Mormonism and Creedal Christianity

December 28, 2009    By: Matt W. @ 11:14 am   Category: Theology

The Catholic Version of the Nicene Creed reads:

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through Him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
He came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
He became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake He was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
He suffered death and was buried.
On the third day He rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and His kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son He is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy Catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come


Keeping in mind that the word Catholic means “Universal” I would say that the Church of Jesus Christ only has 2 points where we seemingly come into contention with the creed, both of these points, while seemingly out of line with orthodox Christianity, could easily be shown to be within the bounds thereof.

The largest point of contention is that Latter-day Saints believe only in a Social Trinity between the members of the Godhead. Or more directly, while we do hold that Jesus was “begotten not made”, we do not consider him “of one being with the Father” in the sense that he is a single individual person, but hold rather in contrast that he is distinctly a separate person. However, in so far as the main purpose of this statement seems to be an argument against Arius who sought to deny the eternal nature of Christ, and to deny his equality within the Trinity with the Father, I would say Mormonism denies neither of these things. In fact, Mormonism holds that through unity of purpose, the Father and the Son do have perfect equality. Also, we teach the eternal nature of all beings, and thus that our relationship with the Father can only be that of “begotten, not made” for all of us. So whether the Creed uses the term being, substance, nature, or essence, as various translations purport, we can take these statements to mean the nature of the social trinity rather than the individuals therein. Even the internal consistency of the creed suggests we can do this, in that it notes that Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father, and in that it mentions separately throughout, the Father and the Son. So arguably, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints complies with this criterion, from a certain point of view.

A second issue, in that the Creed calls for God the Father to be “Maker of…all that is” is perhaps more of a stumbling block, in that while the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does note that the Godhead can be seen as the creator, we believe this creation was an act of organizing pre-existing materials rather than fabrication from nothing. However, insofar as Open Theism and Process Theism are acceptable theologies within Creedal Christianity, I see no reason why the LDS faith could not also fit within the bounds of the Nicene Creed.

21 Comments »

  1. Classical Christian theology is not modalist. All classical Christian denominations regard the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost as three distinct persons.

    The problem comes in the philosophical legerdemain involved in maintaining one true God who created the universe out of nothing, the timeless ground of all being and first cause of all things, one who is practically identical with goodness itself.

    That’s where all the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost share the same timeless, eternal essence, substance, or “being” stuff comes from. “Substance” (as in consubstantial) here does not mean matter, but rather something more like “nature” (due to a poor translation from Greek to Latin). Consubstantial in this context means having a shared (if not identical) nature.

    So you have the classical phrase “neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance”, which means maintaining that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are distinct persons who have a shared divine nature. We can certainly agree with that.

    The problem is that classical orthodoxy maintains that all three persons are timeless and unembodied as well, which seems to make their tri-nity (if not their person-ality) a bit of an abstraction. Of course Mormons who maintain that God is timeless (or has exhaustive foreknowledge) have that problem too.

    Comment by Mark D. — December 28, 2009 @ 11:52 am

  2. Mark: The points you mention are not explicitly mentioned in the Nicene Creed, nor are the stated in the later (and more complicated) Athanasian Creed. So while we may differ from classical orthodoxy on these points, I don’t think it can be argued they are necessary for creedal orthodoxy.

    Comment by Matt W. — December 28, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

  3. The issue of timelessness that Mark D. points out is a real one in Mormonism, but is usually proposed ignorantly. But as far as the NC itself is concerned, the language is pretty innocuous, with the exception of the substantial claims. The NC clearly wants creatio ex nihilo as a background to the word creation. The Christology of the creed is as you point out a real trip-wire for many Mormons. But since there is no decisive theological position in Mormonism on the nature of man, resolving the question of contingency, I think Mormonism could conceivably give up its position on ex nihilo. It wouldn’t require too much of a change. Interpretation would be the key. Do I think it would ever happen? No. But it wouldn’t destroy Mormonism. For example, “Preach My Gospel” makes no real reference to the ultimate origin of matter, even though it requires the human soul to precede the creation of the earth.

