Monday, May 24, 2010

Skousen and the Atonement

May 24, 2010
by Tim Barker

In 1999, while serving as a missionary in Tampa, Florida, I read Cleon Skousen's talk on the Atonement for the first time.  It was a typescript of an address that had been delivered to missionaries in the Dallas, Texas Mission on December 18, 1980.1  At the time I read the discourse, it was one of the most fascinating talks I had ever read (up to that point).  Brother Skousen presented a number of issues that I had not previously considered that caused me to ponder the gospel from a new perspective.  I wasn't prepared to accept everything put forth because there were a number of items that frankly, seemed strange; particularly, Skousen's concept of "intelligences."  Regardless, I felt that the talk was inspiring and uplifting.  I am not providing the content of the talk here because I believe it is protected under copyright laws, however, it is available for purchase online, or an abbreviated summary is also available in Skousen's work The First 2,000 Years.2





In 2000, Clyde J. Williams, a Professor of Ancient Scripture at BYU, wrote a rebuttal to Cleon Skousen's discourse.3  In his response, Brother Williams indicates a number of problems with the talk, including the idea that Cleon Skousen was going to reveal something that latter-day prophets do not talk about anymore, the nature of intelligence(s) and how they operate, an appeal to authority by citing his missionary president [Elder John A. Widtsoe] as the source of his understanding, the idea that God's power is solely based on honor, the idea that God alone could not save us, distortion of the principles justice and mercy, an uncommitted middle-ground majority of pre-mortal spirits, an incomplete explanation of Satan's plan, Christ's suffering to appease the intelligences, and lastly, an assumption made by Skousen regarding Christ's forgetfulness of pre-mortality.  Williams concludes by stating that Skousen's explanation is in contrast to the Prophet Joseph Smith's teachings, wherein, it is essential to understand the correct character, perfection, and attributes of God in order to obtain salvation.

After reading Williams' rebuttal, it is hard to imagine that there is anything worthwhile in Brother Skousen's discourse.  While I generally agree with Brother Williams' assessment, I think he does a great injustice to the reader by not identifying some of the profound questions brought to the table by Cleon Skousen.  While a number of Skousen's conclusions are unwarranted and scripturally unsupported, he still provides us with a number of significant issues for consideration.  Some of these questions have been raised by previous prophets, which is certainly worthy of consideration.  Questions and issues raised by Cleon Skousen include the following:
  • Who wanted Christ to suffer?
  • What was all the suffering for?
  • Who was it to satisfy?
  • What makes Him God?
  • Can God fall? Could God cease to be God?
  • Is God confined by rules?
  • Could God the Father save us?  Did he lose complete control in bringing us back Himself?
  • Does God have to operate according to law?
  • Do intelligences have to be satisfied by God?
  • How did Satan's plan work?
  • Was there an undecided majority in pre-mortality regarding the plans presented?
  • How does the atonement work?
  • Why does the Savior need to be infinite?
  • Does the Savior need to be infinitely loved?
  • Did the intelligences revolt when Christ suffered?
  • Did intelligence(s) have anything to do with justice and mercy?
  • Is doing the best that we can the same as repentance?
  • "The bowels of mercy" - whose mercy?
  • Does Heavenly Father have mercy?
  • Do intelligences have mercy?  Do we need to "create it in those that are demanding justice?"
  • Does Heavenly Father demand justice?
  • Do intelligences demand justice?
  • What is an intelligence?
  • Is Christ the only person that could endure the atonement?
  • How terrible was Christ's suffering?
  • When did Jesus become the Christ?
  • Did Heavenly Father suffer when Christ was in Gethsemane?
  • Why don't we talk about the atonement more?
  • Do we talk about the "real" basis of the atonement?
  • Is the real basis of the atonement to satisfy the intelligences demanding justice?
Not all of these questions are of the same significance; nor is this list comprehensive in identifying all the questions and issues raised by Skousen.  I think some of the questions are a little absurd, while others are quite profound.  It is not within the scope of this post to address these questions.  Brother Skousen did provide us with a slew of scriptures related to these subjects, including the following:
I believe some significant scriptures aren't included above, although I can understand that he was limited by time and had to choose those scriptures that would best serve his needs.  In addition to using the scriptures, Cleon Skousen also quotes Joseph Smith and Brigham Young; however, Joseph Smith was quoted inaccurately,4 in relation to having taught the Quorum of the Twelve and their wives the subject of eternal progression and intelligence.  He also cites Brigham Young,5 and states that Heber C. Kimball, Parley P. Pratt, and Brigham Young's teachings must be sought to further understand Joseph's teachings since they aren't provided in the History of the Church; however, they are not quoted or cited for further research.  It would have been nice to have those references.

