Baryy Bickmore's "Restoring the Ancient Church" -- A Critique

Chapter 1 of RAC briefly sets the stage with a summary of methods and affirming Joseph Smith as a prophet of restoration, and contains no arguments as such. We move then to Chapter 2 where the arguing begins in earnest.

RAC Chapter 2 is entitled "Apostasy and Restoration." The first section, subtitled "The Apostasy -- A History," begins by trying to provide a Biblical and historical basis for the supposition that an apostasy occurred. We have already briefly addressed this matter in the Conclusion to my book The Mormon Defenders. The failing of Bickmore and several LDS apologists is, first, in their appeal to Biblical predictions of apostasy that either have a known referent (i.e., the Galatian deviancy of Gal. 1:6-8) or else offer no specific indication that the content of the apostasy would correlate with Mormon claims of apostasy.

Second, Bickmore also appeals to non-Biblical writings of the church (letters of Clement, Ignatius, etc) that speak of refusal to recognize authority, but which nevertheless do not specify how church members are "rebelling". In other words, there is no warning or indication of an apostasy that would have caused a loss that Mormonism claims to be the "restoration" for.

It is therefore presumptive for Bickmore to claim that "Paul spoke of this apostasy" or speaks of "an apostasy already underway" as though there were an apostasy identifiable as one that Mormonism is the "solution" for. Bickmore's admission that the NT gives neither "many specifics" nor a "timetable of the rebellion," is as much as admitting that the "clues" have to be massaged into helping the Mormon position.

Appeals to the occurrence of apostasy in OT times are even less relevant. While they do establish that men do indeed turn away from God, it is of no relevance unless it is demonstrated that they turned in a specific direction from something that looks like Mormonism and to something that does not.

Other citations by Bickmore are misapplied. 2 Tim. 1:15, "that all they which are in Asia be turned away from me," is no indication of apostasy in action but of personal disloyalty by former of Paul's friends. (The word used is indeed apostrepho, but this word means any turning away: "Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away." (Matt. 5:42) 2 Thess. 2:3 refers to a falling away, but by the eschatological timetable offered by Paul this falling away would have had to occur before 70 AD. (Link 1 below.)

This last point is of particular relevance for those who maintain a preterist eschatology, as we do. By this reckoning references to the "last time" (1 John 2:18) do indeed refer to the Lord's return in 70, and Bickmore's attempt to read the "last time" in terms of it being "because the Antichrist had come and the Church was about to be taken away from the earth" [29] suffers a serious setback.

Notably, his insistence that 2 Thess. 2:1-4, referring to the "son of perdition" sitting in the Temple and claiming to be God, is "difficult to imagine...if the Church was to remain" fails on the preterist interpretation that sees this "son of perdition" as the Roman general Titus razing the Jewish Temple and erecting Roman standards in the courtyard. That this is followed by the millennial reign of Christ in preterist thinking even more deeply injures the Mormon position.

Bickmore also fallaciously deduces from single letters of Clement and Ignatius to particular churches that "rejection of approved authority was widespread" and that there was a "general problem in this area at the time..." [33] In effect Bickmore is trying to expand single, local warnings into much broader ones. What Bickmore calls a "stern rebuke" from Clement does not even name names or light a match. Nor does it say why the Corinthians rejected the persons in question, or why they have strife -- there is no indication that it had anything to do with doctrinal issues; indeed, if some matter of doctrine were at issue (as opposed to a matter of clashing personalities, for example, which is the most natural reading), one wonders why Clement said nothing about it or offered a doctrinal correction.

Clement offers no hint of "rejection of approved authority" in a way that helps Bickmore's case. Bickmore cites (but does not quote) Chapter 7 of Ignatius' letter to the Trallians as an example of problems with authority.

Really? "He that is within the sanctuary is clean; but he that is without the sanctuary is not clean, that is, he that doeth aught without the bishop and presbytery and deacons, this man is not clean in his conscience."

That's all that is said. Isn't this rather overstated to say that this shows a "general problem" with respecting authority? No more so than it does today in any church -- whether mainstream or LDS, and I doubt if that means that any of us are on the way to further apostasy for our fellowships as a whole.

What about Ignatius' Ephesians 2, which Bickmore also cites but does not quote? "May I have joy of you always, if so be I am worthy of it. It is therefore meet for you in every way to glorify Jesus Christ who glorified you; that being perfectly joined together in one submission, submitting yourselves to your bishop and presbytery, ye may be sanctified in all things."

