Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up?

July 22, 2009
By

Heretics-NewDavid W. Bercot, a Texas attorney and Evangelical Christian, embarked on a quest to discover what Christians believed and practiced before the Nicene Creed. What he learned caused him to seriously re-evaluate his beliefs, to eventually change his religious affiliation, and to present his findings and analysis in his book Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up. Although the book represents a critique of mainstream Evangelical Christianity in light of the teachings of the Early Church Fathers, Bercot’s analysis has surprising and thought-provoking application to Mormonism as well. While some may see Will the Real Heretics Stand Up as evidence that Joseph Smith successfully restored many Early Christian doctrines and practices, others may see the overlap between Early Christians and Mormons as the predictable result of Mormonism’s historical connection to the Campbellite Restorationist movement.

Bercot was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness but left over differences about Biblical interpretation, and subsequently became an Evangelical Christian. However, he had doubts about some Evangelical doctrines as well, such as the idea of eternal security (once saved, always saved), and remained convinced the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ belief in pacifism was correct.

Based on the fact that the pre-Nicene Church Fathers were the closest in time and place to the Apostles, Bercot reasoned that present-day disputes over scriptural interpretation could similarly be resolved by examining the writings of the pre-Nicene Church Fathers to determine how they interpreted and applied scripture. (These pre-Nicene Church fathers lived anywhere between 50 and 325 A.D.) Bercot’s legal training taught him to seek out the primary sources containing the writings of the pre-Nicene Church Fathers, rather than relying on modern treatises that often present sixth or seventh-hand accounts of what the Early Christians supposedly believed and practiced.

At the conclusion of his research, Bercot published a ten-volume collection of the Ante-Nicene Fathers‘ writings, the most comprehensive collection of primary sources available in English. Bercot then compared what he learned about pre-Nicene Christianity to mainstream Evangelical Christianity, formed his own publishing company, and published his summarized findings and analysis in Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up.

Mormons might be interested to know that Bercot’s research into the Early Christian Church demonstrates that the LDS Church today shares many of the doctrines of the Early Church, including:

  • A concept of salvation that stresses the importance of both faith and obedience. As Bercot puts it: “The early Christians believed that salvation is a gift from God but that God gives His gift to whomever he chooses. And He chooses to give it to those who love and obey him.” (Emphasis in original.) According to Bercot, the mainstream Evangelical interpretation of “saved by grace” actually originated with St. Augustine after the Nicene Creed.
  • That a person, once saved, could fall from grace and lose his salvation through disobedience.
  • That salvation depends on a person’s correct exercise of his free will, rather than being predestined arbitrarily and irrevocably by God.
  • That baptism actually effectuates a remission of sins, rather than simply being a sign of outward commitment.
  • That unbaptized infants who died before baptism could still be saved, as well as other good and noble people who died without baptism.
  • That Christians should observe the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper weekly.

However, Mormons might also be interested to know that, according to Bercot, the Early Christians held additional beliefs and practices that may be waning or absent from Mormonism:

  • Early Christians had no belief resembling the modern “health and wealth” gospel that physical health and safety, or material prosperity, are blessings for righteous living. Rather, the Early Christians lived in material simplicity, striving to have all things in common and giving to the poor to the point of joining others in their poverty.
  • Early Christians believed in separating themselves from the world as much as possible, going so far as to abstain from politics and the legal system, refusing to take oaths, and abstaining from the popular amusements of the day.
  • Early Christians rejected capital punishment and even refused to assist in prosecuting someone for a capital offense. Similarly, Early Christians rejected war and refused to serve in the military. According to Bercot, the concept of the “just war” did not exist amongst Christians until St. Augustine.
  • Many Early Church Fathers taught there was no special doctrinal revelation after the apostles and that everything we need to know about God had been revealed to the apostles by Jesus.

IMG_1624As Real Heretics crept into Christian bookstores, Bercot was surprised to learn that the book was making a huge splash in Anabaptist (Amish/Mennonite) circles. Bercot’s historical validation of several Anabaptist doctrines like pacifism, baptismal regeneration, separation from the world, and a rejection of the Reformation doctrines of sola fide (faith only) and predestination backed up several of their most cherished views. While Bercot was intrigued to learn that his findings greatly overlapped with Anabaptist beliefs, he found no legitimate basis for some Anabaptist beliefs, such as their lack of evangelism and avoidance of modern technology.

Over the next several years, Bercot struggled to find a religious community that embraced all Early Christian beliefs and practices as he understood them. He formed his own short-lived Early Christian Fellowship, but later affiliated with the Anglican Church because it allowed him freedom to form his own society to promote Early Christian beliefs, and because it is one of the older Christian churches that avoids the veneration of icons. However, Bercot eventually left the Anglicans due to their Catholic practice of venerating the Virgin Mary and espousing the “Just War” theory.

Bercot ultimately relocated to Pennsylvania, where he currently resides, and now affiliates with the Mennonites, who have many, but not all, of the Early Christian beliefs and practices that his research discovered.

The Campbellite-Mormon Connection

As I read Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up, I was intrigued to find a non-LDS scholar giving historical support for so many LDS doctrines. Page after page, I kept wondering to myself: When Joseph Smith set out to restore the Early Christian Church, how did this largely uneducated 25-year old get so many things right? As far as I know, Joseph was ignorant of the writings of the Early Church Fathers. I couldn’t see how Joseph could have had the time or means to pour over old texts written by Polycarp, Ignatius, Origen, Ireneus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, or any of the other Early Church Fathers. Nor am I aware of Joseph ever having quoted the Early Church Fathers in his sermons or writings.

Moreover, I was struck by the fact that some of the Early Christian beliefs and practices that seem to be waning or absent in Mormonism today, such as the strong emphasis on creating a separate society and having all things in common, were found in Mormonism as originally established by Joseph Smith. The differences between Mormons today and the Early Christians (e.g., Mormons’ abandonment of communal living, strong involvement in political and legal affairs, common approval of capital punishment, military service, and strong allegiance to country) all seem to have resulted from Mormon “mainstreaming” over the past century .

In response to the question of how Joseph Smith got so many things right when he undertook to restore the Early Church, faithful Mormons will likely respond that Smith’s success owes to the fact that he was a true prophet of God who was called to restore the true Church of Jesus Christ. However, Real Heretics presents information that many others have cited to provide another possible explanation. After discussing the Early Church, Bercot discusses the eventual corruption and apostasy of the Church, and the valiant efforts of the Reformers to root out that corruption. Bercot then traces the development of several Restorationist branches of Christianity using language that will ring familiar to Mormons:

Whereas Luther had sought to reform the existing church-state establishment, others concluded that such an establishment was beyond reforming. So they worked to restore primitive Christianity apart from the church-state institution. Since the days of Luther, there have been numerous such movements to restore early Christianity. Real Heretics, p. 149.

