Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Message of the First Vision

Within the Middle of the First Vision, one of the personages gives Joseph Smith the core message of the first vision, found in the following:
I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.” He again forbade me to join with any of them; and many other things did he say unto me, which I cannot write at this time.
That’s the entire Message of the First Vision, as stated in the 1838 account and part of the official History of the Church. LDS consider this statement scripture. The Personage is accepted by LDS as Jesus Christ. For simplicity, we’ll refer to the Personage as Christ and the text above as the Message.
The Message makes a number of important claims.

1. Join none of them, for they were all wrong. This is a tough statement, and very polemic. Perhaps for this reason, alone, Christians have such a vitriolic reaction to the LDS church: it starts out in its first, founding statement that the Churches are all wrong. By itself, it’s not helpful, for we have to explore the reasons for which the Personage said they’re all wrong.

2. All their creeds are an abomination in his sight. This is very tough language as well. When we look at the creeds, some of them are quite difficult to understand, but most are straightforward and uncontroversial. In fact, the first two, below, are relatively similar to the Articles of Faith. Gradually, the principles are expanded to include doctrine not consistent with LDS teaching (listed as “false doctrine”, below). Evenutally the creeds depart significantly from the original beliefs of the church as taught by Jesus. But the Message says “all their creeds”, not just the latter one. Here are the creeds:
  • The Old Roman Creed (2nd Century). No false doctrine.
  • The Apostles’ Creed (3rd Century). No false doctrine. A mention is made of the “Holy Catholic Church”, but this is meant to mean that there is a universal church of Jesus Christ — that the worldly organization was established by Christ.
  • The Nicene Creed (325 CE). A single word of false doctrine is introduced, “ὁμοούσιον”/”homoousion”, meaning “single substance”, implementing the dogma of the trinity that there is one god in substance/essence who exists in three persons. Homoousion is never found in scripture or in the earliest writings, it is an invention to fix in dogma the relationship between God the Father and Jesus.
  • Latin version of the Nicene Creed (?) This adds terms such as “God of Gods” and that the Holy Ghost proceeds from both the Father and the Son (Filioque). There are a couple polemic versions batting this concept back and forth between Catholic traditions.
  • The Chalcedonian Creed (451 CE). This continues to expand on the homoousion/Consubstantial dogma.
  • The Athanasian Creed (late Fifth Century, 100 years after Athanasius). This is the most complex creed of all, containing a lot of illogical language about one in three but not three…, as James E Talmage would say, "It would be difficult to conceive of a greater number of inconsistencies and contradictions expressed in words as few."
Aside from the Athanasian Creed, why should they ALL be an abomination? Two of them, the most common used by the Protestant Churches, are nothing but a statement of belief, entirely consistent with the LDS Articles of Faith.

Could it be that the mere idea of a creed – a required statement of belief on the part of a Christian is an abomination?  We have Joseph Smith's actual words to interpret why creeds were an abomination:
The most prominent difference in sentiment between the Latter-day Saints and sectarians was, that the latter were all circumscribed by some peculiar creed, which deprived its members the privilege of believing anything not contained therein. Latter Day Saints have no creed, but are ready to believe all true principles existing, as they are made manifest from time to time.  (Joseph Smith, History of the Church, v5 p215)
One of the truly amazing things about the LDS church is that ‘doctrine’ is extraordinarily hard to fix. I propose that this is intentional. From the very beginning, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young innovated on doctrinal topics, exploring possibilities, and in some cases, saying some pretty outrageous things. Critics of the church sieze upon these speculative explorations and declare that “This is what the Church believes”, when in fact we do not. We must recognize that when ‘orthodoxy’ is set aside, then it is possible, even encouraged, to explore what might be meant by the message of the gospel.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, Church leaders standardized the teachings of the church and set aside a lot of the speculative theology espoused by earlier generations. This may have been necessary to allow for consistent teachings, but should not be construed as ‘orthodoxy’ — a mandated set of beliefs that must be strictly adhered to. “What is taught” is equivalent to “Church Doctrine”. It is distinct from what is believed by the member is his or her own testimony — a personal witness constructed from personal learning, prayer, and spiritual experience. The fact that we teach a standard church doctrine does not absolve us from the responsibility to learn from our own experience to distinguish good and evil — this is a most important principle: We must think for ourselves: the Church provides guidelines in “What is taught”, it does not mandate thought or belief.

This lack of ‘orthodoxy’ was the hallmark of the restored church: man was not to pluck of the fruit of a tree of predefined dogma, but rather, to learn for himself to distinguish good and evil. The original definition of “heretic” from the greek means “to think for oneself”. Joseph Smith was an original, authentic heretic. To Joseph Smith, knowledge was the fruit of seeking truth — for “all truth” was meant to be part of the Gospel. “Truth is knowledge of things as the are, as they were, and as they are to come.”

If the Gospel is “all truth”, and mankind is to discover it line upon line and precept upon precept, then the core teachings of the Church must include a means to discern truth from all things. And the good news of the Book of Mormon is that this means to discern truth is through the Holy Ghost, and from the Doctrine and Covenants, the Holy Ghost witnesses after we study it out in our minds. Here is the truth paradigm of the church: To seek out of the best books learning, and by experience in faith, to study out these things in our minds, and to seek confirmation by the Spirit that each thing is true.
What works against this truth paradigm is a declaration that “THIS is what you are to BELEIVE (credo, creed)”, and you are to accept this dogma without question or doubt. If a loving God wants us to learn, the learning is best done by experience and emotional bonding with the truth — best done through experience and not through rote dogma. For this loving God/Parent, the fixed answerbook of a “Creed” is a cheat — an abomination to the type of learning designed from the beginning to be “The Plan of Salvation”.

