The Wheatley Institution

Fellow Notes


The Book of Mormon and the Reshaping of Covenant

“The Book of Mormon came out of the ideas of both Protestant and Catholic theology. It has the personalized revelation of Protestants, with the hierarchy and sacrament in Catholic worship.”

Terryl L. Givens | March 11, 2016
| Print | Google plus Google plus linkedin share button
Folded hands are placed neatly on top of an open Book of Mormon, symbolizing a covenant



Jan Shipps noted decades ago that the appearance of the Book of Mormon in 1830 was so shrouded in supernatural claims involving gold plates, “magic spectacles,” and ancient Christians, that many non-Mormons “wonder how any intelligent person could ever accept it as true.”[1] One possible answer this perfectly reasonable question invites takes us to the heart of the nineteenth-century Protestant religious imagination. A popular eighteenth-century school collection “of English Prose and Verse,” captured the era’s religious terrors that were increasingly normalized. One writer in the anthology agonized over “the vast uncertainty I am struggling with … the force and vivacity of my apprehensions; every doubt wears the face of horror, and would perfectly overwhelm me, but for some faint gleams of hope, which dart across the tremendous gloom. What tongue can utter the anguish of a soul suspended between the extremes of infinite joy or eternal misery. . . . I tremble and shudder.”[2] Into this era’s tumultuous quest for salvational certainty, the Book of Mormon proffered a new solution in familiar language.

Covenant and Certitude

In Catholic theology, assurance of salvation comes when an imperfect faith is supplemented, as Adolf von Harnack long ago characterized the principle, “by the doctrinal authority of the Church on the one side and by the Sacramental Church institution on the other, and yet in such a way that it is obtained only approximately.”[3] In other words, salvation comes from belonging to the true church, and receiving its sacraments by authorized administrators. Those conditions provide a degree of assurance that may fall short of absolute certitude, but is as close to a guarantee as is humanly obtainable.

If innate guilt and depravity are our natural inheritance... then where is the balm of Gilead to be found?

Protestants denied the authoritative priesthood of an elect class, who alone can administer saving sacraments in the only divinely authorized church institution. This step was tantamount, as soon became apparent, to denying the role of the sacraments themselves as the vehicles of salvation. As the clerical class no longer served as arbiters of personal salvation, so would the sacraments no longer serve as the channels of grace. But there was an additional consequence of redefining the role and efficacy of the sacraments. By negating their vital function as conduits of saving grace, Protestants demolished the principal hedge against the personal dread of damnation that has for so many centuries been a constant in the Christian mind. If innate guilt and depravity are our natural inheritance and eternal torment our fitting destiny, then where is the balm of Gilead to be found, if not in Mother Church. and her saving sacraments and commandments, faithfully upheld? Protestants had to necessarily supply a new answer to the age-old question:  what constitutes the certitudo salutis (personal assurance of salvation), and how is it to be secured?

The assurance made available through the grace of Christ took the form of a highly developed theology

To the Protestants, writes one historian of theology, “the test of the Christian was not that he was so living as to secure the promise, but that he had experienced in himself the certain conviction that the promise was indefectibly his. This conviction – the ‘assurance’ of a status that cannot be lost – … is the palladium of orthodox Protestantism.”[4] This assurance is based on a Protestant “covenant theology.” As a main strand of Protestant thought developed, the assurance made available through the grace of Christ took the form of a highly developed theology—covenant theology. As Puritanism migrated to America especially, the assurance of salvation by grace was framed in terms of a covenantal relationship to God. In the words of John von Rohr, “the often anguished Puritan search for personal assurance of salvation found substantial assuagement in covenantal certainty.”[5]  As John Preston affirmed, “If thou art in covenant with God…then thy election is sure; and be sure that God will never alter it.”[6]

One way to characterize Smith’s religion-making project was as a quest for an emotional and spiritual surrogate for the consoling balm of that covenant framework—one that would appeal to its pervasive resonance, and effect the same manifest assurance—but with a more compelling framework of authority and access to spiritual powers. Joseph Smith—and legions of converts—found in the Book of Mormon a perfect instrument for this very task. Replete with allusions to and explications of God’s covenant with Israel, the scripture resonated deeply with a public attuned to that language. At the same time, the Book of Mormon effectively served the role and function of a reconstituted covenant theology:  it replaced the dichotomy of old and new with an unparalleled merger of the two, even as it exploited and literalized the earliest conceptions of covenantal history to create a people with a rare spiritual cohesion; most importantly, the Book of Mormon provided a concrete nexus for experiential religion that offered every reader an opportunity for revelatory confirmation that the everlasting covenant had been restored.

 

[1] Jan Shipps, “The Mormons: Looking Forward and Outward,” in Where the Spirit Leads: American Denominations Today, ed. Martin E. Marty (Richmond, Va.: John Knox, 1980), 29-30.

[2] Arthur Masson, ed., A Collection of English Prose and Verse for the Use of Schools, 7th ed. (Edinburgh:  1773), 196.

[3] Adolf von Harnack, History of Dogma, trans. William M’Gilchrist (London: Williams & Norgate), 1899), 6:133 .

[4] Kenneth E. Kirk, The Vision of God (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), 414.

[5] John von Rohr, The Covenant of Grace in Puritan Thought (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 1986), 2.

[6] John Preston, Life Eternal, Cited in von Rohr, Covenant of Grace, 13.