Saturday, 25 September 2010

Mormons and Scripture

We started this series looking at the Mormon kingdom “Behind the Zion Curtain” and went on to see that the political, social and historical issues preoccupying Mormons there are not the key issues “Beyond the Zion Curtain.” Last time we looked at some basic ground rules that help us focus on those issues that do matter as we compare Mormonism and biblical Christianity.

The Mormon doesn’t value the Scripture as does the Evangelical believer, neither do they know or understand it. Mormons don’t simply understand the Bible differently; they don’t understand it at all. They lay no great store by what it says and simply use it to go quote-mining, or proof-texting to justify what they have already decided to believe.

To better understand the ambiguous relationship Mormons have with Scripture we will look at the founding book of Scripture in the Mormon canon. The first time we meet Mormonism we usually encounter the Book of Mormon, “a volume of holy Scripture comparable to the Bible” (BOM Introduction).

The eighth article of faith of the Mormon Church tells us the comparative worth placed on the Bible and the Book of Mormon. “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.” The Book of Mormon, then, takes precedence, as is confirmed by the following statement from Joseph Smith.

“I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.” (History of the Church Vol.4, p.461 (1841)

A remarkable book, then, that it should be more reliable than the Bible, more correct than any other, and that it should be man’s surest way to God.

Correcting the “Most Correct Book”

It is common knowledge that there have been upwards of 4,000 changes made to the text of the Book of Mormon. Most have been grammar, punctuation, spelling etc but some much more significant changes have been made. It does call into question the boasting of Joseph Smith in 1841, especially in light of the account of the translation work given by Joseph’s scribes. In 1848 Oliver Cowdrey, chief scribe for the Book of Mormon, testified:

“I wrote with my own pen the entire Book of Mormon (save a few pages) as it fell from the lips of the Prophet as he translated it by the gift and power of God by means of the Urim and Thummim, or as it is called by that book, holy interpreters. I beheld with my eyes and handled with my hands the gold plates from which it was translated. I also beheld the Interpreters. That book is true. … I wrote it myself as it fell from the lips of the Prophet. (“Journal of Reuben Miller,” 21 Oct. 1848, quoted in “By the Gift and Power of God,” Ensign, Sept. 1977, 79)

In a letter to the Deseret News, Edward Stevenson, who is regarded as “the person who best reflects Martin Harris”, wrote:

“Martin Harris related an instance that occurred during the time he wrote that portion of the translation of the Book of Mormon which he was favored to write direct from the mouth of the Prophet Joseph Smith. He said that the prophet possessed a seer stone by which he was enabled to translate as follows: By aid of the seer stone , sentences would appear and were read by the prophet and written by Martin, and when finished he would say, ‘Written,’ and if correctly written, that sentence would disappear and another appear in its place, but if not written correctly it remained until corrected, so that that the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates precisely in the language then used.”

A book “translated by the gift and power of God”; a book not considered written until every sentence was confirmed as correctly transcribed so that “the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates precisely in the language then used”.

Faced with all the changes made in the text, however, Mormon “scholars” have come up with a rather different account of how the translation work was done. They quote Doctrine and Covenants 1:24,

“These commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.”

It is argued that God showed Joseph the meaning of the text and Joseph had to cast about within his own vocabulary, and whatever resources he had about him, to find a way of expressing this meaning “after the manner of their language”. This, it is argued, is why we find in the Book of Mormon excerpts from the Westminster Confession and Shakespeare, as well popular books and the local press of the time.

Incidentally, this seems to contradict the popular and official Mormon story that Smith was "”a poor ignorant farm boy”. His access to these publications is explained by the fact that the literacy rate in North America in the 19th Century was remarkably high for the time, with 89% of of white Americans literate by 1860 (Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason, p. 229, Random House, 2006) Smith’s father was a schoolmaster so educational standards were high, both in the United States, as well as in the Smith household.

the bible

When, at the beginning of the Book of Mormon narrative, Lehi and his family fled Jerusalem, we are told, they took with them Laban’s brass plates, which contained “the record of the Jews” (1 Nephi 3:3-4) It is from these the Book of Mormon people quote, thus explaining the presence of so many lengthy Bible texts in the book. There are over 400 verses in which the Nephite prophets quote from Isaiah, and half of these appear precisely as the King James Version renders them. Daniel H Ludlow explains this as follows:

