Saturday, December 21, 2013

On Searching the Scriptures (Part 2): Lessons from Ancient Apostolic Circles

Recently, I posted the first of four excerpts from a section of my unpublished work-in-progress titled A Testimony and an Exhortation, wherein I began to give a look at what it might mean to use scripture, and specifically the Bible, as an external standard in weighing the truth-implications of personal revelation-experiences.  After that excerpt, I go on to quote the wisdom of John Wesley, which I have also already posted here.  Next, the following is the second of those four excerpts, which comes from pages 66-69 of the aforementioned work (as currently paginated).  Let's take a look at how the missionaries of the early church (the "Church of Jesus Christ of Former-day Saints", as Latter-day Saints were once wont to say) treated scripture and expected people to come to believe in their message:

This also matches well the missionary approach we see in the early church.  In modern times (as opposed to earlier days), the typical LDS missionary approach seems relatively unconcerned with making a strong case from accepted scripture for the truth of LDS teachings; rather, the focus is on a simple presentation of a few parts of the message and urging the person to seek through prayer a direct endorsement of the ideas from God himself.1  Prayer is, of course, an essential part of the quest for truth - we ought to pray for God's guidance and enlightenment.  Though there isn't much ancient scriptural warrant for requesting direct revelation of truths, God may of course indulge us from time to time - for he is sovereign and therefore may do as he sovereignly sees fit.  But in the missionary efforts of the early Christian church, we never see any exhortation for the yet-unconverted to pray for personal revelation to confirm the message.  We do, however, see a great deal of reasoning with people and persuasively making a rational and scriptural case for the Christian faith.

This was, for instance, an admirable habit of the Apostle Paul.  Almost immediately after Paul's baptism, Luke reports that he "confounded the Jews which dwelt at Damascus, proving that this is very Christ" (Acts 9:22) - in other words, Paul engaged them in a reasoned argument and made an irrefutable case from scripture for the message ('Jesus is the Christ') that he himself had at last accepted.  As David O. McKay put it, "the more they opposed him [i.e., Paul], the more eloquently he defended the name of Jesus and proved to them that Jesus is the Christ", even through "days of fiery disputations in the synagogues".2  (Were these a mistake?  Did Paul's "fiery disputations" serve only to 'drive away the Spirit'?  Certainly not!  So why should modern believers fear that result from a vigorous but wholly respectful debate today?)  Later, in reporting Paul's missionary efforts in Thessalonica, Luke says that it was Paul's custom to first go to the synagogue, where he "reasoned with them out of the scriptures" that Jesus was the promised Messiah who was to suffer, die, and rise again (Acts 17:2).  This was in accordance with an earlier report of the contents of Paul's synagogue-debating at Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:16-41).

Paul carried out the same activity at his next stop after Thessalonica, his stop in Berea, where Luke praises the Jewish population highly as being "more noble than those in Thessalonica" on account of their willingness to "search the scriptures daily, whether these things are so" (Acts 17:11)3 - it was a great virtue for them to test even an apostle's message critically against scripture to verify it (for, if Paul's message had not withstood the test, the Berean Jews would then have rightly rejected Paul as an apostle), but Luke makes no mention of the Bereans seeking a direct revelation from God apart from the scriptures.  As David O. McKay summarized the praiseworthy reaction of the Jewish converts in Berea, "the Jews here were more noble than those in Thessalonica, and would reason from the scripture, which was the Old Testament, kept in sacred rolls in the synagogue.  So we conclude that the Bereans not only listened attentively to what the missionaries told them but searched the scriptures to see if what they found was in harmony with the Law.  When they found it was, many believed, 'also of honorable women who were Greeks, and of men not a few'".4  

When Paul reached Athens, he delivered a powerful speech at the very same site where I first met the LDS missionaries with whom I subsequently took the discussions.  (I recall, so shortly after I met them, how intensely I enjoyed gazing at the large bronze plaque built into the side of the hill that bore the Greek text of Paul's sermon for all generations to read.)  There, Paul offered powerful arguments to the Greek philosophers, drawing on various Greek poets and thinkers to make his case for part of the Christian message (Acts 17:22-31), for the Spirit had moved him there to go "into the streets and marketplaces teaching and contending with Jews and Gentiles alike".5  Moving along to Corinth, Luke stresses again that Paul "reasoned in the synagogue every sabbath, and persuaded the Jews and the Greeks" (Acts 18:4).  As David O. McKay put it, Paul's regular practice was that he "would reason with them from the scripture, and persuade them to become Christians".6  In Ephesus likewise, Paul "entered into the synagogue, and reasoned with the Jews" (Acts 18:9).  Later in the same place, Paul "went into the synagogue, and spake boldly for the space of three months, disputing and persuading the things concerning the kingdom of God" (Acts 19:8).7  After being evicted from the synagogue, Paul took up space in a lecture hall, "disputing daily in the school of one Tyrannus" for two years (Acts 19:9).  Throughout his missionary work, Paul regularly - as LDS apostle LeGrand Richards put it - "took the scriptures in his hands to prove that Jesus was the Christ", thus undertaking to "convince publicly the people out of the scriptures", using the scriptures as evidence in his reasoned case for the Christian message that he persuasively brought.8  

