“For if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain”

I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.

(Galatians 2:21)

I find this an interesting verse to mull over. Sometimes it seems our reaction to sin and bad habits is to try and conquer them purely through our own efforts or mortal means. But this isn’t possible. What is true of addictions is really true of all our sins: we, as natural men (and women) cannot overcome them by our own efforts (indeed, in this light addictions are simply the adversary getting smarter about how he preys upon our fallen natures), no matter how hard we try.

But Christ did not die in vain. Freedom from sin, from addiction, from bad habit is possible, but only through his power. Through him, we can be cleansed from all wickedness and have the power to put off our fallen natures to which we are otherwise prone:

Now I say unto you that ye must repent, and be born again; for the Spirit saith if ye are not born again ye cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven; therefore come and be baptized unto repentance, that ye may be washed from your sins, that ye may have faith on the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world, who is mighty to save and to cleanse from all unrighteousness.

(Alma 7:14)

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.

(Mosiah 3:19)

“Elias” as a “forerunner” in LDS Scripture

The use of the name Elias (in the New Testament a version of the name Elijah) in the Doctrine and Covenants, where it refers in several passages to at least one other individual than Elijah, has been an interesting puzzle for me for many years. A very interesting article by Robert Boylan, sheds light on this matter, including on Joseph Smith’s understanding of the term in the NT and its possible meaning(s) in the D&C:

This post is not meant to be exhaust all the arguments and responses to this issue. However, it should be clear to the reader that (1) Joseph Smith knew that OT Elijah and NT Elias were the same person; (2) contemporaries of Joseph Smith used NT Elias to denote a forerunner in the same way that the prophet did and, in light of these facts (3) the claim that this is a “blunder” on Joseph Smith’s behalf is without warrant.

via “Elias” as a “forerunner” in LDS Scripture.

God has spoken

Today I have came across an article, presumably by someone claiming to be a member of the Church, that makes the argument that God has never spoken on the subject of homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

I don’t seek these things out – I’m usually just browsing other blogs that I do like to read when I come across things like this. As it happens this article is hosted on the blog of an academic who is likewise a member, but who rejects the Church’s core beliefs and has prominent and publicly campaigned for their change. Following my general policy, I will not provide a link here to either this article or blog here, but I feel the argument itself must be addressed. This argument is based on the idea that modern revelation (including the Book of Mormon) do not address either homosexuality or same-sex marriage directly, and therefore God hasn’t said anything.

This latter claim is very wrong.

Modern revelation (at least the canonical material – the article tries to rule out both the Family Proclamation and anything said by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve) indeed doesn’t address this subject directly. But that should hardly be surprising, since the Gospel encompasses so much more, and for most of us our sins, which would damn us just as surely, lie in other areas (one would think they would appreciate this sense of perspective). The only reason leaders have been and have had to have been more vocal on this issue recently is precisely because of the societal and legal pressure to deny God’s law in this area. Our personal sins, in any area, tend not to be a major threat to the Church as a whole. When people, both outside and inside the Church, do not believe that God has given commandments and campaign to change the Church’s teachings on this issue or any other issue, then the salvation of thousands is threatened. Modern scripture has plenty to say about that. But in any case it is true that our current canonical modern revelation does not comment directly on the specific issues of homosexuality or same-sex marriage.

But that’s partly because they don’t need to. The article tries to quote the ninth article of faith, but in ignoring its first clause the author wrests the scriptures: “We believe all that God has revealed”. One of the purposes of the Book of Mormon itself is to confirm the truth of biblical teachings:

For behold, this is written for the intent that ye may believe that; and if ye believe that ye will believe this also; and if ye believe this ye will know concerning your fathers, and also the marvelous works which were wrought by the power of God among them.

(Mormon 7:9)

Wherefore, the fruit of thy loins shall write; and the fruit of the loins of Judah shall write; and that which shall be written by the fruit of thy loins, and also that which shall be written by the fruit of the loins of Judah, shall grow together, unto the confounding of false doctrines and laying down of contentions, and establishing peace among the fruit of thy loins, and bringing them to the knowledge of their fathers in the latter days, and also to the knowledge of my covenants, saith the Lord.

(2 Nephi 3:12)

Proving to the world that the holy scriptures are true, and that God does inspire men and call them to his holy work in this age and generation, as well as in generations of old;

(Doctrine and Covenants 20:11)

Since said modern revelation points to the Bible, one can’t simply choose to ignore it, as the article does (a big mistake). The article tries to claim that the only comments in the Bible on these subjects are those of Paul and in Deuteronomy. Firstly, these comments – for thousands of years – have not been considered to be remotely confusing on this topic. Moreover, not only does Paul mention the issue several times (in Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6), but Deuteronomy is not the sole other reference (that the author missed Leviticus’s rather famous verse on this topic indicates at the very least profound carelessness). But most importantly, Christ himself addressed the topic of marriage, including notably in the following passage:

And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female,
And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?
Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.