“There appears to be only one answer to explain the word-for-word similarities between the verses of Isaiah in the Bible and the same verses in the Book of Mormon…if his translation was essentially the same as that of the King James Version, he apparently quoted the verse from the Bible.” (Daniel H. Ludlow, A Companion to Your Study of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), p. 141)

Commenting on this in the Ensign magazine, Richard Lloyd Anderson wrote:

“Thus the Old Testament passages from Isaiah display a particular choice of phraseology that suggests Joseph Smith’s general freedom throughout the Book of Mormon for optional wording.” (“By the Gift and Power of God,” Ensign, Sept. 1977, 79)

There are, in other words, two conflicting accounts of how the Book of Mormon came to be translated. It was either a word-for-word “translation”, correct in every part, or it was a paraphrase “made after the manner of [Joseph’s] language”. Do we rely upon the accounts of those best placed to tell us what happened, or do we depend upon Mormon scholars to later “interpret” events in light of later developments?

Of course, given the growing distance in time, Mormon scholars are more able to put this disparity of accounts down to poor reporting on the part of those who acted as scribes to the prophet. However, since the scribes quoted above were also two of the three key witnesses to the Book of Mormon, it does not help the Mormon scholars to impugn their trustworthiness.

In Their Weakness

It is a curious phrase to find in a work purporting to be Scripture, “in their weakness”. Curious to a Christian certainly since it suggests room for error, allowance for human failings, man frustrating the work of God. There is a similar phrase in the title page of the Book of Mormon:

“And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgement seat of Christ.”

It seems that Joseph Smith allowed for every eventuality in publishing “the most correct of any book on earth” - just in case.

Just as well! It has been observed that there can hardly be any book published in the nineteenth century that has had as many changes made to it as the Book of Mormon. There cannot be many anyway. If there are you will probably find in them a publishing history showing that what you have in your hand is not the original but a revised edition. You will find no such candid admission in the front of the Book of Mormon.

The unsuspecting “investigator” will be led to believe that this is what came “from the lips of the Prophet as he translated it by the gift and power of God by means of the Urim and Thummim”. Such disingenuousness shows why Mormon scholars are necessary to “explain” the Mormon message when Mormon prophets are meant to be bringing the plain meaning of the gospel claimed to have been restored by Joseph Smith.

We begin to understand why Mormons know nothing of what it means to submit to the authority of Scripture. The Mormons think the Book of Mormon "the most correct of any book on earth"'; that is, not completely correct but most correct by comparison, because "if there are faults they are the mistakes of men". How does this compare with the Bible?

"All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16)

A Christian sees in the Bible God's all-sufficient provision for equipping thoroughly every Christian for kingdom living. Mormons, on the other hand, seem to be full of excuses for their not-altogether-reliable modern revelation, ready to admit faults and declare their Scriptures correct only by comparison, i.e. "most correct" rather than thoroughly reliable because "God-breathed".

A good example and witness to a Mormon, then, includes as essential a high view of the Bible, a reverence for God’s Word, and a readiness to appeal and submit to it in all matters of faith and doctrine. After all, “These things were written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you might have life through his name” (John 20:28)

9 comments:

  1. Popular usage in the US:

    The terms "Midwest" or "Midwestern" refer to a region of the USA considerably to the northeast of Utah and surrounding states. Midwestern states include Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, etc.

    Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, Colorado, etc. are referred to simply as "the West", "the American West", "the Mountain West" or "the Rocky Mountain West".

    Your use of "Mid-West" or "Midwest" in this series will confuse any American readers and misinform (in terms of American expression) any UK readers.

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  2. The Pew Forum maps of each USA state's percentages of the state's population belonging to various religious denominations are useful in assessing the religious environment of each state.

    However, in assessing the geographic distribution of members of a religious denomination, at least in the case of Mormons, those maps can be a little confusing. Utah, Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming are not very populous states and Arizona is not all that much more populous. The "Mormon Corridor", a contiguous area in the American West in which the majority of the population is Mormon, which includes Utah and the abutting portions of Arizona, Nevada, Idaho, and Wyoming, includes about two million Mormons. However, the Pew Forum's survey, based upon the more than 35,000 interviewed persons' religious self-identification, reports more than six million American Mormons. Thus, less than one-third of us live in or near Utah.

