August 29, 2008

Liken With Care

Recently an online critic of the Church named "cksalmon" described the perspective of a person who leaves the LDS Church to become a Christian of a different tradition. He argued that the restoration of the gospel through Joseph Smith actually did restore beliefs and practices seemingly lost from ancient Christianity as discovered by examining various ancient texts and traditions that have fallen by the wayside during what LDS call the apostasy. He made a graphic representing the LDS Church as claiming to be original Christianity (the tan pill) with the restoration of these lost truths (the colorful tiles):

He explained that converts from Mormonism to another traditional Christian belief system no longer believe the "restored truths" really are representative of beliefs and practices lost during an Apostasy they no longer believe occurred. "Thus, for such folks," he explained, "the 'restored truths' have become false additions:"

He concluded: "And that's why, when they talk of their conversion to traditional Christianity, they put it in terms of Mormonism's being false."1

I believe the underlying mentality cksalmon describes falls short in several ways and by examining it we will derive insight on how the LDS Church views doctrine, the apostasy and the restoration in general.

First, the models appear to assume that all that is taught in the LDS Church now, or is being revealed through the continuing restoration of the gospel must be contingent upon or equal to something in "Original Christianity," represented by a solid block of truth. "Original Christianity" is a very precarious term, however, and remains imperfectly defined.2 These assumptions can result in proof-texting the Bible and various other early Christian writings to find evidence of truth; if it matches the old texts, it must be true, Joseph Smith got it right. Such an approach can easily miss what the original writers intended.

This is a practice of which both LDS and non-LDS are guilty. I believe part of what lends into this tendency of presentism among LDS is the scriptural concept of "likening," as Nephi described in the Book of Mormon:
And I did read many things unto them which were written in the books of Moses; but that I might more fully persuade them to believe in the Lord their Redeemer I did read unto them that which was written by the prophet Isaiah; for I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning (1 Nephi 19:23; see also 2 Nephi 6:5; 2 Nephi 11:2, 8).
Hence, in gospel doctrine class a teacher might say (perhaps in jest) "The Church was really wicked so Alma decided to go around to all the different wards and straighten them up." This conflates cultures and can easily obscure otherwise important points of the text in its original context. Liken with care.3

In regards to the restoration, then, it won't do for LDS to attempt "proving" Joseph Smith was a prophet based on his revealing certain doctrines unknown to the rest of his contemporary Christian community by searching through "original Christianity," whatever that may be. Certain facts in and of themselves (such as the doctrine of premortality or a notion of gods) do not constitute proof, though they can be (and to me, often are) interesting and enlightening. Still, care should be taken when quoting early texts regarding various doctrines similar to current Latter-day Saint understanding. It is important to understand texts in their own context, which is not always the same as what LDS today believe.4

Further, Latter-day Saints should expect some differences between their understanding of the gospel and Saints of former days, even from certain Biblical5 and Book of Mormon texts, because the "truth" is being revealed in the context of a continuously and contemporaneously-restored gospel. The "Restoration" as taught by the LDS Church in this view is not the case of simply "re-instituting" a full and complete thing called "Christianity" from the past; but rather it is the general concept of God covenanting with His children in their own times and situations, continuing revelation and authority; the Bible, the Book of Mormon- scripture is still being acted out today.6 Specifics could be termed or understood differently as in the Bible wherein different time periods and cultural milieus are not univocal. When the sixth article of faith says "We believe in the same organization that existed in the Primitive Church, namely, apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and so forth," it does not mean that the Church on earth in Christ's day exactly paralleled the current organization complete with Young Men/Young Women advisers. In D&C 1:24 the Lord explained:
Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.
Joseph Smith explained:
This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God commands is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.7
Finally, on September 6, 1842, the Prophet Joseph Smith wrote a letter to the Church describing the restoration not only in terms of bringing back the former truths, but in going even beyond that:
It is necessary in the ushering in of the dispensation of the fulness of times, which dispensation is now beginning to usher in, that a whole and complete and perfect union, and welding together of dispensations, and keys, and powers, and glories should take place, and be revealed from the days of Adam even to the present time. And not only this, but those things which never have been revealed from the foundation of the world, but have been kept hid from the wise and prudent, shall be revealed unto babes and sucklings in this, the dispensation of the fulness of times (D&C 128:18).
I believe part of the truths "never having been revealed" can include things not having been revealed in the same way, or to the same extent, or even that they are now revealed publicly.


Next week I will begin a short series "Likening With Care" with Book of Mormon scholar Brant Gardner as my guest. Gardner, who holds an M.A. in Anthropology, describes himself as a "slightly used Anthropologist," who enjoys studying the ethnohistory of Mesoamerica. Last year his 6-volume Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, was published by Kofford Books. I am currently reading vol. 3, and have found Gardner's series to be capable of intelligently bringing the Book of Mormon to life without avoiding difficult issues or attempting to subordinate faith to scholarship alone. I believe the series is the most important full-scale commentary on the Book of Mormon to be published in decades. Drawing on his own understanding of Mesoamerica and utilyzing hundreds of other studies, books and articles on the Book of Mormon, Second Witness is the touchstone for all contemporary scholarship on the Book of Mormon. What Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling is to Joseph Smith, Gardner's Second Witness is to the Book of Mormon; a watershed event in scholarly LDS publication history.

