Christianity 101, Book of Mormon Style 3

So in this last week we, that is me and the 17-18 year old gentlemen I teach, were looking at the Tree of Life vision and Nephi’s interpretation.  As you know, our goal is to read the BoM and look for foundational Christian doctrine – hence the title “Christianity 101:  BoM Style.” This time we started with that mysterious man who pops up in front of Lehi and declares his intent to lead Lehi to the Tree of Life (1 Ne 8:5-7).

Who is that guy and what is the Bat Signal that brings him out?  I vaguely remember reading that someone thought he might be the Holy Spirit, although I can’t remember who or why.  Myself, I thought it might be the Spirit because the whole scene reminds me of this passage (Rom 5:3-5 NRS):

And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

In Lehi’s vision, the Tree of Life and the Water of Life both represent the love of God.  And in fact, so important is this symbol that when Nephi’s interlocutor wants to test Nephi’s response to his father’s narrative, he asks Nephi whether or not he believes that his father saw this tree! (1 Ne 11:4)  So the man in Lehi’s vision is responsible for linking Lehi to the love of God, which is precisely what Paul suggests is the role of the Holy Spirit.

Who knows?  However, the idea that the human condition cannot be set aright without the guidance of the Spirit is pretty common in LDS thought, so it’s good enough to open up a bit of a discussion on what it is that the Holy Spirit does.  My question:  Given that the Holy Spirit is a communicator, what is the most important message he carries?

I think that a testimony of the love of God is the foundational testimony, and that ideally it grounds all other communication between God and his children.  Why?  Because in those circumstances in which all other forms of support fail, this testimony tells us we’re not alone.  And in fact, it tells us that we are “more than conquers” (Rom 8:38-39):

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Whassup with all those terms in there?  Well, if we extend the impression created by the distinction between height and depth, and death and life, it looks like a list of extremes.   So it seems that angels and “rulers” are supramundane spiritual beings.  Time, with its inherent instability and uncertainty, is personified. And all of this imagery is pressed into service to make the achingly beautiful point that God’s love, like God himself, is greater than Creation, so human extremes are necessarily rendered quotidian in its presence.

I should be accustomed to it by now but it still amazes me that, when I go looking for these foundational ideas of Christianity, I almost always end up with the love of God.

God is love.



4 Replies to “Christianity 101, Book of Mormon Style 3”

  1. Nitsav and I had a conversation about this quite a while back. I had a question as to the identity of Nephi’s spirit guide in these chapters — Bruce R. McConkie and James E. Talmage were at odds as to whom Nephi was speaking. McConkie held that it was the premortal Christ who spoke to Nephi, and Talmage declared that it was the Holy Ghost in his spirit form. In chapters 11 and 12 this being is referred to as “the Spirit of the Lord,” “the angel,” and “the spirit.” A description of this personage is given in 11:11–

    And I said unto him: To know the interpretation thereof–for I spake unto him as a man speaketh; for I beheld that he was in the form of a man; yet nevertheless , I knew that it was the Spirit of the Lord; and he spake unto me as a man speaketh with another.

    It seems to me that it would be odd if this personage was the premortal Christ, since Nephi is shown several visions of Christ in these chapters. I suppose it could be possible, though, for Christ to be standing with Nephi showing him scenes of his own life. There are other accounts in the scriptures where the premortal spirit Christ appears.

    Either one of these interpretations work with your thesis above, since Jesus was shown in the vision to be the condescension of God, or the personification of his love.

    In v. 12, the spirit guide departs. Then in v. 14 “an angel came down and stood before me.” Is this yet another being, who takes Nephi the rest of the way through the vision? Nephi begins referring to him as “the angel.” Are there perhaps two different beings: the “spirit” and the “angel?” Or do you think these are just two different words Nephi uses for the same personage?

    Finally, Jesus as well as angelic messengers often use the first person under authority. Do you think divine investiture of authority comes into play in this passage as well?

  2. Ah, you know, Nitsav is the savvy one when it comes to developing an LDS-traditional scholarship synthesis. I’m much more likely to hold LDS thought and traditional Christianity in dialogue, rather than synthesis. I look for similarities and differences most of the time without pressing it any farther.