There is nothing here but a simple exhortation to remain a unified body -- a quite necessary exhortation in the face of the numerous social pressures the early church was under, and in light of the collectivist nature of ancient society. This exhortation had nothing to do with any sort of particular rebellion, much less with a doctrinal apostasy.

The closest we get to that is Smyrneans 8: "[But] shun divisions, as the beginning of evils. Do ye all follow your bishop, as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and the presbytery as the Apostles; and to the deacons pay respect, as to God's commandment. Let no man do aught of things pertaining to the Church apart from the bishop. Let that be held a valid eucharist which is under the bishop or one to whom he shall have committed it."

Doctrinal apostasy? No, more like simple procedural violations. There is nothing here to support Bickmore's case.

Perhaps Bickmore's greatest misuse of Ignatius is his cite of Romans 9: "Remember in your prayers the church which is in Syria, which hath God for its shepherd in my stead. Jesus Christ alone shall be its bishop -- He and your love." Bickmore takes this as evidence that "the Church was in the process of shutting down at the time, and the true 'succession' was about to end..."

The example of ONE fellowship is a marker for the ENTIRE church? And how do we assume that the vacancy was permanent? There were no other ranking persons who could come and help fill the vacancy left by Ignatius? Not one word cited by Bickmore from any of these documents mentions specific doctrinal issues -- that they speak generally of "schisms" does not in any way aid the Mormon case.

Bickmore's next section is titled "Directions of Apostasy." There is nothing to argue with as such here; Bickmore summarizes some of the variations that emerged in the second century (Jewish Christianity; Gnosticism; etc). What is missing is any evidence that any one of these variations were in any sense similar to Mormonism, and beyond that was the one variant that represented the authentic and original faith. Merely quoting Davies as saying that Mormonism "re-Judaized" Christianity would make for a nice thesis statement, but standing alone and undeveloped accomplishes nothing.

It especially accomplishes nothing if Bickmore tells us that this "Jewish Christianity" was actually one of the deviants from the norm. Bickmore in fact admits that "none of the various branches of post-Apostolic Christianity had 'the fullness of the Gospel.'"

Bickmore follows with the normal LDS apologetic suggestions of causes for the apostasy. The main "devil" of course is interchange with Greek philosophical ideas, with the normal citation of Edwin Hatch's work -- which, as we noted in The Mormon Defenders, made no effort to discern whether any of the Greek philosophical imports in any significant sense deviated from the "pure" New Testament church message. If anything, we showed that Greek philosophy would have produced ideas that ended up being pronounced heretical -- such as Arianism.

The next section is titled "The Effect of the Apostasy." Bickmore embarks upon an explanation of some of what he supposes the church lost on the way to apostasy. It is in this section that I find a couple of the chapter's most outrageous errors.

One of these is a cite of Mark 16:17-18, which has been conclusively shown (Link 2 below) to not be from the original ending of Mark. Admittedly this does not affect Bickmore's primary point, that the church once had spiritual gifts which (other than claims by Pentecostal/Charismatic believers) are apparently no longer active in the church, and which he takes as a sign of apostasy.

Looking at whether indeed the gifts are gone is beside our present scope, but we have a question which Bickmore does not address. If the loss of the gifts was a sign of apostasy, then wouldn't a sign of restoration -- as supposedly the Mormon church represents -- be therefore accompanied by a restoration of the gifts as well? Bickmore does not address this question; perhaps he would say "no" and have good reason. But otherwise, we would ask whether members of the LDS church are today healing, speaking in tongues, working miracles, or discerning spirits -- in ways that have been verified where the mainstream versions have not.

A small section follows on the canon of Scripture. Our own view of the matter is found in Link 3 below, which Bickmore would find to be less stringent than he might expect. However, we would issue the same challenge to Bickmore as we would others: If there is some document out that needs to be in, or vice versa, state your case for why. It is not enough to merely object that the canon was closed and assume it was done without or regardless of divine approval.

Otherwise we may simply counter (to use Bickmore's example) that the Montanist heresy was God's way of getting the church to close the canon.

