As promised, here’s the preface to Joseph Spencer’s new book, An Other Testament. The book, which offers a fresh “typological” reading of the Book of Mormon, is available for free in .pdf form here, or in hardcover here.
Preface – Contexts and Contents
By Joseph Spencer
Put simply, this book is about how the Book of Mormon teaches us to read the Book of Mormon.
Such simplicity, though, is a bit misleading because my aim here is to see, in full recognition of
its complexity, how the Book of Mormon teaches us to read the Book of Mormon.
There is, moreover, a very particular kind of complexity that interests me. Hugh Nibley, in books
such as Lehi in the Desert and An Approach to the Book of Mormon, has shown the profoundly
complex historical background that is on display in the Book of Mormon. More recently, Grant
Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon has compellingly shown the immense literary
complexity of the Book of Mormon. What I am after, though, is neither historical nor literary. I
am interested in the Book of Mormon’s specifically theological complexity.
By theological complexity I do not primarily mean that the ideas presented in the Book of
Mormon are complex, though sometimes they are. Rather, I mean that it can be difficult to bring
into focus some of the Book of Mormon’s overarching theological claims, given the book’s
There are two aspects of the Book of Mormon that render its theology complex. First, aspects of
the book’s theology may remain obscure if readers are not attentive to how its authors arrange
the ideas presented. At times these ideas are woven into the arrangement of carefully built
stories, at times they depend on larger textual structures that can be difficult to see. Embedded
in these larger structures, many of the Book of Mormon’s ideas draw meaning and especially
nuance from their context. Second, what the Book of Mormon has to say may be missed if
readers are not attentive to the fact that the ideas it presents are woven into a real—and therefore
anything but tidy—history. Anyone acquainted with the history of ideas knows how ideas change
with time and circumstance. Theological ideas in the Book of Mormon are no exception. Both of
these difficulties are taken into consideration—often in great detail—in this book.
Since my aim is to look at how the Book of Mormon itself teaches us to read the Book of
Mormon, I begin with an examination of Alma 36, where one Nephite prophet (Alma) reads
another Nephite prophet (Lehi). There, Alma the Younger recounts his conversion experience
to his son, Helaman, but he does so, importantly, by weaving his personal story into a reading
of 1 Nephi 1. Alma’s weaving together of a scriptural text with his own conversion experience
exemplifies how the Book of Mormon should be read.
In this same chapter, Alma even names the kind of reading he models: typology. As Alma
develops it, typology is a question of how events—singular, unpredictable experiences with the
divine—interrupt the natural flow of history and so allow for the past to be understood in new,
redemptive ways. Put in Alma’s own words, typology is a question of allowing a new thought to
rework memory, so that it becomes possible to advance in the knowledge of God.
From Alma’s own reading of Nephite scripture, I gather that the Book of Mormon should
be read typologically. But it is necessary to put a finer point on typology and for that it is
necessary to look elsewhere in the Book of Mormon. There are explicit discussions of typology
at several points in the Book of Mormon, but, if one pays attention to the structural and historical
complexities mentioned above, it becomes clear that typology is not a uniform concept in Nephite
scripture. Rather, the Book of Mormon presents two distinct understandings of typology.
One of these is worked out at the beginning of the Nephite tradition by Nephi, son of Lehi.
The other emerges centuries later in the teachings of Abinadi, the martyred prophet.
The bulk of this book is devoted to examining the textual structures and historical entanglements
that contextualize and complicate what Nephi and Abinadi have to say about typology. This
interpretive work is made even more interesting by the fact that both Nephi and Abinadi develop
their respective notions of typology in dialogue with Isaiah.
For Nephi, Isaiah was a prophet with a message about the house of Israel, for the house of Israel.
As a result, Nephi takes Isaiah’s writings as a kind of template for making sense of Israel’s
actual historical experience, wherever and whenever Israel may be. This approach to typology is
what Nephi calls “likening” Isaiah’s writings. Thus, though the children of Lehi are located in a
time and place that is drastically different from the time and place of Isaiah’s original prophecy,
they can, according to Nephi, still assume that the writings of Isaiah provide a kind of covenant
framework for making sense of their own historical experience. Fueled by this understanding
of typology, Nephi develops a near obsession with Isaiah and pays close attention even to the
theologically significant internal arrangement of materials in the Book of Isaiah.
