Discussions of Book of Mormon issues and evidences, plus other topics related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Friday, January 29, 2021

The Fox at My Door

Tuesday night as I was turning off the lights and preparing to sleep, I stood next to our front door for a moment and then saw something move. Immediately in front of our door was a red fox, holding still as if enjoying the small amount of warmth leaking from our house. I looked through the glass on the upper half of the door and stared straight down at her. I called quietly to my wife who came and watched as well. The fox didn't look well. My wife pointed out the poor state of her fur. She then sat and scratched vigorously, as if sore from fleas. We could see a clump of fur come off. She rolled on our doormat, scratching herself some more on places that must be hard to reach, leaving another clump of fur on the mat.  I wished I could open the door and invite her in, but knew that wouldn't be wise, if only for the fleas she would bring but also for the fear it would cause her if she did come in. 

I thought of all the experts I've heard and the signs I've seen warning against feeding of wild animals, but wondered if the right thing to do would be to put some meat out on the porch. But something as simple as giving meat to my grandchildren's dog causes her to throw up. She loves human food, but any meat other than dog food and small amounts of her favorite treat, bacon bits, seems to make her throw up. She has no problem with many strange foods like cucumbers and crackers, but meat is a problem. Would food prepared for humans be a problem for a fox? Even if it were the right thing to do, I wasn't sure we had anything handy that would be suitable.

I also wondered if it would be a disservice to the neighborhood to encourage a wild animal to hang out here for food, but then the neighborhood might benefit from a predator that dines on the creatures that are the real problems for many people here, mice. (Our many cute local rabbits might be on the undesirable list for many as well, as they wipe out gardens and some of the prettiest plants.) So maybe we really need a few foxes in the neighborhood.  

Unsure about what to do, I did nothing but watch soberly. She later paced about, then walked into the snow and ate some for moisture, then dug a bit, searching for something, and moved on. It was cold, though warmer than normal. She was ill and hungry. Should I have done something? If you have a wise answer, I'd appreciate it. She may be back. 

That evening left me feeling somewhat melancholy and pensive. The fox on my door struck me as a symbol of those suffering, often alone, while there I am, in comfort, so close, able to see the suffering, and yet various barriers, real or imagined, keep me away and unable to help, or just too afraid to act. 

The fox on my door came on a day already filled with thoughts about the those with mental illness, those who are prisoners, and the needs of animals. It began with something that I don't usually do: reading through a physical copy of the Liahona (formerly the Ensign). it was the latest issue, Feb. 2021, with articles on kindness and compassion,  on the great value of each soul, on dealing with mental illness (Courtney Oakden's inspiring, "What Mental Illness Taught Me about Who I Am"), and on ministering to prisoners ("A Message of Hope for Those Who Are Incarcerated"). The words "Prison Ministry" were on the cover, with an image of the hands of the Savior reaching out to help, beneath the words, "The Worth of Each Soul is Great." What an inspiring start to my day. 

Then I checked for critical emails and saw for the second time a touching email from a scholar who is helping me with a review of a paper submitted to Interpreter: A Latter-day Saint Journal of Faith and Scholarship where I am a co-editor. The reviewer shared a beautiful passage from a great Catholic theologian, scholar, and friend of the Latter-day Saints, Stephen H. Webb. I'll share that passage below. In the email,  this scholar also shared how was still pained, almost daily, over the tragic death of Stephen. I remember reading that he had passed away, but knew nothing about the details. I searched online and found that he had suffered with severe depression and ultimately committed suicide. I read a beautiful recollection from another scholar, Samuel D. Rocha, about Stephen's life, "The Excess of Stephen H. Webb" at FirstThings.com. I also read about Stephen at Wikipedia. I learned that he had put much energy into prison ministry and advocating for better care of animals. He was a man of compassion who loved the Savior and loved those we often neglect. Prison ministry. Mental illness. Care for animals. Compassion for others. My morning study made me suspect that there's something special to learn from Stephen Webb. 

The passage that the scholar shared with me from Stephen Webb was written in response to reading a book on the Gospel of Luke by BYU professor S. Kent Brown. Stephen's response, now published on the BYU "New Testament Commentary" site, is “Luke and Mormonism.”

