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Reference: Givens, Fiona and Terryl (2020) All Things New: Rethinking Sin, Salvation, and Everything in Between, Meridian, ID: Faith Matters Publishing

This is a little gem of a book. At the same time, the gem does have an occlusion. This may or may not present a problem; if you are aware of the occlusion and mitigate its impact, you have a beautiful gemstone to treasure. If you ignore the occlusion, it may well become the occasion of a catastrophic fault fracture.

Accordingly, the majority of this review will concentrate on the lovely gem. But near the end of the review, we will take a good, hard look at that occlusion.


The Traditions of the Fathers of Christianity, Which Were Incorrect

In the Introduction to their book, the Givens note,

Joseph Smith referred to a “damning hand” that “riveted the creeds of the fathers, who have inherited lies, upon the hearts of the children, and filled the world with confusion.” That confusion, he continued, “is now the very mainspring of all corruption, and the whole earth groans under the weight” (D&C 123:7). What can this mean, this references to “the creeds of the fathers” that are riveted upon our hearts, filling us with confusion like “an iron yoke” (4).

What an excellent and important question! I speak here as a convert who knows full well the dissociation from God that occurs when false doctrine is preached. As C.S. Lewis put it, “Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about him. The conclusion I dread is not, ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’” I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ because it has torn out so many of the noxious weeds surrounding our understanding of God and God’s children that would otherwise have choked my testimony. Joseph Smith’s vision of the whole Plan is like the sun rising over the mountains in my heart. Yes, sure, there is still “further light and knowledge” that is promised, and sure, cultural artifacts created by false doctrine still buzz around our faith community like wasps, ready to sting the unwary. But, with Peter, I would say, “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

The Givens’ thesis is that we still have too many wasps, and too many people are being stung. They feel, and I agree with them, that unpacking these traditions of the fathers of Christianity will serve as the ultimate pesticide. I think they may be right, for as a former Catholic I know some of those wasps quite personally.

As the Givens explain, some of the worst heresies began to infiltrate Church doctrine in the first few centuries after the death of Christ. They note that around the year 200 in Rome, the “Apostles’ Creed” was considered the beliefs that qualified one for Christian baptism, and that Latter-day Saints would have little problem with it:

I [We] believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I [We] believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. I [We] believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

So far, so good, but then things went awry. The Givens put forward that it was the Council at Nicaea, in 325, where various scholars and theologians attempted to hammer out a compromise on their conflicting views, that began the descent into false doctrine. Without a prophet to determine what was true and correct doctrine, the virtue of compromise became a source of grave error. Among other things, it introduced the idea that Christ and God were somehow one Being (“of the same substance,” homoousios). From there it was a skip and a hop in the same century to the Athanasian Creed, which asserted that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost were “one eternal” (i.e., Triune) and “incomprehensible.” This last part about incomprehensibility was derived from Greek thought, which envisioned a Platonically ideal divine sphere “unseen and untouched” with neither materiality nor anthropomorphism. No more theophany for Christians—this incomprehensible God could not be communicated with, nor touched, nor could God be expected to know about human material experience, much less “feel” anything—except perhaps wrath. The idea that we were literally children of this type of God made no sense whatsoever. We are left, then, with an unembodied God, with no “parts or passions,” and with only a very tenuous relationship with or concern for human beings.

This, of course, is pure heresy. As the Givens eloquently express it, “when the dominant institutions got it wrong, they often got it tragically, horrendously, catastrophically wrong” (32). This strange, warped view of God flies in the face of all the theophanies of the Old Testament, and frankly, all of the lived experiences of the first disciples of Christ during his mortal ministry. Certainly the message of the centrality of lived love in discipleship is completely absent. The ancient Greek mindset was not only poison for Christianity, but of course it was also poison for male-female relations. Since the entire Plan of Happiness rests upon pure and companionate love between men and women, the Greek contempt for women knee-capped early Christianity in this way as well. One consequence was that women were gradually eased out of the types of important roles they had held in the days of the apostles, such as being deacons.

All this is bad enough, but there was worse—much worse—to come. It came, ironically, from a convert to the Church with a twisted history: Augustine of Hippo. Augustine had a common-law wife for over fifteen years before he was baptized, and she gave birth to their son Adeodatus. He forsook his common-law wife and sent her away in order to marry an heiress as arranged by his mother. He kept their son with him, though Adeodatus died at age 16. Before the marriage to the heiress could occur, Augustine decided to join the Church instead. A summary of The Confessions notes,

He makes quite clear that he is abandoning his partner in a faithful relationship of 15 years, the mother of his son, strictly because she has become an obstacle to his success. Throughout the passage, Augustine is careful to put all the blame on his side. His mistress, in fact, comes away with the moral high ground, because she vows to live a life of religious celibacy, something Augustine acknowledges he could not do. Augustine's behavior grows worse: Although he grieves for the loss of his concubine, he cannot imagine going without sex for two years, so he takes another lover for the interim.

