This post began as a response to J. Stapley’s recent post about Ordinances but quickly veered off in a tangent that would have constituted a threadjack of his post, so I’ve posted it as an independent contemplation.
J. was exploring possible origins of Mormon use of the word “ordinance” (or early influence as to the use and meaning of the word) in legal usage in his post and especially in the ensuing discussion in the comments (J. notes that he is beginning to think that “JS . . . was explicitly using legal language” when using the term “ordinance”). I think “covenant” also falls into this category of a term coopted from legal usage to express a religious teaching.
In fact, a commenter named Steve in J.’s discussion brought up covenants, noting that “we cannot arbitrarily make covenants and expect God to be bound to them. Only when God’s delegated authority authorizes this covenant does God become bound to the terms of the covenant, and only then will the conditional blessings of the covenant flow as we faithfully abide by those conditions.”
I think that Steve’s comment probably more or less approximates the way that virtually all contemporary Mormons understand and use the word “covenant” in the context of our religious teachings and practice. But what did “covenant” mean to early Latter-day Saints when they spoke of making covenants or when Joseph Smith used the word “covenant” in revelations received from the Lord? Could it have meant something different, something closer to the way “covenant” was and continues to be understood and used in a legal context?
As with “ordinance” there is, of course, Old Testament usage to take into account but both terms’ usage there is also legal in nature. Legal and religious authority were united and coterminous in most societies during the relevant Old Testament periods.
From a legal perspective, in the 1830s as today, a “covenant” is something one party to a contract, for instance a borrower, binds him or herself to (or promises to do) in order to create conditions in which performance of the contract by the other side can occur. The covenanting party promises to act in a certain way at all future times during the period in which the indenture or contract is in force such that the other party’s interests in the benefit of the bargain (in the case of debt, this is usually the lender’s or bondholders’ expectation of receiving interest payments) are measurably protected. In this sense, the lending party is not technically “bound” by the covenant itself; rather, the covenant binds the borrower, and the borrower’s compliance with his or her own covenant is a pre-condition for performance of the contract by the other party. If after performance has begun the borrower violates one of the covenant obligations, this can trigger other provisions of the contract or indenture that entail consequences — sometimes quite drastic, including even default and acceleration of principal in the case of some debt indentures — for the covenanting party.
So I wonder whether we do ourselves a disservice when we talk about “binding the Lord” when discussing covenants. We bind ourselves with covenants. And it is true that our transgression of covenants triggers consequences (though is it ever default?). But does our action in covenanting bind the Lord? Or do our covenants constitute promises on our part to behave in a certain way at all times in the future so that conditions are created in which the Lord is willing to entertain the idea of commerce with us? That might be a very Old Testament and, accordingly, uncomfortable idea. But is the idea of “binding the Lord” any less uncomfortable if you think it through? In fact, come to think of it, my brother Jordan wrestled with this very discomfort in a blog post at ABEV nearly six years ago!
Of course, D&C 82:10 needs to be taken into account as a data point. Section 82, which documents a revelation received by Joseph Smith in 1832, contains an example of one covenant that we as Latter-day Saints are supposed to make with the Lord. In verse 10 the Lord is quoted as referring to himself as being “bound” when we do what he says but that when we don’t do what he says we have no promise. Does the language in this verse actually mean that we bind the Lord by our actions? Or is the Lord expressing a choice to be involved in our affairs if we set the right pre-conditions for that to be possible by fulfilling the particular covenant to which we bind ourselves as outlined in that Section?
(Note that in D&C 82:15 the use of “covenant” corresponds to the legal usage I’ve referred to above: “I give unto you this commandment, that ye bind yourselves by this covenant, and it shall be done according to the laws of the Lord.”)
In any event, given that we completely ignore the rest of Section 82, I see no reason for any of us to think that the Lord is currently “bound” at all — we use D&C 82:10 as a proof-text for any “obedience” to any of the myriad rules that we have identified as necessary for living the Gospel, but does this verse’s function in Section 82 actually support that? Isn’t this verse talking about the Lord fulfilling his promise to transform us into a Zion society like Enoch’s in the event that we should bind ourselves to the covenant of consecration, common ownership, and need-based stewardship (see D&C 82:17-18)?
This “covenant” (to which we are commanded to bind ourselves, see D&C 82:15) explicitly entails the one thing that we contemporary American Mormons are least likely to achieve (given the way a majority of us — if a number of recent, reputable surveys are to be believed — have ceded Gospel territory to a particular, very culturally determined political ideology specific to this time and place): the rejection of the profit motive as our guiding principle in favor of “every man seeking the interest of his neighbor, and doing all things with an eye single to the glory of God” (D&C 82:19).
We are indeed very far from living this covenant as a people which, it seems, would require us to thumb our nose at Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” (as a relic of the telestial world) in favor of Joseph Smith’s “single eye” (D&C 82:19); we are not even close, either in theory or in practice, to being a people whose work is premised on seeking the interest of our neighbors with an eye single to the glory of God rather than working for the purpose of enriching ourselves to buy McMansions and the newest toys. (In fact, the current dominant political discourse among American Mormons, which seems to have in some senses hijacked our religious discourse, particularly at local levels, seems to militate against our compliance with this covenant, doesn’t it?) To being a people who work with the purpose and intention (in fulfillment of this covenant) that the product of their labor should “become the common property of the whole church” (D&C 82:18) so that all can “be equal, or in other words, you are to have equal claims on the properties, for the benefit of managing the concerns of your stewardships, every man according to his wants and his needs, inasmuch as his wants are just” (D&C 82:17).
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The internal usage of “covenant” in Section 82, especially verse 15, shows a usage of the term “covenant” — which we as Mormons now view as a primarily religious term unless we work in fields that regularly deal with indentures or other contractual covenants — that is consistent with the legal use of the term. Unfortunately, as Mormons in 2013 we fall far short in our fulfillment of this particular covenant, whether understood legally or exclusively religiously. Our wants are not just. And regardless of the legal understanding of how a covenant binds one party to a contract, should we think the Lord is currently bound? How could we think that based on the face of D&C 82, which requires us to bind ourselves by a covenant that we are very far from fulfilling?