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There exists a group today which seeks to restore "plain and precious things" to our understanding of the Christian Gospel and the Bible, and I stand behind their efforts 100%.
No, I do not mean Mormonism. I am referring to a coterie of scholars known as the Context Group.
This small but ardent group of scholars has an admirable goal: to reframe our understanding of how to read the Bible and to understand what it meant according to those who first wrote it. Using decades of research into ethnography and social psychology as a background, the Context Group has been slowly unraveling the ethnocentric and anachronistic work of western Biblical scholars whose imperious attitude has caused them to read the Bible through a modern lens and do violence to its meaning. We have featured some of their works here, including Malina and Neyrey's Portraits of Paul and Pilch and Malina's Handbook of Biblical Social Values.
We have so far used the materials of the Context Group in various settings to refute the contentions of Skeptics. But the work of the Context Group also raises a serious question for Mormons, and for that matter, for any group that does or might presume to possess prophetic authority to say that modern Christianity is out of place. And that question is, if Mormonism has truly restored the Gospel, then why did we never hear from any of its prophets of the need to restore the vital way of thinking and understanding the Context Group has been telling us about?
Modern Christianity, especially American Christianity, lacks a vital understanding of the Christian life because our way of thinking is so different from that of the first Christians. We will not here rehash all of these differences, as we have been doing so in various place on this site already, but here are a couple of salient examples:
- Individualist vs. collectivist -- our modern individualism causes us to vastly misapprehend and misapply the Bible's teachings on sharing and sacrifice. In line with this as well, the church was far more participatory and interactive (1 Cor.12:4-27; 14:26; Eph.4:15-16; Rom.12:3-8; 1 Pet.4:10-11; Heb. 10:23-25; Rom. 12:15; 1 Cor.12:26) Participants were allowed to question (Acts 20:7; 1Cor. 14:29-35). Even Synagogue worship allowed more interaction at this time.
Philip Schaff has noted: "...any Jew of age might get up to read the lessons, offer prayer, and address the congregation." (Philip Schaff, History Of The Christian Church, Hendrickson, 1:459). We also see Jesus teaching in the synagogues (Lu.4:18-30; Mt.4:23; 13:54-58; Mk.1:21; Jn.18:20) Moreover, we find Paul preaching about Jesus in the Synagogue (Acts 9:20; Acts 14:1; Acts 17:10-12; Acts 18:4), and Paul and Barnabas visiting a Synagogue in Pisidia and being asked to preach when neither Paul or Banabas were known in this Synagogue.
"Hence at the bottom of every group is the sequence: aware--share--compare--declare." (Modelling Early Christianity: Social-Scientific Studies of the New Testament in its Context, Philip F. Esler, 99)
- Guilt vs. shame -- the ancients did not "feel" guilt, and much of our theology is premised upon a theology of guilt
- Honor -- the ancients lived in an agonistic setting; their behavior is only completely understood once we understand this setting (which for example changes entirely the meaning of Mark 10:18 -- Link 1 below -- and means it is not the "denial of divinity" Skeptics think it is)
- The meaning of such important words as faith, grace,, and mercy, which are quite different from the meanings accepted by most American Christians
It cannot be resorted to that these are matters non-essential to salvation and so there was no reason for Smith to say anything about them. If Smith purported to reveal and restore the fullness of the Gospel, then these are elements that are essential for living the Christian life and being an effective disciple. Without this understanding we can only be rough facsimiles of early Christians at worst, or at best, we are "anachronisms" who live in some ways as we should even as our brethren do not.
It has been commented by more than one missionary that churches in the so-called "Third World" seem much more vibrant, much more alive, and much more in touch with their faith than American and western churches. This is not an accident, for the thinking of these peoples is, including on the differences noted above, more like that of those who wrote the Bible than it is like ours.
It is, moreover, undeniable that Joseph Smith, had he possessed true prophetic insight, would have been in a unique position to direct American Christianity down the path of the early church. At his time America could still have been molded in a less individualistic direction and have become more accustomed to thinking and living as people in the Bible did. Mormon prophets from Smith and beyond should have been telling us to adjust our thinking and understanding. They should have spoken of honor and shame, of the mutation of individualism that would rob American Christianity of its grasp of the "plain and precious" fullness of the Gospel message.
Smith, like many leaders, did try to instill an imitation of the early church's collectivist actions, but failed to provide the groundwork of collective thinking needed to support it (or adjust as needed -- see what happens without such a framework here). They should have given us these interpretive keys that would have pre-empted the misunderstandings of Skeptics on passages like Mark 10:18 (or at the very least given us ready answers to such misunderstandings) and prevented the ethnocentric anachronizing of western Biblical scholarship.
So the question now is, why did we hear of none of this from the words of the LDS prophets? Why indeed do we not hear of it from any group claiming prophetic authority, whether it be a Benny Hinn or a Watchtower publication?
I think apologists for such groups will be hard-pressed to answer these questions. They must either deny the relevance of these issues (a denial which would ring hollow in the face of anemic western Christianity) or claim that the work of the Context Group is flawed (which they cannot do). The silence of the prophets on these matters offers an enormous conundrum for alternate faiths.
We have received a response on this subject, though the source is somewhat muddled as it seems to have come from several directions at once. Hence we will reserve "credit" and simply comment on what is stated (though some of the above is updated as well). This article was referred to below as "PMPT" (an acronym for a former title).
