26 September 2008

More from the Book of Mormon

Tonight may be the night of the McCain-Obama so-called debate ( I prefer to call it a joint interview), but I need a break, and perhaps you do, too. So, last night I finished reading the Book of Mormon, and I'm going to write about that.

The final editors and writers, Mormon and his son Moroni, mention that the language they are writing in is "Reformed Egyptian," because it is more compact than Hebrew. It must be quite reformed indeed, since Hebrew omits all its vowels, and considerably more compact than standard Egyptian, whose sounds are represented by pictographs rather than more compact alphabetic characters. They also discuss their own ability to express themselves in writing, stating that in their culture people are inspired to speak, not to write. The Lord assures them that despite their weakness in writing compared to speaking, people will still read and believe. This reminds me of the Gospel of Mark, which reads well in translation, but was written badly in Greek.

But who is the audience for their work? Mormon and Moroni witness the complete destruction of their culture and their people. There is literally nothing and no one left when Moroni finally signs out. Yet they write in faith that God will bring out their work to a far future people.

And indeed, looking ahead to Doctrine and Covenants, that far future people consists of Joseph Smith, his companions, and the Church they found, or rather restore upon the earth. This is why Mormons do not subscribe to the Apostle's Creed or the Nicene Creed. These creeds specifically claim apostolic succession for the Christian Church - direct connection of the church leadership from Jesus, Peter and the Apostles in the Holy Land to the present day.

In contrast, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the LDS or Mormon Church) does not claim this apostolic succession. Rather, church leadership passed from fathers to sons and disciples from 600 years before the coming of Christ, through his birth, life, crucifixion, death, resurrection, his post-resurrection appearances in the New World, to the annihilation of the Nephites after they had finally fallen away from the true faith. When Jesus appeared to the Nephites, he appointed twelve Apostles to carry the Church forward among the Nephites (paralleling the twelve Apostles appointed in the Land of Israel). Hence the LDS Church is the original Christian Church of the Nephites restored after a hiatus of some 1400 years.

And not just restored, but personally handed off by Moroni, appearing as a resurrected being to Joseph Smith and giving him the engraved plates and the means to translate them. That is to say, the person-to-person connection is unbroken, even though a gap of 14 centuries has passed. The LDS church does not subscribe to the standard creeds because it participates in a parallel kind of Apostolic succession, independent of the rest of the Christian Church, and connected to it only through the person of Jesus Christ himself.

That said, there is still the question of what Mormons believe that is different from the rest of the Christian Church. For one thing, the designation "Son of God," is ambiguous in the New Testament. (And I continue to await the fourth volume of A Marginal Jew for an explication and exegesis of it.) In the Book of Mormon, however, it is quite clear. Jesus is God's Son in the same literal sense that I am the son of my human father.

There is also very specific soteriology (theology of salvation) in the Book of Mormon. The sacrificial atonement of Jesus Christ opens the door of salvation, but it is up to the individual to walk through it. This is also the soteriology of much of the Christian Church, but not all of it. In Catholic soteriology, you must partake of the sacraments of the Church. In mainline Protestant soteriology, God calls you to salvation personally and specifically (God elects you) and you respond because God enables you to do so. Your own will is corrupted and unable to comply without God's help. That is to say, through Jesus Christ, God does all the work of salvation, and you do none.

Thus, the LDS ordinances (similar to sacraments) are administered only to those who have shown themselves worthy. In contrast, the individual is assumed to be unworthy in mainline Protestant soteriology, and thus the sacraments are administered because they have the power to make the recipient worthy. In the Catholic church, the sacraments must be administered by a priest, in the Protestant church the sacraments are believed effective regardless of who administers them. In the LDS church, every male adult is a member of the priesthood and can administer certain ordinances.

However, there are levels or orders of priesthood in the LDS church, such as the Aaronic priesthood, and the order of Melchizidek. These orders may have knowledge that is not published to the LDS Church as a whole, much less to the entire world. For example, I note that in the Book of Mormon, Jesus Christ designates that three of the Nephite Apostles he appoints should "tarry," as the "Apostle whom Jesus loved," in the New Testament Gospel of John (presumably John, himself) should tarry. Again, the word "tarry" is an ambiguous concept in the New Testament. In the Book of Mormon it is quite specific - these three and John will remain alive on this earth until the Second Coming of Jesus Christ in power and glory to end the world and judge the living and the dead.Perhaps there is some order of LDS priesthood that knows who they are.

Likewise the unnamed brother of Jared. The Jaredites were a separate people from the Nephites, whose records came into possession of the line of Nephite prophets and were translated by them and abridged by Mormon. The brother of Jared received great prophecies that are alluded to but not revealed in the Book of Mormon. Perhaps some order of LDS priesthood knows the name of the brother of Jared and something of his prophecies.

Finally, I note that according to the Book of Mormon, there is some kind of post-death conscious existence until the day of the Resurrection, when all, saved and sinner alike, are miraculously reunited with their bodies to stand before the judgement seat of Christ. The rest of the Church has varied opinions on what the post-death experience is like, because the description of it in the Bible is so sketchy.