There is then a short section on textual criticism. The treatment here is not adequate and our item in Link 4 below, though mostly addressed to skeptical arguments, nevertheless offers a corrective. Among Bickmore's cites are the claims we addressed in TMD about an alleged cite missing from Jeremiah (the Dead Sea Scrolls show no evidence of such a passage, and they predate Christianity) and a rather uncritical application of a quote by Origen, which does not say anything about the extent of the transmission errors, how they may have affected any particular doctrine, or whether these changes were passing the scrutiny of authority. This is still Bickmore appealing to evidence that is far from specific enough to help him.

Finally Bickmore calls in Bart Ehrman's findings. We dealt with Ehrman in the essay linked above, but would add that of all the doctrinal corruptions Ehrman found any real proof for, none were against anything that would have been favorable to a Mormon understanding of the NT. Guilt by association does not establish the matter.

A section follows on the supposed need for prophets to interpret scripture. 2 Peter 1:20 is offered: "Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation." Bickmore takes this to mean that prophets are to interpret scripture, but that is not what the text says.

The following verse sets the context: "For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost." Peter's point is that the source of prophecy is not men, not that only certified prophets can interpret Scripture. A cite from the very late Clementine Recognitions comes closer to saying what Bickmore requires, but its very lateness discredits it as a worthwhile source to apply to the Apostolic Church.

Finally an appeal to Matthew 16:17 is useless, for it only refers to the specific revelation of Jesus' divinity to Peter and does not in any sense indicate thereby that any or all prophecy requires a prophet for interpretation.

A cite from Ignatius' letter to Philadelphia is offered next, and Bickmore reads it as saying that Ignatius "rebuked those who naively assumed that if any truth was to be had they could just read it out of the scriptures..." The passage says no such thing; it says:

Do ye nothing in a spirit of factiousness but after the teaching of Christ. For I heard certain persons saying, If I find it not in the charters, I believe it not in the Gospel. And when I said to them, It is written, they answered me That is the question. But as for me, my charter is Jesus Christ, the inviolable charter is His cross and His death and His resurrection, and faith through Him; wherein I desire to be justified through your prayers.

Far from being a rebuke to those who thought they could find truth in the scriptures on their own, and assuredly not referring such people to prophets for interpretation, this is a response by Ignatius to those who took the OT (here, "charters") as a superior authority over the Gospel message, to which Ignaitus replies that the historical reality of Christ's death and resurrection trumps all, as it indeed does. It was the ultimate vindication of Christ by the Father.

Bickmore next appeals to Papias' comment that he sought out living voices to tell him about things rather than searching in books. Like many critics Bickmore badly misapprehends the point of this passage. It does not support a preference of prophets over text, but of oral transmission from any source as preferable to text.

As we reported elsewhere: Lentz [Lent.OLHG, 77]offers a reason why oral tradition was preserved even after the advent of written versions: "The ancients often called the written word into question because it did not have the authority of an honest man's character to support its credibility." In other words, you can't ask a piece of paper questions to be sure that it is telling the truth.

Up next is a quote from Irenaeus who "insisted that one could not interpret the Scriptures correctly without the aid of elders who had passed down the unwritten tradition from the Apostles..." This is perfectly sensible in terms of normal information transmission processes but provides no support for the idea that one needed a person with special prophetic authority to interpret the Scriptures correctly.

Finally Justin Martyr is quoted as saying that "neither by nature nor by human conception is it possible for men to know things great and divine" but by a gift from above. This does not say anything about an ability to interpret the writings of Scripture.

The final section of the chapter is titled, "The Necessity of a Restoration." Here Bickmore misapplies several Biblical verses:

The chapter closes with an appendix on Matt. 16:18 which we conceptually answered in The Mormon Defenders chapter on postmortem salvation, and another appendix on monasticism we see no reason to take issue with.


Chapter 2 of RAC is one that we covered considerably (whether directly or conceptually) in The Mormon Defenders Chapters 1-3 and 8. The reader will also find relevant material in Links 6-10 below.

Here are some comments otherwise:


Chapter 4 of RAC is covered substantially by Chapters 4-7 of The Mormon Defenders; readers may also wish to consult our items at Links 12 and 13 bewlow. Some accessory comments:

  • Bickmore notes that Joseph Smith taught that Adam was the archangel Michael in premortal existence, and still retains a certain authority. To favor this Bickmore draws as a parallel a passage from a Coptic Christian document which says that "No angel is allowed to come upon the earth unless the name of Michael is written upon his garments..." He claims "similarity" but there is no similarity at all -- Adam is in no way connected with Michael.

