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Boldly going where few Christian apologists have gone before.
Updated: 3 weeks 16 hours ago

Leaving IRR but Not Leaving Mormonism Alone!

Wed, 10/17/2018 - 16:15

Last month, I announced that the Institute for Religious Research, where I have worked since 2008, was facing a deep financial crisis that made its future after the spring of next year very doubtful. Since that announcement, a few people have begun making monthly contributions or made generous one-time gifts. To those of you who have given in these ways I wish to express my thanks and appreciation. After pursuing some avenues of fundraising and observing the results, I came to the conclusion that while the organization might survive it was extremely unlikely that it would have sufficient funds to continue employing two persons full time. At the same time, several ministry friends with whom I consulted expressed interest in working with me in some capacity or assisting me financially to work independently. For these reasons, a couple of weeks ago I made the decision to give my notice at IRR. I will be leaving the staff of IRR effective at the end of this year. My colleague Joel Groat, who has been at IRR almost since its beginning over 30 years ago, is now the executive director. During the remainder of 2018, I will be taking care of things related to my departure and completing some projects for IRR.

My departure at the end of the year should make it much more feasible for IRR to raise the funding necessary to sustain the organization for the long term. The ministry’s focus will be on its mentoring program and support groups for transitioning Mormons (and possibly Jehovah’s Witnesses) and on training and equipping Christians for discernment and outreach in Utah and outside the United States, especially in Latin America and Africa. Joel has some particularly exciting opportunities to train and equip thousands of pastors in Kenya next year. If you have been blessed by IRR’s ministry, I would encourage you to support the organization financially so that this important work will continue.

Although my plans beyond the end of the year are not yet entirely solidified, it appears that my main work will be writing books. I have a rather long, ambitious list of books that I hope to have published over the next several years. Some of these books will be on Mormonism, the subject area that has had most of my attention the past ten years. Thus, the work that I have been doing will go on and I am hopeful it will have an even greater impact, if God wills.

When I announced last month that IRR was in dire financial straits, one rather unpleasant Mormon apologist rejoiced in that possibility, comparing the possible closing of IRR to the closing of a Planned Parenthood clinic. His offensive analogy aside, even if IRR closes its doors its contributions will continue to help Mormons who are sincerely seeking the truth. There are hundreds of articles about Mormonism on IRR’s website and I don’t think they are going to disappear. And IRR may yet survive this financial challenge and continue its mission of ministering to transitioning Mormons and equipping Christians for discernment and outreach to them. In any case, the false scriptures, doctrines, and rites of the LDS religion will not be safe from scrutiny. Evangelical work in this field is in fact getting even better, as one can see from the publication earlier this year of Sharing the Good News with Mormons, a collection of essays offering practical, informative strategies for doing just what the title indicates. And as I’ve noted, I hope to continue working in this area after my departure from IRR.

Mormonism will not, however, be the only subject I address. I’m going to be working on books on other subjects, including a second edition of Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ, which I co-authored with my good friend Ed Komoszewski in 2007. I will also be teaching some courses and speaking at some conferences. I am going to the annual Evangelical Theological Society convention in Denver next month, where I will be presenting a paper on Trinitarian and non-Trinitarian views of the Holy Spirit. I am also scheduled to teach again (on a topic yet to be determined) at the Defend Conference at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in early January 2019. If you will be at either of these events, I hope we will meet up and get a chance to talk. In the meantime, I would be grateful for your prayers. If you want to follow what I’m doing and receive updates, you can follow this blog or follow me on Facebook or Twitter.

 

Are You Smarter than a Trinitarian? Part Two: Responding to Mormon Misrepresentations of the Trinity

Tue, 09/04/2018 - 09:44

In Part One of this response to LDS apologist Ronald Kimmons’s flow chart on the Trinity, I summarized his argument and replied to red herrings or misdirections included in that chart that are not germane to the issue of whether the doctrine of the Trinity is true. As I explained there, Kimmons seeks to trap Trinitarians into one of two indefensible positions: (a) claiming that people who don’t believe in a meaningless word are going to Hell or (b) claiming that people who don’t accept the Trinity are heretics while at the same time affirming an explanation of the Trinity that is itself heretical. As I shall now show, Kimmons’s polemic against the doctrine proceeds by systematically misrepresenting what Trinitarians actually believe.

 

The “Incomprehensible” Doctrine of the Trinity

Kimmons begins his questioning of Trinitarians with the question, “Can you explain the Trinity to me in a way that makes sense?” The Trinitarian is allowed to answer either “Yes” or “No.” Already we have a problem. Well-informed Trinitarians should be able to explain the doctrine of the Trinity sufficiently so that others can know what it claims, and they may even be able to explain its meaning in a way that shows it is not meaningless or irrational. However, this does not mean that their explanations, even if reasonable and cogent, will be persuasive or satisfactory to opponents of the doctrine. Moreover, most Trinitarians acknowledge that the doctrine in some way represents God as being beyond our full or complete comprehension. That is, most Trinitarians recognize that the doctrine of the Trinity posits ideas about God that we find difficult if not impossible to explicate fully. The “triunity” of God means something to us, something that is intelligible and significant, but since there is nothing literally triune in nature or in our tangible experience our understanding of how God is triune remains imperfect. This does not mean that we should answer “No” to Kimmons’s first question. We can explain the doctrine in a way that makes sense, at least to a significant extent, but those who take a rationalistic approach to the matter (I must understand it fully and perfectly or it cannot be true) will not agree that it makes sense.

You can see what Kimmons is doing from the rhetorical question he asks if you answer “No” to his question about explaining the Trinity:

Imagine if I told you that you have to believe in Sahayafooda or you will go to hell…but that I can’t tell you what Sahayadafooda is because it is incomprehensible. How would you react?

It simply is not the case that Trinitarian Christians cannot tell someone what the Trinity is. Kimmons’s word Sahayafooda is a nonsense word that he invented for the purpose of his polemic against the doctrine.[1] It literally has no meaning at all, and that’s the point of it. However, that is not the case with the word Trinity—and I dare say that Kimmons is smart enough and knowledgeable enough to know it is not the case. The word Trinity denotes the doctrine that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are relationally distinct from one another and yet co-exist eternally as one God. The term Trinity therefore has a specific meaning even though orthodox Christians struggle to explain how God can be one God and three “persons.”

Indeed, orthodox Christians have advanced somewhat different explanations or philosophical constructs to try to articulate in a rational manner how the triunity of God can be conceptualized in categories we can fully understand.[2] But this fact about historical theology does not mean that the word Trinity is a nonsense word.

Orthodox Christians need not be embarrassed at all by the difficulty of articulating a model or philosophical analysis of how God can be one God and three persons. Practically everything traditional Christianity teaches about God has philosophical or conceptual difficulties for those who demand rigorously analytical comprehensiveness for any doctrine that it to be considered intellectually acceptable. We should expect our understanding of the being of God to be severely limited given that God is the incomparable, transcendent Creator of everything other than himself (Isa. 40:12-28; Rom. 11:33-36).

Even doctrinal ideas that many non-Trinitarians accept without question can pose challenging analytical difficulties. For example, many ardent opponents of the doctrine of the Trinity believe two things about God: (1) that he has “free will,” or the ability to make free choices, and (2) that he knows the future including what he himself will do in the future. Few people notice that these two beliefs about God are rather difficult for us to harmonize analytically. If God knows what he will do tomorrow, is he “free” in doing it? Does he have “free will” to do something different than what he already infallibly knows he will actually do? Our difficulty in explaining how God can know what he will do tomorrow and still be free in doing it does not mean we should not accept both ideas about God. If Scripture teaches both ideas (and I would say it does), we should accept them both even though we are unsure how they cohere with one another.

Likewise, if Scripture teaches that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are personally distinct from one another, that each of these persons is God (the Creator), and yet that there is only one such God—and it does[3]—we should accept these ideas and hold them together in our minds as best we can.

 

Analogies and the Trinity: “That’s Modalism, Patrick!”

To those who would answer “Yes” to the challenge of explaining the Trinity, Kimmons issues a fiollow-up challenge question: “Okay, what is it? How is it that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct persons who share a common essence?”

Notice that he first asks “what is it,” that is, what is the Trinity, and then asks “how” the three persons “share a common essence.” As I hope the reader sees immediately, these are two different questions. Ironically, Kimmons answers his first question indirectly by acknowledging that a common definition of the Trinity is the belief “that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct persons who share a common essence.” Not satisfied with this definition, Kimmons goes fishing for explanations, several of which take the form of analogies to the Trinity. In each case, Kimmons informs the unwary Christian who finds any of these analogies helpful that the analogy is heretical according to “Trinitarian scholars”:

  • Trinitarians who compare the three Persons to the three states of water (ice, liquid water, and water vapor), to three roles performed by one man (father, husband, carpenter), or to three differently shaped shadows cast by the same triangular prism are advocating Modalism, also called Sabellianism or Monarchianism. These terms refer to a type of heretical doctrine that maintains that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three roles or manifestations of one divine person.
  • Trinitarians who compare the three Persons to three leaves on a clover are advocating partialism, the heretical idea that none of the three Persons is God but only collectively constitute God. Inconsistently, in his quiz “Are You Actually a Trinitarian?” the clover analogy is accepted as an appropriate expression of Trinitarian belief. I found this out because one of his questions contained no entirely satisfactory answers, but I chose the “clover” answer because it was the closest to being acceptable. After taking the quiz I was “rewarded” with the news that I really am a Trinitarian!

There is enough truth to what Kimmons is saying here that he cannot be accused here of directly misrepresenting what Trinitarianism teaches. It certainly is possible to utilize these analogies in the service of an overtly heretical theology. Any reasonably well-informed Christian would immediately recognize that comparing the three Persons to three roles performed by the same person is a mistake. Arguably, this is the one analogy of the four analogies presented in the flow chart that simply cannot be understood in anything other than a heretical way. Educated Christians generally regard the other three analogies also as suggestive of heretical views of the Trinity.

An interesting example of orthodox Christians addressing this very point comes in a popular YouTube video entitled “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies,” a humorous take on the subject from LutheranSatire that has garnered over a million views. In this video, animated Irish characters called Donall and Conall meet St. Patrick (the Christian missionary who introduced the gospel in Ireland) and ask him to illustrate the Trinity with an analogy. St. Patrick tries some of the very same analogies that Kimmons criticizes and the Irishmen, who hilariously know more than they should, dismiss each one as a heresy. Three forms of water? “That’s modalism, Patrick!” they respond (a line that I have seen quoted on social media numerous times). A three-leaf clover? That’s “partialism,” the Irish country theologians explain. The same man can be a husband, father, and employer? “Modalism again!” Frustrated, St. Patrick shouts, “Fine!” and goes on to assert that “the Trinity is a mystery that cannot be comprehended by human reason.” It would not be surprising in the least if Kimmons had seen this particular video, though of course he could have picked up information about these analogies and the corresponding heresies from other sources.

The problem here is that some of the analogies are not all that bad, as analogies go. The whole point of an analogy is to compare one thing to something that is different and yet has an interesting similarity. The New Testament uses a number of metaphors for the church, in effect drawing analogies between the church and something familiar from our experience, but the church is not any of those things and is in extremely important ways different from all of them. So the church is like a body with Christ as its head, like a temple made of stones with Christ as the cornerstone, and like a bride with Christ as her husband. These analogies are helpful but in each case we can think of ways in which the church is very much not like those things. For example, Peter qualifies his use of the temple metaphor by referring to Christ and Christians as “living stones” (1 Peter 2:4-5), since of course the stones in a literal temple are inanimate objects. He also mixes metaphors by referring to the church also as “a holy priesthood” (2:4, 9), thus comparing the church to both the temple and the priests who work inside it. Press any analogy and it will break down—that is in the very nature of an analogy.

