Tag Archives: Luther Tychonievich

Luther (not that Luther) on the problems of agency

My brother Luther has a series of posts up which address the problem I outlined in my post “Incompatible propositions“: that meaningful agency seems to entail the ability to do serious irreversible damage, and that this is inconsistent with the hope that everything will be all right in the end. Luther’s three posts on the subject are:

I’ve been mulling over Luther’s ideas, as well as Bruce Charlton’s comments on the original post, and may post further on the subject if/when I have any additional insight.


Filed under Philosophy

A Mormon taxonomy of revelation

A recent post at my brother Luther’s blog discusses three terms which are used differently by Mormons than by most other people: gospel, testimony, and prompting. Luther does not suggest that the three terms have anything particular in common other than their atypical Mormon usage, but it occurs to me that they constitute a very systematic way of classifying revelation, and that when analyzed as such they reveal a gap in the lexicon — a type of revelation for which there is no name.

The table below classifies revelations on the basis of what is revealed and how it is revealed — the content and manner of the revelation, respectively. By public content I mean timeless truths or principles which are applicable to all people (for example, “there is a God” or “thou shalt not steal”). Private content refers to propositions — or, more often, imperatives — which have reference to a particular person in a particular situation and do not necessarily have wider applicability (for example, “thy sins are forgiven” or “give Bob a call”). The manner of revelation can likewise be public (proclaimed to the world through the mediation of prophets, apostles, and scripture) or private (communicated directly to the individual by the Holy Ghost).

  Content Manner
Gospel Public Public
Testimony Public Private
Prompting Private Private
(no name) Private Public


The gospel, as the term is used by Mormons, is not limited to the good news of salvation but encompasses all publicly revealed truths of universal applicability. (For example, the law of tithing is part of the “gospel” for Mormons, though I believe that usage of the term would be atypical in the wider Christian world.) When Mormons are talking among themselves, they refer to the religion they profess not as Mormonism or Christianity, but as the Gospel.

A person’s testimony consists of direct, personal confirmations of gospel principles. There is only one gospel, but there are as many testimonies as there are individual Mormons. Each person’s testimony is a subset of the gospel, constituting only such truths as have been specifically revealed to that individual by the Holy Ghost. The paradigmatic example is the testimony of the Book of Mormon which the reader of that book is encouraged to seek in Moroni 10:4. The content of the Book of Mormon itself is part of the gospel; when the Holy Ghost manifests the truth of the book to a particular individual, typically in response to a prayer requesting such a manifestation, that’s a testimony.

Promptings are direct communications from the Holy Ghost relating to personal matters which are not included in the gospel and are meant only for the person to whom they are revealed. Typically this comes in the form of a sudden “gut feeling” that one ought or ought not to perform some specific action. Every Mormon will have stories to tell of promptings which saved him from danger or directed him to someone in need of help. Actually, the meaning of prompting is somewhat narrower than the above table implies, since it is typically limited to unsolicited revelations in the imperative mood. “Thy sins are forgiven” would not normally be called a prompting but a personal revelation. Even personal revelations in the imperative mood are not usually referred to as promptings unless they come to one unbidden. If, for example, a person prays before making a major life decision (such as getting married) and asks for confirmation that it is the right thing to do, the answer would again be called a personal revelation, not a prompting. If on the other hand one were to ask a more open-ended question — “O God, what career shall I pursue?” — and receive a distinct impression that one ought to become a large-animal veterinarian, which possibility had never crossed one’s mind before — that could well be called a prompting. I suppose the key distinction is that the content of a prompting comes from outside; it cannot be a mere confirmation of an idea the individual was already entertaining.

The final, unnamed category would include public revelations — proclaimed to the world by prophets or in scripture — which are nevertheless of limited personal applicability. It seems odd that such a category of revelation should even exist, but it does. The Doctrine and Covenants is full of such revelations — revelations to specific individuals about specific situations, but recorded and published for all to read in scripture. There is no name for this type of revelation, but the taxonomy implicit in the other three terms draws our attention to its existence.


