By Porter, Bruce D.; McDermott, Gerald R.
First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life , No. 186
Bruce D. Porter
Mormonism has been much in the news over the past year. The presidential campaign of Mitt Romney was the principal reason, though there were other causes as well: the growth of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to become the fourth-largest denomination in the United States, for instance, and the prominence of Harry Reid as Senate majority leader. The total number of news articles devoted to the church in the past year more than doubled the previous high, reached during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
For all this, there has been more smoke than light, particularly about the fundamental question of what Mormons actually believe. Journalists, never particularly interested in doctrinal matters, tend to focus on the contemporary influence of the church or on intriguing chapters from its past history--most prominently the practice of polygamy, which officially was ended in 1890. Scholarly studies do little better, in part because they tend to focus on the history of the church, particularly its formative era from 1820 to 1890, or on its contemporary sociology and culture.
All this has led to considerable misunderstanding about what Latter-day Saints believe about the central subject of Christian religion: Jesus Christ and his atonement for sin. One can find innumerable assertions that Mormons do not believe Jesus was the messiah, that they do not believe he atoned for the sins of the fallen human race, and that they believe salvation comes by works.
All of these statements are false, and they reflect incomprehension of Mormon beliefs and doctrine. Joseph Smith, the founder of the church, whom we regard as a prophet raised up by God, made the following statement about Christ: "The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the apostles and prophets concerning Jesus Christ, that he died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it."
Latter-day Saints revere the Bible as the word of God and the scriptural foundation of Christianity. We generally interpret it in quite literal terms, although allowing that some passages may use figurative, allegorical, or symbolic language. Our most criticized departure from mainstream Christianity is our acceptance of another work, the Book of Mormon, as the divinely revealed word of God. We regard it as holy writ: equal to the Bible in authority, a second witness of Christ's divine mission, and a compilation of inspired writings that enlighten and clarify many biblical teachings. Latter-day Saints also count in the canon a slim two volumes of revelations and tenets revealed by Jesus to the prophet Joseph Smith: the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.
A vital aspect of Latter-day Saint theology--and its most obvious difference from traditional Christianity--is the belief that Jesus Christ is an individual being, separate from God the Father in corporeality and substance. Mormons do not accept the phrase in the Nicene Creed that describes the Father and Son as being "of one substance," nor do we accept subsequent creeds by ecumenical councils that sought to clarify the nature of the Trinity in language describing them as one indivisible spiritual being. The Book of Mormon refers in several passages to God, Christ, and the Holy Ghost as "one God," but Latter-day Saints understand this to mean they are one in mind, purpose, will, and intention. Their unity is the same unity of which Christ spoke in his high-priestly prayer following the Last Supper: that his disciples may "be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us" (John 17:21). Hence, Latter-day Saints rarely use the term Trinity, but prefer the title Godhead to refer to the three divine beings who govern our universe in perfect oneness.
Joseph Smith, whose first heavenly vision was of two personages, the Father and the Son, offered the following revelation regarding the members of the Godhead: "The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man's; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit. …