Evangelical Questions: “Don’t Latter-day Saints worship a different Jesus?”
by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC
Welcome back to Come Follow Me with FAIR: Faithful Answers to New Testament Questions. My name is Jennifer Roach and today we’re going to talk about Easter and Jesus. As you know we’re going through the Come Follow Me readings and addressing common questions that Evangelicals ask about our faith as we go along. Our purpose here is not to fuel debate but to help you understand where your Evangelical friends and family are coming from so that you can have better conversations with them, and perhaps even be able to offer them a bit of our faith in a way they can understand.
So, you are probably watching this video sometime in April or later. Dear people of the future, I hope the sun is shining and it’s warmed up because I’m recording this in February and the sky just dumped 1 foot of snow.
This week’s topic is a tiny bit different because of Easter. We jump forward in the readings from earlier in the Gospels to the events of Easter this week, we’ll go back and pick up the rest of the Gospels after this. So I don’t have a particular scripture that encompasses the question for this week, but it goes something like this…”Don’t Latter-day Saints worship a different Jesus?”
I’ve you’ve been following along you know that this is our 3rd episode on Christology and there are many aspects to this question. We’ve already talked about the question of, “Is Jesus God?”…and “If Jesus is ‘the son’ doesn’t that prove the Trinity?”…and the question of what worshiping or praying to Jesus looks like. So if you’re interested in those aspects see the earlier videos. And there will be more in Christology coming up, including the ever-popular, “How can you say Jesus and Satan are brothers?” But for today I want to focus on the basics of beliefs about Jesus as Evangelicals or Protestants express them in one of the most important Creeds in mainstream Christianity, the Nicen Creed.
First we need to talk a tiny bit about Creeds as a concept – meaning figuring out even what are they?
So one of my early questions when I was investigating the church was: Aren’t the Articles of Faith a creed? They certainly read like a creed. Afterall a creed is, “a brief authoritative formula of religious belief.” And the Articles of Faith are brief, they’re authoritative as evidenced by the fact that they are found in our standard works, and they spell out our religious beliefs. It’s confusing right?
But the way a creed functions is something else. A creed is not just A statement of belief for a faith group….It is THE statement of belief for that group. That is, it means, “here is what we believe and nothing can be taken away, modified or added.” For Latter-day Saints this doesn’t make any sense when you set it next to the idea of ongoing revelation. You can’t have both. Either you can nail your beliefs down at a single point in time and demand that no changes ever be made OR you can say you believe in ongoing revelation so here are our beliefs but when God reveals more, we will believe that too. So it’s not so much that we disagree with what is contained in a traditional creed – though there is some of that – it’s that we disagree with the entire concept of having a creed because that means saying official revelation is closed.
Having said that, let’s talk about the Nicene Creed. What is it? Who wrote it? Why is it important to traditional Christians? So, the Nicean Creed was put together in the year 325 AD. No one who is alive at that time had been alive during the time Christ or the Apostles were alive. More time has passed between the Resurrection and the writing of this creed than has passed since the United States has been a country.
So what happened was there was a guy named Arius who argued that, “if the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence: and from this it is evident, that there was a time when the Son was not.” This is a heresy called Arianism.
As a side note….if you’ve been paying attention to these videos you remember in the very first week we started talking about this question of, “Was Jesus created?” Your Latter-day Saint ears probably heard that and thought, “Who in the world is even talking about this stuff?” Well, this is a very old heresy that has been talked about since the 300’s and Evangelicals have historically misunderstood Latter-day Saints as believing this. In theological conversations a really bad insult to throw around is that someone is an Arian, meaning they believe this heresy. And Evangelicals think we believe this – that Jesus has not always existed.
