Too Many Branches, Not Enough Root: D&C SS #2


The second Sunday School lesson of 2013 is a case in point for Ben Park’s observation that “the topical approach doesn’t work.” One of his concerns is that

it overlooks the dynamic nature of the revelations themselves—a nature which makes it impossible to be captured in a static snapshot. The revelations contained in the D&C are a collection of revelatory answers received in response to specific questions, and a careful reading shows that they capture the developing nature of LDS doctrine: “priesthood,” for example, means something different in section 20 than it does in 84 and 107. Ideas of temples, covenants, consecration, salvation, heaven, prophecy, even the Godhead evolved over Joseph Smith’s revelatory career, and specific portions of revelations can only be understood within the context of both 1) the complete revelatory text, and 2) the historical setting and specific questions that led to the revelation.

Our lesson discussion begins with the idea that “the Doctrine and Covenants testifies of Jesus Christ.” Supporting scriptures for this idea are D&C 50:41–44 and D&C 76:22–24.

An investigation of the entire section 50 shows the limitations of the topical approach. Testimony of Jesus Christ is incidental to the section. Even without a complete understanding of the history behind the revelation, it is apparent what had happened to prompt these directives. Members of the church had been carried away with spiritual manifestations. That they might not be deceived, the Elders of the Church were asked to use their discernment to keep these spirits in check (see also D&C 46 which addresses the same issue). Using similar language as the Gospel of John, D&C 50 sets out to clarify what the Spirit is, how it is manifest, and how one might properly respond to spiritual promptings and use spiritual gifts. Several verses make me suspect that the revelation might be referring to Joseph Smith alone as final arbiter of the spirits, rather than the Elders in general:

26 He that is ordained of God and sent forth, the same is appointed to be the greatest, notwithstanding he is the least and the servant of all.

27 Wherefore, he is possessor of all things; for all things are subject unto him, both in heaven and on the earth, the life and the light, the Spirit and the power, sent forth by the will of the Father through Jesus Christ, his Son.

28 But no man is possessor of all things except he be purified and cleansed from all sin.

29 And if ye are purified and cleansed from all sin, ye shall ask whatsoever you will in the name of Jesus and it shall be done.

30 But know this, it shall be given you what you shall ask; and as ye are appointed to the head, the spirits shall be subject unto you…

Therefore I suggest that this section sets Joseph Smith up as the authority on whether or not a manifestation or gift was of divine origin. The final verses in the section are those which are referenced by the lesson manual. They are the words of the Savior, identifying himself as the one giving these instructions to his “little children.” Note the similarity in wording between verse 43 and John 14:

And the Father and I are one. I am in the Father and the Father in me; and inasmuch as ye have received me, ye are in me and I in you. (D&C 50:43)

At that day ye shall know that I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you. (John 14:20)

D&C 50 was written in 1831, a year after the publication of the Book of Mormon. At the time, Joseph’s understanding of the nature of the Godhead was in an early stage of development, and often resembled Trinitarian views. Abinadi’s sermon, for example defined God as a personage of spirit who, clothed in flesh, revealed himself in Jesus Christ (see Mosiah 15: 1,2,5). Joseph Smith’s 1832 account of his first vision described only one personage and did not make the explicit separation of God and Christ that the later versions did.

The second scripture passage in this part of the Sunday School discussion was written a year later, after Joseph Smith had done further translation work in the Gospel of John. Here, the testimony is different. In D&C 76: 22-24, Joseph and Sidney Rigdon see Jesus in a vision, standing on the right hand of God. This distinguishes the two as distinct personages. Thereafter, Joseph’s teachings deemphasize the “one-ness” of the Father and the Son and highlight their separate, corporeal nature.

Setting these two scriptures together thematically as examples of the Doctrine and Covenants’ testimony of Jesus Christ is thus problematic.

jesus good shepherd 3Perhaps the goal of testifying of the divinity of the Savior could be better reached by including the entire section of D&C 50, including its background. Though the Latter-day Saints are being deceived by false spirits, they have the means available to them to distinguish truth from error. The Spirit of Truth can teach them, and they can share this with others. Jesus is their “good shepherd,” and he will not lose his sheep. The culmination to this revelation is verse 45, which is not included in the Sunday School lesson: “And the day cometh that you shall hear my voice and see me, and know that I am.” It’s a striking verse which calls to mind John 10:27, “my sheep hear my voice.” It provides the distinctive doctrine that true followers of the Savior can avoid being deceived by the false philosophies of the world. As they grow in light they can see him, hear him, and come to know him just as the founder of our religion did.

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