This is the second post in a 3-part series from guest author Adam J. Powell, a PhD student at Durham University. His multidisciplinary work analyses the role of opposition in the development of identity and soteriological beliefs among second-century Christians and early Mormons. The first part of this series can be found here.
For the sake of brevity, only a small number of specific LDS thinkers will appear in the following critique. As noted previously, the paradoxical nature of Mormon faith is exhibited by the Saints’ self-definition as a ‘peculiar people’. The confusion arises when various religious representatives, whether church-sanctioned or informally acknowledged, attempt to draw significant parallels between the beliefs and behaviours of Latter-day Saints and those of mainstream Christians. These ‘touch points’ are most often emphasized by church apologists and academics with an apologetic agenda.
Over the past fifty years, these individuals have increasingly attempted to establish connections between fundamental LDS doctrines and the teachings of early Christian fathers. The first to do so with considerable enthusiasm and academic prowess was Hugh Nibley. Having acquired a copy of Migne’s standard compilation of Greek Patristic texts, Nibley became intent on thoroughly investigating the writings of Christian fathers. The products of this endeavour are now published in the multi-volume set of his collected works. In one sense, Nibley was successful. He applied both his formidable intellect and his academic training to the task of better understanding the first few centuries of Christianity. His application and integration of Mormon doctrine and Church history certainly echoed that of Talmage and unquestionably inspired future generations of LDS scholars.
It is possible, however, that Nibley (following the precedent set by the Pratt brothers, Talmage, and others) inadvertently impaired the future of LDS scholarship. By working under the ‘protective’ umbrella of the church and permitting presuppositions therein to determine his analytical method, Nibley successfully skirted the potentially problematic discoveries of his own study. His investigations, while well-informed and well-intentioned, were not well-executed. One specific example is discovered in Mormonism and Early Christianity. While writing on the ritual of baptism for the dead, Nibley asserts that support for this rite and its accompanying beliefs is to found in the texts of early Christians. He cites Irenaeus as one promulgating a belief in baptism both for those alive and those deceased.
This second-century bishop has received significant attention from various LDS writers. Quoting from Irenaeus’ Against Heresies at two different points in the essay, Nibley claims to show how the bishop of Lyon articulated a belief similar to that which would be restored by Joseph Smith over 1,500 years later. The first instance is a quote from book four, chapter twenty-two of Irenaeus’ work. The second appeal to Irenaeus will not be assayed due to space limitations. It should not be assumed from this that Nibley uses the second passage (Against Heresies, V.36) more appropriately. In fact, he betrays an unfamiliarity with Irenaean eschatology simply by citing what he does when he does.
Let us now examine the first passage:
Christ did not come for the sole benefit of those who believed in him at the time of Tiberius Caesar, nor has the Father a plan for those only who happen to be living today; but it is for all the human family who from the beginning by righteousness pleased God and feared him in their generations, and dealt justly and religiously with their neighbours, and yearned to see Christ and hear his voice (Against Heresies, IV.22.2).
This passage seems to have been translated by Nibley himself from the Latin provided in Migne’s Patrologiae Graecae. The original Greek of this portion of Against Heresies is no longer extant. Also, the Ante-Nicene Fathers English translation (which is a standard and was available in Nibley’s time) words the passage slightly differently. In either case, the claimed support for baptism for the dead is difficult to ascertain.
Writing explicitly to refute the teachings of various ‘Gnostic’ groups, Irenaeus must be read in context. Setting aside the fact that this passage in no way overtly condones or promulgates the ritual in question, Irenaeus is quite possibly saying nothing of the sort that Nibley assumes. Space will not permit an adequate explication of ‘Gnostic’ beliefs nor of Irenaean theology. What demands voicing, however, is that Irenaeus presented his audience with a complex theological anthropology wherein Christ is seen as a recapitulative event in human history. A number of the ‘Gnostic’ communities claimed to not only possess a special, salvific knowledge (gnosis in Greek) but to be, therefore, of a special race (the pneumatics). In his refutation of this declaration, Irenaeus claimed that all were equal in the human race. The redemptive consequence of Christ’s having come to earth as a human was that all individuals now enjoyed a restored potential to ‘see’ the Father. This recapitulative (meaning that Christ was a second Adam who obeyed the instruction of the Father in comparison to the disobedience of the first man) work of Christ included Christ having literally experienced every stage of human experience. Christ was the saviour of infants because he had been one, of teenagers because he was one, of adults because he had been an adult, and so on.
Nibley’s quote also includes Irenaeus’ qualifier that Christ came for those who ‘from the beginning by righteousness pleased God and feared him in their generations, and dealt justly and religiously with their neighbours, and yearned to see Christ and hear his voice.’ The ‘Gnostic’ groups such as the Valentinians and the followers of Basilides (particularly the latter) saw the Jewish God as a confounding, domineering tyrant. They claimed that this Old Testament God was in opposition to Christ and his father. Hebrew law, it was said, was simply a device of this power-hungry narcissist to assert authority. This Demiurge desired for all the nations of the earth to worship him and hoped that the Israelites could help realize this objective. Consequently, the Jews had their own, inferior God and the ‘Gnostics’ were superior even to that God. The Jewish law was established by a deity solely reserved for a specific time and people. The Pneumatics, with their special knowledge, now held the true keys of salvation. No one else in history was privy to this soteriological wisdom.
What Nibley saw in Irenaeus was a mirage, an understandable and hopeful mirage, but a mirage nonetheless. By scouring Patrologiae Graecae for any sign of early attestations of Mormon doctrine, Nibley perhaps unwittingly propagates the notion that a level of objectivity is not necessary for scholarly inquiries. One might argue that Nibley’s contribution to Mormon thought was his ability to apply an academic gloss to what was essentially a search for doctrinal affirmation. His conclusions, however, certainly did bolster the church’s confidence and led many future Saints to follow in his footsteps, particularly in theological explorations of Patristic thought.