"For the word of the Lord is truth, and whatsoever is truth is light..."

Doctrinal Exclusion: Lesser Arguements

by Stephen E. Robinson

Occasionally the claim has been made that the practice of polygamy is so abhorrent to all true Christians that anyone who would espouse it or even tolerate it cannot be truly Christian. It follows, the argument runs, that since many Latter-day Saints practiced plural marriage during the latter half of the nineteenth century, this practice reveals their religion to be non-Christian. The argument runs into several difficulties, however, but before we look at them we must say a few things about the LDS doctrine of plural marriage.

LDS Plural Marriage

First of all, during the period when plural marriage was practiced by the Latter-day Saints it was the exception rather than the rule. There were more monogamous marriages among the Mormons than there were polygamous marriages, and without special dispensation a Latter-day Saint could not take a plural wife. (See Plural Marriage)

Second, the Latter-day Saints do not maintain that the practice of plural marriage is a requirement for entrance into the kingdom of God, nor do they argue that plural marriage is taught in the New Testament.1 While Latter-day Saints do believe that whenever God commands the Saints must obey, they do not insist that plural marriage is an essential element of the gospel of Jesus Christ or that plural marriage is intrinsically preferable to monogamy. 2 The atonement of Christ will save or exalt a monogamist as readily as a polygamist, and vice versa.

Third, because plural marriage is neither a universal nor an essential principle of the gospel, the Lord may command, tolerate, or forbid the practice among his people as their circumstances warrant. For example, in the Book of Mormon itself (Jacob 2:27-28) the Lord forbade plural marriage to the Nephites, though apparently the practice had been allowed to Israelites generally under the law of Moses. Conversely, in the nineteenth century the Lord commanded that plural marriage be practiced among the Latter-day Saints; thus LDS plural marriage was not the result of some scriptural discovery or a doctrinal preference for polygamy, but was due to the direct command of God in revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith. For Latter-day Saints plural marriage of itself has nothing to commend it, but the command of the Lord makes the practice right or wrong. What the Lord requires is right; what he forbids is wrong. 3 The question before us here, however, is not whether plural marriage is right or wrong, but whether merely believing that it can be right under special circumstances necessarily renders one non-Christian. (See Why did Joseph Preach Against plural marriage?)

The Abhorrence of Plural Marriage

To abhor plural marriage is not the same thing as merely not to practice it. Even in cultures where polygamy is allowed, the majority of people generally choose not to practice it, yet they are not horrified by those who do. In Western culture plural marriage is generally abhorred, but the roots of this abhorrence can hardly be described as biblical, for the Old Testament explicitly sanctions polygamy, 4 and the New Testament does not forbid it. The practice could not have been abhorrent to Jesus and the first-century Jewish Christians, for their culture was not Western, and plural marriage was sanctioned in the law of Moses, 5 the holiness of which was endorsed by both Jesus and Paul. 6 Indeed, it is possible that some Jewish Christians of the first century continued to practice plural marriage just as they continued Sabbath observance, circumcision, and other practices related to their cultural and religious background. The cultural milieu of Judaism and early Christianity simply cannot be the source of the Western horror of plural marriage, for plural marriages were common in the environment of the earliest Christian church.

I do not deny that polygamy is now abhorred in Western culture generally and in modern Christianity particularly. What I deny is that the source of that abhorrence is biblical. It is derived not from the biblical heritage but the classical--the abhorrence of polygamy comes from Greece and Rome. 7 As orthodox a figure as Saint Augustine knew that the prohibition of plural marriage in the church of his day was only a matter of Roman custom: "Again, Jacob the son of Isaac is charged with having committed a great crime because he had four wives. But here there is no ground for a criminal accusation: for a plurality of wives was no crime when it was the custom; and it is a crime now, because it is no longer the custom. . . . The only reason of its being a crime now to do this, is because custom and the laws forbid it." 8 Though pagan culture could freely tolerate multiple sexual partners, it could tolerate only one wife. In that respect Greco-Roman culture was very similar to contemporary Western culture.

Clearly, then, the antagonism to plural marriage was not biblical in origin, for the bosom of Abraham, where most Christians long to repose, is a polygamous bosom, and the house of Israel, into which most Christians seek admission, is a polygamous house.

Polygamy and Divorce

Now, it has been argued that the Old Testament approval of plural marriage should be understood as being analogous to its toleration of divorce, that both practices were permitted to the Jewish people under the Mosaic law only because of their moral weakness, and that both practices were later prohibited to Christians. Yet while the New Testament makes such a statement about divorce (Matthew 19:3-9), nowhere does it make such a statement about plural marriage; there is no biblical warrant for equating the two cases.

