What’s Wrong with the Creeds of Christendom?

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.

10 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with the Creeds of Christendom?

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention » What’s Wrong with the Creeds of Christendom? The Millennial Star -- Topsy.com

  2. I like Joseph Smith’s comments that “It dont [sic] prove that a man is not a good man because he believes false doctrine”; Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center Monograph, 1980), 183-84.

    The problem with creeds as he expressed it is that “I cannot believe in any of the creeds of the different denominations, because they all have some things in them I cannot subscribe to, though all of them have some truth. I want to come up into the presence of God, and learn all things; but the creeds set up stakes, and say, “Hitherto shalt thou come, and no further;” which I cannot subscribe to.” (TPJS 327.)

    That is, creeds place us beyond the reach of further light and knowledge by insisting that we have knowledge of all things as they are, as they were, and as they are to come, all neatly packaged and shelved in a Big Book of What to Think. Creeds, as such, place their adherents beyond reach of repentance.

    Kevin Christensen
    Pittsburgh, PA

  3. This subject came up on another blog some time ago, so I troubled to look up the creeds of the major three denominations Joseph Smith mentioned (Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists) as they would have been c. 1830). Apart from the conceptions of the Godhead, they all had some statement declaring that all needed revelation was in the Bible.

    It could be that the resulting predisposition to reject prophets on the grounds that anyone claiming to be a prophet was automatically a false one was the most abominable feature.

  4. I love the reprint idea, I only read Mormon Matters occasionally so a lot of these posts (like this one) are new to me.

  5. Jesus Christ’s church must teach that God and Jesus are separate and distinct individuals (John 17:11; 20:17), and that they have bodies of flesh and bone (Luke 23:36-39; Acts 1:9-11; Heb 1:1-3)

    The Nicene Creed’s definition of the Trinity was influenced by scribes translating the Greek manuscripts into Latin. The scribes embellished on a passage explaining the Trinity , which is the Catholic and Protestant belief that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The oldest versions of the epistle of 1 John, read: “There are three that bear witness: the Spirit, the water and the blood and these three are one.” Scribes later added “the Father, the Word and the Spirit,” and it remained in the epistle when it was translated into English for the King James Version, according to Dr. Bart Ehrman, Chairman of the Religion Department at UNC- Chapel Hill. He no longer believes in the Nicene Trinity.

    Scholars agree that Early Christians believed in an embodied God; it was neo-Platonist influences that later turned Him into a disembodied Spirit. For example, it was an emperor (Constantine) . who introduced a term, homousious, which defined the Son as “consubstantial” (one being) with the Father. Neither term or anything like it is in the New Testament. Harper’s Bible Dictionary entry on the Trinity says “the formal doctrine of the Trinity as it was defined by the great church councils of the fourth and fifth centuries is not to be found in the New Testament.”

    Furthermore, 11 of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were non-Trinitarian Christians http://scienceblogs.com/dispatches/2009/01/richard_price.php

  6. Funny, I was just thinking about this the other day.
    The difference as I see it lies in God’s ultimate work, and our ultimate future/destiny in that.

    If on one hand you have a God that is a vapor mist and came down into a body, did some stuff and went back into the vapor mist everything in this life seems divorced from our ultimate true destiny. You have 3 disconnected things, none of them seeming to have an impact on another. Spirit mist, body, spirit mist. Why have that whole body part in the middle? What is our role in it?

    On the other hand if you see having a body as the very key to what comes next. Then you can recognize the great plan of Salvation authored by God. And the creedal beliefs seem to deny or at least obfuscate the relationship between this life and the next as well as our relationship and ultimate destiny (if we are faithful) with God.

    If this life is his work and we are learning to make it our own work as well in preparation for what comes next the concept of the creed muddies those waters and completely confuses what the purpose of life is. So yes, that would be an abomination to completely undermine the foundational perspective of this life.

    And the next question becomes what is our ultimate destiny? To follow in Christ’s footsteps in principle, but not detail (as we have our own ‘work’ to perform), and grow from grace to grace until we become worth to receive his fullness just as he received of the Father (DC93). Thus the possibility of becoming joint-heirs with Christ is the ultimate purpose for our lives here on earth. Deny that and you deny His mission. And to suggest otherwise is to create an image of a Father which does not desire us to ultimately grow and progress to receive have all that he has. And that progression has an eternal scope and significance — it started before this life, continues on Earth, and will continue on beyond the resurrection. The work of becoming joint-heirs with Christ is only possible through his condescension as he worked out the atonement and his grace as he imparts his cleansing and strengthening power unto each of us to make his work have power in our lives.

    The Father’s plan is wrapped up in the conception of who He is and what is our relationship to him. It’s one thing to be ignorant of that, as you can learn it. But it’s another to declare that which is light dark.

  7. For those who don’t know me, I am commenting from a Catholic perspective.

    “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.”

    The sin which damns (although “anathema” is not exactly the same as damnation) in this context would not be the false belief per se, but the refusal to submit to the Church’s divinely granted teaching authority, which amounts to a refusal to submit to God himself. Condemnations of false belief assume that the person knows he is rejecting orthodox teaching, and is obstinate in doing so, i.e. he refuses to be corrected by the Church (Mt. 18:17). People who believe falsely out of ignorance or misunderstanding are not thereby condemned.

    I also question your main premise, that the creeds, in the sense of summaries of belief, were the main basis of Jesus’ condemnation of the then-existing churches.  The corruptness of the “creeds” was only one of several things enumerated in that context.  What was said was that the churches were all wrong; that their creeds were an abomination; that their professors were corrupt; and that they taught the commandments of men as if they were divinely revealed doctrine.  I don’t know why you single out “creeds” as the primary thing being condemned.

    Second, I think you might be taking “creed” too literally.  A creed can be a summary of the beliefs of a church, of which the Nicene Creed, for example, is one — I will refer to a creed in this sense as a Creed (capitalized); but “creed” can also refer to “the entire body of beliefs held by the adherents of a given religion” — which I will refer to as a creed (not capitalized).  ( http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04478a.htm )  Couldn’t Jesus have meant simply, “the things they believe are abominable”, referring to the creeds of the various churches, and not to the particular summaries of belief commonly referred to as the Creeds?

    You write, “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.”

    I question this conclusion.  Long after Church doctrine began to be summarized in various creeds, the Catholic religion was condemned by the Protestant Reformers for its reliance on works for salvation.  In my opinion the main motive for the Protestants’ condemnation of works, and reliance primarily on belief of true doctrine (as well as sola scriptura), was their desire to do away with the existing Church structure. If one could be saved merely by believing, then the structure became superfluous, which justified their breaking off into independent bands of believers. Thus the emphasis on belief at the expense of works, particularly the sacraments, which could only be performed by priests.

    The Church’s previous (and ongoing) insistence on precision in the defining of doctrine, was based not on a desire to make salvation dependent on belief alone, but on the principle that a small error in one area can and does lead to large errors in other areas. Heretics would lead people astray by preaching doctrine that on its face appeared similar to orthodox teaching, but differed in subtle ways — and lead them astray not merely as to belief, but into immoral behavior as well. You could say it was the subtlety of the heretics that demanded precision from the magisterium.

  8. Agellius,

    Good to hear from you again. (And I say that as if you were the one away, when actually it was me.)

    As always very insightful comments. You do a good job of looking at both sides here.

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