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How Mormon Scholars Conduct Patristic Research To Prove The Legitimacy of Their Religion: An Analysis of Mormon Use of Patristic Literature and History
Gordon Allen Carle, Ph.D.
Extension Site, Oceanside, California
On August 15th, 1996, the eminent evangelical philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, gave a commencement address at an American University graduation ceremony where he lauded the achievements and God-honoring accomplishments of the students’ alma mater by saying, “Give thanks to the Lord for what this university…has been and is; support it in accomplishing this task of Christian scholarship; insist that it carry out the task with zeal, patience, discernment and deep Christian commitment.” Dr. Plantinga gave this address to the 2,566 graduating students of Mormon-owned Brigham Young University . In 1997 former President Jimmy Carter had harsh words for the leadership of his own Christian affiliation, the Southern Baptist denomination, for teaching that Mormonism lies outside the bounds of orthodox Christianity: “Among the worst things we can do is spend our time condemning others who profess faith in Christ.”
What the examples above serve to illustrate is a growing phenomenon within Christendom of an apparent inability of many otherwise well-read, theologically informed evangelicals, who have been duped into thinking of Mormonism as just another species of Christendom. The examples of Dr. Plantinga and former President Jimmy Carter are just the tip of the iceberg that illustrates a disturbing trend among Christians who believe Mormonism is a legitimate Christian denomination. But what it also illustrates is the apparent success of a relatively recent strategy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over the past fifteen years of deliberately appearing as “Christian” before the broader Christian church. Some examples shall serve to prove this fact.
As a part of their regular temple “open house” tours for the general public, visitors of Mormon temples view an 11-minute video, which implies that the Mormon ritual practice of baptism for the dead and eternal marriage ceremonies are an extension of the biblical
Temple. This is an attempt to present itself to the public, particularly to nominal Christians, as part of mainstream Christianity. Another example of this “mainstream tactic” is the Mormon Church’s new logo, designed in 1995 by a secular marketing firm that features the words “JESUS CHRIST” in large, uppercase type, and the remainder of the movement’s name in smaller type. Mormon General Authority Merrill C. Oaks admitted in a recent interview with a Christian journalist that “we have done some little things in terms of how people could better understand us.’
Sandra Tanner, a former Mormon who, along with her husband, Jerald, run the Utah Lighthouse Ministry in Salt Lake City, affirm without hesitation that the Mormon church is executing a well-planned strategy to present itself to the public as part of mainstream Christianity. She points out that beginning about 15 years ago the distinctively Mormon aspects of exhibits at Temple Square in Salt Lake City—visited by more than five million tourists annually—were replaced with an imposing statue of Jesus Christ and various Bible-related displays instead. According to Tanner, the exhibits of Joseph Smith were moved to a museum across the street.
Tanner went on to explain that temple guides now routinely resort to the use of “christianese” and inform visitors of their “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” She believes these guides have been instructed to do this. Says Tanner, “I never heard that kind of stuff when I was a member. It’s a deliberate marketing ploy to soften the experience for the [nominal Christian] public.”
Despite the fact that the Mormon church is in the midst of a campaign to appear as genuinely “Christian,” the fact that the Latter-day Saint church still regards itself as the one true “restored” church is in little doubt. In June of 2000 Mormon president, Gordon B. Hinckley, challenged a meeting of the group’s leaders: “Our message is so imperative, when you stop to think that the salvation, the eternal salvation of the world, rests upon the shoulders of this Church. When all is said and done, if the world is going to be saved, we have to do it.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is growing at a phenomenal rate. Sociologist Rodney Stark—a non-Mormon with strong personal ties to the LDS—predicts that, on the basis of present growth patterns, there will be more than 265 million Mormons by the end of this new century, making it the most important new religion in world history since Islam.
What is particularly disturbing to many evangelical observers of Mormonism is a pattern of apparent disingenuousness by media-savy President Hinckley, for example, when he has been questioned about the Church’s distinctive theological beliefs in high-profile media interviews. For example, when Hinckley was asked on a prime-time Australian TV broadcast if his church taught that God the Father has a wife, he replied, “I don’t know, but I suppose so. As we have a Father I assume we have a mother.” When pressed by interviewer David Ransom, Hinckley admitted: “Yes. Well we…Yes, we have a mother in heaven.” Similarily, when Time magazine in a 1997 cover story asked Hinckley if his church teaches that “God the Father was once a man,” the Mormon president attempted to side-step the issue: “I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it…I understand the philosophical background behind it, but I don’t know a lot about it, and I don’t think others know a lot about it.”
The above preamble is but the background to a much more interesting development within the LDS church that shall occupy the primary focus of this essay. I have clearly shown that the Mormon church is on the move to aggressively proselytize the Christian church at large through various clever marketing strategies that will bring the LDS church down to the level of the typical Christian. Alongside this overall Mormon strategy to proselytize orthodox Christians is a much more focused and adroit attempt by a dedicated group of Mormon scholars within the LDS church determined to win the intellectual battle for Christian parity and eventual acceptance as colleagues in the scholarly pursuit of Christian truth. This group is known popularly by its acronym, F.A.R.M.S., which stands for “Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies.”
The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies is a nonprofit foundation that supports research on the Book of Mormon and other ancient scriptures. Its main research interests include ancient history, language, literature, geography, politics, and law relevant to scriptures. FARMS funds significant research projects and publishes these results in books and papers, sponsoring symposia, and encouraging personal gospel scholarship of individual Mormons. In one of their brochures they indicate that it is their express wish “that this information will help all interested people to ‘come unto Christ.’”
For some years now the Mormon Church has been funding the advanced education of some of their brightest members in doctoral studies that will give these young scholars the intellectual prestige and parity they will need in their pursuit of FARMS’ intellectual and theological goals. With their vast economic resources, the Mormon Church has produced scholars with credentials that are truly impressive. Following is a sampling of the first-fruits of this aggressive and profitable Mormon enterprise.
