“Precept upon Precept” and Corianton

February 19, 2006 | 31 comments
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We know that our Lord reveals and conceals, in response to our faithfulness.

For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have.

He does not give revelation casually. Neither is receiving revelation a trivial thing.

When I read the Book of Mormon last year, after the Prophet’s challenge, these truths about revelation made Alma’s interview with Corianton the more puzzling.

We know the story. After a mission to the Zoramites, Alma interviews his three sons. He tells Helaman, the eldest, about his own conversion story and entrusts the records to him, in chapters 36 and 37. He tells Shiblon, his second son, that he can have the same promises as Helaman, gives him an immensely scaled down version of the conversion story, lets him know that he has “great joy” in him, and gives him some pithy counsel, in chapter 38.

In chapters 39, 40, 41, and 42 he speaks to the youngest son, Corianton, who had been a boaster among the Zoramites and who had abandoned them to “go after” the harlot Isabel. Alma’s first words are, appropriately enough, “I have somewhat more to say unto thee than what I said unto thy brother.” (Aside: Even if Alma did not say so, the reader could hardly help noticing how much more time Alma spends with his sinner son than with the faithful older two. It is the leave-the-ninety-nine-and-go-after-the-one mentality that is so characteristic of the church. Like the Word of Wisdom, our programs, our policies, our mission rules, our pastors’ pastoral efforts, and our rhetoric seem focused on the “weakest” of the Saints who are most prone to stray. There is another side to the question, however, the one the Savior revealed in the character of the prodigal son’s older brother–the goodness of the good is often more tenuous than we suppose and needs to be buttressed from time to time with a little recognition. President Hinckley’s emphasizes the goodness and worth of our current church members. He also emphasizes strengthening converts before we go and make more of them. Both have been a salutary corrective.)

Alma first names Corianton’s sins, describes their grievousness, and points out the evil they caused to the Zoramites. He asks him to repent, advises him to counsel with his older brothers in the future, lets him know that it was the Lord who commanded Alma to call Corianton to repentance, and bears a very short testimony of the sweetness of being able to preach Christ. But that’s just the first part of the first chapter. For the bulk of the interview Alma addresses Corianton’s doctrinal concerns point by point, often going beyond the gospel commonplaces in the process. He tells Corianton about a revelation he had on resurrection, for example (“I will reveal unto you a mystery,” he says), and some of his speculation concerning the same. Alma does not seem to be very good at giving revelation line upon line just to those who have already proved their faithfulness.

Possibly this bit about revealing things line-upon-line would only apply to God, not to us or to Alma. But I don’t think so. That kind of distinction doesn’t fit with what the prophets have told us about husbanding accounts of our miracles and it doesn’t fit with my own experience. Paul certainly thought that milk-before-meat was good practice. The temple is not open to all. I admit that sinning against the knowledge received from man or woman is probably less serious than sinning against knowledge received from God, but sin is sin.

Possibly I have the wrong idea about what revelation is. Notice that Alma tells both of his faithful sons about the greatest experience of his life, which is his wrestle with sin and his salvation through Jesus during his three days catatonia. But when he talks to Corianton he says nothing about it, or, really, any other experience of his. It’s all doctrine and logic.

The distinction between intellectual knowledge/knowledge about something/abstract knowledge on the one hand and experiential knowledge/knowing something/personal, concrete knowledge on the other has often been remarked on. It has been my own experience that knowing the doctrines of the church is far different and far tamer than actually learning the truth of these doctrines through experience and the Holy Ghost. Sinning against the second kind of knowledge is far more serious than sinning against the first. The second kind of knowledge also seems much harder to acquire and assimilate in a state of sin than the first. That kind of distinction between kinds of knowledge may be what’s going on when Alma tells his older sons about his sacred experiences and tells his younger son about doctrine. Indeed, if this distinction is accurate, and I believe it is, the revelation Alma himself received when the angel appeared to him in the middle of his sins was far more dangerous than Alma’s scholastic disputatio with Corianton. But I do not accept this distinction between kinds of knowledge can be the entire explanation. Intellectual knowledge is less important and less real, but I do not accept that it is negligible. Revelation of the truth is lesser; revelation of (the Way), the Truth, (and the Life) is greater. But both are revelations.

