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_Believing Christ_ Revisited, 3 – Introducing Atonement

Posted by joespencer on June 14, 2012

In my last post, I said a few things about the dilemma Robinson sets up in his first chapter. I noted there that he never gets to the business of atonement there (though he pleads with his reader to continue long enough to get to the good news). It’s the second chapter that finally introduces the atonement, as well as goes on to say a few things about its nature. I want to look in this post just at the way the chapter introduces the atonement. My focus, then, will be on pages 8-17. I’ll take up the remainder of the chapter in my next post.

The chapter opens with a nice little formula that provides the book with its title. Here’s the relevant passage:

Unfortunately, there are many members of the Church who … naively hold on to mutually contradictory propositions without even realizing the nature of the contradiction. For example, they may believe that the Church is true, that Jesus is the Christ, and that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, while at the same time refusing to accept the possibility of their own complete forgiveness and eventual exaltation in the kingdom of God. They believe in Christ, but they do not believe Christ. He says, “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. I can make you pure and worthy and celestial,” and they answer back, “No, you can’t. The gospel only works for other people; it won’t work for me.” (pp. 8-9)

They believe in Christ; they don’t believe Christ. The task, then, is to begin believing Christ—the title of the book for good reason. It’s a nice formula, and I couldn’t agree more that this is a real problem in Mormonism. A host of historical and sociological factors combine to make Latter-day Saints lay heavier emphasis on knowing confidently that the gospel is true than on humbly knowing Christ. This problem, as Terryl Givens helped us all to see a few years ago, is deeply at work in our relation to scripture (see his By the Hand of Mormon). We treat the Book of Mormon more as sacred signifier (it signifies the truth of the Church) than as sacred signified (nothing in particular points us to the task of seriously reading its pages). Because it’s sociologically important for Latter-day Saints to know that the Book of Mormon is true, we seldom get very far beyond that to the work of coming to know the Book of Mormon. We’re plenty content just to have read the required passages (or perhaps the whole book once or twice through) and prayed for a divine sign that the largest church embracing the book is the “right” institution to join. Frankly, our knowledge of the Book of Mormon, as a people, is pathetic.

Robinson is saying something similar regarding the nature of the atonement. We know that there’s an atonement, but we have a hard time giving ourselves to it. “But,” as Robinson says, “believing in Jesus’ identity as the Christ is only the first half of it. The other half is believing in his ability, in his power to cleanse and to save—to make unworthy sons and daughters worthy” (pp. 9-10). From static identity to transformative ability. That’s the transition Robinson calls for. And he’s more than right to call for it. Way more than right.

Robinson follows this up with a bit of “when I was a bishop” stories. But, following the tone established from the preface, he does an excellent job not coming across in a condescending way. Rather than giving us a single, supposedly illustrative example in which he, wise bishop, instructs a flippantly unchaste young woman, we get variations on a theme of doubt. “One individual might say,” and “another might say,” and “someone else once said” (p. 10). The anonymity of these voices is instructive. We hear our own complaints in them, and we don’t spend much time pretending we’re not thinking about exactly what the young woman in the usual stories really did the night before her visit with the wise bishop.

Even better, Robinson brings the series of voices to an end with this beautiful little story:

My favorite example of this kind of thinking was a man who once said to me, “Look, bishop, I’m just not celestial material.” I guess I finally lost my patience and responded by saying, “So what’s your point? Of course you’re not celestial material. Neither am I, neither is any of us. That’s why we need the atonement of Christ, which can make us celestial. John, why don’t you just admit your real problem—that you don’t have any faith in Christ.?” Well, he got a little angry at that, for he had been a Protestant before he became a Latter-day Saint, and both as a Protestant and as a Latter-day Saint, he had believed in Jesus Christ. He shot back with, “How dare you say that to me? I know that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.” “Yes,” I relied, “you believe in Christ, you just don’t believe Christ. He says he can make you celestial material, and you have the audacity to sit there and say, ‘No, he can’t.’ You believe all right—you believe Christ makes promises he can’t keep.” (p. 11)

Why does this story work so well? Because the first time we get a concrete story about Robinson as bishop, we see him lose his patience, get snippy with someone who seems to be genuinely seeking help, and frustratedly condemn his congregant in an argumentative spirit. We don’t get the wise but the struggling bishop, the one who desperately wants to help people but who is beginning to see that most of their pleas for help are—as I tried to point out in my last post—actually ways of pretending that the problem is God’s lack of love or ability. Here, here if anywhere, Robinson nails grace. His “You believe all right—you believe Christ makes promises he can’t keep!” works so well because grace is the halo around those words. At the core of all sinfulness is self-deception, rejection of grace, and so much playacting. Grace isn’t the answer to a dilemma; it’s what we prefer the imaginary dilemma to.

