I’ve been meaning for days to write a comprehensive response to all of the comments raised in last week’s two
series on Mormonism, but find myself getting further and further behind. As it stands, there are over a hundred comments between the two posts, and a couple dozen people, including Catholics, Mormons, and Protestants, have chipped in with comments worthy of response. Apologies in advance, then, if my response doesn’t do them all justice.
I should also say at the outset how extremely grateful I am for the charitable tone of the commenters: for having this many people saying this much, I’ve been struck by how incredibly graceful the general tone has been. People are disagreeing openly, without being nasty about it. That said, I find that many of the comments were more general, of the “Mormonism is right” or “Mormonism is wrong” variety. For both the sake of organization and to steer things more directly from the general to the specific, I’ve organized my response along the same general headings of Part II
Today, I’m just going to look at the most important argument: the question of whether the Church fell into total apostasy.
I. Overview: The Importance of the Apostasy Debate
It’s become increasingly obvious that this is the central point of contention. If the Church on Earth ceased to exist, then both Catholicism and Protestantism are discredited. Catholicism is discredited, obviously, because She claims to be that true Church. Protestantism is discredited because if the Church on Earth ceased to exist, it couldn’t be restored by some random Catholic monk like Luther. After all, Luther didn’t claim to be a prophet, or claim to have any special revelation from God. He claimed to just be a guy who figured out what Galatians and Romans meant. Look at Old Testament history: when Israel went into exile, she was always saved by a prophet, never by some random Jew who thought, “Hey! It looks from the Torah like we can go to the Promised Land!” No, if the original founding of the Church was by the God-Man Jesus Christ Himself, then the restoration of that Church would seem to require Jesus Himself … or at least, the Mormons argue, a prophet. This leaves three possibilities: Islam, Mormonism, or waiting. That is, if the Church ceased to exist, either Muhammad brought it back, Joseph Smith brought it back, or we’re still waiting for either a future prophet or the return of Christ Himself to restore the Church.
On the other hand
the Restorationists can’t
show that the Church on Earth ceased to exist, then Catholicism is correct. This is more or less how both Catholics and Mormons seem to understand the debate, and every Mormon I’ve talked to has acknowledged that if they’re wrong, Catholics are right. Chloe
, a convert from Mormonism to Catholicism, cites “the introduction to the Book of Mormon, where it says (paraphrasing) that Mormonism and Catholicism are the only two possible religions because they are the only two claiming apostolic succession.
” I couldn’t find the section she’s talking about (feel free to shoot me a link in the comments below), but this seems like an accurate assessment of the Mormon view, from what I’ve seen.
With that in mind, let’s be clear on a few things. Scripture talks about people falling away from the faith, even periods where a lot of people fall away from the faith. For example, this Sunday’s Gospel is the parable of the sower (Mt. 13:1-23), which talks about some of the various reasons that people fall away from the faith. So the debate is only about whether everybody fell away from the faith. Catholics don’t deny that the Church sometimes shrinks, but we deny She’s ever gone, or ever, will go extinct.
II. Scriptural Support for a Great Apostasy?
There were a fair number of links to LDS resources talking about an Apostasy (see the Further Resources section below), but few passages actually provided by the commenters. As for the passages provided in the link, they tended to describe either (a) Apostasy in general [that is, some Christians will fall away], or (b) a massive Apostasy right before the return of Christ — an end-times tribulation, not a first-century falling away. Neither of these particularly supports the Mormon position, and in fact, (b) largely defeats it, since the passages suggest that the restoration will be by Jesus, not Joseph Smith.
Worse, if one reads the rest of Scripture, it’s clear that even the end-times apostasy isn’t a total apostasy
. 1 Timothy 4:1, speaking of the end-times Apostasy, is explicit: “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.
” Note that critical word: some
— it says this in the JST
, as well.
The one passage I mentioned in my earlier post
was from Amos 8, which I explained doesn’t fit with even the Mormon view of the Apostasy — it’s about a people looking for, and not finding, the word of God… not about losing the Church. Solito Britton
dismissed this argument by saying
, “Sorry Amos does not fit your interpretation of the Apostasy, but that is not the only one we use.
” But the point isn’t that Amos doesn’t fit my
interpretation of the Apostasy, but that it runs directly counter to what the LDS Church
claims about the Apostasy. The rest is an argument for quantity over quality of Scriptural support. Solito also claims that Mormonism resembles 1st to 3rd century Christianity more than Catholicism. That’s a wager I’d love
to take. I’ve written about the 1st and 2nd century Church Fathers on the Eucharist here
, and the 3rd century Church Fathers here
, the 2nd century Ignatius and Irenaeus on the papacy here
, etc. Click the “ECFs” link at the bottom of the page to read any of the dozens of posts on the early Church Fathers. There’s a reason that the LDS Church had to claim they’re apostate, while we claim they’re Saints: they’re super-Catholic.
