Two years before his martyrdom, the Prophet Joseph Smith wrote a letter to a newspaper editor, John Wentworth, who asked Joseph for a brief statement outlining the basic tenets of the “Mormon” faith. In response, Joseph Smith authored what we now call the “Thirteen Articles of Faith.” The first of these states:
We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.
But then again so does every other professing Christian denomination. If that were accepted throughout Christendom as the simplest declaration of a Christian understanding of the Godhead, there would have been little need for a Restoration movement at all. The belief in the Father, Son and Holy Ghost has been the first and foremost, fundamental Christian doctrine from the beginning of the Church. The belief in, and understanding of these three divine characters, and their relationship to mankind is the basis of the entire religion. It has also been the central issue in all of the most heated debates, even open warfare over what is or isn’t “orthodox” and what is or isn’t “heresy” particularly in the early centuries of the Church.
One of the earliest attempts to define, assemble and harmonize a “catholic,” or “universal” gospel after the death of the Original Apostles, was made by a group of saints the Church came to call the “Apostolic Fathers”—saints in leadership who were left behind in the wake of the typically brutal murder and fatal persecution of Christ’s chosen successors like Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, James, and the rest of the New Testament authors.
Contrary to popular belief, none of the New Testament was written directly by the various Apostolic authors of the texts it includes. There are no “Original Autographs,” of these Biblical texts, as religious scholars call them, meaning texts written by, in the hand and language of the New Testament Gospel writers. When scholars or clergymen refer to the “original Greek,” they are referring to records allegedly, and at the very earliest, written down by the “Apostolic Fathers,” not the Original Apostles, and not in Aramaic or Hebrew, or other languages many of the original authors may have used, or even Latin, but writings at best dictated into, transferred to, or recorded from memory in Greek, the scholarly language of the times. Though we now think of Latin as a scholarly language, or the language of the Church, the first Latin Biblical texts were actually called the “Vulgate,” from the same root as “vulgar,” meaning common, and so called because Latin was considered the vulgar or common tongue of the average citizen of Rome.
The earliest New Testament manuscripts then, are in Greek, are at best copies of the Original Autographs, at worst paraphrases, and date from decades and sometimes guestimated to have first appeared a hundred years or more after the passing of the Original Apostles who authored them.
And again, contrary to common belief, there was never a smooth and timely decision as to which books should be included in the Bible. It took over a century before anyone even bothered to start picking and choosing through the available writings. Every church had its favored books, official use of any given text was decided bishop-by bishop under local authority only, and since there was nothing like a clearly-defined universal orthodoxy until the 4th century, there were in fact many simultaneous literary traditions. The grand claims we hear today about “what Christianity has always believed,” are made plausible only because the church that came out on top simply preserved texts in its favor and destroyed or ignored and “lost” opposing documents. And then of course, chose to translate what they canonized into language crafted to best bolster their preconceived “traditions” and “orthodox” understanding of the apostolic teachings. Christian “orthodoxy” was in this fashion, ultimately written by the victors of centuries of theological, political, and military warfare.
The assertion that the King James Bible was “inerrant” complete and perfectly preserved and essentially ghost-written (Holy Ghost-written) through Divine Providence was nearly universal in Joseph Smith’s day. This notion has been greatly disabused by the ample availability of early manuscripts and the ease in which modern Bible scholars can compare all the historical translations to the oldest manuscripts. Unfortunately, even though today’s translators can rightfully claim they have produced cleaner and far less editorialized Biblical texts, there still rages in many Christian quarters the contention of Biblical “inerrancy,” and this mostly connected in the US, with such assertions about the King James Version.
The Lutheran take on this controversy is probably the most well-thought out. Lutherans by-and-large, though not universally, maintain that only the Original Autographs are inerrant. That way they can profess a theoretical allegiance to “inerrancy,” while at the same time equivocate every passage of the Bible word-by-word under the license of the Good Book only being a translation of an inerrant text, and not in and of itself inerrant.
The greater body of Christianity has drifted into this more-or-less Lutheran view of the Bible. But Christianity has yet to deal with the ideological repercussions of the Lutheran approach to the issue of Biblical inerrancy. The companion claim in the Biblical inerrancy doctrine, is that the Bible is also “complete.” This demands that everything necessary for man’s salvation and good order be contained therein, and not one jot or tiddle more or less did God find necessary or helpful to preserve in order to work His will with mankind.
With the confession that no Original Autographs are known to exist, there remains the possibility that this is just ignorance on our part and they may at some point turn up. And also, there is the equal possibility that there might indeed be previously unknown manuscripts out there, some day to be discovered, also written by the Original Apostles. What if these new, hidden gospels contradict “orthodox” thought on any number of issues? What if some of the Original Autographs show up and differ significantly in various key theological areas from the earliest surviving copies in the “originals” (note of sarcasm there…) we now have only in Greek?