Robinson explains this beautifully:

If you were to ask these people what their spiritual problems were, they would insist on X, Y, or Z—some unique or special problem encountered down the road some distance on their spiritual journey. But their actual problem is not X, Y, or Z, nor is it unique, nor is it down the road any distance at all. Their real problem is with A number 1—the very first step. (p. 11)

The problem isn’t that we’re in a dilemma and need the good news; the problem is that we’re in an imaginary dilemma because they don’t like the good news. Our problem, in other words, is that we transform believing into believing in in order to put the good news at a distance, to set up a long road of a spiritual journey that we’ll have to travel down forever before we can be happy. We want to be miserable. We love our misery. We feed on it. We can’t get enough of our self-pity. Scared to death that happiness might overtake us, we do everything we can to lock it out. The real problem is the first step because there’s no journey to be made; the problem, in other words, isn’t that we haven’t taken the first step of the journey to perfection, but that we’ve taken the first step of our obsessive journey away from the Perfect One.

Right at this point, Robinson begins to muddy the waters a bit, though. Having said some of his most beautiful words, he begins to address “the demand for perfection.” I think we can agree with him that “in order to receive a celestial glory, we must become perfect” (p. 13), and I especially think we can agree with him that “the great secret is this: Jesus Christ will share his perfection, his sinlessness, his righteousness, his merits with us” (p. 14). All that is quite right. If we’re to be perfect, it isn’t our own perfection with which we’re to be perfect, but Christ’s. Moroni 10:32 is quite explicit about this: we’re to be perfect in Christ, not in ourselves. But then this problem crops up, this concession to perfection’s supposed demand when Robinson distinguishes between “the short run” and “the long run”:

In the short run we are considered perfect, accepted as perfect, by becoming one with a perfect Christ. In the long run, this makes it possible for us actually to become perfect in our own right at some future time, but that time is long after the Judgment and long after we have already inherited the kingdom of God through the merit, mercy, and perfection of Jesus Christ. (p. 14)

Here the old problem, which Robinson has just so carefully solved, sneaks back in. With the short run/long run distinction, Robinson implies all over again that there is a long road with an end, an end that consists of our finally becoming in some sense independent of Christ, perfect “in our own right.” I can’t buy this. If there is a road, it never ends. The aim isn’t, as in the business world, a kind of independence. The aim is, as Benjamin emphasizes, to be sealed to Christ as His sons and daughters. We’re not using Christ to get to the end of the road, nor is Christ just kindly helping us until we can help ourselves. The message of Christ’s grace is in part that nothing can be done alone, that every good thing is done together. There’s a reason that exaltation is a business of sealing, of families, of being together. I very much doubt that the being-together is just the reward for our independent ability. Rather, I very much suspect that being-together is simply a way of being that can be made eternal for those who embrace it here, for those who refuse the egotistic appeal of achieving independence.

Perhaps still more troubling about the short run/long run distinction is that it pretends all over again that the great dilemma of the first chapter isn’t imaginary. It makes grace, yet again, a response to a more primordial dilemma, undoing Paul’s claim that the dilemma is our way of getting out of grace, our way of distancing ourselves from God so that we can get to work on our projects for a while. If we buy the idea that grace is just the way to get off the ground in the short run, but that it’s a means to the long-run end of radical independence, then we’ll find ourselves always wondering whether we’re strong enough to be without Christ.

We’ve got to come back to the very givenness, the unconditionality of grace. It’s not something that comes in response to our humility; we have to humble ourselves because we’ve proudly rejected the grace that has already been given. Grace isn’t a response to humility and repentance; pride and sin are a response to grace. Independence of Christ, in the short run or the long run, is pride and sin, and we can only desire that or even think it desirable if we demand that Christ’s grace function on our own terms—terms that sound a bit more scriptural than what we usually demand, but our own terms nonetheless.

