Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Does “Another Testament of Jesus Christ” Make Sense?

Before 1981, the Book of Mormon was simply the Book of Mormon; since then, however, it has borne the subtitle “Another Testament of Jesus Christ.” I suspect that this addition had several purposes. First almost certainly was to draw attention to Christ in a church that many consider non-Christian. (Ironically, the Book of Mormon in its doctrine cleaves pretty close to the New Testament, exhibiting few or none of the distinctive Mormon beliefs, such as temple worship or polygamy, that people see as typically Mormon heresies.)  Second would be to clarify the relationship of the book to the Bible’s Old and New Testaments: not a replacement, but An Other Testament.

Growing up, I always liked the latter reason. Not only did it represent a sort of continuity as to the purpose and similarity of scripture, but I always read “testament” as if it said “testimony,” which in Mormonsprach is a declaration of faith in Jesus Christ or some aspect of His Gospel. It was nice: just as I or any other Mormon might go up before the congregation and testify to Christ’s atoning power, the prophets in the scripture hundreds of years ago were doing the same thing. This, I believe, is how most Mormons read the Book of Mormon subtitle and the subdivisions of the Christian Bible: the Old Testimony, the New Testimony, and the Other Testimony.

However, as I became better versed in the Bible (and especially non-KJV and non-English versions), I began to notice something: “testament” is not equivalent to “testimony.” In fact, when it appears in the NIV’s relation of the Last Supper (KJV: “this is my blood of the new testament”) it is translated as “covenant” and the Spanish Reina-Valera does it similarly with “pacto.” Some Protestant denominations, breaking free of traditional scriptural nomenclature, even call the Biblical subdivisions the “New Covenant” and the “Old Covenant”!

Not only revising my understanding of the scriptural basis for these names, it also keyed me into why some non-Mormon Christians might even be disturbed, not comforted, by the Book of Mormon’s subtitle’s invocation of Christ. The contexts from which the terminology arises –particularly in the epistles- contrast specifically the “old” Mosaic covenant of sacrifices and performances with the “new” Christian covenant of grace; the Law of Moses is fulfilled and superseded by the Law of the Gospel. If the Book of Mormon’s claim to be “Another Testament [Covenant] of Jesus Christ” is read in this light, it seems to try to diminish or replace the centrality of Christ’s atonement by asserting another God-given law!

In all honesty, I’m tempted to think that “Another Testament of Jesus Christ” was chosen due to the supposed testament/testimony synonymy. In fact, translations of the subtitle that cannot use a Romance cognate of "testament" show that "testimony" is, indeed, the desired meaning: in Arabic you get شهادة, shahada, the same word used by Muslims for their declaration of faith, and in Greek you get the word that has come down to us in English as martyr - both of which mean "witness," not "covenant." But it does raise the question: does the Book of Mormon present “Another Covenant of Jesus Christ”? If so, what is that covenant?

Some latter-day revelations might give us hints on this matter. The famous scripture Ezra Taft Benson used to kickstart serious study of the Book of Mormon, for example, was Doctrine and Covenant 84:57, in which the Lord says to Joseph Smith, “and [the whole church] shall remain under this condemnation [brought about by “vanity and unbelief,” v. 55] until they repent and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon and the former commandments which I have given them, not only to say, but to do according to that which I have written.” Unfortunately, we are left uncertain as to the identity of the “former commandments”: are these Joseph Smith’s revelations, or the Bible? As it is addressed to the LDS church at the time, I’m leaning toward the former. But how, then, can the Book of Mormon and the “former commandments,” which are necessarily texts, be covenants in themselves?

