After all, founding prophet Joseph Smith Jr. said God taught him that “all their creeds were an abomination in his sight” and “they teach for doctrines the commandments of men.” Mormonism believes authentic Christianity vanished a century after Christ and was restored only through Smith in 19th century America.
Yet Robert Millet, an important Brigham Young University scholar who advises the church on interfaith relations, in his book A Different Jesus?: The Christ of the Latter-day Saints (Eerdmans), assures non-Mormons that, yes, they’re fellow Christians.
It’s a timely — and controversial — contribution to the bicentennial observances of Smith’s birth.
What does this faith of 12 million followers worldwide (5.5 million in the United States) say about the Bible? That’s a complicated question. Mormonism often seems conservative in affirming the literal history and miracles, yet liberal in criticisms of the Bible.
Mormonism does recognize the Bible (King James Version only) alongside Smith’s own latter-day revelations. An official summary of teachings that Smith sent a Chicago newspaper in 1842 says “we believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly.”
In 1830, Smith boldly began issuing rewrites of the Bible. Though he called them “translations,” he didn’t work from ancient manuscripts, since he knew neither biblical Hebrew nor Greek. Rather, he asserted the power to revise God’s word on the basis of personal revelations.
Smith altered some 3,400 verses through additions, deletions or other changes not found in biblical texts. Mormonism’s “standard works” include parts of his revised Gospel of Matthew and Book of Genesis (the latter is called “The Book of Moses”).
Millet’s work discusses other Mormon teachings that dispute mainstream Christianity beliefs.
“Man is not of a lower order or different species than God,” Millet states. Smith taught that God “has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s” and “was once a man.” Millet says Mormonism hasn’t received authoritative explanations about “God’s life before Godhood.”
Mormonism teaches that Jesus was the “firstborn spirit child of God the Father” who over eons “grew in light and truth and knowledge and power until he had become `like unto God.'” Then, “under the direction of the Father,” Christ created the world. He was identical with Jehovah, “the premortal God of the ancients” who “eventually was born on earth as the man Jesus.”
Mormons also hold that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not the unified divine Trinity of traditional Christianity but “three separate Gods.”
In Millet’s opinion, such latter-day revelations provide “clarification or additional information to the Bible” but don’t “invalidate what went before.”