Some Sources for [More] Serious Study

One of the comments added to the last post asked about sources that might help someone get a start on the Bible. So, I thought I’d toss some ideas out here, and my colleagues will probably add things as questions or comments spark them.

The best part of studying the Bible is conversation with other folks who are likewise interested – Christianity is meant to be lived in and thru a community. The fastest way to get started is thru a class with a teacher who can guide you to good sources and respond to questions. If the opportunity presents itself, take a class at a local seminary, community college, public library or whatever.

In any case, the first thing you’ll need is an ecumenical study Bible. That’s a Bible that, at least in theory, doesn’t favor any confessional perspective thru its explanatory footnotes. AND YOU REALLY, REALLY WANT THOSE FOOTNOTES. Why not find one in a library and see what they look like?

Continue reading “Some Sources for [More] Serious Study”

4 Puds With a Prooftext

Down below is a YouTube presentation of Revelation 12 done by a couple of BYU professors who style themselves as “Four Guys With Ties.” Before you have a look, however, read this:

In context, Revelation 12 explains the source of the evil and suffering experienced by John’s seven churches. The characterization of the participants, a pregnant woman, a dragon and eventually a baby, is drawn from the world of the ANE combat myth and so resists simplistic decoding.  Its use, however, is fortuitous for John’s purposes because it would be intelligible, even familiar, to both Jewish and Gentile Christians.

The first thing John sees, which he describes as a “great portent,” is a woman.  She is the Cosmic Woman, and as she is pregnant she is many motherly figures from the mythological past: Eve, Isis, Leto and Mary, at least. Most immediately, however, she is Lady Zion, whose travail gave Israel its Messiah (Isa 66:8), and her fragility is itself a fragile illusion because she is crowned, clothed and standing on the greatest glories of God’s creation.

The Cosmic Woman’s opponent is the Dragon. His aggressive power is symbolized by his ten horns and his ability to dislodge significant numbers of stars with a flick of his tail. The seven crowns indicate that he wishes to rule. Mythologically, he is the cunning serpent of Eden and the Python at Delphi, as well as YHWH’S opponents, Rahab and Leviathan. In this context, however, his foremost identity is that of Satan, the great opponent of God from the Second Temple period. He therefore stands before the woman, fully expecting to devour her child when she and the baby are weakest.

Continue reading “4 Puds With a Prooftext”

Canonical Criticism of the Book of Mormon?

The following is a brief response to Michael Austin’s post “Canon as Context: Insights from the Bible Wars” published yesterday at BCC, in which he advocates that more students of the BoM should adopt something along the lines of the canonical criticism developed by biblical scholar Brevard S. Childs as a means of breaking through the debate over BoM historicity.

I practice biblical criticism, and while I appreciate Austin’s call to focus greater attention on the text of the BoM, I have reservations about a number of points he makes, including his description of canonical criticism and its relevance for the BoM.

First, I think Austin exaggerates the degree that Childs’ 1970 book was a paradigm shifter in academic biblical studies. It was provocative and made some waves, especially as some of his ideas were put into practice in his later publications. But the canonical approach as advocated by Childs has also been strongly criticized (e.g. Barr, Barton, etc.), to such an extent that it has largely been abandoned in contemporary scholarship.

Second, it is important to note that Childs himself did not see historical-critical methods as irrelevant or unimportant per se. In fact, he was a practitioner of conventional historical criticism in his writing and commentaries. Yet as a theological matter, he subordinated the insights of biblical criticism to the role of canonical shaping in determining the meaning of scripture for religious communities.

Third, the following paragraph is most perplexing to me:

“The result of Childs’ work was the emergence of a true third way between fundamentalists, who insisted on an absolutely rigid historical context, and liberals, who insisted on an almost purely ahistorical modern context for the biblical text. Both sides could play in the same sandbox. Both could read each other’s writings. Both could ask and try to answer the same questions. This didn’t produce a paradise of love, joy, and free ponies. But it was a reasonable middle position that produced, and continues to produce, a lot of very good scholarly work.”

