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What Is the Doctrine and Covenants? Part I, Introducing the Question

Posted by joespencer on July 25, 2010

Lest anyone be seduced into thinking that the question “What is the Doctrine and Covenants?” is a simple one, I’d like to begin what will become a series of posts on the D&C with a systematic framing of this question.

Of Other Standard Works

The Restoration begins—and in many ways ends—with the Book of Mormon. And, of course, the significance of the Book of Mormon can only be genuinely gauged when it is set alongside the Christian Bible. Though there are many ways of thinking about the intertwining relationship as well as the complex set of differences between the Book of Mormon and the Bible, I would here like to privilege one thematic way of measuring the gap that separates the Book of Mormon from the Bible theologically: in terms of the question of messianism.

The Bible arguably lays out two distinct models of messianism. There is, on the one hand, what might be somewhat reductively called Jewish messianism, the messianism that is spelled out in some of the latest Old Testament literature (the post-exilic prophets especially). There messianic expectation is inseparably connected with eschatological expectation: the coming of the Messiah is understood to be equivalent to the arrival of the end, making the Messiah the figure who brings universal justice in what, by the end of the intertestamental period, is being regarded as a period of centuries (eventually a millennium). On the other hand, there is what might also somewhat reductively be called Christian messianism, the messianism that is worked out in the various writings that make up the New Testament (in the writings of Saint Paul especially). Here messianic expectation has effectively been split in two: the Messiah had already come without the eschaton having dawned immediately, which meant that the coming of the Messiah had in some sense to be uncoupled from strict prophetic eschatology; and so there began to be talk about a second coming of the Messiah, an eschatological coming of the Messiah, one to be associated fully and without reserve with the prophetic expectation.

These two models might be formalized a bit. On what I have here called the Jewish model of messianism, the Messiah functions as a kind of absolute end point, a rupture that brings history to an effective end. On what I have here called the Christian model of messianism, however, the Messiah functions as a kind of breaking point within history that opens history onto the possibility of its end, a possibility to be further realized by the return of the Messiah. The two models alternate between what might be called a teleological messianism and what might be called a periodizing messianism.

What, though, of the Book of Mormon?

The Book of Mormon breaks with these two models by introducing a third model of messianism. From almost the beginning of the Nephite history—and significantly within a text (First and Second Nephi) that Mormon claims not to have altered in accordance with his own post-advent Christian theological proclivities—one finds the development of a unique, New World Christology that cannot be reduced to either of the Old World models developed in the Bible. Here, as in the Old Testament, there is a profound sense of messianic expectation, but the anxiety-inducing eschatological mystery is stripped away, replaced with startlingly specific anticipations: the Nephites know in advance exactly where the Messiah is going to appear, know the name of the Messiah’s mother, know the crucial events of the Messiah’s life, and even know that the Messiah’s work will not result in the eschaton. It is as if the Nephites have, from the very beginning, a kind of New Testament or Christian messianism at work in their theological reflections, except that the Messiah had not yet come. This complex relationship to the Messiah comes to its fruition when Nephite prophets reflect on its odd implications for their own relationship vis-a-vis the Law of Moses. Here they find that they have to experience the Law typologically in advance, “teaching the law of Moses, and the intent for which it was given; persuading them to look forward unto the Messiah, and believe in him to come as though he already was” (Jarom 1:11).

If this model is formalized, it seems the Book of Mormon models a messianism in which the Messiah has always already come, a messianism in which, though the “actual” event of the Messiah’s coming will happen at some point later on, messianic fulfillment has always functionally already happened. Here, that is, there is neither a teleological nor a periodizing rupture, but instead a kind of foundational rupture, as if all of history were contained within the space opened up by the Messiah.

The implications of the introduction of this third model for eschatology are fascinating. Whereas the Jewish model of messianism effectively equates the eschaton with the messianic advent, and whereas the Christian model of messianism effectively displaces the eschaton from a first to a second messianic advent, the Nephite model of messianism seems to disentangle the eschaton completely from any messianic advent. In the Book of Mormon generally, the “Second Coming” is not on the radar. The eschaton that marks the end of history for the Nephite prophets is rather the event of the gathering of Israel and of the building of a New Jerusalem. The Messiah is, in the Book of Mormon, most directly associated with the fulfillment of the Law, while the effectively non-messianic eschaton is most directly associated with the fulfillment of the Prophets. (This is a bit more complicated than just that, particularly in the last chapters of Third Nephi, but I’m going to leave such complications out of account for the moment.)

