Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Guest Post: "Health in the Navel: A Comparison of Mormon and Orthodox Christian Temple Theology" by Jerry Thomas

I am very excited to share with you a post by fellow Mormon-to-Orthodox convert, Jerry Thomas:

One unique feature of the LDS Church, especially considering its time and place of origin, is its insistence on the importance of temples. When the Saints were sacrificing in Kirtland to build the first Temple it was because the Lord had promised them an “endowment” with “power” upon completion of the temple. In Section 110 of the Doctrine and Covenants, Joseph described the experience he had with Oliver Cowdery of seeing and hearing Jesus announce: “7 For behold, I have accepted this house, and my name shall be here; and I will manifest myself to my people in mercy in this house. 8 Yea, I will appear unto my servants, and speak unto them with mine own voice, if my people will keep my commandments, and do not pollute this holy house.” The interesting feature of this “endowment” is that it lacked any of the features of the later “endowment” as developed in Nauvoo under clear Masonic influence. The vision of Christ that Joseph had in Kirtland, however, was immediately following the Lord’s Supper, the key event in the dedication.
Although the first Mormons got their ideas about temples from the Holy Bible, the Orthodox Church has been building and worshiping in temples since the founding of the Church. A true temple, in Orthodox understanding, is where “two or three” are gathered in Christ’s Name for the purpose of participation in the Holy Mysteries, particularly Holy Communion. These impromptu temples came first, often in people’s houses, and only later did the Church become established enough to build buildings.
In the dedication of the Kirtland Temple, with the Lord’s Supper as the central rite, we find ourselves well within the common Christian tradition. It is with the further development of the “endowment” as a separate rite, with the Lord’s Supper still celebrated in the temples on occasion, but no longer the centerpiece, that we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory in the traditions of Christianity. This new rite contained features taken directly from Masonic ceremonies, including the handshakes and the Five Points of Fellowship, as well as the penalties. Many of these elements were eliminated or downplayed in the 1990 revision of the endowment.

Even though the Lord’s Supper was eliminated from the central temple rite, “washing and anointing” were added. These can be seen as a repeat of baptism and confirmation (by anointing, as in the Orthodox Church) or both can be seen as a continuation of the rites accompanying the Day of Atonement when the high priest had to bathe in the ritual bath and vest to participate in the rite.  
In the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, the Lord (as His Body and Blood) comes out of the veil to be among His people (through their participation in Holy Communion). In the LDS Endowment, the opposite happens. The participant enters the Celestial Room through the veil after reciting the Second Token of the Melchizedek Priesthood. The text of this is apparently the most sacred part of the Endowment, as it is often eliminated even in “exposes” of the Endowment. A careful examination of this text, then, is in order to understand what is happening in the Endowment. “Health in the navel, marrow in the bones, strength in the loins and in the sinews. Power in the priesthood be upon me and my posterity through all generations of time and throughout all eternity.” First, one notices that neither God nor Christ are invoked to cross through the veil! The first part seems to be an invocation for health and the second part invokes “the priesthood,” not God or Christ as the origin of the “power” to be passed on through all time. Second, while the Scripture ties together the “veil” and Christ’s “flesh,” making clear that Holy Communion is how one “enters through the veil” ([Heb 10:20 KJV] By a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh) and this connection persisted at Kirtland, the Nauvoo endowment removes even mention of Christ from the action of entering through the veil. Third, while it is clear that the Scriptures are being quoted in the first part ([Pro 3:8 KJV] “It shall be health to thy navel, and marrow to thy bones”) is there a Scriptural basis for the remainder? Job’s description of the mythical monster “Behemoth” is the only possible Scriptural basis for the remainder of the first sentence: “[Job 40:16-17 KJV] Lo now, his strength [is] in his loins, and his force [is] in the navel of his belly. 17 He moveth his tail like a cedar: the sinews of his stones are wrapped together.” Here we find “strength,” “loins,” and “sinews” together, the only place this happens in the Holy Bible. The second sentence of the Second Token of the Melchizedek Priesthood may be alluding to these Bible verses: 
[Exo 29:9 KJV] And thou shalt gird them with girdles, Aaron and his sons, and put the bonnets on them: and the priest's office shall be theirs for a perpetual statute: and thou shalt consecrate Aaron and his sons. [Exo 40:15 KJV] And thou shalt anoint them, as thou didst anoint their father, that they may minister unto me in the priest's office: for their anointing shall surely be an everlasting priesthood throughout their generations. Here we find the idea of the “priest’s office” or the “priesthood” being “everlasting throughout their generations,” reminiscent of “the power of the priesthood” invoked to “be upon me and my posterity for time and all eternity.”  
In the New Testament and subsequent Orthodox teaching “priesthood” refers to several different concepts: 1) the Aaronic priesthood of the Second Temple 2) the Melchizedek priesthood of Christ and 3) the “priesthood of all believers,” which is participation through the Mysteries in Christ’s Melchizedek priesthood. In later developments, a fourth meaning was added, the “priesthood” of the Christian clergy, which priesthood derives from the “priesthood of all believers,” which priesthood is Christ’s Melchizedek priesthood. There is no role for the Aaronic priesthood, a hereditary priesthood, in the New Testament nor in the subsequent Christian Church. The titles, however, of the Aaronic priesthood were incorporated into the Church with “bishops” being “high priests,” “presbyters” being “priests,” and “deacons” being “Levites.”
Thus, the present-day Orthodox Church has buildings called temples with a “holy place” and a “prosthesis” (Table for the Showbread). Often the “holy place” is divided from the rest of the temple by a veil and an icon screen or wall. It is from this place that several “entrances” are done—with the gospel book before the readings and with the prepared sacrament before the blessing, culminating in the entrance of the Lord Himself as His Body and Blood during Holy Communion. It was following Holy Communion when Joseph Smith saw Christ in the Kirtland Temple. This is what one would expect based on the Holy Bible and Christian tradition. Between Kirtland and Nauvoo something changed and Holy Communion ceased being the culmination of the Holy Mysteries in Mormonism. Instead, an odd rite with Masonic roots culminating with an entrance of the believer into the “celestial kingdom” while invoking the power of the “priesthood,” presumably the Melchizedek priesthood of Christ, without reference to the Holy Name of Jesus or to Christ or to God, has taken the place of Holy Communion in Orthodox Christianity.


