The Olive Tree Restoration

There have been some common underlying themes to several Times and Seasons posts these past few months.  The three themes or questions that I have in mind at the moment are: “What is the nature of the Great Apostasy?”, “What is the nature of the Restoration?”, and “What is the relationship of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with the broader tradition of Abrahamic faiths?”  I’ve posted about the Church’s Interfaith efforts, about B.H. Robert’s understanding of the Church of the Devil and the Church of the Lamb of God, and an attempt on my part to understand the First Vision based on what is presented in the textual accounts of the event.  Steven Smith discussed the comparisons of the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed and to yeast in the post The humbling of the kingdom?, asked what it means to be the True Church in the form of a conversation, discussed an alternative approach to understanding restoring the church, and also brought up the ideas of the Christian story and the Mormon story as ways to approach our own self-understanding. While the continuing focus on these topics hasn’t been premeditated or coordinated between us, they are apparently weighing on our minds.  And they apparently continue to do so, since I have a few thoughts to share on the subject based on my study of Zenos’s allegory of the olive tree in Jacob 5 this week.

While reading the allegory, I generally approach it as a story that relays information about the history of God’s covenant people.  Jacob, after all, says that the allegory speaks “concerning the house of Israel, in the which [Zenos] likened them unto a tame olive tree” (Jacob 6:1).  What stood out to me this is the discussion of the decay of the mother olive tree after grafting in wild olive branches and the remedy the lord of the vineyard performs to save the tree.  Within the allegory, the lord removed the natural branches from the tame olive tree, then he told the servant to “take thou the branches of the wild olive tree, and graft them in, in the stead thereof” (Jacob 5:9).  This seems to parallel the conversion of Gentiles to Christianity, which Paul compared to being “cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree.”[1]  While this caused a proliferation of tame fruit for a while, eventually the tree began to produce “all kinds of bad fruit” (Jacob 5:32), which would seem to represent the Great Apostasy.  This was followed by pruning and an extensive cross-grafting of branches between starts from the original tree that had been transplanted earlier on in the narrative, which Lehi interpreted as individuals “com[ing] to the knowledge of the true Messiah, their Lord and their Redeemer” (1 Nephi 10:14), meaning the Restoration.  This text, then, provides some fertile ground for examining how we understand the Apostasy and Restoration.

As a missionary, I used a few different ways to explain the Great Apostasy and the need for the Restoration (and hence, our church).  One of those was the idea of a mirror that had been introduced by Jesus and the early apostles but was shattered.  Shards of truth remained around, with various faiths and religions holding onto those truths, but no matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t put the mirror back together again.  So, God had to introduce a whole new mirror, which was done in the form of the Restoration.  I share this here, because the comparison captures how I understood the apostasy/restoration narrative when I was younger.  Essentially, the Church from the Meridian of Time was broken completely, and so God started over from scratch, with Joseph Smith working in a vacuum to fabricate a Church acting solely under God’s direction, which everyone could then join.  If that understanding accurately reflected the situation, however, I imagine that the allegory of the olive tree would look quite different.  At the point the lord of the vineyard saw that everything was producing bad fruit, he would say to his servant: “Well that’s too bad.  Let’s just leave those other trees to rot until I’m ready to burn them all.  I have a new seed that I will sow in my field and when it is grown it will become a tree that produces tame fruit.”  But, of course, that’s not what happens in Zenos’s story.

What can we glean, then, about the nature of the Great Apostasy from the allegory of the olive tree?  The explanation for the corruption of the original tree given by the servant is as follows: “Have not the branches thereof overcome the roots which are good? And because the branches have overcome the roots thereof, behold they grew faster than the strength of the roots, taking strength unto themselves” (Jacob 5:48).  In some way, the branches (the Judeo-Christian religions) had remained rooted in the true religion but had also strayed from those roots at the same time, going in their own direction.  Joseph Smith explained this as follows:

The gentiles received the covenant and were grafted in from whence the chosen family were broken off but the Gentiles have not continued in the goodness of God but have departed from the faith that was once delivered to the saints and have broken the everlasting covenant in which their fathers were established. … We may look at the Christian world and see the apostacy there has been from the Apostolic platform, and who can look at this, and and not exclaim in the language of Isaiah, [“]the earth is defiled under the inhabitants thereof because they have transgressed the Laws, changed the ordinances and broken the everlasting covenant.”[2]

Joseph Smith felt that the apostasy had involved a combination of straying from the everlasting covenant that God had proffered, breaking commandments, and changing the ordinances of the Lord, all of which marked a departure from the faith so that “there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament.”[3]  The result was a variety of fruits, but none up to par with what the Lord desired for his vineyard.