Filed under Mormonism, Revelation

Sevenfold vengeance

I’m not a fan of colloquial, paraphrastic translations of the Bible (or of anything else for that matter); I generally stick with the Authorized Version, and when I use other translations as a supplement I choose the most strictly literal ones I can find. However, my wife having recently become interested in the Bible, but finding the archaic language of the Chinese Union Version and the King James to be rough going, I now have in my home something called the Good News Bible.

I’ve perused a few parts of it, and the very colloquial language (“Prophesy, who is it that smote thee?” becomes “Who hit you? Guess!”) turns out to be surprisingly useful at times, casting familiar passages in a very unfamiliar way and forcing me to notice what they actually mean. In an essay my brother Luther wrote a few years back (a good essay, by the way; read it), he mentions that

the grave danger of the scriptures is that they are church-talk, and we are so used to church-talk we can hear, understand, and discuss it without ever letting it penetrate beyond the churchy part of ourselves.

Luther goes on to say that we are so used to the word “eternity” that it means nothing to us, and that it can be helpful to mentally replace it with “85,000 years” (“for some reason, eighty-five thousand years seems a lot longer than eternity to me”). He’s right; it is helpful — and the same applies to any number of other overfamiliar “churchy” expressions. The Good News Bible (and other simplified translations) may avoid such expressions because they are unfamiliar to its intended readers, but in so doing it also provides a valuable service for readers with the opposite problem — those for whom such expressions are so familiar as to have lost all meaning.

Here’s how the Good News Bible renders Genesis 4:13-15.

And Cain said to the LORD, “This punishment is too hard for me to bear. You are driving me off the land and away from your presence. I will be a homeless wanderer on the earth, and anyone who finds me will kill me”

But the LORD answered, “No. If anyone kills you, seven lives will be taken in revenge.” So the LORD put a mark on Cain to warn anyone who met him not to kill him.

I don’t know how many times I’ve read the KJV rendition of this — “Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold” — without the meaning of those words ever really sinking in. The GNB spells it out in a way which comes as a shock but which is surely correct. To avenge a murder is to kill the murderer, and you can’t kill the same person seven times, so to avenge a murder sevenfold can only mean to kill seven people — including, presumably, six who are not guilty of the murder of the person supposedly being avenged.

It’s hard to see any justice in this, especially given that Abel, despite his blood crying from the ground, is not avenged at all. In fact, the whole point of the promise to avenge Cain seems to be to deter anyone from trying to avenge Abel! Why would Cain’s murderer be punished so much more severely than Abel’s? Perhaps it could be argued that Cain was not truly guilty of murder; since no one had ever died before, he could not have known the full meaning of his act — whereas anyone who might try to kill Cain in order to avenge Abel’s murder must eo ipso understand what it means to kill a man. But could Cain really have been ignorant of what killing meant? After all, he had seen Abel slaughter sacrificial animals before. And even if we assume that Cain’s murderer would deserve death in a way that Cain himself did not, what about the other six victims of the sevenfold vengeance? Why would they deserve any punishment? (And who would they be? As far as we know, the world population hasn’t even reached seven yet at this point.)

Another possible interpretation hinges on a different reading of “shall.” When the Lord says “shall,” we are used to understanding it as a commandment — but perhaps here the Lord is only making a prediction and giving a warning. Rather than ordering that Cain be avenged, or saying that he ought to be avenged, perhaps he is just warning that he will in fact be avenged if anyone kills him. If you kill Cain for killing Abel, someone will kill you for killing Cain, and then someone will kill that guy for killing you, and so on without end. “Sevenfold” could just mean “many times over.” Maybe Yahweh, still a young idealistic God at this point, is warning humanity that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. He may later have regretted this policy of allowing murder to go essentially unpunished, since before long “the earth was filled with violence” and he had to wipe everyone out and start over again. And one of the first things he did after the Flood was to introduce a new rule: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.”


Filed under Ethics, Old Testament, Translation