Posts Tagged ‘Patristic Studies’

by Fred W. Anson
Patristic Studies is a specialized area of study within Religious Studies focusing on the period from the end of the Apostolic New Testament era (c. AD 100) to either AD 451 (the date of the Council of Chalcedon or to the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 depending on which Church Historian you talk to.1 It’s an area of study that few Protestants are aware of or have knowledge of. As Religious Studies Scholar Chris Welborn notes:

The Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches typically have held this period in higher regard than have other churches. This is not surprising, since they share many points of theology and morality from this period. These churches also claim a line of divine authority from the New Testament period through the patristic period to this day.2

So given how other churches have used Patristic Studies to establish their direct lineage from primitive Christian, it should come as no shock when Mormon Apologists do the same. As Mr. Welborn observed in an article published in 2006:

Mormons have studied patristic writers increasingly since the middle of the twentieth century so as to use them to justify their church’s claim to be the true church. In doing this, they presuppose without qualification that Mormon theology and practice are true, and that the same Mormon theology and practice that are prevalent in the present day also were normative in the New Testament period. They then examine patristic writings to find similarities and dissimilarities to their theology and practice. The similarities, they say, were a remnant of authentic New Testament belief. The dissimilarities, however, they blanketly attribute to Hellenistic (Greek) philosophy, which they suppose entered and corrupted the church after the apostles died.3

This is fully aligned with Mormon Great Apostasy dogma which Mormon Missionaries explain to investigators of the faith like this:

Without the Apostles, over time the doctrines were corrupted, and unauthorized changes were made in Church organization and priesthood ordinances, such as baptism and conferring the gift of the Holy Ghost. Without revelation and priesthood authority, people relied on human wisdom to interpret the scriptures and the principles and ordinances of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

False ideas were taught as truth. Much of the knowledge of the true character and nature of God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost was lost. The doctrines of faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Ghost became distorted or forgotten. The priesthood authority given to Christ’s Apostles was no longer present on the earth. This apostasy eventually led to the emergence of many churches.4

It’s also explained to these investigators that due to this universal apostasy a restoration of the Christian Church back to its original pristine, primitive state is required. Citing these Patristic sources, it’s asserted, is both proof of this apostasy and validation that the LdS Church alone holds the key to this required restoration.

The full image of the Origen icon from this article’s banner art.

Enter Origen
A particular favorite of Mormon Apologists seems to be Origen of Alexandria (c.184 – 253AD). The following excerpt is from Methodist, Church Historian, Justo Gonzalez’s popular and influential book, “The Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation”. In it, the knowledgeable student of Mormonism will see hints of the Latter-day Saint doctrines of pre-existent spirits (all humans were spiritual beings in heaven prior to coming to earth and inhabiting a physical body), ex-materia creation (the cosmos was formed out of pre-existing matter, not created ex-nihilio – out of nothing), and universal salvation (aka “universalism”):

Origen feels free to rise in great speculative flights. For instance, since the tradition of the apostles and of the church gives no details as to how the world was created, Origen believes that this is a fair field of inquiry. In the first chapters of Genesis there are two stories of creation, as Jewish scholars had noted even before the time of Origen. In one of these stories, we are told that humankind was created after the image and likeness of God, and that “male and female created He them.” In the second, we are told that God made Adam first, then the animals, and then formed the woman out of Adam’s rib. In the Greek version of the first narrative, the verb describing God’s action is “to create,” whereas in the second it is “to form” or “to shape.” What is the meaning of these differences? Modern scholars would speak of the joining of separate traditions. But Origen simply declares that there are two narratives because there were in fact two creations.

According to Origen, the first creation was purely spiritual. What God first created were spirits without bodies. This is why the text says “male and female”—that is, with no sexual differences. This is also why we are told that God “created,” and not that God “formed.”

God’s purpose was that the spirits thus created would be devoted to the contemplation of the divine. But some of them strayed from that contemplation and fell. It was then that God made the second creation. This second creation is material, and it serves as a shelter or temporary home for fallen spirits. Those spirits who fell farthest have become demons, while the rest are human souls. It was for these human souls—fallen preexistent spirits—that God made the bodies we now have, which God “shaped” out of the earth, making some male and some female.

This implies that all human souls existed as pure spirits—or “intellects,” as Origen calls them—before being born into the world, and that the reason why we are here is that we have sinned in that prior, purely spiritual existence. Although Origen claims that all this is based on the Bible, it is clear that it is derived from the Platonic tradition, where similar ideas had been taught for a long time.

