Abstract: Scholars have recently suggested that The Teachings of Silvanus, a text from Nag Hammadi Codex VII, is the product of several authors with the earliest portion dating to the late first or early second century and the latest portion to the third or early fourth century. Silvanus’ provenance, therefore, allows this single document to serve as a potential microcosm evidencing the change and alteration of early Christian thought and doctrine. Latter-day Saints have long contended that the Restored Gospel is more closely aligned with the earliest strains of Christianity vis-à-vis the creedal form. Through the lens of Silvanus, Latter-day Saint and Calvinist positions are evaluated relative to the early and late Silvanus authors and are found to be most compatible with the early and late portions of the text, respectively.
As a teenager my first exposure to the Nag Hammadi texts came via a series of Einar Erickson audio tapes that my mother purchased. I still remember his vivacious voice reading tantalizing snippets from ancient texts and favorably comparing them to aspects of the restored gospel of Christ. He would always conclude his presentation with the question, “Where did Joseph Smith get this?” After hearing about all of these remarkable discoveries, I eagerly anticipated the impending wave of confirmatory evidences from ancient hidden texts that would definitively prove the miracle of the restoration. It is forty years later, and Erickson’s prediction of a tidal wave of faith affirming scholarship has yet to emerge; at least it has not emerged from the sands near Nag Hammadi. While these texts have had an intensely dramatic effect on New Testament scholarship, they have had relatively little impact upon members of the Restored Church of Christ, especially its lay members. Why is this?
[Page 14]One reason is that many of the Nag Hammadi texts were produced and cherished by Gnostics — groups whose writings and beliefs were directly attacked by early Church Fathers. For example, Irenaeus famously designated Gnostic writings as “an abyss of madness and blasphemy against Christ.”1 While the Nag Hammadi corpus has proven a treasure trove for secular scholars, traditional Christians have generally dismissed the documents as Gnostic heresy and doctrinally trivial.2 This line of argument was the essence of the evangelical response to Erickson’s audio series. Melanie Layton shares the argument that the early Christian/Latter-day Saint similarities highlighted by Erickson “do not confirm, they condemn if one considers the source of the parallels.”3
For similar reasons, Latter-day Saint scholars have also preached caution when reading the Nag Hammadi texts.
[I]n a particular document we may see ideas standing side by side which, on the one hand, are very similar to Latter-day [Page 15]Saint notions and, on the other hand, diverge strikingly. Because of this situation, attempts to establish authenticity on the basis of LDS parallels in such apocryphal literature should be tempered and evidence carefully weighed.4
The Nag Hammadi texts were hidden by Christians near the ancient Egyptian settlement of Chenoboskian. No one is exactly sure who hid these texts, although some scholars have assumed that a small faction of nearby Christian monks desired to preserve these texts as groups considered heretical were actively persecuted by the church establishment in the fourth century.5 Included in the thirteen papyrus codices are 46 different texts of which 31 were previously unknown to scholars.6 The wide-ranging corpus has “source material on early Christian, Neoplatonic, Hermetic, Sethian, and Valentinian thought.”7 All of the texts are believed to have been originally composed in Greek and translated into Coptic.8
In contrast to the time when Erickson was recording his audio tapes, today’s scholars are hesitant to apply the label of “Gnostic” to any one particular historical group or set of beliefs. In fact “the term ‘Gnostic’ itself is an embattled term.”9 According to Marvin Meyer, the four groups of texts from the Nag Hammadi scriptures are those of “(1) Thomas Christianity, (2) the Sethian school of Gnostic thought, (3) the Valentinian school of Gnostic thought, and (4) Hermetic religion.”10 Often there is little commonality among texts that fall within these groupings, thus supporting further possible divisions. Meyer [Page 16]concludes that “scholars today more often analyze each one separately or in relationship with contemporaneous Jewish, Christian, and pagan sources.”11 This is the approach that I will take in this paper.
While most of the documents discovered at Nag Hammadi espouse either some variation of a Gnostic or Hermetic worldview, there are some very interesting exceptions. Birger A. Pearson argues that nine of the texts are either from very early sources (e.g., portions of Plato’s Republic) or are clearly non-Gnostic because their content argues against Gnostic positions.12 Most of the texts from the Thomas school fall into this category as does the text of interest for this paper, The Teachings of Silvanus (hereafter referred to as Silvanus), a text that is sourced independent of Meyer’s major four schools and that is demonstrably non-Gnostic.13 The fourth of five texts in Codex VII, Silvanus is extant only in this Nag Hammadi Codex, although there is a short Coptic fragment preserved in the British museum (originally attributed to St. Antony), which scholars now believe is either a quotation from Silvanus or from an earlier unknown text that both sourced.
The Teachings of Silvanus
Compared with other writings from the Nag Hammadi library such as The Gospel of Thomas or The Apocryphon of John, Silvanus has received scant attention from biblical scholars and lay readers alike. So I will provide a short introduction to Silvanus here followed by a brief source analysis.
[Page 17]The Writings of “Second-Rate Theologians”
Why spend time with a text written by “second-rate theologians,” as scholar Roelof Van Den Broek labelled them?14 Because Silvanus is a document unique to the entire Christian corpus. First, it is one of the few non-Gnostic texts included in the Nag Hammadi library. Second, it is reflective of Jewish wisdom traditions, which makes it a “most important witness to the Gentilic Wisdom literature of Early Christianity.”15 Third, the text is the product of at least two (and possibly more) authors who are likely time-distanced by at least a century and possibly more.16 Fourth, while it is generally agreed that Silvanus was compiled in the fourth century, portions of the text “may be as early as the first century,” which would make these portions contemporary with several books in the New Testament canon, the Gospel of Thomas, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Didache.17
Although its Greek original could be as late as the early fourth century, it clearly incorporates much older traditions and can therefore shed light on the development of Alexandrian Christian theology from the second, or even the first, century.18
Finally, and most surprisingly, there seems to be some tension between the authors of the early and late portions of Silvanus. As Van Den Broek states, “it must be doubted whether the man who wrote the theological and christological passages was also the original author of [Page 18]the rest of the work. The ethical parts in particular contain ideas which are difficult to reconcile with those of the theological portions.”19
All five of these characteristics should make Silvanus of interest to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Faithful Latter-day Saint scholars have long argued that Latter-day Saint teachings are restored from the original teachings of Christ and that creedal Christianity is a manifestation of fundamental alterations to some of the foundational doctrines of early Christianity (examples include the Godhead, creation ex materia, divine embodiment, deification, etc.).20 A common argument involves comparing the earliest sourced canonical and non-canonical Jewish and Christian texts and highlighting similarities between Latter-day Saint doctrine and these early texts. By way of contrast, Latter-day Saint scholars argue that creedal Christianity is better aligned with later Christian texts and writings. Therefore, the dichotomous nature of Silvanus provides an interesting microcosm to test this approach. Within this one document are at least two voices — one early and one late — which can be juxtaposed to illustrate the dramatic change in Christian thought across just a few centuries.
Silvanus was most likely a product of the Alexandrian Christian community. After the crucifixion, Christianity slowly grew among the Jews of the diaspora.21 Many of these communities were influenced by a specific [Page 19]apostle or teacher — the most prominent being Peter, James, John, Thomas, and Paul. An influential community of Jewish Christians took hold in Alexandria with traditions crediting the founding to either Mark or James.22 Pearson argued that “the earliest Christianity in Egypt (i.e., Alexandria) was Jewish, and that the earliest Christians in Egypt would have been an integral part of the Jewish community in Alexandria. That community, as is well known, came to a brutal end with the catastrophic revolt of the Jews against Rome 115–117” CE.23 Although Walter Bauer has argued that “the original and most dominant form of Christianity in Alexandria … was ‘heretical’ and, specifically, Gnostic,”24 more recent scholars have demonstrated that what Bauer calls “Gnostic” Christianity developed after the second century25 and that it was only one of six distinct forms of Christianity to be found in Alexandria.26 In addition to the Nag Hammadi texts, this vibrant community of theological thought produced many well-known Jewish and Christian thinkers and writers including Philo, Apollos, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Arius, and Athanasius.
So who was the named author Silvanus? Although it is possible that the title refers to a teacher active in Alexandria during the fourth century, it is most likely that Silvanus is meant to recall one of Paul’s companions (2 Corinthians 1:19, 1 Thessalonians 1:1–2, 2 Thessalonians 1:1). While [Page 20]the Silvanus text has proven difficult to date, the scholarly consensus is best represented by Pearson who argues that “the tractate consists of two main parts.”27 The first part “may be as early as the first century” and the second part may be as “late as the early fourth century.”28 The final document was likely compiled in the first few decades of the fourth century from the two aforementioned sources.29
A Brief Source Analysis
Because a multi-author Silvanus text is critical to this analysis, it is worth taking a brief moment to discuss why scholars have concluded that Silvanus comes from at least two sources. Since Codex VII was first published, there has been relatively little scholarly interest in Silvanus with only a handful of available English translations and few publications focused solely upon the text.30 When Silvanus was first translated with Codex VII, scholars assumed a single author “unified whole” with a late (third or fourth century) date of composition.31 As scholars paid more attention to the text they noticed a dichotomy between the first and second halves of the book. As early as 1970, the most active Silvanus [Page 21]scholar, Jan Zandee, had divided the text into two parts32 but remained a supporter of single authorship until his death in 1991. Malcolm Peel, the author of the influential 1996 Brill translation of Silvanus, still assumed a single author at the time of this publication but addressed the issue of the text’s duality by speculating that it was caused by “a compilation over time of notes by the author.”33
The pioneering work of two other early scholars questioned this “unified whole” assumption and suggested multi-authors or sources. Wolf-Peter Funk demonstrated that the portion of Silvanus (97, 3–98, 22) attested by the St. Antony fragment found in the British Museum was from an older independent wisdom text.34 This opened the possibility of multiple text sources in Silvanus vis-à-vis the “unified whole” theory. Thus, William R. Schoedel, who wrote the Silvanus summary for the Anchor Bible Dictionary, notes in 1992 that the text “leaves the impression of being a collection of diverse materials and probably represents the end product of a long literary development.”35
Nevertheless, as scholars continued to attempt to date Silvanus they began to realize the two parts of the work seemed to best fit in two different time frames. Roelof Van Den Broek was the first to try and resolve this conundrum and as early as 1986 argued “the Teachings of Silvanus were composed in the first decades of the fourth century, though partly based on much older material.”36 He identified that the ethical portion of the narrative fit a second-century date and argued that [Page 22]the theological portion had some dependency upon Athanasius, which would date it as late as the fourth century.37 This led him to conclude multiple authorship of Silvanus.
