The LDS apostasy narrative, of the truth being lost and priesthood authority being taken from the earth after the death of the New Testament apostles, has been a fundamental part of the Mormon story. For some investigators and many chapel Mormons the narrative makes sense, and therefore must be true, because of the many interpretations of the Bible and the many disparate claims of having the Truth or God’s Authority. It makes sense on the surface that God would be uniform, understandable, and constant in His communication to his children but is that the story that an objective look at Christian history tells? Does uniquely Mormon scripture support a simple view of humanity as being of God or apostate, light or dark, and bright and inspired under the light of Christ’s life or intellectually lost during the years between the demise of the New Testament authors and the beginning of Joseph Smith’s prophetic call? Is the black and white thinking that the apostasy narrative imposes on Mormons correct or useful to modern members living in a pluralistic world?
These are hard questions that have not been asked and pursued for about the last 100 years in active Mormon discourse. The contributors to and editors of the watershed book Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy have taken a hard look at the apostasy narrative as formulated by early, self-trained, Mormon historians: James Talmage, B.H. Roberts, and Joseph Fielding Smith. Standing Apart offers a broad range of historical, theological, and philosophical critiques against the apostasy narrative as well as a new way to think about and share the unique position of the LDS church.
In this post I’ll share the points made in Standing Apart that were most salient to me. The volume is filled with new information (to me) regarding the time between the Old and New Testaments, parallels between the Catholic practice of indulgences and the Mormon practice of vicarious essential ordinances, the way the Renaissance distinguished itself from the previous ages (by pejoratively labeling it as “the Dark Ages”), competing histories found in the Jewish Scriptures, the complexity of early Christianity, the strong parallels between Mormon and Islamic theologies (really quite beautiful messages and ideas), narratives within the Book of Mormon that challenge the simplistic apostasy model put forward in the first half of the 20th century, and much more. Here I will share what I learned regarding historiography, and the development of Atonement doctrine.
History, the modern discipline we are familiar with, is a relatively new human invention. We certainly have old and even ancient records but the agenda behind many, if not all, records is hardly an objective desire to lay out “the facts.” The state of historiography, how history is written, is always in flux and we cannot expect to arrive at a comprehensive explanation of ‘truth’ because our own paradigms will always color how we interpret and transmit the past to others. History as a practice was changing dramatically in the academic world around the time of Joseph Smith.
In 1824 the highly influential Leopold von Ranke wrote one of the earliest examples of “objective” history and in the preface of this early work he made clear that, although historians have the job of telling the tale of the past and crafting lessons from history for current and future generations to learn from, it was his purpose that the new history “will merely show how it actually was (wie es eigentlich gewesen).” During the 19th century historiography changed from the romantic style of history writing, which often described the past as a providential narrative leading up to the present, and shifted towards the German school of thought which seeks objectivity, recognizes the limits that historical inquiry has on “knowing” the past, and remains forever subject to scrutiny and revision. This change came about with the rise of the social sciences application of the scientific method in subjects such as historical inquiry.
20th Century Mormon Historians
Though the discipline of history had moved to a more objective approach by the time Talmage, Widtsoe and Smith had educated themselves and began to write as historians, because of the geographical and cultural separation from the academic world of history as a discipline, the Mormon historians had not yet adopted the new way of doing history. They found what they understood as the works of great writers of history, which were a bit dated in their time and certainly out of date by today’s standards, and used them as their source material (as the previous paragraph indicates they had inherited through their sources a particular type of history). The writers of Christian history, used by the Mormon historians, wrote confessional histories, which can be understood as a certain kind of Romantic history, in which the faith of the writer confessed his faith through the telling of a providential tale of human history. The metaphors used by the Mormon historians were appropriated from their sources and then tailored to fit the Mormon story of religious succession culminating in the restoration.
The metaphors used in describing the Middle Ages illustrate the bias of the material Talmage, Widtsoe, and Smith drew from, as well as their own desire to place the restoration on a bright shining pedestal rising out of the “darkness” left in the wake of the apostasy. For an example of the imagery used in writing the Mormon version of confessional history we can look in Joseph Fielding Smith’s The Progress of Man, which is a brief treatise on the outlines of man’s history upon the earth, the Middle Ages were described as follows:
“Dark Ages[, which] … commenced with the fall of Rome and continued during the greater part of the next thousand years.” It was an era characterized by a “condition of mental and spiritual stupor and stupidity.”