There are a number of inaccurate statements made by Skousen that aren't addressed by Williams, perhaps because they are deemed less significant than the issues he chose to identify.  As already noted, Skousen inaccurately quotes Joseph Smith to suit his purpose, but he also attributes a number of statements made by Brigham Young to Spencer W. Kimball (see President Kimball's talk here).  An example of an assertion made by Brother Skousen that is purely speculative is that Peter would never forgive himself for denying Christ three times.  There are many assertions presented as doctrine; however, an attentive reader can identify those statements that are unsupported by scripture. 

As noted above, I generally agree with Williams' assessment of Skousen's discourse, but there are a great deal of insights that can be gained from reading his talk.  Since much of the questions above are not fully answered in scripture, and some are essentially "incomprehensible," according to President John Taylor,6 a key to absorbing his discourse is to keep in mind Elder Boyd K. Packer's teaching regarding unsound conclusions.  "We all have unanswered questions.  Seeking and questioning, periods of doubt, in an effort to find answers, are part of the process of discovery.  The kind of doubt which is spiritually dangerous does not relate to questions so much as to answers."7  Most of the above questions are worth pondering, and by doing so we can open our hearts to receiving revelation.  It is important that as we learn line upon line, and precept upon precept, that we refrain from jumping to conclusions without receiving personal revelation, or obtaining answers from those who are authorized to provide them. 

There are many who are opposed to Skousen because he has been responsible for misrepresentation and teaching opinion as doctrine.  I hate to compare him to Signature Books because I consider them in completely different camps, but my opinion is the same for both, in that I appreciate the research, but generally disagree with much of the conclusions reached therein.  If it weren't for Skousen's talk, I may have never considered the question of why the Lord needed to suffer.  Perhaps some consider this question inconsequential, but John Taylor certainly did not, and neither should we.

"Again, there is another phase of this subject that must not be forgotten.  From the commencement of the offering of sacrifices the inferior creature had to suffer for the superior.  Although it had taken no part in the act of disobedience, yet was its blood shed and its life sacrificed, thus prefiguring the atonement of the Son of God, which should eventually take place....But what is the reason for all this suffering and bloodshed, and sacrifice?  We are told that "without shedding of blood is no remission" of sins.  This is beyond our comprehension."8  Additionally, Brigham Young stated that, "The Latter-day Saints believe in the Gospel of the Son of God, simply because it is true.  They believe in baptism for the remission of sins, personal and by proxy; they believe that Jesus is the Savior of the world; they believe that all who attain to any glory whatever, in any kingdom, will do so because Jesus has purchased it by his atonement."9 

The questions raised by Skousen are important in helping us to identify principles related to the atonement that will provide further enlightenment to this profound subject.  His discourse also opens up the scriptures to Latter-day Saints to some extent in painting a picture by tying together a number of profound scriptures.  If nothing else, Skousen at least provides another angle to appreciate the atonement, and encouragement to Saints to thoroughly delve into the scriptures.  We should use the spirit to "prove all things" and to "hold fast that which is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21). 