All this points to the second and third decades of the fourth century as the most probable date of composition or, perhaps better, compilation of the Teachings of Silvanus. For it must be doubted whether the man who wrote the theological and Christological passages was also the original author of the rest of the work. The ethical parts in particular contain ideas which are difficult to reconcile with those of the theological portions. … I can only conclude that the materials contained in The Teachings of Silvanus come from different times and represent different stages of early Alexandrian theology. … Whoever Silvanus may have been, he was more a compiler than an original author.38
By 2007, when Pearson authored the Silvanus introduction for a new translation of the Nag Hammadi corpus, he references the history of Silvanus scholarship and gives the most up-to-date conclusion regarding authorship:
Although attempts have been made to understand the tractate as a “unified whole,” it is clearly an agglutinative text that has grown over a considerable period of time. The basic and oldest stratum of material stems from Hellenistic Jewish wisdom and philosophy such as was characteristic of first-century Alexandrian Judaism. The most important exemplars of this variety of Judaism are the Wisdom of Solomon and the writings of Philo Judaeus. Of course, the Teachings of Silvanus as we know it is clearly a Christian writing, parts of which may be as early as the first century and other parts as late as the early fourth century.39
Because so little scholarly attention has been paid to Silvanus, there has been little critical debate about the Schoedel, Van Den Broek, and [Page 23]Pearson position concerning multiple Silvanus sources.40 There are a number of compelling reasons for multiple authorship. The sharp contrast in style between the ethical wisdom teachings of the first portion and the philosophical and theological ones of the second is self-evident. The two parts also reflect the writings and teachings of those from different Alexandrian time periods. The first part echoes Philo of Alexandria, Jewish wisdom texts, and Stoicism while the second seems to convey Neoplatonism, Origen, Clement, and possibly even Athanasius.
The tractate consists of two main parts. The first part (84, 16–98, 20) is devoted largely to moral philosophy and can be regarded as a Jewish compendium of moral teaching influenced by Stoicism and Platonism, to which Christian features have been added. The Christian additions consist largely of crediting Jesus Christ as the source of the teacher’s wisdom. The second part (98, 20–118, 7) is more explicitly theological and reflects the theological and Christological teachings of the Alexandrian teachers Clement and Origen.41
Zandee’s pioneering work on Silvanus demonstrated significant dependencies between the text and Alexandrian Christian fathers Clement and Origen. Examples include a) only through Christ “the Logos” can the true likeness and image of God be known,42 b) Christ as personified Wisdom,43 c) presenting an allegorized version of the temple cleaning,44 d) Christ as the True Vine that yields the True [Page 24]Wine,45 and e) the contention that God is not locatable in space.46 By my count, Peel, summarizing Zandee’s work, presents fifteen examples of textual affinities with Clement or Origen, and each and every one of these examples relates to something in the second part of Silvanus.47 No scholar, to my knowledge, has identified a directly dependent relationship between a passage in the first part of Silvanus and Clement, Origen, or any of the later Alexandrian fathers.
The two parts of Silvanus also exhibit noticeably different awareness and usage patterns of scriptural texts, particularly the New Testament (see Figure 1).48 With such an early proposed composition time frame, it is unclear how aware the author of the first portion of Silvanus was of the entire New Testament library. The Hebrew Bible and Jewish wisdom texts49 are as likely to be referenced in this part of Silvanus as the New Testament and, importantly, there are no direct New Testament citations and only a small number (12) of “possible or general echoes.”50 For example, there is some commonality between Silvanus 88, 15–16, which reads “live in Christ and you will obtain treasure in heaven,” and New Testament passages that also reference “treasure in heaven” (Mark 10:21, Luke 18:22). But it is difficult to definitively determine which, if any, of the books of the New Testament the first author might or might not have had access to.51 This is to be expected if, as the multiple source [Page 25]argument suggests, the first portion of Silvanus was written prior to the canonization of the New Testament texts.
In an introduction to non-canonical Christian texts dating to the second century, William Schneemelcher provides a useful summary of the historical context that is applicable to the early portion of Silvanus.
It must be observed that the canon of the NT only developed in the course of the 2nd century and that for a long time its limits were still uncertain. Also we can scarcely assume that all communities immediately possessed a complete exemplar of the NT; probably only separate writings, which were regarded as authoritative, were available. … For our literature we may [Page 26]at any rate determine that for the most part it originated without any reference to a canon of the NT.52
On the other hand, the author of the second portion either directly or indirectly references nearly all of the books in the New Testament canon. A complete analysis of biblical references within the Silvanus text demonstrates sizeable and noticeable differences with regard to how the two portions of the text utilized the New Testament.53 Of the 85 biblical references in the second part, most of these (72) refer to a New Testament text, and many are direct citations of New Testament writings.54 (In contrast, the first part of Silvanus has only 23 biblical echoes and only 12 of these echo the New Testament.) In the second part there are references or echoes to all but four of the books of the New Testament.55 Late in the second part of Silvanus the apostle Paul is specifically mentioned by name (“But he who makes himself like God is one who does nothing unworthy of God, according to the statement of Paul who has become like Christ”),56 a direct reference to 1 Corinthians 11:1. The “scripture of God” is also referenced in a way that likely refers to the New Testament as scripture and not just the Hebrew Bible.57
[Page 27]The two authors also have different vernaculars, lexicons, and word usage patterns. The first author refers to “God” only ten times, three of which are specific titles that writers of the Hebrew Bible favor (Most High God and Holy Father). On the other hand, the second author mentions God often — 57 times — but rarely gives an accompanying title. The second author also refers to the “Lord” while the first author does not. The second author mentions the name of “Christ” much more frequently (5 mentions versus 33 mentions) but only the first author ever uses the proper name “Jesus.” The first part includes the term “evil one” as a reference for the devil in a manner similar to Philo’s usage58 while the second part uses the term “adversary.”
But the most compelling evidence for the conclusion that Silvanus has early and late sources is that the first and second parts’ teachings are not a unified whole; in fact, they often appear divergent.59 These differences and how they relate to the restored teachings of Joseph Smith are the focus of the remainder of this paper.
The Teachings of Two Silvanuses
When approaching the Nag Hammadi texts, Tuckett offers good advice about historical context that I will try to adhere to whenever possible.
Nobody writes in a vacuum. Every literary text presupposes various traditions. The use of language itself is limited by sets of conventions concerning the meaning and use of words and phrases. … Behind every writer there are many different influences: these include linguistic traditions concerning the meaning of the language used, social traditions reflecting the social structures within which the writer works, and, in the case of a religious text, religious traditions presupposed by the author.60
Our focus will be upon examining the differences between the two parts of Silvanus. However, it should be noted that the majority of the two portions of the text display a number of ethical and theological commonalities. One example of such a similarity is the text’s unified [Page 28]teachings about deification. Both the early and late sources comment on the divine nature of man and each are doctrinally consistent with the prevailing beliefs of their respective time periods. Below is an early Silvanus passage on deification followed by a late Silvanus passage.61
EARLY: Do not bring grief and trouble to the divine which is within you. But when you foster it, request of it that you remain pure, and become self-controlled in your soul and body. Then you will become a throne of wisdom and a member of God’s household.62
LATE: He who has exalted man became like man, not in order to bring God down to man but to make man like God.63
The topic of deification or theosis does not appear to have been heavily disputed in Alexandria during Christianity’s formative years, thus the understandable agreement between the early and late parts of Silvanus.64 In fact, the latter author seems to teach theosis more explicitly than the early author who merely implies it. Van Den Broek points out compelling similarities between the late Silvanus passage and the words of a fourth-century Alexandrian contemporary, Athanasius, who penned the famous statement “for he became man that we might become God.”65
[Page 29]Another interesting teaching supported in both parts of Silvanus is self-assessment and self-determination. “In Silvanus’ view, human nature is not weakened by (‘original’) sin.”66 Instead the source of evil is “blindness of mind” or “ignorance.”
There are also many individual subjects addressed by one part of the text without corresponding commentary in the other, many of which are intriguing to Latter-day Saint readers and warrant additional investigation. For example, in an early passage the son is told “when you were born again, you came to be inside the bridal chamber and you were illuminated in mind.”67 Contextually, the text implies the bridegroom to be Christ, the bridal chamber analogy being quite popular in later Nag Hammadi texts.68
The second part of Silvanus almost casually refers to Christ’s descent into the underworld and provides some intriguing details:
LATE: How many likenesses did Christ take on because of you? Although he was God, he was found among men as a man. He descended to the Underworld. He released the children of death. They were in travail, as the Scripture of God has said, and he sealed up the very heart of it.69
With regards to topics like these where there is no apparent disagreement between the two parts of Silvanus, Latter-day Saint readers will find useful and familiar teachings from both the early and later portions. The second author, in particular, cites the New Testament significantly more often than the first author and echoes many of John’s and Paul’s teachings about Christ. Certainly, Latter-day Saint readers will find doctrinal commonality with many of these passages, especially as Christ’s divinity is emphasized (e.g., “He is the Light, the Angel, and the Good Shepherd”70).
