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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.

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