Monday, August 17, 2009

Why the Nicene Creed?

There have always been two criticisms of the Church that always irk me.

1) Latter-day Saints don’t believe the Bible. Those that assert this falsity usually insist that the Bible is the sole authoritative source of inspired information. However, they also insist that the Bible can only be interpreted within limits set by later councils and creeds. In other words, when they assert that I don’t believe in the Bible, they usually mean that I don’t believe in the post-biblical interpretations of creeds and councils.

2) The canon of scripture is closed, therefore the Book of Mormon is false. Those that assert this also demand that Latter-day Saints accept and honor the added doctrines of the councils and creeds in order to be Christians.

One of the more well-known post-biblical creeds is the Nicene Creed. Long after they had declared the heavens sealed and prophets and apostles to be a thing of the past, the leaders of what called itself the Christian faith met in Nicaea to determine the nature of the God they worshipped. The event is known as the church’s first ecumenical council, and out of it came the first formal Christian creed.

It was during the reign of Constantine, who became Caesar in A.D. 306. Prior to Constantine, the pagan emperors of Rome had persecuted the Christians because of their disbelief in “the gods.” According to the pagans, the gods provided the good things in life: health, prosperity, love, peace, etc., and when when bad things transpired to the Romans, it was only natural to blame the Christians who refused to pay homage to the pagan gods.

However, Constantine changed things. As recorded by Eusebius, a 4th century Christian writer, Constantine was converted to Christianity while at a major battle at Milvian Bridge in A.D. 312. Before the battle, Constantine had a vision in broad daylight depicting a standard in the shape of a cross – above the cross were the words, “By this sign, conquer.” That night he dreamed that Christ came to him with the same sign and told him to use it as a protection against his enemies. The next morning he commissioned a lavish replica of what he saw, with two Greek letters at the top, a chi and rho – the first two letters of Christ’s name. He later engaged in battle and won a resounding victory.

Being a long-time sun worshipper, Constantine naturally assumed that the Christian God and the sun god were one and the same, and subsequently decreed that the Christian God was to be worshipped on the day of the sun (Sunday), and that the birth of Christ was to be celebrated at the time of the winter solstice (Christmas-time). Upon conversion, Constantine also declared an empire-wide cessation of Christian persecution and actually provided a society of religious freedom not unlike what we enjoy in the U.S. today. By the end of the 4th century, Christianity was the state religion of the Roman Empire.

So, where does the Nicene Creed come into the picture? Well, Constantine decided to unify his vast empire under the dogma of Christianity. However, the Christian church by this time was severely disunified over several fundamental theological issues. In order for Christianity to unify the Roman Empire, Constantine had to first unify Christianity.

One of the major issues of contention at the time was the question of Jesus’ divinity, or how to understand His divinity in light of the fact that he was also human. Also, they wondered how both Jesus and God could be God if there is only one God.

At the time there were two schools of thought:

A) Arius of Alexandria, Egypt taught that in the beginning there was only God the Father. But at some point in the eternities, God brought his Son into existence, and it was through this Son that God created all things. Thus, Christ was divine, but subordinate to God the Father. (Sounds pretty much like what the Latter-day Church believes)

B) Athanasius, a young deacon in the Alexandrian church opposed Arius’ view. Athanasius taught that Christ had always existed – he did not come into existence at one point in time – and he was separately divine, not inferior to God the Father. Indeed, he was of the same essence as God the Father. This obviously led to the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity.

In an attempt to unify the Christian church, in A.D. 325 Constantine called 200-250 bishops to decide the issue. Everything associated with this council was at odds with the pattern of faith preserved in the scriptures. Here prophets were formally replaced with the learned men of the say and the revelations of heaven were replaced by philosophical speculations. The majority sided with Athanasius.

The following is the resulting creed of the council at Nicaea:

"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; and in the Holy Spirit.

"[But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’—they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church]" (emphasis added).

Notice the last paragraph of the creed; the council actually condemned the doctrine espoused by Arius and exiled him and any followers for their belief.

