Prophets and Reformers
Our text for this discussion is Hebrews 6:4—5: "It is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come" — At this point we pause and ask the church historians just what is impossible regarding those people who have been blessed with every gift and power that God gives to men on earth? To our question we receive the unanimous and reassuring answer that it is impossible for people once so mightily endowed ever wholly to lose the gospel; God has not given his greatest gifts to men, we are assured, simply to have them turn their backs on him. Is it possible or even conceivable, the churchmen have asked in every century, that after giving such great blessings and signs and wonders to the church, God should ever remove his Spirit from it or rather remove his church from the earth? Here is the answer of the Apostle (and the Apostolic Fathers later confirm it with passion): it is possible, entirely possible, for those who have received the greatest promises and blessings that heaven bestows to lose everything; the words of the author of Hebrews are meant as a warning against just that. What is not possible is that men who have once lost those blessings should ever regain them again by any efforts of their own: "It is impossible . . . if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance" (Hebrews 6:6). Our author then compares such people to ground which has become overgrown with thorns and briers. Other land, he says, can drink rain from heaven and bring forth vegetation when the time of refreshment comes, but for that land that was once rich in goodly herbs and then turned to weeds there is no such hope: "But that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned" (Hebrews 6:8). The Pastor of Hermas reminds the church again and again that after a certain day soon to come it will no longer be possible for Christians to repent or reform though repentance will continue to remain open to the heathen. There is, we are informed in this wonderful writing, a point of no return for the church beyond which reform will be impossible.
Perhaps the foremost living authority on the history of Christianity, the German Lutheran scholar Heinrich Bornkamm, has stated in a recent book that there are just two periods in church history; the first, he says, is that of "Hellenization, that is, the absorption of antique sacramental religion into the early Catholic and Medieval Church," and the second is the period of "the purging of the Church of these foreign elements following the Reformation, that is, the epoch of recapturing the prophetic religiosity of Primitive Christianity."1 Read in the light of conventional church histories of the past, this statement is really quite an astonishing admission: first of the extent to which alien and unchristian things came to displace the real gospel; and second of the fact that any return to the pure religion of Christ must necessarily be a return to prophetic religion. Can such a return be achieved by reformation? It cannot. For one thing, Bornkamm speaks as if the pagan elements in Christianity were a single concrete intrusion of a foreign body into the organism, a hard, unassimilated lump which needed simply to be rejected in one piece to restore perfect health to the ailing system. Yet no one knows or describes better than Bornkamm how long and thorough the process of assimilation has been. The teachings of the schools and the practices of the world have become an integral part of the organism; they have transformed it completely; we have already quoted scholars of various faiths who all marvel at the perfect organic union of the Christian and classical traditions into a new and perfectly integrated whole. Could the church suddenly and easily slough off what had been completely assimilated into its very being for over a thousand years, to return again to what she had been before the great compromise with the world? Can one reconvert a petrified organism that has been transmuted from one substance to another through the centuries, molecule by molecule? Or, to use the figure employed by the Lord himself, when salt has lost its savor there is only one thing to do with it—throw it out (Matthew 5:13). To corrupt the gospel is to lose it; the plan of salvation and the Church of Jesus Christ may not be changed without being lost and when lost may not be regained by any process of reformation. This is not narrowness or pedantry; we see it in all our basic institutions.
When a language is changed, whether for better or for worse, that language is lost, and the only way we can find it again is to discover ancient and undefiled sources—all the zeal in the world can never reform us back to early English. A French scholar has recently asked, can we revive classical studies by reproducing "the miracle of the Renaissance?" The Renaissance was not actually a revival of ancient learning, however, but a wholly new type of learning based on the study of the ancients, and what brought it about was not the work of reformers but the accidental discovery of ancient texts preserved in some purity by centuries of complete neglect. Consider the gospel in this light: When the covenants were broken and the ordinances changed, and the churches taught for doctrines the commandments of men, the old gospel was simply no longer there. Today church historians, Protestant and Catholic alike, agree that this was so, and they easily reconcile themselves to the situation by insisting that what took the place of the old church was really something much better, something far more fit for survival in a wicked world, much more available to the grasp and amenable to the taste of the average man. The early church, they explain, was something hopelessly impractical and of extremely limited popular appeal; therefore, it had to go; it was merely a tiny acorn from which a mighty oak was to grow, etc. Well, what interests us here is not their explanation and justification of what happened, but the admission that it did happen. The primitive church was changed, and thereby the primitive church was lost. And to this we add the thesis that such loss was an irreversible process. Reformation could no more bring it back than it could bring back Old English, eighteenth-century monarchy, or the thinking of the Scipionic Circle.
