“That you may understand and know”

“The world is changed. … Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it. … And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost.  History became legend.  Legend became myth.  And for two and a half thousand years, the [true Gospel] passed out of all knowledge.  Until, when chance came, it ensnared another bearer.”

While not the same, the overall character of the opening monologue for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings is compatible with the Latter-day Saint view of the Great Apostasy.  It was, after all, a time of loss and change.  As B. H. Roberts summarized: “The time came when through a combination of circumstances—through the bitter and relentless persecutions which came upon the early Christians, both from the heathens and from the Jews, by which persecution, continuing through three long centuries, the servants of God were slain,” leading to a time when individuals did “engraft upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ heathen notions of God, and accepted part of the heathen mythology and blended this with fragments of Christian truth still held by them, until the plain and simple Gospel, as delivered to the people by Jesus and the Apostles, lost all semblance of its former self.”[1]  As a result, “nothing remained but fragments of the gospel; here a doctrine and there a principle, like single stones fallen and rolled away from the ruined wall; but no one able to tell where they belonged in the structure, and so many of the stones missing that to reconstruct the wall with what remains is out of the question.”[2]   Things that should not have been forgotten were lost, a situation that Joseph Smith’s call as a prophet was intended to resolve.

In his 1838 history, Joseph Smith recalled that during his early years, he looked to find the true Gospel and was frustrated by the divisiveness he found instead.  In praying to God, he received the answer that: “I must join none of them, for they were all wrong, and the Personage who addressed me said that all their Creeds were an abomination in his sight.”[3]  That’s harsh language.  The early Christian creeds were, after all, an effort to find consensus on issues that were extremely divisive to Christians of that era, particularly as they tried to understand the nature of Jesus the Christ.  And, despite the declaration that they were abominations, the Latter-day Saints thought through their doctrine in dialogue with the creeds, including in the 6 May 1833 revelation that became Section 93 in the Doctrine and Covenants.

Perhaps the most divisive of the early creeds among Christians in the late classical era was the Chalcedonian Definition.  At that time, one of the points of controversy was how to make sense of the idea that Jesus was both God and human—divine and mortal.  Theologians at the two great Christians centers of the eastern Mediterranean—Antioch and Alexandria—took different approaches to answering this question.  Those at Antioch generally took a more literal approach to reading the scriptures and emphasized the unity of the trinitarian Godhead.  This led them to emphasize the real humanity of Jesus in a way that accentuated the idea that Jesus had two natures—human and divine.  Those at Alexandria tended to stress the distinctness of the persons of the Trinity, which led to reluctance to further divide persons within the Godhead by emphasizing multiple natures in Jesus.  Between these two schools of theology, two opposing models to understand Jesus developed—first, the ‘dyophysite’ or ‘Nestorian’ model from Antioch, in which the two natures found in Christ mingled together (but not mixed) in the single person of Jesus, like combining water and oil.  Second, the ‘myaphysite’ or ‘monophysite’ model of Alexandria, in which the two natures found in Christ mixed together into one nature, like combining water and wine.

During a flashpoint conflict in 428-433 C.E., the bishops Nestorius of Constantinople and Cyril of Alexandria and their followers engaged in a war of words and tumult of opinions.  This led to a council being held at Ephesus that condemned Nestorius and his views.  At a second council of Ephesus in 449 C.E., the Alexandrian delegation enforced their view further while shutting out delegates from the Roman Pope Leo I with a letter expounding his views on the issue.  Shortly afterwards, however, a change in Roman emperors in Constantinople to a ruler that was more firmly opposed to the myaphysite view led to another council being held at Chalcedon, aimed at establishing a compromise to the two radical ends of the spectrum.  While the Chalcedonian Definition that resulted from this 451 C.E. council was a compromise that became normative for most Christians, it led to schisms in the Christian church.  Both myaphysite groups (like the Coptic Christians of Egypt and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church), and dyophysite groups (like the Church of the East and Syriac Christians) persist to this day.

The compromise of Chalcedon was to attempt to mediate between the more radical versions of the ideas by insisting that the Christ did have two natures (divine and human) while not defining how the human and divine natures of Christ related to each other.  The creed reads as follows:

Following the holy Fathers, we all with one voice confess our Lord Jesus Christ to be one and the same Son, perfect in divinity and humanity, truly God and truly human, consisting of a rational soul and body, being of one substance with the Father in relation to his divinity, and being of one substance with us in relation to his humanity, and is like us in all things apart from sin (Hebrews 4:15).  He was begotten of the Father before time in relation to his divinity, and in these recent days, was born from the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos [bearer of God], for us and for our salvation.  In relation to the humanity, he is one and the same Christ, the Son, the Lord, the only-begotten, who is to be acknowledged in two nature, without confusion, without change, without division, and without separation.  This distinction of natures is in no way abolished on account of this union, but rather the characteristic property of each nature is preserved, and concurring into one Person and one subsistence, not as if Christ were parted or divided into two persons, but remains one and the same Son and only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ; even as the Prophets from the beginning spoke concerning him, and our Lord Jesus Christ instructed us, and the Creed of the Fathers was handed down to us.[4]

As Pope Leo I explained: “Humanity was assumed by majesty, weakness by strength, mortality by eternity; and to pay the debt that we had incurred, an inviolable nature was united to a nature that can suffer.”[5]  Jesus was affirmed as both human and divine, two separate things to be, but united.

