Friday, October 9, 2009

LDS Lesson #2

Today was my second lesson with the Latter-day Saint missionaries. I was almost late to the meeting because an elderly Greek man wanted to make friends, but after a few minutes of pleasant conversation, I excused myself and made it to the church in the nick of time. After some brief chit-chat – I explained why my day had worn me out tremendously by that point, which is a matter that need not concern us here – and an opening prayer lead by Daedalos, they inquired as to whether I'd thought up any questions since our last meeting. I'd scribbled a few notes on a sheet of paper, and so my first query respected the phrase “fullness of the gospel”, which – according to the Latter-day Saints – was lost in the apostasy. As Creon explained it, the fullness of the gospel consists in five steps: (1) faith, (2) repentance, (3) baptism, (4) the gift of the Holy Ghost, and (5) enduring to the end. These, for them, are the deeds we need to accomplish in order to secure Christ's advocacy for ourselves on the day of judgment. While the missionaries had to concede that these five things can themselves be found in some form even in the allegedly apostate churches, they contended that various details were lost in the apostasy. The Bible discusses all of these things but is needlessly perplexing on many counts, which is why the Book of Mormon is vitally necessary.

And it came to pass that I asked about some of the doctrines purportedly lost in the apostasy. On the whiteboard, Creon listed a few things. The Plan of Salvation as a whole, he said, had been lost – more on this later. Also lost were the priesthood, with the authority to perform necessary ordinances; the temple; work on behalf of the dead; and a better understanding of Christ's Second Coming. The same goes for teaching about eternal families and some basic ideas regarding the atonement. While some of these things are details regarding the “fullness of the gospel”, as mentioned before, others are merely “appendages” to the fullness of the gospel.

My next query was how Joseph Smith had (purportedly) translated the Book of Mormon. Creon referred me to the introduction included in the Book of Mormon, which relates that along with the golden plates, Smith had uncovered stones in silver bows, which were the Urim and Thummim used in ancient Israel for receiving messages from God. These he used to decipher the writing on the golden plates, which he then translated and dictated to a scribe. The script resembled 'reformed' Egyptian characters, which Smith allegedly confirmed by copying some and taking them to a college professor for verification. The professor later retracted his alleged statements, supposedly after discovering that Smith was claiming to be a prophet. The reason why the plates were written in this script is that it's much shorter than Hebrew, and thus was necessary for keeping the account on as few plates as possible. (Not, of course, that the quest for brevity kept the Book of Mormon for being ridiculously repetitive...) Furthermore, Creon and Daedalos affirmed that Egyptian was one of the languages current in Jerusalem during Lehi's time, prior to the Babylonian Captivity.

And it came to pass that I asked about the Three Witnesses and the Eight Witnesses, whose testimony is all we have – other than Smith's own words – as regards the existence of the golden plates at all. Of the Three Witnesses, Martin Harris was Smith's earlier scribe, but was removed from that role after disobeying God's command and allowing portions of the manuscript to be lost. (In fact, the story is much more complex than that: Harris' wife Lucy came up with a brilliant way to falsify Smith's 'translation', by swiping portions of the manuscript and waiting for him to 'retranslate' them differently. He instead decided not to translate those parts anew.) Oliver Cowdery was Harris' replacement, while David Whitmer was a lawyer and friend of Smith. The Eight Witnesses consist predominantly of Smith's family and Whitmer's family, since Smith was staying with Whitmer at the time. Of all of these, Creon was adamant that none had ever retracted their testimony about the golden plates, even though he admitted that several from each group had left Smith's church.

And it came to pass that my next question regarded the nature of the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price. These are the two other 'Standard Works' accepted by Latter-day Saints as scripture in addition to the Bible and the Book of Mormon. The Doctrine and Covenants consists of prophetic revelations given to Smith throughout his ministry, on the model of one of the prophetic books of the Old Testament. Pearl of Great Price is more complex and contains several components. One, “Joseph Smith – History”, is essentially Smith's own accounts of things like the First Vision, which is allegedly when Smith, as a young man, was visited by both the Father and the Son in bodily form, in which they condemned all Christians of the day and insisted that Smith restore the One True Church. Other elements of the Pearl of Great Price are excerpts from Joseph Smith's “inspired translation” of the Bible, which he never finished due to his “martyrdom”. This “inspired translation”, Creon said, isn't meant to introduce any doctrinal changes but rather to clarify what just doesn't make enough sense in the Bible as it was. The Book of Moses, part of the Pearl of Great Price, did basically the same for Genesis; the other selection in the Pearl of Great Price is Matthew. When I asked what relationship the inspired translation had to the original manuscripts, Creon said that in some cases the inspired translation is more faithful to the original manuscripts than the translations we have of the received text; in other cases, however, Smith is shedding new light on the narrative in question, light not available from the original manuscripts. ...Think about that for a moment. This is basically an admission that Smith saw it as his divinely ordained quest to improve the Bible, because God botched it up the first time around. One can nuance it however one likes, but I think that that's the bottom line. Creon and Daedalos repeatedly said that the Bible is too confusing and subject to many interpretations, which is why both the Book of Mormon and the inspired translation are necessary. Of course, it wouldn't be fair to omit Creon's assurance that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints doesn't actually use the Joseph Smith Translation (JST) as their official version of the Bible, but rather references it in footnotes in their KJV Bibles.

Also, the Pearl of Great Price contains the Book of Abraham. Creon told me how Joseph Smith succeeded in obtaining some Egyptian papyri that were, allegedly, written by Abraham himself while the patriarch was in Egypt. The book contains some facsimiles of what the fragments looked like. No mention, of course, was made of the fundamentally indisputable fact that some of these fragments were later recovered, and as it turns out, the fragments from which Smith 'translated' the Book of Abraham are in fact a thoroughly pagan document, the Book of Breathings if I recall correctly, that simply could not have been written by Abraham. So much, in my opinion, for Smith's calling as a prophetic translator of lost sacred texts.

And it came to pass that I asked for some information about how we can be sure, historically speaking, that the 'Great Apostasy' actually took place. This brought Creon to take me on a ride through church history and biblical studies, and I can't fathom how I kept a straight face through all of the inaccuracies. He started by stating how, at one point, there was the so-called 'Orthodox Church', which was led by six or seven head bishops from places like Greece, Armenia, and Rome – in fact, the number of patriarchs was five (Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Constantinople). The Roman bishop was considered their head and had all power and authority, yet was equal to the others. (This, I repeat, is Creon's account, not mine.) As early as 500 AD, tensions arose between Rome and the others. Creon then backtracked to 300 AD and the Emperor Constantine, who brought about the forcible uniting of paganism and Christianity. (This is patently untrue.) Constantine introduced the use of the cross as a symbol, which had not be so used before. (I think even this is perhaps inaccurate.) Constantine was also responsible for the production of the Bible, which until then had not existed, and of course Constantine fouled it up and put it in the wrong order because John intervenes between Luke and Acts, and Paul's epistles are not arranged chronologically as they were surely meant to be, and the book of Revelations [sic—should be Revelation without the final “s”] predates John's Gospel and so should be before it. Of course, none of this is remotely sensible. The Gospels go first because of their subject matter, being biographies of Jesus. Obviously, this requires that John's Gospel goes before both Acts of the Apostles and Revelation, which have later subject matter, regardless of their order of composition. As for Paul's letters, chronological ordering should not be privileged above other concerns, and there's a good chance that the earliest collections of them come from Paul himself, as per E. Randolph Richards' excellent book on Paul and first-century letter writing (Paul and First-Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition and Collection). Creon also asserted that the Council of Nicea was held in three days, and that most participants left in utter frustration after the first day; those who remained forced their doctrines on the whole of the apostate church. (Also not even close...)

To return to Creon's story, the first big split in the church came in around 1100 AD (actually, the focal point was around 1054-ish, although the schism was actually a process extended over several centuries), when the Orthodox Church was declared apostate by Rome, and vice versa. The reality is more complex than that, but yes, it was an absolute mess. According to Creon, the Orthodox Church is now just tenuously united, with each national branch having wild differences than all the others; he couldn't really seem to think of anything to unite them but the name. (That's a howler!) With the split, the Catholic Church came into existence, followed by reformers who attempted to call out Catholic errors. Luther was fairly valiant, but lacked priesthood authority to justify his “93 points” (actually the 95 Theses). What followed was the beginning of translation of the Bible into common languages (actually, this began earlier, and had ample antecedents in Jerome's Vulgate). Creon elaborated the course of church history in England and America, with America being the world's first bastion of true religious freedom so as to provide a climate for Joseph Smith to arise in the 19th century. (Evidently, not enough to stop him from being ruthlessly persecuted and martyred, though...)

