Mormonism and priesthood/Evidence for Possession of Priesthood Authority

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Evidence that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Possesses Priesthood Authority

Summary: Latter-day Saints claim to hold a special authorization from God to perform ordinances on behalf of others that are necessary for their individual salvation and exaltation. It is on the basis of this possession that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints claims to be God's "only true and living church on the face of the whole earth" (Doctrine and Covenants 1:30). This claim is controversial for obvious reasons. If evidence can be given to show that the Church does not possess this authorization, then their claim to being the only true church can be either weakened or entirely dismissed. This article explores what evidence the Church can give to support their claim to the possession of priesthood authorization.


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Question: What evidence can The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints give for their possession of God’s priesthood?

Introduction to Question

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe that they alone hold special authorization from God to perform ordinances on behalf of individuals that are necessary for exaltation. This authorization is known as the priesthood. It is on the basis of their possession of this unique authority that Latter-day Saints claim to be “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth[.]”[1]

This claim to priesthood is controversial for what may be obvious reasons. If evidence or proof can be given to show that Latter-day Saints do not possess this special authorization, then their claim to being the only true church is either weakened or dismissed entirely.

This article will explore what evidence members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints might give in order to support their claims to divine authorization.

Latter-day Saint Theism

There should be one important initial consideration before we approach our brief presentation of evidence supporting our possession of the priesthood and that is that Latter-day Saints do not believe that the God of other religions exists. Latter-day Saints do believe that God has revealed truths relevant to salvation and exaltation to all religions. The prophet Alma in the Book of Mormon states that “the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have; therefore we see that the Lord doth counsel in wisdom, according to that which is just and true.”[2] The Prophet Nephi in the Book of Mormon claims that other religious groups’ sacred texts would, in some way or another, inspired by God.[3] Indeed, Latter-day Saints “believe that religion is instituted of God[.]”[4]

This information will be important to draw upon moving forward in our presentation and examination.

Establishing Claim to Priesthood among Competing Religious Claims

Their are four basic groups that Latter-day Saints need to establish their claims to authority against:

  1. Non-Abrahamic Religions
  2. Abrahamic Religions
  3. Latter-day Saint Offshoot Groups
  4. Future Random Claimants

This article will explore each one in individually.

Non-Abrahamic Religions

Non-Abrahamic Religions are those religions that do not find their origins going back to the Abrahamic Covenant recorded in the Old Testament. These would be faiths like Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Jainism, Baha'i, Shintoism, and Confucianism.

None of these religions claim to have any sort of special authorization from God to perform ordinances necessary for exaltation. The closest analogue might be the Brahamanaspati of Hinduism.

As Roger R. Keller explains it:

One final god derived from the Aryans is Brahmanaspati, who is the god who knows how to influence the other gods, or is the power in prayer which moves the gods. People who know how to control Brahamanaspati have tremendous power—the power that the Brahmins, the priests, are believed to hold. For this reason, the priests stand atop the social structure known as the caste system. While there may be many persons with power in the temporal realm that can kill and destroy, only the priests have the power to influence the gods. They have cosmic power through Brahmanaspati.[5]

But, there is an important difference. Keller continues:

A parallel to Brahmanaspati in Latter-day Saint thought could be priesthood power. Through it we can draw on the very power that God himself uses. However, rather than influencing God, as do the Brahmins, priesthood is used to bring God’s power and influence to earth and to people.[6]

All that is necessary is to observe for the Latter-day Saint claim to priesthood authority against non-Abrahamic religions to work is to posit that there was a first person to receive the priesthood before these religions were established, that this man was the first of Heavenly Father's spirit children on the earth, and that God covenanted with that man and gave him priesthood authority that continued through him in a line of succession. Latter-day Saint scripture testifies that Adam, the first man, was ordained to the priesthood a few thousand years ago, likely before today's extant world religions appeared.[7] This priesthood was then passed down from Adam through his descendants to Moses. A lower form of priesthood was given to Aaron, Moses' brother, and his descendants. When Israel hardened their hearts against Moses, the higher priesthood was taken away from the earth and the lower priesthood remained and was passed down through Aaron and his descendants.[8]

Latter-day Saint Lee A. Palmer conducted a study of how the office of High Priest was passed from Abraham down through John the Baptist and shortly beyond. The chart that he prepared to illustrate this will be included in Appendix 1 of this article.

Abrahamic Religions

Among the Abrahamic religions are Judaism, Islam, Catholic Christianity, Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Protestant Christianity.

Islam and Protestantism do not claim any sort of unique authority so they do not need to be further examined.

Judaism, Catholic Christianity, and Eastern Orthodox Christianity do.

