“Behold the Condescension of God”

Quanta dignatio Dei! quanta Virginis excellentia! Currite, matres; currite, filiae; currite, omnes quae post Evam, et ex Eva, et parturimini cum tristitia, et parturitis. Adite virginalem thalamum, ingredimini, si potestis, pudicum sororis vestrae cubiculum.

How great the condescension of God! How great the excellence of the Virgin! Hasten, all ye mothers! And hasten, all ye daughters! Hasten, all ye who after Eve and on account of Eve, are born and give birth in sorrow! Approach the Virgin’s chamber ; enter, if you can, the modest room of your Sister
.

—Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) 

The central event of the Christmas season—the incarnation of God as a human infant born in humble circumstances to a peasant woman in an unimportant part of the great Roman Empire—is introduced in the Book of Mormon as the interpretation of a dream about a tree.

The tree, of course, is the Tree of Life—the central symbol of Lehi’s dream in 1 Nephi 8. Lehi’s tree is a sort of inversion of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis. In Genesis, eating the fruit is bad. In Lehi’s dream, eating the fruit is good. It is “desirable above all other fruit” (1 Ne 8:12). It makes one happy (1 Ne 8:10).

When Nephi gets the chance to ask a messenger from God what the tree means, the messenger shows him a vision of the city of Nazareth and a virgin “most beautiful and fair above all other virgins” (1 Ne 11:15). Then he asks Nephi a question that seems odd in the context of a discussion about a tree: “Knowest thou the condescension of God?” (1 Ne 11:16). Nephi admits that he doesn’t, and an angel explains:

And it came to pass that I saw the heavens open; and an angel came down and stood before me; and he saith unto me: Nephi, what beholdest thou? And I said unto him: A virgin most beautiful and fair above all other virgins. And he saith unto me: Knowest thou the condescension of God? And I said unto him: I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless I do not know the meaning of all things. And he saith unto me: Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of God, after the manner of the flesh.
And it came to pass that I beheld that she was carried away in the spirit; and after that she had been carried away in the spirit for the space of a time, the angel spake unto me, saying: Look! And I looked and beheld the virgin again, bearing a child in her arms. And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Eternal Father! Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw? (1 Ne. 11: 14-21)

Now, I have pulled something of a fast one here. This passage comes from the 1830 version of the Book of Mormon. In the 1837 version, the text was changed to reflect the anti-Trinitarian drift of Joseph Smith’s theology. “The mother of God” was changed to “the mother of the Son of God,” and “the Eternal Father” was changed to “the Son of the Eternal Father.” These changes are unfortunate, as they make the rest of the passage almost impossible to interpret the way that any reader in 1830 would have interpreted it. And the original language connects the Book of Mormon to the Christian tradition of Advent in ways that the later revisions unfortunately, and unnecessarily, reject.

Nephi answers the angel’s question by saying that the tree represents “the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore it is the most desirable above all things” (1 Ne 11:22). This answer is not wrong, but it completely misses the significance of the vision that Nephi is seeing. In his defense, though, it would be very difficult for any resident of pre-exilic Jerusalem to look at the image of a woman with a child and comprehend that Yahweh—the fearsome God of Armies who, drowned Pharoah’s soldiers and shook the mighty walls of Jericho to the ground—would one day allow himself to be born to an unmarried peasant woman from a little village like Nazareth.

The angel’s response to Nephi, “Yea, and the most joyous to the soul” (1 Ne 11:23) affirms that Nephi was correct to say that the tree in Lehi’s dream represented the love of God. But the angel is also trying to route Nephi’s attention beyond the Sunday School answer. Both the brevity of the response, and the fact that the angel moves on to an even more elaborate vision of Christ, suggest that Nephi still doesn’t grasp the immensity of God’s condescension, the angel tries again:

And after he had said these words, he said unto me: Look! And I looked, and I beheld the Son of God going forth among the children of men; and I saw many fall down at his feet and worship him. And it came to pass that I beheld that the rod of iron, which my father had seen, was the word of God, which led to the fountain of living waters, or to thee tree of life; which waters are a representation of the love of God; and I also beheld that the tree of life was a representation of the love of God. And the angel said unto me again: Look and behold the condescension of God! (1 Ne 11:24-26)

After invoking the phrase “condescension of God” a second time, the angel goes on to show Nephi scenes from Christ’s life and ministry: being baptized, calling the twelve apostles, healing, casting out devils, being crucified for the sins of the world, and being resurrected (11:27-12:6). All of this, the vision says, is what the tree means, because all of it is what the love of God means.