    For example, I have never lived anywhere out West. I live in an East Coast state which is a little over 1% Mormon but, because it is fairly populous state, that amounts to a community which is plenty large enough to maintain our cultural identity, provide an effective economic, social and political network, and give us a critical mass for missionary work.

    If you want to describe the religious geography of the USA, as it pertains to Mormons, it would be best to include the fact that two-thirds of us live no where near Utah.

    Murdock

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  3. With respect to your "ground rules" for discussion of religion, I do not see why any Mormon would agree to two of them.

    Stick to the Bible only? For you, certainly so, because that is the extent of your scripture. However, a Mormon discussing religion should not disregard the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine & Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price.

    Agree that you want to find God in the scriptures alone and no where else? If that is consistent with your belief, then of course that is what you should do. But a Mormon should not do so, and should look also to our Prophet and the Apostles.

    Also, I do not mean to be rude, but why would a Mormon want to talk to you about religion? You might be a really nice and interesting person, someone with whom I might want to discuss sports, politics or the stock market, over a nice cup of caffeine free herbal tea, but what would be the point of discussing religion with you while you are still alive? I cannot imagine you being converted until after you die.

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  4. As you point out, Joseph said only that the Book of Mormon is the "most" correct book and that he did not say either that the Book of Mormon is 100% correct or that the Book of Mormon is the only correct book. As you point out, Joseph was comparing the Book of Mormon to all other books and finding only that the Book of Mormon was better than any other book including, by necessary implication, the Bible.

    In any event, this was simply Joseph's opinion and, while his opinion is enormously influential it is, at the end of the day, just an opinion.

    Speaking for myself and no one else, I do not think that the Book of Mormon is perfect, although I do believe it is marvelously close to perfect and, to be sure, greatly superior to the Bible for US, TODAY. That is no surprise, as the Book of Mormon was assembled, out of a much larger collection of writings, on the basis of what would be most valuable to us, today, whereas the Bible was assembled for people of long ago in another land.

    No scripture can be perfect. That is why Heavenly Father has given us the Prophet and the Apostles.

    Murdock

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  5. Mike,

    You have puffed out your chest sufficiently enough claiming that we know nothing. Now lets see what you understand. Instead of another meaningless post about how scripturally superior you are and how we know nothing of the Bible, pick a doctrinal topic and lets use verse to defend positions.

    As a side note, it is very unflattering to continually assert that we don't trust the Bible. If that were the case we would not use it at all, let alone constantly.

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  6. Thank you Murdock. My geography is not great at the best of times. I will make the necessary adjustments following your suggestions.

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  7. Murdock, Re. your remarks about demographics, the object of the exercise is not to give an absolute account but a relative. The point being made was not that Mormons are holed up in Utah and environs, but that, in relation to the wider population in states outside Utah the % Mormon population is considerably smaller and outside the US so small as to be almost invisible.

    You may not have noticed but I am writing this blog from the UK (Wales) where the world does not revolve around our reaction to Mormons; the point I am making in my posts.

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  8. Murdock, The ground rules are intended to help find common ground not to dictate terms. I understand you would want to quote “other Scriptures” but since any Christian worth his salt can no more accept your extra scripture than you can reject it, it seems reasonable to stick to the Scripture both are supposed to believe. I didn’t say I expect to find God in Scripture alone but I do believe the Bible is the only Scripture in which God’s truth can be found. This is surely no surprise to you?

    I am glad you are convinced I must be a nice man but disappointed that, having made a start, you give up so easily in your attempt to persuade me into your heaven. Maybe, despite all the talk, it isn’t me that isn’t worth the effort but Mormonism. As to my being converted after I am dead, I am sorry to disappoint you but I have other plans, founded on more sure promises than those offered by Mormonism.

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  9. No scripture can be perfect. That is why Heavenly Father has given us the Prophet and the Apostles.

    That is an interesting statement Murdock.

    Apostles and prophets write Scripture
    Scripture is not perfect
    Therefore, apostles and prophets aren't perfect
    So Mormonism offers the world imperfect Scripture, interpreted by imperfect apostles and prophets.

    So we are left to take our best guess?

    I think it would be helpful if you defined "perfect" and "imperfect". What does it mean when a Mormon says he trusts Scripture? What does it mean when he doesn't trust Scripture?

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