This post will compare the LDS understanding of the nature of Christ to that of normative Christianity. A good place to begin the comparison is with the creed of Chalcedon, which states that Christ has two natures, that he is both fully divine and fully human.
The Creed of Chalcedon
(Oct. 22, A.D. 451)
We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [coessential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning him, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us. (From Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 3.02.6; brackets are Schaff’s)
The Eastern Orthodox churches, the Catholic Church, and most Protestant denominations accept this creed. It explains the way (its writers believe) Christ is both God and Man. But, before going on I should point out that in Mormon usage there is little distinction made between the word Christ and the name Jesus. We use the word Christ to mean Messiah (which it does), or sometimes to refer to Jesus; also, saying Christ is usually favored over saying Jesus–To me, saying Jesus when I would normally say Christ would sound too evangelical.
Christian theologians use the word Christ to refer to the one person who is both human and divine; use the phrase “Son of God” to refer to the divine nature of Christ; and the name Jesus to refer to the human nature of Christ. Hence Schaff writes, “The whole work of Christ is to be attributed to his person, and not to the one or the other nature exclusively… It is the one divine-human person of Christ that wrought miracles by virtue of his divine nature, and that suffered through the sensorium of his human nature” (01.00.09). Christ is God-man (capitols important), whose dual nature came into being upon incarnation.
The four key words in this creed are inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, and inseparably. Since Christ is both “truly God and truly man,” we cannot say that the divine and human natures mixed, such that Christ is half man and half God; or mixed in such a way to create something new; God the Son did not change from being God into being human, nor did his human nature become God, rather, in some mysterious way, Christ became fully human and retained his divinity. The two natures of Christ cannot be separated one from the other; however, this is not to say that Christ has two personalities, he has only the divine personality. Christ did suffer for the sins of the world, not in his Godhood, but in his human nature. The mystery of Christ is that he is fully God and fully man, “the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved.” Charles Hodge wrote,
Christ was truly man and truly God, the Scriptures teach that He had a finite intelligence and will, and also an infinite intelligence. In Him, therefore, as the Church has ever maintained, there were and are two wills, two…operations. His human intellect increased, his divine intelligence was, and is infinite. His human will had only human power, his divine will was, and is almighty. Mysterious and inscrutable as all this is, it is not more so than the union of the discordant elements of mind and matter in our own constitution. (Systematic Theology, Vol. II, Ch. 3)
This way of understanding Christ is completely foreign to Mormons. We believe that before the creation of the earth God the Father created you and me, as well as Jesus and Lucifer. (See “Are Satan and Jesus Brothers?) Jesus is God’s “Beloved Son,” who was “Beloved and Chosen from the beginning” (Moses 4:2). He was the first of all God’s children to be created, as well as the most faithful and obedient. Even during premortality he said, “Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever” (Moses 4:2). In this way we believe that Jesus was “in the beginning with the Father,” and is the Firstborn (D&C 93:21), “appointed heir of all things” (Heb. 1:2). At some point during the premortal life Christ became the second member of the Godhead and received divine glory. We know him as Jehovah of the Old Testament. (We usually apply the word Elohim to refer to God the Father.) It was through Jehovah that the Father created the worlds: “by him[, the Son,] were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth” (Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2; Mosiah 4:2). Through the fall of man, mankind became estranged from God the Father, and Jehovah became the intercessor between the Father and man. Elder Russel M. Nelson explained, “In premortal councils, He [Christ] was foreordained by His Father to atone for our sins and break the bands of physical and spiritual death. Jesus declared, ‘I … was prepared from the foundation of the world to redeem my people. … In me shall all mankind have life, and that eternally, even they who shall believe on my name’ [Ether 3:14]” (“How Firm Our Foundation,” Ensign, May 2002). God the Father has a body of flesh and bones (D&C 130:22), but during the premortal existence Jesus was, as were each of us, a spirit (Ether 3:14-16).
Mormons are not particular about how they use the word God. In a given context it might mean God the Father, or Jehovah, or the Godhead; or it might be used in a nondescript way so as not to indicate the Father or Jehovah; or it might be used in some way to indicate the oneness of the Father and the Son. Hence the following passages from the Book of Mormon: “Behold, I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son” (Ether 3:14); “God himself should come down among the children of men, and take upon him the form of man” (Mosiah 13:34); “this is the doctrine of Christ, and the only and true doctrine of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, which is one God, without end” (2 Nephi 31:21); “the flesh becoming subject to the Spirit, or the Son to the Father, being one God” (Mosiah 15:5). (See Godhead: God or Gods?; see also “Jesus Christ, Fatherhood and Sonship of,” in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism)
In 1916 the First Presidency issued a statement titled “The Father and the Son: A Doctrinal Exposition by The First Presidency and The Twelve” which reads,
[One reason] for applying the title “Father” to Jesus Christ is found in the fact that in all His dealings with the human family Jesus the Son has represented and yet represents Elohim His Father in power and authority. This is true of Christ in His preexistent, antemortal, or unembodied state, in the which He was known as Jehovah; also during His embodiment in the flesh…To the Jews He said: “I and my Father are one” (John 10:30; see also 17:11, 22); yet He declared “My Father is greater than I” (John 14:28); and further, “I am come in my Father’s name” (John 5:43; see also 10:25). (Messages of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Vol 5, p. 31; see “Jehovah, Jesus Christ,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism).
