Briefly Second Nephi, with Terryl Givens [MIPodcast #99]
This episode continues our special series of episodes on the Maxwell Institute’s brief theological introductions to the Book of Mormon. Terryl Givens is author of the volume on what many readers consider to be the most challenging part of the scripture—Second Nephi. The authors of our Brief Theological Introductions are “seeking Christ in scripture by combining intellectual rigor and the disciple’s yearning for holiness.”
Terryl L. Givens is a Neal A. Maxwell Senior Research Fellow. He formerly held the Jabez A. Bostwick Chair of English and was Professor of Literature and Religion at the University of Richmond. He is the author of many books about Latter-day Saint history and culture, including Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought, Feeding the Flock: The Foundations of Mormon Practice, and By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture That Launched a New World Religion, each with Oxford University Press. He is also co-author, with Fiona Givens, of The God Who Weeps, The Crucible of Doubt, and The Christ Who Heals.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges.
This episode continues our special series on the Maxwell Institute’s Brief Theological Introductions to the Book of Mormon—a series of books briefly, theologically, introducing the Book of Mormon. In this episode we talk with Terryl Givens, he’s author of the volume on Second Nephi. The authors of these Brief Theological Introductions are “seeking Christ in scripture by combining intellectual rigor and the disciple’s yearning for holiness.” You can learn more about the series at mi.byu.edu/brief.
Let’s dig in to perhaps the most challenging section of the Book of Mormon—Terryl Givens offers a brief theological introduction to Second Nephi. Questions and comments about this episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast can be sent to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BLAIR HODGES: Terryl Givens, welcome once again to the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
TERRYL L. GIVENS: Thanks Blair, good to be here.
HODGES: Today we’re talking about Second Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction. This is a book that you’re writing for a new series that the Maxwell Institute is putting together. Brief Theological Introductions to the Book of Mormon. Second Nephi, how did you land on that one?
GIVENS: Well I asked for it. [laughs] Joe might disagree with me, but I think it’s the most important book in the Book of Mormon—
HODGES: That’s Joe Spencer saying that?
GIVENS: Yeah, Joe Spencer I think will disagree with me, but I think it’s really in Second Nephi that we get the whole plan and purpose of the Book of Mormon lined up, at least from Nephi’s perspective.
HODGES: It’s been funny to hear from different authors—and people will hear as we interview more—everyone has discovered that their own book happens to be the core of the book—
GIVENS: The most important. Of course!
HODGES: Yeah, so you’re covering a book, though, that’s become notorious, I think, for a lot of Latter-day Saint readers as something of a speed bump in the Book of Mormon. Second Nephi is something that seems to be daunting. Why do you think Latter-day Saint readers have struggled with Second Nephi?
GIVENS: Well, it’s clearly the Isaiah passages. I know that Elder Marlin K. Jensen once remarked in public that he had tried to read the Book of Mormon faithfully as a family but they never got out of the wilderness. [laughter] And I think it’s those Isaiah passages, where Isaiah is a very cryptic writer. It’s very hard for us at the remove of a few thousand years to make sense of those ancient texts.
And I don’t know that my introduction will make them much easier, but I hope to at least provide a pretty good explanation of why Nephi puts such emphasis on Isaiah and how we might more willingly embrace the challenge of trying to make Isaiah relevant to ourselves in our situation today.
HODGES: It seems like that’s what Nephi himself was trying to do, is embracing that challenge of making Isaiah relevant.
GIVENS: Yeah, that’s right. And I think maybe we don’t fully appreciate how clearly he’s indicating that he’s not interpreting Isaiah. He’s not giving us a gloss of Isaiah as much as he is appropriating Isaiah to his own circumstances and his own people. And so we need to do the same.
HODGES: One of your first observations in the book is that Nephi’s book is the only one in the Book of Mormon that is split in two under the same author’s name. So we have a First Nephi and a Second Nephi. Your Brief Theological Introduction works to explain that uniqueness.
GIVENS: Yes. It’s a distinctive hallmark of Nephi’s record that he breaks it in two. It’s not necessarily because it’s so long, and so it seems to me the question really imposes itself upon us: Why? What happens in his experience, or the experience of his people, that marks a radical rupture with the first narrative and makes him feel a fresh beginning is warranted?
So, that’s what I looked for. And my theory is that the rationale appears immediately, as we would expect, in the opening passages of Second Nephi. One would think a natural break would be their arrival in the new world, but that takes place in First Nephi. Another natural break would be the death of Lehi the patriarch, but that doesn’t occur until later in Second Nephi. No, what happens just a few verses into Second Nephi is the announcement that Lehi makes that I think changes everything. That announcement is “Jerusalem is destroyed.” And I think that would have landed like a bomb.
Now, it’s true that that destruction had been prophesied, but I think there’s all the difference in the world between the theoretical prophecy that we contemplate in the abstract and living through the most catastrophic moment in the history of Israel up to that time. The only thing that I could compare it to—and so I do this in the introduction of my book—is to imagine some time, oh a decade or so from now, at least according to NASA’s plans, to envision an actual colony that has been established successfully on Mars. And you have a chronicler, a record keeper, and a number of people establishing themselves on this outpost of earth civilization. And then this message comes across interplanetary space that the earth has just blown up in a nuclear holocaust. And it seems to me there’s something roughly comparable that would have transpired psychologically and emotionally to this people who see themselves as an outpost. Right? As a remnant of Israel and suddenly Israel as they knew it is gone. The temple is gone.
Another more historical antecedent might be the alleged burning of Cortez’s ships after the conquistadors arrive in the new world and you suddenly realize the starkness of your predicament, that you have reached a point of no return, and that you are now the fountainhead of a new civilization.
