Paradox and Peculiarity: Exploring Mormon Identity through Patristic Scholarship (cont.)

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.


  1. As a believing Mormon reading this I am still seeing general support for the principle behind the concept of baptism for the dead, as understood by Mormons, in the first Irenaeus passage quoted in the post, even despite the added color given by the context that has been explained. I hope this series pointing out Mormon misuse of Patristic sources presents better examples than this.

    People often say that Nibley was a little sloppy in his footnotes and sourcing. That might be the case — I am not in a great position to judge this but having read a lot of Nibley his work taken as a whole is remarkable and I believe it is effective.

    Adam, is there any chance your reflections on Nibley might suffer from a similar flaw as you are identifying in Nibley’s use of Irenaeus — an understanding of broader context, intent and doctrinal footing?

  2. observer fka eric s says:

    “Nibley perhaps unwittingly propagates the notion that a level of objectivity is not necessary for scholarly inquiries.” = Ph.D-level smack down, I like it.

    I’m with john f. I’m seeing support in the Irenaeus quote. It is not so specific that it says “baptism for the dead” is part of the referenced “plan.” But Irenaeus acknowledges that the Father, indeed, has a plan for the entire human family including those that were not around when Christ was. So that obviates to the reader’s mind: “OK, what is that plan then?” The subjective logical leap occurs next to say that Irenaues had BFTD in mind when he wrote this. But . . . is it that too far of a liberty to take circumstantially. . . ? Hmmm. I don’t think it’s so far outta wack that it undermines the balance of Niby’s material. Of course, a more specific reference would have been better for The Nib Doggy (and his pedigree of LDS apologists).

  3. Paul Bohman says:

    This quote isn’t exactly the focus of your post, but I still want to comment on it:

    “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.”

    Christ was never an old person. Or a woman. You could even get more particular and say that he wasn’t a gentile, or disabled, or (presumably) black, and on and on. Christ’s mission may still have been “recapitulative,” as you say, as an answer to Adam’s disobedience, but your supporting explanatory sentence needs to be rethought a bit.

  4. Having looked at this issue in the history of Christian thought a bit, while its true that Irenaeus seems to be thinking along the same lines as Mormons, Adam is right that we need actual statements that baptism for the dead is the solution to this problem. Lots of Christians asked the question about those who died before Christ but came up with solutions other than baptism for the dead (such as those who lived before Christ were under a different law). So Nibley jumped the gun on this one, apparently.

    To me, though, it is a very understandable mistake. We (would-be scholars) all make them.

  5. Paul Bohman says:

    “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.”

    I think this is a reasonably accurate assessment of nearly all LDS scholarly work on topics that are distinctly Mormon, and in which there is a risk of coming to conclusions that don’t align with generally-accepted LDS interpretations or conclusions.

    Those who have truly let the evidence fall where it may and let the conclusions follow the evidence, even when it directly contradicts the acceptable LDS a priori conclusions are a definite minority, because of the clear danger to their reputation and standing within the church. Of course, not all evidence-based conclusions directly contradict LDS positions. Many LDS positions are bolstered by the evidence.

    Many other LDS positions, though, are clearly refuted by the evidence, and when this happens, scholars usually take one of two tracks. Some discontinue their line of questioning, shelving it or throwing it in the bin of “things we don’t have answers to now but will someday, and those answers will surely confirm the LDS position somehow.” The others ignore the core of the issue and start investigating the edges and fringes of the question in search of obscure and tenuous parallels to the past, or other lines of reasoning, in the hope that something, somewhere, somehow, will sound at least somewhat convincing on some level to someone. This latter approach may in fact uncover a grand discovery at some point, but probably not, because it disproportionately enlarges the minutia while systematically ignoring the main issues. In fact, both approaches (shelving the issue or investigating the fringes) essentially turn a blind eye to what might otherwise be considered substantial and sufficient contrary evidence to their desired conclusion.