Let’s focus a bit on the phrase “condescension of God.” The phrase is not in common usage today outside of LDS curricular material, but, in 1830, it would have been readily understood as the common Christian understanding of the incarnation of God—the amazing, incredible, wholly miraculous doctrine that the God of everything loved humanity so much that He stepped down from his throne and subjected himself to humanity. Here is a Google N-gram chart showing the distribution of this phrase in printed material–note that it peaks in 1816 and then again in 1830, the year that the Book of Mormon was published.

In the 19th century, the set-phrase “condescension of God” was the standard translation of the Latin term dignatio Dei, which has been used since the days of the Church Fathers to describe the miracle of the incarnation. The Latin word dignatio carries the denotation of “treating somebody with dignity” and the connotation of doing so when the person in question is of a lower social rank. Observe Augustine’s use of the phrase:

For who can worthily appraise the fact that God wished to be born for the sake of men ; that a virgin conceived without man’s co-operation; that she brought forth her Child without corruption; and that she remained a virgin after childbirth? As a matter of fact, our Lord Jesus Christ in His condescension entered the Virgin’s womb (Christus uterum virginis dignatus intravit), without stain impregnated a woman’s members, without corruption made His Mother fertile, and, when formed, came forth from her, preserving intact His Mother’s body so that He might fill with the honor of maternity and with the holiness of virginity her from whom He deigned to be born. [i]

This was how just about everyone used the phrase “condescension of God” in the 1830s. It described the overwhelming miracle of God choosing to become human, experience humanity, walk among humans, and be killed by humans as a manifestation of His absolute and unconditional love of all human beings. Unfortunately, the word “condescend” became infected with irony over the course of the 20th century—it now means pretending to treat someone with dignity as a way of emphasizing their social inferiority—making it hard to use as a description of God’s infinite love. But it is still the best word we have for a difficult concept, so we must try to make it work.

Nephi’s interpretive problem is not that he doesn’t understand the basic story. He gets that: God loves us, Jesus will come and be crucified, there will be some wars, there will be some boats, a great and a marvelous work will happen—and then it will be all over and the good guys will win. What he doesn’t get is the enormity of the consequences that come from God’s incarnation as a human being. He doesn’t understand the urgency of God’s love or the extent to which He will go to enact that love in the world. The vision in 1 Nephi 11-14 becomes a panoramic history of all things, because all things are changed fundamentally by God’s love.

The condescension of God is the miracle that we celebrate at Christmas—not that Christ died, or that He was resurrected, or that He atoned for our sins, but that the omnipotent, omniscient ruler of the universe made a choice to become a weak and vulnerable human being. And He did so because of His perfect love for human beings, which He asks us to replicate in the ways that we treat each other. Nephi keeps thinking that he understands this point, but his interlocutor keeps insisting that he doesn’t and has to see more. Advent is our opportunity to keep remembering how limited our understanding of God’s love actually is and how poorly we keep the two great commandments, both of which are to love as God does.


[i] Augustine, Sermons on the Liturgical Seasons, trans., Mary Sarah Muldowney, R.S.M. The Fathers of the Church, vol. 38 (New York Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1959), 144. The Latin text of this sermon (#215) can be found here.

Comments

  1. This is lovely, especially this point, which caused me some reflection about myself: “Nephi keeps thinking that he understands this point, but his interlocutor keeps insisting that he doesn’t and has to see more.”

    As an aside, the post twice uses “enormity” in its emerging meaning (synonymous with “immensity”), but every time I see that word, my mind first goes to its traditional meaning of “outrageously immoral,” which required me to read a couple sentences twice to grasp the meaning.