So it is with analogies to the Trinity. Is the Trinity like one clover with three leaves? Yes, but since God is an infinite, noncorporeal being the three persons are not three separate parts of God. All analogies are going to be like this one: presenting interesting comparisons that may help us think more clearly about God’s triunity but will have some limitations simply because clovers, water, and other physical objects are not God. It is fundamental to the biblical view of God that he is not fully comparable to anything we experience in the created order (Ex. 8:10; 9:14; 15:11; 2 Sam. 7:22; 1 Kgs. 8:23; 1 Chr. 17:20; Ps. 86:8; Isa. 40:18, 25: 44:7; 46:5, 9; Jer. 10:6-7; Micah 7:18). This is why even the visions of God that biblical prophets had were highly symbolic representations (e.g., Ezek. 1:26-28; Dan. 7:9-10; see also Rev. 1:13-16).

I should say that some of these analogies of the Trinity are arguably better than others and are not nearly as terrible as is sometimes claimed. A simple comparison of the Trinity to water changing to ice when it is cold and to steam or vapor when it is hot certainly sounds like modalism. However, a much more sophisticated version of the analogy has compared the triunity of God to the triple point of water. Michael Bozack, a physics professor who has given this analogy its most impressive articulation, explains that the term triple point refers to “the point where the solid, liquid, and gaseous forms of a substance coexist in a state of dynamic equilibrium.” For example, ice, water, and steam can coexist at a temperature of 0.01 degrees Celsius and an air pressure of 0.0006 atmosphere.[4] Bozack goes on to compare the triple point and the Trinity and to explain why the analogy implies neither tritheism nor modalism.[5] Bozack cautions that a chief deficiency of the analogy is the inability of an inanimate substance such as water “to approximate traits best described as personal…. Obviously the phases of the triple point are not self-determining but are controlled by the applied thermodynamic conditions. A second deficiency in the triple-point analogy is that all matter is comounded in structure, composed of smaller and smaller particles, while the Godhead is singular and indivisible.”[6] Other believing scientists and theologians have used scientific comparisons in the reverse direction, arguing that a Trinitarian understanding of God illuminates our understanding of the natural world.[7]

Ultimately, analogies are neither descriptions nor explanations of the Trinity. They are comparisons made to illustrate select aspects of the idea of oneness and threeness coexisting in the nature of deity. To expect analogies to be more than analogies is illogical. And if you ask a Trinitarian for an analogy in order to trap him or her into sounding like a heretic, you are confusing the issue, not illuminating it.

 

Strawman Misrepresentations of the Trinity

Kimmons gives the Trinitarian four other options from which to choose as possible answers to his challenge to explain how “the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct persons who share a common essence.” These four options are not analogies but theological assertions, all of which constitute outright denials of the Trinity:

  • “All three persons are God because, in truth, God is everywhere and everything” (pantheism).
  • “The Son and the Holy Spirit are actually beings created by God the Father, who shares his power and authority with them” (Arianism).
  • “Jesus was not actually a mortal being, but a mirage created by God the Father” (Docetism).
  • “The Trinity is comprised of three coequal, coeternal beings who are united in purpose, not essence” (tritheism).

None of these assertions represents the doctrine of the Trinity, as Kimmons knows full well. He says so, explaining in each case that the assertion is understood as expressing a specific heresy (i.e., pantheism, Arianism, Docetism, or tritheism). Including an explicit statement of pantheism is laughable; no one who professes belief in the Christian Trinity also embraces pantheism.

In short, in his flow chart, Kimmons asks for an explanation of the Trinity, gives Trinitarians eight answers from which to choose, and claims that all eight answers implicate the Trinitarian in a heresy that is contrary to the doctrine of the Trinity. The whole argument turns out to be an exercise in stacking the deck.

Answers could have been included as choices that would have avoided the limitations of analogies and that would have been perfectly acceptable to most if not all advocates of the doctrine of the Trinity. For example, I would have happily agreed to the following answer:

The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct persons but because their nature is that of infinite, incorporeal spirit, they exist as one divine Being, not three separate entities.

Or Kimmons could have used the following popular evangelical distinction, which I think is not as precise as I would like but which would be recognizably Trinitarian:

God is one What (the divine Being) and three Whos (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).

Offering Trinitarians answers such as these, however, would have spoiled all the fun, as would have acknowledging that no explanation of the nature of God is going to change the fact that nothing in the world is completely like God and that our ability to understand his nature is inevitably limited.

 

NOTES

[1] See his answer to the question, “Christians: Can you help me understand the concept of trinity?” Quora, updated June 30, 2016. Kimmons later developed his comment here into the flow chart we are examining.

[2] For an excellent survey of the issue and of the various models of Trinitarian theology, see Thomas H. McCall, Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? Philosophical and Systematic Theologians on the Metaphysics of Trinitarian Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).

[3] For a detailed overview of the biblical evidence, see Robert M. Bowman Jr., “The Biblical Basis of the Doctrine of the Trinity: An Outline Study,” rev. ed. (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2011).

[4] Michael J. Bozack, “Physics in the Theological Seminary,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 36/1 (March 1993): 66 (65–76).

[5] Ibid., 66–70.

[6] Ibid., 76. See also his earlier article “The Thermodynamical Triple Point: Implications for the Trinity,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 39 (March 1987): 39–41.

[7] E.g., John Polkinghorne, “The Universe in Trinitarian Perspective: A Theology of Nature,” chapter 3 in Science and the Trinity: The Christian Encounter with Reality (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004); Vern Sheridan Poythress, Knowing and the Trinity: How Perspectives in Human Knowledge Imitate the Trinity (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2018).

Are You Smarter than a Trinitarian? Part One: Responding to Mormon Misdirection on the Trinity

Thu, 08/23/2018 - 23:15

Ronald Kimmons is a Latter-day Saint businessman with political ambitions, a self-described “digital marketing professional, linguist, and smartypants” who has also spent a lot of time answering questions on the popular Q&A website Quora. According to his Quora profile, Kimmons, who attended Brigham Young University, has answered over 6,000 questions, mostly about religion, Christianity, and the LDS Church.

Earlier this year, Kimmons created a flow chart entitled “My Reaction to ‘Trinitarians’ Who Call me a ‘Heretic’.” For the purposes of critical review, I have posted an image of this flow chart here. Kimmons has posted it on Quora at least four times in the past three months. The image of this flow chart is now making the rounds on other social media sites; I have seen it twice in the past week on Facebook. Kimmons also created a quiz on his Quora page entitled “Are You Actually a Trinitarian?” with six questions. Both the flow chart and the quiz are designed to show that Trinitarians have no coherent grounds for charging others with heresy. Kimmons seeks to expose most self-professed Trinitarian Christians as “heretics” by their own standard, supposedly by showing that their own explanations of the doctrine of the Trinity are actually theories that have been condemned in church history as heresies (modalism, Arianism, etc.). By the way, I took his “quiz” and at the end it proclaimed that I was a true Trinitarian (and stating that only 21% of those taking the quiz qualify as such). However, based on Kimmons’s flow chart, his quiz should have classified me as a heretic. More on that inconsistency in part 2. In this article, I will analyze Kimmons’s argument and respond to two red herrings or diversionary claims he makes in his chart.

 

The Argument of the Anti-Trinitarian Chart

The flow chart is structured so as to show any Trinitarian that his position is either meaningless or heretical by Trinitarians’ own standard. The chart begins with a question:

Can you explain the Trinity to me in a way that makes sense?

You are allowed to answer either “Yes” or “No.” If you answer “No,” the chart announces the following outcome:

Imagine if I told you that you have to believe in Sahayafooda or you will go to hell…but that I can’t tell you what Sahayadafooda is because it is incomprehensible. How would you react?

If you answer “Yes,” that is, you can explain the Trinity to him in a way that makes sense, a follow-up question comes next:

Okay, what is it? How is it that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct persons who share a common essence?

Kimmons then gives the Trinitarian eight answers from which to choose. Each of these answers is followed with the news that “Trinitarian scholars call this…a heresy,” with six different specific heresies named. These are the core elements of Kimmons’s argument, which will be addressed in part 2 of this article. From the claim that every Trinitarian explanation of the doctrine is itself heretical according to Trinitarian scholars, the following outcome is announced:

At a certain place and time, actual Trinitarians would have burned you at the stake.

So the Trinitarian appears to be caught between two unpalatable options: (a) claiming that people who don’t believe in a meaningless word are going to Hell or (b) claiming that people who don’t accept the Trinity are heretics while at the same time affirming an explanation of the Trinity that is itself heretical and that in the past would have gotten the Trinitarian burned at the stake.

 

Red Herrings in the Polemic against the Trinity

Kimmons confuses the issue here by including two red herrings, or diversionary issues, within his flow chart on explanations of the Trinity: the issue of whether non-Trinitarians are consigned to Hell and the issue of non-Trinitarians being burned at the stake or otherwise executed for their heretical opinions. Neither of these issues has anything to do with what the doctrine of the Trinity means or whether doctrines opposed to Trinitarianism are rightly regarded as heretical. Let’s take these side issues one at a time.

I think we can dispense with the “burning at the stake” issue rather easily. I do not know a single Christian of any denomination or theological tradition who thinks burning heretics at the stake was a good idea. False teachers should be excommunicated from the church, not executed by the state. That practice was a serious error based on wrong thinking about the role of the state and civil laws in matters of theology. It is not the job of the government to punish people who teach false doctrine. This abuse of power was the result of a false idea about the role of government, not the doctrine of the Trinity. It is impossible to show any logical connection between the premise “The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three persons in one God” and the conclusion “We should burn at the stake anyone who disagrees with this doctrine.” So let’s just ignore that particular red herring.

Trinitarianism also does not commit one to the belief that rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity will result in one being consigned to Hell. There is nothing inherent in Trinitarian theology that would indicate or imply that someone who rejects that theology is necessarily bound for eternal punishment. The issue of who is going to be saved and who is not is a different issue than how to understand the divine nature and the distinction of the three persons.

As I have often said, we are not required to get a passing grade on a theology exam, let alone required to ace such an exam, in order to be saved. Anti-Trinitarians sometimes characterize Trinitarian Christians as thinking, in effect, that if you got a 99 on your theology exam but got the question on the Trinity wrong, God would angrily dispatch you to the lake of fire. Honestly, in my more than forty years as an evangelical, Trinitarian Christian, I have never met a single person who held such a view.

Evangelicals believe that God saves us by his grace alone, through our faith in Jesus Christ. If someone has a radically erroneous view of God or Christ, the false doctrine they are accepting may reflect a lack of genuine, authentic faith, but then the false doctrinal belief would be a symptom of a much more serious problem. Moreover, someone in this situation has far more doctrinal problems than merely disagreeing with the word “Trinity” or the specific formulations of that doctrine.

So, for example, if someone professes faith in Christ but regards him as an angelic creature who became a man to give us a second chance to prove ourselves worthy, as Jehovah’s Witnesses teach, such faith is based on an unsound foundation. Individuals who believe these false doctrines are highly unlikely to have an authentic, saving relationship with Christ because their whole conception of the Christian faith is askew. Jehovah’s Witnesses certainly think they believe in the Father, Son, and “holy spirit” (no capitals in their view), and they would happily agree that the Father and the Son are “one in purpose,” but in fact their whole theology and as a result their religious outlook and practice radically departs from biblical Christianity.

