of the New Testament became associated with what it meant to be a Christian. Among these interpretations and traditions, Mormons view the following as some of the post-New Testament traditions that were adopted: the Holy Trinity, the Bible as the only source of God’s word, infant baptism, and the worship of saints, to name a few. Because Mormons do not espouse these doctrines, many people do not consider them to be Christians.
This chapter questions doctrines Christianity has adopted that seem to deviate from the first-century church, post-New Testament traditions without clear New Testament support. But what is a Christian? Must a Christian accept doctrines that were not part of the teachings of Christ? Speaking in terms of the fourth-century creed that defines the Holy Trinity, LDS Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland says the following in an article entitled “Are Mormons Christian?”: “Arguing that Mormons are not Christians because they do not recite the Nicene Creed would leave Jesus and his disciples outside the Christian fold as well” (Burke, Are Mormons Christian?).
Post-New Testament Doctrines Enter In
The post-New Testament creeds and doctrines that mainstream Christians still accept and that were adopted so long after the life of Christ illustrate the underlying problem and evidence that man moved Christianity toward traditions beyond the New Testament. That Joseph Smith’s revelations sought only to reverse that trend- to go back to the New Testament-speaks volumes to his divine calling.
Below is a list of Catholic practices that evolved over the past two millennia. This partial list comes from an article printed in Foundation Magazine by M. H. Reynolds, entitled “The Truth About Roman Catholicism”:
- Peter as the first “pope” and the existence of “popes” versus prophets in early Christianity
- Prayers for the dead (AD 300)
- Doctrine of purgatory (Gregory I, AD 593)
- Prayers to Mary and dead saints (AD 600)
- Worship of the cross (AD 786)
- Celibacy of the priesthood (AD 1079)
- Indulgences (AD 1190)
Such a list illustrates well-intentioned doctrines or ideas that entered in centuries after the faith system of Christ and his Apostles. It is not to say these practices are evil, but it has to make one wonder where the foundations for such practices are found in the doctrine of the New Testament. More importantly, by what measure does accepting or rejecting these doctrines define a “Christian”?
In the list above of post-New Testament traditions, celibacy of priests contrasts with Matthew 8:14, which describes Peter as a married man. While Catholics believe Peter was the first pope, they do not acknowledge the fact that he had a wife. Instead, they focus more on Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 7:1-7), which they interpret as a requirement for their church leadership to practice celibacy. A closer examination of this letter from Paul suggests that fornication (see verse 2) leads men to burn (verse 9). Paul, as a widower, is encouraging the unmarried and widows to avoid immorality outside the bonds of marriage (verse 8). He also states for those who “cannot contain” that “it is better to marry than burn” (verse 9). The New Testament mentions that bishops and deacons are to be the husband of one wife. For men dedicated to serving the Catholic Church to not receive holy matrimony is entirely inconsistent with thousands of years of biblical history where God’s leaders were married. Paul’s challenge to remain chaste is consistent with God’s commandment “Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers . . . nor abusers of themselves with mankind . . . shall inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).
Further, the practice of indulgences-a payment to the church in order to absolve one from temporal punishment that often favored those who could afford to pay-perverted Christ’s teachings of repentance and substituted them instead with a means of financing the church. In Acts 8:20, Peter said, “Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money.” Martin Luther, a Catholic priest, targeted the practice of indulgences because it went directly against the New Testament teachings. With the advent of the printing press and exposure to God’s word in their native languages, Europeans all over, like Luther, began exploring different ideas. This began the Protestant Reformation, which intended to restore Christianity back to its biblical roots.
Popes versus Prophets
How are prophets and popes different? They both claim to hold the priesthood of God and hold the keys to lead God’s people. However, prophets follow God’s pattern of being ordained through direct communication with God whereas Popes are elected at the Papal Conclave, where cardinals select the new Bishop of Rome. Admittedly, popes fill a role similar to “bishops,” or local authorities during New Testament times. History remains unclear as to the exact point at which the offices of bishop, popes, and cardinals replaced apostles. Catholics vehemently claim that this particular organization and process stemmed from the New Testament apostolic authority. However, without an authorized, written text from one of Christ’s apostles describing this transition-and after centuries of papal changes in doctrines-we cannot be sure that this change in organization truly originated in Christ’s church.
Mormons understand that their beliefs are restored first-century Christian beliefs.