Yet, despite the apostasy, the tree still lived and formed the basis of the Restoration.  Benjamin Huff, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Randolph-Macon College, summarized this part of the parable as follows: “The wild branches continue to nourish the roots, preserving the Bible and an altered version of Christ’s message, but for producing fruit they have become worthless. … There is a great proliferation of various sects, particularly after the Reformation, and all of them are seriously mistaken.”[4]  While we are very aware that there is much in Christian history that displays serious mistakes and corruption, we do need to also be aware of the good that it preserved and that our religion remains rooted in that Judeo-Christian tradition.[5]  I feel as though we sometimes overlook the fact that Joseph Smith and the early converts to the Church were able to grasp the restored gospel because they had been raised up in the Christian tradition that had endured for centuries, despite imperfections.  For example, Joseph Smith learned to pray for answers because he grew up in a Christian family, studied the Bible (which was compiled, codified, and preserved under the aegis of the Catholic and Orthodox churches) and attended Protestant Christian gatherings.  Thus, when the lord of the vineyard began his final remedy, he worked to fix the trees that were already there instead of planting a completely new tree.

Zenos outlined the Restoration in terms of cross-grafting and pruning the olive trees.  The actions the lord of the vineyard took to remedy the situation was to “take of the branches of these which I have planted in the nethermost parts of my vineyard” and then to “graft them into the tree from whence they came; and let us pluck from the tree those branches whose fruit is most bitter, and graft in the natural branches of the tree in the stead thereof” (Jacob 5:52).  Then, as those tame or natural branches began to take hold in the original tree, the lord directed his servant to “clear away the branches which bring forth bitter fruit, according to the strength of the good and the size thereof” to prevent the grafted natural branches from being overwhelmed (Jacob 5:65).  The transplants likewise received some grafting from the original tree, and this cross-grafting results in good fruit all around for a time.

Explanations of this approach center on rebuilding the full context of the gospel, resulting in a gradual healing of the tree.  Nephi wrote that “the grafting in of the natural branches” meant that “in the latter days … shall the fulness of the gospel of the Messiah come unto the Gentiles, and from the Gentiles unto the remnant of our seed. … Wherefore, they shall come to the knowledge of their Redeemer and the very points of his doctrine, that they may know how to come unto him and be saved” (1 Nephi 15:13-14).  Grafting branches from the transplants into the original tree corresponds well with the Book of Mormon (the words of one group represented by a transplanted tree) being translated and published.[6]  The publication and distribution of that book and other revelations through the efforts of Gentiles (including Joseph Smith), in turn, brings the gospel to groups of Israelites that were scattered in the past, representing the efforts to graft branches into the transplanted trees. The Book of Mormon and the Restoration have allowed the branches of the trees to reconnect to the fulness of the gospel, or roots of the tree, in this understanding of the parable.

The process, however, is gradual and involves cooperation with the tree as it existed at the start of the Restoration.  As Benjamin Huff observed, speaking of the allegory: “The restored church is small at first, and must grow in strength gradually.  Other churches continue to serve the great majority of the Christian world, as well as the Jewish people, functioning alongside the restored church as it gradually gathers more and more converts.”[7]  Keeping in mind that the branches that are cross-grafted were producing undesirable fruit at the time they were grafted, I suspect that the process is meant to help all branches to reconnect to the roots of the tree and begin producing fruit that is acceptable to the Lord (even though some branches continue producing bitter fruit indefinitely and have to be removed and burned).

If my assessment of the situation is true, then there are some important lessons to be drawn here.  First, our religion doesn’t automatically start producing perfect fruit across the board just because the Restoration has commenced.  The lord of the vineyard only states that this is meant to “prepare the way, that I may bring forth again the natural fruit” (Jacob 5:61).  It takes time for those natural branches to heal from the grafting process and to connect to the roots before they begin to produce the type of fruit that the Lord desires.  That means there is an invitation for patience with imperfection in our church in the words of Zenos and an invitation to engage in ongoing efforts to bring forth good fruit among our branches of the tree.  Second, the allegory also stands as an invitation to recognize that individuals in religions that share the same roots in the covenants and beliefs that formed the House of Israel are part of the same tree, fellow servants of God who are seeking to produce fruit as well.  We can, indeed must, work together with them to achieve the end goal of bringing “forth again the natural fruit, which natural fruit is good and the most precious above all other fruit” (Jacob 5:61).  The effort to produce that fruit is ongoing and will take time and effort on our part and the part of others.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Romans 11:24, NRSV.  Through conversion to the Way (as Christianity was known early on), Paul taught that Gentiles had become part of the House of Israel: “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. … And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:26, 29, NRSV).

[2] “Letterbook 1,” p. 15-16, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 21, 2020, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/letterbook-1/27

[3] “History, circa Summer 1832,” p. 2, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 21, 2020, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-circa-summer-1832/2.

[4] Benjamin Huff, “The Wilderness, the Vineyard, and the Transformative Restoration,” Element vol. 7, issue 1 (Spring 2018), 15.

[5] As President Dallin H. Oaks taught: “We believe that most religious leaders and followers are sincere believers who love God and understand and serve him to the best of their abilities. We are indebted to the men and women who kept the light of faith and learning alive through the centuries to the present day. We … realize the great contribution made by Christian teachers through the ages. We honor them as servants of God.” (Dallin H. Oaks, “Apostasy and Restoration,” CR April 1995, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1995/04/apostasy-and-restoration?lang=eng.)

[6] I am, in a way, comparing Jacob 5:67-69 to 2 Nephi 3:12 here.

[7] Huff, “The Wilderness, the Vineyard, and the Transformative Restoration,” 15.

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