Mormonism and Historic Christianity: The Comparison
Many Christian readers will already see a stark, dark, and deep difference between Christianity and Mormonism. There are many ways to approach this topic of comparing Mormonism and Christianity. I’ve read—and you’ve probably seen—many good websites, books, and essays on this very subject. There are many helpful ones; you need only to search the topic to find quality material (and some not-so-good information). I encourage the reader to see what Anthony Hoekema, Walter Martin, James White, Bill McKeever, and Jerald and Sandra Tanner (and others who have examined, evaluated, and done excellent work in this area) have written on this topic.
For the sake of clarity, in a point-by-point manner, we now compare the two in the same order we looked at Mormon teachings. Many have rightly pointed out how Mormon history is incompatible and incoherent due to lack of archaeological evidence. For example, they say the American Indians are some sort of cursed Jews, whereas DNA tests have shown American Indians to be genetic relatives of Eastern peoples. They also note huge Nephite/Lamanite cultures in Central America that secular archaeologists have not been able to confirm. However, the following discussion is primarily focused on the religious/spiritual side of things, rather than the archeological/historical side.
The careful reader will notice the absence of a separate discussion of the doctrine of the church (ecclesiology) below. Instead of giving it a separate section, I have included the different parts of it in the other sections below. Finally, one more note before moving on: I have only provided one or two examples under each heading, when in fact there are many more examples that prove my point. I have left many out for reasons of space and ease of reading.
Joseph Smith: Prophet?
For a prophet to be a true prophet, he must be trustworthy; i.e. his prophecies must be validated. Smith, in D&C 87:1–3 prophesied that the Civil War would spread to all nations: “Verily, thus saith the Lord concerning the wars that will shortly come to pass, beginning at the rebellion of South Carolina, which will eventually terminate in the death and misery of many souls; And the time will come that war will be poured out upon all nations, beginning at this place.” A few verses later, Smith noted that the war would also move to Great Britain. One doesn’t even need to read history books to realize this did not happen. No matter how you slice it, as they say, this prophecy was patently false and never came to pass at all. Hence, Smith as true prophet is in serious question. How can you trust a prophet whose prophecies do not come true? If one prophecy was false, that brings into question the rest of the prophet’s words.
On the other hand, the prophecies of the Bible are consistent and verifiable. Start with Genesis 3:15, where Moses writes that the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent’s seed. It happened at the cross and in the resurrection. Also, note Joel (OT) and Jesus (NT) both said that the Spirit would come upon God’s people. It happened in Acts 2, at Pentecost. The Bible can stand up to the validation test of prophecy. Only the Word of God is true and trustworthy at every point: Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.
If indeed Smith was another prophet along the lines of the biblical prophets, one would expect a crystal clear emphasis of this in the OT and NT. If the BoM is indeed another testament, you would no doubt see this clearly noted in the OT and NT. However, the Bible says nothing about a third testament. To be sure, many Mormon scholars find prophecies in the Bible that speak about Smith, but in the history of exegesis (interpretation of Scripture) no other commentators have ever said anything about the Bible prophesying about a third testament that would come to a man in America in the nineteenth century. You can read early church fathers like Ignatius, the letters of Clement, Polycarp, all of Philip Schaff’s histories of the Christian church; you can read all the early to medieval church fathers, later teachers, catechisms, and creeds, and you will find no jot or tittle about a third testament and new prophet in America in the 1820s.
Historic Christianity teaches thus: Jesus is the final prophet, and the NT is the final testament. Hebrews 1:1–2 says, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” In other words, many prophets spoke in many words and many places in the past (pre-NT era), but in the last days (NT era and beyond) God has spoken through his Son, the final prophet Jesus. In still other words, the NT stops itself. Jude 3 tells us to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints. The divine deposit has been completed and delivered; the canon is closed. It is not fluctuating or progressing. Paul is the last apostle (1 Cor. 15:8); the NT has fulfilled the promises of the OT, and the canon is complete. Of course, this has to do with the doctrine of the church as well: only the OT/NT constitutes the church. She needs no other Word from God. To say that we need another prophet is to say Jesus didn’t do his work as prophet well enough; it is to say that he has not perfectly revealed the will of God for our salvation. Even though Mormons adamantly teach that Smith is not their savior, without Smith, they would not know salvation or the “gospel principles.” Hence, a Mormon cannot be saved without the testimony of Smith. Historic Christianity needs no one besides Jesus: he is our final and perfect prophet, and the canon is closed because his work is done. He’s in heaven, sending his Spirit to make the closed canon “live” for us in our present day. The Holy Spirit does not bring new prophecies, but reminds and teaches us the words of Christ (John 14:16; 16:13–14).
In a word, you cannot believe Joseph Smith and Jesus: the latter renders the former an unneeded and pointless prophet. Only Jesus has the words of life (John 6:68), the final Word. This has to do with the church as well: Jesus constituted his church and has given pastors, elders, and deacons who do not give new revelation but preach and teach what has already been spoken. The external written and preached word—in the power of the Holy Spirit—precedes, makes, and determines the same Spirit’s work inside a person. That is, objective truths of the Spirit speaking in Scripture trump and shape the subjective response of the believer; the former precedes and validates the latter. It is just the opposite in Mormonism.
