Must One Accept the Nicene Creed to Be a Christian?

“17th-century Russian icon illustrating the articles of the Creed” (Source)

Earlier this week I participated in an Evangelical-Mormon interfaith dialogue with students from Biola University. In the course of the evening one of the Biola students made the point (if I understood him correctly) that he has a hard time accepting as Christian those who do not adhere to Nicene orthodoxy. My response to this was essentially to say that acceptance of Nicene orthodoxy is a rather shaky criterion to determine who is and isn’t Christian, given the untold numbers of Christians before and after the creed (including Latter-day Saints) who did not and do not accept such.

In my studies this morning I was reminded of some remarks made by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, who addressed this point of criticism in a 2007 General Conference address.

In the year A.D. 325 the Roman emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea to address—among other things—the growing issue of God’s alleged “trinity in unity.” What emerged from the heated contentions of churchmen, philosophers, and ecclesiastical dignitaries came to be known (after another 125 years and three more major councils) as the Nicene Creed, with later reformulations such as the Athanasian Creed. These various evolutions and iterations of creeds—and others to come over the centuries—declared the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost to be abstract, absolute, transcendent, immanent, consubstantial, coeternal, and unknowable, without body, parts, or passions and dwelling outside space and time. In such creeds all three members are separate persons, but they are a single being, the oft-noted “mystery of the trinity.” They are three distinct persons, yet not three Gods but one. All three persons are incomprehensible, yet it is one God who is incomprehensible. 

. . . 

It is not our purpose to demean any person’s belief nor the doctrine of any religion. We extend to all the same respect for their doctrine that we are asking for ours. (That, too, is an article of our faith.) But if one says we are not Christians because we do not hold a fourth- or fifth-century view of the Godhead, then what of those first Christian Saints, many of whom were eyewitnesses of the living Christ, who did not hold such a view either?

(Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Only True God and Jesus Christ Whom He Hath Sent,” Ensign, November 2007, 40–41, online here.)

This is reinforced by the observation made by the non-Mormon scholar of early Christianity Lewis Ayres. Writing in 2004, Ayres observed,

Many modern readers assume the Nicene creed was intended at its promulgation to stand as a binding and universal formula of Christian faith with a carefully chosen terminology defining the fundamental Christian account of the relationship between Father and Son. The idea that the creed would serve as a universal and precise marker of Christian faith was unlikely to have occurred to anyone at Nicaea simply because the idea that any creed might so serve was as yet unheard of. . . . Indeed . . . the idea that Nicaea would serve as universal standard of faith, and as one whose precise wording and terminology was itself definitive, evolved through the fourth century, and was still evolving at the century’s end.

(Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology [New York, N. Y.: Oxford University Press, 2004], 85–86.)

Ayres makes the argument that local baptismal confessions or catechisms would have served as the primary marker for whether one was a Christian in the centuries preceding Nicaea, and that even after Nicaea the issue still wasn’t settled. Far from being considered universally binding across all of Christianity, let alone the primary criterion for determining if an individual was a Christian, the Nicene creed did little more that set a theological trajectory for the church fathers in the third century and onward. It would, Ayres reports, take some time for the authority and catholicity of the Nicene creed to be fully cemented in classical orthodox Christianity.

Part of the reason for this is that the participants in the council themselves still weren’t settled on what the language of the creed exactly meant. Lincoln Blumell explains that the keyword of the creed that was supposed to clarify Christ’s nature and relationship with the Father (ὁμοούσιος) was so theologically and philosophically loaded that in many ways it created more problems than it solved.

The term homoousios has been a source of controversy for theologians since it was added to the Nicene Creed. . . . First, it was pointed out by both its detractors and its proponents that the term homoousios is not scriptural; nowhere in the scriptures is Jesus ever described as “homoousios to the Father.” For a creed that attempted to articulate the relationship of the Father and the Son relying solely on scriptural precedent, this word represented a significant exception. Second, the term proved problematic because there was no unanimous agreement on what it actually implied, and so it was imbued with different meanings by different interpreters; consequently the Nicene Creed could mean somewhat different things to different people. 

(Lincoln Blumell, “Rereading the Council of Nicaea and Its Creed,” in Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy, ed. Miranda Wilcox and John D. Young [New York, N. Y.: Oxford University Press, 2014], 205.)

As such, for these and other serious reasons (some of which are highlighted here) I am highly reluctant to allow Nicene Christians to appoint themselves the bouncers at the door of Christianity.

6 thoughts on “Must One Accept the Nicene Creed to Be a Christian?”

  1. I think the best thing Mormons can do when it comes to this conversation is leave it altogether. Not only does every religion try and determine what makes someone a "true follower of Jesus," but everyone's idea of God is pretty subjective. After spending years amongst Evangelical Christians trying to convince them of the "Christianity" to which Mormons lay claim, I don't think I changed a single person's mind.

    I mean, just look at Mormonism itself. After Joseph Smith's death, it became a spiritual death-match for who was meant to succeed him. Ultimately, it comes down to who you believe, be it Brigham Young, Joseph Smith III, Denver Snuffer, etc. You're totally right that Nicene Christians are not the "bouncers at the door of Christianity." Leave it at that and move on.

  2. I would assume Brigham's experiment with polygamy disqualifies him from being a true prophet of God and thus the successor to Joseph Smith, Jr. This is why Emma Smith and the Prophet's mother Lucy Mack Smith were both very wary of Brigham and refused to follow him to Utah.

    • Just a heads up: Stephan is on probation, so I may or may not be approving his comments from here on out. I got over his shtick really fast, and when he called me an apostate comparable to Runnells because I insisted Joseph Smith practiced plural marriage (which he absolutely did), I decided to put him on time out. Just FYI.

  3. Christianity is monotheistic (even if you don't agree with the Trinity, the doctrine affirms the absolute oneness of God). Any religious Faith that contradicts Monotheism is by definition NOT Christian. Christianity came from Judaism (a Monotheistic religion) so it only makes sense that it would itself be Monotheistic. How that Monotheism is perceived remains under debate.

Comments are closed.