I don’t think this accurately describes the development of biblical criticism after Childs. Childs’ approach wasn’t so much a middle way as it was a totally different theologically-oriented reading that could be adopted by those who already accepted the basics of biblical criticism. And I’m not aware of the “good scholarly work” that is still being produced in this vein. Liberals insisting on an ahistorical modern context for the biblical text?

On the other hand, I have serious doubts that Childs’ canonical approach is all that relevant for study of the BoM.

First, the situations between the BoM and Bible are very different, in my opinion. Childs’ goal was to revitalize the authority of the Bible and to make it theologically germane to present day religious communities in response to biblical criticism’s tendency to “otherize” texts to their original historical contexts. His solution was to make the interpretation of one part of the Bible subordinated to the theological interpretation of the whole. In other words, canonical criticism was a synchronic tool to bring greater coherence to the Bible, flatten out some of its contradictions, and revalorize aspects that don’t fit with modern Christian belief or ethics. That is obviously not what Austin is proposing we should do with the BoM.

Second, I think Austin severely exaggerates the degree to which the primary historical context of the BoM is unavailable. We have lots of archaeological and 19th century data that is relevant in this regard. No smoking gun, perhaps, but enough to make the argument for ancient historicity a real uphill battle. For example, while we don’t have the shipping records of Zarahemla, we do have examples of Reformed Egyptian, which I am very confident are not Egyptian, an alphabetic language, or any language whatsoever. And textual information internal to the BoM points just as strongly to a modern origin for the narrative– I find the statement “Nothing in the text proves or disproves its historical context because that context is completely unavailable to us as a reference point” to be agnostic in the extreme. It is worth reiterating here that Childs himself was not inimical to pursuing historical questions.

Third, “… it is impossible to situate the Book of Mormon in this context without rejecting the assumptions that have made it important to its religious community.” However, this is the problem that all religious believers face when confronted with modernist historical investigation of religious claims. The same for Muslims, Jews, Christians, and others. Many religious communities have initially or at some point down the line made assumptions about the reality or facticity of their truth claims, which have later been called into question or shown to be based on stories or myths whose original function was very different from what later interpreters assumed. So the real problem here is the perennial one: how to accept modernity and historical and scientific investigation while also holding to traditional religious norms, categories, or beliefs that originated before or in conflict with modernity.

Fourth, “But this is not how the text is or has ever been understood by those who take it seriously. To reject outright the idea that the BOM is a historical document is to separate the text from the canonical context that makes it meaningful.” This is perhaps the most difficult and vexing aspect to deal with, because it is indeed the case that from the beginning JS claimed the BoM to be a historical account, and the BoM narrative portrays itself as grounded in real history. But personally I belong to the school who say, in order to avoid greater problems in the future we need to be free to ask the historical questions and then go from there about how we want to theologically evaluate the BoM as a community. In other words, I try to separate the historical and theological questions, because if we allow them to be entangled together it is inevitable that the latter will unduly influence the former.

In any case, I think it will become increasingly problematic for religious communities to require belief in something empirically verifiable (at least in principle) as a matter of tradition if they are not able to provide reasonable grounds for such a belief, which is where we are today with the BoM. I would also say that religious communities have to be able to mature and come of age intellectually, just as children eventually realize that the stories their parents told them when they were young aren’t all true. As children grow up they reevaluate these stories and incorporate their new understanding more or less into their evolving identity, without having to perpetually infantilize themselves.

One final thought, at a theological level a final form approach to the BoM or Bible (to be distinguished from a literary reading) presupposes their high inspiration as a matter of course. But for many the issue is that the high inspiration of the BoM is in fact the thing in question or potentially in doubt. So in my view, rigorous historical investigation and careful final forms readings of the text must go hand in hand.

To the Editors of the Deseret News

Dear Sir / Ma’am:

I was interested to read in your edition of Thursday, January 21st an article by Dr. Daniel C. Peterson about a book by James R. Hutchinson engaging various aspects of so-called Historical Jesus research.