Paul wasn't alone in this behavior.  My favorite figure in the New Testament - aside, of course, from my Savior himself - is Apollos, the Alexandrian Jewish convert to Christianity who may have perhaps written Hebrews.  Though not mentioned much, I find him intensely fascinating, engaging, and inspiring.  Luke describes Apollos as "an eloquent man, and mighty in the scriptures" who "began to speak boldly in the synagogue" (Acts 18:24-26).  When he left Ephesus after gaining further instruction from Priscilla and Aquila, Apollos went to the Greek province of Achaia and "mightily convinced the Jews, and that publicly, shewing by the scriptures that Jesus was Christ" (Acts 18:28).  Apollos' claim to fame was being an excellent and Spirit-empowered speaker, as well as a superb debater whose familiarity with the scriptures allowed him to be a fantastic missionary and teacher in the early church (Acts 18:25).  David O. McKay deemed Apollos to be "one of the most eloquent preachers of the Gospel in that day".9  Similarly, Ronald E. Poelman of the First Quorum of the Seventy described Apollos as someone who was "very eloquent, an avid scriptorian, very fervent in spirit, and a diligent teacher" who "understood the Old Testament scriptures and was an intellectual giant", and who therefore "went on to become an outstanding missionary, effective especially among the Jewish people".10  Apollos excellently funneled his powerful intellectual training into his Spirit-empowered debating prowess, with the result that Apollos was a great benefit to the churches in Achaia (Acts 18:27), and in this he becomes an excellent model for missionaries and teachers today.

Elsewhere throughout our accounts of the early church's missionary activity, we see a similar pattern of reasoning.  In Peter's rightly famed speech given in Jerusalem at Pentecost (Acts 2:14-36), he appeals specifically to scripture to validate his message, offering a strong case for his conclusion that "God hath made the same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:36).  As Parley P. Pratt once summarized this occasion, Peter "lifted his voice and reasoned with them from the Scriptures, testifying of Jesus Christ, and his resurrection and ascension up on high - insomuch that many became convinced of the truth, and inquired what they should do".11  Peter did more of the same in a portion of his later speech at Solomon's Colonnade in Jerusalem (Acts 3:21-26).  Stephen's speech before his early martyrdom is yet another strong example (Acts 7:1-53).  Peter and Stephen both appealed, not to private revelatory experiences that their hearers were supposed to have, but to things the hearers could already know by the public facts of history and scripture.  They appealed to the witness of God in the authoritative sacred writings that their hearers shared with them, and they appealed to the mighty act of God that was public knowledge: that Jesus of Nazareth was no longer in his guarded grave and had been seen alive afterward by many.  On these bases, they made their well-reasoned case for the message that they brought.

In short, the bulk of our reports of early Christian missionary labors shows that missionary preaching was laced with apologetics,12 making a reasonable case from scripture and from other accepted knowledge in favor of the teaching they brought.  Nowhere in Acts do we see the people (whether yet converted or not) encouraged to first pray to God for direct personal revelation of the truth of the message, nor is there anywhere where we see the people praised for doing so.  But throughout Acts, we do see them praised for testing the message against the scriptures and for using reasonable persuasion to convince others that the message is true.13  Nowhere in Acts - or elsewhere in ancient scripture, for that matter - do we see a conversion that ignores or bypasses the mind.

While it's true that we have to affirm the incredible value of prayer, nevertheless searching the scriptures is the major proper method for testing doctrinal truth.  We pray for wisdom and discernment (cf. James 1:5), we pray for this "practical righteousness in everyday living"14 that "enables [us] to resist and endure the tests of this age",15 but not for easy answers; and then, as God gives us discernment, we use the tools God has graciously given us to find out the answers for ourselves as he has revealed them.  In established scripture, what the Spirit witnesses to us is an assurance of our own standing as adopted children of God who have been fully forgiven (Romans 8:16) and that Jesus Christ is both fully divine and fully human (1 John 5:6-8).  Prayer is valuable, but it must be used in prayerful examination of established scripture (the Old and New Testaments, for us) to test all teachings, prayerful attention to the arguments for both sides of the issue (cf. Proverbs 18:17), and prayerful consideration wrapped up in a quest to love the Lord with all our minds.  After all, even publications of the LDS Church agree that direct personal revelation is not to be expected when "seeking counsel on matters that we should determine for ourselves, using our best judgment based on study and reason".16

