Lesson 2: “Behold, I Am Jesus Christ, the Savior of the World” #DandC2017

At the dawn of the restoration, there were three primary views of the Atonement that swirled around Joseph Smith’s family and other early Mormon believers.

Particular (or Limited) Atonement
The particular atonement is a foundation for the Reformed tradition, being one of the “five points of Calvinism.” This is the idea that while Christ was sufficiently powerful to save the entire world, his atonement was limited to the people that God elected to Salvation. It is deeply tied to strong conceptions of the foreknowledge of God, which is perhaps why a Particular Atonement has apparently been championed by a few in BYU RelEd in the past.

Anyway, Calvinism was orthodoxy among the Puritans, and even as things started falling apart with the state church, a Particular Atonement still remained strong among various separate Baptist groups. Presbyterians, among whom Lucy Mack Smith and some of JS’s siblings consorted were definitely in this strong conservative vein.

General Atonement
So instead of Jesus’ expiation being intended for the elect, the General Atonement is the idea that Christ’s death and resurrection was to provide a way for all people to be saved. The details of how this salvations is mediated depends on who you talk to, but this view has been held by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and many Protestants. Of the latter in JS’s day, were groups like the Methodists and some General (as in atonement) Baptists. The archetypal theologian was Jacobus Arminius, and so you will hear about Arminian Protestants. The short story is that people can chose to come and accept Jesus’s atoning sacrifice. God didn’t chose some and not others in the beginning.

JS was of course partial to the Methodists, and the LDS church still bears in the imprint of that early partiality. Skads of other early Mormons had formerly been Methodists (e.g., BY). The biggest group of early converts, however, had been Campbellites (or former Campbellites), a group that was Arminianish.

Universalism has come in many flavors, and you see things ranging from Calvinist-like readings of the mechanics of the atonement, to some interesting (in retrospect) Mormon-like readings. Regardless of the actual mechanics, Universalism is the view that God loves people so much that he has figured out how to save them all. Protestants generally hated that idea. Mormons today often get bent out of shape about this, but you had some prominent early Mormons who went that direction. See, e.g., JS Sr., Martin Harris, and the Knight Family.

Christ’s Atonement in the D&C and JS’s Lifetime
I don’t think that you could begin to approach a comprehensive view of the atonement in a single Gospel Doctrine Class. So instead, let’s look at a few important ideas that we see in the Revelations.

The voice of the Lord in the Doctrine and Covenants consistently employs the adoption in a way that we don’t today. For example Turn to D&C 34, which was delivered six months after the church was formed.

[1] My son Orson [Pratt], hearken and hear and behold what I, the Lord God, shall say unto you, even Jesus Christ your Redeemer; [2] The light and the life of the world, a light which shineth in darkness and the darkness comprehendeth it not; [3] Who so loved the world that he gave his own life, that as many as would believe might become the sons of God. Wherefore you are my son; [4] And blessed are you because you have believed;

First, I think that the earliest version of this revelation is important: “he gave his own life that as many as would believe might become the Sons & daughter[s] of God Wherefore ye are my Son[.]” I want to think that Emma kicked the editors shins for that one.

Read that a couple of times. What do these verses tell us?

We have Jesus telling an elder who is about to go evangelize that:

  • Evangelizing is apparently a good idea, because hey, here is a revelation. Some extreme Calvinists believed that because of election, you shouldn’t have missionaries.
  • General Atonement. Those who come unto him are saved. Many people don’t (they don’t comprehend him?)
  • Those who believe become the sons and daughters of God

We like to skip that last one, because aren’t we all children of God? Not really, or not yet. This is the importance of adoption theology. And you see it over and over in the D&C. So what does it mean to become the sons and daughters of God (see Paul)? Check out also:

  • D&C 11:28-30 (May 1829)
  • D&C 25:1 (July 1830 – they at least didn’t edit this one out!)
  • D&C 35 1-2 (December 1830 – this one is really interesting when read with the example above. Do we talk about Jesus in this way? If not, why not?)
  • D&C 45:7-8 (March 1831)
  • D&C 76:24 (February 1832 – I think this is consistently misread)

The Eternal Soul
So, I’m not one to read Nauvoo ideas back into the Kirtland-era revelations. But since Gospel Doctrine is on the D&C and church history, we are still a go. What’s more, the manual points teachers to this fun essay by Matt McBride in the Revelations in Context, which discusses section 93 in relation to JS’s teachings that “God never did have the power to create the spirit of man at all.” That specific quote didn’t make it in the essay, but I’ll give Correlation a pass. Baby steps.