The Book of Mormon
The BoM teaches that Jesus went to Central America after his resurrection, made disciples, and taught many things, as we learned earlier (3 Nephi 11:1–12). If Jesus had gone to Central America—or anywhere besides Palestine after his resurrection, one would think this would be abundantly clear in the OT or NT. Not only is Scripture silent concerning a trek of Jesus to another country after his resurrection, the Bible actually puts Jesus in Palestine for the forty days between his resurrection and ascension. In Acts 1:3, Luke writes that Jesus was seen by his chosen apostles for the forty days that he taught them about the kingdom of God. There is a clear contradiction—irreconcilable difference—between the BoM and the Bible; only one is correct. No matter which side a Mormon takes, he is chopping off the branch on which he sits—if the BoM is wrong, Mormonism falls. If the NT is wrong, the Bible falls. These are the horns of a dilemma that Mormonism cannot avoid. It is irrational and illogical for the Mormon to believe both at the same time.
Furthermore, if the BoM is indeed a “restored gospel” or “another testament” of Jesus, we should also be able to find this prophecy clearly in Scripture. We should be able to read Paul’s explanation of more Scripture, of “another testament;” we should be able to read about a third witness somewhere in our two witnesses (OT and NT). However, we do not. To be fair, many Mormon scholars quote OT and NT texts (i.e. Ezek. 37:16–19) to show that the Bible refers to the BoM. However, this interpretation of biblical prophecy is completely out of step with the history of Christian interpretation. To repeat an earlier point, the Bible closes itself. The faith has been delivered: the body of teaching and history of the ways of God in the world is finished. If anyone adds to or takes away from the closed canon, he will be accursed (Rev. 22:18). In Paul’s terms, there is no more or new gospel: “If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8). We have all the “gospel principles” we need in the Old and New Testaments. Anything else is not from God. Anything else is another gospel—a false gospel—under God’s curse.
The BoM is also incoherent. Many words in it are historically anachronistic—that is, words like “Gospel of Jesus Christ,” “cross,” “church,” “Bible,” “crucify,” “Christian” are used in the BoM hundreds of years before Christ (BC). Also, another contradiction between the BoM and the Bible has to do with this anachronism. The BoM says followers of Christ were called Christians first around 73 BC (Alma 46:15) whereas the Bible says followers of Jesus were first called Christians in Antioch around 70 BC (Acts 11:26). Again, not only are these two completely opposite and contradictory, the BoM also runs roughshod over the progressive revelation from OT to NT. The BoM uses the same terms and concepts (except names) in the periods BC and AD. In the Bible, however, revelation progresses so we learn more about the Messiah slowly, in concealed ways, throughout the OT. The Bible does not use NT terms in the OT as the BoM does. In the Bible, the language matches the date. Again, to believe fully in the BoM and the Bible at the same time is irrational—only one can be true, not both.
Moving to another aspect of the BoM and Mormonism’s other scriptures, one finds stark contradictions. For example, Alma 31:15 says, “Holy, holy God; we believe that thou art God, and we believe that thou art holy, and that thou wast a spirit, and that thou art a spirit, and that thou wilt be a spirit forever [emphasis mine]. Completely in opposition, D&C 130:22 says that “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s [emphasis mine]. Which is it? The two cannot stand together: they are illogical. The context of the above Alma 31 verse is God’s people speaking of themselves as children of God: in other words, “God” in Alma 31:15 is referring to the Father.
One more glaring contradiction is found between Alma 34:36 and D&C 130:3. In the former, we read that “the Lord . . . in the hearts of the righteous doth . . . dwell.” In the latter, we read, “The idea that the Father and the Son dwell in a man’s heart is an old sectarian notion, and is false.” Only one of the two can be correct, unless it is permissible for a trustworthy scripture to be illogical and incoherent. In summary, the internal teachings of the Mormon scriptures contradict each other. The words of Mormon scriptures are not “pure words, as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times” (Ps. 12:6).
Finally, concerning Mormon scriptures, we notice more crystal clear examples of how they are at odds with the OT/NT. The BoM prophesied that Jesus would be born at Jerusalem (Alma 7:10), whereas the Bible prophesied that he would be born at Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). Many have made long lists of the unambiguous differences between the Bible and the Mormon scriptures: a quick Internet search will provide many such lists. Suffice it to say that the two are completely irreconcilable and cannot stand together at any time, any way, no matter how much one tries to harmonize them. They cannot be joined together because they teach completely different and opposite things.