1   Preach My Gospel: A Guide to Missionary Service (Salt Lake City, UT: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2004), 31, 39-40.  No doubt this missionary approach, and the popularity of (oversimplistically) holding to the incorrigibility of 'inner witness'-like experiences, explains the unfortunate fact that an "overwhelming majority [of Latter-day Saints] said that they would believe [in Mormonism] even if they were convinced that the evidence seemed to undermine Mormonism" - see David E. Smith, Mormons and Evangelicals: Reasons for Faith (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2009), 75 (emphasis original).  I say 'unfortunate' because this is not a mindset encouraged or praised in ancient scripture, nor is it a good way to integrate the rational and experiential in the spiritual life of a person or community.  I also note that, even though LDS missionaries often acknowledge that there are certain important evangelistic tasks that they are unequipped to carry out - such as even attempting to provide answers to some of the more difficult (but still fundamental) questions - the modern LDS missionary program is structured in such a way that, in effect, all responsibility for such things rests upon them, as much of the rest of the membership frequently considers their 'member missionary' work to involve quickly referring friends and contacts to the young proselytizing missionaries and then just providing social connections ('fellowshipping') for investigators and new converts.  Everything is channeled through them in spite of their limited training.  If there is an investigator who needs a different approach from the one that the young missionaries are trained to offer, that investigator is simply out of luck, under this somewhat one-size-fits-all system.  In this regard, the narrow modern LDS missionary program - in spite of certain benefits that it undeniably does have - can produce an unhealthy overall system.  The early LDS missionaries, like the ancient apostles, were much more flexible in this.
2   David O. McKay, Ancient Apostles, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1921 [1918]), 152.
3   Compare to the statements of Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1965-1973), 2:153: "Honest and upright people search the scriptures, investigate the gospel, and learn for themselves the truth of the message which God's witnesses carry to the world."
4   David O. McKay, Ancient Apostles, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1921 [1918]), 198.  For us today in our context, the time-tested scriptures that we, like the noble Bereans, can use to evaluate messages, consist of the Old Testament and New Testament scriptures.
5   The Master's Church: Course A (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Sunday School Union, 1969), 126. 
6   David O. McKay, Ancient Apostles, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1921 [1918], 205.
7   New Testament: Gospel Doctrine Teacher's Manual (Salt Lake City, UT: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1997), 134: "Note that disputing in these verses means preaching or reasoning."
8   LeGrand Richards, "To Convince the World", address delivered on 6 April 1960 at General Conference, as printed in the April 1960 Conference Report, page 104.
9   David O. McKay, Ancient Apostles, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1921 [1918], 209.
10  Ronald E. Poelman, "Companions from the Scriptures", fireside address delivered on 5 August 1979 at Brigham Young University, page 5, <>. Accessed 20 August 2013.  
11  Parley P. Pratt, A Voice of Warning and Instruction to All People, Containing a Declaration of the Faith and Doctrine of the Church of Latter Day Saints, Commonly Called Mormons (New York, NY: W. Sanford, 1837), 104.
12  'Apologetics' is a word derived from the Greek word apologia, 'defense' (cf. 1 Peter 3:15).  Apologetics is the practice of offering reasons in defense of what one believes.  Thus, traditional Christian apologetics gives reasons why it make sense to believe that (traditional) Christianity is true, and perhaps even reasons why someone should believe (traditional) Christianity over the alternatives.  The same goes (mutatis mutandis) for LDS apologetics, which I have had too little occasion to address directly in the course of bearing my testimony to you in these pages but would gladly seek to engage where needed in further discussion, particularly when it reflects traditional rather than revisionist LDS beliefs (as, unfortunately, much that passes for LDS apologetics these days tends to favor the latter, even when this obscures or outright denies what LDS prophets and apostles have actually taught).
13  Compare to the 1989 Evangelical statement in the Manila Manifesto A.2: "We also affirm that apologetics, namely 'the defence and confirmation of the gospel', is integral to the biblical understanding of mission and essential for effective witness in the modern world.  Paul 'reasoned' with people out of the Scriptures, with a view to 'persuading' them of the truth of the gospel.  So must we.  In fact, all Christians should be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in them." <>. Accessed 3 June 2012.
14  Ralph P. Martin, James, Word Biblical Commentary 48 (Waco, TX: Word, 1988), 17.
15  Peter Davids, The Epistle of James: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1982), 71-72.
16  Doctrine and Covenants and Church History: Gospel Doctrine Teacher's Manual (Salt Lake City, UT: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1999), 33.

No comments:

Post a Comment