I was also interested to see that Peterson does not go much beyond the description of the book as found on Amazon; following it so closely that a link to Amazon would have saved column-inches and allowed Peterson to engage more robustly with the work itself.  For instance, rather than superficially discrediting some aspects of Historical Jesus research as Peterson suggests, readers would have learned more of Hutchinson’s primary purposes.

Continue reading “To the Editors of the Deseret News”

Congrats Stephen Smoot

We here at FPR have learned that Mr. Stephen Smoot has been accepted into the MA program at Trinity Western in Biblical Studies. This is a significant first step for Stephen and we are very pleased to offer both our congratulations regarding his acceptance and our best wishes for his future. He has chosen a tough and complicated path but we are confident that he will also find it to be as rewarding as have we.

I might also add, personally, that there still seems to be a bit of confusion arising from a recent post here regarding the intersection of certain approaches to apologetics and acceptance into graduate programs. The point made in the original post was that some activities might make the process more difficult, but what seems to have been understood was that such things are categorically impossible. I regret the confusion and am pleased to have had the opportunity to disambiguate the message.

Again, congrats to Stephen and best wishes for success,

Mogs

Diachronic or Synchronic? A Response to Nicholas J. Frederick

Introduction

The fact that New Testament (NT) language appears throughout the Book of Mormon (BM) has troubled many readers. Some of the initial written responses to the work described in detail the King James English that pervades the text with special attention given to the NT passages that appear sprinkled throughout the book.[1]  Elder B. H. Roberts, who spent many years of his life writing about and defending the BM, discussed the presence of NT phraseology and ascribed the phenomenon to Joseph Smith (JS), the translator, rather than to the original historical authors.[2] This was for reasons dealing with the historical context that is assumed throughout the text of the BM. Authors like Nephi could not have had access to sources that would be included in the Christian NT several centuries later, so Roberts concluded that the connection must be through JS.

Although this was the approach taken by Roberts it has not been the view held by the majority of LDS readers. Over the years, LDS scholars have found approaches to address the relationship of the BM to the NT that differ markedly from Roberts’s approach. For example, John Tvedtnes explored the similar language shared between the “Allegory of the Olive Tree” in Jacob 5 and the NT, and in every example determined that the wording in Jacob was not dependent on any given NT passage, but rather the NT passage and Jacob 5 had similar Old Testament (OT) sources that they independently blended together from various OT verses.[3] Others, like Brant Gardner, have been more open to the possibility of NT influence, but inconsistent in identifying it.

Evaluating the Interaction

In a new essay exploring this issue, Nicholas J. Frederick has attempted to define a method for investigating the interactions between the BM and the NT that will work for a broad basis of readers and scholars. In his opinion it is appropriate to use the terms quotation, allusion, and echo when talking about the interaction between the OT and the NT,[4] but not so when discussing the BM and the NT. Frederick explains that this is because “as far as can be determined, the Nephites did not possess that record.”[5] Frederick makes it clear that his study will approach these interactions from a synchronic rather than a diachronic perspective.[6]

Frederick does this for two reasons. First, he argues that it is not often the case that students of the BM write papers from a diachronic perspective. For this reason Frederick wishes to do away with quotation, allusion, and echo for those that he perceives to be the major audience of his work. Since they aren’t asking questions of the direction of dependence then it will be more beneficial for him to focus on a synchronic approach, as a diachronic approach could convey “the wrong ideas about the relationship between the Bible and the Book of Mormon.”[7]

Second, since the Nephites did not possess the NT, Frederick wants to stay away from author-oriented discussions that imply a source behind the composition of the BM.[8] This approach not only stands in stark contrast from Frederick’s prior research, particularly his dissertation,[9] it is also not in line with much of the scholarship he cites throughout the essay. This will be explained further below.

What Frederick’s paper essentially argues is that rather than approaching the text from the perspective of influence, which leads to using the terms quotation, allusion, and echo, we should take several steps back to what he calls “biblical interactions.” It is apparent that by “biblical” Frederick means the NT, because as far as the OT texts are concerned Frederick is fine with applying the terms quotation, allusion, and echo. These biblical interactions come down to three simple terms: (1) precise biblical interaction, (2) probable biblical interaction, and (3) possible biblical interaction.[10] Frederick also applies five criteria that help him to establish whether the interactions between the BM and NT are precise, probable, or possible.[11] With these criteria he analyzes four case studies that provide specific examples of the kind of approach that he is hoping to see if others accept his methodology.

