According to Mormon doctrine, one reason for God having again spoken to man is found in the apostate condition of the Christian church. With the deaths of the original apostles, and the consequent cessation of prophecy, the church was progressively disrupted until it was transformed into a caricature of its original self. This condition continued unabated from the second century until the present era. Brigham Young once compared historic Christianity to an egg that had been "laid in hell, hatched on its borders, and then kicked on to the earth;" John Taylor considered the Christian's knowledge of God to be on a level with that of the "brute beast;" and Orson Pratt declared that the entire Christian ministry was destitute of divine authority, adding that "the Almighty abhors all their wicked pretensions, as He does the very gates of hell."(1) Such vitriolic condemnations are commonplace in Mormon literature.
Predictions of this apostasy are supposedly found throughout the entire Bible. Isaiah, for instance, spoke of the earth as "defiled under the inhabitants thereof; because they have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance, broken the everlasting covenant" (24:5). Mormons identify this everlasting covenant" with the covenant mentioned in Heb. 13:20, and infer that Isaiah was predicting the dissolution of the Christian church.
If the only eternal covenant mentioned in scripture was contained in the New Testament, Mormons might be justified in applying Isaiah's words to the infant church. But the Old Testament recognizes two other eternal covenants, both of which were already ancient when Isaiah wrote. The covenant mentioned by Isaiah, moreover, is pictured as broken by all the earth's inhabitants, a singularly inappropriate description if meant to represent the early church. The only covenant which could conceivably fit such a description is the everlasting covenant established after the flood, when God promised Noah to never again destroy "all flesh that is upon the earth" (Gen. 9:1-17). This explanation is not only consistent with the larger context of chapter 24, but has the additional advantage of making Isaiah's words intelligible to his original readers.
Two additional passages supposedly foretelling the destruction of Christ's church are 1 Tim. 4:l-3 and 2 Pet. 2:1-2. Neither of these texts, however, fulfill the conditions of a universal apostasy. 1 Tim. 4:l-3 speaks only of "some" defecting from the faith, indicating that the majority of professing Christians would remain loyal to Christ. The prediction of false teachers in 2 Pet. 2:1-2 extends through vs. 9, where Peter assures his readers that God is able to preserve the righteous from all inducements to sin. Just as Noah was delivered from the flood and Lot from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, so God "knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations."
Another passage believed to predict this apostasy is 2 Tim. 3:1-7. The very context of Paul's warning, however, removes any thought of a complete falling away. After describing those "men of corrupt minds, reprobate concerning the faith," Paul informs Timothy that "they shall proceed no further: for their folly shall be manifest unto all men" (vs. 9). Paul here assures Timothy that God will exercise restraint over the wicked, and will not allow them to consummate their destructive designs. It should further be noted that Paul does not direct the reader's attention to some future restoration, but rather directs him to the holy scriptures, "which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus" (vs. 15).
To evaluate each of the so-called apostasy scriptures adduced by Mormons would require a volume many times the size of this present one. Suffice it to say that while the Bible does contain numerous reprimands against wickedness and corruption, they are invariably coupled with assurances that a remnant will be spared according to the election of grace. Thus Noah and his family were preserved from the judgment that overwhelmed the antediluvial world, although scripture knows no period of greater apostasy than that preceeding the flood. The prophet Elijah thought he was the only faithful person left, yet God reassured him with the knowledge that "I have left me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal" (1 Kings 19:18). This same theme was greatly developed by the latter prophets, and finds its primary New Testament expression in Rom. 11. Just as it was in Old Testament times, Paul argues, so now the majority of Israel have rejected God's proferred salvation; but there still remains a remnant who are daily being added to the church. He takes great pains to show that this remnant was not selected because of its righteousness or merit, but solely on the basis of God's gracious election. Good works, whether actual or foreseen, are therefore irrelevant to the preservation of God's covenant people.
Other descriptions of the perpetual character of the church are found throughout the New Testament. Jesus' commission to the church included the promise of his eternal presence "even unto the end of the world" (Mt. 28:20). Paul spoke of the church as fulfilling a divine plan conceived in eternity and embracing both cosmic and earthly powers, a plan so wonderful and comprehensive that he was led to exclaim, "Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end" (Eph. 3:21). He assured Timothy that even while sin and heresy "eat as doth a canker," the foundation of God still stands secure, "having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his" (2 Tim. 2:17-19). Paul's use of the word "foundation" designates the church, a foundation which is at once "beyond any alteration or possible dissolution," and whose integrity "stands amid both the assaults of adversaries and the defection of unstable souls."(2)
According to Mormon doctrine, the death of the Christian church left the world in a state of spiritual bankruptcy for approximately 1700 years. With the establishment of the Mormon Church, however, God inaugurated a program destined to ultimately consume all other kingdoms and to bring about "the destruction of the powers of darkness, the renovation of the earth, the glory of God, and the salvation of the human family."(3) Mormons thus view their own Church as the culmination and summation of all prior dispensations, and identify the coming period of its triumph with Paul's "dispensation of the fulness of times" (Eph. 1:10).
