Question: Was the apostasy after Christ complete?
For millenia, a variety of observers and religious thinkers have argued that the Church organized by Christ did not persist to their day
Some Christians charge that although the apostasy is predicted in scripture, that this would not be a universal apostasy. They insist that a band of faithful Christian believers who kept the "true faith" were always present on the earth. The presence of these believers means, for the critic, that there was no need of a Restoration as taught by Joseph Smith. From the Evangelical perspective, Mormons "were the ones to initially separate their church from, in their view, apostate Christendom."
For millenia, a variety of observers and religious thinkers have argued that the Church organized by Christ did not persist to their day. The Latter-day Saints are not unique in this belief, nor can they be excluded from "Christianity" for teaching this doctrine.
Indeed, much of Christian history has revolved around the belief that no true expression of Christ's Church was on the earth, which resulted in efforts to establish just such a church.
The idea that no Christian church has continuity with the church established by Jesus is not unique to Mormons
The realization that no Christian church has continuity with the church established by Jesus in divine authority or doctrine is not an idea that originated with the LDS Christians. Many Protestant clergymen and others have long realized that if the Catholic Church's claims to be the proper continuation of Christ's church are false, then a universal apostasy must have occurred.
Indeed, were it not for a belief in the complete apostasy of all current churches, there would have been no motivation for the founders of various denominations to start their own churches—they would have simply joined the denomination which they believed had continuity with the original church of Jesus and the apostles. This is, of course, why churches which separated from Catholicism are called Protestant churches. Therefore, it defies reason for a non-Catholic to claim that Mormons were the "first" to separate themselves from what they considered "apostate" Christianity.
Question: What is the Catholic view of the apostasy?
The Catholic Church takes a slightly different tack on this issue. Rather than arguing that an apostasy of other churches occurred (necessitating the formation of a new denomination), the Catholics claim unbroken apostolic authority and teachings down to the present day.
Catholics and non-Christians
About non-Christian belief systems, the Roman Church said:
The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these [non-Christian] religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and teachings, which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men”...
As a remedy for [a] relativistic mentality, which is becoming ever more common, it is necessary above all to reassert the definitive and complete character of the revelation of Jesus Christ...
[T]he theory of the limited, incomplete, or imperfect character of the revelation of Jesus Christ, which would be complementary to that found in other religions, is contrary to the Church's faith...
[T]heological faith (the acceptance of the truth revealed by the One and Triune God) is often identified with belief in other religions, which is [in fact merely] religious experience still in search of the absolute truth and still lacking assent to God who reveals himself...
Nevertheless, God, who desires to call all peoples to himself in Christ and to communicate to them the fullness of his revelation and love, “does not fail to make himself present in many ways, not only to individuals, but also to entire peoples through their spiritual riches, of which their religions are the main and essential expression even when they contain ‘gaps, insufficiencies and errors'”...
Catholics and non-Catholics
Protestants would likely not quarrel with much of the above. But, the Catholic Church is crystal clear on how they view all other Christian denominations (italics present in the original):
The Lord Jesus, the only Saviour, did not only establish a simple community of disciples, but constituted the Church as a salvific mystery: he himself is in the Church and the Church is in him...
Therefore, in connection with the unicity and universality of the salvific mediation of Jesus Christ, the unicity of the Church founded by him must be firmly believed as a truth of Catholic faith. Just as there is one Christ, so there exists a single body of Christ, a single Bride of Christ: “a single Catholic and apostolic Church”...
The Catholic faithful are required to profess that there is an historical continuity—rooted in the apostolic succession—between the Church founded by Christ and the Catholic Church...
“outside of her [i.e., the Catholic Church's] structure, many elements can be found of sanctification and truth”, that is, in those Churches and ecclesial communities which are not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church. But with respect to these, it needs to be stated that “they derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church”...The Churches which, while not existing in perfect communion with the Catholic Church, remain united to her by means of the closest bonds, that is, by apostolic succession and a valid Eucharist, are true particular Churches...
On the other hand, the ecclesial communities [i.e., other denomination "churches," though the Catholics do not so designate them, as will be seen] which have not preserved the valid Episcopate [succession of bishops] and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery, are not Churches in the proper sense; however, those who are baptized in these communities are, by Baptism, incorporated in Christ and thus are in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the Church. Baptism in fact tends per se toward the full development of life in Christ, through the integral profession of faith, the Eucharist, and full communion in the Church.
“The Christian faithful are therefore not permitted to imagine that the Church of Christ is nothing more than a collection — divided, yet in some way one — of Churches and ecclesial communities; nor are they free to hold that today the Church of Christ nowhere really exists, and must be considered only as a goal which all Churches and ecclesial communities must strive to reach”...
Therefore, these separated Churches and communities as such, though we believe they suffer from defects, have by no means been deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church”...
If it is true that the followers of other religions can receive divine grace, it is also certain that objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation...
Pope Benedict XVI reiterated in 2007
Pope Benedict XVI approved the release of another statement which cited the above document (which he helped prepare in 2000) making clear the Catholic Church's attitude toward non-Catholic Christians:
"Fifth Question: Why do the texts of the Council and those of the Magisterium since the Council not use the title of “Church” with regard to those Christian Communities born out of the Reformation of the sixteenth century [i.e., "Protestants"]?