HODGES: And you say a book results from this rupture, and you compare that to what happens with the Torah as well.
GIVENS: I think there’s an exact historical parallel there. Virtually all Old Testament scholars or Hebrew Bible scholars believe that it was the trauma of the Babylonian captivity—and again, the same destruction we’re talking about—that launches that project among the Jewish captives in Babylon to reroute their civilization, so to speak, that has now been displaced spatially, in scriptural space by establishing a scriptural ground or foundation for their survival as a people. It is the Torah, the five books of Moses, that we believe comes out of that experience, that trauma.
In a similar way, Nephi is going to establish a kind of scriptural and theological foundation to his people in this same moment intime by engaging in this same project of establishing a kind of template of scriptural authority and doctrine.
HODGES: We also have Nephi talking about those five books as though they already existed at the time. How do you make sense of the timeline there as far as them knowing about it?
GIVENS: Yeah, I’m not sure. I think it’s entirely conceivable that one could find a way of kind of reconciling these two different timelines by assuming that some kind of scriptural record is already present among the Jewish people at the time of the captivity, but that it hasn’t been what we would refer to as “canonized” in any formal unitary way. That would be my best guess.
HODGES: And you see Nephi’s task as matching Moroni’s stated purpose which we get on the title page.
GIVENS: Well, exactly. And I think that Moroni is actually extracting that language from Nephi. I mean, I’d like to think he reads Nephi [laughs] at least in a way that is vaguely similar to my way of reading it. Because Nephi lays out, “Okay, these are the two things that I have to do,” and that we see him doing in Second Nephi. And the two projects are to reassure his people that even though Jerusalem is gone, we are not forgotten. That we still have a place and covenant history. So, that’s purpose number one.
And purpose number two is, if we don’t want to experience the same fate of our brethren, we have to keep Jesus Christ as the central figure in that covenant.
HODGES: Let’s take those one at a time. So, let’s start with that: “the new and very old covenant,” I think are the words that you use in your book. How did you arrive at this idea of covenant being one of the central themes of your book on Second Nephi? When did you come to see the text this way?
GIVENS: Well, I actually worked through many of these issues in my book Feeding the Flock, which was my Oxford Publication on LDS ecclesiology. It was an attempt to answer the question: Why a church? What is actually the function of the church institutionally, apart from just doctrine or theology. And the more I delved into this question, the more I became convinced that the most effective and accurate way of thinking about the Latter-day Saint restoration is as the restoration of the new and everlasting covenant. And once you recognize that, I think you see corroboration everywhere.
We know that in some of the earliest accounts of Joseph Smith’s first vision that people to whom he shared his experience said that the one thing that Joseph remarked was that the Lord had told him that “the everlasting covenant was broken.” That phrase reappears in the preface to the Doctrine and Covenants, so designated by the Lord, when, essentially, we get the whole rationale for the Restoration, when the Lord tells Joseph in D&C 1 that the everlasting covenant was broken and that Joseph’s purpose—his mission as a prophet—is to restore the new and everlasting covenant. I think at that point in time, Joseph Smith himself doesn’t know exactly what that covenant entails. And the new and everlasting covenant will progressively be pushed further and further back in cosmic history in the course of Joseph Smith’s prophetic work.
For example, historically we think of the first covenant as being that made with Moses, or some covenant theologians will say, “No, it’s actually the covenant made with Adam in the Garden.” In the book of Moses, which Joseph restores shortly after the Book of Mormon, we learn that in very fact, yes, the fullness of the gospel—the gospel covenant—was made known to Adam and Eve in the Garden. And then a few years later, with the production of the Book of Abraham, we learn that in actual fact, the covenant precedes the creation of the earth itself.
So, I think that in Latter-day Saint understanding, we have to come to a point where we recognize at that moment in the council that is described in Abraham 3, where Heavenly Father presents his plan for human progress and exaltation, and we—two-thirds of the spirits there—agree by covenant to sustain that project, I think that is the foundation of the new everlasting covenant. It is the gospel in its totality. Understood as encompassing all aspects of the gospel from its plan—its blueprint laid out—in the council in Heaven, to the process of mortal embodiment, to the fulness of the gospel and temple ordinances, culminating in our return to a Heavenly family, but now embedded in a system of eternal relationality brought to fruition through the temple theology that was Joseph Smith’s central focus.
So that total plan—Alma calls it “the great plan of happiness”—I think the scriptures are referring to as the new and everlasting covenant.
HODGES: And you see the Book of Mormon intervening in a very long-standing question about the relationship between the Hebrew Bible—the Old Testament—and the New Testament. And the Book of Mormon splits that divide.
GIVENS: Well actually it reconciles that divide, is that it does, right? I think that we have to—as Latter-day Saints, if we’re going to understand the restoration, we have to understand it in its historical context. And the way that Joseph seems to have envisioned, in major terms, his work of Restoration, was as a correction of covenant theology as it has been developed by Joseph Smith’s day.
If you go back and just Google the words “everlasting covenant” or “new and everlasting covenant in the 19th century” you will find literally hundreds of books and hundreds of sermons appearing under the title of “covenant theology”—some variant of covenant theology. So what had happened by Joseph Smith’s day, and it begins actually fairly early in Christian history, is that there’s an understanding that two covenants have existed. The first is the old covenant—a covenants of the works; a covenant associated with Adam in the Garden or Moses and the law. But Christian understanding was that the Jewish people failed to keep the terms of that covenant, okay? So this develops into what is called “supersessionist theology.” It’s not very generous to the Jewish people because it portrays them as utterly failing to uphold their terms of the covenant. As a consequence of which, God chooses a new people—the Christian people as they will be called—who abide by a new covenant titled, “the covenant of grace” introduced by Jesus Christ—his sacrifice. And so, in Protestant understanding in particular we have the new covenant—the covenant of grace—replacing or displacing the old covenant of works. And that, as I said, also goes by the name of supersessionist theology.
