This is the start of my ‘reprints’ from Mormon Matters. Mormon Matters recently went belly up and John Dehlin seems to have removed all previous posts, or at least at the moment they are not available. So I’m going to start rerunning them here.
After nearly 1800 years of silence, the heavens at last reopened. The boy prophet knelt before God the Father and the Son, who told him to “join [no Church], for they were all wrong.” (JS-H 1:19)
And why are they wrong? I suppose Jesus could have mentioned any number of reasons for considering no Church His own. The loss of priesthood authority comes immediately to mind. The loss of the Gift and powers of the Holy Ghost is another contender.
But Jesus’ condemnation of Christendom was instead rooted in their creeds: “all their creeds were an abomination in [God’s] sight…” he stated. (JS-H 1:19)
Allowing for the possibility that the word “creed” might just be a general term meaning “what a church teaches” it should not surprise us that the more common interpretation is that Jesus was rejecting the literal creeds of Christendom, those pillars of belief hammered out in ecumenical councils. Starting with the famous Nicaea council in 325 A.D., there were approximately 21 ecumenical councils that produced the creeds of Christendom over the course of 1640 years. The Catholic Church accepts all 21 while Protestants differ on which they accept; usually limiting their accept to the first 7.
Mormons have traditionally understood God’s denunciation of the creeds to be that they contain doctrinal falsehoods. While this is undoubtedly true, I question if this alone could account for God’s concern with the creeds.
For example, the original Nicene Creed (which actually comes in several variants) reads:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; he suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
There isn’t much here to be concerned about. All the hubaloo in the LDS Church is over a single phrase: “being of one substance with the Father” which seems like it might contradict D&C 130:22: “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also.”
Since the term “of one substance” is not really defined, I can’t be certain if I agree or disagree with it, though I’ve been told by many an Evangelical Christian that the Mormon view of the Trinity does not qualify as “being of one substance” in their own minds.
There are a few phrases that I have no idea what they mean, such as “very God of very God” but I can’t say I disagree with something that has no meaning to me. As a Mormon, I can truthfully say I have no problem with the content of the Nicene Creed except, perhaps, for the one phrase.
This begs the question: Did Jesus really come all the way from heaven to a boy prophet just to condemn all of the Church’s of Christendom over one phrase?
The content of the creeds, even at their worst, seem innocuous to me. Does it really matter if Jesus had two natures – divine and man – or not? Does it really matter if Christians defined the Father and the Son as being “of one substance” instead of “of one will/purpose”?
If the Nicene Creed helps Christians understand the Divinity of Christ, I say “Good on them! Believe as you wish!” At least they have a working interpretation of the idea that Jesus was real, our savior, and truly divine, right?
In a church where we value non-definition and allow a multitude of interpretations, it seems a bit odd for God to suddenly condemn what was undoubtedly a Biblically valid interpretation of God’s nature. (And by that, I mean it doesn’t directly contradict scripture, though it can’t be found there in full either.)
In this post, I will argue that God wasn’t offended at the content of the creeds, but at their existence as authoritative litmus tests of one’s allegiance to Christ. The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect the thoughts of anyone else in the LDS Church. However, this theory serves as the basis for future topics I will blog on.
I do not intend this post as an attack on any other faith. I have huge respect for Catholic and Protestant religions that adhere to the Creeds of Christendom. But it would be difficult to explain my own personal beliefs without explaining where I have honest concerns with some beliefs of other religions.
The Nicene Creed was one of the outcomes of the Nicaea council held in 325 A.D. The reason this council was called was to “resolve disagreements in the Church of Alexandria over the nature of Jesus in relationship to the Father.” (link) Though this was the top item on the agenda, the council also resolved a number of other issues including officially deciding on the date of Easter.
Emperor Constantine had called the council because of a growing division in the Church over the teachings of Arius. As Wikipedia states, “The Arian controversy was a Christological dispute that began in Alexandria between the followers of Arius (the Arians) and the followers of St. Alexander of Alexandria… Alexander and his followers believed that the Son was of the same substance as the Father, co-eternal with him. The Arians believed that they were different and that the Son, though he may be the most perfect of creations, was only a creation. A third group… tried to make a compromise position, saying that the Father and the Son were of similar substance.”
