Sunday, June 30, 2013

Keys to the Gates of Peter

The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri describes a place between the dolorous regions of Inferno and the blessed abode of Paradiso. It is the challenging and redemptive Mountain of Purgatory. This is the place where Dante and his travelling companion Virgil – and by extension the rest of humankind – learn how to cleanse themselves of the seven deadly sins that are endemic to humanity.

In order to be allowed passage from Inferno, one must pass through a small gate that is guarded by the Apostle Peter, or by one of his angel helpers. This is the place that has been recognized in Christian literature and art as the Gates of Peter. This is the Christian recognition of Peter’s role – proclaimed by Christ Himself (in the 16th Chapter of The Gospel of Matthew) that, “Thou art Peter: and upon this rock I will build my church: and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

These gospel verses have tremendous significance in Christian history although they are largely passed over by theologians. The meaning doesn’t really seem to be difficult to understand. Early Christian writers (along with most of their subsequent followers) understood them to vindicate the leadership of the Catholic Church – manifest in Christ’s recognition of Peter.

So, for example, Theodore of Mopsuestia indicated that this verse, “shows, in consequence, that this is the common good of the church … that in the church would be the key of the kingdom of heaven.”

John, Patriarch of Jerusalem (575-593 A.D.), wrote: “As for… the Holy Church, we have the word of the Lord who said to Peter, Chief of the Apostles, when giving him the primacy of the Faith for the strengthening of the churches. “Thou art Peter, etc.” To this same Peter He has given keys of heaven and earth; it is in following his faith that to this day his disciples and the doctors of the Catholic Church bind and loose; they bind the wicked and loose from their chains those who do penance.”

Saint Theodore of Studium (795-826 A.D.) would likewise affirm: “Since it is to the great Peter that Christ our God gave the Keys of the Kingdom and entrusted the dignity of the Chief of the flock, it is to Peter, that is to say, his successor, that one ought to submit every innovation which is made in the Catholic Church by those who turn aside from the truth.”

The sources from the time of the creeds to this day are fairly consistent within the Catholic Church: the keys given to Peter are granted to the Catholic Church as emblems of spiritual authority.

But this is not really the emphasis that we see in Matthew’s account. Instead of emphasizing the role of keys as symbols of power and authority, the context of the narrative is that of salvation in the world beyond the veil: the “gates of hell”, “the kingdom of heaven”, “whatsoever…shall be bound in heaven”. This is quite a different perspective than the traditional one emphasized in ecclesiastical history.

There have been, however, notable exceptions. The heavenly tradition (if I might call it that) is quite clear in the Divine Comedy. Here Peter has been given charge of granting passage to the departed souls seeking escape from the sufferings of Inferno – not of an ecclesiastic position of authority.

Clearly these two interpretations of Matthew 16:18-19 have existed side by side for a very long time. So, for example, George Ladd (formerly Professor of New Testament Exegesis and Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary) states clearly that “The truth is implicit in the statement that the gates of Hades should not prevail against the church.” He then goes on to admit that the “image of the gates of the realm of the dead is a familiar Semitic concept.”

For anyone interested in Old Testament references to the gates to the realm of the dead see: Isaiah 38:10, Psalms 9:13, Psalms 107:18, Job 38:17, etc. One particularly interesting reference is in Genesis 28 (verses 17-18) where Jacob stops in his travels to sleep and dreams that he sees the Lord. When he awakes he understands that, “Surely the Lord is in this place … This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

The gates of Hades mentioned in Matthew’s text do not refer to the Catholic Church. The sense of the dialogue between Christ and Peter is concern for the souls in the Kingdom of Heaven. The keys given to Peter are to save the spiritual lives of men and women, both in this life and in the life beyond. They are not a grant of political power in this world, whether that be civic, ecclesiastic, or of any other institution.

Hugh Nibley made this quite clear in Mormonism and Early Christianity. In the important passage, “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” the word it is all important. It has been understood almost exclusively to refer to the church. But as Nibley says: “Moreover, the thing which is held back, is not the church, for the object is not in the accusative but in the partitive genitive: it is “hers,” part of her, that which belongs to her, that the gates will not be able to contain.” Clearly this is a reference to those in spirit prison. “[A]nd the gates of hell shall not prevail against [those that are now a part of her – i.e. those that are in spirit prison]”.

