Note: I have edited and expanded with illustrations and quotes the section on Creeds and Councils and highlighted the edited section.
In a recent conversation a Mormon stated, “Mormons are First Century Christians, not Fourth Century Creedal Christians.” It is a familiar enough claim and something we increasingly hear from Mormons who follow and delight in what passes for apologetics and reason from those nice people at FARMS and FAIR. Implicit in the statement is the charge that the Christian churches are the product of Fourth Century controversy and debate as evidenced, they say, by the schisms and disputes that continue to this day. That Christians base their faith on a Heath Robinson/Rube Goldberg collection of creeds, confessions and catechisms cobbled together for political expediency by corrupt cardinals and patronage seeking popes; the blind and corrupt leading the blind and helpless.
Mormonism, on the other hand, is presented as the true First Century model for church. In support of this claim Mormons will typically use Eph.4:11-14 to demonstrate the significance of their having leaders they call apostles and prophets who put all this right again. Of course, having someone with the correct label needn’t mean anything.
For instance, one of the ways Mormons demonstrate that they are Christians is by indicating that the Lord’s name is incorporated into the name of their church – The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. On that tenuous basis they would have to accept as Christians “Jehovah’s Christian Witnesses”, “Church of Christ, Scientist (Christian Science) “Christadelphians”, “International Church of Christ”, not to mention so-called “breakaway” Mormon groups, such as, “The Re-organised Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Community of Christ)” and “The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (a polygamist group).
“Creedal Christians”, of course, is a handy tag that ill-informed Mormons use to caricature Christians with whom they disagree but with whom they are too ill-equipped to engage in meaningful discussion. It is a device that illustrates very well how Mormonism operates in its recruiting. The Mormon Church teaches its adherents to put up barriers to Christian ways of arriving at reason and truth until you are left with Mormon “living apostles” as the only way to know the mind and will of God.
When a Christian proposes the Bible as the ultimate source of authority the Mormon will block that avenue by characterising the Bible as trustworthy only “as far as it is translated correctly” (Mormon 8th Article of faith); when the Christian posits mature and faithful preachers and commentators to help us with difficult passages the Mormon will shut down this avenue by insisting that there are too many conflicting opinions; when the Christian states that Jesus established his church and “the gates of hell will not prevail” against it the Mormon will bring the evidence of history, notably the controversies surrounding the creeds, to insist that the traditional church is riven with schisms and hopelessly apostate.
As the barriers to what the Christian thought were certainties go up and the ground is taken from under him the Mormon comes to the rescue with the great good news that “the heavens are once again opened and God has spoken through prophets in these latter days.” If you have ever wondered how anyone could fall for the lies of Mormonism put yourself in the position of a lukewarm or disaffected Christian hearing this message for the first time, or a complete novice in such things who has a yearning for truth and nothing with which to compare these claims.
Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?
This is a classic formula for blind fundamentalism, which is to denigrate and sweep away all that has gone before, tried and tested ways that might help in reaching understanding, and bring every claim to truth before the judgement bar of your own private interpretation. All, past, present and future, custom, tradition and innovation are now judged according to this newly established authority; but who will guard the guards? (Quis custodiet ipsos custodies) By what shall we judge that authority that judges Christianity to be apostate? The Mormon would argue that, since all other authorities are discredited, the only recourse left is to follow the example of Joseph Smith and pray about it, take the counsel of James, test Moroni’s promise. I have already looked at the Mormon test for truth in the context of the Book of Mormon.
One of the first things you will hear from a Mormon sharing their faith is the story of how Joseph Smith, confused by the conflicting claims of the churches, read James 1:5:
“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not (without reproach ESV); and it shall be given him” (KJV)
Based on this he went into the woods near his home, it is claimed, and asked God which church he should join. He reports: “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.” (Joseph Smith-History 1:19)
The charge that the churches are corrupt is there from the beginning and Mormonism quickly brings the inquirer (called an “investigator”) to the unique Mormon method of testing truth, i.e. by praying about it just as Joseph did. This seems so right in a spiritual setting and Mormons press home this message focussing that prayer on Mormonism. Presented with the Book of Mormon, the inquirer is urged to test Moroni’s promise, found at the end of the book:
“And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.” (Moroni 10:4-5)
The method is further reinforced by another Mormon “Scripture”:
But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. 9 But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong. (Doctrine and Covenants 9:9)
You go to the Source and truth is established by an ‘inner voice’, a spiritually instinctive sense of right and wrong. This sounds so very right to many. Imagine yourself knowing very little of spiritual things. Religious affairs are other-worldly after all, unfathomable even. The churches do seem hopelessly divided, even irrelevant, and the story of Joseph Smith seems intuitively right, a ray of clarity in an otherwise impenetrable world. If you are seeking spiritual meaning and find denominations confusing, apparent ill-tempered claims and counterclaims discouraging, Mormonism seems to give an accurate account of affairs as well as a clear way forward.
But what have you really done? What exactly have you tested? You might be surprised to find you have done very little and tested nothing. Most significantly, you have not actually tested the claims of Mormonism. You don’t believe me? The journey I have just described is completed in the first missionary lesson (there are five lessons) by the end of which the inquirer is invited to be baptised: “The invitation to be baptised and confirmed should be specific and direct.” (Lesson 1 Missionary Discussions) This landmark conclusion, that the churches are apostate and the gospel has been restored in Mormonism, is passed and its “truth” apparently established after a cursory “discussion” with two barely post-pubescent missionaries whose grasp of the world, let alone Christianity, is tenuous at best.