And it came to pass that, since Creon had earlier mentioned the confusion of the Nicene Creed – which he continually pronounced as something like “Niseeren”, despite the utter lack of an “r” – I asked him to elaborate on that point. He claimed that the Nicene Creed is so confusing because it says that there are three separate beings (“God the Father, Jesus Christ, and Holy Ghost”) who are all in each other, and who are “three in being, three in purpose, but one in purpose”. Creon said that he's read the creed and just can't understand it. This is where I really had to stop from laughing. For one, Creon had virtually just described the Latter-day Saint doctrine of the Godhead. Second, the Nicene Creed never says that the Father, Son, and Spirit are “three separate beings” or “three in being”, which is in fact diametrically opposite to Nicene orthodoxy – but which is, I remind my readers, precisely what Latter-day Saints believe! Third, nowhere does the Nicene Creed talk about them being either “three in purpose” or “one in purpose”; this is nowhere near the focus of the creed. In virtually every respect, Creon got it wrong. The Nicene Creed actually elaborates what would later be summarized in the Trinitarian formula that God is one in being/essence but three in person; the main contribution of the Council of Nicaea (AD 325) was to affirm that the Father and the Son are one in essence, which defended against suggestions that had started to arise that Christ was a relatively ignorant, secondary, created god of less worth than the eternal, uncreated God the Father. It was a later revision of the creed at the Council of Constantinople (AD 381) that emphasis was put on the Holy Spirit, since some had turned from attacking the Son to attacking the Holy Spirit. As for myself, I've read the Nicene Creed many times and have yet to found anything that doesn't make perfect sense.

And it came to pass that Creon said also that the Council of Nicaea was called to decide issues pertaining to whether Christ's resurrected body was physical or not, or whether he had one at all or not, and whether the God of the Old Testament was the same as the one of the New Testament. These were in fact some of the bizarre heresies that rose in the early church. The Docetists denied that Christ's resurrection was at all physical, because they disdained matter. Marcion and his followers, likewise hating matter, decided that the God of the Old Testament (who created matter) was unworthy of worship, and so Christ and his Father must be enemies of that lesser god, and so had come to redeem us from matter. But this was not the point of the Council of Nicaea. Rather, it dealt with several major issues. One of the (in my eyes) less important ones was the date of Easter; more importantly was the Arian heresy that was starting to gain more sway. Arius taught that Christ was divine in some sense, sure, but was heteroousios (“of a different essence”) with the Father, because the Son was created and the Father was uncreated. Arius went on to say that Christ couldn't understand the Father perfectly because the Father was too far above him, and that there's always the danger that Christ will do as Satan did and rebel against the Father. Needless to say, Arius presented quite a troubling view. Arius' heresy is what was condemned at the Council of Nicaea.

And it came to pass that Creon also said that after the Council of Nicaea, they had a good ol'-fashioned book burning of all the stuff that was to be excluded from the canon. He elaborated a bit on the Gospel of Thomas, which he thought was found with the Dead Sea Scrolls. (In fact, the Dead Sea Scrolls were Jewish writings not directly related to the early church; there were no gospels among them. The Gospel of Thomas was found as part of a library at Nag Hammadi in Egypt.) According to Creon, the Gospel of Thomas is a compilation of nice psalms, but contains nothing that adds to Christian doctrine, and so there's no real harm in leaving it out. (In fact, the Gospel of Thomas contains a sum total of zero psalms, but does contain 114 'sayings' attributed to Jesus, many of which are borrowed or adapted from the canonical gospels. Some of these sayings are patently unbiblical, such as the one in which Jesus says that women are unworthy of life and must become men, or various pantheistic exclamations about his presence in split logs, and others. So, no, the Gospel of Thomas is quite at odds with Christian doctrine, and is not a compilation of psalms.) He said that all of these many, many gospels – even those excluded – are all testifying about the same thing, just from slightly different points of view, with the underlying implication seeming to be that all are equally valid. Creon also tried his hand at describing what's known as the Synoptic Problem; he said that Matthew and Luke seem to be based on Mark, but scholars think that there's another common source, “Gospel X”. (In actuality, the scholarly term for this hypothetical literary entity is “Q”, from the German word Quelle, or “source”.)

The lesson? I pity anyone who actually tries learning about church history from Mormon missionaries. It's no wonder they think that church history shows the 'Great Apostasy'; they know next to nothing about actual church history! Now, I want to add that I don't intend to mock these guys here. Creon and Daedalos in particular are sincere, faithful, sharp-minded, well-meaning guys who have a burning passion to bring Christ's message as they understand it to the world. And everything about that should be honored and respected, even though I personally think that they're wrong in many respects and in fact spreading a heretical variant of the truth rather than the truth itself, pure and unvarnished. And, to be quite fair, the average Latter-day Saint missionary no doubt is more familiar with the broad contours of church history than is the typical evangelical Christian, even evangelical missionary. Still, the fact remains that Creon really surprised me here with how inaccurately he presented the subject. Now, there's little doubt in my mind that, if I had corrected him, he would have graciously accepted the correction on those points; but, my narrative would be incomplete without cataloguing these errors.

