I’ve been reading “The Deep Things of God” by Fred Sanders. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about the book when I finish it. I got caught off-guard by a side point that he made and was struck by what a wide gap between orthodox Christianity and Mormonism has been totally neglected in my mind.
In the book Sanders refers to Jesus’ pre-existence. The idea of Jesus pre-existing is certainly familiar to Mormons. But Evangelicals don’t typically think of it in those terms. Sanders basically states that before his own birth, Jesus pre-existed. Before an angel visited Mary, before David was anointed, before Moses split the Red Sea, before creation and even before Jesus was known as the Christ; he pre-existed eternally as God. He didn’t become God or earn divinity. He was always God.
This puts the incarnation (the act of God becoming a man) in a totally different light for Evangelicals and Mormons.
Philippians 2 (The Message) puts it this way:
Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.
According to orthodox Christianity, Jesus emptied himself of Godhood to take on all of the characteristics of humanity. As The Message states, “it was an incredibly humbling process”.
I recognize that the details of the pre-existence and the “plan of salvation” within Mormonism are sometimes a bit obscured or unclear. But my basic understanding is that Mormons believe that Jesus was not God in the pre-existence (like the Father). Jesus developed a plan for us to come to earth, live a mortal existence and prove ourselves worthy to be exalted to Godhood. Jesus lived out this plan and provided a means for everyone else to follow him into it.
This differs significantly from the orthodox concept of the incarnation. Jesus didn’t really humble himself in any way that is different than the rest of us according to Mormonism. Jesus had to become a god and he could only do that through living a mortal life. A human life was a necessary condition for Jesus to become a god (though he was a creator beforehand). Deity was not an eternal and fundamental characteristic of his being.
I recognize that the doctrine of the Trinity seems to be philosophical mumbo-jumbo without any pragmatic implications for some. But if we just focus on the Trinitarian ideas about who Jesus is and what he had to do to become a man; we immediately start running into some practical implications that make Jesus a different kind of being than the one Mormonism offers. I might be so bold as to say that Mormonism removes the entire doctrine of Incarnation or if it does not, then it makes it as ordinary as birth.