Mormon World History, Anthropology, and Soteriology (Salvation)
Mormons teach that elements are eternal, as we read earlier. In other words, Mormon theology holds that before the creation of the world, there was a substance or matter that was co-eternal with God. This is anathema in historic Christianity—it is an affront to the essential attributes of God himself according to Scripture. Denying ex nihilo by asserting eternal matter is an unmistakable sign that Mormonism is opposed to historic Christianity. The Bible teaches that the triune God alone is eternal, without beginning or end, and that he created all things out of nothing. Scripture teaches that “things which are seen were not made of things which do appear” (Heb. 11:3). In other words, God has created all things (Rev. 4:11); “all things” include time, matter, creaturely intelligence, and so forth.
In historic Christian theology, before the creation of the world, time did not exist, matter did not exist, created intelligence did not exist, spirit-children did not exist, gods did not exist—the only thing in existence was the triune God, who alone inhabits eternity. As Herman Bavinck wrote, “if only a single particle were not created out of nothing, God would not be God.” Exactly: since Mormonism denies ex nihilo, their god is a fabricated figment of the fallen imagination, not the triune God of Scripture.
Also, it is quite clear to most Christians that we did not exist as spirit-beings before creation. Paul himself said it quite clearly—and Genesis 1–3 is firm on the matter—that Adam was the first human, a man of the earth, of the dust (1 Cor. 15:47). He was created body first, and then God breathed into him the breath of life. That “breath of life” was not a pre-existent spirit-being, but the very life created by God’s word on the sixth day of creation. Mormonism and historic Christianity cannot be reconciled at this point. Not only are they irreconcilable, they are completely at odds. Mormonism says “spirit-being” first, then earthly being; Christianity says no.
Concerning Adam and Eve, historic Christianity has said the church existed from the beginning of the world and will continue to the end. There is no point in history where Christ’s church disappears, as Mormonism teaches. Joseph Smith said there were no true churches on the earth at the beginning of his call; Jesus says the gates of hell will not prevail against the church. Here is yet another clear and contradictory difference.
Though we are under the heading world history and not theology proper, it is important to note that the Christian position flatly and firmly denies that a plurality of gods helped God create the world. Again, this runs against every fiber, every tenet, every precept and principle of the teaching of historic Christianity. When Brigham Young said there were many gods, when Joseph Smith said that the gods helped create world out of pre-existing matter, they were speaking against the historic Christian teaching of creation. From Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God,” to Isaiah 44:24, “I am the lord that maketh all things; that stretcheth forth the heavens alone; that spreadeth abroad the earth by myself,” the Scripture is unequivocal: the triune God alone created all things out of nothing. In fact, this is such an essential doctrine that not believing it means a person is not a Christian at all. If one cannot affirm the opening words of Genesis with the NT church, he cannot wear a name tag “Christian.”
What of Adam and Eve and the fall? Mormonism teaches the contrary of what Christianity teaches. Mormons, as Smith said, teach that Adam’s fall was a fall upwards, a good thing that enabled the spirit-children to take on human bodies. Mormonism equivocates the fall of Adam. Historic Christian churches teach—following the warp and woof of the whole Bible—that Adam’s sin was a fall, an ethical transgression, a breaking of the covenant of works, and that his sin plunged the whole world into bondage and death. There was nothing good in Adam’s sin, even if God did use it for his purposes. Romans 5 and elsewhere plainly calls Adam’s sin the reason for the sin, death, and condemnation that spread to all people. Also, historic Christians have typically taught original sin, that Adam represented all people in the garden, and when he fell, we fell with him; “In Adam’s fall we sinned all” is the language of historic Christianity (cf. Ps. 51:5). Let’s be clear as we move on: when Mormonism calls Adam’s sin a “fall upward,” they are calling evil good, as Isaiah warns against (5:20).
Concerning man’s salvation and destiny, we saw how Mormons teach progression: if one trusts in Jesus Christ, believes the fact that Joseph Smith was a prophet, and is obedient to the “gospel principles,” he will attain godhood in the highest of the three spheres. Again, Mormons teach that you have to “trust and obey” instead of simply believe the gospel. D&C 132:21 says, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except ye abide my law ye cannot attain to this glory.”
Mormons hate the doctrine of faith alone that Christians hold so dearly. In this regard, Mormons are modern day versions of Pelagius, or at least in his family: they deny original sin and teach that obedience is in the definition of faith. Paul’s view, however—which Augustine, Luther, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Westminster Standards follow—is that a person is justified simply by believing (Gal. 2:16, 3:10–12). Believing (faith) under the rubric of justification does not include works or faithfulness. Mormons attempt to call faith a gift, but it is a reward of faithfulness. Romans 4:1 says the opposite—rewarding faithfulness or works is simply a person’s “due” for that faithfulness, not a gift. To call the reward for doing something a “gift” is to water down grace into something partially earned and sola fide is trampled upon.
Also, while Mormons teach that man can attain godhood, Christians say no way. According to Scripture and Christian theology, man will never share any of the incommunicable attributes of God, the characteristics that God himself has, that make him God. Again, this has to do with the Creator/creature distinction. Mormons have no clear distinction; Christians do have a clear distinction.
Rev. Shane Lems is the pastor and church planter at the United Reformed Church in Sunnyside, WA.