Judaism makes a claim to the Abrahamic Covenant and being God’s people. All we need to do here is show that Judaism made a claim to priesthood authority, that that authority was passed down via successive ordination, and that that priesthood was validly possessed by Jesus of Nazareth so he could pass that to his apostles. Then we just deal with the Catholics and Eastern Orthodox to finish out our very brief examination of Abrahamic Religions.

Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christianity make a claim that their priesthood authority has been passed down in unbroken lines of successive ordination since the time of the first apostles. A part of Latter-day Saint belief is the idea of a Great Apostasy. An apostasy is, most properly defined, a rebellion.[9] It is a rebellion against God and the truths that he teaches. The evidences given for the apostasy have changed a lot in Latter-day Saint religious consciousness over the years. Those narratives have been productively deconstructed.[10] BYU professors Nick Frederick and Joseph M. Spencer have reconstructed an apostasy narrative for Latter-day Saints.[11] In that article, they develop the notion that the loss of priesthood authority was not brought about by merely taking things from the Bible, but by a loss of a particular doctrine from the Bible. Namely, the status of Jews as part of the covenantal family that God made with Abraham and Israel. In a future article, they will give evidence to support the narrative they've constructed and it will be added here. As examples of this type of loss of knowledge of the covenantal status of Jews, Dr. Spencer has hinted that the article will appeal to people like Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho, Tertullian in his Against the Jews, and Marcion of Sinope and his attempts to decouple the god of the Old Testament from the god of the New.[12] If the great apostasy is true and the true priesthood authority was taken away from the earth (including from the above faiths), then we can validly have a time where that priesthood authority needed to be restored to the earth as claimed by Joseph Smith.

Against Catholicism in particular, Latter-day Saint scholar, apologist, and theologian Robert S. Boylan, himself a former Roman Catholic, has offered many academic reasons as to why he left the Catholic Church: reasons that, Boylan believes, mean that the Catholic Church cannot be the true church. These include the Catholic Church's veneration of icons, their ahistorical mariology, the ahistorical doctrines of papacy and nature of Petrine supremacy, and issues relating to creation, Christology, and the Godhead.[13]

Latter-day Saint Offshoots

Joseph Smith organized and established (what would eventually be named) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on April 6, 1830. He built up the church for 14 years until his death in June 1844. At that time, there were many people who claimed to be the rightful successor of Joseph Smith as President of the Church. Among these were Sidney Rigdon, James Strang, David Whitmer, and Brigham Young. This episode is known as the Succession Crisis among members and Church historians.[14]

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the largest of these offshoots in terms of members today, claims that Brigham Young was the rightful successor of Joseph Smith to the presidency.

Even after Brigham Young took office, there have been many others who have claimed that the Church has lost its priesthood authority and have started other groups that do claim to have that authority.

In order to establish our claim against these groups, we really only need to review the principles of succession outlined in the official scriptures of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since they (1) were revealed by Joseph Smith and (2) can reveal principles of succession that one needs to meet in order to have a valid claim to priesthood authority.

We’ve outlined all of these principles in another article on this wiki. Readers are encouraged to review it.

Future Random Claimants

The last group that we need to establish our claim against are other future random claimants of priesthood authority. Who’s to say that someone won’t claim that God has visited them and granted them a unique authority heretofore never known among the inhabitants of the earth and say that that gives them authorization to perform sacred ordinances necessary for exaltation? Or that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is in apostasy and the priesthood authority needed to be given to another group?

The first point that we might make is that it is unlikely that someone will claim this authority since Latter-day Saints and other groups have already made their claims to it and it will be suspect if they seem to be imitating a claim made by others. They would also want to provide some sort of concrete evidence that they do hold this authority similar to how, say, Joseph Smith did by claiming to translate an ancient record by the gift and power of God. In that case, those interested in weakening that claim to divine authority will want to examine the book and other evidence provided and find weaknesses in those claims. Having to create that type of evidence will be a daunting task for the creator of this new religion which may, like the claim others make to divine authority, disincentivize or outright deter him/her from making the claim in the first place.

But what about those that might claim that the Church is in apostasy and that the priesthood needed to be given again to someone else? First, we note that Joseph Smith revealed specific guidelines for priesthood succession in case a prophet lost his authority or worthiness to be prophet because of sin. The prophet is allowed to appoint his successor should he lose his authority to guide the Church. Second, we need to remember that it is both taught in scripture and prophesied by Joseph Smith that the Church will never fall into general apostasy again.[15] "I calculate", said Joseph Smith, "to be one of the instruments of setting up the kingdom of Daniel by the word of the Lord, and I intend to lay a foundation to revolutionize the whole world."[16] Joseph Smith declared himself to be setting up the kingdom of Daniel that would never be destroyed nor given to another people. Thus, anyone claiming that the Church has fallen into general apostasy is going to be denying the revelations and teachings of Joseph Smith: something they don't want to do if they want to claim with any credibility that the Church he founded is true, that priesthood authority is real, and that the Church is/was actually guided by God via that priesthood authority at one point.

