At a time when the strident voices of members of the clergy are again heard challenging the right of Mormons to call themselves Christians and denying the divine origin of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the republication of Hugh Nibley's The World and the Prophets can only be most welcome, not only to members of the Church but to fair-minded people everywhere.
The first thirty chapters in this volume were originally delivered as a series of weekly lectures broadcast on KSL Radio from March 7 to October 17, 1954, under the title "Time Vindicates the Prophets." Several of these lectures, therefore, are seasonal, as they were delivered on or around Easter, Independence Day, or Pioneer Day. They were published in book form that same year, and an enlarged second edition appeared in 1962 with the two concluding chapters added at that time. In those editions, as in this one, the character of these presentations as talks has been retained. Just as the Church's beliefs and institutions were under attack when these lectures were first given, so today critics of the Church are again attacking the conception of God held by the Latter-day Saints, their claim to continuous revelation, their belief in Joseph Smith as a prophet of God and in the Book of Mormon as divine scripture, and their insistence that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the true church of Jesus Christ. The answers given by Professor Nibley then are just as valid today as they are timely.
Among the long line of defenders of the Restored Church, Hugh Nibley was the first to equip himself with the knowledge of all the ancient languages, especially Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, together with the historical training needed to read the scriptures in their original tongues and to deal with the other documents of the Early Christian Church. At the same time, he gained a command of the studies of church history and theology, not only in English but also in French, Dutch, and German. I vividly remember, as a young student in his Early Christian Church History course, the impression he made as he brought to class the imposing tomes of Migne's Patrologia, that vast corpus of the writings of the Fathers of the Church, and read to us from the original Greek and Latin.
With this background, he was uniquely qualified to chart the developments of the early Church, both historical and theological, through that period known to Mormons as "the Great Apostasy." He was further able to show that many beliefs of the Restored Church, though totally different in most respects from those of conventional Christianity, are virtually identical with those of the Primitive Church. His purpose, as he himself states, is simple:
We make no attempt to argue out the position of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Here we are simply indicating briefly that for better or for worse, the Mormons consistently find themselves in the company of the ancient saints and, accordingly, far removed from the ways of conventional Christians. . . . It is an historical, not a theological or philosophical, vindication of our prophets.1
It is, of course, gratifying to Latter-day Saints to learn that they share the same attitudes and beliefs regarding God, prophets, revelation, death, miracles, free agency, martyrs, and tradition, among others, with the Early Christian Church. But Professor Nibley does far more than point out such identities of doctrines, practices, and institutions between Latter-day Saint Christians and the early Christians. He also describes with great clarity the process by which the Church changed from an organization with inspired prophets into a thoroughly different and alien institution built upon the learning of men. He shows how prophets were replaced by scholars, revelation by philosophy, inspired preaching by rhetoric; how the testimony of the Holy Ghost was replaced by a self-induced mystical experience, and how for the spiritual gifts and miracles was substituted the magical wonder-making of the pagans. For example, in his masterful analysis of the Council of Nicaea, he describes clearly how the inspired pronouncements of the Apostles were replaced by a creed worked out under the political pressure of the emperor. We learn also how the freedom to believe, which was so highly valued in the Primitive Church, gave way to the stifling authoritarianism of the Byzantine and Medieval churches.
But his most important contribution lies in showing us the tragic consequences entailed in the loss of living prophets, particularly as seen in his not unsympathetic treatment of Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Augustine as they wrestle with the great theological questions of their time and grope for answers, succumbing in the end to the seduction of Greek philosophy. The systematic working out of doctrines by these learned schoolmen and their successors, far from being the colossal achievement often claimed for it, represents in fact a great failure. As Maurice Wiles, Dean of Clare College, Cambridge, equally reminds us concerning the introduction of the most famous of all theological formulas—the unscriptural homoousios—into the Nicene Creed:
To generations of Christians the description of the Son as "of one substance" with the Father has served as a joyous affirmation of the faith in a creed sung at one of the highest moments of Christian worship. Yet that is very far from being the way in which it found entrance into the vocabulary of Christian doctrine. Rather it was admitted with reluctance as being the only available means of excluding Arianism.2
It is thus abundantly clear that the whole philosophical theological enterprise, however well intended, is incompatible with the existence of continuing revelation. For that reason there can never be a theology, a systematic theology as such, in the true Church, and thus we should be overwhelmingly grateful for our living prophets.
Many people have helped prepare this volume for publication, including Rebecca Bishop, Stephen Callister, John Gee, Gary Gillum, Darrell Matthews, Mari Miles, Phyllis Nibley, Don Norton, Stephen Ricks, and Morgan Tanner; their work is greatly appreciated. Funding from Ronald E. Tew and the Brigham Young University Religious Studies Center facilitated this work and is gratefully acknowledged. Professor John W. Welch and the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies deserve our deep appreciation for making this new edition of this important work available once more.
R. Douglas Phillips
1. See below, ch. 7.
2. Maurice Wiles, The Making of Christian Doctrine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), 33.
Key To Abbreviations
PG J.-P. Migne, Patrologiae Cursus Completus . . . Series Graeca (Paris: J.-P. Migne, 1857—1866), 161 volumes.
PL J.-P. Migne, Patrologiae Cursus Completus . . . Series Latina (Paris: J.-P. Migne, 1844—1864), 221 volumes.
Note: More recent and serviceable editions of the texts found in PG and PL are becoming available in Corpus Christianorum, Series Graeca (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1977—); Series Latina (1954—).