Now, the aftermath of World War II, supersessionism itself has been in decline and Christians have tried to find new ways of finding a more accommodating place for Jewish people in their Christian theology.
HODGES: A lot because of the drive to resist anti-Semitism and kind of to reckon the history of that.
GIVENS: Exactly, exactly! Because that’s part in parcel of the whole anti-Semitic history.
The Book of Mormon largely avoids that problem in a way that is really remarkable for an early nineteenth-century text, because it collapses those two covenants into one—or I would say more accurately, it restores them by integrating them into the original conception of that covenant. And it does this in a very systematic way. You can trace in the Book of Mormon item by item by item, how it takes these two disparate covenants and merges them back together.
For example, the Old and New Testament are separated chronologically—the Old Testament proceeds Christ, New Testament post-Christ. In the Book of Mormon, we have a time frame that goes from 600 BC roughly to 400 AD roughly and so there’s no longer that chronological divide. We have this one scriptural text that embodies both.
Whereas we had the Law of Moses dominating the Old Testament, the law of Christ dominating the New, in the Book of Mormon we find they exist side by side. We find time and again people are referred to as “keeping the law of Moses”, “abiding by the law of Moses”, even as they anticipate the coming of Christ. In other words, they clearly don’t see a discrepancy or a discontinuity between the so-called Mosaic law and Christian law. They see the two as interconnected.
Another way of talking about this is that works and grace find perfect synthesis in the Book of Mormon. In the Old Testament, covenantal understanding had largely been a kind of group thing or a tribal thing and in the New Testament, it becomes very individuated. Conversion is individuated. Again, in the Book of Mormon we find a lovely merging of these two. We find covenant peoples, like at the time of Kind Benjamin, but who enter into individual relationship with Christ through their personal acceptance of him as their Savior.
So, in all of these ways what Joseph Smith seems to have been doing by way of the Book of Mormon was radically rewriting Christian covenant theology in a way that re-presents the gospel as whole, as entire, and as eternal.
HODGES: This restoration of a collective perspective really stood out to me—that Christians had been focused, a lot of Christians I should say, had been focused for a long time on individual salvation from sin. The problem being the Fall and the fallen person needs to be saved and so on and so forth, but the Book of Mormon brings back this corporate picture that you talked about a moment ago where God’s concerned with people, not just individuals, but also individuals too.
GIVENS: That’s right. And I think that that will flower into the whole Zion-building project that Joseph Smith inaugurate fairly early on in the 1830s, where we have what seems to my mind the most communalistic Christian understanding of salvation. That yes, we have to have an individual, personal relationship, understanding commitment, but that salvation is ultimately corporate. That we are saved as families and as communities.
HODGES: And all the obligations and responsibilities extend through those relationships, not just in one’s own relationship to God.
GIVENS: That’s exactly right. And so, you know, some theologians have said that religion can be either anthropocentric, where it’s all vertically oriented towards God, or it can be in more secular oriented systems it can be horizontally and anthropocentric—did I say anthropocentric for the first one?
GIVENS: I meant theocentric, for God-oriented. And restoration theology beautifully incorporates those two dimensions, where you have horizontal relationships at the same time as we are orienting towards a divine Father whom we worship.
HODGES: And so, you also talk about how important geography is to Nephi. He’s talking about actual promised-land situation, but it also becomes more than that, and it kind of has to change quickly because at the promised land they arrive at, there’s instant division and fleeing.
GIVENS: That’s right! And so, yes, we find something that is both terribly ironic, and we find something that also is dramatically parallel in a fascinating way to what Joseph Smith and his people are themselves shortly about to experience.
So, what we find right there is there has long, long been this Jewish preoccupation with place, right? The promised land. To this day, right, strife in the Middle East is largely oriented around the physical occupation of what was seen as a land of promise. So, immediately following Lehi’s announcement that Jerusalem is destroyed, he tries to console his people by saying, “But, God has given us this new land of promise.” Okay, so far so good, but [laughs] the disappointment comes soon thereafter when they’re reestablished themselves, they have a new home, they’re going to consider it their new land of promise, and almost immediately, Nephi is warned that he has to take his people and depart further into the wilderness. And so, what we find is that now he’s lost two lands of promise and he has to have a third.
And then we’re going to find a new generation hence that the situation repeats itself again, where the people of God have to take themselves and flee into the wilderness.
And so, as I said, if you consider what is happening beginning in the 1830s, by 1832, 33, the Mormons are forced out of their promised land of Jackson County. They’re forced into Clay County. By 1836 they’re forced out of Clay County into yet another promised land and so on and so on. Eventually, of course, what transpires for both, I think, the Nephites and the for the Saints, is that they learn—as the revelation will eventually declare—that Zion is not a place. Zion is the pure in heart. And there is a schooling, there is an educative process or function that is accomplished by what Joseph Smith called “compact gathering” but that ultimately, it’s about purity of heart and living the doctrine of Christ, and being on a covenant path and not being in any particularly designated place.
HODGES: It’s interesting the way that it operates on a very literal level for Nephi, but then within the Book of Mormon you also see it becoming more of this figurative, “this land,” but then also, your heart.
