The Abrahamic Test | Religious Studies Center

I’ve come across this rather interesting and thoughtful article on Abrahamic tests by Larry E. Dahl (a retired BYU professor), which is available from the BYU Religious Studies center. Some particularly important excerpts:

Everyone who achieves exaltation must successfully pass through an Abrahamic test. Let me repeat. Everyone who achieves exaltation must successfully pass through an Abrahamic test. The Prophet Joseph Smith, in speaking to the Twelve Apostles in Nauvoo, said: “You will have all kinds of trials to pass through. And it is quite as necessary for you to be tried as it was for Abraham and other men of God. . . . God will feel after you, and he will take hold of you and wrench your very heart strings, and if you cannot stand it you will not be fit for an inheritance in the Celestial Kingdom of God.[1] That is not a particularly comforting thought, but it is one that cannot be ignored if the scriptures are taken seriously. Why must there be an Abrahamic test? And how can we all be tested like Abraham was tested? Why use Abraham as the standard? What is there about the test Abraham experienced that is universally applicable? When our test comes, will we recognize it? How can we prepare?

and:

What about us? How are we to be tested “even as Abraham”? Being asked to offer a child as a sacrifice just does not relate to our time and circumstance. But wrenching heartstrings does relate—to all times and circumstances. And there are many ways to wrench the heart in any age: being asked to choose God over other things we dearly love, even when those things are good and have been promised, and when we have worked for them, yearned for them, prayed for them, and have been obedient and patient; or being asked to persevere in righteousness and service (perhaps even Church service) in the face of terrible difficulty, uncertainty, inequities, ironies, and even contradictions; or watching helplessly as the innocent suffer from the brutal misuse of God-given agency in the hands of evil men.

 

Read the full thing at: The Abrahamic Test | Religious Studies Center

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The Mercy and Justice of God

I find God’s justice and mercy fascinating, not only because he perfectly embodies such qualities, but because we as human beings apparently have such a hard time reconciling them that we are apt to build a more selective image with only one of those qualities. Thus in the 17th century, it seems many were apt to forget God’s love and mercy in favour of his wrath and hatred of sin. Today we seem apt to commit the reverse error: we emphasise God’s love and mercy, but forget his justice and righteousness. In doing so, we not only build up a false image of God, but also diminish the quality of God we do remember. His justice and mercy are linked, for his justice is connected to his love and mercy for those we have sinned against. To paraphrase something I’ve said before, to be merciful without condition to predators is to be merciless to their victims. Hence God’s mercy is conditioned upon repentance. Likewise God’s desire for us to change and repent and follow him is based in his love and his desire for our exaltation: a love that never asks us to change or repent is one that would be content to leave us stuck in mediocrity, one that would ultimately be happy to sit back and watch us be damned.

A particular quote that I feel captures both God’s justice and his mercy was expressed by Joseph Smith. However, I often find it quoted with the second half missing, in keeping with the bias of our current era. So I thought it worth quoting in full:

Our heavenly Father is more liberal in His views, and boundless in His mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive; and at the same time more terrible to the workers of iniquity, more awful in the executions of His punishments, and more ready to detect in every false way, than we are apt to suppose Him to be.

– Joseph Smith, 18 April 1842

 

The Prayer of Faith

Last Sunday, I heard someone describe prayer as “a faithless act”.

I was quite surprised by this. Now for some context, it was quite clear that this person was operating under a misunderstanding of President Nelson’s remarks during the last General Conference, about “the difference between a prayer and a priesthood blessing”, and may have been expressing themselves intemperately. President Nelson was speaking of those who did not know that difference, and so gave priesthood blessings as if they were prayers. The individual in my hearing appeared to likewise confuse the two, but to the opposite extreme, arguing that when ministering to someone we should not offer a prayer, but instead offer a blessing, by which he appeared to mean not an actual priesthood ordinance, but giving a prayer as if it were a blessing.

This is mistaken. President Nelson was seeking to dispel any confusion between blessings and prayers, but he wasn’t arguing that the latter were unnecessary or wrong to any degree. Both have a place. In a blessing, if both the one giving the blessing and the one receive it have faith, and if the one giving it is sufficiently in tune, it is an opportunity to reveal and declare the will of God. Essential, the person giving the blessing is acting as a representative of God, speaking in his name (D&C 1:20), towards the one receiving the blessing. In a prayer, however, we are representing ourselves and any for whom we are praying for towards God. In one, there is the opportunity to declare God’s will; in the other, the opportunity to petition God in accordance with it. And both prayers and priesthood blessings are invaluable aids to us here on earth, and when ministering to others both are necessary.

It is particularly this description of prayer as “a faithless act” that I wish to briefly address, however. Now prayer can be a faithless act, if it is not genuine, and done for show or pretence. Likewise, if we pray but have no intention of acting upon any guidance God gives us, that may likewise be described as being without faith.