Most Christian sects have long abandoned any future possibility of new apostolic writings turning up. “Divine Providence” has taken care of the canon. It’s closed. It’s complete as-is. The Original Autographs are declared lost to time and wear. Were a letter in the hand of Jesus Himself to be unearthed today, all of “orthodox” Christianity would by current Christian dogma and Church tradition, as a matter of faith, be forced to reject it, however clear its provenance and authentication.
So, today, most of Christianity is amenable to the idea that while the surviving manuscripts from which we assembled our current canon, were Divinely inspired and preserved through Divine Provenance, there is no absolute guarantee of their preservation of the original authors’ intent and specific language. The vast majority of Christian bodies today in this matter, agree soundly on the assertion that neither the King James Version or any other translation in any other language from any other era, is without unwitting error, or in the worst cases, political, ideological, social, scholarly, and theological manipulation, gatekeeping, or editorializing.
(In short, they’ve gradually come around to agreeing with Joseph Smith.)
Due to this hodge-podge, early canonical disorganization and translational or interpretational controversies that roil somewhat even today, in the first century after the death of Christ and His apostles, the Apostolic Fathers began to hear in the Church, a growing disagreement on the basic nature of the Christian message. In reaction to the “Great Commission” <http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+28%3A16-20&version=NIV> and the need to present a concise, unified gospel message to the world, there emerged what is now called the “Apostle’s Creed.” Before we even had a New Testament, this was the first attempt in the post-apostolic Church to define a universal statement of faith:
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary, Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was crucified, dead, and buried: He descended into hell; The third day he rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost; The holy Catholick Church; The Communion of Saints; The Forgiveness of sins; The Resurrection of the body, And the Life everlasting. Amen.
(Church of England Book of Common Prayer 1662)
If you understand the vocabulary, the Latter-day Saint would have little problem at all accepting that statement of faith.
Joseph Smith’s 13 Articles of Faith, the Church of England’s 39 Articles of Religion that he used as a format, and similar stabs at chartering formal Christian creeds arise out of this early, post-apostolic tradition of trying to condense sometimes complicated history and theology into concise, encapsulated summaries. In the case of the Apostles’ Creed, legend has it that the Apostles gathered together and wrote it down for posterity on the tenth day after Christ’s ascension into heaven. That’s clearly not possible however. But each of the elements found in the creed can be traced to statements found in the Original Apostles’ writings and Church tradition of their period. The earliest written version of the creed is probably the Interrogatory Creed of Hippolytus (ca. A.D. 215). The current form is first found in the writings of Caesarius of Arles (d 542).
Some have suggested that the Apostles’ Creed was spliced together with phrases from the New Testament.] For instance, the phrase (“he descended into hell”) echoes Ephesians 4:9, ” (“he descended into the lower, earthly regions”) in the Greek text. This phrase and the reference to the communion of saints are articles found in the Apostles’ Creed, but not in its original form, called the “Old Roman Creed,” nor were these included in the Nicene Creed which later took on the issue of Father, Son and Holy Ghost more specifically.
The name of the Apostles’ Creed again, came from the 5th-century tradition that, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit after Pentecost, each of the Twelve Apostles dictated one statement of Christian faith to add to it, and thus it is traditionally divided into twelve articles. The title, Symbolum Apostolicum (Symbol or Creed of the Apostles), appears for the first time in a letter from a Council in Milan in about 390: “Let them give credit to the Creed of the Apostles, which the Roman Church has always kept and preserved undefiled”.
But what existed at that time in the Roman Church was not what is now known as the Apostles’ Creed. Instead, it was a shorter statement of belief that, for instance, did not include the phrase “maker of heaven and earth”, a phrase that may have been inserted as late as the 7th century. So though ancient Church fathers may have contended that even this first, simple creed has been preserved “undefiled” from its beginnings, the Church’s own records prove otherwise.
The Apostles’ Creed was in any case, well based on Christian theological understanding of the 4 Canonical gospels, the letters of the New Testament and to a lesser extent the Old Testament. It does not however address some issues defined in the later Nicene and other Christian Creeds. For instance, it says nothing explicitly about the divinity of either Jesus or of the Holy Spirit.
Even today, disputes over the wording of the Apostles’ Creed live on in the various Christian sects. For example, the creed is either altered or footnoted in some Lutheran circles due to its clergy replacing the word “catholic” with the word “Christian.” These sects claim that “Christian” inthe ancient text reads “catholic,” meaning the whole Church as it confesses the wholeness of Christian doctrine.
