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Sunday School Doctrine and Covenants Lesson 15: “Seek Ye Earnestly the Best Gifts” (D&C 46)

Posted by joespencer on April 12, 2009

One prays for these lessons to come up in the D&C manual: this one is dedicated to a single section of the Doctrine and Covenants!

The subject matter is D&C 46, and I want to dedicate most of my attention to only the first nine verses. I do, of course, realize that the primary focus of the lesson is on verses 10-33 (where the gifts of the Spirit are enumerated), but the more I’ve looked at this revelation, the more I’ve become convinced that verses 10-33 are best approached through a very careful reading of verses 1-9.

That said, I’ll begin with a few, rather broad comments about verses 10-33, since that is where the lesson spends its time. I’ll turn, then, to verses 1-9, making the second part of these notes a kind of step back from things so as to catch a broader vision.

D&C 46:10-33

The “gifts of the Spirit” part of this revelation can be broken down into three major parts:

(1) D&C 46:10-12 — Introductory
(2) D&C 46:13-30 — Of the gifts themselves
(3) D&C 46:31-33 — Final exhortation

For the most part, I think the introductory material (of verses 10-12) and final exhortation (of verses 31-33) are pretty self-explanatory. A few words, then, about verses 13-30.

The discussion of the gifts themselves can be broken up into several major fragments:

(1) Preliminary: D&C 46:13-16
(a) Verses 13-14 — Knowing vs. believing
(b) Verses 15-16 — The Holy Ghost

(2) The gifts: D&C 46:17-25
(a) Verses 17-18 — Teaching
(b) Verses 19-20 — Healing
(c) Verses 21-23 — Wonders
(d) Verses 24-25 — Tongues

(3) Regulation: D&C 46:26-30
(a) Verses 26-27 — The bishop
(b) Verses 28-30 — Asking for gifts

The major questions of interpretation here seem to me to be:

Regarding (1) — What exactly is happening in these first four verses? Are these to be understood as gifts? Are they to be understood as broadly explanatory? Why is the Holy Ghost mentioned here (as opposed to “the Spirit” in later verses)? Are these verses structurally parallel to verses 26-30? If so, how does that change their meaning or intention?

Regarding (2) — Why are the gifts grouped (through the repeated use of “And again”) into these four categories? Is there a distinction between “to others” and “to another”? What is the relationship between (or among) the gifts listed in each category (structured linguistically by a “to some” and “to others/another”)? How do the gifts as listed here map up against those listed in 1 Corinthians and Moroni?

Regarding (3) — Is the bishop here the one who is to be doing the asking as described in the latter part of this passage? Should the bishop here be understood to be the presiding bishop or the bishop in Zion, as opposed to local bishops? What do these verses teach about the nature of the Church’s organization and mission?

I think all of these questions deserve sustained attention, but I want to get on to dealing with verses 1-9. I’ll leave them here, then, as open questions.

D&C 46:1-9

While D&C 46 is generally categorized as the revelation “on the gifts of the Spirit,” it should be noted that it was not understood that way early in the Church’s history. Indeed, if any revelation was understood to be a revelation on the gifts of the Spirit, it was generally section 50. The way the early Church understood section 46 is revealed in John Whitmer’s early history of the Church (written before he apostatized in 1838): “In the beginning of the Church, while yet in her infancy, the disciples used to exclude unbelievers, which caused some to marvel and converse of this because of the things written in the Book of Mormon [see 3 Nephi 18:22-34]. Therefore the Lord deigned to speak on this subject, that His people might come to understanding, and said that He had always given to His Elders to conduct all meetings as they were led by the Spirit.” (History of the Church, 1:163-164, fn.)

As Whitmer’s explanation makes clear, the revelation was received not as a kind of guide to what the several gifts of the Spirit are, but as a guide to how to understand the complex relationship between ecclesiastical organization/praxis and the written word of God. The question of the gifts of the Spirit is a rehearsal of the answer the revelation provides to this question. This perhaps deserves a bit more explanation.