In the present world, the Devil and his demons have us captive, and therefore Jesus Christ has come to break the power of Satan and to show us the path we are to follow in our return to our spiritual home. Furthermore, since the Devil is no more than a spirit like ours, and since God is love, in the end even Satan will be saved, and the entire creation will return to its original state, where everything was pure spirit. However, since these spirits will still be free, there is nothing to guarantee that there will not be a new fall, a new material world, and a new history, and that the cycle of fall, restoration, and fall will not go on forever.5

But before you’re baptized into the Mormon Church…
So, given all that, are you ready to be baptized into the Mormon Church? Sounds like a convincing case that Mormonism is teaching restored Christianity, doesn’t it? Well, Mr. Gonzalez certainly doesn’t think so. He immediately continues as follows:

In evaluating all of this, one has to begin by marveling at the width of Origen’s mental scope. For this reason, he has had fervent admirers at various times throughout the history of the church. One must also remember that Origen proposes all of this, not as truths to be generally accepted, nor as something that will supersede the doctrines of the church, but as his own tentative speculations, which ought not to be compared with the authoritative teaching of the church.

However, once this has been said, it is also important to note that on many points Origen is more Platonist than Christian. Thus, for instance, Origen rejects the doctrines of Marcion and of the Gnostics, that the world is the creation of an inferior being; but then he comes to the conclusion that the existence of the physical world—as well as of history—is the result of sin. At this point there is a marked difference with Irenaeus, for whom the existence of history was part of the eternal purpose of God. And when it comes to the preexistence of souls, and to the eternal cycle of fall and restoration, there is no doubt that Origen strays from what Christianity has usually taught.6

And Mr. Welborn concurs. As he correctly points out regarding the Mormon use of Patristic sources:

In using patristic sources, Mormons have scoured unorthodox as well as orthodox Christian writings. Many of these Mormon scholars are competent in their various fields, but their constant motive to validate Mormonism often distorts the conclusions of their study of this period…

Certain conclusions of Mormon scholars concerning the patristic period are accurate and helpful. Their sectarian motive of trying to justify the belief that the Mormon Church is the true church, however, has led them to examine the field in an incomplete, patchwork manner. Further, in order to support their theology, Mormons sometimes have interpreted patristic works in ways that force meanings onto the texts that the authors never intended and distort the authors’ intended meanings. In such circumstances, these Mormons are predisposed to drawing faulty conclusions.7

origen

An icon of a young Origen of Alexandria holding a communion chalice containing Christ’s body and blood.

A Heretic By Any Other Name …
What Mormon scholars also often fail to consider is that even if their cherry-picked sources taught the same doctrine that modern Mormonism does, that doesn’t make it normative for that time or orthodox today. Unlike Mormonism, which tends to skew strongly toward Ex-Cathedra,8 Protestants are Prima Scriptura.9 Therefore, any Patristic teachings that contradict, or exceed, the words of canonized scripture are not authoritative, period. This is especially important because as Reformed Theologian, James R. White has often pointed out, Patristic writings are just like today’s Christian Bookstore where the works of heretics like Joel Osteen and Benny Hinn sit next to the works of Luther, Calvin, and Spurgeon. In other words, just because it’s there, that doesn’t make it true or reflective of Biblical orthodoxy. As Justo L. Gonzalez observes:

The many converts who joined the early church came from a wide variety of backgrounds. This variety enriched the church and gave witness to the universality of its message. But it also resulted in widely differing interpretations of that message. Such different interpretations should not surprise us, for at the time Christianity was still ill-defined—to the point that it would probably be better to speak of “Christianities,” in the plural. There certainly were in it varying views and emphases, as any reader of the New Testament can still see when comparing, for instance, the Gospel of Mark with John, Romans, and Revelation. But, were all the existing views and interpretations equally valid or acceptable? Was there not the danger that, within the still undefined limits of Christianity, there would be interpretations that would threaten its integrity? The danger was increased by the syncretism of the time, which sought truth, not by adhering to a single system of doctrine, but by taking bits and pieces from various systems. The result was that, while many claimed the name of Christ, some interpreted that name in a manner that others felt obscured or even denied the very core of his message. In response to such threats, what would become known as orthodox Christianity began to define itself by reaffirming such elements of its Jewish heritage as the doctrines of creation, of the positive value of the created world, of the rule of God over all of history, of the resurrection of the body—a doctrine learned from the Pharisees—and a coming final reign of God. In order to reaffirm such doctrines, it developed a series of instruments—creeds, the canon of scripture, apostolic succession—that would set limits on orthodoxy and would long remain central themes in Christian life and teaching. Thus, even those whose views were eventually rejected by the church at large, and came to be known as heretics, left their mark on the church and the way it understood itself.10

Thus many of Origen’s views were controversial in their day – heterodox to be exact11 – and very correctly declared fully heretical later. As one commentator points out:

Some of Origen’s ideas were unorthodox and put him at odds with fellow believers. For instance, Origen believed in the pre-existence of souls and that one’s status in the present world was proportional to one’s commitment to God during this pre-existence. His negative attitude toward the material world wasn’t much different than that of the Gnostics he so strongly opposed. He also considered the Trinity a ranking, not an equality, and believed that everyone, even demons, would one day be forgiven and purified by God. These claims were key to his being declared a heretic by various councils in the centuries after his death.12