What a guy! And it’s this man who is going to have an outsized influence on Church doctrine. By the beginning of the 5th century, Augustine is preaching a God “untouched by human misery,” disembodied and unfeeling as a stone. Perhaps Augustine was projecting his own character, as evidence by his treatment of his common-law wife, onto God? Human beings are corrupted by original sin, according to Augustine, and even children are not exempt from that state in his view. Creation was creatio ex nihilo, and for Augustine there was no premortal realm, and no exaltation because God and man were not of the same kind. Some are predestined to salvation, and others are not.

The Givens note that some of Augustine’s contemporaries fought his theological twistedness:

[T]hey felt these were . . . ‘weird, uncivilized beliefs concocted by a domineering, psychologically twisted [North] African demagogue. Should Christians, Julian of Eclanum asked, really think that a merciful, loving God would torture infants just because they were not baptized? . . . Augustine answered that yes, they were all sinners, all damned.’ And his views, however wretched, however defamatory of both humans and God alike, carried the day. No figure in human history was more influential in the course that Christian doctrine took in the Western world (41).

The history of Catholicism is not the only development criticized by the Givens; the history of Protestantism is also problematic. Many in the CoJC have been taught in years past that the Reformation laid the foundation for the Restoration by righting several doctrinal wrongs. The Givens are right to note that this is largely hooey. Their opinion, and I agree, is that Martin Luther was but Augustine on steroids: “[T]he actual doctrinal changes ushered in by the Reformation almost without exception further compound the darkness of the long night . . . ‘The Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace’” (44).

Interestingly, while Luther held some individual women in respect, he was also fairly misogynistic overall, for example, preaching in his Sermon on the Ten Commandments, “[W]ho can enumerate all the ludicrous, ridiculous, false, vain and superstitious ideas of this seducible sex? From the first women, Eve, it originated that they should be deceived and considered a laughing-stock.” I put forward as a standing rule that men who denigrate women are those most out of touch with the ways of God, and most likely to create false doctrine.

Lutheran doctrine emphasizes the depravity of man due to original sin, and the sole importance of grace in salvation. The idea of free will is vitiated; God’s grace is an election of whom He will. The Lutherans also banned prayers for the dead. The Givens note that Luther said, “This is the highest degree of faith—to believe he is merciful, who saves so few and damns so many; to believe him just, who according to His own will, makes us necessarily damnable” (50). With an emphasis on the hellfire awaiting the damned, the primary emotion of the relationship to God was that of fear.

If our meander through Christian history says anything, it is that a Restoration of the plain and precious truths of the Gospel would be necessary to dispel the dark traditions of the Christian fathers. In addition, even such a Restoration of true doctrine might be tainted because of the cultural context of false doctrine into which it was made manifest. Perhaps the traditions of the fathers which are incorrect cause us in the present day to fear God too much? Perhaps this fear has stunted our faith and our understanding, and left us unhealed by the Good News of the Gospel? If so, state the Givens, then we must pluck those weeds before we can progress.


Rewriting the Traditions of the Fathers

The Givens then move from history to the task of rewriting what the Gospel really means, creating “a new language” to “make all things new.” So, for example, salvation is to be understood not as “the correction of an innate fault,” but rather as “the flowering of divine potential” (81). It is a metamorphic, not a recuperative process: salvation is a becoming. “As Saints, many of us still live . . . with the constant fear that we are failing to please him, to measure up, as if He is looking for reasons to deny us the winner’s cup. We lose sight of the fact that God is running the race with us, not waiting at the finish line to declare us victor or loser” (83). Heaven, then, is not a place so much as it is a process and a set of eternal relationships. The Fall was not a catastrophe, but a foreordained and fruitful ascent. That means that Mother Eve is a heroine, not a villain, or in the Givens’ words, “[Eve’s] appellation, the Mother of All Living, bears comparison with the only other two women who are generative of so much light and life: Heavenly Mother and Mary, the mother of the Lord” (91). The tree from which she partook the fruit is Sophia, or Wisdom, the basis of eternal life.