Unitarians also claim to believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and they would also agree that they are “one in purpose,” but no Mormon would consider Unitarians to have an acceptable understanding of Christianity. According to Unitarianism, Jesus did not exist before his conception and birth as a mortal and he is not Jehovah, the God of Israel, but a sinless man whom God elevated in Heaven after his resurrection. Again, the problem runs much deeper than simply denying the specific formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Similarly, from an orthodox or evangelical Christian perspective the problem with the LDS religion goes far beyond its disagreement with a specifically Trinitarian formulation of the relation of the three divine persons. Mormons often seem to think that the only difference between our two theologies is that we believe the three persons are one in “essence” or being while they think the three persons are one in “purpose.” Essence or purpose—what’s the big deal? They often say that they don’t see why this is such a big difference: they agree that all three persons are one and view the three persons as members of one “Godhead.” But behind this verbal difference over how to define the “oneness” of the “Godhead” are two radically different views of the divine, the world, and the Christian life. Mormonism teaches that the three persons are three individual divine beings—“three Gods,” according to Joseph Smith—and that these individuals became Gods through a process of exaltation that is open to us. Orthodox Christians consider deity to be a closed category with only one God, existing in three distinct persons who exist eternally and inseparably as absolute deity; no one can ever “become” a God because to be God means to exist as God without beginning. The doctrine of the Trinity recognizes the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as God, and denies that anyone can ever become God. These theological differences lead to very different forms of religion: in the case of the LDS religion, these ideas lead to Mormons pursuing exaltation as a path of realizing their own divine potential through the rituals and other religious obligations laid down by the LDS Church hierarchy. This whole religious and theological outlook presupposes that orthodox Christianity in all its denominational forms is part of a “great apostasy” that is ignorant of the truth about God and our own divine potential.

Thus, the problem with Mormonism from an orthodox Christian perspective goes much, much deeper than its rejection of the word Trinity or its use of different words to define the unity of the three divine persons. Underneath that rejection is an entirely different version of Christianity that plainly claims to supplant the traditional Christian faith that affirms, as part of its belief system, the doctrine of the Trinity.

Does this mean that Mormons are all going to Hell? No. We cannot make such broad, sweeping generalizations about the members of any religious group. Nor do we think that all members of orthodox or evangelical churches will enjoy eternal life in the new heavens and new earth. It is one of the distinctive beliefs of evangelicals that church affiliation does not determine one’s salvation. However, affiliation with a religion that teaches a radically different understanding of the Christian faith is cause for grave concern. Such people need to hear and receive the truth about God and the Christian life. Their eternal salvation is at least in serious doubt or jeopardy if they are adherents of a false religion. Out of love for such people and loyalty to the God revealed in the Bible, Christians ought to “speak the truth in love” (see Eph. 4:15) to Mormons out of concern for their eternal welfare. Doing so does not mean we think we are better than Mormons because we get a higher score on a theology exam.

 

Answers to Mormon Answers on Moroni 8:18

Sat, 08/18/2018 - 23:58

August 18 is observed annually with the message “We Agree with Moroni 8:18” by evangelical Christians who seek to share the biblical faith with Latter-day Saints. Moroni 8:18, a verse near the end of the Book of Mormon, states:

For I know that God is not a partial God, neither a changeable being;
but he is unchangeable from all eternity to all eternity.

This statement, dictated by Joseph Smith in 1829 and published in 1830 in the Book of Mormon, stands in stark contrast to a statement made by Joseph Smith in a sermon known as the King Follett Discourse near the end of his life in 1844:

In order to understand the subject of the dead, for consolation of those who mourn for the loss of their friends, it is necessary we should understand the character and being of God and how He came to be so; for I am going to tell you how God came to be God. We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea, and take away the veil, so that you may see.[1]

This statement from Joseph Smith is one with which evangelicals cannot agree, since we believe that God is indeed God from all eternity. Thus, we agree with Moroni 8:18 but not with Joseph’s later theology. As we see things, Joseph started with a belief that was fairly close, at least relatively speaking, to the traditional Christian conception of God, and we find this view reflected both in the Book of Mormon and in Joseph’s other early revelations. After he published the Book of Mormon and founded the new religion, however, Joseph’s theology underwent radical changes in the following 14 years.

Mormons are aware of the problem and in recent years have offered a variety of answers or explanations—or at least objections to the dilemma posed above. In this article, we’ll consider eight of these answers or objections.

  1. “From all eternity” in Moroni 8:18 doesn’t mean absolutely without any beginning but an eon ago, or an extremely long time ago, or something along these lines.[2]

Much could be said about this claim, but I will restrict my response to making two simple points. First, whatever “from all eternity” means in Moroni 8:18, it must correspond coherently with the mirror expression “to all eternity” that appears in the same clause (“from all eternity to all eternity”). Does any Mormon wish to argue that God will be unchangeable only for some future eon or some extremely long period of time, but will not be unchangeable forever and ever? I doubt any Mormon is prepared to argue for such a conclusion. But if “from all eternity” means only “from a very, very long time ago” or “from an eternity ago from our limited perspective” or however a Mormon wishes to redefine the expression, then “to all eternity” in the same context must mean “to a very, very long time in the future” or “until an eternity from now from our limited perspective.” So this redefinition just won’t fit the immediate context of the very clause in which it appears.

Second, there is no reason to think “from all eternity” means something different in Moroni 8:18 than it does in Joseph’s 1844 statement. Both statements concern the nature of God. One says that God “is unchangeable from all eternity to all eternity”; the other says that people had “supposed that God was God from all eternity.” Both appear in texts that came from Joseph Smith. Unless there is some clear indication from the differing contexts of these statements that the expression “from all eternity” has two distinctly different meanings, we should acknowledge that the expression means the same thing in both places.

  1. It isn’t true that God changed from something less than God to being God as he is now; this is a misunderstanding of Joseph Smith’s theology in the King Follett Discourse.[3]

A full response to this claim is beyond the scope of this article. However, I will point out some glaring problems with this claim as a response to the dilemma. First, notice that this answer concedes what the first answer disputes: that Moroni 8:18 means what it seems to mean, which is that God has always, from all eternity, been God. If the Mormons who offer this answer are correct, then those who present the previous answer must be mistaken.

Second, without getting into too much detail here, those few LDS scholars who make this claim about Joseph’s theology being misunderstood assume that the version of the King Follett Discourse that has come down to us is unreliable. These scholars point out (correctly) that several individuals took notes about what Joseph said and that none of their accounts is complete or necessarily a perfect record of the speech (also correct). They then conclude that we may set aside the statement in the commonly used version of the speech that denies “that God was God from all eternity.” This is where these scholars’ argument goes off the rails. There are four problems with this proposal.

  • The entire line of argument in the King Follett Discourse presupposes the idea that God was not always God but became a God. The point toward which the speech drives is that we can and should become Gods by progressing from one stage to the next, “as all gods have done before you.” This idea clearly entails the belief that our God likewise became a God by the same type of progression. It is not possible to eliminate this idea from the speech.
  • In Joseph Smith’s subsequent speech, known as the Sermon in the Grove, he taught that our God the Father had a Father before him who was his God. This idea obviously presupposes the notion already presented in the King Follett Discourse that our Father was not always God but became a God.
  • The LDS Church’s subsequent prophets and apostles accepted the King Follett Discourse in the form familiar to us today, and they affirmed this idea that God had passed through a process of progression in order to become a God.[4]
  • The LDS Church has put its imprimatur or official stamp of approval on the King Follett Discourse in its traditional form. A curriculum manual published in 2004 stated that the King Follett Discourse as it appears in History of the Church (as well as the Sermon in the Grove) is one of a group of “approved and inspired writings that are not in the standard works” and that “should be used along with the scriptures.”[5]

For these reasons, the problem of the Moroni 8:18 challenge cannot be solved by rejecting the King Follett Discourse in its traditional form or as several LDS prophets and apostles have interpreted it since Joseph Smith.

  1. The “God” that is unchangeable from eternity to eternity is not a specific divine being but is the divine intelligence inherent in all things (D&C 93:29) and the infinite continuum or pantheon of all divine beings. “The attributes of deity have always existed, having no beginning and will have no end, regardless of who holds or shares these attributes.”[6]

That anyone would offer this explanation is shocking, to say the least. The claim here is that when Moroni 8:18 refers to “God,” it does not mean the divine Being we worship or obey, or any personal deity at all, but rather the divinity that is supposedly latent in the “intelligence” that underlies all things. In Mormon metaphysics, everything that exists, ultimately, consists of “intelligence,” a potentially divine substance or reality that takes form in intelligent beings, some of which have the potential to become fully divine beings like Heavenly Father or Jesus Christ.  Thus, ultimately “God” is not a specific, personal being at all, but the divinity that is present at least in rudimentary or incipient form in all things. There may have been an uncountable number of Gods before the being we call God the Father and there will potentially be an endless series of Gods emerging in the future, but all of these Gods are really just specific instances of beings in which the absolute God that is beyond being and personality takes form. Frankly, this is pantheism. Any Mormon taking this position is simply confirming the vast, unbridgeable gap between Mormonism and historic, biblical Christianity.

Notice again that this third explanation contradicts both of the two previous answers we considered. At least those two responses agreed that “God” in Moroni 8:18 is an actual divine Being, someone specific who is said to be unchangeable. This third explanation denies this idea altogether. The divinity potentially latent in all things is unchangeable from all eternity, but God the Father, the being we think of as our God, is not.

Here again, also, one wonders why “God” in Moroni 8:18 would have this hitherto unknown meaning of the divinity that has always existed in intelligence but not have the same meaning in the King Follett Discourse. Nothing in Moroni 8, or frankly anywhere in the Book of Mormon, lends any credence or plausible support for this interpretation of Moroni 8:18. Throughout Moroni 8, as throughout the Book of Mormon, “God” is one specific, personal being who is said to be revealing himself and his purposes through Moroni and the other prophets who preceded him. The reader is invited to read through Moroni 8 to confirm this simple observation.

  1. God is eternally unchangeable in his perfect moral character relative to human beings—his love, justice, and so forth—even if he has not always been fully God.[7]

Probably the most plausible answer I have seen from Mormons to the apparent contradiction between Moroni 8:18 and the King Follett Discourse is that Moroni 8:18 is only referring to God’s moral perfections, not to his metaphysical nature as deity. Mormons who offer this answer argue that God can and has changed in some ways (passing through mortality and becoming exalted to Godhood) without ever changing his character or intentions. They point out that in the immediate context of Moroni 8, Moroni is emphasizing that God’s will with regard to the salvation of little children has never changed (see Moroni 8:12). This explanation avoids the absurdity of claiming that “eternity” changes meaning within the same clause (answer #1), the problem of contradicting a sermon text from Joseph Smith that LDS prophets and apostles have repeatedly affirmed and that the LDS Church has stated is true (#2), and the bizarre claim that in Moroni 8:18 “God” does not refer to a personal deity at all (#3).

The mistake these Mormons make is that they confuse the significance of God’s unchangeableness with the meaning of God’s unchangeableness. In context, God’s unchangeableness is significant because it assures Moroni’s readers that God has always intended to save little children and will never change his purpose in this regard. However, the Book of Mormon presents Moroni grounding or basing this confidence on the unchangeableness of God’s nature “from all eternity to all eternity.” Notice that Moroni 8:18 says that God is “not a changeable being.” The use of the word being in this context makes his argument theological or philosophical. It is because God is not that kind of being that we can be sure that his intentions have never changed from all eternity and will never change in the future to all eternity. That is the argument that the Book of Mormon presents here.

