Book Review: The Language of the New Testament: Context, History, and Development

languageofNTTitle: The Language of the New Testament: Context, History, and Development (Early Christianity in its Hellenistic Context, Vol. 3)

Series: Linguistic Biblical Studies, 6

Editors: Stanley E. Porter and Andrew W. Pitts

Bibliographic info: 467 + 56 (indices)

Publisher: Brill, 2013.

Buy the book at Amazon or Brill.

With thanks to Brill for the review copy!

This volume focuses in on two of my favorite areas of study: the New Testament and linguistics. The chapters within are divided into three sections: Context, History, and Development. The studies on Context discuss topics such as bilingualism and Atticism. Those on History look at things like the history of the Greek language and its dialects. And those on Development range from a very specific focus of the development of one Greek verb in the LXX and New Testament to the broader issue of Greek word order.

The first chapter is the standard introductory chapter from the editors and then there are seven chapters on the context of the language of the New Testament.

First up is Jonathan Watt’s contribution (pp. 9-27) on some implications of bilingualism for New Testament exegesis. The first two-thirds of this study looks at some key ideas in linguistic research on bilingualism (such as code-switching). The last part discusses the implications for New Testament exegesis with Matt. 5:22 as a case study.

The next study is from Stanley Porter (pp. 29-41) and zooms in on what we can learn about Greek grammar from a mosaic. He begins with a brief conspectus on what is generally known regarding tense and time from the ancient Greek grammarians, followed by a look at the mosaic from Antioch-on-the-Orontes. This mosaic depicts four seated figures that are personifications (and labeled as such) of four temporal conceptions: αιων (age; here meaning bounded time, human time, or gnomic time), μελλων (future), ενεστως (present), and παρωχεμενος (past), with the four falling underneath the label of χρονοι (time), which is the means of joining together all four of the temporal conceptions. In conclusion Porter says:

One must treat the ancient Greek grammarians carefully, since their discussion seems to be centered more on forms within the language rather than on semantic distinctions (and they seem to fail to differentiate form and function) … in interpreting the Greek tense-forms, there seems to be warrant for looking to the ancients themselves for seeing the variety of forms as indicating at the least past, present, future, and enduring time. (pp. 40-41)

The next study is from Rodney Decker (pp. 43-66) and looks at various grammatical features that may indicate a Markan idiolect. These features include the author’s use of parataxis, redundancies and dualities, multiple negatives, periphrasis, indefinite plural, diminutives, historical present, and the author’s frequent use of euthus. A couple of disputable characteristics of Markan idiolect –asyndeton and anacoluthon– are also examined.

Next, William Danker (pp. 67-90) tackles the alleged Pauline and Lukan Christological disparity with a linguistic-cultural approach. Danker contends that Luke-Acts depicts Jesus as the “Great Benefactor” and that Paul takes a similar approach by using a linguistic strategy to link together the divide between Jewish and Gentile audiences: “To interpret the significance of the Gospel for the Roman congregation, Paul uses as a basic hermeneutical framework the reciprocity system recognized throughout the Greco-Roman world.” (89)

Sean Adams (pp. 91-111) then provides a study on the relationship between Atticism, Classicism, and Luke-Acts. He begins with an analysis of the nature of Atticism and its influence on the literary world, particularly in the second century CE. He interacts with Albert Wifstrand and Loveday Alexander. After evaluating the arguments of the former, Adams concludes that it is best to discuss the influences on authors in the first century as classicism. Alexander then comes into play due to his taking Wifstrand’s assessment of Luke-Acts and pushing the envelope further by making it include the concepts of dialect and register. Adams himself then develops upon Alexander’s findings by developing the linguistic idea of register as it relates to dialect (i.e. one’s choice of register will influence the dialect one uses).

The study I found the most interesting in this volume is provided by Frederick Long (pp. 113-54). He examines the political-religious context for the interpretation of “the ruler of the authority of the air” in Ephesians 2:2 (this phrase is typically thought to refer to Satan in commentaries). The context he examines is that of Jupiter-Zeus and the Roman Imperial cult. Long says:

I will argue that one should take into account the surface grammatical structure of 2:2 and consider what the unique lexical content would have meant to the original Gentile audience in its socio-political and imperial context. […] In Mediterranean society, this age was under the particular guidance and influence of the Roman Emperor who is described as “the ruler” (at the time of writing, Nero). Roman rulers were under the jurisdiction of the patron god of Rome, Jupiter-Zeus, a god identified with “air” and as having authority over that domain. Moreover, beginning with Augustus, emperors were at times publically characterized as Jupiter-Zeus as Triumphator…. (115)

Long examines the New Testament usage of αρχη, αρχων, and εχουσια, the grammatical and syntactical relations in Eph. 2:2, and connections between Jupiter-Zeus, the Roman Emperor, and the realm of the air. There was also an interesting section on the demonization of Rome as the Dominion of Satan in Jewish apocalyptic thought. This study has interesting implications for the study of the Roman imperial cult in the New Testament (e.g. 2 Cor. 4:4 and “the god of this age”).