After reading Stephen's short article again I called my wife over and read some of his words about his discovery of the LDS view on the redemption of the dead. I was surprised as I read it that my voice cracked repeatedly with emotion I didn't realize was there. I was so touched by what he wrote, expressing with subtle beauty the majestic love of the Savior for those in spirit prison and everywhere. He begins by discussing what some theologians have proposed as they struggle with theories of what Christ did during the three days that he was dead. Here is the critical passage, one that builds on Stephen's experience with prison ministry as he explores some great conundrums on theology that suddenly become resolved with the beautiful solution taught by Joseph Smith:

The second [issue to discuss] is Jesus’ descent into hell and Brown’s placement of it at the center of Jesus’ ministry. Hans Urs von Balthasar is the first theologian to make that descent central to his own theology as well as to Jesus’ earthly ministry. In his book Mysterium Paschale, von Balthasar puts the emphasis of Holy Saturday on the suffering of Christ. For von Balthasar, Christ suffers a physical death on the cross and a spiritual death in hell. By depicting Holy Saturday as the furthest reach of Christ’s suffering on behalf of sinners, von Balthasar makes it the climax of the cross. The cross thus casts its shadow over Jesus’ death, so that even while his body is in repose his soul suffers inconceivable torment.

Critics of von Balthasar often point out that in traditional interpretations of this event, Christ descends to the forecourt of hell, the so-called “limbo of the fathers,” where he saves the righteous of the Old Testament, rather than to hell itself. In my own criticisms of von Balthasar, I have argued that 1 Peter 3:19 clarifies the descent by telling us that Jesus preached to the spirits in prison. My experience with prison ministry has led me to see the descent in a decidedly more positive light than von Balthasar, indeed, to see it in the light of the resurrection, rather than the darkness of the cross.

Preaching to the prisoners in hell was the culmination of Jesus’ ministry, I have argued, not the prolongation of his crucifixion. Jesus, after all, was condemned as a criminal and died between two criminals. It is even likely that he was imprisoned, although the Bible says nothing about this. Where else would he have been between the arrest on the evening of Holy Thursday and the trials that began on the morning of Good Friday? Luke, anyway, seems to indicate a gap between his mocking and the Sanhedrin trial the next morning (Luke 22:65-66). At some point that night, and maybe again after he was sentenced to death, he might have been put in a holding cell. Such cells were often little more than holes in the ground, dark and silent. He would have prayed to his father, but nobody but a drunken guard would have been there to hear him. Perhaps this is where he was truly silenced, and perhaps that is why the Bible passes over this episode in silence. If Jesus took on the sins of the world and suffered the ultimate judgment of guilt and defeat, then I am convinced that he found camaraderie and understanding among the prisoners in hell. His descent was the first step toward his resurrection and our rehabilitation.

In any case, after his death he visited the ultimate prison of hell itself. Having accepted God’s judgment on all of humankind, I have argued that Jesus would have felt right at home in hell, and the prisoners would have been glad to welcome him. The sharing of the good news is a joyful event, especially in a place where its message is most needed.

Prof. Brown helps me to see that my interpretation of the descent needs to be taken another step. Preaching is central to Jesus’ mission, and authorizing others to preach is how Jesus established his church. Imagine my joy in discovering, after I worked on von Balthasar’s theology of Christ’s descent into hell, the Mormon understanding of spirit prisons and the idea that Jesus indeed preached in hell, but he did more than that. He organized the righteous to preach in his absence. This is an astounding claim that has no precedence, as far as I know, in traditional theology, and yet it makes absolute theological and exegetical sense. To me, it means that even in hell the church is active in carrying out God’s plan. The Catholic Church believes that salvation comes through the Church, and thus it makes sense that Jesus would not have left the spirits in prison without access to the church. The Mormon explication of the descent thus gives me a new delight in the passage from Matt. 16:18, where Jesus says he will build his church and not even the gates of hell will prevail against it.

The gates of hell seek to shut out all humanity from the redeeming love of the Savior, but those gates will not prevail. We mortals are so often powerless when those we love struggle. But there is One with power to love and bless those who have died, including those who died in darkness, in despair, in ignorance, or in sin. There is One who can open every door on the coldest of nights and bring us in, if we will let Him. And if we love the Savior, we should, like Stephen, rejoice at the most amazing good news, that the dead are not forgotten, the prisoner are not ignored, for the Savior has organized a glorious work to reach out to all and give every man and woman a chance to hear His voice and know of His redeeming love, if we will.

