Mormon Doctrine for Grown-ups: A Review of Terryl Givens’s Wrestling the Angel

When I was young, I discovered C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and enjoyed every volume. Then one day, at my neighborhood library, I discovered Paul Ford’s Companion to Narnia, essentially an encyclopedia of Narnia, and I fell in love. The entries were arranged alphabetically, and there were more topics than I had ever imagined. It was well-ordered and — at least to my child’s mind — exhaustive. Encyclopedias hold that promise. Around the same time, I discovered Bruce R. McConkie’s book Mormon Doctrine. With short, clear entries, Mormon Doctrine provided definitive answers to a wide range of gospel questions. Only later in life did I learn that Mormon doctrine is not so simple.

Enter Terryl L. Givens’s book, Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity. In some ways, Wrestling the Angel (WTA) seems similar to Mormon Doctrine. Although not alphabetical, it has entries such as “The Godhead,” “Holy Ghost,” “The Fall,” and “Salvation.” But rather than a short, definitive declaration, Givens takes the opposite approach. For each topic, he first situates Mormon thought within a brief history of religious thought on the topic, and he then goes on to give a history of Mormon thinking on the topic. Consider the Holy Ghost. Givens begins with the early Christian church:

“Christian doctrine on the Holy Ghost, or Holy Spirit, was relatively late in developing. One of the earliest Christian creeds, perhaps dating to the second century, is the Apostles’. It affirms belief in God the Father and in Jesus Christ the Lord. The Holy Ghost is acknowledged only incidentally, as the power by which Christ was conceived.”

After taking us through views of the Holy Ghost in the Old and New Testaments as well as the early Church, Givens guides us along a history of Mormon thought on the Holy Ghost.

“Mormon understanding of the Holy Ghost itself, apart from its gifts and manifestations, has evolved through varied stages of development. … The Pratts recognized early on that the Holy Ghost, construed as the only unembodied member of the godhead, offered a solution to the limitations of a corporeal God. They defined the Holy Ghost, or Holy Spirit, as an intelligent, cosmic ether, virtually limitless in extension.”

With each topic, Givens brings us up to the modern-day, with quotes from the likes of Gordon B. Hinckley and Jeffrey R. Holland. And while some of the topics are common topics for Sunday worship services (like the ones I’ve mentioned above), we also learn about guardian angels and fallen angels and much more.

To be clear, Givens makes no claims to a definitive statement of LDS theology: “This book is not a work of either systematic or historical theology per se.” Rather, “by situating Mormon thought in the context of historic Christian doctrines, I hope to illuminate what is continuous with the Christian tradition and what is radically distinct from it.” And then, onward through “the essential contours of Mormon thought as it developed from Joseph Smith to the present.” So if you want to believe that the doctrines taught in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints don’t change, this book won’t help you. But if you are comfortable with the idea that gospel truths have been revealed “precept upon precept, line upon line …, here a little, there a little,” from long before the Restoration until today, then this book is for you. It also implicitly points us forward, as does the closing line of the ninth Article of Faith: “We believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God.”

A few tidbits
  • For the first time, I found some precedent for the worldview in the musical Saturday’s Warrior. Consider this, from an article written under the direction of John Taylor, to the women of the Church: “Thou made a covenant…with two others, male and female spirits, that thou wouldst come and take a tabernacle through their linage, and become one of their offspring. You also chose a kindred spirit whom you loved in the spirit world … to be your … husband, and protection on earth.” In other words, “I’ve seen that smile somewhere before!
  • Here’s a line from Joseph Smith in the section on theosis (i.e., becoming divine): “I love that man better who swears a stream as long as my arm, and administer[s] to the poor and divide[s] his substance, than the long, smooth-faced hypocrite.” Givens follows it up with this quote from non-Mormon Terry Eagleton: “Eternity lies not in a grain of sand but in a glass of water. The cosmos revolves on comforting the sick.”
  • I listened to the unabridged audiobook; it was well narrated by B.J. Harrison, who happens to be a BYU graduate, so he avoids the mispronunciations sometimes found in audiobooks about LDS topics, as in John Turner’s wonderful but occasionally mispronounced Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet audiobook.

14 comments for “Mormon Doctrine for Grown-ups: A Review of Terryl Givens’s Wrestling the Angel

  1. Daniel
    July 16, 2017 at 7:42 pm

    “So if you want to believe that the doctrines taught in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints don’t change, this book won’t help you. But if you are comfortable with the idea that gospel truths have been revealed “precept upon precept, line upon line …, here a little, there a little,” from long before the Restoration until today, then this book is for you. It also implicitly points us forward, as does the closing line of the ninth Article of Faith: ‘We believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God.'”

    How long must a Mormon believe each little precept before another precept is added to change the prior precept, and so on?