[Page 30]But our interest in this paper lies in those instances where the first and second parts seem to disagree theologically, and our hypothesis is that Latter-day Saint readers will be more comfortable with the first author’s position on these specific issues vis-à-vis the second. I also hypothesize that Protestant Christians, as represented by the archetype of Calvinism for this paper, will be more comfortable with the writings of the second author on these same issues. To determine the Latter-day Saint and Calvinist positions, I have used 1) the gospel topics portion of the Latter-day Saint website71 and 2) a theological guide written by Calvinist scholars on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth.72 The point of this paper is to not create a caricature strawman of the positions of either faith. Rather, if I have done my work correctly, practitioners of both traditions should nod their heads affirmatively at these comparisons.
While scholars have commented on the dichotomous nature of the Silvanus text and several have identified some of the differences, no paper that I know of has suggested that the latter author was purposefully commenting on or correcting the earlier author. Given the extent of topical duplication between the two parts, I suggest that “setting the record straight” was a motivating factor for the second Silvanus author, particularly in relation to topics such as the Godhead, the nature of God, and especially the personification of the divine feminine (wisdom).
[Page 31]The Nature of God
LATTER-DAY SAINT VIEW:
God the Father is the Supreme Being in whom we believe, whom we worship, and to whom we pray. He is the ultimate Creator, Ruler, and Preserver of all things. He is perfect, has all power, and knows all things. He “has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s.” … As children of God, we have a special relationship with Him, setting us apart from all His other creations. We should seek to know our Father in Heaven.73
God is not imaginable. All the things we invent are idols of the mind, products of our own imagination, for God ever remains like himself and is not a spectre or phantasm to be transformed according to our desires. It is a fact, however, that the mind of the fallen man remains a perpetual factory of idols and false imaginations of God, so that he is always projecting his own inventions or figments upon God.74
Silvanus is written in the form of a Jewish wisdom text similar to Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the non-biblical Book of Wisdom and The Wisdom of Sirach. It includes common wisdom elements such as a) a father addressing a son, b) the giving of life advice and common-sense sayings, c) the contrasting between the wise and the foolish, and d) a focus on obtaining wisdom. Both the first and second portions of the text utilize this basic structure.75
[Page 32]God is mentioned eleven times in the first portion of Silvanus, and many of these mentions are in the context of his role as a member of the Godhead. But there are some interesting themes that bear detailed examination. First, the early author often adds adjectival titles that modify the word “God.” Thus, he refers to “God, the holy Father,” “your first Father, God,” and God the “Exalted One.”76 This latter title is interesting and brings the Hebrew name El Elyôn or “Most High God” to mind; “the title Elyôn is an old epithet of El.”77
In the earliest Hebrew pantheon, the head God was referred to variously as El, Elohim, El Elyon, and El Shaddai, among other epithets. In the patriarchal age, El Elyon was the name of the God whom Melchizedek worshipped and to whom Abraham paid tithes. El Elyon can mean “the Supreme God,” or “the Most High God,” “El the Highest One,” or “El who is the God Elyon.”78
There are only a handful of occurrences of elyôn in the New Testament and nearly all of these are by the author Luke (one of the others found in the book of Hebrews is quoting Genesis).79 This title is not used in first- and second-century Alexandrian contemporary writings like the Epistle of Barnabas, Gospel of Thomas, or the Didache, so to find it here in early Silvanus is relatively rare.80 These titles help establish the preeminence of the Father’s position in the Godhead, and their use implies that the early author is trying to distinguish the unique nature of God the Father — a topic that will be discussed in more specific detail later.81
[Page 33]Second, early Silvanus describes God using personal, relational, and intimate terminology. In the first mention of God in Silvanus, the father advises his son, using a personal fortress metaphor, to invite God to dwell in his personal camp.
EARLY: Entrust yourself to this pair of friends, reason and mind, and no one will be victorious over you. May God dwell in your camp, may his Spirit protect your gates, and may the mind of divinity protect the walls.82
While this passage is clearly metaphorical, it does not seem outlandish for the author to suggest that God can dwell within the walls of one’s personal camp. To dwell within an inner “camp” suggests the possibility of a deeply personal and intimate relationship with God himself. This metaphor also implies that it is possible to locate God in space or time independent of the other members of the Godhead.
The other mentions of God by the early author build upon this theme of relatability. The son is told “entrust yourself to God alone as father and as friend” and that if the son will “be pleasing to God you will not need anyone.”83 The imagery of father and friend implies an interpersonal relationship of depth, love, and respect that is unachievable without an intimate knowledge and shared experiences between two individuals.
The remainder of the early text attempts to establish the reasons for desiring such an intimate relationship. God is the exalted One, he is the pupil’s “first” father, and the pupil is a “member of God’s household.”84 The pupil’s mind has been created in the “image of God,” and he has taken shape “from the substance of God.”85 And God is the “spiritual one” upon whom the son should “cast his anxieties.”86 The author is explaining to his son that God is his first father, that he was created from the substance of God, that the son can become a member of God’s household, and that God is the son’s one true spiritual friend. In short, the son is being told to seek to know his Father in Heaven.
[Page 34]Third, while both authors describe God in anthropomorphic terms, it is only the early author that appears comfortable with the concept of an embodied God the father. The earliest known Hebrew texts described God in anthropomorphic imagery (i.e., Ezekiel 1:26, Genesis 1:26–28) but post-Exilic Judaism consciously attempted to mute these images.
The avoidance of anthropomorphic imagery was by no means a general feature of Israelite religion after the Exile. While the tendency away from anthropomorphism marks priestly and Deuteronomistic traditions belonging to the eighth through the fifth centuries, later works belonging to the priestly traditions continued to transmit anthropomorphic imagery. … Nonbiblical Jewish literature from the fourth to second centuries, including 1 Enoch and the Book of Jubilees, represents an additional source of speculation. The anthropomorphic language of Yahweh, other divine beings, and their heavenly realms never disappeared from Israel. The relative absence of this imagery from biblical texts during the second half of the monarchy reflects a religious reaction against Israel’s old Canaanite heritage.87
The New Testament and other early Christian writings do not attempt to mute this anthropomorphic imagery, rather they tend to embrace it. For example, every major New Testament author references Psalm 110:1 and the “right hand” of God.88 Notably for our survey, Egyptian Christians were well-known defenders of the concept of divine embodiment. Catholic author Stephen Webb openly wonders what would have happened “if the monks of Egypt had won their battle in defense of anthropomorphism.”89 He cites the example of an elderly fourth-century Egyptian monk named Sarapion who seemed befuddled after being taught the newly decreed doctrine of God’s incorporeal nature. When another explained the new teachings to him, he said he understood and agreed to a joint outpouring of prayer. “Amid the prayers, however, the old monk became confused for he sensed that the human image of God which he used to draw before him as he prayed was now gone from his heart. Suddenly he began weeping in an anguished manner, threw [Page 35]himself to the ground, and cried out, ‘they’ve taken my God away from me.’”90
The second Silvanus author, likely writing in the third century, effectively “takes away” this embodied God. According to the second author, not only is it not right to claim that God is embodied, it is difficult to even imagine what God’s true nature is, and even the angels find it difficult to fully comprehend God.
LATE: But we are able to mention what is more exalted than this: for do not think in your heart that God exists in a place. If you localize the Lord of all in a place, then it is fitting for you to say that the place is more exalted than him who dwells in it. For that which contains is more exalted than that which is contained. For there is no place which is said to be without a body. For it is not right for us to say that God is a body. For the consequence would be that we must attribute both increase and decrease to the body but also that one who is subject to these will not remain imperishable. Now, it is not difficult to know the Creator of all creatures, but it is impossible to comprehend the likeness of this One. For it is difficult not only for men to comprehend God, but it is also difficult for every divine being both the angels and the archangels.91
In stark contrast to the simple and inviting terminology of the first part of Silvanus, the second part describes God in a manner befitting philosophers under the influence of Neoplatonism. God the Father is now incorporeal, ineffable, impassible, unknowable, and incomprehensible. Statements like “it is impossible to comprehend what God is like,” “everything is in God but God is not in anything” and “God sees everyone; no one looks at him” are typical of the second author.92 In comparing the late Silvanus text to the writings of Church Fathers Clement and Origen, Peel and Zandee note “both these Fathers under the influence of late Platonic ideas view God as the Hidden One who is known only with great difficulty. Because He is ‘. . . above place and time, and name and thought’ we can know what God is not but not what He really is.”93 Likewise, the second part of Silvanus states “for it is incomprehensible and unfathomable to know the counsel of God. [Page 36]Furthermore, it is difficult to comprehend him.”94 The pupil is cautioned to “not confine the God of all to mental images”; or, in Calvin’s language, to not project his own inventions of figments upon God.
While both authors use the word “father” to describe God, the early author paints a portrait of a loving parent who seems to desire to be actively involved in his child’s life. The second author, however, tends to use the term “father” primarily as a title and certainly does not emphasize the fatherly aspects of parental patronage and love. While the early author prays that God may physically dwell in our own spiritual encampment, the late author argues that the notion of God dwelling in a specific place is illogical because that would mean “that the place is more exalted than the one who dwells in it.”95
The second part of Silvanus repeatedly mentions “God” (68 times) but rarely uses alternative nomenclature in lieu of this simple title.96 The term “God” is also commonly used as a prepositional object in phrases such as “word of God,” “Spirit of God,” “Scripture of God,” “temple of God,” “Wisdom of God,” etc. As will be discussed later, there is also less distinction between the roles of God and Christ in the second part of Silvanus.
The second author allows that we can know God “a little” through his power and by partaking of his “truth,” but our primary avenue for knowledge of God is through Christ. Christ is now the “friend” and the one whom we are to know personally. Because the author has argued that we cannot truly comprehend God, it is clear that when the second author uses anthropomorphic terms for God, he intends a symbolical understanding. Thus, the phrase “hand of the Lord” is not meant to describe God’s physical hands, and a description of Christ as the “image” of God does not mean Christ is a physical “copy” of the embodiment of God but it is meant to represent unity with God’s purpose. As readers, however, there is no reason for us to make these same distinctions when the early author, in the context of and consistent with Middle Stoicism, refers anthropomorphically to the father.97 In early second century Christianity, it was contextually proper to assume that God can dwell[Page 37] with us, that he is a loving and doting father, and that he sits on a literal throne in heaven.98 It was also contextually proper to assume that God is embodied in a real and tangible sense.
