Alma 42

I firmly believe that Alma 42 is one of the most misunderstood chapters in the Book of Mormon. There has been a lot of philosophical speculation, in the more academic circles of the Church, about God and his divine status based on this chapter. I have long been of the conclusion – and indeed when it comes to Alma 42 believe I can show – that many of the assumptions and conclusions in these speculations are mistaken, and lead to serious errors. I’ve written about this before, and upon reading the chapter today felt that going over this area again would be worthwhile. As such, I’ve taken the liberty to use and revise my earlier remarks in an attempt at maximum clarity.

Some background

I frequently run across the claim, often given by members of the Church themselves, that LDS doctrine teaches that God is limited, that He is bound by moral or physical laws to which he is subject and which have power over him. These ideas have a long pedigree, but continue to pop up.

I have never been happy with these ideas. I dislike the implication that places something else (such as impersonal moral and physical laws) as the ultimate arbiter of the universe, which implies we are worshipping the wrong being. I dislike the formulations that result, such as the idea of God as the “ultimate scientist” who has simply discovered more laws, and that in consequence there is no such thing as a truly supernatural miracle. I find such notions contrary to the very emphasis the Book of Mormon places upon the power of God and the reality of miracles. It seems to me to be very bizarre that on one hand we have the Book of Mormon insisting upon God’s power and capacity for miraculous intervention, and that Christ himself at one of the fulcrums of the Restoration puts the issue as being one where people “hav[e] a form of godliness, but deny the power thereof” (Joseph Smith-History 1:19), and yet Mormon philosophical discourse is filled with discussions of God’s supposed limitations (in some cases limitations greater than would be applied to, say, the crew of the Starship Enterprise). I can’t help but feel that if Latter-day Scripture (and General Conference et al) is pointing one way and “Mormon philosophy” is pointing another, there’s something severely wrong with the latter.

I discuss briefly some of the issues when it comes to “physical” laws here. Contrary to popular speculations about God’s relationship to physical laws, Section 88 flatly declares that God is the source of such laws, and his power is the power by which all things are governed (D&C 88:12-13,41-43). This alone points to a very different picture than that depicted by those who presume unchanging physical and moral laws form the ultimate basis of reality, and a very different metaphysics than the Western model which sees the universe chugging along independently according to natural laws. However, some of these issues appear to come down to more than simply importing Western metaphysics, particularly when we start talking about “moral laws”. I think there’s several reasons for this (for instance, I think people underestimate precisely how conditional human agency is as described in 2 Nephi 2), but one particular reason for the assertion that there are overriding “moral laws” appears to be the reading of Alma 42.

Much speculation has been based on this chapter and particularly the refrain that “if so, God would cease to be God“. This speculation has suggested that God can, in essence, lose His divine status. Since it is repeated three times in reference to the notion of “justice” being “destroyed”, some have argued that this entails a law of justice supreme above God Himself which if not obeyed may in a sense “demote” God. Most arguing this appear to have suggested that justice is a “natural” law, akin to gravity, and seemingly self-regulating (ignoring what Section 88:42-43 describes as the ultimate source of gravity). Cleon Skousen, however, takes a different tack, asserting that God’s power is dependent upon the obedience of matter and of ‘intelligences’ within it which, however, will cease to obey should He prove unjust, depriving Him of power.

I believe, as I plan to show, that these ideas serious misunderstand Alma’s statements in Alma 42, that they are logically inconsistent, and carry implications that are at odds with what we know of God, his works, and his character. Above all else, however, I think they lack a full understanding of what makes God God.

Alma 42

In understanding any passage, particularly one like Alma 42 in which weighty doctrinal matters are being discussed, it is valuable to understand what the original question being addressed is to understand the aim of the passage.

Alma 42 is no different. Alma 42 is the final part of Alma’s counsel to his son Corianton, who has gone astray somewhat, and needed correction and has some concerns. And in the very first verse of this chapter we learn of the concern that Alma plans to address:

And now, my son, I perceive there is somewhat more which doth worry your mind, which ye cannot understand—which is concerning the justice of God in the punishment of the sinner; for ye do try to suppose that it is injustice that the sinner should be consigned to a state of misery.

Corianton’s concern is about “the justice of God“, specifically in relation to the punishment of the sinner. That this question is a key point throughout this discussion becomes apparent when we consider Alma’s concluding words in verse 30:

O my son, I desire that ye should deny the justice of God no more. Do not endeavor to excuse yourself in the least point because of your sins, by denying the justice of God; but do you let the justice of God, and his mercy, and his long-suffering have full sway in your heart; and let it bring you down to the dust in humility.

Corianton is enjoined to “deny the justice of God no more“, to not excuse his sins “by denying the justice of God“, and to “let the justice of God“, alongside God’s mercy and long-suffering, affect him in such a way as to produce humility (and repentance).

The principal aim of this chapter, therefore, is not to explain the atonement, nor supposed limitations upon God’s power. Rather it is a defence of the justice of God. Other topics – such as the atonement – are used here to explain and defend God’s justice, not the other way around.

In this light, it is worth considering what the speculations discussed above do to any attempted defence of God’s justice. If those readings are correct, than God is just either because he is kept in line by some impersonal force superior to himself, or his power is subject to a veto by every single little element in the universe. I submit that this are terrible defences: they argue that God is just because he is forced to be so. This is a poor service to God’s character, and seems to deny God of the very agency which He gave to man (Moses 4:3). Moreover, they seem to be based on a misunderstanding of the concept of justice itself.

Misunderstanding Justice

Justice has – without any prior intention – become somewhat of a recurring theme on this blog. That’s in part because it’s a principle that doesn’t always seem to be appreciated, particularly as an attribute of God, and also because it often seems misunderstood. The former might play a part as to why some are content to think God is forced to be just, as if it were some otherwise undesirable quality it’d be better to be without. The second may explain some of the logical inconsistencies in what is proposed.

Firstly, justice is not a law, nor a force, in and of itself. It is first and foremost a moral ideal . Indeed, the phrase “law of justice” is not to be found in the scriptures (Alma 34:16 comes closest, but the “whole law of the demands of justice” is not the same thing). Justice is ensuring that the wicked are punished in proportion to their crimes, and that the righteous are blessed for their obedience, and that those who suffer receive a fair recompense. It is true that as an ideal, justice can only be maintained when law has been given, as Alma points out: “And if there was no law given, if men sinned what could justice do, or mercy either, for they would have no claim upon the creature?” (Alma 42:21). It is also true that there is a distinction between justice as an ideal, and the enforcement of justice. Thus there can be just laws and unjust laws. In the case of an unjust law, recognising it requires us to be aware of the concept of justice, but the existence and enforcement of an unjust law would mean that justice isn’t being done. Thus fulfilling the ideal of justice requires the issuing of just laws, and for them to be justly administered.

Who is it that does these things? The arguments of those who postulate justice as being an eternal, self-regulating, natural law – an impersonal and independent “law of the justice” that has the power to demote God himself if he fails to measure up – would ultimately place that force as the one that is the ultimate source of such laws, and the ultimate enforcer. After all, if justice has the power to “demote” God, then that justice and the laws it enforces are more powerful than God. God would be ultimately subject to that force, and would seemingly have no power to make or change laws. Moreover we would seemingly be in no need of a God – why would God need to give or enforce law if there were a natural, self-regulating one? In fact one could even argue we were worshipping the wrong entity.