But genuine prayer is an inherently faithful act. The very act of praying to our Father in Heaven expresses our faith (or at least our willingness to believe) that he is there. By directing our righteous needs and desires towards him, we demonstrate faith in his power to fulfil them. By expressing gratitude, we confess his hand in all things. By asking for forgiveness, we express our faith in his goodness, in the rightness of his commandments, and show faith in the atonement of his son. By asking for direction, we demonstrate faith in his wisdom, humbly acknowledging that he knows better than we do, and show faithfulness by our willingness to act upon his commands.

I’m reminded particularly of a particular quote from the Bible Dictionary. I’ve briefly posted about the BD and other aids before, noting that these are not scripture, and in the words of a man who helped produce them “are aids and helps only”. However, if any part of the Bible Dictionary is genuinely profound, I have long believed it is the entry on prayer. To quote one paragraph:

As soon as we learn the true relationship in which we stand toward God (namely, God is our Father, and we are His children), then at once prayer becomes natural and instinctive on our part (Matt. 7:7–11). Many of the so-called difficulties about prayer arise from forgetting this relationship. Prayer is the act by which the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other. The object of prayer is not to change the will of God but to secure for ourselves and for others blessings that God is already willing to grant but that are made conditional on our asking for them. Blessings require some work or effort on our part before we can obtain them. Prayer is a form of work and is an appointed means for obtaining the highest of all blessings.

I think this is a genuinely beautiful (and true) passage, that has a lot to teach about prayer, but what I especially want to pick out on this occasion is the line that prayer is the means by which our will is “brought into correspondence” with Father, and that “the object of prayer is not to change the will of God, but to secure … blessings that God is already willing to grant”. It is fitting that in the Lord’s Prayer, the Saviour includes the phrase “thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven”, for much of the point of prayer is to surrender to his will.

And therefore, at its root, prayer is amongst the most faithful of acts, for it is an act in which we submit ourselves to his will, and where we must have sufficient faith – trust – in him to say as the Saviour did “nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 27:39). And the highest expression of faith is not believing that God is there, but – believing or even knowing that he is – to trust his judgement over ours, to be “willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon [us]” (Mosiah 3:19), to say – as Christ did – “thy will be done”.

“Sin is the result of deep and unmet needs”

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My “office”. A little drafty but it does the job.

Today, while sitting in my “office” (see above) and working on other things, I began thinking about temptation. This wasn’t for any especial reason, and this is not a confession post. But I’m as human as anyone else, and all of us face or have faced temptation, including the Saviour himself, even though he never succumbed. And I was thinking about what I have learned about those things that have helped me in repenting and those that have not.

As I was doing so, my mind began thinking about the temptations Christ suffered in the wilderness, but particularly the first:

Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.

And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred.

And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.

(Matthew 4:1-3).

It struck me, in considering this account, how this reflects the temptations we suffer. It was understandable, after fasting for such a prolonged period, that Christ was hungry. In fact it is more than understandable, but entirely justified. The human body needs food to survive, and Christ had a mortal human body, as we do. Being hungry was not a sin, but a legitimate need.

Satan’s temptation was not to make the Saviour feel hungry. His temptation was to suggest an illegitimate way to meet that need, one that involved the misuse of Christ’s power.

It struck me, in thinking about this, that this is often true for us. Many of the sins we wrestle with are often connected with some deeper issue or need, which we may not even be aware of. I’ve seen this in my own life and I’ve seen it in the lives of others. These may be desires for love, security, comfort or intimacy, or even simply the rudiments of survival. And it strikes me that seeking these things is not wrong. The problem is that Satan preys upon those needs, tempting us to meet unhappiness, or loneliness, or deprivation, or whatever with drugs, or sexual sin, or greed or dishonesty or all manner of things. And of course, these are not only wrong, but also cannot really meet our righteous needs. But we are often unaware of the very need at stake, and so Satan deceives us (and we often deceive ourselves) that these are the things that will somehow make us happy, often unaware of why we might find a particular temptation tempting in the first place.

Satan, who desires our misery above all other things, will always seek to pay us in false coin. And we, especially when we are unaware of what we really need, often seek solace from the wrong sources.

While I was contemplating this, I recalled a statement I’ve heard attributed to Spencer W. Kimball: “Sin is the result of deep and unmet needs”. Some investigation reveals lots of sites attributing that quote to him, but without sourcing it. However, as far as I can tell they’re actually paraphrasing the following statement, which certain captures the same thought:

Jesus saw sin as wrong but also was able to see sin as springing from deep and unmet needs on the part of the sinner.

