Science in Christian Perspective
Letter to the Editor
More on the Book of Mormon
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From: PSCF 38 (June 1986): 152.
Recently the JASA published some fine material by Thomas Key relating to the Book of Mormon (BOM). This was eventually followed by an interesting exchange of letters between Mr. Ellis Davis and Key. I do not think the issue should snowball within the pages of this journal. Yet, as an evangelical theology student doing some research in the area of Mormon studies, I find that the discussion as published does require finalizing comment.
Two preliminary points will be treated, followed by a third concluding point. First, Key might have enhanced his discussion through interaction with scholarly LDS material. As early as the 19th century, B. H. Roberts, a notable Mormon scholar, anticipated several of the points which Key makes. The import of Roberts' admissions regarding BOM difficulties has not diminished over time. Some current LDS scholarship is no less open, and supports Key's observations. See for example, George D. Smith, " 'Is There Any Way to Escape These Difficulties?': The Book of Mormon Studies of B. H. Roberts," in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 17, No. 2, pp. 94-111.
On the other hand, there are also LDS scholars who have attempted to argue against the sorts of objections which Key raises against the authenticity of the BOM. Deserving of interaction by Key might have been the following: Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert and the World of the Jaredites (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft Publishing Company, 1952); C. Wilfred Griggs, "The Book of Mormon as an Ancient Book," Brigham Young University Studies, Vol. 22, No. 3, pp. 259-278; John W. Welch, "Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon," in John W. Welch, ed., Chiasmus in Antiquity: Structures, Analyses, Exegesis (Hildesheim: Gerstenberg Verlag, 1981); and Noel Reynolds, ed., Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins, BYURSCMS, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft/BYU Religious Studies Center, 1982). Much more is, of course, also available to the interested researcher.
Second, Mr. Davis states that he is unaware of any discrepancies between the BOM and other LDS scriptures. I do not doubt at all the sincerity of his statement. It is common outside of LDS intellectual circles. Most Mormons are simply not aware that Joseph Smith's early theology, reflected in the BOM, evolved in radically different directions later in his life. This is apparent in such later documents as the Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price, and in the King Follett discourse. Davis should consult the works of scholars within his own religion to become current on this, such as Thomas Alexander, "The Reconstruction of Mormon Theology: From Joseph Smith to Progressive Theology," Sunstone, Vol. 5, No. 4, pp. 55-64; Blake Oster, "The Idea of Pre-Existence in the Development of Mormon Thought," in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 15, No. 1, pp. 59-78.
Summarily on this point, it should simply be noted that the BOM nowhere supports such currently taught Mormon doctrines as the plurality of Gods; God as a finite, corporeal being; the Trinity as a material, tri-theistic society of Gods; eternal progression (the doctrine that humans may advance to Godhood by obedience to LDS teachings, just as Elohim and other Gods have done); the doctrine (not currently practiced) of polygamy; the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods; the Temple Endowment and baptism for the dead; and so on. Support for these are found only in the later works of Joseph Smith, which contradict the monotheism of the BOM.
Mr. Davis, as well, is not aware of contradictions between the Bible and the BOM. There are significant ones, however, such as 2 Nephi 25:23, which states: "Be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do." This, I fear, is not biblical soteriology.
The third, and last, point has to do with the relevance of this discussion to the issue of scriptural inerrancy. Key's entire discussion presupposes that factual error within the text of an alleged scripture tends to mitigate against any claimed revelational status. There are, however, evangelical scholars who believe that scripture need be infallible only with regard to salvific truth. Inerrancy, it is claimed, has to do only with the central, salvific intention of scripture. Scripture is to be considered inerrant, even when factual error is admitted, if it accomplishes its saving purpose. The "inner testimony of the Holy Ghost" is sometimes given a central role as well. I will simply say that given the criteria suggested by the various evangelical "errantists," I have seen not one which can stand against the revelational claims of the BOM. If the criteria for the authenticity of an alleged scripture are that it function as a witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, that it be related to an experience of the inner testimony of the Holy Ghost, and that it have some claim to historical truth while admittedly containing errors of fact, then the BOM will be irrefutable. I commend Key, therefore, for at least being on the right methodological track.