Mormons, Evangelicals, and the Trinity

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Yesterday, evangelical seminary president Richard Land stated his public disagreement with former Fuller Theological Seminary president Richard Mouw about the evolution of Mormon beliefs.

The background for this is that a few weeks ago, Mouw published an article in First Things in which he stated that Mormon beliefs have moved closer to Christian orthodoxy . . . in one area, which is that Mormons today rarely or ever talk about God having once been a man.

Mormons nowadays, said Mouw, focus on only one-half of the famous “Lorenzo Snow couplet” that stated:

As man now is, God once was;

As God now is, man may be.

In other words, while Mormons still talk about the eternal progress of the human soul and the possibility of our becoming like God (part 2 of the couplet), the first half has fallen into such disuse that Mouw points out that in recent LDS curriculum focusing on Lorenzo Snow, all four of the suggested discussion questions related to the couplet “focus on the future life of the believer,” and not a single one on “the ontological status of God.”

Mouw says in the article that his thinking on this issue has been profoundly changed by his participation in an evangelical-Mormon dialogue group over the last decade and a half. For years now, he has co-led this dialogue with BYU religion dean Robert Millet, forging deep friendships across the evangelical-Mormon divide.

Over the last year, I’ve had the privilege of being involved with this dialogue too, and just returned from our spring meeting, held last Friday at Harvard Divinity School. It was a feast of discussion and fellowship.

Returning from this intellectual and spiritual high, I came down with a thud this morning when I saw Richard Land’s categorical rejection of Mormonism in OneNewsNow.

Because instead of, as one member of our group put it, asking Mouw himself or someone who was actually there at the dialogues, Land took it upon himself to erect a clear wall to fend off all Mormon interlopers.

“The Mormon Jesus is not our Jesus,” he said.

Land’s statement reveals that he doesn’t know Mormon theology very well:

“The foundational doctrine of Mormonism is that God is eternal but Jesus is not,” Land told OneNewsNow. “Until they get that doctrine right—the doctrine of the Trinity—how can they be approaching orthodoxy?”

Hmmm. Last I checked, the Trinity was not defined as the belief that both God and Jesus are eternal. If it were, Mormons would be in the clear, since LDS theology clearly states that Jesus, as well as God, is an eternal being who has never not existed.

Instead, traditional definitions of the Trinity focus on God and Jesus being part of a three-in-one God, being the same essence. Trinitarian theology posits a triune God in full equality of relationship.

And that is where Mormons and traditional Christians diverge.

Mormons are not Trinitarians. We believe in “God in three persons,” yes; but those persons are “separate and distinct” even though they are fully “one in purpose.” The Father is not the Son; the Son is not the Holy Spirit.

What I wish is that Land and others like him, those who are so quick to dismiss the Mormon Jesus as “not our Jesus” and engage in us-them boundary setting, would take the time to learn some nuances about what Mormons actually believe and teach.

That’s not glamorous work. Quiet study and deep listening are never going to land on any news feeds. But it’s what we should demand from Land, a seminary president with, for heaven’s sake, a doctorate from Oxford.

The theological differences between Mormons and evangelicals are real, especially when it comes to the Trinity. But we don’t need to widen that gulf by fabricating, in our ignorance, additional differences that don’t exist.


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