The Great Apostasy and a Restored Church
Apostasy: the abandonment or renunciation of a belief or principle.
At first glance there are a number of views shared by the Evangelical Church and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. However, once many of these views are explored it becomes clear that there are actually many differences as well. Herein we will explore one very major difference, the Mormon belief that the New Testament documents have been tampered with, leading to a falling away of the church early in Christian history and in the belief that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, through the “prophet” Joseph Smith is a restoration of the one true church. It’s our aim to first understand what it is that the Latter-Day Saint believes and why. From there we will review biblical scriptures, putting those claims to the test. We will close by looking at the historical reliability of the biblical narrative and what textual criticism says about them in the hopes of addressing a major issue of difference between the Mormon Church and orthodox Christianity. As a result we should be able to come to a conclusion on whether the early church fell away and if the New Testament documents can even be trusted.
The Mormon Belief One – The Apostate Church
The Mormon belief that the Christian Church was witness to a total apostasy finds its foundation in 1 Nephi 13 where we read that the New Testament documents were tampered with.
And after they go forth by the hand of the twelve apostles of the Lamb, from the Jews unto the Gentiles, thou seest the formation of that great and abominable church, which is most abominable above all other churches; for behold, they have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away.
And all this have they done that they might pervert the right ways of the Lord, that they might blind the eyes and harden the hearts of the children of men.
Wherefore, thou seest that after the book hath gone first through the hands of the great and abominable church, that there are many plain and precious things taken away from the book, which is the book of the Lamb of God.
In examination of this passage Dr. Kent P. Jackson, the associate dean of professors at Brigham Young University, long time teacher of Ancient Scripture and Latter-Day Saint writes that contrary to what many believe, this passage from the Book of Mormon does not represent monks or medieval scribes as the ones intentionally removing portions of scripture so to further their own personal agendas. No, according to Dr. Jackson what was written in 1 Nephi should be interpreted as a corruption of the text very early in Christian history. It should be believed that if a corruption took place it would have had to have happened prior to the Bible being spread throughout the Near East and later the world. He goes further and explains that since there is evidence in early Christian writing that the biblical text was being circulated as early as the second century then the apostasy or falling away had to occur even earlier in the Church, most likely in the first and second centuries. Though no specific time period is referenced Dr. Jackson concludes, “The Early Church died from internal, self-inflicted wounds brought about by the introduction of alien ideas that gained widespread acceptance at the expense of the pure doctrine of Christ.”
Jackson isn’t the only scholar who believes this falling away happened early in Church history. Dr. James Talmage, a Mormon scholar and apologist, in his book The Great Apostasy writes that “a general apostasy developed during and after the apostolic period…” Dr. Talmage goes further than Dr. Jackson writing that “the primitive Church lost its power, authority and grace as a divine institution, and degenerated into an earthly organization only.” Due to this total apostasy, history witnessed what Talmage and Jackson describes as revolts against the church. Listing among these revolts “the revival of learning,” the Reformation, and even the rise of the Church of England. All of which he considers proofs not only that the Church had lost its way but also that there was a need for a restoration.
Mormon Belief Two – A Needed Restoration
In the introduction to the publication History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which is by Mormons considered to be an official history of the LDS Church, we read, “Nothing less than a complete apostasy from the Christian religion would warrant the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.” Out of the idea that the Christian Church had been corrupted through apostasy flows the call for a restoration of the true church. This claim and later call was of the utmost importance. This is a statement that Evangelicals should be able to agree with: if the current Church is not following the original principles and precepts of Christ, as the Latter-Day Saints posit, then it should be our most pressing concern to get back that which was lost. As such we must now look at the origins of this doctrine and it’s validity. To do this we turn to Joseph Smith himself and his History of the Church.
In Joseph Smith – History I, found in the Pearl of Great Price we read the account of Mr. Smith’s life and general experiences with different religious sects during his early adult life. He recalls a time of great excitement, one in which he attended several meetings of different Christian denominations, eventually becoming partial to the Methodists though he did not join with them do to “great confusion and strife among the different denominations.” As a result of these inter-denominational “strifes” young smith was left questioning which way was the right way. In his struggles he secluded himself in the local woods to pray for guidance. And in Chapter 15 of his History we read what is known as Joseph Smith’s First Vision, laying the groundwork for the foundation for the formation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the one true and restored church according to its members. Smith records, “I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me… When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages… standing above me in the air” Smith explains that these two “personages” were God the Father and Jesus Christ. Composing himself Mr. Smith then asks “which of all the sects was right” and which one he should join? The response he claims to have received is of the utmost importance to this discussion. Smith writes,
“I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: ‘they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but the deny the power thereof.’ He again forbade me to join with any of them.”