  2. Jared Livesey says:

    Hi Michael,

    Might it possibly be the case that editorial changes from the 1830 BoM to the 1837 BoM were in part a consequence of shifting and hardening attitudes in the Church towards, say, Catholicism, rather than drifting theology on Joseph’s part, similar to how shifting and hardening progressive social attitudes within the Church may be the driver behind recent alterations to the Endowments?

  3. Michael Austin says:

    Jared,

    I don’t think that a hardening attitude towards Catholicism would indicate this shift. Trinitarianism is just as important to Protestants as it is to Catholics; it’s just that Catholicism has more Latin words to talk about it. It is possible though that the changes were more about creating distance with all traditional religions–Protestant and Catholic–than about theological shifts. As I alluded to in the OP, the theology of the Restoration movement, while not Trinitarian, does consider Yahweh (Jehova), the God of the Old Testament, as the pre-Mortal Christ, so there is no doctrinal reason for Latter-day Saints not to adopt the classical Christian model of the Incarnation of God. But I suspect that the Trinitarian language of the 1830 edition made some people uncomfortable anyway.

  4. Very enlightening as usual, especially your elucidation of the historical usage of the phrase “condescension of God.” What modern terms have replaced this phrase in the non-LDS world? I’m wondering if those new terms could help LDS folks discuss and understand this concept more clearly, especially given the changed popular meaning of condescend.

  5. Many years ago, I had a EQ lesson about this passage taught by the visiting high councilor. He tried to be somewhat discrete with his words, but he taught that the first condescension was the Father condescending to have sex with Mary to conceive Jesus. He said that Mary was still a virgin because God was not a mortal man so it didn’t count in some sense. The second condescension was then Jehovah condescending to live a mortal life and experience death. His rationale was that since there were two condescensions, they had to refer to separate persons.

    It was a wierd lesson which made everyone a bit uncomfortable. I don’t think he got the buy in he was intending.

  6. Michael Austin says:

    JLM, interestingly, Zeus also “condescended” to have sex with mortal women. A lot. Hera had other names for it, though.

  7. Well, there are exceptions to pretty much every commandment. Self defense justifies killing, lying to protect innocents, stealing plates to preserve a historical record, etc. When it’s time to the Messiah to appear, I suppose the law of chastity needs to be temporarily adjusted. It also helps when you make the rules.

  8. JLM,

    The term virgin in the passage does not have to mean a women who has not had sex. One could easily read this particular exchange as it referencing a fair young woman.

  9. Nope… virgin means a person who hasn’t had sex yet or an unmarried woman. It had nothing to do with looks.

  10. @JLM that may be our current understanding of the word virgin but it didn’t always mean that and the original Hebrew word probably didn’t imply anything at all about sex. The way we think of this word can change the way we think of Mary. Is she a piece of meat (or a cupcake) who hasn’t been licked or is she a free and independent young woman who has agency to make her own choices? In this case, choosing to accept to be the mortal mother of God.

    Here are a couple of articles to consider: https://www.sbs.com.au/topics/pride/agenda/article/2017/04/13/it-time-reclaim-word-virgin-its-original-meaning

    https://newsfeed.time.com/2011/03/04/controversial-bible-revision-about-that-virgin-thing/

  11. JLM,

    These passages are full of visual descriptions “Look!”, “I beheld”, “Beautiful and Fair”, “Exceeding fair and white” so to claim that that “virgin” cannot possibly have anything to do with looks is a bit of an overstatement.

  12. Geoff - Aus says:

    How did the pre mortal Christ get to be the god of universe, before he was mortal?

  13. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God. Thus he was in the beginning with God. All things were created through him and without him was nothing created.” I suppose if we knew how we’d know how or if the big bang happened and how everything got here. Good question though, how does a pre -mortal create a physical universe? Seems to point to a superiority of the spiritual over the physical. I suppose that’s why we we say he created it under the direction of the Father. Then you get into the whole self-reference problem. JS would say it wasn’t created, just organized from always existing matter.

  14. Tonight I heard someone use the phrase, “the condensation of God.”

    Is that “the dew from Heaven distilling”?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: