Thursday, November 19, 2009

LDS Lesson #7

Today's meeting was scheduled to begin at approximately 3 μμ, and so at around 2.25 μμ I began to rush in the direction of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with my heavy-laden computer bag in tow, since I use it for all my classes. After getting some delicious gelatto on Dionysiou Areopagitou, I ascended to the third story. Admetus and Alcestis were in their office, working on something that sounded vaguely budget-related. In short, quite mundane. It took a while before Creon and Orestes finally made it, and when they arrived - about fifteen minutes late or so - they seemed fairly out of breath. I can't recall exactly what the explanation was. And it came to pass that I delivered an opening prayer that ran essentially as follows:

Heavenly Father, we come before you, thankful for this opportunity. We thank you for sustaining us throughout the preceding days, and ask that you would continue to sustain us and nourish us in all health - both physical, spiritual, mental, emotional, all these ways - throughout the days to come. We're so grateful to have an opportunity to come and gather together to discuss the things above, and we ask that you might guard our hearts and minds and guide us by the power of your Spirit as we search through these things and discuss with one another. We ask also that you might be, not only with us, but with our families - wheresoever they might be - that you might guard them and turn their hearts to us and our hearts to theirs and knit us together in love. We thank you for the many things you've given to each of us; they're so great beyond all counting. In Christ's name, amen.
After that, I believe it was Orestes who inquired, since he still feels as though he doesn't quite know me as well as he should, how I came to originally be a Christian. And it thus came to pass that I related once more the tale of how my family was scarcely even nominally Christian until my mother and I went to a production called "Heaven's Gates and Hell's Flames". (As I said to them, "sometimes God even uses crazy people to accomplish his purposes".) Basically - and I cannot overstate the theological crudeness of it all - it presented pairs of scenes, one with a happy, wonderful Christian family and the other with a bickering, hedonistic, unhappy non-Christian family. Both died in similar ways, and whereas the Christians would be welcomed into Jesus' arms while the angels rejoiced, the angels would hide their faces from the non-Christians, at which point Satan would enter, stage right, and drag them off into the fires of hell. The basic point? 'It's Jesus or burn, suckers!!' Ridiculously crude as it all was - and I can only speak for myself, not for my mother - the base motive of fear of hellfire was enough to induce me to turn to God for salvation and mercy. I often call it the "baseball bat to the head" approach to evangelism. But for me, it worked, and I'm probably among the few who convert that way initially and avoid becoming spiritually stillborn. Creon, Orestes, and I all discussed briefly the way in which God meets people in stages, with the lowest stage - reserved for those who can't be reached other ways - is typically, 'Alright, fine, if you aren't going to shape up for the sake of being good, how about to not get zapped?'

And it came to pass that I should ask some questions. But alas, I had not written up any new lists; I was still working from the list I drew up prior to the fifth meeting. And it came to pass that the first question I asked was number five on the list, and it was a sort of follow-up question to Question #7 (if I count them correctly) from the fourth meeting. I asked, just to make sure we were all the same page, if they recalled affirming that only Jesus is Jehovah; that is, that neither the Father nor the Holy Ghost are, in fact, Jehovah. When they agreed, the first part of my question was rather simple. In the Ten Commandments, Jehovah lays out some laws for Israel. One of these laws is to worship no other god than he himself. Since in LDS belief the Father is a God other than Jehovah, it would seem that worship of the Father would be precluded. Hence, the question: if an Israelite during the Mosaic dispensation had worshipped the Father, would that have breached the first commandment? (I initially got this query from TheologyWeb; click here to see a Latter-day Saint poster concede that, strictly speaking, worship of the Father would have been a violation of that commandment.)