And yet, as previously stated, scripture affirms that it is God who gives law to all things (D&C 88:42). There are no “natural laws” independent of God: they were given in the first place and are continually sustained by the power of God (D&C 88:13). If God gives and sustains law by His power, how can He be dependent on or subservient to it?  Moreover, there is no sign of any independent, self-regulating, force enforcing justice. Alma 42 itself points out that “there is a law given, and a punishment affixed” (v.22). But those laws and that punishment are given and enforced by God. It is God who shall judge us at the last day, who shall bless the righteous, and – the very concern of this chapter – shall punish the sinners. It is “the justice of God” which consigns unrepentant sinners “to be cut off from his presence” (Alma 42:14).

This is a vitally important point, for it is in the hope of God’s justice that we put our trust, because from the perspective of this life only, the wicked and tyrannical often escape the penalty of their crimes while the innocent suffer. But our trust in the eternal operation of justice is based on God’s interventions and actions. Were God not to judge us, there is no impersonal force that would take over the task of eternal judgment for us, or for Hitler, or Stalin, or for anyone else. What independent force is it, if the only being it will act against is God and appears to have no effect on the rest of the universe? Thus Alma teaches that unless God enforced his laws that “the works of justice would be destroyed” (Alma 42:22). This would be an impossibility if justice were a law that was supreme even over God himself. But it speaks to the truth: if God will not ultimately enforce justice, there is no one else who can and will do it; the ideal of justice might exist, but justice as an enforced reality would not.

Skousen, of course, does not postulate a impersonal force, so his interpretation is a little different, but it has similar problems. His idea places final moral judgment – judgment over God and whether His acts are “just” or not – not in the hands of a perfectly good and omniscient being but in the hands of “intelligences” even more limited than mortal men. Can the full justice of an act ever be measured without both impeccable character and full knowledge of the consequences of the act? God’s capacity for knowing what is just is surely rooted in both His goodness and in His omniscience, yet Skousen would place supreme moral authority over the universe into the hands of the largest and logically most ignorant committee ever conceived. Universal mob rule has never been so literal.

Understanding Deity

A key problem with these speculations is how they view deity. One misunderstanding is rooted in the very reading of this chapter. Who, it should be asked, is this chapter meaning when it speaks of God? Many advocating these speculations seem to suppose that it refers to God the Father. Yet this cannot be entirely the case, for the chapter itself states “God himself atoneth for the sins of the world” (Alma 42:15). This then speaks of God the Son, or at least the entirety of the Godhead.

Likewise, both the impersonal force and Skousen’s approach share a similar logical inconsistency when we try to probe the meaning of the statement that “God would cease to be God“. Both the concepts described above argue strongly that God’s power is limited; that there is something or someone that can deprive Him of it. Yet they also define God “ceasing” to be God as meaning God losing His power, thus they define God in terms of power. They are therefore in the position of arguing simultaneously that power is the defining characteristic of God (since to lose it is to cease to be God) and yet to argue that He isn’t defined by power, since His power is dependent on and subservient to the approval of something or someone. This is contradictory.

To understand what Alma is getting at in Alma 42, and to resolve the conundrum these ideas leave unanswered, we must ask ourselves the question what makes God, God?

The Apostle John states amongst other things that “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and “God is light” (1 John 1:5). God is also described in other places in terms of his knowledge of all things (2 Nephi 9:20), his wisdom (Mosiah 4:9), his goodness (Mosiah 5:3), his eternal nature (Mormon 9:9), his truthfulness (Deuteronomy 32:4), and indeed his mercy (Alma 26:35) and his justice (2 Nephi 9:17). God is described in more terms than that of just power including that of his character, and justice and mercy are included amongst those attributes. I suggest then we should view God in terms other (or rather, in addition) to that of raw power. We might then ask ourselves the question: would God still be God if he lacked any one of these attributes?

It is this that seems key to the whole matter. Elsewhere, in Alma chapter 12, Alma teaches that the “works of justice could not be destroyed, according to the supreme goodness of God” (Alma 12:32). God, it appears, cannot destroy the works of justice not because he lacks the power, but because it would be contrary to his “goodness”, his character. Abinadi speaks in a similar fashion when he states that God does not redeem the unrepentant “…for he cannot deny himself; for he cannot deny justice when it has its claim” (Mosiah 15:27). Here to deny justice is not equated with disobedience of some external law but rather a denial of himself: again a denial of his character. Justice then is not some supreme all-powerful law of nature, but an attribute which in mankind is an unrealised ideal but in deity a fully realised attribute, as also is his goodness and mercy (it is strange that those advocating a natural law of justice appear not to conceive of a natural law of mercy capable of similar demotions). So I suggest that God would cease to be God if he were not just because justice is an essential part of His divine character, even if he were still omnipotent. God is God not just because of his omnipotence and omniscience (though he is those, and they are essential) but also because of his goodness, love, mercy and justice. Or as William Miller puts it in A Canticle for Leibowitz:

But neither infinite power nor infinite wisdom could bestow godhood upon men. For that there would have to be infinite love as well.

We believe in God as God because he is good. Were he to lack those attributes, we could not have faith in Him. Were God unjust, he would not be God, not because something would step in and strip him of power, but because being just is part of the definition of God. And that’s a good thing: An unjust God, as I have said before, would be a terrible thing.

This, I believe and think, is a more accurate understanding of what Alma was saying in Alma 42, and such an understanding carries important consequences. Firstly, with all the emphasis that ancient and modern scripture put upon the power and capacity of God, I feel it is spiritually unhealthy and perilous to our faith to have some sort of understanding that (aside from its other issues) convinces us to think of God in terms of supposed limitations, limitations that scripturally do not exist, and for us to do this in an age where Christ himself asks whether faith shall be found on the earth (Luke 18:8).

Secondly, I believe this helps us better understand the Atonement. The Atonement is not some method of cheating justice, some scheme to get past a natural law. Rather the Atonement establishes both justice and mercy. Jacob teaches earlier in the Book of Mormon that without the Atonement all mankind would be subject to a total and universal damnation (2 Nephi 9:7-9), which would hardly be just to such as infants. Jacob also reveals that the Atonement “satisfieth the demands of justice” (2 Nephi 9:26) by rescuing those without law from an undeserved fate. The Atonement does not cheat justice, rather it provides means “that God might be a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also” (Alma 42:15).

Thirdly, and growing from the other two points, this understanding shows better, in my view, Alma’s point: that God is so impeccable in His character, so just and yet so merciful, that He has gone to enormous lengths to reconcile those divine attributes. God is just, and merciful, and perfect, and Alma teaches his son to no more “deny the justice of God” but rather “let the justice of God, and his mercy, and his long-suffering have full sway in your heart” (Alma 42:30). This is a God whom we need not doubt and think of as limited; rather, knowing the full perfection of His character and his power, we can have even greater faith in Him. We worship God, we have faith in God – indeed we can only accept God as God – as we come to know not only of His power and knowledge but also of His perfect, unwavering character. And it is as we come fully to realise the perfection of His character that we will increase in our faith and trust in Him and better realise the object of our goal: not the mere obedience to natural laws, but the perfection, through Christ, of our characters and very beings.

