Feast upon the Word Blog

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The Only True and Living Wheel—errr, Church

Posted by BrianJ on May 14, 2009

The third installment in my Bike to Work series…

It’s been four days since my first post, so by now you’ve all taken time to true your wheels. And as your first wheel approached true, your mind undoubtedly dwelt on the word “true” and its meaning in the Lord’s pronouncement that the LDS Church is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” (D&C 1:30).

So, in true sacrament talk fashion, let’s start with the dictionary:

adj., tru·er, tru·est.
1. Consistent with fact or reality; not false or erroneous.
2. Real; genuine.
3. Reliable; accurate: a true prophecy.
4. Faithful, as to a friend, vow, or cause; loyal.
5. Sincerely felt or expressed; unfeigned: true grief.
6. Fundamental; essential: his true motive.
7. Rightful; legitimate: the true heir.
*8. Exactly conforming to a rule, standard, or pattern: trying to sing true B.
*9. Accurately shaped or fitted: a true wheel.
*10. Accurately placed, delivered, or thrown.

11. Quick and exact in sensing and responding.
12. Determined with reference to the earth’s axis, not the magnetic poles: true north.
13. Conforming to the definitive criteria of a natural group; typical: The horseshoe crab is not a true crab.
14. Narrowly particularized; highly specific: spoke of probity in the truest sense of the word.
15. Computer Science. Indicating one of two possible values taken by a variable in Boolean logic or a binary device.


1. In accord with reality, fact, or truthfulness.
*2. Unswervingly; exactly: The archer aimed true.
*3. So as to conform to a type, standard, or pattern.

tr.v., trued, tru·ing or true·ing, trues.

To position (something) so as to make it balanced, level, or square: trued up the long planks.

1. Truth or reality.
*2. Proper alignment or adjustment: out of true.

In my experience, exegesis of this verse dwells on “true” in terms of correct doctrine—essentially those definitions I highlighted in bold above. But as you spent quality time with your bike this week, you realized that that definition makes no sense when applied to a wheel. Yes, you certainly would not want to try cycling on wheels that were not “in accord with reality” or were less than “real; genuine,” but you can see that the definitions I highlighted with asterisks and italics make much more sense.

I’m somewhat tempted to read those definitions out of D&C 1, though I admit that I might just be reading them “into” the verse (never a good practice). Still, what are your thoughts on viewing the Church not as something that is “consistent with fact, real, and accurate,” but as something that is “conformed to a standard, accurately fitted and placed, poperly aligned”? Does the former (and popular) approach create a church that is the objective of our faith (it is, after all, the Truth), whereas the latter views the Church as a vehicle that points to Truth?

And as you think on that, remember that the value of a true wheel is not that it always points in the “right direction”—that’s the handlebars’ job—rather, it’s that a true wheel allows you to proceed with the greatest efficiency.

(I will admit to also liking definition #7, “rightful; legitimate: the true heir,” but since it has nothing to do with cycling I’m going to ignore it—and yet, I wonder if that’s not really what the Lord meant….)

14 Responses to “The Only True and Living Wheel—errr, Church”

  1. Jared* said

    Interestingly, Joseph once wrote to Emma that he was her “one true and living friend on earth.” It seems like that ought to inform how we read D&C 1.

    See Chapter 20 of Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith.

  2. BrianJ said

    Jared*: interesting. There are two quotes from Joseph to Emma along these lines—I mean, two that are noted in Chapter 20 of Teachings of the Presidents of the Church:

    D&C 1 given in Nov 1831
    Letter from Joseph to Emma in Oct 1832
    Letter from Joseph to Emma in Nov 1838

    But that just raises another question: what kind of bike to Joseph ride?

  3. NathanG said

    Just be sure that as you assign a different definition of true that you don’t forget the right of weigh:)

    I enjoyed your posts.

  4. Robert C. said

    Brian, I think definition #4 is the most important one: to be true is to be true to someone or something—e.g., to be true to my wife is to be faithful to her; to be true to a cause is to pursue that cause with fidelity. This definition is being “most true” to the Hebrew roots, I would argue (along with many other who have argued this)—see the Hebrew roots here. And because of the Hebrew origins of scripture, I think this is an important consideration even in reading the D&C.

    I think your bike wheel analogy illustrates this nicely: to be true, a wheel must be true to its purpose as a wheel, to be “accurately shaped or fitted” so as to serve this purpose well. To be a true disciple of Christ, then, is to be faithful to the essence that characterizes a disciple.

    Thus, for the Church, as the bride of Christ (see esp. D&C 109:74), to be true, it must be faithful to Christ, responding to the Bridegroom’s commandments, humbly repenting when needed, etc.—all the surrounding verses in D&C 1 talk about these kinds of things. I think this is also the most natural way of reading “true” in its coupling with “living”: to be “true and living” is to respond like a spouse responds to the other spouses request and to nurture the relationship so that the love remains alive and doesn’t die off….

    (I would also add that I think Terry Warner suggests a similar way of understanding true in his Encyclopedia of Mormonism article—see here.)

  5. BrianJ said

    Nathan: thanks! and Bike to Work month is still going on….

    Robert: so, like Jared*, you favor a “loyalty” reading. What are your thoughts on definition #7, which I think could fit into a bride/groom analogy?

  6. Robert C. said

    Yes, I like this connection with inheritance / “rightful” blessings that definition #7 suggests. However, I think there’s a danger of interpreting this in terms of a privileged, unconditional right, like the Jews that Christ criticized because they were Abraham’s seed and thus felt they had certain “legitimate rights” (see John 8:39ff). Thus, I’d be inclined to think of this as a kind of potential or conditional right: the Church is designated as true and living in the same way that Israel was called as elect—but, alas, we know that many are called but few are chosen, and they are not chosen essentially because they are not (or do not remain) faithful….