LATTER-DAY SAINT VIEW:
Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world and the Son of Heavenly Father. He is our Redeemer. Each of these titles points to the truth that Jesus Christ is the only way by which we can return to live with our Heavenly Father. … “He was the Great Jehovah of the Old Testament, the Messiah of the New. Under the direction of His Father, He was the creator of the earth. ‘All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.’”99
We have to think of the terms [Father and Son] as referring imagelessly to the Father and Son without intrusion of creaturely images or material forms of thought. … Perhaps Calvin’s most fundamental proof of the absolute deity of the Christ is in the New Testament application to him of the covenant divine name revealed by God to Moses in the burning bush of Exodus 3:14: “I am who I am,” or the tetragrammaton — jhvh (“Yahweh,” or in older versions of Scripture, “Jehovah”). … For it is certain that the name “Lord” was put there in place of “Jehovah” [or Yahweh — jhvh].100
[Page 38]The Son of God takes what is ours, “flesh from our flesh, bones from our bones, that he might be one with us … to impart to us what was his.” Specifically, the Mediator assumed flesh and blood in order to “make of the children of men, children of God.”101
Latter-day Saint and Calvinist Christology have much in common. Both proclaim Christ as the Lord Jehovah, preach his atonement, affirm the many titles given him in the New Testament, and recognize his role in the creation of the world. The primary differences focus on the question of Christ’s divinity: the Latter-day Saint view maintains a clear separation between Christ and other members of the Godhead while the Calvinist view blurs some of these distinctions. For Latter-day Saints the process of deifying Christ beyond simple New Testament declarations were taken a step or two too far for our comfort (see the example from the Gospel of Peter below).
James M. Robinson and other biblical scholars have tracked this early Christian tendency to make Christ increasingly deified over time. According to Robinson, “Jesus apparently had no Christology. ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone’ (Mark 10:18). Probably he would have preferred we deify the cause: the kingdom of God.”102 Yet the New Testament authors clearly proclaimed Christ’s divinity with preferred titles of Messiah (Christ), Lord, and Savior, and so it was clear by the end of the first century that Jesus was viewed as uniquely divine and a member of the Godhead. The Church Fathers and other Christian writers (first to fourth centuries) added more titles to Christ and these began to impinge upon the distinctive roles of other members of the Godhead. For example, Christ’s familiar lament “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” in Mark 15:34 becomes “My power, O Power, thou hast forsaken me” in the second-century pseudepigraphic Gospel of Peter.103
At first, clear subordination was retained (“God” for the Father, “Lord” for Jesus; giving glory to God was christianized [Page 39]not as giving glory to Jesus but as giving glory to God through Jesus). But christological titles nonetheless headed in the direction of Chalcedon and the traditional deification of Jesus (and “subordinationism” ended as a heresy).104
The two authors of Silvanus illustrate this later tendency towards lessening the distinction between God the Father and Christ. While the first author lays out specific roles for Christ within the Godhead, the second author stresses Christ’s centrality within the Godhead at the expense of the other members.
But before I delve into this tendency, it is worth noting that most Silvanus discussions regarding Christ, regardless of which portion they are found, would be heartily and universally accepted by both Latter-day Saint and Calvinist readers. Most teachings about Christ found in Silvanus are non-controversial. The second Silvanus author, in particular, often echoes the New Testament, which both faiths regard as holy writ. For example, the first words found in the second portion of Silvanus are:
LATE: Live with Christ and he will save you. For he is the true light and the sun of life. For just as the sun which is visible makes light for the eyes of the flesh, so Christ illuminates every mind and the heart.105
It is hard to imagine any Christian having difficulty with this allegory. The vast majority of the Christ-related passages throughout Silvanus are similar to this one — affirmations of the importance of Christ to the well-being of the believer. With regards to Christology, the differences between the two portions of Silvanus are relatively minor.
So what are these differences? First, both portions of Silvanus write about Christ in a manner fitting to their compositional time periods. Take, as an example, the titles each author ascribes to Christ (see Figure 2). The early author, in nine mentions of Christ, employs eight titles; describing him as friend, brother, good teacher, and father.106 In contrast, the second author mentions Christ 58 times and uses [Page 40]a staggering 38 different titles to describe him.107 This is indicative of the later time period in which this author writes. According to Van Den Broek “before Origen, similar lists are very rare, after him they are very frequent, especially in the fourth century.”108 Just to illustrate how voluminous and possibly even superfluous this list of titles is, I’ve used the Book of Mormon as a comparative text. In 531 pages, the Book of Mormon uses 67 different titles for Christ (at a rate of one title for every 7.9 pages of text).109 The second portion of Silvanus, in comparison, gives 38 different titles to Christ in just 13 equivalent pages (a rate of one title for every 0.34 pages of text). The second author seems especially interested in the metaphor of light as a way to describe Christ. Christ is the Sun of Life, the Light, the True Light, the Light of the Father, the Light of Light Forever, the First Light, and the Light from the Power of God.
It is important to distinguish that this difference between the two authors is more a difference in style than one of substance and does not necessarily illustrate a point of demarcation between Latter-day Saint and [Page 41]Calvinist beliefs. The second difference, however, is more theologically substantive and even possibly dividing. While the Christology of the first portion of Silvanus defines clear roles among the members of the Godhead, the second portion of Silvanus blurs many of these distinctions.
For example, the second portion of Silvanus refers to Christ as “God.”110 The written use of the term “God” as a title for Jesus was not common in early Christian literature. As Lohse explains “it is noteworthy that the New Testament, while in a few places it calls Jesus ‘God,’ usually displays great reserve toward this form of address. The reason for this was the strict monotheism of the Jewish environment, which would not tolerate such a designation.”111
We have in Paul one God, one Lord, and one Spirit. I might add that Paul’s habit of reserving the designator God for the Father, and indicating the divinity of the Son and Spirit in ways usually other than calling them God straight out, is typical of the New Testament generally. This habit, combined with biblical characterizations of the Father as generator and sender, lies behind a Christian trinitarian tradition, especially pronounced in the Greek East, of regarding the Father as God proper, as the source or font of the divinity of Son and Spirit. The latter two may be fully divine, but they are derivatively so.112
While John 1:1 famously uses the designation “God” (theos) for the Word (“and the Word was God”), John importantly adds a Greek article when he says “the Word was with God” in order to maintain a critical difference between God and Jesus. “The word is also God — but God without the article (theos). However, the God that is with the Logos is the God, indicated by the article.” These two different designations (God and the God), unfortunately, are lost when the text is translated into [Page 42]King James English, simply becoming “God” and losing the hierarchal distinction.113
The second portion of Silvanus blurs many of these important distinctions maintained by Paul, John, and the other New Testament writers between God the Father and Christ. First, the late author begins to transfer some of the attributes traditionally associated with God to Christ. Though Christ is supposed to be approachable, he is also, according to the second author, in a sense “unapproachable.” Thus “it is as impossible to look at Christ as it is to look at the sun.”114 Or “on the one hand, he is comprehensible, on the other, he is incomprehensible in terms of his actual being.”115
Consider these two texts side-by-side; one early and one late.
EARLY: Accept Christ, who is able to set you free. He has taken on that one’s devices, so that through these he might destroy him with guile! For this is the king you have, who is forever invincible. Against him no one will be able to fight or speak a word. This is your king and your father. There is none like him. The divine teacher is with you at all times as a helper. He meets you because of the good you have within you.116
LATE: For he is light from the power of God, and he is a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty. He is the spotless mirror of the activity of God, and he is the image of his goodness. For he is also the light of light forever. He is the eye that looks at the invisible Father. … For he is an incomprehensible Word, and he is Wisdom and life. All living things and powers he vivifies and nourishes; just as the soul gives life to all members of the body. He rules over all with power, and gives life to them. For he is the beginning and the end of everyone. He watches over all and encompasses them.117
For the later author, Christ is both the Word (Logos) and Wisdom (Sophia) and, “even if he was begotten, he is unbegotten.”118 Importantly, this author also asserts that “God the Almighty who always exists was [Page 43]not always reigning as king without also needing the divine Son.”119 In other words, God could not be God without Christ; an idea whose theological implications would require volumes to unravel.
Second, the language of the latter text is more predictive of Nicene theology than the early one is. For the second author, Christ is the “pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty” and is an “image of his goodness” as opposed to the image of the body of the Father. Notice how the text of the following passage interplays back and forth between God and Christ so that the reader is never quite sure what the distinction between the two really is.
LATE: Everything is in God, but God is not in anything. Now what is it to know God? God is all that is in the truth. But it is impossible to look at Christ as at the sun. God sees everyone; no one looks at him.120
Throughout this passage it is unclear whether or not the term “God” is referring to “God the Father” distinct from Christ or “Christ as God.” This confusion is because elsewhere the second Silvanus author makes a stronger statement about “Christ being God” than most New Testament authors seem willing to make.
LATE: Know who Christ is, and acquire him as a friend, for this is the friend who is faithful. He is also God and Teacher. This one, being God, became man for your sake.121
Because the only version of Silvanus that we have is in Coptic (from a Greek original), it is impossible to determine if the author originally intended to distinguish between “God” and “the God” the way that John did. While Latter-day saint readers could accommodate this passage based on similar exhortations of Christ’s divinity in other scriptures, there would be considerable doctrinal discomfort if the use of the title “God” here was extended and equalized to “God the Most High,” “the God,” or “God the Father.”
