The Only Truly Creedless Church on the Face of the Whole Earth

“[Unlike the Latter-day Saints] Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be asked out of their church. I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammeled [sic]. It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.”
- Joseph Smith (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 288)

In my last post I explained why I believe the creeds of Christendom were an abomination in God’s sight. To summarize: I believe the content of the creeds are, for the most part, harmless. The real problem with the creeds is that they are used as a litmus test of one’s allegiance to Christ. Thus the creeds are treated as equivalent to revelation/scripture and are used as a basis for determining other people’s salvation.

In this post I will discuss what I see as one of Mormonism’s greatest strengths: our non-creedal nature, or attempts to be so in any case.

Now depending on how you choose to personally define the word “creed” the LDS Church does have creeds, after a fashion. The word “creed” can mean simply “what a religion believes.” In this sense, Mormons have a “creed” because we have a body of beliefs. Surely this is not what I meant.

A “creed” might be viewed as being anything written down that summarizes beliefs. Mormons have that too: the Articles of Faith. And modernly we have the young women recite the young woman’s theme in creed-like fashion.

If one wants to call these “creeds,” fine, they are creeds. But they aren’t the problematic type I was describing in my previous post. Why? In the case of the Articles of Faith our prophets, through revelation, intentionally canonized it and made it scripture. No, “wink wink, nudge nudge,” going on here. If it acts like scripture, its scripture and we took the pains to get God’s approval before making it normative.

The young women’s theme is non-problematic because it does merely summarize scripture and also because it’s not used to cut off people who believe differently from those reciting it. Well, accept for the young men, of course. Would anyone really want to argue that “We are daughters of our Heavenly Father, who loves us, and we love Him” is anything but a straight up scriptural pronouncement? (See, for example Acts 17:29.)

Some might define First Presidency statements as “creeds.” But just like the Articles of Faith, Mormons do not hide the fact that we see these as being extensions to scripture. Mormon First Presidency statements are the equivalent to the council of the Apostles held at Antioch as described in Acts 15. The Apostles and Prophets came together to seek guidance of the Lord and in the end added to scripture to resolve the situation. The church leader’s ”decree,” and this is translated from the greek term dogma which is the same word as the legal and binding decrees Roman made, was sent to the Churches with expectation that they would be obeyed. But this wasn’t an interpretation of scripture – it was new scripture. Mormons claim the same authority here.

When I say Mormonism is “non-creedal” what I mean is that we strive to only believe that which is actually in the revelations from God and refuse to take a permanent definitive stance on anything else.

The problem with my definition is, well, that the LDS Church hasn’t always qualify. We “strive” for this, but sometimes fail.

But consider this quote from Joseph Smith: “It is the constitutional disposition of mankind to set up stakes and set bounds to the works and ways of the Almighty.” (The Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 320) The need to form a “creed” – a non-scriptural but authoritative statement of belief by which to command  what everyone should believe – is so deeply embedded into human nature that it’s amazing that a creedless Church could exist at all! Much of the discussion I see on the Bloggernacle is really moaning that the Church won’t give out definitive answers on some subject or other.

Despite our problems, be they very real, the Mormons Church does strive to avoid creed-making to fill in the blank where the Lord hasn’t spoken. And we are getting better at this with time.

When Brigham Young decided to advance his now infamous Adam-God doctrine, Orson Pratt had no problem advancing his Brigham-Young-doesn’t-know-what-he’s-talking-about doctrine. Pratt was never excommunicated for teaching against Brigham Young’s pet doctrine.

When Joseph F. Smith and B.H. Roberts nearly came to blows (I’m only partially kidding) over the existence of death before the fall and pre-Adamites, the first Presidency resolved the breech by… get this… declaring there was no official doctrine on the subject. Can you imagine the Nicene Council coming up with this innovative answer?

When William and Ralph Chamberlain, in 1909, decided to teach at Brigham Young University that evolution was inline with LDS beliefs, though they were asked to leave BYU or stop teaching this, Leonard Arrington summarized their situation as follows: “the trauma could have been worse; there were no books banned, no excommunications or schisms. No official church position was taken with regard to evolution or higher criticism. In a church magazine… President Joseph F. Smith wrote that the decision had only been not to discuss evolution in church schools.” (The Mormon Experience, p. 260) While it may have felt like the Spanish Inquisition at the time, the Spanish Inquisition it was not!