So what does this have to do with Christ and his atonement? Well just about everything if you are talking to a non-Mormon theologian. The Mormon rejection of creation ex nihilo is perhaps the single greatest reason why some reject us as Christians. It changes the fundamental relationship between people and God. We are no longer creatures. We are something else. What is that though? And how is the atonement different because of it? Does that have any relation to the previous topic we talked about?

People like to use Section 19 as a proof text for penal-substitution. Boo. Forget that. Try writing a paraphrase of vss. 1-20. What do you end up with? Honestly this isn’t that far from what some Universalists were saying.  Remember that this was for Martin Harris (we mentioned him above, remember).

We will do D&C 76, “The Vision,” later, but it was so controversial that they told missionaries not to talk about it and BY had to put it on the shelf. All of this because it was too Universalist. What should we think now that the Temple liturgy has deprecated a lot of what is described, and Wilford Woodruff declared a revelation in General Conference that there will be “few if any” who do not ultimately accept the gospel?


  1. “What should we think now that the Temple liturgy has deprecated a lot of what is described…”?

    Has it? or has it, together with Section 76, shifted the subject from salvation (including all with the possible exceptions of sons of perdition) to exaltation? Of course, to the extent exaltation means living in the presence of God, that is what other Christians and pre-Section 76 Mormons seem to have meant by “salvation.” What have I missed?

  2. The distinction between salvation and exaltation can be important in explaining our contemporary theology. But I don’t think it’s very useful in the context of understanding scripture, which very rarely makes the distinction between them that we have made. “Salvation” in the scriptures nearly always means what we call “exaltation” today.

  3. Really interesting on a number of levels. What struck me though is to question the form of revelation itself. I can see how JS had not yet developed a clear understanding of (premortal) spirits connected to divinity as ‘children.’ So in that sense I can see how adoption into the family of Christ as a more metaphorical child makes sense, especially as JS’s understanding of the atonement and (wo)man’s spirit changed over time. However, in D&C the ‘Lord God’ is speaking, not JS. That difference is very clearly delineated. Shouldn’t the Lord God have a correct understanding of the God – (Wo)man relationship from the start?

    How does everyone else deal with this?

  4. Good stuff. More please!
    I’m curious about my own history of thought on these questions. Somehow, without being able to cite chapter and verse, I grew into the view that Mormon thought (or mine — not clear on the distinction) was universalist but not quite. Universal but with qualifications some of which have to do with choosing and some with not being terrible. With that backdrop, this is interesting reading for sure.

  5. Backspace Writer says:

    Great Post! A few Questions:

    1) Great JS quote, “God never did have the power to create the spirit of man at all.” Do you have a source? I would love to share that in our GD class discussion, but would want to help them confirm that was his thinking.

    2) If penal substitution meant someone would have no suffering for their sins, then I would agree that Section 19 dashes that hope. Still, in my view 19 seems to indicate that suffering will be limited to what God deems sufficient and the remainder will be resolved by Christ’s suffering. That still seems like penal substitution, just one with a little more teeth. Can you help me understand the distinction you are making or that you believe Section 19 makes? How does Mosiah 15 figure in?

    Final thoughts: While I agree that we become sons and daughters of God and Jesus Christ by accepting them and entering into covenants I’m not sure calling it adoption is constructive. If Mosiah 5:7, Abraham 3:18, and many other scriptures are to be trusted than we are begotten of God or Jesus Christ through covenants. I think when we call that transformation adoption, then it allows rooms to dismiss the concept as foreign. In my view the scriptures seem pretty clear that begotten doesn’t just mean biological conception (even by immortals), but it can include both biological human conception and becoming “literally” born of God or Jesus Christ through covenants. This would seem true in both the 1st and 2nd estate based on Mosiah and Abraham.

  6. ReTx ” in D&C the ‘Lord God’ is speaking, not JS” … “How does everyone else deal with this?”

    Of course, I can’t speak for “everyone” but it seems to me, as a result of JS’ changes and additions after the first publications of some of the revelations and as a result of inconsistency/contradiction within the D&C, that JS’ writing the revelations as if in the Lord’s own words is at least in part a stylistic matter. Given the history and content of the documents, I cannot understand the revelatory process as if JS were taking stenographic dictation. Instead, the revelations make more sense to me as JS’ attempt to articulate and explain the concepts he felt at the time were revealed to him by God and writing them as if in the words of God. That leaves plenty of room for human error as well as divine inspiration.

  7. J. Stapley says:

    Awesome comments and questions.

    JR: I would think that even the most ardent follower of JFSII/McConkie would concede that D&C 76:71-76 have been deprecated by the temple liturgy. WW’s revelation was about temple sealings, and the idea that “few if any” would reject the gospel was tied to the validity of their proxy sealings. Then you had folks like Talmage who viewed progression through kingdoms as normative (perhaps because of the presentation of the temple endowment?). This sort of thought has seen a resurgence with folks like Givens. This all hints to the tricky distinctions we have tried to make as a people as outlined by JKC.