Well, now if that isn't a pretty important question! And it came to pass that they took a stab at it - Orestes started it off - with the general 'solution' that the commandment was given in the context of the true god Jehovah in contrast to the false Egyptian deities to whose worshippers the Israelites had so recently been in bondage. When I challenged them to focus on that historical time period to obviate the need for bringing in the Old vs. New Covenant issue, both Creon and Orestes said that, so far as they can tell, the Israelites of that day didn't even know about the existence of the Father and so wouldn't have needed to deal with that question. (Dare we begin to ask what it says about their religion to suppose that Jehovah concealed the knowledge of the Father from the people of Israel?) Thus, the Decalogue was a sort of preparation for greater knowledge. They related a scene from the Book of Mormon in which people pray to Christ, but he goes off and pleads for his Father to forgive them their ignorance - the message being that, under the New Covenant, we are to worship and pray to the Father, not to Jesus himself, despite Jesus having been the Jehovah of the Old Testament. (This is a whole 'nother can of worms, really, since the New Testament seems to show a few cases of pious people rightly praying to Jesus.) And it came to pass that Creon conceded that they're unsure as to whether it would, strictly speaking, constitute a 'violation', per se, of the first commandment. However, Orestes did add that, even as Jehovah, Christ is merely the Father's delegate. So, ultimately the closest that they came to an answer was uncertainty, but it took a while, and so I moved on to the next item in that family of questions.

That next item - Question #5.1, if you will - was one I had developed after our previous meeting. Earlier, when discussing the issue of ancient Christian temples for ordinances, Admetus had made a point to emphasize that Christ initially called the temple "my Father's house" before calling it "my house" later in his ministry. Thus, the question: if the temple was dedicated by ancient Israel to Jehovah, and if the Father was completely unknown to the people of ancient Israel, then how can the temple be the Father's house? Well, I don't think I'll be treating Creon and Orestes unfairly if I say that they were flat-out stumped. I mean, there may have been a solid half-minute or more of pure silence as they wracked their brains for some sort of answer. The first things they said were wholly irrelevant: that Jesus was the Son of God and so proclaimed himself from the outset, and that during his ministry, he revealed himself as Jehovah (John 8:58). And it came to pass that Creon had to concede uncertainty as to why the temple was first the Father's house; they both said they'd never really given it thought before. And it came to pass that Orestes finally said that his first impression upon looking at the text was that Jesus initially claimed merely to be the Son of God, and so when speaking of the temple initially referred it to the Father; only later, when he revealed himself as Jehovah, he acknowledged the temple as his own. (Of course, this answer will not work. It amounts to accusing Jesus of lying by initially claiming that his Father was the God to whom the temple was dedicated, when in fact this had never been the case. Creon had the closest thing to a viable answer, which was that all that is Christ's is truly the Father's, and so the temple of Jehovah must really be the temple of Elohim as well. I'm stating that more clearly and more explicitly than he did, though. And even then, it isn't truly an answer, because the context of the statements is to whom the temple is devoted moreso than to whom the temple belongs in some broader sense.) And it at any rate came to pass that they fundamentally had to concede that they didn't know, and Creon said he'd have to research that. It is, in essence, a virtually impossible question to answer from the LDS perspective, which is why I'm not surprised that, after a friend of mine posed it nearly a week ago (inspired by my own reflections earlier), not a single attempt has been made to answer it from then until now.

And it came to pass that I turned to the final prong of my three-part question, and this was perhaps just as hard-hitting, if not moreso. I had found three chapters from the Old Testament - Isaiah 53, Psalm 22, and Psalm 2 - that are, most orthodox Christians and Latter-day Saints would no doubt agree, messianic in nature, or at least capable of being read messianically in certain respects without doing excessive violence to the coherence of the text. So I read first verses 6 ("All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all") and 10 ("Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand") from Isaiah 53, and then just verses 19 ("But be not thou far from me, O LORD; O my strength, haste thee to help me") and 23 ("Ye that fear the LORD, praise him; all ye the seed of Jacob, glorify him; and fear him, all ye the seed of Israel") from Psalm 22 and finally Psalm 2:1-2 ("Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD, and against his anointed").