In 2007, President Hinckley said the following about the Nicene Creed during the October conference:

When Constantine became a Christian in the fourth century, he called together a great convocation of learned men with the hope that they could reach a conclusion of understanding concerning the true nature of Deity. All they reached was a compromise of various points of view. The result was the Nicene Creed of a.d. 325. This and subsequent creeds have become the declaration of doctrine concerning the nature of Deity for most of Christianity ever since.

I have read them all a number of times. I cannot understand them. I think others cannot understand them. I am sure that the Lord also knew that many would not understand them. And so in 1820, in that incomparable vision, the Father and the Son appeared to the boy Joseph. They spoke to him with words that were audible, and he spoke to Them. They could see. They could speak. They could hear. They were personal. They were of substance. They were not imaginary beings. They were beings tabernacled in flesh. And out of that experience has come our unique and true understanding of the nature of Deity” (Pres. Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Stone Cut Out of the Mountain,” Ensign, Nov, 2007, 83–86) (emphasis added).

It is interesting to note that when the Prophet received the First Vision, the Lord declared that it was the creeds of modern Christianity that were “an abomination in his sight” (JSH 1:19). “[T]his is because creeds are philosophical idols created by human minds, imposed upon the Scriptures and then revered as God’s word in place of God’s word. Those who believe such creeds are not ‘abominable.’ They are just wrong” (Craig L. Blomberg & Stephen E. Robinson, “How Wide the Divide: A Mormon & an Evangelical in Conversation,” pg. 161).

The Nicene Creed is not found in any Gospel. It derives from no utterance of Christ nor from the words of any of his apostles. The ideas portrayed therein are instead cloaked in Greek philosophy from whence it came. In fact, it directly contradicts the langauge of the New Testament.

At the risk of extending this already lengthy post, any thoughts?


Evgenii said...

While Mormon belief sounds familiar to what Arius taught, we really aren't that much closer. He taught essentially:

1) Only God (the Father) was eternal.

2) God because of his infinite nature couldn't appear on earth.

3) God created Jesus out of nothing.

4) God and Jesus are of different natures.

5) Jesus is son by adoption.

6) Jesus was subordinate to God.

This is a great post by Mormon Metaphysics on addressing each of these points. It comes to the conclusion that we really only agree with one. So while we feel better about this than Athanasian creeds, it is not much of an improvement. The link is here:

Secondly, you are right that Arianism was gone by the end of the 4th Century, but there was quite a long time when the battle swung back and forth. Constantine, ever the politician, sought to reconcile both parties, even though he agreed with Athanasius. To that end, Arius was on his way to meet the Emperor when he died on the way, and Athanasius was banished for not having the spirit of cooperation.

Moreover, after Constantine's death, his son Constantius II, the Emperor of the Eastern Empire, was an Arian and sought to overturn the Nicene Creed. Additionally, the later Emperor Julian (Caesar from 355 to 360, Co-Augustus from 360-361, and Sole Augustus from 361to 363 AD) was a Pagan and turned back most of the Christian reforms put in place by his predecessors. Had he not died in a fluke accident in Mesopotamia during a war, the religious tide might have been turned.

Jeremy said...

Maybe I should have had you write the post, Hans. I didn't know a lot of that stuff.

I found it interesting that it was a vote that favored the Athanasian concept, and that those who opposed were automatically declared "anathema" by the governing religious authority. Throughout history we find honest religionists being ostracized for what they truly believe to be right - Mormons not being an exception.

Thanks for the extra insights, though.

Jason said...

If you enjoyed learning about the debate between Athanasius and Arius, you will enjoy Ehrman's book "Lost Christianities". The book covers many different forms of christianity that lost the political thought battle and hence sunk into oblivion.

Evgenii said...

Jason is right about Erhman, I would also look at Misquoting Jesus which is about how the NT was formed. I think Erhman lost his faith but LDS can rely on the articles of faith to not lose perspective about biblical translations.

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