While both Latter-day Saint and Calvinist theology attest that “Jesus is the Son of Heavenly Father,” Latter-day Saint readers view the relationship more literally than Calvinist readers do (who exclaim “we have to think of the terms [Father and Son] as referring imagelessly to the Father and Son”). The second part of Silvanus conveys [Page 44]Calvinist-like imagery portraying Christ as the Father’s emanation, light and power, and slowly rewriting the parameters of what Christ’s role as a Son of God means. In short, the distinctiveness between God the Father and Christ is blurred somewhat by the second author of Silvanus in ways that would tend to make Latter-day Saint readers and early Jewish Christians slightly uncomfortable.
Wisdom and the Divine Feminine
LATTER-DAY SAINT VIEW:
Little has been revealed about our Heavenly Mother beyond a knowledge of Her existence. Although we do not worship Her, we honor Her as a divine parent. Following the example of the Savior, we pray only to our Heavenly Father. We receive guidance and direction from Heavenly Father and His Son through the Holy Ghost.122
Each God when considered in Himself; as the Father so the Son, as the Son so the Holy Ghost; the Three One God when contemplated together; each God because consubstantial; one God because of the Monarchia.123
The average Latter-day Saint and Calvinistic worshiper is likely unaware that the question of the divine feminine (typically in the form of Wisdom or the Greek Sophia) permeates the study of ancient Judaism and, consequently, first century Christianity.124 Depending upon the timeframe and context, Bible scholars are divided as to whether or not [Page 45]the most common representation of the divine feminine, “Wisdom,” represents an actual goddess, the feminine nature of an androgynous monotheistic God, a hypostasis of Yahweh, a metaphor, or a marginalized teaching of heretics.125 What is undeniable is Wisdom’s presence in ancient Judaism and the long shadow that it casts upon scholars’ understanding of the Hebrew Bible, other ancient Jewish texts, and early Jewish manifestations of Christianity.
To better establish the context for the forthcoming discussion, it is worth sharing two summaries from scholars about the divine feminine and early Jewish Christianity. James M. Robinson offers a useful summary of how the divine feminine was slowly yet steadily minimized and marginalized during the first few centuries of Christendom.
The Hebrew word for “spirit,” ruach, is usually feminine (though at times it is used masculinely). Thus in a Semitic world of thought the tripartite deity could reflect the core family of father, mother, and child. But the Greek word for “spirit,” pneuma, is neuter, so that the question became relevant as to whether the third person (the Spirit’s position when no longer the mother in the core family) is actually a person at all. Since the Latin word for “spirit,” spiritus, is masculine, the personality of the Spirit was thereby assured as well as the all-male trinity. Even though a theologian-linguist such as Jerome (in commenting on Isa. 40:9–11) could point out that the three diverging genders of the noun for Spirit show that God has no sex, the metaphorical suggestiveness of the gender of the nouns dominated classical theology. … In the Semitic branch of early Christianity the femininity of the Spirit and her role as Jesus’ mother are made explicit. … A parallel development to that which we have sketched [Page 46]regarding the Spirit may have been even more significant at the beginning and may be less well known today, since, unlike the Spirit, the protagonist has faded from the theological aristocracy: Wisdom. Here again the Hebrew word, chokmah, is feminine, as are the Greek sophia and the Latin sapientia. Thus the survival of Wisdom in the top echelon of deity would have assured a female part at the top (which may be part of the reason that Wisdom was dropped). Wisdom was fading fast by the time the New Testament itself was written.126
And specifically writing about Silvanus, Jan Zandee argues that the text fits properly in the historical context of Jewish Wisdom teachings.
It is a Jewish and Jewish Christian tradition that God has a consort. Wisdom takes the place of the Logos as mediator of creation. There is a Jewish tradition of the Holy Ghost as mother. The best known instance is from the Jewish Christian Gospel of the Hebrews, quoted by Origen, where “the Savior himself says, ‘My Mother the Holy Spirit took me … and brought me to … the Tabor.” In the Gospel of Hebrews the Holy Ghost speaks like personified Wisdom in Jewish wisdom literature, so that the Holy Ghost as mother is not far removed from Wisdom as mother. Thus the “mother” is an element of God.127
The divine feminine as both archetypes of Wisdom (Sophia) and the “Mother” makes appearances in the Silvanus text. By examining the manner in which personified Wisdom is treated by the two portions of the text, we can show evidence of the divine feminine “fading fast” as early Christianity develops.128 The early author renders a portrait of a divine goddess mother with neither comment nor apology; assuming an [Page 47]audience familiar and comfortable with such imagery. The late author attempts to clarify what the Wisdom tradition means in a manner consistent with the writings of Clement and other later Christian commentators. In short, by the time we get to the second author, the question of the divine feminine has been settled and she has been effectively eliminated from the collective orthodox Christian experience.
Echoing Proverbs 8:22–30 and other Jewish Wisdom literature, the early author gives the following advice:
EARLY: My child, return to your first father, God, and Wisdom, your mother, from whom you came into being from the beginning.129
According to Peel, in this Silvanus passage “personified ‘Wisdom’ is called the ‘mother’ of the pupil” being addressed, and God and Wisdom, conjointly, are modelled as the pupil’s Heavenly Parents.130 Another portion of the early author’s writings states:
EARLY: Wisdom summons you, yet you desire folly. It is not by your own wish that you do these things, but it is the animal nature within you that does them. Wisdom summons you in her goodness, saying “Come to me, all of you foolish ones, that you may receive as a gift the understanding that is good and excellent. I am giving you a high-priestly vestment that is woven from every kind of wisdom.131
In this passage, according to Peel, Wisdom “appears for the first time, an hypostatized attribute separate from God the Father.”132 In all, personified wisdom appears four times in the early text and it is difficult not to conclude that the early author is referencing a mother deity with qualities that appear human-like (e.g., speaks, invites to come, and desires to bestow gifts).
This divine family motif pattern is consistent with early first-century Alexandrian Jewish Christian thought. Philo, a prolific Jewish [Page 48]Alexandrian writer who was also a contemporary of Christ and Paul, preferred this pattern when describing the divine.133
With more or less mythological language, Philo is able to describe the relationship between God, Wisdom, and the Word in terms of family, God being the father, Wisdom representing the mother, and the Word being their son.134
The early Silvanus author clearly parallels Philo’s structure. Other Jewish Christian documents such as the aforementioned Gospel of the Hebrews do the same.135 Philo’s solution to the problem of how to remedy the logical disparity between the Hebrew requirement for strict monotheism and a three-member Godhead was to depersonalize the mother and son into the godly attributes Word (Logos) and Wisdom (Sophia). While Jewish Christianity inherited this need to maintain monotheism, a heavenly mother and a divine Son could be possible just as long as both were subordinate to the first father, God the Most High; both possessing divine attributes but also, like the angels, dependent upon the Father’s divinity.
Second, as the concept of subordination was being actively debated, the later Patristic Fathers were then forced to explain the unexplainable: How could there be One God (monotheism) and yet three separate beings that were divine? Their solution, echoing Philo, was to declare Jesus the Word of God (Logos) and the logical extension would have been to associate Wisdom of God (Sophia) with the Holy Ghost and thus complete Philo’s aforementioned triune Godhead. Instead, however, [Page 49]Jesus was also declared to be God’s Wisdom as well; so Jesus became both Logos and Sophia. This transformation occurred after the time period of the early Silvanus author, and it is debatable whether or not evidence of this transformation (Jesus as Wisdom) can be found in the canonical scriptures. Analyzing the earliest canonical New Testament synoptic Gospels, Hamerton-Kelly concludes that “the evidence therefore seems to confirm Sugg’s judgement that Q did not identify Jesus with pre-existent Wisdom.”136 Paul’s essay to the Corinthians has both Christ and the Spirit playing Wisdom roles.137 But by the time of Origen, “the Son is primarily God’s Wisdom, his Firstborn, not to be conceived of as a divine quality but as a separate hypostasis.”138
In the early third century, Clement of Alexandria refashioned a stanza from the Jewish Book of Wisdom, recasting all of the divine imagery that describe personified Wisdom into attributes that describe Christ. While the first portion of Silvanus alludes to the Book of Wisdom several times, the second portion only references it once; echoing Wisdom in the exact same place and manner as Clement does. Whereas the Book of Wisdom states that feminine Wisdom flows from the “glory of the Almighty” and is the “spotless mirror of the power of God,” the second Silvanus author declares that Christ is the “emanation of the glory of the Almighty” and the “spotless mirror of the activity of God.”139
Therefore, the late Silvanus author is unequivocally clear with regards to the identity of Wisdom. Wisdom is no longer the mother; Wisdom is personified in Christ. And Wisdom is no longer feminine. The feminine is no longer divine (at least not in relation to God) except possibly in metaphorical ways. Personified Wisdom is mentioned three times in late Silvanus and each time the author stresses that the personification is through Christ.
Consider the following three Silvanus passages:
[Page 50]LATE: Give them life, and they will live again. For the tree of life is Christ. He is Wisdom. He is Wisdom and also the Word. He is the life, the power, and the door. … Since he is Wisdom, he makes the foolish person wise. She is a holy kingdom and a shining robe. Having much gold, she gives you great honor. The Wisdom of God became for your sake a foolish form, that she might pick you up, O foolish one, and make you wise.140
LATE: It is he who has come forth from your mouth, the firstborn, Wisdom, the prototype, the first light.141
LATE: For he is an incomprehensible Word, and he is Wisdom and life.142
Not only is Christ Wisdom, he is also the “tree of life,” an image historically associated with feminine Wisdom (Proverbs 3:18). In this way, the late author is purposely clarifying and correcting the early author’s reliance upon Jewish Wisdom texts and Philo’s Logos and Sophia.
Interestingly, the personified mother is only mentioned once in the second portion of Silvanus. Predictably, this mention also argues that the functions of the “mother” are actually responsibilities of Christ.