John Whitmer explains that there was a particular concern behind the situation that called for the revelation that is D&C 46. As a number of historical documents make very clear, many of the earliest converts understood the Book of Mormon to provide a kind of guide for the organization of the restored Church. Oliver Cowdery’s drafts for what is now D&C 20, for example, make clear that he was drawing heavily on the order of things employed by the Nephites after the visit of Christ in Third Nephi to work up the structure of the Church-to-be-organized in 1830. Some of the most rancorous early disputes concerned the sudden appearance in revelations of offices for the Church that did not appear in the Book of Mormon—something David Whitmer attributed until the end of his life to the influence of Sidney Rigdon (and his Campbellite background) over Joseph Smith. As Marvin Hill has argued in a number of places, the “Kirtland apostasy” was less a consequence of economic failures than it was a growing dissatisfaction among Joseph’s earliest followers with what they saw as a kind of progressive departure from the Book of Mormon as they understood it. D&C 46 marks a point along that pathway.

At issue in this revelation, then, is the relationship between the Book of Mormon and the way the restored Church should be handled. As such, it not only ends up providing a kind of outline of how the anciently written word of God relates to the inspiration of the Spirit that comes in the moment, it also—because it appears as a written revelation given in the last dispensation—makes for thinking carefully about the place of modern revelation in this complex situation.

In a word, D&C 46:1-9 (and then verses 10-33 as well) are primarily concerned with the following question: How should we think about the knot that ties together the separate threads of ancient scripture, modern scripture, organizational practice, and the inspiration of the Spirit? That is: When it appears that two or more of these are in some kind of a conflict, what should be done?

D&C 46:1-2

This is evident as early as the first two verses:

Hearken, O ye people of my church; for verily I say unto you that these things were spoken unto you for your profit and learning. But notwithstanding those things [these things in the earliest manuscript] which are written, it always has been given to the elders of my church from the beginning, and ever shall be, to conduct all meetings as they are directed and guided by the Holy Spirit.

The first thing that has to be sorted out about these first two verses is the meaning of “these things.” And that for at least two reasons. First, the first time the phrase appears (in verse 1), it appears without the necessary antecedent that would give it some kind of sense. Second, the second time the phrase appears (in verse 2), it has been changed from “these things” to “those things,” perhaps for purposes of clarification. (The earliest available manuscript of D&C 46 is to be found in the Messenger and Advocate in 1832. There one finds “these things” instead of “those things.” The next available manuscript source is the version of the revelation in the Book of Commandments in 1833. There it has already been changed to “those things.” Whether this was a typographical error that has been kept, or whether this was an attempt to clarify the meaning of the revelation, it remains unclear.)

Now, given John Whitmer’s contextualization of the revelation, I think it is reasonable to suggest that “these things” (at least in verse 1) refers to the Book of Mormon—indeed, perhaps here directly to 3 Nephi 18 (the words of the Savior about who could be admitted into church gatherings). And this would actually make good sense in other ways: the authors/editors of the Book of Mormon often (indeed: startlingly often) use the phrase “these things” to refer to the plates or the book they were writing/editing. It may be that the Lord here is picking up on the Book of Mormon idiom.

Taken this way, we can read verse 1 thus: “Hearken, O ye people of my church; for verily I say unto you that these things—namely, the words I, the Savior, spoke to the Nephites, as recorded in 3 Nephi 18—were spoken or have been delivered unto you for your profit and learning.” On this reading, this first verse affirms that the text of the Book of Mormon can and should be read by the modern Church in such a way that it inflects their practice, etc.

The second verse is also clarified helpfully by this approach: “But notwithstanding these/those things which are written in the same text of 3 Nephi, it has always been given to the elders of my church from the beginning, and ever shall be, to conduct all meetings as they are directed and guided by the Holy Spirit.” On this reading, this second verse makes clear that what is written should not compromise the centrality of the Spirit in conducting meetings.

Now, several things need to be said about the tension that underlies this verse.

First, as John Whitmer’s history makes clear, these first two verses are the beginning of the Lord’s address to questions (if not complaints) about the Church’s essential departure from the pattern laid out in 3 Nephi 18. And these verses respond to that situation by suggesting that (1) while there must be some undeniable rootedness in the text (“these things were spoken unto you for your profit and learning”), (2) there is something more universal, if not more fundamental, than mere text (“notwithstanding those things which are written, . . . conduct all meetings as . . . directed and guided by the Holy Spirit”).

Second, then, it can be said that the “original” tension between the injunction issuing from the text and the actual practice of the Church at the time is essentially replaced by the revelation with a “new” tension between the text as written and the moment’s injunction of the Spirit.

