The struggle over religious authority, who is right and who is wrong, and more importantly, what counts as a convincing argument is particularly pronounced in monotheistic faiths. When you have one God, one prophet, one Law, there must be one way.
In many ways, this problem is more pronounced in young religions who are less stable and have more at stake in unity, and lack the maturity of critical reflection. Early Christianity is a great case study (and in many ways is fruitfully contrasted with Rabbinic Judaism, for whom disagreement within certain bounds is foundational to the way the faith is practiced).
In the second century, Christianity faced a crisis of authority, wherein many groups sought to consolidate authority, create consistency of belief and practice, and root out “heretics”. Such contests of authority have become standard in Christianity until today, along with the discourses that regulate them.
The methods for rooting out heretics followed a predictable pattern. First, they claimed to possess unbroken continuity of teachings directly from the apostles, and discredit rival claims. Second, they emphasized the “unity” of teachings of the “church,” which was also the very unity which their arguments were trying to produce. Third, they associated their opponents with “outside” influences that corrupted the “purity” of the church, such as too much Judaism or Greek philosophy. Such interpretations are contrasted with the “interpretation-free” message of the church. Fourth, the opponents were seen as new introductions to the previously harmonious faith. There are others, but these are the most common in prenicene Christianity.Importantly, such claims are rhetorical, and represent a particular interpretation of the past. But what they reveal are what made an argument convincing. Being old was good, being unmixed was good, and being united was good. If one could lay rhetorical hold upon these claims, one could win the argument. (Of course, their Christian opponents made all of the same claims, and in some cases with greater cause). At the end of the day, such assumptions about what is good are arbitrary and culturally specific.
The point here is that the discourse of orthodoxy and heresy follows it’s own logic. What requires critical investigation is not the accuracy of claims to authority, but the discourse itself. What are the principles on which it is based? How does one successfully convince others by deploying these rhetorical methods?
These discourses have been marshalled against Mormons from the beginning, and we see many Mormons use them to regulate the church internally and to decide who should be listened to and who should be ignored. But I wonder whether there are any unique features to this discourse as it operates in Mormonism, or are we simply uncritically recycling this discourse from ages past?