We know beyond any reasonable doubt that Joseph Smith held at the time that God’s unchangeableness meant that he was unchangeably God from eternity to eternity. We know this is what he thought because he said so the very same year that the Book of Mormon was published, in the text now known as Doctrine & Covenants 20:

By these things we know that there is a God in heaven, who is infinite and eternal, from everlasting to everlasting the same unchangeable God, the framer of heaven and earth, and all things which are in them. (D&C 20:17)

There is really no workable way around the problem. Joseph Smith clearly taught, both in the Book of Mormon and in D&C 20, that God is unchangeably God from eternity to eternity, from everlasting to everlasting. Fourteen years later, however, he had explicitly rejected that truth.

I agree with Moroni 8:18.

 

NOTES

[1] “King Follett Discourse,” April 7, 1844, as quoted in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1976), 345. The entire text of the discourse is on the LDS Church’s official website, in the April 1971 issue of the Ensign.

[2] Robert Boylan, “Moroni 8:18, Psalm 90:2, and the Latter-day Saint Understanding of Deity,” Scriptural Mormonism (blog), Dec. 10, 2014.

[3] This view is associated especially with Blake Ostler; see his treatment of the King Follett Discourse in Blake T. Ostler, Exploring Mormon Thought, Volume 2: The Problems of Theism and the Love of God (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2006), 438–42. See also David L. Paulsen and Hal R. Boyd, “The Nature of God in Mormon Thought,” in The Oxford Handbook of Mormonism, ed. Terryl L. Givens and Philip L. Barlow (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 246–59.

[4] See, for example, Brigham Young, 8 Oct. 1859, in Journal of Discourses 7:333–34; Joseph F. Smith, John R. Winder, and Anthon H. Lund, “The Origin of Man,” Improvement Era 13 (Nov. 1909): 75 (an official statement of the First Presidency, reproduced in full in “The Origin of Man,” Ensign, Feb. 2002); Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1955), 2:47; Marion G. Romney, “How Men Are Saved,” Ensign, Nov. 1974, 38 (a general conference address).

[5] Bruce R. McConkie, “The Bible, a Sealed Book,” in Teaching Seminary Preservice Readings Religion 370, 471, and 475 (2004), 123–32, quoted from A Symposium on the New Testament, 1984, 1–7.

[6] Robert Boylan, “Moroni 8:18, Psalm 90:2, and the Latter-day Saint Understanding of Deity,” Scriptural Mormonism (blog), Dec. 10, 2014.

[7] Robert L. Millet, A Different Jesus? The Christ of the Latter-day Saints, Foreword and Afterword by Richard J. Mouw (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 114. See also Barry R. Bickmore, “Mormonism in the Early Jewish Christian Milieu,” FAIR conference, August 1999.

And Don’t Call Us Mormons: The LDS Church and Language Control

Thu, 08/16/2018 - 22:53

Earlier today the website Mormon Newsroom issued an “Official Statement” from Russell Nelson, the President and Prophet of the LDS Church:

The Lord has impressed upon my mind the importance of the name He has revealed for His Church, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We have work before us to bring ourselves in harmony with His will. In recent weeks, various Church leaders and departments have initiated the necessary steps to do so. Additional information about this important matter will be made available in the coming months.

At the same time, the “Newsroom,” as it is now called, posted a revised “style guide” with directives for the terminology to be used in reference to the religion and its members. The “preferred” first reference should be the full name, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The terms Mormon Church, Mormons, and Mormonism should be avoided. Members should be called Latter-day Saints, and the abbreviation LDS should not be used (not even in the expression LDS Church).

When a shortened reference is needed, the terms “the Church” or the “Church of Jesus Christ” are encouraged. The “restored Church of Jesus Christ” is also accurate and encouraged…. The term “Mormonism” is inaccurate and should not be used. When describing the combination of doctrine, culture and lifestyle unique to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the term “the restored gospel of Jesus Christ” is accurate and preferred.

The term Mormon is not being banned absolutely; it will still be used in the title Book of Mormon, as well as in such “historical expressions” as Mormon Trail (and, one supposes, perhaps Mormon Tabernacle Choir, though that remains to be seen).

I beg the reader’s forgiveness or at least understanding, but I will not be following these guidelines.

Nelson, at the age of 93, became the LDS Church’s 17th President and Prophet on January 14, 2018. Seven months later, we have what to my knowledge is his first “revelation” as the Prophet. This is what being the Prophet has come to mean—not speaking prophetically, but issuing policy changes. Nelson is not the religion’s prophet; he is its CEO, its Chairman of the Board.

These style guidelines may keep a lot of tech people employed for the next several months or longer. The two main, official websites of the LDS Church are LDS.org and Mormon.org. One wonders if they are going to change these domains. Currently the “Newsroom” resides at MormonNewsroom.org. On Facebook, within a few hours of the announcement, at least one Mormon-themed Group (LDS Apologia) changed its name to remove the offensive abbreviation LDS. One also wonders what the LDS Church will do with the numerous videos it produced in the “I’m a Mormon” public relations campaign.

Another thing: a lot of T-shirts proudly bearing the name Mormon are apparently headed for the thrift stores, or worse. And what will FairMormon do?

There is nothing wrong with a religion having an “official” name and wanting people to use it. There is also nothing wrong with objecting to a nickname, particularly if it is offensive. However, the reality is that many denominations, theological movements, and sects come to be known by names they did not originally choose. This is even the case for Christianity itself, since the term Christians was almost certainly a nickname used by non-adherents when the movement spread to Antioch (Acts 11:26; see also 1 Peter 4:16). Such terms as Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, and Calvinists were originally nicknames used by non-adherents. Sorry, but if a particular religious group calls itself “The Church of Jesus Christ” or some variation thereof, it’s going to have nicknames stuck to it. The denominational movement that called itself “the church of Christ” came to be known as Campbellites precisely because Christians outside the movement were not about to concede that it was the church of Christ. Other Campbellites called themselves “the Christian church,” which invites the same sort of response. A Norwegian sect founded in the early twentieth century by Johan O. Smith (yes, another Smith) for years insisted it had no name, referring to itself as “the way”; outsiders dubbed the group “Smith’s friends.” It is now called the Brunstad Christian Church. Members of the LDS Church have been called “Mormons” essentially throughout its history.

There is an irony in Nelson’s supposed revelation: Joseph Smith, the founder of the religion, used four different names for the “church” in the span of eight years (see Susan Eastman Black’s entry “Name of the Church” in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism):

  • The religion was founded in April 1830 using the name Church of Christ (see Doctrine & Covenants 20:1, 38, 61, 68, 70, 71, 81). The Book of Mormon had used this same name for the true church (Mosiah 18:17; 3 Nephi 26:21; 28:23; 4 Nephi 1:1, 27, 29; Moroni 6:4), though other passages used the term Church of God (some 32 times). One passage in particular, 3 Nephi 27:3-8, states that the name of Christ must be in the church’s name.
  • In 1834, however, to distinguish themselves from other groups calling themselves the Church of Christ, the LDS Church adopted the name The Church of the Latter Day Saints—thus omitting any reference to the name of Christ.
  • The defect was fixed in 1836, when the name was changed to The Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints.
  • Finally, in April 1838, Joseph Smith announced a revelation changing the name to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (D&C 115:3-4). (The form Latter-day, found in the current edition of Doctrine & Covenants, in place of Latter Day came later.)

Ironically, the equivalent of one of these names, The Church of the Latter-day Saints, is officially discouraged in the Newsroom Style Guide.

Ultimately, this policy directive is about controlling the language in order to control how people think about the LDS religion. It is not about making the language clearer, more informative, or more accurate. You can see this in the guideline that the term “the restored gospel of Jesus Christ” is to be used rather than Mormonism. This directive in effect asks outsiders to speak as though they agreed that Mormonism represents “the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.” I have no problem referring to Mormonism as a form of restorationism; I will not call it “the restoration” or “the restored gospel,” because I don’t believe it is any such thing. Likewise, I am certainly not going to refer to the religion as “the Church of Jesus Christ.”

If Nelson wants to show himself to be a prophet, he’ll need to do better than this.

 

Yea, Verily, Yea: The Word Yea and the Book of Mormon’s Imitation of the King James Version

Tue, 07/31/2018 - 17:22

 

“Yea, verily, yea!” — Danny Kaye, in “The Court Jester” (1956)

Yesterday I posted a short article here summarizing the first three articles on IRR’s website in a new series entitled “Moroni’s New Testament.” In those articles, I showed that the author of the writings attributed to Moroni in the Book of Mormon was a modern English-speaking individual who was familiar with the New Testament in the King James Version (KJV) and freely drew on it in composing the books of Mormon and Moroni.

Several Mormons on Facebook commented on the matter. Some asserted that they saw nothing wrong with the Book of Mormon using the “terminology” of the KJV. Frankly, this response shows a lack of any serious understanding of the issue. When the Book of Mormon contains a passage that is verbally identical to a passage in the New Testament for a stretch of some 80 words (Mormon 9:22b-24 = Mark 16:15-18), such a phenomenon simply cannot be called “using the same terminology.” This response reflects the traditional LDS belief that God provided an inspired translation of the gold plates in which the English words were exactly what God wanted written in the English version of the Book of Mormon.

The most sophisticated response I have seen suggested, rather tentatively and hypothetically, that Moroni might have heard (or even read) statements very much like what is in the New Testament from the Three Nephites, the Nephite apostles who didn’t die according to the Book of Mormon. The Mormon speculated that the Three Nephites might have gotten together with the apostle John (whom Mormons also think never died) and compared notes. I just described this explanation as the most sophisticated, but that isn’t saying much. It is also so convoluted and so ad hoc that the Mormon who offered it admitted it was only a possibility, not something he actually believed. Here again, though, a close study of the three full articles should be enough to see why such an explanation simply is not workable. For example, there is a sentence in the Book of Mormon that echoes statements from two different books but that happen to fall in adjacent chapters in the New Testament canon because of the way the canon was organized (Mormon 9:9 = Heb. 13:8; James 1:17). This fact shows that the author of Moroni’s writings had access to an actual New Testament, not just to men who had talked to one of the Old World apostles.

By far the simplest and most plausible explanation of the evidence is that the author of the writings attributed to Moroni was a modern individual who composed the Book of Mormon drawing on his knowledge of the KJV. The evidence of the author’s cribbing from the New Testament is not the only evidence supporting this conclusion. There is much more.

In another new article, I have taken a close look at the occurrences of the little word yea in the Book of Mormon as compared to the Bible (specifically again the KJV). In the KJV, the word yea occurs 275 times in the Old Testament and 65 times in the New Testament, or 340 times in the entire Bible. In the Book of Mormon, though, the word yea occurs 1,254 times.

To put this difference in perspective, keep in mind that the Book of Mormon is only about a third the length of the Bible, yet the Book of Mormon has almost four times as many occurrences of the word yea as the Bible. It turns out that the word yea occurs once in about every 2,318 words in the Bible, but once in about every 215 words in the Book of Mormon. In short, in terms of frequencies or proportions, the word yea is used over ten times as often in the Book of Mormon than in the Bible.

Anyone interested in this topic will need to read the full article, which includes three tables with important statistical information as well as some details regarding the Hebrew and Greek words translated “yea” in the KJV. Here I will give just a brief summary of the article and not repeat all of the supporting details of my argument.