(Spencer W. Kimball, “Jesus: The Perfect Leader”, The Ensign, August 1978)

I don’t believe anyone can accuse President Kimball of seeking to excuse sin, and there’s no excuse for it here. Sin is still sin, and needs repentance. But it seems to me that so often our approach to sin is symptomatic: we simply seek to stop the symptom of our outward sins. But such an approach can be as unsuccessful as simply trying to eliminate symptoms in physical medicine. To truly treat an illness, one must treat the causes. I believe this applies individually, but is also the case for any leaders counselling someone else wrestling with some sin: it is not enough simply to urge the stopping of sin, nor enough to simply encourage an increase of devotional acts, as good as they are. All too often this may leave an individual’s needs unmet and unrecognised, and leaves true repentance – change – incomplete, and a person vulnerable to falling back into former sins.. Rather, in addition to these things, we should seek to identify the needs or deeper issues at stake. I believe doing so can help us to recognise that what Satan is offering is an imposter, something that does not and can not and will never give us what we truly want. We can seek to pursue legitimate means to meet that need, if it is possible at that time. Above all, we can learn, and seek, and experience how the Gospel of Jesus Christ has the power not only to bring forgiveness of sins, but to meet all our deepest and dearest needs.

Christ not only cleanses us from sin, but is the great physician, healing us on the inside if we let him. And for our repentance to be successful – and for the repentance of anyone we happen to be counselling for those who are leaders – we must seek to let him.

The democracy of discipleship and the aristocracy of the saints

It strikes me that one of the sobering dimensions of the gospel is the democracy of its demands as it seeks to build an aristocracy of saints. Certain standards and requirements are laid upon us all. They are uniform. We don’t have an indoor-outdoor set of ten commandments. We don’t have one set of commandments for bricklayers and another for college professors. There is a democracy about the demands of discipleship, which, interestingly enough, is aimed at producing an aristocracy of saints.

– Elder Neal A. Maxwell, Full talk available at the Interpreter

Link: Critique of “The Christ Who Heals”

Robert Boylan has written a very interesting post critiquing the new book by Terryl and Fiona Givens ,”The Christ Who Heals”. It’s a very lengthy article, but is well worth reading every word, particularly for its points on the Reformers (where the Givens, like a lot of LDS literature, take a very rosy view of people like Luther), misreadings of early Christian writers, the Fall (where the Givens, again like others, seem to over-correct and not take sufficient notice that LDS scripture describes it as a very real fall) and the Atonement, amongst a number of topics. I highly recommend giving it a close read:

Robert Boylan ‘Critique of “The Christ Who Heals”‘

The Complexity of the Book of Mormon

During the most recent General Conference, Elder Ted R. Callister (General Sunday School President) spoke about the Book of Mormon, and particularly about its complexity as evidence for its inspiration. All too often, however, I see assertions of the opposite, that almost anyone with some basic familiarity with the Bible or an open copy of the King James version could write it. I came across many such claims during the writing of my thesis, and just the other week found a similar statement in a “Concise Oxford Dictionary of Religions” I came across in a charity shop (namely that the book’s authenticity was doubted because of its “reminisces of the King James version”; I didn’t check at the time, but would be intrigued to know if the contributors had felt the need to make similar statements in regards to other faiths).

These statements typically take the form of sweeping generalizations, with little evidence because few of those making such comments seem to have taken the trouble to examine the book itself closely. In contrast, one very clear finding throughout my thesis was just how exceptionally complex the Book of Mormon’s use of biblical material actually was, far more complex than I’d suggest most actual readers pick up. Furthermore, again and again I found evidence that the authors of the Book of Mormon would have needed to be far more familiar with biblical material than the critics claimed. One example from Chapter 3:

Nephi then proceeds to place a condition upon the fulfilment of this covenant:

And I would, my brethren, that ye should know that all the kindreds of the earth cannot be blessed unless he shall make bare his arm in the eyes of the nations.

(1 Nephi 22:10)

At first glance this appears to be a simple assertion, a claim that this ‘marvelous work’ is to be accomplished by a display of divine power. However, what this misses is that the two halves of this verse are not connected simply by assertion, but by a chain of associated passages:

And I would, my brethren, that ye should know that all the kindreds of the earth cannot be blessed unless he shall make bare his arm in the eyes of the nations.

(1 Nephi 22:10)

Yea, and all the earth shall see the salvation of the Lord, saith the prophet; every nation, kindred, tongue and people shall be blessed.

(1 Nephi 19:17)

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.

(Isaiah 52:10; bold, italicised, and underlined text marks linked passages.)

Thus the reference to the blessing of ‘all the kindreds of the earth’ not only refers to the just quoted covenant with Abraham, but also alludes to the second half of 1 Nephi 19:17, attributed as a quotation of the non-biblical prophet Zenos. In turn, the first clause of 1 Nephi 19:17, ‘and all the earth shall see the salvation of the Lord’, corresponds to the second part of Isaiah 52:10 (not quoted here, but quoted four times – twice explicitly – elsewhere in the Book of Mormon in Mosiah 12:24, Mosiah 15:31, 3 Nephi 16:20 and 20:35). Finally, returning to 1 Nephi 22:10, we find the first half of Isaiah 52:10 supplying the final phrase of the verse.[1] This is extremely unlikely to be coincidental; instead it appears that the various stages by which the author linked these phrases together in 1 Nephi 22:10 have been left out, leaving only the conclusion.

