Feast upon the Word Blog

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GD #33: the natural man / anachronistic(?) interpretation

Posted by Matthew on August 28, 2007

I am interested in the question of how to read phrases from the Book of Mormon which are the same as ones we find in the New Testament. As an added bonus, I am going to use an example to help me think through this a phrase in the reading for our upcoming Sunday School lesson. The phrase is “natural man” in 1 Cor 2:14.

I pick this verse because, as we all know, we find a very famous verse (and much discussed in the bloggernacle–see for example here, here, here and here) which uses the same phrase “natural man,” Mosiah 3:19.

But before we get there, what do we make of the phrase “natural man” in 1 Cor 2:14?

We worked on this question a while back on the wiki. You’ll find there some information about the Greek word behind “natural” and some thoughts on interpreting this phrase in the exegesis section. In short “natural” is in contrast to “spiritual.” Significantly, the same word is at other times in the New Testament translated sensual.

When we look elsewhere in the scriptures we see the phrase “natural man” used 4 other times: Mosiah 3:19 (as already noted), Alma 26:21, Moses 1:14 and D&C 67:12. The first three are interesting in that they pre-date the writings of 1st Corinthians.

So imagine that for 1 Cor 2:14 the KJV translated the Greek into “sensual man” instead of natural man (this is a thought experiment not a suggestion for improving the translation), would we expect that Mosiah 3:19 to also be translated sensual man?

I suggest that if the KJV for 1 Cor 2:14 and Mosiah 3:19 both read sensual man, we would read 1 Cor 2:14 about the same as we do today but Mosiah 3:19 would be read differently. Specifically it wouldn’t be fodder for the question of whether man’s inherent nature is bad.

But of course the KJV did use the English word “natural” in 1 Cor 2:14 as did Mosiah 3:19.

I’m interested in your all’s thoughts, not just on this specific instance, but the general question of how to interpret phrases from the Book of Mormon (i.e. from the English translation of the Book of Mormon) where we find similar phrases in writings from the Bible which came after Lehi left Jerusalem. How much does the Greek meaning behind English translation matter to the way we interpret the Book of Mormon?


19 Responses to “GD #33: the natural man / anachronistic(?) interpretation”

  1. Clark said

    I’m intrigued by how you see this changing Mosiah 3:19.

  2. Geoff J said

    So imagine that for 1 Cor 2:14 the KJV translated the Greek into “sensual man” instead of natural man (this is a thought experiment not a suggestion for improving the translation), would we expect that Mosiah 3:19 to also be translated sensual man?

    It depends on what theory of translation you subscribe to regarding modern scriptures. If you lean toward the Royal Skousen camp where Joseph basically read the wording of our scriptures like a ticker-tape or teleprompter running across the seer stone then the answer would be no. If you subscribe to the Blake Ostler theory of translation being a modern expansion of an ancient text then the answer would be yes.

    (I happen to go for the latter.)

  3. Seanmcox said

    I’ve never really heard anyone use Mosiah 3:19 to argue that man was inherently bad. Seems a clear enough non sequiter the way it is.

  4. Jacob J said


    Even if you go with the Royal Skousen theory, there is still the question of how the English word in the BofM was chosen. In Blake’s theory, some (but not all) of the words came from Joseph putting ideas into his language. In the Skousen theory, someone else did the actual translation of the BofM from an ancient language into English (maybe God, maybe a translation committee in the spirit world). There is no reason one must rule out a KJV influence on the language of the BofM just because one believes it was given to Joseph word-for-word.


    (Hopefully you are not still mad at me for misreading you on my penal-substitution thread, I still feel bad about that.) The Mosiah 3:19 connection to the fall of Adam is the part that seems to complicate it in my mind. The natural man is an enemy to God and has been “since the fall of Adam.” This tangles it up (unavoidably) in all of the controversy surrounding the meaning of the fall. I have definitely heard it argued from this scripture that man is inherently bad because of the fall. You haven’t?

    In fact, if we change it to “sensual man” as the post suggests, Mosiah 3:19 would say that the sensual man has been an enemy to God since the fall of Adam. What about before? Are we to conclude that the sensual man was not an enemy to God before the fall? What would that mean?

