Utilitarianism is an attempt to emulate the attributes of God. These attributes are discovered through a program of inquiry into the attributes of God without referring or appealing to any divine revelation. This program of inquiry and discovery is called natural theology.
Natural theology is not meant to be an adequate source for moral conduct. While there are many great things that we can learn through an observation of nature, the natural man is exactly what Christ came to teach against. For those of us who cherish the First Vision and the Book of Mormon, it becomes clear of our need for revelation to achieve a life consistent with the divine. This is a look at the purest form of revelation and how the First Vision and Book of Mormon lead us to it.
1. Why is the First Vision important?
Before we answer that question, let us answer this one, “Why are prophets important?” This is a broader question, but it helps us understand the First Vision’s importance. As a result of our unique ability as humans to make observations, many early persons of scientific mind had deduced that an intelligent designer existed. The discovery of God came in the same way that gravity was discovered, by the law of inference. Scripture tells us that all things testify of a designer and most pre-modern scientists would agree. These scientists referred to themselves as deists. But this raises two questions, “If nature evidences a designer, what need have we for prophets?” and “Do we need scriptures to tell us what we already know from careful observation of nature?”
What science cannot tell us about is the nature of God. When attempting to determine the nature of God, we are leaving the realm of science and entering into the realm of metaphysics, religion, or philosophy. This causes problems because many persons have had an opinion about the nature of God. The more opinions that are to be had, the more relative truth becomes. Ignorance makes easy prey of the masses for the intellectuals. We know this process as apostasy.
From Malachi to the time of Christ, ancient Israel was in a state of growing apostasy. When Jesus walked among the Jews, very few of the religious leaders in Israel recognized him as the God of Abraham. Jesus simply did not fit their conception of God. Yet, here was the God of Abraham revealing himself as a correction to their views on God’s nature. As is the case when persons are more invested in their own conceptions than in the truth, Christ was labeled a blasphemer, crucified, and his apostles martyred.
The nature of God derived from the life of Jesus soon became inadequate or irrelevant to meet practical needs of the church as it went on living in fallen society without continuing revelation. Without revelation, the nature of God had to be borrowed elsewhere, wherever it could be found, namely from Gentile thinking. This process we know as Hellenization. The fact of this borrowing has three significant implications:
a. One of them has to do with the relationship of revelation and nature, or of Jesus on the one hand and reason on the other, as our source for the nature of God.
If the church could borrow from the Gentiles, then accepting the appropriateness of such free borrowing and the inadequacy of the resources available will go a long way toward setting the ground rules for the nature of God.
b. Second: not only does this demonstrate that borrowing guidance on God’s nature from the gentiles is necessary, possible and legitimate; it also suggests what kind of insight we will find there.
The nature of God might look less like a servant and more like one who lords it over others while calling oneself a benefactor.
c. The third lesson that would follow is that by moving away from Jesus as representative of God’s nature to the guidance the early church found among the gentiles, the early church took a position that was essentially conservative.
During her Hellenization period, the early church chose not to challenge gentile conceptions of God’s nature. The church prepared herself, thereby, to gradually become the religion of the established classes, a development that culminated in the age of Constantine three centuries later.
This development has been evaluated as positive and as negative. Some have considered it a kind of progress that the primitive church moved away from Jesus as revelation of who God is and that the church began coming to grips with the world. The negative judgment is reached another way: it is claimed that borrowing from the gentiles, to make God in the image of Pharaoh or Caesar, began a relapse into “natural theology” and that the church had lost its deep grasp on the meaning of revelation as an alternative to human wisdom.
This process is not new to God’s people. It is a process that ancient Israel underwent as evidenced, not only in their inability to recognize Jesus as God when he walked among them, but by their wont for a king and for empire to be like the other nations.
So we are ready to answer the question: “Why is the First Vision important?” The reason for the primitive church’s leaping over the chasm into the limitations of natural theology was the lack of any adequate understanding of God’s nature from Jesus’ side of the gap. The apostles had all been killed, continuing revelation had ceased, and many plain and precious truths had been removed from the scriptures.
The First Vision sets aside the confusion that was created by the killing of Christ’s apostles. The First Vision is the beginning of the end of this Great Apostasy. Through the First Vision we come to know the nature of the Godhead, of Heavenly Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Through the First Vision we are empowered with truth so as not to again be deceived by the philosophies of men. Where ignorance is dispelled, where the individual understands ones relationship with the divine, none other can have power over him or her. We again understand what Christ meant when he said, “Those who are greatest in the kingdom of my Father are as ones who serve,” and when he said, “See ye how the great ones among the gentiles lord it over them; it shall not be so among you.”
2. “Why is the Book of Mormon important?”
B.H. Roberts said, “The printed discourses of leading brethren…do not constitute the court of ultimate appeal on doctrine. They may be very useful in the way of elucidation and are very generally good…, but they are not the ultimate sources of the doctrine of the Church and are not binding upon the Church. The rule is, that which the Church has accepted of what God has spoken is that by which the Church is bound in doctrine.” This process of the Church accepting as doctrine that by which she is willing to be bound through common consent can be demonstrated by a reading of the preamble to Doctrine and Covenants Section 134.