Daniel C. Peterson teaches Islamic Studies and Arabic at BYU. Following his studies in Provo , Jerusalem , and Cairo , he earned a doctorate in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at UCLA. He is chairman of the board of trustees for FARMS at BYU. Stephen D. Ricks is professor of Hebrew and Semitic languages at BYU. He earned his doctorate in Near Eastern Religions at UC Berkeley and Graduate Theological Union, and he has also studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem . He is currently a member of the FARMS board of trustees. The two Mormons cited are a part of the amply-financed Mormon public relations campaign to “Christianize” the image of the Mormon church.
Hugh Nibley is one of the most gifted Mormon scholars in the LDS Church today. He graduated summa cum laude from the University of California at Los Angeles and completed his Ph.D. as a University Fellow at the University of California at Berkeley . He taught at Claremont College in California before serving in military intelligence during WWII. Since 1946 he has been largely associated with BYU. He is particularly active in the FARMS movement as one of its most prolific writers and advocates. For the purpose of this essay, I shall focus my attention upon his and two aforementioned FARMS scholars’ writings regarding patristic literature and early church history.
From the outset of his career, Nibley has been primarily concerned with primitive Christianity, especially the era between the New Testament era proper and the emergence and triumph of the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire , which, of course, Nibley does not regard as a victory.
I shall focus on two works produced under FARMS auspices, Mormonism And Early Christianity (wherein Nibley focuses on “what may have been lost in the transition from the New Testament Church to the Christianity of Constantine’s era and beyond.”) and Offenders for a Word, co-authored by Peterson and Ricks, a work presenting their interpretation of early church history. The purpose of this essay will be to focus on how these particular Mormon scholars employ Patristic literature to advance their beliefs that the face of the early church was primarily Mormon; and then to determine if they are successful in their arguments.
Nibley has frequently emphasized in his writings the importance of “secrecy” in early Christianity, attempting to demonstrate that there were levels of esoteric and exoteric doctrines and rituals in the infrastructure of the New Testament Church. Another issue that is a central concern of his essays on the early church has been the immediate emergence of orthodoxy and heresy in the Christianity that immediately followed upon the heals of Apostolic Christianity. For him, the long held idea of a centralized Christianity has given way to a picture of an early Christianity diverse and fragmented where it is hard to define what is orthodox and what is heretical, what is Gnostic and what is mainstream. He advocates the notion, for instance, that Augustine’s influential doctrine of original sin stemmed from his Gnostic background [sic] and was, in reality, heretical, while Pelagius’ opposition to the idea was orthodox.
In another example, the authors of Offenders for a Word, Peterson & Ricks, in arguing for the legitimacy of their peculiar temple secret rituals, maintain:
For such secret doctrines and practices lay at the very heart of the doctrine
that the early Christians had received, and that they were trying against
great odds to preserve. We have seen already that Ignatius of Antioch held
secret doctrines early in the second century. He himself explained one of the
reasons for this, “For,” he wrote to the Trallian saints, “might not I write unto
you of things more full of mystery? But I fear to do so, lest I should inflict
injury on you who are but babes [in Christ]. Pardon me in this respect, lest
as not being able to receive their weight import, ye should be stranged by
them.” At the end of the second century, Clement of Alexandria advised
keeping certain teachings from “the multitude” because, while “those of
noble nature” find them “admirable” and “inspiring,” the masses, unable
to understand such doctrine, would regard them as “ludicrous.” Early in the
third century, the Latin church father Tertullian could write that the apostles
“did not reveal all to all men, for…they proclaimed some openly and to all
the world, whilst they disclosed others [only] in secret and to a few.” 
That is but a small sample of their distinctive Mormon rhetoric. One logical fallacy that these Mormon apologists commit consistently, it will be observed, is begging the question. The writings cited above from Nibley, et al, illustrate a flagrant tendency of these authors to assume the truth of the Mormon religion beforehand and then reinterpret the church fathers’ writings and early church history in light of their Mormon presuppositions. They are assuming what they are trying to prove. This line of reasoning is invalid and proves nothing.
I shall endeavor to focus on what I have found to be some of the most problematic instances of misrepresentations of patristic literature and historical theology from the above cited literature. Skillfully executed arguments that appear valid only leave the naïve and uninitiated Christian and trusting Mormon with the false impression that Mormon scholars like Nibley, Peterson and Ricks and others, are indeed legitimate “Christians” who merely possess another Christian viewpoint from ours, however peculiar or problematic. But the employment of skillfully crafted arguments that rely on subterfuge, twisting historical facts, or circular reasoning only results in sophistry—not genuine knowledge.
One of the Mormon temple ordinances that Joseph Smith claimed to have restored to Christianity is the doctrine of baptism for the dead. This is the practice of baptizing living persons by proxy for dead persons who accept the gospel in the Spirit world. It is an ordinance of salvation along with other temple ordinances (celestial marriages, endowments) that true Mormons must practice if they hope to attain to the status of godhood (temple ordinances are the means by which the process of exaltation/salvation is achieved by Mormons). Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon apologist, regarding this practice of baptizing for the dead, explains:
Baptism for the dead, an ordinance opening the door to the celestial
Kingdom to worthy persons not privileged to undergo gospel schooling
while in mortality, is…an ordinance of salvation. All other temple
ordinances—washings, anointings, endowments, sealings—pertain to
exaltation [godhood] within the celestial kingdom.”
Hugh Nibley wants to prove that the main focus of early Christian concern was not on the cross, but on the work of the Lord as Teacher, “marking the way of eternal progress [exaltation to godhood] for the living and the dead according to a pattern first followed by Adam, to whom the texts attribute an importance out of all proportion to the teachings of the later church.” He argues, then, that the issue of salvation for the dead was believed by the early church to have been Christ’s main theme after His resurrection. Argues Nibley,
The purpose of the present paper is to pass in review those passages from
early Christian sources which can shed some light on beliefs and practices
connected with baptism for the dead in ancient times. We shall see how the
early Saints answered the question “What is to become of the righteous dead
who have never been baptized?”
Nibley cites Clement of Alexandria:
It is not right to condemn some without trial, and only give credit for
righteousness to others who lived after the coming of the Lord. Certainly
one righteous man is not different from another as far as righteousness
goes. . . For God is not the God of the Jew alone but of all men. . . Those
who live righteously before the law are to be counted as faithful and
reckoned among the just. . . God is good and Christ is mighty to save,
according to principles of justice and equality, those who turn to him,
whether here or in the next world.