This is the meaning that Dante understood when he wrote of the gates of Peter. It is also the tradition that we have preserved in the image of the “pearly gates” – mentioned at the end of the 21st chapter of Revelations (verse 21) – where the gates of heaven are made of pearls.

Yes, Peter became the leader of Christ’s church on earth. But the keys themselves have always been meant to save others – whether in this life or beyond the veil – not as a means of power. “My kingdom is not of this world,” proclaimed Jesus to Pilate. Why should He then grant to Peter keys to something that is not His – keys, that is, to earthly power?

Clearly this was not the intent. The keys of the priesthood are keys to salvation. They allow for the work of redeeming the dead. In the meantime we are left to the powers that be (often lamentably so). This doesn’t mean that we are to passively suffer the injustices imposed on us by the purveyors of power. Far from it. It does mean, however, that God’s work can continue in spite of these injustices.

Yes, The Kingdom of Heaven will come and Christ will be its ruler. But in the meantime, the leader of His church on earth will hold the keys to the temple, not the keys to the White House. It was never meant to be any other way.

The famous verse in the Gospel of Matthew is Chapter 16 verses 18 and 19. Theodore of Mopsuestia’s quote is from Fragment 92, cited in Manlio Simonetti’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament Ib (Thomas C. Oden General Editor). Intervarsity Press, 2002. The quotes from Saint Theodore of Studium and John, patriarch of Jerusalem can be found in James Likoudis’s St. Thomas Aquinas, Papal Supremacy, and the Witness of the eastern Churches in the First Millennium ( George Ladd’s A Theology of the New Testament was published by Eerdman’s in 1974. The references to the realm of the dead are on page 116. For Nibley’s discussion see Mormonism and Early Christianity (Deseret Book Company, 1987) pages 106-108.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Wheat and The Word of Wisdom

Earlier this year I got over a digestive problem that had bothered me for more than a decade. The solution was quite simple: I stopped eating wheat flour. Soon after changing my diet, the cramps, indigestion, and other unsavory problems disappeared. There have been other benefits as well. I can now do a good deal of physical work without waking up sore and achy. I am losing weight, eating bigger meals (but without wheat products) without stomach complaints, and hardly get discouraged like I used to. I feel a lot better.

For some time, I refused to imagine that my complaints might have been caused by Celiac disease. Of course, they seemed to fit the symptoms. But I resisted this possibility because of a single verse in The Word of Wisdom (in The Doctrine and Covenants) that states quite clearly that we are supposed to eat wheat: “Nevertheless, wheat for man…”

Then by chance (and my good fortune) I happened on a study showing the significant changes that wheat has gone through since the time the Word of Wisdom was given. It was this realization that motivated me to try living without modern wheat.

The story of how we got modern wheat involves a long history of genetic twists and turns. By the beginning of the 19th Century, wheat had already been hybridized and manipulated for millennia. It would be quite misleading to claim that the wheat of Joseph Smith’s time was a pure and unadulterated grass. It wasn’t.

It was, however, a very different thing than what we eat today. And when I say “it” I really mean “they” because there are a handful of “wheat” species and a boat load of “wheat” varieties that find their way into the mills of people around the world.

The food that we eat today is primarily a product of the green revolution that has magically transformed the world’s diets within the last century. The plants that had fed us for so long were crossed with varieties that would have been confusing and counter-intuitive to earlier generations. Many of these crosses have produced very useful crops. We depend on them to survive. Others, however, can cause us a good amount of grief. Sadly we haven’t paid close enough attention to the potential harm of genetic manipulation. This negligence is coming back to haunt many of us today.   

Glutens (and related gliadins) are often large proteins found in the endosperm of wheat grains that do not dissolve easily in our bodies after being consumed. Our modern wheat varieties have many times more of these proteins than did earlier forms. This gluten accumulation was not really intentional. The proteins were compounded primarily when the chromosome number of wheat varieties doubled and then tripled in the course of hybridization events spanning decades.

Through this process, the leavening of bread was improved. The gluten proteins helped make the bread flour sticky, enabling it to keep air bubbles (created in the process of fermenting yeast) from escaping – allowing for the bread dough to rise. Glutens essentially allowed us to move beyond unleavened bread.

The oldest form of wheat (and presumably the first wheat eaten by our ancestors) is einkorn wheat. It has the typical compliment of genes found in living things (a pair of each chromosome – referred to as a diploid condition). It has a fairly hard grain and doesn’t produce enough seeds per plant to make it economically appealing. It is believed to have been used in soups and stews. It is a rarely used today.