But even if there were such a warrant, there are at least two reasons why equating divorce and plural marriage would not help the excluders' argument--in fact such an analogy would make my case. First, the New Testament indicates that while divorce was prohibited generally, it was allowed in special circumstances (Matthew 19:9; 1 Corinthians 7:15, the so-called Pauline privilege). This is all the Latter-day Saints would claim for the practice of plural marriage --that it is prohibited generally but allowed under special circumstances. Second, if the practice of plural marriage is analogous to the practice of divorce, and today there are literally millions of divorced Christians, why can there be no polygamous Christians? In truth, despite the fact that it is specifically prohibited in the New Testament, for most Christian denominations divorce is no bar to membership, though it may be discouraged or disapproved of. I am personally acquainted with several divorced Protestant ministers. But if divorce and plural marriage are to be understood as analogous cases, then the sanctions against plural marriage, which is not specifically prohibited in scripture, cannot reasonably be greater than those against divorce, which is prohibited. Further, divorced persons are still generally accepted as Christians by their contemporary churches, and rightly so. But if divorce and plural marriage really are analogous, then those who merely believe in the possibility of plural marriage (without practicing it, I might add) should be accepted as Christians as readily as those who actually practice divorce.

Christian Precedents

Once again, I am not arguing that plural marriage is correct. I am only arguing that believing it could be right under special circumstances does not render one a non-Christian. Robert Hoist, a Protestant missionary to New Guinea, notes that in that country "Baptist and Methodist missions baptize those who entered a polygamous marriage before coming into contact with the Gospel or, more specifically, before making a decision to accept Christ. They do not consider polygamy a sin but feel that it is not the ideal of God." 9 In other words, the missionaries believed that polygamy is not a bar in all circumstances to being a Christian. Shall we write off both the converts and their missionaries for believing that in some circumstances plural marriage can be tolerated in a Christian church?

Protestants in other areas have similarly argued for the possibility of Christian polygamists: "Let it be publicly declared that a polygamous African church may still be classified as a Christian church, even while monogamy remains the Christian norm, and that no such church will be excluded from Christian councils and full Christian fellowship solely because of its polygamy." 10

Perhaps the best illustration of the possibility of Christian plural marriage is provided by the great Reformer himself, Martin Luther. There is no doubt that Luther was generally opposed to the practice of plural marriage: "Consequently it is my opinion that a Christian is not free to marry several wives unless God commands him to go beyond the liberty which is conditioned by love." 11 But it is just as consistently clear that in Luther's theology opposition to plural marriage was never absolute. Even where he wrote in favor of monogamy Luther generally added that polygamy could be allowed to a Christian under special circumstances; for example, if a wife should contract leprosy, or if she should be unwilling to engage in marital relations, or if there was "some other compelling reason"12--or, as stated above, if "God commands him." By contrast, in the LDS view only the latter contingency would justify an exception to monogamy. Without a specific commandment from God, plural marriage is as unacceptable for the Latter-day Saints as it is for other Christians, an offense for which excommunication is the certain result.

But there were other circumstances in which Luther thought plural marriage allowable. In September 1531 Luther wrote a letter to Robert Barnes --the envoy of the English king Henry VIII--who had been seeking Luther's support for Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon. In it Luther argued that since divorce was forbidden by God and would be unjust to Catherine, Henry should simply marry a second wife. 13

Eight years later one of Luther's supporters, Philip, the Landgrave of Hesse, desired to marry Margarete von der Saale without divorcing his first wife (since divorce was prohibited in scripture). Neither Philip nor the prospective bride and her mother would go ahead with the plural marriage, however, without the written sanction of the Lutheran theologians. On 10 December 1539 Luther, Bucer, Melanchthon, and others signed a document stipulating that the proposed plural marriage was acceptable, "since the Gospel neither revokes nor forbids what was permitted in the Law of Moses with respect to marriage." After being strongly advised to keep the whole thing secret for understandable political and cultural reasons, Philip was further assured (in writing) that he had "the approval of us all" in his proposed plural marriage. 14 Consequently the marriage was performed on 4 March 1540 by Dennis Melander, the Lutheran court chaplain, with Bucer and Melanchthon present. 15

I do not mean here to represent Luther as a champion of plural marriage. For him monogamy was clearly the rule--but polygamy was an allowable exception to Luther's rule, a viable option in special circumstances. It should be carefully noted that Luther much preferred polygamy to divorce, yet many modern Christians, while abhorring polygamy, practice divorce as though it were almost a Christian sacrament.

My point is this: If Luther could seriously endorse plural marriage, in writing, on at least two occasions almost a decade apart; if he could certify in writing that the plural marriage of Philip of Hesse was acceptable in the context of the Christian gospel; and if he could then sanction the actual marriage itself; then I feel it safe to say that Martin Luther sanctioned plural marriage under special circumstances. And if he is still to be counted a Christian, as he most assuredly is, then it is not true that endorsing plural marriage under any circumstances renders one a non-Christian. If Luther, Bucer, and Melanchthon could advise and sanction plural marriages and remain Christians, then so could Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.

