Does the World Just Misunderstand the Nicene Creed?

President Gordon B. Hinckley, President and Prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has challenged members to read the definition of the Godhead in the Nicene Creed, “and compare it with the statement of the boy Joseph.” I would like to do that today, as I’ve learned some very enlightening things about it, which to me just make me even more proud to be a member of this Church.

In researching this, I was pointed to a great article by Bijhan Nasser-Faili. I do not know his background, but I suspect he is LDS, and he really did his research on this one. I’ve never seen the creeds and their context put in this way.

I think we should begin by stating the context of the Nicene creed. Years before the Council of Nice was called, a priest named Arius adopted an interpretation of the Godhead of which he claimed Christ was “created, not begotten”, that Christ did not exist before life on earth, and basically that the Savior was not divine in this essence. He succeeded in growing a large following in this belief, so much that there was enough contention in the Church at the time for Emperor Constantine to feel the need to call the Council of Nice to settle the matter. In counseling together, some of the most regarded Bishops of the time debated as to the proper wording of the time to appropriately describe the Godhead, and denounce any notion that the Arian followers were proclaiming.

What they came up with in A.D 325 was a very good document that described and supported the beliefs in God of the time. Unfortunately it was not built to withstand the change in those beliefs over time. I’ll go over it here:

The first section states,

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.

Fine and dandy – we support that. I think the position of the Mormon Church on this is in agreement with other interpretations. Next section:

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;

Note that “begotten, not made”, and the substance thing were added to contradict Arian teachings. I should also note that “essence of the Father, and one substance with the Father” could be interpreted literally, in molecular form – aka, they both have a body, or they both have a spirit. Here is where the interpretations get a little out of agreement. A Mormon reading this might say, “Hey – we support that. Both God the Father and His Son have a body of flesh and bones. They are separate beings (in digit form), Christ was even begotten of the Father.” Another Christian could read that and say, “Hey – we support that. Both God the Father and His Son are in Spirit form of the same substance. They are one (in digit form), Christ was even begotten of the Father.” See the ambiguity in the wording? Notice the “1 in 3 and 3 in 1” doctrine isn’t even preached explicitly here. Let’s move on:

by whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth;

Again, more Arian contradictions so we would all be clear this earth was created by Christ, the Son. I think Mormons and other Christians agree on this one.

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.

We agree here as well.

And in the Holy Ghost.

Not much info about the Holy Ghost here, but sounds very familiar to the First Article of Faith. Finally, it finishes with this direct warning towards the Arian followers:

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.

Keep in mind that when this was written, “catholic” meant universal. I do not think the Church had been officially named the “Catholic” church yet when this was written.

So, as you can see – there is nothing wrong with the wording of the Nicene creed. It supports doctrines of Christianity, and it even supports the doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The different lies in the interpretation of the document. It is ambiguous, written by man, and confusing without clarification from God. Hence the difference in beliefs between ours and other Christian churches. With clarification from a Prophet however, those ambiguities all of the sudden become clear (President Gordon B. Hinckley, http://www.lds.org/portal/site/LDSOrg/menuitem.b12f9d18fae655bb69095bd3e44916a0/?vgnextoid=2354fccf2b7db010VgnVCM1000004d82620aRCRD&locale=0&sourceId=7c86605ff590c010VgnVCM1000004d82620a____&hideNav=1):

The Prophet Joseph declared, “It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the Character of God, and to know that we may converse with him as one man converses with another” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith [1976], 345).

“We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost” (A of F 1:1). This first article of faith epitomizes our doctrine. We do not accept the Athanasian Creed. We do not accept the Nicene Creed, nor any other creed based on tradition and the conclusions of men.

We do accept, as the basis of our doctrine, the statement of the Prophet Joseph Smith that when he prayed for wisdom in the woods, “the light rested upon me [and] I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is my Beloved Son. Hear Him!” (JS—H 1:17).

Two beings of substance were before him. He saw them. They were in form like men, only much more glorious in their appearance. He spoke to them. They spoke to him. They were not amorphous spirits. Each was a distinct personality. They were beings of flesh and bone whose nature was reaffirmed in later revelations which came to the Prophet.

And just last week:

When the emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity, he became aware of the divisiveness among the clergy concerning the nature of Deity. In an attempt to overcome this he gathered the eminent divines of the day to Nicaea in the year 325. Each participant was given opportunity to state his views. The argument only grew more heated. When a definition could not be reached, a compromise was made. It came to be known as the Nicene Creed, and its basic elements are recited by most of the Christian faithful.

Personally I cannot understand it. To me the creed is confusing.

How deeply grateful I am that we of this Church do not rely on any man-made statement concerning the nature of Deity. Our knowledge comes directly from the personal experience of Joseph Smith, who, while yet a boy, spoke with God the Eternal Father and His Beloved Son, the Risen Lord. He knelt in Their presence; he heard Their voices; and he responded. Each was a distinct personality. Small wonder that he told his mother that he had learned that her church was not true. And so, one of the great overarching doctrines of this Church is our belief in God the Eternal Father. He is a being, real and individual. He is the great Governor of the universe, yet He is our Father, and we are His children.

As Mormons, we have nothing to question! We know whom God is. We know His plan! We know we can talk to Him! We don’t need the teachings of man to show this to us, as our message comes directly from Him through His Prophet.

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