The Prophets and the Plan of Life
With the restoration of prophecy to the earth, a knowledge of the larger plan of things was also restored. Conventional Christianity, though it talks a great deal today about man's place in the universe, does not answer the great questions of life with authority or assurance. In the face of such questions its spokesmen merely repeat traditional formulae which they have learned by heart, and to support and elucidate them, turn to philosophy. This is the famous program of fides quaerens intellectum, the search for intellectual support of the faith, which gave rise to Scholasticism. But this is no religion of faith. To believe of God's word only what checks with our own limited experience; to trust God only as far as we can "control" him by our feeble reasoning; to accept his revelations only where they square with our calculations—that is not faith, but suspicion and doubt. Scholastic philosophy, nay, all conventional theology, is constantly laying down the law as to what God can and cannot do; what is proper and fitting to Deity and what is not. Instead of being controlled by God, those thinkers who would answer the great questions of life insist on sitting at the controls. By their tricks and slogans, they assure us, they are working out concepts which will be adequately plausible for our acceptance: Then we can rejoice that we have found God!
Meanwhile, however, we have a perfect right to put to them the little test question that Hamlet put to Guildenstern: "Can you play upon this flute? [Can you read this text or solve this equation?] 'Tis as easy as lying," to use Hamlet's phrase; simple little assignments like these instantly detect the limits of man's tiny knowledge and reveal the majestic and unlimited sweep of his presumption. Christian doctrine will go as far as it can go holding tightly to the hand of philosophy, but it refuses to budge an inch farther. In every century the great theologians insist that what philosophy cannot answer is beyond the comprehension of the angels themselves, and though the theologians sometimes profess an obligation to believe things they cannot understand, they are always very unhappy with such a settlement. Is it any wonder that the answers of modern religion to the ultimate question of life are barren platitudes?
In the original Christian church it was all very different. In those days, knowledge came by revelation. The earliest Christian documents, especially those brought forth in recent years, contain frequent references to a remarkable cosmology which the later church lost. As might be expected, people whose contacts with the other world were real and intimate would not settle for philosophical commonplaces when it came to the great plan of eternal life. Behind everything, according to the early Christians, there was a plan agreed on before the foundation of the earth, and our earthly experience was to be explained in terms of prior agreements made before the creation of the earth. A clear indication of this is given in a fragment by Papias. The case of Papias, incidentally, illustrates well how easily and how quickly the church lost the great treasures of revealed knowledge. "I shall not be ashamed," he writes, "to set down for you whatsoever I have correctly learned from the Elders, and well remembered as to their interpretations, having confirmed first their reliability. . . . If any ever came who had been a follower of the Elders, I would inquire into what the Elders had said: what Andrew or Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew or any of the Lord's other disciples had had to say about this or that. . . . For I did not think that I would be helped as much by what was in the books as by those things which came by the living voices that remained."1 Of the ten-odd surviving fragments thus collected, the most important has to do with the millennium and was, of course, firmly rejected by the churchmen of a later age; but what interests us here is the teaching of "the Elders" that "to some of them, that is, those angels who had been faithful to God (lit. Gods) in former times, he gave supervision over the government of the earth, trusting or commissioning them to rule well. . . . And nothing has occurred [since] to put an end to their order."2
We cite this very brief passage because it definitely traces the doctrine of the great plan back to the original apostolic church. The philosopher convert Justin Martyr gives a much fuller account in his Apology for the Christians. "And we have been taught that in the beginning He of his own goodness and in the interest of man, created everything out of unformed or unorganized—amorphos matter. And if men by their good works prove themselves to be worthy of His plan, they are considered qualified, we take it, to return to His presence and to rule with Him, having become deathless and immune to suffering (or change—apathes). For in the same way in which He created in the beginning those who were not, in just such a manner, we maintain those were deemed worthy of living with Him in immortality who of their own will chose what was pleasing to Him. For it was not in our power to accomplish our own birth in the first place; but the fact that we chose what was pleasing to Him, making use of those rational faculties with which He endowed us, now convinces us and conducts us to faith."3
This is a nearly literal rendering of a passage which, needless to say, has caused the churchmen a good many headaches with its undeniable references to other existences and other creations. The most annoying thing about it is that Justin insists on reminding us all along that he is not speaking as a philosopher or as an independent thinker. This piece is his Apology for the Christians, and with every other sentence he repeats, "this we believe," "this we have been taught," and so forth. This is the official opinion of the early church.