Are popes infallible, as Catholicism declares? Perhaps the differences between the actions of a biblical prophet and the popes in the post-New Testament era are distinguished by two significant “Christian” events that occurred during the Dark Ages and were endorsed by the popes: the Christian Crusades and the Inquisitions. Islam, Christianity, and Judaism were at the center of the conflict during the Crusades. The Crusades were Christian wars meant to reclaim the Holy Land-Jerusalem-from Muslim invaders. The land was home to the Jews and various sacred sites that hold meaning to the three major religions. During the Crusades, popes offered forgiveness for sins and salvation for those who fought. These wars and papal forgiveness were unnecessary for salvation since Christ is the only way to the Father. Biblical prophets are not recorded acknowledging any other means of salvation but through God, their Redeemer, and his commandments.
The idea behind the Spanish Inquisition calls into question whether the popes acted in the name of God or not. In Spain during the 1400s, King Ferdinand wanted a stronger hold over his people. He believed that by wiping out all the Jews and Muslims, he could have a completely Catholic country, and therefore better control. The Inquisitions “were similar to other institutions of government and discipline in early modern Europe. The earliest, largest, and best-known of these was the Spanish Inquisition, established by Pope Sixtus IV at the petition of Ferdinand and Isabella, the rulers of Aragon and Castile, in a papal bull of Nov. 1, 1478” (Britannica, facts about Sixtus IV and Spanish Inquisition). The argument could be made that everything Christ and his apostles stood for is tarnished in the eyes of some truthseekers for these very actions done in Christ’s name, thousands of years after his ministry. Contrary to the violent and intolerant actions exhibited during the Inquisition and the Crusades, Christ preached, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9).
Restricted Access to the Word
In John 5:39, Christ exhorts, “Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.” During the Middles Ages, religious sanctions limited the common man’s access to Christ’s teachings at a time when the printed word was becoming more available with the advent of the Gutenberg printing press. The papal authority believed that if widespread publication of the Bible reached every common man, each would develop his own ideas, which would have disrupted the ability of church authorities to maintain unity in doctrine. Further, it also posed a threat to the political and economic control of the church.
In the sixteenth-century Council of Trent, the Oxford Constitutions in 1408, and other church edicts issued during the Middles Ages, access of the word was restricted to the lay members by outlawing publication of the scriptures without permission from Catholic church authorities. Other examples of keeping the word from the lay members included banning the distribution of Bibles and preaching to parishioners in Latin rather than in their native tongues. Several significant figures who inspired the Protestant Reformation and more liberal access to the scriptures for all and who were martyred for their supposed heresies include John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, and Sir Thomas More (Wilcox, 49). Christ exhorted his followers to read and understand the scriptures. The Great Apostasy and the loss of priesthood authority led to a dark time in which this became nearly impossible because of the risk of excommunication or even death.
Doctrine of the Holy Trinity
One of the favorite issues that critics of Mormonism use to separate Mormons from the Christian fold is that Mormons do not accept the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, but rather believe in what the Bible calls the Godhead (Acts 17:29, Romans 1:20).
The LDS belief in the Godhead consists of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All are God, but unlike the doctrine defined in the Nicene Creed, they are not one personage; rather, they are three separate beings, perfectly united in will. The mainstream Christian idea of the Holy Trinity is that of three persons in one entity, something beyond which man is meant to fully understand.
What does the Bible say about Christ and the Father? In the chart below (Table 3.1, next page) are a number of references that illustrate the nature of God the Father and Jesus Christ. Mormons differ from the Christain majority in their belief that there are two beings, whereas mainstream Christians view God as one being who manifests himself in different roles.
In several of the references, Christ distinguishes himself by saying things-such as “I go unto my Father” and “I am not yet ascended to my Father”-that clearly delineate their distinct personages. On one hand, Mormons identify with the mainstream Christian view that the scriptures often speak of “one God.” But on the other hand, Christ says, “I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me” ( John 5:30). Further, Ephesians 3:9 describes their oneness and Christ’s own divine nature as a God-as the one whom God the Father used to create all things.
Another thing to consider is that when Christ speaks of the Second Coming (see Matthew 24:36 and Acts 1:7), he clearly shows his “distinctness” from the Father: he says, “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.” Can God know of the Second Coming, yet not know of the Second Coming? Also, in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross, why would Jesus pray to himself? He must have been praying to a distinct being. Describing the Father and Son as two beings challenges the long-held idea or monotheistic nature of Christianity.