Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Interrogating My Faith: "Fulness" of the Gospel?

"You could say that I was born Mormon and will likely die Mormon. Why then am I always interrogating my own faith? I am always asking why I believe. What do my beliefs mean? How can they be explained and justified? I have sympathy for questioners because I am a questioner too. Settled as faith is in my own life, I understand why people doubt. I see in questioning something deeply religious as well as deeply human..." --Richard Bushman, Mormon Scholars Testify

In that same spirit of asking/interrogation, I'd like to throw out a question and open it up to evaluation. What is the essence of "fulness" in the oft heard phrase "Fulness of the Gospel"?

The (non-canonical) Introduction to the Book of Mormon states that the book "contains, as does the Bible, the fulness of the everlasting gospel." If both the Bible and Book of Mormon have it, doesn't that sound a little like saying "You are special. Just like everybody else"? I'm not going to make an argument either way, but does the Book of Mormon have it exclusively? Does the Bible have it independently? By "it" I of course mean "the fulness" of the gospel.

First, let's define our terms. My understanding of "the gospel" is "the good news of Jesus Christ". In fact, in 3 Nephi 27:13-19, Jesus defines "the gospel" himself.

Robert Millet takes a stab at the Bible question: "While Latter-day Saints do not believe that one can derive divine authority to perform the saving ordinances from the scriptures, we do say that the Bible contains the fulness of the gospel in the sense that (1) it teaches of groups of people in the past who enjoyed the full blessings of the everlasting gospel; and (2) it teaches (especially the New Testament) the good news or glad tidings of redemption in Christ through the Atonement (3 Nephi 27:13-21; D&C 76:40-42)."

Naturally the primary message of the gospel--the "good news" of Jesus Christ--is that he has atoned for our sins and makes way for the salvation of all mankind. This is the message of Christianity in general. So what is the "fulness" that's so unique to the Latter-day Saints? Is it solely the exclusive authority claim?

I know a lot of people would jump at the chance to say that the "fulness" entails temple ordinances. Problem is that the Book of Mormon would have already contained the "fulness" before Joseph Smith instituted a temple building program. That all came later. When Moroni first told Joseph about a book hidden in a hill, he said that the "fulness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants" (Joseph Smith History 1-34).

So what exactly constitutes the "fulness of the gospel" which had to be restored? Or does a fulness speak more to the quality of our gospel centered life--and not necessarily a "restoration"? More than just getting stuck on semantics, it's a question that ought to have some compelling answers. Even though some LDS sometimes use these interchangeably, the "fulness of the gospel" is not the same as the "restored gospel".

One attempt is problematic:
"The fullness of the gospel, then, means that God’s prophets are on the earth, allowing us to sort truth from the teachings of men, and helping us to prepare for the triumphant return of the Savior, and for our own return to God’s presence."

Unfortunately, the last time I checked, having a prophet wasn't a panacea for sorting out the truth (ex: Brigham Young and "Adam God").

Perhaps the Book of Mormon introduction is just wrong? Regardless, one can use the book itself to argue that the intro should be changed. After all, "when [the Bible] proceeded forth from the mouth of a Jew it contained the fulness of the gospel of the Lord, of whom the Twelve apostles bear record...[but over time] many parts which are plain and most precious [were taken out]; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away," which seems to suggest that the fulness of the gospel was lost (1 Ne. 13:24-29). If so, why maintain in the intro that it's still there?

President Ezra Taft Benson wrote: "The Book of Mormon contains the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ (D&C 20:9). That does not mean it contains every teaching, every doctrine ever revealed. Rather, it means that in the Book of Mormon we will find the fulness of those doctrines required for our salvation. And they are taught plainly and simply so that even children can learn the ways of salvation and exaltation".

Yet, what part of the essential gospel does the Book of Mormon have that the Bible doesn't have? If one only expresses that it contains a more lucid description of the gospel, then one is making a subjective statement but admitting that the content (while expressed differently) remains essentially the same. (I'm not talking about the separate issue of "gospel" versus "gospel doctrines". In other words, the question of whether the Book of Mormon contains the 'fulness of the gospel' when it doesn't contain a number of unique LDS doctrines is not the point and is irrelevant.)

Dictionaries tell us that "fulness"= (1) "the state of being filled to capacity", (2) "the state of being complete or whole", (3) "richness or intensity of flavor, sound, or color". I must admit that if we Mormons ever had this third definition then perhaps we've now lost it in favor of blandness.

Any talk of being full or complete just seems wrong anyway. Can we be complete if we don't have all the answers, and if we expect more [institutional] revelation in the future--even if only a trickle every generation? And can we be "complete" or "filled to capacity" when we clearly do not possess all truth?