On a basic level, it seems like D&C 84:57 is an injunction against hypocrisy; the scriptures put their readers under condemnation if those readers profess belief but do not act accordingly. That’s a very general covenant, though. Perhaps one of the few other D&C passages to refer to the Book of Mormon, 20:8-12, could give another hint. In reiterating the event leading up to the founding of the church, D&C 20 notes that the Book of Mormon “was given by inspiration, and is confirmed to others by the ministering of angels, and is declared unto the world by them— Proving to the world that the holy scriptures are true, and that God does inspire men and call them to his holy work in this age and generation, as well as in generations of old” (D&C 20:10-11). In these verses, it seems like the very existence of the Book of Mormon obligates the believer to certain corollaries: angels minister, God still inspires and calls men, the holy scriptures are true. This could be relevant to talk of a “Book of Mormon covenant,” a covenant to believe in God and His prophets, past and present, Jewish, Christian, and Mormon – note that the condemnation from ignoring the Book of Mormon was brought about by “vanity and unbelief.”

This would fit with historical Mormon usage of the Book of Mormon; namely, it has most often been used as proof of Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling instead of a source of doctrine. However, there is one strand of thought in the Book of Mormon that gives weight to this idea that its covenant dictates a belief in continued divine inspiration.

Chronologically, the Book of Mormon starts out in a Judaic setting with mysterious visionary prefigurations of Christianity. After the Lehites leave Jerusalem, the “Messiah” becomes increasingly identified with a specific historical figure yet to come, and by the time Nephi’s brother Jacob is preaching, he begins using the title “Christ” to speak of this future savior. Nevertheless, the righteous peoples strive to keep the Law of Moses, living a sort of bizarrely Christian-inflected Judaism. When one man, Sherem, questions Jacob’s focus on this Christ by arguing that he is adulterating the Law of Moses, he is smitten by God, and Jacob’s Judeo-Christian liminality carries the day. When some, after the sign of Christ’s birth, argue that the Law of Moses should be done away with, they are convinced otherwise by those who assert that “the law was not yet fulfilled.” When Christ, having completed His sacrifice, appears to them, only then does he give them permission to move ahead from the Mosaic Law. Thus, in the Book of Mormon the righteous actors were very attentive to how God had instructed them to live, practicing rituals with full knowledge that someday, at the appropriate time, they will be “fulfilled”; that God had not ceased speaking, and could still add to His truth revealed. (2 Nephi 29 has some strong words to those who would say otherwise.)

While this may not be what the authors of the subtitle had in mind, this dedication to God’s continuing revelations is implicit and necessary if one accepts the Book of Mormon - as a signifying text, or the narrative related therein. To declare in unbelief that God has ceased speaking or calling people to preach on His behalf would be breaking that nigh-covenantal dedication.

So while the Old Covenant prefigures Christ and the New Covenant presents Him, the Other Covenant bridges the two, providing a model for faithful liminality then and in the future – in our day.


Gilbert said...

(Hi, just a Catholic who came here via Unequally Yoked here.)

Since you already noted some different versions of that subtitle you might be interested in the German one.

The German translation I got from some missionaries a few years ago is titled "Das Buch Mormon: Ein weiterer Zeuge für Jesus Christus" ("The book [of] Mormon: A further witness for Jesus Christ"). The interesting thing is that it's clearly the form of "witness" referring to a person. I think the English word witness can also mean the testimony rather than the person delivering it. But in German that is clearly impossible.

A "Zeuge" is a witness as in the guy who tells the court what he saw and that what he tells is his "Zeugnis". And the book mostly follows that distinction. For example, after some introductory notes, it starts with a proclamation titled "Das Zeugnis von drei Zeugen" ("The testimony of three witnesses"). But the book itself is clearly titled a witness(Zeuge) rather than a testimony (Zeugnis). And then it's clearly a witness for rather than of Christ. So the title sounds like the book is supposed to have agency.

Of course this could just be a bad translation (it wouldn't be the only one), but I think it could also be meant that way in light of the Moroni 10:4 thing.

Michael Haycock said...

Hey, thanks for your contribution! It's really interesting to see how Mormon documents are translated into other languages. I'm betting it's more a matter of awkwardness in translation than anything, but it's fascinating to consider the possibilities such misunderstandings open up. For instance, The Book of Mormon *is* often treated as if it had agency!

JohnH said...

84:57 is referring to The Book of Commandments which contained such revelations as like D&C 42 "The Law" and D&C 20.

