Today I would like to address a line of argument that I have encountered in my discussions with Latter-day Saints on a fairly regular basis. The argument concerns this passage in the canonized version of Joseph Smith’s First Vision:
I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.” (JS-History 1:19)
We live in an age of ecumenism. Condemnations of the beliefs of others are out of vogue while many Christian denominations and sects that were once openly at war with one another have buried the hatchet to some extent or even moved to outright toleration of one another. Inclusivism and pluralism are becoming more popular, and even religions that maintain their exclusive claims to truth are softening their condemnations of rival faiths. As such, the harsh words directed at mainstream Christianity in the First Vision make a lot of modern-day Latter-day Saints uncomfortable, and they try to interpret these words in a way that softens their force.
One proposed method of dealing with this passage has been to try to limit its condemnation to 4th and 5th century Christians and their creeds and practices. It is not a condemnation of modern-day Christianity, or so the argument goes; just a condemnation of the extra-biblical creeds devised by Christians centuries after the books of the Bible were written. It says nothing about the beliefs of Christians living in the year 2010 or the purity of their hearts before God. I’ve received similar reactions from Latter-day Saints concerning Chapter 16 of the current Gospel Principles manual, which has some harsh words for 4th century Christians and the Emperor Theodosius I in particular.1
In any case, it does not work, and if you agree with me from the outset that these attempts to shift the condemnation are ineffective, then this post is not for you.
Not only does it not work, but it betrays a deep lack of understanding concerning the etymology and scope of mainstream Christian history and beliefs. The reasons why it does not work:
Because most Christians still believe in those creeds today. ~ The Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox churches, and most Protestant denominations still affirm a good number of those creeds today—particularly the ones that were devised in the early centuries of Christian history. The Nicene Creed is generally used as an interdenominational standard for Christian orthodoxy and any church that rejects it is going to be viewed with suspicion. The creeds are often utilized in denominational confessionals and Sunday liturgies so that they form an important part of worship life for some denominations.
So the logic of a Latter-day Saint trying to claim that a condemnation of the Nicene Creed ≠ a condemnation of mainstream Christianity just because the creeds under condemnation were devised in the 4th or 5th centuries is every bit as abortive as a Christian2 claiming that a condemnation of the endowment ceremony or the Articles of Faith ≠ a condemnation of Mormonism because those things were developed in the 19th century. If I said that the endowment ceremony is an abomination in the sight of God, most Mormons would see that as an attack on Mormonism—and rightfully so.
Because modern-day Christians still venerate 4th and 5th century Christians as former leaders, ground-breaking theologians, and saints. ~ Let’s take a few examples: Athanasius (c. 293 – 373), Augustine (354 – 430), Jerome (347 – 420), and Emperor Theodosius I (347 – 395).
Athanasius is cited or referenced in my theology textbook3 seven times, and his De Incarnatione Verbi Dei was assigned reading for two of my classes here at TEDS, one in church history and one in theology. He’s venerated as a saint on the Lutheran calendar and celebrated as a Doctor of the Church by the Roman Catholic Church and one of the four Great Doctors of the Church by the Eastern Orthodox tradition.
Augustine‘s teachings are referenced in my theology textbook a total of thirty-eight times. He’s considered a Doctor of the Church by the Roman Catholic Church and a saint by both Eastern Orthodox Christians and Lutherans, among others.
Jerome is not referenced in my theology textbook, however, his translation of the Latin Vulgate was an extremely important landmark in the history of the church. He is also sainted by Eastern Orthodox Christians and Lutherans and a Doctor of the Church in Roman Catholicism.
Emperor Theodosius I is the emperor who made Christianity the official state religion of Rome. The 2009 Gospel Principles manual states that Theodosius adopted “false Christianity” as the state religion and implies that he was not really a Christian. In contrast, the Eastern Orthodox church venerates him as a Saint.
If a Christian were to argue that she’s only condemning Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff, but not modern-day Mormonism, I doubt very many Mormons would be appeased given that all of those men are still revered as prophets by the LDS church today, and their teachings continue to shape church doctrine. It’s the same for mainstream Christians and their 4th and 5th century forebears. You can’t condemn our theological ancestors without condemning us.
Because those same Christians who are being vilified for their extra-biblical creeds are the ones who gave us the biblical canon in the first place. ~ Mormons often point out that the creeds are “extra-biblical” and that the theology they insist on, such as the Nicene Creed’s use of ὁμοούσιος (homoousios) to describe the nature of the members of the Trinity, is not directly found in the Bible. But where do they think we got the Bible from? The individual epistles of the New Testament were written by different Christian believers throughout the mid-to-late 1st century, but up until the 4th and 5th centuries, there was no consensus among believers on which books were authoritative. Different lists circulating in the third century often had striking points of agreement, but they still contained significant omissions or additions that ultimately did not make the cut. It was not until the 4th century that someone finally proposed our current 27-book New Testament canon. And who was that someone? Athanasius. The same man who spent most of his life passionately defending the Nicene Creed as the new standard of Christian orthodoxy was the man who gave us our New Testament canon. Since Mormons have not added The Shepherd of Hermas or Epistle of Barnabas or another early Christian text to their New Testament canon, it seems reasonable to assume that they think Athanasius got that much right. I’m not sure where anyone gets off thinking that Athanasius’ canon should be central to determining Christian orthodoxy, but his theology cannot be.
Conclusion: Transferring condemnation from modern-day Christians to 4th and 5th century Christians and the creeds they devised does not free the First Vision or Gospel Principles Chapter 16 from being condemnations of modern-day Christianity. Christianity has certainly evolved significantly since the 4th century, but it has not thrown its theological ancestors under the bus nor completely separated itself from them.
Can the First Vision be rescued from being seen as an attack on mainstream Christian beliefs in other ways? Should Mormons want to rescue it from being seen as such?
Maybe, maybe not, but answering those questions is beyond the scope of this post. I only want to establish that attacking 4th and 5th century Christians instead of modern-day Christians accomplishes little.
 For some examples of people making these kind of arguments, see here, here and here. I did not write this post to call any of these people out as individuals, I only wrote it because I encounter the argument often enough that I would like this post as a quick reference for future encounters with this argument.
 Please note that I am using “Christian” and “Mormon” as shorthand references for adherents of traditional Christian faiths v. adherents of Mormonism. This choice of diction is for brevity and convenience and is not intended as a commentary on the “Are Mormons Christians?” question.
 My program at TEDS requires me to take two theology classes. Both of these classes have used Christian Theology by Millard J. Erickson (Grand Rapids, Mich.: BakerAcademic, 1998) as the main text. Erickson’s textbook is a very popular choice for basic theology classes in evangelical seminaries across the country.