Book of Mormon Theology in Its Secular Context

by: Ashby D Boyle 2d, Meridian U.S. Supreme Court Correspondent. Professor of Constitutional Studies, Religion and Society at George Wythe University

A Prophetic Permission

To paraphrase the Prophet-Theologian John Taylor, “Not every Mormon need be a Technically-equipped Theologian.  Every Mormon is a theologian in their own fashion.  But Technically-equipped theologians must be ready for defense of the Book of Mormon.”

This article, taking President Taylor’s insight as its permit, is another call for more Mormon theologians who are willing to become “bilingual” in the academic dialect of professional theology.  Why?   For the double reasons of:  (1) Why not?  And (2) to articulate the message of the Restoration. 

For the hour may be later than we think.

The Need to Think of Personal Ways to Oppose Our Decaying Culture’s Neglect and Attack on Our Eternal Happiness in the ‘Here and now’

Sensitive scholars speak of our time as “the new dark ages.”

Secularization has been characterized as a process of removing from a society its foundational basis of any theistic belief.  For the Secularist, contra Hymn 214, (“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”), God is dead, and He doth sleep.

With the death of God die too the projects of the self in any sustainable way.

The concept of overcoming and improving ourselves in the secular scheme is empty, now held to nothing but “empty self-questioning and arbitrary self-assertion.”  Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, II: 75.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell in his apostolic ministry warned us repeatedly that society needs God, that humanism lacks the moral energy to sustain such basic goods as the social discipline for cooperative action.

Now, it is observed, that damned and dooming process of secularization has run its logical course and is complete.  What we have in today’s society is not a process of secularization, but a through-and-through secularized society which scholars such as Charles Taylor, John Milbank, Robert George and A.D. Boyle have dubbed (more or less), “Secularity.”

Secularity has engulfed our culture, and with it scriptural illiteracy in American culture has given way to a socially fashionable agnosticism.  Paul, John, George and Ringo are popularly supposed to be the names of the Four Gospels.  The Lord’s Prayer has become offensive to secular authority.

The Scriptures since James Madison and the other Fathers of the Constitution had once been presupposed as the social glue that holds our constitutional culture together.  But this scriptural glue is manifestly in shorter supply as each year passes.

God has been evicted from all but local governmental public places by the Courts, and at this very moment the Supremes are weighing in judgment local legislative governmental diversity of prayer.

Religion if ever expressed is increasingly impolite “speech” in high culture and society.  You have the right to private thoughts only if religious.  And so our Church like every American Church finds itself having to proclaim gospel truth from within a scripturally-illiterate context, where Holy Writ has been now far more than just marginalized, as gone from the back of the bus to being “kicked under the bus,” to borrow an expression of speech from secular pundit land.

And even almost all of the pundits and the Justices now are, naturally, secularly-formed in mind and heart.

Secularity removes religion from our culture replacing religion with a vague, unanchored lifestyle of nihilism—the state of believing essentially only in death (and money) and taxes (and money).  It produces a cancerous materialism that leads to unhappiness and in the name of subjective arbitrariness saps our willpower to work.

And so the Brethren in these times have been quick to urge our common cause with other Christians.

A Plan to Survive America’s Loss of Religious Willpower:  America, Meet the Book of Mormon

A loss in society’s religious willpower is a net loss to its available willpower simpliciter.

Many excellent ways exist to make common cause with other religions.  For example, opening the scholarly study of the Book of Mormon, by stating the Book’s Christian doctrines in the technical languages of Christian Theology –and not our only our own Mormon in-group language, may — in my opinion, based on my experience of decades of living among the learned doctors of divinity– is one such “excellent way.”

Surprisingly, many treatises on the Book of Mormon omit Providence, of which I shall write subsequently.

I do not think those authors would do so given only the briefest of refresher courses from early Christian thought and Biblical Scripture, to which I turn next.

Providence in Early Christian Thought

The providence of God in both early Christian thought and in the Book of Mormon refers, generally, to His direction and care over all creation.  It is within theology treated by Catholics as a doctrine of God and by Protestants as a doctrine of Creation.