Before I got into the verses from the Psalms, though, Orestes had already launched into an attempt to avoid the inevitable disaster of the implications. He said that he'd found such apparent "discrepancies" before, but finds that when he goes back to the Hebrew, the problems all disappear because, despite "LORD" appearing in the KJV English, the Hebrew word isn't the Tetragrammaton. Thus, his suspicion was that it would turn out that the Hebrew text would have a different word in these cases. I said that I was pretty sure that the Tetragrammaton was indeed there. (Incidentally, I was correct about all five verses. See Isaiah 53:6, Isaiah 53:10, Psalm 22:19[20], Psalm 22:23[24], and Psalm 2:2, all from the Westminster Leningrad Codex; and search the Unbound Bible for even more Hebrew texts. The Tetragrammaton - יהוה - appears, as can be plainly seen, in all of those texts. I'm kind of curious what he'll say next time when I ask him if he checked into it...)

Of course, still following along with this, it came to pass that Creon said that one text he likes to turn to is Acts 4:10-12 ("Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him doth this man stand here before you whole. This is the stone which was set at nought of you builders, which is become the head of the corner. Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved"), particularly to confute Jehovah's Witnesses. Of course, since unlike JWs, I believe that Jesus is indeed Jehovah, I can agree wholeheartedly with Creon's meaning. Creon also speculated that the issues regarding the passages I'd cited were the result of biblical incompleteness and corruption. And it came to pass that he started out by saying, "I have a testimony that the Bible is incomplete...", and although he admitted that we can get fairly close to the original source text through textual criticism, he still implied that surely God wouldn't leave us to figure those things out on our own, but would supplement our corrupted Scripture with an uncorrupted Scripture. (I, of course, disagree.) It was quite telling, however, when Creon uttered these words: "I could spend all day proving the Bible wrong." Ask yourselves this, readers: Are these really the sorts of words that tend to be uttered by those who respect biblical authority in any sense? Errantist or inerrantist, this definitely goes too far, I would think. He tried to correct himself: "It's not that I don't have faith in the Bible, it's just that there are mistakes in the Bible; the Bible contradicts itself, you know?"

And it came to pass that Orestes decided to take it a step further by offering an example. He first turned to James 1:13-15 ("Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man: But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death"), and it wasn't long before I could see where he was going with it. He commented on how much he loves that passage, but said that elsewhere the Bible said otherwise. His example was Matthew 4:1 ("Then was Jesus led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil"), which he called "completely false doctrine", saying, "I don't believe for a second that the Spirit took Jesus Christ out to be tempted by the devil". (Of course, no effort was made to reconcile the texts, which is actually not as hard as Orestes might think.) And it came to pass that Orestes went on and on about how Matthew 4:1 is false doctrine that damages people's faith - but, of course, he and Creon went on to add the incongruous caveat that they really love the Bible, and Creon said at one point that he likes the New Testament even better than the Book of Mormon at times.

Rather than get bogged down with the task of correcting this misconception about James 1:13 vs. Matthew 4:1 - which perhaps I ought to have done - I decided to let it provisionally stand so that I could ask whether Joseph Smith's allegedly 'Inspired Version' had any comments. It did indeed; Smith 'corrected' the Bible as follows:
Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit to be with God. . . . Then Jesus was taken up into the holy city, and the Spirit setteth him on the pinnacle of the temple, and then the devil came unto him...
And it came to pass that Creon added that the Joseph Smith Translation (JST) isn't necessarily what the text originally said, but was the Spirit-inspired correction given to Joseph Smith. There were some more comments on the act of translation and so forth, but I asked them how they think, in their opinion, that the JST compares to the original manuscript of the Gospel According to Matthew. Here I actually found them openly disagreeing. Orestes thinks that the JST roughly corresponds to the original text, whereas Creon thinks that the text as it stands is actually fairly similar to the autographs, but that the correction was because it was originally written in a way prone to misinterpretation. I thought this was interesting. I didn't press either of them too hard on it, but I did put a further question to Orestes: how might the change have happened? Orestes first said that the biggest source of textual corruption is the interpretation inevitable in translation. (My question, in my head, was: what translation? We're here talking about the Koine Greek. Now, I happen to suspect that there may have been an Aramaic Ur-Matthew, in accordance with early patristic indicators, but Orestes has never suggested that.) And it came to pass that he also said that some powerful men with very little understanding of the Scriptures may have made alterations to the text throughout history. Creon gave the example - doctrinal, though, and not textual - of infant baptism, claiming that the Roman Catholic Church sought to make people more dependent on it as an institution; he also suggested that the alleged alteration to Matthew 4:1 was to instill fear.