    That said…

    Normally, I’d go looking at other works by Nephi or Nephite texts to see how angelic messengers, Jesus, and figures known as “the Spirit of the Lord” were handled. Ideally, I’d be looking at texts from around the same time as Nephi’s, as well. But it is what it is.

    I am inclined to look at the way the NT handles this sort of thing, although not from a strictly H-C viewpoint. The NT does know “the Spirit of Jesus:”

    When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; (Act 16:7 NRS)

    For I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance. (Phi 1:19 NRS)

    In context, this seems to be a reference to the power of Jesus, rather than an interaction with a person-like communicator. Then there’s the “Spirit of the Lord,” which I think in this case is the Holy Spirit, as it is in the OT:

    When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. (Act 8:39 NRS)

    And finally we have the “spirit of Christ,” which is also in the set prayer we use in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper:

    But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. (Rom 8:9 NRS)

    Here, in this final citation from Paul, it even looks as if he had conflated what we now call the Holy Spirit with the Spirit of Christ.

    When I look at all this, it seems to me that the various NT authors didn’t yet have a coherent pneumatology, that is, no one had yet settled on how Christians were to express their experiences of divine guidance. Is Jesus still guiding his little flock? Yes! Well, then, we can talk about the spirit of Jesus. And is attachment to the person of Christ still characteristic of a disciple? Then it makes sense that disciples have the spirit of Christ, precisely in order to be called disciples.

    So I guess I see something similar here. The names, titles, and identities of the various guides that greet and assist Lehi and Nephi seem fluid, reflecting a coherent sense of divine care, but a less than fully developed interest in spelling out precisely who is doing what.

    Anyway, I think it’s a good question and I regret that, if you needed a definitive answer, I am unable to provide one.


  3. Sidney Sperry gave his reasons for believing it was the Holy Ghost in Problems in the Book of Mormon, taking the same approach Mogget suggests for looking at other instances of “Spirit of the Lord”:

    Nephi relates a marvelous experience in which he was caught up ‘in the Spirit of the Lord’ to an exceedingly high mountain and shown many things that his heart desired. Nephi describes the Spirit as being ‘in the form of a man; yet nevertheless, I knew that it was the Spirit of the Lord; and he spake unto me as a man speaketh with another.’

    Now a question arises concerning the identity of the Spirit. Two schools of thought prevail among students of the Book of Mormon, and each gives a plausible answer to the problem. One of them holds that the Spirit beheld by Nephi was none other than the pre-existent Christ. Those who adhere to this point of view direct our attention to a precedent which they think should have great weight in convincing one of the correctness of their position. This precedent was the open appearance of our pre-existent Lord to the brother of Jared. (Ether 3:13-16) The other school of thought believes that the Spirit of the Lord who talked with Nephi was the Holy Ghost in person.

    The resolving of the problem raised here is of great importance, theologically speaking, for if it can be shown that the Spirit who talked to Nephi was the Holy Ghost in person, we may regard 1 Nephi 11:1-11 as the one classical passage in all scripture which identifies the Holy Ghost as a male personage with whom man may speak face to face. But if one attempts to resolve such a problem, it should be done with an open mind and with a determination to face the evidence squarely as the Book of Mormon gives it. All that the writer can claim as he attempts to resolve the problem is that he has no axe to grind and that he has spent a long time in weighing the evidence.

    First, let us examine the circumstances which brought about Nephi’s encounter with the Spirit. From 1 Nephi 10:17 we learn that Nephi was so highly impressed with the visions of his father Lehi that he was desirous also to ‘see, and hear, and know of these things, by the power of the Holy Ghost.’ (Italics mine.) Notice that Nephi wanted to know by the power of the Holy Ghost. He continues with a discussion about the Holy Ghost (1 Nephi 10:17-21) and ends by saying, ‘And the ‘And the Holy Ghost giveth authority that I should speak these things, and deny them not.’ (1 Nephi 10:22)

    Second, as one reads Nephi’s account of his encounter with the Spirit of the Lord in the very next chapter (1 Nephi 11:1-11), the distinct impression is given that Lehi’s son had never met that personage before. Notice the phrases ‘the Spirit said,’ ‘the Spirit cried,’ ‘I said unto the Spirit,’ in verses 2, 4, 6, 8, 9, etc. Notice especially verse 11, where Nephi says, ‘For I spake unto him as a man speaketh; for I beheld that he was in the form of a man; yet nevertheless, I knew that it was the spirit of the Lord; and he spake unto me as a man speaketh.’ Is it very likely that Nephi would have spoken this way if the personage had been the pre-existent Christ, who had appeared to him at an earlier time? (1 Nephi 2:16) Nephi was already acquainted with the Savior. There was no call for him to say of our Lord what he did about the Spirit in 1 Nephi 11:11.

    Third, notice that Nephi never speaks of the pre-existent Christ as the Spirit of the Lord in those passages where it is very clear that he is talking about our Lord’s appearance to him. (1 Nephi 2:16, 2 Nephi 11:2-3)

    Fourth, in the continuation of Nephi’s vision in Chapter 11 of First Nephi, two other references are made to the Spirit. The first reference in verse 19 concerns Mary, the mother of our Lord, and her being carried away ‘in the Spirit’; the second, in verse 29, concerns the twelve apostles who were ‘carried away in the Spirit from before my face.’ The references to the Spirit in both instances seem obviously to point to the Holy Ghost, not to the pre-existent Christ. (Cf. 11:19 with Matt. 1:18)

    Fifth, it may be pointed out that the phrase ‘Spirit of the Lord’ occurs forty times in the Book of Mormon, and in not a single passage where it occurs can there be shown a clear-cut example favoring the interpretation that it represents the pre-existent Christ instead of the Holy Ghost. On the other hand there are many occurrences of the phrase that can refer only to the Holy Ghost. Let us look at a few.

    It is obvious on examination that in no instance where the phrase was written down after the appearance of the resurrected Christ on this continent does it refer to His pre-existent person. There are three illustrations of this kind: ‘the Spirit of the Lord did not abide in us (Morm. 2:26)’; ‘the Spirit of the Lord hath already ceased to strive with their fathers (Moro. 5:16)’; ‘I fear lest the Spirit of the Lord hath ceased striving with them (Moro. 9:4).’ These references, we repeat, can only be dealing with the Holy Ghost.

    Let us look at another use of the phrase as Nephi describes the course of his vision. In 1 Nephi 13:12-15 he speaks of the coming of a Gentile (Columbus) to this land, together with other Gentiles who were to come at later times. Verse 15 has the reading: “And I beheld the Spirit of the Lord, that it was upon the Gentiles. …’ It seems quite evident to us that the ‘Spirit of the Lord’ as used in this verse is synonymous with the phrase ‘Spirit of God’ as found in verses 12 and 13. Whatever else these phrases may mean, it is certain that the personage of the pre-existent Christ cannot be meant, because the vision of Nephi in this context encompassed the latter days, which were to be long after Christ’s resurrection.

    If it be contended that the phrases do not refer to the Holy Ghost (doubtful in the light of 1 Nephi 10:11), we shall have to say that they refer to the power that emanates from Deity as a whole. A few other illustrations where the phrase ‘Spirit of the Lord’ clearly represents the functions of the Holy Ghost are given herewith: ‘The Spirit of the Lord came upon them, and they were filled with joy (Mosiah 4:3)’; ‘the Spirit of the Lord did no more preserve them; yea, it had withdrawn from them because the Spirit of the Lord doth not dwell in unholy temples’ (Helaman 4:24; cf. Rom. 8:9, 11; 1 Cor. 3:16).

    Finally, it is worthy of notice that in Ether, chapter 3, where the momentous meeting of the brother of Jared with our pre-existent Lord is related at length, no mention of Him is made as the ‘Spirit of the Lord.’

    We may conclude that inasmuch as there is no single instance in the Book of Mormon where the phrase ‘Spirit of the Lord’ can be clearly and unequivocally equated with the pre-existent Christ, it is far more reasonable in view of the evidence here presented to believe that the phrase refers to the Holy Ghost. And such was the position taken by the late James E. Talmage of the Quorum of the Twelve. [AF “We know that the Spirit has manifested Himself in the form of a man. fn: See 1 Nephi 11:11.’ (p. 42)]

  4. Shoot. The last half of that should be deleted — applies to something else.

    I have edited Ardis’ comment for its length and also to insert blank lines associated with paragraphs. I hope I have done it as it should be done. If not, my apologies.


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