Who are the Real Heretics?

08 Oct

An interesting book review from Andrew Ainsworth:

David W. Bercot, a Texas attorney and Evangelical Christian, embarked on a quest to discover what Christians believed and practiced before the Nicene Creed. What he learned caused him to seriously re-evaluate his beliefs, to eventually change his religious affiliation, and to present his findings and analysis in his book Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up. Although the book represents a critique of mainstream Evangelical Christianity in light of the teachings of the Early Church Fathers, Bercot’s analysis has surprising and thought-provoking application to Mormonism as well. While some may see Will the Real Heretics Stand Up as evidence that Joseph Smith successfully restored many Early Christian doctrines and practices, others may see the overlap between Early Christians and Mormons as the predictable result of Mormonism’s historical connection to the Campbellite Restorationist movement.

Bercot was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness but left over differences about Biblical interpretation, and subsequently became an Evangelical Christian. However, he had doubts about some Evangelical doctrines as well, such as the idea of eternal security (once saved, always saved), and remained convinced the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ belief in pacifism was correct.

Based on the fact that the pre-Nicene Church Fathers were the closest in time and place to the Apostles, Bercot reasoned that present-day disputes over scriptural interpretation could similarly be resolved by examining the writings of the pre-Nicene Church Fathers to determine how they interpreted and applied scripture. (These pre-Nicene Church fathers lived anywhere between 50 and 325 A.D.) Bercot’s legal training taught him to seek out the primary sources containing the writings of the pre-Nicene Church Fathers, rather than relying on modern treatises that often present sixth or seventh-hand accounts of what the Early Christians supposedly believed and practiced.

At the conclusion of his research, Bercot published a ten-volume collection of the Ante-Nicene Fathers‘ writings, the most comprehensive collection of primary sources available in English. Bercot then compared what he learned about pre-Nicene Christianity to mainstream Evangelical Christianity, formed his own publishing company, and published his summarized findings and analysis in Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up.

Mormons might be interested to know that Bercot’s research into the Early Christian Church demonstrates that the LDS Church today shares many of the doctrines of the Early Church, including:

  • A concept of salvation that stresses the importance of both faith and obedience. As Bercot puts it: “The early Christians believed that salvation is a gift from God but that God gives His gift to whomever he chooses. And He chooses to give it to those who love and obey him.” (Emphasis in original.) According to Bercot, the mainstream Evangelical interpretation of “saved by grace” actually originated with St. Augustine after the Nicene Creed.
  • That a person, once saved, could fall from grace and lose his salvation through disobedience.
  • That salvation depends on a person’s correct exercise of his free will, rather than being predestined arbitrarily and irrevocably by God.
  • That baptism actually effectuates a remission of sins, rather than simply being a sign of outward commitment.
  • That unbaptized infants who died before baptism could still be saved, as well as other good and noble people who died without baptism.
  • That Christians should observe the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper weekly.

However, Mormons might also be interested to know that, according to Bercot, the Early Christians held additional beliefs and practices that may be waning or absent from Mormonism:

  • Early Christians had no belief resembling the modern “health and wealth” gospel that physical health and safety, or material prosperity, are blessings for righteous living. Rather, the Early Christians lived in material simplicity, striving to have all things in common and giving to the poor to the point of joining others in their poverty.
  • Early Christians believed in separating themselves from the world as much as possible, going so far as to abstain from politics and the legal system, refusing to take oaths, and abstaining from the popular amusements of the day.
  • Early Christians rejected capital punishment and even refused to assist in prosecuting someone for a capital offense. Similarly, Early Christians rejected war and refused to serve in the military. According to Bercot, the concept of the “just war” did not exist amongst Christians until St. Augustine.
  • Many Early Church Fathers taught there was no special doctrinal revelation after the apostles and that everything we need to know about God had been revealed to the apostles by Jesus.

IMG_1624As Real Heretics crept into Christian bookstores, Bercot was surprised to learn that the book was making a huge splash in Anabaptist (Amish/Mennonite) circles. Bercot’s historical validation of several Anabaptist doctrines like pacifism, baptismal regeneration, separation from the world, and a rejection of the Reformation doctrines of sola fide (faith only) and predestination backed up several of their most cherished views. While Bercot was intrigued to learn that his findings greatly overlapped with Anabaptist beliefs, he found no legitimate basis for some Anabaptist beliefs, such as their lack of evangelism and avoidance of modern technology.

Over the next several years, Bercot struggled to find a religious community that embraced all Early Christian beliefs and practices as he understood them. He formed his own short-lived Early Christian Fellowship, but later affiliated with the Anglican Church because it allowed him freedom to form his own society to promote Early Christian beliefs, and because it is one of the older Christian churches that avoids the veneration of icons. However, Bercot eventually left the Anglicans due to their Catholic practice of venerating the Virgin Mary and espousing the “Just War” theory.

Bercot ultimately relocated to Pennsylvania, where he currently resides, and now affiliates with the Mennonites, who have many, but not all, of the Early Christian beliefs and practices that his research discovered.

The Campbellite-Mormon Connection

As I read Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up, I was intrigued to find a non-LDS scholar giving historical support for so many LDS doctrines. Page after page, I kept wondering to myself: When Joseph Smith set out to restore the Early Christian Church, how did this largely uneducated 25-year old get so many things right? As far as I know, Joseph was ignorant of the writings of the Early Church Fathers. I couldn’t see how Joseph could have had the time or means to pour over old texts written by Polycarp, Ignatius, Origen, Ireneus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, or any of the other Early Church Fathers. Nor am I aware of Joseph ever having quoted the Early Church Fathers in his sermons or writings.

Moreover, I was struck by the fact that some of the Early Christian beliefs and practices that seem to be waning or absent in Mormonism today, such as the strong emphasis on creating a separate society and having all things in common, were found in Mormonism as originally established by Joseph Smith. The differences between Mormons today and the Early Christians (e.g., Mormons’ abandonment of communal living, strong involvement in political and legal affairs, common approval of capital punishment, military service, and strong allegiance to country) all seem to have resulted from Mormon “mainstreaming” over the past century .

In response to the question of how Joseph Smith got so many things right when he undertook to restore the Early Church, faithful Mormons will likely respond that Smith’s success owes to the fact that he was a true prophet of God who was called to restore the true Church of Jesus Christ. However, Real Heretics presents information that many others have cited to provide another possible explanation. After discussing the Early Church, Bercot discusses the eventual corruption and apostasy of the Church, and the valiant efforts of the Reformers to root out that corruption. Bercot then traces the development of several Restorationist branches of Christianity using language that will ring familiar to Mormons:

Whereas Luther had sought to reform the existing church-state establishment, others concluded that such an establishment was beyond reforming. So they worked to restore primitive Christianity apart from the church-state institution. Since the days of Luther, there have been numerous such movements to restore early Christianity. Real Heretics, p. 149.

The rest of the original post is available here

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Posted by on October 8, 2009 in History


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