10 Problems with a
Definition of Terms:
Several denominations in the 19th century claimed to have witnessed a “great apostasy” in the history of Christianity. These religious groups emerged in a time of social and cultural changes, including the Second Great Awakening in the United States, and were part of the larger “Restorationist” movement, seeking to return to what they saw as the original or pure form of Christianity. The belief in the imminent return of Christ was prevalent during this time, and these groups offered unique interpretations and prophecies about the end times and Christ’s second coming, resonating with many seekers.
Religious groups like Mormons, Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-day Adventists emerged due to individuals or leaders reinterpreting or diverging from mainstream Christian beliefs. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), founded by Joseph Smith in the early 19th century, claimed divine revelations through translating the Book of Mormon. Jehovah’s Witnesses, founded in the late 19th century by Charles Taze Russell, asserted that Christianity went through a complete apostasy after the death of the apostles and that their movement is a restoration of true Christianity. Charles Russell made several failed predictions of the immenant return of Christ. Seventh-day Adventist Church, founded by Ellen G. White in the mid-19th century, emphasized the importance of the Sabbath and believed that mainstream Christianity deviated from biblical truths and that their church was raised by God to restore true teachings and prepare for Christ’s Second Coming. Christian Science, founded by Mary Baker Eddy in the late 19th century, claimed that Christianity lost its original spiritual essence, and their church was established to restore the true teachings of Christ.
Critics cite several problems with these claims;
- Contradicts Christ’s Promises: Christ promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church, that He would be with the Church until the end of time. and to send the Holy Spirit to lead the Church into all truth. (Matt. 16:18, Matt. 28:20, John 16:13). Total Apostasy implies that Christ would abandon His Bride (Eph. 5:23-27) and allow His Body to disintegrate (1 Cor. 12:12-27, Eph. 4:15-16).
- It ignores the problem of the Biblical Canon. The early church did not agree on the canon. Disputed books were referred to as the antilegomena. The canon would not be settled until the 4th century by Athanasius and the Councils of Rome (382), Hippo (393), and Carthage (397). A total apostasy suggests these early Christians may have gotten the canon of the Bible wrong.
- It Denies the role of the Church: Christ established the Church as the authority and cornerstone of the faith and the “pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15, Matthew 18:17-18, John 20:21-23; 2 Cor. 5:18-20, Matt. 16:18-19; John 21:15-17, Matt. 10:40; Luke 10:16, Eph. 2:20, Eph. 3:10-11, Eph. 4:11-14).
- Disregards Church Tradition: Critics point out that these groups tend to dismiss traditional teachings and disregard early Ecumenical Councils. They also deny apostolic succession (Acts 1:15-26, 1 Tim. 4:14, 1 Tim. 5:22),
the unbroken continuum of apostolic authority, which can be seen in early Christian writings & Church Fathers. The concept of a total apostasy contradicts the historical continuity of early Christian writings such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus of Lyons, Cyprian of Carthage, and other Church Fathers, ignoring the clear development of doctrine.
- Lacks Historical Evidence: There is insufficient historical evidence to support the claims of these groups. Critics question why there is a lack of evidence from early Church Fathers explicitly referring to a universal apostasy and subsequent restoration. There is no evidence suggesting any apparent sudden change in beliefs that occurred at any particular moment in time. Neither is there any evidence that groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists and Mormonism existed before the 18th century.
- Founder Criticisms: Both Ellen G White and Charles Taze Russell made several failed predictions. Ellen G White was also accused of plagiarism. Joseph Smith faced legal allegations regarding deceptive practices and the authenticity of his Golden Plates are questionable. Mary Baker Eddy has been accused of plagiarism and was involved in various legal battles.
- Revisionist History: Critics point out that these groups present a revisionist version of history, picking selective events to fit their narrative of apostasy and restoration, disregarding historical evidence that contradicts their claims. Many of the claims regarding the “great apostasy” are based on biased sources or conspiracy theories rather than verifiable historical evidence.
- Selective Interpretation of Scriptures: Critics contend that these groups often cherry-pick Bible verses and rely on selective interpretations of these verses to justify their belief in a “great apostasy,” ignoring broader scriptural contexts & that these verses do not make any reference to a TOTAL apostasy.
- Reliance on Singular Founders & Lack of Objective Verification: The claims of apostasy and restoration are often based on subjective personal visions or revelations of a single individual. This makes it challenging to objectively verify their authenticity and credibility, which leads to skepticism.
- Inconsistencies in Claims at Restoration: The diversity of beliefs and practices among these groups lead to contradictions in theological interpretations and cast doubt on their claims of a singular restoration. There are also concerns about potential cult-like tendencies, such as the focus on apocalyptic end times, persistent proselytizing methods, cultural isolation, shunning of former members, and the charismatic leadership of figures like Joseph Smith, Charles Taze Russell, and Ellen G. White.
“As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.”
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”
“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.'”
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.”
“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”
“He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
“Then the older son became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!'”
“The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason, my joy has been fulfilled.”
“For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish.”
“Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready; to her it has been granted to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure—for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.'”
Romans 12:1-5 (NRSVCE):
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body, we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.”
1 Corinthians 12:12-27 (NRSVCE):
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit, we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.”
Ephesians 3:4-6 (NRSVCE):
“When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to humankind in other generations, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
1 Timothy 3:15 (NRSVCE):
“if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.”
Matthew 18:17-18 (NRSVCE):
“If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
John 20:21-23 (NRSVCE):
“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.'”
2 Corinthians 5:18-20 (NRSVCE):
“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So, we are ambassadors for Christ since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
Matthew 16:18-19 (NRSVCE):
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”