Although Bercot does not identify Mormonism as one of those Restorationist movements, he does identify one of Mormonism’s cousins, the Stone-Campbellite Movement, as being one of the more successful Restoration movements:

Another movement to restore primitive Christianity sprung up in America in the early 1800s out of the Presbyterian church. . . . Barton W. Stone, a Presbyterian minister, began a movement in Kentucky to restore apostolic Christianity. Stone’s chief objective was to restore the holy living and separation from the world that had marked early Christianity.

In the 1820s, Stone’s movement merged with a separate movement begun by Thomas and Alexander Campbell, who were also seeking to restore primitive Christianity. One of Alexander Campbell’s primary objectives was to achieve unity among all Christians, forsaking all man-made creeds and traditions and returning to the forms, structures, and doctrines of the apostolic church. Real Heretics, p. 151.

Both Stone and the Campbells published journals urging a Restoration of the Early Church in the early 1800’s (The Christian Baptist, Millennial Harbinger, and The Christian Messenger).

Those familiar with Mormon history will recognize the names of Thomas and Alexander Campbell as the founders of the “Campbellite” Restoration movement that Sidney Rigdon, Parley Pratt, Edward Partridge, Isaac Morley, and at one point a majority of all Mormons belonged to before converting to Mormonism. When Sidney Ridgon read the Book of Mormon in 1830 while he was a Campbellite preacher, he converted to Mormonism as did many other Campbellites.  This enormous influx of former Campbellites into Mormonism doubled the Church’s membership in three weeks and resulted in Joseph Smith relocating the Saints’ gathering place by joining the former Campbellite converts in Kirtland, Ohio.

Why was Mormonism so appealing to Campbellites?  Starting in 1823, Campbell’s publication The Christian Baptist advocated an abandonment of all creeds and sects that divided Christendom and a restoration of a unified Church in which the “original gospel and order of things” are present.  (Source.) Alexander Campbell explained the Campbellites’ “distinguishing views and practices” as follows:

They regard all the sects and parties of the Christian world as having, in greater or less degrees, departed from the simplicity of faith and manners of the first Christians, and as forming what the apostle Paul calls “the apostasy.” . .  .

They look for unity of spirit and the bonds of peace in the practical acknowledgment of one faith, one Lord, one immersion, one hope, one body, one Spirit, one God and Father of all; not in unity of opinions, nor in unity of forms, ceremonies, or modes of worship. . . .  

Thus while they proclaim faith and repentance, or faith and a change of heart, as preparatory to immersion, remission, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, they say to all penitents, or all those who believe and repent of their sins, as Peter said to the first audience addressed after the Holy Spirit was bestowed after the glorification of Jesus, “Be immersed every one of you, in the name of the Lord Jesus, for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

The immersed believers are congregated into societies according to their propinquity to each other, and taught to meet the first day of every week in honor and commemoration of the resurrection of Jesus, and to break the loaf which commemorates the death of the Son of God, to read and hear the living oracles, to teach and admonish one another, to unite in all prayer and praise, to contribute to the necessities of saints, and to perfect holiness in the fear of the Lord.

Every congregation chooses its own overseers and deacons, who preside over and administer the affairs of the congregations; and every church, either from itself or in co-operation with others, sends out, as opportunity offers, one or more evangelists, or proclaimers of the word, to preach the word and to immerse those who believe, to gather congregations, and to extend the knowledge of salvation where it is necessary, as far as their means extend.  (Source.)

Although the Campbellites and Mormons held many other beliefs in common, the above provides a sampling of the types of similarities that have presented religion historians with a fascinating chicken-or-the-egg question:  did Joseph Smith’s teachings resemble the Early Church’s “original gospel and order of things” because Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God whose authentic revelations enabled him to restore the true Church of Jesus Christ, or because contemporary Restorationists like Alexander Campbell first identified correct Early Christian beliefs and practices that were later adopted by Joseph Smith? In other words, did God use the broader Restoration movement of the American frontier as an “Elias” that prepared Rigdon and eventually thousands of souls to embrace the true Church of Jesus Christ restored later by Joseph Smith, or was Joseph Smith’s success in duplicating many Early Christian beliefs and practices the result of his simply mimicking the beliefs and practices of contemporary Restorationist preachers who got it right first?  Because Campbellite converts to Mormonism such as Parley Pratt reported that they were converted Mormonism because they were inspired by the truthfulness of the doctrine contained in the Book of Mormon (Source), it seems the answer to that question depends on whether the Book of Mormon is an accurate translation of an authentic record compiled by Early Christians living on the American continent, or is a fabrication cobbled together by Smith and possibly others inspired by the Restorationist ethos that pervaded the American frontier when it was published.  (We know where Alexander Campbell stood on that question: in 1831 he denounced the Book of Mormon as a fraud because it all-too-coincidentally addressed “every error and every truth discussed in New York for the last ten years.”)  (Alexander Campbell, “The Mormonites,”  Millenial Harbinger 2, (January 1831): 93.)

Regardless of the answer, Will the Real Heretics Stand Up suggests that the modern Christian denominations that most resemble the pre-Nicene Church’s beliefs and practices (i.e., Anabaptists and offspring of Restorationist movements) are relatively obscure groups that are popularly regarded as being on the outskirts (or on the outside) of Christianity today.

[Pictured below, left to right: Alexander Campbell, Sidney Rigdon, and Joseph Smith.]

CampbellAlexander150px-SidneyRigdonJoseph Smith

63 Responses to Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up?

  1. July 22, 2009 at 5:29 am

    Very interesting. Thanks!

  2. July 22, 2009 at 5:56 am

    I read Bercot a few years back. While early Christianity is not my speciality, I found the book very uneven methodologically. I think some of Bercot’s conclusions or extrapolations were non-sequitor, and I felt like he was using the ECF as a para-Bible, binding and authoritative.

    That said, it was an interesting read.

  3. July 22, 2009 at 8:14 am

    A very informative post, Andrew. You might double-check whether Rigdon really brought 3000 converts with him. I thought it was just a couple of hundred.

  4. July 22, 2009 at 8:32 am

    I have not read the book, but I am dubious about the author’s conclusions. Early Christianity was remarkably diverse. Ebionite Christians were adoptionists, that is Jesus for them was the Savior but was not divine. Does he conclude that Christians should believe this? Marcionite Christians believed that the God of the Old Testament was evil and malicious and that Jesus has no relation to that God, should Christians believe this? Gnostic Christians believed that Jesus did not die for our sins, but rather taught truths necessary to free the spirit from the confines of physical reality, should Christians believe this?

    Now, one can argue that they were not Christians, but they claimed they were. It seems the author saw what he wanted to see, a subset of proto-Orthodox Christianity which was different enough for him to think he found the one true way, while not being so different that he could no longer relate to it.

  5. Matt W.
    July 22, 2009 at 8:53 am

    Regarding Rigdon’s Following from Campbell, the EOM says “More than a hundred members of his Kirtland congregation and common stock community followed him into the Church”. 3000 seems like a lot more than a hundred….

    It’s Interesting that your “likes” for our religion and the ECF is all around Doxa, and your “unlikes” are all around praxis.

    very interesting.

