Where is Mormon Theology done?

UVSC and Utah State have growing Religious Studies programs. The Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology will hold its fourth annual meeting at BYU in March 2007 (they are still accepting paper submissions). The broad title of BYU’s new Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship could be construed to include theology in its scope, and the Summer Seminar Richard Bushman and Terryl Givens hosted this past summer through the Maxwell Institute produced several intriguing and theological graduate student papers (one of my favorites was by an Italian!). Claremont Graduate University is working to establish a Mormon Studies program. As one might expect from simple demographics, there are several points of light in the West. On the other hand, some key events have happened in recent years in the East: the conference at Yale on Mormon philosophy and history in 2003, the conference on Joseph Smith at the Library of Congress in 2005, and a graduate student conference to be held at Yale this coming February. While many of the graduate students in religion collect in the Northeast, the mid-Atlantic area is also showing some signs of promise. Celebrated Mormon scholar Terryl Givens teaches in Richmond, predominantly Mormon Southern Virginia University has two philosophers on staff, and young upstart Nate Oman will probably mingle some theology with his law scholarship now and then while at William and Mary. The American Academy of Religion meeting in D.C. this year also features Mormon topics in at least three sessions. Theology is unpopular in many Mormon circles nowadays, partly because of traditional Christian errors, but Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were not fideists, and theology is cropping up here and there despite the pessimism. Where will it turn up next?

(I have left a lot of important people, events, and institutions out of the above; feel free to add them in the comments!)

63 comments for “Where is Mormon Theology done?

  1. To use his name, my favorite paper from the Summer Symposium was by Maoro P— (I am going to go check to be sure I get his name right). It should be published before long; watch for it!

  2. In my opinion, until the mysteries of godliness become apparent to the natural man, the ideal of scholarly objectivity in theology will be impossible to reach.

    All systematic LDS theologies (not doctrines – doctrines are different) we have to date are largely the product of individual minds, as they were guided by inspiration given according to their understanding:

    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.
    (D&C 1:24)

    The problem is that theology requires semantics, and the semantics of gospel terms are deep. That means that many different decent theologies can be constructed, according to ones level of understanding. All the scholarly consensus will likely do is conduct a relatively inadequate one (cf. the Apostasy – which was not apostate so much because of the creeds of men, but because of the binding nature of those creeds).

    The Westminster Confession is a wonderful thing in many ways, it just is far from the last word on the mysteries of godliness. So it is with practically any construction of the mortal mind, even given divine working materials. That is why doctrines will always have priority over theology. The Spirit can teach those who are in-doctrinated with true doctrines expressed in proper form, but finds it very difficult to deal with those who are improperly in-theologiated, (let alone inebriated (smile)).

    So the real question is: Can scholars even do theology, as a group, without obliterating the mysteries? The record is not good.

  3. Can humans talk about God, as a group, without obliterating the mysteries? The record is not good. I don’t see that this is any special problem with theology. Could it be the main difference is that theologians, unlike most people, wrote their errors down, so we can point to them?

    Humans make errors when they try to understand God. So do we stop trying to think about God? I don’t think that is the answer.

  4. I think Ben is right. The problem occurs when we have hubris to not recognize the limitations of our hypothesizing. One can point to theology and even philosophy as involved in this in the apostasy. But the problem is that lots of people do this. The standard joke about High Priests lessons on Sunday illustrate the issue. Further arguably the prophets who have gotten involved have made lots of mistakes. (How many people are comfortable with the most famous ideas of Orson Pratt, Brigham Young, or Bruce R. McConkie?)

  5. Ben,

    I believe it is a moral obligation for each one of us to develop and refine our own personal theology, and be humble enough to overhaul it as inspiration dictates. My point is that inspiration is given according to our weakness, that we might come to understanding, so a principle that might be an advance for one person, could be a step backwards for the understanding of another.

    That implies that any scholarly consensus with regard to theology will be the same – a lowest scholarly common denominator – and advance for many, but a step backwards for others, and almost certainly far short of God’s theology, at least as long as beyond a reasonable doubt is the standard of evidence.

    Theology can only be done properly according to the gift of prophecy – so we should each all be striving to be prophets, not scholars in the ordinary sense of the term.

  6. Ben,

    Humans talking about God generally amounts to “theologizing” doesn’t it?

    But, hey, lets have some fun while we still can–before a knowledge of the “mysteries” takes all the zest out of life.

  7. Jack,

    Joseph Smith said the opposite – the greater one’s knowledge, the greater one’s responsibility – i.e. the higher standard the Lord holds him to because when one knows a law (assuming it is in force) and does not comply it is sin:

    Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
    (Rom 3:20)

    However on the other hand, we cannot be saved any faster than we gain knowledge (so says the Prophet). That is why we preach the gospel. That is why we study the scriptures. That is why we have a divine responsibility to ponder them and interpret them to the best of our ability and to transform our lives to conform to our understanding:

    And again, verily I say unto you, that which is governed by law is also preserved by law and perfected and sanctified by the same.

    That which breaketh a law, and abideth not by law, but seeketh to become a law unto itself, and willeth to abide in sin, and altogether abideth in sin, cannot be sanctified by law, neither by mercy, justice, nor judgment. Therefore, they must remain filthy still.
    (D&C 88:34-35)

    Justification comes through faith. Sanctification comes only through obedience to law. Without knowledge of the law we cannot sin (technically speaking), but we cannot be preserved, perfected, or sanctified either.

    And that is why soteriological minimalism is contrary to the spirit of truth. Joseph Smith very explicitly taught that we can only be saved as fast as we gain a knowledge of the divine order of things, and lived according to its dictates. Least common denominatorism never saved anyone.

    Now I imagine there is some zest in obeying and understanding mysteries of godliness. Joseph Smith implied as much, in a statement about the common lack of knowledge about which actions are justified under what conditions.

  8. Coming to the Church from the roman tradition, most of the mormon studies stuff I’ve seen does not resemble the modern theology deemed most important there–people like Hans Urs von Balthasar or Karl Rahner, among the two or three outstanding catholic theologians of the 20th century (perhaps these perceptions result from the fact that I’m a dilettante in regard to both, though). These approaches to theology seem to me tied directly to the questions ‘how should we live, how should we worship’ in light of our interactions with God and Christ, and the nature of those relationships. Balthasar, in particular, was interested in coming to know and understand God and the (catholic) church in terms of beauty (I’ve copied a relevant paragraph about his work from Wikipedia, below, for those unfamiliar). Mormon studies seems consumed with minute (and highly parochial) historical debates, generic (or highly politicised, or sometimes both) sociology of religion, and narrow arguments about what particular scientific findings mean for the plausibility of the church’s doctrinal claims. To me, this isn’t a useful or even particularly meaningful theology (if it can even be properly termed theology, which I doubt)–since it ultimately fails to help us to better understand the nature of our faith, our beliefs, the implications of those beliefs, and our Heavenly Father.

    I want beauty. I want the profound. I want rigourous and precisely thought-out works that take as their starting point the truth of the restored gospel, then help me better understand it, appreciate it, and live it.

    I don’t see this anywhere.

    There are reasons, of course–the only place such a study could be supported would be at BYU. And the only places they could get academic jobs would be through the church. But between BYU and the CES instutites, surely enough places could be found for people to do this kind of work…

    On HUvB, from wikipedia:
    The Glory of the Lord, a 7-volume work on ‘theological aesthetics’ (a theology of belief based on contemplation of the good, the beautiful, and the true); Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, a 5-volume work on ‘theodramatics’, the action of God and the human response, especially in the events of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday; and Theo-Logic, 3 volumes describing the relation of the nature of Jesus Christ (christology) to reality itself (ontology, or the study of being). His innovative Mysterium Paschale explores the theological meaning of Holy Saturday, where Jesus Christ dies and descends to the dead, to be resurrected by God the Father, thus revealing that God can endure and conquer godlessness, abandonment, and death. Another distinctive thought in Balthasar’s work is that our first experience after birth is the smile of our mothers, where the self encounters for the first time the other, yet the other smiles in a relationship of love and sustenance (Oakes 236).

  9. Mark:

    Justification does not come through faith. As the law proceedeth forth out of the mouth of God, so does justice, whether mankind accepts it or not. Once we know the law and break it, God is justified in enforcing the punishment affixed to the law, or separating us from his presence. Sanctification comes through “faith unto repentance.” Small, but significant distinction.

  10. Matt W.,

    Justice and justification are not the same thing. Justification is the only way were are accepted of God in our state of moral imperfection:

    But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith.
    (Gal 3:8)

    What Paul means is that as all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and there is nothing we can do as individuals to make full restitution for our transgressions, it is only through the grace and At-one-ment of Jesus Christ that we can be saved.

    And we receive this grace in our state of imperfection on condition of faith unto repentance. Faith not unto repentance is dead, being alone. This preliminary salvation from the law of justice is called justification, and it comes only by grace.

    Through repentance we come to obey not just the dead letter of the law, but the Spirit of the law making our own souls a living sacrifice in similitude of our Lord and Savior. And like him, we are preserved, perfected, and sanctified through this sacrifice, not a sacrifice of our own device, but the one our Father requires of us, which is no less than obedience to all the commandments of God. Purposeful, willing disobedience is never justified.

    So yes, sanctification comes through the fulfilment of the repentance process, but justification only comes by embarking upon the path. And indeed sanctification only comes by grace as well, and not by the law alone. We cannot be saved as individuals, but only through At-one-ment through the merits of Him who has power to save.

  11. Ben: You forgot to mention that one of the most promising young philosophers of Mormonism and a the driving force behind the organization of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology teaches as Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia. Frankly, it looks to me as though the Old Dominion in the place to be on the east coast ;->…

  12. Thanks for the clarification, Mark. I’m usually a mere lurker here, but the conversation has swung to a topic to which I’ve devoted a bit of study.

    The very foundation of LDS soteriology is a proper understanding of what Justification and Sanctification are and how they interact with each other. Tell me though, how often in an LDS meeting have you heard in-depth discussions of these doctrines? I occasionally hear “sanctification� taught in isolation as if it represents the whole of the salvific process. Too many members think that God’s message to us is, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, “If you keep a lot of rules and pay the required money, you’ll go to heaven. If you don’t, well, you’ll wind up somewhere else.�

    Matt W.’s response (#12) is an example of a commonly held and well-meaning, but nonetheless incorrect understanding of the principles involved. There was only one person who ever lived on the earth who was “Justified by Law.�

    Doctrine and Covenants 20:30-31 provides the initial framework:

    30 And we know that justification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is just and true;

    31 And we know also, that sanctification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is just and true, to all those who love and serve God with all their mights, minds, and strength.

    Why the difference in wording in these two verses? Something crucially important is happening in both. Why didn’t JS include “to all those who love and serve God with all their mights, minds, and strength� in the first verse as well?

    Justification is the process outlined in the first four principles and ordinances of the Gospel. It is the process that remits sins—not because we’ve kept the law so well that we’re “entitled to� the remission, but rather based wholly upon our faith in Christ and our good-faith efforts to repent. If we live daily in this state of grace-given “remission�, the Spirit can then dwell with us and guide us “grace for grace� through the Sanctification process (which DOES require obedience to laws, but is still not “earned� by the person).

    “Purposeful, willing disobedience is never justified.”

    Yes. The Lord will accept good-faith efforts, regardless of how halting or ridiculously imperfect those efforts are. What he won’t accept is knowing, willful rebellion.

    Justification prepares the clean ground for the Spirit. Sanctification is the Spirit’s guidance to us regarding what efforts we must now make in concert with God to fulfill His purposes for us.

  13. TMD, thank you for sharing your impressions. I don’t know much about 20th century Catholic theology, except that much of it is very different from the medieval stuff, in substance and style and goals. I wrote a very little bit about this in an essay lately reacting to some of David Tracy’s thought. I also encountered it at Notre Dame. I think Mormons could gain a lot from looking at it, and people like Jim Faulconer are already doing so (particularly at some French guys). For my part, Rahner sounds the most interesting so far . . .

    That said, have you looked at Terryl Givens’ stuff? The two chapters in By the Hand of Mormon on the distinctive theology of the Book of Mormon you might find a step in the direction you are looking for. Also his recent BYU Studies article. What have you found disappointing?

  14. TMD (#11), I looked again at what you said you liked about Rahner and von Balthasar: “tied directly to the questions ‘how should we live, how should we worship’ in light of our interactions with God and Christ, and the nature of those relationships”. In contrast to this, I would agree that minute historical debates or evaluating the implications of scientific findings for particular points of belief are going to be much less satisfying, though they have a valuable, subsidiary role to play. Of course, thinking about how we should live, in light of our relationships with Christ and the Father, is the primary topic of standard church discourse–Sacrament and General Conference talks, Sunday School lessons, etc. To the extent that a Mormon scholar sees her or his work as supplementary to that primary discourse, it is well and good to apply specific expertise to such secondary points, as they may arise.

    While some of their work may seem a bit technical and abstract, I think you’ll find David Paulsen and Blake Ostler have some very juicy work relating an understanding of God to how we should live. I am thinking of, for example, some of Paulsen’s work comparing Joseph Smith’s and Soren Kierkegaard’s views of what it is to be a Christian (e.g. a paper presented at the SMPT conference in 2004), and, say, a review forthcoming in FARMS Review entitled, “Work, Worship and Grace: A Response to The Mormon Culture of Salvation.” Ostler’s work on the nature of the Godhead–a kind of social trinitarian view–is very juicy. Also watch for Dennis Potter’s book, expected out in a few months, in which he finds a liberation theology in the Book of Mormon. Since I know a lot of their work from conference presentations and unpublished manuscripts, perhaps others can help identify the more easily accessible (i.e. published and widely distribute) parts of their work you might find appealing! Eugene England’s work is worth a look; a classic is, “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel” (Sunstone, December 1999). Maoro Properzi’s article on the spiritual significance of emotions I suspect you would like a lot.

    Mark Butler (#8), you say, “That implies that any scholarly consensus with regard to theology will be the same – a lowest scholarly common denominator – and advance for many, but a step backwards for others, and almost certainly far short of God’s theology, at least as long as beyond a reasonable doubt is the standard of evidence.” So far as you go with this, I agree. I don’t expect that scholarly consensus will be a very useful indicator of truth in theology. It is very likely to be, as you suggest, a sort of lowest common denominator. But I don’t think we need to fuss over scholarly consensus as to truth or falsity. Truth or falsity is for the Spirit and prayer and church leaders (so far as they see fit/are inspire to do so) to establish. But I think scholars who are well grounded in the gospel will at least be able to help each other identify what is interesting, promising, plausible, and potentially edifying and helpful. That is all a scholar, as a scholar should claim to be, when it comes to theology, and I think it is worth a lot. If scholarly discussion of theology can prompt individual Saints to read the scriptures more actively, with livelier questions, and with a fresh sense of the possibilities, that will be very valuable. We learn the truth through the Spirit, but the Spirit doesn’t only want us to ask; it wants us to ponder and study things out in our own minds.

  15. Ben H (#18),

    I agree. Well said. I am not much of a scholar, but I have an unusual theological perspective I think has some considerable merit, and that is why I share it with others.

  16. Nice post, Ben. I’m intrigued by the fact that most of those who are doing some kind of work in LDS theology seem to come from either philosophy or law. Is that because academic training in theology isn’t seen as particularly helpful for doing LDS theology? Or is it more that studying theology isn’t a terribly practical choice for a Mormon hoping for employment someday?

  17. I think, Lynette, that the reason why most of the amateur LDS theologians come from philosophy or law, is because those who studied engineering are too busy keeping this world spinning… ;)

  18. I see theology as primarily a social science, one that has a lot more to do with keeping the trains running on time than engineering generally does, with the possible exception of biological engineering.

  19. Thanks, Lynette. I do know a couple of people who have studied theology formally, in a graduate program. One obstacle is that some programs want someone of a particular religious persuasion. Another obstacle is that so much of the material you would be studying in such a program is of marginal relevance for a Latter-day Saint, since we reject so many of the assumptions traditional theology has been based on. Plus your point about employment is very relevant as well. Also, I have heard that some theology programs don’t actually take religious authority terribly seriously. I don’t know if this is true, but if it is, then it would be annoying for a sincere LDSaint, and diminish the value of the program for her. So, lots of factors making a really satisfying outcome for a LDSaint in a theology grad program seem dicey.

  20. Hey, Ben. I should have mentioned in my earlier question, which I dashed off rather quickly, that I actually am studying academic theology (and in fact, we’ve met, though I’m going by my middle name here on the bloggernacle.) So I’m kind of fascinated to see so many people who are interested in doing LDS theological work of some sort not choose the route of theology to get there. My experience in the field has been quite positive overall, but I definitely agree with you that there are some real challenges as well.

  21. Mark,

    I’m at a point in life where I find it difficult to take the pursuit of correct theology very seriously anymore. It seems to me that no matter what ingenuis soterological construct one comes up with–if it has any merit at all–it is going to hang on the linchpin of love. To date, no vigorous investigation into the “mysteries” has ever helped me to become a better christian. And until I find myself becoming a better christian because of a correct understanding of God’s laws, I’m just going to have to rely on what feels good. And what feels good most of the time is being loving toward others.

  22. I should say tho that I’m not against theological studies per se–especially if they serve to debunk those ideas that tend to lead to a burdensome religiosity.

  23. Jack #26-27: Can’t we ask the same questions you are raising about any doctrine in the church? And why study the scriptures if we can read talks in the Ensign or other publications that are more motivational? I’m asking sincerely b/c this is a question I don’t have a great answer for. I like studying scriptures carefully and reading theology and philosophy, but I’m not sure I have a good argument for why doing these things is beneficial (prophets have told us to study the scriptures, but you seem to be saying that the why is only related to how they help motivate us; although I think that knowledge that matters is inextricably tied to our actions, I don’t think our actions can be separated from our search for knowledge and truth, particularly in the scriptures…).

  24. Jack,

    Of course love is the cardinal law of the gospel. However, theology is what one might call the science of salvation. And as has often been said the road to hell is paved with good intentions (such as immature and naive expressions of love of which the French revolution is an adequate example).

    Everything about the higher structures of the kingdom of God from the orders of the priesthood to the biology of the human body has some relationship to love and how best to adminster it in the real world such that souls are saved and exalted rather than remain in their natural state or worse.

    Can you imagine how many volumes might be written about the details of the relationship between the body and the spirit for example? I understand the body to be nearly as sophisticated a creation as the kingdom of God itself – at some level they are self similar, because among other things the (spirit) body is designed for spritual communion with the society of heaven, a level of unity we only get glimpses of here on earth. It is also clearly designed to discipline our character, magnifying our natural capacities when we follow the law and weakening them when we do not.

    So in a sense the law of God is written in our hearts, and when we follow the Spirit a greater law is written in our hearts and mind, until we are purified having knowledge, habits and inclinations like that of our Lord and Savior, being made ready for any assignment the Lord may see fit to grant us.

    Now that all sounds like abstraction, but I would say that it involves the greatest feat of engineering in history – the design of the human body, a body of such great potential that it is like unto the glorious body of the Lord Jesus Christ, according to the working whereby he is able to subdue all things.

    And that is just the beginning of theology as we know it – everything fundamental about the science of law, language, philosophy, social organization, administration, diplomacy, leadership, economics, education, politics, culture, and so on is a necessary part of the plan of salvation, among many other things we do not understand.

    So if one has any academic interests in the “soft” sciences at all, it seems that theology is the best place to start. And surely if theology does not seem to lead to any answers, one has not dug deep enough, because it should give answers to every fundamental question in all of those fields, or salvation would be impossible.

  25. Ben–

    Thanks for your really great responses. As I said, I am something of a diletante with regard to mormon theology, so most of your suggestions were indeed new to me–and I’ll take them up once I can tell myself that I’m not completely behind the dissertation (international relations) 8-ball!

    Of course, this also reveals, perhaps, the superficiality of my encounter with mormon theology…something that became more clear to me once I followed some of the links in the message at the top this evening. Perhaps there is more contemporary mormon theology than I thought. Most of my exposure to ‘mormon studies’ had been rather hit-or-miss: looking at a few random issues of Dialogue or BYU studies in the library here and there, looking around on the internet from time to time (and hitting places like FARMS)–so that’s what characterized my views. But it would seem that perhaps there is more.

    So, thank you–and perhaps I’ll say more once I’ve looked into these pieces–


    Jack (in re: 26), I sympathize with you in the sense that trying to explain the mysteries of god, as such, may not help us be better christians. But what about trying to better understand the nature of a reality with a sometimes mysterious God? Or how God is trying to use these mysteries to reach or teach us things that we might otherwise miss? Or how he uses these to try to reveal things to us? Or how we can better use an understanding of his relationship with us to better understand how we can better understand his will for us? What about trying to understand what that love really is, and what it is not? These, too, are questions of theology (indeed, our catholic friend Benedict’s first encyclical, caritas, was about the nature of love), ones that may yet have relevance to you.

  26. Jack, I agree–there can be a serious disconnect between the study of theology and actual Christian practice. You can’t really understand something like charity by writing a paper on it; you have to live it.

    However, I do think that theology inevitably plays some role in informing that practice–your understanding of who God is and how God relates to the world, for example, is going to influence how you see the world and how you live your life. Though I dabble at times in the more abstract stuff, I’m particularly interested in theological topics (like grace) that, at least for me, seem intertwined with lived experience.

    Also (and maybe this gets at the question Robert C. raised), I think that theology when done well, like literature or philosophy or art or music, enriches my experience of being human, makes me think about new questions, leads me to see the world in a new way.

  27. Wow, was it something I said? Three great responses from three really smart people.

    Let me just say that I don’t think it is correct theology that leads us along in the “right way.” It is simply doing what God tells us to do. So when we read about justification and sanctification (for example) in the D&C (or elsewhere) what we have–more than sign posts that point to a destination–are reference points that serve as an aid to the faithful by helping them recognize where they’re at on the road to (or of) salvation. Salvation is a “real-time” experience.

    PS. Mark, I’ve always loved the body/kingdom analogue–still abstract, but love it nonetheless.

  28. Wow, a fourth responder!

    I left this screen up during our family scripture study so I didn’t see your comment, Lynnette, until after I posted mine.

    You say: “I think that theology when done well, like literature or philosophy or art or music, enriches my experience of being human, makes me think about new questions, leads me to see the world in a new way.”

    Very well said. Thus applied, theology (as well as the other pursuits you mention) becomes an intrinsic manifestation of the “living word.” It *is* the gospel as such.

  29. Jack,

    But how does God know what to tell us to do? In the most general sense theology and divinity are part and parcel of the same problem. And indeed one that can only be serious of one understand the laws and ordinances of heaven to be instituted, not primarly a collection of unauthored Platonic realities.

    BTW, I didn’t invent the body/kingdom parallel – it is relatively common in the scriptures, and is considered by many to be a quasi-mystical part of the mysteries of godliness. All I can say it is related to the most fundamental synecdoche in the New Testament, one we can reverse engineer from what Paul says about the body of Christ (there are other mostly apocryphal sources, some wildly off track, some appearing to have a semblance of truth). Jesus himself hints at some symbolic parallel when he said that “the kingdom of God is within you”.

    Also worth noting, Hobbes made precisely the same analogy between a kingdom and a artificial or synthetic man in the opening pages of Leviathan. Of course he was a monarchist. I would hate my right arm rising in rebellion against me. I would have to cut it off and grow a new one.

  30. Mark: “But how does God know what to tell us to do?” By having “been there and done that.”

    And yes I know you didn’t invent that analogy–tho I like the way you articulate it. I began putting together a similar model about fifteen years ago and, so far, it’s still holding up (in my mind).

  31. As I indicated earlier, theology doesn’t substitute for preaching. Like Lynette, I think when theology is done really well, it can be very edifying and motivating. That takes some serious talent, though, so I wouldn’t base my claim that theology is worthwhile on its being like that as a rule.

    Theology is very important not as a substitute for preaching, but because preaching, or whatever you want to call what we usually do in church meetings (“edificational discourse”?), is based in part on theology. Theological views are expressed in preaching, explicitly and implicitly. A good Sunday School teacher doesn’t teach a lesson based on a Bible commentary, but may consult one and use it to strengthen a lesson. Similarly, a good Sunday School teacher may find it useful to read theology, to enrich the pallette of ideas, or sharpen ideas that will be at work in the lesson.

  32. Jack,

    I believe the testimony of the scriptures is clear that the first man Adam (not necessarily the one we know) was the first man to gain a (spirit) body of the sort we know have in all of eternity. That is why he is called the first man of all men. And as Adam is many, apparently many others gained bodies at the same time.

    In other words, there was no precise prior experience for the first estate – no one had ever before had a body with two eyes and ten fingers. And that fact almost certainly explains why the first estate had such serious problems, leading to the eventual rebellion and explusion of one third of the hosts of heaven.

    Now I know the idea that all things have been the same since the (non-existent) beginning is the dominant theory out there, but it has enormous theological and philosophical problems – it is Platonist to extremes, it denies the divine power and creativity of God, it leads inevitably to the particular problems of Orson Pratt’s theory with regard to the divine attributes, it teaches idea of necessary transgression, it makes the context of the war in heaven and the fall of Lucifer almost unexplainable, and on and on.

    So in short, if we should wonder what the divine council was doing during whatever endless eons of time preceded the first estate, my answer is that they were developing theology in the most general sense – the social science of the eternities. Brigham Young taught the eternal progression of souls. I agree, but one more concept taught all over the scriptures – the eternal progression of civilization. Not serial development of persons or couples, but the collective development of all of eternity. I see descendancy not as a infinite backward chain with no beginning, but rather as the backbone whereby the Lord God of heaven saith to Israel: Stand up and be a people!

  33. Mark,

    I’m not all-together unsimpathetic to your views on premortal life. The biggest hitch, though, that I see in your approach is that God will not have developed enough empathy for those who will endure the ordeals of salvation. I don’t think we can have complete trust in him while fearing that he may be lacking in experience with regard to the pains of mortal life.

    That said, you may be right in suggesting that the expansion of the heavenly society (body) may be a work in progress in terms of working at continuing to “get it right.” (if I’m reading you correctly) But that doesn’t mean that God isn’t one step ahead of his children in terms of experience in the process.

  34. Jack,

    I am quite in agreement with what Joseph Smith said in the King Follett discourse about our Heavenly Father being an exalted Man. Or as I should say there is no member of the divine council that can or will retain his position save he take upon mortality and perform his appointed mission in the plan of salvation, of which the condescension of our Lord and Savior is a type.

    That means quite plainly that he whom the Hebrew scriptures refer to as El Elyon, or the Most High, the presiding member of the divine concert, and primary author of the plan of salvation, must needs take upon mortality and perform his role in the plan the same as all the others. Otherwise (among other things) he would have no way of obtaining a glorified resurrected (or appropriately translated) body nor would he be worthy of continued presidency in divine council save he suffer and sacrifice in the same manner as all the rest.

    Now some have concluded that means that he came down to some world in the meridian of time and performed exactly the same role, down to the letter, as our Lord Jesus. I do not believe this is what Joseph Smith was trying to convey. In fact, the King Follett Discourse has a tri-part parallel between the Father, the Son, and each of us.

    It really ought to be clear from what the Prophet said about the semantics of the term Elohim that “the Father” is used in two parallel but fundamentally different senses in the scriptures, and “the Son” also, the apparent ignorance or misinterpretation of which I believe lead to all the fundamental errors of the Adam-God theory (which is resolvable only as metaphor following the pattern of Moses 1:34 making Adam many all over the place and not just one man (at a time) per world, but that is almost certainly not what Brigham Young intended, unless he was far more clever than anyone has given him credit for. If I recall, he was operating under the previous assumption that Elohim also was a name-title-mantle held only by one exalted figure per world, which is also incorrect. A moderately cursory examination of the patriarchal order of the priesthood, the gospel of Abraham, and Elijah and the way the sealing power is manifest from the heavens for the redemption of those who wander should easily convince one otherwise.)

    Jesus quoted the Psalms 82 with regard to the following scripture:

    “I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High. But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes. Arise, O God, judge the earth: for thou shalt inherit all nations” (Ps 82:6-8).

    Now the first reference to divinity is plural, the last singular. But we certainly error if we conclude that the last is an individual, rather than Elohim.

    In Hebrew (with left to right word order): “quwm elohim shaphat erets nachal gowy”.

    Here is Isaiah:

    Awake, awake; put on thy strength, O Zion; put on thy beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city: for henceforth there shall no more come into thee the uncircumcised and the unclean. Shake thyself from the dust; arise, and sit down, O Jerusalem: loose thyself from the bands of thy neck, O captive daughter of Zion.
    (Isa 52:1-2)

    And what did Joseph Smith have to say in answer to a question about these two verses?:

    He had reference to those whom God should call in the last days, who should hold the power of priesthood to bring again Zion, and the redemption of Israel; and to put on her strength is to put on the authority of the priesthood, which she, Zion, has a right to by lineage; also to return to that power which she had lost.

    We are to understand that the scattered remnants are exhorted to return to the Lord from whence they have fallen; which if they do, the promise of the Lord is that he will speak to them, or give them revelation. See the 6th, 7th, and 8th verses. The bands of her neck are the curses of God upon her, or the remnants of Israel in their scattered condition among the Gentiles.

    Contrary to some commentary, at least half of all the non-imminent prophecies in the Old Testment refer to this event, which though it be a type of the whole second estate, is to be fufilled in the latter part of the dispensation of the fulness of times prior to the return of the Son of God in glory.

    This is an event that every prophet since the world the world began has looked forward in anticipation to, part and parcel of the transformation of the world from a state of telestial to terrestrial glory:

    And now, saith the LORD that formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob again to him, Though Israel be not gathered, yet shall I be glorious in the eyes of the LORD, and my God shall be my strength.

    And he said, It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth.

    Thus saith the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel, and his Holy One, to him whom man despiseth, to him whom the nation abhorreth, to a servant of rulers, Kings shall see and arise, princes also shall worship, because of the LORD that is faithful, and the Holy One of Israel, and he shall choose thee.
    (Isa 49:5-7)

    Now due to several principles taught in the scriptures, notably the nature of the name of Christ and the mantle of the Holy Priesthood, it hardly matters who this is, whether he be Jesus or Joseph or another type of Christ. The point is that in the latter part of the latter days, he shall say unto Jacob: Stand up, and so he shall. And to Jerusalem and to the city of Zion and so she shall.

    Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the LORD; awake, as in the ancient days, in the generations of old. Art thou not it that hath cut Rahab, and wounded the dragon?
    (Is 51:9)

    The arm of the LORD is the Priesthood:

    Break forth into joy, sing together, ye waste places of Jerusalem: for the LORD hath comforted his people, he hath redeemed Jerusalem. The LORD hath made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.

    Depart ye, depart ye, go ye out from thence, touch no unclean thing; go ye out of the midst of her; be ye clean, that bear the vessels of the LORD. For ye shall not go out with haste, nor go by flight: for the LORD will go before you; and the God of Israel will be your rereward.
    (Isa 52:11-12)

  35. Mark,

    #41…really late, early, or rushed? Was that a sampling of LDS “theology”?

    Mauro Properzi! Good to hear him doing good things. Really good kid whose dream for years was to attend BYU. Hung out with the missionaries quite a bit. It would be nice to see his paper.

  36. Mark,

    I agree, mostly. I think the “standing up” that you refere to need not be an “event” at all–at least from our mortal perspective–though it will always be a singular event to the individual.

    Isaiah 10:

    17And the light of Israel shall be for a fire, and his Holy One for a flame: and it shall burn and devour his thorns and his briers in one day;


    20 ¶ And it shall come to pass in that day, that the remnant of Israel, and such as are escaped of the house of Jacob, shall no more again stay upon him that smote them; but shall stay upon the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, in truth.

    The “day” spoken of in these verses might easily be an entire millennium in length–and then some.

  37. Grego,

    I can hold my own in metaphysics quite well, but that is not the focus of virtually any of the scriptures, for reasons that should be apparent to anyone familiar with the concept of a true and living God, rather than the unembodied, dead and apathetic one.

    Now if you have a specific problem with what I said, or can show why I am ignorant or in error with regard to what I said, speak up and I will be in your debt. But if you can’t do anything but cast aspersions, why say anything at all?

  38. Jack (#44), I agree in general of course. However I believe the prophecy most specifically refers to the Lord’s strange act in the transition period between the world’s telestial and terrestrial state, an act that will begin with the opening of the seventh seal (after the fulness of the Gentiles has come in) and will end (roughly) with the coming of the Lord in glory:

    What are we to understand by the sounding of the trumpets, mentioned in the 8th chapter of Revelation?

    A. We are to understand that as God made the world in six days, and on the seventh day he finished his work, and sanctified it, and also formed man out of the dust of the earth, even so, in the beginning of the seventh thousand years will the Lord God sanctify the earth, and complete the salvation of man, and judge all things, and shall redeem all things, except that which he hath not put into his power, when he shall have sealed all things, unto the end of all things; and the sounding of the trumpets of the seven angels are the preparing and finishing of his work, in the beginning of the seventh thousand years—the preparing of the way before the time of his coming.

    Q. When are the things to be accomplished, which are written in the 9th chapter of Revelation?

    A. They are to be accomplished after the opening of the seventh seal, before the coming of Christ.
    (D&C 77:12-13)

    Or as Paul wrote:

    For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in.

    And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob: For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins.
    (Rom 11:25-27)

    Now that isn’t theology in the contemporary sense at all – it is prophecy, which when done properly will beat theology in a contest any day of the week and twice on Sunday, at least so long as this world shall last.

    Mark Noll wrote a very nice book called The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind which in my opinion had only one serious weakness – he thought dispensationalism was silliness. That is precisely the attitude that makes the majority of modern scholarship on books like Isaiah (not to mention the whole New Testament) a dead letter from the start – a disbelief in the spirit of prophecy.

    So if Mormon studies is going to mean following the standards of secular academia, it will be crippled before leading the starting gate. There is nothing but the spirit of the Holy Ghost that can make the scriptures mean anything particularly valuable to the natural man.

  39. Mark Butler,

    If you would like to debate your statements, head on over to FAIR and start a thread. Here, I prefer to discuss good things, not debate like that. From your response, I guess it was one of those three…

  40. Grego,

    I can’t debate my own position. You are the one who implied what I said was utterly worthless. I would be happy to create a post on the subject at Millennial Star if you would like an opportunity to say why.

  41. Mark,

    Yes–as birth and death “bookends” mortality so are there definite thresholds in the layout (or narrative) of the Kingdom. But even so, if we take baptism as an analogue of birth and apply it to the birth of the cosmic body of Christ, then what we get is an image (on a macro-level) of the Kingdom slowly rising out of the waters of chaos. So to the Lord’s “strange act” may playout in such a way so as to make it difficult for the individual to get a fix on just how expansive the forrest is for all the trees.

  42. Jack,

    One note well recognized analog is the sense that spirit birth corresponds to the resurrection. So well one might have preached in the first estate – “Except a man be born of water and of Spirit, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

    One more thing that might be relevant here. There are probably far more members of the Church like me who do not have Ph.D.s, who hardly know a smattering of Greek and Hebrew if that, and who are not well practiced in the discipline of the professional scholar. And if our field were apologetics in the sense that FARMS is engaged in – writing ninety page treatises on the history of ex nihilo creation (as Blake Ostler has so eloquently done) or many other scholarly matters of archeaology or apologetics, we should have almost nothing to say.

    That is a wonderful thing and well appreciated (I should hope) by all. But how many of our Lord’s prophets had doctors of divinity, let alone of any other field? And without such a formal education how did they ever have anything worth saying. I can’t imagine they impressed the doctors of the East all that much. But it seems to me that anyone who walks in the path of discipleship and is dedicated in the study of the scriptures can learn how to read them, even far better than the host of those (especially strangers) applying the lowest common denominator constraints of secular scholarship. It is like Nephi said – the words of Isaiah are plain unto all those who are filled with the spirit of prophecy.

    Now I should hardly claim to know the meaning of all things, but there are certain parts of the scriptures that seem as plain as day in ways that are difficult to establish by the standards of deductive analysis. How can one write a paper on such things – the typical paper of this sort primarily draws parallels between the scriptures and some other apocryphal document, neither of which are typically theo-logical in the contemporary Western sense, but often speculative in the extreme.

    Frankly it drives me crazy that Mormon studies types are willing to give more credence to apocryphal documents (however bizarre or corrupted) the older they are tinged with antiquity. Now I claim the ability or at least the potential of writing apocryphal documents with the best of them, like them my words are not scripture, let alone canon, so why is it that the strange almost inevitably speculative quasi-prophetic commentary on the scriptures by the paleo-lunatics of ages past get all the press, and no one bothers to consider the possibility that some of us ridiculously non-scholarly types of the here and now have something possibly inspired to say about the meaning of scripture, even if there is a equally high or higher possibility that what we say is in error in unusually bizarre ways, just as all the apocrypha from the past, including some of our own very recent past? Is there such thing as an apocryphal consensus?

  43. Your first paragraph is quite interesting especially when coupled with Moses 6:59-60. It gives one pause as to how many layers of interpretation have yet to be discovered.

    As to the second part of your comment–

    As one who never really graduated from high school, I’m a little hesitant to jump on board for fear of coming across as having a voracious appetite for sour grapes. But even so, I concur–the spirit of prophecy trumps all–though I’m all for anything that debunks harmful interpretations even if it means that “speculative quasi-prophetic commentary on the scriptures by the paleo-lunatics of ages past get[s] all the press.”

  44. –not to say that “speculative quasi-prophetic commentary on the scriptures by the paleo-lunatics of ages past” must always trump the speculative quasi-prophetic commentary on the scriptures by the neo-lunatics of the present merely because it’s “paleo.”

  45. In my experience it is not hard at all to distinguish between the product of a wild imagination and a true key to scriptural intrepretation, becuase pursuing the former leads to nothing but confusion, and the latter once revealed seems manifest all over the scriptures, making dozens if not hundreds of previously mysterious passages come to light.

    One does not need to cross reference the apocryphal corpus of the ages to see that. As for myself, I have generally avoided the apocrypha with a passion, for fear of being being corrupted or even confused by false doctrines. I believe the scriptures are more than adequate to establish all these things, though the TPJS is a major help. Other than that I have yet to read a book that was more help than hindrance – there are few things more frustrating than to listen to to two authorities that contradict each other in unresolvable ways (even given all the classic synecdochal transformations). So hardly anything beyond the Canon and the most contemporary statements for me.

  46. Jack, I never graduated from high school at all, although I do have a college degree in Physics (early admission). Haven’t missed my high school diploma yet. I don’t have anything against more formal scholarship, I am just not that confident that the more formal, traditional, scholarly process of theology is very effective, except it be conducted in a veritable school of the prophets. And how do you get a Ph.D. in that?

  47. Mark,

    The canon isn’t always so clear to me. I think it comes to us sometimes as one end of a conversation. While we are able to surmise the gist of canon, I don’t think we are necessarily able to glean enough information so as to formulate a flawless soterological construct by it. IMO, what we get from the “gist” is that God will teach us (personally) of his ways if we allow him to–and even that isn’t always so easy to figure out by appealing to the scriptures alone.


    Did you mean to thank grego for comment #43?

  48. just a bit on mauro properzi… he IS a great guy AND scholar, to boot. married one of my closest friends from high school, lives overseas, and just welcomed the birth of his first child, isabella.

  49. just a bit on mauro properzi… he IS a great guy AND scholar, to boot. married one of my closest friends from high school, lives overseas, and just welcomed the birth of his first child, isabella.

  50. Jack,

    Any diligent theological inquiry (which should include a reasonable pursuit of the primary ideas of the secular arts and sciences as well – not all things are equally plausible or equally elegant) should converge on a theological model or understanding. Then that model should be tested by comparison through diligent comparison to every scriptural principle available.

    If there is any scripture, particularly a significant scripture, that makes no sense or seems like a rhetorical flourish in the context of that model – it is a sure sign that something is lacking. And in my experience that very scripture often contains the key to how to repair or even re-construct one’s own understanding so that it more properly reflects the scriptures.

    However, not all reconciliations are equally likely – something that is positively magical is very likely to need explanation from more detailed principles of the gospel. Of course not all miracles are equally significant. But a suffering Atonement makes no sense in a world of magicians. Things we do not understand seem like magic, but magic is fatal to theology.

    The other major signs of inferior theology include reductionism, inelegance, incoherence, a cult of irrationality, excessive and irregular complexity, lots of just so / stop gap explanations that are not found in the scriptures themselves, and so on.

    Now of course as a mortal man of little significance, I can hardly say my understanding is flawless. I can say that it is coherent and agreeable to the testimony of the scriptures and the principles of righteousness. Beyond that others have to judge for themselves.

    Of course I quote scriptures all the time without giving all the reasons for why I interpret them that way. One cannot exactly fit a dissertation into a web log comment. Nor do many consider all the pertinent errata of good theology all that interesting to read. But just because an explanation is not laid out in plain terms, does not mean an author is necessarily proof-texting.

    I regularly use everything I know about economics, and physics, and biology, and ethics, and law, and metaphysics, etc. as a plausibility check on theological possibilities – but I cannot use those ideas to demonstrate that a doctrinal principle is correct – that is what the scriptures are for – the scriptures had better testify of any significant principle in any theology, or that principle is not likely to be true, or to be particularly significant at all. My general rule is never to speak of principles that I do not know how to demonstrate from the scriptures, even if years pass in between suggestion and (likely) confirmation.

    There are other reasons for that – most appropriately corresponding to all the reasons why there are more natural theologies than one can shake a stick at. We need the scriptures (i.e. revelation) to learn what we can of what God’s theology is. And it is quite apparent that His theology is getting more sophisticated with the passage of time, if one takes an eternal perspective. That is why we call it the new and everlasting covenant, for example, because (as the author of Hebrews says) it is better than the old one, a better covenant founded on better promises (and no doubt a rather more subtle soteriology).

  51. “But, hey, lets have some fun while we still can–before a knowledge of the “mysteriesâ€? takes all the zest out of life. ”

    Mysteries of godliness are more fun once you know them. Its not the mystery that makes them exciting.

  52. Although in my view getting to know them is more about experience and ordinance than it is theological ratiocination.

  53. “…getting to know [the mysteries] is more about experience and ordinance…”

    I fully agree.

    Mark & Adam, just to clarity–

    My use of scare quotes with the word “mysteries” was to imply that we sometimes rush too quickly to uncover the so called “mysteries” thereby ending our little game of mortal “hide and go seek” prematurely. No fun! We close the gospel patent office believing that our “new” enlightened theology has finally circumscribed all (only to learn within a mere five or ten years that our theological book is already out-dated). And what really takes the zest out of life is when theologist-wannabees start publishing books like “Drawing on the Powers of Heaven” thereby lashing unnecessary theological burdens upon the backs of those poor souls who are still groping in the dark, still unacquainted with the “mysteries.” No fun at all.


    I agree generally with your comment (#59). However, though it is true that our theology must be in line with the scriptures, any honest inquiry into the ways of God will make one a slave of the spirit of prophecy and revelation. Without those two, the scriptures will continue to be ravished with the best of intentions by those who seek to justify an erroneous theology–however unwittingly.

  54. Jack, I agree. As Peter said:

    Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.
    (2 Pet 1:20-21)

    This does not mean that only apostles can prophesy. It does mean that there is only one comprehensive interpretation of any prophecy – and that is given by the Holy Ghost. Ironically, those who prophesy (all interpretation is attempted prophecy) without the Spirit teach us more about themselves or the the culture they are embedded in than they do about the true meaning of the scriptures.

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