Having tabulated the number of occurrences of yea in both the Book of Mormon and the Bible, with the numbers for each of the 15 books within the former and the 66 books within the latter canon, I turn to consider four possible Mormon explanations for the disparity:

  1. Might the disparity be due to the Book of Mormon translating similar words in a different way than in the KJV of the Bible? I explain why this question should be answered in the negative by looking at all of the Hebrew words that are translated “yea” in the Old Testament of the KJV. There are simply not enough occurrences of words potentially meaning yea in appropriate contexts in the Hebrew Old Testament to come close to the frequency of its usage in the Book of Mormon.
  2. Could it be that the disparity is the result of a few books in one or the other canon having so many or so few occurrences as to skew the averages? The statistical evidence absolutely proves otherwise. The highest frequency of yea in any book of the Bible is in 3 John (one occurrence in 294 words), which is still higher than the average frequency for the whole Book of Mormon (one in 215 words).
  3. Could the disparity be attributed to different authors within the Book of Mormon using the word with different frequencies? This explanation won’t work, either. The three main authors named in the Book of Mormon all make heavy use of the word yea: once every 181 words (Mormon), every 257 words (Nephi), and every 514 words (Moroni). This is roughly the same range of frequencies found in the individual books attributed to Mormon, which range from once every 124 words (Helaman) to once every 516 words (Mormon 1–7). These variations sound large until you realize that the Old Testament in the KJV has 26 books with frequencies of one in 10,000 to 30,000.
  4. Might different genres account for the disparity? If anything, comparing genres only exacerbates the problem. In the Bible, yea is most frequent in the wisdom literature and other poetic texts and least frequent in its narrative histories. By contrast, most of the Book of Mormon purports to be mainly historical narrative and makes heavy use of yea; the book with the least narrative, Moroni, has the lowest frequency of yea.

Finally, I make two additional observations of some importance. The first is that there are numerous passages throughout the Book of Mormon where the use of yea is clearly excessive. The greatest concentration of occurrences of yea in the Old Testament is in Isaiah 44:8-19, where yea occurs six times—once in every 62 words. Yet in the Book of Mormon, there are at least 20 passages with six or more occurrences of yea with frequencies less than once every 50 words. There are four passages in the Book of Mormon with 10 or more occurrences averaging one for every 30 words or higher. Thus, even the most concentrated clusters of occurrences of yea in a couple of Isaiah passages are not nearly as densely packed with such occurrences as some twenty passages in the Book of Mormon. By far the best explanation for this otherwise peculiar phenomenon is that the author of the Book of Mormon was a modern author imitating the language of the KJV but overdoing it.

Second, and especially telling, is the use of yea in passages quoted from passages in the Bible. As is well known, these biblical passages in the Book of Mormon closely follow the wording of the KJV though with some variations. Where Book of Mormon sentences in these passages parallel passages in the Bible, they follow the wording of the KJV to about 96 per cent or more; that is, 96 words out of 100 in the KJV passages are found in the corresponding Book of Mormon passages.

It turns out that the Book of Mormon uses the word yea in these passages almost three times as often as the KJV. Of the seven passages that already have yea in the KJV, the Book of Mormon increases the number of occurrences in four passages and leaves them unchanged in the other three. For example, yea occurs in Isaiah 2–14 in the KJV 3 times but 14 times in the corresponding passage of 2 Nephi 12–24. The Book of Mormon also adds yea in four of its 14 biblical passages that do not have yea at all in the KJV. In no passage does the Book of Mormon decrease the number of occurrences of yea.

This phenomenon thoroughly undermines the most common explanation for the parallels between the KJV and the Book of Mormon quotations from the Bible. That usual explanation is that Joseph was inspired to use the KJV wording where it was close enough to the correct meaning to be serviceable. If so, then why did Joseph add yea 28 times to these biblical passages? It cannot be because their omission was of any significant importance, as anyone can see by reading the passages for himself.

By far the simplest, most obvious, and most plausible explanation is that the modern human author of the Book of Mormon used the KJV as his base text when excerpting passages from the Bible and that this author added yea in various places in those excerpts. Why would he do so? Two complementary reasons seem likely. First, the author of the Book of Mormon wished to make his text sound “biblical,” and using the word yea a lot would help do that even in passages quoting the Bible. Second, adding yea was a simple, painless, unobtrusive way to introduce some verbal variation from the text of the KJV without risk. If the modern author of the Book of Mormon wanted to convey that its biblical quotations were not copied directly from the KJV, introducing some verbal variations, even minor ones, might seem to help convey that impression.

Now put this finding alongside the evidence that the Book of Mormon makes extensive use of the New Testament (in the KJV). The ad hoc explanation for the Book of Mormon parallels to the New Testament all fall apart here. For example, the suggestion that God inspired Joseph Smith to use KJV wording cannot explain why the Book of Mormon uses the KJV word yea ten times more often than the KJV does. On the other hand, the hypothesis that the Book of Mormon was composed by a modern author familiar with the KJV explains both sets of evidence handily: He copied extensively from the KJV (both in direct quotations from the Old Testament and in numerous snatches of text from the New Testament) and throughout the Book of Mormon, whether quoting the Bible or not, imitated KJV language in what he thought was a biblical-sounding style.

Thus, by far the best explanation, and really the only plausible explanation, for this evidence is that the word yea was peppered into the text of the Book of Mormon by a modern author imitating the style of the KJV but greatly overdoing it.

 

 

Moroni’s New Testament: Proof that the Author of the Book of Mormon Used the King James Version

Mon, 07/30/2018 - 12:41

Many passages of the Book of Mormon are demonstrably dependent on the New Testament. The most obvious use of the New Testament in the Book of Mormon comes in 3 Nephi 12–14, most of which is copied nearly verbatim from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7 in the King James Version (KJV). However, there are many other interesting examples that are important because they demonstrate this textual dependence in other ways. Among the most noteworthy parts of the Book of Mormon making use of the New Testament are the writings attributed to Moroni, especially Mormon 8–9 and Moroni 7–10.

In a new series of articles, I explore the evidence from these passages that they were composed—not just translated—by a modern author who drew freely and extensively on the New Testament from the KJV. Three installments of this series are now online. Here I will provide what the Book of Mormon would call an abridgment of those three articles. The headings below give the titles of each article with a link.

 

Part 1: The Use of the KJV New Testament in the Books of Mormon and Moroni

In part 1 of the series, I provide an overview of the subject. I first look at what the Book of Mormon itself claims about the writings of Moroni: that he was a Nephite prophet in the early fifth century AD writing partly to address concerns of his own day and partly to exhort future readers to accept the message of the Book of Mormon.

Next, I discuss criteria for identifying meaningful parallels between the New Testament and the Book of Mormon. Expressions that are too short, not distinctive, or not meaningful, or that could come from the Old Testament books to which Moroni (if he existed) would have had access, should not be counted here. With these restrictions, I limit the pool of meaningful parallels to strings of five or more words paralleled verbatim (including variant grammatical forms such as you and thee) between the Book of Mormon and the New Testament, such as “behold the Lamb of God” (Mormon 9:3; cf. John 1:29, 36). Merely identifying a parallel as such does not prove one source borrowed from the other; one must consider all of the facts before drawing that conclusion.

In the rest of part 1, I survey the parallels between Moroni’s writings and the New Testament. I first identify four major parallels:

  • Mormon 9:22b-24 exactly parallels Mark 16:15-18 KJV, a passage about Jesus commissioning his apostles to preach the gospel after his resurrection; the only verbal difference at all in 80 words is an additional use of the word and to begin a clause in Mormon 9.
  • Moroni 7:44b-47 closely parallels 1 Corinthians 13:2b, 4-8a, in Paul’s famous “love chapter,” including a 32-word string in 1 Corinthians 13:5b-8a KJV that is identical to one in Mormon 7 except again for an additional occurrence of the word and.
  • Moroni 7:48 contains 36 words paralleled in 1 John 3:1-3, a passage about believers becoming the children of God, including a string of 18 words that are verbally identical.
  • Moroni 10:8-17 contains substantial parallels to Paul’s discussion of the gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12:4-11. About 93 words (including grammatically variant forms) of the passage in 1 Corinthians 12 are paralleled in Moroni 10 in the same order.

I then identify an additional 21 examples of comparatively minor parallels between Mormon 8–9 or Moroni 7–10 and the New Testament. Here are just two examples of those minor parallels:

and the elements shall melt with fervent heat (Mormon 9:2).
and the elements shall melt with fervent heat (2 Peter 3:10, 12).

and work out your own salvation with fear and trembling (Mormon 9:27).
work out your own salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12).

Counting the four major parallels noted previously, then, there are 25 texts in Mormon 8–9 and Moroni 7–10 containing parallels to 25 different texts in 12 different books of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation. To put it another way, the parallels involve passages in the Gospels, Acts, Paul’s epistles, the general epistles, and Revelation—every part of the New Testament.

 

Part 2: 10 Lines of Evidence for the Use of the KJV New Testament in the Book of Mormon

Having surveyed the parallels between Moroni’s writings and the New Testament in part 1, in part 2 I offer an analysis of this evidence. This analysis yields ten distinct lines of evidence that the Book of Mormon had one modern author who made extensive use of the KJV New Testament. Here is a quick rundown of those ten lines of evidence.

  1. New Testament parallels in a book first appearing in 1829
  2. Quantity of New Testament parallels
  3. Diversity of New Testament parallels
  4. Density of New Testament parallels
  5. Multiple parallels to widely separate parts of the same New Testament book
  6. Parallels to adjacent New Testament chapters
  7. Clustering of New Testament parallels in the Book of Mormon
  8. The same New Testament texts paralleled in other parts of the Book of Mormon
  9. Use of the wording of parallel New Testament passages in the King James Version
  10. Adaptation of the New Testament material to address issues of Joseph Smith’s day

Taking these ten lines of evidence cumulatively, the only reasonable explanation is that the real author of Moroni’s writings was a modern English-speaking individual. The obvious and most likely suspect, given the appearance of the Book of Mormon for the first time in 1829 and 1830, is Joseph Smith.

 

Part 3: First John in the Book of Mormon

Part 3 is the first of several planned articles that look more closely at some of the New Testament parallels in the writings attributed to Moroni. In this article, I discuss two parallels in Moroni 7–8 to the epistle of 1 John:

“Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son Jesus Christ, that ye may become the sons of God, that when he shall appear, we shall be like him: for we shall see him as he is, that we may have this hope, that we may be purified even as he is pure” (Moroni 7:48; cf. 1 John 3:1-3).

“Behold, I speak with boldness, having authority from God; and I fear not what man can do: for perfect love casteth out all fear” (Moroni 8:16b; cf. 1 John 4:17-18a).

After presenting the parallels in a table, I analyze the parallels and discuss their significance. The exact parallel using the 18-word sequence that when he shall appear we shall be like him for we shall see him as he is (Moroni 7:48) can only be plausibly understood as the Book of Mormon drawing on the text of 1 John 3:2 in the KJV. The parallels between these two texts are not merely verbal but also follow the same conceptual train of thought: (a) the Father has bestowed love on believers; (b) they are or will be sons of God; (c) when Christ appears we will be like him because we will see him as he is; (d) this hope purifies us to be pure like him. The second parallel, in Moroni 8:16b, comes a chapter later and parallels 1 John 4:17-18a, which is also a chapter later in 1 John as compared to the first passage paralleled. Based on these and other observations, I draw the following conclusion:

The simplest explanation is that the actual author of Moroni 7–8 was someone familiar with 1 John in the KJV, since this view would explain all of the evidence: the similar trains of thought, the two parallels in the same order, the duplication of wording, and the many parallels in the surrounding context to other books of the New Testament. Therefore, we should conclude that the author was an English-speaking person writing after 1611 and of course no later than 1829.

