What Makes a True Church?
The Church of Jesus Christ is a church of prophets. To realize that, we need only ask ourselves, What would the Church be without a prophet? The answer is frightening. Let us imagine that the scholars of our time had enough reliable information regarding the primitive church at their disposal to enable them to reconstruct a perfect full-scale model of that church. As a matter of fact, frequent attempts have been made, especially in the nineteenth century, to do just that, with results as unconvincing as that imitation Gothic with which modern churches have tried to capture an ancient mood. Such reconstructions, like those Shinto temples and Torgut shrines that are sometimes transplanted for exhibition to worlds' fairs in great western cities, are remarkably cold and lifeless things, as they needs must be, torn out of their original warm human context. What would an imitation church of Christ need to make it real? We maintain that neither the human touch nor anything that men can devise could effect that miracle; only the presence of a true prophet could do it. Let us illustrate this.
At a very early date, men started setting up imitation churches of Christ, saying, "Lo, here is Christ! and lo, there!" They felt that all that was necessary to have the real church was to have a society that went under the name of Jesus Christ. "It is not enough," cry the "apostolic fathers" over and over again, "to be called by the name of Christ in order to be his followers." "Many shall come in my name," the Lord had said, "and deceive many." Ignatius complains that everywhere people are mixing the name of Jesus Christ with their false religion as they would mix good wine with poison; everywhere they are stamping the true name of Christ as a mark of pure value on false and debased coins.1 The implicit faith people have in labels is a remarkable thing, and never has the power of a label been so exploited as that of the Lord's holy name. When told of the restoration of the gospel, people remark with surprise and wonder that the church of Christ can never have left the earth, since societies professing his name have not ceased to flourish from the days of the Apostles. They conveniently ignore the many predictions of the Lord and the Apostles on this head which make it clear that the persistence of the name of Christ by no means guarantees the claims of the churches that use it.
A name, however, may be considered, like any office, ordinance, or liturgy, to be a mere outward sign. Everybody will admit that in religion it is not the outward sign that counts but the inner life. Right here we run into an insurmountable obstacle to those who would endow a church with sanctity, for, as the school of Sohm insisted, the inner life must remain covert: it cannot be brought out into the open for inspection, exhibition, criticism, or control else it ceases to be an inner life; it defies all rules and regulations accordingly, and it is beyond the reach of office or authority because, like the mystical experience, it is incommunicable. The inner life, to which religionists so often appeal when confronted by questions of authority and credentials, is an appeal to the intangible and the imponderable. Socrates heard an inner voice which to him was very real; it was the infallible guide of his own behavior, but he never presumed on its authority to give orders to other people. To have a church you must have something more than inner voices; the ancient Apostles were not called by such but by a living prophet, and they in turn as prophets actually gave orders to others.
No one will deny that the true Church must have the Spirit, for the Spirit giveth life. But how would we go about getting the Spirit for our model church? The only definitions I have ever seen of spirit have been purely negative, and all boil down simply to an absence of matter. Plato and his followers showed how by removing all the accidentals and material qualities of a thing one can arrive at the pure idea of it which is its real essence. And that, we are told, is spirit. I believe the immense influence of Plato and Aristotle on the theology of the later church is to be attributed primarily to the inestimable service they performed in enabling the churchmen to talk meaningfully about spirit, that all-important thing of which they had lost all comprehension in the old Christian sense. Let us recall how grateful Augustine was to Plato, who alone opened his eyes to the reality of immaterial being and thus made it possible for him to believe on God and join the church.2 In modern times it has become popular to identify spirit with mood, atmosphere, feeling, etc., and to describe its workings in terms of aesthetic or emotional experiences. But to do that is to make the spirit a very common thing indeed, yet nothing is more evident than that the spirit of which the real Christians spoke was a very rare and special thing known only to the saints. A man-made spirit might add a lot to a man-made church, but it could not convert it into the Church of Jesus Christ.
In order to operate in an orderly fashion, our visible church must have some recognized authority, but since all organizations have that, we must go still further: ours must be a divine authority. Surprisingly enough, this can be rather easily supplied in two ways, historically and rationally. To establish divine ecclesiastical authority on historical grounds is actually the main business of church history. In the fourth century, as we have seen in an earlier chapter, thinking men seriously doubted whether the church still had authority to act in the name of God. To settle doubts on this head the great Eusebius established the study of church history as it has flourished ever since his day, with the deliberate intention of proving that the church that survived in the world could trace its lines of authority in unbroken succession right back to the Apostles. Right at the outset, Eusebius tells us that he finds the materials quite inadequate. It was therefore necessary, as Eduard Schwartz, Caspari, Voelker, and others have pointed out, to reconstruct the record backwards, rewriting church history in retrospect, selecting, altering, and inventing whatever evidence was necessary to prove the case of the church. "One cannot escape the suspicion," wrote Harnack summing up the whole period of early church history, "that present-day historians are still much too trusting in their attitude towards this whole literature. . . . We stand almost everywhere more or less helpless in the face of a systematically fabricated tradition."3 If men want to prove the authority of their churches by historical evidence, systematic fabrication can meet any demands; however, the resulting proof can hardly endow any organization with genuine authority.