The Historicity of Scripture and the Witness of the Spirit

One of the best evidences for the Latter-day Saint possession of priesthood authority is the ancient and historical authenticity of Restoration Scripture. Latter-day Saint scholars have been making a well-reasoned, well-documented case for the authenticity of Restoration Scripture for many years and readers are encouraged to become acquainted with this evidence.[17]

Ultimately the best evidence of the Latter-day Saint possession of the priesthood is the witness of the Holy Spirit to the human heart. All are invited to ask God, in the name of Christ, if The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is true.[18]

Conclusion

As can be seen Latter-day Saints can make a reasonable case for the reality of the priesthood and the reception of that priesthood authority under their auspices today.

Appendix 1

FAIR Document Priesthood 23 August 2021.jpg FAIR Document 2 Priesthood 23 August 2021.jpg

Notes

  1. Doctrine and Covenants 1:30.
  2. Alma 29:8.
  3. 2 Nephi 29:11.
  4. Doctrine and Covenants 134:4.
  5. Roger R. Keller, Light & Truth: An LDS Perspective on World Religions (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2012), 21–22.
  6. Ibid., 22.
  7. The first indications of religion among the human species may have come during the Cognitive Revolution about 32,000 years ago. Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (New York: Harper Perrennial, 2018), 23–24. Hinduism, the oldest of the world's extant religions, is believed by most scholars to have begun anywhere from 3000 BCE 1000 BCE. Ann G. Gold, "Hinduism," Britannica, November 30, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Hinduism.
  8. Doctrine and Covenants 84:6–27. There are two potential contradictions between this scripture and Doctrine and Covenants 107:42-5384 has Adam ordaining Abel who then ordains Enoch whereas 107 has Adam ordaining Enoch directly. Also, 84 seems to imply that Methusaleh (“the fathers of Noah”) was ordained by Enoch where as 107 has Methusaleh being directly ordained by Adam. The contradictions may be resolved by suggesting that one ordination was to the Melchizedek priesthood and the other was to a particular office within the priesthood. Alternatively, the contradictions may be resolved by positing that the men at one point were ordained to the priesthood, lost their authority, and were then reordained to it by another person. There may be other resolutions which the author is currently unaware of or unable to imagine at this time.
  9. James Falconer, “Apostasy in the New Testament,” in Early Christians in Disarray, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000), 133–34.
  10. Especially in Miranda Wilcox and John D. Young, eds., Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).
  11. Nicholas J. Frederick and Joseph M. Spencer, "Remnant or Replacement: Outlining a Possible Apostasy Narrative," BYU Studies Quarterly 60, no. 1 (2021): 105–27.
  12. Joseph M. Spencer, The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi's Record (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2016), 8.
  13. Robert S. Boylan, "Why I am not a Roman Catholic, Will Never Return to Rome, and Why You Should Leave, Too," Scriptural Mormonism, January 5, 2021, https://scripturalmormonism.blogspot.com/2021/01/why-i-am-not-roman-catholic-will-never.html?fbclid=IwAR2g7U1F6SqtWGoKLc5uGhydD2kV-KiRqKAFVhp9ZsXyR6EMYXot0cjHU2g.
  14. Martin B. Hickman, “Succession in the Presidency,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow, 5 vols. (New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1992; 2007), 3:1420–21.
  15. Daniel 2:44; Doctrine & Covenants 65:2; 138:44. For persuasive commentary on Daniel 2:44 as a reference to the latter-days and the coming forth of the Church, see Brian D. Stubbs, Changes in Languages from Nephi to Now (Blanding, Utah: Four Corners Digital Design, 2016), 27-28. Quoted in full in Robert S. Boylan, "Brian Stubbs on Daniel 2:36--47 and the Restoration," Scriptural Mormonism, March 26, 2018, https://scripturalmormonism.blogspot.com/2018/03/brian-stubbs-on-daniel-236-47-and.html.
  16. Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1978), 6:365.
  17. See Brant A. Gardner, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015); Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007); John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2013); John Welch, ed., Knowing Why: 137 Evidences that the Book of Mormon is True (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2017); Noel B. Reynolds, ed., Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1997). For an overview of evidence for the Book of Abraham, see here. For evidence for the Book of Moses see Jeffrey M. Bradshaw, In God's Image and Likeness (Salt Lake City, UT: Eborn Books, 2009); Jeffrey M. Bradshaw and David Larson, In God's Image and Likeness 2: Enoch, Noah, and the Tower of Babel (Provo, UT: Interpreter Foundation, 2014).
  18. Moroni 10:3-5