Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Scholars and Faith: The Conversion of Heinz Cassirer

One of the tragedies of modern biblical scholarship is the unnecessary loss of faith it has brought to many believers who have mistaken the frequently shifting declarations of scholars for the bedrock of truth. There's much to say on this topic later, but for now I'd like to give a counterexample of a secular scholar whose exploration of the Bible brought him to a profound respect of scripture and of Christ. This story comes from Robert W. Yarbrough, "God's Word in Human Words: Form-Critical Reflections" in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?: A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture, ed. James K. Hoffmeir and Dennis R. Magary (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), Kindle edition, Chapter 14, in the section "Shift Stories: Not a One-Way Street."
Heinz Cassirer (1903–1979) is one those people about whom one wonders, How did he ever come to make a profession of personal faith in Jesus? His family was of European Jewish descent, from the part of Germany that is now in Poland. By the late nineteenth century, the family grew so secular that they abolished circumcision of their newborn boys. Heinz grew up in Germany, the son of perhaps the world’s foremost Kant scholar of the age, Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945).

Ronald Weitzman wrote of Heinz, “His Kantian upbringing made him scorn the idea that any kind of ‘supernatural’ help could be called on to assist a human being in solving a moral predicament.” Heinz Cassirer lived a thoroughly naturalistic existence, with no interest whatsoever in religion. He found it expedient to flee Germany after Hitler came to power in 1933. He later learned of many relatives dead in the Reich’s death camps.

Heinz ended up lecturing in Oxford and then Glasgow. He had attained recognition as an authority on Aristotle while still a young man in Germany. At the University of Glasgow he taught philosophy for over a quarter century. He published commentaries on two of Kant’s critiques. He translated various Greek sources in addition to his studies on Aristotle. This is hardly a man to suspect of mean intellectual endowment.

Quite remarkably, as we survey his life as a whole, we note among his last published works a translation (into English) of the Greek New Testament, a feat he accomplished in just thirteen months (July 1972–August 1973). In addition, there is the intriguingly titled Grace and Law: St. Paul, Kant, and the Hebrew Prophets. These works confirm his personal acceptance of the gospel call to faith in Jesus as Messiah and personal Savior.

What explains his move from secular Jew to baptized Christian? At about age fifty Cassirer conceived an interest in religion for the first time in his life. He was convinced that Kant was the greatest ethical analyst of all time. Kant brilliantly limned the scale and pathos of the human ethical dilemma, but he offered no compelling or even sufficient solution to the problem. The accomplished Greek scholar Cassirer, having read (he said) pretty much the whole of the Western philosophical corpus, picked up the Greek writings of another brilliant Jewish thinker. We know this thinker as the author of letters with titles like Romans, Galatians, and 1 Timothy. What happened when Cassirer encountered Paul and his epochal claims? Cassirer “experienced a collapse, a total inward paralysis,” says Weitzman.

For the second time in his life Cassirer felt he had encountered a thinker who truly saw into the depths of our inner dilemma: we know the ought, but we do not and we cannot do all that we ought (cf. Romans 7). But unlike Kant, Paul offered a remedy. Paul pointed to another Jewish man, a first-century Galilean no less, yet someone more than just a man. For the first time in his life, Cassirer began to feel the promise and hope of Christian salvation. In 1955, Cassirer was baptized into the Anglican Church. After twenty-five more years of study, he produced his remarkable New Testament translation. In Wood’s words, “Cassirer was summoned to the reality of faith by listening to the testimony of Paul.”
Some believers have “experienced a collapse, a total inward paralysis” when they encounter the pronouncements of scholars, often disguised as consensus when they rarely are, who delight in undermining the historicity of scripture and thereby the reality of God and of Jesus Christ as Savior. It's important to see that intellectuals confronting the details of scriptural texts can be moved the other way as well. Indeed, there are important reasons to respect the power of the scriptures and to be skeptical about the claims of secular scholars whose critical theories of the moment are used to dismiss the message of the Gospel.

One of many related resources that might be helpful to some of you is James K. Hoffmeir's Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996). This book is also relevant to the Book of Mormon for several reasons, such as showing the limitations of archaeology and, most importantly, demonstrating that there is strong evidence for the historicity of a Hebrew exodus from Egypt, which is relied on heavily and subtly by Book of Mormon authors, especially Nephi in his account of his family's exodus from Jerusalem.

A hearty thanks to the late Heinz Cassirer for his open-mindedness and willingness to confront the power of scripture. I'll close with a verse froom the New Testament, as translated by Cassirer (provided in Wikipedia's article about him):
What, then, is the nature of the person, whoever he may be, who hears these words of mine and acts on them? He is like a man of prudence who built his house on a rock. The rain descended, the floodwaters rose, the winds blew and hurled themselves against that house. But it did not fall because it was on rock that its foundations were laid. (Matthew 7:24-25)

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

The Yoke of Christ: Ancient Insights Related to Grace and Works

Last year while pondering Christ's famous command to take his yoke upon us, I wondered if some of the symbolism of the LDS temple might be relevant. As I explored some early Christian and ancient Jewish concepts related to the yoke and the rest that Christ offers, I found connections to covenant making and related issues, including grace and works, that I felt were worth sharing. I also found an apparent Greek word play that adds further meaning to Matthew 11:28-30. The result of my explorations became a paper that I was encouraged to submit to the Mormon Interpreter, my first attempt at a peer-reviewed publication on religious topics. The paper is "The Yoke of Christ: A Light Burden Heavy With Meaning," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 18 (2016): 171-217 (URL: http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/the-yoke-of-christ-a-light-burden-heavy-with-meaning/). I hope you'll take a look and share your comments.

