Radical discontinuity

My meeting with the Mormon evangelists didn’t go all that great yesterday. I don’t mean that anything catastrophic happened, or that my objections were swatted out of the air like so many flies. I still think I have good objections, but my delivery was weak. I stumbled. Frankly, I think I was too conciliatory and put the ball too often in their court. I didn’t want to attack, but neither did I want to stand “as a man at a mark”. And of course, they had their own agenda they wanted to push through in the conversation. Doesn’t it bother you that there are so many different churches that claim to be right? Actually, no it doesn’t. But adding Mormonism to the mix doesn’t help your argument.

However, in conversation, I came across another Mormon distinctive that undermines their position where they expect to support it. The Mormon “gospel,” that is, the story that they’re announcing, is one of apostasy and restoration. The church lost the plot and God replaced it with the church of Latter Day Saints. Here Joe Smith is taking a page from John Nelson Darby’s Dispensational theology. The concept comes from the biblical concept of dispensations – different time periods in which God has set up different systems for relating to man. For instance you could talk about about five major dispensations: Before the fall, from the fall until Abraham, from Abraham til Moses, from Moses until Christ, and the Christian era.

I’m not a scholar of Darby’s dispensationalism, but I believe he had a system that allowed for seven dispensations before the new heaven and new earth were created. And my understanding is that a key aspect of Darbian dispensationalism is that, whatever system God set up for us, we voilated the terms of the covenant, and then God created another one. So you have this flow: God establishes a new dispensation, the covenant community thrives, the covenant community falls into apostasy, God establishes a new dispensation. It’s the book of Judges writ large.

Now at some level, the concept of dispensations, especially the King James phrase (from Ephesians 3:1) “dispensation of grace”, is completely biblical. But for the orthodox, you have to keep two key concepts in mind, otherwise dispensationalism can lead you straight to heresy. First is the concept of continuity. Each dispensation was not a separate act, unrelated to what God had done before. You don’t see one dispensation with the Jews, and then later another dispensation given to the Assyrians, and then a third coming from the Chinese. Each dispensation built on what had gone on before. So Moses follows Abraham follows Noah, in an unbroken line. It’s absolutely essential to see that the gospel given to the gentiles is completely in line with the history of Israel and the promises given to Abraham. Otherwise, it’s invalid – a different gospel, a different plan, a different building, a different god. The wild olive branch is grafted into the cultivated root, and there is the threat that branches may be broken off. But never does God uproot the cultivated olive tree and plant a new one.

The second concept is supercession. Each dispensation of God’s grace supercedes the previous. It always gets bigger and better. It also appears that, in each dispensation, those things that are abandoned turn out to be mere foreshadows of the reality of the next dispensation. So the temple rituals in the mosaic code turn out to be previews of the sacrifice and intercession of Jesus. Prophecy in the church age will pass away in the new heaven and new earth because then we will have all knowledge, so who needs prophecy?

But the dispensationalism that is intrinsic to the Mormon gospel fails both of these qualifiers. The “new” Mormon dispensation is a radical discontinuity from previous dispensations. In their gospel, the church fell into irredeemable apostasy and was reestablished from scratch in Joseph Smith. Yes, they have a story of Joe Smith having this priesthood and that conferred on him in secret meetings by Jesus and John the Baptist and Peter, James and John. But it’s one thing for Paul to receive the gospel directly from Jesus, immediately join the local Christian church, and then eventually confer with the apostles in Jerusalem, and something else again for a man to have a seance with a group of famous people who have long since fallen asleep. Paul was part of the church, commissioned by local elders of the church, and conferred with apostles that anybody else could talk to. The continuity proved that it was the same gospel. Discontinuity necessarily implies that it’s a different gospel.

The issue of supercession is also a bit tricky. Are Mormons preaching the same gospel that was preached in Acts, establishing the same basic kind of church? If so, then how can they claim to be a final dispensation? A new dispensation must be a radical improvement foreshadowed in the old. On the other hand the Church dispensation was established as the personal rule of Jesus Christ himself. If the Mormon dispensation is an improvement on that, what exactly are you saying about the person of Jesus Christ?

Mormons insist that the foundation of their faith is the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And the only hope of their salvation is that this may be true. Apart from faith in Jesus Christ, none shall be saved. The problem is that the rest of the Mormon system works diametrically against this same faith. Nebuchadnezzar dreamed of a statue made up of all the succeeding nations of the world. Then

a rock was cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and smashed them. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were broken to pieces at the same time and became like chaff on a threshing floor in the summer. The wind swept them away without leaving a trace. But the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth.

The rock, of course, is Jesus Christ, and the mountain is his holy church (note that it is a mountain, not a mountain range) – “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever” (emphasis mine).

The permanence of the church is an intrinsic part of the Gospel. Bring in the idea of a total apostasy of the church, and a restoration isn’t a very good solution. Radical discontinuity distorts the nature of God and our understanding of his ability to fulfill his promises.

3 thoughts on “Radical discontinuity”

  1. Actually Joseph didn’t see much theological discontinuity between dispensations either. He understood things like the Priesthood, the temple, and prophets, and spiritual gifts as being had in ALL dispensations from Adam on.

    It should also be noted that LDS perspectives on the Christian Apostasy have been shifting. For a good sampling of later LDS scholarship on the subject you might try the following:

    Early Christians in Disarray: Contemporary LDS Perspectives on the Christian Apostasy. ed. Noel B. Reynolds.

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  2. Thanks for the references, though I fear it’ll be a while before I get to reading them. I’m backlogged. 🙂

    I may have been unclear as I was talking about discontinuity. The discontinuity that I’m referring to isn’t theological so much as chronological and personal. Biblically, there can’t be a clean break or a gap from one dispensation to the next. Moses had to lead the nation of Israel out of Egypt, not some other nation calling itself a new Israel; Jesus has to be a descendant of David in a literal sense; the church can be reformed, but it can’t be lost and then restored.

    In the same vein, biblically, dispensations, because they are continuous, can’t be essentially identical with the previous dispensation, otherwise there wouldn’t be any way to tell them apart. So each new dispensation has to open into a fuller expression of God’s purposes for the world, in such a way that it’s clear that the previous dispensation was just a foreshadowing.

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  3. I don’t know…

    When I read the Bible, the pattern I see is long periods of general disinterest in God or wickedness, punctuated by brief “productive periods” where men searched for God, found Him, and changed humanity’s relationship with the divine.

    Not to mention all the corners of the globe where the “True God” was completely unknown.

    Alienation from the Living God seems to be the norm, not the other way round.

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