Quoting from the pseudepigraphical work, Recognitiones Clementinae (Clementine Recognitions), Nibley demonstrates the apostle Peter’s contempt for Simon Magus’ doctrine of limited salvation:
He saves adulterers and murderers if they know him; but good and sober
and merciful people who don’t happen to know him, simply because they
have received no information concerning him, he does not save! A great
and good god, forsooth, who you proclaim, not only saving the wicked
but showing no mercy to the good!
He quotes Irenaeus in the second century:
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 (propter omnes
omnino homines) who from the beginning by righteousness pleased God
and feared him in their generations, and dealt justly and religiously with
their neighbors, and yearned to see Christ and hear his voice.
From these citations, Nibley argues that “This doctrine of universal salvation of the righteous is matched by the contemporary teaching of the Jews that ‘all who die hoping for the Messiah will be resurrected to eternal life.’”
After presenting the above citations (including one from Ignatius who taught that the prophets of old would inherit eternal life for their hope in Christ’s sacrifice in the future) Nibley posits that it was primarily for another class of dead whose salvation concerned the early Christian convert most acutely. What about those of his personal friends and family who had never heard the gospel? He again quotes from the apocryphal work, Recognitiones Clementinae, wherein Clement asks Peter, “shall those be wholly deprived of the kingdom of heaven who died before Christ’s coming?” To which Peter allegedly responds by assuring Clement that the people in question are not damned and never will be, and then goes on to explain that provision has been made for their salvation, “but this is as far as we are allowed to declare these things. . . you compel me, O Clement, to touch upon those things upon we are forbidden to discuss.”
One may well ask why Peter was forbidden to divulge this issue of salvation for the dead to Clement, who obviously needed this information if he was to continue this New Testament practice. Nibley answers by noting that on several occasions the apostles were forbidden to “talk about certain things.” He concludes that work for the dead was one of these “certain things” that Jesus forbade his disciples to discuss. He relates the incident of Jesus asking his disciples who men thought he was and Peter’s famous confession that he was the Christ. What catches Nibley’s interest is Jesus’ admonition to his disciples to keep this thing a “secret.” This secret, according to Nibley, is not Christ’s identity:
Now whereas Matthew has the discussion end with Christ’s admonition
to secrecy, Luke and Mark tell only what he said after that warning, that is,
after the great things had been revealed, and in both these accounts the
words of the Savior are almost exclusively confined to the strangely
negative announcement that the work is to be utterly rejected by the world,
and that only suffering and death can be expected by the apostles
themselves, who are charged, moreover, not to be ashamed of Jesus and
his doctrine. Why ashamed? It was certainly no conventional teaching
that the Lord was imparting, and he certainly predicted no rosy future
for it in that dispensation.
Nibley then concludes that the reason Mark and Luke do not include Jesus’ words in the parallel Matthean passage regarding the promise of the “keys of the kingdom” is to keep “the mystery of the kingdom” hidden from the uninitiated: “If we are to believe Eusebius or the Apostolic Fathers, the New Testament scriptures are little more than a sketchy outline which without a special interpreter are as a code-message without a key.”
What Nibley posits that we have in Matthew 16:17-19 is not a public proclamation, then, which later ages have made it out to be, but merely a thumb-nail sketch, if you will, of a new and special doctrine. “And that we have here the teaching of a very special doctrine indeed is sufficiently indicated by the significant association of ‘the keys,’ the sealing, and ‘the gates of hell.’”
Next, Nibley describes the “gates of hell” that held the righteous souls of the dead awaiting resurrection. It is the work of Christ to release all men from this prison: “Their release is to be accomplished through the work of the church, to which the Lord promises that at some future time he will give the apostles the keys.” Referring to the Odes of Solomon, of which Nibley declares to be one of the earliest Christian poems about Christ going to the underworld to preach to the dead, he writes:
And the dead say to him, . . . “Open the gate to us!” whereupon the
Lord, “heeding their faith,” gives them the seal of baptism. Baptism for
the dead, then, was the key to the gates of hell which no church claimed
to possess until the nineteenth century [when Joseph Smith reinstated it],
the gates remaining inexorably closed against those very dead of whose
salvation the early Christians had so morally certain.
In passing, he notes that the poem in its conclusion “definitely associated the release of the dead” with the “rock:”
Thus thy Rock became the foundation of all; upon it didst thou build
thy kingdom, that it might become a dwelling place for the saints.
He goes on to note that, according to Ignatius, this idea of the rock is even more obviously expressed in what is perhaps the earliest extant mention of the rock after New Testament times. He connects Ignatius’ rock to:
The high priest…to whom alone the secrets of God have been confided…This
is the Way which leads to the Father, the Rock…the Key…the Gate of Knowledge,
through which have entered Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, Moses and all the
host of Prophets.
From all this Nibley concludes that “it is clear that Matthew 16:17-19, with its combination of gates, keys, and rock, definitely hinges on the subject of salvation for the dead, and the work by which they are admitted to the presence of the Father.” He adds that those who “fondly” suppose that “the gates of hell shall not prevail” is a guarantee of the security of the church on “this earth” are inventing a doctrine diametrically opposed to the belief of the early church. “The gates of hell, then, does not refer to the devil at all; though his snares and wiles might lead men sooner or later to their death, delivering them ‘to the destruction of the flesh’ his power ends there. The gates of hell are the gates of hell—the ‘holding back’ of those who are in the spirit world from attaining the object of their desire.”
The gates of hell, then, is not the kingdom of darkness, but a “holding back” of those in the spirit world from obtaining the object of their desire.
Nibley asserts that it was not until after Christ’s resurrection, after his mission to the dead in the underworld, that his greatest commandments were given. He refers to the disciples on the road to Emmaus who received the Lord’s fuller teaching.
