Sunday, February 12, 2017

Misquoting God

Although in the past I have presented guest posts in this space, I decided a while back that from here on out this blog should represent my voice alone; no one else should suffer guilt by associating with a miscreant like me.

But today I'm breaking that resolve in order to present a point of view that I'm incapable of composing myself.

But first, a bit of background:

There is a vexing verse of scripture, D&C 1, verse 30, that never really made sense to me. This is the verse that appears to assure us that we Mormons belong to the only true church on the face of the earth.

What made this verse seem like such an anomaly is that it doesn't gel with the rest of the revealed word of God. In the first place, the Lord never defined the church as an organized entity the way we think of it today, so how can any earthly church be "true"? According to Jesus, His "church" means nothing like the organized structure we think of these days when we use that term. In D&C 10:67 He defines His church as those who repent and come unto Him; and in verse 68 He forbids us from describing it in any other terms. (verse 68). So why would he be endorsing any single religious denomination as the only true church?

Secondly, if the Lord declared the church true and living in 1831, how come he reversed his opinion of it less than a year later? He is God after all; didn't he see that coming? And why would he offer up scripture that could be cited nearly two hundred years later to assure the Pharisees among us that all was well in the church, when a simple comparison of scriptures to our behavior should be enough to convince anyone how far off track we've slid?

Well, I finally did what I often forget to do, which is to take my question to the Lord.

Lo and behold, the answer I got regarding that scripture verse was "It doesn't mean what they think it does."

And here's the kicker, I went back and re-read the entire chapter, but this time I read it from a replica of the original Book of Commandments, because that version flows better; it hasn't been chopped up into tiny sentence fragments by whoever later edited it into verses in our Doctrine and Covenants.

 And guess what? When I read the thing in context, the meaning was crystal clear. That verse really doesn't mean what most members think it means!  (If you don't have access to the original in the Book of Commandments, this version of the entire chapter laid out in parallel form is a helpful aid.)

Only problem is, I seemed completely incapable of explaining my new understanding of it to anyone else. I was able to grasp the answer somehow through spiritual eyes, but I was incapable of articulating my discovery to another person.

It was not until recently that I figured out why I was such a dunderhead about it: it has everything to do with my lack of understanding of fundamental English Grammar. I simply don't know the names of most parts of speech, and a description of the salient part of speech contained in that section of the Doctrine and Covenants is essential to understanding its meaning. What I lack is a grasp of the mechanics of English. I simply don't have the chops to pass it on.

So I'm bringing in the big guns in the person of my friend Mckay Platt, an expert in English grammar who's got the chops to clear it all up in a brilliant and entertaining way. So I'll now turn the time over to Brother McKay:

The Only True And Living Church: Are We Misquoting God?
By McKay Platt, MD

Let me say from the outset: in this post we are going to review some things that may have put you to sleep in high school, namely English grammar. But here we will be looking at grammar as contained in a revelation from God, so hopefully this won't be as dry as some of the stuff you had to sit through in school. You may find the title of this piece provocative, but I promise I haven't oversold the subject.

We're going to look at something God said in a form known as the "Subjunctive Mood," and if you're not familiar with that term I would advise you not to look it up on Wikipedia, unless you want to be scared away completely. Although the subjunctive today is considered archaic, it's really an interesting mode of speaking. But you wouldn't know it from the dry and nearly indecipherable Wikipedia description:
"The subjunctive mood is a flexible grammatical instrument for expressing different gradients in thought when referring to events that are not stated as fact. It is still used frequently in such languages as French, German and Spanish, and also in languages outside the Indo-European branch such as Turkish and Hungarian. In modern English only remnants of a once complex system of separate conjugations exist. What once could be expressed succinctly with the mere change of a conjugation is now only expressible, more often than not, by using word-laden modal constructions."
Still with me? Well that's a miracle, because that explanation put me to sleep, and I actually understood it.