__________________________
1 See www.skousen2000.com/religious%20products/Atonement.htm (accessed May 24, 2010)
2 See link in footnote 1.  Also see The First 2,000 Years: From Adam to Abraham (W. Cleon Skousen; Ensign Publishing, Salt Lake City, UT, 1997), Appendix A
3 See emp.byui.edu/marrottr/Skousen-Williams.pdf (accessed on May 24, 2010).  Brother Williams indicates that the original discourse was given April 1977 at a fireside in Safford, Arizona.  Considering that there are numerous transcripts of this discourse, it seems reasonable that the discourse was probably given more than once.  The beginning of his talk refers to a discourse given by President Spencer W. Kimball, likely referring to "Our Great Potential," a general conference talk given in April 1977; see Ensign, May 1977, 49 (also available online at http://www.lds.org/).
4 Skousen states, "And I explained to the Quorum of the Twelve and their wives the doctrine of the eternal progression of intelligences."  History of the Church records Joseph, as follows, "...in the evening with the Twelve and their wives at Elder Woodruff's, at which time I explained many important principles in relation to progressive improvement in the scale of intelligent existence." (History of the Church, 4:519).  Skousen's quotation is misleading in comparison to what is actually recorded.
5 The Discourses of Brigham Young (John A. Widtsoe, Ed.; Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, UT, 1975), 368-369
6 An Examination Into and an Elucidation of the Great Principle of the Mediation and Atonement of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (John Taylor; Deseret News Publishing Co., Salt Lake City, UT, 1892), 148-149
7 Boyd K. Packer, "The Law and the Light," in The Book of Mormon: Jacob Through Words of Mormon, To Learn With Joy (Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr., Eds.; Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT, 1990), 8 (emphasis in original)
8 Mediation and Atonement, 149
9 Brigham Young, "The Gospel of Jesus Christ," in the Journal of Discourses: By President Brigham Young, His Two Counselors, and the Twelve Apostles (26 Vols., Horace S. Eldridge; Liverpool, England, 1871), 13:328

14 comments:

  1. Coming from the man who listened to "the Atonement" on the way to the temple, you sure have come far! Just kidding. I agree, Skousen left us thinking, and as a wise teacher once taught me, when we have arrived at the answer, the learning process is over which is sad.

    As for Skousen, "Some of our writers have endeavoured to explain what an intelligence is [most likely refering to B.H. Roberts], but to do so is futile, for we have never been given any insight insight into this matter beyond what the Lord has fragmentarily revealed. We know however, that there is somehting called intelligence which always existed. It is the real eternal part of man, which is not created or made. This intelligence combined with the spirit constitutes a spiritual identity or individual.
    "The spirit of man, then, is a combination of the intelligence and the spirit which is an entity begotten of God." (Joseph Fielding Smith, The Progress of Man, 11)

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  2. Great post! The thing I liked about Skousen's talk is that it not only put the Atonement in a new light but for me it made it more real. God is not some magical being. God is real and personable and what he does and how he does it actually makes since. We may not comprehend it now but through study, prayer and the spirit we can come to know God and his purposes.

    "...and the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto them..."
    1 Nephi 10:19

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  3. Tim, I'm glad I came across this post as I was unaware of William J Clyde's rebuttal and as this talk moved me and got me thinking about the gospel and the concreteness of it in a way that no other talk has before or since!! It literally stoked my intellectual curiosity like no other.

    I first heard it on cd as a missionary while serving in Fort Worth, TX in 2006. I came to the conclusion that there are no mysteries in the gospel - they only appear as mysteries to those who don't understand them. And I wanted to understand them. The discovery that there was a literal change in gentile blood during adoption and the questions and discussion on intelligence --- I can't tell you how much this fascinated me! So much so that I created my own Q&A/discussion website on these and related topics for my own benefit. I very much appreciate and am grateful for the spirit of learning and habit of study that this talk instilled in me.

    I have a hard time listening to his critics when all we have here in a man who clearly wanted to better understand his savior and the atonement. Burned into my memory are these words he said:
    "if we do not ask questions, then we do not learn, and if we do not learn, then why are we here?" We cannot be saved in ignorance as Joseph Smith teaches. I find it hard to understand why some members are content to go day after day to the end of their lives and never truly study the scriptures and the words of the prophets which their whole religion is based upon.

