Feast upon the Word Blog

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Opposition, 3 – The Traditional Interpretation of 2 Nephi 2:11

Posted by joespencer on September 26, 2012

(First, in parentheses, a brief apology. I’ve been away at a conference—at which, incidentally, several papers on 2 Nephi 2:11 were presented!—that left me with little time to work on these posts. I’m back in business now, though, so here we go again.)

In my last post, I attempted to situate 2 Nephi 2:11 within its larger settings. My intention in this post is to say something about the traditional interpretation of 2 Nephi 2:11. I’m limiting myself to material produced since the beginning of the twentieth century, chiefly because I haven’t the time to do the kind of historical work required to excavate nineteenth-century approaches to a single verse of scripture. (And it’s best, anyway, to see how this text has been used in our own era of Mormonism, an era that began in 1890 and took a sort of final shape only by 1920 or 1930.) I’ll be looking, more or less, at only two sorts of sources: (1) sources that employ 2 Nephi 2:11 in an institutionally authoritative situation—say, General Conference; (2) sources that, although lacking institutional authority, borrow their interpretation of the passage from authoritative sources.

But let me be clear—very clear, if possible—on one major point here. It’s absolutely necessary to distinguish between authoritative sources and authoritative interpretations. My aim in outlining the traditional interpretation of 2 Nephi 2:11 in authoritative sources (and in sources that draw on authoritative sources) is not to suggest that the interpretation on offer in such sources is the only or the best interpretation. As anyone familiar with authoritative sources should recognize easily, the purpose of institutional discourse in the Church is seldom—if ever—to establish the meanings of particular texts. Rather, institutional discourse aims primarily, almost exclusively, at setting forth policy, establishing doctrine to be believed, and inspiring people to give their best efforts to the institution. Consequently, the use of 2 Nephi 2:11 in authoritative sources does not so much provide an authoritative interpretation as employ a culturally unquestioned interpretation in addressing non-textual concerns. The reason for looking at authoritative sources, then, is not to get clear on how we should read the text, but to find in authoritative sources an accurate reflection of the standard unthematized interpretation of the text from which the average Latter-day Saint naturally works. And of course, in further posts, it’s precisely that “everyday” interpretation that I’ll be calling rather drastically into question—but it should be clear that that’s not in any way even similar to calling into question an authoritative interpretation of the text.

Okay, let’s hope that enough to forestall a set of comments I’d rather not deal with.

The Use of 2 Nephi 2:11 in Authoritative Institutional Discourse

It actually isn’t at all difficult to summarize the use of 2 Nephi 2:11 in institutionally official settings in a single sentence: The thrust of 2 Nephi 2:11 is that things we don’t like (sorrows of all kinds) are as necessary to our mortal sojourn as things we do like (joys of all kinds)—necessary because such opposition is a condition for the possibility of agency (and we all know how important agency is!). This is summarized in a kind of compact formula in Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine, a work that hovers right on the border between authoritative institutional discourse and non-authoritative discourse drawing on authoritative discourse:

Four great principles must be in force if there is to be agency . . . . [The second is that] opposites must exist—good and evil, virtue and vice, right and wrong—that is, there must be an opposition, one force pulling one way and another pulling the other . . . . Agency is the philosophy of opposites, and because these opposites exist, men can reap either salvation or damnation by the use they make of their agency. (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, pp. 26-27.)

It isn’t difficult to guess how this basic idea is generally employed in authoritative institutional settings like General Conference. Talk after talk that refers to 2 Nephi 2:11 uses it less to outline doctrinal themes in the way Elder McConkie does in Mormon Doctrine than to comfort those facing the ills of life. If evil must exist for the plan of salvation to be possible, knowing that fact helps one endure evil—and that’s what seems generally to motivate the use of 2 Nephi 2:11 in General Conference addresses.

Dozens of examples can be cited. Rather than do that, though, I’ll simply refer to the Scripture Citation Database, an online tool assembled by some folks at BYU that brings together all references to individual passages of scripture in institutionally authoritative settings. If you’d like to look at the particulars, you’ll find them there. For my own part, I’ll turn from this general employment of 2 Nephi 2:11 and what it implies about the everyday interpretation of the passage to the appropriation of these general employment in devotional and semi-scholarly literature.

Thematizing the Traditional Interpretation of 2 Nephi 2:11

Unsurprisingly, there’s an extensive devotional literature that deals with Lehi’s discussion of opposition. I’m not going to look at the likely thousands of references to 2 Nephi 2:11 that appear scattered throughout such literature. I think it’s rather safe to say that it will reflect more or less exactly what is to be found in General Conference addresses. What I would like to address, however briefly, is the use of 2 Nephi 2:11 in semi-scholarly (but also semi-devotional) literature. When “gospel scholars”—generally speaking, folks in the religion department at Brigham Young University—make 2 Nephi 2:11 their explicit theme, what do they have to say about it. Unsurprisingly, since such scholars take as their focus to make Lehi’s words accessible and applicable (rather than to explore Lehi’s words exegetically or theologically), they reflect the traditional interpretation already outlined above. But what’s perhaps important about this semi-scholarly literature is the way in which it attempts to systematize the traditional interpretation.