Objection #1: Is it real? There are several obvious questions that must be asked about the underlying assumptions of PMPT. The first, of course, is whether or not the scholars have correctly identified "the vital way of thinking and understanding" of New Testament Christians, or even if there is just one such "way of thinking." Although the first few decades of the New Testament era was characterized by a relatively homogeneous group of Christian followers, by the end of the first century the Church had grown to include people of nearly every subculture within the Roman Empire and in nearly every city of the Roman world. Have the Context Group scholars really identified a single worldview of the New Testament believers?
The answer to all of this is yes, and I am frankly disappointed that such an answer came from LDS respondents. This is substantively equal to one Skeptic's attempt (Link 2 below) to disrespect a Context Group member and trump him using only an NIV and his own opinion.
The Context Group's work is supported by hundreds of years of collective experience in social science and anthropological studies, and the entire Roman world, the ancient Mediterranean, was homogenous in the sense described above (collectivist, etc). This is not even open to question.
Objection #2: Is it essential? Exactly what elements of the New Testament Christian life are part of the true and eternal Gospel? Should Joseph Smith have urged his followers to wear sandals; eat dates; and speak Greek, Latin, or Aramaic? Should he have encouraged them to accept slavery as a part of the social fabric of society? Should Joseph Smith have encouraged the Latter-day Saints to reject republican democracy as a valid form of government since it was not part of the political worldview of the New Testament Christians?
One's dress and diet and mode of speech and government are external reflections; one's way of thinking is an internal that affects all externals. A worldview is not to be compared to what T shirt we want to wear.
Objection #3: And how? And how exactly does all of the industrial and technological components of the modern world fit into the New Testament view of life, which was primarily based on agricultural, basic cottage industries, and trade?
That's precisely the point. A true "restorer" of the Gospel should have explained how to make such applications. That he didn't is a serious sign, as we see it, that Smith did not possess any unusual prophetic insight.
If PMPT is going to assert that a certain view of the world is not just characteristic of the New Testament Church, but that it is fundamental to the very definition of Christianity in all ages and one that must be restored by any one claiming to have a prophetic calling, the burden of proof lies squarely on the shoulders of the authors and seems beyond the scope of what can be supplied by the research of the Context Group, however capable those scholars may be.
And they have proven it. Now it's the turn of our opponents to do their research.
Objection #4: It's not relevant. A third question derives from the PMPT assumption that Joseph Smith, had he been a true prophet, should have somehow been involved in directing, focusing, or shaping American Christianity. Joseph Smith made it quite clear that his prophetic calling was not to mold or reshape the existing religious system, but rather to simply restore the true Gospel message and a God-directed church to implement and spread that message.
Regardless of how wide he cast the net, the point is that Smith didn't reform in a way that gave us the fullness we needed to grasp the full Gospel message contextually. The "new order" didn't restore this core of the older order.
PMPT is trying to define, without the benefit of a prophetic vision itself, what message and mission God would give to a modern prophet.
This is in effect a begged question of prophetic authority. It and comments of like mind that follow ("Why don't Holding stop trying to tell God what issues they feel are the most important, and instead listen to what God has to say?") do not deserve or require an answer as they have no rational basis in context.
Objection #5: "But he did." Early LDS attempts at social, economic, and religious collectivism clearly is a move away from the more individualistic focus that PMPT declares to be out of sync with New Testament views.
As noted above, this is equal to restoring walls and a roof while not restoring the foundation; see link 3 below for an example.
Joseph Smith's revelations on the Fall, Original Sin, the divine nature of mankind, and the relationship between man and God all seem to be moves in the right direction, if not squarely in tune with the New Testament emphasis as determined by the Context Group scholars.
This is not explained in detail in the response, so an answer is hardly possible. The Context Group's work says little or nothing about the Fall, Original Sin, and the nature of mankind. It has defined the relationship between God and man in terms of the ancient client-patron relationship, and that is another thing Smith didn't seem to mention.
The PMPT discussion of the order of worship is particularly strange. The scriptures referenced say nothing one way or the other about how a worship service should be held, and almost nothing about how they really were held during New Testament times.
That information has been derived from the social context background data, and remained something that Smith did not mention or follow.
The scriptures cited say that each member is valued and is an important part of the whole and that individual members are given various gifts to bless the rest of the church.
This is not "inidividualism" at all but the recognized value of the collective. The argument merely interprets the paradigm in individualist (anachronistic) terms. It is not a matter of restoring structures or actions (which can be easily imitated by anyone who reads the text) but of restoring ways of thinking that are not outlined in the text and cannot be copied by an uninformed reader.
Objection #6: We weren't ready for it. We are not supposed to run faster than we have strength [Mosiah 4:27; D&C: 10:4]. In fact we humans, really, are still stuck in learning the lesson about faith and repentance [D&C 19:21-2: "I command you that you preach naught but repentance, and show not these things unto the world until it is wisdom in me. For they cannot bear meat now, but milk they must receive."].
That's not a bad thought, but the problem is that Joseph Smith did not restore the proper concept of faith. As the New Testament Church saw faith as "evidence of things not seen." This is incomprehensible in today's society, but was very much a part of the thinking of the New Testament Church.This can be demonstrated by the miracles done by Jesus, his disciples (Luke 10:19) and his Apostles (See especially the Book of Acts). For more examples of how Christianity (yes, even mainstream Christianity) has a misapprehended "faith" compared to the NT Church see link 4 below (and this is tied in of course with repentance).
Finally it is asked, Just what is it about this short ridiculous article entitled PMPT that is supposed to make us leave our testimony of the Lord's true church anyway?
I'd say not to leave it -- just reform it from within. Get it in line with the truth. I'd rather see a Mormon Reformation than a Mormon deconstruction.
This leads to some corollary issues; see more here.