LATE: Only the hand of the Lord has created all these things. For this hand of the Father is Christ and it forms all. Through it, all has come into being since it became the mother of all. For he is always Son of the Father.143
Thus with regards to the divine feminine, the differences between the two portions of Silvanus are substantial and difficult to reconcile. The son pupil is initially taught that he is a child of loving heavenly parents. In accordance with early Jewish Christianity, the son is led to assume that the Spirit is feminine; a belief commonplace to the time but rejected by both Latter-day Saint and Calvinist teachings. Over time the distinctly feminine qualities of the Godhead dissipate until the second Silvanus author declares that each of these attributes were actually incarnated in the distinctly male form of Christ and that two specific and important [Page 51]emanations of God, “reason and mind are male names.”144 At this point each of the three “triune” Gods is to be considered in HIMSELF.
LATTER-DAY SAINT VIEW:
The Church’s first article of faith states, “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.” These three beings make up the Godhead. They preside over this world and all other creations of our Father in Heaven. … Where Latter-day Saints differ from other Christian religions is in their belief that God and Jesus Christ are glorified, physical beings and that each member of the Godhead is a separate being. … The Father is the ultimate object of [members’] worship.145
The one true God for whose glory we were created, and whom to know is life eternal, is (1) infinitely spiritual in being and (2) triune in person. … Let us not then, be led to imagine a trinity of persons that keeps our thoughts distracted and does not at once lead them back to that unity. Indeed, the words “Father,” “Son,” and “Spirit” imply a real distinction — let no one think that these titles, whereby God is variously designated from his works, are empty — but a distinction, not a division. In order reverently to explicate the biblical doctrine of the triune God, Calvin — in company with the whole Christian tradition both East and West — finds it necessary to employ a few crucial nonbiblical terms to set forth and safeguard the biblical truth. Such words as “person” and homoousios (“of the same substance or reality”) were developed by the church to provide an accurate and balanced explication of the scripture truth of who God is. … Gregory refused to use the word “origin” for any of the Trinitarian persons, and taught that to subordinate any person of the three is to “overthrow the Trinity.”146
[Page 52]A triune godhead, in some form or another, makes four appearances within the early source text (see Figure 3). The first is in the context of parental advice (“listen, my child, to my advice”) about guarding one’s camp with the words and counsels of God. The speaker petitions “may God dwell in your camp, may his Spirit protect your gates, and may the divine Mind protect the walls.”147 Pearson argues that the “divine Mind” is a reference to Christ.148
The second appearance is an anti-trinity of sorts. The son is warned against three wrongs: “tossed to and fro by three evils: he got himself death as a father, ignorance as a mother, and evil counsels he got as friends and brothers.” Here the triune structure is father, mother, friend or brother. We know that this anti-trinity is purposely reflective of a triune godhead because the author explicitly contrasts the negative with a positive one later on.
EARLY: Take for yourself Christ, the true friend, as a good teacher. Cast death from yourself, which had become a father to you. But since you cast from yourself God, the holy Father, the true life, the spring of life, you have consequently inherited death as your father, and ignorance you have gotten as your mother. They have robbed you of the true knowledge.149
[Page 53]Here the son is told to cast away death “which had become a father to you” and accept “God, the holy Father, the true life, the spring of life.” He is told to gain “true knowledge” instead of “ignorance.” And to cast away “these deceiving evil friends” and take upon himself “Christ, the true friend.”
The final appearance is the early author’s summary of the triune model:
EARLY: My child, return to your first father, God, and Wisdom, your mother, from whom you came into being from the beginning. Return, that you might fight against all your enemies, the powers of the adversary. My child, listen to my advice. Do not be arrogant, opposing every good opinion, but take for your teacher the divinity of the Word.
Thus, this triune pattern (Father, Spirit/Wisdom/Mother, Christ/Word/Friend) is repeated four times in the early Silvanus text. In the context of the late first or early second century, we can almost certainly assume that a) both Christ and the Spirit were deemed as separate from the Father and b) both Christ and the Spirit were subordinate to the Father. None of these four descriptions betray these assumptions. In the late first century, the three persons of the Godhead were assumed homoiousios (similar substance but not same substance) and Theophilus had yet to coin the word “trinity.”
James McGrath effectively explains the purview of the ancient world in relation to what strict monotheism actually meant:
[T]here was a common cosmology accepted by nearly all, whether pagans, Jews or Christians, right through until at least the second century. The clearest evidence is perhaps the statement made by Maximus of Tyre in the second century CE: “In spite of all this discussion … one finds in the whole world a unanimous opinion and doctrine that there is one God, the king and father of everything, and many gods, God’s co-regents. So says the Greek, so says the barbarian.” There was apparently widespread agreement that there was what might be termed a “hierarchy of being,” with God at the top, his Logos or powers next, then various or angelic beings, then humans, and so on.150
[Page 54]There are clearly echoes of the ancient world’s “common cosmology” in the portrait of the Godhead presented by the early author. As discussed earlier, the specific role of each Godhead member is also referenced in detail separately by the early author. There are clear role distinctions and subordination between the three members of the Godhead consistent with late first- and early second-century teachings.151 The Father is “God the exalted one” and the Spirit and Christ are his subordinate yet divine “co-regents.”
In the later source text, on the other hand, there are only two mentions of the entire triune Godhead. Leading up to the first mention, the author describes an “invisible” God whose true visible image is that of Christ.152 Thus “you cannot know God through any means except through Christ, who bears the image of the Father. For this image reveals the true likeness of God in a visible way. A king is usually not known [Page 55]apart from an image.”153 Likely written before the Council of Nicaea, the specific roles of the Godhead are somewhat murky in the second author’s writings with Christ assuming many of the functions that the early text ascribed to other members.
The late author summarizes his view of the triune Godhead as follows:
LATE: This hand of the Father is Christ, and it fashions all things. Through it everything has come into being, since it became the mother of everything. It is he alone, existing always as Son of the Father.154
This passage was discussed earlier. While the “mother” makes an appearance, it is not as a fully personified member of the Godhead per se, and it is not clear whether or not the author meant this mention to be representative of the role of the Holy Ghost or not. Instead, in this refashioning of the Godhead, the emphasis is upon Christ as the lynchpin. It is not difficult to envision a path from this text to the creedal faith declaration — “the Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created; but begotten” — found in the Athanasian Creed written a few short years hence.
The second mention of the Godhead suggests that the author may have been more sympathetic to the position later espoused by Arius than that of Athanasius. A fundamental issue at the Council of Nicaea was the question of subordination, a doctrine clearly taught in the New Testament canon.155 The proponents of Arianism struggled to reconcile the concept of three fully eternal and equal “Gods” with scriptural verses that implied the Son and the Holy Ghost were subordinate to the Father. This theological quandary was highly debated throughout the fourth century with Arianism making a comeback for much of the fourth century. Little known is that after the adoption of the Nicene Creed (325 CE), the Alexandrian church returned to a form of Arianism for the next forty years as attested by the Rimini-Seleucia Creed, which was [Page 56]adopted in 359 CE.156 Thus, it is understandable that the second author, who likely wrote before Nicaea, had not fully abandoned subordination. The second mention of the triune Godhead gives a specific example of a situation where both Christ and the Spirit are subordinate to the Father. The author, talking about how difficult it is to find God, states:
LATE: For he (God) is who dwells in every place and in no place. For no one who wants to can know God as he is, not even Christ or the Spirit, or the chorus of angels, or the archangels.157
In his analysis on this passage, Pearson concludes that the knowledge of God “is denied here even to Christ” — a clear example of subordinationism.158 Consistent with the time period, the late author vacillates between passages that imply subordination (Christ described as the “right hand” of God) and passages that blur the subordinate distinction between God and Christ. Consider the aforementioned passage, which quickly pivots from God to Christ and back again:
LATE: Everything is in God, but God is not in anything. Now what is it to know God? God is all that is in the truth. But it is as impossible to look at Christ as at the sun. God sees everyone; no one looks at him.159
It is unclear whether or not Christ is assuming his “God” role in this passage or if the author is merely describing an attribute that both God and Christ share. But what is clear is that the second author is using the titles Christ and God almost interchangeably and thus blurring the distinction between these two members of the Godhead.
Both the early and late authors present their versions of the triune Godhead. Members of the early author’s Godhead have well-defined [Page 57]roles, are separate beings, and have a subordinate hierarchy. While it appears as if the late author has retained some elements of subordination, Christ has become the visible image of the invisible father with much less separation between the two; the role of the Spirit also appears to have been minimized. Historically it is slightly too early for a fully developed belief in homoousios (beings of the same substance), but we can certainly witness the groundwork being laid.
LATTER-DAY SAINT VIEW:
Under the direction of Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ created the heavens and the earth. From scripture revealed through the Prophet Joseph Smith, we know that in the work of the Creation, the Lord organized elements that had already existed. He did not create the world “out of nothing,” as some people believe. … We are all literally children of God, spiritually begotten in the premortal life. As His children, we can be assured that we have divine, eternal potential and that He will help us in our sincere efforts to reach that potential.160
From this history we shall learn that God by the power of his Word and Spirit created heaven and earth out of nothing. … Although Calvin will argue that the Hebrew term bará should be used exclusively for the creation ex nihilo, he does not depict the subsequent acts as results of second causes. Rather, the creative word of God works in the primal mass to bring forth the things that God created.161
Three aspects of creation theology are pertinent to this discussion: 1) the creation of matter ex nihilo or ex materia, 2) the pre-existence of the soul, and 3) what it means to be spiritually begotten. All three are discussed, to some degree or another, in Silvanus. Unless explicitly stated to the contrary, the historical assumption for the first and second century is creation ex materia vis-à-vis ex nihilo. As David Winston [Page 58]states, “the theory of the creation of the world out of primordial matter finds its parallel in the Wisdom of Solomon, in Philo, in Platonism, and in rabbinic literature.”162 Freidman states that “creation of matter in the Torah is not out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo), as many have claimed.”163 And, according to Latter-day Saint scholar Barry Bickmore, Christian belief in creation ex nihilo was not adopted until after the second century.
