Ramblings on Religious Authority, the Laying on of Hands, and the Holy Spirit

This will be a rambling, confusing post—-even to me, the person writing it!

Yesterday, I reviewed Talking Doctrine: Mormons & Evangelicals in Conversation.  One chapter that I said I would like to unpack is Mormon scholar Robert Millet’s “Authority Is Everything.”  I said that the chapter reminded me of religious discussions I have had.  In this post, I would like to explore that territory.  I am not sure where exactly I will end up, but I am exploring.

The most interested pages of Millet’s chapter on authority, in my opinion, were pages 172-174.  Millet mentions the following things:

  1.  Roger Williams, the man who left the Puritans and founded Providence, Rhode Island, concluded that no one was qualified to administer the sacraments, and that this will be the case until Christ sends new apostles.
  2. Charles Wesley challenged his brother, John, after John ordained a person to a church office, asking who gave John Wesley the authority to do this.
  3. The Mormons believe that, at some point in history, the Christian church apostasized, and there was a loss of a legitimate priesthood.  My understanding, from reading this book, is that they think that Joseph Smith reinstituted the priesthood, under divine authority.  Mormon leaders have made clear, however, that, between the time of the apostasy and Joseph Smith, God was still active in the world.  Light, virtue, and Christ could still be found in the hearts of some people.  The Holy Spirit still went to people who were seeking God.  God still answered prayers.  In medieval times,  LDS President John Taylor said, there were people who “could commune with God, and who, by the power of faith, could draw aside the curtain of eternity and gaze upon the invisible world…, have the ministering of angels, and unfold the future destinies of the world” (Taylor’s words).
  4. Millet quotes Joseph Smith as saying: “I will illustrate it [the situation in the Christian world in regard to divine authority] by an old apple tree.  Here jumps off the branch and says, I am the true tree, and you are corrupt.  If the whole tree is corrupt, are not its branches corrupt?  If the Catholic religion is a false religion, how can any true religion come out of it?”  (The words in the brackets are those of Millet.)  Millet is quoting Smith in responding to a Protestant argument he has heard that says that Mormons are not true Christians because they “cannot trace [their lineage] back through the Reformation, through Catholic Christianity, to the first-century church” (Millet’s words, in summarizing the argument).  Millet retorts that Protestants cannot do that either, for their movement began by breaking from the Roman Catholic church.  Millet asks what gave Martin Luther the authority to denounce “the need for a priestly hierarchy and thus apostolic succession back to Peter…”
  5. On a similar note, Millet quotes a story by Orson Whitney, an LDS apostle.  Whitney quoted a Catholic who told him: “You Mormons are all ignoramouses.  You don’t even know the strength of your own position.  It is so strong that there is only one other tenable in the whole Christian world, and that is the position of the Catholic Church.  The issue is between Catholicism and Mormonism.  If we are right, you are wrong; if you are right, we are wrong, and that’s all there is to it.  The Protestants haven’t a leg to stand on.  For, if we are wrong, they are wrong with us, since they were a part of us and went out from us; while if we are right they are apostates whom we cut off long ago.  If we have the apostolic succession from St. Peter, as we claim, there is no need of Joseph Smith and Mormonism, but if we have not the succession, then such a man as Joseph Smith was necessary, and Mormonism’s attitude is the only consistent one.  It is either the perpetuation of the gospel from ancient times, or the restoration of the gospel in the latter days.”

I do not entirely comprehend those last two points, but I think that the issue is that there are only two viable options: You either believe that the Catholic Church has authority going back to the time of the apostles, or you believe that the Catholic Church fell and God directly called someone to restore Christianity.  You cannot have Martin Luther, breaking away from the Catholic Church because he decided that was the right thing to do.  If one is to break away from the church, one needs divine authorization to do so.  Luther would probably respond that he did have divine authorization, in the sense that he was faithful to the teachings of the Bible, God’s word, whereas the Catholic Church was not.

Of what religious discussions did Millet’s chapter remind me?  Well, I recall a discussion in which a person was speculating that perhaps the Holy Spirit was not available to people in this day and age.  I have my doubts that he believed this dogmatically, for he later indicated to me that he thought that he had the Holy Spirit.  But he was speculating about whether the Holy Spirit was even available to people today.  His argument was that, in the Book of Acts, people often receive the Holy Spirit when an apostle, or someone appointed directly by God, laid hands on them.  In Acts 8, two apostles make a special trip to lay hands on people who have recently believed in Jesus, so that these people might receive the Holy Spirit; these people did not have the Holy Spirit until those apostles arrived and laid hands on them.  Ananias later laid hands on Saul, in Acts 9, and Ananias was not an official apostle, but God directly called Ananias for this task.  But, my friend was saying, there are no apostles or people directly commissioned by God today.  Can people receive the Holy Spirit, if there are no apostles or people directly commissioned by God laying hands on them?

I had problems with how this argument was saying that a big chunk of the Bible—-the parts about the Holy Spirit being inside of believers—-was essentially irrelevant today.  But, a few days ago, I read in this book about Mormon-Evangelical dialogue that others in Christian history have thought that parts of the Bible are irrelevant because they believe that certain institutions of authority are not present today: Roger Williams went to the extreme of believing that no one is qualified to administer the sacraments, until God sends new apostles.

The Catholic Church could perhaps respond to my friend by saying that there is an institution of divine authority these days that can lay hands on people and enable them to receive the Holy Spirit: the Catholic Church, which God established, and whose authority goes back to the time of the apostles (see here for what the Catholic Catechism says about the laying on of hands and confirmation).  My friend would not buy that, though, because he believes that the Catholic Church was a degeneration or an apostasy from the pure, pristine Christianity of the twelve apostles.  So where is the divine authority these days?  If there is not an institution that God officially and explicitly sanctions, does that mean that people cannot receive the Holy Spirit?  I have another question: on what basis do Protestants believe that God recognizes their churches?  Because these churches believe in the Bible, or because Jesus said that he is in the midst of two or more who gather in his name (Matthew 18:16)?

My other question would be this: Is it necessarily the case in the New Testament that one could only receive the Holy Spirit after an apostle or someone sent by God laid hands on him or her?  I think of Luke 11:13: “ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” (KJV).  Do we need someone to lay hands on us to receive the Holy Spirit, or do we just need to ask God for the Holy Spirit, and God will give the Spirit to us?  Maybe the answer is the latter.  On the other hand, the laying on of hands is not exactly a marginal idea within the New Testament.  Hebrews 6:2 lists it as a foundational doctrine.

I will close by saying that, in the end, I believe that God is accessible to anyone who is open to him.  I think of those Mormon statements that, even before Joseph Smith renewed the church, God was still a presence in people’s life.  I believe that, whether or not there is an official church institution that God recognizes in this day and age.

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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