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

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Apostasy and Restoration: Powerful Paradigms with Historical Support

While reading in one of my favorite new books, Early Christians in Disarray, edited by Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, Utah: BYU Press, 2005), I was pleasantly surprised to see that a good friend from my days as a student at BYU had co-authored a chapter. I refer to Dr. James L. Siebach, now in the Philosophy Dept. at BYU, a man whom I respect for his keen insights, his love of knowledge (not to mention his collection of books!), his great sense of humor, and his service to others. (I have fond memories of cooking shrimp with him while we were students in the Provo Ninth Ward.) He obtained his Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin, where he learned a few powerful lessons that I hope he'll share on the Web someday, if he hasn't already.

His chapter is "The Introduction of Philosophy into Early Christianity" by Daniel W. Graham and James L. Siebach (pp. 205-237). I strongly recommend it as a great overview of major changes not just in doctrines, but in the core paradigms of Christianity in part driven by the penetration of human philosophy into the Church. The term "philosophy" refers to two things, according to the authors: "first, the systematic effort to make enquiries and answer questions about the ultimate nature of reality, the nature of knowledge, the nature of the good, and like questions, by reason alone; second, the doctrines of the philosophical schools such as stoicism and platonism bequeathed to the intellectual tradition." The chapter shows how early Christianity moved from being at odds with Greek philosophy to so thoroughly embracing it that they would accept a philosophical definition of their faith in the fourth century at the Council of Nicea. During the following century, Greek philosophy, especially Platonism, would be used as a means for establishing Christian doctrine. The authors provide excellent documentation and clearly develop their thesis.

Having said that, let me turn to the title of today's post. Many critics have expressed puzzlement or outrage over the failure of Mormons to leave the Church after hearing their "irrefutable" anti-Mormon arguments. After arguing that Joseph Smith did something objectionable or that there are differences in his First Vision accounts or that there have been changes in the Book of Mormon or that various Church leaders have said some stupid things, they are surprised that we don't just up our bags and join the anti-Mormon faith or the, uh, . . . what faith was that? That's one of the biggest issues: even if they right and the Church was not founded through revelation from God and the Book of Mormon is a fraud (and they are NOT right!), where should we go?

I've seen this question asked several times by LDS people in discussion with our critics. If you are right, where should we go? What are you offering us other than tearing down our faith? They may answer, "We offer you nothing but Jesus and the Bible," not realizing that their whole approach is informed by recently developed paradigms and models for interpreting the Bible, providing a framework that I view as being rooted in human philosophy mingled with scripture.

What they fail to understand is the power of the LDS paradigm of Apostasy and Restoration. The historical reality of the Apostasy is hard to deny once one has accepted that paradigm, as we have. Once acquainted with the LDS paradigm of early Apostasy in the Church, it is hard for a student of history and religion to miss the evidence of dramatic and powerful changes in early Christianity as divinely appointed leaders were rejected and lost, as teachings and ordinances were altered, as pagan Greek philosophy entered the Church and became inseparable from Christian doctrine, as the remnants of the Church entered a dark era in which it was the tool of emperors and politicians, and as Christianity split into a thousand forms each without a reasonable claim of divine authority through the prophets and apostles the Lord has set in His Church.

While we rejoice at how much of the early scriptures were preserved through this process, and how much doctrine and truth was preserved by good men and women seeking to keep the faith over the centuries, for LDS people, it seems clear that there was an Apostasy in the organizations and of Christianity, and loss and corruption of some core doctrines (e.g., the description of God in the post-Biblical creeds that is more like the God of the Greek philosophers than the tangible, resurrected Lord seen and felt by the Apostles and others, whom Stephen saw standing as a separate Being at the right hand of God the Father).

I know that it is terribly offensive to other Christians when we say that there was an Apostasy, but from our perspective, it's a painful truth with strong evidence on its side. That doesn't mean that Mormons are better Christians than others outside our Church - we often are not, and have much to learn from others. That doesn't mean that there are not problems in our own Church, or risks of doctrinal corruption and many other problems as well (mortals = problems, and we have both). But we believe that to the bad news of the Apostasy has been added the Very Good News of the Restoration, and that those who sincerely seek to follow Christ should rejoice that authority, modern revelation, prophets and apostles, and true ordinances have been restored to the Church. Many more great things will yet be revealed, for we do not have all truth nor anything close to a monopoly on truth, and look forward to further advances - or corrections - through the processes of continuing revelation.

