Covenants loom large in Mormon discourse.
The manual tells us,
Within the gospel, a covenant means a sacred agreement or mutual promise between God and a person or a group of people. In making a covenant, God promises a blessing for obedience to particular commandments. He sets the terms of His covenants, and He reveals these terms to His prophets. If we choose to obey the terms of the covenant, we receive promised blessings. If we choose not to obey, He withholds the blessings, and in some instances a penalty also is given.
If A, then B…
I’ve listened to a great number of talks in church and general conference over my years in the Church that seem to suggest that Mormons believe a wide range of complex gospel topics can be decomposed into a simple checklist. One example of this is the Mormon approach to prayer. From the traditional Mormon perspective, prayer is literal communication with a Supreme Being. We can petition God, and God will honor our requests. On my mission, I taught people the steps of prayer:
- Address God
- Express thanks
- Ask for blessings
- Close in the name of Jesus Christ
I don’t think these kinds of simplifications are all bad. Prayer, for example, might be intimidating for a person who didn’t grow up following that simple formula. The trouble, of course, comes if we allow our prayers to become too thoroughly routininzed.
I grew up learning about the five (or six or seven depending on whose mnemonic you prefer) “R’s” of repentance:
Again, if we don’t know where to start, these kinds of memorization aids might help get us started down a road to real change, but I think it is a mistake to assume that if we have made our way to the final ‘R,’ all is well.
While I don’t think even the most enthusiastic proponents of these simplified approaches would insist that their caricature of the principle is the whole story, there is a danger in repeating these clever formulations too often. In another context and to illustrate a different point, I heard a story of a man who had lost his keys. The man spent all his time searching in the area of the alley illuminated by the streetlamp because that was what he could see. In my experience, the way we talk about gospel principles can sometimes be like shining light on a limited portion of the alley. Perhaps because it is easy to talk about some of the fundamental principles that lend themselves well to lists and mnemonics, we might forget that there is a larger picture.
So it is, I believe, with covenants. The manual’s definition of covenant works out to a kind of legal agreement between humans and God. We promise to do certain things, and God promises us blessings if we hold up our end of the bargain. However, I think it is a mistake to turn the covenant relationship into a simple transaction (trading obedience for rewards).
Think of the covenant we are often reminded that we renew at the sacrament table each week. In the words of the prayer, we promise that we will ‘always remember him [Jesus]’ and ‘keep his commandments.’ If we do so, we are told we will ‘always have his Spirit to be with [us].’
If this is some kind of legal arrangement, the terms don’t seem to be very clear. What does it mean to ‘always remember him’? If we take it at face value (the typical meaning of ‘always’), I think I’ve usually broken this promise before the prayer is even over. What does it mean to ‘keep his commandments’? All of them? All the time?
Wikipedia has a helpful(?) “Table of Covenants” (here) that lays out many of the covenants that members of the Church make and lists the promised actions on our part and the promised blessings on God’s end.
In the New Testament, Paul seems to take exception to an overly legalistic interpretation of the gospel. In several places, he contrasts the new law with the old law. The Law of Moses was a ‘schoolmaster.’ The Law can only show us our faults and convict us of our unworthiness, Christ’s better way gives life. In Hebrews (which, I am told, was probably not actually written by Paul, but it seems to reflect the thinking of a person who was influenced by Paul’s perspective), we read:
But now hath he [Christ] obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises. … [T]his is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people (Hebrews 8: 6, 10).
In Paul’s (or perhaps Priscilla‘s?) mind the gospel of Christ was a fulfillment of the Mosaic law — away from ‘performances and ordinances’ and toward a new creature. Christ brought us something better — more lasting and transformative — than a list of rules to follow.
In Boyd Packer’s famous parable, he describes the covenant relationship as a way in which we can sign up for an alternative set of rules. We are not capable of abiding by the strict rules of the universe that say ‘no unclean thing can dwell with God.’ Even the best of us mortals will pick up a few smudges during our tenure on earth thereby disqualifying us from the divine presence. Heaven apparently forbids mercy to ‘rob’ justice and demands reparations for our sins. But since Christ paid for our sins, he can set the terms of a new agreement that we are capable of upholding. Justice is satisfied, and God and Christ are allowed to show us mercy.
In my post on some of the different atonement theories, I discussed why this kind of penal-substitution model doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. It seems to assume that the ‘eternal law’ (that we believe even God is subject to) is so strict and unyielding that it only permits one definition of cleanliness. God would like to forgive us of our wrongdoing, but his hands are tied. To paraphrase Tolstoy, all perfect beings are the same, every imperfect creature is imperfect in its own way. Do we really believe that? Is there always a best choice? Is anything else a ‘sin’? Doesn’t this destroy agency? Why does justice demand a punishment? What exactly would be robbed by mercy?