    Revelation is an excuse to keep from being pinned down to anything specific, or a way to “correct” a long held disgusting belief such as allowing blacks to hold the priesthood to avoid adverse public pressure.

  2. Olga Van Looveren
    July 17, 2017 at 7:59 am

    From Pres. Uchtdorf “… the Restoration is an ongoing process; we are living in it right now. It includes “all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal,” and the “many great and important things” that “He will yet reveal.”

  3. Clark Goble
    July 17, 2017 at 10:05 am

    I was surprised how good Givens book was. While it doesn’t necessarily delve into a more philosophical view of the theology the way McMurrin purports to, it’s so vastly better that I hope no one recommends McMurrin again. What’s amazing about Givens is that he manages to write in a way that conveys a ton of information in a short space but can be read by people without much exposure to formal theological ideas. It really is a fantastic book.

  4. Wally
    July 17, 2017 at 12:06 pm

    The line-upon-line method of revelation doesn’t seem to account for the fact that some later revelations contradict earlier ones. So sometimes it’s not line upon line. It’s more like trial and error.

  5. Clark Goble
    July 17, 2017 at 12:13 pm

    One thing theology teaches us is that when vague information is given people attempt to fill in the blanks. Sometimes what are theories or conjecture takes a life of its own. So revelation is also to fix the “false traditions of the fathers” we sometimes fall into. I know some see that as a weakness, but to me it’s a strength. I’d note that it loosely means we follow the trajectory science uses as well. (Even if the underlying methodology clearly is different)

  6. Brent Searle
    July 17, 2017 at 12:19 pm

    Appears to build on “This is My Doctrine,” another great book that reveals revelation in context and changing over time.

  7. David Evans
    July 17, 2017 at 2:21 pm

    Wally: Thanks for your comment! I see your point, but I also have difficulty imagining another way that “line upon line” could work in practice. Church’s have to function, so — as Clark says — people fill in gaps, and new revelation can correct those fill-ins. I know that can feel unsatisfying, but in the absence of a Church operated directly by a resurrected Savior residing here on earth, I have trouble imagining another way.

  8. David Evans
    July 17, 2017 at 2:23 pm

    Brent: Thank you! Another good example is John Turner’s excellent The Mormon Jesus, which traces doctrinal development specifically around the Savior. http://www.timesandseasons.org/index.php/2016/06/whom-say-ye-that-i-am-a-review-of-john-turners-mormon-jesus/

  9. Terry H
    July 17, 2017 at 7:17 pm

    All: I found Feeding the Flock, the second volume of this history of Mormon Theology to be ever more compelling. For what its worth. In a normal year, it would be a front-runner for my LDS book of the year (but this year we have A House Full of Females). That means this year is awesome!

  10. Clark Goble
    July 18, 2017 at 1:02 am

    I’ve not read Feeding the Flock yet. I’ll have to check it out.

  11. Dave B.
    July 18, 2017 at 9:14 am

    Nice post, David.

    Another difference is that Mormon Doctrine was authored by a General Authority, which gave the book a sort of implicit official approval (despite the fact that behind the scenes the senior leadership had given it an actual stamp of UNapproval, which was never communicated to the general membership). Nothing by Givens or Bushman or any other LDS scholar is going to garner that level of respect among the membership, regardless of how helpful or productive the doctrinal discussion is.

    And since no GA presently writes books that seriously discuss LDS doctrine, there is very little mainstream discussion of serious LDS doctrine. It’s like the whole Church curriculum is an extended Gospel Essentials class. Thank you, Correlation.

  12. Clark
    July 18, 2017 at 10:22 am

    I think the effect of McConkie’s writings made them a bit gun shy. But there’s also been a change of focus starting in the 90’s to more practical concerns I’ve noticed rather than abstract ideas. Don’t get me wrong. I love abstract ideas. Probably too much. But a big part of me appreciates that more practical concern even from GAs who could be writing a doctrinal treatise. (Say Elder Oaks)

  13. July 19, 2017 at 3:54 am

    I was showing this book to a pair of missionaries we had over for dinner last night – they had picked it off my shelf and I commended it to them. I haven’t read it for a couple of years but have enjoyed having a flick through this morning after reading this review and seeing what parts I’d highlighted.

    I’m excited that the second volume comes out in the UK in a couple of weeks – I think that’ll give a good balance as it’ll provide a look into the practices of the church and how they emerge out of the doctrine. The doctrine and practices are the two sides of the same coin.

  14. David Evans
    July 25, 2017 at 4:36 am

    Dave: That’s a very good point on the difference between General Authority authorship versus scholar authorship. I think the fact that McConkie went on to become an apostle lent more credence to the book.

    Furthermore, what I like about the Givens book is part of what makes it less attractive to a broad readership: It complicates rather than simplifies. And while I think that’s consistent with reality, it “costs” more in terms of effort.

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