Review: First Principles and Ordinances

first principlesI’m going to say some nice things about Sam Brown’s First Principles and Ordinances: The Fourth Article of Faith in Light of the Temple, published in 2014 by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute. But first some background. This short book (153 pages of text) is part of the Maxwell Institute’s Living Faith series, which also includes Adam Miller’s Letters to a Young Mormon. What I like about both books is that they take a relentlessly positive approach to the LDS doctrines and principles they discuss but avoid the oversimplified discussion that has become the norm for the LDS curriculum and mainstream LDS books. These are books directed at the intelligent Mormon reader.

In our little corner of the book world, books that promise to make the Book of Mormon easier or that fictionalize LDS history (smoothing out unwelcome facts and difficult episodes) prove very popular. But what we all need are books that make the Book of Mormon harder and that present unfictionalized LDS history, warts and all. And we also need books like those in the Living Faith series that combine deep scholarly reflection with a positive perspective on and engagement with LDS doctrines and principles. The official blurb in the back of the book does a better job defining this goal than I can:

Living Faith books are for readers who cherish the life of the mind and the things of the Spirit. Each title is a unique example of faith in search of understanding, the voice of a scholar who has cultivated a believing heart while engaged in the disciplines of the Academy.

Now something about the book. It was my take-to-church book for a few months. “First Principles and Ordinances” is a safer book to haul around than … well, most other LDS books on my shelf. The author, a medical doctor and researcher, combines his reflections and analysis of first principles and the temple with his own experiences and anecdotes, all of them compelling. If you have to sit through a boring conference dinner, this is the guy you want at your table. Maybe it’s blogging, maybe it’s the new journalism, maybe it’s the Internet, author sites, and online author interviews — but these days we expect authors to share something of themselves in their writing. These Living Faith books present not just the voice of a scholar but the personal voice of a scholar.

Chapter 1, “Faith, Fidelity, Faithfulness,” argues for faith that is “active rather than passive, to highlight the role of choice and conscious commitment in religious belief” (p. 13). That faith activity is more like a relationship than a bunch of affirmed religious beliefs or facts. When you think about it, the arc of faith over time, with its ups and downs, does resemble the arc of a marriage or a friendship over time. Unsurprisingly, the author rejects the faith and works dichotomoy. I like this observation: “We have tended to think of good works as constituting the product of Christ’s influence on us. But we are the final product, not our good works” (p. 34).

Chapter 2, “Repentance, Atonement, Community,” depicts repentance as “a story about community, about healing relationships” (p. 44). He does note that in the New Testament repentance is a change of heart, not the LDS view of repentance as frequent reflection on daily personal sins in need of correction. “Metanoia, repentance, was a change in the nonphysical elements of a person, a change in identity made possible by Jesus” (p. 45). I like this observation: “We allow ourselves to love theoretically, hypothetically, while we let ourselves hate specifically and fervently” (p. 64). Yes, I think we tell ourselves to love the sinner but hate the sin when in fact we hate them both. Repentance (the New Testament change of heart kind) should exorcise this kind of hatred.

A chapter on ordinances as such, with lots of interesting body stuff. Doctors dig bodies. A chapter on baptism, arguing against the “clean-slate concept” in which “God and angels view us as persons of interest in an ongoing police investigation” (p. 95). Baptism is “not an eraser intermittently wiping a slate clean but a birth certificate announcing: these are my parents, and I am their child” (p. 105). Again, it’s about relationships.

