In spite of our belief in and use of the Bible, some critics like to say that Latter-day Saints are nonbiblical. OK, we have our flaws, but nonbiblical? The critics see themselves as the only “biblical Christians,” a term that seems to apply only to those who interpret selected verses of the Bible in exactly the same way as they do. An irony, of course, is that the most common arguments for our “nonbiblical” status are based on our refusal to accept extra-biblical creeds crafted several centuries after the last New Testament writing. And these creeds rely on terms and concepts that are arguably foreign to the Bible (I mean you won’t find those terms there – I know one can argue that they are rooted in or extrapolated from the Bible).
For those who have heard that we are nonbiblical, it might be helpful to sit down with an informed Latter-day Saint and go over multiple chapters of the Bible and and discuss each other’s views. I think honest people will come away from the exercise feeling that “nonbiblical” may be a terribly inaccurate term, in spite of differences in interpretation. Perhaps you would say that we are overly literal or too fundamental or give the most weight to the wrong sections, but we are not “nonbiblical.” We study and use and turn to the Bible as a basic part of our religion. There is plenty of room to differ in our interpretations, but a difference in interpretation is not a meaningful reason for branding someone who loves the Bible as “nonbiblical.”
Today in Sunday School we discussed John 17. I’d like to offer my comments on some of its verses to point out how LDS themes really do resonate with the Bible, though others are allowed to disagree and interpret otherwise, without necessarily losing your status as Christians, biblical Christians, or human beings.
Here is John 17, with my comments:
1 These words spake Jesus, and lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee:
2 As thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him.
3 And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.
Latter-day Saints love this verse and quote it frequently, in my experience. We also often comment that in Hebrew or Aramaic, the verb “to know” (yada) can imply a close, covenant relationship. It is not enough to just intellectually know Who God is. Rather, the Bible urges us have a close, intimate, covenant relationship. And note the reference to two Beings: God the Father AND Jesus Christ, Whom God sent. While this can be rationalized in terms of the later Trinity concept from the post-biblical creeds, it’s much easier to construe this clear and simple language as referring to one Being, God the Father, and a second Being, His Son. Yes, they are one, but the question is how? We will address that in a moment.
4 I have glorified thee on the earth: I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do.
Yes, Christ was sent by the Father to carry out the Father’s work. He is reporting on His stewardship to the Father, Who, as Christ said, is “greater than” the Son (John 14:28). All very solid LDS themes.
5 And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was.
Jesus Christ here refers to his premortal status with the Father before being born with mortal attributes on earth. Latter-day Saints believe that the title Jehovah/YHWH in the Old Testament typically refers to the premortal Messiah, Jesus Christ, the Creator under the direction of the Father, with Christ being one of the plural Beings in the “we” and “us” of Genesis 1:26,27 when “God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” – a reference to the very Biblical concept that the physical image of God resembles that of man.
6 I have manifested thy name unto the men which thou gavest me out of the world: thine they were, and thou gavest them me; and they have kept thy word.
An approving reference to believers who have “kept” the commandments. No surprise here, since when Jesus was asked what one should do to obtain eternal life, His answer was, “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.” (Matt. 19:17) Shhh! That kind of talk can get a believer branded as a non-biblical cultist these days.
7 Now they have known that all things whatsoever thou hast given me are of thee.
8 For I have given unto them the words which thou gavest me; and they have received them, and have known surely that I came out from thee, and they have believed that thou didst send me.
9 I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine.
10 And all mine are thine, and thine are mine; and I am glorified in them.
No objections here.
11 And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are.
Stop the presses. Did He just say what I think He said? Is Christ praying that Christians might be one as Christ and the Father are one? Could that have implications on the nature of the oneness of the Godhead? Hmmm, that sounds suspiciously LDS – must be a fluke in the translation of this passage.
12 While I was with them in the world, I kept them in thy name: those that thou gavest me I have kept, and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition; that the scripture might be fulfilled.
13 And now come I to thee; and these things I speak in the world, that they might have my joy fulfilled in themselves.
14 I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.
Right – Christians must not be surprised at rough treatment from the world, whether it’s from the press, Hollywood, governments, or even from so-called Christian ministers.
15 I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil.
The Lord is praying that those who have already accepted him might be kept from evil. I fully agree. Our free agency is not taken away when our sins are. We can still turn from the Savior and deny Him.
16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.
17 Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.
The word of God is not described as previously written words alone, but conveys the notion of that which God speaks. If we accept God as the source of truth, then what right do we have to tell Him that He may speak no more and that no more of His word is needed? We must be willing to accept the words of God – now and in the past.
18 As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world.
19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth.
20 Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word;
21 That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.
Look, there it is again. The Lord is driving this point home: Christians are to be one as Christ and the Father are one. We are to be “in” them as they are “in” one another. The unity that we can and should have is being described as similar to the unity and oneness of the Father and the Son. The unity in John 17 it is not the unity extolled by Greek philosophers – a unity of substance, an incorporeal, metaphysical unity utterly foreign to beings with tangible bodies of matter (matter being utterly despised by the Greek philosophers as far too impure and limiting for God, who had to be immaterial only, not spirit clothed in a body) – but a unity that must be a unity of purposes, heart, and intent. Understanding this makes sense of numerous passages of scripture, such as Acts 7:55,56, where Stephen before his death saw God the Father with the Son standing at his right hand. Two Beings – in whose image we are created. This is precious knowledge, truly biblical knowledge, restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith.
22 And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one:
Christ looks forward to unity beyond the unity we can experience here in mortality, but a unity with God and Christ in the glory of the presence of the Father, where we will be one with them. Once again, our oneness with each other and with them is described as at least similar in nature to their oneness.
23 I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.
Any guess as to how many pages of anti-Mormon literature have been written explaining that the Mormon quest to “be made perfect” is nonbiblical and non-Christian? See also Matthew 5:48, where the Lord commands us to seek to be “perfect.”
24 Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world.
Christ wants us to return to the presence of the Father to be with Christ – as if there is reference to a real, even physical location – where we will see Christ in His glory. And there is a reference to Christ’s premortal role. All very LDS concepts.
25 O righteous Father, the world hath not known thee: but I have known thee, and these have known that thou hast sent me.
26 And I have declared unto them thy name, and will declare it: that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.
I found nothing to disagree with in this powerful intercessory prayer of the Savior, and found many themes that resonate well with LDS doctrine. Nevertheless, our biblical and Christian status is often denied by our critics on the basis of the doctrines that I found so consistent with aspects of John 17. I hope they will at least recognize some of the post-biblical traditions they bring to the table were not visibly on the table in the room at the Last Supper, where this intercessory prayer was probably given (per Alfred Edersheim).