The Maxwell Institute is producing fantastic work, exploring LDS scripture and theology from a scholarly perspective. They are patterning the work B.H. Roberts invited us all to do.
“I believe ‘Mormonism’ affords opportunity…for thoughtful disciples who will not be content with merely repeating some of its truths, but will develop its truths …The Prophet planted the germ-truths of the great dispensation of the fullness of times…The disciples of Mormonism, growing discontented with the necessarily primitive methods which have hitherto prevailed in sustaining the doctrine, will yet take profounder and broader views of the great doctrines committed to the church; and, departing from mere repetition, will cast them in new formulas…until they help to give to the truths received a more forceful expression, and carry it beyond the earlier and cruder stages of its development.”
The Maxwell Institute announced a twelve volume series on the Book of Mormon that will come out in 2020. The list of scholars publishing these volumes.
Sharon J. Harris
In this youtube video, Joseph Spencer, Terryl Givens, and Mark Wrathall present on their work.
All three of these presentations from are fantastic, but I’m going to focus on Mark’s and include a long quote from his presentation.
Alma distinguishes between the function of justice and the aim or purpose of justice. The function of justice is what justice does. The aim of justice is what it’s trying to achieve by doing what it does. Alma calls the aim of justice the works of justice. Work in the sense that this is the work or the goal that justice is trying to produce. You can see this distinction for example in verse 22 of Alma 42. “Justice claimeth the creature and executeth the law, and the law inflicteth the punishment; if not so, the works of justice would be destroyed, and God would cease to be God.”
So the function of justice, what justice does, is execute the law. That’s what we’ve been focusing on so far. The action of rendering each person what she deserves. But what is the work of justice? What is God trying to achieve by rendering her just deserts. The work of justice, Alma teaches, are to bring us to repentance. Now, Alma writes, “how could a man repent except he sin, how could he sin if there was no law. How could there be a law save there be a punishment. Now there was a punishment affixed and a just law given which brought remorse of conscience to man.”
So the function of law is to execute the laws thereby rendering to each what he or she deserves. But the purpose for executing the law is to lead us to repentance to a transformation of our natural state. And how in particular does God want us to transform ourselves? To become beings who no longer seek after our own interests but seek instead for mercy. Seek to compassionately relieve others of their unhappiness. Now surely Alma writes “whosever repenteth shall find mercy and he that findeth mercy and endurth to the end, the same shall be saved.”
We often hear that as saying whosoever repenteth shall receive mercy. The same shall be saved. And that’s true. But to Alma this is the central lesson of Christianity. The purpose of the law is to make us merciful. To help us find mercy. To fill our bowels with mercy for others. So that we stop constantly worrying in a self-interested way about our rights and about our justice. As Jesus himself put it blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy. Thus when Alma says “mercy claimeth her own” that should be heard as saying mercy claims all those who are merciful. So God’s mercy for the merciful may be intentional. Indeed in a sense contrary to the function of justice. But when mercy contributes to the work of justice when it helps us become merciful, then Justice has no grounds for complaint. When a recipient of mercy becomes merciful that achieves the work of justice. It accomplishes what justice demands.
Wrathall, Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Oxford University with a PhD from Cal Berkely, illustrates some philosophically heavyweight topics by analyzing Alma’s arguments for justice and mercy. It’s a similar concept as the idea that the Law of Moses prepared mankind for the higher Law of Christ, ie in Wrathall’s words he might say the work of obedience is love. My mind has been spinning as I ponder on what other gospel concepts could potentially have the same application.
Tangential, but this all prompted some more thinking I’ve had for a long time on the gender pronouns used in Alma 42:24:
For behold, justice exerciseth all his demands, and also mercy claimeth all which is her own; and thus, none but the truly penitent are saved.
Here’s an interesting quote from an article titled Justice and Mercy and Gender in Rabbinic Thought, exploring Jewish Rabbinic Midrash for this same idea.
Our midrash treats the concepts of justice and mercy as abstract manifestations of the emotional attitudes of jealousy and love, thus bridging the traditional philosophic dichotomy between reason and abstract justice, on the one hand, and emotion and mercy, on the other. Divine justice and mercy emerge not as opposing characteristics, but, rather, as two polarities of a unified whole. Similarly, the standard depiction of God as male is reversed. Through metaphoric extension, God is portrayed as a merciful female who is, in turn, the model for all human behavior, male or female.
I wonder if as Joseph saw the words his and her appear on the seer stone as this passage was revealed to him whether this was the seed that germinated in his mind until more revelation came prompting our beautiful doctrine of Mother in Heaven. (end of tangent)
As someone who weighs in on the Apologetic arguments for the Book of Mormon quite frequently, I’m constantly asked why the BOM has any value outside the question of historicity. I take the position that the BOM is non-historical, inspired scripture, with God revealing ideas to Joseph and Joseph expressing that through his own human creativity. But that doesn’t take away anything from the incredibly profound doctrines and ideas in the Book of Mormon.
We as a church should never be ashamed of the Book of Mormon. I’m grateful for the Book of Mormon and its transformational power. It stacks up against any religious text, in my opinion.
I look forward to this series from the Maxwell Institute to delve more deeply into these profound doctrines and ideas of the Book of Mormon.