I was recently reminded of a question over at Wheat and Tares in the form of a poll. I brought up a couple of questions in the comments and some interesting thoughts shook out of the discussion. “What is an Apostle?” The immediate Mormon stock answer might be: “A special witness of Christ.” I’m not sure what the immediate Orthodox answer might be (though I’ve found that in Orthodoxy there are very few “immediate answers”), but let’s unpack the Mormon answer.
What is special about the witness of the current 12 Apostles of the LDS church?
We could answer that question easily for the Original 12 Apostles: they were actual eyewitnesses of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Even Matthias, who took the place of Judas, was very likely an eyewitness, at least to some events of Jesus’ life, as he was taken from the new Christian faithful immediately after Christ’s death. So if we take the word “witness” to mean something similar to what happens in a court of law, it is easy to see how the Original 12 are witnesses.
Was Saint Paul a witness in this way? Not really in the same way. He saw Christ in a vision, true, and was immediately blessed by the Apostles. So, though Paul was called an Apostle, he wasn’t a witness in the same way that the Original 12 were witnesses (at least, we don’t have direct evidence that he witnessed events in Christ’s life, though it’s not impossible). So he wasn’t a witness to the resurrection of Jesus, but he was a witness to the vision of Jesus he had and his special calling by the Apostles.
Finally we come to the current 12 Apostles of the LDS church. What are they witnesses to? Well, none of the current 12 have reported any visions in the same sense that Paul did, and none of them were present to witness Christ’s life or resurrection. Many Mormons, in my experience, do insinuate or speculate that the General Authorities have seen Jesus. Maybe so. But if they don’t tell us about it, how exactly are they “witnesses?” A witness testimony that is withheld from a court of law is no witness at all.
The answer may be that the current 12 Apostles aren’t necessarily witnesses to some special vision of Jesus, but rather they have experienced a witness from the Holy Spirit. But how is that witness special? In other words, how is that witness different, or unique, compared to the witness from some other member of the LDS church? If they are both subjective, spiritual feelings of truth, then I’m not sure which one is “special.”
Perhaps the strongest answer is that LDS apostles are specially called to present the witness of their testimonies to the entire world. On this view, “special” is a question of jurisdiction. So, while an LDS Sunday School teacher is not necessarily instructed to bear his or her testimony to the entire world, an LDS apostle is. This answer still needs elaboration, I think, but it’s probably the strongest candidate to answer why the current 12 Apostles of the LDS church are “special” witnesses.