[1]     Grant Hardy appears to have noticed the same connection, see Hardy, Reader’s Edition, p. 58, footnotes f and g.

As I then point out a little further down:

As noted in chapter two, one particular suggestion has been offered to explain this connection: that Joseph Smith had access to a King James Bible in front of him to assist him. While such suggestions face difficulties from eyewitness statements to the dictation process, this idea has been advanced by both critics and believers in different forms.[1] Thus Wesley Walters, holding that Joseph Smith was the actual author, argues that Joseph Smith must have had ‘his KJV Bible open in front of him’, the only alternative being memorization.[2] Sidney Sperry, on the other hand, while regarding Joseph Smith as a translator, has also argued for the possibility that a Bible was used for help in translating when Joseph Smith came across passages that were recognisably from the Bible and when the KJV was considered adequate.[3]

Yet the above example, and others like it, of the Book of Mormon’s use of the Bible present such suggestions with substantial logical problems. While the idea of working directly from an ‘open’ Bible might suffice for explicit quotations, it is a less adequate explanation for the situation above in which phrases are interwoven into the text and associated by an unwritten chain in which the intervening steps are omitted.[4] Any author would need substantially more familiarity than Wesley Walters’ scenario appears to grant (that is ‘enough to scatter biblical phrases freely’).[5] Likewise any translator attempting to use the KJV as a mundane aid to fill the gaps of any translation would need extensive biblical awareness simply to find the chain of relevant texts. There are historical reasons such scriptural fluency on the part of Joseph Smith has not been assumed.[6] A range of historical and theological possibilities could be suggested that do not require Joseph Smith to have this biblical familiarity; the book itself claims to be interpreted ‘by the gift of God’ (title page). What is clear, however, is that an open Bible alone is insufficient to explain the evident familiarity with the biblical text and the close connection the Book of Mormon has with the KJV.

[1]     All eyewitness statements to the dictation process deny the presence of other texts. Welch, The Sermon at the Temple, p. 132; Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, p. 70; Givens, By the Hand of Mormon, pp. 30–32.

[2]     Walters, The Use of the Old Testament, p. 36.

[3]     Welch, The Sermon at the Temple, p. 135; Sperry, ‘The text of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon’, pp. 80–81.

[4]     Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon, pp. 67–68.

[5]     Walters, The Use of the Old Testament, p. 13.

[6]     For instance, Emma Smith’s report that at one point during the dictation of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith expressed concern as to whether Jerusalem had walls. John W. Welch and Tim Rathbone, ‘Book of Mormon Translation by Joseph Smith’, Encyclopedia of Mormonism: The History, Scripture, Doctrine, and Procedure of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. by Daniel Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), p. 210; See also Barlow, Mormons and the Bible, p. 13.

Obviously, like Elder Callister, I’d attribute this complexity and familiarity with the biblical text not to Joseph Smith, or any other 19th century figure, but to far older figures and ultimately divine inspiration. However, what is clear are that repeated claims that the Book of Mormon simply copies the Bible, and that anyone with an open Bible could have written it, are simply not true.


More examples of this complexity, and much else, can be found in my book, The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible, which is available as a free PDF from this site, or may be obtained in paperback or in kindle format (including from Amazon.com here and Amazon.co.uk here).

Trump will not save you

I’m still trying to finish my thesis, but outside events do catch my attention from time to time. The US election is obvious a big one. This is a topic I’ve written about at length from time to time. I really do feel that – at least for those on the political right (the Left will have their own trials) – Trumpism is a test of character: one I fear that many have failed. But I am proud and have been rather gratified that many Latter-day Saints have proved resistant to Trump’s charms, such as they are. I would thus be really glad for Utah to vote for a third party, if it only has symbolic immediate consequence (I happen to believe the long-term consequences would be even more important).

However, there are obviously some members who feel differently. That may be for a variety of reasons, some of which I can sympathise with even if I believe it is mistaken. Other arguments I find less sympathetic, such as the arguments found here. I happened to respond to some snippets of that in the comments of another blog, but since I took the time thought I share my response here too, in case anyone else was wondering:


The Truth About Evan McMullin

Rather amusingly, the article swiftly admits they don’t actually know much about Evan McMullin’s career (though they find it surprising that CIA work might be considered “secret”. So what follows is mostly built on the boiler-plate anti-establishment ramblings of an “establishment” conspiracy, where “establishment” includes any rich people not named Donald J. Trump. None of it is based on verifiable facts about one Evan McMullin.