As I read the closing words from Stephen, I sensed that he was a man who knew and loved our Savior. But while his words now reached out to me and lifted me, and while in his ministry he reached out to many and lifted them, even in the despair of imprisonment, Stephen, in his hour of greatest pain, may have been like a fox at our door, ill, suffering in the cold, and we didn't know what he needed or how to help. I didn't know him, but I imagine that all those who knew and loved him like my friend wish they could have been there at just the right moment and could have known somehow what to do, perhaps to offer nourishment or open a door and let him in for some relief, hoping to heal or perhaps just to delay. How much lasting grief there is when a loved one is lost to suicide. But how much hope there is through the endless love and mercy of Jesus Christ!

Saturday, January 23, 2021

More on the Book of Abraham Manuscripts: What Spelling Errors Teach Us

I received a kind email from Kyler Rasmussen in response to arguments I have made about the spelling in the book of Abraham manuscripts that are part of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers (see "The Twin Book of Abraham Manuscripts: Do They Reflect Live Translation Produced by Joseph Smith, or Were They Copied From an Existing Document?"). As a reminder, there are three manuscripts, A, B, and C, written by the scribes Frederick G. Williams, Warren Parrish, and W.W. Phelps, respectively (Phelps begins manuscript C and Parrish later copies more onto it), each of which cover some of the initial verses of the book of Abraham and also have a few characters in the margins from one of the Joseph Smith Papyri. Manuscripts A and B are often said to represent two scribes simultaneously taking live dictation from Joseph Smith as he "translated" the characters in the margins to give impossibly long blocks of text for each character, sometimes as many as 200 words for one. I've argued that the spelling errors of difficult proper nouns support the argument that Parrish could see a manuscript that he was copying, rather than taking dictation from Joseph Smith as new scripture was being revealed (or "fabricated" if you prefer). There are other reasons as well to see these documents as copies of an existing translation rather than some kind of "window" into Joseph's live translation.

You can see these manuscripts at the Joseph Smith Papers website:

With that background, here's what Kyler Rasmussen shared this with me:

Elsewhere I've been discussing your spelling argument with critics, and they made the point that Williams' spelling appears to be a lot worse than Parrish's, which could explain why there's less consistency in the spelling of proper nouns for Manuscript A [written by Williams].  That argument prompted me to take a closer look at the spelling of words that weren't proper nouns in manuscripts A and B.  Here's the misspellings I found for each, with the number of times that variety of misspelling is included within parentheses:


alter (3)
begining (2)
distroy/ed (3)
reccord/s (3)
idolitry (2)

So they're right that Williams is making a ton of spelling mistakes. He is, however, consistent in his misspellings (with the exception of endeavor, on which he's apparently hopeless). He thinks he knows how to spell alter, distroy, and reccord, and nobody is correcting him (consistent with dictation). Parrish, by comparison, makes fewer but far more interesting mistakes:

strang (he spells strange correctly in other places)
preist (he spells priest correctly in other places)
harts (he spells hearts correctly in other places)

So he has fewer mistakes, but he's not consistent in making them. He doesn't actually know how to spell strange, priest, or heart, but he gets them right anyway in various spots. To me this is very consistent with the theory that there's an extant written manuscript keeping him on point (and occasionally correcting him, as is clearly the case with "harts").

I also took a look at Manuscript C, which I thought would be interesting given that we know Parrish was copying from another manuscript. Here are the errors in Parrish's portion of the manuscript:

sacrafice (spelled correctly in other places)
offiring (spelled correctly in other places)

Some of these are copied from the previous manuscript, but some of them are new, and appear at about the same rate as we have in Manuscript B. "Sacrafice" is a particularly interesting example, since he copies the error from Manuscript B, but then spells it correctly in the new material past 2:2. If he knew it was really spelled "sacrifice", you think he would have corrected it as he did some of the other errors in Manuscript B (e.g., priest, patriarch). There's nothing in the pattern of errors in Manuscript C that distinguishes it from B, and you'd think there'd be a ton to distinguish it if we were looking at a dictation vs. copying process.