The Esoteric Teaching (the Temple)

Another issue used by those who employ the doctrinal exclusion involves the esoteric teaching of LDS temple worship. Those who have received this teaching are under a covenant obligation not to discuss the details of the LDS temple and its ordinances. This makes attacking them on the subject similar to debating a monk under a vow of silence--it is usually an easy victory, but never a heroic one. It is not necessary to discuss or defend the LDS temple in detail here, however, for the charge of the non-LDS critics is not that the LDS version of the esoteric teaching in Christianity is incorrect (that would be an interdenominational squabble), but rather that there never was an esoteric teaching in Christianity at all, and that anyone who believes in an esoteric teaching is therefore not a Christian. (See Early Christian Temple Rites home page)

An esoteric teaching is any teaching that is held back from general, public circulation, a teaching not available to everyone but reserved for the initiated. In the LDS context this also involves vicarious ordinances for the dead. The question before us is not whether the specific LDS esoteric teaching is the right one, but whether Christianity ever had any kind of an esoteric teaching at all. For if it did, then it is a Christian phenomenon--whether the modern denominations have it or not, and whether the LDS understanding of it is correct or not.

The Esoteric Teaching in the New Testament

Let's begin with the Apostle Paul, who wrote in his First Epistle to the Corinthians: "Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, that come to nought: but we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory" (1 Corinthians 2:6-7). The Greek word translated "perfect" in verse 6 is teleios, and besides "perfect" it also means "mature" and "initiated." 16 So for Paul there is a hidden wisdom communicated not to the masses but only to those who are mature. By definition this is an esoteric teaching, an esoteric teaching communicated, Paul says, "in a mystery." The Greek word translated "mystery" is musterion, and it means "a mystery," "a secret," "a secret rite," or "a secret teaching.''17 Thus here we have in the New Testament a hidden wisdom communicated by means of a secret rite (musterion) only to those who are mature or initiated. Even if there were no other evidence, this passage alone would prove the existence of an esoteric teaching in earliest Christianity. As one non-LDS scholar has remarked: "Paul reveals here almost certainly that he knew an esoteric Christian apocalyptic-wisdom teaching which he carefully guarded from immature Christians." 18

Some commentators on these verses have tried to argue that the public Christian proclamation itself was the hidden wisdom, but that argument is untenable for two reasons. First, the Christian proclamation was not hidden or reserved only for the mature; it was preached "upon the housetops." Second, while the Corinthian Saints had already heard the Christian proclamation and been converted and baptized, Paul felt that they still were not yet mature enough for the "meat" of the gospel. Therefore the two levels of teachings, the public and the hidden, cannot be equivalent. "And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able." (1 Corinthians 3: 1-2.) Since the Corinthians were already Christians, the meat which Paul continued to withhold from them cannot have been the public Christian proclamation.19 Whatever it was, the fact that it was withheld from them because they were not yet ready for it makes it by definition an esoteric teaching.

In the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul refers to secret teachings he received by revelation when he was caught up to the third heaven--"how that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter" (2 Corinthians 12:4). What Paul learned on this occasion was certainly esoteric, and I think we may assume that not all Christians have received it. Moreover, Paul felt obliged to keep these things secret, no doubt "because they are too sacred''20 to be written or told.

In I Corinthians, Paul also refers to an early Christian practice of vicarious baptism for the dead, which is one of the rites of the LDS temples. While arguing that without the resurrection of Christ and of all mankind, faith and repentance and even his own preaching are all in vain, he asks: "Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?" (1 Corinthians 15:29.) Scholars and theologians have proposed many different theories to try and explain this verse. Yet honest scholars, both Catholic and Protestant (even those hostile to the LDS doctrine), are forced to admit that the passage describes vicarious baptism for the dead, and that proposed alternatives are really just attempts to avoid the clear meaning of the text because of its theological implications.

Regarding 1 Corinthians 15:29, a conservative Protestant work explains: "The normal reading of the text is that some Corinthians are being baptized, apparently vicariously, in behalf of some people who have already died. It would be fair to add that this reading is such a plain understanding of the Greek text that no one would ever have imagined the various alternatives were it not for the difficulties involved.''21 The finest Roman Catholic biblical commentary is of the same opinion: "Again, the Apostle alludes to a practice of the Corinthian community as evidence for a Christian faith in the resurrection of the dead. It seems that in Corinth some Christians would undergo baptism in the name of their deceased non-Christian relatives and friends, hoping that this vicarious baptism might assure them a share in the redemption of Christ.'' 22

Both Catholic and Protestant scholars agree that the Corinthian Saints practiced baptism for the dead. Now, the argument is sometimes made that Paul must have merely tolerated an aberrant practice at Corinth, that he looked the other way because these vicarious baptisms reflected a kind of faith in Christ. There are serious problems with this view, even from a non-LDS perspective. But even if the argument were valid, Latter-day Saints would be entitled to ask their critics, If the Apostle Paul found vicarious rites for the dead tolerable among the Corinthian Saints, why must the same practice be judged intolerable among the Latter-day Saints? If the Bible shows that the Apostle Paul was in fellowship with those who, rightly or wrongly, practiced baptism for the dead, how can modern Christians reject the precedent?