Three models of messianism: teleological messianism, more or less worked out in the Old Testament; periodizing messianism, more or less worked out in the New Testament; and foundational messianism, more or less worked out in the Book of Mormon. Each of these models of messianism, importantly, is associated quite directly with a strongly outlined model of typology as well. I don’t want here to go through these models of typology in detail, but I do want at least to provide a basic picture of them for reasons that will become clear in a moment. The Jewish model of messianism is worked out alongside a notion of typology that works forward from the moment of prophetic anticipation: the prophet’s “predictions” might be said to “typologize” the experience of the presence in anticipation of what is said to be coming. The Christian model of messianism is worked out alongside a notion of typology that works backward from the moment of initial messianic fulfillment: the Christian’s having passed through the anti-typical event allows her to make typological sense of all that passed before the messianic event. The Nephite model of messianism is worked out alongside a notion of typology that reworks the present in light of the always-already-having-happened-ness of the Messiah’s work: the Nephite experiences all things present in such a way that they have a kind of halo or invisible other side, detectable with the eye of typological faith. All this will become helpful further along.

If all of what I’ve laid out here—and at some length—can be taken as the real theological contribution of the Book of Mormon, then it isn’t too much of a stretch to suggest that Mormonism as such began as a kind of concerted effort to introduce Nephite messianism and Nephite notions of typology to a world polarized between Jewish and Christian approaches to these things. (Indeed, Nephi himself portrays the Book of Mormon as breaking a vicious dialectic between precisely the Jews and the Gentiles/European Christians. What I’m laying out here, that is, is not at all foreign to what the Book of Mormon says about itself.) But if such was the “mission” of Mormonism, it obviously faced an enormous obstacle from the very beginning, namely, the authoritative texts that justified the rival models of how reality is to be experienced. That is, the Book of Mormon faced as its greatest obstacle the Bible precisely.

The way of solving this problem quickly became clear: the Bible had to be rewritten. It is not too much of a stretch, I think, to see the entire project of creating what we generally today call the Joseph Smith Translation (but what I will refer to, following the academic standard, as the New Translation) as being a systematic “Nephitizing” of the Bible. The Old Testament was, as Joseph proceeded through his work on the New Translation, filled out with Nephite notions of messianism and typology: even Adam knew of Christ, and in fact learned early on that his sacrificial rituals were themselves types of the Messiah’s already-worked-out atonement. In effect, the Book of Mormon—which had itself had something to say about how the Bible had been “tampered with” (though I’m not at all attempting to provide here an outline of what I think that tampering amounted to)—called for the revision of the Bible, called for a correction of the Bible that would “restore” it to a fully Nephite messianism. The New Testament needed less revision for full Nephitization than did the Old Testament, but even there the revisions bear witness to this overall project.

Thus, by 1833 (when Joseph Smith more or less “finished” his work on the New Translation), Mormonism had provided a new (or rather, as Mormons saw and see it, a long-lost) model of messianism and of typology worked out not only in a new book of scripture but also in a systematic revision of the Bible. To some extent, it must have seemed that Joseph Smith’s translation work was done. Certainly, by the time Joseph was finishing the New Translation project, the flow of revelations that would be included in the Doctrine and Covenants had slowed considerably, the systematic organization of the Church hierarchy was well under way, and Joseph seems to have felt as if his work was nearing completion. All of this changed, however, when the Church passed through a number of surprising events in 1835 and 1836, and especially when these were followed by mass apostasy in 1837 and 1838, and even more especially when that was followed by a kind of complete collapse of the Church in 1838 and 1839.

