Not Your Parents’ Apostasy and Restoration: A Review of Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints

Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints, eds. Jason R. Combs, Mark D. Ellison, Cathrine Gines Taylor, and Kristian S. Heal. Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2022. $49.95 (hardcover), $9.95 (Kindle)

Launching this week, just in time for the savvy Christmas shopper, is the Maxwell Institute’s first word on the 2023 Come Follow Me curriculum, in which Latter-day Saints will venture forth on their quadrennial adventure with the New Testament. This volume focuses, not on the people who wrote the New Testament, but on its readers and devotees in the two hundred years or so that followed.

Right off the bat, the editors make it clear that they are not going to encourage, or even tolerate, the standard LDS view of early Christianity—the one where those silly Christians broke away from the truth after the apostles died and permitted Greek philosophy and Roman culture to permeate the plain and precious doctrines of Jesus Christ and turn His true church into something Great, Abominable, and of the Devil

In the introductory essay, Jason Combs makes it abundantly clear that this “great apostasy” narrative came directly from the Protestant polemics against Catholicism that were common in America at the beginning of the 19th century (9-10). It is not revealed truth. The doctrines of the Restoration, he insists, “do not require us to spend time trying to prove other churches and religions wrong or apostate.” “Too often, rather than rejoicing in the blessings and purposes of the Restoration, we members of the Church rejoice that we are not like others. . . . Rather than imagine ancient Christians as duplicitous in their efforts to write about, understand, and practice their faith, it is more accurate to view them as earnest, believing Christians—our ancient spiritual ancestors and modern brothers and sisters” (10-11)

These are big words, and for the most part, the volume lives up to them. All of the authors take care to frame ancient Christianity as a positive continuation of the New Testament and the ministry of Christ and not as an inferior, hopelessly broken institution condemned to muddle through 1800 years until God got around to telling Joseph Smith to fix it. And the authors let the early Christians speak for themselves. The volume introduces readers to influential early Christian figures like Tertullian, Clement, Gregory, Irenaeus, and Augustine—as well as to some of the roads not taken, like Origen, Arius, and Pelagius. These are all folks that we really ought to know.

Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints is a well-organized volume that begins with a series of essays describing who the ancient Christians were and how they lived in the world. These early essays include Kristian Heal’s excavation of some of the earliest known Christian sermons (25-61), Thomas Wayment’s description of the history of the New Testament’s canonization (63-94), Matthew Grey’s depiction of early Christian worship spaces (141-192), and Mark Ellison’s description of some of the earliest Christian rituals (195-247).

In my view, the most important essay in the first half of the volume is Ariel Bybee Laughton’s “Church Organization” Priesthood Offices and Women’s Leadership Roles” (97-138). Here, Laughton establishes, with abundant evidence, that women in the earliest Christian generations had significantly more ecclesiastical power than they ended up with. Women were called to preach, teach, go on missionary journeys, and prophecy. And they held formal positions within the church (i.e., the office of diakonos, or “deacon”) that contemporary Latter-day Saints associate with priesthood ordination.

In a minor but important irony, Laughton explains that the influence of Greek and Roman society led to the exclusion of women in leadership roles. Thus (though it is never said explicitly), this is the one area in the book where the standard apostasy narrative actually works. As Christianity evolved, it permitted Greek and Roman beliefs about gender roles and women’s inferiority to affect its theology and ecclesiastical structure.

The second half of the book (essays 7-13) shifts the volume’s focus from the lived experience of ancient Christians generally to its beliefs about issues of specific interest to Latter-day Saints. This includes some of the areas of significant departure between Mormonism and traditional Christianity—such as original sin, the Trinity, and salvation by grace—and specific beliefs controversial beliefs that Latter-day Saints hold, such as becoming like God and performing ordinances for the dead.

In this group of essays, the authors exercise great care not to overstate their cases. They show that ideas similar to those that Latter-day Saints have today were part of the large theological buffet from which the earliest Christians selected their beliefs. But they are also clear that none of these ideas were ever part of an uncontested (i.e., pre-apostate) consensus.

Yes, Origen believed in the pre-existence of souls, Arius denied the Triune nature of God, and Pelagius believed that people are punished for their own sins and not for Adam’s transgression. These views were part of the many arguments that early Christians had, but so were their opposites. We may agree with these ideas, but, if we are being fair, we must acknowledge that the ideas that eventually prevailed were held sincerely, thoughtfully, and for reasons that did not include being an enemy of God.

The volume formally ends with Nicholas Frederick’s essay on early Christian eschatology as compared with contemporary LDS and other Christian views of the last days (471-502). And yet (as if to place the eschaton itself in a cycle of eternal recurrence), it includes an Afterword by Miranda Wilcox on the Medieval Christians who lived in the world that the earlier Christians created (506-531). Both essays bring the book’s argument forward and help demonstrate the importance of studying earlier beliefs. If we want to be Christians, we need to understand the Christian tradition. And if we want to be decent human beings, we need to understand where other people’s beliefs came from rather than simply assuming the irrelevance of everything that happened between the Crucifixion and the Restoration.

The print version of Ancient Christians is lavishly illustrated and beautifully designed, and it weighs in at a hefty 561 pages. But whatever you do, don’t skip over the contributor’s biographies (532-537), because it is here that we learn something important. These people are good. The authors are all actual experts in the field who really (really, really) know what they are talking about. They hold advanced degrees from some of the most prestigious universities in the world, and they regularly publish the results of their research to other experts in the field.

And this, ultimately, is among the volume’s greatest strengths. The authors are Latter-day Saints writing to other Latter-day Saints. But they know stuff that most of us don’t know. This is important as we study the New Testament in 2023 because—let’s just be honest here—as much as we insist that we are really Christians when somebody suggests we are not, most of us know very little about the first 1800 years of the Christian tradition. This is a real problem. Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints is at least the start of a real solution.

Comments

  1. Thanks for pointing this out. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to get around to reading it. I’m only about half way through Saints Vol 3 at the moment.

  2. I have it on pre-order from Amazon. Something to do while avoiding politics on Thanksgiving!

  3. This looks fantastic. Now the question is whether I could distill from the book’s good information a comment-length bit that I could happen to bring up early in the first New Testament lesson of the year. If I can’t get through the book in that time, maybe I can draw from your helpful review. Thanks!

  4. Just read Chapter One. It’s quite good.

  5. tannerdurant says:

    Very cool!

  6. Thank you very much for the recommendation. This book is very much in line with “Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness
    and the Concept of the Apostasy, ed. Miranda Wilcox and John Young ” I sincerely believe that we should build a better narrative about the apostasy, which is based more on the idea of “fullness”. Greetings from Mexico.

  7. seniorhalf says:

    I bought it, I like it and I highly recommend it!

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