Interestingly, a Mormon (and former missionary) Josh
) seems to disagree with Solito, and admits
: “I don’t believe the verses in Amos 8 are the key verses we use in Missionary work. I served a two-year LDS mission recently, and I personally gravitated away from using those verses.
” Josh even actively discouraged Mormons from using the Bible to support their beliefs. Instead, they should use the Book of Mormon. Of course, there’s a world of difference. Even leaving aside the fact that Catholics don’t think the Book of Mormon is inspired, there’s no evidence that it’s pre-Apostolic. Even though the New Testament is inspired, an NT prophesy of Christ wouldn’t be very compelling, because it’s written after His arrival into history. Unless Mormons can show some evidence that a belief in a Great Apostasy preceded
the alleged Apostasy, it’s not a prophesy. It’s what scholars call a “postdiction,” a prediction after the fact.
So within the Bible, the only texts which are clearly written prior to 100 A.D., the Sacred Texts are either silent on the issue of a total Apostasy, or actively deny it. And the biggest Apostasy (again, still not Total) is to be healed by Christ Himself, at His Second Coming.
III. Scriptural Support Against the Great Apostasy
On the Catholic side, Robert Ritchie wants to know
how Mormons can explain a Global Apostasy in light of all the Scriptural passages which seem to promise a perpetual visible Church from the time of Christ’s Ascension to the Second Coming. It’s a good question: one I’ve asked, myself
. Any takers? To quote from the article I just linked to, I can see at least nine major teachings in Scripture which I think clearly reject the idea of a total Apostasy wiping out the Church:
- 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).
- 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.
- The promise that the “Spirit of Truth,” the Holy Spirit, will be with the Church “forever” (John 14:16-17).
- The promise that the Holy Spirit will teach the Church “all things” and “remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:25-26).
- The promise that the Holy Spirit will lead the Church into “all truth” (John 16:13).
- The commandment to bind and loosen given to Peter individually (Matthew 16:19) and to the Church collectively (Matthew 18:18-19).
- The commandment to obey the Church authorities (Hebrews 13:17-18), including bad ones (Matthew 23:2-3).
Of these, it’s #3, the famous passage of Matthew 16:17-19, that’s gotten some attention in the comments. In it, Christ tells Simon that he’s Kepha (Rock), and “upon this kepha, I will build My Church.
” Perhaps surprisingly, the Mormons and Catholics actually seem to agree
that the Rock is Peter because of Peter’s confession
. I think this conclusion is clearly supported by the passage. Likewise, Abraham is made our father through faith because of his faith, and promised descendants as numerous as the stars. This doesn’t mean
that Christ builds His Church upon anyone with faith, just as it doesn’t meant hat anyone with faith becomes a great Patriarch with descendants as numerous as the stars. These are both individual blessings
. So to that extent, the “Lutheran take” by Steve Martin
) is incorrect. The blessing is specific to Simon, which is why Simon (and only Simon) is thereafter known as Kepha, Cephas, and Peter, all of which mean “Rock” (see John 1:42).
The second part of the dispute is actually the more important one for Catholic-Mormon dialogue: what does it mean when Christ says that the Gates of Hell will not overcome the Church He founded upon Peter? Catholics have a clear answer: the Church will never die out. For his part, Seth R. said he’ll try and find some early Church support for the Mormon view, which is that it only means that the Church will win in the end. Whatever the conclusion there, I think that the clear message of all of the passages alluded to above is one and the same: Christ and the Holy Spirit will be with the Church always, will guide the Church always, will preserve the Church in all Truth, and so on. Everyone saved is part of the Church in some way (even if they deny it — 1 Corinthians 12:15), since it’s the Church who Christ died for, and the Church is His Body and His Bride (Eph. 5:25-27). So there’s no such possibility of a saved people without some presence of the Church.
IV. Wheat and the Weeds
Christ is clear about what to expect in the Church. Just as His own Apostles included Judas, the Church on Earth will always include some bad seeds. He explains that it’ll be this way from His time until the end of the world. If true, this presupposes (of course) that the Church will exist until the end of the world
We see this most clearly in the parable of the wheat and the weeds. Read Matthew 13:24-30, and Mt. 13:36-43, and it’s quite explicit that Christ is establishing His Church (the “Kingdom of Heaven,” Mt. 13:24) once and for all, but that this Church will suffer from an infestation of “weeds,” the bad seeds I mentioned above. Christ says to His angels about the wheat and the weeds, “Let both grow together until the harvest,” (Mt. 13:30), which He explains is “the end of the world” (Mt. 13:39). So the Church will always be plagued by evil forces (the weeds), until the end of the world, but She’ll never die out. The weeds will never totally choke out the wheat.
Mormonism says that the Kingdom of Heaven simply stopped existing on Earth, which makes this parable rather nonsensical. In one of the links Kirkland provided, FairLDS claimed
that Jesus and the LDS “essentially” agreed:
Consider the sequence of events. 1. The children of the Kingdom are sown throughout the world. 2. The enemy sows weeds among the good seed, and they all grow together. 3. The angels ask whether they should go gather up all the wheat right away, but the Master says to wait until the end of the world, when the wheat will all be separated out, and the wicked judged.
This is essentially the same sequence the Latter-day Saints propose. 1. Jesus came to earth and sent His apostles throughout the world to proclaim the Gospel. 2. Satan comes and sows apostasy and corruption in the Church. 3. This state of affairs is left intact until the end times, when the wheat is gathered again in preparation for the return of the Lord and the Judgment.
There are a couple critical problems with this interpretation. First, if the wheat and weeds are coexisting, then the Kingdom of Heaven is still on Earth. Christ says (Mt. 13:24-25):
“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, His enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away.”
So if we’re in that position, wheat and weeds fighting it out within the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth (that is, the Church), then no Apostasy happened. Again, this is Christ’s description of what the Church on Earth looks like, and FairLDS is saying that’s what the Church looked like before the LDS got there.
Second, if FairLDS were right that the LDS Church is the gathering before the harvest, they’re in serious trouble, because the gathering before the harvest is first of the damned. Only after that is the wheat gathered (Mt. 13:30):
“Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: ‘First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”
So either the Catholic interpretation is right, and it proves that there’s no Apostasy, or the FairLDS interpretation is right, and Mormons are being gathered together to go to Hell. Fortunately, I think it’s the former.
V. How Does an Apostate Church Bring us the Bible?
More fundamentally, when we’re debating the meaning of Scriptural passages, we’re overlooking the obvious, which David Bates (Restless Pilgrim) helpfully raises
: if the Church actually died out right away, how do we know that the Bible they left is the accurate one? Rutilus
, a Mormon, responds that we don’t
The Mormon faith does not claim that the Bible canon was reliably assembled and preserved. One of the central tenants of the Mormon faith is that all scriptures are vulnerable to alterations through the process of transmission and translation. That is where the “pray on it” part comes in whereby the reader is expected to look to God for guidance on the issue.
But if we can’t trust Scripture, why bother with Scripture at all? Why not go by prayer alone, and forget about Sacred Scripture? As we’ll see, the Mormon position itself actually undermines Rutilus’ conclusions.
Mormons use Joseph Smith “Translation” of the Bible
, which isn’t really a translation at all, but a set of additions, rewordings, and commentaries on the King James Version of the Bible. These are considered particularly trustworthy because Smith was believed to have been inspired in undertaking this revision of the Bible. So even if Mormons write off the Bible used by Catholics and Protestants, there’s no way to write of the JST without writing off JS.
And if that’s
the case, one still has to grapple with passages 2 Timothy 3:16-17 which remains unchanged
in the JST. It says that God inspires Scripture and for specific purposes — that sounds very much like Scripture is a trustworthy guide. And even in the JST, Joseph Smith kept all of the Books in the KJV, and even acknowledged that the “Apocrypha” was inspired
., although he claims it has errors, also.
So we’re left with two possibilities. Either, Joseph Smith isn’t reliable enough to trust to get the translation of the Bible right even while “inspired” (in which case, the case for Mormonism falls apart), or Joseph Smith is correct, and the Catholic Bible includes Books which are all
the word of God. That is, even if there were slight mistakes due to mistranslation, somehow, the allegedly-apostate Catholic Church nailed it, correctly guessing which of the dozens of possibly canonical Books circulating around were, in fact, canonical. So I think David’s original point deserves serious thought.
This also, I think, answers HocCogitat’s question of whether we can all just agree to look at “the plain meaning of Scripture.” Beside the fact that we can’t all agree on the basics — whether God is a Trinity, whether we should worship Jesus Christ, whether God is the Creator of everything from nothing, whether the Bible is trustworthy, which Books comprise the Bible, whether other Books exist outside the Bible, whether doctrines should be supported by the Bible or the Book of Mormon, etc. — it’s safe to say that “the plain meaning of Scripture” alone isn’t helpful. The plain meaning tells us what the obvious passages mean, but most of these questions aren’t answered by the obvious passages. Put simply, to have an inerrant Bible, you need an inerrant Church.
VI. Why Did the Church Founded by Christ Fail, and the One Founded by Smith Succeed?
why persecution of the early Church is used to prove how the original Church died out, while persecution of the LDS Church is used to prove that the Mormon Church must be the true Church of God. Kirkland Group responded
, but his response raised more questions than answers for me:
I’m not sure I have an article to give you that would answer that question, but I think the logical answer is that it shows that Satan persecutes Christ’s true disciples. He wants few things more than to blind people and lead them away from paths that would let them know the truth about God and what he desires from us. Satan persecuted the early apostles – and through wickedness overcame them and the church in our belief – and he tried the same thing in the last days when Joseph Smith was called to restore the truth.