  1. I think this is an interesting interpretation. I would add a few comments to balance everything out. Just as background, I am a somewhat disaffected LDS Member, served as a Bishop, who is considering Catholicism.

    First, I would remove specific reference to Temple wording. Regardless of what you believe, this is very important to the believing LDS and it is somewhat unnecessarily antagonistic. I have always believed in respecting the beliefs of others to the maximum extent possible, and you do not need, necessarily, to quote it verbatim. Just a thought.

    Second, Temple worship was/is my favorite part of being LDS (it is the rest of being LDS I find mind numbing and boring to the point of leaving). The Temple experience has a lot going for it that I think you are missing.

    For one, Temples are exclusive. I do not mean in the sense of being like a country club, and I think this criticism is poor at best, but in the sense that it is set aside for those who actually believe. This gives it a different atmosphere that I have always loved. This is not just somewhere one wanders in, but it is somewhere dedicated to deep seated belief in God and Jesus. I am not naïve enough to think some people are lying to get their recommends, but this does not diminish the ambiance, in part because those who are not being honest to get their recommends at least go along with the majority. It is truly a dedicated place in a way that few places are in Christendom. This is the good, in my opinion. While I do love chapels, and I love Catholic architecture and buildings, I think Temples are somewhat special, and it is the nature of their use that makes them special.

    The Masonic element is a criticism that is valid on its face, but not really in practice (in my opinion). I was raised as a Mason in 2000, after having been to the LDS Temple, and there are similarities. Nevertheless, the overall application is fairly different. I have no doubt that Joseph Smith was influenced by Masonry, but the application of a now nebulously Masonic ritual to a new purpose has changed its DNA. The ritual is different from a Communion service, but it is not necessarily in a bad way. Many Christian traditions are reimagining of a pagan past, but no one cares, so I do not see why anyone is so up in arms about the LDS Temple ceremony.
    As for the thrust, I think you are missing some major points. When you say the endowment “invokes “the priesthood,” not God or Christ as the origin of the “power” to be passed on through all time” it is sort of a non-sequitur. The Atonement, Christ’s mission, etc… are all inherently included. Criticizing the lack of specific outward reference is missing the point. Simple entrance to the building is predicated on a firm belief in Christ, and the mission of Christ. One could, and I believe a few have, argued that the Endowment is the next step in the Atonement process, the individual responsibility to move closer to God, but this is no way negates the centrality of the Atonement in getting to that place.