The early Fathers and Mothers of the Christian Church were wont to turn to the Psalms, among other scriptures.  In discussions of Providence, we find an emergent pattern of citation.  Here is a handy, quick reference of applicable Old and New Testament Scriptures.

Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it; unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.  Psalms 127:1.

Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin?  [T]he very hairs of your head are numbered.  Therefore do not be anxious, do not be fearful:  You are of more value than many sparrows [implying also, a single sparrow still has value to God].  Matt 10:29-31.

Jesus answered, “You could have no power at all against Me, unless it had been given you from above.”  John 19:11.

You ought to say, ‘If the lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.’  James 4:15.

Irenaeus (“I”)

“I” was an early Christian leader who fought ancient secularist heresies of paganism on all fronts.  Living close on to the original generation of Christians, his remarks on Providence bear careful study.  He is not a Doctor of the Church by the reckoning of Roman Catholics, which is fine I am certain, and will –I am also certain — have some dependable reason beside simple oversight, which my younger brother who is a Catholic will be emailing to me once I email to him this article.

In fact, the first “Doctor” by Roman Catholic reckoning, and Doctor of the Church, is a papal designation, was Athanasius, who lived circa 297-373.  We may claim Irenaeus as our own, as if an early Mormon Doctor of the Church.

He wrote at a time when the term “Scripture” had expanded beyond the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible to include the Four Gospels.  “I” wrote in or around the year 180 A.D., in his masterwork, Against Heresies, that:

“God rules over men and Satan too.  In fact, without the will of our Father in heaven not even a sparrow falls to the ground.

“The will and energy of God is the effective and foreseeing cause of every time, place and age—and of every nature.

“They were convinced [i.e., we, the followers of Christ] that they should call the Maker of this universe the Father, for He exercises a providence over all things and arranges the affairs of our world.

“Not a single thing that has been made, or that will be made, escapes the knowledge of God.  Rather, through his providence, every single thing has obtained its nature, rank, number, and special quality.  Not whatever has been created or is created in vain or by accident.  Instead, everything has been made with precise suitability and through the exercise of transcendent knowledge.”

Clement of Alexandria (“C”)

“C” can be properly called a theologian in the sense intended by President John Taylor.  Preceding in Alexandria perhaps the most interesting Church Father –interesting from the lights of the Restoration (as Truman Madsen once told me)—“C” wrote around the year A.D. 195 that:

“Nothing happens without the will of the Lord of the universe.  It remains to say that such things happen without the prevention of God.  For this alone saves both the providence and the goodness of God.  We must not think that He actively produces afflictions [.]  Rather, we must be persuaded that He does not prevent those beings who cause them.

“The spiritual person is not disturbed by anything that happens.  Nor does he suspect or fear those events that, through divine arrangement, take place for good.

“Although death, disease, and accidents come upon the spiritual person, by the power of God they become the medicine of salvation.  They are allotted according to what is deserved by providence, and providence is truly good.

“Now then, many things in life take their rise in some exercise of human reason, having received the kindling spark from God.

Some examples are:

Health by medicine,

Soundness of body through gymnastics,

And wealth by trade.

Now these things truly have their origin and existence because of divine providence—yet, not without human cooperation as well.”

“There’s Something Happening Here—What It Is Isn’t Exactly Clear”

Perhaps only a few of the readers will remember that song in the caption by a musical group called the Buffalo-Springfield; still, it’s an accurate statement of our modern-day theological situation. What is “not exactly clear” is how we as Mormons can continue to be attacked as not being Christians while other Christian Churches begin to copy and borrow our own distinctive doctrines.

What is also interesting to me is how Mormon doctrine receives so little theological credit among academic theologians.  This would not matter except that it is the professional theologians who advise the heads of Christian Churches if Mormonism is, for example, Christian or not Christian.

Joseph introduced a responsive God when the reigning “classical theism” would not only not hear of it (forgive the rhetorical use of a double negative there), but too often took to the streets outside the Academy.  Within the Academy they erected a prejudice that no Mormon would enter the inner university sanctums of Christian theology.  But this history of persecution has changed and the discrimination described, though still very much a fact of life, is postured right now for change.

