RS/MP Lesson 17: “The Great Plan of Salvation” (Joseph Smith Manual)
Posted by joespencer on September 7, 2008
In some sense, this lesson is twofold: what is covered, albeit quite briefly, in the introductory “From the Life of Joseph Smith” deserves a good deal of attention on its own, though it is ultimately quite distinct from the material in the remainder of the chapter. What follows below, then, is an analysis first of the introductory material (at a bit more length than usual), and second a discussion of the teachings regarding the “plan of salvation.”
From the Life of Joseph Smith
The introductory material for this lesson is concerned primarily with what we usually call the Joseph Smith Translation. There is something of an attempt in the last paragraph or two of the section to make a transition from that to the material gathered in the “teachings” section, but the link is, in the end, rather tenuous. But the attempt to make that link turns out to be quite fruitful, as shall be seen.
The first paragraph basically introduces the fact that there was a “Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible.” The second paragraph in turn provides a summary of the historical background: “The Prophet began this work in June 1830 when the Lord commanded him to begin making an inspired revision of the King James Version of the Bible.” Now, let me be frank: this is not entirely accurate. Unlike most of Joseph’s early projects, there is no revelation in the D&C (or out!) in which Joseph is specifically commanded to begin doing a translation of the Bible beginning with the Old Testament. Rather, the project seems to have unfolded in a rather complex way.
In June 1830, Joseph received a revelation, which we now call Moses 1. It was not received as part of a process of translation, but as a revelation, much in the way that, say, D&C 7 contains the content of an ancient text which Joseph received, but not as part of the translation of the Bible. In June—and unfortunately, we don’t know enough of the details—Joseph received a full-blown revelation of Moses’ vision, without context and without any hint of a project of translation. This is especially clear from the original manuscript, published a few years ago by the RSC (at BYU): “At the top of the first page, it reads: “A Revelation given to Joseph the Revelator June 1830. The words of God which he
gave spake unto Moses . . . .” Note that this came like any other “average” revelation in the D&C: it did not come through a process of translation.
What follows in the original manuscript is a full revelation of the same order of a text that is in many places similar to Genesis 1-25. The manuscript runs right up through the end of the Abraham story and then suddenly stops. The entirety of it was dictated, taken down word by word, and written like any of Joseph’s other revelations. It would appear that none of this manuscript (referred to in scholarship as OT1) contains what we usually refer to as the JST: it is not a translation or a revision; it is a revelation.
The whole of this text was revealed and written down by March of 1831, when D&C 45 was given. In that revelation, Joseph was told that he would be undertaking a translation of the Bible: “And now, behold, I say unto you, it shall not be given unto you to know any further concerning this chapter [Matthew 24], until the New Testament be translated, and in it all these things shall be made known” (D&C 45:60). The passage goes on to command Joseph to begin a translation effort: “Wherefore I give unto you that ye may not translate it, that ye may be prepared for the things to come” (D&C 45:61). Joseph immediately began what we now (ought to) refer to as the JST. Indeed, the top line on the first manuscript of the New Testament translation is: “A Translation of the New Testament translated by the power of God. The book of the genaration . . . .”
The process for undertaking the translation effort was quite different from the manner of receiving revelation: whereas revelation was something Joseph dictated word for word, the translation was done with the help of a copy of the KJV, which Joseph and Oliver had purchased in 1829. That copy of the Bible has editorial marks all through it: Joseph and his scribes would scratch out lines to be cut and make marks where material was to be added or changed. The translation itself was something of a revision.
All of this historical clarification is meant to point to the fact that there are, under the umbrella of the JST (and then only up through the Kirtland era), what seem to me to be two fundamentally different projects. On the one hand is a revelation of a document apparently written by Moses but which is not to be read as tied too strictly to the KJV Bible; on the other is a revision/translation of the KJV itself, quite strictly the JST.
I think this distinction is enormously helpful: the JST proper is, as the lesson material seems to suggest, less than binding on the saints—it was never finished, never published by the Church, and it never has been entirely clear how much stock Joseph put in it. Much more important about the JST proper was what the lesson describes thus: “The Prophet’s translation of the Bible was an important of his own spiritual education and the unfolding restoration of gospel truth.” It was less a question of restoring ancient texts to some original purity than it was a question of pressing Joseph’s attention in the directions needed for the reception of very important revelations (dozens of revelations in the D&C are in part a consequence of Joseph’s work on the Bible). The revelation that is found now in the Book of Moses, however, I take (personally) to be the restoration of an ancient text—not necessarily (in fact, not likely at all) the text “behind” the Bible, but another text written up by Moses and hidden away for a later generation.