Christian philosophers of the late second century discarded the early Christian and Jewish idea of creation from chaos in favor of the theory of creatio ex nihilo, as formulated by the Gnostic philosopher Basilides.164
So the shift from ex materio to ex nihilo is nestled between the time periods when the Silvanuses were writing. Hubler claims “creatio ex nihilo marked a major redefinition of the material cosmos by the Christian apologists of the late second century.”165 Importantly, it is useful to realize that two influential Alexandrian writers of the second and third centuries, Clement of Alexandria and Origen, held different opinions on this specific question; thus it is difficult to ascertain the prevailing thought from when the second Silvanus author was writing, especially given that his writings were influenced by both Clement and Origen.166
[Page 59]Second, the pre-existence of souls was the predominate belief among Jews and early Christians. Truman Madsen notes that while there is a dearth of canonical sources explicitly teaching man’s pre-existence, “early Christian and Jewish writings have accumulated in recent decades … the idea that man himself had a premortal life. … One scholar estimates that there are well over eight hundred references to the premortal existence of mankind in Jewish and Christian source materials.”167
Third and less often discussed in Jewish and early Christian writings is the question of where the soul actually comes from; or what it means anthropomorphically to be considered a child of God. Origen argues that there was no clearly accepted answer to this question in the early church:
But with respect to the soul, whether it is derived from the seed by a process of traducianism168, so that the reason or substance of it may be considered as placed in the seminal particles of the body themselves, or whether it has any other beginning; and this beginning, itself, whether it be by birth or not, or whether bestowed upon the body from without or no, is not distinguished with sufficient clearness in the teaching of the Church.169
The early portion of Silvanus includes two lengthy passages discussing man’s nature in relation to his creator. Previously the son [Page 60]had been admonished to return to his first Father, God, and his Mother, Wisdom, and that he should desire to join God’s household. The author then explains his view of the divine origin of man.
EARLY: Know yourself, that is, from what substance you are, or from what race or from what species. Understand that you have come into being from three races: from the earth, from the formed, and from the created. The body came into being from the earth, with an earthly substance, but the formed, for the sake of the soul, came into being from the thought of the divine. The created, however, is the mind that came into being according to the image of God. The divine mind has substance from the divine, but the soul is that which he formed within them.170
This teaching seems to have much in common with Philo’s exegesis of Genesis 2:7 (“Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul”).
The “image of God” only concerns the “mind, the sovereign element of the soul”. … The first human being was created in a composite nature consisting of body and soul. He was created mortal, i.e., mortal in respect of the body but immortal with respect of the mind, because God breathed the soul into him, in reality a divine breath.171
The teachings that man has been given part of God’s “substance” is then repeated by early Silvanus.
EARLY: But I say that God is the spiritual one. Man has taken shape from the substance of God. The divine soul shares partly in this One; furthermore it shares partly in the flesh.172
There is much to unpack in these two passages. Silvanus distinguishes, at least in relation to man, three creative sources or substances: the earth, the formed, and the created. The body is from the earth, but the soul is from the “formed” (implying pre-existent matter and creation ex materia) and the mind, Philo’s “sovereign element of the soul,” is from the “created.” This portion of the soul was somehow created in the image of God and has “substance from the Divine.” Thus, Van Den Broek [Page 61]specifically cites this passage as evidence for an early date of authorship for this portion of Silvanus.
There is also the idea that the essence of man derives from God: “Man has taken form from the substance of God” (Silvanus 93:26–27). Neither Origen nor Eusebius, let alone Athanasius, would ever have said this.173
While Eusebius might never have written this passage, nineteenth-century Latter-day Saint writers such as Orson Pratt, W. W. Phelps, and Brigham Young, contemplating what it means for the soul to be “spiritually begotten,” could possibly have speculated along these paths.174 From a Latter-day Saint perspective, it is reasonable to imagine an eternal intelligence (e.g., formed) whose “mind” (the most important part) is begotten through some unknown process by heavenly parents, retaining a portion of their divine “substance.” This seems as adequate an explanation of “being spiritually begot in the premortal life” as any I have seen.
By the time of the late author, in contrast, a “major redefinition” of the Christian understanding of the cosmos was well underway (although not yet fully complete). So the latter part of Silvanus lives in a milieu where creation is effectuated solely by God and his Son, where everything seems to come into being via God’s creative acts, and the presumptions of creation ex materia and the pre-existence of souls were actively being questioned and redefined.175
[Page 62]The late portion of Silvanus does not focus exclusively on different aspects of creation but rather describes Christ’s role in creation in Christological terms. The most relevant passages are the following:
LATE: You cannot know God through anyone except Christ who has the image of the Father.176
LATE: Only the hand of the Lord has created all these things. For this hand of the Father is Christ, and it fashions all things. Through it, everything has come into being, since it became the mother of everything. It is he alone, existing always as Son of the Father. Consider these things about God: the Almighty who always exists was not always reigning as king without also needing the divine Son. Everything subsists in God, that is, the things that came into being through the Word, who is the Son as the image of the Father.177
There are three overtones from these passages especially relevant to our discussion. First, there was a long tradition in early Christianity regarding the “actual” pre-existence of both the Word and Wisdom.178 In the latter passage, however, the author seems to verify Christ’s “actual” pre-existence but has purposely redefined elsewhere the role of Wisdom as Christ. Thus while the Son is “existing always,” Wisdom’s role has become the generic “mother of everything” and is no longer personified. This implies that the wisdom role is also no longer pre-existent but is a designation applied a posteriori by the hand of the Lord after the creative act.179 Second, if Wisdom is no longer pre-existent, this would also then question the pre-existence of the human soul and the mind. Third, [Page 63]the late author seems to presuppose creation ex nihilo while the early author seems to presuppose ex materia. The phrase of interest here is “everything has come into being.” Compare this to the earlier author’s statement that man has three “races”: earth, formed and created. The distinction between these forms of creation have been removed. Thus, it is not much of a stretch to take the imagery of the latter part of Silvanus and conclude that “God by the power of his Word and Spirit created heaven and earth out of nothing.”
LATTER-DAY SAINT VIEW:
To be cleansed from sin through the Savior’s Atonement, an individual must exercise faith in Jesus Christ, repent, be baptized, and receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. … Salvation is conditional, depending on an individual’s continuing in faithfulness, or enduring to the end in keeping the commandments of God. Individuals cannot be saved in their sins; they cannot receive unconditional salvation simply by declaring a belief in Christ with the understanding that they will inevitably commit sins throughout the rest of their lives. However, through the grace of God, all can be saved from their sins as they repent and follow Jesus Christ.180
Faith originates in response to the Word of God. Faith rests firmly upon God’s Word; it always says amen to the Scriptures. … Thus Calvin’s line of reasoning proceeds like this: (1) The purpose of election embraces salvation. (2) The elect are not chosen for anything in themselves, but only in Christ. (3) Since the elect are in Christ, the assurance of their election and salvation can never be found in themselves or even in the Father apart from Christ. (4) Rather, their assurance is to be found in Christ; hence communion with him is vital. … Self-deception is a real possibility because the reprobate often feels something much like the faith of the elect.181
[Page 64]It is reasonable to ask the question “why did the monks cherish Silvanus enough to hide it along with the other documents?” One possibility is due to the texts’ teaching about gnosis (knowledge). Both the early and the late authors admonish the son to search for knowledge as part of the salvific equation. Unlike traditional Gnostic teachings, however, this gnosis is meant to be neither secret nor particularly status enhancing.182 The son is told to “know” himself, to illuminate his mind with heavenly light, to control his thoughts, and to allow God to dwell in their inner temple.183 Most 21st-century Christian readers, regardless of denomination, would generally be comfortable with these themes.
Soteriological declarations are frequently found within both parts of Silvanus, are fairly consistent with New Testament teachings, and are not especially controversial. Both authors urge their pupil to accept Christ, keep the commandments, do what is good and right, control his thoughts, avoid sin, reject his animalistic nature, be humble, and return to the Father. With one notable exception that will be discussed below, the two parts consistently teach the message of salvific self-control. Below are two examples of the fatherly advice given, one early and one late.
EARLY: Put an end to every childish time of life, acquire for yourself strength of mind and soul, and intensify the struggle against every folly of the passions of love and base wickedness, and love of praise, and fondness of contention, and tiresome jealousy and wrath, and anger and the desire to avarice.184
[Page 65]LATE: My child, guard yourself against evil, and do not let the spirit of evil throw you down into the abyss. For he is mad and bitter. He is terrifying, and throws everything he can into a pit of mud. It is a very good thing not to love fornication, and not even to think of that wretched subject at all, for to think of it is death. It is not a good thing for any person to fall into death. For a soul that is dead will be without reason. It is better to not live at all than to acquire an animal’s life. Watch yourself, so that you are not burned by the fires of fornication. Many shooters of the arrow are slaves to it. These whom you don’t know are your enemies. O my child, strip off the old garment of fornication, and put on the clean and shining garment. In it you are beautiful.185
A singular soteriological theme common to both parts is that of overcoming a person’s inherent carnal nature. In the early part, the father pleads with his son to “cast out the animal nature which is within you and do not allow based thought to enter you.”186 In the late part, the second author elaborates upon this analogy with the following caution:
LATE: Do not become the nest of foxes and snakes, nor a hole of serpents and asps, nor a dwelling place of lions, or a place of refuge of vipers.187
Nevertheless, despite all of the commonality between the two portions of Silvanus, there is one interesting difference between the two parts that relates to divine foreknowledge and free will. During the first and second centuries, the prevailing Christian attitudes towards salvation, divine foreknowledge, and free will were hopefully optimistic.
