Condescension

in_humility

On my mission, whenever I would read about the angel asking Nephi “knowest thou the condescension of God?” in 1 Nephi 11:16, I would kind of smirk to myself and think, “No” (which as a 19-year old kid I thought was hilarious). The fact was I didn’t even know what the word “condescension” meant, much less grasp the concept intended by “condescension of God.” I was only beginning to come to a sense of curiosity about the scriptures, but for some reason my curiosity didn’t really extend to this expression. And somehow I’ve gone all these years without really giving that expression a second thought. But in preparing for Sunday’s lesson I of course read the passage once again, and decided perhaps it is finally time that I try to get a handle on what the angel is trying to show Nephi here.

Our first problem is trying to grasp what the word itself means. The English verb condescend derives from Latin condescendere, meaning “to let oneself down, to stoop.” (Notice embedded in the word is our English derivative “descend.”) Being 6’5″ I know a thing or two about occasionally stooping down.

This is kind of a hard word for us to grasp, because in modern English it is usually used with a negative connotation. In our patter a person who is “condescending” has or shows a feeling of patronizing superiority. Synonyms would include arrogant, disdainful, snobbish, haughty. But the more historic usage is something like “voluntary descent from one’s rank or dignity in relations with an inferior” or “to sink willingly to equal terms with an inferior.”

Our second problem is that we simply cannot prooftext a single verse and grasp the angel’s meaning here.  We have to get a running start at it (something we’re not used to doing at Church, where we only like to focus on individual verses as opposed to entire passages), covering at least verses 8 through 33. I’ll bullet point some of the high points:

  • Spirit shows Nephi the tree. (v. 8)
  • Nephi desires to know what it means. (v. 11)
  • He sees a fair virgin. (v. 13) [1]
  • An angel asks him what he sees, and he replies a virgin. (vv. 14-15)
  • The angel asks “Knowest thou the condescension of God?” thus introducing the key word. (v.16)
  • Nephi replies “I know that he loveth his children, nevertheless I do not know the meaning of all things.” (v. 17) [2]
  • We learn the virgin is the mother of the son of God “after the manner of the flesh.” (v. 18) [3]
  • Then he sees her bearing a child in her arms. (v. 20)
  • “Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father!” The angel again asks Nephi whether he knows the meaning of the tree which his father saw. (v.21)
  • “Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad.” (v. 22) [4]
  • Nephi sees the Son of God among the children of men. (v. 24)
  • With all of that introduction and background, then the angel says “Look and behold the condescension of God!” (v. 26)
  • Neph sees his mortal ministry, the twelve apostles (v. 27)
  • Him healing the sick, casting out devils (v. 31)
  • He is judged by the world (v. 32)
  • And finally he is lifted up on the cross and slain for the sins of the world. (v. 33)

So when I sorted through all that, it finally made sense to me. Jesus was God, but he lowered himself (i.e., condescended) to be born as an infant human being, in humble circumstances to a humble family. He modeled how we should treat each other. He was condemned, brutalized, and ultimately died for us. In fine, the condescension of God is the incarnation, ministry and atonement of Jesus Christ.

To me, this Book of Mormon conception of the condescension of God is well summarized in Philippians 2:5-11 (remember that “servant” in KJV usage means “slave”):

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:

Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:

But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:

And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:

10 That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;

11 And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Notes:

[1] How pray tell does Nephi know just from looking at her that this is a virgin? I’m guessing virgin is used here in the sense of a young woman, as opposed to the technical sense of a virgo intacta.

[2] Rather like my missionary self.

[3] What does “after the manner of the flesh” mean? In later Mormon materialism it might suggest the physical conception of Jesus, but the BoM seems awfully early for such a notion. I’m inclined to see this expression as referring more to the birth than to the conception.

[4] For the unusual expression “love which sheddeth itself,” see https://bycommonconsent.com/2007/07/14/love-which-sheds-itself/

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Nice post. We may never know just how great the condescension of God really is, but I think it may be on the order of infinite.

  2. In the original text of the Book of Mormon, it says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, the Eternal Father.”

  3. I read “after the manner of the flesh” as an emphasis on the incarnation–that he condescended to take upon him human flesh and be born the same way we all are. You could take that as either conception or birth, I suppose, but I think the key point is an emphasis on flesh.

    I’ve also heard it explained as a way to distinguish Mary from Heavenly Mother–she’s only his mother “after the manner of the flesh” not the mother of His spirit. That one seems a bit anachronistic to me, but it suppose you could make a plausible argument.

