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#38: Protestantism’s Mormonism Problem

The “Becoming Catholic” series presents the biblical, philosophical, and historical evidence for why Eternal Christendom Founder, Joshua Charles, became and remains Catholic. The series table of contents is here.

This post will make the following three-part argument:

(1) Mormons (Latter-Day Saints, or LDS) believe that after the death of the last Apostle, there was a “Great Apostasy.” Priesthood authority ceased, doctrine began to degenerate, and the true Gospel was lost (necessitating its “restoration” by Joseph Smith in the 19th century).

(2) The vast majority of protestants reject multiple doctrines that were believed unanimously by ancient Christians, beginning with the very first Church Fathers who were discipled by the Apostles themselves. Specifically, these protestants reject three key doctrines:

a. Baptismal regeneration (how we become Christians);

b. Apostolic succession (how the Church is governed); and

c. The sacrifice of the Eucharist (how Christians worship).

(3) Therefore, whether they realize it or not, most protestants believe in a “Great Apostasy” theory of history that is virtually identical with that of the LDS.

If all Christians of which we have any record—including the disciples of the Apostles—were unanimously wrong about how we become Christians, how the Church is governed, and how we worship as Christians (the “Three Doctrines”), there is no more fitting description of this massive falling away than a “Great Apostasy.”

This necessarily means that creatures (the protestant “reformers,” or the LDS’s “prophet” Joseph Smith) outperformed the Creator, since their “gospels” and “churches” have now in one form or another lasted for centuries, whereas when Jesus originally established them, they fell apart immediately.

A “Great Apostasy”?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) believes that after the death of the last Apostle, there was a “Great Apostasy,” and the true gospel was lost. It officially teaches the following about this “Great Apostasy”:

Following the death of Jesus Christ, wicked people persecuted and killed many Church members. Other Church members drifted from the principles taught by Jesus Christ and His Apostles. The Apostles were killed, and priesthood authority—including the keys to direct and receive revelation for the Church—was taken from the earth. Because the Church was no longer led by priesthood authority, error crept into Church teachings. Good people and much truth remained, but the gospel as established by Jesus Christ was lost. This period is called the Great Apostasy.

This apostasy resulted in the formation of many churches with conflicting teachings. During this time, many men and women sought the truth, but they were unable to find it. Many good people believed in God and Jesus Christ and tried to understand and teach truth, but they did not have the full gospel or priesthood authority. As a result, each generation inherited a state of apostasy as people were influenced by what previous generations passed on, including changes to Christ’s gospel.

Some inspired people, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, recognized that practices and doctrines had been changed or lost. They tried to reform the churches to which they belonged. Without priesthood authority, however, Christ’s gospel could not be returned to its original form. A restoration was needed.

A few observations.

First, an anecdote. For several months, I hosted several LDS missionaries and one of their local leaders in my home for theological discussions. Their teaching on the “Great Apostasy” was the focus of most of my questions, and the springboard for many of my counter-arguments. While they claimed that “priesthood authority,” the “keys” of the Church, had been lost, I quoted for them the words of St. Pope Clement of Rome, and St. Ignatius of Antioch. Both were disciples of the Apostles (St. Clement was likely even mentioned in the Bible, Phil. 4:3), and both very clearly testify to the reality of the Christian priesthood, the divine establishment of the episcopate (the office of bishop), and the succession of bishops directly from the Apostles as a necessary part of the Church’s constitution.

I printed out a page worth of quotes for everyone. “These men, disciples of the Apostles, seem completely unaware of any loss of priesthood authority,” I said. The LDS men were very kind and generous, but dead silent when I said this. Their official doctrine made a claim that priesthood authority was lost, but the disciples of the Apostles themselves very clearly said otherwise. I had the impression that they (like most protestants, including myself before 2017) were completely ignorant of the Church Fathers.

Second, the LDS note that this “Great Apostasy” led to “many churches with conflicting teachings.” What’s ironic is that you do not see this among the Church Fathers and the Catholic Church. That would be a huge subject to unpack, and beyond the scope of this article. But the Church Fathers consistently speak of the continuity of the Catholic Faith, the authority and unity of the Catholic Church, and its perpetual existence until Christ returns. Many of them frequently recognized each other during both their lifetimes, and centuries later, as they were often explicitly recognized as authoritative by ecumenical councils of the Catholic Church. Indeed, the Fathers recognized the reality of which the LDS speak among heretics and schismatics, who broke from the very “priesthood authority” and “keys” the LDS claim were lost after the death of the Apostles.

Third, it is no doubt significant that the LDS identify figures such as Luther and Calvin (whose teachings, ironically, contradicted each other as well as the Catholic Church on numerous points) as “inspired people” on the timeline toward the “restored Gospel” they claim to possess thanks to Joseph Smith. They claim that Luther and Calvin recognized that certain truths had been “changed” and “lost.” It is again deeply ironic that many Catholic converts who come from a protestant background come to the Church precisely because they read the ancient Church Fathers, and realize that protestant doctrines are nowhere to be found in their writings. That which they were told was “changed” and “lost” they see never happened. It’s a myth. Yet the LDS counter this with the same basic claim as many protestants: that Luther and Calvin had rediscovered doctrines that were “changed” or “lost.”