  6. pjbrownie
    July 22, 2009 at 9:06 am

    Yes, and the praxis I believe stems from the Methodist and Presbyterian Calvinist-materialist background that most Mormons came from (ie weath equals blessings). Bushman presents Joseph as a prophet trying to stamp out this Calvinist tendency among his members – and never quite succeeding.

    Other separatists ideas have had equal placement in the early days. Indeed Mormons were more seperatist, anti-war, anti political (or apolitical), and communitarian than they are these days. The question is, does this come from approved cultural shift allowances by the hierarchy or Babylon creep?

  7. July 22, 2009 at 9:32 am

    Dave (3) and Matt W. (5), thanks for the typo catch. 3000 was a typo and should have been 300. Even still, I double-checked the number by consulting the official “Church History in the Fullness of Times” book published by the Church. It puts the number at 127 within a three week period, but does not mention how many continued to join the Church after that three week period. (p. 81) I revised the post above by taking out the number of converts altogether and pointing out that–whatever the number–the Church’s membership doubled in three weeks due to the conversions in Kirtland. The book cited above states: “These conversions more than doubled Church membership in only three weeks.” (p. 82) To me the important point was that at the Church’s founding stage, at one point a majority of Mormons were former Campbellites.

    Nitsav (2), I too wouldn’t consider the writings of someone in 300 A.D. to be binding and authoritative, but I do think that when it comes to differences in scriptural interpretation, it is at least helpful to find out how a majority of the Early Church Fathers interpreted the scriptures. Bercot’s point is: who is more likely to correctly understand and apply Christ’s teachings: Christians in 2009 or Christians in 209? But of course, any time you go picking and choosing which Early Church Fathers to cite, you’re going to be exercising subjective editorial discretion.

    David Clark (4), Bercot acknowledges that the Early Christians were diverse, but he believes a consensus can be found by searching for what a majority of the Early Church Fathers taught. Also, he says there was a tradition of the early churches consulting those churches that were founded by apostles to resolve doctrinal issues; the idea being that once the apostles were gone, the people who had been taught by the apostles would be the likeliest to know the right answers. And when those people died, the idea was that people who were taught by people who were taught by the apostles would be the most likely to know the right answer, and so on. I personally am no expert on pre-Nicene Christianity so I’m not in a position to say whether he got it right, but the fact that he has changed his religious affiliation multiple times to come closer to what his research finds suggests to me that when he does research, he doesn’t have an agenda of picking and choosing his conclusions in a way that simply confirms what he already believes.

  8. July 22, 2009 at 10:00 am

    I heard Bercot on the radio in Salt Lake over 10 years ago and went to Scroll Publishing and bought this book and “Common Sense”. I later ordered the Ante-Nicene Fathers for $100 (which he was just reselling, he didn’t publish them). I often check their catalog for good books, and they do sell them inexpensively.

    Frankly, I think his two books are an excellent way to open up dialog about Mormonism with Evangelicals and Catholics. They focus on our underlying assumptions about scripture and tradition and ask us to evaluate which assumptions are unfounded. My life has been enriched by David Bercot and I like that he is pushing people to read the Ante-Nicene Fathers for themselves to discover what early Christians believed.

  9. July 22, 2009 at 10:04 am

    Andrew,

    The key part of your summary is this: but he believes a consensus can be found by searching for what a majority of the Early Church Fathers taught. Also, he says there was a tradition of the early churches consulting those churches that were founded by apostles to resolve doctrinal issues;. By going this route he had methodologically already guaranteed which conclusion he was going to find. When you go this route you haven’t studied early Christianity, you have only studied pre or proto orthodox Christianity. Thus, the only conclusion you are going to find is some variation on orthodox Christianity, which is what he found.

    The Early Church Fathers were preserved by orthodox Christians for the simple reason that they agreed with them. They did not preserve the works of other people because they disagreed with them, so why bother going through the laborious and expensive process of copying and re-copying their manuscripts. Thus while he may not have been biased in his conclusions, he was highly biased in his data selection, thus indirectly biasing his conclusion.

    Early Christianity was VERY diverse, probably even more than today. So, whenever someone plumbs the documents and comes up with the one true Christianity, it’s time to be very skeptical, because such a thing does not exist when one looks at all the documents. That he found some beliefs and practices paralleling Mormonism today is more happenstance and biased data than anything else.

  10. July 22, 2009 at 10:21 am

    “The Early Church Fathers were preserved by orthodox Christians for the simple reason that they agreed with them. They did not preserve the works of other people because they disagreed with them, so why bother going through the laborious and expensive process of copying and re-copying their manuscripts. . . . Early Christianity was VERY diverse, probably even more than today.”

    David, if the writings that were preserved were those that agreed with the orthodox church, how do we know about the great diversity of Early Christianity? I’m not disagreeing with your statement; I have no personal knowledge in this area. I’m interested to know how we reconcile the assertion that Early Christianity was incredibly diverse with the assertion that non-orthodox writings were not preserved.

    Also, because it seems you’ve studied Early Christianity I’m interested to know: do you find writings by any Early Christian groups that support the doctrines and practices of mainstream Evangelical Christianity today? For example, are there Early Christian writings that support the current popular version of “saved by grace alone” that Bercot attributes to post-Nicene St. Augustine? I recognize there’s probably a diversity in Early Christian writings; I’m mainly interested in discovering what Early Christian writers supported what the various Christian denominations preach NOW. So if you have any light to shed on that question I’d be interested to know. Thanks!

  11. Clark
    July 22, 2009 at 10:59 am

    I took an Institute class on the Early Church Fathers at USU about 10 years back. The instructor mentioned, and quoted extensively from, a church manual on the subject (I think it was a priesthood manual fron the mid 1950s). Is anyone familiar enough with this manual to compare it to the Bercot book?

    Also, by the time Revelation was written, only 7 congregations (or “churches”) remained true, and they were fading fast. Based on that, I think give statements by the ECF the same weight as say, the Apocrypha.

    Re#6, My feeling is that its Babylon Creep.

  12. July 22, 2009 at 11:23 am

    re 10:

    I’m not David, but I can say that we can reconstruct part of the diversity of Early Christianity based on the scathing rebuttals and criticisms of doctrines of the “early heretics,” so to speak. So, we don’t really have many copies of Marcion’s stuff…but we can piece together Marcionism based on the volumes of “proto-orthodox” diatribes *against* Marcion. For example, we only have fragments, at best, of the Gospel of Marcion or the Antethesis…but we have the *five* books that Tertullian wrote: “Adversus Marcionem”.

    Same with the Ebionites. Same with the Gnostics. In fact, this brings into question some of our canonical scriptures…some say the Pastoral epistles (e.g., 1st and 2nd Timothy, Titus) were not written by Paul because they argue against a gnosticism that is too sophisticated to be contemporary with Paul’s time. Nonetheless, that’s how we can find out about the Gnostics.

    So, if we’re basing what is orthodox and what is heretical based on these kinds of comments, then of *course* one would find agreement with the early church fathers. It would be like if we were finding out what is orthodox vs. heretical concerning Mormonism and the only extensive writings we had about Mormon beliefs were from anti-Mormon treatises bent on disproving it.

