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.

My deep, dark confession: Who cares?

Hare Krishna in Moscow

On Tuesday, I walked from the Parisian train station Gare du Nord to the Métro at Chappelle. This route takes you straight through the Indian section of town. I enjoy Indian parts of cities — such vibrant colours, combined with an abundance of people (which I can only handle in small doses), sometimes Indian music from shops or scents from restaurants, window displays full of multi-hued Hindu gods. All the usual stuff.

As I walked, I actually prayed, ‘Lord, help me to be Your light in someone’s life today.’ A nice prayer.

Soon there appeared a couple of white guys dressed in simple ‘Indian’ clothes with a dab of makeup on each forehead. And, of course, a satchel of books. Now, I’m not sure they were Hare Krishna, but that is a likely choice. They could have been western sympathisers to Hinduism*, I suppose.

The elder fellow wanted to know if I was interested in a copy of The Bhagavad Gita. I admitted I was. He held out an astonishingly large copy in French, extolling the virtues of the Sanskrit being present. I admitted that English would be better. So he called over the younger guy who had gone off, and he brought me an English version of the same edition.

But then I asked the price, and I’m not sure about buying a 10-euro copy of so large a book when it comes recommended only by the guy selling it — especially since I can get it out of the library when I get home. They tried selling me another book, but I said I was really only interested in The Bhagavad Gita.

Having extricated myself, I walked on to catch the Métro.

Do you notice anything about this story?

What stands out to me is the fact that I did not try engaging with these guys at any level beyond the possible purchase. Ten years ago or even five years ago, I would tried to share the thunderously good and life-changing truth that is Christ, the Incarnate God.

Instead, I stayed at the level of a business transaction and acted as unspiritual as anyone else. Then I moved on with my day.

Now, you may not fault me for this, even though I prayed that I could be God’s light to someone that day. After all, how do you ‘naturally’ bring Jesus up in a conversation with Hare Krishnas?

In Tuebingen, I was walking down the street one day and saw some Mormon Missionaries. Rather than engaging them, I extricated myself from the conversation as quickly as possible, quite nervous the whole time.

I had zero spiritual conversations with my less-than-enjoyable flatmates in Germany. I do not bring up the Gospel with my unbelieving classmates in French class. Nor did I bring it up with the friends I made in Germany.

In my second year of university, I was ‘Outreach Coordinator’ at my uni’s IVCF group. In my third year, I led an evangelistic Bible study. In my fourth year, I was president, seeking ways of reaching an unreached campus. I had encounters on the street with Scientologists. I talked with my roommate and others in my dorm about Jesus in first-year uni. I ran two Alpha Courses during my time in undergrad. I spent a year after graduation as a missionary with IVCF/IFES in Cyprus, leading evangelistic Bible studies and engaging in spiritual conversations with Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and agnostics.

Today, I start to sweat when I see a Mormon!!

This is my deep, dark secret.

When I talk to, say, a Hare Krishna, or a Jehovah’s Witness, or a Mormon Missionary, there is a part of me that thinks, ‘What is the use? This will just go until we are both tired and quit.’

When I talk to an unbelieving classmate, colleague, or friend, I think, ‘I don’t want to scare so-and-so off. I don’t even know what he/she believes.’

I believe in evangelism with my head.

But I no longer believe in it with my heart.

This is my dark, dark secret.

So what business do I have writing this blog at all?

*To be Hindu one must be born Hindu; conversion is not possible.