For example, an outstanding German Protestant theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, denounces with us Mormons the very concept of having a “systematic” theology, for example, because it falsifies the Scriptures, which bear no theological Greek distortions.  The logic of system wars with the logic of the Scriptures’ narrative.  Story expresses religious truth so much more efficiently than logic-chopping.  Contrary voices to the truth of what I am saying are still heard, as in the following muffled statement.   “One needs in Christian theology both a testimony of Socrates and one of Jesus,” states another distinguished theologian (I paraphrase) named Robert Jenson.  Systematic Theology, II.

But the rightly esteemed Professor Jenson, in interpretation, is himself far from comfortable from his own classical creedal conclusions, and instead feels compelled to concede to them doctrines having just too little to do with the truth as he knows it,  given how the mistress of Neo-Platonist philosophy seduced Christ’s primitive Church so utterly and with such on-going power.

The learned doctrines of the divinity docs too easily create excuses for them not to read the Book of Mormon.  What the world needs now is a learned doctor to proclaim, I have read the Book of Mormon and found it to be thoroughly Christian.

Meanwhile, however, we can still sing together.  And as the actor Jack Nicholson says somewhere in a secular film:  “that ain’t all bad.”

Hymn 214

Each holiday season we sing together one testimony of the whole of the Book of Mormon regarding our reconciliation as we receive it by virtue of God’s responsive and loving nature to the world and its inhabitants. “God is not dead nor doth he sleep.” That means the correct picturing of the relation of God to the cosmos is one of response, of individual personal revelation or discernment.  See generally, The Book of Mormon, Another Testament of Jesus Christ (manifesting generally that God responds to the world and to his children as individuals).

Longfellow’s thought contrast diametrically with Nietzsche’s famous claim that “God is dead,”

God is dead meaning that:  God does not respond to the world and all of us in it.  (And Nietzsche was, even his fans must admit, was a barking showman more than an objective scholar to coin such a Madison Avenue slogan as if from the sacred groves of the Academy.)

The Great Theological Eclipse

We Mormons do not yet fully realize how terribly offensive we are being to our Brother and Sister Catholics when we speak of a “Great Apostasy.”  As Professor Raymond Brown of Union Theological Seminary once explained to me, ‘please know how offensive you sound.’  Point taken.  Ditto the phrase, ‘non-Mormon.’

Point also well taken.

Still, sometime after the 3rd century AD, in Western Christendom, there occurred a great theological eclipse.  God in the thinking of the learned –after Irenaeus and Clement– had become so platonically high in the heavens that His loving response to our loving obedience disappeared in a puff of misguided transcendence.

God was conceived as so utterly transcendent that many at the time and since lost track of the fact that God is completely responsive to the worship, struggles, tragedies and prayers of His children.

The Prophet Joseph, as cited in the Brethren’s millennial Proclamation of the family, properly restored the balance between the transcendence of God with His –the Godhead’s—immanence in Section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants at vv. 24 – 26.

On Mormon-Eastern Orthodox Alliances

Having taught earlier this year in the Ukraine, I have become sensitized to how Eastern Christendom, fortunately, has kept the truth vivid in preparation for its Restoration, things were much different.

There the Church Fathers, though sometimes and because they were actually Greeks, fought the Hellenization threatening to engulf the plan and simple truths taught in the primitive Church of Jesus Christ.  These Fathers spoke of providence and of the influences of the Spirit.  Also not all Hellenization of Christianity are equal, as Justyn Martyr’s is not to be confused with the likes of Augustine—St. Augustine, the tenth Church Doctor of Western (read, apostate) Christendom, for the early Fathers like Justyn fought for the basics of religious truth, too often at the expense of their lives being taken.

By the basics I mean simple truths of His Gospel—that God keeps the world within his powers of love—in each moment of time being responsive, creative, providential, and therefore perfectly trustworthy in His love.  They saw trust as a mature form of faith.  Faith often confronts an uncertain outcome, with fleeting thoughts of hopelessness.  Trust encounters these invitations to despair with a burst of optimism to overcome trials in the Lord.  Trust is more certain coming after faith’s initial encounter with a fresh encouragement yet to be resolved by drawing on one’s faith in the Lord.

