The Virgin Birth

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I came across an article written by Stephen Webb, a professor at Wabash College, who argues that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is obsessed with Jesus Christ. I haven’t had time to read the article in depth but one paragraph caught my eye.

“Mormon metaphysics is Christian metaphysics minus Origen and Augustine—in other words, Christianity divorced from Plato. Mormons are so materialistic that they insist that the same unchanging laws govern both the natural and the supernatural. They also deny the virgin birth, since their materialism leads them to speculate that Jesus is literally begotten by the immortal Father rather than conceived by the Holy Spirit.”

“Mormonism…is…Christianity divorced from Plato” – precisely. Mormonism is true to the original Christian church before post-apostolic Christian leaders modified it with Greek philosophy. I’ll agree with that statement.

However, the last line of the paragraph is an incorrect representation of LDS theology: “They also deny the virgin birth, since their materialism leads them to speculate that Jesus is literally begotten by the immortal Father rather than conceived by the Holy Spirit.”

No we do not deny the virgin birth (links to five different general conference talks that specifically reference Christ’s birth as a “virgin birth”). We do not understand the nature of the virgin birth – it’s one of the things God has not yet revealed – but we accept it.

Elder Quentin L. Cook’s statement summarizes ‘Mormon’ theology on the matter: “The essential doctrine of agency requires that a testimony of the restored gospel be based on faith rather than just external or scientific proof. Obsessive focus on things not yet fully revealed, such as how the virgin birth or the Resurrection of the Savior could have occurred or exactly how Joseph Smith translated our scriptures, will not be efficacious or yield spiritual progress. These are matters of faith.” (Cook, In Tune with the Music of Faith, April 2012). In other words, while there are many things we would like to know, we do not and cannot know everything in this life so “obsessively” focusing on unknowns does not benefit us spiritually. We can study and pray to know such things but making sure our faith is true and our hearts are pure is more important.

Update: Another part of the article that is incorrect: ‘The Book of Mormon places the birth of Jesus in Jerusalem, much to the delight of biblical fundamentalists who use such discrepancies to score debating points.”

This is based on a misunderstanding of Alma 7:10, which reads: “And behold, he shall be born of Mary, at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers, she being a virgin, a precious and chosen vessel, who shall be overshadowed and conceive by the power of the Holy Ghost, and bring forth a son, yea, even the Son of God.” [By the way, this verse also counters his statement that Mormons do not believe in the virgin birth]. The key in the verse is Jesus is born “at” Jerusalem, not “in”. I won’t bother adding anything to what has been covered thoroughly elsewhere on the matter (and here). Okay I will. Why would Joseph Smith, who was versed in the Bible make such a blatant error as to say that Jesus was born in Jerusalem (ignoring the fact that the Book of Mormon states “at Jerusalem” and not “in Jerusalem”) when it’s clear that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (5 miles from Jerusalem)? He wouldn’t and didn’t. Take time to read those responses about the issue.

Mary and Suffering

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Mary and Joseph were required to travel to Bethlehem as part of the census (taxation). Here was a governmental requirement that might have seen onerous at the time. It required Joseph and Mary and a lot of other people to travel to the hometown of their ancestors in order to be counted and maybe pay a tax. This was a journey of about 90 miles for the expectant Mary, not an easy task at that time. It would have been easy for Mary to simply not go (she probably could have made the excuse and either sent someone in her stead or had Joseph just go); but Mary went. She suffered in order to fulfill prophecy. Mary might have known that Jesus was supposed to be born in Bethlehem – there is much we do not know about what Mary knew. It is clear that she knew much but kept most of what she knew to herself; it was sacred knowledge. So Mary suffered and prophecy was fulfilled – Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

Suffering can be like that in our lives – it can (and usually does) have purpose. We might not know beforehand what the purpose of our suffering is, in fact, we rarely do. The Prophet Joseph was comforted in his sufferings with these words: “And if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good. The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?” (D&C 122:7-8).

Difficulties and suffering can give us experience; we can learn from them. There is much growth in adversity. Just as the adversity and resistance of weight training builds muscles, so can life adversity strengthen us. Or, we can let adversity destroy us. What we know from the scripture verses I quoted though is that adversity and trials give us experience; they help us. In addition, they are for our good. What we suffer will benefit us in the long run. In effect, the Lord will make it up to us in this life and/or in the next. Of course, much of our suffering might be due to our own sins. We can learn from our mistakes and sins. It would be better if we didn’t sin but we all do. Thankfully, the Savior provides the way for us to overcome our sins.

