Review of Webb, Jenny. “Records, Reading, and Writing in Doctrine and Covenants 128.”

Webb, Jenny.  “Records, Reading, and Writing in Doctrine and Covenants 128.”  In Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Spiritual Theology, edited by James E. Faulconer and Joseph M. Spencer, 139-52.  Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015. [Mormon/Salvation for the Dead/Theology]

This paper explores the relationship between scripture study, records and spiritual theology through a personal exegesis of the first 18 verses of D&C 128, a letter written by Joseph Smith on the subject of baptism for the dead which was later canonized.  It is part of a collection of philosophical essays exploring the general subject of Mormon “Scriptural Theology.” This paper is written for Mormon philosophers and is not directed to the average Church member.  In its analysis of the text it contains some very thought provoking ideas.  However, they are couched in the jargon of theology and philosophy to such an extent that the glimmers of light found here are all but obscured by the ponderous verbiage and pseudo-intellectual style of the author.  She does not share Nephi’s interest in or love for plainness.  I suspect the style will turn off the majority of LDS readers rather than make her interesting ideas accessible to them.  Because the paper is an exercise in personal study and interpretation it lacks the addition of further remarks from the Prophet Joseph Smith on several of the points she highlights.

The analysis of section 128 begins with a look at the need for  recorders and records of the proxy baptisms.  The several recorders are to submit their records to the general recorder, and if they have done their job properly it is as if the general recorder had written them all.  In following this procedure, Joseph explains, “it is only to answer the will of God, by conforming to the ordinance and preparation that the Lord ordained and prepared before the foundation of the world, for the salvation of the dead who should die without a knowledge of the gospel.”  (V. 5) Webb asks what the phrase “ordinance and preparation” means.  “Its specific purpose is for salvation,” she says, “but not for the salvation of everyone: it is for those who die without knowledge of the gospel” and it was initiated in the pre-mortal life.  She concludes from these statements: “In locating this ordinance and preparation within this framework, Joseph thus radically recontextualizes these seemingly mundane details regarding record keeping–the work is not clerical, but sacral.”  This is a gem of an insight, and she continues, “It is clear that this ordinance is not an afterthought, or a way to ‘make up’ for a missed earthly experience, but rather something that has been fundamental to God’s plan from the beginning in the sense that covenant, priesthood, and Christ are fundamental.” (p. 141)

As Joseph continues in verses 6-18, he quotes scriptures that deal with the topic and gives his interpretation of those passages.  She takes notice of another interesting phrase in verse 8 which begins, “Now, the nature of this ordinance consist in the power of the priesthood….”  Webb explains that “consists in” “is a construction with a slightly different meaning from the more common ‘consists of.’  ‘Consists in’ means to have as an essential feature rather than to be composed of.” (p. 142) Baptism for the dead is linked to the binding and losing power of the priesthood because what is recorded on earth with be in heaven, what is not recorded on earth will not be recorded in heaven.  Webb again observes perceptively “It is this linking of ‘binding’ with ‘recording’–of sealing with writing–that unites the images presented so far.  The seemingly common act of keeping a record of an ordinance performed is, it appears, an essential part of the ordinance and an act of priesthood power.” (p. 142) More challenging is her analysis of the statement in verse 9 that says “records kept properly and faithfully “became a law on earth and in heaven….”

The keeping of the record according to the order prescribed by God is as essential to a priesthood act as is the authority of the priesthood itself, as is acting in the name of the Lord, and as is proper form, order, intent, and faith.  And the result is an addition to both earthly and heavenly law.  In other words, a person authorized and acting accordingly can record law in heaven.  Perhaps priesthood, writing, and ordinance are intertwined precisely because it is in this relationship that we, on earth, become like God, forming law for heaven and earth alike.” (p. 143, emphasis added.)

Perhaps her most intriguing deductions concern the phrase in verse 12 which reads, “this ordinance [baptism] was instituted to form a relationship with the ordinance of baptism for the dead, being in likeness of the dead.”   “[O]ur expectations are reversed here,” she observes, because “we expect baptism for the dead to be imitative of the earthly ordinance of baptism, but instead we find the reverse.”  (p. 144) Here is her analysis of the reverse:

If baptism for the dead is a foundational ordinance [from the pre-mortal existence], then the framework within which we understand the plan of salvation is adjusted.  The plan is not for everyone on earth to accept or reject the gospel.  The plan is already for th majority to never receive the gospel, never receive Christ, live, be tested under those circumstances, die, and then wait.  With for others–statistically insignificant others–to develop faith, receive the proper ordinances, continue faithfully, and then develop a desire to share what they have gained such that they begin to seek out the records of those who have died, find them, locate time to travel to a specific sacred site in which heaven and earth coincide through priesthood power and earthly record keeping, and then finally initiate the ordinance(s) through which the waiting dead are inscribed with the name of Christ.

If I may, what an odd plan! (p. 144)

She said at the beginning that she wanted to interpret this section creatively and she achieved her goal here.

Webb’s idea of what Joseph said about the Malachi prophecy in quoted in D&C 128:17-18 possesses a kernel of insight.  The need for a “welding link” between the dispensations and the fact that salvation for both the living and the dead is based on a mutual dependency leads to this statement: “We cannot be connected back to the beginning and to the promises of the fathers unless we have the unification and sealing found only in the power of the priesthood, in the ordinance of baptism for the dead. Our need for them, and them for us, is quite literal….”  She fails, however, to incorporate in this analysis the mutual dependency of the living and the dead, upon “those who have died in the gospel also” likewise mentioned in verse 18.  Joseph’s statement when introducing the Malachi passage that he could have rendered a plainer translation leads Webb to this knotty assessment:

Not a word-for-word translation, but a translation through the key of knowledge provided by the power of the priesthood and its accompanying visions such that the scriptural text is transformed, recontextualized, re-read, reinterpreted, and even radicalized by the truth of the doctrine under discussion. (p. 147)

A bit over the top perhaps, but the following goes all the way over.

He [Joseph Smith] provides a pattern for the seeking and gaining of knowledge, and that pattern centers around reading and rewriting scripture. His methodological remainder [whatever that is] at this juncture foregrounds [Is this a noun turned into a verb? What does it mean?] the importance of the individual voice speaking in response to the voices of the dead. (p. 147)

I am not ashamed to confess that I find this passages quite abstruse.  And pardon me for asking, but if it is something important, wouldn’t it be worth making it a tad more clear and understandable to the reader?

The onslaught of jargon continues in the final section in which she is discussing, as near as I can tell, the simple practice of daily reading of the scriptures as we are taught repeatedly by our ecclesiastical leaders.

In such a scenario, the scriptures become merely the means to an end–in which a quantifiable goal is mastered–and thus are emptied of their spiritual potency.  All this is not to say that goals such as reading Paul in the original Greek should be discouraged, but rather that, when scripture study occurs within a temporal paradigm emphasizing frequency over the measurable content of study, reaching such a goal does not in and of itself terminate one’s relationship with scripture.

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