GIVENS: Yes, I think it does, yeah. And I think that that is in fact—that understanding really culminates and comes into its most perfect form with the ending of Second Nephi where he focuses on what he calls the doctrine of Christ. Where that our standing before God becomes entirely a function of covenantal commitment that he outlines in terms that are fairly well-known to us today.
HODGES: Why Isaiah? So, he’s going to bring a lot of Isaiah into it. What do you make of that? You’ve now spent quite a bit of time with it.
GIVENS: Well, Isaiah is the prophet of covenant, right? He is the one who—of all Old Testament writers—is most preoccupied with covenantal history. And I think there isn’t any more relevant source among Old Testament prophets that the people of Nephi could turn to for both an understanding of covenant history and for assurances of the unbreakable nature of the covenant that God has made with his people. And so time and time again, Isaiah will register a history of scattering and apparent abandonment by God, only to reassure and promise and narrate a restoration of a covenant relationship and in many cases of physical recuperation.
And so, I think it’s important to point out that two things are happening side-by-side in both Isaiah and in the Book of Mormon that yes, Zion as the pure in heart, to some extent, displaces Zion as a promised land, but there is that aspect of covenantal history that will unfold as promised, that there will be a literal restoration of scattered Israel in both cases. So, it isn’t that we completely abandoned or lose hope in a kind of physical re-congregating in a particular place of the people of Israel.
HODGES: That’s Terryl Givens. He’s a Neal A. Maxwell Senior Research Fellow here at the Maxwell Institute, and we’re talking about his forthcoming book, Second Nephi: a Brief Theological Introduction. In fact, by the time this episode comes out, it should be available for pre-order. Before coming to the Maxwell Institute, Dr. Givens held the Bostwick Chair of English and was professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond and we’re really happy to have him here at the Institute.
So Terryl, we’ve covered point one of Nephi’s concern, which is to talk about the covenant. You say part two of his mission was to “convince people that Jesus is the Christ,” and you cover that in the next chapter and say it’s kind of a stunning anachronism that there are these Christians before the time of Christ.
I want to quote you exactly here because you actually set up the interview question for me. So, here’s what you said: “How did a group of Israelites, a continent away from Jerusalem, and six centuries before His coming, acquire exact foreknowledge of Jesus when their Jewish contemporaries had, at best, vaguely defined beliefs in some kind of future Messiah?”
GIVENS: Well, the Book of Mormon itself gives two answers to that question. And there are other possibilities, right? Some have speculated that, well, maybe Moroni with hindsight has edited freely the record [laughs]—
GIVENS: —enhanced by adding details—
HODGES: We kind of see that with Isaiah.
GIVENS: That’s right. Cyrus, by name for example. But the two reasons that the Book of Mormon itself gives are these.
First of all, the Book of Mormon suggests that there was a more complete record available to Lehi and his people than what is now extent in the Hebrew Bible. A number of prophets that are mentioned, like Zenos and others. And so, they specifically cite and invoke these authorities as having particularized knowledge of Jesus Christ and the circumstances surrounding his birth and life. So that is one source that they appeal to.
The second source is that of angelic ministration and visitation. In virtually every instance where there is an allusion to, or a reference to, or a prophecy of Christ being born in Jerusalem or the virgin birth, the speaker is at pains to indicate that the knowledge he is about to share came to him in a vision, through an angel, or another particular source outside of the normal conduit of information. It’s as if the speakers in the Book of Mormon are aware of the atypical nature of their particular knowledge of Jesus Christ and so they are at pains to let us know that, no, this wasn’t knowledge that was generally available, but that it was given to them by special commission of angelic visitors.
HODGES: Yeah, you run down the list where, for instance, Nephi says—he’s talking about Christ “according to the word of the angel,” that’s in Second Nephi 25. Jacob knows of Christ’s scourging and crucifixion because of “the words of the angel did spake to him” in Second Nephi 6. King Benjamin knew the name of Christ’s mother “by an angel of God,” that’s in Mosiah 3 and then Alma the Younger knows about Jerusalem and Christ being born near there because “the Spirit” said that in Alma 7, and the list goes on.
GIVENS: Right, right. So, I think it’s remarkable that in no case do we have a kind of blatant anachronism. We have their clear recognition that they are operating outside normal channels of historical understanding.
HODGES: And then toward the end of this chapter that’s talking about the Book of Mormon’s understanding of Jesus, you point out that the Book of Mormon’s not simply trying to give readers a set of facts about Jesus. It’s not about a list of things that we need to know about Jesus. It’s not that kind of knowing. You say instead it’s inviting readers into their own experiences with Christ, and that Book of Mormon prophets themselves try to model this. So what is this knowledge of Jesus about?
GIVENS: Yeah and this is where I find the Book of Mormon particularly moving in a very personal, intimate way. As Latter-day Saints today, we are incredibly fortunate to have what I think is a much more ample, a much more accurate and inspired conception of the Divine. I think scriptures like the seventh chapter of Moses or the fifth chapter of Jacob in the Book of Mormon, I think they give us a radically different conception of the Divine nature. One that is capable of suffering with humans, of feeling, of being moved.
But, at some point in the disciple’s life, you have to move from Jesus Christ as theoretical construct to Jesus Christ as a personal healer or Savior with whom you have interacted in some intimate, real way. And that point is made abundantly clear in the Book of Mormon, because in Second Nephi alone we get eyewitness, personal, firsthand testimonies of the major players that they have personally known Christ. That this is not a knowledge that has come merely through the scriptures or tradition.