Well, that's it for now. If I have erred it is because I am being lazy and am writing from memory, rather than doing the diligent thing and looking everything up, chapter and verse, in the Book of Mormon. Neither do I see it as my place to opine here on the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. As the Book of Mormon implies, that is between the reader and God. I merely wanted to mention a few things that jumped out at me as theological differences between the LDS Church and the rest of the Christian Church. The differences are not so great, but differences there are.

Now, on to Doctrine and Covenants...


ldsneighbor said...

I enjoyed reading your blog posting today and find it fascinating. I appreciate your kind and fair tone, which is refreshing. Much of what you say is fair and accurate. I just wanted to clarify a few things.

You mentioned that the LDS Church is the original Christian Church of the Nephites, restored. Actually we believe that it was the original apostles Peter, James, and John that came in 1829 as resurrrected heavenly messengers to restore the Priesthood and the keys of the kingdom. And in that way, we claim the original apostolic succession after a hiatus of some 1700 years.

You mentioned that we believe "Jesus Christ opens the door of salvation, but it is up to the individual to walk through it." There is some truth to that. We believe that the Atonement of Jesus Christ can save us from both sin and death, both of which came into the world with the Fall of Adam. Because of Christ, salvation from death is a free gift that requires nothing on our part; all will be resurrected. Salvation from sin requires a personal faith in Jesus Christ, repentence, and baptism, and striving to follow Christ. Men are imperfect, but we strive our best to follow Christ.

I just wanted to clarify about "the LDS ordinances ...are administered only to those who have shown themselves worthy." Want to make sure people don't misinterpet that to think we promote works without faith nor think that we think we don't need Christ. We definitely need Jesus Christ, he is the central focus of our religion. The following two verses from the Book of Mormon help illustrate:

"He [meaning Jesus Christ] has all power to save every man that believeth on his name and bringeth forth fruit meet for repentance." (Alma 12:15)

"For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father." (Mosiah 3: 19)

Friend, I appreciate your interest and your fair approach. I look forward to continuing the conversation.

Fern RL said...

Well said, LDSneighbor! Let no one doubt that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does teach that the priesthood cannot be conferred except directly from another who has that authority. Most male members are ordained to the priesthood but it is not automatic.

I would like to add a comment concerning "The unknown name of the Brother of Jared." The following comes from the wikipedia article, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brother_of_Jared but represents what has been commonly known among the LDS people for the last 50 years, at least.

"While residing at Kirtland, Elder Reynolds Cahoon had a son born to him. One day when President Joseph Smith was passing his door he called the Prophet in and asked him to bless and name the baby. Joseph did so and gave the boy the name of Mahonri Moriancumr. When he had finished the blessing, he laid the child on the bed, and turning to Elder Cahoon he said, the name I have given your son is the name of the Brother of Jared; the Lord has just shown or revealed it to me. Elder William F. Cahoon, who was standing near heard the Prophet make this statement to his father; and this was the first time the name of the brother of Jared was known in the Church in this dispensation."[7]

Scooper said...

LDSneighbor and Fern Ri,

Thanks for your comments. There is always the danger of drawing conclusions by reading documents without consulting the community in whose care those documents are placed.

Your comments also serve to point out something else unique about the LDS church. As far as I know, other monotheistic churches consider their ages of prophecy to be closed. The LDS church stands out by considering its age of prophecy to be restored and ongoing, as far as I can tell.

ldsneighbor said...

Scooper, yes you are right on. Not only do we believe in ongoing revelation to the living prophets today, we also believe in an open canon of scripture. We believe that this continuing revelation and open canon was present during any age when the authorized ministry of Christ was upon the earth. Here is a really good 3-minute video that explains this unique doctrine:


This belief of continuing revelation and an open canon of scripture is unique to the LDS (Mormons). This concept is not held by any other major world religion today, as far as I know.

Anonymous said...

I would like to join the chorus of singing the praises of this post. It's not perfect, but you get so many things so right that it shows a deep and respectful understanding of Mormonism that most Mormons would recognize.

Good work. Good to hear from you again.

Scooper said...

Thanks, Blain. But my understanding is still superficial. For example, I'm still trying to figure out whether the LDS church believes that God is omnipotent. Contrary to popular opinion, such a claim is not explicitly made in the Old Testament. Rather the Book of Job and others go to great lengths to illustrate and demonstrate God's power. Perhaps omnipotence was a later Roman philosophic idea, and the question simply hadn't come up yet.

Now in the New Testament, Jesus appears to be unable to perform any great work in his hometown of Nazareth because of the people's unbelief. In the BOM, some of the Nephite prophets experience a similar temporary incapacity, and it is even explicitly stated that God could not do certain miracles for an unbelieving people. Does this mean that the LDS Church believes that God is somehow limited, or that God somehow limits Himself? Or am I just confused?