It is due to this “vision” that Joseph Smith felt the need for a restoration and it in large part served as the catalyst for Smith to further investigate spiritual things and eventually write The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ, restoring what he thought to be a church in apostasy.
Similar to what we looked at by Talmage above, B.H. Roberts in his A Comprehensive History of the Church
writes that the society surrounding him at the time provided “an emphatic confirmation of what Joseph Smith in substance promulgated a century ago” in that first vision.
Roberts goes on to point to a growing agitation within the Roman Catholic Church brought on by the modernist movement, and with it the “readjusting the Christian attitude towards modern knowledge… [and] a clear call for the rejuvenation of Roman Catholicism… harmonizing [the church’s] teachings with the thought of [the current] age.”
Roberts argues that this modernist call for readjustment presupposes something gone wrong, a deadness or something out of synch with modern truth.
Roberts further supports the claim that what Smith saw on that night in the woods was a revelation of the truth from God by pointing to the culture within American colleges during the century that followed. He describes an article written in a popular magazine, The Cosmopolitan Magazine, concluding that there was a unified “voice from the American colleges condemning all the churches.” He goes on to express the notion that the colleges also thought that the church was not only wrong in the present time but had been for centuries. Dr. Roberts concludes that the mere recognition of these things is an admission that the claims of Joseph Smith are correct, that all the church were wrong and an abomination to God and that the Mormon Church is the one restoration of the one true church.
With the passage of time the claims of apostasy and a falling away have not become fewer. Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints have been consistent in the defense of this as well as the position that the Latter-Day Saints are the only pure church. Take the following statements into account as we head into the next phase of our journey.
- “The Christian world, so called, are heathens as to their knowledge of the salvation of God.”
- “All other churches are entirely destitute of all authority from God: and any person who receives Baptism or the Lord’s Supper from their hands will highly offend God, for he looks upon them as the most corrupt of all people.”
- “In the process of what we call the Apostasy, the tangible, personal God described in the Old and New Testaments was replaced by the abstract, incomprehensible deity defined by compromise with the speculative principle of Greek philosophy.”
- “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has taught since its beginning that there was an apostasy of the Church that was founded by Jesus during his earthly ministry and led by the apostles after his ascension. This is a fundamental belief of our religion: if there had not been an apostasy, there would have been no need for a restoration.”
It is quite clear that Joseph Smith and his fellow Latter-Day Saints believed that the church was standing in apostasy, having fallen so far from the original teachings of Christ to warrant the label “abominable church.” It’s also clear that the Mormons believe their church to be the restoration to that which became corrupted. In defense of these positions LDS members refer to a number of scriptures from the New Testament as proof texts. As such let us now turn our attention to the word of God and begin our examination of their claims.
Claiming Apostasy and Restoration from Scripture:
Smith has been compared to the likes of Christopher Columbus, not in search for a new world but on a quest for an ancient and lost truth. The search resulting in what Smith and fellow Latter-Day Saints claim to be a restoration. As Columbus used celestial navigation and a compass in search of a new land, Smith and his predecessors used Scripture as a guide and proof to their claims. It is here that we will examine the claims made and begin to offer a rebuttal, if possible, with the end goal of forming a conclusion on the Mormon claims put forth above. Below we will examine two of central scriptures used in support first of a complete apostasy and then a restoration.
Acts 20:29-30 – Apostasy Foretold
Andrew Skinner, dean of religious education at Brigham Young University and well known author writes,
We affirm that the Apostasy and the Restoration occurred just as foretold… Supported by scripture and the words of prophets, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches unequivocally that there was an apostasy from the Lord’s one and only true church following the deaths of Christ’s early Apostles.
In that article Dr. Skinner refers to Saint Paul’s words in Acts 20:29-31 as “the most pointed and succinct description in all of scripture of how the great apostasy of the early Church came about.” Let’s look at the passage together,
For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears. 
Mormon scholars agree that Paul’s words here are of the utmost importance and point to the knowledge of the apostles that apostasy would take place and greatly affect their work. Kent Jackson tells his audience that Paul here, and other New Testament passages, that are where one must begin in order to start to understand what occurred in the early church. Jackson and other Mormon scholars render Paul’s words as a prophecy that an apostasy would not only occur but had in fact already begun. Their reading of these two verses provides a basis for the belief that false teachers (the wolves) would infiltrate the church, devouring all members of the Christian church (the sheep); not one would be spared. As a commentary on this very verse Talmage tells his readers “it is evident that the church was literally driven from the earth… But the Lord in His mercy provided for the re-establishment of His Church in the last days, and for the last time… This restoration was effected by the Lord through the Prophet Joseph Smith.”