  13. Andrew Ainsworth
    July 22, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    Andrew S (and David Clark),

    After piecing together what the Marcionites and Gnostics and others deemed as “heretical” believed, do we find support in their writings for any beliefs and practices held by any Christian groups today?

    As I see this discussion so far, it goes something like this: Bercot researches Early Christian writers and concludes that mainstream Christianity is out of sync with the Early Church fathers (he also concludes that Orthodox and Catholics and just about everyone else is too). David Clark responds that Bercot’s research can’t be relied upon because he is only researching sources that the then-Orthodox church agreed with, so there is a selection bias. He further argues that Early Christianity was diverse (I think we can all agree there. Andrew S. points out that we can reconstruct what the Marcionites and Gnostics and other non-Orthodox Early Christian “heretics” believed.

    So my question at this point in the discussion is: if we can reconstruct what the Early Church Fathers believed, and we can reconstruct what the Early Christian “heretics” believed, and there is a recognized diversity there, can’t we determine which Christians writing THEN (be they “orthodox” or “heretic”) supported what the various Christian groups are claiming NOW? And if that’s the case, which Early Christian teachings THEN match up with the teachings of the various Christian denominations NOW?

  14. jmb275
    July 22, 2009 at 12:12 pm

    Thank you very much for this informative post. I am not an early Christianity scholar so I’ll keep out of the debate. But I appreciate the new insight you’ve given me. Thank you!!

    As for the questions you proposed, I think Joseph’s greatest contribution was The Book of Mormon, not the church. I have yet to find a very plausible explanation for the BoM, but I see several plausible explanations for his later behavior, doctrines, and practices. It doesn’t mean they are right, but they are least possibilities other than the standard “He was a prophet.” As I’ve sojourned, I’ve considered the possibility that Joseph’s real contribution was the BoM, and nothing else really matters. Maybe that singular contribution was enough and maybe it was the only thing that was truly inspired.

    But maybe not!

  15. July 22, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    My friend J.P. Holding did an article on this book here that you guys might be interested in.

    As far as what Joseph Smith got right in early Mormonism and his seeming ability to know about early church ideas without studying the early church, I’ve always disliked the standard evangelical explanations, i.e. “he was controlled by Satan” or “he made it all up.” I like the suggestion that was offered by Paul Owen:

    I do believe that Joseph can be viewed as a prophet of sorts (something along the lines of Balaam in Numbers 22-24), who experienced a taste of the charismata, and who may have been used to speak a true word of rebuke upon a wordly, divisive church which was gripped by the spirit of revivalism. God used Joseph to speak to the churches, and to expose their shallow versions of the Christian religion… When the Church does not bear witness to its Catholicity, when the Faith becomes more of a mechanism of producing converts than maintaining the unity and identity of the visible body, God raises up men and movements to rebuke the worldly church. The Rechabites (Jer. 35) and the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) provide us with comparable models in which to understand God’s purpose in raising up Joseph Smith and the Mormons. (Source)

  16. Andrew Ainsworth
    July 22, 2009 at 1:35 pm

    Bridget, thanks for the link to the article. Personally I found the author arguing backwards throughout the first half, concluding that Bercot’s doctrinal views were wrong because they didn’t agree with the author’s interpretation of scripture, rather than addressing the question of whether Bercot’s was accurate in representing what the ECF stated. However, the latter half of the article was more informative in that it pointed out more of the variety of the ECF’s beliefs.

    And on that latter point, when you consider the vast differences between what the Early Christians believed, it makes one wonder: was there EVER a Church of Jesus Christ that was unified in its beliefs and practices, and if so: (1) how long did it last; and (2) is it possible to discover what their beliefs and practices were? Some might say: “read the Bible!” but if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the last 2000 years, the Bible isn’t self-interpreting. We can then say: “read what the Early Church Fathers said” but then people say, “the Early Church Fathers didn’t even agree with each other on every point.”

    Bercot’s response seems to be that he acknowledges differences in views even among the Early Church Fathers, but that where we find points of overlap between a majority of them, that’s the best tool we have for resolving questions about how the Early Christians interpreted and applied scripture.

  17. July 22, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    Regarding the versions of primitive Christianity and how diverse they may have been. I recently read Rodney Stark’s book “Cities of God” and he asserts that there is not much evidence that early Christianity was all that diverse, but rather that the fringe groups were always fringe and never really had much of a following. His point was that we now have many of the documents that the heretics wrote, but the fact that they produced documents is not evidence that they represented a powerful movement. To quote from an Amazon.com review:

    Some of Stark’s more interesting findings are: (1) Orthodox Christianity, not “Gnosticism” or some other “Lost Christianity” was the original form of the religion. (2) “Gnosticism” was a loopy, lunatic fringe blend of paganism and Christianity. (3) Orthodox Christians did not persecute paganism into oblivion. (4) Pentecost most likely did not result in 3,000 newly baptized Christians, but simply 3,000 wet Jews and pagans. (5) Paul did not invent Christianity and actually had very little to do with the spread of Christianity throughout the Empire. (6) Paul was much more successful in converting Jews to Christianity than in converting Gentiles. (7) Hellenized Jews provided large numbers of Christian converts during the first four centuries of Christianity.

  18. July 22, 2009 at 1:43 pm

    re 13)

    Well Andrew A…a part of the problem is that in certain cases, the problem is that none of what is practiced today matches with the early stuff (Orthodox or heretical). Rather, Christianity has developed past and expanded upon what the various groups them advocated.

    I mean, to try…let’s see…Marcionists were the original practitioners of baptisms for the dead, so that’s where *we* can get that. But the ECFs didn’t approve or didn’t continue that.

    and that wasn’t the core of Marcionism. Rather, Marcion interpreted that the OT God’s was evil and separate from the NT’s God of love…the former was a wrathful, vengeful, perhaps even flawed entity. But the latter was this paragon of love and mercy ad whatnot. The Marcionists as a result clung to any scriptures or teachings they could find that would assert the need to reject anything of the old god and to go with the new. (So, the passages about putting old wine in new wineskins, etc., Marcion used frequently to suggest that Jesus should not be paired in any way with the OT). It’s true that many people nowadays take a Marcionist view that the god of the OT was “evil” or “immoral” and that we shouldn’t really “count” the OT anymore, but I don’t think any denominations quite go so far as to say there are two deities and the better, good, righteous deity used Jesus to “overpower” the evil deity. Rather, it just seems like something people *informally* argue.

    however, the ECFs or the proto-orthodox speakers were closer to what became orthodox Christianity than the heretics, even if that is still not really what proto-Christianity was.

    The question of bias is this: which is more “legitimate” for early Christianity? Is it something like Marcion with his two-god hypothesis (but if we say the Marcionists are correct…please throw out all the gospels but an adjusted Luke) and then? Or could it instead be the Ebionites, who didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus at all (he was just a human who was “adopted” by God and invested with dominion after being tested) and stressed that Christianity should very much be Judaism + Jesus (but if we say the Ebionites are correct…please throw out every scripture written by Paul in your collection)? Could it be the Gnostics? Could it be the Arians?