The Esoteric Teaching in Early Christianity

In the centuries following Paul many other orthodox writers refer to the esoteric teaching. In fact one scholarly source states that Saint Clement of Alexandria, the head of the catechetical school at Alexandria and the most influential theologian of his generation, "based his exegesis on the existence of a Christian gnosis, i.e., the secret knowledge of the profoundest truths of the Christian faith to which the elite were initiated.''23

Clement's writings were never anathematized by any council, and he is still revered as an orthodox saint by several modern denominations.24 Yet Eusebius of Caesarea quotes him as saying: "James the Righteous, John, and Peter were entrusted by the Lord after his resurrection with the higher knowledge. They imparted it to the other apostles, and the other apostles to the Seventy.''25 This "higher knowledge" cannot be the public gospel message, for the teaching described here was not given directly by Christ to the disciples as was the public teaching, but was a separate revelation communicated privately only through Peter, James, and John. Clement often refers to the public Christian message as "the common faith," "the foundation," or "the milk.' ,26 The esoteric teaching he refers to as "the higher knowledge," "the secret things," or "the gnosis." For example, Clement explains:

The Lord did not hinder from doing good while keeping the Sabbath; but allowed us to communicate of those divine mysteries, and of that holy light, to those who are able to receive them. He did not certainly disclose to the many what did not belong to the many; but to the few to whom He knew that they belonged, who were capable of receiving and being moulded according to them. But secret things are entrusted to speech, not to writing, as is the case with God.27

For centuries orthodox interpreters of Clement's writings have insisted that there wasn't really any esoteric teaching in his theology, but that the so-called "secret teaching" was merely the public message itself, which was understood by different believers according to their different capacities. The mature understood the public gospel well, and the immature understood it less well. But since 1973, that dodge has been no longer possible, for in that year a previously unknown letter of Clement was published 28 that makes matters quite clear. Following is an excerpt from that letter as translated by Morton Smith (notes for this quotation are mine; square brackets are in the original):

Mark, then, during Peter's stay in Rome, he wrote [an account of] the Lord's doings, (i.e., the canonical Gospel of Mark) not, however, declaring all [of them], nor yet hinting at the secret [ones], but selecting those he thought most useful for increasing the faith of those who were being instructed. But when Peter died as a martyr, Mark came over to Alexandria, bringing both his own notes and those of Peter, from which he transferred to his former book the things suitable to whatever makes for progress toward knowledge [gnosis]. [Thus] he composed a more spiritual Gospel (i.e., a Secret Gospel of Mark.), for the use of those who were being perfected.29 Nevertheless, he yet did not divulge the things not to be uttered, nor did he write down the hierophantic30 teaching of the Lord, but to the stories already written he added yet others and, moreover, brought in certain sayings of which he knew the interpretation would, as a mystagogue,31 lead the hearers into the innermost sanctuary of that truth hidden by seven [veils] 32 .... and, dying, he left his composition to the church in Alexandria, where it even yet is most carefully guarded, being read only to those who are being initiated into the great mysteries.33

In view of this letter, which a large majority of scholars now accept as genuine, 34 it is no longer possible to argue that Clement did not believe in an esoteric teaching in precisely the LDS sense. In this Secret Gospel of Mark, as it is now called, the esoteric teaching was not the public gospel, but was an addition to what was contained in the canonical Gospel of Mark. Even so, Clement informs his reader, there were secrets even beyond those-secrets he calls "the hierophantic teaching of the Lord" --which were too sacred to be written down even in the Secret Gospel.

In the same letter Clement goes on to explain that the Carpocratians and other Gnostics erred, not by their inventing an esoteric teaching out of thin air but by their distorting the genuine esoteric teachings of Christianity.

Now, Clement's letter does not prove that there was a Secret Gospel written by Mark, although it certainly establishes the possibility. The letter does prove, however, that Saint Clement, the foremost orthodox theologian of his generation and head of the catechetical school at Alexandria, believed there was an entirely orthodox Secret Gospel, and since he claims to have read it, he himself must have been "initiated into the great mysteries." Moreover, he cannot have been the only orthodox Christian in Alexandria to have so believed or to have been so initiated. Alexandrian orthodoxy of the second century included, at least among the "mature" Christians of Alexandria, a belief in an esoteric Christian teaching. This is now simply a matter of record.

In the fourth century the emperor Constantine built churches on the three holiest sites in Christendom: the locations of the Nativity, the Resurrection, and the Ascension. Concerning the third of these churches, which was called anciently the Eleona, Eusebius, the "Father of Church History" and an orthodox theologian, writes: "The mother of the emperor raised a stately structure on the Mount of Olives also, in memory of his ascent to heaven who is the Saviour of mankind, erecting a sacred church and temple on the very summit of the mount. And indeed authentic history informs us that in this very cave the Saviour imparted his secret revelations to his disciples.''35

Shortly thereafter Saint Cyril of Jerusalem described a baptismal ceremony that can only be described as an esoteric rite of initiation. 36 Both the details of the ritual itself and Cyril's mystical interpretation of it were to be kept strictly secret:

When the instruction is over, if any catechumen tries to get out of you what your teachers told you, tell nothing, for he is outside the mystery that we have delivered to you, with its hope of the age to come. Guard the mystery for his sake from whom you look for reward. Never let anyone persuade you, saying "What harm is it that I should know as well?" . . . Already you stand on the frontier of mystery. I adjure you to smuggle no word out.37