But the historical record shows otherwise.

Three Universal Doctrines Rejected by Most Protestants

Protestants object to many different Catholic doctrines. However, the Church Fathers exhibit an overwhelming, even unanimous consensus on many of these very Catholic doctrines that the vast majority (sometimes all) protestants reject—and on matters that can hardly be considered anything less than “essential.”

I will focus on three, as they get to the heart of the Gospel and Christian life:

  1. Baptismal regeneration (how we become Christians);
  2. Apostolic succession (how the Church is governed); and
  3. The sacrifice of the Eucharist (how we worship as Christians).

For the rest of this article, I’ll refer to these as the “Three Doctrines.”

By rejecting these Three Doctrines on which the Fathers are unanimous, not only is any protestant claim to be in continuity with historic Christianity falsified, but they are logically required to affirm a “Great Apostasy” theory of history that is virtually identical with that of the LDS. After all, if after the death of the Apostles every Christian of which we have any record believed in the Three Doctrines that most and in some cases all protestants reject, how could that be anything other than a “Great Apostasy”?

But if protestants are correct, a “Great Apostasy” is precisely what happened.

The Necessary Conclusion: The Church Apostatized from the Great Commission

The Great Commission itself illustrates this point. Christ commissioned the Apostles as follows (Matt. 28:19-20):

19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

Jesus commanded them to do two things: (1) baptize; and (2) teach new disciples all of His commandments.

Undoubtedly Christ’s commandments included how the Church ought to be governed, and how Christians ought to worship. These are necessary doctrines, without which there could be no Christian religion. That is why every Christian “denomination” of any kind has a doctrine or set of beliefs about each.

Thus, the Three Doctrines are necessarily intrinsic to the Great Commission itself.

And on each of the Three Doctrines, the Church Fathers are unanimous in asserting Catholic doctrine. Showing the evidence for this is beyond the scope of this article, but you can find some of it here:

  1. Becoming Catholic Quote Archive: Baptismal Regeneration
  2. Becoming Catholic Quote Archive: Apostolic Succession
  3. Becoming Catholic Quote Archive: The Sacrifice of the Eucharist

Each of these Quote Archives have many more examples coming. Suffice it to say, the evidence is overwhelming.

Therefore, if the unanimous patristic consensus on the Three Doctrines was wrong, then the Church after the Apostles died literally got everything about the Great Commission wrong.

This necessary conclusion must be pondered in all its disturbing implications.

No matter how you slice it, this would be a Great Apostasy, and thus a point on which a large majority of protestants agree with the foundational premise of Mormonism—that the Church as established by Christ fell apart after the death of the last Apostle, and therefore the “true gospel” was in need of “restoration.” It is no wonder the LDS admire Luther and Calvin.

It need not be said, but in the interest of perfect clarity, we acknowledge that protestants are far closer to the truth than the LDS. On what the “gospel” is, and how it is “restored/recovered,” Mormons and protestants obviously have huge disagreements.

But it is very significant that each of their doctrinal systems stem from a shared presupposition—indeed, a shared historical justification—that the original Church established by Christ apostatized virtually immediately.

Many protestants don’t phrase it this way, and many sincerely believe this is not their view of history. But if they believe the Church got it completely wrong on the Three Doctrines so intrinsic to the Great Commission—a point that is historically incontestable if the doctrines believed by most protestants are true—then it is impossible to claim a Great Apostasy didn’t happen after the death of the Apostles, exactly as the LDS claim.

It necessarily follows that on the Three Doctrines, all Christians of which we have any record whatsoever prior to the first protestant sect appearing in the 16th century did not have the true Christian faith.

That is a “Great Apostasy.”

The Vast Majority of Protestants Reject the Unanimous Witness of the Ancient Church

So how many protestants are we talking about here? To answer this question, we’ll start with the largest protestant country in the world—the United States—and rely on the Pew Research Center’s most recent Religious Landscape Study.

As we said, most protestants reject the Three Doctrines, but not all. We’ll be generous, and say that Lutherans and Anglicans (in which we’ll include Episcopalians) do not reject baptismal regeneration or apostolic succession. These are the only major protestant sects who in one form or another accept them (though even then, not always in the Catholic form). Some Lutherans reject apostolic succession, and some Anglicans reject baptismal regeneration. But for the sake of argument, we’ll stipulate that all of them accept both doctrines. Both of them, however, reject the sacrifice of the Eucharist. Thus, with respect to the Three Doctrines, the major protestant sects believe as follows:

  1. Baptismal regeneration (rejected by all except Lutherans and Anglicans);
  2. Apostolic succession (rejected by all except Lutherans and Anglicans); and
  3. Sacrifice of the Eucharist (rejected by all).