    ReTx, first I’m not sure we should take the revelations as completely infallible. JS and other church leaders edited them and harmonized them up to the 1835 printing. That said, this is a very consistent message that jibes with teachings in the Bible. Whether it jibes with our popular narratives is something else, and worth thinking hard about.

    Christian, I think that is right. Mormon universalism isn’t without work or cost. In its most explicit descriptions it is very messy.

    Backspace, that quote is from JS’s April 7, 1844 general conference sermon, otherwise known as the “King Follett Sermon.” The easiest place to compare sources is at WVS’s Parallel Joseph. The Joseph Smith Papers website has put up the major accounts as well. The easiest sources to quote from are the William Clayton account and the Times and Seasons.

    Penal Substitution is about the transactional nature of sin and redemption, and was formalized by Calvinists. I read this section in light of empathetic atonement theology (though your mileage may vary). It is not that penal substitution is entirely incompatible to universalism, because I don’t think it is. It is that it is just icky, and I don’t like it.

    I also think Mormons get hung up on “literal” spirit birth. That isn’t really a scriptural qualifier. I used “adoption” because of the larger Christian adoption theology that seems to be informing these sections.

  8. It has seemed to me that D&C 76:71-76 had been deprecated by D&C 137:5-8 some time before there was a temple liturgy in even the approximate form we now have it and that the temple liturgy builds on section 137, contrary to the teaching of section 76.

    I am not entirely convinced that “salvation” in the scriptures “nearly always” means what Mormons now call “exaltation.” “Exaltation” seems to include concepts of eternal increase and family relationships that are not necessarily included in “salvation” as used in the NT, BoM, or D&C at least prior to Section 137. I do not think our usage is consistent and don’t see any good reason to suppose that scriptural usage is consistent.

  9. It strikes me that the emphasis on being “literal” children of God rather than adopted children of God (whether “literal” means being begotten of God as spirits before physical birth, or whether it means being literally begotten of Christ in the spirit through conversion) stems from some kind of anxiety that adoption is not a “real” as birth. But that’s not at all consistent with our sealing theology, which emphasizes that adopted heirs are no different from other heirs, or, relatedly, our patriarchal blessings theology, which speaks of a “declaration” of lineage as being either a revelation of pre-existing tribal membership, or an assignment by adoption into a particular tribe, and doesn’t make an substantive distinction between the two as to what they entitle the recipient to receive.

    It seems almost like it stems from resistance to the idea that our childhood toward God is “merely” spiritual and therefore not as real. But in resisting that idea, it buys into its premise: that something that it “merely” spiritual is not as real as something that is “literal.” But the problem is that we don’t really even know what “literal” means most of the time, other than that it is apparently not “merely spiritual” or “merely symbolic.”

    It strikes me that it stems from an anxiety about what is real that is not all that different from the anxiety that caused the development of the specific doctrine of literal, physical transubstantiation (like the Catholic version) out of the arguably more general doctrine of the real presence (like Luther’s version).

  10. JR, I agree that the ideas we’ve associated with exaltation are not always implied in “salvation.” That wasn’t my point. My point was simply that salvation nearly always means eternal life in God ‘s presence. And if “exaltation” means to inherit the celestial kingdom, in the context of our contemporary theology, then it is basically a synonym to “salvation.” The other ideas about kinship, increase, etc., are more about the idea of exaltation “in the highest” degree of the celestial kingdom, and I could be wrong, but I think those who inherit the celestial kingdom in section 76 and even in our contemporary theology are properly referred to as exalted, even without receiving the highest degree.

    (Of course that’s all assuming that when section 131 talks about the “celestial glory” containing “three heavens or degrees,” it’s talking about there heavens within the celestial kingdom, and not referring to heaven in general as “the celestial glory.” That’s how we read it, and I don’t disagree, but I’m not entirely convinced that that’s what it originally meant.)

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    a really helpful overview, J. (On Mormons and understanding of the Atonement generally, some might find this old post useful: https://bycommonconsent.com/2009/03/28/atonement-stew/

  12. J. Stapley says:

    Absolutely, Kevin. A great reference. Beyond the types of atonement mentioned above, there are many ways people have tried to understand the mechanics of the atonement, to which your post is a great introduction.

  13. Thanks for the post — and for linking WVS’s amazing Parallel Joseph source in the comments.

  14. Great post, J. I have historically not gotten much out of the Doctrine and Covenants, but I’m looking forward to reading it (or, you know, parts of it) in conjunction with Revelations in Context.

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