Prophets and Creeds
For a long time the world refused to look upon Mormons as Christians. Indeed most people still think of them as a tertium quid, unique and isolated from all other creatures. There is some justice in this viewpoint if one defines a Christian as one who subscribes to the creeds of Christendom, but the dictionary gives no such definition: for it, a Christian is simply one who believes in Christ, with nothing said about adherence to formulae describing his nature devised three hundred years after his death. The Latter-day Saints do not accept the ecumenical creeds because they were not given by the power of revelation but worked out by committees of experts. As we noted last week, the early church could not make too much of the inability of philosophers to discover the nature of God, yet the first and greatest of the councils, that of Nicaea, may be described without exaggeration as a philosopher's field day. Let us consider briefly a few steps that led to the formulation of the Nicene Creed.
It all began when Bishop Alexander of Alexandria "one day in a meeting of his presbyters and the rest of the clergy under him, theologized in a rather showy way (philtimoteron) on the subject of the Holy Trinity, philosophizing to the effect that in a triad was really a monad. Arius, one of the presbyters under his authority and a man not unskilled in dialectic give and take, . . . took the extreme opposite position just to show how much smarter he was (out of philoneikias) . . . and replied bitingly to the things the Bishop had said." Socrates, the historian, concludes a summary of Arius' speech on this occasion by saying, "Constructing his syllogism by this novel reasoning, he attracted everybody's attention, and with a small spark lit a mighty blaze."1 Now isn't this a perfect illustration of those very vices and follies for which the original Christians condemned philosophy? The bishop, philosophizing in a showy way, not seeking truth but just being smart, using technical terms—triad and monad—unknown to the scripture, is refuted by a clergyman carefully trained in that dialectic art which the early Fathers so abhorred; he too, animated not by love of truth but by a desire to outshine the bishop—such is the spirit in which the great investigation begins.
The "mighty blaze" mentioned by Socrates divided the Christian world into warring factions, and the Emperor Constantine wrote a strong letter to the heads of both parties. In this letter he says among other things, "These and such like technical questions . . . are simply a sort of parlor game (ereschalia) for the passing of idle time, and albeit they may be justified as providing a kind of training for the wits, they are best kept locked and confined in your own minds, and not lightly aired in public places nor foolishly permitted to reach the ears of the masses. For just how many people are there who can understand such advanced and extremely puzzling matters, or have any clear idea what they are about, or give a correct explanation of them? And even if someone should suppose that he could understand it easily, how many of the common people will he be able to persuade? Or who would be able to carry on a disputation in the subtleties of such technical questions without running an appalling risk? Therefore a great outpouring of words in such matters should be prohibited, lest the problem presently carry us beyond the depths of our own limited understanding, or we go beyond the limited training of those who listen to our teachings, who can no longer understand what is said, and out of this double defect the whole society necessarily fall into blasphemy or schism. While you wrangle with one another over minor, nay, utterly trivial matters, it is not right that God's numerous people should be led by your minds; in view of your disunity, such a thing is utterly wrong, absolutely improper."2 What a lecture to the leaders of the Church! And these were the men who were to make the creeds.
In the end, the emperor had to summon, as we all know, the great Council of Nicaea. While the gathering body of churchmen was waiting for the latecomers to arrive, some interesting preliminary discussions were held. These illustrate perfectly the spirit of the whole thing. We are told that a large number of laymen were there, experts in the art of dialectic, entering enthusiastically into the discussions on every side. "Meanwhile, not long before the general assembly was to take place, certain dialecticians were addressing the multitude and showing off in controversy. Great crowds being attracted by the pleasure of hearing them, one of the confessors, a layman with a clear head, stood up and rebuked the dialecticians and said to them that Christ and the Apostles did not give to us the dialectical art nor empty tricks, but straightforward knowledge preserved by faith and good works. When he said this, all those present were flabbergasted, and then agreed. And the dialecticians, hearing straight talk, became a good deal more sober and contained. Thus was abated the uproar which dialectic had stirred up."3 There were still clear heads in the church, but they did not belong to the men who were about to make the creed. They are represented here by an aged layman, a martyr—that is, one who had refused to deny the faith in persecution—a link with the real old church, who here appears among the squabbling doctors as a "nine-days' wonder" when he reminds them how far from the track of Christ and the Apostles they have come. They were abashed for the time, but not repentant.