Yet the generally prevailing conviction among the early fathers is that man is equipped with a free will, and that no sin can effectively keep him deciding for the good and from avoiding the bad.188
The early Church Fathers did not question the existence or theological limitations of true free will. Men were free to choose right or wrong. The gift of the atonement is freely offered to all but the individual choice to [Page 66]accept this gift is based upon the singular purview of the recipient. The early part of Silvanus thus explains:
EARLY: My son, listen to my teaching which is good and useful and end the sleep which weighs heavily upon you. Depart from the forgetfulness which fills you with darkness, since if you were unable to do anything, I would not have said these things. But Christ came in order to give you this gift. Why do you pursue the darkness when the light is at your disposal?189
The pertinent phrase here is “for if you were powerless to do anything, I would not have said these things to you.” Therefore, the pupil is empowered with the freedom to choose righteousness and, if he decides to “live in Christ,” he will receive “treasure in heaven.” Notably he will not be compelled to choose Christ and, if he turns his back to Christ, will suffer the consequences of this choice.
By the fourth and fifth centuries, however, Christian theologians were wrestling with whether or not God’s divine foreknowledge implies limitations upon free will. What does it mean to have free will if God already knows what will happen (predetermination)? While it would not be until the late fourth century that St. Augustine formulated answers to these questions by arguing for the “election of God,”190 the latter Silvanus author appears to be contemplating some these same issues as his contemporaries were, thus ultimately helping to lay the groundwork for Augustine.
LATE: The soul that is a member of God’s household is one that is kept pure, and the soul that has put on Christ is one that is pure, and it is impossible for it to sin. Where Christ is, sin is idle.191
[Page 67]This passage states that it is impossible for any true follower of Christ to sin. While this is a romantic ideal, it has tremendous ramifications upon the doctrine of man’s agency and free will along with Calvin’s idea of self-deception. Recall that the early author had told his son that he has the power to choose Christ. The late author alternatively states “it is not you who will throw him (meaning Christ) out, but he will throw you out.” The implication when comparing these two passages is that one puts the onus on the individual (“if you were unable to do”) while it is Christ controlling the process in the other (“he will throw you out”). This is a remarkable difference between the early part’s exhortation that one is fully free to choose Christ and the second part’s declaration that Christ’s power is the prime salvific determinant and that man’s desire is, ultimately, subordinate to God’s.
Another interesting passage reads:
LATE: But you, on the other hand, with difficulty give your basic choice to him with a hint that he may take you up with joy. Now the basic choice, which is humility of heart, is the gift of Christ.192
Here the late author is talking about the faculty of free choice. Zandee notes “in order to strip it (choice) of every trace of merit, it is said that free choice is identical with humility, and that this human endowment ultimately is a gift of Christ’s grace.”193 Thus, at least in the hypothetical presented by the second author, it is practically impossible to separate our free choice and the causality of Christ’s gift.
Near the end of Silvanus, the late author makes this fascinating statement to his son:
LATE: But this divine is not pleased with anything evil. For it is this which teaches all men what is good. This is what God has given to the human race so that for this reason every man might be chosen before all the angels and the archangels. For God does not need to put any man to the test. He knows all things before they happen, and he knows hidden things of the heart. They are all revealed and found wanting in his presence.194
[Page 68]This passage illustrates the paradoxical contradictions underlying the doctrines of agency and God’s omniscience. The claim that “God does not need to test man because He already knows what each individual outcome will be” theoretically impinges upon the concept of free will espoused by the early author. While it is unlikely that the late author wholly contemplated the ramifications of these statements, I am assuming these ideas are just reflective of his time period; a milieu of theological mulling, which, just a few years later, would produce Augustine’s famous treatise on free will and ultimately Calvin’s doctrine of irresistible grace.
By now I am hopeful that I have effectively demonstrated that because the two portions of Silvanus stem from two different time periods, the teachings of the early and late authors differ substantively on topics such as the nature of God, Christology, the divine feminine, the Godhead, soteriology, and the creation. By way of conclusion, I formally summarize the differences and commonalities between the two portions of Silvanus and Latter-day Saint and Calvinist beliefs and then I make some final general remarks regarding Silvanus and Latter-day Saint scholarship.
Silvanus, the Restored Church, and Calvinism
A few words of caution are in order here as we examine teachings from the Restored Church and Calvinism side by side with those of the early and late Silvanus sources. First, it is important to realize that most biblical faiths are generally able to accommodate canonical teachings that seem, a priori, inconsistent with their core teachings. Few Latter-day Saints are troubled by the triune formulation found in the so-called Johannine Comma (1 John 5:7–8), and Protestants have long learned to treat passages conveying imago dei metaphorically (e.g., Genesis 1:26). But Latter-day Saints are more doctrinally comfortable when all three members of the Godhead are present at Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:16–17) and Calvinists are more comfortable with John’s declaration that “God is a spirit” (John 4:24). It is important to emphasize that this analysis will focus more on comfort and not how a particular faith is able to doctrinally accommodate difficult passages.
Second, Latter-day Saint scholars S. Kent Brown, Stephen E. Robinson, and C. Wilfred Griggs have each independently and, in my mind, appropriately urged restraint when comparing Latter-day Saint doctrine with the writings from both Qumran and Nag Hammadi. [Page 69]In a statement I consider representative of the opinions of these three scholars, Robinson preaches caution:
But is it not dishonest to represent an apocryphal book as being firm evidence for the truth when it agrees with us, and yet quietly look the other way when it does not? The truth is that it’s just as easy to support Catholicism or Lutheranism or Calvinism by proof-texting the apocrypha as it is to prove our views. It’s all a matter of which passage one decides to use. … Indeed, the apocrypha do have great value, but not because they teach Mormonism; for by and large they do not.195
Germaine to conducting a fair comparative evaluation is the full examination of the complete text, warts and all, not just a selection of handpicked passages supportive of the pundit’s hypothesis.196 While Silvanus is not considered a Gnostic text, our comparative analysis should consider the writings of the two Silvanus authors in their entirety. As I have analyzed Silvanus, I have not discovered any significant “warts” that would alter my fundamental conclusion: Latter-day Saints beliefs are much closer aligned with the early Silvanus author and Calvinist beliefs best align with the later author.
It is also important to realize that the point of this comparison is not to prove or disprove the tenets of any particular faith. Rather the point is to establish which historical milieu alternative faiths best align with. The two authors of Silvanus were neither Latter-day Saint nor Calvinist. But I believe they are useful representations of their respective Alexandrian time periods and can, therefore, help illuminate how Jewish and Christian doctrine changed over time.
Figure 4 portrays my assessment of the comparability between Latter-day Saint and Calvinist beliefs with the early and late Silvanus authors. According to this assessment, Restored Church beliefs are [Page 70]generally compatible with nearly all of the early Silvanus author’s doctrinal positions; there is only one single notable exception, the early author’s suggestion that the Holy Spirit is feminine.197
On the other hand, Calvinist beliefs are generally most compatible with the doctrinal positions of the late author. The only substantial exceptions are the teachings on the Son’s subordination to the Father, our inability to fully know Christ, and the deification of Man.198
[Page 71]Therefore, within the confines of this one document from Nag Hammadi Codex VII, The Teachings of Silvanus, we see dramatic evidence of the alteration of Christian belief from a structure that echoes many major Latter-day Saint doctrines to a structure that is almost creedal and much more representative of the Western Christian tradition. There is a wealth of supporting evidence of this doctrinal change to be found in early Christian writings and history, yet the uniqueness of Silvanus is its juxtaposition of these contrasting views in a single text; a veritable microcosm portraying the development of early Christian thought.
Towards a Latter-day Saint “Discovery” — Warts and All
It seems apparent that the late author was, in a sense, attempting to “answer” the claims of the earlier author. This is most evident with regards to the figure of Wisdom; a topic in which the late author not only responds to the early text but also recasts a poem found in another Jewish Wisdom text, the Wisdom of Solomon, to purposely redefine the role of Wisdom and to cast the imagery of the divine feminine upon Christ. But he also responds to nearly every other thematic element in the early text: the nature of God, Christ, Wisdom, creation, salvation, deification, and the nature of man. Between the first and the fourth century, Christian doctrine undoubtedly changed and the two portions of this one document highlight many of the relevant theological issues and disputes.
Latter-day Saint scholars have yet to “discover” Silvanus. The only Latter-day Saint mention of Silvanus I could find was by C. Wilfred Griggs who simply refers to its non-Gnostic status.199 This is somewhat understandable since biblical scholars have only reached a tenuous “consensus” regarding the dual authorship of the text and Silvanus is underappreciated within the body of Nag Hammadi scholarship. My analysis hopefully demonstrates that the earliest portions of the Silvanus text should be of great interest to church members who are interested in [Page 72]understanding early Jewish Christianity. I look forward to further work by Latter-day Saint scholars as they discover this hidden gem.
As I conclude my analysis on Silvanus, the words of Roman Catholic scholar Stephen H. Webb come to mind:
I think of both Mormonism and Calvinism as branches on the Christian tree. Calvinists will protest that surely they are closer to the trunk, but Mormonism actually goes deeper in trying to restore neglected practices and overlooked beliefs from ancient Christianity. … Both branches, as far as I can see, bear good fruit, and both return ample nourishment to the tree’s roots, but I must admit that the Mormon branch looks to me like it begins closer to the center of the tree and that it is reaching farther toward the light. I would go so far as to say this: No other branch of the Christian tree is so entangled in complex and fascinating ways with the earliest and most neglected doctrines of the church, and no other branch extends so optimistically and brazenly upward as it stretches toward a horizon bound only by the cosmic significance of Christ. To drop the tree image, if I had to choose between Smith and Calvin, I would unhesitatingly choose Smith. … Mormonism is just a bigger set of ideas than Calvinism.200
Using Silvanus as my guidepost, I share Webb’s fascination at just how effectively Joseph Smith was able to locate the earliest roots of the Christian movement.
[Author’s Note: I would like to thank Brett McDonald whose family home evening lesson motivated me to read the Nag Hammadi texts and Davin and Jessica Fish and Brayden Clark for tracking down some particularly hard to find papers.]