That author was evidently Joseph Smith.

 

The Light Analogy, Theological Method, and the Doctrine of the Trinity

Wed, 07/25/2018 - 15:23

Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695), portrait by Caspar Netscher (1670)

In 2010 I participated in a lengthy online written debate entitled “The Great Trinity Debate” with a Christadelphian named David Burke. I presented a defense of Trinitarianism and Burke defended Unitarianism (of the “Biblical Unitarian” variety). A few days after our opening statements, another Unitarian named Jaco Van Zyl posted a comment on a Unitarian website criticizing my use of the scientific study of light as an analogy. Van Zyl badly misrepresented what I said, making any response to his comment seemingly unnecessary. However, just a few months ago a popular Mormon blogger, Robert Boylan, quoted Van Zyl’s comment with approval, likewise completely misunderstanding the point of the analogy. Apparently, even something buried far down in the comments section on a blog eight years ago can be easily resurrected and given new life in cyberspace.

In his comment, Van Zyl wrote:

Firstly, and I hope Bowman will not make this rather amateurish mistake, this analogy sounds like “proof by illustration.” If, indeed, he is not trying to prove the validity of different “natures” in one “being” by using this example, it still does not do much for Bowman’s argument, and it brings me to my next qualm: Why use an illustration in which different natures of light has been confirmed, to prove the plurality of another (God), when this is exactly what has to be determined?

Van Zyl continues in this vein, raising various objections against using light as an analogy to illustrate or even to prove the doctrine of the Trinity. You can follow the link given above and read his entire comment. I won’t be responding to everything he said, but rather will be focused on his objection to my use of the scientific study of the properties of light as an analogy.

It should not be surprising if anti-Trinitarians predisposed to like any criticism of a Trinitarian theologian’s argument would assume that the critic had properly understood that argument. This reasonable expectation that other opponents of the doctrine of the Trinity would accept at face value Van Zyl’s representation of my argument is validated by Boylan. He quotes Van Zyl’s comment at length, introducing it as follows:

It is common for some Trinitarian apologists to appeal to light being both a wave and a particle as a valid analogy for Trinitarian theology (three persons in one being). This was ably answered by Jaco Van Zyl in the comments section of Another Trinity/Monotheism “Debate”. Commenting on the use of this analogy by Robert Bowman (Evangelical) in his debate with Dave Burke (Christadelphian), Van Zyl wrote….

The title of Boylan’s blog post, consistent with the above explanation, is “Light being both a particle and wave: A Valid Analogy for the Trinity?”

So, what is wrong with Van Zyl’s criticism of my analogy? Simply this: I was not using the analogy to illustrate, let alone prove, the doctrine of the Trinity. Here is what I said, with plenty of context to make my point clear, and with a key sentence shown in bold:

I would not expect the Bible to identify the Father as God and the Son as God, for example, if Unitarianism were true. If all we had were statements that asserted or implied that God was a single being, I do not deny that Unitarianism would be a plausible inference. They would not disprove Trinitarianism, but they would be consistent with Unitarianism and conducive, in the absence of statements identifying more than one person as God, with Unitarianism in a way that they would not be (under similar circumstances) with Trinitarianism. In this qualified sense I would agree that Unitarians might plausibly adduce monotheistic statements in the Bible that refer to God as one being as evidence for their position. This is why it is for the most part plausible and reasonable for Jews to infer a Unitarian conception of God from their Bible (although even here I would argue that they have to ignore or massage some of the texts).

Allow me to use an analogy (not an analogy to the Trinity, but an analogy to the methodological point at issue). Beginning in the seventeenth century, scientists debated whether light was a wave or a particle. Huygens said light was a wave; Newton said light was a stream of particles. Some experiments right through the nineteenth century supported Huygens, while other experiments supported Newton. Eventually, scientists concluded that light had functions of both waves and particles. As if that were not bad enough, physicists now widely maintain that all physical objects have a “wave-particle duality,” as counterintuitive and seemingly contradictory as that is. Now, if you were to ask a physicist, “Are you saying that there is no evidence that light is a wave?” he would have to answer, “No, I am not saying that, because of course there is such evidence.” If you were to ask him what sort of evidence would show that light is a wave, he could specify such evidence. But then he would add, “But there is no evidence that light is merely a wave and has no particle functions, whereas there is evidence that light has both wave and particle functions.”

I honestly do not know how I could have been any clearer or more explicit. I explicitly stated that I was not giving “an analogy to the Trinity.” I was using the example of the scientific study of light to illustrate a methodological point, not to illustrate (let alone prove) the doctrine of the Trinity.

Now, I think the wave-particle duality can be used to illustrate something about theological issues such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, or the relation between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. The paradoxical, seemingly (but not actually) contradictory character of this aspect of physics may reasonably be used to illustrate the point that it is not necessarily irrational to accept paradoxical theological claims. But I wasn’t making that point. Moreover, even this use of the analogy would not be claiming that the Trinity (for example) was “like” light, as though there was some direct comparison to be made between the distinction of three persons in one God and the distinction of wave-like and particle-like functions in light.

In any case, I was explicitly not using light as “an analogy to the Trinity.” Yet Boylan claimed that I had, using practically the same wording as I had denied—“analogy for the Trinity”—and repeated Van Zyl’s utterly wrongheaded critique of an analogical argument I had not used. To the contrary, I was making a methodological point. If a concept entails two distinct ideas, evidence for one of those ideas cannot be evidence against the other idea. Thus, the unity or oneness of God cannot be a “defeater” of the doctrine of the Trinity, since the doctrine entails God’s unity or oneness as an essential concept. On the other hand, the deity of Christ (for example) is a defeater for Unitarianism, since the doctrine of Unitarianism entails that Christ is not deity. Again, it is only the methodological principle that I illustrated using, not light itself, but the way scientists think about light.

By the way, Boylan’s error in following Van Zyl’s misrepresentation of my argument cannot be explained as simply the result of Boylan not having read my debate with Burke. In fact, in another blog piece critiquing the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura (an extremely long article that he later published as a book), Boylan quotes me from that debate with approval for what I said. He does this, strangely enough, while carefully avoiding referring to me by name (he refers to me as “the Evangelical apologist in the debate”), even though he freely referred to me by name earlier in the same work when criticizing something I said about sola scriptura. One must click on a link to Boylan’s source to find out that I said what he quoted.[1]

I always welcome constructive criticism, including criticism from those who reject the doctrine of the Trinity. However, if such critics wish to have their objections taken seriously, they will need to do some minimal work of making sure first that they have understood what they are criticizing (Prov. 18:13). Such fair-minded, accurate representation of the views of others is a basic, essential value in any sound theological method.

 

NOTES

[1] He does the same thing in the book version of this work, though with a footnote instead of a hyperlink; see Robert S. Boylan, Not by Scripture Alone: A Latter-day Saint Refutation of Sola Scriptura (CreateSpace, 2017), 137.

Jesus the Divine Bridegroom: Michael Tait’s Case for a High Christology in Mark

Tue, 07/24/2018 - 08:00

 

Tait, Michael. Jesus, the Divine Bridegroom, in Mark 2:18-22: Mark’s Christology Upgraded. Analecta Biblica 185. Rome: Gregorian & Biblical Press, 2010.

 

 

 

Michael Tait is a former schoolteacher and headmaster with two doctorates who sought but never entered the Catholic priesthood, instead becoming an accomplished biblical scholar. The present book is the published version of the dissertation for his second doctoral degree (Ph.D., University of Manchester, 2008).

In this densely packed and carefully reasoned book, Tait argues that Jesus’ reference to himself as “the bridegroom” in Mark 2:19-20 reflects a divine Christology in Mark every bit as “high” as what we find “in John, Paul or Hebrews” (17). In response to the question why Jesus’ disciples were not fasting, Jesus replied:

“While the bridegroom is with them, the attendants of the bridegroom cannot fast, can they? So long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day” (Mark 2:19-20 NASB).

Tait’s argument proceeds in four main stages.

First, in chapters 1–3 he argues that in the surrounding context of the passage, Mark presents Jesus in ways that implicitly attribute divine powers or prerogatives to him (16–134). Thus, Jesus forgives sins, even seeking out sinners, and miraculously heals people as demonstrations of his divine authority to do so (Mark 2:1–3:6). In general, I agree with the point Tait is making here, but some elements of his argument are open to question. In particular, I found his attempt to show that a second “controversy collection” later in the Gospel (Mark 11:27–12:35) exhibits a theological structure parallel to Mark 2:1–3:6 unpersuasive and a bit of a distraction (79–90, 119–33).

Second, in chapters 4–6 Tait shows that throughout the Old Testament as well as in some Jewish literature closer to the time of Jesus, Yahweh (the LORD) describes himself as the husband or bridegroom and Israel or Judah as his bride or wife (135–225). Crucial passages in the Old Testament include Hosea 2, Jeremiah 3 and 31, and several passages in Isaiah 50–62. In all of the Old Testament prophets who use this marital metaphor, “It is always God who is the Bridegroom” (Tait, 166). The main point Tait seeks to make in these chapters is that there was no Jewish tradition in which the Messiah or other intermediate figure was pictured as the Bridegroom of his people; that imagery always applied to God. The language is typically eschatological, i.e., it points forward to a future time when the Jewish people’s relationship with Yahweh will be restored.

One text that might seem at least a partial exception with regard to the Old Testament’s use of the bridegroom motif is Psalm 45, a royal psalm about the Jewish king’s marriage, which is quoted in Hebrews 1:8-9 and applied to Jesus as the Son. Tait gives substantial attention to this text (181–200). The main controversy with regard to Psalm 45:6-7 is whether the title “God” is there being applied to the Davidic king and if so what meaning it has in context. Tait’s treatment of the text is in some ways very helpful, in other ways somewhat muddled. In the end, it seems that Psalm 45 is a partial exception to Tait’s claim that the bridegroom motif is never applied metaphorically to a Messianic figure.

Third, in chapter 7 Tait surveys New Testament references to the bridegroom (227–82). He shows that in various parts of the New Testament other than the passage in Mark 2:19-20 and its parallels—in the Gospels, Paul’s epistles, and the Book of Revelation—it is Jesus Christ who is portrayed as the bridegroom and the church as his bride or wife (Matt. 22:1-14; 25:1-13; John 3:28-30; Rom. 7:4; 1 Cor. 6:16; 2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:22-33; Rev. 19:1-6; 21:8-22:5, 17). “In all our texts, Jesus replaces Yahweh as the Bridegroom of the prophetic/eschatological tradition” (281–82). This stage of Tait’s argument is especially strong. Wherever the bridegroom motif appears in the New Testament, it is always in language that recalls the Old Testament motif of Yahweh as the bridegroom or husband of his people. In this connection, we should note that Hebrews 1 does not pick up any of the marital imagery from Psalm 45 when applying Psalm 45:6-7 to Jesus.