Long concludes:

Jupiter-Zeus in the broader Mediterranean world was associated with supreme power and authority, especially over the events in the air, but also even identified as air/aether in various scholia. The Roman emperors were additionally associated, if not identified, with Jupiter starting with Augustus. Thus, an audience, which heard Paul’s statement in Eph 2:2 of “the age of this world” along with “the ruler of the authority of the air” and was acculturated with the Greco-Roman Pantheon and the currents of Roman imperial ideology and propaganda, would naturally equate these phrases to the emperor and Jupiter-Zeus. (153)

The final study in the Context section of this volume is Jan Nylund’s study (pp. 155-221) on the influence of the Prague school of linguistics on New Testament language studies (the Prague School goes back to the 1920s). Nylund says: “The instrumental role that the Prague School linguistics played for the development of structuralism and for integrating theoretical linguistics cannot be overrated” (155).

It is in this vein that Nylund then looks at how the structuralism and functionalism of the Prague School has been utilized within New Testament language studies. After a lengthy section on the history and influence of the Prague School in linguistics, Nylund takes of survey of over two-dozen books on New Testament linguistics (e.g. Stanley Porter’s well-known book on verbal aspect) to see what influence the Prague School had. Links to the Prague School are seen in concepts such as an emphasis on a synchronic perspective, the verbal aspect/differentiation of tense and aspect, valence, discourse analysis, translation-theory, literary criticism, structural semantics, and semiotic aspects.

The next four chapters take the approach of studying the history of the Greek language. First up is another study from Jonathan Watt, this one giving brief history of ancient Greek (pp. 225-41). His discussion focuses upon how varying historical and cultural factors led to the Greek language being used for the New Testament. Watt concludes:

An apostle who preferred “to speak five words with my mind, that I may instruct others” (1 Cor. 14:19, NASB), when considering Greek alongside other codes for conveying a cross-cultural kerygma, could hardly have chosen otherwise” (241)

Next is Christopher Land’s chapter on the varieties of the Greek language (pp. 243-60). This essay,

… presents a descriptive scheme that NT scholars can use to speak clearly about varieties of the Greek language…. The more clearly we can specify language varieties, the better we will be able to draw upon the language of the New Testament documents to address such longstanding issues as date, provenance, authorship, and occasion. (243)

Andrew Pitts then discusses the use of the Greek case of Hellenistic and Byzantine grammarians (pp. 261-81). The Hellenistic grammarians investigate here are the Stoics, Dionysius Thrax, and Apollonius Dyscolus. The Byzantine grammarians are Georgius Choeroboscus and Maximus Planudes. A conclusion that Pitts arrives at that I found interesting is that the Stoics “were not even concerned with grammatical case in their exposition of case theory and meaning” (280).

The final chapter in this section is John Lee on the Atticist grammarians (pp. 283-308). He looks at three three Atticist grammarians –Phyrnichus, Moeris and the Antiatticista– with the aim being to demonstrate how they can be employed as support for the linguistic character of the New Testament. I found his definition of Atticism to be interesting (I had never seen it described this way before). While noting that Atticism is a “complex phenomenon” and has been defined in various ways, Lee says that the

essential element [of Atticism] was the tendency to look back to the language and literature of a former era as the model to follow, from a later time when the spoken language had changed and original composition of that literature was in the past. (283)

The final six chapters are on the development of Greek. Andrew Pitts contributes another study (pp. 311-46), this one being on Greek word order and clause structure in the New Testament, with the analysis being used to determine how affects Greek grammar, syntax, discourse analysis, and exegesis.

Rodney Decker likewise contributes another chapter on Mark’s Gospel (pp. 347-64), this time examining the function of the inceptive imperfect tense in the Gospel. There have been thirty-four proposed inceptive imperfects in Mark, with the ESV only containing one, the ISV having fifteen, and a mere three instances in which at least half of the English translations agree (edidasken in1:21; diēkovei in 1:31; and periepatei in 5:42). Here is one interesting snippet from the study on learning and teaching Greek for biblical studies:

