Book of Mormon, Joseph Spencer, and Collective Salvation

I think we’re finally being to see the fruits of what President Benson was really talking about, in regards to taking the Book of Mormon seriously.

On the heels of Brant Gardner’s Second Witness Book of Mormon Commentary Series, published by Kofford Books, and Grant Hardy’s groundbreaking Understanding the Book of Mormon, published by Oxford, the wonderful Salt Press just released an absolutely fantastic book, called “An Other Testament: On Typology”, by Joseph M. Spencer.

This book has already been reviewed magnificently by BHodges over at By Common Consent. I can only echo what he has said there.

The entire book is available for free as a PDF download here, but also as a hardbound purchase here. While I initially read this in its electronic edition, I’m going to want a hardbound edition for my library.

Before I express my thoughts, I want to reproduce most of the book’s Epilogue. If this doesn’t get you interested in reading the rest of the book to see how some of the assumed positions stated in this piece were argued, I’m not sure what will. Following this are some of my thoughts on one key aspect of its implications:

But first, Joseph Spencer’s Epilogue:

The Book of Mormon identifies, as part of its own narrative, two distinct but not entirely separable typological methodologies. Not only was Abinadi’s model of typology formulated in response to the abuse of Nephi’s model, but the latter was reintroduced by Christ himself as a displacement of the former. Each version of typology in the Book of Mormon is at some point supplanted by the other, as if each was meant to repair unavoidable weaknesses in the other. While Nephi’s model too easily lent itself to the abuses and excesses of an unchecked Nephite monarchy, Abinadi’s too easily obscured the vital covenantal focus of the Prophets. Thus the Abinadite turn attempts to correct monarchical excess by emphasizing the soteriological message of the small plates (generally associated with Jacob), while Christ’s return to Nephi attempts to keep the exclusively Christian focus of the Abinadite tradition from crowding out the covenantal history projected in the Old Testament.

It is time, at last, to bring this complex entanglement of two typological methodologies to bear on the question of chapter 1: How is the Book of Mormon, this other testament, to be read? If the Book of Mormon, to be read convertingly, must be read typologically, what typological method ought to be used in reading it?

Speaking descriptively, when the Book of Mormon is read eventally rather than historically, it is most often—if not almost exclusively—read in Abinadi’s fashion. The common approach is to read Book of Mormon narratives and prophetic sermons as so many dissociated pieces, all of which can be taken as types of one’s personal experience with the Savior. The “war chapters” illustrate the battle against Satan, the sons of Mosiah provide insights into doing missionary work, the scene at the waters of Mormon outlines the baptismal covenant, the Gadianton robbers show the dangers of radical politics, Nephi’s journey through the wilderness exemplifies the universal journey through life, etc. Moreover, because this Abinadite take on scripture is bound up with a relatively flat approach to Isaiah—one that generally leads to a lack of interest in Isaiah—the popularity of the Abinadite approach to scripture among Latter-day Saints today is coupled with a similar lack of interest in Isaiah, especially in the Book of Mormon.

What should be said about our tendency to privilege this Abinadite approach to reading scripture? Just as Christ and Mormon both make room for Abinadite typology within the Book of Mormon, I believe room must be made for the application of Abinadite typology to the Book of Mormon. Though I argue that Nephi’s approach to scripture deserves more attention, I do not believe Abinadite devotional readings of the Book of Mormon should be disparaged. Even the associated distaste for Isaiah is excusable. Isaiah’s writings arguably say nothing about individual salvation. Nonetheless, there is a weakness in the Abinadite approach and, consequently, a danger in privileging it—as happens when, for example, Nephi’s highly technical term “likening” comes to be associated directly with Abinadite devotional reading. Christ himself, in Third Nephi, implicitly identifies the weakness of an exclusively Abinadite approach to scripture: it is too easy, in devotional reading, to ignore—or even to disapprove of—the persistent prophetic focus on the Abrahamic covenant and the community that this covenant is meant to found. All too often, Abinadite readings risk disintegrating into just so many  individualistic and ultimately idiosyncratic devotional reveries.