But let’s ignore Robinson’s “long run” for the moment. If we do so, we find that he seems to get everything right. And he certainly gets things right in the last few pages I wanted to deal with in this post. Here he tells the story of his wife’s burnout. I said a few things in my first post about this problem. Notice that Robinson doesn’t come to it until this point. Burnout isn’t his focus, but it nicely illustrates the problems associated with belief in independent perfection—in the short run, but just as well, in my opinion, in the long run.

The story, I think, is probably familiar enough. It’s very instructive to set this version of the story side by side with the other two versions to be found in the BYU devotional and the Ensign article. Robinson does a much better job here. Where in the previous versions he too easily comes across as the wise and knowing husband, he’s fixed the problems of tone and the story is powerful in this final version. As he tells the story, their conversation after his wife’s collapse began when he “made her made with [his] nagging” (p. 15). And the conversation takes a turn for the better only when the following little thing happens:

Finally, it occurred to me what the problem was, and frankly, I was astounded. Here I was supposed to be a “doctor” in the field of religion, and I couldn’t see Mt. Everest right in front of my nose. What I realized finally was that Janet did not completely understand the core of the gospel—the atonement of Christ. She knew the demands, but not the good news. (p. 17)

This works beautifully. Robinson isn’t the wise and knowing husband who instructs his struggling wife. He’s the clueless doctor of religion who, exactly like his wife, doesn’t see the problem. They’re clueless together. My apologies if I keep coming back to the tone, but I think it’s crucial to see why this works so well. What we’re seeing put on display is a bunch of people who are being forced, over and over again, to see that they refuse to see what’s right in front of them—that they refuse to see the gracefulness of grace. What we’re seeing put on display is ourselves. We’re seeing our own marriages, our own conversations, our own clueless groping through our self-deceptions to a moment of transformative clarity. Janet “tr[ies] not to yell at the kids,” but “can’t seem to help it” (p. 16); Steve “didn’t notice or appreciate how much pressure [his wife] was under until something blew” (p. 15). They’re clueless humans, but they come, eventually, to see what they’re doing.

We’re in the same boat, short run and long run. We haven’t much of an idea what we’re up to, how desperately we’re fighting to keep God out of the story, why we’re so deeply miserable. We’re all blindly staring at Mt. Everest, too focused on picturing the framed certificates hanging on the wall of the study to recognize the grace before us.

But what happens when we see it? And what is it we see? That’s the rest of the chapter, and I’ll be taking that up in my next post.

22 Responses to “_Believing Christ_ Revisited, 3 – Introducing Atonement”

  1. [...] RS/MP Lesson 12: “An Enthusiastic Desire to Share the Gospel” (George Albert Smith Manual) _Believing Christ_ Revisited, 3 – Introducing Atonement [...]

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  3. Eva said

    Thank you. You are reaching me.

  4. NathanG said

    Your talk about self-deception in this and the last post makes me thing of CS Lewis’ “Till We Have Faces”. I particularly like the comparable volume of work required to sustain the self-deception and the relatively brief and simple reconciliation in his book. Not that people need another book to read while following a detailed book review:)

    • joespencer said

      But everyone should read that book the second they have some time. It’s among the most beautiful books in the English language, in my opinion.

  5. aquinas said

    But why is it so difficult to accept that Christ can “make” us Celestial material? I think the problem is that it is too passive. Indeed, I think one of the problems comes back to Mormonism’s very strong emphasis on human choice. It doesn’t “sound” right to think that Christ can make us anything because of the strong tradition that says that technically God cannot save us unless we first perform certain acts, open the door, make some sort of opening gesture, etc. One of the reasons, in my view, that people have a difficult time accepting this notion of grace is because it violates and runs counter to these deep-seated notions of agency and human choice.

    If sin is defined as human choice, and repentance is simply a matter of human choice, one wonders what role exists for a Savior at all. Especially when we have these notions that the Savior cannot save unless we first satisfy certain conditions. My reading of Robinson is that underlying all these stories is a story of a people who believe so strongly in human agency, to the exclusion of any role that a divine agent may have upon us.

