Thursday, September 10, 2015

True or False: The Nicene Creed

       We talk a lot about the Restoration in this church, and in order to talk about the Restoration, you need to talk about the Great Apostasy. To talk about the Apostasy, you have to talk a about the history of Christianity. And when you talk about the history of Christianity (especially in an LDS setting), one item seems to get brought up more than all others: the Nicene Creed. I've sat in many seminary and Sunday school classes and heard about how we as Latter-day Saints differ from our Christian neighbors because we don't believe in the Trinity as explained in the Nicene Creed. But I had never actually read the Creed. What's in it? Does it even touch on the doctrine of the Trinity? If so, does that Trinity sound all that different from our view of the Godhead? Looks like it's time to play...

Today's Question: Does the Nicene Creed promote the idea of the Trinity, i.e. that the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost are one and the same, or of the same substance? 

What do you think?


       The Nicene Creed does indeed proclaim a Trinity that is one in form as well as purpose. The Creed says there is "one God, the Father almighty" and Jesus is "consubstantial with the Father."1

       But this idea was NOT invented with the Nicene Creed. What the Nicene Creed did was make the consubstantial trinity the official doctrine of Christianity. This forever changed the course of the Christian faith and subsequently pushed Mormon doctrine out of the Christian mainstream. So how did this groundbreaking document come about? 

       In 312 A.D., Christianity experienced a major win. Constantine, emperor of Rome, converted to Christianity.2 Almost overnight, the Christians, whom the Roman government had persecuted for centuries, became the cool kids on the block. Churches sprung up all over Rome, tons of people converted, and bishops got government funding.3 In a few short years, Christians ruled the roost. But all was not sunshine and roses.

       The Christian church was growing, and with that growth came conflict. Different preachers had different ideas about the gospel, and there were some bitter debates over who was right. All that controversy was not good for unity or morale, and Constantine wanted to put a stop to it. He invited several hundred Christian bishops to his summer home in Nicea to hold a council and decide what true Christian doctrine was.4 Together this council tackled questions that lay at the very roots of Christianity. One in particular was more divisive than them all.

       In 325 A.D., there was a bitter dispute on the nature of God. Jesus had taught that He and the Father were One, but also that He was God's son. Early on there were many who understood this concept the same way Mormons understand it. For example, a group of Christians called Monarchians taught that "although there can be agreement of will and purpose between different personalities, two self-conscious individuals cannot merge into one as, for example, two drops of water can coalesce to form one drop. Jesus was ethically, not substantially, one with god, his will acting in harmony with the divine will."5 

       But as time went on (and without the light of revelation to settle the question), many disagreed with that premise, saying it created a dilemma. If Jesus was the Son of God, didn't that mean there was a time when He didn't exist? So did God create Jesus? If so (and this was the explosive question), did that make Jesus somehow inferior to the Father?

       This debate led to a showdown between two Christian thinkers. On one side of the aisle was a man named Arius. He taught that Jesus was created by the Father and therefore there was a time when Jesus didn't exist. So Jesus was, in a way, inferior to God Himself. This teaching pushed the envelope too far for a lot of bishops. Chief among them was Athanasius. Athanasius took the opposite stance. Not only was Jesus equal with God, Athanasius said, but He was also of the same substance. Jesus and God were the same God, existing in an eternal, substantially unified state. To believe otherwise, Athanasius said, was heresy.6

       These two duked it out at the Council of Nicea, knowing one would leave a heretic, and the other an orthodox Christian. While both men stood on extreme ends of the spectrum, the majority of bishops were apparently more comfortable siding with Athanasius than with Arius, and they agreed to put the consubstantiality idea into their document, making Trinitarianism the official doctrine of the church.7

       But the fight wasn't over yet. The Nicene Creed did not unite all of Christianity the way Constantine had hoped, and the question of Trinitarianism was far from settled. Another council was convened years later, this time at Constantinople, where other issues were discussed, the creed was revised, and Trinitarianism was solidified.8 More creeds followed after that, including one called the Athanasian Creed - a black-and-white, fully articulated, explicitly Trinitarian document. If you ever want an example of what exactly Mormons don't believe about God, that creed is the place to look.

       But what about the Nicene Creed? What was it? What does it say? The Nicene Creed can be compared to our Articles of Faith or "The Living Christ." It was the council's attempt at a universal statement of Christianity - meant to lay out what every orthodox Christian believed. While we Mormons don't support the creed, there's actually not that much in it for us to disagree with outside the consubstantiality clause. (If you'd like to read the creed, you can find it here.)

       While we agree with the great majority of the creed, and admire many of the Christian thinkers who contributed to it, as Latter-day Saints we do not rely on democratic councils and compromising creeds for doctrine. As President Gordon B. Hinckley said, "We do not accept the Nicene Creed, nor any other creed based on tradition and the conclusions of men." Rather, he said, "Our entire case as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rests on the validity of [the] First Vision. It was the parting of the curtain to open this, the dispensation of the fulness of times. Nothing on which we base our doctrine, nothing we teach, nothing we live by is of greater importance than this initial declaration. I submit that if Joseph Smith talked with God the Father and His Beloved Son, then all else of which he spoke is true. This is the hinge on which turns the gate that leads to the path of salvation and eternal life."9 

       That is what truly separates us from the rest of Christianity - the enlightenment of modern revelation. While the rest of the Christian world adheres to the creed, we are one of the few outliers who claim an authority higher than the creeds of men. This puts us at odds with most of our believing brethren, but, as President Hinckley said, we're okay with that. If we have to choose between creeds and revelation, we'll take the revelation. Sorry, Athanasius. 

1. "What We Believe." Accessed September 11, 2015. 
2. "Constantine the Great Rules." Time Line of Early Christianity--The Lost Gospel of Judas--National Geographic. Accessed September 11, 2015.
3.  Cohen, Shaye I. D. "Legitimization Under Constantine." PBS Frontline. Accessed September 11, 2015.
4. "First Council of Nicaea." New World Encyclopedia. Accessed September 11, 2015.
5. Burkill, T. Alec. "Monarchianism." In The Evolution of Christian Thought,, 83. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1971.
6. "First Council of Nicaea." New World Encyclopedia. Accessed September 11, 2015.
7. "First Council of Nicaea." New World Encyclopedia. Accessed September 11, 2015.
8. "Council of Constantinople | AD 381." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Accessed September 11, 2015. 
9. Hinckley, Gordon B. "What Are People Asking About Us?" Liahona, January 1999.

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