Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Ancient Christian Documents and the Reality of the Restoration

Restoring the Ancient Church: Joseph Smith and Early Christianity by Barry Bickmore is one of the most interesting pro-LDS books I've read. Barry, well known for his Website on Early Christianity and Mormonism, has provided a treasure trove of information from early Christianity that points to the credibility of LDS claims of an Apostasy and a Restoration. I am delighted that his book has been provided online at FAIRLDS.org, another favorite Website.


The claim that early Christian documents support many LDS views is one I take seriously, though not every doctrine or policy can be expected to be found in early Christian documents. But many are. Before I ran into Barry's book, I ran into a book that I purchased out of curiosity: The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd ed., translated by J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer, ed. and rev. by M.W. Holmes (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1989). Wow! I was deeply impressed with the documents in that book, among the earliest Christian documents outside the New Testament, from men who were carrying on the apostolic traditions of early Christianity. So many of the sermons reminded me of typical sermons one hears at General Conference, with emphasis on keeping the commandments, respecting Church leaders, repenting of sins, having faith and works, enduring to the end, etc., and not "once saved always saved" or "saved by faith alone" or "irrestible grace." There are dozens and dozens of passages that depart radically from modern "mainstream" Christianity but left me feeling very much at home as a Latter-day Saint.


As I mention on my page on Mormon and Biblical Perspectives on Faith, Works, Grace, and Salvation, Mormons aren't the only ones to see how modern mainstream Christianity seems to have departed from the understanding of early Christians on the issue of faith, works, and salvation. One writer, Joel Kalvesmaki, raised as an Evangelical Christian, speaks of his discoveries as he read the writings of early Christians (the complete article was posted May 4, 1999 on the newsgroup "aus.religion.christian" and is archived online with Google newsgroups):


After a while I gave myself permission to vent my hungry heart and reach out to the saints of which Eusebius spoke. Instead of trying to fit them into my own mold, I asked them to tell me their story.

Where have you been all my life? As an Evangelical missionary and "apologist," I felt robbed. I had spent hours poring through Christian bookshops and had never read this kind of material. I didn't even know there were writings available from the period. Most versions of Church history I had read would briefly mention the second and third centuries, briefly focus on the trinitarian debates of the fourth, highlight Augustine, then jump into the sixteenth century for the Reformation. Never at a Christian bookstore or booktable had I seen patristic writings being reprinted and sold. We have been content selling the writings of any nutcase who pretends to be Evangelical, but have not bothered to consider selling the works of the sons and grandsons of the Apostles.

And I soon realised why. If Evangelicals ever bothered to reprint and study Ignatius, Polycarp, Tertullian or Irenaeus, their writings would step on our theological toes....

Irenaeus, in his treatise Against Heresies, catalogues and deals with Gnostic heresies, primarily combatting their views on the godhead and creation, while also addressing their inclination towards sectarianism, anti-sacramentalism and departure from the Apostolic succession. Tertullian, the first Christian to use the term Trinity, also looks at the nature of heresies in his day and observes how they have departed from the historic Apostolic faith in both teaching and practice, giving no regard to the sanctity of the Eucharist or the Apostolic succession. The criticisms Irenaeus and Tertullian make against their opponents are still valid against many forms of Evangelicalism.

Allow me to qualify these bold strokes. Some of the early authors may have looked upon certain groups such as Anglicans or Lutherans with a sympathy that may have extended to mutual recognition and communion. However mainstream Evangelicalism, as represented by the Evangelical Alliance or most interdenominational agencies, would not be in favor with the consensus of the earliest Fathers....

Salvation

Early Christianity maintained that we are saved by faith in Christ through baptism. We are being saved now and will be saved if we abide in Christ. Their writings are full of warnings against falling away from Christ, with the understanding that it could and does happen. Even though they had no understanding of eternal security, the Fathers had no "eternal insecurity." They understood that God initiates our salvation by sending His Spirit and power into our lives, a love which we reciprocate. The concept of salvation by faith alone or by irresistible grace was a concept foreign to the Church. Rather, the Calvinist system, which I had embraced for many years, finds unusually strong echoes in the teachings of Gnostic sects.


I hope you will look into the interesting evidence from early Christianity on the core doctrinal areas that Barry Bickmore explores, and see for yourself if there is any merit to the idea that something was lost. If there was a loss, then the next thing to consider is the possibility of a Restoration. I firmly believe that the Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ has occurred.

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