But if there was an Apostasy, it makes a lot of sense that a divine Restoration was needed. We believe it has occurred and is in fulfillment of ancient prophecy. What do our critics offer us instead? It is easy to attack and tear down, but we are looking for a work that God has built up. Turning back to doctrines and practices that we see as being incomplete remnants of the original Church is not a satisfying proposition. Accepting creeds that we see as departures from the true faith of the Living God is not something we are likely to do, even if you do manage to get us riled up about our leaders. We are looking for the Church of Jesus Christ, with authority and pure and previous truths about God, not doctrines steeped in Greek philosophy or systems of faith that we see as the doctrines of men mingled with scripture.

The reason LDS people often don't fold and follow you, even when they don't know enough to refute your arguments or sincerely do get upset at something someone said or did, is that we are looking for a fullness of the Gospel, the Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and that is not what the critics offer.

10 comments:

thomas said...

I am not an expert in theology or Christianity, so I cannot address the assertion that Christianity has been corrupted by Greek intellectuals.

I am a former Mormon, however, and can offer an observation that might help push this discussion along.

I have attended various Christian denominations over the last few years, and will attend a local church later today. These Easter services are, in my experience, very uplifting, and always focused on Christ and the resurrection. It is a stark contrast to LDS services which choose not to embrace the crucifixion/resurrection event and the attendant focus on Grace.

Too often, I'd argue, the LDS focus is on authority, ordinances, and correctness, as espoused by Joseph Smith's Restoration, and these become the defining event. And when you throw in Joseph's imperfections, one can see these doctrines, revelations, and ordinances as self-serving and a distraction to the Christ story. And, for non-members, Christ's appearance in the Americas in the BofM doesn't ring true.

Sure there are those who are anti-Mormons who want to tear down the LDS church, but I think many believe that the church harps on the Restoration concept to prove its uniqueness as an organization, to the detriment of a focus on Christ.

Walker said...

That's unfortunate that your experience in the Church hasn't been a Christ-centered one. My experience has been quite the opposite.

Just today, we heard some wonderful musical numbers on trying to become like Jesus, on how he will walk with us through our darkest hours. Of that I can attest.

Self-serving? If people believe this, then they have been misinformed (and one need not be a new convert to be misinformed--life long members are not immune from believing falsehoods). The LDS scriptures make clear to me the reality of the atonement, of Christ's grace. It is from the Doctrine and Covenants that we see the image of Christ begging before the Father on our behalf (D&C 45:3--"behold the sufferings and death of him who did no sin...behold the blood of they Son which was shed ...that they may come unto me and have everlasting life"). It is from the BOM that we learn that "no flesh can dwell in the presence of God save it be through the merits and mercy and grace of the Holy Messiah" (2 Ne. 2:8). There are plenty more (2 Ne. 9, 3 Ne. 11, Alma 36, Mosiah 3-5). Do these verses sound self-serving to you?

A focus on correctness? Certainly--Jesus is not only full of grace but also of truth. And, as Jesus taught, the truth will set you free.

Today, we also spoke of serving and how those who serve are only typifing the Master healer. Perhaps our focus on trying to be like Jesus disturbs as being too self-centered, even presumptious. However, if I'm not trying to be like Jesus, whom should I be like? Just myself? Sin-ridden and imperfection laden as I am? (as Joseph Smith was too--no one is immune from sin, as even he acknowledged of himself). I would hope that there's more to life.

No, my friend. The atonement is taught to be not only a central tenant but the central tenant in the Mormon Church I attend--and I'm right here in Happy Valley, Utah (where, of all places, the doctrine should be orthodox).

The Restoration is taught, yes, but only in the context of restoring the true doctrine of the atonement. If JOseph Smith were the sum total of this church, I wouldn't be a member of it. Father and Jesus could and did appear to Joseph, in my view. If that were not so, I would find much more entertaining vain pursuits to fill my time.

Mormanity said...