    The question of “divine traducianism” that was gradually embedded in Mormonism after the mid-1840s goes against the definition of the Godhead in the NC. The eternally begotten phrase is of course meant to distinguish the creature from Christ. That would *not* be an easy hurdle for Mormonism. But taking the NC at face value only, you may, as you suggest, be able to give a spin consistent somehow with current LDS doctrine. But it would not make us any closer to groups claiming the NC as a foundational document. The baggage is important. But it’s an interesting idea.

    Comment by WVS — December 28, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

  4. By the way, for those wishing a readable and reasonably brief review of many issue surrounding the NC and what led to it is found in Givens’ When Souls Had Wings, chapters 4 and 5. He doesn’t really apologize for anybody, so don’t expect that. But it’s a nice coherent treatment.

    Comment by WVS — December 28, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

  5. WVS- I am not that familiar with Traducionism, except that Augustine was for it and Aquinas was against it.
    Anyway, by “Divine Traducianism” I am assuming you are taking some form of the Roberts Model, and saying our spirit has some form of infusion from the Father where we inherit characteristics. I do think there is, in any case, a large segment within the Faith who do hold that the Godhead has always been the Godhead, and thus Jesus is “eternally begotten”. I don’t know that I share that view, but I think Blake Ostler holds that view, as well as Bloggers Clean Cut and Aquinas.

    I don’t think cosmology has ever been discussed with any depth at all in our missionary discussions/lessons. I think that is why we end up with Catholic-Mormons like myself and Protestant-Mormons like my Father-in-law and Jewish-Mormons like my Brother-in-law. But that is a subject for a different time.

    It is a great point that baggage does matter. It’s just a bit of a shame, because when we cut the baggage away (much of it being our own doing) we uncover a lot more possible commonality than we’d otherwise assume.

    Comment by Matt W. — December 28, 2009 @ 1:58 pm

  6. WVS- I am reading Givens Short intro to the Book of Mormon now. I’ll get “When Souls Had Wings” when I can.

    Comment by Matt W. — December 28, 2009 @ 2:00 pm

  7. Matt, by divine traducianism, I simply meant the current language that mankind are “in the spirit” the children of God in some literal sense. Perhaps “not ex nihilo” would be added. But the “begotten” nature of man in current Mormonism would stick in the craw of creedists. It would stick in the craw of Baptists too. (grin)

    Comment by WVS — December 28, 2009 @ 2:06 pm

  8. Great post, Matt. I’ve thought a lot about this lately, and yet you still manage to present it in a way I had not considered. Thanks!

    Comment by BrianJ — December 28, 2009 @ 2:45 pm

  9. I quickly want to apologize for any confusion that might arise where the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas is discussed in the same thread that I might happen to offer a comment. I must admit I didn’t foresee this as a possibility when I chose my handle. I tend to assume Aquinas will always refer to the historical figure rather than anything I might say, especially as most people in these parts are acquainted with the literature. Nevertheless, I try to refer to myself with a lowercase a.

    I too want to recommend Givens When Souls Had Wings. I really enjoyed chapter 9 where Givens includes a brief survey on the history of Joseph Smith’s views on the pre-mortal existence that is accessible yet rich and insightful. I’m also reading his The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction and I am enjoying that as well.

    Matt, you may find the following article of interest. David Paulsen and Brett McDonald, “Joseph Smith and the Trinity: An Analysis and Defense of the Social Model of the Godhead,” Faith and Philosophy Vol. 25, No. 1 (January 2008): 47-74. Paulsen and McDonald argue for a “historical ambiguity” of the term homoousious that should be able to accommodate a social trinitarian understanding. (See pp. 50-52). This article is not readily available but I recommend it.

    Comment by aquinas — December 28, 2009 @ 3:11 pm

  10. “Eternally begotten” is a contradiction in terms, of course, but most Mormons can certainly agree that the eternal spirit of Jesus Christ was not created or made by the Father, even if his body was.

    “Of one Being with the Father” (homoousious), strictly interpreted, is problematic. Strictly speaking it is another contradiction in terms, based on the identity of indiscernables. Homoiousious we could accept.

    I agree that Mormon theology would survive the adoption of creatio ex nihilo. It would simply mean accepting many of the same contradictions as classical orthodoxy. That is not the sort of thing that makes too many people lie awake at night. In addition to exhaustive foreknowledge, strict omnipotence is practically absurd in every possible (if not logical) respect, and few have a problem with that.