A black (or Negro) spiritual summarizes one’s trust in the Lord as promulgated by the Book of Mormon:  He really does have the “little bitty baby in his hands.”

Hear the voice of Mormon: “Oh my beloved son, how can a people like this, that are without civilization [a civilization, Moroni the culture dweller states, that passed away in “only a few years”], [a]nd now not withstanding” civilization’s collapse, “let us labor diligently; for we have a labor to perform whilst in this tabernacle of clay [we are working animals, even if futility stares us back in the face].

“I am laboring [talking] with them continually; and when I speak the word of God [as a worshiper] with sharpness [as the moral agent I am], they tremble and anger against me [.”]

Conclusion:  A Very “Mormon” Atonement

Are Christians Mormons?  That is rapidly replacing the query, Are Mormons Christians?  To answer these questions, we arrive necessarily at the doctrine of the Atonement.  To speak informally, for a Mormon as for a Christian, the Atonement is the ‘whole ball game.’

I mean by that that the Atonement is the theological center, the very heart of the Book’s Christian teachings.

No less a trenchant but finally terribly bigoted critic of Mormon Scripture than Sterling M. McMurrin, while still holding on to the reductionist thesis that the heresies of liberal Christianity were settled LDS doctrines, could still write (albeit in passing) a bona fide tribute to the Book of Mormon’s doctrine on the Atonement.  McMurrin wrote in his Theological Foundation, what may serve us as a conclusion:

“The finest passage in Mormon literature appears in the Book of Mormon itself.”

He then quotes verbatim concerning “the Book of Mormon on redemption and the Atonement” by quoting the Book of Mormon in this way.

“’And thus we see . . . . that all mankind were fallen, and they were in the grasp of justice.’”

“’And now, the plan of mercy could not be brought about except an atonement should be made; therefore God himself atoneth for the sins of the world, to bring about the plan of mercy, to appease the demands of justice, that God might be a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also.”

Of that we can –all of us—rejoice together.

7 thoughts on “Book of Mormon Theology in Its Secular Context

  1. If we are in the midst of “a new dark ages,” as Brother Boyle suggests, he should not place blame on biblical illiteracy, nor on “secularity” (which are but symptoms of a much more severe malady), but rather directly attribute the problem to the result of modern, “technically-equipped theologians” drawing logical conclusions from their correct assessment of the fundamental bases of traditional Muslim-Judeo-Christian theology. Simple reason requires that they (and Nietzsche) declare Got ist tot!! They should be praised for their honesty in jettisoning that false god, and for preparing the ground for the Restoration. As Norbert Samuelson argued some time ago, “the God of the Philosophers is not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (Harvard Theological Review, 65 [1972]:1-27; cf. Georg Picht, “The God of the Philosophers,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 48/1 [1980]:61-79, online at http://jaar.oxfordjournals.org/content/XLVIII/1/61.abstract ). As Yohanan Muffs insists, “the biblical God is anthropomorphic. Whoever strips God of his personal quality distorts the true meaning of Scripture” (Muffs, “Agent of the Lord, Warrior for the People: The Prophet’s Paradox,” Bible Review, 18/6 [Dec 2002]:23; Esther J. Hamori, “When Gods Were Men”: The Embodied God in Biblical and Near Eastern Literature [Berlin: de Gruyter, 2008]). Moreover, as Ernst Benz has said:

    “Joseph Smith’s anthropology of man is closer to the concept of man in the primitive church than that of the proponents of the Augustinian doctrine of original sin, who considered the idea of such a fundamental and corporeal relationship between God and man as the quintessential heresy.” (Benz, “Imago Dei: Man in the Image of God,” in T. Madsen, ed., Reflections on Mormonism [Provo, 1978], 201-219)

    Indeed, as Stephen H. Webb has recently argued, “most provocatively, . . Mormonism provides the most challenging, urgent, and potentially rewarding source for metaphysical renewal today.” Webb’s “concept of Christian materialism challenges traditional Christian” immaterialism, “and aims to show the way to a more metaphysically sound orthodoxy” (publication blurbs for Webb, Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter [Oxford, 2011]).

