Saturday, May 16, 2020

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the diminishing relevance of “the Great Apostasy”: part 4 – Hugh Nibley

I am implementing a change of course for this ongoing series. The intent of my original plan was to be strictly chronological, proceeding from the oldest to the newest contributions on “the Great Apostasy”. However, certain comments published in the comboxes of the previous AF thread (link), and in a thread over at ‘Nick’s Catholic Blog’ (link), have prompted me to make some adjustments. Instead of examining a number of works from the writings James E. Talmage and B.H. Roberts concerning the “the Great Apostasy”, I am jumping forward to an essay written by Dr. Hugh Nibley. Of the dozens of works I have read from an LDS viewpoint on this topic—articles, essays, pamphlets and books—Nibley’s, “The Passing of the Church: Forty Variations on an Unpopular Theme”, provides the best defense of the LDS belief that the Church founded by Jesus Christ and his apostles in the first century had fallen into a deep, wholesale apostasy, to the point that the ordinances that had been authoritatively instituted, were no longer available on Earth, and needed to be restored at a future date. Importantly, Nibley focuses heavily on what the New Testament and a number of early Church Fathers had to say on the issue of the apostasy, providing hundreds of quotes and/or references from those sources to support his position

Dr. Nibley’s essay was first published in the Cambridge journal, Church History (Vol. 30, Issue 2 – June 1961, pp. 131-154 - link); it was reprinted in the book, When The Lights Went Out – Three Studies on the Ancient Apostasy (Deseret Book 1970, pp. 1-32 - link); again in BYU Studies (Vol. 16.1, Autumn 1975, pp. 139-184 - link); and then in the book, Mormonism and Christianity (Deseret Book/FARMS 1987, pp. 168-208 - link). Selections from the essay in this post will be from the online BYU Studies PDF version (LINK)—the page numbers in the online version differ from the original paper edition, so citations will include page numbers from both, with the first being the online, and the second, the paper.

Nibley begins his treatment with the following:

A Somber Theme:—Ever since Eusebius sought with dedicated zeal to prove the survival of the Church by blazing a trail back to the Apostles, the program of church history has been the same: “To give a clear and comprehensive, scientifically established view of the development of the visible institution of salvation founded by Christ.” To describe it—not to question it. By its very definition church history requires unquestioning acceptance of the basic proposition that the Church did survive. One may write endlessly about The Infant Church, l’Eglise naissante, die Pflanzung der Kirche, etc., but one may not ask why the early Christians themselves described their Church not as lusty infant but as an old and failing woman; one may trace the triumphant spread of The Unquenchable Light through storm and shadow, but one may not ask why Jesus himself insisted that the Light was to be taken away. Church history seems to be resolved never to raise the fundamental question of survival as the only way of avoiding a disastrous answer, and the normal reaction to the question— did the Church remain on earth?—has not been serious inquiry in a richly documented field, but shocked recoil from the edge of an abyss into which few can look without a shudder. (Page 1/139 – see online essay for footnotes)

In the next paragraph, Nibley outlines the “purpose of this paper”:

The purpose of this paper is to list briefly the principal arguments supporting the thesis that the Church founded by Jesus and the Apostles did not survive and was not expected to. We shall consider the fate of the Church under three heads: 1) the declarations of the early Christians concerning what was to befall it, 2) their strange behavior in the light of those declarations, 3) the affirmations and denials, doubts and misgivings of the church leaders of a later day. Our theme is the Passing of the Church, our variations, designated below by Roman numerals, are a number of striking and often neglected facets of church history. (Page 1/140)

He then writes:

(I) Jesus announced in no uncertain terms that his message would be rejected by all men, as the message of the prophets had been before,6 and that he would soon leave the world to die in its sins and seek after him in vain.7 The Light was soon to depart, leaving a great darkness “in which no man can work,” while “the prince of this world” would remain, as a usual, in possession of the field.8 (II) In their turn the Disciples were to succeed no better than their Lord: “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more shall they call them of his household?”9 Like him they were to be “hated of all men,” going forth as sheep among wolves, “sent last as it were appointed unto death,”10 with the promise that as soon as they completed their mission the end would come.11 (Page 2/140)

6. Matthew, xvii:12; xxi:37–39; xxiii:31–37; Mark xii:6–8; Luke xvii:25; John 1:5, 10–11; iii:11f, 19, 32; v:38, 40–47; vii:7; viii:19; 23f, 37f, 40–47; xv:22–25; cf. Acts iii:13–15.
7. Matthew xi:15; Luke ix: 41; xiii:25–27; xvii:22 John vii:33f; xii:35f; xiii:33; xiv:30; xvi:16; cf. Acts iii:21.
8. John ix:4f; vix:30. Evil triumphs from Abel to the eschaton: Matthew xxiii:35–39; xvii:12 Luke xi:51; Clementine Recognitions, iii. 61.
9. Matthew x:24f; Mark xiii:13; Luke x:16; John xv:18–21; xvii:14: Acts xxviii:26f; F. C. Grant, “The Mission of the Disciples,” J.B.L., XXXI (1916), 293–314.
10. Matthew x:16–22, 28; xxiv:9; Mark xiii:9; Luke x:3; John xvi:1–2, 33; I Corinthians iv:9; II Clement v.
11. Matthew. xxiv:14; xxviii:20; Mark xiii:10. Below, notes 17,21.]