    Comment by Mark D. — December 28, 2009 @ 9:40 pm

  11. Matt,

    I see no reason why the LDS faith could not also fit within the bounds of the Nicene Creed.

    Please don’t take this the wrong way, but so what? My response to your post depends entirely on why you think it matters that we can fit within the bounds of the Nicene Creed.

    The benign-ness of the Nicene Creed comes up from time to time in the bloggernacle, sometimes to point out that Mormons tend to rail against it without having read it, sometimes to argue that we can pass somebody’s Christian litmus test by affirming this creed. My response to those assertions is very different. I can’t tell if you bring it up to make one of those points or to make a third point.

    Comment by Jacob J — December 28, 2009 @ 10:56 pm

  12. Dare I say that I treat this issue at length in ch. 6 of my 3rd vol.?

    Comment by Blake — December 28, 2009 @ 11:18 pm

  13. The impossible to get volume 3… I have ordered it twice from Amazon, only to be denied….

    Jacob J: ultimately this post grew out of my own wish to borrow the term “begotten, not made” to describe our relationship with Heavenly Father, but I needed to make sure I could do so without stumbling on “being of one substance with the Father”.

    Comment by Matt W. — December 29, 2009 @ 7:12 am

  14. I think “begotten, not made” is an entirely appropriate way to describe our relationship with the Father.

    All the consubstantial stuff is meaningless when set apart from creatio ex nihilo, although I suppose it might have some relevance relative to the idea of static perfection, a concept which would make the Father and the Son have identical divine attributes in all but name.

    Comment by Mark D. — December 29, 2009 @ 9:05 am

  15. When I mentioned ex nihilo, I did not mean to imply that *that* was a settled issue at the time. Far from it. But people were beginning to think that way. Pelagianism would begin to force people’s hands on a number of issues, including that one, but it wouldn’t become official “contradict and you’re anathema” doctrine for another 6 centuries or so. So I guess it’s baggage *now*.

    Comment by WVS — December 29, 2009 @ 11:04 am

  16. Blake,

    Until you get your Kofford peeps to start printing more runs of your books (particularly Vol. 2) and also tell them to use better binding materials/techniques after printing said runs, I think that you should not dare say anything about them.

    I simply can’t tolerate lending my copies out anymore (I re-read them too often and am irritated at how easy the pages spilt out of the binding).

    Comment by Riley — December 29, 2009 @ 11:56 am

  17. I don’t see how “maker of all that is, seen and unseen” is anything other than creatio ex nihilo or theo-ontology.

    Of course the creation spoken of can be a timeless creation. Nothing about creatio ex nihilo (as traditionally interpreted) requires that the universe be created at some specific time in the past. It just means that everything that exists has some sort of dependence on divine providence: logical, temporal, or causal or any combination of the three.

    It is pretty easy for everything to be a reflection of divine grace under conditions like that.

    Comment by Mark D. — December 29, 2009 @ 1:26 pm

  18. Riley: Unfortunately, the 1st print run of vol. 3 was crappy. I’m not aware of these problems with respect to vols. 1 and 2. How come no one orders these books directly from Kofford Books?

    Comment by Blake — December 30, 2009 @ 6:01 pm

  19. Maybe because their website is really bad Blake… I mean I love their books, but their website just screams “not secure”

    Comment by Matt W. — December 30, 2009 @ 8:39 pm

  20. I have tried to order volume 2 from Kofford Books directly and it doesn’t work. Amazon has one copy available for $1000. Just FYI. But I have read volume 3 and it does treat this topic very well.

    Comment by Todd — December 31, 2009 @ 5:47 pm

  21. Blake,

    I thought I wasn’t going to get vol. 2 for Christmas because I couldn’t find anywhere online to buy it. From what I gathered, Kofford Books has it set up so that you have to buy it before knowing how much you are paying. That website needs some major changes.

    Fortunately I accidentally discovered it in the local LDS themed bookstore (which has a monopoly on all of Houston). It was marked down and so it was an especially sweet deal for me. Thanks for the great Christmas present Blake.

    Comment by James — January 5, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

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