Is priesthood authority a historical category?

March 20, 2008 | 21 comments
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No, it isn’t. Which means that defining an early Christian apostasy as the loss of priesthood authority doesn’t tell us anything, even in a Mormon framework, about the apostasy as a historical event, or why it occurred, or what it consisted of. If we define the apostasy as the withdrawal of divine approval and loss of authorized inspired leadership, then there is no way to identify the apostasy with any set of historical events.

This is partly due to the nature of history. For a Mormon understanding of priesthood, loss of authority implies either 1) a gap in the succession of authorized ordinations, for which there is no documentary evidence; or 2) the withdrawal of divine approval from the duly ordained, which is a spiritual event entirely outside the purview of historical inquiry. That we call John rather than Mani a true prophet is not a matter of weighing historical evidence, but a matter of our present belief.

But the ahistoricity of authority is also partly due to our understanding of priesthood. One careless way to define apostasy is as change in belief, in practice, or in scriptural texts from an earlier state. But the Mormon concept of priesthood authority undermines these arguments: belief, practice, and scripture are all liable to authorized change through the priesthood itself, via the process of continuing revelation. Observing changes in scriptural texts over time therefore tells us nothing about the presence or absence of priesthood authority behind them; all we can do is state whether or not we believe such changes to have been authorized or not. (There is also the even sloppier argument from difference, which dispenses entirely with the chore of determining what early Christianity was actually like by assuming that it was all but identical to current Mormon practices and beliefs, so that anything differing from our present condition is labeled as apostate.) A final variant is the argument from revulsion: namely, that people calling themselves church leaders believed or said things that no truly inspired leader could ever do or say. Unfortunately, canonical scripture raises the bar rather high in terms of what prophets acting under divine inspiration might do at any given moment: attempt to sacrifice their child, lie, decapitate a helpless enemy, wed a shameful woman, advocate genocide. Even this variant, the “Don’t you know what Tertullian did?” argument, reduces to the simple assertion that Tertullian did not have priesthood authority, rather than serving as historical evidence that priesthood authority had been lost.

Note that this is only a problem if you want to find historical evidence for an early Christian apostasy. You can believe that such an event took place (I do) and that a loss of priesthood authority was involved, and even see the consequences of the apostasy all across history, and all that is lost is the possibility of mounting historical arguments to support your view. As an alternative, you can define the apostasy in other terms to preserve its historicity, or attempt a slightly different approach altogether. But looking for historical evidence of a loss of priesthood authority will probably not get you an inch beyond the claim that our church is true, and others are not.

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21 Responses to Is priesthood authority a historical category?

  1. Seth R. on March 20, 2008 at 4:56 pm

    I see “apostasy” as a process that was already in process when Christ was born, was not remedied by Christ’s ministry, continued throughout the tenure of the apostles, and continued right up to Joseph Smith.

    You see the seeds of apostasy in the disorganized nature of Christ’s following. Then you see it in the disputations between Paul and the apostles at Jerusalem. Some scholars have even gone so far as to label Paul as “Christianity’s first heretic.”

    So I think the LDS view that you were in a state of “not-apostasy” as long as the apostles were alive, and once they died – BANG! – Apostasy! is… well… silly. Apostasy was an ongoing thing and sometimes the apostles were a part of the problem as well as part of the solution.

  2. Doc on March 20, 2008 at 6:06 pm

    Apostasy is a law of nature (entropy) without the continuous guiding hand of revelation. It is actually the order of things even with the guiding hand because it may be disregarded, or the prophet might editorialize. Human cultural framework will necessarily color every revelation. God can only give us what we can comprehend and accept.

  3. Bob on March 20, 2008 at 7:42 pm

    #2: “Apostasy is a law of nature (entropy)”. Well, entropy seems to work in physics. I am not as sure in biology (evolution), or history, or Mormonism (Eternal Progression).

  4. Huston on March 20, 2008 at 8:18 pm

    If priesthood authority isn’t historical, I guess my line of authority card just became pretty worthless. (sorry for the snarkiness!)

    Of course, it’s a lot easier to document the priesthood lines of this current dispensation rather than a previous one. But is that the only “documentary” evidence that gets to be entered here? As Jonathan notes, agreeing with the concept of apostasy is ultimately an article of faith, but one could argue that’s only because the world is full of people who will cling to any position no matter what evidence comes their way. This reminds me of people who claim that the Constitution is a “living document,” open to subjective interpretation, because we can’t know what the Founders intended it to mean, even though the Founders’ enlightening writings on the Constitution are voluminous and accessible. Throwing our hands in the air is only evidence of lack of research. Ditto for the apostasy.