A third possible explanation is that sin doesn’t always unfit us for revelation. Notice that 2 Nephi 28:30 is not symmetrical. The Lord says that he will give more to those that “hearken, ” which in the scriptures usually means both hearing and obeying. But the Lord does not say that he will take away knowledge from those who do not hearken. He only says that he will take away knowledge from those that say ‘we have enough’. In Nephi 28:30 at least, it isn’t sin that always keeps us from hearing God. Its not being willing to listen. If that is right, Corianton’s contribution to his interview was showing up.

In a sense, looking for an explanation for what Alma did is besides the point. What Alma did worked. “Doctrine,” says President Packer (I’m paraphrasing from memory), “changes behavior like nothing else,” and Alma’s success with Corianton seems to be a case in point.

I am of those who believe that a great many apostasies over intellectual and historical issues *really* have their origins in sin. Corianton is an example. As best we can tell, his falling away was *really about* Isabel and only manifested itself later as doubts about preaching Christ before Christ was born, the resurrection, the meaning of restoration, and the justice of God. But identifying the root cause of the sin wasn’t the point of Alma’s interview. Alma recognized that things are not usually really about what they are *really about*. The surface problem was the problem.

Taking Alma as a guide, we’d have to conclude that keeping people from sin may be the best way to keep them in the fold, but once they’re on the way out, we have to think about Compton and DNA. I don’t want to say that addressing the root cause or ignoring the ostensible problem is never wise. I have seen surface doubts and difficulties blown away by the bearing of pure testimony or by identifying of root causes. Alma himself made sure to name his son’s sin and its gravity before he turned to the doctrinal concerns. But he did turn to those concerns. He spent most of his time there. So as much as I dislike them, speculation and apologetics have their place as a pastoral tool.

“Line-upon-line” is still good counsel, I think, counsel we should take seriously. We don’t want anyone to skip grades if it might make them drop out altogether. But for those who are already dropping out, we can profit by Alma’s example. We can profit by our Lord’s example. When He saw no other way for us to progress than by taking our chances in a fallen world–when the stakes were high, very high–his children’s fates forever was the wager–he went all in. Gods or devils.

Crossposted at the Star.

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31 Responses to “Precept upon Precept” and Corianton

  1. Costanza on February 19, 2006 at 1:13 pm

    Adam, you wrote that Corianton’s “falling away was *really about* Isabel and only manifested itself as doubts about preaching Christ before Christ was born, the resurrection, the meaning of restoration, and the justice of God.” I agree that apostasies are often complex and involve more than difficulties with intellectual issues and often involve sin. However, I think that in many instances faith is initially weakened and resistance to sin eroded by doubts over various issues such as you mention in connection with Corianton. In other words, it may be that doubts actually do precede and contribute to the sins, which sins lead to guilt, which in turn leads the sinner to try and eradicate the guilt by deploying the previously harbored doubts as a means of justification. In any event, I think your central point still holds.

  2. Kaimi Wenger on February 19, 2006 at 4:19 pm

    I disagree with some aspects of your argument, Adam, but you’ve presented it thoughtfully and beatifully here. And on many counts, I think you’ve very aptly summed ideas that match my own thoughts:

    “Sinning against the knowledge received from man or woman is probably less serious than sinning against knowledge received from God, [YES], but sin is sin [YES]”

    “It has been my own experience that knowing the doctrines of the church is far different and far tamer than actually learning the truth of these doctrines through experience and the Holy Ghost. Sinning against the second kind of knowledge is far more serious than sinning against the first. The second kind of knowledge also seems much harder to acquire and assimilate in a state of sin than the first. ”

    Yes, yes, and yes.

    “Sin doesn’t always unfit us for revelation. . . . it isn’t sin that always keeps us from hearing God. Its not being willing to listen. If that is right, Corianton’s contribution to his interview was showing up.”