  5. Matthew said

    Jacob J,
    >In fact, if we change it to “sensual man” as the post suggests, Mosiah 3:19 would say that the sensual man has been an enemy to God since the fall of Adam. What about before?

    So first, to explicitly answer your question, to me saying “the sensual man is an enemy to God and has been since the fall of Adam” suggests there weren’t sensual men before the fall of Adam.

    Things get more complicated though when we look back at verse 16: “And even if it were possible that little children could sin they could not be saved; but I say unto you they are blessed; for behold, as in Adam, or by nature, they fall, even so the blood of Christ atoneth for their sins.” This verse deserves some attention all its own. Significantly it says that children fall but, even so, the blood of Christ atoneth for their sins. I take this to mean that children sin (in a way of course Christ couldn’t have as a child) but Christ gives them a free gift of atoning for their sins. If you look at things this way then it also has something interesting to say about our grace discussion, i.e. the whole point is that the gift Christ gives to us who aren’t children isn’t the same as the one he gives to those who are. For us it isn’t free in the same sense because we must exercise faith and repentance where they need not.

    Well, back to the topic at hand.

    Jacob J, I agree with your comment to Geoff. After all Royal Skousen makes a big point of saying that it was translated into the language of the time, and thereby explaining why it is that there is so much non-standard grammar.

    So I’m thinking of several possibilities:
    a) the original BOM used a word for natural that is close in meaning to our word “natural.” It is a coincidence that the phrase is the same 1 Cor 2:14.
    b) the original BOM used a word for natural that is close in meaning to the Greek word behind natural in 1 Cor 2:14. (Sorry all those who know Greek for my circuitous way of referring to a Greek word.) It was translated as natural because that is actually a good translation of 1 Cor 2:14.
    c) similar to b but in this case we think of the BOM translation as following the bible language. Or in other words, even in cases where the Bible translation isn’t the best, the BOM might choose to stick with it because the BOM was translated into our language.

    The difficulty with all of this is that it opens a lot of possibilities but I see no good way of closing some of them down.

  6. Seanmcox said

    I can’t say I recall the particulars of the disagreement/misreading. (Though I vaguely recollect having some string thoughts on that issue, and I suppose I still do.) I suppose that speaks to how likely it is for me to recollect hearing someone make a disagreeable argument for man being inherently evil. I can’t say I have recollected it. My thoughts on natural man follow much the same lines as those suggested by the reading with “sensual man”. It’s one of those terms which I take to be inherently ambiguous, so I generally understand the natural man to be “carnal” man, “sensual” man, and “devilish” man (though I consider those redundant terms).
    I have long imagined that people might think to make an argument for man being inherently evil based on this term, but I do not recall ever hearing it exactly. I tend to think that the word “natural” brings to mind a lot of imagery which the word doesn’t quite merit. They say homosexuality is natural as if that means something substantial. We also say it is natural for a mother to love her children.
    Generally we define the term as referring to things that aren’t man made.
    Religiously this relegates natural things to being either God made or Devil made. In parallel with this, “nature” is seen as both pure, delightful, and beautiful, as well as harsh, decaying, and ugly. Conversely, we are, individually, what we are as spirits and intelligences and this is the only sense by which we can be “inherently” good or bad. This might be considered natural as well, but if we are inherently one or the other in that sense, then all mankind is rather doomed, the Savior included. The savior clearly was not inherently evil, so it’s fair to say that intelligences are not inherently evil by the mere virtue of their being intelligences. (Of course that argument extends to physical man as well.) I think a good number of people don’t think to care what they mean by natural, and neglect the fact that “nature” is split into a duality and is inherently ambiguous with respect to good or evil except taken within a context. How then can nature alone speak to what we inherently are when it is a condition which was specifically designed to tease that detail out of us and must thus be independent of it?
    The scriptures provide a context and clearly the term is being used to speak to the evil half of nature.

    That’s a lot of words that basically say “I see how the argument could be made, but it can only be made because we mortals are, far too often, ignorant of what we say and reason on.” It also implies that changing the term to “sensual man” would be a perfectly reasonable thing to do, for the unfortunate motive of communicating more effectively to modern readers. (Unfortunately, translation typically are not made for the readers of the future, but for the readers at the time of translation.)