The only thing you really need to know about the Subjunctive Mood is that bit about it being flexible when referring to events not stated as fact. Bear with me and I'll explain. You're going to feel smarter in no time.

Because most of us don't understand the subjunctive mood, we often misinterpret God when He uses this unfamiliar verb form. Does the Lord care about grammar, verb forms, and so on? It's my contention that he does. You'll have to decide for yourself. Let's see if we can ease the pain a little as we slug through what has been called "a damned difficult verse."

The preface to the Book of Commandments, what we now call Section One of the Doctrine and Covenants, contains these words, "...the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased..." (Doctrine and Covenants, 1:30).

Today that phrase is quoted repeatedly by members and leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who say that "the Lord declared this to be 'the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth...' " Unfortunately, that is not a declaration from The Lord; it is more of a wish. D&C 1:30 is worded not as an indicative statement (of fact) but a subjunctive statement (a hope or possibility). What The Lord was saying here is that a true and living church was a possibility.

From the wording of the revelation, we cannot conclude the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is true and living. Neither can we conclude that it is false or dead. Either would be an argument from fallacy – assuming that if an argument for some conclusion is fallacious, then the conclusion is false.

My purpose in exploring this revelation is not to determine if the modern Mormon church is true; rather, to examine whether we wrest the words of Christ when we say the Lord declared this to be "the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth..."

If one wishes to show that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only true and living church, it must be done by some other way than quoting this revelation, since this revelation makes no such conclusion.

The Subjunctive Mood-A Quick Refresher
The stuff of Glenn Miller's nightmares.

In English and many other languages, the subjunctive refers to a grammatical mood used to express hopes, wishes, possibilities, judgments, necessities or future actions.

It's not necessarily describing a fact, or something that already is. It's describing something that may become.

Remember how Wikipedia used the word "flexible"? That's the subjunctive mood; it refers to what could be any sort of possible outcome.

It is important to recognize when the subjunctive is used in scripture, because much of scripture is forward looking. The subjunctive does not express reality in the moment. Not all hopes are realized, not all possibilities come to pass, and not all plans for the future come about. The subjunctive mood is used when a certain situation or action is not known to have happened as the speaker is talking.

"Excuse me sir. Could you please tell me what day is Game day?"
We are accustomed to statements in English most often appearing in the indicative form. For example, "Mormon men spend more time with sports than with the scriptures." That's indicative, or an announcement that indicates fact. Contrast that with "if the scriptures were as exciting as sports, I'd read them more. That's subjunctive  -a possibility, albeit not a very likely possibility for the fan.

The subjunctive mood is expressed most often in subordinate clauses, often clauses that begin with the word "that."

For example, "I hope that our children will listen to the babysitter" or "I pray that you stay awake through this entire blog post." Neither sentence expresses a reality as the children may not listen to the babysitter and you may have already walked away from this blog and turned on ESPN.

The subjunctive mood has long been waning in English; dying, by many estimations. English speakers are not very familiar with the subjunctive mood which is more in use in the Romance languages. And because in our day we are mostly unfamiliar with the subtle nuances of scriptural syntax, it is easy to mistake a subjunctive statement for an indicative statement, as this question will illustrate:

When The Lord prayed, "our father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name," what was being said?

If you believe The Lord is making a statement of fact, then you understand The Lord to be saying, "Father in heaven, your name is holy!" -probably not new information to the Father.