Before Mormon.org had its facelift, it contained the following explanation: [My commentary in brackets] "Although many good people believed in Christ and tried to understand and teach His gospel, they did not have the fulness of truth [nor do we] or the priesthood authority to baptize and perform other saving ordinances at that time [while we claim priesthood, I'm not a fan of the "saving ordinances" language simply because ordinances don't save; the Savior saves] . They had inherited a state of apostasy, as each generation was influenced by what the previous one passed on, including changes in the doctrines and in ordinances, such as baptism". [This last statement is the most problematic in my opinion, as we too have had plenty of doctrinal changes, we're also influenced by what our LDS predecessors have passed on to us, and we've even changed ordinances (ex: temple).]

I'm beginning to wonder if a foolproof explanation (at least from the LDS viewpoint) of "fulness of the gospel" even exists. Of course ultimately that completeness/wholeness comes only in and through Jesus Christ--by being "in Christ" or "perfect in Christ". Thus, I have to say that I like how President Stephen M. Veazey of the Community of Christ puts it: "In the most fundamental sense, Jesus Christ is the fullness of the gospel!"

15 comments:

Papa D said...

To me, about the only aspect of the "fulness" of the Gospel that is absent throughout pretty much all of Christianity that the Restored Gospel contains is the vision of our ultimate state of being. The idea that we were created as children to become like our Father is one of the central themes of the Bible, but it simply doesn't exist in the "fullest" sense anywhere within Christianity except as a vital element of the Restoration.

To me, that is the core meaning of "they deny the power thereof" in JSH 1:19 - and, to me, that is the primary (if not sole) reason a "restoration" was necessary. I believe everything else (and I do mean everything) is a supplement to that great truth - that as God is, man may become. Again, I believe it is perhaps THE central theme in the Bible - and losing it in real theological terms necessitated The Restoration of the Fulness of the Gospel.

Seriously, essentially killing the Father **as a literal father** is the foundational abomination, imo.

MB said...

Ahh. Semantics. Definitions. Etymologies. And a phrase only used in two religions: LDS and Community of Christ.

That last part means that you can't depend just on generally accepted definitions to determine meanings.

I assume that "the fulness of the gospel" is used to define the gospel as revealed by Christ and so designated to distinguish it from "the preparatory gospel" (Doc. & Cov. 86:26) which was taught and lived by believers before Jesus came to fulfill the law.

Therefore, both the Book of Mormon AND the Bible contain "the fulness of the gospel".

"Fulfill" and "fulness" are etymologically related and I think that fact is pertinent to the use of the latter term in that phrase.

Clean Cut said...

Papa D, interesting thoughts.

I guess if we're talking semantics, however, then I've got to ask what you about your use of the word "created" when you say we were "created as children to become like our Father". The idea of becoming like our Father seems pretty settled, but if you're talking pre-mortality, then how do you square "created as children" with Joseph Smith's teachings that we weren't "created" but that we are co-eternal with God? And Abraham 3:18 saying that our spirits are eternal? Perhaps you're talking of our creation here in mortality?

"I believe everything else (and I do mean everything) is a supplement to that great truth - that as God is, man may become."

I too love that truth, but I also recognize that there's hardly consensus of what exactly that means either.

I'm not sure I can say that theosis is "THE central theme in the Bible" (if this were the case one would think it would be more obvious to more Christians), but I certainly think it's one of the most important and inspirational themes.

I also have to ask you about your use of the word "literal" in describing God as Father. What of those Latter-day Saints who speak of God taking us under His wing--adopting us in a sense--and us agreeing to enter a relationship with Him?

I personally don't quite feel comfortable using the word "literal" anymore simply because it automatically seems to imply that we were "literally" born in heaven as sons and daughters of God. Yet "spirit birth" is never explicitly taught in the Book of Mormon nor by Joseph Smith. aquinas recently summarized two well written perspectives here, and I like how Richard Bushman describes it--"literalness" doesn't seem to be the key to the story.

Clean Cut said...

MB, definitely interesting to compare "fulfill" and "fulness", in terms of Christ coming to fulfill the law and the "old" covenant by instituting a "new" covenant.

Of course, that doesn't get us any further in figuring out any kind of LDS distinction/meaning of "fulness" of the gospel since all Christians believe that. It's unlikely that many Mormons would concede the idea that all Christians enjoy the fulness of the gospel (in that sense) because then Mormonism looses its raison d'ĂȘtre.

Doug Towers said...

It was stated that the fulness of the gospel was delivered by the Savior. Both the NT and the BofM contain the words of the Savior saying the same thing. However it can be noted that Matthew's version claims that there are excuses for being angry at others, while 3 Nephi denies such. This is a very significant change in the message of the gospel, as Nephi said there was.

Every time I read Matthew's sermon on the mount (I wasn't a member) I could feel that although I was seeing more each time, that somehow I had missed the message.

The BofM version makes it crystal clear. I agree with Brother Benson in that regard.

While I'm not at liberty to expound what the fulness of the everlastiing gospel is, it is sitting right there under our noses.

To be able to live it requires the true constant companionship of the Holy Ghost. To be able to see it requires the Holy Ghost. There it is. To deliver it prematurely is wrong.

