Mormonism and the Creeds of Christendom
The Christian Creeds
Related articles: The Trinity; Is Mormonism Christian?; Four Important Early Christian Creeds; The Nature of Christ
All Christendom agrees that the Bible is a fundamental source for church doctrine and practice. In many of the Protestant churches it is the sole authority; as such all creeds are subordinate to the Word of God. The Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches hold that both tradition and scripture is the repository of authority and practice for the Christian faith; in these matters tradition and scripture are coordinate. However, despite these differences historical Christianity has two sources of common agreement: the Bible and the early Christian creeds. (See Four Important Early Christian Creeds.)
Creeds can take the form of a confession (using the words “I believe”) which can bind together those who are willing to adhere to them. They may contain statements of doctrine and/or condemnation of heresy, thus creating a distinction between orthodox and heterodox; and by this a distinction between Christian traditions: Protestant from Protestant, Roman Catholic from Protestant, or Greek from Roman, etc. Though creeds create doctrinal divisions, the early Christian creeds tend to unite denominations which otherwise might focus on their differences and provides a sense of unity and solidarity among Christians who would otherwise be hopelessly divided. As such the Christian creeds are of great importance to the larger Christian community.
Many Christian movements have at their beginning a statement of faith that outlines their uniqueness. Their creed might further include a condemnation of teachings it considers heretical. More established denominations might write a reactionary “creed” or statement condemning teachings divergent from its own. As such, creeds tend to be born from the doctrinal disputations of the times in which they originate: which reinforces the importance of creeds in historical Christianity. For example, in 1610 a group called the Arminians wrote a five-point statement of faith called Remonstrance in which they rejected several Calvinistic beliefs. The Calvinists responded by issuing their own five-point Counter-Remonstrance. In 1618 the Synod of Dort was convened to address the Arminian question; their ruling was a condemnation of Arminian beliefs.
In its simplest form a creed is a simple confession of faith. The word “creed” is derived from the Latin credo which means “I believe.” Reasons for writing creeds include the reasons already posed and a belief that, for a believer, “of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh” (Luke 6:45). A personal creed can take the form of a testimony, such as the one Martha professed: “I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world” (John 11:27). A formal creed can be seen as an ecclesiastical testimony of belief; something a person who wishes to unite with a denomination must verbalize or agree to.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not profess any of the Christian creeds. When Joseph Smith had his First Vision he asked which of all the Christian sects he should join. He was instructed they were all wrong, that “all their creeds were an abomination in [God’s] sight” (JS-History 1:19). In another instance Joseph Smith said, “I cannot believe in any of the creeds of the different denominations, because they all have some things in them I cannot subscribe to, though all of them have some truth. I want to come up into the presence of God, and learn all things; but the creeds set up stakes, and say, ‘Hitherto shalt thou come, and no further’” (Teachings, p. 327).
Because creeds often affirm one set of doctrines and reject others they can have the effect of causing an adherent to reject entirely a different system of belief that does not hold to them. For example the Athanasian Creed was historically an important profession of belief. Its final statement is, “This is the Catholic Faith: which except a man believe faithfully, he can not be saved.” Such a profession would tend to prevent an adherent from finding truth in other denominations or religious traditions that reject his professed creed--truths not found in his own religion.
The history of the creeds is steeped in disputes over doctrine, disputes that have at times become exceedingly violent. Such contentions over doctrine are condemned by our Lord Jesus Christ: “neither shall there be disputations among you concerning the points of my doctrine, as there have hitherto been. For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another” (3 Nephi 11:28-29).
The Book of Mormon teaches that “all things which are good cometh of God; and that which is evil cometh of the devil” (Moroni 7:12). While this might sound like a blanket statement favoring only one system, it isn’t. Since truth and error can be found in nearly every religious and philosophical tradition the effect of such a statement is to encourage a thoughtful consideration of the arguments, coupled with the possibility of acceptance. A Latter-day Saint is free to adopt a “cafeteria” style approach to teachings found in other religious and philosophical systems, only with the proviso that such teachings do not contradict or discredit established LDS doctrine.
The nearest thing to a formal “LDS Creed” would be the Articles of Faith which contains thirteen statements of belief, twelve of which begin with the words “We believe” and one begins with “We claim.” These thirteen articles contain statements all Latter-day Saints can believe in, and may also serve as a short statement of belief for those who are unfamiliar with LDS teachings. (Becoming a Latter-day Saint does not require any liturgical recitation of these articles, but members of the church are encouraged to know them verbatim.) Though one might be tempted to label the Articles of Faith as a creed they do not serve the purpose that Christian creeds have traditionally served: they were written twelve years after the church was organized and were not crafted by an ecumenical council as a reaction to heretical teachings. But rather, these thirteen points are from a letter written by Joseph Smith to John Wentworth (the editor of the Chicago Democrat) which summarized Joseph’s religious experiences and the history of the church. In 1880 the Articles of Faith were included in the LDS cannon of scripture (“Articles of Faith,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism).
Because Mormonism holds that the primitive Christian church fell into apostasy very early in its history--1st or 2nd century--none of the creeds of Christendom are accepted as authoritative. And, many contain doctrine that the LDS faith rejects--such as the Trinitarian view of God. (See Godhead: God or Gods?) Further, a belief that God has restored the office of prophet means that doctrinal issues are settled by revelation or otherwise are left alone. As such the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints cannot be labeled a “creedal” faith.