We have traditionally taught our students to translate imperfect verbs as past progressives in English: “ἔλυον, I was loosing.” I am not so sure that is helpful. Although there is pedagogical advantage of simplicity, it may well start the student off on the wrong foot, assuming that this is what the imperfect means. What ought to be asked, however, is if the imperfect functions the same way in Greek as the past progressive does in English. Is the primary significance of a Greek imperfect tense-form past time with progressive Aktionsart? […] One example will suffice to illustrate my point. In 5:8, ἔλεγεν would be more suitable represented in English as “he had said to him” (e.g. NRSV). The more commonly used, “For he was saying to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” (ESV, cf. NASB), suggests to some that Jesus has made this demand repeatedly, but thus far unsuccessfully, showing (at least to one commentator) “how difficult a case he is dealing with.” (362)

Paul Danove (pp. 365-99) then presents a study on the usages of δίδωμι and thirteen δίδωμι compounds in the LXX (over 3,000 occurrences) and the New Testament (over 600 occurrences). Francis Gignae (pp. 401-19) then looks at the grammatical developments of Greek in Roman Egypt, specifically in regards to phonology, morphology, and syntax. Stanley Porter and Andrew Pitts (pp. 421-38) then contribute a study on the disclosure formula in the epistolary papyri and the New Testament, where a “disclosure formula” is simply “an epistolary convention expressing the author’s desire that the audience know something” (pp. 421).

Lastly, Beth Stovell (pp. 439-67) examines John 3:1-15 and apocryphal gospels (particularly the Gospel of Thomas) for cohesion and prominence through the use of metaphor (e.g. the metaphors of “kingdom” and “life” that are found in the Gospel of John). While the average pew-sitting Bible reader notices the difference between the use of “eternal life” in John and “kingdom of heaven/God” in the Synoptic Gospels, that same pew-sitting Bible reader probably doesn’t think anything of the difference. Yet Stovell contends that, “the use of cohesion and prominence does not suggest a simple equation of the metaphors of ‘Kingdom of God’ and ‘eternal life.’ The ‘Kingdom of God’ cannot accurately be said to equal ‘eternal life’” (454). Stovell maintains that the difference in metaphorical emphases between the gospels is reflected not only thematically, but also linguistically.

All in all, this volume contains a very interesting collection of essays on the language of the New Testament. There are a multitude of angles one could take when approaching the relationship between early Christianity and the language of the New Testament and this volume offers up a very nice medley of topics, with the studies ranging from very broad to very narrow focuses, and with some of the studies, such as Frederick Long on Ephesians 2:2, offering up fresh and fascinating perspectives.

Book Notice for Jacques Ellul Readers

There is a new book on Ellul’s theology due out within a few months, Dialectical Theology and Jacques Ellul: An Introductory Exposition by Jacob E. Van Vleet.

In Dialectical Theology and Jacques Ellul, Jacob E. Van Vleet argues that the work of Jacques Ellul is frequently—and deleteriously—misread on account of inattention to the theological underpinning that governs Ellul’s thought. In a penetrating analysis, the first of its kind, Van Vleet provides a substantive account of the theological structure of Ellul’s work and demonstrates the determinative role that theology, especially dialectical theology, plays in a proper understanding of Ellul.

Book Review: Paul and the Faithfulness of God

9780800626839.jpghTitle: Paul and the Faithfulness of God

Author: N.T. Wright

Bibliographic info: A gazillion pages

Publisher: Fortress Press, 2013.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to Fortress Press for the digital review copy!

First there was James Dunn’s Large (900 page) book on Paul, The Theology of the Apostle Paul. Then came along the larger book (1,400 pages) by Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God. Now we have the largest book on Paul from Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God coming in at 1,700 pages.

Many of us eagerly waited years for Wright’s magnum opus on Paul to be published. Seeing the length of it explains why we had to wait so long! (Interestingly, I remember reading somewhere that Paul and the Faithfulness of God would have been even longer, but Wright excised some material and turned it into the forthcoming companion volume, Paul and His Recent Interpreters). I received this book in about November last year and it has taken me this long to read through it (off and on of course). Since one can find plenty of lengthy reviews of this volume by performing a simple Google search, I will keep this one brief and just provide some random thoughts on it.

If you’ve read Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God and Jesus and the Victory of God, you can pretty much go ahead and skim read the first eight chapters (chapters 1-5 are “Paul and His World” and 6-8 are “The Mindset of the Apostle”), unless you really want to see Wright’s new insights and how he has refined his views over the years. Actually, on second thought, I would definitely recommend reading the first chapter where Wright discusses Philemon. He compares and contrasts Paul’s brief letter to Philemon with an epistle of Pliny that also discusses a slave, noting their superficial similarities, but pointing out the extraordinary degree of social realignment that has taken place in Paul’s mind due to the gospel. Wright also discusses Pauline sources in this first chapter and argues for Pauline authorship of Ephesians and Colossians.