Anyway, food for thought.  I think it's interesting that both the proper nouns and the other spelling errors are consistent with your theory. 

These are valuable insights. The spelling errors of proper nouns in Manuscript B suggest that Parrish could see a manuscript that was being copied, as I discussed in a previous post, but Rasmussen's analysis of other spelling errors from Parrish both in Manuscript B and in Manuscript C, where we know he was copying from an existing document, offer further support for Manuscript B being based on visual copying rather than live dictation of new scripture from Joseph Smith.

Thanks, Kyler!

The topics of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers and the meaning of the manuscripts are taken up in an excellent new article at Interpreter that just came out yesterday: John Gee, "Prolegomena to a Study of the Egyptian Alphabet Documents in the Joseph Smith Papers," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 42 (2021): 77-98. I believe John see Manuscripts A and B as being individually copied by the scribes, whereas I think there's a possibility that there were copied in a joint session in which Parrish could see the document and may have been reading it aloud as he copied for the benefit of the other scribe. Hard to know for sure, but Gee offers some important new evidence for the dating of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers which rule out the theories that these manuscripts give us a window into Joseph's live translation.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

A Gift From an Early "Anti-Mormon" Attack on the Book of Abraham: Clear Evidence About the Source of Joseph's Translation

In several posts over the years here at Mormanity and on my website, I've noted that the arguments of our critics against LDS scriptures, our doctrines, and the Restoration are sometimes actually helpful. Sometimes they help us reconsider sloppy assumptions and improve our understanding of the scriptures or our history. Sometimes they drive us to study complex issues more carefully, perhaps even leading to new discoveries that turn apparent weaknesses into strengths. And sometimes they can unintentionally hand us gifts that help us overcome difficult challenges. One such gift can be found in an early "anti-Mormon" attack on the book of Abraham. I use the word "anti-Mormon" infrequently of late, but the introduction (shown below) to the unintentionally beneficent article in question mentions that one of the authors, Jerald Tanner, heads a "professedly anti-Mormon publishing house." I suppose he did not object to the label and as perhaps the most famous if not most successful anti-Mormon crusader who made a career out of his passion, it's probably a fair term. But my focus here is on the gift, not the givers.

For decades, a gift regarding the translation of the book of Abraham has been staring us in the face in the analysis provided by Grant S. Heward and Jerald Tanner in "The Source of the Book of Abraham," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3/2 (1968): 92–97. This gift is not obvious until one reads their article and then looks again at Joseph's commentary on Facsimile 2. The gift, though, seems to have remained unrecognized until the 2020 FairMormon Conference when Tim Barker gave a significant presentation pointing out what many of us should have recognized years ago. Tim's presentation, "Translating the Book of Abraham: The Answer Under Our Heads," is available (but behind a paywall) at the FairMormon Conference Streaming 2020 page for those who have purchased the $30 pass to watch the full set of videos from the conference. The transcript with images from the slides, however, is now available at FairMormon.com [link added 1/11/21]. Tim's presentation is not yet on YouTube, unfortunately, but I'll share a touch of the content and hope you'll watch the entire presentation and the rest of a truly excellent conference.

First, here's the introduction to Heward and Tanner's article in a special 1968 edition of Dialogue devoted to book of Abraham issues shortly after the Joseph Smith Papyri were found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) in New York City (click to enlarge):

Heward and Tanner make the basic argument against Joseph Smith as a translator by pointing out what nearly every attack on the book of Abraham today relies upon: there are book of Abraham manuscripts in which a few Egyptian characters from one of the Joseph Smith Papyri, now known as JSP XI (viewable on the Joseph Smith Papers website), are in the margins of the manuscripts, as if Joseph had translated each character to give large blocks of English text (sometimes about 200 words for 1 character). You can see these manuscripts on the Joseph Smith Papers website, where the three key documents with Egyptian characters on the left are called book of Abraham Manuscript A, Manuscript B, and Manuscript C. "Translating" many dozens of words from one character is not only utterly ridiculous, but now that ancient Egyptian can be read and translated, it is clear that the characters used have nothing to do with the book of Abraham text and in fact are part of the Book of Breathings. Thus, the book of Abraham is said to expose Joseph as an uninspired and ridiculous fraud. This argument, of course, relies on the assumption that the book of Abraham manuscripts in question are a "revelatory" work product giving us a "window" into how Joseph Smith allegedly translated a handful of characters into the book of Abraham. 

