Learning to Love Apostate Christianity

One sign of our institutional and historiographical maturity is the increasing attention that the “Great Apostasy” has been receiving (see for example Noel Reynolds, ed., Early Christians in Disarray, 2005). Since the oppositional pairing of apostasy and restoration is so fundamental to our view of ourselves and proximate others, understanding its potential and realized meanings and implications will remain, I think, one of the more significant tasks of those who think and write on our tradition. This task is all the more urgent, and complicated, because it is heavily tied to the contingencies
of historical scholarship and the particular politics of location in which they are grounded.

The familiar LDS view is a starkly reductionist one: a rapid, even sudden de-legitimation of the Jesus movement. The lights went out. The burden on historians and theologians has been to unpack, reconstruct, develop—pick your verb—what Joseph may have been told in the Grove, what he meant when later writing and speaking about his experience there, and of course what all of this means for us today.

The so-called “Hellenization of Christianity” has been at the heart of the Protestant-Mormon quest to delimit specific dynamics of a “fall” into apostasy. Reynolds, in his introduction, seeks to dispel the “myth” that the apostasy was caused by the “Hellenization of Christianity.” Yet Hellenization remains, for Reynolds, a very bad thing for Christian doctrine and practice, distorting essential Christian truths (while nonetheless also “saving the Christian tradition”!).

There are a number of weaknesses in Reynolds’ discussion, but rather than focusing attention there, I’d like instead to ask whether there might be something worthy of recovery from this vast purported wasteland of post-Apostolic Christianity. This question would seem to pin itself to followers of Joseph Smith, ready as they are, so he claimed, “to believe all true principles that may exist, as they are made manifest from time to time.” (After all, claims to creedlessness, too, can constitute a creed.)

I suggest that the encounter between early Christianity and Greek culture may hold lessons for Latter-day Saints beyond reductionist questions of the timing and dynamics of a fall from original truth. The movement of Christian thought and practice into an increasingly Greek context meant, among other things, that new questions were asked, new categories constructed, for better understanding the nature and teachings of Christ. In the process lay a new, fresh “discovery of the Christ,” as the historian of Christian missions Andrew Walls has argued. “It is as though Christ himself actually grows” while being translated into a Greek context.

A common rhetorical gesture among Mormons is the expression of puzzlement that others would not want to learn more about Christ by reading “another testament” of him, so that for them, too, Christ might grow. By the same reasoning, perhaps we, too, could learn more about Christ from another testaments.

Who knows, it may even have consequences for how our own faith travels, like the wind, to new and unseen places.

15 Replies to “Learning to Love Apostate Christianity”

  1. Oh, this is a fascinating idea. I like the idea of looking at “Greek” Christianity (I think that this is a false category for ancient Christianity…) as a way of interpreting how Mormonism will expand in different locations and times is an incredibly powerful image. It reminds us that we ourselves change, and that change is not therefore the marker of apostasy.

    We need to get beyond the questions of the timing and manner in which the apostasy occurred, but I also am not quite sure how to do that because it is so ingrained in our identity.

  2. Fine post, uh, VRT. It seems like after two decades of moving the Great Apostasy to the back burner, LDS scholars are now giving it more direct attention. I noted your sly reference to Nibley’s “When the Lights Went Out.” Perhaps the new approach will be more like this: The lights gradually dimmed but still retain a pleasant Hellenic glow, only recently eclipsed by the righteous glare of the Restoration. I’m sure that could be worded better.

  3. I’ve read Talmage’s “The Great Apostasy” and I’m not sure I agree with him on this point you lay out. The idea that once the Apostles were all dead, Greek philosophy infiltrated the Christian Church and distorted it into something different, and Mormonism is just jumping in to restore that original Apostolic Church, as it was “before the lights went out.”

    For one thing, Hellenization in Jewish culture long predated even Christ’s birth. Alexander the Great introduced it when he conquered Israel. By the time Christ was born, people in Jerusalem used Greek almost as much as Hebrew. Doctrinal debates among the Jewish sects was already reflecting Hellenic thought.

    So it seems rather reductionist to argue that “Hellenization” was this uninvited guest that suddenly took over after Peter’s death. The Apostles themselves, and especially Paul, were probably already well Hellenized. Their teachings, preconceptions, and prejudices were likely informed deeply by Greek thought and culture.

    Actually, the more I read about the actual ministries of Paul and Peter, the more I think that “The Great Apostasy” actually began the moment Jesus ascended into heaven. It’s simply fascinating to read about the debates and conflicts that arose among the Apostles, as recorded in the Acts and the Pauline epistles.

    Especially, there seemed to be an ongoing struggle between Paul and the Antioch faction and Peter, James, and John – “the pillars” – and the Jerusalem faction. The differences came to a head over the issue of circumcision. But what was really at stake was whether Christianity was going to become simply the next required step in Judaism (Peter’s view – he was a devout Jew, by many accounts), or a new religion entirely, cut off from its Jewish moorings (Paul’s view). Paul actively sought to bring the ministries of the Antioch saints out from the control of Jerusalem and it took quite a bit of compromise and diplomatic maneuvering for him to pull it off.