Yet after considering Frederick’s proposal, I was left wondering what the difference between a precise, probable, or possible biblical interaction was exactly. What does that actually mean for the text, and is a “precise biblical interaction” really that precise if the definition that is offered states that the interaction is “almost certainly interacting with the New Testament”?[12] I personally would hope for a bit more precision in analyzing textual interaction.

The list of interactions that Frederick offers highlighted in my mind the fact that we are not dealing simply with intertextuality in its widest sense when it comes to the BM and the NT, as Frederick seems to want to invite. Throughout the essay Frederick cites biblical scholar Jeffery M. Leonard. In his essay,[13] Leonard responds critically against another biblical scholar’s (Lyle Eslinger) work on inner-biblical allusions when he refuses to discuss the direction of dependence because he doubts that scholars can reliably know which text was written first. In Leonard’s opinion, “a more helpful approach to these texts would have been simply to embrace a more diachronic reading and then pursue the implications this reading entails.”[14] The same could be said of Frederick’s work in this new essay. Not only does Frederick’s language still utilize phrases that would imply a diachronic study,[15] the fact that we find all throughout the BM formal quotations of both late OT (those that would not have been available to pre-exilic Israelites) and NT texts is telling in itself. If we are going to discuss the full breadth of these interactions then we will have to have terminology that deals with the fact that the BM text often points the reader to prior textual sources,[16] and therefore, at the very least, forces scholars to adopt both synchronic and diachronic approaches (if not a fully diachronic approach). As Leonard states, “some [biblical] texts manifestly do allude to others (we need look no further than direct quotations for proof), it is clear that there is at least some diachronic element at work in the biblical text. That some scholars continue to work out methods for charting this process of development rather than wave a white flag to the challenges of historiography should be welcomed…”[17]

If we are going to take Frederick’s proposals and his definitions of the “biblical interactions” then how do we label texts like 1 Ne. 3:20, 1 Ne. 22:15, 17, 20, 23-24, and Alma 12:33-35?[18] Each of these texts, formally quote a prior text that the Nephites would not have had access to, and there are so many more that could be added all throughout the BM. According to Frederick’s definitions the best we could do to explain this phenomena is to call each of them “precise biblical interactions.” But this does not fully explain the relationship between these BM texts and their late OT or NT antecedents. What does “precise” mean when a text tells the reader it is quoting an earlier source, especially when the quotation deviates in a word or two added or left out (which is sometimes the case, for example, in the Isaiah chapters)? If a few words are left out is it still a precise interaction? I would assume that probable or possible wouldn’t fit either, especially when the text explicitly shows that it is interacting with a specific, identifiable source.

Besides the quality of the relationship, I was left wondering what exactly does biblical interaction mean? While it is great that Frederick and the audience he is writing to will be able to recognize the multitude connections between the BM and the NT, is biblical interaction really the last step? Is it really okay for us to to place the cap there and not describe how the BM is actually interacting with the NT in its narrative simply because the implications of the analysis might make some believers uncomfortable? The alterations to the lexicon or the context highlight the way that the author of that section of the BM read the biblical source, or at the very least the kind of biblical language that the author felt was appropriate for the new context. None of this is discussed in Frederick’s new essay, as he only seeks to establish the fact that there are interactions.

This can work when a new methodology is directed to an audience that is closed to literary connections between the BM and the NT. And it seems that Frederick is likely writing with that audience in mind, especially when the methodology he employs in his dissertation is contrasted with this new essay. While the new methodology might serve the purposes of an audience that is not open to connections between the BM and NT, it is unlikely to be of any use to audiences outside of this group. This excludes most if not all non-Mormon academics, but a lot of Mormon scholars and lay readers as well. Frederick’s study places a cap at finding the literary connections, “biblical interactions,” and offers nothing beyond this point. Even in the case of the BM stating that the text comes from “the words of Moses, which he spake saying” (1 Ne. 22:20, with the ensuing quotation taken from Acts 3 and not Deuteronomy)[19] it would be “inappropriate” in Frederick’s methodology to label this text a formal quotation simply because it comes from the NT.