(Matthew 19:4-6, quoting Genesis 2:23-24)

Sure Christ is using this reasoning to condemn divorce, as some commentators attempt to protest. It should surely be no surprise he’s not a fan of that either. But it is his reasons for such a condemnation that should attract our attention here: he bases this upon a divine commandment for marriage, one rooted in the fact that God “at the beginning made them male and female”, that marriage was the union of these two opposites, and such unions were intended to be permanent.

God most surely has spoken about lots of things, and will speak about many more. However, one can only conclude that God is silent upon this topic if one ignores “all that God has revealed”.

Christmas repost: Wise Men from the East

I posted my speculations as to the wise men a couple of years back, but it seemed seasonally appropriate to post again:

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judæa in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

(Matthew 2:1-2)

This obviously strikes a seasonal note, but it’s one I’ve been thinking about recently. The story itself has had a long influence, including on ideas of gift giving and more recently in things like Henry Van Dyke’s story of “The Other Wise Man”, which perhaps encapsulates best in fictional form much of the real point of the whole thing.

However, I’ve been thinking a bit about the actual wise men themselves. Generally biblical studies tends to disregard them as fictional, as part of an overall scepticism towards the gospel narratives, but as anyone following this this blog will be aware, that’s not an approach I share. More recently I’ve come across claims of the mythicists (that is those who take the position that there was no such historical person as Jesus of Nazareth, but that he was invented out of Egyptian and Classical myth – very much a minority position), that is is some reference to an ‘alignment’ between the three stars on Orion’s belt (claimed to be called “the three kings” in Egyptian mythology, although I can only find reference to that name in modern languages) and Sirius on December the 25th – however, aside from the astronomical issues, this clearly ignores the fact that the Gospel of Matthew does not refer to three visitors (the number coming into the tradition from adding up the gifts), nor refer to them as kings. Furthermore, the nativity account precedes the actual attaching of a festival to the 25th of December by several centuries – the date is a late addition essentially for ecclesiastical convenience, not the actual anniversary. So this latter position relies on some myth making of its own.

Yet if one accepts the actual existence of the wise men, the question arises as to their identity. Where did they come from? There is little information in Matthew – that they were from the east and were ‘magi’ (Greek: μάγοι magoi, translated ‘wise men’ in the KJV). The latter term has suggested connections with Zoroastrianism, but the Greek use of the term had taken on a much wider definition many centuries before the Gospels. Some translations take this (along with the star connection) as referring to astrologers, but they are also subsequently warned by God in a dream to avoid Herod (Matt. 2:12), indicating there knowledge was not that obtained solely through stargazing. Even the timeframe is unclear – contrary to Nativities everywhere, that Hero’s killed all male children two years and younger may suggest a visit almost several years after Christ was born.

As a little thought for the season, I’d like to add one highly speculative possibility for Latter-day Saints: That at least some were connected with Book of Mormon peoples. We read in Helaman 16:14, a few short years before the birth of Christ:

And angels did appear unto men, wise men, and did declare unto them glad tidings of great joy; thus in this year the scriptures began to be fulfilled.

This verse has clear connection with the nativity accounts (with angels bringing ‘glad tidings of great joy’), and makes specific reference to ‘wise men’. However we also have some possible specific candidates. Samuel the Lamanite, after prophesying a specific time frame of 5 years for the birth of Christ and prophesying a ‘new star’ as one of signs of this (Hel. 14:2, 5), subsequently returns to his own people and then ‘he was never heard of more among the Nephites’ (Hel. 16:8). Likewise, Nephi son of Helaman, the year prior to the birth of Christ (and perhaps leaving time a little tight for any trips not involving supernatural assistance – though remember the extra timeframe!) passes the records to his son Nephi and then ‘he departed out of the land, and whither he went, no man knoweth’ (3 Nephi 1:2-3); unlike his great grandfather Alma, who pulled a similar trick over half a century earlier, there is no suggestion in the text here of possible translation.

Were Book of Mormon figures involved, this might also explain the facet of the story where the wise men turn up at the court of Herod in Jerusalem asking where the Messiah is born, a question Herod must ask the Chief Priests and Scribes who give the correct answer (Bethlehem) by referring to Micah 5:2 (Matt. 2:4-6). But since the only person to quote Micah in the Book of Mormon appears to be the risen Christ (3 Nephi 20-21), the people of the Book of Mormon may not have had Micah, leaving them without a vital clue. What they would have had is Alma 7:10, which prophesies Christ will be born ‘at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers’. This has been a frequent target for critics, who have failed to note that it specifies ‘land of our forefathers’. This is consistent both with the Book of Mormon’s habit of naming lands after their chief cities, and with Bethlehem being a village in walking distance of Jerusalem, but it would also have left travellers in need of an extra little information.