According to Abinadi, on the other hand, Isaiah, along with all other prophets, was focused
less on the singular history of Israel than on the event of Christ’s mortal ministry. Abinadi thus
ignores, for instance, the importance of Isaiah’s internal arrangement in order to give a strictly
Christological reading of Isaiah’s writings, one that sharply diverges from Nephi’s way of
reading the prophet. For Abinadi, Isaiah’s prophecies are primarily about what would happen
in the meridian of time. Consequently, all else Isaiah appears to say must be read in light of the
coming Christ event and with an eye to the consequences of that event for each believer—even
when, on his own terms, Isaiah seems clearly to be focused on eschatological or covenantal
Thus both Nephi and Abinadi formulate their respective approaches to typology in the course of
reading Isaiah. But, because they understand the task of (Isaiah’s) prophecy so distinctively, they
arrive at quite different understandings of typology. For both, typology is a question of knowing
how to read scripture in a uniquely Christian way, but what is to be read typologically is different
for each of them. This seems, in the end, to be a consequence of Nephi’s having discovered
his understanding of typology in the complexly structured writings of Isaiah, while Abinadi
apparently brought his understanding of typology to the writings of Isaiah. More explicitly,
Nephi draws from Isaiah an understanding of the relationship between the Law of Moses and
the Messiah that fits Isaiah’s heavy emphasis on the Israelite covenant, while Abinadi imposes
on Isaiah an understanding of the relationship between the Law and the Messiah that effectively
ignores Isaiah’s focus on covenantal questions.
Two models, then: one focused principally on connecting Christ to the world historical unfolding
of the Israelite covenant, the other focused principally on connecting Christ to the everyday
life of the individual believer. But how is one to decide between them—if indeed they are to be
decided between? Two clues in the Book of Mormon point the way. First, crucially, during his
visit to the Lehites in Third Nephi, Christ himself intervenes, calling for a kind of return (from
Abinadi’s) to Nephi’s approach to scripture. Second and by way of confirmation, a narrative
allusion to Exodus 32–34 in the middle of Abinadi’s own speech suggests that the Book of Mormon
as a whole is meant to elevate Nephi’s understanding of typology to a privileged place, though
without thereby disparaging Abinadi’s understanding.
In light of these indications, I then draw some final conclusions about how the Book of
Mormon—according to the Book of Mormon itself—should be read. Granted the privilege given
to Nephi’s approach to scripture over that of Abinadi, and given Nephi’s deep interest in Isaiah’s
emphasis on the Israelite covenant, the Book of Mormon asks us to privilege readings of it that
stress the centrality of Israel and its covenant. If readers of the Book of Mormon are to read
the book as the book itself suggests it should be read, they must pay close attention to what the
Book of Mormon says—and enacts—regarding the ancient covenant given to Israel. Not only are
readers to be converted by the Book of Mormon to the everyday life of a Christian, they are, in
full fidelity to what the Book of Mormon accomplishes as an event, also typologically to convert
the whole of world history so that it too is rooted in and revolves around the covenant.
Let me conclude this preface with an aside to my friends in (the justifiably secularized field
of ) Mormon studies, friends who are likely to feel a complex tension in this book. I recognize
the real need to produce serious work on the Book of Mormon that can speak as much to non-
Mormon interests as to Mormon interests, and I have produced and will continue to produce
such work. This book, however, hovers somewhere between such work and what might be
called more traditional (if not more conservative) Mormon scholarship. Thus while I here ask
a question that is of as much interest to readers of the Book of Mormon who have no Mormon
convictions as to believing Latter-day Saints, and while I believe that I ultimately provide an
answer to that question that can speak to both kinds of reader, the road I travel in moving from
question to answer is paved with commitments that mark my faith commitments. (I therefore
consistently assume the historicity of the Book of Mormon throughout the book, occasionally
speculating about authorial motives, historical circumstances behind narrated events, and the
like.) I want to assure readers who approach the book from a more secular or secularized point of
view that I express such commitments, always implicitly, not in order to alienate either the non-
Mormon or the academic, but because I mean to speak as much to the average Latter-day Saint
as to scholars, whether Mormon or not. By adding this note, I do not mean to apologize for my
faith, only to make clear what the present book does and does not attempt to do. And I hope, not
without some trepidation, that scholars of Mormonism generally have something to learn from a
believing Mormon theologian hard at work on scripture.