    Double-yes.

    Frankly, I like these lines enough that I’m not going to quibble about any doctrinal disagreements. Great post, Adam.

  3. Ariel on February 19, 2006 at 5:20 pm

    I really like your analysis of these chapters, and I agree with what you have to say. It’s so refreshing to be able to hear another well-thought-out perspective on the scriptures. I know this has been said before, but I wish Sunday School was more like this. Thank you for making my Sunday more edifiying.

  4. Adam Greenwood on February 19, 2006 at 7:48 pm

    I accept your emendation, Costanza. Thanks, Kaimi and Ariel.

  5. queuno on February 19, 2006 at 8:27 pm

    Just came over from M*. Deja vu! (Excellent post, excellent post!)

  6. Jim F. on February 19, 2006 at 10:10 pm

    Adam, I like this post, overall, but I’m perplexed by one line: Taking Alma as a guide, we’d have to conclude that keeping people from sin may be the best way to keep them in the fold, but once they’re on the way out, we have to think about Compton and DNA.. I apologize if I’m being obtuse, but I don’t know what you are saying there.

  7. Harold on February 20, 2006 at 7:31 am

    Then of course might your thoughts change a bit, if we accept a Hugh Nibley idea that going after the harlot Isabel was going after the religion of which Isabel was goddess?

  8. BrianJ on February 20, 2006 at 10:00 am

    Adam,

    What an interesting study on these chapters! Your point that Alma teaches different things to each son is important in understanding his words. You got me thinking about the way I pictured this–like three individual interviews–so I read the chapters a little more carefully. I can now imagine that Helaman had his own interview, then Shiblon was addressed with Corianton “sitting in.” Shiblon was then sent away and Corianton was held for more teaching. Here’s just the first and last verse of each chapter so you can get the idea:

    37:47 …My son [Helaman], farewell.

    38:1 My son [Shiblon], give ear to my words, for I say unto you, even as I said unto Helaman, that….

    38:15 …My son [Shiblon], farewell.

    39:1 And now, my son [Corianton], I have somewhat more to say unto thee than what I said unto thy brother [Shiblon]….

    Notice that in Alma 39:1, Alma does NOT say, “I have something different to say unto thee” Instead, he says, “somewhat more.” So it sounds like Alma expected Corianton to know what was said to Shiblon.

    By the way, the quote from Elder Packer is from “Little Children,� Ensign, Nov. 1986, 16
    “True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior.
    “The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior. Preoccupation with unworthy behavior can lead to unworthy behavior. That is why we stress so forcefully the study of the doctrines of the gospel.”

    Thanks again for a great post!

  9. Adam Greenwood on February 20, 2006 at 10:16 am

    “Taking Alma as a guide, we’d have to conclude that keeping people from sin may be the best way to keep them in the fold, but once they’re on the way out, we have to think about Compton and DNA.”

    Jim F.,
    I don’t know too many people today who have doubts based on the details of the resurrection. I picked Joseph Smith’s polygamy and lamanite DNA as more representative of today.

  10. Adam Greenwood on February 20, 2006 at 10:33 am

    That’s an idea, Brian J. Hard to say one way or another. If you are right, that would shoot my second explanation down. Your idea would explain why Alma’s explanation to Shiblon of Alma’s conversion is so short–Shiblon’s just heard the story and only needs a placeholder to remind him of it.

    One of the interesting features of Alma’s interviews in the Book of Mormon is that they’re obviously not transcripts of actual interviews. This is most obvious in Alma 36, which is a big ol’ elaborate chiasmus. I doubt Alma was writing down what he remembered from the interview afterwards and discovered, like Moliere’s Monsieur Jordain, that he thought he was just speaking but it was really chiasmus.

    The two most likely possibilities are that Alma wrote this stuff out beforehand or that it got polished up considerably afterwards. Alma writing it out beforehand fits with your theory. Having the younger sons listen to their older brothers’ interviews makes the occasion more formal and ritualistic, so it would be less surprising if Alma brought already prepared remarks to it.

