Tuesday, April 22, 2008

"What hath Rome to do with Salt Lake City?"

Last week, two major religious news stories competed for attention. The first, of course, was the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United States. The second was the raid conducted by Texas authorities on the compound of the polygynous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the FLDS, because of alleged child abuse.

Given that the mainstream Mormon Church, the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the LDS, no longer practices polygyny, it seems that President Monson and Company are at pains to differentiate themselves from the above-mentioned FLDS and other “Mormon” splinter groups which continue to allow and encourage their male members to marry more than one woman at a time. Fair enough. Sort of like members of the mainstream Roman Catholic Church wanting to differentiate IT from the likes of the SSPX and the outright sede vacantists, or the “canonical” Byzantine Orthodox jurisdictions from the “noncanonical” Old Calendarists (as opposed to the canonical jurisdictions, such as the Russian Orthodox Church, which continue to use the Old Calendar).

All of that, however, is sort of a digression. What these two stories represent to me has to do with some basic questions regarding authority and continuity in Church life. All who consider the Book of Mormon inspired Scripture, whether in Salt Lake City or in Eldorado, Texas, even those in the former Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, now called the Community of Christ, ground themselves in a tradition of "restoration," of continuing revelation, of “new prophecy,” rooted, not in the continuity of THE Tradition going back, without break, to the Apostles, to Christ Himself, and attested in the New Testament, but in “revelations,” including the Book of Mormon, received by one Joseph Smith, Junior, whose standing as a “prophet” is based largely on the notion that said Apostolic Tradition had somehow failed. For the followers of Smith, this failure is called the “Great Apostasy.”

I will not attempt to recount the entirety of Smith’s career. He lived in the early nineteenth century and began to receive his “revelations” in an area of western New York State which was then called ‘the burned-over district” because it had been the scene, so many times, of the fires of Protestant revivalism. According to the book, Mormon America, the scene was dominated by Methodists, Presbyterians, Quakers, and Baptists. Also present were influences from such entities as Swedenborgianism and a folk tradition of ritual magic, the latter being something that Smith had dabbled in, hoping to find buried treasure. Not an Episcopalian nor a Lutheran in sight, few or no Roman Catholic clergy, and certainly nothing or no one that could be called Orthodox, whether Byzantine or Oriental. So, while the Protestant Canon of the Bible (and a high degree of biblical literacy when it came to the text) was certainly present, what was absent was what could be called a “hermeneutic of continuity” or a "hermeneutic of the Tradition" adequate for the accurate and complete interpretation of the Bible.

In fact, in many ways, the hermeneutics emanating from the above-mentioned Protestant groups were, and are, by way of reaction to the Roman Catholic iteration of the Apostolic Tradition, and these hermeneutics, largely stemming from John Calvin (or, in the case of Methodism, largely in reaction to Calvinism), simply ignored many of the questions which the Apostolic Tradition answers. (Calvinism also provided Smith with the notion of said “Great Apostasy”, at least in embryonic form.) For example, the AT posits the existence of an authoritative priesthood and teaching office (the latter understood somewhat differently by the Roman Catholic Church than by Orthodoxy), whereas, in Calvinism, the emphasis is on the “priesthood of all believers” and upon individual interpretation of Scripture. While there are, of course, Pastors in these Protestant Churches, there is really no “controlling” teaching “authority” in any of these branches of Protestantism.

So Smith, apparently knowing little of the AT, and rejecting much of what he did know, accepts this notion of a "great Apostasy" and posits a "restoration" based in revelations received by him alone during his life, relevation which is “continuing," and given to those "prophets" who suceed him after his death. He institutes a new priesthood which, while authoritative in its highest reaches, is also quite democratic. This is but one example. Another would have to do with the fate of the dead. The AT, of course, encourages prayer for those who have departed this life. Not so Calvinism. Smith? Baptism for the dead, of course. Even more outside the AT is Smith’s Doctrine of God (the Father), who is “an exalted man” and Smith’s statement that “spirit is matter.” For Smith, creation is not ex nihilo, but is the result of his god (gods, actually) organizing eternal matter into the present cosmos. It could therefore be argued that Mormonism is, in fact, atheistic, since, for it, deity does not transcend the cosmos, and that Mormons are simply materialists of a certain "spiritual" bent. Whatever the case, these beliefs certainly have a great deal in common with certain strains of contemporary neo-paganism and remind one of C.S. Lewis' comments about "materialist magicians" in The Screwtape Letters.