In 1835, the Church suddenly found itself the owner of a number of scrolls of papyrus on which, according to Joseph Smith, the writings of Abraham and Joseph were to be found. In 1836, Joseph and Oliver were rather surprised to learn that they had not received all of the priesthood keys they were to be given when Elijah in particular bestowed on them the sealing keys. These two events focused Joseph Smith again on the task of translation, and also gave him to realize that more remained to be done with regard to the structure and focus of the Church. In 1837 and 1838, mass apostasy in the wake of the Kirtland bank disaster forced Joseph to realize that the Saints generally had entirely missed the point of his revelations and translations, and that he would have himself to take a more central position in order to set things straight. And in 1838 and 1839 when the Mormon War in Missouri resulted in the incarceration of the Church’s leaders, the deprivation of the Saints generally, and the mass migration of the Church to a new location in Nauvoo, Joseph found himself wondering if even God had abandoned the project of Mormonism.

Out of all this came, in scriptural terms, the Book of Abraham—as well as a kind of systematizing of the consequences of the Nephite messianism that Joseph had done so much work to set in motion. Beginning with Joseph’s work on the translation of the papyri, questions of messianism more or less disappeared, but it can—and I think should—be argued that what Joseph was now producing is inseparable from what was by this time an established Mormon notion of messianism: the revisionary approach to the Bible that had followed from work on the Book of Mormon had called for a close attention to everything pre-Mosaic, and had placed heavy emphasis on the eschatological nature of the Abrahamic covenant. Abraham would be the central figure of everything Joseph had to say from about 1835 until his death in 1844. The so-called “Nauvoo theology” is thus, it seems to me, little more than Joseph’s systematic exposition of what he had already had in his hands from the beginning of his ministry. As I read the “expansion” of the Nauvoo period, it marks nothing novel; rather, it draws consequences from what had already been granted.

Three translation projects, all profoundly rooted in and shaped by the systematic exposition of Nephite messianism (and typology). And these three translation projects more or less make up our current “Standard Works,” except for a one volume: the Doctrine and Covenants. What can be said, in light of all the above, about that strange book? What has it to do with the story of scripture I’ve here laid out?

What Is the Doctrine and Covenants

The question, it seems, is to sort out the essence of the relationship between the Doctrine and Covenants and the several translation projects that make up the rest of the Standard Works? That is, the task is to ask after what role the D&C is meant to play in the drama of Joseph’s prophetic systematic introduction of Nephite messianism into the modern world.

First things first, it should be noted how difficult it really is to take the Doctrine and Covenants as being either (1) an exposition of Mormon messianism or (2) a systematization of the consequences of Mormon messianism. As regards the former, one finds it inevitably difficult to discover any consistent emphasis on anything related to the messianism of the Book of Mormon. (Indeed, if any kind of messianism occupies the Doctrine and Covenants, it seems actually to be the New Testament messianism of Christianity: the revelations do quite consistently, unlike the Book of Mormon, lay emphasis on what appears to be an eschatological Second Coming.) As regards the latter, it must be recognized that the Doctrine and Covenants is anything but systematic in its current form: more a laundry list of selected revelations most of which were received before Joseph had finished the New Translation, the volume does little to draw any consequences from Mormon messianism.

In a word, it seems it would be inappropriate to take the Doctrine and Covenants as bearing any direct or even immediately derived relationship to Mormon messianism at the doctrinal level.

A second approach immediately presents itself, one that has strong appeal for a number of reasons. The Doctrine and Covenants can be understood to be something like an almost-narrative contextualization of Joseph’s several translation projects. That is, the volume can be taken as gathering together a series of revelations that have first and foremost to do with Joseph’s work as a prophet and translator, and so as a kind of running commentary on how the several messianically-inflected translation projects fitted together. According to this sort of approach, the Doctrine and Covenants would be roughly divisible into three broad parts: sections 2-27 are Joseph’s revelations associated with the translation of the Book of Mormon; sections 28-109 are Joseph’s revelations associated with the New Translation; and section 110-132 are Joseph’s revelations associated with the translation of the Book of Abraham.

Such an approach to the Doctrine and Covenants is perhaps strengthened by the arrangement of the revelations within the volume as we have it today: the revelations are, more or less, arranged in chronological order, thus allowing the several revelations received during and in association with each translation project to be grouped together and read in an at least quasi-historical fashion. But so soon as this confirmation of sorts is pointed out, the entire question is problematized through and through, given that the Doctrine and Covenants has not always had the “chronologized” shape it now has, and most importantly, it had no such shape when it was first produced. Obviously, some explanation is in order.