  7. sjames said

    …’true & living’ is a scriptural trope, as is ‘face of the whole earth’, and ‘I the Lord am well pleased’. These and their variants, are styles, instances, figures of discourse found in the scriptures.
    Collectively and stylistically they create the impression that it is the same living ‘voice’ speaking across scripture, traversing discursive worlds, reaching across time, a kind of divine ventriloquism.

    Coleridge: ‘I regard truth as a divine ventriloquist’, a divine co-authoring, hence these tropes, from a discursive perspective, like the rest of the section, are divine re-voicings and echoes re-introducing truth and life to all the world. Here form functions as meaning.

  8. sjames said

    Too circuitous? let’s have a look:

    true God…living God (Jer 10:10)
    living and true God (1 Thess 1:9)
    true and living God (1 Ne 17:30; Alma 5:13; Alma 7:6; Alma 11:25,26,27; Alma 43:10; Mormon 9:28)
    true and living church (D&C 1:30)
    living and true God (D&C 20:19)
    true and living God (D&C 138:39)

    the earth… the whole face of (Gen 2:6)
    the face of the whole earth (Gen 8:9; Gen 11:14; Ex 10:15; Dan 8:5; Zach 5:3; Luke 21:35; Hel 3:8, Hel 14:22; Hel 14:27; 3 Ne 1:17; 3 Ne 8:12,17,18; 3 Ne 9:9 Ether 13:17; Moses 3:6; 7:26; Abr 5:6.

    I the Lord am well pleased (D&C 1:30; 97:3; 124:1)
    I the Lord am not well pleased (D&C 58:41; 68:31; 98:19)

    What is interesting in the verse in focus is that it ‘re-cycles’ language, that there is little historical change in language form or style.

    Mikhail Bakhtin is well known for his work on heteroglossia (that texts are essentially multi-voiced); he also refers to ventriloquation – the presence in texts of re-voicings, of words retaining alien expression while being re-accentuated. A kind of ‘parallelism’ across time and space. The meanings of the kind of intertextuality or borrowing found here go beyond the thematic as the scriptural uses are not obviously linked, rather its the textuality of the verse which evokes something – a movement across worlds, a traversal, a continuity, an eternal round.

  9. BrianJ said

    Sjames: not too “circuitous,” but perhaps too oblique. Are you saying that the individual words in the phrase “true and living” do not have precise meaning—or, do not have essential roles in the phrase? That it is the repetitiousness of the phrase that matters, and not the meaning of the phrase?

  10. sjames said

    BrianJ: Yes, to the second question, at the level of discourse (up from the level of clause or word), it is the re’cycling'(to use your metaphor) or re-contextualising of phraseology across time and place that is of interest. What is such phrasing intended to invoke, beyond the context of its use in D&C 1:30?

    The argument is that there is meaning in the ‘selection’ of these words beyond the meanings assigned to individual words or phrases. The architecture of these phrases much like poetic form creates meaning just as the use of ‘thy’ and ‘thou’ as forms evoke a particular sensitivity.

    I do not believe these are random selections or that the Lord has limited powers of expression, but rather that there are spiritual sensitivities associated with such textual forms which suggest that even their first known scriptural use are in fact divine ‘borrowings’ that do not originate with the author. The meaning I find is more profound than profane (secular) which is the way we read the meaning of such phrases sometimes.

  11. BrianJ said

    Okay. I see a few ways to approach this:

    a) dissect every word—each word in scripture was specifically and carefully selected
    b) pay attention to phrases—meaning comes from how a phrase has previously been used rather than the exact meaning of each word
    c) while (b) is true to an extent, (a) is also important (if only to inform us on the original use of the phrase—i.e., before it “became” a phrase)

  12. sjames said


    a)Yes, but one has problems when applying this approach to ‘grammar’ words per se, (Some discourse analysts use the ‘stanza’ as a unit of meaning – well beyond the word.)
    However, another way is to look at words as ‘utterances’: that which is expressed as communication, language in use, rather than language as a system. The ‘word’ is a unit of analysis in traditional linguistics, but as a discrete linguistic unit it is arguably not dynamic enough in that in ‘reality’ its meaning is not stable, always in ‘dialogue’ or networked with previous use, even as it is reproduced in a new dynamic context.

    b)Yes, but in the Bakhtinian view meaning emerges as a ‘dialogue’ between previous, current and future use – when we read such phrases as ‘true and living’ or ‘face of the whole earth’,do we also read them as texts of antiquity even while they are reproduced in contemporary settings. Do we read them as going beyond themselves, after all this is scripture, and scripture (as truth) lives beyond itself. This is a definition of ‘true’ that could be added to the list of 15 above.

    In this, truth is dialogic across space and time, these phrasal forms, in their re-presentation, invite a dialogue and indentification with, like discourse communities. As such it might be argued that they prompt a need for an understanding of these things as they were, and as they are, and as they are to come.

  13. Clark said

    This is and important problem with why the KJV is significant. Many scriptures in the D&C but also to a lesser extent the BoM make use of this “dialogue” between texts. It can be missed if you change Bible translations. Of course I think this could be handled by good footnotes. (The footnotes in our current versions of our scriptures are pretty bad IMO)

  14. BrianJ said

    Yes, Clark. I wonder how much is missed by members who don’t read in English. The phrasing in the portuguese BoM, for example, is very different than in the semi-official LDS portuguese Bible.

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