In short, I am convinced that Mormonism was able to begin and to gain traction because representatives of the authentic and complete Apostolic Tradition, whether Orthodox or Roman Catholic, or those of the old high church Anglicanism, or even of Lutheranism, were not present to counter it in the very beginning. Thus, I see the two competing religious news stories of last week as a metaphor for the competition between the authentic Apostolic Tradition, as represented by Pope Benedict, and the new prophecy of Joseph Smith, which seeks to supplant this authentic Christian Faith “once delivered to the Saints” and continuous in time, if not entirely in space, "until the end of the age".


Abu Daoud said...

Wow...not that's a new take on the birth of the LDS. Interesting...

Abu Daoud said...

I meant "now that's a new take..." Sorry.

Anonymous said...

I'm greatly entertained by your analysis! Thanks.
I quibble ever so slightly with the term (in quotation marks) "Continuing Revelation." I quibble because of the many faithful Anglicans who claim to be part of the "continuing church." Their claim is that there is not a break or discontinuity between what they espouse and that from which they have historically sprung; also because it implies that one follows on the next and that there is, in fact, continuity.
Am I wrong in thinking that we would all agree that there is, in fact, a DIScontinuity between the LDS and Christianity. There is a fundamental Break between the AT and Joe Smith. Mormonism is not a continuation of Christianity. I would go so far as to point out that it parallels the break between Islam and Judaism. The former is a man-made concoction by an arrogant, misguided, troubled person to "correct" the revealed and catholic (i.e., "according to the whole") faith of God.
Having gone off on that tangent I return to salute you on a great essay.

FrGregACCA said...

You are correct, Fr. David. I perhaps should have been clearer on that. Mormonism, by its own admission, is in discontinuity with historic Christianity. The "continuing revelation" for Mormonism BEGINS with Smith, who seeks to "restore" "apostolic Christianity" according to his understanding of that term, a Christianity that allegedly was lost between the "Great Apostasy" and his "restoration".

FrGregACCA said...

I have made some minor clarifications in the text in response to Fr. David's comments.

Anonymous said...

Bravo, Father, Bravo!

Well done indeed!
I especially like how you dealt with one of my "pet issues" which is private interpretation of Scripture.
As we touched on in a conversation once, if you separate the Bible from it's foundation, the Church, you end up with lots of "interpretations" - read "opinions" which eventually, if enough people like what they hear, end being given some sort of sub-standard doctrinal status. E.g. the popular "Prosperity Gospel" tenet that permeates protestantism these days.
Anyway, thanks for a great article!
Mother +Clement, OCB

Anonymous said...

I'm coming to this post late and even though I disagree with your viewpoint, I enjoyed it very much. I think you've correctly positioned the traditions of authority in the LDS church and Catholic church as antithetical to one another. And despite your harsh critique, your understanding of Mormonism appears to be factual. Very perceptive. Well-done.

My rebuttal, however, would be that Catholicism and Mormonism are alike in a very important way: members of both have to exercise a lot of faith to accept their tradition and reject the other.

Mormons have to take on faith that Joseph Smith really was a true prophet and that his words about the Great Apostasy are true. We have to have faith in new revelation which largely rejects many historical traditions.

Catholics, on the other hand, must accept on faith, that despite the numerous changes, revisions, restructurings, and redefinitions of numerous councils of the last two millennia, including (but by no means limited to) the councils of Nicea, Chalcedon, Trent, and especially Vatican II, the kernel of "Apostolic Tradition" has nevertheless been preserved in an authentic form.

Mormons are at a disadvantage here. While Catholics have had 2,000 years to ponder, explain, and (when necessary) revise their theology, Mormons have only had 200. The fact that as young, fledgling church we have developed sufficiently to be mentioned in the same blog post is, in my opinion, impressive.

Neverthtless, despite my criticism, I always find myself having more in common with a Catholic or an Orthodox than a Protestant.

FrGregACCA said...

Thanks for taking the time to read this. I am glad that you find it factual in its description of the LDS Church. I try very hard to be factual in everything I say or write.

I agree that it takes a great deal of "faith" in order to accept Mormonism. However, it seems to me that the sort of "faith" in question is fundamentally different than the "faith" required to believe in "One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church". The faith required to accept Mormonism, IMHO, is of the sort of which Mark Twain spoke: "believing what you know ain't so".