As Cyril describes the action of the mystery, first "you stretched forth your hand and, as though Satan were present, you renounced him.'' 38 Until the ordinances were complete, "the men were to stay with the men and the women with the women.'' 39 The initiates were then anointed with consecrated oil in stages from their forehead, ears, nose, and so on, down to their feet.40 Cyril describes this as the anointing referred to in the New Testament at I John 2:20, 27.41 After being anointed the initiates were washed in baptism three times, were anointed again, and then were dressed in white robes that Cyril calls "the garment of salvation.''42 The initiates received the name of Christian--in fact Cyril calls them "Christs"43--and they passed from an "outer" to an "inner" chamber, which Cyril calls in unmistakable temple symbolism the "Holy of Holies.' '44

Cyril of Jerusalem was not alone in teaching this esoteric doctrine. Saint Ambrose of Milan (Saint Augustine's teacher), Saint John Chrysostom in Constantinople, and Theodore of Mopsuestia are just a few of the Fathers who taught essentially the same things in widely separated geographical areas of the Christian church.45

Saint Basil (the Great) also wrote of secret teachings that were separate and distinct from the written gospel and that had been passed down from the Apostles:

Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us "in a mystery" by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force .... For we are not, as is well known, content with what the apostle or the Gospel has recorded, but both in preface and conclusion we add other words as being of great importance to the validity of the ministry, and these we derive from unwritten teaching. ... Nay, by what written word is the anointing of oil itself taught?... Does not this come from that unpublished and secret teaching which our fathers guarded in a silence out of the reach of curious meddling and inquisitive investigation? Well had they learnt the lesson that the awful dignity of the mysteries is best preserved by silence. What the uninitiated are not even allowed to look at was hardly likely to be publicly paraded about in written documents.46

Now, some modern Christians may dismiss all of this as hocus-pocus, but these things were performed in great seriousness over a period of centuries by orthodox Christians who understood them as sacred teachings of the gospel, teachings considered to be over and above what was contained in the written New Testament. Basil and Cyril were Christian saints; Basil wrote the discipline for monastic life that is still the rule in Orthodoxy; and Cyril attended the Council of Constantinople in A.D. 381 and helped to formulate its version of the Nicene Creed. Moreover, Cyril 's lectures on the secret teachings were delivered to the initiates in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem-the holiest shrine of orthodoxy.47 These men and their esoteric teachings cannot be dismissed as unorthodox.

My point is this: If objective scholars can conclude that the New Testament supports an esoteric teaching in Paul; if the New Testament explicitly states that Corinthian Christians practiced vicarious baptism for the dead; if Saint Clement of Alexandria believed that an esoteric teaching of the Lord was part of Christianity, and Clement himself had been initiated into it; if Saint Basil can emphatically state that the most sacred Christian teachings were never written down but were found in secret rites and teachings handed down from the Apostles; if Saint Cyril of Jerusalem could perform secret rituals and in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre instruct his initiates on the esoteric meanings of those rituals; then there is no case for excluding the Latter-day Saints from Christendom simply because they believe in an esoteric teaching.

Though modern Christians are often embarrassed by the fact, it is a matter of historical record that esoteric teachings have been part of orthodox Christian practice in other times and places. Modern Christians might reject the views of Clement, Basil, Cyril, Ambrose, Chrysostom, and the other Fathers, and even accuse them of being influenced by the pagan mysteries--but normally they don't accuse them of being pagans. And if an esoteric teaching is going to be tolerated in the orthodox church of the third, fourth, and fifth centuries, there is no reason it can't be tolerated in the modern Latter-day Saints.

The Premortal Existence of Souls

Another doctrine of the Latter-day Saints that sometimes comes under attack and is used to exclude them from Christian circles is the premortal existence of souls.

One would think that the orthodox doctrine of the soul would have been established firmly in the earliest periods of the Christian era or in the New Testament itself, but this is hardly the case. One informative reference source explains: "No precise teaching about the soul received general acceptance in the Christian Church until the Middle Ages. The Scriptures are explicit only on the facts of the distinction between soul and body, the creation of the soul of the first man by the Divine breath, and its immortality.',48 Christians still disagree on the exact nature of the soul, and several different theories of how souls are created coexist among the modern Christian churches.

On the basis of modern revelation the Latter-day Saints believe that all souls (Latter-day Saints often call them "spirits") were organized in a premortal existence and that they lived for a time in the presence of God before they came to earth to inhabit their individual bodies. This view is sometimes misunderstood by non-LDS people as a belief in reincarnation or in the transmigration of souls, but the Latter-day Saints are hostile to both of those doctrines; for in LDS belief once a soul has received a mortal body, it cannot enter another mortal body. The only difference here between the beliefs of Latter-day Saints and those of other Christians concerns whether souls are created individually at the moment of conception or of birth, or whether they were created before that moment. Other Christians may disagree with the Latter-day Saints, but since Christians interpret differently the few Bible references on this issue, and since the traditional views --themselves surmises--weren't commonly accepted until the Middle Ages, the claim that one's whole standing as a Christian hangs on believing one or the other is exceedingly weak.