A full understanding first came to the disciples after the resurrection,
when the risen Lord in a great sermon, ‘beginning at Moses and all the
prophets, . . . expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things
concerning himself.’ Of this wonderful discourse which at last opened
the eyes of the apostles, we are only given the opening words: ‘O fools
and slow of heart!’ It was what the Lord said and did after the resurrection
that established his doctrine, yet we are told only what he said and did
before. If the New Testament, written some time after the resurrection,
is silent on those things, we can only assume that they are being
deliberately withheld. A goodly part of the Sermon on the Mount has
been transmitted to the world, showing that, had the apostles so
intended, the infinitely more important sermons after the resurrection
might also have reached us.
Having established that the last discourse mentioned in Nibley’s above argument referred to Christ’s more important sermons, particularly those regarding the dead, he concludes, “What lends weight to these considerations is the fact that it was the common belief in the early church that the subject of that last great discourse [Luke 24:25-27] was nothing less than salvation for the dead: indeed, that was only to be expected, the Lord having just returned from his own mission to the spirit world.”
And what was Christ’s mission to the spirits in prison? Citing Clement of Alexandria, Nibley declares that “Christ went down to Hades for no other purpose than to preach the gospel.” He claims that the early church was not obliged to guess how Christ intended for the salvation for the dead in prison, for he had already provided it in 1 Corinthians 15:29. He believes that this was the early ordinance of the Primitive Church , i.e., proxy baptism by the living on behalf of the dead. He charges Tertullian with infidelity for having doubts about its legitimacy and cites him as an example of how far he and others contemporaneous with him had strayed from the truth: “But later Tertullian has doubts (how far they already seem to be from the Primitive Church!):
I don’t believe that the Apostle was giving his approval to the practice,
but rather signifying that those who practiced it thereby indicated their
belief in a physical resurrection, being foolishly [vane] baptized for the
dead. . . For elsewhere he speaks of only one baptism. Therefore to
baptize “for the dead” means to baptize for bodies; for the body, as we
have demonstrated, is really dead.
Commenting on this fault in Tertullian, for no longer believing in baptism for the dead, he complains:
All subsequent interpreters display the same perplexity and follow
the same violent and arbitrary method of explaining how St. Paul said
one thing while meaning something totally different. Because there is
only one baptism, we are to be told forever henceforward, that there can
be no baptism for the dead. But that is the very reason why there must
be baptism for the dead, which is not another baptism or another kind of
baptism but in every detail the identical ordinance which is administered
to the living and to them only, and therefore can profit the dead (who must
have it if they are to be saved) only when done for them by proxy. Later
writers, such as St. Ambrose, are not disturbed by the types and varieties
of baptism practiced in their day because, they explain, there is after all
really only one baptism, which is the baptism of Christ. By the same token
the argument of one baptism would be worthless as a refutation of
baptism for the dead, which is also the baptism of Christ.
Hence, baptism for the dead, which, according to Nibley, is just another kind of baptism, is really the same baptism in Christ: the one baptism for the remission of sins.
The Early Church and Mormon “Christians”
The Mormon writers of Offenders for a Word, Peterson and Ricks, introduced earlier, take umbrage at being denied the title of “Christian” by non-Mormon writers. They argue that Mormons have every right to refer to themselves as “Christians,” and use early church history to prove their case. Speaking of the writings and teachings of the early church fathers, they begin their case by noting that “It is not, of course, that we think these early documents scriptural, or believe that they should be included in the canon. Still, they are extremely early…and provide an extremely useful window for observing just how the earliest Christians viewed themselves and how they used words.” This is an injunction that all evangelical Christians would confidently hold, as well.
Peterson and Ricks begin their case by referring to Ignatius of Antioch, who they claim is the earliest writer who commonly used the word “Christian.” They cite his Epistle to the Romans, where he writes of his impending martyrdom, “Only pray for me for strength, both inward and outward, that I may not merely speak, but also have the will, that I may not only be called a Christian, but may also be found to be one.” Peterson and Ricks maintain that for Ignatius, “behavioral criteria” had a lot to do with being called a Christian. “He really wanted to be one,” and, “A Christian. . . gives his time to God.” The authors cite him when he wrote to Polycarp: “This is the work of God.” On page 34 of their book, under footnote #104, we read the authors’ comment: “Aristides, a Greek Christian apologist of the early second century A.D., emphasized the Christians’ mutual love and ‘superior customs.’ Because of this manner of presenting Christianity, Aristides says little about the beliefs of the Church. . . A virtually identical charge is made against the Mormons. The great German theologians and historians of doctrine, Albrecht Ritschl and his student Adolf von Harnack, held that ethics and morals were the essence of Christianity—not dogma.”
As the authors understand Ignatius, he was faithful to that part of Christianity that meant the most: “to an important part of the heritage of his church in Antioch , reiterating the ethical emphasis of the gospel of Matthew—which, many scholars think, was very likely written there only a few decades earlier.”
Next, they cite Ignatius’ Epistle to the Ephesians to emphasize another aspect of the way he used the term “Christian,” in an ecclesiastical meaning: “when he writes of ‘the Christians of Ephesus, who…were ever of one mind with the Apostles.’ This is consistent with his Epistle to the Magnesians, where he declares that ‘we should be really Christians, not merely have the name.’” And how does Ignatius say we should do this? “The burden of this epistle is that we must be subject to the authority of the bishop, who presides ‘in the place of God.’”
Peterson and Ricks readily admit that Ignatius’ definition of a Christian would not merely be one of morality and obedience to priestly authority. He does offer some theological guidelines to follow:
Ignatius is the first writer known to have used the term “Christianity,”
which he explicitly contrasts with “Judaism.” Much like Paul before
Agrippa—and much like Joseph Smith, quoted above—he bears witness
of Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection. Against the Docetists, who
teach of Jesus that “his suffering was only a semblance,” Ignatius
affirms that the savior “was truly born, both ate and drank. . . [and]
was truly crucified.” “I beseech you therefore,” he writes to the
Trallians, “live only on Christian fare, and refrain from strange food,
which is heresy.”