    What I think David is saying is that Bercot arbitrarily selects the ECFs…but this isn’t because they were in fact more correct (we don’t know). Rather, they were simply better orators and writers and marketed their theology better.

  19. July 22, 2009 at 2:09 pm

    re 17:

    Kent, although I haven’t read this work of Stark’s, I’d be interested in if he has other methods to assert “orthodox Christianity’s” orthodoxy than simply its prevalence.

    For example, even I can buy that Gnosticism, Ebionism, Marcionism, were all fringe groups. But this doesn’t say anything about their true orthodoxy. Rather, it points out that the heretics had rather crappy marketing (which, they did) and the proto-Orthodox group had not-so-crappy marketing (which, they also did). Would we say that Microsoft is the way computing should be, simply because it cornered the market and not Apple?

  20. Andrew Ainsworth
    July 22, 2009 at 2:10 pm

    Andrew S. (and others)

    If I understand Bercot’s approach correctly, he acknowledges a diversity of beliefs both between the “orthodox” and “heretic” groups, and also acknowledges a diversity of beliefs amongst the Early Christian Fathers as well. I see his research as an attempt to create a Venn diagram where each Early Christian group and each ECF’s writings are represented by a circle, which results in those circles overlapping partially, but not completely. What Bercot says he’s trying to do is find where a majority of those circles overlap–recognizing they don’t overlap in other areas. Bercot’s point is that when he performs that exercise and identifies what he considers to be the beliefs and practices where a majority of Early Christian groups and writers overlap, those issues where we find the greatest overlap are out-of-sync with mainstream Christianity today.

    I think we can all agree that Early Christianity was diverse, and that even the Early Church fathers disagreed with each other on some points. And we can agree that siding with one group EXCLUSIVELY AND COMPLETELY (e.g., the Gnostics) would have us keeping some parts of the Bible but throwing out the rest (as Andrew S. demonstrates above). But of course, we need not adopt a methodology where we exclusively and completely side with one group. We can take Bercot’s approach of finding the beliefs and practices where there is the greatest overlap; seizing upon that common core of overlap that a Venn diagram reveals.

    So I guess my overall question is: Do you disagree with the Bercot’s methodological approach (which is really just an attempt to construct a Venn diagram of Early Christian beliefs) to find the points of doctrine and practice where a majority of Early Christian groups and writers overlapped (recognizing there will be a lack of overlap on other points)?

  21. July 22, 2009 at 2:18 pm

    I’m standing up while writing this comment.

  22. July 22, 2009 at 2:21 pm

    I agree insofar as this, which was already said in comment 9

    By going this route he had methodologically already guaranteed which conclusion he was going to find. When you go this route you haven’t studied early Christianity, you have only studied pre or proto orthodox Christianity. Thus, the only conclusion you are going to find is some variation on orthodox Christianity, which is what he found.

    I would change it to perhaps “some variation or prototype on orthodox Christianity, which is why he found.” This seems OK for Stark (pointed out in Kent’s comment 17), ok for Bercot, etc.,

  23. July 22, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    Andrew S., if you don’t like the Bercot approach, what in your view is a better methodology for determining what a majority of Early Christians believed? Or is your view that it’s an impossible task with no way to verify the correctness of the results?

  24. July 22, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    re 23:

    whoa whoa whoa!

    what is a better methodology for determining what a “majority” believed? oh, to be sure, that is a very good way. Maybe one of the best. But is what a *majority* believed the same as what they *should have* believed? What was *true*? This latter question is possibly the impossible task with no way to verify the correctness of the results. We point out modern day revelation as one way to do it, inspiration, the Holy Spirit, etc., but this isn’t quite the same.

  25. Andrew Ainsworth
    July 22, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    Andrew S.,

    Bercot makes clear that his research is based on the ASSUMPTION that whatever a MAJORITY of Early Christians believed would be closest to being correct. One can agree or disagree with that assumption. But if someone were to disagree with that assumption, I’d like to hear the case for why the better assumption is that the best way to determine the “true” Early Christian doctrines and practices is to seize on what a MINORITY of the Early Christians believed.

    As for the latter question you raised above, thanks for clarifying your view that determining “what was true” is an impossible task.

  26. July 22, 2009 at 2:50 pm

    well, we could say something like the majority of early Christians fathers were still too far divorced from the Apostles and Jesus himself, and so they were all wayward (which, the evidence of this is…even if they were all 2nd century Christians, we still *do* see heretics like the Ebionites and Marcionists…so couldn’t the Early Church Fathers have also been heretical to what Jesus’s actual message was?)

    What if, for example, only eye witnesses are what is true Christian doctrine. Or even less, only the things that actually came out of Jesus’s mouth were true Christian doctrine (not all of which were written down)? Then, this would be a minority view in the face of majority view (the ECFs interpreting these things and adding new things to them, deciding what scriptures to canonize and which not).

    But of course, we simply do not know. We simply find it more reasonable to suggest that the majority of ECFs couldn’t have apostasized so quickly.

  27. Andrew Ainsworth
    July 22, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    Andrew S.- good points about possible reasons why a minority view could be the correct one. And then that leaves us with the sticky question of figuring out who accurately heard and wrote down what Jesus actually said, which will be debated ad infinitum.

    So I’m interested to know where that takes you in your personal epistemology. If “true” Christianity is unknowable via historical research, what in your view is the better method? Mormonism was founded on Joseph Smith’s conclusion that true Christianity could not be found through endless debates over the interpretation of the Bible. Hence the Mormon view that we need a modern prophet who speaks with God, and speaks for God, to guide us. It seems the discussion of this post has demonstrated the problems with searching for “true” Christianity through historical research. That being the case, what is the better approach? Searching for “true” prophets to guide us? Or relying on our subjective perceptions and interpretations of what we call “the Spirit”?

  28. hawkgrrrl
    July 22, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    Wow – thanks for being the SparkNotes for me on this interesting book. And a shout out to my peeps, the Mennonites! Whoot!

    I agree with David Clark’s observation of many diverse sects of Christianity. The other issue for Mormons is that among restorationist churches, we place the great apostasy about the earliest, meaning it’s harder to get to what we consider “original.”

  29. July 22, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    Andrew, this is bizarrely coincidental that I just posted on <a href="http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com/2009/07/lowered-expectations/#comment-15874"this very thing at FPR.

  30. July 22, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    re 27:

    well, Andrew A, remember that I am just one of your humble nice evil villains (apparently not the nicest or evilest, or villain…iest, though, props to Jack…) but my idea is that the objective truth, being unknowable (whether temporarily or permanently) is irrelevant. What matters even more, since we don’t know if we’re right or wrong (and don’t even get the luxury of knowing if we *can* possibly discover what is truly right or wrong), is to follow our subjective experiences about it and be humble enough to realize that our subjective experiences really don’t say much beyond ourselves and we do live in a world with others. What should motivate a non-Mormon Christian or a Mormon or whatever to be their religion is not a resignation to the idea that it is true and thus they should follow it…but rather, the subjective valuation that it is true for them and worth being held as an ideal that could be true for everyone too.