Such an identification is not sustained by Biblical usage. While the "dispensation of the fulness of times" contemplated by Paul does have an obvious eschatological significance, it should not be severed from the "fulness of the time" initiated by Christ. Jesus, at the commencement of his ministry, announced that the time was fulfilled (Mk. 1:15), and Paul recorded in Gal. 4:4, "But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law." The "dispensation of the fulness of times" refers, then, to the dispensation introduced by Christ and continuing until his final advent, when he will "gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him" (vs. 10).
Another verse commonly supposed to predict this coming restoration is Acts 3:19-21,
Repent ye therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord; and he shall send Jesus Christ, which before was preached unto you: whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began.
The phrase "restitution of all things" Mormons apply to the establishment of their own Church, but a moment's attention to the text will effectively dispel any such illusion. Considering the context of Peter's remarks and the eschatological expectations of his audience, the passage is most naturally interpreted as referring to the final establishment of the Messianic kingdom, when Christ shall reign over a world purified of sin. In repenting Israel would not only assure forgiveness for her sins but would thereby secure entrance to the kingdom she had so long desired, the return of her promised Messiah, and the final renovation of the earth. Peter's stress here, however, is not upon the cosmological significance of this restoration but upon its moral preconditions. Israel is charged to repent and be converted to Christianity in order that she might be spiritually and morally refreshed. At that time the Messiah, Jesus, shall return to earth and establish the kingdom promised Israel, but until then he must remain in heaven. Peter emphasizes the necessity of Israel's conversion and moral regeneration by adducing the words "God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began," which refer not to some imagined restoration of the gospel but to the necessity of Israel's obedience to the promised Messiah (vss. 2l-24).
There is nothing about this exposition which conflicts with the background or context of Acts 3:19-21, but the Mormon interpretation suffers on both counts. On that view, Peter must be understood not as referring to the restoration of Israel in the Messianic kingdom--a subject perfectly appropriate to the theme of his discourse and the understanding of his audience--but to the restoration of the Christian gospel by Joseph Smith, a thought foreign to both the needs and comprehension of his listeners. Furthermore, for Peter to speak of a "restitution of all things" in the Mormon sense would imply an apostasy of the Christian church from the principles Peter and the other apostles were even then attempting to establish, which is hardly a subject Peter would have advanced as a reason for embracing the new faith. Finally, the restitution spoken of by Peter is presented as taught by all the prophets since Moses. As we have seen, however, the prophecies cited by Peter refer not to a future restoration of the gospel but the necessity of Israel's obedience in the Messianic kingdom. This theme can indeed fairly be said to have been "spoken by the mouth of all...prophets since the world began," but not even the most optimistic Mormon can realistically claim that the restoration of the Christian gospel was a primary theme of Old Testament prophecy.(4)
A third restoration passage is Rev. 14:6, "And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people." Mormons identify this divine messenger with the angel Moroni, who allegedly revealed the existence and whereabouts of the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated.
Even if we assume that a literal interpretation of this passage is justified, it still cannot be consistently applied to the appearance of the angel Moroni. The burden of the angel's message, which sets the theme for the remainder of the chapter, is not one of salvation or restoration but of impending doom. It is a particular aspect of the everlasting gospel that is proclaimed by the angel, one composed of fearful judgment rather than Christian hope. The angel, furthermore, is not represented as visiting the earth but as proclaiming his message in mid-heaven; his message is not heard by a select few but by all the inhabitants of the earth; he is immediately followed by two other angels who proclaim the fall of pagan Rome and the damnation of those who worship the image of the beast. Either the angel Moroni was singularly inept as a fulfiller of prophecy, or this passage has no relationship to the Mormon edition of the "everlasting gospel."
The most significant single aspect of this restoration was the revival of God's holy priesthood. This priesthood is the peculiar possession of Mormonism; "only the Church possessing this authority is the complete Church of Christ, and there can be but one."(5) Ordinances performed by other churches are illegitimate, and baptism is only an empty pretense unless performed by a Mormon Priest or Elder.