Alma 18

Ammon’s acts give him the opportunity to teach the king, and there’s lots in this chapter that could be singled out. There’s the content and overall patter of Ammon’s teaching (beginning with God, moving onto the fall, and then onto the plan of redemption and Christ), his use of (well meant) guile to “catch” the king, his humility in following the earlier instructions in serving the king (rather than waiting in the wings, so to speak, as they were delivering the arms) and his statement on how God can and does grant a portion of his power to human beings:

Ammon said unto him: I am a man; and man in the beginning was created after the image of God, and I am called by his Holy Spirit to teach these things unto this people, that they may be brought to a knowledge of that which is just and true;

And a portion of that Spirit dwelleth in me, which giveth me knowledge, and also power according to my faith and desires which are in God.

(Alma 18:34-35)

What caught my attention today, however, was an earlier part of the chapter, which describes some of the Lamanite traditions and and King Lamoni’s own attitude:

And now, when the king heard these words, he said unto them: Now I know that it is the Great Spirit; and he has come down at this time to preserve your lives, that I might not slay you as I did your brethren. Now this is the Great Spirit of whom our fathers have spoken.

Now this was the tradition of Lamoni, which he had received from his father, that there was a Great Spirit. Notwithstanding they believed in a Great Spirit, they supposed that whatsoever they did was right; nevertheless, Lamoni began to fear exceedingly, with fear lest he had done wrong in slaying his servants;

For he had slain many of them because their brethren had scattered their flocks at the place of water; and thus, because they had had their flocks scattered they were slain.

(Alma 18:4-6)

There are two aspects of Lamanite tradition described here. Firstly, the belief in the existence of a “Great Spirit”, which was sufficiently close to the truth that Ammon was able to build on that in teaching of the existence of God, and move swiftly onward. Secondly, there is the notion that “whatsoever they did was right”. And we see here that – before Ammon has begun teaching him at all – Ammon’s acts are already causing him to break with that tradition, by causing him to fear that he’d actually done something wrong, by executing his servants.

There’s several things I think we can gather from this. Firstly, it wasn’t just Ammon’s example of power that impressed the king (though that was certainly crucial): it was how that power was deployed, defending these servants who were otherwise accounted little, and this righteous example caused the king to doubt the rightness of his earlier conduct towards their predecessors. Secondly, the king himself had already begun to consider new possibilities beyond that offered by the traditions of his ancestors, and so was prepared to hear what Ammon was going to teach before Ammon actually started. Thirdly, there’s the nature of that preparation. I’ve written before about the importance of a consciousness of sin, for if we do not think we’ve done anything wrong, we feel no need to repent and no need for a redeemer. Consider the vital part that praying for mercy, as King Lamoni does at the end of this chapter (v. 41), plays in his conversion. We are not likely to seek for mercy if we do not realise we need mercy. That realisation may – as it does for King Lamoni – inspire some fear and unpleasant feelings in the short term, and yet it will be a key that will open new vistas and joys to his view.

Mosiah 24

There’s a lot of parallels between the situation of Alma and his people in this and the previous chapter, and that of the people of Limhi in the preceding chapters. They’re both kept prisoners in their own lands, both are faced with a particularly arduous trial that they are then able to bear, both faced with the task of escaping, and then both successfully elude the forces guarding them to escape to the land of Zarahemla.

However, it’s also worth noting how the situations are subtly different too: the stories act as type scenes by which small variations in the recurring pattern can convey meaning. And there’s a consistent difference in how events pan out here and how they do for the people of Limhi (I’m not the only one to have spotted this by the way – I’m pretty sure Grant Hardy makes a similar or the same observation in Understanding the Book of Mormon).

Thus take the period in which both groups are described as suffering particularly heavy burdens (upon their backs, no less). The people of Limhi, upon being increasing treated as pack animals, make three attempts to fight for their freedom (Mosiah 21:3-12). This doesn’t work, however, so that the people are humbled, and begin crying to God for deliverance, and in time – though he is “slow to hear their cry” – the hearts of their oppressors are softened and the burdens ease (21:13-15).

In contrast, Alma and the church are similarly burdened can’t even call out loud to God, as Amulon (who appears to hold a grudge towards Alma), forbids prayer and stations guards to kill any who offend (24:9-11). However, the people continue to pray in their heart, and actually have God reassure them that he will ease their burdens and will eventually deliver them, and he strengthens them so they are able to bear those burdens (24:12-15).

Similarly, as we have seen, Limhi and his people eventually escaped through Gideon’s cunning plan in which they got their guards very very drunk, and made off while the guards were incapacitated. In contrast here, however, God again communicates with the people, and then miraculously causes the guards to be comatose, letting the people escape (24:16-19). And while the army that pursued the people of Limhi got lost (and so blundered into Alma and his colony, Mosiah 22:15-16, 23:30-36), here the people are warned by revelation that their pursuers are after them, and told that God will stop them (24:23).

In each case, the difference appears to be that the events Alma and the church experienced were more overtly miraculous , more explicit demonstrations of God’s power and will. In one case the people begin crying to God, but he takes his time to respond and then softens the hearts of their enemies; in the other he reveals that he’s going to help them, and miraculously strengthens them. In one case, escape requires a cunning plan, bad navigation and lots of alcohol; in the other it is purely an act of divine intervention. Even the same event is described a bit differently: the initial flight of Alma and his people from Noah is earlier described as being due to them being “apprised of the coming of the king’s army” (Mosiah 18:34), something that could easily describe human informants. It’s only when we read the later account that we find it’s because Alma was “warned of the Lord” (23:1).

I believe the deliverance of the people of Limhi is still meant to be seen as God working on their behalf. However, due to their earlier wickedness, and the time it takes for them to humble themselves and call upon him, he is “slow to hear their cry”, his intervention is more subtle, and they are left unsure of their deliverance until it actually happens. But for the people of Alma and his church, while they face many of the same trials, their faithfulness means that God’s intervention on their behalf is more direct, and also that they are reassured through revelation along the way that God will help them and will ultimately liberate them. In both cases, God’s willingness to aid and deliver his people is shown; but for the people who had faith and who were swift to repent, that divine power manifested all the more easily and readily.

Mosiah 8

There seems to be a running subtheme of God’s unseen providence running through these chapters, as I was struck by how fortuitous it was that the party Limhi set out to find Zarahemla ended up finding something quite different:

And the king said unto him: Being grieved for the afflictions of my people, I caused that forty and three of my people should take a journey into the wilderness, that thereby they might find the land of Zarahemla, that we might appeal unto our brethren to deliver us out of bondage.

And they were lost in the wilderness for the space of many days, yet they were diligent, and found not the land of Zarahemla but returned to this land, having traveled in a land among many waters, having discovered a land which was covered with bones of men, and of beasts, and was also covered with ruins of buildings of every kind, having discovered a land which had been peopled with a people who were as numerous as the hosts of Israel.