I can somewhat appreciate the perspective of Thomas, for there have many times when I've been frustrated with the talks in sacrament meetings that seemed to focus on minor parts of the Gospel while leaving the core of faith in Christ far too implicit. Lack of doctrinal clarity and unity in talks is also a common problem with our lay ministry in which members are asked to provide the sermons - many lack the quality and theological soundness that I would prefer. It takes work on the part of leaders to help members prepare properly and give a decent talk, and still results will vary. The spirit of the meetings can vary from ward to ward and certainly from Sunday to Sunday, even though it's all the same Church and the same Christ-centered Gospel. So if one has been in a ward where the leaders weren't overtly andplainly emphasizing the most basic and powerful doctrines of the Atonement, it's possible to think that all those talks on temples and home teaching and the Word of Wisdom and avoiding gossip and tithing and sacrifice and obedience and morality and so forth are distractions from Jesus Christ, especially when one finds the "competition" preaching almost none of that "other stuff."

While the core of the Church clearly is on Jesus Christ and His Atonement, and while I think that good Church leaders do work to keep the focus on Christ in all that they do, we can do better. But please don't think that the "other stuff" is necessarily foreign to the Gospel of Christ. In fact, much of it is needed to truly help people follow Jesus.

The world we live in is self-destructing in a sea of immorality. The fact that many other Churches do not plainly teach principles of moral purity (e.g., no sex before marriage) is a sign of trouble, not a sign of a healthy focus on Christ alone. If we spend 10% of our teaching time emphasizing morality, it may still not be enough for some people. The discomfort of morality sermons may seem at odds with "feel good" talks about the love of God, but they are part of one whole - the fullness of the Gospel. Much of what Christ said in the Bible was not aimed at making people feel loved, but at calling sinners to repentance and warning of harsh realities. So it is today.

With the Restoration of the fullness of the Gospel, there is a LOT to learn and understand - things like the temple and modern scriptures and the commandments of the Gospel, all of which are there to bring us to Christ. It makes sense that time is needed to teach and deal with these many other concepts.

Having said all that, I strongly disagree with the claim that we do not "embrace the crucifixion/resurrection event". My goodness, that's the focus of every sacrament meeting, embodied in the sacrament itself. On days other than Easter Sunday, where the "crucifixion/resurrection event" has always been the focus, in my experience, you may hear talks on numerous other topics, but each meeting begins and ends in prayer in the name of Jesus Christ and the weekly sacrament service has as its focal point the partaking of the sacrament to renew our covenants to follow Jesus Christ and to always remember Him and the grace He offers us.

Generic said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Generic said...

I'd like to suggest Believing Christ by Stephen Robenson as a fantastic book on the subject of Jesus Christ, and His atonement and grace.

Nic said...

"They may answer, "We offer you nothing but Jesus and the Bible," not realizing that their whole approach is informed by recently developed paradigms and models for interpreting the Bible, providing a framework that I view as being rooted in human philosophy mingled with scripture.

"What they fail to understand is the power of the LDS paradigm of Apostasy and Restoration. The historical reality of the Apostasy is hard to deny once one has accepted that paradigm, as we have." -- Mormanity

Couldn't it, however, be argued that the whole LDS approach is informed by recently developed paradigms and models for interpreting the Bible, with the Great Apostosy and Restoration being a convenient excuse?

Walker said...

The problem with this approach is that the Restoration "excuse" IS the model. The idea of a Restoration isn't some flight of fancy thought that Joseph Smith thought up one day (and if you want to try to prove that it was, you've got your work cut out for you, considering the evidence of an apostasy that merits consideration if not outright acceptance).

And is the Great Apostasy so convenient? If it were such an easy out, why don't other Christians claim to be restoring an ancient church? We're dealing with some theological sleight-of-hand, wherein the Restoration model is taken out of its proper context where it sounds more like Kantian philosophy than applied Christianity.

Anonymous said...

Make note Thomas that the greatest sin you can commit against God is to deny Him. That includes the Book of Mormon and its doctrinal teachings

Secondly, for a Christian to turn to his neighbor and accuse him of vain worship and a fraudulent belief in Christ makes them hardly a Christian at all

-a 17 year old mormon

ltbugaf said...

17-year-old Anonymous: You should be more careful about equating a person's rejection of the Book of Mormon with a rejection of God, and you should be still more careful about equating it with sinning against the Holy Ghost. Many of the people who don't believe in the Book of Mormon hold a sincere belief in God and a basically correct idea of who He is. And most of the people who don't believe in the Book of Mormon have not received enough spiritual knowledge to be guilty of denying the Holy Ghost--that is, knowingly denying that which they have a sure testimony of.

ltbugaf said...

Thomas, I have a hard time viewing revelations and practices that caused the relentless hounding, arresting, assaulting and finally, murdering of Joseph Smith as "self-serving."