This idea that “Jesus the Son has represented and yet represents Elohim His Father” is called Divine Investiture of Authority; hence it is OK to refer to the Son as the Father, or as God. Elder Bruce R. McConkie wrote,
The Son, however, is the Most High God in the sense that by divine investiture of authority, he is endowed with the power and authority of the Father, speaks in his name as though he were the Father, and therefore (having the fullness of the Father) he thinks it ‘not robbery to be equal with God.’ (Philip. 2:6.) (“Most High,” Mormon Doctrine).
As mentioned above, the premortal Christ was a spirit. Thus Jehovah was born into the world and became the man Jesus and acquired a physical body. But wouldn’t he remember his premortal existence? We believe that in mortality none can remember their premortal life. We call this the veil of forgetfulness. Thus Jesus was perfect in spirit, and faith, had all the authority of his Father, but was otherwise human. The Book of Mormon teaches that Jesus was born of a virgin named Mary and was conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost (Alma 7:10; see also 1 Nephi 11:14-20). Elder James E. Talmage (d. 1933) wrote in his book Jesus the Christ:
He came among men to experience all the natural conditions of mortality; He was born as truly a dependent, helpless babe as is any other child; His infancy was in all common features as the infancy of others; His boyhood was actual boyhood, His development was as necessary and as real as that of all children. Over His mind had fallen the veil of forgetfulness common to all who are born to earth, by which the remembrance of primeval existence is shut off. The Child grew, and with growth there came to Him expansion of mind, development of faculties, and progression in power and understanding. His advancement was from one grace to another, not from gracelessness to grace; from good to greater good…from favor with God to greater favor. (Jesus the Christ, p. 105).
We don’t know exactly how or when Jesus became aware of his divine Sonship, but at an early age he knew God was his Father (Luke 2:48-49).
The man Jesus had the spiritual perfection to refrain from committing sin, and yet live a fully mortal life. He was sinless, without physical blemish–which is not to say he was physically beautiful–and took upon himself the sins of the world. But did his divine nature suffer? Can a Mormon say that God suffered? The Doctrine and Covenants reads,
I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent; But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I; Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men. (D&C 19:16-19; see also Alma 7:13; 1 Nephi 19:12)
I’m not a theologian, so I can’t be sure I gave a fair description of the Christology described in the creed of Chalcedon. Though I don’t believe the description of the nature of Christ contained in it, I do hope that I was able to do it reasonable justice in the short space of this post.
In one belief system certain questions are easily resolved. In another they remain mysterious. All religions have mystery. As with the mystery of the Trinity, there is also mystery in the doctrine of the nature of Christ. Schaff writes,
The Chalcedonian Creed is far from exhausting the great mystery of godliness, ‘God manifest in flesh.’ It leaves much room for a fuller appreciation of the genuine, perfect, and sinless humanity of Christ…it indicates the essential elements of Christological truth, and the boundary-lines of Christological error…Within these limits theological speculation may safely and freely move, and bring us to clearer conceptions; but in this world, where we ‘know only in part’…and ‘see through a mirror obscurely’…it will never fully comprehend the great central mystery of the theanthropic life of our Lord. (Creeds of Christendom, Vol. 2, 02.00.09)
As for the LDS view, Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles wrote,
…we can understand why some Latter-day Saints have tended to focus on Christ’s Sonship as opposed to His Godhood. As members of earthly families, we can relate to Him as a child, as a Son, and as a Brother because we know how that feels. We can personalize that relationship because we ourselves are children, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. For some it may be more difficult to relate to Him as a God. And so in an attempt to draw closer to Christ and to cultivate warm and personal feelings toward Him, some tend to humanize Him, sometimes at the expense of acknowledging His Divinity…
With this background, we need to understand that there are many in the Christian world who believe this doctrine is inappropriate. In fact, there are many who say that Latter-day Saints believe in a “different Jesus” than do other Christians and that we are therefore not “Christian.” Here is another place that we can agree to disagree without being disagreeable. We believe in the Jesus of the New Testament, and we believe what the New Testament teaches about Him. We do believe things about Jesus that other Christians do not believe, but that is because we know, through revelation, things about Jesus that others do not know. (M. Russell Ballard, “Building Bridges of Understanding,” Ensign, June 1998)