Father Lehi talks about his experience of being “encircled about in the arms of God’s love” (Second Nephi 1:15). We are told that both Nephi and Jacob have personally seen the Christ. We will later see how Enoch enters into an actual dialogic conversation with the Savior of the World. So, time and again what we’re getting are really these firsthand testimonies that Christ is there as a real living presence in the world then and in the world today.
HODGES: You quote from Catholic theologian Steven Webb where he says Mormons seem to be “obsessed with Christ,” and you see this obsession running throughout the Book of Mormon.
GIVENS: It does. It runs from the very very beginning to the very very end.
And you know, I think—of course I’m supposed to confine myself largely to Second Nephi [laughs]—but I think, you know, there’s this magnificent moment—in some ways it’s the key moment of the Book of Mormon—in First Nephi chapters ten and eleven where Nephi has heard rehearsed the vision of his father Lehi and he prays. He wants the same kind of experience. An angel appears to him and says effectively, “Well, don’t you believe the words of your father?”
And I tend to think that’s one of the momentous questions in all of recorded time because everything hangs in the balance in that question. If Nephi says, “Well, no I don’t,” then the angel might say, “Well, you better go straighten yourself out, get your relationship with your patriarch and father right.” And if he says, “Well, yes I do,” then based on Old Testament precedent, you would expect the angel to say, “Well, then it would be redundant for me to tell you. You have the word of a prophet.” And yet, when Nephi says, “Yes I do believe the words of my father,” the angel breaks into a song of praise. And what happens in that moment as I see it, is we get this radical bifurcation—this break off of Old Testament patterning where only prophets and patriarchs have experience of the Divine—and suddenly Nephi learns that “no, I, just a seeing individual, a son, a questing disciple, can have my personal encounter with the Divine.”
And this of course follows through as the principle theme of the book all the way until Moroni, where he issues the same promise to readers of futurity. That they too may know by the power of the Holy Ghost these things.
So, I do think that the great appeal, the power and the magnetism of the Book of Mormon, especially in the early nineteenth century—John Greenleaf Whittier, the great American poet, actually said this when somebody asked, “how do you explain this phenomenal success of Mormonism?” He said, “It spoke a language of hope and promise to weary spirits seeking in vain for some manifestation of the Divine power.” So, the Book of Mormon—it’s as if it opens up this conduit. It gives us this divine access—or access to the Divine—both by way of instruction and also by way of modeling how that can happen.
HODGES: How has that worked for you? Has the Book of Mormon changed your devotional life in how you interact with Jesus Christ?
GIVENS: Well, I think it does in an aspirational way more than anything else. I mean, the second book that I wrote was on the Book of Mormon, By the Hand of Mormon. And in that volume, I thought that I had perceived a signal contribution of Latter-day Saint theology and I called it “dialogic revelation.” And it struck me that in the history of theology there have been three principle ways of understanding revelation. This comes from a classic study done by the great scholar Avery Dulles.
There’s revelation as God’s actions in history, there’s revelation as the canon, and then there’s revelation as inner experience. But Avery Dulles was at pains to point out that traditionally, revelation as inner experience means just intimations of the Divine. There cannot be what theologians call “propositional content.” In other words, the idea that God can actually communicate in language, content-laden revelations, is fairly unique, theologically speaking, to the Book of Mormon. And so, that has set for me a pattern or a model, as I said, that I can aspire to in the belief that God intends that we have access not just to kind of warm fuzzies and vague intonations, but to content-laden revelatory experiences that can guide us along in this life.
HODGES: That’s Terryl Givens. We’re talking about the book Second Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction.
So we’ve covered the two main things that Nephi is getting at—the covenant theology and the believer’s relationship to Jesus Christ. You say these are some of the—these are the most important “plain and precious things” that Nephi says had been lost. But you say there are more plain and precious things as well. So the remainder of your book discusses some of these plain and precious things.
GIVENS: Yeah, and I think one of these plain and precious things that I would point out first and foremost—because it’s, in some ways, the most conspicuously Latter-day Saint doctrine in the Book of Mormon. You know a religious scholar once mentioned that if Mormonism had to rely upon the Book of Mormon alone they would be just another Protestant sect. What he meant is you don’t really find any particularly unique Latter-day Saint theology and any of our radical doctrines or teachings in the Book of Mormon. You don’t find pre-existence or degrees of glory or eternal progression or theosis or…you know, so what do you find? And the only doctrine I see that is completely distinctive and it surprises me that it didn’t shock more people in the nineteenth century, but it’s the retelling of the story of the Fall.
And some scholars have referred—or theologians have used the expression felix culpa which means “happy sin.” But they mean something a little different by it. But in the Book of Mormon we find a genuine conception of the felix culpa, of a happy sin. We have Adam and Eve actually celebrating the fact that they have been expelled from the Garden. That they have eaten of the fruit. Because of the opportunities that it opens up to them.
What strikes me as particularly surprising is that it wasn’t until 1874 in the Women’s Exponent that we get the first recognition in print by a Latter-day Saint that “hey wait a minute, something different is going on here.” And we find in these words, I think—was it Sarah Kimball I think who wrote these words: “Our great maternal progenitor is entitled to reverent honor for braving the peril that brought earth’s children from the dark valley of ignorance and stagnation and place them on the broad, progressive plane where they, knowing good and evil, joy and sorrow may become as gods. Mother Eve should receive encomiums of praise.”
That’s a remarkable, remarkable thing. And it’s not just peripheral. It’s not just, “Oh, you know Eve did something good,” and so forth. No, it reframes the entire human saga.
HODGES: And this is how you’d see it different from the fortunate Fall as seen in broader Christianity? Unpack that a little bit—how does that differ?