From a strictly academic standpoint the question of intertextuality rests solely on literary grounds. From this perspective, the question of authorship, which includes both internal and external data, should be set aside and bracketed for a moment, but not in the way that Frederick is attempting to do in this essay. We should not bracket the issue based on the assumptions that we might have from external historical sources or internal claims of the text’s place in history, and thereby assume that a certain kind of relationship will or will not be found between the BM and the NT; nor should we use traditional beliefs as a means to argue that terms like quotation, allusion, and echo are inappropriate when discussing the BM’s interaction with the NT. Rather, the point of departure must first be the text itself. What do the words themselves say? What specific examples have brought past scholars like Grant Hardy to the conclusion that the King James Bible has influenced the content of the BM? Once we have read the words and take note of their strong connections with the KJV, (both formally and informally), then we can discuss what kind of relationship exists between the NT and the BM, and the questions of composition and authorship can be further explored using actual data. Until that point Frederick’s model will likely act as a deterrent toward further investigations of this kind. His approach places a cap on intellectual inquiry that will likely be used to argue against those who do not fit his target audience.

Similar to Leonard’s argument about the NT quotations of the OT, the BM manifestly alludes to and quotes several parts of the KJV. The fact that the Nephites would not have had access to either the NT or the KJV invites scholars to “work out methods for charting this process of development rather than wave a white flag to the challenges of historiography.”[20]

________________________________________________________________________

[1] This includes both Alexander Campbell and Eber D. Howe. Howe was particularly astute in his discovery of NT phrases throughout the text, and was surprisingly thorough, although admittedly biased, in his appraisal of the direction of dependence. See Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (ed. Dan Vogel; Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2015).

[2] B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God: The Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: The Deseret News, 1909), 448; cited also in Nicholas J. Frederick, “Evaluating the Interaction between the New Testament and the Book of Mormon: A Proposed Methodology,” in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 24 (2015), 9, nt. 25.

[3] See John A. Tvednes, “Borrowings from the Parable of Zenos,” in Stephen Ricks and John W. Welch, eds., The Allegory of the Olive Tree: The Olive, the Bible, and Jacob 5 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 19**), 373-426.

[4] Frederick, “Evaluating the Interaction between the New Testament and the Book of Mormon,” 5.

[5] Frederick, “Evaluating the Interaction between the New Testament and the Book of Mormon,” 5.

[6] Frederick, “Evaluating the Interaction between the New Testament and the Book of Mormon,” 11.

[7] Frederick, “Evaluating the Interaction between the New Testament and the Book of Mormon,” 11, nt. 27.

[8] Cf. Frederick, “Evaluating the Interaction between the New Testament and the Book of Mormon,” 6.

[9] Nicholas J. Frederick, “Line Within Line: An Intertextual Analysis of Mormon Scripture and the Prologue of the Gospel of John” (Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation; Claremont Graduate University, 2013).

[10] Frederick, “Evaluating the Interaction between the New Testament and the Book of Mormon,” 12.

[11] The criteria that Frederick employs are all familiar within intertextual studies, although he uses terms that are slightly different to describe the criteria. The only one that deviates is his second criterion, the “criterion of dissimilarity.” This is problematic because in biblical studies there is already a criterion of dissimilarity, but it is a completely different thing. To be more precise Frederick means something closer to the “criterion of infrequency.” His use of the term dissimilarity will be problematic for any biblical scholar simply because there is already a meaning and a history to the “criterion of dissimilarity.” See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criterion_of_dissimilarity (Last accessed 9/26/2015).

[12] Frederick, “Evaluating the Interaction between the New Testament and the Book of Mormon,” 12. Emphasis mine.