Finally, in chapter 8 Tait offers a detailed exegesis of Mark 2:18-22, with the focus on verses 19-20 in which Jesus speaks about the bridegroom (283–325). Tait argues that Jesus’ reference to the bridegroom and his attendants is not a general metaphor for joy (as argued, for example, by Joachim Jeremias and C. H. Dodd), but picks up very specifically on the Old Testament metaphor of the bridegroom as representing God seeking in the future to be united permanently with his people. The bridegroom in Jesus’ sayings here is a reference to himself and the attendants are Jesus’ close disciples. “He is the eschatological Bridegroom and they his intimate friends” (314). In speaking indirectly about himself in this way, Jesus was making an implicit claim to deity, “veiled,” as are Jesus’ other claims in Mark’s Gospel, in the “enigmatic” language of parable. Thus, even though Mark does not explicitly speak of Jesus as God and man, his Gospel presents Jesus as a paradoxical figure—both divine Son and humble Servant—that might fairly be viewed as contributing to the later theology of Christ’s divine and human natures (314, 327–28). Tait concludes that Jesus “is not identified with Yahweh tout simple” in Mark since Jesus is clearly distinguished from God the Father, and yet Jesus appears “on a higher plane than any of the other intermediaries previously envisaged in Jewish tradition” (330). This paradoxical Christology anticipates in an incipient manner the Trinitarian view of Christ.

Michael Tait has made a worthy contribution to the study of Markan Christology. Despite a couple of questionable rabbit trails, the book puts another nail in the coffin of the evolutionary view of Christology that hypothesizes a gradual development within the New Testament from a merely human Jesus to the explicitly divine Jesus of Christian orthodoxy. Instead, Tait’s book demonstrates that indications of the deity of Christ are found throughout the New Testament, including in such surprising places as an answer by Jesus in Mark to the question of why his disciples were not fasting.

 

Is the Expression “Make a Record” Evidence for the Book of Mormon? A Case Study in Testing Mormon Apologetic Arguments

Mon, 07/16/2018 - 00:45

The “Book of Mormon Central” website, founded by LDS scholars Lynne Wilson and John W. Welch in 2015 and operated by the Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum, has quickly become a popular source for apologetic arguments in defense of the antiquity and authenticity of the Book of Mormon. Many of the arguments presented there were previously advanced by LDS scholars and other apologists, while some of the arguments appear to be new ones, presumably originating with the Mormons responsible for producing the website.

One such new argument for the Book of Mormon appeared on the website on June 26, 2018, in an anonymous article, as well as in a video on YouTube posted the same day.[1] Since it is anonymous, I will simply refer to the author as BMC (Book of Mormon Central). The opening sentences (which are the same in the article and the video) sum up the claim:

The writers of the Book of Mormon often stated that they would “make a record” of the things that they had seen or done. The fact that they said they would “make a record” rather than “write a record” or some other similar phrase may seem insignificant. However, this phrase provides evidence that the writers of the Book of Mormon had training in the ways of ancient scribes.

When reading or listening to an argument, it is important to pay close attention and to ask questions. Is this statement or assertion factually accurate? What is the source of this information? Does the conclusion follow from the premises or the information provided? Let’s use this recent argument as a case study in how to go about evaluating an argument.

 

What does the text really say?

The first thing we will want to do is to confirm the basic claim or claims being made. In this instance, BMC claims that the Book of Mormon writers used the wording make a record “rather than” the expression write a record or something similar. Immediately we will want to know if it is true that the Book of Mormon used one expression and not another. It turns out this claim is not correct.

In the Book of Mormon, we do find “make a/the record” (1 Ne. 1:1, 2, 3; 1 Ne. 19:4; 3 Ne. 5:11, 14, 17, 18; Mormon 1:1; 2:17; 6:6; 8:5) or “make/made my/this record” (3 Ne. 5:10, 16; Ether 13:14) some 15 times. However, we also find other expressions:

  • “wrote/written/wrote the/this record(s)” four times (1 Ne. Pref.; Mosiah 28:11b; Mormon 9:32; Ether 1:6)
  • “(make an) abridgment of the record” (Title Page; 1 Ne. 1:17); “abridged the record” (1 Ne. 1:17)
  • “engraven the record(s)” or the equivalent 15 times (1 Ne. 3:10, 24; 5:10; 19:1 [twice], 2; 2 Ne. 5:12; Jarom 1:14; Omni 1:11; Mosiah 1:3, 16; 10:16; 21:27; 28:11a; 3 Ne. 5:10)
  • “keep/kept a/the/their/this record(s)” 18 times (1 Ne. 5:16; 2 Ne. 5:29; Jacob 7:26; Omni 1:9; Mosiah 24:6; 28:20; Alma 3:12; 37:2; 45:2; Hel. 3:13, 15; 3 Ne. 1:2, 3; 8:1; 23:7; 4 Ne. 1:19, 21, 47)[2]

Of course, there are other descriptions that do not use the word record or records but that use such verbs as make, write, and abridge with other nouns such as account, plates, words, and writing.

Now, perhaps BMC meant to say that in certain places the Book of Mormon uses “make a record” instead of “write a record,” though in other places that expression and similar ones do occur. In any case, it is important to recognize that these other ways of speaking about the production of the Book of Mormon texts do occur, a fact BMC never mentions. We will see why this is significant later.

 

What does the scholar cited in support of the argument really say?

The heart of the argument takes as its point of departure an Old Testament text that refers to “making many books” (Eccl. 12:12).[3] BMC seizes on the use of “making” here, arguing that the statement probably refers to the composition or writing of books and not to physically constructing the book. (In modern terms, the difference would be that of a writer or editor in contrast to that of a printer.) In support it cites Michael Fishbane’s academic work Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (1985). This is the only secondary source, other than LDS writings about the Book of Mormon, cited in the BMC article (in eight of the first eleven footnotes). If we want to assess the soundness of the argument BMC presents, then, we will need to look at Fishbane’s book.[4]

Fishbane does take the view that the words in Ecclesiastes 12:12 “should be rendered ‘to compose’ or ‘to compile books,’ not to ‘do’ or ‘make’ them.”[5] Ironically, this means that Fishbane thinks the KJV rendering with “making” is a mistranslation, or perhaps we might say an overly literal translation. Be that as it may, Fishbane does say that the word translated “making” in Ecclesiastes 12:12 (Ꜥasah, an extremely common Hebrew verb with a wide variety of uses in different contexts) means to compose or compile books.

Unfortunately, BMC overstates the matter in zeal to defend the Book of Mormon. The article summarizes Fishbane’s linguistic argument for his interpretation of Ecclesiastes 12:12 and then concludes, “Thus, when these scribes were literally being asked to “make a record” they were simply being asked to write a book.” That is not an accurate statement. Neither Ecclesiastes 12:12 nor any other text mentioned by Fishbane uses the expression “make a record.” The expression in Ecclesiastes 12:12 is “make a book,” not “make a record.” No ancient scribes were ever “literally being asked to ‘make a record.’” That way of putting things has no direct corresponding expression in ancient literature, to the best of my knowledge, and certainly is not documented by Fishbane. The BMC video goes even further in its overstatement into outright falsehood: “Some scholars have argued that the unusual phrase, ‘make a record,’ as found in some Old Testament books, is a result of the influence of ancient Near Eastern scribal culture.” The phrase “make a record” is not found in any Old Testament books, and the expression “make books” is found in only one, Ecclesiastes 12:12.

We see the same problem when BMC goes on to make the same sort of claim regarding the Book of Mormon’s use of the term abridgement. Here is what the BMC article says on this matter:

This idea is strengthened by the use of the word “abridgement” in the Book of Mormon. Ecclesiastes 12:9, a nearby verse that also describes ancient scribal practices, states that “the preacher … set in order many proverbs.” The phrase “set in order” is a translation of a single word that means “to edit” or “to arrange,” or in other words, “to abridge.” This phrase was also commonly used by scribes in the ancient Near East.

The video likewise claims, with apparent unambiguous simplicity, that “the word ‘abridgement’…is also used in the Old Testament.”

The sole source for this claim is also Fishbane, and once again the claim made in the article (and especially the video) is not supported by what Fishbane actually says. The statement in the article is ambiguous as to whether the words “to abridge” are actually in Fishbane’s book (the expression “or in other words” leaves the matter uncertain). They are not. Fishbane says only that he thinks it likely that in Ecclesiastes 12:9 the Hebrew word tiqqēn “means ‘to edit’ or ‘to arrange’ in some sense.”[6] To “edit” or “arrange” textual material does not mean to “abridge” that material (i.e., to produce a shortened version of it). Editorial work, broadly considered, in some instances might include abridgement, but editing does not mean abridging, any more than it means expanding or censoring the text.

Both the article and the video argue that since in the Old Testament (specifically Ecclesiastes 12) “references to making a record and abridging texts occur next to each other,” these expressions, found in the Book of Mormon, “were almost certain technical scribal terms” in the ancient Near Eastern culture from which Nephi and his successors originated. But the argument proceeds from a false premise. Neither the expression “making a record” nor the term “abridging” (or any form of these expressions) is found in Ecclesiastes or anywhere else in the Bible.[7]

 

Who needs to show that a difference or a similarity is significant?

A Mormon defending the Book of Mormon might suppose that there is no significant difference between the expressions “make a record” and “make a book.” This supposition would need to be supported by evidence, however. But does the claim that I am making, that the difference is significant, also need to be supported by evidence? No. I shall explain.

Let’s go back to the starting point of the BMC argument. They notice the difference between “make a record” and “write a record.” They suggest that this difference is significant. Now we have another question to ask about this starting point. If there is a significant difference between “make a record” and “write a record,” why would there not be a significant difference between “make a book” and “make a record”? The BMC argument assumes that using make instead of write is significant but using record instead of book is not significant. However, in order to make (!) this argument work as showing evidence for the Book of Mormon, BMC actually needs to show why using make instead of write is significant but using record instead of book is not. The burden of proof—the responsibility to provide evidence to back up one’s argument—is on the Mormon claiming that this feature of the Book of Mormon text is evidence for its antiquity and authenticity. In order to show that this evidence is genuine, the Mormon apologist needs to explain why one verbal difference is important but the other verbal difference is not. The person questioning the argument does not need to prove that the other verbal difference (record instead of book) is significant.

Let’s put the matter another way. In both the article and the video, BMC claims erroneously that the expression “make a record” was used in ancient Near Eastern texts; the video even claims this expression occurs “in some Old Testament books.” That claim turns out to be false. Why did BMC make these claims? The answer is that BMC was attempting to draw an equivalency between the Book of Mormon expression and the wording found in Ecclesiastes and (as far as we know) in a handful of extrabiblical texts. That equivalency is clearly lost if in fact the Book of Mormon expression does not occur in any of those ancient texts. The word “make” by itself is not relevant; the supposed technical expression, according to Fishbane (the only source BMC cites on this point), is “make books.” And that expression is not the one in the Book of Mormon that BMC is trying to argue is the same technical expression.

 

What does that word really mean?

As we have already noted, BMC cites Michael Fishbane to support the claim that the Hebrew word tiqqēn means to abridge a text. That is not what Fishbane says at all. However, we should not be satisfied with determining what the secondary source (in this case, Fishbane) says. The term secondary sources refers to sources that comment on or engage with the meaning of the source that is our main concern, which is called the primary source (in this case, Ecclesiastes 12:9). One way to do that is to turn to secondary sources that provide information more directly about the primary source. Let’s look at Fishbane’s comment in full:

Thus, although the basic meaning of the biblical Hebrew verb tiqqēn in Eccles. 12:9 is ‘to correct,’ it is found with the developed scribal sense ‘to edit’ both in the contemporary Aramaic milieu to which Ecclesiastes was so indebted and in rabbinic Hebrew. It is therefore quite likely that the technical use of tiqqēn in Eccles. 12:9 also means ‘to edit’ or ‘to arrange’ in some sense, although it is unclear whether this development derives through an Aramaic or a rabbinic linguistic filter.[8]

Let’s see what we can find out about this Hebrew word tiqqēn and take a closer look at its usage in Ecclesiastes 12:9. Any number of reference works and biblical study tools[9] will inform us that the word occurs just three times in the Old Testament, all of them in Ecclesiastes (1:15; 7:13; 12:9). What does the word mean in the two earlier occurrences in Ecclesiastes?