The Givens also suggest that redemption is first and foremost redemption from death into resurrection. And this resurrection is a fully embodied one, counter to that idea that somehow in the afterlife we will be freed from our bodies, which bodies, in the Christian historical tradition, cause so much shame and guilt.

God’s exhortations to be obedient, then, according to the Givens, are motivated not by anger or sense of injury on the part of God. Rather, as they put it, God knows that the choice to disobey will leave us wounded, and His laws are warnings to stay safe:

If my child disobeys my counsel, I am not (or not properly) angry. I do not react to protect my parental dignity I am not jealous for my parental prerogatives; I am not concerned with my parental authority, or honor, or standing. I am saddened because in ignoring the counsel borne of my love and wisdom, my child opens herself to harm, to pain, to disappointment. I do not stand ready to reward the child for obedience or to punish for disobedience; her decision to follow the counsel redounds to her good, and disobedience to her harm. . . Obedience drawn out of us from fear is but slavery. Motivated by blessings, it is but economic calculation. . . [W]e should think of obedience as a response to loving counsel rather than to divine command (100–101).

Justice, then, is not retribution, but restoration of good for good, and evil for evil. Repentance is not a penalty box, but rather our realization that we want our hearts to be more like Christ’s. As such, repentance is the ultimate form of learning in this life. It is a form of “coming to one’s senses,” not a penance (121). Forgiveness, then, is laying aside all those things that “dam up the flow of brotherly love,” for as Joseph Smith said, “If you do not accuse each other, God will not accuse you. If you have no accuser, you will enter heaven” (126–127). According to the Givens, because of Christ’s Atonement, we are all already forgiven; we simply have to change our hearts.

Speaking of the Atonement, the Givens reject that God demanded the innocent Christ’s blood sacrifice. They quote Carter Heyward as saying, “We need to say no to a tradition of violent punishment and to a God who would crucify an innocent brother in our place” (134). They suggest that our traditional notions of the Atonement might promote a template for “submission to victimization” (134). Rather, we should view the Passion as Christ’s taking upon Him our woundedness in order to heal it, much as a powerful empath would.

Law then simply becomes a guide to reality; grace, His desire to heal us. We should not focus on our worthiness, but rather on how much we are ministering to our brethren. Indeed, there cannot be any such thing as unworthiness, because Christ died for each one of us. And so the final Judgment is not a final Judgment at all, because the process of spiritual improvement will always continue for our intelligences. The Givens quote Eugene England’s view that “Judgment will simply be our complete self-knowledge and our consequent acceptance of the best opportunities and environment for further progress that we are able and willing to accept from a perfectly loving God” (168).


The Occlusion

I agree with quite a bit that the Givens have put forward in this little gem of a book, particularly about the early Christian fathers, but I do sense an occlusion within its pages. I feel it in their discussion of sin, which then impacts several other points.

They suggest, with Julian of Norwich, that God views sin as “behovely,” meaning it is inevitable in the fallen world if we are to have full agency, and that we can learn and grow from sin (103). Sin is the bitter that we may know the sweet. The Givens note that traditional conceptions of sin underpin our understanding of law-breaking and criminality, but feel that this is an inappropriate metaphor. Sin should be seen as woundedness, about which we may feel pain, but not guilt. They quote a psychiatrist who opines that “much of the behavior we see as deviant, unhealthy, or in any way disruptive or criminal can be traced back to trauma experienced by people at some point in their lives. Brokenness, not sinfulness, is our general condition: healing from trauma is what is needed” (105). Sins are “missteps,” we are told, which do not make us criminals, but “reveal us as souls in need of redirection” (107). In a later chapter, the Givens suggest this means that we make our missteps in ignorance, and, with another early Christian commentator, “The rational soul cannot really will the evil” (116). We then learn from the Givens that while our Heavenly Parents may educate us, they do not punish us. Reality punishes us, and God is not part of the equation (117). To think otherwise is “to draw the wrong inferences from our dogged attempts to conceptualize the Atonement as Christ rescuing us from God’s justice, or as Christ interceding as our defender” (123). Sin is “suffering, woundedness, and brokenness in our relationships” (123).

The Givens go further: they feel it is regrettable that members should believe that “sin is an offense against God and demands punishment,” and regrettable that we fail to see sin as “a misstep or educative experience” (132). God keeps on tirelessly tending and pruning that vineyard, we are reminded (160), and quoting a biblical scholar once more, they aver that, “The character of even the very worst among us is in part the product of external contingencies . . . rather than by intentional perversity on the soul’s own part” (160).