So back to the Nicene Creed. Constantine is Emperor at this time and he has made Christianity the state religion. And he’s a smart guy, he can read the tea leaves and see that Arius and his teaching are going to destabilize the entirety of Christianity, and thus the entirety of the Holy Roman Empire. So Constantine asks the leaders of the church to come together and hammer out what the church actually believes, and they do it in a city that was then called Nicea. It’s now called Iznik and it’s in Turkey. If you follow the news you know that some really bad earthquakes recently happened there. The earthquakes were in the southern part of the country, and Iznik is in the northern part, near Istanbul (which used to be Constantinople, named after Constantine.) So the leaders of the church meet in Nicea and want to lay down, once and for all, what the church beleives so that Arias gets knocked down. The creed was a collaborative effort, though there are three main authors called the Capadocian Fathers. They’re from Capadocia (which is also in Turkey, and on my bucket list of places I want to visit. Just google it, it’s gorgeous.) The Cap Fahters are two brothers and their good friend. In the background is also their sister. Her name was Macrana and they all called her The Teacher because she was said to understand theological concept more deeply than any of them and helped them make needed connections. There is a bakery in Seattle named after her. So the three Capadocian Fathers, with Macrena in the background, really are the ones who hammar out the creed.
So the question – the reason we’re going down this path at all – is to ask: What does the Nicean Creed say about Jesus? I’ll read you the section about Jesus…
“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.”
The only place a Latter-day Saint would quibble here is in saying that Jesus is, “One being with the Father.” In English it sounds a little softer than it does in Greek. In English we can almost imagine stretching that phrase as far as it can go and landing on an understanding of the Godhead that is kind of close to what we believe. But in Greek, which is what the Creed was written in, it doesn’t stretch. The Greek word is Homoousious – meaning, “the same substance.” This is exact spot they take a left turn into Trinitarian thinking and end up having a hard time disambiguating God the Father and Jesus Christ.
I point all of this out because it’s a really interesting example of how Latter-day Saint has taken a creedal statement – that is a statement that is supposed to be set in stone – and applied ongoing revelation to it in a way that undoes the exact left turn that got taken in 325.
I think you’re able to see from here that there are a number of ways to approach the question from Evangelicals of, “Do you believe in the Jesus of the New Testament?” A plain answer would be something like: Yes, that’s exactly what we believe in, and we’ve corrected the error that was introduced 300 years later. But it gets difficult here because Evangelicals do a really normal and human thing at this point. You know, from standing in 2023 looking back over history the year 30 AD and 300 AD seem like pretty much the same thing. If I asked you to tell me 5 developments that had happened over those 300 years, most people couldn’t do it. 30 AD and 300 AD are pretty much the same thing to folks in 2023. So when your Evangelical friends have a hard time seeing the difference between what is taught about Jesus in the New Testament, and what is taught about Jesus in the Creeds, they’re not being difficult or obstinate. They’re just standing in 2023 and can’t squint hard enough to see the difference between the NT and Nicea.
I had a missionary ask me recently, “Do Evangelicals literally think that we believe in another boy named Jesus, who also had a mother named Mary, who grew up at the exact same time, and had the exact same things happen to him?” And no, that’s not what they’re saying when they ask if we believe in the same Jeus. What they mean is that their concept of Jesus has been shaped by the Creeds just as much as it has been shaped by scripture. We might say they have an extra-scriptural book called “the creeds” that they have been shaped by….while they would say that the Creeds are just a summary of what is already in the New Testament. They’re sort of color-blind to the difference between what is in the NT and what is in the Creeds.
So in the 1990’s when Gordon B Hinkley says that we don’t worship the traditional Christ, the Evangelicals lose their minds over it. Because they think the traditional Christ (that is the Christ portrayed in the Creeds) is identical to the Biblical Christ. They can’t tell the difference.
Our rejection of Creeds enables us to embrace a correction to an error that was made by really well-meaning people, long after Christ and the Apostles were gone. If that isn’t the best news ever I don’t know what is. We are not stuck with the burden of someone else’s mistake just because they thought we should be bound to it forever.
The reality is that we share a deep love of Jesus with our Evangelical friends. The vast majority of items we agree with them on, and where we don’t, it’s because we are open to God’s ongoing revelation.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this conversation and have a bit more understanding of why and how this rift happens, and maybe how to talk about it instead. Join us next time and we’ll get to work again.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.