3. Those professors were all corrupt. Again, a very polemic statement — insulting in the extreme to the preachers of other faiths. But it doesn’t say ‘preachers’, but rather, ‘professors’. A professor is a teacher, one who is supposed to know the truth, and provide as accurate of a truth to the students. A ‘corrupt professor’ is one who violates the profession of a professor – that is, either doesn’t teach, or teaches falsehood as if it were truth.

I’m going to suggest that Christ was extraordinarily precise in his statement: those who then were preaching from the creeds as if that was the thing all people must accept on faith without doubt were corrupt in promoting such dogma. Professors who fail to help their students think critically and bond their learnings with personal experience are a menace to learning. Rote learning can do nothing but indoctrinate. It cannot teach — it prevents critical thinking, so necessary for an objective determination of truth. Those who profess and teach dogma as if it were truth, and then base all ‘knowledge’ on the dogma, are creating a type of tyranny over the mind of man that prevents real knowledge of truth. Such practice is corrupt indeed.

4. They teach for doctrine the commandments of men. Christ then quotes Isaiah 29:13 linked to 2 Timothy 3 with an important conjunction between the two. Isaiah 29:13 says:
Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men:
2 Timothy 3:5 says:
Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.
The quote in the Message blends these two with the highlighted conjunction:
they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.
The term ‘doctrine’ means either “what is taught” or “dogma”. Since the expression “they teach for [what is taught] the commandments of men” doesn’t make a lot of sense, the meaning “They teach for [dogma] the commandments of men” fits much better within this context.

According to the Message, Christ condemned the creeds and professors, and then explicitly states that the practice to be condemned is the teaching of doctrine (dogma) constructed from the commandments of men. Elsewhere, multiple times, Christ states explicitly that the only ‘doctrine’ or ‘dogma’ that rises to the level of “Doctrine of Christ” is as stated in 2 Nephi chapters 31-32, 3 Nephi 11, and here in Doctrine and Covenants Section 10:
67 Behold, this is my doctrine—whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me, the same is my church. 68 Whosoever declareth more or less than this, the same is not of me, but is against me; therefore he is not of my church. 69 And now, behold, whosoever is of my church, and endureth of my church to the end, him will I establish upon my rock, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against them.
In other words, the core Doctrine of Christ is quite simple: it comprises of the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel as stated in the Articles of Faith, without the explicit definition of things one must know or declare as dogma. Note clearly that Christ’s “Church” consists of those who keep to these core principles and those who declare more or less as core principles is not of Christ’s church.

While this seems like an extreme statement, the point is clear: the only ‘dogma’ — that which is to be accepted without doubt — is the need to repent and come to Christ, and endure to the end with him. All other things are either to be learned from experience, or are not required as core beliefs. We declare a set of beliefs in the Articles of Faith, but there is no absolute requirement to accept these things without determining for ourselves that they are true.

It is absolutely essential to understand that “commandments of men” are not forbidden, but they must not be construed as the “Doctrine of Christ”. They are not to be taught as if they must be accepted without doubt or personal testimony. Teaching commandments of men as if they are doctrine is explicitly forbidden by scripture, therefore as a responsible member of Christ’s church, one must recognize the difference between the Doctrine of Christ, and that which must be tested, as Alma proposes in Alma 32.

5. Join none of them. This is stated at the very beginning and end of the Message. Joseph had come asking which one to join, and Christ gave him his answer: do not join up with an organization that subjects the mind to the tyranny of dogma.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints does not use the term “Dogma” in explaining what the Church believes. There is no Westminster Confession, a long statement of belief intended to be taught and professed verbatim by members. There are no creeds recited each sunday and required as a declaration of belief by the member. Each and every principle in the Church is intended to be witnessed by the individual member through his or her own testimony: not a rote version to be memorized, but rather, through one’s own personal experience with the Spirit.

To be sure, there is a cultural tendency, reinforced by some unfortunate statements from the pulpit at BYU devotionals and General Conference, that members are to observe with exactness every word that proceeds forth from the mouth of the prophet and servants of the Lord, without question or doubt. Such observation in faith should never violate one’s responsibility to learn from experience and by spiritual confirmation the truth of all things.

To me, the Message of the First Vision is extremely important and clear: we are to be very wary of things that appear like ‘dogma’ — that which is to be accepted without doubt or question. With the singular exception of repenting and coming to Christ, all things are subject to question and spiritual confirmation.


  1. I like the meaning you work from the tale of the First Vision in Mormonism. It goes in a radically different direction than perhaps the dominant cultural understanding. Those kinds of challenges are important though.

    For sure, our human nature wants resolution and simplicity. Our minds are wired to reduce an onslaught of sensory input into immediately actionable decisions.

    But a personal religion that answers all the questions, solves all the problems and turns all belief into mere binary true/false points of data lacks the tension to propel the adherent forward in spiritual development.

    It's the tension that leverages eternal progress. Dogma (Correlation) sets into concrete that which must be fluid to be powerful. A religion that does not adapt to the dynamic and changing reality of this world will eventually become irrelevant.

    1. I'm shocked that I actually have a comment on this blog. It's so rare...

      I'm wondering if the idea that a concerned and loving parent in heaven would ever simply want his children to learn from the cheat-sheet of standardized doctrine.

      There is a purpose for correlated teachings -- keep people on message and out of the mire of speculative doctrine. without guidelines, what might people come up with? Without guidelines, pretty soon people will be prohibiting caffeine... and that's really the issue: mankind makes up stuff when they don't know, and forces that 'stuff' on their fellow man...