How We Are Saved

One sometimes hears that Latter-day Saints aren't Christians because all true Christians believe in salvation by grace, while the Mormons believe in salvation by works. If this were true, it would mean that Mormons believe each individual "works out his own salvation." Under such a belief, salvation becomes an individual accomplishment--something each one does to and for himself or herself--while the atonement of Christ becomes merely a handy tool to be used by the individual in his or her own do-it-yourself salvation kit. Those who view salvation in this way--and apparently there are some misinformed Latter-day Saints who do--in effect say, "And surely I will do it; wherefore give me thine honor.''49 Salvation ceases to be the greatest of all the gifts of God (D&C 6: 13 ) and becomes something an individual earns for himself by simply following the proper steps or numbers. Under this view Christ is dethroned as a personal Savior, as the one who actually accomplishes the work of individual salvation, and salvation is no longer a Christ-centered but rather a self-centered activity.

My first observation regarding this idea of salvation by works is that it has nothing to do with LDS doctrine. In fact it could have been treated in chapter 2 of this book, for the charge that this is what Latter-day Saints believe badly misrepresents the LDS position. Now, even among non-LDS Christians the doctrine of divine grace can be hotly argued, so I will not attempt to define that doctrine to the satisfaction of all non-LDS critics. Nevertheless, the following basic principles taken from the Book of Mormon do, I believe, provide a fair representation of the LDS view. 50

First, it is impossible to earn or deserve any of the blessings of God in any sense that leaves the individual unindebted to God's grace. In the Book of Mormon, King Benjamin expresses it in this way:

I say unto you that if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another--I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye wound be unprofitable servants ....

... And ye are still indebted unto him, and are, and will be, forever and ever; therefore, of what have ye to boast? (Mosiah 2:21, 24.)

Even in those contexts, such as the law of tithing, where there is a quid pro quo --a covenant agreement that if I will do A, God will grant B--the very fact that such a covenant has been offered to me and that I am able to receive such overwhelming blessings in return for such paltry efforts is in itself a prior act of grace --an expression of the pure love of God, a gift. Salvation itself is the result of such a covenant of grace- "the new testament [covenant] in my blood" (Luke 22:20). The very existence of this covenant is a gift, a grace offered by a volunteer Savior. Yet like all covenants, there are terms binding upon both parties. Our best efforts to live the laws of God are required, but not because they earn the promised rewards--our efforts are infinitely disproportionate to the actual costs. Rather, our best efforts are a token of our good faith and of our acceptance of the offered covenant. Thus we participate in our own salvation as we attempt to keep the commandments of God, but we can never earn it ourselves or bring it to pass on our own merits, no matter how well we may think we are doing.

Second, redemption can never come as the result of an individual's own efforts, but only through the atonement of Jesus Christ. The Book of Mormon prophet Lehi explains this to his son Jacob:

Wherefore, I know that thou art redeemed, because of the righteousness of thy Redeemer ....

And men are instructed sufficiently that they know good from evil. And the law is given unto men. And by the law no flesh is justified; or, by the law men are cut off....

Wherefore, redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth.

Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered.

Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth, that they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah. (2 Nephi 2:3, 5-8.)

There is no doctrine, ritual, principle, ordinance, law, performance, church, belief, program, angel, or prophet that can save us in the absence of the personal intervention in our lives of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This is the teaching of the Book of Mormon as well as of the Bible.

Third, the individual must be born again through the atonement of Jesus Christ and become Christ's spiritual offspring. His people having made a covenant to obey God, King Benjamin tells them:

And now, because of the covenant which ye have made ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you; for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name; therefore, ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters.

And under this head ye are made free, and there is no other head whereby ye can be made free. There is no other name given whereby salvation cometh; therefore, I would that ye should take upon you the name of Christ, all you that have entered into the covenant with God that ye should be obedient unto the end of your lives. (Mosiah 5:7-8.)

Even membership in the Church of Christ is insufficient for salvation without that personal experience of the Savior and of his atonement, which begets us spiritually. Alma, another Book of Mormon prophet, makes this clear through a set of poignant questions, including the following: "And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts? Do ye exercise faith in the redemption of him who created you?" (Alma 5: 1415.)

Fourth, we are saved by grace and condemned without it, no matter what else we might have or do. Grace is a sine qua non, an essential condition, for salvation. Nephi, son of Lehi, testifies, "For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do" (2 Nephi 25:23).51 Moreover, if a person is willing to come to Christ and endure to the end, the Savior's grace is sufficient for that person's salvation, despite his or her mortal weaknesses. The Book of Mormon records these gracious words of the Lord: "And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them." (Ether 12:27.) In other words, our comparative righteousness is secondary in importance to our humbling ourselves, admitting our weaknesses, striving to live the gospel, and having faith in our Savior. In fact the final plea of the prophet Moroni in the last chapter of the Book of Mormon is:

Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.

And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot. (Moroni 10:32-33 .)