The authors note how Ignatius applies his ethical standard to the heretics: “Mark those who have strange opinions concerning the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary they are to the mind of God. For love they have no care, none for the widow, none for the orphan, none for the distressed, none for the afflicted, none for the prisoner, or for him released from prison, none for the hungry or thirsty.” Peterson and Ricks add that the heretics to which Ignatius alluded had forgotten what James 1:27 prescribes as “pure religion and undefiled.” The authors claim, however, it was not just James who insisted on ethical standards to identify those who were the genuine followers of Christ, but Jesus Himself as recorded in the Gospels, particularly John 13:35: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” Thus, they conclude, Ignatius is merely following after James and ultimately, their master, in their emphasis upon behavior as key in identifying a disciple of Christ.
The authors list what they understand to be three traits of a typical follower of Jesus as a “disciple” as understood by the early church. They quote K. H. Rengstorf who identifies these as primarily behavioral: (1) commitment to the person of Jesus; (2) obedience to Jesus; and (3) obligation to suffer with Jesus. They note, quite rightly, that to be a follower of Jesus obliges a disciple to take His word into them and act upon it constantly, glorifying the Father in bearing much fruit. The authors conclude that “the most obvious definition for ‘Christian’ would be: ‘One called to follow Jesus’ no matter what danger or ostracism is involved. Discipleship, thus, demanded behavior, actions—works.”
Based on their study of early Christian writings so far, the authors note:
It appears that there are few if any guidelines to be found in the New
Testament or in earliest Christianity for ruling on who is, and who is not,
Christian. And apart from a condemnation of Docetism, there are no
doctrinal criteria given whatsoever. There is, furthermore, sufficient
ambiguity in the records left behind by the earliest Christians that the
question of just which doctrine or practice is authentically “primitive”
has historically remained very much open. In late antiquity, each
Christian sect claimed apostolicity.
Peterson and Ricks believe that there was no true golden age of “unambiguous and unanimously held Christian truth.” They note that the terms “orthodoxy” and “heresy” seem increasingly—to modern objective scholarship—to be mere “self-congratulatory epithets worked up by the victors in the dogmatic skirmishes of Christian history. In earliest Christianity, the two are often impossible to distinguish, at least without the benefit of hindsight.” They continue:
In many areas, the “heretics” were the established church, while the
“orthodox” were the damnable minority. And this is not merely the
case in later, “apostate” centuries. The New Testament itself contains
conflicting perspectives and positions that, many scholars would
contend, resist even the most determined harmonizer.
Having laid this groundwork, the authors attack those Protestant critics who like “to contrast Mormonism with ‘biblical’ Christianity,” which they refer to as “a uniform Pauline abstraction that never fit the reality of the Christian church, even in its first centuries.” They quote Norbert Brox who argues that the ancient church produced a “vast number of theological attempts to interpret Christianity.”
Peterson and Ricks conclude this section of their work by indicating that the case for Protestants—particularly the “fundamentalist” variety—“expelling Mormons from Christendom” is without substance, since it is mistakenly thought to rest on standards derived from the New Testament or from post-apostolic Christianity. They contend further that the earliest Christians preferred to describe their fellowship and communion in terms of ethical standards of behavior—the same kind of behavior that all Latter-day Saints emphasize in their teachings of the necessity of good works and “living together in love (D&C 42:45).” Hence, the critics of Mormonism do not have a leg to stand on when they insist that Mormons are not Christians, since neither the New Testament nor early church history substantiate a uniform doctrinal position from which to judge other “sects.” Mormons are “Christians” because they, like the early Christians before them, practice the same high ethical standards and emphasize courageous devotion to the risen Christ.
A Critique of the Mormon Case
Baptism for the Dead
Hugh Nibley argues for the legitimacy of the early church receiving the ordnance of baptizing for the salvation of the dead by attempting to argue on the basis of the testimony of the early church fathers’ alleged “secret” discourses by Jesus and from non-canonical writings that were always regarded by the church as spurious.
While it is true that the “most conspicuous pre-Christian candidates for salvation” were the Old Testament prophets, to argue then that the church fathers also figured into account all who died before and after Christ could be saved by proxy baptism for the dead is diametrically opposed to the church fathers’ writings. Nibley argues that the ordinance of baptism for the dead was one of the “secret” doctrines that was eventually lost soon after the Apostolic age, having originally been taught by Jesus after His resurrection. In Matthew 16:13-20 we have the incident of Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Whereupon, Jesus commends Peter and informs him that this information came to him directly from the Father. Then Jesus declares that upon this “rock,” i.e., Peter’s confession of Christ’s true identity as Son of the living God, He will build His Church and pass the keys of the kingdom of Heaven to His apostles. Without any scriptural warrant, however, Nibley argues that Jesus’ reference to the keys of the Kingdom, the rock and the gates of hell refer to “the subject of salvation for the dead, and the work by which they are admitted to the presence of the Father.” Further, he reinterprets the “gates of hell” to mean “the holding back of those who are in the spirit world from attaining the object of their desire.”
Arguing from silence, without one shred of evidence, Nibley declares that Jesus’ discourse with the disciples on the road to Emmaus included His teaching of the doctrine of baptism for the dead. “What lends weight to these considerations is the fact that it was the common belief in the early church that the subject of that last great discourse [Luke 24:25-27] was nothing less than salvation for the dead: indeed, that was only to be expected, the Lord having just returned from his own mission to the spirit world.”