But is Paul foretelling a complete falling away; an apostasy as Latter-Day Saints suggest? According to Robert Bowman, the manager of Apologetics and Interfaith Evangelism at the North American Mission Board, the answer is no. In his article LDS Apostles and Prophets: What Did the New Testament Apostles Say? Bowman writes that while, yes, the New Testament prophets and writers repeatedly warned of coming false prophets they “never once expressed concern about the church losing its way,” nor do they allude to or predict a “top-down worldwide church polity after the departure of the apostles.”
It would seem that Mormon scholars have misapplied Paul’s words in Acts. When the biblical authors wrote the letters of the New Testament they did so with intent and purpose to a specific audience. It has been suggested that perhaps this is where some Latter-Day scholars err in their application of Acts 20:29-31. Paul wrote Acts to address a very specific group of people, the church in Ephesus. Actually it’s even more specific than that, he is writing to the leadership of the church, the elders. You see, Paul was issuing a warning, but not to all churches present and future. He was issuing a very direct warning to the elders of the Ephesian church.
In support of this view and in the hopes of correcting the misapplication of Acts 20 by Latter-Day Saints we can turn to the late F.F. Bruce, the world renowned biblical scholar and expert in the New Testament. In his famous commentary on Acts, Bruce explains what Paul most likely meant when issuing this warning,
That this development did in fact take place at Ephesus is evident from the Pastoral Epistles and from the letter to the Ephesian church in Rev. 2:1ff. The Pastoral Epistles tell of a general revolt against Paul’s teaching throughout the province of Asia, and John is bidden to reproach the Christians of Ephesus for having abandoned their first love. Foreseeing these trends, then, Pal urges the Ephesian elders to be watchful.
It is quite obvious, as Bruce tells us and from a general reading of this scripture in context that Paul’s words here cannot, and should not be thought to mean that the Christian church as a whole would turn its back on the Gospel message completely. If, as the LDS Church propagates, Paul meant that a great, universal, and complete apostasy would occur he would not have also written, “Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.”(Emphasis mine)
As my hermeneutics professor in seminary, Ben Shin says, it’s all about context, context, context. It can rightly be concluded that, at least in this instance, the belief of a great apostasy is founded to be based on a passage of scripture taken out of context. As such it can be logically concluded that the use of Acts 20 to support the notion of a great apostasy is due to an inaccurate rendering of Paul’s words.
Acts 3:20-21 – Restoration Foretold
As we have explored, the Latter-Day Saints believe that due to the great apostasy there is a need to reestablish God’s truths and the gospel as a whole to all people. And, as we have seen, that belief can be explained by the taking of a verse out of context. But is the claim of a future restoration accurate according to the biblical text? On the LDS website under the “Scriptures” section there is a list of additional verses referencing support that “the gospel of Jesus Christ was lost from the earth through the apostasy… That apostasy made necessary the restoration of the gospel.” Acts 3:20-21 is listed as a primary proof text of this claim.
Before we look at the text it is important to understand that the Mormons consider the restoration of the gospel started by Joseph Smith’s First Vision as vital to millions of people worldwide (and in the world not seen). As such, we should approach this subject with respect and honesty.
Now, let us read Acts 3:20-21 together: “[A]nd that He may send Jesus Christ, who was preached to you before, whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began.” From an initial reading it can seem that Paul is telling us that there will be a restoration following a time of apostasy. LeGrand Richards, former president of the LDS Church, member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, a prominent missionary and author writes of this passage:
“When looking for the second coming of the Christ as herein promised, we much realize that he will not come before there is a “restitution [restoration] of all things.” It is obvious that there cannot be a restitution of that which has not been taken away. Therefore, this scripture is another very plain prediction of apostasy – the taking of the gospel from earth – with a promise of the complete restoration of all things spoken by all the holy prophets since the world began.”
Again, at first glimpse this seems to be an accurate statement. After all, why would there be a need for a restitution of something that hasn’t been removed? And here the restitution spoken of, according the Mr. Richards and his LDS brothers and sisters, is the gospel. The event that is of such importance here is the coming of the original gospel message by way of the one true church, restored by and through the Latter-Day prophet Joseph Smith. Dr. Jackson writes, “The Book of Mormon stands as an ending of the restoration of the gospel through the Prophet Joseph Smith, held up to the world as evidence of God’s love for his children today.”
