I recently read Alan Spence’s Christology: A Guide for the Perplexed, a short but very helpful discussion of the topic. I’m going to use it to reflect a bit on Mormon Christology, particularly as it relates to modern Christological commentary on and criticism of the doctrines that emerged from theological debates in the early Church. First, let’s define the problem.
Christology confronts a uniquely Christian puzzle: How can Jesus be both God and man? Jews don’t puzzle over the divinity of Moses, Muslims don’t puzzle over the divinity of Muhammad, and Mormons don’t puzzle over the divinity of Joseph Smith, but Christians (including Mormons) have to puzzle over and explain the simultaneous divine and human natures of Jesus. To put the issue more directly, Christians have to explain how a wandering Galilean peasant came to be regarded by his disciples and their early converts as divine shortly after his death at the hands of the ruling Romans. The author defines Christology as
the faltering attempt of the [Christian] Church to provide a coherent conceptual and theological explanation of Jesus’ person, in harmony with the scriptural testimony, which is able to account for his role in its worship and faith. (p. 6)
As the author notes, “scholars have shown that a high level of divine reverence was paid to Jesus by the Jewish-Christian community almost from the start” (p. 4). This means that the Christological problem did not develop incrementally, as the early Church’s view of Jesus gradually came to view him as partly divine, then later as fully divine. Rather, that belief in full divinity was there almost from the very beginning. Surprisingly, this quick recognition of Jesus as God triggered little concern from monotheistic Jewish Christians, but did initiate a long tradition of explaining how and in what sense Jesus was God and also how Christians could recognize Jesus as God yet still claim to be monotheists.
Classical Christology, covered in the first half of the book, recounts how the early Christian Church, over the first five or six centuries, worked out a detailed explanation of just that problem. The prologue to the Gospel of John is an early statement of high Christology, the view the Jesus was fully divine prior to his mortal birth: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). The Nicene Creed of 325 is a more developed statement of that view, which became orthodox Christology, often termed incarnational Christology:
One Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father … very God of very God, begotten, not made; … Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven.
While Mormonism formally rejects creeds, LDS beliefs are often surprisingly similar to many of the particular statements in the creeds. So Mormon Christology, while not spelled out in great detail, often follows Classical Christology rather closely. As LDS scholar Lincoln Blumell observes:
Latter-day Saints would likely take no issue with the relatively straightforward confession about God the Father from the first section [of the original Nicene Creed] or the simple assertion about the Holy Spirit in the third section. Similarly, in section 2 where confession is made about the Son there are a number of elements that Latter-day Saints would not contest. [Note 1]
Later refinements affirmed that Jesus was not merely God and man but fully God and fully man (not some half-and-half mixture) and that Jesus had both a divine and a separate human nature. It is this developed classical Christology that gets the most attention in surveys of Christian theology. It was not really challenged until the sixteenth century. While modern Christological critiques eventually became widely accepted, they have not displaced classical Christology, which continues to be embraced by many conservative Christian churches, including for the most part the LDS Church.
Modern Christology, covered in the second half of the book, emerged with the Reformation, but not from Magisterial Reformers like Luther or Calvin. It was the Socinians, part of the Radical Reformation, who directly challenged Trinitarian theology and classical Christology. “According to them, he [Jesus] had no existence prior to his conception in Mary’s womb. He was not the agent of the creation of the world, neither did he sustain it” (p. 80). They endorsed a form of Adoptionism, the idea that Jesus was born a mere mortal and only later (say at his baptism or following his resurrection) was made the Son of God, a view with some scriptural support. Socinians rejected the Christian tradition and its theology, instead making a fresh start by relying solely on a plain reading of the Bible and “right reason.” They rejected, for example, the two natures doctrine. The LDS view does follow the Socinians in seeing the divinity of Jesus as being a step below that of God the Father (this is “subordinationism”) and in (formally) rejecting Christian tradition in favor of a plain reading of scripture. Their willingness to chuck out fifteen hundred years of doctrinal tradition and start anew with a plain reading of the scriptures by the light of “right reason” seems like a good description of how, centuries later, Joseph Smith approached doctrinal and Christological thinking.