There is a powerful and established section of the Republican leadership (elected officials, party members, big donors) who do not support the values of grassroots conservative Republicans.

And Donald Trump does?

But How? Enter the Mormon Suckers. I am proud to be a Mormon so it pains me to say what I am about say. When the GOP Establishment Never Trumpers and their Clinton allies went looking for a 3rd party spoiler they needed someone with a constituency of sheeple who would follow him regardless of the obvious logical outcome (President Hillary)

“Suckers” and “sheeple”, eh? Good to see the author thinks well of their fellow saints. They then go on to talk about a “weak-minded demographic”. Hmmm…

The Mormon demographic is overwhelmingly pro-life, pro-family, anti-communist, and protective of the Constitution they believe was divinely inspired. So how do you get these folks to throw an election to Hillary Clinton, someone whom most of them revile? It’s a complex but straightforward sociological scheme. In addition to being hardworking, God fearing, Mom, Apple Pie and Baseball loving Americans, Mormons are also some of the biggest suckers in the nation.

Or maybe it’s because you (the author and fellow-travellers) nominated an adulterous, authoritarian, proto-Fascistic sex offender!?

Utah leads the nation in financial fraud schemes.

Considering Trump university, this really starts to look like its projecting. If you’re afraid of fraud, don’t vote for the fraudster!

What follows is a hypothetical extrapolation of the results of a Hillary President – one that revolves around the worst case scenario I might add. For some reason there’s no similar weighing up of the consequences of a Trump presidency, where the Alt-Right run rampant, the 1st Amendment is similarly gutted, and Trump starts a nuclear war at 3am because Xi Jinping said something less than complimentary about him on Twitter.

It’s also rather hilarious that they speak of Hillary’s spending bankrupting the nation, when Trump’s also proposing increased spending… and he’s the one with the track record of going bankrupt.

Read Dennis Prager’s excellent article ‘In Defense of Pro-Trump Christians,’ and then join the millions of other Christians who will be voting Trump to save our country from the terrible alternative.

Many of those Christians (and Dennis Prager) have sold their principles for a mess of pottage. What happened to “character matters”? What happened to principles above that of national aggrandisement? What happened to seeking for one’s nation to be good, and not merely great? Trump won’t save anyone. It verges on blasphemous and idolatrous to look to him as a Saviour. And Prager’s statement that “We hold that defeating Hillary Clinton, the Democrats, and the Left is also a principle. And that it is the greater principle” literally violates the first commandment.

You need to encourage the less likely voters to go the polls and you need to keep them from the conman.

Please Mormons don’t get suckered into the Con of the Century

This is grimly amusing, considering their claim McMullin is a conman is a baseless slur, while Trump is actually a defendant in a current court case involving fraud!

And sadly, I’ve seen that hypocrisy all too often. To my mind, if there’s one big reason to never vote or support Trump, it’s because almost every one of his supporters seems to lose their moral compass swiftly thereafter.


 

The above was only a brief response to an argument that I’ve sadly seen all too often, though not from LDS sources. Unfortunately, this argument – that any and every principle should be sacrificed so long as Hillary Clinton is defeated is wrong. Were I American, I would not desire Hillary Clinton as President. I’d oppose many of her policies, and be concerned at her tendency for evasion, unaccountability and dishonesty. But she’s not Hitler! But even if the document concerned was absolutely right about the dangers of a Hillary Clinton presidency, to suggest that defeating her is the highest principle presupposes that the highest good is national survival, and our greatest concern the political conditions within it.

Scripture says differently:

Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

(Exodus 20:3)

And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

(Matthew 10:28)

Even religious liberty – while valuable and something we should strive to protect – is not the most valuable principle. The Church through the ages has survived and even thrived under persecution, however unpleasant it may be to experience. Apostasies happen not because of persecution, but because the people go after strange gods, in this case gods of national pride, anger and political power.

To vote for Trump would be to choose a wicked man. That would be bad enough (“When the wicked rule the people mourn”, D&C 98:9), but it also involves surrendering higher principles. To select a man who openly and pathologically lies (look up the whole “John Barron” case) is to abandon the standard of honesty. To choose a predator who not only boasts of adultery, but has boasted of sexual assault is to make any defence of the family sheer hypocrisy. To choose a man who has pledged to order torture and retaliatory killings (that is, war crimes): to follow a course that we particularly as Latter-day Saints should be aware was followed by the Nephites and Jaredites of old, for which they were utterly destroyed.

I believe one can already see some of the moral consequences of the Trump campaign clearly. There’s the sudden increase – in just five years – of Evangelical acceptance of immorality in political leaders. There’s the mainstreaming of the fascistic and racist ideals of the so-called “Alt-Right”. There’s what some of the vocal opponents to Trump are already experiencing at the hands of his supporters. I believe to support him runs serious risks to one’s sense of integrity and morality. We know it does not profit a man to gain the whole world at the cost of his soul, but to gain Trump?