First and foremost, it was not a commonly held belief in the early church that the “last discourse” of Jesus (in Luke 24:25-27) had to do with the subject of salvation for the dead. Nibley puts words in the mouths of the Fathers, as well as in the mouth of the Lord, whenever it suits him. Nowhere in the biblical commentaries of the church fathers is there any reference to this passage having the intended meaning of Jesus teaching one of His “secret” post-resurrection doctrines. What Luke 24:25-27 does teach, rather, is that Jesus explained plainly to those particular disciples God’s plan of salvation through the Son, beginning with Moses, then culminating through all the Prophets: “He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself,” notes Craig S. Keener in his background commentary on this particular passage. “Jesus adduced principles applying to his messiahship from throughout the Old Testament. Rabbinic literature regularly praised interpreters with the deep insight into Scripture that Jesus demonstrates here.” We noted above that Nibley believes that the ordinance of baptism for the dead was one of the “certain things” that Jesus charged the apostles with keeping secret. He argues that the apostles were charged to keep this ordinance of baptism for the dead a secret. Nibley continues, “Having passed the test [Peter’s confession], the disciples were ready for more knowledge, but the momentous teaching to which they were introduced is merely hinted at in three short verses of Matthew, and passed over in complete silence by Mark and Luke.” As we have seen, he interprets the Matthean account of the rock, the keys of the kingdom and the gates of hell as referring to the new doctrine of baptism for the dead, which he maintains Jesus strictly charged the apostles to keep secret by referring to Luke 9:21, “And he strictly warned and commanded them to tell this to no one, saying, ‘The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders, and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day.’” According to Nibley, this passage refers to Jesus warning His apostles to keep silent about the just revealed ordinance of baptism for the dead. Nothing could be further from the truth. The parallel passage in Matthew tells us exactly what Jesus wanted kept secret in verse 20: “Then he commanded His disciples that they should tell no one that He was Jesus the Christ.” Jesus’ command to His apostles, then, was not to keep silent about the ordinance of Baptism for the Dead, but to keep His true identity as the Messiah hidden from the populace.
The above example illustrates the extent to which Nibley will go to force an alien concept (baptism for the dead) onto the Scriptures when nothing even remotely akin to it is derived from the above-referenced passages. By assuming that the peculiar Mormon doctrine of baptism for the dead is true, he reads this into the biblical text and into the thinking of the church fathers and thereby “proves” his point that this ordinance was originally taught by the early church. This is circular reasoning of the first order. He ignores context and brazenly commits the error of eisegesis, i.e., reading an alien meaning into a text.
Nibley and other Mormon apologists believe that 1 Corinthians 15:29 unequivocally teaches the doctrine of Baptism for the Dead. This particular passage reads, within its context:
Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead
do not rise at all? Why then are they baptized for the dead? And why do
we stand in jeopardy every hour? I affirm, by the boasting in you which
I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily. If, in the manner of men,
I have fought with beasts at Ephesus , what advantage is it to me? If
the dead do not rise, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!”
Paul here is arguing for the reality of the resurrection of the dead. He is using an example of some, “they,” who baptize themselves on behalf of the dead. We do not know whether Paul was describing Corinthians within this particular congregation, or others. The fact is, he neither approved or disapproved of it. He was merely using it to make a singular point about the Resurrection: that if it was not real, why then do these folks here baptize for the dead? Everett Ferguson describes this passage as an example of an ancient diatribe:
The diatribe was a popular treatment of ethical subjects aimed at
moving people to action. . . The diatribe set up a brief but lively
dialogue. An imaginary interlocutor raised objections to a teaching
or drew false conclusions that the speaker rejected with a strong
negative (“By no means!”) or corrected with censure or persuasion.
Involved in the style were direct address, rhetorical questions and
answers, short parallel or antithetical statements, interjections,
appeal to examples, and quotations from poetry or other authorities.
We have already heard from Tertullian regarding his understanding of this particular Pauline passage, who, quoted by Nibley, is summarily charged with backsliding on the issue of baptism for the dead. This charge is attributed to Tertullian without any support at all, since Tertullian nowhere indicates that he supports baptism for the dead. He does unequivocally, however, deny it any legitimacy: “I don’t believe that the Apostle was giving his approval to the practice, but rather signifying that those who practiced it thereby indicating their belief in a physical resurrection, being foolishly baptized for the dead.”
Other church fathers commented on this particular Pauline passage. Ambrosiaster, for example, wrote: “It seems that some people were at that time being baptized for the dead because they were afraid that someone who was not baptized would either not rise at all or else rise merely in order to be condemned.” Didymus The Blind wrote of the Marcionite practice: “The Marcionites baptize the living on behalf of dead unbelievers, not knowing that baptism saves only the person who receives it.” Lastly, we quote Chrysostom who comments on this passage: “Sin has brought death into the world, and we are baptized in the hope that our dead bodies will be raised again in the resurrection. If there is no resurrection, our baptism is meaningless and our bodies will remain as dead as they are now.”
None of the Fathers quoted above even remotely support baptism for the dead, particularly not as a kind of “secret” ordinance given by Jesus to His apostles. In Nibley’s book he does not cites these particular passages from Ambrosiaster, Didymus The Blind or Chrysostom.
The Early Church and Mormon “Christians”
In essence, Peterson and Ricks contend that the early church did not base their Christian identity with dogma, but primarily with their ethical and behavioral standards, as well as their devotion to following Christ even if it meant to the death. The authors quote liberal theologians, such as Ritschl and Harnack, in support of their contention that church fathers like Ignatius, for example, did not value dogma but ethics as the primary identity of the church community. Although it is quite true that the Apostolic period was characterized by strict admonitions to holiness and behavior (ref. The Didache, for example), it was not because they did not believe that dogma and Christian doctrine were unimportant, but because the Church was under severe persecution. One’s behavior from day to day was a vital aspect of their Christian witness. Without warning, a Christian might be called to be a martyr for the Faith.
Peterson and Ricks quote Ignatius in his Epistle to the Romans and his Epistle to the Ephesians to establish that Ignatius was concerned with behavior and devotion to Christ as the primary identifier of what constituted a true “Christian.” They quote Ignatius in his Epistle to the Magnesians to demonstrate another trait of a true Christian, i.e., one who readily submitted to the authority of the bishop.
The authors miss the point as to why Ignatius stressed the importance of a Christian falling under the presiding authority of a bishop. The eminent church historian, J.N.D. Kelly, points out that Ignatius’ stress on Christian loyalty to the episcopate is explained in the fact that he understood the bishop to be the appointed guarantor of pure Christian doctrine:
Thirdly, hints begin to appear of the theory that the Church’s ministers,
in virtue of their endowment with the Spirit, were the divinely authorized
custodians of the apostolic teaching. Clement, for example, though not
explicit on the point, seems to imply that the hierarchy which succeeded
the apostles inherited the gospel message which they had been commissioned
to preach. The immense stress which Ignatius placed on loyalty to the
episcopate finds its explanation in the fact that he regarded the bishop as
the appointed guarantor of purity of doctrine. In 2 Clement strict obedience
to the presbyters is inculcated on the ground that their task is to preach the
faith, and that their instructions are identical with those of Christ Himself.