Chapters 9-11 (“Paul’s Theology”) are the essential reading and chapters 12-16 (“Paul in History”) are also good reading, but just as chapters 9-11 of Romans are the heart of that epistle, so too chapters 9-11 are the heart of Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Here Wright discusses Paul’s theology under three main topics: (1) The One God of Israel, (2) The People of God, and (3) God’s Future for the World.

After reading this volume the phrase “God’s covenant faithfulness” is permanently seared into my brain. This is obviously because God’s covenantal dealings with humanity play a key role in how Wright reads Paul. Personally, I’m not entirely convinced that God’s covenant with Abraham and Israel is the bedrock underlying everything Paul says, but Wright does make a compelling case at times (of course, though, God’s dealings with humanity in Abraham, Israel, etc., does have a role to play in Paul’s theology, but the question is to what degree does it undergird all of Paul’s thoughts and writings).

One aspect of this volume I enjoyed is Wright’s ability to turn a good phrase and his ability to succinctly summarize a complex issue into a nice one-liner. For instance, he says: “The post-Enlightenment world has squashed all options into the two boxes of a ‘Constantinian’ compromise and an ‘Anabaptist’ detachment.”

On the topic of election, I enjoyed how Wright’s emphasis isn’t on God choosing individuals in order to show his saving grace (while letting everyone else reap their just reward in hell). Instead, Wright sees election as being more about how those elected/chosen by God (e.g. Abraham, Israel) were elected in order to bring blessings to the world and getting the world on the right track.

All in all, I quite enjoyed this book as I have most others of his I have read. There was plenty I agreed with and learned from, but also plenty I am on the fence about or disagree with to some degree (e.g. some of his views on the development of early Christology). This book was worth the wait and is, of course, Wright’s definitive treatment of his perspective on Paul.

Thoughts on the Mormon Church (Part IV) – Are Mormons Christians

Are Mormons Christian? Depends. Give me your definition of Christian and I will give you my answer.

Are Mormons Christian? This is the type of question that can easily get conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists riled up, especially if you answer, “Well of course Mormons are Christian!” And it is a question that probably sounds stupid to Mormons (they must be thinking, “Well of course we are Christians. We believe in Jesus and the words ‘Jesus Christ’ are part of the name of our church!”).

Personally I don’t really give a crap. Mormons want to call themselves Christians? Sure, who cares. You think Mormons deviate too much from historic Christianity and don’t qualify for the label? Sure, that makes sense too.

In the end I guess my answer to the question would be both yes and no.

The Affirmative Aspect of My Answer

The way in which the general populace understands the word “Christian” is simply a person who believes and follows the teachings of Jesus Christ, along with maybe a belief in Jesus being god (in whatever sense) and that he was raised from the dead. Granted, most people have a pretty piss-poor understanding of what Christ’s teachings were actually about and wouldn’t be able to articulate how they are distinct from the teachings of other religions and religious figures, but that is irrelevant because the fact remains: in society “Christian” has a pretty broad meaning that easily allows Mormonism to be subsumed under it.

I know there are some who would just poo-poo the idea that society’s definition of Christianity is meaningful and that we need to go back to scripture, but what they usually wind up doing is importing their own brand of Christian orthodoxy back onto scripture. For example, I have seen some say that Peter’s confession in Matt. 16:16 provides a basic understanding of what is a Christian, yet in the next breath they will define “the Christ, the son of the living God” in a fashion that is simply anachronistic (in other words, when Peter declared Jesus to be the son of God it had nothing to do with some incipient Trinitarianism).

If someone wants to prohibit the label “Christian” from being applied to people who don’t pass certain theological litmus tests (such as the Apostles’ Creed, the Niceno-Constantinopolitano Creed, and the Chalcedonian Definition), then they can do that, but this idea of a cognitive salvation –i.e. giving mental assent to a list of doctrines as being determinative for one’s redemption and is the determining factor in how others can determine if you are “going to heaven when you die”– is merely theological superstition and is not the emphasis of Christ’s teachings in the New Testament. Ultimately, it is the true God who gives his divine ‘Yes’ to people as he sees fit. And I think that if you are look at people and wonder whether God has given or will give his divine ‘Yes’ to them, their adherence to creeds and confessions of faith is not the primary thing you should be looking at.

The Negative Aspect of My Answer

Mormonism isn’t just simply another denomination of Christianity along the lines of Lutheran, Episcopalian, and so forth. Joseph Smith was given revelation directly from God and Jesus. Why? Apparently Christianity underwent a “great apostasy” at the time of the death of the apostles, leaving only a thoroughly corrupted version of the Christian faith, thus God needed to restore the fullness of the gospel and chose to do so through Joseph Smith. This idea of the great apostasy, along with the unique restoration doctrines and scriptures that resulted from the restoration of the church through Joseph Smith, makes me think it is best to maybe treat Mormonism as if it were something altogether new.

