Like many Christians I like to read and re-read Romans 5-8. Paul uses very vivid imagery to portray both sin and grace as powers that can exercise dominion over human life. Death and the law are likewise rendered in apocalyptic terms. These chapters come to something of a climax in Rom 8:3
3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
Now I’ll stop here and ask you to reflect on what sort of things strike you as important about this passage. Since there are no wrong answers you are free to answer in whatever fashion you like but do take a moment and think about it.
When I go through this exercise I find myself thinking along various lines. For example, sometimes I’m struck by how God chooses to wield his power. He’s not what you might call heavy-handed in this regard. It’s also clear that God is quite interested in saving his children – that’s the import of the phrase “sending his own son…” Finally, you’ll also notice that God appears to remain interested in the law because he has taken pains to ensure that “the just requirement of the law” is fulfilled.
Now for a question.
Did anybody read this and then focus on whether these ideas might have been new to Paul’s earliest readers? Anybody? I know something about the extent of Paul’s innovation because it’s of interest in certain academic circles but if you were to ask me what I personally found significant about Rom 8:3-4 I’d never respond with a judgment on its novelty unless that were the focus of a direct question.
Now we’re going to shift to a modern case.
Consider, please, a blog post by Professor Kent Jackson, Associate Dean of Religious Education at BYU. Professor Jackson, writing for the Religious Studies Center blog, sets himself the task of celebrating this month’s 179th anniversary of the JST. His choice in this endeavor? The newness of Moses 1. Professor Jackson suggests that this newness takes three broad forms. First, the narrative itself is not found in the traditional canon. Second, certain doctrines within this section are likewise not found in the canon. Finally, these ideas are likewise not part of mainstream 19th century Christianity.
While there is perhaps some temptation to try to “quantify” the Restoration in terms of the number of new ideas it has contributed, this should be resisted. I suggest that there is a better alternative. It is not the newness of the knowledge but the newness of life that such knowledge engenders that is the real gift of the JST. Since one man’s insight may be another’s “duh” moment this may be a very personal response. Nevertheless, it is an appropriate one and by moving from a focus on new knowledge to that of new life we may preclude concluding that we are somehow superior because we know more.
Just as you can read Paul quite profitably without attention to the novelty of his thoughts, so also you can read Moses 1 without explicitly thinking through the question of historical and cultural antecedents. As always, productive reading generally takes place when the reader is sensitive to genre. If we choose to read Moses as an apocalypse we might use this generic definition:
An apocalypse is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality, which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial, insofar as it involves another, supernatural world. The purpose of an apocalypse is to encourage the recipients to continue to pursue, or if necessary to modify, their thinking and behavior to conform to the perspectives of the vision.
If we wish to celebrate the contributions of Moses 1 we might then read closely to identify the perspectives it espouses and then ask how conformity to these viewpoints contributes to a more Christ-like life. There is no need to explicitly distinguish those ideas that are unique to the JST from those that found elsewhere in the canon. We simply read, ponder, and enjoy as we profit from its insights.
Sometimes our appreciation of textual perspective is sharpened by comparison with other texts that are somehow similar and yet different. When applied to Moses 1, one rich source of such foils is the traditional canon. Consider the following possibilities:
• Most apocalyptic narratives have a heavenly intermediary who explains and interprets the vision to the human recipient. Notice that Moses 1 has no such mediator. God himself interacts with Moses and the thoughts he chooses to express require no interpretation. What is this narrative’s perspective on the human-divine relationship? Is there anything else in Moses 1 that is in tension with this openness and intimacy?
• Moses 1 also features a temptation narrative in which Satan is every bit as immanent as God. Compare this to the temptation narratives in the Gospels. How does Moses’ defeat of Satan differ from Jesus’ approach? What is this narrative’s perspective on the relationship between humankind and sin if our ability to recognize and begin to resist evil is somehow “built in,” that is, based on our creation after the pattern of Christ?
• Christian portrayals of heaven include the active presence of Christ and give pre-eminence to his redemptive role. Moses 1 gives us a Christian Moses and a Christian God but we see no Christ. Moses 1 also says very little about the redemption. I suggest, however, that it shows Christ as the Redeemer. Is showing a more powerful form of conveying information than telling?
For a fact, God did send “his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to deal with sin in the flesh” (Rom 8:3) and I must say that it makes little difference to me whether I find this testimony in the traditional or Restoration canon. In the end it is not the newness of the text that matters but our response to the accumulated testimony. Likewise, it makes no difference whether this or that idea is novel; we will know its goodness by its fruits. If we do not appreciate scripture for the life it leads us into can we say that we really appreciate it much at all?