GIVENS: Yeah, okay. For broader Christianity, the fortunate Fall simply means that the most abundant manifestation of love and grace the universe has ever known is Christ’s intercession, which was precipitated by the Fall. So without the Fall we wouldn’t have known Christ’s grace or love. But the Fall is still a catastrophe. There’s still no question it’s a catastrophe. And yet, for Latter-day Saints, we start on this—it’s a hundred-and-eighty-degree reversal of understanding of the human predicament. We’re here because through an act of courage, Adam and Eve introduced us into a planned ascent toward God. Part of which requires an immersion in this crucible of earthly experience.
HODGES: Where we bump our heads and bump other people’s heads.
GIVENS: Exactly. And so instead of Christ redeeming us from a catastrophic error, as I understand the Book of Mormon, he instead becomes the healer of the collateral damage that we experience along this educative process. So he is still as indispensable as ever, but not as a repairman come to rectify a plan gone awry, but to facilitate and further a plan that is unfolding in accordance with a primeval blueprint.
HODGES: Okay, so that sets it apart from broader Christianity’s different views of a fortunate Fall in terms of how it resulted in the glories of Christ coming to earth. Instead, the Fall is this step into a process of education. It’s an advancement, not a fall backwards kind of a thing, right?
GIVENS: Exactly. In 1840 there was this journalist who attended a sermon Joseph Smith gave in Washington D.C. and one of the most striking things he observed in the sermon, as he reported, was that Joseph Smith seemed to deny the original sin and that fall of man. And he understood him correctly.
HODGES: And that leads into another section of your book, another plain and precious thing that you say the Book of Mormon clarifies, and that’s teachings on the Atonement. So, let’s talk about the word itself, Atonement, it appears so frequently in the Book of Mormon, but it was a late-coined term…
GIVENS: It’s a late-coined term. It appears in—the first time in scripture that I can find a related form of it is “one-ment.” One-ment appears in John Wycliffe’s translation in the 1300s. But John Wycliffe translates the Greek word that we would translate as Atonement now, he translated it as “reconciling.” Now, I find this really, really significant for a couple of reasons. One, because if I can go out on a limb here, I’m gonna say that Latter-day Saints continue to misuse the word atonement. We use the atonement in a really attenuated, almost degraded sense of only referring to an action that Christ performed. He performed the Atonement. Meaning, this expiatory death and sacrifice was the Atonement.
HODGES: And it happened within this block of time in history.
GIVENS: Right. At a discreet moment in time in the past. But Nephi doesn’t understand t that way and John Wycliffe didn’t understand it that way, and even, I’m not sure Tyndale did. Wycliffe uses the word “reconciling,” and it’s really striking how many times Nephi says “be reconciled to Christ.” The great English mystic writer Julian of Norwich, she used a similar word frequently in her description of her vision, she called it “one-ing.” One-ing. That we need to be “oned” to Christ. That Christ invites us into this “one-ing.”
So, whether you call it “reconciling” or “one-ing” or “at-one-ing,” note that in every one of those three cases there are two parts to it and two constituencies. Christ makes this offering and then we have to complete the process by reconciling ourselves to that God who has opened himself up to us. And so I think the Book of Mormon makes this really emphatically clear, that we have to bring the atonement full circle to fruition by actively engaging in all that is required of us to be open and receptive to the grace and love that are offered.
HODGES: And you say for many believers, including Latter-day Saints, that “the mechanism of the atonement has sometimes displaced the effect of it.” What did you mean there? That seems like a really important point.
GIVENS: Well, what I mean is, it seems like the pertinent question here to ask of an individual would not be, “have you been saved?”, as many Christians might ask, but, “have you been reconciled? Has that process been brought to completion yet?” And I would say that in all of our cases that answer is, “Well, not fully. Not yet.” That’s what we’re engaged in doing, is achieving that perfect unity and harmony and reconciliation with Christ.
And so, it is a process in which we are engaged, the action that he undertook two-thousand years ago was, you know, the catalyst but it’s not the end result. It’s just what initiates that process, and that’s why I think when Nephi says, “be reconciled,” he’s inviting us into a lifelong process.
HODGES: Yeah, so you say that the primary effect of the Atonement isn’t just paying the penalty for sins. Instead, you see atonement as a healing process. In fact, you say, “The Book of Mormon invites us to personally experience the healing power of Christ.”
GIVENS: Yes, and I think healing is the appropriate word here. We’d need another hour for me to make my full argument, but it would begin with First Nephi 13 verse 32 which in the 1830 edition uses the word “woundedness” to describe the general condition of the world of the latter-days. Nephi sees in vision, or as the angel explains to him, the world will be in this state of “awful woundedness.” And the Greek word that is so often translated as “save” is sodzo and it can, with equal linguistic accuracy, be translated as “heal,” and many, many, many times in the New Testament that’s how it is translated. Whenever Jesus heals the sick or the blind or the lame or the…it’s always sodzo. He’s healing them.
And then here to my mind is one of the most crucial moments in the New Testament. In Luke chapter seven, we have this exquisitely beautiful scene of the woman who comes, who follows Christ into a dinner. She is at his feet; anointing his feet, weeping profusely and kissing his feet. Christ is criticized by the host who says, “This is a woman with a sinful past.” And then Jesus of course tells the story of the debtors, asks, you know, “Who will love the master more? The one that has been forgiven more.” And then he says of the woman, “This woman who has sinned much, has also loved much. And because she has loved much, she is forgiven.” And then he turns to her and he says, “Your faith has made you healed.”