To illustrate this further, take the case of Judaism and Christianity. The latter started as a sect of the former, yet even though I consider the Christian faith as the authentic continuance of Judaism, I don’t go around saying I’m a Jew because obviously I accept beliefs and scriptures –that are reliant upon additional revelation from God– that historic Judaism rejects. In a similar manner, while Mormonism may have arisen as simply a new sect of restorationist Christianity, it quickly transformed into something else (e.g. there seems to be a decisive break in the Mormon understanding of God in pre- and post-Nauvoo periods with the pre-Nauvoo understanding not being quite as unorthodox as post-Nauvoo Mormonism).

Mormonism has beliefs and scriptures that historic Christianity rejects; just as this transforms that little Jewish sect into something new, so too for Mormonism, thus making it inappropriate to label Mormons and Mormonism as Christian.

[Digression]

In my readings of early Mormon writings there seems to have been a distinct pride in distinguishing Mormonism from historic Christianity. The opposite almost seems to be the case today. It is as is there is some real hesitancy in the Mormon Church to divorce itself too far from mainstream Christianity. For instance, in 1997 the previous Mormon Prophet, Gordon Hinckley, gave an interview with Time Magazine, in which he was asked about God being a man before he became God and his answer comes across as if he is passing it off as some sort of peripheral belief that just isn’t important to Mormon theology:

Question: Is this the teaching of the church today, that God the Father was once a man like we are?

Hinckley: I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it. I haven’t heard it discussed for a long time in public discourse.…

What the?!

For the unaware reader, the Mormon belief in exaltation can perhaps best be summed up in the well-known couplet by past Mormon President Lorenzo Snow: “As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become.”

A Mormon apologetic I have encountered runs that this doctrine of exaltation is simply a recovery of the early church’s belief in theosis/divinization. While the idea of theosis is practically unheard of in Evangelicalism and broader Protestantism, it is nevertheless a key feature in the theological diet of the Orthodox Church (maybe this is due, in part at least, to how the Eastern and Western parts of the church came to have different conceptions of essence and energy). In fact, for many years after becoming Christian I had never even heard of such a notion as theosis, and if I had I would have recoiled in horror. It was only when I started to get to know the Christian faith from outside of my own very narrow stream that I happened upon this idea and came to see that not only does it go back to the early Patristic literature (e.g. Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria), but there are even passages in the New Testament (e.g. John 17:21-23, 2 Cor. 8:9, 2 Peter 1:4, and Rev. 3:21) which could be taken as early antecedents to theosis (or, if not theosis, then at least a more weighty doctrine of the future of man than the flaccid going-to-heaven-when-you-die-and-floating-on-a-cloud-for-all-eternity position that is the default Christian position).

The Mormon belief in exaltation is quite distinct from the Orthodox belief in theosis. A key distinction is that in theosis we partake of God’s energies, not his essence (in Orthodox thinking God’s energies are not separate from God’s essence but are the way God manifests himself within creation). Hence, in theosis we remain human in our essence and do not unite with God’s (uncreated) essence, only with his (uncreated) energies. Whereas in the Mormon teaching of exaltation, divinization is an innate capacity in every person because humans and God are essentially of the same species (humans and deities are ultimately all eternal “intelligences” as Joseph Smith put it).

An interesting study on the topic is Jordan Vajda’s, “Partakers of the Divine Nature”: A Comparative Analysis of Patristic and Mormon Doctrines of Divinization” (available online here). Vajda says: “This difference—the difference between participation [i.e. Orthodox thesosis] and growth [i.e. Mormon exaltation]—can be rooted in two very different ontological understandings of divine nature and human nature.”

[/Digression]

All this is to say that while historic Christianity and Mormonism have a lot in common, there are important differences between that shouldn’t be swept under the rug. And it is because of these differences that I think one could argue that Mormonism should be classified as something new apart from Christianity. Who knows, maybe in a century or two –if Mormonism experiences a significant growth in adherents and doesn’t shy away from what makes it unique from historic Christianity– maybe Mormons will no longer desire to be called Christians.

The Long and Short of It

I really don’t care whether Mormons go around calling themselves Christian. I have no problem calling them Christians but that is probably because I don’t see the term as a magical talisman denoting that you fall into doctrinal orthodoxy and/or are a citizen of the New Jerusalem. I’m sure there are Mormons who really are Christian. Heck, I’m sure there are even some evangelicals who are really Christian too!