    Polishing up the interviews afterwards, on the other hands, gives us an alternate explanation for the terseness of Alma’s interview with Shiblon, one that would work even if the interviews were all separate. Alma would have told the full details of his conversion to both Helaman and Shiblon. Afterwards, when he or whomever was writing them down and polishing them up, it would have been repetitive to put the same chiasmus down twice. So Alma or whomever just briefly mentions the conversion story as a placeholder for the elaborate chiasmus we’ve already seen in Alma 36.

  11. B. Bowen on February 20, 2006 at 11:49 am

    I am intensely loathe to speculate on *sin* being at the root of apostacy; I do not believe this is a healthy position for one who wishes to embrace Christianity. In fact, it is oppositional to Christianity at its core.

  12. Adam Greenwood on February 20, 2006 at 12:00 pm

    Your say-so is not enough.

  13. Dave on February 20, 2006 at 12:57 pm

    “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). That’s Paul, not B. Bowen. So I suppose you could say sin is at the root of everything with as much explanatory validity as you could say sin is at the root of apostacy. Some people sin, then leave the Church; some people sin, then stay in the Church; some people sin, then join the Church. I suppose you could simply define leaving the Church as sin, but only if you’re preaching to a Mormon choir.

  14. Jack on February 20, 2006 at 12:57 pm

    B. Bowen,

    The Book of Mormon very clearly links the two together–at least on a societal level. On a personal level, well, it’s not always as easy to judge. But in my own (anecdotal) experience with folks who apostatize I must say that sin is usually a huge ingredient in the mix.

  15. B. Bowen on February 20, 2006 at 1:26 pm

    what is sin?

  16. Jack on February 20, 2006 at 2:45 pm

    What is apostasy?

  17. Jack on February 20, 2006 at 2:47 pm

    Because, whatever apostasy is by the BoM’s definition is most certainly sin–that is, if sin is (in one form or another) to turn away from the living God.

  18. B. Bowen on February 20, 2006 at 5:12 pm

    I would define apostacy, based on its use here, as a turning away from the LDS church. This turning may or may not be away from the living God. My inclination is to say that it is not an ungodly turning more often than it appears you would.

    Either way, are there not innocent apostacies (from the living God, not the institutional one, but for the sake of argument we can include that God, too)? Are not such apostacies sinless?

    A. Greenwood: nor does your glibness a meaningful retort make. You can do much better than that. Must I cite chapter and verse to earn a thoughtful response?

  19. DavidH on February 20, 2006 at 6:08 pm

    I am pasting (because I don’t know how to cross link to just one post) the following post from, of all places, that bastian of moderation, Nauvoo.com. The entire thread was later closed. http://www.nauvoo.com/ubb/forum/ultimatebb.php?ubb=get_topic;f=1;t=002582;p=1

    “I can’t remember who said something about moral issues preceding doctrinal questions about the church… At one time I was one who ‘studied’ her way ‘out’ of the church and it had nothing to do with moral issues I can assure you. Even after I stopped attending meetings I still lived according to the values or morality and honesty that were important to me. I was also, for a time, associated with a group of people who left the church for similar reasons, and they too were tired of being labelled as having some dark, immoral secret that led to their eventual apostasy.

    In my experience, when people leave the church because of issues of morality, they generally stop attending but keep their testimony and desire to return to church in the back of their minds.

    However, those I’ve known who’ve left the church after studying LDS theology and history tend to be faithful people who initially at least, are desperately hoping to find that their discoveries about perceived faults in the church are wrong. It is a terrible place to be when one’s whole spiritual foundation starts crumbling away. It becomes an exhaustive cycle of studying/doubting/believing/studying more/doubting again…that can literally drive a person crazy.

