Ashby D. Boyle II is Meridian’s U.S. Supreme Court Correspondent.
How would Christians living around 210 A.D. read and use the scriptures, and how does that compare to how Mormons read them today?
An Interesting Comparison
Christians living in the early third century A.D. are like us in some interesting ways. First, we today are about 182 years since AD 1830, when the Church was formally restored. So too were the original Christians circa (“c.”) AD 210. Both we and they are at what we might call “T + approximately 180 years.”
Phenomenal Church growth had been characteristic in both ancient and modern times at 180 years out from the two foundings. Both times were marked by growing pains, including “PR” issues, sometimes culminating in discrimination or even persecution, however subtle.
Both the early Church and the modern Church have flourished. As the early, pre-apostasy Church Father, Quintus Septimus Florens Tertullianus (called “Tertullian”) declared that like today– a chapel or meeting place was “daily being founded.” De Praescriptione Haereticorum 32.
Tertullian, a convert, was also concerned that the presence of the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete, not go missing but remain at work amongst Church members–as it had been with the first Apostles.
“We are compelled to refresh our memories of our sacred writings . . . . We nourish our faith with these holy utterances, we stimulate our hope, we establish our confidence; and at the same time we strengthen our discipline by the inculcation of the precepts. In the same place also exhortations, rebukes, and godly censures are administered.” Apologeticus 39.
As can be the case today, maintenance of the true Church often came down in significant part to “repetition” and immersion in the scriptures. (For an excellent and accessible website devoted to Tertullian studies, see https://www.tertullian.org.)
Waiting for a Bible in 210 A.D.
Tertullian’s age (he lived c. AD 160- 225) had not yet seen the Church adoption of the whole Bible, but only parts.
Members had access to what by then had been written down, chief of which were the four Gospels. Originally written on fragile scrolls of papyrus, by AD 130 and Tertullian’s time, vellum books had come into use. These were much more durable (the earliest manuscript of the Gospel of Mark has missing first and last pages). Vellum books were not only easier to transport, the transition from scrolls to books (like that of books to Internet) helped make the use of the scriptures much more “member-friendly.”
As today, preaching from the scriptures was one significant way members became empowered by the Spirit to keep the commandments, endure disappointments, and stay active both inside and outside of the Church. The Church as an institution was still a hundred years away from its first equivalent of a Christian Roman President or Emperor back then Constantine became Emperor in AD 312, or “T + 280 years.”
Pre-Constantine, anti-Christian persecutions remained sporadic. Fidelity to the scriptures could become suddenly a matter of life or death. Post-Constantine, as Eric Osborn sums up, quoting W.R. Inge, “there is not much that is not humiliating the long period of dogmatic squabbling . . . . the progressive barbarization of Europe; we need not follow the melancholy record” of the eclipse of scriptural Christianity. (See Tertullian, first theologian of the West at p. 25 (2007) (1997) (citing W.R. Inge, The Platonic tradition in English religious thought, p. 111 (1926)).
Teachings about Light and Darkness of Scripture: Morals of a Common Story from Two Ages
Tertullian’s age, like ours, was one in which the scriptures’ meaning was still taken to be perspicacious, or self-interpreting, because of their transparent Spirit-mediated applications and meanings. The scriptures were open to every member’s comprehension without leaning on a commentary. Restrictions on who could read the Bible were a century yet down the road from Tertullian, and professional scriptural commentaries that confuse as much as inspire any average reader or any learned reader, for that matterwere at least a century away. The Nicean Counsel was in AD 325 (“T + 293 years”).
The basic need was to free up the scriptures to the membership so the Holy Spirit might do his work to more fully Christianize individual members, a goal as important then as it remains today.
Taking the Scriptures (More) Seriously
To provide for continual scriptural inspiration, then and now, things have not changed much.
How the scriptures can keep one close to the whisperings of the Holy Ghost, then and now, came down to fundamentals. Here are a few salient commonalities shared by the Church of Jesus Christ, both Latter-day Saints with Saints of the first days.
Ponder, ponder and ponder
Pondering Holy Writ helps those who may still be searching in the darkness as those who have worked to internalize scripture all of their days.
Pondering in our own day is a special challenge for reasons common to all of us. We all seem
to face common problems. I will list but a few. First, our theory of learning is to do a two-step of first comprehending a basic point and then second, racing on to the next point. Second, while on an impossibly hectic day, when we feel we’re living in a popcorn popper, we may read only a verse, just to lock-in the practice of daily reading.