I think that instead of focusing upon such matters as whether it is alright to apply the label “Christian” to various groups, we should be more focused upon whether it applies to ourselves. In the words of Paul, we need to “examine ourselves to make sure that we are in the faith” (2 Cor 13:5). Because it doesn’t really matter a single iota whether you say you’re a Christian or whether you don’t think someone else is a Christian; all that matters is whether Christ himself will say that you are a Christian (see Matt 7:21-23; that is perhaps the scariest verse in the entire Bible, with Matt 10:37/Luke 14:26 being a close runner-up).

Thoughts on the Mormon Church (Part III) – More on the Missionaries

There are several questions I like to ask the missionaries when they come calling, not necessarily because I think they will break through the unassailable logic of the fundamentalist mindset but simply because I am interested in seeing how much (and to what depth) they understand their own doctrine (and its evolution), and how much they know about the prophets of their church (particularly Joseph Smith and Brigham Young; though I’m resigned to the fact that it’s a rare missionary who knows anything about Mormonism after Young).

Whenever I speak to missionaries for the first time, one of the first things they try to tell me is that their church has a prophet of God. So naturally I have to ask something to the effect of:

  • What is a specific doctrine or teaching from God that the current Prophet has spoken that you liked?

The only answer I get is some variation of how everything the Prophet says is inspiring in general. Apparently the days are long gone when the LDS Prophet received profound insights from God. Now it sounds like the LDS Prophet is no different from a regular pastor/motivational speaker.

The missionaries tell me that the Prophet and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles guide the church and are given revelation from God, yet it seems like the past LDS Prophets and Apostles are simply thrown under the bus because they taught things that are regularly rejected by the contemporary church leadership and laity. So in that spirit I like to ask this question:

  • How do you tell that what a Prophet says is truly revelation from God and not just his own personal opinions? For instance, Brigham Young taught the Adam-God doctrine -that Adam was God- and he declared it as having been revealed to him by God, yet it was later rejected by the Church.

Brigham Young’s Adam-God doctrine is my favorite example of this, though many of the things that the past LDS Prophets and Apostles get thrown under the bus for could be argued to be relatively trivial (such as the belief that the hill Cumorah is in New York). Yet the point remains: seemingly nothing the LDS Prophets and Apostles say can really be trustworthy. What they teach today may very well be tomorrow’s heresy (or at least toilet paper).

By the way, only one missionary I’ve encountered had any idea of what I was talking about when I brought up Brigham Young’s Adam-God teaching, though he was actually a returned missionary that the missionaries had brought along to answer some of my “tough questions” (and his answer was essentially, “well not everything the Prophets say is revelation,” which of course neglects the fact that Brigham Young said it was revelation). Other than that returned missionary, I don’t think I’ve ever had a missionary know what the hell I’m talking about. [For the interested reader see this link for some of what Brigham Young said concerning Adam-God]

This isn’t uncommon as there are many other issues which the missionaries never know what I am talking about, e.g. the Kinderhook Plate fiasco, the problem of deutero-Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, and Brigham Young’s teaching of Blood Atonement.

Another question that I like to ask is:

  • So which apologetic theory do you subscribe to in order to explain how the Book of Abraham was translated from some Egyptian papyri that were not a document written by Abraham as Joseph Smith claimed, but are rather run-of-the-mill ancient Egyptian funerary documents?

Surprisingly, there was actually one missionary who knew what I was talking about. He held to the “well we don’t have all the papyri and so the Book of Abraham came from those missing papyri” apologetic. Though he had no answer to the follow up question of, “So how do you explain that Joseph Smith’s interpretations of the three vignettes from the papyri that he included in the Book of Abraham are demonstrably incorrect?”

On a related note, the LDS Church recently released an essay (found here) on the historicity and translation of the Book of Abraham. Interestingly, it gives the thumbs up for the idea that Joseph Smith was not actually translating the Egyptian papryi but that they served as a “catalyst.” In the words of the essay: “[The papyri] catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri.” Pity. And here Joseph Smith and cohorts were thinking that he could translate Egyptian hieroglyphs. Ah well, we know that position isn’t tenable today, so lets just throw past teachings under the bus.

Ultimately, while I enjoy talking with Mormon missionaries (and they are always very polite chaps and much more personable than the Jehovah Witnesses), it’s pretty much impossible to have a real discussion about their religion with them (such as discussing its difficulties, contradictions, evolution, and so forth). This is simply due to their lack of knowledge. But what they lack in knowledge they do make up for in their earnestness to bear their testimony about how they know the Book of Mormon is true, that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, and that the LDS Church is true. Their bearing of their testimony is also a common response to questions they don’t know how to answer, although the last missionary pair that I met with (a few weeks ago) just upped and left when it became evident that I wasn’t going to be an easy convert and knew more about their church history than they did (they said that they had an appointment to get to. Yeah, right).