  31. July 22, 2009 at 3:40 pm

    That’s pretty much how I feel, Andrew… except I put it this way: “Whatever keeps you out of a strait jacket…”

  32. Andrew Ainsworth
    July 22, 2009 at 3:48 pm

    Kent (29),

    Kent, I think your comments there at FPR do get to the heart of the matter in discussions like these. We each choose what we’re going to consider as valid “evidence” to resolve our questions, whether it’s a historical document or a burning in the bosom. We can say we rely primarily on historical documents to resolve our questions about divine truth, or we can say we rely on our personal spiritual experiences.

    But one of the most fascinating phenomena to me is how our spiritual perceptions do not operate in a vacuum; our perception and interpretation of spiritual manifestations as either confirming or rejecting a proffered “truth” often depends largely on our view of history. For example, for the 19 year-old in the MTC whose historical understanding of Joseph Smith has been confined stories that paint him as a hero of mythic proportions, he will probably have no problem feeling a spiritual confirmation that Joseph was a Prophet.

    But take that same active Mormon at 35 who is now studying Church history in more detail and has heard, as Paul Harvey would call it, “the REST of the story,” it may be extremely difficult or impossible for that same person to continue to now feel a spiritual confirmation of Joseph Smiths’ status as a Prophet. You and I and everyone else reading this discussion can probably can name dozens of Mormons who fall into that boat.

    So we can say that we rely on the Spirit as a first resort in answering questions of divine truth, but because our perception and interpretation of spiritual impressions can often be dependent on, or affected by, our understanding of history (e.g., what Joseph Smith actually did or didn’t do and say during his lifetime), it seems that relying on the Spirit as a first resort still doesn’t completely allow us to escape from our questions about history . . .

  33. Jeff Spector
    July 22, 2009 at 3:51 pm

    Andrew S:

    “but rather, the subjective valuation that it is true for them and worth being held as an ideal that could be true for everyone too.”

    I learned this while studying Scientology many years ago and i think that at some level, it is right. But, the problem is, that even though you may or may not believe something is true, does not effect the reality of it.

    Many people believed for many years that the world was flat and if they traveled far enough. they would fall off the end. Their observational evidence supported that belief. It appeared that the world was flat. But, it is not, they were wrong. So, that is where the, “if it’s true for you, it’s true” idea falls off the rails. At least for me.

    Andrew A,

    Another exceptional post! I’ve bought the book and will read it when it arrives.

  34. July 22, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    David, if the writings that were preserved were those that agreed with the orthodox church, how do we know about the great diversity of Early Christianity? I’m not disagreeing with your statement; I have no personal knowledge in this area. I’m interested to know how we reconcile the assertion that Early Christianity was incredibly diverse with the assertion that non-orthodox writings were not preserved.

    As Andrew S points out you see lots of it argued against in the early church fathers. The Nag Hammadi texts give huge insights into gnostic Christianity and their doctrines. Fragments of works survive in quotation, again largely in the church fathers.

    However, there is diversity in the New Testament itself. You simply have to take each of the 27 books on their own terms and not try and harmonize it all together, which the natural tendency since it’s all one book. However, the 27 books were not written as part of a master plan to be included later in “The New Testament,” the authors of the books had no idea such a thing would ever exist. Just some examples:

    Mark’s Jesus teaches in parables, never talks about himself, and preaches an eminent end. John’s Jesus talks about nothing but himself, rarely teaches in parables, and does not talk about an eminent end (at least I don’t remember any, maybe I’m wrong there). The divinity of Jesus comes out very strongly in John, almost not at all in Mark. The pastoral epistles (1&2 Tim, Titus) differ from the undisputed Pauline epistles (1&2 Cor, Romans, 1 Thess, Phill, Philemon, Galatians) on how the church should be run, organized, and the place of women in it. Revelations is just plain weird, etc.

  35. July 22, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    Sorry, I forgot to close the italics tag.

  36. July 22, 2009 at 4:13 pm

    re 33:

    Jeff, I agree. This is why, however contradictory it may seem, we also recognize that our subjective experience may not mean anything beyond ourselves.

    The fact of the matter is that someone is wrong about it. (It could be that every single person who has ever existed is wrong and NO one has EVER discovered the truth of it). But unlike with the world’s flatness or roundness, where we can just go to the end of the horizon and find that it never comes (because the world, indeed, is not flat), with other issues we don’t have the luxury of confirming or disconfirming out positions. So, we don’t know (first level ignorance) and even worse, we don’t know if we can know (second level ignorance). And so in this binding ignorance where some truth objectively exists but is indiscernible, subjectivity still does reign.

  37. July 22, 2009 at 4:26 pm

    “And so in this binding ignorance where some truth objectively exists but is indiscernible, subjectivity still does reign.”

    Not debating here, but sincerely asking: how do you determine which objective truths are indiscernible? If I fail to discern a truth, when do I conclude it’s because the truth is indiscernible rather than being the result of a flawed investigative methodology that, if refined or adjusted, would enable me to discern that truth?

    We see this all the time in discussions between Mormon believers and non-believers. The non-believers say the objective truth is “indiscernible,” but the believers say it is discernible through the Spirit. How do the non-believers know they’re right when they conclude that objective truth is “indiscernible”?

  38. July 22, 2009 at 4:26 pm

    I agree with Andrew S’ comment in 24. We have to remember, despite our historical emphasis on getting back to the primitive church, that we can only converge on what the early Christians with all of THEIR cultural blind spots understood about Jesus’ teaching.

    For example, in a nation under rule by Rome at the height of its power, pacifism, just war, or Christian realism all pretty much dictate the same behavior. So noting that early Christians never fought, but would fight three centuries later tells us nothing but that the circumstances changed and the ethics required reanalysis. It doesn’t say that pacifism is universally right, and just war apostasy.

    (In fact, if Constantine had been the son of the Eastern Emperor instead of the Emperor of Western Europe, maybe its the forms of the Eastern church that triumph.)

    With the Book of Mormon viewed historically as MesoAmerica, we would have a different “privileged frame of reference” in regard to Jesus’ teachings being seen directly, but a different set of cultural blindspots to deal with. And we have 19th-21st Century insights from our other sources. And we have the testimonies and insights throughout the intervening centuries.

    Sometimes the value of multiple witnesses is NOT just how they agree, but how the disagree and therefore tell a bigger truth than any witness alone could.

  39. July 22, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    re 37:

    Andrew, that’s exactly why I say we have two-fold ignorance. We don’t know, and we don’t even know if we can’t know. So, we could very well be mistaken on our not knowing. We could have known all along.

