Like many church members, I was curious about what the “big reveal” was going to be at General Conference. I didn’t expect anything earth-shattering, mostly because we don’t need a conference to announce changes (or to quietly insert them in the handbook and not tell anyone, then freak out when they are “leaked”). As it turns out, it was a fifth Proclamation, a statement of belief about the restoration that seemed largely uncontroversial in content. The only potential controversies I heard in what was read were:
- Specifying that the first vision was a “visit,” not just a vision, a distinction that is probably moot since we believe that visions are meaningful spiritual guidance and inspiration, so what the hey. After all, even if Princess Leia wasn’t physically there when Obi-Wan heard her message, he still got the gist.
- An official harmonization of the four versions of the first vision which are often contradictory and can be problematic for those who look too closely. This comes up with a single narrative, one that glosses over some of the trickier elements of the various accounts.
But I was left with the question: so what? Why are we so enamored with Proclamations all of a sudden, especially when we dog on everyone else for having creeds? You may say that “all of a sudden” is a stretch, but 3 of these were in the last 40 years, all during my lifetime, and the rest were in the 1800s. Growing up, I heard many times the phrase from the mouth of God in the first vision account in the Pearl of Great Price: “their creeds were an abomination to me.” My young brain puzzled at this idea. What were creeds? Mormonism didn’t have anything we called creeds. If the creeds of all other sects were wrong, and not just wrong but abominable (!), then was it that those religions or their leaders were so far off the rails that they were putting self-serving ideas in their creeds to lead their flocks astray?
I came up with a few possible theories about what this statement about creeds meant:
- The content is bad. Those specific creeds were wrong, but creeds in general might be OK. They were abominable because at some point, leaders in those religions codified their wrong thinking about God into a creed to force their flock to believe a wrong thing. They did this on purpose to win an argument or force their incorrect ideas to live on, even after they were dead. They did it for political or personal power.
- Creeds are inherently bad. The creeds were fairly innocuous as they go, not specifically nefarious in content, but an abomination in trying to define what is ineffable, like handing someone a testimony to read at fast & testimony meeting rather than allowing them to express what they truly believed. The existence of a creed was like being forced to wear and rely on a prosthetic limb when you had two perfectly good legs. It replaced what worked better. It was a substitute for personal revelation, one that was controlled by long-dead church leaders who may or may not have gotten things right. Having any creeds at all distances one from God and from personal spiritual experiences by forcing someone else’s words into your head, another human’s ideas.
My last thought was this:
- Creeds are inevitable. If you give a religion enough time, we all eventually go the path the Catholics have trod; the only difference between Mormonism and Catholicism is time. Mormonism had the benefit of being a fairly new religion that hadn’t gotten big enough to need to define or control its members’ beliefs, and we have such strong views on personal revelation and individual testimony-bearing that recited creeds aren’t an obvious, natural fit. Eventually, you have to do this or you go through schisms and heresies and your doctrine is not consistent. You lose the script. Or conversely, you eventually go through this because some people just eat that stuff up with a spoon. They love the Pledge of Allegiance. They get jazzed about all the Young Women reciting a values statement. It’s not my jam, but for some it’s a patriotic duty, as American as apple pie. Bruce R. McConkie went so far as to dissect and define what constituted a “proper” testimony. That may not be an actual creed, but it’s dang close.
Several years ago, I attended an incredible evensong at Westminster in London. As part of the service, the congregation had a printed card on each seat with the Apostles’ Creed written on it for us to recite in unison. I was rather uncomfortable with this form of high worship that was so unfamiliar, although the evensong itself blew me away. I didn’t really find anything objectionable to the content of the Apostles’ Creed. It just was weird to me to recite a statement of belief that wasn’t in my own words. When we got to this part, I knew I defined words a little differently than most others there, but it still worked:
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
To me, as a Mormon, the communion of saints meant church members meeting together as disciples and taking the sacrament. The word “catholic” just means something general, for all the people, or so Don Novello (playing Father Guido Sarducci) said in a Saturday Night Live Sketch once, and ever since then I’ve just thought of catholic by that definition, meaning roughly all-inclusive or including many things and people. I also associate it with chain smoking. Thanks, Don Novello.