Some critics may object that the Latter-day Saints do not insist that we are saved by grace alone, or do not accept the idea of irresistible grace (predestination), but these are points upon which other Christian denominations have disagreed as well. The specific LDS view may be right or wrong from the viewpoint of a particular denomination, but the fundamental LDS belief regarding grace and works is well within the spectrum of traditional Christianity, with strong affinities to the Wesleyan position. While not every Christian will agree with the specific LDS concept of grace, the Latter-day Saints have never believed in salvation by any other means--and especially not by individual works. It is true, I suppose, that some Latter-day Saints do not adequately understand this aspect of their own religion, but the same could be said about a minority in any denomination. The LDS scriptures are clear--we are saved by grace.


Even though the practice of plural marriage is viewed with abhorrence in Western culture, the roots of that abhorrence are not biblical. Even so, the Latter-day Saints themselves are opposed to the practice except when God commands it. Since the Western taboo against plural marriage is not biblical, and since other non-LDS Christian leaders have allowed plural marriage in special circumstances without ceasing to be Christian in the common estimation, the practice of plural marriage by a minority of Latter-day Saints (who acted in the belief that God commanded it) cannot properly be used to exclude all Latter-day Saints from Christendom.

On the basis of modern revelation the Latter-day Saints believe that the ordinances of the LDS temple, an esoteric tradition, are part of the fulness of the Christian gospel. This offends some modern Christians who believe that all genuine Christian beliefs and practices must be found in the public message of the written scriptures. This view, however, is ecclesiastically very shortsighted, for from Paul in the first century to Clement of Alexandria in the second, to the church fathers in the third and fourth, it is undeniable that an esoteric tradition--not contained in the written documents of the church but supposedly handed down from the Apostles in secret rites and teachings--was not only tolerated but fully embraced by mainstream orthodoxy for over half a millennium. It is not possible to exclude Latter-day Saints from Christendom on the basis of an esoteric teaching without excluding at the same time the very Christian Fathers whose writings have defined the nature of Christian orthodoxy.

Because the Bible is silent on how souls are created, modern Christians have agreed to disagree among themselves on the issue, some holding one view and some holding another. The Bible is also virtually silent about when souls are created; thus, by analogy, it would seem fair to agree to disagree on this issue as well, with the Latter-day Saints holding one view (that souls were created before the physical body), and other Christians holding a different view (that souls are created with the physical body). It is not a question over which one's soul, or one's Christianity, may reasonably be said to be in jeopardy.

Finally, the charge that Latter-day Saints believe in salvation by works is simply not true. That human beings can save themselves by their own efforts is contrary to the teachings of the Book of Mormon, which eloquently states the doctrine of salvation by grace. On this issue LDS doctrines are well within the spectrum of views generally accepted as Christian.

(See Response to Criticism home page; General Criticism home page; Are Mormons Christians? home page)



1. Though several nineteenth-century Brethren expressed contrary opinions, there is nothing in the authoritative sources of LDS doctrine that justifies such conclusions (see the discussion on what constitutes official LDS doctrine, chapter 2 herein).

2. In the Garden of Eden, where God could have instituted whatever form of marriage he wished without fear of public opinion or of the U.S. federal government, our first parents were apparently monogamous. This fact should give pause to any who would argue for the universal preferability of polygamy.

3. Latter-day Saints believe plural marriage has been forbidden by the Lord since the turn of the century. One need not assume that this makes God "changeable," for there is ample precedent in the Bible for God giving commandments to one people in one circumstance and then rescinding or changing those commandments for other people in different circumstances. For example, compare Leviticus 11 with Acts 10:12 - 15, Genesis 17:7 - 14 with Galatians 5: 1-6, or Matthew 10: 5 with Matthew 28:19.

4. E.g., Genesis 16:4; 25:6; 30:4, 9.

5. See Deuteronomy 21:15-16. Cp. Judges 8:30; I Samuel 1:2;

25:43; 2 Samuel 12:8; I Kings 11:3; I Chronicles 4:5; 2 Chronicles 11:21.

6. See Matthew 5:17-19; 23:1-3; Romans 3:31; 7:12.

7. See, for example, Edward Westermarck, The History of Human Marriage, 3 vols. (New York: Allerton, 1922), 3:50, "Considering that monogamy prevailed as the only legitimate form of marriage in Greece and Rome, it cannot be said that Christianity introduced obligatory monogamy into the Western world."

8. Augustine, Reply to Faustus, 22.47; see Philip Schaff, ed., The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1983), 4:288. Other than his observation that plural marriage was contrary to Roman custom, Augustine's objections to plural marriage were no different than his objections to monogamous marriage--both involved the risk of sensuality.

9. Robert Hoist, in International Review of Missions 56 (April 1967): 205.

10. H. W. Turner, "Monogamy: A Mark of the Church?" International Review of Missions 55 (July 1966): 321.

11. Luther to Joseph Levin Metzsch, 9 December 1526, in Theodore G. Tappert, ed. and trans., Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, vol. 18 of the Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955), p. 276; emphasis added.