Purity of doctrine, then, was of primary importance to such Fathers as Ignatius, Clement, Tertulian and Irenaeus, for example. What would be the point of living ethically and with pure devotion to Christ if their understanding of the Way, or of who Christ was in relation to His Father, were false or polluted with heresey?
Because of its confrontation with Gnostic sects, the early church was engaged in a desperate war to preserve the Traditions handed down by the Apostles of the Church. J.N.D. Kelly notes, “Not only did the Gnostics exploit Scripture to their own ends, but one of their techniques was to appeal, in support of their speculations, to an alleged secret apostolic tradition to which they claimed to have access.” The testimony of the apostolic witness to the teachings of Christ as living tradition, alongside the Scriptural witness, became the supreme authorities in the more sophisticated writings of Tertullian and Irenaeus. Kelly elaborates:
For both of them [Irenaeus and Tertullian] Christ Himself was the ultimate
source of Christian doctrine, being the truth, the Word by Whom the Father
had been revealed; but He had entrusted this revelation to His apostles, and
it was through them alone that knowledge of it could be obtained. . . Elsewhere,
he [Tertullian] insisted that Christians must not pick and choose doctrines
according to their whims; their sole authorities were the apostles, who had
themselves faithfully transmitted Christ’s teaching. Both on occasion
described this original message as tradition, using the word to denote the
teaching delivered by the apostles, without any implied contrast between
tradition and Scripture.
In light of the early church’s emphasis on the importance of doctrine, then, Peterson and Rick’s citing of Ignatius regarding the unethical behavior of “heretics,” which was, according to the authors, the criteria that Ignatius judged them as heretics, is unfounded.
We noted above that Peterson and Ricks summed up the most useful definition of Christian, then, as “’One called to follow Jesus’ no matter what danger or ostracism is involved. Discipleship, thus, demanded behavior, actions—works.” While it is true that faith without works is dead (James), it is an oversimplification to say that the content of faith was not important—or that it was not of primary concern to the early Apologists, such as Ignatius, Clement, Tertullian and Irenaeus. To maintain, as the authors do, that “It appears that there are few if any guidelines to be found in the New Testament or in earliest Christianity for ruling on who is, and who is not, Christian,” flies in the face of even a cursory look at the facts of church history. In this section of their book, Offenders for a Word, they do not even refer to the titanic struggle of the early church with its second century nemesis, Gnosticism. They only conclude that the terms “orthodoxy” and “heresy” were “mere self-congratulatory epithets worked up by the victors in the dogmatic skirmishes of Christian history. In earliest Christianity, the two are often impossible to distinguish, at least without the benefit of hindsight.”
For Peterson and Ricks, then, the determining factor which would entail a good and acceptable definition of Christian is not doctrine, but, rather, ethical integrity and following Christ—however He may be identified. Hence, Protestant Christians should not insist that Mormons not designate themselves as “Christians” any longer, since Mormons fall within the same category of any other believer in the risen Lord.
This, however, begs the question, which Jesus to follow? To which Jesus was the early church faithful? The Jesus of the Docetists, the Gnostics, or the Ebionites, perhaps? The early church had consistently maintained, even to martyrdom, that the Jesus of the Apostles, those to whom Christ entrusted the Gospel during His earthly ministry and after His resurrection, were the legitimate heirs of His teachings, and therefore the only source of divine truth. The Mormon “Jesus” is so radically different from the Jesus of classical orthodoxy that one might as well be speaking of two entirely different individuals. If the Jesus of the Mormons was to be described to such early church fathers as Ignatius, Terullian or Irenaeus, no doubt they may have supposed they were hearing of a new and bizarre strain of Gnosticism.
The purpose of this paper was to examine a sampling of Mormon scholars’ attempts to use patristic literature and theology to defend the Mormon concept of Baptism for the Dead and their claim of being a legitimate Christian religion. I focused on the FARMS team of Mormon scholars since they are usually regarded by both evangelical cult-watchers and Mormons as the cutting edge Mormon scholarship.
Judging from the writings so far studied by Nibley, Peterson and Ricks, one would have to conclude that the Mormon Church has yet to yield a return for its investment. They distort history, commit numerous logical fallacies, and in some instances impugn the character of certain Christian evangelical writers by paralleling their criticisms of Mormonism with Nazi Gestapo tactics and “Hitler” sympathizers. Such vitriol and blatant name-calling is not appropriate for scholars of any persuasion. Despite these serious discrepancies in Mormon scholarship, as exemplified by the noted scholars from the FARMS team, it is vital that Christian scholars respond to these attempts by Mormons to ally themselves with Christendom.
It is vital that the Church take the lead in providing first-rate education and training in the Christian disciplines: church history, philosophy, systematic theology, logic, as well as the venerable (yet, sadly, neglected) art of rhetoric, to name a few. These disciplines will prepare Christian minds to detect the kinds of logical fallacies, historical and theological revisions that are typical of current Mormon scholarship. It is high time that local churches train their most gifted members for such rigorous, scholarly pursuits, as was typical in the case of the early church. This is a high calling and brotherly service to the Body of Christ that will have eternal import.
The early church Apologists were compelled to defend the faith once for all delivered to the Saints through the Apostles’ Tradition and the canonical Scriptures against the Gnostic heresy of their day. We find ourselves today challenged by yet another version of ancient Gnosticism that thrives off of the scriptural and theological legacy of orthodox Christianity. May we be no less faithful.
 Luke P. Wilson , “Mormonism On Pace to Become a World Religion in the Twenty-First Century: Are Evangelicals Missing Key Opportunities to Challenge This Growth?” Christian Research Journal, Vol. 22/Issue No. 2 (2000): 6-8.
 Former President Jimmy Carter may be an exception in this case, judging from other theological statements he has made publicly.
 Wilson, Christian Research Journal, p. 7
 Richard John Neuhaus, “Is Mormonism Christian?” First Things, Number 101 (March, 2000): 97-102.
