Question: Do Mormons use 2 Corinthians 12:2-4 as a "proof text" to support the Three Degress of Glory?


Question: Do Mormons use 2 Corinthians 12:2-4 as a "proof text" to support the Three Degress of Glory?

Critics use a circular assumption that Latter-day Saints are basing our doctrines upon passages like this, rather than teaching doctrine from the scriptures

It is claimed that 2 Corinthians 12:2-4 is used as a "proof text" to support the three degrees of glory: "I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such a one caught up to the third heaven..."

Critics use a circular assumption that Latter-day Saints are basing our doctrines upon passages like this, rather than teaching doctrine from the scriptures, which is not quite the same thing. They then skim lightly over the scholarly tradition of Jews in a rather evasive way with the claim:

Using these passages to validate the idea of three kingdoms making up heaven ignores the Jewish tradition Paul would have known. According to that tradition, paradise was the abode of God, the place of eternal joy for God's people. However, Jewish custom never viewed a first or second heaven as alternative eternal destinations. Rather, these referred to the atmospheric heaven (the sky) and the galactic heaven (the universe).[1]

If this sounds remarkably modern, it's because it is. It turns out not to be Jewish at all: their reference is to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment-era Protestant commentator Matthew Henry, who writes:

It was certainly a very extraordinary honour done him: in some sense he was caught up into the third heaven, the heaven of the blessed, above the aerial heaven, in which the fowls fly, above the starry heaven, which is adorned with those glorious orbs: it was into the third heaven, where God most eminently manifests His glory.[2]

Even Protestant views about what the "third heaven" is are all over the theological map

Before we examine the Jewish custom that Paul would have been exposed to (obviously not Matthew Henry's commentary), we should point out that even Protestant views about what the "third heaven" is are all over the theological map. According to Ronald R. Day, of "Restoration Light,"[3]the first world and heaven were the pre-Flood universe, the second world and heaven are the ones we live in now, and the third world and heaven are yet to come after Christ's second coming.[4]

While it is true that many conservative Protestant groups accept this modern, anachronistic view of Matthew Henry's of an atmospheric heaven, a stellar heaven, and a divine Heaven, not all Protestants believe this is the only possible interpretation. A question-and-answer session on the Website of a relatively liberal non-denominational church known as The Rock shows that many Protestants are acquainted with the genuinely ancient traditions, as given in pseudepigraphal works such as the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs and the Testament of Levi, to the effect that there was a kind of hierarchy of spiritual heavens.[5] The New Testament pseudepigraphal work The Apocalypse of Paul also has this tradition. (See below for specific quotations.)

Glass admits that whereas "Some of the noncanonical writings give detailed descriptions of multiple heavens, up to seven more more [,] Paul was not necessarily thinking of these when he wrote of his mystical transport into the third Heaven (2 Cor. 12.2); an alternate explanation is that the expression indicates a high degree of spiritual exaltation."[6] So we can take our pick: either ancient Jews believed in a hierarchical series of heavens, and a visionary trip through them was a common theme of Jewish (and even Christian) apocalyptic writings, or Paul was using the "third heaven" as the epitome of the highest degree of exaltation-exactly as Latter-day Saints would put it.

In any case, regarding the atmospheric model espoused by Matthew Henry, while some Greeks believed in a variant of this (such as Pythagoras and others), ancient Jews believed no such thing. Did the modern, anachronistic Biblicist view come from a neo-Hellenistic (early post-Christian era Greek philosophies) source, as so much of modern creedal Christian doctrines have, or is this just a coincidence? That's a subject for further study, and outside the scope of this review.


Notes

  1. Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson, Mormonism 101. Examining the Religion of the Latter-day Saints (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2000), 172. ( Index of claims )
  2. Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry's Commentary of the Whole Bible (McLean, Virginia: MacDonald Publishing Co., 1706), 6:641.
  3. A conservative Protestant denomination, and no friend to Latter-day Saints: see http://reslight.addr.com/
  4. http://reslight.addr.com/thirdheaven.html  [needs work] broken link
  5. http://www.rockinauburn.com/columns/thirdheaven.htm  [needs work] broken link
  6. Thomas Francis Glasson, "Heaven," Oxford Companion to the Bible, edited by Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1993), 271.