Let us skip to the closing speech of the mightiest of councils. It was delivered, fittingly, by the emperor, "who was first to bear witness to the correctness of the creed," according to Eusebius in a letter to his own flock, " . . . and he urged everyone to come to the same opinion and sign the statement of dogmas and to agree with each other by signing a statement to which but a single term had been added—the word, homoousion." The emperor then proceeded to explain with much technical language that word (which had been agreed on in committee) and the final verdict that the thing was really incomprehensible. "So in such a manner," Eusebius concludes, "our most wise and most devout (eusebes, blessed) Emperor philosophized; and the Bishops by way of explaining the homoousios prepared the following statement." 4
In the statement that follows occurs an interesting admission: "We are well aware that the Bishops and writers of ancient times when discussing the theology of the Father and the Son never used the word homoousios." To allay the doubts of his flock Eusebius hastens to assure them that "the faith here promulgated . . . we all agreed upon, not without careful examination and according to opinions presented and agreed upon in carefully stated logismoi, and in the presence of the most devout Emperor." In other words, the committee had worked hard. All the trouble has been caused, according to this document "by the use of certain expressions not found in the Scripture. . . . Since the divinely inspired Scriptures never use such terms as 'out of nothing,' or 'that existed which at one time did not exist,' and such like terms; for it did not seem proper (eulogon) to say and teach such things, . . . never in times before have we thought it proper to use these terms." 5 The letter then proceeds to authorize the use of those very terms which it acknowledges to be unknown to the early Christians. Had God so changed his nature that he needed new terms to describe that nature? We left the word logismoi untranslated above, because Paul uses the very same word in 2 Corinthians 10:4—5 when he says that revealed knowledge, the Gnosis, invalidates or confounds all logismoi, that is, calculations of men. Now Eusebius takes comfort in the thought that the Nicene Creed is made up of carefully worded logismoi. You see how the foundations of doctrine had shifted from prophetic revelation to human reason. Latter-day Saints would regard such a change as fatal to the church, and in this they are in good company. For though conventional church histories pass over it in complete silence, the fact is that the early ecumenical councils of the church were viewed by the leading churchmen of the time and the general public alike as a most grave and alarming symptom. Let some of these men explain it in their own words.
Athanasius, one of the star performers at Nicaea, viewed with alarm the councils that immediately followed that one: "What is left to the Catholic church to teach of salvation if now they make investigations into the faith, and set up a present-day authority to give out official interpretations of what has already been said? . . . And why do the so-called clergy dash back and forth trying to find out how they should believe about our Lord Jesus Christ? If they had been believing all along they couldn't possibly be searching now for something they don't have!" Everyone is laughing at the Christian leaders, Athanasius says, and is saying, "These Christians don't know what to think of Christ!" which of course weakens their authority.6 "What is the use of all these synods?" he asks. "In vain do they dash hither and yon under the pretext that synods are necessary to settle important matters of doctrine, for the Holy Scriptures are sufficient for all that."7 (Note where Athanasius finds the court of last appeal—not in any episcopal see, but simply in the scripture.) "We contradict those who were before us, depart from the traditions of our fathers, and think we must hold a synod. Then we are seized by misgivings, lest if we simply come together and agree our diligence will be wasted; so we decide that the synod ought to be divided into two groups, so we can vote; . . . and so we render ineffective what was done at Nicaea under pretext of working for greater simplicity." 8 Could one ask for a better description of the strangely modern state of mind in which the early creeds of Christendom were hammered out—the zeal of the busy, self-important committeemen; the fussy, fuzzy preoccupation with procedure and busy-work; the urge to hold meetings come what may? "All these synods are unnecessary," Athanasius repeats, "and they are unnecessary because we have the Scripture; and if the Scripture is a subject of disagreement in the synods, then we have the writings of the Fathers. The men at Nicaea were not unmindful of this. . . . As for these other synods, they simply don't make sense, and they never get anywhere."9 And again: "Who can call such people Christians, or how can we speak of faith among men who have neither reason nor writings that aren't changing all the time, but to suit every circumstance are being everlastingly altered and reversed?" 10
We turn next to Athanasius' great western contemporary St. Hilary: "It is a thing equally deplorable and dangerous," he writes in a famous passage, "that there are as many creeds as opinions among men, as many doctrines as inclinations, and as many sources of blasphemy as there are faults among us; because we make creeds arbitrarily, and explain them arbitrarily. . . . The homoousion is rejected, and received, and explained away by successive synods. . . . Every year, nay every month, we make new creeds to describe invisible mysteries. We repent of what we have done, we defend those who change their minds, we anathematize those whom we defended. We condemn either the doctrine of others in ourselves, or our own in that of others; and, reciprocally tearing one another to pieces, we have been the cause of each other's ruin." 11 And later to the emperor: "The faith has been corrupted—is reformation possible? The faith is sought after as if it were something not in our possession. The faith has to be written down, as if it were not in our hearts. Having been reborn by faith, we are now being taught the faith just as if our rebirth had been without faith. We learn about Christ after we have been baptized, as if there could be any baptism at all without a knowledge of Christ." 12 Here the synods and creeds are depicted as a declaration of bankruptcy, a clear indication that the faith is lost, a frantic attempt to fill a vacuum. And the filling was to be done with words, the endless talk of the philosophers.