  4. How does he recognise a virgin, as opposed to a girl, or young woman?
    The greek roots I learned in school were, con – with or together, de – down, and cedo -I send.

  5. This is lovely. Thank you.

    Tangent: the missionary who baptized my father read it as, “Knowest thou the condensation of God?” But really, these things are all a matter of ceramics.

  6. Fun stuff, Kev.

  7. I was once assigned to speak in sacrament meeting about my favorite attribute of the Savior. I was encouraged to find material in Preach My Gospel, but I couldn’t find anything inspiring. I procrastinated. It was late Saturday night. This scripture (“Knowest thou the condescension of God”) along with an ancient conference address deconstructing it saved me. Condescension and grace will always be connected to the Lord in my mind. Thanks for stirring the remembrance.

  8. We used this passage in class last week, and the reader pronounced the word “condensation”. Rather than embarrass him, I bit my tongue and moved on to the next topic in the lesson. Maybe we’ll come back to it this Sunday and I can use some of the ideas here. Thanks.

  9. <>

    Her shoulders were covered.

  10. [1] How pray tell does Nephi know just from looking at her that this is a virgin?

    Her shoulders were covered.

    (darned tags… now my smart alecky joke is ruined!)

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    John, that’s interesting about the original reading. I suspect it was a mistake, for even in orthodox trinitarianism the Lamb of God is the Son, not the Father. There are a number of LDS articles on this subject (such as a short one in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism and a couple of Ensign articles), which are derivative of BRM’s presentation on this subect to, I think, maybe a BYU devotional or something. The BRM treatment rubs me the wrong way a bit. First, he repeatedly makes a big deal about how we Mormons are the only ones who understand this, and I don’t think that is so. Second, he insists on bifurcating the concept to the condescension of the Father and that of the Son (reflecting his strong subordnationist tendencies). For me, in the BoM context the emphasis is clearly on the Son.

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    JKC, that is sort of how I was thinking about it, I think you just articulated it better than I did. I agree that the emphasis is on the flesh, i.e., the incarnation.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    Mark, we Mormons are always praying for moisture, so the condensation of God is a big deal to us.

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    HDP, I liked the jjoke, even if it took two comments to get it out!

  15. David Day says:

    Thanks Kevin. I still tend to read these verses the same way my favorite seminary teacher taught them. The basic concept is that versus 18-25 talk about the condescension of the Father in partnering with a mortal being (Mary) to have a son, Jesus.

    Side note, he did not elaborate on what that partnering “looked like” (and the word is mine, not his, although I fully expect that he had a view on that partnering), the focus was on the idea that Father had a son who was half mortal and subject to mortal trials and ultimately that God gave us his Son who suffered and died for us.

    Verses 26-33 (starting with the angel again focusing Nephi on the condescension of God) are about the condescension of God the Son. The basic idea is that Jehovah left his throne (where we had all power, all knowledge, all comforts, etc.) and became mortal (half-mortal) and served people and then performed the atonement.

    Some of the takeaway for we HS age kids was that “condescension” might seem like it has a negative connotation in a worldly sense, but with respect to God it actually means something more like lowering oneself to be a servant (i.e. what are we supposed to learn from the fact that the kings of this world have an never ending supply of servants while the Savior washed his apostles feet, etc.). I was at that age where I had never heard the idea of a leader-servant so the lesson hit me hard. Ever since then, I’ve always felt like the angel was explaining to Nephi both the condescension of the Father (who gave us his Son) and the condescension of the Son (who suffered and died for us).

    My 2 cents.

    HDP, the joke so was funny I got it from the first comment.

  16. Mark, we Mormons are always praying for moisture, so the condensation of God is a big deal to us.

    Except in the baptistry of the Los Angeles Temple, which had a horrendous mildew problem (and probably toxic mold) before the mid-’00s renovation. (Said renovation was prompted by the fact that much of the cloth insulation on the electrical wiring had been eaten away by rodents, potentially leading to the same sort of fire that destroyed the Samoa Temple–but the condition of the baptistry wasn’t super great either, as I noticed every week during my baptistry shift.)

    We do not want condensation in the House of the Lord, even His own!

  17. eponymous says:

    With reference to your FN 3, Kevin, I’m recalling the encounter I had with this set of verses during a Freshman BYU Book of Mormon course taught by a professor who was not part of the Religion department if I recall correctly. I can still hear the tension in his voice as he reverently and yet at the same time blatantly insinuated that the “condescension of God” referred to God the Father impregnating Mary and this was clearly what was intended in the silence that was displayed in verses 18-19 with references to flesh and being carried away. I found myself squirming in my seat at how oily and profane the topic seemed given this teacher’s treatment of it.