I also believe, however, that there can be lasting consequences for passing the Trumpian test. LDS resistance to Trump has attracted media attention in both the US and in the UK, and doubtless elsewhere too. I believe the idea that there is something in the Church that has helped people see with moral clarity will attract the honest in heart. Resisting Trump is not only the right thing to do, but it may well attract some to the message of the restored gospel, a message that will be of far longer-lasting importance than the fate of any nation.

“According to the foreknowledge of God”

The Interpreter has published an article, in which the author suggests a new interpretation for Alma 13, particularly verse 3:

And this is the manner after which they were ordained—being called and prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God, on account of their exceeding faith and good works; in the first place being left to choose good or evil; therefore they having chosen good, and exercising exceedingly great faith, are called with a holy calling, yea, with that holy calling which was prepared with, and according to, a preparatory redemption for such.

(Alma 13:3)

This has often been taken as referring to the foreordination of those ordained to the priesthood, on account of faith and good works in the pre-existence. The author (A. Keith Thompson), challenges this on three grounds:

  1. That this teaching would not have served Alma’s rhetorical purposes in encouraging them to repent, since it would have suggest their unworthiness was a continuation of their state before mortality, and that “unbelieving Ammonihahites were unworthy to receive the priesthood from before the foundation of the world”.
  2. He claims that it was the “worthiness standard” that was foreordained, rather than individuals. He argues further that the manner of ordination is “intended to offer an example of how those on earth should live to qualify for redemption by the Son of God”.
  3. He states: “to interpret this passage any other way is to return to the ideology that underlay LDS practice before 1978 that denied the priesthood to some men on account of their race or ethnic origin.”

As it happens, I think it’s quite likely that Alma is not referring to the pre-existence when he talks about ‘their exceeding faith and good works’ (Alma 13:3). At the same time, I still consider it very likely that its referring to foreordination, and I don’t think the essay adequately deals with the context of what Alma is speaking about, the rest of Alma’s statement in Alma 13:3 nor this issue of priesthood bars. I, alas, do not have large reserves of time at present to fully engage with this in detail, but will outline some points below:

Alma’s intent

Thompson states:

It is submitted that it is much more likely that Alma2 was explaining that the people of the city of Ammonihah could qualify for ordination to the holy priesthood after the order of the Son of God as had the people of the city of Melchizedek before them.

And further:

he intended them to contemplate how they could repent and live worthy mortal lives so that they could also qualify for the privilege of ordination to the Priesthood in mortality

I believe this both misunderstands how the priesthood worked in Alma’s context, and Alma’s intent on bringing up the topic here.

Firstly, it should be recognised that the modern LDS practice of ordaining every worthy male is just that: modern (albeit directed by revelation). Priests were a minority of the men in the Church in Alma’s time. His father, for example, ordained one priest to every fifty members (Mosiah 18:18), and there’s nothing to suggest that practice changed. Likewise in Alma 13, there is nothing to say that Melchizedek’s people, after repenting, had qualified for or received ordination to the priesthood. The sole mention of them is that they  wicked (Alma 13:17) and then repented at Melchizedek’s teaching (v.18). I suspect here that there may be a projection back of current LDS practice (something I believe I’ve seen with approaches to the Temple too), so that such ordinations are being inferred. But they are not there in the text. There is nothing here necessarily encouraging qualification for ordination, since such general ordination for all worthy males is not on offer (even Alma 13:4, with its suggestion that if some had not been unfaithful “they might have had as great privilege as their brethren” has the crucially qualifier “might”).

Such, therefore, is not Alma’s intent. So what is it? I believe Thompson is right to recognise that a lot of importance is being placed on the “manner” in which the ordinances are given, and right that this is not referring to the physical means or things like sacrifice. I think his mistake is to conclude that the primary intent is that these high priests and the manner after which they were ordained were a type of the believer, “of how anyone might qualify to receive blessings or privileges from God”. Yet it is not Melchizedek who the the people of Ammonihah are being compared to, but rather explicitly his people, of which nothing has been spoken concerning priesthood: “yea, humble yourselves even as the people in the days of Melchizedek, who was a high priest after this same order which I have spoken” (Alma 13:14). That Alma happens to be high priest over the Church suggests *he* is the one to be compared to Melchizedek, who is preaching and offering repentance. Alma, like the high priests of verse 6, is called and ordained “to teach his commandments unto the children of men”.

Alma goes further though:

Now these ordinances were given after this manner, that thereby the people might look forward on the Son of God, it being a type of his order, or it being his order, and this that they might look forward to him for a remission of their sins, that they might enter into the rest of the Lord.