    I think this offers the necessary background to understand these stories that Robinson tells. Even your critique that Christ is often seen as a helper or assistant or a tool or a means to an end, only illustrates just how deep and how pervasive the notion that human agency is the ultimately determining factor of salvation. What one may see as Robinson’s flawed notions of “short run” and “long run” could also be viewed as a kind of compromise to assist Latter-day Saints to accept into the idea that Robinson is talking about. By offering a “long run” stage then he calms Mormon fears that he is offering a kind of cheap grace. He calms their fears of not having to do their part and perform the necessary efforts required to “work out their salvation with fear and trembling.”

    • YvonneS said

      Exactly, yes, yes. We are trying to divorce free will from the concepts of atonement. Before we can understand the atonement we have to come to terms with the fall of Adam and how free will was affected, or not by it. If it is true that after the fall humankind became captives of sin, that sin is their literal master then they are unable to choose not to sin. As Luther explained man does not will to sin. Yet he does. The good that he wishes to do, he is unable to do because of the sin that lies within him. Thus Adam and Eve’s children do not have the ability to stop sinning. Once grace enters into an individual’s heart then he/she does good works and does life affirming things through the saved individual. It is the spirit or by grace that he/she does good works. The individual has no choice in the matter.

      If on the other hand when it was possible after the fall of Adam for humankind to continue to make moral choices, humans can by an act of free will choose between good and evil. One can choose to follow Christ or not. It is a whole different ball game. Robinson and his admirers want to have it both ways.

      I read the book about self deception and while I think it has some merit I am not totally comfortable with its
      message. So every time I read those words I wince. But, I will concede that if we stopped talking about being perfect in this life so much fewer people would think they could build up a pool of good works big enough to get them into the celestial kingdom.

      • joespencer said

        YvonneS,

        Just a note and a question:

        The note: I’d put one point here slightly differently. What I’m trying to undo precisely in these last couple of posts is the idea that “grace enters into an individual’s heart” at a later point. Grace is what we’re rejecting, what we’ve cast out from the beginning. If by that entering in, you mean just that at some point we stop rejecting it, I’m with you. But if you mean something else, I’m nervous about it.

        The question: What book about self-deception? I can only guess it’s Terry Warner you’ve got in mind, but I’m not sure. At any rate, I’m not wedded to any particular person’s ideas about self-deception—except maybe Saint Paul’s! If there’s a book about self-deception, it’s the epistle to the Romans. But what book have you in mind, and what are you concerns about it?

  6. joespencer said

    Aquinas,

    Okay, now to tackle this question of agency and choice.

    First, as you rightly surmise (in your response to the other post), I don’t dispense with choice in my articulation. What I’m trying to do is to suggest that choice is a response to grace, rather than grace a response to choice. Hence, I affirm choice and agency while entirely denying (with scripture, I believe) that “God is powerless to save unless man acts.” We act (that’s what agency is, after all: acting) only in response to grace, whether in order to suppress it or in order to announce it. The trick is that when we attempt to suppress grace, we end up being acted upon. Lehi puts it this way: we’ve by grace been rendered free “to act for [our]selves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day” (2 Nephi 2:26). Suppression and announcement are both acts, but the one gets coupled with an essential acted-upon-ness as well. This is what I take Paul to be saying in Romans 7: when I suppress grace, I end up as a kind of self-contradiction. It isn’t that human decision gets me out of the dilemma (Paul would blanch at that idea!); it’s that there is no dilemma except in my sinful imagination. How do I get out of the dilemma I’ve pretended to place myself in? Simply by stopping, but ceasing to work against God. How are we to be saved from sin? Not by doing some work or set of works—even a prayerful confession of Christ—but only by finally stopping, by letting go of all my works.

    Okay, that much in response to your third question from the other post. What, now, of what you say here?