    The only "similarity" is that Michael is a figure of authority, and Smith would know that from Biblical traditions. Comparisons to Jewish-Christian traditions that say that Adam "had been a helper in creation" do not make a "Michael" connection either. Bickmore is left to admit that he has "no direct evidence" for an Adam-Michael connection and can only say that "there are some tantalizing clues that indicate that this might have once been the case." Regrettably this is far from enough to be persuasive.

  • Some comments are offered with relation to the LDS idea that the Fall was a "necessary step in the process of salvation..." Of course we would remark that God would make lemonade out of the lemons that came of the Fall in any event; but Bickmore tries to find parallels to the LDS idea in patristic literature that, as we do, stresses that God "made good" of the Fall.

    This does not establish that the Fall was regarded as a "necessary step" at all, for none of the writers say anything suggesting that a better result would have occurred without the Fall, which is necessary for a comparison to be drawn to Mormon doctrine.

  • Bickmore asserts that the doctrine of the resurrection body was "lost" but that is simply not the case; see link 14 below. (Though it may be correct to say that few today realize the full implications of the doctrine). On the millennium see link 15 below.
  • In an Appendix a quite questionable parallel is drawn between a Jewish legend that Adam was given a vision of his posterity and D and C 107:56 which says that Adam made predictions about his posterity. This is a stretch that is as inapt as any found in The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark. More universal is a parallel to a belief that there is more to this creation than our world -- which is simply a "common-sense" matter that we would expect to appear in a variety of religious speculations.

    Chapter 5 of RAC on church organization and life begins with little that is disagreeable; part of it we cover in Link 16 below. Bickmore notes the presence of an authority structure in the early church, and describes it in some detail; none of this is disagreeable, but none of this is special either. The church followed the organizational method of the Jewish synagogue and would hardly be expected to NOT have some sort of authority structure; otherwise it would have been an entirely unique institution in the ancient world.

    Secondarily Bickmore aims to show that offices and functions in the LDS church "restore" those in the early church. There seems to be little here that should convince us that Smith was restoring offices on authority as opposed to simply using plainly-seen Biblical models. With due respect, any organization (indeed some non-LDS groups) can claim to have "apostles" and "prophets" with great ease.

    The LDS "Seventy" and "Twelve" may be copies of the groups of that number in the Bible, but of what "magic" was this to "restore"? Bickmore is unable to draw any connections that would suggest a restoration of an office that could not have been known from the Bible itself, and is left at best to draw loose parallels between "stake" officials and bishops, for example, or between methods of appointment to a position -- thus merely drawing parallels between hierarchical models that can be found anywhere from a corporation to a church body.

    In the end Bickmore concludes that various modern LDS offices "may or may not have been present" in the early church, but adds that "one need not expect the early Christian Church to have had all the same offices because Joseph Smith claimed to have restored priesthood offices from all former dispensations." Evidentially, in terms of proving Smith "restored" anything and had the authority to do so, this is of little use.

    Bickmore's sections on the celebration of the Lord's Day, worship, anointing the sick, tithing (though see link 17 below; 10% was NOT the norm for all persons), and the sacraments contain little effort to draw parallels beyond what all churches now accept, or else what can be seen to have been done in the NT as accessible to Joseph Smith, or what is simply a common-sense practice (i.e., fasting correlated with tithing).

    Bickmore finds a connection between the LDS use of water in communion and abstention from wine by Ebionites with Nazarite vows. This doesn't seem to mean very much; water and wine were basically the only ancient drinks in town, and they are mentioned side by side in the Bible (1 Tim. 5:23). We also showed in link 18 below that abstention from alcohol was not a unique LDS practice.


    Chapter 6 of RAC proves, from a practical standpoint, to be almost impossible to evaluate for a non-LDS. Most of the chapter concerns comparisons to Mormon Temple rituals, and since these are "under wraps" this chapter can only be fairly evaluated by those who have been through LDS Temple ceremonies. Therefore our comments will be limited, even though the chapter is quite extensive.