    The evidence for an apostasy, including the loss of a legitimate priesthood authority, is astounding. Haven’t we all read Nibley’s “Passing of the Primitive Church” (a documentary record of the apostasy in process if ever there could be one!)? http://www.farms.byu.edu/publications/bookschapter.php?bookid=55&chapid=523

    #1, apostasy might be understood that way at a personal level, but are you suggesting that the Church (as such) was in some state of corruption even as Jesus was building it, or as Peter led it? Might not 1 Nephi 13:24-28 contradict that? After all, if these things were subsequently twisted, weren’t they originally in place, pure and complete? (Another perspective on “documentary” tracing of the apostasy: The Book of Mormon describes it as a process of perverting gospel truth, removing covenants, and then altering scriptures. All pretty well attested, as in Nibley. No mention of priesthood authority here per se, but one sees it easily fitting into this scheme.)

    Of course, this still isn’t a “historical” record of priesthood decline, so Jonathan’s point remains for now. But what would constitute a historical, documentary record of apostasy via priesthood loss? Do New Testament scriptures count? Or Apocrypha? Do Roman authors get more or less credibility?

    #3, nice! “Atonement: the anti-entropy”!

  5. jrl on March 20, 2008 at 8:54 pm

    Hugh Nibley made the point about the Atonement being the cure for entropy. It is physical as well as spiritual.
    And don’t worry about that line of authority card. I’ve never had one. Let’s just hope that my grandpa really was ordained by someone with authority…

  6. Dave on March 20, 2008 at 10:29 pm

    Jonathan, I guess I would make a distinction between an event or development that qualifies as a “historical category” and the historical evidence that might be used to support or reject a proposed event or development. The absence of evidence shouldn’t mean that a proposed event or development isn’t amenable to historical treatment, just that there is no evidence to support it.

    But in the larger sense, I certainly agree that the LDS view of the apostasy of the Early Church is more of a corollary of our view of the Restoration than a view that is based on or results from a consideration of historical evidence. I don’t object when LDS leaders or scholars try to assemble evidence illustrating what we view as the loss of priesthood authority, but we ought to remember that the conclusion to such books is written before the analysis chapters are written.

  7. Jonathan Green on March 21, 2008 at 3:50 am

    Huston, if you didn’t believe that the priesthood was restored through Joseph Smith, then your card would indeed be worthless. Concerning an early Christian apostasy, what kind of historical evidence do you think additional research might discover? Or, alternatively, what other definitions of apostasy might rescue its historicity? I suspect that there are significant obstacles that arise to answering either question, simply as a matter of definition.

    Dave, I mostly agree, although a historical treatment without evidence is going to be a bit of a problem.

    Mostly what I’m saying is that a believer in priesthood authority can have the impression that he or she is observing its presence or absence in history, but actually documenting that, so that someone else is convinced to observe the same thing, is going to be very difficult. This places a few limits on what kind of questions historical work within Mormon Studies can answer (as opposed to what kinds of questions individual scholars can offer their opinions on).

    I don’t think there are a great many occasions where this actually becomes an issue, but there is one specific historical question where Mormon belief about authority and apostasy makes an answer difficult or impossible, namely: When did the apostasy occur, or by when was it complete? The question may not be answerable, even entirely within a Mormon framework, because we have no religious basis for deciding which post-NT figures of the first century (or second or third or fourth or fifth) were divinely authorized, and there is also no process of historical inquiry for answering the question.

  8. CraigH on March 21, 2008 at 9:46 am

    Jonathan’s right that you can’t prove an apostasy through historical evidence, because the interpretation of that evidence is dependent on certain presuppositions or assumptions as to what would constitute apostacy. Certainly there was change, that can be documented, but the label you put on that change, beyond mere “change,” depends on your assumptions and definitions of what is good, bad, or whatever, and those are matters, ultimately, of faith. Within your faith tradition, you may demonstrate and illustrate all day long why those changes were bad or good, and perhaps convince others within your tradition. But it’s very unlikely you’ll convince those in other traditions (unless of course a few like your version better), much less open any dialogue with them (if you consider that important, that is). Thus my argument that where scholars should put their energy is in trying to understand religious life (in any place, time, or religion) through the eyes of those who experienced it. What did religion mean to them? The scholar is then of course free to interpret privately, or within one’s faith tradition publicly, the meaning of that evidence, but anyone of any faith can participate in the establishment of a picture of how religious life was experienced by those of the time. Not only does this allow dialogue and mutual understanding, but I think it will undo the overwhelmingly distorted images of religious life which certainly we Mormons hold (so do others) of the period between the ancient church and Joseph Smith. In other words, it will even improve understanding within a tradition. Who knows, but that a more accurate establishment of past religious life, through the eyes of those who lived it, may lead to a better way to understand the whole period than simply dismissing it with the grandiose label of “apostacy.”