But the prayer is made in the subjunctive mood. The Lord is stating what should be or what He hopes may happen, not what is. In effect, He says, "Father in heaven, I pray that men may hallow your name." We know that the expression "hallowed be thy name" is subjunctive because it is conjugated differently than the indicative.
"Hallowed is thy name"=indicative mood

"Hallowed be thy name"=subjunctive mood
The subjunctive mood in D&C section 1
In verse 11,  and from verses 18 through 30 of the revelation being scrutinized, there are 15 statements in the Lord's voice in the subjunctive mood. In verse 18, the auxiliary verb should is used to indicate duty, propriety, or expediency and "might" is used to indicate possibilities -both subjunctive mood verbs:
"And also [I the Lord] gave commandments to others, that they should proclaim these things unto the world; and all this that it might be fulfilled, which was written by the prophets—"(D&C 1:18)
Verses 18 thru 30 are a list of outcomes that might happen because The Lord knew "the calamity which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth." Because of His love and concern for us He...
"...also gave commandments to others, that ..."
What follows is what should and might happen as a consequence of the Lord's commandments. More than a dozen great and marvelous outcomes might follow because The Lord called a servant and gave commandments to men.

These possibilities include:
-men speaking in the Lord's name
-an increase in faith in the earth
-the establishment of Christ's everlasting covenant
-the fulness of the gospel preached before kings and rulers
-understanding, wisdom, repentance, etc.
The last of these possibilities is "a true and living church".
"And also those to whom these commandments were given, might have power to...
1- lay the foundation of this church, and,
2- to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness, the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth (D&C 1:30)
"May," "might," and "must" are modal verbs that express a speaker’s attitude and the strength of that attitude. The two modal verbs used by the Lord in this revelation do not reflect a great deal of certainty. The same verb, might, was used to reflect the probability that "all men might repent and come unto him." We all have a pretty fair idea how long the odds are on that wager.

The sentence is a difficult one. The original document, as recorded by the church historian John Whitmer, contained no punctuation. The original Book of Commandments lumped all of verses 24-30 (of the modern D&C) into a single verse. Even today, after numerous editors have had a hundred and eighty plus years and half a dozen editions to clarify the punctuation, the revelation isn't punctuated using standard rules. A dozen verses begin with "and," and several sentences end with a dash, including the verse in question, and parentheticals interrupt the flow of thought. However, the Lord brings us back again and again to the theme: the commandments he gave raise hopes and possibilities.

What is clear, to me at least, is that verses 17-30 explain why the Lord called a prophet and gave commandments to men. The subjunctive mood is heard with His use of ''should," "may," "might" and "inasmuch." It "should" happen,"may" happen; it "might" happen; "inasmuch" as you keep my word, it will happen.

As grammatically structured in verse 30, the hopeful outcome of "a true and living church" is an appositive. An appositive is a noun or phrase used to rename another noun, or in this case a pronoun. In the sentence below the appositive, the word "figure" renames the subject of the sentence, the "commander."

The phrase "the only true and living church" is a delayed appositive, renaming the direct object "it," nine words earlier. When the delayed appositive is substituted for the direct object, the subjunctive nature of the statement is clearer.
"And also those to whom these commandments were given, might have power bring the only true and living church forth out of obscurity and out of darkness..."(D&C 1:30)
Misquoting-Why Do We Do It?
This particular verse has been uniformly interpreted as an indicative statement of what is, not what might be. Church presidents, apostles, seventies and many other commentators have referenced this subjunctive statement of The Lord and quoted it as an indicative statement of fact. No commenter on this verse that I have found has recognized it as a subjunctive statement. That is true for many reasons. One reason we are confused by the mood is the change in mood from subjunctive to indicative in a single verse:
"...with which I, the Lord, am well pleased..." (D&C 1:30)
This part of verse 30 is spoken in the indicative mood, otherwise He might have said "with which I, The Lord, be well pleased."

The first half of verse 30 is in the subjunctive mood:
"And also those to whom these commandments were given, might have power to lay the foundation of this church, and to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness, the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth..."
The second half is in the indicative mood:
"...with which I, the Lord, am well pleased, speaking unto the church collectively and not individually."
A single sentence may contain both subjunctive, indicative, imperative (command) and interrogative (questions) moods or any combination. Here, for example, is an April 1829 revelation. It contains the indicative, subjunctive and interrogative moods in a single verse.
"And for this cause the Lord said unto Peter: If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?" (D&C 7:4
"..The Lord said unto Peter..." is indicative, a statement of fact.