What has Chalcedon to do with Kirtland?  In some ways, the 6 May 1833 revelation of Joseph Smith seems to offer some dialogue to the Chalcedonian Definition.  The relationship is striking enough that the Joseph Smith Papers Project scholars state that:

The revelation featured here directly challenged several prevailing Christian beliefs of the time, including doctrines regarding the nature of Jesus Christ, especially his humanity and divinity, that most Christians believed had been settled by the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451.  That council held that Jesus Christ was both fully human and fully divine, “that in Christ two distinct natures were united in one person, without any change, mixture, or confusion.”  This revelation instead describes Jesus as having “received not of the fulness at the first but received grace for grace and he received not of the fulness but continued from grace to grace until he received a fulness.”[6]

While those scholars note that “it is not known whether any discussions about early Christian creeds and doctrines preceded this revelation or how familiar JS was with them prior to dictating it,” the revelation has had an impact on the relationship of the Latter-day Saints with the definition of Chalcedon.

Two main points stand out from the revelation.  One of these two was the idea of humans existing prior to birth in a premortal life.  As stated in the revelation: “Man was also in the begining with God, inteligence or the Light of truth was not created or made neith[er] indeed can be. … evry spirit of man was innocent in the begining, and God having redeemed man from, the fall <?man?> became again in their infant state <?innocent?> before God.”[7]  This describes a way of understanding the nature of humanity that is quite different from the basic assumptions behind the discussions at Chalcedon, since it reorients humanity as also being “begotten of the Father before time,” rather than only Jesus the Christ having that history.

The idea of man existing in the beginning with God, prior to our life on earth, had been hinted at in Joseph Smith’s new translation of the Bible.  In that work, he recorded a vision of Enoch in which Enoch stated that God “called upon our father Adam, by his own voice; Saying, I am God; I made the world, & men before they were <?in the flesh.?>”[8]  This idea excited the early Saints, and just a few months before Section 93 was recorded, a hymn based on Enoch’s vision was sung in an unknown tongue during a session of the School of the Prophets in Kirtland and translated, then published in The Evening and Morning Star as a song of Zion.  In the published version, it states that:

[Enoch] saw before him all things past,

From end to end, from first to last;

Yea, things before the world began,

Or dust was fashion’d into man. …

 

With God he saw his race began,

And from him emanated man,

And with him did in glory dwell,

Before there was an earth or hell.[9]

This summarized the early Latter-day Saint understanding of the pre-mortal existence in the months leading up to the 6 May 1833 revelation, with its statements that Enoch’s species dwelt with God in glory “before there was an earth or hell,” even going as far as to declare that human beings emanated from God.

This leads us to a second major idea from the 6 May revelation that reorients Latter-day Saint theology.  Terryl Givens has observed: “As writers from the Babylonians through the Greeks to the early Christians recognized … belief in premortal existence seems to lead inexorably to a belief in divinization.”[10]  The idea of emanating from God is linked to the later statement in the Enoch text that: “Thou hast made me & given <?unto?> me a right to thy throne, and not of myself but through thine own grace.”[11]  Or, in the words of a revelation from late December 1832, “the saints shall be filled with his [Almighty God’s] glory, and receive, their inheritance, and be made equal, with him.”[12]  Receiving a right to God’s throne or being made equal with Him hints at the idea of apotheosis—the thought of humanity becoming like God.

In the May 1833 revelation, it opens with a discussion of Jesus in terms that draw on the Gospel of St. John.  It proclaims that: “I am in the fathe[r] and the father in me and the fathe[r] and I are one the father because he gave me of his fulness and the son becaus I was in the world and made flesh my tabernacle and dwelt among the sons of men.”[13]  This idea of Jesus and God being one was part of the theology of which the Council of Chalcedon was trying to make sense.  The text then continues with a discussion presented as the words of John, in which he states that:

I beheld his glory as the glory of the only begotten of the fathe[r] full of grace and truth even the spirit of truth which came and dwelt in flesh and dwelt among us and I John saw that he received not of the fulness at the first but received grace for grace and he received not of the fulness but continued from grace to grace until he received a fulness and thus he was called the son of God because he received not of the fulness at the first.[14]

After rhapsodizing on this idea for a little longer, the text states that:

I give unto you these sayings that you may understand and know how to worship and know what you worship that you may come unto the fathe[r] in my name and in due time receive of his fulness for if you keep my commandments you shall receive of his fulness and be glor[i]fied in me as I am glor[i]fied in the father.[15]

Again, this presents a view of the universe that is quite different from the one held by the Christians at Chalcedon.  Rather than the Christ being different because He is both divine and human, it reorients all humanity as having the potential to be both divine and human.  Jesus provided the example and outlined the path to allow human beings to “receive of his fulness … and be glorified in me,” just as Jesus “continued from grace to grace until he received a fulness and thus he was called the son of God.”