The lesson itself provides what I regard as a good example of how the JST proper (not the Moses material, but the rest) should be taken as a clarification of the KJV text and not as a restoration of ancient material: the lesson cites Joseph’s Nauvoo discourse explaining the JST reading of Hebrews 6:1. Joseph says, “Look at [Hebrews 6:1] for contradictions—’Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection.’ If a man leaves the principles of the doctrine of Christ, how can he be saved in the principles? This is a contradiction. I don’t believe it. I will render it as it should be—’Therefore not leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection.’” (pp. 207-208)
Now, note first that Joseph never claims in this passage to restore the ancient text: he says only that he “will render it as it should be,” namely, without contradiction. But what Joseph effectively does in his reading is to change the meaning of the words “leaving” and “go on”: the author of Hebrews likely did not mean “existentially leaving behind” by the former, nor did he mean “progressively going on from” by the latter; rather, he was speaking rhetorically, of the rhetorical situation: “Having spoken up to this point in our discussion of the principles of the doctrine of Christ [the beginning points of doctrine], let us move along now to speak of higher things, namely, of perfection.” Joseph’s revision of the text would seem to be motivated by a possible misunderstanding of the ambiguous meaning of the language: he sees that people might use the text as a prooftext for suggesting that perfection releases one from “lower” duties (given the occasion in which the sermon was delivered, this may have been used as a prooftext in some conversation with Joseph already!), which would be a doctrinal contradiction. Joseph’s translation is effectively a “plainer translation,” one that cannot be misunderstood. But I don’t see that it must be understood, for that reason, as a restoration of an ancient text that has somehow gone missing.
Which is to say that both the “original” text and the JST text can be read as complementary: Joseph is giving us a clarification of the doctrinal intention of the text, not a correction of the text’s actual wording. The JST can be read as so many correctives to misreadings, rather than as a way of solving the problems of a corrupt text. A kind of methodology for reading the JST is implicit in all of these comments: one begins with the “original” biblical text; one then looks at the JST to see which directions of interpretation ought to be avoided; and then one returns to the “original” text to see what it is saying. The JST is something like an interpretive guide against prooftexting or excessively private interpretation, not a way of dismissing the KJV itself.
All of that said, it is time to look at the attempt at transition. After a description of Moses 1 (much more in line with what I described above, interestingly), the lesson provides as an example of what is to come in the lesson’s “teachings” section a snippet from Moses 1: “And the Lord God spake unto Moses, saying: . . . For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). This verse deserves attention, because it highlights what might be called the three “versions” of the JST as they work themselves out in the course of Joseph’s life. And this brief trajectory should clarify all of the above by providing something like a history of how we got to the present interpretation we lay on the JST.
There are two versions of Moses 1:39 in the JST manuscripts. There is the version in the “original” manuscript, taken down as part of the full-blown revelation given in June of 1830; and then there is a revision of that revelation, attached to the beginning of the JST translation effort undertaken some time later. They differ substantially. From OT1: “for behold this is my work to my glory to the immortality & the eternal life of man.” The revised manuscript edits this to read as it presently does in the Book of Moses. But note the difference in meaning in the “original” revelation. It is not a work and a glory, but God’s work, to His glory. Furthermore, there is no mention whatsoever of “bringing to pass,” since the same work is not only to God’s glory, but also “to the immortality and the eternal life of man.” This text emphasizes the way that God’s work has a kind of double intention: it does something to God (is to His glory) even as it does something to man (is to their immortality and eternal life). This pairing is a constant theme throughout the “original” revelation.
The edited version of this text, which ends up in the JST, is different, but obviously similar. Now it is God’s work and His glory: the glory is already had, and the work is identified with it—the work does not aim at glory but is God’s glory. Moreover, the work/glory is now identified with bringing immortality and eternal life to pass: it is not that God’s work results in immortality/eternal life, but that God’s work is to go about that task. The meanings are clearly close to one another, but ultimately quite different in intention. What is “lost” (setting aside for the moment what is “gained”) is the pairing of two intentions or effects of God’s work, which implies only in the earlier text a kind of pairing of God and human beings. In the later text, God seeks out human beings, rather than being so absolute or even distant.