"..If I will that he tarry till I come..." is subjunctive. In the indicative mood the third person singular "he" is conjugated "he tarries" but this part of the verse is subjunctive, not indicative. Because the phrase begins with "if", "he tarry" is proper conjugation.

"...what is that to thee?" is obviously a question and as an interrogative ends with a question mark.

But The Lord Was Pleased!
Near the end of verse 30, within a dependent clause, the revelation says, "...I, The Lord am well pleased..." This part of the revelation is in indicative mood. Something pleased him. The most natural reading of this verse, requiring the least mental gymnastics, is to interpret the prepositional phrase modifying the last noun in the verse, namely, the church. If this interpretation is correct, and I believe it is, then The Lord was well pleased with the collective body of men and women who were the church of 1831, consisting of a couple of hundred newly converted souls.

Remember, the Lord has never referred to his church as we do today, as an organized, structural institution. He was adamant in defining His church as only those individuals who had repented and come unto him. (D&C 10:67) What He was talking about when he said he was pleased was this very small group of converts who at the time had dedicated themselves wholeheartedly to following Him. He has nothing to say about an organized Christian denomination complete with headquarters and a top-down hierarchy.

If the Lord was well pleased with the church in November of 1831, less than a year later he was anything but. In September 1832 he declared the whole church to be under condemnation. They were no longer "true" to what He had given them but "treated lightly the things [they had] received." (D&C 84:54) He warned them "whoso receiveth not my voice is not acquainted with my voice, and is not of me" and those who "come not unto me" are "under the bondage of sin" (verse 51). This tiny group of converts were no longer "living." They were not connected to the true vine.  In less than a year the tiny church of 200 souls was now neither "true" nor "living."

Summing Up
In November 1831, The Lord told the incipient church He was well pleased, but did not declare they were then a true and living church. The wording chosen in this revelation has The Lord saying that He called a servant and gave commandments from heaven that many things might happen, including the bringing forth of a true and living church. By September 1832 The Lord judged them neither "true" to the things He had given, nor "living," abiding in Him. More than a hundred years later, speaking in general conference, President Benson told the congregation that the condemnation had never been lifted; it continued to rest over the modern LDS Church to that day.

That was in 1986, 31 years ago. No revelation has been received since to indicate the Lord has changed His mind.

The revelations Joseph Smith received during the 1830s anticipated the creation of Zion and the Church of the Firstborn. But none of that happened. The saints blew it, and after they were cast out of Jackson County, licking their wounds and wondering what the heck just happened, the Lord told them exactly how they had blown it: by means of their own selfish conduct they had polluted their inheritance. (D&C 101:6)

All was not lost, however; they could still pull it together and hearken to the voice of He who is the true vine. For how could they ever be the true church without being connected to the true vine?  In 1841 The Lord warned them not to let him down again, for if they did so, they would be moved out of their place once more, and instead of blessings, they would bring cursings, wrath, indignation, and judgments upon their heads. (D&C 124)

The Lord described the meaning of our condemnation as not being received by Him (D&C 105:5). It was the saint's failure to live the "law of the celestial kingdom" (verse 4) that prevented The Lord from receiving the nascent community of believers unto Himself. If we are to believe the Lord's words, then the condemnation will continue until the Latter-day Saints are received unto the Lord. Being "received of the Lord" then ends the condemnation. When we as a people are true to the laws of the celestial kingdom, we will be received of God and we will finally be a living church, connected to the True Vine.

But as long as we confuse an invitation from God as a divine endorsement of our present state, we will most likely remain content with the present state and never attempt to bring again Zion. That is the danger inherent in misquoting God. Zion awaits some few who treasure God's word and keep it with exactness and honor, rather than assuming a divine endorsement of our present state that was never given us by heaven.

-McKay Platt, February 2017