Monday, April 23, 2012

Mormonism and the Nicaean Council

Dear Madame L,

I know you keep saying Mormons are Christians, but a lot of other people---Christians---say you're not, and I've finally figured out why: because you don't have the same beliefs about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit that most Christians have.

Could you please explain why you still think you're a Christian?


A Christian Friend

Dear Christian Friend,

Madame L and other members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are Christians because they believe Jesus Christ is the son of God, they believe in his divine mission to save us from sin through his atonement and our repentance, and they believe he died on the cross and was resurrected so that we may one day be resurrected, too.

Yet we are not considered Christians by some because, as a friend of Madame L has explained, we are guilty of committing the Arian heresy: that is, we don't agree with the doctrine preached by Athanasius, who won the battle of doctrines at the Nicaean Council.

The Nicaean Council began May 20, 325. It was convened at the request of, or, one might better say, under orders from, Emperor Constantine. As such, it was a political, not religious, meeting, although the attendees were 300 church bishops. Its purpose was to unify Christianity by choosing, once and for all, a common doctrine about the nature of the Godhead.

The problem arose with interpreting the various Biblical accounts of  Christ's appearance and divinity. For example, he said he was one with the Father (John 10:30); but when he was baptized, those present heard God's voice from heaven and saw a third manifestation as the Holy Spirit appeared in the form of a dove (Matthew 3:16-17). 

How to explain this? Since the time of Christ's death and the loss of the priesthood from the earth, various explanations were advanced. These have been classified---and were discussed at the time---using these Greek terms for them:

---Homoiousianism: The Son is "like in substance" but not identified with the essence of the Father;

---Homoianiam: The Son is similar to the Father, but without reference to substance or essence; or that the Father is so transcendent that it's heretical even to think of anyone, even the Son or the Holy Spirit, being similar to him; and

---Heteroosuianism: God the father and the son are different in substance and attributes.

Arius argued that if Christ was the son of the Father, he must be subordinate and not quite as divine, which led others to wonder how he could bring salvation to humanity. 

Athanasius and his many followers used that very argument, saying that unless Christ was fully and truly God, humanity would lose its hope in his power to save us. Therefore, he argued, Christ was the same as God the Father but in entering the world was only "stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us" so he could save us.

Others came up with demands that the Holy Ghost be explained as a separate or non-separate member of the Godhead, though it was eventually agreed (in a later conference, held in Constantinople in 381) that the Spirit was a "fully divine person." 

There were many other opposing views, some of which are listed in Wikipedia's article about the Council. 

Finally, though, Constantine ordered the bishops to come up with a creed and vote on it. The majority favored the Athanasius version, which was accepted; and Constantine ordered all of Arius's books burned and anyone who continued to follow him excommunicated, exiled, and/or executed.

But this wasn't the end of it. Arianism and other doctrines continued to prevail in many areas for decades, even after the council in Constantinople. Athanasius fought for his view, even though he was removed from his bishop's see five times between Nicaea and Constantinople.

Here's an interesting apologist's explanation of this history, apparently prompted by a discussion with a Latter-day Saint friend, because it addresses specifically issues raised in a conversation, without, however, addressing the LDS doctrine.

Madame L is no expert on this subject, though she has read a bit about it (and not just in Wikipedia). For readers who want to understand the history of Christianity in the period after the deaths of the original apostles and the Nicene Creed, she recommends particularly these two books, which she found in her local library: "Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity," by Mark A. Noll; and "The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity," edited by John McManners.

Madame L summarizes some of the history here only to show how the Nicene Creed was decided upon and to emphasize, in contrast, that the doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints about the nature of God is based on scriptural record and modern revelation.

The arguments supposedly settled by the issuing of the Nicene Creed still rage,  even within sects and congregations that generally accept the creed. 

But here's the thing, Dear Christian Friend: Mormons do NOT accept Arianism, which claims that Christ is  inferior to God the Father. Nor do we subscribe to the Nicene Creed, which is why we are often branded as a non-Christian cult.

Here's what Mormons believe about the Godhead: "We believe in God the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost." 

For more, please go to and search under "Godhead," where you will find many articles such as this one, by Elder Dallin H. Oaks, and this one, by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, explaining our beliefs.


Madame L

1 comment:

AskTheGeologist said...

So... Someone accusing me of not being a christian is REALLY saying I don't agree with his version of the Godhead - which is contrary to the scripture he says he reads, AND was decided at a political slap-fight.

I don't feel so bad about that accusation anymore. He can HAVE it.
PS: Ol' "Slap Nick" was subsequently declared a saint of the Roman Catholic church. Pretty good job, Saint Nick!