Monday, May 11, 2015

Review of An Other Testament (Spencer)

Joseph Spencer's An Other Testament is one of the more interesting and thought provoking books available on The Book of Mormon. It is the kind of book that generates greater appreciation for the sophistication and complexity of the literary and theological structure of the Book of Mormon. It is the kind of book that makes you wish that you could have identified the brilliant insights in your reading of the Book of Mormon that Joe Spencer identified in his reading of the Book of Mormon. It is the kind of book that I wish I was capable of writing. At the end of the day, we can be glad that we have great minds, like Joseph Spencer, to teach the profound ways in which we can appreciate The Book of Mormon, and in this case, appreciation for how The Book of Mormon intends to be read based upon its own terms. This last statement should be qualified, however, if we are to consider that The Book of Mormon is comprised of multiple authors, the appreciation is for how Nephi and Abinadi intend for their teachings and interpretations of Isaiah to be understood.

The crux of Spencer's discussion is centered upon Nephi and Abinadi's distinct interpretations of Isaiah. For Nephi, Isaiah's message is strictly covenantal; whereas, for Abinadi it is messianic in nature. The book goes to great lengths to illustrate that these prophets understood Isaiah quite differently, and importantly, Spencer emphasizes the usage of the same text from Isaiah by Nephi and Abinadi to prove this point. Both prophets use typology to understand Isaiah 52:7-10, but both prophets use their own typology and see the application as communally relevant for Nephi, and individually relevant for Abinadi. According to Spencer, "Nephi essentially takes the scriptures as an end unto themselves, something to delight in, Abinadi takes the scriptures as a means to a separable end, something to look forward from." (163) Nephi's "likening" of the scriptures meant applying the scriptures and their fulfillment to their own history within Israel's umbrella, whereas, Abinadi re-contextualizes Isaiah to provide prophecy regarding the Messiah who is yet to come.

This isn't to say that the entire book is a focus upon Isaiah 52:7-10, since Spencer brings tremendous insight into the Isaiah chapters within 1st and 2nd Nephi as a whole. He points out an overall chiastic framing of 2 Nephi 6-30 with:

 (a) Jacob's words about Isaiah,
 (b) Isaiah's words themselves,
 (a) Nephi's words about Isaiah.

Further, Nephi's selection of Isaiah texts have a similar chiastic framing:

 (a) Oracle against Judah (Isaiah 2-4),
 (b) Oracle against Israel (Isaiah 5),
 (c) Isaiah's call to prophecy (Isaiah 6),
 (b) Oracle against Assyria (Isaiah 7-12),
 (a) Oracle against Babylon (Isaiah 12-14). (53)

The primary emphasis being Isaiah's call to prophecy in Isaiah 6, which scholars believe to have taken place on the Day of Atonement within the Holy of Holies of the Jerusalem temple. (55) This central theme is situated, according to Spencer within the overall framework of 1st and 2nd Nephi which emphasizes, in order: the creation, the fall, the atonement, and the veil. Without elaborating on how Spencer sees this framework as an integral component of Nephi's record (for which I recommend reading Spencer's book), it is sufficient to note that this is a key to understanding Nephi's perspective on the law and the prophets. Again, without going into detail, it is important to note that Nephi's emphasis is upon the redemption of Israel through the Israelite covenant that is likened to the Lehites.

Abinadi's discussion on Isaiah is in the midst of his preaching to King Noah and his priests, who specifically ask him about Isaiah 52:7-10. Spencer does a remarkable job of contextualizing this question with justifiable speculation as to these verses' importance to King Noah and his priests. Illustrating the parallels between Zeniff and Nephi, Joseph Spencer provides evidentiary support to suggest that Zeniff was familiar with the Small Plates, and uses this as a catalyst for how Noah and his priests would have interpreted Isaiah. Abinadi's response is staged by addressing the presuppositions of their interpretation of Isaiah, and moving into a discussion of the law and the prophets, the latter being of central importance to understanding the former. In doing so, Abinadi recognizes affiliation between Isaiah 53 and Deuteronomy 18:15-19. In so doing, Abinadi's purpose is to prove that the Messiah and fulfillment of Isaiah 52 is yet to come, whereas, Noah and his priests seem to have believed the literal fulfillment of this chapter in their own lives (through Zeniff). Abinadi's intent is to emphasize that the law is a 'type' of what is to come, i.e., the coming of the Messiah. In other words, the law is provided to point towards Christ, whom all prophets have prophesied of. In contrast, Nephi seems to have viewed the law as a gift in itself, something redemptive that isn't necessarily centrally tied together by the coming of Christ.

Thus, Nephi's typology is focused upon likening the prophecies to fulfillment within this branch of Israel's existence, and living of the law (keeping the commandments) as leading to further prophesying and redemption through atonement. Abinadi's typology involves interpreting events and prophecies in a strictly messianic context. All things point to Christ according to Abinadi.

