How accurate are your myths? –The Curious Case of Transubstantiation

In a friendly effort to get my friend SlowCowboy to eat his words regarding the importance of the doctrine of transubstantiation, I also want to present my case for a “Great Apostasy” during the very earliest history of the church.

There was quite a bit of discussion about  transubstantiation because Gnostic Docetists were being theologically cast out for taking the doctrine of transubstantiation too seriously. They didn’t take the bread and the water because they did not believe that Christ could be present in the bread and water because Christ was completely separate from the world. The doctrine that the bread and the water were also the Christ makes a very deep philosophical (not spiritual) point that the Gnostics Docetists were not getting. i.e. that the substance of Christ was before us and actually present, even inside of us.  This is perhaps a stronger point than “the Kingdom of God is in our midst” but it is really quite breathtaking as far as theology goes. The doctrine of transubstantiation allowed people to explain their faith accurately to pagan peoples.

Continue reading

Rethinking the Great Apostasy: “The Peasant Revolt of the Spirit” and the definition of Mormonism

Friedrich Nietzsche explained Luther’s Reformation as a dramatic spiritual revolution within Europe of the northern sentiment and character, which demanded simplicity, with the southern, liberal sentiment that allowed for unending complication under the simple structure of the Church.  Whatever can be said of Nietzsche, he was a fabulous writer.  His imagery viscerally cast light on the spiritual facts going on around him, that cleared the clutter of culture to allow the simplicity of “modern science” but eventually pushed Europe into the maw of gore and madness that reigned there in the first half of the 20th century.

Luther’s Revolution

Nietzsche explains, with at least a bit of lament, the ruins of the Church as he saw it in Europe in the 1880s:

. . . were there ever finer ruins?  Overgrown with weeds, large and small.  It is the Church which is this city of decay: we see the religious organisation of Christianity shaken to its deepest foundations.  The belief in God is overthrown, the belief in the Christian ascetic ideal is now fighting its last fight.  Such a long and solidly built work as Christianity it was the last construction of the Romans!  It could not of course be demolished all at once; every sort of earthquake had to shake it, every sort of spirit which perforates, digs, gnaws and moulders had to assist in the work of destruction.  But that which is strangest is that those who have exerted themselves most to retain and preserve Christianity, have been precisely those who did most to destroy it, the Germans.  . . The Lutheran Reformation in all its length and breadth was the indignation of the simple against something “complicated”.

He describes Luther’s revolution as that of the thinking of simple, good-natured folk over the complexities of culture that shone in the Church because the church retained “the luxury of skepticism and toleration which every victorious, self-confident power permits.” While Nietzsche acknowledged the fact that Luther spiritually revived Christianity as a worldview, and his simplicity allowed for modern thinking, but to him, Luther’s German reasoning meant an unraveling:

“[H]e tore asunder with honest rage, where the old spider had woven longest and most carefully.  He gave the sacred books into the hands of everyone, they thereby got at last into the hands of the philologists, that is to say, the annihilators of every belief based upon books.  He demolished the conception of “the Church” in that he repudiated the belief in the inspiration of the Councils: for only under the supposition that the inspiring spirit which had founded the Church still lives in it, still builds it, still goes on building its house, does the conception of ” the Church ” retain its power.”

Nietzsche also puts his finger on the simple fact that the Reformation made the Church, which had enforced its superiority since Theodosius, the vassel of the state rather than its rightful superior.  Christianity became “good-natured” in its simplicity, and cleared the way for infecting law with modern thinking in the form of modern science.

The consequences of Luther’s simplification of Christianity Continue reading

Beliefs Before Practice

A common characterization of the difference between Mormonism and Evangelicalism is the idea that Evangelicals emphasize orthodoxy (right belief) and Mormons emphasize orthopraxy (right action).  If you ask an Evangelical and a Mormon “what is more important a correct understanding of God or the proper mode for baptism?”  you will most likely get different answers from each.

As much as I appreciate how pragmatic Mormons are, I think it’s impossible to truly put orthopraxy over orthodoxy.  Even Mormons place a higher importance on right belief over right action, they just may not realize that they are doing it.  The “cart” of practice is impossible to put ahead of the “horse” of ideas.  The idea that “the proper mode of baptism is of highest importance” is first an idea before it is a practice.  The belief that “the appropriate priesthood is required” is first a belief before it is a practice. “How you behave matters” is a doctrinal position.  “Right practice” being shaped by “right ideas” is inescapable. Correct ideas matter to Mormons, they simply must or there is no right practice to emphasize.

The Mormon restoration narrative supports this.  If practice is more important than belief, then why did God not simply restore the priesthood to the apostate Christian church?  Why was a correction of Biblical translation and interpretation necessary?  I don’t want to dive too deeply into Catholic apologetics, but they can demonstrate an uninterrupted priesthood lineage.  So unless “abominable creeds” are not an issue I don’t see how the proper priesthood authority was not alive and well in the 19th Century.  Something more than the lack of priesthood must have been driving the restoration.

A further support for this is the Mormon institution’s approach to correlation.  Mormons who have been excommunicated for false teaching have been told that it is fine to believe anything a person wants, the problem arises when you start teaching other people those false ideas.  I’m confident that this April, if a General Conference speaker left their script and encouraged exclusively praying to Heavenly Mother or posited the idea that temple work is no longer necessary, that person would soon find themselves in a disciplinary counsel.  There would not be Ensign articles the following May praising that Elder’s proper use of the laying on of hands despite his heterodox teachings. If orthodoxy were not important there would be no correlated teaching manuals.  Local leaders would be encouraged to teach whatever the Spirit directed them to teach and no one would mind if the church was widely diverse.

Mormons may object that their real issue with “orthodoxy” is how an emphasis on it may exclude people from enjoying God’s presence based on speculative theories and interpretations.  I think this is both hypocritical and a straw man of Evangelical thought.

First off, there is plenty of speculative interpretation involving Mormon orthopraxy.  Do a search of “Mormon ‘hot drinks‘” and you’ll see what I mean.  As long as the “Word of Wisdom” is used in Temple recommend interviews it is a speculative obstacle to freely enjoy God’s presence via temple ordinances.

Second, the Temple recommend interview requires people to express a belief in basic Mormon truth claims.  Failing to acknowledge the LDS church as the real and true restoration of God’s one true church will keep a person from a temple recommend.  If it was merely about the correct priesthood authority and the proper methods for performing ordinances, the LDS church would open its temple doors wide to believers and unbelievers alike.  This would ensure as many people as possible had these important rituals performed in this lifetime.  Scoffing and ridicule during the ceremonies wouldn’t matter as long as the proper priesthood was there and every gesture was performed correctly and every prayer was recited precisely.

This idea that orthodoxy is used as a barrier to God’s presence totally distorts Evangelical thought.  I can not name a single Evangelical who thinks there is a theology exam given out at the pearly gates. No one believes that the ability to precisely describe the doctrine of the Trinity is a requirement for an indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  God always (and exclusively) reveals himself to people with false ideas.  Evangelicals do not believe we hold the keys to who does and does not have God actively living in their lives.   We do not believe that only the doctrinally pure will receive the Kingdom.

We certainly have a strong emphasis on orthodoxy.  As the LDS church does, we recognize it as a way to determine good fruit.  Because beliefs form practice, we evaluate teachers and preachers based on it.  It is useful in evaluating teachings, but it is never used as a barrier to God’s presence.  In Evangelical theology there is no place, behavior or thought that can keep God out of someone’s life. He is an untamed lion that speaks to and moves through anyone he desires.