Sunday, July 20, 2014

Living Apostles and Mainstream Christianity: A Constructive Response to an LDS Argument

An extremely common Latter-day Saint apologetic argument runs essentially as follows:
  1. Assorted biblical passages indicate that there will always be "living apostles" in the authentic church of Jesus Christ.   [Premise]
  2. Traditional/mainstream Christian organizations do not profess to include "living apostles" among their number.   [Premise]
  3. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, however, does profess to include "living apostles".   [Premise]
  4. Therefore, the self-understanding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints satisfies the biblical marks of the authentic church better than does the self-understanding of mainstream Christianity in any of its forms.  [From 1, 2, 3]
  5. If entities X and Y both claim to belong to entity-class F, and if the self-understanding of X exhibits quality Q, and if the self-understanding of Y does not exhibit quality Q, and if quality Q is a mark of authentic membership in F, then, ceteris paribus, X has a stronger claim to F-membership than does Y.   [Premise]
  6. Therefore, the likelihood of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints being identified as the authentic church of Jesus Christ is considerably increased, vis-a-vis traditional Christian organizations, by the factor of apostles.   [From 4, 5]
This argument is indeed a common one, although its structure typically remains solely implicit.  For instance, the 2004 LDS missionary manual Preach My Gospel asserts (36-37):
The Church of Jesus Christ is built on the foundation of apostles and prophets (see Ephesians 2:19-20; 4:11-14).  These leaders have divine priesthood authority.  [...]  With the death of the Apostles, the presiding priesthood authority was absent from the Church.  [...]  Therefore, a restoration, not a reformation, was required.  [...]  With this priesthood authority, Joseph Smith was directed to organize the Church of Jesus Christ again on the earth.  Through him, Jesus Christ called twelve Apostles.
In an April 2006 General Conference message, James E. Faust spoke first of "an apostasy from the Church organized by Jesus Christ and the need for a restoration of the priesthood keys that had been lost" and only then claimed that "we now have in the restored Church apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, and evangelists, as spoken of by Paul to the Ephesians.  These priesthood offices were established by the Savior when He organized His Church in the meridian of time".  Sixty years earlier, in an April 1946 General Conference message, Elder Joseph L. Wirthlin said:
With the restoration of the ordinances and principles of the gospel, the Lord again, as Paul once declared, gave some apostles, prophets, evangelists, teachers, pastors, high priests, seventies, elders, bishops, priests, teachers, and deacons (Eph. 4:11), and with the restoration of these offices in the priesthood of the Church the Church was again organized just as perfectly as it was in the days of Peter and John.
In an October 1977 General Conference message, Elder LeGrand Richards mocked mainstream Christianity for believing today in "man's interpretation" that "we no more need prophets and apostles, that all those things have been done away", to which end he quoted Ephesians 4:11-13, arguing that "if they do away with the instruments that the Lord placed there to bring us to a unity of the faith, how can we ever hope to arrive at that unity?"  Somewhat more clearly, Elder Bruce R. McConkie, in his April 1954 General Conference message delivered while still in the First Quorum of the Seventy, proposed with his usual polemical panache to contrast "the Church of Jesus Christ, as it was organized and perfected in New Testament times, and the self-styled Christian churches that exist in the world today"; and in doing so, he asked:
Where is there a church that has the same organization that existed among the primitive Saints, that has Apostles and prophets, pastors, evangelists, and all the rest (Eph. 4:11)?  Where is there a people that believes that there should be Twelve apostles holding the keys of the kingdom, presiding over and directing all the affairs of the Church and kingdom, and that such group should continue until there is a unity of the faith (Eph. 4:13)?  Where is there a church that believes God has set some in the Church, first Apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, and gifts of the spirit, healings, tongues, helps, and governments (1 Cor. 12:28)?  [...]  And I submit to you further that there is only one Church in all the world that so much as claims to have every essential identifying characteristic of the Church organized and perfected by Christ and his Apostles anciently, and that one Church is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Likewise, Joseph Fielding Smith wrote, as compiled in Doctrines of Salvation (1:239-240):
The Church of Jesus Christ, as it was established in the days of the apostles, was governed by apostles, prophets, evangelists, high priests, seventies and other officers, who are not found in the churches of the world today.  It is quite generally taught that the apostles and prophets, with the need of revelation and additional scripture, were not needed after the first century; that these officers with revelation from the heavens, were given to the Church for the purpose of establishing it, and then they were taken away and man was left to depend upon the things which had been written.  The apostles, however, taught that the Church was it was established in the first century was to continue with the same officers indefinitely, or through all time.  [...]  The Lord taught Joseph Smith and his associates that it is due to apostasy that these officers with their authority were taken away; and when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was restored, it was by divine command that apostles, high priests, seventies and elders, were again ordained and with authority sent forth to proclaim the message of salvation to the nations of the earth.
Similarly, J. Reuben Clark wrote in his book On the Way to Immortality and Eternal Life (44-45):
Now, what is the situation today in the great churches in the world professing Christ, - the Eastern Church, the Russian Church, and the Western Church and its dissident offspring?  Where are their apostles, their prophets, their seventies, who were in Christ's time the possessors under ordination by Christ of the Melchizedek Priesthood and authority in the Church established by Christ?  They do not exist.
I believe that Evangelicals have responded fairly effectively to this sort of LDS apologetic argument in the past.  However, I wish to craft a new response drawing on an LDS tradition of different kinds of apostleship.