Apologists have responded with a variety of arguments, often pointing out that JSP XI does not match the description of the scroll Joseph translated, that there were other scrolls that were sold after Joseph's death and burned in the Great Chicago Fire that were not part of the tiny collection of fragments that survived (the missing scroll theory), or suggesting that the translation by revelation need not be directly from any of the scrolls that were in Joseph's possession but may have been merely "catalyzed" by the papyri. It has also been argued that the manuscripts with Egyptian characters next to English text appear to be a  product from the scribes done for unclear purposes after the translation had already been done, in which the characters might have been added as decorative elements, as mystic representations being explored in connection with W.W. Phelps' fascination with the hypothesized "pure language" of the ancients, as scribal attempts to crack the Egyptian language based on their assumption that JSP XI must have some connection to the book of Abraham since Facs. 1 was physically connected to it, or as "reverse ciphers" to create a code to convey what was in the book of Abraham text. But we are still left with an apparent association of some kind between characters on JSP XI and the book of Abraham text. If they weren't being translated to give the book of Abraham, what was?

If only we had more information from Joseph about what he did or did not translate. Wonderfully, thanks to the gift from Heward and Tanner, coupled with a straightforward connecting of the dots by Tim Barker, we now can answer the challenge much more clearly. 

Heward and Tanner make the important observation that characters from JSP XI, particularly characters from lines two through four of that fragment, were also used to fill in a missing portion of Facsimile 2, the round figure known as a hypocephalus. The characters on lines two and three are part of the group that were added in the margins of book of Abraham Manuscripts A, B, and C. On p. 97 of Heward and Tanner, Illustration 5A shows how characters from line four of JSP XI were added to three lines of missing text on the right side of Facs. 2 (click to enlarge):

Illustration 5B on the same page shows where characters from lines two and three of JSP XI went on the completed Facs. 2:

As a result, some of the same characters allegedly used by Joseph to translate the book of Abraham were inserted onto Facs. 2 as Joseph and Reuben Hedlock, the craftsman who engraved the lead plates for print the facsimilies,  prepared a portion of the book of Abraham for publication in 1842. Tim Barker shows that the the rim of Facs. 2 also has characters from line 4 of JSP XI which are also used in Manuscripts A, B, and C (click to enlarge):

Thus we have text from lines 2 through 4 of JSP XI, the papyrus fragment said to be the source for Joseph's "translation" that gave us the book of Abraham, inserted into several portions of Facsimile 2.

Now, as Tim Barker so thoroughly pointed out in his August 2020 presentation, note what Joseph Smith said about these characters in his comments on Facs. 2:

The text in three lines on the central right panel, labeled as Figures 13, 14, and 15, and the text in the rim, labeled as Figure 18, are all treated the same in Joseph's comments. The explanations for those characters "will be given in the own due time of the Lord." That declaration is followed by this statement that refers to all the comments made regarding Facs. 2: "The above translation is given as far as we have any right to give at the present time."

Here we have the words of Joseph Smith (or at least words prepared with his authorization and approval) telling us that the characters that are on this Facsimile and on book of Abraham Manuscripts A, B, and C have not yet been translated, and that Joseph had no right at that time to translate them. Whatever the scribes of those puzzling manuscripts,  Frederick G. Williams, Warren Parrish, and William W. Phelps, thought they were doing with the Egyptian characters added to portions of Joseph's revealed text for the book of Abraham, the explanations on Facs. 2 strongly suggest that Joseph had not used characters from JSP XI as the source for the book of Abraham translation. "Joseph clearly indicates that he did not translated JSP XI," Barker explains. The foundation for many attacks on the Book of Mormon simply fails once we understand the significance of the gift we were handed by the astute observation of Heward and Tanner that help us see what Joseph really thought about the "smoking gun" papyrus fragment that they and critics ever since, along with some LDS intellectuals, have been telling us about what Joseph used for his translation. That's quite a gift. 

