Mormons are indeed Christians, but even studious Latter-day Saints have much to learn about the depth of their own doctrine and what it says about the Jesus they worship.
So say LDS scholars Fiona and Terryl Givens in their provocative new book, “The Christ Who Heals: How God Restored the Truth That Saves Us.”
In it, the authors urge Mormons to adopt a more benevolent view of God the Father and to see Jesus as a healer of wounds as much as, if not more than, a savior from sin.
Mormons “still think of [Christ] as our rescuer from a condition of fallenness and depravity,” Terryl Givens says in a recent Salt Lake Tribune “Mormon Land” podcast, “rather than as our enabler and tutor along the pathway toward godliness.”
Here are four takeaways from the husband-and-wife writing duo’s latest Deseret Book volume that may surprise even devout members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:
Protestant Reformers got much wrong • Latter-day Saints have long praised Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley and other Reformers as paving the way for what Mormons embrace as the “Restoration” of the full, uncorrupted Christian gospel.
“That is one of the most pervasive myths in Mormon culture today, and I think it really gets us on the wrong track,” Terryl Givens says. “… In almost every single way, Calvin and Luther singly, and their cohorts, effectively solidified and completed what Latter-day Saints refer to as the apostasy.”
How did these celebrated churchmen get derailed? By straying, the authors argue, from early Christian concepts that later would form fundamental LDS teachings.
“While the Reformation may have ushered in religious diversity and pluralism,” they write, “its major figures in many cases further deepened the gulf separating Western Christianity from the coming Restoration message.”
For instance, Luther and Calvin abandoned Christian belief in free will. Man’s salvation “is utterly beyond his own powers, counsel, endeavors, will and works,” Luther preached, “and absolutely depends on the will, counsel [and] pleasure .. of God only.”
If Mormons want to find a religious strand with a familiar spirit, the Givenses say, they should look to Eastern Christianity rather than Roman Catholicism or its Protestant spinoffs.
Notion of becoming like God may not be so heretical • Broadway’s blockbuster “Book of Mormon” musical may make that tenet seem strange with the laughter-inducing lyric that Latter-day Saints believe they someday will get their own planets. But, the authors point out, early Christian thinkers taught the principle of deification — that humans can have a union with God and become like him — and Eastern Orthodox followers still do.
They quote Irenaeus, a Christian theologian from the second century, who said Jesus “became what we are that he might make us what he himself is.” A fellow Eastern scholar, Clement of Alexandria, said “the Word of God became man, that thou mayest learn from man how man may become God.”
Says Fiona Givens: “The idea of theosis is very, very strong in the early Christian tradition.” Latter-day Saints go further by taking the promise of “becoming joint heirs with Christ literally.”
But becoming like God hardly means becoming as God. A 2014 LDS Church essay emphasizes that “God’s children will always worship him.” In short, the Almighty will remain the mightiest of all.
See the Godhead as a team • The evolution of atonement theology through the centuries, the Givenses explain, has turned God the Son into the compassionate mercy-pleading defender and miscast God the Father as the vengeful justice-demanding ruler.
But God and Christ aren’t playing out a divine drama of good cop, bad cop, the authors counter, or engaging in a lawyerly showdown in the most supreme of courts. They’re on the same team, Fiona Givens says, working together to “bring to pass our immortal life and eternal glory.”
“Christ is not protecting us from divine anger or judgment,” the book says. “On the contrary, Christ is collaborating with our Heavenly Parents [Mormons believe in a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother] for our homecoming.”
Eternal progression means just that • When Mormons speak of heaven, they usually mean the Celestial Kingdom. It is the highest of three post-judgment “degrees of glory” in the hereafter, ranking above the Terrestrial and Telestial kingdoms. Latter-day Saints also believe in eternal progression — that humanity forever will continue to grow, develop and increase in light and knowledge.
So does that mean penitent, persistent, faithful believers can advance from lower kingdoms to higher ones? Early Mormon leaders (from Joseph Smith and Brigham Young to B.H. Roberts and James E. Talmage) preached that possibility, the authors write, while some later ones (including Joseph Fielding Smith, Bruce R. McConkie and Spencer W. Kimball) doubted that prospect.
The Givenses note that “church leadership has officially declared that the question of eternal progression and movement through the kingdoms is not a resolved point of doctrine.”
So that debate — along with others “The Christ Who Heals” may set off — will live on.