And it came to pass that at this point, I rested with my questions – I didn't bother trying to correct the missionaries on their factual errors this time around – and decided to let them get on with their lesson for the day, lest I be imprisoned there forever. I should also note that throughout these presentations, they continually warned me not to let the quest for understanding get in the way of having spiritual experiences. See, Latter-day Saints have a very experience-oriented epistemology. What I mean is, they think that a 'testimony', which is the sole way to be converted, can only arise from getting a special fuzzy feeling inside when you pray. Evidence? Might just be a hindrance. For them, you can't understand these things until you have that special experience and decide to accept it all uncritically. When I look at the Bible, the exact opposite it what I find most often. Paul never exhorts people to pray to see if these things are true; people get praised for searching the Scriptures (i.e., looking at the evidence) to see if these things are true.

Anyway, the lesson for the day was about the Plan of Salvation. And it came to pass that Creon explained that we're all literally sons and daughters of the Heavenly Father who were created in a “pre-mortal existance” [sic]. When I asked later for some clarification on that, Creon said that it meant that they were “created spiritually” and that since Adam and Eve were made in God's image, they must've looked like him. As Daedalos added, this means that he “doesn't have, like, ten arms or five legs...”, which no Christian believes. Latter-day Saints occasionally seem to identify being a personal being with having some kind of body, which absolutely does not follow. (The point about resembling God, by the way, is overwhelmingly falsified by knowing how the word “image” was used in the Near East. The phrase means that Adam and Eve were set up as God's representatives in authority over the earth.) When I asked for further clarification on the “created spiritually” phrase, Creon got confused, and when I asked whether he created our spirits out of nothing or out of some sort of material, he said that they have no idea but that it's inconsequential, and maybe we'll find out in heaven someday. (In fact, one of the most fundamental points of LDS doctrine is that God never creates anything out of nothing, but always out of pre-existing material.) At least he was aware that he was avoiding my question completely, and so I let it drop for now.

In their Plan of Salvation presentation, God creates an earth into which to send us, and we forget our pre-mortal existence when we pass beyond the veil into the mortal world. Adam and Eve fell, and whereas Eve was tempted and deceived, Adam ate the fruit so as to save the future of mankind, since otherwise he'd lose his wife. Interestingly, they glossed over the popular and controversial Mormon claim that the Fall was really a step up, since it was the only way to fulfill the command to be fruitful and multiply (so Latter-day Saints say). The result of the fall was physical death and spiritual death. The answer to this was the birth of Jesus Christ, who as the “literal Son of God” had God-like attributes as well as mortal attributes from being born of the Virgin Mary. In a diagram, Creon showed that Christ's resurrection is a bridge to let all get past physical death, since all will be resurrected; he showed the atonement as a stairway leading out of spiritual death, since we have to do “all that we can” to escape spiritual death, or else the atonement will avail us nothing. We must keep the commandments of God steadfastly and take all necessary steps to return to the Heavenly Father.

Anyway, the diagram showed that after death, our bodies go to the ground while our souls go to either spirit paradise or spirit prison; the latter will hear the gospel and hopefully accept it. Then, at the final judgment by the Heavenly Father, there are three heavenly kingdoms of decreasing glory to which we can go: the celestial, the terresterial [sic—should be “terrestrial”], and the telestial. The gate to the celestial kingdom is properly performed baptism, and those there get to enjoy the presence of the entire Godhead and to continue growing. The terrestrial kingdom is denied the presence of the Father, but they enjoy Christ's glory and that of the Holy Ghost; the telestial kingdom, worst of the three, has only the presence of the Holy Ghost. All three, however, are better than this life.

I'm cutting out descriptions of their repeated testimony-bearing ('I know this is true because of the way it impacted my life, and I love it so very, very much!'), as well as a few other digressions. I sometimes wonder if perhaps the whole purpose of testimony-bearing isn't to just solidifying it by repetition in the mind of the speaker, but also to so inundate the inquirer as to half-brainwash them into accepting it. Not that I think this to be a conscious purpose on the part of missionaries, of course. It's just a bit irritating. I'm also omitting the Scripture references for now because I'm too lazy to format them.

Before concluding the account, I should mention that they're letting me borrow a book on Book of Mormon archaeology entitled New Evidences of Christ in Ancient America, by three authors whose names are unnecessary to list. Our next meeting will be on October 14th at 6.30 μμ. I promised to do more reading in the Book of Mormon until then and to pray about it, and I also hope to start the aforementioned book.

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