A reader by the name of Seth R. commented on Friday’s post about Evangelicalism, Catholicism and Mormonism. He made a lot of points, which I’d like to give full responses to. Since these are common LDS arguments, it might be worth your while to read them, whether you’re Mormon or not.
I. Mormonism, Sola Scriptura, and the Canon of Scripture
Seth started out with his strongest argument, which is correct:
First, the LDS Church does not share the Protestant notion of sola scriptura. In fact, one of our core founding principles – that of continuing revelation – is a direct refutation of the very idea of sola scriptura.
It is true that Mormons place great stock in their own personal interface with established canon. However, we also have a very strong ecclesiastical tradition that is always meant to inform the message of the scriptures, and at times – even trump it.
The modern LDS Church is not a sola scriptura faith. Nor is it even a prima scriptura faith. Rather, it is a complex interplay of being at times prima scriptura, and at times prima ecclesia. Both authoritative tradition and the canon have an interweaving dance within Mormonism.
It’s true that Mormonism isn’t a sola Scriptura faith. I think this first point is based on the ambiguity of my original post, in which I wrote:
And finally, Evangelicals and Mormons both believe that Scripture is self-attesting. This view is more or less required to believe in sola Scriptura, since Scripture doesn’t teach the canon of Scripture (implicitly or explicitly). […] But from a Mormon perspective, there’s an identical belief, based on the Mormon book of Moroni 10:4-5, which tells readers to pray on the books, and determine if they’re true or not:
In other words, both Evangelicals and Mormons both believe that Scripture is self-attesting, but they have different reasons for believing this. Evangelicals believe it because it’s a necessary component for sola Scriptura to make sense (even though the doctrine of Scriptural self-attestation isn’t taught in the Bible, and thus, is contrary to sola Scriptura anyways). Mormons believe it because it’s taught in the Book of Moroni. So I agree with Seth on this point, and have corrected the original post to make it less ambiguous. That was sloppy writing on my part.
He then continues:
Which means that we really aren’t as vulnerable to Catholic claims of “well you got the Bible from us” as you might think.
Many Mormons can happily respond to Catholic assertions about the origin of the Bible with “well, we’ll take it anyway” secure in the knowledge that anything missing or distorted in the historical Bible can be corrected or compensated for by our core principle of ongoing revelation.
I recognize that from a Mormon perspective, a new revelation could have come down and said, “the New Testament affirmed by Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants is wrong; these books shouldn’t be in it, and these other ones should be.” That’s completely consistent with Mormons’ views of the Apostasy and the Church. But that didn’t happen. And to me, that’s the larger blow to credibility.
It defies belief that the Catholic Church went into apostasy by 100 A.D., prior to the formation of the New Testament canon, and that the false apostate church just happened to collect and revere the exact same New Testament books as Mormons. It’s one thing to say that the Church, in setting the canon, wasn’t infallible, but was lead by holy men with a sense of Scripture — so that even without a special protection of the Holy Spirit, we can trust that these men got it right. It’s quite another thing to say that the Church at the time the canon was formed was a false Church lead by heretical apostates and not guided by the Holy Spirit, and that we can still trust that these heretics got the New Testament correct. Yet even in Joseph Smith’s re-editing of the New Testament, he didn’t see fit to add or remove a single Catholic book.
II. Mormonism, Ongoing Revelation, and Plural Marriage
Next, Seth says of ongoing revelation,
Evangelicals often complain that this makes Mormonism hard to pin down, and too fluid and adaptable.
To which I would respond that most Mormons don’t really care. We see these attributes as strengths, not drawbacks.
In principle, there’s nothing wrong with the notion of ongoing revelation: all Jews and Christians accept that ongoing revelation has been the norm at various points in our shared history. Yet orthodox Christians all contend that public revelation ended in the first century. The reason is Biblical. Jude 1:3 says that the Deposit of Faith was delivered “once for all” to the Apostles, which is why the Catholic Church notes that after the death of the last Apostle, “no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (see CCC 66-67 and 1 Timothy 6:13-16). So given that the writers of the New Testament viewed themselves as the end of the era of revelation, saying, “Oh wait, there’s more!” isn’t just adding on revelation, it’s denying the truth of the original revelation.
Here’s the kicker for me. In those eras we all agree had ongoing revelation, up through the first century, the revelations built upon and/or fulfilled prior revelations. They didn’t just “repeal” them. For example, the Mosaic Law was fulfilled in the person of Christ — the sacrificial system was a form of preparation. A minor example to illustrate my point: Catholics fast for an hour before receiving the Eucharist. The fast and the Divine Feast are opposites, but the fast is preparation for the Feast. In calling us both to fast and to cease fasting, the Church isn’t contradicting Herself — the fast was always intended to be temporary, and preparation for something Bigger. The Law was the same way. Christ even makes clear that’s He’s come not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17).
