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.