On the topic of grace and salvation, which crops up frequently in the discussions here, I think the perspective of Christ's yoke can be helpful. Here's one excerpt from near the end of the paper, which draws upon an earlier section where I discuss the various meanings of the "rest" that Christ offers to give those who take up His yoke:
Finally, returning to the theme of entering the rest of God, Paul in Hebrews 4 clarifies the relationship between the grace that is offered and our need to labor, without which even believing Christians may be at risk of losing the blessing of the Lord’s rest. Paul thus prescribes actions to preserve that blessing, actions which we could call moving forward with the Lord’s yoke:
Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it. For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it. For we which have believed do enter into rest, as he said, As I have sworn in my wrath, if they shall enter into my rest: although the works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he spake in a certain place of the seventh day on this wise, And God did rest the seventh day from all his works. And in this place again, If they shall enter into my rest. …

There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his. Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief. (Hebrews 4: 1–5,9–11)
Of course, it is not the labor that merits salvation. Rather, after urging us to labor to gain access to the rest of God, Paul also charges us to “come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). Approaching the throne of grace and entering into the rest of the Lord is the ultimate purpose of the grace and mercy the Lord offers us through the Atonement. Our light burden carried forward along the way gives us no grounds to boast and in no way undermines the reality that it is through grace we are saved.

From the LDS perspective, the yoke of Christ is a useful image to describe the interplay of yielding to Christ, learning from him, and receiving at his hand blessings, guidance, and grace. “Learn of me” reminds us that the yoke is also a teaching tool, a tool for receiving direction and other blessings from the Lord as he leads us along the straight and narrow path, where our diligence is required but where his grace only can save. That perspective is hardly a Mormon innovation, but it resonates well with the teachings of scripture and with early Christian teachings. Consider, for example, the words of a prominent early Christian Father, John Chrysostom (c. 349–407 ad), Archbishop of Constantinople:
Fear thou not therefore, neither start away from the yoke that lightens you of all these things, but put yourself under it with all forwardness, and then you shall know well the pleasure thereof. For it does not at all bruise your neck, but is put on you for good order’s sake only, and to persuade you to walk seemly, and to lead you unto the royal road, and to deliver you from the precipices on either side, and to make you walk with ease in the narrow way.

Since then so great are its benefits, so great its security, so great its gladness, let us with all our soul, with all our diligence, draw this yoke; that we may both here “find rest unto our souls,” and attain unto the good things to come, by the grace and love towards man of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory and might, now and ever, and world without end. Amen.

Friday, February 05, 2016

A Witness of Book of Mormon Authenticy from a Non-LDS Scholar: Translation of the Afrikaans Version

Faith promoting stories sometimes have obvious weaknesses that can justify discarding the story as just another errant rumor. This can often be the case when enthusiastic LDS believers repeat something they heard or even experienced long ago or report something they heard from someone else. Even when the story is generally accurate, there can be legitimate reasons for questioning and rejecting the story due to gaps, missing details, or outright errors such as mistakes due to details they didn't fully understand or recalled incorrectly.

The story of the translation of the Book of Mormon into Afrikaans is an interesting example of a faith-promoting story that was easy to dismiss because of some apparently illogical and questionable elements. In light of newly available information, we can now correct an error or two in the story and recognize that the story has significant value. In this case, it's a story of a non-LDS scholar who stood as a witness of the ancient origins of the Book of Mormon.

The helpful new information is the transcript of the talk given by the translator, Professor Felix Mijnhard, at the special conference in Johannesburg on May 14, 1972, when he discussed his experience in translating the text. This information is shared by Charles Pyle in comments responding to "Die Boek van Mormon" at UnblogMySoul by John Pontius, who shares his recollection of Dr. Mijnhard's comments heard while he was a missionary in South Africa long ago. 

In his translation approach that commenced with the middle of the text--before he ever looked at 1 Nephi--Dr. Mijnhard found strong evidence that the text must have originally been in a language other than English. He eventually found that Hebrew was an excellent fit, for when he translated passages into Hebrew before translation into Afrikaans, awkward English suddenly made perfect sense. This didn't happen with other target languages he tried. He came to this conclusion before he read 1 Nephi and realized that the book claimed to have ancient Semitic origins.

With some the gaps filled in and errors corrected, thanks to Charles Pyle's input and the transcript of the talk Mijnhard gave in 1972, Kevin Barney at Common Consent feels that the story some of us once dismissed now makes sense, but perhaps is not as dramatic as some may have thought. I think the story is deeper than just being a case of someone noting the existence of some Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon. In any case, it's a notable example of a non-LDS scholar finding what he felt to be compelling evidence for ancient origins (and divine origins) in the Book of Mormon.

Not all that glitters is fool's gold.