The Church of Denmark is one of several Lutheran, Reformed or Protestant sects that still uses the phrase “We renounce the devil and all his works and all his ways” as the beginning of this creed, before the line “We believe in God the Father Almighty etc.” That added preface to the Apostles’ Creed survives intact in the Roman Church tradition as an integral part of adult baptismal vows, and is observed in a question-and-answer format that then goes on to break the Apostles’ Creed down into a call-and-respond format. In Roman tradition, infant baptisms require these vows to be made in proxy by the child’s sponsors or usually, Godparents.
Some Christian sects dispute the phrase “descended into hell,” preferring “descended to the dead.” The LDS notion of Christ visiting “Spirit Prison” is not out of harmony with the actual language of the creed however and the typical Mormon probably has a far better understanding of what that line means than all of orthodox “Christian” academia.
Christianity remains to this day split on the opinion of just who the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are, who or what Jesus Christ is in relationship to these other two Biblical characters, and how mankind dovetails into the whole Divine scheme of things.
Even those of you born and raised as Mormons along the Wasatch Front will probably know that in 325 the Roman Emperor Constantine ordered a council of regional bishops to convene at Nicaea to squelch a rising unrest in his growing Empire. In Constantine’s day, the name “Christian” was in reality a dirty word hung on the early saints by their Roman oppressors. Rome had persecuted them viciously for centuries. Then on the eve of a great battle (or so you may have been taught) Constantine had a vision of a great crucifix in the sky, under which the words “By this sign conquer” appeared.
But that’s not quite what the record shows. The ancient Christian scholar Lactantius tells us that the emperor fought and won this battle in the name of Christ after having a dream in which he received instructions to print the Christian monogram (looks roughly like the letters X and P printed on top of each other) on his troops’ shields. The historian Eusebius, who had Constantine himself as his source, says that the monogram appeared in the sky along with the motto: “By this sign, conquer”.
Among other things, we learn from all this that if you dig a little deeper into the history of the Church itself, even the Roman Church as we know it today, its own records indicate that the crucifix, and certainly one with an effigy of Jesus hanging from it, was not originally used by the early Christians as a logo or banner of worship.
The Roman Church sometimes claims the Christian Monogram is a “P” for “Peter” or “Petros” (the rock) with a cross laid over it. Sometimes the “P” is drawn these days like a shepherd’s crook to reinforce that notion.
But in reality, it’s the two Greek Letters Chi and Rho, nothing to do with “P” as we pronounce it. More like a K and an R sound. These are the first two letters of “Christos.” They were overlayed to abbreviate His name as was a common custom then for all monograms. It was often enclosed with a circle. It was this monogram that Constantine painted onto his army’s shields to conquer the world in the name of Christ, most decidedly not a crucifix. And next time you are criticizing the abbreviation of “Christmas” as “Xmas,” keep in mind that so did the early saints. X is another abbreviation of Christos, based on its first letter in Greek, and used to avoid printing the name of God, a holdover from Hebrew tradition.
Having conquered the world however, and assuming the role of ruler of the Christian people, Constantine soon discovered that there were a lot of versions of Christianity, and they didn’t all get along with each other. The solution to these inter-Christian feuds he thought, was a refinement of the disorganized processes that had produced the rather vague Apostles’ Creed, or “Roman Creed” in his day. He wanted hard and fast rules on what was “orthodox” or “standard” or essentially “catholic and universal.” Thus, after a season of debate, in 326 the council at Nicaea issued what we now know as the Nicene Creed.
After a year of arguing over the Greek word “homoousios,” and debating if Father, Son, and Holy Ghost were entirely separate or just manifestations of God’s character made out of the same substance, the Nicene Creed pretends to define once-and-for-all, the true nature of God for all Christian faithful. It is the beginning of what “orthodox” Christianity still calls, the Great Mystery of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, or, the Mystical Nature of the Godhead:
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
The Lutheran Book of Worship
The Book of Common Prayer (Episcopal)
It’s important to note that the bishop of Rome, who we all now know as “The Pope,” didn’t even appear at the Nicene Council. He sent a routine delegate to observe, and history records no particular input from him. The “Pope” did not preside at this conference that would define Christian orthodoxy because at that time the bishop of Rome was just one bishop out of many. Though an important post, the bishop of Rome had no binding authority outside his own diocese, the equivalent to an LDS stake, and was making no claim to any right of central authority over the council. The Emperor Constantine had demanded the conference, and his delegated bishops from Alexandria, in Egypt, and nearby regions ran it, not the “Pope” as we think of the structure of the Roman Church today. (Nicaea is in modern Turkey and called Isnik. Rather a ways off from Rome.)