The New Testament states that Abraham knew the same gospel that the Apostles had and knew of Christ, and not only Abraham but also Moses and all the prophets; though the Jews in general were not given the same knowledge after Moses. I suppose it is not quite the same as the explicit statements found in Moses or Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price but it should show that the Lehites were not unique in using the law of Moses to bring them to Christ.

There are specific and unique covenants that Christ made with Lehi and Nephi and the brother of Jared. The Book of Mormon is a record of a covenant people of the Lord with promises and obligations of that covenant extending to the descendents of that people in our day and to those that receive the record and those that live in the land of promise. This is similar to the Old Testament being a record of God's covenants with the Jews, which continue to be fulfilled in our day and some of which we continue to be under and the New Testament being a record of the fulfillment of many of the covenants made in the Old Testament and the making of additional covenants. Both the New Testament and the Book of Mormon clearly state that God doesn't practice replacement theology; He can make two covenants or more with different groups without contradiction.

Michael Haycock said...

JohnH -

I think you're missing my main point, which is that Mormons misunderstand what the labels "Old Testament" and "New Testament" mean, and that this can injure us in interfaith discussions. If we're going to use Biblical language to describe our scripture and theology, we should be more careful about what we mean by it. "Testament" in the Bible -from which we take "Another Testament of Jesus Christ"- does *not* mean "testimony," but "covenant."

Sure, Mormons believe that covenants can be made by God with many nations at many times; that's a given. However, the people that named the pre-Christian and post-Christian parts of the Bible the "Old and New Testaments" did not share that conception. For them, there were two covenants (a lot of this idea is based on the Last Supper narratives and Paul's extrapolations on the relationship between Judaism and Christianity): that with Israel under Moses, with laws and rites, and that with the whole world under Christ, with faith and grace. These two representation ontologically different soteriologies; Christ took Moses's place. To people that hold this conception, saying that you have "Another Testament" sounds like you're wanting to negate Christ's sacrifice, not that you're bearing testimony of Christ.

Thus, I'm trying to see if the BoM presents a unique divine covenant like the ones that Christians perceive in the Old and New Testaments, and conclude that if there is one, that it's basically what you said: God can change the laws we have to follow through revelation, and we need to adapt to those changes.

Theodore Seeber said...

I'm also a Catholic who came here from Leah's blog. But I also grew up among some pretty weird Christians, including German Apostolic Christians and Mormons- and so I learned comparative theology at an early age.

When I read the book of Mormon for the first time, I also noticed the Testament/Covenant thing- and it failed to convert me because I saw the Book of Mormon (if true, of which I also had great doubt) as being a Covenant limited to one group of people in a specific time/place- I see the Old Covenant/Testament in the same way. Both the Israelis and, if they ever existed, the Nephites have a lesser view of God than Catholicism. Catholic means Universal for a reason- we assert that our view of God is for the salvation of the ENTIRE human race- not just the chosen peoples at specific times/places. And that's how I see the Covenant in the Book of Mormon- a promise to a specific people in a specific time/place that has no relevance to my life.

Michael Haycock said...

Ted Seeber -

First, I'd like to thank you for reading the Book of Mormon and thinking about it in such a thoughtfully theological fashion. I can't say how much of a rarity that is!

But I would also like to ask: do you think the Old Testament has "no relevance" to your life? That seems to me to oppose so much of Christian thought that sees the Old Testament as a shadow and a type of things to come with Christ's life and sacrifice (and thus we can learn not only about how God deals with universal humanity, but also with humans individually or as communities).

Moreover, the Book of Mormon doesn't really present much of a covenant with the Nephites, besides the rather simple one that if they are righteous in their Promised Land, they will not fall into captivity. In fact, it's fairly evident that the Book of Mormon Christology foresee's Peter's rooftop vision even in the midst of a people who follow the Law of Moses:

"For behold, I say unto you that as many of the Gentiles as will repent are the covenant people of the Lord; and as many of the Jews as will not repent shall be cast off; for the Lord covenanteth with none save it be with them that repent and believe in his Son, who is the Holy One of Israel." (2 Nephi 30:2)

Of course, I don't fault you for missing that message, as it could be easily overlooked amid the larger narrative of a 500-page book! ;)