Third, this “new” tension is given to an odd but fascinating temporal complexity. Inasmuch as the text records the commandment delivered in some historically situated and contextualized moment in time, the centrality of the Spirit would seem to outstrip all time: “it always has been given to the elders of my church from the beginning, and ever shall be, to conduct all meetings as they are directed and guided by the Holy Spirit.” The wording here suggests that the historical moment’s injunction cannot be understood to trump the eternal centrality of the Spirit.

To sum up the first two verses, then, some kind of basic tension between the text and the Spirit is asserted, and that tension cannot be disentangled from the tension between the historically situated and the non-temporalized work of the Spirit. But all of this will have to be clarified in the remainder of the verses being considered here.

D&C 46:3-6

So soon as the basic tension is laid out in verses 1-2, the Lord offers a four-verse commentary on the injunction concerning meetings that is laid out in 3 Nephi 18. First, to quote the relevant passages from 3 Nephi 18 itself:

And behold, ye shall meet together oft; and ye shall not forbid any man from coming unto you when ye shall meet together, but suffer them that they may come unto you and forbid them not; But ye shall pray for them, and shall not cast them out . . . . [Y]e shall not suffer any one knowingly to partake of my flesh and blood unworthily, when ye shall minister it; . . . Nevertheless, ye shall not cast him out from among you, but ye shall minister unto him and shall pray for him unto the Father, in my name; . . . But if he repent not he shall not be numbered among my people, that he may not destroy my people . . . . Nevertheless, ye shall not cast him out of your synagogues, or your places of worship, for unto such shall ye continue to minister; for ye know not but what they will return and repent, and come unto me with full purpose of heart, and I shall heal them . . . . Therefore, keep these sayings which I have commanded you that ye come not under condemnation; for wo unto him whom the Father condemneth. (3 Nephi 18:22-23, 28, 30-33)

If this is what was, as John Whitmer suggests, in dispute, D&C 46:3-6 offer up a quick commentary. The strategy of the Lord in these verses is interesting: He essentially works up a kind of typology of meetings in order to set up levels of admissibility:

Nevertheless ye are commanded never to cast any one out from your public meetings, which are held before the world. Ye are also commanded not to cast any one who belongeth to the church out of your sacrament meetings; nevertheless, if any have trespassed, let him not partake until he makes reconciliation. And again I say unto you, ye shall not cast any out of your sacrament meetings who are earnestly seeking the kingdom—I speak this concerning those who are not of the church. And again I say unto you, concerning your confirmation meetings, that if there be any that are not of the church, that are earnestly seeking after the kingdom, ye shall not cast them out.

Notice first that the Lord separates out three categories of meetings: “public meetings” (verse 3), “sacrament meetings” (verses 4-5), and “confirmation meetings” (verse 6). Second, the Lord assigns different levels of admissibility to these meetings: (1) because “public meetings” are “held before the world,” the Saints are “never to cast any one out” of them; (2) from “sacrament meetings,” however, the Saints are not to cast out “any one who belongeth to the church” or those who don’t belong to the Church but “are earnestly seeking the kingdom”—the implication being that the Church can bar non-members who are present for purposes other than investigation; (3) the Saints are only commanded not to bar from “confirmation meetings” those who are “not of the church, that are earnestly seeking after the kingdom”—the implication apparently being that they can bar both non-members who are present for purposes other than investigation and members who have not made reconciliation.

Systematizing all of this a little, there are four discernible categories of meeting-goers here: (1) members in good standing; (2) members not in good standing; (3) non-members earnestly seeking the kingdom; and (4) non-members not earnestly seeking the kingdom. The three different categories of church meetings have different levels of admissibility:

Public meetings: (1), (2), (3), and (4) must all be allowed to attend.
Sacrament meetings: (1), (2), and (3) must all be allowed to attend.
Confirmation meetings: (1) and (3) must be allowed to attend.

As one moves from one category to another, one group is subtracted each time: non-members who have ulterior motives can be barred from sacrament and confirmation meetings (presumably because of the sacredness of the ordinances performed during these meetings?); and members not in good standing can be barred from confirmation meetings (presumably because they would somehow inhibit the presence of the Holy Ghost, which is to be bestowed in that meeting?).

Now, all of this makes a nice little commentary on the practical issues raised by these verses. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the central, more theoretical question being raised in verses 1-9 as a whole: what of all of this in relation to 3 Nephi 18? What does the Lord’s “commentary” here suggest about how the text of the Book of Mormon is to be read?