Speaking of an episode of the Council of Nicaea, the historian Sozomen wrote, "It would be hard to say which is the more miraculous, to make a stone speak or to make a philosopher stop speaking."13 But let us hear Hilary: "Since the whole argument is about words, and since the whole controversy has to do with the subject of innovation [i.e., the introduction of philosophical terms not found in the scripture], and since the occasion of the discussion is the presence of certain ambiguities, and since the dispute is about authority, and since we are quarreling about technical questions, and since our problem is to reach a consensus, and since each side is beginning to be anathema to the other, it would seem that hardly anybody belongs to Christ (or is on Christ's side) any more. We are blown about by winds of doctrine, and as we teach we only become more upset, and the more we are taught, the more we go astray." 14 What a commentary on Nicaea! "We avoid believing that of Christ which He told us to believe, so that we might establish a treacherous unity in the false name of peace, and we rebel with new definitions of God against what we falsely call innovations, and in the name of the Scriptures we deceitfully cite things that are not in the Scriptures: changeful, prodigal, impious, changing established things, abolishing accepted doctrine, presuming irreligious things."15 Here Hilary is not denouncing heretics and separatists. Like Athanasius, Eusebius, Basil, Chrysostom, Akakius, Eleusius, Phoebadius, and a host of lesser lights, he is depicting not the folly of the few, but, as he puts it, "the faith of our miserable age. . . . Last year's faith," he asks, "what is the changeful stuff that it contains? First it silenced the homoousion, then it preached it, then it excused it, then it condemned it. And where does that sort of thing lead to? To this, that neither we nor our predecessors were in a position to be sure of preserving any sacred thing intact."16 When men are left to their own resources, without the guidance of living prophets, even the great tradition will not preserve the true faith, for, as Hilary has just noted, men are not able of themselves to preserve that tradition.
We have quoted a few statements—by no means all the pertinent ones—of two of the most respected voices in Christendom, men who were present in person at the great councils of the fourth century in which the Christian creeds as we now have them received their definitive form. How these men miss the voice of the prophets! The fact that the church should hold councils to decide on basic doctrines centuries after Christ and the Apostles are supposed to have given these doctrines to the world greatly disturbs not only them but also, as they repeatedly tell us, the general membership of the church as well. The fact that those councils carry on their deliberations after the manner and in the artificial language of the schools of philosophy distresses them even more. Throughout the Middle Ages the ablest men labored mightily to comprehend and restate in intelligible terms those ever-illusive definitions of God, school succeeding school exactly as in the fourth century. The Reformation, striving to correct administrative abuses and restate moral principles, left the basic doctrines untouched, and to this day the whole Christian world, from the cool recesses of high-church Gothic to the torrid canvas of the revivalist, owes allegiance to the angry and perplexed churchmen of the fourth century. The long centuries have shown, and have shown exhaustively, that "man cannot by searching find out God." Unless dictated by God himself through revelation, any creed must necessarily be a compromise, to establish, as Hilary puts it, a treacherous unity in the false name of peace, and at the price of deliberately sacrificing truth. In the long history of the creeds, time has strikingly vindicated the prophets. If we are to have a creed, the living voice of prophecy alone can prescribe it, and in this, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stands alone.
1. Socrates, Ecclesiastical History I, 5—6, in PG 67:41.
2. Ibid., I, 7, in PG 67:56—57.
3. Ibid., I, 8, in PG 67:64.
4. Ibid., also citing Eusebius' letter, in PG 67:68, 72.
5. Ibid., under heading Symbolum, in PG 67:76.
6. Athanasius, De Synodis, in PG 26:684.
7. Ibid., in PG 26:688.
8. Ibid., in PG 26:689.
10. Ibid., in PG 26:760. This is the summary.
11. Hilary, Epistle to Constantine II, 4—5, in PL 10:566—67.
12. Ibid., II, 6, in PL 10:567—68.
13. Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History I, 18, in PG 67:917.
14. Hilary, II, 5, in PL 10:566—67.
15. Ibid., II, 6, in PL 10:568.
16. Ibid., II, 5, in PL 10:567.