I am wont to write in the margins of my books, and I wrote here, “The Givens have apparently led sheltered lives.” While I agree with much of what they have said, especially about the wrong traditions of individuals such as Augustine and Luther, the Givens’ treatment of sin smacks of the fallacy of Moral Therapeutic Deism, which is a wrong tradition of the sons (if you will). Moral Therapeutic Deism is a phrase coined by Christian Smith back in the early 2000s to denote a new view of God, one in which:

1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Another commentator has described it thus: "No pretense at changing lives; a low commitment, compartmentalized set of attitudes aimed at ‘meeting my needs’ and ‘making me happy’ rather than bending my life into a pattern of love and obedience to God." As Dean recognizes, "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism cannot exist on its own. It requires a host, and American Christianity has proven to be an exceptionally gracious one." The two great commandments have been reduced from "love God" and "love thy neighbor as thy self" to "believe there is a god" and "be nice to people while feeling good about yourself."

Elder D. Todd Christofferson has said, “Sadly, much of modern Christianity does not acknowledge that God makes any real demands on those who believe in Him, seeing Him rather as a butler “who meets their needs when summoned” or a therapist whose role is to help people “feel good about themselves.” It is a religious outlook that “makes no pretense at changing lives.” “By contrast,” as one author declares, “the God portrayed in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures asks, not just for commitment, but for our very lives. The God of the Bible traffics in life and death, not niceness, and calls for sacrificial love, not benign whatever-ism.””

Smith comments in his afore-cited piece, “[E]ither Christianity is at least degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith.” We actually hear about that different religious faith in the Book of Mormon in several places. Here’s the most direct occasion:

And there shall also be many which shall say: Eat, drink, and be merry; nevertheless, fear God—he will justify in committing a little sin; . . . there is no harm in this; and do all these things, for tomorrow we die; and if it so be that we are guilty, God will beat us with a few stripes, and at last we shall be saved in the kingdom of God. Yes, and there shall be many which shall teach after this manner, false and vain and foolish doctrines.’
[2 Nephi 28:8].

I also see an echo of this religion in these verses from the Book of Mormon:

“There were many churches which professed to know the Christ, and yet they did deny the more parts of his gospel, insomuch that they did receive all manner of wickedness, and did administer that which was sacred unto him to whom it has been forbidden because of unworthiness” (4 Ne 1:27).
“Behold, others [Satan] flattereth away, and telleth them there is no hell” (2 Ne 28: 21).

You will notice I am using only verses from the Book of Mormon, and this is because that book does not contain the errors of the early Christian fathers, but represents the understanding of prophets who had seen and talked with God, with their words translated correctly by Joseph Smith. The Book of Mormon also contains many, many passages about God purposefully cursing and destroying the wicked; that is, while God may prune that vineyard many times, at last he gathers the wheat and burns the tares. For example, Nephi states plainly, “The wicked will He destroy, and He will spare His people, yea, even if it be so that He must destroy the wicked by fire” (2 Ne 30:10).

I conclude from this that there is a serious disconnect between what I see in the Book of Mormon about sin, and what I see in the Givens’ book. Some sin may indeed be a misstep, explained/excused by extenuating circumstances or ignorance, but there is definitely also sin that is purposefully chosen. In addition, some of the harm done to others may well be nigh to inexcusable—that is, very close to what we would consider outright denial of the Holy Ghost. Consider this case from last year:

A former Army medic at Fort Campbell will spend the next 15 years behind bars after pleading guilty to the rape and murder of one of his infant twin daughters.
According to our news partners at Clarksville Now, 25-year-old Christopher Paul Conway was charged with two counts of first-degree murder in perpetration of a felony, aggravated rape of a child, and aggravated child abuse and neglect in early 2018.
On Friday, Conway accepted a no-contest plea agreement and pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of second-degree murder before his bench trial date which was to happen later this month. Assistant District Attorney Kimberly Lund stated the family agreed with the plea agreement.
“This has been a very difficult case for all parties involved,” Lund told Clarksville Now, “There will never be a sentence harsh enough to ease the death of a child. Adeline was a beautiful baby whose life was taken far too soon. I hope her sister and family can find peace now that this case has been resolved.”
Investigators say the baby was found early in the morning on November 14, 2017, by her mother and had the cord of a dehumidifier wrapped around her arm and neck.
When later questioned, Conway told police that he raped and murdered the 9-month-old.