Of course, it goes without saying that not all Mormons are fundamentalists. Not by a long shot. From my talks with Mormons in real life and from reading a copious amount of literature (both in print and online), it is manifestly evident that Mormonism is just like any other religious tradition in that its adherents occupy a vast range of perspectives, from the uber-conservative fundamentalist to the disagree-with-standard-Mormon-doctrine-on-everything liberal. But why, O why, do all the missionaries that come to my door have to be of the fundamentalist variety who have no depth of knowledge of their own religion!

Thoughts on the Mormon Church (Part II) – Meeting with the Missionaries

Over the past few years I’ve had the pleasure of encountering many missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka the Mormons or Latter-day Saints). Almost all of the Mormon missionaries I’ve encountered were 20-21 year old males, hailing from the Mormon bastion of Utah (though there was that one guy from Washington who broke the mould). This isn’t surprising when one learns that Mormonism is primarily centered in Utah, Idaho, and Montana, and that most Mormon missionaries (about 80%) are young men.

I don’t think it is a stretch to say that almost all of the Mormon missionaries I have talked with are essentially the Mormon version of fundamentalists and, to put it bluntly, are pretty damn clueless about their own religion (just like good old evangelical fundamentalists). They really seem to know next to nothing about the formative years of the LDS Church (e.g. the life and times of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young), and even less about church history after that time.

For instance, the missionaries I encountered did not know some basic facts about Joseph Smith such as the fact that Smith had multiple wives (over 30). The majority of the missionaries I talked to were apparently unaware of this and seemed to think that the polygamy started in Utah under Brigham Young. Some of the missionaries did know about Smith’s polygamy but didn’t believe me when I mentioned the number of women he had married, and really didn’t believe me when I mentioned that about a dozen of them were already married to other men.

I don’t bring up such topics to the missionaries because I think it will cripple their faith. It’s moreso because I am curious as to what level of knowledge the missionaries have regarding their church. I know that in “mainstream” Christianity (e.g. good old American evangelicalism) there is an abysmal knowledge of understanding of matters related to Christian origins (including basic knowledge of the New Testament). But, and maybe I am silly for thinking this, shouldn’t one expect missionaries to have at least a somewhat decent understanding of some basic things about the key figures of their religious tradition, especially given the fact that (from my experience) every single one of the missionaries was born and raised as a Mormon.

Anywho, moving on.

Before the missionaries go on their missionary they spend some time at what is known as the Missionary Training Center. Considering that a lot of the missionaries have thrown out the exact same arguments to me, I would assume that this is where they learn the methods and “facts” to employ while proselytizing.

Here are a few arguments that are repeated ad nauseum by the missionaries:

  • I know/testify that the Book of Mormon is true.

When I ask how they know it is true I invariably get the response that God has revealed it to them that it is true. Naturally my follow up question is how did God reveal this to them. Most of the responses I’ve received involved the phrase: “a still, small voice which testifies to me that it is true” (cf. 1 Kgs 19:12; but they don’t mean an audible voice, just something more akin to a happy and peaceful feeling). Another typical answer I’ve received is, “it makes me a better person” (which is nice, but reading the Qur’an and Bhagavad Gita can also have the same effect).

There are two other similar statements I hear just as often from the missionaries:

  • I know/testify that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God.
  • I know/testify that the [LDS] Church is true.

In regards to that last statement, I haved ask how they know “the Church is true” and the only answer I’ve received is essentially “because I know the Book of Mormon is true.” I don’t see, however, why that means the mainstream LDS Church is true and not one of the other Mormon sects which also upholds the Book of Mormon as the Word of God (such as the Community of Christ, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Strangite branch, the Apostolic United Brethren, the Centennial Park group, and the Temple Lot branch). I mean, for all they know the Book of Mormon may very well be true but the mainstream branch of Mormonism may have apostatized from the truth and one of the other denominations is in fact the true continuation of the Church. (I’ve actually had some missionaries try to convince me that there are no other denominations or branches of  Mormonism).

A frequent argument I’ve heard about the authenticity of the Book of Mormon as the Word of God is:

  • Joseph Smith didn’t go to school so how could he have come up with the Book of Mormon?

I’ve heard similar things regarding Mohammed and the Qur’an –Mohammed apparently couldn’t read or write and yet he produced the Qur’an– so does that mean we should all convert to Islam?

If memory serves, while Joseph Smith may have only had a few years of formal education he was nevertheless raised in a household where his father and his brother taught in schools, so I don’t think it is stretching the imagination to assume that despite his lack of formal education, Joseph nevertheless grew up in a household where education was important and that he developed a good ability to read and write.

Another thing I’ve heard on two or three occasions is in the spirit of the following (I think this is a quote from one of the current Apostles of the LDS Church):

  • Either the Book of Mormon is the most ingenious fraud ever concocted, or it is what the Church believes it to be – the very Word of God given to Joseph Smith.