    Your interpretation of Robinson’s short run/long run move is brilliant. I think you’ve got to be right on that score. But that’s exactly where I think Robinson compromises grace, and compromises grace precisely as uniquely Mormon scripture teaches it. Rather than pandering to long-standing traditional understandings of human agency, understandings that run counter to scripture, why not let the scriptures teach us. The Book of Mormon couldn’t be clearer that our usual deep-seated notions of agency and human choice are flawed. Where we tend to think of our agency as independent of God, eternally so, the Book of Mormon is explicit that agency is something God produces in us. The resurrection creates agency, creates us as we know ourselves. Lehi again, and in the same passage: “And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever,” etc. (2 Nephi 2:26). We’re free, radically free, but that has been brought about, and through the redemption of Christ only. Apart from that redemption, as Jacob later articulates the idea, there isn’t choice or agency: “if the flesh should rise no more our spirits must become subject to that angel who fell from before the presence of the Eternal God, and became the devil, to rise no more, and our spirits must have become like unto him, and we become devils, angels to a devil, to be shut out from the presence of our God, and to remain with the father of lies, in misery, like unto himself” (2 Nephi 9:8-9). Agency, choice, action, etc.—all this is possibilized by irresistible grace (who asked for the resurrection?).

    There’s a start, anyway. I’ll be saying more about this as I work through these posts….

  7. YvonneS said

    Joe: I think the book was titled Self Deception. There might have been something else attached. It probably was authored by Terry Warner. It was published by the Arbinger Foundation. It was one of their first and preceded Bonds that Make Us Free. It was a little book not very long and would probably fit in a pocket. It had to do with management and relationships.

    My personal belief in light of D. C 93:38-39 is that each person is born innocent before God meaning not guilty of sin. Then because of the circumstances of this life including disobedience, to what? to God’s laws, and because of the teachings of false traditions by their parents that state of innocence is lost. Or in other words because of these things they fall out of grace. In order to become innocent before God again it is necessary to change. That change is an act of will which makes it possible for God’s mercy to take effect because as verse 38 points out God redeemed man from the fall or in other words satisfied the demands of justice.

    I realize that goes a bit further than trying find out what happens first. Or maybe it supports your view. Perhaps both things occur together. It is clear however that once we live beyond the age of accountability there must be a moment we sincerely choose to let Christ into our life so the spirit again enters our heart and it is changed (could this be when we receive the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost?). I do not believe that the spirit or grace is living dormant in our heart waiting for us to recognize it and begin to act upon it. Neither do I believe that it can be the other way around for if that is so and some are chosen to receive grace and others are not we are talking about the problems of predestination and election that leaves out human choice all together.

  8. YvonneS said

    Joe: I have looked the book up. It is called Leadership and Self Deception it is not by Warner. It does come from the Arbinger Institute. It seemed to be promoting a form of falseness by giving all relationships in life an equal level of intimacy. However since it promoted treating people with kindness and the need for a non judgmental listening ear it is good. It is the general theme of any of the books from the Arbinger Institute that I have ever read. I don’t read them anymore. That is not to say people never deceive themselves. I don’t think that is the one answer to all problems in life. I have a difficult time in seeing the concept as a help in understanding the atonement.

  9. Brent_in_Canada said

    My belief centeres around this: When a person accepts and believes Christ they are accepting and understand the price that was paid for them in the garden and on the cross. Then they understand they are owned and not their own anymore, precisely because they have been bought. Once I understood these two principles I realized two things, 1) I will WANT to do all God commands because I will have a deep understanding of the price that was paid for me and the grace given freely to me. 2) I will realized I MUST do what has been asked of me because Christ requires it of me and He has paid for me.

    The great conundrum for me is not whether or not His grace is sufficient for me (Mormons have a problem with grace – we don’t do grace very well) but the conundrum for me comes down to this: Is my change of heart sufficient for me to want to do (follow the commandments, repent daily etc.) all that He has asked with the right motivation for doing so EVEN THOUGH He has already paid the price for me, and EVEN THOUGH his grace is free and that I am heir to His Kingdom today? That is the true test of my character. I might have a few things to work out yet, but I feel I am getting closer to understanding what the price Christ paid was. The understanding of that doctrine is the single greatest motivator for me to do right than any “checklist” of activities Mormons typically go through to try to understand what they must do in order to someday be allowed in to Heaven.

    JoeSpencer said it right when he said choice is a response to grace and not the other way around. Beautiful!

  10. aquinas said

    Joe, thanks for your response and for clarifying your views, this is useful. I’m sure you will elaborate on these ideas as the series progresses. For the moment I agree that things are complicated: when we act in one way we get acted upon, we do by ceasing to do, grace isn’t something we get but something we stop rejecting, etc. It isn’t clear whether these are distinctions with a difference, but again I’m sure these will come into focus as the series continues.