The Doctrine and Covenants appeared for the first time under its current name in 1835, a full five years after the organization of the Church. It was by that point already at least the fifth attempt to gather in some kind of systematic fashion Joseph’s several revelations. It was organized in anything but a chronological order, according to a structure that I will exposit at length in a subsequent post. For the moment, I will just say that it appeared in a strictly institutional order, the revelations being arranged according to the needs of a newly shaped hierarchy (the system of quorums and councils that was just coming into existence and which still structures the Church today). Whatever the implications of this other way of organizing the volume, it should be clear that the intentions of the Prophet Joseph with the volume were distinct from the possibility outlined above: he clearly did not understand the volume to serve as a kind of narrativization of the several translation projects. On this point, it should be noted that the Doctrine and Covenants retained its institutional shape until 1876 (more on the 1876 edition in a subsequent post), more than three decades after Joseph Smith had died. The 1844 edition, in preparation when Joseph died, was structured precisely as the 1835 volume had been (more on the 1844 edition as well in a subsequent post).

It was thus Orson Pratt, and only long after Joseph Smith’s martyrdom, who provided us with a Doctrine and Covenants that can be interpreted as being a kind of “history” of Joseph’s prophetic career. Interestingly, though, it was also Orson Pratt who in 1857 provided, in a brief article in the Millennial Star (the Church’s newspaper published in England), the key to sorting out Joseph’s lack of interest in understanding the Doctrine and Covenants in a historical fashion. This “key” deserves close attention. Orson wrote: “Joseph, the Prophet, in selecting the revelations from the manuscripts, and arranging them for publication, did not . . . think it necessary to publish them all in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, but left them to be published more fully in his History” (Millennial Star 19.17 [25 April 1857]: 260). From this it seems at least to have been the case—given that Orson was indeed familiar with Joseph’s approach to the revelations—that Joseph Smith intended the Doctrine and Covenants to serve one, essentially non-historical purpose, because his history was to serve the other, strictly historical purpose. That is, it seems that Joseph intended to publish two distinct records of his revelations, a kind of “handbook of instructions” version on the one hand, institutionally organized (the Doctrine and Covenants as first arranged in 1835), and a kind of “book of the acts of Joseph Smith” version on the other hand, narratively organized (the History of the Church as definitively begun in 1838). From Orson’s statement, in fact, it would seem that Joseph did not aim at having the D&C contain all the revelations, only those that were important to the organization and structure of the institution. The whole collection of revelations was only to be gathered into a narratively structured history.

If this division between the Doctrine and Covenants and the History of Joseph Smith is valid—and it will be seen, soon enough here, to be at the very least too simplistic—then it might be possible to suggest that Joseph aimed at eventually setting only the latter (his history) side by side with the (New Translation of the) Bible and the Book of Mormon, relegating the Doctrine and Covenants to a distinct, and perhaps lesser, essentially institutional role. It is possible, in other words, to suggest—however tentatively—that the Doctrine and Covenants was not originally intended to be held at the same “canonical” level as the Bible and Book of Mormon, while the eventually-to-be-completed history would be (or would have been). (Note that the simplest way to argue against this idea is simply to point out the elaborate official ceremony with which the Doctrine and Covenants was accepted by the Church in 1835, clearly underscoring the volume’s strict canonical status. However, even this is actually tenuous evidence for any claim that the Doctrine and Covenants was originally taken to be the “equal” of the other volumes of scripture. It is significant, first, that the other volumes of scripture were never presented in the early Church for such a sustaining vote. And second, it must be recognized that the content of the Doctrine and Covenants in 1835 was quite different from the volume today, a good portion of its content then being fully non-revelatory. Arguments against full canonical status in 1835 must be presented elsewhere. For the moment, it suffices to recognize that there are ways of arguing against such a status, that such a status should not necessarily be taken as a given.)

Of course, none of this is meant to suggest that the Doctrine and Covenants does not now have a canonical status equal with the other Standard Works. Indeed, one of the reasons I’m trying to sort out precisely these questions is because I’m driven by the question of how what seems, perhaps, not to have been of full canonical status came eventually to have such.