Historical Jesus scholarship is another reaction to the classical view. It took form in the 18th century and peaked with the publication of Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus in the early 20th century. The Jesus Seminar is a recent example of the continuing influence of historical Jesus scholarship, at least in academic circles. LDS leaders very firmly reject this “from below” approach to Christology.
A less controversial modern approach is Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Enlightenment shift to religious experience rather than dogmatic theology as the foundation for Christian belief. His insistence on construing Christian belief in light of the scientific advances of his day and the empirical approach of Enlightenment thinking in general gave rise to liberal Protestant theology in the 19th and 20th centuries. While the LDS emphasis on personal religious experience as the basis for an LDS testimony might seem to be in line with Schleiermacher’s initial emphasis on religious experience as the basis for Christian belief, the fact is that LDS doctrine rejects liberal theology on almost every point. Another dead end.
Karl Barth’s neo-orthodox declaration of the Word of God in the early 20th century offers perhaps the best candidate for modern influence on Mormon thinking. Barth can be viewed “as one who sought to lead theology back to the dogmatic tradition of the historic Church, to heal the breach that had been created between modern and classical christology” (p. 128-9). Barth opposed the liberal theology of his day, stressing instead revelation (God is known not by examination of the natural world but by God’s self-revelation) and the Word of God (a technical term in his theology the meaning of which extends to “the preaching of the Church, the written Scriptures, and Jesus Christ,” p. 131).
But for Barth, we must distinguish between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith.
The kerygmatic Christ or the Christ of faith, as the proper subject of the Church’s proclamation, came to be viewed as an ontological entity in some way distinct from that of Jesus of Nazareth, the figure of history. This kerygmatic Christ is the one to whom Barth normally refers when he uses the expression “Jesus Christ.” (p. 133).
While Barth’s emphasis on revelation as the vehicle for knowing God and his move back toward classical formulations should be viewed favorably by Mormons, the LDS view certainly emphasizes continuity between Jesus of Nazareth and the Christ of faith rather than any ontological difference. In LDS doctrine, there really is no difference between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. A book-length argument in favor of neo-orthodox influence on late-20th-century LDS doctrine is found in O. Kendall White Jr.’s Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy: A Crisis Theology (Signature Books, 1987).
So what does all this say about Mormon Christology? Summarizing the above discussion, Mormon Christology borrows more or less by default the main features of classical Christology, except when superseded by specific LDS doctrinal statements, while quietly absorbing some influence from certain branches of the modern Christological critique of the classical view. It’s frankly a bit surprising to me that LDS views have absorbed *any* of the modern critique.
Let me save a fuller discussion of Mormon Christology for another post and simply point to some good sources. In By the Hand of Mormon (OUP, 2002), Terryl Givens reviews Mormon Christology at pages 198-202, acknowledging that “the Mormon Christ has some important distinctions from the Messiah of other Christians” but also noting that “the murky intricacies and inconsistencies of these divine relationships [between members of the Godhead] receive scant attention” from Mormons. Matt Bowman published an article on the development of Mormon Christology during the key period from 1880 to 1930, from John Taylor’s Mediation and Atonement through the systematizing early 20th-century works of B. H. Roberts and James Talmage. [Note 2] Finally, Melodie Moench Charles, after looking specifically at Christology in the Book of Mormon, concluded that “Book of Mormon theology is generally modalistic. In the Book of Mormon, God and Jesus Christ are not distinct beings.” [Note 3]
So there is plenty to talk about in a future post.
1. Lincoln H. Blumell, “Rereading the Council of Nicaea and Its Creed,” in Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy, edited by Miranda Wilcox and John D. Young, Oxford Univ. Press, p. 196-217, at 203.
2. Matthew Bowman, “The Crisis of Mormon Christology: History, Progress, and Protestantism, 1880-1930,” Fides et Historia, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Summer/Fall 2008):1-25.
3. Melodie Moench Charles, “Book of Mormon Christology,” in New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology, edited by Brent Lee Metcalfe, Signature Books, 1993, p. 81-114, at 110.