Book Review: Terryl Givens, Feeding the Flock: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Church and Praxis (Oxford, 2017)

By March 12, 2018

With Feeding the Flock: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Church and Praxis, published with Oxford last year, Terryl Givens has brought us the second installment in his magisterial and systematic treatment of Mormon theology. It follows on the heels of Wrestling the Angel, issued from the same press in 2014. That book explored what Givens designated as the global themes of Mormon thought–history, theology, and “restoration”–as well as core elements of its Christian theology, its cosmology, its theology proper (that is, its conceptions of the divine), and its theological anthropology. This second volume (which, like the previous one, weighs in at over four hundred pages) has a different and narrower scope: it is devoted almost entirely, as Givens acknowledges, to ecclesiology–to Mormon teachings about the church, its activities, and the theological structures which undergird them. Suffice it to say, as an opening, that Feeding the Flock offers the ambitious, expansive, visionary style that we’ve come to expect from Givens. It is a well-wrought, elegantly executed work. As he did in Wrestling the Angel, Givens once again sets an entirely new standard for the study of Mormonism’s theological foundations. And he sets the bar high.

The centerpiece of Feeding the Flock and, indeed, the framework Givens sees as giving structure to Mormon ecclesiology, is “covenant theology,” a system of thought that exists and has existed in a number of theological traditions. Covenant theology is especially associated with the Protestant Reformed or Calvinist tradition and its derivatives, which historically have exerted such an outsize influence in the Anglophone world. Givens also engages with scholars of Judaism, however, to show how the covenant is a theological structure that reaches beyond the bounds of Christianity. As the name suggests, covenant theologies are relational; they offer a soteriological framework based on some kind of agreement between God and humankind, and one effect of these kinds of covenantal arrangements is to produce a certain assurance of salvation among those who subscribe to them. The fundamental argument of this volume is that the ecclesiological vision of Mormonism is built upon on the concept of covenant, and that Mormonism represents a form of covenant theology that has been “radically transformed” from its conventional Christian logic.

Givens’s recovery of the paradigm of covenant theology is, frankly, brilliant, and I hope it will garner extensive discussion and debate. As I wrote to Terryl when I first read the book in manuscript, my own exposure during work on Puritanism led me to believe that Reformed covenant theology has serious potential to illuminate Mormon thought. In Feeding the Flock, Givens is able to actualize much of this potential, and the result is a powerful new holistic way to see how Latter-day Saints understood the coherence of the things that they believed and practiced. I would perhaps draw a somewhat different picture of Reformed covenant theology among English Protestants, and we appear to differ on how it relates to Mormonism’s radical reconfiguration of it. (I think I see more elements of continuity than he allows.) But on the essential point I fervently agree with him: the substrate of covenant theology is a natural and important structure–indeed, I think perhaps the best we have–for framing critical aspects of early Mormon theology. In my view it is all the more important because, unlike some of the more abstruse themes which Givens took up in Wrestling the Angel, the covenant provides the principles which most govern the practical flow of Mormon life and give shape to religious experience.

In its fullest definition, ecclesiology does not encompass just questions of church order and authority, but of all the activities and practices of the church, and Feeding the Flock brings a systematic approach to the practical aspects of Mormonism that is long overdue. Givens gives careful attention to Mormon understandings of “sacraments” and “ordinances,” showing how these relate to Protestant views. Unlike their place in Protestantism, he notes, there is “no ambiguity about the status of sacraments–or ordinances–in Mormon thought.” Mormonism involves a robust sacramentalism in which certain ritual practices are “absolutely indispensable” to the salvific process. When one recognizes this, as Givens notes, “it is abundantly clear that Mormonism is more nearly aligned with Catholic than with Protestant soteriology and ecclesiology, in its deep structure” (48). Likewise, Mormonism holds a notion of authority and priesthood that is much more akin to Catholic understandings than Protestant ones, and Givens devotes a chapter to the subject. I have to say that I am especially excited about these contributions of Givens’s book to our understanding of Mormon practice and sacramental theology. Between the appearance of Feeding the Flock and the recent release of Jonathan Stapley’s excellent new book, The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology (Oxford, 2018), we now have a foundation to explore the practices of Mormonism that should serve us well for years to come. (Incidentally, stay tuned for a roundtable discussion of The Power of Godliness soon!)