And for a testimony that the things that they had said are true they have brought twenty-four plates which are filled with engravings, and they are of pure gold.

(Mosiah 8:7-9)

Now we can’t be sure about the details of the geography – namely how difficult or easy it was to miss Zarahemla completely and reach the former land of the Jaredites instead (it does suggest the model of a single bottleneck of a very narrow neck of land may not be strictly accurate) – but, just as in the previous chapter, we have to consider how fortunate this was. While it may be inevitable that if they kept heading in a certain direction they’d hit the Jaredite ruins eventually, the chances that they’d come across the plates of Ether seem very remote. Of course, while it’s not explicitly stated, I don’t believe we’re meant to take this as simple sheer chance: it was divine providence. And consider the consequences: the very content of the Book of Mormon is at stake here, since these plates contain the record of the Brother of Jared and the account of the fall of the Jaredites, and were the sources for Moroni’s account of the same. If these people didn’t “chance” to find them, we would not have them.

And yet, at this point, both the king who sent them out and doubtless the party involved considered the mission a failure: the hope was to find a living Zarahemla who they could call upon for assistance. Instead they found a ruin. But once again what appears to be a failure, while it may have frustrated the expectations and plans – even righteous ones – of human beings ultimately turned to good. And God likewise provided other means for delivering the people of Limhi, so that “failure” didn’t turn to their harm either.

And the king said that a seer is greater than a prophet.

And Ammon said that a seer is a revelator and a prophet also; and a gift which is greater can no man have, except he should possess the power of God, which no man can; yet a man may have great power given him from God.

(Mosiah 8:15-16)

In reading these words today, I couldn’t help but think about how this is the first occasion in scripture (at least the scripture we have), in which these three titles – seer, revelator and prophet – are conjoined. 1 Samuel 9:9 includes both seer and prophet, but not revelator.

Interestingly, the use of these three titles together in the Doctrine and Covenants appears a bit later in the book than one might expect, in D&C 107:92 (once again just seer and prophet occur earlier, in D&C 21:1). I find this interesting, because it suggests that it took time for concepts introduced by the Book of Mormon to seep out to the early Church, including to the very men involved in translating and taking dictation of the book! We might sometimes assume that Joseph Smith and the others would have known the book and its contents backwards, but that really doesn’t appear to be the case: they had to read and learn from it too, and just like us they continued to learn things as they read it. These may be reassuring for those who are just starting out to study the scriptures: there’s no royal road to learning their contents, but at the same time its a path that anyone can follow because we all, no matter who we are, start at much the same place.

Thus God has provided a means that man, through faith, might work mighty miracles; therefore he becometh a great benefit to his fellow beings.

(Mosiah 8:18)

While Ammon’s comments above are speaking specifically of seers, I believe this also addresses in a more general way one of the recurring themes of the Book of Mormon: God has actual power, and he can and does give this to human beings who exercise faith, and seek to serve God and his children. It’s another interesting connection with 2nd Ammon too, who to explain his deeds to King Lamoni will say:

And a portion of that Spirit dwelleth in me, which giveth me knowledge, and also power according to my faith and desires which are in God.

(Alma 18:35)

The Book of Mormon teaches a God who is a God of power, a God who works supernatural miracles, and a God who confers that power upon human beings, “according to [our] faith and desires which are in God”.

2 Nephi 28

2016 notes:

And they shall contend one with another; and their priests shall contend one with another, and they shall teach with their learning, and deny the Holy Ghost, which giveth utterance.

(2 Nephi 28:4)

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the themes of 2 Nephi 25-30 is the way a contrast is built up between human learning and the knowledge from God, and this is an example, where contending priests are condemned for teaching by their learning while denying the Holy Ghost and true inspiration. I find it cautionary: in my approach to the scriptures, and when I discuss them with other people, how often do I rely on what I think I know rather than being open to the spirit to teach me things I don’t?

For behold, at that day shall he rage in the hearts of the children of men, and stir them up to anger against that which is good.

(2 Nephi 28:20)

2 Nephi 28 also spends quite a bit of time talking about the different tactics of the devil, including flattery, complacency and in this case rage. A lot of present political developments are currently predicated on rage, of course, with people being “angry” and demanding that their anger be validated. And I’ve found in turn that there’s a strong temptation to be angry in turn with certain movements. Such unbridled anger, however, is a tool of the devil, and we/I have to be careful not to let him use such tools against us.

2020 Edit:

This is a very powerful chapter, the culminating point that the last three chapters have been building up to. Here we have many of our modern errors, particularly in religion laid bare.

Notice, once again, the issue of denying the power of God and the existence of miracles, and a reliance on human learning instead of divine inspiration, recurs again:

And they shall contend one with another; and their priests shall contend one with another, and they shall teach with their learning, and deny the Holy Ghost, which giveth utterance.

And they deny the power of God, the Holy One of Israel; and they say unto the people: Hearken unto us, and hear ye our precept; for behold there is no God today, for the Lord and the Redeemer hath done his work, and he hath given his power unto men;

Behold, hearken ye unto my precept; if they shall say there is a miracle wrought by the hand of the Lord, believe it not; for this day he is not a God of miracles; he hath done his work.

(2 Nephi 28:4-6)

Verse 4 caught my attention again, as it did back in 2016. In 2016, however, my principle focus was thinking of my own study of the scriptures. When I read it this time, I was struck that a key part of the issue is that the contending priests will “teach with their learning”, and was reminded of the following passage in Section 50 of the Doctrine and Covenants:

Verily I say unto you, he that is ordained of me and sent forth to preach the word of truth by the Comforter, in the Spirit of truth, doth he preach it by the Spirit of truth or some other way?

And if it be by some other way it is not of God.

And again, he that receiveth the word of truth, doth he receive it by the Spirit of truth or some other way?

If it be some other way it is not of God.

(D&C 50:16-20)

Teaching the gospel is not like teaching other subjects. There may be overlaps in terms of skills and techniques in terms of effective teaching, but it is not the case, when teaching more “secular” subjects, that being inspired by the Holy Ghost is not only expected, but mandatory. It caused me to likewise reflect on the experience of teaching the gospel, meaning both in classroom settings and in things like sacrament talks. It seems that unless we are guided by the spirit, and communicate in such a way that those we are teaching can feel the spirit, than no matter how “correct” the content of our teaching, it is not of God. We must teach so that those who are in our audiences and classes are in a position to feel the spirit. That goes for Sunday School & Priesthood and whatever classes too: no matter how correct the teaching, nor how emotionally touching, nor how good the comments, unless those in the class have had the opportunity of a spiritual experience, it is not of God. I feel we may all have some way to go on this score (I certainly feel I have a better idea of what to speak about in teacher council meetings).

The chapter then goes on to hedonism (it certainly has the modern age pegged):

Yea, and there shall be many which shall say: Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die; and it shall be well with us.

And there shall also be many which shall say: Eat, drink, and be merry; nevertheless, fear God—he will justify in committing a little sin; yea, lie a little, take the advantage of one because of his words, dig a pit for thy neighbor; there is no harm in this; and do all these things, for tomorrow we die; and if it so be that we are guilty, God will beat us with a few stripes, and at last we shall be saved in the kingdom of God.

