Boxes and box-makers
Arthur Tonnell had been a world traveler. He collected things everywhere he went. He stacked his treasures in his apartment at the Hotel Newhouse which boasted “400 rooms each with a private bath”—which was pretty progressive for its time.
When Mr. Tonnell died, his family removed from his apartment the few things they wanted and asked my dad if he would clean out the rest.
Dad took me along to haul out trunks and boxes from the crowded apartment. I was only a boy at the time—about 10 years old. For a boy who had traveled no further than Disneyland and who had an annual trinket budget of a few dollars, this was a great adventure.
Dad and I hauled truckloads of stuff home and stashed it in the storage shed behind our house. I remember the day that I pried open the big black steamer trunk and began to unearth its treasures. There were carved ivory elephants. There were extraordinary cigarette lighters with woven tapestry and shiny metal. There were portable radios—that were behemoths by today’s standards. There were swizzle sticks—which were a total mystery to me until my parents explained their use to me. Most of the things in the trunk were cheap trinkets, but they seemed magical and exotic to a boy who had never seen such things.
My favorite find was a Japanese secret box. The wood box had a landscape on all sides made of carefully inlaid wood. I was amazed at the craftsmanship that could create such scenes. I discovered that if I slid the panels on the box the right way, I could uncover a lever which, when pushed, would make a drawer pop out. I was fascinated by that secret box. I still have it—though the thin veneers are cracking and peeling. In spite of the ravages of time, the expert craftsmanship is still evident.
A different box
Now, as an adult, I love woodworking. Recently I thought I would create a seed tray—a box with eight chambers for holding various seeds. The flat tray would have a handle ostensibly for carrying the seeds into the yard. Actually I have never used the seed tray to carry seeds for planting. I created the box as a tribute to a Creator who has placed so much miraculous life in homely seeds. It is still a miracle to me that a rutabaga can come from such a tiny and ordinary-looking seed.
I carefully planned the seed box to assure that the eight chambers would each safely hold its own seeds without intermixing them. And I designed a curved handle on top. The project went very well—until I cut out the handle. The blade in my little saber saw was not steady enough. Or my hand was not skilled enough. I ended up with a handle that looked like the work of a beginner in 7th grade wood shop. I tried to sand out the irregularities but they were too substantial. I was tempted to toss the whole thing in the trash but finally struck on a creative solution. I decided to cover the top edges of the tray and handle with sticks so that it would look more natural—and maybe hide some of the defects. So, sitting in our living room with eight varieties of seeds, we have a seed tray with sticks nailed to the top edges.
Better and poorer craftsmen
There is a vast chasm between my craftsmanship and that of the Japanese person who made the magnificent secret box. I could not convince even our most gullible grandchildren that the two boxes were made by the same hands. The inlay on the secret box is cut gracefully and exactly. The seed tray was obviously hacked by an impatient and ill-equipped amateur.
My point is not about boxes. It is about craftsmanship. Our craftsmanship shows in our work.
So we ask: What kind of craftsman is God? Does He patch together rough hewn elements and try to hide His mistakes? Or is He the master Craftsman whose perfect creations systematically accomplish His perfect purposes?
I think the answer is obvious. “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork” (Psalms 19:1). He knows exactly what He is doing and He accomplishes His work with unparalleled proficiency. The better we understand His work, the more we will be amazed!
The fact of His expertise has a very useful side. We can tell His workmanship—both in the created world and in His doctrine—by its remarkable elegance. We can test the merit any doctrine by its elegance. Since He is the smartest and kindest person in the universe, we can expect that His doctrines will show telltale signs: They will be brilliant and compassionate.
In contrast many of the popular Christian doctrines look suspiciously like human creations.
I propose that we test the essential doctrines by the test of craftsmanship: Do they show His extraordinary brilliance and compassion? We may discern which doctrines are true by looking for the hints of a master craftsman. We may suspect that some doctrines are human inventions or additions when we detect rough edges and misfitting parts—when the craftsmanship is simply not up to His standards.
Testing a doctrine
Let’s consider an example. Augustine of Hippo was “unquestionably one of the greatest theologians of all time” (Hill, 2003, p. 79). He was born in Northern Africa in 354 A.D. Augustine taught that the vast majority of God’s children would go to hell. God would save only a very few whom He predestined to Heaven. While we might revolt at God’s random and very selective goodness, Augustine taught that we should be grateful if God saved any of His children. We all deserve to go to hell so we should praise His name for saving any of us.
Despite his keen mind, Augustine’s box looks pretty ragged to me. I don’t find myself in awe of the Augustine’s God who is so cavalier about His children’s fates. I think that Augustine imposed some of his own cynicism on God’s truth and ended up with an inferior view of God and life. Hill (2003) observed that Augustine’s peculiar genius was “extraordinary honesty combined with a remarkably morbid outlook on life” (p. 84).
Check for edification
Yet God is not morbid. He Himself taught us how to recognize His craftsmanship: “And that which doth not edify is not of God, and is darkness” (D&C 50:23). Anything that does not edify is NOT from Him! What does it mean to edify? It means to enlighten, inform, educate, improve, or enrich. We can recognize His craftsmanship because of the telltale goodness.
God instructs us further: “That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day” (D&C 50:24).
God does light. Any time we see even a hint of darkness, we may know that it is not from Him. We feel light and bright when we focus on Him and His truth. We feel gloomy and dark when we turn from Him. I don’t believe that Augustine’s gloomy outlook was inspired by God.
God has taught us the principle of edification so that we will not be deceived. “I say it that you may know the truth, that you may chase darkness from among you” (D&C 50:25).
The ability to recognize truth is so important to us that God has taught us added lessons on the subject. Alma taught his people how to recognize truth by its effects on our souls and minds. “It must needs be that this [truth] is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me” (Alma 32:28). True doctrine is delicious.
Testing the key doctrines
I suggest that we test the key doctrines of the gospel using the test of craftsmanship. We could have a lively debate about which doctrines are the essential ones. Probably most of us would agree that some doctrines are more central and vital than others. For example, it matters more how He guides His children than the reasons for ten toes in His design for humans. Some doctrines are at the core of our spiritual journey. Others are peripheral.
I nominate three doctrinal areas as vital, central, core, essential, or key:
- What is God like?
- How does He guide us?
- What must we do to be with Him in eternity?
Each of these doctrinal areas has a vast expanse. I will not treat them as a scholar. It is not my objective to amass every shred of evidence to prove a point. I will merely suggest some doctrinal themes and invite you to consider which of them best pass the test of edification. Which boxes were built by the best Craftsman?
This discussion is organized into the three broad areas listed above. Each doctrinal area will be broken into several subparts. If we are successful in making sense of God’s plan in the articles ahead, our appreciation for Him and His work should grow immeasurably.