My only serious concern about Feeding the Flock is one that I am certain grows from a difference of disciplinary perspective. When reviewing Wrestling the Angel several years ago, I noted that while that book is often historical, it is not a history, and this is a point I feel compelled to reassert in relation to this second volume [1]. Here, as before, the tangles of historical complexity, the forces behind historical change, and the vagaries of experience tend to fade behind conceptual harmony and theological system. Historians will be uncomfortable with the way that Givens’s analysis can slide silently back and forth between temporal and conceptual registers, a slippage that can make it difficult to locate his arguments in time. Givens, I should note, makes no explicit claims to historicity. Yet he does not explicitly deny them, either, and his excavation throughout the book of the “foundations” of Mormon thought from historical episodes and texts makes it difficult to avoid reading the book as a historical narrative. This is problematic, for taken by itself, Feeding the Flock presents a schematic and truncated sense of Mormonism’s past. Ultimately, the best way to understand the volume is as a work of historical anthropology or, perhaps most fitting, as “historical theology”–with theology as the noun and history as an adjective. As long as it is approached from this perspective, not mistaken as a historical narrative in itself, I am confident that it will be deeply stimulating, for historians as well as those interested in the cultural systems of Mormonism or invested in its theology. Indeed, I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment that all students of the past should read theology for the way it generates humanistic empathy and deepens historical understanding.

Givens is not an ordinary scholar and these two large volumes are not ordinary books. It is hard to overstate the breadth of what they accomplish. As the stream of Mormon Studies scholarship has become a torrent and then a flood, it often seems that too little of it is read carefully and too much of it is soon left behind. Givens’s treatises will not be going anywhere; the only danger is that their imposing size may deter readers from digging in. That would be unfortunate since they are relatively accessible and deserve to be read rigorously and with care. Various aspects of both volumes will surely be challenged or refined over time. In my view, however, Givens’s most important achievement is a whole which exceeds the parts. With these two grand volumes, he has offered us a panorama of Mormon theology unlike anything we have seen before. He has drawn a wide range of diverse conversations and half-lit territory into an integrated, and even well-defined whole. For the first time, we’re seeing something close to the whole landscape. Welcome, courtesy of Terryl Givens, to a new era in the exploration of Mormon thought.


[1] Ryan Tobler, review of Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity by Terryl L. Givens, Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 20, no. 2 (November 1, 2016): 131?33.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Christian History Intellectual History Methodology, Academic Issues Ritual Theology


  1. Thanks, Ryan, for this excellent review. I’ve been trying to put my frustration with the two volumes into words, and I think you summed them up nicely (the historicity issue). We are going to be wrestling (no pun intended) with these two books for a long time.

    Comment by J Stuart — March 12, 2018 @ 8:15 am

  2. Thanks for this Ryan. Insightful.

    Comment by wvs — March 12, 2018 @ 11:27 am

  3. […] Also recently explored in Givens’s Feeding the Flock, see Ryan T’s JI review of March 12, […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Book Review: The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology (Oxford, 2018) — March 19, 2018 @ 6:52 am

  4. […] larger project on the foundations of Mormon thought, Terryl Givens?s Feeding the Flock, which I reviewed just last week, now has approached Mormon practice in terms of theological system, giving careful attention to the […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Roundtable: Liturgy and Practice in Stapley’s *Power of Godliness* — March 23, 2018 @ 6:59 am

  5. […] its merits. Yet over the years it has seen far too little scrutiny, a fact that even Givens, in his most recent work, appears to recognize. Mueller does work to open and to center the Book of Mormon that is long […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Roundtable: Tobler on Mueller’s *Race and the Making of the Mormon People* — March 27, 2018 @ 12:10 pm


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