    It causes me to shudder even now. We have no idea what happened with Mary but that concept of the Mormon immaculate conception (given so many non-Catholics’ misunderstanding in believing the phrase refers to Jesus’ conception) seems to persist among a number of members I talk with even today given our belief that God is as Man once was.

  18. eponymous says:

    Sorry, that should be, Man is as God once was and God is as Man may become. Speaking to Joseph’s call that if the veil were rent today we would see [God] like a man in form.

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for the additional comments; I appreciate them.

  20. No to start an argument, but I disagree that the condescension of God refers to the Father physically inseminating Mary. Maybe he did, but I just don’t think its in these verses. If you see it there, it’s because you are bringing it to the text. It’s not in the text. There’s a couple of reasons for this:

    1) The condescension of God is about God (that is, Jesus) becoming human. The whole point is that he did not just give his life as the immortal creator, but that he condescended to be born as all of us are born, agreed to life a fully authentic human life, including that he condescended to be baptized, and was even “obedient unto death.” That’s why the vision of the condescension of God includes not just the birth, but the baptism and the crucifixion. The Father coming down to inseminate the virgin and then going back up is not the same kind of condescension.

    2) This idea seems to rely on a distinction between “God” and “Christ” that isn’t there in the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon writers almost always refers to Christ as God, and when they say “God” they are almost always talking about Christ. When they want to refer to the Father, they say the Father. After all, Mormon believed that the whole purpose (or at least one of the purposes) of the Book of Mormon is to prove that Jesus is God. Not surprisingly, that doctrine is emphasized throughout the book. Not just with Nephi, but with Abinadi, who precisely for teaching that Christ is God, and Alma who also says the same thing in express terms. If Nephi had said “the condescension of the Father,” that would be one thing, but the Book of Mormon, must more so than even the New Testament, almost always refers to Christ as God.

    3) If I’m not mistaken, the idea that the Father physically inseminated Mary comes from Brigham Young, and was part of his Adam-God theology. That doesn’t automatically mean that it is wrong, but it the church has repudiated so much of those teachings, I think we should tread carefully.

    4) This one isn’t very strong, but the text does use the word virgin to describe Mary. As others have pointed out, maybe that just means girl, but we don’t have the original word, and the closest we have is the english, which is ambiguous. And, as others asked, if virgin really means never had sex, how would Nephi know that from just looking at her? It’s a fair question, but at the same time, we’re talking about a guy who’s having a vision that would show him everything from the birth to the apocalypse. So, probably the same way that he knew just by looking at them that Jesus was the Lamb of God, that his descendants were his descendants, etc. I don’t think it’s implausible that the spirit could have given him knowledge that she was a true virgin in the usual sense of the english word.

    As for whether Jesus was conceived by physical relations between the Father and Mary, or whether he was conceived miraculously by God, through the power of the Holy Ghost, I’m sort of agnostic on that particular point. They seem equally plausible to me. But if we accept the physical conception idea, it’s because we are getting it from somewhere else. It isn’t in Nephi’s vision. The point of Nephi’s vision is that God became one of us, by being born as a man, so that we could be one with him. The precise mechanics of the incarnation are not the point of Nephi’s vision, and I think it’s a mistake to read that into it.

  21. Kevin Barney says:

    JKC, I agree that it’s not there in the text, although since it became a thing in later Mormon thought some might read it into the text. That is what I meant by “the BoM seems awfully early for such a notion.”

  22. I’m also agnostic on this point, but the text clearly says, “after the manner of the flesh”. You can say there’s no textual support for the physical nature of DNA transfer, but there is clearly no textual support for THAT claim.

  23. David Day says:

    JKC et al, to be clear, I was simply trying to state that I think the text can be read to refer to the condescension of the Father without there having been physical relations. My attempt up above was to state that without creating bringing up the physical relations issue, and I clearly failed in that attempt.

  24. eponymous, I had the same experience in the Book of Mormon class at BYU, back in 1998, based on the set of Bruce R McConkie quotes. I hope these don’t still show up in some freshman Book of Mormon classes.
    http://emp.byui.edu/marrottr/begettingofjesusbrmc.pdf

    Kevin, thank you for the post. Great thoughts this evening.