I really don’t see what is all that special about the Book of Mormon, especially when you take into account that the plot and certain aspects of the language of the Book of Mormon have been found in other works available in Joseph Smith’s time (such as the Bible and The Late War). When you take that into account you are left with a book that by no means necessitates a supernatural source. (And yes, I have read arguments from Mormon apologists claiming the Book of Mormon is filled with Hebraisms, but no, they are not compelling).

In a nutshell, I think the Book of Mormon is basically the biblical version of fan-fiction.

Other random things I have heard multiple times from the missionaries are arguments along the line of:

  • “The Bible (or New Testament) was put together by Constantine and left out many books which should have been included.”

I’m unsure of what is the better response here. Should I bite my tongue and say nothing, or give a ten minute rundown on the formation of the NT?

  • “The Christian doctrine of the Trinity comes from Greek philosophy.”

In a way this is accurate because the hammering out of the doctrine of the Trinity amongst the early church fathers utilized Greek philosophical language, categories, and so forth. Yet it is far too simplistic of a statement to make it useful in accurately portraying the evolution of Trinitarian doctrine. Additionally, simply stating that the Trinity (or whatever doctrine) is the result of Greek philosophical thinking only gets you so far… you still need to show why that means that doctrine is in error (i.e. it is not a good argument to simply say, “that doctrine results from Greek philosophy, therefore it is wrong”).

Also, doesn’t this Greek philosophy argumentation essentially undercut the Mormon position too? It seems to me that Mormonism also contain beliefs that one could rightly say are the offspring of Greek philosophical thinking. For example, the Mormon doctrine of a pre-mortal existence of the soul is a thoroughly platonic idea (stemming from Plato’s theory of forms and ideas). In other words… we can all throw around the “Greek philosophy” argument.

Thoughts on the Mormon Church (Part I) – Holy Envy

A concept I’ve come to embrace as a damn good way of studying other religious traditions is to “leave room for holy envy” (to borrow  a phrase from NT scholar Krister Stendahl). The idea behind “holy envy” is that one should have an open mind concerning other religious faiths to the extent of being able to identify beliefs or practices in other religions that one wishes could be reflected more in their own religious tradition.

Over the past few years, ever since the Mormon (or Latter-day Saints) missionaries first knocked at my door in 2011, I’ve spent what must be hundreds of hours reading Mormon literature and talking with the missionaries and other LDS folk (I even got to have dinner at the Bishop’s house one time!). So I like to fancy that I have a somewhat decent understanding of the LDS Church. So here are just a couple of things about the Mormon Church to which I have a degree of “holy envy.”

  • The emphasis upon orthopraxis rather than orthodoxy.

Creeds and systematized theologies are not prized that highly in the LDS Church. In fact, apart from this list of Articles of Faith I don’t think I’ve seen much else in the way of elaborate statements of faith that one must adhere to in order to be a Mormon.

Mainstream Christianity loves to bandy about creeds and confessions of faith as some sort of doctrinal litmus test one must pass before one can rightly label themselves “Christian.” While I can see the usefulness of creeds and confessions of faith for ecclesiological purposes (i.e. marking out the boundary lines for a community of faith), they seem to be too often viewed as soteriological statements (i.e. you must believe x, y, and z in order to be a real Christian). So if someone were to say, for example, that they don’t agree with or even care about the Chalcedonian formulation of Christ, then that is seen in the eyes of many as being the equivalent to purchasing a ticket to the eternal lake of fire. In other words, creeds and confessions of faith are all too often wielded about as rhetorical bludgeons in order to cast people into the outer darkness.

All of this is to say that I can definitely appreciate the focus in the LDS Church upon “likening Scriptures to oneself.”

  • The universalistic outlook on the fate of humanity.

In LDS theology there are three heavens (or “degress of glory”): the Telestial, the Terrestrial, and the Celestial (with even the lowly Telestial heaven apparently “surpassing all understanding”). Basically, as I understand it, pretty much every human gets to hang out in one of these heavens for eternity (except for maybe a small minority of humans, such as Cain and Judas, who get to enjoy the Outer Darkness).

For the past 2,000 years there has always been a trajectory of Christian thought that has been either outright universalistic, implicitly universalistic, or at least possessing a universalistic hope. When I’m not reading news stories about some of the utterly depraved people that inhabit this planet, I typically fall into the category of having a universalistic hope. So naturally the hopeful outlook of Mormonism’s universalistic theology resonates with me.

There are probably other things I could list but those are two that leap out at me off of the top of my head. Stay tuned for more random thoughts on Mormonism, such as my thoughts on the missionaries and the question that some people care far too much about…. “Are Mormons Christian?”

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