The question we should ask is, why does Almighty God take the effort to explain that He’s not abolishing the Law, in Matthew 5:17? The reason’s simple. Philosophically, for there to be varying degrees of truth, goodness, and beauty, they must be nearer an ultimate Truth, Goodness, and Beauty – an Ultimate we know as God. Since God is perfect Truth, therefore, He cannot contradict Himself, since to do so would be to contradict the Truth. This philosophical truth is affirmed in Scripture: 2 Timothy 2:13, namely, which says that God cannot contradict Himself.
Given that, let’s take the famous example of polygamy, or “plural marriage,” within Mormonism. Doctrines and Covenants 132:61-63 says its okay for men to have as many wives as they want (as long as their wives are virgins), but that women can’t do the same:
And again, as pertaining to the law of the priesthood—if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else. And if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore is he justified. But if one or either of the ten virgins, after she is espoused, shall be with another man, she has committed adultery, and shall be destroyed; for they are given unto him to multiply and replenish the earth, according to my commandment, and to fulfil the promise which was given by my Father before the foundation of the world, and for their exaltation in the eternal worlds, that they may bear the souls of men; for herein is the work of my Father continued, that he may be glorified.
In the same Section, Emma Smith (Joseph Smith’s wife) is warned not to leave her adulterous husband, or “God” will destroy her, since she’s his “property” (D&C 132:51-57). Likewise, the other wives are warned that if they object to this coming from God, they’ll be destroyed (D&C 132:64). Now, obviously, I have some serious problems with the whole idea. I don’t think any objective observer could read this and think it’s Holy Writ, instead of depraved spousal abuse. While I try to give him the doubt on most of his “revelations,” I don’t think Joseph Smith could have even thought this was from God. It’s just way too convenient, especially if you’re familiar with the history (that he was already committing adultery).
But I recognize that these red flags don’t prove it’s not Scriptural. Parts of Scripture sometimes seem strange to modern ears, and that’s a poor test. But what does prove it’s not Scriptural are verses 4 and 6, which declare the Section a “new and everlasting covenant.” That was in 1843. Flash forward a few decades to 1890. Here’s what Joseph Smith’s successor, Wilford Woodruff, has to say about the issue in Official Declaration 1:
Inasmuch as laws have been enacted by Congress forbidding plural marriages, which laws have been pronounced constitutional by the court of last resort, I hereby declare my intention to submit to those laws, and to use my influence with the members of the Church over which I preside to have them do likewise.
So polygamy, which was a “new and everlasting covenant” less than fifty years earlier, has been jettisoned because of a law of the US Congress? As if God is subject to presidential veto? Bizarrely, Mormonism is now practiced around the world, including places where polygamy is practiced, yet Mormons are forbidden it under Official Declaration 1 – expressly because of a nineteenth-century US law.
But Woodruff doesn’t stop there. He claims that Mormonism didn’t even preach plural marriages prior to Official Declaration 1:
I, therefore, as President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, do hereby, in the most solemn manner, declare that these charges are false. We are not teaching polygamy or plural marriage, nor permitting any person to enter into its practice, and I deny that either forty or any other number of plural marriages have during that period been solemnized in our Temples or in any other place in the Territory.
There is nothing in my teachings to the Church or in those of my associates, during the time specified [the past year], which can be reasonably construed to inculcate or encourage polygamy; and when any Elder of the Church has used language which appeared to convey any such teaching, he has been promptly reproved.
The Lord has told me to ask the Latter-day Saints a question, and He also told me that if they would listen to what I said to them and answer the question put to them, by the Spirit and power of God, they would all answer alike, and they would all believe alike with regard to this matter.The question is this: Which is the wisest course for the Latter-day Saints to pursue—to continue to attempt to practice plural marriage, with the laws of the nation against it and the opposition of sixty millions of people, and at the cost of the confiscation and loss of all the Temples, and the stopping of all the ordinances therein, both for the living and the dead, and the imprisonment of the First Presidency and Twelve and the heads of families in the Church, and the confiscation of personal property of the people (all of which of themselves would stop the practice); or, after doing and suffering what we have through our adherence to this principle to cease the practice and submit to the law, and through doing so leave the Prophets, Apostles and fathers at home, so that they can instruct the people and attend to the duties of the Church, and also leave the Temples in the hands of the Saints, so that they can attend to the ordinances of the Gospel, both for the living and the dead?
This excerpt, helpfully preserved by the LDS Church underneath Official Declaration 1, is from November 1891. It suggests pretty plainly that while Woodruff is proclaiming publicly that plural marriages aren’t going on, he’s quietly trying to convince the Church to stop them… because they are going on. If true, this makes Official Declaration 1 a lie, obviously.
But that debate aside, here are the plain facts:
- The Mormon scripture Jacob 2:27-28 forbids a man from having more than one wife, because it’s an abomination to God.