Another group includes wheat species that have come about by hybridizing varieties so that a doubling of the chromosomes occurs (tetraploid wheats). Durum wheat and emmer wheat are tetraploid examples. They still have fairly hard grains but have more gluten proteins – not enough, however, to allow for the fine flours that modern bakeries generally demand.

Then there are softer wheat grains found among the species with a tripling of the typical genetic content (hexaploids). As expected, these have quite a bit more glutens. These softer wheat varieties comprise the bulk of the wheat used today. And it is the flour of these varieties that are particularly troublesome to people like me.

Earlier this year I decided to try baking a loaf of einkorn wheat bread. I wanted to know if eating a diploid wheat (with fewer glutens) would upset my stomach. I found a source online, ordered a small bag, and made a loaf after it arrived. The loaf was a bit dense but savory and, when eaten warm, was a real treat. I made a peanut butter and jam sandwich that tasted wonderful.

Then I waited for the grief that I have come to expect after eating wheat products. But nothing happened. I ate another piece of bread and still felt fine. Then I decided I needed to try a tetraploid wheat – the kind that would have been used by our ancestors of previous generations.

Some of these species include emmer and durum wheat. They are a bit easier to find than einkorn wheat but are still specialty products and are quite a bit more expensive than your typical wheat. That said, I found a source of emmer wheat grains and ground the kernels myself in our small hand mill.

My loaf of emmer wheat bread came out of our bread-maker smelling very nice and grainy. I ate a piece and again waited for the trouble to begin. It didn’t. I was again pleased to know that I could eat this older wheat without difficulty. I was also pleased to know that I could enjoy the wheat known to the world at the time the Word of Wisdom was given.

I’m not sure if I will continue baking emmer wheat bread or try using a less-expensive gluten-free alternative. Time will tell. In the meantime, I have learned a lesson: dietary wisdom needs to be a dynamic pursuit. We should know this already. Christians enjoy eating ham even though – as religious descendants of Judaism – it might have been forbidden.

As Latter-day Saints we eat a good deal more meat than one might expect we would – considering passages found in the Word of Wisdom. Is this because we have better ways to preserve meat today? I’m not sure. Maybe we should eat less meat.

And so it is, I’ve discovered, with wheat. I have no doubt that wheat was, for most of our human history, the proper mainstay of our diet. I’m also convinced that it should no longer be the case. I think our uninformed scientific recklessness has ruined it – at least for many of us.

Here are a few sentences from a group of wheat scientists describing the situation in straightforward (and unemotional) prose:

During the last decades, a significant increase has been observed in the prevalence of CD [Celiac disease]. This may partly be attributed to an increase in awareness and to improved diagnostic techniques, but increased wheat and gluten consumption is also considered a major cause. Over 100 years ago, breeders started to systematically cross and select bread wheat for higher yields, adaption to climate changes, better bread-making characteristics, and improved disease resistance. Little information is available about the breeding history of landraces on these aspects”. (See the reference from Van den Broeck et al.)

So there it is. We have taken a food that once enjoyed the approval of Heaven and tried to improve it. And not only have we tried to improve it, we have done so without even worrying about the consequences. This should certainly be a cautionary tale. No wonder the Lord’s dispenses dietary advice as a “word of wisdom”. It is something we need to keep working on and thinking about with a good deal more humility than is our wont.


The reference to wheat in The Doctrine and Covenants is found in the Word of Wisdom (Section 89:17). Wheat Belly by William Davis was published in 2011 by Rodale. Jerold A. Bietz provides a useful hint on gluten accumulation in: Genetic and Biochemical Studies of Nonenzymatic Endosperm Proteins; in, Wheat and Wheat Improvement, Second Edition, Madison, Wisconsin, 1987. On the variability of wheat gluten genetics see Mapping of Gluten T-Cell Epitopes in the Bread Wheat Ancestors: Implications for Celiac Disease by Oyvind Molberg et al. Gastroeneterology 128 (2005): 393-401. Michael Pollen’s recently published book Cooked contains an interesting discussion on leavening. The significant article by Hetty C. Van den Broeck et al. (Presence of celiac disease epitopes in modern and old hexaploid wheat varieties: wheat breeding may have contributed to increased prevalence of celiac disease) was published in Theoretical and Applied Genetics (November, 2010), Volume 121 (8): 1527-1539.