But beyond these first two readings, there is a third—now not a textual alternative, but an interpretive alternative. The lesson takes this text as anticipating the teachings of the remainder of the lesson. But there is something somewhat incongruous about this. Not only is the text a bit unclear (appearing, historically, in two different forms), but it is also relatively early (the final form of the text is fixed by 1833) whereas the teachings in the remainder of the lesson are mostly from the Nauvoo era and cannot be disentangled from the teachings of the endowment, etc., which had not been anything like revealed to the saints in 1833. The text of Moses 1 is thus reinterpreted in terms of the “Nauvoo theology” or at least in terms of Joseph’s explication (at last!) of that theology in Nauvoo: Moses 1:39 is now taken up into a much more complex universe than the one being discussed by Moses and the Lord in Moses 1. Effectively, the JST text is rewritten again, given new nuance.
Three versions of the JST, each with a different ultimately purpose: a revelatory one, sent fully as a whole in New York; a translational one, undertaken as a revisionary project in Ohio/Missouri; and an interpretive/theological one, reinterpreted through a theological explication worked out at length in Illinois. The relative canonization of Mormon theology in light of Joseph’s finally public teachings in Nauvoo has perhaps fixed how we read the JST: we read it in the Nauvoo sense, that is, with the text of the Ohio/Missouri project (as in part inflected by the New York project) but with goggles we’ve brought from Nauvoo. In the end, I don’t think that’s wrong at all, but we can too easily run into interpretive troubles if we don’t recognize the trajectory we’ve gone through. (For all you Lacanians, there is a powerful Lacanian theme here: New York as the real, Ohio/Missouri as the imaginary, and Illinois as the symbolic.)
All that said, it is time to transition to the Nauvoo era itself to take a further look at the teachings that have given us to reread the JST in a radically different way. On to the teachings.
Teachings of Joseph Smith
This lesson is no ordinary summary of “the plan of salvation.” If it could be summarized in a sentence, it might be as follows: “Salvation is a question of deliverance through the body from the spiritual power of the devil.” There is a heavy emphasis on the devil throughout the lesson material.
The first section, in fact, cites Joseph’s revolutionary teachings on the devil’s part in the pre-mortal council. Let me discuss just the last (or fourth) paragraph of that section.
First of all, the paragraph is lifted from the King Follett Discourse, a point that is not without importance: this teaching cannot be separated from the other revolutionary ideas in that discourse (such as the once-manhood of God, the possibility for human beings of becoming gods and goddesses, the eternal nature of the mind/spirit/soul, etc.). Most immediately in terms of context, this paragraph is found in the midst of a discussion of the unpardonable sin. Joseph has just asserted that all will be saved except for sons of perdition. It is only after this that Joseph says, as found in the lesson: “The contention in heaven was—Jesus said there would be certain souls that would not be saved; and the devil said he would save them all,” etc. First things first, then: this teaching does not suggest that the devil was going to force everyone to the Celestial Kingdom. That was not his plan, given the context. His claim was that there would be no sons of perdition, since Joseph had just taught that all would be saved (in one of the three degrees of glory) except for the sons of perdition. Satan was either claiming (1) that he could do things well enough that no one would rebel in that radical way or (2) that he would somehow arrange things such that no one could (at all) become a son of perdition. My suspicion is that the latter is the case.
How, then, could this be done? The simple answer, given the way Joseph explains perdition in the KFD, is that Satan was not going to offer any Celestial glory to people: his plan was to maintain only a terrestrial/telestial split, shaving off the two extremes of the Celestial glory and outer darkness, since the latter could not exist without the former. Satan’s plan, then, was not a forced Celestial glory (which would have been impossible, something everyone should have been able to recognize) but to remove the possibility of the Celestial so that no one would be eternally cut off. One could say that Satan’s plan was (or at least seems to have been) to enforce a kind of eternal mediocrity: either telestial or terrestrial.
This reading, of course, forces us to reread Moses 4, where it is said that Satan sought to destroy the agency of man. But it should be clear that this phrase does not imply a forced Celestial glory either: to destroy the agency of man would be to destroy the plan of angelic visitation, of constant calls or summons to the Celestial kingdom. A world without divine messengers would be a world in which all would be saved. Satan offered to replace Christ so that he could arrange a world in which there was nothing but salvation—exaltation as much as outer darkness excluded. But Satan was rejected, etc.