    People love to knock speculation, but isn't that how we learn? We like young Joseph Smith have a question, probably retaining in our minds what we think to be the answer, and we take it to the Lord in faith and prayer with real intent to know of Him -- to receive an answer. The other is simply suspended until we receive real revelation for ourselves.

    Ask, Knock, Seek. How many times is this repeated in scripture?? It seems not enough.
    D&C 109:7 is a scripture I think of often.

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  4. Anonymous - well said.
    Skousen's reputation seems to be somewhat polarized. I believe he contributed much in the way of studying the scriptures, but I have also become reluctant to accept his assertions without further investigation. I can't rely on him when he attributes a quotation to somebody, as it is often misrepresented, misquoted, or misattributed. He had a great mind though, and I agree that asking questions is essential to gaining gospel knowledge. He has inspired me to explore the scriptures more thoroughly.

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  5. in the last eight hours, I have listened to Skousen's talk and read Williams' paper. It seems quite clear to me that in some places Skousen does make assertions as to things as they are as opposed to making clear they are his opinion. Having not been privy to the personal revelation received by Skousen, I can make no judgment. Also, as to whether or not Skousen was directed by the Spirit to say what he said to the missionaries, I cannot say.

    What I can say is that for those who've taken the time to ponder the principles of the gospel and have sought answers to questions, Skousen's views open up some possibilities that are consistent with what I feel to be true--they resonate.

    It seems clear that Williams is both partially correct and also guilty of similar errors that he's accusing Skousen of making. His logic (Williams') is quite poor in places, and his self contradiction and neglect of the recognizing tough, but necessary to ask questions do damage to his position.

    Perhaps the greatest test I have is this. When I listened to Skousen's talk, I felt there were new insights to be pondered and explored. When I read Williams' paper, I felt as though it were an emotional response by one who has not asked the questions that Skousen is trying to answer--one who might be afraid to believe Alma 26:22. I believe Alma 26:22, and not knowing how the Lord moved or did not move Skousen, I simply cannot judge.

    I felt as though Williams didn't have the depth of knowledge, the depth of study, the time put in to pondering, study, and prayer. It seemed as though he were oblivious to some of the difficult questions that brought Skousen to where he was--questions that may not even have been included in his talk but were foundational to inspire the search for greater knowledge.

    All that said, I am grateful to Williams for reminding me to be careful, and I am grateful to Skousen for reminding me of what is possible and helping me see some new possibilities that I had not yet considered.

    Thanks, for your post, and thanks for reading my comments :)

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    1. Unknown,
      Thanks for your comment. I apologize for such a delayed response! At any rate, I appreciate your comments, and think you caution us well to be balanced in how we judge these matters. Hosts of missionaries, and others, have benefitted from Skousen's famous talk. Williams offers a lot of good points, but had he been more charitable in his approach, perhaps his rebuttal would have been better received.

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  6. I think an important point is that Skousen related what he had been taught by an apostle of the Lord, that apostle being John A Widtsoe. I think that I would place more weight on an Apostles words than a BYU professor. I have never heard that Skousen claimed it was his own theory. he only said he was taught the content of his talk by John A Widtsoe and it was in response to questions he had about the atonement from the time he was a child. Would the professor write the same things if it was to try to debunk an apostle rather than someone like W Cleon Skousen? .

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    1. Hi Mick - thanks for taking the time to read the post and responding with thoughtful comments. I agree with you in so far as the thought process that if Skousen did actually obtain his understanding of the atonement from Elder Widtsoe, then it is absolutely worth taking seriously. I have my reservations about the reliability of this assertion, however, but for the sake of argument, let's assume that he did obtain a correct understanding of the atonement from Elder Widtsoe and that he correctly articulated this ideology. Since Skousen put forth information that is not corroborated by any General Authorities, the question arises as to whether these teachings appropriately constitute LDS doctrine on the atonement? As Elder Anderson said in the Oct '12 General Conference, "There is an important principle that governs the doctrine of the Church. The doctrine is taught by all 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. It is not hidden in an obscure paragraph of one talk. True principles are taught frequently and by many. Our doctrine is not difficult to find." If the doctrine, as laid out by Skousen, is true, why hasn't it been repeated by General Authorities? Not only is the absence of corroboration in subsequent conference talks problematic, but as pointed out in my post above, the references Skousen uses to connect his thoughts to previous Church leaders is tenuous, at best.