As we saw in Acts 20 though, sometimes first impressions are not truth revealing. So let’s look now again at Acts 3. There are a number of interpretations of this passage. The more popular of which is outlined well by Ron Rhodes in his Reasoning from the Scriptures with the Mormons while discussing this passage. Rhodes explains that the phrase “restitution of all things” more than likely refers to the restoration of Israel. To come to this conclusion we again have to think of the context in which Paul is writing Acts. His audience is the “men of Israel” and he tells his readers about the fulfillment of all the earlier prophecies. Rhodes offers good insight by way of Dr. Craig Keener, an academic professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, who writes “that Jewish people expected Israel’s restoration; this was a central message of the Old Testament prophets… and Peter seems to have it in view here.”
Though there are other renderings of meaning, such as the “restitution of all things” carries a more general meaning referring to judgment day, we can be sure of what Acts 3:20-21 cannot mean. Again, context, context, context; nowhere in the surrounding text is there any mention of a total apostasy in which the entire church will lose its way. This is true also when looking at the larger context of not only the New Testament but the entire biblical narrative, as Keener alludes to. The accepted Mormon rendering of Acts 3:20-21 simply reads something into the text that isn’t there. Rhodes points out that the Latter-Day Saints are guilty of eisogesis (reading meaning into a text) instead of practicing exegesis (drawing the meaning out of the text). He writes, “By allowing the text to speak for itself, a person would never come to the conclusion that Acts 3:20-21 is referring to a complete apostasy” and restoration of the church. He then offers Matthew 16:18 as an example of the conflict that would arise if this were not so. “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” In claiming that the entire Christian church fell into apostasy and was in need of a restoration the Mormon is in direct conflict with the words and teachings of Jesus.
Similarly Ephesians 3:21 reads, “to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” What is the need for a restoration if the church never falls away as we see here? Look at the claims of Peter in 1 Peter 1:25, quoting Isaiah 40:8 that “’the word of the Lord endures forever.’ And this is the word which was preached to you.” There is only one way to interpret this passage, which is the Word of the Lord truly “endures” throughout all of history. Peter is unequivocally claiming that what he and the other apostles are teaching is the true word of God.
Historical Reliability of the Biblical Narrative
Mormons, when confronted with their conclusions drawn from scripture, often claim that the biblical narrative, specifically the New Testament has been corrupted as according to 1 Nephi 13:26-28. But is this true? Kent Jackson thinks so and says that following the death of the apostles the “doctrinal unity which the Twelve were guardians had dissolved, and groups with every diverse teaching… were competing for power in the Christian community.” Kent Brown, professor of ancient scripture and the director of ancient studies at Brigham Young University writes that what was witnessed in the late first century is a “church full of dissensions.” The result is a corrupted text. However, what does the historical evidence say?
It would seem that the accuracy of the biblical record actually stands in direct conflict with the idea that there was an early apostasy as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints claims. In fact there is a “continuous line of historical evidence from as early as A.D. 95-100 showing that the Christian community considered the writings of Jesus’ apostles the supreme doctrinal standard.” We can be confident that by the late first and early second century there was all but universal agreement among Christian groups world-wide regarding the inspiration and accuracy of at least 20 of the New Testament books. By the end of the 4th century there was universal recognition of all 27 books of the New Testament.
The early believers viewed the apostolic writing as sacred. Much of this is actually due to the fact that the witnesses and apostles were dying or dead. Instead of this providing an opportunity for apostasy to creep in, it motivated the early church to make sure an accurate account of the events were recorded.
We are able to conclude that the New Testament is accurate and reliable because we can compare a multitude of manuscripts. This is a line of argument all but ignored by Mormon scholars. Between the second and fifteenth centuries, the time the falling away is claimed to have happened by the LDS, 5,366 partial and complete New Testament manuscript were reproduced. Compared to each other we see amazing accuracy and likeness. If there were deliberate changes being made by a variety of decenter there would be a large number of discrepancies between the texts, especially if the changes began early on.
Even more amazing is time that transpired between the original writings and the first copies. We have most of the New Testament manuscripts dated within 200 years of the events. We have some books dating to within 100 years of the events. And we have one fragment that comes within a generation. There simply was not enough time for heresy to creep in and gain footing.
Also, compared to any other ancient text the New Testament stands in a class of it’s own. “Not only are there thousands more manuscripts and portions of the New Testament than other ancient books, but the oldest New Testament manuscript portions are centuries earlier,” resulting in the ability to reconstruct them with a greater degree of accuracy than any other ancient book. If one is to doubt the authenticity of the New Testament documents then one must also doubt all ancient writing. Something no group, Latter-Day Saints included, is too willing to do. (The chart above was taken from http://carm.org/manuscript-evidence)
The process used in determining to what degree any ancient document corresponds to its original is called textual criticism. Lower criticism deals the authenticity of the text. Textual critics try to recreate the original texts of the lost document by comparing copies of the writings, in this case the ancient New Testament documents. The results? We can be confident “that the Bible has not only been preserved in the largest number of manuscripts of any book from the ancient world, but that it also contains fewer errors in transmission.” Of these errors only 10 percent affect the meaning of the passage, none effecting Christian doctrine.