    The people I know who’ve apostatised are moral people who served faithfully in the church. All are temple endowed, many have served in ward and stake leadership positions, most have served missions. One example I give with permission of the parties involved: A dear friend of mine and her husband (RM’s) both had questions about the church around the same time and studied for about a year when they decided to leave and asked for their names to be removed from the records. Rumors began in the ward that there was adultery and drug use in my friends’ marriage – because they refused to talk to church members about their doctrinal concerns, not wanting to hurt anyone. I have known few people with more integrity than these two – they are well-educated, live a self-sustainable lifestyle, grow their own food, they are educated, they are wonderful parents, and they are socially aware, honest and responsible people. They also happen to believe that the church is not true.

    It’s easier for some members to believe that people who leave the church must be morally corrupt in some way, than to accept that they studied and came to the conclusion that for them, the church was no longer true. Some members feel threatened and so react rather badly when confronted with a doubter whose questions they cannot answer.

    Even though I’m back in the church, I still understand just what it is like for good people to have serious doubts. Questioning someone’s character or morality because they are having doubts, will only create an outcome of further alienation and possibly a negative attitude towards church members for being overly judgemental.

    As one who has ‘been there’ I know how upsetting it is to have one’s character impugned after expressing serious concerns. In my case though, the study eventually led me back to the church as my understanding altered to accomodate certain ideas. Most importantly though, the spirit touched my understanding in a most profound manner, and and that is something I cannot study or explain away. Heavenly Father knows that my questions were genuine and heartfelt, and He never gave up on me. He won’t give up on others who have lost or questioned their faith either.

    Sorry to go on, I just wanted to put this out there.

  20. Jack on February 20, 2006 at 7:45 pm

    B. Bowen,

    I guess it all depends on how one define’s apostasy. IMO, the BoM makes a very clear distinction between those who willfully rebel against God (which implies a certain level of knowledge regarding the truth) and those who are shackled by false traditions.Certainly the latter cannot be held to the same degree of responsibililty for their errors as the former. I think this same principle manifests itself in the lives of individuals in varying degrees. God will judge each one of us based upon what we know of the truth and how we well we act in accordance with that knowledge. So, the long and short of it is: apostasy (as per the BoM) being willful rebellion from the truth=sin. And as such it seems to me that the question really ought to be: when is someone apostatizing? As a opposed to: when is apostasy sinful?

  21. DavidH on February 20, 2006 at 10:42 pm

    The author of the post I copied and pasted from Nauvoo.com was someone named Violet, not me, even though I agree with the thrust of the post. That is, I too have known people who have distanced themselves from or left the Church on account of severe doubts about the truthfulness of the Church or its interpretation of the Gospel, where the distancing or departure from the Church was not prompted by or even accompanied by serious sin. I have known a number who continue to live a moral lifestyle, while refraining from active participation in Church activities.

  22. grego on February 21, 2006 at 6:59 pm

    i also know many who have left mainly because of sin, but based it on “doctrinal” problems. people that say “i don’t want to be one of multiple wives in the c.k.” so they leave, marry outside of the Church, and won’t be “one of multiple wives in the c.k.” then you remember hearing them say “i wish i hadn’t been born a member of the Church so i could have sex, then join later and all would be ok”, etc. so, did they leave for sex, or for doctrinal problems? clear to me. of course, the doctrinal problems don’t help, and make for an easier transition.

    i also know some people who haven’t had serious moral sin, such as sex problems, yet leave. however, most of these people didn’t read the bom every day (or even every few days) as lds have constantly been asked to do. is that not sin? is being a member of the church for 20 years, yet never having read the bom, not a serious sin? is having the gift of the Holy Ghost, but not having it in our lives, a sin? if anyone can say they had the spirit of the HG, yet still left the Church because of doctrinal or historical issues/ problems, that would be interesting to me.

    i think what alma was doing with coriantumr was what elder bednar was talking about–give commandments, after explaining the plan of salvation.

  23. comet on February 22, 2006 at 11:39 am

    “A great many apostacies…have their origins in sin.”
    I think Adam needs to define “sin” here; it’s usage in the church is rather wide-ranging.
    Otherwise it seems like a toss-away comment.