If the priesthood was as necessary as Mormons suppose, it is surprisingly strange that there is no record of a priestly office existing in the primitive church. The word "priest" is never included in any list of Christian offices, nor is there any mention of priestly duties being performed by Christian ministers.(6) This silence is doubly incredible when we recall the predominant place assigned the priestly office in the Old Testament. As the writers of the New Testament were Jews, Charles Hedge has written,
to whom nothing was more familiar than the word priest, whose ministers of religion were constantly so denominated, the fact that they never once use the word, or any of its cognates, in reference to the ministers of the gospel, whether apostles, presbyters, or evangelists, is little less than miraculous. It is one of those cases in which the silence of Scripture speaks volumes.(7)
Scripture is silent on the question of a Christian priesthood because it teaches that Christ holds a priesthood found nowhere on earth. This is clearly stated in Heb. 7, where the plural and precessionate priesthood embodied in the Levitical order is contrasted with the singular and perpetual priesthood of Christ. Under the old dispensation, there were many priests because each was prevented by death from remaining in office. A priest who does not die, however, holds his priesthood permanently, without need of any successor or priests additional to himself. Further, the temporal law of priesthood could not make its adherents perfect, seeing that it depended upon the ministrations of imperfect and sinful men. Christ's priesthood, however, not being held by men, is forever secure from human frailty because it depends not upon men but upon he "who is holy, harmless, undefiled, seperate from sinners" (vs. 26). Because of these two factors, the Christian does not require an earthly priesthood patterened after that of the Old Testament, priest following priest in an unbroken line of succession. Since no human being is qualified to exercise those priestly functions whereby Christ "is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him" (vs. 25), there exists no reason for any other system of priesthood than that held exclusively by him, who has already perfectly performed every priestly duty necessary for salvation.
Besides being superfluous, a Christian system of priesthood is actually derogatory to the work of Christ, for it presupposes that the church must continually redo what the New Testament teaches has already been done in him. For example, the New Testament declares that there is only "one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus" (1 Tim. 2;5). Mormons, however, teach that another mediator is necessary to mediate with the mediator, thereby taking upon themselves the duty which only Christ can perform. The New Testament teaches that Christ "entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us" (Heb. 9:12). Mormons, on the other hand, teach that they must enter many times into their holy temples, thereby securing not only their own salvation but that of many others as well. What Christ has already done Mormons nullify by doing again, therefore denying both the finality and perfection of his work.
Claiming exclusive possession of Christ's holy priesthood, Mormons refuse to acknowledge any non-authorized ordination or sacrament. In this they stand directly opposed to the attitude inculcated by Christ, who taught that faith alone confers validity, not a mechanical transfer of authority from one person to another. For example, in Lk. 9:46-5O there arose a dispute among the disciples concerning which of them was greatest. Jesus, in answer, picked up a child who was standing nearby and said, "Whosoever shall receive this child in my name receiveth me: and whosoever shall receive me receiveth him that sent me: for he that is least among you all, the same shall be great." The implication of Jesus' answer, that one need only acknowledge Christ's name in order to receive both he and the Father, aroused misgivings among the disciples. Surely, they thought, the principle just enunciated by Jesus cannot be of universal application, otherwise there would be little if any difference between themselves and the humblest believer. John, in answer, brings forward an example which he feels sure Jesus will grant is illegitimate. "Master," he says, "we saw one casting out devils in thy name; and we forbad him, because he followeth not with us." Unlike the Jewish exorcists of Acts 19:13-16, this man was sincere and therefore successful; he really believed that the name of Jesus was a potent charm, and tried to use it in a way which would benefit those suffering from demonic possession. Because the man did not profess discipleship, however, the apostles felt justified in upbraiding him, since to them he was pretending to a power which they had supposed was exclusively their own. Jesus' reply is as devastating as it is simple: "Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us." A Mormon would have answered that the man, were he actually casting out demons, could not have been empowered by God because he lacked the priesthood; Jesus answered that the man's faith, however dim and uncertain, enabled him to accomplish the works of God, thereby bringing him within the fold of true discipleship. It is Christ's "name through faith in his name" (Acts 3:16) which empowers the believer to perform the works of Christ, not a priesthood which by its very nature cannot be held by men.
A further illustration of this same theme occurs in Acts 4:6-12, where the assembled Sanhedrin questioned Peter regarding the source of his authority. Like the Mormons, these Jewish leaders were jealous of their priestly prerogatives, supposing only themselves entrusted with the power to act in God's name. Peter answered that the miracle he had just performed was accomplished simply "by the name of Jesus Christ... for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved" (vss. 10, 12). In such a setting we would naturally expect Peter, did he pretend to a priesthood superior to that of his interrogators, to simply point that fact out, yet he did not. Instead he stressed that the only power recognized by God was that given by faith in his Son, a faith which not only heals the maimed and the blind but more importantly secures salvation. For Peter as for the New Testament generally, the power to act in God's name is given directly to men whenever they embrace the revelation of his will in Christ Jesus, "For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth" (Rom. 10:4).