    Generally, most of us simply do not conclude that we fail to discern truths because truths are indiscernible. This is just too shocking and depressing. It’s better to say, “We don’t know why the Big Bang happened because we just lack the tools to know why for sure” than to say, “We don’t know why the Big Bang happened because it is impossible to know such things.” Not only that, the latter claim is something we *also* don’t know, so to say it so cavalier is very proud indeed. Sometimes, we find even first-level ignorance too shocking and depressing. For example, some people wouldn’t even admit, “We don’t know why…” They would say things like, “We know why the Big Bang happened. It happened because of (insert some hypothesis.” Even if that hypothesis happens to be God. In this case, they have a cavalier outlook about knowledge, when perhaps they don’t know (they just believe) and perhaps their belief-knowledge isn’t sound. (Or, perhaps it IS. This is the problem — we can’t even say for sure if faith->belief->knowledge is sound or not.)

    Am I being too confusing?

    Taken with Mormon believers and non-believers, I think you present half the picture, at best. SOME non-believers say the objective truth is “indiscernible,” while others say the objective truth is known (namely: Mormonism is false). On the other hand, SOME believers say the truth is discernible (through the Spirit, among other things), and some believers do not [e.g., the Spirit doesn't manifest to all...or you have to wait...or it only discerns some things, etc., etc., etc.,](…although I might note that here you’re getting into some really really REALLY funky liberal/heterodox positions). This is all first level ignorance. But your question brings us to SECOND level ignorance. How can the non-believer know enough to know truth is indiscernible? How can the believer know enough to know truth is discernible?

    And here is the problem. none of these guys even has the comfort of saying that know this. For all we know, the non-believer COULD be right, but he won’t know if he’s right. The believer COULD be right, but he also won’t know if he’s right. (and check out that last sentence — you could add yet another level of ignorance there…how can I say “he won’t know if he’s right?”)

  40. Ray
    July 22, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    I see through my own glass, darkly.

  41. Andrew Ainsworth
    July 22, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    Andrew S., what I hear you saying is that even if we know the truth, we can’t know that we know the truth. Is that a fair summary?

  42. July 22, 2009 at 4:58 pm

    Good post, Andrew. I haven’t read all the comments yet, but I don’t believe anyone has mentioned George Smith’s book “Nauvoo Polygamy” where he includes a whole section on the Anabaptists of Munster and their similarities to the early Church, including celestial marriage. Check it out.

  43. July 22, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    re 41:

    yes, I believe so. This necessitates faith (or at the least, pride), although I’m not sure if it’s the same as our religious understanding of it. In fact, I lean to think it’s not.

  44. July 22, 2009 at 5:13 pm

    If we can’t know that we know what the truth is, it kinda makes you wonder why we bother discussing these things at all :) I’m only half-kidding. It’s a good reminder for why we should be tolerant of others’ views and humble enough to realize that we may be wrong and someone else may be right (after all, we can’t know that we know we are right; we can only know that we feel certain that we are right; a trump card I will play in all future discussions with you, Andrew S. :)). And I suppose another purpose of these discussions goes to your point about how fashioning an understanding of the world that we believe is true has value at least for ourselves even if it isn’t, after all, objectively true. It may not be perfect, but it’s the best we can do . . .

  45. July 22, 2009 at 5:21 pm

    re 44:

    I think we have these discussions because it scares us to admit to such ignorance.

    Within reason, if I need such a trump card played on me, you should play it. I think it is one of the most humbling things we can have to be confronted with such a thing, which makes us have to preface all we say and do with, “I think…” or “I believe…” and appendix everything with “…but it could be incorrect”

    And as you say (referring back to me, haha, i’m so self-serving), we *can* discern value for ourselves at the least (at least, if I can’t assume THIS isn’t true without asking how I know, then I need to become emo and write bad poetry or sometehing…)

  46. July 22, 2009 at 5:40 pm

    “. . .we *can* discern value for ourselves at the least (at least, if I can’t assume THIS isn’t true without asking how I know, then I need to become emo and write bad poetry or sometehing…)”

    I think that’s something you can safely assume. Borrowing from Decartes a bit: “I value my own understanding of the world, therefore I know my own understanding has value to me (even if it may not be true).”

  47. July 22, 2009 at 5:53 pm

    I’LL TAKE IT. :D

  48. July 22, 2009 at 5:59 pm

    Although it’s a discussion for another day, this point about our inability to know that we are right also explains why, assuming we will one day be judged by God, it is only just that we would be judged according to our sincerely held (though possibly erroneous) beliefs and understandings, as opposed to being judged according to what was objectively true.

  49. July 22, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    I have to agree with hawkgrrrl (28), that Mormons (at least those that have looked at the question seriously) tend to date the beginning of the apostasy very early. If you read B. H. Robert’s introduction to the History of the Church, he claims that the Early Christian Fathers were already teaching different beliefs from those taught by the apostles.

    Of course, this says more about Mormonism than about the Early Christian Fathers or the Apostasy.

  50. Andrew Ainsworth
    July 22, 2009 at 7:22 pm

    Kent Larsen,

    Your comment above brings me back to a question I posed earlier: when you consider the vast differences between what the Early Christians believed, it makes one wonder: was there EVER a Church of Jesus Christ that was unified in its beliefs and practices? And if the Church isn’t unified in its beliefs and practices, or if it is at one point but then apostatizes within a few decades, why bother establishing a “Church” at all? And if God was capable of establishing a Church in these Latter-days that would not be taken from the Earth until the Second Coming, why not establish an indestructible Church like that in the days of Christ?

    Perhaps this is why we have some scriptures advocate a “minimalist” theology where “the Gospel” just comes down to a belief that Jesus was born, atoned for our sins, and was resurrected. If that is “the Gospel,” and believers in that Gospel are your “Church,” then that Gospel and Church have survived for millennia.

  51. SteveS
    July 22, 2009 at 10:25 pm

    Andrew (#50): That’s about where I’m at at this point. Faith, Hope, Love. That’s all that ultimately matters, imo. From what I read in the New Testament, I increasingly feel like Jesus wasn’t setting up an authoritative ecclesiastical government as much as preaching a message of faith, hope, and love. He said to the disciples/apostles:

    Matthew: Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.
    Mark: Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.
    Luke: Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And ye are witnesses of these things.
    John: Feed my sheep.

    To me, none of these charges speak of the organization of a church as much as the spreading of a message.

  52. July 23, 2009 at 8:07 am

    SteveS, I disagree sort of with your conclusion that Jesus wasn’t setting up an ecclesiastical government. He obviously had an organizational structure in order to preach Faith, Hope, Love and whatever else is part of the message. There are mentions, if you take what we do have in the Bible as serious history, of Apostles and Seventies. The Acts of the Apostles is partly about members of the organizational hierarchy trying to develop a church. It leads to a confusion of leadership duties and ultimately a history of Paul’s call as a missionary. (an aside: I picture Paul as a B.R. McConkie of the Early Church). I don’t think Jesus tried to set up a permanent ecclesiastical organization, having thoughts of an apostasy in mind, but he did set up something organized.