I grew up in a sort of eclectic Evangelicalism. As a young child, I knew that this tradition does not adequately deal with, for example, the sacramental realism found in the New Testament. Therefore, for me, accepting that the kernel of the Apostolic faith remains present in Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism was largely a matter of historical verification, despite all development and superficial changes

Anonymous said...

That seems like a reasonable spiritual journey, Greg. I can understand how you would not be satisfied with evangelicalism's explanation of the sacramental realism that I too find in the New Testament.

So is your contention that Mormons delude themselves? Secretly deep down they know they know they're wrong and are therefore hypocrites for continuing to preach what they know to be false?

You'll have some trouble substantiating that claim. After all, you'd have to either be a Mormon yourself with misgivings about Joseph Smith or have sampled a statistically significant Mormon population the majority of which admits to disbelieve what they pretend to believe in church.

On the other hand, you might just find the claims of Mormonism so fantastic that it stands to reason that no person of sound mind could beleive it. Yet this position is highly subjective. I may well believe that Catholic trinitrian theology is foolish, infant baptism is laughable, and transubstantiation is ludicrous. Many Protestants would agree with me. Yet in no way does this mean that a) those doctrines are not true, or more especially b) that it is unreasonable for you to believe them. I at least give Catholics that much respect, can't you afford Mormons the same?

Additionally, I don't agree that the changes made to Roman Catholicism were superficial. Pre-nicene doctrine of the Trinity was not nearly as developed or defined as it is today. The supremacy of the Bishop of Rome was by no means acknoweldged before Nicea, or even during Nicea, (or even today, if you ask Orthodox believers!). Infant baptism was not normalized until centuries after apostolic and post-apostolic times when all significant authors speak of adult baptism. These are fundamental changes to the doctrine of God, ecclesiastical authority and the significance of "sacraments." Am I to understand that these issues are, in your estimation, superficial?

Having said that, let me make it clear that I do not believe that just because a doctrine changes, that the tradition to which it belongs is necessarily inauthentic. After all, God can do what he wants with his true church, provided that its leaders are his authorized servants.

Anonymous said...

Hi Father Greg - Thank you for this post. I found the thesis of your essay intriguing. I don't know that I have much to add, other than to point you to additional information about LDS temple rituals that may be of interest to you and your readers since you mention such in your article.

Recently, I blogged about the Scriptural Meaning of the Word Endowed, online references to LDS Temples and ritual, and finally a three-part series on the Kirtland Temple Endowment which took place in 1836.

For myself, I have learned to appreciate the richness of the AT as I have studied the restoration of sacred temple ordinances in this dispensation.

Like The Sunday Page, at least for me, I agree that you captured the essence of our two "traditions". Although I would point out that even though we believe there was a break in the AT called an apostasy, we also believe that there were perhaps many such apostasies since the gospel was given to Adam and Eve and their children in the beginning.

Consequently, the gospel was "restored" to the earth a number of times preceding the Lord's mortal ministry.

Anyway, thanks for your essay. I hope the links to the material on our temple rituals will provide you and others a better understanding of our rich temple-building heritage.

FrGregACCA said...

SundayPages: You write:

"On the other hand, you might just find the claims of Mormonism so fantastic..."

I would not presume to judge anyone’s motives or level of sincerity and, viewed in isolation, some doctrines and practices of Mormonism seem more reasonable than others. But there are two criteria we need to use: reasonableness is one, the other has to do with what the Apostles did and taught. Given what I know about Joseph Smith, I see no reason to take anything he said or put in writing at face value, especially since it is all premised upon the notion of a Great Apostacy, for which I see no evidence (not to mention the absolute absence of evidence for the historicity of the Book of Mormon, the issues surrounding the “translation” of the Egyptian papyri, and the rest of it, including his apparent political and military ambitions). I also see no evidence that what Smith did, what he taught, has very much to do with the faith of the apostles and with what they did.

" Additionally, I don't agree that the changes made to Roman Catholicism..."

