Beginning in 303 AD, the Roman emperor Diocletian began a series of official persecutions of Christians, stripping them of legal status and resulting in death, torture, imprisonment, and loss of property for many Christians. Some Roman governors offered leniency to Christians if they would officially repudiate the faith – an attractive proposition to some when faced with the specter of torture and death. As a result, many Christians renounced the faith, including some clergy.

The Edict of Milan in 313 AD brought a winding down of the persecutions in the eastern empire, but it wasn’t until 324, when Constantine became sole emperor, that the persecutions were ended across the entire empire. As Christians resumed their regular lives, churches were split over how to handle those who repudiated the faith during the persecutions (they were called traditores). These disagreements became particularly acute when it came to the question of how to handle clergy who had repudiated the faith. Was their authority valid? Were their sacraments, both before and after the persecutions, valid?

Leading the argument that the sacraments of traditore clergy were invalid was a group in North Africa called Donatists, so named for one of their leaders, a Christian bishop named Donatus Magnus. Donatists argued that Christian clergy must be sinless in order for their sacraments to be valid, and renouncing the faith to avoid persecution was a grievous enough sin that any clergy having done so had forfeited their authority to perform sacraments, even if they repented. For Donatists, this even extended to bishops or priests who were secretly committing sin – any sacraments they perform would be invalid. It’s akin to thinking, in an LDS context, that the sacrament blessed by a sexually active priest is invalid because of his sin; or that a baptism performed by a secretly adulterous father is invalid.

Needless to say that the Donatist perspective was rejected by the early Christian church, which largely espoused the idea that the sacraments are from God and he alone renders them valid, and that has been the perspective of the church since that time. It is also the perspective of the LDS Church as well.

So, I was intrigued by a recent post at By Common Consent, written by JKC, discussing the fallibility of prophets and institutional revelation. The post is excellent and offers a thoughtful approach to the question of prophetic fallibility. The basic points, as I understood them, are:

  • There are certain circumstances when the President of the LDS Church is speaking as a prophet, and most of the time those circumstances are dictated by the testimony of the Holy Spirit given to the members of the LDS Church.
  • The closer to the basics (e.g., atonement, Jesus Christ, baptism, repentance), the more likely the statement is to be prophetic.
  • Statements made by the unanimous Q15 are more likely to be prophetic.
  • The President of the LDS Church can make mistakes – even big, theological ones, and still be a prophet.
  • That, while the LDS Church may be wrong on things, it will never drift into apostasy and lose the restored priesthood authority.

These arguments are interesting to me because they are eerily similar to the arguments made for the Great Apostasy. Those arguments basically are:

  • Apostles died, taking priesthood authority with them.
  • Decisions were made by councils rather than by direct, angelic revelation from God.
  • Church leaders made gross mistakes, including theological and doctrinal mistakes, leading the church astray.

There is a great deal of correlation between the arguments made by JKC and the reasons historically provided for the Great Apostasy. I mentioned this to JKC in the comments of his post:

First of all, great post. I particularly like your final paragraph in your third point. Much food for thought there.

Question though: how is this functionally different than the arguments put forth over the years for how the Great Apostasy occurred? I’m not arguing that the LDS Church has apostatized, rather I’m trying to figure out how a claim can be made (by the official narrative of the LDS Church) that Christianity apostatized for these reasons, but it’s different now. Don’t these arguments begin to invalidate the narrative regarding the Great Apostasy?

JKC kindly responded:

Cody: Thanks for the comment. Frankly, in my opinion, too often we talk about the apostasy as an issue of the church believing incorrect doctrine and losing knowledge. But I’m not sure that’s right. The restoration was primarily a call to repentance and a restoration of priesthood authority, not the restoration of a detailed systematic theology. In my view, God cares a lot more about whether we are repenting and exercising faith in Christ, and trying to receive the Holy Ghost than about whether we believe the correct doctrinal things.

Our theology has changed over the years on things like the precise details of the Godhead, and that’s fine. I go back to scriptures like 3 Ne. 11:31-35 and D&C 19:31. The essential doctrines are pretty few. There’s lots of room for variation and even error on other points of theology. [Emphasis mine]

JKC also linked to one of his previous posts addressing what he called “a limited view of the Great Apostasy”, where he discusses the importance of Joseph Smith’s First Vision in the context of some limited view of the Great Apostasy. He is attempting to deal with some of the weaknesses associated with the traditional LDS polemic regarding a Great Apostasy, especially given the scholarly evidence making such a perspective untenable indeed. For example:

  • There were far more apostles than 12 in the ancient church.
  • The apostles delegated authority to bishops responsible for geographic areas and empowered them to make autonomous decisions, call deacons and elders, etc.
  • Ecumenical councils were used to decide important disagreements within the early church.
  • The revelation and influence of the Holy Spirit was earnestly sought within those councils, and there are accounts of those present having powerful spiritual experiences and manifestations within those councils.
  • Many people throughout the intervening centuries received revelation and spiritual manifestations, both individually and institutionally, to guide them.
  • Apostolic succession was important for the church and played an important role in the ordination of bishops so as to maintain that succession (both via line-of-authority and maintenance of the apostolic teachings/tradition).
  • The early church appears to have had no concept of priesthood authority along the lines of what the LDS Church claims.
  • There were many doctrinal and theological differences from the get-go within the early church; so many that it is difficult to maintain the idea that there was one cohesive church with one established doctrine from which to apostatize. There was significant variation in theology and practice among the church from the very beginning.

Given the modern, scholarly understanding of the early church, the idea of a Great Apostasy becomes extremely difficult to maintain, and this becomes an acute problem for the restoration itself, for if there was no apostasy, why was a restoration needed?

JKC makes the following argument:

But when it comes to priesthood authority, the restoration makes a definite claim that priesthood authority was restored (and, by implication, that it needed to be restored, because it was lost). So that’s the view of the apostasy that I’ve come to. It was a loss of priesthood authority, and probably, of institutional revelation. But the other stuff (confusion over doctrine, doctrinal error, changing ordinances) is not so much proof of apostasy as it is a the natural effect human beings running a church, even with divine help, for more than a decade or two.

I’ve also noticed a similar argument being made by some of the newer brand of LDS apologists. They seem to play down all aspects of the Great Apostasy narrative and instead focus on the need for a restoration of priesthood authority. However, isn’t that just a Donatist argument? If we follow the LDS Church understanding that the validity of ordinances and sacraments is not contingent on the administrator’s personal sinfulness, then how, exactly, did early church leaders lose their authority? Is there some nuance to the LDS view of Donatism that I am missing?

Since I have left the LDS Church I understand I am skating on thin ice here; however, I intend no offense and would hope there is the possibility of having a thoughtful, respectful discussion because I am genuinely curious how faithful LDS members make sense of this. I would imagine that there is a contingent of readers here who espouse the traditional view of the Great Apostasy. For those folks, I would love to hear how you hold to that perspective given the overwhelming scholarly evidence against it.

For those holding a view similar to JKC’s – the “limited view of the Great Apostasy” – I would love to hear how you avoid Donatism. How was authority lost? Is it based on heresy from the original truth? How do you maintain that perspective in the face of scholarly evidence that no such “LDS-like” original existed from which to commit heresy?

I find the shifting narrative on the Great Apostasy to be fascinating so I am genuinely curious to hear the perspectives of our readers on this topic. Thanks for indulging me.