In the earliest Christian writings we often come across the prediction regarding the future of the church that the sheep would turn to wolves. What would they be in that case—a new breed of sheep? Not a bit of it: the sheep as such would cease to exist, however loudly the wolves might continue to call themselves sheep and parade their Christian background and tradition and name. The Lord and the Apostles use the examples of the salt that is spoiled, the tares that destroy the wheatfield until they can be burned, the wolves that destroy the flock, and the sheep that turn into wolves, precisely because weeds and wolves, briers, and salt that has lost its savor are things that can never be reformed: they are beyond saving. "In the days of old," writes Duchesne, "Christians had cursed the Babylon of the Seven Hills; now they were conquering her and were going to convert her. What triumph could be more desirable?"2 That was the fourth century view, but, as Duchesne knows, for the true Christians Babylon was never going to be converted or reformed. Babylon, like the tares and the brambles, had but one fate in store for it—it was reserved for the burning. It was common for the earliest Christian writers to speak of the church as a virgin. "Up to that time," wrote Hegesippus, speaking of the end of the apostolic age, "the Church had remained a pure and uncorrupted virgin."3 Can that status when lost—and Hegesippus says it was lost—ever be acquired again? What about repentance, you ask; wasn't Israel, though her sins were as scarlet, to be washed white as snow? (Isaiah 1:18). Yes, but never by reformation—always by restoration. If Israel is ever renewed, it must be by a new covenant and a new Jerusalem—and such can never be worked out by men here below; they must always come from above.
Such a renewal came in the time of Christ. He restored the gospel to the earth; he did not attempt to reform the doctrines and institutions he found there. As a reformer he would have been welcomed by the Jewish and Hellenic worlds, as we have noted before; reform was in the air, and the early Christians greatly offended by refusing to join in the ecumenical movements of the times. 4 Christ brought the true teachings of Moses, Abraham, and the prophets; but he did not obtain them by antiquarian researches; he made no attempt to establish an historical continuity with them, as all the Christian churches do. What he brought to men he brought directly from the presence of the Father; that is why it was identical with what the other prophets had received—not because he got it from them, but because they too had received direct revelation from on high. As Eusebius tells us, in every dispensation the eternal gospel is brought to the earth as something new. We have talked on this before; what we want to emphasize now is that the Lord never renews his work on earth by reforming old things. The gospel is not built on old traditions. When God sets up his work in any age of the world he chooses his own instruments, and they are bright and shining ones, clean and undefiled, whether institutions or men and women. He does not leave them to guess and wonder, as the great reformers, Protestant and Catholic, do through decades of perplexity and doubt, but calls them directly from heaven, often as children—as David, Samuel, Nephi, and Joseph Smith were called—before they have any knowledge of the world at all. The reformer takes his cue from the world about him—the prophet never does. The sad state of the world may lead one to call upon God, and as a result God may speak to one directly, but the mere recognition that this is a wicked world and that the divine order is sorely needed in it does not constitute a call from God to establish that order. The Lord chose his Apostles from among men who showed no signs of wishing to reform the world, each being apparently resigned to his position in life; Paul was actually a reactionary seeking to defend the status quo when the Lord called him.
A reformer is one keenly aware of the abuses in the world about him, who wants to do all he can to remedy things. Any honest and alert person can discover on every side much need for reform in this dark and dreary world; and God expects us all to engage in such activities on our own initiative, as did the Good Samaritan. But God's work is not founded on the wickedness of men. There is nothing negative about it. Who does not know that men are foolish and unkind? "It needs no ghost come from the dead, my lord, to tell us that." If the purpose of man's existence were but to remedy evil, he would be a dependent of the devil. "If the gentiles have not charity," said the Lord to Moroni, "it mattereth not unto thee." There is nothing negative in the gospel. If we have said a great deal about the falling away and the loss of the true gospel to mankind in ancient times, let us make it clear here and now that such a teaching is not a part of the gospel at all; it is not found in the Articles of Faith; it has no bearing at all upon the plan of life and salvation; Joseph Smith almost never referred to it. We only mention the great apostasy because it is an historical point on which we are constantly being challenged: "How can you say," we are asked every day, "that the gospel of Jesus Christ has been restored to the earth if the Christian church has never ceased to be here?"