The Nicene Creed didn’t stop the bickering however, and it took over 50 years of dissent just to enforce its universal adoption into the Western Church. In fact, what really happened is the original creed and its language became so lost and obfuscated with editorial variations it was necessary to convene another council in Constantinople in 381 and entirely re-compose the statement of faith, into what we now have today, beefing up the proto-Trinitarian nature of God, the divine nature of Jesus, and the role of the Virgin Mary. This is one of many harsh realities that is very rarely mentioned and almost unknown in “orthodox” Christian circles. Everyone talks of the Nicene Creed and the council of 325-26 that produced it. But that paperwork was all lost. What we now call the “Nicene Creed” was actually reconstructed from memory in 381 in the city built by the emperor to be the center of political power in the new Christian “Rome.”
Though the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 381, was able to produce nearly universal agreement East and West on a basic Christian creed, the body-and-fender work done in this fashion to hammer together an “agreeable” statement wasn’t enough for many of the Western Church’s driving personalities. Having gotten most of what it wanted after re-working the original Nicene Creed, with this victory, the Roman or “Western” Church set about drafting what was supposed to be the more precise and undebatable language of the Athanasian Creed, which took the concept of unifying the Father, Son and Holy Ghost so far that it defined them clearly as a single entity.
This then, was the birth of the now allegedly “universal, catholic” Christian concept of the Holy Trinity. The Triune God. And also the root of the first major schism of the Christian Church into Eastern and Western “orthodoxies.” The entire Eastern Church split off in 1054, for among other things, disagreement with the use of the Greek word, homoousios, which was translated to mean “of one substance,” in the several Nicene Creed versions, and then rationalized to ridiculous extremes in the Athanasian Creed:
Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith;
Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly
And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;
Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.
For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit.
But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.
Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit.
The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated.
The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible.
The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal.
And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal.
As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible.
So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty.
And yet they are not three almighties, but one almighty.
So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God;
And yet they are not three Gods, but one God.
So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Spirit Lord;
And yet they are not three Lords but one Lord.
For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord;
So are we forbidden by the catholic religion to say; There are three Gods or three Lords.
The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten.
The Son is of the Father alone; not made nor created, but begotten.
The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.
So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits.
And in this Trinity none is afore or after another; none is greater or less than another.
But the whole three persons are coeternal, and coequal.
So that in all things, as aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.
He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.
Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe rightly the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
For the right faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man.
God of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and man of substance of His mother, born in the world.
Perfect God and perfect man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting.
Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood.
Who, although He is God and man, yet He is not two, but one Christ.
One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of that manhood into God.
One altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person.
For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man, so God and man is one Christ;
Who suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead;
He ascended into heaven, He sits on the right hand of the Father, God, Almighty;
From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies;
and shall give account of their own works.
And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.
This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved
After beating the Triune God concept to death line after line, the Athanasian creed drifts back into familiar territory a while in attempting to define an orthodox “Christology,” as it became called amongst Christian scholars and clergy, making Jesus both man and God, which perhaps was worth some effort. But in the context of the many paragraphs reiterating the Trinity concept, inserting a fourth concept of a Triune God, who one-third of which was also 100% mortal, the Athanasian Creed doesn’t really clarify anything.
The most important language changes in the Athanasian Creed compared to all previous creeds, is the introductory and summary lines demanding that all self-professing Christians confess and embrace this creed else they are damned to hell and anathema to the Church.
For what it’s worth, the Eastern Church mainly wanted to say the Holy Ghost proceeded only from the son exclusively. It’s splitting hairs a bit perhaps, in light of the surrounding absurdity of the other circuitous language, but if you’re not following this, I submit you’re not supposed to follow it. It’s a mystery. It’s beyond human reason to comprehend the nature of God. That’s the operative theory here.
And where did this type of thinking come from? Particularly: this insistence that all three personages of the Godhead must absolutely be made out of the same substance, or that this Triune entity must not have been created from anything. It didn’t come from a canon that hadn’t even been assembled and agreed upon yet.
The Triune God came from trying to reason out the references to three personages in the Godhead in the apostolic writings, against the “hard science” of Greek philosophers named Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates. It came from a a branch of philosophy I call for clarity, “Perfect Being Theory.” In this mental exercise, these great pagan Western thinkers sat around for generations, trying to imagine what a perfect being, whom you could call “God” if you wanted to, would be like.