      This isn't to say that Skousen is wrong because these principles aren't put forth by General Authorities. Certainly, one must acknowledge that Church leaders have not disseminated every truth in existence, as though such is even possible. It is possible for a member to speak or write truth that hasn't been previously posited by a General Authority. But Skousen claimed to receive this information from Elder Widtsoe, or at least have it confirmed by him. However, as Brother Williams pointed out, the assertions put forth in Skousen's "Atonement" are not attested to in any of Elder Widtsoe's writings or General Conference, or other talks. So while other General Authorities have not corroborated the controversial points of Skousen's talk, the question still arises as to why Elder Widtsoe himself never put forth anything that would corroborate the nuances of Skousen's paradigm?

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    2. Supposing for a moment that Skousen was correct, even though the particulars of his talk have not been corroborated by the Lord's anointed, why does Skousen think it would be appropriate for him to clarify LDS doctrine on the atonement when he does not speak for the Church? It is one thing to publish a position and clarify that it is simply one's own understanding, but Skousen relies on the logical fallacy of "appeal to authority" to provide his talk with credibility. In a similar vein, President George Q. Cannon once said, "If men have received revelations concerning things that the Lord has not revealed to His people, they ought to hold their tongues about such matters; because if God gives men knowledge concerning things which He has not authorized His servant who holds the keys to reveal, they have no business to teach it as doctrine. There are many things which God reveals to His servants from time to time, but a wise person who has a revelation that is trustworthy will not go around telling it and teaching it as doctrine, because the same Spirit, if it be from the Lord, that reveals such things, would also teach that such a course would be very improper. There are many things which God has revealed that are unlawful for men to utter. No doubt, He does now reveal things of this kind from time to time to those who have faith and who are chosen vessels; but you may rest assured that where there are any of that class, they are not around propagating these ideas, whispering them and telling them to people as truths that they ought to understand; the Spirit of God will not prompt any such thing." (Proceedings of the First Sunday School Convention).

      My other reluctance in accepting Skousen's appeal to authority, is based on the problems that Skousen has had in telling the truth in times past. For example, see:

      http://www.keepapitchinin.org/2013/09/11/the-smithsonian-institution-the-book-of-mormon-and-another-legend-that-will-not-die/

      See in particular comment #5 and my comment #40 which demonstrates that Skousen more than likely made up information for his own convenience. The sources he cites generally bear little to no relevance for his assertions. The last question in connection with this subject is why did Skousen wait to attribute his assertions to Elder Widtsoe until after Elder Widtsoe had died? Why not publish his paper, or submit his paper to Elder Widtsoe for review before publishing? (Elder Widtsoe died in 1852, Skousen's First 2,000 Years was first published in 1953)

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    3. I don't say all of this in disrespect to Cleon Skousen. I think that his talk is very interesting, and was quite engaging. I am much better off for having read his talk because it has opened my mind to explore the atonement in a myriad of ways I probably wouldn't have innately thought of. Nonetheless, Skousen's talk, and most importantly, his conclusions, are highly speculative, and the scriptures he uses are much broader for interpretation than the narrow scope he imposes upon them. I imagine much of his story is true. He probably did rifle through the scriptures and inquire with Elder Widtsoe about it - although I suspect the results of these discussions would probably be much different if one were to hear Elder Widtsoe's side of the story.

      Sorry for the long response.

