The Book of Mormon
Best be yourself, imperial, plain and true
To members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Book of Mormon is the inspired religious history of a small band of Jews led by a prophet named Lehi. After being warned in an inspired dream of the imminent fall of Jerusalem Lehi led his extended family across the seas to settle in what is now known as the American continent. In their promised land they became a tribal nation that eventually divided into two main groups, Nephites and Lamanites, whose fortunes fluctuated according to their obedience to divine Law.
In keeping with divine prophecies the resurrected Jesus appeared to them and delivered the Sermon on the Mount and other Christian teachings. After a prolonged period of peaceful coexistence which was the result of living by Christ's teachings, the tribes again turned to warring. The Nephites became more wicked than the Lamanites, and were eventually slaughtered in a final series of fierce battles. Knowing that the end of his people was near, a Nephite prophet-general named Mormon abridged the records of his people. The records had been updated regularly by a series of scribes and prophets since the group left the area of Jerusalem. When the abridgement was complete Mormon gave it to his son Moroni. At the end of his life Moroni added his own chapters and hid the sacred record in a hill. In this quiet spot it remained unseen until it was given into the hands of Joseph Smith, who translated it by the "gift and power of God." It is another witness for Jesus Christ and testifies to his divinity.
The Book of Mormon records two other migrations from the ancient world. The first led by Jared at the time of the Tower of Babel. The third, led by Mulek took place shortly after Lehi's expedition. The history of these groups is understood by Mormons as salvation-history in the same way as ancient Israel and modern day Jews regard their histories.
The public declaration that an extra-Biblical volume of sacred writings was at hand brought forth a variety of responses. Most were sceptical, some downright hostile. The general opinion was that God no longer worked his wonders as he had in old times, for the heavens, it was said, were closed. Most Christians believed that modern revelation was neither possible or necessary. But there were still a few who in their desire to return to a purer form of Christianity believed that God had the power to speak, and that as he had done so before, he would again. The Bible does not contain any claim that it is the total sum of all God's revelations to mankind, neither does it provide to believe that God would seal up his mouth against his children on earth.
But, the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.
Those who do not claim divine revelation will not be generous enough to admit that others receive it, especially when the group claiming revelation is perceived as a threat to their theology. These considerations have to be taken into account when contemplating hostile reaction to the claims of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Scepticism always attends religious manifestations when it is safe to be sceptical. Modern revelation is disbelieved and former revelations 'de-mythologised' to portray something in which it is safe to believe. Higher criticism of Biblical documents has introduced new rules for looking again at the nature and value of inspiration.
The doctrine of verbal inspiration and inerrancy of every part of scripture, treated as a single whole without any recognition of the differing value of different parts, made an intelligent and imaginative approach to the Bible almost impossible...
The liberal approach to Bible study is remarked upon by Catholic scholar, Professor Raymond F. Collins.
The traditional belief of the Church [affirms] the inspiration of the New Testament Scriptures, yet the doctrine of inspiration seems not to enjoy as much prominence in the teaching of the main-line churches as once it did.
Influential churchman Charles Gore, former Bishop of Oxford, first principal of Pusey House, Oxford, and a founder of the Community of the Resurrection, wrote of the departure from the traditional view of inspiration of the Bible. He suggests that it is a mistake to consider it either faithful to history, or infallible.
There is a good deal in the Fathers which favours a liberal interpretation of the meaning of inspiration and does not make it identical with verbal or historical infallibility.
Respected Biblical exegete, Charles Harold Dodd, former Professor of Divinity at Oxford and sometime Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis at Manchester University, has written.
The act of faith which accepts the authority of the Bible is as purely individual a judgement as that which accepts the authority of the Church. What is the ground of it? The Bible does itself not make any claim to infallible authority for all its parts. On the contrary, some of its greatest writers contemplate the possibility that they may be mistaken, or even confess in some points they have been mistaken. Isaiah found his sweeping predictions of complete disaster in favour of a faithful remnant, Jeremiah found his expectations in several points falsified, and at one time wondered if he had been deceived. Ezekiel withdrew his forecast of the fall of Tyre. Paul sometimes claims to speak the word of the Lord, but at other times "gives his opinions" quite tentatively. The Protestant who believes in the infallibility of the whole does so on some other grounds, such as the declaration of his own Church-which in this point he accepts as infallible., though he would reject the Roman doctrine of infallibility-or something personal to himself. Really-may we not say-he believes the Bible to be authoritative because of the effect it produces on his own mind and spirit. For this as for all his beliefs he must accept personal responsibility.
These pronouncements of leading ministers and scholars have not resulted in more open-mindedness than previously existed. Had it been otherwise the appearance of new scripture might have been welcomed. Many objections to the Book of Mormon are predicated on misunderstanding the nature of the Bible. It is taught in some traditions that the Bible is God's final and complete revelation to mankind - sola scriptura. If this is so it renders further revelation unnecessary, but it would make Councils and Synods spurious too.
There are those who maintain that the Bible is free from any kind of error.