  9. TT on March 21, 2008 at 9:59 am

    Great post! Just one note: ‘apostasy’ isn’t a historical category either. It is a theological judgment.

  10. Trevor on March 21, 2008 at 10:57 am

    Seth R:

    What did you mean by the “continued right up to Joseph Smith” phrase? Do you mean that the apostacy process was remedied by Joseph Smith?

  11. Seth R. on March 21, 2008 at 6:32 pm

    Didn’t want to touch that one Trevor, so I punted. You may draw your own conclusions.

  12. Christian on March 22, 2008 at 10:44 pm

    Jonathan, you seem to forget the actual operating church structure, set up with twelve apostles as described in the New Testament.

    Here’s the Stephen Robinson article again.

    “The Greek word apostasia (apostasy, falling away) means rebellion or revolution. It conveys the sense of an internal takeover by factions hostile to the intentions of the previous leaders. I personally prefer the translation mutiny, as it suggests that unauthorized members commandeer a ship and take it where the ship is not supposed to go. Since early Christians often thought of the church as a ship, I think mutiny conveys the sense of what Paul and others meant by the term apostasia. (See 2 Thes. 2:3.)”

    Once the church ceases to appoint replacement apostles, isn’t that evidence that an apostacy has occurred, i.e. that the appointed leadership has been displaced?

  13. Christian on March 22, 2008 at 10:49 pm

    “So I think the LDS view that you were in a state of “not-apostasy” as long as the apostles were alive, and once they died – BANG! – Apostasy! is… well… silly. Apostasy was an ongoing thing and sometimes the apostles were a part of the problem as well as part of the solution.”

    Yes, but “if you are not one you are not mine.” We can’t assume that the church was OK so long as apostles were alive, but we can assume that the church was gone by the time that new apostles aren’t even appointed to replace the old ones. It’s possible that even some of the NT writers may have participated in an apostasy — certainly there were apostles in Joseph Smith’s time that apostatized. The idea, like Robinson said, is an internal mutiny against church authority, and that can include displacement within the leadership itself. Think of how easy it would be for an apostle or group of apostles to pull a Judas and give up the location of other church leaders to Roman or Sadducee authorities…

  14. Jonathan Green on March 24, 2008 at 6:04 am

    Christian, the New Testament is rather terse about what organizational structure the church was intended to have. That’s one of the points that Nibley made: all the organizational structures and operational manuals that one would expect a continuing church to possess don’t seem to exist.

    About apostolic succession, see the article in the Catholic Encyclopedia: whether or not apostolic authority continued or not is very much a matter of interpretation. As a matter of Mormon belief, it’s perfectly legitimate to see a lapse in office and authority, but at that point we’re doing theology, not history. What looks like a historical argument (“no more apostles were ordained, therefore there was an apostasy”) is actually a statement of beliefs about the present (“we don’t believe the argument in the Catholic Encyclopedia”).

    Also, I don’t see that Mormon concepts of priesthood and revelation make it unthinkable for bishops and pontiffs to be legitimate bearers of church leadership; our scriptures are filled with revelations much more surprising than that. I don’t believe that such a thing happened, but I wouldn’t say that such a thing would be impossible.

  15. Ray on March 24, 2008 at 10:14 am

    Fwiw, few people consider that what we view as the Aaronic Priesthood continued in Israel long after the Melchizedek Priesthood was removed. This could complicate our conception of priesthood loss after the death of Jesus, if “lesser authority” continued in the “new Christianity” just as it had in the “old Israel”. That certainly would allow for a form of “legitimate church leadership” while still accompanying real “apostasy”.

    I have no academic basis for believing it happened that way, but there is little if any proof that it did not.

  16. Jonathan Green on March 24, 2008 at 10:50 am

    Actually, Ray, wild speculation is totally on-topic, and I hadn’t thought up that variation yet. Thanks.

  17. Ray on March 24, 2008 at 11:51 am

    Jonathon, if you think of the classic distribution of responsibilities between the two priesthoods, it is quite easy to see how ancient Israel could continue to maintain a “form of godliness, but deny the power thereof” (which, according to my understanding, is a pretty good description of why they rejected Jesus). When you look at Judaism at the time of Jesus and Protestantism at the time of Joseph (both structurally and doctrinally) there are multiple, striking similarities.

    Again, there is nothing historically objective to prove my speculation, but I simply am struck by the incredibly similar (nearly identical) effect and wonder if it is attributable to a similar or identical cause.