[13] Jeffery M. Leonard, “Identifying Inner-Biblical Allusions: Psalm 78 as a Test Case,” Journal of Biblical Literature 127/2 (2008), 241-265.

[14] Leonard, “Identifying Inner-Biblical Allusions,” 262.

[15] i.e. “undeniable that the Bible plays a role in the textual construction of the Book of Mormon,” 3; “one of the most noticeable aspects of the Book of Mormon is its integration of the King James Bible into its own text,” 3; “the Book of Mormon prefers to weave phrases from the New Testament into its own text,” 7; “phrases in the Book of Mormon maintain the same word order they had in the New Testament, while other times words may be added or removed…” 7; emphasis mine in each.

[16] Contrary to Frederick’s statement on page 7.

[17] Leonard, “Identifying Inner-Biblical Allusions,” 257.

[18] 1 Ne. 3:20=Acts 3:21; 1 Ne. 22:15=Mal. 4:1; 1 Ne. 22:17=1 Cor. 3:15; 1 Ne. 22:20=Acts 3:22-23; 1 Ne. 22:23-24=Mal. 4:1-2; and Alma 12-13 weaves Heb. 3-4 throughout the entire pericope, see David P. Wright, “‘In Plain Terms that We May Understand’: Joseph Smith’s Transformation of Hebrews in Alma 12-13,” in Brent Lee Metcalfe, ed., New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993), 218-220.

[19] There are times when the NT uses the OT that the NT text claims to be quoting a particular prophetic text but is in fact quoting another. Mark 1:2-3 is exemplary, although you wouldn’t know it from the KJV. The King James translators translated their Greek NT with what we now know to be unreliable, late manuscripts. Scribes had altered the text, so that when the King James translators came to Mark 1:2 they read, “As it is written in the prophets.” The earliest manuscripts read, “As it is written in the book of Isaiah the prophet.” The quotation comes from possibly three texts, verse 2 quotes either from Ex. 23:20 or Mal. 3:1 and then verse 3 from Isa. 40:3. It is more likely that verse 2 is quoting Mal. 3:1 because of the shared context; on this see Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 135-136. Although the author of Mark states that he is quoting only from Isaiah, scholars still recognize the “interaction” with Malachi a quotation.

[20] Leonard, “Identifying Inner-Biblical Allusions,” 257.

 

BYUNTC Revelation

The Revelation volume in the BYUNTC series is back in the news, so I thought I’d say a bit about it. At last fall’s SBL Grant Underwood gave Richard Draper some advice regarding this volume. Since Draper’s work was not well-received by either LDS or non-LDS scholars, Underwood wrote: “Perhaps by drawing on the talented pool of younger LDS scholars trained in New Testament studies, [Richard Draper] and Michael Rhodes can extend their work in ways that more effectively bring LDS views into tough-minded conversation with biblical scholarship generally.”

This sentence indicates that the Revelation volume has two major problems. It does not adequately handle the existing scholarship on Revelation and it does not effectively bring the LDS tradition into dialogue with this scholarship. Underwood is not alone in his critique; the other three published reviews of the BYUNTC project and the available volumes amply bear out his thoughts.

Although Underwood’s critique is spot-on his remedy is a bit less helpful because it under-specifies the help actually needed. Young scholars do not themselves write major academic commentaries because what produces the seasoned insights that make for a respectable contribution is some good length of interaction in public academic discourse involving the text in question. Many of BYU’s religion faculty in the right age cohort for the needed experience have not participated in this arena and so are not well-prepared to either write commentaries or supervise those who are younger.

Continue reading “BYUNTC Revelation”

The Part I Left Out…

I was blogging a bit over with Benjamin the Scribe, but didn’t get all of this first lesson quite done. So, I thought I’d just finish it up here, by reading the selection from the Johannine tradition. It consists of two of the three sections of the Fourth Gospel’s prologue:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

This passage, thought by some to be an early Christian hymn broken up by parenthetical insertions such as vv. 6-8, is delivered by the Johannine narrator. The narrator is a reliable figure so readers are invited to understand the rest of the Gospel through this passage. The import of this is that when Jesus makes claims of an exalted status which are rejected by “the Jews” as blasphemous, readers know that Jesus is speaking only the truth, that is, he is a reliable revelation of God.