Since the philosophers and logicians of the Greek Academic World had long decided that all matter was corrupt, the first “logical” conclusion made by their peers in the new Christian Church, was that God, the perfect being, could not therefore be made of matter. A perfect being could not be composed of imperfect matter, and this later evolved into suppositions about “immaterial matter.” Also, a perfect being could not be dependent upon sub-parts or particles of any sort. A perfect being must be of one substance otherwise it could be separated and diminished. It could also be changed in this fashion—something perfection cannot be capable of. If it was less than before, or more than before, or arranged differently than before, it is not perfect. Perfection cannot be capable of being less perfect, or a different sort of perfect. There is only one perfect and anything not exactly like it is not perfect.
A perfect being must be omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, omnibus, omnidirectional and omnitheatre. Some surmised that the cosmos itself was this perfect being. And they went on and on from there into a number of highly illogical assumptions based on a very primitive understanding of the universe.
These later Church historians and scholars became known as the “Apologists.” Many argued against Plato’s view of God, but they were in the minority and were all excommunicated and most tortured to death, primarily for not taking a Trinitarian spin on the emerging canon. In a Church now being administered by professional clerics and scholars, all educated in the Greco-Roman or “Western” arts and sciences, the Trinity as these Church authorities explained it to themselves and their secular peers, was perfectly logical and made complete sense. It was easily grasped as a philosophical construct, as they argued their new religion with fellow academics and scholars of the day.
What happened then at the Council of Nicaea, and all those that followed, is a group of Church academics getting together to homogenize the scraps of an incomplete canon with Church tradition and “science.” As they shuffled through these elements to sort out what it all really meant, they did this doctrinal divination through a filter constructed by hundreds of years of Platonic and other pagan theories about what they should really be looking for in a really really perfect God. And sure enough, they clearly found Plato’s God in the apostolic and other historical Christian writings, exactly as they had predetermined to do, according to their rigid Greek philosophical and academic programming. Then they canonized those writings that supported this image, and sometimes conveniently lost or ignored the others.
The third big schism in the Church you may know, even if as I say, if you grew up in Provo and were born and raised in the LDS faith like 99.8% of your friends and neighbors, was the breakoff of the Church of England from Rome in 1534. The Roman Church and a number of Protestant detractors still call the Church of England, the Anglicans, the Presbyterians, Episcopalians and variants associated with this schism, “Catholic Light.”
Here’s the Church of England take on the Trinity, found in its First Article of Religion:
There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
This is the Trinity statement Latter-day Saints are usually most familiar with. Again, the Platonistic concept of a perfect, and therefore immaterial God made of one inseparable substance (non-substance…) was transferred directly into the Anglican Communion from the Roman Church as a matter of unquestioned tradition because the concept was by then a thousand years or so old. (The Anglican Communion has no central structure or authority, that’s just what the circle of still-friendly branch-offs from the Church of England call themselves)
Even if the Latter-day Saint could accept a formless, nonexistent God, one would be even more hard-pressed to accept an Almighty Deity without any “passions,” as described in the Anglican Creed. Again this is a function of Classical Theism. A Perfect Being is “impassible,” meaning nothing is capable of affecting it. Nothing in existence can physically, mentally, or emotionally disturb God. If our suffering made God sorrowful, God would be less than perfect because He was affected by lesser entities.
Fueling the English break from Rome, or rather, helping justify the English King Henry the VIII’s quest for multiple divorces, the second great Roman Church schism had already begun in 1517 on 31 October, what Lutherans and some others now call “Reformation Day.”
Was that a trick, or a treat? I’d say from the LDS perspective a little of each.
On that day, Martin Luther, the director of religious study at Wittenburg Castle Church, in Germany, tacked 95 complaints or “theses” about Roman Catholicism to the massive outer door of his church for all the world to see, and kicked off a wave of revolution and reform that reshaped the religious and political world for the next 500 years and more. The good reverend’s biggest complaint had to do with the notion of the Pope encouraging wealthy patrons to buy their way out of hell by making generous donations to the Church, called “indulgences,” which the professional clergy in turn just used to buy lavish accommodations and finance a life of luxury. But Luther had no intention of breaking from the Roman Church, and never questioned the Trinity tradition nor the creeds associated with it.
Martin Luther also promoted for the Church, a replacement system of lay-clergy very similar to the modern LDS model, he called the “Universal Priesthood” that is now the main claim to authority of most Protestant clergies. Today it is usually called the “Priesthood of all Believers.” The Christian canon by his time had been fairly settled, and inasmuch as Luther was thoroughly disgusted at the institution-wide level of corruption, overt sin and greed, in his “catholic and universal Church,” he bolstered his argument against its professional clergy by claiming that the canon of scripture was the ultimate Christian authority, not the clergy, historical councils, or tradition.
