Return to About Mormons home

Distinctive Teachings

by Alma P. Burton

Few religious doctrines are unique in the strict sense, but many are rare enough to be considered distinctive features of this or that religion or denomination. Several doctrines of the Latter-day Saints are distinctive in this sense, although in most cases other Christians have at some time held identical or similar beliefs. Latter-day Saints insist that their distinctive doctrines were revealed by God in earlier dispensations headed by Adam, Enoch, Noah, and so forth down to the time of Christ. Thus, while they may be distinct among modern denominations, these newly revealed doctrines were shared with the one true Church of Jesus Christ in ancient times.

Unique to LDS theology in modern times is a view of the Godhead as consisting of three separate beings, two possessing bodies of flesh and bone and one possessing a spirit body. An official declaration concerning the Godhead states: "The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man's; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit" (D&C 130:22). Latter-day Saints take the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, in a literal, anthropomorphic sense, attributing to God both a human form and emotions. They accept both a "oneness" and "threeness" of the Godhead as taught in the Bible. However, they reject the traditional doctrine of the Trinity, and believe instead that the Godhead is one in mind, purpose, and testimony, but three in number. Thus, they believe that God is spirit in the sense that he is infused with spirit, and in the sense that the Holy Ghost is a spirit, but they do not limit the Father or the Son to incorporeality.

Latter-day Saints identify Jehovah, the God of the Old Testament, specifically as Jesus Christ. They believe that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who walked with Enoch and who talked with Moses on Mount Sinai, was the premortal Jesus Christ, or God the Son, acting as the agent of his Father.

Latter-day Saints also have distinct doctrines about the nature of the universe and how it began. Because they believe that spirit and matter are actually the same thing in different degrees of refinement (see D&C 131:2), Latter-day Saints perceive the universe in terms of two realms, the physical and the spiritual, but these are not antithetical. They deny the spirit/matter dichotomy and insist that both spirit and matter make up a single eternal universe.

Moreover, Latter-day Saints understand "in the beginning" to mean "in the beginning of our part of the story," or in the premortal state "when God began to create our world." They do not believe in an absolute beginning, for in LDS theology spirit, matter, and element are all eternal. Creations may progress from lower to higher orders, and it is God's work and glory to bring this development about (Moses 1:39), but there never was a time when matter did not exist. Latter-day Saints reject the common idea of an ex nihilo creation—that God made everything that exists out of nonexistence. They teach instead that God created everything out of pre-existing but unorganized materials. He organized pre-existing elements to create worlds, and he organized pre-existing intelligence to beget spirits. The spirits of all human beings existed as God's spirit children before their mortal birth on earth.

LDS eschatology also offers several distinct doctrines. For example, Latter-day Saints believe in a temporary state between death and resurrection that the scriptures call the spirit world. This temporary spirit world includes Paradise, where the spirits of the righteous await their glorious resurrection, and Hell, where the spirits of the wicked suffer for their sins while they await resurrection to a lesser degree of glory (Alma 40:11-14; cf. Luke 16:22-23). LDS doctrine teaches that every human being will be resurrected. Many were resurrected soon after Jesus' resurrection; the remaining righteous will be resurrected at the second coming of Christ, and the wicked at the end of Christ's one-thousand-year reign on earth. Hell is a temporary condition, which will yield up its captive spirits at the Resurrection, just as death will yield up its bodies (2 Ne. 9:10-14; cf. Rev. 20:13-14). In the Resurrection all suffering comes to an end (D&C 76:84, 88-89), and all human beings except the sons of perdition will be saved in one of three kingdoms, or degrees of glory: the celestial, the terrestrial, or the telestial (D&C 76:1-19; 88:29-32; cf. 1 Cor. 15:4-42).

Distinctive LDS doctrines concerning the nature of the Church include the belief that the Church of Jesus Christ has been on earth many times, beginning with father Adam, in much the same form it has now and with the same doctrines. The Church and gospel of Jesus Christ are eternal. They were revealed to the people of Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jared, Lehi, and others. Adam knew the gospel, was baptized by immersion in the name of Jesus Christ, and received the gift of the Holy Ghost, just as the Saints in all other dispensations. At times humanity has rejected or distorted the gospel and fallen into apostasy. But eventually the gospel has been restored to its original purity through prophets called to begin a new dispensation. Most recently this same eternal gospel has been restored through the modern Prophet Joseph Smith. Thus the establishment of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was not the result of a long religious evolution, nor was it merely the restoration of primitive Christianity, but it was the final restoration to earth of an eternal gospel of Jesus Christ revealed to humanity many times since the beginning.