Thus, while extremely speculative, this idea does account for certain details of the story. However, I like to think that the strongest argument in its favour comes from a psychological angle. If the account be true, these men knew one of the greatest events in human history was about to occur. They knew when, and with a little uncertainty knew roughly where, and knew few others would be able to witness this. If you were in that position, wouldn’t you try to go?

Reasons to read the Old Testament #4

Confused at the genealogies in the Gospels? Wonder at who these Jews are, and what they are expecting, and why the Christ was born among them? What is this Temple place? Do you wonder where the titles “son of David” and “son of man” come from, and why they are important? Do you know where Christ got the two great commandments from?

I don’t recall ever reading the New Testament without some familiarity with the Old, so I have trouble imagining what that is like. I do know one is likely to miss a lot, though. The history of the people of the New Testament is established in the Old. The New quotes the Old frequently (often without saying so), and the meaning of many key phrases can only be understood in light of the Old. Christ and the Apostles were immersed in the Old Testament, teaching many people who were likewise immersed, and about things that are the culmination of the Law and many of the prophecies and hopes of the Old Testament writers. One reason for Latter-day Saints to read the Old Testament then is simply because it will allow them to better understand the New Testament.

There is no beauty that we should desire him

A lot of artistic depictions of the Saviour depict him as – at least what I’ve been told – a handsome man. Indeed I’ve heard more than one story where investigators being taught by missionaries have become distracted by the alleged attractiveness of the art work. And that’s hardly something confined to LDS artwork, as one can see in the variety of depictions, including in cinema and including the oft-mocked ‘Boxing Jesus‘ (though personally – while everyone else in the seminar laughed at it – I kind of have a soft spot for that one).

Yet the one time the scriptures speak of Christ’s attractiveness, it paints a different picture:

For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.

(Isaiah 53:2)

Now, since Isaiah was prophesying, rather than being present in person, it’s possible that what he’s saying here doesn’t reflect on actual physical appearance. But it might do, and the broader point is true either way. Christ wasn’t ‘attractive’ – most of those whom he taught in mortality turned away or rejected him. Likewise his superficial background wasn’t appealing: “can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?” This is very human, as we often judge on such superficial grounds; never mind our entertainment (where goodness is often portrayed as being physically attractive, and evil as physically ugly), perceptions of physical attractiveness affect the outcome of our legal system (see here and here)! But Isaiah reminds us here that these human judgements are flawed. Truth can come in unattractive packages, and healing and salvation – indeed the Messiah himself – was and is to be found in someone that the world did not desire.

Edit: fixed link to Boxing Jesus

Wresting images of Christ

There’s several scriptural warnings about wresting the scriptures (2 Peter 3:16, Alma 13:20, Alma 41:1 and D&C 10:63), of distorting their meaning, consciously or unconsciously, to suit our own ends or views. And it’s possible that the overall lack of scriptural literacy and respect for the scriptures has the effect of making that less of a problem compared to some other eras. But I believe there is one broad manifestation of the same sort of thing that does transcend eras, and one that is certainly popping up now.

I’ve seen in a number of places – blogs, online comments, personal conversations – a number of assertions about what Christ would or would not do. And a big theme among most of what I run across is the idea that Christ in his mortal ministry always accepted, without conditions, that he never judged, never excludes and never condemns sin. This leads to claims that teaching certain commandments or maintaining that certain things are right or wrong is not Christlike.

Yet this image of Christ doesn’t square with the Christ we actually know, the one who:

And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers’ money, and overthrew the tables

(John 2:14)

Or the one who prophesied:

Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.
But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you.
And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.
But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee.

(Matthew 11:20-24)

Or the one who taught:

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.
For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

(Matthew 10:34-35)

Or the Jesus who told his opponents:

Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?

(Matthew 23:33)

Of course Christ extended His (and his Father’s) love and mercy. But he associated with publicans and sinners to save them from their sins, not to reassure them in their sins. He did not stone the adulterous woman, but he still told her “go, and sin no more”. And yes, he teaches us to “judge not, lest ye be judged”, but not only is that instruction often sorely misunderstood (we should definitely refrain from eternal judgments, but parents who don’t “judge” who is fit or unfit to look after their children are being derelict in their duties), but Christ also asserted that the Father had “given him authority to execute judgment” and “as I hear, I judge”. Nothing in Christ’s teachings authorises the modern idea that all judgment is wrong, or that we have some sort of right to never have anyone disapprove of our behaviour – even God. And an image of Christ that does is a partial and distorted image. We cannot follow God and Christ if we espouse love and mercy,but forget their justice and their righteousness. Mercy cannot rob justice.