Some have questioned whether the comments on Facs. 2 really came from Joseph. Barker points to Joseph's journal of March 4, 1842, just a couple days after Facs. 1 and the book of Abraham up to Abraham 2:18 were printed in The Times and Seasons. The text in that installment covered the same scope as the text in the longest of the three book of Abraham manuscripts, Manuscript C. Joseph's journal then describes how he was working with the engraver to prepare additional material for printing:

March 4 Friday Exhibeting the Book of Abraham. in the original. To Bro Reuben Hadlock [Hedlock]. so that he might take the size of the several plates or cuts. & prepare the blocks for the Times & Seasons. & also gave instruction concerning the arrangement of the writing on the Large cut. illustrating the principles of Astronomy.
Joseph was giving directions to the engraver, Reuben Hedlock, regarding the writing on Facs. 2, which was published with text from Abraham 2:19 to 5:21 (the rest of what we have in book of Abraham) about two weeks later. His statement regarding the Egyptian characters on Facs. 2 that are also on JSP XI -- about half of the characters in the book of Abraham manuscripts -- leads to only one plausible conclusion: Joseph was telling us that he had not translated the characters on JSP XI. Those characters weren't the source for Abraham 1:1 to 2:18 nor for the rest of the book of Abraham. The source, if there was one, must be something else.

Barker says that his response to Heward and Tanner and all the countless critics since who claim that Joseph Smith translated the book of Abraham from a few lines on JSP XI is this:

Joseph Smith concretely provided direct evidence in Facsimile 2 that he never translated JSP XI and that the answer has been under our heads this entire time, if we would have taken Heward and Tanner's work one step further. 

An important answer to the accusations of many critics has been staring us in the eyes for over 50 years. Kudos to Tim Barker for making such an important observation. 

Barker goes on to make some important observations about the Kirtland Egyptian Papers and other issues pertaining to the scrolls and the book of Abraham. For example, he notes that if Joseph had assumed that the book of Abraham text must be the characters next to Facs. 1, as if often argued, why do none of the characters in the panels immediately adjacent to that Facsimile show up on the book of Abraham manuscripts and even though some of those characters do show up in the Egyptian Alphabet documents, why do none of them have a translation given?  The slide from this portion of his presentation is shown below, with the adjacent panels boxed in red:

Barker's presentation nicely supplements another gem on the book of Abraham at the FairMormon 2020 Conference, the presentation of Kerry Muhlestein, "Egyptian Papers and the Translation of the Book of Abraham: What Careful Applications of the Evidence Can and Cannot Tell Us," available on YouTube and viewable below.  Muhlestein also deals with the translation of the book of Abraham and tests the widespread assumption that Joseph Smith translated it by first creating the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (GAEL) as a translation tool. It's a seemingly strange notion, for how can you translate an unknown language by first making a dictionary or textbook on the language in the absence of a translation to hep crack the code? In any sane scenario, dictionaries and guides for foreign languages are developed after translated text is available, not the other way around, but Joseph was supposedly so ignorant (ditto for his associates) that he could not realize the impossibility of what he was allegedly doing. 

The assumption that the GAEL and related documents were being used as translation guides is widely accepted among both critics as well as some LDS intellectuals, including those who produced the Joseph Smith Papers volume on the book of Abraham, while other LDS scholars argue with much greater plausibility and evidence that the Grammar and Alphabet was obviously a work derived from the existing translation. Dr. Muhlestein looks at this issue from several angles and makes it overwhelmingly clear that the GAEL simply was not a translation tool that was used to create the book of Abraham translation. 

Tim Barker's presentation and Kerry Muhlestein's are wonderful ways to help anyone interested in better understanding important issues around the origins of the book of Abraham. The simple arguments made by many critics rely on terribly flawed assumptions which are rarely addressed in their attacks. It's time to be better prepared and better able to articulate why those assumptions fail. While we still don't know exactly what ancient document, if any, was involved in the revealed book of Abraham text, it's improper to dismiss this revelation because of Egyptian characters on some copies of the translated text or because W.W. Phelps' GAEL attempts to connect phrases from the translation to various Egyptian characters in an unusual project that was never completed and apparently quickly aborted. The puzzles of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers are still unsolved, but the revealed texts in the Pearl of Great Price still stand as revealed scripture rooted in antiquity, however Joseph received the revelations.

