Terryl Givens on 2nd Nephi

Terryl Givens—one of the foremost Latter-day Saint authors, theologians, and apologists of our time—recently penned a short volume on 2nd Nephi as part of the brief theological introductions to the Book of Mormon series the Maxwell Institute has been publishing this year.  I wrote a review of the book earlier this year, but recently Kurt Manwaring recently did a 10 questions interview with Dr. Givens that is interesting and worth reading.  What follows here is a co-post to the interview (a summary with excerpts and some commentary), but I do recommend going to read the full interview at Kurt Manwaring’s site here.

Terryl Givens states that he chose to focus on 2nd Nephi when he was approached about contributing to the series because “the teachings of Lehi and Nephi are … some of the richest in the Book of Mormon” and because “the Isaiah portions are substantial and daunting.”  In particular, Givens was drawn to the covenant theology expressed in the book of scripture:

The nineteenth century religious landscape was saturated with thematic treatments of covenant theology. Joseph frequent invocation of the New and Everlasting Covenant fits squarely into that context. But his version of covenant theology, culminating in his temple theology, is the master framework for all his work of Restoration.

I was surprised to realize how much of his theology is implicitly sketched—and the rest foreshadowed—by 2nd Nephi’s treatment of covenant theology.

It’s an important insight into understanding this book of scripture.

To Givens, the split between 1 Nephi and 2 Nephi was placed where it was because “the destruction of Jerusalem appears to be the decisive” breaking point in the narrative.  The importance of that announcement created “a moment of disruption and crisis similar to the Babylonian captivity in terms of dislocation and an uncertain future and the meaning of covenant.”  He added that: “In both cases, the trauma led to an enhanced theological development.”  Terryl Givens went on to state that 2 Nephi focuses on sharing that enhanced theological development.  Nephi’s “focus is not on the particulars of covenantal blessings; perhaps he assumes his people already know those promises. His focus is on making sure they know their dislocation has not cut them off from those promises, and that they are contingent on their worship of Jesus Christ.”  By so doing, Nephi offered comfort both to his family in response to the dislocation caused by their separation from Jerusalem and their realization that the city had fallen and to later readers in understanding the covenants God made with Abraham’s family are available to all those who worship Jesus Christ.

Another point that Givens focuses on in discussing how Lehi and Nephi’s teachings are among the richest in the Book of Mormon is Lehi’s discussion of the fall of Adam and Eve.  As stated in the interview:

Most readers of the Book of Mormon, both hostile and appreciative, commented on how “bible-like” the scripture was, consistent with the New Testament in its teachings, with familiar principles and precepts.

If challenged to enunciate unique Restoration teachings to a stranger, relying wholly upon the Book of Mormon, members would be hard pressed to do so. We find no clear reference to premortality, to theosis, to degrees of glory, to eternal families, vicarious salvation, etc.

What we do find, is a version of the fall radically at odds with all other Christian readings.

And that changes everything.

This is a notable concept found in Lehi’s statement that: “If Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end. … But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things. Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.”[1]  What is suggested here is a more positive understanding of the fall of Adam and Eve than the one found in mainstream Christianity.

Brother Givens is in good company for pointing out this important moment in the Book of Mormon and Latter-day Saint theology.  Elder B. H. Roberts has been noted for his ability to sense “the radical heresy in Mormon theology” more than “any other Mormon thinker of his time” and that “delighted in” the unorthodox implications of those heresies, “for they made room for a positive doctrine of man, genuine freedom, and an unfinished universe.”[2]  Elder Roberts loved to point to this moment in the Book of Mormon as being significant for expounding differences in Latter-day Saint theology.  For example, in 1903, a critic of the Church offered the challenge: “ If Elder Roberts will point me to one solitary item of moral or spiritual truth in the whole Book of Mormon which it did not take, directly or indirectly, from the Bible, I will present him with a five-dollar Stetson hat,” fully believing that “it cannot be done.”[3]  Roberts initially quipped back that the aphorism “fools mock, but they shall mourn” is original to the Book of Mormon, so that alone would win him the prize (though he stated that “I will not trouble the gentleman for his hat … as up to date I have been able to clothe my own head without and effort to win wagers or prizes”).  In the full response, though, Roberts went on to point out a few other statements in the Book of Mormon, including showcasing Lehi’s statement that “Adam fell that men might be; and men are that they might have joy,” noting that it is “a sentence which tells, as is told nowhere else, the purpose of man’s existence.”[4]  Lehi’s statement is something important to note in the Book of Mormon for its divergence from the general western Christian fixation with the fall of Adam and Eve as a bad thing, which is why both Terryl Givens and B. H. Roberts have been drawn to it.

One final note from the interview with Terryl Givens that I was very interested to see is his upcoming itinerary of books that he is writing or are being prepared for publication:

The Lord told Joseph Smith, with enigmatic praise, of “holy men that ye know not of” (D&C 49:8). I am working on a series of slender volumes that introduce the Latter-day Saint membership to the lives and teachings of a host of these inspired voices, such as Julian of Norwich, Edward Beecher, Thomas Traherne, and many others.

And I am currently seeing two completed books through the publication process. A biography, Stretching the Heavens: Eugene England and the Crisis of Mormonism (UNC Press) and All Things New: Rethinking Sin, Salvation, and Everything in Between (with Fiona Givens, Faith Matters Press).

So, it seems that we have a lot to look forward to from Terryl Givens in the next few years.  I’m particularly interested in seeing what his “inspired voices” series will be like.

For the full interview, I recommend going to Kurt Manwaring’s site and reading it here.  Outside of what I covered in this co-post, Terryl Givens shares more information about what he would have included in 2nd Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction if it wasn’t so brief, how he prepared himself to write the book, and some thoughts about Nephi’s target audience.  And I’m interested to hear what people think, whether it be about the things Terryl Givens said about covenant theology and the fall of Adam and Eve, Givens’s upcoming books, or about the 2nd Nephi book if you’ve taken the chance to read it, so don’t hesitate to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

 

Footnotes:

[1] 2 Nephi 2:22-25. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/bofm/2-ne/2?lang=eng

[2] Sterling McMurrin, “Brigham H. Roberts: A Biographical Essay,” in B. H. Roberts, Studies of the Book of Mormon (p. 25). Signature Books. Kindle Edition.

[3] Salt Lake Tribune, November 22, 1903, cited in B. H. Roberts, Defense of the Faith and the Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1907), 1:323.

[4] Cited in Roberts, Defense of the Faith, 1:336-337.  See also B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God, 3 vol. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1903-1908), 3:180-201.

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