In light of these evidences and the work of textual critics we can be certain that what we’re reading today, “line for line, word for word, and even letter for letter”, is the “Word of God as originally written.” What’s more is that we can be sure that the Mormon position that the texts were corrupted early in Church history is not an accurate one, eliminating the need of a restored church due to the fact that church history as been so well preserved. It also becomes clear that nowhere in the thousands of manuscripts and copies do we see anything close to resembling what Joseph Smith and his Mormon followers believe to be the restored church.
In conclusion and after careful examination of both the evidence and the claims to apostasy and a restoration propagated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints it has become clear that the Mormon church is mistaken. We’ve seen that the proof texts from Scripture and the historicity of the Bible support the orthodox, Evangelical view that what we read today is what the Apostles wrote; no central doctrines have been removed or added. As such we can be sure that the Church is not apostate and therefore there is no need for a restoration of any kind. However, this is not to say the claims of the Latter-Day Saints should be dismissed with a cavalier attitude. Claims such as the ones investigated above pose a very real challenge to orthodoxy and as Saints we are called to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks… But do this with gentleness and respect,” and our prayers should echo that of the Psalmist, “Teach me Your way, O Lord, that I may walk and live in Your truth; direct and unite my heart to fear and honor Your name.”
 Soanes, Catherine, Angus Stevenson, ed. 2004. Concise Oxford English Dictionary (Eleventh Edition). Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. 61.
 Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 13:26-28.
 Jackson, Kent P. From Apostasy to Restoration (Salt Lake City: Desert News Press: 2010, Kindle e-book) locations 319-366.
 Talmage, James E. The Great Apostasy: Considered in the Light of Scriptural and Secular History (Salt Lake City, Desert News Press, 1968). Preface.
 Jackson, Kent. From Apostasy to Restoration. Chapter 7 and Talmage, James E. The Great Apostasy. Chapter 10
 Pearl of Great Price: Joseph Smith – History Ch. 8
 Roberts, B.H. A Comprehensive History of the Church: Century One (Salt Lake City: Desert News Press, 1930). 62.
 Young, Brigham. Journal of Discourses (London: Latter-Day Saints Book Depot, 1854-1856). 8:171.
 Pratt, Orson, The Seer. Washington DC: NP, 1853-54. 255.
 Oaks, Dallin H. “Apostasy and the Restoration.” Ensign Magazine, May 1995. 85.
 Jackson, Kent. From Apostasy to Restoration. 138.
 Bennion, Lynn M. and J.A. Washburn. History or the Restored Church (Salt Lake City, Desert News Press for Desert Sunday School Union Board, 1960). 11.
 The New King James Version. 1982 (Ac 20:29–31). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 Jackson, Kent. From Apostasy to Restoration. 173.
 Talmage, James Edward. The Articles of Faith (Salt Lake City, Desert News Press, 1899). 206-207.
 Bruce, F.F. The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Book of Acts (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988). 417.
 The Holy Bible: King James Version. 2009 (Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version.) (Eph 3:21). Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
 It should be noted that if it is shown that the belief of an all-encompassing and great apostasy is be false then there would be no reason to examine the Mormon claim that there is a need for a restoration. No apostasy equals no restoration. But due to the limits of this paper, specifically the time and space we will only be looking at two scriptures from Acts, there are more examples referenced by Mormon apologists and scholars.
 Jackson, Kent. From Apostasy to Restoration. 1202
 The New King James Version. 1982 (Ac 3:20–21). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 LeGrand, Richard. A Marvelous Work and a Wonder (Salt Lake City, Desert Book Company, 1973). 35
 Jackson, Kent. From Apostasy to Restoration
 Rhodes, Ron. Reasoning from the Scriptures. 44. Referring to Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary (Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity Press, 1993). 332
 Rhodes, Ron. Reasoning from the Scriptures. 45.
 The New King James Version. 1982 (Mt 16:18). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 New American Standard Bible : 1995 update. 1995 (1 Pe 1:25). LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.
 Jackson, Kent. From Apostasy to Restoration. 154
 N. Geisler and W. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible. (Chicago, Moody Press, 1986). 385
 1 Peter 3:15; Psalm 86:11