    If all these non-Mormon scholars are correct, we need to double-down in learning the elementary lessons of secular philosophy and logic. Rather than cry crocodile tears over the well-deserved losses suffered by false religions, we need to get busy. We have a particularly robust alternative.

    As Elder Marion D. Hanks of the First Council of the Seventy put it in the official magazine of the Melchizedek Priesthood, “The gospel should be studied ‘as carefully as any science.’ The ‘literature of the Church’ must be ‘acquired and read.’ Our learning should be increased in our spare time ‘day by day.’ Then as we put the gospel truth to work in daily life, we will never find it wanting. We will be literate in the most important field of knowledge in the universe, knowledge for lack of which men and nations perish, in the light of which men and nations may be saved” (“Theological Illiterates,” Improvement Era [September 1969]:42, online at http://archive.org/stream/improvementera7209unse#page/n45/mode/2up ). Such a call to action is in the best tradition of Pres. John Taylor challenging those who are fit to do so, to become “technically-equipped theologians.”

    • I must protest, you positively wrong me: to imply that I am either theologically illiterate or to use a Marion D. Hanks quote ag’in me.

      Have you read, Brother Smith, the Book of Mormon? Go there, read that, attack me then — as having falsified its contents, if you would theological nail me to a cross of liberal Protestantism, which I don’t think you have successfully done.

      I have to consider your critique as non-responsive, therefore, and completely forgive you.

      • I’m very sorry, Ashby, that I came across as attacking you, and note that you had to read that attack as implied. I implied no such thing. I had instead hoped to redirect blame for the sorry state of affairs you decried, and thought that I was fairly clear on that. I was not blaming you.

        We both certainly agree with John Taylor’s call for “technically-equipped theologians.” Next time you are in Provo, let’s do lunch. It’s on me.

  2. Aw, C’mon, can you truly call Irenaeus “an early Mormon Doctor of the Church” when in Against Heresies he taught,

    1. It is proper, then, that I should begin with the first and most important head, that is, God the Creator, who made the heaven and the earth, and all things that are therein (whom these men blasphemously style the fruit of a defect), and to demonstrate that there is nothing either above Him or after Him; nor that, influenced by any one, but of His own free will, He created all things, since He is the only God, the only Lord, the only Creator, the only Father, alone containing all things, and Himself commanding all things into existence.

    2. For how can there be any other Fulness, or Principle, or Power, or God, above Him, since it is matter of necessity that God, the Pleroma (Fulness) of all these, should contain all things in His immensity, and should be contained by no one? But if there is anything beyond Him, He is not then the Pleroma of all, nor does He contain all. For that which they declare to be beyond Him will be wanting to the Pleroma, or, [in other words,] to that God who is above all things. But that which is wanting, and falls in any way short, is not the Pleroma of all things. In such a case, He would have both beginning, middle, and end, with respect to those who are beyond Him. And if He has an end in regard to those things which are below, He has also a beginning with respect to those things which are above. In like manner, there is an absolute necessity that He should experience the very same thing at all other points, and should be held in, bounded, and enclosed by those existences that are outside of Him. For that being who is the end downwards, necessarily circumscribes and surrounds him who finds his end in it. And thus, according to them, the Father of all (that is, He whom they call Proön and Proarche), with their Pleroma, and the good God of Marcion, is established and enclosed in some other, and is surrounded from without by another mighty Being, who must of necessity be greater, inasmuch as that which contains is greater than that which is contained. But then that which is greater is also stronger, and in a greater degree Lord; and that which is greater, and stronger, and in a greater degree Lord— must be God.