    This is why, regrettably, I don’t accept the work of LDS scholars at face value on distinctly Mormon topics. I have learned through experience not to trust them to present the story with the kind of completeness required to understand the situation well enough to truly understand it. This isn’t a problem unique to LDS scholars of course. It’s a problem with anyone who has an agenda, or with anyone who perceives significant risks in being disproved on core positions.

  6. I really enjoy the thoughts expressed in this series so far. I think it’s an important point of view because I do think that we have a proof-texting problem in the church (not that it doesn’t exist elsewhere), and when we engage in discourse with others, at best it leads to talking past each other, and at worst it leads to offense. We have a special set of code words with a peculiar meaning in our tradition that we read into the scriptures and the Gospel in general: Melchizedek Priesthood, Atonement, baptism, authority, sacrament, etc., and when we come across a quote from history that uses one of our code words or ideas we assume they were Mormons and are speaking our language. Sometimes our missionaries go knock on doors and roll their eyes (and of this sin I was the foremost sinner) when people read “priesthood” and don’t understand our secret code meaning behind it. We might still be right, or we might be wrong, but I think there are only limited gains in assuming everyone in history was Mormon just because they use the same code words.

    So inasmuch as this series is intended to illustrate our mild arrogance in interpretation – without really doing justice to differing interpretations or historical context, I’m all for it. It doesn’t mean we can’t search for true principles in everything we see or read, we just have to understand what we’re doing and not leap too far.

  7. Against Heresies and the rest of the Ante-Nicene Fathers is available free online.

  8. I have enjoyed reading Elaine Pagles’ books on Gnosticism. She makes a fine case for the idea that the original Saints were all Gnostics of one sort or another. She makes a good case that Paul, himself, was Gnostic. It can easily be argued that the Gospel of John was the reworking of a Gnostic text pseudopigraphiclly attributed to “John.” (Even the attribution was fixed up since John was allowed to tarry well into the 2nd century.) Since John is the most lyrical and mystical of the Gospels, the general tone of what Gnosticism was can be inferred here.

    The original conflict was between the “bottom up” Gnostics and the “Top Down” group represented by Irenaeus. Irenaeus was the “Paul” of the Gnostic witch hunt who managed to hunt down and burn almost all of the original Gnostic writings and finally, in the next century, getting Gnosticism outlawed in the Empire.

    It would seem to me that if we were to hunt the roots of Mormonism in relation to the Early Church we should be searching in the ashes of Gnosticism. It is apparent that Joseph Smith searched through the Pauline letters and extracted the oblique Gnostic references and used them to reconstitute the beliefs of the original Church. It would not be surprising if the reference to baptism for the dead were not a spurious Gnostic ritual at least localized. Since Gnosticism strongly believed in continuing revelation it would not be surprising that various beliefs were tolerated in diverse places in this bottom up religion.

  9. Adam Powell says:

    Hello, everyone. Regrettably, I am not able to offer the responses that are deserved at the moment. I am assisting with the BASR conference here in Durham this week. I would like to say that I am grateful for the feedback and generally congenial nature of the comments thus far. I will offer more responses later in the week when my schedule is a bit more open. I would like to respond very briefly (again, I apologize for the brevity) to Paul Bohman. Paul, I could cite a long list of secondary sources on Irenaeus to show that my statement concerning his doctrine of recapitulation is valid. Instead, I will simply paste a passage directly from the ‘Ante-Nicene Fathers’ translation of Irenaeus himself:

    ‘Being thirty years old when He came to be baptized, and then possessing the full age of a Master, He came to Jerusalem, so that He might be properly acknowledged by all as a Master. For He did not seem one thing while He was another, as those affirm who describe Him as being man only in appearance; but what He was, that He also appeared to be. Being a Master, therefore, He also possessed the age of a Master, not despising or evading any condition of humanity, nor setting aside in Himself that law which He had appointed for the human race, but sanctifying every age, by that period corresponding to it which belonged to Himself. For He came to save all through means of Himself—all, I say, who through Him are born again to God —infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men. He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age, being at the same time made to them an example of piety, righteousness, and submission; a youth for youths, becoming an example to youths, and thus sanctifying them for the Lord. So likewise He was an old man for old men, that He might be a perfect Master for all, not merely as respects the setting forth of the truth, but also as regards age, sanctifying at the same time the aged also, and becoming an example to them likewise. Then, at last, He came on to death itself, that He might be “the first-born from the dead, that in all things He might have the pre-eminence,” the Prince of life, existing before all, and going before all.’ (Against Heresies, II.22.4)