This is not the only way our image of Christ and God can be distorted of course (the 17th century, in a mirror of ours, seems to have often forgotten His love and mercy), though perhaps it is one of the most common ways today. We are all flawed human beings, of often limited understanding, and we are all likely to see and understand an imperfect picture. But any attribute we leave out, and any teaching we neglect diminishes our understanding because we have effectively made an image of our own making the object of our worship. To truly follow Christ, we need to follow the whole Christ, and if we hope “to be conformed to the image of [God’s] son”, then it helps if our image embraces the whole truth.

Wise Men from the East

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judæa in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

(Matthew 2:1-2)

This obviously strikes a seasonal note, but it’s one I’ve been thinking about recently. The story itself has had a long influence, including on ideas of gift giving and more recently in things like Henry Van Dyke’s story of “The Other Wise Man”, which perhaps encapsulates best in fictional form much of the real point of the whole thing.

However, I’ve been thinking a bit about the actual wise men themselves. Generally biblical studies tends to disregard them as fictional, as part of an overall scepticism towards the gospel narratives, but as anyone following this this blog will be aware, that’s not an approach I share. More recently I’ve come across claims of the mythicists (that is those who take the position that there was no such historical person as Jesus of Nazareth, but that he was invented out of Egyptian and Classical myth – very much a minority position), that is is some reference to an ‘alignment’ between the three stars on Orion’s belt (claimed to be called “the three kings” in Egyptian mythology, although I can only find reference to that name in modern languages) and Sirius on December the 25th – however, aside from the astronomical issues, this clearly ignores the fact that the Gospel of Matthew does not refer to three visitors (the number coming into the tradition from adding up the gifts), nor refer to them as kings. Furthermore, the nativity account precedes the actual attaching of a festival to the 25th of December by several centuries – the date is a late addition essentially for ecclesiastical convenience, not the actual anniversary. So this latter position relies on some myth making of its own.

Yet if one accepts the actual existence of the wise men, the question arises as to their identity. Where did they come from? There is little information in Matthew – that they were from the east and were ‘magi’ (Greek: μάγοι magoi, translated ‘wise men’ in the KJV). The latter term has suggested connections with Zoroastrianism, but the Greek use of the term had taken on a much wider definition many centuries before the Gospels. Some translations take this (along with the star connection) as referring to astrologers, but they are also subsequently warned by God in a dream to avoid Herod (Matt. 2:12), indicating there knowledge was not that obtained solely through stargazing. Even the timeframe is unclear – contrary to Nativities everywhere, that Hero’s killed all male children two years and younger may suggest a visit almost several years after Christ was born.

As a little thought for the season, I’d like to add one highly speculative possibility for Latter-day Saints: That at least some were connected with Book of Mormon peoples. We read in Helaman 16:14, a few short years before the birth of Christ:

And angels did appear unto men, wise men, and did declare unto them glad tidings of great joy; thus in this year the scriptures began to be fulfilled.

This verse has clear connection with the nativity accounts (with angels bringing ‘glad tidings of great joy’), and makes specific reference to ‘wise men’. However we also have some possible specific candidates. Samuel the Lamanite, after prophesying a specific time frame of 5 years for the birth of Christ and prophesying a ‘new star’ as one of signs of this (Hel. 14:2, 5), subsequently returns to his own people and then ‘he was never heard of more among the Nephites’ (Hel. 16:8). Likewise, Nephi son of Helaman, the year prior to the birth of Christ (and perhaps leaving time a little tight for any trips not involving supernatural assistance – though remember the extra timeframe!) passes the records to his son Nephi and then ‘he departed out of the land, and whither he went, no man knoweth’ (3 Nephi 1:2-3); unlike his great grandfather Alma, who pulled a similar trick over half a century earlier, there is no suggestion in the text here of possible translation.

Were Book of Mormon figures involved, this might also explain the facet of the story where the wise men turn up at the court of Herod in Jerusalem asking where the Messiah is born, a question Herod must ask the Chief Priests and Scribes who give the correct answer (Bethlehem) by referring to Micah 5:2 (Matt. 2:4-6). But since the only person to quote Micah in the Book of Mormon appears to be the risen Christ (3 Nephi 20-21), the people of the Book of Mormon may not have had Micah, leaving them without a vital clue. What they would have had is Alma 7:10, which prophesies Christ will be born ‘at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers’. This has been a frequent target for critics, who have failed to note that it specifies ‘land of our forefathers’. This is consistent both with the Book of Mormon’s habit of naming lands after their chief cities, and with Bethlehem being a village in walking distance of Jerusalem, but it would also have left travellers in need of an extra little information.

Thus, while extremely speculative, this idea does account for certain details of the story. However, I like to think that the strongest argument in its favour comes from a psychological angle. If the account be true, these men knew one of the greatest events in human history was about to occur. They knew when, and with a little uncertainty knew roughly where, and knew few others would be able to witness this. If you were in that position, wouldn’t you try to go?