Back in January 2014, I finally had the opportunity to read D. Michael Quinn's highly acclaimed 1994 book The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power.  In Quinn's treatment of the development of Latter-day Saint notions and practices of authority, he identifies three types of apostleship: "charismatic apostleship", "evangelical apostleship", and "institutional apostleship".  The first to develop, the "charismatic apostleship", is evidenced in cases where the word 'apostle' is used to "designate unordained charisma" (10).  Thus, Doctrine and Covenants 18:9, produced in June 1829, refers to Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer as apostles ("I speak unto you, even as unto Paul mine apostle, for you are called even with that same calling with which he was called") on the grounds of their charismatic or visionary experiences, which allowed them to function as special witnesses of the Book of Mormon.  In short, "latter-day revelations designated Smith and the Three Witnesses as apostles, without literal ordination by the laying on of hands" (11).  Quinn argues that D&C 18:27's reference to "the Twelve" is actually, in its original meaning, a reference to twelve charismatic apostles: {1} Joseph Smith, {2} Oliver Cowdery, {3} David Whitmer, {4} John Whitmer, {5} Peter Whitmer, {6} Ziba Peterson, {7} Samuel H. Smith, {8} Martin Harris, {9} Hyrum Smith, {10} Joseph Smith Sr., {11} Hiram Page, and {12} Christian Whitmer, these being the original twelve officers of the Church of Christ as of the 9 June 1830 conference (11).  This is further supported by the title of "apostle" used on the written licenses that the seven elders received, and by Sidney Rigdon's 1831 reference to John Whitmer as "an apostle of this church" (12).  Statements by Joseph Smith in 1833 indicated that "the title 'apostle' applied to those who had received a vision.  Charismatic or visionary experience is what distinguished the church's twelve officers at the June 1830 conference, and that is why early Mormons regarded these twelve as apostles" (12).

Alongside this notion of charismatic apostleship, Quinn sees the development of an "evangelical apostleship" beginning toward the end of 1830, this being a sort of apostleship that did not require ordination rites but nonetheless "included an evangelical call to missionary service" (13).  Thus, Orson Pratt could be referred to as an 'apostle' already in December 1830.  Early Latter-day Saint missionaries like Jared Carter recognized their calling as an apostolic one, and a September 1832 revelation to a group of elders and high priests was to commission them as "apostles".  Quinn observes, "These evangelical apostles, like the charismatic ones, were not ordained by the laying on of hands" (13). 