Monday, January 04, 2021

Understanding the God of the Old Testament: An Evangelical Scholar Explains the Meaning of "God Is Love"

Evangelical Bible scholar Ben Witherington has written a deeply interesting essay on the meaning of "God is love" for Biblical Archaeology's "Bible History Daily" column.

After explaining the wrong assumptions many people make about the meaning of "love," Witherington teaches us about the love of God in "What 'God Is Love' Actually Means":

In 1 John 4, where God is called love not once but twice, God is called agape, a very different word for love than eros. The verbal form of the noun agape (agapao) is used to say God loves the world of humanity in perhaps the most famous verse in the New Testament, John 3:16: “God loved the world in the following manner—he gave his only and beloved Son so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but shall have everlasting life” (author’s translation). There, we hear about a self-sacrificial God.

Clearly enough, the sort of love predicated of God is not any mere human love, certainly not any sort of narcissistic self-directed love, search for personal fulfillment, or expression of strong personal desires. No, to say God “is love” is to say that God is the most self-sacrificial being in the universe, and as such he was prepared to go to incredible lengths to set humankind right. The writers of the New Testament would clearly have nothing to do with any attempts to define God on the basis of merely human notions of love or, worse still, define love “as our god.” For Christians, God is the very definition of self-sacrificial love and what it truly means. We should have long ago stopped trying to define God and the divine character on our very partial understandings of human love and human feelings.

But there is much more to be said. This love described by the author of 1 John 4 implies something fundamental about the freedom of God. Love cannot be compelled, manipulated, or predetermined if it is to be genuine love. It has to be freely given and freely received. God did not have to love a world full of self-centered and sinful human beings, but he chose to do this—and this accorded with God’s very nature. Even more interesting and surprising is that 1 John 4 also tells us that God’s love comes to its fullest expression not merely in creation, but in the lives of his “beloved humans,” about whom it is said that God’s perfect love casts out all fear of punishment, as well as other fears.

In the Bible, indicative statements about God often become imperatives for his people—“be holy as God is holy” (Leviticus 11:44), for example. This is also true in regard to love. “We love (agapomen),” says the writer, “because he first loved (egapesen) us” (1 John 4:19). But our response is also free. We are to freely obey the great commandment to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Yet just because the response is free, doesn’t mean it is optional. No, for Christians it is required. And the specific kind of love that Jesus, the author of 1 John, and the apostle Paul have in mind is a holy love, a righteous love, and a merciful love, which we have received from God and now in some measure are returning.

It is, of course, true that in the great commandment, “You shall love (agapeseis) the Lord your God with all your being” (Mark 12:30), the writer is not referring to feelings. No one can command their own feelings. You can’t get up in the morning and say, “I command myself to have warm, mushy feelings all day.” Feelings come and go and are subject to a million factors—circumstances, personality, health, and so on. The commandment to love God has little to do with that. It has to do with self-sacrificially loving God and others just as we have been loved by God.

It was Jesus himself who once said, “Greater love (agape) has no one, than he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13), and Jesus himself was to do this very thing on Good Friday. There, paradoxically, is the place we see most clearly both God’s great love for us all and his holiness as well. Not love without holiness and righteousness, but not righteousness without love either. This is the character of God in both the Old Testament and New Testament. And the final proof of that comes once more in 1 John 4—for it is the person Jesus called Father, the very God of the Old Testament, that is said to be love in that text.

I find that helpful and clear. The commandment to love God requires self-sacrifice, commitment, service, and action, all so perfectly illustrated in the loving ministry of the Son of God. 

With that in mind, the closing words of an epistle from Mormon recorded in Moroni 7 in the Book of Mormon seem particularly relevant:

[46] Wherefore, my beloved brethren, if ye have not charity, ye are nothing, for charity never faileth. Wherefore, cleave unto charity, which is the greatest of all, for all things must fail --

[47] But charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.

[48] Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure. Amen.

This divine love, the pure love of Jesus Christ, requires a miracle. It depends on grace. It is not something we just naturally pick up. It requires putting off the natural man and allowing God to transform us and give us this great gift. We can walk away from that gift and grace at any time. Indeed, we can shatter it and shatter our lives. But without it, without that miraculous expression of God's mercy and Christ's love and atonement, we are nothing. It's worth seeking and pleading for with all the energy of our heart.