The rational foundation for claims to divine right are as easily established as the historical. The classical formula is given by Anselm: fides quaerens intellectum; you first decide what you are going to believe and then you set out to find intellectual demonstrations that will support it. And such proof comes easily and mechanically to hand if one has been "steeled in the school of old Aquinas," who gives us the useful rule: "Since the faith rests on infallible truth, it would be impossible to bring forth a valid demonstration against it; for it is obvious that any arguments brought forth against the faith are not really proofs but soluble arguments."4 Thus I might state as a true principle that any coin when tossed will always come down heads. I toss the coin, and it comes down tails, but according to St. Thomas' convenient rule, that toss does not count—it must be ruled out since it refutes a true principle; and so by disqualifying all unfavorable tosses I can exhaustively demonstrate my doctrine that any coin when tossed will always come down heads. With an arsenal of such useful weapons at their disposal, it is not surprising that the schoolmen can come up with any proofs they want in matters of authority or anything else. There is no more powerful argumentrix, Tertullian reminds us, than self-interest.
Ever since the third century, the schoolmen have insisted that the Spirit of God can be found in its fulness in the church wherever holy men engage in intellectual contemplations. Since God is mind, it is argued, the operation of the mind gives the surest and most direct access to God. It is the highest form of revelation, surpassing the crude physical demonstrations of the primitive church even as mind surpasses matter. With this we cannot agree. The exercise of the intellect is a field open to the basest as well as the best of men, and the worse the villain the more clever and ingenious his arguments may be. With his free agency man enjoys the right to use his wits for evil as well as for righteous ends. In the Clementine Recognitions Peter assures his followers that the wicked Simon Magus can out-reason him any day. Simon had to be sharp to stay in business; if figures can't lie, liars can figure, and the voice of reason is by no means exclusively the voice of God: "Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field" (Genesis 3:1).
Where does this leave us with our model church? We have set it up with all its offices and fixtures, given it the proper label, provided it with a synthetic spirit, established its claim to authority by strong historical and rational demonstrations, and put on it the stamp of the divine through the supernal operations of the intellect. What more is lacking? Everything. As yet our church has not been endowed with a single thing that human wit and will cannot provide. It has the form of godliness, to be sure, but the power is not there. And we can go on digging up the past, devising clever arguments, and holding splendid synods for a thousand years, and the power will still not be there. God alone can provide it, and he always does so in the same way. Let us repeat our question: What would an imitation church of Christ need to make it real? The regular scriptural term to describe the leaders of all unauthorized congregations is false prophets. The fatal defect of such congregations is that they are led by false prophets, and we are told that these would abound in the earth, all claiming to be followers of Christ.
What is a false prophet? He is one who usurps the prerogatives and the authority which by right belong only to a prophet of God. The false prophet need not claim to be a prophet; indeed, most false prophets do not believe in prophecy or even in God, nor do they want anyone else to. Those who would lead the Russians into the promised land are plainly false prophets, but how much faith do they put in prophecy? The scriptural term "pseudo-prophet" designates one who is not a prophet, but who occupies the place that rightly belongs to a prophet, regardless of whether he has been put there by himself or by his followers. Fool's gold, the glittering yellow pyrites that one finds sometimes on the beach, is so called not because it pretends to be gold, but because fools take it for gold. A pseudo-prophet is one to whom foolish people accord the obedience and attention due only a true prophet, whether he or they actually take him for a prophet or not.
Even good, devout, sincere men and women can be false prophets. We can illustrate this point by recalling the attitude of Socrates toward his friends Gorgias, Protagoras, and other great Sophists. He respected and admired them for their powerful minds, their moral fervor, and their sincere desire to improve the character and the minds of youth. Yet for all that, these men were, in Socrates' opinion, dangerous deceivers, all of them, for they were teachers of false doctrine. Socrates did not consider himself qualified to guide the lives of his fellows; all his life he sought for one so qualified—what he was looking for was a prophet, as Professor Jaeger has indicated in the case of his disciples5—and when he insisted that he had never found such a man, and that those who thought themselves most qualified were even less worthy than he, his boldness cost him his life. His pupil Plato poked fun at the way the Sophists accepted the worshipful adulation of the multitude and of their disciples, for nothing disturbed him more than the incurable tendency of the schools to make false prophets out of good men. By his standard we still live in a world of false prophets. Anyone whose work competes with God's work, who makes claims on the time and energies of men which rightly belong to God, who puts the word of God in second place to the theories of men, or forces the teachings of true prophets to yield precedence to his own discourses—anyone, in a word, who puts his own knowledge above or on a level with revelation from heaven is a false prophet.