"We do not teach," says Justin elsewhere, speaking again for the church, "that God made the world for nothing, but in the interest of the human race. . . . And man does not do and suffer what he does by chance or accident, but in accordance with the proairesis every man is more or less faithful." Proairesis, according to the lexicon, means "choosing one thing before another," a plan of action laid out in advance, not an arbitrary rule or a predestined thing, but an agreement.4
In the Clementine Recognitions, Clement, recalling what Peter has taught him, says, "After these things when you were explaining the creation of the world, you said something about God's plan or decree, which he presented as his own will in the presence of all the first angels, and which laid down an eternal law for everyone; and you said that it provided two kingdoms, that is, the present and the future, and fixed the time for each, setting up a future day of judgment, which he himself determined, in which all things and spirits would be judged and sent to their proper place." Clement, paraphrasing Peter, then goes on to describe the creation of the earth, and concludes: "Then after he had commanded these living things to come forth from the earth and the waters, he made paradise, which he called a place of delights. And finally after all these things he made man, in whose behalf all had been prepared by him, and whose real nature (interna species) is more ancient [than they], and for his sake all were made and turned over to his supervision and for use as his habitation."5 Our Patrologia editor notes in a footnote to this passage that Justin is here referring to the belief of the early Fathers that the spirit of man is older than his body. This doctrine was very old in the church. According to the Apostolic Constitutions, one of the greatest errors common to the heretics is that "they do not believe that the spirit is immortal by nature,"6 a position in which the churchmen of a later day were to concur wholeheartedly with the heretics.
Clement of Alexandria is dipping back into early Christian doctrine when he writes: "The Logos is not to be despised as something new, for even in Jeremiah the Lord says, 'Say not "I am too young," for before I formed thee in the womb I knew thee, and before thou camest forth from thy mother I sanctified thee.' It is possible that in speaking these things the prophet is referring to us, as being known to God as faithful before the foundation of the world. Only now we have become babes for the purpose of fulfilling the plan of God. According to this we are new-born as far as the calling and salvation are concerned."7
Another doctrine rejected by later churches was that of eternal progression. When Irenaeus was challenged to explain how man being created can partake of the uncreated glory of God, he had to fall back on this old teaching, even though it contradicted many of his own ideas. This led Irenaeus to the paradoxical conclusion that though man was not uncreated, yet in time he could become uncreated through an endless progression that would make him of the same eternal nature as God himself! If philosophy will not permit him to allow man's divine nature, religion forces him to, and so he writes: "Taking increase from his great goodness, and persisting to a fullness, the glory of the uncreated comes to them as a gift from God. As they persevere through long ages, they acquire more and more the virtue of being uncreated, and thus the begotten and molded man becomes like the image and likeness of the unbegotten God [The scriptures, incidentally, say man was made in that likeness from the beginning]. . . . It is necessary for a man first to be born, and having come into being to increase, and having increased to be strengthened, and having been strengthened to multiply, and having multiplied to become great, and having become mighty to receive glory, and having received glory to behold his Lord. For God is he who is to be seen. The sight of God is perfect immortality, and immortality makes one to be very near to God."8
Tertullian makes much of the doctrine frequently met with in the primitive church (e.g., in the "Letter to Diognetus"), that the Christian "is a pilgrim in a strange land, among enemies: his is another race, another dwelling, another hope, another grace, another dignity."9 But how can we be out of our element here if this is the only element we have ever known? Here we are lost and ill at ease. Lost from what? The theory of the later fathers is that man has an irresistible urge to get to heaven because he was created for the express purpose of filling the gap left in heaven by the fall of the angels. But the same fathers who maintain this doctrine also hold that the vast majority of spirits thus created will never see heaven—a strange inconsistency indeed.10 The early Christians thought of the yearnings of the soul for heaven specifically as an urge to return to a familiar home. Origen's reflections on the preexistence are enlightening in this connection.
