Concerning those “Abominable” Creeds

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.



[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.


Concerning those “Abominable” Creeds — 21 Comments

  1. There are a couple of posts in the Nacle examining the extent to which Mormons can actually affirm the creeds. I know Ronan did one at BCC. I recall one analyzing the Apostles’ Creed and another the Nicene. And we come awfully close, the main sticking point being an ontological rather than a social Trinity.

  2. Very well put, Jack. Kudos!

    One of the curious ironies here, perhaps, is that in a discussion I once had with an LDS missionary, he attempted to take a position nearly diametrically opposite to the one critiqued here: that it wasn’t the ecumenical creeds that were in view in the First Vision account (he said that he personally couldn’t find anything at all objectionable in the actual content of the Nicene Creed, but rather that it was the so-called Athanasian Creed that he found very problematic), but rather the divergent statements of faith that were emblems of the divided, fractured, sectarian state of American Protestantism in Joseph Smith’s day.

    (In retrospect, the missionary didn’t really come out and espouse this view, but it seemed to be the direction he was taking things – and, at the very least, it’s probably actually more plausible than the view being criticized here.)

  3. Darn it all, you’re going to make me feel like I have to actually READ all these creeds, aren’t you? Just so I can feel like an informed Mormon, grumble, grumble, grumble…

  4. I’m gonna have to come back and read your post when I have more time, but my first take, BFF, is this: I can think of plenty of reasons to find your creeds absolutely abominable. I only had time to read your first few paragraphs though, so maybe you address some of my thoughts….

  5. I agree with the implied argument of the young missionary (mentioned by JB in 2)that creeds were “abominable” primarily in that “the divergent statements of faith that were emblems of the divided, fractured, sectarian state of American Protestantism in Joseph Smith’s day.”

    I would go further, and agree with Thomas Jefferson’s negative assessment of creeds generally: “You ask my opinion on the items of doctrine in your catechism. I have never permitted myself to meditate on a specific creed. These formulas have been the bane and ruin of the Christian church, its own fatal invention, which, through so many ages, made of Christendom a slaughter-house, and at this day divides it into casts of inextinguishable hatred to one another.”

    For me, a good example would be the development of the beautiful Chalcedonian creed, which did not resolve pre-existing differences of opinion about the nature of Jesus, and led to or accelerated the split into Dyaphysite, Monophysites and Miaphysites, and Nestorian Christianities. Some scholars argue that the fracturing of Christianity caused its weakening in the East and Middle East and its rapid decline upon the rise of Islam.

    To be brutally frank, I have great difficulty getting my arms around differences among the parties to those disputes, and I personally don’t believe that the finer points of theology would have had any practical or material effect on the way regular Christians live our day to day lives. In other words, what was “abominable” about the Chalcedonian (or some other) creed was not that it may (or may not) have been wrong or incomprehensible, but that the process of its development and subsequent difficulties and disputes led to a fracturing and severe weakening of the Body of Christ.

  6. #3 Kullervo ~ I’m willing to offer commentary on your link, which grates against my training as both a classicist and a historian in several places.

    However, please help me to understand your position better. How do you think Christians ought to remember their theological ancestors given their (sometimes tragic) flaws? I get that the appellation of “saint” is too much for you, but what do you think is appropriate?

    #5 BFF ~ Feel free to elaborate when you get the chance.

    #6 DavidH ~ Your comment last night confused me, I didn’t realize that you had a comment that needed approval. I deleted the second one as you requested and approved the first one, then cleaned up the thread.

  7. #4 Jessica ~ I don’t think you have to read all of them. There are a lot of them and they vary from denomination to denomination.

    The big early ones were the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Definition of Chalcedon, and the Athanasian Creed. They’re all pretty short and you can read them all here.

    If you want to delve into creeds and confessions that are more specific to denominational tradition, see here.

    My own denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, refers specifically to the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed and references the Augsburg Confession of 1530 in its affirmations. It also acknowledges the validity of the Chalcedon and Athanasian creeds.

  8. Jack said:

    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.

    That’s a new argument to me. And it’s a stupid one, for the reasons you give, as well as for the fact it runs against the clear meaning of what Joseph Smith reported.

