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Thinking about Alma…

Posted by joespencer on August 18, 2008

Though some important arguments have been made against the idea, it has become something of a commonplace to understand Paul as the inventor of Christianity. Could something much the same be said of Alma the Younger in the Book of Mormon, that is, that he is something like the inventor of Nephite Christianity?

Let me first begin by explaining what I do not mean. I don’t at all intend to imply that no Christology can be found before Alma. Not only is it vital to see the developing Christology Nephi attributes to Lehi and the far more systematic Christology Nephi formalizes after Lehi’s death, one must also pay careful attention to the parallel Christologies of Benjamin and Abinadi in the Book of Mosiah, which come into a rather complex relation with the almost dialectical interplay between Alma’s (the Elder’s) non-statist church of the wilderness and Mosiah’s inherited Nephite monarchical state. Nephite Christology does not at all begin with Alma the Younger; but it might perhaps best be said that it is brought to its end, to its fullest expression, with him.

Just this preliminary sketch suggests that there remains a good deal of work to do even to lay out the basic outline of Nephite Christology. What does Lehi inherit from the Old World, and how does that reformulate itself through the several visions of the journey narrative? How does Nephi build on and/or depart from that initial Lehite Christology, and what shape does Nephi’s Christology ultimately take? What can be said about the status of that Christology during the stretch between Nephi and Benjamin? What is Benjamin’s Christology, and how is it intertwined with the institution of monarchy? What is, most importantly, Abinadi’s Christology, and how does it respond to the situation in which Abinadi announced it? How did that Abinadite Christology take shape in Alma the Elder’s wilderness church, and how was that changed as the church came into the land of Zarahemla? What effects did the dialectics of church and state in Mosiah 25-29 do to Nephite Christology, and how does the major role Alma the Younger’s conversion played in that dialectics affect that Christology? How does the collapse of Nephite monarchy play into the development of Nephite Christology, especially in light of the sudden departure of the sons of Mosiah? And then come the questions about Alma’s own articulations: What is Alma’s Christology in Alma 1? Alma 5? Alma 7? Alma 8-16? Alma 29? Alma 30? Alma 31-35? Alma 36-38? Alma 39-42? Does Nehor force any adjustments? Korihor? The people of Ammonihah? The preaching of Amulek (on two occasions)? The Zoramites? The return of the sons of Mosiah? The influx of the Anti-Nephi-Lehis? The massive destruction in the war of Alma 27-28? Etc., etc., etc.

All of these questions, it seems to me, point the way toward a serious engagement of Alma as a theologian. Mormon has provided us with a remarkable amount of contextualization for each of Alma’s speeches, and we have enough of a political framework to raise other important questions. Perhaps it is time for a full-blown biography of Alma the Theologian.

At any rate, I want to think carefully about Alma’s place in the development of a Book of Mormon doctrine of Christ.

Any thoughts?

8 Responses to “Thinking about Alma…”

  1. Gerald Smith said

    I’ve long pondered why Alma the Elder had to institute a Church in Zarahemla, or be given authority to do so by Mosiah. Wasn’t there already a church available in Zarahemla? Would there not have been a high priest already there?
    Or did Alma set up a Church based upon his/Abinadi’s Christology, possibly differing from what may already have been established in Zarahemla.
    I do see that Alma the Younger’s Christology as a final establishing of the Church – at least until the time of Christ’s coming. But his Christology was based firmly on his father’s development of the faith – including the ordinances, how priests were set apart to preach, and excommunication.
    So, if anyone had a bigger hand in the development of the Church itself, I would suggest Alma the Elder.
    Where Alma the Younger made major changes would have been in missionary work and spreading the gospel.
    It may be that prior to Alma the Elder, Zarahemla had a home grown form of religion, based on the patriarch model. Alma the Elder would develop a societal base for the religion, an actual Church in Zarahemla and surrounding area. Alma the Younger would then have been the one to spread the gospel and official Church to the outer reaches of the Nephite lands.

  2. BrianJ said

    Joe, this is very interesting. As you note, there was already a strong Christology before Alma the Younger. This is not quite the case with the NT and Paul—Paul practically “owns” the NT. That doesn’t mean the analysis is not worth doing, but I think the BoM is perhaps more comparable to the OT (a gradual development of theology over a long period by many strong personalities). Maybe the fact that all of the NT writers were more or less contemporaries hinders the comparison you try to make.

  3. joespencer said

    Gerald,

    Interesting comments. I don’t see there having been a Zarahemla church before Alma the Elder came into town. The religion seems to have been a state religion, inseparable from the political organization.

    Brian,

    You’re right, of course. I suppose I want the comparison not to make it possible to work out a full-blown analogy, but to help us to see how massively important Alma is for Nephite theology. Moving along the lines of your shift to the OT, it might be worth comparing Alma to, say, Second Isaiah…

  4. Tom D said

    Mosiah 29:47 notes as part of his obituary that Alma the Elder was the “founder” of their church. The gospel of Jesus Christ was certainly available among the Lehites before then, but it seems likely that it was organized along patriarchal / state-church lines. It was in Mosiah II and Alma the Elder’s day that a church separate from the State was organized. This is an important step that appears to have been infrequent in history.

    I’m not sure where you guys are going with this “development” of theology. The amount of light and truth on the earth does indeed seem to vary from time to time and place to place, but true religion is always revealed from above (though usually not without work D&C 9:7-10 and never without faith in Christ).

    The development of the Church in Mosiah seems to go hand in hand with with the massive expansion of the Nephite-dominated nation. The details recorded in the text and read in-between-the-lines are remarkably consistent. It would certainly be hard to have written a work of fiction so brief and yet so complex. Take care.

  5. Robert C. said

    Joe, fascinating questions. I’m esp. intrigued by your suggestion of linking Alma’s Christology and the dissolution of monarchy. Can you say a bit more about that? One thought is that it seems the notion of responsibility seems to be expanded upon by Alma, from the idea mentioned in Mosiah 18 about taking upon each others’ burdens to Christ as the one who takes upon himself the transgressions of everyone, setting an example for the kind of unity among the believers (contra the class divisions and what not that Alma encountered esp. in Ammonihah and among the Zoramites, which might be thought as a push back toward monarchical-like hierarchy, away from the more egalitarian, democratic reign of judges??), and reversing the persecution-tendency of the world in his atoning sacrifice.

    Also, I noticed yesterday in the latest FARMS Insights newsletter that John Welch is working on a full-blown book on Alma’s sermons. I noticed also that they seemed to have renamed the JBMS to the Journal of Book of Mormon and Restoration Scriptureor something like that (I’ll post the exact title when I’m in my office with the exact title). Interesting….

    Tom D., I think you raise an interesting point regarding a kind of tension between revelation and what I’ll loosely call “the world.” I think one reason that revelation is needed is precisely because the world is always in flux, and since we live in a temporal, fallen world, our understanding of the scriptures and God’s revelations is always tainted by the world. So God calls and inspires messengers to come and preach the message of the gospel (viz., faith and repentance) in the language of the world so that the world might be given a fair chance to accept or reject the divine message. If we try to reduce the message given to simply “faith and repentance,” without paying careful attention to the difference and development between the different sermons in different passages and books, and if we don’t pay attention to the socio-political happenings, then it seems to me that we’re not really reading the Book of Mormon—rather, we’re just reading our own presuppositions about what faith and repentance mean and entail into the text (basically, making the text an idol of our own making, rather than diligently searching so as to facilitate new insights and thoughts—i.e., revelation…). I don’t mean to imply that we won’t find “remarkable consisten[cy],” but I think the danger is to focus only on what’s consistent without letting the rich diversity of the text reveal things to us that a reductive reading wouldn’t reveal…. (By the way, if you think anyone here is suggesting the Book of Mormon is a fiction, in the sense that it is not God’s word, then I think you’ve misread what we’re trying to do.)

  6. robf said

    Well, I have to admit that I haven’t ever looked at or for any progression in Nephite teachings about Christ, let alone within the teachings of Alma. I’m still trying to work out what is happening with changes in Nephite society–there are so many gaps to fill. The more I read the more complex it seems. We seem to have almost nothing about pre-Mosiah social organization. It isn’t entirely clear what kind of “king” Mosiah, Benjamin, or Mosiah really were. Add in the more numerous Mulekites (which we know almost nothing of) and even the descendants of the Priests of Noah (which are almost as numerous as the “Nephites” when we see them again in the wars at the end of the Book of Alma) and it seems like the “Nephites” (the term seems to shift all over) are probably a pretty small lineage group in a larger constellation of competing lineages within several types of society and places moving from the City of Nephi to Zarahemla and later to Bountiful. The sociology is so complex and we normally flatten it all out and layer our own presuppositions over the top. Only after teasing this out more do I think we can really come to grips with how these changes may be tied to changing theologies. As for my part, I have a hard time getting beyond the Book of Mosiah–or maybe even Omni–there’s just so much there.

    For now, I’m reading Zevit’s Religions of Ancient Israel to try and wrap my head around the social and religious world of Lehi’s time as one starting point. Then Mesoamerican anthropology as another. I’ve got a long way to go.

    But it would be cool to unflatten out the theology as well as the sociology, if possible!

  7. joespencer said

    Thanks for these thoughts, all.

    I’ll echo Robert’s response to you, Tom, though I will add just one thought, perhaps not really even an addition: I don’t see “development” as suggesting that one theology in the Book of Mormon is better than another, only that it is a different way of sorting out the meaning of the truth. I see all the prophets has having been in relation to the same God, but each has a very different way of communicating the truth of that encounter to the people, the message being attuned to the particulars of that age. Our task in reading, I think, is to sort out how those variations help us to understand the full meaning of the plan, etc. Development, in a word, is not progressive or evolutionary; only historical.

  8. Robert C. said

    The JBMS seems to have been renamed: Journal of Book of Mormon and Restoration Scripture. Also, the other previously announced publication seems to have been renamed Studies in the Bible and Antiquity (I think it previously going to focus only on the Old Testament).

    These are mentioned in the Maxwell Institute Insights newsletter, v. 28, no. 2 (apparently not available online yet…).

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