“Yea, and this sufficeth me”: A Review of 2 Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction
I regret to inform you that Terryl Givens has written a bad book. This is surprising because, for over two decades, Givens has produced some of the best work in Mormon Studies. Volumes like The Viper on the Hearth (1997), By the Hand of Mormon (2002) and Wrestling the Angel (2015) illuminated multiple areas of LDS culture and theology with theoretical sophistication and scholarly rigor. Written in silky-smooth prose, enhanced with frequent literary allusions and published by Oxford, the books marked a leap forward for the field and for Church members’ understanding of themselves. In contrast, his latest, 2 Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction, is a self-indulgent romp through a collage of loosely related themes, each of which one can find treated with more depth and care elsewhere. While this approach yields some insights into LDS theology, it does very little to illuminate the text supposedly under discussion.
The first problem: this is not a brief theological introduction to 2 Nephi. At most, it can be said to be a brief introduction to the Restored Gospel according to Terryl Givens, loosely inspired by 2 Nephi. That book of scripture itself almost never emerges as an analytical object. Instead, the foci—the theological headings 2 Nephi is interested in filling out—are “the restoration,” “The Book of Mormon,” and “Joseph Smith’s view” (“which was shaped by the Book of Mormon”—an assertion many scholars would caveat, but no matter ). A discussion of the Atonement in Part IV furnishes several useful examples. The section begins with a thumbnail sketch of mainstream Christian views of “Atonement” and then contrasts those with the more personal, loving sense Givens takes the word to have in the Book of Mormon. In filling in the gaps in Biblical theology of Christ’s sacrifice (the focus), we are told, “the Book of Mormon—and 2 Nephi—are particularly valuable” (71). When Givens wants to move on to another facet of this discussion, he poses a series of theological questions, notes that “The book of 2 Nephi sheds some light on such questions” (75), and then proceeds to cite Alma nearly as much as 2 Nephi in the pages that follow. These asides read as nothing so much as a distracted author’s attempts to convince his editors, and now his audience, that he hasn’t forgotten what he’s supposed to be writing about—he’s just really interested in this side topic at the moment; it’s kind-of related, he promises!
The pattern is typical. Givens will frequently invoke 2 Nephi’s “contributions” to a certain area of restoration theology or point to a particular feature as representative of the Book of Mormon as a whole, rather than unpack the structure of 2 Nephi or any of its constituent sermons or discourses. This diagnosis is hardly guesswork, either. All but one of Givens’ five section previews fail to even mention 2 Nephi. For example: “Part III will … address the Book of Mormon’s purpose in establishing recognition of Jesus as the Christ and as the foundation on which the covenant is predicated” (8). That is in fact an accurate description of Part III. Why Givens focuses there on the Book of Mormon, however, rather than 2 Nephi, is never explained nor justified. At the end of the book, the reader is left still wondering what Nephi’s rhetorical goals and strategies are in his second book. How do the widely disparate parts of the text—sermons of Lehi and Jacob; Isaiah; Nephi in various prophetic moods and life-phases—fit together as a whole (or do they)? Part II performs some of the book’s best (and only) work in this mode, explaining 2 Nephi’s thematic fixation on covenant as a function of Lehi’s revelation that Jerusalem has been destroyed. Even there, though, the discussion quickly wanders into early LDS history and contemporary theological implications.
What seems to have happened is this: Givens began the project by identifying the primary purposes of the assigned book of scripture. Borrowing from the Title Page, he suggests that the book of 2 Nephi twins the goals of the Book of Mormon itself: to assure a “remnant of the House of Israel … they are not cast off forever” and to convince “Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ” (7). But then, rather than walk the reader through how Nephi himself expounds on those points—using a very particular body of evidence—Givens decides to see if he can re-prove Nephi’s points for a modern LDS audience using new and different evidence. Part I, for example, takes up the task of showing how the Old Covenant with Israel and the New Covenant with the Gentiles are to be reconciled. This certainly is a central preoccupation of 2 Nephi’s, and, as Givens says, a principal reason why the book is so concerned with Isaiah’s prophecies (41-42). But rather than delving into Isaiah, which is Nephi’s primary evidentiary source, Givens employs LDS doctrines entirely unmentioned by Nephi to solve the covenant theology problem to his own satisfaction (13-16). This approach, while providing a genuinely interesting window into Givens’ conception of the gospel, deprives the reader of the opportunity to understand Nephi’s conception.
