Prophecy and Tradition
The twin pillars of all conventional Christian religion are scripture and tradition. It is the second of these, the Christian tradition, that we shall consider next. Our churches are rooted in tradition; they are conservative institutions; their business is to preserve intact a sacred deposit with a minimum of change. At the time that Joseph Smith brought forth the restored gospel, no church would admit that it was the product of change and innovation. It was Newman's "Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine," appearing in 1845, that, to quote the Anglican Alfred Fawkes, "disposed once for all of the Semper Eadem conception of Christianity then common to Catholics and Protestants. 'You are not primitive,' was the charge brought against Rome by Anglican and Puritan alike. Newman was too well informed and too astute to deny it. He met it by an effective tu quoque: 'Neither are you.'" 1 The admission that none of the Christian churches was primitive, as all up till then pretended to be, was the real beginning of Modernism, says Fawkes, but "it was like striking a match in a powder magazine."
The realization that all churches have changed requires a reorientation in Christian thinking, for as Eduard Schwartz wrote, "It lies in the nature of a church that claims divine origin, that it can know nothing of a process of historical development."2 If there is to be any change at all, it must be inaugurated by God himself—by revelation. Only a church claiming continual revelation has a right to change and still remain God's church. This is clearly illustrated in the controversies of the fourth-century church when men were aware of many innovations necessary to the operation of the new imperial church but were very dubious as to whether the church, in which revelation had ceased, had a right to tolerate such innovations. Thus Athanasius, condemning certain practices connected with the veneration of relics, writes, "Who doth behold the corpses of the martyrs and the prophets, cast out and exposed, and trembleth not? No Christian work is this; Paul hath not enjoined it upon us, neither did patriarchs thus, nor prophets aforetime; but the Meletians it was devised these things for gain."3 It is a shocking thing for Athanasius because the Apostles and prophets have not authorized it, and he knows of no one living who can authorize an innovation. In view of the inevitability of change, this posed a knotty problem which the churches have never been able to solve, since the only solution lies in the presence of a living emissary of heaven—a prophet of God.
In every age, prophets have been resisted in the name of established tradition as religious innovators. We have seen that the Jews objected to Christ as an upstart. From Arnobius we learn that the commonest charge against the Christians by the heathen was that they were guilty of introducing strange new things into religion.4 Caecilius, the apologist for the Roman state religion in the Octavius of Minucius Felix, calls upon his Christian friends to consider the antiquity, the dignity, the beauty, the massive grandeur, and the infinite respectability of the pagan religion of the empire. Its antiquity, he says, makes it customary to attribute sanctity to its ceremonies and buildings proportionate to their age. The Christians, on the other hand, he points out, are a band of noisy innovators who would do away with all this wonderful old stuff.5
To this charge of innovation the early Christians had two answers. The first was that antiquity as such is not important. Justin reminds the heathens that they charged Socrates with the very crime that was then being brought against the Christians, that of introducing strange new things into religion. In Socrates' search for truth the argument of antiquity was entirely irrelevant. Justin begins his apology by reminding the emperor that honest men "love only what is true and decline to follow traditional opinions."6 He says that a ruler who puts established opinion above truth has no more real authority than a robber in the desert, who takes what he can get.7 To the pagans who claimed that the records of their miracles were older than the records of Christian miracles, Arnobius replied with a forthright, Antiquitas plenissima mater errorum: "Antiquity is the chief mother of errors!" It is true, he says, that your religion is older than ours, "but the authority of a religion is not to be measured by time but by divinity"—numine, supernatural power. "You say our name is new, and the religion we follow was born not many days ago. . . . You say our religion did not exist 400 years ago; well, neither did yours exist 2000 years ago. . . . What is there that does not have a beginning in time?"8
But the philosophical argument that truth is a timeless thing and therefore not dependent for its authority on the accumulation of years is the other face of the second argument, the religious argument, so fully expounded by Eusebius in the first book of his Ecclesiastical History, i.e., that true religion takes its rise and its authority from heaven; heaven is timeless; and our doctrines and institutions come from there. It is an earth-bound religion that is impressed by antiquity.
