Mormon Inquiry

This is the long overdue second post on Craig Blomberg and Stephen Robinson’s How Wide the Divide: A Mormon & an Evangelical in Conversation. [See the first post.] This post talks about the Mormon view of scripture, with reference to the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants, volumes of scripture that, along with the Bible, are part of the LDS canon.

It’s worth starting out with a paragraph from their joint conclusion, which emphasizes how similar are the Evangelical and Mormon views of scripture:

Both … agree that all Scripture is “inspired” (theopneustos) of God. Moreover, we are closer to each other in our views of the nature of Scripture than either is to liberal Protestantism, maintaining alike that Scripture is literally true in its teachings, both historically and morally. We hold the same understanding of “inerrancy,” though the LDS would use different terms to say the same things. We agree that the present biblical text is the word of God within the common parameters of the Chicago Statement and the Eighth Article of Faith. At least some Evangelicals believe the canon is open in principle, though virtually all believe it is closed in practice, while Mormons believe the canon to be open in both principle and practice.

As noted, the Mormon canon remains open in practice, although not as open in the 21st century as it was in the 19th century. The most recent addition is “Official Declaration — 2,” added in 1978, announcing the dramatic change in LDS policy as a result of a revelation to senior LDS leaders such that “all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard to race or color.” The only other addition to the canon in the 20th century is section 138 of the Doctrine and Covenants, reporting a vision received by Joseph F. Smith in 1918.

The Evangelical View

Blomberg summarizes the Evangelical view of Scripture as holding that “no ecclesiastical body or individual Christian can make proclamations that are on a par with the authority of Scripture” and that most Evangelicals “would agree that no church hierarchy, pope or anyone else has the right to add to, supercede or contradict the written Word of God” as contained in the Bible. He further explains inerrancy or “verbal, plenary inspiration” as meaning that “the process of inspiration extends to the actual words of the Bible, not just the thoughts and concepts embraced in them” (that’s the verbal part) and “that all sixty-six books in all their parts are inspired” (that’s the plenary part).

Blomberg structures his explanation of inerrancy around the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, produced by a large group of Evangelical scholars in 1978. He quotes and accepts Paul D. Feinberg’s summary of that long statement:

Inerrancy means that when all facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with social, physical or life sciences.

Blomberg than adds five qualifications to the statement or to an Evangelical’s present ability to affirm inerrancy: (1) “when all facts are known” (there are some inconsistencies in the text that can’t be resolved at present); (2) “in their original autographs” (not the actual text of the Bible as we have it); (3) “properly interpreted” (requiring “adherence to the standard principles of ‘hermeneutics,'”); (4) “in everything that they affirm” (noting that some cultural assumptions incorporated in biblical writings were not what a writer was trying to affirm or teach); and (5) “whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical or life sciences” (which he notes is the most controvesial of the five qualifications). Depending on your denominational affiliation, you might describe that as an appropriately tailored definition of inerrancy or a carefully hedged definition. In any case, it’s clear that inerrancy is not a simple or straightforward concept.

The Mormon View

Robinson notes that “Latter-day Saints accept the Bible (without the Apocrypha), the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price as canonized Scripture and as the word of God to the church and to the world.” He adds that the LDS view takes Scripture “to be literally true,” holding “symbolic, figurative or allegorical interpretation to a minimum, accepting the miraculous events as historical and the moral and ethical teaching as binding and valid.” This view is encapsulated in this statement drawn from the LDS Articles 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.

That statement causes Evangelicals a lot of heartache, but when viewed against Blomberg’s five qualifications to the Chicago Statement it seems less objectionable. No one, Evangelical or Mormon, denies there could be incorrect translations or wants to affirm as inspired an incorrect translation. While it’s not explicitly stated, it is certainly true that Mormons believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God only as far as it is translated correctly. In fact, corrections to the text have been made with each successive edition of the Book of Mormon, based on careful review of existing original manuscripts of the English text of the Book of Mormon.

Robinson ties the LDS view of the inerrancy debate to the LDS doctrine of continuous revelation. “For Latter-day Saints, the church’s guarantee of doctrinal correctness lies primarily in the living prophet, and only secondarily in the preservation of the written text. This is, after all, the New Testament model. … [W]hat makes Scripture theopneusos (“inspired,” or “God-breathed”) is not its written character but its revealed character.”

The Same, but Different

In their joint conclusion to the chapter on Scripture, Blomberg and Robinson note that “both Evangelicals and the LDS accept the beliefs and practices of the New Testament saints as normative for the modern church.” Also, “in principle both Evangelicalism and Mormonism ought to be defined by their canonical Scriptures, the Bible and the Standard Works (which includes the Bible), respectively. Supplemental material from either tradition ought not to be presented as the normative word of God or as authoritative beliefs.”

Differences remain, of course. Blomberg and Robinson identify the extent of the canon and the authenticity of the revelation claimed by Joseph Smith and subsequent LDS leaders as obvious points of disagreement. I suspect that for most Evangelicals it is not the actual content of the Book of Mormon that is a problem as much as the idea of the Book of Mormon. I’ll give the final word to Blomberg, who in his own conclusion first applauds Robinson’s rather moderate statement of the LDS position, then sounds his own rather moderate view of Mormon claims.

Since I do not believe that the gift of prophecy has ceased or that God cannot continue to reveal truth to his people at [a] lesser nonscriptural level, I cannot in principle reject Mormonism lock, stock and barrel just because it claims to have received additional prophecy. Even though I cannot accept claims that put this “prophecy” on a par with Scripture, it is surely the case that the LDS provide some important reminders for Evangelicals of wholesome morality and fervent belief through their supposed revelations in areas that agree with the Old and New Testaments as well.

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