“Sola Scriptura.” The Bible Alone.
The Roman Church still calls this whole approach a blueprint for anarchy. And even while claiming the ultimate authority of Biblical scripture alone, even Martin Luther took exception to a number of books considered to be part of it. He had little use for the Old Testament at all, was a raving anti-Semite, and when he printed the first German Bible he took out Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation, and placed them in an appendix with a preface warning the reader that they were not very reliable or important. He also cut out the deuterocanonical books that filled the “400 Years of Silence” between the Old and New Testaments, and called them “Apocrypha,” meaning they were essentially just interesting reading but totally unreliable.
Another one of the Reformation’s Sola Scriptura anarchists was a French lay-minister, or religious hobbyist named Jehan Cauvan. We know him in English as John Calvin. Calvin had little regard for Luther due to the latter’s monkeying with the canon, but took many of his other ideas to the extreme.
Calvin went on to invent most of what we in America know as religion. Calvin’s concept of a pure religion based entirely on Biblical texts, and the notion of purifying the corrupt Roman Church, soon produced in England a group known as the “Puritans,” who were driven out of the England by a Church-State that was essentially Roman Catholic in every way except for the king demanding to be the prime religious authority and protector, rather than the bishop of Rome, or “Pope.” They fled to Holland, found backing there, sailed to Plymouth Rock and the rest is history. Not the history you have been taught however. That’s subject matter for another time, but it must be said that the Puritans as it turns out, were not quite as dedicated to religious liberty as the spinners of American Christian history have led us to believe. Apparently they just wanted to enforce their own religious system using the same sort of oppressive Church-State tactics they’d experienced in England. This they did, armed with the political theology of John Calvin.
While we often snub the Roman Church for its obvious historical corruption and brutality, best exemplified in the Inquisition, John Calvin among other things founded one of the most abusive and repressive theocracies in Geneva Switzerland in 1541. It soon came to be called the “Protestant Rome.”
Calvin’s rise to power in Geneva is nothing short of baffling. At his first visit he irked the wrong social-movers-and-shakers, and was thus driven out and banished. He licked his wounds and eked out a living writing and giving religious lectures in nearby Strasbourg, till he’d built up quite a reputation and following. The socio-political structure that had banned him in Geneva fortuitously got turned around by a new crop of social climbers, this time filled with many who had heard and read his lectures and thought him to be just the religious thinker to solve their law-and-order problems. Calvin was practically begged to return at the end of this convoluted religious and political trail, and was offered a nice salary and home if he would do so.
Having no Church commission or clerical certification of any sort, Calvin thus eventually won over the Geneva town council wholeheartedly, with this theories about ruling society directly from the Bible, urging the use of the Bible itself as the absolute arbitrator of the law. He was appointed supreme Biblemaster and lawmaker for lack of a better title.
Calvin’s apologists like to claim he never directly supervised any of the atrocities committed by his word or decree, and like to dismiss the daily repression the population of Geneva labored under in his name as “typical of the period.” They excuse his oppression, so they say, because he never had any official status as a civil or Church officer. In point of fact, anything Jehan Cauvan said to the combined Geneva Church/State city council was in practice law. Calvin in effect was commander of the courts, law enforcement, and the Church.
Ironically, during Calvin’s preliminary, “fleeing and being banished” phase, he was almost excommunicated for not adopting any Trinitarian dogma into the official statement of faith he initially drafted in order to recruit support for his Biblical empire.
Calvin had embraced Luther’s Sola Scriptura concept with both arms, and frankly, he hadn’t seen any Trinitarian teachings in the Bible. If he didn’t see it in the Bible it wasn’t part of the Church. And for all his other faults, John Calvin at first perusal, did not see the Trinity in the Bible. (Many modern Bible scholars will still admit Calvin’s first impression was correct.) When it became clear he would either die horribly or be unemployable and permanently impoverished, he conceded that the Bible didn’t preclude Trinitarian thinking.
It was only in his second or third incarnation as a would-be religious reformer, in crafting the pitch that ultimately won him supreme control over the huge city-state of Geneva, that he surrendered to a vague acceptance of what he preferred to call the “Godhead” because that term actually was in the Bible. And even so, Calvin usually bypassed the issue of what either that term or the “Trinity” exactly meant. Calvin’s writings on the subject of the Godhead are not any clearer than the Athanasian creed and hundreds of pages longer. His disciples and religious scholars today still debate what his feelings on the matter really were, or what his commentaries on it actually mean.