    This is one place where Mormonism always worked for me, the move to something more.

  2. Christian, thank you for the feedback. I will pass it along to the author. As you might have seen from my earlier ramblings, I considered Roman Catholicism for quite some time. It holds much beauty.

    If you are interested, I know of a private discussion group for Mormons considering Orthodox Christianity. Those considering Roman Catholicism are welcome as well. For more info, send a message to "Mormons Discovering Orthodoxy" on Facebook.

  3. Do you agree with all of the theology of Orthodoxy? I like Catholicism because I like the ritual, the intellectual history, the spiritual practices, sacraments, services (honest to God professional clergy that know how to give a sermon), but I do not agree with all of the theology of the Catholic Church. I do not think Trinitarianism, for example, is historically valid. It does not ring true in a "True" sense, but I am willing to disregard.

    Have you embraced Orthodoxy entirely, and if not, how would you balance the parts you accept to those you do not?

    1. Do I agree with all of Orthodoxy? Well, everything dogmatic, yes. Otherwise I would be, by definition, a protestant. Have I thoroughly studied and scrutinized every jot and tittle of Orthodox theology? No.

      Pretty much what it came down to for me was being convinced that Orthodoxy is correct about enough crucial things that even if I am not intellectually persuaded by every aspect I am willing to submit to the authority of the Church.

      I understand how difficult it can be to accept a mystery like the Trinity on faith, and I concede that it is not in-your-face explicit, but I believe it is a reasonable interpretation of scriptural and patristic resources. There is also interesting archaeological evidence from the Megiddo Church that shows Christians referred to Christ not just as Lord, but as God long before he was put on an equal footing with the Father in an ecumenical council.

      I am the sort of person who sees conversion as all or nothing. You accept all the doctrines of a faith or you don't convert. This is why I was in RCIA for two years and ultimately didn't convert. There were certain things about Roman Catholicism I just couldn't accept. Conversion would have meant, in my opinion, being a Protestant who pretends to be Catholic.

      I hope that helps. Take care.

    2. I get the idea, I'm just on the fence. There is a great article on the Huffington Post where a Jesuit Astronomer says...

      "And why, at the end of the day, do I choose one religion over another? I can accept that all religions ultimately are looking for the same God. But I suspect that some religions do a better job of it than others... just as Newton's physics was an improvement over the medieval view, and quantum physics picks up where Newton's version fails. The religions of The Book -- Judaism, Christianity, Islam -- all recognize a God outside of nature who created this universe and found it good. Of these, I adopt the Catholic view because to me it is the most complete, most coherent vision of God and God's interaction with our universe."

      I feel the same. I think Mormonism can lead one to God. I have no doubt about it. I also think that Catholicism can lead one to God. I think the Pope is inspired by God, as is Thomas Monson. I think that I simply prefer the life of a Catholic, because I love the ritual.

      I abandoned the idea of a "True" Church a while back, accepting that most faiths have some spark of divinity in them (a few I cannot accept, but I suspect that is just my prejudice. Pentecostals irritate me, for example, because I find it so unabashedly silly). As such, it is simply a matter of finding which one fits me best. I like Catholicism, but some doctrines I would disagree with. Nevertheless, I think when we finally meet God, we will find out that much of what we believed is completely wrong, so I am content to wait and see, while participating in the meantime.

    3. "I abandoned the idea of a "True" Church a while back, accepting that most faiths have some spark of divinity in them..."

      A Christian, first and foremost, begins not from the idea that any one church is true, but that truth is a person revealed in Christ Jesus. When I say Orthodoxy is true I do not mean that every single canon and practice is the best expression, but that, as a whole, it is the vessel that carries the most important and greatest number of truths. There are actually relatively few things an Orthodox Christian is bound to believe compared to a Roman Catholic.

    4. BTW, don't miss Jerry's response!

  4. I do not agree with such orthodoxy, but its my personal opinion..
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