(2 Nephi 28:7-8)

The first verse seems an outright hedonistic attitude. What I find interesting is the second verse (v. 8), which seems to address a more moderated approach: one that still says “nevertheless, fear God”, and even foresees suffering “a few stripes” (so it acknowledges the possibility of wrong), but only to a degree. Perhaps the most crucial words there are “a little”: it is believed God will justify “a little sin”, and he may punish “a little”, but at last all shall be saved, so fear God… “a little”. It reminds of the comment in The Screwtape Letters (C.S. Lewis), where Screwtape (a demon, counselling another demon) states that “a moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all—and more amusing”. Nephi’s assessment of the idea is blunt: “false and vain and foolish doctrines” (2 Nephi 28:9).

2 Nephi 28:11-15 is striking:

Yea, they have all gone out of the way; they have become corrupted.

Because of pride, and because of false teachers, and false doctrine, their churches have become corrupted, and their churches are lifted up; because of pride they are puffed up.

They rob the poor because of their fine sanctuaries; they rob the poor because of their fine clothing; and they persecute the meek and the poor in heart, because in their pride they are puffed up.

They wear stiff necks and high heads; yea, and because of pride, and wickedness, and abominations, and whoredoms, they have all gone astray save it be a few, who are the humble followers of Christ; nevertheless, they are led, that in many instances they do err because they are taught by the precepts of men.

O the wise, and the learned, and the rich, that are puffed up in the pride of their hearts, and all those who preach false doctrines, and all those who commit whoredoms, and pervert the right way of the Lord, wo, wo, wo be unto them, saith the Lord God Almighty, for they shall be thrust down to hell!

Pride, false teachers and false doctrines have caused all manner of sin and condemnation falls upon those responsible for such things: the wise, the learned and the rich. Still, repentance is possible, but God’s judgment is coming and must fall on the kingdom of the devil, and those within must either repent and be freed or perish with it (vv. 16-19).

There is then a recap of various satanic strategies. In some cases, as mentioned above, Satan will provoke rage and anger. In others he will do the opposite, lulling into complacency:

And others will he pacify, and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well—and thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell.

(2 Nephi 28:21).

Others he will lead astray by teaching that neither hell nor he exist:

And behold, others he flattereth away, and telleth them there is no hell; and he saith unto them: I am no devil, for there is none—and thus he whispereth in their ears, until he grasps them with his awful chains, from whence there is no deliverance.

(2 Nephi 28:22).

The verse stands out to me, because this sort of idea seems not only widespread outside the Church, but I’ve heard some within the Church hold to the same mistake (that there is not hell). I even ended up writing a post on the topic when one such member decided to claim such (and claim said opinion was what “Mormons” believe). But this is really true of everything this chapter is talking about: these are not just problems “outside”, or which categorise the situation before the restoration of the gospel, but pervasive modern ills to which Satan would have us subject too. This is likewise true of the fact, taught in verses 27-30, that those who reject some of God’s revealed words will lose “even that which they have”. We can’t pick and choose with God’s revelations and teachings: past, present nor future.

These ills all risk the same fate:

Yea, they are grasped with death, and hell; and death, and hell, and the devil, and all that have been seized therewith must stand before the throne of God, and be judged according to their works, from whence they must go into the place prepared for them, even a lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment.

(2 Nephi 28:23; I imagine at this point it might get difficult to teach that there is no hell).

These ills also have, at least in many cases, the same source, which I think can be linked to this penultimate verse:

Cursed is he that putteth his trust in man, or maketh flesh his arm, or shall hearken unto the precepts of men, save their precepts shall be given by the power of the Holy Ghost.

This is not the first time this statement about trusting the arm of flesh has appeared in the Book of Mormon (see 2 Nephi 4), nor the first time it has appeared in scripture (see Jeremiah 17:5), but here its application is clearly visible where trusting man, making flesh our arm, is equated with “hearken[ing] unto the precepts of men”. And much of the tendencies described above perform the same substitution: God’s power, knowledge, judgment and blessings are denied, and instead there is a reliance upon human learning, capacity, riches and impulses. And indeed, that is characteristic of pride – which lies at the root of much of this – to vaunt ourselves against others, and especially against God himself.

2 Nephi 27

2016 notes:

There’s so much in here, but I have time to pick out only a couple of verses:

Wherefore, when thou hast read the words which I have commanded thee, and obtained the witnesses which I have promised unto thee, then shalt thou seal up the book again, and hide it up unto me, that I may preserve the words which thou hast not read, until I shall see fit in mine own wisdom to reveal all things unto the children of men.

(2 Nephi 27:22)

This one’s interesting because I suddenly realised it addresses a question I hadn’t thought about all that much (one of those “was this always in there?” moments). The question being why Joseph Smith had to give the plates back. The reason is given here :”that I may preserve the words which thou hast not read” (my emphasis). Never mind people attempting to retranslate the Book of Mormon itself: the concern given here is over the sealed portion, which the Lord has kept back at this time.

2020 edit:

This chapter (as did last chapter) includes a fair amount of Isaiah 29, although quoted without explicit markers (unlike, say 2 Nephi 12-24//Isaiah 2-14), but also significantly interspersed with Nephi’s own commentary and prophecy. Thus so in this case, where the chapter opens with an account of the wickedness of the nations in the last days and the forthcoming judgment to coincide with Christ’s second coming.

The chapter then moves on to talk about a forthcoming book:

And it shall come to pass that the Lord God shall bring forth unto you the words of a book, and they shall be the words of them which have slumbered.

And behold the book shall be sealed; and in the book shall be a revelation from God, from the beginning of the world to the ending thereof.

(2 Nephi 27:6-7)

This book is the records contained on the golden plates, of which an unsealed portion is translated and published as the Book of Mormon, with the rest to appear at some future date (vv. 9-11). Apparently there’s much more in it, for “they reveal all things from the foundation of the world unto the end thereof” (v. 10).

The chapter then gives an account of some words of the unsealed portion being taken to “the learned”, who is asked to read the words. The learned then requests the book, but when informed that they are sealed will state that they cannot read them (vv. 15-18). In contrast, they will be then delivered to one who is not learned, who shall simply say “I am not learned” (v. 19) and will be told:

Then shall the Lord God say unto him: The learned shall not read them, for they have rejected them, and I am able to do mine own work; wherefore thou shalt read the words which I shall give unto thee.

(2 Nephi 27:20)

Now on one hand this is seen as a reference to the well-known account of Martin Harris taking some characters to Charles Anthon. As recounted in the Pearl of Great Price:

Sometime in this month of February, the aforementioned Mr. Martin Harris came to our place, got the characters which I had drawn off the plates, and started with them to the city of New York. For what took place relative to him and the characters, I refer to his own account of the circumstances, as he related them to me after his return, which was as follows:

“I went to the city of New York, and presented the characters which had been translated, with the translation thereof, to Professor Charles Anthon, a gentleman celebrated for his literary attainments. Professor Anthon stated that the translation was correct, more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian. I then showed him those which were not yet translated, and he said that they were Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic; and he said they were true characters. He gave me a certificate, certifying to the people of Palmyra that they were true characters, and that the translation of such of them as had been translated was also correct. I took the certificate and put it into my pocket, and was just leaving the house, when Mr. Anthon called me back, and asked me how the young man found out that there were gold plates in the place where he found them. I answered that an angel of God had revealed it unto him.