- D&C 136 says God permits a man from having more than one wife as part of a new and eternal covenant. In fact, not only is polygamy permitted, it’s encouraged, to populate the world with Mormons who can be gods of future worlds.
- Official Declaration 1 nullifies the new and eternal covenant of D&C 136, and forbids plural marriages (globally), because of domestic US laws.
These three things can’t all be true. If OD1 is true, then D&C 136 wasn’t eternal – it lasted less than half a century, and died out. It died out faster than Mormons claim that the Apostolic Church died out, in fact. Even more importantly, since God cannot contradict Himself, we know these laws don’t come from God. And for that matter, if Jacob 2 is true, God is commanding something repugnant to Himself.
Or take something as plain as this historical query: was it a sin for David and Solomon to have multiple wives?
- Jacob 2:24 says yes. It’s an abomination.
- D&C 132:38-39 says no (other than David’s stealing Uriah’s wife). In fact, this passage says God gave David and Solomon those women.
Can both be true? Of course not. Here, we’re not talking about different ages being bound by rules which are more strict or lax than another age. We’re talking about two specific individuals, David and Solomon. So it won’t do to say that a “new revelation” fixes this contradiction — this past even either was, or was not, a sin.
III. Mormonism and the Great Apostasy
The principle of ongoing revelation also prevents our claims of apostasy from being self-defeating. Yes, the authoritative church was lost at some point in the distant past. And we had modern prophets called to restore it.
So that addresses your point of why the church wasn’t lost forever.
It doesn’t, but I’ll give Mary Catelli first bite at the apple:
On the contrary;. The promise was that it would never be lost. Claiming it needs to be restored shows that you are not speaking of the true Church just as much as claiming it was lost.
Exactly. The Bible promises that the Church won’t be destroyed, and the Christ will always be with it. It does no good to say that these promises were false, but that Joseph Smith fixed Jesus’ mistake over 1700 years later. In a follow-up, Seth asked which Biblical promises. Ahem:
- The promise that Christ Himself will build His Church, and the promise that “the gates of Hell shall not overcome” the Church in Matthew 16:18.
- The promise that Christ will be with Apostolic Church “always, until the end of the age” in Matthew 28:20 (which is clear eschatological language foreshadowing the Second Coming).
- The idea that God’s revelation was given to the Apostles “once for all” (Jude 1:3).
- The promise that the “Spirit of Truth,” the Holy Spirit, will be with the Church “forever” (John 14:16-17).
- The promise that this same Holy Spirit will teach the Church “all things” and “remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:25-26).
- The related promise that the Holy Spirit will lead the Church into “all truth” (John 16:13).
- It was for the Church that Christ went to the Cross (Ephesians 5:25-27), in order “to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.“
- Christ left the Church as “the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).
- St. Paul gives the command to “keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ,” (1 Timothy 6:14).
- Titus 2:11-14 speaks of Christ as bring the global revelation (foreshadowed in Genesis 12:3) to all men, while we await the Second Coming.
- John 17:20-26 is Christ’s prayer that the Church should remain One into the future. In v. 20, Jesus makes clear He’s praying not just for the Apostles; rather, “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message,” and He then proclaims in v. 26, “I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known.”
There are others, but this is enough. All of these promises, particularly viewed in light of one another, are quite clear that the Church is here to stay. And since it must first be established that there was a Total Apostasy before we can even discuss whether there was a Restoration (And if so, if that restoration was through Luther, Smith, or someone else), it does no good to use LDS Scriptures to try and make the case. Everyone (Evangelical, Catholic, and Mormon) agrees that Jesus Christ established His Church, as Matthew 16:17-19 attests, and Mormons and (some) Evangelicals claim that this Church was totally destroyed, the onus is on this party to prove that anti-Scriptural case.
This wouldn’t be an unreasonable burden if a Total Apostasy were true from Scripture. Christians can show the promise of a New Testament throughout the Old. To take just one example, God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3, part of the promise establishing the Old Testament, explains that the children of Abraham are God’s chosen people so that He may prepare the way for a covenant open to “all peoples on Earth.” From the Old Testament alone, we can show that the Old Testament isn’t the exhaustive revelation or covenant of God. In contrast, the New Testament doesn’t point towards a yet-Newer Testament, and in fact, proclaims quite the opposite. It proclaims that the Church established by Christ won’t be overcome by Satan, but will have the ongoing power of Christ and the Holy Spirit behind Her, and that Christ will continue to draw in believers, both in the Apostolic and post-Apostolic generations. The idea that all of these promises became moot seventy years later, and that the Church stayed dead for over 1700 years after that is just absurd.
And if you can read the above, and think that this means “only for the next 70 years,” then nothing promised in the Book of Mormon is secure either. If God breaks His promises, and breaks them so fundamentally and completely, then why trust the latest set of promises? Ongoing revelation is only reliable if God is reliable, and your interpretation of history seems to make God rather unreliable.