Only in 1835, as Quinn reconstructs the development, did an institutional apostleship, in the sense of an apostolic office within the church hierarchy to which one needed to be ordained via a laying-on-of-hands rite, emerge (14).  As he goes on to say (57-58):
In 1835 the Quorum of Twelve Apostles became the third echelon in the Mormon hierarchy.  Referring to missionaries as "apostles" fell into disuse after 1832, but in 1833 Joseph Smith applied the charismatic designation of "apostles" to the Kirtland School of the Prophets because of their visionary experiences.
Two years later Smith introduced a new form of apostleship into Mormonism.  On 14 Febriuary 1835 he instructed the Three Witnesses to select and ordain twelve men to form an organized quorum of apostles.  This was in response to the New Testament precedent of twelve disciples whom Jesus ordained apostles (Luke 6:13; Acts 1:21-26).

In February 1835 the ordained LDS apostleship was three-fold: charismatic, evangelical, and institutional.  This was the first time all three apostolic functions merged in Mormonism.  The instructions by presidents Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in 1835 to the newly ordained apostles emphasized all three equally.
I would like to suggest that the flexibility of these three conceptions of apostleship can ground a sufficient Evangelical response to the LDS apologetic argument outlined above.  From a New Testament perspective, something like this threefold division seems plausible.  Obviously, there was such a thing as institutional apostleship in the New Testament, embodied chiefly in (though not necessarily limited to) the Twelve.  As has already been discussed here, the Twelve are an eschatological quorum of apostles (Revelation 21:16), and so death is not grounds for the replacement of a member (contrast Acts 1:26 [Judas' apostasy leads to his replacement by Matthias] with Acts 12:1-2 [James' death does not lead to any replacement whatsoever]).  

Furthermore, "charismatic apostleship" is plausibly a New Testament category in at least this respect: charismatic experience of the risen Christ served as a prerequisite qualification to be considered for institutional apostleship (Acts 1:22; 1 Corinthians 9:1).  The last person to become a charismatic apostle was Paul (1 Corinthians 15:8), but his charismatic apostleship, coupled with his evangelical-apostolic calling to spearhead the Gentile mission, yielded a fair bit of institutional clout - though he expressed his deference to the regularly constituted institutional apostles (the Twelve).  Perhaps one could consider Paul as an institutional apostle outside of the Twelve - but, on the other hand, perhaps not.  It is plausible that other figures identified as "apostles" in the New Testament may qualify as "evangelical apostles", for certainly the etymology of apostolos tends to privilege the evangelical sense.  In the New Testament sense, perhaps "evangelical apostleship" amounts to a missionary lifestyle with an emphasis on church-planting.

How, then, does this apply to mainstream Christianity today and throughout the ages?  Certainly, it is true that, in most mainstream Christian traditions, it is deemed a given that no institutional apostles exist on earth today.  It is in this sense that premise {2} of the LDS apologetic argument above has apparent plausibility.  It is also true that mainstream Christian traditions typically reject the idea that any charismatic apostles exist on earth today, at least in the sense in which the early Christian charismatic-apostles were charismatic-apostles.  Indeed, this is part of the reason why mainstream Christians do not recognize modern institutional-apostles on earth: that, as noted above, charismatic-apostleship is a prerequisite for institutional-apostleship.  

Mainstream Christians have two more basic reasons for rejecting modern earthly institutional-apostleship.  The second is the contention that the Twelve is an eschatological quorum, as indicated above, and so - at least so far as institutional-apostleship in the sense of Twelve-membership is concerned - there are no vacancies created.  The third is the observation that, as a matter of historical fact, church history does not feature new ordinations to institutional-apostleship.  (Naturally, the LDS defender will appeal to the doctrine of the Great Apostasy to explain this; but, given that the defender of mainstream Christianity sees independent grounds for rejecting that doctrine, this appeal to a 'Great Apostasy' falls flat, and the mainstream Christian appeal to church history retains its force.)