He’s sure preaching somethin’… 
Of course, Origen was able to hold to heterodoxy because the type of top-down religious hierarchy that one sees in today’s Mormon Church simply didn’t exist. The Christian Churches of Origen’s day were decentralized, local, and autonomous. There was no First Presidency, Quorum of the 12 Apostles, Quorums of the Seventy, Stakes, or Wards guarding, maintaining, and enforcing orthodoxy. That very Roman Catholic invention came much, much, much later. So Origen (and other Patristic Fathers) could hold to – and even publicly preach – unorthodox views and oddball personal opinions without much, if any consequence.

Further, weakening the Mormon Apologist’s case is the fact that the Patristic Fathers were the very Church Leaders that Mormonism condemns as those who lead the pure and pristine Christian Church into apostasy after the death of the original Apostles and the end of their apostolic period. Consider this from Mormon Apostle, James Talmage:

We affirm that with the passing of the apostolic period the Church drifted into a condition of apostasy, whereby succession in the Holy Priesthood was broken; and that the Church as an earthly organization operating under Divine direction and having authority to officiate in spiritual ordinances ceased to exist among men.13

And an official, correlated LdS Church manual agrees with him:

One by one, the Apostles were killed or otherwise taken from the earth. Because of wickedness and apostasy, the apostolic authority and priesthood keys were also taken from the earth. The organization that Jesus Christ had established no longer existed, and confusion resulted. More and more error crept into Church doctrine, and soon the dissolution of the Church was complete. The period of time when the true Church no longer existed on earth is called the Great Apostasy. Soon pagan beliefs dominated the thinking of those called Christians.14

… but it sure ain’t Christianity or Mormonism!
It is both illogical and irrational to cite from the very men that according to Mormon dogma were instruments of Satan in leading Christ’s Church into apostasy as proof that your church isn’t apostate, isn’t it? After all, as the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, said so well, “Nothing less than a complete apostasy from the Christian religion would warrant the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints” (Joseph Smith, Jr., as quoted in B.H. Roberts, History of the Church 1:XL)

So in the end, agenda-driven, confirmation bias fueled, Mormon Apologists can cite and argue from cherry-picked Patristic sources and writings all they like, it proves absolutely nothing. Further, since these Patristic sources didn’t preach modern Mormonism, by doing so they are actually undermining and discrediting it, aren’t they?

A modern icon of Origen of Alexandria teaching the Saints throughout the ages.

NOTES
1 Wikipedia, “Patristics”.
2 Chris Welborn, “Mormons and Patristic Study: How Mormons Use The Church Fathers to Defend Mormonism”;
3 Ibid.
4 LdS Church, “Preach My Gospel: A Guide To Missionary Service” (2003 edition), p. 35.
5 Justo L. Gonzalez, “The Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation”, pp. 94-95. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.
6 Ibid.
7 Welborn, Op Cit.
8 A Latin term meaning “from the chair” and the basis of the Roman Catholic concept of Papal Infallibility, whereby the voice of the Pope seated on his Papal throne is the ultimate authority for defining orthodoxy for Christ’s Church on earth. The Wikipedia article is a good primer for those new to this concept: Wikipedia, “Papal infallibility”.
9Prima scriptura is the Christian doctrine that canonized scripture is “first” or “above all” other sources of divine revelation. Implicitly, this view acknowledges that, besides canonical scripture, there are other guides for what a believer should believe and how he should live, such as the created order, traditions, charismatic gifts, mystical insight, angelic visitations, conscience, common sense, the views of experts, the spirit of the times or something else. Prima scriptura suggests that ways of knowing or understanding God and his will that do not originate from canonized scripture are perhaps helpful in interpreting that scripture, but testable by the canon and correctable by it, if they seem to contradict the scriptures.” (see “Prima Scriptura”, Wikipedia)  
10 Justo L. Gonzalez, Op Cit, pp. 69-70.
11Heterodoxy in a religious sense means ‘any opinions or doctrines at variance with an official or orthodox position’. Under this definition, heterodoxy is similar to unorthodoxy, while the adjective ‘heterodox’ could be applied to a dissident.
Heterodoxy is also an ecclesiastical term of art, defined in various ways by different religions and churches. For example, in the Apostolic Churches (the Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of the East, the Anglican Communion, and the Non-Chalcedonian or Oriental Churches), heterodoxy may describe beliefs that differ from strictly orthodox views, but that fall short either of formal or of material heresy.  (see Heterodoxy”, Wikipedia)
12 GotQuestions website, “Who was Origen of Alexandria?”.
13 James Talmage, “The Vitality of Mormonism”, pp. 109-110.
14
Official LdS Church manual, “Gospel Principles” (2009 edition), p. 92.