As for the other famous creed, the Nicene Creed, it was the product of a council of early church leaders (circa 325 AD) attempting to define the beliefs of the faith as different cultures combined and clashed. From Wikipedia:
The actual purpose of a creed is to provide a doctrinal statement of correct belief or orthodoxy. The creeds of Christianity have been drawn up at times of conflict about doctrine: acceptance or rejection of a creed served to distinguish believers and deniers of particular doctrines. . .The Nicene Creed was adopted to resolve the Arian controversy, whose leader, Arius, a clergyman of Alexandria, “objected to Alexander’s (the bishop of the time) apparent carelessness in blurring the distinction of nature between the Father and the Son by his emphasis on eternal generation”. In reply, Alexander accused Arius of denying the divinity of the Son and also of being too “Jewish” and “Greek” in his thought. Alexander and his supporters created the Nicene Creed to clarify the key tenets of the Christian faith in response to the widespread adoption of Arius’ doctrine, which was henceforth marked as heresy.
The Nicene Creed of 325 explicitly affirms the co-essential divinity of the Son, applying to him the term “consubstantial”. The 381 version speaks of the Holy Spirit as worshipped and glorified with the Father and the Son. The later Athanasian Creed (not used in Eastern Christianity) describes in much greater detail the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The earlier Apostles’ Creed does not explicitly affirm the divinity of the Son and the Holy Spirit, but in the view of many who use it, this doctrine is implicit in it.
The argument the Nicene Creed set to resolve was because one clergyman objected to a bishop blurring the distinction between the nature of the Father and Son. Then that bishop accused him of heresy and denying the divinity of Jesus, and also being both “too Jewish” and “too Greek.” So the bishop got the last word in defining beliefs, putting the clergyman in his place and calling his views heretical.
Most Mormon apologists would say that the Nicene creed is the one that is “abominable” because it contains incorrect ideas about the godhead, although reading it, I just see a bunch of antiquated wording that makes it confusing. If I get past that, it seems fairly workable for any Christian. I’m not sure exactly what’s so objectionable about it. The argument at its foundation is long dead and completely off the radar for me, so I am left scratching my head about the word “consubstantial,” but otherwise, I see nothing specific written here that is necessarily different from what Mormons believe. If there’s an abomination, it doesn’t seem to be inherent in the words.
But maybe that brings us back to my third theory about creeds. They are inevitable. If you’re around long enough, somebody’s going to want to codify their view of what the doctrine is so that it’s binding on people even after they are dead.
Creeds make me nervous because, like scripture, they don’t always wear well. Who among us has not regretted sending an email that would have been better snuffed out while still a draft? It’s one of the beautiful things about fast & testimony meeting; it’s not written down. We can’t go back and pick it apart and twist the words to mean what we want them to mean or what we think they really meant. These testimonies appear and disappear like a puff of smoke in a Cathedral. The experience remains as an impression, but the substance is not preserved to haggle over.
Rather than getting into specifics on any of these Proclamations, I want to discuss the broader topics of creeds and proclamations. We don’t recite proclamations, so that’s a difference, but they do in essence define doctrine making them de facto scripture (in use if not actually canonized). None of them has ever been walked back to my knowledge.
- Are creeds inherently bad or just the creeds that contain wrong beliefs? Why are proclamations OK, but creeds are not?
- What is wrong with the existing creeds of other faiths? Is it a matter of their content, their interpretation, how they are used, or that they exist at all?
- Do you think these kinds of statements are helpful to a faith or cause more harm than good over the long haul? Defend your answer.
- Why do leaders create Proclamations or Creeds? What do they tell us about current Church culture and controversy?