    My take on the matter, which includes both fact and speculation: This account of the First Vision, like the others, should be viewed in its historical context. This was a time of religious turmoil, especially in western New York state. It’s no coincidence that Mormonism isn’t the only religion or social movement to have had its birth in this region in the first half of the 19th century. Revival meetings were common at the time, and so was competition among churches. Also, rhetoric was pretty strong in those days (political campaigning at the time sometimes made today’s slimy ads appear mild), and chances are that the young Joseph heard plenty of hellfire-and-brimstone sermons in his time. Talk of abominations was standard for the discourse of the day. (Irrelevant to this discussion, but it’s interesting to read about visions that others were having in this time period. Even Joseph’s report of seeing the Heavenly Father in bodily form wasn’t unique.) This account fits in well with the culture of the time, and in fact it would be surprising if we didn’t hear this kind of talk come out of the early days of the Restoration.

    My opinion also is that “creeds” probably doesn’t refer to those parts of the creeds (such as the ones involving the nature of the Godhead/Trinity) that come to mind today, but to the belief that God no longer reveals himself in an authoritative way. Historical accounts suggest that what impressed the early believers in the Restoration about the Book of Mormon wasn’t what it taught (copies were expensive, few had read it, and even Joseph Smith very seldom preached from it), but that it existed at all. Its existence testified to the fact that God still spoke.

  9. Looking at some of the old State church records in Sweden, this raises a question: What was Bishop Svebelius’ Catechism for Lutherans there? How does it compare to Luther’s Catechism, that they were also tested about each year?

    Also, frequently the Apostles’ Creeds mention how Christ descended into Hell, then rose again on the third day. Walter Martin explained 1 Peter 3:18-21 away by saying that it was just the normal preaching to spirits in Heaven, but, why is it stated as Hell then in the Creeds? 1 Peter 3:18-21 clearly talks about the disobedient of Noah’s day, and about those in prison.'_Creed

    There was one couple that explained 1 Peter 3:18-21 & 4:6 by saying Christ had to go to Hell to atone for 3 days for saying “Why hast thou forsaken me?” on the cross. Yet, that seems to be a quote of Psalms 22, so I reject that one explanation.

  10. Mike H,

    I understand Bishop Svebelius’ Catechism to be an exposition and detailed explanation of Luther’s catechism. This was and is common with churches that catechize children and convert’s. Fisher’s is an English example of this based on the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

    “He descended into hell.” has been variously been interpreted or removed by Protestants. This Link may be helpful

    You do bring up an excellent point. Each generation of the Church must examine the Creeds in Church history and tradition, either embracing them as biblical or rejecting them as unsound.

    Mark Driscoll is a recent example of this when he rejected the phrase “begotten of His Father before all worlds” from the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds, the Chalcedonian Definition etc. I think Driscoll is wrong in ignoring the obvious analogical language. I think he may be so concerned about anthropomorphic language that he chose to ignore how this term was used and explained by the Church historically and theologically severing a historic connection with the church.

  11. Mike H: The “hell” is a reference to hades (the place of the dead) rather than to gehenna (the place of eternal torment). The same word “hell” is used for both in the King James Version of the New Testament, but they aren’t the same thing.

  12. BFF: Sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to this. Your write-up was brilliant and skewers the problem perfectly; I feared giving a less-than-adequate response.

    Alas, eons could pass and I still wouldn’t be able to rise up to the quality of the OP. So here’s what I’ve got:

    I originally said “I can think of plenty of reasons to find your creeds absolutely abominable.”

    First, let me say that I agree with your main point: Mormons cannot (easily?) tone down the word “abomination.” Furthermore, I don’t think we should try.

    Yes, it’s warm and fuzzy to enter interfaith or evangelical dialog with the notion that we can all be friends and no one is really “wrong” just some people are “more right” than others, etc. But such an approach doesn’t stand up to reason or experience.

    Most of Christianity has accepted various creeds (or forms of them) that contradict essential doctrines of Mormonism. Yes, yes, many Mormons will argue that a big chunk of the creeds are perfectly acceptable to Mormons. That’s true, except that those parts of the creeds (e.g., “[Jesus Christ] suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven…” – Nicene) are really rather factual and not really up for dispute. I mean, what Christian would argue against “Jesus suffered”?! We may as well say, “Mormons can accept a lot of the Creed because we agree with how they spell J-E-S-U-S.”

    There are also many ‘creeds’ (okay, so technically they’re called ‘Councils’) that deal more with details of Church governance; e.g. the Third Council of the Lateran. There’s usually little there to really object to.

