The Maxwell Institute at BYU recently published Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints, and it is a fantastic journey into early Christianity geared specifically to Latter-day Saints. Through a collection of 14 essays dealing with topics ranging from praxis and worship to scripture and theology, the key elements of Christianity during its first several centuries (and beyond) are addressed in an accessible way. The discussions are punctuated by a large collection of artwork produced by early Christians, spread throughout the book in beautiful detail.
When approaching Latter-day Saint writings about early Christianity, I’m generally concerned that it will be an effort to convince people that the ancient Church was identical to the modern one in a polemic effort to reinforce the traditional apostasy-restoration narrative. Ancient Christians quickly dispatched that concern, with Jason R. Combs discussing this at length in the introduction. He notes that: “rather than dismissing entire epochs as corrupt … today we work to understand ancient Christians on their own terms.” He added that: “We cannot assume that today’s Church is a template for what the first-century Church must have been, or vice versa. For that reason, in this book, our authors acknowledge the differences between ancient Christians and Latter-day Saints without automatically assuming such differences to be evidence of apostasy.” In this way, Ancient Christians both compliments and expands on some of the concepts discussed in Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy (Oxford University Press, 2014), though with more of a solid focus on aspects of the history of early Christianity.
I’ve studied several books on early Christianity, so a lot of the general ideas discussed were things that I at least had surface understanding going in. Still, the discussion coming from a Latter-day Saint point of view was illuminating. At times, it led me to reflection on my own life and worship as a Latter-day Saint or provided insights that will stick with me. For example, one author describes how the story of Isaiah having his lips cleansed with a live coal was compared with the Eucharist bread cleansing worshipers (something I will reflect on during the sacrament). There were plenty of images to underscore the discussion and many, many boxes with side discussions or general information on people and ideas brought up in the main essays (the boxes were almost too much for me, since they frequently disrupted the text, but that is a minor complaint). The discussions of different perspectives on theology like human nature, becoming like God, and work for the dead was also very interesting to me as a Latter-day Saint.
Having read the Maxwell Institute’s Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints, I have to say that I highly recommend it to Latter-day Saints seeking greater understanding of their spiritual ancestors from the Classical and Late Antiquity eras.
Chad, thanks for the review. Beyond how the authors treat early Christianity, how do they treat the church’s teachings on a historical general apostasy? I assume there are a range of approaches, but I’m curious what the range is.
That’s a good question, Jonathan. They don’t spend a lot of time addressing that in this volume (focusing mostly on what things ancient Christians said or did without delving into specific judgements about what was apostasy and what wasn’t). When they did bring it up, it was mostly along the lines of saying that the Restoration includes things “never before revealed”, so we can’t expect everything that we have today to be found in antiquity.
They also note that even with Great Apostasy being a thing, we should approach early Christians with charity and acknowledge that most of them were doing the best they could with what they had and that we are indebted to them for keeping the flame of Christianity alight across the centuries and putting in a lot of the hard work into understanding the gospel and scriptures. So again, avoiding judgement calls while honoring the good things that came out of the first few centuries of Christianity.
To some degree, I suspect that since several of the authors were involved in Standing Apart, they let that book speak to the subject of aligning their research with the existence of the Great Apostasy in a way that makes sense within the Church.
I’ve avoided the Maxwell Institute for years. This review has convinced me to give them another try. Thanks!