    There is context to this, of course, but I will hopefully have time to get to that later. Thank you, Paul, for your thoughts and insights.

    -Adam Powell

  10. Paul Bohman says:

    Adam, thanks for the response to the point I raised. You may be right that your statement is an accurate reflection of Irenaeus’s viewpoint, and his attempt to explain his concept of recapitulation. Assuming that’s the case, my comment should be taken as a refutation of Irenaeus’s logic. I think his reasoning is insufficient and flawed as a way to justify a comprehensive concept of recapitulation, because there are many things that Jesus wasn’t. Irenaeus can’t say that Jesus has the right and power to atone for and compensate for Adam’s disobedience (and, by extension, the disobedience of all of the rest of us) due to Jesus having become all things (whether in a literal or metaphorical sense), when Jesus clearly wasn’t all things (or all ages, or all kinds of people, etc.).

    He may be able to use other lines of logic to come to the same conclusion, but his line of logic presented here is too incomplete to be useful.

  11. I wanted to reread Nibley’s comments before saying anything but haven’t had time. Not wanting the discussion to go too far let me just say that I think Nibley’s approach was very much in keeping with a lot of the style of the 40’s and 50’s. That is a kind of structuralist project where often elements were divorced from their context to make a larger claim about deep structure. One needn’t read much of the figures of the heyday of structuralism to notice the parallels. Now most of the writing on religion of that era are now discounted (with perhaps only Eliade retaining any semblance of place and even he’s not looked upon well by most)

    Put an other way, I guess I’m saying that while I agree with many of the criticisms of Nibley he was a part and parcel of his time and place. A lot that gets criticized as somehow unique to Mormon apologetics was much more part of the scholarly epoch in which he was educated.

    Now even though I’m pretty anti-structuralist in my mindset I do think that perhaps it gets a tad too much criticism. For instance as others noted I think Nibley was very much trying to establish a kind of universalism in that era that was unlike the universalism of the 19th century. (This is where I wanted to reread him before commenting)

    I also think that Nibley was often not so much defending a pre-existing Mormon position as much as he was developing a particular subset of Mormon theology. (I think this is much more obvious in his economic writings) Now this might be apologetic, but it’s not apologetic in a straightforward way. Put an other way it’s not really taking the mainstream Mormon position and defending it.

    The last thing I’d say is probably the more controversial and perhaps more difficult to defend. The typical context to many of these early writings was a loose neoPlatonic one. I’m pretty convinced that Nibley himself was far, far more Platonic in his philosophy than most Mormons (who tend to be much more materialistic or even positivist at times). Given that I actually think Nibley not only was much more aware of the original context but that a lot was done with a wink and a nod. (Those of you who have been in his class probably recognize that he often spoke a bit more on these topics if you were familiar with the sources he was discussing but which often went over the heads of those not so familiar) I think this is true of many of the sources he used, including what can seem like inexplicable references in his apologetics to texts from the 12th century up through the Renaissance. (Say various Kabbalistic texts he references) Most read these as pure misleading parallelism divorced out of their original context whereas I think a case could be made that he simply saw Mormonism in much more Platonic terms than most of the rest of us (including myself) are comfortable with.

    Now I admit this is difficult to defend, but I think it undermines somewhat the role you have Nibley in.

  12. John: I think his reasoning is insufficient and flawed as a way to justify a comprehensive concept of recapitulation, because there are many things that Jesus wasn’t.

