A couple of months ago I was asked to give a lecture at Northwestern University as sort of a community outreach to the students there (not as a proselyting event). This was sponsored by the local LDS singles branch, and I was suggested as a speaker by my fellow blogger RT. They suggested three subjects, and I at first picked “polygamy,” thinking that if the goal was to attract a lot of non-LDS students that would be the surest draw. But the powers that be got cold feet for that particular topic, and I can’t say that I blame them. They came up with the captioned subject instead, which was fine with me as it was actually an easier preparation for me than polygamy would have been.
The lecture was set for last night in Annenberg Hall at 7:30 p.m. I was glad of the location, as that is just two buildings behind the Garrett Theological Seminary where I’ve spent a lot of time, so it was easy for me to find. The drive was brutal, though. Normally when I go to Garrett on a Saturday it takes me an hour; last night the drive was an hour and a half, due to rush hour, rain and construction. But I finally made it, with plenty of time to spare.
At first I thought it might just be four people in the audience, but more folks wandered in, and we ended up with a very good crowd. I never had a chance to count them, but it looked like somewhere between 40 and 50. An old friend of mine who now works for CES was there (he had diverted his Wednesday night Institute classes to the lecture), as was our local AA70.
Below I’ll try to type up my speaking notes to give you a sense for what my presentation entailed:
I actually started with two jokes. The first one was given to me by a friend: “Shakespeare wrote that even the Devil can quote scripture to his own purpose. Well, here I am.” The second one I just came up with on the spot: “I’m pleased to see this strong attendance tonight. I didn’t think anyone would come given that we’re up against the thrid presidential debate and, more significantly, Project Runway.”
Then I explained that I had been asked to address the question “Do Mormons Believe in the Bible?” There is a simple answer to that question: Yes. So now we can just eat the refreshments and go home.
But I take it that implicit in that question is another, namely, how does Mormon belief in the Bible compare with and contrast to that of others? So that is the question I want to address this evening.
Summary of Early LDS History:
[My working assumption was that there would be many non-LDS in the audience, and in fact there definitely were some, although I don’t know how many. So I geared my lecture to those people, and wanted to give them some context about Mormonism so that the rest of the presentation would make sense.]
- I explained a bit about the word “Mormon.”
- JS was born in Vermont in 1805 to his parents, Joseph Sr. and Lucy
- Joseph Sr. and Lucy began their marriage in comfortable circumstances, but experienced financial reversals. Moved from farm to farm throughout New England scratching out a living from the dirt.
- Greater opportunity to the west, so they moved to the Finger Lakes region of NY. The vortex of religious feeling in American history (Second Great Awakening, the Burned Over District).
- The Smiths a family of Seekers. (I told the story of when Lucy started attending Methodist services and Joseph Sr. started going with her. His father Asael [a Universalist] was livid and came to the house, opened the door and threw inside a copy of Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason, and bade his son to read it until he believed it.) Joseph Sr. remained aloof from organized religion. Lucy also had a Seeker background, but she felt a keener desire to affiliate with a church, and joined the Presbyterians for a time.
- Joseph Jr. took after his father (once told his mother he could take his Bible into the woods and learn more in five minutes than she could after hours of church meetings), but eventually, like his mother, yearned for a church home.
- Family had contracted to purchase a farm, and the entire family had to pull together to try to earn the money for the annual payments. One way they did this was with a cake and ale shop on Main Street in Palmyra. Joseph as a teenager had the job of taking refreshments in a cart out to where the people were to sell them, and where the people were frequently was camp meetings out in the woods. Exposed to the various fragmented Protestant sects of his area, he was confused as to which to join. (Leaned Methodist.)
- Was reading the Bible and came upon James 1:5-6. (As he later recounted, “the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.”)
- First Vision: “join no church.”
- Surprised at minister’s negative reaction to the idea of modern visions.
- Modern Mormons see the FV as the charter of our religious tradition, but for early Mormons it was the later appearance of Moroni [describe coming forth of BoM].
- I then described the migrations to Ohio, Missouri, Illinois and to the west.
An Open as Opposed to a Closed Canon:
- Recall JS statement about inadequacy of Bible to settle the question. By his experience he came to reject the Protestant sola scriptura position. Unlike the Catholics, who make up the difference with Church tradition, he made up the difference with modern revelation directly from God to man.
- People would read the BoM, decide it was true and be baptized. So these people were accepting an open canon position.
- Word “canon” GR for “reed” (used as a measuring stick); came to mean an authoritative list of texts.
- We talked about the different canons of the OT and the development of the NT canon.
- Most Christian canons are closed, meaning that list of books is set in stone; you can’t take any away or add any to. In contrast, the Mormon canon is open.
