Anyone who has taken a general science or chemistry course will have been exposed to the ‘litmus test:’ a strip of red litmus paper turns blue when inserted in an alkaline solution, and a strip of blue litmus paper turns red in acids. It’s a really simple test that’s been in use for over 700 years!
Both Christians and non-Christians have wondered at times whether there is some kind of analogous ‘litmus test’ for Christian belief. It’s a confusing situation with hundreds of denominations that are all known as ‘Christian’ even though they may seem to differ dramatically in their practices. Yet there are also a handful of religious groups that are referred to as ‘sects’ and aren’t considered ‘Christian’ (at least, not by Christians). It gets even crazier when those non-Christian groups may read the same Bible and adhere to the same kind of moral teachings! Out of the huge diversity of religions that speak about Jesus in favorable terms, why are some regarded as Christian and others not?
Well, there is an ancient ‘litmus test’ that Christians have been using for well over 1500 years as the fundamental standard for a Christian understanding of God: the so-called Ecumenical Creeds — Apostles, Nicene, and Athanasian (dating from 125-250, 325-381, and 500 AD respectively). Now it would be misleading to suggest that every Christian denomination accepts these three creedal statements equally and unequivocally: there is quibbling about details of wording and particular points of emphasis, and other creeds (notably the Chalcedonian Creed of 451) may also be favored. But as a general rule, all Christians can link arms and say that these Creeds express essential Christian beliefs – and more specifically, that anyone who has fundamental disagreement with the way these Creeds depict the triune nature of God is not a Christian. Though there is obviously a lot more to Christian belief than the Creeds, a correct belief in the nature of God is where it has to start, and that’s why the Creeds function as a ‘litmus test.’
Now the history of these Creeds, and the motivations which produced them, are stories for some other time. For this Fish Hooks we are going to limit ourselves to summarizing how three familiar religious groups may be evaluated by the litmus test of the Creeds:
Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints)
Mormons vehemently claim to be Christians – in fact, they claim to be the only legitimate Christians! According to them, Joseph Smith received divine revelation in the 1820s in the form of the Book of Mormon and other writings which supplement the Bible and correct the ‘errors’ that they say were introduced by the early Christians. Though Mormons do speak of God as Father, Son, and Spirit, they mean this in quite a different way than the Creeds teach. Their historic teaching is of separate individuals, where the Father was originally a human who Himself had a father, and that we and Jesus are His children in essentially the same sense of ones who can also become deities. Though there are also many other things about Mormon teachings and practices that offend orthodox Christians, because of their rejection of the Creeds they fail the basic litmus test of Christian belief.
Though Jehovah’s witnesses base their beliefs on the Bible and speak of Jesus as their Savior, they deny the Trinitarian teaching of the Creeds that God is Father, Son, and Spirit. According to their teaching, Jesus was the human appointed to mediate between Jehovah (the singular God) and humanity. Again, by the simple test of the Creeds, Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot be considered Christian.
Seventh Day Adventists
This group presents an interesting challenge in that they refuse to use the Creeds as a matter of principle but their actual teachings seem to conform rather closely to them. Many Christians are troubled by the role played in Adventist beliefs by the prophecies of Ellen G. White (1860s) that introduce a number of non-conventional practices. However, based on their basic beliefs about God and salvation through Christ, most would classify them as a fringe group of Protestant Christianity.
Your test would exclude the Arians, the Nestorians, and all Monophysite sects, such as the Armenian or Coptic churches, all of which were considered Christian enough, before their beliefs were declared heresies by the orthodox (small ‘o’) church at various occasions.
My mother might agree with you about the Mormons, but I have seen claims that they simply resurrected Monophysite beliefs and threw some “New World” stories (like their Book Of Mormon) to appeal to the early adopters from the Joseph Smith era, but I have not spent much time analyzing them.
From your description, Jehovah’s Witnesses have similarly re-created an Arian-like set of beliefs. I am sure that there is more to it, but again, I have not spent much time analyzing them.
Likewise, I often chide Roman Catholics about their worship (yes, they call it “veneration” but we all know that some of the less “earthier” sorts [e.g., Italian peasants in the 19th Century] take or took it rather further), calling them half-pagan henotheists who worship two of the three “persons” of the Triune Goddess (leaving out the “Crone”) of various New Age or Feminist theories under the name “Virgin Mary”, and various other gods until Vatican II, like Hermes for St. Christopher or the Celtic brother saints/gods of St Crispin’s Day fame.
All of these self-described “Christian” beliefs seem to agree with the Apostles’ Creed, though, even if they don’t formally recognize it AS their creed (leaving out whether the Spirit comes “from the Father and the Son” versus “from the Father through the Son” — the famous ‘one little Greek diphthong of difference’ from one of the Councils). Demanding that they worship an equilateral triangle triune god or they are not Christian seems to set the bar a bit high — if we are supposed to approach God like little children, demanding a college-level appreciation of Christian theology is excessive, like Jewish rabbis demanding fluency with the ten-fold godhead of the Kabbalah, let alone both Talmuds with all their commentary, before recognizing their Right Of Return to the state of Israel.
David, thank you for your thoughtful comments. As you suggest, the Creeds (being human documents) are imperfect in both their construction (see “How Did Jesus Descend Into Hell?”, Nov 1, 2015) as well as in their application (having sometimes been wielded to attack adversaries for largely ‘political’ reasons). Yet, despite their limitations, they do serve an important function in that they attempt to clearly define the nature of the God who is the object of orthodox Christian belief and worship. Though it is certainly true that saying that we have the same understanding of God does not mean that all beliefs and worship practices are equally valid, it is a necessary starting point. As you know, the historical heresies which the Creeds addressed mostly had to do with the nature of Christ: specifically whether He is truly God AND truly human, and that remains true today (for example, Christian Scientists hold a ‘Gnostic-like’ view of Jesus as a purely spiritual being.) So I think that, for purely practical reasons, it is as necessary for Christian theology to have a mutually agreed ‘standard’ regarding the nature of God as it is for physicists to agree on the nature of ‘mass.’ However, we must also guard against the kind of semantic hairsplitting which impugns ‘heresy’ because different words are used to express the same transcendent truth. So, I personally tend to think of the Creeds less in terms of a way to label others in error, as a concise way to state what we believe is the authentic Biblical teaching about God. When someone can confess the Creeds with me, we have the foundation for discussion of Christian faith. In the case of the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the official teachings of their denominations would preclude that.