    That’s true, although I think you’ll find that the traditional (or at least common 20th century view) of the events in the Garden of Gethsemene deal with this. Interestingly the way Mormons read that along with the related passages in John have a literal at-one-ment with all people so that he is in and through all things in a manner I think akin to the above Iraeneus quote.

    While it doesn’t quite make the connection to John explicitly I think there’s an element of this in beginning of D&C 88 as well.

  13. As a note which may be of further interest to some, Iranaeus not only understood Jesus as the recapitulated “new Adam” in Against Heresies but jointly extols Mary as the “new Eve,” being one of many early Christian writers who attributed to Mary some salvific function in God’s plan. (So in a sense, Paul Bohman, he is trying to throw women a bone, acknowledging that they may be in need of a different kind of salvific understanding.) This seems to further support a similar theology of recapitulation as that laid out by Adam. Nibley, of course, sidesteps all aspects of Iranaeus’s prominent Mariology in this treatise for obvious reasons.

  14. Adam, after reviewing the Latin edition of the Irenaeus passage you quoted, I think that Nibley’s translation is perfectly sound and probably even better than that of the ANP, a translation that is outdated and has been superseded by several other superior translations, most notably the Sagesses chretiennes and the Fontes Christiani editions. But since I do not have Nibley’s _Mormonism and Early Christianity_ on hand, I am interested in knowing what other passages he quotes in support of the existence of baptism for the dead in Early Christianity. (After all, no decent scholar builds an entire argument on one passage, and it is not fair to hang Nibley here without giving his argument full measure. Smacks of something like proof-texting.) While I know several of his arguments may not withstand critical evaluation, I know his work well enough, and know early Christianity well enough, to know he deserves his due.

  15. Adam Powell says:

    Ariel, thanks for the comments. Nibley also quotes from Against Heresies V.36. As for the translation, I am not sure that I agree. Having read all of Irenaeus’s works in the ANF series, Robert Grant’s recent English version, and the Latin of the Sources chretiennes and Brepols LLT, I think Nibley’s is adequate but certainly not ‘better’. Then again, this almost always comes down to preference. My supervisor Carol Harrison was the editor for Grant’s translation, and she prefers it for the English. I see nothing ‘wrong’ with the ANF. Its language is, naturally, a bit outdated but very true to the Latin and the relevant Greek fragments.

  16. Nibley certainly went beyond what the text states in saying this passage indicates BFTD. Since Nibley is a revered guy in a lot of LDS circles I’ll bet pointing out his errors will bother some people. Nibley himself, though, welcomed this sort of thing. He strongly encouraged reappraisal.

    “We need it all the time…If there is any other thing that characterizes the recent appearances in the journals and periodicals today, it is reappraisal.”

    He included himself in #thingsneedingreappraisal. This quote forms part of my own approach to academic endeavors:

    “I refuse to be held responsible for anything I wrote more than three years ago. For heaven’s sake, I hope we are moving forward here. After all, the implication that one mistake and it is all over with—how flattering to think in forty years I have not made one slip and I am still in business! I would say about four fifths of everything I put down has changed, of course. That is the whole idea; This is an ongoing process, and I have some interesting examples of that…The two rules to follow here are 1) to ask the right questions, and 2) to keep looking.”

    (These are from his article, “The Facsimiles of the Book of Abraham,” Sunstone 4 [December 1979]: 49-51).

    Now, some of the mistakes he made aren’t chalkable-up to emergence of new data. Some of it is straight-up mistaken use of a source, as the example in this post shows. What interests me is the rhetorical use to which Nibley’s work is being made in this paper so far. It seems to be a call for more rigorous scholarship via careful, contextual use of sources as opposed to a correcting of the record, so to speak; a reappraisal for its own sake. Method and approach, as Clark mentioned in the last post’s comments, have improved since Nibley’s time. The questions asked of the evidence are part of Nibley’s encouragement of reappraisal.

  17. ps- sorry i’m so late to the party

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