The Mormon might object that there are more lessons to come, with more information - Well, the more information claim is dubious at best and it might surprise you to find how empty and simplistic the Mormon message is once you see how solid and challenging the Christian message is - However, all subsequent lessons are founded on the unproven assumption that this first, tenuous, claim of apostasy and restoration is correct. It is never discussed again but mentioned occassionally to reinforce what the inquirer is told he now “knows”. But what do you know?
Would you buy a car sight unseen in an hour from a complete stranger? Of course not! You would want to test drive the vehicle; you would want to compare it carefully with other vehicles from other dealers. You would not take a stranger’s word for it that his was the only true car and all other models not worth the effort of turning on the ignition. He might be sincere, he might bear you his testimony that it was the best car he ever had but would that be enough to make you part with your money?
Yet if you have become a Mormon you have done so by a process of chatting about shallow Mormon prejudices that are unfamiliar to you and that appeal to the popular perception of the Christian Church about which you know – how much? And, after this visit, how much more do you know about the Christian message you have now rejected in favour of Mormonism? What proof have they offered that might give you confidence in the Mormon story?
How do you know Joseph Smith went into the woods to pray? Why should we believe that he saw a vision? Have you tested the claims about Christian apostasy, or have you simply allowed two charming young people to play to popular prejudices and confirm your worst fears? Have you prayed about the Bible, looked into the claims of Christianity as it has come down to us? What are the Creeds, who produced them and why? Are they really confusing and oblique? Mormons have a lot to say about them and base their claims to having restored Christianity on a rejection of them but are you any the wiser for “discussing” these things? Do you even know what the Creeds say? Can you name any, quote any? Can your Mormon visitors?
Creeds and Councils
The Creeds declare biblical orthodoxy and are summaries of Christian truth produced in a time when the gospel was spreading rapidly and needed to be transmitted concisely and when error and confusion were a threat. They don’t make new truth but clarify and reinforce established truth. One of the charges routinely brought by Mormons against Early Church Councils is that they represent a total failure in authoritative leadership and inevitable recourse to doctrine by committees of bickering bishops. However, the presence of apostles does not, as Mormons suggest, preclude the need for church councils; there are two in Acts. In Acts 1 the embryonic church met together in council in the upper room where they were staying, to choose a replacement to fill the place in the twelve left by Judas Iscariot. More germane to this discussion is the Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15. Far from reinforcing the Mormon thinking that apostles and prophets bring clarity and thus dispense with controversy, the Jerusalem Council represents a massive controversy between two apostles, Peter and Paul, and was one of the most controversial and heated in church history. It settled the key issue of whether one had to observe Jewish custom and ritual in order to be a Christian.
In her book The Making of the Creeds, Frances Young points out that, “Christianity is the only major religion to set such store by creeds and doctrines.” Other religions, she points out, have many of the characteristics people associate with religious faith and practice such as hymns, prayers, festivals traditions, myths, saints etc. “Christianity,” she writes, “is homogenous and its homogeneity lies in orthodox belief.” In other words, there is a distinction between true belief and false belief, orthodoxy that even the ecumenical movement, she observes, cannot dilute or compromise.
The Creeds originated in instruction before baptism, they tested the orthodox faith of the baptism candidate, and have their roots in the New Testament itself. Mormons make much of lines of authority, well here’s one: Origen (c.185-254), the early church theologian, studied under Clement of Rome (latter 1st century) who is thought to be the Clement identified in Philip.4:3 and who is reputed to have been consecrated by Peter. Origen reports:
“The Holy apostles, when preaching the faith of Christ, took certain doctrines, those namely which they believed to be the necessary one, and delivered them in the plainest terms to all believers.”
These digests of essential doctrines were regarded as Rules of Faith, were widely used by the early church, and were important precursors to the creeds. Such rules may be found in the New Testament with Paul notably quoting and adapting earlier established confessions:
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance:
That Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the twelve. After that he appeared to more than five-hundred of the brothers...then he appeared to James, then to the apostles... (1 Cor.15:3ff, cf Ro.1:3; 8:34;1 Pet.3:18)
Even in the New Testament controversies arose that made such councils and concise statements necessary to combat error and protect truth. Gnosticism was an early cause of such concerns and many of the later writings of the New Testament specifically refute the Gnostic message. The schisms and disputes that Mormons see as characteristic of apostasy are rather the inevitable outcome of controversy over doctrine and characteristic of a muscular church standing up for what is right in the face of encroaching heresy. Jude wrote:
“Contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless me, who change the grace of God into a licence for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Saviour is Lord.” (Jude 3ff)
The Creeds declare biblical truth and are summaries of Christian truth produced in a time when error and confusion were a threat. They don’t make new truth but clarify and reinforce established truth. The Bible is our final authority but these statements are very important in helping us understand, unpack our Christian faith. Their claim to authority rests on something earlier and more primitive, the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.
I am not a betting man but if I was I would bet a penny to a pound that I could find “Creedal Christianity” in the Bible while a Mormon would be hard pressed to find Mormonism there.