  7. Robert C. said

    We also had some discussion at the wiki of “natural” as it occurs in 1 Cor 15:44-46 (see here; notice the discussion page and subsequent commentary page also).

    Matthew #5, I’m inclined toward (c). I think that in reading the BOM we definitely need to consider similar phrases in the KJV (incl. the NT which BOM authors didn’t have access to, but Joseph did and we do). However the translation process worked, I think we must be aware that most language is malleable and contextual, not nearly as objective as, say, computer or mathematical language. So, Christian religious language, esp. of the 19th century, cannot, I think, be understood without considering the KJV.

  8. Matthew said

    Robert #7, I had forgotten about the 1 Cor 15:44-46 discussion. Thanks.

    you wrote “cannot be understood without considering the KJV.” Right. This has been a helpful discussion for me, but really in so far that it helps me talk about better what it is that I find difficult about that statement. Or, in other words, the difficulty with the question: should one appeal to the greek meaning of a KJV nt word we find in the BOM in order to understand the BOM?

    My concern is it creates a certain laissez-faire–whatever works–attitude that feels like it lacks rigour to me. But maybe i’m searching for a rigour that simply doesn’t exist anyway–even when we are talking about the Greek New Testament directly. There’s no coherent model (I don’t think) for explaining when one should interpret a word according to a more obscure meaning at the time or when one should reject something all together as an early corruption of the original text (or for that matter simply a mistake by the author).

  9. Robert C. said

    Matthew, I think you’re right that there’s not one, single “coherent model” for how to read scripture. This is surely infuriating at times, but I think it allows the text to become more meaningful for modern readers. This gets back to deep hermeneutical questions, but (as you know by now) I don’t think we can ultimately get away from the scriptures being to some extent seer stones for us when we read them (whether individually or as a group). That is, there quite a bit of wiggle room in terms of various ways we can interpret scripture, and it is in this wiggle room that we perhaps gain the most from studying scripture (though I emphatically do not think that we should use this as an excuse to be lazy in our study of scripture—“after all we can do,” to invoke that recently controversial phrase!).

  10. I’m sorry I’m coming to this so late, but I’ve been in transit for a few days, moving from Washington to Oregon. (Hmmm. I had better update my profile…)

    I’ve thought a great deal about this very question, primarily because I am wont to draw on the richness of an intertextual implication in 1 Corinthians (whether 2 or 15). The “natural man” is, quite literally, the “psychical man,” the man who lives according to psyche, soul, mind. Obviously a great deal remains to be done here, but I’ve more and more frequently taken Paul’s usage as license to explore the implications of Freudian psychoanalysis for scriptural interpretation. I think there are rich possibilities. This is true even, perhaps especially, of Mosiah 3:19. Unfortunately, I haven’t the time to engage in this as I’d like right now (we’re still waiting for internet services to be hooked up at home, and I’m doing what little I can at the Salem public library… which charges for parking!!!).

    More soon, I hope.

  11. brianj said

    Interesting question and discussion. I wonder if the phrase in Moses doesn’t push the issue even harder (meaning, the issue about the original word in the BofM language): did Moses actually use that phrase? Now we have to get Paul, Moses, Benjamin/Mormon, and Joseph all on the “same page”.

    Also, I don’t think carnal, sensual, and devilish are necessarily redundant terms (comment #6). They can be seen as describing one’s desires/motivations (carnal), what one pays attention to (sensual/sensory; i.e the five senses), and one’s purposes/goals (devilish). I’ve never thought about this before, but thought I’d just throw those ideas out there….

  12. brianj said

    By the way, here is an excerpt from the study notes that I sent out to my class:

    What is the “natural man”? What is his opposite? Why does King Benjamin call the natural man an “enemy to God” (Mosiah 3:19)? What does Ammon contrast with the natural man (Alma 26:21-22)? Are Paul, King Benjamin, and Ammon using the phrase the same way? Moses had an experience of extremes wherein he saw Satan shortly after a vision of God; why does Moses mention that he is able to “look upon [Satan] in the natural man” (Moses 1:16)? What does the “natural man” have to do with Moses’ two visions? If the natural man is “an enemy to God,” why is Moses “in the natural man”? Is the natural man always an enemy to God?