“He then said to me, ‘Let me see that certificate.’ I accordingly took it out of my pocket and gave it to him, when he took it and tore it to pieces, saying that there was no such thing now as ministering of angels, and that if I would bring the plates to him he would translate them. I informed him that part of the plates were sealed, and that I was forbidden to bring them. He replied, ‘I cannot read a sealed book.’ I left him and went to Dr. Mitchell, who sanctioned what Professor Anthon had said respecting both the characters and the translation.”

(Joseph Smith- History 1:63-65)

Charles Anthon here is the learned man, while the unlearned man who does end up reading the words is Joseph Smith.

And yet there is more going on here. This passage is not just about these two men (and the Book of Mormon, and the witnesses). There is a wider theme here distinguishing between the learning of the world, that men have set up in stead of that of God, and the inspiration that comes from God. Thus this chapter has a broader application than this one episode, which is a type of the dilemma we all face in gain a greater understanding, especially of the things of God. Do we rely on our own learning, upon the mortal intellect alone? If so than no matter how learned or knowledgeable we are, we shall find the scriptures and other revelations and sacred matters of God a “sealed book”. Or do we humble acknowledge our deficiencies, in which case we are in a position to be blessed with God’s understanding and inspiration.

This is not to say that knowledge and learning are necessarily bad, far from it: “to be learned is good”, says Jacob, “if they hearken unto the counsels of God” (2 Nephi 9:29). We are supposed to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118). I am convinced that relying on faith alone risks just as much distortion as relying on study alone would. But, as discussed here and in The Book of Mormon & its relationship with the Bible, Book of Mormon prophets relied upon inspiration and their own revelatory experiences to understand the scriptures they read (the so-called “Hermeneutic of Revelation”), and read them with an eye of faith. They did not seek to understand them purely by their own or any other man’s intellect. One of the great sins of those preaching in the latter days is that they will, relying solely on their learning and their human wisdom, and excluding revelation and faith. Likewise, if we approach the scriptures purely from what might be termed an “academic” viewpoint, they will be sealed to us; we might learn many things about them, but we’ll miss the point (and I’ve see some very learned people do this with my own eyes and ears). “[T]he things of God knoweth no man, but [by] the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:11), and cannot be forced open by human intellect alone.

Such earthly learning in insufficient to understand the things of God. Thus he will perform his “marvelous work” with his own power, in a way that will baffle those accounted wise and learned among men (note the recurrence of the same themes discussed in 2 Nephi 26):

For behold, I am God; and I am a God of miracles; and I will show unto the world that I am the same yesterday, today, and forever; and I work not among the children of men save it be according to their faith.

And again it shall come to pass that the Lord shall say unto him that shall read the words that shall be delivered him:

Forasmuch as this people draw near unto me with their mouth, and with their lips do honor me, but have removed their hearts far from me, and their fear towards me is taught by the precepts of men—

Therefore, I will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people, yea, a marvelous work and a wonder, for the wisdom of their wise and learned shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent shall be hid.

(2 Nephi 27:23-26)

 

2 Nephi 26

2016 notes;

And after Christ shall have risen from the dead he shall show himself unto you, my children, and my beloved brethren; and the words which he shall speak unto you shall be the law which ye shall do.

(2 Nephi 26:1)

Nephi’s particularly talking of Christ’s post-resurrection appearance to the Nephites here, but it applies to us too. I find myself thinking that – though I believe in Christ and try to follow him – how often do I actually treat and think of his words as law?

And as I spake concerning the convincing of the Jews, that Jesus is the very Christ, it must needs be that the Gentiles be convinced also that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God;

(2 Nephi 26:12)

Part of this section addresses the fact that both Jew and Gentile have gotten Christ wrong in some regards. At a time when people increasingly do not believe in the divinity of Christ, I think this verse – and the accompanying message – apply more than ever. It also surprises me when I have met young members of the Church who, while accepting Christ as their Saviour and talk of their “elder brother”, seem to have difficultly understanding him as their God. But this is one of the key messages of the Book of Mormon, as stated on the title page: “that JESUS is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL GOD”. He is not just a great teacher, or a perfect man, or the Messiah, or our Saviour, or an examplar, though he is all of these things. He is also our Lord and our God. And thus, as Nephi says in the preceding chapter:

And now behold, I say unto you that the right way is to believe in Christ, and deny him not; and Christ is the Holy One of Israel; wherefore ye must bow down before him, and worship him with all your might, mind, and strength, and your whole soul; and if ye do this ye shall in nowise be cast out.

(2 Nephi 25:29)

2020 Edit:

Several things stood out to me today.

One was Nephi once again showing a strong emotional reaction to events in the far future (in this case the devastation that would occur in connection to the death of Christ amongst his people):

O the pain, and the anguish of my soul for the loss of the slain of my people! For I, Nephi, have seen it, and it well nigh consumeth me before the presence of the Lord; but I must cry unto my God: Thy ways are just.

(2 Nephi 26:7)

Once again it’s interest that his perspective was such, and his visions of these events were vivid enough, that they made the sort of emotional impact one would expect of contemporary events (and indeed that Nephi often doesn’t seem to react as strongly to his present).

Then there’s the statement in verse 8 (which goes along with similar statements in verses 3 and 5):

But behold, the righteous that hearken unto the words of the prophets, and destroy them not, but look forward unto Christ with steadfastness for the signs which are given, notwithstanding all persecution—behold, they are they which shall not perish.

For Nephi’s people approaching the calamities that would accompany his first coming to them (i.e. his post-resurrection appearance), a crucial factor determining one’s safety (and I’m sure this is not speaking in a purely physical sense; that is there isn’t necessarily a guarantee of physical safety here, but on the other hand even more is offered) was one’s reaction to the prophets: those who cast out, stone and kill  the prophets (vv. 3, 5) will face destruction, while those who do not, but listen to them and look forward “with steadfastness” for Christ will not perish. I think it is undoubtedly the case that there is a type in Christ’s appearance to the Nephites for that which is to come in the future.

I also found (although perhaps partly because it relates to topics I’ve already thought about) the following verse sticking out:

And the Gentiles are lifted up in the pride of their eyes, and have stumbled, because of the greatness of their stumbling block, that they have built up many churches; nevertheless, they put down the power and miracles of God, and preach up unto themselves their own wisdom and their own learning, that they may get gain and grind upon the face of the poor.