  24. B. Bowen on February 22, 2006 at 9:28 pm

    Jack: I agree, essentially. Where does that leave the original thesis then? What do we do with A. Greenwood’s characterization of apostacies as having their origins in sin? Apostacies have their origins in apostacy? Sins have their origin in sin?

    I agree with A. Greenwood to a point. Many apostacies (fallings away from the LDS church) probably have origins in choices to behave contrary to Church teachings. Whether those choices are (a) sinful (your definition says “sometimes”) or (b) fallings away from God, are entirely different questions.

  25. Adam Greenwood on February 23, 2006 at 9:20 am

    “A. Greenwood: nor does your glibness a meaningful retort make. You can do much better than that. Must I cite chapter and verse to earn a thoughtful response?”

    It’s hard to give a meaningful response to ‘Nuh-uh.”

    “I think Adam needs to define “sinâ€? here; it’s usage in the church is rather wide-ranging.”

    By sin I mean desiring evil, giving into temptation, etc. I mean everything major and minor from murder to pride to greed to masturbation to laziness. By apostasy I mean deciding that church doctrines are not true or rejecting church authority. Apostasy and sin are not the same, as I define them. It it possible to sin without being apostate (even the devils believe, no?), and DavidH points out that it is possible to be apostate without any more sin than is common to us all.

  26. B. Bowen on February 23, 2006 at 11:54 am

    “It’s hard to give a meaningful resposne to ‘Nuh-uh.’”

    Oh, I agree. But that, my friend is your game.

    Tell me, what is the most central principle of Christianity? And tell me, how is the labeling of other’s choices to engage or disengage with a particular religious institution as having “their origins in sin” a reflection of central Christian principles?

  27. Adam Greenwood on February 24, 2006 at 11:15 pm

    “Tell me, what is the most central principle of Christianity?”

    Love the Lord your God with all your might, and etc. The second is like unto it, love your neighbor.

    “And tell me, how is the labeling of other’s choices to engage or disengage with a particular religious institution as having “their origins in sinâ€? a reflection of central Christian principles?”

    I love God. I love his church. I therefore do not believe that rejecting him and his church is some kind of neutral choice that I am indifferent to. Truth and love are not inconsonant.

  28. Madras Virdra on February 25, 2006 at 2:00 pm

    Mr. Greenwood,
    Do you consider Alma (when younger) to have been in apostasy? If so, do you think that was partially the result of sin as well?

  29. Adam Greenwood on February 26, 2006 at 11:43 am

    Interesting question, Mr. Green Wood in some foreign language:

    Although I think that apostasy is generally tied up with sin (someone apostasizes to justify a sin they have committed or would like to commit, or sin clouds their spirituality to the point they apostasize, or their apostasy is itself sin because done partly from pride, rejection of one’s past spiritual experiences, etc.), I can’t be so comfortable saying that any particular case of apostasy involved sin on the apostate’s part. But Alma the elder (when younger)’s is different. Its pretty clear from Alma 36 that he was in a state of pretty awful sin.

  30. Jettboy on February 27, 2006 at 11:05 am

    “Do you consider Alma (when younger) to have been in apostasy? If so, do you think that was partially the result of sin as well? ”

    As to the first, yes. He was fully aware of his father’s teachings and was at one time a member of the Church. Before his conversion he was going directly against what his father more than likely taught him.

    The second question I would also answer with a yes. He and his friends were clearly teaching the doctrine of “do what you want because the priests are uspurping your natural choices.” No doubt he was following his own advise. Although his conversion was similar, Paul was less in the wrong because it was more about upholding tradition rather than open rebellion.

  31. Madras Virdra on February 28, 2006 at 1:57 pm

    Re: #29. I would be very surprised.
    I assume you are referring to verse 13.

    & 30.
    I think of apostasy as rejecting God’s authority and also rejecting even his right to it. That would also extend to his authorized ministers. So my question is not if he sinned but rather if his apostasy resulted from sin. Your point seems to be that he sinned, but the scriptures cited don’t seem to place that as a cause of his apostasy but, if anything, a result of it. However, it’s not clear that that wasn’t the case either.

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