Over at BCC, JNS uses the work of the political theorist W. B. Gallie to describe the debate over Mormonism’s Christianity as a struggle between Mormons and the rest of Christendom over the legitimizing title of “Christian.” This is useful because it reminds us that the conflict at its core isn’t based in misunderstanding or bigotry (despite the shallow grasp of the issues that some polemicists like Jack Chick have), but on real theological distinctions.

This holds true, I believe, even for the term “a different Jesus.” When I was twelve or so my parents took my family to the Manti pageant, where a nice young woman gave me a little postcard. It showed Jesus floating toward me over a sea of flames, his grasping fingernails long and pointed, and his eyes, like Palpatine‘s, hooded, glaring, and pale. This, the caption informed me, was “The Mormon Jesus!!!” who desires only “to drag YOU to hell!!!” So, the phrase tends to get thrown around irresponsibly. But we can be generous. Attempting to grasp some of the ramifications that provoke such responses may also help us to a deeper understanding of our own theology.

The key to grasping why the “Mormon Jesus” frightens creedal Christians is to understand the importance of the creedal Christ’s identity. And that identity is deeply bound into the atonement. At the Council of Chalcedon, called in 451 AD, Pope Leo II declared, “In this way, as our salvation requires, one and the same mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ, can at one and the same time die in virtue of the one nature and, in virtue of the other, be incapable of death.” (Cited in Norris, The Christological Controversy (Philadelphia, 1980) 148). For Leo, the very possibility of of human salvation rests upon a classical interpretation of the Trinity; a Christ who has two natures in one person, a Christ who is at once fully God the Eternal Creator (of the same ‘ousia,’ or substance, with the Father and the Spirit) and at the same time fully human, the son of Mary. This is called the ‘hypostatic union.’

Anselm of Canterbury, often considered the father of modern atonement theory, took this Chalcedonian ontology (a theory of what type of being Christ is) and in his famous Cur Deus Homo turned it into a full fledged soteriology (a theory of how salvation works). For Anselm, the Fall means human beings are in a state of sin. Because of this state, we are doomed to commit acts that dishonor God. We thus always already stand in offense to God, and because we cannot escape this state are incapable of making satisfaction. Only God himself is capable of overcoming this wrecked and twisted order and make restitution. However, the debt in question rests upon us, humanity. Christ, then must possess the attributes of God that transcend the shackles of the fallen creation on one hand and the attributes of man that allow him to offer satisfaction on the other.

Other theologians built upon Anselm. John Calvin, the great Reformer, emphasized that the atonement not only saved human beings objectively, but also subjectively. He taught

If the Father is to make himself known to the children of Adam, then he must do so by setting forth and depicting his powers in his works in the creaturely sphere—that is, in the humanity of Jesus Christ. This is especially necessary after the fall, because our minds are even more bounded by carnality than they were at creation. Otherwise, God’s majesty is too lofty to be attained by mortal men. (Institutes, 2.6.4)

He goes on to compare us to grubs. However, Christ, for Calvin, was the manifestation of God’s virtues in human form; not merely acting on the direction of the Father, but the very means by which the Father made himself visible on the earth. Christ, then, was a perfect conduit through which we can come to know the God of the Trinity; this constituted the whole of Jesus’ identity. His salvific role was the culmination of his larger role as mediator, as God made apprehendable by human beings. It was thus necessary that he be fully the very God of heaven.

Getting closer to the Protestants of America today, we see the same idea given voice by Jonathan Edwards, among the founders of evangelicalism, who claimed:

Christ became incarnate, or, which is the same thing, became man,to put himself in a capacity for working out our redemption. For though Christ, as God, was sufficient for the work, yet to his being in an immediate capacity for it, it was needful that he should not only be God, but man. (Works 1:577)

Thus, to recapitulate: Since Anselm, creedal Christology has been intimately bound into atonement theology. For the last thousand years, the way Christians understand what took place on the Cross depends on Christ being the Christ of the creeds.

Now, all of this rests upon a few assumptions which many Mormons (all but Jonathan Stapley*) do not share – most critically, that there is an ontological gulf of some sort between God and humanity. Rejecting that means that all this stuff about hypostatic unions makes little sense in Mormon theology. It also makes problematic for Mormons the juridical turn which atonement theorists took after Anselm – toward talking about the atonement through metaphors of debt and crime and with words like ‘owe’ and ‘payment’ – because all of these ideas are built upon Anselm’s basic argument: that Christ became man because only a God could expiate our offense.

Of course, Mormons, heirs of the Reformed evangelical tradition, continue to use this sort of language to talk about the Atonement. But this alarms creedal Christians, the heirs of Anselm or Calvin or Edwards, because our Christ-talk to them presents a Savior inconsistent with the very soteriology we claim to embrace. We emphasize that our Christ is not the Christ of the creeds; that he is not one with the Trinity as described at Nicea; that he is the Firstborn of God’s spirit children and therefore not the Eternal God himself. In short, all this implies to them that the Christ we teach does not transcend the created universe in the way God the Father does.** How then, they ask, can Christ be capable of righting the wrecked ship of the fallen creation if he is part of it?

In this sense, then, we seem to them to be trying to have our cake and eat it too. And in a way perhaps we are. The Mormon narrative of progression through eternity fits uncomfortably at points with the classic Christian narrative of fall and redemption.

Is it then time for a Mormon theory of the atonement, one that drops the juridical? Maybe. But in pursuing that, will Mormons move even closer toward the creation of a different Jesus?

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*I kid because I love.
**Of course, a more sophisticated Mormon theology could argue that this is not the case; Christ is in some sense co-eternal with the Father. Blake Ostler argues that he is co-eternal in his own Godhood. This latter is, however, not theology most Mormons and certainly most evangelicals are aware of.