Finally, I asked what time period might have been the setting for this alleged change, and Orestes said that it was "right out of the apostles' mouths". Of course, that doesn't really address it, since we're dealing with texts and unless one wishes to suppose that the apostles never proofread their work even once before sending it out, it could have been early copies in the apostolic age at earliest. Creon said that there were similar problems with reporting in the Journal of Discourses, which is why it doesn't constitute Scripture for them.

And it came to pass at this point that Orestes went off on a very lengthy tangent to the effect that the LDS Church is the only one that believes in continuing revelation, and so it baffles him that people can think that the 'apostate' church's selection of a canon or authorship of various creeds can be at all valid, since it must be a purely human task, apart from God. Thus, he said, the various churches of the world are founded of creeds apart from revelation, and "to deny revelation is to deny religion". He and Creon both went on a further tangent regarding apocryphal books mentioned in the Bible and how much of an alleged problem that must be for the canon selection issue (whereas, in reality, there are much more sober estimations of the matter); and their example of continuing revelation was Saul (in 1 Samuel 15) being commanded to kill the enemies of Israel, whereas the Ten Commandments had forbidden killing. (On that, see here and here for an alternative suggestion.) Creon defined Scripture as "the inspired writings of those in proper authority".

What came next was perhaps a tad bizarre. It came to pass that Orestes said the following (possibly slightly paraphrased):
[JB], I believe that you see that [i.e., the correctness of his arguments]. I believe that you see the need to have a prophet, to have a Scripture, to have the guidance of God in God's church. I really do believe that you see that. That's why I think that's one of the reasons why you keep encountering this church. And you felt something, I know you felt something, because I've felt it too. During the lessons we've had, I've felt the Spirit, and I've felt that burning inside my chest, when the Spirit is there with us. And, and I know that you've felt it too, I know you've felt it reading the Book of Mormon. And I, I don't know what it's like at home, I don't know, maybe, maybe it's very hard, maybe it's a hard, a hard change to make, but you've got to know that the fate (?) of Christ does not speak to his church anymore - that is not what Christ is about, not what his gospel is about. The gospel is about going out there, finding the one, it means helping that person in whatever way they need help and bringing them back. And I think to say that God doesn't speak - who told that man to say that God doesn't speak? Did God tell him, did God speak to say that he's not gonna speak? I could just, the idea is just... it has no foundation. And just because we bound a Bible and said, 'This is our Bible', doesn't mean that this is all of God's Word....
There was a lot more, but to quote it verbatim would be needless, and it was harder to make out what he was saying from there on out. Just a few quick things, though. First of all, the only things I have ever generally felt while reading the Book of Mormon are, either, "Oh, this part at least is good teaching", or else, "Why, oh why, did he have to do this in deliberately archaizing English?" (And, of course, "If I see one more 'And it came to pass', I'm going to start breaking windows with my face", when I'm not in the most charitable mood to start with...) If anything, I've probably felt God's Spirit leaning me against trusting the Book of Mormon, to say nothing of Joseph Smith's alleged prophetic calling. And second, I really don't think that Orestes made a very good case in favor of continuing revelation. I really don't. I think that God has given us Scripture, and that the age of continuing Scripture-making revelation came to a close with the apostles because it was intended by God to be that way, because the coming of Christ was the culmination of that to which the prophets had been pointing. But perhaps more on that another time. Orestes and Creon continued on to say that the Bible is clearly insufficient. He noted that some sections of Doctrine and Covenants are even in Q&A format, and that "anyone can get answers from God, anyone can receive revelation", but that God has a hierarchical order in his church because there has to be a way of ensuring that we know whose revelations 'count most', to put my own spin on it. When Orestes continued to say that only the LDS Church has any sort of belief in God's continual involvement in the life of the church, Creon corrected him by noting that the Roman Catholic Church occasionally has new dogmatic pronouncements by the pope.

