Saturday, September 17, 2011

Otterson on Mormonism and Traditional Christianity - Part II

At the beginning of the month, I provided some commentary on the first installment of Michael Otterson's Washington Post column series about the differences between Mormonism and traditional Christianity. Otterson has now released a second installment, "From the Bible to the Book of Mormon: How do Latter-day Saints interpret Scripture?", which unfortunately says rather little about how Latter-day Saints interpret Scripture. Instead, the article - which has received coverage by the Deseret News and a positive mention at the official LDS Newsroom site - covers two main topics: what the Book of Mormon is, and how Latter-day Saints view the Bible.

Otterson states that the Book of Mormon is "not an allegory", which is clearly true, though I imagine that some at the fringe edge of 'liberal Mormonism' might like to claim that the text is an allegory, just as some at the fringe edge of 'liberal Christianity' attempt all sorts of utterly irresponsible things where the Bible is concerned. Otterson also, however, states that the Book of Mormon is not "primarily a history", which is a curious statement. Most books in the Book of Mormon, to my recollection, are written as though in historical genres. Otterson clearly believes that the Book of Mormon narrative is principally a historical one, which - while I of course disagree with the stance - seems to me to be the only truly faithful position for Latter-day Saints to take. All of Otterson's references to the main figures of the Book of Mormon are written in a way that implies their historical existence, and his reference to the visit of the risen Christ to the New World is to a "literal" event.

Furthermore, early Latter-day Saints clearly thought of the Book of Mormon as a history. Benjamin Winchester wrote in 1843 that the Book of Mormon "contains a history of a people that were Israelites of the tribe of Joseph, who emigrated from Jerusalem to this continent about six hundred years before Christ" (History of the Priesthood, p. 130). In comparison to the Bible, Winchester remarks that the Book of Mormon is "a history of a different nation or branch of the house of Israel" (ibid., 132). Joseph Smith, in his 1842 Wentworth Letter, said that the Book of Mormon narrated "the history of ancient America". The previous year, LDS apologist Charles B. Thompson described the Book of Mormon as "a History of a branch of the tribe of Joseph" (Evidences in Proof of the Book of Mormon, p. 28), a "history of their nation, together with the word of God revealed unto them" (ibid., p. 56), a "book or record containing the history of a branch or remnant of the tribe of Joseph, together with the great things of God's Law written to Ephraim which is truth" (ibid., p. 138). The year before that, Orson Pratt had - like Joseph Smith later - described the Book of Mormon as "the history of ancient America" (Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, p. 14), and said that Moroni "continued the history until the four hundred and twentieth year of the Christian era" (ibid., p. 22). Earlier still, Orson Pratt's brother Parley described the Book of Mormon as a "history of the ancient inhabitants of America, who were a branch of the house of Israel, of the tribe of Joseph; of whom the Indians are still a remnant" (Voice of Warning, p. 129). Jumping ahead in time to after Joseph Smith's death, Orson Spencer stated in his 28 August 1847 letter to William Crowell that the Book of Mormon "reveals at once the history of the American continent". It seems fairly clear that the Book of Mormon was most definitely understood - and is still understood, for that matter - to be a purported (sacred) history of Israelite groups in the New World. Why Otterson remarks that the Book of Mormon is not "primarily a history", then, baffles me. It may be a sacred history that includes some texts of non-historiographical genre here and there, but it is surely primarily a history in any case.

What I find most interesting about Otterson's discussion of the Book of Mormon, however, is that absolutely nothing is said of how it came to be published. Otterson says absolutely nothing about the angel Moroni, nothing about the golden plates, nothing about the Urim and Thummim, nothing about the seerstone in the hat, nothing about the 116 lost pages. Otterson's professed purpose, however, is to explain "key elements of the faith", to "explain simply and factually some of the basics of the Latter-day Saint perspective for those outside the faith who know little about Mormon beliefs and want to know what makes us tick". Despite this, he says that the alloted length of his column is too short to "describe its [the Book of Mormon's] content and origin in any detail". Of course, Otterson offers no discussion of the book's origin at all, and discusses its content only very cursorily. Perhaps if Otterson had excised a bit of the fluff in his column, he would have had room to share this information with the public. That may be a bit harsh on Otterson, but he is the one, after all, who specifically intends to address "those outside the faith who know little about Mormon beliefs", and I hardly think it unreasonable to suppose that at least an outline of the basic, 'faith-promoting' rendition might be included on that basis.

Otterson also discusses, to some extent, the relationship of the Bible and the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon, he says, is not a replacement for the Bible. He seems to imply that the Bible and the Book of Mormon are equal in standing, rather than the Bible being subordinate to the Book of Mormon. Otterson stresses the emphasis that Latter-day Saints place on reading the Bible as sacred Scripture. The Book of Mormon, as Otterson presents it, is a third testament equal to the Old Testament and New Testament. Otterson does not, however, address the rather persistent claims heard in some LDS circles that the Bible is incomprehensible without the Book of Mormon, or that the biblical canon is completely faulty, or that the Bible is so corrupt as to be filled to the brim with contradictions, thus rendering it useless save where guided by modern revelation.