    Gerald McDermott in his dialogue with Robert Millet in Claiming Christ framed the question as “Who moves first?” and concluded that it seems much of LDS literature focuses on us making the first move towards God who is waiting for us to act. But McDermott fairly includes statements in LDS literature that seem to go the other way as well. I agree with you that Mormonism has ample sources to argue that God moves first, whether we follow Joseph Smith’s teachings that God made the first move by inviting intelligences into a relationship with him, or whether we go with Lehi’s teachings of the redemption of the will whereby God has restored man’s ability to choose, and has now put him on the path where he is free to choose. He is free but only because he has been made free by the power of God. Or simply put, “We love God, because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19). But these are often these discussions are circular because whether God moves first and is waiting for man to move next, or whether man must first move before God moves, we are often left in the same teaching: you must move.

    I agree with you that we should let the Book of Mormon speak for itself. That being said, I’m not as comfortable assuming that the Book of Mormon speaks with one voice on these issues. Lehi’s teachings are all too often taken as the Book of Mormon position, when Lehi is one voice among many. Sometimes later Mormon writers repeat their predecessors and sometimes they do not. The brother of Jared prayed: “O Lord, and do not be angry with thy servant because of his weakness before thee; for we know that thou art holy and dwellest in the heavens, and that we are unworthy before thee; because of the fall our natures have become evil continually.” (Ether 3:2). This teaching of the fall that sin is caused by our nature seems to run counter to the idea that the brother of Jared only has his wrong human decisions to blame because it is radically free to act for himself. (And while this teaching is chronologically prior to Nephi, Moroni as the redactor does not correct this teaching on the fall as he edits Ether).

    More importantly, Nephi laments “O wretched man that I am!” despite his father teaching him that he is free to act for himself. Another possible reading of Nephi is that it is precisely Lehi’s teaching that causes the turmoil that Nephi feels. His father is teaching him that he is radically free to act for himself, so there should be no excuses, and yet Nephi struggles with why his personal life does not bear out this simple truth; he does not feel he has freedom and control over his own behavior (2 Nephi 4:26-34), he wonders why he can’t just act for himself as his father teaches him he can, to the point that Nephi is forced to conclude that he is wretched. The promise of agency is much more complicated than we realize. “Behold, here is the agency of man, and here is the condemnation of man.” (D&C 93:31). Nephi is ultimately forced to conclude “cursed is he that putteth his trust in man (the agency of man).” (2 Nephi 4:34). I think part of allowing the Book of Mormon to speak for itself must include allowing us to draw lessons from the history of human behavior illustrated by the Book of Mormon.

  11. joespencer said

    Aquinas,

    First, I want to take brief issue with this claim: “But often these discussions are circular because whether God moves first and is waiting for man to move next, or whether man must first move before God moves, we are often left in the same teaching: you must move.” I’m denying, precisely, that we’re left with the same injunction. If we get grace right, I think, we’re not left with “you must move,” but rather with “you must stop moving!” The Sabbath is the model of repentance: “Stop working, stop using the way of the world as an excuse not to deal with me, stop trying to deliver yourself from all dangers! Be still, and know that I am God!” So I guess I’m a little nervous about McDermott’s way of putting the issue. It isn’t a matter of “Who moves first?” It’s a matter of our finally ceasing to move because we see that our every move is an attempt to pretend that God hasn’t always already moved.

    Second, let me make clear that I entirely agree with you that the Book of Mormon doesn’t speak with one voice. (I just published a book arguing that Nephi and Abinadi are radically opposed theologically!) That said, though, I think there’s a pretty remarkably consistent theology of grace running through the Book of Mormon (something I’ve traced in an essay that will appear soon in a volume from Greg Kofford Books on Mormon atonement theology). Some of the details occasionally change, and there are unmistakable developments, but I see no real moment in the trajectory from Lehi through Jacob and Abinadi to Alma where grace functions in a radically distinct way. There is, however, on my reading, one Book of Mormon figure who differs from that trajectory, and that’s Amulek. Amulek has a rather distinct notion of atonement, and I think the Book of Mormon handles him very carefully. (To put my position in a nutshell: I think Alma 39-42 is largely an attempt to “correct” Alma 34.) Samuel also has a somewhat distinct notion of atonement, but he’s all we know of the Lamanite theological tradition, so it’s hard to be clear about how to approach Samuel’s teachings—which are rather short on this point anyway.

