In the debate about why Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith does or does not matter, one increasingly hears the concern that he believes in a Jesus that is different from the Jesus worshiped by those of more traditional strains of Christianity. The New York Times’ political blog reports that many Evangelicals are concerned about this issue (see here), the Brownback campaign’s smear of the Mormon faith a month ago focused on this issue (see here), and Al Mohler now opines that Mormons and creedal Christians worship very different saviors (see here). While RomneyExperience believes it should go without saying that these questions have no place in a political campaign, the number of people asking the question suggests that an answer is needed.
So, who is the Jesus that Mormons worship, and is he a different figure than the Jesus worshiped in traditional Christianity?
First of all, we must be clear about how narrow the parameters of this discussion really are. There was once a person named Jesus who lived in Palestine under Roman rule around 2000 years ago, this much is historical fact. That person spent time near the end of his life teaching and leading people, gaining some notoriety and falling out of favor with local authorities to the point that they had him executed. All Christians and all Mormons take that person as the focal point of their belief. There is no question that this same person is key to both groups. Thus, in the most literal sense, Mormons and Christians believe in exactly the same Jesus- the historical person whose life is recorded in the four Gospels of the New Testament.
At the next level of abstraction, looking beyond the actual historical person, what does each group of people believe about the Jesus they worship? If you were to poll a group of representative creedal Christians, and ask them what are their most central beliefs concerning Jesus Christ, chances are they would say that he is God, that he is perfect, that he has atoned for the sins of all mankind, and that salvation is possible only for those that give themselves to him. If you asked the same questions to a group of representative Mormons, chances are you would get the exact same answers, without any variation. As to the most central beliefs about Jesus Christ, there is no difference at all between Mormonism and the mainstream Christian denominations. To all adherents of these faiths, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and no man cometh unto the Father except by Him. On this point, it is interesting to note that Hillary Clinton holds no belief that Jesus is the only means of salvation– a fundamental tenet of belief in Christ– yet no one questions the fact that she, as a Methodist, is a Christian.
Stepping out one more level from the core beliefs about Jesus Christ, one should ask what differences exist between the way in which Mormons attempt to follow Jesus and the way other Christians do so. As with the above two questions, the answer is that there are no significant differences. Mormons believe that Jesus wants them to be pure, giving, meek, and humble, and consecrate their lives to him. Traditional Christians believe the same. There is some debate about whether Mormons place greater emphasis on works than traditional Christians, and the answer is that most likely do in practice, but all admit that only the grace of Christ can save them. Both groups view Jesus as the sole source of salvation and blessings, and believe that they must be humble and penitent to gain these things from the Savior.
At yet one step farther removed from the core of belief in Jesus, differences begin to emerge. These differences fall into the category not of basic belief, but of “theology,” i.e., aspects of belief that have little or no impact on the religious life of average believers. For example, where most creedal Christians believe that Jesus is uncreated, most Mormons believe that at some point in the past eternities, he was created, as he is literally the Son of God the Father. Where Mormons believe that Jesus remains an individual embodied in flesh in perfect form, most Christians believe that he remains in a spiritual state joined in an incomprehensible sense with God the Father and the Holy Ghost. A handful of other differences exist at this same level of abstract theology.
It is notable that these differences do not involve Jesus’s biography, his status as Savior, nor his basic criteria for salvation as detailed above. In other words, if an average Mormon met with an average Christian, neither schooled in theology, and discussed their concepts of Jesus Christ, they might find trivial differences in terminology, but would conclude that they are discussing the exact same person. Further, if you followed each of these people and observed their attempts to obey the will of Jesus as they understand it, you would find them on remarkably similar paths.
In short, to say that the Mormon Jesus is different from that of other Christians, you must necessarily define Jesus as a theological construct, rather than as a historical figure and living Savior that operates daily in the lives of his followers. This twisted logic can be illustrated by analogy. Assume you and I have a mutual friend named Peter. We both know Peter is a dentist, that he has three kids, lives in Duluth, and likes tennis. In short, most of our data points about Peter match up. But in talking about Peter, we find that you believe he grew up in Des Moines, and I had thought he grew up in Nashville. One of us is wrong about Peter’s childhood home. Does that mean that all our discussions have been about two different people? Or does it mean that we are discussing the same person, and both share a relationship with him, though one of us is a bit confused about one small aspect of Peter-based knowledge? No one would use such a disagreement to say that I can no longer be thought of as a friend of Peter’s.
I recently appeared on a Christian radio show where I was asked to explain the Mormon concept of Jesus Christ. I asked the host why these technical differences he pointed to should be significant at all, given the vast areas of agreement about Jesus’ attributes and saving power. He responded that the Bible says that if one’s understanding of Jesus is not exactly perfect, that person does not worship Jesus at all, but a wholly different person- indeed, an idol (one wonders if this man’s exactly perfect idea of Jesus was exactly shared by Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther, or if they worshiped idols too). I inquired for a reference and was pointed to 1 John 2. After our conversation, I consulted my Bible and found the following verse:
And hereby do we know that we know him: that we keep his commandments.
There is no question that if John the Beloved’s test is applied, Mormons know Jesus about as well as other Christians do. For those who agree that the Bible is God’s inerrant word, that ought to be enough.
And for those who have no dog in the interfaith squabble, but only want to know if Mitt Romney worships a different Jesus: Measured only by a small number of abstract theological definitions, there are a few differences. Measured in every other area of knowledge, belief, and practice about Jesus Christ, no.