Now that phrase appears three times in the New Testament—in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And Matthew and Mark say, “Thy faith hath healed thee, go in peace.” For some reason the translators here say, “Thy faith hath saved thee.” But it’s clear by precedent and it’s clear by context that Christ is saying, “Thy faith hath healed thee.”
Now the reason I find this one of the most momentous moments in the New Testament is because in this case she’s not being healed of a physical malady; she’s being healed of her sin. And I know sometimes people who pressed me on the question of, “Well, what does forgiveness really mean? Can you give a description? And theological or even emotional…what does that really mean to be forgiven?” And this is the best answer I can find in the New Testament. That to be forgiven of a sin means to be healed of the consequences of that sin. The spiritual harm, the alienation, the fracturing of the self—That’s why God wants to heal us. Not because he’s angry and we need to repent and say we’re sorry so he can say, “You’re forgiven.” It’s so we can acknowledge a pattern of behavior we’ve engaged in that is harmful to ourselves and others so that he can heal us. So we can move on.
HODGES: Can you think of an example, a personal one that would be appropriate to share in your own life, how you’ve experienced that?
GIVENS: Well, I don’t know of any I can share that I’ve experienced. But I can share those that I’ve hoped for and aspire to. And that is, you know, no father can look back upon his life as a parent and say, “Well, I did everything right.” And you know, poor children that are cast into the sphere of our influence when we’re young and untrained and undeveloped! And so that seems to be one of the clearest cases where my misdeeds, my misjudgments, my misconducts have resulted in harm to other people, namely my children. And so my hope and prayer is that as I invoke the healing powers of the Savior, that he can rectify and heal both those spirits and those relationships that are a direct consequence of my misdeeds. And it seems to me that that is where the atonement is at its most powerful and effective.
HODGES: Thank you for that, Terryl. There’s a striking section I wanted you to read as well about resurrection. I’ve got it here. This really stuck out to me.
GIVENS: Yeah, I’ll just preface this by saying that I think—I just can’t say this loud and often enough, I feel that we’re still dragging behind us the baggage of a Protestant inheritance. That we still are just mired in the traditions of our fathers that are not correct. We forget that the King James Bible was translated by a group of men who are largely Calvinist in their orientation, and that overlays all of their readings of scripture. And we have had this preoccupation with sin and depravity rather than healing and wholeness.
And one other way in which we have, I think, kind of misaligned a pair of terms is “forgiveness” and “resurrection.” And we forget that the principal purpose of the atonement, of Christ’s expiatory sacrifice, was to make possible our resurrection. And if you read what the Book of Mormon has to say about the Christ’s sacrifice and atonement, the prophets are celebrating the resurrection that it makes possible.
And so I say:
“The first point Lehi makes about the atonement is that Christ’s death and resurrection make possible our own conquest of death. His principal purpose—Christ’s principal purpose—was to bring to pass the resurrection of the dead so we may again stand in the presence of God. Nephi adds his testimony that the coming Messiah will ‘suffer the pains of every living creature, that the resurrection might pass upon all men.’ Before any question of judgment, eternal rewards or punishments, before any discussion of salvation or its preconditions, there is the brute fact of death. And Lehi recognizes that this first gift of resurrection, universal and unearned, is an unconditional promise that we will live again.
“In the history of religious conflict and in the lives of questing disciples, the fine print seems to get all the attention. The wars of the reformation era and the fires of the inquisition were fueled by disputes over the nature of the Trinity or the degree of God’s presence in the Eucharist or by whether sacraments are symbols or channels of grace and so forth. In our lives, we may so anguish over the minutia of worship forms or doctrinal minutia, that we commit the sin of ingratitude for the most unfathomable, remarkable gift of all. As one Latter-day Saint with more sense than certainty wrote, ‘It seems a pity to take one’s immortality for granted. To expect it and count on it. It seems a pity to be so sheltered from the terror of death, that one’s gratitude for the resurrection is merely dutiful and perfunctory. Perhaps truly there are religious advantages to doubt. Perhaps only a doubter can appreciate the miracle of life without end.’”
HODGES: Please expand on that a little bit.
GIVENS: Well, I think that what this writer is doing, and I think what Nephi and Lehi alike are doing, is trying to call us to a life of greater celebratory gratitude, just in the face of the sheer incomprehensibility of a gift of eternal life, of immortality. Separate and apart from the nature and the conditions of that heavenly existence we aspire to. The fact is that our resurrection is already a fait accompli. It’s been accomplished, unconditionally. And if nothing else in our future were to transpire except the opportunity to live again, that seems to me that would itself be sufficient grounds to worship God endlessly.
HODGES: I loved that part of your book. It was really interesting, this idea that it’s almost like you have to—It’s almost as though you have to face this abyss of uncertainty. Not that you have to, but that some people—I experienced this with the loss of my dad, where I really had to figure out if I believed I would see him again. And I had to, for myself, learn to be comfortable with the possibility that I might not. But in some ways, that made me more, um—
GIVENS: That you don’t want to take it for granted.
HODGES: Yeah, right. I’ve become more of—it’s become more hope for me. I have faith because of the hope. I’m not the type of person that has that sure knowledge that I’ll see him again, but I live with that hope and I live according to that hope. And to see that sort of laid out here in this book was really touching to me.
GIVENS: Yeah. And, you know, the quote itself, it’s a little surprising because you expect it to end a different way.
GIVENS: You know, he says that, “He will suffer the pains of every living creature that…” and then you expect, “…that we might be forgiven.” No. “That the resurrection will come about.”