But when revelation ceases, a religion does become earthbound. Chavannes has shown how as the church became less and less dependent on direct revelation, it fell back more and more on appeals to tradition and antiquity. In the time of Tertullian, who regrets the loss of the spiritual gifts from the church, Chavannes finds the first timid intimations that Christianity had after all not really brought into the world anything particularly strange or novel. 9 By the fourth century, age had become everything; the church that had once admitted readily enough the charges of innovation against her developed a horror of innovation. The churchmen went all out to become the champions of tradition, both sacred and profane, displaying, says Chavannes, "constant application to save the greatest possible part of the heritage of the past, not allowing any but indispensable changes, carefully reproducing in their literary works the style, the vocabulary, and the methods of composition of the classic writers."10 During the feverish councils of the fourth century, all parties and individuals were busily engaged in accusing each other of innovation, for a new doctrine was necessarily a false doctrine.
But for revealed religion, innovation is not a crime, on the one hand; nor on the other, is tradition a millstone. As the prophet respects the scripture which in turn supports his mission, so he also respects tradition, and tradition supports his claims. Christ respected the traditional offices of the Jews and ordered his followers to do the same: "The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works" (Matthew 23:2—3). Paul respected the office of the high priest even while the man insulted him. (Acts 23:5.) On the other hand, when the gospel was preached at Jerusalem, "a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith" (Acts 6:7). Some scholars have recently suggested that this great company may have been such a band of holy men as we find described in the newly discovered Dead Sea Scrolls and related documents, if not a group actually named in one of them. These men were prepared by their tradition to receive the gospel when they heard it. Without that tradition and training the preaching to them might have fallen on deaf ears.
Eusebius and Clement of Alexandria both suggest that Greek philosophy was meant by God as a sort of preparation to ready men's minds for the reception of the gospel. Eusebius goes further and shares with Justin and Origen the belief that that philosophy, insofar as it is true and its principles sound, is actually a carryover from earlier lost dispensations of the gospel. The gospel has been on earth from time to time, according to the old apocalyptic or eschatological pattern followed by Eusebius, but each time men have fallen from grace and lost its fullness, they have not lost everything. There is always left some memory, some lingering trace of divinely revealed doctrines and institutions, and it is to the presence of these lingering traces, according to Eusebius, that we owe what we have in the world of humane laws, and refined manners.11 The great tradition of civilization is really the abiding remnant of the true gospel and as such is to be greatly esteemed.
The significance of tradition in God's plan may be illustrated from the case of the synagogue. The synagogue is not the temple; its ministers are not Levites; its rites and ordinances are not those prescribed in the ancient law. The synagogue only came into existence with the diaspora—the dissolution of the proper Hebrew religious practices centering about the temple. It does not represent the ancient order of things established by direct revelation from heaven; yet for all that, it performs a very valuable function, for it keeps alive and warm the memory of great dispensations of the past when God has spoken to men, and it looks forward to that future time when all past glories will be restored, a new Jerusalem will be founded, and the Messiah will come to reign among men. These things must be kept before men's minds so that when it pleases God at any time to send his prophets to earth, they will be able to bear witness to ears that understand them.
