Wednesday, November 26, 2003

INTELLECTUALLY DISHONEST??- The letter to my professor has sparked an interesting discussion at the Times and Seasons blog. The discussion has mostly focused on my claim that "Informed Mormons have shown for over sixty years on the basis of the Book of Mormon text itself that it does not teach that Native Americans are descended from Israelite origin". Kaimi Wenger has accused me of being intellectually dishonest in making this claim. However, I am surprised by this since I take what I have said to be entirely uncontroversial. I admit that often times uncritical statements are made that support the notion that all Native Americans trace thier decent to Lehi, but I think that these are "uninformed" statements. I equated "informed Mormons" with "Mormon scholars" in my post. I (with all the intellectual honesty I can muster) cannot think of a single Mormon scholar (that is, Mormon scholars of the Book of Mormon) who does not accept a version of the view I presented here. Additionally, I think that this idea will become increasingly dominant in the Church at large. While I have never attended BYU, my perception of the high status that scholars who defend this view have there is evidence that this veiw is frequently taught in Book of Mormon classes. These students will go on to teach Sunday School, seminary, etc. The most important witness, however, is not the list of bibliographical references who support one view or the other, but what the Book of Mormon text actually says. With that in mind, I think I am on pretty solid ground.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

This is an extremely well thought out letter. I am impressed. I hadn't heard the point about 19th century meanings of the word "translate." I am curious as to whether you know of any 19th century Mormons using the term in this sense. I am thinking of Joseph's discussion of the accuracy of various Bible translations in the King Follett Discourse. He seems to be talking about linguistic translation.

I am also curious to what extent we as Mormons should play that "anti-Mormons are hurtful" card. I think that there are some anti-Mormons who are genuinely vicious and hateful. On the other hand, I think that some of the Joseph-Smith-was-inspired-by-Satan crowd are quite sincere, and I honestly don't think that they have suspect motives or desires. I just think they are wrong. My tendency is to think that talking about the emotive effect of speech is a distraction and that we ought to focus on its content. I realize this is really crude. On the other hand, it seems that these sorts of arguments can be turned around on us fairly easily.
LIVING HOPE MINISTRY- One of my professors of New Testament was recently contacted by Living Hope Ministry about participating in a video about the textual transmission of the Bible directed against contradicting Mormon claims. He has tentatively agreed, but he asked my opinion and wanted to know more about the project. I just finished writing him a letter, presented here.

November 25, 2003

Dear Prof. (name witheld),

As we discussed, I looked into the Living Hope Ministry. I wanted to summarize some of my findings and assess the overall scope of the project to which they have asked you to contribute.

I have long been sensitive to evangelical critics of Mormonism. Far too often, whether done out of ignorance or malice, they have spread lies about Mormons and been very hurtful. They frequently misrepresent Mormon belief and portray them as monstrous, evil people. They are often believed to have been either deceived by Satan or Satanic emissaries themselves. They often use the genre of the exposé focusing on some salacious materials or incorrect beliefs.

The Living Hope Ministry is located in Brigham City, Utah, a small town about 90 minutes north of Salt Lake City. They describe themselves as “a small, evangelical non-denominational congregation.” I examined their website to assess the character of this group. To their credit, I must say that Living Hope Ministries is relatively mild and does attempt to be respectful, couching their criticism in terms of love.

According to its mission statement: “Living Hope Ministries exists to produce and provide materials useful to individuals, churches, and ministries for the evangelization of those who are caught in the deception of the LDS Church.” The phrase “caught in the deception” seems to imply that there is some kind of active deception being perpetrated by Mormons or Mormon leaders. The website calls Joseph Smith as a liar and a false prophet and declares that “the Bible says Joseph Smith is eternally condemned.”

They discuss Mormons’ claims to spirituality and fellowship with the Holy Ghost: “We have also tested these experiences and found that they are not consistent with the ministry of the Holy Spirit taught in the Bible. The Bible teaches that demonic spirits influence people. These spirits can only be effectively defeated by following the instructions of God in the Bible.” Again, the notion that Mormons have been deceived by Satan is a common motif.

The Living Hope Ministry produced a video recently that dealt with DNA and the Book of Mormon. They gathered scientists, some of whom were former Mormons, to discuss a supposed Mormon belief that Native Americans were descended from Israelite origin. They included one LDS scholar. I have some criticisms of the film. First, their representation of Mormon belief was often misleading. They attacked popular beliefs held by Mormons about the Book of Mormon, but rarely addressed any of the scholarly material. Informed Mormons have shown for over sixty years on the basis of the Book of Mormon text itself that it does not teach that Native Americans are descended from Israelite origin (Mormon scholars argue that the Book of Mormon story took place a limited geographical space and that the DNA of one family could not have had any measurable impact on the DNA of an entire native population). The misrepresentation of LDS belief was highlighted by the interview with the sole LDS scholar. He was quoted describing what he believed the Book of Mormon was when he was a child, but was never quoted describing what he now believed about the Book of Mormon.