All of which takes us back to Joseph Smith and the First Article of Faith. It is only after gaining a basic understanding of ancient Church history and the machinations that resulted in todays prevailing “orthodox” Christian, Trinitarian dogma, that we can come to a genuine understanding of the issues and religious environment in which Joseph Smith read James 1:5 and subsequently went into the grove to pray for an answer about which of church to join.
The Puritans may have landed first, but their former antagonist, the Church of England, was close on their heels, and was the first significantly organized Christian force to appear institutionally in the United States. In Scotland, Wales, and the US, remote from the central control of the English Church, the Presbyterians and Episcopalians split off originally just attempting to ignore or deny the acceptance of the King of England as supreme Church commander and Protector of the Faith. They held to Luther’s “Priesthood of all Believers” and maintained that they were free to form their own governing bodies, in the former, the presbytery, which is a council of elders, and in the latter, the episcopate, which is a council headed by a local bishop.
Eventually, the American, Scottish and some other Presbyterian or Episcopalian branches absorbed the Puritan ethic, and embraced Calvinism to the point where they were considered “Non-Conforming” and no longer under the blessing of Mother Church. The Presbyterians in particular became extremely attached to Calvinistic dogma.
Meanwhile, back in England, John Wesley, a staunch Anglican, joined up at Oxford with George Whitefield, mixed Whitefield’s stump-preaching skills and Calvinism with his own Anglican upbringing, swerved into Arminianism, organized a “Holy Club” on campus, worked out a methodical approach to living a holy lifestyle, and that too got sneaked across and sometimes driven over the pond by Church of England suppression, thrived in America’s religiously free environment, and finally, at the death of Whitefield, eventually lost most of its Calvinism, and became Methodism as it is known today.
Meanwhile, the much persecuted Baptists came into their own when they moved into the liberty of the American frontier. They, like the Methodists, were also a product of Jacobus Arminius, the man who led the Reformation of Holland. They had been beaten up by nearly everyone across Europe, because of their insistence on baptism by immersion and their persistent habit of telling the Roman, Lutheran, and Anglican State-Churches that their baptisms didn’t count.
Arminius studied religion in Geneva, following Calvin’s great reign of terror there. Taking Calvin at his word, he studied the Bible himself and then argued that Calvin’s doctrines of Predestination and Unconditional Election made God the author of evil and were un-Biblical. This conclusion developed into the now infamous Calvinist/Arminian feud reflected in Joseph Smith’s day between the Baptists, Presbyterians and Methodists. The Methodists at the time took the middle ground, sidestepped most of the theological debate, and concentrated on being pious, healthy, well-studied and stoic. The Baptists and Presbyterians of the day however, went at it tooth and nail.
The Presbyterians claimed if you joined up it was Predestined and inevitable, you were one of the Elect, God had created you intentionally to be saved, and anyone else was not part of God’s election by God’s deliberate design. The non-Christian, the “Heathen Nations,” were created to burn in hell, and never would nor could be saved, and thus never will be. Free will was an illusion they argued. Mankind existed and prospered or failed entirely at the will design of God.
The Baptists claimed salvation was an “election of believers” and conditioned upon faith in Christ and an express confession of same. They believed they could save anyone they could get the message out to, and it was your duty as a Christian to go out and win for Christ all the damned souls you could call into the waters of baptism, anywhere around the world. They believed salvation was a choice mankind could, and most would make if argued enthusiastically enough, and thus salvation had to come through a deliberate act of faith by confessing Jesus as Lord and entering the waters of baptism to symbolize it.
The Methodists added to the Baptists’ message, that salvation was not fixed, entirely unconditional and irreversible, even for the devout. It was possible to “backslide” into damnation they argued, by falling into bad company, bad, habits, physical, mental, and thus spiritual sloth. Baptism was a big deal alright but Methodists remain noncommital on defining a “correct” mode even today. Wesley from his Anglican background even held that infant baptism by whatever method held a spiritual value of some useful sort for the baptizee but, again, it wasn’t a sure lock to salvation. In contrast, he was very precise however on claiming that Cleanliness was next to Godliness. Hence, the Methodist emphasis particularly in Joseph Smith’s day, went well beyond “conversion,” and into rigidly enforcing a strict, “holy” lifestyle that would prevent a backslidden condition from developing.
These are the questions for which Joseph Smith went to the Lord on his knees and begged answers. They had nothing whatsoever to do with the basic nature of God and in all truth Joseph Smith didn’t even know who he was going to be talking to when he kneeled down in the grove. Joseph probably never doubted or seriously questioned the Triune God common to all of those Christian denominations attempting to win him over. Joseph had a very simple question of which church to join in light of the sorts of quibbing interpretations of scripture the Calvinists, Papists, Arminians and the others were bickering over in his day. The answer he got to this mundane quiery, was a personal visitation from the father and son, preceded by a bracing battle between the Spirit of Darkness and his deliverer from same, the Holy Ghost.