The next section of the lesson begins to explain the metaphysics, so to speak, behind all of this. Again the source is the KFD. The doctrine is, first and foremost, the eternal nature of the soul/mind/spirit, though it is entirely unclear what Joseph has reference to exactly as being eternal (he seems to have been less than precise in his choice of words, at least in retrospect, after the wild speculations on this subject that have gone on since Joseph’s day). But regardless of what exactly it is that is eternal, there are a few things that are quite clear.
The KFD discusses, broadly speaking, two subjects: the uncreated nature of physical matter used in the creation, and the uncreated nature of spiritual matter that makes up our “intelligent part.” Notice an important parallel here: two uncreated substances are organized or arranged in the course of the creation, being brought together. The creation, in the KFD, amounts to a double arrangement: eternal physical matter is brought into organization in relation to eternal spiritual matter, and eternal spiritual matter is brought into organization in relation to eternal physical matter. This double aspect of creation is too easily missed in the KFD, but it seems to have been Joseph’s entire point.
All of this metaphysics leads to Joseph’s explanation of what God’s work really amounts to: “God himself, finding he was in the midst of spirits and glory, because he was more intelligent, saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself.” Or, in the same paragraph, but drawn from another diary source: “The relationship we have with God places us in a situation to advance in knowledge. He has power to institute laws to instruct the weaker intelligences, that they may be exalted with himself, so that they might have one glory upon another.” (p. 210) The creation amounts, it would seem, to the institution of a number of laws that “instruct the weaker intelligences.” But the meaning of this instruction, etc., is not really made clear until the next section.
There, Joseph is suddenly given to focus on death! “All men know that they must die. And it is important that we should understand the reasons and causes of our exposure to the vicissitudes of life and of death, and the designs and purposes of God in our coming into the world, our sufferings here, and our departure hence. What is the object of our coming into existence, then dying and falling away, to be here no more? It is but reasonable to suppose that God would reveal something in reference to the matter, and it is a subject we ought to study more than any other. We ought to study it day and night, for the world is ignorant in reference to their true condition and relation to God.” (p. 211)
We should study death day and night? Indeed: we ought to study the very idea of death, since it highlights the strange nature of the plan of salvation. It is one thing, after all, to suggest that God undertook the creation in order to instruct weaker intelligences, etc. But it is another thing entirely to say that death is implied in the process: Why death?
The question is especially poignant given the subsequent teaching on the same page: “The great principle of happiness consists in having a body. The devil has no body, and herein is his punishment. . . . All beings who have bodies have power over those who have not.” This touches on a theme rather persistent in Joseph’s Nauvoo discourses: there is a kind of eternal war between spirits in the spirit world, and to receive a body is to be subtracted from that eternal warfare because one gains “an ascendency over the spirits who have received no bodies.” (p. 212) This Joseph describes further along: “And when we have power to put all enemies under our feet in this world, and a knowledge to triumph over all evil spirits in the world to come, then we are saved,” etc. (p. 212)
There is actually quite a bit happening in this last quotation. The plan of salvation is a question of two things: first, to gain “power . . . in this world,” and second, to gain “knowledge” that will be necessary “in the world to come.” Power and knowledge, the former of importance here, the latter of importance there. Indeed, as Joseph explains in the paragraph immediately above the one just cited: “The principle of knowledge is the principle of salvation. . . . Every one that does not obtain knowledge sufficient to be saved will be condemned.”
Does all of this begin to highlight the importance of asking the question about death, and perhaps also begin to provide a way of answering it? If creation—this intertwining of two eternal substances—is a question specifically of subtracting us from a power struggle that goes on in the spirit world (“God took upon himself to save the world of spirits” reads a teaching on p. 211 in the original diary entry), then why bother to allow us to die, when returning to a bodiless state would seem to mean that we come again under the devil’s power? And yet, death would seem to mark a limit point, a point at which it must be said that knowledge has or has not been gained. Could there be knowledge without death? Could there be death without knowledge? From the very beginning—in the Garden, that is—death and knowledge have been intertwined. Is it knowledge that gives us to die, or death that gives us to know? Either way, it is only through this intertwining that we can gain what we need to have an ascendency in the world to come: knowledge, it seems, is what we need to gain most in this life, so far as the world to come is concerned.
What is the relationship, then, between knowledge and the resurrection? The lesson never provides any solid answers to this question.
But it does go on to spell out the nature of agency a bit in the final section. Most of this is relatively straightforward, so I will leave off comments so as to keep this lesson a bit shorter than it is threatening to become. But I will highlight the first paragraph on the last page of the lesson (p. 214): “The moment we revolt at anything which comes from God, the devil takes power.” Let that be our motto!