Despite the cynical claims of the critics, there is compelling evidence for the dependability and trustworthiness of Scripture. For example, consider its origin: 'All Scripture is inspired (i.e. breathed-out) by God' (2 Timothy 3:16). Can you really believe that 'the God who cannot lie' (Titus 1:2; Hebrews 6:18) breathed out mistakes and discrepancies in this self-revelation through the prophets and apostles? Remember also that the Old Testament prophets recognized that they were under the authority and leading of the Holy Spirit (Micah 3:8; 2 Samuel 23:2; Zechariah 7:12, etc.). They were unable to change or detract from, or add to the words God had given them (Numbers 24:13; Amos 3:8).
Those who hold this position on the Bible are called 'Bibliolatrists.' In their thinking the Bible displaces God as the unchangeable object of worship. This position is based on ignorance and misunderstanding, as Dodd has written. Other eminent scholars agree. The Bible is not a single book, but a library of at least sixty-six books, which are not the total sum of scripture. The Old Testament refers to other books which are no longer extant. There are books known as Apocrypha and Pseudipigrapha not included in the Scriptural canon. With few exceptions it is doubtful if any of those whose works comprise the New Testament considered they were writing scripture. Had Paul considered this he would have taken greater care not to introduce so many contradictions into his letters. Not all epistles from the first century Church have survived. References to them are contained in some of those which have.
Would conservative Christians accept Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians if it was discovered? Or would they discard it, believing the canon to be complete and closed? Would their minds remain as firmly closed as they seem to be?
We have written from the point of view of those who believe that in the Bible we have God's true revelation of himself, and not simply one more record of man's search for God. That being so we have treated the Bible as the yardstick against which to measure both our own view and those of the sects we have examined.
What these authors have not said, but which is evident from their statements, is that they use their personal interpretations of what they think the Bible means as the yardstick. This is not what they intend us to believe. With that in mind it is no surprise that those with this perspective should view the Book of Mormon with sceptical disdain. Its mere appearance challenged their established dictums. In spite of the Book of Mormon being a primary target for anti-Mormons it is a source of faith in God and Christ. The tension is between those who are satisfied as to its veracity and those who are not. On the matter of proof Latter-day Saint scholar Hugh Nibley has written:
"Proving" the Book of Mormon is another matter. You cannot rove the genuineness of any document to one who has decided not to accept it. The scribes and Pharisees of old constantly asked Jesus for proof, and when it was set before them in overwhelming abundance they continued it to disbelieve it.
But, while the difficulty of persuading someone with a different perspective to see things from another point of view is admitted Nibley points out another problem.
It is not sufficient to dismiss the claims of the Book of Mormon out of sheer prejudice. There is only one direction from which any ancient writing may be profitably approached. It must be considered in its original ancient setting and in no other. Only there, if it is a forgery, will its weaknesses be revealed, and only there, if it is true, can its claims be vindicated.
On the possibility of the Book of Mormon being a fraudulent production he offers:
...we hold Joseph Smith to account. His book enjoys no immunity to the severest tests and asks for none. The study of forged documents is by no means in its infancy: it was in fact the principal delight of Renaissance scholarship. It has been known for centuries that the easiest of all forgeries to test and detect are the long historical documents, and that it was never necessary to go beyond the inner consistencies of such documents to expose their fraud. So here is the Book of Mormon: if the title page is not telling the truth, it is a big, shallow, clumsy fraud, and there are hundreds of scholars in the world capable of refuting its claims within the hour. But whoever offers to undertake the job must be willing to submit his claims and arguments to the same severe criticism that it is his business to meet out. With this understanding the Book of Mormon may some day enjoy the serious critical examination it deserves.
In past years some individual Latter-day Saints have made exaggerated claims regarding the involvement of a learned institution in the archaeological proof of the Book of Mormon. I have found no evidence of dishonest intent in such claims and the Church has not made them. Archaeology can prove very little more than support particular cultural and historic claims, but it can not prove the existence of divine inspiration. Verification of the inspiration of a document is obtained only through the Holy Spirit and not by what can be dug from the ground. Critics of the Book of Mormon have questioned whether wheels, elephants, horses or concrete were known in the pre-Columbian Americas. When the Book was published no proof for them existed. Since that time considerable evidence for their existence has been discovered. This reduces the level of criticism against it but does not prove its divine origin. The same is true of the Bible. Discoveries may show that it contains geographical and historical truth but do not prove its divine origin notwithstanding claims made to this effect.
In respect of the origin Book of Mormon, the unusual circumstances related by Joseph Smith respecting how he received and translated it often prove to be stumbling blocks. Its literary form, content and doctrines have attracted charges of simple plagiarism to complex fraud. The weakness of the cases made out against the Book of Mormon are highlighted by the inability of its critics to agree on a single theory of origin or on a set of inter-related theories about its source. The discrete approaches to this most infuriating of all books are evidence of the desperation of those who cannot accept its divine origin. The most important of these theories are examined in the following chapters.