A personal appearance from the Godhead was the answer to a question Joseph Smith didn’t even have the knowledge or wisdom to ask. Joseph was just looking to be pointed in the right direction. The entire Godhead appeard to warn him that the Church of Jesus Christ could not be found heading in any of the directions his religious recruiters wanted to take him:
The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me us made up of rules taught by men.”
It may have been a long and convoluted literary journey, but I have struggled here to impress upon the reader just exactly what this one single passage of Biblical canon means, and why a reliable translation can make all the difference in understanding scripture. Connotation is everything, and I hope I have rewarded the reader with some small idea just who these men were, where they got their rules about the “Perfect Being,” they called the “Trinity,” and how they taught and enforced their human scholarship, science and philosophy, for generations, until human, academic “reason” had entirely superimposed itself over the canon and apostolic tradition.
The one thing all Joseph Smith’s “professors of religion” agreed upon was the Neo-Platonistic nature of the Mystical Trinity. But Plato’s God didn’t come to visit Joseph Smith in answer to his first uttered prayer. It wasn’t the Godhead of Athanasius, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Luther, Calvin, Arminius, Wesley, or any existing Christian tradition, that spoke to Joseph Smith in the Sacred Grove.
In Joseph Smith’s day the Roman Church was treated to nearly ghetto-like conditions at times and subject to general abuse almost universally among the American population. Most of America’s Christian population had fled the Old World to escape the domination of Rome in one way or another. Rome would have to take a back seat to America’s raging Protestantism and sometimes forcefully, brutally so for almost two centuries even after the signing of the Constitution granting all Americans religious liberty.
But while the Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and others courting Joseph Smith’s loyalty universally condemned Roman Catholicism as corrupted, they ironically also held true to the image of the very Triune God that Plato, Constantine, Athanasius and the Roman Church’s “corrupted” authorities had trademarked in the fourth and fifth centuries.
The LDS belief in the “Godhead” and our understanding of it’s nature isn’t based on any of the historical Church creeds. How could it be? They don’t make any sense. All they amount to is an agreement that the nature of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost is a mystery beyond the understanding of the human mind. God is incomprehensible and so unlike we mere mortals that it doesn’t even bear pondering.
The LDS concept of the Godhead isn’t based entirely upon the Biblical canon either. It began in the Sacred Grove as direct observation, and developed in its fullest through modern revelation:
Although the three members of the Godhead are distinct personages, their Godhead is “one” in that all three are united in their thoughts, actions, and purpose, with each having a fulness of knowledge, truth, and power. Each is a God. This does not imply a mystical union of substance or personality.
Joseph Smith taught: Many men say there is one God; the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are only one God. I say that is a strange God anyhow-three in one, and one in three! It is a curious organization anyhow.
“Father, I pray not for the world, but I pray for those that thou hast given me…that they may be one as we are.”…I want to read the text to you myself–“I am agreed with the Father and the Father is agreed with me, and we are agreed as one.” The Greek shows that it should be agreed. “Father, I pray for them which thou hast given me out of the world,…that they all may be agreed,” and all come to dwell in unity [TPJS, p. 372; cf. John 17:9-11, 20-21; also cf. WJS, p. 380].
The unity prayed for in John 17 provides a model for the LDS understanding of the unity of the Godhead-one that is achieved among distinct individuals by unity of purpose, through faith, and by divine will and action. Joseph Smith taught that the Godhead was united by an “everlasting covenant [that] was made between [these] three personages before the organization of this earth” relevant to their administration to its inhabitants (TPJS, p. 190).
The prime purpose of the Godhead and of all those united with them is “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39; Hinckley, p. 49-51).
Each member of the Godhead fulfills particular functions in relation to each of the others and to mankind. God the Father presides over the Godhead. He is the Father of all human spirits and of the physical body of Jesus Christ. The human body was formed in his image.
Jesus Christ, the Firstborn son of God the Father in the spirit and the Only Begotten son in the flesh, is the creative agent of the Godhead and the redeeming mediator between the Father and mankind. By him God created all things, and through him God revealed the laws of salvation. In him shall all be made alive, and through his Atonement all mankind may be reconciled with the Father.
The Holy Ghost is a personage of spirit who bears witness to truth. The Father and the Holy Ghost bear witness of the Son, and the Son and the Holy Ghost bear witness of the Father (3 Ne. 11:32; cf. John 8:18). Through the Holy Ghost, revelations of the Father and of the Son are given.
(Author: Dahl, Paul E.)