But again, to identify this weakness and the associated danger is not to call for an abandoning of the Abinadite approach. Devotional readings undertaken with real intent are arguably essential in building and strengthening individual testimony. But it seems critical to me that the Book of Mormon itself calls for a supplementation of this approach with another, arguably higher approach—namely, that modeled by Nephi. What would a Nephite reading of the Book of Mormon look like? At the  very least, it would recognize that the eschatological fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant—in which the book itself plays a central part—is the unifying center of the Book of Mormon. It would thus read and receive the Book of Mormon as a gift. (Moroni, in Moroni 10:4, closes the Book of Mormon by asking his readers not only to pray about its truth, but also simply to receive the book: “And when ye shall receive these things….”) A Nephi-like approach to the Book of Mormon would see the Book of Mormon as pointing to its own fulfillment, to the eschatological event in which its own fullest significance will be revealed. The Book of Mormon would thus be read not only as a gathering of texts about the covenant, but as a singular text intertwined, in its very material existence, with the actual fulfillment of the covenant.

Inevitably, as well, this other approach to this other testament would be coupled with an other approach to Isaiah. Following Nephi’s lead, it would give itself to uncovering Isaiah’s theological themes, to seeing how they are put to use in the Book of Mormon, and to reframing the meaning of the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant already set in motion by the book’s translation and promulgation. In short, a Nephite reading of the Book of Mormon—on this point sharply differing from an Abinadite reading—would take Isaiah to be the book’s keystone, rather than its unfortunate rock of offense.

This approach to scripture is too rare. And if Nephi’s typology is to Abinadi’s as the higher law is to the lower, then it seems appropriate to suggest that the usual devotional readings of the Book of Mormon not only can but should be supplemented by the covenantal approach, by an interpretive method that recognizes not only the importance of one’s personal daily engagement with Christ, but also the vital importance of giving oneself to the communal, covenantal event launched, according to the Book of Mormon, by the Book of Mormon itself. The Book of Mormon, read this way, will typologically and salvifically rewrite not only the reader’s individual history, but the history of the whole world.

Still with me?

If you’re anything like me, you’ve found a great deal in this, alone, to take home to ponder and consider.

One aspect alone that stood out to me is the apparent tension between Nephi’s emphasis on Collective Salvation (the redemption and salvation of Covenant People as a whole), and the Abinadite emphasis on personal conversion and salvation. As Spencer noted, the vast majority of devotional works published on the Book of Mormon (and the Standard Works in general) emphasize and work towards helping achieve peace in the context of one’s individual redemption, salvation, and perfection.

It is a paradigm shift of sorts to view this emphasis on personal redemption as simply a step along the way, a law-of-Moses digression in emphasis (as Spencer relates in an earlier chapter), to catching the grander vision of communal, corporate, and collective salvation for all the people of God, both temporally and spiritually.

It was – and is – in my view a needed digression.

But reading the Book of Mormon, we can perhaps see that the prize our eyes should be on as a whole is the well being and success of God’s people as a whole. In this reading, Nephi sees the Book of Mormon – as a whole – as a catalyst to bringing that goal to pass.

In other words, as I see this, while one purpose and effect of the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture is indeed to make individuals more Christlike, that is not the endgame. Or rather, being Christlike itself is not complete and fulfilled without actively going out to save, not just the one, but the All.

The end perhaps is to have God’s children open their eyes to the Big Picture, see their place (and every else’s) place in it, and work together to build up the Covenant people, and to do what it takes to see to their temporal and spiritual redemption. The two are not to be separated in Nephi’s mind.

For those who may feel there is a tension between concepts of Collective Salvation and Personal Salvation, this book has suggested to me a fascinating way how the two are complimentary and inseparable aspects of the core overarching message of the entire Book of Mormon.

I highly recommend exploring this book. I don’t promise your mind will go the same places mine did, but I can feel safe predicting that anyone approaching it will find insights that will cause them to see something worth pondering that will increase  appreciation for The Book of Mormon. And perhaps even feel, on their next reading, as if they’re reading it for the first time.

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