Since we have mentioned the Apology of Socrates (a work, incidentally, dear to the early Christians), we may appeal to that immortal dialogue by way of answering one of the commonest charges brought against the Latter-day Saints, the charge of narrowness. Through the centuries students reading the Apology have sighed and shaken their heads in sorrowful regret that one of the greatest men who ever lived had to get himself executed by being so narrow and uncompromising. He had nothing but love and good feeling for the solid citizens of Athens, and they knew him as the most harmless and righteous of men—yet he virtually forced them to put him to death. "I firmly believe that God wants me to spend my life seeking wisdom," he said in his farewell address, "scrupulously examining myself and others."6 This is what annoyed the Athenians, who begged him to give up the practice and live; to them his final word was: "My dear Athenians, I rejoice to be with you and I love you, but I will obey God rather than you."7 And on the same day he drank the hemlock. He was very narrow. "This Socrates," they said of him, "thinks he is the only one who 'knows the score.'"
This is akin to the common charge made against the Mormons, at a time when many of them were paying with their lives for their stubbornness. It is the charge that Caecilius and Celsus and all broad-minded heathens brought against the early Christians: "Why this smug insistence," they would ask, "that you are the only ones who have the truth? Why this narrow-minded claim that your religion is better than any other?"
The first answer to this question today is an historical one. Every church that has an independent organization once claimed exclusive possession of the saving truth. If it did not, it should never have been organized, for the organization of every church creates division in Christendom, and nothing will justify that, short of a peculiar and special claim to enlightenment on matters vital to salvation. In the days of their pristine vitality and conviction, all the churches that now accuse others of thinking they have something better than anybody else thought the same way themselves. If Christianity is anything more than an ethical code or an agglomeration of sentimental attitudes and platitudes, it must be specific in its teachings and clear and uncompromising on matters which by its own profession are of transcendent importance. It is a sorry day when churches apologize for ever having been definite and outspoken on the subject of salvation. Today the fashion is to be neither hot nor cold—and that is the worst state of all. The alternative to being firm and specific is a slippery relativism that leads to nothing but paralysis. Because equally intelligent and gifted people disagree on what makes good music, it does not follow that all music is equally good or that all music is vanity. Because scientists in the same field often contradict each other, it does not follow that all science is a joke or even that the work of the wrangling scientists themselves is thereby discredited. Because what seems wise and moral behavior in one society may be frowned upon in another, it does not follow that all morality is an illusion or that all actions are equally moral. Why then should we assume that since people of equal intelligence and devotion take different views on religion one religion is as good as another, and it really makes no difference what a man believes?
All prophetic religions, like all true disciples, are marked by a kind of narrowness, for strait is the gate and narrow the way that leads to eternal life. But the charge is a false one that the followers of the prophets would exclude all the rest of mankind from their little circle of the elect. Of all the Christian religions in the world today, the only prophetic one, that of the Latter-day Saints, is that one which alone provides salvation for all the human race, living and dead. It alone has been taught by prophets that it is absolutely wrong to think of God as limiting his blessings and manifestations to but one small portion of his human family: all creatures, we are taught, were meant by God to have joy in the sphere in which they were created, and in every age and in all parts of the world men have been given all the joy and all the glory that they have been willing to receive. One of the most wonderful chapters in the history of the restored Church has been that which tells of the innumerable miracles and manifestations, visions and revelations by which the way has been opened up for the missionaries everywhere. The recipients of some of the most marvelous of these dispensations were what the Victorian world chose to call savages, living in the wilderness or on the islands of the sea, yet God had filled their whole lives with blessings. It was so in the ancient church. Cornelius, the Ethiopian, the righteous jailer and his family, the "great company of priests . . . obedient to the faith" (Acts 6:7), all these and many more were so near to the gospel that they recognized it instantly on sight—God had never deserted them but poured out his Spirit on them even in their pre-Christian days. Yet when they heard the gospel, they joyfully accepted it. Because God had remembered them, they did not conclude that they needed no more. It was precisely because they were searchers for more light that God had blessed them as richly as he did: "To those that have shall be given," said the Lord, not, "to those that have there is no further need."
There is nothing narrow, arbitrary, or ungenerous in revealed religion. In the end all the human race will hear the fulness of the everlasting gospel. But meantime, all things must be taught in order, and milk must come before meat. The Lord must work through his established Church, which must unfailingly be under the guidance of his servants, the prophets.
1. Ignatius, Epistle to the Magnesians 4—5, in PG 5:665—68; and Epistle to the Trallians 6, in PG 5:679.
2. Augustine, Confessions III, 4; IV, 15—16; V, 10, 14; VII, 9, 19, etc., in PL 32:685; 32:703—6, 714—18, 740—42, 746.
3. Adolf Harnack, Dogmengeschichte, 5th ed. (Tübingen: Mohr, 1931), 2:64.
4. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (Turin: Marietti, 1932), Question I, Article viii.
5. Werner Jaeger, Aristotle (Oxford: Clarendon, 1948), 132—136, 390—93.
6. Plato, Apology 28e.
7. Ibid., 29d-30b.