Finally, Seth tries to make the Scriptural case for a Total Apostasy:
2 Thess. 2:3 is not obviously talking about a falling away that will come immediately prior to Christ’s Second Coming – even under Mormon readings. It merely says that the falling away would happen prior to the Second Coming.
Since 100 AD qualifies as “prior” to the Second Coming”, we’re all clear on this score too.
Well, here’s the context, 2 Thess 2:1-15:
- We ask you, brothers, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling with him, not to be shaken out of your minds suddenly, or to be alarmed either by a “spirit,” or by an oral statement, or by a letter allegedly from us to the effect that the day of the Lord is at hand.
- Let no one deceive you in any way. For unless the apostasy comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one doomed to perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god and object of worship, so as to seat himself in the temple of God, claiming that he is a god– do you not recall that while I was still with you I told you these things? And now you know what is restraining, that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. But the one who restrains is to do so only for the present, until he is removed from the scene.
- And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord (Jesus) will kill with the breath of his mouth and render powerless by the manifestation of his coming, the one whose coming springs from the power of Satan in every mighty deed and in signs and wonders that lie, and in every wicked deceit for those who are perishing because they have not accepted the love of truth so that they may be saved. Therefore, God is sending them a deceiving power so that they may believe the lie, that all who have not believed the truth but have approved wrongdoing may be condemned.
- But we ought to give thanks to God for you always, brothers loved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in truth. To this end he has (also) called you through our gospel to possess the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours.
Four things to note. First, this is eschatological: it does deal with the end-times, the things to happen prior to the return of Christ. It’s presented clearly in that context — an Apostasy, the rise of the anti-Christ, and the Second Coming are presented in one breath in verse 3. To say that one of these three things happened in 100 A.D., and then got undone by Joseph Smith is unlikely. Two, the thing that “undoes” the Apostasy and anti-Christ is the return of Christ, not the arrival of Luther or Smith (2 Thessalonians 2:8). Third, the Apostasy expressly isn’t a Total Apostasy. Paul says that there will be a falling away from the Church (that’s what apostasy means), but not that the Church will be wiped out. He even gives the prescription to avoid falling away in 2 Thes. 2:15, “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.” Fourth, Paul makes it clear that those who do fall away from the Church do so out of their own fault, because of a refusal to accept the Gospel.
All of this is made even clearer in another of Paul’s letters; 1 Timothy 4:1-2 says that:
“Now the Spirit explicitly says that in the last times some will turn away from the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and demonic instructions through the hypocrisy of liars with branded consciences.”
- In the last times, preceeding the Second Coming;
- A partial Apostasy, claiming some Christians; and
- Claiming Apostates through their own fault.
That’s the message of both 2 Thessalonians 2 and 1 Timothy 4. In contrast, Seth is arguing that the Apostasy is:
- In 100 A.D.;
- A Total Apostasy, claiming all Christians and would-be Christians; and
- Claiming Apostates even through no fault of their own. For a millenium and a half, the God of Israel, who had a visible covenant people from Abraham onwards, is said to have abandoned His people completely. Someone who desired the True Gospel would find neither the Gospel nor the Church anywhere on Earth.
Do I need to go into further depth about how these passages don’t support a Mormon interpretation?
IV. Bonus: Super-Early Patristics
Since Seth argues that the Apostasy occurred about 100 A.D., let’s compare the first-century writings of Christians with the beliefs of the Mormon Church. In particular, let’s look to the Didache. If you’re not familiar, the book is a mid-first Church handbook of sorts for new believers, an early resource for the newly Baptized to brush up on what Christianity is all about. The name means The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, and it’s as old as parts of the New Testament. If ever there were Christians, these folks were Christians.
Since this post is already longer than I’d like, I’ll keep this short. The Didache clearly prohibits abortion, teaching plainly in Chapter 2, “you shall not murder a child by abortion.” Contrast this with the LDS position, which says:
Church leaders have said that some exceptional circumstances may justify an abortion, such as when pregnancy is the result of incest or rape, when the life or health of the mother is judged by competent medical authority to be in serious jeopardy, or when the fetus is known by competent medical authority to have severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth. But even these circumstances do not automatically justify an abortion. Those who face such circumstances should consider abortion only after consulting with their local Church leaders and receiving a confirmation through earnest prayer.
So for those five categories of cases, the LDS Church says that abortion may be permissible, while acknowledging that abortion is murder. In other words, murder’s okay if it’s for a really good reason. Contrast that with the Didache’s no ifs, ands or buts, and it’s plainly not the same teaching. So even if the LDS will argue that the Church went into Total Apostasy rather quickly, the available evidence from before the alleged Apostasy shows a Church rather distinct from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.