There are two sets of issues here. One set has to do with the doctrines and practices which are shared by all the Churches in direct descent from the Apostles (the Assyrian Church of the East, the Oriental Orthodox Churches, the Byzantine Orthodox, the Roman Catholic Church, and certain offshots which have maintained the Apostolic succession of bishops and the Apostolic Faith); the other issue concerns that which is distinct to Roman Catholicism. Some, especially among the Byzantines, would argue that the distinctives embraced by Rome, such as papal infallibility, amount to heresy and apostacy. I do not agree. I am not Roman Catholic, and there are, indeed, many problems with Roman Catholicism from an Orthodox perspective; however, as far as I can tell, the Roman Church has kept the core of the Faith intact, despite certain distortions.

The more significant set of issues, however, relate to where all of these Churches are in substantial agreement, especially when this consensus is at odd with Protestantism and other entities, such as the LDS Church. This would apply to the other questions about which you speak (“transubstantiation” is the distinctly Roman Catholic understanding of the doctrine that all of these Churches hold, that Christ is truly present in the consecrated Eucharistic bread and wine). In evaluating them, there are, again, clearly two relevant criteria: continuity with the teaching and practice of the Apostles and inherent reasonableness. With regard to the Trinity, as you mention, the Council of Nicea, and that of Constantinople, held some fifty years after Nicea, indeed represent development, especially with regard to the language used to express this doctrine, which explains how there is but one God while at the same time, there are three Divine Persons. This data is that of the New Testament and is consistent with what is read in the writings of the Second and Third Centuries. Is it reasonable? Humanity is created in the image and likeness of God; it has but one nature which is shared by many persons, all of whom are “members one of another”. Therefore, it is reasonable that the same would apply to God. Further, “God is love”. Love requires interpersonal relationships: communion. Unless God is the eternal, archetypal communion of love, then one cannot affirm that “God is love”. Also, unless this Godhead is ontologically one in being/essence/substance, then there is more than one God and complete unity in will and purpose is impossible. Further, a God that is not, first and foremost, absolutely transcendent, whose existence is independent of the cosmos, is no God at all. Philip Pullman, in “His Dark Materials,” thinks he is taking on the orthodox Judeo-Christian concept of God; in reality, the “god” Pullman presents is, in fact, very similar to the Mormon god.

In fairness to Smith, I think what he was trying to accomplish was to make complicated theological concepts more accessible, to bring God more understandable to folks who had been confused by an Augustinian/Calvinistic doctrine of the Trinity. The problem here is that what Smith wants to deal with here is already dealt with in the orthodox Christian understanding of the Incarnation of the Eternal Word and Son of God, who is truly “God with us” and is “the God with a human face”. However, if one also essentially incarnates the Father, the tension between the infinite and the finite is lost, and the members of the godhead essentially become no more than three more creatures, however exalted they may be. We are still trapped in the cosmos because there is, literally, "No Exit".

Regarding infant baptism: see the following. The Prevalence and Theology of Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, East and West. The author, Greg Johnson, is a pastor of the conservative Presbyterian Church in America. Since he is a confessional Calvinist, there is much on his site that Orthodoxy would disagree with, but in this paper, he is spot on. Is it reasonable? Well, is it reasonable that children born of parents who are United States are themselves automatically citizens at birth? Is it reasonable that we feed and bathe them prior to their ability to “make a decision” about such things? Or, let’s put it another way: why would an infant, unencumbered with the baggage of a fallen society, reject baptism if he or she could make the decision for themselves?

Explaining the reasonableness of the doctrine of the Real Presence is beyond the scope of a blog comment, but it is clearly consistent with the New Testament and with the Fathers of the Second Century, affirmed wherever it is addressed: Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, and Ireneus.

"Having said that, let me make it clear that I do not believe that just because a doctrine changes, that the tradition to which it belongs..."

Well, I’m sure that you would agree that there are limits to this. Could the President of the LDS, for example, receive a revelation such that the LDS Church would start authorizing and performing same sex marriages? I doubt that this would be the case, nor should it be. And that, of course, begs the question as to why not?

We are also back to the Great Apostacy again here, aren’t we? Specifically, we confront the question of who are God’s authorized representatives. We both would agree, I am sure, that in the beginning, these were the Apostles, who were given, by Christ, a “blank check” to run the Church (“binding and loosing”) under the guidance of the Holy Spirit: “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” Well, as implied in the New Testament and documented in the Letter of Clement of Rome to the Church in Corinth, they also used that authority to ordain successors: bishops who, in each generation, have in turn done the same thing. So at what point did all of these bishops lose their priesthood authority? When did they cease being true successors of the Apostles?

FrGregACCA said...


Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I’m not sure there ever was a time between the Fall and the coming of Christ when there was never a complete absence of true believers and followers of God, when there never was a remnant. However, be that as it may, according to the New Testament and the rest of the Apostolic Tradition, the coming of Christ definitively introduces a new and final era in salvation history which lasts until Christ returns in glory. In this era, again according to both the New Testament and rest of the Tradition, there can never be a complete eradication of the true Church: priesthood authority, derived from the Apostles and ultimately from Christ, has never and will never vanish completely, even if it were reduced to a handful, or perhaps even one, Orthodox\Catholic bishop. Thanks for the links. I peruse them as time allows.

Ttony said...

I hesitate to get too far into this discussion, as I know much less about Mormonism than any of the participants (though I'll hold my own among the Catholics).

One of the things that distinguishes Catholicsm/Orthodoxy from Protestantism is a practical sense of the objective reality of the Faith belonging to the former, as opposed to the subjective (however inspired) interpretation of scripture which characterises the latter.

There is a sense in which the two worlds can just about meet: a devout Baptist telling you that the Church had a Baptist understanding of Christianity, which disappeared at the death of St John the Evangelist, would have a quirky but consistent view of doctrine and authority, but there is a fundamental divide between Catholic/Orthodox and Protestant which will not be bridged by human invention.

Mormonism, as described here (and as understood by me from what is written here) seems to proclaim yet another axis (I hesitate to say third way in case it sounds like synthesis of the first and second) which is as objective as the Catholic/Orthodox, in that there is a "This is Mormonism: take it or leave it" attitude to the fundamental tenets of the faith, but which is as subjective as the Protestant view in that the continuity of belief is not traceable to first century Rome. (I am assuming here that Mormons would autodefine as Christian: perhaps I'm wrong.)

Sundaypage's view that we might find Mormonism so fantastic that no sane person could believe in it is close to, but significantly different, from what I think (who have not thought about this in depth): what is fantastic is that organic institutional discernment of God's truth could be as mistaken as individual interpretation of scripture. I find it impossible to get my mind around that.

(On a practical level, I know three colleagues to be LDS, and apart from their reluctance to use caffeine and alcohol like Catholics, I would say that in their knee-jerk reactions to the social and cultural issues of the age, I am far more in tune with them than I am with liberal (at least) Protestants.

What an interesting discussion! Thank you for stimulating the grey cells at a point of the year when lists, cooking and cleaning fill most non-work moments!

FrGregACCA said...


A good objective introduction to Mormonism is a book called Mormon America: the Power and the Promise.

SMiller said...

Found this from a link on Catholic Answers forums. I know it's 6 years old, but interesting nonetheless.

I particularly found Ttony's comment interesting, since it mirrors one of my own findings in discussions with non-Catholic/Orthodox Christians. That is, that the Catholic/Orthodox approach is objective, relying on Faith AND the God-given gift of Reason, united in consideration of evidence outside one's own subjective thoughts and feelings.

In other words, the Catholic/Orthodox approach to God is influenced not just by personal insight, or even by arguments from authority (which Smith-derived sects have in common with the Catholic/Orthodox rather than with Protestants). But the Catholic/Orthodox approach finds evidence of God's revelation and will in nature (natural law), history, philosophical principles and laws, and other contextual explanatory sources beyond one's self (most notably Tradition).

However, most other Christian denominations are ultimately relativist, relying on subjective interpretation as the absolute authority which, while they might appeal to Scripture (as in Sola Scriptura) or the Holy Spirit as the rule or inspiration for their doctrines, they really mean that the ultimate rule and authority is one's own personal interpretation of what you think is coming from those sources. That sets one's self up as God.

The Catholic/Orthodox view requires humility. It requires one to realize that you could be wrong, because your Reason is used as a counterbalance to your feelings ("burnings in the bosom" and other what-have-you notions that prove the ultimate intention of Smith and others to suppress Reason beneath feelings, what the NT might call "itching ears"). You must subject yourself to the external reality of evidence that can, through Reason, objectively inform Faith.

It is through an appeal to objective sources of data, by encouraging people to get outside their own self-interpretations and see the totality of God's revelation that can correct those relativistic interpretations, that we can find His true doctrines and Church.

The big hurdle, of course, is to open someone up to the idea that they could be wrong. That they must look to evidence beyond themselves and conform to the Truth God is telling them through it.