A bit closer to home is this post on Delbert Stapley’s letter to George Romney to discourage his activity in the civil rights movement. The maximum “heat” Romney takes over his “dissent” is a rather friendly letter that was sent “not in… official church capacity” and that affirmed the “right of [his] position if it represents [his] true belief and feelings.” Of course Stapley’s views were also at odds with several contemporary church leaders, including then President David O. McKay who actively sought to end the priesthood-ban. (See Adventures of a Church Historian, chapter 11)

The LDS Church was founded on the idea of doing away with creeds. This consists of new revelation to remove debate on some subjects (Calvinism anyone?) and open acceptance of differing opinions where God hasn’t spoken. While human nature is to fill in the blanks with creeds, God’s will is apparently that we do not. The LDS Church gets at least a passing grade historically for staying creedless and modernly is finally arriving to the full understanding of this very important doctrine.

15 thoughts on “The Only Truly Creedless Church on the Face of the Whole Earth

  1. Bruce, once again, very interesting. I had never really thought about the issue of creeds, but the more I think about it the more important it is. It seems to me one of the main reasons people get “lost in the weeds” religiously is because they believe the Church believes in a certain creed and when other evidence comes along to contradict that they have a crisis of faith. I have known people who believe the Church has a creed against the theory of evolution. We don’t. I have known others who believe you should only read the KJV because other translations are bad and that the Church has a creed holding up only the KJV. We don’t.

    It is good of you to remind people to concentrate on the central doctrines of the Church rather than creeds.

  2. Bruce, I think you need to address the role of the Temple Recommend questions. While it is true that they aren’t used to determine who is a member and who isn’t, their social role certainly establishes whether or not you are really part of the group or not.

    I tend to agree that Mormonism is creedless (despite what many critics claim), but I also believe that there are elements in Mormon society that have very clear ideas about what they think the creed is or should be and who have very strong ideas about what should happen to those who don’t believe their views.

  3. Great post Bruce. Thanks for the reminder on how the gospel should be regarded.

    #2 Kent said, “I also believe that there are elements in Mormon society that have very clear ideas about what they think the creed is or should be and who have very strong ideas about what should happen to those who don’t believe their views.”

    I agree and whether the viewpoints are in reality culture or local opinion, often these elements are regarded as creed, to the determent of those in the minority opinion.

  4. Personally I think one could reasonably read JS’s statement on creeds as being somewhat hyperbolic. Another reasonable reading is that Smith believed LDS were set apart from strict creedalism due to the concept of ongoing revelation and the reception of new scriptures. LDS statements of belief function a lot like other Christian creeds; there are similarities and differences.

    When Joseph F. Smith and B.H. Roberts nearly came to blows (I’m only partially kidding)

    I think you mean Joseph Fielding, not Joseph F.

    While it may have felt like the Spanish Inquisition at the time, the Spanish Inquisition it was not!

    It still sucked.

    The LDS Church was founded on the idea of doing away with creeds. This consists of new revelation to remove debate on some subjects (Calvinism anyone?) and open acceptance of differing opinions where God hasn’t spoken.

    There are folks in many different traditions who differ with their respective leadership on various doctrines and who are not, as a result, tossed out. They accept differing positions on various issues, depending on how such differences are handled and what the differences are, just like our Church does. Overall I am glad that we don’t have to pass a specific lengthy quiz on beliefs to retain membership, but there are a few core things we are expected to accept in order to hold certain callings or hold a temple recommend.

    The LDS Church gets at least a passing grade historically for staying creedless and modernly is finally arriving to the full understanding of this very important doctrine.

    The church maintains boundaries, sometimes more obviously than at other times, and on different issues depending on the time period, just like all religious traditions. The LDS concept of “continuing revelation” can help reduce some of the friction at times when a change occurs, but it can lead to other difficulties as well. Some people really want more starkly drawn boundaries, other people want less.

  5. ps- this post sort of sounds like a “why we’re better than you” post, which to be honest, aren’t my most favorite kinds of posts.

  6. I’ve always thought of creeds were just things thought up by uninspired groups of people to justify their beliefs. Whereas things like the YW Theme, Articles of Faith, Family Proclamation etc were statments issued by the called prophets. And as we believe that the words of the prophet are the words of the Lord, problem solved.

  7. Joyce,

    You are bring up the authority issue. I think this is a valid point.

    BHodges,

    Great comments. I agree with you that this post sort of sounds like a “why wer’e better than you” sort of post. Unfortunately there are many legitimate topics in the LDS Church that are just going to come across that way to some people. I really don’t see a way around this.

    Personally, I always choose to remember that the LDS Church believes everyone is “saved” by Jesus and that all Churches lead to the heavens. That takes the ‘sting’ out of it for me.