Perhaps the Givens believe that this was just a “behovely educational misstep” by Conway. Though this is by no means Church doctrine, and I offer it only as my personal opinion, I view the rape and murder of his baby daughter as a denial of the Holy Ghost, which Personage was no doubt screaming in his head not to do this heinous thing. If there are any individuals in whose eyes we see the Holy Ghost shining forth, it is certainly innocent babies. Please remember, too, that we do not only have a Heavenly Father, but we also have a Heavenly Mother. If anyone feels that Heavenly Mother just shook her head at Conway’s “misstep,” then I submit that you do not know Her.

There are many other examples of this type of sin. Josef Mengele’s experiments are incredibly difficult to even hear about; I have had to sequester the details in my own mind, for they are so horrifying. I will only mention one: he took pregnant women, had them give birth, bound their breasts so they could not feed their baby, and then recorded how long it took the infant to die while the mother looked after her baby, unable to feed their little one. A “behovely educational misstep” by Mengele? Again, if you think that, then you simply do not know Her. Or Him: “And it would be better for them if they had not been born. For do ye suppose that ye can get rid of the justice of an offended God, who hath been trampled under feet of men, that thereby salvation might come?” (3 Ne 28:35). At a minimum, God is outraged when His little ones are harmed. And I would suggest God is outraged where purposeful dreadful harm to innocents takes place, even if they are not infants.

In addition, I see in the Book of Mormon that the prophets have told us that sometimes people—such as, I presume, Conway and Mengele—do not sin ignorantly. Sometimes there are no extenuating circumstances: “Now they did not sin ignorantly, for they knew the will of God concerning them, for it had been taught unto them; therefore, they did willfully rebel against God” (3 Ne 6:18).

Sometimes sins ARE crimes—horrific, soul-destroying crimes—and the template of crime and punishment fits perfectly, no matter how strongly the Givens feel that view is somehow regrettable or inappropriate. Sometimes the idea of a wrathful God who says, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay,” makes real spiritual sense (Romans 12:19). I have learned for myself that there is true evil in this world, and that some individuals have embraced it, not through ignorance or extenuating circumstances, but because “they love darkness” (John 3:19). The Givens never mention “outer darkness” at all in their book, but I believe it is real, and it is right that it is real.

In addition, it’s not just impersonal “reality” that punishes an individual who chooses sin; perhaps sometimes that is the case, but in other cases it is God who intervenes directly. As one commentator put it, “The Nephites faced a purging at the death of Christ, which He personally took credit for. ‘Behold, that great city Zarahemla have I burned with fire, and the inhabitants thereof.’ And if that’s not enough, he belabors the point for 11 verses. ‘And behold, that great city Moronihah have I covered with earth, and the inhabitants thereof, to hide their iniquities and their abominations from before my face, that the blood of the prophets and the saints shall not come any more unto me against them.’ He calls out 16 cities by name and confesses to destroying them because of ‘their iniquity and abominations’ (3 Nephi 9:1-12).”

In sum, while perhaps many lesser sins are “behovely educational missteps” that produce wounding from which we need healing, there are some sins that are obscene crimes that outrage God and are met with divine vengeance that, as Alma the Younger expresses it, is exquisitely painful and causes us to rightly shrink with guilt. It seems to me it would be completely inappropriate for any church, much less the true Church of Jesus Christ, to suggest that concepts such as worthiness, sin, guilt, and punishment are not really part of the Restored Gospel. To the contrary, they most certainly are, and scripture is plain on that point. The Church of Jesus Christ cannot ever be a Moral Therapeutic Deist church.

Ironically, as Rod Dreher notes, “Among the American religious groups whose youth tested lowest for Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, the Mormons stood out. Nobody else was even close. Those folks are doing something right. Those folks are doing a lot of things right.” I agree, which is why I felt to write about this troubling occlusion in an otherwise important and useful book by the Givens. We cannot follow the path that other American religious groups are taking, which means that we must be very careful about going in the direction the Givens would prefer.

So, yes, please buy this excellent and helpful book, but follow the revelation given to Joseph Smith about the apocrypha: “There are many things contained therein that are true, and it is mostly translated correctly; There are . . . things contained therein that are not true, which are interpolations by the hands of men . . . whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom; And whoso receiveth not by the Spirit, cannot be benefited” (D&C 91).



Full Citation for this Article: Cassler, V.H. (2021) "A Review of All Things New by Fiona and Terryl Givens: Sunny, with a Chance of Moral Therapeutic Deism," SquareTwo, Vol. 14 No. 1 (Spring 2021), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleCasslerAllNewThings.html, accessed <give access date>.

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