And then:

As soon as the Lord departs there comes “the lord of this world, and hath nothing in me”; in the very act of casting out the Lord of the vineyard the usurpers seize it for themselves, to remain in possession until his return;18 no sooner does he sow his wheat than the adversary sows tares and only when the Lord returns again can the grain be “gathered together,” i.e., into a church, the ruined field itself being not the church but specifically “the world.”19 After the sheep come the wolves, “not sparing the flock,” which enjoys no immunity (Acts xx; 29) after sound doctrine come fables;20 after the charismatic gifts only human virtues (1 Cor. xiii; 8, 13). The list is a grim one, but it is no more impressive than (VI) the repeated insistence that there is to be an end, not the end of the world, but “the consummation of the age.”21 It is to come with the completion of the missionary activities of the Apostles, and there is no more firmly-rooted tradition in Christendom than the teaching that the Apostles completed the assigned preachingto the nations in their own persons and in their own time, so that the end could come in their generation.22 (Page 2/140)

18. John xiv:30; Matthew xxi:38; Mark xii:7; Luke xx:14.
19. Matthew xiii: 24–30, 38. Both syllegein and synagogein are used.
20. II Timothy. iv:2–4; II Thess. ii:9–12; Rom. i:21–31.
21. Matt. xxiv:14; cf. x:23; xxviii:20, where aeon refers to that particular age. O. Cullmann, in W. D. Davies & D. Daube (eds.). The Background of the New Testament  and Its Eschatology (Cambridge Univ., 1956), 417; cf. N. Messel, Die Einheitlichkeit der
jüdischen Eschatologie (Giessen, 1915), 61–69, 44–50. See below, note 181.
22. Mark xiii:9f; Acts ii:16f, 33; Origen, In Mt. Comm. Ser. 39, in P.G., XIII, 1655B, concludes that, strictly speaking, jam finem venisse; so also John Chrysostom, In Ep Heb. xi, Homil. xxi.3, in Migne, P.G. LXIII, 1655B.]

Shifting focus to the Apostolic Fathers, Nibley writes:

(X) The Apostolic Fathers denounce with feeling the all too popular doctrine that God’s Church simply cannot fail. All past triumphs, tribulations, and promises, they insist, will count for nothing unless the People now repent and stand firm in a final test that lies just ahead; God’s past blessing and covenants, far from being a guarantee of immunity (as many fondly believe) are the very opposite, for “the greater the blessings we have received the greater rather is the danger in which we lie.”33 (Page/s 4/142, 143)

33. I Clem. xli. 4; xxi. 1; Barnab. iv. 9, 14; Ignat., Ephes, xi. 1. “The last stumbling-block approaches . . .” Barnab. iv. 3, 9; I Clem. vii. 1; II Clem. viif; xvi; Hermas, Vis., ii. 2; iv. 1.]

A bit later:

(XII) The call to repentance of the Apostolic Fathers is a last call; they labor the doctrine of the Two Ways as offering to Christian society a last chance to choose between saving its soul by dying in the faith or saving its skin by coming to terms with the world.41 They have no illusions as to the way things are going: the Church has lost the gains it once made, the people are being led by false teachers,42 there is little to hinder the fulfillment of the dread (and oft-quoted) prophecy, “. . . the Lord shall deliver the sheep of his pasture and their fold and their tower to destructions.”43 The original Tower with its perfectly cut and well-fitted stones is soon to be taken from the earth, and in its place will remain only a second-class tower of defective stones which could not pass the test.44 In the Pastor of Hermas (Vis. iii. 11–13) the Church is represented as an old and failing lady—“because your spirit is old and already fading away”—who is carried out of the world; only in the world beyond does she appear as a blooming and ageless maiden. The Apostolic Fathers take their leave of a Church not busily engaged in realizing the Kingdom, but fast falling asleep; the lights are going out, the Master has departed on his long journey, and until he returns all shall sleep. What lies ahead is the “Wintertime of the Just,” the time of mourning for the Bridegroom, when men shall seek the Lord and not find him, and seek to do good, but no longer be able to.”45 (Pages 4, 5/ 143, 144)

41. Ignat., Magnes., v; II Clem. vi; Barnab. v; xviii; see K. Lake’s note on Hermas in his Apostolic Fathers (Loeb ed., 1912), ii. 21, n. 1.
42. I Clem. i; iii; xxiv; xix; Ignat., Trall, vii; Ephes., xvii; ix. 5; Hermas, Vis., iii. 3, 10. Cf. Test. of Hezekiah, ii. 3B–iv. 18.
43. Didache, xvi. 3; Barnab. xvi; Enoch lxxxix; lvi; lxvif; Logion No. xiv, in Patrologia Orientalis, IV, 176f; cf. IX, 227f.
44. Hermas, Vis. iii. 3–7.
45. Hermas, Sim. iii; iv; ix; I Clem. lviii; Euseb., H. E., III. xxxi. 3; V. xxiv. 2.]

Two more selections before ending this introductory post to Nibley’s essay:

Arguments for Survival:—The arguments put forth by those who would prove the survival of the Church are enough in themselves to cast serious doubts upon it. (XXXIV) The first thing that strikes one is the failure of the ingenuity of scholarship to discover any serious scriptural support for the thesis. There are remarkable few passages in the Bible that yield encouragement even to the most determined exegesis, and it is not until centuries of discussion have passed that we meet with the now familiar interpretations of the “mustard seed” and “gates-of-hell” imagery, which some now hold to be eschatological teachings having no reference whatever to the success of the Church on earth. (Page 12/152)


Christians have often taken comfort in the axiom that it is perfectly unthinkable that God should allow his Church to suffer annihilation, that he would certainly draw the line somewhere. This is the very doctrine of ultimate immunity against which the Apostolic Fathers thunder, and later Fathers remind us that we may not reject the appalling possibility simply because it is appalling. (Page 13/153)

Shall end here for now, hoping that the folk who are interested in this topic will take the time to read the entire essay, and look up the extensive quotes and references provided therein.

Grace and peace,