HODGES: Yeah. That was lovely. There’s a few other things. Other plain and precious things. The Book of Mormon has interesting views on baptism where it’s not just about washing away sins, it’s also about being incorporated into a covenant community. I liked that part. You had interesting views on repentance, where we approach repentance with a broken heart and a contrite spirit and this brokenness you say is a process of vulnerability and openness to being reshapen.
So, there are a lot of things that the Book of Mormon adds to our views of basic Christian principles that really stand out when we think about other Christian beliefs.
But I wanted to hurry past those to get to Nephi’s invitation to “feast on the word.” Near the end of your Brief Theological Introduction you point out that Nephi urges readers twice to feast upon the words of Christ. You’re very familiar with the scriptures. How do you still find things to feast there? What does scripture study look like to you?
GIVENS: Well, I’ve gone through several different versions of scripture study. There have been times when I have read cover to cover, one of the standard works with a commentary or a set of commentaries. There are other times where I have done it more topically.
But one of the experiences I had that was most meaningful, I think, for my relationship to the scriptures was I went through all four standard works one time having in mind just that I would copy out those scriptures that moved me in some particular way. So I had maybe a hundred and fifty. And I typed those out on three-by-five cards and laminated them and have tried to memorize them. And something happens when you memorize a passage of literature or scripture. It becomes yours in a way it wasn’t before.
I was very moved as a graduate student when the great, great scholar George Steiner came and talked to us, and he told us a story about a woman that had been imprisoned in the Gulag and she had kept her sanity only because she knew so much poetry by heart that she could occupy her days reciting and translating them from one language to another. Then he asked us this question: “With what furniture is the temple of your mind furnished?”
That really, really moved me. I thought, yeah, how many resources would I have in my memory to sustain me through any kind of period of prolonged incarceration or trauma or isolation? So, I think one of the best way we can furnish our minds is to become familiar enough that we actually memorize Psalms and scriptures that we find particularly moving and beautiful. So that was one of my more recent ways of engaging the scriptures.
HODGES: That’s Terryl Givens we’re talking about the book Second Nephi, A Brief Theological Introduction. Was there anything you discovered this time around Terryl? You’ve written books on the Book of Mormon before. As you prepared this Brief Theological Introduction did anything new stand out to you that you were excited to share with the people?
GIVENS: I think mostly it was a different take on Atonement that we’ve already talked about. I think it was the fact that baptism, I came to understand this time, as you just mentioned, as more emphasizing a process of adoption than of forgiveness.
HODGES: You solved a puzzle for me. You might remember a month or so ago I had asked you why circumcision is mentioned in a passage about adoption, where Jesus is saying, “You don’t have to baptize your little children. Oh, and also circumcision is done away in me.” I asked you, what does circumcision have to do that? Circumcision wasn’t a ritual of absolution or reconciling sin or anything and of course then as it happens—
GIVENS: It’s a ritual of covenantal integration. So the other reason for which this is so important, I think, to Latter-day Saints is because it helps to make sense out of our whole sacramental theology, and temple theology in particular. If you see baptism as the ordinance of adoption—that’s the meaning, right, of taking someone’s name upon us. You acquiring a new name it’s a ritual of adoption. But then all of the ordinances in the church as further instances of further immersion in or imbrication in that relationality toward which we are all striving.
So we successively go through various kinds of sacramental covenants and obligations and rituals that bind us tighter and tighter and tighter into this heavenly community of which we are a part. Baptism is the first.
HODGES: What do you see these Brief Theological Introductions doing for scripture study in the church? Or maybe what do you hope they can do for people who read these?
GIVENS: Well, you know, we’re suffering waves of defection, and there are lots of reasons for that and lots of remedies that have been suggested, but I think it’s unavoidable to acknowledge that one of the main reasons we’re losing people is that we’re boring them to death. I think the job of a Sunday School teacher is to excite the people, it’s not just to reiterate the old formulas. It’s to excite people about the inexhaustible richness of our scriptural canon. My hope is that these theological introductions can just be a spark that will kindle fresh interest on the part of teachers and students alike.
HODGES: Well, I appreciate that Terryl. You’ve been very productive since you’ve got to the Institute. You’ve done Second Nephi, A Brief Theological Introduction. We’ve seen the publication of The Pearl of Greatest Price: Mormonism Most Controversial Scripture, that you recently published with Oxford University Press. You’re doing a series of lectures that are available on the Maxwell Institute’s YouTube channel and you’re also doing the 2019 Neal A. Maxwell Lecture. By the time this episode comes out I believe that also will be available to watch online.
What are you working on now?
GIVENS: Well this week I’ll be turning in an introduction to Restorationism to Oxford called, What Everyone Needs to Know about Mormonism. It was their title, so that will go in this week. I’m about two thirds of the way through a biography of Gene England, the great Latter-day Saint founder of Dialogue and scholar. Then I’m just starting a series for Deseret called “Voices in the Wilderness,” which will be a short introductions and excerpts from some of the lesser known, but inspired voices of the past.
HODGES: Great. It’s good to hear it, and it’s been a real treat to have you join us here at the Institute permanently, Terryl. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk about Second Nephi today.
GIVENS: Great to be here. I love being a member of the Institute. Thanks Blair.
HODGES: That’s Terryl Givens on Second Nephi. Next in our series of episodes on Brief Theological Introductions to the Book of Mormon we’ll meet with Dr. Deidre Green, author of the book on Jacob.
Before we go, let’s check out our review of the month. Aaron from Kearns gives us five stars, and writes that the podcast is “Thought provoking. Wonderful breadth of topics and guests. Blair has a talent for asking good questions and his quick, clarifying summaries are helpful for the listener. The episodes leave me uplifted, pondering, and wanting to be and learn more.”
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The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)