One answer to that question is found in the activities of the reformers. Let us make it clear that the attempt to reform the Christian church to its lost state of pristine purity did not begin with Luther. In every century since the Apostles men have made determined attempts to reform the church, and they have always run into the same problem that Luther did, namely the question: Who has the right to inaugurate reform? We know who can amend the Constitution, as we know who established it. But with the church it is an entirely different thing. It was established by Jesus Christ personally. If any amendments, changes, or reforms are in order, they should be his doing, but how can that be unless he speaks to men by revelation? Bornkamm says the Reformation was a return to the "prophetic religiosity of Primitive Christianity." The word prophetic is significant: Bornkamm realizes that to return to the primitive church is to return to a church led by prophets. That was what the Reformation should have been and tried to be. The first enthusiasts of the Reformation, as of many earlier reformations, wanted before everything to get right back to the prophets—not just to reading them, but to enjoying the actual gift of prophecy itself. And so we have such determined and enthusiastic men as Thomas Münzer, Andreas Karlstadt, and Sebastian Frank, against whom in 1525 Luther wrote his work entitled Wider die himmlischen Propheten,—Against the Heavenly Prophets. His objection was not that there should be no prophets, but simply that these men were not prophets; with characteristic honesty he saw that the mere recognition of the fact that prophets are necessary does not authorize one to be a prophet. Luther himself was very cautious on this head; he "did not want a schism in the Church," writes Bornkamm, "but the renewal of the Church of Christ. . . . He deliberately put off giving new orders to the renewed churches, and he never felt that he himself was called to give such orders." He actually waited twenty years "before he admitted in the important writing, Concerning Councils and Churches (1539), that the movement which he had inaugurated was not a provisional thing pending the general reform of the Church, for which he hoped, but was itself that reform."5 Luther hoped for action by a general council. But what is the authority of such? In the introduction to his famous work on the councils, von Hefele, the Catholic Bishop of Regensburg, shows that the question of whether even an ecumenical council is under the direction of the Holy Ghost has never been definitely settled. Luther's reform was promptly followed by a thoroughgoing reform of the Catholic Church itself—and that again was the work of a council, one of the most famous of all councils, the Tridentinum, at which the French and Spanish clergymen were alarmed and incensed over the claims to authority put forth by the Italians—even there the issue of authority was not clear.
Today it is admitted throughout the whole Christian world, and moreso every day, that "a plurality of churches contradicts the fundamental nature of a religion that claims that absolute truth which alone is commensurate with the character of a revealed religion."6 The true revealed church can only be one; but reformers take many directions, and there is not a single church in the Christian world which is not the product of many reforms—and the largest of these churches has undergone the most numerous and the most thorough reforms of all. And now a new reform is proposed by which the many should become one: all the Protestants should amalgamate on the one hand, and on the other the Eastern and Western churches should again become one. This illustrates the impossibility of restoring a divinely established system to its state of pristine divinity once men have spoiled it, for the oneness of the church is original to it, and essential; it is not a thing contrived or achieved by ecumenical movements and fusions. It is not a unity that men work out in recognition of its logical necessity. It is a thing which is given to men with the church itself, by divine direction. If "a plurality of churches contradicts . . . that absolute truth which alone is commensurate with the character of a revealed religion," such a plurality is none the less implicit in the proposition that reformers as such have the authority to act in the name of the Lord, for if the recognition of evils, the urge to correct them, and the guidance of the Bible can authorize one man to step forth and change the church, they can also authorize another, and there is no end to the doctrines and factions that result. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not the product, as are all the other churches in Christendom, of reformation or of counter-reformation; it is the product of direct revelation only. Changes there must be, but they can come in only one way—through a prophet of God.
1. Heinrich Bornkamm, Grundriss zum Studium der Kirchengeschichte (Gütersloh: Bertelsmann, 1949), 31.
2. Louis Duchesne, Early History 2:519.
3. Quoted by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History III, 32, in PG 20:281—86.
4. A good illustration of this is Clementine Recognitions I, 55, in PG 1:1209, where the Jewish leaders try to win over the Christian movement.
5. Bornkamm, 64.
6. Ibid., 90.