Response: According to Catholic doctrine, these Communities do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders, and are, therefore, deprived of a constitutive element of the Church. These ecclesial Communities which, specifically because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood, have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called “Churches” in the proper sense.
Question: What is the reformation view of the apostasy?
Muntzer: "the Christian church lost its virginity and became an adulteress soon after the death of the disciples of the apostles because of corrupt leadership"
Early Anabaptist Thomas Muntzer believed that
the Christian church lost its virginity and became an adulteress soon after the death of the disciples of the apostles because of corrupt leadership, manifested in the predominance of a clergy who cared more for the amassing of property and power than for the acquiring of spiritual virtues.
Reformer Sebastian Franck believed that the
outward church of Christ was wasted immediately after the apostles because the early Fathers, whom he calls ‘wolves’ and ‘anti-christs’, justified war, power of magistracy, tithes, the priesthood, etc. [That they are wolves] is “proved by their works, especially [those] of Clement [of Alexandria], Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Chrysostom, Hilary, Cyril, Origen, and others which are merely child’s play and quite unlike the spirit of the apostles, that is, filled with commandments, laws, sacramental elements and all kinds of human inventions.”
Wesley: "It does not appear that these extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit were common in the church for more than two or three centuries"
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, lamented that the Christian had apostatized from the gospel that Christ and the apostles had taught, had lost the spiritual gifts that they once enjoyed, and had returned to heathenism, having on a dead form remaining:
It does not appear that these extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit were common in the church for more than two or three centuries. We seldom hear of them after that fatal period when the emperor Constantine called himself a Christian, and from a vain imagination of promoting the Christian cause thereby, heaped riches and power and honor upon Christians in general, but in particular upon the Christian clergy. From this time they almost totally ceased; very few instances of the kind were found. The cause of this was not as has been supposed because there was no more occasion for them because all the world was become Christians. This is a miserable mistake; not a twentieth part of it was then nominally Christian. The real cause of it was the love of many, almost all Christians, so called, was waxed cold. The Christians had no more of the Spirit of Christ than the other heathens. The Son of Man, when he came to examine His Church, could hardly find faith upon the earth. This was the real cause why the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Ghost were no longer to be found in the Christian Church because the Christians were turned heathens again, and only had earth a dead form left.
Church of England: Officially affirmed that the so-called Church and the whole religious world had been utterly apostate for eight centuries or more
In the Church of England Homily Against Peril of Idolatry we read:
So that laity and clergy, learned and unlearned, all ages, sects, and degrees of men, women, and children of whole Christendom—an horrible and most dreadful thing to think—have been at once drowned in abominable idolatry; of all other vices most detested by God, and most damnable to man; and that by the space of eight hundred years and more.
The Book of Homilies dates from about the middle of the sixteenth century; and in it is thus officially affirmed that the so-called Church and the whole religious world had been utterly apostate for eight centuries or more prior to the establishment of the Church of England.
American Protestants: "we must not expect to see the Church of Holy Scripture actually existing in its perfection on the earth"
In a work prepared by seventy-three noted theologians and Bible students, we read:
...we must not expect to see the Church of Holy Scripture actually existing in its perfection on the earth. It is not to be found, thus perfect, either in the collected fragments of Christendom, or still less in any one of these fragments....
Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, prominent American Baptist clergyman and author, described the condition of the Christian churches of the first half of the twentieth century in these words:
A religious reformation is afoot, and at heart it is the endeavor to recover for our modern life the religion of Jesus as against the vast, intricate, largely inadequate and often positively false religion about Jesus. Christianity today has largely left the religion which he preached, taught and lived, and has substituted another kind of religion altogether. If Jesus should come back to now, hear the mythologies built up around him, see the creedalism, denominationalism, sacramentalism, carried on in his name, he would certainly say, 'If this is Christianity, I am not a Christian.'
- Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "Declaration Dominus Ieusus, On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church," (2000-II), Section I. off-site
- Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "Declaration Dominus Ieusus, On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church," (2000-II), Section IV, italics in original. off-site
- William Cardinal Levada, Angelo Amato, S.D.B.; ratified and confirmed by Pope Benedict XVI, Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church (29 June 2007). off-site
- Muntzer, “Sermon before the Princes” (Allstedt, 13 July 1524), in Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, ed. G.H. Williams (Philadelphia, Westminster Press 1957): 51 (103-4).
- Franck, Letter to Campanus, in Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, ed. G.H. Williams, (Philadelphia, Westminster Press 1957), 51:151-152.
- Frank cited in Daniel H. Williams, “The Corruption of the Church and its Tradition”, in Williams, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism (Eerdmans, 1999): 148–149 (103-104).
- John Wesley, cited in Wesley's Works, Vol. 7, 89:26, 27.
- Church of England, Homily Against Peril of Idolatry (Date). off-site
- Dr. William Smith, Smith's Dictionary of the Bible (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1896).
Note: Dr. Smith is not connected with Joseph Smith or the Church.
- Fosdick cited in Daniel H. Williams, “The Corruption of the Church and its Tradition”, in Williams, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism (Eerdmans, 1999): 101–131.