This post is a summary of the article “Experiential Knowledge and the Covenantal Relationship in Alma 7” by Godfrey J. Ellis in Volume 51 of Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship. The full article can be read at https://interpreterfoundation.org/experiential-knowledge-and-the-covenantal-relationship-in-alma-7/.
An introduction to the Interpreting Interpreter series is available at https://interpreterfoundation.org/interpreting-interpreter-on-abstracting-thought/.
Ellis uses two chiastic passages in Alma 7 to emphasize Christ’s need to gain experiential knowledge “according to the flesh” in order to heal and succor his people, proposing that these chiasms outline the covenantal relationship that the atonement creates between us and the Savior.
In this article, Godfrey J. Ellis provides an overview of Alma 7, wherein Ellis focuses on two chiastic passages: Verses 11-13, which describe Christ’s experience of suffering and mortality as part of his condescension and his atonement, and verses 14-15, which are an injunction for us to repent and be baptized so that we can be healed and cleansed of sin. He argues that the focus of the first chiasm is on Christ gaining experiential knowledge “according to the flesh”, rather than Christ’s succoring and mercy, as we might otherwise expect. He also argues that the second chiasm, which might otherwise seem unrelated to the first, represents our half of a covenantal relationship with Christ in conjunction with His atonement.
Ellis begins with a brief overview of the first part of Alma 7, discussing the context of Alma’s ministry in Gideon. He then discusses his own personal experience with Alma 7:11-13, contrasting what he had been taught of Christ’s mission before joining the church (i.e., that Christ overcame mortal temptation in order to gain the moral standing necessary to judge and condemn us) with the message he received from these verses (that the purpose of Christ’s suffering was to understand and comfort us—to succor us with his healing power).
Ellis notes that the apex of the chiasm in verses 11-13 is on the phrase “according to the flesh”, forming the turning point between Christ’s suffering and his ability to heal and comfort us (as well as our deliverance from sin and transgression). Ellis sees this mortal experience as a necessary ingredient in the atonement. Cognitive, academic knowledge, as useful as it might be, cannot replace knowledge gained from experience. Though Ellis affirms Christ’s full omniscience, he argues that firsthand mortal experience was still necessary for Christ to accomplish his mission.
Ellis then discusses the ways that Christ could have gained that knowledge, wondering aloud whether Christ miraculously experienced “every specific human event”, or, rather, each general category of experience and temptation, which still might have allowed him to gain deeper insight into the suffering and pains of mortal life without directly undergoing the experiences of every mortal individual. Ellis argues that both modern prophets and ancient scripture leave room for the latter, with Ellis ultimately suggesting that it could have been a combination of the two.
In further explicating verses 11-13, Ellis describes four distinct aspects of the atonement within the chiasm: 1) the resurrection, 2) suffering for our sins, 3) the healing of our pains and infirmities, and, controversially, 4) the benefits provided to Christ through that experience. Though Ellis emphasizes the selflessness of Christ’s sacrifice, he argues that this knowledge allowed Christ —who was already perfect in terms of righteousness and omniscience–to obtain a body, to gain a fullness of experiential knowledge, and to complete his assigned covenant mission.
Ellis then describes the chiasm in verses 14-15, the apex of which focuses on Christ’s capacity to cleanse from sin. Ellis sees this passage as strongly connected to verses 11-13, a connection that goes beyond mere proximity, with each chiasm representing half of a covenantal contract where Christ offers us healing and succor in return for our willingness to repent, be baptized, lay aside sin, and have faith in him. This connection is emphasized by Alma’s word choice in both sections (e.g., contrasting references to “he” in the first chiasm with “ye” in the second, and Alma’s injunction to “enter into a covenant” in verse 15).
According to Ellis, verse 16 makes a set of implied references to that covenant, with the word “remember” bringing to mind the ordinance of the sacrament. He also sees Alma’s repeated use of the word “right” in verse 20 as an allusion to the right hand, which is seen as the covenant hand.
Overall, Ellis’ analysis suggests that the usual treatment of Alma 7:11-13 as a standalone passage potentially obscures the deeper covenantal implications of Alma’s sermon, and may miss the true focus of the passage on Christ’s mortal experience. He closes with an intriguing quote from Elder Michael John U. Teh, highlighting the distinction between experiential and cognitive knowledge. We often “know” a great deal about the Savior, but firsthand experience with Christ and his atonement can be tougher to come by. Though this article can’t directly give us that firsthand experience, outlining the personal, covenant-oriented application of the atonement might give us further reason to seek to truly know Him, rather than simply know about Him.
One thing this article does, alongside the rigorous work of people like Parry and Hardy, is show me that if we bring generous and open assumptions to the Book of Mormon text (e.g., that passages may have been intentionally crafted, or could exhibit deep and meaningful connection, or are simply worthy of further and sincere attention and examination), we’ll usually be greatly rewarded. Not only are those assumptions likely to hold, we’ll often learn something useful about how we relate to God and how we should live in the world. That doesn’t mean that every gem unearthed by such study must be true in the absolute sense—after all, we don’t have access to Alma or Nephi’s brain, and we should never rule out the role of chance in producing the patterns we see—but it does mean that such study is worth the effort. I’m glad that Ellis was able to dig up this particular atonement-focused gem for our perusal.