I think one of the more subtle shifts over the last quarter century has been how the Church approaches doctrinal ideas. One easy observation of this shift is the change in the missionary library (1). Correlation is slowly disentangling itself from the last generation of thought. The future is markedly more…scholarly (or possibly simple).
While skimming through the Scott Kenny research collection, a copy of which is held at BYU, I came across a hand written letter from President Charles W. Penrose to Joseph F. Smith dated April 21, 1915. This letter begged the President for a meeting about an unnamed apostle that was publishing an untenable interpretation of the term “Son of Man.” Included with the letter was a 5 page typescript rebuttal to this apostle that Penrose believed was severely mistaken.
The apostle with whom Penrose had this disagreement was likely the President’s son, Joseph Fielding Smith. Elder Smith eventually popularized his views and received a champion in his son-in-law, Elder McConkie. In the 1953 Improvement Era and later in Answers to Gospel Questions, Elder Smith wrote:
In each of the four gospels we read where the Savior frequently refers to himself as “the Son of man.” Invariably in the New Testament, the common noun, “Man,” is printed with a lower case “m.” This is very likely due to the fact that the scholars who did the translating did not understand the significance of this expression. Seemingly, they took the view as you have expressed it, that it has reference to the fact that our Lord became a man and while on the earth appeared as a man. You will realize that for centuries the prevailing notion that God, when speaking of either the Father or the Son, was without body and was not in the form of man, except as our Lord appeared among man in his earth ministry.
The expression should be written, “Son of Man,” with a capital “M,” meaning Son of God. In revelations given to the Prophet Joseph, the Savior uses this term when speaking of himself. See the Doctrines and Covenants, 45:39; 49:6, 22; 63:53; 68:11. There are other occasions when our Lord called himself “Son Ahman.” See sections 78:20 and 95:17.
In other places we find links between the title Son of Man to the title Man of Holiness.
Penrose’s position paper included point by point arguments that references scripture, source language, and prior church authorities to show that “Son of Man” doesn’t refer to Jesus Christ’s divine lineage or Godhood (insistence on capitalization?). Instead, it meant that Jesus was born from a mortal woman. Penrose betrays a measure of shocked disbelief that such a position could even be advocated. He also noted as an aside that the un-named apostle was essentially encouraging church antagonists (i.e., the “Reorganites”) who said that the Utah Mormons worship a man.
Personally, I like Penrose’s position, though I don’t particularly care what the Reorganites think. I am no Bible scholar, but I like the idea that Christ, though God, emphasized his mortal nature. I’m sure there is a ton of scholarship on this issue, and I am quite ignorant (and thus likely mistaken). Perhaps most importantly, I like how he got the answer. He tried to include all the data he could and make a reasonable judgment. It is the process that feels right to me (not to mention that Ezekiel is called “Son of Man” 93 times).
It seems to me that some of the wackiest ideas ever propagated in the restoration rest on foundations similar to the definition Penrose was worried about. What exactly is the provenance of these ideas except the common sense definitions that accompany them? There is a generation of thought and materials that are now slowly being forgotten.
The first Priesthood quorums to receive “correlated” lesson manuals were the Seventies. B. H. Roberts penned the Seventies Course in Theology, which required a battery of scholarly books as reference materials. There are flaws galore, to be sure, but it seems that we approaching where we were 100 years ago, now with better tools. With 80 some odd Mormon graduate students in ancient scripture scattered about and the Religious Education dept. at BYU in flux, Penrose may yet get his way.
- In 1976 the library was A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, The Miracle of Forgiveness, Gospel Doctrine, Jesus the Christ, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Doctrines of Salvation vol. 1-3. The library released in 2004: Jesus the Christ, Our Heritage, Our Search for Happiness and True to the Faith