(2 Nephi 26:20)

There’s several elements here, a listing of various errors that the Gentiles of the last days and their churches will often fall into. A number of these themes will return as a running theme in this passage (meaning 2 Nephi 25-30), but two which catch my attention in particular are:

  1. “they put down the power and miracles of God” – while the Book of Mormon does address the topic of atheism (for example, with Korihor in Alma 30), something it seems to spend even more time warning against is what I sometimes dub “practical atheism”: that is, beliefs that may acknowledge the existence of God, but which deny his power, the existence of miracles or that he is prepared to actively intervene in our lives. It should be noted that the first vision likewise addresses this point, with Christ warning Joseph Smith against those that ‘“… teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”’
  2. They “preach up unto themselves their own wisdom and their own learning”: they will set up their own learning as the content of their teaching (in contrast to, as 2 Nephi 25-30 addresses, the knowledge available from God). Jacob in 2 Nephi 9 of course condemns those who are learned but do not hearken to the counsel of God; the error here is in some respects even more pernicious, that some will set up their learning and teach it as if it were the counsel of God. And some will do this to “get gain” (priestcraft), and to “grind uponthe face of the poor”. It’s interesting that these are two items, suggesting that simply getting gain isn’t enough for those it is talking about; they not only seek to enrich themselves, but also to deprive others (something that, unfortunately, rings true with human psychology: unfortunately we only tend to think of ourselves as rich or prosperous not when we are, but when we’re doing so compared to other people).

The next few chapters will build upon these themes.

 

 

2 Nephi 14

And now the quotation of Isaiah 4…

Firstly, it may be of interest to note that at least some commentators over the centuries suggest that verse 1 should really be a continuation of chapter 3, which may make it read a little differently. The chapter divisions are not original, of course, so this is possible. In the Book of Mormon, the current chapter divisions, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, date from Orson Pratt’s publication of the 1879 edition; in the pre-1879 chapters, all of 2 Nephi 11-15 are one chapter (chapter VIII).

Verses 3-4 attract some interest:

And it shall come to pass, they that are left in Zion and remain in Jerusalem shall be called holy, every one that is written among the living in Jerusalem—

When the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and shall have purged the blood of Jerusalem from the midst thereof by the spirit of judgment and by the spirit of burning.

I’ve commented a lot on God’s judgments in past posts (I don’t know if that reflects me or simply Isaiah!), but what I think this passage underlines is that this process of judgment is not simply to punish, though there will be those who will be. God also intends to refine us, if we will let ourselves be refined. For those who endure, God’s actions will cleanse and sanctify us. Holiness is possible, if we submit to God’s will and endure what he sees fit to inflict upon us.

However, on my current read through I was also struck by verses 5-6:

And the Lord will create upon every dwelling-place of mount Zion, and upon her assemblies, a cloud and smoke by day and the shining of a flaming fire by night; for upon all the glory of Zion shall be a defence.

And there shall be a tabernacle for a shadow in the daytime from the heat, and for a place of refuge, and a covert from storm and from rain.

It’s quite something to picture: future Zion will be so imbued with the presence and power of God that each “dwelling-place” is described as enjoying the same visible presence as that the Israelites experienced when crossing Sinai.

Reading the Book of Mormon: Introduction

The front matter to the Book of Mormon has a variety of different origins. As discussed, the title page is part of the plates, and as the 2014 LDS edition is careful to note, “is part of the sacred text”. The testimony of the three and eight witnesses is obviously not part of the original plates, but has been included in every single edition of the Book of Mormon ever produced, is called for within the text itself, and as discussed one of the testimonies relates another revelatory experience in and of itself. The testimony of Joseph Smith is a more recent addition, not integral to the Book itself, but its contents are a selection of material taken from Joseph Smith-History in the Pearl of Great Price, and so is still regarded as scriptural. However, the “Introduction” and the “Brief Explanation of the Book of Mormon” are study helps, the first being added as recently as the 1981 LDS edition, and are not part of the sacred text. It’s for that reason that it should be seen as fairly uncontroversial when they are changed to reflect our different understanding of the text. An example of this would be the change in the introduction from the Lamanites being described as the “principal ancestors of the American Indians” in the 1981 texts to “among the ancestors of the American Indians”, reflecting increased readings that saw the Book of Mormon events as occurring within a more limited geographical area than earlier readers believed. The 2014 LDS edition is in general more careful to distinguish between such study aids and parts of the sacred text itself (hence many of the book headings – which are original and part of the inspired text itself – are now in non-italicised text, which chapter headings, which are purely a study aid and added in 1981 are kept italicised).

However, while the introduction may not be part of the sacred text proper it is worth reading and considering. Reading it today several things really came to mind, a couple of which I’ve written about fairly recently.

The first is the description that:

It puts forth the doctrines of the gospel, outlines the plan of salvation, and tells men what they must do to gain peace in this life and eternal salvation in the life to come.

As I recently commented in a brief article about the role of the Book of Mormon, “the Book of Mormon has a relentless focus on the most important and basic matters”. The Book of Mormon constantly returns to what might be thought of as the most basic principles, and experience of living, the gospel: faith in God, repentance of sins, baptism for the remission of sins, sanctification, and the basic challenge of trying to endure in faith and righteousness through the challenges that life throws at us. When it addresses “big” matters, they tend to be the ones that are central to our very experience of the Gospel and our own salvation, such as the fall, the Atonement of Christ, and the resurrection and final judgment. Indeed, the Book of Mormon has a particular aptitude for summarising the core thrust of the entire gospel into rather brief passages, such as in 3 Nephi 27:13-20, or in the likes of 2 Nephi 31. And since our perspective of the relative importance of different appendages of the gospel can easily become skewed (as President Oaks mentions here), I think the Book of Mormon’s sense of doctrinal priorities can serve as a corrective to our own, helping us to refocus on those very things that bring “peace in this life and eternal salvation in the life to come”.

The introduction also shares Joseph Smith’s well known quote, that “the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book”. One could easily speak at length of any of the three major elements in that quotation, and plenty of people have. That last element, however, made me think of another thing I recently wrote about in the article I mention earlier, in which I mention my own experience that there is a power in the Book of Mormon, a powerful devotional effect in which I stated that when I read the Book of Mormon more consistently that “I am closer to the Spirit, repent more readily, am more obedient, and find it easier to resist temptation”. I mention there that this is a power that goes beyond the words on the page, although we have to read those words to gain access to it. Reading Joseph Smith’s quotation, however, helps me to realise another crucial part to accessing that power: “abiding by its precepts“. It is when we seek to not only read, but to obey God’s word as found in scripture, that the power found therein flows most strongly into our life.

The final paragraph of the introduction also stood out to me today:

Those who gain this divine witness from the Holy Spirit will also come to know by the same power that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world, that Joseph Smith is His revelator and prophet in these last days, and that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the Lord’s kingdom once again established on the earth, preparatory to the Second Coming of the Messiah.

The Book of Mormon – and the process by which we gain a knowledge of its truth – points to wider truths, as a sign “[p]roving 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 & Covenants 20:11). I’ve written about this topic elsewhere (Chapter 5 of The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible, for those who are interested), but to summarise, the Book of Mormon is both a sign from God and a means he employs in the broader work he is engaged “in these last days”. It, and the spiritual experience we gain from engaging with and seeking confirmation of the truth of the book, are a key to a wider and (for the moment) invisible world.