As for evangelical apostleship, however, mainstream Christians can readily affirm living evangelical-apostles on earth today.  There are many who are specially gifted by God as missionary church-planters, and as other sorts of missionary laborers.  Throughout church history, particularly gifted missionary church-planters have been used by God to open new mission fields to the work of the gospel, and these figures have been recognized with apostolic titles as a result.  Famously, of course, Mary Magdalene has been called "the Apostle to the Apostles" for bearing the news of Christ's resurrection to them first.  Naturally, Paul is termed the "Apostle to the Gentiles".  But beyond him, St. Patrick has been called the "Apostle of Ireland".  St. Ninian has been called the "Apostle to the Picts", or the "Apostle to the Southern Picts".  Frumentius of Axum has been called the "Apostle of Ethiopia".  Sometimes St. Gregory the Illuminator is called the "Apostle to Armenia".  St. Remigius of Rheims has been called the "Apostle to the Franks".  St. Boniface has been known as the "Apostle to the Germans".  St. Ansgar is called the "Apostle of the North" for his missionary labors in Denmark and Sweden.  Saints Cyril and Methodius have become known as the "Apostles to the Slavs".  Stephen of Perm has been called the "Apostle to the Zyrians".  John Eliot was called the "Apostle to the Native Americans".  The nineteenth-century missionary David Hill, instrumental in the conversion of Confucian scholar Xi Sheng Mo, has occasionally been described as an "Apostle to the Chinese", while his more famous contemporary Hudson Taylor has also been described as an "Apostle to China" or, more precisely, an "Apostle to Inland China".  The phrase "Apostle to China" has additionally been used to describe other missionaries, such as Karl Friedrich August Gutzlaff.  All of these titles should be given their due force.  Indeed, in a much broader and less specified sense, all Christians are apostles or missionaries - which is part of the reason the Creed confesses the church not just to be 'one', 'holy', and 'catholic', but also to be 'apostolic'.

So in evaluating the LDS apologetic argument above, premise {2} requires further specification.  Consider the six following possible interpretations:
  • {2E}  Mainstream Christian organizations do not profess to include "living evangelical-apostles" among their number.
  • {2C} Mainstream Christian organizations do not profess to include "living charismatic-apostles" among their number.
  • {2I} Mainstream Christian organizations do not profess to include "living institutional-apostles" among their number.
  • {2E*}  Mainstream Christian organizations do not profess to include "living evangelical-apostles" among their number on earth.
  • {2C*}  Mainstream Christian organizations do not profess to include "living charismatic-apostles" among their number on earth.
  • {2I*}  Mainstream Christian organizations do not profess to include "living institutional-apostles" among their number on earth.
It seems clear, in each of these cases, that the truth of {2X*} is entailed by {2X}, but not necessarily vice versa.  So, is {2E} true?  The answer must be no, for {2E*} is not true; and {2E*} is not true because there are missionary church-planters living on earth today whom mainstream Christians can justifiably deem "apostles" in the sense specified.  For {2C[*]} and {2I[*]}, the case is more complicated.  It has been established that {2C*} and {2I*} are true (excepting perhaps some groups of particularly charismatic orientation, especially in Africa; but we can disregard those for the purposes of argument here).  Does it follow here that {2C} and {2I} are true?  No.  As noted above, mainstream Christians may treat the Twelve as an eschatological quorum whose members are not replaced by death.  The reason that the Twelve's members are not replaced consequent to death is that membership in the Twelve is not terminated by death.  

So, focusing in on {2I}, mainstream Christians affirm that institutional apostles do presently exist.  Are they "living apostles"?  Yes, for their God is "not the God of the dead but of the living, for to him all are alive", and so they remain "alive to God in Christ Jesus" (Romans 6:11), just as they were while on earth.  Are these "living apostles" considered by mainstream Christians to be "included" in the church?  Yes, for mainstream Christians affirm the communio sanctorum, the vivid spiritual communion between the church triumphant and the church militant (and the church penitent, for Roman Catholic thinkers) as part of one and the same mystical body.  Therefore, it may be said that, from a mainstream Christian perspective, the Twelve are living institutional-apostles who are currently - at this very moment - part of the church.  Mainstream Christian organizations do profess to include 'living institutional-apostles' - and therefore {2I} is false.  The same goes for {2C}, because the Twelve are charismatic-apostles, as is required in order to be an institutional-apostle in mainstream Christian understanding (following the teaching of the New Testament).