What distinguishes "the true and living Church" from all other churches is possession of the priesthood keys of the kingdom of heaven (see Matt. 16:19). The belief that possession of the apostolic keys is necessary in the true Church is not unique to Latter-day Saints, but the insistence that one of those keys necessarily bestows the gifts of prophecy and revelation is. To hold the keys of the kingdom as Peter did is to be a prophet, seer, and revelator like Peter. And in order to be "true and living" a church must receive these apostolic keys as exercised and transmitted through the hands of its living prophets. As a tree is alive only when its branches are connected to its trunk and roots, so a church is alive only when it is connected by an open channel of revelation to its divine source. Where ecclesiastical leaders have no such prophetic link with the heavens, a church may even teach true doctrines, but it can not be "true and living" (see D&C 1:30; 27:12-13), for it lacks the necessary communication with its own divine roots.

With such emphasis placed on the need for living prophets, it follows that the word of God is primarily the word as spoken to and communicated by the prophets. The written words, the scriptures, are always important as historical precedent and as a record of what the Lord has said to his people in the past, but they are supplemental and secondary to what he may say now through his living prophet. Since Latter-day Saints believe in the genuine gift of prophecy, it follows that the revelations received by modern prophets should be esteemed as highly as those received by ancient ones. Hence, the LDS canon of scripture can never be closed: "We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God" (A of F 9).

The Latter-day Saints are also unique in several aspects of their concept of salvation. While most of the LDS doctrines would be familiar to other Christians—for example, the doctrines of the Atonement, justification, sanctification, and grace—there are several distinct features found among the Latter-day Saints. They make a distinction between generic "salvation," which to them means that through the Atonement of Christ one is delivered from the grave and from the power of Satan and hell to enter a degree of glory, and "exaltation," which means that through the Atonement of Christ and personal obedience to the principles and ordinances of the gospel of Jesus Christ one is raised to the highest degree of glory to share the powers and privileges of God, to sit on his throne and reign in eternity (see D&C 76:1-119; 88:22-23; cf. Rev. 1:6; 3:21). To be exalted is to become like God (see Godhood).

Faithful Latter-day Saints receive in the LDS temples the ordinances and knowledge necessary for celestial exaltation. One part of these sacred rites is called the temple Endowment because it constitutes a major part of the overwhelming gift extended to humanity through the Atonement of Christ. Another temple ordinance is the sealing of husbands and wives, parents and children into families that will endure for time and for eternity. The Celestial Kingdom will consist of God's heavenly family linked together in love as husbands and wives, parents and children, and brothers and sisters forever. As single individuals, human beings may be saved in lesser degrees of glory, but only families can be exalted.

Not everyone has had the opportunity in mortal life to hear the gospel of Christ and receive all the ordinances of exaltation. Latter-day Saints teach that God has provided for all to hear the gospel so they can accept or reject its blessings. Those who do not have that opportunity in mortality will receive it in the spirit world. The New Testament teaches that Jesus himself visited the spirit world after his death on the cross and preached to the spirits there: "For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison" (1 Pet. 3:18-19). The purpose of his preaching ministry to the spirits is revealed in the next chapter: "For this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit" (1 Pet. 4:6). This doctrine has been amplified and explained in latter-day revelation (D&C 137, 138; see Salvation for the Dead).

Other areas in which the views of the Latter-day Saints differ noticeably from those of the contemporary religious world are the concepts of time and eternity, the Light of Christ, the gift of the Holy Ghost, the positive estimate of the creation and of the physical earth, the eternal necessity of ordinances, the centrality of the Abrahamic Covenant for modern Christians, and the concept of heaven as a Celestial Kingdom located upon this renewed and glorified earth.

(See Daily Living home page; Interfaith Relations home page)

Bibliography

Keller, Roger R. Reformed Christians and Mormon Christians: Let's Talk. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1986.

Madsen, Truman G. "Are Christians Mormon?" BYU Studies 15 (Autumn 1974):73-94.

McConkie, Bruce R. MD. Salt Lake City, 1966.

Robinson, Stephen E. Are Mormons Christians?, chaps. 6-8. Salt Lake City, 1991.

Talmage, James E. AF. Salt Lake City, 1924.

Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol.1, Doctrine, Distinctive Teachings

Copyright 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company

All About Mormons