Initially the Nicene council had several bishops supporting Arius, who was essentially on trial during the council and wasn’t a direct participant in the discussion. However, a reading his writings lead most of the bishops present to denounce Arius’ teachings as blasphemous. “To most bishops, the teachings of Arius were heretical and a danger to the salvation of souls.” (link)
Arius’ teachings were considered a danger to salvation because Arius believed Jesus was a creation of the Father and thus, in their minds, less divine than the Father. If Jesus was less divine, they reasoned, then He was incapable of saving anyone.
The famous Saint Athanasius attended the Nicene Council as a representative for the Alexandrian group. “Athanasius of Alexandria, a young deacon and companion of Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, was among these assistants. Athanasius eventually spent most of his life battling against Arianism.” (link)
Both Arian and Alexandrian camps could quote scripture to back up their views. Arian was fond of John 14:28: “the Father is greater than I” while Athanasius liked to emphasize verses like John 10:30: “The Father and I are one.” (link) The scriptures were insufficient to resolve the conflict and both views were valid possible interpretations of the Bible, in that sense.
With Arius now on the outs with most of the Bishops, the Alexandrian camp pushed for a creed that would forever banish Arius and his doctrines from the Church. To this end, they favored the phrase “of one substance” to be included in the creed. If this phrase were included in an authoritative document then, they believed, Arius’ doctrines would be provably false and the Arian doctrine would fail.
The middle camp, concerned over the unscriptural phrase “of one substance,” instead pushed for the phrase “of similar substance;” a phrase that I suspect most Mormons would be more comfortable with or even embrace.
But this wasn’t to be. “Of similar substance” would not be strong enough to banish the now nearly universally disliked Arius. Wouldn’t that phrase allow Arius to claim he was in alignment with the very creed they were producing?
With this counter suggestion failing, the Alexandrian camp won out and the creed included the phrase “of one substance.” After decades of back and forth, eventually this view became deeply ingrained into the consciousness of Christendom. Today ”of one substance” is a significant doctrinal teaching of nearly all modern Christian Churches that have their roots in Catholicism.
With this issue now decided, Arius was banishes and his writings were ordered to be burned. Later on, Arius died a violent death that many scholars believe was a murder via poisoning by the Alexandrian party. (link)
Imbued now with the same or greater authority than scripture itself, the Nicene creed became the basis for whether one was considered a true believer. To be worthy of Christ, one had to swear allegiance to the creed. Failure to do so resulted in deportment or possibly death.
It strains credulity to imagine an perfectly loving God that would damn an Arian to hell just because he or she had failed to imagine Jesus being “divine enough” to past muster. I no more believe that Arius’ false views of God would damn him than I believe Athanasius’ false views would damn Athanasius. I no more believe this whole conflict mattered to salvation than I believe celebrating Easter on the wrong day matters to salvation. Ironically, it was the Alexandrians that were imagining a less divine God – one that fell short of God’s actual attributes of godliness: love and mercy in this case.
A common defense of the creeds is that they obtain their authority by merely summarizing scripture. This charge lead Stephen E. Robinson to ask if they could please just point out which scriptures they were summarizing and let him affirm belief in the un-summarized version instead. (How Wide the Divide?, p. 133) More than a mere summary, the teachings of the creeds of Christendom are, even today, the primary basis for excluding Mormons from being Christians.
Perhaps more concerning, the creeds solidified a disturbing trend away from salvation by sanctification through faith-driven obedience and repentance towards an view of salvation based on what beliefs one mentally held in one’s mind.
As merely one possible way to understand scripture, the Creeds of Christendom are non-offensive and perhaps even helpful. But once empowered with assumed Divine authority they become, for Mormons at least, a concerning possible basis for the disappearance of the original teachings of Christ.