<p style="margin-bottom: 0.
<hr class=’system-pagebreak’ /><hr class=’system-pagebreak’ />0001pt; line-height: normal;”>With a change of location, be it a physical move or a move-up to new level of employment, matrimony, change in family size, or heightened volunteerism, there is both a kind of trauma as well as new forms of chaos. Perhaps weeks or months can go by just reading one verse and before we are aware, we have a brand new bad habit. When we fail to ponder, we are much more likely to have our scriptural “take away” reduced to nothing. Worse, we may substitute our own meanings for what are the real scriptural meanings, without being aware. The reading habit of treating the text as a pretext for other meanings is not just a pitfall of professional theology, but of an ordinary well-meaning individual.
Scriptural Reading for Spiritual Experiences
Potentially, the scriptures can offer us a daily spiritual experience. I home teach several wise-from-age individuals who I have concluded, from becoming acquainted with them, do in fact experience the Spirit in their daily readings. Here’s what they tend to do to unlock this door.
-Begin with prayer. In a profane activity like golf to a spiritual and sacred activity like the scriptures, approach matters. Approaching the scriptures in prayer can enable hearing what we need to hear.
-Use the power of habit. A designated time of the day as a habit for reading and pondering is another scriptural basic all of us know but which we may have fallen away from. William James observed habit is “human nature times ten.”
-Read “with the eyes of the heart.” In Ephesians 1, the Apostle Paul speaks of employing the eyes of our heart “so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which” the Lord has called us. In 212 A.D., when books were not readily available, Church members were good listeners. Whether listening with our ears or the eyes of our heart, the scriptures require concentration. In the present age, we can all too easily slip into the habit of the disease of acquired attention deficit syndrome. Some adults are still teen-agers in our hearts in this respect while our youth seem to hear almost too well.
-Employ the Law of Memory. It’s a law of memory that without encoding what we find in the scriptures, no memory of what we read is ever made. Could it be in that future perfect day when the Book of Mormon speaks of having perfect memories, the memory never encoded is lost forever . . . simply because it isn’t a memory at all?
-Intensive v. extensive reading. An Oxford don, the esteemed Stuart Hampshire, while visiting the University of Cambridgein 1983 counseled me to observe the difference in reading between intensive readings v. extensive reading. Intensive reading is study. It involves taking notes. “Sitting up,” he said. And reviewing the notes takenor pondering them. Of all the books we read in our lifetimes, surely the scriptures merit an intensive reading.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Protestant theologian who was executed by the Nazis for being a Christian, not fed to the lions, but instead “fed” to the hangman’s rope. Bonhoeffer became a proficient pondering Christian in prison camp.
Bonhoeffer wrote something of enduring edifying value when he said:
“The Word of Scripture should never stop working in you all day long, just like the words of someone you love.” (See Endnotes; elipses omitted)
On Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the citation for the quotation of the Conclusion is from The Way to Freedom: Letters, Lectures, and Notes 1935-1939 from the Collected Works at 2:59 (1966).
For a good (and brief) introduction to the life and writings of Tertullian, see Geoffrey D. Dunn, Tertullian, The Early Church Fathers (2004), in addition to the Osborn book on Tertullian as cited in the essay, supra.
An enduring classic on the great apostasy that has worn well is The Great Apostasy, Considered in the Light of Scriptural and Secular History (1909), by Elder James E. Talmage, D.Sc.D., Ph.D., F.R.S.E; much excellent work following on Elder Talmage’s has been done at BYU; especially by the now demised FARMS organization.
Elder Talmage details summarily how Constatine’s commingling of political and ecclesiastical powers resulted in the Great Apostasy. “[H]ow different was the Church under the patronage of Constantine from the Church as established by Christ[,]” wrote Elder Talmage.
In a word, the Church became “apostate” (see chapter V at paragraphs 22-24). Tertullian as noted in the article wrote a century prior to the Contantiniancapitivity of Christianity, and it is in this context that Tertullian’s vigorous defense of the vanishing ministry of the Holy Spirit ought to be situated.
Additionally, a rash of books on Constantine have recently appeared which the Mormon student or serious reader might find praiseworthy: The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine, edited by Noel Lenski (2006); Constantine, Roman Emperor, Christian Victor, by Paul Stephenson (2009); and Charles Matson Odahl, Constantine and the Christian Empire (2004).
2012 Ashby D. Boyle 2d