According to Pew’s Religious Landscape Study, protestants of one kind or another constitute 46.6% of the American population. This includes those classified by Pew as “Evangelical Protestant” (25.4%), “Mainline Protestant” (14.7%), and “Historically Black Protestant” (6.5%).

Among protestants, Lutherans of one kind or another constitute 3.6%, while Anglicans constitute 1.5% of the American population, for a combined total of 5.1%.

Thus, Lutherans and Anglicans constitute approximately 10.9% of American protestants (5.6 out of 46.6). Therefore, with respect to baptismal regeneration and apostolic succession, 89.1% of American protestants, at a minimum, virtually all reject the Three Doctrines on which the Church Fathers were unanimous.

Worldwide, there are approximately 77 million Lutherans, and 85 million Anglicans, for a total of 162 million people. There are approximately 900 million protestants worldwide, making the combination of Lutherans and Anglicans approximately 18% of protestants as a whole.

Therefore, around the world, at a minimum, approximately 82% of protestants reject baptismal regeneration and apostolic succession, though the number is likely higher given variations among Lutherans and Anglicans.

We are thus in a solid position to assert that “most” protestants reject the absolutely unanimous consensus of the Church Fathers on the Three Doctrines.

This is functionally equivalent to saying most protestants believe that after the Apostles died, the Church got the Great Commission completely wrong by failing to uphold true doctrine on how we become Christians, how the Church is governed, and how Christians worship.

Again, if that is not a “Great Apostasy,” what is?

1st Century Great Apostasy = Creature Stronger than the Creator

Why is this significant? Because the undeniable implication of this historical theory is that what the Son of God Himself established did not survive, but what was established by some other non-Incarnate man did. In the LDS case, this is Joseph Smith, who they consider a prophet. For protestants, it’s the “reformers” of the 16th century.

Protestants deny there have been any divinely inspired prophets after the death of the last Apostle. However, they also contend that since the advent of the protestant movement, the “gospel” has been “restored” and/or “recovered.” Indeed, for the vast majority of protestants who reject the Three Doctrines, that is what they must believe, if in fact their doctrines are correct, since every historical record we have of the Christian Faith in the preceding 1,500 years contradicts them. Not only that, but they believe this “true gospel” has been available to the world for the last 500 years.

This belief necessitates an unavoidably dark conclusion: it means that which was restored by mere men has managed to last at least 500 years; while that which was established by God in the Flesh, Jesus Christ, didn’t even last past the death of the Apostles.

Are these conclusions stated out loud? No. Many protestants claim they are simply teaching what the Bible teaches, which means (they say) the Three Doctrines are false. But if no Christian believed this “true gospel” before them, the disturbing conclusions we’ve outlined follow as apodictically as 2 + 2 = 4. To deny the Three Doctrines universally espoused by all Christians of which we have any historical record prior to the 16th century can only mean that this “true gospel” has so far lasted much longer (500 years), and persisted much more effectively (the spread of protestantism around the world), when re-established by men than when it was supposedly originally established by Christ Himself!

This is seen simply by imagining the scenario: Jesus Christ Himself preaches this “true gospel” in which the Three Doctrines play no part. He entrusted this “gospel” to His Apostles, who taught it to the first generation of Christians. But after the death of the last Apostle, this “gospel” disappeared completely. Not only did it disappear, but literally every generation of Christians asserted doctrines directly repugnant to it until it reappeared in the 16th century.

But this is not the end of the matter. Once this “true gospel” was recovered in the 16th century, it has so far been available and lasted for 500 years. Thanks to the wonders of technology, it has even spread all over the world—something it was never able to do even after being established by Jesus Christ Himself!

Therefore, if indeed the “true gospel” necessarily denies the Three Doctrines, that means its re-establishment by protestants in the 16th century was far more effective than its establishment by the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ Himself, in the 1st century! The creatures are greater than the Creator! The creatures who could not promise to remain with the Church after their deaths somehow managed to perpetuate the “true gospel” better than the God-man who did promise to remain with the Church until His return.

This is but another way of saying that the theology of history proposed by most protestants—whether they realize it or not—necessarily elevates the creature above the Creator. This, in short, is precisely what the Church and the Church Fathers have always described as “heresy”: choosing to believe one’s opinion about religion, rather than what God has actually revealed, as taught to the world by His Church, which is His Body.

Conclusion: Protestants May Shudder, but This is the Necessary Consequence of Their Theology

I suspect the vast majority of protestants would shudder at the idea that this is in fact the theory of history they have implicitly adopted. What I am here to tell them is that, shocked and scandalized as they may be by this assertion, this is in fact the only theory of history remaining to them based on their own theological presuppositions, presuppositions which they share with Mormonism. It is no wonder that such presuppositions necessarily lead to the conclusion that the creature was able to establish something far stronger than the Creator. Christ’s Church fell apart, so we needed Joseph Smith to “restore” it. Christ’s gospel was totally lost, so we needed Martin Luther, John Calvin, and a thousand others to “recover” it (no matter that they often contradict one another as much as they contradict the Church!).

The theological premises of the vast majority of protestants necessarily and unavoidably lead to these conclusions.

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