Balancing Scripture

I’ve often been interested in how scriptural books relate to each other. As Latter-day Saints, of course, we have multiple books of scripture in our canon: The Bible (which itself is a compilation of books); the Book of Mormon, a record of ancient prophets in the Americas; the Doctrine and Covenants, a collection of revelations from the modern era; and the Pearl of Great Price, which is rather a small miscellaneous assortment. How these connect, and the way they draw on each other and shed light on each other, drew my attention enough that I wrote my erstwhile thesis (and now book) on the Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible.

Sometimes, however, we can neglect particular parts of our canon. There’s a particularly powerful warning in the Doctrine and Covenants about the Saints neglecting the Book of Mormon:

And your minds in times past have been darkened because of unbelief, and because you have treated lightly the things you have received—

Which vanity and unbelief have brought the whole church under condemnation.

And this condemnation resteth upon the children of Zion, even all.

And they shall remain under this condemnation until they repent and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon and the former commandments which I have given them, not only to say, but to do according to that which I have written—

That they may bring forth fruit meet for their Father’s kingdom; otherwise there remaineth a scourge and judgment to be poured out upon the children of Zion.

(D&C 84:54-58)

This warning was notably reiterated by Ezra Taft Benson in his first conference address as President of the Church, a message he continued to repeat throughout his presidency. I think that now, looking back with the benefit of hindsight, one can see many blessings that have come from members heeding that warning and paying more attention to the Book of Mormon, including a greater understanding of Christ’s atonement and the role of his grace, topics about which the Book of Mormon teaches emphatically.

One can neglect the other books too, of course. One conclusion of my own work was that the Book of Mormon prophets saw all scripture as part of one vast, interdependent collection, and that to reject one part is to reject all, as seen in the warning in 2 Nephi 28:29-30:

Wo be unto him that shall say: We have received the word of God, and we need no more of the word of God, for we have enough!

For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have.

Indeed, I believe one can sometimes take a focus on the Book of Mormon too far, if it causes one to neglect completely the Bible, the Doctrine & Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price. To do this is hardly something the Book of Mormon writers would approve of, when one purpose in writing the work was “for the intent that ye may believe that [meaning the Bible]” (Mormon 7:9); nor would it be in keeping with Christ’s instruction to read Isaiah and the other prophets (3 Nephi 23:1, 5). It’s for that very reason – in response to comments that Latter-day Saints didn’t need to read the Old Testament – that I wrote a series of posts about why they should (including that it’d help them understand the Book of Mormon)!

Having said that, however, there does seem to be a particular focus on the Book of Mormon itself, enough to provoke a divine warning in revelation, not to mention the continuing focus by present day Apostles. And I have often pondered why that is the case. It was written with prophetic foresight for our day (Mormon 8:34-35), of course, and wasn’t read by the people of the time, but then again the revelations of the Doctrine and Covenants were actually written in our era. There is also the sense in which the Book of Mormon is described as “the keystone of our religion”: it simultaneously bears witness of past scripture, of the prophethood of Joseph Smith, and of the divine authority of the Church today (D&C 20:11). But if one has already received this witness, are there any other reasons to focus on the Book of Mormon in particular?

Two principle reasons suggest themselves to my mind (there are more, but these seem key).

Firstly, the Book of Mormon has a relentless focus on the most important and basic matters. It is noticeable, for instance, that in contrast to the rather loose and expansive way we tend to use the word doctrine (and slather that term on top of everything), in the Book of Mormon it is used really in only two senses: doctrines, plural, always referring to false doctrines; and doctrine, singular, which when not attached to the word “false” (as in 2 Nephi 28:12), refers principally to the “doctrine of Christ” or “the gospel”, a term used of the most basic core of the gospel. As seen, for instance, in 3 Nephi 27:13-20, the description of this gospel is succinct (just 8 verses there!), but covers the most important matters: the incarnation of Christ, redemption through his death and resurrection, our resurrection and final judgment and the basic principles of faith, repentance, baptism, and sanctification through the receipt of the Holy Ghost. Likewise, the basic themes announced on the title page – revelation, the restoration of Israel, and the messiah-hood and divinity of Christ – are emphasised again and again (including, as I discovered, in the Book of Mormon’s use of the Bible). The Book of Mormon aims like a laser at the things that matter most, while hardly talking at all about some things we tend to think are very important.

This may be seen as part and parcel of its mission to restore “plain and precious things” (1 Nephi 13:40), but I also wonder if it ends up going beyond that. It seems quite easy, from observation, that when people principally read other portions of scripture for them to not see the wood for the trees: that is, to end up focusing and losing perspective on principles that may be true, and may even be necessary, but which are an appendage to more basic things. Likewise, in such circumstances it seems easier for people to over-complicate the gospel, or get focused on overly-speculative matters. But if we are reading the Book of Mormon as well, perhaps its focus can help to keep us focused. By serving as a lens in our reading of other scripture, it may not only restore plain and precious things, but help us to see the plain and precious things in the other books too.

Secondly, there is a power beyond the text itself. I’ve had some powerful experiences with scripture, with a range of different passages, throughout the standard works. But when I look back over my life, I find that in general that it is those periods when I am reading the Book of Mormon regularly (rather than just the other books) that I am spiritually better. On an average basis, I find it has a more powerful devotional effect than almost any other passage, save perhaps for the Gospels (and perhaps even just the Gospel of John). When I am read the Book of Mormon over a prolonged period, I am closer to the Spirit, repent more readily, am more obedient, and find it easier to resist temptation.

Part of a reason this comes to mind is a feeling that I have a personal need to refocus a little. Most of my reading of scripture this year has been from other books, particularly the New Testament, and that’s certainly not bad (especially with Come Follow Me), but I have been reading less from the Book of Mormon this year than those immediately prior (especially compared to the thesis years). Everyone is probably in a different place on this front, and would need to judge for themselves where their balance currently is, but personally speaking I feel a need to re-balance in the direction of reading the Book of Mormon more consistently than I have recently. Because there’s a benefit that I feel that comes from it that extends beyond the words themselves.

There’s many things in the gospel, and our experience with God, that cannot be put into words. Indeed, I think that’s part of the key to the book of Job: Job’s questions aren’t answered in the book of Job, but he does learn something that puts him at peace, something he learns from seeing God (Job 42:3-6), something which cannot be put into words, but can only be learned the same way Job did. Likewise, in reading scripture I feel that there is something we can experience that is more than simply taking in the text on the page. There have been times in my life – I found quite often as a missionary, since I’d often have one in my hand – that I could feel the power within the Book of Mormon simply by holding it. That power comes from God, and I believe, and have felt, that when we read the book with a sincere heart and real intent that we receive not only the words that are written into our minds, but also receive that power into our souls. Christ himself taught that God’s word, and his word, has a sanctifying effect upon us (John 15:3, 17:17). And as President Benson said, quoting an earlier apostle:

“But there is another reason why we should read it,” President Romney continued. “By doing so we will fill and refresh our minds with the constant flow of that ‘water’ which Jesus said would be in us—‘a well of water springing up into everlasting life.’ (John 4:14.) We must obtain a continuing supply of this water if we are to resist evil and retain the blessings of being born again. …

“If we would avoid adopting the evils of the world, we must pursue a course which will daily feed our minds with and call them back to the things of the Spirit. I know of no better way to do this than by reading the Book of Mormon.”