Spencer's book is far more elaborate and sufficient in illustrating and proving these points than this little summary, and I highly recommend his book for these reasons. For me personally, it was incredibly insightful to better understand the meaning of Nephi's usage of so much Isaiah text within his record. It was also insightful to see how Abinadi's and Nephi's approaches to Isaiah are so distinct. Interestingly, though, Spencer sees Abinadi's approach to Isaiah as a departure from Nephi, some what of a less meaningful and useful approach, or perhaps an even somewhat inaccurate approach. He views Abinadi's theological discussion as a possible rival approach to Nephi. He attempts to reconcile this view as follows:
The Book of Mormon identifies, as part of its own narrative, two distinct but not entirely separable typological methodologies. Not only was Abinadi’s model of typology formulated in response to the abuse of Nephi’s model, but the latter was reintroduced by Christ himself as a displacement of the former. Each version of typology in the Book of Mormon is at some point supplanted by the other, as if each was meant to repair unavoidable weaknesses in the other. While Nephi’s model too easily lent itself to the abuses and excesses of an unchecked Nephite monarchy, Abinadi’s too easily obscured the vital covenantal focus of the Prophets. Thus the Abinadite turn attempts to correct monarchical excess by emphasizing the soteriological message of the small plates (generally associated with Jacob), while Christ’s return to Nephi attempts to keep the exclusively Christian focus of the Abinadite tradition from crowding out the covenantal history projected in the Old Testament. (173; also see 167-169)
The argument made by Spencer that there were two competing narratives is given greater attention in his discussion of Christ's visit to the Americas, and interestingly, His own interpretation of Isaiah 52:7-10. In this, Spencer sees Christ supplanting Abinadi's teachings and approving and emphasizing Nephi's perspective and interpretation of Isaiah 52:7-10. And it is here that I actually find my only objection to Spencer's book - the only conclusion he reaches that I believe to be incorrect is provided on pgs 164-167. While Abinadi couples Isaiah 52:7-10 with the Christological Isaiah 53; Christ actually couples Isaiah 52:7-10 with Isaiah 54 - a chapter emphasizing covenant. Again, with Deuteronomy 18, which is quoted by Nephi, Abinadi, and Christ, the interpretation provided by Christ aligns better with Nephi's interpretation. Thus, his approach seems reasonable, but then there is this assertion:
Of course, because Christ also suggests that some of the prophecies had indeed been “fulfilled in [him],” he nicely accommodates Abinadi’s understanding of the Prophets while nonetheless canceling its exclusivity. That is, while Christ allows for the Abinadite approach, he also places specific limits on it, making clear that the Prophets more fundamentally had their eyes on the covenant’s fulfillment. (166)
For Spencer, Christ validates Nephi's interpretation of Isaiah, but relegates Abinadi's interpretations, which, again, are seen as two competing narratives. It is suggested that these narratives may be the root of Christ's comment regarding the "disputations among you concerning the points of my doctrine, as there have hitherto been" (3 Nephi 11:28). My only gripe is that Spencer sees the emphasis on Nephi's interpretations as superseding Abinadi's teachings. I think Christ actually reconciles both teachings and emphasizes those points of interpretation that perhaps, had been lost in terms of emphasis over Nephite history. After all, Christ confirms Abinadi's teachings several times:

  • Behold, I am Jesus Christ, whom the prophets testified shall come into the world. (3 Nephi 11:10, 15)
  • Verily I say unto you, yea, and all the prophets from Samuel and those that follow after, as many as have spoken, have testified of me. (3 Nephi 20:24)

Compare these with Mosiah 13:33 and 15:11. Further, however, Spencer indicates that Abinadi and Nephi's theology of the Godhead are distinct and that Christ favors Nephi's interpretation. However, consider the following:

  • ...verily I say unto you, that the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost are one; and I am in the Father, and the Father in me, and the Father and I are one. (3 Nephi 11:27)

Compare to Mosiah 15:1-5.

Thus, it seems that Christ not only acknowledges Abinadi's teachings and interpretation, but approves of them as well as of Nephi's interpretations. Accordingly, it seems that Spencer's conclusive remarks on Christ's role in interpreting Isaiah and favoring Nephi over Abinadi does not seem to have the same scriptural justification that the rest of his conclusions have. Nonetheless, this is 3 pages out of 175 total pages. By and large, Spencer's book is remarkable for its insightful interpretation in reading Nephi and Abinadi and contextualizing Isaiah within The Book of Mormon. There is much that I did not bring up in this short review that sheds tremendous light on the text of The Book of Mormon.

On another note, I will add comment that this book is not a spiritual guide to interpreting the scriptures. It is not a book intended to bolster spirituality. It is intended to provide a methodical approach in reading The Book of Mormon in order to better understand the actual content of these scriptures, and in this regard it is tremendously successful. It inspires me to approach the scriptures from different perspectives, including the motivation to read the scriptures more methodically.

I will also add that other reviewers have compared this book to Nibley's writings on The Book of Mormon in terms of being revolutionary in approach and method. Here, I have to state my reluctance in agreement. I believe this book will be highly influential in terms of resulting in greater attention to hermeneutics and exegesis on The Book of Mormon, but the level of influence upon Book of Mormon studies that Nibley has had in terms of contextualizing its Middle Eastern background will likely never be matched. Of course I could be wrong, and Spencer's work on the text of the Book of Mormon may someday prove as fruitful as Nibley's work on the context of the Book of Mormon, but I am highly skeptical. Additionally, however, by elevating Spencer's book alone on this high pedestal, Grant Hardy's Understanding the Book of Mormon, may be inadvertently relegated, which is just as an important of a book as An Other Testament is. In fact, both need to be read. Both provide tremendous insight regarding the text of The Book of Mormon and both provide a world of understanding when reading Book of Mormon writers. Thus, I close this review with high recommendations for both books as almost companion volumes in literary studies in The Book of Mormon.

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