One of the trickiest things to try to deal with these days, especially with the wide multitude of Christian denominations out there, is where you can find authority residing. This was something that came up in the aforementioned conversation with Mormon missionaries. As you may guess, this conversation provided me with a lot of food for thought.
When asked about authority and where it resides in the Church today, I moved into the episcopal/Irenaean line on Apostolic Succession. I said that the authority resides with the bishops within Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy (possibly Lutheranism as well). When asked where the bishops derive their authority, I said that they stand in direct line of succession from the Apostles. The elder who did all the talking kept trying to trip me up with how do I know who has authority, so I recall repeating that the Archbishop of Canterbury stands in direct succession from St Augustine of Canterbury in the 600s who was in succession from the Bishop of Rome, who stands in direct succession from St Peter.
He asked how the authority is transmitted, and I said through the laying on of hands, but that there is also a succession of the teaching ministry of the apostles — the teaching ministry being what was most important for our earliest, second-century apologist for Apostolic Succession, Irenaeus of Lyons. The authority of the apostolic successors such as Clement in Rome (whose First Letter to the Corinthians was treated as Scripture by some!) consisted in maintaining the unwritten rule of faith and transmitting the faith to the next generation of believers. This coinherence of personal authority with the rule of faith and the growing canon of Scripture is part of the messy story of how orthodox Christianity got itself a Bible as well as a set of doctrines and an episcopal structure.
I said most of that — at least, about the coinherence of the teaching ministry of the apostolic successors with the discernment of the Holy Spirit to produce both Trinitarian faith and the New Testament canon.
He still asked where ultimate authority sits, and I said that it resides in the collegiality of the bishops. He then wanted to know about the Reformation, and I explained that it had to do with the failure of the Bishop of Rome in his pastoral duties, as well as a belief that the Bishop of Rome does not have universal jurisdiction, but that I still see him as standing in apostolic succession and an orthodox, Trinitarian Christian with jurisdiction at least in Italy if not further.
I guess he had a script, because he moved on to how wouldn’t it be nice if there was one person in whom authority still resided, as in Mormonism. I asked about Mormon schisms, and he said he didn’t know what I was talking about. I mentioned the groups that broke away that still accept polygamy as well as some others that don’t — what about them? Why doesn’t authority reside with them? He said that the true prophets are the ones that reside in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I didn’t press the issue (see more below, however).
He then said that it just makes sense that God would have a person who held authority and was a prophet leading his people. I proceeded to list off orthodox Christians who also are recorded to have had visions and words from God — and some of them have been bishops, in fact. He sort of looked at me like he had no clue who/what I was talking about.
I think their script is designed for free church/dissenting/American evangelicals who are cessationists (don’t believe in the gifts of the Spirit after the death of St John the Evangelist) and who believe in some sort of similar apostasy. The number of times this poor elder had to ignore me or change tack or laugh awkwardly was probably disconcerting for him.
Had I been on script, I wouldn’t have believed in Apostolic Succession, nor would I have believed any of the stories of saints and prophets from the sub-apostolic age (such as St Ignatius of Antioch) to the mainstream Patristic era (St Cyprian of Carthage, St Martin of Tours) to the Middle Ages (St Francis of Assisi, St Bernard of Clairvaux) to today (Elder St Porphyrios) who have had visions and words from God. Instead, I believe that there is to this day an unbroken sacramental, teaching, apostolic ministry alive in the church as well as prophetic and ‘charismatic’ gifts that never left.
The informed Christian, however, will not be deceived by the Mormon Missionary script, because they, too, have a multiplicity of sects. At the moment of Joseph Smith’s death, there was a schism with some saying Brigham Young was the true successor and others Smith’s son, Joseph Smith III; the former are the mainstream Mormons we meet everywhere, the latter are mostly in Missouri and call themselves the Community of Christ. Later, people rejected Young’s successors when they rejected polygamy; the largest polygamist Mormon group is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (given that Joseph Smith had 33 wives, of whom 10 were still married to other men, and given that celestial marriage means people are still married in heaven and that widowed Mormons can remarry, the polygamists are maybe the truest successors to Joseph Smith).
There’s a nice, clear article at Wikipedia about sects in the Latter Day Saint movement. If you have trouble deciding where God’s real church is found and where authority lies, the Mormon should be just as troubled, if not more so. How could God restore his Church through Joseph Smith only to have what amounts to a Second Great Apostasy immediately following Smith’s death? Why trust Brigham Young more than Joseph Smith III?
I realise that even for the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Christian, Apostolic Succession is not as cut-and-dried an argument as I made it out to be. If these groups stand in Apostolic Succession to derive authority, why are they in schism? And aren’t Copts, Ethiopians, Syrian Orthodox, and Armenians also within Apostolic Succession? And the Charismatic Episcopal Church? What about them? I concede that we are divided, and that Apostolic Succession leaves outside of it a multitude of Baptist and Presbyterian types. Nonetheless, Mormons are fractured, too.
However, throughout the Old Testament we see periods when the prophets and priests were unholy and turned away from God, yet the people were still held to God by God’s faithfulness to them, and bound by their authority in some way — there was always a remnant, let alone a belief that God could work through the office of the priests even when they were corrupt. The Gospel of John even mentions Caiaphas prophesying Jesus’ redemptive death through the office of High Priest. What this says to me is that however divided we may be now, and however corrupt ecclesiastical institutions may become at times, God is still with His people, and He will always be driving the Church to reform itself and enter into deeper knowledge of Him both corporately and individually, just as he did with the undivided church before 1053. It is this use of broken, fragile vessels that speaks volumes to me of the power and compassionate love of God, not his abandonment of the Church for 1800 years. Such a God is callous and uncaring. End excursus.
I didn’t bring up the weaknesses in my position, mind you, and the conversation moved on to another topic after that. While I enjoy explaining my beliefs to others, it felt a bit-onesided, anyway. Repeatedly, I was told that if I asked God if the Book of Mormon was true, I would feel the Holy Ghost and realise that it is true while reading it. Objections such as the lack of archaeological evidence were ignored.** The question of where God and Jesus came from was also basically ignored. After being told that God has flesh and blood (which would discount the elder’s earlier agreement with me that God is simple in essence), when I asked again where God came from I was told that spirit and intellect have always existed; this says nothing about the person of God if God is flesh. FYI, God used be a man on another planet; Jesus is his biological son by the Blessed Virgin Mary — Joseph Smith and Brigham Young both taught this.
Anyway, suffice it to say that no proper rebuttals of my arguments were made; either Mormon doctrine was quoted, or issues were sidestepped. I have no doubt that some Mormons have some arguments, but I did not meet them two days ago. He did, in his defence, say that he didn’t think he could convince me by argument, but simply wanted to invite me to read the Book of Mormon with an open mind.
When we consider how difficult it can be simply to believe these days, I don’t think I could ever be convinced by the Mormons — I’d be more likely to chuck Christianity altogether and become a Buddhist than to become a Mormon.
**The alleged Hebrew inscriptions in the USA are, in fact, in a palaeo-Hebrew script that did not exist until the Hellenistic Age, and so, if written by Hebrew immigrants to the ancient Americas, they could not have been written by the people discussed in the Book of Mormon. Chances are, then, they are a forgery made by someone trying to use an ancient form of Hebrew who had insufficient knowledge. Like those alleged Viking inscriptions in the northern USA.