This creates a state where humanity itself has two natures that intermingle—both mortal and divine.  President Brigham Young once stated that: “The spirits that live in these tabernacles [bodies] were as pure as the heavens, when they entered them. They came to tabernacles that are contaminated pertaining to the flesh, by the fall of man. … We have a warfare within us. We have to contend against evil passions, or the seeds of iniquity that are sown in the flesh through the fall. The pure spirits that occupy these tabernacles are operated upon.”[16]  President David O. McKay also taught that: “Man is a dual being, and his life a plan of God. … Man has a natural body and a spiritual body.”[17]  “Generally there is in man a divinity which strives to push him onward and upward. We believe that this power within him is the spirit that comes from God.”[18]  Although different in the sense that we entangle ourselves in sin, like Jesus the Christ, humanity has both mortal and divine natures within us in Latter-day Saint belief.  While that basic that duality exists outside of Mormonism, it’s heightened by the idea that God, Jesus, and humans are all completely the same species rather than the divine being something separate from humanity and Jesus being something that represents both.

The 6 May 1833 revelation that is now Section 93 did much to lay the groundwork of our beliefs in pre-mortal existence and apotheosis, shifting Latter-day Saint beliefs about their relationship to God and Jesus Christ in ways that don’t align with Chalcedonian Christianity.  Although they had been hinted at in earlier revelations—particularly the vision of Enoch in the Old Testament revision of Joseph Smith—and seem to have been on the minds of those participating in the School of the Prophets that spring, this revelation was a key document in codifying and expounding on the ideas.  These two doctrines are part of what makes Latter-day Saint theology so distinctive in comparison with mainstream Christian beliefs, placing us outside the bounds of creedal Christianity and to view Chalcedonian Christians as having lost some things that should not have been forgotten.

 

Footnotes:

[1] B. H. Roberts, “Spirit of the Gospel,” Collected Discourses Delivered by: President Wilford Woodruff, His Two Counselors, the Twelve Apostles, and Others, edited by Brian H. Stuy, 5 vol. (Burbank, California: BHS Publishing, 1987-1992), 5:137.

[2] B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God, Vol. 1 (Salt Lake City: George Q. Cannon and Sons, 1895), 1:130.

[3] “History, 1838–1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805–30 August 1834],” p. 3, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed August 26, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1838-1856-volume-a-1-23-december-1805-30-august-1834/3

[4] The Christian Theology Reader, ed. Alister E. McGrath, 2nd ed. (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 1995, 2001), 269-270.

[5] McGrath, Christian Theology Reader, 267.

[6] “Historical Introduction,” “Revelation, 6 May 1833 [D&C 93],” p. [2], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed August 27, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-6-may-1833-dc-93/2

[7] “Revelation, 6 May 1833 [D&C 93],” p. [3], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed August 29, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-6-may-1833-dc-93/3

[8] “Old Testament Revision 2,” p. 17, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed August 29, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/old-testament-revision-2/21

[9] “Songs of Zion,” Evening and Morning Star, vol. 1, no. 12 [May 1833], 192, https://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/digital/collection/NCMP1820-1846/id/27999

[10] Terryl Givens, “The Prophecy of Enoch as Restoration Blueprint,” 20 September 2012, Logan, Utah, https://www.terrylgivens.com/talks/2021/5/19/the-prophecy-of-enoch-as-restoration-blueprint

[11] “Old Testament Revision 2,” p. 24, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed August 29, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/old-testament-revision-2/29

[12] “Revelation, 27–28 December 1832 [D&C 88:1–126],” p. 44, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed August 29, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-27-28-december-1832-dc-881-126/12

[13] “Revelation, 6 May 1833 [D&C 93],” p. [1], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed August 29, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-6-may-1833-dc-93/1

[14] “Revelation, 6 May 1833 [D&C 93],” p. [2], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed August 29, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-6-may-1833-dc-93/2

[15] “Revelation, 6 May 1833 [D&C 93],” p. [3], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed August 29, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-6-may-1833-dc-93/3

[16] Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1997), 50, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/teachings-brigham-young/chapter-7?lang=eng.

[17] Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: David O. McKay (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2003, 2011), 12, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/teachings-david-o-mckay/chapter-2?lang=eng/

[18] David O. McKay, In Conference Report, Oct. 1963, 7, see also https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/teachings-david-o-mckay/chapter-2?lang=eng

4 comments for ““That you may understand and know”

  1. Chad, this is a great unpacking of D&C 93. As you say, there’s a lot going on, and it’s incredibly consequential for how we differ in some basic ways from other Christians.

    So I was curious that one of the payoffs – “humanity itself has two natures that intermingle—both mortal and divine” seems thoroughly conventional. Isn’t this just the divine spirit struggling to overcome the fallen, fleshly body? Or does it differ in some way from that age-old duality?

  2. I mean, that duality does exist outside of Mormonism, but it’s a bit heightened by the idea that God, Jesus, and humans are all completely the same species rather than the divine being something separate from humanity and Jesus being something that represents both.

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