Such disregard, or denigration rather, of more than 1000 years of human history and experience may seem harsh and unfair to us but it is not entirely unexpected. For when a writer of history uses source materials clearly characterized by today’s standards as Protestant polemics against Catholicism, or as Catholic polemics against Protestantism, one can only expect the writer to produce a new Mormon polemic against all of Christianity. The Mormon version of the apostasy has painted a picture of the Middle Ages as, at best, a scene taken out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which women were burned to death based on the baseless charge of being witches. This vision of the Christian history was not isolated by early 20th century Mormon writers but also by more recent authority figures writings. In Elder McConkie’s A New Witness For the Articles Of Faith, published in 1985, the time between Constantine and the year 1500 were described as follows:
“It was a black and abysmal night; the stench of spiritual death poisoned nostrils of men; and the jaws of hell gaped wide open to welcome the sensual sinners who loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. In our more enlightened day, it is difficult to conceive of the depths to which government and religion and morality, both private and public, sank in what men universally describe as the dark ages. …Morality, culture, literacy, learning in general, even theological inquiry -all these were at a low ebb.”
An age that produced Thomas Aquinas simply cannot be described in any way as even approaching the low ebb of theological inquiry, as McConkie has so illustrated.
Development of Atonement Doctrine
Perhaps rather than an appeal to the authority of the great Dominican Friar let’s look at the central most important doctrine in Mormonism, and all of Christianity: The Atonement.
The suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane and on Golgotha is understood by all Mormons as the great sacrifice in which God incarnate took upon Him the sins of the world and by doing so saved us from spiritual death and offered us the grace we need to return to the Father. This is the Atonement that the authors of the New Testament refer to as THE salvific event but treat what it means or the method through which it saves us in no consistent or systematic way. Early Christians were left to seek greater understanding of what the Atonement means and how it works since the scriptures did not explicitly explain such details.
Moral Influence Theory
Between the 2nd and 4th centuries a theory of how the atonement “worked” was developed*, later referred to as the Moral Influence theory. According to the Moral Influence theory, Christ’s ability to change mankind and make them one with God was by the moral influence of his life story. Through his teachings in the Gospels, His death and subsequent Resurrection, He inspired humans to change and move towards higher or more pure moral choices. Later the Ransom theory came to be a new way to understand the Atonement.
The Ransom theory developed during the era of NeoPlatonic and Gnostic philosophical thought which both held the material world as the cause of all evil and suffering. Humans were bound to the material world through the fall of Adam and Eve, therefore they are forever in the grasp of the devil (then viewed or conflated as the material world). In order to save humankind, a ransom was offered for the release of God’s children. The ransom was God incarnate or Jesus Christ. According to the ransom theory the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is seen as evidence of God tricking or outwitting the devil.
In the 11th century the Ransom theory takes on a new flavor as the theme of justice becomes more and more important. Sin has robbed justice and justice must be satisfied. Mere humans are incapable of satisfying the cost of sin on their own since they are the very source of sin, therefore a savior is needed who must become human to satisfy justice for humans. In this Satisfaction theory rather than paying or tricking the devil, the Atonement is satisfying justice.
The final development came with the reformers such as Martin Luther who describe a Penal-Substitution theory for the atonement in which the acting to doing wrong or sinning simply must be punished.*
These understandings of the Atonement can be found in Mormon scripture and certainly in modern Mormon discourse. If such theological understandings surrounding THE central idea in Mormonism are embraced by the church at all levels, how is it that we simultaneously define the period between 300 and 1500 AD as spiritually bereft and intellectually backwards and yet embrace the theological products of that same era as central to our faith? Can an era described as dark and as dreary as a scene from The Road produce such inspiring and transformative doctrine such as the Atonement and still really have been so dark and dreary? After reading Standing Apart, I have been convinced that such a time was not so dark.
This volume is a pivotal work in Mormon Studies and really needs to be read and understood by Mormons.
*It is likely that the Moral Influence theory was formally developed around 1100 AD and that John D. Young in Standing Apart was referring to early writings/ideas that served as the germ for or a convenient parallel to the later formalized theory. The point is not to present a linear development of thought on the Atonement but to show that much spiritual and theological thought occurred in the middle ages, even the very early middle ages.
**Personally, I find theological problems with many theories of the Atonement and actually prefer the early Moral Influence theory over the various versions of ransom, satisfaction, and penal substitution.