Chapter 5, “The Gift of the Holy Ghost,” is very good. Let me comment a bit first. The chapter implicity invites the reader to ponder this largely mysterious member of the LDS Godhead, the God with no name. Let’s call him or her Alma. Alma doesn’t have a body, yet is embodied after a fashion, a “material spirit” (p. 113). Alma’s spirit-ness (rather than physical materiality) is held to be necessary for Alma to have universal influence and to influence millions of individuals in different places simultaneously. That idea suggests the LDS physically embodied God the Father could not do such a thing, but what supports placing such a limitation on God’s power? And if God the Father’s physical embodiment limits such a power, how does Alma’s spiritual embodiment as a “material spirit” not limit that power? LDS doctrine also recognizes a Spirit of Christ or Light of Christ (see Moroni 7) that has universal effect. If this force proceeds from a physically embodied resurrected Christ, that contradicts the rationale for the Holy Ghost not being physically embodied. Alternatively, we could recognize the Light of Christ as a free-standing force somehow related to the Godhead but not tied to a particular personage, but then why not consider the effects of the Holy Ghost to likewise be such a divine force but not a person? [The Lectures on Faith describes the Holy Ghost in just such a fashion.] According to the author, Joseph Smith depicted Alma as “the junior member of a non-Trinitarian Godhead,” which still sounds pretty good on a resume but “junior member” probably causes mainstream Christians to foam at the mouth. See “The Development of the Concept of a Holy Ghost in Mormon Theology,” by Vern G. Swanson (in Line Upon Line: Essays on Mormon Doctrine, Signature Books, 1989, p. 89-101) for a brief review of the variety of LDS thinking on this topic.

The author doesn’t directly address these puzzling points of doctrine. Instead, he highlights and contrasts the individual and the communal experience of the Holy Ghost. Individual: “There are elements of our experience of the Spirit that are intensely private. Occasions of spiritual clarity represent the most intensely personal experiences of our lives …” (p. 114). Communal: “We individual saints are the body of Christ, and a collective spirit matches that collective body. … The Holy Ghost contains within itself the paradoxical elements of our experience of community” (p. 116). He contrasts the gift of the Holy Ghost as an ordinance with the spiritually embodied Holy Ghost and with our collective experience thereof. The author closes with a section titled “The Holy Ghost and Mental Illness,” a discussion of several pages that focuses on depression and anxiety disorders. This section will no doubt be deeply moving to anyone who suffers from mental illness or who has a family member thus afflicted. I’ve read a lot of Mormon books and pretty much nobody wants to talk about mental illness — it doesn’t fit our paradigm. Brown delivers the most insightful, compassionate discussion of that topic from an LDS perspective that I have encountered.

The last chapter, “Everything Speaks of the Temple,” features a nice discussion of the development of LDS temple ordinances, from D&C 88 (1832) through the Kirtland Temple (1836) to Joseph’s mature Nauvoo theology of the 1840s. He talks about the idea of sealing, which does not mean some sort of spiritual adhesive but instead refers to a mark of identification or ratification. [From Barron’s law dictionary: A seal was, “at common law, an impression placed on a document and having legal effect,” and a sealed instrument was “one that is signed and has the seal of the signer attached.”] So, following this metaphor, a marriage that is sealed has received God’s mark or seal and will be acknowledged as valid before God. A nice corollary of this metaphor, not noted by the author, is that “unsealed” marriages are not necessarily of no effect before God, they just require additional evidence to be declared valid. An all-knowing God presumably has all the evidence that could bear on the question. Perhaps all marriages, sealed or not, will be potentially valid in the hereafter. The sealing metaphor so central to the LDS view of temple marriage at least leaves open that possibility.

A lot of content is packed into this short book. It deserves a second reading to pick up what was missed the first time around. I think every reader’s view of LDS first principles and of the temple will be expanded from the ideas presented in the book. Let’s hope the Living Faith series provides additional volumes that do more of the same.

4 comments for “Review: First Principles and Ordinances

  1. I agree whole-heartedly with Dave’s comments here. I love this book and give it to others often. Its a more personal statement of what Sam Brown has written elsewhere (in his Oxford book).

  2. Thanks for the review. Your observations on the holes in the LDS doctrine of the Holy Ghost are spot on. Does anyone anywhere? Is this some kind of folk doctrine that needs to be seriously rethought?

  3. Thanks for the comments, everyone. I hope that other readers who have read this short book come back and weigh in with comments.

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