Jesus suffered more than anyone else who ever lived on earth. He descended below all so that He might comprehend all and atone for all. He was born in and through suffering and died in suffering but He rose triumphant from the grave. I’m sure his special mother, Mary, taught Him about suffering and how to faithfully bear it.

Is the Bible Infallible?

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While doing a search online to see what people say about whether or not the wise men visited the infant Jesus in the manger (they didn’t), I came across a comment about the Bible that I’ve heard numerous times – namely, that the Bible is literally God’s word given directly to man. In other words, there are those who believe that the Bible needs to be taken strictly literally. It is God’s completely infallible and perfect word. While that is a nice sentiment, it is not the case. The Bible was written by inspired men but men nonetheless. However, to borrow a phrase from the Book of Mormon, if there are flaws in the Bible, they are the flaws of men.

So if we take the Bible literally in everything, we do get wise men who visited the young child Jesus in a house. They didn’t find the mother and infant in a manger. Jesus was as old as almost three by the time the wise men found Him. But this isn’t really the purpose of this post. I want to continue on with the topic of the literality of the Bible.

There are those who take everything in the Bible as strictly literal. They also usually take it as God’s perfect, unblemished word. These same people also balk at the LDS article of faith that states, “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly” (Articles of Faith 1:8). “How could the Bible be anything less than perfect?” they argue. I’ve heard this many times from different people. We as Latter-day Saints don’t even claim perfection from the Book of Mormon. We believe it was translated correctly but it is not without error. But again, those errors are the works of men (and are very, very minor). God uses imperfect humans to do His work (at least on this side of the veil).

So, is the Bible perfect? Should we take it completely literally? Since I referred to the wise men previously, let’s continue on in Matthew 2. After Joseph, Mary, and Jesus returned from Egypt, they moved to Nazareth: “And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.” (Matt. 2:23). With the slaughter of the children and infants in Bethlehem, a prophecy was fulfilled (see Matt. 2:17-18). With Joseph and family moving to Nazareth, another prophecy was fulfilled. The trouble is that this other prophecy is not found elsewhere in the Bible. There existed a prophecy stating that the Messiah would be from Nazareth but this is not included anywhere in the Old Testament. Clearly then, there are prophecies that are not in the Bible. There is no other logical conclusion that can be drawn from this. So is the Bible complete and perfect? Maybe that particular prophecy wasn’t meant to be in the Bible. But then why was it quoted in Matthew? Maybe the Bible isn’t complete. Maybe it isn’t perfect and infallible.

There are a number of other examples similar to this that can be found in the Bible. There are even times when writers/translators of the Bible seems to contradict one another. I won’t point out any specifics but they exist. There are numerous sites that document contradictions, some from a view of faith and others from a view of anti-faith. There are even sites that seek to point out contradictions between the Book of Mormon and the Bible, which might scare some away from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but are all non-issues for the believer. I’ve found that the Bible is only clarified by the Book of Mormon and modern-day revelation; any other contradictions are due to errors in the Bible (which is something that I demonstrated is possible) – the doctrines in the Book of Mormon are pure, even if the grammar or particular choice of words in some cases isn’t always perfect; that’s one of the difficulties in translation and in writing down the translation in a time before there were wide consistencies in grammar and spelling.

My point in pointing out that the Bible is not infallible is not to weaken faith, rather it is to highlight that we need to have faith in Jesus Christ more than in the Bible. Truth comes from Christ; what is in the Bible are multiple translations of that Truth. The great teacher Truman Madsen taught about faith, testimony, and prophets in this manner:

“What about witness? That leads us both to the question of authority and the question of our own testimony. Said the Prophet [Joseph Smith] again, ‘No generation was ever saved or [for that matter] destroyed upon dead testimony‘ (Words of Joseph Smith, p. 159). I think he means by ‘dead’ the record of the remote past. We’re not fully accountable to that, but we are accountable to a living witness who bears living testimony to our living spirit. That’s when we reach the zenith of responsibility. We recognize that and perhaps run from it. When a child runs away with hands over ears, what is happening? Doesn’t the child already pretty well know the message? Do we cover our ears while saying, ‘I didn’t hear you’?

“Heber C. Kimball, without being grammatical, put the point elegantly after the outpourings of the Nauvoo Temple. He said, ‘You cannot sin so cheap no more.'” (Madsen, T. G. 1994. On How We Know. BYU Speeches, p. 5).

His point and the Prophet Joseph Smith’s point is that you need concurrent revelation. If we look throughout the Bible, the teachings of Noah didn’t save the children of Israel from the Egyptians. Even Christ didn’t teach all the world; He sent out His apostles after His resurrection to do that. If we put all of this together, we can conclude that not only is the Bible not perfect, it is also not complete. Yes, I am biased because I believe that we have a living prophet upon the earth – Thomas S. Monson at this time – but I’ve found no evidence in the Bible that the Bible is complete and perfect. It wasn’t even put together in its present form for many years after the deaths of the original apostles. What we have in the LDS Church are Christ’s prophets who speak to us today and teach us what God wants us to know.

