The alleged ‘great apostasy’ of Mormonism and the New Testament Canon

Yesterday I met a couple of Mormon missionaries in the Meadows, and we had a bit of a chat because I decided, for once, not to be rude and not to basically ignore them. I saw them in the distance and even prayed the Jesus Prayer, saying that I’d talk to them if they spoke to me. And, of course, they spoke to me.

I think it would be really hard to be a Mormon these days. Not only do you have to work through all the arguments against belief that non-heretical Christians have to work through, you have to work through all the arguments against Joseph Smith and The Book of Mormon and all of that as well.

The elder who did all the talking brought up the Great Apostasy as an explanation for why The Book of Mormon was necessary. According to Mormons, at the death of the last apostle, there was a Great Apostasy, and all Christians everywhere turned away from the truth, and God waited around for 1800 years or so until it was the kairos and he granted a new revelation to Joseph Smith and cleared out terrible heresies such as the Holy Trinity.

Now, this Catholic website has some solid biblical arguments against the Great Apostasy, so I encourage you to read it and work through it.

I’m going to take a tack that uses my own special expertise. Church history.

According to a tradition Mormons would maybe reject since the ‘apostate’ church teaches it, the last Apostle to die was St John the Evangelist, around the turn of the second century. Everything that the church did after that doesn’t count because we fell into apostasy. At this time, if we accept the traditional attributions of the New Testament texts, the entire New Testament existed.*

But, if the whole New Testament existed, did all Christians believe that all 27 books thereof were the inspired revelation of God? What about other books? Were there other things they may have gone for that we and the Mormons don’t?

The answer to the first question is No. The answer to the third question is Maybe. In A High View of Scripture? The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon, Craig D Allert addresses the related issues of authority and the canon of Scripture, and he demonstrates that it took centuries for the organic process of sifting out what qualifies as the ‘canon’ of Scripture to transpire; he also demonstrates that the unwritten ‘rule of faith’, such as the Apostles’ Creed, was seen as authoritative alongside the growing sense of authority applied to the apostolic writings. It was the coinherence of this growing Christian canon alongside the authority of the rule of faith (and church leaders, no doubt) that helped settle the Christian canon of Scripture.

We start getting lists in the late 100s, such as the famous Muratorian fragment (ca. 170, to date it early), but most are much later, many emerging from the pens of, say, St Athanasius or St Augustine in the 300s, or as late as Pope Gelasius in the late 400s. Of course, it does seem that along the way a lot of prominent Christians were drawing from the same collection of apostolic documents and treating them as Scripture, even if the boundaries hadn’t been formed up yet.

One story I like is that in the 200s, a clergyman wrote the Bishop of Antioch if it was okay to use the Gospel of Peter at Church. The bishop said, ‘Sure!’ After, the Gospel is the Gospel, and Peter is Peter. Then he got his hands on a copy and saw that it’s a bit … wonky. I imagine this sort of thing happened more often in the Early Church than we are comfortable with — but less than extreme, pro-Gnostic cynics/skeptics would have us believe.

One canonical text that took a while to gain universal acceptance was the Book of Revelation. I understand it never quite passed muster to enter the Byzantine liturgy, but I could be wrong.

One non-canonical text that pre-dates the alleged ‘Great Apostasy’ and which many ‘proto-orthodox’ treated as Scripture for a long time is 1 Clement. Another text that a lot of people really liked was The Shepherd of Hermas — its popularity lasted so long that in the fifth century, John Cassian cites it the same way he cites canonical texts (this is the only non-canonical text he so treats).

The ins and outs make for a fantastic, messy story. But in the end, if you want to accept the 27-book New Testament, you have to accept that the Holy Spirit was working in the Church for centuries after the year 100, helping the people of God come to grips with the new faith and new life produced by the Jesus Event, and that only through much prayer and meditation was this 27-book canon sorted out.

And it was sorted out by people who often read like Trinitarians, some of whom were fully-fledged Nicene Trintarians, others possibly ‘proto-Trinitarians’ before Nicaea, others of whom would have rejected a bodily God even if they couldn’t yet push belief towards Trinitarianism, all of whom live during the alleged Great Apostasy of Mormonism.

So — why trust the New Testament if you’re a Mormon? Why trust the judgement of a church you condemn as apostate and heretical? If our forebears were inspired enough to choose the right revealed texts, why would they also perpetrate what Mormons consider one of the greatest heresies — belief in the Most Holy Trinity?

I admit that orthodox Christian history and orthodox Christianity are less tidy than the Mormon solution. Maybe that’s why they are more true.

*I’m not actually arguing that, say, 2 Peter was actually written by Peter or even before ca. 100 — just saying this for the sake of argument.


8 thoughts on “The alleged ‘great apostasy’ of Mormonism and the New Testament Canon

  1. “So — why trust the New Testament if you’re a Mormon?”

    Because we trust God and we trust the Apostles. The Apostasy didn’t happen over-night, and for many years after the Apostles were dead there were many people of great faith. God would have worked with them to preserve His words that His Apostles had written. Why? Because they would be needed to facilitate future events that God had prophesied and planned.
    To think that the Great Apostasy means that God stopped directing affairs on the Earth is to misunderstand the Apostasy. God has always been in control, and always will be. He inspired and assisted the Romans in their conquest and engineering so that things would be prepared for the mortal ministry of Christ. He doesn’t only work with the faithful, but with all men to bring about his own designs.
    When the church began to fall into apostasy they lost the Priesthood and and the gifts of the spirit. But God did not abandon the Earth. He still inspired men at various time to ensure that things would be prepared for the last days. The preservation of the Bible, though not complete, is still a great work that could not have been done without his assistance. The great reformation of the 1200’s was inspired and directed by God. Every great event in the History of the world has been carefully planned and prepared for by God so that it would go exactly as He desired.

  2. No, you are not wrong. Good points. I hoping for more details on your objections and their rebuttals based on something other than what John Smith himself wrote.

    • Unfortunately, when I brought up the formation of the canon, the elder dodged the question. When I brought up the fact that there is archaeological evidence for the Old Testament but not for the Book of Mormon, he said that he knew that Book of Mormon was true because he felt the Holy Ghost tell him it is true. That was his go-to line — his rebuttals were only ever derivative of 19th-c Joseph Smith/Brigham Young (not that they were always named explicitly) or about how he felt the Holy Ghost telling him these things were true. I said that I, as an orthodox Trinitarian, not only do I have history on my side, but I can rely on my reason and my faith, but he only has faith. He simply repeated the Holy Ghost line.

      • Not to be rude, but the archeological argument has always amused me, as has the historical one.
        History, by definition, is the written record of events. Anything outside the written record is not part of history.
        As to archeology, it is a highly subjective field and is deeply influenced by current attitudes and beliefs. In other words, there is plenty of evidence for the Book of Mormon in archeology, it is simply interpreted against that Book because that is the popular thing to do.

        For instance, it is commonly held that the ancient Americans had no knowledge of the wheel, and this is held as a great proof against the Book of Mormon. Yet wheeled toys have been found at ancient sites, so they obviously did understand and use the wheel.

        Also, Cement has been used against the Book of Mormon, and yet many ancient structures have been discovered to be made with cement.

        Archeology can actually tell us very little regarding any civilization, and it is only when it is paired with the written record (or history) that we can really learn. For instance, it wasn’t until recently that any evidence of horses among the Huns was found by archeologists, but the historical record was full of detailed accounts.

        The evidence for the Book of Mormon is there, it is just that people don’t want it to be and so they don’t see it.

      • To make the argument circular, the evidence against the Book of Mormon is there, it’s just that Mormons don’t want it to be, so they don’t see it. Given the dubious origins of the Book of Mormon, it is not enough corroborative evidence for the archaeology, for one thing. For a second thing, wheeled toys might mean carts, but they don’t mean chariots, of which we have none. The size and location of cities also fail to match up, and the technology found in the ancient Americas is almost exclusively ‘Stone Age’, equivalent to the Neolithic of Europe, until the end of the Pre-Columbian period. Certainly, some archaeological evidence may back up The Book of Mormon, but not, from what I’ve seen so far, enough to make me accept its narrative.

        To close, I doubt you and I will ever agree, barring divine intervention, but I still thank you for your perspective. It’s not every day that I get Mormons commenting on my blog. 😉

      • What you believe and accept is not the issue here.
        You stated “there is archaeological evidence for the Old Testament but not for the Book of Mormon”
        This statement is false. As I have shown there is archeological evidence for the Book of Mormon. Whether you accept it as sufficient to alter your beliefs does not mean that it does not exist.

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