    But get into the meat of the Creeds—i.e., the points of doctrine that were the whole cause for early Christians to conference and hash out the creeds in the first place—and there is direct conflict with Mormonism that cannot be reconciled.

    (To some degree, I don’t think it’s important what the Creeds say so much as why the authors would have said it. For example, Constantinople states that God is “Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” Now, can a Mormon accept that? Sure, depending on how we define “maker”—and we all know that most Christians regard that as “bringing to existence” whereas Mormons believe that the matter of the universe has always existed. Thus, we can accept the letter of the Creed but not its spirit.)

    Okay, enough of that aside. My point is, without getting into details, that the Creeds aim to define a God that, according to Mormon doctrine, does not exist. (If you’d like, you can frame this part of my argument as my reversal of the “Mormons aren’t Christians” accusation.) Should it be offensive to God to be described as something he is not?

    Also, I think it’s important to note that the “attack” in the First Vision account is NOT limited merely to the creeds. Let’s look at the accusation made in JS-H:

    “their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those bprofessors 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.””

    So not only are the creeds an “abomination,” but even if the creeds were totally copasetic, we’d still have the “doctrines that deny the power of godliness.” And that’s the Real Important Point, in my opinion. God is saying to Joseph: “the way I am viewed and preached by Christianity today is not just incorrect, but it strips me of my power.”

    I don’t think this post is the place to really get into cataloging the ways that mainstream Christianity denies God his power—and those have been discussed elsewhere. Obviously, we’d disagree on whether or not, for example, a belief in creation ex nihilo or exaltation or eternal marriage or homoousia etc etc denies God’s power. I think though, BFF, that you already appreciate the LDS perspective on those doctrines and why we would see them as important reflections of God’s power. (Wow, I think that’s the worst sentence I’ve ever written!)

    So, you ask in the OP: “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?”

    And my answer is: No…except I don’t think we must use the word ‘attack’—I don’t like to use all that war, battle Onward Christian Soldiers language. “Attack” makes it sound like I view you as an enemy or that we’re on opposing sides, etc. Not helpful, I think. So I would rather say that it is a “direct and unambiguous refutation of” mainstream Christian beliefs.

  13. There was some years ago a beautiful piece on creeds on Speaking of Faith where historian Jaroslav Pelikin was interview about creeds, where he talked about the timeless and universality of the creeds. It’s well worth a listen.

  14. BFF ~ I don’t have a lot of time for comment, but I like your response. To cut to the chase, I agree that Mormons probably should not try to rescue the First Vision from being a condemnation of mainstream Christian beliefs. They should just accept that it is what it is and take whatever lumps come with that.

    And to be clear, I’m not going to object to Mormons having beliefs that condemn mine. We wouldn’t be different faiths if we did not disagree on the distinctives of who God is, and I think God is right to condemn false teachings about who he is.

    I think the faction that frustrates these observations (which, in my opinion, ought to be very basic truths) are the Mormons who want to complain about the very existence of evangelical Christian critiques of Mormonism—even respectful and even-handed critiques—but don’t want to own up to the fact that the First Vision is a critique of other Christian faiths.

    I have a lot of other thoughts on the comments on this thread, especially concerning “divisions” among other Christians, but I’ve been so busy lately and I’ve gotta run.

  15. BFF: I’m glad we can agree!

    btw, I noticed a major typo in my #13: “Also, I think it’s important to note that the “attack” in the First Vision account is limited merely to the creeds. Let’s look at the accusation made in JS-H;” should read “…the “attack” in the First Vision account is NOT limited….”

    I knows ya busy, but could you fix it pretty please??

  16. Now that I’ve thought about this, what about practices that were not official creeds, but viewed as doctrine? Indulgences, The Crusades, The Reformation Wars, banishing perceived heretics like the Huguenots or Quakers, etc?

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  18. just found this, interesting read. i for one have wanted to get to the bottom of the first vision for a while, (being raised LDS).

    from an LDS perspective, this is really simple.

    the LDS church regards itself a restoration of the original ministry of JC in the new testament.

    From the LDS perspective, the creeds were all man made without the inspiration of God because none of the holy men involved held the Melchizdek priesthood, and thus were not inspired by divinity to do what they did. thus making in an abomination.

    its tragic when you want to believe something like this, because most of it makes a lot of sense, but not getting it right from the starts makes hit a holy house of cards.

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