All that remains, then, is {2I*}.  This is probably what is frequently meant by {2} as employed in LDS apologetics anyway - or, at least, {2I} is.  But is {2I*}, without {2I} itself, sufficient to put the argument forward?  Not without further specification of {1} along similar lines.  In order to reach conclusion {6}, the quality claimed by one group but not by the other must be the same quality that is essential to authentic membership in the relevant entity-class (here, "the one true church").  If {2} is modified to {2I*}, then {1} must be modified analogously to {1I*}: "Assorted biblical passages indicate that there will always be 'living institutional-apostles' on earth in the authentic church of Jesus Christ". 

Herein lie several problems.  First, the LDS apologist must make the case that a perpetual ministry of apostolic persons (or the apostolic role, or the apostolic office) is in fact indicated by the text in its context; this is often disputed, as in the case of Ephesians 2:20.  With regard to some typical LDS prooftexts, then, this hurdle is harder to clear than is often thought - and nothing about it hinges upon my arguments throughout this post thus far.

Second, the LDS apologist must make the case that the biblical passage(s) in question must be understood as referring to institutional-apostleship rather than, say, evangelical-apostleship.  For instance, it seems quite plausible to me that Ephesians 4:11 could be understood in terms of evangelical-apostleship.  Indeed, I am aware of Evangelical authors today who make precisely that sort of application of Ephesians 4:11 in presenting the importance of fivefold ministry roles - see, for instance, JR Woodward's superb 2012 book Creating a Missional Culture: Equipping the Church for the Sake of the World, which should be required reading for every pastor (and perhaps for all Christians in general).  

Third, even if the LDS apologist is able to make the case for both of those qualifications regarding the passage in question, the LDS apologist must also successfully argue that the passage requires such apostles to be on earth, as opposed to merely being living members of the church.  Even assuming that (for instance) Ephesians 4:11 must be taken in the sense of institutional apostles, and even assuming that the standard LDS case from Ephesians 4:13 indicates the continuing nature of all the ministries listed in Ephesians 4:11, it need not follow that Ephesians 4:11 is incompatible with God giving the Twelve to the church as apostles and then allowing those very same Twelve to be a perpetual gift to the church.

In short, a modified (or clarified, if you will) version of the LDS apologetic argument in question is a highly tenuous thing.  If we make {1} and {2} into {1E} and {2E}, respectively, then {1E} enjoys reasonable plausibility, but {2E} is false.  The same is true for turning {1} and {2} into {1E*} and {2E*}, respectively.  If we make {1} and {2} into {1I} and {2I}, then the exegetical case for {1I} from the usual biblical passages is weakened, while {2I} is still false; and, what's more, to the extent that an exegetical case for {1I} can be made, it tends to support mainstream Christianity, owing to ~{2I}.  Turning {1} and {2} into {1C} and {2C}, respectively, will naturally yield essentially the same results.  If we make {1} and {2} into {1I*} and {2I*}, finally {2I*} becomes true, but the case for {1I*} becomes exceptionally weak indeed.  A mainstream Christian is, in all probability, fully justified in rejecting {1I*}, and so the argument remains unsuccessful.  The same holds, mutatis mutandis, for turning {1} and {2} into {1C*} and {2C*}, respectively.

But, as already noted above, these six alterations are the only configurations that preserve the logical validity of the argument's structure.  Therefore, since on none of these six accounts do both premises simultaneously have plausibility, the LDS apologetic argument in question must be adjudged a failure.  There is indeed an Evangelical theology of apostleship that, through the taxonomy crafted in early Mormon circles, provides a successful defense against this argument, because in all respects that seem genuinely important, Evangelicals do believe in living apostles today.  The LDS effort to gain a rhetorical edge is, in this respect, baseless.

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