Thursday, December 22, 2005

Early Christians in Disarray

Can you really understand what the Restoration is if you don't have your mind around what the Great Apostasy was?

A new book published jointly by BYU Press and FARMS explores the apostasy from a variety of angles and argues that the core of the apostasy was the loss of covenants. While I wish I could engage each essay here, that would create a rather unwieldy post so I'll stick to brief comments on a few of the essays and then suggest a few general questions about the apostasy.

"What Went Wrong for the Early Christians?" by Noel B. Reynolds
Reynolds presents the general thesis of the book: "LDS scholars today conclude increasingly that the root causes of the apostasy were the abandonment or breaking of sacred covenants by the Christians themselves" and then disputes several LDS myths about the apostasy: that persecution and/or hellenization caused it and that the great and abominable church is the Roman Catholic Church. (I was interested to see that on at least one occasion the NIV--not the KJV--was quoted. But that's the topic for another post.)

"Inheriting the 'Great Apostasy': The Evolution of Latter-day Saint Views on the Middle Ages and the Renaissance" by Eric R. Dursteler
If this were any other book on any other topic, this would be a sleeper: you have to review the history of an idea before you explore it, but that doesn't mean it will be interesting. But in this case, Dursteler has found the third rail and held on tight: he shows that what Church leaders have taught about the apostasy has remained remarkably consistent--consistent, that is, with nineteenth-century scholarship on the issue. He then explains how and why the scholarship has changed, creating a "chasm" between LDS thought and respected scholarship. This, of course, leads him to some rather awkward conclusions and it is only through a very charitable reading that we can believe that he isn't calling Elder Bruce R. McConkie "half-educated."

"'A World in Darkness': Early Latter-day Saint Understanding of the Apostasy, 1830-1834" by Richard E. Bennett and Amber J. Seidel

"Modern Revelation: A Guide to Research about the Apostasy" by John W. Welch
This is an opening sentence you can't argue with: "Whatever is taught about the apostasy should be checked against the four standard works." And I don't--but I do think that some of Welch's interpretations are too speculative. He begins with D & C 64:8. This is an interesting little insight into the world of the early Christians (and one that is supported by the picture of the disciples found in the apocryphal gospels), but I'm not convinced of the link to the apostasy. There's a leap to be made between "being afflicted and sorely chastened" and apostasy, and while that link is certainly possible, it is far from definite. His reading of the parable of the wheat and the tares is, I think, much more useful in attempting to better understand the apostasy and his comparison of the "soft view" of the apostasy in that parable as found in Matthew 13 with the "tougher view" of D & C 86 is engaging and revealing.

"The Concept of Apostasy in the New Testament" by James E. Faulconer
The only thing I didn't like about Jim's essay is its overlimiting title; in addition to exploring some NT texts, he does something far more interesting (and something that LDS scholars don't do nearly often enough): he explores the concept in the OT.

The Corruption of Scripture in Early Christianity" by John Gee
What's most fascinating--and revealing--about this topic is tucked into a footnote where Gee writes about his experience with the Secret Gospel of Mark: "When I originally wrote this article, I considered it genuine. When the manuscript repository that supposedly possessed the work denied its existence, I began to have doubts about its authenticity. At the present I simply do not know whether it is authentic or not." Corruption of scripture, indeed. His article is interesting mostly because it explores what early Christians themselves thought about the (in)errancy of scripture instead of what we suppose today.

"The Introduction of Philosophy into Early Christianity" by Daniel W. Graham and James L. Siebach

"Divine Embodiment: The Earliest Christian Understanding of God" by David L. Paulsen

Also included are appendices on major early Christian writers and writings, Christian councils, NT prophecies of apostasy, and an annotated bibliography of LDS writings on the apostasy. In the midst of this basic reference matter one item stands out: in collecting scriptures that provide "evidences of first-century apostasy from the New Testament," as author Noel B. Reynolds puts it, he is guilty of casting his net a little too widely. If he considers fornication commited by church members to be evidence of apostasy (1 Corinthians 5:1 and 6), does that not also implicate the Church today?

Some general questions that this book raised for me:

(1) Why would Jesus establish a Church that would fail within a generation? (By way of comparison, we learn from the Book of Mormon that a Church he established at roughly the same time lasted for hundreds of years.) Should we read the NT--particularly the Epistles--differently knowing that we are watching a train wreck?

(2) How might our thoughts on the apostasy affect how we read apocryphal texts? What (if anything) should the Saints do with the Nag Hammadi texts or the Dead Sea Scrolls?

(3) To the extent that we decide that the Bible is corrupted (whether through omissions or additions, whether of phrases or of entire books), we rather complicate the lives of Sunday School teachers everywhere. It seems we walk a fine line between rejecting 1 Nephi 13:26 and rejecting the Bible. How might we navigate through this dilemma--and (how) should our use and teaching of the Bible be affected by our knowledge that it is corrupted?

(4) While Elder Dallin H. Oaks is quoted as offering a view of the apostasy more in line with modern scholarship, the general impression one gets from this book is that Church leaders past and present have gotten it wrong in their teachings on the apostasy. Our own Nate Oman, in his review of Zion in the Courts, notes that "there is the danger that use of scholarly tools--which requires the privileging of those tools--will breed habits of mind that reflexively privilege secular scholarship over the gospel." When the topic at hand is the apostasy, the irony should not be lost on us. Is the thesis of this book (which is, to put it bluntly, to allow LDS scholars to offer a course correction to the concept of the apostasy as advanced by over a century of Church leaders) an appropriate endeavor?

Cross-posted to Times and Seasons


Anonymous said...

I would be interested in reading a non-LDS review of this book. Know any?

Julie M. Smith said...


I'm sorry, I don't know of any.

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