(Alma 13:16)

Thompson interprets this as saying “that the manner in which men are ordained to the Priesthood demonstrates, to those who observe their example, how to prepare for and benefit by the Son of God’s atonement”. But it is not clearly saying this. It is saying that the priesthood is a type of Christ’s order (and is his order), and so its ordinances are given in a way so that people might “look forward on the Son of God”. “Look forward” is repeated twice here, something hardly likely to be coincidental when a major theme of Alma and Amulek’s teaching in Ammonihah, and Alma’s teachings in Zarahemla and Gideon, is the future coming of the Son of God. “Look forward is also used in verse 2, again so that the people “might know in what manner to look forward to his Son for redemption”. It is “types”, amongst other things, that allow one to look forward to their antitype, or fulfilment. What I suggest Alma is saying here is that the priesthood is a type of *Christ*, not the believer. Thus the manner in which the priesthood is ordained is intended to allow people to “look forward” towards the coming of Christ. That Melchizedek is promptly referred to as “the prince of peace” (Alma 13:18, deriving said title being the point of referring to him as king of Salem and reigning under his father) emphasises this by making Melchizedek personally a type of Christ. It is no accident that Alma moves decisively back to the topic of Christ’s coming in verse 21 onwards.

I suspect that there are many ways in which this is the case, and many things which could be considered (and should be). However, one pertinent way in which the manner the priesthood were ordained, under a more classical reading, points forward to Christ is that he too (as Thompson readily admits) was foreordained before the foundation of the world (1 Peter 1:20). Knowing that Christ has already been chosen and selected, and will carry out his mission as others who have been chosen and selected have done so, provides one powerful way that the priesthood and the manner of its ordination is a type of Christ.

Alma 13:3

Perhaps a minor quibble before moving on to Alma 13:3 proper. Thompson suggests that Alma 13:1’s reference to “the time the Lord gave these commandments unto his children” and “ordained priests” is a reference to the Exodus and the giving of the Ten Commandments, something he supports by noting the reference to “the first provocation” in Alma 12:36. However, while “the provocation… in the wilderness” in Psalm 95:8-11, Hebrews 3:8-11 and Jacob 1:7 are all clearly referring to the Exodus (indeed the latter two passages are quoting Psalm 95), Alma 12:36 refers to “the first provocation” (my emphasis). Moreover, throughout Alma 12 (from v.22 onwards) Alma has been speaking of primordial times following the fall. Thus he specific reference in 12:31:

Wherefore, he gave commandments unto men, they having first transgressed the first commandments as to things which were temporal, and becoming as gods,knowing good from evil, placing themselves in a state to act, or being placed in a state to act according to their wills and pleasures, whether to do evil or to do good—

While the quotation of 12:33-35 closely resembles Psalms 95:8-11//Hebrews 3:8-11, it is also clearly set – unlike the biblical passages, and Jacob 1:7 – in primordial times. Alma 12:37, furthermore, closely follows Alma’s remarks about the first provocation by appealing for his audience to repent so “we provoke not the Lord our God to pull down his wrath upon us in these his second commandments which he has given unto us” (my emphasis). The term “second” clearly sets these apposite the “first commandments” mentioned in 12:31, namely the commandments given prior to the fall. In Alma 12:36, then, it is the fall that constitutes the “first provocation”.

Onto Alma 13:3:

And this is the manner after which they were ordained—being called and prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God, on account of their exceeding faith and good works; in the first place being left to choose good or evil; therefore they having chosen good, and exercising exceedingly great faith, are called with a holy calling, yea, with that holy calling which was prepared with, and according to, a preparatory redemption for such.

(Alma 13:3)

Thompson suggests that “being called and prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God” is a parenthetical statement, that refers to the manner (which he interprets as “the worthiness standard”), as opposed to individuals, being called and prepared from the foundation of the world. Yet there are problems here. While Alma 13 is a complicated text, the Book of Mormon tends to be much more overt about such parenthetical statements. Furthermore, as he himself admits, “being called” is an odd description of a manner, and while he appeals to verses 4, 5, 6, 8, and 11, stating they refer to an ordination in mortality, it doesn’t change the fact that every one those verses is referring to people being called. It is much more likely that it is “they” who “were ordained” are the object of being called.

It is furthermore difficult to see why “the worthiness standard” would require the foreknowledge of God. It is clear, however, what would when these clauses are not taken as a parenthetical statement, for in this case the verse states that this calling and preparation according to God’s foreknowledge was because of “their exceeding faith and good works”. God’s action in calling and preparing is because of his foreknowledge of the faith and works of those called.