Ironically, by negative example, Givens has highlighted the value of occasionally slowing down to analyze books of scripture on their own terms, sans the weight of the whole, correlated “restoration theology” we learn in Church manuals. While his is certainly more original than anything found in those manuals, Givens has a totalizing theological framework of his own, one that draws on sources from early Church newspapers to medieval mystics. Its deployment here creates a few big problems. It leads him to insist, for example, that, following Boyd K. Packer’s analogy of a spectator who misses the first act of a play, the plan of salvation cannot be understood without knowledge of the premortal council in heaven, its “governing blueprint” (14); and that the gospel of Jesus Christ cannot be understood without a “cosmic context” including knowledge of “marriage as a key mode of association” (83). These assertions pretty directly raise two questions: Did Nephi know about this governing blueprint and cosmic context? (There is no reference to either the premortal existence or eternal marriage in his writings.) And if not, can he be said to have understood the plan of salvation and the gospel of Jesus Christ? (He teaches both.)
Givens addresses neither question, but they are interesting to ponder. Contemporary Latter-day Saints cherish the premortal existence and eternal marriage as fairly foundational doctrines. What would it mean to grapple with the possibility that some of The Book of Mormon’s most important prophets did not know about them? Or, if they did, saw other contexts as more important to fleshing out the Plan and the Gospel? In 2 Nephi 9, for example, Jacob constructs a rhetorical audience of thrown, always-already mortal beings in desperate need of solutions to the imminent—and immanent—realities of physical and spiritual death. He does not exclude the possibility that his listeners’ spirits once came from elsewhere, but now that they’re here, their curiosity is entirely directed toward “things to come” (verse 4). Lehi’s rendition of the Plan in chapter 2 famously centers the Fall and its companion concepts: law, agency and transgression. While it would be easy enough to read the premortal existence into that account, it is certainly notable that a discourse about the meaning of life, the “eternal purposes [of the Lord] in the end of man” (verse 15), would neither mention nor clearly allude to such. Jacob and Lehi may well have known of a preexistence—it is taught in other parts of the Book of Mormon (notably Alma 13)—but even in that event, Nephi, as editor / compiler, did not seem to feel his audience was missing an essential context. Yet Givens tell us, at the outset of his volume, that the Eden story is “illogical” without a premortal “first act” (13).
This claim is baffling to me. If it does not represent simple lack of engagement with the source text, the only thing I can conclude is that Givens considers Nephi’s presentation of the “merciful plan of the great Creator” deficient (9:6). Many Latter-day Saints might agree on instinct; after all, Nephi’s writings are but a small portion of Restoration scripture. The Lord ultimately saw fit to reveal much more. I readily grant that there is always more doctrine to be revealed and additional light shed on different aspects of the gospel. Yet consider Jarom’s summation of the small plates: “[H]ave not [its authors] revealed the plan of salvation? I say unto you, Yea; and this sufficeth me” (Jarom 1:2). It is worth both taking him at his word and putting ourselves in his shoes. While the combined contents of 1 / 2 Nephi, Jacob, and Enos are obviously not exhaustive, Jarom tells us here that they present a reasonably sufficient explanation of the gospel’s core program. How, then, we should ask ourselves, might that explanation “suffice” us? Unfortunately, it did not suffice Givens.
Looking beyond its flaws as a standalone volume, 2 Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction is a serious misstep in series’ editor Joe Spencer’s project to remake Book of Mormon criticism. Spencer has worked for over a decade to evangelize a new approach to study of the LDS canon through the Mormon Theology Seminar (run jointly with Adam S. Miller), and, more recently, through his perch as editor-in-chief of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. This series was no doubt conceived as a public coming out of his approach, a manifesto for a new style. While lacking a unified hermeneutics, this style is nevertheless marked by common interest in formalist criticism and intertextual readings within presuposedly polyvocal compilations of scripture. Spencer elaborates on this in the series introduction. While “No single approach to theology or scriptural interpretation commands pre-eminence” in the series, individual volumes take “each scriptural book’s theology on its own terms” (viii-ix; emphasis mine). This approach stands in presumable contrast to many mainstream LDS commentaries, which tend to assume all Restoration texts are fully compatible with one another—and are thus less interested in parsing individual prophets’ unique goals, rhetorical strategies, and doctrinal emphases.
Spencer and the other editors ought to be applauded for making room for varying academic disciplines and personal approaches within this series. (Already, we’ve seen Dr. Deirdre Nicole Green’s expertise on Søren Kierkegaard greatly enhance her volume on Jacob.) But to be useful, a series like this must be tied together by something—something more concrete than a “Best of EFY”-type author list of Mormon Studies luminaries of the late 2010s, that is. A line must be drawn somewhere. Excluding a book that failed to meet Spencer’s presumed minimal standard would have been a good start. Read another take on Terryl Givens' 2ND NEPHI: A BRIEF THEOLOGICAL INTRODUCTION from The One Who Hies here.