At the very least, it suggests that interpretation is not a simple affair. Taking D&C 46 side by side with 3 Nephi 18, I don’t think one can ultimately argue that the two passages are at odds in any strict sense. And yet it is clear that the D&C 46 bit goes beyond what is said in 3 Nephi 18. To some extent, then, verses 3-6 here can be taken as a kind of illustration of what is set forth in verses 1-2: while the text (of, say, the Book of Mormon) is without question to be taken as a guide, there is no indication that it is a complete guide to practical things, and it is necessary at least to have the guidance of the Spirit (if not to have full-blown revelations like the present one). One might even argue that there is a hint here that anyone with the Spirit would have been able to come up with D&C 46 in light of 3 Nephi 18 (though that might be a bit of a stretch).

At any rate, it is clear that these verses, along with verses 1-2, emphasize the fact that the ancient text alone is necessary but not sufficient.

Of course, it should be noted at the same time that verses 3-6, after the much more emphatic words of verses 1-2, must be taken as a return to the centrality of the text (over against the argument in verses 1-2 about the centrality of the Spirit). The “Nevertheless” that opens verse 3 makes this clear:

(1) Verses 1-2 — Texts outlining the conducting of meetings are for the Saints’ profit and learning, but the Spirit has always been the key to knowing how to conduct meetings…
(2) Verses 3-6 — Nevertheless, one should take the texts (3 Nephi 18, for example) quite seriously, indeed seriously enough to be able to read a detailed typology of meetings and admittances into it…

We have something of an alternating pattern thus taking shape:

Text Spirit
verse 1 verse 2
verses 3-6 …

It remains to be seen how this pattern will play out in the last three verses of this first part of the revelation.

D&C 46:7-9

With the very first words of verse 7, there is a turn back from the text to the Spirit: “But ye are commanded in all things to ask of God, who giveth liberally; and that which the Spirit testifies unto you even so I would that ye should do in all holiness of heart, walking uprightly before me.” One would assume that the “But” at the beginning of the verse emphasizes this turn back from the text to the Spirit.

But, as with verses 3-6, things are quite so simple here. In verses 3-6, it was clear that there was a turn from the Spirit to the text (“Nevertheless”), and yet the text was taken up in a commentary so much more complex and systematizing than the original 3 Nephi passage that one can read those verses (D&C 46:3-6) as suggesting that the turn to the text is also an injunction to follow the Spirit (in, say, the work of interpretation). Something similar is at work here in this first part of verse 7. There is, without question, a turn from the text to the Spirit (“But . . . that which the Spirit testifies,” etc.), and yet that turn is carried forward by a profoundly obvious quotation of (or at least allusion to) a scriptural text, namely, James 1:5: “But ye are commanded in all thing to ask of God, who giveth liberally.”

This complexity continues as the verse proceeds: one is to do whatever the “Spirit testifies,” as the verse says, “in all holiness of heart” and “walking uprightly before [the Lord,” but also “considering the end of your salvation.” One would assume that this “end of your salvation” business takes one yet again back to the text. One is to give oneself to the Spirit, yes, but one is to do it with a constant eye toward the whole plan of salvation, which is not going to be glimpsed in a moment’s visitation of the Spirit, but through a constant study of the scriptures. By this point, it would seem that what had been more or less kept separate at the beginning of the revelation—text and Spirit—are beginning to be woven together. The text is not without the Spirit, and the Spirit is not without the text.

The remainder of verse 7 begins to spell out the reason for this intertwining of the Spirit and the text: “that ye may not be seduced by evil spirits, or doctrines of devils, or the commandments of men.” This is absolutely vital: if the pursuit of the Spirit is not tempered by a constant vigilance with regard to the text, one is liable to be “seduced by evil spirits, or doctrines of devils, or the commandments of men.”

I think what is beginning here at last to take shape is relatively clear. The Spirit is—has always been, and always will be—the central “apparatus,” as it were, for doing the work of the gospel. And yet anyone can see how dangerous a business that is, given the subjective nature of the task of interpreting the whisperings of the Spirit. And so, it would seem, the scriptures are given as the constant point of contact, the Spirit always working on one’s understanding of the scriptures: if one sticks to the texts, one’s pretensions to listen to the Spirit are tempered by the textual standard.