    I think the most interesting part is how Moses uses the phrase….

  13. Gloria R. Rivera said

    The verse refers to trying to understand the things of God without the Holy Ghost.
    In the things of God, the Holy Ghost is the teacher, and the learner learns by faith -see Elder Bednar’s recent talk in the Ensign.
    1Cor 2:14 means that when the Spirit of God is not there, -when the learner is not learning by faith, aided by the Holy Ghost: “natural man”, he can not understand (receive) the teaching done by the Spirit of God. It will go over his/her head, and whatever is said will come accross to him or to her as foolishness.

  14. NathanG said

    Regarding the general question of how to interpret phrases from the Book of Mormon (original post)

    We could also ask about the original writer’s contribution to the phrase. Did the writer specifically choose a word because it fully and completely captured what they were trying to explain? Was that word chosen because they were comfortable with it and used it commonly or because God just out of nowhere gave them the word? (If the latter is true, why don’t I give talks that sound more like Elder Maxwell’s?) Did Mormon’s reformed Egyptian maintain the precise meaning that would have been present when King Benjamin gave his addressn? Did King Benjamin record it on the large plates in reformed Egyption? And did reformed Egyption carry the same meaning as whatever their spoken language had evolved into by that time? Did Moses even write his experience and Joseph then received it as Moses recorded it, or did Joseph just receive the revelation (how did he receive that revelation anyway)? Did Paul rewrite/edit his epistles until the wording was perfectly in line with what he was trying to say (or did he dictate them)? Or do we suppose that all of these people were already masters of language and don’t run into the trouble of trying to appropriately express themselves that I have. Is English equipped with the correct words to accurately capture what any of them were saying in the first place? Then there’s translator issues that have been already discussed.

    I don’t know the answer, but I think it’s fair to try substituting words (such as sensual for spiritual) and seeing what you can learn, which has been an interesting topic. When this is done through the Spirit we should feel we are on secure ground doctrinely.

  15. m&m said

    don’t know the answer, but I think it’s fair to try substituting words (such as sensual for spiritual) and seeing what you can learn, which has been an interesting topic. When this is done through the Spirit we should feel we are on secure ground doctrinely.

    I think this is about as concrete as you can get. I think trying to set any rule in stone is hazardous at worst and limiting at best. I love love love working with words in scripture study, though, so I agree with Nathan that there can be interesting benefits from doing comparisons, as long as they are fluid enough to be guided by the Spirit.

  16. RuthS said

    Interesting question. I think that Paul tells us pretty much what he means when he contrasts carnal with spiritual. But, in our society we take natural things to be good things. These are things without additives that are of this earth and remain in their original state. If these words were being stated in today’s terms fallen man would likely be substituted for natural. Anything all natural is highly prized. I guess mortal man would also fit. I remember a talk Marion D. Hanks gave on the topic of the natural man. His conclusion was that carnal referred to man being flesh, sensual referred to man having senses which help to deal with a mortal world and the only part that makes man an enemy to God is the devilish part.

    Any translation comes through the language and understanding of the translator and his times and experience. Lt looks to me like Joseph Smith understood the Bible better than most of us realize. I don’t see a problem here.

  17. Clark said

    “But, in our society we take natural things to be good things.”

    I’m not sure that’s true. Most of the things publicly valued aren’t what I’d call natural. That’s not to deny the media focus on sex, drugs and rock and roll. (To borrow a term) But there’s also a strong social view that one ought take care of family, that there has to be more meaning than work and sex, etc. And the media conveys all those fairly well as well.

  18. Nathan raises a series of questions that deserve an entire post and careful discussion (I’d really like to see some of the better LDS scholars do a roundtable on this kind of thing). I have some thoughts on this, but no time this morning (I spent far too long responding to the hijacking discussion). I’ll get back to this as soon as I can.

  19. RuthS said

    There are two sides to every coin. Some things are better after they are refined. A frame of reference is of great importance. That frame has to come from the spiritual rather than some other influence.

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