    The reader may see Ch. 7 of The Mormon Defenders for some material on eternal marriage, but here is some more as presented by Bickmore, taken from elsewhere:

    Those who are married in Latter-day Saint temples are "sealed" so that the union lasts beyond the Resurrection and into eternity, provided the participants reach the highest degree of glory in heaven. (D&C 132:15-17) This is often considered one of the most bizarre LDS beliefs, especially given a certain statement by Jesus:
    "The same day came to him the Sadducees, which say that there is no resurrection, and asked him... Now there were with us seven brethren: and the first, when he had married a wife, deceased, and, having no issue, left his wife unto his brother: Likewise the second also, and the third, unto the seventh. And last of all the woman died also. Therefore in the resurrection whose wife shall she be of the seven? for they all had her. Jesus answered and said unto them, Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven." (Matthew 22:23-30)

    Bickmore also notes the added answer from Luke that "And Jesus answering said unto them, The children of this world marry, and are given in marriage..." Given this passage, one might suppose that this is a defeat for any idea of celestial marriage as far as Jesus is concerned. But Bickmore argues:

    One must realize that Jesus would never have cast this, his most precious pearl, before the Sadducee swine, who did not even believe in a resurrection and were only trying to trap Jesus in his words. Given that, what was Jesus talking about? The "children of this world", not the children of God, are the ones who remain separate in the resurrection. And indeed, the seven brothers in question were "children of this world", for they were apostate Sadducees ("there were with us seven brethren"). Jesus was merely warning the Sadducees of their ultimate fate without revealing His most sacred mystery. Those who fail to participate in this sacred rite in this world, whether in person or by proxy, "neither marry, nor are given in marriage," because all such contracts have already been finalized. Interpreted in this way, the passage is not at all contradictory to LDS belief.

    The problem with this is, Jesus specifically says, in the resurrection. That means everyone, good and evil.

    In his book, though, Bickmore offers:

    ...certain aspects of the ancient ceremonies I will present are similar to the temple ceremony, and certain aspects are not. (Very little doctrine or practice was transmitted through the apostasy without changes or corruptions, and given their esoteric nature the temple ceremonies would probably have been among the first ordinances to become corrupted or lost.)

    The resort to unattested "changes and corruptions" and loss essentially makes such appeals rationally beyond evaluation and therefore practically of no use. The only substantive comparisons Bickmore can draw are:

    • The use of secrecy in early Church doctrines and practices. This is such a universal that it is useless as a parallel. A majority of religious faiths have some "secret" doctrines or practices, or at least those that are not generally shared with outsiders.

      Beyond this the reason for the church's secrecy (and that of other religions) on a certain level was nothing more than a typical social paradigm of the ancient world as a collectivist society. All "ingroups" had certain specific traditions and information to which "outsiders" had no right. The pattern continues today even under the culture of the individual, but to a lesser extent.

      Beyond that the general pattern of performance of rites and giving of instructions, and practices such as dancing in a circle or raising arms in the air, are universal performances.

    • In terms of paralleling the "content" of secret tradition, Bickmore has only the generalization that rites re-enacted "the journey from earth to heaven." This is almost quite as general and nearly as meaningless as the first point. This "journey" is a natural attraction point for esoteric speculation, since it concerns the universal experience of death. The mystery religions, for example, had a focus that could be described in the same general terms.
    • One of the few specifics described by Bickmore here is the wearing of a linen robe. However he draws a parallel from the questionable Secret Gospel of Mark (link 19 below).

      Beyond that the wearing of linen robes is described in the OT, and the practice of clothing one's self in different garb during a passage in life was, and still is, a universal.

    • Finally, it is noteworthy that Bickmore parallels the LDS belief in a "Heavenly Mother" with Hebrew worship of a "Queen of Heaven" that is condemned in Jeremiah (hence providing no real support for parallels to LDS belief, even though the LDS do not worship this being either) and to the feminine Wisdom with which Jesus identified himself.

    Ultimately Bickmore resorts to the begged question answer that universals in practice are explained by the giving of such endowments to Adam, and that "remnants" of true practice remain in these later religions. At this point again the paradigm is explaining the data rather than the data explaining the paradigm.


    Conclusion: RAC's attempt to draw parallels between patristic and LDS practice meet well -- as long as one sticks with religious "universals" and common sense. Where the rubber of specifics meets the road of parallelism, however, RAC fails to deliver, and offers no sure reason to think that Joseph Smith prophetically restored any doctrine of the early church.

    -JPH

    Links

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