 Wilson, Christian Research Jounal, p. 7
 FARMS Brochure. Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies. July, 2000. “What is FARMS?”
 The following authors’ biographical sketches are gleaned from the back cover of their joint work Offenders for a Word, “How Anti-Mormons Play Word Games to Attack the Latter-day Saints (FARMS, Provo , Utah ) 1992.
 Kurt Van Gordon, “A Summary Critique: “Offenders for a Word” Christian Research Journal, Vol. 21, No. 4 (1999): 48-50.
 Hugh Nibley’s biographical sketch was taken from his Mormonism And Early Christianity (Deseret Book Company: Salt Lake City , Utah ; FARMS, Provo , Utah ) 1987.
 Nibley, Mormonism And Early Christianity, p. vii.
 Ibid., p. viii.
 Daniel C. Peterson & Stephen D. Ricks, Offenders for a Word, “How Anti-Mormons Play Word Games to Attack the Latter-day Saints,” FARMS Reprint Edition (Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies) 1992, pp. 112-113.
 H. Wayne House, Charts of Cults, Sects, & Religious Movements ( Grand Rapids , Michigan : Zondervan Publishing House; 2000) p. 73. The following description relies on this source.
 Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1977) p. 779.
 Nibley, p. 101.
 Ibid., p. 102. Citing for Clement of Alexandria , Stromata VI, 6, in PG 9:272.
 Ibid. Citing Recognitiones Clementinae II, 58, in PG 1:1276.
 Ibid., pp. 102-103. Citing Irenaeus, Contra Haereses IV 22, 2, in PG 7:1047, 259.
 Ibid., p. 103. Citing 2 Baruch 30:1:85:15.
 Ibid. Citing Recognitiones clementinae I, 52, in PG 1:1236.
 Ibid., pp. 103-104.
 Ibid., pp. 104-105.
 Ibid. Nibley refers to Eusebius HE III, 24, 3-7, in PG 20:264-65; cf. Clementinae Recognitiones I, 21, in PG 1:1218: “Which things were indeed plainly spoken by Christ but are not plainly written; so much so that when they are read, they cannot be understood without an expounder.”
 Ibid., p. 105.
 Ibid., p. 106.
 Ibid. Citing Odes of Solomon 42:15-20.
 Ibid. Odes of Solomon 22:12.
 Ibid., p. 107. Citing Ignatius, Epistle to the Philadelphians 9, in PG 5:836; the same combination as in Shepherd of Hermas) Similitudo, 9, 12, and 16, in PG 2:992, 996; cf. Clement of Alexandria, Stomata VI, 6, 46, in PG 9:269.
 Ibid., p. 107. The following discussion is derived from this section of Nibley’s work.
 Ibid., p. 108.
 Ibid., pp. 113-114.
 Ibid., p. 114.
 Ibid., p. 118. Citing Clement of Alexandria , Stromata VI, 6, in PG 9:268.
 Ibid., pp. 124-125. Citing Tertullian, Adversus Marcionem 5, 10, in PL 2:495.
 Ibid., p. 125.
 Peterson & Ricks, p. 33. The following discussion will refer to this work.
 Ibid., pp. 33-34. Citing Ignatius of Antioch , Epistle to the Romans 3:2.
 Ibid., p. 34. Citing Ignatius, Epistle to Polycarp 7:3.
 Ibid., p. 35. Citing Ignatius’ Epistle to the Ephesians 11:12 , and Epistle to the Magnesians 4.
 Ibid. Citing Epistle to the Magnesians 6:1.
 Ibid., pp. 35-36. Citing Ignatius, Epistle to the Magnesians 10:3; and Epistle to the Trallians 6:1, 9:1.
 Ibid., p. 37. Citing Ignatius’ Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 6:1-2.
 Ibid., p. 38.
 Ibid., p. 39.
 Ibid. Including a partial citation of Sontag (1986):113.
 Ibid., pp. 39-40.
 Ibid., pp. 40-41.
 Ibid., p. 41.
 Ibid. Citing Norbert Brox, Kirchengeschichte des Altertums. Dusseldorf : Patmos 1983. Pp. 146 “Translation ours; cf., for example, Burx (1983): 121-122, on eucharistic debates in the early church.”
 Ibid., p. 41.
 Nibley, p. 107.
 Ibid., p. 114.
 Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary, New Testament (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1993): p. 257.
 Nibley, p. 104.
 Everett Ferguson , Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Second Edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; 1993) p. 302.
 Tertullian, Against Marcion 5, 10, in PL 2:495.
 Ancient Christian Commentary On Scripture, New Testament, VII 1-2 Corinthians. Edited by Gerald Bray, General Editor Thomas C. Oden (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press; 1999) p. 166: Ambrosiaster, Commentary On Paul’s Epistles, CSEL 81.175.
 Ibid. Didymus The Blind, Pauline Commentary From the Greek Church, NTA 15.8.
 Ibid. Chrysostom, Homilies On The Epistles of Paul To The Corinthians 40.2, NPNF 1 12:245.
 Peterson & Ricks, citing Epistle to the Magnesians.
 J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, Revised Edition (Harper San Francisco: A Division of Harper Collins Publishers; 1978) p. 35.
 Ibid., p. 36.
 Peterson & Ricks, p. 39.
 Ibid., pp. 39-40.
 Ibid., pp. 40-41.
 Space does not permit an exhaustive account of the Mormon depiction of Jesus; suffice to say he is radically dissimilar to the Jesus of the Bible and Christian orthodoxy: The Mormon Jesus is the spirit brother of Lucifer; he is not God the Son, co-equal member of the Trinity, but an exalted god who once used to be a man; strictly speaking, he is merely one of millions of gods that inhabit the universe; he is “husband” to both Marys as well as Mary Magdelane, and who fathered many children while on earth; he did not die on the cross to wipe out the sins of the redeemed, but merely guaranteed the universal “resurrection” of all humanity. For an excellent survey and analysis of distinctive Mormon beliefs, refer to H. Wayne House, Charts of Cults, Sects, & Religious Movements (Zondervan Publishing House: Grand Rapids , Michigan ) 2000.
 Peterson & Ricks, Offenders for a Word, p. 6 and p. 12.
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