    3. Now, since there exists, according to them, also something else which they declare to be outside of the Pleroma, into which they further hold there descended that higher power who went astray, it is in every way necessary that the Pleroma either contains that which is beyond, yet is contained (for otherwise, it will not be beyond the Pleroma; for if there is anything beyond the Pleroma, there will be a Pleroma within this very Pleroma which they declare to be outside of the Pleroma, and the Pleroma will be contained by that which is beyond: and with the Pleroma is understood also the first God); or, again, they must be an infinite distance separated from each other — the Pleroma [I mean], and that which is beyond it. But if they maintain this, there will then be a third kind of existence, which separates by immensity the Pleroma and that which is beyond it. This third kind of existence will therefore bound and contain both the others, and will be greater both than the Pleroma, and than that which is beyond it, inasmuch as it contains both in its bosom. In this way, talk might go on for ever concerning those things which are contained, and those which contain. For if this third existence has its beginning above, and its end beneath, there is an absolute necessity that it be also bounded on the sides, either beginning or ceasing at certain other points, [where new existences begin.] These, again, and others which are above and below, will have their beginnings at certain other points, and so on ad infinitum; so that their thoughts would never rest in one God, but, in consequence of seeking after more than exists, would wander away to that which has no existence, and depart from the true God.

    4. These remarks are, in like manner, applicable against the followers of Marcion. For his two gods will also be contained and circumscribed by an immense interval which separates them from one another. But then there is a necessity to suppose a multitude of gods separated by an immense distance from each other on every side, beginning with one another, and ending in one another. Thus, by that very process of reasoning on which they depend for teaching that there is a certain Pleroma or God above the Creator of heaven and earth, any one who chooses to employ it may maintain that there is another Pleroma above the Pleroma, above that again another, and above Bythus another ocean of Deity, while in like manner the same successions hold with respect to the sides; and thus, their doctrine flowing out into immensity, there will always be a necessity to conceive of other Pleroma, and other Bythi, so as never at any time to stop, but always to continue seeking for others besides those already mentioned. Moreover, it will be uncertain whether these which we conceive of are below, or are, in fact, themselves the things which are above; and, in like manner, [it will be doubtful] respecting those things which are said by them to be above, whether they are really above or below; and thus our opinions will have no fixed conclusion or certainty, but will of necessity wander forth after worlds without limits, and gods that cannot be numbered.

    5. These things, then, being so, each deity will be contented with his own possessions, and will not be moved with any curiosity respecting the affairs of others; otherwise he would be unjust, and rapacious, and would cease to be what God is. Each creation, too, will glorify its own maker, and will be contented with him, not knowing any other; otherwise it would most justly be deemed an apostate by all the others, and would receive a richly-deserved punishment. For it must be either that there is one Being who contains all things, and formed in His own territory all those things which have been created, according to His own will; or, again, that there are numerous unlimited creators and gods, who begin from each other, and end in each other on every side; and it will then be necessary to allow that all the rest are contained from without by some one who is greater, and that they are each of them shut up within their own territory, and remain in it. No one of them all, therefore, is God. For there will be [much] wanting to every one of them, possessing [as he will do] only a very small part when compared with all the rest. The name of the Omnipotent will thus be brought to an end, and such an opinion will of necessity fall to impiety. (Against Heresies, Book II, Chapter I, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103201.htm)

    • At last, a real reader. Thank you for your propitious correction, which helpfully supplements. My honest-to-goodness point on “I” was a rather intramural one with a younger brother who recently converted from the Mormon Church to Roman Catholicism. I was intending by my comment to gently “spank” the exclusion by the Pope of I as a Doctor. This is an argument rather like one for changing criteria for what deserves an Oscar or a Pulitzer, but without being contentious. I fully take the anachronistic nature of my use of I to be invalid without first setting forth a narrative argument about the Restored Gospel–to carry your criticism even further, by pointing to a gap in my presentation.
      As for the first comment, it is prescient. But my credentials need not come into it: with seven Ivy League degrees (one from the University of Cambridge), five in theological ethics, I can only say to those who want more, “God bless you.” You do that.

  3. Dear “G”:
    You mention Irenaeus on the Pleroma. One interesting critique of Irenaeus against the gnostics would be to compare beliefs with those of the Prophet Joseph on the Father. Irenaeus would have had a figurative heart attack with Joseph on those beliefs. So my Mormon apologizing from I renaeus is most unscholarly unless strictly cabined.
    Best,
    AB

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