Something much the same is said in verse 8: “that ye may not be deceived seek ye earnestly the best gifts [there’s the Spirit], always remembering for what they are given [there’s the text].” If one only seeks only after the excesses of the Spirit (this was a problem in the Missouri churches quite early on: cf. the Far West Record), one is quite liable to be deceived (cf. also D&C 50). And if one seeks only after the rigidity of the text (this is a problem in, say, merely academic approaches to scripture), one is quite liable to be a mere Pharisee. The two must be completely intertwined: the Spirit opens one’s horizons to possibility, while the text grounds those possibilities in God’s word. To go after just the one or just the other is effectively to be deceived.

Moreover, it should be noticed that with verses 7-8 (and on into verse 9), the revelation has begun to make its transition to the question of the gifts of the Spirit. They are to be sought, yes, but they are to be sought with a constant eye to the scriptures. This is made abundantly clear in verse 8. One is to seek earnestly after the gifts, but one is not to do so with remembering what the gifts are given for—which means that one is not to do so without attending carefully to the texts that spell out the purpose or intention of the gifts of the Spirit.

All of this, it seems to me, is quite vital to any genuine reading of verses 10-33 (the supposedly central part of the revelation—certainly the part that usually receives sustained attention). It is not enough to list the several gifts and to lay out a few points about their reception. It must be seen that they are themselves to be rooted in careful reading of the scripture, and that they are, when they are rooted in careful reading of the scripture, a way of avoiding deception.

Finally, it should be noted that the vastly important teachings concerning the relationship between the text and the Spirit that can be found in verses 1-9 are all offered up in a scriptural text, but in one that was emphatically a message of the Spirit. This is a curious point: the D&C itself is a kind of model of what this revelation is talking about. That is, the D&C is a perfect example of constant vigilance with regard to scripture (there is almost not a verse in the D&C that does not quote or allude to the Bible), and yet the whole thing is communicated by the Spirit. D&C 46 is something like a self-modeling revelation on revelation.

Hopefully, we can follow its model.

8 Responses to “Sunday School Doctrine and Covenants Lesson 15: “Seek Ye Earnestly the Best Gifts” (D&C 46)”

  1. Robert C. said

    I was really struck by the “seeking” motif in these first 9 verses. The seeker, it seems, regardless of church membership, will study scripture and constantly be thinking and listening for good ideas and sources of inspiration (i.e., gifts) for bringing about the work of the kingdom. This, more than anything, seems to be the pre-condition for being blessed with the gifts discussed subsequently.

    (I’m assuming that Levinas’s Saying-Said distinction is largely in your mind as you discuss the Spirit-text intertwining—right? :) )

  2. joespencer said

    I like this emphasis, Robert. I want to reread these verses in light of that emphasis.

    And, you won’t be surprised to note, I wasn’t thinking of Levinas at all! :)

  3. Clark said

    Without dragging our discussion of grace into all this, let me say that this chapter is extremely formative in my thinking about grace. We think of grace in terms of salvation but it is a gift from God. This chapter outlines many other gifts – gifts that many of us are more practically familiar with. Especially on our mission or in leadership callings. What I’d suggest is that we take these more practical experiences with gifts and extend them to all giving by God in general.

    This, to me, is the notion of grace for grace. As we receive and make use of gifts God gives us more. The ultimate conclusion of this is Hel 10:4 where God recognizes that because of our use of gifts that we can be rewarded with justification. For he can trust us.

    I was rereading the discussion here from a few years back on grace. I think that there definitely is a misunderstanding sometimes in the Church that ignores God in our salvation. That is that focuses so much on a checklist of things to do that people forget salvation is ultimately about restoring a relationship with God. (At-one-ment) It becomes like the foolish young man who make a checklist of what his perfect mate ought be like that he forgets to just date and have fun. And, unsurprisingly ends up very miserable in terms of relationships.

    Why I love D&C 46 is because it focuses in on a kind of relationship we all already have with God in terms of the miraculous but without the baggage that sometimes come in discussions of salvation. Yet as we experience spiritual gifts I think we all experience sincere humility and an appreciation of what God gives. Further I think this a facet of God’s grace that is frequently testified of at F&T meetings even if the word grace never appears.

  4. gomez said

    Thanks Joe, this is great. Do you think that the principles you outline here are taught concisely in D&C 8.2 (mind – being grounded in the texts; heart – the open horizons of the Spirit)?

  5. joespencer said


    Interesting reading of D&C 8:2. If I can get away with it, I’d love to take every reference to “mind” in the scriptures as pointing to the work we have to do with the text!

  6. SmallAxe said

    Thanks again, as always.

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