“[Unlike the Latter-day Saints] Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be asked out of their church. I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammeled [sic]. It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.”
- Joseph Smith (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 288)
In my last post I explained why I believe the creeds of Christendom were an abomination in God’s sight. To summarize: I believe the content of the creeds are, for the most part, harmless. The real problem with the creeds is that they are used as a litmus test of one’s allegiance to Christ. Thus the creeds are treated as equivalent to revelation/scripture and are used as a basis for determining other people’s salvation.
In this post I will discuss what I see as one of Mormonism’s greatest strengths: our non-creedal nature, or attempts to be so in any case.
Now depending on how you choose to personally define the word “creed” the LDS Church does have creeds, after a fashion. The word “creed” can mean simply “what a religion believes.” In this sense, Mormons have a “creed” because we have a body of beliefs. Surely this is not what I meant.
A “creed” might be viewed as being anything written down that summarizes beliefs. Mormons have that too: the Articles of Faith. And modernly we have the young women recite the young woman’s theme in creed-like fashion.
If one wants to call these “creeds,” fine, they are creeds. But they aren’t the problematic type I was describing in my previous post. Why? In the case of the Articles of Faith our prophets, through revelation, intentionally canonized it and made it scripture. No, “wink wink, nudge nudge,” going on here. If it acts like scripture, its scripture and we took the pains to get God’s approval before making it normative.
The young women’s theme is non-problematic because it does merely summarize scripture and also because it’s not used to cut off people who believe differently from those reciting it. Well, accept for the young men, of course. Would anyone really want to argue that “We are daughters of our Heavenly Father, who loves us, and we love Him” is anything but a straight up scriptural pronouncement? (See, for example Acts 17:29.)
Some might define First Presidency statements as “creeds.” But just like the Articles of Faith, Mormons do not hide the fact that we see these as being extensions to scripture. Mormon First Presidency statements are the equivalent to the council of the Apostles held at Antioch as described in Acts 15. The Apostles and Prophets came together to seek guidance of the Lord and in the end added to scripture to resolve the situation. The church leader’s “decree,” and this is translated from the greek term dogma which is the same word as the legal and binding decrees Roman made, was sent to the Churches with expectation that they would be obeyed. But this wasn’t an interpretation of scripture – it was new scripture. Mormons claim the same authority here.
When I say Mormonism is “non-creedal” what I mean is that we strive to only believe that which is actually in the revelations from God and refuse to take a permanent definitive stance on anything else.
The problem with my definition is, well, that the LDS Church hasn’t always qualify. We “strive” for this, but sometimes fail.
But consider this quote from Joseph Smith: “It is the constitutional disposition of mankind to set up stakes and set bounds to the works and ways of the Almighty.” (The Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 320) The need to form a “creed” – a non-scriptural but authoritative statement of belief by which to command what everyone should believe – is so deeply embedded into human nature that it’s amazing that a creedless Church could exist at all! Much of the discussion I see on the Bloggernacle is really moaning that the Church won’t give out definitive answers on some subject or other.
Despite our problems, be they very real, the Mormons Church does strive to avoid creed-making to fill in the blank where the Lord hasn’t spoken. And we are getting better at this with time.
When Brigham Young decided to advance his now infamous Adam-God doctrine, Orson Pratt had no problem advancing his Brigham-Young-doesn’t-know-what-he’s-talking-about doctrine. Pratt was never excommunicated for teaching against Brigham Young’s pet doctrine.
When Joseph F. Smith and B.H. Roberts nearly came to blows (I’m only partially kidding) over the existence of death before the fall and pre-Adamites, the first Presidency resolved the breech by… get this… declaring there was no official doctrine on the subject. Can you imagine the Nicene Council coming up with this innovative answer?
When William and Ralph Chamberlain, in 1909, decided to teach at Brigham Young University that evolution was inline with LDS beliefs, though they were asked to leave BYU or stop teaching this, Leonard Arrington summarized their situation as follows: “the trauma could have been worse; there were no books banned, no excommunications or schisms. No official church position was taken with regard to evolution or higher criticism. In a church magazine… President Joseph F. Smith wrote that the decision had only been not to discuss evolution in church schools.” (The Mormon Experience, p. 260) While it may have felt like the Spanish Inquisition at the time, the Spanish Inquisition it was not!
A bit closer to home is this post on Delbert Stapley’s letter to George Romney to discourage his activity in the civil rights movement. The maximum “heat” Romney takes over his “dissent” is a rather friendly letter that was sent “not in… official church capacity” and that affirmed the “right of [his] position if it represents [his] true belief and feelings.” Of course Stapley’s views were also at odds with several contemporary church leaders, including then President David O. McKay who actively sought to end the priesthood-ban. (See Adventures of a Church Historian, chapter 11)
The LDS Church was founded on the idea of doing away with creeds. This consists of new revelation to remove debate on some subjects (Calvinism anyone?) and open acceptance of differing opinions where God hasn’t spoken. While human nature is to fill in the blanks with creeds, God’s will is apparently that we do not. The LDS Church gets at least a passing grade historically for staying creedless and modernly is finally arriving to the full understanding of this very important doctrine.