Now I’m going to shift gears back to talking about whether or not we take the Bible literally. It seems that if we do, we realize that the Bible is neither complete nor perfect. However, if we don’t take it literally then we ignore a lot of important doctrines (such as the literal and physical resurrection of the Savior). Another doctrine we might miss if we don’t take the Bible literally is that of baptism for the dead: “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for thedead?” (1 Cor. 15:29). Well, maybe we get to pick and choose what to take literally from the Bible. That way we can say it is something just figurative. Well, who gets to make the judgment call on what is literal or not? It sounds like something a prophet would do.

I think other Christians would find (if they give LDS Church members a chance) that we take the Bible very literally; I think to an extent that few other Christians do. There are things that we don’t take literally though (e.g., the Creation story is one because we know that the 7 days were 7 time periods of unspecified length – millions to billions of years, most likely. I’m not saying that we do not believe in the Creation, I’m just saying that LDS Church doctrine specifies that the earth was not created in 6/7 24 hour days).

So, taking the Bible literally is a two-edged sword. On it’s [the Bible’s] own, it is difficult to know what to take literally or not. This is where having the witness of the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and modern-day prophets is so important; it allows us to discern what is literal and what is not. Those without this knowledge are in a bind – if the Bible is 100% infallible, why are there missing passages? Why are there some contradictions? Why is there a need for multiple translations of the Bible? Why do the Catholics have a different Canon than most of the Protestants? Further, if the Bible is taken literally, how do you account for teachings that contradict doctrines of many Christian religions? How can you pick and choose what to accept?

I know some of the things I wrote about are not entirely this simple, but I wanted to respond to those who take the Bible as “GOD’S PERFECT WORD” (again, that’s a description of the Bible I read and hear frequently). The Bible forms the foundation of the LDS canon of scriptures, we place it first in our scripture sets, we love the Bible and follow its doctrines. However, we are not limited to the Bible. We have the Book of Mormon and other scriptures; we have living prophets and modern revelation. Our canon is not fixed and closed, it is open and expanding. God speaks to us today, just as He did in Biblical times.

The Divine Role of Motherhood – Part 3

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There is the example of Rebekah, who was blessed to become the “mother of thousands of millions” (Gen. 24:60) as a result of her righteousness. This teaches us that for those who are faithful to the covenant, motherhood does not end with death. We also have the great example of Hannah who had much anguish over being childless. She covenanted with the Lord that if He would bless her with a son, she would dedicate her son unto Him. Her son Samuel grew up to be one of the great prophets in Israel and a sign of his mother’s faith. Mary, the mother of the Savior, was a woman of great virtue and faith. She was highly favored and blessed because of her role as the mother of the Prince of Peace (see Luke 1:28). Mary remained near the Savior throughout His life and was even at the foot of the cross, watching her Son finish His mortal ministry. She was there for Him, from the cradle to the cross. King Benjamin gives in simplicity one of the greatest tributes in the scriptures: “and his mother shall be called Mary” (Mosiah 3:8). What more need he say? She was to be the mother of the Son of God. The scriptures are largely patriarchal and priesthood-focused so the references to great mothers of faith and covenant are sparse. Thus, stories of mothers in the scriptures are very significant. We can learn much about the qualities of faithful motherhood from these illustrious women. It is thought provoking to wonder about what would have happened had Eve, Hannah, or Mary not been good mothers? A wise man once stated: “What a mother sings to the cradle goes all the way to the coffin” (Henry Ward Beecher, Columbia Book of Quotations, 1996, no. 6395). Or, rephrased according to LDS belief: “What a mother sings to the cradle goes all the way [through eternity].”

Being a mother is such an important part of who women are and has so many consequences that it can seem overwhelming at times, even impossible, to be the best mother possible. Perfection is quite a lofty goal; but it is more than just a goal or an end—perfection is also a process. When a woman becomes a mother and has a child or two or three or ten, she has not reached some static state where she automatically knows everything about being a mother. Being a mother also does not end when the children leave home at age 18 or 21 or whenever; it is a role that keeps rolling, growing, and expanding. This is what it means, in part, to be an eternal family. The eternally expanding role as mother is a portion of the blessing of eternal lives (see D&C; 132:24). Therefore, just as perfection does not come in a day neither does the full realization of motherhood; the process is as important as the goal (or else Satan’s plan of salvation would have been just as good as the Father’s).