On December 22, the FAIR Blog—part of the Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research, a pro-Mormonism web site—offered a response to my series of posts here on Mormonism and apostles. The author of the blog, identified as Keller, summarizes my argument as follows:
Bowman’s posts so far have argued that contemporary Mormon practice deviates from what he finds in early Christianity: 1) Ordination to a priesthood office wasn’t always done by the laying on of hands by one holding the authority to do so and 2) The office of apostle in the sense of being a spokesman for the Lord was not meant to continue as such. Such deviations, he contends, make it impossible for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to make unique truth claims about exclusively having priesthood authority.
Keller’s first point in his summary of my view is a bit off, confusing at least some of his readers. Thus, a Mormon named Lance Starr comments, “I haven’t read Bowman’s arguments but isn’t he undermining [his] own evangelical position by arguing for any ordinations at all?” Evangelicals have somewhat varying views on the subject of ordination, but the point I had made was that the New Testament never associates a human ordination ceremony or rite (involving the laying on of hands) with a man becoming an apostle of Jesus Christ. I have not yet addressed the broader questions of whether there was a priesthood office in the first-century Christian church. No one questions that human leaders within the church played a direct role in the appointment of new leaders such as elders or deacons. The point I made was simply this: in the New Testament, Jesus Christ personally chooses and appoints his apostles apart from any religious process of human appointment or ceremonial induction to their office. I showed that none of the original twelve apostles were chosen or ordained by other apostles, that the eleven apostles did not choose or ordain Matthias to become an apostle, and that apostles did not choose or ordain Paul to hold the office of apostle.
Keller’s second point in his summary accurately states the conclusion toward which my argument is driving. I do intend to show that the office of apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ was a temporary office rather than one that Christ intended to continue beyond the first century.
Keller thinks that the conclusion of my argument is that the LDS Church cannot “make unique truth claims about exclusively having priesthood authority.” Again, I have not been discussing the priesthood concept at all. My arguments have focused exclusively on the office of apostle. Of course, if the LDS claim to have a restored apostolic office is false, then its claim to have a unique priesthood authority must also be false.
Keller’s misstatements of my argument lead him to offer responses that fail to engage my argument adequately. He argues that the concept of continuing revelation entails that the church today will not be exactly like the church in past eras. “Hypothetically, I can accept that ordination by the laying on of hands and having an authoritative, living spokesman for the Lord is necessary in our dispensation while suspending judgment on other eras.” Fair enough. But in actuality, Mormon publications routinely claim that in these respects the restored church is doing things in the same way as the first-century church. Presumably Keller agrees with this claim, since he felt it necessary to qualify his statement as hypothetical. I do not assume that the concept of restoration abstractly commits Mormons to duplicate first-century church life in all respects. The conventional LDS position is that its practice of apostles ordaining apostles in an intergenerational continuing office mirrors in essential matters what occurred in New Testament times, supposedly as shown by the New Testament writings themselves. My argument is simply that this is not so.
Keller comes closer to engaging the argument when he writes:
Where Bowman’s critique may matter is how Latter-day Saints appeal to the Bible to present our apostasy and restoration narrative to others. Like others that hold the Bible as scripture, we often appeal to proof texts that are filtered through the lens formed by our prior knowledge. Bowman provides a valuable service by showing that those same proof-texts can be rationally read to produce a different conclusion when approached with a different lens.
That’s about as much as I could hope for a Mormon to concede. Naturally, Keller is not conceding that my reading of the biblical texts is correct. I am simply reading them “with a different lens.” The New Testament texts, by themselves, can be read either way, according to Keller: “Ultimately, I think these debates are irresolvable one way due to the insufficiency of the New Testament texts.” Keller prefers the “lens” of the modern revelations he accepts as coming from Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and the living prophets today.
To back up his claim that the New Testament texts are indecisive on the issues at hand, Keller asserts that my argument appeals to silences in those texts:
Collectively, the ancient sources are sparse and widely distributed over time. So understandably, Bowman’s interpretations sometimes contain arguments from silence. In general, such arguments are only persuasive in as much as there is a reasonable expectation that an item would be mentioned if it really happened or existed. Such arguments can lose their force when additional information is introduced or it can be demonstrated that the missing item would naturally be assumed anyway by its original audience…. Bowman’s insistence that silence in a text about the laying on of hands or an equivalent initiation ritual means [sic] is not all that new or compelling.
Although something appears to be missing (ironically!) in the last-quoted sentence above, Keller’s general point is as clear as it is mistaken. He understands me to argue as follows: The New Testament doesn’t mention the laying on of hands in these texts; therefore, it didn’t happen. That would indeed be a fallacious argument from silence, were I to present such an argument. But that is not at all the argument I present. The observation that the texts don’t mention the act of laying on of hands is only one element of the argument, and not even its major premise.
Let me review quickly, since in some online discussions I have found other Mormons similarly misreading the argument. Mormons routinely claim in their publications that Matthias, Paul, and (they presume) other apostles in New Testament times obtained their office through a ritual ordination involving the laying on of hands by existing apostles on the new apostle. I point out not only that the texts say no such thing but also that the texts preclude the notion that this is how apostles came into their office. Christ chose the original twelve, with no other agent involved. After Judas Isacariot’s apostasy and death, the eleven apostles did not choose Matthias to be an apostle. They asked the rest of the 120 disciples to put forward candidates meeting certain minimal prerequisites, then cast lots, asking the Lord Jesus to indicate through the lot whom he had chosen to be the new twelfth apostle. The eleven played no determinative role in appointing Matthias. Might they have laid hands on him, even though the text does not mention it? Of course, but if so, this action would have had nothing to do with how Matthias became an apostle. It would be an after-the-fact acknowledgment that Christ had made his choice.
As for Paul, he specifically and emphatically denies that any mere human beings (such as the other apostles) were agents in his appointment as an apostle: it was simply the decision of God the Father and Christ Jesus (Gal. 1:1). A careful study of the chronology of the life and ministry of Paul shows that the other apostles did not and could not have ordained him to the office of apostle.
The argument here is based not on what the texts don’t say but on what they do say. What they say shows that the office of apostle was not an intergenerational office transmitted from old apostles to new apostles, but an office transmitted from Jesus Christ to whichever individuals he had chosen to serve as his apostles.