The sections assigned for this first week’s lesson describe the relationship between the Word and God, and between the Word and the world. As usual, I read for insight into the usual six questions:

 

What is the human condition? The human condition is roughly portrayed by “the world.” On the one hand, the world is a special place since it was created by God through the Word and remains the object of his love. On the other hand, the world is in darkness, that is, it is very much in need of a new and better revelation of God to give human life purpose and direction.

What is God going to do about this? God sends two characters as witnesses to provide light to this world that he loves. First, John the Baptist is “sent from God” as a witness to testify of the Word who has come in the flesh. Thus, in the Johannine tradition John is one of the five witnesses listed out by Christ (John 5:32-35), and far more important in this role than as the person who baptized Jesus (as he is in the Synoptics). The Word, who is everything God is, is the perfect revelation of God, having been with him from the beginning. His revelation of God is not a series of propositions about God, but is the perfect portrayal of God’s love.

Who is Christ that he can accomplish God’s intent? Christ is the Word who took on human flesh and lived among humans. The key point is that he is the sole entity capable of doing what needs to be done because he has seen and known God like no other. A bit farther on, outside of the selections for this week’s lesson, John will say that Jesus is the only person to have seen God. This does not mean that John has forgotten about the great theophanies of the Hebrew Bible, but that Jesus is the only one who is “in the bosom of the Father” (John 1:18 KJV), a position of intimacy claimed by none of the prophets.

What is the nature of the community that responds to this? The community formed in this tradition is illustrated by John the Baptist. He is the first witness, sent by God, to the Word made flesh. The community, then, is composed of those who first respond to someone’s witness by believing that Jesus is who he claims to be, and who then bear witness of this point themselves, thereby drawing others to Jesus, who reveals himself more fully. This idea of a community formed by and around a chain of witnesses is actually illustrated in John 1:19-51. After Jesus is resurrected, he will send his disciples out into the world just as his Father sent him: “Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (Joh 20:21 NRS). Thus, the Johannine church is the extension of Jesus’ mission to reveal the love of God, which makes people who respond “the children of God” (1:12).

What behaviors are incumbent on this community, and why? Because this community is defined by a relationship, the primary ethical obligation will be what sustains a relationship: love. Thus, to get ahead of things, “this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12 NRSV).

What does this community anticipate in the future? This community sees a future that is dominated by conflict between light and dark: “ The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” In the end they are confident that the light will prevail; this favorable resolution is foreshadowed by their witness of the glory of the Father’s unique Son, which they have seen. In the meantime, they enjoy a relationship with God as “the children of God” (1:12). This is not the relationship that Jesus has with God, because he is the Son of God, but it is not something enjoyed by the rest of the world, nor does it come by human desire or initiative (not of blood…not of the will…).

Continue reading “The Part I Left Out…”

The Future of Mormonism

As has frequently been noted by a variety of commentators, modern Mormonism seems to be entering what will be a very difficult cultural transition during the 21 century, where one of the defining issues will be whether the church will allow for greater cultural, social, and intellectual diversity among its ranks and still be able to maintain a sense of traditional communal identity or whether conservative forces will enact further retrenchment, thus leading to greater social fragmentation and disaffection at the margins.

So far it’s been a pretty rocky road. The church has lacked any kind of coordinated plan or definite vision about how to handle the democratizing Internet era and the relatively new empowerment of lay individuals to think, question, and doubt. Responses have been ad hoc, allowing for reactionary and authoritarian views to fill the void at various institutional levels.

So what do you think the future holds? For example, will there come a time when members of the church will not be marginalized for not believing that the BoM is historical? or to openly affirm different perspectives on God, history, the nature of spirituality, etc? Will the LDS church take more of an interest in so-called liberal causes, so as to appear less entangled in American cultural politics, or more positively stated, to show that it cares about the full gamut of human morality and social justice at the heart of both ancient and modern scriptural theologies? How do you see the church evolving this century?