10 Questions with Terryl Givens

Sponsored by BYU Studies—Scholar Terryl Givens is the author of 2nd Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction. He has also published a landmark biography of Eugene England.

How did you become involved with the Maxwell Institute’s Brief Theological Introductions?

Terryl Givens: I was invited by Spencer Fluhman to contribute a volume to the series, and given my choice of book to write on. The Isaiah portions are substantial and daunting, but the teachings of Lehi and Nephi are also some of the richest in the Book of Mormon, so I chose 2nd Nephi.

What did you do to prepare?

Terryl Givens: I had already written two volumes on the Book of Mormon for Oxford, and wanted to say something new. So I just undertook a process of fresh reading and re-reading of 2nd Nephi.

What most surprised you while working on the book?

Terryl Givens: The nineteenth century religious landscape was saturated with thematic treatments of covenant theology. Joseph frequent invocation of the New and Everlasting Covenant fits squarely into that context. But his version of covenant theology, culminating in his temple theology, is the master framework for all his work of Restoration.

I was surprised to realize how much of his theology is implicitly sketched—and the rest foreshadowed—by 2nd Nephi’s treatment of covenant theology.

Terryl Givens is the author of ‘2nd Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction’ (Maxwell Institute, 2020). Credit: Maxwell Institute.

Why is Nephi’s record broken up into two books: 1 Nephi and 2 Nephi?

Terryl Givens: Nephi is the only author who divides his work into two separate books—that is not the work of a later editor.

The obvious break points are not the ones he chooses: the death of Lehi, the arrival in the promised land, the writings of Isaiah. Rather, the destruction of Jerusalem appears to be the decisive break with the first half of his narrative. Clearly, I think, that had to be a moment of disruption and crisis similar to the Babylonian captivity in terms of dislocation and an uncertain future and the meaning of covenant.

In both cases, the trauma led to an enhanced theological development.

How does 2 Nephi contribute to our understanding of the fall of Adam and Eve?

Terryl Givens: Most readers of the Book of Mormon, both hostile and appreciative, commented on how “bible-like” the scripture was, consistent with the New Testament in its teachings, with familiar principles and precepts.

If challenged to enunciate unique Restoration teachings to a stranger, relying wholly upon the Book of Mormon, members would be hard pressed to do so. We find no clear reference to premortality, to theosis, to degrees of glory, to eternal families, vicarious salvation, etc.

What we do find, is a version of the fall radically at odds with all other Christian readings.

And that changes everything.

In Eve’s celebration of their “transgression,” we find a repudiation of original sin and original guilt, or life as a purgatory, of suffering as punishment, of a God incapable of basic principles of justice and equity. We return to a lovely conception of those events in Eden recognized by the early Christian Irenaeus, who wrote in words eerily foreshadowing Lehi’s (and Alma’s).

Wherefore also He drove him out of Paradise, and removed him far from the tree of life, not because He envied him the tree of life, as some venture to assert, but because He pitied him, [and did not desire] that he should continue a sinner for ever, nor that the sin which surrounded him should be immortal, and evil interminable and irremediable. But He set a bound to his [state of] sin, by interposing death, and thus causing sin to cease, putting an end to it by the dissolution of the flesh, which should take place in the earth, so that man, ceasing at length to live to sin, and dying to it, might begin to live to God.”

Against Heresies, Book 3, chapter 23, paragraph 6

What are some of the blessings promised to covenant Israel in 2 Nephi?

Terryl Givens: The meaning of the Abrahamic blessings continues to unfold with Joseph Smith’s subsequent revelations (including the Book of Abraham, with its reference to priesthood, ministry, and eternal life).

However, the main import of 2 Nephi in this regard is the universal availability of the blessings of the gospel. His focus is not on the particulars of covenantal blessings; perhaps he assumes his people already know those promises. His focus is on making sure they know their dislocation has not cut them off from those promises, and that they are contingent on their worship of Jesus Christ. A continuing, uninterrupted access to God’s love and blessings and an eventual restoration as covenant Israel” is at the heart of what the covenant promises.

What do you think drove Nephi’s consuming desire to write scripture for the benefit of his family?

Terryl Givens: There is abundant evidence that Nephi’s original audience is his immediate family and descendents. They are the persons he explicitly addresses repeatedly.

Lehi’s vision reveals him to be a father particularly immersed in anxiety for his children. Nephi experienced first hand the pain of family conflict and dissent and saw his parents’ sadness, which must have been amplified by their remoteness from their other relatives and their Jewish people generally.

Given these factors, it is understandable that he would write with two hopes: that those family members still faithful could find strength in his writings, and those yet unborn a source of testimony and guidance.

What scraps from the cutting floor would you have liked to include in a “less brief” theological introduction?

Terryl Givens: The writings of Isaiah are notoriously difficult and off-putting to modern readers. Scholars of both our own and other traditions have done excellent work in illuminating the backgrounds, allusions, and contexts for the passages we find so opaque. A fuller treatment would have done more to employ such scholarship to help with more chapter by chapter explication of the passages cited by Nephi.

What is your next project?

Terryl Givens: The Lord told Joseph Smith, with enigmatic praise, of “holy men that ye know not of” (D&C 49:8). I am working on a series of slender volumes that introduce the Latter-day Saint membership to the lives and teachings of a host of these inspired voices, such as Julian of Norwich, Edward Beecher, Thomas Traherne, and many others.

And I am currently seeing two completed books through the publication process. A biography, Stretching the Heavens: Eugene England and the Crisis of Mormonism (UNC Press) and All Things New: Rethinking Sin, Salvation, and Everything in Between (with Fiona Givens, Faith Matters Press).

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This interview is made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of BYU Studies.

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One Reply to “10 Questions with Terryl Givens”

  1. At first glance it would seem we have another weak and unorthodox book courtesy of Givens and NAMI. Weak and unorthodox theological speculations edify no one but do confuse many.

    I hope readers are able to discern that Givens is giving his own (again) unorthodox and highly speculative interpretation to the wording of D&C 49:8, “those which I have reserved unto myself, holy men that ye know not of.”
    The standard common understanding of these men in the church is that they are translated beings. The angel in the Book of Mormon called Alma a “Holy man” (Alma 10:7, 9; see also WofM 1:17 for other instances that provide the same definition).
    Holy men have the gift of the Holy Ghost; these men Givens mentions do not. They had the light of Christ, which is very different and are really not “inspired” as Givens claims.
    The First Presidency issued a statement declaring that God works thru others in this world to accomplish his purposes, but they are certainly not holy men. God guided them thru the light of Christ only.
    Today’s First Presidency and Twelve are holy men,. They have the gift of the Holy Ghost in great measure; a fulness of apostolic priesthood keys; and live clean and righteous lives of service.
    The philosophers of the world give us the philosophies of the world, which Elder Cook, just yesterday at BYU, warned the church against.
    Further, cannot Givens stop referring to “Joseph’s revelations”? I imagine this offends the Lord, who said: “behold, it is I that speak; behold, I am the light which shineth in darkness, and by my power I give these words unto thee. . . . behold, it is I that speak;” (D&C 11)
    Lastly, I am not surprised that Givens is writing a bio of someone as liberal and unorthodox and ill-reputed in doctrine as himself.
    This is why the First Presidency and Twelve spend so much in time and resources trying to teach church members to get their doctrine from the scriptures and them, and not from academic speculators and liberal philosophers. How wide the divide between the two! Some portions of BYU have become something their namesake would do something about in his own definite way.

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