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    4. Correction :)
      Elder Widtsoe died in 1952, not 1852

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  7. I agree Tim. I have found that there are many inherent truths to be said by Skousen. However, I have found that these sorts of things as the church leaders have mentioned should be learned with a little help, sure; but primarily on our own with the enticing of the spirit. I WILL NOT discuss an experience I had in a Sacred room of the holy Temple, but I can assure you that nothing that brought me to that experience had come without studying the scriptures myself, with the help of the words of modern and previous Prophets and Apostles, and service to others. As mentioned, it didn't come by the words of Skousen, who is not "ordained" to supply such knowledge. They come in the most simplest forms, usually as current, prior, and ancient leaders are and were quoting scripture. Just as Elder Bednar mentioned in his talk about the "Tender Mercies of the Lord". Those are experiences learned through study and experience I needed to learn for myself, and are kept sacred to me. Although it is fun to peruse and share my own studies from Nibley, McKonkie, and others (including your blogs) to find what I have learned. In response to Mr. Skousen though, some things are to be kept private to himself, due to their sacredness.

    This transformation I had made was due to my severe struggles, as President Eyring had mentioned in his "Mountains to Climb" talk. As much as I hated those severe struggles at that time, looking back I realize that I needed to experience them to draw closer to the Lord. However, these were part of my own journey, and everybody else has their own journey to experience from scripture study, knowledge of the gospel, service, righteousness, and the impressions the holy spirit can bring. So I think Skousen helped by sparking interest for people to "search the scriptures", but as you mentioned, it was "his" journey, which should have been kept sacred to him. As quoted near the end of President Monson's, "Stand in Holy Places" talk, he states (without break) a couple of scriptures from the Lord as part of his testimony of the Lord; "Draw nearer unto me, and I will draw nearer unto you. Seek me diligently, and ye shall find me". Simple.

    Although I am still doing well, I am of course not perfect, and have since not quite been at that spiritual level. Life seems to distract us with its busy from what is TRULY important. I've just since been trying to get back to that level, as steady (but slowly unfortunately) as possible.

    Great insights by Skousen though. By the way, great thoughts by you and others on this thread as well, I'm enjoying it.

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  8. anonymous- its easy to criticize. No matter what opinion is expressed there is always an avenue available to make an argument against it. If Skousen is wrong and he has partialy fabricated this doctrine coming from elder widstoe than what is the answers to all those questions listed? Why make him suffer? How does the atonement work then? I believe this to be true doctrine, from study, prayer, and revelation. The fruits of this have been a blessing in my life which tells me this is truth. I think we have to remove some personal paradigmes in order to accept certain principles taught here. No doubt there are speculations by Skousen in reference to certain dialogues taking place, but even he admits that that is not necessarily what was said. Elder Holland has taken similar libertes in his talks. Beyond that I have found nothing else that answers the questions posed. And i think in the end when we find out all the answers to all of our questions, then we will see that even those answers would be doubted, deconstructed, and questioned with reasonable arguments by mortals.

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    1. Anonymous, thank you for your comments and taking the time to read my thoughts on Skousen's "Atonement" talk. I'm not sure if your comment is directed at any of the comments in this thread, or just the blog post, but I appreciate your input.

      It seems that you are inferring from my post that I am being overly critical of Brother Skousen. I've re-read what I wrote, and thought it was actually quite balanced. Many bloggers look at Skousen's talk (and his writings) as a joke, while others think Skousen could do or say no wrong. Obviously either extreme is unwarranted. In my post I discuss some of the problems that I find in his talk, but I also discuss the profound thoughts and questions that he raised which have had a tremendous impact upon my personal studies and appreciation of the atonement.

      If you feel that the Spirit has borne witness to you regarding his talk in its entirety, than that is a personal matter. I personally feel that much of his conclusions are too narrow and limited in scope, and some conclusions are just plain false (I don't believe God remains as God because speculated intelligences attached to every molecule in the universe approves of Him to be God). However, I also feel that his talk is worth reading because it tends to create a greater appreciation for the atonement and stimulates personal study with respect to some of the great questions posed.

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