And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.
An Application of Textual Criticism
The year before I left the LDS Church, I received as a gift Royal Skousen’s The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text, published by Yale University Press. That first night, I read the introduction in which Skousen describes his decades of research aimed at reconstructing the earliest English text of the Book of Mormon by comparing the various early manuscripts and stripping away changes made by Smith’s scribes and later editors. It had only been a couple years since I’d been introduced to the science and purpose of Textual Criticism. Here, I was seeing it applied to a Mormon text for the first time. While I was eager to get to the resultant textual reconstruction to see what insights Skousen’s work had uncovered, I re-read the 35 pages of Introduction and Editor’s Preface that first night. It had unlocked in my mind several questions that had been sitting on the shelf of my mind for a few years, and now weren’t going to let go.
- All of that work to arrive at the earliest English text, but to what end?
- Aren’t there still cultural and time gaps between modern readers and the supposed ancient authors that can never be bridged due to the fact that the golden plates aren’t extant?
- On what basis were subsequent changes to the English text of the Book of Mormon made, if they weren’t original, and there is no recourse to an original language manuscript?
As I’ve engaged with Latter-day Saints on these questions, answers have varied, but mostly those I’ve encountered have held to the idea that original language manuscripts for the Book of Mormon aren’t needed, because Skousen’s work gets us as close to the source of Joseph Smith’s inspired translation as we’re going to get. This raises a couple related questions:
- Who was inspired, the supposed ancient authors of the Book of Mormon or Joseph Smith?
- If both, then does Joseph Smith’s original manuscript also contain errors?
Like my view of Scripture, my understanding of the concept of Biblical inerrancy was informed by my upbringing in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The title page to the Book of Mormon, which Joseph Smith said was translated from the last leaf of the golden plates, contains a statement and a warning about mistakes in the text. It reads, “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 judgment seat of Christ.” Not only did the Book of Mormon’s supposed ancient authors predict how its detractors would react to it (“A Bible! A Bible! We have got a Bible, and there cannot be any more Bible.”), but also predicted that it would be put under scrutiny for errors and warned against rejecting it on that basis. The passage about how “gentiles” would react to the Book of Mormon had struck me as the manipulative, self-serving justification of a modern author trying to foist his own work on the world as ancient Scripture since that notion had unlocked in my mind sometime in early 1999 when I was sitting on a bed in an apartment in Budapest, but I’d pushed it aside. The title page warning now struck me as similar.
When asked why the eighth Article of Faith doesn’t contain a disclaimer for the Book of Mormon like it does for the Bible (“as far as it is translated correctly”), Latter-day Saints will often argue that it’s not needed because the Book of Mormon was translated “by the gift and power of God” so its resulting translation is perfect and exactly as God wants it. That aligns with Skousen’s work to try to identify the earliest text. Presumably, the closer Skousen gets to the original English text, the closer he gets to the perfect English text—but not to the ancient version of the text, if such were indeed to exist.
Ostensibly, both the ancient authors of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith in translating it, were inspired in what they wrote. Skousen’s entire exercise would be futile without that assumption! Why, then, does the title page contain the escape hatch it does? It suggests that despite God’s involvement, if humans are involved in the production of Scripture (either in writing the original texts or in translating them with God’s help) there will unavoidably be errors.
The translation process as described by David Whitmer suggests that Smith put his face in a hat and the translation of the characters on the plates was shown to him on his seer stone in the hat, one character from the plates and its interpretation at a time, and that the next character’s interpretation would not appear until the scribe had recorded it correctly. Such a verbally inspired translation process should not have resulted in any errors needing correction by later editors, but that is not what we have with the Book of Mormon, necessitating Skousen’s work to arrive at the earliest text.
Where Christians can logically reason to the inerrancy of Scripture from God’s perfection, Mormon Theology seems to lack a robust concept of inspiration powerful enough to overcome human frailty, else Latter-day Saints would also reason to a position of scriptural inerrancy, but even the supposed inspired translation of the title page of the Book of Mormon prevents them from doing so. The Book of Mormon, from the title page to the supposed worries of its ancient prophet Moroni is rife with the concerns of a mind seeking to convince the world that what he is producing is Scripture on par with the Bible.
In the first article in this series, I affirmed a belief in the inerrancy of the Bible. A friend with whom I served on the LDS Mission wrote me to share his thoughts on my article. One of his statements reminds me of a sentiment I have seen often from Latter-day Saints. He said, “I don’t think I can ever conceive of anything as ‘God’s inerrant word.’”
As I transitioned out of the LDS Church, and continued to discuss religion with others online, I found that Latter-day Saints often reacted with incredulity to the concept of Biblical inerrancy. I think this stems somewhat from what is stated in the eighth Article of Faith: “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.” This ties the reliability of the Bible with the reliability of the translation, in some ways confusing what Christians are affirming when they hold to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. I also think it stems from the idea that human involvement in the production of Scripture necessarily entails error, because as the title page of the Book of Mormon suggests, to “err is human.” Latter-day Saints come by a misunderstanding of the doctrine of inerrancy honestly.
One thing that discussing the concept of Biblical inerrancy with Mormons online circa 2010-11 taught me is that I didn’t have a firm grasp of the concept of Biblical inerrancy myself. I knew that it was something that many Evangelical Christians affirm, but as Latter-day Saints (at least one of them a Biblical scholar not just laypersons) presented me with their arguments against the concept, I often found myself either agreeing with them or flummoxed as to how to respond.
It wasn’t until I began attending a Christian Seminary, studying for an M.Div. in Biblical Studies that I encountered two clarifications that gave me solid footing for understanding the concept of Biblical inerrancy, and could see that many of the arguments made against the concept are rooted in a misunderstanding of what is being affirmed. The two clarifications that helped me to have a better grasp of what an affirmation of inerrancy entails are:
- Infallibility (the idea that the Bible is incapable of failing) is the stronger concept than inerrancy
- Inerrancy (the idea that the Bible contains no errors) applies only to the original text, not to later copies or translations
I affirm both the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible. Here’s why.
- The Bible teaches that God’s word is truth (free from error)
- The utter reliability of God’s Word has been the consistent teaching of the Church from earliest times
- “You have studied the Holy Scriptures, which are true and inspired by the Holy Spirit. You know that nothing contrary to justice or truth has been written in them.” – Clement of Rome, Letter to the Corinthians (between 70 – 96 CE)
- “[. . .] the Scriptures are indeed perfect, since they were spoken by the Word of God and His Spirit [. . .] – Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book II, Chapter 28 (between 174 and 189 CE)
- “For I confess to your Charity that I have learned to yield this respect and honor only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error.” – Augustine Letter From Augustine to Jerome (405 CE)
An elegant argument can be made for the infallibility and inerrancy of the Biblical autographs. One of my theology professors lays out the argument for the inerrancy of the Bible as a logical syllogism supported by the Bible’s own teachings:
- Premise A: Every word of God is true (Titus 1:2; John 17:17; 2 Cor 6:7; Col 1:5; 2 Tim 2:15; James 1:18)
- Premise B: The Bible is the Word of God (2 Tim 3:16; Mt 15:6; Mk 7:13; Rom 9:6; Psalm 119:105; Rom 3:2
- Conclusion: The Bible is inerrant
Another of my favorite theologians, R. C. Sproul, puts that syllogism this way:
- Premise A: The Bible is the infallible Word of God.
- Premise B: The Bible attests to its own infallibility.
- Premise C: The self-attestation of Scripture is an infallible attestation.
- Conclusion: The Bible is the infallible Word of God
However, Sproul rightly notes that the syllogism as structured above leads to the charge of circular reasoning. The conclusion is contained within the first premise. This pre-suppositional method of argumentation is wholly a theological enterprise, and I don’t have any problems with it and can affirm it on those grounds. But it doesn’t describe how I came to trust the Bible as infallible and inerrant.
This, and all I have laid out in this article about the historical reliability of the Bible when compared with the Book of Mormon, is why I hold to the classical approach to Biblical infallibility and inerrancy. It also can be structured as a logical syllogism:
- Premise A: The Bible is a basically reliable and trustworthy document.
- Premise B: On the basis of this reliable document we have sufficient evidence to believe confidently that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
- Premise C: Jesus Christ being the Son of God is an infallible authority.
- Jesus Christ teaches that the Bible is more than generally trustworthy: it is the very Word of God.
- Premise E: That the word, in that it comes from God, is utterly trustworthy because God is utterly trustworthy.
- Conclusion: On the basis of the infallible authority of Jesus Christ, the Church believes the Bible to be utterly trustworthy, i.e. infallible
The first premise allows for the study and wrestling that I’ve done with regard to historical reliability of texts claimed to be Scripture. The rest of the premises argue from that to various theological positions leading to the conclusion. This classical structure marries the two facets of my religious experience: mind and heart. I can love God with my mind and be justified in loving God with my heart. It leaves room for the work of the Holy Spirit in me through my studies. It escapes base fideism and allows for the evaluation of evidence and reasoning to play its part in my religious convictions. Historicity matters!
- Times and Seasons, Vol. III, No. 24, “Truth Will Prevail” accessed from http://www.centerplace.org/history/ts/v3n24.htm#943 ↑
- 2 Nephi 29:3 ↑
- See David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ ↑
- This problem was also identified by LDS Scholars David L. Paulsen and R, Dennis Potter in their response to Owen and Mosser’s review of How Wide the Divide: A Mormon & An Evangelical in Conversation. See their discussion of the issue as handled by Stephen Robinson on pp. 231-235 https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1408&context=msr ↑
- Ether 12:23-29 ↑
- Continuing the Tragic Quest https://beggarsbread.org/2019/03/03/12289/ ↑
- Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism, accessed from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69379/an-essay-on-criticism ↑
- The Gospel Topics entry on Bible, Inerrancy Of states the following:Latter-day Saints revere the Bible. They study it and believe it to be the word of God. However, they do not believe the Bible, as it is currently available, is without error.
Joseph Smith commented, “I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, chapter 17).
As the Bible was compiled, organized, translated, and transcribed, many errors entered the text. The existence of such errors becomes apparent when one considers the numerous and often conflicting translations of the Bible in existence today.
So while Joseph Smith, as quoted here, explicated a view that is close to what Christians mean by inerrancy, the view argued against in this brief article from the LDS Church’s website is a straw-man. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics/bible-inerrancy-of?lang=eng ↑
- Hat tip to my theology professor and Dean of the Seminary while I was there, Dr. Johnny Pressley, for the clarity with which he (and Dr. Cottrell) presented theological concepts. They both achieved a clarity of thought and enunciation of theological concepts for which I will forever be grateful and which I will forever be chasing. ↑
- Most scholars date this writing to the last three decades of the first century CE. ↑
- Jack Cottrell, Solid: The Authority of God’s Word, College Press Publishing Company, Joplin, MO 1991, 40-41. ↑
- R. C. Sproul, Scripture Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine, P&R Publishing, Philipsburg, NJ, 2005, 69. ↑
- Ibid. 72-73. ↑