This is especially true of ancient Israel having hardened her heart against the gospel covenant and settling for what has become known as the Mosaic instead. Not all that was accepted as scripture, as cannon, or even doctrine had been limited to what God had spoken or even all of what God had spoken. Some scripture is poetry, some is history, some is law, some is opinion, some is spurious, some is inspired teaching, and some is direct revelation or the literal words of God. Therefore, it is necessary to establish a guideline for esteeming some scripture as more important than other scripture. The apostle Hyrum M. Smith, speaking of Section 134, provides us with such a guideline, “[T]he brethren were careful to state that this declaration was accepted as the ‘opinion’ of the officers of the Church, and not as a revelation, and therefore does not hold the same place in the doctrines of the Church as do the revelations.” If we are not to make the same mistakes of the past, we must hold in highest regard the direct revelations from God.
Mount Sinai demonstrates the freedom of agency with which the Lord’s people are endowed to covenant with him in the manner most appealing to their thoughts and desires. This, of course, does not come without consequence. With further preparation through revelation to the prophets, the Lord hoped in his coming that, by having fulfilled every jot and tittle of the Law through atonement, Israel’s thoughts and desires would change, turning them, as Paul puts it, from justification by law to justification by faith. In other words, exodus from policing society under the Mosaic covenant towards leavening society through ministry under the gospel covenant. Ether 12:11 calls the gospel covenant “the more excellent way” of Christ. We find a different outcome, however. When Christ comes among the hardened Israelites, we find him lamenting, “I have come to gather you as a hen gathers her chicks, but you would not.” Israel prefers the bondage of the Law to the liberty of faith.
Now we are better able to understand why the Book of Mormon is so important. There is good reason why Joseph Smith stated that the Book of Mormon is the “most correct” book of scripture that has been translated by man. Unlike other records which have been translated, the Book of Mormon was translated by a prophet of God. But this is not the only reason, though it may be the primary one. In his recording of the small plates, Nephi speaks of the writings of several prophets that are no longer with us in our copy of the Old Testament.
Israel’s failure to accept and abide by gospel resulted in physical and spiritual bondage. We might expect the conquering of Israel by her enemies on several occasions over extended periods of time to result in some prophetic writings becoming lost. We might also expect that as a result of plain and precious things having become lost, the Israelites may have, like Hellenized Christianity after them, engaged in some borrowing from the gentile nations in which they were held as slaves.
While the Lord warns against the pride of the Nephites in Doctrine and Covenants, modern-day prophets have taught us that the Nephites were relatively righteous compared with the Israelites. Again, as a result of the relative righteousness of the Nephites, we might expect the written revelations of God and the recorded teachings of Nephite prophets to have been better preserved and to be more enlightened. The Book of Mormon, therefore, serves us better when trying to understand Old Testament failures in preparing the Lord’s people to accept the gospel covenant.
The revelations and teachings recorded in the Book of Mormon prove to do a better job at preparing the Nephites to accept the gospel covenant. Some Lamanites, having been converted, seek a lifestyle consistent with gospel standards in anticipation of the coming Christ. These enter into a covenant of love according to their changed thoughts and desires. In Doctrine and Covenants Section 10 verse 53, the Lord says that at least some of the Nephites were sufficiently humble that the Lord’s kingdom, or be it the Church, could be established among them. Abinadi converts Alma the Elder who establishes the Church. Alma the Younger, when converted, steps down as chief judge to proclaim gospel, thereby, proving the word to be mightier than the sword.
Unlike Hellenized Christianity that took a position that was essentially conservative, Nephite history is more progressive. Spiritual progress being inextricably linked to the temporal, Nephite society moves away from worldly power under kings, towards a private society under natural law, and finally an establishment of the Church. Instead of gradually becoming the religion of the established classes, the spiritual progress of the Church among the Nephites culminates in an eradication of caste and class to live without distinction for nearly two and a half centuries after Christ’s visit to the Americas.
So we are ready to answer the question: “Why is the Book of Mormon important?” To paraphrase Hyrum Smith, some scripture is not as important as other scripture. Scriptures which are most important are the direct revelations from God. There is no greater direct revelation from Heavenly Father about his nature than Christ Jesus. “If you have seen me, then you have seen the Father,” says Jesus. As “Another Testament of Christ,” the Book of Mormon is essential and important to demonstrate the spiritual progress necessary to adequately prepare the people to attend upon the Lord at his coming. The Book of Mormon testifies that no scripture is more important in showing us “the way home,” as Pres. Thomas S. Monson puts it, than the revelation of Jesus, his life, his example, his sermons, his atonement, and his church.
The Book of Mormon teaches us that a disciple will do well to give the greatest of heed to learning and living Christ’s teachings and to emulating Christ’s life. It is by emulating Christ’s life that our own lives and the life of our community are healed. The Book of Mormon teaches us that a disciple can avoid, or even reverse, the Constantinian cataract that plagued primitive Christianity by binding oneself strictly in doctrine to gospel standards in the same way the People of God had done at the waters of Mormon and during Christ’s visitation.
In summary, the Book of Mormon and the First Vision make egregious any borrowing from secular society and any notion that available resources are either inadequate or irrelevant. The disciple can with confidence say, “The life of Jesus meets the practical needs of the Church, of the disciple, and it isn’t sacrilegious to say so.” The Lord gives us a promise in Doctrine and Covenants Section 10 verses 53 and 55: “If this generation harden not their hearts, I will establish my church among them…[and] such shall inherit the kingdom of heaven.” The gospel covenant sets us apart for the special purpose of preparing ourselves, this generation, and future generations to attend upon the Lord at his coming. Then will the kingdom of God on the earth be reunited with the kingdom of heaven. Of the faithful, Christ will rejoice and say, “I am as pleased as a hen while gathering her chicks and her chicks hear her voice.”