More next week.

See the discussion thread on, "Adam's Road, Christian band composed of ex-Mormons," and cksalmon's post here.

For example, see Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005) and Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform (InterVarsity Press, 1999).

An example of the misuse of texts among LDS is proof-texting evidence for the doctrine of premortal life by using verses in the Bible which don't actually affirm exactly what LDS think they affirm. See Kevin Barney's excellent "Preexistence in the Bible." This also happens in the way some Saints view the Book of Mormon. Consider the concept of Nephi's "Great and Abominable Church." Nephi said there are "two churches only" (1 Nephi 14:10) and LDS may be quick to identify the current Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the true, all others, false. Some have gone so far as to equate specific churches with the church of the devil. The Catholic Church, typically fills the role. Stephen Robinson decried that notion in "Warring Against the Saints of God," Ensign, Jan. 1988. This view is clearly problematic, as the current LDS Church did not exist when Nephi gave his explanation.   

Non-LDS Christians can also be guilty of reading their current interpretations back into the Bible. Compare the notion of grace in Paul to that found in James and see what you find contextually; the grace versus works debate continues. For example, see Ostler, opt. cit. Chapter 8: "Honor, Shame, and the Righteousness of God" where he examines the "New Paul Perspective." 

Non-LDS Christians who affirm the Bible is complete and perfect believe Smith's revelations must conform to the Bible precisely as they understand it, else he was a false prophet. The Bible itself is the Achilles heel in arguments for scriptural inerrancy as it is not univocal on a number of important issues.

This is essentially what was expressed by Jesus in the New Testament:
Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved (Matthew 9:17; cf. Mark 2:22; Luke 5:37-38).
Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp.256-257.


BHodges said...

I want to add a quote from Ben Spackman for myself:

...I have mentally paraphrased the ninth Article of Faith to reflect their (mis-)understanding. “We believe all that God has revealed, that he reveals the same thing today, and believe that he will yet reveal the same thing. Again.” That’s not to say that God doesn’t continue to confirm the basics of the Gospel, but rather we needn’t have a scriptural or prophetic precedent for something that is revealed today.)

BHodges said...

"The Book of Mormon and the Jehoash Inscription: Parallels, Anomalies, and Methodology," blog, August 25th, 2005

BHodges said...

"We are free to liken the scriptures unto ourselves. We aren't free to assume that once we have likened the scriptures unto ourselves that this reading constitutes the true meaning of the text - or the meaning that its author intended for us to get. Nor should we assume that those contemporary with Amulek would have understood his comments in the same way that we do." -Ben McGuire, 3 March 2010, MAD Board.

BHodges said...

Seth R. chimes in at JI:

I think that the idea that the LDS Church is merely a restoration of “primitive Christianity” has the status more of folk doctrine.

What Joseph Smith was trying to restore was the “true order of religion” not just the confused and disheveled period under St. Peter. He was trying to restore the true religion practiced by Adam, Enoch, Abraham, etc. I think limiting the foundational aims of the LDS Church to simply imitating the state of affairs under Peter and Paul is selling our religion waaaay short.

BHodges said...

A semi-related humdinger from Terryl Givens

"We are too quick, in other words, to see these other systems and phenomena as deriving their value in proportion to their capacity to anticipate a Restoration that we treat as full and complete."

From the 2007 FAIR Conference address "When Souls Had Wings: What the Western Tradition Has to teach Us About Pre-Existence,"

BHodges said...

Here's a great comment from aquinas, a blog personality I admire, on scriptre use in the church:

Chris (#7) and MD (#13) ~ It seems to me that there is another assumption on the nature of scripture that is relevant in this discussion; that is, that scripture is merely the vehicle or delivery mechanism for propositional truths. The corollary is that the narrative is not as important since the narrative is simply how that propositional truth is delivered. This has overwhelmingly been the foundational assumption for the Mormon genre of scriptural commentaries, where rather than a kind of linguistic, structural or historical commentary, the authors add modern-day quotations by Church leaders who provide the propositional truth behind the scriptural passage in mind.
Taken to its logical extreme, if scriptural narrative is nothing more than the generic or arbitrary means we get at propositional truth, then really it can be substituted for other narratives or any other scripture that performs the same function. That is, if the objective of the lesson is to show the wonderful things the Savior has done, it isn’t exactly clear why we have to read the book of Isaiah, as opposed to the New Testament where we can clearly see the Savior in action.
I think the point that others are trying to make, or at least I’ve felt like making, is that the narrative itself and the actual historical background contain valuable lessons for us if we take the time to learn about them, otherwise we overlook these things. In their place, certainly we will probably still be discussing Gospel principles in the abstract, but not those necessarily based on the actual scriptures under consideration.
Comment by aquinas — October 8, 2010 @ 11:38 am

Anonymous said...

Ancient texts are very difficult to understand.
Pure Natural Healing Kevin Richardson

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