    Although I do see using the Anti-Nicene Fathers as a point of usefulness in discerning the Earliest “orthodox” teachings, I also think they are too vague as a source of positive identifications. Most Mormons who care about the Apostasy have concluded that the Bible itself attests to an Apostasy happening right out of the foundational gate. Criticisms about Mormon apologists using the Anti-Nicene Fathers as proof text to Mormon teachings because of belief in early Apostacy is well founded. Of course, the point of the Mormon use (unlike David W. Bercot) is to show the diversity of orthodoxy rather than define orthodoxy for the Early Christian Church.

    The ultimate difference between almost all Restoration movements and Mormonism is the belief in constant Revelation that really ends up Revisionism. Joseph Smith didn’t seek to just restore the forms and orthodoxy of Christianity, but the very authority and spiritual manifestations present in the Early Christian Church. In fact, as some like Bloom have concluded, Mormonism became a “pre-Christian” Christianity. He wanted to find the gate keeper rather than the gate of orthodoxy.

  53. July 23, 2009 at 9:51 am

    re 52:

    Except, note that the Acts wasn’t Jesus setting up *anything*. It was about members of the organizational hierarchy trying to develop a church. It was guesstimation based on what Jesus *had* been saying when he was alive. This guesstimation continued with the Pre-Nicene Fathers, the Nicene Council, etc., And oops, guessing gets stuff incorrect.

  54. Jeff Spector
    July 23, 2009 at 10:34 am

    #50, Andrew A,

    “was there EVER a Church of Jesus Christ that was unified in its beliefs and practices?’

    What a great point. What is very unclear is whether the Apostles had the whole picture themselves. If you look to the evolution of the LDS church, it has been line up on line. Do we suppose that Jesus taught the apostles everything about His Gospel and kingdom or they were supposed to use on-going revelation to build up the church itself. After their deaths, can we say with any certainty, that the proper church organization and authority continued? probably not. Catholics would say yes, almost every other Christian group would say not.

    It almost seems like Apostasy was inevitable.

  55. SteveS
    July 23, 2009 at 11:10 am

    Jettboy: I know that Jesus singled out special disciples to be “apostles”, and that he called seventy men to go preach the gospel during his lifetime. I also know what JS and the modern LDS church have interpreted those positions to be, using other (non-Gospels) NT writings and modern revelation to further clarify those as positions of authority with specific responsibilities in the “kingdom of God”. But as Andrew S pointed out in #53, it seems to me that in the early Christian era, a lot of that role-definition came later as the Christians organized themselves into “churches” (what we would term congregations in our day). I’m willing to allow for the Holy Spirit guiding Peter et al. to create an organization to promote a unified message and modes of praxis for the fledgling religion, but the point of my previous post was that in reading the Gospels, I find little evidence that a church was what Jesus had in mind. Apostles were to be special witnesses of Jesus’ divinity, his expiatory sacrifice, and his resurrection, and were charged with spreading that message, healing people in Jesus’ name to prove Jesus’ power, and baptize people as a symbol of their covenant to align themselves to following Jesus’ teachings. What else were they charged to do? Remember Jesus through participating in a ritual meal, wait to be baptize by fire (endowed with power) on the day of Pentecost, serve each other with love. What else?

    Only in the Book of Mormon and in D&C do we get Jesus specifically creating a church organization, with ritual ordinances, membership roles, excommunication policies for heretics and unrepentant individuals, offices with authority and stewardship, etc. The thing is, at least for me, having read the BoM so many times as a youth, way more than any other book of scripture, it was hard for me to read the NT without bringing to my reading the doctrinal worldview of the BoM and modern LDS church with it. I read the NT through BoM and D&C-colored glasses, if you will. It was only after stepping back and trying to consciously contemplate what the NT was actually saying without imposing my preconceived assumptions and perspectives that I began to understand that there are multiple interpretations of what is written, compounded of course by the impossibility of knowing whether what we have recorded is an accurate depiction of events (the Gospels being written decades after the events described therein, and after an ecclesiastical organization had already been created).

    And so for me Jesus’ message distills down to core principles of faith, hope, and love, with repentance and baptism by water and the spirit as the only definitive product created by Jesus, and spread through his witnesses (apostles) and followers (disciples). So loose was the message that it inevitably and quickly got interpreted, applied, and expanded by diverse schools of thought, only one of which survived into the 3rd century after acceptance by Roman leaders and vigorous suppression of alternate Christian perspectives. I can respect that Bercot uses the assumption that a majority of sources would be closest to being correct, but any statistician would reject such reasoning if it tried to be used to extrapolate outside the data range (IOW, ECFs in 2nd-3rd centuries’ opinions being used to represent the views of 1st century Christians), especially when the dataset doesn’t include alternate viewpoints that were sought out and destroyed as heretical over the course of 1800 years.

  56. SteveS
    July 23, 2009 at 11:15 am

    One final thing about Bercot: Does what I said make Bercot’s exercise futile? Of course not. But to conclude from the sources that the early church was one thing or another, and then to seek out parallels in modern churches seems like we’re trying to stretch the data further than it should.

  57. July 24, 2009 at 8:06 am

    Andrew S and Steve S, I don’t think we disagree as much as you think we do. My belief in Jesus setting up an organizational structure, loose as it might have started, is only one step up from yours in stability. After all, I said, “The Acts of the Apostles is partly about members of the organizational hierarchy trying to develop a church,” while Andrew S said, “It was about members of the organizational hierarchy trying to develop a church.” At best there is a subtle difference.

  58. Nonanonymous
    July 25, 2009 at 9:54 am

    Some of my extended family are Hutterite Anabaptists; they enjoy giving this book to people as a proselyting tool. Growing up they were pretty anti-Mormon… Now I tell them that they are more Mormon than my family (e.g., they actually attempt to establish a consecrated lifestyle, they believe in Elohim as the grand council of the gods, they reject the Nicene creed and see the modern church as apostate, etc.).

    I have two copies of this book because they keep forgetting they’ve already given it to me. Another book they really like is ‘The Kingdom That Turned the World Upside Down’, also by Bercot.

    My criticism of this book would be that it seems to promote a persecution complex. Having overcome my own Mormon persecution complex, I try to warn my cousins of their Hutterite persecution complex.

    2¢,
    D. Moore

  59. Margie Miller
    July 25, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    Hi folks,

    I probably have a different concept altogether. I believe we have all missed the boat where the message of Jesus is concerned. We are all doing a lot of salvation theology but if we really go through the synoptic gospels, we find what Jesus called the gospel was The Kingdom of God on earth. He attempted to change his society for the better working with the marginalized and that really should be our goal too if we really are followers of Jesus.

    I think church is impostant because it helps to keep us focused on mission but we should be out in the world a good deal of the time trying to bring peace and justice to our own families, friends and communities. that’s where our influence really can be felt.

    I believe Orthodox Christianity won the culture battle way back in 400 or so CE But I don’t really believe Orthodox Christianity is the brand the very early church espoused.

  60. Ray
    July 25, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    I agree totally, Margie, that the original “Good News” was that even the unloveable are loved by God – and that we will be judged largely by how we love and serve those whom others reject.

    We have a LONG way to go in that regard.

  61. fstaheli
    August 2, 2013 at 11:14 pm

    Excellent insights! I’ll read the book!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *