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.