This follows a pattern we see throughout the Bible, especially the Old Testament; as soon as the people had the wicked cleansed from their midst, their temple rebuilt, were saved from captivity, etc., they went right back to their evil ways and within a short time were threatened with destruction again.
But this time it was different. People had many pieces of the truth, but the fulness would not be restored as it had been in the past until it could be restored and never again taken from the earth. It happened in a special place that was governed by special principles (freedom and liberty), and even then the adversary almost succeeded in snuffing it out. Joseph and his brother were murdered by a mob, church members were murdered and driven from their homes into a wilderness, and only by relative distance from mobs and armies in America did it get enough breathing room to survive.
says something similar
, arguing that “The Church organization was able to be re-established when the Western World evolved to allow its survival. Of course, here is the fundamental difference between the Catholic claim to sovereignty and the Mormons
.” But surely, the Church of Jesus Christ isn’t so weak that it has to wait until the United States can protect it to come into being? And if the Church is that puny, why both establishing it in the first century at all? Why not simply leave everything alone, up to the pugnacious Israelites? They’re
still around. They weren’t cowered into oblivion by the Romans, or the Muslims, or the Spanish, or the Germans. If the Church Jesus founded is so weak that He needs Uncle Sam’s help, why not wait on Uncle Sam to get there? Christ compares His founding the Church to planting a tiny mustard seed which will grow to be the largest of the plants (Mt. 13:31-32), while the LDS view has Christ’s seed dying, before being replanted by Joseph Smith once it’s somewhere safe.
So my original question remains: if Satan tried the same tricks against the early Church as he did against the LDS church, why do Mormons think that the early Church failed and the LDS Church prevailed? The first answer is Uncle Sam, while the second (provided by Kirkland) is the wickedness of the people. That’s what I’d said earlier, but a Mormon blogger (ERMD) denounced that view as an incorrect “straw man.” If the early Christians’ wickedness is the correct answer, why don’t we see Scriptural support? As I said initially, the Book of Acts shows a vibrant Christian community in love with the word, and with the Apostolic teaching. While I recognize that controversy exists over the precise chronological ordering of the Books of the New Testament, whatever their order, we see the same message throughout Acts, the Pauline Epistles, the Catholic Epistles, and the Book of Revelation, that there are both good and bad Christians, wheat and weeds alike in the Kingdom. But that gets us back to the “wheat and weeds” argument above.
VII. Additional Problems
David Bates (Restless Pilgrim) also raises the following points against the Mormon Apostasy theory:
* Not only are Jesus’ promises meaningless, but with the Mormon version of history, God’s providence is seen as *incredibly* impotent.
* The timeline involved. Why did God wait soooooooooooooooooo long before restoring his Church with Joseph Smith. I mean, seriously, that’s a heck of a long time…
* How can an apostate Church be entrusted to assemble and guard the canon correctly? (An interesting sub-topic here is on what basis the Deutero-canon is accepted)
* Proof. The burden of proof really is on the Mormons to substantiate their claim. Where is the proof o this great rupture? If what they say is true, you would expect to find evidence in the literary record of the Early Church. Since they affirm the New Testament, where is this rupture between the NT and the Fathers?
earlier to the second of these points, saying “man is responsible for that, not God
,” and comparing it to the failure to evangelize certain parts of the world. But unlike that failure to evangelize, this is a case of something literally impossible. Man can’t
create the Church. Throughout history, God never
left humanity without at least a faithful remnant. To claim it happened here is extraordinary, and should require some strong evidence, as David noted.
Finally, one of the best arguments I saw in the comments
comes from “WF,
” who points out
that since Mormons believe that the Apostle John is still alive
and roaming the Earth today, 2000 years on, it’s seemingly impossible (even from an LDS perspective
) to conclude that there was a Total Apostasy, since at least one Apostle remained alive at all points in history. I’d never heard this argument, but it’s a good one. The whole point of the Apostasy theory is that there were no more Apostles on Earth, which is why Peter, James, and John had to appear as angels to ordain Joseph Smith, as John Coulton explained
(see also D&C 128:20
). But if John the Apostle was still wandering the Earth in the flesh, (a) why is he appearing as an angel, and (b) why is there a need for a “Restoration”?
VIII. Additional Resources
If you’re looking for more from the LDS perspective, there are plenty of suggestions:
Thanks so much to everyone who’s participated so far. I only hope that my contributions are as good as what I’ve been seeing in the comments. I’ll switch gears to talk about abortion and the apparent plural marriage contradiction soon in what I hope will be much shorter posts.