12. See Ernst Enders, ed., Dr. Martin Luther's Briefwechsel, 16 vols. (Stuttgart: Verlag tier Vereinsbuchhandlung, 1884-1915 ), 5 :441-42.

13. See Enders, Luther's Briefwechsel 9:88, and n. 2.

14. See Enders, Luther's Briefwechsel 12:319-20 [WA, Br, VIII, 63844]. Cf. Tappert, Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, p. 288.

15. Using this marriage as a precedent, Frederick William II of Prussia later took two plural wives with the sanction of the Lutheran Hofprediger; see Gerd Heinrich, Geschichte Preussens: Staat und Dynastie (Frankfurt am Main: Propylaen Verlag, 1981), p. 257.

16. See the standard scholarly Greek-English lexicon, William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), pp. 816-17. There is a consensus among scholars that "perfect" is not the right nuance. The Revised Standard Version renders teleios here as "mature"; Bo Frid opts for "initiated" (in New Testament Studies 31 [1985]: 608).

17. See Arndt and Gingrich, Greek-English Lexicon, pp. 531-32. The New International Version renders musterion as "secret wisdom."

18. Robin Scroggs, "Paul: SOPHOS and PNEUMATIKOS," New Testament Studies 14 ( 1967/68): 54. Whether Scroggs is right or wrong, this is a matter of interpreting phenomenon within the Christian tradition, not extraneous to it.

19. See Scroggs, "Paul," p. 37: "The distinction Paul makes between his kerygma [public preaching] and his sophia [hidden wisdom] is thus too clear-cut to permit the conclusion that the content of the sophia is the crucified Christ of the kerygma."

20. At least that is the opinion of John Knox and the New Oxford Annotated Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 1407.

21. Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1989), pp. 763-64.

22. From The Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 2:273.

23. Jerome Biblical Commentary 2:611.

24. Clement was venerated as a saint in Catholicism with a feast day on 4 December until 1751. See The Book of Saints of the Benedictine monks, 6th ed. (London: A & C Black, 1989), pp. 128-29.

25. See G. A. Williamson, Eusebius: The History of the Church (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965), p. 72.

26. As, for example, at Stromateis, 5.1, 5.4, etc.

27. Clement, Stromateis, 1.1. See Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1975), 2:302.

28. In Morton Smith, The Secret Gospel (New York: Harper and Row), a popular version, and in Morton Smith, Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), for scholars.

29. Or "initiated" (Greek teleioumenon).

30. A hierophant is one who teaches the secret mysteries to initiates.

31. Like the hierophant, the mystagogue is one who initiates into the mysteries, the secret rites.

32. Note the imagery of the temple.

33. Smith, The Secret Gospel, p. 15.

34. Clement's letter to Theodore was provisionally included in a 1980 scholarly edition of his works, O. Stahlin and U. Treu, eds., Clemens Alexandrinus, GCS 4/1, (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1980), pp. xvii-xviii; cf. viii. Even F. F. Bruce accepts its authenticity in The 'Secret' Gospel of Mark (London: Athlone Press, 1974), p. 6.

35. Eusebius, The Life of Constantine, 3.43.

36. See F. L. Cross, St. Cyril of Jerusalem's Lectures on the Christian Sacraments (London: S.P.C.K., 1951), pp. 53-67.

37. Cyril, Procatechesis, 12. The translation is that of W. Telfer, Cyril of Jerusalem and Nemesius of Emesa (London: Library of Christian Classics, 1955).

38. Cyril, Mystagogical Lectures, 1.2. Greek apotasso can also be translated "to dismiss," "to separate," or "to part." See Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, trans. and ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1964-76), 8:33.

39. Cyril, Procatechesis, 14.

40. Cyril, Mystagogical Lectures, 2.3, 3.4.

41. Cyril, Mystagogical Lectures, 3.7.

42. Cyril, Mystagogical Lectures, 3.8.

43. Cyril, Mystagogical Lectures, 3.1.

44. Cyril, Mystagogical Lectures, 1.11, 2.1.

45. For the comparative parallels, see Hugh M. Riley, Christian Initiation (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1974).

46. Basil, On the Holy Spirit, 27 (66); see Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, 14 vols. (1952-57; reprint, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1983), 8:40-42.

47. See Cross, St. Cyril of Jerusalem's Lectures, p. xxii. Any who are still skeptical that a secret ritual, which included baptisms, anointings, robings, etc., was ever a part of Christian orthodoxy should consult Riley, Christian Initiation, which describes the practices in detail.

48. In F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2d ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), p. 1292.

49. The reference is to Moses 4:1 (emphasis added), where Satan's words, spoken in the premortal life, remind us that wanting the credit for what God does was a primal sin, a satanic impulse.

50. Of course, Latter-day Saints also accept as doctrine the biblical passages that teach salvation by grace and justification by faith, but I am interested here in illustrating these doctrines from exclusively LDS sources.

51. LDS commentators are agreed that the word after in this passage is used as a preposition of separation rather than of time. The sense is that apart from all we can do, it is ultimately by the grace of Christ that we are saved. This meaning is apparent from the fact that none of us actually does all he can do.


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