    Third, I think the texts from Ether 3 and 2 Nephi 4 can be read very much in terms of Lehi’s doctrine of grace—though, of course, I don’t feel any particular reason to try to make them harmonize. The experience of sinfulness is the experience of bondage, of continual evil thanks to the fall, etc. And I see these confessions as issuing from the personal, private experience of trying to remind oneself of one’s radical freedom when, in bondage to death, one feels the impossibility of escaping that bondage. These differences, I think, are minimal. I think.

    Fourth, many thanks for this ongoing conversation. It’s been most helpful and interesting!

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  13. Robert C. said

    Nice post, and very nice discussion (thank you, esp. Aquinas, for the thoughtful responses).

  14. John Jones said

    Joe, I ran across your blog and found your writing interesting. I read some of your writings and found them interesting. I find your views on the fringe of the general LDS church teachings with a lot of truth and some teachings that are interesting but not endorsed by LDS church leaders. Your interpretations have me asking are you a active, temple going member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints? This question probably offends you but I think it would help me understand your background and where you are coming from. I am a seeker of truth.

    It is obvious you are very bright but I sense in your writings a tone of arrogance as you critique and interpret the writing in the Believing Christ. I found your writings difficult to follow as I read your chapter by chapter review of the Believing Christ.

    With all this said, I really would like to read your complete views of grace and works in your own words without the book review format, principle by principle and how you interpret the scriptures supporting your views. This would give me clarification on your own views without the bits and pieces sifting through different blogs. I enjoyed reading your views but would like to read it in a consolidated form without the interpretations so I could understand them better.

    • joespencer said

      Hi John Jones,

      Well, I woke up late this morning because I was at the temple until after 11 p.m. helping to clean last night. I assume that answers your question about whether I’m an active, temple-going member of the Church. :)

      As for whether I’m on the fringe, I suppose that’s up to whoever wants to define “the fringe.” I have many friends who might be said to be on “the fringe,” and I think they’d all describe me as a profoundly orthodox Latter-day Saint. As for whether my ideas are “endorsed” by leaders of the Church—well, I’d be surprised if any leaders of the Church know who am I so as to endorse or not to endorse anything I’m saying. But I’d be happy to be corrected by a Church leader were anything I’m saying to be heretical. (Frankly, I’d be pretty shocked to see anything I say here condemned by a Church leader.) And at any rate, I’m not trying to decide doctrine so much as to reflect theologically on texts (in this case, the Book of Mormon). Is that arrogant? Perhaps. I don’t doubt it, anyway. But I can say that it isn’t meant to be arrogant. I’m just, as you say, a seeker of truth.

      My “complete” views? I haven’t any such thing, nor do I plan to have any such thing. As a theologian, I’m always at work on things, always on the way, always in the middle of thought. I have views, views that I hope change daily as I continue working on things. Anything I offer here (or elsewhere) is offered only tentatively, as a glimpse of my thinking at the moment it’s offered. That said, I’ve written a few things on grace that are a bit more systematic than this, but I’ve never attempted to produce a full, systematic study of grace.

      Does any of that help? Does it make me sound only more arrogant? It’s honest, anyway.

  15. Robert C. said

    John, I would add to Joe’s response the following:

    * I’ve know Joe personally, and I’d characterize him as an extremely faithful Church member. Whereas Joe says “theology,” I’d say he’s just interested in trying to really study the scriptures carefully and thoughtfully. Doing this requires an attitude that doesn’t presuppose that all of the important or hard questions have been spoon fed to us by General Authorities. But General Authorities have been rather emphatic about the importance of studying and pondering the scriptures.

    * Joe has written a book titled An Other Testament which is on the Book of Mormon, though it doesn’t talk about grace specifically. Joe, did you ever publish that review of Adam Miller’s book on Paul, Marion and Badiou? (Sorry for not remembering….) I think that would be very helpful and interesting to John.

    * Though not by Joe, many similar ideas can be found in Adam Miller’s book Rube Goldberg Machines, which I’d recommend for thinking further about these things (though Adam does not quote General Authorities in that book, or justify his views very frequently with scriptural exegesis).

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