Otterson states that the LDS approach to the Bible is less than fully literal; he and other Latter-day Saints, he says, "don't take every word of the Bible literally". Now, strictly speaking, this is not only true, but also proper. Neither do Evangelicals. Informed Evangelicals believe in reading each statement of the Bible within the proper boundaries of the form and genre within which it appears, as informed by the sociohistorical context of the text. It is a common caricature to say that Evangelicals read the Bible with a wooden literalism - though unfortunately a caricature that Evangelicals frequently perpetuate ourselves, out of a desire to reaffirm our seriousness in approaching Scripture as a historical record.

The Evangelical concern is not so much whether Latter-day Saints interpret biblical passages "literally", but rather whether Latter-day Saints accept biblical authority in such a way as to commit themselves to taking biblical passages seriously as they stand. A principal thrust of many Evangelical critiques of LDS views on the Bible is that the attempts to dismiss the biblical text as hopelessly corrupt or incomprehensible apart from modern revelation are in fact nothing more than a baseless denigration of biblical authority, with the result (so the critique might run) that Latter-day Saints do not take key biblical passages seriously as they stand, but instead (1) charge the text with corruption, regardless of textual evidence; (2) insist upon imposing 'modern revelation' upon the text, regardless of whether or not this meaning is compatible with what the text could have meant in its original context; or (3) simply refuse to care about what the Bible says at all. I happen to think that this critique has some merit where at least some Latter-day Saints are concerned. It should be noted that even in its strong form, the critique is likely not meant to say that any of these three, or even their disjunction, is the case with the majority of biblical passages. And, of course, it must be admitted that Evangelicals are often guilty of abusing the text in ways that oughta be banned under international law.

Otterson himself states that his view of the Bible allows for "human errors of translation or omission, or indeed of interpretation". Of course, no one denies that the Bible may be misinterpreted; it is incumbent upon us to strive to interpret faithfully, and while not all disagreements can be resolved, a responsible approach to the text can assist in this. Nor does anyone deny that the Bible may be translated incorrectly. The King James Version includes some noteworthy but innocent examples of this, whereas the New World Translation used by Jehovah's Witness includes far more egregious (and also quite blameworthy) examples. However, this may always be checked against the Hebrew and Greek texts, and most modern translations are fairly faithful, within the limits of the modern English language. Where early Latter-day Saints could get away with a wide variety of 'creative' new translations from Hebrew and Greek, this is no longer the case. (What strikes me as curious is that Latter-day Saints have a supposed 'restoration' of the Bible as God meant it to be, the Joseph Smith Translation, yet refuse to rely chiefly upon it. Pragmatic issues aside, the status of the JST in LDS thought and praxis has always been somewhat of an enigma to me.) That leaves the matter of omission, and here Evangelicals simply have to request evidence for these sorts of sweeping claims. Otterson does not mention other sorts of supposed alterations to the biblical text, such as additions or errors in wording, but I have heard such (baseless) claims frequently as a knee-jerk reaction when it comes to biblical passages that some Latter-day Saints have difficulty reconciling with their own beliefs.

What's more, it should be noted that many early Latter-day Saints - unlike Otterson's brand of Latter-day Saint - prided themselves on being strict 'literalists'! Parley Pratt notoriously said in 1837 that the Christian world had gone astray when they "departed from its [the Bible's] literal meaning" (Voice of Warning, p. 15), and he ridiculed 'non-literal' approaches to biblical interpretation (ibid., pp. 19, 22, etc.). Those were praised who "never once thought of any other interpretation, but the most literal" (ibid., p. 22). See also statements to similar effect on the first page of the April 1834 issue of the Evening and Morning Star. In 1844, William Appleby wrote that we must take "the scriptures in their most literal sense", heeding "the most literal meaning of words and sentences" (Dissertation on Nebuchadnezzar's Dream, p. 3). In that same year, G. J. Adams said regarding the Bible that "the inspired men who wrote those pages, meant truly and literally what they said" (Lecture on the Authenticity and Scriptural Character of the Book of Mormon, p. 3). The same tenor appears in other authors, as is borne out by an examination of how frequently the word "literal" and its cognates appear in early LDS literature. Benjamin Winchester offered a somewhat more nuanced version of 'biblical literalism' that matches up more closely with the more literalist end of the Evangelical spectrum.

To conclude, however, on a positive note, I commend Michael Otterson for his relatively positive appraisal of the Bible as both literature and as sacred scripture; and I also commend him and join him in his appreciation for those who sacrificed so dearly to ensure that the Bible would survive and be available to as many people as possible, for in it are words of life. To his concluding quotation from Elder Christofferson's May 2010 Ensign article (though not to the whole article itself), I can only say, "Amen."

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