A major starting point for this literature is Daniel Ludlow’s Companion. Here’s what he has to say about 2 Nephi 2:11:

Notice the major points in Lehi’s argument as to why there must be opposition before a man can be truly free and before he can experience real joy: (1) Every law has both a punishment and a blessing attached to it. (2) Disobedience to law requires a punishment which results in misery. (3) Obedience to law provides a blessing which results in happiness (joy). (4) Without law there can be neither punishment nor blessing, neither misery nor happiness—only innocence. (5) Thus happiness (or joy) can exist only where the possibility of the opposite (unhappiness or misery) also exists. (6) In order to exercise free agency a person must have the possibility (and the freedom) of choice; in a world without law—and thus without choice—there could be no freedom of choice and thus no true exercise of free agency. (2 Nephi 2:15-16; see also Alma 12:31-32 and Alma 42:17-25.)

Lehi does not say it is necessary to choose evil in order to recognize good from evil, but he does make it quite clear that a choice of opposites is necessary for growth. (Daniel Ludlow, A Companion to Your Study of the Book of Mormon, pp. 125-126.)

Notice that there is here no attempt to interpret with precision the actual words of 2 Nephi 2:11, only an attempt to work out in greater rigor the idea behind the usual interpretation of the passage. But notice also the philosophical worry Ludlow introduces: “Lehi does not say it is necessary to choose evil in order to recognize good from evil.” Although Ludlow’s comments remain semi-devotional, the expression of this worry marks their semi-scholarly character as well. Using a bit of extra rigor, he warns against a certain popular appropriation of Lehi’s words—one that would say that it’s necessary to sow one’s wild oats in order to appreciate the joy of obedience subsequently.

This pattern of warning against certain popular misappropriations of 2 Nephi 2:11 is followed in much of the semi-scholarly literature. Take another example, from Kelly Ogden and Andrew Skinner’s recent commentary:

The adversary can provide only the opposites because he takes away. He can provide darkness (the absence of light), death (the absence of life), falsehood (the absence of truth), misery (the absence of joy), and evil (the absence of good). The devil actually provides nothing; he just sees to it that all who cooperate with him are devoid of the blessings that God does provide. (Kelly Ogden and Andrew Skinner, Verse by Verse, vol. 1, pp. 119-120.)

Just as common as this pattern, however, there are in the semi-scholarly literature expressed appreciations for Lehi’s philosophical brilliance, though without any serious justification for such acclamation provided. Thus Gerald Lund speaks of Lehi’s “marvelous chain of logical reasoning” (Gerald Lund, “The Fall of Man and His Redemption,” pp. 99-100). Sometimes, interestingly, praise is provided less through overt acclamation than through poetic exposition. Thus Robert Millet and Joseph Fielding McConkie, for instance:

No virtue can exist without its corresponding evil: without the evil of danger there could be no courage, without suffering there could be no sympathy, without poverty there could be no generosity, and so forth. Without darkness there could be no light, without cold there could be no hot, without depths there could be no heights. Thus there must be wickedness so there might be righteousness, death so there might be life, that which is satanic so there might be that which is godly. Were there no opposites, all things must remain ‘a compound in one.’ Imagine a world in which all things were the same color, were the same size, and had the same function—a world in which one could neither have no be without; a world with neither sound nor silence; a world in which there was no beauty or lack of it; a world without love or hate, the sweet or the sour, virtue or vice. (Joseph Fielding McConkie and Robert Millet, Doctrinal Commentary on the Book of Mormon, vol. 1, p. 195.)

And so on. Hopefully all this is information enough to get a good sense for the traditional interpretation of Lehi’s words. On the usual interpretation—the interpretation assumed in most references to this passage—Lehi’s point is simply that evil can’t be avoided in the course of life, since it’s part of the plan. In the semi-scholarly literature, a few concerns are raised about how this idea might be misappropriated: one shouldn’t then think that evil has to be embraced in order to know the good, and one shouldn’t assume that the devil has real power in producing evil, etc. But the same basic interpretation remains firmly in place.

But is the everyday, generally unquestioned interpretation a good one? How do the more rigorous, explicitly philosophical interpreters of 2 Nephi 2:11 approach the passage? That’s what I’ll be taking up beginning in my next post.

8 Responses to “Opposition, 3 – The Traditional Interpretation of 2 Nephi 2:11”

  1. […] comments Opposition, 3 – The Traditional Interpretation of 2 Nephi 2:11 « Feast upon the Word Blo… on Opposition, 2 – Contextualizing 2 Nephi 2:11kirkcaudle on RS/MP Lesson 16: “Offer […]

  2. rameumptom said

    Very nice review of the standard understanding of the verse. I’m sure your next post will have CES heads spinning around. I look forward to reading it.

  3. jacob said

    I almost hesitate to say this, but I always felt like these explanations/interpretations come off as somewhat trite. There is this nagging suspicion that we’re all missing a much larger idea when we instead focus on how these dichotomies supposedly “create” agency. So I’m really looking forward to the rest of your posts to see if there is an alternative perspective, especially in consideration of the phrase “it must needs be.” Keep up the good work!

    • joespencer said

      Jacob – You might well guess I’ve got a few things up my sleeve here. The next post will address the history of philosophical interpretation of this passage, stretching from B. H. Roberts’ fascinating analysis to Dennis Potter’s very recent study. There’s much to say there. But in the posts that follow that, I’ll be going, I think, much further still….

  4. […] comments joespencer on Opposition, 3 – The Traditional Interpretation of 2 Nephi 2:11jacob on Opposition, 3 – The Traditional Interpretation of 2 Nephi 2:11rameumptom on […]

  5. […] speaking, as we’ve seen, Latter-day Saints hear in Lehi’s words a use of either definition 3 or definition […]

  6. […] my three-part summary of the history of interpretation of this passage (in the twentieth century): here, here, and here. I’ve also dealt with some of the major translations of this passage into […]

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