Mormons identify the Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament with their own lower or Aaronic priesthood. This claim is in direct opposition to the teachings of scripture. Heb. 7:11-12 describes the Levitical priesthood as "changed" because of the vastly superior priesthood of Christ. Vs. 18 continues this same discussion, and adds that the Levitical priesthood has been "disannulled." The word athetesis does not mean merely a suspension or alteration of the preceding commandment but an absolute and final cancellation. Its fundamental sense is the abolition of something established, and it was used in secular Greek to mean the annulment of a legal decree or document.(8) Mormons thus find themselves in the unenviable position of affirming what the New Testament emphatically denies.
A favorite passage often quoted in support of a New Testament priesthood is Heb. 5:4, "And no man taketh this honour unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron." Mormons interpret the words "this honour" as referring to the Christian priesthood, a view precluded by the foregoing verses. In 5:1-3 the high priests are described as offering "both gifts and sacrifices for sins," and as performing other rituals characteristic of the Jewish system of priesthood. All such practices were abolished by Christ's perfect sacrifice, "for by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified" (10:14).
Mormon emphasis upon the power and prerogatives of the priesthood has resulted in an ecclesiastical totalitarianism without real equal in the modern Christian world. "God made Aaron to be the mouthpiece for the children of Israel," Joseph Smith announced, "and He will make me be god to you in His stead, and the Elders to be mouth for me; and if you don't like it, you must lump it."(9) Brigham Young once said he had never preached a sermon that could not be called scripture,(10) and the General Authorities' Ward Teachers' Message for June, 1945, stated:
When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done. When they propose a plan--it is God's plan. When they point the way, there is no other that is safe. When they give direction, it should mark the end of controversy. God works in no other way.(11)
This excessive veneration of ecclesiastical authority has caused many Mormons to view their leaders with a reverence that borders dangerously upon idolatry. The notion is encouraged, for example, that even should the Church authorities lead their followers into error, the people themselves would still be blessed for their unquestioning obedience. This is a far cry from the Biblical emphasis upon individual responsibility. Mormons would do well, in this respect, to ponder the meaning of Isa. 9:16, "For the leaders of this people cause them to err; and they that are led of them are destroyed."
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1. Brigham Young et al., Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (London: Latter-day Saints' Book Depot, l855-1886), 6:176, 25; Pratt, A Series of Pamphlets, 160.
2. R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul's Epistles to the Colossians, to the Thessalonians, to Timothy, to Titus and to Philemon (Columbus, Ohio: Lutheran Book Concern, l937), 814; Patrick Fairbairn, The Pastoral Epistles (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1874), 349-350. The fact that the word "foundation" designates the church is determined from the context, especially vs. 20. There Paul speaks of a "great house" composed of many different members. This in turn recalls the similar analogy of Eph. 2:19-20, where the "house" spoken of is obviously the church.
3. Smith, History of the Church 4:610.
4. Some Mormons would object to this statement by citing Dan. 2:31-45, which they regard as predicting the very time Smith would re-establish the kingdom of God. Reading the passage in this fashion, however, requires such wildly improbable feats of exegetical legerdemain that wiser Mormons have abandoned the attempt. See, for example, John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft Inc., 1960), 94-95, and Heber C. Snell, "The Bible in the Church," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 2 (Spring 1967):62.
5. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations, 24.
6. The only reference to a New Testament priesthood are the metaphorical allusions of 1 Pet. 2:5, 9 and Rev. 1:6; 5:10; 20:6. It should be observed that these passages were not addressed to any specific class or order of ministry, but to the entire community of professing Christians, including women (1 Pet. 3:1), newly converted Christians (1 Pet. 2:2), and all those who participate in the first resurrection (Rev. 20:6).
7. Charles Hedge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1895), 2:467.
8. G. Adolf Deissmann, Bible Studies (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1909), 228-229.
9. Smith, History of the Church 6:319-320.
10. Young et al., Journal of Discourses, 13:95. Young's followers were even less reserved in claiming divine prerogatives for their leader. Heber C. Kimball once spoke of Brigham Young "as if God himself were present with us," and John D. Lee related that Young delighted "in hearing the apostles and elders declare to the people that he...is God." For these statements, see the Deseret News, Dec. 1856, cit. T. B. H. Stenhouse, The Rocky Mountain Saints (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1873), 504, and John D. Lee, Mormonism Unveiled (St. Louis: Bryan, Brand & Co., 1877), 101.
11. Improvement Era 48 (June 1945):354. For many other statements reflecting this same attitude, see Living Prophets for a Living Church, published for the use of college students in the Church Educational System (1974).