  18. Christian on March 24, 2008 at 4:17 pm

    “As a matter of Mormon belief, it’s perfectly legitimate to see a lapse in office and authority, but at that point we’re doing theology, not history.”

    That’s nonsense, Jonathan. “Theology” is not broad enough to cover that topic, and history is not too narrow to include it. If you mean that it’s not an objective history, then you’re right, but no history is perfectly objective. All histories proceed with their assumptions.

    “About apostolic succession, see the article in the Catholic Encyclopedia: whether or not apostolic authority continued or not is very much a matter of interpretation”

    History is very much a matter of interpretation, Jonathan. many folks, including most LDS, believe that the apostolic structure was linked to the apostolic authority. The Catholics feel differently, and do not believe that an apostasy occurred. But it’s perfectly the role of an historian to point to such an event as the change of the apostolic structure, as a marker that an apostasy may have occurred prior to that point, depending on what assumptions that we make about apostolic authority.

  19. Raymond Takashi Swenson on March 24, 2008 at 8:45 pm

    The Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches all insist that something serious changed in the Church after the First Century, as the original group of apostles named as apostles and governing as apostles was lost, namely, that no one else inherited the ability to write authoritative scripture. They have taken the issue of canonization very seriously, and they have maintained their integrity in being unwilling to accept as authoritative any work written by someone who was not an acknowledged apostle or someone closely associated with and presumably authorized by an apostle. So even though there are various assertions about the continuance of authority that originated with the apostles, down to the “priesthood fo all believers” concept that came out of the Reformation, none of the principal churches seriously claims that they have had people with the ability to write authoritative books of scripture at any time after the First Century.

    The Restoration is marked by the publication of an entire new volume of scripture, the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith made a bold claim, that he had the authority that was held by the First Century apostles, to issue new scripture. The other Christian churches admit they do not have such authority. They clearly do not want to believe that anyone else has it, and thus has a claim to superior revelation from God.

    So the loss of the authority to issue new scripture is a pretty clear demarcation of the difference between the living Church of Christ and his apostles, and the church that followed, just as it is also a demarcation of the opening of a new dispensation. And the entire Christian world acknowledges that there is a real difference. Of course, they claim they like it that way, that God (for some unknown reason not stated in scripture itself) wants it that way. The Christians who decide that it would be a desirable thing to have new apsotles and prophets and new scripture are called–Latter-day Saints.

  20. Jonathan Green on March 25, 2008 at 6:29 am

    Christian, I think we are at or near the useful point in a conversation where differences are distilled to pure form. While historians can detect changes in beliefs and institutions, if documentary evidence has survived, I maintain that deciding if those changes are a matter of line-upon-line inspired revelation, or of apostate corruption, is impossible from a historian’s perspective; you disagree. I don’t think I have anything intelligent to say at this point (but if you do, please feel free to add it). I have another post on apostasy coming up soon that might revisit some similar issues.

  21. CraigH on March 25, 2008 at 10:11 am

    Jonathan is right: to say there was a lapse in office and authority is indeed theology, or speculative philosophy, and not history, mostly because it presupposes that office and authority should have been continuous, and makes a claim regarding authority that cannot be proven with historical methods. It’s more accurate to say that there may be evidence for changes in offices. But on authority, a Catholic would assert that authority continued through Peter, and beyond. One cannot prove this through historical methods, just as one cannot prove that authority didn’t continue, thus it falls outside the realm of historical study (which isn’t quite the same as History, in the sense of “what happened,” but “what can be shown with evidence that all can see.”) It would be okay, as Raymond suggests, to say that there was a change in church government, and that most Christians believe no one was authorized to receive scripture and that this is okay with them. Were Raymond to go on to say that this was a bad thing, then he’s engaging in theology (as he obviously realizes). If he were to say that Mormons believe this is a bad thing, then he’s a historian again. The point is not to be pedantic or trivial, but to distinguish between what historians can reasonably claim about History, and what they can’t. Speculative philosophy and Theology make all kinds of claims about History, but they’re not based on the same methods historians use. They’re perfectly fine for what they are, but they usually don’t get beyond their faith-tradition. The advantage of historical study is that it can, as long as you know the rules. Historical study goes only so far in answering questions, as every historian knows. But to say that “no history is objective” doesn’t mean you can claim whatever you want and all claims are equal. They may be equal in a theological or speculative philosophy sense, but they are not equal when it comes to historical study. Historical study must be based on evidence that all can see, with interpretations drawn from that evidence rather than based on presupposed categories. Karl Marx was as good a speculative philosopher as any, but he wasn’t a historian, despite his claims to being such; neither is a confessional apologist a historian. They are in the first place speculative philosophers.