    Kent,

    You ask about temple recommends. Very good question. I’m not sure I have an answer yet. I think temple recommends are a mix of paraxis and beliefs. The beliefs in it are ‘general’ but ‘far reaching’ if taken seriously and not Clintonized. But surely you are right that temple recommends play a role similar to creeds. (As do the Articles of Faith) But I like how and where they drew the line and I like the fact that revelation was used as the basis for these.

  8. If I’m understanding you correctly, the LDS Church is creedless because:

    1) Those things that function as creeds are based on scripture (and by your definition of creed only those things that are not based on scripture can count as a creed).

    2) The Church recognizes a category of things where the scriptures are not definitive and therefore allow its members a variety of beliefs.

    If this is the case, wouldn’t you have to have a good understanding other churches before designating this as a major point of departure from the rest of Christendom? In other words, I really don’t see how these claims are all that different from the other Christen churches I’ve had exposure to.

  9. SmallAxe,

    Point number 1 should read: For Mormons, those things that function as creeds *are* scriptures. (Or something closer to that thought.)

  10. Bruce, I think you’re glossing over the act of interpretation. Arriving at something like a First Presidency Statement, if claimed to be rooted in the scriptures, is an act of interpretation. Granted we might believe that our act of interpretation is better or less problematic than other denominations, but I still don’t see how that necessarily makes us different (in terms of our claims) from other Christian denominations.

  11. Because a First Presidence Statement is considered scripture. Thus it’s both an interpretation of scripture and also scripture.

    I see this as vastly different than, say, my Evangelical friend who has to insist beyond all reason that the Bible has one and only one interpretation and anyone that doesn’t agree is willfully choosing to misread the Bible.

    But what other choice does he have? If he were to even admit that his interpretation of Bible verses might be wrong it would be tantamount to admitting his whole religion might be wrong. What basis for faith is there in “I think my interpretation of the Bible is most likely to be correct on more points than anyone elses?” So that position isn’t an option for him.

    My opinion is that the Mormon approach gets around this nasty problem by simply declaring their ‘interpretations’ to in fact be scripture also. Interestingly, this means that we treat a First Presidence Statement as roughly on par with the standard works. Whereas my Evangelical friend has been forced to see his ‘creeds’ as superior to the Bible. (i.e. the Bible can and must only be interpreted in light of the creeds) but simultaneously declare them to be inferior to the Bible.

  12. Interestingly, this means that we treat a First Presidence Statement as roughly on par with the standard works. Whereas my Evangelical friend has been forced to see his ‘creeds’ as superior to the Bible. (i.e. the Bible can and must only be interpreted in light of the creeds) but simultaneously declare them to be inferior to the Bible.

    Bruce, I’m not so sure this is significantly different from our First Presidency Statements.

  13. The basic problem with most Christian creeds is that speculative theology and philosophy gets reduced to articles of faith.

    Every denomination has articles of faith. It is the nature of what is allowed to become an article of faith that makes the difference.

    For example, “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law” is not exactly deep doctrine nor speculative metaphysics.

    Where on the other hand, the idea that God is strictly timeless, immutable, without body, parts or passions, the Absolute, the ground of all being has been the touchstone of classical theism for going on seventeen centuries now.

    Add to that the speculative proposition that “God from all eternity, did by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass” and you get classical Calvinism, where (among many other corollaries):

    “By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death. These angels and men, thus predestinated, and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished.”

    There is a creed for you. Just read through the Westminster Confession of Faith. A more rigorous model of theological supposition you will never find. The only problem is that its foundation lies in the sort of speculative theology that really ought to deserve a revelation of some sort.

    Is your average parishioner going to get down on his knees and petition for a divine confirmation of the proposition that God is the cause of his every action? Or should he take the honored John Calvin’s word for it?

    Good theology should be humble enough to recognize that it might be in error on some substantial point or another, rather than implying that any disagreement is an excommunicable offense. Arminius found that out the hard way.

    Although Mormonism is generally Arminian there is no question you can be a Mormon Calvinist if you keep a few of the more exotic implications out of Gospel Doctrine class. That befits any church that aspires to be universal. The Catholics have this down pat. Mormons more so.

    Calvinism, on the other hand is so theologically narrow that the tiniest disagreement tends to place you in the seventh ring of hell. It is a theological approach founded on One Big Idea, and woe be to those who do not appreciate the beauty of it. That is what is wrong with “the creeds”, especially the ones that predominated in Joseph Smith’s time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>