Now, one point where I feel Thompson is right: such foreknowledge also cannot be referring to acts done in the pre-mortal existence. God would not require foreknowledge about those either. This faith and works must then referring to acts in mortality, which God foreknows, and upon which he acts. I agree with Thompson that other verses, such as verse 8, are largely referring to ordinations in mortality. Yet once again the appeal is to God’s “foreknowledge of all things” (v.7). That these ordinations are done in mortality, however, and based on God’s foreknowledge of mortal acts, does not undo the fact that he is acting on his foreknowledge, and that people were foreordained. This isn’t accepting Calvinist predestination, as Latter-day Saints have always sharply distinguished between foreordination and such Calvinist concepts (which is clearly what Joseph Smith is referring to when he speaks of rejecting God ‘foreordaining everything’: God knows, but does not necessarily will everything that happens and certainly everything we do in life. But that is no rejection of God foreordaining people to callings). God’s foreknowledge of how people will act using their agency – and his response in turn, even if chronologically prior – does not deprive men of their agency. Since Thompson freely accepts God’s foreknowledge, he presumably recognises this.

Likewise, that verse 9 is referring to ordination on earth by which they “become high priests forever” does not diminish that those ordinations were foreordained according to God’s foreknowledge. Thompson presumably recognises this, as he admits that at least some have been foreordained to certain callings in mortality, and presumably recognises that the fact that some of those on his list were likewise ordained in mortality doesn’t mean they weren’t foreordained to those callings. Likewise a foreordination does not mean that there isn’t a need for ordination on earth. A proper reading of this passage, then, can easily accommodate both being called and prepared from the foundation of the world (though on account of what God foresees, rather than pre-mortal acts), and being ordained in mortality.

So Thompson is, in my opinion, likely right to question the idea that faithfulness in the pre-existence is the primary basis Alma 13 gives for foreordination. However, I believe close reading of this passage must reject the notion that it’s not speaking of foreordination at all.

Priesthood bans

A final comment about Thompson’s views regarding the pre-1978 priesthood ban. Thompson rightly notes that certain explanations – such as the notion that some were barred because of lack of faithfulness in the pre-mortal life – were disavowed (indeed, his quotes indicate that even some holding to them – such as Joseph Fielding Smith – recognised them clearly as “not the official position of the Church, [and is] merely the opinion of men”). However, Thompson himself appears to go further. He suggests that there is no reason that “believed any of God’s mortal sons could not qualify themselves to receive the priesthood according to the foreordained worthiness requirement” and that “to interpret this passage any other way is to return to the ideology that underlay LDS practice before 1978 that denied the priesthood to some men on account of their race or ethnic origin”.

Thompson’s views are unclear, but he seems to be suggesting that concepts of foreordination motivated such a ban (or the continuation of it, since historically speaking this explanation emerged some time after the restriction was in place), and even more that this ban – or any such ban – was wrong.

The various reasons (and they vary, and are in some cases contradictory) that have been given for the pre-1978 restriction have been disavowed. But a false inference based on ideas of foreordination does not in itself show foreordination is incorrect (especially since Thompson accepts it for some things). Furthermore, while the circumstances for its initiation are unclear, the restriction itself for its time has not. The letter of June 8, 1978, quoted in OD 2, makes reference to ‘the long-promised day’, a concept that loses considerable coherence if such a restriction is held to be entirely due to the faulty understanding of men. Furthermore, setting the pre-1978 restriction aside, scripturally there have been other examples of the priesthood being restricted on grounds other than worthiness. As mention, in Alma’s time priests would have constituted a small minority of the Church. Under the law of Moses, only Levites bore the priesthood. And in the Book of Abraham, Pharaoh “is of that lineage by which he could not have the right of Priesthood”, even though (unlike his successors) he himself is “a righteous man” who “judged his people wisely and justly all his days”. For whatever reason in God’s wisdom, and despite his personal righteousness, this man was prohibited from having the priesthood on other grounds. I highly doubt that this man, or non-Levites, or non-priesthood holding males in the Church at Alma’s time, were barred from salvation.

There is no reason to reject the idea, taught clearly in scripture, that God does foreordain people, or to reject the notion that in Alma 13 Alma is discussing those called to the priesthood as “called and prepared from the foundation of the world” (remembering, perhaps, that not all those called are chosen). There is good reason to reject any easy assumptions that such foreordinations, or any of our earthly circumstances, can be directly and easily traced from our pre-mortal conduct which we can easily infer. And Thompson is likely right that in any case Alma 13 is not talking of pre-mortal conduct. But there is no reason to throw out the foreordination with the bathwater.

As it happens, I suspect our circumstances in the pre-mortal life do have a great effect on the circumstances in which God has placed us; however, I suspect that they are so personalised that we have absolutely no way of knowing, from our own mortal perspective, what that connection is. The same circumstance or blessings or deprivations may be influenced by very different factors. But whatever God has in store for us, and whatever he’s based that on, our role of having faith in Christ, repenting and obeying remains the same, knowing that in the eternities nothing will be withheld from the righteous. God, the author of our plan of salvation for each of us, knows us each so thoroughly, both in pre-mortality and in his knowledge and foreknowledge of our mortality, that he is capable of acting in ways that are beyond us, and yet are best suited to personally propel us along the path that leads to eternal life.