Second, the video often mixed theological and historical arguments. This was evident in the way that many of the issues were framed, e.g. “Joseph Smith cannot have been a prophet if…” There were several quotations from the Bible about “false prophets” and “one gospel.” The point is that the video was not a scientific study, but a focused theological attack. The video concluded with an invitation to Mormons who may have been watching to offer up this sample prayer:
“Dear Lord Jesus,
I know that I am a sinner and need Your forgiveness. I believe that You died for my sins. I want to turn from my sins. I now invite you to come into my heart and life. I want to trust You as Savior and follow You as Lord. I give you my life—make me the person You want me to be and help me daily to live my life for You.
Thank you Jesus,

My preliminary assessment of the project that they have asked you to participate in is similar. This new video aims to treat the transmission history of the Bible. They have invited scholars of the New Testament and Hebrew Bible to be interviewed. It seems that they intend to attack either popular notions of LDS belief about the transmission of the Bible, or common misconstructions of it.

It is important to note that there is not official LDS teaching on this subject. Beliefs about the Bible are as wide-ranging within Mormonism as any other church. The most that can be said officially is the Mormons do not believe that the biblical text is inerrant. Conservative Christians object to this. The common critique of the LDS view comes from one of the Articles of Faith, a set of informal doctrinal explanations written by Joseph Smith. It says: “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.” There are two objections to this statement by critics. First, they object to the insinuation that the Bible is not “translated” correctly. Second, they object to the fact that the Book of Mormon does not have the same qualification, which seems to elevate its authority above that of the Bible.

These objections, however, misrepresent the issue. Word studies of 19th century usage of the word “translate” show that it was often used to mean, “transmit,” or “transform.” In this sense it does question the transmission history of the biblical text and its inerrancy. However, it would be strange to assert the opposite, e.g. “We believe the Bible to be true including transmission errors.” The LDS view here simply allows for the possibility of transmission errors, and claims that they are not binding. Yet frequently critics exaggerate this claim. Why then does this caveat not appear for the Book of Mormon? The primary reason why is that Joseph Smith claimed to translate the Book of Mormon from the autograph text. There were no “transmission” errors. Additionally, the Book of Mormon itself claims that it is subject to errors and imperfections. If one believes the Book of Mormon, one accepts prima facie that there are errors in it.

Critics sometimes charge that Mormons believe that the biblical text is therefore “unreliable.” As far as I am aware, this claim has never been made. Sometime LDS scholars point out that we do not have the complete record of early Christianity, such as Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, but this is not the issue at stake. Rather, Mormons claim that the Bible is not sufficient for salvation or knowing the entire will of God. The Bible is historically conditioned, and as such, represents God’s revelation for the past. This revelation is not replaced by Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, etc, but is supplemented by God’s continued revelation. One of the other Articles of Faith explains: “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” This denies the notion of a closed canon, but does not declare that the Bible is irrelevant or unreliable.

Another theological claim that is often brought into this debate is that many LDS doctrines are not “biblical.” In most cases there are interpretive issues at stake, such as the meaning of “baptism for the dead,” whether or not the Trinity is a biblical doctrine, or whether or not the Bible teaches that it is a closed canon. In others cases, some LDS doctrines cannot be found in the Bible. For biblically based Christians this is a problem. But for Mormons, the doctrine of continuing revelation holds that God continues to reveal to humanity on subjects such as soteriology, cosmology, etc. This question is a theological and hermeneutical one, not a historical one. It has to do with the status and authority of the biblical text, not with its accuracy. Mormons could accept that the Bible has been transmitted completely accurately, but their hermeneutics are fundamentally different.

My larger point is that I am unsure how anything you would say about the transmission history of the Bible could be properly construed as a way of disproving a tenant of Mormon belief. Quite simply, I am positive that if you were invited to speak to a Mormon audience on the same subject that you would be warmly received. I have read your books and heard your lectures and do not find anything you say about the history and development of the Gospels or the Pauline traditions to be at all inconsistent with my beliefs as a Mormon. For this reason I am skeptical about what you have to offer to these people. It seems that only by setting up a straw-person of Mormon belief is it possible for them to contradict Mormonism’s claims about this issue. However, it seems that conservative Christian groups, like those interviewing you, would not only disagree with you, but have much more at stake given their pre-conceived notions about the status of the Bible. It is the selectivity of their intentions that concerns me.

I hope that this is helpful in making the decision whether or not to participate.