And it came to pass that when they finally got off this topic - and I was eager to return to mine, but alas - they asked the question of what I happen to like about their church. Well, this was a bit interesting to answer. So I gave a short list that included a high view of humanity (even though I think theirs is waaaay too excessive), emphasis on the value of the family, the genealogy thing, the contribution to theological and exegetical dialogue, and a few other things, such as seeking to honor Jesus Christ. Orestes then said that, while he doesn't know much about my own denomination, he does know that I came out of it, so it must be doing a lot of things right. He said that every religion prepares people for more, but that there's only one true church on the earth, and that's the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and that among other things, "we believe in truth". He also talked about God as the perfect Father and said that a perfect father would always be incessantly close to accelerate a child's growth. (Actually, I think a perfect father would occasionally give the child space to work things out on his/her own, which accords more with my understanding of God than with theirs.)

And it came to pass that Orestes went for another long talk, and I paid attention to at least some of it. He said, among many other things, that baptism doesn't end one's questions, and that I have enough knowledge at present to be baptized into the church, so at this point it's really an issue between me and God; God needs to reveal to me the truth of the Book of Mormon, which will entail the prophethood of Joseph Smith and hence the validity of all their teachings. Creon asked what the biggest doctrinal obstacle is for me, and I cited Lorenzo Snow's famed couplet:

As man now is, God once was;
As God now is, man may become.

And it came to pass that when one of them said that only their church accepts the Book of Mormon as Scripture, I raised the issue of other groups that emerged from Joseph Smith's restoration movement, but they said that all of them had disavowed the Book of Mormon qua Scripture to be more acceptable to mainstream Christianity. This is actually a half-truth at best. The Community of Christ, formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for example, officially "uses the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants as scripture", but doesn't regard it as a test of membership, thus being less emphatic on the matter than is the LDS Church. The Strangite splinter group, which also claims the name "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints", also still believes the Book of Mormon to be the Word of God, and even accepts early version of the Doctrine and Covenants as Scripture. The Book of Mormon also, I think, holds similar status in the Church of Christ - Temple Lot, as well as in the Bickertonite splinter group (a descendant of the Rigdonite splinter group) known as the Church of Jesus Christ.

And it came to pass that, having finally finished that question - and I made sure to remind them both to try to look up the Hebrew of the passages in question - I decided to give just one more question, marked #7 on my list. This question was quite straightforward. In Madsen's book, he mentioned that our individual intelligences - the state we had prior to spirit-birth, in LDS teaching on pre-mortality, remember - were eternal, having had an infinitely extended past. I asked if this was correct, and both of them nodded yes, while Orestes added that the human mind probably cannot comprehend the full meaning of the word "eternal".

And it came to pass that the close of the meeting drew nigh with me discussing why I'm not a Jehovah's Witness, since I'd mentioned that I study with JWs back home. I laid stress chiefly on my belief that Jesus really is Jehovah, and also my belief in the physical resurrection of Christ.

And it came to pass that the meeting ended after Creon offered a concluding prayer, and we parted ways outside the church as I gave them leave to go get some food, most likely gyros. The next time I'll see them will be at a fun Saturday evening game night type of event, and we'll set up the time for the next study meeting then.

No comments:

Post a Comment