What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted. (Eccl. 1:15)
Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked? (Eccl. 7:13)

In both instances, the Hebrew verb tiqqēn is an antonym for being crooked or being made crooked (both verses use the same Hebrew meaning “is/made crooked”), and thus is translated “made/make straight” in English (in the ESV as quoted above, and in virtually all English versions). The image of being straight, of course, can be used to express something other than a geometrical straight line. When we turn to the standard lexicon by Brown, Driver, and Briggs, we find the following general definitions: “become straightarrange, put rightset in order,” with the meaning in Ecclesiastes 12:9 as “put straight, arrange in order (proverbs).”[10] Other lexicons, such as those by Holladay, agree: “be straightbe straightenedmake straight,” and in Ecclesiastes 12:9, “get (proverbs) into good order.”[11]

When we turn to contemporary English versions at Ecclesiastes 12:9, we find that the majority of them translate tiqqēn as “arranged” or “arranging” (CSB, ESV, LEB, NAB, NASB, NET, NRSV). This was one of Fishbane’s proposed translations of the word, as quoted above. A few follow the KJV rendering “set in order” (notably the NIV and NKJV). Both renderings understand the prosaic or literal use of the word to mean “to make straight” as referring to the setting or arranging of textual elements in some sort of order. The verb neither expresses nor includes, explicitly or implicitly, the concept of abridging a longer text.

There is another reason why abridgment simply cannot be in view here: What Ecclesiastes 12:9 says is that the Preacher arranged “many proverbs” (as all ten of the versions cited above agree). The word translated “proverbs” here (mashal) is the same noun used in Proverbs 1:1, the title of the book of Proverbs (“The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel”). It occurs four times in the book of Proverbs, which is attributed in 1:1 to Solomon because he was the main individual who initially compiled and arranged them (see also 10:1; 25:1). The “Preacher” in Ecclesiastes 12:9 is identified in the title at the beginning of the book, “The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (Eccl. 1:1), worded parallel to Proverbs 1:1 and a clear reference to Solomon. Obviously, one does not and cannot “abridge” proverbs, which are by definition short, pithy sayings. Ecclesiastes 12:9, therefore, not only does not use a word that could mean “to abridge,” in context it definitely cannot be referring to the act of abridging a long text into a shorter one.

 

Is there a better explanation for all of the evidence?

We have shown that the evidence presented by BMC does not support the claim that the expression “make a record” in the Book of Mormon is an ancient Near Eastern scribal technical term. Still, a Mormon could reply that although the argument BMC offered does not prove the claim, it still might be true. Perhaps better evidence will be found. Perhaps evidence will also be found for ancient Near Eastern scribes describing some of their work as “abridging” texts.

There are at least three problems with such a hypothetical response. First, it would be a fallacious appeal to ignorance. That fallacy argues that just because we are ignorant of evidence supporting a claim doesn’t mean the claim is false. Such an argument is fallacious (logically invalid) because the issue is whether the claim is even credible. We see these sorts of arguments all the time on various subjects. If someone argues that there is good evidence out there for the existence of Martians and we just don’t know it yet, the proper response is that this argument assumes that the idea of Martians is itself credible. We actually have abundant evidence that no Martians exist (the surface of Mars has been photographed extensively, for example), but admittedly it can be difficult to prove a negative. (How do you know there isn’t a Martian civilization living underground?) The fallacy is in trying to defend a belief as credible on the bare possibility that evidence will someday materialize that supports that belief, even though at present the belief appears to lack serious credibility.

The second problem is that the Book of Mormon apologists have failed to consider if there might be a better explanation for which good evidence exists right now. This is a common failing in Book of Mormon apologetics. Mormons, enthusiastic about any apparent support for the Book of Mormon, seize on anything that looks like evidence for their view without checking to see if the evidence is adequately or even better explained in some other way.

Third, the issue raised by BMC concerns only part of the evidence regarding the language used in the Book of Mormon to describe the authors’ work. That is, it only addresses the expression “make a record” and the word “abridge.” As mentioned earlier, though, the Book of Mormon uses several other descriptions that involve the noun record, including “writing,” “abridging,” “engraving,” and “keeping” records.

None of these expressions using the term record(s) appears to have any direct analogue in the Old Testament (or in the New). We have already noted that Ecclesiastes 12:12 speaks of “making many books” but not of “making” a record or records. No biblical text speaks of “engraving” records, books, or the like. Nor does the Bible (whether in the KJV or in the ancient Hebrew or Greek texts) ever speak of “keeping” a record.

The KJV does speak in one place of a record being “written” (Ezra 6:2), but most contemporary versions construe the word “record” or “memorandum” as the title of the document that is quoted in what follows (see Ezra 6:2-12 in the ESV, NAB, NASB, NIV, NJB, NLT, NRSV, TNK, etc.).[12] The ESV is typical: “And in Ecbatana, the citadel that is in the province of Media, a scroll was found on which this was written: ‘A record. In the first year of Cyrus the king, Cyrus the king issued a decree (Ezra 6:2-3).

I have not attempted to research ancient extrabiblical literature, but the overall picture from the biblical writings does not look promising for the LDS claim that the Book of Mormon uses scribal technical terms in use in the ancient Near Eastern culture of Old Testament times. If this were the case, one would expect to find some trace of these expressions using the term record(s) in the biblical texts, but we do not.

By contrast, English works in the 1700s and 1800s did speak of “writing,” “keeping,” and “making” records. Specifically with regard to the expression “make a record” (and variants using “makes,” “making,” “made,” etc.), the focus of the BMC article and video, this expression appears to have been primarily a legal or governmental expression in Anglo-American culture in the 1700s and early 1800s. The expression occurs repeatedly in several legal reference works from the first half of the nineteenth century dealing with cases in (for example) Maine,[13] Pennsylvania,[14] Massachusetts,[15] and New York.[16]

One also finds the expression used in non-legal contexts, including religious contexts. For example, Thomas M’Clintock uses the term “record” repeatedly in reference to “the scriptures” as well as any post-biblical writings that might express Christian doctrines, even using the exact expression “make a record.”[17] M’Clintock, a Quaker abolitionist who lived in Pennsylvania and New York[18] and who had no connection to Mormonism, published this work in 1837, just a few years after the Book of Mormon.

The expression “made a record” does appears in the KJV translation of the Apocrypha, in the Greek additions to Esther: “And the king made a record of these things” (12:4). In this passage, however, the Greek text literally says, “The king wrote these words for a record” (ἔγραψεν ὁ βασιλεὺς τοὺς λόγους τούτους εἰς μνημόσυνον, 12:16 Greek). Notice that the expression in the English version reflects the predominant English usage of the expression as a legal idiom, whereas the Greek does not use a corresponding expression.

Thus, it turns out that “make a record” is a modern legal expression that could be used in other contexts, not an ancient scribal expression. Likewise, the expressions “write a record,” “abridge a record,” and even (to a very limited extent for obvious technological reasons) “engraving a record” were all in use in Joseph Smith’s Anglo-American culture.

 

Small details do matter!

The BMC article and video conclude their argument as follows:

Because these details of ancient Near Eastern scribal training were unknown at the time the Book of Mormon was published, these small points serve as evidence for its authenticity.

We can and should agree that small details can often be important clues or pieces of evidence. Like the seemingly picayune observations of television detectives like Columbo or Monk, paying attention to seemingly minor details can yield important pieces of evidence with regard to the authenticity of a text. This possibility, however, works both ways. Suppose the Book of Mormon did make appropriate, correct usage of scribal technical terms current in the ancient Near East that was neither known nor used in Joseph Smith’s day. That would be good evidence in support of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon as ancient literature reflecting the Near Eastern origins of its authors’ culture. On the other hand, if the Book of Mormon did not use such ancient Near Eastern terminology but instead used modern idiomatic expressions reflecting Joseph Smith’s Anglo-American cultural context, that finding would by the same reasoning count against the authenticity of the Book of Mormon as ancient literature. And that is precisely what we find when we cast a wider net in an effort to consider as much of the evidence as we can, rather than simply cherry-picking one piece of evidence that seems to support the view we favor.

It is not my contention that the expression “make a record” in and of itself disproves the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. However, it certainly is not evidence for it, and if anything it counts somewhat against it, by the very reasoning that BMC advances in its argument.

 

NOTES

[1] “How is the Phrase ‘Make a Record’ an Evidence for the Book of Mormon?” KnoWhy #444, Book of Mormon Central, and YouTube, June 26, 2018. Subsequent quotations are identified as coming from either the article or the video.

[2] It is possible in a few places to understand this expression to refer to the activity of safeguarding or continuing to possess existing records, but in many references the idea is clearly to maintaining updated records or accounts by adding to them as time passages.

[3] Biblical quotations are taken from the ESV unless noted otherwise.

[4] The book is widely available in academic libraries. Those who have Amazon Prime can preview the relevant pages of Fishbane’s book online: https://www.amazon.com/Biblical-Interpretation-Ancient-Clarendon-Paperbacks/dp/0198266995.

[5] Michael Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 31.

[6] Ibid., 32.

[7] There does not seem to be even any reference using other words to abridging texts; for example, there are no references to a text being “shortened.”

[8] Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel, 32. I have transliterated the Hebrew word for the reader’s convenience.

[9] Articles reviewing both free and commercial biblical study apps, software programs, and online tools can be found at http://bib.irr.org/category/bible-study.

[10] Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles Briggs, Hebrew-Aramaic and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1906), 1075, #10633, electronic edition, BibleWorks 10.

[11] William L. Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament: Based upon the Lexical Work of Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner (Leiden: Brill, 2000), electronic edition, BibleWorks 10.

[12] The NKJV and the CSB seem to be the only notable exceptions.

[13] Laws of the State of Maine (Brunswick: J. Griffin, 1821), 2:xlii, lxxix, 460, 508, 526, 540, 586, 689, 711, 824, etc.

[14] Thomas I. Wharton, A Digest of Cases Adjudged in the Circuit Court of the United States for the Third Circuit, and in the Courts of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: Philip H. Nicklin, 1822), 223, 417.

[15] The Revised Statutes of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, ed. Thomas Metcalf and Horace Mann (Boston: Dutton & Wentworth, 1836), 70, 175, 182, 728.

[16] Thomas W. Clerke, A Practical Elementary Digest of the Reported Cases in the Supreme Court of Judicature, and the Court for the Correction of Errors, of the State of New York (New York: Gould, Banks, & Co., 1845), 2:683, 831, 834, 837.

[17] Thomas M’Clintock, Observations on the Articles Published in the Episcopal Recorder, over the Signature of “A Member of the Society of Friends” (New York: Isaac T. Hopper, 1837), 37, see also 16, 38, 40, 42, 44. Note the use of the term “recorder” in the name of the Christian publication to which M’Clintock was responding.

[18] It is interesting to note that M’Clintock moved to Waterloo, New York, about 25 miles from Joseph Smith’s family farm in Palmyra, in 1836, six years after Joseph published the Book of Mormon.