Since today’s readings are short, I will reproduce them instead of linking.
11 Thus I, Abraham, talked with the Lord, face to face, as one man talketh with another; and he told me of the works which his hands had made; 12 And he said unto me: My son, my son (and his hand was stretched out), behold I will show you all these. And he put his hand upon mine eyes, and I saw those things which his hands had made, which were many; and they multiplied before mine eyes, and I could not see the end thereof….
22 Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones;23 And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born.
53 The Prophet Joseph Smith, and my father, Hyrum Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and other choice spirits who were reserved to come forth in the fulness of times to take part in laying the foundations of the great latter-day work, 54 Including the building of the temples and the performance of ordinances therein for the redemption of the dead, were also in the spirit world.55 I observed that they were also among the noble and great ones who were chosen in the beginning to be rulers in the Church of God. 56 Even before they were born, they, with many others, received their first lessons in the world of spirits and were prepared to come forth in the due time of the Lord to labor in his vineyard for the salvation of the souls of men. 57 I beheld that the faithful elders of this dispensation, when they depart from mortal life, continue their labors in the preaching of the gospel of repentance and redemption, through the sacrifice of the Only Begotten Son of God, among those who are in darkness and under the bondage of sin in the great world of the spirits of the dead.
The Gospel Doctrine manuals tend to drop us into the middle of verses without regard for the context of those passages. Does context matter? (Or, where did we get the Book of Abraham? What kind of text is it? Who is speaking in this passage, and why? What comes before and after?) I think context matters very much. But given limited time, I will set aside the background of the Book of Abraham (see here for a published intro and here for a good lesson), in order to focus on a caution about the uniquely Mormon topic of this lesson, the premortal existence.
The two passages (D&C 138 and Abraham) quoted at the top are
really our only among our very few sources of knowledge about the premortal existence. (Sure, other passages may refer to it, and the Book of Revelation in the New Testament mentions a war in heaven, and Jude refers obliquely to a First Estate, but LDS understanding of these is unique and neither text really provides anything other than a phrase. Edit: A family discussion suggested Moses 4:1, and DLewis points out Alma 13 in the comments.) Abraham and the D&C leave many details to the imagination. LDS traditions have filled in the gaps in various ways, not always to our benefit. Tradition can be dangerous, particularly when we are not aware that our personal viewpoint is based on a tradition instead of on scripture. Often, we read our traditions right into the scriptural text without even being aware that we’re doing so, mistaking tradition for scripture in the process. I’ve written on this elsewhere.
One of the best examples of tradition overwriting the text in our mind is the Christmas story in Luke 2. Many of us read the text on Christmas eve, picturing the 9-months pregnant Mary, Joseph being turned away by the heartless innkeeper, and immediately transitioning to the cave with the animals, due to impending birth. Virtually none of that is accurate or true, but it is the tradition we have received and the one we picture, even while simultaneously reading the words that don’t say what we think they do. This article is oddly argued, but its conclusions are relatively solid. It is one of many such articles that point out how the tradition does not reflect the actual text.
In my first introductory post, I linked the following from BYU’s guidance to religion professors.
Where answers have not been clearly revealed, forthright acknowledgment of that fact should attend, and teachers should not present their own interpretations of such matters as the positions of the Church. Students should see exemplified in their instructors an open, appropriately tentative, tolerant approach to “gray” areas of the gospel. At the same time they should see in their instructors certitude and unwavering commitment to those things that have been clearly revealed and do represent the position of the Church.
As it turns out, these passages on the premortal existence have a lot more “gray” than tradition has led us to believe. For example, the Book of Abraham is our only source of knowledge about “intelligences” and most of us believe we existed at one stage as “intelligences” then became “spirits” and then entered mortality. However, the Book of Abraham equates “spirits” with “intelligences” thus complicating and “graying” that narrative a bit. Note also that in none of these passages (or elsewhere in Abraham) is it indicated how the war in heaven was fought, or that some spirits were “neutral” or “fence-sitters.” That idea came around in the early 1900s to try to explain the priesthood ban, and has thankfully been ended (see the whole article, but esp. footnote 13 at lds.org)
Kevin Barney sums this up perfectly in an old comment–
The Preexistence is a great doctrine, and one of the things I love about Mormon thought. But it is easily subject to abuse. We have a tendency to want to ply it to solve all sorts of problems of seemingly unjust differentiation in this life. Superficially, an appeal to the Pre-existence seems to resolve the difficulty by showing that God wasn’t arbitrary in placing people in different circumstances in this life (whatever those may be and whatever topic we are applying the Pre-existence to). But if we dig just a little deeper, these appeals are almost always problematic. The folklore of blacks not being valiant is just the most well known and egregious example.I think we need to resist the impulse to pull out the Pre-existence as a [thoughtless] theological deus ex machina.
These ideas as well as the more pernicious ones about fence-sitters and such inevitably come up in class comments and sometimes from the teacher. We are deeply blessed to have such knowledge and doctrine, but we need to be very careful about what we actually do and do not know. While appreciating the flood of light and knowledge modern revelation has brought, we must avoid claiming things for it that it does not actually say, and acknowledge those things yet to be revealed.
President Hugh B. Brown expressed it thus to BYU students in May of 1969.
We have been blessed with much knowledge by revelation from God which, in some part, the world lacks. But there is an incomprehensibly greater part of truth which we must yet discover. Our revealed truth should leave us stricken with the knowledge of how little we really know.
As we study and talk about the premortal existence this week, let it be an exercise in examining our own assumptions, personal beliefs, and traditions, in sorting tradition from revelation to the extent possible, and especially in responding charitably to those who may have misused or misunderstood this doctrine in the past and present.
- BYU Prof. S. Kent Brown was tapped to write the Anchor Bible Dictionary article on “Soul, preexistence of“.
- Charles Harrel, “The Development of the Doctrine of Preexistence, 1830–1844” BYU Studies 28:2 PDF.
- Teryl and Fiona Givens, The God Who Weeps, chapter 2, is all about the premortal existence. It’s an excellent book. See Rosalynde Welch’s review here, Julie Smith’s review here, and Adam Miller’s semi philosophical discussion of chapter 2 here.