By this point in the discussion, I think it has become clear that whatever relationship the Doctrine and Covenants sustains with the (messianic and typological modes of the) other Standard Works, no simple approach to the question can unearth that relationship. The volume of “modern revelations” is a deeply complex volume, enveloped within an immensely difficult history that needs to be sorted out. In order even to get a start on understanding the nature of the Doctrine and Covenants—of this volume that seems to have no immediate relation to other books of scripture except that it derives in some way from God—it seems it is necessary to pay close and careful attention to the history of the formation of the volume. How did it come to be in the first place, and what shapes has it taken over the years? And, especially, how does this history help us to make sense of the thing?

As I read the history, the Doctrine and Covenants might be said to have passed through what are so far eight distinct periods, each period providing a fascinatingly distinct understanding of what the volume was intended to be or to accomplish. Alongside these eight periods runs a parallel history of Joseph Smith’s (and others’) attempts to “narrativize” his revelations in a separate but obviously intertwined volume.

What I propose here to do is the following: I would like, in a series of eight posts, to work systematically through the history of the Doctrine and Covenants, keeping a constant eye on the project of publishing the history of the Church, in order just to get a kind of understanding of what the strange volume of the D&C really is. The eight posts will cover the eight periods mentioned above. They deserve names here at the very least: (1) Before 1832 (before the revelations appeared in print); (2) 1832 (when the revelations first appeared in print); (3) 1833 (when the revelations were first gathered into some kind of “book” form); (4) 1835 (when the revelations appeared for the first time in the shape of the Doctrine and Covenants); (5) 1844 (when the second edition of the Doctrine and Covenants was published shortly after the death of Joseph Smith); (6) 1876 (when Orson Pratt reorganized the volume completely); (7) 1921 (when the Lectures on Faith were dropped, the first official declaration was added, and a few other significant changes were made); and (8) 1981 (when two sections were added to the volume, along with with the second official declaration, and the volume was definitively coupled with the other Standard Works). Running alongside this eight-part history will be a parallel history, addressed within the same eight posts: the history of Joseph’s history.

Following this series of eight posts, I will write a couple of other posts: (1) a post drawing some initial conclusions from all the work accomplished in the series of eight; (2) a post addressing the question of messianism in the Doctrine and Covenants; and finally, (3) a post attempting at last to outline a theory of “what the Doctrine and Covenants is.” Of course, where these posts will take me is, for the moment, rather difficult to anticipate.

For now, suffice it to say that there is a good deal of work here to do.

3 Responses to “What Is the Doctrine and Covenants? Part I, Introducing the Question”

  1. Robert C. said

    I’m anxious to see where this takes you, Joe. I’d also love to hear a bit more about what your expectations are—perhaps as a way to document your surprise?—esp. regarding the messianism you see at work with the D&C.

    Also, FYI, I noticed this post that effectively takes Elias, Elijah, and Messiah as 3 names for Joseph used for his various “eschatologies” (in scare quotes because I’m translating that article in terms of this post). What I think is interesting about this approach is that way that it orders how you might think about these issues—i.e., first Greek (NT?), then Hebrew (OT), then Messianic (??)….

  2. joespencer said

    Interesting link, Robert. Thanks.

    As for expectations, I’m trying not to have any yet. :) But, for the moment, I think I do anticipate at least something like the following in terms of D&C messianism: I suspect that there will be quite a gap, actually, between all other Mormon messianism and D&C messianism, that while the former work on this the-Messiah-has-always-already-come model, the D&C will work on a more-or-less-New-Testament-the-Messiah-is-going-to-come-again model. I’d be quite happy to be surprised.

    I have much more by way of expectations regarding the the various notions of canonicity worked out in the various editions of the D&C, however. That is because I’ve been feeling my way towards this project for a couple months (really since I began to work seriously on my paper for the D&C 42 conference, or even since I began to work a year ago or so on a paper on Orson Pratt’s involvement in the 1876 edition). I won’t spell out anything of all this here, since there are so many details that it would become cumbersome, and the details will stretch out over a full eight posts.

    At any rate, I’m glad to see that someone’s interested in this absurd project. Of course, I could have guessed that you at least would be. :)

  3. […] What Is the Doctrine and Covenants? Part I, Introducing the Question […]

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