Just because the gospel is there for all to see doesn't make the church unnecessary. The church's main function is to deliver the BofM to the world so that all may read the fulness of the gospel.

In addition a vital function is that ordinances are performed in a manner where the true meaning of the ordinance may come to be understood. How can the Spirit explain the real meaning of a sprinkling?

And although the temple ordinances have had changes, none have actually changed the hidden meaning of the symbolism (which is the whole purpose of all temple ordinances).

As to doctrines being changed; God has allowed the church to go backward to match the interest of the members. This is demonstrated in D&C 119 Heading.

When the members come forward so the doctrine will again.

Brigham appears to teach that Adam was God, and yet in the next paragrah (one poorly defined statement he made) he talks of Michael (whom he knew was Adam), Jehovah and Elohim (whom he knew was the Father). Note also the temple presents Elohim appearing to Adam. So it has to be understood that he was attempting to raise up people's opinions of Adam. Many churches condemn him. Brigham wasn't being careful with his words (he needed a proof reader badly).

Papa D said...

Good questions, CC.

1) When I use "created" I always mean changed from one state to another. I really don't know all the stages of development we experience through the eternities, but I like the general idea of eternal developmental stages. So, when I say "created" as children of God, I mean (in classic Mormon terminology) whatever occurred / occurs to move us from "intelligences" to "spirits" to "mortals" to "spirits" to "resurrected beings" to "perfected". I mean from the beginning to the end in our development as children becoming like our parent(s). Words are funny things, and "created" might not be as accurate as "formed" - but it's semantics to me.

2) I really do think becoming like God is THE central theme of the Bible and that everything else points to it. That theme runs through the entire OT and NT, in both implicit ways (e.g., "be ______, because God is ______.") and explicit terms (the NT, especially).

If you are interested, one of the longest posts I've ever written on my own blog is entitled "Believing We Can Become Like Our Father Is NOT Vaunting Ourselves". The easiest way to find it is to search for "Vaunting Ourselves".

Papa D said...

I also don't believe in "spirit birth" or any construct that posits immortal pregnancy and gestation. I think that's one of the silliest ideas ever propagated, especially now that we can envision babies being born without ever having been in a womb.

That's not at all what I meant by "literal" in this case. I just meant that we literally are children of God - and that usage can apply to children who are born, adopted or even just raised without formally being adopted. It's much more of an inheritance issue than a "conceived" issue - but if that usage doesn't work for you, I have no problem dropping it and going with something like, "we literally can inherit all that God has" or "we literally can become like God" or any other construct that means essentially the same thing.

I know even that isn't settled in Mormon theology, and I understand the question of whether or not we ever will be "equal" to God, but I'm not concerned about that exact question for this discussion. "Like God" is good enough as the theme of the Bible - and, interestingly, NOT of the Book of Mormon.

Matt W. said...

Maybe Stephen M. Veazey reads his EOM?

http://www.lightplanet.com/mormons/basic/gospel/fullness_eom.htm

Matt W. said...

This one is pretty good too.

http://www.lightplanet.com/mormons/response/qa/bom_fullness_doctrine.htm

Clean Cut said...

Great clarifications, Papa D. Thank you. I'm with ya now.

Regardless of method, we are "truly, honestly, really" children of God, and we can become like God and one with God.

Clean Cut said...

Matt W, what is it that you like about those links, exactly?

Perhaps you can take a stab at answering the question in the OP in your own words, as I know you're quite fond of that rather than quoting others. :)

What is the essence of "fulness" in the oft heard phrase "Fulness of the Gospel"? What exactly constitutes the "fulness of the gospel" which had to be restored?

Matt W. said...

Ok, so it appears my links did not come through well. I'd just say googling Fullness of the Gospel will get you some good links at Light Planet.

To sumarize my own perspective. The Book of Mormon does two things for the Gospel the Bible does not.

1. It gives it clarity in that it puts for concepts regarding sin, redemption, the role of Christ, and the plan of salvation that are either not in the Bible or are not clear in the bible.

2. More Importantly, it shows Christ coming to the other side of the world, in a magnificent miraculous fashion, which grants Christ an unquestionable reality and authority that the Bible alone can not. By having a second record, the Bible message that Jesus is the Christ is lifted up past the problematic analyses in regards to biblical authorship and authenticity.

Papa D said...

I agree, especially, with Matt's #2. The second witness aspect is important, especially given much of the scholarship surrounding the Bible over the past few decades.

Misty Cee said...

I have read my fair share of lds books. Like doug said, there are parts of the Book of Mormon that explain the fulness of the gospel. It is completely and utterly crystal clear. Thank you Doug for your comment.

Misty Cee said...

I have read my fair share of lds books. Like doug said, there are parts of the Book of Mormon that explain the fulness of the gospel. It is completely and utterly crystal clear. Thank you Doug for your comment.