The same holds true of the Christian churches. In the famous words of Tertullian, the Christian churches grew up "in the shadow of the synagogue." 12 Father Duchesne has described in his work on The Origins of the Christian Cult how the traveling, inspired general authorities of the apostolic age suddenly disappeared from the scene, leaving the church without a central head or any general authorities. There were left in their place only officers of local churches, the highest of which were bishops. It is to these local churches that the ritual, liturgies, and organization of the later Christian church are to be traced.13 And these are the churches that grew up "in the shadow of the synagogue," modeling their hymns, prayers, sermons, and offices after the Jewish pattern. This was a good thing. The Christian churches did the same thing for the gospel of Christ that the synagogues did for the law and the prophets: they kept the memory alive through the centuries, though, like the synagogues, they were completely severed from the original source of authority. So complete was the gap between the primitive church and that which emerges in the second century that many scholars have maintained that the original church, that of Christ and the Apostles, never existed at all but was an invention of later writers! When the predicted time of the end came, following the preaching of the Apostles, and the fulness of the gospel was taken away, it was the Christian churches that preserved through the centuries the tradition without which the preaching of the gospel, when the time came for its restoration, would have been meaningless. For that we honor and respect the churches and the traditions of Christendom. Actually, we speak the same language that they do with this difference: We believe in their great tradition literally as their ancestors and ours once did, while for them it has become merely a tradition, an appeal to antiquity for its own sake, a sentimental or cultural sort of thing. Take for example the two great poles of the Christian tradition, Christmas and Easter. Latter-day Saints enter wholeheartedly into the traditional aspect of these things; but when we want to go further and take the Christmas and Easter stories literally, we part company with the Christian world. Nothing has more embarrassed and confused the doctors of the church through the centuries than the presence of God on earth in a physical body. Origen confesses himself completely at a loss to comprehend such a thing, and to all his successors it has been at best a mystery. Only the Latter-day Saints honor the great traditions of Christendom by taking them literally—not as beautiful allegories, useful social fictions, or sentimental routines—and not with any philosophical limitations and qualifications, or rhetorical legerdemain.
The world pays lip service to the venerable traditions of our civilization, but who seriously concerns himself with such? The professor who is paid to do so; the hobbyist, who in this field is very rare—that is all! The rest of us bestow an occasional well-meaning nod to the past or feel a passing twinge of nostalgia for the long ago—that is about all. But this is not the case with the Latter-day Saints. Thousands of them are engaged day and night in attempting, at their own expense, to reconstruct the records of the past—family histories consisting not only of the names and vital statistics of all their ancestors, but also as far as possible preserving every detail of their past in letter and spirit. All Mormons are urged constantly to engage in this work. Each one searches out as far as the records will allow, the life stories of his own progenitors—those whose blood actually runs in his veins—in the firm belief that their salvation is indissolubly linked with his own. We have been taught that this generation cannot be saved unless the hearts of the children turn to the fathers and that an exclusive concern with one's own time and place, where "every man walketh in his own way," is a sign of degeneracy. Our latter-day prophets, far from brushing aside the noble heritage of the past, have given it a content and a meaning such as it has never had before.
As far as tradition is concerned then, time has vindicated the Prophet Joseph Smith. At a time when nobody believed it, he announced the principle that is generally recognized today, that allowance must be made for change and innovation even in the Church of Christ. More than that, he has shown the world how that principle can be implemented without in any way minimizing the value and influence of tradition.
1. Alfred Fawkes, "The Development of Christian Institutions and Beliefs," Harvard Theological Review 10 (1917): 111.
2. Eduard Schwartz, Kaiser Constantin und die christliche Kirche, 5th ed. (Stuttgart: Teubner, 1969), 18.
3. Athanasius, Epistle 39, cited by W. E. Crum, "Some Further Meletian Documents," Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 13 (1927): 23.
4. Arnobius, Disputation Against the Gentiles II, 66, in PL 5:913, and below, note 8.
5. Minucius Felix, Octavius 6—8, in PL 3:258—69.
6. Justin Martyr, Apology I, 5—6, 10, in PG 6:336—41.
7. Ibid., 2, 12, in PG 6:329, 341.
8. Arnobius, ibid., I, 57, and II, 69, and 71, in PL 5:796, 922, 925—26.
9. P. Chavannes, Revue d'histoire de littérature religieuses 4 (1899): 398.
10. Ibid., 334.
11. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History I, 2, 23, in PG 20:56.
12. Tertullian, Apologeticus Adversus Gentes pro Christianis 21, in PL 1:449—65.
13. Louis Duchesne, Origines du culte chrétien (Paris, 1898), ch. 1.