    Indeed, you might well say that Paul the Apostle was Christianity’s first recorded heretic. For a long time, he appears to have been viewed with suspicion by the Jerusalem faction, who hesitated to accept his claims to the Apostolic calling. Peter was of the opinion that the mantle of Apostle could only be bestowed by the original Apostles that Jesus selected in mortality. There were only supposed to be twelve, and any new apostles could only be the ones who were succeeding an apostle who had died.

    Paul on the other hand, felt that if you had seen Jesus and been called by Him, that was good enough, whatever the hierarchical Church elders in Jerusalem thought.

    I’d argue that you are already seeing the seeds of the Apostasy when you are reading Acts. Common sense would dictate that the task of keeping a unified Christian tradition doctrinally pure in as diverse locations as Jerusalem, Antioch, Damascus, Athens, Rome, and so on was simply beyond the capability of the original Apostles. It is doubtful that even the mortal Christ himself was able to enforce Christian orthodoxy, even among the Jewish converts. After all, he never compelled in his teachings. The constant disputations among his disciples before and after his death seem to indicate that the “doctrine” as being told, retold, and transmitted abroad wasn’t even pure when Christ was alive, let alone after his death, and let alone 200 years later.

    I think the mainline Christian view that they have preserved a “true Christian orthodoxy” is utter fantasy. But I also think the Mormon view that there EVER was one to begin with is also dubious at best.

    I think the true loss during The Great Apostasy, was the loss of the authorized Priesthood link between God and His children. The Restoration was meant to restore that lost link. So far so good.

    But you enter shaky ground when you start talking about lost doctrines and restored doctrines.

    I think too often, we view Peter, John, and Paul as pure spiritual databases that contained perfect doctrine, ritual, and infrastructural data for Christ’s true Church. We whitewash them too much, and expect too much from them. We don’t allow for the possibility that there might, possibly, never have been a time when Christianity wasn’t messed-up to some degree or another. In this sense, we repeat the same mistakes of mainline Christianity. They assume an integrity of transmission throughout the last two millennia. We do not assume this, but we simply move the target back. The same problems of messy historical reality bedevil us both.

  4. Seth,
    I couldn’t agree with you more on your main point about the lack of a “pure original” Christianity. I might quibble with a few of the facts as you lay them out, but for the most part you have clearly identified the historical and methodological problems. I am also not sure that the priesthood as you have described it is really a solution to the problem, especially given the recently discussed problem on this blog of the lack of priesthood in NT Christianity. Nevertheless, you have captured the problem well.

  5. I couldn’t agree with you more on your main point about the lack of a “pure original” Christianity.

    Amen! One of the problems (or rather, paradoxes) of the restoration is that an accurate depiction of early Christianity is actually available, knowable, and attainable. If that were the case, most Protestant denominations probably would have modeled themselves after it (I know, I know, JS had private revelations on it… yeah, yeah). After all, Christianity probably didn’t even start “Christian,” but seems to me that it was most likely some form of messianic Judaism at first (I like Richard Longenecker’s The Christology of Early Jewish Christianity on this issue).

  6. David J,

    At some point you need to post on your view of Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling so I can know how to properly interpret your frequent scoffing and seeming disdain for his claims of revelation. Or if you have posted on it already, point me to the link.

  7. One of the problems (or rather, paradoxes) of the restoration is that an accurate depiction of early Christianity is actually available, knowable, and attainable.

    ??? You are seriously saying that? Or are you merely meaning that we know some things about early Christianity. Because if you are saying we know early Christianity as well as say we know Southern Baptist behavior and believe in the late 19th century then I’m not sure what to say…

    While I think “Hellenism” and especially philosophy gets a bit of a bum rap, I do think there was a significant move from a more pragmatic view of God to God being very abstract and separate. Not all of this can be thrown on Hellenism’s shoulders. I think there were some serious changes in Judaism after the exile that just can’t be neglected. (i.e. the move to what we now call monotheism) But I think the whole way Greek philosophy approached God was perhaps unhelpful even if the philosophical questions can be helpful.

    The lesson I think it holds is that when we translate texts from their background we can distort them. The move from pre-exilic Judaism (to the degree we can even say what that is) to more Hellenized Judaism and Christianity involved a change of how to think about God which led to a new class of errors. Now I think the same thing can happen today in our notions of materialism and physicalism. (Just look at how everyone takes Joseph’s comments on spirit which I’m not convinced were intended to necessarily be an embrace of physicalism) So as we 21st century readers read scripture we often do exactly what we accuse the Hellenistic readers of doing. Trying to reinterpret them in terms of a new paradigm.

  8. David, now that I reread that I see you might be meaning the exact opposite of how I took it. i.e. arguing that we can’t know what original Christianity was like.

    Could you clarify?