- Mormons absorbed the Protestant canon of the Bible from the KJV by default.
- Mormons have their own terminology for this: “standard works” (originally anything published by the Church, but by 1900 usage limited to scriptures). The Mormon standard works are Bible, BoM, D&C and PoGP (describe latter two).
- Although Mormon canon remains open in principle, it is more ajar than wide open. Most additions derive from first generation or two of the Church. Most recent additions made in the 1970s.
- I also described ambiguous Mormons usage of the term “scripture,” which can mean either the canonized standard works or, more loosely, writings, teachings or addresses of contemporary church leaders that are not and never will be formally canonized.
Errancy as Opposed to Inerrancy:
- When Moroni appeared to JS, he quoted a number of scrips (Joel, Malachi, etc.), some with variations from the received version.
- BoM presents scriptural quotations and allusions also with such variations.
- Idea of textual problems with the Bible common in Joseph’s religious culture.
- In summer of 1830, shortly after publication of BoM, JS undertook a new project, to revise the Bible himself. A long tradition of Christians attempting to clarify and correct the Bible, but usually using scholarship and notes or commentaries, external to the text. But Joseph not an educated man or a scholar; he used inspiration, and he made his revisions internally within the text itself. More like a midrashic commentary or a targum.
- Started in Genesis, moved to NT, returned to Genesis and finished OT. Came to Apocrypha (bound between the testaments in his edition), so he asked whether he should translate that. Talked about D&C 91.
- Initial method was to dictate entire mansucript; very inefficient. Explained the JS “marked Bible,” which allowed JS to simply dictate revisions.
- Types of changes a mixed bag. (Long sections without parallel in the Bible [e.g. Enoch material], common sense corrections, modernizing archaic Jacobean KJV usages, assimilating to better known wording, harmonizing contradictions, doctrinal corrections.)
- Miracle we have it (Emma carrying ms. sewn into her dress when expelled from Missouri.)
- When main body went west under BY after JS killed, some rejected BY leadership and remained in midwest. Eventually became RLDS, and they controlled the mss. Good friends now, but severe tensions in 19th century. When RLDS finally published IV in 1867, LDS didn’t trust it and held it at arm’s length. Finally in mid-20th century LDS scholars given access to the mss. and could see RLDS were responsible in their editing. Effort to rehabilitate JST among LDS. 1979 edition of Bible includes 600 extracts from IV in footnotes/appendix.
- AoF: “We believe the Bible to be the Word of God, as far as it is translated correctly….”
- From JST and this AoF, it should be clear that Church is formally errantist. But many LDS make informal inerrantist assumptions. I described Chicago Statement on Inerrancy position that inerrancy refers to the original autographs, and said that many LDS would sign on to such a statement (although I wouldn’t and I think it would be a mistake. Expressed my view that scripture by definition is mediated through human beings, and human beings by definition are fallible and limited.)
Bible in Modern Church Life:
- Scripture reading in the home; Family Home Evenings
- Seminary (described four-year curriculum)
- Missions (study, discussing with people)
- Priesthood (widely held)
- Lay organization
In comparing Mormon knowledge of the Bible with that of other Christian groups, I opined that Mormon knowledge is probably broader, but not as deep. (I used the expression “a mile wide and an inch deep”). Both tendencies derive from our lay structure. We have hundreds of thousands of returned missionaries among our people, something few other Christian groups can match. But our congregations rarely have someone with the kind of knowledge a Rabbi at a local synagogue has. Our bishops are engineers, not churchmen with advanced degrees in religioius studies. We do have our own Bible scholars, an impressive crew of grad students and interested amateurs, so we’re making progress. But requires individual initiative; no one ever became knowledgeable in the Bible just from attending SS.
Commitment to KJV:
- Originally, KJV was the common Bible among LDS by default.
- Rise of modern translations raised question whether we should transition to one of those.
- Influence of JRC and his Why the KJV? [describe]. Was on lots of bookshelves, and although rarely read (too dense for average member), people knew the general outline of argument, and it was very influential.
- 1979 edition sealed the deal; KJV now the official English language Bible of the Church.
- Advantages to that (classically beautiful language, everyone using the same version establishes consistency in classrooms and instructional material).
- But also big disadvantages. An archaic translation that doesn’t reflect more recent scholarship and difficult to comprehend, especially by young people.
- Substantial impediments to formally adopting a modern translation (e.g., what do we do with quotations and allusions to KJV in our modern scriptures? That intertextuality a problem).
- Fine to use other translations for personal study, but for official purposes for time being the KJV is it; suggests need to learn how to read it effectively.
Then we finished with a Q&A session, which lasted for maybe 15 minutes.
All in all I thought it went very well and I got some good feedback.