Speaking of the differences in rank and glory among the angels, Origen writes: "I think therefore, according as it seems to me, that the preceding disputation has sufficiently shown that the ruler holds his principate and the other orders receive their authority not indiscriminately or by chance, but that each receives the rank and honor for which he has qualified by merit, though it is not for us to know or even ask just what the deeds were by which they worked themselves into their various ranks." Origen finds support for this theory in the scriptural teaching that "God is no respecter of persons, but rather," he adds, "dispenses all things in proportion to the merit and progress of the individual. Therefore we cannot allow that the angels hold their offices on any other basis than merit, nor that the Powers exercise any power to which they have not progressed, nor that they administer what are called thrones, that is, the power to judge and to rule, on any other grounds than merit, nor that there is any dominion which is unearned."11
Passing from angels to men, Origen sees the same universal system in operation. Why the vast diversity and inequality among the creatures of earth? he asks. "If it is arbitrary, the creator must be unjust. Let us not think that differences of birth and fortune are accidental, but rather distributed to each one according to his desserts." Why was Jacob preferred to Esau? He deserved to be, and so it must be with all other men and all other creatures. Jacob was preferred even in the womb, so "we believe that he was even then chosen by God because of merits acquired before this life."12 The "we believe" here is significant, for while Origen often gets himself into trouble as an incurable speculator, he is scrupulously and uniquely honest in stating at all times when an idea is his own, when he is guessing, when he is assuming a thing for the sake of argument, or when he is expressing a settled opinion. At the beginning of the first passage cited from him, for example, he said, "I think therefore, according as it seems to me, that the preceding disputation has sufficiently shown. . . ." Would that modern scholars were half so honest! When, therefore, Origen specifically says, "we believe," we can be sure that he is speaking (as is Justin Martyr by the same sign) not merely for himself, but for the early church.
Then Origen points out that the merited differences of fortune among men on earth are just like what we find among the angels—in each case the honors must have been deserved. But when and how? This leads him to an interesting speculation. There is no doubt at all that when the human race bids its final farewell to earthly life, there is going to be a judgment, in which to everyone will be assigned a future state of bliss or misery in accordance with his behavior during his earthly probation. So when we behold men already enjoying a great variety of privileges and pains, that is, of rewards and punishments (as they needs must do, if God is not arbitrary) on this earth, that strongly suggests that some sort of judgment has already taken place before we came here, and that our places here are assigned us as the result of what was awarded us there for work done in a preexistent state.13 Perhaps Origen has let his speculative temperament carry him too far here, but that the most important of all theologians next to Augustine could in all seriousness have proposed such things in the first half of the third century is very significant. It shows why the early church never had to wrestle with the agonizing problems of predestination by which alone the churchmen after Augustine tried to explain the facts of life, though it made God seem cruel and arbitrary.
We might go on from the preexistence to discuss the early Christian doctrine of the plurality of worlds (a thing abhorrent to the systems of the later churchmen), or the degrees of glory or eternal progeny. The prominence given these things in the early fragments is the more striking in view of the complete silence of the later church regarding them. We have here a body of doctrine unknown to all but a few. We are only just beginning to learn what the early Christians really talked about, and how they answered the great questions of life. It is all totally foreign to conventional Christianity, but perfectly familiar, I am sure, to most Latter-day Saints, though few if any of them have ever considered the ancients in this regard. This is another certificate of the genuineness of the restored gospel, and as time goes by, a steady stream of new discoveries is vindicating the prophets.
1. Cited by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History III, 39, in PG 20:297.
2. Papias, Fragmentum vi, in PG 5:1260 (Andreas Caesareae, Commentary on the Apocalypse 34, 12).
3. Justin Martyr, Apology I, 10, in PG 6:340—41. Cf. I, 59, in PG 6:416—17; II, 4—5, in PG 6:452—53.
4. Justin Martyr, Apology II, 7, in PG 6:456.
5. Clementine Recognitions I, 24, in PG 1:1220 and I, 28, in PG 1:1222.
6. Apostolic Constitutions VI, 10, in PG 1:933.
7. Clement of Alexandria, Paedogogus I, 7, in PG 8:321.
8. Irenaeus, Contra Haereses IV, 38, in PG 7:1107—08.
9. Tertullian, Apologeticus Adversus Gentes pro Christianis 1, in PL 1:307—8.
10. Thus Anselm in Book 1 of Cur Deus Homo?
11. Origen, Peri Archon I, 8, 4, in PG 9:179.
12. Ibid., II, 9, 6—7, in PG 9:230—31.
13. Ibid., 7—8, in PG 9:231—32.