  9. Isnt it kind of obvious that the ancient Church’s initial problem, one that it never really overcame, was that of Judaizers? All of the first converts were Jews and they had a hard time letting go of the Law of Moses, and sought to keep the old as part of the new rather than let go. Then you had all of these Greek converts who were bringing a lot of baggage with them. So you had Paul railing against Judaizers from within and Paul and John railing against Gnostics from without, and pretty much all of them were Hellenized to some degree. How come the Greek converts get saddled for all the blame for the Great Apostasy when the early Jewish converts were obviously causing serious problems?

  10. My personal opinion is that Christ never intended the Church to be significantly set up otherwise there was a lot he could have done to prevent the apostasy. (i.e. spend at least part of those 3 years writing up something like the D&C)

    My personal opinion is that while there may have been a few new apostles called – by the time of the destruction of the temple no new ones were getting called and much information was just never given publicly to the Church. (Think our Church if all the stuff from 1838-44 that the main brethren knew about was never made public)

  11. Actually, the more I read about the actual ministries of Paul and Peter, the more I think that “The Great Apostasy” actually began the moment Jesus ascended into heaven. It’s simply fascinating to read about the debates and conflicts that arose among the Apostles, as recorded in the Acts and the Pauline epistles.

    I hope you aren’t confused and lost for words about why classical Christians get so frustrated by Mormonism. “Peter and Paul were apostates and Joseph Smith was the only one with true Christian doctrine.” Really!?!? Well I guess that makes it convenient to drop anything out of the New Testament that might disagree with Mormonism.

  12. Tim,

    Please take it in context. When Mormons talk about the “Great Apostasy” they are talking very specifically about a universal apostasy of the Authority of God (i.e., Priesthood) and not doctrinal differences. No Mormon would say, “Peter and Paul were apostates and Joseph Smith was the only one with true Christian doctrine.”

  13. vrt, great post. much needed.

    i agree that the standard model is no longer viable (both academically and theologically), if it ever was, but like tt am unsure as to how to proceed. it’s easier to suggest what should not be done (for instance, using bart ehrman’s orthodox corruption of scripture as if it were compatible with or even corroborates lds belief in the loss of ‘plain and precious things’). part of the problem is that in articulating the apostasy we seem to have bought into, in large part, the early church fathers’ categories of orthodoxy and heresy (=greek philosophy), canonical and apocryphal, etc., while our brand of christianity fits neither that of the early church father’s nor that of their opponents. we share some beliefs and practices with the heresiologists and others with the heretics.

    [as an example of the latter: of the various possible ancient corollaries for lds baptism for the dead, the cerinthian practice, as reported by epiphanius (panarion 28.6.4), the marcionite practice, as reported by chrysostom (homilies on corinthians 40.1, which, interestingly, is cited in the times and seasons 15 april 1842), and the valentinian practice, as reported by clement of alexandria (excerta ex theodoto 1.22.1), seem to be the closest. (other sources, such as shepherd of hermas and gospel of nicodemus, describe baptism of the dead themselves not vicarious baptism.)]

    because many of our beliefs and practices are, in my experience, more readily found in heretical sources, i think it is essential for us to learn to love or least be less dogmatic towards apostate christianity, that is, abandon the early church fathers’ categories. this is what some historians of early christianity are calling for (e.g., karen king, april deconick), and we could take our lead from them. (no, this does not mean simply reversing orthodoxy and heresy.) but herein lies another part of the problem: there is no place for truth claims (lds or otherwise) in this academic dismantling of the heresiologists’ categories.

  14. Actually Tim, I’m surprised Mormons take the Bible as literally as they do. But nonetheless, rest assured that we disregard very little of the New Testament.

    By the way, I wouldn’t say that Joseph Smith was any more “correct” doctrinally than Peter or Paul. I view all prophets as colorful characters with quite a few rough edges. It is imperative to always take a prophet’s words with a critical ear. And never get too attached to a prophet’s own pet doctrines. You never know whether God will make corrections.

  15. so I can know how to properly interpret your frequent scoffing and seeming disdain for his claims of revelation

    When I engage JS or the BofM or anything religious, I tend to view it under the same scrutiny I give other sciences like others would engage finance, biology, music, or whatever. There’s a healthy dose of suspended belief when I engage him and our movement. I believe it is immoral, for me anyway, to let religion slide or get off easy while concurrently acting critical of languages, numbers, chlorophyll, or what have you. That’s just me. 🙂

    Clark (#8) – indeed, I don’t think anyone can know what “original Christianity” looked like. My guess is, based on what I’ve studied on it, that we’d see something wholly foreign to Mormonism – probably some form of Messianic Judaism. But then again, which early Christian community did it “right”? I suspect that there were differences in practice and belief that were stratified throughout the populous and were not a continuous set pattern of ritual and theology that was spread evenly across all believing communities in exactly the same manner like many Mormons think it was. I think the earliest Christianity was highly fragmented and different at the congregation level – in other words, if you “went to church” in Jerusalem, it would probably be different from “going to church” in Rome, which was different from Ephesus, and different from Alexandria, etc. etc. Only later was there a centralized movement toward assimilation and mainstreaming. This is evident in some of the disputes among early Christians, where “doctrine” seems to have varied geographically.

    In a word, I have my doubts about the (official Mormon version of) Apostasy.

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